Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Holy Pentecost

Reflections from Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann:

In the Church's annual liturgical cycle, Pentecost is "the last and great day." It is the celebration by the Church of the coming of the Holy Spirit as the end - the achievement and fulfillment - of the entire history of salvation. For the same reason, however, it is also the celebration of the beginning: it is the "birthday" of the Church as the presence among us of the Holy Spirit, of the new life in Christ, of grace, knowledge, adoption to God and holiness.

This double meaning and double joy is revealed to us, first of all, in the very name of the feast. Pentecost in Greek means fifty, and in the sacred biblical symbolism of numbers, the number fifty symbolizes both the fulness of time and that which is beyond time: the Kingdom of God itself. It symbolizes the fulness of time by its first component: 49, which is the fulness of seven (7 x 7): the number of time. And, it symbolizes that which is beyond time by its second component: 49 + 1, this one being the new day, the "day without evening" of God's eternal Kingdom. With the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Christ's disciples, the time of salvation, the Divine work of redemption has been completed, the fulness revealed, all gifts bestowed: it belongs to us now to "appropriate" these gifts, to be that which we have become in Christ: participants and citizens of His Kingdom.


The all-night Vigil service begins with a solemn invitation:

"Let us celebrate Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, The appointed day of promise, and the fulfillment of hope, The mystery which is as great as it is precious."

In the coming of the Spirit, the very essence of the Church is revealed:

"The Holy Spirit provides all, Overflows with prophecy, fulfills the priesthood, Has taught wisdom to illiterates, has revealed fishermen as theologians, He brings together the whole council of the Church."

In the three readings of the Old Testament (Numbers 11:16-17, 24-29; Joel 2:23-32; Ezekiel 36:24-28) we hear the prophecies concerning the Holy Spirit. We are taught that the entire history of mankind was directed towards the day on which God "would pour out His Spirit upon all flesh." This day has come! All hope, all promises, all expectations have been fulfilled. At the end of the Aposticha hymns, for the first time since Easter, we sing the hymn: "O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth…," the one with which we inaugurate all our services, all prayers, which is, as it were, the life-breath of the Church, and whose coming to us, whose "descent" upon us in this festal Vigil, is indeed the very experience of the Holy Spirit "coming and abiding in us."

Having reached its climax, the Vigil continues as an explosion of joy and light for "verily the light of the Comforter has come and illumined the world." In the Gospel reading (John 20:19-23) the feast is interpreted to us as the feast of the Church, of her divine nature, power and authority. The Lord sends His disciples into the world, as He Himself was sent by His Father. Later, in the antiphons of the Liturgy, we proclaim the universality of the apostles' preaching, the cosmical significance of the feast, the sanctification of the whole world, the true manifestation of God's Kingdom.


The liturgical peculiarity of Pentecost is a very special Vespers of the day itself. Usually this service follows immediately the Divine Liturgy, is "added" to it as its own fulfillment. The service begins as a solemn "summing up" of the entire celebration, as its liturgical synthesis. We hold flowers in our hands symbolizing the joy of the eternal spring, inaugurated by the coming of the Holy Spirit. After the festal Entrance, this joy reaches its climax in the singing of the Great Prokeimenon:

"Who is so great a God as our God?"

Then, having reached this climax, we are invited to kneel. This is our first kneeling since Easter. It signifies that after these fifty days of Paschal joy and fulness, of experiencing the Kingdom of God, the Church now is about to begin her pilgrimage through time and history. It is evening again, and the night approaches, during which temptations and failures await us, when, more than anything else, we need Divine help, that presence and power of the Holy Spirit, who has already revealed to us the joyful End, who now will help us in our effort towards fulfillment and salvation.

All this is revealed in the three prayers which the celebrant reads now as we all kneel and listen to him. In the first prayer, we bring to God our repentance, our increased appeal for forgiveness of sins, the first condition for entering into the Kingdom of God.

In the second prayer, we ask the Holy Spirit to help us, to teach us to pray and to follow the true path in the dark and difficult night of our earthly existence. Finally, in the third prayer, we remember all those who have achieved their earthly journey, but who are united with us in the eternal God of Love.

