The Songs of Ascent

Kristen and I want to thank our friends and family for your prayers this past month, as Charles Maximus had a congenital branchial cleft cyst removed from his neck, which then got infected, requiring a second surgery and an overnight stay in the hospital. It’s a learning experience to have your child undergo general anesthesia; especially as someone who has induced general anesthesia in numerous animals over the years. In any case, Charlie has fully recovered with a virile scar to show for his troubles.

Aside from our adventures in and out of the hospital, the last month has been essentially more of the same – I (John) am still seeking to complete my work by the end of July; Kristen is taking care of the boys and working through the Perspectives on the World Christian Movement course. We continue to prepare for August, when we intend to leave Ames for Oklahoma and begin to raise support full time in order to be able to move to Ethiopia as soon as possible.

In the meantime, while the Western Church celebrates Easter this weekend, in the Eastern Church, we begin Holy Week this weekend, celebrating the resurrection of Lazarus on Saturday and the triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Sunday*. In any case, the period that we call Great Lent ended Friday (March 30).

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Grumpy Orthodox Cat tells it like it is.

One aspect of our Lenten devotions that has had an especially profound impact on me this Lent has been our weekly (at least) reading of the Ascent Psalms. Psalms 120-134 consist of a series of short psalms that are believed to have been written upon the return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon. These psalms serve as a series of meditations that simultaneously address two types of ascent in their original context: first, and most naturally, the ascent of those climbing Zion in order to reach the newly-restored temple in Jerusalem. Secondarily, it addresses the ascent associated with returning to Israel following their exile in Babylon.

The first of these psalms, Psalm 120 (or 119 in the Greek), reads:

An ode of the Ascents

1 In my affliction I cried out to the Lord, and he heard me:

2 Rescue my soul, O Lord, from unjust lips, from a treacherous tongue.

3 What must be given to thee, what must be added to thee against this treacherous tongue?

4 The warrior’s arrows sharpened with hot coals from the desert.

5 Ah my God! My exile never ends, so long have I dwelt in the tents of Kedar,

6 So long has my soul been exiled.

7 I kept on being peaceful with those hating peace, when I spoke with them they kept on hating me for no cause.

Donald Sheehan’s translation, from the Greek.

Notice how verses 5 and 6 are translated here: “Ah my God! My exile never ends, so long have I dwelt in the tents of Kedar/So long has my soul been exiled.” These are psalms meant to be sung while climbing out of the pit; while returning home from exile; while approaching the Lord in order to make offerings to him, to glorify him, to praise him, and to seek succor from him. These themes of return from exile are found throughout:

“I was delighted in those who had said to me: We shall go to the Lord’s house” (122:1)

“Our soul has escaped like a sparrow from a hunter’s snare, the snare has been shattered and we have escaped” (124:7)

“Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion; he who dwells in Jerusalem shall be forever unshaken” (125:1)

“When the Lord had brought back the captives of Zion, we became like those who are given great comfort” (126:1)

And so on.

During Lent, we read these psalms at the beginning of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. This is an incredibly beautiful and powerful service, but it can be easy to miss the profundity of what is happening. During the weekdays of Lent, communion can only be given from a “presanctified” host – that is, the Eucharist must have been prepared beforehand, at the previous Sunday’s Divine Liturgy. During the Presanctified Liturgy, a number of actions are taken by clergy to prepare this presanctified host for communion; the Ascent Psalms are read while this is happening.

We read these psalms, then, as a community, in preparation for Holy Communion during Great Lent. We read these psalms as we ascend to the Lord, as we seek to return to him from the exile of our rebellion. We read these psalms and are filled with joy, because the Lord is welcoming us back from this self-imposed exile: he’s welcoming us home, to Zion, to Jerusalem, whose “temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.”


