TRAVELING TO BETHLEHEM – (17 November 2010)

St. Gregory Thaumaturgos

St. Gregory Thaumaturgos

Today, the “star” that the Church holds up is a saint of the early third century.  This early father of the Church is known by quite a few names. Gregory of Pontus, Gregory the Miracle-Worker, Gregory Thaumarturgos and Gregory, Bishop of Neo-Caesarea. Gregory studied with Origen of Alexandria, who later baptised him.  An early vision was granted to St. Gregory. He saw the Theotokos shining like the Sun; she was accompanied by St. John the Theologian.  St John was dressed as a Bishop and at the instruction of the Holy Mother of God St John gave Gregory the text of what was to be his most remembered work, the Creed of Faith. This was a very early exposition of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Listen to the words of Bishop Gregory as he declares who Jesus is:

“There is one Lord, Only of the Only, God of God, Image and Likeness of Deity, Efficient Word, Wisdom

comprehensive of the constitution of all things, and Power formative of the whole creation, true Son

of true Father, Invisible of Invisible, and Incorruptible of Incorruptible, and Immortal of Immortal

and Eternal of Eternal.”

This is the mystical teaching that Gregory received and passed on to us. This is one of the steps the Church reached on its way to our Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.  The road of salvation history, which began with creation, travels through the Old Testament, to the cave of Bethlehem. That road continues, as the revelation of Christ as the Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity and the Redeemer and Saviour of creation unfolds in time.  For us, this revelation has a dawn in a manger in Bethlehem, the same manger that we travel towards over the next forty days.

Traveling to Bethlehem

Bethlehem

It is a strange feeling blogging again.  I got fairly used to the idea of “blowing it off.”  The sad thing is that when you get out of the habit, part of you turns off the creative juices.  The issue is not writing, but figuring out what to write.  That is where I was – then I looked on the calendar to see if there were any saints on which I could reflect.   The week of November 8th – 15th looks like who’s who of “saintdom.” If you wished, you could pick just about any Church era and talk about a saint who’s memory was commemorated in the last week. The question arises, which of these saints should I choose to blog about, but maybe that is the wrong question. What is the thread that all these saints, from the bodiless powers to a modern bishop, have in common? The Holy Archangels, St. Nectarios, St. Menas, St. John Chrysostomos, St. John the Merciful, St Phillip the Apostle all in one week, can they all have something in common? It seems to me that this is the only valid question.

Today is the beginning of the Nativity fast. Again, we begin to centre our thinking the miracle of the Incarnation.  Superficially, this should be helped by the nonstop barrage of Christmas decorations and reminders that are everywhere around us.  Reflecting on the real essential message of Christmas gets more difficult each year as the commercial hype gets louder and more shrill.  Over the next forty days, that is what this blog will focus its attention, the essential message.

Returning to the question of the day, what do these saints have in common? They allowed Christ to be born in their lives. They welcomed Him and allowed Him to live in them, so that the people of their time could see Christ alive.  It is fitting to start our journey to Bethlehem guided by not one star, but a galaxy of bright stars.  Saints point the way even when the fog of our everyday life clouds the road. Hopefully over the next forty days, we will help to point the way. Please join in the journey; visit often and comment. Thank you.


The Blood of Martyrs

The Martyrdom of St. Stephen

The Martyrdom of St. Stephen

It is the end of a year, the twilight of December and these few days in the Church’s calendar could be called the Days of the Innocents.  Starting on December the twenty-seventh, our Holy Orthodox Church commemorates a series of feast days remembering the blood of martyrs shed for Christ.  The first day, we commemorate the Protomartyr Stephen. The Deacon Stephen is remembered in the Church as the first Christian martyr, which is technically correct in that he was stoned to death after Pentecost (Acts 6 & 7). St. Stephen spoke to the people of Israel summarising the fulfilment of the promise of God in the person of Jesus, who had been crucified.  Stephen was forthright and pronounced Jesus “the Righteous One of Israel”, identifying Him as the Messiah.  The enraged the crowd attacked Stephen and stoned him.  With his eloquence, St. Stephen used Jewish history to confirm Jesus as the Anointed One.  It is declaration of faith and his sacrifice, which we commemorate some two thousand years later.

