St. Michael the Archangel Russian Orthodox Church
A Patriarchal Parish in the USA
335 Fairmount Avenue Philadelphia
July 7, 2019

 St. Matthew wrote in his chapter 11: "Among those born of women, there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist." Today we celebrate the Nativity of the Forerunner, Prophet, and Baptist John, a holiday that ranks just barely below the Twelve Great Feasts of the Church, for in addition to the important works of John that we learn about on the Feast of Theophany and on the Feast of his Beheading, St. John was Our Lord's cousin and grew up with Him.  We know that because in his very first chapter of his Gospel St. Luke recounts the words of the Archangel Gabriel spoken to the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation: "And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth," Elisabeth would would soon give birth to a baby, and name him John.  In his wonderful 2018 book Person to Person, The Orthodox Understanding of Human Nature, Professor Harry Boosalis writes: "The person of Joseph, and his extended family, played an important role within the life of Christ.  Many people from Mediterranean countries or the Near East are especially close-knit with extended relatives.  Cousins and in-laws are often considered brothers and sisters.  If there is any truth to the accounts of Holy Tradition, many of those mentioned in the Gospels, with important roles with the life and ministry of Our Lord, were in fact related to Him."  Cousin, in the Russian language, is двоюродный брат, literally your brother from your second family, as close as one can be without being a sibling.  John was exactly six months older than his cousin Jesus.  How do we know that?  Because in that first chapter, St. Luke tells us that "in the sixth month [of the pregnancy of Elisabeth] the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth" to announce to Mary that she would bear the son of God.  Now let's look carefully at the church calendar:  The Annunciation is celebrated on April 7; we are now three months later, July 7, on which we celebrate John's birth; and six months from today, January 7, we will celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord.  But note especially that all of these dates relate to the day that Elisabeth became pregnant with John.  We can't be sure exactly what that date was, but we can be sure of the progression that leads to Christmas falling fifteen months after that date. So while the exact date of Christmas is not known, the relative timing of these holy days is set by the Gospel of Luke.
     Note also that Jesus and John were only children. Even though some of the family of Joseph are called "brothers" of Christ, those children were Joseph's, who was widower when the angel told him to take care of Mary, from his earlier marriage. An interesting western view of the two cousins growing up is the mid-1800s painting Christ in the House of His Parents by Millais that shows John coming to help his cousin in Joseph's carpentry shop. Unfortunately, we tend to think of the family of Jesus only when we see a crèche, sometimes one lit up on the front lawn of a neighbor.
     When you read the first chapter of Luke in its entirety, it becomes clear why John was an only child.  Here are some excerpts:  "There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judaea, a certain priest named Zacharias...and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth.    And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless..... And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years."  Zacharias was the high priest in the Temple when Mary was brought to the Temple by Sts. Joachim and Anna on the Feast of the Entrance. "And there appeared unto [Zacharias] an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense...the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John..... And Zacharias said unto the angel, Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years....And the angel answering said unto him, I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings... And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season."  So Zacharias could no longer speak....his wife Elisabeth conceived, and....in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth,... To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary.... And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.... And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?  And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.  And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. For with God nothing shall be impossible.  And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.  And the angel departed from her.  And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Juda; And entered into the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elisabeth.  And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.....And Mary abode with her about three months, and returned to her own house.  Now Elisabeth's full time came that she should be delivered; and she brought forth a son. And her neighbours and her cousins heard how the Lord had shewed great mercy upon her; and they rejoiced with her."  Note well, Brothers and Sisters, that all of the words of the hymn sung at Vespers to the Theotokos "Hail Mary, full of grace...." come from St. Luke.  "And it came to pass, that on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they called him Zacharias, after the name of his father.  And his mother answered and said, Not so; but he shall be called John.  And they said unto her, There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name.  And they made signs to his father, how he would have him called.  And he asked for a writing table, and wrote, saying, His name is John.  And they marvelled all.  And his mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue loosed, and he spake, and praised God."  The Blessed Theophylact tells us that the name John means "the grace of God. And this is why John's father was immediately filled with that grace." And Zacharias told his young only son: "And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways."  And as we know, "the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his shewing unto Israel."  Hence, the Forerunner, Prophet, and Baptist John as we call him in the Orthodox church.         You can see all of John's family, as well as him as the Angel of the Desert, in the icon that is reproduced in today's bulletin: 
 
     But even in the west, John is greatly valued.   One of the finest examples is the beautiful portrait of John by Leonardo:
 
     In Russia,  the eve of the Birth of John is known called Ivan Kupala, a night of celebrations with bonfires, as the summer solstice is nigh.  Nicolai Gogol's story The Eve of Ivan Kupala, from his collection Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, recounts a tale told by the sexton of the Dikanka church about a fern that blooms only on the night of Kupala, according to folk legends, and the fantastic things that happen to the man who plucks the fern.  That story provided the impetus for the composer Modest Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain, a piece that many Americans know from Disney's Fantasia, with the animation that envisions the fantastic tale of folklore on the eve of John's nativity, the important Feastday that we celebrate here today for a man born of woman, of which there is none greater in this world.
 
Fr. Gregory
June 23, 2019

Today, as we do every year on the Sunday after Pentecost, we celebrate "so great a cloud of witnesses," that is all of the saints of heaven.  This is All Saints Day on the same day on the church calendar as it always has been in the Christian Church.  In the Epistle reading for every All Saints Day is a very important, if somewhat difficult to understand, message that was written by St. Paul to the Hebrews: "Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God."  It might be difficult to understand how to correlate the terrible, painful death endured by Our Lord on the Cross with the idea of "the joy ...set before Him."  Maybe it has something to do with how we think about joy.
     On Sundays past, we have discussed and thought a lot about the difference between knowledge and wisdom.  Today, let's think about the difference between happiness and joy.   Just as knowledge pales in the face of wisdom, happiness, while a wonderful feeling, doesn't hold a candle to joy.  Just as you can obtain knowledge in grade school, or from a textbook, or even from Wikipedia, obtaining wisdom takes time, experience, and most of all seriousness.  We learned that explicitly from the readings from Proverbs during Great Lent just passed. Einstein said "Wisdom is not the product of schooling, but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it."  One way to look at this is that knowledge is kind of a secular thing, while wisdom in a certain sense is a religious thing, gaining the Holy Spirit.  "Oh come and abide in us."  As St. Seraphim of Sarov wisely said: "The true aim of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit."  That same Saint, we are told, greeted everyone he met at any time of the year with the words: "Christ is risen, my joy!"
     The joy that informed the life of the great St. Seraphim is the joy of the Christmas carol: "Joy to the world, the Lord is come!"  When we get, or more likely, give gifts at Christmastime we may experience happiness, but that happiness pales in the face of the joy that the angels who had roused the shepherds saying: "I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people," just before they all shouted aloud "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill to men!"  Happiness, on the other hand, is, like knowledge, secular.  Thomas Jefferson knew that when, only a few blocks south of our church, wrote that God had endowed us with "certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."  We have the right to seek our own happiness, at least here in this God protected land of the United States, but that happiness is certainly not guaranteed, even though many Americans now see to think that they are entitled to be happy.
     In America of the 21st century, in which organized religion is seen as passe, or even worse, oppressive, happiness, not the attainment of the Holy Spirit, may well be the main goal of many. We have discussed the study of young Americans done early in this millennium, the results of which study shows that a commonly held view of all things spiritual among the youth may be characterized as what the academics call "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism," a value system that, while recognizing that God exists, is based on the idea that "the central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself." If one believes that, then getting a new dress or a new car is good because it may make that person happy; however, that can't possibly be the central goal of life because that dress will soon go out of style, and that car might actually be a lemon, leading to not feeling good about oneself.  The rights that Jefferson enumerated are merely restrictions on the government; that's why happiness can't possibly be the same as the joy that came into the world when Christ is Born! And when Christ is Risen! Our Savior's way to His Glorious Resurrection was by way of the Cross.  That's why in today's Gospel we hear Christ say: "He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.  And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me."  Loving our relatives can and does bring happiness; but only taking up one's Cross brings Joy.  Today, after you partake of the Precious, Holy, and Most Pure Body and Blood of Christ, read the first thanksgiving prayer in the Divine Liturgy book to cement in your mind the true meaning of Joy:  "For Thou art the true desire and the ineffable joy of them that love Thee, O Christ our God, all creation doth sing Thy praise, for ever and ever.  Amen."
 
Fr. Gregory
May 12, 2019

Christ is Risen!

        In our beautiful Orthodox services, the Myrrhbearers that we celebrate today are called the “wise women” because it was their wisdom, not their knowledge or their rationality, that led them back to the sepulcher where Joseph of Arimathea had just laid the most pure Body of Our Lord, in that new tomb, wrapped in clean linen and sweet spices. Wisdom led them back, in spite of the danger of being accosted by the Jews, or worse yet, arrested by the Romans. It’s not mere coincidence that the men who journeyed to see Our Lord at His birth, in that manger in Bethlehem, were called the “wise men.” So wise men greeted the Savior of the World at His miraculous Nativity, and wise women greeted our Savior at His glorious and holy Resurrection. And in the manger at His Nativity stood Joseph, a carpenter who was to bring Him up in the world, while at His death on the Lifegiving Cross stood another Joseph, who was to bring Him down. This later Joseph, the one of Arimathea, and that word appropriately means “taking hold of that,” was a counsellor, and that was a responsible position in the Jewish marketplace, a supervisor of commercial affairs, and that meant that Joseph spent most of his time in public business, public business that was generally corrupt. But as the Blessed Theophylact has written “the evildoings of the marketplace in no ay hindered” the Arimathean from “living a virtuous life.” That’s a good lesson for all of us who as a practical matter have to live in the material world of the marketplace.

       St. Mark’s Gospel that was read here today might be a bit confusing because we first hear that Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses were observing the deposition from the Cross and saw Joseph and Nicodemus placing the most pure body of Christ into the new tomb, but then we heard that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome came to anoint His most pure Body.  This second Mary, first called the mother of Joses and then called the mother of James, is one and the same person. She is sometimes called Mary Cleophas, but at any rate she was the mother of James the Lesser, son of Alpheus. Salome, also mentioned, is the mother of James and John the Evangelist, the sons of Zebedee, who were disciples of Our Lord. Taken all together, we celebrate eight women on this third Sunday of Pascha---in addition to the three mentioned above, we also commemorate the Virgin Mary Theotokos, as well as Joanna, Susanna, and Martha and Mary of Bethany, sisters of Lazarus, about whom we hear much in the Gospel of John the Theologian.

And when we add in Joseph and Nicodemus, we commemorate ten people today who played critically important roles in the events leading up to and after the Resurrection of Christ. But there are other important lessons for salvation leading up to the Resurrection, lessons by which we can profit that are taught by the actions or omissions of four people during the Passion of Our Lord.  During the readings of the Twelve Gospels in the Matins of Holy Friday we heard about all four:  First, Judas.  Of course, we all know the obvious lesson from his betrayal, but what Judas did afterward is somehow overlooked. St. Matthew’s gospel tells us that Judas, seeing Christ condemned, returned to the chief priests and “repented himself,” confessing that he had betrayed “innocent blood” and when the chief priests refused to take back the 30 pieces of silver, Judas threw them violently into the temple and went out and hanged himself with a halter. Judas did in fact confess his sin, but in a strange and violent way, not before God---had he thrown himself at Our Savior’s feet and confessed, promising whole heartedly to repent, is there any question that Christ in His infinite mercy would not have forgiven even Judas? 

        The second person from which to learn is Pilate. St. Matthew wrote that when the Jews cried out for Jesus to be crucified, Pontius Pilate in full public view took a basin of water and washing his hands before the crowd declared: “ I am innocent of the blood of this just person.”    By so saying, the Procurator did indeed confess that his imposing the death sentence was not justified, he confessed his sin, but then incredibly he attempted to absolve himself of what he knew was wrong. Mimicking Judas, his confession was a sham, he didn’t ask Christ to forgive him, nor did he repent; he merely asked the mob to “see to it” that he was not to blame. But in doing so, Pilate caused his name to be infamous in history forever, his name to be recited over and over in the Nicene Creed. 

          Then we have Peter, the third man. We all know about Peter’s tripartite denial of Christ, denials that flew in the face of Peter’s grandiose prior declarations that he would never leave the side of his master even unto death. And those sins remained on Peter’s conscience even after Christ’s burial.  The evidence for that continuing set of sins  is clear in the report of  St. Mark in the Gospel that was read today.  St. Mark tells us that the angel sitting in the empty tomb said these words to the Myrrhbearers:  “Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen; he is not here: behold the place where they laid him.  But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee.”   Tell his disciples and Peter. Peter’s sins had then set him apart from the other ten disciples.  But Brothers and Sisters, we know that unlike Judas and Pilate, St. Peter did make a full confession and repentance. In the last chapter of St. John’s gospel, Peter confesses three times to the Risen Christ and in return is forgiven, fully, and directed by the Lord to “Feed my sheep,” three times.

       And lastly, the fourth lesson: that of the thief crucified on the right hand of Jesus.  The thief about whom we are told by St. Luke in his chapter 23: 

       “ And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us.

 But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation?

And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss.

 And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.

And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.”

     Those heartfelt words of the thief are in actuality the  first confession.  Those heartfelt words are the confession out loud that sets the thief apart from Judas and apart from Pilate. And apart from hell and into paradise. And for that reason, that confessing robber hanging on a cross on the right side  of the Lifegiving Cross is forever known as the Wise Thief.  We know this from the beautifully sung  hymn from Holy Friday matins:  “The wise thief didst thou make worthy of Paradise.”

       Wise men, wise women,  a wise thief.  May God grant us all the wisdom to follow the wise. 

Christ is Risen!

Fr. Gregory

April 14, 2019

  Brothers and Sisters, today is a day  twice blessed, for not only is it the  Fifth Sunday of the Great Fast, the Sunday on which we celebrate each Lenten season  St. Mary of Egypt, but it is also April 1, by the Julian calendar, of course, and therefore the yearly day of remembrance of that Saint as well,  the great desert Saint of true and complete  repentance.  When Mary met St. Zosima in the desert, we are told by St. Sophronius, her biographer in the Book of the Lives of the Saints, and when Zosima asked her  about her life,  she replied to St. Zosima:  “It distresses me, father, to relate to thee the shamelessness of my deeds. Forgive me.”  And the good Saint did absolve her of the sins of which she was so ashamed, as she put it, a “life of debauchery” in which she “ruined her virginity and surrendered [herself] to insatiable lust.”  And what did  St. Zosima do after that?   St. Sophronius tells us he glorified the Lord, fell to the ground, and “kissed the woman’s footprints.”  Having heard her confession, when St. Zosima returned to her he brought her the holy, precious, and most pure Body and Blood of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and he communed her because she had confessed her sins and repented heartfully. After 17 confessed years of the deadly sin of lust, and after 17 years in the desert, naked and alone, he communed her, and when St. Mary died, the elder Zosisma returned to her and “washed her feet with tears and for a long time he entreated the venerable Mary to pray for the whole world.”  And today, Brothers and Sisters, we too entreat St. Mary of Egypt to pray for us, and for the whole world.

     The Gospel reading for St. Mary’s commemoration, that was not read today, is from the 7th Chapter of Luke in which is related the story of Christ’s visit to dine at  the house of a Pharisee named Simon:

  “And, behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster box of ointment,

 And stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment…

  And he turned to the woman, and said unto Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head.

 Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet.

 My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment.

 Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.

 And he said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven.

And they that sat at meat with him began to say within themselves, Who is this that forgiveth sins also?

 And he said to the woman, Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.”

     Those words, Brothers and Sisters, are the words we should long in our hearts to hear: “ Thy sins are forgiven…..go in peace.”  We long to hear those words especially today, when the sands in the hourglass of the Great Fast are rapidly and inexorably  running from the top bulb  to the bottom.  St. Mary of Egypt’s life story is encapsulated  in the short passage of the Epistle on her day that comes from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians and is so familiar to all of us: 

 For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”   

     Neither male nor female; all of us without regard to our station in life have to live our lives in accordance with the opportunity we were given in the sacrament of Baptism at which time we “put on Christ” as Mary.   St. Mary of Egypt’s life  is reflected through the lens of  Crime and Punishment, a novel of repentance and redemption, in which Feodor Dostoyevsky gives  us  the memorable character Sofia Marmeladov, or Sonia as she is known by her diminutive, the daughter of a drunkard, a self-sacrificial and innocent girl, who, for the welfare of her family, is forced into prostitution to feed her family.  Sonya meets and befriends  Raskolnikov, the perpetrator of an horrific murder, who eventually acknowledges his guilt in a full confession, and is condemned to serve time in Siberia, 7 years of hard labor. Sonya follows him there to help him find his redemption. Dostoevsky writes this about the murderer and the prostitute:  “How it happened [Raskolnikov] did not know. But all at once something seemed to seize him and fling him at [Sonya’s]  feet. He wept and threw his arms round her knees. For the first instant she was terribly frightened and she turned pale. She jumped up and looked at him trembling. But at the same moment she understood, and a light of infinite happiness came into her eyes.”

    The life of  St. Mary of Egypt can be of great benefit to  each of us to target the way to salvation.  Those who fall to the feet of the Lord with  tears of repentance, following the examples we have learned about today, are following St. Mary on the desert path to eternal life.  During this week in the evening here in our church, with the only light being that of flickering beeswax tapers, we read and sang the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete in honor of St. Mary.  And one of the verses stands out as a bright beacon on that desert path:

“Pouring out the vessel of tears as myrrh upon Thy head, O Savior, I call out to Thee as did the Harlot, seeking mercy; I offer my supplications and beg to receive forgiveness.”

O Venerable Father Andrew pray to God for us!”

 

Fr. Gregory

March 31, 2019

Brothers and Sisters:  In the theatres of  ancient Greece a large crane-like device  was used, usually at the end of a tragedy, to bring an actor onto the stage who would appear, dressed  as a Greek god, and would  come out of nowhere to  solve all the terrible problems of the characters in the play.  This prop, translated into Latin, was known as a deus ex machina, or literally “god from the machine.”  This past week in the Wall St. Journal ran a story  that was entitled: “Deus ex Machina: Religions Use Robots to Connect with the Public.”  The story reports on two uses of electronic devices, referred to as robots,  that were developed for use in western  churches. Parenthetically, it may be of interest that the word “robot” is of Slavic origin; robota, from the verb “to work,” was used to describe a peasant, a serf,  who was forced to work on a noble’s landholdings, and the term was picked up by a Czech playwright  in the 1920s and changed into “robot”  to describe automata  without souls in his drama,  a  class of man made,  artificial, and exploited, workers, and that  word has stuck around for 100 years.  The Protestant oriented  robot in the news article is named Bless U 2, a reconfigured ATM machine that was developed to celebrate the 500th anniversary Martin Luther’s nailing the 97 Theses up on the door of a church. The report says that over 10,000 people approached this robot to obtain a ‘blessing.”  The resulting poll of those pilgrims was mixed, but surprisingly positive.  The other  robot is named SanTO, short for Sanctified Theomorphic Operator, a machine in the form of a dashboard style, plastic figure of a saint, to which the user/penitent can apparently offer his or her confession and receive immediate advice by way of artificial intelligence.  There’s no indication  that any church has  sanctioned these robots, but also no evidence of official statements  against the use of  either of them. While some technology, such as the cell phone that is broadcasting this Divine Liturgy to those who cannot be here today, can be salutary, we need to be aware of, and wary of, uses of technology like these robots intended to be used   in ways that are not prescribed by the rubrics of the Orthodox Church.

       Artificial intelligence, the tech gurus tell us, will make our lives better.  But the Book of Proverbs, read during this Lenten period, teaches away from that advice. On the very first Wednesday of the Great Fast we heard read in this church from chapter 2 of  Proverbs that: “For the Lord gives wisdom, from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; he stores up wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk in integrity, guarding the paths  of justice and preserving the way of his saints.”  It’s not just coincidence that the Orthodox Deacon exclaims  “Wisdom!” as a prelude to both the Epistle and Gospel readings at each Divine Liturgy, for that is exactly what we have the opportunity to take from those readings, not intelligence, which is much less useful to our salvation, but Wisdom, so crucial to our salvation.  Further in Proverbs, chapter 8, that crucial trait rings out loud and clear: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” Turning on  the “Insight” algorithm is a tall order for Artificial Intelligence engineers, probably an impossible one, but an easy task  for the man or woman  who fears the Lord and cares fervently  for his or her  own salvation. Simply stated, there is no Artificial Wisdom.

    At the end of the reading of St. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews today we heard: “So also Christ glorified not himself to be made a high priest; but he that said unto him, Thou art my Son, today have I begotten thee. As he saith also in another place, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedek.” We hear the name Melchisedek a number of times in our Orthodox services, notably in the Liturgy on the Feast of Christ’s Nativity, but who was he? The answer is in chapter 14 of the Book of Genesis recounting the story of Abram, whom God would rename Abraham: “And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God.  And he blessed him, and said, Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth.”  Melchizedek, the high priest, in a sense, came out to nowhere, not unlike a deus ex machina, to bless Abram and to bring bread and wine, foreshadowing the gifts that Our Lord would use at the Last Supper, the gifts that each and every Sunday become, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, the Precious, Holy, and Most Pure Body and Blood of Christ. Melchizedek is intoned by the Deacon in the introit of the Little Entrance on Nativity that uses  two  verses of Psalm 109 (Sept.):

“The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.  The Lord hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.”

    In a certain sense, Christ, as a High Priest of  Melchizedek’s order,  as well came into the world when the world was least expecting Him; His Incarnation--- His  Nativity takes place in the least grand of circumstances, in a manger among the  animals and shepherds,  Our Lord to those shepherds seemed to have come out of the blue: and of course His Appearance to the Forerunner and those who were awaiting baptism at the Jordan, that we celebrate at the Feast of Theophany, was an epiphany itself, God Himself coming seemingly out of nowhere after His forty days of fasting and temptation by the devil in the desert. The image of the Life Giving Cross that you see replicated inside the bulletin today for the Third Sunday of Lent, the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross, reminds us that indeed Melchizedek, King of Salem, was the Old Testament precursor of Our Lord, because the Slavonic letters under the long crossbar on which Christ’s hands were nailed spell out “King of Glory.” Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave up His life for us by accepting a lonely  death on that Cross, was both King and Priest, just as Melchizedek who preceded Him.  His Incarnation and Appearance on this mortal coil may have been unexpected by most, not unlike a deus ex machina, but His voluntary sacrifice through crucifixion  on that  Cross opened the doors of Paradise  to the Wise Thief, crucified with Him, and also  to all of us as well, as God solved the terrible problem of death that had reigned supreme on earth since the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.

March 17, 2019

“The stadium of virtue is now open;
those who wish to compete, enter
therein, girded for the good contest of
Lent, for those who compete according
to the rules shall receive their laurels
rightfully. Taking up the full armor of
the Cross, let us do battle against the
Enemy. As an impregnable wall, we
have the Faith, prayer as our breast

plate, and acts of mercy as our helmet.
Instead of sword, there is fasting,
which cuts every evil from the heart.
He who does this shall attain a true
crown from Christ, the King of all, on
Judgment Day. Amen.” 

Brothers and Sisters, those stirring words were used to lift up the spirits of the Christians living in the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople, almost 1700 years ago by the Golden Tongued One,  St. John Chrysostom. To lift up the spirits of those early Christians as each of them  prepared for his or her personal  Lenten journey, just as each of us do here on this first Sunday of the Great Lent here in modern America. Those same words lift us up as well, especially here in modern America in which athletic contests are seemingly so important in our lives.  While Lent has only just begun, it’s not necessarily the first inning in our quest for salvation; in fact, each of us could easily be deep in the fourth quarter, without  knowing it, and with no time outs left.  We don’t get overtime to reach eternal life, but we do get a lot of second chances on instant replay, because God’s mercy is so boundless as to allow us to confess our sins and with a contrite heart repent sincerely, and by so doing have every last sin erased completely, just as the bobble at shortstop that was first ruled  an error, changed into a hit by the one  Great Scorer, to use a poetic reference.

       Assuming you are in your  ninth inning is always the most prudent  approach to salvation. The words of  the Kondak of the Great Canon of  St. Andrew of Crete, sung this week here in our church, are guaranteed  to stir us to that needed immediate action:

       “My soul, my soul arise! Why art thou sleeping? The end is drawing near and thou wilt be confounded. Awake then and be watchful, that thou mayest be spared by Christ God, Who is everywhere and fillest all things.”

      Putting together the  immediacy of  St. Andrew’s  words  with the words of   the prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian (that we heard during the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts this week) to “give to me your servant the spirit of …humility” can give each of us a fast start out of the blocks on our Lenten marathon, a long run to get back to  God, for as St. Ignatii has written: “Where there is no humility, there is no Christian virtue; and where there is true humility, there are all the virtues in their fullness.” But don’t be fooled:   Humility is difficult, especially in today’s internet driven world  in which arrogance and anonymity are the rule; that’s why we need those words of  St. Ephrem to beg God for the strength and wisdom to be humble.  In a not very well known pop song titled “Trap Door” one can find some incredibly perceptive nuggets of understanding of our  human condition: “It’s a funny thing about humility, just as soon as you know you’re being humble, you’re no longer humble.”  Humility is hard; one has to filter out the feedback that justifies just about everything we do,   because as the song continues: “It’s a funny thing about pride, when you’re being proud, you should be ashamed.”  The composer of this song is not to my knowledge an Orthodox Christian, but he certainly has the basics down pat when he sings: “It’s a funny thing about life, you have to give up your life to be alive; you have to suffer to know compassion, you can’t want nothing if you want satisfaction….watch out for that trap door.”

