Monday, August 30, 2010

The Baptist, The Forerunner, The Friend of the Bridegroom

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Yesterday, August 29, we commemorated the Beheading of St. John the Baptist. The scriptural text read at the Liturgy was MK. 6:14-29; and we also find the gruesome narrative in MT. 14:1-12. The evangelists relate the story in a way that sharply contrasts the righteousness of St. John and the utter decadence of Herod Antipas' court, beginning, of course, with his wife Herodias and her daughter Salome. St. John, the ascetic, prophet and voice "crying in the wilderness" was raised up by God to announce the coming of the Messiah, but also to denounce any unrighteousness that arrogantly ignored the Law of God. Herod Antipas was an example of that unrighteousness, unlawfully married to his brother's wife, and surrounded by a sycophantic court. Beyond that, the image of the young "dancing girl" receiving St. John's severed head on a platter and then presenting it as a "gift" to her mother, must remain one of the Bible's most brutal images of total moral depravity. Created in the "image and likeness of God," human beings, both male and female, are capable of sinking deep into the abyss of unrestrained evil. Here is a striking reminder that the gift and responsibility of human freedom can degenerate into subhuman license, wherein "everything is permitted."

Yet, perhaps it will prove to be more fruitful to turn our attention elsewhere. We call St. John "the Baptist" and "the Forerunner." These titles are meant to identify his unique and important ministry in relation to Jesus, "the Coming One." At a time when prophets and prophecy had seemed a thing of the past in Israel, God sent forth St. John to preach a baptism of repentance that would prepare the people of Israel for the advent of the Messiah, who would be Jesus of Nazareth. St. John cast his prophetic teaching in the fiery and apocalyptic language that has created an enduring image of him as the stern prophet of the impending judgement of God:

"You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits that befit repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." (LK. 3:7-9)

In addition to this, though, St. John anticipated the ethical ideals of Jesus about how we need to treat our neighbors with equity and compassion ("Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"):

" He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise." Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, "Teacher, what shall we do? And he said to them, "Collect no more than is appointed you." Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages." (LK. 3:11-14)

Eventually, then, in fulfillment of his role as Forerunner and Baptist, St. John recognized the Lord when Jesus approached the Jordan River and "allowed" Himself to be baptized by St. John. Once he identified Jesus as "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (JN. 1:29), St. John began to "decrease" so that the Lord may "increase." This attests to the great humility of St. John. This is his "kenotic moment." And this kenosis ("self-emptying") will culminate in his beheading; as Christ's kenosis will culminate on the Cross. We have St. John's own witness to this in the words recorded by St. John the Evangelist:

"He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full. He must increase but I must decrease." (JN. 4:29-30)

Although we have given St. John the appropriate titles of "Baptist" and "Forerunner," he refers to himself as the "friend of the Bridegroom." At a wedding, all attention must fall upon the Bridegroom and the Bride. A true friend will never usurp that attention, but will carefully act in such a way as to ensure it. Only a false friend will act otherwise. Christ is the Bridegroom and Israel, the Church or the human soul is the Bride. As a "friend of the Bridegroom," St. John is loyal, trustworthy, and ever-ready to serve. As a true friend, he will accept a position of vulnerability for the sake of that friendship if need be. He rejoices simply to stand near Christ and hear His voice. In fact, as a friend his joy is "full." What a blessing it is to arrive at the fullness of life and joy in one's vocation, even in the awareness of the great "price" one must pay for that fulfillment! Indeed, St. John the Baptist and Forerunner of the Lord paid the full price for being a friend of the Bridegroom.

As "friends" of Christ - "You are my friends if you do what I command you" (JN. 15:14) - how wonderful to be able to "rejoice greatly at the bridegroom's voice" as did St. John. When we serve in a parish, as a priest, a member of the parish council, a church school teacher, or in any of the various ministries of the parish; it is essential that our role is to serve the Bridegroom as a true "friend," always perfectly willing to "decrease" so that all attention is given to the Bridegroom - Christ - so that He may "increase" in the minds and hearts of the parish faithful. There is no room for egosim and unhealthy vanity. In the presence of the Bridegroom it would be unseemly to draw attention to ourselves at the expense of His saving, healing and transforming presence. All of that is indicative of a shallowness and "self-love" that has no place in the presence of Christ. If "among those born of women, none is greater than he" (LK.. 7:28), then St. John remains the truest image of faithfulness to God, genuine humility and of that friendship that Christ offers to all of us.

