Wednesday, December 18, 2013

On Sorrow and Affliction in the Christian life

By St. Dimitry of Rostov

"Observe a physician of the body, what does he do with the sick? Sometimes he prescribes bitter medicine; sometimes he must burn and cut malady away, he uses therapy to reveal the root cause of the pain. All this is done, of course, for healing and not for sickness, for life and not for death. The sick person may complain and groan, not wanting to receive bitter medicine, but when he becomes healthy he is very thankful to the physician. And so, the Lord, the Physician of our souls, seeing our putrid sinful wounds offers the needed method of healing. He burns away through misfortunes, He cuts away with unexpected grief, He gives us to drink tears of affliction; all this is done only for our healing, so as to bring us to life and restoration, as David said, “The Lord chastened me strictly, but He has not given me over to death” (Ps. 117:18).1 In the time of chastisement He is more good, rather than fierce, more compassionate, rather than angry; even though He pours wine on our wounds and cruel sorrows, it is never without oil;2 we are struck, but not without compassion, we pass through embitterment, but not without mercy and comfort.3

It is very necessary for us to be chastened, without which it is impossible to be healed of our spiritual festers. We must receive chastisement not with sorrow or grumbling but with thankfulness, with patience, and great courage of soul.4 Truly, in the midst of sorrows our human nature is inclined to grumble, complain, and break down in exhaustion; but, O lover Christ, do not break down, do not become faint of soul, take courage and your heart will be strengthened. Pray this prayer of St. John Chrysostom, “Lord, give unto me courage of soul!” O Christian with thankfulness speak in this way, “Blessed is God, for I know that I endure less than I deserve.” Remember your many shortcomings; do not refuse to endure the treatment, because after enduring you will bless God Who has healed you. “Blessed is the man who endures temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to them that love Him” (James 1:12), says the apostle. Do not be like an impatient person when some unpleasant thing happens, not in line with the wishes of his heart, he jumps on everyone with grumbling; such a one thinks everyone is guilty but him. You must never weaken; nail yourself to the cross of patience and courage.

Speak in this manner, “I'm ready to bear trials, only give me the strength.” Listen to what the apostle says, “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man, but God is faithful, Who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it” (1 Cor. 10:13). God allows sorrows for those He loves, according to what they can bear; He gives patience in the midst of sorrows to those who hope on Him. And so, cast your sadness upon the Lord, trust in Him, and He will protect your soul. Every persecution, embitterment, offense, abasement – all these are normal and bring salvation for the one who loves God. Our Mighty God soon turns weeping and crying into comfort and rejoicing. When a child is in the midst of learning he may be sorrowful and perplexed, but when he has completed it he is very joyful. Patiently endure and be expecting God's mercy early, later and at every hour. Listen to the words of the apostle, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into diverse temptations” (James 1:2).

So, in what should you rejoice? Rejoice in the fact that these things are bringing you benefit. Take for instance flax, until it undergoes the threshing process, until it is beaten and broken down with the scutching blade, it remains unfit for making rope or fabric; so it is with a soul that has not been ground, if it has not been softened by tribulations it cannot come to a knowledge of its own unworthiness. Gold and silver must be refined so as to be purged of impurities, likewise the soul is refined by everything that God allows; it comes to a knowledge of itself and its weakness, it learns humility and in this way is brought into the blessing of the Kingdom of Heaven. It is only “through much tribulation that we enter into the Kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22); heavenly crowns are given to those who endure evil in temptations. Who is the one worthy of eternal glory? Is it not the one who suffers though affliction, according to the apostle's words, “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 4:17). Endure then, O lover of God, that you may be called a beloved son of God. And when sadness and sorrow visit you, never doubt that you are one of God's beloved children.

Also, keep in mind that it is not always because of sin that evil circumstances befall us. Many righteous ones, for the benefit of their souls and for the testing of their faith and righteousness patiently endured much evil. Call to mind Job and Tobit the righteous God-pleasers. Who among the saints lived their life without sorrows, grief and sufferings? They sinned very little, but endured much. They were persecuted, treated with dishonor, and tortured, and still they rejoiced in the Lord; but you, O Christian, faint of soul, when you encounter a little misfortune become perplexed and sorrowful beyond reason. Truly, you do not desire to be turned away alone from the host of God's chosen ones, because you refused to endure those things that came upon you? Remember there is no unending pain, no sorrow that does not pass, therefore, have undoubting hope that in the end the strong Lord will turn your passing sadness into eternal joy."

Translated from Russian by Fr. Zechariah Lynch

1My own direct translation of the text, so as to stay more consistent with St. Dimitry's words. Ps. 118:24, MT
2Cf. Lk. 10:25ff. In ancient times wine was used as a disinfectant for wounds, the alcohol would cause a burning sensation. Oil was applied to sooth and coat the wound and help enhance natural healing properties.
“Heal, O Savior, the corruption of my debased soul, O only Physician. Apply the compress to me, and the oil and wine – works of repentance, compunction and tears.” Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, First Wednesday of Great Lent, Song 8.
3“My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; For whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives” (Heb. 12:5-6, Prov. 3:11-12)

4 Великодушие literally “greatness of soul”    

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Globalism is like a huge mill that grinds everything

“We must speak with children about the dangers of temptation. Toward the end of the 1950's a new epoch dawned in Europe, and two misfortunes came quickly upon us: the post-christian era and globalism, along with the erosion of faith and the crumbling of morality.

Now that I have reached old age I have begun to understand that in this time the last attack of the devil has begun, and it is directed against the treasures of the Orthodox faith and Christian life.

Globalism is like a huge mill that grinds everything; the result is an unrecognizable mixture in which no one will retain his personhood, and self-knowledge is lost. Now everything will be easy, everything will be allowed – total freedom, for the Church has stood as a hindrance and barrier (to these things).

Fr. Gregory of Mt. Athos

Translated from Russian. Athonite Elders, Moscow, 2011.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Do We Really Want Christ in Christmas?

