Friday, October 17, 2014

What is the Gospel?

One of the many feasts days within the Armenian Orthodox Church is the day we remember and venerate the Holy Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

But why do we remember the Holy Evangelists during our Church year? Were they just biographers? Are not the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John merely historical narratives of the story of Jesus? Perhaps we should ask what is the Gospel? Is it an idea? As "good news" isn't it just a message?

Although these may be common beliefs and modern perspectives, the fathers of the Armenian Church, as well as other ancient Christian traditions, emphasized a different way of perceiving the Gospel and the Holy Evangelists.

The Gospel, in fact, is not an idea or a message, and the Holy Evangelists should not be remembered as being mere biographers of historical narratives about Jesus. The Gospel, according to St. Paul in the first chapter of Galatians, is not an idea to be thought about or conceptualized. He writes, "For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man's gospel. For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ." [RSV] Instead, the Gospel was received and it came by way of revelation, or an encounter with Jesus Christ.

Agreeing with Fr. Stephen Freeman here, the Gospel is to be understood as an event, not the story of an event. The letters of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are not a text about the Gospel – they are the Gospel. In other words, they are the Gospel presented as text. The Gospel is the Event of Jesus Christ, who is the “Good News”, and the Holy Evangelists are witnesses to that Event; to the saving action and Life of Jesus Christ. That Event is to be received and encountered.

Even within our Liturgy, chanting the Gospel is not only a lesson for our minds, but a real meeting with the person of Jesus Christ. The Choir’s proclamation before the Gospel is chanted, "Aseh Asdvadz  [God is speaking]," reflects this. When the deacon elevates the Gospel book over his head or whenever we kiss the Gospel book, we are lovingly acknowledging its value and authority in and over our lives. The Gospel, the Event of Jesus Christ, is that by which we live and that by which we are judged.

Thus, when we commit ourselves to the Gospel, we are committing ourselves to Jesus Christ. As Christians, we are called to be and live the Gospel, not presented as text, but as a living narrative; as human icons of Jesus Christ. God has chosen us collectively, as His Church, to be His evangelists and witnesses for others to receive and encounter the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Participate in the sacramental life of the Church. Feed the poor. Visit the sick. Forgive your enemy.

And love.

image: 1338 Armenian illumination of the four Evangelists from the Gospels of Melkisedek: Berkri, Lake Van.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Are You a Translator?

During the Armenian Orthodox Church year (in October), we remember the "Holy Translators Mesrop, Yeghishe, Moses the Poet, David the Philosopher, Gregory of Narek, and Nerses the Graceful".

These well-known saints are remembered on other days within the Church year, but this particular feast day remembers them specifically as translators (թարգմանչաց). Typically, we think of the Holy Translators as being Sts. Mesrop and Sahag due to their translation of the Bible into the Armenian language in the 5th century. But if translation, according to the Armenian Orthodox Church, simply refers to the practice of rendering something into another language, then why remember a mystic such as St. Gregory of Narek as a translator? What does it mean to translate according to the Armenian Orthodox tradition and way of thinking?

Translation can and does include the rendering of something into another language, but there is another level. Translation, as Armenians perceived it, is considered elucidation or the explaining of our faith through various mediums such as, prayers, hymns, poetry, philosophy, and even history. All of these, according to our Church, have been (and still can be) devotional practices of “translating” the Christian faith to and for the Armenian faithful. Translation, then, goes beyond the skill of finding equivalent words between languages. It is the impartation of Christ to His people; to those who will also become translators for His Church. How will we, today, translate the Gospel to others?

Friday, August 08, 2014

The Language of the Armenian Church

What is the language of the Armenian Church? Is it Classical Armenian (Գրաբար)? Is it English? Maybe both? It's easy to get tied up in discussions about the linguistic beauty, as well as the linguistic challenges of our tradition, but I would like to propose an answer that transcends earthly and ethnic ideas about language. The language of the Armenian Church is the same as it is, and always was, in every other Christian Church - prayer:  one of the most essential elements of our faith, and yet one of the most mysterious and burdensome.

Mysterious in that there are still so many questions surrounding its practice, and so much time spent talking about what it even means. Also, we are confronted with, and continue to discover different practices attached to prayer, or even customs and traditions to which prayer attaches itself so naturally.

But prayer is also burdensome for the same reasons. Burdensome in that after centuries of practice, we sometimes still don't know what it is, or how to do it, and so for all of us, at one time or another, prayer causes deep frustration. We're fatigued and bored when our prayers go unanswered. It becomes monologue, and so we give up and avoid prayer altogether.

