Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Dragons in the Waters

The water imagery in the liturgical poetry of Theophany is some of the most powerful in Orthodox literature. The hymns and prayers of the services elaborate on scripture after scripture about water, until the very pages of the text seem drenched. The children of Israel crossing the Red Sea, the prophet Isaiah offering cleansing, baptismal teaching in the Epistle to the Romans, psalms urging the waters to join all Creation in praise of God, dew falling on Gideon’s fleece, Jonah and the big fish, and of course the Gospel accounts of our Lord’s baptism proper to the feast.

 But first of all these watery motifs, in the opening hymn of Vespers of the Forefeast, comes an allusion to Psalm 73:13 (LXX): ‘Make ready, O River Jordan: for behold, Christ our God draws near to be baptized by John, that He may crush with His divinity the invisible heads of the dragons in the waters’. 

 When we remember that Theophany was once the chief baptismal feast of the Church, it comes as no surprise to meet with verses like these, from the first canon of Orthros: ‘Let us, the faithful, keep ourselves safe through grace and the seal of baptism...this divine washing unto regeneration shall be our Exodus’.

 The water of baptism changes us. We are so familiar with this concept, we take it for granted. We know it is about washing away our sins. Theologians have long ago pointed out that Christ Himself, sinless and divine, had no need to undergo this cleansing rite that John the Baptist offered prophetically to those who were penitent. Our Lord entered the waters of the Jordan in humility, sharing our human nature but not our  fallenness. Yet the icon of the Feast, and the hymns about the ‘dragons in the waters’, establish at once that this Feast is less about Christ’s humility than about His divine power. Naturalistic Western art may show the Lord humbly kneeling beneath the outstretched hands of John, the water falling through the Forerunner’s fingers unto the Savior’s head; but an Orthodox icon of the Theophany offers us instead the strange and powerful image of our Lord standing, apparently on the waters as He did in the Gospel account of His walking on the Sea of Galilee (Mk 6:48).

 Different icons of the Theophany may show a number of allegorical figures which demonstrate Christ’s divine power over the waters of the natural world and their spiritual counterparts—sometimes a female one signifying the sea, or a male one representing the Jordan, both referring to God’s Old Testament power over the waters, when He caused them to flee before His people (Ps 114:3-5). From Christ too these iconic figures recoil in dread. A fish sometimes stands for the sea monsters, or, more graphically, the heads of serpents are shown being crushed beneath Jesus’ feet. 

There it is. The water of baptism changes us—but in His baptism, it is Jesus who changes the spiritual nature of water itself, forever. ‘Now the nature of the waters is blessed by Thy baptism in the flesh’ (Compline Canon 9, Forefeast of Theophany).

 Christ purges the waters of their monstrous infestation, Hear these thrilling words placed in our Lord’s mouth in the Sixth Hour of the Eve of Theophany: ‘I am in haste to slay the enemy hidden in the waters, the prince of darkness, that I may now deliver the world from his snares’.

 The annual service of the Great Blessing of the Waters at Theophany celebrates this change in the nature of water and trumph over evil worked by the manifestation of Christ’s divine power: ‘He who alone is clean and undefiled was cleansed in the Jordan that we might be made clean, sanctifying us and the waters, and crushing the heads of the dragons in the waters’.

 Water without Christ remains a symbol of hidden evil. In the film The Beach, a group of people form a utopian community on a hidden South Sea island. The settlement beside the dazzling waters of the tranquil lagoon seems to be paradise itself, until one of the men is attacked by a shark. But there is no grace or transformation in the irreligious, self-centered, pleasure-seeking community, and the hidden monsters of the human spirit soon churn their way to the surface.

 The members of the group will not take their wounded comrade to a mainland hospital, lest their secret paradise be exposed, and so, lacking the means to heal him, they finally carry him some distance away from their little settlement so that his cries of agony will not disturb their languid days of swimming, sunning, and playing. The long swim that leads the film’s main characters to the island is only a pseudo- baptism, an initiation into a life of surface beauty and pleasure whose depths are infested with monsters.

 This is why we bless water, a nd use it to bless other things—our homes, our selves, icons, candles, the harvest, livestock, even cars. It is a powerful proclamation of the sovereignty of Christ over the evil powers that lurk beneath the surface of the world around us.

 At this time of year it is customary not only to bring home little bottles of holy water, but also to invite our parish priest to bless our homes with the sprinkling of water and singing of the Theophany Troparion. As we face the year ahead in this world of hidden dragons, let us not neglect these healthful and sanctifying customs of blessing our lives with the waters of Theophany.

