St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, A Pan-Orthodox Christian Mission Parish, Murphy, North Carolina

St. Nicholas in the Mountains

Wednesday, November 26th, 2014

A Molieben of Thanksgiving

Priest: Blessed is our God, + always, now and ever and forever
People: Amen.
Priest: +Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One: have mercy on us.
People: +Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One: have mercy on us.
Priest: +Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One: have mercy on us.
People: +Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.
Priest: Now and ever, and forever. Amen.
People: O Most Holy Trinity, have mercy on us. O Lord, cleanse us from our sins. O Master, pardon our iniquities. O Holy One, come to us and heal our infirmities for Your name’s sake.
Priest: Lord, have mercy. (3 times)
People: +Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.
Priest: Now and ever, and forever. Amen.
People: Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
Priest: For Thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, of the +Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and forever.
People: Amen.
Priest: Lord, have mercy (6 times)
People: Lord, have mercy (6 times)
Priest: +Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and forever. Amen.
(+bow) Come, let us worship God, our King.
(+bow) Come, let us worship and fall down before Christ, our King and our God. (+bow) Come, let us worship and fall down before Christ Himself, our King and our God.
O give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; for His mercy endures for ever! Let the house of Israel say that He is good, for His mercy endures for ever. Let the house of Aaron say that He is good, for His mercy endures for ever. Let all of them that fear the Lord now say that He is good, for His mercy endures for ever.
Out of mine affliction I called upon the Lord, and He heard me and brought unto a broad place. The Lord is my helper and I will not fear what man shall do unto me. The Lord is my helper, and I shall look down upon mine enemies. It is better to trust in the Lord than to trust in man. It is better to hope in the Lord than to hope in princes.
All nations compassed about me; but by the name of the Lord I withstood them. Surrounding me, they compassed me about, but in the name of the Lord I withstood them! They compassed me round about like bees around a honeycomb, and burned like a fire among the thorns, but the name of the Lord I withstood them! Being pushed I was overturned that I might fall, but the Lord upheld me. The Lord is my strength and my song; and has become my salvation.
The voice of rejoicing and salvation is in the tabernacles of the righteous. The right hand of the Lord has wrought power, the right hand of the Lord has exalted me, the right hand of the Lord has wrought power. I shall not die, but I shall live, and shall declare the works of the Lord. The Lord has chastened me sorely, but He has not given me over to death. Open unto to me the gates of righteousness, I will enter therein and give thanks unto the Lord. This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter therein.
I will give thanks unto Thee, for Thou hast heard me and hast become my salvation. The stone which the builders rejected, the same has become the head of the corner; this is the Lord’s doing, and it is wonderful in our eyes. This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. O Lord, save us, we beseech thee. O Lord, we beseech thee, give us success!
Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord! We have blessed you out of the house of the Lord. God is the Lord, and has revealed Himself unto us. Appoint a feast with a multitude of sacrifices, even unto the horns of the altar. Thou art my God, and I will give praise unto Thee; Thou art my God, and I will exalt Thee. I will give thanks unto Thee, for Thou hast heard me, and hast become my salvation. O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good, for His mercy endures for ever!
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and forever. Amen.
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia, Glory to You, O God (three times)
Priest: In peace let us pray to the Lord.

People: Lord have mercy.

Priest: For the peace that comes from heaven above and for the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord.

People: Lord have mercy

Priest: For peace throughout the whole world, for the welfare of the holy churches of God and for the union of them all, let us pray to the Lord.

People: Lord have mercy.

Priest: For this holy church and for those who enter it with faith, devoutness, and the fear of God, let us pray to the Lord.

People: Lord have mercy.

Priest: For our Ecumenical Patriarch (name), the Archbishop of Constantinople, let us pray to the Lord.

People: Lord have mercy.

Priest: For our God-loving Bishop (name), for the venerable priesthood, for the diaconate in Christ, for all the clergy and people, let us pray to the Lord.

People: Lord have mercy.

Priest: For the honorable government of our country and all civil authorities and for our armed forces, let us pray to the Lord.

People: Lord have mercy.

Priest: For this city and for every city, village and country and for those who with faith dwell in them, let us pray to the Lord.

People: Lord have mercy.

Priest: For healthful seasons, for an abundance of the fruits of the earth and for peaceful times, let us pray to the Lord.

People: Lord have mercy.

Priest: For those who travel by land, by sea, by air, for the sick, the suffering, for those who are held in captivity, and for their salvation, let us pray to the Lord.

People: Lord have mercy.

Here the special petitions are included:

Priest: That the Lord God mercifully accept upon His spiritual altar this thanksgiving and supplication of His unworthy servants, and in His compassion, have mercy upon us, let us pray to the Lord.

People: Lord have mercy.

Priest: That the Lord God deem worthy this thanksgiving of His servants, which is offered with a contrite heart for the benefits received from Him; and that it may be acceptable to Him as the sweet aroma of incense, and as a rich offering, let us pray to the Lord.

People: Lord have mercy.

Priest: That he will hear the supplication of us, His servants, and always fulfill the good intentions and desires of His faithful people, when they are for their benefit; and that the merciful Lord, always grant to His holy Church and to each of us the petitions we make, let us pray to the Lord.

People: Lord have mercy.

Priest: That He will grant us all the grace to see ourselves and all of creation as gifts of which we are only stewards in this life, giving most hearty thanks for the opportunity to use these gifts for His glory and for the benefit of all people through His Holy Orthodox Church, let us pray to the Lord,

People: Lord have mercy.

Priest: That he will deliver His holy Church (and His servant(s) (N)) and us all from every affliction, wrath, danger, and necessity, and from all enemies, both visible and invisible; and that He will always hedge about his faithful people with health, long life, and peace, and the host of his holy Angels, let us pray to the Lord.

People: Lord have mercy.

Priest: Help us, save us, have mercy on us and protect us, O God, by Your grace.

People: Lord have mercy.

Priest: Commemorating our ever holy, ever pure, ever blessed and glorious Lady, the Birth-giver of God and ever virgin Mary, together with all the Saints, let us commend ourselves and one another and our whole life to Christ our God.

People: To You, O Lord!

Priest: For to You are due all glory, honor, and worship: to the + Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and forever.

People: Amen.

Priest: God is the Lord and hath revealed Himself to us! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!

O give praise to the Lord, for He is good, for His mercy endures forever.

People: (after each) God is the Lord and hath revealed Himself to us! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!

Priest: Surrounding me, they compassed me about, but in the name of the Lord I stood against them.

I shall not die, but live; and I shall declare the works of the Lord.

The stone which the builders rejected, this has become the head of the corner; this is the Lord’s doing, and it is wonderful in our eyes.

(Tone 4) We, Your thankful and unworthy servants, * praise and glorify You, O Lord, * for the many blessings we have received from You. * We bless You, we thank You, we sing to You * and we rejoice in Your great mercy. * In humility and love, we praise you: * O Benefactor and Savior, glory to You.
(Tone 3) Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit
We, although unworthy, have received Your blessings and gifts. * As unprofitable servants, we dare to come to You, O Master * bringing You thanks, as much as we can. *We glorify and sing to You our Benefactor and Creator: * glory to You, O most bountiful God.
* Now and ever, and forever. Amen.
(Same tone) O Theotokos, help of Christians, we, thy servants, having acquired Thy protection, cry out unto thee with thanksgiving. Rejoice, O most pure Virgin Theotokos, and always deliver us by thy prayers from every misfortune, as thou only art quick to protect us.
Priest: Be attentive! Peace be + with all!