    Let’s begin  the race, Brothers and Sisters, this Lent  by focusing right from the starting blocks on humility. It’s  a hard thing to do, but then, with a clear view of salvation through “a humble acknowledgment of one’s own sinfulness,” can each of us  can avoid falling through our own personal, and self-made,   trap door, and only then can we with all due speed  follow the words of St. Andrew of  Crete: “Come, O wretched soul, and together with thy body confess to the Creator of all so that henceforth, thou shalt abstain from thy past foolishness and offer tears of repentance to God.”

Fr. Gregory

March 3, 2019

Today Brothers and Sisters is the Sunday of the Last Judgment, a phrase that has taken on many shades of meaning over the last two thousand years.  On the one hand, the outward lesson in  Christ’s parable of the Sheep and the Goats in St. Matthew’s Gospel  seems  quite clear, but the Gospel reading ends with Christ’s warning:   “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.”  [As an aside, that outward lesson will be vividly illustrated in the video that will be presented by Archangel Kino after Divine Liturgy.  Please stay for  that.]  Those words “everlasting punishment” formed  the basis for what was called the “Great Awakening,” an evangelical revival that became popular in England and its colonies here in America during the 1730s and 1740s.  Jonathan Edwards, a Congregationalist Protestant minister, who later became President of The College of New Jersey, that would be renamed Princeton University, is seen as a leading proponent of this revival, especially because of a famous sermon  “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” given in 1741 in Enfield, Connecticut.  Edwards’ reliance on  that  translation “everlasting punishment” as used  in the King James Bible is transparent in his sermon of what used to be called “fire and brimstone” with frightening words such as: "There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God."  The sermon carries the clear message that because  “it is natural to care for oneself or to think that others may care for them, men should not think themselves safe from God's wrath.” And this is what the Western world calls the “Enlightenment.”

     But can this possibly be a fair reading of Christ’s  parable?  Just from a purely  translation point of view, the answer is clearly “No.” The two Greek words used in St. Matthew’s Gospel have shades of meaning:  the word that gets translated as “punishment” also has the meaning of “correction” or being “cut off” as a branch is pruned from a fruit tree. And the Greek word that is translated as “eternal” is more properly as an indeterminate period of time, an eon,  not necessarily forever. That concept of being cut off is a very Orthodox one---During the anaphora, when the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, as the priest prays three times, the Deacon answers the second prayer  with these words from Psalm 50:  “Cast me not away from Thy presence and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.”  That verse from the Psalm,  Brothers and Sisters,  sets out the perfect definition of salvation--- salvation for each of us  is not to be cast away from the face of God, but to be with God for at least an eon, if not forever.    And the first  response of the Deacon to that same prayer in the anaphora tell us how to get there by quoting that Psalm: “Create in me a clean heart O God and renew a right spirit within me.”

      Still, the concept of the Last Judgment is an awesome one, and that’s the right use of the overused word of today’s texting craze “awesome.”  The Last Judgment does mean that we have to stand, as the Deacon says before Communion, “In the Fear of God and with Faith.” St. Ignati Brianchaninov gives us some good advice: 

“Only the true Christian - who constantly watches over his heart, who studies the law of God day and night, who tries to fulfill the commandments of the Gospel with assiduity - can see his passions…. The eyes of the mind, healed completely by the Gospel, finally see the bottomless abyss of the fall of man.  The Christian sees the full effects of the fall in himself, because he sees his passions.  The passions are the badge of the sinful, death-bearing disease that has struck all mankind.”

    That bottomless abyss, the abyss that  Dostoevsky writes about as well when he expounds upon the “accursed questions,” is an  awesome concept  that we need to keep in our nous, in our “eyes of the mind” as St. Ignati says.  That’s why in many churches in Russia an icon of the Last Judgment, usually in the manner of a fresco, fills the entire back wall of the nave so that it’s the last thing the faithful see as they leave the church to  go out into the secular world.   But if you look at an icon that depicts the Last Judgment, for example the one replicated in the bulletin today, you will see it’s not all fire and brimstone:  on Goat’s side, yes, it looks pretty horrible, but on the Sheep side is the uncreated light of Christ showing the way to eternal life.  In our St. Innocent Orthodox Reading Society meeting yesterday we read that penance is not “for the sake of appeasing an offended God or  an atonement of a sinner in the face of Divine Justice.”  Even Jonathan Edwards had to admit at the end of his sermon that: “And now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day when Christ has flung the Door of Mercy wide open and stands in the door calling and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners.”   Brothers and Sisters, the Last Judgment is real, just as God’s incredibly patient and merciful love is real and unbounded.  But repentance is the key to salvation, as so artfully stated in the prayer that the Priest reads at the beginning of the Sacrament of Confession: 

“For thou hast said O Lord: With desire have I desired not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should turn from the wickedness he has committed and live and that even unto seventy times seven sins ought to be forgiven. For thy majesty is incomparable and thy mercy is illimitable and if thou shouldest regard iniquity who should stand? For thou art the God of the pentitent.”

 

Fr. Gregory

February 3, 2019

Today’s Epistle reading echoes the advice of St. Paul to Timothy, whom he calls “my own son in the faith.” Tomorrow, February 4, is the day each year that we commemorate the Apostle Timothy, known as one of the Seventy, who was converted to Christianity in the year 52 AD by St. Paul when he visited the city of Lystra in what is now modern day Turkey where Timothy was born. Not only did Timothy become an ardent student of St. Paul, but he was his constant companion and was eventually ordained by Paul to be the Bishop of the city of Ephesus, a very important center of early Christianity on the Aegean coastline, the place where St. John the Evangelist wrote his Gospel. In his letter to Timothy, St. Paul’s words should be well known to all of us, as he says: “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.” Of course, the prayer before communion paraphrases Paul’s words to Timothy: “Who came into the world to save sinners of whom I am first.”

St. Paul found Timothy’s life to be an extraordinary example for all of us, saying in his second letter to his disciple: “Thou hast followed me in teaching, in life, in disposition, faith, magnanimity, love and patience in afflictions and suffering.” This, Brothers and Sisters, is so clearly an admonition to all of us that our faith must inform our entire lives, that Orthodox Christianity is a full time job, heavy lifting, a way of life tied inexorably to a yearly cycle of feasts and fasts.

But the “real world” out there is not tied to those cycles, and in fact is diametrically opposed to them. The greatest feastday of modern, secular America is today, a day in February each year that is ironically a Sunday each year. Sunday, the day of the Resurrection, is for us Christians the Sabbath Day, and as such it is governed by the Ten Commandments: “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy; six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work, but the Seventh is the Sabbath of the Lord Thy God.” [Elementary school age kids used to have to memorize all Ten in public school in old America.] But in new America we can now discern a new trend about the days of the week: TGIM. Yes, believe it or not this stands for Thank God It’s Monday and it’s the battle cry for a new cult, the cult of work, and not just 40 hours of work a week, but workaholic work. Of course, the opposite side of the coin stamped Thank God It’s Monday is Isn’t It Great It’s Not Sunday. This week an article on the internet started with these words: “Young Americans are least likely to affiliate with religion, but that hasn’t stopped them from finding their own form of worship.” Citing a NY Times piece, called “Why are Young People Pretending to Love Work?” the article went on to say that workaholism is “fueling a growing culture centered around optimized performance and productivity.” Any cult, and this is truly a cult, is in direct opposition to another of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shall no other God before thee.”

Are the people who work 80 hours every week, and buy into slogans like “Don’t stop when you are tired, Stop when you are done,” really happy with their new religion?  Apparently not, because also this week came out a new Pew Charitable Trust poll came to this conclusion: “Whatever the explanation may be, more than one-third of actively religious U.S. adults (36%) describe themselves as very happy, compared with just a quarter of both inactive and unaffiliated Americans.” Happiness is not the goal of Christianity, salvation is. But happiness may be the most visible by product of striving for that goal, at least as far as it becomes visible in answers to poll questions, like those that were posed by Pew.  Christ came into the world not to bring happiness, but to bring joy, the Joy of the Resurrection, joy because His coming into the world was to do exactly what St. Paul said to  Timothy. And St. Paul’s admission that he himself was the first among all of us sinners is startling and a truly important lesson for all of us, because as St. Ignaty Brianchanninov wrote:
 
“When our own sin becomes the object of our search, then we have no time to watch after the sins of others and notice them.Then all of our neighbors will truly seem wonderful and saintly. Then every one of us will admit himself to be the greatest sinner in the world — the only sinner in the world. And only then will the wide gates of true and effective repentance open for us.”
January 20, 2019

Christ is Baptized!   In the River Jordan!
 
     Today is the Synaxis of the Forerunner, Prophet, and Baptist John. The word synaxis means a gathering, the coming together of believers to celebrate a special day in the Orthodox Church calendar.  For example, the Synaxis of the Theotokos is celebrated on the day following the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, because of the special participation of the Virgin Mary obviously in the birth of her Son.  Given that we celebrated here in our church the Great Feast of the Theophany, or the Baptism of Christ by St. John in the Jordan River yesterday, we assemble here today to celebrate John the Baptist on his synaxis to remember his participation in the Baptism of Our Lord.  But not all synaxes in the Orthodox Church calendar have to follow one of the Twelve Great Feasts. For example, the day that we celebrate our patron saint, St. Michael the Archangel, November 21 each year, is formally known as the Synaxis of the Archangel Michael and the Other Bodiless Powers, a coming together here in our church to celebrate and pray to not just all of the seven Archangels---Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, Selaphael, Yegudiel, Uriel, and Varachiel---but all nine of the ranks of the bodiless powers---Archangels, Angels, Principalities, Powers, the Seraphim, the Cherubim, Virtues, Dominions, and Thrones---as well.  The Archangel Gabriel has his own Synaxis-April 8 each year, the day after the Great Feast of the Annunciation, in which, of course, he is a participant coming down from heaven to herald the good news to the Virgin Mary that, through the Holy Spirit, she would bear the Son of God.  In western Christendom, the celebration of the Synaxis of St. Michael and the Bodiless Powers is known as Michaelmas, September 29 on the Gregorian calendar, and in England that day is used, along with Christmas and Lady Day (the name given to the Annunciation), as the secular beginning of each quarter of the year, and Candlemas (the day we in the Orthodox Church refer to as the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, or the Meeting, February 2 by the Gregorian calendar, but February 15 for us, which is the fortieth day from Christ's Nativity, and which refers to the blessing of candles for the year in the church.
 
     The Feast of the Theophany is also known as the Epiphany, or the Appearance of God, because Christ's coming to the Jordan to be baptized by John represented the first appearance of Our Lord among the people in His ministry.  So just as an epiphany seems to come out of nowhere, or better said, out of heaven, in our thoughts, Christ in essence appeared to the people waiting for baptism at the Jordan as if directly from heaven.  In Slavonic, the name of the Feast is Bogoyavlenie---a compound word that starts with Bog (God). Yavlenie means appearance.  Of course, the underlying action of the Feastday, a baptism, is critically important to understanding why we as Orthodox Christians have undergone the sacrament of Baptism- of figuratively being buried with Christ, just as Christ was buried so to speak in the waters of the Jordan, buried is the old man bearing the Ancestral Sin of Adam and Eve, for as a hymn of the Matins of Theophany says: "O Word without beginning, Thou hast buried man with Thee in the stream: He was corrupted by error, but Thou makest Him new again." And in the place of every baptized person, whether a baby or an adult, is the new man, the new man who has now put on Christ just as the hymn that substitutes for Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, in the Divine Liturgy yesterday says: "As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ" words that come directly from St. Paul's letter to the Galatians at Chapter 3, verse 27.  We have been baptized into the Lord and we, as the sacrament of Baptism service says blessed: "Blessed is he whose unrighteousness is forgiven, and whose sin is covered."  Sin is covered by those regenerating waters of the Jordan River.  And it is the Baptist John, such an important actor in Christ's mission on earth, by whose hand Christ is buried in the water, even though the Prophet says: "How shall I stretch forth my hand and touch the head of Him that rules all things?"  We have precious few icons of the Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John whose synaxis we celebrate today: {Discussion of Icons in the Church.}
 
The humility of St. John is shown in the Gospel reading from St. John the Evangelist for the synaxis, from the very first book of St. John's Gospel that picks up at verse 29, right after the reading that we hear every Pascha during Matins.  Here is what Evangelist says about the Baptist: "When the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, Who art thou?
 
And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, I am not the Christ.
 
Then said they unto him, Who art thou? that we may give an answer to them that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself?  He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias.
 
And they asked him, and said unto him, Why baptizest thou then, if thou be not that Christ, nor Elias, neither that prophet?
 
John answered them, saying, I baptize with water: but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not;
 
 He it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe's latchet I am not worthy to unloose."
 
   Our Lord so loved the Baptist that, as the Gospel reading you heard today shows, He began His ministry using exactly the same words that John had spoken: 

"From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."
 
Fr. Gregory
 
 
January 13, 2019

Nativity Epistle of His Holiness Kyrill, Patriarch of Moscow & All Russia

Beloved in the Lord archpastors, all-honorable priests and deacons, God-loving monks and nuns, dear brothers and sisters:

From the depths of my heart I congratulate you all on the great and world-saving feast of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Today, like the shepherds of Bethlehem two thousand years ago, with joy and loving-tenderness we hearken to the triumphant voice of the angel: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Lk 2:14). In hearing these wondrous words, our hearts find comfort and are filled with thanksgiving to the Maker. The Lord Almighty, “the mighty God, the everlasting Father” (Is 9:6), comes down to us and is born into the world as a simple human being. The psalmist and prophet David proclaimed these words through the Holy Spirit which have come true: “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth shall spring out of the earth; and righteousness shall look down from heaven” (Ps 85:10-11). And it has come to pass that “unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given (Is 9:6) that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (Jn 3:16).

Throughout history humankind has assiduously sought out God, longing for the lost communion with its Maker. And in response to these endeavors, in response to hearts and hands raised up towards the heavens, the Lord has manifested his love for the human race and has extended towards us his saving hand. After thousands of years God and the human person have finally encountered each other in Jesus Christ, heaven and earth have been united, and the hopes of the sons and daughters of Adam have been fulfilled.

In Christ’s Nativity there has been revealed to us at one and the same time both a Mystery and a Revelation. The human mind is indeed unable to grasp fully how the Maker and Provider of the world – God, who by his nature is boundless – comes into our world torn apart by sin and reveals himself in the form of a helpless Child born in the cave where the shepherds and the animals sought refuge from the bad weather. The glory which was exalted by the heavenly powers, disseminated by the wise men from the east and witnessed by the humble shepherds, is proclaimed loudly to all ends of the earth. All of this allows us to glimpse the depths of the unfathomable wisdom of God, it makes us a part of the Trinity’s hidden plan for the salvation of the human person.

Today we know that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son… so that the world through him might be saved” (Jn 3:16-17). And now, “being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God, … because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given unto us” (Rom 5:1-2, 5).

Let us, then, bow reverently before the humble manger where the quiet and meek Infant lies. Let us bow down with the fear of God and trembling, for it is here that there begins the earthly way of the cross of the Lord Jesus, it is here that our salvation begins. Let us bow down and glorify the Son who is born of the Pre-eternal Father, rejoicing in the ineffable peace which surpasses all understanding and which fills our souls.

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” we again and again joyfully sing after the choir of angels. The love of God, revealed in the Nativity of the Savior, brings true peace to people. This peace cannot be shaken either by everyday turmoil, social upheaval, political chaos or even armed conflict, for “in Christ’s peace there mysteriously lives such a spiritual power which can subdue all earthly affliction and beguilements” (St. Ignatius Bryanchaninov, Ascetic Works).

Yet how are we to acquire a peaceful disposition of the heart? How are we to become the possessors of this great spiritual gift? The holy fathers are unanimous in stating that the work of Christ’s peace in a human being is a true sign of his abiding in the Gospel commandments. Of them “above all” – we are taught by the apostle Paul – “put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness. And let the peace of God,” says the apostle, “rule in your hearts, to which also you are called” (Col 3:14-15).

The Lord seeks out people of good will – those people who observe his law, who will testify to those near and those afar to salvation and “proclaim the mighty acts of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9).

Let us, then, be worthy of this lofty calling and thereby, “seeing thy most glorious Nativity, which took place in the cave, let us all the more spurn the vanities of the world” (8th Kontakion of the Akathist Hymn to the Nativity of Christ), and we shall be transported spiritually to the heavens in glorifying the Maker of all things and in sharing our joy in the incarnate Savior with those around us, with those who need our care, who are downcast or who are in straightened circumstances.

May the Lord inspire us all upon the arduous Christian life so that henceforth faith be strengthened within us, that hope fades not and that love shall ever grow; so that as we become part of the solemnity of the radiant feast of the Nativity we shall unceasingly proclaim to the world the “great mystery of godliness” (1 Tim 3:16) and bring comfort and Christ’s blessed peace to people. Amen.

+ KYRILL

PATRIARCH OF MOSCOW AND ALL RUSSIA

January 6, 2019

     Of all of the Feasts of the Orthodox Church, only three have a special structure of services that are performed on the eve of the Feastday. That is, a special structure other than serving the All Night Vigil on the preceding evening. Those three are the Feast of Feasts, Pascha, which of course has Holy Saturday on its eve, Theophany, and the Nativity of Christ, the eve of which of course we are celebrating here today.
     In twelve days we will experience the services of Theophany, also known in English as the Epiphany or the Appearance of God, the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan by the Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John from its eve on January 18 to the Feastday itself on January 19, when we will bless the water at both services. For today, let's focus on certain meanings in the Nativity services that are not always front and center. Because the Nativity falls on a Monday this year, the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil will be served tomorrow morning here at 10am. This is prescribed by the Typikon whenever the Eve falls on a Saturday or Sunday.   At the end of the Divine Liturgy today we will bring a single candle out of the sanctuary and place it in the middle of the nave. At that time the clergy and choir will sing the Tropar and Kondak of the Feast in anticipation of the Vigil service tonight which will start at 630pm after the Holy Supper which will begin at 5pm. These hymns will also be sung at the Vigil tonight, which is Great Compline followed by Matins, and at the Divine Liturgy tomorrow morning. On all three eves of the brightest feasts of the Orthodox Church, white is the color of the vestments used for the church and its servers.
      There are eight Old Testament prophecies that are read at Vespers on the Eve, and I want to focus on one of those today. You may remember that last Sunday we commemorated St. Daniel the Prophet and the Three Holy Youths who survived the Fiery Furnace of King Nebuchadnezzar. One of the prophecies on the Eve is from the Book of Daniel, whom you will recall was taken into captivity by the Babylonians, along with the Three Youths, and was saved by God from death in the lion's den. As a result, Daniel became a trusted advisor to Nebuchadnezzar and the prophecy that is read on the Eve recounts Daniel's interpretation of the King's dream about an idol. In the second chapter of the Book of Daniel at verse 31 Daniel somehow knows what the dream was, so he tells Nebuchadnezzar: "Thou, O king, sawest, and behold a great image. This great image, whose brightness was excellent, stood before thee; and the form thereof was terrible. This image's head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass,  His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay.  Thou sawest till that a stone was cut out without hands, which smote the image upon his feet that were of iron and clay, and brake them to pieces." Then Daniel interprets the dream for the King, telling him that a kingdom divided, that is partly made of strong steel and partly made of weak clay, will fall. And the fall will be caused by that "stone cut out without hands" which is the Kingdom of Daniel's God, the one God, God the Father. But as a prophecy of the Birth of Christ, the stone not cut by hands brings to mind the prophecy of Isaiah, and the Book of Isaiah is also read on the Eve, the prophecy at chapter 28 of a "precious cornerstone," which symbolism is used by St. Paul in a number of his Epistles, especially to the Ephesians in which he writes   "Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone." Chpt. 2 v. 20. And tonight at the beginning of the Matins, you will hear these words that come directly from St. Peter's first Epistle at Chapter 2: "The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this is the work of the Lord and it is marvelous in our eyes." That "stone not cut by hands" of which Nebuchadnezzar dreamed, like the Icon Not Made by Hands, the image of Christ that appeared on the towel that Our Lord sent to the King of Edessa, are miraculous in themselves, but the greatest miracle of all the prophecies was the Birth of Our Lord in the Flesh, from the womb of a Virgin without seed, and without harming her virginity, the wonderful Feast that we will begin to celebrate here in our church today. The stirring words of the Nativity homily of St. Gregory the Theologian should be kept in our hearts all year through:   "Christ is born, give glory; Christ is from heaven, go to meet him; Christ is on earth, be lifted up. 'Sing to the Lord, all the earth' and to say both together 'Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice' for the heavenly one is now earthly. Christ is in the flesh, exult with trembling."
 
Fr. Gregory
Sermon - December 30, 2018

       Today's Gospel reading from St. Luke's chapter 14 at verse 16 actually begins with the words: "Then [H]e said unto him." Obviously the pronoun "He" refers to Christ, but who is the "him?"The answer is found in the earlier verses of chapter 14:   Christ had been invited to a supper at the house of the chief Pharisee, and Our Lord in his humility would not disdain an invitation, but rather went and taught those who were there about humility in attending a gathering for which one had been invited and about inviting not just the rich or the learned, but the poor to suppers and gatherings. One of the Pharisees saw the light and rightly said: "Blessed is he that shall eat bread in the kingdom of God."   That's the "him" to which Christ told the parable that we heard today.
     And while that parable may seem somewhat transparent, there are some nuances lurking in Our Savior's words that might not jump right out at us. That "certain man" who gave the "great supper" is of course God the Father, and the "servant" He sends to beckon us to the great supper is of course Christ Himself, the Son of God. The timing of the calling is very important, and that's the reason that this Gospel reading comes on the Sunday of the Forefathers, one week before the Sunday before the Nativity:   that the Father says that "all things are now ready" is a direct reference to the Nativity of His Son in the Flesh---the time is now right for salvation to come into the world through the Birth of the Savior. The time is now both comely and opportune for the Incarnation, for as King David wrote in Psalm 45 (44 Septuagint): "Gird Thy sword upon Thy thigh, O Mighty One, in Thy comeliness." Comeliness as it is used today means merely beauty, but long ago it had greater breadth meaning "timeliness." The time was finally right, St. Luke tells us that Christ said, for His Appearance on earth in the Flesh. You may be interested to know that the words of the Psalm are recited by the priest as a vesting prayer, specifically for the putting on of the vestments that symbolize a "sword" to be used to fight against the corrosive influence of the Devil.
       The excuses that were offered by "them who were called," that is, the children of Israel, the Chosen People, should be carefully considered.   The man who just bought some land is tied down to the material world. The man who couldn't attend the supper because he just bought five oxen and had to test them out with a plough is representative of those who love wealth, and wind up yoking their own five senses to those five beasts, rather than using their human nature in an effort to find salvation. And the man who just married is symbolic of those who are bound to pleasure, so attached even to a spouse so as to ignore the most important thing in our lives: Preparing for eternal life.
      So, as the parable concludes, we see that those who are outside of the city, meaning the reach of the Jewish civilization, those out on the highways and behind the hedges, are compelled to come to the supper. Those are the Gentiles, and the compulsion that is mentioned is really the staunch effort of the Servant to convince the Gentiles, in most cases the Greeks who were worshiping still Zeus and Athena, to change their ways and become part of the new civilization that would be soon known as Christianity.  When you think of the parable in these terms, you will quickly see the link to St. Paul's Epistle to the Colossians that was read today:
"And having put on the new man, which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him: Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free: but Christ is all, and in all."
   Just as Our Lord said in the parable, to the great supper "many were bade." And the many that were bade included even those who went before; for that reason today is known as the Sunday of the Forefathers, that is all of the righteous of the Old Testament who were the progenitors of Christ, And today we especially remember St. Daniel the Prophet and the Three Holy Children-Saints Ananias, Azarius, and Misael, who were renamed Shadrack, Meshack, and Abendago by the Babylonians---the three youths whom King Nebuchadnezzar had thrown into the fiery furnace when they refused to worship the golden idol that the King had set up, but who survived when the Prayer of Azarius (that we read on Holy Saturday each year) was answered as St. Michael came and led the three out of the flames.
 
 
     The escape from the furnace unharmed prefigured the Nativity of Christ, when the Son of God as a babe in the flesh was born of the Virgin's womb without harming her virginity. By refusing to worship the golden idol, unlike the three men with their lame excuses who did worship the idols of wealth, of materiality, and of pleasure, these three saints found salvation from the flames. Let us today, Brothers and Sisters, reflect on the words of the Kondak dedicated to the Three Holy Youths as we begin our journey through the last week of the Nativity fast:
           "You did not worship the graven image,
            O thrice-blessed ones,
            but armed with the immaterial Essence of God, you were glorified in a trial by fire.
From the midst of unbearable flames you called on God, crying:
          Hasten, O compassionate One!
          Speedily come to our aid,
          for You are merciful and able to do as You will."
 
