Light from the East
If you know anything about me or have followed my journey of faith and walk with Jesus, you will know some of the story of me coming to faith in Jesus, going to seminary, being a Protestant pastor and eventually converting to the Catholic Church.
One of the first things I did on this journey, in a desire to understand what the early Christians thought about Jesus and how they interpreted Holy Scripture and lived out the faith, was to read the earliest Christian sources, other than the Bible, I could find. Those were the extant writings of the men we call the Church Fathers.
There are different eras and groups of the Fathers and I don’t want to get too much into that. But two of the earliest Fathers I spent time with were St. Athanasius and St. John Chrysostom, along with some random writings of some of the Desert Fathers. St. Athanasius was one of the greatest Fathers and Doctors of the Eastern Church. He was Egyptian, born in Alexandria. His work, On the Incarnation, was my introduction to the Fathers and just completely blew my mind. He is one of my heroes of the faith. He stood for the faith at a time when most of the bishops of the Church had strayed into heresy. St. Athanasius stood firm on the deposit of the faith and on who Christ was. He is, in fact, my confirmation saint.
St. John Chrysostom was another one of the early Fathers I was introduced to; again, one of the Eastern Fathers and perhaps the greatest preacher that has ever lived. He was born in Antioch, Syria and was eventually named as the Archbishop of Constantinople. His preaching was heavily influential in my life and journey into the Catholic Church.
What’s the point, you may ask?
My introduction to Catholicism began in the East. Most of the Fathers I read and studied were Eastern. By the East, I mean primarily the Greek, Antiochan, Alexandrian and Syrian Fathers; St. Irenaeus, St. Polycarp, Origen, St. Basil, St. Hippolytus, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Melito and others were among my earliest exposures to the Fathers. I have always had a love for the Eastern Fathers. Early on, I considered the Orthodox Church. Frankly, I ended up not joining them because of their separation from Rome. I wanted to be in communion with the Roman Church.
So, I “swam the Tiber” and joined the Latin Rite Western Church. Early on, I knew that I wanted to be part of the oldest practice of the faith I could find. The Novus Ordo, in my mind, has significant problems and I wanted no part of that. So, I gravitated toward the Latin Mass. It is, after all, THE traditional worship and liturgy of the Western Church. I have written about my experience in the Latin Mass and so won’t belabor the point here. I have fully immersed myself in the Latin Rite, learning Latin and teaching myself to pray in Latin. The experience of stepping into the deep stream of the historic worship of the Latin Church has been very rewarding and deeply humbling.
And yet, I have always been attracted to the East. I lean toward them theologically as well. While I love the deep, contemplative rigor of the Latin Rite, it has always felt…what’s the word…sterile. By that I mean it is very organized and structured and rigid. I’m not saying that is wrong. I love the rigidity of it, actually. By nature and practice I tend to be very disciplined and rigid in my own life so the unchanging nature of the Latin Mass is appealing to me.
I say all of this because I experienced something yesterday that I want to talk a bit about. I was finally able, at the invitation of a dear friend, to attend a Byzantine Catholic Church. For the record, I didn’t know until fairly recently that such a thing existed. I assumed that all the churches in the East were either Orthodox or Roman Catholic. What do they say about assuming….?
Anyways, my buddy and I attended St. Athanasius Byzantine Catholic Church for Divine Liturgy yesterday. How ironic, that the church is named after my confirmation saint…We walked into the church and I knew instantly that this would be unlike anything I had ever experienced. The priest and cantor were praying Matins. Well, I say praying. They were chanting the prayers.
The whole setting literally felt like I had just stepped out of our world and into another realm, another time and place (think about the wardrobe in Narnia). There were dozens upon dozens of beautiful and serene icons all over the church. At the “front” was an iconostasis, a wall with three gates. It was bedecked with icons. The center gate was golden and flowery, with a red curtain drawn behind it. I could hear someone (the priest) behind the wall chanting and singing and I heard bells constantly ringing. Not loud and clanging, but tingling bells almost like sleigh bells constantly ringing. I wondered what was making that noise and didn’t have long to guess. The priest came out from the left side gate and was swinging a censer that was billowing incense. The bells were attached to the censer. It was a melodious and intriguing sound.
