St Felix and St Edmund Orthodox Church, Felixstowe
150 Holborn, London EC1N 2NS, United Kingdom
Zacchaeus Sunday. The Publican and the Pharisee. Prodigal Son. Last Judgement. Forgiveness Sunday.
Sunday of Orhodoxy. Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross. St Gregory Palamas. St John of the Ladder. St Mary of Egypt. Palm Sunday.
Easter. Thomas Sunday. The Myrrhbearers. Samaritan Woman. The Paralytic. Sunday of the Man Born Blind. Ascension Day. Sunday of the Holy Fathers. Trinity Sunday.
All Saints Sunday. Third Sunday after Pentecost. Fourth Sunday after Pentecost. Fifth Sunday after Pentecost. Sixth Sunday after Pentecost. Seventh Sunday after Pentecost. Eighth Sunday after Pentecost. Ninth Sunday after Pentecost. Tenth Sunday after Pentecost. Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost. Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost. Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost. Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost. Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost. Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost. Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost. Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost. Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost. Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost. Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost. Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost. Thirty-Second Sunday after Pentecost.
Theophany. Sunday after Theophany. Presentation of Christ In the Temple. Annunciation. Transfiguration. Dormition. Nativity of the Mother of God. Exaltation of the Cross. Presentation of Theotokos in the Temple. Sunday of the Forefathers. Sunday of the Fathers Nativity of Christ. Sunday after Nativity.
Nativity of John the Baptist. St Edmund, King and Martyr. St Felix. St Nicholas.
1. Sundays before Lent.
Today the Church reads the history of Zacchaeus. We are now entering the threshold of the preparatory weeks before Lent. Indeed we are now only eleven weeks from Easter itself. Who then was Zacchaeus?
Zacchaeus was a tax-collector. I suppose none of us particularly likes being taxed, but at least if the tax is collected honestly and is spent on useful public services, then we can agree to paying our taxes with goodwill. Zacchaeus, however, was dishonest. At least some of the tax that he collected went straight into his own pocket. We know this from his confession in today’s Gospel where he promises to return fourfold that which he had taken dishonestly. But perhaps even worse than this, Zacchaeus was collecting tax not for a legitimate State, but for the occupying power of the Roman Empire. He was therefore not only a fraudster and a thief, but he was also a traitor to his own people.
As he collected tax, so he collected sins. In that way we too are like him, for just as children collect stamps of all colours and sizes and from all countries and stick them in albums, so we all collect sins and albums of sins of all colours and sizes and varieties. We, like Zacchaeus, are sin-collectors, and every sin is a theft of God’s grace, fraudulent and a betrayal of God.
How then was Zacchaeus saved? It is important for us to know if we too seek salvation. And we know that he was saved not only because of Our Lord’s words to him in today’s Gospel, but also because of the halo around Zacchaeus’ head in the icon that lies before us, for in the Life of St Zacchaeus we can read how he was later made a bishop by the Apostles and became a holy man.
Zacchaeus was saved because he knew he was small, and so had to climb up into the sycamore tree to see the Son of God Whom he desired to see.
Our problem, on the other hand, is that we do not know that we are small. We imagine that we are big, that we are great in stature, clever, good, righteous and, ridiculous though it may sound, we even imagine that we are important, whereas in fact we are nobodies.
Like Zacchaeus, we will not be saved until we too are small and understand that in order to see Salvation, we must first climb up into the tree of repentance, up onto the cross of humility, bringing the fourfold fruit of repentance. Only then will we hear Christ’s voice calling to us and saying: ‘Come down’, because He is calling us to eat with Him in His Eucharist.
Today we also commemorate all the New Martyrs and Confessors of the twentieth century, spread over one sixth of the Earth’s service, who were brought to salvation and holiness after the tragic events of the Russian Revolution. There is a link between them and the salvation of Zacchaus which we remember today.
Before the Revolution the Church in Russia was rich and powerful, but after the Revolution, the Church became poor and small — like Zacchaeus. Before the Revolution few are the saints of the Russian Church who have been revealed to us, but after the Revolution, God revealed to us hundreds of thousands of His saints. Here there is a lesson for us.
Perhaps, for example, we sometimes imagine a time when in England too there will be a powerful and influential Orthodox Church. In London there will be a large Orthodox Cathedral, in Ipswich too, and in Felixstowe, not one tiny church, but two or three parishes. Perhaps there will be Orthodox Bishops sitting in the House of Lords, being consulted by the government of the day on all manner of questions. Perhaps there will be a demonstration through the streets of London of a million Orthodox protesting against the evil of abortion or other spiritual ills in our society. But if such a thing ever happened in the far distant future, we would have to be on guard, learning our lesson from the history of the Church in Russia and from Zacchaeus, and asking ourselves the question:
Do we find salvation when the Church is rich and powerful? Do we find salvation when we are big? Zacchaeus found salvation in being small, and countless Orthodox in the twentieth century found salvation in being persecuted in the Name of the Lord, Who makes us strong through our weakness. Let us be on our guard, remaining ‘small of stature’.
Holy Father Zacchaeus and all the New Martyrs and Confessors, pray to God for us!
The Publican and the Pharisee.
Regarding today’s Gospel, there are many misunderstandings.
Firstly, let us be clear as to whom this Gospel concerns. The word ‘publican’ does not have the modern meaning of someone who keeps a pub: in older English it simply means a tax-collector. As we recall from last Sunday’s Gospel concerning another tax-collector, Zacchaeus, tax-collectors among the Jews were the lowest of the low, thieves, corrupt to the core.
Secondly, at the time of Christ, the word ‘pharisee’ did not at all have today’s meaning of smug bigot and hypocritical prig. Among the Jews, the Pharisees were the most devout, upstanding, law-abiding and respected, middle-class citizens, models of righteousness.
And yet in today’s Gospel, Christ justifies the thief, but the middle-class citizen is condemned. Why?
Simply because of their attitudes: the publican has the right attitude, that of asking God for mercy in repentance for his sins of which he is conscious. On the other hand, the pharisee has the wrong attitude, that of not asking for mercy, that of self-justification, for he has no consciousness at all of his sinfulness, because he is under the illusion of being righteous. He has this illusion merely because he fulfils all the outward observances of the Jewish Law. His piety is all for show, it is all outward and does not come from the heart. The pharisee does the right things, but he does them for all the wrong reasons, and thus they lose all their force.
The error of the pharisee is to confuse the means with the ends. Let us be clear. Our end, or goal, is to find salvation. This means to prepare ourselves to be with God, for the inevitable destiny of every soul is to be with God in eternity, to be in the presence of Love. Those who are prepared for this will see God, will experience Divine Love, those who are not prepared for this will not see Love, but will be burnt by it. To be prepared is to be pure in heart. As it is written: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’. Those who are not pure in heart will not see God, but will experience His presence with painful regret, not with joy.
There are many means to salvation, to preparing our souls to be with God. However, we should not think that the means to salvation automatically bring salvation, merely because they are outwardly observed. In order to understand this, we first need to know what the means to salvation are.
Firstly, there is the worship of God and prayer to Him. True, we can worship and pray to God everywhere, but there is one place where we can be particularly close to Him, and where it is easier to speak to Him in prayer, and that is at church. Only at church are services held in His honour and we can thank Him, worship Him and pray to Him more easily during those services and only at church can we partake of the sacraments.
Secondly, we can deepen our worship of God through reading and obeying His word, through fasting and through almsgiving.
Just as worship, prayer, reading of the Word of God and almsgiving are only means to salvation, and not salvation itself, so fasting too is only a means to drawing closer to God. And yet, as one philosopher put it many years ago: ‘We are what we eat’. Often those who eat a great deal of meat, sometimes even more than once a day, are fleshly, carnally-minded people, with little spiritual understanding. Of course this does not mean that we are to be vegaetarians and never eat meat. Again, if I may generalise, it sometimes happens that people who eat little or no meat, or constantly diet for fashion’s sake, can be faddish or eccentric, and also have little spiritual understanding. The Church therefore does not ask us to fast twelve months of the year. It asks us through Great Lent, the three other Fasts, and Wednesdays and Fridays, to fast for six months of the year. The Church’s approach is balanced. That is why this coming week, there is no fast — to remind us that although salvation is not in fasting, on the other hand, it is also true that fasting for Christ’s sake will help us draw closer to salvation.
‘We are what we eat’, said the philosopher. We can see this especially clearly in holy communion. If we come to communion regularly, we are with Christ and He is with us. But if on the other hand, we never come to communion, then we shall never be with Christ and He will never be with us: ‘We are what we eat’.
If we sincerely, from our hearts, worship and pray to God, read His words, fast and give alms, then we are not behaving as the pharisee, but as the publican, we are asking for mercy, and thus we find justification. Not justification because of our outward actions, but justification through the Mercy of God, which alone makes our salvation possible. In doing all these things, we are actually saying the Prayer of the Publican, which is at the root of the Jesus Prayer: ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner’. For it is only the Mercy of God, given as a gift to us for our sincerity, which brings us into His presence, bringing us salvation, for our God is merciful and He loves mankind.
God be merciful to us sinners!
On this Sunday the Church tells the parable of the Father who had two sons. Like all parables, it has a symbolic meaning. Who is the Father and who are the two sons?
