Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council

Sunday, June 9, 2019 – After-feast of the Ascension, Commemoration of the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council

Holy Gospel according to St. John 17:1-13: “At that time, Jesus lifted up His eyes to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify Thy Son that the Son may glorify Thee, since Thou hast given Him power over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom Thou hast given Him.  And this is eternal life, that they know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ Whom Thou hast sent.  I glorified Thee on earth, having accomplished the work which Thou gavest Me to do; and now, Father, glorify Thou Me in Thy own presence with the glory which I had with Thee before the world was made. I have manifested Thy Name to the men whom Thou gavest Me out of the world; Thine they were, and Thou gavest them to Me, and they have kept Thy word.  Now they know that everything that Thou hast given Me is from Thee; for I have given them the words which Thou gavest Me, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from Thee; and they have believed that Thou didst send Me.  I am praying for them; I am not praying for the world but for those whom Thou hast given Me, for they are Thine; all Mine are Thine, and Thine are Mine, and I am glorified in them.  And now I am no more in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to Thee.  Holy Father, keep them in Thy Name, which Thou hast given Me, that they may be one, even as We are one.  While I was with them, I kept them in Thy Name, which Thou have given Me; I have guarded them, and none of them is lost but the son of perdition, that the scripture might be fulfilled.  But now I am coming to Thee; and these things I speak in the world, that they may have My joy fulfilled in themselves.”

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“Christ is Ascended!” (From Earth to Heaven!)

I guess I don’t have to tell you – We live in a divided world.  There are those countries who can provide an environment for their citizens to work, eat, live and prosper and those countries where their citizens are under constant threat of violence, starvation, disease, homelessness and destruction.  We are a divided world.  Even in our own country there are those who are trained, educated, employed, cared for and connected to a community and family where they belong and thrive and then we have a population who are uneducated, unprepared, unemployed, forgotten, isolated, disconnected, lonely, and totally dependent on others for their existence.  Sometimes you hear people describe this situation as “the haves and the have-nots”.  The “first-world and the third-world”.   The “insiders and the outsiders”.  The “rich and the poor”.  In politics you see divisions – the “liberals and the conservatives”.  Among certain issues being discussed and debated in our country you find neighbors and family members who are “pro-life and pro-choice”.  You will meet those who are for “gun-control” and those who are for “gun owner’s rights”.  You know some who are home schoolers and those who are public schoolers.  Those who are opposed to vaccinations and those who support them. There are those who support the traditional family and those who wish to redefine the family to include anyone who decides to create a family with anyone no matter their sex and ability to propagate and reproduce within that family.  We are a divided nation. 

Additionally, there are Christians and non-Christians and then within those of us who are Christians we have divisions – Protestants, Roman Catholics, Mainline denominations, independents, contemporary, sacramental, reformed, and “spirit-led”.  We are divided church.  Matter of fact it would be interesting to keep track of how much time and energy we each spend on understanding, explaining and defending how we are not like others.  We work hard to clearly describe ourselves as this and not that. We are us and not them.  They are wrong and we are right.  They are evil and we are good.  They are dumb and we are smart or clever for having arrived at where we are – at least until we change our minds or our positions.

In today’s Gospel lesson we find Christ, on the other hand, praying for the unity of his followers “may be one, even as We are one.”  In one of the final prayers recorded that Christ prays for His disciples He is praying for their unity.  Matter of fact He prays this for us as well, just a couple of verses after today’s lesson but in the same prayer, we read,  “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one.”  This prayer is for us.

This prayer is the one where the Evangelist Mark records takes place in the Garden of Gethsemane in between the Last Supper and the betrayal and arrest of our Lord by the religious leaders.  This is that same prayer where Christ prayed, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for You. Take this cup away from Me; nevertheless, not what I will, but what You will.”  This is that same prayer where Jesus is described as troubled and deeply distressed and he admitted to the three who were with Him in the garden (Peter, James and John), “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death.”  He pled with them three times to “stay here and watch!”  But they slept.

St. John the Theologian goes into great detail about this “priestly prayer” recorded in John 17 so someone must have stayed awake long enough to overhear the heart-felt prayer that Christ offered on behalf of his most loyal and faithful followers.  And what was His prayer?  He prayed for their unity.  He prayed that they (we!) would be one as He and the Heavenly Father are one.  Unity in faith.  Unity in love.  Unity in purpose.  Unity in name.  Unity in truth, knowledge and belief.  Yet, only a few short minutes later one of His own most loyal band of followers would come and betray Him with a kiss so those gathered with lanterns, torches, weapons, clubs and swords would know who to arrest in the dark of night in the garden. 

The ultimate betrayal recorded here in these chapters in which we became so familiar during Holy Week and we read again less than 8 weeks later here this week – every year on this Sunday when we commemorate those 318 bishops who attended the first great ecumenical council in 325 in the city of Nicaea at the request of the Emperor Constantine who only 12 years earlier had issued the Edict of Milan which proclaimed religious tolerance for the Christians throughout the Roman Empire.  In the midst of this new-found “freedom of religion” throughout the Empire the Christians had become divided.  Some were following a very popular priest from Libya who was currently living and serving in Alexandria, Egypt named Arius.  This priest had come to believe that there was a time when Christ was not and this doctrine known as Arianism, affirming the created, finite nature of Christ and this was denounced by those who attended this council as a major heresy.  This division nearly destroyed the early church and would have continued to spread across the world if it weren’t for a young 25 year old deacon named Athanasius who led those who held that the Father was always a Father, and both Father and Son existed always together, eternally, coequally and consubstantially.

The argument led by St. Athanasius stated that the Logos was “eternally begotten”, therefore with no beginning. Those in opposition to Arius believed that to follow the Arian view destroyed the unity of the Godhead, and made the Son unequal to the Father. They insisted that such a view was in opposition to such Scriptures as “I and the Father are one”[John 10] and “the Word was God”,[John 1].  They declared that the Son had no beginning, but had an “eternal derivation” from the Father, and therefore was coeternal with him, and equal to God in all aspects.  The Council declared that the Son was true God, coeternal with the Father and begotten from His same substance, arguing that such a doctrine best codified the Scriptural presentation of the Son as well as traditional Christian belief about him handed down from the Apostles.

This belief was expressed by the bishops in the Creed of Nicaea, which would form the basis of what has since been known as the Nicene Creed.  This creed would continue to be worked on in later councils and the influence Arius would continue to be felt throughout the church for decades, however this council laid the foundation and devised formula which was followed more than 6 times in later councils to preserve and bring us the canons, doctrines, dogmas and truths that the church has held from the beginning, in all places, by all people, for all time.  These councils have brought about unity of faith, belief, practice and doctrine.  This council was attended by 318 bishops from all throughout the known Christian world who had endured some of the most indescribable persecutions the church has ever endured.  The great church historian Eusebius wrote: “The most distinguished of God’s ministers from all the churches which abounded in Europe, Africa, and Asia assembled here. The one sacred building, as if stretched by God, contained people from [a very long list of nations]. There were more than 300 bishops, while the number of elders, deacons and the like was almost incalculable. Some of these ministers of God were eminent for their wisdom, some for the strict living, and patient endurance of persecution, and others for all three. Some were venerable because of their age, others were conspicuous for their youth and mental vigor, and others were only just appointed. The Emperor provided them all with plenty of food.” 

July 4, 325, was a memorable day. Delegates came from every region of the Roman Empire, including Britain, and from the Christian churches from the ancient see of York. The participating bishops were given free travel to and from their episcopal sees to the council, as well as lodging. These bishops did not travel alone; each one had permission to bring with him two priests and three deacons, so the total number of attendees could have been above 1,800 to come to Nicea, a little town near the Bosporus Straits flowing between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

In the conference hall where they waited was a table. On it lay an open copy of the Gospels.

The emperor, Constantine the Great, entered the hall in his imperial, jewel-encrusted, multicolored brocades, but out of respect for the Christian leaders, without his customary train of soldiers. Constantine spoke only briefly. He told the churchmen they had to come to some agreement on the crucial questions dividing them. “Division in the church,” he said, “is worse than war.”

The bishops and deacons were deeply impressed. After three centuries of periodic persecutions instigated by some Roman emperor, they were actually gathered before one not as enemies but as allies.  Some of them carried scars of the imperial lash. One from Egypt was missing an eye; another was crippled in both hands as a result of red-hot irons.

Why do we commemorate these 318 bishops of the first Ecumenical Council on this 7th Sunday of Pascha in between the great feasts of Ascension and Pentecost?  The prayer of Christ in the garden gives you your answer.  This council brought about unity of faith in the early church and in answer to the prayer of Christ on the night of His betrayal, arrest and scandalous trial and the Emperor St. Constantine went to great expense and care to bring about unity in the Church.

Cyril of Alexandria has written about these verses in John 17: “Christ wishes the disciples to be kept in a state of unity by maintaining a like-mindedness and an identity of will, being mingled together as it were in soul and spirit and in the law of peace and love for one another.  He wishes them to be bound together tightly with an unbreakable bond of love, that they may advance to such a degree of unity that their freely chosen association might even become an image of the natural unity that is conceived to exist between the Father and Son.  That is to say, he wishes them to enjoy a unity that is inseparable and indestructible, which may not be enticed away into a dissimilarity of wills by anything at all that exists in the world or any pursuit of pleasure but rather reserves the power of love in the unity of devotion and holiness.  And this is what happened.  For we read in the Acts of the Apostles, “the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul,” that is, in the unity of Spirit.  This is also what Paul himself meant when he said “one body and one spirit.”  “We who are many are one body in Christ for we all partake of the one bread,” and we have all been anointed in the one Spirit, the Spirit of Christ.”

Where should we strive to live out these “unbreakable bonds of love and unity”?  We begin in our homes and in our marriages.  Committing to unity with those whom God has given us in our families.  We support them, love them, cheer for them, cry and rejoice with them.  They are our first level of unity.  They are our blood and our bonds of undying commitment.  Are we living in unity with those closest to us?  Are we mentally, physically and emotionally living in unity with our spouses, children, parents and extended family?  Are they seeing the unity and love of Christ in us and how we relate to them?

Secondly, I believe it is important to ask these same questions about those with whom we are journeying in our church here at St. Anna.  To the church in Galatia, the apostle Paul writes (Galatians 6:10) “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith.”  We are commanded to show special favor to those who are gathered here today and those who might be missing but are part of our community here at St. Anna.  Do we stick up for one another, support one another, pray for one another, and assume the best of one another?  (John 13:35) “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”  Are each of us doing all we can to live in unity with those whom we are laboring and praying each week? 

Thirdly, I believe the others we should be living in unity with are those outside of our families and our church – our neighbors.  Who are our neighbors?  Jesus answered this question when he told the story of the Good Samaritan.  Our neighbors are those who are different from us but need our help.  Those who have experienced ridicule, embarrassment, and have been ostracized.  Those on the fringe, the outcast and rejected.  Jesus described them as those who have been beaten up, robbed and left on the side of the road.  We may not see many along the side our roads in middle Tennessee who are in need of our help but many are among us where we work, play and live who are lying along side the road socially, emotionally, spiritually, and relationally.  Living in unity with those people means that we must slow down and pause for them in order to see their needs and dig into our wealth of a life with Christ to help them with their needs.  Do we listen to those who need a listening ear?  Do we patiently draw-out and befriend those who are unlike us but need someone who will take time to understand what they are going though and to come along side them to hold them up as they get back on their feet?

Our efforts at living a life of unity with our families, our church and our neighbors will make a great difference in bringing about unity in our world, our nation and our faith family.  It starts with us in our little world, on our little block, in our little family and in our little church.  The heartfelt prayer of Christ was “that they may be one, even as We are one.”  St. Constantine urged the church in 325 to live in unity.  He believed that division and disunity were worse than war.  Are we living lives of unity or division?  Do those who see us, live with us, and work with us know that we are His disciples, by the love we have for one another?

(Jude 24 & 25) – “Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless Before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to God our Savior, Who alone is wise, Be glory and majesty, Dominion and power, Both now and forever. Amen.”

Christ is Ascended!  From Earth to Heaven.

Sunday of the Samaritan Woman

Sunday, May 26, 2019 – Fifth Sunday of Pascha: Sunday of the Samaritan Woman & After-feast of Mid-Pentecost
Holy Gospel according to St. John 4:5-42: “At that time, Jesus came to a city of Samaria, called Sychar, near the field that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and so Jesus, wearied as He was with his journey, sat down beside the well. It was about the sixth hour. There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give Me a drink.” For His Disciples had gone away into the city to buy food. The Samaritan woman said to Him, “How is it that Thou, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans. Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and Who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” The woman said to Him, “Sir, Thou hast nothing to draw with, and the well is deep; where do you get that living water? Art Thou greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, and his sons, and his cattle?” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst forever; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” The woman said to Him, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst, nor come here to draw.” Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered Him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly.” The woman said to Him, “Sir, I perceive that Thou art a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and Thou sayest that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship Him. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” The woman said to Him, “I know that Messiah is coming [He Who is called Christ]; when He comes, He will tell us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I Who speak to you am He.” Just then His Disciples came. They marveled that He was talking with a woman, but none said, “What dost Thou wish?” or, “Why art Thou talking with her?” So the woman left her water jar, and went away into the city, and said to the people, “Come, see a man Who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” They went out of the city and were coming to Him. Meanwhile the Disciples besought Him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.” But He said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” So the Disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought Him food?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of Him Who sent Me, and to accomplish His work. Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see how the fields are already white for harvest. He who reaps receives wages, and gathers fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor; others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.” Many Samaritans from that city believed in Him because of the woman’s testimony, “He said to me all that I ever did.” So when the Samaritans came to Him, they asked Him to stay with them; and He stayed there two days. And many more believed because of His words. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of your words that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”

Today’s Gospel describes the encounter of our Lord and an immoral woman he met at the well in Sychar in Samaria at noon. In the heat of the day, when all respectable women were back at their houses preparing to serve the noon meal, she was out gathering water. Some have written that she fetched her water at noon to avoid being ostracized by the highly regarded women of the city because of her lifestyle. She was a woman of many men. Christ instructed to “Go, call your husband, and come here.” She admits that she has no husband and then Jesus, seeing her heart, reveals His knowledge that she has “had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband”.

This telling proclamation from Christ was directed to her after her unsuccessful attempts to boast of her heritage and her religion. These smoke screens, asserting her lineage all the way back to the Old Testament Patriarch Jacob was her way of claiming her cultural and moral superiority to the traveling stranger who interrupted her mid-day water run. She had set out to fetch water in the noontime heat of the day when no one else would be found at the well in order to avoid the conversation and public shunning which she would have needed to endure if she had she come to the well in the early morning hours when all the others would have gathered their water for the day.

She intentionally missed the snubbing of the local women of Sychar but then, much to her surprise she was approach by this weary Jewish man as he was passing through her area and asked for a drink. It wasn’t an unreasonable request. She had a jar and he didn’t. She carried her jar to the well to draw out that for which she would need to return tomorrow and the next day and the next day for the rest of her life, as she was able. She had to have this water with which she would cook, or clean or bathe. The water which she was collecting was an essential element for nearly everything she was about to do for the rest of the day. She had to have this water to complete the chores she had before her on this most historic day in her life.

Initially, she refused his request for water. It was the historic well of her people – the Samaritans. They were racially and culturally mixed – half-breeds. Shunned by the purebred Jews, these Samaritans only accepted the first 5 books of the Old Testament and were the result of a societal experiment of many generations ago to repopulate the region by resettling foreigners among the few remaining Israelites after the Assyrians had defeated them and exiled them in Babylon and Media. This interracial group of Gentiles lived in the area named after a mountain called Somer and were hated and despised by the Jews.

Interestingly, Jesus and his disciples found themselves in Samaria because of the unbelief of the Jews who had chased them out of Judea. St. Augustine has written the “thirst” Jesus spoke of when approaching this woman was a thirst for faith rather than water. He was longing for the refreshment of belief in who he was, what he could offer to a believer and a life changing “spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Last night, one of the hymns at Great Vespers proclaimed: “At Jacob’s well, Jesus met the Samaritan woman. He Who screened the earth with clouds asked water of her. What wonder, that He Who rideth on the cherubim converseth with an adulterous woman. He asked water Who suspended the earth on the waters. He seeketh water Who caused the springs of water and their lakes to overflow. Yea, that He may draw to Him the truth ensnared by the contending enemy, and give her water to drink who was inflamed with ugly vices; for He alone is compassionate and the Lover of mankind.”

Jesus met resistance from those to whom he was sent and he was desirous of meeting and being received by those who would believe. Maximus of Turin, a 5th century bishop in northern Italy has written: “The Savior asks for water from the woman, then, and feigns thirst so that he might give eternal grace to the thirsty. For the source was not able to be thirsty, nor was he in whom there is living water able to draw water full of earthly sediment. Did Christ thirst, then? He thirsted, to be sure, but for salvation and not [merely] for human drink. He was thirsty not for the water of this world but for the redemption of the human race. In a wonderful way, therefore, the source sitting by the well produces streams of mercy in that very place, and with flowing, living water he purifies the woman who is [living] with a sixth man, not her husband but an adulterer. And in a new kind of miracle the woman who had come to the well of Samaria as a prostitute returned chaste from the source of Christ. She who had come to look for water brought back chastity. As soon as the Lord points her sins out to her she acknowledges them, confesses Christ and announces the Savior. Abandoning her pitcher she brings not water but grace back to the city. She seems, indeed, to return without a burden, but she returns full of holiness. She returns full, I say, because she who had come as a sinner goes back as a proclaimer, and she who had left her pitcher behind brought back the fullness of Christ, without the slightest loss to her city. For even if she did not bring water to the townspeople, still she brought in the source of salvation. Sanctified, then, by faith in Christ, the woman goes back home.”

