Traveling to Bethlehem (08 December 2010)

Prayer  of St. Anna

Prayer of St. Anna

Today is one of those days of preparation that the Church provides us to get ready for a holiday.  Tomorrow, we commemorate the Conception of the Theotokos.  Today, we get ready.  We have an opportunity to pause and consider the importance of the coming event.  Where should we look for a better understanding of the feast?  Like many feasts of the Church this occurrence is not documented “in the Bible,” yet it is a significant happening in salvation history.  Where does one go to learn about this festival? Where do you start? I decided to ask this question out loud; so that we could learn from each other. We know that the hymns of the Church describe the theology of a feast. What do they say? The Troparion sung at the Vespers for tomorrow speaks of the “bonds of barrenness being loosed” and of the “prayers” of Joachim and Anna asking for “birth beyond hope.”  What do these clues tell us?  If we read closely, we see that this couple was without children and beyond the hope of having children, they prayed for God to change their life.

In an earlier post, we stated that many of our hymnographers got inspiration from the other writings, from the Christian Apocrypha.  The book, the Protevagelium of James, (The Infancy Gospel of James) tells us the story of the birth of the Virgin Mary. We read in the first part of this book about the “prayer of St. Anna.” In her garden, Anna turns to God in her prayer. She describes her barren womb as contrasted to the fruitfulness of the natural creation. Anna begs Our Lord to bless her and allow to “bring forth fruit in her season.” An angel of the Lord appears to St. Anna and informs her that God has heard her prayer. He tells her that she would conceive and give birth to a child. In gratitude, Anna pledges to dedicate her child as a gift to God, since it would be a gift from God.  Not only are these ancient sources inspiration for hymnographers; but also for iconographers (as we can see above). The child, which the angel announces is conceived as every child is, as a blessing from God; but this child is a blessing for all of humanity.

Traveling to Bethlehem (7 Dec. 2010)

St. Ambrose of Milan

St. Ambrose of Milan

Ours or Theirs?  Grammatically, this might be an odd construct, but the question is valid.  About now, you are probably asking yourself; what is he talking about?  Have you ever wondered why we as Orthodox have difficulty accepting pre-schism western saints as ours? This is most common, I believe, it applies more when the saint in question is a famous or well known western saints.  Today is a good example: St. Ambrose of Milan of St. Augustine.  The more significant the contribution of a saint to the history of the western church the less we tend to recognize them.  A few days ago, both Churches commemorated the memory of St. Cecelia.  The question would then follow: “Is she one of ours?”

I had the privilege of studying in England, in a small town called Durham.  In the famous Durham Cathedral are entombed several Saints Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, Venerable Bede and King Oswald of North Umbria. My first reaction when I saw the tombs was to run to an Horologion to check if they were ”kosher.”  This type of reaction is complicated by linguistic variations.  How many know that St Photini, the Samaritan Woman, is called St Svetlana in Russia, St. Claire in France and St. Fiona in Celtic countries. Today the example of this possible confusion is St. Ambrose.  St Ambrose fought Arianism being influenced by Athanasius, corresponded with St Basil and was a great influence on St. Augustine of Hippo. When we look at Saints think across the universal Church.  Theirs are ours and ours are theirs and we are all enriched by this understanding.


Traveling to Bethlehem (29 November 2010)

Checking it Twice

Checking it Twice

Now that Thanksgiving is behind us, the focus naturally turns toward Christmas.  In the language of the Church, turns to the Nativity of Our Lord in the Flesh. Even though, we are beginning to concentrate on Christmas; what does it take to be really ready. This question doesn’t have anything to do with trees, decorations, gifts or menus. Are we really ready? It seems to me we are overwhelmed with things and we neglect to get our interior self ready.  The Christmas carol says Santa has a list and he is checking it twice.  What about a spiritual list:

CHARITY – are we concerned so much with ourselves that we forget our brothers and sisters?

