In Vigilance and In Paradox: The Fullness of the Christian Journey

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As we approach the Great Feast of the Nativity, I have been struck by the constant presence of paradox which we Christians constantly face.  While the word paradox itself seems to have several slightly varied meanings, Merriam-Webster says that it may be used to denote “something (such as a situation) that is made up of two opposite things and that seems impossible but is actually true or possible.”

It seems to me as a lover of both the Old and New Testaments as well as a believer in Jesus Christ as Messiah, that we are not only forced by circumstance to comfortably dwell in paradox but that it is right within that cultural and religious meilieu where God wants us to be. You see, we are a people who should properly acknowledge that God is the Great Creator of cosmos. As one of our beloved ancient prayers accounts, He “tumbles the planets in His fingers.” He is the Great Unknowable for we are small and finite, He is Omnipotent and Infinite. However, as Christians who will soon celebrate the Incarnation, that is, that God came and dwelt among us, in the flesh, we now claim to know Him. We now believe that God is knowable through Jesus Christ. The Untouchable was touched by His mother Mary, embraced by His brothers Peter and Andrew, James and John. This is truly a paradox, and we, have properly learned to see that God is capable of bridging the unbridgeable. The evil one is incapable of this miracle. He seems to be most effective when he convinces us to embrace blind fellowship or ignorant acceptance of our circumstances. Jesus Christ calls us to a greater fullness of human understanding. He challenges our thinking from the rigorous either/or and left/right paradigms, into something bigger.

Of course, Christians are called to be moral, we are called to embrace the commandments, we are even challenged to become even more righteous than the Pharisees with whom Jesus so often debated. Yet at the same time, Christ denies the Pharisees an opportunity to stone an adulteress and is often accused of violating laws regarding the Sabbath. He introduced many Pharisees into what seemed a paradox. Of course, none of what I am saying should lead anyone to believe, however, that I am in any way calling us to a less moral life, I am certainly not, and according to Christ’s own words neither is He. What I am suggesting is that the moral life which we are called to live, by Christ’s own words and example, must now be rigorously viewed through the lens of God’s all-encompassing love even if this sometimes seems confusing. We are now called to a higher, more discerning life.

The Incarnation itself is a huge hint that God is not a simpleton. We are constantly called to discern this higher kind of faith which surpasses the Law, yet He says to us in Matthew 18:3, “Except you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

Though He seeks from us a faith which exhibits innocence, He certainly is not calling us to some “childish” kind of faith, but a “child-like” kind of faith. Childishness is selfishness, black and white, and an “I’m right and your stupid” kind of attitude.  Child-like faith is gentle and cautious, yet aggressively affectionate and willing to follow. Child-like faith will require us to “judge with right judgment” but also to “pull the plank from our own eyes.”  Such teachings are challenging and seem paradoxical to our limited minds and hearts, which push and pull us. But will take a child-like desire to negotiate these types of terrain. We must become willing to ask questions with the hopes of actually seeking answers. That’s what children do, they ask questions of adults because they believe they have the answers.  We have to be willing to do the same with God.

When it comes to worship, paradox seems ever-present. As Orthodox Christians, we fully defend and uphold that the Father scripturally reveals worship as He would have it throughout the Old and New Testament. To not see the beauty of worship in ritual and tradition is to ignore completely whole chapters of Deuteronomy, Exodus, and even the Psalms.  We glean from New Testament revelation the depths of God-inspired ritual and traditions in regards to what heavenly worship looks like, that Jesus Christ spent a great deal of time in formal, beautiful worship, and that His followers did too, even AFTER His Ascension. Yet on the other side, Jesus appears to purge the temple of those who defile the temple, often accused of doing so to purge the temple of the very worship which He called the Jews to embrace. But in truth, He did this not because of their worship, but because of their lack of true worship. The Lord is not being inconsistent or paradoxical though it may seem. He is simply calling us to a higher level of worship, grounded in love and understanding.

Jesus Christ is revolutionary. He challenges the Human Person to see God in a bigger way than he or she has ever seen Him before.  He challenges us to approach one another with a kind of openness like the world has never seen.  He was clear with us that in order to embrace the Real and Living God, one would have to learn to embrace the Great Paradox, as real a fullness of relationship would require. If we are to be followers of The Way, we will have to get comfortable with the same. I say we’ll even have to become more vigilant in embracing what sometimes feels like a paradox. If we are to become true Christians of the true faith, we must be willing to see God for who He is, and become comfortable within the great visions of paradox with which He weaves. Though we crave a fuller understanding of all things, not all things will necessarily be shared with us in this life, and as Christians, we will have to become ok with that to some degree. He is God and knows all things and understands all things which we call paradox, even though we do not yet. If we did, then we would be god, but thankfully (for everyone’s sake), we are not.

So let us step back and appreciate He who tumbles all things in His hands, and who loves those who love Him. Let us learn to be patient with He who sends His Son in the Flesh in order that we too might be saved by Him who teaches us to love and to learn about Him in new and better ways, until the day upon which He chooses to reveal all things to those whom He wishes.

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Pondering Jesus Isn’t the Reason for the Season, Worshipping Him Is!

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After having read countless wonderful and thought-provoking articles and blogs during this time of year, I felt compelled to write my own. However, it is not because I found anything wrong with the many articles and blogs with which I have already read. Each encouraged people to engage the season in a better way, for whatever reason the author saw fit. To be honest, what inspired me to engage in a such a work like this came from a conversation I recently had on the phone with someone.

