Focus on the Faith: What Orthodox Christians Believe About Angels
“Our angel will not retreat from us, unless we drive him away by our evil deeds. As the smoke drives bees away, and stench the doves, even so our stinking sin drives away from us the angel who protects our life.” – Saint Basil the Great
Saint John of Damascus tells us: “God is Himself the Maker and Creator of the angels; for He brought them out of nothing into being and created them after His own image. They are an incorporeal race, a sort of spirit or immaterial fire, even as the divine David says that ‘ His angels are spirits , and His ministers a flame of fire (Ps 103:6).
Angels were among the first part of God’s creation. In the Creed we say, “I believe in one God…Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. Holy Scripture says, “When the stars were made, all My angels praised Me with a loud voice” (Job 38:7, LXX). The Apostle Paul tells us “By Him all things created that are in heaven, and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers” (Col 1:16). Heaven that was created in the very beginning according to Genesis (In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth) is generally understood by the Fathers to be an invisible heaven inhabited with powers on High. They believed that God created the angels long before He created the visible world.
Nature of Angels
Angels are active spirits with intelligence, will and knowledge. They serve God to carry out His will and glorify Him. The angels are bodiless and invisible to our physical eyes. They have no bodily needs or desires and passions, no cares about food, drink, clothes or shelter. Nor do they possess the impulse and cravings for procreation. They neither marry nor are given in marriage (Matt. 22:30). They have no worries about the future either, and no fear of death. For, though God created them before man, they are neither aged nor aging, but unchangingly youthful, beautiful and strong. They have no anxiety about their salvation and no struggle for immorality, being already immortal (Luke 20:36). Unlike men, they are not faltering between good and evil, being already good and holy as when God created them.
Peter informs us that in their might and power they surpass all earthly governments and authorities (II Peter 2:10-11). But as created beings they have limitations. They do not know the depths of the essence of God (I Cor 2:11). They do not know the future that only God knows (Mark 13:32). They do not fully understand the mystery of the Redemption yet they wish to (I Peter 1:12). They don’t know human thoughts (III Kings 8:39). And thy cannot by themselves perform miracles without the will of God (Ps 71:19).
“An angel, then, is an intelligent essence, in perpetual motion, with free will, incorporeal, ministering to God, having obtained by grace an immortal nature. The Creator alone knows the form and limitation of the angelic essence; but all that we can understand is that it is incorporeal and immaterial. For all that is compared with God, Who alone is incomparable, we find to be dense and material. For in reality only the Deity is immaterial and incorporeal.” Saint John of Damascus. (See the whole article at: http://stgeorgegreenville.org/our-faith/angels/)
Orthopraxis: The Tradition of the Christmas Tree
THE MEANING OF THE CHRISTMAS TREE
“O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, how lovely are your branches!”
I first learned this familiar song as a child, but entirely in German. I learned it from my neighbors, who were German immigrants, and have loved all things connected with the German celebration of Christmas ever since.
I love the tradition of the Christmas tree. We have one every year. I hope that you do too. Some people don’t put up a Christmas tree. Some mistakenly think that this custom is derived from paganism, and is inappropriate for Christians. Others believe that it was something invented by Martin Luther, the German Protestant Reformer in the 16th century, and therefore not an Orthodox tradition. Still others imagine that a Christmas tree only makes sense if you have children and if you have presents to place beneath it. But all of these miss the mark. Do you know the origins of the Christmas tree? I’m sure many of you do. But in case you have forgotten, let me share with you a tale from the eighth century, a tale from the church’s oral tradition, about St. Boniface, the martyr, born in Britain, who became the Apostle to the Germans.
According to tradition, St Boniface was responsible the very first Christmas tree. In the early part of the 8th century, St Boniface was sent into Germany as a missionary, with an aim of converting the pagans to Christianity. He worked tirelessly in the country preaching the Gospel and building churches to replace the many pagan shrines and groves. He was eventually named Archbishop of Mainz, and restored the diocese of Bavaria as well.
It was on a trip down to Bavaria, around the time of Winter Solstice, that he came across a group of pagans worshipping an ancient oak tree. Horrified by what he saw as blasphemy, the zealot for Christ, St Boniface, grabbed the nearest axe and hacked down the tree. As he did this he called on the pagans to witness the power of his God over theirs. The pagans were furious, but rather than rushing the saint to kill him, they waited to see what would happen. And behold, out of the stump of the ancient oak, there sprang up immediately and miraculously, a young evergreen fir tree symbolizing the everlasting Son of God. The pagans fell on their faces and embraced the faith of St Boniface! The evergreen nature of the tree stands for eternal life. This idea is confirmed by the use of such a tree in medieval “Paradise Plays.” According to Fr. Francis Weiser, in his “Christmas Book,” the origin of Christmas trees in the home “goes back to the medieval German mystery plays. One of the most popular of these ‘mysteries’ was the Paradise Play, representing the creation of man, the sin of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from Paradise. It usually closed with the consoling promise of the coming Savior and with a reference to His incarnation. This made the Paradise Play a favorite pageant for Advent, and its closing scenes used to lead directly into the story of Bethlehem.
