Greetings for the Ascension

“А́нгелом дивя́щимся восхо́да стра́нному, и ученико́ м ужаса́ ющимся стра́ шному взы́ тия, возше́л еси́ со сла́вою я́ко Бог, и врата́ Тебе́ взя́шася Спа́се. Сего́ ра́ди си́лы небе́сныя дивля́хуся вопию́ ще: сла́ва снизхожде́нию Твоему́ Спа́се, сла́ва ца́рствию Твоему́, сла́ва вознесе́нию Твоему́, Еди́не Человеколю́ бче.

While Angels gazed with wonder upon Thy dread Ascension, and while the disciples were awestruck as Thou from earth wast taken, O Saviour, as God Thou didst ascend in glory while the gates were raised for Thee. For this cause then did the Hosts of the heavens cry, while marvelling in amazement: Glory to Thy descent, O Saviour Christ. Glory to Thy Kingdom’s sovereignty. Glory be to Thine Ascension, O Thou only Friend of man.”

Kathisma hymn from festal matins

In the Name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Dear brothers and sisters, Съ праздникомъ!

Greetings on this feast of the Ascension: a feast of double-wonder – the wonder of the apostles as they saw their Lord and Master translated in His risen humanity into the glory of the Kingdom of Heaven, and the wonder of the heavenly hosts, as they beheld their Lord and Creator entering heaven in the very humanity He had created, and in which they had beheld Him laid in the Cave of Bethlehem, when Divine Love reached down from heaven to earth.

The Saviour’s Ascension is the consummation of this salvific journey of love, in which He not only descended to His creation, but even clothed Himself in that creation in His flesh, uniting Himself to humanity that had fallen in Adam and Eve, and was banished from Paradise.

But, the Saviour not only descended to earth in His earthly life, but by His sacrificial death descended even to the depths of Hades. Through His self-emptying and self-denying love, the Life-Giver descended into the realms of the dead to seek the lost, to rescue them and lead them to the bosom of the Father on high.

Mar Jacob of Serugh writes of the Creator-Saviour seeking out those whom He had made in His own image and likeness, rescuing His Image-bearing children from the chains and shackles by which death that held them captive in Hades.

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“By death, He descended to the abyss of the dead, which swallowed Adam,

And like a brave swimmer He brought up the precious pearl.

He descended, explored the depths, visited the ones who were buried and sought for the lost ones,

He slept with the dead and laid His bed among those who have fallen asleep. He made there a speech of judgment with the Prince of Destruction,

and He asked from him the image of Adam, which was corrupted.

He descended to the depth of the abyss and sought there

the great likeness of the creative (power), which was perishing in hell.

He had done judgment to death in the land of death and asked for the image, and taking His own to come with pomp from perdition.

He conquered the Tyrant in his place and inspected his chamber,

and He took out the booty, which was gathered by him in his palace.

He unbound mercifully the bound ones and bound powerfully the Captor,

He returned mightily to the land of his Father.”

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Having suffered in fleshly-unity with mankind, enduring His life-giving passion and death for the sake of humanity, and having descended to the nethermost regions in search of His children, His glorious translation from earth to heaven shows us that the annulment of the fall and the restoration of Adam is not simply by the conquering of death and His third-day Resurrection, but in the ascended glorification of thathumanity and its enthronement at the right hand of the Father.

This is the ultimate sign of God’s love, which calls mankind not to the earthly paradise from which fallen Adam and Eve were banished, but to the glory of heaven, where the Ascension exalts and enthrones humanity above all of the angelic ranks.

As children of God, we are called to holiness by our baptism into the Saviour’s death and Resurrection, and called to the heavenly kingdom by His glorious Ascension.

If we truly believe that “as many that have been baptised in Christ have put on Christ”, in faithfully living the Paschal mystery, the Ascension will call us to spiritual-labour, in a struggle for the Kingdom of Heaven, gained not by half-hearted Christian-nominalism, but only by dedication and spiritual force: the force of Faith, the force of prayer, the force of repentance – following in the foot-steps of  the Saviour as the Way, Who guides us to the Kingdom of Heaven by His glorious Ascension.

Our life must be a constant and forceful struggle for the kingdom of heaven, and whatever earthly worries or burdens we may have to endure or bear, the Ascension challenges us not be be earthbound and have our eyes fixed upon the clay from which we were formed, but to look heavenwards with hope and joy, as did the disciples, for…

“when the Lord entered the heights of heaven, not only were they affected with no sadness, but were even filled with great joy. And truly great and unspeakable was their cause for joy, when in the sight of the holy multitude, above the dignity of all heavenly creatures, the Nature of mankind went up, to pass above the angels’ ranks and to rise beyond the archangels’ heights, and to have Its uplifting limited by no elevation until, received to sit with the Eternal Father, It should be associated on the throne with His glory, to Whose Nature It was united in the Son. Since then Christ’s Ascension is our uplifting, and the hope of the Body is raised, whither the glory of the Head has gone before, let us exult, dearly-beloved, with worthy joy and delight in the loyal paying of thanks. For today not only are we confirmed as possessors of paradise, but have also in Christ penetrated the heights of heaven, and have gained still greater things through Christ’s unspeakable grace than we had lost through the devil’s malice. For us, whom our virulent enemy had driven out from the bliss of our first abode, the Son of God has made members of Himself and placed at the right hand of the Father…” (St Leo the Great: Sermon 73, “On the Lord’s Ascension”)

The right hand of the Father in the Kingdom of Heaven is our inheritance, for which we must struggle with force, in hope, and with Faith, called and guided by the Saviour going before us, from whence He will return in glory to judge the living and the dead, and to where He will welcome His good faithful servants into the glory of the age to come, saying, 

“Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.”

The Ascension is our promise and calling, so let us hear and act!

Amen.

Tuesday Evening Compline: Supplicatory Canon in Tone IV

Supplicatory Canon to the Most Holy Theotokos: Tuesday Tone IV

Ode I, Irmos: I shall open my mouth, * and be filled with the Spirit, * and I shall utter discourse to the Queen and Mother; * and be seen radiantly keeping festival, * joyfully praising her wonders.

Most Holy Theotokos, save us.

Having seedlessly given birth in the flesh to Christ, the immeasurable Wisdom and Power of God, О most immaculate Theotokos, through thy birth-giving thou hast acquired the might of strength and divine majesty.

Most Holy Theotokos, save us.

О thy birth-giving which passeth understanding, О most pure one, whereby the multitude of mortals have been enriched with incorruption and, as is meet, now call thee, the blessed Mediatress of restoration!

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.  

By thine overshadowing heal thy servant, who am sick in soul and body, О Virgin; for I have recognised thee as the Intercessor for all who find themselves amid grief, in that thou hast given birth to our salvation.

Now & ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Extending unto me a hand of salvation, О Lady, from the abyss of evils lead me up who am cruelly engulfed in the depths of sorrows and beset by the storms of boundless evil circumstances.

Ode III, Irmos: O Theotokos, thou living and plentiful fount, * establish in spiritual fellowship those who sing hymns to thee, * and in thy divine glory * grant them crowns of glory..

Most Holy Theotokos, save us.

Everywhere thou pourest forth streams of healing upon the sick, О Virgin; for the Lord of mercy, Who was born from thee in a manner transcending understanding, hath shown thee to be a wellspring of loving-kindness, О Lady.

Most Holy Theotokos, save us.

О Virgin Mother, thou didst become the beautiful chamber of the divine Word and a divine bridal-chamber in a manner transcending nature; wherefore, open unto me the mercies of thy compassions, and lead me up to salvation.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.  

All my strength hath drained from me due to the multitude of my boundless evils, and I have drawn nigh to despair because of my many sorrows. Help me, О Sovereign Lady who hast given birth to Life, thou consolation of those who weep!

Now & ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Have mercy, О only Mother of God, have mercy! Take pity on mine accursed soul, which is beset by wicked demons and passions as by a flood, and before the hour of my death deign to purify it.

Ode IV, Irmos: Perceiving the profound counsel of God, * that the incarnation of Thee the Most High, * will be from a Virgin, * the Prophet Habbakuk cried aloud: * Glory to Thy power, O Lord!

