Saturday, April 22, 2006

Paschal Voodoo: Piety or Idolatry?

Thursday night we celebrated the service of the twelve gospels. Being the head chanter at my church, I have to say that this service is the most beautiful (from a hymnographic point of view), although also the most strenuous.

However, as usual, certain "traditions," that we have as Greeks, really make me wonder whether we truly understand the great and Holy Mystery of Pascha, or whether we have missed the point altogether. For example, when people begin hanging their crosses on the large liturgical cross used in the procession on Holy Thursday, in order that they may obtain a "special" blessing, I think we've gone off the proverbial deep end. Furthermore, it's not only crosses, but also scarves, trinkets, and even underwear and socks! Such things have no place on the cross of Christ! And yet not only do we see such things, but even worse, we allow and tolerate them.

Now, some may think that this particular issue is not one to get upset about. Most of our people think that this is a nice tradition that does no harm to the general believers, however, let us look at the source of the tradition. The cross, like all icons, is a symbol that reminds us of the original cross that bore Christ, just like an icon of a saint reminds us of Christ who the saint attempted to emulate. The symbol itself has no power except that of invoking our belief. This is why we do not worship icons, we venerate them.

If we follow this logic, than we can understand that all crosses are the same symbol of the prototype. No one cross is holier than the other and even those icons and crosses that perform miracles, are chosen by God and work signs at particular times for particular reasons. It is not because they are inherently holy in themselves. However, we see on Holy Thursday the utter idiocy of people taking their own crosses and hanging them on another cross because they feel that that cross is somehow holier than theirs'. What we are seeing here is a comparison of holiness between two objects which symbolize the same thing. People believe that because the liturgical cross is kept in the altar, it is somehow special and "holier" than other crosses.

Now stop me if I'm wrong, but wasn't this kind of thinking the reason for iconoclasm? Isn't this so-called harmless "tradition" really a form of idolatry? We are literally believing in some kind of Cross "Mojo" that will make everything ok if we touch it. The cross of Christ has become, for many, the magical Orthodox talisman. And what makes it worse, is that the priests do nothing to stop this behaviour. Even when this mentality extends to the candles that are burying on the cross, which people wait for all night just to receive a piece, and of which the priests do nothing about. By not dealing with the issue, we help perpetuate it. Silence, in many instances, is equivalent to consent. But it seems that no one is up to the task.

Most of us are content in viewing many of the traditions in our church as a type of magic or voodoo. The Eucharist is one of the main examples of this, where people see it as a special gift that we receive after we have done a certain amount of prescribed actions to justify the taking of it. It is not seen as an expression of who we are as the people of God because such an understanding requires everyone of us to accept that we must change our whole outlook on life; that we must live Orthodoxy every day, not just on Sundays; that we must love our neighbor and give to the poor; that we must pray and actually take time to learn our faith. Yes, such an understanding is much harder to accept and much more unpopular to the status quo. And so, what do we do? We fall back on what is easiest; Magic. We keep it simple: I do A so I can be entitled to B. That's it! However, that usually breeds idolatry and fanaticism; two of the most prominent occurrences within our church.

I guess I'm just tired of our people lying to themselves about who they are and what they believe, while the clergy are content to simply pacify the people for their own convenience.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Ahh Pascha...My Love Hate Relationship

Well, it's that time of year again. The annual commemoration of Christ's death and resurrection. Personally, I find this the most joyous and upsetting time in my life.

The reasons for joy should be apparent to my long time readers. It is the single event in history which reforms everything in the past, present, and future into a new understanding, a new life, a new creation. It is both God and man's victory over death and sin. It is the hope in which we place all our trust as Christians; the hope of resurrection...the hope of salvation. It is for this reason that Lent, Holy week, and the Resurrection are such pontent spiritual events in our lives. From the very devout to the most nominalist Christians, Pascha marks an important time. This is why Holy Saturday night is always marked with an overabundance of people in our churches. They are all drawn to the power of the resurrection, even though many do not quite understand it.

It is these same masses of people that, while at the same time give me a great sense of family when assembled together, greatly upset me. I guess the number one reason for this frustration actually stems from this same overwhelming feeling of family that I feel only once a year. The fact that this is the only time when most of our baptized Christians actually show up to church is both hopeful and discouraging. I mean, I am glad to see them here at least once a year, and yet what a shame, what a discouragement, what a failure for the church, that these are not seen more often.

