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Priests of thanksgiving

st-andrew-iconToday, November 30th, we celebrate the memory of St. Andrew the Apostle, the brother of Saint Peter. The Gospel of John tells us that Andrew was the first of the apostles to follow Jesus and it was Andrew who then brought Peter to Jesus. Thus, in the Orthodox Church St. Andrew is called the First-Called. He met his death by martyrdom in the city of Patra in the Peloponnese in Greece. Today this is a busy port, but it is best known for its huge cathedral church of St. Andrew where the relics of the apostle are kept for veneration by the faithful. Andrew was crucified by the Romans – but he requested that his cross not be identical to the cross on which Jesus was crucified. He didn’t feel worthy to be crucified the same way as his Lord. So he was crucified on an X-shaped cross.


Saint Andrew achieved the end of his life with a sense of fulfillment and gratitude. A much more recent man of God also reached the end of his life with words of thanksgiving. Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s last Liturgy was on Thanksgiving Day 1983 and the words he spoke at that Liturgy have been printed previously in this blog and need not be repeated here. He was a true priest, perhaps the truest priest I’ve ever known in my life. And the words he spoke on Thanksgiving 1983, just three weeks before cancer took him home, encapsulate his own priesthood, as well as the priesthood of every believer. Thanksgiving is at the heart of what the priestly vocation is all about. So I will paraphrase the words of Fr. Schmemann and claim: Everyone capable of thanksgiving is a priest.

My reflections on this theme, in today’s sermon, can be heard here. (Pardon a couple of sound glitches and my own reaction to them.)

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Remembering Wilhelm Furtwängler on the anniversary of his death

99403-004-787E1F4BOn this day (November 30th) Wilhelm Furtwängler died 60 years ago (1954). He was, in my opinion and in the opinion of many others, the greatest conductor of the 20th century – which pretty much means the greatest of all time, since the 20th century was THE century of great symphony conductors. He was especially known for his interpretations of the core German repertoire: Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner and Wagner. Ever since my first encounter, in 1973, with a Furtwängler recording (his famous 1952 recording of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde), I have been under his spell. And spell is indeed a good word to use in connection with his music-making. I recently discovered that Pope Francis has also been under the spell of Wilhelm Furtwängler!

Furtwängler has been a controversial figure since the 1930s because he refused to leave Germany when the Nazis rose to power. He is still accused by many ignorant people of being a Nazi, though he was anything but that. His reason for staying in Germany was very simple: he did not identify his “Germany” with that of the Nazis. His Germany was the Germany of Beethoven and Goethe, the Germany of great achievements in art, music, literature and science. He stayed in Germany precisely to do everything in his power to preserve that Germany in the midst of the darkness that Nazi Germany had become. He did not flee, as others did. And for this he was reviled. He even had to be “de-Nazified” by the Americans before he could conduct again after the war!

There is a short video snippet that encapsulates for me the great paradox of Furtwängler’s decision to stay in Germany. The snippet contains the last 4 minutes of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in a 1942 performance in Berlin.

The Nazi swastika is prominently displayed and the audience is full of Nazi officials and soldiers wounded in the war. And in the midst of all this, Furtwängler is conducting the immortal music that Beethoven set to the words of Schiller, words that declare the universal brotherhood of man! Could the irony be greater? How does one reconcile these words with the murderous legacy of the Nazis? That’s precisely why Furtwängler stayed in Germany. Through the power of music, he stood on that podium as a reminder of the values that the men and women in front of him had renounced. Note the breathless tempo in the final ten seconds. He unleashes the full Dionysian joy of Schiller’s words, as if shouting to the audience to wake up and see the darkness that has closed in upon them. How those men and women could listen to that music and those words and still raise their “Sieg Heil” salute to Hitler is simply beyond my comprehension. But isn’t that always the case with the truth? People heard Jesus’ words but still went on as if they heard nothing. People hear what they want to hear. People can easily filter anything that is uncomfortable or challenging and still applaud.

