“Make ready, O Bethlehem, for Eden has been opened for all. Prepare o Ephratha,
for the tree of life has blossomed forth in the cave from the
Virgin; for her womb did appear as a spiritual paradise
in which is planted the divine Plant,
whereof eating we shall live and not die as Adam.
Christ shall be born, raising the image that fell of old.”
Opening Prayer of the Office of Preparation.
As I listen to this prayer at every liturgy and look at the icon of the Nativity hung over the Prothesis Table, it becomes Christmas at each liturgy. This year, the Days of Blogging, have been one way to centre our attention on the manger and the cave. In these days there is a great need to find the manger spiritually. Our financial, political and international situations call for a return to innocence of spirit. We lack simple trust. No longer do we trust governments, institutions, including the Church, or even the future. Our lost trust is a by product of a great age of cynicism. Now is a good time to reflect on the manger. The manger is more than a place to see on Christmas cards and to sing of in hymns and carols. The manger in a cave is the focus of salvation history. The beginning of the trip to another dark place – the tomb. Here in this Opening Prayer, we begin the journey of the Theanthropos, the God/Man to redeem humanity. His route leads from Bethlehem to Golgotha; from the manger to the Tomb, from paradise to Hades. Our cynicism can be erased and our trust restored if we respond to God’s plan. God’s plan is His outreach to us his creatures. It is God entering Human history because of His great love. We are the recipients of God’s unconditional love. It is our calling to respond.
Nativity in the Flesh of Our Lord
Christ is Born…. Glorify Him!
Question: How are the Old and New Testament related? This time of year is the best time to ask this question. As we prepare to celebrate the Nativity in the Flesh, the best thing we can ask is what relationship between the two parts of the Bible. For we Orthodox, the Old and New Testaments are inexorably linked. The Old Testament is the foretelling of the New. It holds up a mirror to Christ and to all the individual features of his life. What do I mean? Shall we look at the details?
- Virgin Birth: Isaiah 7, 14 and Ezekiel 44, 27 – 44:4
- Birth in Bethlehem: Micah 4 – 5
- The Adoration of the Magi: Numbers 24, 15 – 17
- Christ the Prince of Peace: Isaiah 6, 6 – 7.
These details of the Nativity show how God prepared the world through His prophets. The Old Testament provides us Christ in shadow and in smoke. The word that the Church uses for this relationship is foreshadow. The arrival of the Messiah was an event for which God had to prepare the world. Christmas is two days away, are you spiritually prepared?
The Martyrdom Of St. Ignatius
Question: What is an apostolic father? Today, this is a fitting question. It is the feastday of St. Ignatius of Antioch, the God-bearer. St Ignatius was the second bishop of Antioch after St. Peter. Back to the original question, Ignatius is an apostolic father; because he was a disciple of an apostle of Christ. In St. Ignatius’ case, he was a disciple of St John the Evangelist, the beloved disciple of Christ. His writings allow us to see the development of theology in the first part of the second century. Ignatius was sentenced to death in the arena at Rome about 108 AD. On his way to his death from Antioch, Ignatius wrote several letters to various Churches along the route. These epistles give a serious glimpse into the early theology of the nascent Christian Church. Some of the most interesting topics which Ignatius discussed were the three distinct pastoral offices: bishop, presbyter and deacon, the concept of divine economy (God’s plan of salvation), the idea of Christ as the God/Man, the theology of the Episcopos (Bishop) and the role of Rome in the early Christian community.
Ignatius is known as the “God-bearer” which features his theological concept of being in Christ. This is the idea that centres us on Bethlehem. Each of us are called to welcome Christ to be born in our hearts as He was in the manger. Ignatius prays for the Church:
I pray that there may be a union based on the flesh and
the spirit of Jesus Christ, who is everlasting life, a union
of faith and love, to which nothing is to be preferred, but
especially a union with Jesus and the Father.
(Epistle to the Magnesians)
Here we see Christians are united to Christ. They allow Christ to be born into their hearts and their community through the Eucharist, in communion with their Bishop. All Christians are called to be Christ-bearers as was St. Ignatius. This is our calling. This is the destination of our journey to Bethlehem.
