Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Obsculta, o fili, praecepta magistri.

Some readers of this blog will be familiar with the opening words of the Prologue of the Rule of St. Benedict: Obsculta, o fili, praecepta magistri, et inclina aurem cordis tui - "Listen, my son, to the master's instructions and attend to them with the ear of your heart." These words come to mind today as I prepare to begin my annual eight-day retreat, a time of silent prayer and, I hope, a time of attentive listening. Please know of my prayers for all readers as I start my retreat; if you are so inclined, please pray for me in return. AMDG.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Christos Voskrese!

In conformity with the annual tradition of this blog, I would like to mark the Feast of the Resurrection by sharing the Paschal Sermon of St. John Chrysostom:

Are there any who are devout and love God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!

Are there any who are grateful servants?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!

If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward.

If any have come after the third hour,
let them with gratitude join in the Feast!

And those who arrived after the sixth hour,
let them not doubt; for they too shall sustain no loss.

And if any have delayed until the ninth hour,
let them not hesitate; but let them come too.

And those who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let them not be afraid by reason of their delay.

For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to those who came at the eleventh hour,
as well as to those who toiled from the first.

To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.
He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor.
The deed He honors and the intention He commends.

Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!
First and last alike receive your reward.

Rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!

You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!

Feast royally, for the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry.

Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.

Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.

Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed death by enduring it.

He destroyed Hades when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.

Isaiah foretold this when he said,
"You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below."

Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.

It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.

It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.
Hell took a body, and discovered God.

It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is thy sting?
O Hades, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!

Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ, having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

Christ is Risen! AMDG.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Es ist vollbracht.

In observance of the now-annual Good Friday tradition of this blog, here is the aria "Es ist vollbracht" ("It is accomplished") from J. S. Bach's Johannes-Passion, BWV 245. This video comes from a 1985 performance by Concentus Musicus Wien and the Tölzer Knabenchor, directed by Nikolaus Harnoncourt; the soloists are Panito Iconomou (alto) and Christophe Coin (playing the viola da gamba, a Baroque instrument).

In the Johannes-Passion, this aria comes immediately after Jesus' final words on the cross - "Es ist vollbracht" in the German text - and right before the Evangelist announces Jesus' death. Given below in the original German and in an English translation from the Bach Cantatas Website, the words of the aria move from mournful lament to sure yet somber faith in Christ's final victory:

Es ist vollbracht!
O Trost vor die gekränkten Seelen!
Die Trauernacht
Läßt nun die letzte Stunde zählen.
Der Held aus Juda siegt mit Macht
Und schließt den Kampf.
Es ist vollbracht!


It is accomplished!
What comfort for all suffering souls!
The night of sorrow
now reaches its final hours.
The hero from Judah triumphs in his might
and brings the strife to an end.
It is accomplished!

Prayers for those who are celebrating the Paschal Triduum, and good wishes to all. AMDG.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday.

Regardless of whether you follow the "Old" Julian Calendar or the "New" Gregorian one or split the difference with some combination of the two, Palm Sunday falls on today's date this year. Palm Sunday marks the start of Holy Week, which can be a very busy period for clergy and for laypeople who are particularly active in parish life. Holy Week will be a bit busier and a bit sadder for members of my Toronto-area parish this year; because our church recently burned down, we will be celebrating the services of Holy Week in borrowed and temporary spaces and must contend with the logistical challenges of setting things up only to break them down again later and generally figuring out how to make everything 'work' in new and unfamiliar locations. To say the very least, I'm sure that it will be a memorable experience. To comfort myself at the start of this year's Holy Week, I took a look yesterday at a group of photos from last year's Palm Sunday liturgy at the old church and chose the image that you see above to illustrate this post.

In a post from two years ago, I wrote about the temptation - which can sometimes be strong among people who are heavily involved in church life - to view the Paschal Triduum as "another damn thing," an added source of stress piled on top of all of our ordinary stresses and responsibilities, very few of which can be fully laid aside for the duration of Holy Week or the Triduum. This year, the academic and liturgical calendars collided in a particularly unpleasant way, with Holy Week falling immediately after exam week. Already exhausted from papers and exams (and often still having assignments to turn in), students in my position have little opportunity to recharge before launching into the Triduum. I'm sure that those reading this have their own challenges at this time of the year - after all, this is tax season in both Canada and the United States - so I'm not looking for pity but rather noting a phenomenon that I expect many people have to contend with at this point in the liturgical year.

