Monday, April 23, 2012

The Meaning of Easter

I am very excited about the forthcoming publication of my new book: Church, World, Kingdom: The Eucharistic Foundation of Alexander Schmemann's Pastoral Theology (Hillenbrand, 2012). During the course of the next few months I wil share more information about the book.

Father Schmemann's sermons, writings, lectures, and notes have inspired and nourished me in my priestly ministry and I wanted to share some of his thoughts on the Easter season with you.

I hope you find it helpful as we celebrate the Lord's Resurrection.

Easter in the Liturgical Year

In the center of our liturgical life, in the very center of that time which we measure as year, we find the feast of Christ’s Resurrection. What is Resurrection? Resurrection is the appearance in this world, completely dominated by time and therefore by death, of a life that will have no end. The one who rose again from the dead does not die anymore. In this world of ours, not somewhere else, not in a world that we do not know at all, but in our world, there appeared one morning Someone who is beyond death and yet in our time. This meaning of Christ’s Resurrection, this great joy, is the central theme of Christianity and it has been preserved in its purity by the Orthodox Church. There is much truth expressed by those who say that the real central theme of Orthodoxy, the center of all its experience, the frame of reference of everything else, is the Resurrection of Christ.

The center, the day, that gives meaning to all days and therefore to all time, is that yearly commemoration of Christ’s Resurrection at Easter. This is always the end and the beginning. We are always living after Easter, and we are always going toward Easter. Easter is the earliest Christian feast. The whole tone and meaning of the liturgical life of the Church is contained in Easter, together with the subsequent fifty-day period, which culminates in the feast of the Pentecost, the coming down of Holy Spirit upon the Apostles. This unique Easter celebration is reflected every week in the Christian Sunday, which we call in Russian "Voskresenie" (Resurrection Day). If only you would take some time to read the texts of Sunday Matins you would realize, though it may seem strange to you, that every Sunday we have a little Easter. I say "Little Easter," but it is really "Great Easter." Every week the Church comes to the same central experience: "Having seen Thy Resurrection..." Every Saturday night when the priest carries the Gospel from the altar to the center of the church, after he has read the Gospel of the Resurrection, the same fundamental fact of our Christian faith is proclaimed: Christ is risen! St. Paul says: "If Christ is not risen, then your faith is in vain." There is nothing else to believe. This is the real center, and it is only in reference to Easter as the end of all natural time and the beginning of the new time in which we as Christians have to live that we can understand the whole liturgical year. If you open a calendar, you will find all our Sundays are called Sundays after Pentecost, and Pentecost itself is fifty days after Easter. Pentecost is the fulfillment of Easter. Christ ascended into heaven and sent down His Holy Spirit. When He sent down His Holy Spirit into the world, a new society was instituted, a body of people, whose life, though it remained of this world and was shared in its life, took on a new meaning. This new meaning comes directly from Christ’s Resurrection. We are no longer people who are living in time as in a meaningless process, which makes us first old and then ends in our disappearance. We are given not only a new meaning in life, but even death itself has acquired a new significance. In the Troparion at Easter we say, "He trampled down death by death." We do not say that He trampled down death by the Resurrection, but by death. A Christian still faces death as a decomposition of the body, as an end; yet in Christ, in the Church, because of Easter, because of Pentecost, death is no longer just the end but it is the beginning also. It is not something meaningless which therefore gives a meaningless taste to all of life. Death means entering into the Easter of the Lord. This is the basic tone, the basic melody of the liturgical year of the Christian Church. Christianity is, first of all, the proclamation in this world of Christ’s Resurrection. Orthodox spirituality is paschal in its inner content, and the real content of the Church life is joy. We speak of feasts; the feast is the expression of joyfulness of Christianity.