Fr. Steven

Friday, August 27, 2010

Begin the New Year with Thanksgiving

Dear Parish Faithful,

"The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims His handiwork."

The "presentation" of the beauty of the natural world that accompany this meditation may strike you as a bit superficial - if not "hokey" - at first. But the images are impressive, and I was looking precisely for some arresting images of the natural world to "promote" a service we will have next week as we prepare to begin the Church New Year on Wednesday, September 1. Many of you are familiar with the Akathist Hymn "Glory to God for All Things!" Those who are familiar with this Hymn unanimously praise its beauty and power. We have chanted it often in the church over the years. This remarkable text is attributed to Archpriest Gregory Petrov (+1942). This hymn is replete with prayerful thanksgiving to God for the glory of the natural world in which we can more than detect the hand of God. In the praises from the hymn, we hear:

Glory to You, Who have shown me the beauty of the universe,
Glory to You, Who have opened before me the sky and the earth as an eternal book of wisdom ...
(Oikos 1)

Glory to You, Who brought out of earth's darkness diversity of color, taste and fragrance,
Glory to You, for the warmth and caress of all nature,
Glory to You, for surrounding us with thousands of Your creatures,
Glory to You, for the depth of Your wisdom reflected in the whole world,
Glory to You, I kiss reverently the footprint of Your invisible tread ...
(Oikos 3)

The Hymn, of course, speaks of other aspects of life for which we praise God - of His over-all providential guidance of our lives and the world to their ulitmate fulfillment in the Kingdom of God; of our relationships of love and fellowship with others; of the gifts of creativity and human endeavor, etc. As this Hymn expands our mind by effectively bringing to its attention the endless range of the world's diverse beauty that surrounds us; it can simultaneously expand our hearts to "open up" to God's presence in the world and in the face of our neighbor. The Akathist Hymn "Glory to God for All Things!" is "uplifting" in the best sense of the word. For it lifts one out of those daily perceptions of life that only vaguely remind us of God's presence; into a clarity of vision that sharpens that presence by reminding of realities we know of but often bury beneath our narrowly-focused preoccupations.

Many people - and I include myself - like new beginnings. For a new beginning means a new and fresh start. And this in turn leads us to (re)assess our lives in relationship to God. The Church New Year on September 1, may be little more than a neglected note on the church calendar hanging on the refrigerator or wall. In the endless "battle of the calendars" it may pass right by. In the "daily grind" it may seem quaint in its utter insignificance. However, if it can somehow catch our attention, it may be the starting point of renewing our relationship with God - and with our neighbor and the world around us. To take the time to observe the beginning of the Church New Year may be a small victory that reveals a larger and often hidden desire to make God first in our lives.

We will serve The Akathist Hymn "Glory to God for All Things!" on Tuesday evening, August 31, at 7:00 p.m. Please note that on your calendars and make an honest attempt to be present.

Fr. Steven

Saturday, August 21, 2010

A Countless Throng, Godly Enthusiasm, Holy Hymns

Dear Parish Faithful,

A few more evocative words from St. John of Damascus as we continue to celebrate the Dormition of the Theotokos:

The prophets, then, proclaim you. The angels serve you, the apostles revere you, the virginal mouthpiece of God (St. John the Forerunner) takes care of the ever-virgin who was Mother of God. Today the angels minister to you as you go home to your Son, joined by the souls of the just, of patriarchs and prophets. The Apostles are your escort, with a countless throng of inspired Fathers gathered from the ends of the earth in a cloud, by your Son's divine command, in this holy and sacred city, Jerusalem. In their godly enthusiasm, they sing holy hymns to you, the source of the Lord's body that is for us a stream of life.

