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Focus on the Faith: On The Meeting of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the Temple
Commemorated on February 2
Today the Church commemorates an important event in the earthly life of our Lord Jesus Christ (Luke 2:22-40). Forty days after His birth the God-Infant was taken to the Jerusalem Temple, the center of the nation’s religious life. According to the Law of Moses (Lev. 12:2-8), a woman who gave birth to a male child was forbidden to enter the Temple of God for forty days. At the end of this time the mother came to the Temple with the child, to offer a young lamb or pigeon to the Lord as a purification sacrifice. The Most Holy Virgin, the Mother of God, had no need of purification, since she had given birth to the Source of purity and sanctity without defilement. However, she humbly fulfilled the requirements of the Law.
At this time the righteous Elder Simeon (February 3) was living in Jerusalem. It had been revealed to him that he would not die until he should behold the promised Messiah. By inspiration from above, Saint Simeon went to the Temple at the very moment when the Most Holy Theotokos and Saint Joseph had brought the Infant Jesus to fulfill the Law.
The God-Receiver Simeon took the divine Child in his arms, and giving thanks to God, he spoke the words repeated by the Church each evening at Vespers: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people, a light to enlighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32). Saint Simeon said to the Most Holy Virgin: “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be spoken against. Yea, a sword shall pierce through your own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35).
At the Temple was the 84-year-old widow Anna the Prophetess, daughter of Phanuel (February 3), “who did not leave the temple, but served God with fasting and prayers night and day. She arrived just when Saint Simeon met the divine Child. She also gave thanks to the Lord and spoke of Him to all those who were looking for redemption in Jerusalem” (Luke 2:37-38). In the icon of the Feast she holds a scroll which reads: “This Child has established Heaven and earth.”
Before Christ was born, righteous men and women lived by faith in the promised Messiah, and awaited His coming. The Righteous Simeon and the Prophetess Anna, the last righteous people of the Old Testament, were deemed worthy to meet the Savior in the Temple.
The Feast of the Meeting of the Lord is among the most ancient feasts of the Christian Church. We have sermons on the Feast by the holy bishops Methodius of Patara (+ 312), Cyril of Jerusalem (+ 360), Gregory the Theologian (+ 389), Amphilocius of Iconium (+ 394), Gregory of Nyssa (+ 400), and John Chrysostom (+ 407).
Orthopraxis: Blessing Candles on The Feast of the Presentation or “Candlemas”
The custom of blessing candles on the Feast of the Presentation has roots in venerable antiquity. As recorded in The Chronicle of St. Theophanes, Emperor Justinian I had issued an order in 541 A.D. that on the Feast of the Presentation, a candle-light procession be held throughout the city to implore Divine Protection against pestilence and the numerous earthquakes that plagued the city. And in answer to this holy gesture, God caused the pestilence and the earthquakes to subside. This gave rise to having similar processions on other occasions when the common welfare of the people was in danger.
These solemn processions later developed into the Litiya services held in the churches. The faithful, however, continued to light candles in their homes as a means of Divine protection. This prompted the blessing of candles on the Feast of the Presentation which then were distributed to the faithful.
In homes, the blessed candles are lighted and placed before a holy icon in time of serious sickness or the threat of a storm to implore Divine protection, as the family is gathered in prayer. In some places, a candle blessed on the Feast of the Presentation is used when the Last Rites of the Church are administered to a member of the family. It can also be placed into the hand of the dying as the priest recites “The Prayers for the Departure of the Soul,” sending him to God as a light-bearer and a ” champion of Faith” (St. John Chrysostom, Hom. on Hebr., IV, 7).
From the Fathers
When the righteous Simeon, who received Christ in his arms at the temple, saw the child, he knew immediately that this was the Redeemer promised by all of Israel’s prophecies, for the elder was inspired by the Holy Spirit (Luke 2:26-27). Being inspired, he himself uttered prophetic words which form the hymn sung or chanted at the end of every Vespers service: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word; for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation which Thou hast prepared before the face of Thy people, a light to lighten the gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32).
This particular feast is part of the great celebration that began forty days prior, with the Nativity of Christ (December 25). Eight days later (January 1) we remembered the Circumcision of Christ and then His Baptism (January 6). The commemoration of these events in our Lord’s earthly life basically form one feast, the feast of the Incarnation of God the Word.