Keep Christ in Christmas,” around town I have already seen a few billboards pleading the case. And it seems nice and noble, because what Christ loving Christian wants Christmas to degenerate into simply a commercialized day in the midst of the vague and generic heading of “Happy Holidays”? Yet, is it even possible to take Christ out of Christmas and would It still remain Christmas? And does the “secular” world really have the power to de-Christify (I just made that word up) Christmas? Or does this mysterious vanishing of Christ from Christmas have a more sinister origin? Indeed, I would argue, it does. It originates with Christians (I use this word in a general manner). Christ Jesus was long ago removed from the figurative American manger on Christmas morning by well meaning Christians. Unwittingly they replaced Him with, presents, meals, family, friends, and so on. For Christians, too many times now, Christmas morning is not about going to church and worshiping the God-Man, but about earthly goodies.

Do we really want Christ in Christmas? If Christ was the true center for us then maybe all our festivities (good when centered on Christ but worthless without Him) would have to take a secondary role. And do we really want that? As I pondered this mysterious vanishing of Christ from Christmas, I thought maybe I am wrong, and maybe there are plenty of Christian groups gathering on Christmas morning to worship God. Thus, I began making calls to various, mostly Protestant, churches in town inquiring about their Christmas time services. Almost no one had a service on Christmas day (although one church has a service on Christmas day in the evening, one of the Presbyterian churches will have a 11:30pm service Christmas eve. The Roman churches mostly have midnight services, which is a commendable practice, and some on Christmas morning. Yet I focused on Non-denomination, Evangelical Protestant churches, mainly because America has been typically a “Protestant” Nation). When I inquired as to a service on Christmas morning I was greeted mostly by a stunned silent pause, and an audibly baffled and confused “no” was the answer (I could almost hear the thought “don't you have presents to open?”). After a number of calls I simply gave up. Almost no Protestant church (at least in my town, as far as I can tell) is going to gather and worship God on Christmas morning. And who is taking Christ out of Christmas? The “world”?

Now I would conjecture that this trend, which is symptomatic of the overall greater trend of churchlessness that many who claim Christ subscribe to, and has its roots in the very prominent view of “individual relationship” with Jesus that most in the modern Protestant world adhere to (I purposely did not say “personal”). According to the very strong “me & Jesus” mentality, which dominates modern thought, why would I (me, myself) need to gather with others on Christmas? I can worship Jesus “in my heart” at home just as well, and open presents for that matter! And of course, Christ understands and condones (so the thought goes), because He always does (most of all when it agrees with my fancy). But if Christ is truly “in the heart”, then one would have a deep desire to gather and worship Him within the community of His Church, at least this has been the Christian practice for 2,000 years. A person will give preeminence to that which is the true treasure of the heart. As Someone once said, "Where your treasure is, there your heart shall be also." And yes this treasure costs us something.

On Nativity morning, the day when the birth of the Incarnate God-Man is celebrated (and just in case you missed that, it is the day when Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus, who is both fully God and fully man; together with the whole mystery of God Himself entering into the human arena in such a physical manner) it has become common and, indeed, even the expected practice of many Christians to just stay at home. Again who is, as it were, removing Christ from Christmas?

But that's what services on Christmas Eve are for, right?

A service on Christmas is just bothersome (I can't sit around in my PJ's). Why would we go to church on Christmas morning when we can ooh and awe over baby Jesus the night before? When it comes down to it service on Nativity morning interferes with the other (seemingly) important things we have to do, like presents and food. And we do not want that! And then we wonder why the world does not take Christmas seriously, and why it is so eager to exclude Christ from the feast!? He becomes a nice guest to  whom we give a corner seat and occasionally turn and say, “Cheers Jesus!” The world is simply secularizing common “Christian” (American) practice. The jolly old guy who gives out stuff is more important than the Son of God made the son of man. 

Now, this may seem harsh, and indeed it may well be. But as Christians, and most of all Orthodox Christians, why would we want to be in any other place but God's Temple on the incredibly awesome day of the Nativity? As the sun rises on the “Today” of Christ's birth, and the very air seems to tremble with the mystery, and that which was veiled even to the eyes of angels is revealed on earth, “Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One … for our sake the Eternal God is born as a little child!” Yet, we cannot hear the mysterious silence because we insist on giving preeminence to a din of our own creation. If we cannot hear the mystery how then do we expect the world to? If we have not prepared our hearts to receive the Lord on the day of His birth according to the flesh, how will they then contain the grace of God? If we are not willing to make that effort to come and fall down before the Eternal One, Only Begotten of the Father, now begotten in time by the Most-Pure Virgin, then how can we expect the world to even care? Should we be surprised that many are eager to keep Christ out of Christmas? 

Christmas loses its meaning devoid of worship. Presents, meals, and even family become hollow shells of nicety when the marrow of worship on Christmas day is removed. The seemingly simple action of ignoring worship on Christmas preaches a very clear message - these other things mean more to us; thus the world has taken hold of that message and has run with it. Christmas is about things, Christmas is about food, Christmas is about get-togethers. Christ? Well, those who claim to follow Him don't want the journey to honor Him to interfere with these things, so why would we? Christ? Those who claim to be His followers were the first ones to replaced Him with all these things. If His own do not really want worship of Him to disrupt Christmas festivities, then why should we?

Granted, thankfully, this practice of staying at home has no origins whatsoever in the Orthodox Christian Faith, but it sure can influence those of us who are among the “faithful.” And we must actively resist its falseness. There is only one place for us as Orthodox Christians on Christmas morning and that is greeting Our Incarnate Lord of Glory, falling down with the hosts of heavenly ranks, and chanting “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Nothing else matters. Corruption is overthrown, death is crumbling, sin is dethroned, Christ is born, glorify Him! The Sun of Righteousness has risen, The Orient from on high has dawned, glorify Him!