These plays were performed either in the open, or the large squares in front of churches, or inside the house of God. The garden of Eden was indicated by a fir tree hung with apples; it represented..the ‘Tree of Life’…which stood in the center of Paradise. After the suppression of the mystery plays in churches, by the Protestants, the Paradise tree, the only symbolic object of the plays, found its way into the homes of the faithful, especially since many plays had interpreted it as a symbol of the coming Savior.”
So the Christmas tree is a venerable, and very Orthodox symbol of the theology of the incarnation. It reminds us of the Tree of Life planted in Paradise. It reminds us of Christ, who comes to us a a newborn Babe, Who is, Himself, the fulfillment of the promise of that Tree. It reminds us of Christ, Who by means of the Tree of the Cross, granted us access to forgiveness of sins and life eternal.
From the Fathers: On the Holy Angels
St Clement of Rome (c. 96 AD)
“Let us think of the whole host of angels, how they stand by and serve His will, for Scriptures say: “Ten thousand times ten thousand were doing service to Him, and they cried out: Holy, holy, holy, Lord of Sabaoth; the whole of creation is full of His glory.” Then let us gather together in awareness of our concord, as with one mouth we shout earnestly to Him that we may become sharers in his great and glorious promises.”
(Saint Clement of Rome, “Epistle to the Corinthians,” XXXIV)
Saint Basil the Great (c. 330-379)
“It appears, indeed, that even before this world an order of things existed of which our mind can form an idea… The birth of the world was preceded by a condition of things suitable for the exercise of supernatural powers, outstripping the limits of time, eternal and infinite. The Creator and Demiurge of the universe perfected His works in it, spiritual light for the happiness of all who love the Lord, intellectual and invisible natures, all the orderly arrangement of pure intelligences who are beyond the reach of our mind and of whom we cannot even discover the names. They fill the essence of this invisible world, as Paul teaches us. “For by him were all things created that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible whether they be thrones or dominions or principalities or powers” or virtues or hosts of angels or the dignities of archangels.”
St. Bede the Venerable (c. 673-735)
“Whenever we enter the church and draw near to the heavenly mysteries, we ought to approach with all humility and fear, both because of the presence of the angelic powers and out of the reverence due to the sacred oblation; for as the Angels are said to have stood by the Lord’s body when it lay in the tomb, so we must believe that they are present in the celebration of the Mysteries of His most sacred Body at the time of consecration.”
Upcoming events in November (see the online calendar for updates or the attached PDF for more info)
Focus on the Faith: What Do We Know About The Gospels?
The New Testament Scriptures contain four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The word “Gospel” comes from two Old English words: “god” meaning “good” and “spell” meaning to “pour out.” The latter still exists in English in the form of “spill,” like “spill it!” or “spill the beans.” It is a direct translation of the Greek word “Evangelion,” “Ev” meaning “good” and “angelion” meaning “message.” (Like angels – messengers.)
The order of the Gospels appear in your Bible according to the time that the Church’s tradition says they were written, from earliest to latest. Matthew was written by St. Matthew the disciple, whose other name was Levi, sometime before the year 60. It is the earliest one, written originally in Aramaic, but subsequently re-written and amended in the Greek language.
The Gospel of Mark is the second Gospel of the New Testament; but chronologically the first Gospel originally written in Greek, sometime in the mid-sixties AD. Mark (known as John Mark) was one of the 70 apostles. He used St. Peter as the primary source of his gospel as well as his own personal interviews and experiences. St. Mark is the founder of the Church of Alexandria, in Egypt. He died as a martyr.
The Gospel of Luke was written by the Apostle Luke, again, one of the 70 apostles. He was a physician who accompanied the Apostle Paul on some of his missionary travels. His Gospel is the longest of the four canonical Gospels. The text narrates the life of Jesus, with particular emphasis on his birth, ministry, death, and resurrection. It ends with an account of the ascension. More emphasis is placed on women than in the other Gospels. His account of the birth and infancy narratives of Christ were given to him directly by the Virgin Mary herself (Luke 2:19).
The Gospel of John was written last of the Gospels, somewhere after 90 AD. It is written by John the Apostle, called “the Theologian” by the Church. He was one of the 12 original disciples of Jesus and the youngest among them. His Gospel begins with the witness of and affirmation by John the Baptist, and concludes with the death, burial, resurrection, and post-resurrection appearances of Jesus. It is written by the same author, according to church tradition, who wrote the three Epistles of John, and the Book of Revelation or the Apocalypse.
The Gospels tell of the life and teaching of Jesus, but none of them is a biography in the classic sense of the word. The Gospels were not written merely to tell a textbook history of Jesus. They were written by the disciples of Christ, each from their own point of view, who were filled with the Holy Spirit, after the Lord’s resurrection, in order to testify to the fact that Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the promised Messiah-Christ of Israel and the Saviour of the world.
In the Orthodox Church, it’s not the whole Bible which sits permanently on top of the Altar Table, but it is a bound book containing only the four Gospels. The holy altar represents the Throne of God, and the Book of Revelation tells us what rests upon the Throne in the Kingdom: (Read Revelation 4 ). ( Symbols: Matthew “man,” Mark “lion,” Luke “calf,” John “eagle.”
Matthew’s Gospel starts with Jesus’ genealogy from Abraham; it emphasizes Jesus’ Incarnation, and so Christ’s human nature. Hence, “man.”
