The Beauty of Geography

Recently, I was thinking about how I came to be Byzantine Catholic, and I realized that the easiest way to explain it is that it’s an accident of geography. My dad’s maternal grandparents came to America from a part of Europe that was Slovakia at the time and settled near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; they eventually ended up in the metro Detroit area where my Byzantine Catholic grandmother married my never-baptized but ostensibly Protestant grandfather and had four children. (Happy side note: My grandfather was baptized in a Byzantine Catholic Church about a year ago at the age of 92. I still get teary-eyed with joy thinking about it.) Then, my Byzantine Catholic father, the youngest of those four children, married my Roman Catholic mother who embraced the Byzantine Catholic Church, my brother and I were born, and they raised us to know and love that Church.

There’s a lot that feels a bit random in that narrative. My dad’s grandparents happened to be from a Byzantine Catholic region of Eastern Europe. Give or take a few miles, and they’d have been Orthodox or Roman Catholic. But by what some might call an accident of geography, they were Byzantine Catholic. I don’t know how strong the catechesis of my ancestors was. I don’t know how much they understood about their faith, but that doesn’t matter. They continued the motion of a chain of events that led to me being Byzantine Catholic.

The reality is that none of this is random. God doesn’t deal in coincidences or accidents. It was not actually due to an accident of geography that I was born into a Byzantine Catholic family. I was born into this family and this Church because it was where God wants me. There is a reason that I was born into this Church and not into the Roman Catholic Church or an Orthodox Church, and that reason is the will of God.

In my experience, the Eastern Catholic Churches sit in a complicated position. Not everyone loves our existence. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked when I’m going to get off the fence and become Orthodox or Roman Catholic. I’ve been told that it would be easier to just become Orthodox. Perhaps it would. But easier isn’t always the best option or the right one. God has a purpose for the Byzantine Catholic Churches. In a talk he gave last September, Patriarch Sviatoslav Shevchuk of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church defines the Byzantine Catholic Churches as living out the spirit of the first Christian millennium; that is we live out an Orthodox spirituality and theology while living in communion with the See of Rome. He sees us as living out the call of Christ for His people to dwell in full and loving unity. Diversity ought to be allowed, accepted, and embraced.

I could go on about that for ages, but that’s a digression. I believe that the Byzantine Catholic Churches have a beautiful purpose in our world. I believe that we need to be vocal in showing the world the beauty of our Church. We are a living and active representation of heaven on earth, and we must live that out in a way that radiates into the lives of those around us. I firmly believe that we are called to show the beauty of unity to the world by our lives. Yes, we hold a complicated position, but it does not follow that this position ought to be abandoned because of difficulty.

There is beauty in this difficulty. I’ve talked before about the difficulty of being an Eastern Catholic both in an ecumenical environment and in strictly Catholic environments. It is not easy to be the minority or the other. And at times it does feel as though some obnoxious accident of geography put me in this place. But it wasn’t an accident that put me in this place. It was God, and if God put me here, then there is beauty in this complicated place.

It may not always be obvious beauty. It may not always be easy to look past external complications. Yes, Byzantine Catholicism is aesthetically pleasing. I love the sensory experience of my church. It is is a gorgeous place to be. The music is beautiful. The people (at least in my experience) are wonderful. However, the disunity of the Christian body can be discouraging and ugly.

It is hard to know leaders of other Churches believe that my Church is the greatest obstacle to unity between the Christian East and Christian West. It’s hurtful to be called a “uniate.” On the other hand, I can understand that it is hurtful to other Churches that my Church reestablished communion with the See of Rome several hundred years ago. Yes, we acted from political reasons more than religious/spiritual, and I can easily see why that’s hurtful to others. We have to accept that and work with it; we cannot ignore the hurt in the hopes it will go away. The wounds need to be acknowledged and discussed.