The Ever Virgin Theotokos
Question: I have heard other “church leaders” say that virgin birth is just a myth, is this true? The only thing true about this statement is that it has been said. For us Orthodox Christians one of the sad things about modern Christianity is that we have stopped using the word Heresy. It is quite “vogue” to point fingers at historical beliefs of the Church and to say, “Oh those were unsophisticated ideas for simple people.” If one takes the time to read the theological opinions and treatises of the Fathers and Mothers of the Church, you cannot use the word “unsophisticated” about them in any way. The post-modern concepts that ridicule the teachings as “unscientific” and folk tales only cast shadows on the expounders of such ideas.
The theology of Virgin Birth took hundreds of years to be developed and formed in the life of our Church. The theology of Christ as Fully God and Fully man had an impact on the understanding of Mary of Nazareth. Today, in the Gospel reading of the Genealogy of Christ, Matthew 1, 1 – 25. We are confronted by the humanity of Christ and His entire human lineage. But, what about “virgin birth” how could that happen? There is the greatest question of all. It could happen, because God willed to happen! This is the Mystery of Incarnation. God willed to be contained in His creation, born of His creature contained in the womb of a young Virgin. To continue this Mystery, God further willed that she would bear a child by the Holy Spirit, the pre-eternal God. The unbelievable is real. The Theotokos bears the God/Man, while retaining her virginity. For us Orthodox (and Roman Catholics), Mary remains a Virgin before, during and after Christ’s birth. How can this be? By faith, we thus believe in God’s promise and fulfilment in Christ Jesus. Mary is the “panagia” forever holy. Perpetually Virgin, pure and a willing participant in the greatest miracle in the history of the world. Miracles are not explained they are believed. Our icons of the Theotokos testify to this reality. The stars on the maphorion (veil) of the Theotokos show us three stars. One on her Forehead and one each on her shoulders. A Virgin: before, during and after the Nativity of our Lord.
The Seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit
Question: Do I know what the Church is? This might at first appear to be a foolish questions to ask, but I do not ask it lightly. Most of us adults in the Church are too embarrassed to admit we don’t understand. What don’t we understand? We don’t know what the Church is! Perhaps, the most basic question we should ask is: “Do we have a personal relationship with Christ?” Ours is a personal God who came to earth, being born in a manger, so that each of us could enjoy a personal relationship with Him. After His crucifixion and resurrection, He sent His Holy Spirit to empower us; so that we could truly live. With our Baptism, we become new creatures in Christ, free of sin. With our Chrismation, we are given, as a free gift, His Spirit to allow us to grow in Him. By partaking in Holy Communion, we become united to Christ. The added dimension is that we are also united to everyone who participates in His Body and His Blood. The Church is actualised when we, as the faithful, come together and become the Body of Christ.
Through God’s Holy Spirit, we are no longer lonely individuals. We become personally united with Christ and through Him with each other. The Church transcends time and space. It has a cosmic dimension that connects us withHim and all Christians. This bond is not limited by physical death, time or place. The Church is Christ and all who are joined with him. This miracle is a mystery of faith. As St. Paul explains in his Letter to the Hebrews: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen” (Hebrews 11, 1). We cannot see the Church, yet it is! It is for us the ultimate reality; the Kingdom of God on earth and a foretaste of heaven. This is as personal a relationship that we could ever experience. Once again, St. Paul says it best, “ I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.
Let Christ be born in our hearts!
Question: Are we the Church of Christ or the church or Baklava and Kibbeh? This is a serious question. The reality is what started as a way to share our culture and to expose our ethnic heritage to the American public has now become something else. It was a really good purpose, but somewhere along the way we got hooked. What do I mean? The festivals that our Churches sponsor each year have become an income stream for many parishes. They have become a necessity and not icing on the cake. How many parishes dedicate 100% of the receipts to charity, civic endeavours or philanthropy? Just like a narcotic our parishes have learned to depend upon these yearly events, while allowing us, the parishioners, to avoid our personal responsibility to our parish. Stewardship should be the support for our Churches, yet as we rely on outsiders to fund our Churches: we deny our own duty and let the guests support of our parishes.
If we provide according to our means and responsibility then our festivals should be bonuses. There is a deeper question. Are we mature in our faith? Are able to look at our Parish as ours and as given to us by Christ to care for and support. If are faith is centred on Christ, then the parish is Christ and never a burden. The problem is our attitude towards Christ. Are we committed to His Church and to Incarnate Him in the world? During this Nativity season are we prepared to care for Christ out of love or are we content to let others meet our obligations?