Perhaps Furtwängler was naive to stay in Germany – and many people have excused him with precisely that label. Perhaps he was; but everyone who is a visionary can be called naive. Everyone who refuses to do what is expected of him can be called naive. He chose the difficult path, a path that became his cross to bear right to the end of his life. Yet, he created music of unimaginable power and poetry. He was at his best in live performances, not in the recording studio. And no musician has been the subject of so many bootleg and off-the-air private recordings as Furtwängler. Long before there was a Bod Dylan “Great White Wonder” bootleg, there were the hundreds of bootleg recordings of Furtwängler concerts and opera performances that were avidly hunted by collectors, including myself. Just three months before his death, he gave a memorable performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at Lucerne. This is one of those countless live recordings treasured by music lovers. The slow movement in this performance is simply staggering. Furtwängler wrote about this movement: “The Ninth Symphony is pure music through and through. Take the theme of the adagio: totally wrapped up in itself, far removed from the day-to-day world, decorated with an infinite number of rose windows, the very essence of gothic architecture.” There is a timelessness that Furtwängler achieved in his performances of this movement that has never been matched by anyone else. The sound is not up to modern standards, but you leave the “day-to-day world” and enter something totally other. After the movement’s quiet end, there is a long pause before Furtwängler launches the huge finale with Schiller’s Ode to Joy.

An even more famous performance of the 9th Symphony is the one that opened the Bayreuth Festival in 1951. The entire performance can be heard here (audio only):

The Wikipedia article on Furtwängler is very informative, with perhaps too much detail on the Nazi years, but it is well worth reading. Many years ago the BBC produced a one-hour documentary on Furtwängler that has been posted on YouTube in four parts. The quality of the YouTube videos is poor, as is often the case with videos that are taken off TV broadcasts and digitized by amateurs.

In this day and age of trivial music and even more trivial celebrities, men like Furtwängler are a reminder to us – just as he was a reminder to the Nazis – of the power of great art to cleanse, heal and challenge. It is a humbling experience to witness true greatness in any area of human knowledge or achievement.


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“Everyone capable of thanksgiving”

On this Thanksgiving Day, I’m reminded of a remarkable man who was my teacher at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary: Father Alexander Schmemann. So I want to share a 30-minute video produced by CBS to mark the death of Fr. Alexander on December 13th, 1983. This video is not only a remarkable memorial to Fr. Alexander, but it also opens our minds and hearts to the essence of our Orthodox faith. I thoroughly recommend watching it for the entire 30 minutes.

Around the 22-minute mark of this video, the narrator, Fr. Thomas Hopko, recalls the last Liturgy that Fr. Alexander celebrated, on Thanksgiving Day 1983, just three weeks before his death. He gave a short sermon at that Liturgy that began with these words:”Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation and eternal joy.” And he ended the sermon with the words, “Lord, it is good to be here.” Those are the words of a “free man in Christ,” as Prof. Veselin Kesich called him in the funeral oration he delivered (13-minute mark in this video).

Here is the full text of that short Thanksgiving Day sermon by Fr. Alexander Schmemann:

Thank You, O Lord!

Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation and eternal joy.

Thank You, O Lord, for having accepted this Eucharist, which we offered to the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and which filled our hearts with the joy, peace and righteousness of the Holy Spirit.

SchmemannWebThank You, O Lord, for having revealed Yourself unto us and given us the foretaste of Your Kingdom.

Thank You, O Lord, for having revealed Yourself unto us and given us the foretaste of Your Kingdom.

Thank You, O Lord, for having united us to one another in serving You and Your Holy Church.

Thank You, O Lord, for having helped us to overcome all difficulties, tensions, passions, temptations and restored peace, mutual love and joy in sharing the communion of the Holy Spirit.

Thank You, O Lord, for the sufferings You bestowed upon us, for they are purifying us from selfishness and reminding us of the “one thing needed;” Your eternal Kingdom.

Thank You, O Lord, for having given us this country where we are free to Worship You.

Thank You, O Lord, for this school, where the name of God is proclaimed.

Thank You, O Lord, for our families: husbands, wives and, especially, children who teach us how to celebrate Your holy Name in joy, movement and holy noise.

Thank You, O Lord, for everyone and everything.

Great are You, O Lord, and marvelous are Your deeds, and no word is sufficient to celebrate Your miracles.

Lord, it is good to be here! Amen.

Fr. Alexander did more to restore Liturgy to its full meaning and beauty than any other man of God in the past 1,000 years or more! Is that a bold statement to make? Perhaps it is, but it is my conviction that if we Orthodox of today have moved beyond passive and mechanical participation in the Liturgy it is because of Fr. Alexander. He is the inspiration for my own approach to Liturgy and the freedom that I find within the holy tradition of the Orthodox Church. It is within the Liturgy that I most vividly remember Fr. Alexander. Here is a picture of him at the Great Entrance of the Liturgy, carrying the holy gifts. I took this picture when I was a student at St. Vladimir’s and it has been widely circulated and reproduced in the past 30+ years.

Fr. Alexander at the Great Entrance of the Divine Liturgy at St. Vladimir's Seminary Chapel in the early 1980s.