Fr. Gregory 
Sermon - December 23

      Today’s reading from St. Luke’s Gospel is about numbers, specifically about the number 10 which of course is the base of all common numbering systems used around the world.   Ten is the number of fingers (and toes)  humans  have and for that reason it’s easy to see why counting  up to ten in the base 10 system was developed early and continues to this very day. That St. Luke goes out of his way to tell us that there were ten lepers who called out to Christ, not “a number of” or “a few,” indicates that we might look for some meaning in the details of the numbers.  Details such as that of the ten, nine were by implication Jews and only one was different, a Samaritan, as St. Luke tells us “a stranger.”  We know quite well that Our Lord is Himself referred to as a Stranger, notably in the hymn that is sung on Holy Friday each year, the hymn based on the words of Joseph of Arimathea as he went courageously into  Pilate to claim the body of Jesus for a proper burial: ”Give me this stranger, who has no place to lay His head. Give me this stranger, whom the evil disciple delivered to death. Give me this stranger, whom His Mother saw hanging on the Cross, and with a mother’s sorrow she cried weeping: Woe is me my Child! Woe is me Light of mine eyes and beloved fruit of my womb!”  Christ took on the nature of man, He emptied Himself, and He became a suffering  Stranger just as the Samaritan leper who suffered with the awful disease of leprosy.   But by becoming the suffering Stranger Christ shows us the way to eternal life, cleansing us from Ancestral Sin,  just as He easily cleansed the Samaritan leper.   So easily, that His word alone cleansed all ten leprous men  and He made sure to have them all go  to  the priests to have the cleansing miracle verified. Samaritans were, as the Blessed Theophylact says,  “accursed foreigners,”  “Assyrians,” and because they were not Jews, Theophylact tells us to have no despair as Gentiles, because Christ came for all men, all 7.7 billion people on earth today.                        

     And that brings us back to numbers.  Specifically the number nine, the nine Jews who did not “turn back” to Jesus, as the Samaritan did. Jesus didn’t force  the nine  to come back when the priests pronounced them clean, or even suggest that they should come back.   That’s not what Jesus does.  He doesn’t force or demand anything.  And by what happened with the Samaritan, we know that  He didn’t need to suggest or force anything. The lesson is in  the Samaritan’s unprompted, voluntary, and heartfelt showing  of thanksgiving before our Lord.  So let’s review the numbers: Of those 7.7 billion people in the world today, only about 4% are Orthodox Christians, but all of the Christians in the world, about 12% are Orthodox.   That’s just about the same percentage of the lepers (10%) who came back to thank God.  And we Orthodox  in America are pretty close to that percentage as well, being a bit more than 7% of all who designate themselves as Christian in the USA today.   One out of ten, Brothers and Sisters, one out of ten is not an encouraging ratio, especially when it comes to the ultimate cleansing: to our Salvation, to Eternal Life through Christ Our Lord.   When we do the numbers, we have to make sure that we are not in the 90% category, for as Christ said: “Were there not ten cleansed? but where are the nine? There are not found that returned to give glory to God, save this stranger. And he said unto him, Arise, go thy way: thy faith hath made thee whole.”

Fr. Gregory

Sermon - December 16

  The rich man in the parable today hadn't killed, hadn't stolen, hadn't lied under oath. In that way, he's probably not a lot different from most people. Yet Christ told him that it would be more likely that a huge dromedary could plow through a needle's eye than for a rich man to achieve salvation.   This seems pretty daunting, because, relative to the standards of the rest of the world, we Americans are rich people. So should we just give up? Give up on the most important job each one of us has? To strive for eternal life? Well, Brothers and Sisters, it's not so bleak. Remember back only two Sundays ago when we heard the Gospel of the "rich man" whose lands "brought forth plentifully," who wanted to build bigger barns, and who told his soul "to eat, drink, and be merry." The lesson that day was that being rich wasn't disqualifying, but living solely in the material world was that rich man's undoing. Similarly today, the rich man's error was that he apparently didn't hear, or may ignored, Christ's suggestion: "Follow me."  Following Christ is the key to eternal life. Just as a rich man who doesn't follow Our Lord is as likely to be saved as that camel squeezing though the eye of the needle, but being poor isn't enough by itself; being poor doesn't mean that the eye of the needle becomes as big as the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, way big enough for a charging camel. All people, poor or rich, can be saved, but to do that, each of us needs to follow Him.
     As we saw in the video Becoming Truly Human, following Christ is no longer seen in the secular world as a necessary, or even remotely reasonable, way of life. Rather we heard a number of the young people in that video say it was more important for them to be "spiritual." As Orthodox believers, we have to be wary of "spirituality" gaining even more traction, because that concept is not simply useless, but in fact can be used as a weapon against right belief, against Christ's admonition to "Follow me." In today's world many organizations require their employees or members to attend seminars or instructional meetings geared to helping people cope with modern life by following some rules, such as the following "Spiritual" advice in a seminar book: "There are so many ways to define spirituality, as it means different things to different people. Getting in touch with your spiritual side doesn't mean you have to start reciting Hail Marys or going to Sunday Mass, as spirituality and religion are rarely synonymous. Rather, spirituality focuses on cultivating a sense of peace, self-love, and purpose, not only within yourself, but within the earth and within the universe....Adopt meditation in your life....Read...Thich Nhat Hahn, a popular Buddhist monk...there are no rules, and you can practice your own [spiritual practices] in any way you like."   Do your own thing, in the parlance of the 60s....as long as you mediate, and don't say Hail Marys.
       This is the tendency in modern America to push people toward "mindfulness" what the dictionary says is: "a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique."
         When you think critically about that definition you will quickly recognize that "accepting" your own "feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations" is diametrically opposed to Following Our Lord, who emptied Himself, who accepted death on the Cross for our salvation. But mindfulness is all the rage: The CDC, a Federal agency, is now touting it as a "therapeutic technique" and the UK government has called together "politicians from 15 countries due to meditate together at the House of Commons next week in an event to explore whether mindfulness can help reset the conduct of national and international politics."  
     While many bemoan that we live in a "Post-Christian" world, we need to do more than just complain; we need to be ready to dispel these attempts to c0nvince others, and maybe even us, that we are wasting our time "going to Sunday Mass" as the seminar book said.   It's not impossible.   Remember the   words of Our Lord at the end of the Gospel today when He was asked: "Who then can be saved?" He said, "The things which are impossible with men are possible with God."
 
Fr. Gregory 
Sermon - December 9

       In today's gospel, St. Luke tells us that Christ "was teaching in one of the synagogues." Let's take careful note of those words, because there were, and are today, many synagogues, many "gathering places" or "assemblies" in the meaning of that Hebrew word, but there was only one Temple, the Temple of Jerusalem, of which we hear much in the Gospels when Christ comes to Jerusalem to face His the passions of His trial and crucifixion. Synagogues then and now have dual roles, being places to pray and places of instruction, in that way, not unlike Christian churches. And the Gospel makes that second aspect of a synagogue clear, because Our Lord was in that synagogue on that Sabbath Day specifically to teach the people.
     The Temple of Jerusalem, on the other hand, was quite different, in that it was the sole place of sacrifice, being built, first by King Solomon, to be a permanent replacement for the Tabernacle that Moses set up in the desert while leading the Jews on their exodus out of Egypt. The Tabernacle was built to specifications that God gave to Moses, and it was, as its name in Hebrew implies, the dwelling place of God. In that way, the Tabernacle, or Temple, is also like a Christian church, in that we see our churches as the house of God, specifically in some litanies in the liturgy as "this Holy House." [After the veneration of the Cross today, I will be teaching a lesson to the school children about the church as the house of God; all are welcome to attend.] We can learn a lot about the Temple of Jerusalem from St. Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews that was read here in our church this past Tuesday on the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple: " For there was a tabernacle made; the first, wherein was the candlestick, and the table, and the shewbread; which is called the sanctuary.  And after the second veil, the tabernacle which is called the Holiest of all;  Which had the golden censer, and the ark of the covenant overlaid round about with gold, wherein was the golden pot that had manna, and Aaron's rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant; And over it the cherubims of glory shadowing the mercyseat; of which we cannot now speak particularly. Now when these things were thus ordained, the priests went always into the first tabernacle, accomplishing the service of God.  But into the second went the high priest alone once every year, not without blood, which he offered for himself, and for the errors of the people."
     That mercyseat, the cover of the Ark of Covenant, which held the tablets of the Ten Commandments, was made of pure gold, and it was God's dwelling place in the Temple. Why is this information about the Temple in St. Paul's letter to the Hebrews?   Because he as explaining how the Theotokos, who was brought to the Temple at the age of three on the day that we celebrate each year as her Entrance, was the new Temple of God, in that her womb became God's dwelling place when the Holy Spirit came down on her as the Archangel Gabriel said at the Annunciation. The Virgin Mary was even taken into the Holy of Holies by Zechariah, the father of St. John the Baptist, the second part of the Temple where only the High Priest could go and only on one day during the year, the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, the day that God came to the mercyseat. The Kondaks sung for the Entrance tell the story:
"Today the universe is filled with joy
At the glorious feast of the Mother of God, and cries out:
"She is the heavenly tabernacle....
Therefore, the angels of God praise her:
Truly this woman is the abode of God."
   The Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70AD and has never been rebuilt. From today's Epistle reading we learn that, while the Virgin Mary became new Temple, her Son, Our Lord, set up the new church on earth: "And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence."   That phrase, "firstborn from the dead" is tied to today's gospel reading because Christ's words to the critics in the synagogue foretell that He had a lot more work to do on another Sabbath Day: "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." With these words, Christ foretells the work he would have to do on another Sabbath day, the day of Great and Holy Saturday, on which Our Lord, through His descent into Hades, would loose the bonds not only of Adam, and all the righteous, but also another woman, Eve, bound by Satan in Hades for much more than eighteen years. In his book Christ the Conqueror of Hell, our Metropolitan Hilarion wrote: "We do know that, since Christ's descent, the way to resurrection has been opened 'for all flesh,' salvation has been granted to every human being and the gates of paradise have been opened for all who wish to enter through them." Brothers and Sisters, eternal life has been granted to each of us. Do we wish to enter through the gates of paradise that Christ opened on the Sabbath Day for our sake?
 
Fr. Gregory 
  
Sermon - December 2

What is the sin of the rich man in today's gospel?  Was it just because he was rich?   That in itself was apparently just luck, because Christ says in the parable that his ground "brought forth plentifully."  Had there been a famine, he would probably not have been rich.  Or was his sin greed?  Well, it doesn't seem so, because all we know is that he is intent on putting up more storage barns, not that he was trying to get more.  Why wouldn't a person want to "eat, drink, and be merry"?  Don't most of us want that?  Doesn't our own Declaration of Independence even tell us that God gave us certain "unalienable rights" that include the right to pursue happiness?  

So what was the rich man's sin?  Why would he tell his SOUL to take it easy?  There's  the answer to that, and it's found in the Epistle reading today, the letter of St. Paul to the Ephesian in which he tells us:  "Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 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."
 
St. Paul doesn't have any trouble talking about the wiles of the devil, or those principalities and powers (which are angels who followed Satan in his fall from God, becoming demons) but in today's society, one who talks about the devil isn't taken very seriously, and certainly not as seriously as St. Paul was taken in the first century.  A very public example can be seen in the media coverage of Pope Francis, who, rightly, does speak about the wiles of the devil.  As a result, a major media outlet ran a story entitled: "Why is Pope Francis so Obsessed with the Devil?" in which we are informed that "For Francis, the devil is not a myth, but a real person. ... the enemy of the church...."  The article goes on to pontificate further: "Several of [the writer's] theologian colleagues have said that he has gone a bit overboard with the devil and hell!  This.....Pope is diving into deep theological waters, places where very few modern Catholic clerics wish to tread."  Brothers and Sisters, the tenor of this article, that, I believe, is a pretty reliable indicator of public opinion about the devil, starts from the given that the devil is a myth.  If Satan is just a myth, why does every religion on earth, not just Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, but all of the Eastern religions as well, have at its core some personification of evil?  One needs not go too far in Genesis to find the devil at work, convincing Adam and Eve to disobey God, the first sins and the Ancestral Sins from which we inherit death.  The English word "devil" comes from the Greek "diabolos" or slanderer, and Satan used his words artfully in the Garden of Eden, and slandered God in his attempt win over other angels and overcome God.  That's why the largest piece of art in this church has at its center the devil.   When you come up to the Cross today, make sure to look back over the choir loft to see St. Michael vanquishing the devil in Satan's attempt to win over all the angels and overcome God.
 
That stained glass depiction of our patron saint, St. Michael the Archangel, vanquishing Satan is virtually the same artwork found in the famous statute in Place St. Michel in the Latin Quarter of Paris on the left bank known as the Fountaine Saint-Michel:
Because Satan is a major character in so much Western, as well as Russian, literature, from Paradise Lost to Faust to The Brothers Karamasov to The Master and Margarita, one can see how the idea that the devil is just a myth can get some traction in the secular world.  But the devil is quite real and he's not simply an "enemy of the church" as that media article tries to lead one to believe.  That description of the Satan is so limited in scope as to be silly, to minimize the day to day destruction caused by the demons; in truth, the devil is the enemy of each and every one of us. Each of us.... as individuals, just as St. Paul so artfully warns us. Dostoevsky famously said that "God and the devil are fighting and the battleground is the human heart."  The individual human heart.  That's why the ending of the Lord's Prayer, as translated into English, is best translated as: "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the Evil One."  Our Patriarch Kirill is not shy when focusing our attention on the chaos that the devil causes for us.  With respect to the bloodshed and chaos in Eastern Europe today, Patriarch Kirill had no trouble identifying Satan's real presence when he said:  "Only the devil can celebrate victory when brothers come into conflict, destroying each other, inflicting wounds upon each other and weakening the vital strength of the people."
 
But in the Western world, the harsh reality of how the devil can infect our daily lives is lost; how can it be otherwise when a mainstream tv show (rated 14+) entitled "Lucifer" becomes a hit by depicting the devil as a handsome guy who "has abdicated his duties as ruler of Hell to run a nightclub in Los Angeles.... he teams up with the police to hunt criminals."  So as long as one is fifteen years old, he or she can cheer on Satan as a good guy, a crime fighting hero.  And he is apparently having a pretty good time in Hollywood according to Hollywood.....eating, drinking, and being merry.
 
No, Brothers and Sisters, that's not the devil.  What we need to fend the real devil off is what St. Paul told us today: Therefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day... Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness;And your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace;Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked.  And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God."
 
The answer to the first question today is that the sin of the rich man in the Gospel is that he took off the helmet of salvation when he told his soul to eat, drink, and be merry.  When he did that, he gave up his quest for salvation.  And that's why our Lord's parable ends this way: "God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?  So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God."
 
Sermon - November 25

The question that each of us, every day, should keep in mind as we pray to God each day is the same question that was asked of Christ in St. Luke's Gospel today: "Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" This is clearly the most important question in the world, and clearly the most important question in each of our own lives. This may not seem important at all, especially when one is hale and hearty, but that will not always last. This is the most important question for anyone: a millennial running a marathon, a mother taking care of three young kids, or a senior citizen, anywhere, and in any state of health. Our own salvation must be the centerpiece of our very existence, because if we lose sight of it, we will easily be lead astray, and more easily fall into sin, as the devil desires and on which he constantly works.  Since we do inevitably fall into that trap, and sin, the only way to relieve the burden of our sins is through the sacrament of Confession and, after that, through the sacrament of Communion. The twin sacraments, together always. We all need help to approach the Holy Chalice that contains the most precious thing in the entire world, truly the Body and Blood of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. There's lots of help available. This Divine Liturgy book, which is found in every pew in this Holy House, contains much more than just the order of the service---it contains that help. If you turn to page 93, read along with me this prayer to be said before Communion:  O Lord Jesus Christ, my God, that the partaking of thy precious and Life-giving Mysteries may not be to my condemnation, nor may not through the weakness of my soul and body be received unworthily; but grant that, even unto my last breath, I may partake of a portion of thy Holy Gifts without condemnation, unto the Communion of thy Holy Spirit, as a preparation for eternal Life and for a good defence at thy dread Judgement Seat; so that I, together with all thine elect, may also receive those incorruptible good things which thou hast prepared for them that love thee, O Lord; in whom thou art glorified forever. Amen

Now turn to page 105 for the prayers after Communion:  I thank Thee, O Lord my God, for Thou hast not rejected me, a sinner, but hast made me worthy to be a partaker of Thy Holy Things. I thank Thee, for Thou hast permitted me, the unworthy, to commune of Thy most pure and Heavenly, Gifts. But, O Master Who lovest mankind, Who for our sakes didst die and rise again, and gavest us these awesome and life-creating Mysteries for the good and sanctification of our souls and bodies; let them be for the healing of our soul and body, the repelling of every adversary, the illumining of the eyes of my heart, the peace of my spiritual power, a faith unashamed, a love unfeigned, the fulfilling of wisdom, the observing of Thy commandments, the receiving of Thy divine grace, and the attaining of Thy Kingdom. Preserved by them in Thy holiness, may I always remember Thy grace and live not for myself alone, but for Thee, our Master and Benefactor. May I pass from this life in the hope of eternal life, and so attain to the everlasting rest, 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.

While these books are a wonderful help to us, both before and after Holy Communion, unfortunately they do not contain any prayers prior to or after Confession. The altar servers are distributing copies of examples of those types of prayers (copies are attached to this sermon). The prayer before communion was written by St. Symeon the New Theologian. What do we know about this saint?

St. Symeon is one of only three saints that bear the high title "Theologian," the other two being St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus. St. Symeon was born into Byzantine nobility and lived during the latter part of the tenth century AD. Sidestepping a planned career in the law arranged by his family, he was tonsured a monk early in life and by the age of thirty had become the igumen (or abbott) of St. Mamas Monastery. He practiced the Jesus Prayer; he wrote extensively--- instructional works for monks, prayers, and church poetry--- and many of his works were compiled into the Philokalia. His works stressed the need for every Christian to have a spiritual father to guide him in his quest for eternal life. The prayer before Confession that he wrote demonstrates that teaching:

"And vouchsafe me, poor and naked of all virtue, to fall with tears at the feet of my spiritual father, and call his holy soul to mercy, to have mercy on me. .... For Thou knowest, O Lord, that I want to save myself, and that my evil habit is an obstacle. But all things are possible unto Thee, O Master, which are impossible for man."
We need to pray both before and after Confession. The words in the second prayer on the handout are so important to our understanding of how important confession is and how important keeping the promise to repent is as well:
"O Lord of mercy! Through Thy gracious goodness, my conscience is now unburdened of sins which oppressed me, and in the humblest manner of which I am capable, I revealed to Thy priest all my sins that I could recollect. I humbly beseech Thee: accept this confession and forgive me all my trespasses, those which I have forgotten, as well as those I have remembered. ..... Yet, O Lord, I firmly resolve through Thy merciful assistance, never to consent to any mortal sin, from which I humbly beseech Thee to preserve me while I live."

Preservation from sin. That's the ultimate help that we need for our salvation.
Fr. Gregory

A Prayer before Confession
St. Symeon the New Theologian
O God and Lord of all! Who hath the power over every breath and soul, the only One able to heal me, hearken unto the prayer of me, the wretched one, and, having put him to death, destroy the serpent nestling within me by the descent of the All-Holy and Life-Creating Spirit. And vouchsafe me, poor and naked of all virtue, to fall with tears at the feet of my spiritual father, and call his holy soul to mercy, to have mercy on me. And grant, O Lord, unto my heart humility and good thoughts, becoming a sinner, who hath consented to repent unto Thee, and do not abandon unto the end the one soul, which hath united itself unto Thee and hath confessed Thee, and instead of all the world hath chosen Thee and hath preferred Thee. For Thou knowest, O Lord, that I want to save myself, and that my evil habit is an obstacle. But all things are possible unto Thee, O Master, which are impossible for man. Amen.

Prayer After Confession
O Lord of mercy! Through Thy gracious goodness, my conscience is now unburdened of sins which oppressed me, and in the humblest manner of which I am capable, I revealed to Thy priest all my sins that I could recollect. I humbly beseech Thee: accept this confession and forgive me all my trespasses, those which I have forgotten, as well as those I have remembered. Grant me grace, Lord, to live more carefully hereafter and to refrain from my former vices, which I utterly detest. I firmly resolve never to be guilty of them, but especially my most bountiful and merciful Savior, enable me to withstand those temptations with which I am most troubled, and to avoid all occasions for offending Thee again. If a just man falls seven times in the day, how much more reason have I to fear for myself, O Lord, and dread that I shall not be steadfast in my resolution, having through my own frailty and vicious habits increased the natural blindness and weakness in which I was born. Yet, O Lord, I firmly resolve through Thy merciful assistance, never to consent to any mortal sin, from which I humbly beseech Thee to preserve me while I live; as to my other sins and imperfections, I resolve to stand up against hem and hope, through Thy goodness, at length to avoid them. Amen.

Sermon - November 18

Today we should direct our thoughts toward three women---two of whom appear in today’s gospel reading from St. Luke, the first, the daughter of Jairus, the leader of the synagogue, and the second of the three dead whom Jesus resurrected, and, the second, the woman with the flow of blood. The third is a fictional character in an American novel that we discussed yesterday at our St. Innocent Orthodox Reading Society meeting here at our Church. Two real women, one fictional, but the story of each is instructive for each of our own salvations, and that is really all that matters in our lives.
The woman with the flow of blood provides the most accessible lesson: when she touched the hem of His garment, Our Lord know that the touch was certainly not what Peter had used as an excuse—that the multitude had just pressed up against Him. Yes, they had, but that one woman touched the Savior noetically, that is, with her mind, her understanding, first, and only after that did she touch the Lord intentionally, and in a bodily way. When we hear Christ say “Who touched me?” in the Gospel, we should understand that He is saying more than just that, He is saying “Who touched me with faith?” because He knew when the power went out of Him, that the person who had intentionally reached toward Him did so with ultimate faith in His power to heal. She was certainly not just part of the madding crowd.
That makes woman #1’s story pretty easy to understand. If we have pure faith, we can reach out to God and He will hear us. That doesn’t mean He will give you what you want, just that He will hear us and decide what’s best for each of our salvations.
Now what about woman #2? A young girl, a dying girl as the Gospel unfolds, but quite alive, up and eating meat, at the end of the Gospel reading. The daughter of an important man, Jairus, the leader of the synagogue, but it seems that she doesn’t have a lot to do with her resurrection, seemingly she is merely the beneficiary of her father’s heartfelt supplication to Christ. Her father’s faith is what saved her. And truly that faith was a lot less than the actual result; Jairus never expected, or asked for his daughter’s resurrection, he only asked Christ to cure his ailing daughter, and his faith that Jesus had the power to do that was good enough for an even greater miracle. That’s exactly why we Orthodox Christians pray for the sick, but more importantly, pray for the dead as well. Because we know, we are sure, that at the Last Judgment those prayers can help our fathers, our mothers, and others who have fallen asleep before the dread judgment seat of Christ, just as the prayers of Jairus helped his dead child.
Now finally, the third woman—another young girl but this one a product of 50’s America—a girl repulsed by her view of the secular life around her, with its egotism, its focus on the here and now, its commercialism. A well drawn character in what came to be a rather popular novel*---she was upset, mentally and physically, by her yearning for more, and in this case the “more” was a direct pipeline to some “more” than all that what had repulsed her. The pipeline she chose, rather unexpectedly and out of serendipity, was the Jesus Prayer---“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” But what this young woman lacked, but what the woman with the flow of blood had, what Jairus had, was faith. Faith in the Risen Lord, Our Savior, Jesus Christ, to which that prayer has to be aimed. While her quest was a noble one, toward a “spiritual life,” rather than the obviously unsatisfying, and moreso flimsy unfocused life in the material world, she lacked the critical component of faith, faith in the one Truth, Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Without that faith, the mere rote recitation of those words that make up the Jesus Prayer as a “mantra” does not and cannot provide the desired result, but in fact can be harmful. Without faith, as much as someone wants to be “spiritual,” as much as one recognizes the fatal flaws of materialism in the world around us, one’s quest is doomed, and merely becomes a never ending, unsatisfying, sampling of lots and lots of false gods that promise satisfaction on a syncretic earth, rather than what we really must strive to obtain--- life everlasting through the Glorious Resurrection of Our Lord, Our God, Our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Fr. Gregory
*Franny and Zooey (1961) by J. D. Salinger

Sermon - November 11

St. Luke’s account of Christ allowing the demons to get their wish and to go into herd of pigs was used, as we know, by Dostoyevsky as the epigraph to his Novel “Demons.” The title of that novel is also translated into English as “The Possessed,” but that title puts more of an emphasis on the man who was plagued by the legion of devils, rather than the devils themselves as Dostoyevsky would have wanted the focus to be. The novelist would have wanted that focus because his book was a story about the activities of violent revolutionaries in the late 1800s in Russia, foreshadowing the terrible carnage of the Bolshevik revolution that actually came to pass, albeit almost 50 years after the publication of the novel. Dostoevsky used the Demons who came out of the possessed man in St. Luke’s gospel to represent the bloodthirsty and immoral plotters, and that’s why the focus is on Demons.
But from the perspective of what we can learn from the Gospel lesson today, we should focus our attention not on the devils, but first of all on the people who witnessed Christ’s miracle: The Gadarenes. As St. Luke tells us: “Then the whole multitude of the country of the Gadarenes round about besought him to depart from them; for they were taken with great fear: and he went up into the ship, and returned back again.” The Gadarenes were afraid; they didn’t want Christ to upset their normal routines as swineherds, so they asked Him to leave. Brothers and Sisters, we need to take a good hard look at our own lives: Do we act as the Gadarenes did? In our actions or in our omissions to act, do we in essence ask Christ to depart from our lives so that our normal routines can go on and not be disrupted? Of course, as we sit here in the church today, that seems farfetched. After all we are here in church, aren’t we? But let’s look closer. When we have a miracle of Christ right in front of us, do we drop what we are doing in our normal routine and run to the miracle? A few weeks ago, we in our city were blessed to have the miraculous myrrh streaming Iveron Icon of the Theotokos only a block and a half away from our church. Christ calls us to put aside our normal routine and run to the miracle, and yet, do we, by not acting, by not running to the icon, in essence ask Christ to depart from us? We were blessed to have the Holy Fire, the “light that never fails” that miraculously ignites the candles brought into the Church of the Sepulcher at midnight on Holy Saturday, be brought from Jerusalem in a specially made carrier in a specially designated plane flying across the seas to our own church after Pascha two years ago. Did we put aside our normal routine, and run to the miracle? We especially have to think about these events in a relative way as well; had a special exhibit come to the Museum of Art or had the Olympic torch come to be carried through the city, would we have made the effort then? When Christ calls us to come to Divine Liturgy on a Feastday that happens to fall on a weekday (for example our upcoming Patronal Feastday of St. Michael that falls this year on the day before Thanksgiving), do we run to meet Him, or does our normal routine take precedence? When Christ gives to us the chance to partake of the mysteries of the inseparable sacraments He Himself has given us, the miracles of Confession and Communion, the joined sacraments that give us the chance to relieve ourselves of the weight of our weighty sins through repentance, and the chance to prepare ourselves for eternal life by partaking after that repentance of the Holy and Precious Body and Blood of our Savior, do we run to the sacraments? Or do we, through omission, just carry on in our normal routine?
Brothers and Sisters, if we can somehow break out of that normal routine mode, we can become like the man who is the second focus of the lesson of the demons and the pigs: The cured demoniac. As St. Luke told us: “ Now the man out of whom the devils were departed besought him that he might be with him: but Jesus sent him away, saying,  Return to thine own house, and shew how great things God hath done unto thee. And he went his way, and published throughout the whole city how great things Jesus had done unto him.” When do break the routine, we aren’t out of the woods yet. Christ tells us that we have to make sure we tell others about the great things that God has done for each of us. There are many ways to accomplish this, and those ways need not be up to the level of missionary work abroad, or proselytizing at home, but rather can be accomplished simply by acknowledging your faith in Christ on a daily basis even in little ways, such as saying the Lord’s Prayer as a family, whether at home or in a restaurant; by not being afraid to say that you “thank God” for your getting over the flu; or by telling your co-workers why you won’t be coming in on January 7. A wonderful way to accomplish this is to come to our church on Thanksgiving morning at 10am for the service of a moleben, a giving of thanks to Our God for the relatively comfortable lives we live in this great nation and for the freedoms that we have. Publishing the great things Jesus has done for you isn’t that hard, it doesn’t take much time and doesn’t require the expenditure of money, but what it does take is perseverance and courage, especially in today’s post Christian America. The home run that we can hit each day is putting the two things together: running to, rather than away from, Christ’s miracles and publishing our acknowledgments of the miracles that Christ has given us. And the best way to remember how to do that is to focus your thoughts every morning during prayer on your own salvation. Each and every morning. Salvation comes through those miracles and the acknowledgement of them, and keeping salvation in the forefront of our lives shines two bright lights on where we are headed during the day.