Christian unity is a complex thing. Yes, we are called to unity, but we are called to unity in diversity as St. John Paul II said. It’s important to highlight our common ground, but it’s also important to acknowledge our differences and discuss them. We need to embrace our brokenness and take it to the Cross, to the One who heals all wounds. Christ alone can heal the brokenness of our Church. He can bring great goodness into this situation and out of it.

In closing, it is the beauty of geography that made me Byzantine Catholic rather than Roman Catholic or Orthodox. The geography that wrought this situation is beautiful because it was made by God. God the Father may not have willed the brokenness of His Son’s body. He may not rest well pleased with the wounds within the Church. But that absolutely does not mean that He will abandon His Church, the Bride of Christ to perish in brokenness. No, Jesus comes to make all things new (Rev. 21:15), and He will use anything to do that. He will use politics, geography, humble prayers, conversations, ecumenical action…God will use anything that comes from a sincere desire to serve His Kingdom to make this thing new.

And maybe we won’t see the Church fully restored on this side of Paradise, but we have not been abandoned. He is a God of restoration and renewal, not a God of accidents. He makes beautiful things out of us. He wants this Church, His Church to be whole. And to do that, he’s going to use all of us-Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Byzantine Catholics, Protestants…we’re all called to this table. We’re all called to unity. We are called to be One as the Trinity is One.

Father God, heal and restore Your Church. Make us One as the Trinity is One. Renew and restore Your people. Break down walls, and heal wounds. Give wisdom to Church leaders, and give hope to Your people. Father, make us one. 


(This is the other well-known article about the region of Europe from which my ancestors came. March 15, 1939 was our big day; we should celebrate that more.)

God descends in mortal flesh!

On Wednesday evening, I was thinking about the idea of being halfway out of the dark and how the days begin to lengthen as the night lessens, how we must decrease like the darkness and Christ must increase like the light. (John 3:30) As I thought, I found myself singing a song to myself. “What no man could hope for now conceived/ earth is raised to heaven on this eve.” This song by the brilliant Ed Conlin (who I am blessed to know at least a bit) was inspired by St. John Chrysostom’s most famous Christmas homily.

Now as an Eastern Christian, I am contractually obligated to love the Golden-Tongued Saint. I aspire to name a son after him and St. Cyril-the one of Sts. Cyril and Methodius. (The other are lovely, but the Non-Mercenary brothers evangelized my people, the Slavs.) But this particular homily is really special to me. It speaks to my heart a unique way. This homily defines Christmas joy and hope for my heart and mind. St. John Chrysostom speaks to me in a way that allows me to taste the beauty of the Incarnation.

All exalt His glory. All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He Who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below; and he that was lowly is by divine mercy raised.

The Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven…that is a divine and marvelous mystery indeed. A God who departs the heavens who live with his little “mud people” and raises them up to his heavens-that is a mystery. As the Eastern fathers say, God became man so that man might become God. (Apparently, I picked up a little bit from all of those Fr. Hopko talks my dad made me listen to as a kid.) This is something that I love to think about and struggle with. God became man. He descended so that we might ascend. Why? Because he loves us, he loves us at a total risk to himself. He loves people who desert him and ignore him and reject him and deny him and betray him…and he loves us. Regardless of anything we do, he loves us.

This day He Who is, is Born; and He Who is, becomes what He was not. For when He was God, He became man; yet not departing from the Godhead that is His.

He is born. He comes into the world. He is born in poverty. He is born in a manger. He who set the stars in motion condescends to be born so that he might raise us up with him and make us to sit in heavenly places. My mind boggles with this. I can accept the basic facts of the Incarnation. God becomes a human infant in the womb of the Theotokos. He is born in Bethlehem. He grows up to adulthood and so forth. I can accept the facts. But to actually think it all through-God becomes a human being while remaining God from before all ages. His incarnation does not change him; it changes us.

And ask not how: for where God wills, the order of nature yields.