Most Holy Theotokos, save us.

The King of all, desiring thee as a royal root and womb, О Theotokos, made thee more exalted than the cherubim and seraphim, dwelling wholly within thee.

Most Holy Theotokos, save us.

Incarnate for the sake of human birth, the Creator was born from thee and hath shown thee to be a true intercessor for Christians; wherefore, I flee to thy protection, О pure one.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.  

Be thou my protection, help and refuge, for I am thy servant, О most pure Virgin, and cure me of my boundless evils, that I may chant to thee: Glory to thine ineffable birth-giving!

Now & ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

I am at a loss, I weep and groan because of my passion-plagued thoughts, and I beseech thee, in that thou art a wellspring of mercy, deliver me from my pain, and lead me to divine compunction.

Ode V, Irmos: All creation stands in awe of thy divine glory; * for thou, O Virgin who hast not known wedlock, * didst contain within thy womb the God of all, * and gave birth to the timeless Son, * bestowing peace, upon all who hymn thee.

Most Holy Theotokos, save us.

Thou ever pourest forth the waters of healing upon all the infirm, О Virgin, in that thou art the animate cloud of Christ the King; wherefore, send down the dew of healing upon me who am sick.

Most Holy Theotokos, save us.

О Virgin Bride of God, cease thou never to entreat as Saviour and Master Him Whom thou didst bear, that He grant me remission of sorrows and pangs, and lead me up to incorruptible joy, having forgiven me my transgressions.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.  

Thou art my hope and boast of salvation, О most pure one; wherefore, I flee to thy protection. Disdain me not who am now devoured by many and grievous pangs; but go thou before me, and save me.

Now & ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

“How hangest Thou upon the Tree like a ripe cluster of grapes? О Sun of glory, how hast Thou been lifted up, at Whose suffering the light of the sun grew dim?”, the ewe-lamb who gave Thee birth, О Saviour, exclaimed maternally, crying out to thee.

Ode VI, Irmos: I have reached the depths of the sea * and the tempest of my many sins hath engulfed me; * but do Thou raise up my life from the abyss * O Greatly-merciful One.

Most Holy Theotokos, save us.

Our God, the King of all, assumed human form from thee, О Virgin, and hath shown thee to be, as the Theotokos, more exalted than the cherubim and the awesome seraphim.

Most Holy Theotokos, save us.

О thou who alone hast given birth to the divine Life Who granteth salvation unto all, grant salvation unto me who am in despair, and cut through the uprisings of my passions.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.  

Grant me thine aid and deliver me from tribulations and sorrows, freeing me from perils and my transgressions, О thou who hast given birth to the Deliverance of all.

Now & ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

In thee do we boast, О Virgin, and through thee are we delivered from evils. Let not us who trust in thee fear the assault of ungodly barbarians, for we hymn thee.

Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; now & ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Sessional Hymn, Tone IV: O most immaculate Virgin Mother of God, a sword passed through thy most holy soul when thou didst behold thy Son and God crucified of His own will. Cease not to beseech Him, O blessed one, that He grant us forgiveness of our transgressions.

Ode VII, Irmos: Refusing to worship created things * in place of the Creator, * the divinely wise youths bravely trampled down the threatening fire * and rejoicing they sang aloud: * O supremely hymned Lord and God of our Fathers, Blessed art Thou.

Most Holy Theotokos, save us.

All my strength hath been desiccated by the passions like clay, and lo! I have drawn nigh unto Hades. Deliver me from most pernicious bonds, О Mother of God, and with the hand of thy mercy rescue me from the griefs which assail me.

Most Holy Theotokos, save us.

All that is within me hath been rent apart by multifarious evils, and I am cut off from life by the multitude of my transgressions and infirmities; yet deliver me from them all, О most pure one, who for us hast given birth unto Life.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.  

In that thou art good, О most pure Virgin, grant that the kingdom of the all-compassionate Christ may be opened unto me, and that, by thy supplications, О blessed one, I may be delivered from soul-destroying pangs and assaults.

Now & ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Painful wounds have been inflicted upon me by my boundless transgressions and lead me to death of soul and body; yet rescue me from all sorrows and infirmities, О Lady, in that thou art mighty.

Ode VIII, Irmos:  The Offspring of the Theotokos * saved the holy children in the furnace. * He who was then prefigured hath now been born on earth, * and He gathereth all creation to hymn thee: * all ye works praise ye the Lord * and supremely exalt Him throughout all ages.

Most Holy Theotokos, save us.

Having fallen into a thicket of thorny passions, I am pierced by their sting; wherefore, I have fallen into despair, weighed down by bonds and temptations, О most pure Mother of Christ God. Delivering me from them, grant forgiveness of transgressions unto all by thy supplications.

Most Holy Theotokos, save us.

As thou art the candle-stand of the light of the threefold Sun, dispel the darkness of my transgressions by the radiance of thy compassion, О Theotokos, granting deliverance from oppressive pangs unto me who hymn and supremely exalt thy most pure Offspring with faith.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.  

Having made His abode wholly within thy womb, О Ever-virgin, the transcendent God ineffably became incarnate, making thee the helper and universal aid of the world. Wherefore, I beseech thee, that I may be delivered from my grievous sufferings and the bonds of my transgressions.

Now & ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

At the hour of my death, О Virgin Mother of God, rescue me from the hands of the demons, from condemnation, sentencing, dread trial, the bitter toll-stations, the cruel prince, and everlasting fire.

Ode IX, Irmos: Let every mortal born on earth, * radiant with light, in spirit leap for joy; * and let the host of the angelic powers * celebrate and honour the holy feast of the Mother of God, * and let them cry aloud: * Rejoice! O all-blessed Theotokos, * thou pure Ever-Virgin.

Most Holy Theotokos, save us.

The mortal race hath been exalted by thy birth-giving, receiving adoption through union with God; and the heavenly multitude joins chorus with those on earth, hymning thee as is meet, О pure one, as the Mother of our God, the refuge of the whole world.

Most Holy Theotokos, save us.

Bound withal by my sins, countless wounds and pangs, I call upon thine aid and assistance, О Lady, that thou grant me deliverance from every cruel misfortune and sorrow.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.  

With love I offer hymnody and song, and well-woven praise from my pain-wracked soul unto thee who hast given birth in essence unto Christ God. Rendering Him easily reconciled, and fulfilling all my petitions, О Theotokos, preserve me by thy supplications.

Now & ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

О pure Theotokos, enlighten the eyes of my soul, that the heavy darkness of sin may not overtake me, and that the abyss of despair may not swallow me; but do thou thyself save and pilot me, О thou unashamed intercessor of the faithful.

Paschal Greetings

“It is the day of Resurrection, let us be radiant, O ye peoples; Pascha the Pascha of the Lord; for Christ God hath brought us from death to life, and from earth to heaven, as we sing the triumphal hymn.”

Dear brothers and sisters, Christ is Risen! Христосъ воскресе! Hristos a înviat! Χριστός ἀνέστη!

Having celebrated the radiant night of Pascha, our labour is now to preserve the grace and joy of the feast, with the Resurrection as the centre of our lives, and our inheritance through Holy Baptism.

As Christians, we are children of the Light and of the Resurrection, no matter how dark and threatening the world is.

In fact, the darker the world and life, the brighter the Light of Christ may shine in the darkness of suffering, pain, confusion and every trial that humanity faces, but for that to happen, our focus must be on Christ, the Light of the World, not on the deepening darkness. 

How perverse it is that we are often so focussed on the darkness that we turn our faces away from the Risen Lord, our Light and Life.

The Saviour was arrested in the darkness of the garden of Gethsemane and was brought to Pilate by night. The world was plunged into darkness in the moment of His death on Golgotha, and His body rested in darkness of the tomb… yet all of this was but a brief moment before the radiant glory of the Resurrection, and even as the world was in darkness the Saviour, “the Light that knows no evening”, descended into the realm of death and harrowed Hades, bringing light and life to the righteous of the Old Covenant, raising them in His own Rising.