Holy Theotokos Protect Our Church
Question: Is ours a Church or a Social Club? This should be one of the first questions we ask. What is our parish and why does it exist? To comprehensively seek the answers these questions, I think we need to look into our background. I will centre the discussion on the Greek communities; only because I know them best. But, I truly believe that my remarks hold true for Arab, Russian, Ukrainian, Serbian(or fill in your own ethnic group) Orthodox Churches. When we look into the past, all our Churches were social clubs in the past. Why? Our churches were made up of immigrants who transplanted their faith from the Mother countries. God bless them for their sacrifices and may their memories be eternal! These were the pioneers, clergy and laity who formed and planted our parishes. They needed each other and for the most part stuck together. That is excluding the political schisms, which often reflected old country politics. Truly, they needed the Church to be their social glue. They banded together with the communities as the focal point of their social life. Early in our American experience very few could join country clubs or other civic endeavors, most worked long hours and spoke little English and always with accents. Because of these factors and many more, the Churches were the social outlets. The families spent the majority of their time at Church sponsored activities or events. That was then.
Today, we are in our fourth or fifth generation in this country; our social, educational and financial integration in the fabric of American life is complete. The Church is no longer our only social outlet. Our relationship to the Church has changed, but have our attitudes changed. What is the role of the Church in our lives? There is no doubt that as a Christian community we need fellowship! The question is: “Do we seek to have the Church fulfill deep spiritual needs or do we still consider it a social club where we go to get our ethnic fix? This is the first and most basic question, we must ask ourselves. Church or social club? Which is it? At this time of year as we prepare for the Nativity of Our Lord and as our families gather to celebrate this joyous festival perhaps we can begin to ask each other serious questions about where we want to take our Church. After all, we are the Church!
We will be asked hard questions!
Where are they? As some of you know I am a cradle Orthodox. The truth is that I am also a generational, cradle Orthodox. I grew up in the Church with many contemporaries that are no longer in the Church. Where did they go and why did they leave? These are questions we are either ashamed or frightened to ask. I believe we delude ourselves by not seeking the answers to these questions. What is it about the Orthodox Churches in America, all jurisdictions, that greet and speak with pride of the “new” Orthodox; people who embrace the faith, while generations walk out the back door? There are many others who are primarily unchurched or who are holiday Orthodox. What do I mean? They come with parents or family for holidays or for family events either marriages, baptisms or funerals, but are absent the rest of the time. Years ago, we used to say it was “the language issue” or the “ethnic issue” Hogwash! Even in the most ethnic or single language areas, there are still churches which are predominately English speaking. This is not the reason, this is an excuse. We must look deeper, the vast majority of us need to ask serious question. Do I really understand what is going on in my Church? Is it meeting my inner needs? Obviously, by the exodus of faithful, we as the Church are missing the boat. Are we prepared to ask hard questions and listen to the answers. Over the next few blog posts I would like to ask some of these questions, but I would like this to be a dialogue. Comment and let’s try to engage the issue.
Personal note: Today is St. Eleftherios’ Feastday – to my beautiful wife Ria, Thea Ria, Granddaughter Ella, and Son Vastan (Eleftherios) I Love you all. Hronia Pola!
Yesterday, I highlighted the North American saints. The names Herman, Juvenaly, Innocent, Peter the Aleut are familiar and are becoming part of our shared heritage as Orthodox in America. To these names we can add St. John Maximovitch of San Francisco, St. Raphael of Brooklyn, St Alexis of Wilkes-Barre and others. There is a curious omission in this list. Are there none worthy of consideration who have served the Greek Archdiocese? We, of Greek heritage, can trace our root back to the St. Augustine, Florida experiment. Our first organized parishes in New Orleans, Galveston, and New York were founded in the mid to late nineteenth century. Among the faithful and clergy are there none who’s lives are worthy of commemorating and examining? Names of leaders and spiritual guides do come to mind. Archbishops (later Patriarch) Athenagoras (Spyrou), Iakovos (Coucouzis) or Michael (Konstandinides) are prominent on the list. There are bishops both accomplished in their contributions to our development and spiritual fathers. Bishops Athenagoras (Kavadas), Gerasimos (Papadopoulos) and Ezekiel (Tsoukalas) are a few among many. This cursory list does not even scratch the surface; there are priests, deacons, monks and laity worthy of consideration. Some are only known to the heart of God. The point is ours is a rich history with more than a century of growth and development. When will we be able to point to our community’s past and identify souls which God has sent us to enrich our spiritual heritage?