Northern lights – the Aurora Borealis, this phenomenon has longed amazed us. As we look into the northern skies, we Orthodox should remember that we have our own northern luminaries. Today is a great day to reflect on our own stars from the North. Today, Orthodoxy commemorates the first North American to be canonised a Saint. St Herman (Germanos) of Alaska was one of the trailblazers of the faith, who came to these shore not to find treasure, but to bring a treasure, the Holy Orthodox faith. Yesterday, the Church commemorated a spiritual descendant of St. Herman, a martyr for the faith, St. Peter the Aleut. In these two days, we look at labour and its fruit. St. Herman was the labourer and St. Peter the fruit of the labour. How can we Orthodox faithful in America not rejoice today? No matter what our own backgrounds, how can we not express admiration and ask for the blessing of St. Herman? As the Enlightener of the Aleuts, Herman worked to save souls and to bring Christ to the Native peoples of Russian Alaska. The light by which he enlightened is brighter today because of the seeds St. Herman planted. Orthodoxy is no longer a strange faith from a foreign land, but part of the fabric of life on this continent. As we see in the news, a raging blizzard is blowing across the Midwest. We hear of travel delays, snow and ice paralysing the country, but think how it was in the early nineteenth century in the small hut of St. Herman. He had the warmth of God’s Holy Spirit and the brightness within his heart to warm his hut. He has become an adornment in the northern sky. Even though the Aurora Borealis is a natural occurrence; perhaps, it is God’s way of focusing our spiritual eyes on the great northern lights of Orthodoxy.
All these icons look alike! How many time have we Orthodox heard this comment about icons. The reality is that there are subtle differences, often with great theological meaning. Today, is one of these times. The saint who we commemorate today is St Spyridon of Thymithous. Look closely, what is different about this icon? We see the familiar icon of a hierarch of the Church with his ecclesial vestments and carrying the Gospel book. Not much different from many icons we see in the Church. But, when we look closely we notice a strange hat on the figure. Most icons of the hierarchs are bare headed, what is the meaning of this strange triangular hat. By reading a bit, we discover that St. Spyridon had been a shepherd and was elected bishop because of his great piety. What did Spyridon do then? According to the Prologue of Ohrid, he continued to live simply and care for his livestock. He also shepherded his spiritual flock the people of his diocese. He was devoted to being a shepherd of souls. As we know, St. Spyridon was present at the first Ecumenical Council. A country bishop from a backwater diocese, really an unsophisticated, uneducated delegate. As his story tells us, the Holy Spirit enlightened Spyridon to expound the true theology of Christ, fully man and fully God. While he preached the truth, Arian one of the most erudite scholars in the Empire was put to shame. A shepherd and a bishop; perhaps our modern hierarchs can remember that they are at their hearts – simple shepherds.
“Can you tell me the differences between the Roman Catholic Church and our Church?’ I cannot tell you how often I have been asked this question! Well, today is a big part of that answer. Today, we commemorate The Conception of the Theotokos by Saints Anna and Joachim. Last night, I wrote about this holy couple’s great desire to have God intercede in their lives, listen to their prayers and bless them with a child. Not unlike Sara and Abraham and other Old Testament couples, Joachim and Anna were advanced in age, perhaps too advanced. But, God did heard their prayers and allowed them to conceive. This is the first important point that must be noted, the Virgin Mary was conceived in the normal biological manner; the product of the loving union between a husband and wife. God’s blessing and the intervention of His Holy Spirit enabled this to happen. This is one of the reasons Joachim and Anna are the image of married bliss for Orthodox couples.
The Conception of the Theotokos is a source of another divergence in theology between Orthodoxy and Catholicism. We, Orthodox, do not believe in the “Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.” We must be very careful here! We (Orthodox) DO believe that Our Lord Jesus Christ was Immaculately Conceived. Christ being Fully God and Full Man was born without sin. God can not have sin. But this was not the case for his mother, the Theotokos. The Orthodox Church teaches that Mary was born with sin, just as all of humanity. Furthermore, the Church believes that Mary lived a life of purity and she found favour with God because of her righteousness. She was cleansed of her sin by the Spirit of God at the Annunciation, so that she could carry the Christ Child within her body.
Turning to the Roman Catholic understanding, it started to divert from the Orthodox very early. The Western Church began to develop the teaching of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin. Their teaching states that God, fore-knowing, that Mary would bear the Christ; provided that she was born without sin. This teaching was a pious belief until 1854, when Pope Pius lX declared the teaching – dogma of the Catholic Church. This decree was then ratified by Vatican I in 1870. So we can see this is a relatively new doctrine. This is a rather simplistic explanation. There are other deeper theological implications, but nonetheless, the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary is a major area of theological disagreement between the two Churches.
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.
Note from Dn. George: I have been overwhelmed at work, but I will catch up between now and the 25th.
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.
Today, we commemorate St. Andrew the Apostle. One of the titles by which we know St. Andrew is “the first called” (John 1, 40). The Gospels tell us that Andrew was a disciple of St. John the Baptist and that he joined Jesus at St. John’s direction. This was the beginning of Christ’s ministry. Let’s take a minute to examine the word “called.” What is the implication of being called? Instead of using a dictionary to define the word “calling”, perhaps the best approach is to define the word by example.
Today is the patronal feast of our Ecumenical Patriarchate. The Patriarchate is our example, par excellent, of calling. Patriarch Bartholomew is the 270th successor of Sts. Andrew and Stachys. It is his calling to be a confessor for the faith, a living martyr. Yesterday, we listed several spiritual traits that we should acquire to prepare for our journey to the manger. Look at this list and add the phrase “The men and women of the Patriarchate, led by Patriarch Bartholomew show us …..” Each spiritual trait describes the calling of the Ecumenical Throne.
These people of faith keep the light of the Phanar bright, so that we Orthodox can truly understand calling. Vocation is answering the call, dedicating one’s life to a higher expectation. These Orthodox souls keep vigil on our past, while looking to our future. Today, we celebrate the rich heritage which we all inherited. Today, we commemorate St . Andrew who answered Christ’s invitation to change the world. Let us also celebrate our brothers and sisters in Constantinople, who have been called to be sentinels of the faith and bastions of Orthodoxy. Thank you and God Grant You Many Years!
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!
** 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
** 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.