Fr. Alexander celebrating the Divine Liturgy at St. Vladimir’s Seminary Chapel in the early 1980s.


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Why we need Mary

Icon of the Entrance of Mary in the Temple (click to enlarge)

Icon of the Entrance of Mary in the Temple (click to enlarge)

The feast of the Entrance of Mary in the Temple is celebrated by the Orthodox Church on November 21st. According to tradition, Mary was brought to the Temple in Jerusalem and she lived inside the holy of holies. It almost certainly is not a historical event in the life of Mary: Only one person, the high priest, was allowed to enter the holy of holies, and even he entered only once a year, on the Day of Atonement. It is simply unimaginable that a young girl would be allowed to enter the holy of holies and live there for years! Yet, the church found it meaningful to incorporate this apocryphal story into our annual liturgical cycle. I like to call this an example of the church’s imagination.

Mary is a safeguard against the excessive intellectualization of the Christian faith…. The audio file of my sermon on the theme of why we need Mary is here:

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Blessed are those who are scared

st_matthew_logo_150w_RIGHTNovember 16 is the feast day of Saint Matthew, the evangelist. On this day, I call to mind another great saint, Antony of Egypt. At the end of his life, Antony is reported to have said to his disciples: “Live as though you were dying every day. Pay attention to yourselves and remember what I taught you.”

“Live as though you were dying every day.” It means, live with constant awareness of your mortality. This is not morbid advice, it’s an encouragement to appreciate the preciousness of every moment; live with an intense awareness of the present moment. This is how Jesus lived – and this is why he was alwaysF-24St.MatthewMt9.9-13.tif aware of who was around him and who needed his help. He saw where others didn’t see! He saw things clearly— unhindered by the clinging, egoistic mind. He saw the widow who was about to bury her only son. He “saw” the woman who touched his garment and was healed. And he saw Matthew, and what Matthew needed to do. “Follow me,” he told Matthew in our Gospel reading today, and Matthew immediately followed (Matthew 9:9).

At around eighteen or twenty years of age, Antony heard a text from the Gospel being read aloud: “If you would be perfect, go sell what you possess and give it to the poor… and come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21). Antony felt the power of the words as if it had been spoken to him directly. Immediately, he got up and sold his possessions. He kept something to provide for his sister, and gave everything else to the poor. But this encounter with the Gospel did not free Antony entirely from his attachment to his former life. He heard another Gospel passage: “Do not be anxious about tomorrow” (Matthew 6:34). These Gospel words broke his resistance and freed him from all attachments. He left his old life forever and embarked on a journey that would take him deep into the heart of the desert, and deep into spiritual union with God.

“Come, follow me” means more than going with Jesus. It means learning from him, becoming like him; it means simplicity of life and being, cultivating silence in one’s inner life, withdrawal from busyness to engage God in prayer – and one doesn’t have to go into a desert or live alone in the forest or on a mountaintop to experience this inner peace and simplicity. One can have it right here, in the midst of life in Portland.

Following Jesus means taking over from him after the end of his life on earth. That’s what Matthew did, that’s what anyone who follows Jesus does! It means Jesus never being absent from the world – because there are always those who follow him; who represent him; who do or speak what he would do or say. Or, are there?

You see, the part that most followers of Jesus forget or intentionally ignore is that there is a price to pay. For most of us the price is not going to be the price Antony or Matthew paid. It might be losing the friendship of someone, it could be losing the love of a family member or even a spouse or parent. It could be giving up a good chunk of your income or savings. It could mean losing your job because you expose dishonesty or illegal practice. It could mean you’re arrested or imprisoned because you choose to work for peace: “Blessed are the peacemakers” is one of the Beatitudes spoken by Jesus (Matthew 5:9)


Flying back from Greece last Friday I had one of the most intense encounters I’ve ever had in my life. I sat next to a man whom I’ll call Jake, in obedience to his own wishes should I talk about him in a sermon. Jake works for the UN and had much to say about that organization and his own struggles with his work and personal life. When he found out I was a priest, the encounter turned into a confession of sorts – all right there on a Boeing 747. He had a window seat and I an aisle seat, and there was an empty seat between us, and that empty seat became a confessional. After a couple of hours of intense conversation and tears, he told me he would be leaving later in the week on a mission to West Africa, to be with UN teams working on the Ebola virus. I asked him if he was scared, and, in a tearful voice that I hope never to forget, he answered Yes. He was scared. And that was the turning point in our conversation.

We are all scared, in one way or other. But if Jesus has given you a deed to accomplish while following him, you press on despite your fears. And that’s what Jake was doing. He was a man of faith, a Christian. And he was scared about what he would be doing over the next several months and what dangers he might face. But he was flying to New York to receive his instructions from the bureaucrats at the UN. It is a blessing to be scared for the sake of something like that.