 -Excerpted and edited from Seasons of Grace: Reflections of the Orthodox Church Year, by Donna Farley

Friday, January 1, 2016

The Life of St. Basil the Great

(January 1) 

St. Basil is one of the three preeminent Fathers of the Eastern Church, known collectively as the Cappadocian Fathers. For some, he is the uniquely dominant figure of the Christian philosopher of the dogma of the Trinity, the incomparable monastic, the ultimate benefactor, the great protector of the true faith, the uncompromising cleric and the true theologian. His outstanding qualifications as an ecclesiastical statesman and organizer, as a great exponent of Christian doctrine and as a second Athanasius in the defense of orthodoxy, as the Father of oriental monasticism and reformer of the liturgy, warrant the conferring such a title as ‘the Great’, which very few bear.

 Born at Caesarea in Cappadocia about 330 in a family no less renowned for its Christian spirit than for its nobility and wealth, he received his elementary training from his father, St. Basil the Elder, a famous rhetorician at Neocaesarea on Pontus who had been a pupil of St. Gregory the Wonderworker. His grandmother was St. Macrina the Elder. His mother St. Emmelia, daughter to a martyr, herself gave birth to ten children, three of whom became bishops: St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Peter of Sebaste, while her oldest daughter is well known as St. Macrina the Younger, a model of the ascetic life, founder of monasticism for women.

 St Basil attended for his higher education the schools of rhetoric at his native Caesarea, at Constantinople, and finally, after 351, at Athens, which in the fourth century A.D., was a university town, an ancient and distinguished center of classical learning. There he met St. Gregory of Nazianzus—with whom he entered upon a life-long friendship—and the nephew of Emperor Constantine, Julian, who later ascended the throne at Constantinople.

 The three Cappadocians—St. Basil the Great, his brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and his friend, St. Gregory of Nazianzus (the Theologian)—were steeped in the heritage of classical Greek literature and philosophy and would later bring its riches into their work as Christian pastors and teachers, thinkers and writers. At Athens, they learned the art of rhetoric, one of the primary forms of cultural expression at the time. Its practice included the composition of finely wrought artistic prose and also skill in the public speaking that was used in law courts and public administration but was a popular performing art as well. They each became master rhetoricians, though St. Gregory of Nazianzus’ writings exhibit more exuberance and poetic brilliance. St. Basil’s prose is characterized by balance and sobriety, by clarity and relative simplicity.

 St. Basil returned to his native city about 356 and began his career as a rhetorician, which he renounced soon, to embrace a life entirely devoted to God. He describes this spiritual awakening in his Epistle 223, 2:
 ‘I had wasted much time on follies and spent nearly all my youth in vain labors, and devotion to the teachings of a wisdom that God had made foolish (1 Cor. 1:20). Suddenly I awoke as out of a deep sleep. I beheld the wonderful light of the Gospel truth, and I recognized the nothingness of the wisdom of the princes of this world that was come to naught (1 Cor. 2:6). I shed a flood of tears over my wretched life, and I prayed for a guide who might form in me the principles of piety.’ 
 His first step was to receive the sacrament of Baptism, the next to journey through Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia, in order to meet the most famous ascetics. Their lives inspired him:
 ‘I admired their continence in living, and their endurance in toil. I was amazed at their persistency in prayer, and at their triumphing over sleep. Subdued by no natural necessity, ever keeping their soul’s purpose high and free in hunger and thirst, in cold and nakedness, they never yielded to the body; they were never willing to waste attention on it. Always, as though living in a flesh that was not theirs, they showed in very deed what it is to sojourn for a while in this life, and what to have one’s citizenship and home in heaven. All this moved my admiration. I called these men’s lives blessed, in that they did indeed show that “they bear about in their body the dying of Jesus”. And I prayed that I too, as far as in me lay, might imitate them.’
 On his return he divided his fortune among the poor and founded a men’s ascetic community on lands owned by his family at Annesi, across the river Iris from where his sister St. Macrina the Younger, had already turned their home into a women’s community. It was to this community that his friend from his school days, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, soon came to also devote his life to a monastic existence.

 St. Basil went on to found or organize ascetic communities for men and women across Cappadocia, for which he wrote extensive instructions, promoting the cenobitic way of life and focusing on prayer and manual labor to support themselves and each other. Significantly, however, he integrated ascetic groups into the life of the Christian community as a whole, and he harnessed their energies to the tasks of caring for the sick and poor and educating the young. His gifts of insight and leadership in community life made him one of the leading founders of Eastern Christian monasticism, and his ascetical writings, soon translated into Latin, subsequently became influential in the West as well. 

