A Reflection on the Dormition of the Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary

Glory to Jesus Christ! It is good to be here to celebrate this most special feast. This feast of the Dormition is special for many reasons. Our Byzantine Tradition actually provides the foundation of the historical event that we celebrate in the Universal Church today. When the Church wanted to demonstrate the truth that the Mother of God, after completing the course of her life, was bodily assumed into heaven by God, it was our Byzantine tradition that was used by Pope Pius XII to show this truth. He would quote Eastern Fathers like St. John of Damascus to drive home the point that we believe that after Christ ascended, He would not leave His mother’s body in her grave. No, her falling asleep (which is what Dormition means) was followed with her Body being assumed into heaven. In the Church year which ends at the end of this month, this is the last big feast that we have. We have the tradition of fasting from August 1st until today, which makes one of four fasts that follow the feasts of Pascha, the Nativity, and the Holy First Apostles Peter and Paul. Today is perhaps the peak of our year, as our church year ends this month and a new Byzantine year begins in September. But there is more than the Church year and the joy of this last solemn feast of the Church year. Because the Theotokos’ body was assumed into heaven to be united with her soul, and because the apostles found fragrant flowers in the tomb, we have the joy of having flowers and herbs to be blessed on this joyful day. This is our final feast of the year but from an even more mystical angle, we could say that this feast is the final feast period in all of our life in Christ. This is the feast that testifies to the Completion of salvation history. Let’s take a journey through the icons in our church to see how that is true.

Let’s start up to your left, and what do we see? The fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. What is under the tree? A skull. Death. But who else do we also see in the icon? It’s an image of the Theotokos. This brings our minds to the words of God after the fall. In speaking to the hardships that befell mankind after the sin in the garden, there is a promise of hope. A promise of salvation. In Genesis 3:15 we hear what scholars call the “protoevangelion”, the first Gospel. The first good news to us from God after the ancestral sin was: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel.” That’s right, in the first book of the Bible we are told that the offspring of Eve will vanquish the head of the serpent. The main icons along the sides of our church are even more clear in telling the continual story of salvation as a long thread. What is the first one that we see? The nativity of the Theotokos, which we celebrate on September 8th, and is just at the beginning of our Byzantine Church year. Let’s continue from there to her Entrance into the Temple, to the Annunciation, to the Visitation of Elizabeth, to the Nativity of Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ, to His Holy Theophany, and we continue to the account of Christ’s life of ministry that crosses all of the way to the back of our nave and across to the “south side” of the nave as we call it. The icons on this side of the Church brings us closer to the Holy Passion of our Lord with his entry into Jerusalem, and eventual crucifixion (note the skull is here yet again) and resurrection. But that is not the end of the chain of salvation history, and it’s not the end of the icons on the south side of our nave. No, let us continue to see the story of Christ from resurrection to Ascension, we see the story of the Apostles, the splendor of Pentecost, and what do we find at the bottom, at the very end of this chain of history? It is the icon of our feast today. This is such a beautiful story that we see right before our eyes every time we come to worship, which I hope we can grow to appreciate more and more as we grow in our faith which is so deeply linked to things like icons and blessings. After the Feast of Pentecost our eyes move to the icon in the bottom left from my view, as the completion of this chain of events. Christ is truly Risen but at the same time this is the proof that it’s not just his ascension. It’s not just the power of the spirit at Pentecost. No. Our journey through salvation history ends with a woman who is both lying at her tomb, and resting safely in the arms of her son. But now in an almost mirror image of the Icon of the Nativity, she is the little one held in His arms, because her soul is home. She is restored as her body is eventually raised and the angels and Apostles who look on are in awe, because she has fallen asleep. The next time they will come back to the tomb with the Apostle Thomas and there will only be the aroma of flowers, and there will be no body. That is the sign that our salvation is seen most clearly in this special feast. And this is also why in our tradition that we say “O Most Holy Theotokos, Save us.” She is the first one saved by Christ in terms of priority, and like anyone who is filled with love, this salvation is shared to those who cry out to her. We say the words “O most holy Theotokos, save us” to attest to this beautiful chain of redemption that comes to us on this feast. Her Dormition is a sign that when we die united to Christ and His Church, we will have that same salvation which is manifested to her.

