Traveling to Bethlehem (19 December 2010)

The Ever Virgin Theotokos

The Ever Virgin Theotokos

Question: I have heard other “church leaders” say that virgin birth is just a myth, is this true? The only thing true about this statement is that it has been said.  For us Orthodox Christians one of the sad things about modern Christianity is that we have stopped using the word Heresy.  It is quite “vogue” to point fingers at historical beliefs of  the Church and to say, “Oh those were unsophisticated ideas for simple people.” If one takes the time to read the theological opinions and treatises of the Fathers and Mothers of the Church, you cannot use the word “unsophisticated” about them in any way. The post-modern concepts that ridicule the teachings as “unscientific” and folk tales only cast shadows on the expounders of such ideas.

The theology of Virgin Birth took hundreds of years to be developed and formed in the life of our Church.  The theology of Christ as Fully God and Fully man had an impact on the understanding of Mary of Nazareth.  Today, in the Gospel reading of the Genealogy of Christ, Matthew 1, 1 – 25. We are confronted by the humanity of Christ and His entire human lineage.  But, what about “virgin birth” how could that happen? There is the greatest question of all. It could happen, because God willed to happen! This is the Mystery of Incarnation.  God willed to be contained in His creation, born of His creature contained in the womb of a young Virgin. To continue this Mystery, God further willed that she would bear a child by the Holy Spirit, the pre-eternal God. The unbelievable is real. The Theotokos bears the God/Man, while retaining her virginity. For us Orthodox (and Roman Catholics), Mary remains a Virgin before, during and after Christ’s birth. How can this be? By faith, we thus believe in God’s promise and fulfilment in Christ Jesus.   Mary is the “panagia” forever holy. Perpetually Virgin, pure and a willing participant in the greatest miracle in the history of the world. Miracles are not explained they are believed. Our icons of the Theotokos testify to this reality. The stars on the maphorion (veil) of the Theotokos show us three stars. One on her Forehead and one each on her shoulders.  A Virgin: before, during and after the Nativity of our Lord.

Traveling to Bethlehem (09 December 2010)

Sts. Joachim and Anna

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.

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 (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 (20 November 2010)

Sts. Joachim and Anna with the Theotokos

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.

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!

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.

The Dormition of the Theotokos – 2009

The Dormition of the Theotokos

The Dormition of the Theotokos

APOLYTIKION

In giving birth, you did preserve your virginity, in your dormition,

you did not forsake the world, O Theotokos. You were translated unto life,

since you are the Mother of Life; and by your intercessions

you do redeem our souls from Death.

KONTAKION

The grave and death could not hold the Theotokos,

who is unsleeping in her intercessions and an unfailing hope

in her mediations. For as the Mother of Life she was translated to life

by Him who dwelt in her ever-virgin womb.

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).

Now that I found it what do I do with it?

Today is the feast day of Sts. Constantine and Eleni.  I was thinking about the event that we relate with St. Eleni (I like this better than Helen).  St. Eleni is remembered for not only being the mother of the Emperor Constantine, but in British folklore she is thought to be the spouse of “Old King Cole.”  That’s right the same King Cole as in the nursery rhyme.  Well, that shows you how much useless dribble fills my mind.  Back to the subject at hand, we remember St. Eleni because her search for and discovery of The True Cross of Christ.

The True Cross   The True Cross

 We all know the account of her discovering a mound with sweet basil growing among the weeds and stones of Golgotha, digging and uncovering several old crosses.  Subsequently, to determine the True Life-giving Cross from the crosses of the thieves she had a corpse placed on the wood. The dead person was brought back to life when he was placed on the True Cross. The recounting of this tale caused me to ponder a very significant point.  It occurred to me that at one time or another in our life’s journey we all lose faith. Perhaps, it is a great disappointment, or the death of someone we love, an illness, depression or a myriad of other reasons. We just lose it.  If we are fortunate to find our way again, either by struggle, the help of a friend, time’s healing passage or by the guidance of a spiritual guide, then we are faced with an ultimate decision.   Now that I found it what do I do with it?  St. Eleni can be a guide to our future  action.  What did she do?  What she didn’t do was sit back on her laurels and just take the “applause” of the assembled throngs, the people and her son.  She did what we all should do!  She put her faith into action.  She built churches all over the Holy Lands.  What can we do when we discover or rediscover our faith?  When we join Christ and His Body as a result of our embracing the faith or returning to the fold, our ultimate choice is what to do now.  The example of St. Eleni is – do something with your faith.  Let it light a fire in our heart and inspire us to put our faith to work. Feed the hungry, teach the uninformed, visit the sick, help the helpless, comfort the downhearted, be there for someone, reach out and encourage the timid.  The bottom-line is to become Christ to someone and make your faith a living faith!