Thursday, March 28, 2013

Christ Incarnate - Christ Crucified

For us Catholics tomorrow is "Good Friday," or "Great and Holy Friday," or "Great Friday of the Crucifixion" depending on which of the Catholic traditions you belong to (Roman, Byzantine, Maronite, etc.). Growing up I remember there being this huge emphasis that on Good Friday "God died for us." Jesus, Who is both God and man, gave His life that we might also have life. Christ died in order to free us from our slavery to sin and death.

This, of course, is all true. But for me it has always rung as somewhat ambiguous. I have always experienced Good Friday as a pie-in-the-sky type event; an event of great spiritual importance, but spiritual here in the sense that it has little to no impact on the day-to-day nitty-gritty of daily life. Christ died for my salvation. Peachy. Okay, time to punch the clock and set about another day's monotonous work.

I can only presume that I am not alone in this experience. As Christians who hope for a Kingdom yet to come there is a strong temptation to focus our sight on the eschatological "not yet" of Christ's Kingdom and to all but forget the "already," the here and now of this Kingdom. We look at the world around us. Perhaps we get a little depressed or jaded at how secularism is taking over even within the Church. We see how the ideals of Christianity have not been lived up to, but are being casually swept aside as "inadequate." We may even see Church leaders who are behaving and speaking in such a way that is completely against the teachings of the Church. The temptation at this point, at least for me, is to brush it off. "Eh. At least we still have the coming Kingdom to look forward to." But this was not Christ's response when He saw mankind steeped in sin and death.

One of the things I love most about the writings of Archbishop Joseph Raya as well as Fr. George Maloney is just how very "Incarnational" they are. Archbishop Raya in particular puts a very strong emphasis on Christ's humanity, without of course ever losing sight of His divinity. "Christ-God became man..." It is as though Archbishop Raya was completely enthralled with this reality. "God became man." One could mull over this reality for the rest of one's life and not even begin to scratch the surface of the depths of this mystery.

I believe this reality is very important for us to remember. We live in times that are very "heady." We like ideas, information, facts, abstracts, philosophy. So many of us have our head in the metaphorical clouds while at the same time being almost completely out of touch with material reality. This I've even observed to be true among Christians. As Christopher West points out, many Christians have the attitude that the body (the material world) is bad and only the spirit is good. So many Christians seek a way to escape from the body; to be solely spiritual. This, of course, is completely against man's nature and, were it true, would render Christ's Incarnation laughable. Why would God take on flesh if flesh itself were evil? Where would the power of the Cross be if Christ Himself hadn't taken on flesh?

So as we celebrate the memorial of Christ's Passion, Crucifixion, Death, and Resurrection, I believe it is also important that we look back to His Incarnation and Birth. Just a few days ago we celebrated the feast of the Annunciation (March 25), exactly nine months before we will again celebrate Christ's birth. It is very telling that we would celebrate the Incarnation this year during great Lent - and during Holy Week no less. Christ's Crucifixion is rooted in His Incarnation. St. Anthanasius tells us that what is not assumed cannot be saved. If Christ hadn't become incarnate, then His Crucifixion would've been meaningless to save us. Had Christ not taken on flesh, then we would still be enslaved to sin and death.

The (relatively) recent movie, The Passion of the Christ, I believe did a wonderful job driving home to Christians just how very real, how very physical Christ's sufferings were. Whether or not such a movie was appropriate is a different question, but we certainly can't argue the portrayal itself. I remember one Lent reading a portion of the book A Doctor On Calvary in which a medical doctor examined the Shroud of Turin to decipher just what exactly the Person in that image had undergone just hours before His death. It was truly horrifying.

As I was driving to work a couple days ago I was thinking of how the weight of my own sins feel on me personally. We speak of "a guilty conscience" or of something "weighing on our shoulders." That got me to thinking, if we were to experience the cumulative weight of our own personal sins on our shoulders, not only would we be crushed under them, but we would probably also be driven insane. Now take that weight and multiply it by every human being who has lived, is living, and will ever live. Imagine the extreme weight! It would be unbearable. And yet that is what Christ bore on His human shoulders as he ascended the hill of Golgatha. It is said that the Cross itself would've had to have weighed at least 200 lbs. A weight that is extremely difficult for even a health and strong man to carry any real length. Now imagine having been beaten to nearly an inch of your life and having lost a great quantity of blood in the process. Let's see you pick up a 200 lb. object and carry it for more than a yard without any help! My wife just gave blood yesterday. She could barely support herself, let alone one of our children, and definitely let alone 200 lbs. of solid wood.

