Monday, April 17, 2006

4th-century homily best exemplifies Pascha

SUNDAY, APRIL 16, 2006 12:00 AM

4th-century homily best exemplifies Pascha


EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the last of four columns by Fr. John Parker leading up to Easter.

At first, all is quiet, dark. The church is lighted nearly entirely by candlelight. Stillness and solemnity fill the air. The faithful gather for peaceful prayers and hymns, which mount with joy. Robed in his brightest vestments, the priest enters into the midst of the congregation and chants boldly and beautifully, "Thy resurrection, O Christ our Savior, the angels in heaven sing. Enable us on Earth, to glorify Thee in purity of heart!" All then go in procession around the church, singing the same all the while.

It is now nearly midnight - Holy Saturday is turning into Pascha Sunday. We announce the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead with joyful and fervent singing, "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!"
The celebrant opens the doors of the church, and all enter into the brightness of the paschal celebration. The lights are all on. Bells are ringing. Once sleepy children have come back to life and sing along with youthful gladness.

We then celebrate the morning service followed immediately by the Divine Liturgy (Holy Communion). The services are quick, but not rushed. They are voluminous, but not loud. The wonder of the feast is upon us. Christ is risen! Truly he is risen!

And we don't wait until Sunday afternoon for our parties. Immediately after the service, the priest blesses dozens of baskets, each of which is filled with the rich foods from which we have fasted for the past 40 days: meats and cheeses from around the world. Breads that are artfully made. Ruby-red eggs.

And with the blessing, we then feast well into the night, going home at 2:30 or 3 a.m. to get a few hours sleep before our next service, which is at noon Sunday. This is Pascha (this year on April 22/23) in the Orthodox Church.

If the reader has been keeping up with these columns, he'll remember that this marvel follows a full eight days of daily and more-than-daily services in preparation. We have walked with Christ into Jerusalem and up onto Golgotha, and now we are celebrating his empty tomb.

The main question pastors ask themselves at this holy juncture is, "What do I preach?" This is the easiest question in the world for Orthodox priests on this day, because we all offer the same homily every year, decade after decade, century after century. It was preached best in the fourth century, and so St. John Chrysostom's homily has become the sermon in every Orthodox Church in the world on Pascha.

With the joy of the feast, I offer it here to you today, greeting you with the Paschal greeting, Christ is risen!

Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom (circa 400):
"Is there anyone who is a devout lover of God? Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival! Is there anyone who is a grateful servant? 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 him with gratitude join in the Feast! And he that arrived after the sixth hour, let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss. And if any delayed until the ninth hour, let him not hesitate; but let him come too. And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour, let him not be afraid by reason of his delay. For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first. He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, as well as to him that 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 on it, 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 it 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 Dominion unto ages of ages. Amen!

Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I'On. He can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at 881-5010.

This article was printed via the web on 4/16/2006 9:37:29 PM . This articleappeared in The Post and Courier and updated online at on Sunday, April 16, 2006.

Fr. John ParkerPriest-in-ChargeHoly Ascension Orthodox Churchwww.ocacharleston.org843-881-5010 parish and fax843-810-9350 cell

Monday, April 10, 2006

Time for only one thing during Holy Week

Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of columns leading up to Easter.

There is no experience like Holy Week in an Orthodox Church (this year April 15-22). The ancient hymns are deep and rich. The atmosphere of the church changes with the day's commemorations: joy in the air, in the decor, in the incense, in the singing for Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday.

Warning and sobriety early in the week during the services of Bridegroom Matins. Amazement at the betrayal on Wednesday. Divine nourishment with the Last Supper on Thursday. Fasting, exhaustion and sadness with Christ's crucifixion and entombment on Holy Friday. Eager expectation for a not-yet-risen Christ on the morning of Holy Saturday, along with the marvel of baptism following the most ancient practice. Sheer splendor, joy, brightness, wonder and feasting with the first proclamation, "Christ is Risen!" as the clock turns from Saturday to Sunday.

Because we human beings are not simply brains attached to a slavish body, the sights, the sounds, the tastes, the emotions, the exhaustion, the joy, the fasting and the feasting are all integral parts of the full march with Christ from Lazarus' stench-filled grave, through the streets of Jerusalem, into the upper room, up onto Golgotha, and finally to Jesus' empty tomb. God created us to experience him in this plentiful way. To treat Holy Week and Pascha (Easter) any other way would be, at many levels, to deny our humanity and our relationship to God, as well as to miss the full power of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Many of us were raised to "go to church" especially on Sundays and other important days such as Palm Sunday, Easter and Christmas. This is good Christian discipline. But scores of us fall out of that practice because worship is seen as "a thing to do" like any other appointment. As we permit the busyness of life to increase, gradually "going to church" gets squeezed out, especially since these special days are simply "remembered" as some events a long time ago. In fact, this is contrary to our nature, since we were designed to worship God. Worship for human beings is not simply a task such as shopping or going to the post office. Rather, it is a way of life, in this age and the next. This way is fully experienced during Holy Week, especially in the Orthodox Church, for those who commit themselves to the entire cycle of services.