(Archbishop Dmitry of Dallas)
Upcoming events in February (see the online calendar for updates or the attached PDF for more info)
Focus on the Faith: On Holy Theophany
St. Hippolytus of Rome (+236) wrote:
“What more vital gift is there than the element of water? For with water all things are washed and nourished, and cleansed and bedewed… Nor is this the only thing that proves the dignity of the water. But there is also that which is more honourable than all—the fact that Christ, the Maker of all, came down as the rain, and was known as a spring, and diffused Himself as a river, and was baptized in the Jordan.”
The Holy Theophany of our Lord, God, and Saviour Jesus Christ, is a commemoration of His great light, which manifested itself at the Jordan River, bringing light and life to all of us who were sitting in darkness.
“Theophany” literally means the “shining forth of God.” After Pascha and Pentecost, Theophany is considered the third greatest feast of our Orthodox Church. St. Cyril of Alexandria (+444) wrote that the beginning of the world, according to the Old Testament, was water. The beginning of the renewal or regeneration of the world, according to the Gospel, was also water, the water of the Jordan, when the Most Holy Trinity was revealed, and the Father spoke from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Then, the Holy Spirit appeared, in the form of a dove, hovering over the waters, just as the Spirit hovered over the waters in Genesis. St. John the Forerunner bore witness saying: “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” Christ our Lord took on our flesh, and the sin of the world, so that we, His children, might recognize our need for repentance, and so doing, behold the Lamb of God.
May all of us be blessed during this New Year to behold the Lamb of God, commending ourselves, and each other, and all our lives to Him. Being illumined by the Light of the Holy Theophany, let us eagerly embrace the warm and life-giving rays of the Lord’s Divine Dispensation for us unworthy ones.
A Blessed and spiritually rewarding New Year to all, and to all: Many Years!
Archpriest Basil Rhodes
Orthopraxis: Theophany House Blessings
Houses are traditionally blessed with “Theophany water” each year. A house can be blessed at any time, but the usual season for yearly blessings is from Theophany until the beginning of the Lenten Triodion, which begins four Sundays before Great Lent begins. This is not a hard and fast rule, but a good rule of thumb.
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When a home is blessed, the priest brings everything needed for the blessing:
- Holy water
- A “krupilla” (brush for dispersing the holy water),
- Bowl for the water
- Theophany icon.
Many pious homes supply a bowl, candles and the family Theophany icon.
The family should provide the priest with a list of all family members, living and deceased.
The bowl and icon should be placed on a clean table with a cloth on it, preferably near the family icon corner. It is good for candles to be lit. The house should be clean, with all radios and televisions off.
The priest will bless all rooms of the house. Lights should be “on” and doors opened. The procession for the house blessing should be led by the eldest member of the house carrying the candle. In homes with children, it is always good for the little ones to carry a candle or a small cross and participate in the procession.
The basic order for a simple home blessing is as follows:
- The bowl of water, icon and lit candles are placed on a clean table. IF there is a home censer, it may be lit.
- The priest begins the service with a blessing and the Trisagion prayers (O heavenly King through the “Our Father”.)
- After this the entire home is blessed, with the family walking with the priest holding candles and the Theophany icon while the Theophany Troparion is sung over and over:
When Thou, O Lord wast baptized in the Jordan, / the worship of the Trinity
was made manifest; / for the voice of the Father bore witness to Thee, / and
called Thee His beloved Son. / And the Spirit in the form of a dove /
confirmed the truthfulness of His word. / O Christ our God, Who hast appeared
unto us // and hast enlightened the world, glory to Thee.
(It is a very good idea for the family to sing this troparion, and know it by heart.)
- Upon finishing blessing the house, the family gathers again at the table, and a short litany is said for the welfare of the family. The priest should have been provided a list of all family members’ names, especially those who are ill. A list of Orthodox dead may also be included.
- After this a short prayer is said, and the service is ended.
Note: When the priest visits, it is never required that the family gives him an “honorarium.” The scripture tells us “Freely you have received, freely give.” However, it is a pious custom among among Orthodox Christians to give the priest a donation at this time, but this should never be thought of as a requirement. The priest comes to the home because he wants God’s blessing to be upon it, and to know those in his flock better and to be available to them.