In this season, I find myself pondering the "what if's"of church life. "What if" these people could be reached on a more personal level? "What if" they could understand and truly live their faith? "What if" even half of them would contribute to the family of the church on a weekly basis. I guess Pascha always inevitably reminds me of the potential we have as Orthodox Christians and how far we have yet to go. The potential can be seen on Anastasi night; thousands lined up outside every church, waiting to the recieve the light of resurrection. However, the fact that 90% of leave before the actual Paschal Liturgy starts, thus missing the whole point of the resurrection, shows me how far we have yet to go.

Having said this, the subsequent question that most often follows such a statement is usually the one of blame. Who is to blame for this sad situation? Who can we turn to when searching for answers? Is it the priests, who sometimes have become accustomed to treating the divine services as a routine that they must simply get through in order to appease the expectations of the people? Is it the unruly youth, who simply do not care about church or God in this faithless generation? Or is it the parents who neglected to raise them properly? Is it the self-imposing bishops, or is it the fanatic extremists who seek to cleanse Orthodoxy from all the above mentioned types of people?

While asking all these questions, it has become abundantly clear that, just as the church is a living body (one that is affected by all its members), the problem of spiritual laxity rests with all its members. ALL are to blame and ALL are responsible for this situation. Pointing fingers at one or the other is simply a waste of time. The church will only grow and heal itself through a communal co-operation of all its members.

However, there is somewhat of a greater onus on the priest to set this co-operation in motion. The reality is that the body needs to have a brain from which it is to receive its direction. Now, it is true that many times, the hand or the foot do not want to listen to the brain, just as many groups of people do not want to listen to their priest. However, it is also imperative that the brain is functioning correctly, not sending the wrong signals to it members. In like manner, when the priests do not have a vision of where the church must go, and in addition, lack both the knowledge, wisdom, and personal spirituality to achieve such a vision, then how can we expect the members of the body to listen? The hard reality is that the Church is a communion, and as such, the actions of everyone affect everyone else. I repeat, the church cannot function without the co-operation of all its members.

This is the reality of our lives, the truth of our existence. However, it is this truth that most peopel do not want to accept. They simply can't be bothered with the problems of other people. And so, the ultimate enemy is us, ourselves. Our inability to think and act in a selfless manner is our greatest obstacle. In short, we lack the ability to Love. And it is this lack of Love, during the season of absolute Love, that makes me both joyful and sad at the same time.

May we all have a blessed and life-changing Pascha.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Keep the Faith....Kinda

We live in a time when faith, although felt by many, is seldom acknowledged, even by the very person who feels it deep down in their heart. Faith is not a popular topic of conversation, nor is it a worthy goal for a successful life. Indeed, as a seminarian, I find it very difficult to be a man of faith amongst most of my friends and family who simply do not share in the same spiritual goals.

Now don't get me wrong. It's not that I am judging any of my friends and family for having little or great faith. That is besides the point. What I find difficult to deal with is my relation to them. There are so many things that I want to say; so many things I want to do; so many things I want to witness to, and yet, in this day and age, it rarely seems appropriate to do so. I know that we must always witness to Christ wherever we are and among whoever. Yet, it is hard when I sometimes feel that no one will understand.

We (seminarians) are constantly surrounded by people who, although are general good, mostly don't care about the faith that they profess to have in God's one true church. It is this indifference that I find daunting and discouraging. I wonder how I will be able to reach these people in my future ministry? How will I be able to deal with the many self-professed theologians and know-it all of the faith; those who believe and those who do not, and those who simply despise me for what I stand for. And more importantly, the danger of myself becoming one of these people; allowing the uphill battle to get the best of me and thus fall into temptation and sin.

Sometimes, the only solace and support we find is in fellow students of theology who have grown up in the same environment and have the same vision of the church. These are the few that understand each other and can speak on the same level. Unfortunately, we grow up in a fictional and idealistic environment that is called the seminary. There, things are as they should be but not as they are in the real world of parish life. And to add to this divide and frustration, there are so few of us who have chosen this path, that we usually rarely see each other after we leave seminary. The Lord scatters His prophets to the ends of the earth (as He should) and they lose their support system.

As my best friend, who is a priest, once told me, "Priesthood is very lonely because no one gets you, no one is truly your friend because there is a great divide." This is very true. The bible reminds us of the alienation of the prophets from the world. Indeed, they were killed by those who they tried to help. And perhaps that is the only way to deal with this sadness I sometimes feel when contemplating my life's vocation and calling. We must accept that those who we will try to help will probably betray us anyways. We will receive little appreciation (if we do our job well that is) and we will have success in small increments. However, we must rejoice over that one sheep which went astray more than the 99 that went not astray.