A deacon, noticing that we looked a little lost, came over and introduced himself to us. He was most kind and engaging and helpful in explaining some things. He informed us also on the symbolism of all that we were seeing. The icons were representative of the saints and great cloud of witnesses. The iconostasis and the sanctuary behind it symbolically represented heaven and the nave represented earth. Other than that, he said, “I wouldn’t necessarily try to keep up. Just observe. You are all free to receive the Eucharist so long as you are in good standing with the Church, as we are in communion with Rome.”
As the Divine Liturgy began, it was a sensory overload. The icons, the incense, the processions, the chanting and singing back and forth between priest, deacon, cantor and congregation, the bowing, the gates of the sanctuary being opened and closed; it was an entirely immersive experience. It was truly wonderful to be there. It felt exactly as I would imagine it would feel to be immersed in the worship scene around the throne of God in St. John’s Apocalypse. We stood almost the entire liturgy. The priest’s homily was powerful and timely.
It was at once ethereal yet earthly, transcendent yet palpable, symbolically rich yet easily accessible. It really was precisely the opposite experience of a Roman Mass and a remarkable experience of joining with the saints in glory in worship. Where the Roman Mass feels austere and severe (I don’t say that to be critical), the Byzantine Liturgy was rich and stunningly sensory. I found myself, after receiving the Eucharist, to be very emotional.
After the Liturgy, we were invited by the small congregation to have lunch with them. The people were so warm and friendly and welcoming. We will definitely return to that parish soon. I learned something yesterday.
The Church needs the East. She needs the East for the rich diversity and splendor of her Liturgy. She needs the West for the structure and discipline that so characterizes it. The Church, the Body of Christ, needs to breathe with both lungs, East and West.
Let us embrace one another and not be afraid of our differences. They make the Body of Christ rich and deep! Thanks be to God for His grace to us in our diversity!
Have you ever felt alone? Alone as in you feel like you’re the only one who is willing to take a stand? Alone as in “I’ve found the hill I’ll die on and I’m all alone on it.”
I suspect that many of us have felt this way at some point in our lives. Now, whether we were or were not alone is a whole ‘nother discussion that we’re not going to get into right this second.
I suspect also that, if you are a traditionally minded Catholic, you probably feel that way now. If I’m being honest, I’ve felt that way recently. For those who are interested in actually taking a stand on the teachings of Holy Scripture, Holy Tradition and the person of Jesus Christ, you are going to feel very alone. It seems that the whole world has turned against these things that we hold so dear. In fact, it seems that many in the Church have turned against these things.
So, what are we to do?
Do we stand alone?
1 Kings 19 is one of my favorite stories in the Old Testament. I invite you to turn there and read the whole chapter.
I feel like this story is particularly applicable to us today. The prophet Elijah has just, in the previous chapter, killed 450 prophets of Baal and 400 “prophets of the groves.” These so-called prophets were pagans. The prophets of Baal (who was a pagan “god” of the Canaanites) were responsible for the idol worship going on in the nation of Israel (actually, the people were but you get the point). The wicked King Ahab and his queen, Jezebel, were abject pagans. Jezebel had been responsible for the deaths of many prophets of God. She was utterly wicked.
Kinda reminds us of some of our current “leaders,” doesn’t it? People who are willing to do whatever it takes to exert their power over those they rule and will brutally silence whomever dares to stand against them. The current climate in the Church doesn’t seem much different, if we’re being honest. Once, it seemed, the Church stood firmly against the tides of society and the sickening influence of modernism (read Pascendi Domini Gregis by Pope St. Pius X). Once upon a time we had Church leaders who stood firmly against the pagan and idolatrous practices of our culture. Once upon a time.
Now it seems that our Church leaders bow before the idols of modernism rampant in our society. Now it seems that the very spirit and errors our holy Popes railed against are not only accepted but openly propagated by many in the Church.
But I digress…back to your story.
Jezebel hears about what happened with Elijah and the slaughter of the prophets of Baal. She sends a message to him basically saying, “I’m gonna kill you.” So, Elijah runs. Verse 3 says, “Then Elias was afraid..”
