Tag Archives: Eucharist

Am I Ready to Be Made New?

What are we to make of the Eucharist?

The great theological debates in the West are certainly interesting. And contrary to what we sometimes might think, they aren’t wholly without value for us as Orthodox Christians. It can be helpful for us to remember, that at least through Reformation, Christians East and West, Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant (Lutherans and Calvinists) all agreed that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ. Yes, we debated among ourselves how bread and wine became the Body and Blood of Christ but we all agreed that there was a change.

These theological debates, however, rarely matter all that much to most people. What does matter is what it means to receive Holy Communion?

In many parishes, it isn’t uncommon for very few—if any—people to receive Holy Communion. In other parishes though, it seems as if it is expected that everyone receives. Neither of these extremes is helpful. We don’t want to make receiving Holy Communion a rare occurrence. But neither do we want to take receive the Body and Blood of our Lord something we take for granted.

So, what can we do to help especially children and young adults understand the Eucharist?

I find the best thing to do is to have children look at the text of the Divine Liturgy. Ask them what they think it means, for example, when the priest says “Take, eat this is My Body broken for you for the forgiveness of sins”?

Or later when he says “Send your Holy Spirit down up us and upon these gifts…”

We hear several things here simultaneously.

Yes, we are sinners but Jesus comes and dies for us sinners.

And yes, the bread and wine are transformed in the Divine Liturgy but so are we.

It is the rare child who doesn’t grasp that he or she is a sinner. Even if they are too young to understand theologically, even young children know that they can hurt others or that they can disappoint their parents or fight with their siblings.

We need not only help children understand how they fail but also about what it might mean to be transformed. Ask them what they think it means to be not just a sinner but forgiven? And not just forgiven but transformed?

The heart of the matter is, is that in the Eucharist Jesus doesn’t just forgive us but transforms us, makes us new. This is something we often overlook. One of the reasons Liturgy can seem boring and repetitive is because we don’t think about it as God coming to transform us.

With older children, say middle school and up, I will ask them to think about what it means when the priest tells us to “Lift up your hearts.” He doesn’t tell us to praise God or thank God. Much less does he say we need to be happy or sad. He simply says that we are to lift up our hearts. We are to offer our to God whatever is in our heart at that moment.

For older children especially, the idea that in the Eucharist we offer ourselves to God and that we do this together with Jesus can be a powerful insight. Just as God accepts Jesus, He accepts us, He accepts me.

And God’s acceptance and love is dependent on what might be going on in my life at any moment. God wants my bored, irritated heart as much as He wants my joyful, thankful heart.

And not only does God accept each of us as we are, in Holy Communion He gives us back to ourselves but when He does, we are changed. Remember, it isn’t just bread and wine that are transformed, we are too.

When we receive the Eucharist, together with Christ we receive our own lives as well but as they have been made new by grace. This is what we are preparing to do when we celebrate the Eucharist and this is what we do when we receive Holy Communion.

So, the question becomes (for all of us) how do we prepare ourselves to be made new in Christ? That’s the question that we are asked every time we participate in the Divine Liturgy and every time—“with the fear of God and with faith”—we come forward to receive Holy Communion.

Am I ready to be made new?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Preaching Notes

Cistercian fathers figured prominently in my education and spiritual formation. In the latter case, they heard my confession and directed my spiritual life. In the former case, they were my professors when I was an undergraduate and graduate student at the University of Dallas.

When I was a doctoral student at Duquense Unversity’s Institute of Formative Spirituality, I had a Cistercian novice master as my primary professor and mentor. Though he remained a Trappist monk to the end of his life, in the early 1980’s after 20 years in the monastery, Fr Richard Byrne had to leave the monastery for health reasons. His lectures in spiritual direction, preaching and teaching have been important element in my own ministry as a priest.

At the request of a brother priest, I updated Fr Richard’s notes on preaching and thought I would share them here.