This is our sacrifice of thanks to you, the first-fruits of our words, a dedicatory offering of our impoverished intelligence, moved by its longing for you to forget its own weakness. Receive our desires kindly, since you know they exceed our power. And you, good Lady, bearer of our good Lord, watch over us; lead and guide our lives where you will; put the urges of our most shameful passions to rest, calm the tossing of their waves, lead us to safe harbor of God's will, make us worthy of the blessedness to come, the sweet light of His own face, who is God the Word, made flesh from you. With Him, may there be to the Father glory, honor and majesty, with His holy, good and life-giving Spirit, now and always and unto ages of ages! Amen.

St. John of Damascus, Homily I On the Dormition, 9, 14.

Fr. Steven

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Death That Brings Life

Dear Parish Faithful,

A bit more on the Dormition of the Theotokos from St. John of Damascus (+749):

Today the treasury of life, the abyss of grace (I do not know how I can say these things with my bold, fearless lips!) is wrapped in a death that brings life. Undaunted, she draws near to death, having given birth to death's destroyer - if one may call her departure from the world, so full of holiness and life, a death at all. For how could she, who brimmed over with true life for all, ever become subject to death's power? Still, she yields to the law established by her own Son, and as a daughter of the old Adam she undergoes the ancestral trial, since even her Son, life itself, did not refuse it. But as Mother of the living God, it is also right that she should be brought into his presence. For if God was concerned "lest the first human being reached out his hand and take from the tree of life and eat, and live forever ..." (Gen. 3:21), how can she, who has received the life that knows no beginning or ending, the life free from the boundaries of both birth and death, not live herself for endless ages?

Let us praise her, then, today with sacred songs, we who are privileged to be called and to be the people of Christ. Let us honor her with an all-night assembly. Let us delight in her holiness of soul and body; after all, she is truly, after God, the holiest of all beings, for like always delights in like! Let us do her homage by or mercy and our compassion for the poor. For if God is honored by nothing so much as by mercy, who can deny that his mother is glorified, too, by the same thing? She has opened to us the unspeakable depth of God's love for us!

St. John of Damascus, Homily II on the Dormition, 2, 16.

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Paschal Death of the Theotokos

Dear Parish Faithful,

As we continue to celebrate the Dormition of the Theotokos, I would like to share some theological reflection from the Church Fathers on the meaning of the Feast. SVS Press has published a wonderful book, On the Dormition of Mary - Early Patristic Homilies. These works are translated by Brian E. Daly, almost all for the first time into English. The homilies included in this volume come from the early 6th - 9th c. This was the earlier part of the Byzantine Era of the Church, and these homilies are characterized by the lofty rhetoric of that period's homiletic literature. Perhaps the greatest homilist of that era was St. John of Damascus (+749), one of the great theologians in the history of the Church. St. John combines profound theological insight with a highly-developed grasp and use of the rules of rhetoric. Perhaps a mere sampling of a passage or two, may convey something of his gift as theologian and orator:

Oh, see how the source of life is carried over into life, through the midst of death! See how the one who overcame the defining limits of nature in her childbearing now gives way to those same limits, and submits her unsullied body to death! It was only right for that body to "lay aside what is mortal and put on immortality" (I Cor. 15:53), since the Lord of nature himself did not refuse the test of death. He died in the flesh, and by that death destroyed death, bestowed incorruptibility on corrupt nature, and made death the source of resurrection. See how the maker of all things receives into his own hands her holy soul, now separated from that tabernacle that received God. He rightly honors her who was by nature his handmaid, but whom by his saving plan he made to be his mother, in the unfathomable ocean of his love for humanity. For he truly became flesh, and did not feign his incarnation!

... Therefore I will not call your holy passing [from this world] a death, but rather a falling-asleep, a parting, or - more properly speaking - a homecoming. For when you parted from the things of the body, you went to make your dwelling among greater things.

St. John of Damascus, Homily I, 10.

