April, 2022


Focus on the Faith

An Explanation of the Holy Week Services.

As we approach the great solemn days of Holy Week, we bring to mind how our Lord Jesus Christ was betrayed and seized, tortured and crucified, died and was buried, and arose from the dead.  The services of Holy Week, beginning with Lazarus Saturday, show us in symbols, readings and chants the account of our Saviour’s love and sacrifice ‘unto death, even the death of the cross’ for our sake (Phil. 2:8).

  On Palm Sunday we shall stand with branches in our hands and listen to the ‘Hosannas,’ like the multitudes in Jerusalem, welcoming ‘Him Who cometh in the Name of the Lord,’ and, like the children, waving palms and shouting for joy.  In the Gospels of the first three days of Passion Week we shall hear Christ’s final teachings to his disciples and the people; His stern rebukes to the proud, self-righteous Pharisees and scribes; His prophecy of His resurrection and second coming.  In the house of Simon the Leper, where Jesus was having a meal, we shall see the sinful woman enter to anoint His head and feet in love and repentance, and we shall contrast her to Judas, the disciple whose greed incited him to betray his Master for a paltry sum of money.  Then we shall follow Jesus to the ‘upper chamber’ where He and his disciples partook of his Mystical Supper, that is, the first celebration of the Eucharist of his Most Holy Body and Blood, and then to the Garden of Gethsemane.  There our Lord and God Jesus Christ prayed in agony.

Concerning our Saviour’s prayer before his Passion, Saint John Chrysostom says:

“By saying, ‘If it be possible, let it pass from me,’ He showed His humanity; but by saying, ‘Nevertheless not as I will, but as Thou wilt,’ He showed His virtue and self-command, teaching us even when nature pulls us back to follow God”  (Homily 83 on the Gospel of Matthew).

  Together with Christ’s grieving Mother and John, the disciple “whom He loved” and with the other women, we shall stand watch by His Cross.  We shall follow as His body is carried to the grave in the garden, and there leave his Body to rest until the glorious morning of the Resurrection. This is why through all Passion Week’s mournful services there runs the strain of bright hope, of forgiveness, of triumph over sin and death, and of our Saviour’s victory over Satan, Hades, and death’s corruption.

LAZARUS SATURDAY

  On this Saturday we remember how our Lord Jesus Christ raised His friend Lazarus from the dead. He knew Lazarus was grievously ill, but He waited till he died before He answered Martha and Mary’s call for Him. Jesus knew that His own death on the Cross was near. He knew how terrified and bewildered His disciples would be, how they might doubt that He was indeed the Christ. Only after four days did He bring Lazarus back to life, so that His disciples would see that He had power over life and death and was indeed ‘the Resurrection and

the Life.’  It was this miracle that prepared Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem and gave us the certain assurance of the physical resurrection of all the dead.

ENTRY INTO JERUSALEM – PALM SUNDAY

  This day celebrates Christ’s triumphal entry into the holy city of Jerusalem.  When the people heard of His coming, great crowds rushed to the city gates to meet Him.  They spread their cloaks on the road and strewed palm leaves in His path.  Children waved green boughs and all sang, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is He that cometh in the Name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’  At Palm Sunday Matins, after the Gospel reading, the priest blesses palm leaves or other appropriate branches, which the people hold during the canon. Palm Sunday is one of the twelve great feasts of the Church.

GREAT AND HOLY MONDAY

  The week of our Saviour’s Passion begins with Holy and Great Monday.  The first three days of Holy Week recall Christ’s last teachings with His disciples.  These teachings inspire the readings and hymns.  The services consist of Great Compline, Matins, Hours, and the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts with Vespers.  Gospels are read at Matins and Liturgy.  In addition, the whole Psalter is read in the services of the first three days of Holy Week; also, the four Gospels are read.  The Psalms remind us how the coming and sufferings of Christ were awaited and foretold in the Old Testament.  The Gospels tell of His life in the world; His teaching and miracles prove that He was indeed the Son of God, who of His own free will suffered for our sake though He was without guilt.

At Matins after the great litany we do not hear the usual joyous verses, ‘God is the Lord, and hath appeared unto us.’ Instead, a compunctionate ‘Alleluia’ is chanted.  And to inspire us to watch and pray in these solemn days, this troparion is chanted:

“Behold, the Bridegroom cometh in the middle of the night, and blessed is that servant whom He shall find watching; and again unworthy is he whom He shall find heedless.  Beware, therefore, O my soul, lest thou be overcome with sleep, lest thou be given up to death, and be shut out from the Kingdom.  But rouse thyself and cry: Holy, Holy, Holy art Thou, O God, through the Mother of God, have mercy on us.”

After the canon, which speaks of Christ’s coming Passion, another special hymn an Exapostilarion — is chanted.  It is like a cry of our soul as if it saw from afar Christ’s radiant mansions and felt how unworthy it was to enter them:

Thy bridal chamber, O my Saviour, do I behold all adorned, and a garment I have not that I may enter therein.  Illumine the garment of my soul, O Giver of Light, and save me.

According to the usage of the Optina Monastery, this hymn is sung three times. At the first singing, as we prostrate, the Royal Doors of the iconostas slowly open. At the second singing, the Doors remain open. At the third singing, the Royal Doors slowly close again, as we contemplate our lives and wonder if we shall be shut out of the Bridal Chamber of Christ’s Kingdom. On Holy and Great Monday the Church tells us the parable of the barren fig tree.  It is the symbol of those who think only of outward goodness which does not come from the heart.  The Gospel also tells about Christ’s prophecies about the fall of Jerusalem, wars and tribulations, and the end of the world.

GREAT AND HOLY TUESDAY

On Holy and Great Tuesday we listen to our Saviour’s replies to the wily questions of the Pharisees and scribes, who tried to trap Him; we hear His stern rebukes of their envy and deceit.  The parables of the Ten Virgins and of the Talents remind us how we should always keep watch over our conscience and use in God’s service any gift or talent we have received from Him.  The Gospel then tells Christ’s prophecy of His second coming and the Last Judgment.  It ends with the awful warning: ‘Ye know that after two days is the feast of the Passover, and the Son of Man is betrayed to be crucified.’

GREAT AND HOLY WEDNESDAY

On Great Wednesday the Church commemorates the act of contrition and love of the sinful woman who poured precious myrrh-oil on our Saviour’s head, and, though she did not know it, ‘prepared Him for burial.’  And in contrast we hear of the dark act of Judas, whose greed led him to betray his Master.  All the readings and hymns of the day warn us to beware of greed and love of money, which even tempted a disciple of Christ.  We too can betray Him, if we let greed and selfishness get hold of us. On this night, in some places, the Church administers the sacrament of Holy Unction for the bodily and spiritual health of the Orthodox faithful.  At this sacrament, the oil is consecrated by prayer and the clergy anoint the people.

GREAT AND HOLY THURSDAY

The Gospels of Holy and Great Thursday tell how our Saviour and His disciples came to Jerusalem to celebrate His last feast of the Passover, how He washed their feet.  They tell the account of that Mystical Supper when our Lord ordained the Mystery of His Most Holy Body and Blood ‘for the remission of sins and life everlasting.’  They speak of Christ’s instruction to the Apostles, and how He told them that they would all forsake Him that night; they speak of Peter’s rash promise that he would always remain faithful; of Christ’s vigil in the garden; of how He was seized and led away to the high priest’s court; of the scene in the courtyard; of Peter’s three-fold denial and his grief; of the high priest’s mocking questions; and of how our Saviour Christ God, wearing the crown of thorns, beaten and insulted by the soldiers, was led before Pilate.

The readings and hymns of Matins dwell on Judas’ betrayal, on ‘the dark night’ which settled in his soul.  We pray that we may keep ourselves from greed and deceit, and be made pure by partaking of the holy Mysteries of Christ’s Body and Blood. The Troparion  after the ‘Alleluia’ at Matins speaks of this:

“When the glorious disciples were enlightened at the washing of the feet, then Judas the ungodly one was stricken and darkened with the love of silver. And unto the lawless judges did he deliver Thee, the righteous Judge. O  thou lover of money, behold thou him that for the sake thereof did hang himself, flee from that insatiable soul that dared such things against the Master. O Thou Who art good unto all, Lord, glory be to Thee.”