Again, another hymn from Vespers last night declared, “When by Thine ineffable dispensation Thou didst appear on earth, O Christ, the Samaritan woman, hearing Thy philanthropic words, left off drawing water at the well and hastened, saying to those in the city: Come and behold the Knower of hearts: perchance He may be the expected Christ Whose is the Great Mercy.”

And just a few minutes ago, during Orthros we heard, “Our Savior Jesus, the Element of life, came to the Spring of Jacob, the head of the patriarchs, and was about to drink the water at the hand of a Samaritan woman. But she intercepted Him by telling Him that the Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans. Albeit, the wise Creator turned her by the sweetness of His words rather to seek of Him the water of everlasting life, which, when she received, she proclaimed to all, saying: Come and see the Knower of secrets, God Who hath appeared in the flesh to save mankind.”

What was her response to what she had seen and heard during her encounter with Christ at the well? “So the woman left her water jar, and went away into the city, and said to the people, “Come, see a man Who told me all that I ever did.” She left her pot and ran to her people and proclaimed Christ. She asked, “Can this be the Christ?” She no longer wanted to be weighed down by the jugs of temporal needs and quickly evaporating satisfaction after she had been introduced to Him who was offering her “living water.” Those jars she was carrying would have slowed her down, worn her out, or caused her to stumble or fall. She knew it was no longer good for her to lug around the pots she was carrying after she met Christ.

It might be asked: What pots are we still carrying around after having met Christ at our wells of family, cultural or intellectual pride. What were we carrying when we met Him and he offered us the living water after which we would never again thirst? Were we able to accept what he offered us or did we cling to our pots of self-centeredness, arrogance, lust, greed, fear, or despondency? Are we still to be found lugging around our old jars of bitterness, unforgiveness, hate, backbiting, gossip and slander. Have we really dumped those old ugly jugs which have weighed us down for years and kept us from being free and able to joyfully proclaim the good news of the one we met who is able to free us from all that we ever did?

The woman in our account today didn’t just run and tell her townspeople that she had met the Christ. The early church writers identify her as Photini and she is recognized as the first to proclaim the Gospel of Christ among the Samaritans. She converted her five sisters (Sts. Anatole, Photo, Photis, Paraskeve, and Kyriake) and her two sons (Victor and Joses). They all became tireless evangelists for Christ.

The apostles of Christ baptized her and gave her the name of Photini which means “the enlightened one.” She is remembered by the Church as a Holy Martyr and Equal to the Apostles. After Sts. Peter and Paul were martyred, St. Photini and her family left their homeland of Sychar, in Samaria, to travel to Carthage to proclaim the Gospel of Christ there.

During the reign of Emperor Nero in the first century, excessive cruelty was displayed against the Christians, St. Photini lived in Carthage boldly proclaimed Christ with her sons.

In a rage, Nero gave orders to inflict horrible deaths upon St. Photini, her family members and the others who had come to believe in Christ. Nero gave orders to throw St. Photini down a well, where she surrendered her soul to God in the year 66.

It is never written that St. Photini went back and to pick up her abandoned water pot from that fateful day. We too, are asked to leave our pots and joyfully follow Christ and loyally proclaim Him until our death.

(Jude 24 & 25) – “Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless Before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to God our Savior, Who alone is wise, Be glory and majesty, Dominion and power, Both now and forever. Amen.”
Christ is Risen!

Sunday of Thomas the Apostle

May 5, 2019 – Sunday of Thomas the Apostle – St. John 20:19-31
New Sunday or Anti-Pascha, Sunday of Thomas the Apostle, Called “The Twin”

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the Disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the Disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other Disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in His side, I will not believe.” Eight days later, His Disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, “Peace be with you.” Then He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see My hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” Thomas answered Him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen Me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the Disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His Name.

This morning we are faced with an amazing turn of events! We spent last week shouting and rejoicing about the resurrection of Christ. We sang about it. We chanted it! We proclaimed this joy in English, Greek, Arabic, Slavonic, Serbian and a whole host of languages I don’t know and can’t understand. Then this morning we are hit in the face with this account of one who doubted this glorious news. Not just some bystander or passer-by – but one of the 12 apostles. Thomas’ response to the joyous news of the resurrection of Christ whom he had followed for the past 3 years was, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in His side, I will not believe.” The Apostle Thomas was born in the Galilean city of Pansada and was a fisherman. Hearing the good tidings of Jesus Christ, he left all and followed after him.

Here we are on the eighth day after the Resurrection, and doors, interestingly were still shut as the disciples were lock-up in the house, unsure of what to do next, and now the Lord appeared to the Apostle Thomas and showed him His wounds. “My Lord and my God,” the Apostle cried out (John 20:28). “Thomas, being once weaker in faith than the other apostles,” says St John Chrysostom, “toiled through the grace of God more bravely, more zealously and tirelessly than them all, so that he went preaching over nearly all the earth, not fearing to proclaim the Word of God to savage nations.”

Some icons depicting this event are inscribed “The Doubting Thomas.” Some have suggested that this is incorrect. In Greek, the inscription reads, “The Touching of Thomas.” In Slavonic, it says, “The Belief of Thomas.” When St Thomas touched the Life-giving side of the Lord, he no longer had any doubts. What is more, in the English language, the nickname of “Doubting Thomas” can convey the false impression of Thomas as being timid, lacking the full conviction of faith, or even being cowardly; this concept of Thomas is neither historical nor Biblical, except in consideration of the vitally important moment in which Thomas touched the Resurrected Christ; the momentary sinful fluctuation in faith being spectacularly reversed through Divine Grace as an opportunity to validate the bodily Resurrection. In John 11:16, Thomas expressed a desire to die with the Lord, in response to the other disciples’ fear that the Pharisees would seek to kill Jesus should they re-enter Judea. The notion of Thomas as wavering or cowardly in his faith can be further dispelled in light of the Church Tradition regarding his evangelism, according to which, the holy Apostle founded Christian churches in Palestine, Mesopotamia, Parthia, Ethiopia and India.

Preaching the Gospel earned the holy Apostle Thomas a martyr’s death. For having converted the wife and son of the prefect of the Indian city of Meliapur, the holy apostle was locked up in prison, suffered torture, and finally, pierced with five spears, he departed to the Lord. Part of the relics of the holy Apostle Thomas are in India, in Hungary and on Mt. Athos.

Due to his evangelism in Syria and Persia, the Holy Apostle is highly regarded within the Eastern Orthodox Church of Antioch, the Church of Antioch (Syriac), and in the Assyrian Church of the East. The Christian community in India is known as the St. Thomas Christians on account of the tradition that holds St. Thomas as their founder.

The Apostle Thomas should therefore be considered not merely as “Doubting Thomas”, but rather, as someone whose faith did waver at one crucial moment, yet through the divine grace of Christ, this wavering was reversed into an opportunity for the demonstration of the actual bodily resurrection of the Lord. The Apostle Thomas should also be remembered as a great evangelist; just as Peter and Paul made their way to Rome to evangelize the gentiles therein, and Andrew proceeded to the Northwest, Thomas ventured East in order to spread the same Gospel of peace. As we continue to celebrate the glorious resurrection of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ, we remember today how Thomas was transformed from a skeptic into a believer, and ultimately into a martyr who gave the ultimate witness for His Savior’s great victory over death. Since Thomas was not present when the risen Christ first appeared to the disciples, he doubted their testimony. That is why we know him as “doubting Thomas,” but we should also remember how the apostles had doubted the testimony of the women who first heard the news of the resurrection from the angel. No one had anticipated the Lord’s rising, and the news of someone’s resurrection from the dead after public crucifixion and burial for three days was simply outrageous.

People of that time and place were more familiar with death than most of us are today. In comparison with our society, their infant mortality rates were much higher, their lifespans were usually much shorter, and they themselves prepared the bodies of their loved ones for burial. They knew all about death. As well, they knew that Roman soldiers were seasoned professional experts in administering a long, painful execution. Joseph of Arimathea removed the Lord’s dead body from the cross and, with the help of Nicodemus, buried Him. The women went to the tomb very early on Sunday morning in order to anoint the Savior’s dead body. None of them had any illusions about what death meant. There could have been nothing more shocking to them in the world than the unexpected and unbelievably good news that “Christ is risen!” And quite understandably, Thomas did not believe in the resurrection until the Lord appeared to Him, still bearing His wounds, and invited Him to touch His Body. Then Thomas confessed the risen Christ as “My Lord and my God!”

It is my observation that there may be at least two different kinds of DOUBT. There is the DOUBT which says: “I don’t believe, and you can’t convince me!” That DOUBT is arrogant, self-assured and prideful. That doubt says, “I don’t believe and there’s nothing you can do to convince me otherwise. Don’t confuse me with the facts!” You and I, both, know people like this and these people break my heart. No matter what I might be able to say or do – this DOUBT is nearly inconvincible. These DOUBTERS are unaware of the facts and the truth and don’t want to risk knowing anything differently. Our response to these kinds of DOUBTERS is to pray for them and love them.

The second kind of DOUBTERS are like Thomas. They are without the facts. They simply want to see what others have already seen. They can be convinced with the right set of facts. Our response is to give them the truth and let God do a work in their hearts. They can become great evangelists and missionaries. They will help take the message to others if they can see the facts clearly – just like Thomas.

Last night in the hymns of Great Vespers Thomas’ DOUBT was called “beautiful unbelief”. The Church teaches of the importance of this encounter of Christ and Thomas was to show that Christ, even in His resurrected state, was still fully God and fully man. The scripture passage in the gospel of St. John says, “The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them”. No one knocked on the door. No one let Christ in. He was able to appear before them in a locked room – fully God. Yet, He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see My hands; and put out your hand and place it in my side; do not be faithless but believing.” His body was able to be felt. His wounds were still there. He who was able to heal others and restore the imperfections of bodily wounds and illness was still wounded and Thomas was able to feel those wounds – fully man. Why? So that Thomas would believe and those throughout south Asia would hear the life-changing message throughout their lands and come to know and believe in Christ our Savior. This “DOUBTER was fully convinced once he saw the facts. He was willing to give it all up to take this message of the resurrected and life-changing Jesus Christ to the ends of the earth, as Christ had commanded the disciples.

We should not be surprised that many people today continue to doubt the truth of Christ’s resurrection. Such a unique and astonishing event is a great challenge to accept, for it is contrary to what we know about death in this world. But perhaps it is precisely the difficulty of believing in the resurrection that invites us to deep, personal faith in our Savior’s great victory over the grave. We don’t need much faith in order to agree that water freezes at a certain temperature, as a little experimentation with a thermometer will remove all doubt. We don’t need much faith in order to believe that it is better to lead a morally decent life than one characterized by dishonesty and murder. In one way or another, virtually all cultures and religions teach that. But if we are going to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God Who rose victorious over death and made even the grave an entryway to the eternal life of the Heavenly Kingdom, then we need the kind of faith that takes root to the very depths of our souls.

That kind of faith is not like the rational certainty that we have about the temperature at which water freezes. Instead, it is the kind of faith that requires trust in giving our lives to that which is not obvious; it requires profound commitment and sacrifice. For example, the love of spouses for one another and for their children is not a rational theory based on objective experimentation or historical research. It is known only through experience; it becomes real through a thousand acts of putting one another and the children before themselves. It changes them. It requires a kind of martyrdom, of dying to self for the sake of others. There is a depth of love in marriage and family that it is simply impossible to know and experience without such sacrifice.

The same is true of our knowledge of the Lord’s resurrection. To say the least, it would be very hard to give an account of the origins of Christianity without Him actually rising in glory. A few questions make this point clear. For example, why would His followers have made up such an unbelievable story about a dead man, and then gone to their deaths out of faithfulness to a lie about a failed Messiah? Why would they have concocted a story in which women, who were not viewed as reliable witnesses in that culture, provided the foundational testimony to such an astounding miracle? Had they made up the resurrection, why would they have included in the gospels so much material that describes how they totally misunderstood Christ’s prediction of His own death and resurrection and then abandoned Him at the crucifixion? Apart from the truth of His resurrection, the rise of the Christian faith makes no sense.

Nonetheless, many skeptics will, like Thomas, still be doubtful that something so contrary to our experience of the world actually happened. Here we must remember that Thomas came to faith not due to rational arguments or historical research, but because of seeing the risen Lord before His own eyes. Since we live after the Ascension, we do not see Him in that way today. But the root meaning of the word martyr is “witness,” and from the very origins of the faith countless people have given the ultimate witness to the Savior’s victory over death by going to their deaths out of faithfulness to Him. All the apostles, with the exception of John, did so. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Their powerful example has, and still does, bear witness to the truth of Christ’s resurrection. In them, we see the Savior’s victory over death with our own eyes.

Today we also commemorate the Great-martyr Irene of Thessalonica, born in the city of Magedon in Persia during the fourth century. She was the daughter of the pagan king Licinius, and her parents named her Penelope. Penelope was very beautiful, and her father kept her isolated in a high tower from the time she was six so that she would not be exposed to Christianity. He also placed thirteen young maidens in the tower with her. An old tutor by the name of Apellian was assigned to give her the best possible education. Apellian was a Christian, and during her lessons, he taught the girl about Christ the Savior, the Christian Faith, and Christian virtues. Penelope refused to marry, was baptized by the priest Timothy, and was renamed Irene (“peace”). She even urged her own parents to become Christians. Shortly afterwards, she destroyed all her father’s idols. Since St. Irene had dedicated herself to Christ, she refused to marry any of the suitors her father had chosen for her. When King Licinius learned that his daughter refused to worship the pagan gods, he was furious. He attempted to turn her from Christ by having her tortured. She was tied up and thrown beneath the hooves of wild horses so that they might trample her to death, but the horses remained motionless. Instead of harming her, one of the horses charged Licinius, seized his right hand, and tore it from his arm. The horse then knocked Licinius down and began to trample him. St. Irene demanded to be untied, and through her prayers, Licinius was unharmed with his hand still intact. Seeing such a miracle, Licinius, his wife, and over 3,000 others professed Christ and turned from the pagan gods. Resigning his administrative duties, Licinius devoted himself to the service of the Lord Jesus Christ. For refusing to worship pagan gods, St. Irene endured horrible tortures and throughout her life for Christ. From the apostolic age to today, countless Christians have done what St. Thomas and St. Irene did in showing steadfast personal commitment to the Lord literally to the point of death. They do so because they know the truth of Christ’s resurrection, not as an abstract idea or merely something that they accepted as having happened long ago, but as the real spiritual experience of participating in eternal life. They see the Body of Christ, the Church, bearing witness to a life that shines brilliantly in holiness in contrast to the darkness of the world. Even when they died as a result, the early Christians cared for the sick with contagious diseases. They rescued abandoned children, gave generously to the poor, and pursued chastity in the relationship between man and woman. They refused to worship other gods, even when that led to certain torture and death. They loved and forgave their enemies, even as the persecuted Christians of the Middle East do to this very day in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and many other countries.

We may not be physical martyrs in the sense that they are, but we still must bear witness to the resurrection of Christ. We do that by providing evidence of His victory over death in how we live our lives. Thomas came to faith when He saw the glorified Body of the Risen Lord. We must live as those who have passed over in Him from slavery to sin and death to the glorious freedom of eternal life. Our lives must shine brightly with the holy joy of the resurrection if anyone is to believe that “Christ is risen!”

Indeed, we ourselves will not truly believe that glorious news unless we personally rise with Him from death to life, from sin to holiness. True faith in the risen Lord is not a mere idea but requires deep personal commitment and self-sacrifice. His astounding victory is neither a rational concept nor just another truth of the natural world known by experimentation. To know His resurrection is to know Him, and that requires dying to self out of love from the depths of our souls. It requires a form of martyrdom, an offering of our flesh and blood to the One Who makes us mystical participants in His Flesh and Blood in the Holy Mystery of the Eucharist. Even as we receive Him as our Lord and our God, just as Thomas boldly proclaimed in today’s gospel lesson, let us bear witness to His glorious resurrection in how we live each day. That is the only way to follow Thomas in moving from doubt to true faith. It is the only way to say with integrity “Christ is risen!”

(Jude 24 & 25) – “Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless Before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to God our Savior, Who alone is wise, Be glory and majesty, Dominion and power, Both now and forever. Amen.”

The Life of St Mary of Egypt

April 14, 2019 – The Life of St Mary of Egypt

This Life of Our Venerable Mother Mary of Egypt was written down in the seventh century by Saint Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, some hundred years after the repose of the holy Mary, who fell asleep in the Lord April 1, 522. It is one of the most beautiful and edifying lives of a saint. Its obvious and stated purpose is to glorify God and to feed the souls of its readers. St. Sophronius lifts up the life of blessed Mary as a most wondrous example of repentance for all the faithful. Indeed, the Church has lifted up this life before all the faithful on the Fifth Sunday of the Great Fast, the Sunday before Palm Sunday. It is both a challenge and an inspiration to us. It shows us what a human being is capable of when she works with the all-powerful saving and forgiving grace of our all-loving God.