Scripturally, our Old Testament readings, apostolic reading and Gospel passage speak in harmony to this same fact. The readings from Genesis tell us that the Theotokos is the ladder from heaven that allows heaven and earth to meet. She is also the unopened door leading into the holy temple of God. She is full of the wisdom of God, who is in His presence listening to His words and keeping his commandments, which is the highest blessing of all. Perhaps even more striking is our reading from the letter of the Holy Apostle Paul to the Philippians. Here he speaks of how Christ humbles Himself in becoming Man, and that in this same humility it allows him to come to the Cross, but that God the Father exalts him so that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. When I hear the words of Christ on the Cross and being exalted, I tend to think of Pascha as opposed to some Marian feast. Did the Church make a typo in pointing us to these words from St. Paul on this Feast, which is also the Apostolic reading for the Birth of the Theotokos? I argue NO, this is very intentional to think of Christ’s humility and exaltation on this feast. There is a genius here, for if Christ is to be humbled and live, he would have to come down to earth from the ladder, this door to heaven, who is His mother. And if he were to be risen from the dead but she were to live a normal course of life and not be with him in paradise in body AND soul, he would be of all sons the most sad.

Liturgically, our last day of the Church year speaks to this same fact. August 31st commemorates the deposition of the cincture of the Holy Theotokos. We remember the clothing that the Theotokos wore because there are no claims to having relics of the body of the Virgin Mary’s body, unlike many saints. That’s right, there are no remains of the Theotokos’ body on earth claimed from the over 2000 years of Church history, so don’t let the date of the dogma deceive you. The Dormition has been upheld throughout the centuries because of the importance of this feast. More importantly, this demonstrates that God’s love for her is a sign of love for us. But what about you and me? Will we fall asleep in the Lord and be assumed? Is that true of the graves that we visit, that the bodies have been assumed into heaven? After all, we should be visiting the faithful departed, praying for them both in Church particularly at anniversaries and on all souls Saturday’s. Is this beautiful promise only for the select few who are assumed? No, because we know that their souls will dwell among the good, as the prokeimenon for the faithful departed tells us. We also know that at the final resurrection, all of us will be integrally human, with our souls and bodies united just as is the case in this feast. This feast attests to the words of Christ who said that if one believes in Him, that person will not die. The Theotokos shows us that these words are not speaking of our physical hearts stopping to beat. This tragically befalls all of us, but in stark contrast to this tragedy we have the reality of life in Christ. We have the firm conviction that Christ trampled death by death. One of the most beautiful ways to see this is not just with special callings like that of Elijah who passed over physical death. No, the most beautiful way to see the victory of Christ over death is to see the story of His Mother. Her life on earth ended not as a bow of defeat, but as an affirmation and entrance into the eternal life of the presence of Her Son who trampled death. Her son, holding his Mother in his arms, calls us all to our destiny. He invites us to a deeper faith in His call to salvation by showing us that He loved His mother so deeply that He welcomed her to that life in the kingdom that he inaugurated.

So let us take this occasion of the Feast of the Dormition to see how deeply Christ loves us. He loved us enough to suffer crucifixion and to let His all pure mother pass from this earthly life, because this fleeting existence pales in comparison to the divine light of union with the Holy life-creating Trinity that never ends. May we journey ever more deeply into it so that we may one day be held by Him as we see Him with His Mother in this occasion of her Falling asleep in the Lord. She intercedes for the whole Church and so let us say together with these words, “O Most Holy Theotokos, Save Us.”


From Offering to the Great Entrance and Back Again


Fr. Ephrem Lash gave a riveting lecture on the Divine Liturgy entitled “Translating The Liturgy: Was there a Great Entrance at the Last Supper?” (1) In it, he points out vividly that aspects of our liturgical life of offering bread and wine to become the Body and Blood of Christ grew organically from a background that began with the Last Supper, and he shows that this does not mean that each component of the Divine Liturgy today was present even in an embryonic sense at the Last Supper. If we consider the Byzantine liturgy, the Great Entrance is a momentous occasion, so much so that Patriarch Eutychius called for the Cherubic hymn to be sung to counterbalance any notion that the bread and wine carried in the procession were already consecrated before the Anaphora (2). And despite the fact that the Last Supper brought the Eucharist to the world for the first time, it would be anachronistic to believe that there was a Great Entrance at the Last Supper, as the rhetorical question in the lecture title drives home so poignantly. Despite not being as ancient as the Eucharist itself, we will consider the development of the Great Entrance to understand the benefits and potential pitfalls of this practice.