On this day the Liturgy of Saint Basil the Great is celebrated together with Vespers.

The whole narration of our Lord’s Passion is given at the Matins of Holy and Great Thursday.  It is commonly called ‘the Service of the Twelve Gospels.’ A tall Crucifix usually stands in the middle of the church with many candles lighted round it.  After the Six Psalms and the Great Litany, the choir chants, ‘Alleluia’ and the Troparion of Holy and Great Thursday.  The priest and deacon come out of the sanctuary carrying the Book of Gospels.  It is placed on a podium and the priest begins the reading.  The whole story of the Passion is read from the four evangelists and is divided into twelve parts.  It begins with the ‘Gospel of the Testament’ and the prayer at the Mystical Supper, in Saint John’s Gospel, and continues through the four Gospels to the burial of Christ by Joseph of Arimathea.  After each reading the choir chants, ‘Glory to Thy longsuffering, 0 Lord, glory to Thee.’  Between the readings special antiphons and hymns are chanted.  They speak of Judas’ betrayal; of the cruelty of the Jews; of our Saviour’s infinite patience and meekness; of the awe of all creation when the Lord of all was nailed to the Cross between two thieves. The canon has only three odes. All recount the Passion and foretell the glory of the Resurrection. Matins ends shortly after the twelfth Gospel.

HOLY AND GREAT FRIDAY

Great Friday is the most solemn day of Holy Week. In awe and trembling, we stand before the Cross on which our Saviour died and we see the image of Him dead, lying in our midst, on the Plaschanitsa or Epitaphios (the Winding Sheet).
During the Service of Matins, which by anticipation is chanted on Thursday evening, we will hear some of the most awe-inspiring hymns of the ecclesiastical year. The following is but a one example:

“Today is hung upon the Tree, He that suspended the earth upon the waters. A crown of thorns is placed upon Him Who is the King of the Angels. He that wrappeth the Heavens with clouds, is wrapped in the purple of mockery. Buffetings did He receive, Who freed Adam in the Jordan. With nails was He affixed, He that is the Bridegroom of the Church. With a lance was He pierced, He that is the Son of the Virgin. We venerate Thy Passion, O Christ. Show also unto us Thy glorious Resurrection!”

The solemn Vespers of Great Friday is celebrated in the afternoon at the time of our Lord Jesus’ death. Again all the readings remind us of the suffering Christ and His glory. After the entrance, lessons are read in which the Prophet Isaiah speaks of ‘the Lamb led to the slaughter,’ and an Epistle of Saint Paul on the power and wisdom of the Cross; again a Gospel is read describing our Lord’s trial before Pilate, His Crucifixion and burial. At its conclusion, the icon of the crucified Christ is taken down from the Cross.

After the usual petitions, ‘Let us all say …,’ ‘Vouchsafe …,’ ‘Let us complete …,’ etc., the choir slowly chants the Aposticha, during which the procession exits from the Sanctuary, with the priest and deacon bearing the Shroud of Christ, their heads uncovered, proceeded by candles and censer. All kneel with head bowed low before the image of our dead Saviour. A bier stands in the middle of the church, with candles lit round it. On it the Shroud is laid reverently and censed all around by the priest. Then, after the Lord’s Prayer, the dismissal hymns are chanted: ‘The noble Joseph …’ and ‘Unto the myrrh-bearing women …’ followed by the prayers of dismissal.

HOLY AND GREAT SATURDAY

Holy and Great Saturday is a reverent vigil at the tomb of the Son of God, slain for our sins. By anticipation, the Saturday Matins is held on Friday evening.
After the Six Psalms and the Great Litany, the Royal Doors are opened clergy come out with candles and censer. The choir sings ‘The Lord is God and hath appeared unto us,’ and then the appointed troparia. In the meantime, the priest and deacon cense the Shroud, then stand in front of it. The priest and the choir then chant the ‘Lamentations’ with the verses of the 118th Psalm: ‘Blessed are the blameless in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord.’ Each verse of the Psalm is followed by a verse of the Lamentations. It is like a long poem depicting the Angels in Heaven and all creatures on earth overwhelmed by the death of

their Creator, and their gratitude at being freed from death’s power by Christ.

After the Lamentations, the Resurrection hymns are sung. Then, following the customary litanies, the choir chants the canon, where the note of joy and triumph is heard more and more clearly. At the end of the Great Doxology of Matins, the priest raises the Shroud, which is then taken by four pall-bearers, the deacon walks in front, the people follow, all carrying candles, accompanied by the choir chanting, ‘Holy God, Holy and Strong, Holy and Immortal, have mercy on us.’ This represents the burial of Christ. Then, the prokeimenon is chanted, and the glorious prophecy of Ezekiel is read about the dry bones of Israel, out of which arose ‘an exceeding great host’ quickened to life by the breath of God. Then follows Saint Paul’s Epistle about Christ our Passover, and the Gospel about the sealing of Jesus’ tomb. Matins then ends as usual.

The Liturgy of Holy and Great Saturday is that of Saint Basil the Great. It begins with Vespers. After the entrance, the evening hymn ‘O Gladsome Light’ is chanted as usual. Then the 15 Old Testament readings are recited. They tell of the most striking events and prophecies of the salvation of mankind by the death of the Son of God. The account of creation in Genesis is the first reading. The sixth reading is the story of Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea and Moses’ song of victory – over Pharaoh, with its refrain: ‘For gloriously is He glorified’. The last reading is about the Three Children in the fiery furnace of Babylon, and their song of praise with its repeated refrain: ‘O praise ye the Lord and supremely exalt Him unto the ages.’ In the ancient church the catechumens were baptized during the time of these readings. The Epistle which follows speaks of how, through the death of Christ, we too shall rise to a new life. After the Epistle, the choir chants, like a call to the sleeping Christ: ‘Arise, O Lord, Judge the earth, for Thou shalt have an inheritance among all the nations… The deacon carries out the Book of the Gospels, and reads the first message of the resurrection from Saint Matthew. Because the Vespers portion of the service belongs to the next day (Pascha) the burial hymns of Saturday are mingled with those of the resurrection, so that this service is already full of the coming Paschal joy.

After the Gospel the Liturgy proceeds as usual. Instead of the Cherubic Hymn, a special and very ancient hymn is chanted:

“Let all mortal flesh keep silence and stand with fear and trembling, and take no thought for any earthly thing, for the King of kings and Lord of lords cometh to be slain and given as food for the faithful. Before Him go the choirs of the angels with all sovereignty and power: the manv-eyed Cherubim and six-winged Seraphim, covering their faces and crying out the hymn: Alleluia, Alleluia, .Alleluia.”

After the Liturgy the faithful partake of the

bread, wine and fruit which was blessed during the service, to strengthen them to keep watch the rest of the day and evening. This is the only Saturday of the year on which oil may not be taken. In the monasteries and convents, the refectory meal is taken in complete silence, out of reverence for the burial of Christ. The world awaits the proclamation of His Resurrection.

SYNAXARION OF THE GREAT FEAST OF THE RESURRECTION OF CHRIST

On the Great and Holy Sunday of Pascha, we celebrate the Life-giving Resurrection of our Lord, God, and Saviour Jesus Christ: Pascha, which, translated from the Hebrew, means Passover. For this is the day on which God created the world from nothingness. On this day, He delivered the Israelites from Pharaoh’s hands and led them through the Red Sea. On this day, he descended from heaven and took His dwelling in the Virgin’s womb; now drawing forth mankind held in Hades, He raised them to heaven and brought them to the first-created honour of incorruption. …While the soldiers guarded the tomb, at midnight the earth quaked, for the angel of the Lord had descended and rolled the stone from the entrance of the tomb, and the soldiers [set to guard the tomb] were so frightened that they fled. The women came to the tomb very early in the morning on the day following the Sabbath — that is to say at midnight on Saturday. Later on the first day of the Resurrection, the Mother of God was there together with St Mary Magdalene, who was sitting near the tomb according to St Matthew. The Evangelists say that He first appeared to St Mary Magdalene [rather than His Mother]…so that there would be no doubts or suspicions concerning the truth of the Resurrection.