Thus this mysterious tragedy of Christ being removed from Christmas is not an exterior happening. It cannot be fixed by public manger scenes (as nice as they are), nor billboards and bumper stickers. These are simply external band-aids on an internal malady.

Would we see “Christ in Christmas?” Then we must begin by removing the world and materialism from the manger of our own hearts, and there enshrine Christ. Thus on Christmas morning, wake up and come to the Temple of God, the Church, and there offer a gift of sacrifice and praise for the unfathomable mercy He has performed on our behalf; then go and enjoy presents, meals, family, and friends. Then these things will be filled with Christ Jesus our Lord because they will be spinning on the axis of worship, the worship of God Incarnate. Then everything will truly matter, and everything will shine with the light of Christ.

When you are asked: "what do you do on Christmas morning?" Tell them, I go and worship Jesus Christ God Incarnate, what else is there?    

Monday, November 11, 2013

The New-Martyr Pavel of the Russian Far East

1886 saw a terrible cholera epidemic in the city of Kolyvan, Siberia when young Pavel (Paul) Lasareff was 6 years old. Days passed while the family watched wagons carrying many bodies to be buried. From the Orthodox Church, the sound of the mournful bells rang out day after day. On Trinity Sunday, young Pavel clung to his mother in fear, and that evening, he refused to eat.
He went to bed, but there was for him only restless sleep, as there had been for days. In his bedroom, he awakened to see his icon of the Virgin Mary illuminated by the hanging icon lamp. He could think of nothing else but the cholera epidemic and the endless bodies he had seen taken away. He jumped out of bed, knelt on the floor, and extended his hands toward the image of the Holy Mother. He prayed, imploring her help and salvation from the terrible death around him. He prostrated himself on the floor and then grew calm in silent supplication. “Save my beloved mother, father, brothers and sister; save our dear nanny and the whole city.”
Suddenly, he sensed a light, straightened up and stood on his knees. The amazed child fearfully looked at an unusual miraculous appearance. “Standing in place of the silver-clad icon, dressed in a light blue garment and bathed in beams of brilliant light, was the Holy Virgin Mary! “O Queen of Heaven. O most Holy Mother of God save us!” Pavel clearly remembers whispering this prayer with tears running down his cheeks, and he heard her say, “Child, your and others’ prayers have been heard by Almighty God. Do not be afraid and tell your mother that the epidemic of cholera will stop on Nikolaievsk Street.” “Thanks be to God,” he whispered, and the divine appearance disappeared.
This incident began the life of Pavel Lasareff. After a few days the epidemic stopped precisely at the spot that the Virgin Mary had predicted (barely two blocks from his house), and from that point on Pavel faithfully followed Christ. He sang in the church choir, became well educated, obtaining a university degree, served in the Russo-Japanese War, married Claudia Sintsoff; and in 1916 was ordained into the priesthood of the Orthodox Church. All the while he remained mindful of the compassion shown throughout his life by the Virgin Mary. Father Pavel and his wife, Matushka Claudia, raised four children: Eugene, Leon, Barbara and Militina

Fr. Pavel & Mat. Claudia
But struggle marked the life of the priest’s family. Matushka Claudia became paralyzed on the left side of her body. Six months of medical attention proved to no avail. One night Fr. Pavel had a dream in which the Bishop who ordained him appeared and told him that the Holy Virgin Mother would soon visit, and that oil from the vigil lamp in the church was to be applied to the ailing parts of Claudia’s body. The visitation of the Virgin Mother came through the wonder-working icon of the Theotokos of Abalak, which was traveling from village to village. Again, the Virgin Mother took care of the family and Matushka Claudia was completely healed.
But soon the family was to experience the most horrible trial of all. 1918 brought the wave of the Russian Revolution across the land, and Fr. Pavel revealed to his Matushka that the time for martyrdom and death for Christ’s Church was approaching. He begged her to be courageous and to support him when the frightful hour would come. When Fr. Pavel was ordained, the Bishop prophesied to him that soon dark Satanic forces would persecute the Church. Before the Holy Gospel the Bishop asked if he was ready as a warrior of Christ’s Army not to betray the Temple of God. Fr. Pavel answered, “Yes!” The newly ordained Priest Pavel served in the Siberian village of Antonovka located in the Russian Far East (the closest major city was Vladivostok).

In the summer of 1918 severe drought plagued many parts of Russia. The villagers of Antonovka asked Fr. Pavel to serve a Moleben (Te Deum) service in the fields asking God in His mercy to send rain. Thousands of farmers formed a procession carrying the church banners, icons, and the Holy Gospel onto the fields after the Sunday Liturgy. Fr. Pavel prayed deeply and zealously while the villagers prostrated themselves in the grass. Suddenly lightning flashed followed by the violent roaring of Siberian thunder; then came a calm stillness along with mounting darkness. In the distance, the growing sound of heavy falling rain could be heard in the dense mass of the virgin Siberian forest. The people jumped up and began to run to the village. Only the priest, his eldest son, some banner carriers, and the choir remained until the end of the prayer service. Eugene, Fr. Pavel's oldest son, remembered, “Happy under the soaking rain, Father and I entered the main street of the village following the group of banner carriers.” The villagers joyfully lined up along the fences and crossed themselves, venerating the church banners as they passed by.

One day in early winter, 1918, Fr. Pavel solemnly came to the breakfast table and said in a very serious tone, “The bishop who ordained me appeared to me in a dream. He blessed me and put his bishop's stole (omofor) on my shoulders, then he pulled the sleeve off my arm from the elbow to my wrist. A blue line of vein stood out; along the vein six red round spots were marked. The bishop pointed to the six points and said, 'be ready to commit yourself into the hands of God: after six months the servants of Satan will kill you!'”
From this time forward Fr. Pavel became even more focused in the work given to him by God, and he would often show spontaneous affection for his wife and children.
He was overheard to tell his wife, “Do not be distressed nor be sorrowful; when it will be particularly painful, call to mind the dreadful suffering of the Most Holy Mother of God, Who witnessed the suffering on the Cross of Her beloved Son, of whose innocence She was aware.”
Fr. Pavel was a fearless defender of his flock. When asked to flee before the Communists he refused to abandon the church and the people entrusted to him.