The Father represents God the Father, the Father of all mankind.
The elder son represents the Jewish people. The elder son represents the Jews, for alone of all people the Jewish people had kept the memory of God, accurately, faithfully conserving the stories of Creation, the story of the Fall of Mankind and the prophecies of the Coming of a Saviour, the Messiah. The Jews, the elder son, had remained with the Father.
On the other hand, the younger son represents the Gentiles, that is the pagan world. At the time of Christ, this meant the whole world except for the Jews. Unlike the Jews, the pagans had confused their memories of God the Creator with all sorts of false stories, myths and legends. They had confused the Creator with creation, and instead of worshipping God, they worshipped stones and rivers, the sun and the moon, kings and queens, thinking that they were gods and so making them into idols. The pagans, the younger son, had journeyed into ‘a far country’ and there ‘wasted their substance’. In other words, they had distanced themselves from God, forgotten His Truth, so wasting their spiritual inheritance. As a result, they suffered from ‘a mighty famine’, in other words, from spiritual hunger, and so ate with ‘swine’, that is, ate with the illusions of the demons. However, they repented and turned back towards the Father, who welcomed them with open arms, running out towards them to embrace them.
This parable is in fact a warning to the Jews. We can see this vividly portrayed in the icon of the parable which in the middle of the church. There we see the Father showing love and forgiveness towards the repentant son, who lies at His feet, begging forgiveness. The elder son, however, is angry, full of bitterness and jealousy. In hatred he says.
Perhaps we feel some sympathy with the elder son. After all, he never wasted his substance, he did remain loyal to the Father. The problem is that the elder son’s service was a form of slavery, he did not stay with the Father out of love, but out of self-interest, in expectation of a reward. This was not love freely given, but an obligation fulfilled in the hope of the payment of the hireling.
We can compare this with the attitude of the Father. He instantly forgives all that the younger son, the pagan world, has done and says: ‘Let us make merry’. The attitude of the Father is not gloom, but joy. The elder son, on the other hand, is full of gloom and cannot bring himself to be joyful or express love, because he has no love for his brother. The Father says: ‘All that I have is thine’, and shares everything. The elder son wishes to share nothing, for he is locked up in pride and self-love. Indeed, the elder son does not want to share in all that the Father has. Yes, he wants to share in His wealth and His property, but he does not want to share in what the Father has above all else — in His merciful compassion and love.
Thus we are reminded of the words of the Apostle Paul, that though we may have all qualities, if we do not have love, then we are nothing. In this way, this parable has a meaning for us.
We may have great wealth, but if we have no love, then all our wealth is worthless and our lives, like the lives of so many very wealthy people, are futile and purposeless.
We may have a wonderful job, but if we do not use it to create something positive, then it only satisfies our own vanity and has no real significance.
We may have a beautiful house or car, but if we use them only to flaunt our riches and feed our selfishness, then they serve no purpose.
Where there is no love, there there is only the emptiness of futile vanity and the gloom of selfish pride.
Therefore, let us too make merry, for Christ the King of Love makes joy even out of the most difficult problems and all we prodigals are able to return at any moment to the Father and be embraced by His love.
Rejoice, God is with us!
‘Religion is bad’. So say some very secular-minded people and they will tell you all about conflicts in, say, Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants, or in India between Hindus and Muslims, or in the Middle East between Jews and Muslims. Then they will go on to tell you all about ‘wars of religion’ and all the other ‘evils’ of religion.
Of course all these conflicts and wars have existed and still exist today. But of course none of them has ever been or is about religion. In reality they are all about people grabbing power, territory and riches in the name of religion. In other words religion has been, and still is today, used by many people as an excuse, a flag, camouflage behind which they can hide their base aims. In fact there is no such thing as ‘wars of religion’, but there have been and are many wars in the name of religion.
The fact is — the Devil works very subtly. He does not openly declare his evil purpose. Rather he works his evil under the sign of the greatest good, that is, religion. He would not choose something openly bad with which to camouflage his evil. That would not be camouflage. If he were to disclose his evil aim openly, in the name of evil, he would achieve very little. The fact that he disguises evil behind the greatest good of religion means that he can achieve far more. Indeed he leads people to misuse the good of religion in all sorts of ways, and not only to grab land, power and riches. For example:
There are those who only use religion as a comfort in times of trouble. When the difficulty is passed, then people forget all about religion.
There are those who make of religion a kind of ‘niceism’, making it into a polite, wimpish convention, soft and soppy, sentimental and namby-pamby.
Then there are those who use religion as a kind of logic to justify their bad behaviour. They say: ‘It does not matter what I do, I’m a believer, therefore I’m saved and God will forgive me’.
Then there are those who use religion to be proud and superior like the Pharisee. They say: ‘Thank God that I am good and not like other people’.
Religion in reality is none of these things. In fact religion, that is our God Who is ‘an all-consuming fire’, as the Apostle Paul puts it, is the inescapable reality Who underpins the Universe. God is the one inevitable meeting in our lives, for we are made to meet Him, made to be with Him, destined to meet Him. When the world is over, whenever that will be, we shall certainly meet Him, for He made us. This meeting is called the Last Judgement.
When we think of this Last Judgement, we should not think of judges, court-rooms, juries, trials or lawyers in robes and wigs. We should think rather of being in the presence of supreme Love. It is the presence of God, that is of supreme Love, that is our Judgement.
Being in the presence of God, of Love, will warm and comfort those who have sincerely tried to follow and live by His teachings. It will utterly rejoice the hearts of those who have strived to reject evil, who have struggled to be both merciful and righteous, as is described in today’s Gospel.
But being in the presence of God, of Love, will be like a burning fire of regret to those who have lived by evil, who have lived in pride and cruelty, with hearts as hard as stone, who saw those in need and did nothing, as is described in today’s Gospel.
The presence of God for those who have tried to follow God’s Mercy and Righteousness is called Heaven.
The presence of God for those who have been neither merciful nor righteous is called Hell.
Too often, when we ourselves fall, we think of God’s Mercy and His indulgence towards us.
Too often, when we see others fall, we think of God’s Righteousness and His Judgement of them.
It would be better to think the other way round. When we fall into sin, let us rather think of God the Righteous Judge and the fate of the goats on the left-hand side. When others fall into sin, let us rather think of the Merciful God Who forgives and the fate of the sheep on the right-hand side. As it is written in the Gospels, and as we sing at every Liturgy:
Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
Lord have mercy on us all.
Tomorrow is Monday. Not just any Monday, but Clean Monday, the first day of Clean Week, the beginning of Great Lent, a time of particular prayer and fasting. Great Lent will take us on a journey through forty days, or six weeks, to Lazarus Saturday, Palm Sunday and then Holy Week. At the end of that Week, God willing, we will celebrate the Resurrection of Christ on Easter Night. For we are now fifty days exactly from Easter Day.
This Sunday is known as Forgiveness Sunday, and also Cheesfare Sunday for it is the last day on which we may eat dairy produce. On it we remember the Fall of Adam and Eve and how they lost Paradise by eating ‘the forbidden fruit’, which is why we fast, eating only ‘the permitted fruit’. How exactly did that Fall happen?
We know from the Scriptures that the first man and the first woman lived in Paradise, in Eden. We know also that they walked with God, meaning that they lived in harmony and communion with God, suffering neither sin, nor sorrow, neither aging, nor death.
We know also that they disobeyed God. The cause of their disobedience was in the temptation of pride: they thought that they knew better than their Maker. Creation, given freedom, thought that it was greater than the Creator. The fact that the first man and first woman preferred to trust in themselves, rather than in God, to trust in their proud self-importance, led to their fall from communion with God. But once they had rejected God, they also rejected freedom from sin and its result, sorrow, and freedom from aging and its result, death.
The cure for their Fall was made clear to them; it was in doing the opposite of all they had done. Instead of disobedience, they needed obedience; instead of pride, they needed humility. In other words they had to turn back on what they had done in repentance and ask forgiveness. At first they had been unable to do this. When God had first spoken to Adam and Eve after their act of disobedience, Adam had blamed Eve, and Eve had blamed the serpent. Neither had had the humility to take responsibility for his errors and ask for forgiveness. It was not that God did not know what they had done; it was simply that He wanted to give them the opportunity to ask Him, and to ask each other, for forgiveness. Instead they blamed each other and in the process blamed God their Maker. We can hear the Devil laughing.
To us, as children of Adam and Eve, God also gives opportunities to ask for forgiveness, as Adam and Eve should have done. He gives us the sacrament of Confession. Confession does not exist because God wants to know what we have done or left undone. He already knows that. Confession exists because God is giving us an opportunity to own up to our mistakes and failings. He wants us to ask for forgiveness, so that we can then take strength from Him through the prayers of the priest, so as to clean ourselves and strive not to repeat our mistakes.
God does not need our confession, but we do.
Every confession is a repeat, in the New Eden of the Church, of that opportunity given to Adam and Eve in Eden, to ask God for forgiveness.
Unlike human-beings, God always forgives those who sincerely, with repentance, ask Him for forgiveness.
However, before we ask forgiveness of God, we first have to ask forgiveness of each other.