We must not fear darkness: the darkness of illness, of death, of wars and revolutions, of insecurity, of anxiety, of the degenerate darkening “progress” of the world… for Christ has overcome darkness, even entered the depths of sheol, trampling down death by death, bringing light, life and hope, and above all the promise given to the repentant thief upon the cross, “Truly, I say to you. Today, you will be with me in paradise.” 

The world is the world – fallen and still falling in its rebellion and lawlessness – yet, within it the faithful walk in the Light of Christ, sharing it with those in darkness and offering hope, but ultimately that hope is not in an earthly utopia, but in the fullness of the resurrectional life the Kingdom of God in the age to come.

This joyful celebration of the Lord’s Pascha is the sign and foretaste of this future life of the Eighth Day in the midst of our fragile and temporary earthly sojourn, whose meaning is to be found in the journey of St Dismas from the cross on the Saviour’s right hand to His right side in the Heavenly Kingdom.

This journey is one of repentance, (and enduring pain and darkness) and faith, with Christ as it’s meaning and His Resurrection as it’s calling and promise.

Let us now keep the feast with gladness, guarding its holiness and joy like a candle lit from the Holy Fire at the Lord’s Sepulchre, sharing the Eternal Joy and hope in the words of the angel at the sepulchre – “He is not here. He is risen!” – and no matter how frightening and dark the world and life becomes, remember the Saviour’s first words to the disciples, “Peace be with you all!”

This peace is not the world’s peace, but the peace from above, which may abide in our lives, no matter how troubled or painful they are, precisely because Christ has already gained the victory, despoiling hell and death and is truly risen!

“O great and most sacred Pascha, Christ! O Wisdom and Word of God and Power! Grant us more perfectly to partake of Thee, in the unwaning day of Thy kingdom.” 

Greetings for the Annunciation and the Sunday of the Cross

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Dear brothers and sisters, today sees the coinciding of the feast of the Annunciation with the Sunday of the Cross at this point of mid-Lent, and in that coincidence we see a great spiritual complement, as the Mystery of the Cross illuminates and explains the significance of the Annunciation and the Virgin’s obedience and agreement to become the Mother of God, and Mother of our Salvation.

In the troparion for the feast, we hear, “Today is the fountainhead of our salvation and the manifestation of the mystery which was from eternity.” But what is this mystery from all eternity?

The answer is simple… it is the mystery of God’s redemptive love, and the response of that Divine Love to the rebellion and fall of Adam and Eve.

  • a redemptive-love that seeks out out the lost and actively looks for those who have gone astray, descending to earth so that by the Cross, it can raise up humanity to heaven: a love in which God descends so that His earthly children may not only be raised from the dead, but ascend to heaven itself.
  • a healing-love that restores humanity and all creation: sick, fallen, broken, dysfunctional and exiled.
  • a sacrificial-love in which Christ-God hides His Divine glory and exhausts Himself for the sake of His fallen children, taking on human nature at the very moment of the Annunciation, so that human nature could be restored and transformed – to be as God originally intended.
  • a self-denying love in which Christ – Love-Incarnate – was beaten, tortured, mocked and killed, fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy in which the Christ of Holy Friday is seen in the Man of Sorrows: oppressed, despised, rejected, wounded, bruised and beaten, and brought in silence like a lamb to the slaughter… in endurance and suffering that was the fruit of this selfless, perfect, unlimited love.

This Divine Love, finds its ultimate realisation in the Cross and the Saviour’s Passion, but the incarnate journey of the Only-Begotten Son to the Cross began when the Archangel appeared to the Mother of God, who accepted her necessary part and obedience in the economy of salvation as she submitted to God’s will, saying, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word…” In plain-speech, I am God’s slave, let what you say come to pass in me. I surrender myself to God. I submit.

In his epistle to the Philippians, St Paul counselled the Christians in Caesarea Philippi, “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, 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.”

In other words… have the mind of Christ through your obedience, humility and submission to God’s Will, with the Cross as the ultimate sign and realisation of this, and do not stop to think of yourself or worry about yourself, but rather give yourself over to the will of the Father.

Though the Cross was decades away from the day on which the youthful Mother of God received the good-news from the Archangel, and even further in time from when St Paul would write those words to the Philippians, her obedience and humble submission to God were already the foundation for the Cruciform redemptive plan of God’s love, as she took on not simply the role of a servant, but of the very Mother of the Saviour: lauded in the akathist-hymn as the “Ladder by which God came down”, and “the Bridge leading from earth to heaven”.

Just as the Only-Begotten Son’s obedience, surrender and submission to His Father’s will is at the very core of the meaning of the Mystery of the Cross, it was already reflected in the Mother of God’s selfless acceptance of the divine plan revealed by the Archangel Gabriel.

This Mystery became an abiding reality in her life at the side of her Son, as was prophetically recognised by St Symeon in the temple, “Yea, a sword shall pierce through thine own soul also.”

St Paul wrote to the Church in Rome, “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of One shall many be made righteous.” and in his first letter to the Corinthians (15:21-2), the Apostle states that “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.”

The first Adam brought about the fall by rebellion and disobedience, but conversely, as the Second-Adam, the Saviour brings about reconciliation and salvation through obedience and submission to the Divine Counsel. As the pinnacle of the saving love of God, the Cross is the sacrificial-means of this redemptive act.

Similarly, we an opposite contrast between the first-mother, Eve, and the Mother of God as the “Second-Eve”.

Before the Fall, Eve, like the Mother of God, Eve was a sinless virgin, but in as much they not only listened to such different messengers, through their contrasting disobedience and obedience towards God, the stark contrast of both action and consequence emerges.

Tertullian (160-240) wrote, “As Eve had believed the serpent, so Mary believed the angel. The delinquency which the one occasioned by believing, the other, by believing, effaced.”  

Mary’s obedience annuls the rebellion of Eve and its fateful consequences, as expressed by St (c. 120/140 – c. 200/203) in his “Against Heresies”:

“Mary, the Virgin, is found obedient, saying, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord be it unto me according to your word.’ But Eve was disobedient for she did not obey when as yet she was a virgin.”

“Thus Mary’s obedience undid the knot of Eve’s disobedience; for what the virgin Eve had bound up by her unbelief, the Virgin Mary set free by her faith…”

At the root of this emancipation and freedom is the conforming of human free-will to the will of God as the very foundation of obedience, and by this alignment of the human and Divine Will, the Annunciation becomes the moment of the Incarnation and “the fountainhead of our salvation and the manifestation of the mystery which was from eternity”.

Despite all of those childhood years within the precincts of the Temple, despite the unknown experiences of the infant-Theotokos in the Holy of Holies, Mary’s ‘fiat’, her ‘yes’ to the Archangel, was not a foregone conclusion. She still possessed freedom and free-will, but her selfless-love for God and obedience to Him, led to her acceptance of God’s plan, and led her through the trials and sorrows of her life as Mother of the Saviour, epitomised by seeing her Son bloodied and disfigured upon the Cross.

From the encounter between the Mother of God and the Archangel at the Annunciation to the Crucifixion of her Son, as she stood at the foot of the Cross, her life was one of continuous agreement and alignment with the Divine Will, negating the disobedience of Eve whose rebellion saw her driven away from the Garden of Eden and barred from the Tree of Life.

Like the moon reflecting the rays and light of the sun, so the Mother of God reflects her own Son in her own life, and by emulating her humility, selflessness and obedience, she will truly be our Hodegetria and show us the way.

That way will lead us to the foot of the Cross, which – as the supreme sign of the Saviour’s sacrificial love and obedience to the Father – is our Tree of Life, which in the poetry of the services of the Church we hymn, saying, “…we embrace thee, O desire of all the world. Through thee our tears of sorrow have been wiped away; we have been delivered from the snares of death and have passed over to unending joy.”

As the new Eve, the journey of the Mother of God took her from the Annunciation to to stand at the foot of the Cross, as the new Tree of Life, but beyond that, to hear the good tidings of another angel, who would greet the Myrrh-bearing woman on that first Pascha, with the wondrous words,

“Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen: remember how he spake unto you when he was yet in Galilee, saying, the Son of man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.” (Luke 24:5-6)

Today, speaking of the Annunciation, we chant those words of the troparion, “Today is the fountainhead of our salvation” but on Pascha, with our hearts and minds at the empty Tomb, reflecting upon the precious Cross, we can then joyfully proclaim the words of St Ephrem: “through faith it is no longer a tree, but the fountain of life eternal; that the Cross is a fountain of Life even as Jesus said: I am the life and the resurrection (Jn 11:25).”