As the liturgy developed in the first centuries of the Church, we read that “[t]he people, both in East and west, brought the bread and wine for the Eucharist.” (3) In the East “they handed in their offerings on the way to the Church, either at a table near the door, or in a small room specially provided near the entrance.” (4) Our understanding of the Eucharist as an offering from our own lives to bring the life of Christ to the Church and the world was clearly connected to this action of the faithful providing the bread and the wine, and to a partial extent this continues to this day with the faithful who prepare Prosphora in Byzantine parishes. As practical considerations brought more specialization to the Church, the place where the bread and wine were kept for the Anaphora changed. First, there was a transition from a table or small room to the Skeuphylakion, a separate building that stored the gifts of bread and wine which would be selected by deacons for the liturgy. Despite having its own building, the liturgy in Constantinople during the time of St. John Chrysostom did not have a Great Entrance as we know it. Wybrew states that “it is reasonably clear that in Chrysostom’s time the gifts were brought in by the deacons from wherever they had been left by the people and that this transfer was effected in a simple manner…accompanied by neither chant nor ceremonial.” (5) Thus, the transfer of the gifts from the Skeuphylakion to the altar began without ceremony, despite the current hymns and rubrics for the Great Entrance.

By 392, however, Theodore of Mopsuestia recounts at length about the awe and wonder of the same basic practice of bringing the gifts to the altar (6). Meditating upon the reality of the offering of Christ, the symbolism of His suffering, death, anointing and burial became integrally part of the Great Entrance. The ceremonialism that was not present in the early 300s emerges later in the century, and became so profound that Patriarchs chided those who held that the bread and wine were already consecrated, the Cherubic hymn was instituted, and the rite of Prothesis at the side altar came to replace the Skeuphylakion (7), which would have its own solemnity and symbolism to provide a context that would make sense of how we treat the gifts as special even prior to their consecration. Taken together, the progression away from simple actions in the earliest centuries of Church History reached a pinnacle of contrast where a rite before the procession was instituted providing symbolism pointing to Christ’s birth, the rite of procession at the Great Entrance was established to consider the suffering, death and Burial of Christ as well as the angelic powers worshipping the life-creating Trinity, ultimately leading to His Resurrection from the dead at the Anaphora and vivifying His people through reception of His Body and Blood at the Holy Eucharist.

On the one hand, we can be grateful to God for this development over the centuries. Hearing the prayers of the Prothesis (if they are audible and intelligible) can provide an excellent context of what is to be celebrated before the liturgy commences. By considering the prayers from this rite that hearken to the birth of Christ, and by seeing the great company of angels and saints surrounding Christ, we are drawn into the mystical realities of heaven, where the praise of God never ceases. In adding particles to the diskos for the faithful departed, our hearts swell with hope and prayers for those we have lost. Tying this together with the same gifts that are then solemnly carried through the nave of the Church and through the Royal doors at the Great Entrance, we are swept into the drama of the Passion, and the words of the Anaphora remind us that after death there is life. And as that life comes to the faithful who partake of it (or are blessed with the words, “Save Your People, O God, and bless Your inheritance”), the reality of Resurrection and life that is beyond the grave is embossed on our souls. In many ways, this experience emphasizes the reality of the life of Christ in the drama of salvation in a way that a liturgy which is not formalized can never do.
On the other hand, the formalization that comes to us through liturgical developments suffers the possibility of missing out on the personal connection to the offering that was seen more clearly in the early practice of the Church. As mentioned above, some parishioners may serve their congregations through preparing prosphora. Nevertheless, the majority of the people do not participate in this reality, and if that is the case there are many faithful who may not connect themselves to that which is offered in the Eucharist. The modern Byzantine rite may point us to Christ, but how do the faithful connect with this reality by seeing themselves in the liturgy?

I would argue that a balanced approach of understanding what Christ did for us and understanding what we do to unite ourselves to Christ and His Church in the liturgy is the key to the most ideal perspective. We must be able to see that we are part of the offering to God, and at the same time we must grasp how Christ offers Himself through our offerings to God. In so doing, we plumb the depths of the mystery of our salvation more clearly than an either/or perspective. Instead, we will see Christ’s priestly ministry and outstretched arms that seek to save us, and at the same time we will appreciate that our own efforts are part of the synergistic movement towards life everlasting. In so doing, we grasp the fullness of salvation and see the drama of its unfolding in our day to day lives. Glory to Jesus Christ!