And just at this time, on Forgiveness Sunday and all during Clean Week, it is the custom of Orthodox throughout the world to come to Confession, to ask God for forgiveness, preparing ourselves for Communion next Sunday. First, therefore, we must ask each other for forgiveness. We can ask forgiveness of those who are not here by visiting them or telephoning them. But of those who are here, we can now ask forgiveness directly, for all our errors towards them in thought, word or deed, whether conscious or unconscious.
For if we do not first ask each other for forgiveness, we cannot ask God for forgiveness. And without forgiveness, there is no way back into Paradise for any of us.
Forgive me, brothers and sisters.
Sunday of Orhodoxy.
Given on the Sunday of Orthodoxy 1903 in the San Francisco Cathedral during St Tikhon’s tenure as Bishop of the Aleutian Islands and North America, this sermon has been very slightly modified for use exactly one hundred years later in England on the Sunday of Orthodoxy 2003.
This Sunday, brethren, begins the week of Orthodoxy, or the week of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, because it is today that the Holy Orthodox Church solemnly recalls its victory over the Iconoclast heresy and other heresies and gratefully remembers all who fought for the Orthodox faith in word, writing, teaching, suffering, or godly living.
Keeping the day of Orthodoxy, Orthodox people ought to remember that it is their sacred duty to stand firm in their Orthodox Faith and to keep it carefully For us it is a precious treasure: we were born and raised in it; all the important events of our life are related to it, and it is ever ready to give us its help and blessing in all our needs and good undertakings, however unimportant they may seem. It supplies us with strength, good cheer and consolation, it heals, purifies and saves us.
The Orthodox Faith is also dear to us because it is the Faith of our Fathers. For its sake the Apostles bore pain and laboured; martyrs and preachers suffered for it; champions, who were like unto the saints, shed their tears and their blood; pastors and teachers fought for it; and our ancestors stood for it, whose legacy it was that to us it should be dearer than the pupil of our eyes.
And as to us, their descendants — do we preserve the Orthodox Faith, do we keep to its Gospels? Of yore, the prophet Elijah, this great worker for the glory of God, complained that the sons of Israel had abandoned the Testament of the Lord, leaning away from it towards the gods of the heathen. Yet the Lord revealed to His prophet, that amongst the Israelites there were still seven thousand people who had not knelt before Baal (3 Kings 19). Likewise, no doubt, in our days also there are some true followers of Christ. "The Lord knoweth them that are His" (2 Timothy 2:19). We do occasionally meet sons of the Church, who are obedient to Her decrees, who honour their spiritual pastors, love the Church of God and the beauty of its exterior, who are eager to attend to its Divine Services and to lead a good life, who recognize their human failings and sincerely repent of their sins.
But are there many such among us? Are there not more people, "in whom the weeds of vanity and passion allow but little fruit to the influence of the Gospel, because of the increase of their sins, who renounce the gift of the Lord and repudiate the grace of God" (a quotation from the Service of Orthodoxy). I have given birth to sons and have glorified them, yet they deny Me, said the Lord in the olden days concerning Israel. And today also there are many who were born, raised and glorified by the Lord in the Orthodox Faith, yet who deny their Faith, paying no attention to the teachings of the Church, they do not keep its injunctions, do not listen to their spiritual pastors and remain cold towards the divine services and the Church of God.
How speedily some of us lose the Orthodox faith in this country of many creeds and tribes! They begin their apostasy with things which in their eyes have but little importance. They judge it is "old fashioned" and "not accepted amongst educated people" to observe all such customs such as praying before and after meals, or even morning and night, to wear a cross, to keep icons in their houses and to keep church holidays and fast days. They even do not stop at this, but go further: they seldom go to church and sometimes not at all, as a man has to have some rest on a Sunday ... in a pub); they do not go to confession, they dispense with church marriage and delay baptizing their children. And in this way their ties with the Orthodox Faith are broken! They remember the Church on their deathbeds, and some don’t even do that!
To excuse their apostasy they naively say: "this is not the old times, this is today, and consequently it is impossible to observe all the demands of the Church." As if the word of Christ is of use for the old times only and not for always. As if the Orthodox Faith is not the foundation of the world. "Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evil doers, children that are corrupters: they have forsaken the Lord, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel into anger" (Isaiah 1:4).
If you do not keep the Orthodox Faith and the commandments of God, the least you can do is not humiliate your hearts by inventing false excuses for your sins! If you do not honour our customs, the least you can do is not to laugh at things that you do not know or understand. If you do not accept the motherly care of the Holy Orthodox Church, the least you can do is to confess you act wrongly, that you are sinning against the Church and behave like children! If you do, the Orthodox Church can forgive you, like a loving mother, your coldness and slights, and will receive you back into her embrace, as if you were erring children.
Holding to the Orthodox Faith, as to something holy, loving it with all their hearts and prizing it above all, Orthodox people ought, moreover, to endeavour to spread it amongst people of other creeds. Christ the Saviour has said that "neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candle stick, and it giveth light unto all that are in the house" (Matthew 5:15). The light of Orthodoxy was not lit to shine only on a small number of men. The Orthodox Church is universal; it remembers the words of its Founder: "Go ye into the world, and preach the gospel to every creature" (Luke 16:15), "Go ye therefore and teach all nations" (Matt. 28:19). We ought to share our spiritual wealth, our truth, light and joy with others who are deprived of these blessings, but often are seeking them and thirsting for them.
Once "a vision appeared to Paul in the night, there stood a man from Macedonia and prayed him, saying, come over into Macedonia, and help us" (Acts 16:9), after which the apostle started for this country to preach Christ. We also hear a similar inviting voice. We live surrounded by people of alien creeds; in the sea of other religions, our Church is a small island of salvation, towards which swim some of the people, plunged in the sea of life.
Are we to remain deaf and insensible to them? God save us from such a lack of sympathy. Otherwise woe unto us, "for we have taken away the key of knowledge, we entered not in ourselves, and them that were entering in we hindered" (Luke 11:52).
But who is to work for the spread of the Orthodox Faith, for the increase of the children of the Orthodox Church? Pastors and missionaries, you answer. You are right; but are they alone? St Paul wisely compares the Church of Christ to a body, and the life of a body is shared by all the members. So it ought to be in the life of the Church also. "The whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love" (Ephesians 4:16).
At the beginning, not only pastors alone suffered for the faith of Christ, but lay people also, men, women and even children. Heresies were fought against by lay people as well. Likewise, the spread of Christ’s faith ought to be near and precious to the heart of every Christian.
In this work every member of the Church ought to take a lively and heartfelt interest. This interest may show itself in personal preaching of the Gospel of Christ. And to our great joy, we know of such examples amongst our lay brethren. Needless to say, it is not everybody among us who has the opportunity or the faculty to preach the Gospel personally. And in view of this I shall indicate to you, brethren, what every man can do for the spread of Orthodoxy and what he ought to do.
The Apostolic Epistles often disclose the fact that, when the Apostles went to distant places to preach, the faithful often helped them with their prayers and their offerings. Saint Paul sought this help of the Christians especially. Consequently, we can express the interests we take in the cause of the Gospel in praying to the Lord that He should take this holy cause under His protection, that He should give its servants the strength to do their work worthily, that He should help them to conquer difficulties and dangers, which are part of the work, that He should not allow them to grow depressed or weaken in their zeal; that He should open the hearts of the unbelieving for the hearing and acceptance of the Gospel of Christ, that He should impart to them the word of truth, that He should unite them to the Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church; that He should confirm, increase and pacify His Church, keeping it forever invincible.
We pray for all this, mostly with lips, but seldom with the heart. Don’t we often hear such remarks as these: "What is the use of these special prayers for the newly initiated (the catechumens)? They do not exist in our time; let them pray for such where there are any; as to us, such prayers only needlessly prolong the service which is not short by any means, as it is." Woe to our lack of wisdom! Woe to our carelessness and idleness!
Offering earnest prayers for the successful preaching of Christ, we can also show our interest by helping it materially. It was so in the primitive Church, and the Apostles lovingly accepted material help to the cause of the preaching, seeing in it an expression of Christian love and zeal. In our days, these offerings are especially needed, because for the lack of them the work often comes to a dead stop. For the lack of them preachers cannot be sent out or supported, churches cannot be built or schools founded, the needy amongst the newly converted cannot be helped. All this needs money and members of other religions always find a way of supplying it. Perhaps, you will say, these people are richer than ourselves. This is true enough, but great means are accumulated by small, and if everybody amongst us gave what he could towards this purpose, we also could raise considerable means.
Accordingly, do not be ashamed of the smallness of your offering. If you have much, offer all you can, but do offer, do not lose the chance of helping the cause of the conversion of your neighbours to Christ, because by so doing, in the words of St James, you "shall save your own soul from death and shall hide a multitude of sins" (James 5:20).
Orthodox people, in celebrating the day of Orthodoxy, you must devote yourselves to the Orthodox Faith not in word or tongue only, but in deed and in truth.
Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross.
‘Verily, I say unto you, that there be some that stand here, which shall not taste of death till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power’.
These words are from today’s Gospel. They are addressed to us, but what do they mean? What does it mean, ‘to taste of death’? What is it, ‘to see the kingdom of God’?
