The St. Ignatius Youth Fellowship gathered at Fr. Patrick & Kh. Vanessa's house on Friday, January 4, for an evening of holiday fellowship and fun. The evening began with hors d'oeuvres and a Greek chicken dinner, and was followed by a fun time of sledding behind the school across the street from the Kinder's. The evening ended with a White Elephant gift exchange and lots of laughs!
Between pastoral visits to St. Elias, LaCrosse, WI, for their 100th Anniversary on December 1-2, 2012, and St. Nicholas, Grand Rapids, MI, December 8-9, Saidna ANTHONY was able to pass through Madison just in time to celebrate the Feast of St. Nicholas with a Hierarchical Vesperal Liturgy the evening of December 5. We were overjoyed to host Saidna in Madison for a couple of days where he could take a little rest between his pastoral visits and celebrate the memory of this great Saint of the Christian Church. The evening was highlighted with the celebration of Holy Communion with a wonderfully prepared dinner following the Divine Liturgy.
Saidna took some time to field questions from those present, questions relating to the state of the Orthodox Episcopacy in America, to the topic evolution, to the important issue of working with our children, especially regarding friendships in the world and the finding of faith compatability in potential spouses. Saidna preached at the liturgy on the Gospel of St. John chapter 10 and the life of the active Christian as demonstrated by St. Nicholas: Bishop ANTHONY part 1, Bishop ANTHONY part 2, Bishop ANTHONY part 3, Bishop ANTHONY part 4. It was also a special celebration because we were almost one year to the day of the first anniversary of Saidna's consecration to the episcopacy. We look forward to Saidna's next visit sometime in 2013. May God grant him many years!
Christ is born, glorify Him. Christ from heaven, go out to meet Him. Christ on earth, be exalted. Sing to the Lord all the whole earth; and that I may join both in one word, let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad, for Him who is of heaven and then of earth. Christ in the flesh, rejoice with trembling and with joy; with trembling because of your sins, with joy because of your hope.
Again, the darkness is past; again Light is made; again Egypt is punished with darkness; again Israel is enlightened by a pillar. The people who sat in the darkness of ignorance, let them see the great Light full of knowledge. Old things have passed away, behold all things have become new. The letter gives way, the Spirit comes to the front. The shadows flee away, the truth comes in on them. Melchizedek is concluded. He who was without Mother becomes without Father (without mother of His former state, without father of His second). The laws of nature are upset; the world above must be filled. Christ commands it, let us not set ourselves against Him. O clap your hands together all you people, because unto us a Child is born, and a Son given unto us, whose government is upon His shoulder (for with the cross it is raised up), and His name is called The Angel of the Great Counsel of the Father. Let John cry, prepare the way of the Lord; I too will cry the power of this Day. He who is not carnal is Incarnate; the Son of God becomes the Son of Man, Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever. Let the Jews be offended, let the Greeks deride; let heretics talk until their tongues ache. Then shall they believe, when they see Him ascending into heaven; and if not then, yet when they see Him coming out of heaven and sitting as Judge.
This is our present Festival; it is this which we are celebrating today, the Coming of God to Man, that we might go forth, or rather (for this is the more proper expression) that we might go back to God – that putting off of the old man, we might put on the new; and that as we died in Adam, so we might live in Christ, being born with Christ and crucified with Him and buried with Him and rising with Him. For I must undergo the beautiful conversion, and as the painful succeeded the more blissful, so must the more blissful come out of the painful. For where sin abounded grace did much more abound; and if a taste condemned us, how much more does the passion of Christ justify us? Therefore let us keep the Feast, not after the manner of a heathen festival, but after a godly sort; not after the way of the world, but in a fashion above the world; not as our own, but as belonging to Him who is ours, or rather as our master's; not as of weakness, but as of healing; not as of creation, but of re-creation…
The very Son of God, older than the ages, the invisible, the incomprehensible, the incorporeal, the beginning of beginning, the light of light, the fountain of life and immortality, the image of the archetype, the immovable seal, the perfect likeness, the definition and word of the Father: he it is who comes to his own image and takes our nature for the good of our nature, and unites himself to an intelligent soul for the good of my soul, to purify like by like.
He takes to himself all that is human, except for sin. He was conceived by the Virgin Mary, who had been first prepared in soul and body by the Spirit; his coming to birth had to be treated with honor, virginity had to receive new honor. He comes forth as God, in the human nature he has taken, one being, made of two contrary elements, flesh and spirit. Spirit gave divinity, flesh received it.
He who makes rich is made poor; he takes on the poverty of my flesh, that I may gain the riches of his divinity. He who is full is made empty; he is emptied for a brief space of his glory, that I may share in his fullness. What is this wealth of goodness? What is this mystery that surrounds me? I received the likeness of God, but failed to keep it. Hetakes on my flesh, to bring salvation to the image, immortality to the flesh. He enters into a second union with us, a union far more wonderful than the first.
