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.

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).

WHAT IS OUR CHURCH’S TEACHING CONCERNING CREMATION?

Taking Down from The Cross

Taking Down from The Cross

Last week, I was asked about the Orthodox Church’s views of cremation. News from Greece is that there is a push to authorize cremation. The real story is that the push is coming from the secular government and it is being opposed by the Church. The teaching of the Church is clear, cremation is not allowed. We hear the argument that it is more economical and that the environment will be helped. These are just excuses. It is true that in Japan, where the state mandates cremation, the Church reluctantly has to accept the practice. But, it happens after the funeral service has taken place, with the body in the Church.

What is the theology of the Church’s teaching? The mystery of death has many facets, not the least being the attitude concerning the body. The earliest and most vital aspect of this teaching is the story of creation itself. Genesis 1, 26 clearly teaches that humanity is made in the “image and likeness of God.” This creation is not only our spirit, but our physical body as well. Christ with His Incarnation assumed our physical body. St. Gregory the Theologian states in his first letter to Cledonios: “The unassumed is unhealed, but that which is united with God is also being saved.” We also read in the prologue to St. John’s Gospel. ” The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1, 14) At the Resurrection and again at the Ascension, we believe that the Glorified Body of the Lord rose and ascended to sit at the right hand of God the Father. With this act of salvation our body is united to Christ. The Church teaches at the Second Coming our Glorified bodies will rise to meet the Lord.

We read in Genesis 3, 19, “…till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust and to dust you shall return.” The Holy Church believes that we are holistic creatures and that our bodies should be allowed to decay naturally. Respect for the natural order is strongly upheld in the Church’s teachings. The question comes to mind, what about times when out bodies are burned or lost at sea, or blown up? These are not wilful acts. Cremation is the choice of humans and intervenes in the natural order, because it is the direction of our will not God’s. St. Paul teaches ” Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” (1 Cor. 6, 19 – 20). Our bodies are anointed with the Holy Spirit at Chrismation and are Spirit filled! They belong to God.

It is the Orthodox doctrine that to consider the material world sinful is wrong. We believe that the material world can be sanctified by God’s grace. The Holy Spirit consecrates wine and bread into the Body and Blood of Christ. The Church sanctifies water, wheat, oil, food and our bodies. The witness of the saints is a convincing illustration of this glorification of the body. Many saints’ bodies, after their falling asleep in the Lord, do not corrupt. Their bodies testify to their glorification by God in Christ and His victory over death. The holy relics of the saints become Spirit bearing and many miracles are associated with them. Our consecrated temples, altars and antimensia contain relics of the saints. Additionally, the reverence given to Christ’s body at the Crucifixion by St. Joseph, St. Nicodemus and the Myrrh-bearing Women is a prime example of the reverence we Orthodox have for the body. The hymns and services of the Holy Passion are replete with references to the body and the respect which the Church affords it. The act of cremation is a violation against the body and is not allowed by the Church. Your questions can be asked by E- mailing me. Thank you.
Dn. George

The Nativity of St. John the Baptist (Luke 1, 5 – 25)

Troparion:

Prophet and Forerunner of the coming of Christ, we honour you lovingly but cannot extol you worthily; for by your birth your mother’s barrenness and your father’s dumbness were unloosed; and the Incarnation of the Son of God is proclaimed to the world.

This week, our Holy Church commemorates the Nativity of the Friend of the Bridegroom

