March, 2021


Focus on the Faith: Great Lent

by Fr Thomas Hopko

The season of Great Lent is the time of preparation for the feast of the Resurrection of Christ. It is the living symbol of man’s entire life which is to be fulfilled in his own resurrection from the dead with Christ. It is a time of renewed devotion: of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. It is a time of repentance, a real renewal of our minds, hearts and deeds in conformity with Christ and his teachings. It is the time, most of all, of our return to the great commandments of loving God and our neighbors.

In the Orthodox Church, Great Lent is not a season of morbidity and gloominess. On the contrary, it is a time of joyfulness and purification. We are called to “anoint our faces” and to “cleanse our bodies as we cleanse our souls.” The very first hymns of the very first service of Great Lent set the proper tone of the season:

“Let us begin the Fast with joy . . . let us fast from the passions as we fast from food! Let us rejoice in the virtues of the Spirit and fulfill them in love, that we may be granted to see the holy Passion of Christ our God and his holy Pascha, rejoicing in spirit.”

“Thy grace has risen upon us, O Lord, the illumination of our souls has shown forth; behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the time of repentance” (Vespers Hymns).

It is our repentance that God desires, not our remorse. We sorrow for our sins, but we do so in the joy of Great Lent
Fr Thomas Hopko

The season of Great Lent is the time of preparation for the feast of the Resurrection of Christ. It is the living symbol of man’s entire life which is to be fulfilled in his own resurrection from the dead with Christ. It is a time of renewed devotion: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. It is a time of repentance, a real renewal of our minds, hearts, and deeds in conformity with Christ and his teachings. It is the time, most of all, of our return to the great commandments of loving God and our neighbors.

In the Orthodox Church, Great Lent is not a season of morbidity and gloominess. On the contrary, it is a time of joyfulness and purification. We are called to “anoint our faces” and to “cleanse our bodies as we cleanse our souls.” The very first hymns of the very first service of Great Lent set the proper tone of the season:

“Let us begin the Fast with joy . . . let us fast from the passions as we fast from food! Let us rejoice in the virtues of the Spirit and fulfill them in love, that we may be granted to see the holy Passion of Christ our God and his holy Pascha, rejoicing in spirit.”

“Thy grace has risen upon us, O Lord, the illumination of our souls has shown forth; behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the time of repentance” (Vespers Hymns).

It is our repentance that God desires, not our remorse. We sorrow for our sins, but we do so in the joy of God’s mercy. We mortify our flesh, but we do so in the joy of our resurrection into life everlasting. We make ready for the resurrection during Great Lent, both Christ’s Resurrection and our own. God’s mercy. We mortify our flesh, but we do so in the joy of our resurrection into life everlasting. We make ready for the resurrection during Great Lent, both Christ’s Resurrection and our own.

From the Fathers

The Ancient Christian book, The Shepherd of Hermas, written around 100 AD, made these pronouncements regarding fasting. The principles still apply today in the Orthodox Church:

“Fasting … is very good, provided the commandments of the Lord be observed … First of all, be on your guard against every evil word, and every evil desire, and purify your heart from all the vanities of this world. If you guard against these things, your fasting will be perfect. And you will do also as follows. Having fulfilled what is written, in the day on which you fast you will taste nothing but bread and water; and having reckoned up the price of the dishes of that day which you intended to have eaten, you will give it to a widow, or an orphan, or to some person in want, and thus you will exhibit humility of mind, so that he who has received benefit from your humility may fill his own soul, and pray for you to the Lord. If you observe fasting, as I have commanded you, your sacrifice will be acceptable to God, and this fasting will be written down; and the service thus performed is noble, and sacred, and acceptable to the Lord.”

(Shepherd of Hermas, Book 3, Similitude 5, Chapter 3)

Orthopraxis: “Clean Week,” The First Week of the Fast

The first week of Great Lent starts on Clean Monday, the first day of Great Lent. The name “Clean Week” refers to the spiritual cleansing each of the faithful is encouraged to undergo through fasting, prayer, repentance, reception of the Holy Mysteries and begging forgiveness of his neighbor. It is also traditionally a time for spring cleaning so that one’s outward surroundings matches his inward disposition.

Throughout this week fasting is most strict. Those who have the strength are encouraged to fast completely, eating only on Wednesday and Friday evenings, after the Presanctified Liturgy. Those who are unable to keep such a strict fast are encouraged to eat only a little, and then only xerophagy* once a day. On Monday, no food should be eaten at all and only uncooked food on Tuesday and Thursday. Meals are served on Saturday and Sunday, but these are fasting meals at which meat, dairy products and fish are forbidden.

At Great Compline during the first four days of the Fast (Monday through Thursday) the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete is divided into four parts and one part is chanted each night (for further information about the Great Canon, see Fifth Week, below).

The First Saturday is called “St. Theodore Saturday” in honor of St. Theodore the Recruit, a 4th-century martyr. At the end of the Presanctified Liturgy on Friday (since, liturgically, the day begins at sunset) a special canon to St. Theodore, composed by St. John of Damascus, is chanted. Then the priest blesses kolyva (boiled wheat with honey and raisins) which is distributed to the faithful in commemoration of the following miracle worked by St. Theodore on the First Saturday of Great Lent.

Fifty years after the death of St Theodore, the emperor Julian the Apostate (361-363), as a part of his general policy of persecution of Christians, commanded the governor of Constantinople during the first week of Great Lent to sprinkle all the food provisions in the marketplaces with the blood offered to pagan idols, knowing that the people would be hungry after the strict fasting of the first week. St Theodore appeared in a dream to Archbishop Eudoxius, ordering him to inform all the Christians that no one should buy anything at the marketplaces, but rather to eat cooked wheat with honey (kolyva).

The First Sunday of Great Lent is the Feast of Orthodoxy, which commemorates the restoration of the veneration of icons after the Iconoclast controversy, which is considered to be the triumph of the Church over the last of the great heresies which troubled her (all later heresies being simply a rehashing of earlier ones). Before the Divine Liturgy on this day, a special service, known as the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” is held in cathedrals and major monasteries, at which the synodicon (containing anathemas against various heresies, and encomia of those who have held fast to the Christian faith) is proclaimed. The theme of the day is the victory of the True Faith over heresy. “This is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith” (1 John 5:4). Also, the icons of the saints bear witness that man, “created in the image and likeness of God” (Genesis 1:26), may become holy and godlike through the purification of himself as God’s living image.

The First Sunday of Great Lent originally commemorated the Prophets such as Moses, Aaron, and Samuel. The Liturgy’s Prokeimenon and alleluia verses as well as the Epistle (Hebrews 11:24-26,32-40) and Gospel (John 1:43–51) readings appointed for the day continue to reflect this older usage.

*”Xerophagy – Literally ‘dry eating,’ means partaking of unprocessed foods such as vegetables, fruits, grains and nuts or perhaps even dried bread and water.