And as we venerate the Cross at this mid-point to Pascha, hearing the Saviour say, “Whosoever desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24), we must be joyful in the knowledge that the meaning of this Cross – the submission, humility and obedience, seen in the life of the Saviour, also reflected in the life of His Mother will lead us to the joy of the empty Life-Giving Tomb and the angelic words, “Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is not here, but is risen…”

May the mystery of the Cross in our lives, through selfless love, obedience, submission and humility lead us to the fountain of life and the joy of the resurrection.

Amen.

On the Eve of the Great Fast – the Fall of Man & the Pre-Eternal Council

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

On this Forgiveness Sunday when we commemorate the casting out of Adam and Eve from Eden, we reflect on the fall and exile of the first-father and the first mother through their disobedience and rebellion against God, yet we do so on the threshold of the wonderful journey that leads us from this annual commemoration of the sorrow of banishment to the wonder of Pascha: the great sign and celebration of our salvation, and of our reconciliation with God through the Saviour’s life-giving passion and third-day resurrection.

We embark on this penitential-journey with the foreknowledge of the economy of salvation, of the Victory of the Cross, and the message of the empty Tomb, already knowing that Christ is risen and has conquered death by death.

Though this Sunday is a lamentation for the world-changing effects of the disobedience of the first-Adam and first-Eve, in the imminent penitential-season we will journey to Golgotha and the empty Tomb to rejoice in the saving and life-giving obedience of the Saviour, the second-Adam, born of the Theotokos who is the second-Eve: the Son of God obedient to the will of the Father “even to the death of the Cross”, and the Mother of God obedient to the will of the Most High, announced to her by the archangel to whom she obediently submitted: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”

Through this redemptive obedience, beyond the season of the Great Fast, at Pascha, the three signs of the fall identified by St John Chrysostom – the woman (Eve), the tree and death – will be negated and cancelled out by the Woman (the Theotokos), the Tree (of the Cross), and the new life of the resurrection!

The signs of the fall and the bitter fruits of pride and disobedience were destroyed by humility and obedience, as the Lord born in the flesh, entered the world through the selfless obedience of the Mother of God, redeeming humanity through His own obedience to the Father, even descending into Sheol/Hades to harrow it and lead Adam and Eve and all of His exiled forefathers and mothers on an exodus journey from the slavery and imprisonment of death to the freedom of the life of the heavenly kingdom.

So… as we mourn the bitter fruits of the tree of disobedience in Eden, we already anticipate the end of the Lenten journey, looking to reap the wondrous life-giving fruits of the tree of obedience, which is the Cross – looking forward to celebrating Christ’s victory over death and the harrowing of hell, through the wood of the cruciform Tree of Life set up on Golgotha.

Yet as we remember the exile of Adam and Eve from paradise, we must not fall into the mistake of thinking that the mystery of the Cross was something centuries away from them, after the Old Testament centuries, or that the Lord had to come up with a plan B, having to figure out how the fall would be remedied and fallen humanity restored.

There is an old Slavic icon, (of western inspiration, and not without controversy), the “Pre-Eternal Council – Prevechny Sovyet” which reminds us that even as Adam and Eve fell, even as the effects of their disobedience were pronounced, and even as they were banished, God as all-knowing, all-loving and all-powerful ALREADY had the remedy – already had the answer, and already looked forward to the unfolding of the mystery of salvation in the fullness of time.

Without entering into iconographical and canonical arguments, this icon possesses a powerful message because of the salvific reality it expresses.

The Father, with the dove representing the Holy Spirit upon His breast already presents the Tree of the Cross, upon which the Son is nailed, often with angelic wings covering His body and showing that this is not in the fulfilled event of the crucifixion, but as a pledge and a sign of the sacrificial love and obedience in which the Saviour – met in the Old testament as the angel of Great Council – will enter creation and human-existence to look for and find Adam and Eve, and seek out their children from the beginning of the ages to the end of time.

It is an iconic representation of the council of the persons of the Holy Trinity, the perfect community of love and self-offering, giving and directing love one to another, and manifested in this salvific-plan to be realised and fulfilled Saviour’s future passion, and the Victory of the Cross.

In this icon, in the already conceived economy of salvation, the Father has already raised up the Cross, and the the Only-Begotten Son and Word of God has already accepted its inner meaning and taken it up in His obedience to the Father, and through the centuries of the Old Covenant, God-in-Trinity has already set in motion the journey to Golgotha and the Arimathaean’s Tomb through the generations of the sons of Adam.

In the Old Testament, through their human generations recorded in the ancestral genealogies in the Gospels, Christ-Yahweh is already on the highway seeking out the Prodigal Son, journeying toward his exiled heirs

The encounter with them in His earthly, incarnate-life, His Passion, and the Mystery of the Cross is already unfolding through the Old Testament centuries, not just as a historical and temporal event in Jerusalem centred on an ignominious wooden gibbet, but as the self-emptying, sacrificial-love through which God’s remedy for the fall and its bitter fruits is made real to broken and fallen humanity.

In the vigil service, we hear the words, “Taking up the armour of the Cross, let us make war against the enemy”, so in this season of the Fast, let us imitate Christ, and take up our own Cross, renouncing our self-will, selfishness and the earthly shackles that enslave us, knowing that the Mystery of the Cross in our lives will lead us from death to life, from slavery to freedom and from darkness to light, led forward by the Saviour to Whom we cry, “Glory to Thee, Who hast laid Thy Cross as a bridge over death, that souls might pass over upon it from the dwelling of the dead to the dwelling of life!”

This stark contrast of bitterness, exile and death with sweetness, reconciliation and life runs through this day, and is represented powerfully by the fact that it is traditional for Paschal Hymns to be chanted during the rite of forgiveness at the end of vespers, so that even as we are lamenting the fall and asking forgiveness of one another we are already singing of “a Pascha which has opened for us the gates of paradise’, and even as we embrace one another asking forgiveness and reconciliation, we hear the Paschal words, “Let us embrace each other! Let us call ‘brothers’ even those that hate us, and forgive all by the resurrection!”

Knowing that obedience is at the heart of the Paschal Mystery, let us seek to follow the Saviour from death to life through our repentance and transformation by the Saviour in Whom all things are made new, and Whose Cross and Tomb call us to journey with prayer, fasting and spiritual watchfulness through the season of the Great Fast to the radiant night of Pascha, starting as we now celebrate the vespers of forgiveness, performing the rite of forgiveness as we hear the quiet invitation of the Pascal greeting: Christ is Risen!

Amen.

Greetings For the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord

“At that time, the parents brought the child Jesus to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord; (As it is written in the law of the LORD, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;) And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons. And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Symeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Spirit, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law, Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said, Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel. And Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of him. And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity; And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day. And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem. And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth. And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him.”  (Luke 2:22-40)

Dear brothers and sisters,

Greetings to you all on the after-feast of the Meeting of the Lord, and the Synaxis of St Symeon and Anna.

In the ancient west, the present feast marked the end of the festive season that began at the Nativity, sealed at the Presentation of the Christ-Child in the Temple with St Symeon’s words confirming the Infant as the “Light to enlighten the gentiles, and the glory of Thy people, Israel…”

Both Israel and the Gentiles, had already paid homage to the Saviour – Israel in the shepherds and the Gentiles in the magi – but this feast marks the recognition of the long awaited Saviour of both Jewry and ‘the nations’ in the heart and centre of Israel and the Jewish faith, in the courts of the Temple in whose sanctuary the Mother of God had been prepared for her role in the Incarnation by prayer and divine-communion, and where she was now purified on the fortieth day after the birth of the Saviour.

The festal hymns remind us that the seemingly mundane outward appearance of the presentation of just another first-born son in the Temple, was in fact the entrance of the Only-Begotten Son and Word of God, the Ancient of Days, God of God and Light of Light: the Creator, the Giver of the law, and the promised Messiah, spoken of by the prophets. 