After a few years in Annesi, St. Basil was persuaded by Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, to come to Caesarea, the capital of Cappadocia, and be ordained priest. He assisted the bishop in political negotiations and theological controversy and built charitable institutions to care for the hungry and ill during a severe famine. He ‘was all in all to him [Eusebius], a good counselor, a skillful helper, an expounder of the Scriptures, an interpreter of his duties, the staff of his old age, the prop of his faith, more trustworthy than all his clerics, more experienced than any layman’, as St. Gregory of Nazianzus reports (Oration 43, 33).

 He became bishop of Caesarea himself in 370, a post he held until his death, probably on January 1, 379. He soon won the love of his people. He established hospitals for the sick, homes for the poor, hospices for travelers and strangers, so that St. Gregory of Nazianzus spoke of an entire ‘new city’. There grew up, literally, a village of buildings outside Caesarea, named Basilias in his honor—a hospital, several houses for widows, an orphanage, a leprosarium, several inns where poor travelers could sleep free of charge, and restaurants where anyone could eat without paying.

 As an ecclesiastical statesman he corresponded with many civic, cultural and church leaders throughout the empire. He wrote theological treatises advocating the doctrine of the Trinity and led the Homoiousian party in its reconciliation with Athanasius’ strict Nicene contingent, as they made a common front against Arians and neo-Arians.

 Besides encouraging social justice on behalf of the poor, St. Basil took a great interest in personal morality and spirituality. His homilies on virtues and vices show considerable philosophical learning and psychological insight. His writings reveal him to be a contemplative, not merely a man of action. It is easy to understand why this is so, for both his action and his contemplation receive their power from his deep commitment to, his close proximity to, his personal relationship with his Lord and God. He seeks always to live a serious Christian lifestyle in practice and to teach others to do likewise.

 St. Basil was a tireless worker, often remaining sleepless for many nights, trying to do his work. No matter how trivial, he personally wrote and answered letters to all those who wrote to him. Most of these letters have been translated into English in four volumes and can be found in the Loeb Classics of Harvard University. Reading such letters to widows, orphans and those who weakened in their faith only brings us closer to the greatness of the man.

 He was the incomparable and tireless minister of Christ, giving sermons at night for those who could not hear him during the day. He paid particular attention to the youth of his day, delivering orations, sermons and talks about matters of concern to them. One of his celebrated sermons involves the Exegesis of Genesis. Given over a period of nine days, St. Basil attempted to dissolve the conflict of time in real terms. He pointed out to the skeptics that God’s concept of time and that of humans is not necessarily the same. He proposes that the seven days in which the creation occurred, in all probability, are not limited to days of twenty-four hours each. Given in the fourth century, the sermons would almost satisfy the skeptics of the twenty-first.

 St. Basil left his own Divine Liturgy which, because of its length, is performed in the Orthodox Church about ten times annually. Surprisingly enough, this liturgy was his attempt to shorten earlier, longer versions of lengthy liturgies which he felt only kept people away from church services, and defeated the purpose and intent of the liturgy.

 St. Basil lived during the great heresy of Arius when passions were still hot over issues of the Divinity of Christ and the nature of the Holy Spirit. His answer to the issue of the day, and one of his greatest contributions to the Church, are his dogmatic treatises on the Trinity and the Holy Spirit and its consubstantiality, upon which the Church bases her teachings. His unswerving support of orthodoxy put him in direct conflict with Emperor Valens, a devout follower of Arianism. Wishing to put St. Basil in line, the Emperor sent the Magister Modestus to coerce St. Basil to accept the Emperor’s point of view. A man who did not suffer fools too well, but who, in obvious monastic humility, had to mind his temper, St. Basil remained undaunted. When Modestus threatened him with confiscation and exile, his reply, as recorded by St. Gregory of Nazianzus, was this:
 ‘The confiscation of goods does not harm one who has nothing, unless perchance, for these tortures and sufferings you need a cloak and a few books which are my whole life. Exile I do not know, for I am bound to no one place: not only this my own land in which live, but the whole world into which I may be banished, I hold as my own, for the whole world is of God, whose dweller and sojourner I am. These tortures, what harm could they do me, not having a body, except so to speak, the first blow. Of these things only are you lord. But death would be an act of kindness for it will bring me nearer to God, for Whom I live and for Whom I have been created and to Whom in the greater part I have died and towards Whom I hasten.’
 Modestus, astonished at such words, responded: ‘No one until now has spoken to me in such a manner and with such liberty of words’. To this St. Basil replied:
 ‘Perhaps you have never met a bishop before.... Where God is endangered and exposed, there all other things are considered as nothing. Him alone do we look to. Fire, swords, beasts and the instruments for tearing the flesh are wished for by us as delights more than horrors. Afflict us with such tortures, threaten, do all that you can now devise, enjoy your power. Also, let the Emperor hear this, that at all events you will not persuade us nor win us over to the impious doctrine [Arianism], though you threaten with cruel deeds’. 
 This intrepidity and resoluteness made such an impression on the Emperor, that he abandoned the attempt to subdue the saint and rescinded the decree for his banishment.