Inspired by my encounter with Jake and as I meditated upon the fear that I saw in him, I want to add another Beatitude to the ones that Jesus spoke in chapter 5 of Matthew. I want to say, “BLESSED ARE THOSE WHO ARE AFRAID WHILE FOLLOWING JESUS, FOR THEY SHALL NEVER LOSE THEIR WAY.” May you and I be blessed when we’re afraid on the road with Jesus.

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There are no crumbs in God’s kingdom

Lazarus-and-the-Rich-ManToday’s Gospel reading, Luke 16:19-31, is the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The parable is one of many that Jesus spoke about money and how God sees rich and poor people. Indeed, the context here is worth looking at. Chapter 16 of Luke’s Gospel begins with another parable about money and Jesus concludes that parable with the familiar words we all know or have heard: “You cannot serve God and mammon” (Luke 16:13). Jesus is very clear, either you serve God or you serve money – you cannot serve both. The Pharisees who hear him say this start mocking Jesus and Luke calls them “lovers of money” (verse 14). And this confrontation with the Pharisees is what prompts the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.

But this parable is not only about money. Consider first of all that the poor man in the parable is given a name, Lazarus. This is very unique in the parables that Jesus spoke, where the characters are otherwise always anonymous. And, indeed, the rich man here is anonymous. This is the exact opposite of what happens in society, where the rich and famous have the names that everyone knows while the poor are for the most part anonymous. Reversal of fortunes is one of the characteristics of God’s Kingdom. The first will be last and the last will be first, in Jesus’ own words (Matthew 20:16, Luke 13:30, and elsewhere).

Lazarus would have been satisfied with the scraps from the rich man’s table (Luke 16:21); the Canaanite woman answered Jesus’ provocation by accepting the crumbs that fall from the masters’ tables (Matthew 15:27); the prodigal son fell into hard times and would have been satisfied to eat the scraps on which the swine fed (Luke 15:16). In contrast to all these images of crumbs and scraps, Jesus paints visions of God’s kingdom as a banquet, a rich feast (Matthew 22:1-10 and elsewhere). There are no crumbs in God’s kingdom!

The Rich Man and Lazarus in a medieval manuscript

The Rich Man and Lazarus in a medieval manuscript

We pray, “give us this day our daily bread.” In the ancient world, daily bread was offered to the gods. In the Jerusalem Temple, weekly bread was brought into the presence of God YHWH. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are reminded that bread is not for the gods or even for the One God; bread is for humans. We all need our daily bread. But “man shall not live by bread alone,” Jesus said (Matthew 4:4). God promises a feast.

Life in this world is separated by gates. The rich man lived inside a gated compound. Lazarus was outside the gate. A chasm separated them. A chasm also separated them after death! The rich man never apologized for how he treated – or didn’t treat – Lazarus, and even after death he only looked to Lazarus to serve him! He cared for his brothers and wanted to warn them – but even here, his compassion is gated compassion; it’s limited to his own.

Abraham answers the rich man’s concern for his brothers: His brothers will not be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead and warn them. But we answer: Someone has risen from the dead – the one telling the parable. Abraham’s punch line is a warning not to harden one’s heart. We need to take advantage of every situation that helps us to soften our hearts. The rich man’s heart was hardened, which is why he was indifferent to Lazarus even after death.

Icon of the "Hospitality of Abraham" at the entrance of Holy Trinity Church, Portland, Maine

Icon of the “Hospitality of Abraham” at the entrance of Holy Trinity Church, Portland, Maine (click to enlarge)

Abraham’s presence in the parable also reminds us that Abraham was known for offering hospitality. Hebrews 13:2 refers to Abraham and the encounter with the three persons who appeared to him and Sara at the oaks of Mamre (Genesis 18). This is precisely the scene in the icon that greets people entering our church, an icon appropriately called “The Hospitality of Abraham.” Paul tells us in Romans 15:7, “Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you.”

As I conclude these thoughts, it becomes clear that above and beyond the concern with money, the parable is about those qualities that make community real. Hospitality is the key requirement for community life. We have an icon at our entrance that reminds us of that every time we enter! Community means an open gate to the world; it’s never a gated community. And community means fullness; never crumbs. In church community we find the fullness of God’s presence and we receive the fullness of Christ in the communion of Bread and Wine.

Hospitality – Openness – Fullness: Qualities that require active involvement from all of us in building community that is real and lasting. God invites us to the banquet of life.