Fear is powerful. Fear is one of the most powerful weapons Satan uses against us. Fear of failure, fear of being hurt, fear of being mocked or scorned, fear of being excluded, fear of not being socially acceptable, fear of a virus…and the list could go on. Fear is natural for us humans. Sometimes fear is good, ‘cause it might save your life. But fear is one of the things that Holy Scripture speaks to us repeatedly about.
Elijah’s fear is ironic. He has just witnessed the power of God over Baal. He and the people of Israel have just wiped out a huge portion of the false prophets inhabiting Israel and leading the people astray. And yet, he runs. It’s not wrong to be afraid. It’s what we do with our fear that determines whether it’s right or wrong.
So, he runs. And hides out in the desert and tells God to just kill him and get it over with. And then he sleeps, and an angel wakes him up, gives him food and tells him to eat. He does and goes back to sleep. The angel wakes him up again and says (basically), “You better eat ‘cause you got a long way to go, son.” So he does. And then he walks for forty days and nights “in the strength of that food.”
He comes to the “mount of God, Horeb.” There he pitches his camp in a cave and God speaks to him, “What dost thou here, Elias?”
His answer gets to the heart of what I want us to see here,
“And he answered: With zeal have I been zealous for the Lord God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant: they have thrown down thy altars, they have slain thy prophets with the sword, and I alone am left, and they seek my life to take it away.” (vs. 10)
This is our crisis today. Our own people, the Church, has done this. God’s children have forsaken His covenant and His law and the Traditions of Mother Church. God’s people have thrown down the holy altars of God and replaced them with gaudy tables. God’s own people have “slain” the faithful priests and bishops by casting them to the side or calling them names or taking their parishes away from them because they dare to speak the truth of His Holy Word.
Are the faithful alone? I’m not talking about the people who wear the label of “Catholic.” I’m talking about the faithful; the ones who have clung to the faith once for all delivered to the saints, who have clung to Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition, the ones who dare to speak out against the decadence of our society or the corruption and cowardice in the Church.
Sometimes I feel this way. If you are a traditionally minded Catholic, you probably feel this way too. Are we alone? Satan seeks to take our lives. Sadly, many within the Church who have embraced the heretical teachings and practices of modernism and all her children seek the “lives” of those who would dare to be faithful.
Will we be silent? Will we cower in fear? Go along to get along? Or will we, like Elijah, walk in the strength given, sustained by the food given of the Word? Will we walk in the strength given, sustained by Holy Tradition? Will we walk in the strength given by the Body and Blood of our Lord?
Elijah’s story didn’t end here. God didn’t strike him down for his fear. No, God displayed His power to Elijah. He passed by and His passing shook the very mountain, breaking rocks and causing the very soul of Elijah to tremble. After the wind, an earthquake and then a great fire. But God was only passing by. And then He stopped to speak with Elijah in “a whistling of gentle air.”
And God asked him again, “What dost thou here, Elias?” Elijah repeats his charges against God’s people. I want us to notice what God does not say. He did not say, “Hold your horses, I’m gonna fix it. Lemme just kill all these people who oppose Me and you.”
What did He say?
He gave Elijah hope.
He told him to go and appoint new kings who would be faithful and his own successor. And then He says this,
“And I will leave me seven thousand men in Israel, whose knees have not been bowed before Baal, and every mouth that hath not worshipped him kissing the hands.” (vs. 18)
What does that mean?
It means that Elijah is not alone. There are others. There are others who are faithful. It means that God will solve the problems in His time and in His way. Elijah’s job was to obey. Elijah’s job was to not give in to fear. Elijah’s job was to be faithful.
That’s our job also, brethren.
Know that you are not alone. There are others. There are others who are faithful. God will solve the problems in the world and in the Church in His time and in His way. Our job is to obey. Our job is to be not afraid. Our job is to be faithful.
Elijah’s reward for his faithful obedience was the reward of all the saints. Now He beholds the One whom he served so faithfully face to face. And so shall we if we are faithful. Our reward will be the reward of all the saints. One day we shall behold Him face to face.
Hold fast. You are not alone.