Sermon - November 4

Today's Gospel reading relates Christ's parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Let's be clear about this, Our Lord is speaking in a parable here, not recounting an event, as some may assume, which would make the lesson somewhat hard to understand if indeed there were already some, like the beggar Lazarus, who were already in heaven before Christ's Glorious Resurrection. In Western Christianity, this parable is known as Dives and Lazarus; the word dives is Latin for rich man, not the name of the rich man in the parable who goes unnamed, further showing that this is a parable, rather than history. The use of the name Lazarus, which comes from the Hebrew "God is my help" is symbolic in that sense, but it does remind us of Lazarus, the friend of Jesus, whom Our Lord resurrected after being in the tomb for four days. So we should be clear also: the Lazarus in the parable is not that real person, Lazarus. It's interesting to note that the word "lazaretto," meaning a place for quarantine of people having communicable diseases, comes from this parable, since Lazarus had sores and could well have been a leper. There was a lazaretto in Tinicum Township in the late 1700s because of a yellow fever scare in Philadelphia. And in this parable Jesus uses the Hebrew phrase "in Abraham's bosom," which of course we all recognize as being used as a synonym for Heaven in the benediction at the end of the panykhida service. The parable was the subject of many paintings in the medieval west, but is also the basis for Orthodox icons such as the one below:

This parable, however, is found only in St. Luke's Gospel, not reported on by the other synoptic Evangelists, St. Mark or St. Matthew. Since today's bulletin cover speaks about the Four Evangelists, this may be a good time to learn more about these four men and how their works fit together. The bulletin uses the term "synoptic," which comes from the Greek word "synopsis" meaning seeing all together, or seeing from the same viewpoint, since the ministry of Jesus as told by Matthew, Mark, and Luke is on the whole very similar in both substance and in chronology. St. John the Evangelist is not grouped with the other three because his Gospel is very different. Why is that? And how do we explain some of the apparent differences between any two of the synoptics? Or why, for example, does only St. Luke report on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

Let's look first at the identity of each of these men and how they came to know the ministry of Christ of which they wrote? Who were each of these men? Only two were apostles---St. Matthew and St. John---and as such we know that they had firsthand, eyewitness, information because they walked with and lived with Our Lord. St. John, being the youngest of the disciples, was Christ's favorite, as we know from many verses in the Gospels----he is the disciple "whom Jesus loved, who also leaned on His breast at supper," that of course being the Last Supper. John 21:20. In all four gospels, John, the son of Zebedee and brother of the Apostle James, was, along with Peter and Andrew, among the first to follow Our Lord and to stay with him to the end. As we know, Peter, James, and John were taken by Christ up on Mt. Tabor where they witnessed His Glorious Transfiguration.

We also know that Matthew, as a disciple, had eyewitness evidence of the ministry of Christ. St. Luke's gospel identifies him as Levi (Luke 5:27) and St. Mark calls him Levi son of Alphaeus (Mark 2:14); Matthew identifies himself as Matthew the publican, or tax collector (Matthew 9:9).

But who were Mark and Luke? Both were members of the group known as The Seventy about whom St. Luke writes in his chapter 10: "After these things the Lord appointed other seventy also, and sent them two by two before his face into every city and place, where he himself would come." So each of them could have had some direct knowledge of the events in their gospels, but more likely did that knowledge come from the men that each followed after the Resurrection: In Mark's case, St. Peter and in Luke's case, St. Paul.

In St. Peter's first epistle he uses the expression "Mark my son" (1 Peter 5:13) and Luke, in many places in The Acts, which we know St. Luke wrote, refers to himself with St. Paul as "we" in relating travels and events. In his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul says "Luke, the beloved physician,... greets you" (Col. 4:14) and in his second letter to Timothy says " only Luke is with me." (2 Tim. 4:11)

In essence, Mark was what is called an amanuensis, or secretary, to Peter and recorded Peter's eyewitness accounts of Christ's ministry while Luke received instruction from St. Paul, who, on his conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1), got his information on Our Lord directly from the Holy Spirit.

Knowing the source of the information, now let's look at the timing of the Gospels. For an number of years after the Resurrection, there were no written records of Christ's life. The story was passed orally from the disciples and Paul as the church was growing. Paul's letters to the new churches that were being founded, called the Epistles, were written earlier than the Gospels, the first such letter, to the Galatians having been written as early as 48AD. When you listen to the Epistles, you will notice that Paul quotes from the Old Testament, but never from the New. The Gospels had not yet been written. Since Luke mentions certain events in the Acts that are historically known and since we know when Paul was executed (64-68 AD) it is likely that Luke's gospel was written during the 50s or early 60s of the first century. While it's not clear which came first, St. Matthew and St. Mark had written their gospels before St. Luke and those writings were known to Luke. St. Luke added five parables that were not written out in Matthew or Mark. Many believe that St. Mark's gospel preceded St. Mathew's and provided a basis for that later gospel, just as all three of the synoptics provided a basis for the youngest of the evangelists, St. John, to write the last gospel of the four. For this reason, St. John chose not merely to repeat the events and parables as set forth in the other three, such as the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, or for that matter the other parables already written, or the genealogies of Christ that Luke and Matthew stated, but instead focused on the Lord's divinity and did that from an eyewitness viewpoint. From his very start: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God" (John 1:1) to the very end, when, as we hear on Holy Thursday in the reading of the twelve gospels, John's intimate knowledge of Christ's last words to His apostles and His prayer: "Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee." (John 17:1) Understanding the background of each Evangelist and St. Paul, and the chronologies of their writings, is crucial to understanding the how the New Testament fits together as a whole.

Fr. Gregory

Sermon - October 28

“He that hath ears to hear, let him hear!” We hear Our Lord say these words a number of times in the Gospels, in fact there are ten times in the Gospels that Christ uses this admonition. We hear the words, but do we understand why He says them? If we go back a few verses in Luke’s chapter 8, we find out that Jesus said these words “when many people were gathered together, and were come to Him out of every city.” Because the Lord was speaking in a parable, rather than in a direct way, He uses that phrase about “ears to hear” when He wants to emphasize for those worthy in the crowd that they be more attentive, and inquisitive, to think more about the meaning of the parable; and for those unworthy, might not understand. King David in his Psalm 77 (Septuagint) foretold that the Messiah would “open [His] mouth in parables” and as we know Christ certainly made that prophecy come true, many, many times. So after admonishing the masses to think more about what it meant when some of the seeds sown by the sower, who was in fact Christ Himself, fell among those thorns, for example, Our Lord singles out His disciples for the lesson, since they haven’t really spent much time in thinking about the meaning. “ Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God: but to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand.” In this way, Jesus was preparing those who would become His Apostles for the great work ahead of them, that is, that they might carry on His ministry after His Crucifixion and Glorious Resurrection by founding the Church on Pentecost and spreading the Good News of the Gospels through the growth of the Christian Church.
While the disciples were taught exactly what each of the four landing places for the seeds represented, so that they could understand how to help keep the Word of God in the hearts of those who would make up the first Christians, let us today focus on the Word of God that falls into the thorns, “ they, which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection.”   The Blessed Theophylact in explaining this Gospel makes a very clear distinction between being choked by being rich, rather than being choked by the cares of riches, that is, burdened with worries about preserving one’s wealth. As he says, wealth on its own can be a good thing, because riches can be shared with the poor. This point, of course, reminds us of the young rich man, who, when he asked Christ how to achieve eternal life, eventually “went away sorrowful. For he had great possessions,” after Jesus told him “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast and give to the poor.” Matthew 19: 20-22. His desire to preserve his riches proved to be the thorns that choked off Christ’s words in that young rich man. Remember Joseph of Arimathea had riches, but he used them perfectly: “Having taken down Thy most pure Body from the Tree, wrapped it in clean linen and sweet spices and laid it in a new tomb.” And for that, he was glorified and remembered forever as the Noble Joseph.
But Brothers and Sisters, those thorns don’t only spring up because of wealth. Thorns are just as likely to spring up from poverty, and most likely of all to spring up from what might be called a “scattered life,” and by that is meant a life that is lead without constant attention to those Words of God. In his book entitled The Field: Cultivating Salvation St. Ignatii Bryanchanninov wrote extensively and eloquently on the difference between what he called “A Scattered Life and an Attentive Life.” “The sons of the world consider distraction to be innocent, but the Holy Fathers consider it to be the beginning of all evil.  A person who is entrenched in his scattered way of living has a very superficial and shallow appreciation of all things — even the most important ones.” In a certain sense, this reminds us of Luke’s Gospel that is read on every Feastday devoted to the Theotokos. The story of Martha and Mary that, for example, was read two weeks ago on the Feast of the Protection of the Mother of God, or Pokrov. Martha was worried about serving dinner to Our Lord and when she complained about her sister Mary who simply sat at the feet of Jesus, Our Lord told her in words that will ring forever: “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful: and Mary has chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” That “good part” is salvation, what St. Ignatii refers to as “even the most important ones.”

St. Ignatii started out his life as the young rich man. Dimitri Alexandrovich Bryanchaninov was born into a wealthy family in Russia in the early 1800s and was sent to study at the Imperial School of Military Engineers in St. Petersburg where he was favorably noticed by the future Tsar Nicholas I. But Dimitri didn’t want a military career, and against the wishes of the Tsar, he wanted to focus his life on the Word of God, was tonsured a monk and given the name Ignatii, and eventually at the urging of the Tsar became Archimandrite of St. Sergius Coastal Monastery near St. Petersburg, where he was to write so many volumes of spiritual instruction, including The Field and a book On Practicing the Jesus Prayer (that, by the way, we will be discussing in part at the next meeting of our St. Innocent Orthodox Reading Society which will be devoted to works about the Jesus Prayer). Even though he wrote 150 years ago, St. Ignatii’s lasting words relate perfectly to the age in which we live of seemingly endless digital distractions:
“It is foolish to waste our short temporal life (given to us to prepare for eternity) on earthly concerns alone, on satisfying our insignificant, endless, insatiable desires and passions.  [Such a person] frivolously rushes from one perishable pleasure to the next — forgetting about (or only occasionally remembering) imminent, majestic and terrifying eternity…..As a moth flutters from flower to flower, so the scattered man passes from one earthly pleasure to another — from one useless activity to another.”
St. Ignatii was glorified by the Russian Orthodox Church in the year of the One Thousandth Anniversary of Orthodox Christianity in Rus, 1988.
Brothers and Sisters, we who have ears to hear know where the thorns are growing in our lives and we know quite well how they choke us from time to time. But even knowing that, will we just give in and continue in our scattered lives? Or will we chose the attentive life instead, and focus on the Word of God, as St. Ignatii did…. and as Mary, sitting at His feet did, on the Words of Our Savior? Will we turn our attention to our own salvation, not just today, but each and every day?

Sermon - October 21

"And there came a fear on all: and they glorified God, saying, That a great prophet is risen up among us; and, That God hath visited his people." In today's Gospel, St. Luke relates one of three times (that were recorded in the Gospels) of Christ raising the dead: in this case the son of the widow of Nain; the other two being the daughter of Jairus, a leader of the synagogue in Galilee, located not far from where Jesus had sent the demons into the herd of swine, and of course Lazarus in Bethany before His triumphant entrance into Jerusalem. Where is this place called Nain? Well, it is a real village that yet exists, located in the area called Galilee where Jesus conducted most of His ministry. Take a look at the map that the altar servers are distributing. Nain is circled on your maps; it's located about nine miles south of Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, and is very close to Mt. Tabor where Jesus would be transfigured later in the presence of Peter, John, and James.

As we can see, Galilee is quite far from Jerusalem, the location of the Temple and the epicenter of both Jewish religious and political life, the area called Judea. For that reason, Galilee was considered the backwoods, the sticks, or as we would say today "the flyover country" of the Hebrews. In Matthew Chapter 4, the region is even referred to as "Galilee of the Gentiles" even though the vast majority of the population were Jews. But to Jesus, this was His native land, and even though He was born in Judea, in Bethlehem, quite near Jerusalem as you can see on the map, and even though He made the trip annually to Jerusalem for the Passover, virtually all of His ministry was here in His native Galilee. But as we know from other Gospels, coming out of Galilee was not thought to lead to greatness, much less the place from which the Messiah would come. Remember that when Christ called Philip to become an apostle, St. John's Gospel tells us that Philip's friend, Nathanael, said: "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Like Nathanael, a native Galilean, the people of His own hometown refused to believe anything good could come from their village. St. Mark tells us: "And he went out from thence, and came into his own country; and his disciples follow him. And when the sabbath day was come, he began to teach in the synagogue: and many hearing him were astonished, saying, From whence hath this man these things? and what wisdom is this which is given unto him, that even such mighty works are wrought by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary? ....And they were offended at him." And St. Luke tells us that in response Jesus said: "Ye will surely say unto me this proverb, Physician, heal thyself.... Verily I say unto you, No prophet is accepted in his own country." Our Lord called Himself a prophet, but what does that mean? In Hebrew, the word "prophet" meant "one who is called" and the list of Old Testament prophets is a long one: Elijah, Elisha, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel....right up to the last of the Prophets---St. John, as he is formally know, the Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist. When the Old Testament was translated into Greek in the Septuagint, the Greek word "prophetes" was used, meaning "one who speaks beforehand" or "foreteller." Isaiah foretold that the Messiah would be born of a virgin; John the Baptist foretold that while he baptized with water, but that one "mightier than I" shall come and "baptize you with the Holy Spirit;" and of course Our Lord foretold many things, including His own death and Resurrection: "The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise." Mark 9:30. While He called Himself a prophet, Christ said during the Sermon on the Mount that He had not come to "destroy the law or the prophets" but "to fulfill." Matthew 5: 17. But still, during His ministry, many, including the disciples themselves, saw this Master only as a prophet. When He asked them: "Whom do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?" the disciples said: "Some say that thou art John the Baptist; some, Elijah; and others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets." Matthew 16: 13. And even after His Glorious Resurrection, remember what the two disciples on the road to Emmaus said to the Risen Christ: that Jesus of Nazareth was "a prophet mighty in dead and word before God and all the people." Luke 24:19. But, of course, they learned what we know with certitude: That Jesus was more than a prophet, as the people of Nain called Him, but was truly the Son of God, the Messiah foretold by the prophets. Even though, as St. John reminds us that many doubted: "Shall Christ come out of Galilee? Hath not the scripture said that Christ cometh out of the seed of David, out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was?" Brothers and Sisters, looking at those maps 2000 years later, we know that Our Lord did indeed come out of Bethlehem of Judea, and that His humble beginnings in His homeland of Galilee was not just the ministry of a prophet, but the works of the Son of God and Savior of the world.


Sermon - October 14

Today we celebrate the feastday known as the Protection of Our Most Holy Lady, Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary, or as it is known in Slavonic "Pokrov," commemorating the Virgin holding her veil over those worshipping in the Church of Blachernae in the city of Constantinople.

In commemoration of Our Lady's Protection, the vestments used today for our servers and our Church are blue and two gospels are read today, the Gospel for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost and the Gospel of Luke relating the story of Mary and Martha serving Our Lord that is read on feasts dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

The epistle reading today, from St. Paul's letter to the Galatians, begins in a rather legalistic sounding fashion: "But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man." St. Paul was explaining the event of his conversion on the road to Damascus, and by "certifying" his account he was attempting to assure the Galatians of his truthfulness. Truthfulness is such an important trait, and in today's world might be seen as a vanishing virtue.

The altar servers are distributing a copy of an 1890 painting by the famous Russian artist, Nikolai Ge (his forebearers from France, brought with them the family name De Gay, which eventually became "Ge"); the painting depicts Christ before Pilate that is named "Quid Est Veritas?" What is truth? Pilate's question to Christ is found in Chapter 18 of St. John the Theologian's Gospel that is read as one of the Twelve Passion Gospels during Matins of Holy Friday (on the night of Holy Thursday). The Gospel's background for that question must be remembered to understand better the reason for the question, as Pilate says to Jesus:
"Thine own nation and the chief priests have delivered thee unto me: what hast thou done? Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence. Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice. Pilate saith unto him, What is truth? And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find in him no fault at all."

From St. Paul's first letter to Timothy we know that this Church in which we stand today houses the truth, because St. Paul wrote:
"But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
St. Timothy St. Paul

That phrase "The Pillar and the Ground of Truth" was chosen as the title of a 1914 book by Fr. Pavel Florensky, a Russian Orthodox priest and polymath (he was an accomplished theologian, philosopher, mathematician, physicist, electrical engineer, and inventor) who was killed by the Communist in the purges of the 1930s, but only after he supervised the building of the power grid that electrified the Soviet Union during the 1920s. [Fr. Pavel agreed to do this engineering work, but only if he were allowed to wear his cassock and Cross at all times, a demand to which the Bolsheviks had to accede in order to get the technological help needed.] In The Pillar and the Ground of Truth Fr. Pavel undertook the intellectual task of explaining Truth, which explanation had to extend to Pilate's question to Christ. Here is the way Fr. Pavel approached Pilate's question: "[Pilate] did not receive an answer. He did not receive an answer because the question was vain. The Living Answer stood before him, but Pilate did not see the Truth's truthfulness. Let us suppose that the Lord answered the Roman Procurator....with the quiet words "I am the Truth." But even then the questioner would have remained without an answer, for he would not have known how to recognize Truth as truth, could not have been convinced of its genuineness. The knowledge that Pilate lacked, the knowledge that all of mankind lacks above all, is knowledge of the conditions of certitude. What is certitude? It is the discovery of the proper character of truth, the recognition in truth of a certain feature that distinguishes it from untruth. Psychologically, this recognition is expressed as untroubled bliss, the satisfied thirst for truth. [Christ also famously said] 'Ye shall know the Truth and the Truth shall make you free.' Free from what? Free in general from sin."

Did we ever think of Truth, Brothers and Sisters, as bliss? Maybe we have more than we realize because Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and as such brings the bliss of the certitude in His Resurrection into our everyday slogging through the real world. In Dostoyevsky's prophetic novel of revolution, Demons, a conversation between the puppetmaster of the radicals, Stavrogin, and his once-ardent follower, Shatov, centers around Stavrogin's waning faith and waxing violence. Shatov confronts Stavrogin, saying: "But didn't you tell me that if it were mathematically proved to you that the truth excludes Christ, you'd prefer to stick to Christ rather than the truth? Did you say that? Did you?"
In modern America, proof by scientific or mathematic means is not to be questioned. But there is a lot of what some call junk science out there for which questions are not just appropriate, but necessary. How would we react, Brothers and Sisters, if someone tried to prove to us that our faith has no basis in science, and therefore no basis in truth? Would we prefer to stick to Christ, rather than that truth? And while we are in what is called "the real world," how do we deal with our own issues of truth, with a small letter "t"? With so many chances every day to stretch the truth just a little bit, or not tell someone something that he or she really should know, or outright lie, how do we stick to our own obligation to truth? It's not an easy task these days, but it has never been. But once we let a deceitful word out of our mouths, even worse, put that word into a txt or on social media, we have lost the battle of truth. The answer to winning that battle lies in the Epistle of St. James, the Brother of Our Lord:
James 1: 5 "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him."

Prayer clears the way to Truth. We need strength and wisdom from God in order to avoid the pitfall set by the devil of losing our own truth compass. And the perfect prayer to start each day asks the Holy Spirit to help us keep that moral compass pointed toward the Truth:
O Heavenly King the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things, Treasury of Blessings, and Giver of Life, O come and abide in us and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Good One.

Fr.Gregory

Sermon - September 30

This Thursday we celebrated here in our Church one of the twelve Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church---the Elevation of the Life Giving Cross---and that only two days after we had served what is called The Funeral Service for a Priest here, the funeral service for our beloved pastor of so many years, the newly departed servant of God the Archpriest Vincent.  Memory Eternal! Vechnaya Pamyat!  As I had mentioned last Sunday and on Tuesday, that Fr. Vincent's funeral was in such close proximity to the Feast Day of the Cross was so fitting.  The Priest Vincent was ordained in this Church on the Third Sunday of Lent 48 years ago, that Sunday, of course, being the Sunday of the Veneration of the Life Giving Cross. Fr. Vincent's whole life was based on his unwavering faith in Christ's Holy Resurrection after Christ's voluntary death on that Cross, the Life Giving Cross, the Invincible Weapon of Peace, as is recited in the Kondak.  The Priest Vincent held up that Invincible Weapon in his hand with great certitude and vigor, so many times, that the sight of him holding the Cross for each of us to venerate at the end of the Divine Liturgy is indelibly etched in our collective memory.
     The close proximity of Father's funeral with the holy day dedicated to the Cross is best appreciated by remembering what we can of that funeral service for a priest we heard on Tuesday, and the differences between that service and the funeral service for a layperson.  Probably the most easily recognizable difference, beside the extended length of the former, can be heard in differences in what is called the Canon, another word for hymn, and specifically a hymn that is usually comprised of nine odes, or songs, or canticles. For the funeral of a priest, the canon is virtually the same as what is sung by the choir in the Matins of Holy Saturday, that is the service that we have in this church on the evening of Great Friday, after Christ's body has been taken down from the Life Giving Cross and laid on a bier for veneration by the faithful, a service that is often referred to colloquially as the Funeral of Christ.  In this way, Fr. Vincent's funeral service included all of the solemn, yet uplifting, optimistic, and hopeful, canticles we hear on Great Friday evening---of the prophet Habbakuk's prophecy of the destruction of hell, of Isaiah's beholding the neversetting light, of Jonah coming out of the belly of the whale on the third day, of the three holy youths being saved from the fiery furnace by the Archangel Michael, and finally in the last song, Ode IX, the touching, but full of hope hymn, "Do not lament me O Mother...for I shall arise!" For I shall arise! The same words sung by the choir when the plaschanitza is raised up from the bier by the priest, as Fr. Vincent himself did so many times, and carried into the altar as Father did just before we process around the Church singing "The Angels in Heaven praise Thy Resurrection, O Christ our Savior," followed by the beginning of Matins on Holy Pascha.  And that, Brothers and Sisters, is the key link, the connecting link between  death, Christ's death on the Life Giving Cross, and everlasting life, after Christ's victorious descent into and harrowing of hell, and His Glorious Resurrection on the Third Day.  That's why the funeral service is served by the priests in white vestments, just as white is used for Paschal Matins, a glorious service that is glorious only because of the Holy Resurrection.  And we have the certainty of Christ's Resurrection from the dead to comfort us in knowing that the soul of the newly departed servant of God, the Archpriest Vincent, will be bathed in the light of the Resurrection, because as Fr. Vincent loved to say as he emerged with a candle from the sanctuary after having just placed the plaschanitza on the altar table, as he came out into the darkened nave of this Church saying: "Come take light from the light that never fails!"  That is the neversetting light that Isaiah saw, about which the choir sang in Ode V on Tuesday.
     So today, we have before us the Life Giving Cross of Christ, celebrated as elevated on Thursday and festooned with beautiful flowers today.  The Cross of wood by which Christ, the new Adam, overcame the fall of man that came about at the wood of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden when the Old Adam and Eve followed the serpent's direction and ate the apple.  It's not a coincidence that the Matins of the Elevation of the Cross include a Canon that mirrors that of the Funeral Service for a Priest, complete with Odes remembering Jonah in the whale, the three holy youths in the fiery furnace, and in its beautiful Ode IX, praise to the Theotokos, called the Mystical Paradise, in whom Christ did bud forth and plant the life-bearing Tree of the Cross on earth.  In the Epistle reading on Thursday, we heard the words of St. Paul warning us: "For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God."  To Fr. Vincent, who so ardently preached the Cross, to him the Life Giving Cross was surely the power of God, and that power will save him, and can save us, for St. Paul also wrote in today's Epistle: "Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ...I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me."  This is the meaning of the Cross about which our dear Father Vincent preached so often: "Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it."
     Brothers and Sisters, just before the Veneration of the Life Giving Cross today near the end of the liturgy, we will celebrate a panykhida for the newly departed servant of God the Archpriest Vincent and then we will all approach the Emblem of Victory, the Life Giving Cross, as the choir sings: "Before Thy Cross, we bow down in worship O Master and Thy Holy Resurrection we glorify."   The Cross and the Resurrection.  To which Father Vincent devoted his life.  The way to the salvation of his and our souls.  Christ is Risen!
 
