TRAVELING TO BETHLEHEM (21 November 2010)

The Presentation of the Theotokos to the Temple

The Presentation of the Theotokos to the Temple

“Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!” But he said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11, 27 – 28)

This is the conclusion of this morning’s gospel reading.  When you first hear this exclamation and Jesus’ answer, you think, how rude!  Is Jesus belittling the Theotokos?  One must truly read closely what Our Lord has said.  The unknown woman praises Jesus’ mother for having borne and raised such a son.  Christ further praises the Virgin not for her biological contribution, as significant as it was; but more importantly for the faith that she exemplified in doing God’s will.  Mary’s obedience in faith allowed God’s Holy Spirit to overshadow her and to bring forth the Incarnate Lord. Mary contributes our humanity to be perfected by Christ and to join with His divinity to Incarnate the Second Person of the Godhead. Fully God and Fully Man, but as we know God respected Mary’s free-will and did not impose His will on the Virgin.  She heard God’s will and kept it. The journey to Bethlehem takes a big step today in the tiny footsteps of a precious little girl. Up the steps of the temple comes the preparation of God. As we chant in the Canon of the Akathistos “Hail! O Blameless one, the Palace of the only King. Hail! O fiery Throne of the Almighty.”

TRAVELING TO BETHLEHEM (20 November 2010)

Sts. Joachim and Anna with the Theotokos

Sts. Joachim and Anna with the Theotokos

Today is the Forefeast of the Presentation of the Theotokos to the Temple. I am constantly amazed by how the Church gets ready for a celebration and then “unwinds” after a feast.  Today in the Apolytikion of this day we hear:

By blossoming forth the only Ever-virgin as fruit, today holy Anna doth betroth us all unto joy, instead of our former grief; on this day she doth fulfil her vows to the Most High, leading her with joy into the Lord’s holy temple, who truly is the temple and pure Mother of God the Word.

We hymn speaks to us about St. Anna. How her pledge to God was to be fulfilled She was preparing to take her little girl to the Temple.  Yes, had promised God; but it must have been very hard.  After all she was only three.  What faith and trust in God.  For a mom to know that her little girl was going to be cared for and nurtured. The hymn says that She is “betrothing us to joy.” We are joined to the Theotokos even at such a young age.  Joy is how she is described. Sts. Joachim and Anna had been enlightened by God’s Holy Spirit to realise that something special was going to happen to their little girl, but they didn’t know what was in her future.  They had promised God and their focus was to fulfil their pledge.  They thought that the temple was a holy place for their child, little did they understand she was to be the Temple herself.  St. Gregory Palamas describes this event in this way: ”in a strange manner the Mother of God changes her dwelling from the house of her father to the house of God while still an infant.”  She who is the Holy one enters the Holy of Holies.

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.


My Sons – The Doctors

Sts. Cosmas and Damian the Unmercinaries

Sts. Cosmas and Damian the Anagyri

This rather stereotypical phrase is descriptive of a proud parent speaking of the accomplishment of their children. Even today, we express great joy when our sons or daughters reach that lofty position of becoming a physician.  The place of doctors has always been one of respect and admiration. Throughout history, the dedication of healers has usually brought prestige, social status as well as financial reward.    This is true today and it was true in antiquity.  This brings us to a series of saint-brothers who shared their given names and were all physicians.  The brothers commemorated November 1st. are the first in this remarkable grouping.  We have become familiar with their stories.  As Christians, they shared the conviction that the gifts which God had given them and which they had nurtured through study and hard work should be given back to those whom they served.  Physicians who served and asked nothing in return, but why?  First and foremost, these men were raised in an environment which allowed them to put their gifts and abilities realistically.  Their upbringing allowed them to look at their talents as “on-loan” from God.  Each of us are given gifts to nourish and develop; most do this wither it is by education or practice or both. What many of us forget, in the process, is the source of our gifts.  These three pairs of brothers knew that God had given them their gifts, the development of these gifts was inspired by God’s Holy Spirit and most importantly, the use of them was directed by Christ and His message of Love.

The greatest gift all these doctors have shared with us is not the gift of healing, as profound as it is, nor the example of giving as admirable as we know it to be; but the lesson of perspective. They knew the source of all gifts and thanked God by developing them and offering them back to God through His people. What are your gifts? What are you doing with them? How do you look upon them: as your right or the gift of a generous God?