The Life of our Holy Mother Mary of Egypt
(From The Great Canon, the Work of Saint Andrew of Crete, Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, NY, USA)
“It is good to hide the secret of a king, but it is glorious to reveal and preach the works of God” (Tobit 12:7) So said the Archangel Raphael to Tobit when he performed the wonderful healing of his blindness. Actually, not to keep the secret of a king is perilous and a terrible risk, but to be silent about the works of God is a great loss for the soul. And I (says St. Saphronius), in writing the life of St. Mary of Egypt, am afraid to hide the works of God by silence. Remembering the misfortune threatened to the servant who hid his God-given talent in the earth (Mat. 25:18-25), I am bound to pass on the holy account that has reached me. And let no one think (continues St. Saphronius) that I have had the audacity to write untruth or doubt this great marvel –may I never lie about holy things! If there do happen to be people who, after reading this record, do not believe it, may the Lord have mercy on them because, reflecting on the weakness of human nature, they consider impossible these wonderful things accomplished by holy people. But now we must begin to tell this most amazing story, which has taken place in our generation.

There was a certain elder in one of the monasteries of Palestine, a priest of the holy life and speech, who from childhood had been brought up in monastic ways and customs. This elder’s name was Zosimas. He had been through the whole course of the ascetic life and in everything he adhered to the rule once given to him by his tutors as regard spiritual labors. he had also added a good deal himself whilst laboring to subject his flesh to the will of the spirit. And he had not failed in his aim. He was so renowned for his spiritual life that many came to him from neighboring monasteries and some even from afar. While doing all this, he never ceased to study the Divine Scriptures. Whether resting, standing, working or eating food (if the scraps he nibbled could be called food), he incessantly and constantly had a single aim: always to sing of God, and to practice the teaching of the Divine Scriptures. Zosimas used to relate how, as soon as he was taken from his mother’s breast, he was handed over to the monastery where he went through his training as an ascetic till he reached the age of 53. After that, he began to be tormented with the thought that he was perfect in everything and needed no instruction from anyone, saying to himself mentally, “Is there a monk on earth who can be of use to me and show me a kind of asceticism that I have not accomplished? Is there a man to be found in the desert who has surpassed me?”

Thus, thought the elder, when suddenly an angel appeared to him and said: “Zosimas, valiantly have you struggled, as far as this is within the power of man, valiantly have you gone through the ascetic course. But there is no man who has attained perfection. Before you lie unknown struggles greater than those you have already accomplished. That you may know how many other ways lead to salvation, leave your native land like the renowned patriarch Abraham and go to the monastery by the River Jordan.”

Zosimas did as he was told. he left the monastery in which he had lived from childhood and went to the River Jordan. At last he reached the community to which God had sent him. Having knocked at the door of the monastery, he told the monk who was the porter who he was; and the porter told the abbot. On being admitted to the abbot’s presence, Zosimas made the usual monastic prostration and prayer. Seeing that he was a monk the abbot asked: “Where do you come from, brother, and why have you come to us poor old men?”

Zosimas replied: “There is no need to speak about where I have come from, but I have come, father, seeking spiritual profit, for I have heard great things about your skill in leading souls to God.”

“Brother,” the abbot said to him, “Only God can heal the infirmity of the soul. May He teach you and us His divine ways and guide us. But as it is the love of Christ that has moved you to visit us poor old men, then stay with us, if that is why you have come. May the Good Shepherd Who laid down His life for our salvation fill us all with the grace of the Holy Spirit.”

After this, Zosimas bowed to the abbot, asked for his prayers and blessing, and stayed in the monastery. There he saw elders proficient both in action and the contemplation of God, aflame in spirit, working for the Lord. They sang incessantly, they stood in prayer all night, work was ever in their hands and psalms on their lips. Never an idle word was heard among them, they know nothing about acquiring temporal goods or the cares of life. But they had one desire — to become in body like corpses. Their constant food was the Word of God, and they sustained their bodies on bread and water, as much as their love for God allowed them. Seeing this, Zosimas was greatly edified and prepared for the struggle that lay before him.

Many days passed and the time drew near when all Christians fast and prepare themselves to worship the Divine Passion and Resurrection of Christ. The monastery gates were kept always locked and only opened when one of the community was sent out on some errand. It was a desert place, not only unvisited by people of the world but even unknown to them.

There was a rule in that monastery which was the reason why God brought Zosimas there. At the beginning of the Great Fast [on Forgiveness Sunday] the priest celebrated the holy Liturgy, and all partook of the holy body and blood of Christ. After the Liturgy they went to the refectory and would eat a little Lenten food.

Then all gathered in church, and after praying earnestly with prostrations, the elders kissed one another and asked forgiveness. And each made a prostration to the abbot and asked his blessing and prayers for the struggle that lay before them. After this, the gates of the monastery were thrown open, and singing, “The Lord is my light and my Savior; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the defender of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 26:1) and the rest of that psalm, all went out into the desert and crossed the River Jordan. Only one or two brothers were left in the monastery, not to guard the property (for there was nothing to rob), but so as not to leave the church without Divine Service. Each took with him as much as he could or wanted in the way of food, according to the needs of his body: one would take a little bread, another some figs, another dates or wheat soaked in water. And some took nothing, but their own body covered with rags and fed when nature forced them to it on the plants that grew in the desert.

After crossing the Jordan, they all scattered far and wide in different directions. And this was the rule of life they had, and which they all observed — neither to talk to one another, nor to know how each one lived and fasted. If they did happen to catch sight of one another, they went to another part of the country, living alone and always singing to God, and at a definite time eating a very small quantity of food. In this way they spent the whole of the fast and used to return to the monastery a week before the Resurrection of Christ, on Palm Sunday. Each one returned having his own conscience as the witness of his labor, and no one asked another how he had spent his time in the desert. Such were rules of the monastery. Every one of them whilst in the desert struggled with himself before the Judge of the struggle — God — not seeking to please men and fast before the eyes of all. For what is done for the sake of men, to win praise and honor, is not only useless to the one who does it but sometimes the cause of great punishment.

Zosimas did the same as all. And he went far, far into the desert with a secret hope of finding some father who might be living there and who might be able to satisfy his thirst and longing. And he wandered on tireless, as if hurrying on to some definite place. He had already walked for 20 days and when the 6th hour came he stopped and, turning to the East, he began to sing the sixth Hour and recite the customary prayers. He used to break his journey thus at fixed hours of the day to rest a little, to chant psalms standing and to pray on bent knees.

And as he sang thus without turning his eyes from the heavens, he suddenly saw to the right of the hillock on which he stood the semblance of a human body. At first, he was confused thinking he beheld a vision of the devil, and even started with fear. But, having guarded himself with the sign of the Cross and banished all fear, he turned his gaze in that direction and in truth saw some form gliding southwards. It was naked, the skin dark as if burned up by the heat of the sun; the hair on its head was white as a fleece, and not long, falling just below its neck. Zosimas was so overjoyed at beholding a human form that he ran after it in pursuit, but the form fled from him. He followed. At length, when he was near enough to be heard, he shouted:

“Why do you run from an old man and a sinner? Slave of the True God, wait for me, whoever you are, in God’s name I tell you, for the love of God for Whose sake you are living in the desert.”

“Forgive me for God’s sake, but I cannot turn towards you and show you my face, Abba Zosimas. For I am a woman and naked as you see with the uncovered shame of my body. But if you would like to fulfil one wish of a sinful woman, throw me your cloak so that I can cover my body and can turn to you and ask for your blessing.”

Here terror seized Zosimas, for he heard that she called him by name. But he realized that she could not have done so without knowing anything of him if she had not had the power of spiritual insight.

He at once did as he was asked. He took off his old, tattered cloak and threw it to her, turning away as he did so. she picked it up and was able to cover at least a part of her body. The she turned to Zosimas and said: “Why did you wish, Abba Zosimas, to see a sinful woman? What do you wish to hear or learn from me, you who have not shrunk from such great struggles?”

Zosimas threw himself on the ground and asked for her blessing. She likewise bowed down before him. And thus, they lay on the ground prostrate asking for each other’s blessing. And one word alone could be heard from both: “Bless me!” After a long while the woman said to Zosimas: “Abba Zosimas, it is you who must give blessing and pray. You are dignified by the order of priesthood and for many years you have been standing before the holy altar and offering the sacrifice of the Divine Mysteries.”

This flung Zosimas into even greater terror. At length with tears he said to her: “O mother, filled with the spirit, by your mode of life it is evident that you live with God and have died to the world. The Grace granted to you is apparent — for you have called me by name and recognized that I am a priest, though you have never seen me before. Grace is recognized not by one’s orders, but by gifts of the Spirit, so give me your blessing for God’s sake, for I need your prayers.”

Then giving way before the wish of the elder the woman said: “Blessed is God Who cares for the salvation of men and their souls.”

Zosimas answered: “Amen.”

And both rose to their feet. Then the woman asked the elder: “Why have you come, man of God, to me who am so sinful? Why do you wish to see a woman naked and devoid of every virtue? Though I know one thing — the Grace of the Holy Spirit has brought you to render me a service in time. Tell me, father, how are the Christian peoples living? And the kings? How is the Church guided?”

Zosimas said: “By your prayers, mother, Christ has granted lasting peace to all. But fulfill the unworthy petition of an old man and pray for the whole world and for me who am a sinner, so that my wanderings in the desert may not be fruitless.”

She answered: “You who are a priest, Abba Zosimas, it is you who must pray for me and for all — for this is your calling. But as we must all be obedient, I will gladly do what you ask.”

And with these words she turned to the East and raising her eyes to heaven and stretching out her hands, she began to pray in a whisper. One could not hear separate words, so that Zosimas could not understand anything that she said in her prayers. Meanwhile he stood, according to his own word, all in a flutter, looking at the ground without saying a word. And he swore, calling God to witness, that when at length he thought that her prayer was very long, he took his eyes off the ground and saw that she was raised about a forearm’s distance from the ground and stood praying in the air. When he saw this, even greater terror seized him and he fell on the ground weeping and repeating many times, “Lord have mercy.”

And whilst lying prostrate on the ground he was tempted by a thought: Is it not a spirit, and perhaps her prayer is hypocrisy. But at the very same moment the woman turned around, raised the elder from the ground and said: “Why do thoughts confuse you, Abba, and tempt you about me, as if I were a spirit and a dissembler in prayer? Know, holy father, that I am only a sinful woman, though I am guarded by Holy baptism. And I am no spirit but earth and ashes, and flesh alone.”

And with these words she guarded herself with the sign of the Cross on her forehead, eyes, mouth and breast, saying: “May God defend us from the evil one and from his designs, for fierce is his struggle against us.”

Hearing and seeing this, the elder fell to the ground and, embracing her feet, he said with tears: “I beg you, by the Name of Christ our God, Who was born of a Virgin, for Whose sake you have stripped yourself, for Whose sake you have exhausted your flesh, do not hide from your slave, who you are and whence and how you came into this desert. Tell me everything so that the marvelous works of God may become known. A hidden wisdom and a secret treasure — what profit is there in them? Tell me all, I implore you. for not out of vanity or for self-display will you speak but to reveal the truth to me, an unworthy sinner. I believe in God, for whom you live and whom you serve. I believe that He led me into this desert so as to show me His ways in regard to you. It is not in our power to resist the plans of God. If it were not the will of God that you and your life would be known, He would not have allowed me to see you and would not have strengthened me to undertake this journey, one like me who never before dared to leave his cell.”

Much more said Abba Zosimas. But the woman raised him and said:
“I am ashamed, Abba, to speak to you of my disgraceful life, forgive me for God’s sake! But as you have already seen my naked body, I shall likewise lay bare before you my work, so that you may know with what shame and obscenity my soul is filled. I was not running away out of vanity, as you thought, for what have I to be proud of — I who was the chosen vessel of the devil? But when I start my story you will run from me, as from a snake, for your ears will not be able to bear the vileness of my actions. But I shall tell you all without hiding anything, only imploring you first of all to pray incessantly for me, so that I may find mercy on the day of Judgment.”

The elder wept and the woman began her story.

“My native land, holy father, was Egypt. Already during the lifetime of my parents, when I was twelve years old, I renounced their love and went to Alexandria. I am ashamed to recall how there I at first ruined my maidenhood and then unrestrainedly and insatiably gave myself up to impurity. It is more becoming to speak of this briefly, so that you may just know my passion and my lechery. For about seventeen years, forgive me, I lived like that. I was like a fire of public debauch. And it was not for the sake of gain — here I speak the pure truth. Often when they wished to pay me, I refused the money. I acted in this way so as to make as many men as possible to fall into sin, doing free of charge what gave me pleasure. Do not think that I was rich and that was the reason why I did not take money. I lived by begging, often by spinning flax, but I had an insatiable desire and an irrepressible passion for lying in filth. This was life to me. Every kind of abuse of nature I regarded as life.

That is how I lived. Then one summer I saw a large crowd of Libyans and Egyptians running towards the sea. I asked one of them, Where are these men hurrying to?’ He replied,They are all going to Jerusalem for the Exaltation of the Precious and Lifegiving Cross, which takes place in a few days.’ I said to him, Will they take me with them if I wish to go?’No one will hinder you if you have money to pay for the journey and for food.’ And I said to him, `To tell you truth, I have no money, neither have I food. But I shall go with them and shall go aboard. And they shall feed me, whether they want to or not. I cam engage in sin to pay for the journey.’ I was suddenly filled with a desire to go, Abba, to cause others to sin. I told you, Abba Zosimas, not to force me to tell you of my disgrace. God is my witness, I am afraid of defiling you and the very air with my words.”

Zosimas, weeping, replied to her: “Speak on for God’s sake, mother, speak and do not break the thread of such an edifying tale.”

And, resuming her story, she went on: “That youth, on hearing my shameless words, laughed and went off. While I, throwing away my spinning wheel, ran off towards the sea in the direction which everyone seemed to be taking. and, seeing some young men standing on the shore, about ten or more of them, full of vigor and alert in their movements, I decided that they would do for my purpose (it seemed that some of them were waiting for more travelers whilst others had gone ashore). Shamelessly, as usual, I mixed with the crowd, saying, `Take me with you to the place you are going to; you will not find me superfluous.’ I also added a few more words calling forth general laughter. Seeing my readiness to be shameless, they readily took me aboard the boat. Those who were expected came also, and we set sail at once.

How shall I relate to you what happened after this? Whose tongue can tell, whose ears can take in all that took place on the boat during that voyage! And to all this I frequently caused those miserable youths to sin even against their own will. There is no mentionable or unmentionable depravity of which I was not their teacher. I am amazed, Abba, how the sea stood our licentiousness, how the earth did not open its jaws, and how it was that hell did not swallow me alive, when I had entangled in my net so many souls. But I think God was seeking my repentance. For He does not desire the death of a sinner but magnanimously awaits his return to Him. At last we arrived in Jerusalem. I spent the days before the festival in the town, living the same kind of life, perhaps even worse. I was not content with the youths I had seduced at sea and who had helped me to get to Jerusalem; many others — citizens of the town and foreigners — I also seduced.

The holy day of the Exaltation of the Cross dawned while I was still flying about — hunting for youths. At daybreak I saw that everyone was hurrying to the church, so I ran with the rest. When the hour for the holy elevation approached, I was trying to make my way in with the crowd which was struggling to get through the church doors. I, at last, squeezed through with great difficulty almost to the entrance of the temple, from which the lifegiving Tree of the Cross was being shown to the people. But when I trod on the doorstep which everyone passed, I was stopped by some force which prevented my entering. Meanwhile I was brushed aside by the crowd and found myself standing alone in the porch. Thinking that this had happened because of my woman’s weakness, I again began to work my way into the crowd, trying to elbow myself forward. But in vain I struggled. Again, my feet trod on the doorstep over which others were entering the church without encountering any obstacle. I alone seemed to remain unaccepted by the church. It was as if there was a detachment of soldiers standing there to oppose my entrance. Once again I was excluded by the same mighty force and again, I stood in the porch.

Having repeated my attempt three or four times, at last I felt exhausted and had no more strength to push and to be punched, so I went aside and stood in a corner of the porch. And only then with great difficulty it began to dawn on me, and I began to understand the reason why I was prevented from being admitted to see the life-giving Cross. The word of salvation gently touched the eyes of my heart and revealed to me that it was my unclean life which barred the entrance to me. I began to weep and lament and beat my breast, and to sigh from the depths of my heart. And so, I stood weeping when I saw above me the ikon of the most holy Mother of God. And turning to her my bodily and spiritual eyes I said:

`O Lady, Mother of God, who gave birth in the flesh to God the Word, I know, O how well I know, that it is no honor or praise to thee when one so impure and depraved as I look up to thy ikon, O ever-virgin, who didst keep thy body and soul in purity. Rightly do I inspire hatred and disgust before thy virginal purity. But I have heard that God Who was born of thee became man on purpose to call sinners to repentance. Then help me, for I have no other help. Order the entrance of the church to be opened to me. Allow me to see the venerable Tree on which He Who was born of thee suffered in the flesh and on which He shed His holy Blood for the redemption of sinners and for me, unworthy as I am. Be my faithful witness before thy son that I will never again defile my body by the impurity of fornication, but as soon as I have seen the Tree of the Cross I will renounce the world and its temptations and will go wherever thou wilt lead me.’

Thus, I spoke and as if acquiring some hope in firm faith and feeling some confidence in the mercy of the Mother of God, I left the place where I stood praying. And I went again and mingled with the crowd that was pushing its way into the temple. And no one seemed to thwart me, no one hindered my entering the church. I was possessed with trembling and was almost in delirium. Having got as far as the doors which I could not reach before — as if the same force which had hindered me cleared the way for me — I now entered without difficulty and found myself within the holy place. And so it was I saw the lifegiving Cross. I saw too the Mysteries of God and how the Lord accepts repentance. Throwing myself on the ground, I worshipped that holy earth and kissed it with trembling. Then I came out of the church and went to her who had promised to be my security, to the place where I had sealed my vow. And bending my knees before the Virgin Mother of God, I addressed to her such words as these:

O loving Lady, thou hast shown me thy great love for all men. Glory to God Who receives the repentance of sinners through thee. What more can I recollect or say, I who am so sinful? It is time for me, O Lady to fulfill my vow, according to thy witness. Now lead me by the hand along the path of repentance!’ And at these words I heard a voice from on high: If you cross the Jordan you will find glorious rest.’