The joy of Easter has been completed and we again have to wait for the dawn of the Eternal Day. Yet, knowing our weakness, humbling ourselves by kneeling, we also know the joy and the power of the Holy Spirit who has come. We know that God is with us, that in Him is our victory.

Thus is completed the feast of Pentecost and we enter "the ordinary time" of the year. Yet, every Sunday now will be called "after Pentecost" - and this means that it is from the power and light of these fifty days that we shall receive our own power, the Divine help in our daily struggle. At Pentecost we decorate our churches with flowers and green branches - for the Church "never grows old, but is always young." It is an evergreen, ever-living Tree of grace and life, of joy and comfort. For the Holy Spirit - "the Treasury of Blessings and Giver of Life - comes and abides in us, and cleanses us from all impurity," and fills our life with meaning, love, faith and hope.

-from the menologion at www.oca.org

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Ascension of our Lord

Reflections from Protopresbyter Georges Florovsky, DD:

"I ascend unto My Father and your Father, and to My God, and Your God" (John 20:17).

In these words the Risen Christ described to Mary Magdalene the mystery of His Resurrection. She had to carry this mysterious message to His disciples, "as they mourned and wept" (Mark 16:10). The disciples listened to these glad tidings with fear and amazement, with doubt and mistrust. It was not Thomas alone who doubted among the Eleven. On the contrary, it appears that only one of the Eleven did not doubt - St John, the disciple "whom Jesus loved." He alone grasped the mystery of the empty tomb at once: "and he saw, and believed" (John 20:8). Even Peter left the sepulcher in amazement, "wondering at that which was come to pass" (Luke 24:12).

The disciples did not expect the Resurrection. The women did not, either. They were quite certain that Jesus was dead and rested in the grave, and they went to the place "where He was laid," with the spices they had prepared, "that they might come and anoint Him." They had but one thought: "Who shall roll away the stone from the door of the sepulcher for us?" (Mark 16:1-3; Luke 24:1). And therefore, on not finding the body, Mary Magdalene was sorrowful and complained: "They have taken away my Lord, and I know not where they have laid Him' (John 20:13). On hearing the good news from the angel, the women fled from the sepulchre in fear and trembling: "Neither said they anything to any man, for they were afraid" (Mark 16:8). And when they spoke no one believed them, in the same way as no one 'had believed Mary, who saw the Lord, or the disciples as they walked on their way into the country, (Mark 16:13), and who recognized Him in the breaking of bread. "And afterward He appeared unto the Eleven as they sat at meat, and upbraided them with their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they believed not them who had seen Him after He was risen' (Mark 16:1O-14).

From whence comes this "hardness of heart" and hesitation? Why were their eyes so "holden," why were the disciples so much afraid of the news, and why did the Easter joy so slowly, and with such difficulty, enter the Apostles' hearts? Did not they, who were with Him from the beginning, "from the baptism of John," see all the signs of power which He performed before the face of the whole people? The lame walked, the blind saw, the dead were raised, and all infirmities were healed. Did they not behold, only a week earlier, how He raised by His word Lazarus from the dead, who had already been in the grave for four days? Why then was it so strange to them that the Master had arisen Himself? How was it that they came to forget that which the Lord used to tell them on many occasions, that after suffering and death He would arise on the third day?

The mystery of the Apostles' "unbelief" is partly disclosed in the narrative of the Gospel: "But we trusted that it had been He which should have redeemed Israel," with disillusionment and complaint said the two disciples to their mysterious Companion on the way to Emmaus(Luke 24:21). They meant: He was betrayed, condemned to death and crucified. The news of the Resurrection brought by the women only "astonished" them. They still wait for an earthly triumph, for an exernal victory. The same temptation possesses their hearts, which first prevented them from accepting "the preaching of the Cross" and made them argue every time the Saviour tried to reveal His mystery to them. "Ought not Christ to have suffered these things and to enter into His glory?" (Luke 24:26). It was still difficult to understand this.