Reader: And with thy spirit!

Priest: Wisdom! Be attentive!

Reader: (Tone 4) I will sing unto the Lord Who has dealt bountifully with me, and I will sing psalms unto the name of the Lord most high.

v. My heart shall rejoice in Thy salvation.

I will sing unto the Lord Who has dealt bountifully with me, and I will sing psalms unto the name of the Lord most high.

Priest: Wisdom

Reader: A reading from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Ephesians.

Priest: Be attentive!

Reader: (Eph 5:8-21) Brethren, for once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is a shame even to speak of the things that they do in secret; but when anything is exposed by the light it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it is said, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light.” Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father. Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Priest: Peace be unto you, Reader.

Reader: And with Thy spirit.

Priest: Wisdom!

People: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!

Reader: v. I will praise the Name of God in song, and I will glorify Him with thanksgiving.

People: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!

Reader: v. For the Lord hears the poor; and He does not spurn those who are in bonds.

People: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia!

Priest: Wisdom, Let us stand and listen to the Holy gospel! Peace be unto all.

People: And to your spirit.

Priest: The reading is from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke.

People: Glory to You, O Lord, glory to You.

Priest: Be attentive! (Luke 17:12-19): At that time, as Jesus entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” When he saw them he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving Him thanks, and he was a Samaritan. And Jesus answering said, “Were there not ten cleansed? But where are the nine? How is it that none are found that return and give glory to God except this stranger?” And He said to him, “Rise and go thy way. Thy faith has saved thee.”

People: Glory to You, O Lord, glory to You

Priest: Let us say with our whole soul and with all our mind, let us say.

People: Lord, have mercy.

Priest: O Lord, Almighty, God of our fathers, we pray to You, hear us and have mercy.

People: Lord, have mercy.

Priest: Have mercy on us, O God, according to Your great mercy, we pray to You, hear us and have mercy.

People: Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

Priest: Furthermore we pray for our Ecumenical Patriarch (name), the Archbishop of Constantinople, for our God-loving Bishop (name), for our spiritual fathers and for all our brethren in Christ; for their welfare, peace, health, salvation, and for the remission of their sins and that the Lord, our God, may prompt and help them in all things.

People: Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

Priest: Furthermore we pray for those who give offerings and do good works in this holy and venerable church, for those who labor in its service, for those who sing, and for all the people here present who await Your great and abundant mercy, for those who have shown us kindness and for all Orthodox Christians.

People: Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

Priest: O Lord, our Savior and Master, with fear and trembling, we Your servants, give thanks for Your loving-kindness and for the benefits which You have showered upon us in abundance. We pray You hear us and have mercy.

People: Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

Priest: Returning thanks with fear and trembling, as unprofitable servants unto Thy loving-kindness, O Lord, our Savior and our Master, for Thy benefits which thou hast poured out abundantly upon thy servants, we fall down in worship, and offer unto thee praise as God, and fervor we do cry aloud unto thee: Deliver thou thy servants from all calamities, and in that thou art merciful fulfill thou always the desires of us all, as may be expedient for us, we diligently entreat Thee, hearken, and have mercy.

People: Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

Priest: As Thou, in Thy mercy, hast now hearkened unto the prayers of Thy servants, O Lord, and hast manifested unto us the deep compassion of Thy love for mankind; so also not despising us in the time to come, fulfill unto Thy glory all the good desires of Thy faithful, and make manifest unto all of us thy rich mercy, disregarding all our transgressions, we pray Thee hearken and have mercy.

People: Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

Priest: May this, our thanksgiving, as fragrant incense and a whole burnt offering of fat, be well pleasing before the majesty of Thy glory, O All-good Master, and, as Thou art compassionate, do Thou always send down the riches of Thy mercies and compassions unto Thy servants. And deliver Thy Holy Church from every assault of enemies, both visible and invisible. And grant unto all Thy people a sinless and healthy lengthy of days and success in every virtue, we pray Thee, O all compassionate King, mercifully hearken and quickly have mercy.

People: Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

Priest: We offer before You, O Lord Most High, the first-fruits of our labor as a token of the thanks we owe to You for Your gracious goodness toward us. As stewards of all the good things You have bestowed on us, we pray to You, hear us and have mercy.

People: Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.
Priest: Make us ever mindful of Your bountiful goodness, and of our stewardship of that goodness, that we may use those things of which we are stewards to Your glory, the upbuilding of Your Holy Church, and the benefit of those who are in need of the necessities of life. We pray to You hear us and have mercy.
People: Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.
Priest: For You are a merciful God Who loves mankind, and we give glory to You: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and ever and forever.
People: Amen.

Priest: O Lord Jesus Christ our God, the God of all mercies and bounties Whose mercy is immeasurable, and whose love for mankind is an unfathomable deep: falling down in adoration before Your majesty, with fear and trembling, as unprofitable servants, and now humbly rendering thanks unto Your loving-kindness for Your benefits bestowed upon Your Servants, we glorify You, we praise You, we sing You and we magnify You as our Lord, and Master, and Benefactor; and again falling down before You, we humbly thank You, supplicating Your boundless and inexpressible mercy. And in that Thou hast graciously accepted the petitions of Your servants and to fulfill them, so also grant that henceforth Your Holy Church and this city may be delivered from every hostile assault, and may live in peace and tranquility, and that increasing in true love of You, and in all virtues, all Your faithful people may receive Your benefits; and that we may ever offer thanksgiving unto You, together with Your Father, Who is from everlasting, and Your all holy, and good, and life-giving Spirit, God glorified in one person; and that we may say exceeding good things and sing: Glory to You, O God our Benefactor, forever.

People: Amen.

And immediately is sung the great Doxology, or the Hymn of St. Ambrose:
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace and good will among men. We praise Thee, we bless Thee, we worship Thee, we glorify Thee, we give thanks to Thee for Thy great glory. O Lord, heavenly King, God the Father Almighty; O Lord, the only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ; and O Holy Spirit. O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father, that takest away the sin of the world; have mercy on us; Thou that takest away the sins of the world, receive our prayer; Thou that sittest at the right hand of the Father, have mercy on us. For Thou only art holy; Thou only art the Lord, O Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father. Amen. Every day will I bless Thee, and I will praise Thy Name forever, yea, forever and forever.
Vouchsafe, O Lord, to keep us this day without sin. Blessed art Thou, O Lord, the God of our Fathers, and praised and glorified is Thy name unto the ages of ages. Amen. Let Thy mercy, O Lord, be upon us, according as we have hoped in Thee.
Blessed art Thou, O Lord, teach me Thy statutes. Thrice.
Lord, thou hast been our refuge in generation and generation. I said: O Lord, have mercy on me, heal my soul, for I have sinned against Thee. O Lord, unto Thee have I fled for refuge, teach me to do Thy will, for Thou art my God. For in Thee is the fountain of life, in Thy light shall we see light. O continue Thy mercy unto them that know Thee.
Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us. Thrice.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.
Holy Immortal have mercy on us.
Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us.
Priest: Wisdom!

People: More honorable than the Cherubim, and beyond compare more glorious than the Seraphim, who as a Virgin gave birth to God the Word, true Birth-giver of God, we magnify you.