LOVE – do we express Christian Love to our neighbours or strangers? Christ told us it is easy to love those who love us.

PATIENCE – with others and with ourselves.

HUMILITY – do we try to consciously check our ego, to be less prideful and understand our own sinfulness.

A PEACEFUL SPIRIT – do we seek to control our anger or rage?

FORGIVENESS – are we willing to forgive and FORGET?

SILENCE – are we able to shut out the hustle and bustle and seek tranquility of spirit?

FAITH – do we trust in GOD as we encounter our daily challenges?

Perhaps, we should make our list and check it twice!

Traveling to Bethlehem (28 November 2010)

The Cosmic Liturgy

The Cosmic Liturgy
The Blood of the Lamb

The Blood of the Lamb

** Continued from Nov. 26 Post…

Let’s consider the words: “Thine own of thine Own.”  What does this mean?  With these words, we acknowledge that all is God’s. He has give us the bounty, but there is an even more basic dimension.  God has given man wheat, water, salt and yeast. He has given us sugar and grapes. These are the raw materials for the bread and the wine, but it is not complete.  We have to add something, something only we can, our effort.  We must take God’s gifts and add our human effort to create bread and wine. We must work with the raw materials plus our effort.  But, now they are just plain bread and plain wine. What is the missing ingredient? …PRAYER.

As we include this essential ingredient, we also add our intention to dedicating this effort and these gifts to God.  This is symbolised by the Seal which we stamp on the bread. With this dedication and our prayers we bring the offering to the Church. Then God begins to interact with man, just as he did with His Incarnation.  He takes our offering and adds His Blessing.  Before, it can come to the altar as an offering; it must become more than the self centred gift of one person or one family. In the Service of the Oblation (the Proskomidi) our offering is expanded to include the entire cosmic reality of God’s world, this is what is on the Paten which will be brought to the Altar with the Chalice in the Great Entrance and offered to God.  “Thine own of Thine Own,” but what is the rest of it?  For all,  that is all of God’s creation and on behalf of all, each and every one of us. This is the ultimate Thanksgiving, this is the connection we have with all of God’s created world, the entire Christian family, both living and departed and the with  the Cosmos.  Ultimately, these gifts are not only blessed, they are consecrated by God’s Holy Spirit; which is send down upon ‘us and upon these Gifts here presented’  in  an Universal Thanksgiving for Salvation of the world by Christ Jesus. AMEN

Traveling to Bethlehem (26 November 2010)

Road to Emmaus

Road to Emmaus

** the next few posts are taken from a Homily given:

Nov. 28, 2010

In the Name of the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit…..

So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He appeared to be going further, but they constrained him, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened and they recognised him; and he vanished out of their sight. They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?”  Luke 24, 28 – 32.

This quote was taken from this morning’s Eothinon Gospel, the 5th. Dawn Gospel which was the reading in the Orthros (Matins) service.  I thought to myself what an interesting coincidence that on the week of Thanksgiving, we should be hearing of Christ sitting down to eat with some of his disciples.  We even read what was on the menu – bread.

Our own tables last Thursday were so different, all of us had such abundance.  No doubt, at most Thanksgiving Tables, there were the traditional foods: turkey, dressing, potatoes, cranberry and all types of pies.  We in North America, the US and Canada, are the only countries which officially celebrate Thanksgiving. But, let’s look at our customs.  Thanksgiving tables in our homes do have similarities.  We gather as families or with a few close invited friends.  The people we invite are like ourselves and they are carefully selected.  Each Thanksgiving table is surrounded by the familiar: familiar foods and familiar people. This is the comfort of the holiday, the fact that we can be with the people close to us.

But there is another Thanksgiving Table, one older than the table by which we remember the Pilgrims.  It is the table, we gather around each time this family comes to give thanks.  This table is open to all races, nationalities and peoples. It too is surrounded by a group of chosen friends, chosen by Christ to share in His bounty, His love and His life.  Let’s examine the word’s St. John Chrysostomos uses to focus on the Gifts brought for God’s Holy Spirit bless and sanctify: “Thine Own of Thine Own in all and for all”

This centres all of us on what? A piece of Bread? A Cup of Wine? Not these things, but the ultimate Thanksgiving, the body and blood of the lamb of God.

