St. Michael the Archangel
Russian Orthodox Church
335-37 Fairmount Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19123
January 7

The church celebrates festivals that are for us to understand and to celebrate - Christmas is not one of these.
In Christmas, God shows us his divine nature combined with his human nature. This is not something we can easily understand. The only way to make sense of Christmas is to understand it as a feast of the love of the creator for his creatures.
Jesus Christ’s divine nature exists for all eternity. His human nature came from a Jewish background. The blood that flowed in his veins was from the royal house of David. This came from his mother Mary, who though poor, belonged to the lineage of the great King David.
Saint Matthew shares witness and he opens his Gospel sharing a record of the ancestry from which Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham, was born.
The name “Jesus” was fairly common among the Jews. In the original Hebrew language, it was Joshua. The angel told Joseph that Mary would “bear a son, whom they would call Jesus, for he is to save his people from their sins.”
Jesus was given another name at the same time –
   Behold, the virgin shall be with child,
   And shall bear a son
   And they shall call him Emmanuel
   Which means God is with us
Let us all remember these words. For it is the truth.
God is with us.

December 31 - St. Sebastian

Sermon December 31, 2017
Tone 5 Sunday of the Fathers 30th Sunday

On the Orthodox Christian calendar every day is a Name Day; but for many reasons today, the last day of the secular year and the Sunday before the Nativity of Our Lord, we can see as a Names Day. A treasure trove of names. The first obvious reference to names is the first part of the first Chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew that is read on the Sunday before Christmas: 16 verses that are comprised in their entirety of names. Fifty names spanning forty two generations. Fifty names of judges, of kings, and of priest, according to the three generations; but also fifty names of harlots, such as Rahab, of those born of adultery, such as Solomon born of Uriah's wife by David, and gentiles, such as the Moabite woman Ruth. All the way from Abraham the father of the Hebrews to Joseph and then to the Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary, forty two generations and thousands upon thousands of names.

And the entire text of St. Paul's letter to the Hebrews, of which only a part was read here today, is similarly awash in names: Going back all the way to Abel and Cain, and Noah, and Abraham's lineage (that we celebrated on the day of the Forefathers last Sunday) all the way through Moses and Samson and Samuel and all the prophets "who through faith subdued kingdoms." The emphasis on names is continued in the celebration of the Ancestors of Christ, as the Sunday before Christmas is called, which group of names includes those in the family tree of the Virgin Mary, since the genealogy as set forth in Matthew is in accordance with the Hebrew tradition of tracing the family only through males. So today the Fathers of the church tell us that we also celebrate Joachim, the father of Mary, who was the son of Bar-Panther , son of Levi, son of Nathan, son of King David; hence, Mary is the Root of Jesse, the father of King David, just as Isaiah the Prophet wrote: "And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse will stand for an ensign of the people." And in the Tropar and Kondak for this Sunday of the Ancestors we hear more names: Daniel and the Three Holy Youths. Who are these youths? The name day for Daniel the Prophet, whom most know as having been deported to Babylon and there served King Nebuchadnezzar as an interpreter of dreams, was yesterday, December 30, and with him are celebrated the Three Holy Children: Ananias, Misael, and Azarias. These three Hebrew boys, renamed in captivity Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, refused to bow down to the golden idol that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up and were thrown into the fiery furnace by the Chaldeans. But as Daniel, who by the way had been renamed Belteshazzar by his captors, wrote in his Book, the three youths survived when the Archangel Michael came to them in the furnace, cooled the flames, and led them to safety. This part of Daniel is read in its entirety on Holy Saturday, foreshadowing the Resurrection, and the three boys with six names are always celebrated before the Nativity Feast.

The name of the saint that we celebrate today may be known to many, but not much may be known about him: St. Sebastian was a Roman educated in Milan during the last days of the persecution of Christians. He rose to the be the head of the imperial guards during the murderous reign of Diocletian and, as a Christian, and as he had converted many of his soldiers to Christianity, he was interrogated personally by the Emperor who sentenced him to be tied to a tree and shot with arrows. There are many Western works of art celebrating St. Sebastian, such as Peter Paul Ruben's painting in the handout, that show him pierced by arrows, but the Lives of the Saints tell us that St. Sebastian miraculously survived that torture, and was nursed back to health by Irene, the wife of one of the martyrs with him. He was later beaten to death in the Coliseum at the order of Diocletian. The Orthodox icon of St. Sebastian in the handout shows him holding the arrows that could not kill him.