These were years of intense activity, even as, through it all, he struggled repeatedly with poor health. The long hours he kept, the sleepless nights, hard work and great fasts he followed, the stresses of his office and the controversies he faced, finally wore him down. St. Basil the Great died of kidney complications on January 1, 379. During the funeral, the crowds were so overwhelming in numbers that hundreds died of asphyxiation. Those were considered as fortunate in having accompanied the great Father to heaven. His feast day is celebrated on the anniversary of his repose (January 1).

 St. Basil’s main concern was the unity of the Church. The almost total lack of such unity among the Christians of the East, due to Arianism and neo-Arianism, and between the bishops of the East and West, caused him to make great efforts, in deed and in word, to bring about the unity he understood the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church was meant to manifest. He lived to see at least the dawning of better days, when the Emperor Valens died on August 9, 378, and external conditions permitted the restoration of peace in the empire. St. Basil soon reposed, too, but two years later the Second Ecumenical Council met at Constantinople, by which the Emperor Theodosius the Great brought order and unity to the Church, opening the doors to all who adhered to the faith of Nicaea. There is no doubt that St. Basil had laid the foundation for this great moment in the history of Christianity, and it is yet one more reason we refer to him, with great reverence and devotion as to a teacher and a father, as ‘the Great’.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Five Ways To Participate In Worship

1. We participate in worship through frequent communion. This is the most important way of participating in the Divine Liturgy. When the priest comes forward with the holy chalice and lifts it high, he says, "With Fear of God, with faith and love, draw near." Come close to commune with God. That's a command, an instruction. After all, what is the holy Eucharistic Liturgy all about? Simply, it's the way the Church prepares, consecrates, and administers the sacrament of Holy Communion. Receiving Holy Communion, receiving Christ, is the central act of the Divine Liturgy.

 2. We participate in worship through faithful gathering together as the Church. The Divine Liturgy begins with the words, "Blessed be the Kingdom of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit." What's a kingdom? The place where a king reigns. Who's the King? GOD. Who are the subjects? CHRISTIANS. Where does the king reign? Where God is present and the Christians are present. God's kingship is made manifest in us during worship. One cannot be manifesting the Kingdom liturgically if he he's not there. Being present is crucial to the liturgical life.

 3. We participate in worship through entering into it responsively. The language of the Liturgy contains a number of dialogues in various parts of the service. For example, the priest says, "Let us lift up our heart." The words of the Liturgy in these dialogues invite us to involvement and participation. But because we are not taught to participate in worship, these dialogues often go unnoticed and unheeded, the commands they contain often are not obeyed in the people's hearts.

 4. All Orthodox services include "litanies" as for an example "Let us pray unto the Lord", in which the priest names a petition, and the choir responses - either "Lord, have mercy" or "Grant this, O Lord." The priest is not actually addressing himself to God in these petitions: he's addressing the whole congregation. He's saying (for another example), "For the peace from God and salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord." The choir sings the response, but they are not really praying either they give the same response to all the petition. It's really the congregation’s role to pray these prayers. If the congregation does not enter in, then nobody is praying!

 How does one pray the litany? Simply do what the priest says. The priest says, "Let us pray for the peace from God adn for salvation of our souls." You can just say in your heart. "Dear Lord, grant us your peace from above and the salvation of our souls." You can also think of particular people and situations you want to pray for with each petition. Then the prayers are no lonbger just-words; you are now following the instruction of the litany.

 5. We participate in worship through singing. Many Orthodox people are not accustomed to singing in Church, they are afraid of being conspicuous. But even in a parish were the Choir does all the singing, it's possible to sing along with the choir softly. You don't have to sing loud enough to be heard, but sing! The patristic tradition tells us that in the past they did sing. We need to revive this tradition in all our Churches.

Monday, October 19, 2015

St. John of Kronstadt

Saint John of Kronstadt, born as Ivan Ilyitch Sergieff, the son of poor peasant folk, was born on the 19th of October 1829 in the little village of Soura, in the province of Arkhangelsk in the far north of Russia. His parents, poor and simple though they were, took great pains with his education, both spiritual and temporal. From school, where he had gone to the top of his class, he went to the seminary. From there he was sent in 1851, at government expense, to the Theological Academy of Saint Petersburg. While he was there his father died, and it was with great thankfulness to God that he accepted the post of registrar.

 Having considered becoming a monk, and going to eastern Siberia as a missionary, he came to the conclusion that there were many people around him as unenlightened as any pagan, and he decided to work for their salvation, after a dream in answer to prayer, in which he saw himself officiating in some unknown cathedral.

