Sunday, April 11, 2021

Easter 2 B - April 11, 2021

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY

Br. Richard Vaggione, OHC

Easter 2 B - Sunday, April 4, 2021

Br. Richard preached extemporaneously. You can listen to the recording at the link above.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Easter B - April 4, 2021

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY

Br. Leo Sevensky, OHC

Easter Vigil  - Sunday, April 4, 2021

Romans 6:3-11

Mark 16:1-8

In a 1959 article, Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote: 
Easter is not sufficiently well understood if we think of it only as the time when we reaffirm our belief that Christ rose from the dead. That the historical fact of the resurrection is the keystone of the whole structure of Christian faith is still not sufficient reason why Easter should be the great feast that it is. ... This celebration does not merely recall the act by which we are liberated, it revives our freedom itself, in the renewal of the mystery in which we become free.

It still remains true that we do not understand Easter sufficiently well. I'm tempted to say that we don't understand Easter at all, though that is something of an exaggeration. But Easter is, I believe, less about understanding than it is about proclamation, and about the power of that proclamation to open within us, both personally and communally, a space where God can and does act in our lives. 

Fifty years ago this month, I sat in Mercy Hospital in Scranton next to the bed where my mother lay dying of ovarian cancer. I forget the exact chronology, but I’m pretty sure it was the night before Orthodox Easter, or Pascha as they call it. I was spending the night attending to my mother's needs as well as my own, keeping vigil. And to pass the hours of that long night, I got my hands on an Orthodox Christian service book for the observance of Easter. It was the midnight service of Paschal Matins. As is true of most worship services in that tradition, the text was very long and convoluted and rather obscure with all sorts of biblical and Byzantine references. But I doggedly read through it that night, spreading it out over the dark hours. Frankly, I didn't understand much of it--perhaps most of it--as my mind and my heart were understandably elsewhere. But over and over the service was punctuated by a hymn called a troparion which was repeated countless times: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” And just the previous year, a college friend had invited me to his Russian church for Easter Matins. I knew that these words were not just recited but sung again and again.  I could hear the echo of that music as I read them silently by my mother's side as she slept fitfully. 

That long Matins service reaches a kind of climax with the reading of a sermon ascribed to St. John Chrysostom, the 4th century bishop of Constantinople.  It has in fact been adapted for use in some Episcopal churches for their own Easter vigil. The sermon begins by inviting everyone present to the great banquet of this feast, whether or not they had observed the Lenten fast, whether or not they have labored in good works.  For as the writer says: “The table is fully laden: let all enjoy it.” The sermon concludes by echoing Saint Paul (1 Cor 15:55): 
Oh death, where is your sting? 
O hell, where is your victory? 
Christ is risen, and you are cast down. 
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. 
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. 
Christ is risen, and life reigns in freedom. 
Christ is risen, and the grave is emptied of the dead. 
I found deep consolation and hope that night in this proclamation.  But what exactly did it mean in that place, at that time, to say that Christ is risen? And what does it mean to say it today? 

Like the Greeks of St. Paul’s day, we seek understanding.  But meaning is not quite the same as understanding.  It can be quite other and often much more profound.  Beyond logic and beyond arguments, meaning captures essential truths, rooted in history but echoing through eternity. And meaning can and does open a space in us where hope—that “thing with feathers that perches in the soul” as Emily Dickinson describes it—can take flight.  

There is a story which has fascinated me for decades, and which I have told many times, and which captures for me the sheer power of proclamation. It took place in Soviet Russia under Stalin's dictatorship, when persecution of the churches was especially severe. Church buildings were turned into Museums of Atheism, and the locals, peasants and intelligentsia alike, were herded in to listen to lectures about the folly of religious faith. One local Communist leader decided it would be edifying to have a debate with the old local Orthodox priest. So, the community was gathered in and the official launched into a two-hour attack on Christian faith and practice using the latest in dialectical reason, or at least what passed for reason, to repudiate soundly its claims and its message. The old priest was then brought to the podium and was ordered to respond to the official’s arguments. After a long pause, this old man of God drew himself upright and simply said in Church Slavonic Хрїсто́съ воскре́се! (Christ is risen!). And with one voice the assembly roared back Вои́стин воскре́се!  (He is risen indeed!).  Again, the priest shouted, “Christ is risen!” and back came the response, “He is risen indeed!”  And a third time: “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” And then the old priest sat down. 