Let me say that again. The incarnation does not change God; it changes us. God cannot change or be changed; we humans can and must change.  I don’t have to understand how this happens. God willed it. Nature yielded to God as all things must. That is enough for me. It is enough for all of us. God became man, and in doing so, he changed our humanity. He raised us up when we were powerless, when we were sinners. He entered into our humanity. He felt our pain, our struggle, our hunger, our need-and he loved us in that. He redeemed us in that.

He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit, that He may save me.

He came to bring us back to himself. He would not be satisfied until he had won for us an eternal inheritance, that of salvation. He wanted us to see him, to know him. And so he put on mortal flesh. He became a human being out of love for us. He wanted to raise us up and make us to sit in heavenly places with us. (Ephesians 2:6) The Nativity is a central piece of that act, of that plan. God became man.

Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh. He did not become God. He was God. Wherefore He became flesh, so that He Whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive.

God is now on earth. Let us rejoice! Let us celebrate the feast of the Incarnation. He who is God from before all ages has taken on human flesh, has become a sharer in our humanity so that he may redeem us. The Lord of Hosts has descended to earth. Let us observe the feast with great joy! All glory be to God.

Christ is born! Glorify him!

Christos Razdajetsja! – Slavite Jeho!

CHRISTOS GENNATAI! DOXASETE!

Your Birth, oh Christ our God, has shed upon the world the light of knowledge. For through it those who worshipped the stars have learned from a star to worship You, the Sun of Justice, and to know You, the Dawn from on high. Glory be to You, o Lord!

-Troparion for the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus

Five Ways to Keep Millennials in the Church

I keep seeing posts about keeping millennials in the Church and how to draw them to the Lord. Some of the posts are good; others are bleh. But I decided to (as a millennial) write my own post. Here’s how the Church can keep the millennials she already has and draw more into Her life. 

  1. “Be who you are and be that well.”-St. Francis de Sales, Bishop of Geneva
  2. “If you are what you should be, you will set the whole world on fire!” -St. Catherine of Siena 
  3. Do NOT be satisfied with mediocrity! The world will offer you comfort. But you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness!”  -St. John Paul II
  4. “Take away your eyes from yourself and rejoice that you have nothing–that you are nothing–that you can do nothing. Give Jesus a big smile each time your nothingness frightens you. Just keep the joy of Jesus as your strength–be happy and at peace, accept whatever He takes with a big smile.”-St. Teresa of Calcutta
  5. “I plead with you–never, ever give up on hope, never doubt, never tire, and never become discouraged. Be not afraid.” -St. John Paul II

Simply put, be Jesus. Live Jesus. Trust him. He’ll do the rest. 

Bethlehem, Make Ready

Christmas music is on the radio. Christmas trees are in houses. Santa is at the mall.

And it’s November 30. When my students ask me if my Christmas tree is up, I say no. It’s not going up until December 23. (I tell them that it’s because that’s the last day of school before break, so putting up my tree while listening to The Muppet Christmas Carol soundtrack and sipping hot chocolate is the perfect start to break for me.) They ask why I didn’t put it up last weekend or some time this week.

Because it’s November freaking 30. It’s not winter yet. We had a predicted high of 58 degrees today. Yes, the next few days will cool off, but it’s too warm for Christmas in my mind. It’s too early for Christmas. Besides, before we can have Christmas, we need to prepare for Christmas.

Preparing for Christmas isn’t just about shopping or baking or cleaning your house. You also need to prepare yourself for Christmas. On Sunday, I put out three “Christmas” decorations. I put out my Nutcracker music box/snow globes that are more about winter than Christmas for me, and I set up the Nativity scene. Jesus is NOT in the manger yet; he’s chilling in my jewelry box. The Magi are looking through a stable window because they have a long way to come. It’s a long trip from Persia to Bethlehem; we aren’t at Bethlehem yet. But like Bethlehem, we need to prepare ourselves for the coming of our King.