To taste of death means to suffer from all that entered into the world when death entered into the world. For when Adam and Eve fell, not only did death enter, but also hard work, the pain of childbirth, anguish, depression, stress, worry, disease, old age. And all these things taste of death. Every time that we undergo them, we suffer a part of death, we have a foretaste of death. How then are we to overcome them? How can we avoid ‘the taste of death’?
The answer to this is that death can only be overcome by returning to Eden. For in Adam and Eve’s fall, we have all fallen. We have all fallen through Adam and Eve and have all tasted of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, of which they tasted. Today’s service tells us that we can be restored to the state of mankind before the Fall only by tasting of the Fruit of the New Tree of the New Adam in the New Adam.
The New Adam is Christ, the New Tree is the Cross, Its Fruit is the Resurrection and the New Eden is the Church, the Resurrected Body of Christ. And we taste of the Fruit of the Resurrection in literally tasting of the Body of the Risen Christ in communion. And this precisely is the meaning of the words in today’s Gospel that it is possible ‘to see the kingdom of God come with power’. In other words, if we face up to life’s difficulties with the Cross of Christ, we shall not taste of death, those difficulties in the light of the resurrecting power of the Cross will no longer hold for us the bitter taste of death.
And this is the whole difference between the Church which accepts the Cross and the world which rejects the Cross. The world sees all human problems with anguish, for the world is locked in to pessimism, it sees no way out of its difficulties, for it does not have an eternal perspective, the perspective of the Cross. On the other hand the Church sees all the difficulties which we naturally come up against in life as challenges, opportunities to combat evil, temporary difficulties. However long those difficulties may last, at the end, the worst thing that can happen to us is that we shall die. For the Christian, however, to die is to be with Christ and holds no sting, for Christ has overcome death. In the light of the Cross and Its fruit, the Resurrection, death holds no fear for us. The taste of death becomes the taste of life. The Cross and the Resurrection bring life more abundantly. In the light of the Cross and the Resurrection we see the Kingdom, where there is no sickness, nor sorrow, nor sighing, but life everlasting.
In the perspective of the Cross and the Resurrection, the perspective of the kingdom of God, of which we have a foretaste even now, all human life with all its problems is but a single passing moment in eternity. And if we look at our lives from this Christian perspective, then indeed, we do not taste of death, for we have already to some small extent seen the kingdom of God.
Before Thy Cross we bow down, O Master, and Thy Holy Resurrection we glorify!
St Gregory Palamas.
Why do we fast? Why do we make sacrifices? Why do we stand at long services? Why do we pray? To those of us who are beginning to doubt and waver after only two weeks of the Fast, the Church brings us an answer today. This answer is in the person of St Gregory Palamas, the fourteenth-century Archbishop of Salonica in Greece to whom this Sunday is dedicated.
To many of you Salonica may seem far away. Not to me, because exactly twenty-five years ago I lived and worked there for a year. And as regards St Gregory Palamas, I saw two things.
Firstly, I noticed how the feast of St Gregory is still celebrated there today, with his relics taken through the city in procession, escorted by sailors and policemen. We may wonder why his earthly remains are still held in such honour.
Secondly, I went to visit a place up in the hills behind the town of Kavalla near Salonica. There you can still see a cave in the rocks — this was the home of Gregory Palamas before he was consecrated Archbishop. It was in that cave that he spent years in fasting and prayer. And there, not caring for his body, and instead cultivating and caring for the purity of his heart and therefore his mind, he received gifts of the Holy Spirit, he came to know God.
Now at the same time as St Gregory was living in extreme fasting and prayer, there lived a clever philosopher, also a Greek, a Hellenist, whose name was Barlaam. He said that, logically, it was impossible to know God, indeed God was by definition unknowable and inaccessible to the human mind. On hearing and studying Barlaam’s philosophy. St Gregory recognized in the so-called logic of Barlaam a blasphemy, a heresy. He recognized that Barlaam lacked purity of heart and therefore mind and that his logic was the logic of the godless who only trusted in his own mental powers and imagination, the mental powers of the created, not of the Creator.
For if Barlaam were right, then all of Christ’s work for us, from His Conception and Birth as a man, His Circumcision, His Presentation in the Temple, His Baptism, His Crucifixion, His Resurrection, His Ascension, to His Sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, are futile, they are all in vain. Unlike Barlaam, St Gregory said that since Christ the Creator had become man and part of creation, He had made human nature potentially holy — like His own human nature. By sending down the Holy Spirit, He had given us all access in our human nature to holiness. Just as the Sun is known to us through its energies of heat and light, so God can be known to us through the uncreated energies of the Holy Spirit.
Quite simply, if we reject the teaching of St Gregory on this, we reject all the work of Christ and therefore also reject the coming of the Holy Spirit. Barlaam’s philosophy would mean that we cannot know God, that there is no purpose in fasting and prayer. In fact, Barlaam’s philosophy was a denial of God and therefore the foundation-stone of the last century’s atheism and disbelief with all its massacres and genocides with their hundreds of millions of victims. Indeed, Barlaam’s philosophy is the basis of all those recent ideas which said that there is no God, that man stands alone and lonely at the head of the Universe, for there is nothing greater than man — that he quite magically created himself in an empty and godless Universe.
St Gregory asserted the opposite to Barlaam. He affirmed that man carries in himself two tendencies, one for good, the other for evil. However, the tendency for good can only be developed in man through acquiring the grace of God, the divine energy sent to us from God, accessible insofar as our hearts and minds are pure enough to receive that grace. But this grace which enlightens and brightens us can only come to us if we repent, if we accept the process of fasting and prayer, tears and self-sacrifice.
It is vital for us to understand that the thoughts of St Gregory, expressed in detail in his writings, are not just thoughts, not just another philosophy like Barlaam’s, but they were based on his experience, they were divinely inspired. He was not talking about an idea, but about the reality which he had experienced as an ascetic in that cave which you can still visit today. And the fact is that it is the wonder-working relics of St Gregory which go in procession through the streets of Salonica today, not the graceless dust of the bones of Barlaam.
This is the reality of the Church, this is the grace of the energies of God, this is holiness, the experience and knowledge of God, not imagined, not the fruit of fantasy and the studies of the mind, but the reality of God known to and experienced by those who are pure in heart and mind. For as it is written: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’. And this precisely is the aim of all true Christian hearts and minds.
Holy Father Gregory, pray to God for us!
St John of the Ladder.
This Sunday, the fourth in Great Lent, the Church commemorates St John of the Ladder. Who was he?
St John lived in the sixth and seventh centuries. Becoming a novice at the age of sixteen at St Catherine’s Monastery on Mt Sinai, he later became a hermit and then the Abbot of the Monastery. There he lived in monasticism for 64 years, before he reposed at the age of eighty in the year 649. Mt Sinai was the mountain where for our sakes Moses received the Ten Commandments, where God spoke to man. In some way we can say that God also spoke to St John on Mt Sinai and gave him commandments for our sakes. For St John was a man of grace who lived in unceasing prayer and he also wrote down what he had learnt from his life in God in his book called ‘The Ladder’. It is this work which has given St John his title ‘of the Ladder’.
In this book the Saint describes in thirty chapters, or rungs, how we can raise ourselves up from our fallen, earthly states, overcoming our sinful inclinations. Thus the soul rises up to God as if on a ladder. Although the last five chapters of this book in particular are quite difficult for such people as ourselves who live in the world, the earlier chapters can be read by all, giving us great profit. However, we can say that the first rungs of this ladder are those which are most suitable for us. Like the man in today’s Gospel, they are for those who cry out to God: ‘Lord, I believe, help thou mine unbelief’. But the later chapters are for those who are able to cast out demons, as Christ did also in today’s Gospel. This book, The Ladder, is in print today and can be bought by any who wish to read it with care and attention over time, taking in its precious words a little at a time.
On this Sunday in previous years I have chosen to read extracts from some of the early chapters of St John’s Ladder. Today I would simply like to relate to you just one saying of St John, a simple saying which I know has changed lives and saved people from their sins. Here is his saying:
St John related that monastic life was similar to a number of stones being shaken together in a jar. At first the stones were sharp and hard, with rough, cutting edges. However as the jar was shaken, so the stones became smoother and rounder, like the pebbles one can find on the seashore.
Although St John spoke of monastic life in this saying, it can be applied to any sort of community, in a family, at home, at work, at school, at the docks, in the office and also in our parish churches. By this saying St John was indicating that our salvation comes through others. In whatever position God places us, we can find salvation through the difficulties or even friction that we encounter with others. This does not mean that we should go looking for, still less creating, difficulties. God will only allow us the difficulties which we are capable of coping with through His Grace and which we encounter naturally in the course of our everyday lives.
The next time that we encounter difficulties in any aspect of our lives where we are with others, let us consider this saying of St John, let us think of the rough, sharp stones in the jar, wearing each other into rounded, smooth and even beautiful pebbles. For those rough, angular stones which are worked into smooth and well-rounded pebbles are ourselves, providing only that we persevere in patience in the life in Christ.
Holy Father John, pray to God for us!
St Mary of Egypt.
At the end of the coming week Great Lent will be over. Next Saturday is Lazarus Saturday, which is followed by Palm Sunday, the Entry of our Lord into Jerusalem, and then by Passion Week. However, today we commemorate another entry into Jerusalem, not the Entry into Jerusalem of our Lord, but the entry into Jerusalem of Mary of Egypt. Who was she and what is her significance today?