Mark has John the Baptist preaching “like a lion roaring” at the beginning of his Gospel. It also represents Jesus’ Resurrection because lions were believed to sleep with open eyes, a comparison with Christ in the tomb. Also the lion represents the King of Beasts, hence, Christ as king.
Luke is symbolized by a winged calf or young ox – a figure of sacrifice, service, obedience and strength. Luke’s account begins with the duties of Zacharias in the temple; it represents Jesus’ sacrifice in His Passion and Crucifixion, as well as Christ being High priest. Since the Theotokos supplied much material to Luke, this symbol also represents Mary’s obedient submission to God’s will.
John is represented by an eagle – a figure soaring upward to heaven, and believed to be able to look straight into the sun. John starts with a mystical and eternal overview of Christ the Logos and goes on to describe many things on a “higher,” more transcendent level than the other three gospels; pointing especially to Christ’s divine nature.
The Gospels on the altar are a testimony to the fact that the life of the Church is centered in Christ, the living fulfillment of the law and the prophets, who abides perpetually in the midst of His People, the Church, through the presence of the Holy Spirit.
Orthopraxis: A Few Practical Tips for Orthodox Living – from the Lesna Monastery
- Say your Prayers morning and evening, either together as a family or individually.
- A blessing (“grace”) should always be said before a meal, and a prayer of thanksgiving afterwards.
- On entering a room where there is an icon, cross yourself before it and say a brief prayer.
- When leaving one’s dwelling, make the sign of the cross over the door and pray for its protection.
- On seeing a Bishop, priest, abbot or abbess, or even when phoning them or writing to them, always ask their blessing.
- Before going to bed, make the sign of the cross over it and pray for protection during sleep.
- When you hear of anyone’s death, immediately say a prayer for their blessed repose, and if they are Orthodox, memory eternal.
- If discussing or planning the future say: “As God wills.”
- If you offend or hurt anyone, say as soon as possible, “Forgive me,” always trying to take the blame yourself
- If something turns out well, say “Thanks, God.”
- If something turns out badly, if there is pain, sickness or any kind of trouble, say “Glory to God for all things,” since God is all good and, though we might not understand the purpose of these things, undoubtedly they have been permitted by God.
- If you begin some task, say, “God help me,” or if someone else’ working: “May God help you,”
- Cross yourself, and the road ahead, and say a brief prayer before even the shortest journey by car.
- For a longer and more difficult journey, ask a priest to say the “Prayers Before A Journey” and receive a blessing with Holy Water.
- If there is a possibility of future trouble of any kind, either for yourself or for someone you care for, say an Akathist to the Mother of God.
- When something you have prayed about turns out well, always remember to thank God. If it is a small thing, you may add a prayer of thanksgiving to your daily prayers or make an offering. For matters of greater import, ask the priest to serve the Thanksgiving Moleben. But NEVER neglect to give thanks.
From the Fathers: On Reading the Scriptures
“By reading the Bible you are adding yeast to the dough of your soul and body, which gradually expands and fills the soul until it has thoroughly permeated it and makes it rise with the truth and righteousness of the Gospel.” (St. Justin Popovich, How to Read the Bible and Why)
“In order to fulfill the commandments of Christ, you must know them! Read the Holy Gospel, penetrate its spirit and make it the rule of your life.” (St. Nikon of Optina)
“If you believe what you like in the Gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself.” ( St. Augustine of Hippo)
“It is not possible, I say not possible, ever to exhaust the mind of the Scriptures. It is a well which has no bottom.” (St. John Chrysostom, Hom. XIX On Acts)
Feasts and Saints of the Month: October
The Protection of Our Most Holy Lady the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary
On October 1, 911, during the reign of Emperor Leo the Wise, an all-night vigil was being held at the Blachernae Church of the Mother of God in Constantinople, with many of the faithful crowding the church. St Andrew the Fool for Christ (commemorated tomorrow, October 2) was standing at the back of the church with his disciple Epiphanius. At around four in the morning, the most holy Theotokos appeared above the people, clothed in resplendent garments, surrounded by indescribable radiance, and holding a veil in her outstretched hands, as though to protect all the people. St Andrew said to Epiphanius ‘Do you see how the Queen and Lady of all is praying for the whole world?’ Epiphanius replied ‘Yes, Father, I see it and stand in dread.’ This wonderful event is recorded in Epiphanius’ life of St Andrew. Because of it, the Church keeps an annual feast on this date.
Synaxis of the Holy Startsi (Elders) of Optina Monastery
Commemorated today are our holy fathers Moses, Antony, Leonid(Lev), Macarius, Hilarion, Ambrose, Anatolius I, Isaac I, Joseph, Barsanuphius, Anatolius the Younger, Nectarius, Nikon the Confessor, and Hieromartyr Isaac the Younger. Hieromartyr Isaac was shot by the Bolsheviks on December 26 1937. This feast commemorates a few of the holy Fathers who made the Optina Hermitage (Pustyn) a focus for the powerful renewal movement that spread through the Church in Russia beginning early in the nineteenth century, and continuing up to (and even into) the atheist persecutions of the twentieth century. Saint Paisius Velichkovsky (November 15) was powerfully influential in bringing the almost-lost hesychastic tradition of Orthodox spirituality to Russia in the eighteenth century, and his labors found in Optina Monastery a ‘headquarters’ from which they spread throughout the Russian land. The monastery itself had been in existence since at least the sixteenth century, but had fallen into decay through the anti-monastic policies of Catherine II and other modernizing rulers. Around 1790, Metropolitan Platon of Moscow undertook a mission to restore and revive the monastery in the tradition set forth by St Paisius. By the early 1800s the monastery (located about 80 miles from Moscow) had become a beacon of Orthodox spirituality, partly through their publication of Orthodox spiritual texts, but more importantly through the lineage of divinely-enlightened spiritual fathers (startsi, plural of starets) who served as guides to those, noble and peasant, who flocked to the monastery for their holy counsel. The fathers aroused some controversy in their own day; a few critics (some of them from other monasteries) disapproved of their allowing the Jesus Prayer to become widely-known among the people, fearing that it would give rise to spiritual delusion (prelest). For a wonderful depiction of the deep influence of the Jesus Prayer on Russian life during this period, read the anonymously-written” Way of a Pilgrim”.