“Tell us, O Symeon: Whom bearest thou into the temple in thine arms, rejoicing? To Whom dost thou cry aloud: “Now have I been freed, for I have beheld my Saviour! ” “He is the One Who is born of the Virgin! He is God the Word, Who from God became incarnate for our sake and saveth man! Let us worship Him!

Receive, O Symeon, Him Whom Moses beheld in the gloom on Sinai giving the law, and Who hath become a babe, submitting to the law. He is the One Who speaketh through the law; He is the One spoken of by the prophets, Who for our sake hath become incarnate and saveth man. Let us worship Him!”

Let us come and greet Christ with divine hymns, and let us receive Him Whom Symeon perceived as our salvation. He is the One Whom David proclaimed beforehand; He is the One spoken of in the prophets, Who for our sake hath become incarnate and speaketh through the law. Let us worship Him.”

(Vesperal stikhira on “Lord, I have cried…”)

In solidarity with the children whom He had created, Jesus the Great High Priest and New Passover Lamb, was brought into the Temple so that the Levitical priests could “redeem” Him, as the one Who had first opened His mother’s womb. 

In spiritual terms this could be seen as going beyond the ironic to the ridiculous – the Redeemer needing redeeming, as though He was just any other child and not the Lamb of God by Whom all would be saved, and through Whom all sacrifices would become obsolete, needless and abolished. 

Yet, this must be appreciated as a further sign of the condescending love of God, Who thought it not robbery to hide His Divinity to be clothed in human flesh and dwell among His sons and daughters, to save them as flesh of their flesh and bone of their bone: God-Incarnate for Whom no self-effacing, humble action was too much or too demeaning in seeking out His lost children.

As if the incarnation was not in itself a sufficient sign of the salvific and self-giving love of God, the Saviour allowed Himself to be circumcised in the flesh in obedience to the covenant and law, even though He was the giver of the covenant to the Patriarch Abraham and the Torah to Moses the God-seer. 

Even as a child only eight days old, in circumcision, He deigned to suffer the shedding of blood in a prophetic foretaste of His suffering and bloody-passion on Golgotha, showing the reality of His Incarnation, and the Church Fathers remind us that all of things which the Saviour deigns to endure for our salvation are to show us that He is trulyGod-Incarnate in the physical-reality and not just the appearance of flesh: a point borne out by the sessional hymn on the polyeleos of matins –

“Thou didst become a babe for my sake, O Ancient of Days, and didst partake of purification, O most pure God, that Thou mightest assure me of the flesh Thou didst receive from the Virgin. And Symeon, taught thereby, recognised Thee as God appearing in the flesh, and the elder kissed Thee, our Life, and, rejoicing, cried out: “Release me, for I have seen Thee, the Life of all!”

After His Nativity and circumcision, the God-Man further assured humanity of the reality of His flesh in His encounter with Symeon, who not only saw and held Christ – God-Incarnate – but kissed the Word made Flesh.

The ancient tradition of the Church is that Symeon was not simply a righteous elder, but one who had lived what seems to us an impossibly long life, like the forefathers of the Old Testament, living for centuries in anticipation of the Divine promise that he would see the Messiah before leaving this world.

However, having joyfully exclaimed “…mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people…”, he was not one who simply saw God Incarnate, but held the Messiah and Saviour in his own arms, as the culmination and fulfilment of the long life He was now content to leave behind as his life now had meaning and resolution, and his vigil had been fulfilled.

Having seen and held the Saviour, there was no more need for his old heart to beat, his bones to ache, or his weary flesh to struggle in life day by day. The crowning zenith of His life was to hold the Lord, and that moment task was done.

It is strange for us to imagine what it must have been like for him to hold the Christ-Child, knowing through the Holy Spirit, that this was the Saviour of the world. Yet, without ever denying the unimaginable magnitude of this wonderful moment, we need to recognise that whilst Symeon held the Saviour, he was of the Old Covenant and not called to the Divine encounter that we are granted through the sacramental life of the Church.

We refer to St Symeon as the God-Receiver, but in the waters of baptism each of us is called to be initiated into the death and resurrection of the Incarnate God, whom he held in his arms, and to put on Christ; by the operation of the Holy Spirit through Holy Chrism, each of is called to become His living temple, Whose seal and gift we are granted as the completion of the baptismal rite; in the wonder of the Holy Liturgy, each of us is also called to become a God-Receiver, receiving the Lord’s Body and Blood. Through the grace of the Holy Mysteries in the Church, we are called to become God-Receivers in ways that even Symeon, so holy, venerable and righteous, was not afforded.

St Symeon had waited year after year, decade by decade and perhaps even century after century for the moment in which he would behold the Messiah. Seeing child after child, generations born and generations dying, those long years would have been filled not only with expectation, but with prayer, fasting, and communion with God, in a long life of preparation for the brief moment in which he beheld and held Salvation as a person in his aged arms.

How do we struggle to become God-Receivers, called to receive and bear the same Christ that Symeon held at the Table of the Lamb, at which the Saviour continues to invite us to partake through His words, “Take eat; this is my body… Drink this, all of you; this is my blood… which is shed for you and for many, for the remission of sins…”?

It is no accident that the only place we liturgically read the Song of Symeon apart from vespers or great compline is in the prayers of thanksgiving after Holy Communion. Having received the Saviour in the Mysteries of His Body and Blood, we pray that, we may depart in peace, recognising that in Holy Communion we have received the same Lord Who was born in the Cave and laid in the manger; Who bled in His circumcision on the eighth day; Who was “redeemed” according to the sacrifices of the law on His fortieth day, as the “Light to enlighten the gentiles and the glory of His people, Israel.”

But, without prayer, fasting and repentance, how can any of us ever expect that it is possible to truly become a God-Receiver? Without continually striving to consecrate ourselves as holy temples to receive the Christ Whom Symeon met and received in the Temple, how can He be received and dwell in us.

Whilst the “Light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of His people, Israel” is the Light Who desires to enlighten all of humanity, dispelling the darkness of the fallen world, we must be desirous of everything He promises and brings in order to welcome Him, to spiritually embrace and hold Him as we receive Him as we confess, “I believe, O Lord, and I confess that thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who didst come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.”

One of the stikhira of the litia at vespers says that,

“Symeon bore the preëternal Word of the Father incarnate, and revealed to the nations the Light, the Cross and the Resurrection…” 

but this revelation can only be meaningful in us if we desire to embrace the Light, the Cross and the Resurrection, expressing this desire by the spiritual direction and impetus of our lives: only then will it be possible for us to even come close to being God-Receivers, as was the righteous Symeon.

The prophecy of Isaiah, the second reading of vespers, contains a warning, heard from the pre-incarnate Saviour –  dramatically contrasted to the Child held in the arms of Symeon in His appearance as…

 “the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne, and the house was full of His glory. And seraphim stood round about Him: each one had six wings: and with two they covered their face, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one cried to the other, and they said: “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts! The whole earth is full of His glory!”

Isaiah is charged to –

“Go, and say to this people: ‘Ye shall hear indeed, but ye shall not understand; and ye shall see indeed, but ye shall not perceive.’ For the heart of this people hath become gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes have they closed; lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them.”

We can so easily become like the Israelites in the time of Isaiah, through our carelessness, lack of attentiveness, laziness, and the continued postponement of spiritual labour and repentance. Despite the calling of our baptism, we do not embrace the Light, the Cross and the Resurrection… or somehow, mistakenly think that we can put things on hold. The reality is that there is no spiritual dormancy, only action or inaction. There is no neutral spiritual state of suspended animation.

Soon, the season of the Great Fast will be the yearly call to rise from our stupor and laziness, to awake and recognise that it is later than we think, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed.”

The words of the kontakion of the Great Canon of Repentance will challenge us,

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

…but this call to action is not to be put off until then.

As well as being the after-feast of the Meeting of the Lord, this coming Sunday is the Sunday of Zacchaeus, on which we will hear how the tax-collector’s repentance made it possible for him to become the friend of Christ, and to receive the Saviour, Who entered his home and more importantly transformed his life.