Born in Alexandria in Egypt in the middle of the fifth century, as a young girl Mary fell into the vice of prostitution. For seventeen years, from the age of 12 until the age of 29, she lived the life of a harlot. However, once finding herself in Jerusalem, out of curiosity, she went to see the Precious Cross of Christ. She found that she was unable to enter the church where St Helen had placed the Cross, for some invisible force prevented her from entering in. So frightened was she at this that she asked the Mother of God through an icon at the entrance to the church, why this was. The Mother of God replied to her that Mary first needed to repent and obey her. Only after promising to do this was Mary allowed to enter the church in Jerusalem. After then entering and venerating the Cross, Mary heard the Mother of God telling her: ‘If you cross the Jordan, you will find true peace’.
So shaken was Mary by these events that she did indeed forsake all her old life and, having taken communion, she crossed the Jordan, and went to live there in the desert. We do not know the exact details of her day-to-day life, but we do know that she dwelt there as a hermitess, eating plants, living in torments and struggle with passionate thoughts, and eventually obtaining the grace to work miracles, crossing the Jordan as if on dry land. She lived naked and became withered and emaciated, as we can see in the icon of her, but nevertheless she survived there for some forty-eight years. Then she was discovered by a pious monk, Zosimas, who is portrayed in the icon together with her. It was to him that she related her life which we have today.
The Life of St Mary teaches us many things. Perhaps the first and most obvious lesson we can learn from her is that we should never judge, never pre-judge. Who will be saved? It is impossible to answer this question, for it is never too late to repent, even for us. Humanly speaking, when we consider the life of Mary until her twenty-ninth year, we might think that salvation had become impossible for her. And yet the service to her calls her ‘the greatest of saints’. Humanly speaking, we are condemned; but by the grace of God everything, including the height of repentance, is possible. No man has the right to judge another.
The Life of St Mary of Egypt also teaches us something about human nature. In each of us there is the desire for worldly pleasures, for amusement and entertainment, for food and drink, for the pleasures of the senses. But there is also the desire for pleasures of a higher sort, pleasures that are lasting, which we may call joys. Those joys are so much higher than the fleeting pleasures of the senses that they alone constitute the path to lasting happiness. Societies which are devoted only to the satisfaction of the pleasures of the senses, pleasure-seeking societies, are societies without lasting joys, they are full of sad faces.
The Life of St Mary teaches us that the values of the Church are quite different from those of the world. She went out into the desert and had nothing, no friends, no home, no possessions, no clothes and hardly any food and drink. The world looked for pleasure, the satisfaction of the senses, money and power, but St Mary was moneyless and powerless in the world. Today’s Gospel confirms the choice of St Mary, for it says that those who wish to be great must be servants. This is upside down from all the ways of this world. But our Lord preached this and like Him St Mary lived this.
Indeed, as we have already said, the Church calls St Mary ‘the greatest of saints’. The use of this word ‘great’ may surprise. In everyday life, we use ‘great’ in other meanings. The world speaks of ‘great politicians’, ‘great soldiers’, great film-stars’, ‘great performances by sportsmen’, ‘a great holiday’, ‘a great car’, ‘a great amount of money’. But the Church calls St Mary ‘great’ and a thousand and a half years after she lived we ask for her prayers, but not for those of any politician or soldier or film-star or sportsman. Let us think more carefully before next we utter this word ‘great’.
And as this last week of Great Lent begins, let us also ponder on the words of the Mother of God, which led Mary to her salvation through repentance and her greatness: ‘If you cross the Jordan, you will find true peace’. These mysterious words are today also addressed to each of us; the interpretation of their mystery is open to the souls of each of us, but only if we ask the Mother of God and St Mary to guide us. And then we shall find our own ‘entry into Jerusalem’.
Holy Mother Mary, pray to God for us!
Today the Maker of the Universe enters Jerusalem. He is seated not on a white stallion with a 100,000 strong army to escort Him like the King of Babylon. He is seated on a young ass, the lowest of creatures, and escorted by street children like the King of Jerusalem. For He is not the King of Babylon, the King of War and Power and Pride and Riches, He is the King of Jerusalem, the King of Peace and Humility. And this is only right, for the name ‘Jerusalem’ means ‘the City of Peace’; Christ alone, the King of Peace, is therefore its rightful King.
Children greet Him with palms, the symbols of victory, and they cry ‘Hosanna’, meaning ‘Save, we pray’. Their cry and their deed are greater than they know, for in their innocence they speak and do truth, for Christ alone saves us, if we pray to Him; and the palm branches are indeed tokens of victory, for Victory comes through the Tree of the Cross.
This is not just an historic event, but an event that can be repeated at every communion. For whenever we seek peace and humility as if seated on an ass, as innocent as children crying ‘Save, we pray’, then Christ enters our souls and makes them into Jerusalems within us.
However, we know that in Jerusalem there were not only children, ‘babes and sucklings’, who greeted Him, there were also others, Scribes and Pharisees who, as the Gospels say, ‘were displeased’. They are those who wanted a worldly leader, a man of violence, a rival to the Romans, and they will lead Christ to Golgotha, preferring an unrepentant thief to the Son of God. Within a few days our Lord will suffer, because He is innocent and all the innocent suffering of the world, of which we have seen so much in our own days, is taken up in Him.
The division between, on the one hand, babes and sucklings and, on the other hand, the worldly Scribes and Pharisees is a division which is repeated through time and space, and all of us have at some time or another been on both sides. For whenever we sin we are on the side of the Scribes and Pharisees, and whenever we are innocent, we are on the side of the babes and sucklings. But whose side are we on today and whose side will we be on this coming week?
For in this coming Great and Holy Week, Passion Week, the Church calls us to follow Christ. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, we begin to relive the dramatic events in Jerusalem of this Week. On Thursday morning we come to the celebration of the Last Supper, which was and is the First Liturgy. On Thursday evening we have the beautiful Service of the Twelve Gospels when the Church tell us all the details of Christ’s betrayal, of Judas, of Christ’s trial, of Pilate, of Christ’s scourging and Crucifixion. On Friday afternoon Christ is taken down from the Cross and on Friday evening He is buried and we shall sing together the Lamentations around His Tomb. On Saturday morning, we shall witness the first Resurrection Liturgy with the changing of vestments from violet into white and then on Saturday at midnight Christ will make clear His Resurrection. This by tradition is the moment when Christ returns to earth and we feel His presence amongst us most clearly.
How can we not come to these services and yet still call ourselves Orthodox? How can we not follow Christ through all the events of this Great Week which changed the history of the whole world? Let us be as babes and sucklings, let us put away our worldly calculations and free ourselves from our laziness, let us be with the family of God, with the Mother of God and St John, and follow Christ to the Cross, so that then we can follow Him to His Resurrection, to Victory and Triumph, and so be resurrected in spirit together with Him.
A Homily of our Father among the Saints John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Holy and Radiant Day of the Most Glorious and Saving Resurrection of Christ our God.
If any be pious and a lover of God, let him partake of this fair and radiant festival. If any be a faithful servant, let him come in rejoicing in the joy of his Lord. If any have wearied himself with fasting, let him now enjoy his reward. If any have laboured from the first hour, let him today receive his rightful due. If any have come at the third, let him feast with thankfulness. If any have arrived at the sixth, let him in no wise be in doubt, for in nothing shall he suffer loss. If any be as late as the ninth, let him draw near, let him in no wise hesitate. If any arrive only at the eleventh, let him not be fearful on account of his slowness. For the Master is bountiful and receives the last even as the first. He gives rest to him of the eleventh hour even as to him who has laboured from the first. He is merciful to the last, and provides for the first. To one He gives, and to another He shows kindness. He receives the works, and welcomes the intention. He honours the act, and commends the purpose.
Enter ye all, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and let both the first and those who come after partake of the reward. Rich and poor, dance one with another. Ye who fast and ye who fast not, rejoice today. The table is full-laden: do ye all fare sumptuously. The calf is ample: let none go forth hungry. Let all partake of the banquet of faith. Let all partake of the riches of goodness. Let none lament his poverty; for the Kingdom is manifested for all. Let none bewail his transgressions; for pardon has dawned from the tomb. Let none fear death; for the death of the Saviour has set us free. He has quenched death, Who was subdued by it. He has despoiled Hades, Who descended into Hades. Hades was embittered when it tasted of His flesh, and Isaiah, anticipating this, cried out saying: Hades was embittered when it met Thee face to face below. It was embittered, for it was rendered void. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was despoiled. It was embittered, for it was fettered. It received a body, and it encountered God. It received earth, and came face to face with Heaven. It received that which it saw, and fell whence it saw not.
O Death, where is thy sting? O Hades, where is thy victory? Christ is risen and thou art cast down. Christ is risen and the demons have fallen. Christ is risen and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen and life is made free. Christ is risen and there is none dead in the tomb. For Christ is raised from the dead, and become the first-fruits of them that slept. To Him be glory and dominion from all ages to all ages.