He had the power to arise, why did He allow what that had happened to take place at all? Why did He take upon Himself disgrace, blasphemy and wounds? In the eyes of all Jerusalem, amidst the vast crowds assembled for the Great Feast, He was condemned and suffered a shameful death. And now He enters not into the Holy City, neither to the people which beheld His shame and death, nor to the High Priests and elders, nor to Pilate - so that He might make their crime obvious and smite their pride. Instead, He sends His disciples away to remote Galilee and appears to them there. Even much earlier the disciples wondered, "How is it that Thou wilt manifest Thyself unto us, and not unto the world?" (John 14:22). Their wonder continues, and even on the day of His glorious Ascension the Apostles question the Lord, "Lord, wilt Thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?" (Acts 1:6). They still did not comprehend the meaning of His Resurrection, they did not understand what it meant that He was "ascending" to the Father. Their eyes were opened but later, when "the promise of the Father" had been fulfilled.

In the Ascension resides the meaning and the fullness of Christ's Resurrection.

The Lord did not rise in order to return again to the fleshly order of life, so as to live again and commune with the disciples and the multitudes by means of preaching and miracles. Now he does not even stay with them, but only "appears" to them during the forty days, from time to time, and always in a miraculous and mysterious manner. "He was not always with them now, as He was before the Resurrection," comments St John Chrysostom. "He came and again disappeared, thus leading them on to higher conceptions. He no longer permitted them to continue in their former relationship toward Him, but took effectual measures to secure these two objects: That the fact of His Resurrection should be believed, and that He Himself should be ever after apprehended to be greater than man." There was something new and unusual in His person (cf. John 21:1-14). As St John Chrysostom says, "It was not an open presence, but a certain testimony of the fact that He was present." That is why the disciples were confused and frightened. Christ arose not in the same way as those who were restored to life before Him. Theirs was a resurrection for a time, and they returned to life in the same body, which was subject to death and corruption - returned to the previous mode of life. But Christ arose for ever, unto eternity. He arose in a body of glory, immortal and incorruptible. He arose, never to die, for "He clothed the mortal in the splendor of incorruption." His glorified Body was already exempt from the fleshly order of existence. "It is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor, 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" (I Cor. 15:42-44). This mysterious transformation of human bodies, of which St Paul was speaking in the case of our Lord, had been accomplished in three days. Christ's work on earth was accomplished. He had suffered, was dead and buried, and now rose to a higher mode of existence. By His Resurrection He abolished and destroyed death, abolished the law of corruption, "and raised with Himself the whole race of Adam." Christ has risen, and now "no dead are left in the grave" (cf. The Easter Sermon of St John Chrysostom). And now He ascends to the Father, yet He does not "go away," but abides with the faithful for ever (cf. The Kontakion of Ascension). For He raises the very earth with Him to heaven, and even higher than any heaven. God's power, in the phrase of St John Chrysostom, "manifests itself not only in the Resurrection, but in something much stronger." For "He was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God" (Mark 16:19).

And with Christ, man's nature ascends also.

"We who seemed unworthy of the earth, are now raised to heaven," says St John Chrysostom. "We who were unworthy of earthly dominion have been raised to the Kingdom on high, have ascended higher than heaven, have came to occupy the King's throne, and the same nature from which the angels guarded Paradise, stopped not until it ascended to the throne of the Lord." By His Ascension the Lord not only opened to man the entrance to heaven, not only appeared before the face of God on our behalf and for our sake, but likewise "transferred man" to the high places. "He honored them He loved by putting them close to the Father." God quickened and raised us together with Christ, as St Paul says, "and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus" (Ephes. 2:6). Heaven received the inhabitants of the earth. "The First fruits of them that slept" sits now on high, and in Him all creation is summed up and bound together. "The earth rejoices in mystery, and the heavens are filled with joy."

"The terrible ascent...." Terror-stricken and trembling stand the angelic hosts, contemplating the Ascension of Christ. And trembling they ask each other, "What is this vision? One who is man in appearance ascends in His body higher than the heavens, as God."