If we truly preach the Word correctly, we must be ready to be very unpopular. We like to read the lives of the saints and see those who were very popular amongst the people as our examples. However, in the Gospel of John, Jesus outlines that those who do evil (most of us) do not like the light because it will expose their evil deeds. They do not want to come near to it, but rather prefer the darkness. If we, as the priests, are to show them the way, which is illumined by the true light which is Christ, how many will actually receive what we say with joy? This is something that we should think about before we enter the all holy priesthood. Truly, in this day and age, it is a very unpopular club that we seek admittance to. And so we must ask ourselves why we are seeking this above all other things in life.

Monday, April 10, 2006


Man, what a Lent is has been.

Personally, I have only been moderately successful in my personal fasting, and I'm not afraid to admit it. I find that at this point in my life, my wedding approaching, and a number of other things on my plate, I have found it hard to stay focused on the spiritual from day to day. However, I must say that ironically, my involvement in church activities has doubled while my personal prayer life has decreased.

Having said that, and admitting to not being the spiritual guru I usually pretend to be, I would like to talk a little about this little thing called fasting. Now, I know that in today's day and age, fasting little resembles what our early Christian ancestors would consider self deprivation. I see that we all fall into three kinds of fasting groups. Those who fast for others, those who fast for themselves, and those who fast for God.

Those who fast for others, are usually like the Publican who keep the letter of the law in reference to the food they eat, and yet somehow forget that about all the other parts of fasting; control of mind, speech, heart, ect. They seem to forget that Christ taught that it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth that defiles him. These are the people who, although keep the physical fast, excel in judging others, slander, personal and public shamefulness, etc etc etc.

The second type is the one who fasts for themselves. These are the self-driven fasters who feel that if they keep the letter of the law, they will somehow be justified by the end, and thus be holier than others. Or, they have such a deep-seeded guilt for certain actions which they have done (which we all do) and feel that this is a way to somehow make up for them. These people do try hard, but their efforts, as well as those who fast for others, are misplaced because they are both driven by selfish reasons. These people can fast day and night and yet never come to church except on Holy Saturday.

The third type is the one who conforms to the fasting prescribed in the bible by Christ. He/she is the one who fasts in secret and does not make a big deal about it to others. They admit when they fall, thus showing their humility. They draw closer to the church in their time of temptation, they pray, and they help the poor. They spend more time thinking about others, than they do thinking about their own hunger and complaining about it. They basically try even harder to be the same people they have been the rest of the year, only without sin.

Now I know that I have fallen into the first two categories most of my life. However, I do believe that the best thing we can all do during the fasts, and especially during Lent, is to cling even closer to the church. That is, to do things which are COMMUNAL. Why do things that are communal? The answer should be clear: Our faith is all about love through communion with others. Our whole lives should be about getting closer to Christ by getting closer to our fellow man. This is why the early Christians fasted mainly for social reasons, that is to save money to feed the poor. Feeding the poor is a social responsibility of us all and shows the ultimate form of love for one's neighbor.

If we are not doing things that increase our love for our neighbor during Lent, than what is the point of fasting? I have great difficulty with many of my friends who come up to me and tell me how much they fast, and yet they refuse to attend church services, commune, or confess, because they cannot stand the people who attend their church. This, to me, is missing the whole point of the fast. I would rather that these individuals eat whatever they wanted but attended church every service, read the scripture, and helped those in need.

Now many have disagreed with me on this. Many priests have told me that fasting from food is something basic that everyone can do. It is a start to a spiritual journey. If someone cannot do anything else, at least they can fast from foods they love. I have difficulty with this view. I do not believe that fasting is the beginning. Like soo many rituals we have in the church, fasting is an expression of what we believe. It shows our devotion, not only to God, but to our fellow man who is made in the image and likeness of the creator. IF we hate those who attend our church and refuse to confess because we harbor judgment against our local priest, than we have already separated ourselves from the community of the faithful, from the family which we are supposed to be fasting for.