Christ carried the suffering and sin of the world on His shoulders. This is something wonderful that I discovered in the writings of Archbishop Raya and in his enthrallment with the Incarnation. When confronted by our own suffering and sinfulness, Christ's response was not a philosophy of suffering or a code of ethics. Christ's response was action. He healed the sick, restored walk to the lame, made the mute speak, and the deaf hear! He raised the dead from their graves, He fed the hungry, He forgave sins! This was not heady abstract stuff, it was concrete action on His part. God didn't become man to give us some guidelines and a rule book. He became man to literally pull us up out of the mire of our sins, to confront the sufferings we had caused ourselves because of sin and death. To give us a new way of life in Him, as brothers and sisters in Him instead of slaves to sin.

So as we celebrate the Passion, Death, and Resurrection, I believe it is important that we also keep close to heart the Incarnation and Birth of Christ. Never lose sight of the fact that God has physically entered human history in order to address directly the problems with which we are faced both individually and corporately. To quote St. Athanasius again (or was it St. Irenaeus???), "God became man in order that man might become god." May heaven consume us.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Powerlessness of God

Have you ever been completely and utterly powerless? Have you ever been in a situation that at any other time you would've had the ability to influence the outcome, but at that given moment you were powerless to influence of affect anything? Have you ever felt like you had both hands tied behind your back and that you were completely bound and gagged?

I've had these feelings many times over the past several years. One time in particular has always stuck out to me. After my first child, a beautiful little girl, was born we were overwhelmed with the diagnosis that she was "special-needs," having an extremely rare syndrome that not much is known about. When she was a few weeks old she had to undergo surgery in order to have a feeding tube inserted into her stomach. For me the hospital trips and the "special-needs" diagnosis weren't so bad. Sure such things were overwhelming and felt beyond my control, but overall it wasn't that bad. What was the worst for me was the night immediately after her first surgery.

I remember getting to the hospital from the job I had been working and relieving my wife so that she could go home and get some much-needed sleep. My daughter had just had her first surgery about an hour before I arrived, so I was holding and comforting her as best I could. I sat up with her all night and tried to comfort this tiny little person who barely knew life and was already learning about pain. But I was still elated at my first-born child, and so sitting up all night was a wonderful bonding experience for me with her.

What I wasn't prepared for, however, was the fact that typically while children are coming down off of morphine after surgery they will often stop breathing. The first time my little girl stopped breathing scarred me. She was sitting in my lap crying and all of the sudden she just refused to inhale. Nurses rushed in because monitors had started to beep wildly. It didn't take much effort that time to get my little girl breathing again. But the second time that happened things were more difficult. They had to take my angel from me and place her on the hospital bed. Doctors and nurses surrounded the bed and pumped air into her with the big blue bag. I stood behind them watching as my daughter's entire body went rigid, arms and legs stretched out as far as they could reach. She turned a deep shade of purple, and I wondered if this was it, or if she was actually going to start breathing again. I was powerless, there was nothing I could do. I was watching life slip away from the child to whom I had given life, and there was nothing I could do about it.

Fortunately the doctors got her breathing again and she is alive and well to this day.

But I was reminded of this as I was praying Safro/Morning Prayer this morning. In it we read the account of Christ's trial from the Gospel of Matthew. The irony struck me. God was powerless. Jesus, Who is "Light from Light and True God from True God;" Jesus Who is the Word of God that spoke all of creation into existence; Jesus Who created us from nothing, was powerless before His persecutors. He was powerless because He gave up His power as God when He chose to take on our flesh for our salvation.

The prayers from Safro today emphasized this humility of Christ. But the prayers also pointed out how this humility leads to glory. Powerlessness leads glorification. Christ was raised up because He, although being God, did not deem equality with God a thing to be grasped. The entire Paschal Mystery, as the Maronite tradition teaches us, is a mystery that causes both sorrow and joy, or perhaps it would be better to say that the mystery leads from sorrow into joy. All throughout Lent we have been repenting in sorrow over our sinfulness. But that repentance has not been a repentance without a goal, a repentance that leads only to despair, self-loathing, and guilt. Our repentance has been a repentance focused on hope in Christ and in His Resurrection. In our powerlessness to overcome our sinful nature on our own, may we continually turn to Christ and hope in Him. May heaven consume us.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Kim's Gift

Here are a handful of pictures of my current prayer rope. This prayer rope was made possible by my dear friend, Kim, who provided me with both the color combo and the material. Kim, if/when you read this I hope the pictures are good enough so that you can clearly see what you made possible. May God bless you abundantly. :)

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Jesus Prayer: First Contact

Anyone who's familiar with shows like Star Trek, Doctor Who?, or The X-Files will recognize the phrase from this post's title: First Contact. Perhaps relating this phrase to the Jesus Prayer is somewhat inappropriate as it always implies contact with something that is unfamiliar, alien, not of this world. I suppose some Eastern Christians could argue that the Jesus Prayer is something alien or unfamiliar to the Western Christian tradition, but their argument would be incorrect. Devotion to the Holy Name, whether in the form of the Jesus Prayer or in some other form, has existed in the West for as long as it has in the East.