Works Cited
1. Lash, Fr. Ephrem https://vimeo.com/32297264
2. Wybrew, Hugh. The Orthodox Liturgy, SVS Press 1990, page 82
3. Wybrew, page 20
4. Wybrew, page 20
5. Wybrew, page 52
6. Wybrew, page 53
7. Wybrew pp. 54, 55, 84, 109, 110, 154, 155-7

The Mystical View of the Scriptures in the Akathist to the Theotokos

The richness of the Byzantine liturgical life of prayer has overwhelmed many, particularly those of us who are tasked with leading singing the multitude of services and musical tones that undergird it. The principle of lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi dictates that the prayer life of the Byzantine faithful will also influence perspective and faith in the Scriptures. From a Biblical perspective, there is a deeper foundation beyond the musical complexity of the Byzantine rite that can be a blessing to anyone with ears to hear and eyes to see. This Biblical foundation is so central and yet so often overlooked that at many times one may spend a great deal of time ignorant of its depths and splendor. By reflecting upon some of the Biblical references in the Akathist hymn, I argue that the Bible is deeply foundational to the mystical perspective which pervades Byzantine spirituality.



The Akathist hymn to the Theotokos is attributed to St. Romanos the Melodist, who is said to have composed it in the 6th century. This hymn leads those who pray it through the life of the Mother of God and the prophetic foreshadowing of her life from the Annunciation to the Birth of Christ. Why does this matter in terms of Scriptural interpretation? As we shall see, the mystical viewpoint of the Byzantine Christian Tradition comes to life in this hymn. Parallels between the Old and New Testaments are made in ways that seem shocking to the perspective that literal Biblical fulfillment is the height of good exegesis. Instead, the perspective of Old Testament fulfillment and interpretation is centered upon mystical foreshadowing that is larger than the strict message of a given text. For the purpose of this essay, we will reflect on the sixth Kontakion and Ikos, which are below (online source: http://www.orthodoxa.org/GB/orthodoxy/spirituality/AkathistMotherGodGB.htm) .

Kontakion 6 Having become God-bearing heralds, the Magi returned to Babylon. Fulfilling Your prophecy, and having preached You as the Christ to all, they left Herod as a trifler, who knew not how to chant: Alleluia.
Ikos 6 Having shed the light of truth in Egypt, You expelled the darkness of falsehood; and unable to bear Your strength, O Saviour, her idols fell; and they that were set free from them cried to the Theotokos: Rejoice, Uplifting of men. Rejoice, Downfall of demons. Rejoice, you who trampled upon the delusion of error. Rejoice, you who censured the deceit of the idols. Rejoice, Sea which drowned the symbolic Pharaoh. Rejoice, Rock which refreshed those thirsting for life. Rejoice, Pillar of fire, guiding those in darkness. Rejoice, Protection of the world, more spacious than a cloud. Rejoice, Nourishment, successor to manna. Rejoice, Minister of holy joy. Rejoice, Land of promise. Rejoice, you from whom flows milk and honey. Rejoice, O Unwedded Bride.

First, let us note that the kontakion provides the context of the rejoicing in the subsequent Ikos. In the midst of the narrative of the Annunciation and Nativity, we reflect in the 6th section upon the Magi departing from Bethlehem in a new direction. Instead of going back towards Herod, they perceive his unbelief and journey to Egypt. The Ikos too then focuses on Egypt and speaks to the Mother of God in the light of her being the Mother, as well as in relation to the people of the Old Testament. While it is true that she sojourned there with the young infant Jesus and His foster father Joseph, the words relating her to Egypt and salvation in general shed light on the Byzantine view of Scripture.

After describing the Theotokos in general terms indicating that she brings light and salvation ultimately through her Son, the Ikos places her into the contexts of the Exodus of Moses and His people from Egypt. This key section of the Ikos proclaims that Mary is a great variety of salvific events and supernatural things from the Exodus account. In sum, she is called the sea that drowned the symbolic Pharaoh (Exodus 14:28), the Rock which brought forth water (Exodus 17:6), the pillar of fire which guides those in darkness (Exodus 13:21), the protection of the world that is symbolized by the cloud (Exodus 13:21), the successor to manna (Exodus 16:4), the minister who brought joy (here the connection is somewhat unclear to Exodus, likely Moses and/or Aaron), and lastly the Promised Land that flowed with milk and honey (Exodus 3:17).

