Thursday, January 28, 2010

Commemoration of our Father Among the Saints, St. Ephraim the Syrian

Today, January 28, the Holy Orthodox Church commemorates two of our great Syrian saints, St. Ephraim and St. Isaac, both given the title "The Syrian." It is very important to realize that early Christianity may have been forged by the Greek language and with a lot of Greek thought, but that the vast majority of early adherents to the new faith were Semitic. The Syrians, in particular, had written many hymns and theological tractates which would later be translated into Greek and Latin for later faithful generations. The Syrian modal system is the main basis of Byzantine chant, not, as many suppose, the Greek system. Both have been synthesized into our wonderful music system. Christianity is and has never been a European phenomenon.

St. Ephraim is, whether for good or for bad, known mainly for one thing--his prayer which is said every day of the Great Fast (save for Saturdays and Sundays). Though St. Ephraim was quite a prolific writer--his spiritual psalter is one of the great treasures of church hymn writing--the prayer which bears his name is how most Orthodox and non-Orthodox know of this great saint.

This prayer so succintly sums up what should be our spiritual life:

O Lord and Master of my life, a spirit of sloth, curiousity, lust for power and idle talk, give me not. But grant a spirit of chastity, humility, patience and love to Thy servant. Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own sins and not to condemn my brothers for blessed art Thou unto the ages. Amen.

We say this prayer with prostrations and bows. How sad that there are so many Orthodox who do not say it because it is never said on Saturdays or Sundays! Is there a more appropriate prayer for not only Lent but for the whole of our spiritual lives? Is this not what the spiritual life is? To be freed from our passions and desires so that we become more like Christ? Is that not why He came in the flesh?

As we approach the Great Fast, we should all take this prayer to heart and we should pray it reverently.

From the prologue of Ohrid: Ephrem was born in Syria of poor parents during the reign of Emperor Constantine the Great. He spent his young life rather tempestuously; but all at once a change took place in his soul and he began to burn with love for the Lord Jesus. Ephrem was a disciple of St. James Nisibis (January 13). From the enormous Grace of God, wisdom flowed from his tongue as a brook of honey and ceaseless tears flowed from his eyes. Industrious as a bee, Ephrem continually either wrote books or orally taught the monks in the monastery and the people in the town of Edessa or he dedicated himself to prayer and contemplation. Numerous are his books and beautiful are his prayers. The most famous is his prayer recited during the Honorable Fast Season. When they wanted to appoint him a bishop by force, he pretended to be insane and began to race through the city of Edessa dragging his garment behind him. Seeing this, the people left him in peace. Ephrem was a contemporary and friend of St. Basil the Great. Saint Ephrem is considered mainly to be the Apostle of Repentance. Even today his works soften many hearts hardened by sin and return them to Christ. He died in extreme old age in the year 378 A.D.

Through the intercessions of St. Ephraim, may Christ our God save our souls!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Triodion begins--The Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee

We have just put away the decorations for Nativity, blessed the waters and our homes celebrating the joy of our Lord's Theophany and now, before January is over, we have begun Triodion. I can't help but think how much though my fellow Orthodox miss at Vespers and Orthros for this day. Sure, they hear the gospel at the Liturgy which directly pertains to this feast, but the supporting hymnography, really hits home what this day means for us in the spiritual life.

The Gospel lesson for this day is short, incredibly short. In fact so many Gospel pericopes appointed for certain days are extremely short. Circumcision is only one verse; Transfiguration only two or four (depending on which account you read); Theophany is not much longer. Our Lord's words in his parables are meant to bring us straight to the point, not to be beaten up with fancy word analysis and redacted so that we can better understand the metaphors. The point of this Gospel: Humility!