From the Fathers
“As thou takest thy seat at table, pray. As thou liftest the loaf, offer thanks to the Giver. When thou sustainest thy bodily weakness with wine, remember Him Who supplies thee with this gift, to make thy heart glad and to comfort thy infirmity. Has thy need for taking food passed away? Let not the thought of thy Benefactor pass away too. As thou art putting on thy tunic, thank the Giver of it. As thou wrappest thy cloak about thee, feel yet greater love to God, Who alike in summer and in winter has given us coverings convenient for us, at once to preserve our life, and to cover what is unseemly. Is the day done? Give thanks to Him Who has given us the sun for our daily work, and has provided for us a fire to light up the night, and to serve the rest of the needs of life. Let night give the other occasion of prayer. When thou lookest up to heaven and gazest at the beauty of the stars, pray to the Lord of the visible world; pray to God the Arch-artificer of the universe, Who in wisdom hath made them all. When thou seest all nature sunk in sleep, then again worship Him Who gives us even against our wills release from the continuous strain of toil, and by a short refreshment restores us once again to the vigour of our strength. Let not night herself be all, as it were, the special and peculiar property of sleep. Let not half thy life be useless through the senselessness of slumber. Divide the time of night between sleep and prayer. Nay, let thy slumbers be themselves experiences in piety; for it is only natural that our sleeping dreams should be for the most part echoes of the anxieties of the day. As have been our conduct and pursuits, so will inevitably be our dreams. Thus wilt thought pray without ceasing; if thought prayest not only in words, but unitest thyself to God through all the course of life and so thy life be made one ceaseless and uninterrupted prayer.”
+ St. Basil the Great, from Homily V. In martyrem Julittam, quoted in the Prolegomena in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series II Volume 8
Upcoming events in January (see the online calendar for updates or the attached PDF for more info)
Focus on the Faith: Some Thoughts About Christmas
by Archpriest Basil Rhodes
The late and ever-memorable Mitred Archpriest George Benigsen, former Rector of our St Nicholas Church in Saratoga, once said in a Christmas sermon:
“When a child is born, people often say that he resembles his mother. Here, for the first and only time in history, one can say that the mother resembled the Child, in Whose image she was created.”
It only happened once in history, when there was no need to look up into the heavens to thank God for a newborn child. When THIS Child rested in her arms, the Virgin Mary gazed DOWN at heaven to give thanks. He was born next to fields where sheep were grazing. He was born in the filthiest place on earth, in a stable. Have you ever been in a stable? Have you ever mucked out a stall or visited a dairy farm? Flies, stench, filth. Present in the Bethlehem cave-stable were an ox, and a donkey, fulfilling the word of the Lord through the Prophet Isaiah “The ox knows his owner, and the donkey his master’s crib: but Israel does not know me, and these people have not regarded me.” That’s why we always see those animals in the icons of Christ’s Nativity. They’re cute, but they are still animals. They represent our fallen, animal-like nature which nature was brought about by sin. The ox represents brutishness, and the donkey stubbornness. Isn’t that us? Aren’t we slaves of our passions and lusts, guided by base instincts? And stubborn? Aren’t we stubborn? Christ was born there, in that place of animals, to show that He had come to save exactly us! He Who was perfect beauty, the One who will later be led like a sheep to the slaughter, was born among the sheep. The One who was, Himself, the Bread of Life came down from heaven to be born in a place where animals came to eat. St. John of Kronstadt asks:“Why, and for what reason, was there such humble self-abasement [shown] on the part of the Creator toward His transgressing creatures – toward humanity which, through an act of its own will had fallen away from God, its Creator? It was by reason of a supreme, inexpressible mercy toward His creation on the part of the Master, Who could not bear to see the entire race of mankind…enslaved by the devil and thus destined for eternal suffering and torment.”
Let’s look, for a moment, at this choice made by God for our salvation. The Gospel tells us that “there was no place at the inn.” But there was a place in the stable with the manger. The comfy “inn” represents a place where people of the world, people with money, congregate. It is a false home away from their true home. It is a place where secret sins abound. It represents the center of earthly moods, the meeting place for the popular ones, the achievers. The stable and the manger, in contrast, are the place for the despised, the rejected, the forgotten ones. If the world was truly expecting the Birth of Christ, it would have looked for Him at the Inn. The cave-stable and the manger would have been the last place they would look for Him. This is exactly why they don’t find Him. The Divine is always there, but only a few find Him.
The incarnate Son of God had to enter His own world not through the front entrance but from the back door, the servants’ door. He was born in a cave under the earth, and laid in a manger, that feeding trough for the animals. There, He shook the earth to its foundations. He was born in a cave; therefore, all who come to Him must stoop to enter in, thus signifying their own need to be humble. Have any of you been to Bethlehem? Have you been to the ancient Church of the Nativity? You still have to bow down, don’t you? Anyway, the proud ones would refuse to stoop down to enter the cave, and, therefore, they pass by and miss God. However, those who know how to humble their ego, DO stoop down and enter, and suddenly find themselves not in a cave but in a new world, where the Child-God sits in His mother’s lap and His frail Child’s fingers rule the universe.
