Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Daily Prayer

Dear Parish Faithful,

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

There is a wonderful daily prayer that many of you are familiar with and hopefully use on a, well ... daily basis. This prayer can be found in many Orthodox Prayer Books at the end of the Morning Rule of Prayer. It is usually entitled "The Morning Prayer of the Last Optina Elders." This refers to a famous 19th. c. Russian Orthodox Monastery known as Optina Pustyn, and the great elders who dwelt there. An "elder" or "eldress" in the Orthodox Tradition is almost always a monastic, known for his/her wisdom, spiritual gifts, and ability to guide many souls toward salvation. This particular monastery had a striking line of great elders from the early 19th c. through the Russian Revolution and the violent closure of the monastery. For those unfamiliar with this prayer, I would like to include it below for your continuing use in your personal Rule of Prayer. I hope that this will prove to be a lasting contribution to your new year. I will leave any further formatting to your preferences!

O Lord, grant that I may meet all that this coming day brings
to me with spiritual tranquility. Grant that I may fully
surrender myself to Thy holy Will.

At every hour of this day, direct and support me in all things.
Whatsoever news may reach me in the course of the day,
teach me to accept it with a calm soul and the firm
conviction that all is subject to Thy holy Will.

Direct my thoughts and feelings in all my words and actions.
In all unexpected occurrences, do not let me forget
that all is sent down from Thee.

Grant that I may deal straightforwardly and wisely
with every member of my family, neither
embarassing nor saddening anyone.

O Lord, grant me the strength to endure the fatigue of the
coming day and all the events that take place during it.
Direct my will and teach me to pray, to believe,
to hope, to be patient, to forgive, and to love.


Fr. Steven

Monday, December 29, 2008

O Inexpressible Mystery!

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Christ is Born!
Glorify Him!

A word from the Church's theological vocabulary heard as a common refrain over and again during the Feast of our Lord's Nativity is mystery: I behold a strange, most glorious mystery! we chant in the Nativity Canon, to cite but one well-known example. This word "mystery" is thoroughly scriptural and was employed by the Apostle Paul as a way of "summing up" the pre-eternal plan of God as revealed in Christ in the fullness of time, so that all things could be (re)united in Christ:

For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he has set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (EPH. 1:9-10)

With the Feast of the Nativity it is primarily used to express the greatness of the Incarnation:

Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion: He was manifested in the flesh ... (I TIM. 3:16)

It is very important to bear this in mind, otherwise we may misunderstand the Church's use of the word mystery and equate it with something that is "mystifying," as in confusing, confounding or even incoherent. The Incarnation is not one of the "unsolved mysteries" of the world, that the occasional journalist will take on in one more attempt to finally solve in some satisfactory manner. The mystery of the Incarnation is the ineffable and incomprehensible event of the Son and Word of God becoming flesh. We are in awe of the mystery of the Incarnation, not merely baffled by it. It is a paradox, not a puzzle. It remains a mystery because it can be contemplated and believed in, but not fully explained or rationalized through human thought and words. As many would say today, we cannot quite "wrap our minds" around the Incarnation.

You have borne the Savior, O Virgin Theotokos. You have overthrown Eve's ancient curse. You have become the mother of the Son of God. The Father is well-pleased in Him. You carry at your bosom God, the Word, made flesh. We cannot fathom this mystery. We can only believe, and give glory with you: O Lord, beyond all explanation, glory to Thee! (from the Praises in Matins)

From within the depths of the Church we proclaim this mystery and invite the world to embrace it with joy and thanksgiving. We will therefore resist any and all attempts to subvert this mystery through either sophisticated appeals at rationalization; or crude efforts of mocking denial. By the grace of God the Church knows the unknowable mystery of the Incarnation, because it has been revealed by God and now apprehended by faith. And yet the Logos/Word of God is the source of our logical/reasonable modes of thought and ways of thinking. Thus, we can certainly go a long way in comprehending the incomprehensible mystery of the Incarnation. In his book The Orthodox Way, Archbishop Kallistos Ware offered three reasons behind the meaning and purpose of the Incarnation. His purpose was to defend the virginal conception of the Son of God in the womb of the Virgin Mary, an essential aspect of the Incarnation, the denial of which dissolves the mystery into mere metaphor. Very briefly summarized, he made these points:

1) The Incarnation (and virginal conception) point toward the fact the initiative belongs to God. We do not create our own Savior, rather He is sent to us by God out of God's unbounded love for us.

2) The Incarnation points to the transcendent source of our salvation. Our Savior Jesus Christ is truly human, but not merely human. He is theanthropos - God and man.

3) In the Incarnation a new Person does not come into existence. Rather the divine Person of the Son and Word of God "becomes" flesh. Our Savior is One Person in two natures - the divine and human.