It was St Mary Magdalene who saw the angel upon the stone; then bowing down, she saw the other angels inside. The angels announced the Lord’s Resurrection to her and said, ‘He is risen! He is not here! Behold the place where they laid Him’ (Mark 16:6). Hearing this, the women turned to run and announce the Resurrection to the most fervent of the Apostles, that is, to St Peter and St John. But when they returned, they met Christ Himself, Who said to them, ‘Rejoice’ (Matthew 28:9).

 

 

 

St. Ambrose of Optina’s 1871 Paschal Epistle

O ones wise in the Lord! For the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, in place of the usual greetings I wrote to you about the great Mystery of this glorious Feast. And now I would like to say something to you about the mystical meaning of the Triumph of Christian triumphs, that is, the Resurrection of Christ. But because of my weakness and sickness I have neither the strength nor the opportunity. I can only tell you briefly that the yearly triumphant and bright Feast of the Resurrection of Christ, besides having its own meaning, serves also for us as a reminder of the general resurrection of the whole world, which is particularly apparent in the remarkable Paschal Matins.

First: During the radiant night, after the reading of the Midnight Office, there is the triumphal procession around the church by the clergy and all the faithful with lighted candles, together with the cross, the icons, and the ringing of the bells. This is clearly reminiscent of the Gospel parable of the ten virgins woken at midnight with the cry: Behold, the bridegroom cometh! Go ye out to meet Him. Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps (cf. Matt. 25: 6-7). These virgins are the souls of the faithful, and the Bridegroom is Christ. The night is our temporary life. The lamps are our faith and good works. Do not the Gospel parable as well as the triumphant procession around the church by the faithful accompanied by the ringing of bells represent the general resurrection at the end of the world, when the voice of the archangels’ trumpets will awaken all the dead, and the faithful in the Lord, like the Gospel virgins, will go forth to meet Him with their lamps, each according to her own worthiness?

Second: While this triumphant procession around the church is being performed, the church doors are closed. The faithful that walk see the light in the church, but on the path before them they see only impenetrable darkness, and thus they came to stand before the closed doors of the church. Does this not mean that all who are resurrected at the universal resurrection will see the heavenly bridal chamber of glory, but not all will enter therein — only those who are worthy — whose lamps, like those of the wise virgins, do not go out at the meeting of the Bridegroom Christ? All the rest, who like the foolish virgins have their lamps go out, will pitifully repeat the beginning of the hymn: I see Thy bridal chamber, adorned O my Savior, but I have no wedding garment, that I may enter there(Exapostilarion, Matins of Holy Week).

Third: Before the closed doors of the church, the presiding clergyman gives the usual initial Paschal glorification of the Holy Trinity and the singing of “Christ is Risen.” Then, with the cross in hand, he opens the doors and enters the church first, and after him enter all the other Christians, singing the joyous hymn: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life. Repeating this many times, to it is added yet more joyful singing: It is the day of Resurrection! Let us be radiant, O people! It is the Pascha, the Pascha of the Lord! From death to life and from earth to Heaven, Christ our God has passed us, who sing the hymn of victory! (Irmos, Canon of Paschal Matins). No longer is heard the usual singing that arouses us to compunction, only the ceaseless sweet singing awakening joy in all. The clergy continually come forth from the altar in brilliant vestments; ceaselessly we look upon the Cross of Christ and venerate the symbol of our salvation; ceaselessly we are surrounded by clouds of holy incense. All hold lighted candles in their hands; on the lips of all — those who serve and those present who stand and sing — is heard only the joyful: Christ is Risen!

Thus is celebrated the temporal Pascha of Christ on earth, and all Christians are allowed to celebrate — the worthy and the unworthy, because the present life is subject to change. Often the worthy become unworthy and the unworthy become worthy, which is clearly portrayed by Judas and the thief. At first Judas was among the chosen twelve Apostles of Christ, following Christ for three years, listening continually to His teaching, having the power to cast out demons and heal many different diseases. But at the end he went mad from carelessness and love of money, betrayed Christ, then perished eternally. The thief had been part of a band of hard-core robbers for three years, but, being enlightened upon the cross, he confessed willingly the Crucified Son of God, Lord and Kind, and was the first to enter Paradise. May we always hold these examples in our remembrance, so that we might always refrain from the sin of judging, even though we might see someone sinning at the very end of his life, as St. John of the Ladder assures us.

But it will be different at the heavenly Feast of the eternal Pascha, after the general resurrection and judgment. To that Feast will be allowed only the elect, the worthy. And whoever will once be allowed into the heavenly bridal chamber, to the Feast of the eternal Pascha, will remain eternally among the ranks of celebrants, giving voice to their joy. Whoever is shown to be unworthy to participate in the celebration will be deprived and estranged eternally.

However, now is not the time to speak particularly of the bitter fate of these last, for it is the all-joyous Feast. We will only say that all of us Christians, while we are still alive, should be careful and attentive to our salvation. And those who think they stand, in the words of the Apostle, should take care lest they fall, remembering always the terrible example of Judas who perished. In those of us who are infirm and falling, may the hope of correction be awakened, seeing the comforting example of the wise thief who inherited Paradise.

O, great and holiest Pascha, Christ! O, Wisdom, Word and power of God! Grant that we may more perfectly partake of Thee in the unending day of Thy Kingdom (Canon of Paschal Matins).

Taken from Fr. Sergius Chetverikov, Elder Ambrose of Optina
(Platina, CA: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1997), 190-193.

Features of the services of Bridegroom Matins during Holy Week

Each year we are invited once again to traverse the sacred days of the fast and come to that Week of all weeks – Holy Week. We are invited by the Church to take pause and reorient our crazy hectic schedule around “church time.” Every year we are guided through this rich, profound and beautiful cycle of services where we participate in Christ’s final days. If we pause enough we enter into the deep silence of the fear, isolation, sadness of the coming crucifixion of our Lord. Though the one Subject is Christ Himself, we come to find that it is us as well who become a vital component to these services. As we are remembering these events – Judas, the crowds, the Virgins awaiting the bridegroom, the harlot who anointed Christ’s feet – we begin to see that we are just like these persons. We are the Virgins who are not ready for the bridegroom. We are Judas who so often are willing to sell Christ for the sake of our worldly gain, we are the disciples who deny our Lord, and we are the crowds who boldly proclaim “crucify him!” As a new mission we continue to take steps to fill out our liturgical cycle and this year we are adding the services for Monday through Thursday known as Bridegroom Matins.

The first three days of Holy Week are referred to as “the end”. We have just laid our palm branches down into the silence of Christ’s final days. Darkness and judgment are the theme for the first three days. This is centered around the the Gospel reading from Great and Holy Tuesday found in Matt. 24:36 – 26:2. This is the parable of the ten virgins. Here we are urged not to be like the five foolish virgins who were not prepared for the coming of the bridegroom. The troparion hymn sung on these three days:

*Behold the bridegroom comes at midnight, and blessed is the servant whom he shall find watching; and again, unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless.*

*Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep, lest you be given over to death, and lest you be shut out of the Kingdom.*

*But rouse yourself, crying: “Holy! Holy! Holy! art Thou, O our God. Through the Theotokos have mercy on us!”

—From St. Elizabeth Convent

“Young Fr. Gabriel acquired the spirit of Optina right away. His creative, sensitive soul was receptive to Elder Macarius’ emotional tenor. He would always remember the image of Elder Macarius during Passion Week, singing alone in the Skete Church the Matins exapostilarion, “I see Thy bridal chamber adorned, O my Savior …” The Elder’s voice would be trembling as if in truth he saw before him the doors of heaven slowly opening up. There in the altar the multicolored lights would mysteriously glitter and shine….

(Lovers of Optina since Elder Macarius’ time have kept the tradition during that service of having the holy doors slowly open up, to reveal a multitude of lampadas of all colors on top of, in front of, and all around the altar table, flickering before the cross and mysteriously illuminating the otherwise darkened church. After the exapostilarion verse is sung three times, the doors slowly close, leaving the temple in darkness again.)”