And all of this, dear ones, He does for us. Perhaps St. Ambrose of Milan said it best:
“He was a baby, He was a child, so that you might grow into a mature, perfected human being; He was wrapped in swaddling clothes, That you might be loosed from the bonds of death; He was laid in a manger, so that you might stand before the altar; He came to dwell on earth, so that you might dwell in the stars. There was no place for Him in the inn, So that you might have many mansions in Heaven. He, being rich, became poor for your sakes, that through His poverty you might become rich. Therefore, His poverty is my inheritance, and the Lord’s weakness is my power. He chose to have nothing Himself, that He might give everything to all” (Saint Ambrose of Milan, 4th century).
Orthopraxis: Why Do We Decorate with “Holy and Ivy” for Christmas?
Many Western customs and traditions are easily adaptable and adoptable by Orthodox Christians in our celebration of the Nativity of Christ. Many of these customs long predate the schism between East & West, so let’s look at a couple of these.
Long before holly was hung in houses to accompany Christmas trees, it was considered to be a sacred plant by our pre-Christian ancestors. While other plants wilted and died in the harsh winter weather, holly remained green and strong, its berries a brightly colored red in the harshest of conditions. Some of them even regarded holly as a symbol of eternal life and would hang it in their homes to ward off evil. In Druid lore, cutting down a holly tree would bring about terrible misfortune. In contrast, hanging the plant in homes was believed to bring good luck and protection.
Early Christian calendars mark Christmas Eve as the time for “templa exornatur,” meaning “churches are decked,” so many Christians “converted” the pre-Christian symbolism of holly to reflect Christian beliefs. Today, Christians consider holly symbolic of Jesus Christ in two ways. The red berries represent the blood that Jesus shed on the cross on the day he was crucified. Legend states that holly berries were originally white, but that the blood Christ shed for the sins of humankind stained the berries forever red. A holly’s pointed leaves symbolize the crown of thorns placed on Jesus’ head before he died on the cross.
Ivy is another evergreen plant that can survive even in winter’s cold. Symbolically, ivy has to cling to something to support itself in order to grow upwards towards heaven. This reminds us that we, too, need to cling to God for our own spiritual growth and ascent.
From the Fathers
“The Nativity of Christ.—He has come upon earth, He Who in the beginning created us from earth and breathed His Divine breath into us; He has come Who “giveth to all life, and breath, and all things” (Acts xvii. 25.); He has come, He Who by a single word called all things visible and invisible from non-existence into existence, Who by a word called into being birds, fishes, quadrupeds, insects, and all creatures, existing under His almighty providence and care; He has come, He Whom the innumerable hosts of Angels continually and joy. And in what humility has He come! He is born of a poor Virgin, in a cave, wrapped in poor swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger. Riches, honours, glory of this world! fall down, fall down in humility, tearful devotion, and deep gratitude before the Saviour of men, and share your riches with the poor and needy. Do not pride yourselves on your visionary, fleeting distinctions, for true distinction can only be found in virtue. Glory of this world! learn here, before the manger, your vanity. Thus, let us all humble ourselves; let us all fall down in the dust before the boundless humility and exhaustion of the Sovereign of all, of God, Who has come to heal our infirmities, to save us from pride, vanity, corruption, and every sinful impurity.”
(St. John of Kronstadt, “My Life in Christ.”)
“When God became known to us in the flesh, He neither received the passions of human nature, nor did the Virgin Mary suffer pain, nor was the Holy Spirit diminished in any way, nor was the power of the Most High set aside in any manner, and all this was because all was accomplished by the Holy Spirit. thus the power of the Most High was not abased, and the child was born with no damage whatsoever to the mother’s virginity.”
(St. Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius, Hom. II, PG 45, 492)
Today the Bountiful One impoverished Himself for our sake;
So, rich one, invite the poor to your table.
Today we receive a Gift for which we did not ask;
So let us give alms to those who implore and beg us.
This present Day cast open the heavenly doors to our prayers;
Let us open our door to those who ask our forgiveness.
Today the DIVINE “I AM” took upon Himself the seal of our humanity,
In order for humanity to be decorated by the Seal of DIVINITY.
(St. Isaac Syrian, Nativity Sermon)
Upcoming events in December (see the online calendar for updates or the attached PDF for more info)
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)