Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Homily-Eulogy for Sister Rachel, March 15, 2016

“Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”

At Orthodox funerals it is customary to sing, as we did, the gospel Beatitudes. This I believe is because those who have fought the good fight and died in good conscience by the grace of God have experienced something of these blessings...

Philosophers like Kierkegaard and spiritual writers since St. Paul have struggled with the Beatitudes, especially “Blessed are the pure of heart.” Some have written that purity is the single-minded focus with their whole heart and mind on what is most important in life, that pearl of great price someone would sell everything to gain. Many have simply reduced it to the physical. Others say the "pure of heart" are those who have been cleansed from the inside out by great suffering or great love. Like gold or silver that has been refined by fire, they have come to terms with the traumas of life and have become whole and spiritually mature. They often show a certain innocence and directness. They seem to understand something that others only wonder about. In one way or another, maybe they all have seen something of God and experienced the divine reality.

Sister Rachel did exemplify the joy that comes with purity of heart. You could see it in her more and more the further she went in life. She would laugh and say “That’s ridiculous.” Before she slipped away, her daughter Susan asked whether she wanted a sip of water, and immediately she opened her eyes and spoke up, “No, some beer.” Our friend Janet McGhee had it right when she wrote, “I will always remember Sister Rachel's warm embracing heart, sweet smile, porcelain skin, bright white hair, and beautiful soul.”

After celebrating the life of Sister Rachel last evening, we may still feel just as sad today, missing her. We continue to grieve our loss, and in a grown-up way we know, as someone remarked, that we have become orphaned. Some may regret not having said some things or wished they had done more things together with her.

Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus. He sighed and prayed for Lazarus and called him back to life for a while longer and in an utterly amazing way. We too sigh and pray today for Rachel and for all the departed. We pray for each other as well. We believe that something no eye has seen or ear heard or mind imagined is for real. It can be tasted by human beings in a timeless moment, and when we lie dying, and in the mystery of eternal life.

The example of Sr. Rachel’s life and death is a bittersweet offering to us: it confirms for us that our own struggles and disappointments, like hers, do purify us; our own love, generosity, and self-sacrifice—will give us a fullness and abundance of spirit and life.

We believe, and we know, that Sister Rachel’s love and our love for her endures past the grave and forever. As the ancient biblical canticle, the Song of Songs, says, “Love is stronger than death...Love no flood can quench, no torrents drown

–Brother Marc

Tale of Two Islands, Cuba and Crete

Some Background on the Up-coming Great Council of the Orthodox ChurchesThe pontificate of Pope Francis has created an atmosphere of genuine inclusivity and spontaneous affection that recalls, for the seniors among us, John XXIII’s jovial demeanor and openness. It was his successor, Paul VI, whose historic meeting with Patriarch Athenogoras of Constantinople, the senior-most primate of the Eastern Orthodox Church, took place in Jerusalem in 1965. This event, half a century before instant media coverage, nonetheless implanted the ideal of ecumenical rapprochement and understanding throughout the Christian world. This movement flourished in succeeding decades only to be muffled, ironically, with the fall of the Soviet bloc governments. Those Orthodox Churches formerly behind the Iron Curtain no longer needed international attention (in the World Council of Churches, for example) that kept the full weight of state atheism at bay. Sadly, many of these Churches turned inward, some with xenophobic insularity.

Now in this new millennium, we are worlds away from the 60’s. Our attention has been caught by another historic embrace, in Havana, between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. Their meeting produced a long document of understanding. On face value it is an edifying proclamation full of hope. The primate of the Orthodox Church in America, Metropolitan Tikhon, wrote in a recent pastoral letter concerning the event that, “with God's blessing, may [it] be a milestone in the rediscovery of the shared spiritual tradition of Orthodox and Catholic Christians during the first millennium of Christianity. But it should, above all, be a source of inspiration for each of us in our own journey to remain faithful to Jesus Christ, through a life of prayer, of humility and of love.”

The joint document decries the plight of Syrian refugees and the sharp spike in the persecutions of Christians by ISIS and other extremist factions. Previously, Patriarch Kirill’s approach to the Syrian refugee problem has been equivocal, at best. The patriarch has been an advocate of Russkii Mir, a pan-slavic proposition that thinly masks the assertion of Russian hegemony in both political and ecclesiastical spheres. Vladimir Putin’s calculated military aggression in Ukraine is still unresolved after generating two million internally displaced refugees. Putin’s involvement in Syria including his military action on behalf of the Assad regime has faced little if any challenge from the Russian Church. One can only hope this recent agreement between the two primates signals some genuine Gospel-based way forward.

However, the Kievan-born Orthodox scholar Dr. Paul Gavrilyuk (Aquinas Chair at the University of St Thomas) offers a more sober assessment: Patriarch Kirill has a low stake in fostering Orthodox-Catholic relations and a high stake in advancing his geopolitical vision of the Russkii Mir. According to this vision, the Russian Orthodox believers represent an alternative civilization to the godless and decaying west.  Nevertheless, he observes that meeting with the head of an estimated 1.25 billion Roman Catholics around the world implies the admission by the patriarch that the west is not uniformly godless, as the ideology of the Russkii Mir proclaims.

The Cuba encounter comes on the heels of the proclamation of June 19 as the opening of the Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Churches on Crete. In this time of polarity and tension it is no surprise that its convocation has attendant controversies and political maneuvering. Orthodoxy suffers from fragmentation: 14 [or 15] self-governing or “Autocephalous” Churches with two power centers, Constantinople, and Moscow. In history New-Rome, surnamed Constantinople was an imperial foundation of the 4th century. Moscow began as a grand duchy only in the 14th century and did not become the seat of the Russian patriarch until the end of the16th century, and only after a contentious rejection of its dependence on the see of Constantinople. Moscow later came to regard itself as the “3rd Rome” from a mixture of geopolitics and ecclesiastical messianism foreshadowing today's climate.

Patriarch Bartholomew is (and must be) a citizen of Turkey where the Syrian refugee crisis is acute. His efforts to convoke a synod of all the Orthodox Churches, like his efforts to further good relations with the Vatican, span decades. He and the recent popes have had regular meetings alternately in Rome and Istanbul. Organizing a council faced one obstacle after another, demanding perseverance and skill. Orthodoxy has no Vatican, and Bartholomew, while styled Ecumenical Patriarch, remains first-among-equals. No other autocephalous church owes him obedience, so getting all primates to sit around a table is like herding cats.

There has been a succession of preparatory meetings and an agenda is agreed. Papers have been published; advisors have weighed in and everyone is imploring the Holy Spirit to keep the entire project from jumping the tracks.

Yet serious challenges remain. The latest terrorist attack in Ankara, preceded by Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter plane, led the Russian Church to insist on a new venue for the council. Hastily it was moved from Istanbul to Crete. There have also been last minute compromises on the manner of representation and voting. One primate expressed hope that the 20th Century Vatican Council might be an inspiration. Most participants and observers, however, have far more modest expectations. Probably the last word on this truly byzantine conclave and its possible outcome can be surmised from this year’s prestigious Schmemann lecture at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, N.Y. given by the theologian, and Archdeacon to the Ecumenical Patriarch, John Chryssavgis: Our Church can play a major role in the world, but for this to happen, all of the Church’s indispensable structures, especially its bishops, especially its councils, must be humbly placed at the service of God, the Gospel and the Body of Christ. Then centers of primacy will no longer be centralized powers, but sanctuaries of communion. What a refreshing example that would prove for a Church that is called and claims to be in the world yet not of the world.

Brother Stavros

Preparatory Synaxis for the hoped-for Great Council, meeting in Geneva Switzerland last year

Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow

Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew

Easter and Pascha - Why the Calendar Difference

A Renaissance Pope, Julius Caesar, and Izni
St Constantine and the 318 Fathers of Nicea I
holding the Creed, or “Symbol of Faith”
 in Greek
People, Places, and Events that Influence the Easter - Pascha Calendar  

Modern commercial calendars have a citation that will generally read “Eastern Orthodox Easter.” Typically, this citation falls a week after the Western Easter.  You may find it as advanced as five weeks later into the month of May.

The reasons for the differences in the calendar can be found by looking back over the past seventeen hundred years at the people, places, and events that influenced this occurrence.

When the First Ecumenical Council met in the city of Nicea, now known as the town of Iznik, Turkey, the Council’s main focus was to refute Arius and hammer out the basics of Christology and produce an agreed-upon Creed.  The 318 Fathers assembled had a secondary task: to arrive at a common date for Easter.

At that time, certain Churches of the East followed the Hebrew lunar reckoning of the 14th Nissan, since the Gospel sets the passion narratives clearly in the context of the Jewish Passover.

The assembly decided to adjust to the Greco-Roman solar calendar of that era established by Julius Caesar, but using a formula that took into account the lunar element.  The trigger was the Vernal or Spring Equinox.  The full moon that followed the equinox was the second calculation.  Arriving at the Sunday that coincided with or followed the full moon determined Easter.  For a millennium and a half the Church had a common date to celebrate its holiest of feasts.

By the high Middle Ages it had become apparent that Julius Caesar’s calendar was slowly losing minutes, adding up over the centuries to almost two weeks!

The Gregorian calendar, also called the Western calendar, was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582.  The Vatican astronomers and a Calabrian physician corrected the lapse by a leap that tallied 13 days.  The Catholic countries of Europe followed suit.  The Russian Empire adopted it as a civil calendar only after the Bolshevik Revolution at the start of the 20th century.

The Eastern Orthodox Churches clung to the Julian reckoning until the 20th century.  Some Eastern European churches continue to observe the Julian [or Old] calendar; even those that have adopted the Gregorian [or New] calendar fall back to the Julian reckoning to compute Easter for the sake of the unity of Pascha, as Easter is known among the Orthodox.

In 1997, the World Council of Churches (WCC), in Aleppo, Syria, devised and then reaffirmed in 2009 in Lviv, Ukraine, a formula to return to a common paschal date with the strictures of the Council of Nicea: a concession to the Orthodox.  The first principle would be to use the actual date for the spring equinox and for the occurrence of the full moon.  This would eliminate a 13-day gap between the “ecclesiastical” equinox entrenched in the two calendars, as well as the occasional appearance of a full moon during that time span, which now sometimes gives the Western Churches a very early Easter and the Eastern Churches a Pascha in May.

The Orthodox would have to forsake a medieval interpretation that insists that the Christian feast day follow the Jewish Passover. This accounts for the frequency of the Orthodox date being a week later than the West’s.

The WCC’s efforts rest on on a true desire for the Churches worldwide to celebrate the Lord’s rising together.  Inertia and mistrust put other issues in the forefront.  In the Orthodox Church, each independent Church would need to ratify the change.

By becoming aware of the roots of the complexity behind the calendar differences we might be more respectful and understanding; despite two calendars, in spirit we still rejoice together in the core mystery of our faith… that Christ is risen