Holiness had to be brought to man by the humanity assumed by one who was God, so that God might overcome the tyrant by force and so deliver us and lead us back to himself through the mediation of his Son. The Son arranged this for the honor of the Father, to whom the Son is clearly obedient in all things.
The Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep, came in search of the straying sheep to the mountains and hills on which you used to offer sacrifice. When he found it, he took it on the shoulders that bore the wood of the cross, and led it back to the life of heaven.
Christ, the light of all lights, follows John, the lamp that goes before him. The Word of God follows the voice in the wilderness; the bridegroom follows the bridegroom’s friend, who prepares a worthy people for the Lord by cleansing them by water in preparation for the Spirit. We need God to take our flesh and die, that we might live. We have died with him, that we may be purified. We have risen again with him, because we have died with him. We have been glorified with him, because we have risen again with him.
“When she saw where the soldiers had driven them, she cried out to the mountain: ‘O mountain of God, receive a mother with her child!’, and the rock opened and hid the mother and child inside itself.”
From The Prologue from Ochrid – Sept. 5, the feast day of the Holy Prophet Zacharias, the father of St. John the Baptist
(Having celebrated the conception of St. John the Baptist just a couple of Sundays ago (September 23) I was reminded of this meditation written for the 10/03 newsletter. I thought I’d share it here again….)
Miracles! Why are they sometimes so hard to believe? Or maybe the question should be, “Why are some miracles simple to believe while others are simply unbelievable?” True, there are several different levels of stories and miracles reported in the lives of the saints, from the historically accurate to what some call “legend.” For example there is a “legend” reported in the life of our holy patron, St. Ignatius of Antioch. The story of his martyrdom concludes with the Christians of Rome entering the coliseum when the lions had finished with the holy bishop to “gather up the heartier pieces” of his remains for proper burial. Legend tells us that as his heart lay open on the ground the Christians discovered the letters IC XC (Jesus Christ) written in gold inside his heart. Another legend, though much more historically feasible, tells us that when St. Ignatius was a young child he was the child whom Jesus “took… and put in the midst of [the disciples]” (Mark 9:36). Maybe some of you have noticed that the Church has assigned this Scripture passage to be read on the feast day of St. Ignatius.
I was intrigued by the question of miracles when I read the story of the Holy Prophet Zacharias, the father of St. John the Baptist, from the September Prologue:
“… and Zacharias was made dumb from that moment, and did not speak until his son was born and he had written on a tablet: 'His name is John.' Then his mouth was opened, and he glorified God. Later, when the Lord Christ was born and Herod began killing the children in Bethlehem, he sent men to find Zacharias's son and kill him, for he had heard of all that had happened to Zacharias and how John was born. Seeing the soldiers, Elisabeth took John in her arms – he was eighteen months old at that time – and fled from the house with him to a rocky and desert region. When she saw where the soldiers had driven them, she cried out to the mountain: 'O mountain of God, receive a mother with her child!', and the rock opened and hid the mother and child inside itself. Herod, furious that John had not been killed, ordered that Zacharias be cut down before the altar. Zacharias's blood spilled over the marble and became as hard as stone, remaining thus as a witness to Herod's wickedness. At the place where Elisabeth hid with John, a cave opened and a spring flowed forth, and a fruit-bearing palm grew up by God's power. Forty days after Zacharias's death, blessed Elisabeth also entered into rest. The child John stayed in the wilderness, fed by an angel and guarded by God's providence, until that day when he appeared by the Jordan.”
As I read this story I could not help but think about conversations I’ve had, especially with inquirers and converts to Orthodoxy, regarding the believability of such events. I know that the part about Zacharias not speaking would be believable because it is “in the Bible.” Maybe with some biblical awareness one might know that the Zacharias Jesus referred to in Matthew 23:35 was Zacharias, the father of St. John. However, I can just hear the questions about the rock opening and the commonly held Orthodox tradition that St. John was raised in the wilderness and fed by an angel from about the age of two.
There are countless examples of such miracles throughout the history of the Church. The question raised then is which ones do we “have to believe?” My answer would be that no one is forcing anyone to believe anything specific about the life of a saint and that if someone refuses to believe certain things it is up to their conscience. I would only caution such doubt because of what it does to nurture the passions of prideful opinion and self-reliance. When I let myself doubt one thing, soon it can lead to another, and another, and another; and pretty soon we are questioning the Incarnation of God and the Virgin birth of Jesus, or the validity of Holy Communion and the surety of the Resurrection, or the need for the Church to guide our Christian faith. One need not look far to see these doubts existing not only in secular atheistic circles but in some “Christian” circles as well!