When we change our existence from "human doing" back to "human being," we see and experience time differently. When we celebrate Palm Sunday, for example, we don't sing about "back then." We literally sing: "Today the Savior comes to Jerusalem, fulfilling the Scriptures ." The first three nights of Holy Week we sing, "Behold the Bridegroom comes at midnight ." Later in the week we chant, "Today, the curtain of the temple is torn in two ..."

For us, the feast is now. Today. This midnight. The experience of Holy Week is an entering into ancient time in the present. It is not a dusty memory but rather a living moment. It may be even better put like this: We exit time and in our worship enter into the timeless existence of God. This is true on every Sunday and at every service, as it is also true during this sacred week.

To be sure, Holy Week means commitment. Schedules have to be changed. Soccer games are missed. TV programs are skipped. Time is rearranged, literally and theologically. In fact, we say "time is turned upside down," and we wind up serving the morning services in the evening and the evening services in the morning!

To quantify it, the faithful are in church for four separate services on Palm Sunday weekend (six total hours), Monday-Wednesday night 1 1/2 hours each, Thursday for two services, totaling 3 1/2 hours, Friday twice totaling 3 1/2 hours, 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday morning, and 10:30 p.m.-1:30 a.m. Saturday night/Sunday morning. There is no time for anything else! But should there be? This is the holiest time of the year for Christians, and has been since Jesus actually hung on the cross.

This is not madness or overkill; rather this is what we were created for! There is no golf or boating in the life to come; in the Kingdom, there is worship of the One True God. If immersion is the best way to learn a language, it is surely the best way to worship God in spirit and in truth, and once again especially at this holy time.

A popular bumper-sticker slogan reads, "God gives you the week, give Him the hour." From an Orthodox perspective, this is a minimalist view and clearly compartmental thinking. We are not very good with bumper stickers, since so little can be fit on them, but we might say it this way, "Jesus gave His life up for you, give yours up for Him."

Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I'On. E-mail him at or by phone at 881-5010.

This article was printed via the web on 4/10/2006 8:50:25 AM . This articleappeared in The Post and Courier and updated online at on Sunday, April 09, 2006.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Intimate link between Attendance and Communion

The canons of the Orthodox Church declare that one who “has no very grave necessity nor difficult business so as to keep him from church for a very long time, but being in town does not go to church on three consecutive Sundays—three weeks,” he “should be repelled from communion”. “If he is a cleric (clergy) let him be deposed, but if a layman, let him be cut off”. What are we to make of this?

The canons are not missiles which we hurl at one another, but rather exist for the good order of the church. It is also important to note that the canons are typically given not as preventative measures, but because there is some abuse of Christian living being acted out.

The regular life of a regular Christian should be regular! It is assumed that the baptized love God and would do anything for him, mainly ‘keep his commandments’. Of the two which Jesus summarized as the greatest, “Love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind” comes first, and this is what we do together, in worship. It is true that we are to love God at all times and in every place, but we do have a specific way of loving him and thanking him with reference to his Holy Resurrection, and that is Sunday worship.

In the old days—when these canons were penned—“difficult business” surely included days of travel by foot, on an animal, or by boat, and possibly to areas where there was no church. Today, there is very little excuse. In Charleston, most of us are within 25 minutes of the church. And even if I travel regularly on the weekends for business, every major city and many good-sized towns have an Orthodox Church, even in North America.

Difficult business did not mean, “I work too much.” or “I am tired”. Working too much is a personal/spiritual problem, perhaps an addiction. And if I am tired, let me hear the words of our Savior, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Surely “very grave necessity” included sickness and disease. Then and now, there are those to whom the church goes since they are unable to come to church. In fact, this was one of the tasks of the first deacons.

The question remains, “Do I love God?” If the answer is yes, what will I do to be in church and on time? As I mentioned in church two weeks ago, we may not know the day and the hour of Christ’s second coming, but the day and the hour of our services are always the same, and written in every publication of our parish! Everyone misses church for some reason sometimes. But regular tardiness and regular absence require attention. Reading the canons, apparently this problem is centuries old. Now as then, returning to communion in these cases requires repentance and confession, since it is by our own will that we keep ourselves from God.