Everything we do in the Orthodox Church has a communal dimension and this is something that most of us do not understand. We have made fasting into some pseudo-self- fulfilling and self-loving exercise which will benefit us for our own selfish reasons, instead of viewing it as simply another part of the Orthodox Communal lifestyle; A communion that we cannot escape as Orthodox, unless we want to create a church that was not founded by Christ and the apostles but by man. The criteria for all our actions must be Christ and His example. It can never be the rules in themselves that bring about salvation. They are only their to help us achieve communion with one another and God. If we cannot see Christ in our fellow man; if we do not even know the scriptures, or even the creed and what it means (that is, the basics of our faith), than we have much bigger problems to worry about than whether we ate meat on Friday or not. That's just my two cents.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Lent in "Point Form"

I recently was asked to speak at the annual Metropolis Sunday School Teacher's retreat which was held in February. The topic was "Lenten Spirituality." As most of my speeches go, I like to improvise a lot while following basic pre-planned points. Here is a summary of what I said at the retreat, although it is only in point form without much elaboration. However, I do think that one can follow the main points of the argunent quite easily. Enjoy!

Metropolis Sunday school Teacher’s Retreat
Saturday, February 18, 2006
Presentation on: Lenten Spirituality
By: Theodore Paraskevopoulos B.Th., MA.Th.
Lent Segregated
- There is no Lenten spirituality only Spirituality
- We see this part of the year as holier or more special than any other part
- We think that Pascha is somehow holier than any other Sunday
- This separation makes us feel that we have to be holier and make more of an effort during this season
- Most Orthodox only Commune at Easter and so this is seen as the best time to “clean up our act” so that we can be worthy to take communion
- This separation sets up a false dichotomy between Lenten behavior and non-Lenten behavior, a disconnect between how we live our lives during Lent and how we live the rest of the year
- Lent is seen as the culmination of all we believe and strive for spiritually
- Everyone talks about the resurrection of Christ as being synonymous with our resurrection
- We see Pascha as the end of our spiritual struggle
- Yet we fail to realize that it is not our resurrection that we are commemorating at Pascha, but Christ’s
- Ours is still yet to come
- The apostles didn’t understand the message of Jesus until after the resurrection and even then they still had to face trials and tribulations

Lent as a Beginning
- The resurrection of Christ was not the end but the beginning of their spiritual journey
- Lent has to be the beginning of a whole year of praising God
- The early Christians did not have Lent or a yearly celebration of Pascha because they lived as holy people all the time
- It is better to think of the whole year and our whole lives and Lent’s role in that larger picture
- When we are born through baptism into the church we begin a journey
- Like the apostles climbing mount Tabor, we too are climbing a mountain
- The summit is Christ
- Christ’s resurrection is the belief, the reason for the journey, the reason for our faith while our resurrection to eternal life is the summit

Spiritual Worthiness
- There are only 2 ways to go on a mountain: UP or DOWN
- And this is the key question for us as Orthodox Christians: UP or DOWN?
- Are we moving towards the summit or are we moving away from it?
- When we sin, we slow down but then we repent and we increase our speed
- The key is not how many sins we commit, for God knows that we will always sin
- Therefore worthiness cannot be measured by the quantity of Sins we commit
- Worthiness is measured by our Orientation
- Sin will always happen no matter what
- It is where we go after we sin that makes the difference
- We should not measure our sins and think in terms of worthiness, as if by the end of Lent we are any worthier to take Holy communion
- If this were the case, then why is it that, during Lent, the church makes Holy Communion more frequent than at any other time in the year?
- We are supposed to be communing
- In preparation for lent we hear about the Publican and the Pharisee, the Prodigal Son, the Last Judgment. But the last Sunday before Lent, what do we hear? Forgiveness
- That’s what it’s all about

The Ultimate Reason for Lent
- The church gives us Lent not as a specially pious time to get ourselves ready for the one time we take communion in the year, it gives us Lent as a reminder of what we should be doing the rest of the year
- If we fast more during Lent, it is because we should be fasting all year
- If we pray more it is because we should be praying daily and at all times
- If we commune more, it is because we should be communing every Sunday
- We are not doing these things and that is why we see Lent as something so different from the rest of our lives.
- Lent should be a reminder of what we have been doing all along, not a change from the ordinary
- If we are climbing the mountain of faith, Lent is the sign that reminds us which way s UP
- It is not the end of journey, but the reminder why we began the climb in the first place
- Christ taught us to constantly love one another all the days of our lives, not just in the spring
- And so Lent is only effective, only useful when we remember its place within the whole spiritual struggle, when it reminds us that every Sunday is a resurrection, everyday must be one of prayer, and our Lenten Spirituality should be a life long spirituality.

Quality or Quantity?