Priest: Glory to You, O Christ our God and our Hope, glory to You.

Monday, December 27th, 2010

Invariably, I find myself after the fast thinking of things I should have thought of during the fast. For the forty days of the Nativity Fast, I was so busy with one thing or another that I failed to focus on the important things. Things like, say, love and how it is expressed. Just like last year, however, all of that changes on December 28, when I turn the page of the Synaxarion, and find that it is the day that we commemorate St. Simon, founder of the Holy Monastery of Simonopetra on Mount Athos.

I sometimes find myself with a disconcerting tendency to start to take the saints for granted. After a while, I read the hagiographies, and start going “yeah, yeah…miracles, visions, healings, yada, yada, yada’. I become out of touch with the stories because I am out of touch with the miraculous, and am unacquainted with sacrifice. On one level we appreciate the lives of the saints, even as we tidily file them away in that drawer which we reserve for things that are interesting, but we can’t quite figure out how to apply them to our lives. Even if we make a pilgrimage to venerate their relics, we are unable to capture the full import of who and what that saint was. They may be resting, incorrupt and palpably holy, in a monastery or cathedral. But how do we draw that tangible connection between the life of the saint and life in this world as we know it?

With that in mind, let me introduce you to St. Simon. First, a portion of the entry from my favorite Synaxarion, compiled by the Hieromonk Makarious of Simonopetra Monastery. This is my favorite reference for the lives of the saints, bar none. This is not his entire entry on a saint who must be close to the hieromonk’s heart, but it is an important part:

Saint Simon flourished in the Garden of the Mother of God during the thirteenth century, in the years when the capital of the Byzantine Empire, which was weak and divided after the Crusades, had been transferred to Nicaea. Fleeing the vanities of this world, he made his way to the Holy Mountain in order to labour beside a spiritual father for the salvation of his soul. The Elder he chose was not only experienced in ascesis but also severe and demanding, and he submitted to him body and soul as to God Himself. His exemplary obedience, humility and love for his spiritual father, who spared him neither rebukes nor blows, soon raised him to a high degree of virtue, which attracted the admiration of the monks of Athos and the respect of his elder, who in the end came to regard him as a fellow soldier in spiritual warfare rather than as a disciple. But marks of respect did not suit one who had chosen to embrace the dereliction and Passion of Christ; and so, by dint of entreaties, he was allowed to go live alone. At the end of a long search he chose a small, damp cave on the western flank of Athos 1,000 feet above the sea, for his habitation. He persevered there day and night, exposed to incessant attacks from the Devil, armed only with faith, hope and invocation of the all-powerful Name of the Lord.

One night, some days before the Feast of the Nativity, he saw a star suddenly leave its place in the sky and come down to station itself above the precipitous rock opposite his cave. Suspecting another snare of the Evil One who often disguises himself as an angel of light, the ascetic attached no importance to it. The apparition was repeated several nights running, and on Christmas Eve, when the star took its position over the rock like the star of Bethlehem, there came a voice from the sky, “Be in no doubt, Simon, faithful servant of my Son. See this sign, and do not leave this spot in search of greater solitude as you have had in mind, for it is here that I want you to establish your monastery, for the salvation of many souls.” Reassured at once by the voice of the Mother of God, Simon was transported in ecstasy to Bethlehem into the presence of the Christ Child with the Angels and Shepherds. On coming to himself again, he addressed the task of building the New Bethlehem without more delay.

Icon of St. Simon
There is a lot more, and those of you familiar with it will recall, for example, the story of the rescue of the youth who fell from the cliff during the construction of the monastery. But for my purposes, let’s stop where we are.

You see, it would be easy to read this like any other hagiography. You might leave it with feelings of awe, of respect, of great thankfulness for the glory of God, but if you are like me you would not leave it with a deep appreciation of who St. Simon is, and how he lived and suffered, or what his life means to you and I. Even if you visited Simonopetra itself, a beautiful monastery soaring high above the blue Aegean sea, you would gain respect for Simon’s works, but not necessarily for him.

Unless, of course, you left the monastery and followed the narrow gravel road around the curve of the mountain, crossing a small bridge above a roaring stream that plunges swiftly down a deep and precipitous ravine, and finally reached a spot almost exactly opposite the monastery. If you look back across the ravine, you can see Simonopetra, standing on the huge rock that gave it part of its name. If you turn around, you see a small opening in a smaller rock on the hillside. This opening is the entrance to the cave in which St. Simon lived.

Inside, you enter a very small chamber, about the size of a broom closet. There is a small rock ledge, on which there is an icon and an oil lamp. Cross the chamber, and climb through a very small opening into a slightly larger chamber. It is perhaps four feet high, and the size of a closet — not a walk-in closet, a regular closet. There is a rock ledge, just big enough for a person to lie down , although not comfortably. It is here that St. Simon lived, and it was from the small opening of the ante-chamber that he watched to star shine over the top of the huge rock across the ravine. At that place, the wind roars up from the sea almost incessantly. Without the monastery there, it would be a dark and lonely place, one where it would be easy to take a misstep, and fall to your death.

It helps me to remember that cave. You could look at it and say that a person would have to be crazy to live there. But a crazy person could not undertake to build the magnificent and beautiful monastery that now stands on that rock. A crazy person could not live in such ascesis, could not live in such dedicated and concentrated prayerfulness, could not be so wholly devoted to God so as to fold his body each night onto a cold and uncomfortable ledge of rock. To see that cave is to understand what a saint is.

Not all saints lived in caves, but all of them struggled mightily to pursue God. Fr. Seraphim Rose, not officially a saint but venerated by many, lived in a ramshackle hut, not much bigger than St. Simon’s cave. St. John Maximovitch, his spiritual father, was a bishop, but never slept in a bed, only napping in a chair.

Sometimes it is difficult to focus on the necessity for struggle during the fasts. I am not as focused as I should be. But every year, by the grace of God, during the days of feasting following Christmas, I run upon St. Simon and I am humbled. We don’t need a lot to seek holiness. Arguably, we need to dispose of a lot if we are serious about our faith. Every time I get whiny and feel needy, I need to remember that cave. We can live in a beautiful and wonderful place, like Simonopetra, or like western North Carolina. But for the sake of our souls, we cannot forget the cave.

Friday, December 24th, 2010

Christ is born! Glorify Him!

The Discourse on the Nativity of Christ

by Our Father among the Saints Gregory Thaumaturgus the Wonderworker
Christ is Born! The Nativity Discourse of St. Gregory Thaumaturgus

Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus, who lived from about 213 AD until about 270 AD, was the Bishop of Neo-Caesarea.

We behold now a great and wondrous mystery. Shepherds with cries of joy come forth as messengers to the sons of mankind, not on their hilly pastures with their flocks conversing and not in the field with their sheep frolicking, but rather in the city of David Bethlehem spiritual songs exclaiming. In the highest sing Angels, proclaiming hymns Archangelic; the heavenly Cherubim and Seraphim sing out praises to the glory of God: “Holy, Holy, Holy…” Together all do celebrate this joyous feast, beholding God upon the earth, and mankind of earth amidst the heavens. By Divine providence the far distant are uplifted to the highest, and the highest, through the love of God for mankind, have bent down to the far distant, wherefore the Most High, through His humility, “is exalted through humility.” On this day of great festivity Bethlehem hath become like unto heaven, taking place amidst the glittering stars are Angels singing glory, and taking the place of the visible sun — is the indefinable and immeasurable Sun of Truth, having made all things that do exist. But who would dare investigate so great a mystery? “Wherein God doth wish it, therein the order of nature is overturned”, and laws cannot impede. And so, of that which was impossible for mankind to undertake, God did aspire and did descend, making for the salvation of mankind, since in the will of God this is life for all mankind.