Thus the Office for the Feast of the Ascension depicts the mystery in a poetical language. As on the day of Christ's Nativity the earth was astonished on beholding God in the flesh, so now the Heavens do tremble and cry out. "The Lord of Hosts, Who reigns over all, Who is Himself the head 'Of all, Who is preeminent in all things, Who has reinstated creation in its former order - He is the King of Glory." And the heavenly doors are opened: "Open, Oh heavenly gates, and receive God in the flesh." It is an open allusion to Psalms 24:7-10, now prophetically interpreted. "Lift up your heads, Oh ye gates, and be lifted up, ye everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord strong and mighty...." St Chrysostom says, "Now the angels have received that for which they have long waited, the archangels see that for which they have long thirsted. They have seen our nature shining on the King's throne, glistening with glory and eternal beauty.... Therefore they descend in order to see the unusual and marvelous vision: Man appearing in heaven."

The Ascension is the token of Pentecost, the sign of its coming, "The Lord has ascended to heaven and will send the Comforter to the world'

For the Holy Spirit was not yet in the world, until Jesus was glorified. And the Lord Himself told the disciples, "If I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you" (John 16:7). The gifts of the Spirit are "gifts of reconciliation," a seal of an accomplished salvation and of the ultimate reunion of the world with God. And this was accomplished only in the Ascension. "And one saw miracles follow miracles," says St John Chrysostom, "ten days prior to this our nature ascended to the King's throne, while today the Holy Ghost has descended on to our nature." The joy of the Ascension lies in the promise of the Spirit.' "Thou didst give joy to Thy disciples by a promise of the Holy Spirit." The victory of Christ is wrought in us by the power of the Holy Spirit.

"On high is His body, here below with us is His Spirit. And so we have His token on high, that is His body, which He received from us, and here below we have His Spirit with us. Heaven received the Holy Body, and the earth accepted the Holy Spirit. Christ came and sent the Spirit. He ascended, and with Him our body ascended also" St John Chrysostom). The revelation of the Holy Trinity was completed. Now the Spirit Comforter is poured forth on all flesh. "Hence comes foreknowledge of the future, understanding of mysteries, apprehension of what is hidden, distribution of good gifts, the heavenly citizenship, a place in the chorus of angels, joy without end, abiding in God, the being made like to God, and, highest of all, ,the being made God!" (St Basil, On the Holy Spirit, IX). Beginning with the Apostles, and through communion with them - by an unbroken succession - Grace is spread to all believers. Through renewal and glorification in the Ascended Christ, man's nature became receptive of the spirit. "And unto the world He gives quickening forces through His human body," says Bishop Theophanes. "He holds it completely in Himself and penetrates it with His strength, out of Himself; and He likewise draws the angels to Himself through the spirit of man, giving them space for action and thus making them blessed." All this is done through the Church, which is "the Body of Christ;" that is, His "fullness" (Ephesians 1:23). "The Church is the fulfillment of Christ," continues Bishop Theophanes, "perhaps in the same way as the tree is the fulfillment of the seed. That which is contained in the seed in a contracted form receives its development in the tree."

The very existence of the Church is the fruit of the Ascension. It is in the Church that man's nature is truly ascended to the Divine heights. "And gave Him to be Head over all things" (Ephesians 1:22). St John Chrysostom comments: "Amazing! Look again, whither He has raised the Church. As though He were lifting it up by some engine, He has raised it up to a vast height, and set it on yonder throne; for where the Head is, there is the body also. There is no interval of separation between the Head and the body; for were there a separation, then would the one no longer be a body, nor would the other any longer be a Head." The whole race of men is to follow Christ, even in His ultimate exaltation, "to follow in His train." Within the Church, through an acquisition of the Spirit in the fellowship of Sacraments, the Ascension continues still, and will continue until the measure is full. "Only then shall the Head be filled up, when the body is rendered perfect, when we are knit together and united," concludes St John Chrysostom.

The Ascension is a sign and token of the Second Coming. "This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen Him go into heaven" (Acts 1:11).