Hearing this voice and having faith that it was for me, I cried to the Mother of God: `O Lady, Lady, do not forsake me!’

With these words I left the porch of the church and set off on my journey. As I was leaving the church a stranger glanced at me and gave me three coins, saying: `Sister, take these.’

And, taking the money, I bought three loaves and took them with me on my journey, as a blessed gift. I asked the person who sold the bread: `Which is the way to the Jordan?’ I was directed to the city gate which led that way. Running on I passed the gates and still weeping went on my journey. Those I met I asked the way, and after walking for the rest of that day (I think it was nine o’clock when I saw the Cross) I at length reached at sunset the Church of St. John the Baptist which stood on the banks of the Jordan. After praying in the temple, I went down to the Jordan and rinsed my face and hands in its holy waters. I partook of the holy and life-giving Mysteries in the Church of the Forerunner and ate half of one of my loaves. Then, after drinking some water from Jordan, I lay down and passed the night on the ground. In the morning I found a small boat and crossed to the opposite bank. I again prayed to Our Lady to lead me whither she wished. Then I found myself in this desert and since then up to this very day I am estranged from all, keeping away from people and running away from everyone. And I live here clinging to my God Who saves all who turn to Him from faintheartedness and storms.”

Zosimas asked her: “How many years have gone by since you began to live in this desert?”

She replied: “Forty-seven years have already gone by, I think, since I left the holy city.”

Zosimas asked: “But what food do you find?”

The woman said: “I had two and a half loaves when I crossed the Jordan. Soon they dried up and became hard as rock. Eating a little I gradually finished them after a few years.”

Zosimas asked: “Can it be that without getting ill you have lived so many years thus, without suffering in any way from such a complete change?”

The woman answered: “You remind me, Zosimas, of what I dare not speak of. For when I recall all the dangers which I overcame, and all the violent thoughts which confused me, I am again afraid that they will take possession of me.”

Zosimas said: “Do not hide from me anything; speak to me without concealing anything.”

And she said to him: “Believe me, Abba, seventeen years I passed in this desert fighting wild beasts — mad desires and passions. When I was about to partake of food, I used to begin to regret the meat and fish which of which I had so much in Egypt. I regretted also not having wine which I loved so much. for I drank a lot of wine when I lived in the world, while here I had not even water. I used to burn and succumb with thirst. The mad desire for profligate songs also entered me and confused me greatly, edging me on to sing satanic songs which I had learned once. But when such desires entered me, I struck myself on the breast and reminded myself of the vow which I had made, when going into the desert. In my thoughts I returned to the ikon of the Mother of God which had received me and to her I cried in prayer. I implored her to chase away the thoughts to which my miserable soul was succumbing. And after weeping for long and beating my breast I used to see light at last which seemed to shine on me from everywhere. And after the violent storm, lasting calm descended.

And how can I tell you about the thoughts which urged me on to impure relationships, how can I express them to you, Abba? A fire was kindled in my miserable heart which seemed to burn me up completely and to awake in me a thirst for embraces. As soon as this craving came to me, I flung myself on the earth and watered it with my tears, as if I saw before me my witness, who had appeared to me in my disobedience, and who seemed to threaten punishment for the crime. And I did not rise from the ground (sometimes I lay thus prostrate for a day and a night) until a calm and sweet light descended and enlightened me and chased away the thoughts that possessed me. But always I turned to the eyes of my mind to my Protectress, asking her to extend help to one who was sinking fast in the waves of the desert. And I always had her as my Helper and the Accepter of my repentance. And thus, I lived for seventeen years amid constant dangers. And since then even till now the Mother of God helps me in everything and leads me as it were by the hand.”

Zosimas asked: “Can it be that you did not need food and clothing?”

She answered: “After finishing the loaves I had, of which I spoke, for seventeen years I have fed on herbs and all that can be found in the desert. The clothes I had when I crossed the Jordan became torn and worn out. I suffered greatly from the cold and greatly from the extreme heat. At times the sun burned me up and at other times I shivered from the frost, and frequently falling to the ground I lay without breath and without motion. I struggled with many afflictions and with terrible temptations. But from that time till now the power of God in numerous ways had guarded my sinful soul and my humble body. When I only reflect on the evils from which Our Lord has delivered me, I have imperishable food for the hope of salvation. I am fed and clothed by the all-powerful Word of God, the Lord of all. For it is not by bread alone that man lives. And those who have stripped off the rags of sin have no refuge, hiding themselves in the clefts of the rocks (Job 24; Heb. 11:38).”

Hearing that she cited words Scripture, from Moses and Job, Zosimas asked her: “And so, you have read the psalms and other books?”

She smiled at this and said to the elder: “Believe me, I have not seen a human face ever since I crossed the Jordan, except yours today. I have not seen a beast or a living being ever since I came into the desert. I never learned from books. I have never even heard anyone who sang and read from them. But the word of God which is alive and active, by itself teaches a man knowledge. And so, this is the end of my tale. But, as I asked you in the beginning, so even now I implore you for the sake of the Incarnate word of God, to pray to the Lord for me who am such a sinner.”

Thus, concluding here tale she bowed down before him. And with tears the elder exclaimed: “Blessed is God Who creates the great and wondrous, the glorious and marvelous without end. Blessed is God Who has shown me how He rewards those who fear Him. Truly, O Lord, Thou dost not forsake those who seek Thee!”

And the woman, not allowing the elder to bow down before her, said:
“I beg you, holy father, for the sake of Jesus Christ our God and Savior, tell no one what you have heard, until God delivers me of this earth. And now depart in peace and again next year you shall see me, and I you, if God will preserve us in His great mercy. But for God’s sake, do as I ask you. Next year during Lent do not cross the Jordan, as is your custom in the monastery.”

Zosimas was amazed to hear that she knew the rules of the monastery and could only say: “Glory to God Who bestows great gifts on those who love Him.”

She continued: “Remain, Abba, in the monastery. And even if you wish to depart, you will not be able to do so. And at sunset of the holy day of the Last super, put some of the lifegiving Body and Blood of Christ into a holy vessel worthy to hold such Mysteries for me, and bring it. And wait for me on the banks of the Jordan adjoining the inhabited parts of the land, so that I can come and partake of the lifegiving Gifts. For, since the time I communicated in the temple of the Forerunner before crossing the Jordan even to this day I have not approached the Holy Mysteries. And I thirst for them with irrepressible love and longing and therefore, I ask and implore you to grant me my wish, bring me the lifegiving Mysteries at the very hour when Our Lord made His disciples partake of His Divine Supper. Tell John the Abbot of the monastery where you live. Look to yourself and to your brothers, for there is much that needs correction. Only do not say this now, but when God guides you. Pray for me!”

With these words she vanished in the depths of the desert. And Zosimas, falling down on his knees and bowing down to the ground on which she had stood, sent up glory and thanks to God. And, after wandering thorough the desert, he returned to the monastery on the day all the brothers returned.

For the whole year he kept silent, not daring to tell anyone of what he had seen. But in this should he pray to God to give him another chance of seeing the ascetic’s dear face. And when at length the first Sunday of the Great Fast came, all went out into the desert with the customary prayers and the singing of psalms. Only Zosimas was held back by illness — he lay in a fever. And then he remembered what the saint had said to him: “and even if you wish to depart, you will not be able to do so.”

Many days passed and at last recovering from his illness he remained in the monastery. And when the monks returned and the day of the Last Supper dawned, he did as he had been ordered. and placing some of the most pure Body and Blood into a small chalice and putting some figs and dates and lentils soaked in water into a small basket, he departed for the desert and reached the banks of the Jordan and sat down to wait for the saint. He waited for a long while and then began to doubt. Then raising his eyes to heaven, he began to pray:

“Grant me O Lord, to behold that which Thou hast allowed me to behold once. Do not let me depart in vain, being the burden of my sins.”

And then another thought struck him: “And what if she does come? There is no boat; how will she cross the Jordan to come to me who am so unworthy?”

And as he was pondering thus, he saw the holy woman appear and stand on the other side of the river. Zosimas got up rejoicing and glorifying and thanking God. And again, the thought came to him that she could not cross the Jordan. Then he saw that she made the sign of the Cross over the waters of the Jordan (and the night was a moonlit one, as he related afterwards) and then she at once stepped on to the waters and began walking across the surface towards him. And when he wanted to prostrate himself, she cried to him while still walking on the water: “What are you doing, Abba, you are a priest and carrying the divine Gifts!”

He obeyed her and on reaching the shore she said to the elder: “Bless, father, bless me!”

He answered her trembling, for a state of confusion had overcome him at the sight of the miracle: “Truly God did not lie when He promised that when we purify ourselves, we shall be like Him. Glory to Thee, Christ our God, Who has shown me through this thy slave how far away I stand from perfection.”

Here the woman asked him to say the Creed and the Our Father. He began, she finished the prayer and according to the custom of that time gave him the kiss of peace on the lips. Having partaken of the Holy Mysteries, she raised her hands to heaven and sighed with tears in her eyes, exclaiming: “Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, O Lord, according to Thy word; for my eyes have seen Thy salvation.”

Then she said to the elder: “Forgive me, Abba, for asking you, but fulfil another wish of mine. Go now to the monastery and let God’s grace guard you. and next year come again to the same place where I first met you. come for God’s sake, for you shall again see me, for such is the will of God.”

He said to her: “From this day on I would like to follow you and always see your holy face. but now fulfil the one and only wish of an old man and take a little of the food I have brought for you.”

And he showed her the basket, while she just touched the lentils with the tips of her fingers and taking three grains said that the Holy Spirit guards the substance of the soul unpolluted. Then she said: “Pray, for God’s sake pray for me and remember a miserable wretch.”

Touching the saint’s feet and asking for her prayers for the Church, the kingdom and himself, he let her depart with tears, while he went off sighing and sorrowful, for he could not hope to vanquish the invincible. Meanwhile she again made the sign of the Cross over the Jordan, and stepped on to the waters and crossed over as before. And the elder returned filled with joy and terror, accusing himself of not having asked the saint her name. But he decided to do so next year.

And when another year had passed, he again went into the desert. he reached the same spot but could see no sign of anyone. So raising his eyes to heaven as before, he prayed: “Show me, O Lord, Thy pure treasure, which Thou hast concealed in the desert. Show me, I pray Thee, the angel in the flesh, of which the world is not worthy.”

Then on the opposite bank of the river, her face turned towards the rising sun, he saw the saint lying dead. Her hands were crossed according to custom and her face was turned to the East. Running up he shed tears over the saint’s feet and kissed them, not daring to touch anything else.

For a long time he wept. Then reciting the appointed psalms, he said the burial prayers and thought to himself: “Must I bury the body of a saint? Or will this be contrary to her wishes?” And then he saw words traced on the ground by her head:

“Abba Zosimas, bury on this spot the body of humble Mary. Return to dust that which is dust and pray to the Lord for me, who departed in the month of Fermoutin of Egypt, called April by the Romans, on the first day, on the very night of our Lord’s Passion, after having partaken of the Divine Mysteries.” [St. Mary died in 522 A. D.]

Reading this the elder was glad to know the saint’s name. He understood too that as soon as she had partaken of the Divine Mysteries on the shore of the Jordan she was at once transported to the place where she died. The distance which Zosimas had taken twenty days to cover, Mary had evidently traversed in an hour and had at once surrendered her soul to God.

Then Zosimas thought: “It is time to do as she wished. But how am I to dig a grave with nothing in my hands?”

And then he saw nearby a small piece of wood left by some traveler in the desert. Picking it up he began to dig the ground. But the earth was hard and dry and did not yield to the efforts of the elder. He grew tired and covered with sweat. He sighed from the depths of his soul and lifting up his eyes he saw a big lion standing close to the saint’s body and licking her feet. At the sight of the lion he trembled with fear, especially when he called to mind Mary’s words that she had never seen wild beasts in the desert. But guarding himself with the sign of the cross, the thought came to him that the power of the one lying there would protect him and keep him unharmed. Meanwhile the lion drew nearer to him, expressing affection by every movement.

Zosimas said to the lion: “The Great One ordered that her body was to be buried. But I am old and have not the strength to dig the grave (for I have no spade and it would take too long to go and get one), so can you carry out the work with your claws? Then we can commit to the earth the mortal temple of the saint.”

While he was still speaking the lion with his front paws began to dig a hole deep enough to bury the body.

Again, the elder washed the feet of the saint with his tears and calling on her to pray for all, covered the body with earth in the presence of the lion. It was as it had been, naked and uncovered by anything but the tattered cloak which had been given to her by Zosimas and with which Mary, turning away, had managed to cover part of her body. Then both departed. The lion went off into the depth of the desert like a lamb, while Zosimas returned to the monastery glorifying and blessing Christ our Lord. And on reaching the monastery he told all the brothers about everything, and all marveled on hearing of God’s miracles. And with fear and love they kept the memory of the saint.

Abbot John, as St. Mary had previously told Abba Zosimas, found a number of things wrong in the monastery and got rid of them with God’s help. And Saint Zosimas died in the same monastery, almost attaining the age of a hundred, and passed to eternal life. The monks kept this story without writing it down and passed it on by word of mouth to one another.

But I (adds Sophronius) as soon as I heard it, wrote it down. Perhaps someone else, better informed, has already written the life of the Saint, but as far as I could, I have recorded everything, putting truth above all else. May God Who works amazing miracles and generously bestows gifts on those who turn to Him with faith, reward those who seek light for themselves in this story, who hear, read and are zealous to write it, and may He grant them the lot of blessed Mary together with all who at different times have pleased God by their pious thoughts and labors.
And let us also give glory to God, the eternal King, that He may grant us too His mercy in the day of judgment for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord, to Whom belongs all glory, honor, dominion and adoration with the Eternal Father and the Most Holy and Life-giving Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

SUNDAY OF ST. GREGORY PALAMAS

March 24, 2019 – SECOND SUNDAY OF GREAT LENT

Today is a very special day. Today we commemorate the wisdom and courage of a 14th century monastic and defender of the prayer of the heart. We also see the forgiveness of Christ freely given to those who would not be stopped by any barrier to get to Him. And finally, we are preparing to celebrate a major feast of the Church right in the middle of Lenten struggle and journey.

  1. SECOND SUNDAY OF GREAT LENT. ST. GREGORY PALAMAS. GOD IS LIGHT
    Our Holy Father, St. Gregory Palamas
    Commemorated November 14, and on the Second Sunday of Great Lent

St. Gregory Palamas, one of the pillars of Orthodoxy, was born in 1296, probably to a noble Anatolian family in Constantinople. He and his brother went to Mount Athos in around 1318 and lived in Vatopedi and Esphigmenou Monasteries. Gregory also successfully persuaded his widowed mother, brothers and sisters to become take up the monastic life. With the encroachment of the Turks, he was forced to flee to Thessalonica, being ordained a priest there in 1326. Afterward, he took up the eremetic life at a mountain near Beroea, and eventually returned to Athos in 1331.
St. Gregory lived in very difficult times, for many heresies were creeping into the Church, and the Ottoman Empire was ever expanding, taking over Byzantine lands. In the early 1300’s he wrote on the nature of the Holy Spirit, showing the errors of the Latin view while living at the hermitage of Saint Savvas on Mount Athos. He became known as a preeminent theologian early in life, due to his many writings and for his beliefs on hesychasm.

St. Gregory is known as one of the great defenders of Orthodoxy and is most well-known for his defense against the heresies of Barlaam. Gregory was asked to defend the monastic ways of the Holy Mountain from the charges of Barlaam, a monk of Calabria. Barlaam, influenced by the Latin church, believed that philosophy and human thought were the way to know God. He stated the unknowability of God in an extreme form, having been influenced by a reductionist interpretation of the writings of St. Dionysius the Areopagite. Orthodoxy had always known, through the wisdom of the Holy Fathers, that prayer and fasting are the key to knowing God. Barlaam believed that the monks of Mount Athos were wasting their time in their prayers and fasting when they should be studying the great philosophers of mankind.

St. Gregory said that the Holy Fathers and the prophets had a greater knowledge of God, because they had actually seen or heard God Himself. He taught that modern ideas about human thought and reason had no place in the Church. When asked how it is possible to have knowledge of the unknowable God, he showed the difference between knowing God in His essence or person and knowing God in his energies or being. It became clear that one could not find God in the logic of this world. He taught the Orthodox knowledge that it remains impossible to know God in His essence or person. However, with sufficient prayer and fasting and turning oneself over to God, through purification of one’s soul, anyone can come to know Him in His energies and being.

The Barlaam heresies spanned many years and two phases. Due to acts of political power struggles in Constantinople, Gregory was imprisoned to prevent him from speaking the Truth. As the political struggle increased, his accusers multiplied because he would not yield to their heresies, and he opposed the new emperor due to the emperor’s acceptance of the heresies.

When St. Gregory criticized Barlaam’s rationalism, Barlaam replied with a vicious attack on the hesychastic life of the Athonite monks. Gregory’s rebuttal was the Triads in defense of the Holy Hesychasts (c. 1338), a brilliant work whose teaching was affirmed by his fellow Hagiorites, who met together in a council during 1340-1341, issuing a statement known as the Hagioritic Tome, which supported Gregory’s theology.