*The reasons for this difference between East and West are somewhat complicated (and unfortunate). Essentially, both agree that the date for Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. However, many of the Eastern churches have not adopted the Gregorian calendar for their liturgical observances, so that there is a 13 day difference between the date for the spring equinox. In addition, the date for the full moons was established based on problematic predictions made centuries ago, rather than on astronomically correct observances. These differences account for different calculations between East and West for Easter Sunday every year, despite the fact that both use the same foundational criteria to make the calculations.

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By the Waters of Babylon…

We keep moving forward; right now, in the cold and the snow, that movement seems somewhat intractable. But we do our best to move forward, diligently and prudently.

The first weekend of February was a blessing. Iowa State University’s Christian Veterinary Fellowship hosted this years North Central Real Life Real Impact retreat, where the CVF groups at nearby veterinary schools (and vet tech and pre-vet schools, as well) gather to talk about what it means to share the vocation of Christian and of veterinarian, and of how to live that combined calling faithfully. I was given the opportunity to give a talk I called “What It Means to Be a Veterinary Theologian (which, BTW, you already are).” I led discussions about what we mean when we use the terms theology and theologian; how we might grow and improve as theologians; and how we might think about and work towards theologies of veterinary medicine. In addition Kristen and I got to meet a number of wonderful people, some of whom live and work here in the mid-west, and some who serve overseas. It was a real gift to be able to connect with and learn from these folks.

While the writing of the thesis progresses, I’ve got a number of tasks to keep me busy/distracted. Over the course of the last couple of years, I’ve collected a number of samples (mostly skin biopsies and environmental samples) that I have shoved into the back of our -80* freezer, always aware in the back of my mind that near the end I’d have to break them out and extract DNA from all of them. Well, the end is nigh, and last week and this week have been dedicated to that task. Thank God for podcasts and audiobooks.

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My view last week and this week.

 

In preparation for Lent, the Sunday before last the Church read the parable of the prodigal son, which is perhaps my favorite of Jesus’s parables. It’s so rich, and there is so much that could be said about it. In terms of Lent, however, the most helpful aspect of this parable is the prodigal son’s desire for his true home. As Schmemann writes:

I received from God wonderful riches: first of all life and the possibility to enjoy it, to fill it with meaning, love, and knowledge; then – in Baptism – the new life of Christ Himself, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the peace and the joy of the eternal Kingdom. I received the knowledge of God, and in Him the knowledge of everything else and the power to be a son of God. And all this I have lost, all this I am losing all the time, not only in particular “sins” and “transgressions,” but in the sin of all sins: the deviation of my love from God, preferring the “far country” to the beautiful home of the Father…

And, as I remember, I find in myself the desire to return and the power to return “. . . I shall return to the compassionate Father crying with tears: Receive me as one of Thy servants . . .”

One of my favorite things about this Sunday, in which we contemplate our return from our self-imposed exile, is that the Church also include Psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, and we wept when we remembered Zion. . . . How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let me right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy . . . 

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An icon of the Babylonian exiles and King David, referencing Psalm 137.

 

This past Sunday goes by two names: Last Judgment Sunday, and/or Meat Fare Sunday (which in Latin is Carni Vale, and why carnivale is celebrated all over the world). This is the last day that we are able to eat meat until Easter Sunday. The Gospel reading is Matthew 25:31-46, in which Jesus explains that those who take care of the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and prisoner, will inherit the kingdom, while those who do not will be dismissed from his presence. What I take away from this is the personal aspect of what we’re commanded to do. We are to care for individuals, not some abstract. In doing so, we find Jesus in those individuals, and are brought closer to him through them.

Prelims, Zacchaeus, and Lent

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I found this goat in an acacia tree in the Afar Region of Ethiopia. It reminds us of Zacchaeus.