On the present joyous day God hath come to be born; on this great day of arrival God is become That Which He was not: being God, He hath become Man, so to speak as though removed from Divinity (though His Divine Nature be not divested of); in being made Man, He hath remained God. Wherefore, though He grew and flourished, it however was not thus as it were by human power to attain to Divinity nor by any human ability to be made God; but rather as the Word, by miraculous sufferance, wherein He was incarnated and manifest not being transformed, not being made something other, not deprived of that Divine Nature which He possessed previously. In Judea the new King is born; but this new and wondrous nativity which pagan Gentiles have come to believe, the Jew have eschewed. The Pharisees comprehended incorrectly the Law and the prophets. That which therein was contradictory for them, they explained away mistakenly. Herod too strove to learn of this new birth, full of mystery, yet Herod did this not to reverence the new-born King, but to kill Him.

That One, Who did forsake the Angels, Archangels, Thrones, Dominions, and all the constant and luminous spirits — He alone having come a new path, does issue forth from an inviolate of seed virginal womb. The Creator of all comes to enlighten the world, indeed not leaving His angels orphaned, and He appears also as Man, come forth from God.

And I, though I see by the New Born neither trumpets (nor other musical instruments), nor sword, nor bodily adornments, neither lampadas nor way-lamps, and seeing the choir of Christ composed of those humble of birth and without influence — it doth persuade me to praise of Him. I see speechless animals and choirs of youth, as though some sort of trumpet, resonant with song, as though taking the place of lampadas and as it were shining upon the Lord. But what shall I say about what the lampadas do light? He — is the very most Hope and Life Itself, He is Salvation Itself, Blessedness Itself, the focal point of the Kingdom of Heaven. He is Himself borne as offering, so that there would in power transpire the proclamation of the heavenly Angels: “Glory to God in the Highest,” and with the shepherds of Bethlehem be pronounced the joyous song: “And on earth peace, good-will to mankind!” Born of the Father, in His Person and in His Being passionless, now in a manner dispassionate and incomprehensible He is born for us. The pre-eternal birth, He alone Who was born dispassionately doth know of; the present birth, is supernaturally known only by the grace of the Holy Spirit; but in both the first birth truly, and in the present birth in kenotic humbling, actually and immutably God was born from God, but He — is also Man, having received flesh of the Virgin. In the highest of the One Father — He is One, the Only-Begotten Son of the One Father; in kenotic humbling Unique of the unique Virgin, the Only-Begotten Son of the one Virgin… God suffereth not passions, in being born God of God; and the Virgin did not suffer corruption, since in a manner spiritual was born the Spiritual. The first birth — is inexplicable and the second — is insurmisable; the first birth was without travail and the second was without impurity … We know, Who now is born of the Virgin, and we believe, that it is He, born of the Father before all eternity. But what manner of birth it was we would not hope to explain. Neither with words would I attempt to speak of this, nor in thought would I dare to approach it, since the Divine Nature is not subject to observation, nor approachable by thought, nor containable by the hapless reasoning. Needful only is to believe in the power of His works. The laws of corporeal nature are evident: a married woman conceives and gives birth to a son in accord with the purpose of marriage; but when the Unwedded Virgin gives birth to the son miraculously, and after birth remaineth a Virgin, — then is manifest and higher corporeal nature. We can comprehend what exists according to the laws of corporeal nature, but concerning that which is beyond the laws of nature, we fall silent, not through fear, but moreso through sin-wrought fallibility. We fall silent, in silent stillness to reverence virtue with a worthy reverence and, not going beyond the far limits (of word), to be vouchsafed the heavenly gifts.

What to say and what shalt I proclaim? To speak more concerning the Virgin Birth-Giver? To deliberate more on the miraculously new birth? It is possible only to be astonished, in contemplating the miraculous birth, since it overturns the ordinary laws and order of nature and of things. About the wondrous works (of God) one might say in brief, that they are more wondrous than the works of nature, since in nature nothing begets itself by its own will, though there be the freedom thereof: wondrous therefore are all the works of the Lord, Who hath caused them to be. O, immaculate and inexplicable mystery! That One, Who before the very creation of the world was the Only-Begotten, Without-Compare, Simple, Incorporeal, is incarnated and descends (into the world), clothed in a perishable body, so that He be visible to all. For if He were not visible, then by what manner would He teach us to keep His precepts and how would He lead us to the invisible reality? It was for this therefore that He became openly visible, to lead forth those of the visible world to the invisible. Far more so do people reckon their eyesight as more credible a witness than mere hearsay; they trust that which they see, and doubt that which they see not. God willed to be visible in body, to resolve and dispel the doubts. He willed to be born of the Virgin, not to initiate of Her something unneeded and wherein the Virgin knew not the reasons of the matter, but rather the mystery of His birth is an immaculate act of goodness, wherein the Virgin Herself asked of Gabriel: “How can this be, in that I know not a man” — to which She received in reply: “The Holy Spirit shalt come upon Thee, and the power of the Most High shalt overshadow Thee” (Luke 1:34-35). But in what manner did the Word, Who was God, therefore issue forth from the Virgin? This — is an inexplicable wonder. Just as a goldsmith, having obtained the metal, makes of it a thing suitable for use, thus did Christ also: finding the Virgin immaculate both in spirit and in body, He assumed of Her a spirit-fashioned body conformable to His intents, and was arrayed in it, as in clothing. On this wondrous day of the Nativity the Word was neither afraid nor ashamed to issue forth from the virginal womb, nor did He consider it unworthy of Himself to assume flesh from His creation — so that the creation, made the attire of the Creator, should be esteemed worthy of glory, and so that mercy should be made known when revealed, from whence God through His goodness hath descended. Just as it would be impossible for an earthen vessel to appear before it be clay in the hands of the potter, so likewise would it be impossible for the perishable vessel (of human nature) to be renewed otherwise, to make it the attire of the Creator, Who is garbed in it.

What more to say, what shall I expound on? The new wonders do strike me with awe. The Ancient of Days is become a Child, to make people children of God. Sitting in glory in the Heavens, because of His love for mankind, He now lays in a manger of dumb beasts. The Impassionate, Incorporeal, Incomprehensible One is taken by human hands, in order to atone the violence of sinners and the iniquitous and free them of their slavery, to be wrapped in swaddling cloths and be nourished on the knees of Woman, so that shame be transformed into honor, the impious to be led to glory, and in place of thorns a crown. He hath taken on my body, so that I be made capable to have within myself His Spirit — He hath appropriated unto Himself (my nature), being garbed in my body, and doth give unto me His Spirit, so that I, giving and in turn receiving, might discover the treasure of life.