Another great homilist from that era, one would can "rival" St. John of Damascus, is St. Andrew of Crete (+740) and author of the celebrated Great Canon of Repentance. St. Andrew also beautifully extols the death of the Theotokos as a "paschal death" that reveals the saving fruits of Christ's own death and resurrection:

Indeed, if I must speak the truth, the death that is natural to the human race even reached as far as Mary: not that it held her captive as it holds us, or that it overcame her - far from it! But it touched her enough to let her experience that sleep that is for us, if I may put it this way, a kind of ecstatic movement towards the things we only hope for during this life, a passage that leads us on towards transformation into a state like that of God. ... She fell into a natural sleep and tasted death, but did not remain held by it; she simply followed the laws of nature and fulfilled God's plan, which the Providence that guides all things laid down for us from the beginning. Her role, surely, was to show us clearly the way she has moved through the transformation from a corruptible state to an incorruptible one - something that is only thinkable if a natural dissolution of these elements of our body should take place first, and if then the life that has melted away should be forged anew.

St. Andrew of Crete, Homily II, 4.

Fr. Steven

Monday, August 16, 2010

Thoughts on The Ground Zero Mosque

Bus Ads running in NYC, questioning the proposed Ground Zero Mosque,
a visual reminder of the polarization discussed below.

Dear Parish Faithful,

At least into the foreseeable future, there will always be a great deal of polarization when assessing the nature of Islam, and the role that Islam and Muslims will assume in the United States. That will be the undying legacy of the infamy of the Muslim terrorist attacks of 9/11. The White House immediately began a campaign of rhetoric following 9/11 that started with former President George Bush who was determined to present "true" Islam as a "religion of peace." That bridge-building campaign probably had an assortment of motives. Perhaps two of many interrelated motives were: 1) to protect innocent Muslims in America from random attacks of retaliation in the immediate post 9/11 environment of fear and rage; and 2) to convince the Islamic world that the United States had no desire to enter into conflict with the voices of moderation that presumably exist within the greater Islamic world.

That same approach has been continued by our current President Barack Obama. The president recently shared his views concerning the proposed Islamic center that would be built just two blocks away from Ground Zero in New York City. This proposal has reinvigorated the simmering polarization mentioned above. For many, the mosque and Islamic complex would reveal the best of America's sense of tolerance and legal fair play; together with American open-mindedness and inclusiveness. For many others, the close proximity of the mosque will be nothing short of an affront to the memory of those who died in the terrorist attacks engineered and planned by Muslims, as Ground Zero has taken on something of the aura of sacred ground. It is also considered to be a "provocation" that common sense dictates against. When carefully articulated, both positions can sound quite convincing. Thus, in addition to the two positions outlined here, there probably exists a large group of Americans who feel torn between these two positions and hence less certain of a definitive stance.

The role of the president, ideally conceived, is to serve as the representative voice of America. That means he want to embody the virtues of American identity at its best, beginning with the noble ideal of being above "partisan politics," and thus affirm his ability to survey the deepest implications of a course of action and its long-term effects on America's commitment to its best ideals and its international image. That ideal was upheld in the president's rather bland statement that, "Muslims have a right to practice their religion as anyone else." In that light, his public comments in favor of the mosque being built near Ground Zero make sense. I am convinced that former President George Bush - or any president for that matter, Democrat or Republican - would have taken the identical stance, whatever their private beliefs or wishes. We have also learned that the President Obama later equivocated by further explaining that his comments were not directed at "the wisdom of such a choice" for the placement of the mosque, but were simply a defense of the Muslim community's "right" to build the mosque where it chooses. That equivocation signaled something of a White House retreat due to the "firestorm" of his initial comments. Political pressure always seems to encroach upon the ideal.

The above is meant to serve as an introduction to a few comments I would like to share concerning the context in which the president's initial comments were made - an iftar dinner at the White House. An iftar dinner, if I understand this correctly, is the dinner that Muslims enjoy following a day-long fast from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan, one of the most sacred times of the year for Muslims. I also learned that former President Bush hosted the same iftar dinner annually (beginning post 9/11?). This is fine. Again, this is the administration's attempt at bridge-building with the Muslim community, together with its assurance that Muslims can take a place within the world of American "religious diversity." My first question is admittedly perhaps a bit superficial, but I wonder if the president hosts a lenten dinner for Christian leaders at the appropriate time of the year? (Let the Orthodox handle the menu for such a lenten dinner!).