Upcoming Events

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

January, 2021


Focus on the Faith: New Year Looks to Theophany

The New Year is upon us. Let us rejoice and be glad that 2020 is behind us!

On 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!

It’s a New Year, and that means a new start, a new beginning in spiritual efforts! Everything about the New Year points to Theophany. It’s about Christ’s Baptism, but it’s also about ours. It’s about the renewal of Creation as Christ steps into the water, and it’s about our renewal as we step into the water either of our own baptism (catechumens, rejoice!) or as we wash ourselves with the sacramental cleansing of our own tears in Holy Confession.

Not long ago someone asked me about the blessing of homes at Theophany. They wanted to know why we do it? Does it have to be done? I explained it to them like this. I asked them about their recent trip to Constantinople. What were their impressions? They said that it made them very happy, but at the same time very sad. Here She was, the Queen of Cities, the City of the Virgin Mary, beautiful, exotic and dazzling. Yet there was something very wrong, very “off.” She was a Queen but in chains, royal yet wearing rags, noble but crushed in her humiliation, high-born, but now brought low. I said, that this was exactly my impression. I said, “you know, this world, this creation, is in captivity, not just Constantinople; it is enemy-held territory. The evil one, having enslaved all of creation at the fall, has laid claim to every nook and cranny of this earth. And for a while it looked as though he might be able to hold onto it. But then he reached too far and attempted to enslave the Master of All and to bind Life with the chains of death, and his power was broken. But creation is still fallen, still contested land.

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 Fathers

Sermon on Theophany by St John, Archbishop of Shanghai and San Francisco the Wonder-Worker

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

As we celebrate Theophany, we remember how God revealed himself as the Trinity, that Jesus appeared to the people as Christ. Where did Christ appear Hos did He begin His mission? Did He enter a great city and reveal Himself in His glory? Did He ascend a great mountain as many thousands of people beheld Him from below, wondering at the miracle? No! Christ went into the wilderness, to the Jordan River, where John was baptizing the people. John preached repentance, and called upon sinners, in a sign of repentance, to be baptized in the Jordan. And it was as a sinner that Christ came and asked for baptism. Yet He had no sin. John was afraid: “I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me? And Jesus answering said unto him, suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Adam sinned through pride, he wished to elevate himself, to become like God. But Christ cam to fulfill the truth of God, to correct Adam’s pride through humility. Christ entered the water and received baptism from His servant. Trembling, John placed his hand upon his God and Master, and Christ humbly bowed His head. Christ’s humility opened up the heavens, and the voice of God the Father boomed forth: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). This is My Son, Who humbled Himself in order to fulfill My will, My true Son, Who humbles Himself in order to elevate mankind. Christ’s meekness opened the heavens and revealed to mankind the Trinitarian nature of God.

But why did He do this in water, and not someplace else? Let us remember how God created the universe. When God created the heavens and the earth, “the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:2). God then divided the firmament and the waters, but water remained everywhere, for it is required for all life. Man cannot live without water, nor can any creature; there is water (moisture) in the air; every handful of earth contains water; there is water in rock, even though we cannot see it, and when God wishes, water emerges from it, as it did with Moses. “The earth is the LORD’S, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein. For he hath founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods” (Psalms 24:1-2). “For this they willingly are ignorant of, that by the word of God the heavens were of old, and the earth standing out of the water and in the water: Whereby the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished (2 Peter 3:5-6).

When man sinned, he provoked God’s wrath not only upon himself but upon all of nature. Man is the crown of God’s Creation; he was given dominion over nature. When the king—mankind—became the enemy of the King Himself, his kingdom became the kingdom of the enemy. Punishment was brought down not only upon mankind, but upon nature as well. We know that “the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now” (Romans 8:22). But creation submitted to chaos not willingly, “but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope” (Romans 8:20). For this reason, the forgiveness of the guilty will emancipate all of creation from servitude to death. This mortal nature will end and it will be transformed to a new heaven and a new earth, “wherein dwelleth righteousness” (2 Peter 3:12-13). In order to facilitate this transformation, to prepare nature for immortality, which will take place after the Terrible Day of Judgment, Christ came into the waters of the Jordan.

Immersing Himself in the Jordan River, Christ not only sanctified the waters of the Jordan, but the very nature of water, as the Church exclaims in song: “Christ appeared in the Jordan to sanctify its waters” (troparion on Theophany Eve). And since water is found everywhere, then by sanctifying the water, Christ sanctified all of Creation, the entire universe. Christ prepared all of nature to experience the blessed consequence of sacrifice which He came to offer. But this is not all. He gave water the power to wash away the sin of mankind. Christian baptism is rebirth, forgiveness of all sins. With water, God punished the sins of early man and destroyed mankind in the Flood. Now, with water, God saves mankind in the Mystery of Baptism.

And so Christ crushed the head of the serpent in the waters of the Jordan, as we sing in church, the serpent which had deceived Adam and Eve, but was vanquished with the humility of Jesus; He revealed to mankind that God is Trinity, He sanctified the water, and through water He sanctified all of creation, preparing it to receive the words of forgiveness and immortality. And holding another victory over the devil in the wilderness, Christ went to prepare mankind for His future Kingdom, and began His ministry with the words: “Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17), or, as the Gospel also says: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15).

Until then, John the Baptist preached repentance, preparing the path for the Lord. Now the Lord Himself exclaims “Repent!” This word is addressed not only to those who lived in the time of Christ, but to all people in all places and ages. We hear this word in the Gospel. Even before the days of celebrating Theophany are over, the word reminds us that the time for repentance is near.

Let us be attentive! These are not the words of a prophet or an angel, but of the Lord Himself. Let us repent, and as Lent approaches, let us try to defeat our passions and receive forgiveness for our sins, so that we may spend eternity in the immortal Kingdom which the Lord has prepared for us. Amen!

Bitola, Serbia, 1928.

Lives of the Saints

January 1 – The Circumcision of Our Lord Jesus Christ

In keeping with the Law of Moses, the Savior’s parents had Him circumcised eight days after His birth (see Luke ch. 2). On this day, following Jewish custom, he received the name Jesus (Yeshua, a form of Joshua), meaning “God saves.” Thus, on this day, the Covenant of Moses was fulfilled and brought to an end, and the Salvation of God’s people was proclaimed to the world.

Our Father among the Saints Basil the Great (379).

In its services, the Church calls St Basil a “bee of the Church of Christ”: bringing the honey of divinely-inspired wisdom to the faithful, stinging the uprisings of heresy. He was born in Cappadocia to a wealthy and prominent family. Their worldly wealth, however, is as nothing compared to the wealth of Saints that they have given to the Church: his parents St Basil the Elder and St Emmelia; his sister St Macrina (July 19), the spiritual head of the family; and his brothers St Gregory of Nyssa (January 10), and St Peter, future bishop of Sebaste (January 9).