A synod held in Constantinople in 1341 also supported St. Gregory’s views, condemning Barlaam. Later, in 1344, the opponents of hesychasm secured a condemnation for heresy and excommunication for Gregory, but the saint’s theology was reaffirmed at two further synods held in Constantinople in 1347 and 1351. Collectively, these three synods in Constantinople are held by many Orthodox Christians and several prominent theologians to constitute the Ninth Ecumenical Council. Between the latter two synods, Gregory composed the One Hundred and Fifty Chapters, a concise exposition of his theology.

In 1347, he was consecrated Archbishop of Thessalonica, but the political climate made it impossible for him to take up his see until 1350. During a voyage to the Imperial capital, he was captured by the Turks and held in captivity for over a year. He reposed in 1359 and was glorified by the Orthodox Church in 1368.

The second Sunday of the Great Fast is called the Sunday of Gregory Palamas in all Orthodox Churches. A full service was composed for his feast day, November 14, by the Patriarch Philotheus in 1368. St. Gregory’s holy relics are kept in the Cathedral of Thessalonica.

(Compiled from Troparia.com and Orthodox Wiki)

God is Light

On the Second Sunday of Great Lent, we celebrate the memory of St. Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonica. On this day, the Holy Church speaks to us about the mystery of light, which we must come to know, if we want to behold the Resurrection of Christ. St. Gregory of Thessalonica and the theological arguments of the fourteenth century connected with his name taught that the light of the Transfiguration is uncreated light. Refuting the heresies of the western theologians, this teaching reminded Christians of the words of the Scripture stating that God is light. By confessing God the Father and God the Son, Light from Light, true God of true God, we believe that God the Light created another light—the one described in the book of Genesis: “God said, let there be light.”

These dogmatic questions were not abstract or removed from the life of the Church. They should not be removed from us, either. It is wrong to look at them as simple theological or scholarly discussions that have no relation to our life. That would mean only one thing: that the light about which God speaks to us—the light in which there is no darkness—will remain unseen to us, and we do not regret or repent that we remain in darkness. All the problems in the Church are, in the final analysis, bound up with the fact that certain mysteries of faith become abstract. They cease to be living, essential questions that decide our fate; and we lose the depth of faith, and the fullness of our Christian calling, which we should be realizing in the Church.

Archpriest Alexander Shargunov
Translated by OrthoChristian.com

Hesychasm is a mystical tradition of prayer in the Orthodox Church. It is described in great detail in the Philokalia, a compilation of what various saints wrote about prayer and the spiritual life.

Hesychastic practice – Hesychasm may involve specific body postures and may be accompanied by deliberate breathing exercises. It involves acquiring an “inner stillness,” ignoring the senses. The hesychasts interpreted Christ’s injunction in the Gospel of Matthew to “go into your closet to pray” to mean that they should move beyond the senses and withdraw inwards to pray. Hesychasm often includes repeating the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me [a sinner]”.

Gregory Palamas: Defender of Hesychasm
Hesychasm was defended theologically by Gregory Palamas at about three separate “Hesychast Synods” in Constantinople from 1341 to 1351. St. Gregory was asked to by his fellow monks on Mt. Athos to defend it from the attacks of Barlaam of Calabria, who advocated a more intellectualist approach to prayer.

Some words from St. John Climacus
From Step 6 – On Remembrance of Death in The Ladder of Divine Ascent:

Every word is preceded by thought. And the remembrance of death and sins precedes weeping and mourning.
Not every desire for death is good. Some, constantly sinning from force of habit, pray for death with humility. And some, who do not want to repent, invoke death out of despair. And some, out of self-esteem consider themselves dispassionate, and for a while have no fear of death. And some (if such can now be found), through the action of the Holy Spirit, ask for their departure.
Some inquire and wonder: “Why, when the remembrance of death is so beneficial to us, has God hidden from us the knowledge of the hour of death?” – not knowing that in this way God wonderfully accomplishes our salvation. For no one who foreknew his death would at once proceed to baptism or the monastic life; but everyone would spend all his days in iniquities, and only on the day of his death, would he approach baptism and repentance. From long habit, he would become confirmed in vice, and would remain utterly incorrigible.
And I cannot be silent about the story of Hesychius the Horebite. He passed his life in complete negligence, without paying the least attention to his soul. Then he became extremely ill, and for an hour he expired. And when he came to himself, he begged us all to leave him immediately. And he built up the door of his cell, and he stayed in it for twelve years without ever uttering a word to anyone, and without eating anything but bread and water. And, always remaining motionless, he was so rapt in spirit at what he had seen in his ecstasy, that he never changed this manner of life but was always as if out of his mind, and silently shed hot tears. But when he was about to die, we broke open the door and went in, and after many questions, this alone was all we heard from him: “Forgive me! No one who has acquired the remembrance of death will ever be able to sin.” We were amazed to see that one who had before been so negligent was so suddenly transfigured by this blessed change and transformation. We reverently buried him in the cemetery near the fort, and after some days we looked for his holy relics but did not find them. So, by Hesychius’s true and praiseworthy repentance, the Lord showed us that He accepts those who desire to amend, even after long negligence.

If you have ever gone to a monastery you have likely heard the monastics practicing this Hesychastic practice defended by St. Gregory. Saying “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me [a sinner]” is a way to help focus our minds when walking, working, driving dozing off to sleep or first waking in the morning. Using this prayer to help guard our minds from thinking sinful thoughts or to calm our spirits can be useful to us all.

St. Paul understood what it means to pray without ceasing.
Romans 1:9 For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of His Son, that without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers,
1 Thessalonians 5:17pray without ceasing,
2 Timothy 1:3 I thank God, whom I serve with a pure conscience, as my forefathers did, as without ceasing I remember you in my prayers night and day.

Among other teachings, St. Gregory Palamas was a defender of this practice against those who would have taken it away from us.

  1. Today’s Gospel Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Mark. (2:1-12)
    At that time, when Jesus returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that He was at home. And many were gathered together, so that there was no longer room for them, not even about the door; and He was preaching the Word to them. And they came, bringing to Jesus a paralytic carried by four men. And when they could not get near Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above Him; and when they had made an opening, they let down the pallet on which the paralytic lay. And when Jesus saw their faith, He said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now, some of the scribes were sitting there, reasoning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And immediately Jesus, perceiving in His spirit that they thus reasoned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you reason thus in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your pallet and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” – He said to the paralytic – “I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home.” And he rose, and immediately took up the pallet and went out before them all. So that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”

Jesus healed to prove that he could forgive sins. Our real illness is our sin, not our cancer, our diabetes, or our heart disease. Maybe we can’t see the sickness of our sin but it more deadly than any #1 killer disease listed by the Center for Disease Control. And how can we experience healing – go to Jesus – no matter the cost or barriers. This man in today’s lesson was unable to walk so he was brought to Jesus by his companions. When they arrived, the house was full and they were unable to enter. Even this didn’t stop them. They took apart the roof to lower their sick friend into the presence of Christ for healing. What was Christ’s response their faith? “Your sins are forgiven!” Those gathered in the house were scandalized this statement. This paralyzed man obviously need to walk – not his sin’s forgiven! What was Jesus saying? Why didn’t He just command him to walk initially? He healed this paralyzed man so prove that he had authority over sin and Satan. Do we really believe Jesus has power over our sins? Are we simply asking for more toys and praying about our physical ailments when Jesus wants to give us freedom from our sins and that which keeps us enslaved to Satan? Do we really believe that Jesus can give us healing from our destructive thoughts, actions, fears, doubts, self-lies, and behavior? According to this passage, Jesus wants to and can give physical healing. However, everyone He healed eventually died.

Hebrews 9: 27-28 “And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation.”

Our sins are forgiven. When were we cleaned from the stain of our sins? At our baptism and Chrismation.

Romans 6 New King James Version (NKJV)
“1 What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? 3 Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? 4 Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.

5 For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, 6 knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be [a]done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. 7 For he who has died has been [b]freed from sin. 8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, 9 knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. 10 For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. 11 Likewise you also, [c]reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. 13 And do not present your members as [d]instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. 14 For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.

15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? Certainly not! 16 Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves whom you obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness? 17 But God be thanked that though you were slaves of sin, yet you obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine to which you were [e]delivered. 18 And having been set free from sin, you became slaves of righteousness. 19 I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness [f]for holiness.

20 For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. 21 What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. 22 But now having been set free from sin, and having become slaves of God, you have your fruit [g]to holiness, and the end, everlasting life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the [h]gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Are we like those doubters in the house who are scandalized by the claims of healing and forgiveness in the gospel message of Christ or are we like those who will not be stopped by paralyzing disabilities, impassable crowds, closed doors and roofs, and the ridicule of the cynical masses to run to Christ to spend time with Him and be close to Him in order to be healed and forgiven? Let us also take up our pallets and walk. Let us arise from our beds of indecision, distraction, despair, and despondency and move forward with confidence, courage, conviction and clear direction. Our families need us to move forward in faith. Our spouses and kids need us to step up and walk in the forgiveness and healing of Christ. Those around us are counting on us to believe Christ when He tells us that we have been forgiven and we can now walk in faith. We are no longer tied to our beds of inaction and disbelief. We have been given our legs back and we can walk in Christ – not because of who we are but because of who HE is and what He has done for this paralytic in today’s gospel and what he has done for us!

  1. The Fore-Feast of the Annunciation of Our Most Holy Lady, the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary

Tomorrow’s GOSPEL Reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (1:24-49, 56)

“At that time, Elizabeth, the wife of Zachariah, conceived, and for five months she hid herself, saying, “Thus the Lord has done to me in the days when He looked on me, to take away my reproach among men.” In the sixth month the archangel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the archangel came to her and said, “Rejoice, O favored one, the Lord is with thee! Blessed art thou among women!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the archangel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for thou hast found favor with God. And behold, thou wilt conceive in thy womb and bear a son, and you shall call His Name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of His kingdom there will be no end.” And Mary said to the archangel, “How shall this be, since I have known no man?” And the archangel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon thee, and the power of the Most High will overshadow thee; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the archangel departed from her. In those days, Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for He has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for He Who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His Name.” And Mary remained with her about three months, and returned to her home.”

The Feast of the Annunciation is one of the earliest Christian feasts and was already being celebrated in the fourth century. There is a painting of the Annunciation in the catacombs of Priscilla in Rome dating from the second century. The Council of Toledo in 656 mentions the Feast. In 692 the Council in Trullo celebrated the Annunciation during Great Lent.

The Greek and Slavonic names for the Feast may be translated as “good tidings.” This, of course, refers to the Incarnation of the Son of God and the salvation He brings. The background of the Annunciation is found in the Gospel of St. Luke (1:26-38). The troparion describes this as the “beginning of our salvation, and the revelation of the eternal mystery,” for on this day the Son of God became the Son of Man.

There are two main components to the Annunciation: the message itself, and the response of the Virgin. The message fulfills God’s promise to send a Redeemer (Genesis 3:15): “I will put enmity between you and the woman, between your seed and her seed; he shall crush your head, and you shall lie in wait for his heel.” The Fathers of the Church understand “her seed” to refer to Christ. The prophets hinted at His coming, but the Archangel Gabriel proclaimed that the promise is about to be fulfilled.

We see this echoed in the Liturgy of St. Basil, as well: “When man disobeyed Thee, the only true God who had created him, and was deceived by the guile of the serpent, becoming subject to death by his own transgressions, Thou, O God, in Thy righteous judgment, didst send him forth from Paradise into this world, returning him to the earth from which he was taken, yet providing for him the salvation of regeneration in Thy Christ Himself.”

The Archangel Gabriel was sent by God to Nazareth in Galilee. There he spoke to the undefiled Virgin who was betrothed to St. Joseph: “Hail, thou who art highly favored, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Most High: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David. And he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”

In contrast to Eve, who was readily deceived by the serpent, the Virgin did not immediately accept the Angel’s message. In her humility, she did not think she was deserving of such words, but was actually troubled by them. The fact that she asked for an explanation reveals her sobriety and prudence. She did not disbelieve the words of the angel, but could not understand how they would be fulfilled, for they spoke of something which was beyond nature. “Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” (Luke 1:34).

“And the angel answered and said unto her, the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee: therefore also that which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. And, behold, thy cousin Elizabeth hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. For with God nothing shall be impossible. And Mary said, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.’ And the angel departed from her” (Luke 1: 35-38).

In his Sermon 23 on the day of the Annunciation, St. Philaret of Moscow boldly stated that “the word of the creature brought the Creator down into the world.” He explains that salvation is not merely an act of God’s will, but also involves the Virgin’s free will. She could have refused, but she accepted God’s will and chose to cooperate without complaint or further questions.

The icon of the Feast shows the Archangel with a staff in his left hand, indicating his role as a messenger. Sometimes one wing is upraised, as if to show his swift descent from heaven. His right hand is stretched toward the holy Virgin as he delivers his message.

The Virgin is depicted either standing or sitting, usually holding yarn in her left hand. Sometimes she is shown holding a scroll. Her right hand may be raised to indicate her surprise at the message she is hearing. Her head is bowed, showing her consent and obedience. The descent of the Holy Spirit upon her is depicted by a ray of light issuing from a small sphere at the top of the icon, which symbolizes heaven. In a famous icon from Sinai, a white dove is shown in the ray of light.

The Annunciation falls during Lent, but it is always celebrated with great joy. The Liturgy of St. Basil or St. John Chrysostom is served, even on the weekdays of Lent. It is one of the two days of Great Lent on which the fast is relaxed and fish is permitted (Palm Sunday is the other).

Troparion (Tone 4) –

Today is the beginning of our salvation, The revelation of the eternal mystery!
The Son of God becomes the Son of the Virgin As Gabriel announces the coming of Grace.
Together with him let us cry to the Theotokos: Rejoice, O Full of Grace, The Lord is with You!

The feast of Annunciation teaches us about the incarnation – God became man. Christ is fully God and fully man. This feast teaches us about obedience and yielding our will to God. This feast reminds us of the glorious and miraculous birth of Christ coming in nine months. Long before the annual countdown of shopping days before Christmas, God gave us this milestone – in the middle of Great Lent – to remind us that Christ is Born, Glorify Him! This major feast day is wisely put in the middle of our Lenten Fast to give us relief and a refocus on the incarnation. We can eat fish and have a glass of wine tomorrow. Please do this. Find some fish to eat on this feast day and have a glass of wine. Celebrate this announcement to the willing, obedient and yielded young virgin to be used by God to bring salvation to the world. This is reason to celebrate! In the midst of our Great Fast we are told to celebrate this Great Feast – with fish and wine. In our obedience, we fast during Great Lent. In our obedience, we feast on this Great Feast – in anticipation of the coming of Christ to bring salvation, healing, and forgiveness to our lives in the lives of those who are around us every day.

Our lessons today?

  1. Let us pray without ceasing – The Jesus Prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, Have mercy on me, a sinner.”
  2. Let nothing stop us from going to Christ – the source of true for forgiveness and healing.
  3. Let us join in on this major Feast of the Church to celebrate the miracle of God becoming man to bring salvation to our world through the humble obedience of this young and yielded virgin.

(Jude 24 & 25) – “Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless Before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to God our Savior, Who alone is wise, Be glory and majesty, Dominion and power, Both now and forever. Amen.”