Our Lord asks, "Who went home justified?" The answer is, of course, the Publican. Why? Because he humbled himself before God. And why is that such a great virtue to have? Because God has that virtue. We often don't think of God being humble, preferring such superlatives as greatest, most holy, most awesome, most compassionate, most loving, etc., etc.. But God is above all humble and that is why he is compassionate and loving. To be humble is to be humiliated. And God was humiliated (not always a negative term) because of his Incarnation in the flesh when He took on what we are and humiliated Himself unto death, even death on a cross, as St. Paul tell us. God's loving and merciful compassion is poured out for us because He, even before we sinned, as some Church Fathers say (cf. St. Athanasius), God was to come in the flesh and die, to raise us up so that we may take on the divine while we yet live here on earth. To be humble is thus to be Godlike.

I should say a few words about the Pharisee and his prayers. There is absolutely nothing wrong with what the Pharisee says he does. There is nothing wrong with fasting and giving to the poor. In fact, as the fasting season approaches, we are reminded to do both and join more prayer with those virtues. Many people read this Gospel passage (incorrectly) and suggest that Christ is condemning works and that only our faith matters (sola fide). Such cheapens the Gospel. If our faith is a mental activity only, then we are not wholly transformed. If the flesh will not do as the body, then we have become schizophrenic beings instead of a union of mind, body and soul. Does our Lord not command us to love Him with all our mind, body and heart? If we only love with the mind, yet not the body, we do not love God and we cannot love God. God did not come in the flesh because He thought the flesh was bad or only to nourish the spirit. Such a thought is dangerous. It is modern day Manichaeism and gnosticism. God came in the flesh, assuming everything we are so that all things may be healed so that we can glorify our God in works (cf. Eph 2: 9-10). The Pharisee's problem is not with what he does but how his good works are motivated not for love of God, but for love of himself. Good works (on the surface) can come from bad people, but if they are not directed towards a love for God, then they are suspect by God.

The theme of this past Sunday is humility. Next week, the Sunday of the Prodigal Sun, the theme is return from exile. More then.

Friday, January 22, 2010

We waited...

Bishop NIKOLAI Velimirovich of Ohrid once said as he was present at Pascha in Jeruslaem, "We waited, and at last our expectations were fulfilled. When the Patriarch sang 'Christ is Risen', a heavy burden fell from our souls. We felt as if we also had been raised from the dead. All at once, from all around, the same cry resounded like the noise o fmany waters. 'Christ is Risen' sang the Greeks, the Russians, the Arabs, the Serbs, the Copts, the Armenians, the Ethiopians--one after another, each in his own tongue, in his own melody...Coming out of from the service at dawn, we began to regard everything in the light of the glory of Christ's Resurrection, and all appeared better, more expressive, more glorious. Only in the light of the Resurrection does life receive meaning."

Though NIKOLAI's narrative goes into great length about the joy and the benefits of Pascha, the first two words of his description deserve special attention: We waited. In this context, I am sure he is speaking more than just of waiting for the service to begin. I am quite sure that he is speaking of the waiting undergone during Great Lent and Holy Week for our Lord's Pascha.

Today begins Triodion. I can hardly believe that after the joy of Nativity and Theophany, we are so soon about to plunge ourselves into the holy season of repentance where we wait for our Lord's Pascha! In these four Sundays before the beginning of Great Lent, we recall the humility of the Publican, the repentance of the Prodigal as well as the rejoicing of the Father for such repentance, the Last Judgment of our Sins and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. In all that, we wait...for Great Lent. Then Great Lent is upon us where we fast and pray and give alms, still waiting...for Pascha.

We wait, which means we prepare. And we have to prepare. Bishop NIKOLAI saw this clearly. Without the waiting, without the preparation there can be no rejoicing, there can be no sense that as the dead are raised, so we are raised from our sin. Without that preparation, our hearts are as empty as the empty tomb. And the empty tomb becomes an anecdote of history rather than the key to our salvation.

We cannot simply come into the presence of God. For those who only want 30 minute church services with happy clappy music and short prayers and no mention of sin, you are not asking for the presence of God. You are asking for the presence of the flesh to mask the presence of God. Though it is an insult to search out God since God is everywhere, it is insulting to suggest that one can simply come into the presence of God, whether by just entering a church or saying one short prayer or singing a hymn. Coming into the presence of God takes time and effort...a lot of them, too! Because we are so hardened in sin, we cannot see that God still does walk among us and even if we could see such a thing happening, many of us would not want it. You cannot simply come into the presence of God. You must prepare.