Recently, I received a "genuine" Christmas card. In other words a card that was not only about Christmas but about Christ. (Am I mistaken, or are today's Christmas cards less and less about Christmas and hardly at all about Christ? To me they now seem to be annual communiques between families and friends that reveal aging parents and growing children in one pose or another, but with little less that would reveal the Reason for the Season). Be that as it may, this card revealed a kind of sublime simplicity with its creamy-white background upon which was etched a wonderful example of calligraphy in a dark blue ink. The text was from the great Cappadocian Church Father, St. Gregory of Nyssa who, in his characteristic way, expressed the Church's understanding of the great "mystery of our religion:"

O inexpressible mystery and unheard of paradox; the Invisible is seen; the Intangible is touched; the Eternal Word becomes accessible to our speech; the Timeless steps into time; the Son of God becomes the Son of Man.

What a tremendous blessing, that in a world that is not only so sinful and fallen, but also at times so dreary and dull, we are granted this great mystery to contemplate, assimilate and live by!

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

The Nativity and Our Daily Lives

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

If you recall, on Monday morning I shared a few deeply theological passages from a Nativity Homily of St. Gregory Palamas with you in the form of a meditation. I concluded by promising some more from St. Gregory about the impact of this glorious Feast on our lives. In other words, the most profound theological reflection upon the mystery of the Incarnation leads to conclusions we must draw for our own daily lives, our own interior lives, and our relationships with fellow human beings. St. Gregory closes his homily with these words of pastoral exhortation (notice how scriptural his admonitions are):

Brothers and sisters, let us preserve this peace in ourselves as far as we can, for we have received it as an inheritance from our Savior who has now been born, who gives us the Spirit of adoption, through which we have become heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ (cf. ROM. 8:15,17). Let us be at peace with God, doing those things which are well-pleasing to Him, living chastely, telling the truth, behaving righteously, "continuing in prayer and supplication" (cf. ACTS 1:14), "singing and making melody in our heart" (cf. EPH. 5:19), not just with our lips. Let us be at peace with ourselves, by subjecting our flesh to our spirit, choosing to conduct ourselves according to our conscience, and having the inner world of our thoughts motivated by good order and purity. ... Let us be at peace with one another, "forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you" (COL. 3:13), and showing mercy to each other out of mutual love, just as Christ, solely for love of us, had mercy on us and for our sake came down to us. Then, recalled from the sinful fall through His help and grace, and lifted high above this world by virtues, we may have our citizenship in heavenly places (cf. PHIL. 3:20), whence we also wait for our hope (cf. ROM. 8:23), redemption from corruption and enjoyment of celestial and eternal blessings as children of the heavenly Father. May we all attain to this, at the future glorious advent and epiphany of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, to whom belongs glory unto the ages. Amen.

Fr. Steven

Monday, December 22, 2008

The 'Enfleshment of God'

Dear Parish Faithful,

One final reminder of the Nativity schedule:

Monday - Vespers of the Prefeast at 7 pm
Tuesday - Vespers of the Prefeast at 7 pm
Wednesday Morning - Royal Hours at 9 am, 10 am, 11 am, Noon
Wednesday Evening - Festal Matins at 7 pm
Thursday - Divine Liturgy at 9:30 am
Saturday - Divine Liturgy at 9:30 am

I very much look forward to our festal Liturgy on Christmas Day. It is "meet and right" to "lay aside all earthly cares" and rejoice in this most awesome Feast of our Lord's Nativity in the flesh. Nothing complicated - just a child-like simplicity that we all need to periodically experience. As the "people of God," we first assemble together as the Body of Christ to proclaim, praise and participate in the coming of the Incarnate Son of God who is born as a "little child" for our salvation. I hope that this is the primary focus of the day for one and all. Regardless of how we plan the remainder of the day, our presence in church for the Liturgy is essential, for the Feast would be less than festal and "something" would be missing without worshiping the newborn Christ within the context of the Liturgy. It has been at least five years now - perhaps more - since we moved the initial midnight Liturgy to Christmas morning, so that our growing number of young families and children would be more willing and able to participate. The "reward" for this change has been a full and lively church with a deep sense of a "parish family" coming together to embrace the Gift of God in the person of the Incarnate Lord. A strange and awesome mystery that compels us to be thankful to God. And which impels us toward the church for the festal Liturgy. I am sure that everyone joins me in preparing for this Feast with a growing sense of anticipation.


The full title of the upcoming celebration of Christ's birth in the Church is: The Nativity in the Flesh of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ. This is also referred to as the Incarnation, literally the "enfleshment of God," based upon the classical text" "And the Word became flesh" of JN. 1:14. In the Incarnation, the Son of God becomes the Son of Man. The incarnation is the real "birth" of theology, of seeking for words "adequate to God," that express something of the power and majesty of the Word of God who has revealed Himself to the world. We should never feel intimidated or "inadequate" when approaching Orthodox theology. A living theology is not a dry, arid, and jargoned petrification of God in a lifeless series of concepts. Rather, genuine Orthodox theology is life-giving and life-affirming. As it transforms the mind, it will lead to a transformation of life. Orthodoxy is a way of life, not simply a doctrine. Therefore, a "daily dose" of good Orthodox theology can serve to lift up our drooping spirits, reminding us of our high calling in Christ Jesus as well as refresh our minds and hearts with the Truth that is incarnate in Christ. When the great Church Fathers speak of our Lord's Nativity, always remember that they are addressing the mystery of the little Child being the pre-eternal God: From a Nativity homily from St. Gregory Palamas (+1359) we hear of the Incarnation in very eloquent words.