With the coming of the Russian Revolution in 1917, the monastery was of course officially shut down, but some of the Fathers were able to keep it running for a time as an ‘agricultural legion’. Over the years, most of the Fathers were dispersed, to die in exile, in prison camps, or by the firing squad. Many of them are known to have continued to function as startsi to their spiritual children, despite great danger and hardship, for the remainder of their time on earth. Commemoration of the Optina startsi was approved by the Synod of the Russian Church Abroad in 1990, and by the Moscow Patriarchate in 1996. The Optina Monastery itself was officially re-established in 1987.
Upcoming events in October (see the online calendar for updates or the attached PDF for more info)
Focus on the Faith: The Orthodox Church New Year
The Orthodox Church has always celebrated the beginning of the New Year on September 1, following the tradition of ancient Rome, and in accordance with the decree of Caesar Augustus in about 3 BC. This was the custom in Constantinople until its fall in 1453, and in Holy Russia until the reign of Peter the Great. September 1st is still festively celebrated as the New Year at the Patriarchate of Constantinople; among the Jews also, the New Year, although reckoned according to a moveable calendar, usually falls in September. The service of the Menaion for January 1 is for our Lord’s Circumcision and for the memorial of Saint Basil the Great, without any mention of its being the beginning of a new year. Now, some thoughts about the inner meaning of the Church New Year…
It can be jarring to move suddenly from the end, back to the beginning of something. It reminds me of a certain board game we used to have. I would always be way ahead on the game board, when suddenly, some kid, would draw a terrible card with which he could send ME (not him) tumbling all the way back to the beginning space. But this is what Orthodox believers do as we move from August 31st — the last day of the old year, to September 1st, the first day of the new year.
It is part of the goodness of God, that He, who has no beginning and no ending, the Eternal Trinity, should take such care to give us a year which begins and ends, and then begins all over again. In our human and finite state we need fresh starts, and this is one of them. From the peaks of Pascha, Ascension, Pentecost, and Transfiguration, we move back to beginnings, the Nativity of the Mother of God, and then in December of the Son of God Himself. We start this wonderful cycle all over again. But the Holy Spirit, as we trust Him, will renew this new year to us, and give us a whole new understanding of it.
“Behold I will do a new thing”, God says through the prophet Isaiah (43:19). The new wine will come to us in new wineskins (Matthew 9:17).
The God who has put eternity in our hearts, knows our human frailty. He knows that marriages need their anniversaries, and all of us, especially children, need their birthdays from year to year. We in the Orthodox Church also hold a special place for the anniversaries of those who have died in Christ. We recall every year the glorious deaths of the saints. But the whole of this is held in a solid framework – the Orthodox Calendar. Through the God inspired wisdom of our fathers and mothers, we have a beautifully constructed lectionary, which flows through the year, like the streams of an effortless river, blessing whatever they touch.
It is significant that the last great feast of the old year is that of the Dormition of Mary, the Mother of God. Her human passing was to heaven’s glory. And the first great feast of the new year is her Nativity. It is not that Mary is more important that Christ, around which most of the Calendar revolves. Mary is not God. She did not exist from eternity. But she is honored in this way because she is our supreme example. She lived a life of complete obedience to God.
Orthopraxis: Why Do Some Women Cover Their Heads?
Q. Why do some women cover their heads with a scarf in church while others do not?
A. This is an ancient practice that comes to us first from Judaism and then from the early Christian church. It pre-dates Islam by a couple thousand years at least! In fact, the holy apostle Paul makes a point to the believers in Corinth that this is one practice that should NOT be done away with. If we look at St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, chapter eleven, we see his explanation – it has to do with glory. You see, in the church and especially in the worship of the church, we have many symbols. These symbols unite us to heavenly realities and mysteries. The veiling of women is a symbolic act, much like the vestments of bishops, or priests, or deacons. As these point to the nature of the spiritual world, the glory of God, the glory of angels, etc., the woman, by veiling her hair, puts on a vestment of sorts which also points to heavenly truths. And what are these? Firstly, as St. Paul says, that God created the world, then He created man (Adam) and from man he took his wife (Eve.) Even though she is taken from his side, woman is different from man. She is her own person. She was created to be his helper but not his slave. She is taken from his side to signify that it is at his side that she stands, as St. John Chrysostom points out. In the Jewish scheme of things, both men and women covered their heads to pray. In the Greco-Roman world (i.e. the pagan gentiles) neither men nor women covered their heads to pray. St. Paul seems to split the difference. Interestingly, he allows the women to retain the symbol of the covering of human glory in the presence of God, but not the men. And perhaps this was more important for the women, for by covering their heads with a sign of God’s glory (the veil) rather than human glory (the unveiled head, their hair) they also show that they undo the deception of Eve. Eve was tricked by her head; fooled by the serpent by suggestions. The Orthodox woman, because of Christ’s Cross, and following the example of the Most Holy Theotokos, shows in a symbol that she is not fooled by the arrogant suggestions of the evil one. In fact, the symbol of the veil reveals that she is fully illumined and reflects the glory of God. So as Moses, when he descended from the holy mountain was radiant with the glory of God and hence was compelled to veil himself in the presence of others (Exodus 34), so she is veiled as a sign of that same closeness to God.