Fr. Gregory
Sermon - September 16

Brothers and Sisters, During this past week, the Orthodox calendar overflowed with commemorations about which we should all be knowledgeable, given their importance to our salvation. Of course, every week of the year has myriad saints remembered, and some weeks have holy days as well, but this past week was truly noteworthy. On Monday, we remembered St. Moses the Black, a monk and priest in Egypt in the fourth century. Moses, an Ethiopian slave who served an Egyptian political leader, was banished for a crime for which he was merely suspected, and fell in with a band of robbers. His life was turned around completely when he sought shelter with some monks in the desert, so much so that he was tonsured and then ordained. Moses was martyred for the faith at the hands of bandits in 405 AD.

On Wednesday, the Church commemorated the translation of the relics of St. Alexander Nevsky from the town of Vladimir, in which they had been kept for almost 500 years, to the new capital of Russia, St. Petersburg, where they continue to rest today in the Lavra, and that means a monastery of great importance, that is named for St. Alexander, the defender against the invasion from the west and greatest leader of Kievan Rus.

This past Wednesday an estimated 110,000 believers made a procession down Nevsky Prospect to the Lavra in remembrance of the Sainted Prince Alexander.
On Thursday, the late 4th century event known as the Placing of the Belt of the Theotokos was commemorated. The belt that was worn by Our Lady (also called a sash or cincture) was given to the Apostle Thomas at the time of her Dormition and the relic remained in Jerusalem until it was translated to Constantinople, where it was placed in the Church of Blachernae dedicated to the Virgin Mary around the year 400 AD.

The Virgin Mary’s Belt was later transferred to the famous Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos where it currently rests after a 2011 tour of Russia that brought out hundreds of thousands of Orthodox faithful who wanted to venerate her relic.

On Friday, the new Church Year began and the saint always remembered on that day is St. Simeon the Stylite, the Syrian monk who lived for 37 years at the top of a column in the desert near Aleppo, a city in the midst of a current war zone, during the 5th century.

On Saturday, the saints commemorated include Sts. Anthony and Theodosius of the Monastery of the Caves of Kiev. These two ascetic saints from the land now known as Ukraine were instrumental in starting the monastic community in the 900s that became one of the most revered in all of the Orthodox world, a place that is now in so much need of our prayers.

In the midst of these commemorations this week, we celebrated the Divine Liturgy on Tuesday remembering the Beheading of St. John the Baptist at the hands of Herod. Most of us will remember that Herod, also called Herod Antipas, the ruler of the area around the Sea of Galilee in which Christ ministered, gave the order to kill the Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John. But how much do we know about the background of the relationship between Herod and St. John? That relationship comes out in chapter 6 of St. Mark’s Gospel that was read on the holy day: “For Herod himself had sent forth and laid hold upon John, and bound him in prison for Herodias' sake, his brother Philip's wife: for he had married her. For John had said unto Herod, It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife. Therefore Herodias had a quarrel against him, and would have killed him; but she could not: For Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man and an holy, and observed him; and when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly.”

Brothers and Sisters, knowing that Herod would promise Salome, the daughter of his wife, anything she desired, which her mother convinced Salome should be the head of John on a silver platter, does it seem to you incredible that Herod did that, given that St. Mark tells us that Herod knew that John was “a just man” and more than that, “an holy” man, and even more, that he “observed” the advice that John gave him. Herod gladly heard the words of John, and we know what the Baptist preached: “Repent!” Nevertheless, hearing that word “gladly”, and even observing the prominence and truthfulness, and holiness, of John, Herod ignored all of that and sinned mightily, knowingly directing the brutal death of another man, a man whom he knew was holy.
Compare that lesson in St. Mark’s Gospel with what we learned from St. Matthew’s Gospel today: a lesson learned by the unprofitable servant who was thrown into outer darkness. We can only guess that unprofitable servant of Christ’s parable would meet Herod in that outer darkness, but their sins seem so different. And indeed, while the unprofitable servant’s sin can be seen as one of omission (he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord's money----he took no affirmative steps toward his salvation) while Herod did take action---he ordered the beheading. But one can also see that Herod’s sin was quite similar to the servant’s; he failed to take the action he could have taken, to say “NO” to Salome and Herodias, to stand up for what he believed, even though he had made a silly promise in the secular world. Brothers and Sisters, we have the power to say “NO” to the secular world too. Quite obviously Herod got a large measure of talents, and not only did he not multiply them, he didn’t even bury them. No, he threw them away when he ordered the murder of the Forerunner. But do we say “NO” when we should? Or do we take the easy way out? Do we bury the talents given to us by God in the ground? Or worse, throw them away. If you think about it, it’s nigh impossible to take the paths of sin taken by either Herod or the unprofitable servant if salvation is the ONLY focus of our lives.

Fr. Gregory

Sermon - September 9

Today's Gospel reading is about asking questions, and answering questions.  Important questions, questions like those that traditionally are known as "the accursed questions" in Russian literature.  About the meaning of life, and the mystery of death.  About the kingdom of God, and how to get there.  Today's Gospel asks and answers serious questions, but it may be a bit perplexing to some, especially since it seems to have two distinct parts that don't really seem to go together.
        
One way you can get help in understanding the Gospels sometimes is to see how the same event in Christ's ministry, or the same one of His parables, is described in another one of the Gospels, especially when the Gospel about which you need more information is one of the Synoptic Gospels, that is, one written by Matthew, Mark, or Luke as mentioned last Sunday, for those three Evangelists were more inclined to write in a chronological way about Jesus than St. John, who focused more on the theology and spiritual depth of the teachings of Our Lord.
    
Using that advice, let's put the two parts together.  For today's reading from St. Matthew's 22nd chapter, you can get help from St. Mark for the same event is described in St. Mark's 12th chapter.  The backdrop in both Mark and Matthew is Christ being interrogated by the Sadducees.  Who were these interrogators? The Sadducees were a different sect than the Pharisees; they did not believe in resurrection from the dead, they did not believe in angels, or any spirits.  So hearing Christ teaching about the kingdom of heaven was their cue to trip Him up, to ask Him some questions calculated to cause the people to follow them, and not Our Lord.  But the Sadducees failed in their attempt, so the first part of today's reading in the twin Gospels recounts the attempt of a Pharisee, who in St. Matthew is specified to be a lawyer, to outdo the Sadducees.  And that Pharisee was doing what lawyers do, asking questions, and especially questions to which he thought he knew the answer. St. Matthew tells it this way: "Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying,  Master, which is the great commandment in the law?"  The lawyer was "tempting Him" to add something to the obvious answer: that each of us love the Lord with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind.  But Christ does add something else, saying that additionally we have to love our neighbors as ourselves, the Golden Rule.  While Christ certainly made an addition to the answer that was expected by the lawyer, the Pharisees had no way to criticize Jesus for adding this.  This idea is shown more clearly in St. Mark's Gospel, in which the lawyer is referred to as a scribe:
"And the scribe said unto him, Well, Master, thou hast said the truth: for there is one God; and there is none other but he:
And to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbour as himself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.
And when Jesus saw that he answered discreetly, he said unto him, Thou art not far from the kingdom of God. And no man after that durst ask him any question."
     
Brothers and Sisters, the wonderful epiphany that one experiences from the additional information in Mark's version is that the man who started out tempting Christ was moved by His words, moved by the Golden Rule, to so change his attitude that Jesus even tells him he is "not far from the kingdom of God."   Maybe it's because that lawyer did in fact love God with all his heart, all his soul, and all of his mind after all, because he used his mind to realize that Christ was not just right, but was indeed the longed after Messiah.  Those three aspects of man: Heart, soul, and mind, or sometimes called body, spirit, and mind, as in the YMCA triangle, are the totality of the human being, what the ancient Greek philosophers struggled so hard to explain.  So when the totality of each of us loves God, as even the tempting lawyer turned out to do, we are, like that lawyer, "not that far from the kingdom of God."  And that's right where we want to be. No other questions were then put to Jesus, as the Pharisees saw that He was quite right.
    
But, now for the second part of the Gospels, and yet another question. But this time it's Christ doing the asking and here's how St. Mark tells us what He said:
"How say the scribes that Christ is the son of David?
For David himself said by the Holy Ghost, The Lord said to my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool.
 David therefore himself calleth him Lord; and whence is he then his son? And the common people heard him gladly."
 
Jesus here is quoting Psalm 110 (or 109 by the Septuagint), the first verse of which David wrote saying:
"The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool."
    
Notice that St. Mark is more explicit than St. Matthew in saying that David wrote these words under the grace of the Holy Spirit, and the words are true:  Christ is the Son of God, "my Lord" as David calls Him, but also the Son of David, but not merely a man. In this way the two parts of the reading are welded together:   Christ tells the Pharisees straight out, and by doing that teaches the "common people" as St. Mark calls them, and us, the later "common people," that He is the Messiah, and that as the Son of God He teaches us to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Can we do this?  Can we follow Christ with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind?  We have the lesson right before us: even the cynical lawyer who asked the first question could do it, and got "not far from the kingdom of God."  That's where we want to be.  We know from today's Gospel just how to get there.
 
Fr. Gregory
 
Sermon - September 2

In today’s Gospel lesson we have yet another example of the importance of the sacrament of marriage in Christianity. From so many other places in the New Testament we know that Christ is the Bridegroom and that the Church is His Bride. In His parable today, Jesus tells us exactly how we must live our lives on a daily basis in order to reach “the kingdom of heaven” as He puts it in the very first sentence. Our Lord tells us plainly that the king in the parable is God the Father, and that God wants His Son, the Bridegroom to be married in a ceremony in which every human being is called to attend, the marriage feast. And that means everybody. Note that the firstgroup called, and laughed off the invitation, were the Jews, the chosen people, who would not heed the call of the first servant of God, Moses, the first of the Old Testament prophets, and who,as a result, languished for forty years in the wilderness. So God the King sent more servants, the latter prophets, Isaiah and the others, but the chosen ones would not listen to them either.

We should pay close attention to the menu for the wedding feast—ox steak and veal cutlet. The oxen is a reference to the sacrifice of animals as in the Old Testament., but the fattened calf symbolizes a coming change in the way of sacrifice, as the New Testament would endorse the bloodless sacrifice of bread. Those calves were fattened up for the wedding to be served as veal by feeding them lots of grain, the same grain that would go to make that bread that Christ would bless and give as His Body to His disciples at the Last Supper.

After the first group invited to Christ’s wedding feast took a pass, a second group was rounded up, those who were initially not chosen, those out on the highways, the Gentiles. And that poor Gentile who showed up in filthy rags provides the best example we can have as Christ warns us about how one won’t reach the kingdom of heaven. Those ugly rags that cling to that man are his sins, sins that had not been confessed, he had not repented of them, so they clung to him and dragged him down and made it impossible for him to wear, much less even find, proper attire for the wedding. That man without a tux, without a wedding garment, wasn’t ready for the wedding, just as the five foolish virgins in Christ’s parable in Chapter 25 of St. Matthew’s Gospel that starts with: “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.” You will remember that five of the virgins were ready, and had plenty of oil in their lamps, but five had none, and were shut out of the wedding feast when the Bridegroom finally came.

That parable is the basis for the Bridegroom Matins that are celebrated on each of the first three days of Holy Week. Our Lord refers to Himself as the Bridegroom in each of the Synoptic Gospels (that is, the ones that give a chronological synopsis of His life and ministry—Matthew, Mark, and Luke). In St. John’s Gospel at chapter 3 the Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John refers to Jesus as “the Bridegroom,” and then knowing that he is “the friend of the Bridegroom”is the last of the prophets, escorting the Bride, that is the Church of Jesus, the Jews and Gentiles who did get ready for the wedding.

The fact that Christ performed His very first miracle at the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee shows that Our Lord fully endorsed the sacrament of marriage as central to Christianity. In the Orthodox ceremony of the sacrament of marriage, we see this clearly, as the bride andgroom are physically crowned, and those crowns represent the “crowns of the martyrs” as the couple is led around the tetrapod three times by the priest in what is known as the Dance of Isaiah, since the choir begins singing three verses beginning with “Rejoice O Isaiah.” Those same three verses are sung by the clergy in the sacrament of ordination of either a priest or a deacon, as the one to be ordained is lead around the altar table three times. In both cases, the ones led walking in the path of making a total commitment to follow Christ completely in their lives, as martyrs do. And as martyrs do, the bride and groom give their lives up to each other, and to Christ, completely. The epistle reading in the sacrament of marriage, from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, reiterates the theme of Christ as the Bridegroom: “For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the Church.” Unfortunately, and sadly, this verse is wildly misunderstood in today’s America, mainly in the overlooking of the key concept of the epistle that Christ taught that leaders must be self-sacrificing servants, just as He gave Himself up for His friends, for us. St. Paul admonishes the grooms: “Husbands love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for Her,” and then ends by saying: “This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the Church.” A great mystery indeed, as each and every sacrament of the Church that is performed---baptism, chrismation, confession, communion, marriage, ordination, and unction--- is a great mystery no matter where the sacrament is celebrated. At the micro level, we see ourselves as husbands and wives, but on the macro level, we are all together as the Church. In the Book of Revelation, St. John wrote: “And IJohn saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” When the priest vests for the Liturgy, the first prayer that he says when he puts on the white undergarment (called the podriznik) reflects the gravity of the mystery: “My soul shall rejoice in the Lord, for He has clothed me with the garment of salvation;He has covered me with the robe of gladness; as a bridegroom He has set a crown on me, and as a bride adorns herself with jewels, so H has adorned me.”

Brothers and Sisters, will we be ready when the Bridegroom comes? Will we have a garment of salvation to wear? Will we be dressed up in a suitable wedding garment, one that we have obtained by recent confession and repentance? Will we, like the wise virgins, be ready to greet the Bridegroom with plenty of oil in our lamps? We don’t know when He will come, so weneed to be ready each and every day, all of the time; be ready to be worthy of salvation.

Sermon - August 26

   As he closed his first letter to the church at Corinth, in Greece, that we heard today, St. Paul wrote: "Watch ye, stand fast in the faith, quit you like men, be strong." The two saints that we celebrate today, St. Maximus the Confessor and St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, did just that.  Their steadfastness in faith, their strength in overcoming challenges, and their watchfulness of spirit is evident in the stories of their lives, and especially evident in their writings, since both were prolific authors.  Today, we will focus on some of the written works of each of these saints, but first as background, here's a quick reminder of their places in the history of the Church.
     St. Maximus, born in Constantinople at the end of the sixth century to a Christian family, received a first rate education in philosophy and became a counselor to the emperor at a young age, but quickly gave up the power and trappings of his office to be tonsured a monk.  But a quiet, contemplative life in a monastery was not to be for Maximus, for soon he was traveling throughout the Mediterranean in order to fight against the latest heresy plaguing the early Church, a heresy that taught that Christ had only one will, a divine will, rather than both human free will and the divine will of God.  While the heresy was eventually overcome, St. Maximus was exiled and eventually suffered a death for the true faith to which he remained true to the end, therefore receiving the title "Confessor" in his glorification.
     Much later in the history of Orthodoxy, St. Tikhon, born in 1724 near Novgorod to the family of a church sexton, also received a fine education, rising to a professorship in philosophy and then as head of the seminary school at a very young age.  Like Maximus, he was tonsured a monk early in life, consecrated and entrusted with a huge diocese to govern as Bishop of Voronezh in southern Russia, and eventually settling at the monastery of the Theotokos in nearby Zadonsk where he did most of his writing. Both saints had the dates of their falling asleep in the Lord foretold to them, and both were August 13:   St. Maximus-- August 13, 662 and St. Tikhon --August 13, 1783. Representative icons of each of these two saints are reproduced for you in today's bulletin.
      As for their written works, many of the works of St. Maximus can be found in the Philokalia, the collection of texts written between the 4th and 15th centuries by Orthodox spiritual masters.  Philokalia is Greek for "love of the beautiful."  While Bishop of Voronezh, St. Tikhon wrote a series of books of instructions for priests, and then, while in Zadonsk, published A Spiritual Treasury, Gathered from the World in 1770 and On True Christianity in the same year that Thomas Jefferson wrote  the Declaration of Independence only a few blocks from our Church.
     Comparing the works of these two men who lived more than a thousand years apart demonstrates the unchanging character of Orthodoxy.  First, on the concept of judging one's neighbor, a ubiquitous sin that remains to plague all of us today, listen to what St. Maximus taught: "The person who loves God cannot help loving every man as himself, even though he is grieved by the passions of those who are not yet purified. But when they amend their lives, his delight is indescribable and knows no bounds," and compare to St. Tikhon who said: "If you happen to witness your neighbor's fault, pray for yourself, lest you succumb to a similar evil, for we are all capable of it and ready to fall on any occasion, but above all seal your mouth by silence, and inwardly sigh to God about this brother, that God may straighten him."  That "sigh to God," as St. Tikhon puts it, is prayer, and the importance of prayer was paramount, for he wrote: "As a bird without wings, as a soldier, without arms, so is a Christian without prayer."  Although St. Tikhon was a proponent of more frequent communion by the laity, which was not the standard practice at that time in Russia, his instructions to the clergy about frequent communion were quite clear on the necessity of proper preparation to receive the sacrament; he wrote, referencing St. Paul's admonishment to the Corinthians in Chapter 11 of today's epistle: "It is dreadful to approach communion without being purified by true repentance...Before communion we must put aside malice, anger, and caprices of the flesh....before communion we must have true repentance; after it we must bear the fruits of repentance...so that communion be 'not unto judgment or condemnation.'"  St. Maximus highlights the importance of critically examining our own lives and our own sins during confession: "Examine your conscience scrupulously... Do not cheat your conscience, for it knows your secrets, and at the hour of your death it will accuse you and in time of prayer it will be a stumbling-block to you."  With this advice, St. Maximus brings us full circle to the end of today's gospel lesson, for as you will remember Christ's words: "Did ye never read in the scriptures, The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner: this is the Lord's doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes?"  Our Lord was quoting Psalm 118 (or 117 in the Septuagint), but it was what Christ added after that quote to which St. Maximus was referring: "And whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken."  That stumbling block, cheating one's conscience, is what keeps us from walking a straight line in following Our Lord Jesus Christ.  And when you think about it, there's a trait that we all share that forces us to cheat our conscience.  Pride. In his DIY books, St. Tikhon give us advice on what to do: "Confront your pride with the omnipresence of God; with the memory of the suffering, obedience, and humility of Christ....Fight against it by holy communion; by prayer; by repentance springing from the unutterable mercy of God....by preserving a right and just measure of the things of this world." The things of this world can be rightfully gauged as St. Tikhon suggests, but only if we are honest with ourselves, to see the good and the bad of this world for what they are, as St. Maximus the Confessor taught: "As health and disease are to the body of a living thing, and light and darkness to the eye, so virtue and vice are to the soul, and knowledge and ignorance to the intellect."
  
Fr. Gregory
Sermon - August 19

          Today we celebrate one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church, the Transfiguration, but why do we celebrate each year on August 19 (August 6 by the Julian Calendar), especially when we are in the middle of a fasting period, the Dormition of the Theotokos Fast?  What makes this question even more pointed is what we know about when the event of the Transfiguration happened chronologically in the life of Christ. As you can tell from the number of the chapter in St. Matthew's Gospel that was read today, Chapter 17, Christ took his three favorite apostles, Peter, James, and John, on a long hike up to the peak of Mt. Tabor, which by the way is elevated almost 2000 ft. above the flat plains that run all around it, very late in His ministry. Tradition tells us that Christ's Transfiguration took place  exactly forty days before His Crucifixion. But the Church Fathers, recognizing that if we were to celebrate the Transfiguration chronologically, the holy day would always fall during the Great Fast, forty days before Great Friday, so instead the Transfiguration was determined to be celebrated forty days before another day of the Cross, the Feast of the Elevation of the Life Giving Cross, which falls on September 27 by the New Calendar, forty days from today. And so, having this Feast Day fall during the harvest season, Tradition as well called for the blessing of the fruits of the harvest on Transfiguration, mainly grapes in the Mediterranean areas, and especially because grapes are used to make the wine  for the Eucharist,  and because of the different climate, blessing of apples in the northern Slavic lands which gave rise to a popular name for the holiday "Apple-Savior."
     Mt. Tabor is a real place, it's about eleven miles west of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus walked on the water, and has seen its share of worldly events as well, from the a famous Israelite military victory 1300 years before Christ, to Napoleon's victory over the Turks 1800 years later.  That not only Mt. Tabor, but that all of the places that mark Our Lord's life on earth, from Bethlehem to Jerusalem, are real places existing in real time, provides an historical reference for the reality of Christ's incarnation and resurrection. And that's why, forty days before His life giving death on the Cross, Christ voluntarily showed  Himself transfigured before three human witnesses, because as the Kondak for today tells us: "So that when the disciples would see you crucified they would know that your passion was willing and would preach to the world that you are in truth the effulgence (which means radiant splendor) of the Father."
      The reference to God the Father in the Kondak of course refers to the words that the Apostles heard come out of a bright cloud above them: "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased." Note well  the similarity of this Feastday today with the one that we celebrated back in January, for as Vladimir Lossky, the foremost modern Orthodox author, has written: "That is why the Epiphany (the feast of the Baptism of Christ, according to the liturgical tradition of the East) and the Transfiguration are celebrated so solemnly: it is the revelation of the Trinity that is being celebrated - for the voice of the Father was made heard and the Holy Spirit was present at the first time in the form of a dove, and the second time as the luminous cloud that covered the Apostles."
     But unlike the revelation of the Trinity on the day of the Theophany before the Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist, John, the revelation of the Transfiguration before the three Apostles also shows to them the appearance of the Old Testament prophets Moses and Elias speaking with the Savior. What were they talking about?   St. Luke tells us in his account of the Transfiguration at chapter 9 verses  30-31 that: "And, behold, there talked with him two men, which were Moses and Elias: Who appeared in glory, and spake of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem." Here again we see the close link between the Transfiguration and the Crucifixion as Christ foretells His death on the Cross to the two prophets, to be heard by the three Apostles. And we know that the Apostles heard everything, because in the Epistle reading today St. Peter tells us that the Apostles: "were eyewitnesses of his majesty.  For he received from God the Father honour and glory... We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts." What was that light that shined in the dark place?   St. Gregory Palamas distinguishes that light from sunlight, the sun having been created by God on the First Day. Brothers and Sisters, that light, as St. Gregory tells us, was the uncreated light of God, the light that existed before God created heaven and earth out of nothing. And that's why the icons of this Feastday symbolically represent the uncreated light emanating from Our Lord as a blue and white mandala with rays, as you can see in the bulletin today.
    
And as St. Matthew tells us: "And as they came down from the mountain, Jesus charged them saying Tell the vision to no man, until the Son of man be risen again from the dead."   The Apostles had seen the truth, they had seen, as Lossky says, "the uncreated light of grace, after the example of the humanity of Christ who appeared to the disciples on Mount Tabor clothed in uncreated glory." His appearance, Brothers and Sisters, was to show us that all of us, in our humanity, can aspire to be transfigured as well, by following the light of Christ. But when that light shines on each of us, the light also illumines us with the result that we can see our own sins, the sins that block our path to transfiguration unless we jettison them during our lives. And the only way to have those sins lifted from our souls is by the sacrament of confession, and a contrite repentance.
  
Sermon - August 12

     Today’s gospel reading from St. Matthew is about sovereigns, about those who have supreme power.  That’s what sovereignty is all about.  But it’s not simply about the “certain king” about whom Christ speaks in the first sentence of His parable: “Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants.”  Certainly Our Lord makes it  clear that that “certain king” is God, whom He calls “My heavenly Father” in the last line of the reading, distinguishing those who are unworthy, because of their failures to forgive, to be called children of God the Father.   But there may well be another sovereign in the parable: the  “one [who] was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents.”  What sovereignty, you might ask,  did this man have.  Was he merely a debtor?  The clue here might be the amount of the debt:  ten thousand talents was a fortune, not just a lot of money, but a king’s ransom.  Just one talent may have represented 130 lbs. of gold in Christ’s time, and those hundred pence, or denarii, that were owed by the second servant to the first, were at the very most equal to one ten thousandth of the debt owed by the first.   For that reason, the heavily indebted  man may be seen to be more like a sovereign himself, someone with a lot of responsibility to God, having power over many, but as we can tell from the parable, having abused that power.  