In choosing the title of this post I didn't mean to imply first contact with something that was unfamiliar to the larger universal tradition of the Church (East and West), but rather with something that was unfamiliar to me. People who know me know that I like to tell stories. I am a huge fan of history because it is so full of inspirational stories. Perhaps I chose to study theology in college because theology itself is such a wonderful story. After all, what more is theology than reflection on "the greatest story ever told?" What more is theology than reflection on Salvation History; the story of man's fall and God's intervention into history in order to raise man up again and elevate him even higher. I've often heard Salvation History referred to as "His-story," God's story. Someone once said that God writes history the way man writes books. All of history, therefore, is God's story, and what a magnificent story it is!

But back to topic. As I was walking this morning I remembered the time from my childhood when I first encountered the Jesus Prayer. As I've mentioned in the past, my mother was a very big advocate of daily Mass. She used to wake us up early every morning just so we could get to Mass (oh, how we hated waking up at 6:00 AM in order to get to 7:00 Mass!). Most of the time my brother and I were fortunate enough to be able to serve Mass. It hasn't been until just recently that I've really began to reflect with gratitude and wonder upon the great privilege I've had of being able to serve at God's Holy Altar on a daily basis...

Apart from daily Mass my mother also tried to instill in us the importance of frequent Confession. We had no excuse not to make use of frequent Confession as most of the time Confessions were heard for at least half and hour before Mass began. In particular I remember going to Confession every Friday. My brother and I would serve Eucharistic Adoration/Benediction every Friday. During the hour-long adoration our pastor would retire to the Confessional where he would sit and hear confessions until it was time for Benediction followed by Mass.

One time, after I had finished confessing my sins, my pastor gave me a "penance" that struck me as odd. Perhaps it is good that it struck me as odd because it's stuck with me ever since. He told me to kneel before the exposed Eucharist and utter the words "My Jesus, mercy!" from the depths of my heart. "My Jesus, mercy!" What an odd phrase. It's not even a complete sentence, I thought. A part of me felt as though this penance were too easy and that he should've at least given me the typical three "Our Father's" and three "Hail Mary's." But I obeyed his words and knelt before the Eucharist uttering that unusual phrase. "My Jesus, mercy!"

How odd. It was much more difficult to utter that phrase from the heart than I thought it would be. I remember repeating it over and over again, never feeling as though my heart were as "in it" as it should be. It troubled me when I went home. The prayer stayed with me. Always weighing on my mind and heart. How can such a simple phrase be so difficult to utter? "My Jesus, mercy!" It's only three words! I suppose the Lord gave me those words so that He could teach me their meaning throughout the rest of my life. They still weigh heavily upon me. I've yet to summon them from the depths of my heart. For now I only have a superficial grasp of them. But if they are to be my life's companion, what better companion could I ask for? "My Jesus, mercy!"

For folks who think that this phrase is not the Jesus Prayer because it isn't the standard formula (Lord Jesus Chirst, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner), let me remind you that the Jesus Prayer has never really been a standard formula, and that there are many "versions" of the Jesus Prayer. St. Theophan the Recluse and St. Ignatius Brianchaninov remind us that the power of the Jesus Prayer doesn't come from the formula itself, but from the Holy Name. All else could fade away from the Jesus Prayer, but the Holy Name is the essence of the Prayer. Any time someone repeats the name of Jesus with love and reverence they are praying the Jesus Prayer.

Fr. Robert Taft, S.J. and Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia, inspired by Fr. Lev Gillet (A Monk of the Eastern Church), affirm that as the Jesus Prayer descends further and further into one's heart the words become fewer and fewer until we are left with that exact phrase, "My Jesus, mercy!" I've even read from a book by a monk of Mt. Athos that the formula of the Jesus Prayer is meant to disappear. Repeat the Jesus Prayer over and over again, and as time goes on fewer and fewer words are needed. Even this monk of the Holy Mountain affirmed that eventually all one is left with is "My Jesus, mercy!" uttered with love from the depth of one's heart.

Over time this little phrase has popped up in my prayer life. When times have been tough, when I've felt like I'm at my wit's end, when I was completely out of physical, psychological, and spiritual strength, then those words formed on my lips. "My Jesus, mercy!" It's like crying "uncle" when one is pinned to the floor and can't take it anymore. There is no need for it to be a complete sentence. Often times, when we are really close to someone, we will often speak without using complete sentences. Often times complete sentences are not needed. What is important is the sentiment behind the sentence.

"My Jesus, mercy!" Without the presence of the heart this phrase means nothing. But with the heart present it sums up everything. The whole of Salvation History, "His-story," the greatest story ever told, can be summed up with one word, "mercy." When we pray the Jesus Prayer from the heart, then Salvation History becomes our history, our story. Our lives become the story of God's mercy bestowed upon us, His saving presence with us. We still see the greater picture of Him reaching down to mankind and pulling us out of the depths of the abyss, but with the Jesus Prayer we experience Him reaching down to us individually, personally, and drawing us up into His presence. "My Jesus, mercy!"