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

The Bridal Chamber of the King

The Nativity of the Theotokos

The Nativity of the Theotokos

Each of us have experienced the joy of knowing someone who has found out that they were going to be a mother.  What a great delight!  The thrill of bringing life into the world is indeed a blessing.  On the eighth day of September our holy Church celebrates the Nativity of the Theotokos.  Her parents, Anna and Joachim, had waited so long to become parents.  They were embarrassed in their community, because they lived in a culture that looked upon childlessness as a punishment from God.  How did this elderly couple respond? They did not react with bitterness or with anger.  They humbly prayed to God to answer   their entreaties. Joachim fasted and prayed.  Anna prayed to be blessed by God as was Sarah.  Both prayers were heard and as two angels announced the news of the coming birth to Anna, her response was to pledge her child to the Lord. Joachim’s reaction was to bring the best of his flocks to the Temple as an offering to the Lord God.

St. John of Damascus declare in his Oration on the Nativity of the Theotokos Mary: “- …by how much more ought we to honour the Nativity of the Theotokos, through whom the whole human race has been restored [and] through whom the pain of our ancestress Eve has been transformed to joy? For whereas the latter heard the divine statement, “In pain you shall bring forth children” (Gen. 3, 16) the former [heard], “Rejoice favoured one!” (Luke 1, 28).  The latter [heard], “Your recourse shall be towards your husband!” (Gen. 3, 17) and the former, “The Lord is with you!” (Luke 1, 28)*

The new Eve is born and humanity is on the road to restoration.  Through Anna and Joachim’s prayers; God answered the prayers of mankind. The Lord prepared the way for the incarnation.  Anna was the daughter of Matthan, the priest  of the tribe of Levi; and Joachim the son of tribe of David. The priestly and the royal linage meet in the person of Mary. The Throne of the Most High has been provided for the coming of the messiah, a throne higher than the Cherubim…  Hail, Oh Bride Unweded!

* Wider Than Heaven: Eighth-Century Homilies on the Mother of God. Translated by and introduction: Mary B. Cunningham. Edited by John Behr. Vol. 35, Popular Patristics Series. Crestwood NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2008.

The Dormition of the Theotokos – 2009

The Dormition of the Theotokos

The Dormition of the Theotokos

APOLYTIKION

In giving birth, you did preserve your virginity, in your dormition,

you did not forsake the world, O Theotokos. You were translated unto life,

since you are the Mother of Life; and by your intercessions

you do redeem our souls from Death.

KONTAKION

The grave and death could not hold the Theotokos,

who is unsleeping in her intercessions and an unfailing hope

in her mediations. For as the Mother of Life she was translated to life

by Him who dwelt in her ever-virgin womb.

St. Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles

St. Mary Magdalene

St. Mary Magdalene

July 22 is the Feast Day of St. Mary Magdalene. I believe that Mary is one of the most interesting of our saints. She is a woman of great theological significance, but she is not well documented in history. The Tradition of the Church, gives us a good bit to think of concerning this special person. She carries several “titles” in the Church usage. She is known most of all as Mary Magdalene. With this, we know she came from a town named Magdala. This city was located on Lake Gennesaret (“a garden of riches”), which is another name for the Sea of Galilee or Lake Tiberias. Geographically the town would be located presently north-west of Haifa, Israel near the Golan Heights. This places her town north of Nazareth. Mary also carries the titles of “Apostle to the Apostles, Equal to the Apostles and of course Myrrh-bearer” There is mistaken idea that Mary was a prostitute before she met Jesus. This is not true! There is a tradition that Mary Magdalene led such a chaste life that the devil thought she might be the one who was to bear Christ into the world, and for that reason he sent seven demons to torment her. The first time Mary is mentioned in the Gospels is St. Luke 8,1-3; Christ freed her from these demons and she followed him thereafter. She is considered one of the Galilean disciples. We see her prominently in the Passion narratives. She followed Jesus to Jerusalem and was steadfast at the foot of the Cross with The Virgin Mary standing by Jesus in His darkest moments. She figured importantly in the post-resurrectional accounts. She is the first person to see the Risen Lord, whom she saw twice, she spoke to Him near the tomb, She was the first to announce the Resurrection. The privilege of being the “first” witness of the resurrection that was granted to Mary by the Lord is something that twentieth century sensibilities need to absorb. In the time of Christ, women were not considered creditable witnesses. They were not allowed to give testimony, only men were considered believable. Yet to Jesus this didn’t matter. He trusted these disciples, these women disciples to deliver the greatest news in the history of the world. She had seen Jesus die on the Cross, seen Him buried, seen the great stone set at the door, seen the guard posted at the door of the tomb, her tears were shed for her teacher, she saw a stranger in the Garden, until she heard a familiar voice call her name. She then saw Him resurrected and glorified. Joy overcame sorrow! As Jesus instructed her, Mary Magdalene found the other disciples. She was a member of the inner circle; she was trusted by them and when she delivered the message, “I have seen the Lord” (John 20,18) they did not believed her. Jesus had to appear to them and upbraid them before, even her friends, would believe such news.  The other appearances of Jesus are well documented in the Gospels.

