Old RItualists, Humility, Charity, and Death

OrthoAnalyika Shownotes: 24 January 2010

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The Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee

All humans, by dent of our fallen psychology, are tempted to be more like the Pharisee than the Publican. Scientists have proven that we are more critical towards others and far too charitable towards our own intentions than is generally warranted. This is the exact opposite of what Christianity teaches because it is the exact opposite of the kind of attitude and way of living that brings salvation and joy to people and communities.

Orthodoxy provides the tools that correct this automatic imbalance; the imbalance that leads us to forgive ourselves but condemn our neighbors; to be charitable about our own lives and motivations but judgmental towards the lives and motivations of others. They are powerful tools, and during the Great Lent that approaches, the Church will encourage us to use them all. These tools include fasting, sacrificial almsgiving, extra prostrations and prayers, and penitential services (like the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete). Because Orthodoxy was designed by an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving God; it is the best way to draw us towards perfect unity with God and perfect community with one another. But only if we let it.

[You see,] We are so selfish and so proud of ourselves, that we can avoid the genuine parts of Orthodoxy that are designed to work beneath our skin and transform our hearts and minds. [So] Instead of bringing it into the center of ourselves where it was made to work, we can wear it on the outside, as a kind of outer garment, just like the Pharisees in the Gospels. When we do this, Orthodoxy becomes nothing more than a man-made religion; contemptible and self-serving. And because it is so strong, when Orthodoxy becomes a simple religion rather than a lesson in love, it becomes a great source of corruption in the lives of those who wear it in this way, and in all those people whom they influence.

Two examples before I conclude with a practical way to combat this within ourselves:

Nikon’s reforms (17th Century). The reforms were well intended, and could have helped to move the Orthodox people of that time away from worshipping the rituals towards worshipping God through the rituals. They had turned liturgy into an idol rather than an icon. Nikon’s reforms may have helped to correct this dangerous attitude in the long run, but at the time, it only served to show how pharisetical many Orthodox of that time and place had become. The reaction of the ones who preferred the old ways was predictable – they were being asked to change what they believed to be true…. but you may be surprised to learn that most of the ones who supported the changes were no less guilty of idolatry! “At least I am not like that Old Believer…”

A priest who serves well because he loves the smells and bells and to do everything correct and “by the book”; and the priest who serves well because this is how (in his humility) he best expresses his love for God and His people. While the Mysteries celebrated by both are valid for believers, I fear that one walked away “justified”, while the other did not.

I have given two examples, one from history, and one that describes a temptation that every bishop, priest, deacon, subdeacon, and cantor wrestles with; but I am sure a little bit of introspection would allow that it is something that you yourself – and our community – has struggled with at one time or another. I know that I do!

Because we seem to have so many rules, we really do have to be careful that we do not become as Orthodox what many of the Pharisees had become: self-righteous hypocrites who use religion as a tool of their own pride. Because of our fallen psychology and our (strong but often superficial) commitment to the Orthodox religion – this is a real danger for us.

As I have said, Lent will bring other tools, but let me give you one that you can begin to use today:

Bear the burdens of the weak. Find ways that you were to blame for things that go wrong– and plausible ways to excuse your neighbor. Is this an exaggeration? Perhaps, but we lift more weights than we need to so that we can lift things we need to with ease; we practice swimming farther than the race is long so that we can endure it with ease; why should it not be so when it comes to spirituality? We exercise our muscles of repentance and charity more than circumstances warrant so that we can endure real life with ease.

And I think it is safe to say that our muscles of repentance and charity are so weak and atrophied, that even the greatest weight we force them to endure is only a fraction of that which is truly warranted by objective circumstances.

Let us not say “at least I am not like that Publican”, but rather that which is much closer to the truth: “God have mercy on me, a sinner”.


Question: How is The Liturgy like opera? How is it NOT like opera?
Answer: On mystery, mnogoglasie, rationality, and language as Word.


Here in Woonsocket. Challenges and blessings.

Nick Gvosdev: The Ukraine That Might Have Been

The Harvard Psychedelic Club (and here)

Russia continues to reach out for empire

117 Orthodox in hospital after drinking holy water

Vol’ya / Freedom Segment

Another reflection on life and death. Two recent occasions in our parish led to this reflection; both occasions show the tremendous witness of those called to minister to the dying (aside: times when you wonder why you don’t just give up – wonder why the person continues to draw breath; you never know who is watching and learning – or how much your action does to repair the damage our apathy and callousness has done to our world).

Reflection: On Living Well

The goal of every rational person is to live well; to live “the good life”. The Greeks devoted themselves to philosophy to satisfy this desire and were somewhat successful- at least in the short term. In our culture, we turn less to philosophy than we do to Madison Avenue, with some success- again, at least in the short term. We are comfortable, we have a variety of entertainments (movies, television, internet, some philosophy with the Greeks, sports, even religion), and we have plenty of food to eat. But are we living well? Or are our philosophies, entertainments, and even our religions just distractions that keep us from having to face the fact that we are squandering out time?

As Christians, we believe that the way to live well –and of finding joy – is by seeking loving unity with one another and with God.

One of the fruits of such a life is a devoted family and community of friends, and the mutual ties that develop around such lives often mean (or at least should mean) that no one faces death alone. So the tireless and often thankless ministry to a terminally ill loved one is evidence of life, well lived. This is love in the face of temptation; love in the face of darkness; love in the face of despondency… it is love that looks Death in the face and remains strong. Such a love cannot be created when the times demand it. It must be intentionally strengthened and developed. It is when such an occasion arises that we learn whether we have lived well, or whether we have squandered our time.

You see, we can distract ourselves most of the time, but when confronted with death: the truth of our situation stands in black and white. The Orthodox Church makes sure that the opportunity for introspection is not lost – this is one of the reasons for an open casket and the brutal (but loving) honesty of the hymnography. Even those who were not present as the loved one’s body slowly gave out; even those who were not there for the long prayers and silent meditations as they lay dying; even those who themselves feel their bodies to be strong; are still forced to face the irrefutable reality of the corpse before them.

Living the good life is about more than just self-fulfillment. It is even more than a way to avoid facing death alone (although this is undoubtably a reassuring benefit). The real fruit of a life, well-lived is eternal joy. Eternal union with loved ones. And eternal union with God. Unlike Greek philosophy, entertainment, and every other man-made attempt to address the question of life’s meaning and direction; Christianity provides answers and activities that deliver satisfaction and joy both in the short and long term.

How does it work? It works through our savior, the God-man Jesus. There is no corruption in Christ. There is no misery in Christ. There is only perfection and love in Christ. Last week, we celebrated the Baptism of Our Lord. We learned that when He put His immaculate body into that water, all the accumulated filth and corruption fled from Him. Pascha approaches – on Holy Saturday we learn how Christ similarly descended into Hades – the domain of Death – and that His very presence there defeated death “for it was not possible for the Author of Life to be a victim of corruption” (Anaphora prayer of St. Basil the Great).

These two events (the defeat of sin in the River Jordan and the defeat of death in Hades) describe the mechanism our salvation – we are united to Christ and to one another through His Holy Body: the Church. Being in Him, all filth and corruption flees from us; being in Him, death has no control over us. Neither sin nor death can separate us from one another or from the loving radiance of God any longer. Through Him we are freed from sin and granted blissful immortality.

We mourn at funerals because death has claimed our loved one’s bodies; we mourn because their souls have been rendered from them and gone to rest. But we rejoice in our continued unity with them in Christ, and we rejoice as we look forward to the day when all the saints are reunited with their new bodies for an eternity of ever increasing joy.

May the Lord comfort all of you in your grief and draw you closer into His love.