Please strive, brothers and sisters, to lift up your minds as well, that they may better perceive the light of divine knowledge, as though brightly illumined by a holy star. For today I see equality of honor between heaven and earth, and a way up for all those below to things above, matching the condescension of those on high. However great the heavens of heavens may be, or ... the celestial regions, or any heavenly place, state or order, they are no more marvellous or honorable than the cave, the manger, the water sprinkled on the infant and His swaddling clothes. For nothing done by God from the beginning of time was more beneficial to all or more divine than Christ's nativity, which we celebrate today.

The pre-eternal and uncircumscribed and almighty Word is now born according to the flesh, without home, without shelter, without dwelling, and placed as a babe in the manger, seen by men's eyes, touched by their hands, and wrapped in layers of swaddling bands.

The very Word of God from God emptied Himself in an indescribable way, came down from on high to the lowest state of man's nature, and indissolubly linked it with Himself, and in humbling Himself and becoming poor like us, He raised on high the things below, or rather, He gathered both things into one, mingling humanity with divinity, and by so doing He taught everyone that humility is the road which leads upwards, setting forth today Himself as an example before men and holy angels alike.

Next: An exhortation from St. Gregory of the impact of the Incarnation on our way of life.

Fr. Steven

Thursday, December 18, 2008

'Mankind was my business!'

Dear Parish Faithful,

I am including something of an "addendum" to the Monday Morning Meditation posted as "Inexcusable Excuse Making" on our parish website. 

The over-all theme, based on the Parable of the Great Supper, had to do with how being "busy" can easily lead to excuse making of a dubious kind because we then justify postponing our relationship with God based upon those very excuses. As I mentioned in the meditation, the Master of the Supper was not impressed. 

 Right now, I am rereading 'A Christmas Carol' by Charles Dickens. For me, one of the most effective passages in the book, is toward the beginning, when the Ghost of Jacob Marley visits Scrooge on Christmas Eve. By this time, the miserly and miserable character of Scrooge has been masterfully etched in by Dickens. And to this day, the name of Scrooge is synonymous with avarice, greed, and a joyless and meaningless accumulation of profit. Earlier, Scrooge had articulated some of the utilitarian philosophy of the 19th c. when he coldly said in reference to the poor and prisoners, "If they would rather die they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

The Ghost of Marley returns to haunt Scrooge, but Marley himself is in great torment and anguish. Imprisoned in chains that he cannot free himself of, Marley is doomed to roam the earth as a restless spirit witnessing human suffering that he cannot alleviate because he ignored that suffering selfishly during his time on earth. Of the chains, Marley says:

"I wear the chain I forged in life. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it."

With a deep, bitter regret, Marley then confesses:

"My spirit never walked beyond our counting-house - mark me! - in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole; and weary journeys lie before me! ... Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one's life opportunity misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!"

At this point in this somewhat macabre dialogue between the two, Scrooge begins to grope for some signs of hope and relief as he intuitively realizes that Marley is speaking words of warning to him for his cold-hearted scorn for the rest of humanity. When Scrooge protests the working of an unseen providence, by saying "But you were always a good man of business, Jacob," we then hear what may be the most significant - and well-known - passage in this scene:

"Business!" cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. "Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"

It held up its chains at arm's length, as if that were the cause of all its unavailing grief, and flung it heavily upon the ground again.

"At this time of the rolling year," the spectre said, "I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!"

Anticipating the regret of a life not well-lived is a frightening thought. Especially if it comes down to having been too busy!

Good literature is capable of leaving strong indelible images that are much more effective than a well-argued treatise. Dickens' characters were always exaggerated or "larger than life," as we may say. But they then "typify" a great deal about life in the process. 

Besides the necessary business that makes up our lives, and which must be done carefully and responsibly, just what else are we so "busy" with? Does that business also lead us away from charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence? Are we presently scurrying around, making sure that we will have a "Merry Christmas," while also turning our eyes downward so that we too cannot "see" the blessed Star that guides us to the Incarnate Christ? Are we going to somehow be able to "fit" the Church into our "Business?"

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Incarnation: A New Blessing to Both Male and Female

Dear Parish Faithful,

At the AAC in Pittsburg, I picked up the latest copy of St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly. The first article proved to be quite fascinating and I am including an important excerpt below that I will explain. The article is entitled "Women and the Church in the New Millennium," by Catherine Brown Tkacz. Her intention is to review the Church's living Tradition and find clear examples of the equality between women and men. She begins with the following general affirmation:

"The authentic Eastern Christian doctrinal and liturgical heritage regarding women is rich and positive, and these Byzantince traditions include many exemplary teachings which highlight the importance of women. The full humanity and moral competence of women and their spiritual equality with men are implied in the Old Testament and given fresh emphasis by Jesus Christ. The early Church Fathers explicitly taught the spiritual equality of women and also demonstrated it practically through a balanced offering of male and female examples in their preaching. The Eastern Fathers are notable for this. The balance of the sexes is evident in Byzantine iconographic programs and hymns, even in the calender..." (p. 244-245)