The Sunday after Easter is called by Anglicans ‘Low Sunday’. There is a certain truth in this name, for no Sunday can be as high a day as Easter Sunday. On the other hand, for Orthodox Christians, no Sunday can be called low, for every Sunday is a feast of the Resurrection. This is why in Russian the word for Sunday means ‘Resurrection’; and this is why in Church English ‘Sunday’ is called the Lord’s Day, as in Greek.
In the Orthodox world, the Sunday after Easter is known as ‘Antipascha’, which means the Sunday facing Easter, in other words similar to a mirror, this Sunday reflects the light of Easter. This is the light that we felt on Easter Night and all of us who came to vespers every day this last week have also seen and experienced that light, the light of Bright Week.
But this Sunday is also known as ‘Thomas Sunday’. Today we have heard the Gospel of Thomas and how he had to feel and see Christ’s wounds and the nail marks in His body in order to believe. In the middle of the church we can see the icon of this feast. It is a copy of a very ancient icon. On it you can see Christ standing before the sealed doors of which we have read and sung. He is surrounded by his disciples, not yet enlightened by the Holy Spirit of Pentecost. And there to one side, we see the very young face of His disciple Thomas peering at Christ’s side. As a result of Thomas’ doubt, the phrase ‘doubting Thomas’ long ago entered the English language. His doubt of course is providential for us. Here we have proof of Christ’s Resurrection. One who disbelieved has come to belief. Thomas did not know how the Resurrection was possible, and yet he saw and felt it with his own eyes and therefore believed it, for it would have been perverse to disbelieve. How can anyone now still not believe in the Resurrection of Christ after the testimony of Thomas?
The Resurrection is the core of our Orthodox Christian faith. It is why we are called Orthodox Christians. No-one else in all history has risen from the dead, defeating death through death. The Hindu gods failed, the gods of Greece and Rome failed, Buddha failed, Mohammed failed, the Popes of Rome failed, Luther failed, atheists and humanists failed, even Moses and the whole Old Testament failed. Christ alone did not fail. He rose from the dead, raising the righteous with Himself. That is why we follow Him, calling ourselves Christians.
Today we may even go a stage further than Thomas and ask ourselves how it was that Christ in His risen body passed through sealed doors? Clearly, He was not a ghost - Thomas saw His wounds and the marks of the nails. Elsewhere in the Gospels, Christ eats. He had a real body and yet He passed through sealed doors, just as He passed through the rock sealing the tomb. It is clear that Christ’s risen body, though matter, material, is made of a spiritual matter or material, unlike His old body.
We cannot understand this, for fallen human knowledge or science cannot yet understand this. Although science has learnt how to split the atom, it does not know how to put atoms back together again. Worldly science is at heart destructive, whereas the science of the Gospel is constructive, creative, resurrectional.
Thomas came to belief through this event of the Resurrection. He came to belief because he touched God, because God touched him. What does that mean for us, to touch God and to be touched by Him? To touch God and be touched by Him is to have some experience that takes us beyond and outside ourselves, to something greater than our little selves, to God the Creator. He is beyond our physical needs, our physical understanding, He alone can meet our spiritual needs, vanquishing death.
There are many who touch God in some way, or rather are touched by God. For example, some, especially mothers, are brought to touch God through the innocent smile and helplessness of a new-born child. Others are touched by God through a sunrise over the sea, or a landscape, a walk in the mountains, a piece of music, a church service, a prayer. Sometimes people are touched by God inside a church building, at other times outside a church building. Whatever the situation, they are touched by God, either by His presence in the world as Creator of all things, or else through the presence in this world of His Body, the Body of Christ, the Church, the very Body Who touched Thomas and Who was touched by Thomas.
It can then safely be asserted that if we seek God, then we touch Him and are touched by Him. And in that way the dull, uncomprehending clay of our material being will be made into spiritual matter and we too shall thus pass through the sealed doors of our fallen hearts and minds and bodies towards the light of faith and understanding.
If, on the other hand, if we do not seek to touch and be touched by God, we shall continue to be dull, uncomprehending, sealed lumps of clay.
May we all seek God and be touched by the light of the Resurrection of His Body, through the prayers of the Holy Apostle Thomas.
Today we recall all those who beheld Christ’s Crucified and Risen Body: the Myrrhbearing Women; the Righteous Joseph of Arimathea and the Righteous Nicodemus.
We can only imagine how difficult it must have been for them to associate with Christ at this time and to be witnesses of His Crucifixion and Resurrection:
Thus, Nicodemus, one of the Pharisees, as the Gospel of St John tells us, spoke to Christ under cover of dark, spent a huge sum on a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes, and then was cast out of the synagogue and suffered for disclosing the Jewish plots to hide and deny the truth about Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection.
Joseph, Jesus’ disciple, who begged the body of Christ from Pilate, gave his money for a shroud, gave up his own tomb and was then sorely persecuted by the Jews for telling the Truth about Christ, Crucified and Risen.
The myrrhbearers, who selflessly sacrificed all for precious myrrh with which to anoint and care for the Body of Christ, and then announced the Resurrection of the Crucified, when others hid for fear of the Jews.
All of them should have been in fear of the Jews who hated Christ. And yet they loved Christ to such a degree that they feared not and they all revealed the Truth of His Crucifixion and Resurrection and suffered for it.
This concerns us as in a sense we are all myrrhbearers. Since the Body of Christ, in the words of the Holy Apostle Paul, is the Church, therefore all members of the Church are members of the Body of Christ. Therefore we know and confess the Truth of His Crucifixion and Resurrection, and so become myrrhbearers. We too must know how difficult it is to be myrrhbearers, to care for the Body of Christ, to care for the Church, Which is crucified by the world to this day.
For example, the world tries to condemn the Church, because the Church’s values are contrary to those of this world, ‘which lies in evil’. At other times the world tries to wound, superficially, the Body of Christ. Infiltrating the outer surface of the Church, this world creates some scandal or other and so disheartens and turns people away from the Church. Those who are turned away thus accomplish the will of this world, and of the Prince of this world, Satan.
To do anything for the Church, for the Body of Christ, in this world, is difficult, because it requires faith. And those of little faith have little time and patience for the Church.
For instance, recently a lady came here and said: ‘You are so lucky, you have a beautiful church’. I was astonished by such an attitude. Firstly, there is no such thing as ‘luck’. Secondly, the little that we have here belongs not to us, but to God. And thirdly, anything that is here is certainly not the result of luck, but of one of two things: either it is the result of God’s undeserved blessing, which can be given to us and can be taken away from us. Or else it is the result of tears and sweat and blood, sacrifice and hard work, in other words — myrrhbearing, selfless caring for the Body of Christ. And myrrhbearing is not only participating in the sacraments, preaching the Gospel and confessing the Faith, it is also doing that myriad of things which are so difficult because they require our sacrifice. For:
Those who sing in church are myrrhbearers.
Those who clean the church are myrrhbearers.
Those who prepare the flowers for the services are myrrhbearers.
Those who look after the garden are myrrhbearers.
Those who sew vestments and altar-coverings are myrrhbearers.
Those who bake prosphora are myrrhbearers.
Those who prepare tea or donate food or wash up are myrrhbearers.
Those who donate icons or make offerings of money are myrrhbearers.
Even those who simply come and pray for the salvation of all are myrrhbearers.
All those who work for the Body of Christ, the Church, in this world, but are not of this world, are myrrhbearers, because they show that they too selflessly love Christ.
And what is the reward of myrrhbearers?
It is to be the first to see and know the Crucified Body of Christ Risen, the first to hear the words of the Angel resplendent and whiter than snow: Why seek ye the living among the dead? He is Risen!
This is our joy, not only to feel, but also to know that the Body of Christ, the Church, is Risen, for She is the place of the Resurrection, and we are witnesses of Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection. Moreover, when we care for the Church, the Church cares for us, for we are risen with Her.
May we all always have and cherish this inner knowledge of the Truth of Christ, being myrrhbearing witnesses to His Crucifixion and His Resurrection.
In today’s Gospel, we see clearly how Our Lord combines within His Person two natures, the human and the divine.
On the one hand, we see that as a human-being, like all of us, He is wearied, thirsty and hungry. The Gospel tells us, for example, that when midday, the sixth hour, had come, His disciples left him to obtain food in the city and that Christ, thirsty, asked the Samaritan Woman for drink.
On the other hand, we see that He is also divine. Living as God in eternity, He knows the present, past and future of all. Thus as God He knows that the Samaritan Woman has already been married five times and that at present she is living in sin with yet another man. Also He tells her that He can give her ‘living water’ from an Eternal Well, and He tells the disciples that His ‘food is to do the will of Him that sent Me’.
As a man, Christ was a Jew, and His disciples are therefore astonished to find Him conversing not only with a woman, but with a Samaritan Woman. A Jew would never even have talked to a Samaritan, let alone a Samaritan Woman, for as the Apostle John says in his Gospel, ‘the Jews had no dealings with the Samaritans’.
As God, however, Christ does not hesitate to talk to one who is able to accept Him as the Messiah, for the vocation of Christ is universal. ‘Salvation comes forth from the Jews’, but salvation is only for those who accept Christ and few were the Jews who did accept Him.
True, from the Jewish viewpoint, the Samaritans, Jews who had intermarried with pagans, were heretics; they had rejected the importance of Jerusalem and much of the Old Testament, including the Prophets; they had confused pagan idolatry with the Old Testament.