St. John the Forerunner

St. John the        Forerunner

(see book by S. Bulgakov).  St. John the Forerunner, a cousin of Jesus, but what is more important, he was, as Jesus himself said, “…among those born of women there has risen no one greater that John the Baptist” (Matt. 11, 11). There is the portrait of John the Baptist, which is presented in the Gospels. We learn that St. John was the answer to a prayer.  His parents, Zachariah and Elizabeth were advanced in years.  They prayed for a child.  Like Sarah, the wife of Abraham, Elizabeth was beyond the time of bearing children. But, God had a plan of salvation and John the Baptist was to be His messenger (Is. 40, 3). God intervened so that His plan could be accomplished.  Elizabeth and Zachariah became the parents of a child, who they were instructed to name John. In the first chapter of Luke, we read John was chosen to be the one to prepare the people of Israel for the Lord (Luke 1, 16).  What was his message of preparation?  This preparation was contained in one word, Repent!  If we look at this word closely, John was not asking for sad eyed sorrow for what had been done.  He was calling for change, a radical change of direction.  Basic to John’s message were the admonitions to stop, think, examine and change.  Change the way you live, the way you treat others, the attitudes in your heart and make a new beginning.  This new beginning was and is preparation for the KINGDOM OF GOD.  This kingdom will arrive with the Incarnation of Our Lord.  God with Us, Emmanuel; this is the decisive moment in the history of the world and in our life.  John was born to deliver a message, to bear witness to Christ, to be His friend and to disappear(John 3, 30). Do we still hear his message today?

Who are our friends?

Last February, I wrote on this same subject, but his coming Sunday the Church commemorates two feasts that interest me enough so that I will discuss it once more. The first feast is All Saints Sunday.  In our lectionary and movable calendar, All Saints is always the Sunday after Pentecost.  The Western churches mark this feast on the day before Halloween.  Honestly, the connection has become lost in all the Halloween nonsense. Don’t get me wrong, I love Halloween for toddlers and pre-school children…they’re really cute all dressed up, but after that it goes down hill fast.  The whole thing has lost its dimension.  Never mind that now, All Saint’s Sunday has been set aside to commemorate all people enlightened by the Holy Spirit.  The beauty of this feast day is that the Church remembers those souls who are unrecognised saints.  What? Those persons who we do not recognise as saints, but who have known God and whom he knows.  This group of people has lived in all times and places, and has reflected Christ in their lives. Each of us have known such people of faith and have said to ourselves: “He/she is a real saint.”  Well, the Church sets a side this Sunday to commemorate them. Don’t think the rest of the year these people are forgotten. At every liturgy, immediately after the consecration ,the celebrant prays for a group of saints who have been ‘well-pleasing to God’. Each function they have provided the Church is listed from ancestors, to apostles, to teachers, the last phrase spoken is “every righteous spirit made perfect in faith.”  Again, we are called to understand that we can’t recognise everyone who is righteous, only God has this insight.  This Sunday we take time to acknowledge our own limited perceptions.

St. Methodios, Patriarch of Constantinople

The second commemoration we observe this Sunday is taken from the fixed calendar book of the months.  The Menaion for June 14 celebrates St. Elijah the prophet and St. Methodios I, Patriarch of Constantinople.   Methodios is someone extremely special to me.  You see, he was the subject of my doctoral studies.  I spent time getting to know Saint Methodios.  I could go on for many pages about this saint of the Church.  Reading my book (See link below) I would like to point out that Patriarch Methodios started out as a complete stranger, but the real man came to life as I studied him.  I understood his humanity, moreover I became aware of his sanctity and the contribution he made to the Church. Each of us need to know a saint, really know him or her. They are more than names on a calendar or a figures in an icon, they are people who struggled and overcame their humanity to become a reflection of Christ.  Holy Saints of God Pray for Us!

Enlightenment

We remember the Samaritan woman on the fourth Sunday after Pascha and on February 26 each year.  The Holy Gospel has not given us the name of the Samaritan woman, but the Tradition of the Church remembers, and calls her in Greek – Photini, in Russian – Svetlana, in the Celtic languages – Fiona, in Western languages – Claire, all these names speak to us of one thing – of light.  Again light, we spoke of light only two weeks ago! There is not a mention of light in the Gospel story of the Samaritan woman but, the light is there in the person of Our Lord. As in many encounters with Jesus, there is light or rather enlightenment.