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It’s the feast of St. Andrew today. One thing that I’ve always enjoyed about the Fast of Philip/Advent is the way that the Church gifts us with the feasts of certain Saints who point us towards Christ in a special way in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Andrew invites each of us as he invited his brother, Peter, to come and see the Lord. (John 1:40-42) Several Old Testament prophets have their feasts in the next few weeks; each stands as a reminder of God’s love for people. St. Barbara (December 4) reminds us of the sacrificial nature that our love for God ought to have. St. Nicholas (December 6) reminds us that we are called to give of ourselves both to God and others. (He always reminds us to punch heretics in the face.) A few days later, the Conception of St. Anna reminds us of the faithfulness of God’s promises to us.

And so on…there are many feasts to point us to the coming of Christ. I love the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe (the patroness of the Americas) for many reasons. St. Lucy whose feast falls eight days before the Winter Solstice in a season of long nights and darkness reminds us that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. (John 1:5) These feasts are here to remind us to focus our gaze on Bethlehem.

I’ve been feeling a bit like Ebeneezer Scrooge this week because I’m not ready for Christmas trees or music despite the fact that the secular world is. But perhaps that’s the point. It isn’t just the calendar or the weather. I’m not ready for Christmas. I have work to do before my heart will be ready for Christmas. As I said earlier this month, during the Fast of Philip, I’m focusing on how the Lord can satisfy all of my needs and is in fact all that I need. I can still grow in that area. (Okay, I’ll always have room for growth in that area.) But I’m not ready for Christmas. I still have spiritual prep for Christmas. My personal Bethlehem is not ready for Christ. I need to make myself ready to welcome Christ.

When Christmas is actually upon us, I will put up the tree and set up the Christmas decorations. First, I’ll prepare myself spiritually, and then I’ll decorate my home. Bethlehem has to be ready before the king can come. Similarly, I must be ready. I must make my heart ready in order to welcome the King of Kings into my heart this Christmas and every day of my life.

Make ready, O Bethlehem, for Eden is opened.
Prepare, O Ephratha, for Adam and Eve are renewed.
Salvation enters the world and the curse is destroyed.
Make ready, O hearts of righteous men,
Instead of myrrh, bring songs as an offering of wisdom.
Receive salvation and immortality for your bodies and souls.
Behold, the Master Who lays in a manger
urges us to complete our spiritual songs.
Let us cry to Him without ceasing: O Lord, glory to Thee.

-Vespers for December 23

Finding Focus

As I’ve mentioned before, I like to choose a focus for liturgical seasons such as the Fast of Philip (also known as Advent) and Great and Holy Lent. I usually start thinking and praying about a theme a week or two in advance, and if I’m lucky, I’ll stumble upon The Right One the day before the season begins.

This year, I knew that I wanted to work on incorporating Eastern Christian spirituality into my life more and more. To that end, this will be my first Fast of Philip incorporating Fr. Thomas Hopko’s The Winter Pascha into my morning prayer time. The book has forty short meditations-one for each day of the Fast. I purchased an icon of The Root of Jesse to give me a visible reminder of those who have come before me (and before the earthly life of Christ) in faith. (To be fair, I’m working on acquiring icons for all of the major feasts/seasons of the Church. It’s slow going.) All of this prep was done at least two weeks in advance of the impending fast.

But I also knew that I wanted a quotation or a verse from Scripture to pray through during the Fast. I ended up finding two things that really resonated with me.

The first is the chorus from a song that my parish sings on the Sundays of the Fast of Philip:

He shall be born unto us,

And God will be with us.

And we will find him in the cave at Bethlehem.

He shall be born unto us. This (Christmas, the celebration of Christ’s birth) isn’t just something that happened a long time ago. This is something that can happen here and now. If we open our hearts and allow ourselves to be taken to the cave at Bethlehem, God will be born into our hearts, into our lives. That’s an area where I want to grow during this season. I want to grow closer to God, and looking at his humility is a way for me to work on that.

The second quote is from Lady Julian of Norwich, and I think that it nicely continues the theme of the previous quote.