Lost in the celebration of Saint Stephen are two martyrs of the Iconoclastic Controversy.  Sts. Theodore and Theophanes Graptoi, who first suffered branding on their faces with a poem ridiculing their support for icons. They knew that Christ had lived as truly God and truly Man here on earth. They endured because they affirmed Christ’s Incarnation by their support of the Holy Icons. Imprisoned with St. Methodios the Confessor, the brothers died because of the belief in Christ Born for humanity.

The calendar then calls to our attention, the “Twenty-Thousand Holy Martyrs of Nicomedia.”  In 302 A.D. these devout Christians celebrating the Feast of the Nativity According to the Flesh of Our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ were burned to death within their church. Can you imagine, twenty-thousand willing to die at one time for their faith. For us the number is mind boggling, yet we have experienced greater numbers of martyrs in the last decades; we have witnessed unknown Christian martyrs in the gulags and Communist prisons across Eastern Europe.  Last week, we saw His All Holiness, Bartholomew 1 and his dwindling flock in Constantinople, revealed as living confessors for the faith. Nonetheless, twenty-thousand martyrs at one time still evokes wonder and awe in our hearts.

There is no more poignant feeling in the hearts of humanity than the thought of children suffering.  Each of us have been touched by the vision of one child in pain or one child needlessly afflicted.  Just a few days ago, we celebrated the birth of one Holy Child for whom the world had waited for generations.  This little child born, in a cave, is born for the world’s salvation. With His coming, the world has discovered Light, but darkness is stubborn; and does not retreat willingly.  The blood of fourteen-thousand innocent children in and around Bethlehem is testimony to this darkness.  These babes, martyrs for Christ, were a glimpse into Christian history. The Church is watered by the blood of innocence. Only a short time from the joy of His Birth, we are faced with bitter weeping of so many deaths.  This dichotomy has been repeated all to many times in history.  The lives lost for the Saviour are beyond counting.  In each age men, women and innocent children have followed His footsteps, taken up their cross and obeyed His commandment of love.  “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” ( John 15, 13)  Additionally, we celebrate the commemoration of all the Christians who have died of starvation, of thirst, of cold, by the sword and by every other kind of violent death. The memory of these Christians, who died from hunger, thirst, by sword and freezing is remembered even though, we don’t have record of their names; God knows these martyrs . Their synaxis is served in the temple of the Theotokos in Chalcopratiya (in Constantinople) where the holy ark with the sash of the Most Holy Theotokos was placed.  As we see across the ages, millions of Christians have looked to the heavens and uttered the prayer of St. Stephen: “Lord Jesus, receive my Spirit.” (Acts 7, 59)

So as we begin a new year, we do so with the examples of the martyrs to give us courage so that we can face the unknown. Yet, this unknown will not have darkness, because the Light of the world has been born in a cave and banished darkness for all time! Christ is Born!  Glorify Him!!

The Slaughter of the Innocents

The Slaughter of the Innocents

Ecumenical Patriarch Talks Candidly

The Great Church in Captivity

The Great Church in Captivity

It seems to me that this is even more fitting now!  Please click on the  link below and watch His All Holiness Bartholomew I interviewed by CBS News.

http://www.cbsnews.com/sections/60minutes/main3415.shtml

ISTANBUL – There are two front gates into the walled compound that protects the home of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Visitors enter through a door secured by a guardhouse, locks and a metal-screening device. They cannot enter the Phanar’s main gate because it was welded shut in 1821 after the Ottoman Turks hanged Patriarch Gregory V from its lintel. The black doors have remained sealed ever since.

A decade ago, bombers who tried to open this gate left a note: “We will fight until the Chief Devil and all the occupiers are chased off; until this place, which for years has contrived Byzantine intrigues against the Muslim people of the East is exterminated. … Patriarch you will perish!”

The capital of Byzantium fell to the Turks in 1453. Yet 400,000 Orthodox Christians remained in greater Istanbul early in the 20th century. That number fell to 150,000 in 1960. Today fewer than 2,000 remain, the most symbolic minority in a land that is 99 percent Turkish. They worship in 86 churches served by 32 priests and deacons, most 60 or older. What the Orthodox urgently need is an active seminary and patriarchate officials are convinced the European Union will help them get one, as Turkey races to begin the formal application process

The Door of Tears

The Door of Tears

Pray for the Patriarchate !!!