What shall I say and what proclaim? “Behold, a Virgin in womb shalt conceive and She shalt give birth a Son, and they will call Him the name Emmanuel, in interpretation: God is with us (Matthew 1:23). The saying here deals not with something for future whereof we might learn to hope, but rather it tells us about something that already has occurred and it awes us with something that already has been fulfilled. What formerly was said to the Jews and fulfilled amidst them, is now thus amidst us realised as an occurrence, whereof we have received (this prophecy), and adopted it, and believed in it. The prophet says to the Jews: “Behold, a Virgin shalt conceive” (Isaiah 7:14); for Christians however, the saying devolves upon the fulfilling of the actual deed, the full treasure-trove of the actual event. In Judea a Virgin gave birth, but all the lands of the world accepted Her Son. There — was the root of the vine; here — the vine of truth. The Jews squeezed the wine-press, and the Gentiles have tasted of the sacramental Blood; those others planted the kernel of wheat, and these thrive by the grain harvest of faith. The Jews were pricked to death by the thorns, the Gentiles are filled by the harvest; those others sat beneath the tree of desolation, and these — beneath the tree of life; those expounded the precepts of the Law, but the Gentiles reap the spiritual fruits. The Virgin gave birth not Herself of Herself, but as willed He needing to be born. Not in corporeal manner did God act, not to the law of the flesh did God subordinate Himself, but the Lord of corporeal nature manifested Himself to appear in the world by a miraculous birth, in order to reveal His power and to show, that in having been made Man, He is born not as a mere man, — that God is made Man, since for His will nothing be difficult.

On the present great day He is born of the Virgin, having overcome the natural order of things. He is higher than wedlock and free from defilement. It sufficed that He the preceptor of purity should shine forth gloriously, to emerge from a pure and undefiled womb. For He — is That Same, Who in the beginning did create Adam from the virgin soil, and from Adam without wedlock did bring forth for him his wife Eve. And as Adam was without wife before that he had a wife, and the first woman then was brought into the world, so likewise on the present day the Virgin without man giveth birth to That One, about Whom spake the prophet: “He — is Man, who is he that doth know Him?” The Man Christ, clearly seen by mankind, born of God, is such that womankind was needed to perfect that of mankind, so that perfectly would be born man for woman. And just as from Adam was taken woman, without impairment and without diminishing of his masculine nature, so also from woman without man was needed to bring forth a man, similar to the bringing forth of Eve, so that Adam be not extolled in that without his means woman should bring forth woman. Therefore the Virgin without cohabitation with man gave birth to God the Word, made Man, so that in equal measure it was by the same miracle to bestow equal honor to both the one and the other half — man and woman. And just as from Adam was taken woman without his diminishing, so likewise from the Virgin was taken the body (Born of Her), wherein also the Virgin did not undergo diminishing, and Her virginity did not suffer harm. Adam dwelt well and unharmed, when the rib was taken from him: and so without defilement dwelt the Virgin, when from Her was brought forth God the Word. For this sort of reason particularly the word assumed of the Virgin Her flesh and Her (corporeal) garb, so that He be not accounted innocent of the sin of Adam. Since man stung by sin had become a vessel and instrument of evil, Christ took upon Himself this receptacle of sin into His Own flesh so that, the Creator having been co-united with the body, it should thus be freed from the foulness of the enemy, and man thus be clothed in an eternal body, which be neither perished nor destroyed for all eternity. Moreover, He that is become the God-Man is born, not as ordinarily man is born — He is born as God made Man, manifest of this by His Own Divine power, since if He were born according to the general laws of nature, the Word would seem something imperfect. Therefore, He was born of the Virgin and shone forth; therefore, having been born, He preserved unharmed the virginal womb, so that the hitherto unheard of manner of the Nativity should be for us a sign of great mystery.

Is Christ God? Christ is God by nature, but not by the order of nature did He become Man. Thus we declare and in truth believe, calling to witness the seal of intact virginity: as Almighty Creator of the womb and virginity, He chose an unshameful manner of birth and was made Man, as He did will.

On this great day, now being celebrated, God hath appeared as Man, as Pastor of the nation of Israel, Who hath enlivened all the universe with His goodness. O dear warriors, glorious champions for mankind, who did preach Bethlehem as a place of Theophany and the Nativity of the Son of God, who have made known to all the world the Lord of all, lying in a manger, and did point out God contained within a narrow cave!

And so, we now glorify joyfully a feast of the years. Just as hence the laws of feasts be new, so now also the laws of birth be wondrous. On this great day now celebrated, of shattered chains, of Satan shamed, of all demons to flight, the all-destroying death is replaced by life, paradise is opened to the thief, curses be transformed into blessings, all sins forgiven and evil banished, truth is come, and they have proclaimed tidings filled with reverence and love for God, traits pure and immaculate are implanted, virtue is exalted upon the earth, Angels are come together with people, and people make bold to converse with Angels. Whence and why hath all this happened? From this, that God hath descended into the world and exalted mankind unto Heaven. There is accomplished a certain transposition of everything: God Who is perfect hath descended to earth, though by Nature He remaineth entirely in the Heavens, even at that time when in His wholeness He be situated upon the earth. He was God and was made Man, not negating His Divinity: He was not made God, since He was always such by His very Nature, but He was made flesh, so that He be visible to everything corporeal. That One, upon Whom even the Heaven-dwellers cannot look, chose as His habitation a manger, and when He came, all around Him became still. And for naught else did He lay in the manger, than for this, that in giving nourishment to all, He should for Himself extract the nourishment of infants from maternal breasts and by this to bless wedlock.

On this great day people, leaving off from their arduous and serious affairs, do come forth for the glory of Heaven, and they learn through the gleaming of the stars, that the Lord hath descended to the earth to save His creation. The Lord, sitting upon a swift cloud, in the flesh wilt enter into Egypt (Isaiah 19:1), visible fleeing from Herod, on that very deed which inspires the saying by Isaiah: “On that day Israel wilt be third amidst the Egyptians” (Isaiah 19:24).

People entered into the cave, thinking not at all about this beforehand, and it became for them an holy temple. God entered into Egypt, in the place of the ancient sadness there to bring joy, and in the place of dark gloom to shed forth the light of salvation. The waters of the Nile had become defiled and harmful after infants perished in it with untimely death. There appeared in Egypt That One, Who upon a time turned the water into blood and Who thereafter transformed these waters into well-springs of the water of rebirth, by the grace of the Holy Spirit cleansing away sins and transgressions. Chastisement once befell the Egyptians, since in their errors they defied God. But Jesus now is come into Egypt and hath sown in it reverence for God, so that in casting off from the Egyptian soul its errors, they are made amicable unto God. The river waters concurred worthily to encompass His head, like a crown.

In order not to stretch out in length our discourse and briefly to conclude what is said, we shall ask: in what manner was the passionless Word made flesh and become visible, while dwelling immutably in His Divine Nature? But what shall I say and what declare? I see the carpenter and the manger, the Infant and the Virgin Birth-Giver, forsaken by all, weighed down by hardship and want. Behold, to what a degree of humiliation the great God hath descended. For our sakes “impoverished, Who was rich” (2 Cor 8:9): He was put into but sorry swaddling cloths — not on a soft bed. O poverty, source of all exaltation! O destitution, revealing all treasures! He doth appear to the poor — and the poor He maketh rich; He doth lay in an animal manger — and by His word He sets in motion all the world. He is wrapped in tattered swaddling cloths — and shatters the bonds of sinners having called the entire world into being by His Word alone.