I find myself recently pondering the perception of success and progress within the Orthodox Church. What do we, priests and future priests, consider as a successful church? What is progress in regards to the faithful? In short, what is our goal?

Now, I know that this sounds like a very simple and even somewhat base question. However, observing our parishes and hearing many priests of today speak, it seems to me that the overall goal has been lost in a sea of cares and worries about other, more apparently important things. When a priest is asked why he is a priest, he usually gives the customary answer; to spread the Gospel. However, of we are to look more closely at their, and our, allocation of time and resources, one would perhaps find that there is much more time spent on all those things which seem necessary to preach the Gospel, but not the actual preaching itself.

For example, such things are fundraising for the new church, new books for the choir, luncheons and gala dinners and festivals to raise funds for different purposes. The building of community centres, the organization of golf tournaments, etc etc etc etc. And if we have time, we'll throw in a catechism class once a year.

While youth attendance, chritable works, and general adult religious education and understanding is at an all time low, we seem to think that we are progressing quite well. This is because most Greek churches are full on Sundays and for most of us, numbers equal success. If the church is full, then we are getting maximum return on our spiritual investment. If the churches are full, it means that more people are listening to the Word of God and applying it. Isn't that right?

I think not.

I think that most of our churches are full because Greeks keep getting married, have babies, and and hence re-populate the local GreekTown. They need a place to socialize and pay their cultural dues, and the church is happy to provide such a place. I have trouble believing that all these people show up to church right before Communion because they truly understand their worship service and find fulfillment in it. I actually refuse to believe that these people are actually hearing the Gospel. If they were hearing it, then I am convinced that our numbers would significantly drop. This is because Jesus' message is not an easy one to hear, or to put into practice. And if our masses truly understood what was expected of them, I think that most of us, including myself, would turn and run.

Is this not the reason why we, as leaders of the church, often sugar-coat most issues? I mean, lets face it, we rarely hear any fire and brimstone from the pulpit these days, as in the days of St. John Chrysostom. It's not in style to preach social responsability. It's not in style to say things that are divine and yet are not politically correct. We are not allowed to offend our modern sensabilities or to rub people the wrong way, because they will not come back next week.

In essence, when it comes to the truth of the Gospel, we are like parents who spoil their children rotten because they do not have the back bone to sometimes be hated by their children for their own good. The difficult issues in people's lives are always hard to address because no one wants to hear that they are wrong. But we keep coddling and sheltering people from the harsh reality of life, sin, and the price of salvation, using the guise of Love as the shield behind which we shirk our parental responsabilities to our spiritual children. We always like to use the excuse that we are sinners as well and so we, as priests, have no right to preach too harshly to the people because we will bring more people in with honey than with vinegar.

But who says that more is necessarily better. It is true that we are called to preach the Gospel to all nations, but didin't Christ also say that "many are called but few are chosen? "And again "Narrow is the gate that leads to salvation?" Who says that we should always be looking for the the bigger better deal. If we build ten new churches does this mean that they will be full in twenty years? I see that that we prefer to have the churches built because we assume that the people will always be there. This is is our mistake as Orthodox leaders in the faith. Especially among the Greeks, where evangelical outreach has not been a necessity until now. We have been soo spoiled by the natural perpetuation of Orthodox numbers due to culture, that we have forgotten our true mission to spread the word. We have become so lax and so conformed to the system, this Burger King parish mentality, that we have even begun to neglect teaching those who are already Baptized.

We have priests treating their ministry as a 9-5 job where they put in only the bare minimum and no more. Services are tailored and cut to become more convenient and easier. Heck, the service of Priestly preparation (Kairo) is all but gone because no one believes that they should be at church at least half an hour before a service to prepare themselves mentally and spiritually. Few go out of their way to offer more than what is barely required of them and even less are truly dynamic and innovating in the way in which they convey the message of God. Priests do not even correct their liturgical mistakes, and in many cases, do not even take time to write their own sermons, usually opting to get them off the net or from a book. As long as they have time for the parish council meeting and the Local Golf tournament, the Sunday preaching can go on the back burner.

A teacher of mine once said that a priest must enter a church with a definite vision of where he wants to go with his congregation and then spend time getting his people as close to that ideal as possible. However, there must be that initial goal, vision, ideal, if anyone expects to grow with his community.

Taking that into consideration, I think it's time to re-examine our initial vision as leaders and future leaders of the church. Is it possible that we have begun to preach the creation and not the creator?