Livestreaming services from St. Nicholas this weekend.

Dear Faithful Parishioners & Friends of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Saratoga,

Glory to Jesus Christ!

In spite of the current lockdown, we will be Live-Streaming two services for your edification and consolation on our parish Facebook Page:

Tonight (3/21/20) at 5:00 pm: Molieben in Time of Devastating Epidemic and Death-bearing Pestilence

Tomorrow (3/22/20) at 10:00 am: Akathist to the Spiritual Ladder, the Precious Cross

Fr. Basil

March, 2020

Focus on the Faith: The Holy Forty Day Fast

The most ancient Christian writers unanimously testify that the Holy Forty Day Fast was established by the apostles in imitation of the forty-day fast of Moses (Exodus 34), Elijah (3 Kings 19), and mainly by the example of Jesus Christ fasting for forty days (Mt. 4: 2). Ancient Christians have observed the time of the Holy Forty Days as the season of the commemoration of the Suffering of the Savior on the Cross, anticipating the days of this commemoration, so that, strongly imitating His self-renunciation and His self-denial, these ascetical feats would show the living participation and love on the part of the Savior, who suffers for the world, and that before all this to be morally cleansed for the time of the solemn commemoration of the passion of Christ and His glorious resurrection. The very name of the Holy Forty Days is met rather frequently in the most ancient written monuments with the indication of the purpose of its establishment. “Do not neglect the Forty Days,” wrote St. Ignatius the God-bearer in his epistle to Philippians: “for it establishes the imitation of the life in Christ”. St. Ambrose of Milan spoke even more clearly: “The Lord has blessed us with the Forty Day Fast. He created it for our salvation to teach us to fast not in words only, but also by example”. Ss. Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa assert that the Holy Forty Day Fast existed everywhere during their time. According to the Apostolic Canons (Canon 69) the Holy Forty Day Fast is considered obligatory and its observance is protected by strict punishment. St. Hippolytus (3 century) serves as the indisputable witness of the antiquity of this fast and the paschal cycle traced to his See, containing the instruction from antiquity of the custom to stop the Holy Forty Days Fast on Sundays. On the basis of all traditions of the Holy Apostles, our Holy Church, through her holy fathers and teachers, always considered the Holy Forty Day Fast an apostolic establishment. As the Blessed Jerome, on behalf of all Christians of his time said: “we fast for the Forty Days according to the apostolic tradition.” St. Cyril of Alexandria repeatedly reminds us in his writings, that it is necessary to piously observe the Holy Forty Day Fast, according to the apostolic and gospel traditions…

“The more days of the fast,” teaches the blessed Augustine, “the better the healing. The longer the abstention, the more bountiful is the salvation. God, the Physician of our souls, established the proper time for the pious to give praise, for the sinners to pray; for some to seek rest, for others to ask forgiveness. The time of the Holy Forty Days is proper, neither too short for giving praise, nor too long for seeking mercy. Holy and saving is the course of the Holy Forty Days by which the sinner is led through repentance to charity, and through piety to rest. During its days God is supremely propitious, needs are met, piety is rewarded”. “The holy fathers”, teaches St. John Chrysostom, “appointed forty days of fast in order that during these days the people, having been carefully cleansed through prayer, fasting and confession of sins, will approach Holy Communion with a pure conscience “.

According to the teaching of the Venerable Dorotheos of Gaza, “God has given these holy days (the Forty Holy Days) so that those who struggle, with attention and wise humility, who tend to themselves and repent, will be cleansed of the sins which were committed during the whole year. Then their souls will be released from that burden, and being cleansed, will attain the holy day of the Resurrection and without condemnation, receive the Holy Mysteries, having become a new person through repentance in this holy fast”.

Sergius V. Bulgakov: “ Handbook for Church Servers,” Kharkov, 1900

Orthopraxis: Traditions Concerning the First Week of the Fast

Clean Monday -Καθαρή Δευτέρα in Greek- refers to the leaving behind of sinful attitudes and non-fasting foods. The entire first week of Great Lent is often referred to as “Clean Week,” and it is customary to go to Church Services every day during this week, and also to clean one’s house thoroughly.