         But the history of the Church is replete with sovereigns who reigned justly, with faith in the Risen Christ and with actions that evidence their Christian morality.   Foreshadowing this  righteousness in reigning is the story in Luke’s gospel of the centurion who had complete faith in Our Lord when he asked Him to heal his servant.  Remember, that the centurion told Christ: “For I also am a man set under authority, having under me soldiers, and I say unto one, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh.” And St. Luke tells us that Jesus “marveled at him” saying: “ I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.”   After the Resurrection, the first leader that followed in the steps of that centurion was St. Constantine, the Roman emperor who in 313 AD in his Edict of Milan put an end to the persecution of Christians.  In fewer than 70 years, Christianity would become the official religion of the Roman Empire, and due to these efforts Constantine the Great was not only glorified by the Church, but also the title “Equal to the Apostle” was bestowed upon him.

        Another sovereign on whom that title was bestowed is the Holy Grand Prince Vladimir, Equal to the Apostles, by whose sovereign actions Christianity was brought from Constantinople  to the land of Rus  one thousand and thirty years ago when his subjects, the people of Kiev, were baptized en masse in the Dnieper River after Vladimir himself had been baptized earlier in the city of Chersonesus on the Crimean Peninsula.  The Baptism in the Dnieper is the subject of a famous painting by Klavdy Lebedev, a Russian artist of the nineteenth century that is used a  model for frescos in a number of churches in Russian and America.                         

      Two weeks ago our Patriarch Kyrill called the Baptism of Rus in the Dnieper a “watershed in the history of our peoples…because it changed forever the entire Slavic civilization.”  As we know through the words  that Patriarch Kyrill has instructed us to pray each Sunday in the Litany of Supplication, the very place of the Baptism of Rus is currently a place of sorrow and strife, so the priest prays for “speedy reconciliation” and for God to “Lead unto sanctuary those bereft of shelter, feed the hungry, comfort those who weep, and unite divided.”   In his Epistle on the 1030th Anniversary of the Baptism of Rus, our Patriarch reminded us to emulate “Prince Vladimir, Equal to the Apostles, who, having ‘put off the old man with his deeds and put on the new man’ gave his heart to the Lord Jesus forever.”

        Also, only a few weeks ago, another sovereign was remembered for his deeds by the Church.  On the night of July 16, 1918 the  Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Tsarina Alexandra, their five children—Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei—as well as a number of others, were brutally murdered in Yekaterinburg, east of the Urals, by the Bolsheviks. On the 100th Anniversary of that terrible day, our Patriarch Kyrill led a  procession of over 100,000 that  started out late on July 16 from Yekaterinburg’s Church on the Blood, which was built on the site of the murders, and ended in the early hours of July 17 at the place where the bodies of the Tsar and his family had been dumped by the Bolsheviks about 21 kilometers away, more than 10 miles. As you may know, Tsar Nicholas and his entire family were glorified in 2000 by the Russian Orthodox Church as Passion Bearers, as it was then stated that “In  the last Orthodox Russian monarch and members of his family we see people who sincerely strove to incarnate in their lives the commands of the Gospel.”

          What is a Passion Bearer?  Perhaps the words of the Troparion to the Royal Family can help us understand:

        “Most noble and sublime was your life and death, O Sovereigns; / Wise Nicholas and blest Alexandra, we praise you, / Acclaiming your piety, meekness, faith, and humility, / Whereby you attained to crowns of glory in Christ our God, / With your five renowned and godly children of blessed fame. / O passion-bearers decked in purple, intercede for us.”

Some might find it hard to understand how sovereigns, not just St. Constantine, St. Vladimir, or St. Nicholas, but also how rulers like St. Louis, the Ninth, King of France, for whom our city of St. Louis is named, or St. Edward the Confessor, King of England, might be considered saintly.      

      To those who are given much, like the man with the 10,000 talents in the parable, much is expected by God.  The goal is to meet that expectation, whether sovereigns with crowns, or people like us in America today, who have no title or scepter,  but do indeed have sovereignty because we have our own free will which is the true sovereignty of the spirit, we too  are expected to use that sovereignty in our own deeds so as to “give our lives to the Lord Jesus forever” as St. Vladimir did.

Fr. Gregory

 

Sermon - August 5

Fr. Emmanuel Pratsinakis gave the sermon on Sunday, August 5.

TENTH SUNDAY OF MATTHEW
I COR. 4:9-16

The life and sacred mission of a Pioneer, a Church Trailblazer, is most alluring. Although it is a life full of challenges, dangers and struggles, it is off-set by a life of eminence, infused with many heroic and high standing moments, exuding spiritual distinction. You are correct to assume that the earliest Church Pioneers are the Holy Apostles. It is to the Apostles of the Church, these frontiersmen of our faith, that today's Epistle Lesson is dedicated.

The Holy Apostles opened new avenues of faith and firmly grounded the joy of an identifiable God in people's lives. They traveled in every direction, preaching in uncharted and previously unexplored regions. They met with races never before known to Mediterranean peoples and conveyed the message of God's salvation. Indeed, they were the first religious explorers, missioners and renovators that embellished the Universe, teaching God's love to all.

There was a cost factor. Their mission was a constant uphill battle filled with unexpected challenges. In today's lesson, Paul describes the many demands the apostles endured while serving in the field.

"...at the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are ill clad, buffeted and homeless,
and we labor, working with our own hands. We are reviled and persecuted,
we are slandered..."

The Holy Apostles were true heroes. They never surrendered their Creed. They never yielded their faith. They never said, "I had enough". They ran twenty-four/seven in every direction ministering to all people. They were universal light bearers in a dark and gloomy world.

Their Mission was simple: to open up Christian pathways even in the most primitive and untraveled areas of the world. They proudly shared the Light of Christ, Christian civility and respect for all to the many rough tribes. As today, we enjoy residing in this Christian Country, we are urged not to be thoroughly naive. There are yet many untraveled roads and coarse byways that remain oblivious to the message of Jesus Christ. Yes, even in America! There are neighborhoods in Philadelphia, New York that Christ was never given a chance to shine in the hearts of the citizens. There are many who have not yet been introduced (or even re-introduced) to the truth of God's love and His justice.

These dark souls are parallel to those masses which the apostles of yesteryear confronted. The people referred to and described by Matt. 4:16 as:

"those living in the shadow of death"

We need apostles today more than ever for the hungry and thirsty masses: Men, Women, Young Adults are needed to bring the light of Christ to those living in darkness. They are needed to preach Jesus Christ to those who have never heard of Him, or having heard, have forgotten or did not fully grasp Christ's impact. We need willing frontiersmen and frontierswomen to bring the Light of Christ to every dark crevice of the world just as the Original Twelve. Once illumined in Christ, their lives will be filled with many blessings of Christ.

Allow me, please, to ask a simple question?

Have you every thought of yourselves as direct descendants of the Apostles?

Have you ever taken a moment to consider that all of us are descendants of the great pioneers of the faith? (Actually, the Twelve Apostles pre-date the SAR and the DAR (Sons and Daughters) of the American Revolution.) St. Paul writes in today's Epistle:

For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers (or mothers).
For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.

It's true that our Christian Genealogy traces back 2000 years. The Apostles are our Fathers and Mothers in the Christian life. They bequeathed Christianity and the teachings the Holy Gospel to us. Our Bishops, our Clergy come directly from the Apostles. (I was ordained by a bishop who was ordained by other bishops, who were ordained by other bishops. This succession began with the Holy Apostles.) The Church calls this Apostolic Succession. Proudly we proclaim our Church "Apostolic. It is founded on the apostolic foundations of Jesus Christ. See Eph. 2:20

"...built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, with Christ Jesus
Himself as the Chief Cornerstone."

Think about your heritage. Study your lineage carefully. Allow today's lesson to be your "spiritual ancestry".com We are the descendants of the Holy Apostles. We are the grandchildren of the early pioneers of the Church. There is no other Honor more notable than the one we hold. There is no other Tribute more noble than being a family member of the original Apostolic Cluster. In our veins flows the Blood of Heroes. Our DNA reflects the same Spiritual DNA as the Apostles'.

Be careful not to contaminate your apostolic bloodline and your apostolic ancestry. Our noble life needs to reflect high values and honorable pursuits. Always keep the Apostles' dedication in your mind. Remember always that the Apostles committed themselves to Christian priorities and discounted tremendous inhibitors. We are the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. (BTW, That's a good title for a t-shirt: "We are the One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church".) Treasure this identity with firmness and resolve. Safe guard it. Don't give credit to the piercing cries of agitators or the hysterical shrieks of provocateurs. Orthodoxy is the Mother Church of Christianity. We, alone, have safely guarded the truths of the faith and shared them through the centuries. It is a great honor for us to trace our lineage back to the Venerable Apostles.

The last line of todays reading sums up Paul's conclusion:

I urge you, then, to be imitators of me, (Paul)

We all know that the earth's vegetation needs moisture. God provides constant rain so the earth will flourish. The Psalms written by King David the Prophet were many. He did not confine himself to one or two. David wanted to drill into us the importance of commitment. Both of these examples are important for us. Both examples mentioned today, prompt us. As human beings, we need constant reminders. Paul understood this concept and tells the Corinthians and us to "imitate Paul". In a symbolic way, this is another refreshing rainfall to sustain the earth. It is a reminder of our Christian Commitment. Let us therefore imitate St. Paul and all the Apostles of Christ. May their Spiritual Bequest and the example of their faith and values be ours.

Sermon - July 22

Sermon Presented by Fr. Emmanuel

The Church, as the Body of Christ, most definitely suffers when Christian divisions and schisms develop.  Unfortunately, many times in the past as well as today, the people promoting the schisms, have not totally assimilated the Christian Spirit in their hearts.  This is evident on every level:  from leadership roles to general membership.  Small mindedness and lack of understanding have caused divisions in Churches throughout history.  Many of these divisions begin small and then turn into larger movements evoking the general membership to abandon the Church. Schism is against the grain of the Church. Tradition compares the Church to the seamless tunic that Jesus Christ wore.  

John 19:23:  “When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took His clothes…This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom.”

The seamless tunic represents the “One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church…”.  If we believe that the Church is One, then why are there so many fights and disagreements?

Today’s Epistle is a Personal Appeal made by St. Paul, Apostle to the Nations and the acknowledged founder of numerous local Churches around the Mediterranean basin.  Although today Paul is specifically directing himself to the local parishes of yesteryear, by extension, he is also speaking to us today. Paul appeals to Christians to maintain unity within our local churches.  He tells us today, to direct our attention to:  “those things that unite us, ….our commonalities”. 

Children of a given family are all different, yet all are bonded by their common lineage and by their common family name.  They hail from the same parents and view each other as brothers and sisters.   The citizens of a nation are also bound by a common history, speak the same language, sacrifice for similar ideals, and celebrate common achievements.

As members of the Christian Church, we are united by the person of Jesus Christ.  His Cross becomes our Cross, as we gain membership by baptism, grow our common faith, and foster hope of God’s Eternal Kingdom.  We are all Christians:  followers of Christ.  We belong to the same Family: the Christian Church.  We are united together by Christ’s ultimate sacrifice, His blood.  All of us speak the same language, the language of love.  Gal. 3:28  tells us that:

“There is neither Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Certainly, differences occur.  Yet the entire membership is responsible to reunite the fallen away members. This is evident from time honored Church traditions and the ancient common faith of our Fathers.  Our differences are minuscule, compared to the numerous and tremendous factors that unite us.

Parish squabbles unfortunately resemble those experienced in clubs, fraternities, societies and organizations.  Most differences stem from arrogance and personal gain: whether financial or other wise.  We are called to avoid such arguments.  They are divisive.  Unity, however, must always be maintained, especially when we concentrate on the bigger picture:  Our Salvation. 

Let’s review the issues mentioned in the today’s Epistle Lesson that caused dissension in Ancient Corinth.  The Corinthians had aligned themselves behind different apostles.  Some favored Paul, others Peter, others still Apollos.  Each faction was head strong and obstinate.  They were fanatics with control issues.  One would say, “I am a follower of Paul.”  Another expressed a different allegiance, “I am a follower of Peter.”  Paul warns the Corinthians back then and us today not to attach ourselves to a specific apostle or a particular teacher.  Rather, we must realize that teachers, apostles, clergymen have a singular role: to teach salvation.

Although Christ is taught and preached to us by a specific person, we are called to focus on Christ, Who offers Salvation and not on the teachers who teach salvation.  We are followers of Christ, not followers of humans.  Teachers, apostles, bishops, priests are likened to Ambassadors for Christ. Certainly they are respected, cherished and loved. The leader of the Church however is Jesus Christ. Bishops, priests, parish council members, youth directors, chanters, choir masters can be compared to members of a Presidential Cabinet.  Important?  Of course.  Don’t forget however that Jesus Christ is the Leader, the Governor, the President, the Prime Minister.  Paul teaches us in I Cor. 4:1:

“So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God.”

Today Paul calls us to place our loyalty on Christ and not His servants.  The relationship between the faithful and Christ must be strong, intimate, close, absolute, yet without diversions.  This relationship of the faithful with Christ is meaningfully reflected, forged and even hammered throughout our worship services.  We are expected to accept, express our affection and even honor our teachers in the faith.  Never, however,  should we lift them so high that the personhood or the station of Jesus is covered up, hidden or concealed in the Church.  It is such resolve that creates division and schism in the congregations.  The body of Christ is One. Christ is One.  We are all His servants.

We are living in troubled times.  Who will guide us? Who can nurture us? Who will direct us unto salvation?  One person cannot do everything.  Everyone is needed.

Let us today reaffirm our love and our faith in Jesus Christ, the leader of the Church.  Let us pledge our unity to Him so the Gospel of Christ will be disseminated to the four corner of the earth.  The meaning that our people are searching for is Jesus Christ.

A united front, a joint effort of clergy and congregants, can shine the light of Christ in the hearts of our congregation.  All of us are necessary in order for the ship to sail.  The captain however is Jesus Christ.

Sermon June 24

St. Paul tells the Romans plainly: "Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness.  I speak after the manner of men because of the infirmity of your flesh."  The infirmity of the flesh, Brothers and Sisters, is something that all of us share.  Not just the old, but the young as well, the well off and the impoverished.  And all because of Ancestral Sin, the fall of man that is explained in Genesis. Not Original Sin, mind you, the Western concept based on the idea that we are all made to suffer, and eventually die, being somehow punished for the sins of our forebearers, Adam and Eve.  That thought is completely foreign to the Orthodox Church. Our theology teaches quite differently, that Ancestral Sin as a result of the fall of man is inherent in us as an inclination towards sin, a heritage from the sin of our forebearers, but that that inclination is removed through baptism. St. Gregory Palamas taught that man, born in the image and likeness of God, had his image tarnished as a consequence of Adam's and Eve's sin. And as a result we live in a world in which we are all subject to death, but the way we look at death is completely different from the Western view.  In his book The Ancestral Sin, Fr. John Romanides states that "The root difference between the traditions of the East and the West consists in the fact that the West regards death as a phenomenon from God, and the Greek Fathers...generally emphasize that God did not create death."  Brothers and Sisters, this Orthodox view of the fall is exactly reflected in St. Paul's words read today: "What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed? for the end of those things is death.  But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life."
  
It's that "infirmity of the flesh" about which St. Paul wrote that makes us focus more on our own mortality, and the more we feel the infirmity, the more we focus.  Which is why it's not surprising that the first sentence in the most recent Religious Landscape study publicized by the Pew Research Center states: "In the United States, religious congregations have been graying for decades, and young adults are now much less religious than their elders."  I think we knew that here in our Church.  So maybe the most interesting aspect of this study is its international scope which is very instructive.  You might think the worst: that nowhere in the world is the gap between the young and the old with respect to religious affiliate greater than in the USA.  But that's not what the survey says.  The gap between the young (ages 18-39) who identify with any religion and the old (ages 40 and up) in the United States is 17 percentage points.  Yes, that's pretty high compared to Russia where the gap is only 6 points, or Greece where there is no gap at all.  The young and the old in Greece are equally likely to say that they have a religious affiliation.  The countries with the largest gaps are Canada and Denmark, with staggering gaps of 28% and 26% respectively.  In fact, most of the countries with the largest gaps have one thing in common: young people in these countries, like Canada, are very well off.  They have good health care, generally, and tend to be very healthy.  So when the "infirmity of the flesh" is not so pronounced the need for religion seems to be negligible.  This has been well documented in the words and deeds of healthy, well off young Americans---we saw them up close and personally in the video "Becoming Truly Human."  But the centurion in today's Gospel lesson from St. Matthew was confronted head on with the "infirmity of the flesh;" an important person in his life was "sick of the palsy, grievously tormented."  Somehow, this Gentile felt in his heart that Christ could heal his servant without even going to see him.  What that "somehow" was is clear, because as Our Lord said: "Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel."  That faith, Brothers and Sisters, may have well been born of necessity, for the centurion needed that man servant.  That necessity is what may be the reason that the age gap exists here in America in the first place.  The older we get, the more we see our mortality coming into play.  But why do we wait, when waiting is not just perhaps lazy, but might actually be dangerous to our salvation.  If the wages of sin is death, as St. Paul famously wrote, how can we sit back with sins on our conscience, with sins that remain unconfessed before God in the sacrament of confession, with sins for which we have not repented in the sacrament of confession, and for sins from which we have not been absolved in the sacrament of confession?  Why, oh why, do we wait, when we can be healed, just as the servant was healed, in that selfsame hour?
 
Fr. Gregory
 
Sermon - June 10

 In today’s Gospel, when Our Lord called the two fishermen walking on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Andrew and Simon,  He knew that they would be part of  that “great cloud of witnesses” that we celebrated one week ago on the All Saints’ Day.  St. Andrew, who is known as the First Called, and his brother, whom Christ would rename Peter, the Rock, were handpicked to join the Old Testament Saints that we saw on the icon of All Saints last Sunday and the Prophets, of which St. John the Baptist was the last. And there would be ten more, starting with James and John, about whom we also hear today.

On the Sunday that follows All Saints, the Church celebrates a more narrow group in the great cloud, what are called the regional saints.   We are fortunate to have two regional groups to celebrate:  Russian and North American.  Many of the North American saints of course came to this land from Russia as the Russian American Company explored and colonized the land across the Bering Straits, Alaska.  One of those saints is perhaps most representative of both regions, and that is St. Innocent, known both as Metropolitan of Moscow, and as St. Innocent of Alaska, and is also referred to as  Equal to the Apostles and Enlightener of North America.

 The words “Equal to the Apostles” is a very special designation that has be reserved for those saints who are responsible for doing the same kind of missionary work that the Twelve Apostles, like St. Andrew and St. Peter, did, and for that reason  it has been applied to St. Constantine the Great, who opened the doors for  Christianity in the Roman Empire in 312 AD  and St. Vladimir by whose decree Rus was baptized in the Dnieper River at Kiev in 980.

Why St. Innocent has had  that very special title applied to him is easy to see from a little bit about his life:  Ivan Popov was born in 1797 in a village on the shores of Lake Baikal in Irkutsk into the family of a church sacristan, hence the last name which means “priestly” that was about as standard in Russia as “Smith” is in America.   That name would not last, however,  because Ivan, as a young seminarian was chosen to be the recipient of the last  name “Veniaminov,” to distinguish him from all the other John Smiths, in order to remember  the beloved local  Bishop Benjamin who had recently fallen asleep in the Lord. Once ordained, Fr. John volunteered for missionary work in the New World in which his predecessors, such as the monk St. German, had made great strides in bringing Orthodoxy to America. Fr. John was ordered to serve  the island of  Unalaska in 1824 to which he traveled with his entire family and immediately built a Church dedicated to the Ascension of Our Lord with the help of the Native American Aleuts, whose language he learned very quickly. So quickly, in fact that Fr. John translated the Gospel of St. Matthew, the very words we heard today, into Aleut by 1828. Tales of his exploits traveling in a two seat kayak over incredibly long distances in freezing water to visit his flock on the many Aleutian islands.  After a few years, Fr. John was transferred to Novoarkhangelsk (or New Arkhangelsk), which we now call Sitka, from which he was called back to Russia to discuss his request that  the Synod  support an expansion of missionary work in Russian America, but while back he found out that his matushka had fallen asleep in the Lord.  At the urging of the bishops, he was tonsured a monk in 1840 taking  the name Innocent, remembering the well known Bishop Innocent of  Irkutsk, and was consecrated Bishop of Kamchatka and the Aleutian Islands.  At the end of his missionary work, then Archbishop Innocent returned to Russia, where he eventually was appointed to be Metropolitan of Moscow, the highest position in the Church, there being no Patriarch since the days of Peter the Great. Metropolitan  Innocent fell asleep in the Lord in 1879 and was buried in the St. Sergius Trinity Lavra, where his relics were found in 1994 and can be venerated today. He was glorified by the Russian Church in 1977 and revered in both the Russian and  American churches, and that’s why he is so perfect a representative of today’s celebration.      

While in America in 1833,  St. Innocent wrote his best known work in the Aleut language: The Indication of the Way into the Kingdom of Heaven.  This book, on the most important topic in all of our lives,  was translated into Russian later, and then English as well as many other languages. In that way it’s a real American text.  A few years back in our Orthodox  Reading Society here at St. Michael Church, named of course for the Saint of which we now speak, we studied  the Indication alongside a very readable biography of St. Innocent written by Paul Garrett.  In the very  first sentence of the Indication, you can just hear Fr. John preaching to his native flock: “People were not created merely to live here on earth like animals that disappear after their death, but to live with God and in God, and to live not for a hundred or a thousand years, but to live eternally.”    Fr. John was a very organized thinker and writer as is shown by these early word outlining the Way to Heaven:

“I divide my book into four parts:

  1. On the benefits which Jesus Christ has granted us by his death.
  2. How Jesus Christ lived on earth, and what He suffered for us.
  3. The way by which we must go into the Kingdom of Heaven.
  4. How Jesus Christ helps us to go by this way, and how we can receive this help.”

Brothers and Sisters, while we may feel we know enough about the first two topics in that outline that were addressed to the Aleuts  who just learning about Christ, all of us can benefit from all four parts of the Indication. For example, on the topic of sainthood, the topic that  has dominated these two Sundays after Pentecost, Fr. John tells us: “Look at the Saints! They were not all hermits; and they were like us at first and were not sinless, and they were also engaged in worldly affairs, cares and duties, and many of them had a family as well. But while doing their worldly occupations and duties, they did not forget at the same time their duties as Christians; and while living in the world, they made their way at the same time into the Kingdom of Heaven and often led others with them as well.”   St. Innocent tells us plainly throughout the Indication how important the sacrament of confession is to staying on the Way to the Kingdom because he reminds us that we all fall into sin from time to time but “do not despair and think that all is lost; but quickly and fervently fall down before God with penitence and prayer, and the Holy Spirit will return to you again.”  The Holy Spirit, whose descent upon the Apostles we celebrated only two Sundays ago, and the Holy Spirit that was first learned about by Native Americans  in their own language almost 200 years ago, being taught  by a Saint of Russia and a Saint of America, St. Innocent.   We Americans  can as well learn quite a lot more about the Holy Spirit by studying the  Indication of the Way into the Kingdom of Heaven, the very same “Kingdom” about which St. Matthew’s gospel as read today says that Christ was teaching in Galilee.  St. Innocent’s book is a true treasure of America authorship   that we can read in our own language.    

Fr. Gregory

Here is a link to the Indication:  https://www.stmaryofegypt.org/files/library/Indication.pdf

June 3, 2018 Sermon

All Saints Day   First Sunday After Pentecost
 
      "Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us."  With this wonderfully eloquent phrase "so great a cloud of witnesses," St. Paul explains the beauty and majesty of All Saints Day, which according to the early church fathers was always celebrated on the first Sunday after Pentecost.  And, of course, we in the Eastern Church continue that celebration today, even as the West pushed the celebration of All Saints of the Christian Church into autumn, which is now obscured, perhaps better said polluted, by what used to be called All Hallows Eve.
       One way to best understand the "great cloud of witnesses" might be to study closely the icon of All Saints Day, a copy of which the altar servers are distributing and which also graces the bulletin today.
     The scene of this icon is set in Heaven with Christ as the central figure, while closest by Him are the Theotokos, the Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John, and three of the Archangels, while a host of cherubim and seraphim seemingly supporting Him holding the book of the Gospels in the pose known as Pantocrator, or Ruler of All, All Powerful One.  It is important to note that the "great cloud of witnesses" that takes up most of the icon are depicted as overflowing the circle of Heaven, thereby symbolizing that more and more saints are being added all of the time, and Brothers and Sisters, that is what we are called to do with our lives, to reach theosis as has been reached by the saints shown in the icon.  We strive to reach theosis by getting closer to God.
     At the bottom of the icon are three figures that may need explanation: At the left is Abraham who is holding a righteous soul to his chest.  If you remember from dismissal of the Panykhida service, the Bosom of Abraham is recited as the place for rest of the departed souls.  On the right is Jacob, who is holding the Twelve Tribes of Israel in a cloth, reflecting the words of Christ in today's Gospel: "Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel."  And the figure in the middle is the Wise Thief, holding his own cross and having a place in Heaven as Christ had told him: "This day you shall be with me in Paradise."
       There are more Old Testament references in the icon: At the top left of the icon is King David holding a scroll with "God is wondrous in his saints" from his Psalm 66 and on the right is King Solomon showing us his words "The righteous live forever" from the Book of Wisdom.  Under Christ's mandorla Adam and Eve are bowing down toward the Throne of Preparation, an empty seat on which Our Lord will sit at the Last Judgment. On top of the pillow on that seat is Christ's vesture that was taken from Him by the soldiers at His Crucifixion and right below the Throne is the Life Giving Cross of the Crucifixion, being elevated by St. Helen and her son, the first Christian Emperor of Rome, St. Constantine, just as the Cross was found by St. Helen and held up by the bishop on the Feastday of the Elevation of the Cross.  This is why we also celebrate St. Helen and St. Constantine individually today on the first Sunday after Pentecost.
     And a word about that mandorla in which Christ sits: On each corner we can see a different image---starting at the top left, an angel; top right, an eagle; bottom left, a lion; and bottom right, a bull. Of course, these are symbolic of the four Evangelists, respectively, St. Matthew, St. John, St. Mark, and St. Luke. The Old Testament foreshadowing of the Evangelists is found in the book of St. Ezekiel the Prophet who wrote: "As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man and a face of a lion on the right side; and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle."   The same images are carried into the Book of Revelation in which St. John wrote: "And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had the face as a man, and the fourth beast was a flying eagle."  Later in today's service, listen closely during the Anaphora for these words: "Singing the triumphant hymn, shouting, crying aloud, and saying" because each of those four verbs are associated with one of the Evangelists: The eagle, St. John, singing; the ox, St. Luke, shouting; the lion, St. Mark, crying aloud; and the angel, St. Matthew, saying. Each of these four attributes come from how each of their gospels begin: For example, St. Mark's gospel begins by writing about John the Baptist who was in the desert, the wilderness in which the lion lurks.
     Take a closer look at the icon later today and you will note that the saints are shown in organized groups: The Apostles are to the right of Christ (on the left side of the icon) shown holding churches in their hands.  On the bottom right side, women saints are grouped standing behind St. Helen.  You might recognize St. Catherine wearing a crown in that group.  Other saints are recognizable as well, such as St. Nicholas in the group of Holy Hierarchs to the left of Adam or St. Seraphim of Sarov in the group of monastics to the right of Eve.  Heaven is well ordered.  And stocked with an unending, unfinished cloud of witnesses.  For as Our Lord said as recorded at the end of St. Matthew's Gospel today: "And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name's sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.  But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first."

