Traveling to Bethlehem (13 December 2010)

The Northern Lights
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
The Lights of the North
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Traveling to Bethlehem (12 December 2010)

St. Spyridon of Trimythous
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. ]]>

 

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 (28 November 2010)

The Cosmic Liturgy
The Cosmic Liturgy
The Blood of the Lamb
The Blood of the Lamb
** 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]]>

Traveling to Bethlehem (26 November 2010)

Road to Emmaus
Road to Emmaus

** 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.]]>

 

Traveling to Bethlehem (22 November 2010)

First Steps of Christ
First Steps of Christ
The gaps…Have you ever wondered about the gaps?  What I mean by the gaps is our understanding or even our description of the years which are missing in the accounts of the lives of the Theotokos and Christ.  Yesterday, we celebrated to Presentation of the Theotokos. What happened from age three until the mid-teenage years when we know that the Annunciation took place?  In the life of Jesus, we experience the Nativity, the flight to Egypt and his teaching in the Temple at age twelve. Afterwards, we have a gap until His public ministry begins at age thirty. Does anyone, besides me, wonder about the gaps? We know that some material concerning these years can be found in ancient writings, which have always been known to the Church.  These are materials that were not placed in the canonical sources.  Some non-Orthodox “experts” have called these writings the “lost books” or “new sources” They were never lost, nor are they new. Orthodox monastics and theologians have used these sources to expand our understanding of the lives of the saints and events in salvation history. The Protevangelium Jacobi (The Infancy Gospel of James) states: “Now Mary was in the Temple of the Lord like a dove being fed and she received food from the hand of an angel.” The hymnographers, iconographers and poets of the Church have drawn on these writings to enrich our liturgical and faith experience.  As we Travel to Bethlehem, perhaps reading some of these books could expand your understanding. We must know that the Church has not endorsed these writings as inspired by God, but looks on them as resources to expand and enhance our faith journey.]]>

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 (19 November 2010)

Prophet Obadiah
Prophet Obadiah
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? ]]>

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! ]]>