The only real thing, especially in the child’s world, which the child accepts easily, is precisely joy. We have made our Christianity so adult, so serious, so sad, so solemn that we have almost emptied it of that joy. Yet Christ Himself said, "Unless you become like children, you will not enter the Kingdom of God." To become as a child in Christ’s terms means to be capable of that spiritual joy of which an adult is almost completely incapable. To enter into that communion with things, with nature, with other people without suspicion of fear or frustration. We often use the term "grace." But what is grace? Charisma in Greek means not only grace but also joy. "And I will give you the joy that no one will take away from you..." If I stress this point so much, it is because I am sure that, if we have a message to our own people, it is that message of Easter joy which finds its climax on Easter night. When we stand at the door of the church and the priest has said, "Christ Is Risen," then the night becomes in the terms of St. Gregory of Nyssa, "lighter than the day." This is the secret strength, the real root of Christian experience. Only within the framework of this joy can we understand everything else.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Book Review: Bishop by William H. Willimon

Several years ago while attending an ecumenical clergy conference I had the chance to hear Bishop Willimon preach. I was introduced to Bishop Willimon first in his books then in his own collection of sermons that were published several years ago, but I never saw him "live and in color" as they say. I've heard a lot of preaching in my lifetime but Willimon was the real thing. I'll never forget his sermon too; it was on Jesus and Zachaeus, not only did he have the congregation in stitches but I never forgot what he said. Now that is the power of the Word!

Bishop Willimon is the bishop of the North Alabama Conference UMC and the author of Bishop: The Art of Questioning Authority by an Authority in Question (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2012). This book is classic Willimon; truthful, powerful, sardonic, sarcastic, and honest to God. For the past decade or so Bishop Willimon has lead the North Alabama Conference and this new book is a collection of his thoughts regarding the episcopal ministry. Organized into ten chapters and drawing from Scripture, Tradition, experience, and writings from other bishops Willimon explains how the role and function of the bishop works, or doesn't! I tend to read with pen in hand and I found myself underlining passages on every page, for further reflection and also for journaling. I also caught myself laughing out loud too. Truth is often stranger and funnier than fiction and let's put it this way, Willimon is 110% truthful.

There is way too much to discuss in a short book review, needless to say, Willimon identifies key areas where the episcopate, and the Church in general needs to develop and change. He draws on the writings and life of the Wesley brothers reminding his readers that change, reform, renewal, and regeneration is necessary especially in a Church which seems to be changing every week. He notes for example the high rate of attrition among members in the UMC as well as the poor preaching and teaching of pastors, and the lack of risk taking. This book is certainly food for thought for any minister or lay leader, but as he himself notes, not many UMC pastors read. The lack of continuing eduction among clergy is shocking, not just among UMC clergy either, but across the Christian spectrum.

While Willimon addresses several key factors in declining Church life, he does not address for example other sociological factors such as the "twenty-thirty something" generation is no longer interested in Altar guilds, Fish Fry Fridays, or Homecomings, or that people are not interested in keeping afloat large physical plants including properties, Church halls, and cutting the grass. Down the street from our parish is a large UMC Church which is declining because the previous generation is older and it is hard to keep up their large physical plant. Lack of regular income and other resources forced them to share clergy with another local Church. Most people are interested in connection, community, and communion, not paying the mortgage and keeping the lights on and unfortunately, most of our time is spent with the latter rather than the former.

One cannot deal with everything in one book, but this said, Bishop Willimon has done a fine job with this new book. One would hope that clergy read it---let's hope!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!

Wishing all of my friends in the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Church a very blessed and joyful Pascha.

Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!

Sunday is also tax day, so remember to "render to Caesear what is Caesar and to God, what is God's"

I don't think the IRS would like it if you don't pay your taxes either!!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Blessed Holy Week and Pascha

This week Christians in the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Church are celebrating Holy Week and Pascha (Easter). Sometimes the dates of Pascha coincide or sometimes they are a week or two off, but in 2013 they are almost five weeks different; Western Easter will be March 31 and Orthodox Easter will be May 5!