May 20, 2018 Sermon

      Do the words of today’s Gospel reading seem familiar to you?  If you remember back to Holy Thursday evening, these words were read at the end of the very long first Passion Gospel that stretches over almost four chapters in St. John’s Gospel and begins just as Judas leaves the Upper Room to go out to betray Our Lord.  The beginning of that first Passion Gospel records Christ’s last directions to His disciples, and His promise to return to them “in a little while.”  But today’s Gospel  records the words Our Lord spoke after those directions, words He spoke  directly to His Father, but for the benefit of His disciples, and ultimately us as well. Listen again to how St. John describes the scene:    

“These words spake Jesus, and lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee: As thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him.  And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.”

      Jesus told them, and tells us, that He has been given power over all flesh, but that power is specifically for the purpose of granting eternal life. As we know well, each of us has but one critical goal in our lives:  to prepare for our own salvation. And that salvation comes only through the Holy Resurrection of Our Lord, but how does Christ’s  power over all flesh effect  our salvation?    An instructive way to think about this can be  found in chapter 24 of the Gospel of St. Luke that I  read this past Thursday here in our Church on the Feast of Christ’s Ascension.  I have reprinted the Gospel reading and you can pick up a copy on the candle desk to take home with you if you choose.  The backdrop  for the lesson is takes place  just after the Risen Lord had appeared to Cleopas and another disciple  at Emmaus and those two   return to Jerusalem to tell the disciples  what had happened.  Here’s what St. Luke reported in words  we read on every Feast of the  Ascension: “And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit.  And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.  And when he had thus spoken, he shewed them his hands and his feet.  And while they yet believed not for joy, and wondered, he said unto them, Have ye here any meat?  And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, and of an honeycomb. And he took it, and did eat before them.”

      Not only did the Risen Christ eat with the two at Emmaus, but the specifics of what He ate after that with the disciples, that fish and honeycomb, demonstrate Christ’s power  over all flesh, demonstrate that His Resurrection was in both soul and body, else how could He have eaten anything without a body.  Just as the Theotokos in both body and soul was taken to Heaven at her Dormition, so too Christ’s Ascension into Heaven in both soul and body shows us,  Brothers and Sisters,  how our deaths will not forever disassociate our bodies from our souls. In the chapter entitled “Resurrection of the Bodies of the Dead” in his book “How Our Departed Ones Live—The Experience of the Orthodox Church,” the Monk Mitrophan in the late 1800s wrote “God created man immortal both in soul and body. The law and the word of God are unchanging; the soul and body are immortal, that is, once created they are never destroyed---and the soul and body remain forever.”   In almost every culture in the world, when a human being dies, he or she is buried in the ground.  The origin of the word “bury” is based on the idea of keeping,  of  saving up; while we tend to think of burial as putting an end to, just think of what it means to a dog to “bury” a bone---to save it for later. In Russian, the word “berech” comes from the same root and it means to keep, to spare.  We believe that, not unlike the dry bones in the Prophecy of Ezekiel, that is read every year after we complete the procession with the plaschanitza during Matins of Holy Saturday, the dry bones that heard the word of the Lord and lived again, that our bodies will live again.  Much of St. Paul’s first Epistle to the Corinthians was devoted to convincing the unsure people of Corinth, who were brought up in the tradition of the Greek philosophy that taught that resurrection of the dead is “madness,” to believe in the Resurrection of Christ, and then to believe in their own resurrections.  In Chapter 15 Paul writes: “ So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.”

     The idea that St. Paul expresses about  a “spiritual body” explains how Our  Lord ate the broiled fish and the honeycomb, but also was able with that spiritual body to stand in the midst of the disciples when the doors were closed, as St. John tells us in the Gospel of St. Thomas Sunday. A spiritual body that go through solid walls, be invisible,  that can ascend into Heaven, but can also partake of food as human bodies do.  St. John Chrysostom tells us plainly that all of us will have  spiritual bodies when he writes: “The resurrection of the dead will be like the Resurrection of Christ.” That’s why we bury the dead, why we don’t cremate the body. Our bodies are like the “corn of wheat” that Christ said must  fall into the ground and die, so that it can later “ bringeth forth much fruit.”  Monk Mitrophan puts everything together for us when he writes that “the decomposition of our body is necessary, inescapable, so that there could be a new body, appropriate to the new, eternal life beyond the grave at its second union with the soul.” 

    These words are so vital to our salvation, as we remember that death is the “last enemy” and has been destroyed and all of this is clearly  reflected in the true  messages of Our Lord and Savior, both in His acknowledgement to His Father of  His “power over all flesh” and in the His meeting in the flesh with His Apostles just before His glorious  Ascension in both body and soul into Heaven.  And as we await the Feast of the Pentecost next week, we remember the words of the Troparion of the Feastday:   “O Christ God, You have ascended in Glory,  Granting joy to Your disciples by the promise of the Holy Spirit.”

Fr. Gregory

Brothers and Sisters, if you are interested in reading Monk Mitrophan’s book, here is a link to the publisher’s website:

http://www.holytrinitypublications.com/en/Book/361/How_Our_Departed_Ones_Live.html

And here is a review of that book:

https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/orthodoxyandheterodoxy/2017/02/13/review-departed-ones-live-monk-mitrophan/

    

May 13, 2018 Sermon

Christ is Risen!
If you listen closely, the last few lines of the readings from St. John’s gospel and from St. Luke’s chapter of the Book of Acts express the same thought: Speaking of the jailer, St. Luke tells us that:
“And he took them (Paul and Silas) the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes; and was baptized, he and all his, straightway. And when he had brought them (Paul and Silas) into his house, he set meat before them, and rejoiced, believing in God with all his house.”
And speaking of the man blind from birth, St. John tells us that:
“Jesus heard that they had cast him out; and when he had found him, he said unto him, Dost thou believe on the Son of God? He answered and said, Who is he, Lord, that I might believe on him. And Jesus said unto him, Thou hast both seen him, and it is he that talketh with thee. And he said, Lord, I believe. And he worshipped him.”
In each case, the jailer and the blind man believed because of the events that happened to them as recounted in the readings and they became Christians; we, on the other hand, believe, but without proof, without having been a party to the events that gave rise to the belief of the jailer or the blind man. We too are Christians, but what exactly do we believe? That precise question was the focus of the most recent study that was done by the good people at the Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life: When Americans Say They Believe in God, What Do They Mean? In a study of 4,700 American adults just last December, incredibly enough almost 90% answered the simple question: “Do you believe in God, or not?” and said that they believe in God (80%) or some higher power (9%). Even more encouraging is the finding that three quarters of Americans say that they talk to God. In my view, that means that 75% of people pray in one way or another, and that’s a lot more prayer than you could possibly believe if you listen to the popular media. But nonetheless only about ½ of those surveyed say that they believe in the God of the Bible, and I wonder whether the people surveyed even think about whether that use of the word “Bible” includes the New Testament from which I read to you today. Today, we commemorate St. Ignatius (or Ignati) Brianchaninov, Bishop of the Caucasus, a prolific writer on Orthodoxy who wrote these lines one hundred and fifty years ago that go right to the heart of the Pew Study today: “Many approach the Lord, but few decide to follow Him. Many read the Gospels, find comfort in them, become inspired by their noble and holy teaching, but few decide to model their actions according to the commandments of the Gospel. The Lord says to all who approach Him and desire to be joined to Him: ‘If anyone comes to Me,’ and does not renounce the world and himself, ‘he cannot be My disciple.’”
The life of St. Ignati is a testament to his advice; born into a wealthy family, achieving honors in every school he attended, and rising quickly in Petersburg literary society in the early 1800s, Dimitri Brianchaninov gave it all up to follow Christ, and became Monk Ignati at the age of twenty, eventually to serve as the Abbot of the St. Sergius Monastery.
So what happens to when people who say they believe in God, and even listen to the Gospels, but don’t follow Christ? Well, another recent study may provide the answer: The health services corporation, Cigna, just released the results of a survey of 20,000 American adults that concluded that most of us are lonely. There’s something called the UCLA Loneliness Scale, twenty questions that are geared to determine whether a person is clinically lonely, and just about ½ of Americans are lonely. For example, those surveyed were asked whether they often, sometimes, rarely, or never felt that: A. Their interests and ideas are not shared by those around them; B. They are unable to reach out and communicate with others; and C. They feel isolated from others. And the survey shows that being “alone” is not the same as being “lonely.” Many people who live with others are not alone, but they are certainly lonely on the UCLA scale. It may surprise you to learn that the word “lonely” did not even come into the English language until Shakespeare invented it (first used in his play Coriolanus). Four of his fellow Englishmen 350 years later used his word to created one of the most popular musical works of the twentieth century, a work that shone a bright light on the loneliness of modern life. Ancient people might have been alone at times, but only modern people apparently know loneliness. So even though almost 90% of Americans presumably believe in God according to Pew, most of them feel lonely, feel isolated, according to Cigna, and Cigna has a real interest in this because mental health and physical health go hand in hand. Are these results in conflict; if, so how can we explain the conflict? More importantly, how can we cure the loneliness?
The simple answer might be to remember back to Pascha, to midnight and to the procession while we all walked together and all together sang: “Make us also who are on earth worthy to glorify Thee with a pure heart.” Was anyone lonely then? Is it even possible to be lonely, to feel isolated from others, when we together here today in the Divine Liturgy as a group pray for our salvation, pray for the peace of the world, pray for all Orthodox Christians? The English word “liturgy” comes directly from the Greek “leitourgia” which means “work of the people,” that is, the people working together, as a corporate group, working and praying for our salvation. That we are all here praying together is never more evident than in the words sung by the choir near the end of the Liturgy: “We have seen the true Light; We have received the heavenly Spirit; We have found the true Faith, worshipping the undivided Trinity, who has saved us. Brothers and Sisters, the antidote to the isolation of the modern world, the cure for anyone who is lonely, is standing in this church and praying together in the Divine Liturgy, praying together with others for our salvation. Love is the cure for loneliness, the love of God the Father, as in the words of the blessing in the Divine Liturgy, the love we have for each other in the Divine Liturgy. All you need is that Love.
Christ is Risen!
Fr. Gregory

April 29, 2018 Sermon

Christ is Risen!
In today's Epistle and Gospel readings three real people feel the power of the Resurrection: Aeneas, whom Peter cures by invoking the name of the Risen Lord; Tabitha, whom Peter raises from the dead using exactly the same words that Christ used to raise the dead son of the widow of Nain: Arise!; and the paralytic sitting by the pool of Bethesda, whom Jesus made whole with the words: "Arise, take up thy bed and walk."   All three of these real people had what all real people have: affliction .... and ultimately death. Not because Aeneas or Tabitha or the Paralyzed Man were bad people.  In fact we know (from St. Luke who wrote all of the Acts) that St. Tabitha, whose name we commemorate today, was a woman "full of good works and almsdeeds she did."   None of the three were victims, not at all, in fact all of the three were, just as we are, real people who get sick, who suffer, and who will die, or as I recently read "Human beings are intrinsically fragile.  We can be damaged, even broken, emotionally and physically, and we are all subject to the depredations of aging and loss."  Such is the nature of man after the fall, the nature of man as a result of ancestral sin.
     Unfortunately, this is not the way real people in the United States in 2018 think about their own lives.  I read this headline from Reuters on the internet last week: "More than half of the world's wealthy expect to live to 100."  In a poll of over 5,000 people with at least a million dollars in assets, the news service reported that nine out of ten of them were using that money to plan for and provide for their own longevity.  And there are lots of people willing to help them, like a new company called Human Longevity, Inc. that is putting together a database of genetic information that is calculated to help those in that survey to get to, and pass right by, the centenarian mark.   Last Sunday I read Patriarch Kirill's entire Paschal Message, but today I want to zero in on one critically important point made by His Holiness, when he said: "Today, when the world ever more resembles the foolish rich man in the Gospel parable (see: Lk 12:16-21), when comfort, success and a long life are proclaimed as practically the main values in human existence, we, the disciples and followers of the Savior, along with the apostle Paul boldly testify: 'For me to live is Christ' (Phil 1:21), and death is no longer the end of our existence. We speak and believe thus, for we know that God created the human soul for eternity."   That reference to the foolish rich parable goes to the heart of the problem in the Reuters article. Remember that Christ told His disciples:   "The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully....And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.  But God said unto him, Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided? So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God."
     Our Patriarch told us plainly that "God created the human soul for eternity" and this fact is the echoed by St. Justin of Serbia in his own Paschal Homily: "Man sentenced God to death; by His Resurrection, He sentenced man to immortality.  In return for a beating, He gives an embrace; for abuse, a blessing; for death, immortality.  Man never showed so much hate for God as when he crucified Him; and God never showed more love for man than when He arose.  Man even wanted to reduce God to a mortal, but God by His Resurrection made man immortal.  The crucified God is Risen and has killed death. Death is no more. Immortality has surrounded man and all the world." Brothers and Sisters, this is exactly why the Great Litany that starts each and every Divine Liturgy begins with the supplication: For the peace from above and for the salvation of our souls, let us pray to the Lord."  What we do for our own salvation on earth is the key to our own immortality. Salvation has to be our main goal, not longevity, and certainly not earthly riches.  That's why laying up those treasures made the rich man in the parable foolish. It's not until much later, near the end, in the Great Litany that we pray "For our deliverance for all affliction, wrath, danger, and necessity;" a prayer for help in our lives on earth.  But notice that we ask God to take away from us as much of the suffering on earth as possible---that is as much of the affliction that is our "inherent frailty,' as much of the wrath of others and the danger that is an intrinsic part of mortal life on this planet, but also to deliver us from necessity, that is, only what we need but may not have.  Note well that the Fathers who wrote the liturgy were very clear that we aren't asking for anything more than to have want for what is absolutely necessary for our existence taken away from us---but not to petition God to give us comfort, success, or long life.   And when you think about it, that's exactly what Christ offered to the Paralytic at the pool at Bethesda: simply to be made whole.  To be made whole, to be delivered from necessity.  And that deliverance was the gift of Our Lord to the paralytic.  And His death on the Life Giving Cross was his His gift to us, the gift of immorality.
In that He has given us eternal life, we bow down before His resurrection on the third day.
Christ is Risen!!
Fr. Gregory
March 25, 2018 Sermon - That we may journey with Him and be Crucified with Him

This sermon was given by Fr. Emmanuel., who was visiting with us on Sunday, March 25.
 
With deep devotion, our Christian Tradition vividly recalls the journey which the Old Testament people embarked upon, traveling to reach the Promised Land.  Christians always hold dear the events of the newly emancipated Jews, engaging in their freedom walk from Egypt to the new land that God had pledged to them. As we carefully read the scenario of God journeying in the company of His beloved race, it's hard not to notice how God personally undertakes the inspiring leading role in this completely new, yet very significant, chapter of history.  He travels at their helm, directing every step of His historic group (columns of fire).  Together, they forged a brand new road within the history of the world.  After all, it is God's Promised Land:  a beautiful dream come true!  A vision that was long anticipated including a finale everyone yearned for, despite the tremendous costs.  I seriously question if our Israeli spiritual forefathers truly understood what the establishment of the new Land of Milk and Honey really meant for them and for the world.  Could they have ever anticipated the many sacrifices and the great hardship of their travels?  Did they ever realize how much personal suffering this new freedom journey would cost them? More importantly, did they every conceive that their spiritual mission was evolving into something much greater?  Did they ever imagine the historical consequences of such a mission? And lastly, could our Israeli forefathers ever detect, in their wildest imaginations, in their craziest dreams, that the Promised Land was in fact the Crucifixion and Resurrection of the Son of Man?  It is obvious in Isaiah 52:13-53:6:

"See my servant will act wisely; He will be raised  and lifted up and highly exalted.  Just as there were many who were appalled at Him...He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to Him, nothing in His appearance  that we should desire Him.  He was despised and rejected by men...Surely He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows...but He was pierced  for our transgressions...The punishment that brought us peace was upon Him and by His wounds we are healed...and we, like sheep that have gone astray..."
 
We recall Mark's Gospel,"Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem and the Son of Man will be delivered...and on the third day he will rise."  This narrative describes Christ's final trip to Jerusalem along with His disciples.  It was written for historical but more importantly, for instructional purposes.  Reading between the lines, we immediately detect a parallel to the Exodus of the Israelis from Egypt.  The people of God (this time the disciples),  depart for their final journey to Jerusalem (from Egypt to the Promised Land) following the shadow of Jesus, their Master, who was leading them (the pillars of fire).  Jesus was the last one sent by God to lead God's people.  Our Lord's purpose was to lead the Disciples (and us) to the Kingdom of God, much as God led His people to the Promised Land in the Old Testament.

Jesus' acceptance of self-sacrifice, a death by Crucifixion, gave way for God to respond by offering, new life, the Resurrection.  Because Jesus obeyed His Father and willingly accepted the way of the Cross, God lovingly responded by offering (Pascha) the Kingdom of God.  We rejoice with the New World of God which is free from illness and death.  Death no longer has dominion..... the stings gone.  God has granted us eternity, life beyond the grave. 

Today, as we stand looking backwards in history, we see man's journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, we see the parallel journey of Christ and His disciples to Jerusalem for the Crucifixion and ultimately, receiving the Resurrection, and we stand awestruck.  Could we have ever anticipated  such a finale?  Man can only learn of God's wonder and understand the total meaning of our life's journey when, as Christ,  we learn to fully obey God and sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others.
 
History teaches us that the Jews had a difficult time understanding the breadth of God's plan for their race.  History also teaches us that Christians today unfortunately have the same inability to see beyond themselves.
 
In a few days we shall relive the final days of Christ.  We shall intensely relive Golgotha and the glorious Resurrection.  Christ's journey came across many inhibitors.  Our life's journey to the Promised Land also has many dead ends.  Did we already forget how easy God removes such barriers, much as He opened the road for Jesus' Resurrection (the new Promised land)?

Death and New Life are recurring events in our journey with Christ.  These were not singular events of the past but are repeated continuously in the present and the future.  Let us absorb completely God's wonder and His purpose for us.  Lets us understand that our life is not a random event but a call to obey God fully and serve Him by offering ourselves sacrificially to others in need.

Let us dwell on these thoughts as we stand before the Cross of Christ on Good Friday and throughout Holy Week.  Let us rekindle our sacred purpose inner own journey to our own Cannan.  When we hear the verse,  "we journey with Him and become crucified with Him" what comes to mind?
March 18, 2018 Sermon - Fourth Sunday of Great Lent St. John of the Ladder

At the end of today’s gospel we hear Jesus telling His disciples: “The Son of man is delivered into the hands of men, and they shall kill him; and after that he is killed, he shall rise the third day.” So with these words we have reached already and again the Fourth Sunday of the Fast, with a hint of the Resurrection to come with precious few days left to prepare. Perhaps the best way to prepare for the Resurrection is the Sacrament of Confession. Since we had planned to have a round table discussion about the Sacrament yesterday afternoon, I decided before the mini-retreat to base this sermon on whatever came up is discussion yesterday; here are three questions, each of which lead to lively discussions: Question Number 1: what should or could a good confession be? First off, it actually may be more difficult to describe a confession that is not good, because every confession is worthwhile, as long as the words that the penitent choses to say before God are truthful. Notice that the words are said before God; the priest with the penitent to serve the Sacrament, and sins are confessed before and in the presence of God. But to reach “what a good confession should or could be” does require more; Fr. Alexander Elchaninov in his Diary of a Russian Priest wrote that: “Confession is an act of fervent, heartfelt repentance, a thirst for purification; it springs from an awareness of what is holy, it means dying to sin and coming alive again to sanctity.” Repentance is crucial to a “good confession;” after all, the word penitent means (according to Merriam Webster): “a person who repents their sins or wrongdoings and (in the Christian Church) seeks forgiveness from God.”
Question Number 2: Should I make a list of my sins and bring it with me? A good question and one without a pat answer. I have confessed both babushkas and young Americans who brought list, sometimes detailed ones. The value in bringing a list is not so much in not forgetting something, as it is in preparing ahead of time in order for the penitent to state clearly before God what is weighing down her or his conscience. Without specifics as to the sin committed, it’s very difficult to make any progress in stopping that sin. If one confesses to being a “bad person,” how can that person concentrate on changing? What should be changed? A sin undefined is a sin that can’t be overcome. Fr. Alexander explains this perfectly: “Preparation for confession…means striving to attain such a state of consciousness, seriousness, and prayer that your sins will become as clear as is they had been exposed to light. In other words, you should bring to your confessor not a list of sins but a feeling of repentance… a contrite heart.” It’s the clarity of the oral description of sins, stated out loud to God, that allows the truly repentant person to know exactly what behavior has to be changed, if one is to have any hope of changing for the better.
Question Number 3: How do I get past being afraid to go to confession? Firstly, today, being the Sunday of St. John Climacus, who gave us the Ladder of Divine Ascent, we can take solace in his wonderful advice: “Do not be afraid, even though you fall every day, so long as you do not depart from the ways of God; stand courageously and the angel who guards you will respect your patience.” But secondly, a large part of this issue has to do with not knowing what to expect in the sacrament, sort of fear of the unknown, especially if one has not confessed one’s sins in a long time or, for younger people, may have never had the Sacrament. This fear is easily cured by asking for advice from your confessor before confession, especially because the focus of confession is not to obtain advice from the priest during the Sacrament. A few years ago Matushka and I attended a retreat at which an inspirational lecture was given by an archimandrite about confession. Immediately at the end of the talk another Matushka sitting next to us leapt to her feet and said something I will never ever forget: “Father, I just can’t wait to go to confession.” That, Brothers and Sisters, is the best example I can give you of the “thirst for purification” that was quoted in the section on Question Number 1. And truly none of us can really wait too long to confess our sins, because as Elchaninov says: “Insensibility… deadness of soul—these are the result of long established sins which have not been confessed in time. The soul is greatly eased if we immediately confess the sin we have just committed, while we still feel its pang. Confession, if postponed, leads to insensibility.” Other writers have described that feeling as a hardening of the soul, a dullness to sin, indifference to our own conscience and lack of concern for our own salvation. Today we commemorate the uncovering of the relics in 1966 of St. Luke, the Blessed Surgeon of Crimea. In explaining the section on despondency in St. Ephrem’s Prayer to his flock as their Archbishop, St. Luke wrote this: “If you open your heart before a pastor of the Church at confession and receive the Body and Blood of Christ, you will feel relief and joy, and the spirit of despondency will be driven away from you in disgrace.” It’s the promise of that very relief and joy that overwhelms any possible feeling of apprehension or uncertainty about confession, and the confessing of sins that must precede absolution is a crucial prerequisite to entry into the Sacrament of Communion.
Yesterday we discussed the role of the priest in the Sacrament, especially since it is God to whom we confess, not the priest. I say “we” because the topic of the confession of the clergy came up, given that some may not realize that deacons, priests, and, yes, even hierarchs must confess their sins to God and in the presence of another clergy. It is of no small note that a priest removes his pectoral cross before he confesses, because all of us must stand before God in the same way, as repentant sinners seeking God’s infinite mercy. But as for the role of the priest, we can all profit from the words of St. John Chrysostom in one of his many recorded sermons: “The silversmith, when he fashions a vessel and lays it aside, will find it the next day just as he left it. This is not so with [priests]. Exactly the opposite since we have not lifeless objects to create but rational beings. We do not, then, find you as when we left, but after we have labored diligently to refashion your thinking and increase your zeal, urgent matters pull you away and create for us all kinds of difficulty. For this reason I plead with you to help in the work yourself and when you leave here show the same interest in your well being that I have shown for your improvement.” A final note on the concept of what constitutes a “good confession.” The consensus of the discussion group was that leaving the sacrament with tears in one’s eyes is a strong indication of a good confession. This Thursday evening we will again sing the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete and we will hear these definitive words on the concept of a “good confession:” “Take my heavy sinful burden away from me and give me tears of repentance!” The water of your baptism washed away your sins then, but only the water of your tears of repentance can wash away your sins now. Brothers and Sisters.
Fr. Gregory