On the other hand, the Jews had rejected Christ. The Jews had turned the truths and revelations of the Old Testament into legalism and territorial racism, an arrogant, nationalistic and racist ideology; they had denied that Christ, as a man a Jew, could, as God, come for the salvation of all peoples. It is that ideology which still to this day insists on the ownership of Jerusalem and has brought even the contemporary world to the brink of war on several occasions. For the Jews had kept the letter of the Law but had rejected the spirit of the Law. And without the Spirit they were unable to recognise Christ.
The Samaritans had rejected the letter of the Law, but some of them, at least, did not stubbornly insist on their errors but were open to its spirit, for they were open to Christ, the Word of God, the Inspirer of the Law. Whereas the Jews had rejected Christ, the Samaritans kept Him with them for two days and many believed in Him. As Our Lord said on His return from Samaria to Judea, ‘a prophet has no honour in his own country’.
Why does the Church commemorate the Samaritan Woman today?
Because this is the first Sunday after Mid-Pentecost, the feast that stands half-way between Easter and Pentecost. At Easter the great truths of the Church are revealed — that Christ is both God and man, that He is crucified and risen from the dead. However, these truths, may remain rather abstract until at Pentecost we understand their inner meaning, their implications for our daily life. By the Coming of the Holy Spirit, these truths become living, and we worship Christ in spirit and in truth. Thus the Church reads to us the words that, ‘the hour is coming when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth’.
And this is why this world still continues today, why the world has not yet ended. Until the Gospel of Christ has been preached in spirit and in truth, that is, in Orthodox manner, in all lands, throughout the world, the world cannot end. For as long as there are new Samaritans, new peoples, new tribes to hear the Truth, as long as there are people who can still potentially become Orthodox, the world must continue, for there is harvest still to be reaped.
Let us this day pray that we too like the Samaritan Woman may bring others to the Church, testifying like Her to the Divinity of Christ, becoming reapers of that which we have not sown.
Holy Mother Photini, pray to God for us!
Today’s Gospel of the healing of the paralytic raises a number of questions.
The first perhaps is:
Where does illness come from?
The answer to this question is contained within the selfsame Gospel, in the words of Our Lord to the healed paralytic: ‘Sin no more lest a worse thing come unto thee’. In other words, the origin of illness is in sin.
We can see this very clearly in the cases of those who destroy their organisms through the taking of drugs, such as tobacco, alcohol or heroin. But most illnesses are not voluntary, they are involuntary. Thus anyone can catch a cold. And we all know people who have lung cancer but have never smoked a cigarette in their lives. Another example: at this very moment our prayers are with Archbishop Alipy who lies paralysed after falling from a tree that he was pruning. This was not his fault, and yet he is now an invalid, requiring healing. The fact is that the vast majority of illnesses and infirmities are involuntary, not the result of personal sin, but the result of the general sin that is in the world, the consequence of the Fall of Adam. This is part of our general human condition and this can happen to anyone.
What is the way out? What is the solution?
The answer to this question too is given in today’s Gospel. The way out is Christ, He who healed the paralytic. Not only can He heal illness, because He overcomes sin, but also He can overcome the ultimate consequence of sin — death itself.
Today’s miracle of the healing of the paralytic is most apt for today’s world, for this world lies like a paralytic, in a spiritual and moral paralysis, seeming not to know how to overcome the problems that it has invented for itself.
Thus at this moment different countries stand on the brink of the horrors of war and catastrophe, of incalculable evil. Do they not know that peace is better than war?
Thus every single country in the world has among its leaders the criminal and the corrupt. Do they not know how to live according to good and not bad? Have they never heard the words: ‘Do as you would be done by?’
Every single country in the world, it would seem, now has a spiralling crime rate. Do we not know how to teach our children the difference between right and wrong?
Given the many problems of today’s world, some people ask: ‘But why does Christ not intervene to heal the illnesses of the world?’
The answer to this question too is also contained in today’s Gospel. If you remember, before Christ healed the paralytic, He first asked him if he wanted to be healed. Christ does not heal those who do not want to be healed. He gives us freedom. Thus:
Do the countries that wish to slaughter the peoples of other countries want to be healed of their passion for bloodletting, ethnic hatred and territorial conquest?
Do corrupt politicians and arms merchants want to be healed of their greed for power?
Do criminals want to be healed of their unending desire for material riches?
But rather than take the easy path of judging and blaming others for all the world’s ills, perhaps we had better take the difficult path of first looking to ourselves:
Do we, honestly, want to be healed of our own sinfulness and passions, of our indifference to God, our crucifying lack of faith in the Church of Christ?
If we show no sign that we want to be healed, then we too will continue to lie paralysed in the same old rut as before.
And if the world shows no sign that it wants to be healed, then it too will continue to lie in the paralysis of its old hatreds and evil ways.
O Lord, save us from our own iniquities and idleness.
Sunday of the Man Born Blind.
On this Sunday, that before the Feast of the Ascension of Christ, the Church recalls to our attention the Gospel of the man born blind. There are two points here that I would particularly like to remark on.
Firstly, the words of Christ about why the man was born blind. Replying to His disciples, He says that his blindness was not because the man sinned, or his parents, but so that the works of God be made manifest in him. In other words, according to our Lord Himself, illness or handicap do not always occur on account of personal sin or the sin of others, but they may be providentially allowed for the glory of God to shine forth.
We can see this in the lives of some disadvantaged people. They find their disadvantage to be a challenge, a challenge that may bring out the best in them. We can think for example of certain Downs Syndrome children who are unbelievably kind and loving, far more so than if they had been born ‘normal’. We can also think of some blind people who, having lost one sense, have refined another sense almost to perfection, and show an understanding of the inner self that the sighted do not have. We can all think of examples of incredible courage and love among disadvantaged people. Why? Because the grace of God is upon them: ‘the works of God are made manifest in them’.
On the other hand, we can also think of people with great ‘advantages’. For instance, there are extremely beautiful women or very wealthy men who are quite unable to find wedded happiness. They are rather surrounded by those who have no interest in them as people, but only wish to take base advantage of their skin-deep looks or their bank accounts. We can also think of particularly intelligent and educated people, whose intelligence has ‘gone to their heads’, and they have become extraordinarily pretentious and silly, laughing-stocks before the face of the world. Thus their advantages become their greatest handicaps, hindrances to any sort of happiness.
In the case of the man born blind, all his life had been but a preparation for his meeting with Christ. Not only was his soul pure enough, refined by his lifelong handicap, to receive healing from the Lord, but also he confessed Him as the Son of God, thus making the works of God manifest in himself.
Firstly, the Pharisees, who were truly blind because they forbade healing and good works on the Sabbath, questioned him and intimidated him and his parents and then cast him out. And he witnessed to them that, ‘I know not whether Jesus be a sinner or not; one thing I know; I was blind, now I see’.
Secondly, he added: ‘If He were not of God, he could do nothing’.
And finally he confessed that he believed that Christ is the Son of God — one of the first in the Gospels to do so.
The judgement of the man born blind was then sound. He can teach us how to judge, or rather discern, others — by their fruits. If we, or others, are of God, then we shall last and bear good fruit, for if any is not of God, he can do nothing. And if any is of God, then he will finish by bearing witness to the Divinity of Christ.
The second thing that we should notice in today’s Gospel is the way in which Christ healed. He spat on the earth and ‘made clay of the spittle’. We note this for every sacrament of the Church heals in the selfsame manner:
Clay cannot heal the blind and yet with the breath of God, it becomes the container for the healing grace of God.
Water cannot heal and yet the water of baptism heals because the blessed water bears the Holy Spirit.
Oil cannot heal and yet the oil of chrismation and unction heal because they are filled with the grace of God.
A piece of cloth cannot heal and yet a priest’s stole can heal through the grace of Christ at the sincere confession of sins and the repentant intention not to sin again.
Bread and wine cannot heal and yet bread and wine transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ heal through the Holy Spirit.
Wood and paint cannot heal and yet icons can heal by the Holy Spirit Who penetrates into their material essence and radiates grace from them.
Smoke cannot heal and yet incense burnt brings healing through the blessing of Christ.
Christ teaches us then that all things can be used for our healing and benefit and salvation, but that they must first be touched by His grace.
In this way our bodies, mere flesh and bones and blood, can become containers of Christ. Our souls activated, we can become lamps of the Holy Spirit; the eyes of our souls, the doors of perception, become seeing, and we see the whole of God’s Creation as it really is. We see that every blade of grass and every hill, every tree and every cloud, every drop of rain and every ocean, all creatures and all people, are miracles of God’s handiwork, signs of His sacramental presence among us, and we see that we live not in the banal, everyday world, but in potential Paradise, the world as it really is, as God made it first, for we see God the Creator behind all things and all people.
And then we too, together with the man born blind, can say:
‘I was blind, now I see’.
So we have come to the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord. Thus we have come to the last day of Christ’s physical presence on Earth. This marks the fulfilment of all things, since His Conception at the Annunciation to the Holy Virgin, His Birth and all the events of His earthly life, recorded for us in the Gospels.
Christ came down from Heaven in order to destroy the power of Satan over mankind.
Christ was crucified and rose from the dead in order to destroy death.