Infants must crawl before they can walk. Why do we lowly sinners demand that God reveal his majesty to us immediately before we can even look upon the light of the sun? It's probably sheer laziness. Preparation takes time and no one wants to rid themselves of their precious time which could be directed towards TV, family, business, work, sports, etc.

Even if it is impossible to prepare all the time, it is very possible to prepare some of the time, to make more effort than one would during the rest of the year.

Let us prepare. Let us purge ourselves of our sins. Let us desire God if only because He has desired us.

Blessed preparation to all of you!

Sunday, January 17, 2010

It's good to be back

Today, I was privileged to be able to chant Orthros and then sing in the choir for Divine Liturgy at St. Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church. Though I visited twice during my three month exile, now I'm officially back and I couldn't be happier. This is my spiritual home and this is where I should be especially as I begin to enter into the season of Great Lent, the season of repentance, which I have much to do. I can't imagine going through Lent and celebrating our Lord's Pascha anywhere else. It is good to be home.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Hymn of the Day

Third Troparion at Psalm 140 of Great Vespers (Plagal of Tone 2):

O Lord, Who art in all creation, whither shall we sinners flee from Thee? To heaven? For Thou dwellest there; or to Hades? For there Thou art the Trampler over death, or to the depths of the sea? For there is Thy hand, O Master. In Thee, therefore, seek we refuge, and Thee do we worship beseechingly; O Thou who didst rise from the dead, have mercy upon us.--St. John Damascene

Friday, January 8, 2010

Modern Orthodox Wisdom

On one of the stones in the Church of St. Sophia, the following words were engraved: "Wash your sins, not only your face." Whoever entered this glorious church read this inscription and remembered that the Christian Faith requires of him moral purity: purity of the soul, purity of the heart and purity of the mind. Just as in the heart of man is concentrated the complete spiritual man, this is what the Lord also said, "Blessed are the pure of heart" (St. Matthew 5:8). Total external cleanliness does not help at all in gaining the kingdom of heaven. Oh, if only we would invest as much effort in washing ourselves from sins as we invest daily in washing our faces, then God would truly be seen in our hearts as though in a mirror!

St. Nicholai Velimirovich from the Prologue of Ohrid

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Hymn of the Day

The Doxasticon at Orthros following the Praises (Tone 6).

Thou hast come from the suffering of barrenness, O Baptizer, an angel and a dweller in the wilderness from the age of swaddling clothes, appearing as the seal of all the Prophets; for He Whom they beheld in sundry manners, foretelling Him by symbols, thou wast worthy to baptize in the Jordan. And thou didst hear from heavenly a fatherly voice testifying to His Sonship; and thou didst see the Spirit in the likeness of a dove attracting the voice of the One baptized. Wherefore, O thou who art greater than all the Prophets, cease not to intercede for our sakes, who celebrate thy memorial in faith.

Synaxis of St. John the Forerunner

Today, January 7, the Holy Orthodox Church commemorates the bridge between the Old and New Covenants, St. John the Forerunner, also called the Baptizer of Christ. After every major feast of the Lord or Theotokos, the next day is set aside as a special day of honour, a synaxis (which means gathering) for someone that has connection with the feast. For instance, after Nativity, the 26th is dedicated to the Synaxis of the Theotokos. After Pentecost, the day after is the Synaxis of the Holy Spirit. Today, the Orthodox Church commemorates St. John who of course baptized our Lord in the Jordan River. No other saint, besides the Theotokos, has more days honoring him. Those other days are his conception, his birth (June 25), his death (August 29) and various other feasts regarding the recovery of his relics, including his head! Edit: It should also be noted that every Tuesday, at Great Vespers the previous night and at Orthros, many of the hymns are dedicated to him as He prepares the way for our Lord whose betrayal we commemorate on Wednesdays and Crucifixion on Fridays.