The Pharisee and the Publican

“I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled,
but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14)

February 17, 2019 – LUKE 18:10-14

The Lord said this parable, “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

We’ve watched it happen to those around us – a self-absorbed professional athlete gets cut from a team. An egotistical actor or performer flops in his or her newest effort. Or an arrogant politician loses an election. We call this “being taken down a notch”. We observe someone who is overconfident and bombastic – they are selfish and proud, we call it full of themselves and then they get put in their place by circumstances or even as a result of their own pompous behavior. It all catches up with them eventually. The truth of the matter is, much of our society today has convinced us that we too must be self-promoting and self-centered, or no one will notice our accomplishments. In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus is teaching those with Him just the opposite. Matter of fact in Verse 9 we are told by St. Luke why Jesus told this parable. “He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others”
What was the Pharisee’s sin? – fasting, tithing, keeping the commandments – No. His sin was lack of humility. We should fast. We should tithe. We should keep the commandments. The tax collector in today’s gospel lesson was humble. The religious leader, the Pharisee, was given as an example of how not to fast, tithe or keep the commandments. He was proud. He trusted in himself and despised others.
(The Meaning of Fasting in the Orthodox Church – by Fr. Milan Savich)
Fasting is as old as the human race. Fasting was practiced by pagan religions, Judaism and Christianity, and it was generally considered an important element of religious life, although with different practices and understanding. In the ancient religions of the East fasting meant a complete abstention from food for a certain period of time — one day or more. The origin of fasting as a moral discipline, especially among the old pagan religions is very obscure, just as their understanding of God was inadequate and vague.
The monotheistic, God revealed religion of the “Chosen People” knew about fasting. From the Old Testament we learn that God instituted fasting in Paradise when He said: “But of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” (Gen. 2:17) From this is clear that fasting existed before the “original sin” of Adam and Eve, and it was not ordered as a cure for their sin. The fasting in Paradise consisted of abstaining of certain food — namely of “the fruit of the tree.” The tree of knowledge of good and evil was created by God as well as all other trees in Paradise and, as such, preceded Satan and his sinful conspiracies. God’s commandment to Adam and Even not to eat of the particular fruit was issued as a method of man’s discipline of self-control and spiritual growth. This means that the first man in Paradise was not perfect but was good and capable to improve and develop his spiritual and moral personality.
Fasting understood in this way was practiced both in the Old and New Testament and throughout the entire history of the Church. The noted Orthodox theologian Father Alexander Schmemann, speaking about fasting in the Old and New Testament, saw a great similarity and interdependence between two events in the Bible — one at the beginning of the Old Testament and the other at the beginning of the New Testament. He writes: “The first is the ‘breaking of the fast’ by Adam in Paradise. He ate of the forbidden fruit. This is how man’s original sin is revealed to us. Christ, the new Adam, — and this is the second event — begins by fasting. Adam was tempted and succumbed to temptation. The result of Adam’s failure is expulsion from Paradise and death. The fruit of Christ’s victory is the destruction of death and return to Paradise. It is clear, that in this perspective, fasting is revealed to us as something decisive and ultimate in importance. It is not mere ‘obligation’, a custom; it is connected with the very mystery of life and death, of salvation and damnation.” St. Basil the Great, confirms this statement by saying: “Because we did not fast, we were chased out of Paradise; let us fast now, so that someday we return there.”
We have many shining examples of fasting in the Old and New Testament. Moses fasted forty days before receiving from God the Ten Commandments. The prophet Isaiah has written about fasting centuries before Christ’s coming:
“Is not this the fast that I choose, to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free…? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover him… then shall your light break forth like the dawn …” (Isaiah 58)
In the Old Testament fasting is sometimes preparation for the Feast days, but more generally it is a sign of humility before God. Fasting accompanied mourning and repentance. In time of necessity of danger, it was appropriate for an individual or the whole community to fast. Fasting, so to speak, reinforced urgent prayer. How seriously it might be taken up, to the extent that an earnest man of prayer might become weak and think through lack of nourishment, is shown by Psalm 109:24:
“My Knees are weak through fasting; and my flesh faileth of fatness.”
Fasting in the New Testament was introduced by our Lord Jesus Christ Who gave us a great example of fasting. After His Baptism in the river of Jordan He withdrew into the wilderness where He spend forty days and forty nights in prayer and fasting in preparation for His sacred ministry. Jesus taught his disciples and followers to fast. He told them not to fast like the Pharisees, but when they fast bodily they should be completely natural in their behavior — humble and penitent.
“And when ye fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face that your fasting may not be seen by men, but by your Father Who is in secret. And your Father Who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matt. 6:16-18)
Here we should mention that fasting in the Orthodox Church has two aspects: physical and spiritual. The first one implies abstinence from rich food, such as dairy products, eggs and all kinds of meat. Spiritual fasting consists in abstinence from evil thoughts, desires, and deeds. The main purpose of fasting is to gain mastery over oneself and to conquer the passions of the flesh. It is to liberate oneself from dependence on the things of this world in order to concentrate on the things of the Kingdom of God. It is to give power to the soul so that it would not yield to temptation and sin. According to St. Seraphim, fasting is an “indispensable means” of gaining the fruit of the Holy Spirit in one’s life, and Jesus Himself taught that some forms of evil cannot be conquered without it. When the Apostles failed to heal a sick and suffering child, Christ explained that, “This kind (meaning devil) can come out only by prayer and fasting.” (Matt. 12:21) Commenting on this St. John Chrysostom said: “That these are like two wings that carry a person to the heights of God.”
The Apostles of Christ continued in prayer and fasting, and commanded others to do the same. They fasted also as they accomplished their ministries by the power of the Holy Spirit and by prayer, as we read in the Acts:
“Now in the church at Antioch… while they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul (Paul) for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.” (Acts. 13:13)
Today, I think it is safe to say, the practice and idea of fasting is largely ignored. Some people say that God’s people need not fast since we are saved by grace and not by works, and that fasting can easily become hypocritical, done merely for show and for the condemnation of others. Many others generally dismiss fasting as something old-fashioned, simple and naïve. “This is the twenty-first century; those rules were made for the past and simpler days.”
Nonetheless, in spite of the present practice of most people, we must take the practice of fasting seriously, if for no other reason, then out of respect for other people, throughout Christian history, who have taken it seriously. We all need to develop the habit of saying no to our carnal passions and desires. What we need is self-discipline and self-control. These are acquired only through regular spiritual exercise — namely through fasting.
Fasting is not at all an act of mortification for mortification’s sake. It is not a “little suffering” which is somehow pleasing to God. It is not a punishment which is to be sorrowfully endured in payment for sins. On the contrary, fasting for a Christian, should be a joyful experience, because fasting is a self-discipline which we voluntarily impose upon ourselves in order to become better persons and better Christians. The sin of not fasting is the sin of failing to employ a practice which is absolutely necessary to a sinful person in his struggle to overcome his sins and to gain the love and communion of God.
Fasting is an art fully mastered by the Saints. These holy men and women, who have taken their religion and fasting seriously, can be of great help to us. They offer a number of recommendations for fasting.

  1. Fasting is essential for us to regain control over our bodies. We live in a pluralistic and secularistic society where the Biblical idea of fasting is completely ignored and forgotten. “Gluttony has become a way of life for a fallen man and, it affects every area of life, leaving us wide open to all types of temptation. We all eat too much and fasting is the only way to end this unnatural obsession with food. Fasting puts food into its proper perspective. We must each in order to live, but we shouldn’t simply live to eat.” St. Isaac of Syria said: “The first commandment given to our nature in the beginning was the fasting from food and in this the head of our race (Adam) fell. Those who wish to attain the fear of God, therefore, should begin to build where the building was first fallen. They should begin with the commandment to fast.”
  2. Fasting simplifies our lives. “By eating less, we can pay attention to more important matters, such as our relationship with God.” Fasting is part of the spiritual life without which the soul perishes, suffocated by the flesh and choked by carnal pleasures. A human being must fast. The effort enlightens the mind, strengthens the spirit, controls the emotions and tames the passions. Thus “a man who strives for salvation… must not allow himself to eat to fullness …” says St. Gregory of Sinai. St. Isaac of Syria says, “Meager food at the table of the pure cleanses the soul of those who partake from all passion … for the work of fasting and vigil is the beginning of every effort against sin and lust … almost all passionate drives decrease through fasting.” An old man in the desert was asked why he was so severe on his body. He answered simply, “If I don’t kill it, it kills me.” By this the holy fathers taught us to be killers of passions and not killers of the body. Partake of everything that is permissible with thanksgiving, to the glory of God and avoid boastful arrogance; but refrain from every excess. (The Monks Callistus and Ignatius, 14c., Directions to Hesychasts.)
  3. Fasting “lightens our load” and makes it easier to pray. “For many people the refusal to fast is just one more excuse to cut themselves off from God. The person who wants to pray better should eat less. This makes the mind and the spirit less sluggish. We are then more capable of lifting our minds and hearts to God.” St. Isaac of Syria says: “As long as man’s mouth is sealed by fasting his mind will meditate on the repentance of his soul.”
  4. Fasting restores discipline to our lives. “How many of us can honestly say that we are disciplined in spiritual matters as we should be? Fasting may just be the beginning of our journey toward spiritual seriousness, but we all have to start somewhere. We can all see what the lack of real discipline has done to American moral life. The same happens to our own spiritual lives without discipline. Fasting is the beginning of this discipline.”
  5. Fasting ultimately brings about purity of heart. “The saints teach that for us to purify our hearts we must begin with the control of our bodily desires through fasting. As long as the flesh rules, purity of heart will not exist.” In the words of St. John Chrysostom fasting implies not only abstinence from food, but from sins also. “The fast,” he insists, “should be kept not by the mouth alone but also by the eye, the ear, the feet, the hands and all the members of the body: the eye must abstain from impure sights, the ear from malicious gossip, the hands from acts of injustice.” It is useless to fast from food, protests St. Basil, and yet to indulge in cruel criticism and slander: “You do not eat meat, but you devour your brother.”
  6. Fasting returns us to a “Paradise-like” way of life. Our forefathers Adam and Eve ate only plants rather than meat or meat products. (Gen. 1:30, 9:3) “When we fast, we voluntarily return to Paradise. We do this not because it is sinful to eat meat, but because we recognize our true homeland, the Kingdom of God, and we want to reinforce this truth in our lives.” Our fasting and self-discipline, then, “signifies a rejection of the world, only in so far as it is corrupted by the fall; of the body, only in so far as it is dominated by sinful passions.”
  7. Finally, fasting is the foundation of and preparation for every spiritual effort. “Spiritual effort presumes that we are in control of our bodies. Beyond this, fasting is the ideal preparation for spiritual celebration, such as Easter, Christmas, and other Feasts, because when undertaken properly, fasting fills our hearts and minds with the task before us. It concentrates our spiritual energies and makes them more effective.” Thus, when Moses fasted on Mount Sinai (Exod. 34:28) and Elijah on Mount Horeb (Kings 19:8-12), the fast was in both cases linked with a Theophany. The same connection between fasting and the vision of God is evident in the case of St. Peter (Acts 10:9-17) He went up to the housetop to pray about the sixth hour, and he became very hungry and wanted to eat; and it was in this state that he fell into a trance and heard the divine voice. Such is always the purpose of ascetic fasting — to enable us, to “draw near to the mountain of prayer.”

Why do Orthodox Christians fast on Wednesdays and Fridays? Orthodox Christians fast on Wednesday in remembrance of the betrayal of Christ and on Fridays in remembrance of His crucifixion and death.
We fast for our benefit, but we fast in secret. We fast humbly. Instead of responding to others around us about why we’re not eating a hamburger, we don’t go into a long thesis on Orthodox fasting and why we are better or stronger Christians because we fast twice a week just like the early church did, it might just be better for us to simply say that we only need a salad today or that we are learning the value of simplifying our lives. Guard your words. Fast as the Church prescribes but stay humble about your fasting.
No only was the Pharisee arrogant about his fasting but he was arrogant about his tithing.
How then should we tithe (give)? This Pharisee was an arrogant tither.
Tithing goes all the way back to Gen 14: 20 – Abraham was the first tither. He gave Melchizedek (priest of God Most High) 1/10th of everything he had.
OT – The law required they tithe – grain, herds, flock, seed, land, fruit, wine, oil, oxen, sheep, dough,
The prophets warned the nation of Israel to not rob God – Malachi 3:8-10 [Do Not Rob God] “Will a man rob God? Yet you have robbed Me! But you say, ‘In what way have we robbed You?’ In tithes and offerings. You are cursed with a curse, for you have robbed Me, Even this whole nation. Bring all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in My house, and try Me now in this,” Says the Lord of hosts, “If I will not open for you the windows of heaven And pour out for you such blessing That there will not be room enough to receive it.”
We should not hold back from God what is His. It is our responsibility make it a regular practice to give to our church so we can collectively move forward in the founding of our mission here in Columbia.
Jesus spoke to His disciples and those following Him and commanded them to give generously – Luke 6: 38 Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you.”
The Apostle Paul wrote to the early churches exhorting them to give cheerfully – II Cor 9:6 But this I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. 7 So let each one give as he purposes in his heart, not grudgingly or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver. 8 And God is able to make all grace abound toward you, that you, always having all sufficiency in all things, may have an abundance for every good work.
How do we give? We give secretly – Jesus said to (Matthew 6:6) “Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2 Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 3 But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.
In our walk of faith, we must be humble. The tax collector wouldn’t even raise his eyes to God in his prayer because he knew his sin and felt unclean, sick and unworthy because of his sin. In our walk of faith, we must all not speak of or think of our efforts but humbly approach God being fully aware of our short fallings.
St. Cyril of Alexandria writes, “It says that the tax collector ‘stood afar off,’ not even venturing to raise up his eyes. You see him abstaining from all boldness of speech. He seems devoid of the right to speak and beaten down by the scorn of conscience. He was afraid that God would see him, since he had been careless in keeping his laws and had led an unchaste and uncontrolled life. You also see that he accuses his own depravity by his external manner. The foolish Pharisee stood there bold and broad, lifting up his eyes without a qualm, bearing witness of himself and boastful. The other feels shame for his conduct. He is afraid of his judge. He beats his breast. He confesses his offenses. He shows his illness as to the Physician, and he prays that he will have mercy. What is the result? Let us hear what the judge says, ‘This man went down to his house justified rather than the other.’”
I Peter 5: 5 “Likewise you younger people, submit yourselves to your elders. Yes, all of you be submissive to one another, and be clothed with humility, for “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” 6 Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time.”
God resists the proud.
Proverbs 16:18 “Pride goes before destruction, And a haughty spirit before a fall.”
James 4:10 “Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up.”
God is faithful to lift up the humble and put down the proud. In all of our ways, actions and behavior it is our responsibility to repent from our errors and destruction and not promote ourselves. This is how we approach Great Lent. This is how we fast and this is how we give and keep the commandments of God – with humility. During lent we are asked to evaluate our walk of faith and make changes to our practice. How can we learn to trust God more in our fasting, giving and obedience to the commands of God? We must proceed with humility and then God will raise us up in His due time.
(Jude 24 & 25) – “Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless Before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to God our Savior, Who alone is wise, Be glory and majesty, Dominion and power, Both now and forever. Amen.”

The Fifteenth Sunday of Luke — Zacchaeus Sunday

” And he sought to see Who Jesus was, but could not, on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature. 
So, he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Jesus, for He was to pass that way. ”

Sunday, January 27, 2019 – Luke 19:1-10

“At that time, Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through.  And there was a man named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector, and rich.  And he sought to see Who Jesus was, but could not, on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature.  So, he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Jesus, for He was to pass that way.  And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”  So, he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully.  And when they saw it they all murmured, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.”  And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”  And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.””

Surprises!  Some people like them and some don’t.  Sometimes we surprise those we love with surprise parties or gifts or even surprise compliments.  Other times we can be surprised by an unexpected fall or accident or bill in the mail.   Surprises are not inherently happy.   Many times, we prefer time to prepare for what we are about to encounter.  We are a preparing people.  We prepare for exams, we prepare for retirement, we prepare for meetings and for the new year.  We prepare for our meals and vacations.  We prepare for weddings and the arrival of a baby.  We need time to get our minds going in the right direction and we want time to make the necessary physical arrangements for our next big event – a cake, a gift, a plane ticket, a hotel reservation, a menu, gathering ingredients for a meal.  We need to make plans and make sure all is in place before any big occasion or happening in our lives.

If we are taking a trip with our family and we know the number of hours or miles required for this trip, we will begin to follow the signs or count down the hours before our expected arrival.  Belinda and I were raised in Kansas and we made that trip back to Kansas to visit grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins 1-2 times every year for the past 23 years we have lived here in Tennessee.  On that trip we know the milestones.  We know where we are likely to stop for lunch and when we are only 2 hours out from our arrival.  We’ve got that road trip nearly memorized.  Knowing how far away we are helps us to prepare and to anticipate our arrival at the homes of our family members in Kansas.

What many of you may know, is that we are about to begin an amazing journey together this spring.  Our journey is one of joy and celebration and growth as a church family.  Our journey will include a period of more somber reflection, confession, repentance and forgiveness before we enter into the grand celebration we call – Pascha, which is the Orthodox Christian name for Easter.  This is the absolute highest of all of the Orthodox Feasts we celebrate during the church year since we are celebrating the glorious resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ on this day. 

However, as I said – we must prepare.  We don’t attend any grand celebration with our family, work or community without making the necessary preparations and this is the same for the grandest of all Orthodox Christian feasts.  We must prepare and during our preparation we encounter signs along the way just like we do when making a 13-hour road trip with my family of 5 daughters and our dog to visit our families in Kansas.  The Church provides us with road signs as we make our church family journey and this week, with the reading of this Gospel lesson today, is our very first sign along the road to Great Lent, Holy Week and Pascha.  This week is the week we read of the Apostle Zacchaeus.  You heard the story just a few minutes ago and probably grew up hearing and singing about the little man who couldn’t see Jesus as he was passing him by on the street on this day so he “climbed up in a sycamore tree to see what he could see.”

It might be easy to think that these chance encounters that short men, sick women, blind men, dead children, paralyzed men and demon possessed men all had with Jesus were just that – chance encounters and reassuring stories or parables included in the gospels for our benefit so we know that Jesus spoke with those around him as he was moving from one city to another with his disciples.  However, the early church writers and fathers have made it crystal clear to us that each of these stories are included in the New Testament to validate the leadership of a Church bishop or early church leader or martyr.  These stories are included to prove when the early church leaders actually met Jesus and how that meeting changed their lives forever.  This is one of those chance encounters – a short man climbs a tree “to see what he could see.”

When Jesus saw this renowned man up in the tree, and He paused to speak to him.  Zacchaeus was likely very well known to all in Jericho since he was the Chief tax collector and very rich – not because his government job salary was so high but because his position allowed for him to upcharge his local patrons when collecting their taxes to send on to the Romans who required their subjects to pay through men like Zacchaeus.  This man, although short in stature, had become wealthy being the collector of the government tax and he likely had his favorites and his enemies.

When Jesus saw him up in this tree, He recognized him and stopped and asked him to come down and take him to his house.  As you can imagine, this caused a stink among all of those in Jericho since they had heard admirable stories about Jesus, his teachings and his miracles.  Stopping in to stay and eat with this “sinner” was not a popular turn of events for Jesus as he made his way into Jericho.  However, it was a very fruitful event in the life of the Apostle Zacchaeus.  After meeting and with Jesus and listening to him, what was his response?  The evangelist Luke records in today’s gospel reading that “Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.’”  What does this mean?  Zacchaeus repented!  He realized his wrong doing and recognized that he needed to make it right with all of those whom he had defrauded and publicly declared that he would make it right with all of them.  St. Augustine writes that the reason he agreed to give one-half “of [his] goods […] to the poor” was not in order to keep the other half for himself, but it was to have something from which to pay back those whom he had cheated four times over.  Zacchaeus had the desire to see Christ, welcomed Him into his home and willingly and life-changingly responded to the message of Christ.  That is how the companion of St. Peter who was later appointed the first Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine met Christ and why his life was forever changed.  It began with his desire to “see Christ” and resulted in life-changing repentance and a life-time of faithful service to God, His Church and His people.  He humbled himself by climbing a tree even when a man of his social and economic stature should not and would not be found climbing a tree to cast a gaze upon a traveling preacher and his common followers.  This act of humility was the first step of one who demonstrated the seed of desire in his heart in act of climbing this tree today.