God, of your goodness give me yourself, for you are enough for me.

This is something that I’ve been praying through lately. I’m struggling through the idea that I fixate on “needing” things that I don’t need. I just need Jesus. I don’t need money or success or more yarn or a husband or all of the coffee in the world. I just need Jesus.

Scratch that. I need Jesus and more yarn. Shut up.

Okay, I don’t need more yarn. I want more yarn. All that I need is Jesus. He can meet all of my needs and wants. If it is his will, he will provide the rest. He is enough for me. That’s a fact that I know in my head, and I want to spend this season leading up to Christmas focusing on my only true need being a need for Jesus. My hope is that doing this will help me to grow closer to him and bring him into my heart more fully come Christmas and throughout the rest of my life.

(Dear Jesus, all that I want for Christmas is more yarn, all of the coffee in the world, and for you to be born in my heart. A pony would be nice, but all that I really need is you. Please complete me. And send coffee.)

But really, what do I really need to work on during this season of preparation for the Winter Pascha? I need more Jesus. I need to allow him into my heart and my life in a further and deeper way. I need to allow him to be born not only in the cave of Bethlehem but also in my heart. I need to depend only on him for my sustenance. He will provide all that I need.

He asked me my name

In the Eastern Catholic Church, the Eucharist is distributed with both species together. The priest or deacon places the Lord’s Body and Blood in the recipient’s mouth saying “The servant/handmaid of God, [Name], receives the Precious Body and Blood of our Lord God and Savior, Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins and unto life everlasting, Amen.”

I’ve grown up with this. At my home parish, I’ve always heard my own name. When I’m a guest, I usually just get “The handmaid of God receives…” because most priests that I’ve encountered don’t ask guests their names. My deacon dad always asks guests at our parish their names, and I always thought this a bit odd because no one else seems to do it. As someone who was used to being an anonymous guest, I didn’t see the point in asking the name. I had gotten used to anonymity.

Then I recently was a guest at a parish where there were many guests and several guest priests, and the priests were asking the name of each recipient. You went up to the priest, whispered your name, and he included that in the prayer of distribution. It didn’t take but an extra few seconds, and it touched me. I attended two liturgies at this parish, and two different priests each did this. I walked up, I whispered “Cecilia” softly, and they said “The handmaid of God, Cecilia, receives…” I was deeply touched by this.

Initially, I couldn’t figure out why I was so struck by this. Why did it mean so much to me that two priests I’d never known and I’ll probably never meet again in this life asked me my name? The answer is simple: It gave me a sense of belonging. I felt welcome and wanted. I wasn’t an anonymous guest. I was a wanted and welcomed guest. Those priests will probably never remember that they gave the Eucharist to a dark-haired young woman named Cecilia, but I will remember that they asked me my name. I will remember that they made me a named guest rather than an anonymous guest at the Lord’s Supper.

The Lord calls us to welcome the stranger. He asks us to receive all guests in His name. That’s what this gesture was. That was a simple gesture, but it was a welcoming one. It was a gentle voice saying, “You are wanted here.”

It is easy to find and stay in our comfort zones. It’s easy to overlook the guests or strangers in our churches. It’s easy to assume that someone else will welcome the guests. But that’s not what Christ asks of us. Christ asks us to step out of our safe boat and engage the world around us.

I’ve slid in and out of countless churches unnoticed over the years. I may not be planning to join a parish that I visit while on vacation, but it’s always nice to have someone come up to me and welcome me, to help me find pew books and such. When I studied in Spain, I attended the same church almost every Sunday for three months. No one from the parish ever spoke to me. I nodded and smiled at an older gentlemen who sat near where I always sat. But no one ever engaged me in conversation. No one ever even learned my name.

I’ve been struck by a desire to change that for people who visit my church. I’m only one person, but the world is made up of many people who are “only one person.” I think that we all need to work in our own way to stop letting people slide out of our churches unnoticed. Let’s learn names. Let’s offer hospitality. Let’s offer friendship. Let’s strive to offer a home and a welcome to all those who enter our churches. Let’s offer the loving hand of Christ to all those we meet.