St. John began his ministry in the desert with one word: Repent! This is the same word which our Lord Jesus Christ began his ministry as well. St. John practiced a baptism that was for repentance. This is important because baptism existed long before St. John. But in the Jewish tradition, baptism was not for remission from sins and for repentance, but for cleansing from impurities associated with the old Jewish Ritual Law. So, for instance, a man who perhaps walked a mile longer than was permitted on the Sabbath (thus making him impure) could be cleansed of that, but any sin that this man committed such as against his neighbor and against God, could not be healed by baptism. Many people struck with leprosy would also seek to be baptized believing that such would cleanse them from the impurities on their skin, which they believed were the result of violating the Jewish Ritual Law. The baptism that John provided was different. It was a baptism of water for repentance.

Of course when our Lord comes to be baptized, baptism changes. Christ says that baptism is no longer only with water but also with the spirit for the remission of sins. But he does not say that repentance is no longer needed. In fact it is because of this baptism with the spirit that we can repent. Baptism is a gift from God so that we may be not only called sons of God (since we are baptized the whole Trinity is there and God the Father calls to us that we are his beloved children in whom He is well pleased) but so that we may put on Christ, as St. Paul tells us (Gal. 3:27) and become like Christ.

St. John prepared the way as he was appointed to do. He appointed the way for Christ's ministry not only in this life but also in Hades to those who had already fallen asleep. Look at any icon of the Resurrection and you will see St. John pointing to Christ as he does in other icons as the Way and the Truth and the Life. In fact, on the iconostasis, the icon of St. John is always to the right of Christ and he points at Christ signalling him to be the Saviour.

Apolytikion to St. John (Tone 2): The memory of the just is celebrated with hymns of praise, but the Lord's testimony is sufficient for thee, O Forerunner. For thou hast proved to be even more venerable than the Prophets since thou didst baptize in the running water Him whom they proclaimed. Wherefore, having contested and suffered for the truth, thou didst rejoice to announce the glad tidings even to those in Hades that God hath appeared in the flesh, taking away the sin of the world and granting us the Great Mercy.

Through his intercessions, may our Lord teach us repentance and save us.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Hymn of the Day

Second sessional hymn (i.e. poetic kathisma) after the second reading of the Psalter for Orthros on the feast.

Tone 4 to the melody "Joseph was amazed":

O river Jordan, what has thou seen to be amazed? "I have seen Him naked who cannot be seen, and I trembled," said he. "How should I not tremble before Him and turn back?" The angels, beholding him, were afraid: heaven was filled with wonder and the earth shook, the sea and all things visible and invisible withdrew. Christ has appeared in the Jordan to sanctify the waters.

An excellent post from Fr. Peters

Fr. Peters, a Lutheran pastor whose blog I often read and is referenced on this site, always has wonderful thoughts. Though it seems that I often use my Orthodox faith to beat down the Lutheran tradition whence I came, it is thoughts like this that reaffirm that my coming to Orthodoxy was a fulfillment of Lutheranism not a straight up repudiation of it. Though I believe that Fr. Peters, along with Fr. William Weedon whose blog I also read (and who is also a facebook friend of mine!), are rarities in modern American Lutheranism, I think they speak and articulate the confessional Lutheranism that has almost been entirely run out of town. Having said that, I think Fr. Peters post definitely is spot-on. The post is entitled "The Means of Grace ARE the Gospel." In essence, he argues, correctly, that the mysteries, particularly the Eucharist, are not simply a postcard from God about how much He loves us but it is the very Gospel itself given to us, incarnate! We Orthodox love to talk about how our theology is incarnational in nature. So is Lutheran, at least it used to be. The near Nestorian understanding of the Incarnation which many Lutherans have adopted particularly with regards to the Theotokos, preferring to call her instead "Mother of Jesus" rather than "Mother of God" underscores how far modern Lutheranism has come. So, read it. Here is a little excerpt from his post, which is a most ingenious way of talking about Mary and the incarnation.