There is so much that can be said about this mystical perspective on the book of Exodus given to us in the Akathist. We are given explicit terms such as “symbolic Pharaoh” and “successor to manna” which look beyond the times of Moses and his people to consider how the Old Testament is fulfilled through Christ and His Mother. At the same time we hear about terms such as the rock and the pillar in unqualified terms as though Christ and His Mother were present in Egypt during the times of Moses; this is less difficult to consider with Christ as the Eternal God, as compared to His Mother. What is this hymn teaching us through its own “lex orandi”? From these titles given to the Mother of God, we see that the nature of Old Testament fulfillment in the New Testament is not linear. We do not look at the Exodus event and attempt to find multiple means of protection and salvation in the Akathist’s rejoicing. In other words, John the Baptist is not the Sea, Mary is not the rock, Joseph is not the pillar, Jesus is not the manna, and heaven is not the Promised Land, in this narrative at least. Instead, we are praying to and focused on one person in all of the imagery, and the Theotokos is seen as the entire bridge from Egypt to the Promised Land for the people of God led by Moses, with all of the distinct aspects of each title that she receives in her Motherhood of Christ and His Body, the Church.

In terms of the first title, she is the one who defends and even destroys the Pharaoh who attacks us. As a rock flowing with water, successor to manna, land flowing with milk and honey, she is the one who nourishes us. As a pillar of fire by night and cloud by day, she is our guide and shelter who takes us through our wanderings and journeys towards the Promised Land. As a minister, she leads and instructs us, as did Moses and Aaron (and their successors). And as Promised Land itself, she is our home.

This vision painted by just one of the Ikoi in the Akathist gives us a sense that as we read the Scriptures, we encounter salvation in a multifaceted sense. We do not look for one to one correspondence between Old and New Testaments, nor do we necessarily need to consider all things typology. Instead, we can be wise and see parallels between Old and New Testaments as we pray. And when we read the stories from the Old Testament which may seem difficult to compare to our life in Christ, we can pause and be silent if we have not been given eyes to see by the liturgical tradition which nourishes us, or through prayer and beseeching the Holy Spirit.
In conclusion, the greatness of the Byzantine Tradition is that its complexity offers the one who prays with it a wealth of inspiration. Taking the Akathist as one example, we can approach the Bible with a mystical eye that sees hidden treasures that are brought forth as we think about how the Old and New Testaments compare to one another. We can see Christ and His Mother in so many aspects of the salvation of Israel, and thus in our own salvation. Space cannot allow us to also consider other aspects where these comparisons are made in the rest of the Akathist hymn, or the ways that the lectionary’s readings for Vespers paints a similar picture between the Old and New Testaments, or the way in which Psalms are chosen for Feasts, Vespers, Matins, the Hours, and the like. In each of these, the point is reinforced: the Bible is applicable to all of our life, and we only need to enter into this wealth of beauty with eyes of faith to grasp it.

Praying Towards the East



This view of my home parish’s temple spoke to me this morning, it was one of those times where I’m thankful for modern camera/cell phone technology. While not perfectly facing the East, the temple has the general orientation of facing the East, which has been traditionally the model for Church architecture. The quote below from the writings of St. John of Damascus explains why this is the case.

Chapter XII.—Concerning Worship towards the East.

It is not without reason or by chance that we worship towards the East. But seeing that we are composed of a visible and an invisible nature, that is to say, of a nature partly of spirit and partly of sense, we render also a twofold worship to the Creator; just as we sing both with our spirit and our bodily lips, and are baptized with both water and Spirit, and are united with the Lord in a twofold manner, being sharers in the mysteries and in the grace of the Spirit.

Since, therefore, God is spiritual light, and Christ is called in the Scriptures Sun of Righteousness and Dayspring, the East is the direction that must be assigned to His worship. For everything good must be assigned to Him from Whom every good thing arises. Indeed the divine David also says, Sing unto God, ye kingdoms of the earth: O sing praises unto the Lord: to Him that rideth upon the Heavens of heavens towards the East. Moreover the Scripture also says, And God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there He put the man whom He had formed: and when he had transgressed His command He expelled him and made him to dwell over against the delights of Paradise, which clearly is the West. So, then, we worship God seeking and striving after our old fatherland. Moreover the tent of Moses had its veil and mercy seat towards the East. Also the tribe of Judah as the most precious pitched their camp on the East. Also in the celebrated temple of Solomon the Gate of the Lord was placed eastward. Moreover Christ, when He hung on the Cross, had His face turned towards the West, and so we worship, striving after Him. And when He was received again into Heaven He was borne towards the East, and thus His apostles worship Him, and thus He will come again in the way in which they beheld Him going towards Heaven; as the Lord Himself said,As the lightning cometh out of the East and shineth even unto the West, so also shall the coming of the Son of Man be.