Traveling to Bethlehem (24 November 2010)

The Lord of the Dance

The Lord of the Dance

I can’t tell you how perplexed I have been by all the “hoorah” concerning the “Dancing With The Stars.” You know it doesn”t make sense. Don’t we have anything better to think about? I will say it did remind me of one of my favourite Christian songs.

“I danced in the morning when the world begun. And I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun.

And I came down from heaven and I danced on earth.

At Bethlehem I had My birth.

Dance then wherever you may be….

I am the Lord of the Dance said He:

And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be; And I’ll lead you all in the dance said He.”

LORD OF THE DANCE

This is the star we should all dance with. The star leads us all to a manger and there is the leader of the greatest dance, the dance from Bethlehem to our salvation. The Lord of the Dance is ultimately the Lord of All.

Traveling to Bethlehem (23 November 2010)

Protecting the Theotokos

Protecting the Theotokos

As I related last week, the hardest aspect of the forty days of blogging is not the writing, but the thinking about what to write. In today’s Wall Street Journal (online) there is a comment on a blog written by theologian Stephen Prothero decrying the lengthening of the Christmas season.  If you’re like me you noticed Christmas creeping into September. Very subtly, there were isolated aisles of decorations and Christmas “glitch” right next to Halloween costumes.

Why – to sell things, of course!  I don’t want to pound a dead horse, but it seems to get earlier each year. I don’t want to be trite and pound the “put the Christ back in Christmas” jingle, but the shorter Christmas season might not be a bad idea. Say forty days…oh goodness, the Church already figured that out.  Isn’t it amazing how attuned to human nature the Church is? We do need preparation and time to recover, so it is build into the ecclesiastical calendar.  Even the Gospel lessons, offer us an opportunity to think over concepts so that we can prepare for the coming Feasts.  Lessons concerning the glory of the Theotokos, the correct perspective towards money, charity to our neighbors, then the fullness of Christ within the “Law and the Prophets” and God’s preparation of humanity for coming of the Christ; all  provide spiritual and intellectual opportunities for us to prepare.  Do we look at these weeks as a time to spiritually prepare?  Or, are we too bogged down with the hype allowing that cynicism to overshadow every chance we have to block out the commercialism and focus on the real gift?

Traveling to Bethlehem (22 November 2010)

First Steps of Christ

First Steps of Christ

The gaps…Have you ever wondered about the gaps?  What I mean by the gaps is our understanding or even our description of the years which are missing in the accounts of the lives of the Theotokos and Christ.  Yesterday, we celebrated to Presentation of the Theotokos. What happened from age three until the mid-teenage years when we know that the Annunciation took place?  In the life of Jesus, we experience the Nativity, the flight to Egypt and his teaching in the Temple at age twelve. Afterwards, we have a gap until His public ministry begins at age thirty. Does anyone, besides me, wonder about the gaps?

We know that some material concerning these years can be found in ancient writings, which have always been known to the Church.  These are materials that were not placed in the canonical sources.  Some non-Orthodox “experts” have called these writings the “lost books” or “new sources” They were never lost, nor are they new. Orthodox monastics and theologians have used these sources to expand our understanding of the lives of the saints and events in salvation history. The Protevangelium Jacobi (The Infancy Gospel of James) states: “Now Mary was in the Temple of the Lord like a dove being fed and she received food from the hand of an angel.” The hymnographers, iconographers and poets of the Church have drawn on these writings to enrich our liturgical and faith experience.  As we Travel to Bethlehem, perhaps reading some of these books could expand your understanding. We must know that the Church has not endorsed these writings as inspired by God, but looks on them as resources to expand and enhance our faith journey.