May our repentance become the means through which we welcome the Saviour and become God-Receivers, like the righteous Symeon, with Christ the Light of the World shining through our every thought, word and action, touching those around us and shedding the Light of Christ upon His world.

In Christ – Hieromonk Mark

 

Greetings for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

“Today creation is enlightened! Today all things are glad, those of heaven and those on earth! Angels and men mingle together! For where the King arriveth, there doth order prevail. Wherefore, let us all hasten to the Jordan and see how John baptiseth the sinless head which no man fashioned. And, chanting the cry of the angel, let us exclaim together: The grace of God hath appeared, saving all men, illumining and granting mercy unto the faithful!”

(Sticheron from the litia)

Dear brothers and sisters, S prazdnikom!

Greetings on this most joyful and wonderful feast, which for our forebears far outshone the Nativity, in which the humble Saviour quietly came into the world with few witnesses, hidden in the cave to which only the shepherds were called, until the arrival of the magi who bowed down before Him in the house in which He and His parents dwelt before their exile in Egypt.

There was no such hidden-ness in the Lord’s Baptism, in which we see not only His revelation to the world as Saviour, but also the revelation of the Holy Trinity, as the heavens opened and the voice of the Father was heard, “This is my beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased…”, with the Holy Spirit descending like a dove and confirming the Father’s words.

Heaven and earth, humanity and divinity, angels and men were united as they came together for the Theophany in the River Jordan: God the Creator Himself plunged into the waters, not to be cleansed by them but rather to cleanse them; not to be blessed by them, but rather that they should be blessed by His condescension and Presence; hallowing them by humbly accepting baptism – descending into the waters which He Himself had made in the beginning.

The God-Man descended into the Jordan manifested to those around Him in His humanity, but ascended from the waters proclaimed and revealed as God, in the manifest Presence of the whole Trinity, as He was glorified together with His Unoriginate Father and the All-Holy, Good, and Life-Creating Spirit.

Though He needed neither baptism nor cleansing, by His humble example and express command the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve were called to receive new birth and renewal in the Name of the Trinity revealed on this feast, cleansed in baptismal waters and receiving the gift and seal of the Holy Spirit, to become sons and daughters of light, emerging from their own Jordan having put on Christ, as heirs of the promise of His Resurrection.

As children of the Resurrection, who have followed the Saviour into the baptismal waters, we keep this feast with joy, as the memorial and renewal of that first Theophany, joining with the saints and angels to celebrate, and uniting ourselves with all creation in joy, lifting up the world in thanksgiving.

Through this great act of the humility of God, not only the Jordan, but all creation was sanctified, cleansed and renewed by its own Creator, as even before His Divine Passion and Life-Giving Resurrection, the Saviour descended into the waters bringing sanctification and restoration to the world whose original perfection was His making and very reflection.

And, as we celebrate the Lord’s Baptism, and the Theophany of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, we beseech our Triune God to send the blessing of Jordan upon the waters wherever we are, that through the gift of the Holy Spirit, through them we may be cleansed, renewed, refreshed and sanctified, and that our homes and the world around us may be blessed as we celebrate these wonderful events anew, not as onlookers, but as participants through our own baptism and through the celebration of this solemn and glorious feast.

“Today is the time of feasting, and the ranks of saints and angels have joined us in celebration; today the grace of the All-Holy Spirit in the likeness of a dove comes down upon the waters; today shines the Sun that never sets, and the world sparkles with the light of the Lord! Today the moon is bright, together with the earth in the glowing radiance of its beams; today the brilliant stars adorn the universe with the splendour of their twinkling; today the clouds from heaven shed upon the human race a shower of justice; today the Uncreated One willingly permits the hands of His creatures to be laid upon Him; today the Prophet and Forerunner approaches the Lord and, standing before Him in awe, witnesses the condescension of God towards us; today through the presence of the Lord, the waters of the river Jordan are changed into remedies; today the whole universe is refreshed with mystical streams; today the sins of the human race are blotted out by the waters of the river Jordan; today paradise has been opened to all, and the Sun of righteousness has shone upon us; today, at the hands of Moses, the bitter water is changed into sweetness by the presence of the Lord!”

(From the Great Sanctification of the Waters)

 

 

Greetings for the Nativity of the Saviour

“And there were shepherds residing in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks by night. Just then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid! For behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: Today in the city of David a Saviour has been born to you. He is Christ the Lord! And this will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. And suddenly there appeared with the angel a great multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying:

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favour rests!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph and the Baby, who was lying in the manger. After they had seen the Child, they spread the message they had received about Him. And all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.

The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, which was just as the angel had told them.”

(Matthew 1: 8-20)

Dear brothers and sisters, greetings for the feast of the Nativity of our Lord, and God, and Saviour, Jesus Christ, and His wonderful coming to dwell among us in the flesh.

As we celebrate His birth, we again hear the song of the angels, coming to the shepherds in the darkness of night, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill among men.”

Peace on earth is the ardent prayer and dream of so many Christians as they celebrate the birth of the King of Peace in a world so beset by darkness, uncertainty and terror: in war-torn Ukraine, where the Church also faces spiritual war; in bombarded, flattened and starved Gaza, and in other parts of the occupied Palestinian territories; in suffering Kosovo-Metochia, where Orthodox Serbs still face discrimination, persecution, uncertainty, violence and even death – never knowing what tomorrow will bring; in Africa, where Christians are routinely kidnapped, tortured or killed, churches set ablaze and their homes, businesses and schools ransacked. The homicidal rage of Herod is a reality Christians in all of these suffering places know and understand.

The world is dark and desperate for peace, but this peace will not come around negotiating-tables in the United Nations, or from governments whose geo-political strategies, economic goals and foreign policy precipitates, supports and maintains armed conflict in their own national interests.

No! True peace cannot and does not come from politicians, governments, military commanders and international-agencies.

This peace will only come when the “peace from above” enters the hearts of men and women, high and low, powerful and powerless.

How and whether this can ever happen in a world so set against God, the message of the Gospel, Faith and Truth is a mystery beyond us, and not a seemingly believable prospect, but as we celebrate the feast of the Nativity, we should each be challenging ourselves to be peace-makers, knowing that the Lord promises beatitude to those who strive for peace:

“Blessed are the peace-makers; for they shall be called the children of God.”

We see the horrors of war and we grow indignant at the actions of governments and their armed forces, and yet if we honestly examine our own hearts and minds, the anger, rage and destructive potential tearing the world apart is also with in us.

We harbour resentment, intolerance, jealousy, anger, argumentativeness and so many dark and destructive passions and powers within us, with the alarming potential to destroy and sow seeds of pain and sorrow.

We harbour grudges, we remember past arguments and wrongs, we refuse to forgive, we remind ourselves of the past actions, words, and intentions of others. We cause division; maintain divisions that already exist; we militate against the very peace that we are called to make and maintain.

We too hurt people; we also do destructive things, even if only on an emotional or relationship level; we too bring distress and pain to other human beings – often those who are closest to us; we too seek to conquer, dominate and rule at the expense of others; we too seek to supersede rivals and to be the victor – making decisions, calling the shots, being in control, having the last word; we too pick arguments, precipitate conflict, argument and cause rivalries and division.

As people who chant about being peace-makers, on our individual, localised, human level, we are agents of conflict and division, who yet have the audacity to come to the services of the Church, and begin worship with the challenging words of the Great Litany: “In peace, let us pray to the Lord…”

At this glorious feast, even as we hear the song of the angels, do we come to celebrate the Nativity as peace-makers?

Do we come with peace in our hearts – at at peace with God, at peace with our own consciences, at peace with the Church, before we even begin to talk about peace with other human beings and ask for peace for the world?

As we come to the Saviour’s birth, we are challenged to examine our own hearts, and ask whether they are places of peace.

How can God come and dwell in us, and our hearts become the spiritual-manger and dwelling place of the Prince of Peace if they are filled with jealousies, divisiveness, anger and a mirror of the divisions of the world?

Christmas must be a reminder that the coming of Christ into His world is an perpetually-unfolding reality, and that each of us must become Christ-Bearers, with the Saviour within us, as lowly, humble and decrepit as we are in the weakness of our humanity: the very same humanity that He put on in the Incarnation.