What struck me, however, as not only supremely ironic, but as horribly hypocritical, was the make-up of some of the dinner guests before whom he made his comments. I read that there were "representatives" from Saudi Arabia and Indonesia at the iftar dinner, no doubt applauding the president's comments. And I am certain that such representatives had to be invited for political reasons. But, if I am not mistaken, there is not a single church anywhere in Saudi Arabia outside of diplomatic compounds! They are forbidden by intolerant Islamic-generated laws. Saudi Arabia is the home of Wahhabi Islam, a "reformation movement" within Sunni Islam that gained currency in the early 20th c. This is actually an extreme form of Islam that is "hard-core fundamentalist." Again, it is inherently intolerant. There is absolutely no "room" for different religious beliefs or claims to Truth. And though there are churches in Indonesia, Christians there are constantly under siege, persecuted and subject to outbreaks of violence that are conveniently overlooked by the police. I therefore repeat that I detect a definite strain of hypocrisy in the presence of Saudi Arabian and Indonesian "representatives" at a dinner which became the occasion for the president to express America's commitment to toleration and peaceful co-existence. Was the president trying to convey a "lesson" in civil rights to these figures? A more lasting question may be: will American tolerance be eventually emulated as a great national strength; or will it be exploited as a national weakness?

As a footnote, I wanted to share a bit of unpublicized information that I just heard from "a reliable source." The Greek Orthodox church of St. Nicholas - located at Ground Zero - was destroyed in the 9/11 attacks. I was told that to this day, bureaucratic obstacles are still preventing the rebuilding of that church, while the newly-proposed mosque has cleared all local ordinances, zoning qualifications, etc. No further comment required.

Fr. Steven

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Green Feast

Dear Parish Faithful,

I would like to greet everyone on this glorious Feast Day of the Lord's Transfiguration.

We served and celebrated a wonderful Vesperal Liturgy yesterday evening for the Feast. Today, August 6, we continue in the light of that Feast. The truly excellent parish participation and presence contributed greatly to the festal atmosphere and beauty of the Liturgy. In other words, many people came to worship; and so the Feast was a communal event, and not simply a formal obligation dictated by the Church calendar. Blessing the fruit baskets toward the end of the Liturgy is always a joyous rite that is followed by the fellowship of sharing from each other's basket.

Someone remarked to me that the Feast of the Transfiguration is Orthodoxy's "Green Feast." This is an effective and contemporary way of expressing a genuine Orthodox Christian "environmentalism" that is beautifully manifested in the Transfiguration. This Feast anticipates and points toward the glorification of all creation at the end of time. Then, God will be "all in all" and the uncreated light of the Holy Trinity will illuminate the renewed creation that is now "groaning" as it awaits its liberation (ROM. 8). In a mysterious manner, all of creation will dwell in "light unapproachable." It is in the above-mentioned blessing of the fruit that this "cosmological dimension" is revealed, however humbly those colorful fruit baskets appear to our eyes.

Unfortunately, talk of the "environment" has been hopelessly politicized in our public discourse. One's position on the environment has almost become a code word for a particular political/social orientation. If you want to start a heated debate, just mention "global-warming" or "climate change" in front of someone who has a different perspective than your own! Such polarization is deeply regrettable. But no matter where each of us may stand on contemporary environmentalism, surely every Orthodox Christian has some appreciation and sense of responsibility for the creation. We are "stewards" of the world around us, according to Gen. 1. And it is God's creation that is also drawn into the Transfiguration. So this is our "Green Feast," meaning that we rejoice in the created realm, we assume responsibility for its proper care, and we anticipate the God-chosen time when "the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God." (ROM. 8:21)

In Christ,

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

How is it Possible?

