Tuesday, December 18, 2007

"Who's your daddy?"

Published on Sunday, 12/16/07 in Charleston, SC's Post and Courier, Faith and Values Section with the title "Christians share common genealogy". Not published in their online version.

In my first days in the Lowcountry, I discovered the importance of genealogies in Charleston. “Are you related to the Parkers on such-and-such Street?” Naively (albeit truthfully), I quickly responded, “No.” As you may be aware, a “no” in this category immediately highlighted that I am from “off”. A better answer, I later learned, is “probably way back”. This reply is equally true, and yet somehow still connects someone from North Carolina to the Holy City. It is nice to have roots, but as far as our eternal life is concerned, our earthly heritage is of zero importance.

In the case of Jesus Christ, however, the question “are you related to ___” is very important. So important that both Matthew and Luke record his lineage in their Gospels. The promised messiah, Jesus, was to have a certain, clear lineage. More specifically, as the prophet Isaiah foretold 700+ years BC, he was to “come forth [as] a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots” (Isaiah 11:1). More directly, he would be the eternal successor to King David, the great King of Israel. “Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and for evermore” (Isaiah 9:7ff).

So when the infant Jesus was born, causing no small controversy in the Roman Empire (King Herod jealously ordered the slaughter of all male children under the age of two years old in order to protect his throne from the infant Messiah.), those who knew the Scriptures began to draw near to witness their fulfillment and to worship the newborn King. Even those who did not know and who were not looking for the Messiah (the Gentile Magi, for example) found him and worshipped him. As we sing in the Orthodox tradition, “for those who worshipped the stars were taught by a star to adore Thee…”

Two miracles in one: a child was born from a virgin, and this child, Jesus, is God incarnate, Emmanuel, God with us!

In the early centuries of the Church, even the heretics didn’t doubt Jesus’ divinity. Practically the reverse of today, it was his true humanity that was questioned. Already though, Christians who believed and taught what had always been known about Jesus Christ had kept genealogies which demonstrate his true humanity.

The answer to the Charlestonian question, “Who’s your daddy?” is answered in two ways for Jesus—since he is both God and Man. His Father is God the Father, from whom he is eternally begotten. As a human being and a man, he also has earthly parents—a foster father, Joseph, and his ever-virgin mother, Mary—both of whom are descendents of Abraham, the ancient Patriarch. It is this bloodline which is established in the genealogies in Matthew 1 and Luke 3:23ff. St. Matthew’s account, presented from Abraham to the birth of Jesus, demonstrates Jesus’ royal lineage—showing him to be the fulfillment of all the Kings of Israel. St. Luke’s account, on the other hand, begins with Jesus and works backwards in time, through the line of Levi, showing Jesus to be the fulfillment of the Priests of Israel. Additionally, by going all the way back to Adam, Jesus Christ is shown to be the new Adam, the true Son of God, who, like Adam, was born without human seed.

The genealogies make another—if not more subtle—comment as well: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners—both Jews and Gentiles, men and women. Among them are listed the following (to name only a few): King Ahaz “who did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord God”, who burned his own son and worshipped other gods. King Solomon, who despite his great wisdom, took foreign wives whose false religions turned him from the one true God. He also had hundreds of concubines. King David was an adulterer (with Bathsheba) and a murderer (by ordering the sure death of her husband, Uriah). Rahab was a prostitute. Ruth, the Moabite, was a gentile.

Thankfully, as Christians, our genealogy is always one of adoption and not one of bloodline. By our baptism in Christ, there is “neither slave nor free, male nor female, Jew nor Gentile”. Neither is there Charlestonian nor Yankee, etc. But the genealogies of Jesus Christ are central to our faith, demonstrating the actual, earthly heritage of the Pre-eternal God, made man. Come let us adore him!

Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in Mt. Pleasant. To read more visit www.holyascension.blogspot.com or write frjohn@ocacharleston.org.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Who has a need for Christmas?

Originally published in the Charleston, SC, Post and Courier, Faith and Values section, 12/9/07. Not available on their website.

By Fr. John Parker

He had been extremely wealthy, but something went terribly wrong. After the collapse of his business, there remained not even enough to feed his family of three daughters. In his desperation—who can imagine such desperation?—he figured that his only recourse for grocery money was to sell the girls into prostitution. No where to turn. Nothing to eat. No option.

Most of us could hardly imagine such desperation. Most reading this article have never involuntarily gone without a meal, much less a week’s worth. Many of us have never ‘needed’ anything.

It is equally true that most of us have never met someone in these circumstances, or even know someone who knows someone who was. Indeed, most of us have never helped someone in dire distress. We tend to go about our business and keep to ourselves. We know what we know and whom we know, and that is our life.

As the son of wealthy parents, Nicholas had never known such need himself. But he knew the needy, and he helped them. He knew that it was immoral to ignore their plight. He had the means to help, and did. In this case, under the cover of darkness, having assembled small bags of money (in large amounts), he made his way into their neighborhood and tossed the bundles through an open window in their house, praying that the gift would be sufficient to prevent such a sin. Thank God, it was. Overjoyed by such grace, Nicholas repeated his secret efforts twice more for the same family and saved them from destruction. Later, in his generosity, he even rescued a city plagued by famine. Saint Nicholas (Feast day December 6) was Archbishop of Myra (Asia Minor) in the 4th century.

For most of us in the Lowcountry, needs were long ago replaced with wants. During the ‘Christmas Season’ (which is actually Advent…) more and more emphasis has been placed on “what do you want for Christmas?” Have you ever been asked, “What do you need for Christmas?”

Many of us spend a frantic month searching for the ‘perfect gift’ for that ‘special someone’ who ‘has everything’. Why on earth do we need to buy ‘something’ (which usually winds up begin just ‘some’ thing) for someone who has everything? Someone who has NO need?