And… if we are to claim, with any real conviction that we are Christ-bearers, then we must also be peace-bearers, battling with ourselves to banish all that makes for division and conflict, so that we may then become peace-makers, knowing that Christ does not dwell in lives where peace is refused and rejected.

Then, though we may not put an end to wars and international conflict, at the lowliest and most basic human level, we will be changing the world, and bringing peace, and that peace will not be the fragile, often-failing worldly peace – which is often only a lull between conflicts – but the “peace from above”, which is the peace of Christ, which will only know its fullness in the reality of the new heaven and the new earth, where

“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.”

(Isaiah 11:6-8)

But though the fullness of the Peace of Christ will only be known in the eternity of Kingdom, we must still labour for it now, even as we now labour for the Kingdom itself.

Through the peace and light of the new-born Saviour, the people who sit in great darkness may still see a great Light, even though the world still does not comprehend it, or even want it, and when individual human hearts become the dwelling of the Prince of Peace, and when individual human lives labour for peace, then the Light of Christ begins to break through the darkness.

Flame by flame, the radiance of Christ’s birth in each of us will then begin to bring light to those in darkness, hope to the hopeless, love to the unloved, comfort to those in distress and sorrow, calm those in turmoil, soothing those in pain and warming cold and frozen hearts.

Hearkening to the message of the angels, let each of us struggle to make ourselves worthy dwellings for the Prince of Peace, so that the message of His Gospel may be realised in our lives, and through us may touch others, so that the message of the angels in the darkness of the first Christmas night may be felt by those in our suffering and war torn world.

May we always struggle be people of the goodwill – blagovolenie – of which the angels sing, and in Christlike love, may Christ live in us, love through us, work through us, and shine through us as the Light of the World.

And, like the shepherds, let us spread the message, glorifying and praising God.

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace! Today Bethlehem receiveth Him Who is ever seated with the Father. Today the angels glorify as God the Babe Who was born. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will among men!”

Wishing you a happy, holy, and blessed feast of the Nativity and the blessing of the King of Peace.

In Christ – Hieromonk Mark

Homily on the Sunday of the Fathers

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

On this Sunday of the Fathers of Christ, we have heard His genealogy from the Gospel of Matthew, the family-tree springing from the Patriarch Abraham, in a succession of forty one generations.

Though it reflects Jewish patriarchal tradition in ending with Joseph the Betrothed, it also records the ancestors of the Mother of God, who, like her betrothed-spouse was of the tribe of Judah and a descendent of King David, sharing her ancestors with Joseph, the guardian and protector of her and her Divine Son.

Though today’s Gospel may seem tedious, even boring to some, one thing that it is NOT, is pointless. In its intricacies, its generations, its succession from father to son, this Gospel is a sign and record of God’s love, mercy and compassion in His redemptive plan, which was not rushed, but unfolded in His time and according to His will.

Generation by generation, individual by individual, God prepared to put right the fall of the first-father and first-mother, and today’s long and complicated Gospel is a testimony of the fact that God would not redeem humanity as a distant ‘outsider’, but would rather save humanity from within. He would not simply save humanity as God, but scandalously and shockingly, He would save humanity as Man.

The physicality and creatureliness of human nature would be central to the person of Jesus; not only part of of Whom the Jesus of the Gospels was, but of Whom Jesus still is, now worshipped in heaven not only as God, but also in His Humanity.

Divinity and humanity, united in the person of Jesus, was laid as a newborn-child in the manger, as the supreme expression of God’s saving love that voluntarily unfolded and drew closer in the lives of Abraham and his descendants celebrated in today’s Gospel.

When Abraham was called from Ur in Chaldea, leaving his homeland, his culture and people, it was because the All-Knowing, All-Wise and All-Merciful God, had chosen him to not only be the father of a multitude, set apart and chosen by God, but to be the ancestor of His own Saviour and Redeemer.

In reading the Old Testament in a truly Orthodox Christian way, we have to put aside historical linearity and the sequences of time, to understand the Old Testament in the light of the Gospel and the mind of the Church, and to see and understand the calling of Abraham from the perspective of the end of today’s reading.

“Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.”

God-with-us as the Word-Made-Flesh: the precious crown and joy of Abraham, and his descendants.

God-with-us as the Child of Bethlehem, having received His humanity not only from Mary, but from all of the ancestors who came before her.

The very meaning of the calling of Abraham, the first name in the genealogy was that God would and could be with us, which is why we honour and celebrate the Patriarch and the other ancestors of Christ, according to the flesh.

In Christ-Emmanuel, the promises made to the Patriarch were supremely fulfilled, and the Incarnation was the ultimate purpose of Abraham’s life; of the promises God made to him and the very meaning of his Seed.

In the Epistle to the Galatians, St Paul identifies the ultimate meaning of God’s references to the Seed of Abraham.

“Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as of many, but as of one, “And to your Seed,” who is Christ.” (Galatians 3:16)

Christ-Emmanuel, God-with-us, was conceived and born as that wondrous Seed.

For the Hebrews, the Church Fathers and the ancient Christians, the future generations of Abraham’s descendants, Christ’s ancestors, were already within his loins as the father of a multitude.

Thus, according to God’s plan and the economy of salvation, not only all of the Saviour’s ancestors according to the flesh, but even Christ’s humanity were already in Abraham, to be passed down the centuries from generation to generation – from Abraham to Mary of Nazareth.

God Who is ceaselessly worshipped by the angels, would become the Seed of Abraham and his descendent, even though He testified to His own Divinity when He said, “Before Abraham Was, I Am” (John 8:48).

As the Seed of Abraham, He would enter the world in the poverty of a stable to be worshipped by the shepherds,

As the Seed of Abraham, He Who created the stars would become a small and fragile child, Who would lead the magi to Himself by the very stars He had made.

As the Seed of Abraham, Christ the Only-Begotten Son and Eternal Word of God would hide His Divinity beneath His human flesh, choking and conquering the devil who so greedily rushed to swallow Him at His death on the the Cross.

As the Seed of Abraham, voluntarily dying on the Cross, He would become the Conqueror of Death and Author of Life.

This is why it is this genealogy that is read today as a genealogy of vocation and election, setting a people apart for God’s plan to be realised in time and space; unfolding in history; in real individuals with stories, personalities, relationships and families – and through the wonder of the Incarnation and the Nativity, Christ became a relative of all of those whose names we have heard.

Christ became one flesh with them, becoming one of their own even as they became His own. Through becoming Man, the Son of God not only embraced them, but as Saviour laboured for them, suffered for them, sacrificed Himself for them in the the ultimate sign and realisation of God’s love on the Cross.

This Sunday is a great celebration of that love, in that He allows the offender – humanity – to play its part in the economy of salvation, contributing to the Incarnation, undoing the disobedience of Eden through lives of Faith, as so clearly stressed by the joyful words of the Epistle that remind us that all the patriarchs and fathers of Christ achieved was BY FAITH.

Not only did God reach out to them, but they reached out to God. They followed him, were guided by Him, putting their lives in His hands, giving us an example to follow in abiding in God, so that God is not only with us, but we are by our own volition with God.

Through their lives and examples, their personal faith, their relationships with God, we are brought to the Cave of Bethlehem, to the moment in which the Virgin gives birth and the Christ-Child is laid in the manger.

It is only by such personal faith that we too are brought to Christ, and that we become heirs of the promise and the spiritual children of Abraham, as children of the New Covenant, but the New Israel of Christ’s Church.

As St Paul wrote to the change in Galatia, “And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:29)

As the New Israel, we joyfully celebrate those who have been the ladder through which God descended to earth, and humanity ascended to heaven, knowing that is through the generations of Abraham that the gates of heaven are opened to us.

So, today, we rejoice with the patriarchs and matriarchs, prophets and prophetesses, not only from Abraham onwards, but from all generations of the Old Testament righteous ones who were God’s bridge from heaven to earth, and whose memory and example bring us to the approaching glory of the Nativity Feast.