Inspired and tutored by his father, a renowned professor of rhetoric, the brilliant Basil set out to master the secular learning and arts of his day, traveling to Athens, where he studied alongside his life-long friend St Gregory of Nazianzus. When he returned from his studies in 356, he found that his mother and his sister Macrina had turned the family home into a convent, and that his brothers had also taken up the monastic life nearby. Puffed up by his secular accomplishments, he at first resisted his sister’s pleas to take up a life devoted to God, but at last, through her prayers and admonition, entered upon the ascetical life.

After traveling among the monks of Egypt, Palestine and Syria, he settled in Cappadocia as a hermit, living in utter poverty and writing his ascetical homilies. A monastic community steadily gathered around him, and for its good order St Basil wrote his Rule, which is regarded as the charter of monasticism. (St Benedict in the West was familiar with this Rule, and his own is modeled on it.)

In about 370 he was consecrated Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia. Even as bishop, he continued to live without any possessions save a worn garment to cover himself. At this time the Arian heresy was rending the Church, and it became St Basil’s lot to defend Orthodoxy in Sermons and writings, a task which he fulfilled with such erudition and wisdom that he is called “Basil the Great.” He reposed in peace in 379, at the age of forty-nine.

St Gregory, Bishop of Nazianzus (374), father of St Gregory the Theologian

He converted to Christianity from paganism as an adult through the influence of his pious wife St Nonna (Aug. 5). He was made Bishop of Nazianzus in Cappadocia in 329, and served faithfully for forty-five years, defending his flock against the inroads of Arianism and the persecutions of Julian the Apostate. Late in life, he ordained his son Gregory, later known as St Gregory the Theologian (Jan. 25) to assist him. He reposed in peace, aged almost 100.

In about 370 he was consecrated Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia. Even as bishop, he continued to live without any possessions save a worn garment to cover himself. At this time the Arian heresy was rending the Church, and it became St Basil’s lot to defend Orthodoxy in Sermons and writings, a task which he fulfilled with such erudition and wisdom that he is called “Basil the Great.” He reposed in peace in 379, at the age of forty-nine.

January 2 – St Seraphim of Sarov (1833)

“Saint Seraphim was born in the town of Kursk in 1759. From tender childhood he was under the protection of the most holy Mother of God, who, when he was nine years old, appeared to him in a vision, and through her icon of Kursk, healed him from a grave sickness from which he had not been expected to recover. At the age of nineteen he entered the monastery of Sarov, where he amazed all with his obedience, his lofty asceticism, and his great humility. In 1780 the Saint was stricken with a sickness which he manfully endured for three years, until our Lady the Theotokos healed him, appearing to him with the Apostles Peter and John. He was tonsured a monk in 1786, being named for the holy Hieromartyr Seraphim, Bishop of Phanarion (Dec. 4), and was ordained deacon a year later. In his unquenchable love for God, he continually added labours to labours, increasing in virtue and prayer with titan strides. Once, during the Divine Liturgy of Holy and Great Thursday he was counted worthy of a vision of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who appeared encompassed by the heavenly hosts. After this dread vision, he gave himself over to greater labours.

“In 1794, Saint Seraphim took up the solitary life in a cell in the forest. This period of extreme asceticism lasted some fifteen years, until 1810. It was at this time that he took upon himself one of the greatest feats of his life. Assailed with despondency and a storm of contrary thoughts raised by the enemy of our salvation, the Saint passed a thousand nights on a rock, continuing in prayer until God gave him complete victory over the enemy. On another occasion, he was assaulted by robbers, who broke his chest and his head with their blows, leaving him almost dead. Here again, he began to recover after an appearance of the most Holy Theotokos, who came to him with the Apostles Peter and John, and pointing to Saint Seraphim, uttered these awesome words, ‘This is one of my kind.’

“In 1810, at the age of fifty, weakened by his more than human struggles, Saint Seraphim returned to the monastery for the third part of his ascetical labours, in which he lived as a recluse, until 1825. For the first five years of his reclusion, he spoke to no one at all, and little is known of this period. After five years, he began receiving visitors little by little, giving counsel and consolation to ailing souls. In 1825, the most holy Theotokos appeared to the Saint and revealed to him that it was pleasing to God that he fully end his reclusion; from this time the number of people who came to see him grew daily. It was also at the command of the holy Virgin that he undertook the spiritual direction of the Diveyevo Convent. He healed bodily ailments, foretold things to come, brought hardened sinners to repentance, and saw clearly the secrets of the heart of those who came to him. Through his utter humility and childlike simplicity, his unrivalled ascetical travails, and his angel-like love for God, he ascended to the holiness and greatness of the ancient God-bearing Fathers and became, like Anthony for Egypt, the physician for the whole Russian land. In all, the most holy Theotokos appeared to him twelve times in his life. The last was on Annunciation, 1831, to announce to him that he would soon enter into his rest. She appeared to him accompanied by twelve virgins martyrs and monastic saints with Saint John the Baptist and Saint John the Theologian. With a body ailing and broken from innumerable hardships, and an unspotted soul shining with the light of Heaven, the Saint lived less than two years after this, falling asleep in peace on January 2, 1833, chanting Paschal hymns. On the night of his repose, the righteous Philaret of the Glinsk Hermitage beheld his soul ascending to Heaven in light. Because of the universal testimony to the singular holiness of his life, and the seas of miracles that he performed both in life and after death, his veneration quickly spread beyond the boundaries of the Russian Empire to every corner of the earth.

Upcoming Events

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

December, 2020


Focus on the Faith: The Adoration of the Magi

Joseph and the Most Holy Mother of God with the Infant Jesus were still in Bethlehem when Magi came to Jerusalem from a distant land to the east (Persia or Babylon). Learned men, engaged in observing and studying the stars, were called Magi or wise men. At that time, men believed that, at the birth of a great man, a new star appears in the sky. Many pagans within the confines of Persia, had learned from the dispersed Jews of the coming of the Messiah, the Great King of Israel. From the Jews, they could even have learned the following prophecy of Balaam relating to the Messiah: I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab (Num. 24:17). (“Moab” is understood here as a personification of the enemies of the Messiah.) The Persian Magi thus expected that, when the promised King would be born, a new star would appear in the sky. The prophecy of Balaam spoke of a star in the spiritual sense; nevertheless, the Lord, in His mercy, to bring the pagans to faith, gave a sign in the sky in the form of the appearance of an extraordinary star. Having seen it, the Magi understood that the expected King had been born.

After a protracted and long journey, they finally reached Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish kingdom, and began to ask: Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. These words from such conspicuous strangers, stirred up many of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, including King Herod, to whom the arrival of the exotic eastern scholars was immediately reported.