Interestingly some Orthodox Churches like those in Finland and in Armenia celebrate Easter on the Western calendar, a historical anomaly of sorts.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Book Review: Christianity After Religion

I have been following the work of Diana Butler Bass for some time now. I really enjoyed her earlier books especially Christianity for the Rest of Us and A People's History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story. She is a great writer and has the gift to take a lot of information, history, facts, figures, and data and convey them to the reader in a simple and clear manner, which sounds easier than it is! Bass holds a doctorate from Duke University and is the author of eight books and many newspaper articles, essays, and book reviews. Currently Bass travels around the country leading workshops and seminars about congregational life for both clergy and lay leaders.

Her latest book is just as good as her previous ones. Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening (NY: Harper, 2012) is a bird's eye view of contemporary congregational and Church life. In short, Bass' thesis is that we are now going through another type of Great Awakening or Renewal, a period not unlike the Great Awakening in the 19th century where various types of Christian groups and spiritualities started perking up: tent revivals, itinerant preachers, and so forth. Bass looks at the demise of what is mainstream "institutional" Church life and looks to the various spiritual practices that have fostered and cultivated healthy spirituality in congregations.

The book is divided into three major parts:

Part 1 The End of Religion

Part 2 A New Vision

Part 3 Awakening

Bass draws from raw data gathered from major studies such as the Pew Foundation as well as from contemporary sociological research on religious such as Robert Putnam and others. She also includes many vignettes and stories from both clergy and laity from across the country, peppering her narrative with stories from her own past. In sum, this book is a synthesis of how parish and congregational life is changing right before our eyes.

Kudos to Bass for producing such a book. I would hope that clergy, especially those of us in parishes and congregations, should read this book, even study it perhaps, looking at how our parishes and congregations are experiencing or in some cases not experiencing this Great Revival. My hunch is that many parishes are hurting: financially, socially, and spiritually. We keep on relying on old models for planting parishes, we neglect to reach out to younger adults who are more interested in community and authenticity and not so much in the Altar Guild or buying a new organ. In many sectors we are more interested in maintaining the bricks and mortar of the building rather than on cultivating a rich vibrant and robust community life.

In my community I have noticed that many of the larger older established congregations that are in the mainline Christian Church have either downsized or had to share clergy or programs, they simply cannot sustain a large physical plant with not enough income. Younger people are either not interested in joining and the current parishioners have moved away and only attend Church on Sunday. The parish is no longer, as it once was, the center of community life. No longer are people tied to a particular parish for their spiritual needs. There is hope though, Bass shows her readers that real change is possible, but it will take all of us to do it. The question is, will we have the wherewithal to do it?

Friday, April 6, 2012

Blessed Passover

Wishing our Jewish friends a blessed Passover. Tonight marks the beginning of Passover, the High Holy day for Jews who celebrate their freedom from their slavery in Egypt. This is a very special holiday for the Jews with special prayers, hymns, songs, and of course food.

Most Passover Seder's are private family affairs but occasionally they will offer community Seder's as well. When I was a teenager I attended a community Seder hosted by my mother's boss, a devout Jew who invited several of her friends to her local synagogue. It was a very moving experience. The Rabbi lead us through the meal, reading from the Haggadah, the special Passover prayer book, and explaining all of the different types of foods.

Christians often forget our Jewish roots, especially the liturgical and ritual roots. We forget for example that what we call the Last Supper was really a Passover meal, and that Jesus gave it a new meaning, that not only were we supposed to remember Moses delivering the Jews out of Egypt but now Jesus was the content of the meal, that every time we broke the bread and drank the wine we recalled his death and confessed his resurrection.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A blessed Holy Week and Easter

Just wanted to wish my friends in the West a blessed Holy Week and Easter. Those of us in the East celebrate it next week. It would be wonderful if one day both East and West could agree on a common date for Easter, a miracle short of Jesus raising the dead!

Be well everyone and hope you have peaceful and inspiring days ahead.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Coming Soon

I'm looking forward to reviewing Diana Butler Bass' new book Christianity After Religion (NY: Harper Collins, 2012). I read Bass' other books and they were very good. Her main work has been in contemporary Christianity and culture and how the Church continues to change, adapt, and create new forms of "being" as we enter the 21st century.