 Soon after completing his studies he married Elisabeth, daughter of the Archpriest K. P. Nevitzki, and he was ordained priest in December 1855. Appointed as assistant priest at Saint Andrew's Cathedral, Kronstadt, when he entered it for the first time he recognized it as the church he had seen in his dream; and there, first as curate, and afterwards as rector, he served throughout the fifty-three years of his ministry. Cherishing a lofty ideal of the priestly vocation, he continued nightly to study and pray that he might perfect himself in it, while during the day he devoted himself to the many poor of his parish.

 Father John, whose predecessors, apparently, had hardly even dared to penetrate the worst parts of the town, spent much of his time there, striving to heal bodies and souls alike, attracting to himself first the children, and then, through them, their parents. Often he found no time to eat until the late evening, and even then he would sometimes be summoned out again, and not return before the small hours; he gave away his own shoes, he gave away the housekeeping money: his wife gradually accustomed herself to it, and finally became something like his keeper.

 In 1857 he was invited to teach the scripture in the municipal school at Kronstadt, and he accepted with joy, for he loved children, and always took great pains with them. When his fame had spread and he was constantly visiting Saint Petersburg, then to his own, his colleagues and pupils great regret, he was forced to abandon his teaching post.

 Another object of Father John's concern and labor was the removal of the widespread poverty that afflicted Kronstadt. At first he gave these beggars money for food and shelter, but he soon came to see that this was not merely useless, but positively harmful. In 1868 he conceived the idea of founding a House of Industry, comprising a number of workshops, a dormitory, a refectory, a dispensary, and a primary school. He formed a committee, and appealed for funds. His appeal was answered by rich and poor from all over Russia, and the House of Industry was founded in 1873. Father John administered a total of over $25,000 a year in numerous charities, half of it in Kronstadt. 

There is an attractive power in the personality of Father John of Kronstadt, in his portrait, the magnetism of his writings, and in his diary My Life in Christ. There is a peaceful and consoling quality in the notes of his diary, not to mention the very subjects of his talks, which spiritually exalt, uplift, and strengthen.

 In the early 1890s Father John became well known, and people from all over Russia came to him every day in thousands. The bishops treated him with high respect. He was already greatly venerated at the time he died, on 20 December 1908.

 He was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia in 1964, and by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1990. Archbishop John Maximovitch of Shanghai and San Francisco (later glorified as a Saint too) played an active role in preparation of St. John's canonization. His life and work are commemorated on the feast days of December 20 and October 19. 

Quotes from St. John 
 "When you are praying alone, and your spirit is dejected, and you are wearied and oppressed by your loneliness, remember then, as always, that God the Trinity looks upon you with eyes brighter than the sun; also all the angels, your own Guardian Angel, and all the Saints of God. Truly they do; for they are all one in God, and where God is, there are they also. Where the sun is, thither also are directed all its rays. Try to understand what this means."

 "There is nothing impossible unto those who believe; lively and unshaken faith can accomplish great miracles in the twinkling of an eye. Besides, even without our sincere and firm faith, miracles are accomplished, such as the miracles of the sacraments; for God's Mystery is always accomplished, even though we were incredulous or unbelieving at the time of its celebration. "Shall their unbelief make the faith of God without effect?" (Rom. 3:3). Our wickedness shall not overpower the unspeakable goodness and mercy of God; our dullness shall not overpower God's wisdom, nor our infirmity God's omnipotence." — My Life in Christ 

"Oh, what great happiness and bliss, what exaltation it is to address oneself to the Eternal Father. Always, without fail, value this joy which has been accorded to you by God's infinite grace and do not forget it during your prayers; God, the angels and God's holy men listen to you."

 "The enemy of our salvation especially strives to draw our heart and mind away from God when we are about to serve Him, and endeavours to adulterously attach our heart to something irrelevant. Be always, every moment, with God, especially when you pray to Him. If you are inconstant, you will fall away from life, and will cast yourself into sorrow and straitness."

 "Do not be despondent when fighting against the incorporeal enemy, but even in the midst of your afflictions and oppression praise the Lord, Who has found you worthy to suffer for Him, by struggling against the subtlety of the serpent, and to be wounded for Him at every hour; for had you not lived piously, and endeavored to become united to God, the enemy would not have attacked and tormented you."

 "Do not fear the conflict, and do not flee from it; where there is no struggle, there is no virtue. Our faith, trust, and love are proved and revealed in adversities, that is, in difficult and grievous outward and inward circumstances, during sickness, sorrow, and privations."