Strictly observant Orthodox hold this day (and also Clean Tuesday and Wednesday) as a strict fast day, on which no solid food at all is eaten. Others will eat only in the evening, and then only xerophagy (lit. “dry eating”; i.e. eating uncooked foodstuffs such as fruit, nuts, halva, fasting bread and honey, etc.).

The theme of Clean Monday is set by the Old Testament readings appointed to be read at the Sixth Hour on this day. Isaiah 1:1-20 says in part: “Wash yourselves and ye shall be clean; put away the wicked ways from your souls before Mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do good. Seek righteousness, relieve the oppressed, consider the fatherless, and plead for the widow. Come then, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: Though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white as snow; and though they be red like crimson, I will make them white as wool. If then ye be willing, and obedient unto Me, ye shall eat the good of the land. But if ye desire not, nor will obey Me, the sword shall devour you, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (v. 16-20). Genesis 1:1-13 is also read to imply that this is a time of renewal and new beginnings. The reading from Proverbs 1:1-20 instructs us towards clean and sober living through the use of wisdom, the beginning of which is “the fear of the Lord.” The clearest piece of advice given says: “My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent.”

The Three Day Fast

For those who are able and willing, it is encouraged by the Church to keep a three day strict fast where neither food or water (if possible) is consumed until Clean Wednesday when one partakes of Holy Communion at the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy. This is an excellent way to mark the beginning of a holy struggle against one’s passions and weaknesses.

Abstaining from all food and drink for three days will help us approach the Lord on a deeper level than ever before. It will also help us to see and know ourselves on a deeper level. During these three days one will observe that they will be able to more clearly see their weaknesses, their passions, their spiritual poverty, and their nakedness of all the virtues, the dark abyss within, and the inner ugliness. Physically one will recognize how truly weak the flesh is even when the spirit is willing. This humbling attitude is a prerequisite to a successful fast. It is also a motivating factor for the rest of Great Lent as well as the entire spiritual life in general.

From the Fathers


We know that Moses fasted while he climbed the mountain; otherwise, without having been fortified by fasting, he would not have dared to draw near to the smoking summit and enter into the cloud. It is through fasting that he received the commandments written on tablets by the finger of God. Likewise, while on the mountain, fasting obtained the gift of the law; while below, gluttony led the people to idolatry and defilement. Scripture tells us that the people sat down to eat, and drink, and they rose up to play. The effort of the servant of God, persevering for 40 days in the continual practice of fasting and prayer, was made pointless and unnecessary by one single day of drunkenness by the people. Fasting received the tablets written by the finger of God; drunkenness broke them. The holy prophet judged that a people drunk with wine was not worthy to receive the law of God. Because of gluttony, in one moment, these people formed in the worship of God by the greatest miracles, plunged headlong into Egyptian idolatry.

In comparing these two events, we can see that fasting leads to God, but pleasure to the loss of salvation. What dishonored Esau and made him the servant of his brother? Was it not for one dish of lentils that he sold his birthright? But was it not through fasting that Samuel’s mother conceived him? What made the very strong Samson invincible, if not fasting, through which he was conceived in the womb of his mother? Fasting conceived him; fasting nourished him; fasting made him a man. The angel prescribed fasting to his mother, telling her to abstain from all that came from the vine, and to drink neither wine, nor any other fermented drink. Fasting thus engendered the prophets; it strengthened and fortified heroes.