—-From the Biography of Elder Macarius of Optina

The woman had fallen into many sins, O Lord,
yet when she perceived Thy divinity,
she joined the ranks of the myrrh-bearing women.
In tears she brought Thee myrrh before Thy burial.
She cried, “Woe is me!
For I live in the night of licentiousness,
shrouded in the dark and moonless love of sin.
But accept the fountain of my tears,
O Thou who didst gather the waters of the sea into clouds.
Bow down Thine ear to the sighing of my heart,
O Thou who didst bow the heavens in Thine ineffable condescension.
Once Eve heard Thy footsteps in paradise in the cool of the day,
and in fear she ran and hid herself.
But now I will tenderly embrace those pure feet
and wipe them with the hair of my head.
Who can measure the multitutde of my sins,
or the depth of Thy judgements, O Savior of my soul,
Do not despise Thy servant in Thine immeasurable mercy.

—-Hymn of Cassiani (Tone 8) of Bridegroom Matins of Holy Wednesday

The Rector’s Paschal Appeal Letter

“Those who have received liberty (from Christ), set apart everything they have for the Lord’s use, cheerfully and freely giving them like that poor widow, who put her whole livelihood into the treasury of God” (St. Irenaeus of Lyon, 2nd Century).

“Make Christ a partner with you in earthly possessions, that He also may make you a fellow-heir with Him in His heavenly kingdom” ( St.Cyprian of Carthage, 3rd Century).

“Let every man give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loves a cheerful giver!” (2 Corinthians 9:7)

Dear Parishioners and Friends of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church,

CHRIST IS RISEN! INDEED, HE IS RISEN!

In this world there are no more important words than these. In them are contained the totality of our Orthodox faith, and the fullness of our Church’s theology. Being so much more than mere words, this greeting is the reflection of that profound and amazing joy which was experienced by those who came to the empty tomb. They came expecting to encounter death, but instead, they were surprised by Life. Death had been swallowed up, the grave lost its power, and the greatest fear of mankind was turned on its head. With the resurrection of Christ, we were all assured of our own resurrection from the dead, because He raised us up as well. With the resurrection of Christ, death is vanquished, and Satan is crushed. Paradise is open again, and all those who wish to enter may do so.

“Rejoice in the Lord always, and again, I say, rejoice!” says the holy apostle Paul (Phil. 4:4). As we leave behind the soul-profiting school of the Great Fast, let’s not forget the lessons that we learned there. Let us continue, with the help of God, to amend our lives. Let us grow in love for God and for our neighbors. Let us embrace with forgiveness and discover how we are forgiven. Let us flee from self-centeredness and strive for God-centeredness. Let us not leave off from doing good deeds, but instead, seek daily to discover new opportunities for practicing virtue. Let us not forget sacrificial giving, but instead, continue to give generously to the poor, and to our parish, for in so doing, we reap many, many blessings from God.

May our Risen Lord, God, and Saviour Jesus Christ bless each and every one of you, your homes, and your families. May the light that shines forth from the empty tomb shine on you now and always.

CHRIST IS RISEN!  INDEED, HE IS RISEN!

 

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March, 2022


Focus on the Faith

The Lenten Services – Fr. Thomas Hopko

The weekday services of Great Lent are characterized by special lenten melodies of a penitential character. The royal gates to the altar area remain closed to signify man’s separation through sin from the Kingdom of God. The church vesting is of a somber color, usually purple. The daily troparia are also of an intercessory character, entreating God through his saints to have mercy on us sinners.

At the Matins the long Alleluia replaces the psalm: “The Lord is God” . . . the Psalmody is increased. The hymnology refers to the lenten effort. Scripture readings from Genesis and Proverbs are added to Vespers, and the Prophecy of Isaiah to the Sixth Hour. Each of these books is read nearly in its entirety during the lenten period. Epistle and gospel readings are absent because there are no Divine Liturgies.

At all of the lenten services the Prayer of Saint Ephraim of Syria is read. It supplicates God for those virtues especially necessary to the Christian life.

“O Lord and Master of my life: take from me the spirit of sloth, faint-heartedness, lust of power and idle talk. But grant rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou unto ages of ages. Amen.”

The Vespers service which begins the lenten season is called the Vespers of Forgiveness. It is customary at this service for the faithful to ask forgiveness and to forgive each other. At the Compline services of the first week of lent the Canon of Saint Andrew of Crete is read. This is a long series of penitential verses based on Biblical themes, to each of which the people respond: Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me. This canon is repeated at Matins on Thursday of the fifth week.

On Friday evening of this same fifth week, the Akathistos Hymn to the Mother of God is sung; and the Saturday Divine Liturgy also honors the Theotokos.

The first Saturday of Great Lent is dedicated to the memory of Saint Theodore the Recruit. The second, third, and fourth Saturdays are called Memorial Saturdays since they are dedicated to the remembrance of the dead.

On Memorial Saturdays the liturgical hymns pray universally for all of the departed, and the Matins for the dead, popularly called the parastasis or panikhida, is served with specific mention of the deceased by name. Litanies and prayers are also added to the Divine Liturgy at which the scripture readings refer to the dead and their salvation by Christ.

Saturday, even during the non-lenten season, is the Church’s day for remembering the dead. This is so because Saturday, the Sabbath Day, stands as the day which God blessed for life in this world. Because of sin, however, this day now symbolizes all of earthly life as naturally fulfilled in death. Even Christ the Lord lay dead on the Sabbath Day, “resting from all of his works” and “trampling down death by death.” Thus, in the New Testament Church of Christ, Saturday becomes the proper day for remembering the dead and for offering prayers for their eternal salvation.

The Feast of Annunciation

On the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25)

The Feast of the Annunciation is a very important feast of the Faith. Did you ever stop and think about why that is true? Why is the Annunciation one of the twelve great feasts of the Church? Let us take a moment to think about what happened at the Annunciation, so that we can be better prepared to lead our family in celebrating this great feast.

When we stop and think about it, we can see that each part of this event is notable of its own accord, and together, all are essential for our salvation. It began when the Angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she had been chosen by God to bear His Son. The fact that this angel appeared shows that the event was significant, for he is sent whenever God has an important message to convey. God’s selection of Mary to become the Mother of God is a critical part of the event, since she was a holy young lady who had consecrated her life to God’s service. Her agreement, “Let it be to me as you say,” is a vitally important piece as well, because it simultaneously demonstrates Mary’s humility before God and her willingness to obey. Also noteworthy is the fact that this event marks the moment in history when a person became the first Christian, for after the Annunciation, the Theotokos truly had Christ living within her. But the most significant aspect of the Annunciation is in what it announces; what came about as a result of both the announcement and the ensuing humble submission to God’s will. And that is this; at the Annunciation, God Himself became human. This mystery is both mind-boggling and crucial. Christ’s taking on flesh and dwelling among us was necessary so that He could die, break well. What humility! What love!

After giving it a little thought, we can see that the Feast of the Annunciation is truly a big deal for so many reasons! Even the other feasts of the church year would not exist without it! In addition, March 25 falls exactly nine months before Christmas, and is therefore the date of the Annunciation. How wonderfully not-so-coincidental it is that the date of this Feast falls right in the midst of Great Lent each year, for it reminds us of Christ’s humility and the Virgins’ obedience. Both humility and obedience are things that we are working on in our own lives, especially during Great Lent! The Annunciation reminds us of what God can do when both are exercised perfectly. Let us accordingly prepare our family to celebrate this great feast!

“Today is the beginning of our salvation, and the manifestation of the mystery from the ages; for the Son of God becometh the Son of the Virgin, and Gabriel proclaimeth grace. Wherefore, do we shout with him to the Theotokos: Rejoice, O full of grace! The Lord is with thee.” ~ Apolytikion of the Annunciation

Blessed Feast of the Annunciation!