This week’s gospel lesson is the first of many we will read to prepare us for the arrival of Great Lent which this year begins on March 11.  Additionally, the 6 weeks of Great Lent followed by Holy Week are prescribed to us as weeks of preparation necessary for us to receive the Resurrected Christ in our lives this year on April 28th.  As we now see the very first road sign this week that we are on a journey together with one another, allow me to personally invite you to get ready, pack your bags, clean out your closets, get dressed, and clear your calendar – prepare.  This is the Greatest Fast leading up to the feast of all feasts we are preparing for.  We are not to enter these weeks without the necessary preparation.  We will fast, we will pray, we will give alms, we will ask one another for forgiveness, we will live our lives with a more focused devotion to God and an increased faithfulness to Christ.  This heightened awareness of our shortcomings and God’s work in our lives will cause us to grow closer to Him and help mold our ways and our thoughts to match His desires for our lives. 

However, it all begins for us just like it began for Zacchaeus – We must shamelessly rush to see Christ, be willing to meet with him and to joyfully respond by repenting after hearing his hard words for our lives.  I don’t believe it was easy for this small rich man to give up his riches to follow Christ any more than it is for us to repent.  It is recorded in today’s gospel that Zacchaeus “received [Christ] joyfully.”  He did not meet Jesus in his house with a gloomy face or begrudgingly.  He cast aside his reputation and his riches.  He was willing to enter into repentance – turning away from his sin – to willingly give up his life as a faithful follower of Christ.

As we begin this journey to the cross, death and resurrection of Christ what is Jesus asking of us?  If he were to come down the street in our town would we be willing to cast all care and our reputations aside and climb to whatever heights necessary to see him?  If Jesus were to ask to come into our house today to stay with us what would he find?  Would he find a home where he would be comfortable and at ease?  Would we be comfortable with what He would see on our walls and shelves, our TV’s and computers and hear in our conversations at our house?  Would we joyfully receive Him and then eagerly listen and respond to His words to make it right with those whom we have wronged and return what we have wrongly taken four-fold?

I invite you to join us in this journey of a life-time, a life-changing journey of repentance, restoration and renewal.  However, we must prepare.  This is our chance to get it right. To mend that which is broken in our lives. To make it right with those whom we have hurt and those who have hurt us.  This is what Christian growth looks like, and it begins today.  We must prepare because Jesus wants us to climb down from our trees of observation and comfortable distance and gazing to allow Him to come and actually stay with us – just as He did with Zacchaeus.  Will you join me on this life-changing faith journey?  We both will be forever changed as we enter into this path together.

16th Sunday of Pentecost/ 16th Sunday of Matthew – The Parable of the Talents

‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’

Sunday, February 3, 2019MATTHEW 25:14-30

“The Lord said this parable: “A man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them; and he made five talents more. So also, he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’ And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.‘ He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.” As he said these things he cried out: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!””

I’m sure you know the phrase – “Use it or lose it!”  As kids we succumbed to those forgotten fears of the high-dive at the pool or attempting a back flip on a neighbor’s backyard trampoline only if we failed to keep up with those feats we learned during previous summer vactions. In order words, we had to work up the courage to walk out on that diving board perched atop that platform at the public swimming pool every year like it was the first time.  Because over the winter months we weren’t making that high dive or acrobatic flip on the trampoline and we had to relearn every year.  How about those of us who water ski or have snow skied and then 2-3 years later we find ourselves needing to re-learn our earlier mastered skill when trying it again.  I hear that about public speaking, dating, baking, driving, caring for children or even making out-bound phone calls to strangers.  If we get out of the habit and we will find ourselves sinking back into the comfort zone of our normal safe routine.  This truth of losing the ability to do certain actions, behaviors or tasks can be seen in our physical, professional, personal or social activities.  I recently saw a doctor about some back pain I had who told me it was related to my big toe which I vaguely remember breaking or experiencing a bad toe-jam over 10 years ago.  As I explained this toe episode to my doctor he asked if it still bothered me and I told him, “Yes it did, but only when my foot was under the blanket while I was lying in bed on my back or if my shoe or sock became too tight to put pressure on the end of my toe.  After a series of very painful examinations and X-Rays this doctor has now concluded that my end joint on my big toe is calcifying and becoming immobile because of my 10-15-year habit of keeping that toe out of the covers and not moving that toe to protect it from causing me pain.  Now my desire to avoid pain in my toe for all these years is causing me pain in my back and he said will likely cause me further difficulty with my ankle, my knee and my hip if I don’t begin to do a series of exercises to increase the flexibility and mobility of my toe and foot bones.  And those exercises hurt!  If you don’t use, you lose it.

In today’s gospel lesson we hear our Lord introduce a very rich man and his 3 servants to his followers to pass on some very important final instructions to his disciples.  You see, we find them during the final week of his earthly life, having just 4 chapters earlier in St. Matthew’s account journeyed to Jerusalem against all common sense and experienced a triumphant Palm Sunday entry into this city which Jesus had warned his disciples would reject and kill him just as they did with the prophets of the Old Testament sent by God centuries earlier.  He had just explained to his faithful that the Jewish temple would be left in ruins and “not one stone shall be left here upon another, that shall not be thrown down.”  These have been days of strong words – final instructions – for his closest companions for the past 3 years.  During these days he asked James and John (the sons of Zebedee) who were jockeying for positions of prominence in his, “soon to arrive Kingdom”, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”  It is during this journey he baffled them with this adage: “So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen.” Or how about this light-hearted exchange? “but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant.  And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave.”  Or how about when he was walking by a tree which had no fruit and proclaimed ““Let no fruit grow on you ever again.” Immediately the fig tree withered away.”  Or after giving them a hard lesson about two sons, one who said he would obey but didn’t and the other who initially rebuffed his father but ultimately relented and then obeyed his father’s command – Jesus spoke these words of final instructions: “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you.  For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him.”  This is during that same time that he is telling his most loyal understudies about the wicked vinedressers who killed the landowner’s servants and even his son when they were sent to gather from the fruit of the vines they were supposed to be caring for under the authority of the landowner. Jesus also explained the Wedding Feast where the wealthy king was preparing for and inviting his closest associates to his marvelous celebration for his son and new daughter-in-law and as the servants went out to issue their invitations they were rejected, ridiculed and even beat up and killed.  The king, in his rage, sent his armies out to destroy those who had murdered his servants and then sent others out to issue new invitations to strangers – those out in the highways and byways “and gathered together all whom they found, both bad and good. And the wedding hall was filled with guests.”

Do you see a pattern here?  These are ever-so-important final instructions to the apostles that life as they knew it was about to be turned on its head and matters were about to begin to look very differently for all of them – if they were true followers of what he had been imparting to them during these past 3 years.  Jesus is introducing his disciples to a new economy, a new world view, you might call it – a new paradigm.   These harsh instructions are words which would be recalled by these men for decades to come as they traversed the known world bringing His gospel to “Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”  These words were unlike anything they had heard before because they were being asked to undertake task never been undertaken before.  Their instructions were clear – deny yourself, take up the cross, die as I will, be last rather than first, be the least rather than the greatest, be the servant rather than the master, don’t delay responding His invitation, produce the fruit you are supposed to produce, give to God what rightly belongs to Him and now – today – use it or lose it!

This very rich man we are introduced to today is about to go on a journey, he’s leaving (Just like Jesus was!) and he has some treasure he needs placed for safekeeping during his absence (just like Jesus does).  He may have had many servants, but he only entrusted his treasure with his top 3 servants – his closest and most trusted servants.  These servants knew what he expected from them during his absence.  They knew who he was and how he grew his wealth.  He is described as “a hard man, reaping where [he] did not sow, and gathering where [he] did not winnow.”  He expected them to make the most of this time and this treasure he was entrusting to them. 

The English word in today’s gospel – talent – has two meanings now and comes from the Ancient Greek (τάλαντον) talanton which means a ‘scale’ and ‘balance’ was a unit of weight of approximately 80 pounds (36 kg), and when used as a unit of money, was valued for that weight of silver. As a unit of currency, a talent was worth about 6,000 denarii. Since a denarius was the usual payment for a day’s labor, the value of a talent was about twenty years of labor, by an ordinary person. By contemporary standards (ca. AD 2009) at the rate of the US median yearly wage of $26,363, a talent would be valued at about $500,000.  The servant given 5 talents in today’s lesson received the equivalent of $2.5million, the servant given 2 talents was given what would be worth $1million and the third servant was given ½ million dollars – each according to their ability.  Four million dollars was entrusted to these 3 men today as their master went on his journey and when he returned, he found three amazingly different results.

The first servant “traded with them” his 5 talents and was rewarded 5 more to the utter delight of his master – ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’  This servant didn’t save them, hide them, spend them or squander them – he “traded with them”.  He worked with his $2.5million and found others who wanted what he had and then paid him back with return for the use of that money.  He invested in the lives of others who needed what he had and helped them succeed so when they did, they had more to give back to the faithful servant.  He was “faithful over a little” so the master would set him over much and welcome him into his mater’s joy.

Likewise, the second servant – given $1million – made 2 more talents from the 2 entrusted to him.  He didn’t trade with them but somehow “made” them double in value by using them in some way where they multiplied.  Again, this servant also didn’t save them, hide them, spend them or squander them – he “made” them double in value.   Similarly, his master was very pleased – ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’ 

The third servant, however, is described as “wicked and slothful”!  What was his crime?  Why would this wealthy master utter such condemning words about one of his most trusted servants?  What was his offense?  He played it safe.  He didn’t want to take any chances or encounter any risks or move out of his comfort zone.  He took what he had and buried it – so it would not be lost.  Since today is kind of a big day in sports, I think it’s OK for me use a sports analogy here – he was all about the defense – keeping the ball from the opposition rather than strategically playing effective and productive offense – making some points.  Just like the two teams playing today have learned in their journey to the ultimate championship game of their season – it’s not enough to simply play it safe and keep the ball away from your opponent.  You don’t win any game unless you have the most points on the board at the end of the game.

This man chose his path because of fear of the one who had provided for and protected him all during these preceding years.  He knows what kind of man his master was but because of his misplaced fear of his generous master he was paralyzed into inaction – wicked and slothful behavior.  His master scolds him telling him he could have at least placed the $500,000 with a banker who would have given him some interest for letting him use the money to invest in others in their community so when the master returned – likely the money would not have doubled in value but it would have, at least, increased in value to some degree.

Why does Jesus spend so much time talking economics with his followers during his last week alive on earth as He walks to “his voluntary death on the cross?”  Why is this teaching about saving, investing, burying and trading buckets of money included in the final words of instruction to the apostles of Christ?  Because this is NOT about money or coins or a lifetime of earnings.  This instruction is also about that other part of the definition of the word talent – special athletic, creative, or artistic aptitude, that general intelligence or mental power, that innate ABILITY and natural endowments of a person – given to him or her by their master and creator.  Jesus knows our common opinion of ourselves is that we don’t have what others have, to be useful or effective.  He knows our tendency to hide, take the back seat, play it safe and assume that others who are much more experienced, better equipped, more suited, more gifted, more available, better looking, better sounding, richer, slimmer, taller, faster, younger, older – we have been lead to believe that they will accomplish what needs to be done – not us.  We’re not them.  We’d better play it safe.  Just hide what we have so we don’t lose the little we have left.  We wouldn’t want to take on any risks or step out of our comfort zone – we might fail or mess-up.  What would others think of us then?  Our entire focus is on ourselves instead of how we could serve others and our master with what we’ve been given.

St. Theophan the Recluse writes about this passage in today’s lesson – “No one who has received life from the Lord can say that he does not have a single talent—everyone has something, and not just one thing; everyone, therefore, has something with which to trade and make a profit. Do not look around and calculate what others have received but take a good look at yourself and determine more precisely what lies in you and what you can gain for that which you have, and then act according to this plan without laziness.  At the Judgment you will not be asked why you did not gain ten talents if you had only one, and you will not even be asked why you gained only one talent on your one. And the reward will not be because you received the talents, but because you gained. There will be nothing with which to justify yourself—not with nobleness, nor poverty, nor lack of education. When this is not given, there will be no question about it. But you had hands and feet. You will be asked, what did you gain with them? You had a tongue, what did you gain with it? In this way will the inequalities of earthly states be leveled out at God’s judgment.”

We all have been given treasures from our creator to trade with others in order gain from that which we have been entrusted.

St. John CHRYSOSTOM has written: “Let us therefore, knowing these things, contribute whatever we have – wealth, diligence or care giving – for our neighbor’s advantage.  For the talents here are each person’s abilities, whether in the way of protection, or in money, or in teaching or in whatever thing you have been given.  Let no one say, “I have but one talent and can do nothing with it.”  You are not poorer than the widow.  You are not more uninstructed than Peter and John, who were both ’unlearned and ignorant men.’  Nevertheless, since they demonstrated zeal and did all things for the common good, they were received into heaven. For nothing is so pleasing to God as to live for the common advantage.  For this end God gave us speech, and hands, and feet, and strength of body and mind and understanding, that we might use all these things both for our own salvation and for our neighbor’s advantage.  Our speech not only is useful for hymns and thanksgiving, but it is profitable also for instruction and admonition.  And if indeed we used it to this end, we should be imitating our Master; but if for the opposite ends, the devil.

When the master heard the response of his fear-ridden servant upon his return that day who hid the one talent in the ground during his absence he commanded his servants to “take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.”  Use it or lose it.

Again, CHRYSOSTOM writes: “The unprofitable servant is to be cast into outer darkness, where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  Do you see how sins of omission also are met with extreme rejection?  It is not only the covetous, the active doer of evil things and the adulterer, but also the one who fails to do good. Let us listen carefully then to these words.  As we have opportunity, let us work to cooperate with our salvation.  Let us get oil for our lamps.  Let us labor to add to our talent.  For if we are backward and spend our time in sloth here, no one will pity us any more hereafter, though we should wail ten thousand times… Remember the virgins who again entreated and came to him and knocked, all in vain and without effect.”

Use it or lose it!  When it comes to immovable body parts, skills, crafts, abilities, aptitudes, interests, natural endowments, mental powers, music, speech, strength, wealth, gifts, faculties, capabilities, capacities, powers, roles, positions and talents.  We must offer them to those around round us for the benefit of others – trade them, invest them, exchange them and gain a return which will be for the glory of God and the benefit of all others around us.  Our families need this from us.  Our spouses and children need this from us.  We must not hide what we’ve been given and squander it in a hole deep in the ground of fear, anxiety and despondency.  Our neighbors and co-workers need what we have to offer them and lastly our church needs us and our talents.  We are few here at St. Anna, and the needs are many.  No one need be overwhelmed if we all offer our talents as we have been entrusted to freely trade with and invest in others.  We can do this.  We have much to do and God must bring the increase to our offerings or our efforts will be ineffectual and wasted.  This is His work – just as it is in our families, our marriages and our careers.  Our responsibility is to trade with others what has been entrusted with us.  God will bring the increase.  Use it or lose it.  I choose today to be a user rather than a loser.  It is my desire that these words today may help someone here today become a better user of what God has given, empowering us to step out of the hiding holes of darkened dirt of despair with no fear where the only words ringing in our ears will be, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.”

Sunday after the Theophany of Christ – The Giver of Light

Sunday, January 13, 2019 –

MATTHEW 4:12-17

At that time, when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee; and leaving Nazareth he went and dwelt in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, toward the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

          It started off as one of THOSE kind of weeks.  Many of you know that I work in the home loan business here in middle Tennessee as I have for the past 21 years after our return to the states from where we were serving as missionaries in Taiwan with my family.  Oh, the business world!  Much like your job, I suppose.  I have my ups and my downs and they affect me – sometimes pretty deeply.  Even after 21 years in my industry I’m not immune to disappointments and discouragement.  Just like you, I suppose, sometimes I feel misunderstood, overlooked, unfairly treated, used, misused and mistreated.  Working with people can result in those kinds of feelings by all of us from time-to-time, I suppose.  This week, however, was different.  I had been working with a customer for 2-3 months collecting a whole stack of documents from him to tell his financial story to those who would make the final decision on whether or not he was worthy of receiving a home loan to buy a big, beautiful home.  Oh no, HE was not treating me poorly and he didn’t do anything to intentionally bring any harm to me or to our ongoing relationship.  Matter of fact, he indicated that he was very grateful for my help. What made working with this customer so unique was that as I worked to get his file all put together for him, he gladly began to raise his desired price-point in what he was interested in buying – ultimately even doubling it!  His loan was going to be the largest and most profitable transaction of my entire 21 year career.  We were getting along great.  He said he really liked me and my response to his needs and questions and then – it happened.  He emailed me that they found a house and were ready to move forward with their pre-approval and purchase agreement for a house with a sales price larger than I had ever yet seen on a file in my pipeline.  He emailed me with the great news late last weekend that they had found the perfect house to meet all of their criteria within the price range I had cleared for him.  My wife and my boss knew of the detailed and meticulous energy I was putting into this deal.  I didn’t want to miss a beat.  I wanted it all to go as smoothly as possibly so there would be no way I could miss out on this deal.  I had carefully been checking and double-checking all of my notes and documents to make sure that I wasn’t missing anything on THIS deal.  And came the blow – He excitedly informed me in one of his casual comments that this very expensive house they had located was actually in CALIFORNIA.  Well, I’m licensed in 6 states in the southeast where I am allowed to conduct business and, needless to say, California is NOT one of them.  The previous house they had hoped to buy was just up the road near Franklin and he told me in a number of conversations of his desire to move from California to Tennessee to raise his kids here in middle Tennessee.  I had no idea that buying a house in California was even a possibility for this family.  We had never discussed it.  However, in the midst of their joy of finding the perfect house of their dreams to care their horses with plenty of room for their kids meant that they were making an offer on a huge house in California and I was giving this loan away to a co-worker of mine who was licensed in California.  My week started with my energy level nearly sucked out of me and I was slogging around in self-pity and discouragement for a day or two.  I could feel the darkness sinking in on me and I was quickly trying to figure out how to climb out before I would slide into self-defeating talk and shadows of gloom.  You’ve been there.  A random conversation with a co-worker, a supervisor, a student or a family member and then you find yourself questioning why you work so hard to try to make a difference in the lives of others or for your family.  The pattern is almost predictable.   A hurt or disappointment results in shock and then in our recoiling we become angry or withdrawn or even vengeful.  Our feelings of hurt cause us to move into unproductive patterns of self-protective behavior which benefit no one.  Our world becomes dark, destructive, and full of doubt. 