Perhaps a more modern day image is that of an email attachment and its relationship to the email itself. The Blessed Virgin is not like the email to which God has attached something -- separate and distinct from the Virgin, drawing nothing from her and her flesh and blood but only sent with her and through her. In the same way, the bread is not the email to which God has attached His Body but the two are separate and distinct (see disclaimer below)-- only only the agent of the sending and the other what is being sent.

Keep writing great posts, Fr. Peters!

Disclaimer: With regards to the Orthodox understanding of the bread and wine and their relation to the body and blood, we do not regard the two as separate but having undergone a change. The priest (NOT the congregation) beseech the Holy Spirit to make these things the body and blood of our Lord in the epiclesis. We do not understand the nature of such a change, hence we do not subscribe to transubstantiation as the Roman Church does by chanting the verba but we know that change has occurred. How this is accomplished and when, we do not know but are content to leave it a mystery. Nevertheless, we confess that we receive the body and blood of Christ. My apologies if I seemed to endorse a non-Orthodox teaching.

A few "random" thoughts on Theophany

This particular entry won't have any one concrete theme or train of thought save for the fact that I will concentrate everything on the Feast of the Theophany which we celebrate this day. Yesterday, the Paramon, I was able to chant the Royal Hours of Theophany, which I never have been able to do before and then celebrate, later that night, the full Orthros and Liturgy followed by the Blessing of the Waters. I had a whole range of thoughts because of this so I will share them in no particular order.

1) Do you realize that the Gospel texts for this feast are among the shortest pericopes? It's true. The Orthros Gospel is from St. Mark and is only 2 verses. The Liturgy Gospel is from St. Matthew and is only 4 verses! And yet this feast is one of our most important ones, a first class feast of the Master! Our Lord's Pascha, Palm Sunday, Crucifixion, Nativity and Meeting are given so much more treatment by the Gospel Writers. Only Transfiguration and the Circumcision of our Lord are treated less. To top it off, Pentecost is not even recorded in the Gospels, it is in the Acts of the Apostles. I think that this proves that what is the Gospel is not found strictly or given meaning only by the Gospels themselves.

2) At the feast of Theophany as for all other first class feasts (excepting the Exaltation of the Cross) we sing the anti-trisagion hymn from St. Paul, "As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ!" (Gal. 3: 27). For this feast, this hymn is particularly appropriate? What does it mean, precisely to put on Christ? The Greek word for this is "enedusasthe." This word can be found throughout the Scriptures as well as in other hymns for this feast. We see it in the Prokeimenon for Great Vespers on Saturday nights from Psalm 92 when we sing "The Lord is King; he is clothed (enedusato) with majesty." (This same psalm is the opening psalm of the Ninth Royal Hour on Theophany Eve). We also see it in Psalm 103, with which we begin every Vespers, Great or otherwise, when we sing that "Thou art clothed (eneduso) with honor and majesty." The verb "enduo" simply means "to put on" as like a garment. Thus, when we put on Christ, we are literally "wearing Him." He covers us with his very self and makes us His. Also, at our Lord's Theophany, we clearly see that to put on Christ means, in mystical fashion, to become Christ-like. Thus, we are also made into Sons of the Father as well. At our baptism, the Father and the Spirit are both there revealing us as true sons of God. And as we have put on Christ and become like him, we are also to take on his earthly life. Archimandrite Sophrony wrote a book entitled "His Life is Mine." And as we are baptized into Him, His very life on this earth becomes or should become ours, from his humility to his healing and forgiveness to others and even to his crucifixion and death. To put on Christ is to put on everything about Him and to show ourselves as adopted Sons of God.

3) As I chanted the Royal Hours yesterday, I couldn't help but see all the references, implied or explicit, towards our Lord's crucifixion. In the hymns, we see that the Jordan river turns back in trembling because the Lord has come to destroy the sea monster who inhabits it. The sea monster (the Leviathan) cannot be mistaken for anyone else except for the evil one, the devil. He is contained in the waters because Adam's sin not ony corrupted man but also corrupted the whole world. In short, the whole world benefits from our Lord's coming. As we kiss the Icon of Christ, we chant they hymn "We reverence Thy spotless icon, O Gracious Lord and ask forgiveness of our sins, O Christ God, for of Thy own free will thou wast pleased to ascend the Cross in the flesh so that Thou might deliver from bondage to the enemy those whom Thou hast fashioned. Wherefore, we cry aloud unto Thee: Thou hast filled all things with joy, O our Saviour, for Thou didst come to save the world." We do not say strictly, "to save mankind." The whole world is to be saved by our Lord's coming and his work here on earth. After all there is to be a new heaven and a new earth and the dead shall be raised.