From the first days of his accession, Herod’s throne had been shaky. The people hated him as a usurper of the Davidic throne and a tyrant. The last years of Herod’s life were complicated still more by personal adversities and bloody reprisals. He became extremely suspicious, and for the least cause executed enemies both real and imagined. Thus perished several of Herod’s children and even his wife, whom earlier he had loved ardently. Sick and decrepit, Herod now resided in his new palace in Sion. Having heard of a King Who had been born, he became particularly agitated. Vulnerable in his old age, he feared that his rule would be overthrown and handed over to the new-born King.

In order to clear up just who this new pretender to the throne was, Herod gathered all the priests and scribes – men that knew the books of Sacred Scripture well – and he inquired of them where Christ should be born. They answered: In Bethlehem of Judæa: for thus it is written by the prophet Micah. Then Herod privately summoned the Magi, found out from them the time of the appearance of the star, and sent them on to Bethlehem. Feigning piety, the cunning Herod said to them: “Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.” In fact, Herod was going to use their report to put the Infant to death.

The Magi listened to King Herod without suspecting anything, and went to Bethlehem. There again that star appeared, which they had seen before in the east. Moving across the sky, it went before them, indicating the way. In Bethlehem, the star stopped over that spot where the Infant Jesus was, Who had been born.

The Magi went into the house and saw the Infant Jesus with His mother. They bowed down to the ground before Him and presented to Him their gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh (a precious aromatic oil). In the gifts of the Magi, one may see the following symbolic significance. They brought gold to Him, as to a King (as tribute or taxes); frankincense, as to God (incense is used at divine services); and myrrh, as to a Man Who must die (the dead were anointed with oils mixed with aromatic myrrh).

Having worshipped the King awaited by all, the Magi would have returned to Jerusalem and to King Herod. However, an angel appeared to them in a dream, revealing Herod’s perfidious designs, and commanded them to return to their own country by another way, without passing through Jerusalem. Tradition has preserved the names of the Magi, who afterwards became Christians: Melchior, Gaspar and Balthasar.

Thus, the first to worship the Saviour Who had been born were shepherds, nature’s true children, who could open up before Him only the treasure of their hearts, full of simplicity, faith and humility. Significantly later came the Magi from the East, imbued with erudite wisdom, who laid down gold, frankincense and myrrh, together with reverent joy, before the Divine Infant. They had had to make a long journey to reach Judæa, and even from Jerusalem they were not immediately able to find the birthplace of the King of the Jews. Does this not indicate that both simplicity of heart and profound, conscientious erudition lead equally to Christ? But the first way is more direct, short and sure than the second. The shepherds were guided directly by angels, while the Magi were “taught” by an unreasoning star, and, through Herod, by the scribes and the Jewish elders. Not without difficulties and dangers did they attain their desired goal, and they did not hear the heavenly harmony that sounded over the earth – Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will among men.

 

Orthopraxis: The Holy Supper of Christmas Eve

AMONG THE ORTHODOX PEOPLE of Carpatho-Russia there is a wonderful tradition of having a “Holy Supper” on Christmas Eve, just before going to Church for the Vigil. While the menu and details of the meal may be different from family to family and region to region, the general idea is as follows:

On Christmas Eve, the morning Vesperal Liturgy is celebrated. We keep a strict fast (no food or liquids) before this service and until Holy Communion. After the Liturgy we go home to prepare the meal. Back in the “old country,” twelve dishes are prepared, in honor of the Holy Apostles. The foods, prepared with oil, but without dairy products due to the fast, usually include fish, soup, stuffed cabbage, stewed prunes, mashed potatoes, honey, garlic, etc. The dining table is covered with a white linen cloth in memory of the swaddling clothes of Christ Child, and an extra place is set to receive a stranger, remembering that the Holy Family found no lodging in Bethlehem’s Inn.

In the center of the table is a large round loaf of bread, which symbolized Jesus as the Bread of Life. A tall candle is placed in the bread, as a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem. Straw is laid down on the floor and some of it also placed on the table or under the white tablecloth, symbolizing the fact that Jesus lay in a manger. The father greets everyone with the exclamation: “Christ is born!” And just as in Church, all answer “Glorify Him!” Wine is poured by the father, or the eldest, for a toast, recalling the act of our Lord Jesus at the Last Supper, and offered these words: “Grant, O God, that we may live to an even better Holy Night next year. May the Lord give good health to you, my dear wife, and to our children, to my good and bad neighbors, to my friends and enemies. May God bless all Christians here and abroad, and may He grant eternal memory and heaven to the departed. And above all, my Sweetest Jesus, born this day, bring peace, health and happiness!” All reply with the prayer: “Grant this, O Lord!” The mother sprinkles all the family members with Holy Water so that their minds and hearts would open to the meaning of the Birth of Christ. The father also takes Holy Water, sprinkling his livestock and household animals, and treating them to sugar or salt and plenty of feed. Many people wistfully feel that perhaps the animals speak at midnight on Christmas Eve. One would be fearful that they might complain to God if mistreated! Beware, those with livestock and pets.

After dipping her forefinger into honey in a bowl, the mother makes a sign of the cross on the foreheads of all present, including herself. The use of honey symbolizes her prayer that the lives of all present would be sweet without bitterness. After the Holy Supper, all then go to the Church for the evening Nativity Vigil, to hear the Psalms, the Troparion “Thy Nativity, O Christ our God…” the Kontakion “On this day the Virgin beareth…” the prophecy from Isaiah “God is with us” many other hymns, and of course, the Gospel of the birth of the Lord. Afterwards Carols are sung as all return home to prepare themselves for the Divine Liturgy on Christmas morning. Menu options: The traditional Holy Supper consists of twelve dishes in honor of the number of apostles. This is a fast day, so all dishes should be selected and prepared without meat, cheese, eggs or dairy products. In addition, small portions should be served in keeping with the character of fasting, this is not a feast. Feel free to build your own menu with additional appropriate dishes from your own family recipes.

From the Fathers

“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,” by St. Hilarion Troitsky, in Orthodox Word, 2009.)

Choir Director’s Corner

Right before the major services of Nativity, Theophany, and Good Friday, a service is done called the Royal Hours. The title originally referred to the fact that the emperor of Constantinople would always attend these services in preparation of the feast to come. They differ from normal hours in that there are added hymns and readings, and two of the prescribed psalms are replaced by psalms that are particular prophecies of the feast to follow.

In the ninth Royal Hour of both Nativity and Good Friday, there are particularly dramatic hymns that are repeated in other services of the feast. It is interesting to see how these hymns mirror each other, giving us something to contemplate and consider.

Upcoming Events

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

November, 2020


Focus on the Faith: Advent and the Nativity Fast

The Beginning of Advent

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,’ for 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 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 that one month, almost six weeks. We know how anxious we are when a birthday or name day is approaching; 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 announcement 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 to help us keep track of the days before Christmas. We can also start an Advent Chain of good deeds that can be used to adorn our Christmas Tree.