How does my lousy start of a week tie into this week’s gospel lesson?  Last week Jesus and those with him had just experienced a glorious epiphany – “a sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something”.  Last week we saw the miraculous baptism of Christ in the Jordan – 1) The Holy Spirit descending on Christ in the form of a dove, 2) the voice came from heaven which proclaimed to all present, “Thou art My beloved Son; with Thee I am well pleased.” And 3) the river Jordan is said to have reversed its course on the day Jesus was baptized.  One of the hymns from Orthros last week on the Sunday of Theophany says: “Today Christ is come to be baptized in the Jordan; today John toucheth the head of the Master. The powers of Heaven are amazed, looking upon the marvelous mystery. The sea beheld and fled; Jordan saw and turned back; and we who have been enlightened cry out: Glory to God Who hath appeared, and hath been seen upon earth, and hath enlightened the world.” Its purported by those living near the spot where Jesus was baptized by St. John on that historic day that every year on the Feast of Theophany, the river reverses its course just as it did on the day of the baptism of Christ.  Pilgrims gather each year on the banks of the Jordan River and take videos of the river actually reversing it course as they sing the hymns of Theophany just as we did last week and this week.  What a glorious and miraculous day!  A mountain-top experience in the life of Christ even before he began his public ministry at the age of 30.  And now, just few days later, Jesus receives the news that his relative, St. John the Baptist, the Forerunner of Christ, had been arrested and most of your know what Jesus knew, that story would not have a good outcome for St. John.  Jesus didn’t lash out at the unjust arrest of his kinsman.  He didn’t arrange for protests or fight back against those who detained and then ultimately killed the man whom Jesus said was the greatest among those born of a woman in Matthew 11.  It’s recorded that Jesus “withdrew into Galilee; and leaving Nazareth he went and dwelt in Capernaum by the sea.”

The withdrawal of Christ mentioned in today’s gospel lesson is one to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah that proclaimed that He would base his ministry in the area in and around the Sea of Galilee – the prophet said “the Galilee of the Gentiles!”   Like you and me.  He didn’t base his ministry in Jerusalem, although he visited there several times in accounts recorded in the gospels.  Jesus, who experienced sorrow, disappointment and discouragement (just like us) based his ministry in and around those the prophet called a “people who sat in darkness”.  The feast we celebrated last week is sometimes called Epiphany (“appearance,” or “manifestation.”) or Theophany (“appearance of god”) and sometimes it is referred to in the church hymns as the Festival of Lights. Generally, Orthodox churches are adorned with many candles to celebrate this Great Feast of the Church.  This Feast is only one of the series of feasts we celebrate during this time of the year which are those feasts of the Incarnation – God became Man.  The fact that God became man is foundational to our faith and our understanding of the love of God for us as his sons and daughters.  He emptied Himself and became one of us to show us who He was and His love for us.  The great church father and writer St. Athanasius said God became man so we could become god.  This feast brings light to the darkness which surrounds us and those with whom we live.  Without the light of Christ we would not know that darkness exists.  When we get discouraged or feel beat up from the pressures and trials of a normal week (like I did this week) we might find ourselves slipping into the darkness of misdirection and despair until we come into contact with the light of Christ and the epiphany or manifestation of His light.   It is recorded in John 8 that a woman who had been found in sin by the local scribes and Pharisees was brought to Jesus and they were about to stone her to death.  He had compassion on her and told them that the one without sin should cast the first stone to begin her execution.  It is recorded by the evangelist St. John the Theologian that “When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”  Then Jesus spoke to them again, saying, “I am the light of the world. He who follows me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.”  When you find yourself in darkness, rest assured that Jesus also says to you – “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”  If you are belittling yourself for your failures, and feeling condemned by the words and actions of others around you, rest assured that Jesus also says to you – “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”  When you have dug yourself into the darkness of despair, defeat and discouragement, rest assured that Jesus, who is the light of the world, also says to you today – “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”  We are “people who sit in darkness” and we live among “people who sit in darkness” and we now have experienced a miraculous epiphany and we “have seen a great light”.  After Jesus spoke those words to the accusers of the sinful woman he looked up and saw no accusers.  If we make a habit of also looking up when we find ourselves “sitting in darkness” we will also find no accusers but only the eyes of the compassionate and “beloved Son of God; with whom [God is] well pleased.”  The manifestation of Christ – the Incarnation (God becomes man) means that we no longer need to live in darkness.  He brings light to our world of darkness.

Secondly, the prophet Isaiah proclaimed that Christ would come to those in the “shadow of death [where] light has dawned.”  It’s been said by some that our culture is a culture of death.  Death of the unborn. Death of the unproductive.  Death as a response to feelings of despair or depression.  Loneliness and separation leading those to choose death rather than life.  Death in games and as a response to those living out those games glamorizing death.  Death for revenge and death out of anger.  We are surrounded by those living in the shadow of death and who are unaware of the dawn of light.  In the Gospel of John Jesus boldly proclaims (John 10:10), “The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.” The manifestation of Christ – the Incarnation (God becomes man) means that we no longer need to live in death.  He brings life to our world living in the “shadow of death.” 

The arrival of Christ, the long-awaited Messiah was prophesied by Isaiah over 700 years before the birth of Christ in the humble cave we celebrated less than one month ago.  The whole course of history was changed with the arrival of the light to the darkness and life to those living in the shadow of death and he began his public ministry with these words – “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Heaven has arrived!  A new kingdom is here!  The Messiah is among you!  He who brings light to the darkened and life to those living in the shadow of death is in your midst!  What was the first word of the message of Christ? “Repent!”  Repent means to “Turn around”.  You were going in one direction and now He tells you to turn around and go in the opposite direction.  Stop going that way!  It’s very simple – just like the man who tells the doctor that it always hurts to lift his arm and the doctor tells him to quit lifting that arm.  We know what to do.  Jesus told the women caught in sin to “go and sin no more!”  The good news is we don’t go by ourselves.  Christ has told us that He “will be with [us] always even until the end of the age” in Matthew 28.  In John 14:18 Jesus promises that [He] will not leave [us] as orphans; [that He] will come to [us].  He doesn’t abandon us in the darkness and in the shadow of death and simply tell us to get on with our self-improvement plan or New Year’s resolutions.

Again on the banks of the Jordan River, but this time 1,600 years before the birth of Christ, the prophet Moses spoke to the wandering nation of Israel as he was close to his own death and he told those who had been wandering with him for 40 years in Deuteronomy 31 “6 Be strong and of good courage, do not fear nor be afraid…; for the Lord your God, He is the One who goes with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you.”  God’s children have the promise of His presence in the midst of their repentance.  We are not asked to repent on our own or to make our own way out of the darkness.  Just as He guided the children of Israel with fire by night and with a cloud by day as they made their way to the Promised Land, He will never leave us nor forsake us in our obedience.  We travel with marvelous guides along our path of repentance – the scriptures, the church, the saints and one another.  Repentance, however is the key to peace, harmony, forgiveness, and loving relationships.  Our Repentance must be a daily action.  We don’t repent once and move one.  We repent “early and often”.  We repent before the sun goes down.  We repent even when it’s not our fault.  We repent when we feel wronged and we repent when we feel slighted.  Repentance is a lifestyle not a once-in-a-while activity.  Repentance will heal marriages.  Repentance will make a job worthwhile.  Repentance will re-unite families. Repentance will rescue those out of darkness and bring life to those living in the shadow of death.  The message of Christ at its core is Repentance – turning from darkness to the light and from the shadow of death to life.

The discouragement we face in our jobs, our families, our self-evaluation, our relationships and our own response to those around us can be overcome by the light and life offered to us by the Incarnate God who was born in a cave and baptized by John in the Jordan – the very Christ who felt pain as he heard of the arrest of His kinsman.  He came to give us peace, contentment and courage even when we lose big customers and give us the strength to repent from our self-destructive paths of pity, disappointment and shame.

St. Joseph the Betrothed – A Family in Crisis

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Matthew 2:13-23 – 13

“Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.” 14 When he arose, he took the young Child and His mother by night and departed for Egypt, 15 and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.” 16 Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: 18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, Refusing to be comforted, Because they are no more.” 19 Now when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child’s life are dead.” 21 Then he arose, took the young Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea instead of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And being warned by God in a dream, he turned aside into the region of Galilee. 23 And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, “He shall be called a Nazarene.””

          This week, Belinda and I were visiting our daughter and son-in-law who is an Orthodox priest in Myrtle Beach, SC and we had just completed a cool but leisurely stroll with family members along the windy Atlantic beach.  We were huddled around an open fire pit outside the condo where we were staying during our visit when we received a call from one of our other daughters who was home alone house-sitting and caring for another’s older dog who, when my daughter’s attention was distracted, jumped up and ate her entire dinner off of her plate without her prior knowledge.  My daughter’s frustration that this dog had eaten her dinner she had just prepared was quickly outpaced by her intrigue and then her overwhelming panic that this food she had prepared for herself was discovered through her ensuing Google search to be a deadly combination to dogs!  Her panic was then transformed into action and she, of course, called mom!  From miles away, we both, could hear the alarm in her voice and her resulting exasperation directed at the “dumb dog” who was obviously just hungry and thought my daughter’s dinner looked pretty good.  We then began to talk her through possible next steps – including calling the family’s veterinarian – in order to try to quickly prevent further harm to the dog.

          This panic of my daughter’s was brought on by a level of crisis which took her by surprise just when she was hoping for a quite evening home alone with her dinner and someone else’s elderly dog.  Crisis is not foreign to any of us gathered here this morning.  We occasionally experience crisis at work, at school, or at home.  We have witnessed governments in crisis, cities in crisis, companies in crisis, couples in crisis, pregnancies in crisis, children in crisis, – even people in the midst of a personal crisis!  You might be aware of those having been impacted by an unemployment crisis, an environmental crisis, a financial crisis, a health crisis, an identity crisis, an energy crisis, or a midlife crisis.

          This time of “intense difficulty, trouble, or danger” can be brought on by outside forces directed toward the lives of others or can, at times, be assumed to be “self-inflicted” because of carelessness or neglect on the part of those who are experiencing the ensuing crisis.

          In today’s gospel lesson we see a “family in crisis”.  One of the saints we commemorate today, St. Joseph the Betrothed, is spoken to by an angel in a dream and is told to flee.  The fathers of the church teach that he is by now 80 years old and only 2 years ago he had experienced a similar angelic visit reassuring him to move forward with his arrangement to care for the young temple maiden who was now inexplicably found to be with child even when she claimed to have never been with a man.  Only at that time he was prepared to quietly put her away and not risk his or her reputation any further.  He had agreed to care for this young orphan who had been cared for inside the temple since she was only three years old.  He knew her family and being a widower with 6 grown children he was a just man of royal lineage whom God had called out to be the guardian of this young virgin who would give birth the Son of God.

          Just two years ago he had experienced the miraculous birth of this baby boy in his care, the peculiar visit of shepherds who had been sung to by a heavenly chorus of angels telling them to go search out the young child and worship him and also a visit from foreign magi traveling from the east who were following a glorious star in the sky which led them after months to the exact place where the child was born and the mother was convalescing.  It all seemed so perfect – angelic announcements, local visitors, kingly gifts – all adding up to a miracle beyond description and belief! 

          All of this story-book birth soon came crashing in on this poor, aged carpenter.  Another angelic visitor with another hard to understand order.  This time St. Joseph is told to flee to Egypt – over 400 miles away on a donkey – with this young mother and her infant or they will likely be killed by a jealous governor who had been tricked by the magi who got word of the plan to kill the infant once he had heard that this baby was purported to be the long-awaited messiah to the Jews.  Many of the ancient icons and hymns of the Orthodox Church depict St. Joseph’s elder son James (the first bishop of the church in Jerusalem, whom we also commemorate today) traveling with them to Egypt.  It is assumed that his other grown children did not take this night journey with him, the Theotokos and the Christ child.  It is not universally agreed upon how long St. Joseph, the Theotokos and our Lord Jesus stayed hid in Egypt – some ancient historians say 2 years, some 3 and yet others write that they lived in Egypt for as long as 5 years.  We do know, however, that they stayed put until the angel arrived yet again to inform Joseph that those who would kill the child had died a horrific and grizzly death. Shortly after their flight Herod ordered the killing of all infants two years old and younger in his attempt to protect his rule over those Jews living in Judea.  Yesterday, December 29, the Church commemorated the senseless and horrific slaying of the 14,000 Holy innocents slain at Herod’s order in Bethlehem.

          We read that St. Joseph took the Theotokos and the Child to Egypt to fulfill the prophecy found in Hosea 11:1- “Out of Egypt I called My Son” and Matthew records that another Old Testament prophet spoke of the unspeakable slaying of the 14,000 children recorded by Jeremiah (31:15) the prophet, saying: “A voice was heard in Ramah, Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, Refusing to be comforted, Because they are no more.”  This verse is used to describe the intense wailing which took place when the soldiers marched through the streets ripping infants from their mothers.  Bethlehem was the final burial place for Rachel the wife of the Old Testament patriarch Jacob therefore Bethlehem was often referred to by the nickname Rachel.  Ramah is a hilltop near Bethlehem and therefore when loud noises are made in Bethlehem it is understood to be so loud as to hear it all the way over in Ramah – as was the crying and lamenting of these young mothers as their infants were slain right in front of them because of the jealous rage of an unstable and vengeful ruler looking for a baby who threatened his illegitimate power over a captive people under his tyrannical control.

          In today’s Gospel we see a ruler in crisis, a city in crisis, 14,000 mothers in crisis and this fleeing family – St. Joseph, the Theotokos and the Christ child in crisis.  You’ve heard it said, I’m sure, that you find out a lot about someone when they are under pressure.  The truth of the matter is – we all do and will experience crisis in our lives.  Health, financial, employment, and relational issues will come our way and those experiences will reveal our true source of strength and faith.  As we experience crises our true nature will come to the surface.  Our jobs, kids, spouses, parents, bosses, neighbors, siblings – and even fellow church leaders and members will do things to bring about crises in our lives.  That’s a sure thing.  We should expect this.  We should plan for it and even prepare for it.  As we do so, let’s take a minute today and notice how St. Joseph the Betrothed prepared for and handled crisis in his life.

1. He knew the voice of the Lord – He was a just and righteous man who knew God’s messengers and His voice.  He knew God and was no stranger to the voice and words of God.  Are we strangers to God?  Do we only call on Him in the midst of our panic or crisis?  Do we know His voice?  Do we surround ourselves with those who are His messengers speaking His words or those who speak the words and messages of the world and the enemy of God?

2. He was willing to obey the Lord – When God asked him to do hard things, make hard decisions, change his direction, leave his home, care for others even when it wasn’t easy and he was old and tired – he obeyed.   Do we quickly obey God when we hear His words?  Are His Words simply another option to us as we consider decisions and choices we need to make?  Are we willing to make the hard choices to follow Christ and obey God no matter how hard it seems to us or the consequences we will need to endure?

3. He provided for and protected the Theotokos and the Christ child as a loving caregiver to both.  He put their interests ahead of his own at great risk and suffered hardship to give them safety and to protect their reputation.  Do we willing defend the Gospel and the Church when those around us challenge that which has been entrusted to us?  Do we sacrificially give of our time, energy, and resources to ensure that the Church (the Body of and Bride of Christ) is protected and provided for?  Do we take in the Theotokos as our own and love her in our devotion for her as the mother of God and our Savior?

          By the way – My daughter called the vet, the dog survived the home-cooked onions and garlic dinner prepared by my daughter and the canine crisis from long-away was circumvented and soon to be forgotten by all.

          St. Joseph was a laborer.  He worked hard with his hands to provide for the Theotokos and the Christ child.  He fled danger and did not demand his rights.  He listened and obeyed and died before Christ ever began his public ministry.  He is a great hero to our Church for what he did and gave at great sacrifice for the care of the Theotokos and Christ.  Let us all learn from the lessons the Church wants us to learn today as we commemorate St. Joseph the Betrothed.

Now listen to the words of the son of St. Joseph, brother of James and bond servant of Jesus Christ: (Jude 24 & 25) – “Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to present you faultless Before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, to God our Savior, Who alone is wise, Be glory and majesty, Dominion and power, Both now and forever. Amen.”