“Rejoicing today, Adam is adorned with the glory of divine communion, as the foundation and confirmation of the wise forefathers; and with him Abel doth leap for joy and Enoch is glad, and Seth danceth together with Noah; the all-praised Abraham doth chant with the patriarchs, and from on high Melchizedek doth behold a birth wherein a father had no part. Wherefore, celebrating the divine memory of the forefathers of Christ, we beseech Him, that our souls be saved.”

(Stikhiron on “Lord, I have cried.”)

Amen.

Preparing For the Nativity: Drawing Near to Bethlehem

Dear brothers and sisters, warmest greetings to you as we celebrate the memory of St Spyridon the Wonderworker, as so many of you are also marking the western Christmas celebrations with non-Orthodox family and friends.

We also greet them as they celebrate the Lord’s Nativity, and hope and pray that this will be a time for reflection upon eternal values and truths, far from the ephemeral frippery that sums up what has become little more than a mid-winter festival for many people.

As a youth I loved –  and continue to love – the homely poems of Sir John Betjeman, particularly appreciating his poem ‘Christmas’, now rather old-fashioned, but with eternal questions that must still challenge us to today…

And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me?

And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

As we continue our Advent journey, when the baubles and tinsel of western Christmas are put away, we will hopefully have a little space and time to reflect upon the wonder beneath the questions that Betjeman asked – “And is it true… that the Creator of heaven and earth and all that is was born and laid in the manger, and that each time we celebrate the Divine Liturgy, the God-Man, our Saviour Jesus Christ continues to be Emmanuel – “God With Us” – in His self-sacrifice and self-giving of the Holy Mystery of His Body and Blood?

In our Orthodox liturgical culture, we are reminded of this by the melismos icon in which it is the Christ-Child Who is worshipped on the diskos of the eucharist, with either angels or St John Chrysostom and St Basil the Great in supplication on each side – for it is the very Christ-Child laid in the manger in the Cave of Bethlehem, and who received the gifts of the magi Who gives Himself as His Gift to us.

We are reminded of this at the covering of the Holy Gifts at the end of the proskomedia, as the priest takes the metal star-cover, and placing it over the Lamb (and the commemorative particles) says the words,

“And the star came and stood over the place where the Young Child was.”

At the melismos of the Liturgy – the fracturing and dividing of the Lamb before communion – it is the One Who was the Young Child Who is divided for the Communion of His children with His Most Pure Body and Most Precious Blood:

“Broken and distributed is the Lamb of God: broken, yet not divided; ever eaten, though never consumed, but sanctifying them that partake thereof.”

With this in mind, as we enter the last fortnight of the Nativity Fast, culminating in the Nativity Liturgy on Sunday 7th January – according to the Civil Calendar – we should seek to partake of that great wonder – that He Who is equally the Child of Bethlehem and the Risen Saviour and Victorious Conqueror of death and hell calls us and invites us to His supper:

“Take, eat, this is My Body which is broken for you for the remission of sins… Drink of it, all of you; this is My Blood of the New Testament, which is shed for you and for many, for the remission of sins.”

In today’s Gospel for the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers, we hear of those who were to busy to come to the supper that a certain rich man arranged, and to which they were invited…

“The first said unto him, I have bought a piece of ground, and I must needs go and see it: I pray thee have me excused. And another said, I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to prove them: I pray thee have me excused. And another said, I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.”

Though our prime understanding of this is the refusal of the Old Israel to respond to God’s persistent and determined call for their return to Him, through His servants, the Holy Forefathers and Prophets, we should not be complacent as the New Israel and children of the Resurrection, but also see it as a cautionary warning to us.

Christ has given us the feasts of the Church and the perpetual feast of His Mystical Supper as a foretaste of the Kingdom, as a token of His love, and as the Banquet of His Church, to which all are called, regardless of age, social status, learning or knowledge, as the very ones who were called from the highways and hedges by the servants seeking new guests to bring to their master’s supper.

Like the Passover lamb of the Exodus, we cannot partake of Christ the New Passover UNLESS we partake of the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world: the Lamb of God worshipped by the shepherds in the cave, Who is the Word Who became flesh and dwelt among us on that first Christmas night.

In these last days of the Fast, we prepare to meet the New Born Saviour as that very Lamb of God, Who was born and laid in the manger, to take away the sins of the world; clothed in Adam’s flesh to carry the Cross and to defeat the power of death and hell through the very flesh which He had put on; and in the coming feast of the Nativity He calls us to Himself, to each of us to worship and adore, but also to be joined to Him and have Him abiding in us through the Holy Mysteries.

As we approach the coming feast, we do not travel as magi, with costly gifts, but in our journeys of Faith many of us have travelled a very long way; far from the people we once were; far from the ideas we once held or the lives we once led; far from the things that we once thought to be the priorities of life, signs of success, well-being or achievement; far from the attachments and earthly things that once held us; and during that journey we have encountered much, perhaps changed much, and hopefully learned much – but not in terms of intellectualism and worldly knowledge, but in the simple and true wisdom that Christ has revealed and gives us, for we know that “God is the Lord, and has revealed Himself to us”

This revelation is the great gift of Christmas – God’s salvific gift of Himself to us and for us – and for those of us who preserve and live the Orthodox, Catholic and Apostolic Faith, this gift is one which is never exhausted as the Holy Mysteries of the Church are continually given to us, for our renewal and transformation, with the Eucharist as the greatest sign of Christ’s Gift to each of us, as precious individuals Whom He loves and cherishes.

To return to St Spyridon – his life as a simple rural shepherd, turned shepherd-of-souls after the death of his wife, when he was chosen and consecrated as bishop of Tremithus in Cyprus, reminds us that it is God “Who hast revealed the fishermen as most wise by sending down upon them the Holy Spirit.” It is in God that all Truth and all Wisdom is to be found, and that Truth and Wisdom was incarnate, and entered the world as a Person.

St Spyridon could almost be one of the simple shepherds who were in the hills tending their flocks by night. Unlike the Cappadocian Fathers, this simple soul did not receive a great classical education; he did not study grammar, logic, or rhetoric… mathematics, philosophy or theology; he did not know the classical Greek educational traditions or the great places of learning – and yet he was enlightened and made not only a TRUE theologian (who knows God rather than only knowing about Him), but also a wonder-worker, whose innumerable miracles never cease.

In him, divine-love, truth and wisdom made their dwelling, because his heart became the cave and the manger in which Christ found a home.

We are each called to approach the coming feast of the Nativity, like the simple shepherds, and with the simplicity and faith possessed by St Spyridon, knowing that the human heart and even the most complex and complicated lives, opened and surrendered to the New-Born Saviour in humility, faith, hope and love, can be transformed and the greatest of places, in which all things become possible through the love and mercy, and the in-dwelling of the Grace of God.

Let us approach the coming feast with awe, faith and love, desiring the Saviour to change us, banishing darkness, confusion and fear, and bringing us light and life.

In seeking Him as Light and Life, let us fast and pray, beseeching the Lord 

”…as Thou didst consent to lie in a cave and in a manger of dumb beasts, so consent also to lie in the manger of mine irrational soul and to enter into my defiled body.”

– daring to approach when we see the Deacon present the Holy Gifts at our Nativity Liturgy, hearing those familiar but ever awesome words,

“With the fear of God and faith, draw near – Со стра́хом Бо́жиим и ве́рою приступи́те.”

And, we know that our drawing near is only possible because the Love of God and God of Love did not simply draw near to us, but came searching for us when we were lost, reconciling us with Him, making peace between earth and heaven by becoming like unto us in the scandal of the Incarnation, in the seeming impossibility of the birth of the God-Man in the Cave of Bethlehem, in the shocking dereliction and suffering of the Cross, and in the glory and victory of the Life-Giving Resurrection.

This is the promise of the coming feast, hiding within the New-Born Child, the whole economy of salvation.

Troparion of the forefeast, Tone 4: Make ready, O Bethlehem! Be thou opened unto all, O Eden! Adorn thyself, O Ephratha! For in the cave the Tree of Life hath sprung forth from the Virgin. Her womb is shown to be a noetic paradise, in the midst of which is the divine Tree, whereof eating, we shall live, and not die as did Adam. Christ is born, that He might restore His image which fell of old!