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.
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.
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
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.
“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:
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).
You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so become yourself
Because the past is just a good bye.
I saw this beautiful photograph and immediately thought of this song from my youth by Crosby Stills and Nash. Now that I am a grandfather, the sentiment means so much more to me than it did in the sixties. The lesson you learn as a clergy man who is privileged to offer the Body and Blood of Our Lord to the faithful is that children show if they have been taught well. How children approach the Holy Chalice says worlds about their first Church, the Church of the Home. I have heard many opinions and arguments concerning frequent communion, but none are as powerful as a child approaching the Holy Cup with love and joy. Please, don’t misunderstand me all of us, even children, will have an off day. Perhaps, they’re tired or restless or it’s just one of those days. But, you can always tell a little one who comes to Church often and receives Christ in their life often. They show the love in their hearts with their eyes.
Teach your children well…All of us parents, grandparents and Godparents should teach well. There are many of us who teach, even if we don’t have children. Yes, we are all on a road and for a short time we carry little ones, until they walk on their own. Instilling a code they can live by is our responsibility. The community of faith is all of us; and we all have a duty to pass on this faith. We live in a world that at best ignores faith. Even worse, it can ridicule and denigrate faith. We cannot teach faith only on a Sunday morning. We must live our faith each day and reflect the love of Christ in our hearts with joy. Carefully answer questions of the young putting Christ first. We have all heard the expression, “We teach by example.” The lyric says: “so become yourself,” becoming your genuine self is living in Christ each day. Do this and with God’s help, you will teach your children well!
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
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.
The chapters we will explore today are chapters 5 and 6. It is my opinion that the editors of this book made a slight mistake. I believe that the order of these two chapters should be reversed. So, I am going to discuss chapter six, first. The topic of this chapter is Alexander Bukharev. He was a Russian religious thinker of the nineteenth century. Honestly, he is a reasonably unknown except to a few Russian specialists. As Mme Behr-Sigel reveals, Bukharev’s theology has influenced many Russian theologians of this last century, the names of which, we would all recognize from the Russian émigré community of Paris. Most of all, I believe Bukharev influence is evident when the topic of the “mystical theology” of Orthodoxy is discussed. A child of a clergyman, a theologian, monk-priest and once again a layman, Alexander returned to the world after some years in monastic life. In his teachings, he emphasized the parallel between the kenotic love of Christ
and being the servant of one’s neighbor in the world. Through his life and writings, we can see a Christian who does not cloister his faith, but makes faith alive in service to humanity. For Bukharev, a faith alive was one that had a social context to alleviate suffering in the earthly world. As Behr-Sigel says: “Bukharev’s approach was the integral connection between this ‘mystical theology’ and the concern for a compassionate, actively creative and transforming presence in the world.” The Monk in the City as Elisabeth titles her essay elucidates a life of service linked with a profound spiritual empting of one’s self to express the love of Christ. This theology expresses “worship of the living God through service to others” is evocative of the life of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
The proceeding chapter focuses on the story of Mother Maria Skobtsova (1891-1945)a spiritual inheritor of the theology of Bukharev. Born in Latvia, her name in the world was Elisabeth Pilenko. She became a politically active Socialist in Russia around the time of the revolution; escaping to Paris with her husband. In Paris, she became involved with the Russian Students Movement and became friends with many of the Russian theological intelligentsia. Sergius Bulgakov became her father confessor. A theologian, poet and social worker she petitioned her bishop to take up the habit. She was professed and was given the monastic name Maria.
She strongly wished to continue a monasticism open to the world in the manner of Alexander Bukharev. In the 1930s she reached out to the suffering poor of Paris. A controversial socially active monasticism caused a scandal with more conservative church members, but Mother Maria endured. With the advent of World War II, Mother Maria and her friends reached out to help Jews hide and escape Nazi persecution. She was betrayed to the Germans and was put to death, taking the place of a young girl scheduled to die in the gas chambers. Her martyrdom took place in the last days of the war in Ravensbruck concentration camp; On January 18, 2004, the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul recognized Mother Maria Skobtsova as a saint along with her son Yuri, the priest who worked closely with her, Fr. Dimitri Klépinin, and her close friend and collaborator Ilya Fondaminsky. All four died in German concentration camps. On January 18, 2004, the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul recognized Mother Maria Skobtsova as a saint along with her son Yuri, the priest who worked closely with her, Fr. Dimitri Klépinin, and her close friend and collaborator Ilya Fondaminsky.
As we enter the second week of Great Lent, I would like to reflect on a theme, which recurs throughout the hymns of the Church during this period. Repeatedly, we are reminded of the image of the fallen Adam seated outside the gates of Paradise lamenting his state.
Most strikingly this image is brought to our attention during the first and fifth week of the Great Fast with the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. This beautiful piece of poetry is more than words and chant. The difficulty that we experience is that the theology and metaphors are lovely, but how do we relate to them in this day and age. The theme of repentance has been developed from the pre-lenten Sundays until this time in Lent, so let’s leave that one aside. I would like to think about an aspect of the illustration of Adam sitting in front of the gates pondering his circumstance. The idea that we must sit back and consider “where we are” is one painfully close to home. When I think about the things that must have been going through Adam’s mind, one possibility keeps bothering me more than any other. It occurs to me that he might very well be thinking about being separated from a friend, a real friend, one who genuinely cared for him. Was Adam aware of his new condition? How aware was he of the emptiness in his heart and did he long to have God back in his life?
During these difficult days, people out of work (me included), the economy in a tailspin, major companies in trouble and the markets very unpredictable, the sense of uncertainty can be overwhelming. What must Adam have been thinking? Talk about an uncertain future! Did he ask the same questions we all have asked? Where do I go from here? My world has changed, it will never again be the same, – can I cope? Where has God gone? The reality is that even after Adam had disobeyed God’s law; God came looking for him. The plan of salvation was already in process. God loved so much He already had humanity’s restoration willed through the grace of the mystery of the incarnation of the Son through the Holy Spirit, for our sake. As Christians, we live in the light of Christ’s Resurrection. Our fallen nature has been lifted out of Hades, just as our ancestral parents were seized by the hand of Christ and rescued from darkness. When we think that our life is so dark know that Christ our God is there in the darkness waiting to lift us up by the hand.
Our prayer should be: “O my God, here is my hand!”