After midnight in the dark early hours of June 7th, 1919, the eve of Holy Trinity Sunday (Pentecost), a group of nine armed Bolsheviks came to arrest Fr. Pavel. The Communist killers appeared at the home armed and with bayonets fixed. When his hour came he was calm. He made a last sign of the cross in front of his icon corner and kissed the central icon. The holy image of the Heavenly Queen heard the last prayer of Reverend Father Pavel. Before he was taken away he blessed and kissed his wife and children telling them, 'Pray to the Queen of Heaven, and she will help, guide and save you all.'
Fr. Pavel was taken to a school building in the neighboring village of Nikitovka, which was being used as the Bolshevik headquarters. Eugene rode with a delegation of villagers the next day to obtain Fr. Pavel's release, but the mission failed. He was sentenced to death because he refused to renounce Christ and make a public announcement that he had deceived the people about the existence of God. This was the last time Eugene saw and embraced his father. Fr. Pavel asked about Matushka Claudia and the other children, then in parting he said, “Tell Mama that I will come home tonight and be with you until the end of your lives.” By this he meant that he would be martyred that evening. When his father was taken away, Eugene covered his face while hot tears ran down his cheeks. Some of the Bolsheviks then forced Eugene to a window saying, “Look, open your eyes, you snakish breed to see how we punish lackeys of capitalistic bloodsuckers.” Outside the window stood a family friend, the Roman Catholic priest, Ignatius from the village of Rakovka in front of a firing squad. When Eugene tried to look away, one of the men burned his neck with his cigarette, and he fainted. He later learned that his father, along with the Catholic priest had been shot and their bodies taken somewhere and either burned or buried. Reverend Father Pavel had become one of the New Martyr’s of the Russian Communist Revolution, standing for his faith in Christ and His Church. He was martyred on the Feast of Pentecost,  May 20th/June 2nd, 1919.

That young son of Fr. Pavel, Eugene Lasareff-Mironoff, fled later to the United States as a grown man and became one of the outstanding choir directors of St. Michael’s Orthodox Church in Pueblo, Colorado. The icon of the New Martyr Pavel hangs in St. Michael’s today, a gift from Helen, Eugene’s wife. Both are buried in Imperial Cemetery in Pueblo. 

Troparion to New-Martyr Pavel, Tone 4-

O Holy new-martyr Pavel/
Faithful priest and servant of Christ/
Willingly didst thou shed thy blood for Him/
And in the midst of godless apostasy/
Thou wast unshaken in the Orthodox Faith/
Therefore entreat Christ our God/
That we may faithfully endure to the end//
And that our souls may be saved!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

My Discovery of the Early Church ... Alive Today!

Some reasons why we are Orthodox, testimonies of various parishioners. The following is by Pavel Holder.

Almighty God has always demonstrated that history is important; in fact, His entire written word is based upon the timeline of Jesus’ entry into human history and the ancient prophecies that had announced His coming. Even to the casual outside observer, it is obvious that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob endorsed the development and recording of human history throughout the Bible, in book after book, inspiring its writers to record even the most minute of details. The Bible is obviously a ‘history’ book and God uses history in time and on earth to fulfill His purposes!

Martin Luther and the start of the Protestant Reformation
So, why did I ignore history? Why did I dismiss the early Church as though history ended with the last apostle’s letter in the Bible? Did God Himself stop working in history after His Son died on the cross and rose again? How could I ignore the solid evidence of even secular writers during the early Church period recording early worship and practices? These questions and more helped initiate my personal journey from Pentecostalism and the Protestant world, to the absolute, undeniably historical truth of Orthodoxy.
These questions, and more, began to disturb me as I read early Christian documents, only to find out that the early Church was definitely a different entity than I had thought it was- and very little matched contemporary Christianity. I discovered that the first century church was absolutely liturgical in worship & practices, even while the Apostles were alive to correct errors! I had always been taught through out my life that the Holy Spirit had left the earth after the last Apostle died and had come down again on Martin Luther who revived the ‘real’ church, yet I began to discover that the Church was very much alive from 33AD to this very day in Holy Orthodoxy. Even Jesus’ brother, James, wrote a liturgical service which is still used, and hundreds of other practices established in the 1st century are carried out by men, women and children around the world today who claim ‘right belief/right worship’ or ‘ortho-doxy.

For example, the early Church saw its existence as a specific entity, not something that was nebulous in membership. There was no idea of various denominations with differing beliefs and practices; just because a person thought he was a Christian, did not make it necessarily true. A person either IN the Church or OUT of it depending on what you believed, and clearly defined councils endorsed specific beliefs or anathematized them. The idea of 40,000 ‘Christian’ denominations would be unthinkable to the early Christians who proclaim “one holy, Catholic and apostolic church’. They knew only a specific set of beliefs and practices, defined and established while the Apostles were still alive! How could history ignore those and change or update the Church? How could beliefs be so nebulous as to be opposing in various denominations yet still proclaim that the Holy Spirit had led the way for each?
I became disturbed that contemporary Christians ignore and even demean the role of Mary, Jesus’ mother. I discovered that the early Church revered the Virgin Mary, calling her Theotokos, the Mother of God, from very early history. They believed that she was ever virgin, and the Apostles reinforced that understanding. Yet, even I have witnessed a disrespect of Mary to the point that contemporaries would be horrified to call her ‘blessed’. No modern man or woman would stand for anyone making derogatory remarks about a mother, yet the overall disrespect for the Virgin Mary is rampant in modern Christianity.