 

It’s been a tough (but edifying) couple of months! In a nutshell:

  • Kristen and the boys enjoyed an extended stay with family and friends in Oklahoma from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day. This was in part because the car we bought in November was totaled by a deer the day after Thanksgiving (no people were hurt, thank God). We replaced the car once John joined everyone in Oklahoma for Christmas, and the replacement has been serving us well.
  • Charlie became quite accustomed to lots of sweets, TV (especially Dinosaur Train), and getting his way while in Oklahoma.
  • Judah has two mandibular incisors, and has decided he’s not such a big fan of sleeping through the night.
  • Kristen recently enrolled in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, which is a a fifteen week course designed around four vantage points or “perspectives” — Biblical, Historical, Cultural and Strategic. Each one highlights different aspects of God’s global purpose. This is a highly recommended course for those looking to live and minister overseas.
  • I (John) spent most of the last two months preparing for my preliminary oral exam (prelim), which I passed on January 17th! This allows me to write, submit, and defend (this July) my PhD thesis, which addresses the control, prevention, and treatment of bovine digital dermatitis, a major cause of lameness in cattle. In my PhD program (Veterinary Microbiology and Preventive Medicine), the prelim is somewhat unique. Essentially, I was required to design and write an innovative research proposal that I then presented to my PhD committee (five veterinary researchers at ISU), at which point the committee asked whatever they wanted in order to determine my level of knowledge regarding veterinary microbiology and preventive medicine. My research proposal involved surveillance of brucellosis in Ethiopian livestock, a topic of great interest in the Ethiopian veterinary community, and at Mekelle University in particular. Preparation for the prelim was much more stressful than the actual exam, but everything went well.

At this point, we have our noses to the grindstone, and we’re doing what we can to prepare for the move to Mekelle. Once I finish my PhD (in July, God-willing), our plan is to dedicate all of our time to meeting with potential supporters in order to raise the support we need to move. Our goal is to have the support raised to enable to move during late fall or early winter of 2018/19. All donations and support that we receive before that time go toward our start-up/travel expenses.

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The boys checking out one of Charlie’s favorite Christmas gifts.

 

As we continue to work towards these goals, we can’t help but feel stuck in a sort of limbo, of waiting until the next big thing. At times like these we remain grateful for the way in which our church shapes time to enable us to focus on the most truly meaningful cycles and narratives – those that allow us to participate in salvation history. Our church does Pascha/Easter big (the Feast of Feasts!), and we prepare accordingly. In fact, there are three layers of preparation for the annual celebration of Christ’s victory over death – Holy Week, Great Lent, and the four weeks prior to Lent.

The first event that occurs in preparation for Great Lent (which, in turn, prepares us for Pascha), occurred during the Divine Liturgy this past Sunday. The Gospel reading for this service is Luke 19:1-10 – the story of Zacchaeus. Here, we encounter a man who made his living by collecting taxes for the Roman government (collecting more than was required in order to provide himself with income). However, this man had heard that Jesus, a well-known teacher and healer, was passing through his town, and he so desired to see this Jesus that he (being short) climbed a tree in order to do so. As Fr. Alexander Schmemann says in his wonderful book on Great Lent,

…the theme of this first announcement is desire. Man follows his desire. One can even say that man is desire, and this fundamental psychological truth about human nature is acknowledge by the Gospel: “Where your treasure is, ” says Christ,”there shall your heart be.” A strong desire overcomes the natural limitations of man;  when he passionately desires something he does things of which “normally” he is incapable. Being “short,” he overcomes and transcends himself. The only question, therefore, is whether we desire the right things. . . .

Zacchaeus desired the “right thing”; he wanted to see and approach Christ. He is the first symbol of repentance, for repentance begins as the rediscovery of the deep nature of all desire: the desire for God and His righteousness, for the true life.

Interestingly, Luke doesn’t tell us that climbing the tree results in Zacchaeus seeing Jesus; rather, he tells us that Jesus “looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.'” Thus, Zacchaeus’s desire leads to being seen by Jesus; as Schmemann says, “it ‘forces’ Christ’s attention; it brings Christ to [Zacchaeus’s] home.”