My intention is not to review this very well-researched and well-written article here. But I would like to share a beautiful passage that clearly fits into our preparation for the Nativity Feast, dealing as it does with the events surrounding the coming of Christ as He is alive in the womb of His Mother. In other words, as the excerpt below will amply demonstrate, Christ was recognized by both women and men even before He was actually born! This balance seems to be most and best typified by the Gospel According to St. Luke, as the examples below will reveal. Catherine Tkacz writes as follows:

"In the New Testament, even before Jesus' ministry begins, a new emphasis on the spiritual equality of the sexes was arranged by Providence. As has been recently argued, the very manner of the Incarnation imparted a new blessing to both male and female. The balance of the sexes is seen in the responses to him while he was yet in his mother's womb and then again when as an infant he was presented in the Temple. Historically, the first persons to acknowledge him as Lord were Elizabeth and her son John, who was in his sixth month of gestation. This is not trivial: Elizabeth addressed Mary as "the mother of my Lord." (LK. 1:43) That is, the privilege of seeing, by the insight of the Holy Spirit, that Jesus is Lord was given to a pregnant woman. This historical fact conveys great respect for women and for life at every stage. Jesus himself was only a matter of days old. His incarnate body consisteed of only a few cells when Elizabeth and the pre-born John acknowledged his divinity. Later when Mary and Joseph took the infant Jesus to the Temple, both Simeon and Anna were inspired to recognize the Lord. Simeon's words were recorded by Luke and are famous as "The Song of Simeon." Luke identifies Anna as "prophetess" and records the fact that she, in effect, evangelized for the Messiah immediately, in the Temple. Again the Holy Spirit inspired both sexes to acknowledge Jesus. Further, the Spirit of God moved Luke to include these events in his Gospel, so that the Church would know of them." (p. 250-251)

Again, I chose this one example among many because it deals with the events surrounding our Lord's Nativity. Hopefully, this rich passage has something worthy of our "meditation" as it serves to bring the Scriptures to life for us. Her two concluding sentences to the whole article should also prove to be of interest and worthy of further reflection:

"With impressive detail, the Liturgy, the hymnody, the preaching, and the art of the Church commemorate the accomplishments of men as well as women. In the world today, perhaps more than ever before, it is necessary to go beyond letting the tradition speak for itself and to voice these truths overtly." (p. 274)

Fr. Steven

Monday, December 15, 2008

Inexcusable Excuse-Making

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

In the Parable of the Great Supper (LK. 14:16-24), heard yesterday as the prescribed Gospel pericope for the Second Sunday Before Nativity, we were offered a revealing glimpse into humankind's inexhaustible propensity for making excuses. This unending flow of excuses is often cloaked as tightly-argued rationalizations, served up with an unassailable logic, and promoted with sincere conviction. Psychologically, excuse-making is not to be confused with lying - at least on the conscious level (though this distinction can get a bit murky, in that we can actually believe our own lies as we believe in our excuses). These excuses serve to free us from responsibility, disentangle us from awkward situations, or even undermine our own well-being due to blindness or some hidden perversity of character.

It seems as if we "inherited" this propensity for making excuses from Adam and Eve as the story of the Fall unfolds in the Book of Genesis. After disobeying the divine commandment by eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve offer excuses as to why they both succumbed to the serpent's insinuations (GEN. 3). These excuses were blatant evasions of moral responsibility. They covered up a refusal to repent. They assigned blame elsewhere, but accepted none for themselves. And these excuses were made directly to God! How strong, therefore, is the human need to fabricate excuses to rationalize away our sins! We see the same pattern depressingly repeated by children, corporate executives, clergy of the Church, and by husbands and wives in our homes. The domestic "paradise" established potentially within the Mystery of Marriage is undermined by the same processes that destroyed the original Eden of the first man and woman: temptation, assent, sin, refusal to repent, feeble excuses to justify and avoid responsibility, and negative consequences to follow. The "image and likeness of God" is obscured by this "dark side" of the human condition.

Returning to the parable found in St. Luke's Gospel, we hear that Christ relates a story about "A certain man who gave a great supper and invited many." (14:16) This is clearly an image of our heavenly Father's gracious invitation to experience the joy of fellowship with God in the eschatological Kingdom. A supper/banquet implies fellowship, sharing, and the joy of communal celebration. It has thus been a constant image of sharing our life with God in the Age to come, culminating in the glorious "marriage supper of the Lamb" in the Book of Revelation (19:9). Even on an "earthly level" it is an invitation that is often readily accepted. Who wants to pass us a sumptuous meal? Nevertheless, with a realism that we can all relate to, the servant of the man who has prepared the supper is forced to hear a series of excuses that are meant to free the recipients of the invitation from the obligation to attend. But so as not to cause offense, they offer excuses that sound reasonable enough. As Christ says explicitly in the parable: "But they all with one accord began to make excuses" (14:18). What, then, does the servant of the parable hear? More or less, the usual:

The first said to him, 'I have bought a piece of ground, and I must go and see it. I ask you to have me excused.' And another said, 'I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to test them. I ask you to have me excused.' Still another said, 'I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.' (14:18-20)

Taken from the daily routine of obligations and responsibilities, again we acknowledge the reasonableness of these excuses. (Interpreted allegorically by the Fathers, the excuses, according to a note in the Orthodox Study Bible, refer to "people devoted to earthly matters, to things pertaining to the five senses, and to all the pleasures of the flesh"). However, the "master of the house" was not impressed, for we hear that he became "angry" upon the return of his servant with the news that the supper would only be thinly attended. The master of the house further responds by ordering his servant to bring in other guests, including "the poor, and the maimed and the lame and the blind." (14:21) Discovering that "still there is room" (14:22), the servant is told to "Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled" (14:23). The master's hospitality is so abundant, that he will invite and even compel "guests" that according to social etiquette would usually remain uninvited. In other words, those for whom the banquet should have been a natural culmination of an ongoing relationship - the elect of Israel in their chosenness by God - will find themselves on the outside; while wholly unexpected guests - the lawless Gentiles - will be given free and gracious access to the Kingdom prepared before the foundation of the world.

The excuses offered in the parable are easily translated into the one cliche that is ever-present in our daily vocabulary and repeated like a mantra when searching for a formula readily understood by one and all: "I am so busy!" In fact, everyone is not only "so busy," but actually "too busy." Just like the figures in the parable. Therefore, we believe that our level of responsibility is lightened, and expectations for our time and energy must be minimal to be fair. Our relationships may suffer, but that is unavoidable. That is how the world and our lives are structured. So we have the "perfect" excuse as to why we cannot prayer with any regularity; fast with any concentration; and practice charity with any concern. Committed Orthodox Christians are too busy to come to confession, read the Holy Scriptures, or come to non-Sunday liturgical services. Being too busy, we struggle to "fit" God into our busy schedules. If that fails, it cannot be helped - God will understand. Yet, other troubling questions seem to intrude themselves upon the safe haven of pleading the excuse of being busy. Although no claim is being made that the following are a "top ten" of such questions, I do believe that they are an "honest ten:"

1. Were the excuses of the parable enough to justify a broken relationship with God?
2. What convinces me that the excuse of being busy should satisfy God's "demands" upon me?
3. Can it be spiritually dangerous to be so busy?
4. Am I free of any moral responsibility to change the ordering of my life so as to respond to God and neighbor without any excuses to relieve me from doing so?
5. What are the implications of being "too busy" within the context of my relationship with God?
6. Is it possible that I have become overly-dependent upon the excuse of always being busy?
7. What does it mean when we come to the "supper" - the Liturgy - but fail in partaking of the "food" freely-offered - the Eucharist?
8. What excuses do I offer for refusing the Master's hospitality?
9. If the excuse is being unprepared, what am I doing to change that pattern?
10. How do I understand the last words of the parable spoken by Christ: "For I say to you that none of those men who were invited shall taste my supper?" (14:24)

The Parable of the Great Supper becomes quite challenging when given some attention and thought. Although meant to reveal the foolishness of inexcusable excuse-making, it nevertheless reveals what God intends for those who respond to His gracious invitation: the unending joy of the Kingdom of God best characterized as a great and joyous supper where "all is now ready" (14:17). This hospitality is so great that no one is excluded, except through self-exclusion posed in the form of unconvincing excuses not to attend. There is always room. Having been invited, and having accepted this invitation, our task is to overcome the universal propensity of making excuses in order to preserve our self-autonomy and self-regard. We may then join the elect "where the voice of those who feast is unceasing, and the gladness of those who behold the goodness of Thy countenance is unending. For Thou art the true desire and the ineffable joy of those who love Thee, O Christ our God, and all creation sings Thy praise forever. Amen." (First Prayer of Thanksgiving After Communion)

Fr. Steven

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Nurturing Holiness - Elder Porphyrios on Raising Children

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

December 9 is the day of which we commemorate the Conception by Righteous St. Anna of the Theotokos. Through the procreative act of sexual intimacy given to us by God in order "to be fruitful and to multiply," Joachim and Anna "co-created," with God, the female child Mariam of Nazareth who would grow up to be the Theotokos. We strongly believe that she was a human person from the moment of conception. And she was conceived without any direct, divine intervention that would have made her an exception, rather than an example, of human holiness. Therefore, as Orthodox, we do not accept the Roman Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception, promulgated officially in 1854. This dogma claims that the "merits of Christ" were applied to Mary at the moment of her conception so that she could be freed from the "stain" (macula in Latin) of "original sin." Patience, nurturing and love were needed for her to "come to term" and into the light of life in order to fulfill her unique vocation. This feast sanctifies human, conjugal love as an expression of the love between two persons in direct fulfillment of the will of God for husbands and wives. Nine months later, on September 8, we then celebrate the Nativity of the Theotokos. Fr. Thomas Hopko writes the following about the relationship between these commemorative dates:

Mary's nativity is celebrated on September 8. A popular tradition among the Orthodox says that the nine-month period is purposely off by one day to illustrate the "mere humanity" of Mary, unlike the "divine humanity" of her Son, whose conception on the feast of the Annunciation is celebrated on March 25, exactly nine months before His Nativity. (The Winter Pascha, p. 41)

This feast brings to mind a fascinating passage that I would like to share with all of you. It comes from a certain Elder Porphyrios, in a book of his collected writings entitled Wounded By Love. In the chapter "On the Upbringing of Chlidren," there is an initial section with the heading, A child's upbringing commences at the moment of its conception. The elder writes the following:

A child's upbringing commences at the moment of conception. The embryo hears and feels in its mother's womb. Yes, it hears and it sees with its mother's eyes. It is aware of her movements and her emotions, even though its mind has not developed. If the mother's face darkens, it darkens, too. If the mother is irritated, then it becomes irritated also. Whatever the mother experiences - sorrow, pain, fear, anxiety, etc. - is also experienced by the embryo.

If the mother doesn't want the child, if she doesn't love it, then the embryo senses this and traumas are created in its little soul that accompany it all its life. The opposite occurs throuigh the mother's holy emotions. When she is filled with joy, peace and love for the embryo, she transmits these things to it mystically, just as it happens to children that have been born.

For this reason a mother must pray a lot during her pregnancy and love the child growing within her, caressing her abdomen, reading psalms, singing hymns and living a holy life. This is also for her own benefit. But she makes sacrifices for the sake of the embryo so that the child will become more holy and will acquire from the very outset holy foundations.

Do you see how delicate a matter it is for a woman to go through a pregnancy? Such a responsibility and such an honour! (Wounded By Love, p. 195)

This may sound a bit pious and sentimental. In fact, it may not all be subject to biological verification. It might not be a perfect fit with the scientific "facts of life." But that does not mean that it is not true in an intuitive and "spiritual" sense. The elder is touching upon the relationship that begins between a mother and her child from the "moment of conception." The mother is carrying a unique, unrepeatable human person within her womb - a child with an eternal destiny. At least from the moment that a mother's suspicion that she is pregnant is medically verified, her maternal instincts "kick in" with an ever-growing naturalness. There is now someone unknown and new to be loved! A new mother instinctively becomes more protective and careful about her activities, her diet, her work routine, etc. Again, this is no sentimental dismissal of the at times debilitating effects of pregnancy, experienced by mothers and witnessed to by fathers. "Morning sickness" is no picnic! There are times when a mother may strongly wish that she were not pregnant at all. As the elder said, there is irritation, sorrow, pain, fear, anxiety, etc. But this is endured and overcome by love for the sake of "responsibility and honour" conferred upon the mother. As Christ taught: "When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come; but when she is delivered of the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world." (JN. 16:21)

Come, let us dance in the Spirit! Let us sing worthy praises to Christ! Let us celebrate the joy of Joachim and Anna, The conception of the Mother of our God, For she is the fruit of the grace of God.
(Prefeast hymn of the Conception of the Theotokos)

The rest of the chapter in the elder's book contains sections entitled:

+ What saves and makes for good children is the life of the parents in the home
+ Over-protectiveness leaves children immature
+ A child needs to be surrounded by people who pray and pray ardently
+ With children what is required is a lot of prayer and few words
+ The sanctity of the parents is the best way of bringing up children in the Lord
+ With prayer and sanctity you can also help children at school
+ Teach the children to seek God's help
+ Children are not edified by constant praise

If anyone is interested further in the elder's teaching, I can provide a copy of this chapter for you.

Fr. Steven


A very warm response from Alexis Callender to this meditation:

Good Morning Fr. Steven,

Father bless. I feel I should tell you that this is perhaps one of the most profound, if not the most accurate description of a mother and her responsibilities and duties. Motherhood is an honor and a gift to be cherished. God has blessed a woman to carry, nurture, raise, tend to and care for A LIFE. A mother (and father) are entrusted with His most precious gift…LIFE. This can never be taken for granted. I did not think that any portion of Elder Porphyrios’s writing or any portion of your meditation was sentimental or pious. In my humble opinion, it was accurate, on the mark and so beautiful that my heart welled up with tears of joy and thanksgiving. Some may consider my opinion biased because I am a woman and I am a mother; however, I truly in my heart believe the following: For anyone to feel indifferent, passive or desensitized regarding the matters of conception, birth, parenting, you have turned your back on God and His Holy Mother.

The Church’s teachings on raising children in Christ’s Holy Church, instilling the value of life, and constantly reminding them and teaching them that our bodies are a temple of the Lord so important in our parenting. As Orthodox Christians we must also remain deeply prayerful and very vigilant in our stance on promiscuity, abortion, and other perverse immoralities that damage and de-sanctify the gift of life.

Thank you for sending this beautiful meditation. I am especially grateful as today is Analisa’s name day.

I would be very interested in reading the chapter and other works of Elder Porphyrios.