Fr Richard was a lovely man and his friendship and support was a great blessing to me as a young graduate student. His death in the early 1990’s was a great loss to me. Had he lived, I suspect I might have pursued an academic career in the Catholic Church and never become Orthodox.

But God’s plans are not ours. Fr Richard’s caused me to re-evaluate my plans and while I sorely miss the teaching career I never had, his example inspires me still today as an Orthodox priest.

Rick was a good man and an exemplary monastic and priest. Please remember him in your prayers.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

The goal of the homily is to help the congregation (corporately and individually) make the transition from being “hearers” of the Word to “doers” of the Word within the context of the celebration of the Eucharist.

    1. The homilist’s first task is to be himself a prayerful hearer of the Word.
    2. This means he must reflect not only on the Sunday readings but also
    3. cultivate the daily habit of reading and meditating on the Scriptures (lectio divina).
      • This can mean either the daily reading of the lectionary or lectio continua (the sequential reading of the Old and New Testament (usually over the course of a year)
    4. If we don’t pray, we can’t preach no matter how erudite and eloquent we speak
      • it is my personal life of prayer transforms my speaking into the prophetic act of Christian preaching.
      • For the homilist, becoming a “doer” of the Word means be able by God’s grace and his own preparation to proclaim the Gospel with power and authority for the glory of God and the salvation of his audience

(2) As for content, a homily should seek to answer three questions based on the text of Scripture:

      • What is the faith of the Church?
      • What does this faith look like in practice?
      • What are some of the concrete obstacles and facilitating conditions for living this faith in our everyday life?

(3) What We Believe: the Faith of the Church

      • This is primarily the level of doctrine and dogma; what does the Church believe.
        • This isn’t a matter of using the text of Scripture as an illustration for a predetermined dogmatic or moral point.
        • Rather, through prayer and study, the preacher must ask what aspect of the faith is contained in the text?
          • The answer the preacher comes to will likely change as he returns to the text year after year not because the meaning changes but because he does; his relationship with Jesus and with the congregation is dynamic as these relationships change he will be able to see from this new perspective previously hidden depths.
          • Again, this assumes the preacher prayers and prayerfully reads Scripture, the fathers and the teaching of the Church

(4) Living Icons of the Faith

      • As he seeks to articulate the practice of the Church, the preacher can reflect not only events in other books of the Scripture and the lives of the saints but also secular subjects (e.g., history, current events, psychology, literature, film and even popular culture).
        • In choosing his practice examples, the preacher should make sure its fit with doctrine in natural and not forced.
        • The example also need to be appropriate for his listeners; an example that will inspire a youth group may very well insult the intelligence of older adults. Likewise, what he says to a monastic community or a gathering of clergy may not be appropriate for the broad mix of people in the congregation on Sunday morning.

(5) Following Christ: Practical Instruction

      • For many preachers is often the hardest part of the sermon: offering practical instruction in following Christ in a brief and concise manner.
      • Practical instruction from the saints and spiritual writers are good sources for instruction
      • If judiciously used, so too are secular disciplines like psychology
      • The question here is straightforward: What are the habits of thought and action that either helps or hinders the person living the faith.
        • One source for insight here is what the priest hears in confession. While he shouldn’t–must not in fact–discuss specific sins of people bring to him in confession, over the course of time (years!), specific themes will emerge.
        • Is his parish elderly? Are they concerned (or not!) with their own impending deaths? Are they concerned that their children and grandchildren are estranged from the Church? Are they facing declining health or increased economic hardship? Maybe both?
        • There are common struggles in every congregation; learning what these struggles are helps the preacher help his congregation become hearers and doers of the Word as he reflects with them on their shared experience.

(6) While there is a broadly intellectual aspect to the homily, it’s focus isn’t communicating information but fostering the spiritual formation of those in the congregation.

