The Saints of January
If you take a quick look at January’s ecclesiastical calendar you notice that it is dominated by big events. Christ’s Circumcision, St Basil, Epiphany and its associated feast days, St. John the Forerunner, St. Anthony, Sts. Athanasios and Cyril and the Three Hierarchs (together and separately). Goodness, it’s enough to make you tired. With this post, I would like to look at some of the other commemoration; lest they slip by us. January has a great number of saints that are not featured in bold type, but are extremely interesting in their diversity and their spiritual examples to us. From the very first day, we see the unfolding of families of holiness with Gregory of Nanzianzos (Sr.), father of Gregory the Theologian, to the last day Sts. Cyrus and John the Unmercinaries. We see examples of piety, sacrifice, people who defended the faith and ascetics. There really isn’t enough space to write concerning each saint, but needless to say the variety and diversity are a little mind boggling.
Perhaps, it is more beneficial to think a moment of the intent of the Church to commemorate saints at all. Why do we bother? What good do all these strange names and strange sounding places do us? Most of the people held up for our consideration are literally strangers. We might know someone named Gregory or Tatiana, but few of us know a Hermylos or a Kalogeras. What good do all these historical figures do us? It would seem to me that we can all acknowledge that we live in an age of celebrity. All over television, radio, newsstands and the internet we can not get away from what some “personality” wore last night, said inappropriately, or with whom they were seen. From film stars, to sports’ figures, politicians or the new name of the week; we are constantly inundated by useless prattle about someone who is looking for their fifteen minutes of fame. The sad truth is that many times, we stop and pay attention; only, so that we are “in the know”. What a sad commentary! When confronted by the Church calendar, do we think that these people, who are commemorated, have been held up as examples for hundreds or even thousands of years? How many present day celebrities will have that kind of staying power? The answers to these rhetorical questions truly challenge us to put our priorities straight. Who do we wish to understand, some temporary here today gone tomorrow plastic celebrity or a saint who has been remembered by Christians throughout the ages. Perhaps, we should put a little effort in getting to know a new saint a month. Pick one, choose a new name and look them up. You can even Google most of them. Make this a project this year. Less fluff and more substance; it might be fun and think of how edifying it will be when we know twelve new saints. Within these saints there very well might be a new friend or someone who catches our imagination with the way they brought Christ alive in their time. If you would like refer to Prologue of Ohrid for information on the saints. (http://www.westsrbdio.org/prolog/my.html.)
The Martyrdom Of St. Ignatius
Question: What is an apostolic father? Today, this is a fitting question. It is the feastday of St. Ignatius of Antioch, the God-bearer. St Ignatius was the second bishop of Antioch after St. Peter. Back to the original question, Ignatius is an apostolic father; because he was a disciple of an apostle of Christ. In St. Ignatius’ case, he was a disciple of St John the Evangelist, the beloved disciple of Christ. His writings allow us to see the development of theology in the first part of the second century. Ignatius was sentenced to death in the arena at Rome about 108 AD. On his way to his death from Antioch, Ignatius wrote several letters to various Churches along the route. These epistles give a serious glimpse into the early theology of the nascent Christian Church. Some of the most interesting topics which Ignatius discussed were the three distinct pastoral offices: bishop, presbyter and deacon, the concept of divine economy (God’s plan of salvation), the idea of Christ as the God/Man, the theology of the Episcopos (Bishop) and the role of Rome in the early Christian community.
Ignatius is known as the “God-bearer” which features his theological concept of being in Christ. This is the idea that centres us on Bethlehem. Each of us are called to welcome Christ to be born in our hearts as He was in the manger. Ignatius prays for the Church:
I pray that there may be a union based on the flesh and
the spirit of Jesus Christ, who is everlasting life, a union
of faith and love, to which nothing is to be preferred, but
especially a union with Jesus and the Father.
(Epistle to the Magnesians)
Here we see Christians are united to Christ. They allow Christ to be born into their hearts and their community through the Eucharist, in communion with their Bishop. All Christians are called to be Christ-bearers as was St. Ignatius. This is our calling. This is the destination of our journey to Bethlehem.
The Northern Lights
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.
The Lights of the North
St. Spyridon of Trimythous
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.
Sts. Joachim and Anna
“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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?