Homo Adorans

Jesus Christ is the sum total of our existence. We live and move and have our being by His grace (Acts 17:28). Every thing we have belongs to Him (1 Chronicles 29:14). Every power or strength we have is given to us by Him (John 19:11). We are created, as Fr. John Breck shared with us on Sunday night, “homo adorans”, that is a worshipping people, a praying people. Our two main tasks in life are to love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves. After summarizing the whole law into these two “Great commandments”, Jesus also went one step again and said, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

So, every single facet of our lives is to be marinated in this love of and for God, and by extension to the neighbor. Consider how this plays out in everyday life. Why not ask ourselves these questions:

With boyfriend/girlfriend/fiancé/spouse/ex: What words do we use when speaking? Are they words which build up or tear down? Are we speaking as if to Christ Himself?

With children: What example are we setting? Do we treat them with dignity and respect? Are we acting as if to Christ Himself?

With neighbors: Are we kind and loving? Do we help them as if helping Christ Himself?

With money: Are we generous? Do we give and spend with Christ in mind? Do we offer our first and best to Him and take care not to spend frivolously and selfishly?

With possessions: Do we treat our things as if they belonged to God Himself (since they do!)? Do we share them with those in need without possessiveness?

With punctuality: Do we arrive on time for church services? Do we treat business appointments, soccer games, music lessons, or movies with more care than appointments with God who gives us life?

With animals, plants, and the environment: Do we take care to see that all of creation is God’s and to treat it as such?

Great Lent is a time to re-orient (literally, ‘to face east again’!) ourselves to God. Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow is not yet here. God grant us today to love him and our neighbor, and at the last, God grant us His Kingdom!

Science and faith meet on the date of Easter

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SUNDAY, APRIL 02, 2006 12:00 AM

Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of columns leading up to Easter.

Science and faith so often are pitted against one another. The polarization does not come from one direction or the other alone, but rather often from both sides.

Many scientists claim that faith is simply a blind exercise in futility in which the "believer" seeks to impose some unintended meaning on his life, or to console herself with unprovable prayer. Most of these folks fail to recognize that science can never quantify or prove "love," for example.
On the other hand, numbers of "faithful" claim that science is a sham, especially with regard to the heated debates about creation.

Most of these folks fail to understand, for example, that Genesis 1-11 is neither textbook science nor textbook history, and therefore have very little, if anything, to do with the number of "actual" days God took to make the Earth and everything in it.

The Christian faith has to do with the truth, and we Christians believe first and foremost that Jesus Christ is the truth. He said, "I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life" (John 14:6). For us, then, the truth is the most important quest, and facts, when we have them, contribute to that knowledge and understanding, and in and of themselves expose further the majesty of God, who is way beyond our grasp and comprehension.

But science and the Christian faith always have been related. At least in the West, science has been an incredible effort to find out how God's creation works and is ordered. With respect to the feast near at hand, most people, I think it is safe to say, are unaware that Pascha (Easter) is dated at least partially according to science - astronomy, to be more precise. When asked, "How do we know the date of Pascha?", some might even reply, "We ask Hallmark!"

In fact, Pascha is dated for scientific reasons, which tell theological truth. In the early days of Christianity, the Resurrection was celebrated in two differing ways. The first was the way of the Quartodecimans (a term which means "14-ers"). This group commemorated the resurrection of Christ on the day of the Jewish Passover, regardless of what day of the week that was. The Passover was celebrated on 14 Nisan, a date according to the Jewish calendar, established with Moses (see Exodus 12). Since Christians believe that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Passover, this feast was "Christianized" in this way. The second group celebrated Pascha on the first Sunday after the Passover, since Jesus rose from the dead on a Sunday. So in this view, Sunday is the new Lord's day, on which Jesus conquered death. These two varying celebrations lasted until the fourth century, at least officially.

By the year 325, Emperor Constantine saw the church bombarded by various heresies, and the lack of a unified celebration of Pascha was a poor witness to the pagan world. So, at the First Ecumenical Council, a decisive meeting of all the bishops of the church, the universal dating of Pascha was established to be the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox -"Sunday," with reference to the Resurrection and Lord's day, and "full moon after the vernal equinox" because this was the "Passover" moon. (The Jewish calendar was lunar; our present calendar is solar.) To this day, Pascha is calculated according to this reckoning.

Besides the scientific data used to calculate Easter, which are directly related to the biblical dating of the Passover, astronomy teaches very important theological truths, which are made evident in the Gospel reading for Pascha in every Orthodox church in the world on this feast of feasts: John 1:1-17.

This Gospel lesson is read at Christ's resurrection with special reference to Jesus' eternal existence with the father and his being "the light."

"The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world" (Verse 9), and, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (Verse 5).