In Christ,

Monday, December 8, 2008

Patriarch Alexei II, In Memoriam


by Archbishop Lazar of Canada

Today, the 25th Sunday after Pentecost, we celebrated a Pannikhida for a remarkable hierarch. The measure of the life of His Holiness Patriarch Alexei II is difficult to assess. During the Communist era he lead his Diocese and then his Archdiocese in a manner that he could truly say "by faith we passed through the red sea." The Russian people by the tens of thousands were willing to hazard and even to give up their lives for the name of Jesus Christ and His Gospel. It is doubtful that we Canadians would do the same. This is a people who have proved themselves in the fire and who deserve the respect and reverence of all.

For a hierarch serving in the Soviet era, maintaining the precarious balance between acceptance and destruction by the Soviet authorities took a heavy emotional and physical toll. On the one hand, the sincere desire to maintain and strengthen the faith, and on the other, the need to soothe the government so it would not destroy every church and imprison every priest, took an enormous amount of faith, courage, diplomacy, and the risk of freedom and life.

Following the collapse of the Soviet regime, the rebuilding task was staggering. How did one get the alienated, often half destroyed church property returned, and the sites of those churches that were in ruin? The military was still officered by generals and high ranking men and women who were products of the Soviet era, many of whom were members of the Communist Party. Formidable though it was, Patriarch Alexei, by patient but unyielding labour, and exquisite diplomacy, managed not only to rebuild churches and monasteries, but to re-institute military and hospital chaplaincies, often in the face of strong objections from the generals and admirals. He led in the restoration of prison ministries, the opening of orphanages and alms-houses supported and operated by the Orthodox Church. Seminaries were rebuilt and flooded with students, monasteries, the very heart of Orthodoxy in every nation, were rebuilt, lands returned, and the monasteries have once again become centres of charity outreach.

One must acknowledge all those, both clergy and laity, who participated in all this great spiritual rebirth, but we must especially reverence His Holiness. During the Soviet era, he placed himself in the breach and became a moral martyr in balancing the compromises necessary for the physical survival of the Church with both pastoral care for his flock and loyalty to the Gospel. As Patriarch, he was under even more heavy a burden, and after the fall of Communism, he gave the last of his strength and life to the rebuilding and rebirth of the faith in Russia.

It is a tribute the him, and to the Russian people who have come to Canada and blessed our homeland with the presence of those who have confessed the faith in the face of persecution, prison and at the risk of death for the sake of the Gospel, that we serve a Russian Liturgy in the Monastery once a month. Many of the Russians who are here for the Liturgy on that day saw their fathers, mothers, grandparents, brothers, sisters and other relatives, martyred for the faith, and stood ready to follow in their footsteps. How could we not reverence such people? At the head of all, stood His Holiness, Alexei II, Patriarch and confessor of Moscow and All-Russia.

Glory and honour to him both in this age and in the age to come. Let his memory be from generation to generation.

Archbishop Lazar and synodia.

Further coverage of the repose of His Holiness Patriarch Alexei II can be found on the OCA website:

The St Nicholas Day Pageant - A Living Tradition!

Dear Parish Faithful and Friends in Christ,

Once again, the parish was treated to a wonderful St. Nicholas Day Program yesterday following the Liturgy. Our students performed a play of narration entitled "The Jesse Tree," written by Phylis Meshel Onest. The narration, based upon scriptural texts, took us through the account of salvation history culminating with the advent of the Son of God in the flesh. Our director was Karen Krueger and the beautiful Jesse tree was created by Anna Gerasimchuk. It was easy to tell that our children worked hard at being prepared, because many had their parts memorized, and others read very smoothly and clearly. The students clearly enjoy these annual plays and commit themselves to a quality performance. Their teachers must inspire them. The younger children were very orderly and patient awaiting their turn to come forward. The plays have become such an established tradition of our parish life, that they have become events to look forward to once a year in honor of St. Nicholas and in preparation for Christ's Nativity.

Our Charity Dinner, sponsored by and served by our High School students was a tasty lenten meal. Donations received just about reached $500.00, at least by unofficial count. This money will be handed over to a designated charity chosen by our high school students. The high school students thank everyone for their generous donation.

Finally, to crown the day, we were visited by St. Nicholas who, true to his warm character, brought small bags of gifts for each and every child. The three "gold," yet edible, coins in each bag were reminiscent of the event in the saint's life when he spared the three young daughters of a poor man lives of drudgery and enslavement, by anonymously tossing three bags of gold coins through their window on three consecutive nights. This provided them the necessary dowrys to marry well in their town. Some of the children were puzzled by the rather glaring discrepancy between the wavy brown hair of St. Nicholas in the back and his long and very grey beard in front. When I pointed out the fact that my own beard is pretty gray but that my hair is not, the mystery remained unresolved.

All in all, a wonderful event for our parish family following the glory of the Liturgy as we prepare for the Feast of the Incarnation.

Fr. Steven

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Is Santa Claus Real?