St. Photini and XC 

       St. Photini and XC

The Apolitikion for St. Photini begins with these words, “All illumined by the Holy Spirit…,” once again, light. The constant mention of this phenomenon should cause us to stop and wonder. In this meeting with Jesus, the woman at the well gained insight into her own life and into salvation history.  Enlightenment can be defined as: the action or state of attaining or having attained spiritual knowledge or insight.  OK, what insight did she gain.  She understood the relationship of Jews and Samaritans.  She knew she was living with this guy who wasn’t her husband. She well knew her marriage history.  What is left?  It seems to me that Photini still had doubts as to Jesus’ identity. We read her question to the city dwellers, “Can this be the Christ?” She did peak the people’s interest so that they went out to meet Jesus.  After they came face to face with him and listened to him they believed.

 The tradition of the Church tells us that Photini and her family were present at Pentecost. We read that St. Peter addressed the crowd by saying,”Repent and by baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2, 38) Her enlightenment was linked to her baptism, which the Church refers to as illumination.  She sought forgiveness for a life away from God. This was a process beginning with her meeting with Jesus and His coming into her life and her receiving the Holy Spirit, her empowerment at Pentecost. She was on fire with Christ, but the flame had to be nurtured and fanned from a spark lit by the Light and the warmth of the Holy Spirit.

Paralyzed

This week our Church commemorates the Sunday of the Paralytic.  The Gospel reading is taken from St. John 5, 1 – 15.  One thing struck me after I read this passage.  Aren’t all of us paralyzed in one way or the other?  The young man in the Gospel account was physically impaired for many years, but he never gave up on the possibility of being healed.  He waited by the pool for thirty-eight years for his deliverance.

Christ and the Paralytic

Christ and the Paralytic

Many of us who are paralyzed spiritually, emotionally or psychologically sit by the side of life.  There may be limitations to our understanding, we may not be able to move past a scar on our heart, perhaps we cannot forgive some hurt we have experienced.  Do we live our life trying to be healed or trying to ignore our malady?  The question that Christ asked the young man is very pertinent to our own circumstances or powerlessness, “Do you want to be healed?”  At first, the obvious response would be an indignant, “of course,” but many of us wear our debilitation as a badge of identity.  Not too many weeks ago, we were anointed with the sacrament Holy Unction.  While we were being anointed, the invocation reminded us that Christ is the physician of our souls and bodies. Souls and bodies, we are told that the young man needed physical healing. Nonetheless, waiting next to the pool for thirty-eight years to be healed must have left emotional scars on the young man. As we analyze all the miracles of Christ, He heals each person whom He encounters; provided that the person turns him in faith.  The healing always restores the person to wholeness.  So, it is understood that all aspects of this paralyzed man was healed.

Turning to Christ in faith is not a magic formula.  Wholeness involves the restoration of our spirit. This restoration may impart to us the capacity to recognize our paralysis, to understand its cause and to start on a path to wellness.  Its possible physical limitations remain with us to illumine our heart to overcome the deeper emotional weakness. The healing of Christ is a mystery as is the opportunity to witness His love in our life.  Our witness, like the young man’s in the temple, is the acknowledgement that God is working to transform our heart.

Silence

This last Friday, I did not place my accustomed posting on this blog.  Ria and I were in Houston for the forty day blessing of our newest grandson, Peter.  It was a great honour for us to be present as a new child of God made his entrance into the temple of Our Lord.  I hope you all excuse me for being a proud Papou and skipping the last entry.  I promise to make it up, as this conversation continues.