Must, then, every woman cover her head in Church? This is the wrong way to ask the question. Everything that we do in the church we do in complete freedom. Even in St. Paul’s day there were those who did not understand. There were Jewish Christian men who grumbled and judged harshly those men who prayed without covering their heads. There were also Gentile Christian women who felt uncomfortable covering their heads. St. Paul answers both of these groups with these words: “If any one is disposed to be contentious, tell him that this is what we do as well as all of the other churches of God” (I Cor.11:16). Tradition does not force, it invites. But it always has a reason for what it does.
From the Fathers: THE HOLY FATHERS ON THE PRECIOUS AND LIFE-GIVING CROSS
The Cross, is wood which lifts us up and makes us great … The Cross uprooted us from the depths of evil and elevated us to the summit of virtue.” (St. John Chrysostom)
“The holy Fathers relate a story that when the thief of the Gospel came to the gates of the Kingdom, the Archangel with the flaming sword wanted to chase him away, but he showed him the Cross. Immediately the fire-bearing Archangel himself withdrew and permitted the thief to enter. Understand here not the wooden cross. But which? The Cross in which the chief Apostle Paul boasts and concerning which he writes, ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus’” (Gal. 6:17). (St. Anatoly of Optina)
“As you contemplate the sticks that Isaac was laid upon, reflect on the cross. As you look on the fire, meditate on the love. Look too on the ram suspended by its two horns on the plant that is called ‘Sabek’ (See Genesis 22:13 LXX). Look too on Christ, the Lamb of God, suspended by his two hands upon a Cross. The plant called Sabek means ‘forgiveness’, for it saved from slaughter the old man’s child. It foreshadows the cross that forgives the world its sins and grants it life. The ram hanging on the Sabek plant mystically redeemed Isaac alone. While the Lamb of God hanging on the cross delivered the world from Death and Hell.” (St. Ephrem the Syrian)
Lives of the Saints: The Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary
by Saint Nikolai Velimirovich
The Holy Virgin Mary was born of aged parents, Joachim and Anna. Her father was of the lineage of David, and her mother of the lineage of Aaron. Thus, she was of royal birth by her father, and of priestly birth by her mother. In this, she foreshadowed Him Who would be born of her as King and High Priest. Her parents were quite old and had no children. Because of this they were ashamed before men and humble before God. In their humility they prayed to God with tears, to bring them joy in their old age by giving them a child, as He had once given joy to the aged Abraham and his wife Sarah by giving them Isaac. The Almighty and All-seeing God rewarded them with a joy that surpassed all their expectations and all their most beautiful dreams. For He gave them not just a daughter, but the Mother of God. He illumined them not only with temporal joy, but with eternal joy as well. God gave them just one daughter, and she would later give them just one grandson; but what a daughter and what a Grandson! Mary, Full of grace, Blessed among women, the Temple of the Holy Spirit, the Altar of the Living God, the Table of the Heavenly Bread, the Ark of God’s Holiness, the Tree of the Sweetest Fruit, the Glory of the race of man, the Praise of womanhood, the Fount of virginity and purity; this was the daughter given by God to Joachim and Anna. She was born in Nazareth, and at the age of three, was taken to the Temple in Jerusalem. In her young womanhood she returned again to Nazareth, and shortly thereafter heard the Annunciation of the Holy Archangel Gabriel concerning the birth of the Son of God, the Savior of the world, from her most-pure virgin body.
The Nativity of the Most-holy Mother of God
O greatly desired and long awaited one,
O Virgin, thou hast been obtained from the Lord with tears!
A bodily temple of the Most-holy Spirit shalt thou become,
And shalt be called Mother of the Eternal Word.
The Burning Bush they called thee,
For thou wilt receive within thyself the divine fire:
Ablaze with fire but not consumed,
Thou shalt bear the Golden Fruit and offer it to the world.
Thou shalt be the Bearer of Him Who bears the heavens,
To Whom all of heaven offers up praise!
The Miracle of miracles shall come to pass within thee,
For thou shalt bear heaven, thou who art “more spacious than the heavens!”
Thou art more precious to us, O Virgin, than precious stones,
For thou art the source of salvation for mankind.
For this, may the entire universe glorify thee,
O Most-holy Virgin, O white Turtledove!
The King of Heaven shall desire to enter the world,
And shall pass through thee, O Beautiful Gate!
O Virgin, when thou dost become woman thou shalt bear Christ for us;
From thy body, the Sun shall blaze forth.