The mystery of God's Providence will be accomplished in the Return of the Risen Lord. In the fulfillment of time, Christ's kingly power will be revealed and spread over the whole of faithful mankind. Christ bequeathes the Kingdom to the whole of the faithful. "And I appoint unto you a Kingdom as My Father has appointed unto me. That ye may eat and drink at My table in My Kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Luke 22:29-30). Those who followed Him faithfully will sit with Him on their thrones on the day of His coming. "To him that overcomes will I grant to sit with Me in My throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with My Father in His throne" (Rev. 3:21). Salvation will be consummated in the Glory. "Conceive to yourself the throne, the royal throne, conceive the immensity of the privilege. This, at least if we chose, might more avail to startle us, yea, even than hell itself" (St John Chrysostom).

We should tremble more at the thought of that abundant Glory which is appointed unto the redeemed, than at the thought of the eternal darkness. "Think near Whom Thy Head is seated...." Or rather, Who is the Head. In very truth, "wondrous and terrible is Thy divine ascension from the mountain, 0 Giver of Life." A terrible and wondrous height is the King's throne. In face of this height all flesh stands silent, in awe and trembling. "He has Himself descended to the lowest depths of humiliation, and raised up man to the height of exaltation."

What then should we do? "If thou art the body of Christ, bear the Cross, for He bore it' (St John Chrysostom).

"With the power of Thy Cross, Oh Christ, establish my thoughts, so that I may sing and glorify Thy saving Ascension."

Originally published in St Vladimir's Seminary Quarterly, Vol. 2 # 3, 1954

From the Menologion of the Orthodox Church in America

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Commandment to Love:
Reflections by His Eminence, our Archbishop DMITRI

April 28:

Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!

Our Lord Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. In His person He reconciled man to the Creator of all. So great was His love for those whom He fashioned in His image that He Who is God, “made himself of no reputation, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:8). In the history of the world no greater act of love has ever been performed.

Christ Who is both perfect God and perfect Man, being an actual historical figure, was the only One in the history of the world who ever revealed the truth about God and human existence, and who could testify how it is that man is to relate to his Maker and to his fellow man. Jesus Christ is the only means whereby God and the meaning of life may be fully known, not merely one of many means. Thus, for Christians our Lord is the key to salvation. “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou has sent.” (John 17:3) Christ is the Source of this saving knowledge of the One, Truly existing God.

Read it all on the diocesan website here.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Visiting Priest this Weekend:

Father Sergius Clark will serve Great Vespers on Saturday, May 12 at 5:00 PM and Divine Liturgy on Sunday, May 13 at 10:00 AM.

Join us as we pray!
A Meditation for the Fifth Sunday of Pascha:
The Samaritan Woman

Have you ever felt parched, dry, spent? If you have, then listen closely:

This past week we’ve reached the mid point of the Great Fifty Days of the Paschal season – we’re midway between Pascha and Pentecost. One of the images associated with this week is that of Living Water – Christ Jesus as the Living Water, the Life-giving One who replenishes and refreshes his people. In John 7, Jesus says “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”

These days are meant to be days of renewal, refreshment – again and again we sing that Christ has risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and to those in the tombs bestowing life. The barren ground of our lives has been irrigated with the good news of our salvation; we have become partakers of the Fountain of Life. And now, in these days, this is the time for our hearts to flow forth with the Living Water that is Christ.

We see this in the long passage we read this morning from John 4, the longest single conversation Jesus has with any one person throughout the Gospels. He’s in Samaria, foreign territory, and He asks one of these foreigners – the Samaritan woman – for a drink of water. This startles her, because Jews and Samaritans didn’t typically speak to one another, let alone a Jewish man to a Samaritan woman.

And yet, Jesus makes it very clear that there is something more going on than “identity politics” and turf battles between Jews and Samaritans, something bigger than the political history of Jacob and his descendents: Jesus speaks of the promise of Living Water, the gift of Himself, that is offered to all people. He speaks of the Life of God graciously offered to all the world.