From the Fathers

Excerpt from the Homily on the Annunciation, by St. John Chrysostom

Again, tidings of joy, again messages of freedom, again calling back, again return, again voice of rejoicing, again driving back of slavery. An angel speaks with a virgin because a woman spoke to a serpent. “In the sixth month”, as it is written, “The Angel Gabriel was sent by God to a virgin betrothed to a man.” Gabriel was sent with the message of universal salvation. Gabriel was sent, bringing the writ of the recall of Adam. Gabriel was sent to the Virgin, that the dishonor of womanhood might be transformed into honor. Gabriel was sent, as is worthy, to rejoice at the pure chamber of the Bridegroom. Gabriel was sent, and the Creator is betrothed to His creation. Gabriel was sent to the spiritual palace of the King of the Angels. Gabriel was sent to a virgin, who though betrothed to Joseph, will bear the Son. The bodiless servant was sent to the spotless Virgin. Sin was sent free towards corruption by the inviolate one. The lamp was sent to tell of the Sun of Righteousness. The morning star precedes the light of day. Gabriel was sent to relate of Him Who is in the bosom of the Father, and in the arms of His Mother. Gabriel was sent to show Him Who is on the throne and in the cave. The solider was sent to cry out the mystery of the King. We know this is a mystery through faith, not one that can be studied in various ways. We venerate the mystery, not a joining together. We theologize a mystery, not a study. We confess a mystery, we do no count it. “In the sixth month, Gabriel was sent to a virgin…”

And he [the Archangel] received all the commandments like these [from the Lord]: “Come, O Angel, become a servant of this awesome mystery. Serve this hidden wonder, as an answer to fallen Adam, who will come under my compassion. Sin has made he that is fashioned in my image to grow old, and has soiled my creation, and has darkened where I created beauty. The wolf has scattered my flock. The dwelling place of Paradise has become a desert. The Tree of Life is guarded by the flaming sword, and the place of nourishment is closed. I have mercy on him who was attacked, and I wish to make war with him who fought against him [i.e., the devil]. I wish for all of the heavenly powers to know, but to you alone I impart the mystery. Go to the Virgin Mary, go to the Spiritual Gate, of which the Prophet said: “Glorious things have been said of you, O City of God.” Go to my Rational Paradise. Go to the Eastern City. Go to her who is the worthy dwelling-place of the Word. Go to the second Heaven on earth. Go to the Light Cloud. Tell her of my coming, the Thunderstorm. Go to her who is my prepared holy place. Go to the Bridal Chamber of my incarnation. Go to the pure Bridal Chamber of my nativity in the flesh. Speak to the ears of this rational Ark, to prepare the entrance of my hearing. But do not be fearsome, do not trouble the soul of the Virgin…First cry out to her with a voice of joy, and tell Mariam: “Hail, O Full-of-grace,” that I might have mercy on Eve, who is full-of-shame.”

The Angel [Gabriel], having heard what was spoken to him, said: “Strange is this thing, surpassing every thought to speak. He Who is awesome to the Cherubim, and invisible to the Seraphim, He Who is incomprehensible to all the Angelic Powers, is proclaimed to become nature!”

…But having truly all of this, the Physician has come to the sick, and the Sun of Righteousness has dawned for those who sat in darkness, the Anchor and Calm Harbor to those storm-tossed, the Intercessor has been born for the despised slaves, and peace has been united, and the Redeemer of captives has come, the strong unspeakable Joy and Love and Protection has come for those who are embattled. He is our peace, as the divine Apostle says, through Whom we have all received grace, Christ our God, to Whom belong glory to the ages of ages. Amen.

Upcoming Events

Upcoming events this month are in the online calendar, which you can subscribe to on your phone or tablet. Use the print button on the calendar to print a copy.

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February, 2022


Focus on the Faith

THEOSIS: The Purpose of the Christian Life

“For the Son of God became man so that we might become god” – St Athanasius the Great

How do we Orthodox Christians understand the above quote by Athanasius, the fourth-century bishop of Alexandria? It sounds a bit preposterous to the average western Christian. Becoming a god? Isn’t that what the Mormons promise themselves after a lifetime of taking part in temple ordinances and by putting on their special “sacred underwear”? But strange as it may sound to some ears, this doctrine has been at the heart of Orthodox Christian theology and spiritual practice for its entire 2,000-year history.

Let’s clarify straightaway some things that theosis is not. Theosis is not the same as pantheism. The essence of our human nature is not replaced by divine nature. As Bishop Kallistos Ware puts it, “we are able to affirm a direct or mystical union between man and God… but at the same time we exclude any pantheistic identification between the two: for man participates in the energies of God, not the essence. There is union, but not fusion or confusion. Although “united” with the divine, man still remains man; he is not swallowed up or annihilated, but between him and God there continues always to exist an “I-Thou” relationship of person to person.” (The Orthodox Way, p. 23) Theosis means that human beings can “become by grace what God is by nature.” (Athanasius, De Incarnatione I) How can this be? Well, we become “God-like” through perfection in holiness, the continuous process of acquiring the Holy Spirit by grace through ascetical efforts. This is what the holy fathers call “podvig” or spiritual and physical struggle against the sinful inclinations of the flesh and the promptings of the devil. It means a cleansing of the heart by vigilance, prayers, and fasting. As Psalm 4:18 says: “The path of the righteous is as the shining light, that shines more and more to the perfect day.”

The doctrine of theosis–also known as deification, divinization, or partaking of the divine nature–is scripturally rooted first in the Old Testament, in Psalm 82:6, “Now I say to you, you are gods, and all of you, children of the Most High;’” and then in the New Testament in 2 Peter 1:4, “He has given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these you might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world.” St. Gregory Palamas, the great 14th century pillar of the church and defender of the doctrine of theosis, affirmed the possibility of humanity’s union with God in His energies, while also affirming that because of God’s transcendence and utter otherness, it is impossible for any person to know or to be united with God’s essence. However, through faith and activity (praxis) we can attain an Orthodox “phronema,” which is a Greek word meaning an Orthodox mindset or outlook; it is ultimately what St. Paul refers to as “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:6; Philip. 2:5).

The journey towards theosis includes many forms of praxis. Living in the community of the church and partaking regularly of the sacraments, and especially Confession and Communion, is taken for granted. Also important is cultivating the “prayer of the heart,” or “unceasing prayer” that St. Paul recommends in 1 Thessalonians 5:17. This unceasing prayer of the heart is a dominant theme in the writings of many of the Church Fathers, especially in those collected in the Philokalia (Добротолюбие). For us Orthodox Christians “Theosis” IS salvation.

Lives of the Saints Commemorated in February

Holy Martyrs Perpetua and Felicity, and those with them at Carthage (203) – February 1

Perpetua, Felicity, Saturus, Saturninus, Secundus and Revocatus were all young catechumens living near Carthage. Perpetua was of noble birth; Felicity (Felicitas) was her slave. All were arrested under Emperor Valerian’s persecution and sent to Carthage. Perpetua had a young child still at the breast, which she asked to take with her.

The holy martyrs appeared before the tribunal and joyfully received their sentence of condemnation to be thrown to the wild beasts in the arena. Felicity, who was eight months pregnant, was concerned that her martyrdom might be postponed because of her pregnancy, but at the prayers of her friends, she went into labor three days before the games. As she groaned in labor, a jailer mocked her, telling her that the pain she felt was nothing to the pain that she would feel in the arena. The Saint replied, ‘Here I suffer for myself; then there will be Another with me, who will suffer with me; and my sufferings will be for Him!’ When she gave birth, she entrusted her newborn child to the care of a Christian couple and prepared for her end. On the day of the games, the brothers and sisters in Christ entered the arena together. The men were soon killed by the beasts, but Perpetua and Felicity, though mauled, remained alive. The impatient persecutors ordered that they be beheaded. Walking to the center of the arena, the two spiritual sisters exchanged the kiss of peace and gave up their souls to God.

Our Holy Mother Brigid of Kildare (524) – February 1

Her name is also spelled Brigit or Bridget; she is considered, equally with St Patrick (March 17), patron of Ireland. She was born in Ulster of a noble Irish family which had been converted by St Patrick. She was uncommonly beautiful, and her father planned to marry her to the King of Ulster. But at the age of sixteen she asked her Lord Jesus Christ to make her unattractive, so that no one would marry her and she could devote herself to Him alone. Soon she lost an eye and was allowed to enter a monastery. On the day that she took monastic vows, she was miraculously healed and her original beauty restored. Near Dublin she built herself a cell under an oak tree, which was called Kill-dara, or Cell of the Oak. Soon seven other young women joined her and established the monastery of Kill-dara, which in time became the cathedral city of Kildare. The monastery grew rapidly and became a double monastery with both men’s and women’s settlements, with the Abbess ranking above the Abbot; from it several other monasteries were planted throughout Ireland. (Combined men’s and women’s monastic communities are virtually unknown in the east, but were common in the golden age of the Irish Church). The Saint predicted the day of her death and fell asleep in peace in 524, leaving a monastic Rule to govern all the monasteries under her care. During the Middle Ages her veneration spread throughout Europe.