November 21

This day is a major feast which commemorates the Entrance of the Virgin into the Temple. It is a feast in honor of 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 service 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 Fathers

“The Twofold Coming of Jesus Christ”

from the Catechesis of Cyril of Jerusalem, 315-386 A.D.

We preach not one coming only of Jesus Christ, but a second also, far more glorious than the first. The first revealed the meaning of his patient endurance; the second brings with it the crown of the divine kingdom.

Generally speaking, everything that concerns our Lord Jesus Christ is twofold. His birth is twofold: one, of God before time began; the other, of the Virgin in the fulness of time. His descent is twofold: one, unperceived like the dew falling on the fleece; the other, before the eyes of all, is yet to happen.

In his first coming he was wrapped in swaddling clothes in the manger. In his second coming he is clothed with light as with a garment. In his first coming he bore the cross, despising its shame; he will come a second time in glory accompanied by the hosts of angels.

It is not enough for us, then, to be content with his first coming; we must wait in hope of his second coming. What we said at his first coming, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”, we shall repeat at his last coming. Running out with the angels to meet the Master we shall cry out in adoration, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’.

The Savior will come not to be judged again but to call to judgment those who called him to judgment. He who was silent when he was first judged, will indict the malefactors who dared to perpetrate the outrage of the cross, and say, ‘These things you did and I was silent’.

He first came in the order of divine providence to teach men by gentle persuasion; but when he comes again they will, whether they wish it or not, be subjected to his kingship.

The prophet Malachi has something to say about each of these comings. ‘The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple’. That is the first coming.

Again, of the second coming he says, ‘And the angel of the covenant whom you seek. Behold, the Lord almighty will come: but who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap; he will sit like a refiners and a purifier’. Paul pointed to the two comings when he wrote to Titus, ‘The grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men, training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright, and godly lives in the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ’. You see how he has spoken of the first coming, for which he gives thanks, and of the second to which we look forward.

Hence it is that by the faith we profess, which has just been handed on to you, we believe in him ‘who ascended into heaven and took his seat at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead; and his kingdom will have no end’.

Our Lord Jesus Christ will, then, come from heaven. He will come in glory at the end of this world on the last day. Then there will be an end to this world, and this created world will be made new.

Great-martyr Catherine the Great of Alexandria November 24/25*

Life of the Saint

“The Holy Great Martyr Catherine was the daughter of Constus, the governor of Alexandria in Egypt, during the reign of the emperor Maximian (305-313). Living in the capital, Catherine received a most splendid education, having studied the works of the finest philosophers and teachers. Young men from the most worthy families of the empire sought the hand of the beautiful Catherine, but none of them was chosen. She declared to her parents that she would only enter into marriage with someone who surpassed her in reputation, wealth, beauty and wisdom.

Catherine’s mother, a secret Christian, sent her for advice to her own spiritual father — a saintly elder pursuing prayerful deeds in solitude in a cave not far from the city. Having listened to Catherine, the elder said that he knew of a youth, who surpassed her in everything, such that “His beauty was more radiant than the shining of the sun, His wisdom governed all creation, His riches were spread throughout all the world “. The image of the Christ produced in the soul of the holy maiden an ardent desire to see Him. In parting, the elder handed Catherine an icon of the Mother of God with the God-Child Jesus on Her arm and bid her to pray with faith to Mary to show her a vision of Her Son.

Catherine prayed all night and was able to see the Most Holy Virgin who told Her Divine Son to look upon the kneeling Catherine before Them. But the Child turned His face away from her saying that He was not able to look at her because she was not yet washed with the waters of holy Baptism and not sealed with the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Catherine returned again to the elder deeply saddened. He lovingly received her, instructed her in the faith of Christ, admonished her to preserve her purity and integrity and to pray unceasingly; he then performed over her the sacrament of holy Baptism. And again Saint Catherine had a vision of the Most Holy Mother of God with Her Child. Now the Lord looked tenderly at her and gave her a ring — a wondrous gift of the Heavenly Bridegroom.

At this time the emperor Maximian was himself in Alexandria for a pagan feast day. Because of this, the feast was especially splendid and crowded. The cries of the sacrificial animals, the smoke and the smell of the sacrifices, the endless blazing of fires, and the bustling crowds at the arenas filled Alexandria. Human victims also were brought — because they chose to die in the fire rather than deny Christ under torture. The Saint’s love for the Christian martyrs and her fervent desire to lighten their fate impelled Catherine to go to the emperor-persecutor Maximian. Introducing herself, the saint confessed her Christian faith and with wisdom denounced the errors of the pagans. The beauty of the maiden captivated the emperor. In order to convince her and show the superiority of pagan wisdom, the emperor gave orders to gather 50 of the most learned men of the empire, but the Saint got the better of the wise men, such that they themselves came to believe in Christ. Saint Catherine sealed them with the sign of the cross, and they bravely accepted death for Christ and were burnt by order of the emperor.

Maximian, no longer hoping to convince the saint, tried to entice her with the promise of riches and fame. Having received a stern refusal, the emperor gave orders to subject the saint to terrible tortures and then throw her in prison. The Empress Augusta, who had heard much about Catherine, wanted to see her. Having succeeded in convincing the military-commander Porphyry to accompany her with a detachment of soldiers, Augusta went to the prison. The strong spirit of Saint Catherine, whose face glowed with Divine grace, impressed the empress. The holy martyr explained the teachings of the Christians to the people and they believed and were converted to Christ.

On the following day they again brought the her to the judgment hall where, under the threat of being tortured on a wheel of spikes and nails, they urged that she recant the Christian faith and offer sacrifice to the pagan idols. The saint steadfastly confessed Christ and she herself approached the wheel; but an Angel smashed the sharp implement, which broke up into pieces that hit the pagans who were near by. Having beheld this wonder, the empress Faustina Augusta and the imperial courtier Porphyry with 200 soldiers confessed their faith in Christ in front of everyone, and they were beheaded. Maximian again tried to entice Saint Catherine, proposing marriage to her, and again he received a refusal. She confessed her fidelity to the Heavenly Bridegroom Christ, and with a prayer to Him, she herself put her head on the block under the sword of the executioner and was beheaded. At her execution, milk flowed from her wounds instead of blood by the Grace of God.”

“Following her martyrdom, angels bore her body to the top of Mount Saint Catherine, The highest peak in Egypt, where they rested until they were translated to the katholicon of the Holy Monastery of Sinai. Here they continue to emit a sweet fragrance, and many miracles are wrought to this day. The veneration of Saint Catherine spread from the East to the West, especially after the translation of a portion of the relics of Saint Catherine to Rouen, France in the early eleventh century. Due to the numerous pilgrims to the monastery in Egypt, gradually there was a change of name: from the Holy Monastery of Sinai to that of Saint Catherine.