At Christmas, astronomically speaking, the "true light ... was coming into the world" as we celebrate the nativity of Christ just after the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Thereafter, light literally increases with each passing day, pointing to Christ, now increasing on the Earth from infant to man.

At Pascha, the darkness no longer overcomes the light. At the vernal equinox, day and night are the same length, and thereafter, each passing day contains more light than darkness. Consider the passage again in that light: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."

As we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ, let us remember always how great God is! Indeed, the Scriptures show us the Word written, and "the heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork" (Psalm 19:1).

Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I'On. E-mail him at or at 881-5010.

This article was printed via the web on 4/3/2006 2:48:11 PM . This articleappeared in The Post and Courier and updated online at on Sunday, April 02, 2006.

Saint a symbol of penitence

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By Fr. John Parker
Editors' Note: This is the first in a series of guest columns leading up to Easter.

A prostitute she was not, since she didn't accept payment for her sexual services. She chose to seduce and please her men at no cost for two apparent reasons: the hunt and the pleasure. She rejected payment not on any moral ground (what morality?) nor because she was rich (in fact she lived by begging). She "contrived this so that [she] could seduce many more men, thus turning [her] lust into a free gift."

Her "greatest" exploit was also to become her downfall - or rather her salvation. One summer day, she witnessed a crowd of men running toward the port, where they were to board a ship heading on a pilgrimage, of all places, to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. This feast - still celebrated around the world to this day - is second in solemnity only to Good Friday and is the commemoration of when St. Helena, in the fourth century, found the cross on which Jesus was crucified at Golgotha.

Our protagonist saw this trip not as an opportunity for a holy moment, but as a chance to wallow further in filth and uncontrollable lust. She was able to board the ship, though she mostly was rejected in her efforts once aboard. She made up for missed opportunity when they reached Jerusalem, though. In her own words, "... During the days that I stayed in the city before the feast, I engaged in the same practices or even worse. For I was not contented with the young men who were at my service at sea and on the road, but I also corrupted many other men, both citizens and foreigners, whom I picked up for this purpose."

Something miraculous then happened to her. Picture it! As she joined the crowds in an effort to enter the church for the festal celebration, some divine power, as she describes it, repelled her from entering. She made many attempts to cross the threshold of the door, and four times she was met with the same force resisting her entrance. As she stood in the courtyard trying to make sense of it all, she was struck to the core with the realization that she was not able to enter and to gaze upon the true cross because of her licentious behavior and the filth of her existence.

Just then, she noticed an icon of the mother of God and was reduced to sobs, wailing and deep conviction of sin by Mary's most pure example. After a conversation and confession of sorts, our traveler was able to gain entrance into the church. Once inside, she gazed upon the life-giving cross, fell to the floor in worship and kissed the holy ground. Thus St. Mary of Egypt, as she is known, repented and devoted her life entirely to renunciation of "this world," exchanging her former life for one of ongoing prayer, repentance and union with God.

On that day, St. Mary moved to the desert, where she battled against her sins. Despite her magnificent conversion, her trials were far from over, as is the case also for us today.

One account says: "For forty-eight years she dwelt in the desert beyond the Jordan, and when temptations befell her and memories of her former sinful life ... beckoned her to leave her voluntary sojourn in the desert, she lay on the ground, cried to God for help and did not get up until her heart was humbled. The first years were hard; she sometimes had to lie this way for many days; but after seventeen years came the time of rest."

Seventeen years! St. Mary learned what many of us miss: that true return to Christ can take a long time. More often than not, repentance doesn't end simply with "naming it" and moving on. Often the full return takes longer than it took to make the sinful mess in the first place. Temptations, memories of impassioned failures and fatigue from the battle against sin fill our minds and souls constantly as the devil attempts to lure us away from the only One in whom there is salvation. Sometimes we, like St. Mary, will need to lie face down on the ground for days at a time to fight the temptation to return to our former delusion.

But St. Mary realized the promise of God: salvation. He gave her the strength to find him and to be healed. What can we learn from her? At least we can see what she gleaned from Ezekiel 18:32: God has "no pleasure in the death of any one ... so turn, and live." Like Moses the murderer, Saul (later Paul) the chief persecutor of Christians, like the repentant thief on the cross who said, "Remember me ... ," like St. Mary of Egypt, the repentant prostitute, like you and I: No one is beyond redemption.

St. Mary of Egypt is commemorated on the fifth Sunday of Great Lent in the Orthodox churches for her supreme example of true repentance.

Fr. John Parker is the priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I'On. He can be reached at 881-5010 or by e-mail at

This article was printed via the web on 3/26/2006 5:15:35 PM . This articleappeared in The Post and Courier and updated online at on Sunday, March 26, 2006.