Names are important, but names of people are of paramount importance. Shakespeare was right when he said "A rose by any other name;" and we do give our pets endearing names, but the name of a human being is a name that identifies a soul, an eternal soul. When each of us approaches the chalice, both laypeople and clergy, we say out loud to God our first names, the names by which we were baptized. There is no need for a last name, because God knows each of us by our baptismal names. That's why when we pray for the living or for the departed, whether at the proskomedia or during a litany or at a panykhida, we use only first names, baptismal names, the names by which Christ will recognize each of us at the Last Judgment.

And two final names for today: for near the end of Matthew's gospel we heard the famous words: "Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God is with us." The prophet who is referenced is Isaiah, for in chapter 7, verse 14 of his prophecy, it is written: "Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign: Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel." Then why, one might ask, does the Gospel reading today end by telling us that Joseph called the son Jesus? The explanation by the Fathers of the church is that Joseph obeyed the angel who commanded him: "Thou shalt call his name Jesus," while the prophecy of Isaiah as interpreted says that "they" shall use the word Emmanuel; and that name is a reflection of all of the events in the life of Jesus Christ that proved that Him to be God. A name earned by doing, rather than just a name given at birth. For that reason, next Saturday at the Compline Service the choir, remembering all of the events in the life of Christ and His Glorious Resurrection by which He earned the name Emmanuel, shall sing out joyfully: "God is with Us!"

December 17 - Great Martyr Barbara and Martyr Juliana

Today’s Epistle reading was from St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians; but do we know where that early church was located?   Colossae was a city in the middle of what we now call Turkey and that middle was known then as Phryigia.  It’s interesting that, while the early church grew in Colossae because of St. Paul’s teachings, the city was destroyed by an earthquake and later overrun by the Saracens, and eventually was abandoned. The people left for the nearby city of Chonae, which was the place of the miracle of St. Michael shown in this icon on our iconostasis. St. Paul wrote this to the nascent church in Colossae:    “Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light.”

Two of the most famous of those “saints in light” we commemorate today and on Tuesday: St. Barbara the Great Martyr today and St. Nicholas on Tuesday with Divine Liturgy at 10am.

St. Barbara, the daughter of wealthy pagan named Dioscorus during the 3rd Century AD, secretly became a Christian, notwithstanding her father’s efforts to hide her away  in a high tower and arrange for her marriage to someone he found suitable. When the father ordered a bath house with two windows to be built on the property, Barbara secretly changed the plans to have three windows built in honor of the Holy Trinity, sending Dioscorus into a rage. He ordered  Barbara to be tortured in order  to turn her from Christ, but she refused steadfastly, causing a woman in the crowd, Juliana, to denounce the torturers. As a result both women were beheaded, Barbara by her own father.  But Dioscorus was struck by lightning for his evil deeds and because of that St. Barbara is the patron of artillerymen, miners,  and those who work with explosives, such as bomb disposal squads, of which now, unfortunately, we have way too many.   She is the patron saint of the Italian navy, and in fact the hold of ship in which explosives are kept in Spanish is “santabarbara.”  Of course, of the city of Santa Barbara, California was named after her.  In many western paintings and Orthodox icons of St. Barbara a tower appears in the landscape, in remembrance of her father’s imprisonment of her, as well as St. Juliana, the woman who stood up for her and was also martyred.  Unfortunately, her Feastday has been removed from the Roman Calendar, even as the British, Canadian, and Australian armies continue to remember St. Barbara on December 4.  The Epistle reading for St. Barbara comes from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians which contains the truly famous lines:

 "For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus."