Holy Martyr Agatha of Palermo in Sicily (251) – February 5

She is one of the best loved and most venerated Martyrs of the West. She was born to a noble family in Catania or Palermo in Sicily. At an early age she consecrated herself to the Lord and, though very beautiful, sought only to adorn herself with the virtues. During the persecution under Decius (251), she was arrested as a Christian; at this time she was about fifteen years old. Quintinian, the Governor of Sicily, was taken by her beauty and offered to marry her, thinking in that way not only to possess her body but her riches as well. When she spurned his advances, and continued to mock the idols, he grew angry and decided to have her tortured. She was gruesomely tormented and cast bleeding into a dungeon to die; but in the night her Guardian Angel brought the Apostle Peter to her, and he healed her wounds. The following day, the Governor ordered that she be subjected to further torments, but at his words the city was shaken by an earthquake and part of the palace collapsed. The terrified people stormed the palace and demanded that Agatha be released, lest they be subject to the wrath of her God. The Saint was returned to her prison cell, where in response to her prayers she was allowed to give up her soul to God. At Agatha’s burial, attended by many, her Guardian Angel appeared and placed a marble slab on her tomb, inscribed with the words ‘A righteous mind, self- determining, honor from God, the deliverance of her fatherland.’ Quintinian died soon thereafter, thrown from his chariot. On the first anniversary of Agatha’s death, Mt Etna erupted and Catania was about to be engulfed in lava. Christians and pagans together, remembering the inscription on her tomb, took the slab from the tomb and bore it like a shield to the river of lava, which was immediately stopped. The same miracle has happened many times in the following centuries, and Saint Agatha is venerated as the Protectress of Catania and Sicily, loved and honored by Christians of the East and the West.

Orthopraxis

What is the Triodion?

The Triodion is the service book of the Orthodox Church that provides the texts for the divine services for the pre-Lenten weeks of preparation, the Great and Holy Fast, and Holy Week. The “Lenten Triodion” is the title of a classic and popular English language translation of the same with an extensive and helpful introduction by Metropolitan Kallistos and Mother Mary. It provides many (but not all) of the texts necessary to celebrate the services of the Great Fast. In Greek the book is simply called the Triodion. In Slavonic it is called “Триодь постная,” or “Triod Postnaya,” meaning the Triodion of the Fast. It is called the triodion because of the three-ode canons appointed for Matins during this period.

The weeks of preparation, and especially the Sunday gospel readings, serve to exercise the mind, whereas the fasting of Great Lent focuses on the body, and Holy Week’s services exercise the spirit.

Upcoming Events

Upcoming events this month are in the online calendar, which you can subscribe to on your phone or tablet. Use the print button on the calendar to print a copy.

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January, 2022


Focus on the Faith

New Year Looks to Theophany

The New Year is upon us. Let us rejoice and be glad that 2021 is behind us!
In the first week of January we have three celebrations: The Circumcision of Christ, St. Basil the Great, and the Sunday before Theophany. In the ancient church, Theophany was regarded as more important than Christ’s Nativity. How can that be? Because at Christ’s birth the announcement is made of God’s coming into the world for it’s restoration. At Theophany, that work of restoration, actually begins!

St. Paul has written: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” (Romans 8: 19-23.)

We, as Christians, are engaged in this struggle as co-workers with God, to reclaim the fallen world and fallen nature for the Kingdom. We often talk about this in terms of our own salvation, but the Church, addressing all of creation in a holistic manner, also reaches out and reclaims a bit here and a bit there of creation in general. We do this in order that we might restore the usefulness of creation for working out our own salvation. Hence, we bless anything that might help us in our salvation – and by blessing it we reclaim it for the Kingdom of God. We bless water, we bless grapes and fruit, we bless cheese, eggs, meat, we bless wheat wine and oil, we bless all kinds of things, reclaiming them for sacred use, reclaiming them for God’s Kingdom.

There are few things more vital to our lives than our homes. In our homes we pray, we work, we rest, we sleep, we converse with loved ones, we order our lives, we work out our marriages, raise our children, etc. Is there a more important place for us to reclaim for the Kingdom of God ?- or is it better to continue living in a place which is occupied and influenced by the enemy? For the most effective working out of our salvation, we should drive the enemy out of our homes, and keep him at bay by our prayers, our righteous life, and the annual sprinkling by Holy Water at Theophany. Hence this annual and salutary rite of the blessing of homes at Theophany.”

From the Holy Fathers and Mothers

St. John Chrysostom on the New Year (Excerpt)

“Whether you eat, whether you drink, whether you do some other thing, do all for the glory of God” [1 Cor. 10:31]. If we pray, if we fast, if we accuse, if we pardon, if we praise, if we censure, if we enter, if we exit, if we sell, if we buy, if we are silent, if we converse, if we do any thing else whatsoever, let us do all for the glory of God, and if something be not for the glory of God, neither let it be done, nor be spoken by us; but in place of a great staff, in place of arms and safeguard, in place of unspeakable treasures, wherever we might be, let us carry around this word with us, having inscribed it upon our understanding, so that doing and speaking and trafficking all things for the glory of God, we shall obtain the glory that is from him both in this world and after the journey here [i.e. after this life]. “For those that glorified me”, he says, “I will glorify” (1 Kingdoms 2:30 LXX). Not therefore with words, but also through deeds let us glorify him continually with Christ our God, because all glory befits him, honor and worship, now and always unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Orthopraxis

Theophany House Blessings

Houses are traditionally blessed with “Theophany water” each year. A house can be blessed at any time, but the usual season for yearly blessings is from Theophany until the beginning of the Lenten Triodion, which begins four Sundays before Great Lent begins. This is not a hard and fast rule, but a good rule of thumb.

Normally, we would ask you to sign up for Fr. Basil’s House Blessing List, but due to COVID and other factors, here instead, are intructions for a DIY house blessing!

What you will need

  • Holy Water (preferably that which was blessed on Theophany)
  • A “krupilla” (brush for dispersing the holy water) – you can use a clipping of rosemary or basil. You can also use the “brush” end of a prayer rope.
  • A bowl or other vessel for the water
  • Candles lit in your icon corner, with the family Theophany icon if you have one

 

Bless the House

The bowl and icon should be placed on a clean table with a cloth on it, preferably near the family icon corner. It is good for candles to be lit. The house should be clean, with all radios and televisions off.

Lights should be “on” and doors opened. The procession for the house blessing should be led by the eldest member of the house. In homes with children, it is always good for the little ones to carry an icon or a small cross and participate in the procession.

The basic order for a simple home blessing is as follows:

  1. The bowl of water, icon and lit candles are placed on a clean table. IF there is a censer, it may be lit.
  2. Begin with the Trisagion prayers as in the prayer book (O Heavenly King through the “Our Father”)
  3. Process through the entire house, sprinkling holy water on all of the walls and suitable objects while singing the Theophany Troparion repeatedly:

Tone 1: When Thou, O Lord wast baptized in the Jordan, / the worship of the Trinity was made manifest; / for the voice of the Father bore witness to Thee, / and called Thee His beloved Son. / And the Spirit in the form of a dove / confirmed the truthfulness of His word. / O Christ our God, Who hast appeared unto us // and hast enlightened the world, glory to Thee.(It is a very good idea for the family to sing this troparion, and know it by heart.)

  1. Upon finishing blessing the house, the family gathers again at the table, and the senior family member should pray for all members of the family, e.g.”O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, for the sake of the prayers of Thy most pure Mother, our holy and God-bearing fathers, and all the saints, have mercy on us and save us (names), for Thou art good and the Lover of mankind.””
  2. After this a short prayer:
    “Through the prayers of our holy fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us.” and the service is ended:

Upcoming Events

Upcoming events this month are in the attached PDF calendar (Events are subject to change! see the online calendar for updates or the attached PDF for more info).