Catacomb art of the Last Supper
As a Protestant I rejected the belief that Holy Communion could possibly be the actual body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, yet it is absolutely clear from early documents and from Jesus’ words themselves that He gave the Church His very real body and blood in the cup of communion. It is even clear from ancient secular documents that Christians were accused of being cannibals! There was a clear belief even outside the Church that Christians believed they were eating the flesh and blood of their Savior! The grape juice and cracker ‘memorial’ I celebrated as a Protestant was totally opposite of the understanding of early Christians. History forced me to change my thinking.

Why had obvious, documented history been ignored? Were the early Christians deceived? Had the Apostles failed in their teaching? Had ‘the gates of Hell’ prevailed against the Church, though Jesus said they would not? Had the Holy Spirit been so weak as to be unable to guide the Church? Jesus Himself had told us that the “Holy Spirit will lead you to all truth”. Was Jesus a liar? If there was one truth and one Holy Spirit, how could He guide 40,000 denominations, each believing and practicing something different? Was Christianity something like an amoeba, or was it a definite, observable, definable entity throughout the world? It was impossible for me to conceive that Jesus had even told us in the Bible: “my body is real food, and my blood is real drink” and “unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you”. How could I practice communion as though it meant very little, nothing more than a “here’s to you Jesus” memorial with some grape juice and a cracker? If it really were His body and blood, wouldn’t worship, doctrine and practice uphold that belief?

My conclusion: either there WAS a Church whose practice was unbroken since the beginning and which Jesus had set up, or Christianity was nothing but a free-for-all, incorporating any belief in direct opposition to others with no real consequences. Did it matter in history how God wanted to be worshipped? History, both secular and religious, could not be ignored. I concluded that there had to be an historical Church, worshiping the same way since Jesus’ death whose members believed together the same things since his death as well, or “Jesus the same yesterday, today and forever” was a myth. If there were such a church, it would also be worldwide, established everywhere the Apostles traveled.

Christ Enthroned, from a 6th century cave church
The only Christian Church with the historical record establishing it immediately after Jesus’ death, worshiping the same way, unchangeable in essence and not ‘modernized’, guided by the same Holy Spirit, and endorsed throughout time and the world by a consistent message could only be The Holy Orthodox Church. There is no other Church, which has not been ‘updated and modernized’ or changed in existence other than Holy Orthodoxy. I became convinced that here is no other church, which can demonstrate by documented historical records that doctrine, and practice is not a ‘pick-and-choose-what-you-like’ existence. Either Jesus and His Holy Spirit were able to establish, endorse and keep the Church throughout time, utilizing the holy Apostles and their followers, or this is not a work of God Himself, omnipotent and glorious, unto ages of ages. Denominations could not just invent themselves and their practices hundreds of years after Jesus’ death and be part of the historic church.

The more I discovered about the ancient Christian Church, the more I saw that its beliefs and practices were being ignored and de-emphasized as unimportant by contemporary Christianity, though it was obvious even to me that God’s purposes are worked out in and through a consistent message throughout history. The Church calendar year repeating in minute detail the life of Christ and His saints, the early councils, infant baptism, regular fasting periods, Church hierarchy, asceticism and so many more doctrines and practices I researched in the ancient Church were alive and well in contemporary Orthodoxy. I had no other choice than to follow the ancient Christians from 33AD to this very day, and at the end of the historical line, up to date and up to the minute, I discovered the Holy Orthodox Church. Begun by Jesus, carried on by the Apostles, and unbroken to this very day, I had finally discovered “the pearl of great price” for my life.   

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Why Orthodoxy? Body and Blood: Holy Communion as the foundation of true Christian Worship

True Christianity has always been maximalistic in Its belief. In recent times there has developed an idea that It should, and must be minimalistic. The nebulous line goes, “As long as you believe Jesus is Lord.” What kind of Lord or God becomes secondary to a degree. In fact one can get the impression that not even God Himself is sure what to teach those who believe in Him, one year He is speaking this, and then in a few years it changes (again!), to the point that He even seems to tell different groups radically different things!

Due to this relativism of belief, many foundational tenets of Christianity have been ignored or outright rejected by various groups. One such vital and unalterable cornerstone is Holy Communion. It has been the defining mark of True Christian worship since the very beginning. It is abundantly clear that Christians from the earliest times knew Holy Communion to be the Body and Blood of Christ. Not until the past few hundred years did the idea arise that it is not in truth Body and Blood, but only figuratively.

Let us look briefly at Christian teaching.

Christ Jesus Himself instituted Holy Communion. All three synoptic Gospels record a very similar command from the Lord, “Take, eat, this is My Body … Drink from it, all of you, for this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins … Do this in remembrance of Me” (Cf. Mat. 24:26-29, Mk. 14:22-25, Lk. 22:17-20). This is My Body and Blood. Most of the time in the Gospels when Christ speaks in a parable (figuratively) He goes on to explain to His disciples the underlying meaning of the figure. Here He does not, He makes a simple statement. But let us continue. In the Gospel according to John, we find a very detail teaching by Christ on His Body and Blood. Since the beginning this passage had been seen as Eucharistic, and not until the past few hundred years has it been couched it in a figurative light by those who refuse the very evident and literal intent of Christ's words. Christ says, “Truly, Truly, I say to you, Moses has not given you the bread out of heaven, but My Father gives you the bread, the true one, out of the heavens. For the bread of God is the One coming down from the heavens and giving life to the world … I am the bread of life; the one who comes to me in no wise shall hunger; and the one who believes in Me in no wise shall thirst at any time” (Jn 6:32-35). Christ Jesus clearly identifies His very Self as being life-giving bread. This is one of the many very purposeful I AM (Ego Eimi) statements in St. John.