It isn’t that we shouldn’t give one another gifts. In fact, this is one way we show love for one another. But couldn’t the gift for that ‘someone who has everything’ be an offering to someone who has nothing?

Think on this for a moment: it is now common to rent a storage unit to hold all the stuff we can’t fit in our houses. Many spend hundreds of dollars monthly for a roof over stacked furniture piled in a climate-controlled warehouse. What about the poor who have no roof and are stacked on top of themselves? Who needs the roof?

Does little Johnny really need Nintendo Wii? Does Susie really need an 18th webkinz? Does Grandma really need another collector’s plate from the Franklin Mint? Do I really need another tie?

For many, charity has become a year-end tax deduction or the check we write on occasion during the year to assuage the guilt we have for accumulating too much stuff and continuing to buy more anyway. Such charity does help the needy, and the Church is grateful to be able to distribute it. But more so, we are called to change our whole worldview—our selves and souls—to reflect the life of Christ like St. Nicholas did.

We all have so much to give—but we forget that it is not actually ours. Everything we have is given to us by God to be used by us to show the love of God to those who truly need it. Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it [clothed the naked, fed the hungry, visited the sick and imprisoned, etc.] to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40ff). Jesus didn’t give new chariots to people or even grant them new clothing. Rather, he gave them health, healing, hope, and salvation—and in the end, he gave his life for them, for us. This is our calling.

St. Nicholas was an ardent follower of Jesus Christ. He quietly and humbly lived the Gospel, and did so without desire for or requirement of public thanks or recognition. He gave because, in his abundance he knew his responsibility as a human being to help the helpless and to give hope to the hopeless. Our call is no different. So, let’s ask a new question this year. Instead of “what do you want for Christmas?” let’s ask, “Who has needs this Christmas whom we can help?” And having asked the question, let our giving be, like St. Nicholas’, quiet, anonymous, given to the glory of God, than all may see these good works, and give glory to God in heaven.

Fr. John Parker is Priest-in-Charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I’On. Read more at www.holyascension.blogspot.com or write frjohn@ocacharleston.org.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Advent a time of Spiritual House Cleaning

published on Sunday, 12/2/07 in Charleston's Faith and Values section of the Post and Courier (not published there online).

I have never been a particularly patient person. In grocery stores, I do mental math trying to determine which checkout line is the fastest. I’d like to be done *now*.

When approaching a red light, I aim for the lane with fewer cars. I want to be at my destination *now*.

I’ve never done particularly well with anticipation either. I confess that as a child, I often sought and found Christmas presents which my parents had attempted to hide in dark guestroom closets. I wanted to know what I was getting *now*.

It wasn’t until my wife’s pregnancy with our firstborn son that I was able to long for anything. By God’s grace, I waited nine months plus two weeks to know that my son was a son, despite the medical capacity to know sooner. And what great joy I found in that longing: a new (and successful) experiment in patience. A wonder like I had never experienced. An indescribable joy to meet my son. And miracle of miracles, I found equal joy and wonder in longing during my wife’s second pregnancy—greeting our second son after another round of nine months and two week’s anticipation.

Advent—or the 40-day Nativity Fast as it is traditionally known in the Orthodox Churches—is one of God’s annual gifts to us though the Church: a gift of patience, anticipation, and longing leading to indescribable joy and wonder at our celebration of the nativity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Traditionally and historically, Christians prepare for feasts by fasting and repentance. After all, we can never truly know a feast until we know what it is to fast. To go from party to party with no rest in between is to live life ultimately numb to true celebration.

This sort of preparatory season is best known, of course, as the Great 40 days of Lent prior to Pascha (Easter). But Advent is no different—though in many places fasting and penitence have slipped away, now only visible in the liturgical use of the color purple in churches and on Advent wreaths.

Advent, however, is devoted to preparation, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and spiritual longing. After all, it means “coming towards”. The Nativity of Christ is coming. What do you do when the king is coming and he is not here yet? Clean the house. Mend the torn garments. Polish the silver. Wash the dishes. Treat our neighbors the way we are supposed to. Make everything shiny and bright. Advent is not a feast. It is the preparation for the coming One.

So, how to prepare? Clean the house. Not just my residence, but the house of my soul. What sins do I keep unconfessed? What fire of anger do I stoke? What resentment do I harbor? With whom am I not reconciled?

Mend the torn garments. Not just patches on the knees of my torn jeans. How about the holes in the jeans of the needy? How about providing clothing for those who don’t have clothing to mend? Shoes for the shoeless? Meals for the hungry?

Polish the silver. Am I offering my best to the church? Am I giving the love and attention to my family and friends (and enemies) as I am called to do? What do I have to offer that I am holding back?

Wash the dishes. What or whom am I neglecting? Whom have I cast aside?

All this, of course, is not an end in and of itself. It is not a series of works and spiritual housecleaning in order to pat oneself on the back and say, “‘Atta boy!” or, “You go, girl!” Rather it is the response, in love, to the King of Kings who is coming into this world to save us.

Prepare the way of the Lord—he is coming to be born, and to be reborn in our hearts. So, let’s save the carols for Christmas. Let’s save the partying for the feast which begins with Communion on Christmas Day. For the coming weeks, let’s prepare ourselves, our souls and bodies, in peace and repentance, for the Nativity of Christ.

“Let your loins be girded and your lamps burning, and be like men who are waiting for their master to come home from the marriage feast, so that they may open to him at once when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes; truly, I say to you, he will gird himself and have them sit at table, and he will come and serve them. If he comes in the second watch, or in the third, and finds them so, blessed are those servants” (Luke 12:35ff)!

Fr. John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church in I’On. To read more visit www.holyascension.blogspot.com or write frjohn@ocacharleston.org.