 Troparion (Tone 1)
 “As a zealous advocate of the Orthodox faith, as a caring Solicitor for the land of Russia, faithful to the rules and image of a pastor, preaching repentance and life in Christ, an awesome servant and administer of God's sacraments, a daring intercessor for people's sake, O Good and righteous Father John, healer and wonderful miracle-worker, the praise of the town of Kronstadt and decoration of our Church, beseech the All-Merciful God to reconcile the world and to save our souls!”

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Antiochian Women Project “Hungry Children at Home Abroad’

 At the 52nd Archidocesan Convention in Boston, His Eminence Metropolitan JOSEPH announced the Antiochian Women’s Project for this year: HUNGRY CHILDREN AT HOME AND ABROAD.

This project will leverage the hard work and determination of our Antiochian Women to address one of the most pressing global tragedies, one which is exacerbated by war and poverty, and which is felt most acutely by children.

 His Eminence recognizes the fact that millions of children go hungry each day as a result of poverty, war and displacement. The future stability of societies is directly affected when the growth of bodies and minds of children are stunted and weakened by malnutrition.

 In 2013, in America alone, 1.58 million children lived in food-insecure households (; and globally 66 million primary school children attend classes hungry ( 

This year the Antiochian Women are tasked with raising money to help feed hungry children here in our country and elsewhere in the world. ‘Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and He will repay him for his deed’ (Proverbs 19:17).

 It is good to be reminded that the sincerity of our Christian Faith will be measured by The LORD at the Last Day by how we respond to those who are in need in the world around us. In the following passage, the first measure of our godliness is evidenced by how we respond to those who are hungry:
 ‘Then the Kind will say to those at his right hand, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?” And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me”’ (Matthew 25:34-40). 

On behalf of the North American Board of the Antiochian Women, I urge you to download the promotional poster and begin to plan projects and events that will raise these much-needed funds. The Antiochian Women organizations in each of our parishes and missions will sponsor fundraising projects, but each of us should ask ourselves how we can reach beyond the walls of our churches to raise monies for this most urgent cause. Every dollar is important; every person can make a real difference in alleviating the suffering of a starving child. 

Also remember that March is “Antiochian Women’s Month”. Fundraising efforts will intensify then, but we ask you to start planning and fundraising for this Project now. Most importantly, everyone in the parish—men, women, and children—should know about the Project and become an active participant in this effort. Please help as much as you are able.

 Thank you,
 Kh. Suzanne Murphy
 Vice President of the North American Board & NAB Project Coordinator

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Our Theology and Our Children

A sure eternal perspective on reality is the best way to remain full of inspiration as we impart faith. Let us begin our investigation into the personhood of children ‘in the beginning’. The mystery of creation is a mystery of love. God made from nothing a cosmos which was not Him. All that exists is either created or Creator. Words have always failed and always will fail to convey the First Gift that God has given: life itself, which is shared out from the Life-giver’s very Being. The most Godlike reflection of the Life-giver in creation is humankind. ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness’ [Gen. 1:26]. Each human has Godlike characteristics and the potential to live—to love—like God, in God, for ever. 1 As God is Trinity, Three-One, so humanity is many- called-to-be-one. This calling is the purpose of human existence, and in its light the Church teaches us how to live on earth and to raise our children.

At a child’s birth a new born into the world, as the Lord said, showing us how each new baby is, even for God, an ‘other’ who is 1 As God given Godlike freedom: his destiny cannot be programmed by any other person, divine or human. Orthodox anthropology—our understanding of humans—is based on theology: that is, on the revelation we have received of God. The form of being we desire for our children is the form God designed for humanity made in His image.

By borrowing theology from our holy predecessors we can assimilate principles to help us follow in their steps in our families and Church communities. Theology helps us to see what love means in its eternal dimensions, so that we can co-operate with God as He Is while we live with our beloved children as we are and as they are. It is real persons who live. That is why Orthodox theology emphasizes the Personhood of God and of humanity. And that is where the term ‘hypostasis’ comes in.

 In the First Being, the Three Persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, live as One Being. Divineness, Divine Being, is a mystery of Triune love. God is love as Trinity; even if there were no creation Divine Life consists in mutual self-giving Love. The Greek Fathers who have given us the classic formulas to express Orthodox thinking about the Trinity chose the word hypostasis for the Person: God is Three Hypostases in One Nature.

 In the Triune God each Hypostasis is utterly unique and irreplaceable. The personal characteristics of each remain mysterious to us, and all our knowledge of the Holy Trinity—even the very terms we dare to use—are received by revelation through Christ and the saints. One Person is Father (unbegotten, the source of divinity), One is Son *begotten of the Father outside time), One is Holy Spirit (who proceeds eternally from the Father). In God, the three Hypostases are one Being, with one will and one life, Each One lives the fullness of the One Triune Life, yet as Himself. Personhood is never in isolation, and at the same time the Person is never diluted, or dissolved. Each of the divine Persons gives and receives from the other in personal love. Each Hypostasis lives the life of the other Persons as His own life. Love means communion; hypostatic life means all-embracing love.