Our Lord's crucifixion is referenced simply because it was God who was on the Cross, not some man of good repute with God, not someone looking like God, not a God who put on a magic show, but God Himself. Our Lord had another Theophany besides his baptism in the Jordan. Our Lord's second Theophany was at Transfiguration, which we celebrate on August 6, 40 days (seeing a parallel here?) before the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross! His Theophany (or Theophanies) testifies to the saving work He has done for us on the Cross!

A few days ago, I shuddered at Protestants who seem to only focus on the Cross of our Lord and pay little or no attention to the other feasts of our Lord which we celebrate. I said that the explicit devotion only to the cross cannot be fully compreheneded unless we also fully realize our Lord's incarnation, His baptism, Annunciation, etc.! All of these feasts point us to the Cross of our Lord and His Resurrection which is the Feast of Feasts!

4) Though I've realized this for awhile, I am constantly reminded especially in the Troparia of the various feasts that our God is a revealing God! The troparion for Theophany is as follows (Tone 1):

When Thou, O Lord, was baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest. For the voice of the Father bore witness unto Thee calling Thee His beloved Son, and the Spirit in the likeness of a dove, confirmed the truth of His word. O Christ our God, who hast appeared and illuminated the world, glory to Thee!

The word tranlsated as "appeared" in Greek is "epiphaneis" which is, of course, the soure of the word epiphany. What is an epiphany? It is a revelation; it is an appearance.

We know of God only because He has revealed Himself to us. At Orthros (except during the weekdays of Great Lent) we chant the hymn "God is the Lord who has revealed (epephamen) himself to us." We cannot come to God through reason (though it does help), we cannot come to God through guessword or experimentation. If we were to strip Christianity of all of its revelation, then all we would be left is a system of morality and only a tincture of theism! Such is extremely important. That is why it is sheer folly for anyone to inject their own reason as to what is God's will or to reject what is God's revelation as many Protestants have done with removing Scriptural books (what they call Apocrypha) from the Canon. Yes, there are a lot of question marks, but for those who presume that God's will can be neatly categorized and quantified are reacting in a manner that is a far cry from humility. God has revealed Himself to us. Could he have done more? Absolutely; He is God and there is no way the world can contain the knowledge of Him. Could He have done less? Again, yes, but we'd be more impoverished because of it. God has revealed Himself so taht we may begin to become like Him.

Such are some of my many random thoughts from Theophany. A blessed Theophany to all!

Abusing the Eucharist

Happy Feast of Theophany to all (if you're on the New Calendar, that is!). More on the Theophany in another post.

I was reading through a Theophany sermon of St. John Chrysostom. It is given here at the Mystagogy blog. As St. John progresses, he starts to speak about the body and blood of our Lord in the Eucharist. He says, in particular:

I shall also say a little about this, and then the conclusion of the talk. Many now will approach the Holy Table on the occasion of the feast. But some approach not with trembling, but shoving, hitting others, blazing with anger, shouting, cursing, roughing it up with their fellows with great confusion. What, tell me, art thou troubled by, my fellow? What disturbeth thee? Do urgent affairs, for certain, summon thee? At this hour art thou particularly aware, that these affairs of thine that thou particularly rememberest, that thou art situated upon the earth, and dost thou think to mix about with people?

First, I'm not shocked to see that our attitudes today have not really changed from fifth century Constantinople when the Eucharist was offered. People are still people, or as Ecclesiastes tells us "Nothing new under the sun." At my church, most people present themselves for the Eucharist and though there is no pushing and shoving, cursing (at least none that I can hear), etc. there is still a great deal of abuse going on. What is it? The faithful are more concerned from whom they receive the Eucharist!