The conversation began, “Father, will there be Liturgy next Sunday?” As many of you may already be aware, Christmas Day 2016 falls on a Sunday this year. The person continued by surmising this, “Because Christmas falls on a Sunday this year…” The implication from this caller, which only came to me after a few seconds of dead silence, was that I should be reminded that having Sunday Divine Services on Christmas Day, of all days, might actually be a detriment to attendance, and the individual on the other line thought it important to share this with me. I also gathered that they were basically telling me that they themselves would be one of those people not in attendance, being that it was going to be “Christmas morning” and they will have presents to open and other things to do (things more important than worship and Holy Communion, apparently).

I shouldn’t have been, but I was a bit dumbfounded. Not that they would miss church (that happens all the time), but that they (as someone who likely considers themselves a churchgoer) had just said to a clergy person (like myself), essentially with their own voice, that Christmas Day and the worship of Jesus Christ shouldn’t be co-mingled. Worse, this seems like a prevailing idea among many modern Christians and even with Orthodox Christians, who should know better. The problem is, it is completely revisionist and/or delusional.

Today, we are continuing in the historical practice of associating the Feast Day of the Nativity of Jesus Christ with activities which initially had nothing to do with the celebration of the Feast itself. Of course, the drum is beaten time and time again that we have commercialized Christmas too much, and of course, that is true. We have been told that we have made Christmas about things which it should not be about, and on that point we are correct. But I think, most importantly, we have forgotten that all of those other activities which we have engaged in outside of worship, even the ones which are inherently good (time with family, serving the poor), are not historically what Christmas “is all about.”

The English word Christmas comes to us from the Old English word Crīstesmæsse which, of course, translates to “Christ’s Mass.” In the Roman Catholic Tradition, this was a day when the Roman Church would celebrate, with the celebration of MASS, the celebration of the feast. In Orthodox Christianity in the East, the great Feast was and is commemorated as the Nativity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ since the last of the 2nd and early part of the 3rd centuries.

Orthodox Christians have historically prepared for this feast with what we call the Nativity Fast. Orthodox Christians Fast not only as a spiritual discipline but typically in preparation for Great Feasts (or in honor of them, on the day). That is, we fast up until we celebrate said feast, after which the fast is immediately broken upon the reception of the Holy Eucharist and the service in which it was offered. The point is, that the only reason early Christians fasted during this particular time of year, was in anticipation of the celebration and worship of Jesus Christ on the Feast Day of His birth at Divine Liturgy.

Therefore, the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus Christ during the worship services is the actual “reason for the season.” Though I think I know what people mean when they say Jesus is the reason for the season, I think that saying God is the reason (or cause) of the season is quite obvious (He’s the reason for all seasons). What seems to have become less obvious is that many of us have taken part in the slow erosion of the most important tradition linked to the Christian day, that is, that Christians are specifically called upon to celebrate the Feast of His Nativity with communal worship!

It is wonderful to commemorate the day with Christmas lights, Christmas trees, presents under said tree, helping out in a soup kitchen, singing Christmas Carols and spending time with family. But none of those things are the reason we celebrate Christmas in any Christian sense.  All of those things come out of our worship and are themselves not the source of our worship. The American Christmas Tree itself came to us from Eastern European “Paradise Plays” on December 24th, in anticipation of the Great Feast. Christmas Carols are derived from Christian worship hymns sung in anticipation of the feast. Gift giving is in imitation of the Three Wise Men who came offering gifts, that they might “worship him.” That is, all of our Christmas Traditions worth mentioning, stem from sources all related to the Worship of Jesus Christ and the worship services which took place on the day commemorating His Nativity.

Christians have been celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25th since the earliest times of our Christian worship. The holiday of Christmas was for early Christians the HOLY DAY of the Nativity of Jesus Christ. Not going to church and not worshipping God with your fellow Christians on such an important day was unthinkable. Today, even among Christians of Ancient Faiths, modern expressions of Christian faith have become so personal that many of us have willfully forgotten about the power of unity among believers and the glorious worship that might come from their shared and corporate expressions. St. Paul says:

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.  – Hebrews 10:24-25

The “Day” which Paul is speaking of is Sunday, the day of Worship. He is expressly telling his people that we are to “stir up one another to love and good works” and to “encourage one another.” He is also making it clear that in order to do that best, we must NOT “neglect to meet.” This would have been true not only for Sunday, but for all major feasts and holy days. The fact that this year’s Christmas day falls on a Sunday should only make attendance at worship services easier for most of us, not more difficult.

This year, we have been given the opportunity to Worship the Birth of  Jesus Christ on the day typically set aside as the Day on which we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, which we repeat each and every week. In my humble opinion, as Ancient Christians, we have little excuse not to be there (unless sickness or emergency prevents us). Otherwise, we have openly and honestly decided in our own minds that the best way to celebrate the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ has little or nothing to do with worshipping Him. In that case, we may either wish to reevaluate what it actually means to be a worshipping Christian, or decide whether or not we wish to actually call ourselves Christian and to follow Him at all.

My intent is not to insult or hurt anyone’s sensibilities. But to pretend that being a Christian and celebrating His feasts has actually nothing to do with being a Christian and celebrating His feasts is too much for me to bear without, at the very least, saying something.

I pray, truly, that anyone who might have taken the time to read this will have a most blessed Christmas Day. But I also hope that you find time to worship Him, to worship the One whose birth and incarnation witnessed to the world that God has entered the world so that we might be freed from the very delusion which we so often find ourselves influenced by. I am trying to seek Truth. Come with me, and worship the Lord on the day of His birth and perhaps we can find Truth together, by His will. There will be plenty of time afterward to open presents, feast on Christmas pies, and then fall asleep on a recliner…

 

 

 

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