In the Monastery there is a marble sarcophagus containing the relics of Saint Catherine. It is located at the south side of the sanctuary in the katholicon. It is the work of a certain stone cutter named Procopius, who took nine years to complete the shrine in honor of Saint Catherine. This shrine replaced the earlier marble chest, which is preserved today in the monastery’s treasury. Inside the marble chest there are two precious reliquaries donated by the Russian Tsar. One enshrines the precious head of the martyr, and the other her left hand. The relics of Saint Catherine are brought out for the veneration of the faithful on special occasions, during which each pilgrim is given a silver ring bearing the monogram of the saint, in honor of the ring that Saint Catherine received from Christ. These are preserved by pilgrims as a blessing from the saint.”

Holy Great-martyr Catherine pray to God for us!

*Note: According to the ancient usage, Saints Catherine and Mercurius were celebrated on the 24th of November, whereas the holy Hieromartyrs Clement of Rome and Peter of Alexandria were celebrated on the 25th. The dates of the feasts of these Saints were switched by the Greek sphere of Orthodox Churches at the request of the Church and Monastery of Mount Sinai, so that the festival of Saint Catherine, their patron, might be celebrated more festively together with the Leave-taking of the Feast of the Entry of the Theotokos. The Slavic Churches continue to commemorate these Saints on their original dates.

Choir Director’s Corner: Veni Veni Emmanuel

During Advent at St. Nicholas, we sing “Veni Veni” or “O come O come Emmanuel” during the clergy communion for Sunday Liturgies.  Not all, but several OCA churches do this in the Diocese of the West.  It is a nod to the fact that the Orthodox Church existed in the West before the great schism, albeit with a different liturgical order, referred to now as the Western Rite (We are Eastern Rite by comparison).

“Veni Veni” is very ancient, with some references to it in the sixth century, and existing publications in the eighth. In its original form, it existed as a series of antiphons (with each verse forming a different antiphon) that were used after the Magnificat at Vespers (The Western Rite uses the Magnificat at Vespers, instead of at Matins which is our practice).  The Verses were sung in order from December 17th to December 23rd.

The antiphons are referred to as the “O Antiphons” because each verse begins with an “O” (like “O Come O Come Emmanuel).  Thus the antiphons were sung as follows:

17 December: O Sapientia (O Wisdom)
18 December: O Adonai (O Lord)
19 December: O Radix Jesse (O Root of Jesse)
20 December: O Clavis David (O Key of David)
21 December: O Oriens (O Dayspring)
22 December: O Rex Gentium (O King of the Nations)
23 December: O Emmanuel (O With Us is God)

The verses are sometimes arranged: Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia, form an acrostic which spells out ero cras which means “Tomorrow I will Come”, referring to the expectation of the coming of Christ to us.

At some point later, the antiphons were put together into a separate hymn with the refrain that we know today. Some later versions added some verses, which do not reflect the advent character of the hymn.  We have removed those in our version, seeking to restore it to the pre-schism version as closely as possible.

Those of us who grew up in Western churches recognize this hymn, like an old familiar friend, just like the Western saints in our commemorations.  In singing it, we signal the catholicity of the church: that Orthodoxy is universal, and not just Russian or Greek, just as the need for Emmanuel: God with us, is universal.

Upcoming Events

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

September, 2020


Focus on the Faith: Major Feasts of September

The Nativity of the Mother of God – September 8th

The first of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Church, the Nativity of Our Most Holy Lady the Theotokos, celebrates the birth of her from Whom God took flesh and became incarnate – our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Mother of God has been described by saints and prophets in various ways. She is the Golden Censer and the Ark all covered with gold (Hebrews 9:7.) She is the Fleece upon which the Dew (which is Christ) was pleased to descend (Judges 6:37.) She is the Staff of Aaron from which Christ the Flower blossomed (Numbers 17:8.) She is the thickly wooded Mountain of Thaemon from which Christ came (Micah 3:12 – 4:1.) She is the Jar in which the eternal Manna was contained (Exodus 16:33.) Her praises and descriptions are truly very numerous and point to Her exalted role as the human being with a central role in the Incarnation of our Lord, God and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

As it is the joy of Orthodox Christians to celebrate with splendor, the memory of the saints in church, we hymn the birth of the All-Holy Theotokos and also honor her parents, Ss. Joachim and Anna, who have their own feast day the day following. They are a great example and type of the Christian family.

We begin our participation in the new liturgical year, our participation in the Deifying Body of Jesus Christ through the Church and Her Mysteries by sharing the joy of Joachim and Anna, indeed the joy of humankind, in the birth of Her Who is the Mother of Joy, the Beacon of our Redemption and the Source of constant intercession before the Throne of Her Eternal Son. Through Her heavenly intercession, the Mother of God is with us and helps us still. As if to underline this, the Church honors a number of Her Miraculous Icons on this day as well, that is, Icons through which the Holy Spirit was pleased to bestow Divine Blessings on those who honour the Mother of God through them.

The Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross of the Lord – September 14

The Feast of the Universal Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross is celebrated each year on September 14. The Feast commemorates the finding of the True Cross of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by Saint Helen, the mother of the Emperor Constantine.

In the twentieth year of his reign (326), the Emperor Constantine sent his mother Saint Helen to Jerusalem to venerate the holy places and to find the site of the Holy Sepulchre and of the Cross. Relying upon the oral tradition of the faithful, Saint Helen found the precious Cross together with the crosses of the two thieves crucified with our Lord. However, Helen had no way of determining which was the Cross of Christ.

With the healing of a dying woman who touched one of the crosses, Patriarch Macarius of Jerusalem identified the True Cross of Christ. Saint Helen and her court venerated the Precious and Life-Giving Cross along with many others who came to see this great instrument of Redemption. The Patriarch mounted the ambo (pulpit) and lifted the Cross with both hands so that all of the people gathered could see it. The crowd responded with “Lord have mercy”. This became the occasion of the institution in all of the Churches of the Exaltation of the Precious Cross, not only in memory of the event of the finding of the Cross, but also to celebrate how an instrument of shame was used to overcome death and bring salvation and eternal life.

The Feast is an opportunity outside of the observances of Holy Week to celebrate the full significance of the victory of the Cross over the powers of the world, and the triumph of the wisdom of God through the Cross over the wisdom of this world. This Feast also gives the Church an opportunity to relish the full glory of the Cross as a source of light, hope and victory for Christ’s people. It is also a time to celebrate the universality of the work of redemption accomplished through the Cross: the entire universe is seen through the light of the Cross, the new Tree of Life which provides nourishment for those who have been redeemed in Christ.