Personally, I relate to both the mysterious and burdensome elements of prayer. And although many of these challenges and obstacles to prayer are quite obvious within our private prayer life where we tend to have one-on-one conversation with God, perhaps reflecting on the Armenian Church's public and communal prayer life can remind us and authenticate the profound beauty and function of prayer.

Of course, the prayer services (there are 9 hours/services*) we celebrate in the Armenian Church have been passed down to us from either monastic or parish practice, and some of the beauty of this form of prayer resides in its structure. Each hour/service calls us together to pray even when we don’t feel like it, and I'm sure I'm not the only Christian who sometimes doesn't want to pray, or doesn't have the spiritual energy to do so. Scheduled and disciplined prayer in a community with like-minded and like-hearted believers allows others to pick up the slack when physical exhaustion, preoccupation, worries, or a bad hair day prevents us from offering the sacrifice of praise with our whole being.

For the Armenian Church, as well as the ancient Church in general, the heart of communal prayer lies in the recitation of the Psalms of the Bible. Without speaking on behalf of other traditions, at least for the Armenian Church, the Psalms make up roughly about 50% of the liturgy, which includes not only the prayer hours/services, but also other sacraments as well. Evidently, Armenians found the beauty of the Psalms to encapsulate the poetic and prayerful nature of our faith and theology. After all, theology within the Armenian tradition is not an abstract or scientific discipline of contemplating ideas. Theology is our faith prayerfully and actively lived out in discipleship to Jesus Christ, and there is a reason why poetry best expresses what we believe as Christians of the Armenian Church.

St. Paul writes, "…but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father." ~ Ephesians 5:18-20 (RSV). The Armenian Orthodox Church followed St. Paul's instructions by composing a myriad of hymns, and melodies beyond compare to accompany these hymns. Like the Psalms, the content of these hymns beautifully expresses our theology, as well as the love and gratitude Christian Armenians had for God.

Finally, there is the beauty of community inherent within these prayer hours/services. Not only did St. Paul instruct us to sing and make melody, but also to address one another when doing so. In opposition to the individualistic mentality of our contemporary society (I choose my beliefs, I create my destiny, I am what I choose to be, This is my life, My personal Lord and Savior), authentic Christianity is a communal faith and life, and by its very nature cannot be lived in solitude. Any attempt to do so would be an exercise in something other than the Christian faith. I would even contend that "private prayer" is a practice of and within the Church community. As was mentioned above, when we don't want to pray, we can count on others praying and believing for us. We pray, believe, and are saved as a community; the beautiful and collective Bride of Christ.

As believers, we are invited and are inviting others into this same communion--with God and with one another. But to lead and be led to the heart of God requires a disciplined life of prayer, which is not just asking God for stuff, and can easily devolve into selfish wish-making. Throughout Scriptures, and within various Christian traditions, there are numerous forms of prayer, some of which don't ask God for a thing. They are simply expressions of the privilege we have as disciples of Christ to worship God for who He is. There are numerous examples of these prayers throughout the Armenian liturgy. For example, the priest's prayer from the Armenian Badarak,

«Զքեզ արդարեւ Տէր Աստուած մեր գովեմք եւ զքէն գոհանամք հանապազ…»
"We do indeed praise you and give thanks to you at all times…"

In prayer, we take the ugliness we see in the world, the brokenness we see in others, and the darkness we see in ourselves - the distress, loneliness, materialism, sickness, disease, death, war, violence, poverty, and greed - and those anxieties become prayer and are transformed into beautiful psalmody before the Lord. As St. Gregory of Narek, our holy mystic, opens his monumental prayer book,

"The voice of a sighing heart, its sobs and mournful cries,
I offer up to you, O Seer of Secrets,
placing the fruits of my wavering mind
as a savory sacrifice on the fire of my grieving soul
to be delivered to You in the censer (poorvar) of my will".

Through prayer, our ailing hearts find salve and healing by touching the heart of God, which is love. And that love changes us into the image of God, which will then be visible wherever we go, to whomever we meet, and in whatever capacity we prayerfully serve and bless God's beautiful creation.

«Եւ եւս խաղաղութեան զտէր աղաչեսցուք։
Ընկալ, կեցո եւ ողորմեա։»
"Again in peace let us make our request to the Lord.
Receive our prayers, raise us to life, and have mercy on us."

*Morning, Sunrise, Midday 1, Midday 2, Midday 3, Evening, Rest, Peace, Night

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

An Ancient Story… Still Relevant

A brother at Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which Abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to say to him, "Come, for everyone is waiting for you." So he got up and went. He took a leaking jug, filled it with water and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said to him, "What is this, Father?" The old man said to them, "My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another." When they heard that they said no more to the brother but forgave him.