 

December, 2021


Focus on the Faith

BEHOLD, I STAND AT THE DOOR

There is an amusing story, written by Matthew Kelly, which goes something like this: “ A parish priest had the custom of visiting his parishioners on Saturday afternoons. He came to one home and knocked on the door. No one answered, but he could hear the radio playing and even some footsteps so he knew someone had to be inside. He knocked louder. No one came. Finally, he pounded on the door, but got no response. So he took out a business card, wrote a Bible verse on it and stuck it in the door.

Ten minutes later a lady – who had been in the house all the time – opened the door. When she did, the card fell out. She saw the priest’s name and the Bible verse: Revelation 3:20. Curious, she got out her Bible and read the verse. It said: “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.”

Well, on Sunday morning the priest noticed his business card was in the collection basket. When he picked it up, he saw that his verse was crossed out and replaced by Genesis 3:10. The priest was curious so he went to the sacristy and got out his Bible. The verse said, “I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”

I know that this story is really a joke, but it  does, nonetheless, make an important point about the meaning of Christmas. Someone IS knocking at our door – and whether or not we open that door determines our life in eternity. It isn’t the parish priest who is knocking, it is the Great High Priest Himself, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Over the millennia, God has gone through great efforts to enter the hearts and lives of the people He created. Even before the world was created, God had each and every one of us in His mind, and a plan as to how He would try to reach us. In every age He has revealed Himself to people, either individually or in a group, as in the case of His original Chosen People, our spiritual forebears, the Jews. But when the time was right, “while all things were in quiet silence, and that night was in the midst of her swift course, Thine Almighty word leaped down from heaven out of thy royal throne,…into the midst of a land of destruction” (Wisdom of Solomon 18: 14-15), and took flesh of the Most Holy Virgin, and dwelt among us (cf John 1:14). He became one of us precisely so He could approach us, and be close to us.

David, in the Psalms, says: “My heart said unto Thee: I will seek the Lord” (Psalm 26:8 LXX). An arrogant and haughty heart is naked in its pride. It will always find a way to hide from the Lord. But the humble and open heart, God will not despise, because it rejoices in His presence (cf Psalm 50: 17).

 

From the Holy Fathers and Mothers

THE RENEWAL OF HUMANITY…the perfection of our humanity, according to the teaching of St. Irenaeus, must be brought to pass by the dispensation of the Incarnation of the Son of God, not by any kind of doctrine, not by the writing of any book. By taking flesh and becoming man, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, made men partakers of the Divine nature. Assuming human nature in the unity of His Hypostasis, the Son of God by taking flesh became the New Adam, the Progenitor of the new humanity. “Beholding him that was in God’s image and likeness fallen through the transgression, Jesus bowed the heavens and came down, and without changing He took up His dwelling in a Virgin womb: that thereby He might fashion corrupt Adam anew.” St. Irenaeus says that the Son of the Most High became the Son of man in order to make man a son of God. In the new humanity, built upon the foundation of the Incarnation of the Son of God, the unity of our human nature, broken by sin, is restored. Christ Himself named this new humanity the Church. (From Holy Scripture and the Church, St. Hilarion Troitsky, in Orthodox Word, 2009)

“Why is it hard to believe that Mary gave birth in a way contrary to the law of natural birth and remained a virgin, when contrary to the law of nature the sea looked at Him and fled, and the waters of the Jordan returned to their source (Ps. 113:3). Is it past belief that a virgin gave birth when we read that a rock issued water (Ex. 17:6), and the waves of the sea were made solid as a wall (Ex. 14:22)? Is it past belief that a Man came from a virgin when a rock bubbled forth a flowing stream (Ex. 20:11), iron floated on water (4 Kings 6:6), a Man walked upon the waters (Mt. 14:26)? If the waters bore a Man, could not a virgin give birth to a man? What Man? Him of Whom we read: ‘…the Lord shall be known to the Egyptians, and the Egyptians shall know the Lord in that day; and they shall offer sacrifices, and shall vow vows to the Lord, and pay them’ (Is. 19:20).

In the Old Testament a Hebrew virgin (Miriam) led an army through the sea (Ex. 15:21); in the New testament a king’s daughter (the Virgin Mary) was chosen to be the heavenly entrance to salvation.” (St. Ambrose of Milan, Synodal Letter 44)

Orthopraxis – The Real 12 Days of Christmas

Sometime in the early days of November, as things now stand, the “Christmas Season” (or increasingly the “Holiday Season”) begins. The streets are hung with lights, the stores are decorated with red and green, and you can’t turn on the radio without hearing songs about the “spirit of the season” and the glories of Santa Claus who will hopefully put my love life in order. The excitement builds and builds until the morning of December 25, and then it stops, abruptly. Christmas is over, and people go back to their “normal” lives.

The traditional Christian celebration of Christmas, East and West, is exactly the opposite. The preparatory season of Advent for Orthodox Christians begins on the fifteenth of November, and for nearly 6 weeks Christians await the coming of Christ in a spirit of expectation, singing hymns of longing. Then, on December 25, Christmas Day itself ushers in twelve days of celebration, ending only on January 6 with the feast of Theophany, sometimes called “Epiphany.”

A wonderful part of the Orthodox celebration of Christmas is exactly this period of Christmastide or the 12 Days of Christmas. It is one of those rare times in the life of the Church where all fasting is suspended, and the fulness of Christ’s incarnation is on full display.

The Twelve Days of Christmas are a festive period linking together two Great Feasts of the Lord: Nativity and Theophany. During this this 12 Day period one celebration leads into another. The Nativity of Christ is a three day celebration: the formal title of the first day is “The Nativity According to the Flesh of our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ”, and celebrates not only the Nativity of Jesus, but also the Adoration of the Shepherds of Bethlehem and the arrival of the Magi; the second day is referred to as the “Synaxis of the Theotokos”, and commemorates the role of the Virgin Mary in the Incarnation; the third day is known as the “Third Day of the Nativity”, and is also the feast day of the Protodeacon and Protomartyr Saint Stephen. The 29th of December is the Orthodox Feast of the Holy Innocents. The Afterfeast of the Nativity (similar to the Western octave) continues until 31 December (that day is known as the Apodosis or “Leave-taking” of the Nativity).

The Saturday following the Nativity is commemorated by special readings from the Epistle (1 Tim 6:11-16) and Gospel (Matt 12:15-21) during the Divine Liturgy. The Sunday after Nativity has its own liturgical commemoration in honor of “The Righteous Ones: Joseph the Betrothed, David the King and James the Brother of the Lord”.

The 1st of January, the “hinge” at the center of the festal period, is another feast of the Lord (though not ranked as a Great Feast): the Feast of the Circumcision of the Lord. On this same day is also the feast day of Saint Basil the Great, and so the service celebrated on that day is the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil. The 2nd of January begins the Forefeast of the Theophany.

The Eve of the Theophany (5th of January) is a day of strict fasting, on which the devout will not eat anything until the first star is seen at night. This day is known as Paramoni (“Preparation”), and follows the same general outline as Christmas Eve. That morning is the celebration of the Royal Hours and then the Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil combined with Vespers, at the conclusion of which is celebrated the Great Blessing of Waters, in commemoration of the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. There are certain parallels between the hymns chanted on Paramoni and those of Good Friday, to show that, according to Orthodox theology, the steps that Jesus took into the Jordan River were the first steps on the way to the Cross. That night the All-Night Vigil is served for the Feast of the Theophany.

 

Upcoming Events

Upcoming events this month are in the attached PDF calendar (Events are subject to change! see the online calendar for updates or the attached PDF for more info).

 

November, 2021


Focus on the Faith: Advent & the Nativity Fast

On November 15, forty days before Christmas, the Church begins to prepare for the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord. This time of preparation is sometimes called ‘Advent,’ because advent means the coming or arrival of someone or something. During these forty days, we prepare to celebrate the coming of God’s Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, into this world. Jesus came into this world as a little child born as an infant from Mary, His Most-holy mother.