LazarusToday, I would like to talk about silence.  As I was growing up, my parents always referred to the Friday before the Saturday of Lazarus – as the “Silence (oi koufi)”.  I always thought this was because the Akathist had finished and there wasn’t a service that night.  Ok, there was silence.  Now, I look at this a bit more deeply.  If you remember a few years ago, there was this movement to help young people make better decisions by using the question, “What would Jesus do?”  As I recall, there were even little rubber bracelets with the letters “WWJD” on them. In this case this is the question that should be asked.  The Gospel reading of the Raising of Lazarus, (John 11, 1 – 45) begins with Jesus apparently hesitating to go to his friend’s aid.  Well, this supposed hesitation had a real purpose, for all to see the glory of God.  How was this to be accomplished?  Our Lord seemingly was blasé about Lazarus’s illness and rushing to his side.  After staying put for two days, Jesus prepared to go to Bethany informing His disciples that Lazarus was dead. As Jesus encountered Martha and Mary, they expressed thoughts that we all feel at sometime, “if only.”  They were sure that if only Jesus had been there Lazarus wouldn’t have died, but Jesus was silent and missing.  For us to truly understand Jesus’ hesitation, we need to know a bit about the Jewish teaching concerning death.  At day four, in the Jewish understanding, the soul left the body in other words the body was a cadaver, a corpse. So if Lazarus was a corpse, Jesus did not simply resuscitate him.  As Jesus called forth Lazarus and Lazarus walked out of his tomb Christ created life from dead matter.  The Creator God bestowed life on Lazarus.  Christ is God and the silence of Lazarus’ tomb was shattered. To the assembled crowd this silence was deafening.

Standing By…

There is a word that appears in the hymnography of the Church which is prominent in Great Lent and in Holy Week on which I would like to spend a few minutes.  That word is stavrotheotokion.  If we look at this compound word and break it down to its component parts we can recognize a couple of fairly familiar Greek words, Stavro – Greek for cross and Theoto(kos), the Mother of God.  Now, we can connect the concepts The Theotokos and the Cross.  The Stavrotheotokion is a troparion (short hymn with a theme usually sung after a verse of psalm), which is a manifestation of true human emotion.  It is a poetic expression of the pain, sorrow and astonishment of a mother beholding her Son and her God on the Cross.  These verses of theology and tenderness are heard in many of the services of the Great Lent, but reach their zenith in the services of the Holy Passion.  The Theotokos expresses the wonder of us all.  The awe, which could only be articulated by a mother who has kept a secret for many years (“and his mother kept all these things in her heart” Luke 2, 51).  The identity of her Son as the incarnate God was known the Theotokos since the Annunciation.  Now she suffers a new mystery, the inscrutability of her Son and Creator taking on death by His own free choice.  Each of these verses proclaims the truth of Christ’s condescension.

The Lament of the Virgin
The Lament of the Virgin

…”Woe is me beloved Child, light of my eyes!  Thou has hung the earth above the waters, how can you endure to be nailed upon the Tree between two evildoers.”  – Vespers of Tuesday in the Third Week.  

None the less, the Virgin stands by the cross, hour by hour true to her mission to intercede for the entire world.  Her pain is palpable.  Her lament is moving and yet there is true nobility in her devotion.  When all the disciples, except John the Beloved, had fled because of their fear, she and the other women stood there unafraid.  St. Romanos the Melodist has captured her grief and her consolation in a kontakion (a combination of troparia of the same structure, connect alphabetically or acrostically) used on Great and Holy Friday.  This    dialogue between the Theotokos and her Son becomes the revelation of God’s plan of salvation in poetry.  This kontakion is lyrical theology, stavrotheotokion with the voice of response by our Crucified Lord. Christ assures the Theotokos just as she witnesses his hanging on the Cross, she would receive this grace.

The Theotokos at the Cross
The Theotokos at the Cross

 “Courage, Mother because you will see me first on my coming first from the tombs.  I am coming to show you by how many toils I ransomed  Adam and how much I sweated for his sake. I shall show it to my friends by showing the marks in my hands and then you will see Eve, Mother, living as before, and you will cry out with joy:  ‘He has saved my forebears,     my Son and my God.’*
*(St. Romanos the Melodist. On the Life of Christ: Kontakia. Translated by Archimandrite Ephrem Lash. Edited by Kerry Brown, The Sacred Literature Series. New York et al.: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995, p. 148).