Dear Parish Faithful,

Tomorrow evening we will celebrate the Great Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord with a Vesperal Liturgy (6:00 p.m.). Following the Liturgy, we will bless the traditional fruit baskets. So please remember to bring them along tomorrow. The Feast is on August 6, but as we often do, we will serve the Vesperal Liturgy to allow for more parish participation. Hopefully, many of you will be here for this remarkable Feast, a Feast that reveals divine Beauty, as it reveals Truth and Goodness. Christ ascends Mt. Tabor, is transfigured in "unapproachable light," and reveals His true nature as the Son of God incarnate to His overwhelmed disciples. Christ anticipates His own resurrection and the beauty of the "world to come" that will be bathed in the eternal and uncreated light of the Triune God.

This is a Feast to look forward to. As Orthodox Christians, we are blessed with the inclusion of the Transfiguration in the annual liturgical cycle of the Twelve Great Feast Days. This is not the case in other churches, where it tends to be neglected. But that brings to mind an interesting personal reminiscence I once heard from a parishioner. Someone once told me of how devoted her mother was to Christ, and how much she enjoyed the feast of the Transfiguration as celebrated in her church for the very reasons we make so much of it as Orthodox, even though she herself was not Orthodox. What stayed in my mind were her words - spoken with a definite sadness, I was told - when the day of the Transfiguration's celebration came around: "Today is the Transfiguration and no one cares!" How is it possible "not to care" when we can actually celebrate Jesus shining with light brighter than the sun on the mount? How is it possible "not to care" when we can carry our fruit to church to be blessed as a sign of the transfiguration of the material world in "the life of the world to come?" How is it possible "not to care" when all will be prepared for the celebration of the Feast and we simply have to bring our tired and over-heated bodies to the church for the spiritual renewal that awaits us there?

Bearing such rhetorical questions in mind, I look forward to a church full of "caring" parishioners who anticipate this "Feast of Divine Beauty" as an event not to be missed if at all possible.

In Christ,

Fr. Steven

Monday, August 2, 2010

Embracing the Orthodox Way of Life

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

On August 1, we commemorated "The Holy Seven Maccabee Children, Solomone their mother, and Eleazar their Teacher." They were all put to death in the year 168 B.C. They were thus protomartyrs before the time of Christ and the later martyrs of the Christian era. They died because they refused to reject the precepts of the Law when ordered to do so by the Syrian tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes IV. After conquering the Holy Land, Antiochus wanted to subvert the uniqueness of the Jews and force them to assimilate to the standards and practices of the prevailing Hellenistic culture. By attacking the precepts of the Law, Antiochus was aiming to destroy the very heart of Judaism. The Jews would then become like the "other nations," and perhaps their smoldering resentment against their conquerors would be extinguished. This, of course, did not happen, because the Maccabean revolt, led by Judas Maccabaeus, not only resisted but expelled the Hellenized Syrian invaders and restored the Kingdom of Israel to its former glory days one last time (142 - 63 B.C.) before the Romans under Pompey reduced the Kingdom of Israel to a conquered province.

To return to the story of the Maccabees, we find them, under the guidance of their teacher Eleazar, resisting the decree that they eat pork, which was prohibited by the Law. Understanding that this was a threat against their entire traditional way of life, Eleazor refused and was subsequently tortured until he died. He was simply asked to "pretend" to eat the meat, so as to encourage others to do so. In reply, his dying words as recorded in II MACC. 6:24-28, eloquently attest to his fidelity to the Law of God:

Send me quickly to my grave. If I went through with this pretense at my time of life, many of the young might believe that at the age of ninety Eleazar had turned apostate. If I practiced deceit for the sake of a brief moment of life, I should lead them astray and bring stain and pollution on my old age. I might for the present avoid man's punishment, but, alive or dead, I shall never escape from the hands of the Almighty. So if I now die bravely, I shall show that I have deserved my long life and leave the young a fine example, to teach them how to die a good death, gladly and nobly, for our revered and holy laws.