Many faithful people had waited a long time for the coming of Jesus. God had promised to send a Savior to His people, hundreds, and even thousands, of years before Jesus was born on earth. During that long period of time when people were waiting, God spoke to prophets — holy men and leaders among His people — and told them how He wanted His people to prepare for the coming of His Son. He told them that they must repent, change their way of life, make peace with one another, care for each other, and be obedient and faithful to God.

Every year, during these forty days, we also wait and prepare for the coming of Jesus. We repent of our bad habits and try to change our way of life. We think about how we have behaved toward other people, and we try harder to be helpful to our friends, our neighbors and members of our family. We also try to be faithful and obedient to God in all that we do. Through fasting and extra effort in prayer, we try to prepare both our bodies and minds to receive Christ into our lives and homes.

Forty days can seem like a very long time to wait for something; it is more than one month, almost six weeks. We know how anxious we are when a birthday or name day approaches; we want to start planning a party and inviting our friends. If we are preparing for someone else’s special day, we begin thinking about the kind of gift we wish to give them. As the day draws near, we can hardly wait to begin the celebration. When we stop to think about it, we realize that part of the enjoyment of each celebration is the time we spend getting ready for it and waiting for it. The Church helps us to get ready for the celebration of Jesus’ birth. First, the Church issues an announcement, like an invitation, telling us that the Feast of the Nativity is approaching. Then, during the last weeks of November and the beginning of December, there are more announcements made which tell us what to look for as the feast approaches and how to get ready. These are the days on which some of the announcements are made:

November 15 – This is the first day of the Nativity Fast, which begins forty days before Christmas. It is a good day for deciding how we should spend these days of Lent, what we should do to try to improve our way of living, and how we should spend our time in order to allow more time for prayer and preparation for the coming feast. On this day, we might mark the special days on the calendar that lead us to Christmas, or we might begin to make an Advent Calendar or make an Advent Wreath

November 21 – This day is a major feast which commemorates the Entrance of the Virgin into the Temple. It is a feast that honors Jesus’ mother, the Theotokos and Ever-virgin Mary, and it marks the first announcement that is given in the Church of the coming of Jesus. During the Matins service, the words, ‘Christ is born! Glorify Him!” are sung for the first time. They will be sung at every Sunday Matins until Christmas.

November 30 – The last day of November is the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle. During the services commemorating the life of St. Andrew, the Church adds two more hymns which tell us what will happen on the day of Jesus’ birth.

December 6 – This day is dedicated to the memory of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker. The life of St. Nicholas is a good example for us to follow if we want to learn how to care for and help one another. In the services on this day, we hear another hymn which tells us how the whole earth prepares to glorify the birth of Jesus.

The Two Sundays Before the Nativity of Christ (Christmas)

The first of these days is called the Sunday of the Forefathers. The verses from the services on this day tell us how the people of the Old Testament prepared for the coming of the Savior. The Sunday before Christmas is the Sunday of the Fathers. The services repeat some of the same hymns that were sung on the Sunday of the Forefathers. The Gospel lesson read on this day lists all the generations of the ancestors of Jesus who lived on earth.

From the Holy Fathers and Mothers

As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14). And just exactly as all who were bitten by the serpents looked upon the bronze serpent which was suspended and were healed, thus also every Christian who believes in our Christ and has recourse to His life-bearing wounds… is cured of the bites of the spiritual serpent of sin and by this most holy nourishment is made to live unto the renewal of a new creation, that is, new life in harmony with His life-giving commandments. (Elder Ephraim of Arizona)

Upon Mount Tabor, Jesus revealed to his disciples a heavenly mystery. While living among them he had spoken of the kingdom and of his second coming in glory, but to banish from their hearts any possible doubt concerning the kingdom, and to confirm their faith in what lay in the future by its prefiguration in the present, he gave them on Mount Tabor a wonderful vision of his glory, a foreshadowing of the kingdom of heaven.” (St. Anastasios of Sinai)

“I cannot describe to you how much our Panagia likes chastity and purity. Since she is the only pure Virgin, she wants and loves everyone to be like that. As soon as we cry out to her, she rushes to our help. You don’t even finish saying, ‘All-holy Theotokos, help me’ and at once, like lightning, she shines through the nous and fills the heart with illumination. She draws the nous to prayer and the heart to Love.” (Elder Joseph the Hesychast)

November Saints & Feasts

November 1 – Holy and Wonderworking Unmercenaries Cosmas and Damian of Asia (3rd c.)

Three pairs of Unmercenary Physicians (Anargyri) named Cosmas and Damian are commemorated (November 1, on October 17, and on July 1); The two commemorated today lived near Ephesus in Asia. They were of noble birth and well-educated in all the branches of higher learning; but they turned away from worldly knowledge to practice medicine without charge for anyone who sought their help, caring for the rich as well as poor, and even for animals. They used none of the secular tools of medicine, but relied only on the Name of Christ, by which they were enabled to perform countless healings. Both reposed in peace.

November 9 – St. Nektarios

† Our Father among the Saints Nektarios, bishop of Pentapolis, Wonderworker, and founder of the Monastery of the Holy Trinity on Aegina (1920). Saint Nektarios was born in Selyvria of Thrace on October 11, 1846. After putting himself through school in Constantinople with much hard labour, he became a monk on Chios in 1876, receiving the monastic name of Lazarus; because of his virtue, a year later he was ordained deacon, receiving the new name of Nektarios. Under the patronage of Patriarch Sophronius of Alexandria, Nektarios went to Athens to study in 1882; completing his theological studies in 1885, he went to Alexandria, where Patriarch Sophronius ordained him priest on March 23, 1886 in the Cathedral of Saint Sabbas, and in August of the same year, in the Church of Saint Nicholas in Cairo, made him Archimandrite. Archimandrite Nektarios showed much zeal both for preaching the word of God, and for the beauty of God’s house. He greatly beautified the Church of Saint Nicholas in Cairo, and years later, when Nektarios was in Athens, Saint Nicholas appeared to him in a dream, embracing him and telling him he was going to exalt him very high.

“On January 15, 1889, in the same Church of Saint Nicholas, Nektarios was consecrated Metropolitan of Pentapolis in eastern Libya, which was under the jurisdiction of Alexandria. Although Nektarios’ swift ascent through the degrees of ecclesiastical office did not affect his modesty and childlike innocence, it aroused the envy of lesser men, who convinced the elderly Sophronius that Nektarios had it in his heart to become Patriarch. Since the people loved Nektarios, the Patriarch was troubled by the slanders. On May 3, 1890, Sophronius relieved Metropolitan Nektarios of his duties; in July of the same year, he commanded Nektarios to leave Egypt.

“Without seeking to avenge or even to defend himself, the innocent Metropolitan left for Athens, where he found that accusations of immorality had arrived before him. Because his good name had been soiled, he was unable to find a position worthy of a bishop, and in February of 1891 accepted the position of provincial preacher in Euboia; then, in 1894, he was appointed dean of the Rizarios Ecclesiastical School in Athens. Through his eloquent sermons, his tireless labours to educate men for the priesthood, his generous almsgiving despite his own poverty, and the holiness, meekness, and fatherly love that were manifest in him, he became a shining light and a spiritual guide to many. At the request of certain pious women, in 1904 he began the building of his convent of the Holy Trinity on the island of Aegina while yet dean of the Rizarios School; finding later that his presence there was needed, he took up his residence on Aegina in 1908, where he spent the last years of his life, devoting himself to the direction of his convent and to very intense prayer; he was sometimes seen lifted above the ground while rapt in prayer. He became the protector of all Aegina, through his prayers delivering the island from drought, healing the sick, and casting out demons. Here also he endured wicked slanders with singular patience, forgiving his false accusers and not seeking to avenge himself. Although he had already worked wonders in life, an innumerable multitude of miracles have been wrought after his repose in 1920 through his holy relics, which for many years remained incorrupt. There is hardly a malady that has not been cured through his prayers; but Saint Nektarios is especially renowned for his healings of cancer for sufferers in all parts of the world.” (Great Horologion)

Upcoming Events

Upcoming events this month are in the attached PDF calendar (Events are subject to change! see the online calendar for updates or the attached PDF for more info).