The woman is intrigued; she asks for this great gift. The conversation then moves in a very uncomfortable direction. Whenever we move close to the Light that is Christ, the darkness of our lives is laid bare: Jesus exposes the fact that the Samaritan woman has had five husbands, and is now living with a man who is not her husband. She attempts to move the conversation back to the historic divisions between Jews and Samaritans over worship customs – even faith and politics is a safer topic than her adultery.

Notice that Jesus does not berate her. Instead, He moves the conversation to an entirely different level: ancient distinctions are passing away. What matters is what He is bringing into the world – true worship of the Father in heaven, worship in spirit and in truth. Not only is the Messiah, the Christ, coming – he has come, even there, at Jacob’s well.

His disciples return at this point and the Samaritan Woman leaves her water pot and makes her way to the city, saying to anyone who will listen to her: “Come, see a Man who told me all things that I ever did: Could this be the Christ?”

In his sermon on this passage, St John Chrysostom draws attention to the fact that the Samaritan Woman has become spiritually enkindled by our Lord’s words to her. She acts with zeal and wisdom: she moves quickly and acts as a powerful witness to Jesus. She wasn’t commanded to go forth and preach, as the disciples would be. Instead, she was compelled by the event, the encounter. And she doesn’t speak presumptuously, saying “believe this or that…” She simply says, “Come and see what I’ve seen – come and meet the One that I’ve met, who knows me better than I know myself.”

She acts as a witness, freely sharing what has happened to her. And that’s enough to prompt others to investigate for themselves – to come and see what this Jesus is all about. And they come to see and believe for themselves, not because the Samaritan woman had a sophisticated argument, or the perfect sales pitch… She simply provided the witness: “Come and see.”

That is a powerful example that we should ponder this morning. We have been given so much, the treasury of the historic faith, an encounter with Jesus Christ through the mystery of his Church. And if you don’t feel like you can adequately explain that mystery, that’s OK – none of us can. But neither may we keep it a secret. The Samaritan Woman’s example is our task and mission: to bid others to come and see, to pray with us in this place – at Vespers, Typika, Liturgy, whenever. Don’t worry about convincing anyone. God brings conviction. We simply invite and welcome. But invite and welcome we must. For to those whom much is given, much is expected.

And no one demonstrated that any more faithfully than the Samaritan Woman, whom we remember in the great tradition as St. Photina (or in the Slavic languages, St Svetlana) – the name means “the enlightened one.” She and her two sons and five daughters became Christian evangelists, traveling across North Africa to Carthage. They were eventually arrested and taken to Rome, where they died as martyrs. Saint Photina – St Svetlana – is said to have come face to face with Emperor Nero, even inviting him to come and see the wonders of the Crucified and Risen Lord Jesus. Having first encountered her Lord beside Jacob’s well in Samaria, she was imprisoned and eventually martyred by drowning in a well in Rome.

And yet, we know that in Christ she lives. We remember her, we venerate her and her children, to this day. They drank deeply from the living water that is Christ Jesus and out of their hearts flowed rivers of living water out into the world from Samaria to Carthage and even to Rome.

Remember the wonder of their witness, and have the courage to say what they said: “Come and see!”


Tuesday, May 01, 2007

May 1:
The Icon of the Mother of God of "Unexpected Joy"

In addition to commemorating the saints, it is also customary to commemorate certain icons on various days throughout the church year. Today, we commemorate the icon of our Lady of "Unexpected Joy." The icon depicts a youth at prayer before an icon of the Theotokos holding the Christ Child - it is explained by Saint Demetrius of Rostov in his book, "The Fleece of Prayer:"

"The sinful youth, who was nevertheless devoted to the Theotokos, was praying one day before the icon of the All-Pure Virgin before going out to commit a sin. Suddenly, he saw that wounds appeared on the Lord's hands, feet, and side, and blood flowed from them. In horror he exclaimed, 'O Lady, who has done this?' The Mother of God replied, 'You and other sinners, because of your sins, crucify My Son anew.' Only then did he realize how great was the depth of his sinfulness. For a long time he prayed with tears to the All-Pure Mother of God and the Savior for mercy. Finally, he received the unexpected joy of the forgiveness of his sins."

from the menologion of the Orthodox Church in America