From the Fathers

ON THE NATIVITY OF THE VIRGIN

“The present feastday is for us the beginning of feastdays. Serving as boundary limit to the law and to foretypes, it at the same time serves as a doorway to grace and truth. “For Christ is the end of the law” (Rom 10:4), Who, having freed us from the writing, doth raise us to spirit. Here is the end (to the law): in that the Lawgiver, having made everything, hath changed the writing in spirit and doth head everything within Himself (Eph 1:10), hath taken the law under its dominion, and the law is become subjected to grace, such that the properties of the law not suffer reciprocal commingling, but only suchlike, that the servile and subservient (in the law) by Divine power be transmuted into the light and free (in grace), “so that we—sayeth the Apostle—be not enslaved to the elements of the world” (Gal 4:3) and be not in a condition under the slavish yoke of the writing of the law. Here is the summit of Christ’s beneficence towards us! Here are the mysteries of revelation! Here is the theosis [divinisation] assumed upon humankind—the fruition worked out by the God-man.

The radiant and bright coming-down of God for people ought to possess a joyous basis, opening to us the great gift of salvation. Suchlike also is the present feastday, having as its basis the Nativity of the Mother of God, and as its purposeful end—the uniting of the Word with flesh, this most glorious of all miracles, unceasingly proclaimed, immeasurable and incomprehensible.” (Excerpt from St. Andrew of Crete, “Discourse on the Nativity of the Most Holy Mother of God”)

ON THE EXALTATION OF THE HOLY CROSS

Let us venerate the Cross of the Lord, offering our tender affection as the cypress, the sweet fragrance of our faith as the cedar, and our sincere love as the pine; and let us glorify our Deliverer who was nailed upon it.* (Wednesday Matins of the Fourth Week of Lent, Ode 7, Lenten Triodion)

* A reference to the three kinds of wood from which the Cross was made; cf. Isa. 60:13 (LXX). “And the glory of Mount Lebanon shall come to thee, with the cypress, and pine, and cedar together, to glorify my holy place.”

 

Orthopraxis: Preparing Ourselves for Holy Communion

Every Sunday, the Lord’s Day, and special feast days, we gather to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. Christ offers Himself to us in the Sacrament of Holy Communion, His very Body and Blood, for the remission of sins and life eternal. How does one prepare for Holy Communion? Such a great and sacred mystery, of course, requires certain attitudes and conditions for those who approach to partake of the Body and Blood of the Savior.

The following should be observed:

  1. A strict examination of conscience, St. Paul writes: “Let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that Bread and drink of that Cup.” (1 Cor. 11:28)
  2. Participate in the Holy Mystery of Confession regularly, at least once a month. If our examination of conscience reveals sins to us, then run to the priest and confess your sins and receive the forgiveness of God. Before receiving Holy Communion, we need to be first reconciled to God and our fellow man. (Matt. 5:23-26) Only then may we take courage to eat the Mystical Food. NONE of us is without sin. Private confession to ourselves is only lip-service to God, and the Church has known this from the beginning. But God is merciful and bestows peace and forgiveness on all who receive absolution from the Church.  “Be not afraid” say the prayers.
  3. Practice the fast of the tongue–refraining from foul language, avoiding gossip, abstaining from rude or angry speech, etc.
  4. Do charitable works as stewards for those in need and for His Church. Offer your pledge!
  5. Study the Holy Scriptures and the writings of the Holy Fathers for inspiration and spiritual profit.
  6. Prayer, repentance, confession, and fasting go hand in hand. a) Fast on Wednesday (in commemoration of the betrayal of Christ) and on Fridays (in commemoration of the Crucifixion of Christ).
  7. As part of our total spiritual preparation, we also fast during the prescribed fasting periods ordained by the Church leading up to the great feasts of the Church Year. For those who largely ignore the fasting days and seasons, a special period of strict fasting may be require before they are admitted to Holy Communion.
  8. The evening before should be set aside more specifically for one’s preparation, spiritually, mentally, and physically. Attend Vigil or Vespers the evening before, read the Pre-Communion prayers prescribed in the Prayer Book,* and retire early. Fast completely from food and drink**, and abstain from all things, entertainments, smoking, married couples abstain from conjugal relations, etc.), from midnight the evening before, until receiving Holy Communion.
  9. Before going to church, ask for mutual forgiveness from members of your family. Following the reception of Holy Communion, stand quietly and recite the prayers of Thanksgiving from your Prayer Book or Divine Liturgy book.
  10. Approach Holy Communion with the deepest sense of humility. Approach the chalice reverently, walking forward quietly and slowly.

Other Reminders:

Proper reception of Holy Communion presupposes full participation in the Liturgy. We should come to the Divine Liturgy on time, especially when preparing to receive Holy Communion. One should not approach for Holy Communion if he/she has come late. What’s late? Any time after the Liturgy has begun, but at least no later than the singing of “Holy God,” which is very late indeed.***

*Rule of Prayer According to the Practice of the Russian Orthodox Church, including the Canon and the Ten Prayers.

**If a medical reason precludes this discipline, consult with your priest.

***Special circumstances may mitigate this requirement. Consult with the priest in such a case.

Upcoming Events

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

August, 2020


Focus on the Faith: A Sermon on the Transfiguration

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Today our Lord’s human nature was transfigured by the Holy Spirit, proceeding from the Father, Whose voice witnessed to the Son’s divine nature. We are perhaps reminded of another Feast of the Church taken from the Holy Scriptures, where the divinity of Christ was also witnessed to by the Father and the Spirit proceeding from the Father – Theophany, the Baptism of Christ. Both these feasts have a great prominence in our Church, which has been lost outside Her, where people do not believe in the words of the Holy Scripture, that the Holy Spirit proceeds from God the Father alone. This Feast shows us firstly that the human and divine natures of Christ are united in One Person, secondly that therefore there is no unity without the Holy Spirit, and thirdly that our Saviour is Lord over Life and Death, for Moses, who died, worships Him, and Elijah, who did not die, also worships Him.

Today, however, I would like to point out an aspect of this Feast which is often overlooked: Mt Tabor, the ‘mountain’ where the Transfiguration occurred. This Mt Tabor is for us a figure of repentance. We note that, like the disciples, in order for us to see the transfiguration or to hope to be transfigured ourselves, we will first have to climb up, to mount, from our present condition. Otherwise any transfiguration or change for the better in our lives is impossible.

Now it is interesting that pilgrims who have been blessed to go to Mt Tabor and their photographs show us that Mt Tabor is not a mountain at all. It is rather a long, sloping hill with many obstacles, rocks and boulders, in the path of those who ascend it. And our transfiguration or salvation is like Mt Tabor. However hard we try, we will not be guaranteed salvation through a swift if arduous climb today. Salvation takes a lifetime, it is a long climb up a long slope, which is why the Lord gives most of us so long to live. Salvation is a long struggle which requires determination and perseverance, patient long-suffering. Our spiritual progress, then, is not sudden and dramatic. And there are many obstacles in our path in our daily struggle. To pick up our prayerbooks in the morning and again in the evening is a struggle and there are always obstacles in our path to even this: meals to prepare, trains to catch, phones that ring. Church life is indeed made up of little sacrifices, obstacles to overcome. There are prayers to say, fasts to be kept, a donation to be made, the clean-up to be done, flowers bought, the church cleaned, a choir rehearsal to go to, a vigil service to attend, a confession prepared.