      • Formation is the concrete and practical process of helping people grow self-discovery (i.e., self-knowledge) and self-expression (“good works” that give glory to God) in Christ
      • An often overlooked element of this process is thankful self-acceptance
        • While marred by sin, my life is God’s first gift to me and the condition of possibility for all subsequent gifts
        • My life as it comes to me from the hand of God is the primary source of my personal vocation as a disciple of Christ
        • “The highest degree of love is this, to love myself because I have first been loved by God” St Bernard of Clairvaux, “On Loving God”
      • In addition to practical, preaching must be inspirational
        • Specifically, it should inspire people to join with Christ in the Eucharistic sacrifice
        • With Christ, the members of the congregation need to offer their lives with all its messiness to the Father in the Holy Spirit
        • In Holy Communion, the receive back their lives as accepted and transformed in Christ
        • With Christ, I receive not only my own life but my neighbors’ as well
      • Helping people understand, accept and act on the fact that in Holy Communion together with Christ we become food and drink for each other is the formative goal of the homily

(7) Final thoughts:

    • The ABC’s of the homily:
      • Audible: Can people hear me? Do I need to speak up or using a microphone?
      • Brief: At 7 minutes people’s minds are getting ready to wander, at 10 minutes they’re wandering, at 12+ they’ve stopped listening
      • Christ centered: The homily isn’t about the Church, or moral theology, or politics (or fund raising!) but about the person’s relationship with Christ, with helping these people here in front of me offer themselves as they are to Christ

What Is Salvation For?

If I ask myself this question at all, “What is salvation for?” I’m likely to answer that my salvation is for me; so that I can be saved from sin and enter  the Kingdom of God. But this is only a partial answer.

In his defense of the Christian faith, St Justin Martyr (Apology, 66 & 67) makes a couple of points that are worth reflecting on as we try to answer the question.

Let’s begin, with Justin’s outline of the basic structure of how the Church celebrated—in fact still celebrates—the Eucharist.

Interestingly, he doesn’t start with telling us what the Eucharist is but the conditions for participating in it:

And this food is called among us Εὐχαριστία [the Eucharist], of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined.

Sharing in the Eucharist requires that we believe what the Church teaches, that we have been baptized “for the remission of sins” and finally live as disciples of Jesus Christ (“lives in accordance with the principles given us by Christ”). So, we need three things:

  1. Obedience to the teaching of the Church
  2. Repentance and baptism
  3. A life of intentional discipleship (“so living as Christ has enjoined”)

It only when all three of these are fulfilled Justin says, that we may “allowed to partake” of  the Eucharist  And we do this so that we can be joined to Christ  by “prayer of His word” making “our blood and flesh … transmutation[ed]” into “the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”

So, what is salvation for? Well it is for our transformation into another Jesus; we are saved so that we can become another Christ (alter Christus) not just metaphorically but actually by sharing in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).

Though this process of becoming another Christ is personal, It isn’t individualistic; it isn’t up to me alone to decide what it does or doesn’t mean to be a Christian. This is why, to return to Justin’s apology, when we gather to celebrate the Eucharist we begin by listening to the Scriptures:

[O]n the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray.

It’s only after reflecting on the Scriptures and our common prayer to God that, Justin says, the eucharist is “distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons”

So our salvation is not for our becoming another Christ. It is also for becoming a member of the Church. My salvation then is not simply “for me” but “for you” as well.

If, as often happens, we stop here, we risk missing the fullness of what our salvation is for.

The late Fr Alexander Schmemann has pointed out that Orthodox parishes are self-absorbed and self-important. We do things, he says, for the Church that we would condemn if done for the individual.

Hard as it is to say it, it is often the case that parishes really only care for themselves. The individual Christian and the local parish are important but they aren’t, really, the point of our salvation.

God doesn’t save me simply to transform me into the likeness of His Son.

And while God calls me to live as a member of the Body of Christ, this isn’t really what salvation is for.

So what is salvation for? Back to St Justin:

And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.

Compare this to what we usually hear about stewardship. We give what our heart tells us not to keep the church open but to care for those “in distress.”

What this means is that salvation is for “the life of the world.”

So now the question is, how do we put our salvation into practice?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory