Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,
“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (MATT. 16:16)
Today is the beginning of the Church New Year (September 1) and we will soon celebrate the first major Feast Day of the liturgical cycle – the Nativity of the Theotokos – on September 8. And yesterday evening (August 31) we celebrated the remarkable Akathist Hymn “Glory to God For All Things.” A new year, of course, means a “new beginning” or the renewal of our lives in Christ; and the opportunity to examine both our deepest convictions and commitments. In fact, I believe that there is a profound connection between our convictions and our commitments. What we are convinced of, we will commit to.
As baptized and chrismated Orthodox Christians who confess our sins and receive the Eucharist, I will assume that our deepest and dearest conviction is equal to that of the Apostle Peter: that Jesus is the Christ and the Son of the living God. This is what distinguishes us as a parish community – a shared conviction that unites us as the local Body of Christ. Here conviction is synonymous with the content of our faith. This is what we believe, a conviction about Christ expanded in the Nicene Creed that we confess at every Liturgy we attend, and beginning with the words, “I believe.” As our faith hopefully deepens through the years, we become further convinced that the convictions we hold are true. Since these convictions are about God, then we are touching upon “ultimate reality.” What this demands is seriousness and sobriety of both our minds and hearts: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!” (HEB. 10:31)
Personally, I find it impossible to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and not to have that conviction as the most important and significant aspect of one’s very existence. I believe that this conviction transcends all others, and that it is the guiding force of our commitments. Since, ultimately, this conviction chooses life over death, it is thus a matter of life and death. This conviction transcends the difference between male or female; rich or poor; even Conservative or Liberal! The words of Christ make this clear. How else can we interpret this “hard saying” of the Lord:
“He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”(MATT. 10:37)
Otherwise, we may just be fooling ourselves about our deepest convictions. With the best of intentions, such a delusion can result in a certain hypocrisy. However, if we look at this more positively, we can understand that this is where conviction leads to commitment, or perhaps a renewal of our commitment if it has weakened. Even if we continue to struggle with the battle between faith and doubt when assessing our conviction about Christ; or if we share the anguished cry of the anonymous father in the Gospel: “I believe, help my unbelief!” (MK. 9:24); even then we realize that our convictions can remain abstract or sterile without a genuine commitment to embody them in our daily lives. If we believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, then we must witness to this truth with all of our strength. In other words, we commit to living as Christians tangibly, concretely, and as unhypocritically as possible. Broadly understood, the words of Christ to the rich young man who was seeking the way to “eternal life” can serve as a sure guide to embodying our convictions about the Lord in a conscious commitment to following Him:
“If you would enter life, keep the commandments … You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (MATT. 16:17-19)
Even further, we can continually study and do our best to embody the moral and ethical teachings found in the Sermon on the Mount, beginning with the beatitudes. Now there is an ennobling and worthy lifelong project that will probably never reach completion!
Be that as it may, I would like to focus more in the remainder of this meditation on our ecclesial lives which we live out on the parish level and which we take home with us during the week.
If the Church new year is a wonderful opportunity to (re)commit ourselves to our lives in Christ, then we can always begin with the ABCs of the spiritual life: prayer, almsgiving and fasting (MATT. 6:1-18). At home, on a daily basis we must commit to praying with regularity. We need to have our eyes and then our hearts open to those who need our assistance. And we need to practice the discipline of fasting according to the Church calendar as part of our ascetical efforts of freeing ourselves from over-dependence/obsession with food and drink. Reading the Scriptures with regularity as part of our daily lives can certainly be added to this. This is all basic, but if we have forgotten it, then it can be restored through repentance and effort.
As a parish community, our most foundational commitment is to the Lord’s Day Liturgy. The Eucharist on the Lord’s Day is the “alpha and omega” of our parish existence. All parish life flows outward from the Eucharistic Liturgy and returns there for both sustenance and greater vision.
The sharing of our time, talent and treasure will, to a great extent, be determined by our joyful experience of God in and through the Liturgy. A “reluctant giver” will view the Liturgy as a religious obligation that needs to be fulfilled; but a “cheerful giver” is one who approaches the Liturgy as an inexhaustible gift from the Lord. For it is there, at the Liturgy, that we are truly a koinonia – a communion – of brothers and sisters in Christ; for we commune together of the Body and Blood of Christ, uniting ourselves with Christ and with one another. When we speak of commitment in communal terms, it is our continuing presence at the Liturgy – and as Eucharistic beings – that should define us. I believe that this is one of the many strengths of our parish. A very high percentage of our “parish census” is at the Lord’s Day Liturgy on any given Sunday. (Arriving on time may just be another matter that needs to be worked on!). I also encourage you to expand your liturgical commitment, and “make room” to be present for our other services throughout the year – from Feast Days to Vespers.
Yet, as our society becomes ever more “secular,” there are increasing temptations to view Sunday as any other day with various attractions and things to do. Sunday has lost its privileged status in our contemporary world. “Rest” is a rather quaint concept today, suitable for the unengaged, the elderly, or for those who cannot quite keep up with the fast-paced rhythms of today’ world. Thus, a wide range of events have now spilled over into Sunday, posing an ever-widening challenge for our loyalties.
Among the clergy, at least, a major concern and topic of open discussion is the proliferation of children’s sporting events that are regularly scheduled now for Sunday morning. Loyalty to the team is promoted in almost “evangelical” terms. This is one instance of the many pressures put upon the contemporary Christian family, and which demand careful thinking and hard decisions. Yet, all decisions must return to the twin realities of conviction and commitment.
The Church New Year is a blessing that allows us the time for renewal, for reflection on our priorities, and for repentance if we have somehow lost sight of our “first love” – the conviction that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God; and if our commitment to Christ has somehow melted away into directions that do not necessarily lead to life. Yet, “now is the acceptable time!