In the following verse, Christ's Jewish listeners begin murmuring because He has identified Himself as the bread from heaven (cf. Jn 6:41). At this point the Lord begins to be even more explicit in His teaching, “Truly, Truly, I say to you, the one who believes in Me has everlasting life. I am (Ego Eimi) the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness and died. This One is the bread of life, the One coming down out of the heavens, in order that anyone might eat of it and not die. I am the bread of life, the living one, the One having come down out of the heavens; if anyone should eat of this bread, he shall live forever” (Jn. 6:47-51a). Come … eat. The Greek word here is clearly, to eat (phago). But, once again, Christ Jesus does not stop at the concept of eating. He continues the teach them, “And indeed the bread that I will give is My flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (Jn. 6:51b). His listeners if not already confounded are even more so, they wonder loudly and doubtfully how this could be (cf. Jn. 6:52).

At this point, the Lord makes His strongest statement yet, “Amen, Amen, I say to you, unless you should eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you are not having life in yourselves. The one who partakes of My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life; and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food and My blood is true drink. The one who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him … the one who eats Me, even he shall live because of Me” (Jn 6: 53-57, bold highlights mine). Christ progressively reveals the unfathomable truth He is speaking about, come and eat, eat My flesh, drink My blood. In the Greek, the complete force of Christ's words is clearly evident. Unfortunately, some translations have softened this force. True (bold in the quoted text) is aleethis, which means as true as true can be, reality, most certainly, existent truth, in other words right now Christ is emphasizing - I am not speaking in figures. The word 'partakes' is the Greek word trogo which means quite clearly to gnaw, crunch, or masticate. This use of partake/eat is clearly not figurative. An honest look at the context of these verses reveals that Christ Jesus was very clear about the need to receive His Body and Blood. The end result of this teaching is that many of His disciples leave saying, “Hard is this saying; who is able to hear it” (Jn 6:60)? The Lord does not at this point tell them, “Wait I am speaking in figures! You do not really have to eat my Body or literally drink my Blood. This is just an image of spiritual communion with Me!” No. In fact, He is so serious about this teaching that He asks the twelve if they would like to leave also. The Lord also reveals that reception and belief in the mystery of Holy Communion come by the Holy Spirit, “It is the spirit that makes alive; the flesh profits nothing, the words I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (Jn 6:63).

The very earliest Christian witnesses, outside of Scripture, confirm an unshakable belief in Holy Communion as the Body and Blood of Christ. St. Ignatius of Antioch (a disciple of the Apostle John) says regarding Communion, “Breaking one bread, which is the medicine of immortality, the antidote we take in order not to die but live forever in Jesus Christ.” And again he says, “Take care, therefore, to participate in one Eucharist (for there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup, which leads to unity through His blood ….” Another witness of early Christian worship, St. Justin Martyr, relates, “we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but as Jesus Christ our Savior being incarnate by God's word took flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the word of prayer which comes from him, from which our flesh and blood are nourished by transformation, is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus.” The list of testimony could go on, down until our own day, but there is not enough space here for that.

One would do right to wonder why such a paramount belief has been reduced, minimized, and even abandoned by so many groups who claim Jesus Christ as Lord?

Orthodox Christianity has held true to the vital Christian belief of Christ's true Body and Blood throughout the years, it is indeed the foundation and apogee of true Christian worship. 

Thursday, August 8, 2013

True Christianity is not relaxation

St. Dimitry of Rostov

Be zealous, o man, and always be a blaze in soul; flee despondency and coldness so that you will not hear: Because “you were neither cold nor hot … I will vomit you out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:15, 16). Strive to be watchful and do not waste the time of your life in vanity, for it has been given to you for the correction of soul and the acquiring of eternal good. Look to it that not one day would pass in vainity – for if you lose the day (to vanity) then you will never have it again. If a day has passed, it has passed; it is not within your power to return it. Therefore, do not waste your day on emptiness, instead use the given flow of time to perfect yourself. True life was not given to you in vain, but for this: that you would use each day for profit and be accomplishing the struggle (podvig) for virtues; never be idle.

True life (spiritual life) is not relaxation, but battle and war, a time for trading, a school, a navigation across the sea. There can be no tranquility during war, or rest in school or in trading, or ease when sailing upon the sea. Who is on the sea without fear and sobriety? Who is in the midst of war without dread? Who goes to market or school for rest? No one. Be not slothful in the things of God, nor despondent, but resolutely ready yourself and labor. For you the harvest is now; now is the time for trading;1 now is the time for buying – reap and buy now so that you will not be found with empty hands, a stranger to God's grace, and turned over to sever judgment. The Lord rebuked the lazy servant, not for receiving and preserving the talent, but for failing to multiply it, “You wicked and lazy servant … you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at My coming I would have received back my own with interest” (Mat. 25:26-7).

Do not bury the talent given to you in the earth through sloth and carelessness, instead strive, be vigilant, ceaselessly adding warmth to warmth and fire to fire, so that you multiply the good given to you and may daringly say to the Lord on that Day, “Here, Lord, I have gained five talents,” and you will hear the Lord's sweet voice, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your lord” (Mat. 25: 20-21).

Translated from Russian by Fr. Zechariah Lynch

1 cf. The parable of the Hidden Treasure and the Pearl of Great Price, Matthew 25: 13:44-46.   

Saturday, July 6, 2013

True Christianity and The Fundamental Task of the "New" World

By Archbishop Averky of blessed memory, +1976

The fundamental task of the servants of the coming Antichrist is to destroy the old world with all its former concepts and "prejudices" in order to built in its place a new world suitable for receiving its approaching "new owner" who will take the place of Christ for people and give them on earth that which Christ did not give them ....
One must be completely blind spiritually, completely alien to true Christianity not to understand all this!
Zeal for God, zeal for the Truth is not "phariseeism," just as "humility" before the enemies of God, the enemies of the Church, before diabolical Evil, is not the true and saving humility of the Publican, but just destructive self-deception, leading to the depths of hell.
In our times, when there are such strong doubts about even the existence of Truth, when every "truth" is considered relative and it is considered proper for each person to hold to "his own truth," the struggle for the Truth acquires a particularly important meaning. And the person who does not sympathize with this struggle, who sees in it only a manifestation of "phariseeism" and suggests "humbling oneself" before Falsehood by falling away from the Truth, should naturally be recognized as a betrayer of the Truth, whoever he might be, whatever he might call or consider himself.