Christ is Born!

Glorify Him!

The Bible and the Church – Lesson 1

the-bible-and-the-church

Attached is a beginning of a series on the Bible and the Church.  You must use Quick Time movie viewer. This is a FREE download go to http://www.apple.com/quicktime/download/.   Follow the instructions. To advance the images on the movie just please your curser on the image and click.  To advance each slide please place cursor on slide and click. Thank You!

I hope you enjoy this first class and more will follow!  Please send me your comments.  gpb

“With Fear of God with Faith and Love… ”

The Cup of Faith

The Cup of Faith

During the Divine Liturgy we are called to partake of Christ with the “Fear of God, Faith and Love… ” The fear of God is not the type of fear that means we are petrified and so terrified of God that we quake and live in horror; instead this “fear” is awe, reverence and veneration.  We know the holiness of God as Trinity and our separation from Him caused by our own sinfulness. This awe requires us to look at ourselves honestly and to understand the great gulf between us and Our Lord.  But, there is more to the invitation to the Chalice than fear. There are two more phrases that we need to consider.

With faith!  How can we approach God without faith?  We understand the great gulf between us, but faith can overcome this separation.  Faith in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, Our Lord becoming one of us; truly God and truly Man.  His love for His Creation is so great that  He put on our humanity through the Theotokos by the Holy Spirit to allow us to relate to Him. He assumed our nature to decrease the separation between us.  This mystery is beyond our understanding. The result of His love for us is to lessen the “fear” we have for Him. How can we fear one of our own?  Can we live in dread of someone who is there waiting for us to reach out so that His strength supports us in our weakness? With faith, we are certain that he is the gentle shepherd who will search us out when we’re lost and carry us on His shoulders when we’re too tired to walk to Him. This faith is a faith in God’s love for us. This faith is an assurance of Christ’s continued presence among us, His People.

When we realise Christ is there in the Chalice waiting for us, there is only one response – Love.  Love for God, a burning desire for Him to be the centre of our life.  By the invitation of the Church, we are called to partake and become one with Him. Not only are we summoned to join with Christ, but also to become one with all who share in this Cup. This is true love, to become part of each other. Christ became one of us and shared our nature because of His love. By sharing Him, we share each other. It is a miracle of His love that we enter into an intimate relationship with each other as a community.  As we partake of Holy Communion “with the fear of God, Faith and Love,” not only do we draw near to Christ; but equally to each other. The closeness of this bond is the unity that makes us the Body of Christ with one head – Our Lord God and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Answer the invitation!  Let us meet Christ and each other at His Cup of Love.

DISTANCE

LORD, SAVE ME !

LORD, SAVE ME !

What do you do when you lose faith?  How do we move from that abstract question to the reality of life? Frankly, I don’t have all the answers.  Sometimes I am full of questions, many of which don’t have easy solutions.  There is a distance between God and us that at times seems to grow even further. Yet, we are assured God is always available, awaiting us.  It would seem, we’re the ones who move away from God. For me this is very problematic.  When life deals you difficulties; whether illness, the death of a loved one or as in my case unemployment your faith is tested and you don’t know why. The Church tells us we should trust in God and surrender to His will. For me this is very hard. Trust is one thing, but knowing His will for your life is sometimes very confusing.   We are told not to fear, this is extremely hard to do when your life seems to be in such turmoil and you make choices that appear to be the correct ones only to turn out poorly. How do we know God’s will for our life? There are so many examples of faith in the scriptures, but how do we get from doubt to certainty. One of my problems is that I can relate to the theoretical, I can quote chapter and verse and I usually know the right things to say.  But, the application to life, is a struggle. Like most of us, I want to have faith and to be confident in that faith.  Why to we question our own heart and create such a turmoil in our spirit?  Seeking God is our natural state, yet we make it so hard.  I try to find answers for these questions in Scriptures or in the Lives of the Saints.  As I mull over these thoughts, I am sure that I am not the only person to have asked these questions. As I have tried to search out a path, I have found that the Church talks of two types of faith. The first is based on knowledge, understanding and leads to quiet and complete trust in God. This level of faith is the higher faith for which we all yearn.  Perhaps, the first step of faith is realising that we all question. I believe that prayer is a powerful weapon, so I ask for your prayers. I will pray that God strengthens our faith and gives us insight and understanding which leads to an unshakeable faith.