Upcoming events in September (see the online calendar for updates or the attached PDF for more info)
Focus on the Faith: The Dormition Fast: Commitment vs. Convenience
by Archpriest Steven Kostoff
August 1 – is the beginning of the relatively short Dormition Fast that culminates with the celebration of the Great Feast of the Dormition on August 15. Every fast presents us with a challenge and a choice. In this instance, I would say that our choice is between “convenience” and “commitment.” We can choose convenience because of the simple fact that to fast is decidedly in-convenient. It takes planning, vigilance, discipline, self denial, and an overall concerted effort. It is convenient to allow life to flow on at its usual (summer) rhythm, which includes searching for that comfort level of least resistance. To break our established patterns of living is always difficult, and it may be something we would only contemplate with reluctance. So, one choice is to do nothing different during this current Dormition Fast, or perhaps only something minimal, as a kind of token recognition of our life in the Church. I am not quite sure, however, what such a choice would yield in terms of further growth in our life “in Christ.” It may rather mean a missed opportunity.
Yet the choice remains to embrace the Dormition Fast, a choice that is decidedly “counter-cultural” and one that manifests a conscious commitment to an Orthodox Christian “way of life.” Such a commitment signifies that we are looking beyond what is convenient toward what is meaningful. It would be a choice in which we recognize our weaknesses, and our need precisely for the planning, vigilance, discipline, self-denial and over-all concerted effort that distinguishes the seeker of the “mind of Christ” which we have as a gift within the life of the Church. That is a difficult choice to make, and one that is perhaps particularly difficult within the life of a family with children who are often resistant to any changes. I still believe, though, that such a difficult choice has its “rewards” and that such a commitment will bear fruit in our families and in our parishes. (If embraced legalistically and judgmentally, however, we will lose our access to the potential fruitfulness of the Fast and only succeed in creating a miserable atmosphere in our homes). It is a choice that is determined to seize a good opportunity as at least a potential tool that leads to spiritual growth.
My observation is that we combine the “convenient” with our “commitment” within our contemporary social and cultural life to some degree. We often don’t allow the Church to “get in the way” of our plans and goals, and that may be hard to avoid in the circumstances and conditions of our present “way of life.” It is hard to prevail in the neverending “battle of the calendars.” The surrounding social and cultural milieu no longer supports our commitment to Christ and the Church. In fact, it is usually quite indifferent and it may even be hostile toward such a commitment. Though we may hesitate to admit it, we find it very challenging not to conform to the world around us. But it is never impossible to choose our commitment to our Orthodox Christian way of life over what is merely convenient – or simply desired. That may just be one of those “daily crosses” that the Lord spoke of – though it may be a stretch to call that a “cross.” This also entails choices, and we have to assess these choices with honesty as we look at all the factors that make up our lives. In short, it is very difficult – but profoundly rewarding – to practice our Orthodox Christian Faith today!
I remain confident, however, that the heart of a sincere Orthodox Christian desires to choose the hard path of commitment over the easy (and rather boring?) path of convenience. We now have the God-given opportunity to escape the summer doldrums that drain our spiritual energy. With prayer, almsgiving and fasting, we can renew our tired bodies and souls. We can lift up our “drooping hands” in an attitude of prayer and thanksgiving. The Dormition of the Theotokos has often been called “pascha in the summer.” It celebrates the victory of life over death—or of death as a translation into the Kingdom of Heaven. The Dormition Fast is our spiritually vigilant preparation leading up to that glorious celebration. “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold now is the day of salvation!” (2 Corinthians 6:2).
Orthopraxis: The Blessing of Grapes on the Feast of the Transfiguration
(based on a homily by Fr Joseph Honeycutt)
At the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy on the Great Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord on Mount Tabor, the bishop or priest blesses grapes and fruits.
Here follows some answers …
The blessing of grapes, as well as other fruits and vegetables on this day is a most beautiful and adequate sign of the final transfiguration of all things in Christ. It signifies the ultimate flowering and fruitfulness of all creation in the paradise of God’s unending Kingdom of Life where all will he transformed by the glory of the Lord.
This is an ancient Christian custom. The first week of August, on the sixth of August, the farmers used to gather the early fruits of their summer harvest (grapes, figs etc.) and to present them in the Church to be blessed and distributed for free to the congregation and to the poor. These fruits are called the “beginnings”.
In a text from the 7th century (“The Laws of the kingdom” by emperor Constantine “Porphyrogenitos”) this custom is described vividly: “The Emperor of Constantinople gathers the “beginnings” (“aparches”) in Chalcedon, where there are many vines, and then he waits for the Patriarch of Constantinople to come on the Holiday of Transfiguration, to bless the fruits and to personally hand out the grapes to the laymen”.
This custom is honored in many places in Greece where there are plantations with vines.
We must not forget that the Church was presented once as a “vine.” So, [the] Church blesses the first fruits of vine giving a “theological” meaning to the farmer’s work.
In footnote 2 for Canon III of the Canons of the Holy Apostles it says that, “during the festival of the Dormition…they used to offer bunches of grapes to the patriarch…at the end of the divine service. Today however [this is St Nikodemos Agiorite writing in the early 19th c] it is the prevailing custom in most regions for such grapes to be offered at the festival of the Transfiguration of the Saviour, and for them to be offered by the priest.”
