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 (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 (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 (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 (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!

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.

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