As Orthodox Christians we are challenged by historical traditions which include embellished stories of many holy heroes from the past. A grain of salt is very tiny but maybe with judicious and spiritually mature usage we can bypass the temptation to doubt and leave ourselves open not only to the possibility that such things did happen in the lives of St. Ignatius, St. John and countless others, but also to the possibility that miracles of many kinds are happening right now in the unfolding of our own lives. Who knows, maybe one day someone will write an unbelievable story about the faith and life of one of us?
I am often asked questions about the culture of Orthodox Christianity. When this happens I usually have to clarify the question by asking, “Do you mean… ethnic culture, spiritual culture, administrative culture, etc.?” It’s a very difficult question to answer without considering the bigger picture. First of all, Orthodoxy is not a compartmentalized culture. It is a culture of integration: faith with life and life with faith. I believe we all agree that ideally God should be included in all aspects of our lives. But is He? This is a real question which, when answered, gives the real answer to questions about the culture of Orthodoxy. The culture of Orthodox Christianity is a culture which seeks to incorporate the presence of God in all aspects of one’s life. What do we often hear when people having traveled overseas describe their experience of an Orthodox country? “I could sense the life of the Church everywhere.” This was my experience in Lebanon, at least where we visited, and I have heard the very same thing from people (Americans in particular) who have traveled in Russia, Greece, the Balkan states, etc.
Whether we like it or not the culture of the Church which stands out most starkly in America is its ethnic culture; maybe it’s because Orthodoxy’s ethnic heritage stands out so dramatically in comparison to the Anglo-Saxon culture of America. The other day I was driving down Shafer Drive when one of our neighbors stopped me to say hello. The first words out of his mouth were, “We thought we would see you at Greek Fest last Sunday. We love it. Every year we plan and meet several of our friends over there for food, especially the desserts, and for the dancing. Does your church ever think they’ll do something like this?” Over the last several years I have gained a deeper appreciation for the ethnic heritage of the Orthodox Church. Yes, I love the food and all the related cultural amenities, but more importantly what has made a bigger impression is the cohesiveness of ethnic cultures. Greeks, Middle Easterners, Slavs, at least within their own cultures, are peoples who stick together. Maybe it is somewhat easy because of the homogeneity of their cultures, but there is a very real cohesiveness within these cultures that, in my view, is worth examining.
What concerns me most, and what I am meditating on here, is the spiritual culture of Orthodox Christianity, and its ability to cohesively hold men together in a splintering world. In comparison to Western Christianity the Orthodox Church, I have heard said, seems like a dinosaur. The Orthodox Church has not “gotten with it” regarding the changing times of post-modern society. The faith demands on the Orthodox Christian today are as great as they always have been. Theological, moral, disciplinary standards have only evolved in their revelation to the Church, and their content is immutable. In comparison, author Ross Douthat had this to say about the loss of an authentic (western) Christian core which started in the mid-twentieth century: “The mainline churches made few demands on those who flocked into its ranks in the 1950’s. In effect, many members acquired only a thin gloss or a ‘veneer’ of religiosity… (and) to some of their children, even the weak requirements of church membership seemed too burdensome or too pointless to assume.” The culture of Orthodox Christian spirituality is founded upon very real “demands;” demands which cannot be altered for the sake of convenience, disagreement, or political correctness. This does not mean that there cannot be struggle with the demands of our faith, or that on a case by case basis the application of standards can be pastorally modified, but the Church’s cohesive call to holiness cannot be altered.
The most compelling question I would like to ask here is this: What’s so bad about demands? The loving demands that are put on the Orthodox Christian are there for one reason: eternal life with God. Why do men argue with this, or say they are unnecessary, and even worse, just blow them off? The truth of it is, the Orthodox Church in the west has been deeply affected by clergy and laity alike putting demands on the Church, consequently compromising this cultural foundation. Some ask, “Why should we follow the antiquated practices of Liturgy (other than on Sunday,) Festal celebrations, Confession, personal prayer, fasting, a tithing stewardship, koinonia (Christian fellowship)?” These profound practices are the very foundation of our Holy Faith and without them, sadly, we will become a mere “veneer of religiosity,” and even worse than marginalized: pointless. Maybe this is what St. Paul meant when he said, “…in the last days [men will] hold the form of religion but deny the power of it” (2 Tim. 3:1-5).
In my meditation following my trip to Lebanon I made this comment: “What impressed me was not the beauty of the Lebanese culture, but rather the faith that made the culture of the Lebanese people beautiful.” It is my hope that we can continue to grow in appreciation for our own culture of Faith. Obviously we are not an ethnically homogenous people, so there is only one cohesive Truth that can hold us together: our Orthodox Faith which so beautifully prays: “Let us love one another so that with one accord (heart/mind) we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Trinity one in essence and undivided.”