A nun, Mother Evfrosinia adds …
However, as grapes do not ripen at the same time everywhere, the Church adapted this tradition in various ways. In some places in the Holy Land, for instance, grapes are blessed on the feast of the prophet Elijah. In Russia, where grapes were not always readily available, apples were more commonly blessed, and Transfiguration is known as “Yablochny Spas”, “the Apple Feast of the Saviour”. In northern Russia, where even apples weren’t ripe by August 6/19, it was traditional to bless peas. Nowadays, when you can buy any sort of fruit or vegetable year round, we’ve lost the sense of getting a blessing to partake of the first fruits. But we can still try to keep to the spirit of this tradition. In our monastery we bless all sorts of fruit on Transfiguration, but we abstain only from grapes, taking care not to eat grapes of the new harvest until the feast, in keeping with the ancient monastic practice.
In addition, the blessing of grapes, that is specifically mentioned liturgically, is an allusion to the Mystery of the Holy Eucharist, the New Wine that is Christ’s Blood that nourishes us spiritually. The liturgical prayers also refer to Christ Himself as the “Divine Cluster” attached to the Cross from which “Drips the Mystic Wine.”
Some ancient Typicons prescribe the blessing of fruit of the vine (grapes), not on the feast of the Transfiguration, but on the feast of the Dormition. In the Greek Nicolo-Casulan Typicon of the twelfth-thirteenth century, we read: “Let it be known that, on the feast of the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God, the 15th of August, grapes are blessed and eaten in church after the Divine Liturgy according to an ancient tradition.” The Typicon of Sinai of the year 1214 contains the same prescription. Similarly, the Typicons of the Lavra of St. Athanasius on Athos prescribes the blessing of grapes on the 15th of August. We have the custom of blessing flowers on the feast of the Dormition.
From the Fathers: Hieromartyr Hierotheos, First Bishop of Athens, ON THE DORMITION OF THE MOTHER OF GOD
When was such a wonder of wonders ever seen by men? How does the Queen of all lie breathless? How has the Mother of Jesus reposed? Thou, O Virgin, wast the preaching of the prophets; thou art heralded by us. All the people venerate thee; the angels glorify thee. Rejoice, thou who art full of grace, the Lord is with thee, and through thee, with us. With Gabriel we hymn thee, with the angels we glorify thee; and with the prophets we praise thee, for they announced thee.
Habakkum beheld thee as an overshadowed mountain, for thou art covered with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Daniel beheld thee as a mountain from whom, seedlessly, the solid and strong King, the Christ, issued forth. Jacob saw thee as a ladder upon Whom Christ came down to eat and drink with us. And although we, His slaves, contemplate ascending into the heavens, yet thou hast ascended before all. Rejoice, O Virgin, for Gideon beheld thee as a fleece. David saw thee as the virgin daughter of the King. Isaias called thee Mother of God and Ezekiel a gate. All the prophets prophesied thee!
What shall we call thee, O Virgin? Paradise. It is meet, for thou hast blossomed forth the flower of incorruption, Christ, Who is the sweet-smelling fragrance for the souls of men. Virgin? Verily, a virgin thou art, for without the seed of man thou gavest birth to our Lord Jesus Christ. Thou wast a virgin before birth and virgin at birth and still a virgin after. Shall we call thee Mother? This is meet too; for as a Mother thou gavest birth to Christ the King of all. Shall we name thee Heaven? This thou art also for upon thee rose the Sun of righteousness. Wherefore, rejoice O Virgin, and hasten to thy Son’s rest and dwell in the tents of His beloved. Hasten there and make ready a palace and remember us and all thy people also, too. O Lady Mother of God, for both we and thyself are of the race of Adam. On account of this, intercede on our behalf; for this supplicate thy Son Whom thou hast held in thine embrace, and help us in our preaching and then afterwards that we may find rest in our hopes. Go forward, O Virgin from earth to heaven, from corruption to incorruption, from the sorrow of this world to the joy of the Kingdom of the heavens, from this perishable earth to the everlasting Heaven. Hasten, O Virgin to the heavenly light, to the hymns of the angels, to the glory of the saints from all the ages. Hasten, O Virgin, to the place of thy Son, to His Kingdom, to His power, where the angels chant, the prophets glorify and the Archangels hymn the Mother of the King, who is the lit lampstand, wider than the heavens, the firmament above, the protection of Christians, and the mediatress of our race.
+ St. Hierotheos, Quoted from The Life of the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, Holy Apostles Convent, pp 476-77. Originally sourced from The Great Synaxaristes of the Orthodox Church (in Greek), see footnote 134, pg 592, in The Life of the Virgin Mary for greater detail.
Dormition and the Church at Home
In addition to the temple where we meet and worship on Saturday, Sunday, feast days and various other occasions, it is a part of normal Orthodox Christian life to have regular services in the home, usually in the “beautiful corner” set aside for such purposes. We all know about morning and evening prayers and house blessings, but there are other services that can be done in the home as “reader services”. Most of the services of the daily cycle can be done this way (except for the Divine Liturgy and other sacraments). In places without a priest, this has been a necessary means of keeping the life of the church going.