Finally, it is noteworthy that Zacchaeus climbed a tree, with no regard for his own dignity, in order to see Jesus, who would climb his own tree, with no regard for his own dignity, for the life of the world two weeks later. We who desire to see Christ are called to take up our cross and follow him, regardless of the cost.

As we prepare for Great Lent, may we all, in our desire to see Christ, be seen by him, and thus be changed.

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Thanksgiving and Fasting During Advent

This week, Kristen suggested we talk about what Thanksgiving has come to mean for our family over the last few years. To do so requires that we begin with Advent.

Advent/The Nativity Fast

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Charlie examining the icon of the Nativity, and of St. Nicholas.

“Advent” is taken from the Latin word adventum that can be glossed as “arrival,” or, better, “approach.” It refers to the time in which we prepare for Jesus’s approach in terms of his birth on Christmas. Now, unlike the West, the lands in which most members of the Orthodox Church live today have relatively few historical ties to the Latin language. For this reason, many theological and liturgical words with Latin roots are referred to differently by Orthodox Christians. Thus, the time spent in preparation for Christmas (or, in Orthodox speak, The Feast of the Nativity According to the Flesh of Our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ) is commonly referred to as the Nativity Fast. Of course, we Orthodox Christians who live in the West do use a number of terms that are traditionally associated with Western Christianity, like Lent, Transfiguration, Dormition, etc.

While our (Western) family tends to refer to this season as Advent, we can’t help but acknowledge that a defining characteristic of the Orthodox observance is fasting (hence the name, Nativity Fast). For the forty days prior to Christmas (beginning on November 15), the standard practice for Orthodox Christians is to abstain from eating anything that comes from an animal with a backbone (e.g., meat, dairy, eggs) for the entire forty days, and on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays to abstain from olive oil and wine, as well. In addition, portion sizes are to be decreased. The money saved from fasting is to be given to the poor. Naturally, time spent in prayer and contemplation of the birth of Jesus is increased.

This sort of fasting also occurs during Lent (in preparation for Pascha, or Easter), in preparation for the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul in June, in preparation for the Feast of the Dormition of Mary in August, and nearly every Wednesday and Friday of the year.

It would be misleading for me to claim that my family (and, in particular, me – John) is diligent in our fasting. I will say that we are diligent in our intentions, and in resuming the fast when we fail to keep it for whatever reason. We have come to appreciate that a significant part of the value of the fasts is the humility learned by failure alongside the desire for perseverance. In addition, how a family fasts, and how that will differ for members of the family, varies based on a number of things – pregnant and nursing mothers, infants, and very young children (among others) are exempt from the expectation of fasting, and children are weaned into fasting. Orthodox Christians are encouraged to discuss the fasts with spiritual advisors (typically their parish priest) to determine how best to keep the fasts in their own unique contexts.

The reasons for fasting are numerous, and beyond the scope of this post. The most straightforward explanation for the Nativity Fast is that Christmas is likened to a second Easter (or Pascha), in the sense that Christ’s incarnation is the necessary antecedent of his death and resurrection (Fr. Alexander Schmemann coined the phrase “Winter Pascha” to describe the Nativity). And just as Lent precedes Pascha (being the period in which the Church prays and fasts as a community in preparation for receiving initiates into the Church on Easter), the Nativity Fast precedes the Nativity.

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Charles Maximus at four months (left) and Judah Severus at four months (right).

We are commonly asked how, as Orthodox Christians who fast from November 15 to December 24, we celebrate (or do we even celebrate?) Thanksgiving. The Nativity Fast had been around for some time (to say the least!) before Orthodox immigrants to the U.S. encountered this holiday and the traditions (i.e., foods) associated with it. Since there are a number of Orthodox hierarchies in the U.S., this issue is handled slightly differently, depending on the hierarchy. For the most part, there is either an explicit dispensation granted, or a more implicit understanding that the intents and purposes of fasting are commensurate with those of the Thanksgiving meal (when celebrated appropriately), and that the meal is therefore acceptable.