So, then, in expectation of His coming we worship towards the East. But this tradition of the apostles is unwritten. For much that has been handed down to us by tradition is unwritten.

Holy Father John of Damascus, pray to God for us!

Cutting the Psalms short…

In the Byzantine prayer life, our divine liturgy normally first sings the Scriptures through what are known as Antiphonal or Typical Psalms. Depending on the tradition, one may prevail over the other (and this of course depends on the time of year etc.), but regardless there is a genius to the songs that we sing, both in terms of the connection it gives to the Old Testament, and with regard to the specific Old Testament passages chosen (not to mention our lectionary of New Testament readings!).

In our day and age of hustle and bustle, sometimes these prayers are cut short. It is sometimes thought that the faithful cannot endure a long service, and truly there was a time when what we sing in the nave was done as a procession of sorts, which covered much more than what happened at the final destination where the divine Eucharist was celebrated. The “stational” nature of the liturgy has been described by many, but at the end of the day the psalm verses were intermingled with refrains, and this is particularly true of the antiphons.

As one on the Gregorian Calendar, my thoughts have turned to a recent set of antiphons particular to the feast of the season. For the Ascension (and in its post-festive days), the first antiphon is,

“All you peoples clap your hands, shout to God with cries of gladness.”

after which we repeat the refrain “Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Savior save us.”

and then we sing

“Glory to the Father…”

with the same refrain,

“Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Savior save us.”

In older times/fuller services, this would not be the extent of the antiphon. The first verse of the Psalm would extend further into the Psalm. One could ask whether this was a lengthening that is merely quantitatively longer, but I think if we look more closely we will see some unique qualities of the liturgy and the liturgical calendar, which are arguably somewhat compromised through the current practice which we have of shortening the antiphons.


To see this clearly, let’s look at the first antiphon as it is printed in an older liturgy book. There we find:

All you peoples, clap your hands; shout to God with cries of gladness.

Through the prayers of the Mother of God, O Savior, save us.

For the Lord, the Most High, we must fear; Great King over all the earth.

Through the prayers of the Mother…

He subdues people under us, and nations under our feet.

Through the prayers of the Mother…

God ascends amid shouts of joy; the Lord ascends amid sounds of trumpets.

Through the prayers of the Mother…

Glory be: Now and ever:

Through the prayers of the Mother…

(emphasis added)

The psalm which begins with claps and shouts of joy is allowed to blossom into a prophecy of the Ascension itself. The refrain of the prayers of the Theotokos is allowed to echo more loudly in our ears as well.

Thus, there are times when the first verse of an antiphonal psalm may not be the clearest testimony of the grandeur of a feast. Thus, we may ask whether we are losing something qualitative in such a shortening of the antiphonal songs. Immediately we must note two key points, however, which do not make this a clear cut matter.

First, the original antiphons almost certainly sung all the verses of the whole psalm. So while some other jurisdictions may sing all four verses found in our own particular Church’s older liturgical books, the older historic practice was to sing all verse of the psalm selected for a service.

Second, the key psalms relating to a feast find their way into the service on multiple occasions. Clearly, “God ascends amid shouts of joy…” is perhaps the most clear Old Testament testimony to the Ascension of our Lord. As such, it finds its way into the Psalm verses of this Feast’s Entrance Hymn, Alleluia verses, and Communion Hymn verses.

In that sense, we have not lost the emphasis on the feast.

Nevertheless, we can ask whether our increase in technology and power has illogically left us less able to fully celebrate our salvation through Christ and His Church. To the extent that we have cut things short to only have more free time, we have lost a wonderful treasure. In that regard, I note the enthronement homily of my own Church’s Metropolitan, Metropolitan William (Skurla).

“As we look to the future, I have been asked by the media and people what is the most immediate problem for our Church. My answer is that we need to present Jesus Christ and His Gospel teachings in a way which touches the lives of our people. In the same way, our beautiful Divine Liturgy has been translated to the language of the people living in many different countries. We need a method of teaching the faith which opens their minds to a deeper dimension of spiritual life. God has not changed, but just within the lifespan of my generation, the world has radically changed. Some changes have been good, but many have undercut the pillars of the family and the Church. The cool things we have received from technology have chilled and dulled our ability to see God.”