Thus we evidently have lived to see this "terrible and quick collapse of the structure of the Church!" The enemy of the human race is employing all his efforts and all his means to pull it down, and he is widely supported in this by open and secret apostates from the true faith and Church, including even those who have betrayed their high vocations and oaths as clergymen and even as hierarchs heading certain individual churches.
In truth, we are experiencing a terrible time, a time such as has never before been seen in the history of Christianity, in the history of mankind! A time of almost total instability!
And insofar as we wish to remain faithful to true Orthodoxy, many obligations are placed upon us. We must, as Bishop Ignatius instructs us, avoid and protect ourselves from the Apostasy which is growing so rapidly in the world. We must defend ourselves against the corrupting spirit of the times to avoid its influence.
And to this end we must first of all understand and never forget: that at the present time not everything that bears the most holy and most dear name of Orthodoxy really is Orthodoxy. There now also exists pseudo-Orthodoxy, which we must fear and from which we must flee as from fire; that true Orthodoxy is only that which does not accept and does not permit in anything, either in teaching or in church practices, any sort of innovations opposed to the Word of God and the decrees of the Universal Church; that true Orthodoxy does not bless and does not indulge modern fashion- the morality and customs of the modern, corrupt world, which, even more than in Apostolic times, is lying in evil, for it is a world which has abandoned God; that true Orthodoxy considers only pleasing God and saving souls, not arrangements for temporary, earthly happiness, a career, and earthly advantages and possessions; that true Orthodoxy is spiritual, not natural and carnal, not attached to the earth-to earthly feelings and experiences.

As salt preserves food from decay and makes it healthful and pleasant to the taste, so too true Christians preserve the world from moral decay and facilitate its return to health. But if the salt "loses its savor," as the Gospel says, i.e. "loses its strength" (in the East there actually is a kind of salt which can lose its taste), then it becomes good for nothing except to be "thrown out to be trodden under foot of men" (cf. the Gospel reading for the third day of the feast of Pentecost, Matt. 5:313).
How terrible this is! And we find ourselves living in such times when the tendency dominating the world is directed toward making all Christians such "salt which has lost its savor," once it has abolished the true Church of Christ derived from the Holy Apostles and thus has deprived Christians of the grace of the Holy Spirit.
This is the so very fashionable, so-called "ecumenical movement," which is based in the position that supposedly the true Church of Christ does not presently exist on earth and it is necessary to create it anew...through the unification of all Christians belonging to various "churches" and confessional associations and organizations; this will be done by various mutual concessions in matters of doctrine and the development of a new, common system of doctrine acceptable to all and, along with it, of course, a new world view.

And the opinion, extremely popular in our times, that "it's all the same which church you go to; after all, God
The Ark of Salvation
is one" is in agreement with this tendency. 
Yes! God is one, but, you know, He also gave us one faith; He created one Church for us, not many different faiths and "churches." This is confirmed by the holy Apostle Paul when he says, "One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all," and so we Christians should form "one body and one spirit," as we are called to "in one hope of our calling" (Eph. 4:4-6).

If there is only one true faith and only one true Church, then as a consequence all other faiths and "churches" are false, not true. How then can anyone say that all faiths and "churches" are of equal value and that "it is all the same which church you go to." Therefore one can and must speak not of the ecumenical unification of everyone for the creation of some new Church, but only of the restoration of union between all who have fallen away and the one true Church of Christ to which Christ the Savior Himself gave the great and sure promise that "the gates of hell will not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18).

While struggling resolutely against the most minute manifestations of evil and sin in our own souls, let us not fear to uncover and point out evil everywhere where it is to be found in modern life-not from pride and self-love, but only out of love for the truth. Our chief task in this evil time of lying shamelessness is to remain totally faithful and devoted to the genuine truth of the Gospel and to the author of our salvation, Christ, the Giver of life Who rose on the third day from the tomb, the Conqueror of hell and death.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Orthodox Vespers Service for the New Martyr Grand Duchess Elizabeth

Having been deeply moved by the life of the New-Martyr Elizabeth, I began searching for service material so that we may serve her feast day, but was unable to find it in English. Yet, with the help of a friend I was able to find it in Slavonic. The translation below is by my wife and me. Although there may be another translation out there somewhere, I hope this will enable others seeking service material in English to offer praise to God in His saints. New-Martyr Elizabeth pray to God for us!

The New-Martyr Elizabeth

Vespers Service to the Venerable-Martyr Elizabeth and Her Companions
July 5th/18th
Composed by a Hieromonk of Mt. Athos
Julian (Old) Calender rubric- if the Superior allows the service may be done in conjunction with that of the Venerable Sergius of Radonezh

Lord I have called, Tone 1, on 6 -
melody: O Heavenly Ranks

O Venerable-Martyr Elizabeth, * Taking up the cross upon thy shoulders,* thou wast obedient even unto death * for the sake of thy Beloved, crying out * no one can separate me * from His love!

O Venerable-Martyr Barbara, * thou wast faithful to thy superior in this temporal life, * remaining steadfast until the end * according the word of Christ, the Leader and Judge of the contest, * the one who is faithful in little, * shall be faithful in much.

Grown from a blessed root, * subdeacon John, Constantine, and Igor, princes and patient passion-bearers, * and good sufferers for Christ. * O Lord, when the time of our testing comes upon us * may we bring forth spiritual fruit, * and also be crowned.

Today we celebrate the venerable Serge, * and the translations of relics, * O Grand Duke and passion-bearer Serge, * thou hast crossed over to eternity, * together with the faithful Feodor. * All these saints we magnify!