Let’s welcome every person who walks into our churches in the same way that we’d welcome Jesus if he was a guest in our churches.

Heaven on Earth

There’s a famous story among Eastern Christians that says that Prince Vladimir/Volodimir of Kievan Rus sent emissaries to Constantinople who visited the Hagia Sophia. When they returned they told the Prince that during the Liturgy they knew not whether they were in Heaven or on earth. The story says that this helped to bring Christianity to Kievan Rus; it also in part explains why the Eastern Churches at times call our Liturgy “Heaven on Earth.”

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I had a heaven on earth moment about a week ago. I had the opportunity to attend the consecration of the new temple of St. Elias the Prophet Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in Brampton, Ontario. Twenty-one years ago, I attended the consecration of the first temple at the age of seven, and I don’t remember much of it. Sadly, that building burned down two and a half years ago. So when the opportunity arose to attend the consecration of the new temple, I leaped at it.

It wasn’t really convenient for me. I was tired, and I wouldn’t get much time to rest/sleep in during the weekend. I was stressed, and I wouldn’t get much introvert time during the trip. It was a several hour drive each way. I’d been out of town the weekend before, and I didn’t particularly fancy packing up my suitcase for another weekend trip. There were many reasons to not want to go. But I knew that in spite of all that I would regret it if I didn’t go. I knew that I needed to be there. As someone recently told me, we need to be where God is, and I knew that God was going to be there.

The weekend didn’t disappoint. The church is beautiful, and the Church is beautiful. I’ve heard it said before that the Church is not the buildings but the people. This weekend was a hope-filled reminder of that truth. The building is beautiful, and it will be made more beautiful as more icons are added to the space. (Icons are awesome; I love icons.) But the people of God are more beautiful because in us dwells the Holy Spirit. In his homily, Patriarch Sviatoslav said, “When the church was not yet consecrated, only YOU were living temples of the Holy Spirit. It was like I was facing God, one in the Holy Trinity, who lives in your hearts, in your souls. And because of you, because you are a living temple of the Holy Spirit, of our invisible and powerful God, this visible temple was today reconsecrated.”

It was so true. God was there. He was present in His people. His Holy Spirit was present. He was present through the Eucharist. He was there, and he acted. The church was packed to the gills. I couldn’t see much of what was happening. But it didn’t matter because I was able to hear and to experience it. I heard the beautiful singing. I heard the Rite of Consecration. I heard the Lord being praised by his people. (And I participated as best as I could.) And I did not know if I was in heaven or on earth.

Throughout the weekend, I heard reminders of God’s love for his people. I was reminded of the beautiful gift that the Lord gives us in the Ever Virgin Mary. He has given us His mother as our protector. I was reminded of the hope that our Lord offers us. The church building itself is a reminder of that. It is a reminder of how God provides for His people, how He hears their prayers and answers them. He does not abandon us. He mourns when we mourn, and he rejoices with us in our joy. He wants to draw us to Himself; he wants to bring us to a deeper experience of His love for us.

I was particularly struck by a comment that the parish priest made during Vespers on Saturday evening. He said that “God wants to celebrate with us. In moments like this, he dances with us.”  God wants to share in our joy. It was a reminder of the personal nature of God’s love. For me, that was the theme of the weekend. It was an experience of God’s embrace, of God’s love for us. God offers us hope and joy. He wants to know us and love us in deeper ways. We need to be open to His love. We need to allow Him to know us and to strive to know Him.

The weekend was an experience of heaven on earth. It was a reminder of how God loves His people, how He provides for us. I’m not a member of the parish, but I was still welcomed into their joy. I was able to partake of their joy, to share in it. I felt like I was able to take some of that joy and that hope with me when I came home. Now I want to bring that joy and that hope to my own life and to my own parish.