After the Ascension and Pentecost, Mary travelled from Jerusalem to Rome where she announced the resurrection. One tradition concerning Mary Magdalene says that she used her position to gain an invitation to a banquet given by Emperor Tiberius. When she met him, she held a plain egg in her hand and exclaimed “Christ is risen!” Caesar laughed, and said that Christ rising from the dead was as likely as the egg in her hand turning red while she held it. Before he finished speaking, the egg in her hand turned a bright red (for more details, see Wikipedia). Each time we answer, “Truly, He is Risen!” we should think of Mary. After many years evangelising across the Mediterranean area, she travelled to Ephesus where she joined St. John the Evangelist and her friend, the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos. There she died peacefully. During the second Patriarchate of St. Photios the Great, he had her relics transferred to the Queen City (Constantinople).

Abba Sisoes the Great

Abba Sisoes the Great

Abba Sisoes the Great

On July 6th, the Holy Church commemorates Abba Sisoes the Great. We are so far removed from the desert fathers and mothers, the abbas and ammas, perhaps we should speak a little about these desert dwellers and their lives. Why did they flee from society and what was the call of these wilderness places? Names like Anthony, Arsenios, Pambo, Syncletica, and Macarios evoke a life of self denial and hardship.  Places like Nitria, Rhaithou, Scetis and Eleutheropoulos as well as other isolated locales sound strange and distant. Nonetheless, they are part of our Orthodox identity and Tradition.  These men and women sought to “follow Christ” and renounced a life in the world.  They had as their model St. John the Forerunner and took to heart the call to Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand! They sought to be like angels, to confront evil face to face and to constantly praise and glorify God. Most were lay persons and many were uneducated simple peasants. They saw themselves as sinners, tried to know themselves and to treat all with love and humility. Many came to listen to their counsel even though they sought solitude. Their short sayings have come down to us as beacons of spiritual light. These short sayings are available in books like The Philokalia, The Apophthegmata Patrum, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers and other works. Modern scholars like Fr. John Chryssavgis, Benedicta Ward and Dermas Chitty and many more have made their words accessible. Today, we can sit at their feet for a few minutes as did the pilgrims who travelled to deserted places.  We too can benefit from their wisdom. In our age of cult celebrity and “me first” attitudes; don’t the words of spiritual guides such as Sisoes the Great echo in our hearts.  In the early fifth century on Anthony’s Mountain, a monk asked Sisoes: “How can I attain humility?” The saint replied: “When a person learns to see themselves as inferior to all creatures, with that he attains humility.” (Ward, Benedicta, ed. 1984. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection. Revised ed. Kalamazoo MI: Cistercian Publications, p. 214.) The Venerable Sisoes the Great fell asleep in the Lord in 429 AD.

Apolytikion of the Venerable Sisoes the Great

“You proved to be a citizen of the desert, an angel in the flesh, and a wonder-worker, O Sisoes, our God-bearing Father. By fasting, vigil, and prayer obtained heavenly gifts, and you healed the sick and the souls of them that have recourse to thee with faith. Glory to Him that has given you strength. Glory to him that has crowned you. Glory to Him that works healings for all through you.”

Holy Abba Sisoes: Pray for us sinners.