March 11 Sermon - Veneration of the Life Giving Cross

Tone 7   Third Sunday of Great Lent
Veneration of the Life Giving Cross
    
     In his letter to the Hebrews read today, St. Paul tells us: "So also Christ glorified not himself to be made an high priest; but he that said unto him, Thou art my Son, today have I begotten thee.  As he saith also in another place, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec."
The last few words of this passage may be familiar to you; those words are a part of what is called the introit, that is a verse, usually from the Psalms, that is said by the priest right after "Wisdom, stand up!" at the Little Entrance on the Feast of the Nativity of Christ:
"Out of the womb before the morning star have I begotten thee; the Lord hath sworn and will not change His mind; thou art a Priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek."  The original reference comes from Psalm 110 (109 as numbered in the Septuagent) in which King David wrote: "The LORD hath sworn, and will not relent: 'Thou art a priest for ever after the manner of Melchizedek." So who is this Melchizedek? In the fourteenth chapter of the Book of Genesis, after Abraham (then still called Abram) had won a decisive battle, we learn from the writing of Moses that: " Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God. And he blessed him, and said, Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth."  Melchizedek, the priest, is not mentioned anywhere before he sort of appears out of nowhere bearing bread and wine and blessing Abraham. And of course his coming and bearing that bread and wine is the Old Testament foreshadowing of the Last Supper; that's why Christ, who is both King and High Priest, is referred to as a "priest after the order of Melchizek."  The first sheet (see below for copies) that was distributed today shows an icon of Melchizedek bearing the bread and wine, along with King David and the great Prophet Isaiah with a scroll of the prophecy that Christ would come from "the root of Jesse" the father of King David.  Below the icon is the painting from the 1600s by Peter Paul Rubens showing Melchizedek meeting Abraham with the bread and wine.  This painting is in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.
       And even the bread and wine were blessed by Christ at that Last Supper to be eaten by the disciples, Judas was on his way to the most terrible betrayal in the history of the world, a betrayal that would lead to Our Lord being nailed to the Life Giving Cross, the Cross that we venerate here today on the Third Sunday of the Great Fast, the Weapon of Peace that we see festooned with beautiful flowers on the tetrapod. Brothers and Sisters, you may have venerated this Symbol of the True Cross many times, but have you had the time to look closely at the symbolic words and icons that so richly adorn it?  When you come to venerate today, take a closer look, but for now there is a second sheet handed out showing a similar Holy Cross with some of those symbolic words and graphic representations.  All of us know the significance of the three bars of the Life Giving Cross.  The icon at the top of the top bar in the handout is the Icon of Christ Not Made by Hands (written in Slavonic text) the picture of Christ that miraculously appeared on the towel by which His face was wiped on the way to Golgotha.  On the top bar are two "angels of the Lord" (written in Slavonic), ministering to Christ Crucified with towels as His servants.  Under each of the angels in Slavonic are the words King of Glory.  The inscription that Pilate had put on the top bar of the Cross in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew: Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews is not shown on this sheet, only the Greek letters IC XC the contraction for Jesus Christ; however, if you look at this Cross closely you will see it in Slavonic letters just as on the top bar of the Cross on the fresco over our sanctuary. I H Ts I. But on both the sheet and on this Cross are the Greek letters NIKA "He Conquers" which along with IC XC are stamped on the prophora that will become the body of Christ. And on the halo of Christ are three Greek letters that mean: He who is. The ineffable name of God that was never to be spoken by the Jews.  Notice that Christ does NOT have a crown of thorns on the Cross, as is the norm in Western painting, neither is Christ shown in a suffering pose, but rather in a peaceful one.
       Now looking at the middle bar, over Christ's arms are contractions in Slavonic for Son of God and the sun (on the left) and the moon (on the right) are labelled in Slavonic.  Under Christ's arms is written a long Slavonic sentence.  You heard and will later hear the choir sing this today: "Before Thy Cross we bow down and worship O Master and Thy Holy Resurrection we glorify!"
     The vertical post of the Cross has spear standing straight up on the left side of the picture (marked with a K in Slavonic), the spear that the soldier used to pierce His side, and a reed on the right side (marked with a Slavonic T for sponge), being the reed and sponge that the soldiers used to give vinegar to Him.  On the bottom bar, you can see buildings of Jerusalem in the distance from Golgotha and of course the bar slants up to Christ's right to show the way to heaven for the Good Thief and down to His left for the other thief.  And finally on the bottom of the sheet there are two Slavonic G's for Mount Golgotha, and four letters in a square shape, MLRB that stand for The Place of the Skull, Where Adam Was. Brothers and Sisters, that skull and crossbones at the bottom of the sheet represent the actual place where Adam, the first man, was buried, and the place where the New Adam, Christ Our God, was crucified.  Those two letters at the very bottom are G A, standing for Skull of Adam.  It's such a shame that the very popular use of skull and bones for pirates and for other unthinking secular uses comes directly from the Christian symbolism of the skull of Adam.
       The link between Christ and Adam is so powerful and so important that it is the basis for today's Kondak: Now the flaming sword no longer guards the gates of Eden; It has mysteriously been quenched by the wood of the Cross! The sting of death and the victory of hell have been vanquished; For You, O my Savior, have come and cried to those in hell: "Enter again into paradise."   Brothers and Sisters, you have before you today the Weapon of Peace by which each of us can gain eternal life.  For as Christ told the people who came to Him and His apostles: "Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.  For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it."   
  
Father Gregory

 

 
March 4 Sermon

"...wake up the soul during Lent..."

"My soul, my soul, rise up! Why art thou sleeping?" With these stinging words begins the Kondak of the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, the beautiful, heart rending service that takes place in the darkened church lit only by a few candles that is served on each of the first four days of Lent. Even though we stand only on the second Sunday of the fast today, we know from past experience that in the blink of an eye, Great Lent will turn abruptly into Holy Week and the very next line in that Kondak will weigh heavily on us: "The end draws near and soon you will be troubled." Brothers and Sister, the time is now to take an inventory, and a critical one, of how much progress each of us has made this year on our journey back to God. Can you honestly say that you have used the three pronged tool of Lent---the tool of fasting, of prayer, of almsgiving-to tune up your soul for this journey?

Another way to wake up the soul during Lent is by putting down the remote, putting down the mouse, putting down the iphone, and picking up a book, a book that can pick up, and wake up, your soul. Each year I like to make suggestions for Lenten readings; after the veneration of the Cross today this flyer will be available with a few books suggested by Holy Trinity Publications. Most years I will put down a book that I was unable to finish before Lent started and pick up a book such as one of those on the flyer starting right on the first Monday of Lent. But this year, being about halfway through a book I had been gifted, I decided to press on, mainly because this mostly secular work was so obviously based on Judeo/Christian teachings that my soul was wide awake while reading. And I am glad I did press on. This book is a sort of how to book, the kind of book I really never read, but its insights into life as it has come to be lived in the 21st century, giving a set of rules for living as an "antidote to chaos" as the dust cover says, owe so much to the Book of Genesis and to the Gospels as to be valuable Lenten fare for the soul. I bring this up not to recommend this book, but rather because the author uses three words over and over again in describing the character traits that lead to chaos in our lives: deceitfulness, arrogance, and resentfulness. Hearing this constant refrain, I began to wonder whether the true antidote to chaos can be found in St. Ephrem's Prayer, even though not one of those words-deceitfulness, arrogance, nor resentfulness--- is found in that prayer. Now first of all, the matter of translation: St. Ephrem, who lived in the 300's in the very area of Syria on the border of what is now Turkey where civil war has been raging for the last few years, wrote in the Syriac language, so his prayer had to be translated into Greek first, and then later was translated into Slavonic. That's why you might hear different words when the prayer is recited. Just as an example, the first sentence of the Greek version translated into English states "Give not to me the spirit of idleness,...." while the Slavonic translated into English yields: "Take away from me the spirit of idleness....." These are very different concepts. But even more to the point for the trio of words I was trying to understand: In both Greek and Slavonic, the word that is translated into English as "chastity" is just too narrow, implying being chaste only in a sexual way, where in fact the Syriac word used by St. Ephrem can be translated into Slavonic as tselomoodriya (which is literally "whole mindedness") meaning soundness of mind, discretion, and prudence, and this is consistent with the more broad Greek term as well. And then I knew that the antidotes to the three chaotic tendencies that pollute our lives in the 21st century---deceitfulness, arrogance, and resentfulness---- were indeed to be found in the second line of St. Ephrem's Prayer.... for humility overcomes arrogance, for love overwhelms resentfulness, and because a sound mind is incapable of deceit.

St. Ephrem's prayer is recited by the priest at two different times in the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts---in front of the closed Royal Doors in this manner: first, at each sentence of the prayer a full prostration is made (kneeling down and placing the forehead to the floor) by the priest whose actions are followed by the congregation; then, the priest stands and prays twelve times: God have mercy on me a sinner; and lastly, the priest recites the full prayer with a full prostration at the end of the prayer only, followed by the congregation. As a result, St. Ephrem's prayer is conjoined with a short version of the Jesus Prayer: "O Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner." Of course, the use of the Jesus Prayer as a manner of prayer without ceasing in what is called the hesychast manner is the reason that the second Sunday of Lent is known as the Second Triumph of Orthodoxy, for it was the overcoming of the controversy concerning the use of that prayer by the skillfulness and theologically firm thinking of St. Gregory of Palamas, who lived in the 1300's and who defended the use of the Jesus Prayer from those who sought to ban its use, that is seen as a Triumph of Orthodoxy, on the same level as the Triumph of Orthodoxy that we celebrated last Sunday, the Triumph that brought icons back into the church even though the iconoclasts had attempted to ban them. St. Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonika in Greece, whose icon is on the tetrapod today, is celebrated each second Sunday of the Great Fast as a defender of the faith, faith in the very Gospel reading from St. Mark today in which we see that Christ will indeed forgive those sins about which we cry for mercy in the Jesus Prayer, that in truth and in fact even deceitfulness, arrogance, and resentfulness can be forgiven. For like the paralytic in the Gospel, we are paralyzed by our sins, but throughout Lent we can repent and earn that forgiveness if we remember these words of Our Lord: "Why reason ye these things in your hearts? Whether is it easier to say to the sick of the palsy, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and take up thy bed, and walk? But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins." We must say, as Christ did, "Arise," but we need to say "Arise, O my soul, why are you sleeping?" O Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner.
Fr. Gregory

February 18 Sermon

February 18, 2018 Tone 4 St. Theodosius Martyr Agatha

Forgive me, Brothers and Sisters.

“ And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.” So with St. Paul’s words in mind let us approach the Great Lent that is nigh before us, our annual pilgrimage back to God. In his Diary, Fr. Alexander Elchaninov wrote: “Lent strengthens the spirit of man. In Lent man goes out to meet the angels and the demons.” This year let’s meet that challenge with an unbending resolve to undertake the three tasks to which we are called each year: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
First, prayer. This past week we celebrated here in our church the Feast of the Meeting of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the Temple, one of the twelve Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church. This Feast seems to have been given a number of names, but the use of the translation of the Greek into Meeting is probably the best, for as the Ever Virgin Mary and St. Joseph brought the infant Jesus to the Temple 40 days after His birth, as required by Jewish law to redeem the male child by making a sacrifice of birds and to purify the mother after 40 days from childbirth, the family met an old man, Simeon, who had waited for years to see the Messiah as he had been promised by God he would before he died, and upon meeting the infant St. Luke tells us that St. Simeon uttered these famous words: LORD, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace; according to Thy word: for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people: to be a light to lighten the gentiles and to be the glory of Thy people Israel. Brothers and Sisters, you will hear this prayer of St. Simeon twice later today: firstly, because the prayer, referred to as Nunc Dimittis in the Latin church, is sung by the choir near the end of the service of vespers in the Orthodox church, and we will serve a part of the Forgiveness Vespers at the end of the Liturgy today. Secondly, because we will baptize and chrismate the infant Virginia here today after Liturgy, and the churching of the child at the end of those two sacraments requires the recitation of St. Simeon’s prayer by the priest.
A second prayer that you will hear today that you have not perhaps heard for a while is the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, the prayer we use throughout Lent. The entire prayer is printed on the face of the bulletin; if you don’t have a copy of St. Ephraim’s prayer at home, please keep the bulletin and place the front page somewhere where you will see it every day. As I have in the past, I will speak more about this critical prayer for Lent during the next six weeks.
While we are called to increase our prayer, we are also called to the second requirement of Lent, fasting. Brothers and Sisters, fasting is a lot more than just giving up certain foods. If you saw the video “Becoming Truly Human” last Sunday, you heard a number of young people describe themselves as “spiritual” and as such they feel that they have no need for organized religion, and especially no need for the rules of organized religion. Metropolitan Kallistos, you may know him as the former Timothy Ware author of the classic “Orthodox Church,” has written: “One reason for the decline in fasting is surely the heretical attitude toward human nature, a false ‘spiritualism’ which rejects or ignores the body, viewing man solely in terms of a reasoning brain.” Christ tells us in today’s gospel exactly how to fast: “ Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.”
St. John Chrysostom takes the words of Our Lord and ties fasting to the third requirement of Lent, almsgiving, when he says:
“The fast is of real value only when it stems from a pure heart; when one is ready to deny wealth, and stand above money; when one is ready to give alms to the poor; when one has love and affection, not only for one's own children, but also for the orphans and the poor. One manifests real fasting when he is ready to deprive himself of food, in order that the hungry and destitute might be fed. One really fasts when he maintains his equilibrium under all stress, never allowing himself to lose his temper and explode like a volcano, destroying everyone around him. A genuine fast involves the willingness to discard all vain ambition, which often results in destruction — not only for those who practice it, but for all who are close to them. One who is actually fasting never manifests covetousness or jealousy.”
That oil that Christ tells us to use on our faces is in fact an almsgiving it itself, for when we put on Christ in baptism He is in our heads, and anointing our heads is symbolic of pouring out our own deeds of mercy, and when He tells us to wash our faces, He is telling us to do that with the tears of repentance.
And that repentance is a crucial part of our pilgrimage back to God this year. How can we truly repent without the sacrament of Confession, without stating our sins out loud before God, without declaring our true intention “to turn from our wickedness and live,” as the prayer of confession so beautifully says. And here, on the Sunday of Cheesefare, we can make a clean start toward true repentance by forgiving all of those around us and not even near us, for any sins that we might feel have affected us, for as Our Lord said: “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Please forgive me. Father Gregory

February 11 Sermon

Now it all begins.  It is hard to believe that we are right at the beginning of the season that we all knows helps to cleanse ourselves,  If we are honest with ourselvesand with God, it is not all that difficult to find our place. 
                                                                                                                                      
The Gospel text tells us the very simple truth about salvation.  We hear the words - words that are easy to understand.  We are told: When the Son of  God comes in His glory escorted by all the angels, then He will take His seat on the throne of glory .All the nations will be assembled before Him and He will separate men from one another as the shepherd separates sheep from goats.He will place the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left.

Then the King will say to those on His right hand:"Come, you whom  My Father has blessed, take for your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundations of the world."

And God will publicly announce His rewards."For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink.  I was a stranger, and you made me welcome".  People find themselves confused by their part in God's plan for salvation.                                                                                           
 
So where does this take all of us?  It actually prepares us to take our place in the great season of Lent.
Many people make a mistake regarding this season, and its meaning for the faithful.  Let us be certain not to do this,  Instead, let us willingly accept Lent and grow with it.
February 4 - The Prodigal Son

Sermon February 4, 2018 
Tone 2 New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia; Apostle Timothy
 
           When we hear the story of the Prodigal Son we know that Great Lent is imminent.  Even if nothing more jumps out at you from St. Luke's account of the parable that Our Lord told for the benefit of the Pharisees, you can certainly focus on the first words of that the younger son said on his return: "Father, I have sinned against Heaven and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be thy son."  Brothers and Sisters, this is the boy's confession-out loud and in the presence of and directly to his father, God."  In Great Lent, when we set out on our yearly journey back to God, we absolutely must do the same, repent in a heartfelt manner in the Sacrament of Confession, out loud before God, with the priest there only as a witness.  Without this, the road back to God is closed.
       But there is so much more in this parable, some of it much less apparent without thinking hard about the meaning of Christ's words.  Because the world refers to Luke 15:11 as the Parable of the Prodigal Son (and the word prodigal means wasteful, not absent or runaway as some assume), it's easy to think that this lesson is centered only on the one son, the younger one, the Prodigal.  But Our Lord's message is much more rich, much deeper than it first appears, mainly because there are a number of actors other than the Prodigal who are significant and worthy of analysis.  Of course, the Father is God, but those "hired servants" that the Prodigal longs to join up with are the catechumens, those who are not yet sons of God, but they are on their way; they hear the Word, just as the catechumens hear the Gospel during the Liturgy of the Catechumens, and are therefore closer to God than the Prodigal was before he returned.  The hired hands are to be distinguished from those identified as the "servants of the Father."  Some say that these are the angels, the bodiless powers who serve the Father, and bring the robe to dress the Prodigal.  That robe is the baptismal garment, as the Prodigal repents and confesses his sins he puts on Christ, just as we did in our own Sacraments of Baptism, and then the angels bring a ring, symbolizing the seal of the Holy Spirit, given at the Sacrament of Chrismation by the anointing with myrrh---the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit.  And the fatted calf, the sacrificial animal fed on wheat, is Christ Himself, who gave His body and His precious blood for us to be the Sacrament of Communion, when the bread made of that wheat becomes the body of Our Savior and the wine becomes His blood.
   And what of the envious elder son?  Is this parable really all about him?  If you read the beginning of Chapter 15 of Luke, you will find out the these Pharisees were murmuring in the crowd before Christ started the Prodigal Son story.  Why?  Because Our Lord had just finished another parable, that of the one lost sheep out of the flock of one hundred that was found, which ended with Christ saying: "There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth."  The Pharisees were murmuring because they, like the elder son, thought themselves perfect before God and were outraged when sinners, who didn't do the heavy lifting, were forgiven by Christ, just as the elder son was outraged by the killing of the fatted calf for someone who clearly didn't deserve that treatment.  But here's the key: note well that the Father does not punish the elder son, instead He forgives him saying: "Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine." God's mercy is illimitable and the lesson about the elder son is such a crucial one for us as we enter Great Lent.  Like the Prodigal, who Christ said "came to himself," we too can find ourselves and rediscover the reason that we come back to God.  When we come to ourselves we will clearly see the reason that we come to Church in the first place---for our own salvation.  Today we celebrate the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia---those who were slaughtered in the bloody reign of the Soviets in trying to stamp out the Holy Church.  One of those martyrs. Archbishop Hilarion Troitsky, wrote: "There is no Christianity without the Church."  Our own Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev has been quoted many times as saying that the Church exists for one reason---for the salvation of our souls.  In the Diary of a Russian Priest, Fr. Alexander Elchaninnov, whose words you will hear quoted by me quite frequently, especially during Lent, wrote this: "We often mistake for religion a vague mixture of the reminiscences of childhood, the sentimental emotions sometimes experienced in church, colored eggs and cake at Pascha.  How shall we succeed in awakening in our soul any sense of the way of the cross which it must follow toward God?"
       Brothers and Sisters, Orthodoxy is a way of life, and our lives have a bit in common with the lives of both the Prodigal and the elder son.  Both sons could have, and each of us can, profit from this advice from St. Paisios of Mt. Athos: "The mind and the heart must be constantly fixed on how we can reach our destiny: the Kingdom of Heaven.....it seems that, perhaps, you have not yet set Heaven as your goal.  You still have earth as your goal.  The salvation of your soul has yet to become a heated topic for you.  But then, if we do not take the salvation of our soul seriously, what will we take seriously?"
 
Fr. Gregory
 
 
January 28 Sermom

I thought that it would be a mistake not to remember that which brought us to where we are today. It starts as a story of some time ago and far away.

The people who came from Europe, and who founded this and other churches like it came from Lemkovia in Eastern Europe.

In those days repressions were imposed on "Russophile" clergy, both Uniate and Orthodox.  The area also had informers.  Not only the police, village clerks, and sheriffs and teachers, as well as members of the clergy denounced their neighbors. 

In some areas of Carpatho-Russia, the entire educated class: priests, lawyers, judges, teachers, high school and university students were all arrested.  The prisons were quickly filled with people accused of treason.Suddenly, the word orthodox was replaced by the word catholic.

Throughout the Carpathian region a tremendous upheaval shook the parishes. Life had become difficult for the few orthodox priests and their families in Carpatho-Russia and Galecia.

One such priest was Maxime Sandovich. He was born in Xhdynya.  His father was a prosperous farmer who also served as cantor in the local parish church. Maxime’s father could see his son was talented, and he arranged for him to live at the dormitory in Novy Senaz.  There he had the opportunity to study the Russian literature, language and history; as well as the history of the christian church, and culture.  The students were supervised by a teacher from Russia.

Maxime was able to cross the border into Russia and then entered novitiate at the great Lavra of Pochaev in Volymia.  The abbot there introduced him to Archbishop Anthony who helped those men who wanted to study in Russia.  Early in 1905 Vladyka sent this student (Maxime) to Zhitomir.

Maxime studied there and and graduated in 1910.  He then returned home to visit his family at Easter and Bright Week. Word of his arrival soon reached the ears of certain villagers who had spent some time in American Orthodox churches and making their confessions to other Orthodox priests then came to Maxime and begged him to stay, obtain priestly ordination, and organize an orthodox parish.

In November of 1911 Father Maxime and his wife travelled to his native village of Zhdynya. Walking through the marketplace, the some of the people seeing an orthodox priest dressed in a long riassa, wearing a pectoral cross, who was also not shaving or cutting his beard made fun of him saying: "Look , St Nicholas has come to the Carpathians.”

When the people there learned that Father Maxime was at his father's house, they sent a delegation an invited him to find/start an Orthodox parish.  Shortly after he served the first liturgy in the new parish, he received  a letter addressed to him as a "lay man”, which he refused to accept.

The next letter was addressed correctly. But it forbid him to conduct services.  When he refused to comply he was jailed for a month.This provides us with an idea of what life was about.  Not only was Father Maxime separated from his father and wife, shortly thereafter, he was shot.

 

January 21 - Theophany

For the next week we will be in the Afterfeast of the Theophany, the great Feastday that we celebrated here on Thursday evening and Friday morning with the great blessing of the water at each service. While we generally associate Theophany, or Epiphany as it is also called, with the blessing that makes the holy water that we use throughout the year, but the meaning of the word Theophany is Appearance of God.  And as we discussed last Sunday, the appearance at issue is the beginning of Christ's ministry on earth when He voluntarily came to the Jordan River to be baptized by the Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John and began His ministry immediately after His Baptism.  And as today's Gospel reading from St. Matthew for the Sunday after Theophany makes clear Our Lord began that ministry with the same words that the Baptist had used before Him: "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." Today is also the Sunday of Zaccheus, yes already we are preparing to enter the Great Fast, very early this year, and this signals to us the beginning of the season of repentance.  But true repentance can only come through a serious confession of our sins and a sincere desire and intention to stop engaging in the behavior of which we have confessed before God.  The only way to do that is by the sacrament of confession, in which those sins are expressed orally before God, at which sacrament the priest is merely the witness to that sincere repentance before God.  As that witness, the priest can then read the prayer of repentance over the penitent asking God to show mercy on that person and grant unto him or her "an image of repentance." Only after that prayer does the priest absolve the penitent, by that power given by Christ to the Apostles, the power to loose and remit sins.
But repentance is only one aspect of the beginning of the ministry of Christ.  There is another important aspect that we hear about throughout the services of Theophany.  In those services, there is a constant leitmotif, that the appearance of God is all about light, the miracle of light.  In the vespers of Theophany the first Old Testament reading is from the first chapter and first verse of Genesis: "In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness."  In the beginning of the service of the Great Blessing of the Waters we hear the choir sing: "The Baptist became all trembling and cried aloud: How shall the candlestick illumine the light?"   The Prokeimenon of that service is all about light:   "The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?"  In the litany that follows and that comes before the blessing of the waters we pray "That the Lord our God will illumine us with the light of understanding and of piety with the descent of the Holy Spirit"   And as the priest prays before the blessing, we hear: "The Sun sings thy praises, the Moon glorifies Thee, the Stars also stand before thy presence. The light obeys thee."   The appearance of God reminds us that in the Creed we say: Light of Light, True God of True God." That light is the light about which we hear on Pascha: "Come take light from the light that never fails." It's the light of the Transfiguration, the uncreated light that shown forth from Christ on Mt. Tabor.  It's the light of enlightenment in the Tropar of Theophany that the choir will sing today as we bless the church with the new Holy Water: "O Christ our God thou has revealed thyself, and has enlightened the world, glory to Thee."  It's the "unapproachable light" of the Kondak of Theophay, It's that very light that we heard near the end of the Gospel today:
"The people which sat in darknss saw great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up."
Brothers and Sisters, let's take heed of the dual teachings in today's Gospel: each of us can come out of the darkness.  Each of us can heed the words of Our Lord and Repent!  And with that repentance each of us can place our feet on the path to salvation, the path that leads to the light, for the kingdom of God is at hand.
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 –
Emmanuel:
   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."