Many years ago, Alexey and Susan Young were new converts and pilgrims to the St. Herman of Alaska Monastery. They were instructed to do reader services at home as they could, since they were not near a local parish. They set up a storage shed in their backyard as a little chapel, and began to do the Ninth Hour, eventually adding Vespers. A curious neighbor happened to see them and commented:
“Every afternoon, I see you go into your shed for a while, and when you come out you look so peaceful. What do you do in there?” to which Alexey replied, “Come and see!”.
Out of that little effort to do services in the home, and share it with others, a new Orthodox parish was born, and Alexey was eventually ordained a priest to serve there!
August is filled with important feast days such as Holy Transfiguration, Holy Dormition and St Herman of Alaska. There will be Vigil and Liturgy services for these feasts at St. Nicholas. We will not be able to do the daily Paraklesis service, which is traditionally done during the evenings of the Dormition fast. This is a good opportunity for you do this service at home as you can!
In order to make this easier, You will find the full service on this page that you can download and place on your tablet or phone. It is in PDF format. Instructions in italics show you how to do this service as a “reader at home”. If you know the tones, or have sung this with us at St. Nicholas in the past, you can sing it at home. If you don’t know the melodies, you can simply chant it, singing only in your heart!
Upcoming events in August (see the online calendar for updates or the attached PDF for more info)
Focus on the Faith: The Glorious 4th of July
The Fourth of July is always a time for celebration in our land. It is a chance for family and friends to gather together for barbeques, outdoor activities, and fireworks. On Independence Day, the cause of our celebration is freedom, freedom from a cruel, repressive government, and freedom from a tyrannical king. This freedom is not only about liberation “from,” but also liberation “to!” Freedom means the ability to chart our own course, to work for our own goals, and to reap the fruits of our own labors.
It is common practice in our churches to offer a Prayer Service, a Molieben of Thanksgiving on the “Glorious Fourth,” and here, in the Pacific Central Deanery, it has been our custom for nearly 100 years to make a pilgrimage to Fort Ross and offer the Divine Liturgy there at the chapel in thanksgiving to God for this wonderful country of ours. This year is no exception. Liturgy on the 4th of July will be at 10:30 am at the Fort!
While this important civil holiday may not be found on our ecclesiastical calendars, we can certainly derive some spiritual food from it, right along with our festive foods and ice-cold beverages! The Fourth of July can be an opportunity for us to recall that there is a spiritual struggle for independence that goes on in our lives, and in our hearts, every single day. The tyrannical king is the devil; his cruel government is this fallen world and death; the overwhelming tax burdens and the tax collectors are our sins along with the demons who wait in the aerial toll-houses to accuse us at our death. These are the same demons, who would love nothing more than to kick the Heavenly King out of our hearts, and replace Him with seven more, more ferocious than themselves (Matthew 12:45)!
Nothing is better, nothing is more natural to human beings than spiritual freedom. The Lord Jesus Christ said: “If the Son (of God) therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed” (John 8:36.) But in order to gain this freedom, this freedom which is only found in Christ, there needs to be a revolution, a revolution in us! Now the word “revolution” literally means to turn around. Isn’t that what repentance is? A turning around? A change of direction? A change of mind? Repentance is a spiritual struggle to turn, a spiritual revolutionary war against the tyranny of evil. Repentance is a noetic rebellion and an ascetic strategy of separation that employs spiritual armaments given to us by the grace of God. St Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: For the weapons of our warfare are not fleshly, but our weapons have Divine power to pull down strongholds; casting down vain imaginations, and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, and brings into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:3-5.)
So, then, the Fourth of July can serve as a good reminder to us that we need to keep up the struggle and “Fight the good fight of faith” (1 Tim. 6:12.) It’s only when we let our guard down, relax our efforts and our resolve, that we find ourselves slipping back into the clutches of our Adversary, the King of wickedness, and falling into the tyranny of his cruel and oppressive government. “Stand fast therefore” (says St. Paul) “in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5:1.) Amen.
From the Fathers – On Freedom
“The Word became flesh…in order to make us earthly beings into heavenly ones, in order to make sinners into saints; in order to raise us up from corruption into incorruption, from earth to heaven; from enslavement to sin and the devil – into the glorious freedom of children of God; from death – into immortality, in order to make us sons of God and to seat us together with Him upon the Throne as His royal children. O, boundless compassion of God! O, inexpressible wisdom of God! O, great wonder, astounding not only the human mind, but the angelic [mind] as well!”
+ St. John of Kronstadt, Sermon on the Nativity of Jesus Christ
In truth there is only one freedom – the holy freedom of Christ, whereby He freed us from sin, from evil, from the devil. It binds us to God. All other freedoms are illusory, false, that is to say, they are all, in fact, slavery.”
+ St. Justin Popovich, Ascetical and Theological Chapters, II.36
“Some people by the word freedom understand it to mean the ability to do whatever one wants … People who have allowed themselves more and more to become slaves to sins, passions, and defilements, more often than others appear as zealots of external freedom, wanting to broaden the laws as much as possible. But such a man uses external freedom only to more severely burden himself with inner slavery. True freedom is the active ability of a man, who is not enslaved to sin, who is not pricked by a condemning conscience, to choose what is better in the light of God’s truth, and to bring it into actuality with the help of the gracious power of God. This is the freedom which neither heaven nor earth can restrict.”
+ St. Philaret of Moscow, Sermon on the Birthday of Emperor Nicholas I, 1851