 The full meaning of ‘person-hypostasis’ in the Triune God will always be a mystery. Personhood in man is indescribable, too; the hypostasis is ‘the hidden man of the heart’ [1 Pet. 3:4] that each is called to become. Nevertheless, from divine self-revelation, especially that of the One Divine Person who became incarnate, Jesus Christ, we learn what we need to know about true Being. A wrongful idea of personhood in God has drastic consequences for our understanding of human purpose and fulfillment. In religious beliefs where the ‘Ultimate Reality’ is thought to be ‘beyond’ anything personal, human personhood too loses its eternal worth, and becomes something you must dissolve away. Even between the Christian denominations the understanding of Person-Hypostasis differs. 

Some of these divergences are less obvious to those who are not spiritually refined, even if they may be experts in academic theology. So the Orthodox Church remains anchored in the Fathers’ thinking and vocabulary. As we sing at the Liturgy, ‘Let us worship the undivided Trinity, for the Same hath saved us’.

 Literally, hypostasis means ‘what stands under’ something, i.e., the reality of something as it exists. ‘The hypostasis-persona is the inmost principle of Absolute Being—its first and last dimension’.2 The divine Nature does not ‘come first’ in the abstract, and then get divided out into Three. The eternal personal element is what makes Divinity not just an abstract idea but a living Reality. God is self-existing only as a Triune Being in whom Life is shared in Love. The Persons are, each one, fully and eternally God.3

 Mankind is called to live as God lives, as persons united by inter-personal love. A fulfilled human person has found his own true self not by a struggle for self-sufficiency, but by a grace- given union with God and his fellow humans: by love which sometimes reaches the point of what is, in earthly terms, ‘self-denial’. This is the Gospel paradox: to find our real selves we ‘lose ourselves’. To live as persons we die as egocentric earth-bound individuals. The map for self- discover is traced in the Gospel commandments, which are commandments of love.4 Ultimately we are called to embrace all being—divine and created—in our own life, or as the Gospel commandment says, to love God with all our being and our fellow humans as our very selves.

 To distinguish between a fallen human being and the true self each one is called to be, Orthodox theologians often use the word ‘individual’ for someone still in a state of sin and fall, and ‘person’ for someone who has been renewed by life in Christ. These theologians are not denying our individuality; on the contrary, it is sin that destroys our individuality because we become enslaved to it [cf. John 834]. Persons are free to embrace others’ lives in love. Use of the word hypostasis for ‘person’ is helpful because the English word person does not necessarily point to the God-like form of being to which we are all called. I hope that readers who are not used to this term will become familiar with it, because it can motivate us in our dealings with children, as well as in our own spiritual development.

 Love is extended to other persons not by compulsion, but by a gift which becomes mutual when the response is also love. In God the Love is eternally Perfect, so that mutuality is a feature of Divine Life-in-itself. God, our Creator and Sustainer, extends His love to us and—this is the greatest mystery—rejoices in our love which unites us to Him, whoever we are, at whatever stage in our physical, psychological or spiritual development. When the Orthodox speak of grace they mean Divine Life shared with a created being. As important as the difference is between Divine Being and created being, the similarities offered to us are no less important. God’s image and likeness appear in many aspects of humans, but they are primarily manifested in man’s hypostatic form of being. A fulfilled human being is a God-like reality, a person who loves without limit. Only to one who lives according to grace, to divine life, can the term ‘hypostasis’ be truly applied. Holiness is not a question of duty or virtue as much as an opportunity to relate to God and to other humans in joyfully-given and humble love.

 The saints are those who brought to fruition the potential each human has. ‘In the act of divinization grace exalts man from the dimensions and patterns of the earth to the dimensions and patterns of Divine Life’.5 Divine Nature—the Essence or Divinity the Three persons share—cannot be shared by any being whose nature is created. We would cease to be what we are if we exchanged our nature. God’s Nature is not changed, either, by His outpouring of His Being on creation. But by sharing His life, His grace, with man, God sanctifies, deifies, human existence. The saints, touched by grace, experience the oneness of the divine Energy6 and the triune-ness of the Persons. Having experienced God as a personal Being, they learned to live and develop as human persons by co-operating with grace, trying to do everything they do with God’s blessing. Their way of life is a pattern for the path to true humanity, to one’s real self.

 There is nothing impersonal in God, and no impersonal path connected to Him. It is by experiencing God as the One whom we address as Person or Persons, to whom we can say ‘Thou art’, that we relate to God, who announced Himself to Moses as ‘I am’. By living in harmony with the divine ‘I am’, we can reach our own created ‘I am’. 