At my church, usually the priest and the deacon distribute it to the faithful in two lines, one for the left side of the church (the priest), one for the right side (the deacon). Many people who sit on the right side will cross to the left. Many who are in the left refuse to move to the shorter right side line to let things move more slowly even when the usher directs them to do so. Their thoughts are not set upon trembling, it appears! Make no mistake about it: This is abuse of the Sacrament! Because it is given to you from the deacon does NOT make the Eucharist less in efficacy or in healing powers. The only thing that makes the Eucharist powerless is you who persist in your sin assuming that you have to receive it from the priest. Maybe you like the priest. So what? Is liking the priest more important than your soul? Will you receive the mysteries on the day of your death from an Orthodox priest or YOUR Orthodox priest.

I'm sure good intentions are at the forefront in all of this, yet we all know the saying with regards to that. Though I really don't want to discern and judge the intentions of the faithful when they approach, the actions are in need of correction. When the faithful are more concerned with who distributes the Eucharist to them, then they are mocking the gift via the distributor. Our Lord Jesus Christ is the giver of the gift of the Eucharist. The priest and the deacon are as unworthy as you and I to receive the mysteries. God has made us worthy! But when we become more interested in who gives us this gift of God, we have just made ourselves very unworthy and should remove ourselves from receiving. Of course, that would be in a perfect world and we are all imperfect people and sinners.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Patristic Orthodox Wisdom

Be like a convict in prison, as he continually asks: "When will the judge come?", and so should you ask with trembling.--The Venerable Ammon, who was the abbot of the Tabennesiote Monastery in Egypt and is commemorated this day, January 2. This was his response when someone asked for his advice.

Forefeast of the Theophany

One of the things I love, liturgically, about the Orthodox Church is how every major feast (those of the Master and a few of the Theotokos) have not only the day of feasting, but also a forefeast and a leave-taking of the feast when the hymns of that day are, more or less, repeated. Most feasts have a period of one week where we are celebrating.

Today is the forefeast of the Theophany of our Lord, where we celebrate his baptism at the hands of His Forerunner, John. Often, it seems, after Christmas, we Orthodox Christians get into a little bit of festal overload and tend to ignore that one week after Christ's birth in the flesh, we should be celebrating His circumcision in the flesh and naming, and then proceed on to celebrate His baptism where, as the Theophany troparion exclaims, "the worship of the Trinity was made manifest." The forefeasts are there to recall us always to worship our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ and to prepare us for the great theological truth that is revealed to us at every feast for us and for our salvation.

The troparion of the forefeast is as follows:

Make ready, Zabulon; prepare thyself, o Nepthalim. River Jordan, stay thy course and skip for gladness to receive teh Soverign Master, Who cometh to be baptzied. O Adam, be thou glad with our first mother, Eve; hide not as ye did of old in Paradise. Seeing you naked, He hath appeared now to clothe you in the first robe again. Christ hath appeared for He truly willeth to renew all creation.

This hymn is sung to the hard chromatic melody "Joseph was Amazed" which provides the same melody for the Forefeast of the Nativity. And if you read both troparia side by side, you can see that they parallel each other in so many ways.

The Troparion of the Forefeast of Nativity is in boldfaced and the Troparion of the Forefeast of Theophany is in italics.

Make ready O Bethlehem
Make ready, Zabulon

Prepare, O Ephratha
Prepare thyself, O Nephthalim

For the tree of life hath blossomed forth in the cave from the Virgin
River Jordan, stay thy course and skip for gladness to receive the Soverign Master who cometh to be baptized.

For her womb did appear as a supersensual paradise
O Adam, be thou glad with our first mother Eve; hide not as ye did in paradise

In which is planted that holy plant, wherof eating, we shall live and not die as Adam
Seeing you naked, He hath appeare now to clothe you in the first robe again

Christ shall be born raising the image that fell at he beginning.
Christ hath appeared, for He truly willeth to renew all creation.