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Learning to Speak

Over the last few days I've been questioning the importance of the liturgy in the personal individual prayer life of faithful Christians. By "liturgy" here I don't simply mean just the Mass/Divine Liturgy/Qurbono. What I'm referring to is the entire liturgical life of the Church including the celebration of the Sacraments, the daily cycle of the Hours, the yearly rhythm of feasts and fast, etc. Why is all of this so important? Why would the Church impose any sort of "obligation" to participate in this? Why not just insist that the faithful simply pray on Sundays?

In questioning all of this I was reminded of a section in a book by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) entitled Feast of Faith. It's been so many years since I've read that book that I don't remember exactly where the section is, nor do I remember exact quotes. All that I remember is that he provides us with an image of a mother teaching her child to talk. Babies learn to talk from their parents, but from their mothers in particular. As she nurses her child a mother will speak to it. Whenever a child is distressed it almost always turns to its mother, who comforts it with hugs, kisses and soothing words. A child will gaze into its mother's eyes as she speaks lovingly to it, repeating words over and over until those very words begin to form on the lips of the child.

So too with the Church. It is through this cycle of feasts and fasts, daily prayers, weekly (and sometimes daily) Divine Liturgy, etc., that the Church teaches us to speak the words of prayer. It is in the Liturgy of the Church that our Mother teaches us to speak with and relate to God our Father, Christ our Brother, and the Holy Spirit the "Giver of Life." Without the Liturgy we are like infants attempting to speak without anyone teaching us not only the basics of grammar, but even the basics of forming a proper word.

In the East the Jesus Prayer has taken on a special pseudo-liturgical role primarily for those who, for one reason or another, cannot participate in certain areas of the Church's liturgical life. That is why there are set "rules" to replace the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours if one is unable to participate in them. It is also why one can replace participation in the Divine Liturgy by repeating the Jesus Prayer a certain number of times. It's not that the Church is trying to provide a way out of going to Church on Sunday. Rather it's because the Church recognizes that it is not always possible to make it to Church every Sunday. The Jesus Prayer keeps us connected to the Church's liturgical life.

At one time in the Church (both East and West) it was obligatory on the faithful to participate daily - yes daily - in Matins and Vespers. Certain traditions in the Church still maintain such an obligation. Among the Coptics the faithful are still required to pray the Agpeya (Coptic Liturgy of the Hours). Unfortunately in the West the Liturgy of the Hours was considered for centuries to be the obligation of clergy and religious exclusively. This, happily, is something that the Second Vatican Council strove to remedy by recommending a reformation of the Roman Liturgy of the Hours and by clarifying it's important not only in the lives of clergy and religious, but also in the lives of the lay faithful as well.

In the Byzantine East the Horologion grew in large part out of monastic usage. Over the centuries it has acquired a great deal of complexity to the point the celebrating Orthros/Matins in full can take upwards of two hours, and Vespers an hour and a half. One almost needs to be a liturgical expert simply to navigate the multiple volumes required to celebrate the Liturgy of the Hours according to the Byzantine tradition. Parishes, if they celebrate the Hours at all, will typically skip over certain prayers simply because the Horologion was designed for monastic use and not for use in parish churches. Certain monasteries here in the U.S. have actually been in the process of reforming the Byzantine Horologion in order to create an adaptation that is both consistent with Tradition, but also suitable for parish churches who's parishioners have busy lives.

I am personally a big fan of the Maronite Liturgy of the Hours. The translation available here in the U.S. contains only Safro/Matins and Ramsho/Vespers, and it is not a full translation of either of those services. Rather, it is an adaptation of the much longer monastic service made suitable for parish, group and private use. Some folks don't like the translation, but not knowing a word of Syriac and not having and older translation to compare it with I wouldn't know if the translation is good or bad. I do know that it is very prayable and that the theology and spirituality it conveys is beautiful, clear, and orthodox.

Why do I mention these different traditions of the Liturgy of the Hours? Because praying the Hours is one way that we can enter into the liturgical life of the Church and allow our Mother to teach us to pray truly. By repeating Her words and allowing those words to enter our hearts, Her words eventually become our words and Her prayer our prayer. We are blessed in this day and age to have easy access to  the books needed to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. The Byzantine Horologion (and most other volumes), the Maronite Prayer of the Faithful, the Roman Christian Prayer, and the Coptic Agpeya are all readily available on Amazon, Ebay, or by simply doing a quick google search. We today really have little to no excuse not to participate in the Liturgy of the Hours. So sit down with your Mother for 15 minutes a day and let Her teach you how to pray. May heaven consume us.