We are all broken and need healing. We are all individually, as well as collectively responsible for the state of the world and humanity as it is. We all have stories of injustices committed toward us, and we tell them often. These are real to life, and not to be undermined, but do we have any stories of forgiveness to tell?

Everywhere and anywhere you are, greet one another with a holy kiss. A kiss of peace and forgiveness…

Love and humility. Spread it.

Desert Father, Saint Moses the Black or Abba Moses the Robber, was an ascetic monk and priest in Egypt in the fourth century AD (330–405)

Monday, April 14, 2014

Suffering Prayer: Does it Cross the Line?

We’re familiar with the story of Job. There’s a heavenly wager between God and Satan, of which Job is ignorant, regarding the motivation of Job's worship of God, and whether or not it is truly authentic. As Job is minding his own business, everything he owns is taken, including his family and health. The remainder of the book follows with dialogue between Job and his friends, as well as between Job and God.

Read one of the prayers of Job after his friends once again fail to properly hear his suffering…

“…Surely now God has worn me out; he has made desolate all my company. And he has shriveled me up, which is a witness against me… He has torn me in his wrath, and hated me; he has gnashed his teeth at me... God gives me up to the ungodly, and casts me into the hands of the wicked. I was at ease, and he broke me asunder; he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces;
he set me up as his target, his archers surround me.
He slashes open my kidneys, and does not spare; he pours out my gall on the ground. He breaks me with breach upon breach; he runs upon me like a warrior. I have sewed sackcloth upon my skin, and have laid my strength in the dust. My face is red with weeping, and on my eyelids is deep darkness; although there is no violence in my hands,
and my prayer is pure.”    ~ Job 16:1-22 (excerpt)

Directness is not a characteristic Job lacks. But did he go too far in how he expressed himself to God? Perhaps we withhold words from God, because we believe them to be unwholesome, or perhaps reflect a rebellious attitude, or even hatred toward God. I don’t believe any of us are strangers to what Job is expressing in this prayer, and his voice might even resonate with exactly what we are feeling, or have felt at one time.

Too far? Well, Job claims that his prayer is pure.

Maybe someone close to you listened to you voice your pain and questions, and perhaps like Job’s friends they tried, with good intentions, to play the role of savior, or counselor. They might have even judged or condemned your “rebellious” approach to prayer and the holiness of God, leaving you confused as to how you should (if you should) express your honest thoughts to God.

I agree with Pierre Wolff in his book, May I Hate God?*, and believe that Job’s prayer speaks deeply to who God is, and who we are in relation to Him. When we express harsh feelings, grief, hatred, and sorrow, it presupposes trust and love. But how?

When we trust God, we are able to freely express our grief. By expressing ourselves, we believe He’s able to take it; that with Him, we can reveal ourselves as we really are.

If our words/prayers are accepted, then love is present. The risk we take in expressing ourselves to God is proportionate to the love we believe is there, and we risk because we believe love is able to save.

So, this kind of expression is actually a desire for reconciliation and healing. Healing for our selves of course, but...

It also happens to be the cry of God’s voice to the world for healing. It seems as if we are revolting against God with our “whys”, when the “whys” we direct toward Him are really (or also) expressions of His revolt. Instead of us accusing God, God is sorrowfully questioning the world through us.
  • Why do you distort my creation?
  • Why do you exploit and hate each other?
  • Why do you continue to forsake My Way, when I promised eternal life?
  • Why do you commune with every sinful attraction, rather than my eternal love?

It’s not whether our words are right or wrong, good or bad, but whether we love our Father enough to tell Him everything, whether we believe in the immensity of His love which can understand any kind or level of sorrow.

So what does Job’s suffering prayer tell us?

It speaks of the immensity of God’s love, and the Resurrection power of Christ. God accepts our words, and so Love is present. And when we acknowledge He is still alive and present in our lives, this is the power of the Resurrection. And through this Love and Resurrection life, we find healing; still wounded, but transformed. And because we have mourned, and experienced God’s love through it, we are better able to comfort others with the same compassion we received from God.

Job trusted God, and knew God. He knew God was Love, He knew Love was present, and whether or not what Job lost was restored (the story happens to end with him being restored) communion with God was present, because where there is compassion, there is communion. Job found consolation – not from his friends, but by being brutally honest, and trusting the God who is not always apparent, but is always and everywhere present.

* May I Hate God? by Pierre Wolff; Paulist Press, 1979.

Image: Illumination of Job from the Syriac Bible