Orthodox Christians see obvious and significant value in celebrating, as President Lincoln stated in 1863, “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” The core of Orthodox worship is Holy Communion; another term for this is Eucharist, from the Greek εὐχαριστία (eucharistia, “thanksgiving”). The verbal form, εὐχαριστέω (eucharisteō, “to give thanks”) is used in the earliest reference to the institution of the Lord’s Supper: “When he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, ‘Take, eat. This is my body, which is broken for you. Do this in memory of me'” (1 Corinthians 11:24).

The heart of Orthodox worship, then, is participation with Christ in the offering of thanks to God for his body, broken for us. And this, of course, extends to offering thanks for all that God has given us, a practice that I, for one, could stand to be much better at doing. A helpful reflection that has had a significant effect on me is to imagine what I would lose if God were to take away everything for which I had not given thanks.

Another practice that has developed in many American Orthodox communities and/or families is gathering to pray and sing a hymn entitled “Glory to God for All Things,” or the Akathist of Thanksgiving. An akathist (taken from a Greek word indicating that it is to be sung while standing) is a hymn that takes a specific form, sort of like a sonnet. This particular akathist was written by Metropolitan Tryphon of Turkestan in 1934, during the height of the Communist persecution. It is often attributed to Archpriest Gregory Petroff, who died in a Soviet prison camp in 1940; the image of someone praying this in the gulag is incredibly powerful.

Here is a recording of this hymn being sung, and here is the text in full. A few highlights:

How glorious You are in the springtime, when every creature awakens to new life and joyfully sings Your praises with a thousand tongues! You are the source of life, the destroyer of death. By the light of the moon, nightingales sing, and the valleys and hills lie like wedding-garments, white as snow. All the earth is Your promised bride awaiting her spotless Husband. If the grass of the field is like this, how gloriously shall we be transfigured in the Second Coming, after the Resurrection! How splendid our bodies, how spotless our souls!

Glory to You for the warmth and tenderness of the world of nature.
Glory to You for the numberless creatures around us.
Glory to you for the depths of Your wisdom–the whole world a living sign of it.
Glory to You: On my knees, I kiss the traces of Your unseen hand.
Glory to You, enlightening us with the clarity of eternal life.
Glory to You for the hope of the unutterable, imperishable beauty of immortality.
Glory to You, O God, from age to age.

How near You are in the day of sickness. You Yourself visit the sick. You Yourself bend over the sufferer’s bed; his heart speaks to You. In the throes of sorrow and suffering, You bring peace; You bring unexpected consolation. You are the Comforter. You are the Love which watches over and heals us. To You we sing the song: Alleluia!

What sort of praise can I give You? I have never heard the song of the cherubim, a joy reserved for the spirits above. But I know the praises that nature sings to You. In winter, I have beheld how silently in the moonlight the whole earth offers You prayer, clad in its white mantle of snow, sparkling like diamonds. I have seen how the rising sun rejoices in You, how the song of the birds is a chorus of praise to You. I have heard the mysterious murmurings of the forests about You, and the winds singing Your praise as they stir the waters. I have understood how the choirs of stars proclaim Your glory as they move forever in the depths of infinite space. What is my poor worship? All nature obeys You, I do not. Yet while I live, I see Your love, I long to thank You, pray to You, and call upon Your Name:

Glory to You, giving us light.
Glory to You, loving us with love so deep, divine, and infinite.
Glory to You, blessing us with light, and with the host of angels and saints.
Glory to You, Father All-Holy, promising us a share in Your Kingdom.
Glory to You, Holy Spirit, Life-giving Sun of the world to come.
Glory to You for all things, holy and most merciful Trinity.
Glory to You, O God, from age to age.

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Charlie and Judah on Charlie’s birthday (one day after Judah’s birthday).