As we come now towards the end of the Church’s Year, we may well ask ourselves what sacrifices have we made since this Feast last year? How far have we ascended up our own Mt Tabor? How have we changed, improved, over this last year? What have we done to lead a better life since then? How have we treated the poor, the homeless? What have we given God that we did not give Him before? It is this that we call progress: in what way am I a better Orthodox Christian than I was a year ago?

In our faith we are called to struggle daily, whatever the rocks or boulders in our way, whether they are pride or selfishness, lust or discouragement, envy or judging of others, we have to struggle to ascend our personal Mt Tabor, we have to fight for our personal transfiguration. That is why it is so important to come to confession and communion. If we do not do this, then the Church will move away from us. For we can both go up and go down a slope. We can spiritually progress, but we can also spiritually regress. We can be transfigured by the love of God or we can be disfigured by the love of sin. And like progress, regress is not sudden and dramatic, regress too is a slope, as we say, a slippery slope. Let us therefore take heed and give God what He really wants from us – our hearts and minds spiritually progressing. Amen. (Orthodox England)

From the Fathers

“No one is more blessed than the apostles, and especially these three, who even in the cloud were counted worthy to be under the same roof with the Lord. But if we desire it, we also shall behold Christ, not as they did back then on the mountain, but in far greater brightness. For He shall not appear like this hereafter. Back then, in order to spare His disciples, He revealed only so much of His brightness as they were able to bear; hereafter He shall come in the very glory of the Father, not with Moses and Elias only, but with the infinite host of the angels, with the archangels, with the cherubim, with those infinite tribes, not having a cloud over His head, but even heaven itself…”

St John Chrysostom (On the Transfiguration)

“Finally when blessed Mary having completed the course of this life, and was to be called from the world, all the Apostles gathered to her house from their different regions. And when they had heard that she was to be taken from the world, together they kept watch with her; a lo, the Lord Jesus came with His angels. Taking her soul, He gave it the the Archangel Michael and withdrew. At dawn the Apostles raised her body with a pallet and they placed it in a vault and they guarded it awaiting the coming of the Lord. And lo, a second time the Lord stood by them and he ordered the holy body to be taken and borne to Paradise; there having rejoined the soul exultant with His elect, it enjoys the good things of eternity which shall know no end.”

St Gregory of Tours (On the Dormition)

Orthopraxis: Why a Fast for Dormition?

by Reader Daniel Manzuk

It would be a gross understatement to say that much has been written about the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos. Yet very little has been written about the fast that precedes it.

Every Orthodox Christian is aware and generally knows the reason behind the fasts for Pascha and Christmas. But while they may know of the Dormition Fast, few follow it, and more than a few question why it is there, neither knowing its purpose. First, given the pervasive misunderstanding of the purpose of fasting itself, a refresher on its purpose is always a good idea. There is a perception that we should fast when we want something, as though the act of fasting somehow appeases God, and seeing us “suffer” gets Him to grant our request. Nothing can be further from the truth. It is not our fasting that pleases God, it is the fruits of our fast (provided we fast in the proper mind set, and do not merely diet) that please Him. We fast, not to get what we want, but to prepare ourselves to receive what God wants to give us. The purpose of fasting is to bring us more in line with another Mary, the sister of Lazarus, and away from their sister Martha, who in the famous passage was “anxious and troubled about many things.” Fasting is intended to bring us to the realization of “the one thing needful.” It is to help us put God first and our own desires second, if not last. As such it serves to prepare us to be instruments of God’s will, as with Moses in his flight from Egypt and on Mt. Sinai, as well as our Lord’s fast in the wilderness. Fasting turns us away from ourselves and toward God. In essence it helps us become like the Theotokos, an obedient servant of God, who heard His word and kept it better than anyone else has or could.

So why do we fast before Dormition? In a close-knit family, word that its matriarch is on her deathbed brings normal life to a halt. Otherwise important things (parties, TV, luxuries, personal desires) become unimportant; life comes to revolve around the dying matriarch. It is the same with the Orthodox family; word that our matriarch is on her deathbed, could not (or at least should not) have any different effect than the one just mentioned. The Church, through the Paraklesis Service, gives us the opportunity to come to that deathbed and eulogize and entreat the woman who bore God, the vessel of our salvation and our chief advocate at His divine throne. And as, in the earthly family, daily routines and the indulgence in personal wants should come to a halt. Fasting, in its full sense (abstaining from food and desires) accomplishes this. Less time in leisure or other pursuits leaves more time for prayer and reflection on she who gave us Christ, and became the first and greatest Christian. In reflecting on her and her incomparable life, we see a model Christian life, embodying Christ’s retort to the woman who stated that Mary was blessed because she bore Him: blessed rather are those who hear His word and keep it. Mary did this better than anyone. As Fr. Thomas Hopko has stated, she heard the word of God and kept it so well, that she of all women in history was chosen not only to hear His Word but give birth to it (Him). So while we fast in contemplation of her life, we are simultaneously preparing ourselves to live a life in imitation of her. That is the purpose of the Dormition Fast.

“When the assumption of thine undefiled body was being prepared, the Apostles gazed on thy bed, viewing thee with trembling. Some contemplated thy body and were dazzled, but Peter cried out to thee in tears, saying, I see thee clearly, O Virgin, stretched out, O life of all, and I am astonished. O thou undefiled one, in whom the bliss of future life dwelt, beseech thy Son and God to preserve thy people unimpaired.”

(Sticheron after the Gospel, Matins)
Daniel Manzuk is a reader at the Church of the Virgin Mary in Alsip, IL.

Lives of Saints

Choir Director’s Corner: The Paraklesis during the Dormition Fast

Many of you remember that in previous years, we frequently (if not daily) met in the temple in the evening during the fast and prayed the Paraklesis to the Most Holy Theotokos.  The center of this service is the same canon that we read as part of the rule of preparation for Holy Communion from the prayer book, but with extra prayers, a gospel, and other beautiful verses.

You can do this service in your prayer corner at home! This is an excellent way, in addition to the fast, to prepare for the feast of Dormition.

Here is the text of the service to download and print or place in your tablet device.

If you don’t know the melodies, you can just “plainchant” it on a single note, or read it silently.

Here is a YouTube video by Eikona that you can pray along with, and learn some of the Greek melodies:

 

 

Upcoming Events

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

Liturgy on August 9th is for St. Herman of Alaska!