And yet, even at a time of great stress, the desire and the need for Holy Week persists. I was reminded of this yesterday when I found myself thinking of an atypical Palm Sunday experience from a few years ago. I did not get to church in the morning because I had an early flight to catch, and after another connecting flight in the afternoon I arrived just before the evening meal in an unfamiliar Jesuit community a few time zones away from the place where I had started the day. I asked a resident of the house whether he knew where I could find an evening Mass. "Oh, don't worry about that," he answered, "you've been travelling!" I knew that my interlocutor meant well, but I didn't mind telling him that his advice was very unhelpful. "Father, I didn't ask for a dispensation," I said, "It's Palm Sunday, and I want to go to Mass." With the help of the Internet I located a nearby parish with a "last chance" Sunday night Mass and found my way there, able to once again take in the familiar words that I wanted and needed to hear that night, even if it happened to be the end of a long and exhausting day.

As this Holy Week begins, I also find myself thinking once again of some words that I have shared before from Alexander Schmemann: "Pascha. Holy Week. Essentially, bright days such as are needed. And truly that is all that is needed. I am convinced that if people would really hear Holy Week, Pascha, the Resurrection, Pentecost, the Dormition, there would be no need for theology. All of theology is there. All that is needed for one's spirit, heart, mind and soul." My prayer for Holy Week, for me and for you, is that we will "really hear Holy Week," taking in its sights, sounds, and words, and truly discover that all that we need is there. AMDG.

Monday, April 07, 2014

Rising from the ashes.

St. Elias Ukrainian Catholic Church in Brampton, Ontario burned to the ground Saturday morning. No one was injured in the fire, but the destruction of the building and its contents is like a death in the family for a close-knit parish community as well as a loss for the wider Church. Orthodox blogger Flavius Josephus got it right when he wrote that "St. Elias has been THE place to look for liturgically proper and genuinely beautiful services," and the presence that the parish has enjoyed on YouTube and on Flickr has helped to bring those services to people around the world. Many who have encountered the parish in person can attest that St. Elias is a warm and welcoming community, a true family of faith. I'll admit that I am biased insofar as St. Elias is part of what drew me to Toronto to study theology, and I've assisted regularly at services there for the past two years and hope to continue doing so after ordination. If you don't want to take my word for it, you can listen to others - for example, you can read the testimony of parishioner Kate Hendry and these reflections by Adam DeVille.

The last service that I attended at St. Elias before the fire was the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, served scarcely thirty-six hours before the destruction of the church. A three-hour penitential service typically offered in the Slavic tradition on the Fifth Thursday of Lent, the Great Canon is a physical as well as a spiritual workout, involving repeated rounds of prostrations as well as a great deal of singing and standing. I was a little reluctant to go out to St. Elias on Thursday night: in the last week of the academic term, I was tired and busy with schoolwork and less than eager to make the hour-long drive to Brampton. Nevertheless, I wanted to make it to church for the Great Canon and I pushed myself to go. Preparing to leave the house, I felt a sudden urge to bring my camera; since I wasn't serving that night, I thought I might take some photos of the service. I only took a couple of photos that night, including the image seen above, but in retrospect I am very glad that I did so, as those photos may be the last ones taken in the church before it burned down.

Driving out to St. Elias on Saturday evening after the fire, I thought of many things. Above all, I thought of the clergy and the parishioners who worked so hard to build the church and of the heartbreak that comes from seeing a much-loved temple reduced to ashes. I also thought of elements of the building itself, like this Pantokrator icon located at the highest point of the church, the center of the cupola in the middle of the sanctuary. Seeing this icon took a bit of effort, requiring one to lean back and to crane one's neck. Looking at this image now, I think of a time in the fall when a group of students in a special architecture program at Cawthra Park Secondary School in Mississauga came to St. Elias with their teacher to look at the church. Regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof, the students were visibly awed and inspired by the beauty of the structure; sitting cross-legged on the floor, they listened with rapt attention as Father Roman, the pastor, pointed out and explained various aspects of the church's architecture and iconography. Pointing up to the cupola, Father Roman asked the students whether they could read the inscription around the icon. One young man immediately volunteered, and looking up with furrowed brow and squinting eyes he read out the inscription word by word, as if proclaiming a new and previously undisclosed teaching: "Lo, I am with you always, even unto the consummation of the world" (Mt. 28:20).

Lo, I am with you always, even unto the consummation of the world. These words came to me repeatedly this weekend as I saw the reaction of many St. Elias parishioners to the loss of a much-loved temple. Yes, there was much sadness, but also hope and even joy - the joy of a community gathered not only to grieve but to celebrate bonds of faith and fellowship that disaster cannot destroy. The parish gathered on Sunday morning to celebrate the liturgy at a Brampton high school and met for evening vespers on Saturday and Sunday at the rectory, where (as pictured here) many lingered long after services to talk about the past and the future. Borne up by many offers of financial and material support from the broader community, the parishioners of St. Elias are committed to building a new temple as beautiful as the one that has been lost. Though I grieve the loss of the old church and look forward to the completion of the new one which will arise, with much hard work, from the ashes of the old, above all I am inspired by the strength and resilience of the church that really matters: the faithful people of St. Elias. May God preserve and protect this community until the end of the world. AMDG.