Wednesday, June 24, 2015

First the Kingdom

It is still the Apostles’ Fast for a few more days. This year it has been a relatively long one for us bi-calendarists. In some years this second of the four yearly fasts is reduced to a mere two or three days, even disappearing altogether when the forced reconciliation of the old and new calendars, Julian and Gregorian, squeeze it out. It’s a lenient fast. Fish, not just seafood, spineless or in the shell, is ‘allowed’ most of the days. Dairy products and olive oil, I’m not sure about because I am not such a stickler. Though two- and four-legged flesh doesn’t cross my palate these days, milk, cheese, and an occasional egg do. I’m primarily a vegetarian anyway. Who needs to ‘kill and eat’ when the diet of Adam and Eve surrounds you in abundance? If nothing else, for me the Apostles’ Fast is a time of fruitfulness, literally. Every good thing is in season—grapes, cherries, peaches, melons. Let the chickens and lambs live.

Of course, this isn’t what the Apostles’ Fast is for, a seasonal change from a diet of fatty, artificially sweetened, processed and preserved foods, though it does work that way too, if you at least follow the rules and ‘go with the flow.’ Is my prayer and worship life expanded during this time? Am I being more charitable with the poor, or at least pouring more money into the collection plate? Am I fulfilling my religious obligations to ‘make a good fast’? Hardly. Neither do I see anyone else living in a different, more consecrated manner, during these days. Of course, I shouldn’t see them fasting, that’s a given. ‘Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward’ (Matthew 6:16). We certainly know how to follow this word of Jesus, well, sort of, avoiding hypocrisy by not fasting at all.

Years ago I read somewhere, that the Apostles’ Fast was instituted as a practical measure completely integrated with the life of the Church. The entire Church year, in fact, was deliberately designed, not only to give structure to our faith, but to train the people of God and equip them to fulfill their call, individually and corporately, what we would now term our ‘ministries.’ Church leaders, now devolved almost exclusively to the ordained clergy, were then something more like coordinators and mentors, elected by Christ to ‘make disciples’ in literal fulfillment of His command, ‘Therefore go and make disciples’ (Matthew 28:19). Now that ‘the whole world has heard the gospel,’ it seems that ‘the end has come’ (see Matthew 24:14), though perhaps not in the way envisioned by Jesus. It seems that the Church has fulfilled its mission. We’re all healthy and happy, if not holy, and in possession of its vestiges.

There was a bishop once, Anthony of San Francisco, whose presence tore off, gently, humorously, but insistently, our veils of pretence, false modesty, and smug religion. When he visited, one felt that a king was among us, coming to deliver us the Kingdom by participation and right, even when, no, especially when, he wasn’t wearing his glittering mitre. Interrupting by charism the Divine Liturgy he, overcome by the Spirit, emerged from the iconostasis to cry out, ‘My children, come with us up to Mount Tabor, and see the Lord transfigured!’ Another time, joining us after worship in the catacomb-like nave of an underground sanctuary as we were filing out, he exclaimed, ‘My children, you can do nearly everything that we priests can do! Join us in ministering to God’s people!’ Here was living Orthodoxy, the faith of the fathers. We thought he would live forever to raise our spirits, and so we lived in luxury.

But the ‘unchanging Orthodoxy’ that we are so proud of and bait our hooks with to catch the world into our nets, not into His, imitating not the holy apostles but the pharisaic hypocrites, is only the outward forms, the ‘lessons memorized,’ what we can do without effort, training our bodies not for holiness but for ritual gestures, our ‘tithe of mint and dill and cumin’ (Matthew 23:23), while neglecting ‘the weightier matters.’ And what are these? Yes, it is hard to tell a paralytic to get up and walk. So we ‘forgive sins’—our own. Yes, it is uncomfortable to raise the dead. Maybe they would accuse us, so we ‘let sleeping dogs lie.’ Yes, it must only be a metaphor to say that our faith can move mountains. Even if we had mustard seed faith, it might be safer to not ‘put God to the test.’ What would Father think? We hired him to do our job for us. Quiet! Don’t let the cat out of the bag! He may be a lion, and devour you!

Yes, still the Apostles’ Fast for a few more days. ‘Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.’ Meanwhile, what do we do until the final Divine Act occurs? He has ascended, becoming instantly, always, and everywhere available to each one of us. He has sent us the holy and life-creating Spirit from the Father. All around us, invisibly up borne by the angelic hosts, not only the King of all, but the holy nation of kings and priests that fills all space and time, are laboring by wonderworking intercession, holding open the nets for us to fill them. What nets? What are we to do? Aren’t we fasting, going to services, giving charity? Isn’t our Holy Orthodoxy, that ‘unchanging, ancient faith’ enough? What more can be demanded from us? Not the vestiges, not the historical continuity, not the elaborate liturgy, not the doctrinal precision, not the laudable and praiseworthy do-good-ness, we give to ourselves.

‘But seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you as well’ (Matthew 6:33).

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