Fasting makes wise legislators; it is the best guardian of the soul, a sure companion of the body, a weapon for brave men, exercise for athletes and wrestlers. Furthermore, fasting takes away temptations. It reinforces piety, a companion of sobriety, and the architect of temperance. It gives courage in times of war and teaches tranquility in times of peace. It sanctifies the Nazirite [a form of consecration to God in the Old Testament] and perfects the priest, since it is not permissible to approach the sacrifice without fasting, not only now for the true and sacramental adoration of God, but even for that other worship that was the figurative sacrifice offered according to the law. It was fasting that brought Elias his great vision; because it was after having purified his soul through a 40-day fast that, in a cave, he merited to see God as much as a man may be permitted. Moses, in order to receive the law a second time, observed a fast a second time. If the Ninevites, and their animals as well, had not fasted, they would never have escaped the threat of ruin. [As told in the book of Jonas.] While in the wilderness, who was it who fell, except those who greedily desired meat? (See Numbers 11.)”

Choir Director’s Corner: Do WHAT to the infants?

You may have noticed that we have added a hymn during clergy communion, and at the end of Vespers, based on psalm 136:

By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and we wept when we remembered Sion.
Upon the willows in the midst thereof did we hang our instruments.
For there, they that had taken us captive asked us for words of song.
And they that had led us away asked us for a hymn, saying: Sing us one
of the songs of Sion.
How shall we sing the Lord?s song in a strange land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten.
Let my tongue cleave to my throat, if I remember thee not,
If I set not Jerusalem above all other, as at the head of my joy.
Remember, O Lord, the sons of Edom, in the day of Jerusalem,
Who said: Lay waste, lay waste to her, even to the foundations thereof.
O daughter of Babylon, thou wretched one, blessed shall he be who shall
reward thee wherewith thou hast rewarded us.
Blessed shall he be who shall seize and dash thine infants against the rock.

The psalm is one written in captivity, and speaks to us about our captivity – to the passions. Some folks are jarred (especially if we don’t know the reason why the Church gives us these things) by the rather violent imagery of the last verse. This psalm can be read on an historical as well as an allegorical level.

On the historical level, the last verse is discussing a grim reality of pre-technological and tribal warfare. If your tribe went and attacked a town, presumably killing the men, and taking spoils, the infants were the ones that were going to grow up and take revenge on you if you left them alive. So killing them with the adults was a way to stop that. Lest you think that such imagery is unthinkable in our day, consider little Vito Corleone in “Godfather II.” The Sicillian gangster tried to kill him as a child for the same reason. He failed, and little Vito grew up and came back to revenge his family.

But the Church gives us these verses, not to train us in warfare that is physical, but warfare that is spiritual. According to commentary by various Holy Fathers, the infants in question, are our passionate thoughts and the rock is Christ. We dash our thoughts on the Rock, in order that they may not grow up to be passions that will come back and take us captive. These verses remind us of the real battle in our lives and remind us to refocus and redouble our efforts during the opportunity of the great fast. Many other psalms are read during lenten services, and similar allegories may be found throughout Lent. As we hear the psalms, we are invited to a strategy meeting where we are instructed how to guard the walled city of our hearts and preserve there the treasures we receive from the King.

Upcoming Events

Upcoming events in March (see the online calendar for updates or the attached PDF for more info)


February, 2020

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

Upcoming events in February (see the online calendar for updates or the attached PDF for more info)


January, 2020

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
  • Candles
  • 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:

  1. The bowl of water, icon and lit candles are placed on a clean table. IF there is a home censer, it may be lit.
  2. The priest begins the service with a blessing and the Trisagion prayers (O heavenly King through the “Our Father”.)
  3. 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:

Tone 1:
When Thou, O Lord wast baptized in the Jordan, / the worship of the Trinity
was made manifest; / for the voice of the Father bore witness to Thee, / and
called Thee His beloved Son. / And the Spirit in the form of a dove /
confirmed the truthfulness of His word. / O Christ our God, Who hast appeared
unto us // and hast enlightened the world, glory to Thee.

(It is a very good idea for the family to sing this troparion, and know it by heart.)

  1. Upon finishing blessing the house, the family gathers again at the table, and 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.
  2. 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

Upcoming events in January (see the online calendar for updates or the attached PDF for more info)


December, 2019

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.

2. IVY

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)


November, 2019

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:

Orthopraxis: The Tradition 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.

Fr. Basil

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)