Might our eyes be more open to the Gospel when we hear the genius of our liturgy with fuller harmony? Might the refrains that were written so long ago be the key to reinvigorate the deadness of our hearts?

Through the prayers of Our Holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ Our God, have mercy on us!


The Insanity Workout and Byzantine Spirituality

The Insanity Workout-not for exercise slackers!

The Insanity Workout-not for exercise slackers!

Recently a friend loaned me a copy of the Insanity Workout series. I had seen infomercials for this intense workout quite a few times and it struck me as, well, insane. All of the jumping, “core” exercises, and other work looked (and still looks) brutally difficult.
Despite my own intuitions, the recommendations of my friend and so many online testimonials piqued my interest in trying this program. So, here I am today, in the middle of this regimen trying to follow it as best as I can, and the challenges I’ve faced (combined, hopefully with some amount of progress!) have been both extraordinary and completely enjoyable.
Early into my online research, I had read of some complaints about the insanity workout. For example, on the “Pure Cardio” video, some commenters noted that there are no break sessions built into the workout, as is the case with other videos in this series. Thus, a workout which is billed as forty five minutes was in reality much longer when you take resting into account.

I bore this in mind while going through the program, which begins with a fitness test that is repeated roughly every two weeks. However, before even getting to the “Pure Cardio” episode, I found that I needed to rest an awful lot more than what was prescribed. I was giving my all and not doing half as much as these fit folks were managing to do. And I also noticed that among those who appear in the fitness videos, there were frequent moments when these relatively fit people were simply exasperated. I also noticed that the trainer, ShaunT, was telling specific people to take a break when their form was compromised/they looked like they were too tired. To actually go through the whole workout without stopping during the exercise was not what you see in watching and trying to perform these exercises. Thus, when I finally got to the “Pure Cardio” episode, resting in the middle without pushing pause was not something to even flinch at. Yes, as mentioned by online critics, there were no breaks. But when I heard the trainer saying to rest when I needed to, and saw people acting accordingly during the video, there was no need to pause this video, and it took 45 minutes, and not longer. The amount of physical challenge was all that I could imagine doing, and as such there was no element of guilt when I had to go more slowly than my TV workout buddies (or to flat out stop for a bit!).

Now, I’ve drawn out all of these details not to get you to buy the Insanity workout series, though if you are interested that’s great. Instead, the point that I want to make in this reflection is to underscore that this arguably flawed notion of needing to do everything in a workout regimen has so many parallels to what I understand about Byzantine spirituality. Or to put it positively, the built in ability to go easier than the “perfect” goal for the sake of one’s own health and salvation is fascinatingly paralleled between the Insanity workout and Byzantine spirituality.

Perfection is constant growth in the good, according to St. Gregory of Nyssa. Instead of seeing one coming up short from perfect fulfillment of a challenge/goal as flawed or deformed, much of the Orthodox Tradition is about giving one’s all, and hoping to grow in perfection as the years go on. Our ways of prayer, fasting, spiritual reading, almsgiving, and the like, could be said to follow the Typikon and canons of our Churches. These statements, when compiled, are so demanding that I don’t know of a person who actually performs all of these “rules” to the letter. But then, to call them rules is to miss the point about perfection, and why we have these spiritual exercises (hence the quotation marks).

A copy of the "Sabbaite" Typikon from the Holy Land-not for spiritual slackers!

A Russian copy of the “Sabbaitic” Typikon from the Holy Land-not for spiritual slackers!

The Typikon and canons are like the Insanity Workout. Sure, it would be wonderful to be able to do every possible rep of the workout, but our actual goal is to use it as a framework to give our all for our physical (and spiritual) health. How can we know if we are truly doing so? This where a spiritual mother or father comes into play. By walking with them and heeding their guidance, we can discern what is a good rule of prayer, fasting, etc. for us, which will most often fall short of the canons and Typikon, especially for those who are newer. But is this falling short sinning? That would only be true if this tradition were about a bare minimum to follow. Instead, like the Insanity Workout, our tradition is extremely challenging even for seasoned monks. No, it is not a minimum, but a maximum. It is a pinnacle, which calls us to look up at our goal, and to strive to grow in the good without looking at our neighbors.

Similar to the Insanity Workout, if I were to stop fasting every time that I saw someone else taking a break, I might be cutting my own “all” short. I might also be coming into judgment by looking over my shoulder and concluding that that person’s rests from the goal are weaknesses or a lack of love for/dedication to our spirituality. That spirit of judgment is worse than falling short of an ideal, as the Prayer of Saint Ephrem reminds us again and again.