Following the death of Eleazar, the seven Maccebee brothers were arrested together with their mother, Salomone. They were also tortured for refusing to eat pork, and one of them said: "We are ready to die rather than break the laws of our fathers." (II MACC. 7:2) Enraged by such pious resistance, the tyrant ordered that all seven brothers be tortured by various inhuman means. All of this was witnessed by their mother who watched all seven of her sons perish in a single day. Acting "against nature," she encouraged her children "in her native tongue" to bravely withstand the assaults on their tender flesh:

You appeared in my womb, I know not how; it was not I who gave you life and breath and set in order your bodily frames. It is the Creator of the universe who moulds man at his birth and plans the origin of all things. Therefore he, in his mercy, will give you back life and breath again, since now you put his laws above all thought of self. (II MACC. 7:22-23)

We find in her last sentence, a clear allusion to belief in the resurrection from the dead.

Especially poignant is the death of her last and youngest son. He was promised riches and a high position if he only agreed to "abandon his ancestral customs." The mother was urged to "persuade her son," which she did in the following manner:

My son, take pity on me. I carried you nine months in the womb, suckled you three years, reared you and brought you up to the present age. I beg you, child, look at the sky and the earth; see all that is in them and realize that God made them out of nothing, and that man comes into being in the same way. Do not be afraid of this butcher; accept death and prove yourself worthy of your brothers, so that by God's mercy I may receive you back again along with them. (II MACC. 7:27-29)

In v. 28, we may hear the clearest declaration of the belief that God creates "ex nihilo" (from nothing) in the entire Old Testament.

The youngest of the brothers then died after both witnessing to the meaning of their martyrdom and warning the tyrant of his own inevitable fate:

My brothers have now fallen in loyalty to God's covenant, after brief pain leading to eternal life; but you will pay the just penalty of your insolence by the verdict of God. I, like my brothers, surrender my body and my life for the laws of our fathers. ... (II MACC. 7:36-37)

We then simply read that "after her sons, the mother died." (II MACC. 7:39)

It is difficult to say to what extent we can actually relate to all of this today. We may deeply respect the devotion to the Law that is exhibited in this moving story of multiple martyrdoms - and perhaps be especially moved by the beautiful words of the mother that express our own belief in the creative power of God, His providential care for us and the ultimate gift of resurrection and eternal life with God - but this is far-removed from our contemporary Christian sensibilities. In fact, such devotion today could very well strike us as overly-zealous, if not fanatical. The prospects of such martyrdoms are not exactly on our radar screens. Be that as it may, I believe that we have something more than passingly important that we can learn from this ancient story.

We began the Dormition Fast yesterday. We are encouraged by the Church - our "Mother" we could say - to embrace the fast with the certainty that we are being guided into a practice that is designed to strengthen our spiritual well-being. This is part of an Orthodox way of life that has been witnessed to for centuries by the faithful of the Church. We could also say that such practices belong to the "laws of our fathers." By embracing such practices we continue in the traditions that have been handed down to us. To ignore such practices is to break with that Tradition. That can lead to an erosion of our self-identity as Orthodox Christians, especially considering our "minority status" in the landscape of American religion. The spirit of the tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes is alive and well in the constant temptation we face to assimilate to the surrounding culture. But that "culture" is often reduced to finding the meaning of life in "eating, drinking and making merry." There are no official decrees that demand that we abandon our Faith. But there is a never-ending drone that 'pollutes" the atmosphere with the seductions of a Godless way of life, precisely because of of how pleasingly it is presented. In other words, a dear price is paid for the comforts of conformity.

We are hardly being asked to be martyrs; but to manifest some restraint and discipline in order to strengthen our inner lives as we fast bodily to some extent. If we convince ourselves that this is inconvenient, uncomfortable, or undesirable, then we place ourselves outside of the very Tradition we claim to follow and respect. Older members of the community can bear in mind the words of Eleazar and realize that we are setting an example for our younger members. We are responsible for preparing the next generation. Mothers - and fathers! - can exhort their children in a way that is encouraging and not just demanding. This has nothing to do with mere "legalism," but with a way of life that has been practiced for centuries by Orthodox Christians, and which is just as meaningful today as in the past. As with the Seven Maccabee Children, we are forced to make a choice: either capitulate to the demands of the "tyrant" and renounce our spiritual heritage; or humbly place our faith in the "God of our fathers" and "put his laws above all thought of self."

Fr. Steven