Who won that debate? What was understood? What was its meaning? Of course, just saying something over and over again doesn't make it true. Unless, unless…truth is about more than rationality and life is more than linear understanding and holiness is quite something other than winning debate points.
We stand here this morning in the face of a deep mystery rooted in time but touching the very center of our lives and hopes. We stand before a mystery which has been variously described in terms of an empty tomb or the harrowing of hell, in terms of resurrection appearances and encounters with the Crucified One perhaps extending over years, in terms of the Ascension and final glorification of Jesus.  But the meaning exceeds the limitations of these descriptions and our human speech. It always will. 

I do believe that Merton was on the right track when he said that this celebration does not merely recall the act by which we are liberated. It revives our very freedom itself and renews the mystery in which we ourselves become free.  To borrow a phrase from Marcus Borg: we meet Jesus yet again for the first time.  Jesus, who is Resurrection and Life, who is Freedom and Possibility, who is Hope writ large, even at the bedside of the dying, even at the graveside, even in the face of despotic governments and human or cosmic cruelty or our own small minds and constricted hearts.  We meet Jesus who is the author and actor of a story that transcends and elevates our personal narratives, giving scope and permission and power to breath more freely and live more fully and to love more passionately and courageously and justly.
May this Eastertide revive in us our freedom and renew the mystery so that we may rejoice. And not only us, but people of every place and time together with the whole created order. This is the meaning of today…whether we understand it or not, whether we can make sense of it or not, whether we even feel it or not.  It is God’s wonderful work, not ours.  And that, my friends, is good news indeed.
Хрїсто́съ воскре́се! Christ is risen! Happy Easter!

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Good Friday - April 2, 2021

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY

Br. Josép Martinez-Cubero, OHC

Good Friday  - Friday, April , 2021

It is not at his birth, not in his teaching and preaching, not through the miracles he performs, not at his resurrection that Jesus is the most human and most identified with us, but in his perfect sacrifice, in his suffering and dying in solidarity with all who suffer. Through Jesus on the cross God enters that vulnerable place of the fears, loneliness and brokenness we hold secret; where we are afraid to be known and yet afraid not to be known. Through Jesus on the cross, who in the despair of abandonment cries “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, God is revealed, not as powerful, almighty and conqueror, but as Richard Kearney puts it, as the “vulnerable and powerless one who suffers with us” (in "Anatheism: Returning to God After God"). Through Jesus on the cross, who from the goodness of the heart pleads “Forgiven them”, God is revealed as loving, compassionate and faithful. 

It is from the Cross that Love echoes the sorrow, suffering and emptiness of the brokenhearted, the sick, the marginalized; the very people that the powerful of this world oppress and exploit through greed and wealth. But it is also from the Cross that Love echoes the triumph of the human spirit through Grace.

I want to share a story about one of these voices of triumph read by our beloved Br. Andrew on this day years ago. It came from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa in 1996. The Commission brought an elderly black woman face to face with the white man, Mr. Van de Broek, who had confessed to the savage torture and murder of her son and her husband a few years earlier. The woman had been made to witness her husband’s death. The last words her husband spoke were “Father, forgive them.”

One of the members of the commission turned to her and asked, “How do you believe justice should be done to this man who has inflicted such suffering on you and so brutally destroyed your family?”

The old woman replied, “I want three things. I want first to be taken to the place where my husband’s body was burned so that I can gather up the dust and give his remains a decent burial.” She stopped, collected herself, and then went on. “My husband and son were my only family. I want, secondly, therefore, for Mr. Van de Broek to become my son.  I would like for him to come twice a month to the location and spend a day with me so that I can pour out to him whatever love I have still remaining in me.

And finally, I want a third thing. I would like Mr. Van de Broek to know that I offer him my forgiveness because Jesus died to forgive. This was also the wish of my husband. And so, I would kindly ask someone to come to my side and lead me across the courtroom so that I can take Mr. Van de Broek in my arms, embrace him and let him know that he is truly forgiven.

The assistants came to help the old woman across the room. Mr. Van de Broek, overwhelmed by what he had just heard, fainted.  And as he did, those in the courtroom—friends, family, neighbors, all victims of decades of oppression and injustice—began to sing “Amazing Grace.”

Never had the message of the cross been clearer to me than when I heard this story. The fear, the hunger for power, the rejection of truth, and the sin that led to Jesus’ crucifixion are as present today as they were then. But the message of the cross teaches us how we are to respond. What the cross reveals is not just information or news. The invitation of the cross demands our participation in a new reality and a new way of being. It invites us to move from brokenness to wholeness and life triumphant through love.

Demos gracias a Dios.