What still should I say and proclaim? I see the Infant, in swaddling cloths and lying in the manger; Mary, the Virgin Mother, stands before it together with Joseph, called Her husband. He is called Her husband, and She — his wife, in name but so and seemingly wedded, though in fact they were not spouses. she was betrothed to Joseph, but the Holy Spirit came upon Her, as about this the holy evangelist doth speak: “The Holy Spirit shalt come upon Thee, and the power of the MostHigh wilt overshadow Thee: and He to be born is Holy” (Lk 1:35) and is of the seed of Heaven. Joseph did not dare to speak in opposition, and the righteous man did not wish to reprove the Holy Virgin; he did not want to believe any suspicion of sin nor pronounce against the Holy Virgin words of slander; but the Son to be born he did not wish to acknowledge as his, since he knew, that He — was not of him. And although he was perplexed and had doubts, Who such an Infant should be, and pondered it over — he then had an heavenly vision, an Angel appeared to him and encouraged him with the words: Fear not, Joseph, son of David; He That shalt be born of Mary is called Holy and the Son of God; that is: the Holy Spirit shalt come upon the Immaculate Virgin, and the power of the Most High wilt overshadow Her (Matthew 1:20-21; Luke 1:35). Truly He was to be born of the Virgin, preserving unharmed Her virginity. Just as the first virgin had fallen, enticed by Satan, so now Gabriel bears new tidings to the Virgin Mary, so that a virgin would give assent to be the Virgin, and to the Nativity — by birth. Allured by temptations, Eve did once utter words of ruination; Mary, in turn, in accepting the tidings gave birth to the Incorporeal and Life-Creating Word. For the words of Eve, Adam was cast out of paradise; the Word, born of the Virgin, revealed the Cross, by which the thief entered into the paradise of Adam. Though neither the pagan Gentiles, nor the Jews, nor the high-priests would believe, that from God could be born a Son without travail and without man, this now is so and He is born in the body, capable to endure suffering, while preserving inviolate the body of the Virgin.

Thus did He manifest His Omnipotence, born of the Virgin, preserving the virginity of the Virgin intact, and He was born of God with neither complication, travail, evil nor a separation of forsaking the immutable Divine Essence, born God from God. Since mankind abandoned God, in place of Him worshipping graven images of humans, God the Word thus assumed the image of man, so that in banishing error and restoring truth, He should consign to oblivion the worshipping of idols and for Himself to be accorded divine honor, since to Him becometh all glory and honor unto ages of ages.


Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

We are on the very brink of the feast! The fast is almost at an end, and our joy will be complete in only a few days. Our schedule for the Nativity will be as follows:

December 24, 9:00 a.m. — Royal Hours of the Nativity. If you have never experienced the Royal Hours, you are missing a great deal. Some 1500 years old, this is not a glitzy service, but the quiet combination of Old and New Testament readings, along with the hymnography of the Church, will immerse you into the true meaning of this wonderful feast. Quiet and contemplative, it is a beautiful way to begin our celebrations.

December 24, 7:00 p.m. — Vigil of the Nativity. An openly joyous service, we gather to welcome our incarnate Lord on His incarnation.

December 25, 9:00 a.m. — Divine Liturgy for the Nativity of our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ. Second only to the Liturgy for Pascha, the joy on Christmas morning is palpable and wondrous.

Everyone is welcome at any of these services. Please join us!

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

On March 3, Fr. James was invited to deliver a homily at a Community Lenten Service at St. William’s Catholic Church. The text he was asked to speak from was Matthew 20:17-28. What follows is that homily. Many thanks to St. William’s and its pastor, Fr. George Kloster, for their gracious invitation and hospitality.

When we read the Gospels, we are sometimes struck by passages that stop us in our tracks, that make us sit back and think. Some of these passages are hard, and express truth that is uncomfortable and even frightening. Other passages strike us as riddles, puzzles with solutions that are not readily apparent, such as Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew that “the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence”. And yet others are statements that are plain and simple, but are undeniably at odds with how each one of us lives our day to day life.

Our Gospel today is one of those plainspoken passages. From its very opening, it presents a stark and uncomfortable contradiction. “The Son of Man is going to Jerusalem,” says Jesus, “to die.” This is not the first time that Jesus has told his disciples what the near future holds, nor is it the first time that the disciples seem not to have heard him. Sometimes we wonder how the disciples seem to be able to completely miss what our Lord is telling them. If we think about it, though, we see that their apparently deliberate disregard of the statement is a reaction that we ourselves sometimes show, a natural human desire to see the bright side of things.

So it was with the Apostles. They could not imagine Jesus dead, much less crucified. He was the Messiah. Surely, they thought, an army of angels would come and rescue him, and drive the Romans from Jerusalem. All would be well, so well that it was time to talk about truly important matters, like, say, who would get the seat of honor in the Kingdom. Who would sit on His right and on His left?

Now we read this, and we tend to be kind of hard on John and James, whose mother asked the question, but the truth is this: that precise question was in the mind of each and every one of the apostles. They were mad at John and James not for thinking about it, but because they asked before the others worked up the courage to raise the subject.

And why not? If we are honest with ourselves, that question, in one form or another, occupies the mind of each of us. Indeed, our entire society is built on the premise that success is paramount. Being first is critical. Being the winner is the mark of a well lived life. We work hard, we compete hard, and if we are truly successful we leave others in our dust. We annihilate our enemies, we wipe out our opposition, we destroy our adversaries. Indeed, if we imagine our world as a pyramid, the most successful, most powerful people will be those at the very top of the pyramid. The closer to the top you are, the more honored and respected you are. Those below you are not as good, not as smart, not as worthy.

Yet here the Gospel does what it so often does – it turns our reality on its head. “To be honored in the Kingdom of God,” says Jesus, “you must be a servant to all.” To be great, you must be a slave. To be the first, you must be the last.

A 20th century Russian saint, Elder Sophrony, pondering this passage, said that the Kingdom of God can indeed be pictured as a pyramid, with Christ Himself at the tip. But, said the Elder, the pyramid is inverted. It is upside down, pointed downward, and from His place on the tip Christ supports the entire world. The task of a Christian, said Sophrony, is to dive downwards: down into humility, down into obedience, down into prayer for the world and everyone in it. By submerging ourselves into the virtues of the Kingdom of God, we strive to come ever closer to Christ, ever farther down into the pyramid, where we join ourselves and our prayers to Christ.

The Kingdom is like that. Those who are honored in the Kingdom of God are those who forgive, so that they themselves will be forgiven. They are those who give away treasures of the world so that they will amass spiritual treasure. They are those who offer the other cheek, who love and pray for their enemies, who humble themselves before all. I will be the first to agree that these are challenging standards. The Gospel writer does not mince words. The path to salvation is a narrow one. But I tell you this — we can walk the narrow path, if we walk it in love.

By love, I am not speaking of passionate love, as we see it in movies and on television. We know that love, true love, as it is expressed every day in our life, is not simply a warm and fuzzy emotion. We know that love that is true, love that lasts, is founded on sacrifice. If you are married, you accept boundaries on your behavior that a single person may not have to accept. If you are a parent, you sacrifice for your children without a second thought. If you are a child, you sacrifice for your parents, and accept their discipline. If you are a Christian, you will sacrifice for the love of God.