So many Orthodox hymns have this parallel which is important because though a feast may explain one or several important theological truths, it is important that we see how all of these great acts which our Lord has done for us, are all tied together. It frequently frustrates me when my friends and family who are mainly of Lutheran background say that the only feast we should keep is that of the Death and Resurrection of our Lord. For them, it is always "Cross, cross, cross." And so, as a result, feasts such as our Lord's transfiguration (One of my favorite), the Exaltation of the Cross, Ascension, Theophany, Circumcision and such are skipped over or even totally ignored. This is what has happened in mainstream Protestantism as a whole, where the actions taken by our Lord are repeated by them (Eucharist and Baptism) only because Christ did it; not because there is any theological importance behind those actions!

It is to the credit of the Church which always should call us to mind that the feasts we celebrate are all interconnected to one another. I can list any number of other instances where this happens. As Orthodox, it is important that our hymnography not be taken for granted or ignored. It forms the whole of our history of salvation!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Modern Orthodox Wisdom

From St. Nicolai Velimirovich in his Prologue of Ohrid on the Church.

Why is it necessary to listen to the Church and not listen to one man who thinks against the Church, even though he might be called the greatest thinker? Because the Church was founded by the Lord Jesus Christ, and because the Church is guided under the inspiration of the Spirit of God. Because the Church represents the realm of the Holy, a grove of cultivated fruit trees. If one rises up against the realm of the Holy, it means that he is unholy and why then listen to him? "The Church is an enclosure," says the all-wise John Chrysostom. "If you are within, the wolf does not enter; but if you leave, the beasts will seize you. Do not distance yourself from the Church; there is nothing mightier than the Church. The Church is your hope. The Church is your salvation. The Church is higher than the heavens. The Church is harder than stone. The Church is wider than the world. The Church never grows old but always renews itself."

Commemoration of our Father among the saints, Basil the Great

On this, the first day of the civil year, the Holy Orthodox Church commemorates one of its three eminent hierarchs, Basil the Great(the other two being Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom). This saint was not only a valiant confessor for the faith in times of upheaval in the church between the Orthodox who confessed correctly that the Son is of the same essence as the Father and is with Him both coeternal and coglorified and the Arians who believed that the Christ was a created being. This saint confessed this even in the presence of the Emperor Valens himself who was an Arian. Basil also authored a great number of theological treatises and is also credited with the anaphora in the Liturgy which bears his name. Through his intercessions, may Chirst our God save our souls!

From the Prologue of Ohrid: Basil was born during the reign of Emperor Constantine. While still unbaptized, Basil spent fifteen years in Athens where he studied philosophy, rhetoric, astronomy and all other secular sciences of that time. His colleagues at that time were Gregory the Theologian and Julian, later the apostate emperor. In his mature years he was baptized in the river Jordan along with Euvlios his former teacher. He was Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia for almost ten years and completed his earthly life fifty years after his birth. He was a great defender of Orthodoxy, a great light of moral purity, a religious zealot, a great theological mind, a great builder and pillar of the Church of God. Basil fully deserved the title "Great." In liturgical services, he is referred to as the "bee of the Church of Christ which brings honey to the faithful and with its stinger pricks the heretics." Numerous works of this Father of the Church are preserved; they include theological, apologetical, ascetical and canonical writings as well as the Holy and Divine Liturgy named after him. This Divine Liturgy is celebrated ten times throughout the year: the First of January, his feast day; on the eve of the Nativity of our Lord; on the eve of the Epiphany of our Lord; all Sundays of the Honorable Fast [Lenten Season], except Palm Sunday; on Great and Holy Thursday and on Great and Holy Saturday. St. Basil died peacefully on January 1, 379 A.D., and was translated into the Kingdom of Christ.

Troparion of St. Basil the Great (Tone 1): Thy fame has gone forth into all the earth, which has received thy word. Thereby thou hast taught the Faith; thou hast revealed the nature of created things; thou hast made a royal priesthood of the ordered life of men. Righteous Father Basil intercede with Christ our God that our souls may be saved.