Dear Parents,

If your children "believe" in Santa Claus, and/or if you promote that belief as a family tradition, it would be risky to send one of them up to me with the question: "Is Santa real?" (That has happened in the past). I would not answer back "Yes." At least not an unqualified "yes." Adapting myself to the age of my interlocutor, I would probably say something like: St. Nicholas exists, and the name Santa Claus is derived from the saint's name. The "real" St. Nicholas lived a long time ago (4th c.), and he was an Orthodox bishop who was loved by his flock. He was especially loved by children, because he was so attentive to them and was very charitable to poor children, making sure that they also had a nice toy as the wealthier children had. In fact, our Christmas gift-giving is probably even more derived from the many stories of St. Nicholas' generosity as it is from the magi bringing gifts to Christ. Throughout Europe, the feast day of St. Nicholas on December 6 was always a day of bringing gifts to children. (To this day, we always come up with a family gift for December 6 in memory of St. Nicholas). Our image of Santa Claus is based to a great extent on the poem from the 1820's "The Night Before Christmas." As jolly as he may be, he is something of a caricature of the "real" St. Nicholas, who was a theologian and an ascetic.

If I were asked if Santa Claus came down everyone's chimney with a bundle of gifts to be placed under the Christmas tree, I don't think that I would honestly be able to say "yes," regardless of how imploring the eyes before me were with an eagerness to believe. That is not because, like Scrooge, I say "humbug" to Christmas. Far from it! It is a wonderful season of the year, with the potential for great joy and "domestic bliss" (that just might be pushing it a bit). I would say something like I am sure that St. Nicholas puts into the hearts of mothers and fathers a desire to bring joy to their children with gifts, and in that sense St. Nicholas is the source of the gifts. I aim for not blurring the reality between what we believe to be actually true and the realm of fantasy.

My "theory" is that Santa Claus gains in importance the less Christ-centered a family is. He "fills a gap," so to speak, for a child's sense of wonder and need for the miraculous. If there is no Christ Child born of a Virgin with powerful angels filling the heavens with praise, then something else must take the place of that awesome event. A purely secular Christmas for a child devoid of the otherworldly mystery of the nativity of Christ sounds rather dreary. So, again, Santa gains in attention when Christ is marginalized or absent. (The same holds true for the "tooth fairy," a being that fills in if the children are not taught about the existence of angels, which we insist are quite real).

My "issue" with Santa Claus is that he favors children who already have a great deal, if you get my point. The children who have much, seem to get yet more from Santa than the children who have little. If we could somehow plant into the minds and hearts of our children a real concern for the poor children of the world, and that it is more important that they receive some kind of gift to relieve their misery, then we would be accomplishing something significant. That is not a message for a toddler or small child, but something our children could grow into as they mature.

A way toward that is letting your children know that we have an annual Nativity Charity Appeal in which we support poor people in other parts of the world. Older children could bring a dollar (do allowances still exist?) to put in the basket. Encourage them to carry your contributions to the Nativity food drive, or if they go shopping with you, let them pick the item off of the shelf. I know that most of you are already doing this, so I am only reinforcing these small, but significant gestures.

My point is not to influence anyone about Santa Claus one way or another. But I do want to make the point that other perspectives do exist. And I hope that everyone makes a point of becoming more familiar with the "real" St. Nicholas and his wonderful and saintly life. I hope that everyone does experience that elusive "domestic bliss" when the Feast of our Savior's Nativity arrives. Yet, it is important that we do not become self-absorbed and forget the great need that surrounds us. If we did, we would not properly understand the "reason for the season" - and who Christ is.

Any comments or questions would be welcomed.

In Christ,

Fr. Steven

Monday, December 1, 2008

Picking Up Where We Left Off

Dear Parish Faithful,

For those who were travelling over the weekend, I hope that you are all back safe and sound and that your Thanksgiving weekend went well with relatives and friends. It is a blessing, indeed, to be able to consciously give thanks to God for our very lives and our salvation; together with the many blessings that we have in life, beginning with our families. And we thank God for the "family" of our parish, which gives us a deep sense of community and sharing together in the life in Christ.

The task now at hand, though, is to pick up where we may have left off concerning the Nativity Fast and our preparation for the Feast. Never more than now are we bombarded with every conceivable distraction, well-packaged in tinsel and warm fuzzy feelings, than these last three weeks before Christmas. Therefore, we need to be selective and manifest some spiritual "good taste" - one way of defining the gift of discernment. We want to enjoy the season, and desire the same for our children, but we do not want to lose our identity as Orthodox Christians in the process. Prayer, fasting and charity need to define us more than consumerism and a "shop-till-I-drop" approach to the season. Allow the Church to guide your life more than the shopping mall. The droning of piped-in-carols is superficial compared to the hymns of the Church. "Party" after we arrive at the Feast, not before. Reserve some energy for the festal season that marks the twelve days between Nativity and Theophany, rather than expend it all on the "x amount of days of shopping before Christmas." Budget charity into your spending, thus expanding your gift-giving in order to embrace the needy.

A good place to begin would be this coming Friday evening, when we commemorate our beloved St. Nicholas with a Vesperal Liturgy beginning at 6:00 p.m. Mark that on your calendar and make a point of being present. I hope to see many families and children at the service, since there is no school on Saturday. St. Nicholas prays for your children in heaven - not his later caricature, Santa Claus.

And again remember that our St. Nicholas Day Program and Charity Dinner are scheduled for this Sunday.

Fr. Steven