Rules of prayer and fasting may appear harsh and legalistic from the outside. The Insanity Workout may also seem torturously difficult if one thinks that all people should do every rep to be faithful to it. We could instead propose a minimalistic set of rules to let people know what the least needed is. Some leaders have advocated this, but I think that this could be missing out on the adventure of looking to an ideal and journeying to give one’s all, not to get perfect marks, but to become perfect from within and without. As we journey in the spiritual life, may the athletic efforts of those who have gone before us not daunt or dismay. Instead, may they inspire us to higher peaks!
Through the prayers of our holy fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us!
Christos Voskrese!

2012 Eastern Catholic Encounter West Coast-Final Talk


After meeting at a conference center in El Segundo on Friday night and Saturday, the Sunday portion of the Eastern Catholic Encounter West Coast was held at St. Andrew’s Russian Catholic Church in El Segundo. There, Bishop Nicholas Samra of the Melkite Eparchy of Newton gave the final talk. I was blessed to participate in the liturgy presided over by my own Bishop, His Grace Bishop Gerald of the Holy Protection of Mary Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Phoenix, and you can see one photo from the liturgy above.

We had a wonderful liturgy and agape meal together, and we then reconvened for Sayedna Nicholas’ talk.


As was the case with the other speakers, I’d like to focus on three key messages in Sayedna Nicholas’ talk. The message began by asking this question:
Who are we as church leaders?

This question is not answered by producing a spiritual “org chart”-instead, we believe that holy orders serve to serve all people. Without the people, ministry has no meaning. Who is being ministered to, otherwise? Ministry is a servanthood, and we have to have someone to serve as ordained and lay leaders. We are part of the priesthood as other Christs, even as lay people who are leaders in the Church. Instead of seeing lay people versus the ordained as those in contrast, the ministerial priesthood that is unique to Holy Orders and Royal Priesthood which is from our common Baptism work together, hand in hand. To truly be Together in Christ, we must embrace this synergy between all Christians.

The second point I’d like to focus on is Sayedna Nicholas’ reflections on 1 Corinthians 3:9-10, which states,

“For we are God’s co-workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it. But each one must be careful how he builds upon it, for no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely, Jesus Christ.”

From this reflection on us as co-workers in God’s building, Sayedna Nicholas reflected that there are three types of builders:
Architects, contractors and carpenters.

Paul is sometimes an architect, planting churches.
Paul is sometimes a contractor, passing ministry on for others to exercise leadership in those Churches.
Paul was also a carpenter, doing the actual baptisms and preaching.
Leadership is connected to being in the image and likeness of God, and we all play our part as different members in the Body of Christ. Not all of us will be as St. Paul, who built up the Church in such diverse ways. But if we are living in accordance to our calling to serve the Body of Christ, we will build up the one building that is the Church.

The last point that I wanted to emphasize in Bishop Nicholas’ talk was his reflections on the future of Eastern Catholic Churches in America. We came together, he said, but if it ended on that day, it would lead to little fruit. Long range planning is discerning strengths for the future. We have to ask what our strengths are so that we can expand and build on strengths.
For example, if our parish has good liturgy/cantoring, we must be faithful to sharing videos, recording music, and the like.
In essence, we must use our strengths to build up God’s vision.
On a practical note, Sayedna encouraged us all to take our excitement home and continue to consider how we can do things together.
The weekend can’t end, we need to follow up.
One text which was recommended to think about the importance of this was Fr. Anthony Coniaris’ book-The Eye Cannot Say to the Hand. I can testify from having read it that this is a wonderful work which shows the need that we have for each other, which runs so contrary to the individualism of our day.
He also recommended that we consult supplementary readings on the Eastern Catholic Encounter Website. If I’m following the website correctly, the link is here.

He then encouraged those of us who live near Eastern Catholics of other jurisdictions to get our communities together, planning to move forward, trying to get resources to build each other up.

In closing, I think this last point makes for a good reflection on ways Bishop Nicholas’ talk could be improved. Mostly, the improvement for which I hope can be found through all of us who have yet to live out this vision laid out in the talk. I do not feel that this follow up is actually happening on a large scale-perhaps this is only a matter of impatience or blindness on my part, but I sincerely hope that this vision can be truly lived out by all of us, so that the Body of Christ may be built up more and more.

Grant This, O Lord!