And now, in the season of Lent, we think about sacrificing, about giving something up. But just as love is sacrifice, sacrifice that is made without love is no sacrifice at all. In the 4th century, St. John Chrysostom told the faithful in Constantinople that they could fast from food during Lent, as was expected of them, but that it meant nothing if they did not also fast from sin: from anger, from judgment, from hatred. Lent is not found in the simple act of going without. Properly done, going without, or giving up something, is the outward sign of an inward spiritual sacrifice.

I say that because, properly viewed, Lent forces us to look within ourselves, and honestly assess the sins and passions that govern each one of us. It invites us to engage our Lord with our whole selves: body, mind and soul. Lent forces us to look closely at Christ, to remember His suffering, and to remember His eternal love. It forces us to confront just how cold our own love may have become. And recollecting that, Lent offers us an opportunity to do as Elder Sophrony speaks of, to dive downward into obedience, into humility, into love, and thus to become closer to our God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

There is another image that comes to mind. In the 7th century after Christ there lived a man we know as St. Isaac of Ninevah. Isaac grew up on the coast of the Red Sea, and as a child he saw men diving for pearls in the ocean. The pearl divers, without air tanks or any kind of life support, would sail small boats out onto the sea, where they would dive for pearls. They were buffeted by waves, they were menaced by sharks, they often dove so deep that the air, indeed, their very life, was almost crushed out of them, all so that they could collect that one, perfect pearl from which they derived their livelihood, their very substance. Years later, reflecting on the Gospel lesson of the pearl of great price, he brought those same images to mind in the context of Great Lent.

If pearls could be collected by simply walking along the beach, Isaac said, then they would have no value. Any person, without effort or thought, could simply pick up a pearl. But pearls, he said, are collected only with great labor. A Christian, said Isaac, must be like the pearl diver, and must sacrifice for the sake of the wondrous pearl. The Christian will be buffeted by the cares and worries of life. The Christian will be menaced by sin and passion, by evil both within and without. The Christian life, said Isaac, is arduous and requires dedication and sacrifice and single minded determination.

Lent is like that. Lent invites us to leave our comfortable day to day life, marked by unquestioning acceptance of the values of the world, and instead to undertake a journey fueled by love. With love we dive down: down past self interest, down past distraction, down past abiding sin, down past failure of prayer, down past worldly values, down past selfishness. We pray, we worship, we sacrifice; and from these struggles, small as they may be, grace comes upon us.

Out of our small love, we find the greatest love.

Out of our small struggles we find enormous rewards.

Out of our descent into our soul we find the King of Glory.

In our tradition, during Great Lent we add a particular prayer to our morning and evening prayers during the week. It is a prayer written by St. Ephraim of Syria in the 4th century, and it perfectly expresses the lesson we have learned:

O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness, lust of power and idle talk. But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to thy servant. Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own errors and not to judge my brother, for Thou art blessed from all ages to all ages.

Together, let us resolve to continue our Lenten journey, to embark anew into prayer, into worship, into watchfulness, into service, into love. If we do that, our celebration of Pascha, of Easter, of the Great Feast of the Resurrection of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ will be unimaginably sweet, joy beyond describing.

Sunday, January 3rd, 2010

We are at the midpoint, more or less, of a deeply festive season. We have welcomed the Infant Jesus into the world, in the cold silence of a Bethlehem night. We have joined the shepherds and the angels, the Magi and the beasts of the field, in adoration of God made flesh. In the joy of His coming, we forgo our usual fasting. Our celebration is deep, and heartfelt.

Yet no sooner have we celebrated the Nativity then we see disquieting signs, reminders that the Incarnation is but the first step in an arduous journey of salvation. We are reminded of this on December 27, when we remember the Protomartyr, the Deacon Stephen. On December 29, we read of the heartbreaking slaughter of the 14,000 innocents by Herod. And on January 6, we will celebrate a feast of a different character, that of the Theophany of Christ.

In fact, in the early Church there was only one winter feast, that of the Theophany. For us today, the Nativity and the Theophany are like bookends, bracketing a season of joy and celebration, before we begin a period of ordinary time that leads us inevitably into the somber reflection of Great Lent. We might ask: what links these events? On the surface, there does not seem to be a connection. What does a new born infant have to do with the baptism of the fully grown God-man, Christ? And what does any of it have to do with us?

The answer is not found in the way we see Christmas celebrated around us, in a society which does not celebrate the baptism of Christ at all. It is only in Orthodoxy, in the Church itself, that a true and complete understanding of these events is found. And what the Church tells us is that the joy of this season does not derive from gifts we receive, but rather in what we sacrificially give. Christ, as always, is our unparalleled example. By being born of the Virgin, Christ underwent what the Fathers called kenosis, the complete emptying of Himself. The Son of God consented to a birth in rude surroundings. He entered the world not as a King, but as an infant, dependent upon his mother for care, and upon his guardian, Joseph, for protection. Where the angels sang before his throne in the heavenly courts, he is now surrounded by farm animals. The Incarnation was a voluntary denial of self that led directly to the cross. Even in the Nativity icon we see that link:

Christ, the second person of the Trinity, is born in a cave. After His crucifixion, he will be laid again into another cave, a tomb.

When He is born, he is wrapped in swaddling clothes which binds the limbs of the child. After his crucifixion, he is wrapped again in cloth.

When he is born, he is laid in a manger, a receptacle for holding food. He will indeed become food for us, and his Body and his Blood sustains us in every Liturgy.

But understanding that the child has embarked on a road to the cross does not lessen our joy. As St. Athanasius the Great exclaimed, God became man so that man might become God. The Incarnation is the opening of the door of salvation. It is the only door to salvation, and for that we are filled with gratitude. Yet it is a door which we must choose to enter. The mere existence of an open door means nothing unless we avail ourselves of the road which is offered. And it is in the Theophany that we begin to see that clearly.

It is the universal teaching of the Fathers that Christ submitted to baptism in obedience, in order to fulfill all things. He had no sin for which he needed to repent. Unlike the throngs of others who came for the baptism of John, He had nothing to confess. He needed no forgiveness. Yet in his obedience, the Trinity was revealed, as His Father declared that Jesus was His son, in which he was well pleased, and The Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove. The Godhead became apparent. From that, we understand that our own obedience is demanded.

There is an Old Testament story that helps remind us of the link between God’s work, and our own obedience. In the book of 4 Kingdoms (2 Kings in the western Bible), we find the story of Namaan. Namaan was the powerful commander of the army of the King of Syria. At the height of his career, however, he developed the dread disease of leprosy. His wife had a slave girl, an Israelite, who told her mistress about the wonderworking prophet of God, Elisha. He, the slave girl declared, could cure Namaan of leprosy. Word got to the Syrian king, and he sent his commander to the King of Israel, carrying enormous treasure, asking that Namaan be cured.

The King of Israel misunderstood the request, thinking that he was supposed to somehow cure Namaan. Scripture tells us that the King fell into despair, tearing his clothes. The King, you see, failed to see the request through spiritual eyes, but instead interpreted the event through the eyes of the world. He thought that the King of Syria was hoping to start a quarrel, and begin a war which Israel would lose. He did not stop to think that the request was a genuine plea for assistance, nor did he think to send the man to the Prophet Elisha, who lived within his borders.