 "For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ"

That last phrase substitutes for “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal” in the Divine Liturgy on certain feast days and is sung in the Sacrament of Chrismation.  St. Barbara’s faith as expressed in those three windows she commissioned that lead to her martyrdom is remembered in the Kondak for her Feastday:

Singing the praises of the Trinity, / you followed God by enduring suffering; / you renounced the multitude of idols, / O holy martyr Barbara. / In your struggles, you were not frightened by the threats of your torturers, but cried out in a loud voice: / “I worship the Trinity in one God-head

Most of us know a lot more about St. Nicholas than we probably did before today about St. Barbara: that he was a Bishop of Myra in Lycia in Anatolia(now Turkey) in the 4th Century AD, that he attended the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea at which he fought strongly against Arianism (the heresy that taught that Christ was begotten of  God the Father at some point in time after the creation,  and was therefore subordinate to God), that by doing so he  was  instrumental in the writing of the Nicene Creed (which negates Arianism  completely by including  the phrase “begotten of the Father before all ages”), and that he is known for his miracles (hence the name St. Nicholas the Wonderworker) and his acts of kindness which led to the western concept of St. Nicholas as Santa Claus.  But let’s just focus on the Epistle to the Hebrews that will be read here in our church this Tuesday:

“Make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

“Every good work:” the perfect remembrance of the Wonderworker Nicolas. The tropar to St. Nicholas gives us the words we need to pray to the Sainted Bishop of Myra  for the rest of Advent and always, to pray to him for the sake of our salvation:

In truth you were revealed to your flock as a rule of faith, / an image of humility and a teacher of abstinence; / your humility exalted you; / your poverty enriched you. / Hierarch Father Nicholas, / entreat Christ our God / that our souls may be saved.


December 10 - St. James of Persia
Today's Gospel and Epistle readings perfectly identify the challenges we have ahead of us as St. Phillip's Fast rolls into its third week. Challenges that, as both readings tell us, are based on the roadblocks to salvation---roadblocks in the form of potholes and detours and accidents on the other side of the road that draw our attention as rubberneckers --- all of these are strewn by the devil like so many tacks and nails and pieces of broken glass into our paths.   In Luke's Gospel (Lk. 13:10-17) the devil is called out by name---Satan---even as Christ heals the woman who was bent over for over eighteen years.   That woman's affliction---being bent over so thoroughly that she was unable to straighten herself out---is clearly the work of the Satan, and that very same affliction can plague many of us in these modern days---we just can't straighten out our lives, we can't walk a straight line, we can't straighten up and fly right. And we can't look up. Why? Because we are bent into a pretzel by focusing mostly on the temptations that the devil uses to distract our attention from our own good intentions, our resolutions to fast, to pray more, to read the scriptures, to help others during the Advent fast.
St. Luke tells us that Our Lord:  "laid his hands on her: and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God." And then Christ said: "And ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan hath bound, lo, these eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day?"
The Blessed Theophylact reminds us that "it was Satan who brought about our fall by which we lost our incorruptibility" and it is still the devil that takes our minds off the straight and narrow road; that's why we keep falling into the ditch.
St. Paul teaches us the way to keep on the smooth straight road in his letter to the Ephesians (Eph.6:10-17) when he says: "Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil."   In Paul's day, athletics were just as important to the people of the Roman Empire as they are in our America of 2017. So the Epistle writer uses the analogy of wrestling to teach the new Christians of Ephesus: " For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places."
Principalities and powers are categories of the bodiless ones, the angels, and in this case the reference is to the revolting angels who chose to follow Satan rather than the angels, like the Archangel St. Michael, who chose to follow God. When you come up to the Cross later today, look back over the choir loft and study carefully the stained glass icon of St. Michael battling the devil. The words in Slavonic over St. Michael's head "Kto Yako Bog" are the words that the Archangel said when rebuking Satan: "Who is like God?" And that phrase is the meaning of the name Michael in Hebrew.
Brothers and Sisters, the devil is real; temptations abound around us every day, and that's real life. St. Basil the Great wrote that "Life is like a scale. On one side, the shallow plate contains the devil and all his wiles. On the other side of the balance, we have the angels of God. To whom will we offer our hearts? Which side carries more weight for us?" Dostoyevsky, took up St. Basil's simile almost verbatim when he famously wrote that "God and the devil are fighting for the soul of man. And the battlefield is the human heart."
Advent won't last very long. It's past time to join the battle. Let's all waste no more time and rise up to follow St. Paul's advice to actively fight the good fight during what remains of the forty days: "And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God."