Lord Jesus Christ Son of God Have Mercy on Me a Sinner.

The Invitation

The Servant of God

The Servant of God

“Faith is a dialogue, but the voice of God is almost silent. It exerts a pressure that is infinitely delicate and never irresistible. God does not give orders He issues invitations.” This beautiful quote is taken from a lovely book by Paul Evdokimov, Ages of the Spiritual Life. This is a thought provoking statement, which really should be considered in these thoughts about faith.  We have spoken about teaching faith to children and learning faith from our elderly.  But, what is faith? The beginning phrase “faith is a dialogue”  is at once a simple yet complex idea.  With whom do we dialogue? What can we say? How does God answer our questions about faith?   As Christ tells us in the book of the Apocalypse (Revelation) 3, 20:

Behold, I stand at the door and knock;

if anyone hears my voice and opens

the door, I will come to him and eat with

him, and he with me.

Isn’t this quite an invitation?  Christ is waiting for us. His response to our faith is assured. So like a child whose first steps are tentative, our first faith steps may be shaky. God is there waiting for us no matter how weak our faith. He has promised us that if we reach out, as did St. Peter, he will grab us by the hand.  The invitation from Christ is offered more often than we realise.  At each Divine Liturgy we are issued an invitation.  The call to the Chalice allows us to reaffirm our Baptism.  It is our adult response to eat with Christ and to partake of him. Our God stands in waiting. No matter how far we have wandered or how long it has been. The invitation is prepared and personal.  Our faith is not an exercise by which we test God, but rather an opportunity to engage God in our life. Faith depends on our attitude. Do we realise that we have move away from God? Is there faith, however weak? More importantly, do we love God? Our invitation awaits us.  The invitation reads:

With the fear of God, with Faith and Love

Draw near!

“I believe; help my unbelief” – Mark 9, 24

Simple Faith

Simple Faith

Last week, I wrote about children and the Church. We often hear children are the Church of tomorrow. What dribble.  Children and the youth are the Church today; but they are not alone. We all assemble as the Church. I have a problem that many of you who know me can confirm, I tend to approach faith intellectually. I read, study and search out answers. The photo that I use today illustrates that which I envy, YiaYia’s simple faith.

We read in the Gospels, Our Lord says many times: “your faith has made you well.” (Mark 10, 52.) What is faith? In the 11th chapter of his Letter to the Hebrews, St. Paul has a beautiful chapter on faith. Parts of the chapter are read as Epistle readings on the Sunday of the Holy Fathers (the Sunday before The Nativity of Christ in the Flesh – Christmas) and on the Sunday of Orthodoxy (the first Sunday of Great Lent). But, I believe one of the most touching thoughts is captured in the very first sentence of the chapter:

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence

of things not seen. (Hebrews 11, 1)

One of the strengths of the Church is that each of us learn from the other. Last week, I said we are all responsible for teaching children. The beauty is that we can learn from everyone in the Church. If we stop and try to quietly follow the examples of faith around us; it will help our own spiritual growth.  Бабушка can teach all of us.  Grandma’s faith is born from years of prayer. Sittie’s trust in God gives us all an example, which will guide us.  Last Saturday, we celebrated the Dormition of the Theotokos, the Panagia is the model of the Church; remember her words: “Behold I am the handmaiden of the Lord; let it be according to your word.” ( Luke, 1, 38)  Trust in God, by putting things in His hands. YiaYia has learned her simple faith; and she shows us this in her unbounded love.  As we approach faith, we must learn both from YiaYia and from our children. They share a simple trust in God.  Yiayia’s trust is born from prayer, and a child’s trust is born from innocence. They are two examples from different ages, but are they really that dissimilar? Putting faith in God give both, YiaYia and a child, a serene confidence and a peaceful reliance on His Love. Knowing that God loves us no matter who we are should allow us to put our hearts at ease. We have children, YiaYia and what is more important the example of the Most Holy Theotokos to guide us. Let us declare, as did the father of the epileptic boy: “I believe; help my disbelief!” (Mark 9, 24).