Elisha, however, heard of the demand. He sent a message to his king, and told him to send Namaan to him. The general came to his house, with his soldiers and his chariots and all of the signs of his power. Namaan was a proud man, and a powerful one. It was not in his nature to approach Elisha in humility. In his mind, he just had this one little problem – leprosy – and if he could just be cured of it, he would go back to being the powerful man he had always been.

Standing in front of the rude house with his servants and his soldiers, what Namaan expected was that Elisha would come out to where he was impatiently waiting, wave his arms around, call on an obedient God and – viola! – he would be cured. He wanted it done quickly, and in accordance with his schedule, at his convenience. Namaan was used to getting things done as he wished.

But God had other plans. “Go,” Elisha told Namaan, “and wash yourself in the Jordan River seven times, and you will be healed.”

In all honesty, the Jordan is not the world’s most attractive river. It is not huge and grand like other great rivers, nor is it as pristine and delightful as a mountain stream. Frankly, Elisha’s order offended Namaan. There were prettier rivers in Syria, rivers that he would enjoy getting into and bathing. Why did he have to go into the Jordan, and why did he have to bathe seven times? Furious, Namaan turned to leave. He was going to return home. From his point of view it was humiliating to be told to go to some muddy river and wash himself seven times. He was dissuaded, however, by his servants, who said “My father, if the prophet had commanded you to do some great thing, would you not have done it?” So why not go in obedience, and wash yourself in the Jordan? Namaan obeyed, and against his every expectation, he was healed of his leprosy.

Now, there is more to this story, and in the end, Namaan’s leprosy was transferred to a servant of Elisha’s, who acted out of pride and greed. But for our purposes, let’s stop and think about Namaan.

Namaan was a proud man, used to having things his way, and doing as he wished. It was not in his nature to humble himself. Oh, he was open to anything that appealed to his heroic nature, or to any task that he could take pride in performing. But to be asked to dunk himself seven times in a muddy little river was almost more than he could stand. There was no heroism, there was no glory, there was no self, if you will, in Elisha’s command. There was only self-emptying, there was only humility, there was only obedience.

All of us can see ourselves in the person of Namaan. We are proud, and want to do things our way. We have firm ideas about the best way to live our life. We have definite preferences for what is clean and shiny and attractive, as opposed to what looks not shiny and not attractive. We all are drawn to praise for things we have done, and we bask in the admiration of other people. And we all have this little problem – call it spiritual leprosy – that we need taken care of.

In response, we must emulate Namaan. We must set aside our worldly trappings and achievements, and empty ourselves, in imitation of our Lord. We must repeatedly submerge ourselves into the Jordan of repentance, in obedience and in hope, that Christ our Lord, He who has opened the door of salvation, will heal our souls and save us. It is worth noting that the number seven in this story was not just happenstance. In scriptural terms, seven is the number of completion. It tells us that in our Christian life, we must return repeatedly to the Jordan, not for baptism by water, but for what the Fathers call the baptism of repentance. We must constantly humble ourselves before God, acknowledging our shortcomings and our sins. We must constantly submerge ourselves in the waters of the Jordan.

Do you see the lesson for us? At Christmas, Christ is born in a cave, having emptied Himself for the sake of mankind. At the Theophany, Christ is baptized in the Jordan, submerged into a muddy river in obedience and in fulfillment of the divine will, and in His obedience he sanctified the waters of the earth.

That is the thread that connects Christmas and the Theophany. The extreme humility of Christ, and the humble response from us. Think of the infant Jesus in the cave, and know that He was born for you and I. Think of Jesus, who submitted to baptism in that muddy little river, and know that He did that for you and I. Let us respond. Let us humble ourselves before our God, and like Namaan, set aside our pride and our achievements. Let us seek the baptism of repentance, dipping ourselves into the Jordan, for as long as we live.

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

The last Divine Liturgy celebrated by Fr. Alexander Schmemann was on the morning of Thanksgiving in 1983. He fell asleep in the Lord not long after, on December 13. That his final liturgy should occur on Thanksgiving Day was particularly appropriate since Father Alexander had devoted his whole life to teaching, writing and preaching about the Eucharist; for the word Eucharist in Greek means thanksgiving. Here are his final words from the Ambo of the church, a homily written in the form of a prayer.

Thank You, O Lord!

Everyone capable of thanksgiving is capable of salvation and eternal joy.

Thank You, O Lord, for having accepted this Eucharist, which we offered to the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and which filled our hearts with the joy, peace and righteousness of the Holy Spirit.

Thank You, O Lord, for having revealed Yourself unto us and given us the foretaste of Your Kingdom.

Thank You, O Lord, for having united us to one another in serving You and Your Holy Church.

Thank You, O Lord, for having helped us to overcome all difficulties, tensions, passions, temptations and restored peace, mutual love and joy in sharing the communion of the Holy Spirit.

Thank You, O Lord, for the sufferings You bestowed upon us, for they are purifying us from selfishness and reminding us of the “one thing needed;” Your eternal Kingdom.

Thank You, O Lord, for having given us this country where we are free to Worship You.

Thank You, O Lord, for this school, where the name of God is proclaimed.

Thank You, O Lord, for our families: husbands, wives and, especially, children who teach us how to celebrate Your holy Name in joy, movement and holy noise.

Thank You, O Lord, for everyone and everything.
Great are You, O Lord, and marvelous are Your deeds, and no word is sufficient to celebrate Your miracles.

Lord, it is good to be here! Amen.

(The Orthodox Church, Vol. 20, No. 2, February 1984, p. 1:1)

(Many thanks to Deacon Gregory Uhrin for sending this out.)

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

Here in the church there is the one thing needful: Here is a refuge from the vanity and the storms of life. Here is the calm harbor for souls seeking after salvation. Here is incorruptible food and drink for the soul. Here is the light that enlightens all men existing upon earth. Here is the clean air of the spirit. Here is the fountain of living water which flows to life eternal (John 4:14). Here are distributed the gifts of the Holy Spirit, here is the cleansing of souls. The reading and chanting is done in church in a holy language. All Orthodox Christians should learn it, that they might understand the sweet pronouncements of their mother, who educates her children to prepare them for heaven, for life eternal…. Here in the temple, man comprehends the truly noble origin of his soul, the worth of life and its goal and purpose. Here he is torn away from his fascination with earthly vanities and passions. Here he comprehends his temporal and eternal fate. Here the Savior lives – in His Life-giving Mysteries, in His salvation. Here he recognizes his true relationship to God and to his neighbor, to his family and to the society in which he lives. The temple is heaven on earth, a place where intimate union with the Divine takes place. It is a heavenly school, where Christians are taught to become citizens of heaven, where they are taught heavenly norms, the way of life in heaven. It is the threshold of heaven, a place of communal prayer, thanksgiving, praise of the Triune God, creator and protector of all. It is a place of unification with the angels. What is more honorable and more esteemed than the temple? Nothing. In its Divine Services, as in a blueprint, are severally depicted the fates of all humanity, from beginning to end. The Divine Services are the alpha and omega of the world and of mankind. ~ St. John of Kronstadt

Tuesday, November 17th, 2009

To believe that God exists is one thing, to know God another. — St. Silouan the Athonite

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

The same field shown in our header photograph

A slightly different perspective

The pasture where we walk the dogs