GloryTone 6
Lambs of the True Shepherd, and revealed passion-bearers, * O Venerable-Martyrs Elizabeth, and Barbara, * great princes John, Constantine, Igor and Serge, * patient sufferer Feodore together with Vladimir, * amidst the wild wolves you were unharmed, * you came to a good end and preserved your faith in Christ the Great Shepherd; * now you abide in the divine heavenly mansions.
Now and ever …
Theotokion or Stavrotheotokion in the same tone

Verses from the Octoechos

GloryTone 8
O praised Martyrs of Christ, * subduing1 all mortal inclinations, * you looked upon temporal death as nothing, * and arming yourselves with bravery * you went in courageous wisdom to battle, * and now are clothed in victorious glory, * counted together with the righteous, * along with all of them, * we praise and magnify you!

Now and ever
Theotokion or Stavrotheotokion in the same tone

Troparion, Tone 4

Meekness, humility and love dwelt in thy soul, * Diligently didst thou minister unto the suffering; * O Holy Passion-Bearer Princess Elizabeth, * With faith didst thou also endure suffering and death * For Christ with the Martyr Barbara. * Together with her pray for all them that honor you with love.2

Kontakion, Tone 4

From the glories of an earthly kingdom, * through taking up the Cross, thou didst pass over into heavenly glory; * by praying for thine enemies, thou hast obtained eternal joy, * O Holy Martyr Grand Duchess Elizabeth, * and the Martyr Barbara, * pray for the salvation of our souls.

Unless otherwise noted translated by Fr. Zechariah and Mat. Natalia

The original Slavonic may be found here

1Literally: persecute

2 Not our translation, from the book Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia. 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Being filled with the Holy Spirit

God has given mankind to participate in communion with Him out of His rich mercy and grace, without which it would be impossible. Through Christ's taking to Himself our very human nature, without sin, and deifying it, we may now participate and abide in the grace of God. Man's nature is redeemed and deified, he may now choose God, and thus may participate in grace. Through participation and synergy, man's own freewill is honored. As man in the beginning freely chose sin and death, now man must freely choose grace and life. By accepting and abiding in grace, we begin the abundant “life from above” (cf. John 3). Through grace the Christian believer no longer exists simply on a biological level; he is plugged into the divine life while still abiding in his mortal body. By grace the believer is called to have the Spirit penetrating every aspect of his existence, as in the beginning the breath of God permeated every fiber of Adam's being, endowing him with spiritual life.

The whole point of the Christian life consists of this: that we would be partakers of the divine life which is energized within the believer by the grace of the Holy Spirit. The Christian believer being transformed by the Spirit partakes of, and is moved by, the very energy and life of the Holy Spirit. St. Macarius the Great speaking of this mystery says:

If, then, anyone loves God, God also shares His love with him. Once a man believes in Him, God bestows on such a one a heavenly faith and so he becomes twofold. As you offer to God any part of yourself, He Himself shares with your soul similar aspects of His own being, so that all you do, you may do sincerely and purely, loving and praying in this same way.

The believer who is bearing within himself the Spirit of God is guided by the grace of God and his inner man is adorned with the beauty of Christ. St. Seraphim of Sarov teaches,

“The Holy Spirit Himself comes to dwell in our souls, and we are granted this very presence of the Almighty, this abiding attendance of the Triune God in our souls only if we earnestly strive to acquire the Holy Spirit, preparing a place for His omnipotent in our souls and bodies according to His pure promise 'I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God and they shall be My people'.”

In the Holy Spirit our fleshly existence begins its transformation into heavenly; by Him we are united to Christ and through Him to the whole of redeemed creation: “The Maker Himself of heaven and earth and all created things gives us to know Him by the Holy Spirit. In this same Holy Spirit we know the Mother of God, the Angels and the Saints, and our spirit burns with love for them” (St. Silouan the Athonite). By the indwelling of the Holy Spirit the believer enters upon transfigureration, becoming a living member of the Body of Christ. Through participation in Christ we become one with Him; the life we live we live for Him and through Him. “Wit
St. John Maximovich
h the fullness of our being we coinhere fully in the fullness of God, becoming everything God is save for essence” (St. Maximos the Confessor). If we are alive in Christ (and thereby in the Spirit) then we partake of Him in a living manner, conscious and aware; only the dead have no consciousness, as St. Symeon the New Theologian says.
Experience and participation in Christ is the promise and call of all true Christians. It is to this one single goal that every believer is called to be focused on, directing his whole life, indeed his whole person, in pursuit of the grace of the Spirit and the transformation which ensues. Thus the Lord through His Saints calls the believer to be watchful, guarding his life and heart in purity, focusing all energy on life in Him:

Be watchful as you travel each day the narrow but joyous and exhilarating road of the mind, keeping your attention humbly in your heart, reproaching yourself ready to rebut your enemies, thinking of your death and invoking Jesus Christ. You will then attain a vision of the Holy of holies and be illumined by Christ … in the presence of Christ you will feel the Holy Spirit spring up within your soul. It is the Spirit who initiates man's intellect (nous), so that it can see with 'unveiled face' (2 Cro. 3: 18). For 'no one can say “Lord Jesus” except in the Holy Spirit' (1 Cor. 12: 3). In other words, it is the Spirit who mystically confirms Christ's presence in us. (St. Hesychios the Priest)

The grace of the Holy Spirit must be guarded and sought at all times. There is never a point when a believer should feel spiritually comfortable. There is no one time instantaneous moment from nothing to everything. A Christian is called to spend his life being filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit. 

It should be pointed out that the believer's personal experience of grace is never to be set in contrast to, or against, the experience of the Body of Christ. Indeed the two are in reality one. Every true personal experience is strengthened and confirmed in the life of the Church. The believer's experience of grace is a personalized expression of the corporate experience. On the Day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit energized in the Church the fullness of faith, and through Him She is given to fathom the mysteries of God. This full experience of faith is manifest in the over two thousand year life of the Church in the Holy Spirit. The believer partakes of this fullness of life in his person in as much as he is united to the Body of Christ.