TRAVELING TO BETHLEHEM (19 November 2010)

Prophet Obadiah

Prophet Obadiah

Feast of the Prophet Obadiah – Obi..who? This might well be the reaction to this Old Testament prophet. Obadiah was a post exilic prophet, that is a prophet who spoke to the Israelites after the Babylonian Captivity.  You might also hear of Obadiah being one of the “Twelve Minor” prophets.  Minor? This needs an explanation.  These prophets include Hosea, Joel, Amos, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zachariah and Malachi as well as Obadiah. Why are they “minor”?   The are grouped in this way because their writings are short in length.  Actually, The Vision of Obadiah is the shortest book in the Old Testament – only one chapter. Why should we care?

To find the answer to this question we need to look in one of the Eothina (Dawn) Gospels.  It is a familiar scene after the Resurrection, which is related by St. Luke in chapter 24, 13 – 53.  The resurrected Christ encounters some of his disciples on the road to Emmaus. Here we read: “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” (v. 27); not all the major prophets but all the prophets.  This is the what the Orthodox teaching tells us about the road to Bethlehem.  God prepared the world and most especially his people, the people of Israel.  This is the significance of Obadiah, he is one of the voices God chose to prepare for the Coming of Christ. Obadiah tells of the coming of a King to save his people.  The King is coming…are you preparing?

Traveling to Bethlehem (18 November 2010)

The Expectant Theotokos

The Expectant Theotokos

We have a neighbour who is expecting her new baby on December 23rd.  Last weekend, I saw her in her yard and asked how she was doing, she said she was a little uncomfortable, but was great and they were preparing for the new baby. This brief encounter started me thinking. What must have the Theotokos been thinking during this time in her life?   We celebrate the Annunciation in March then, we don’t think often about the Theotokos during her entire pregnancy, until we start to prepare for the Nativity.  Yes, there are other events that we commemorate in the liturgical calendar between March and December, but they are marking different times in Mary’s life.  What about the nine months that she carried the Christ child?  We know of only one incident; Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth (Luke 1, 39 – 56).  Out of that visit, we are given one of the most beautiful glimpses of Mary in the entire Bible.  The Magnificat, the Song of Mary. During this visit, this canticle is an expression of the love Mary (and the Church) for Christ.  Throughout the ages, Christians have expressed this love in prayer, hymn and music.

Μεγαλύνει ψυχή μου τν Κύριον

κα γαλλίασεν τ πνεμά μου π τ Θε τ σωτρί μου,

τι πέβλεψεν π τν ταπείνωσιν τς δούλης αυτο.

δού γρ π το νν μακαριοσίν με πσαι α γενεαί,

τι ποίησέν μοι μεγάλα δυνατός,

κα γιον τ νομα ατο,

κα τ λεος ατο ες γενες κα γενες

τος φοβουμένοις αυτόν.

ποίησεν κράτος ν βραχίονι ατο,

διεσκόρπισεν περηφάνους διανοί καρδίας ατν·

καθελεν δυνάστας π θρόνων

κα ψωσεν ταπεινούς,

πεινντας νέπλησεν γαθν

κα πλουτοντας ξαπέστειλεν κενούς.

ντελάβετο σραλ παιδς ατο,

μνησθναι λέους,

καθς λάλησεν πρς τος πατέρας μν

τ Αβραμ κα τ σπέρματι ατο ες τν αἰῶνα

______________________________________________________________________________________________________

My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;

For he has regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden.

For behold, from this day all generations will call me blessed;

For the mighty one has done great things to me, and holy is his name.

And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm;

He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts;

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has exalted the holy;

He has filled the hungry with good things,

and the rich he has sent empty away.

He has helped his servant Israel,

in remembrance of his mercy,

as he spoke to our fathers,

to Abraham and to his seed forever.

Even though the number of times we encounter the expectant Virgin are very rare; our humble reaction should echo Elizabeth’s exclamation.  “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!