 This theological vision lies behind all that we do. How does the Living God live? How must we try to live? The answer was revealed in the most concrete way when God joined the human race. When we say that Christ is a perfect man, we do not only mean that He is utterly flawless; we also mean that He is a perfect picture of what every human should be like. In the measure that we are unlike Christ, we could be described a sub-human.7 The Lord Jesus Christ and His Mother are therefore the persons our children will be directed to most often when we speak about relating to God and the saints.

 Parents, monks and nuns, children, single people, clergy and laity—in the Church we are all on the journey to personhood together. If we love each other then we are recognizable as followers of the Person-Model Jesus Christ. In that sense a child can be more hypostatic than a mature theologically trained adult. A childlike trust in God in enjoined on all of us; children were set forth as models by Christ. A heart which loves unselfishly, which trusts and respects God, is closer to Him and to all humanity than a proud self-enclosed heart. Adults, especially educated adults, are often less humble-minded and open- hearted than children.

 So a legitimate question arises: can we teach children anything when we are less pure than they are? Yes, if we speak and act with conscious personal love for each one. And if, when we share information about God, we share what the Church gives us, not as proud know-alls but as older members of the same Family. We should be models and guides for the young, simply because we have lived longer, for although they start out with experience of grace, they start with blank slates as far as life outside the womb is concerned.

 If God has given us particular responsibility and authority, through parenthood or through our role—official or unofficial—in the Church community, then we are commissioned to be sources of wisdom for the children in our care. Our respect for their personhood means we cannot be reluctant as teachers, both because children are so loveable, and because they need our adult guidance and authority to lean on. In our turn we look with humble and grateful respect to those over us in authority, such as our spiritual father, our hierarchs. We are all commanded to serve each other whatever our position, following the First Model, Christ, who came to serve and give Himself so as t bring us all to His Father as our Heavenly Father.

 Every teacher is well advised to ask himself sometimes as he thinks about his role: ‘Who am I to teach these precious souls?’ In the Light of the Holy Spirit, the answer will echo in his soul: ‘I am a repenting sinner, but I love these children and want the best for them. The Son of God became Son of the Virgin Mary to save me too. Glory be to Jesus Christ our Savior. I will do my best to share my certain hope in Him with the children in my care.’ The vision of the Hypostasis can radiate from every teacher’s heart with this message: ‘God loves us, and I love you.’
 -Excerpted from Conversations with Children: Communicating Our Faith, (Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist Monastery, Essex), pp. 19-26.

 1. Some Fathers make a useful distinction between image and likeness: the image of God in man is given to all of us by nature, whereas man’s realization in God’s likeness is potential, achieved by free personal co-operation with God’s grace.

2.Archimandrite Sophrony, We Shall See Him as He Is (Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist, Essex, 1988), p. 191. I recommend this book for further reading about the hypostasis.

 3. This is inadmissible for logical thinking, which demands that what is absolute must be unique. God is not self-existing because philosophical reasoning makes Him inevitable. Philosophical reasoning makes Him inevitable because our reason imitates divine truth, but reason cannot reveal His form of Being as a Trinity of Love. Only Pentecost does that.

4. Cf. Matt. 22:40.

5 We Shall See Him as He Is, p. 192.

 6 This word is often used for the Greek word energeia, which the Fathers used for grace, for God’s life poured out on creation. It is also used in the plural, because the divine life is shared as light, as love, and in other manifestations. The Fathers compared it to the light and heat of the sun which reaches us. However, earthly analogies and earthly vocabulary are inadequate to convey divine reality to someone who has not shared the Fathers’ experience of God.

 7. I should make clear here that the Orthodox Church teaches that humanity is never actually lost.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

From Fr. Matthew

At a child’s birth a new born into the world, as the Lord said, showing us how each new baby is, even for God, an ‘other’ who is given Godlike freedom. -Sister Magdalen
This month’s Wonderworker offers a single, but extended, essay on the Church’s theology about what it means to be a person and how that relates to, and must be conveyed to, our children. It is an excerpt from a marvelous book, Conversations with Children: Communicating Our Faith, by Sister Magdalen of the Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, England.

 I highly recommend you take the time to read the excerpt. If you are thinking, ‘but I have no children; this doesn’t apply to me’, please think again. What Sister Magdalen has to say concerns all of us, if we truly desire to share in God’s divine life. If our vision of our Christian life, of our (and other’s) humanity, has faltered or is in error, she renews and corrects our vision. She teaches us what true Christianity is, what the real Gospel is all about, beyond simply being saved from Hell. She gives us, as her opening line declares, ‘a sure eternal perspective on reality’. May God bless your reading! 

-Fr. Matthew