Christ ascends into the skies in order to raise up fallen human nature to the heights of Heaven.
But He ascends not as He came down. He ascends taking with Himself a human body, a human soul, a human mind, a human will, all the attributes of human nature, except of course for sin, for Christ’s human nature is human nature as it was first intended to be, not fallen human nature, but human nature redeemed and made all comely.
We should note, however, that all these victories of Christ over Satan, death and sin are accomplished in humility.
At His Birth there was, as we would say now, no media. All happened in obscurity, lowliness and poverty, as the Saviour of mankind was born in a cave by the ox and the ass.
At His Crucifixion also there was no glory: on the contrary, there was shame, thieves, reviling, mockery, bodily death, a lonely death.
At His Resurrection, nobody saw anything. The women who saw the empty tomb were not even believed. Only a few dozen believers came to believe in the first few weeks after His Resurrection.
So also at His Ascension the only witnesses were His Mother and the eleven disciples amid the obscure olives groves on the Mount outside the City.
We see that all the great events, all the victories, of the life of Christ were accompanied by humility. This is because in the Church victory is humility. Every act of humility is a victory over the pride of Satan.
And in order to grant us the opportunity for humility, at the last event of His physical presence amongst us, Christ gives us two things:
Firstly, He comforts us and the disciples with the promise of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Who will guide us into all truth, into all humility.
Secondly, through His holy angels, He reminds us that as He ascends, so He will return, with angels and a cloud of glory. He reminds us that He will return in His Second and Glorious Coming to judge all the Earth.
When He ascends, He promises us the Holy Spirit.
When He descends at the Second Coming, He will come in glory as the Victor over death to judge all deathly acts, that is, all sins, for as the Apostle writes, the wages of sin are death.
Thus God is victorious in humility.
Therefore the Orthodox Church and faithful Orthodox Christians are also victorious, but only in humility.
God is the Merciful Saviour among us, granting us the Holy Spirit in order to guide us on our path to the victory of humility. As we have sung this day: ‘I am with you and no-one will be against you’.
God is the Righteous Judge among us, granting us His Coming again as the Judge of the Universe, guiding us on our path to the victory of humility: ‘I am with you and no-one will be against you’.
Glory to Thee, O God, Glory to Thee!
Sunday of the Holy Fathers.
At the beginning of the fourth century, to be precise, in the Year 325, when persecution of Orthodox Christianity had largely ceased, was held the first Universal Council of the Church. 318 Bishops gathered together from all over the Orthodox Christian world. Together they drew up a written summary of the Orthodox Faith, which was confirmed later in the same century at the Second Universal Council of the Church.
We still sing and read that written summary of our Faith, drawn up all those years ago. It is known in English as the ‘Creed’. This word comes from the Latin for ‘I believe’. The Creed is that text which we read every morning at morning prayers and that which we sing at every Divine Liturgy, beginning: ‘I believe in One God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth…’. All over the world the Orthodox Church upholds this same Creed and has done so ever since the First Universal Council of the Church. Even Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism still retain most of that Creed, though with one significant alteration.
The different clauses of the Creed can be divided into four basic sections:
Firstly, the beginning of the Creed where we affirm our belief in ‘One God the Father…’.
Secondly, the part where we affirm our belief in ‘One Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God…’.
Thirdly, where we affirm our belief in ‘The Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, Who proceeds from the Father…’.
Finally, where we affirm our belief in ‘One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’, in one baptism, in the resurrection and in the age to come.
On account of pride and delusion, certain individuals and societies in each succeeding age of human history have rejected in turn one or more of these parts of the Creed.
Thus, for the first three centuries, the Church was viciously persecuted by the forces of the world which rejected the Faith in One God the Father. They maintained that there were many gods, that the sun was a god, that the moon was a god, that there was a wind god or a rain god, that the Roman Emperor was a god and so on. These forces were defeated by the sacrificial blood of hundreds of thousands of Orthodox martyrs.
Then, during the following centuries, the Church was persecuted by those who maintained that Christ was not the Son of God, or that he was the Son of God, but had never become a real man. These groups gave themselves various names: Arians, Nestorians, Monophysites, Iconoclasts and so on. The Church was victorious too against these groups and maintained the Faith through the sacrifices of the faithful upheld by the grace of God.
Then, again for hundreds of years, the Church was persecuted by those who rejected the Fathers’ teaching on the Holy Spirit. This was when Roman Catholicism was founded, which then later fragmented into hundreds of different groups and sects, which only had one thing in common: they all reject the confession of the Holy Spirit of the Creed of the First Universal Council of the Orthodox Church.
Finally, and more recently, evil forces have rejected the Orthodox teaching on the Church, they have denied that there is only one baptism and that after the separation of the soul from the body there is resurrection and an age to come. Thus in our own times, there are many such people who deny that there is life after death.
The Fathers of the First Universal Council were then also Prophets, for they forestalled much later errors and neatly defined the Faith for all time, confirming it at the Second Universal Council. This is why, after the fourth century, no other Council of the Church ever redefined the Faith or changed or modified anything. The Creed remains ever the same. That is why for centuries no Universal Council has been called: the work was all done early on.
The Fathers of the First Council were, however, most directly concerned with the question of the Divinity of Christ. They firmly maintained that Christ is the Son of God. They were opposed by a particularly arrogant intellectual, a priest who was called Arius. We do not know the unfortunate Bishop who ordained him, but it was a very bad choice. Arius in his overweening pride asserted that Christ was not the Son of God. At one session of the Council St Nicholas, who like many other famous saints was present, stood up and slapped Arius across the face in order to stop him from blaspheming, So wicked were Arius’ words that St Nicholas, a man of great love, wanted to protect him from his own foolishness so that he would not be struck down and might come by shock to see reason.
At the First Universal Council the Fathers were triumphant in the expression of the Truth, ‘the great Mystery of Orthodoxy’, that Christ is the Son of God, True God. Arius and his devotees were defeated.
Why do we commemorate the Fathers of the First Council today?
We are now three days after the Feast of the Ascension and seven days before Pentecost. These Feasts prove the Divinity of Christ. That is why today we have read from St John’s Gospel where Our Lord speaks of His Father, He speaks as His Son, Whom the Father has sent, saying that He came out from the Father and that all things that are the Father’s are also the Son’s. These Gospel words prove the Divinity of the Son. It is these very words of Our Lord faithfully recorded in the Gospel that inspired the Fathers of the First Universal Council.
For if Christ is not Divine, if He is not the Son of God, then the whole Faith is worthless. All stands or falls by this. He who denies the Divinity of Christ is but one step from atheism and all its horrors which so marred the last century. Yet it is this error, to say that Christ is not the Son of God, which is as widespread today as it was in the fourth century. Go into the streets and ask who Christ is. People will tell you at best: ‘Oh, a great man’. ‘A wise man’. But few will tell you that He is the Son of God. Indeed there are whole groups who call themselves Christians where the majority do not believe that Christ is the Son of God. For example, there is one group called Jehovah’s Witnesses. They do not believe that Christ is the Son of God. Ask them.
But we believe, as all the Holy Fathers believe, that Christ is True God and also a real man.
Only a sinless, perfect man, living and walking on earth among men, could show humanity that it is possible to avoid the sin and death which distract us from becoming what we were intended to be — holy unto all eternity.
Only the True God become incarnate as man could save humanity by showing him the measure of his potential — to become godlike through humility.
Only the Son of God could say to us: ‘Be ye perfect as is my Father in Heaven’.
This is the meaning of today’s Feast: Christ is God and through his Body, the Church, He opens up to us the path to God, the path to holiness, the path to perfection.
It is for us to make use of this through leading an Orthodox Christian way of life and thus save our souls.
Holy Fathers of the First Council, Pray to God for us!
On this day, the fiftieth after Easter, we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost when the fullness of the Holy Trinity was revealed through the coming of the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit.
On this day we sing that Christ ‘made the fishermen most wise’. How did Christ do this?
Did he sit them on a school bench and proceed to teach them?
Did he give them advanced courses in Greek Philosophy?
Did he set them a translation from Hebrew into Latin?
Did he ask them to learn off by heart an Encyclopedia of Theology?
No, of course not. Instead He taught them humility and purity of heart, and then when they were ready, He sent down from His Father the Holy Spirit. This humility and purity of heart, crowned by the Holy Spirit, is the key to understanding, it is Wisdom.
This explains why very highly educated people are often the stupidest, responsible for terrible misfortunes and genocides. Thus, there have been many great geniuses in the history of the world and many of them have become blood-soaked dictators. It is one thing to have instruction, but it is quite another to know how to use that instruction. This is the meaning of wisdom. Wisdom is discernment, or the ability to use aright information and knowledge. On the other hand, the meaning of stupidity is to have instruction and instead of using it for good, to use it to blind oneself, to fall in love with oneself and be so full of oneself that one is blind to God and so denies the existence of God, which is so obvious to the simplest peasant. As the Scriptures say: ‘The fool has said in his heart, there is no God’.
Pride blinds but humility opens eyes.
Pride makes the Holy Spirit to flee, but humility draws the Holy Spirit like a magnet.
This is why two equally educated people may read the Gospels, one will become a believer, the other will dismiss them as a myth. The first has humility and purity of heart and therefore his spiritual eyes will be opened. The other has pride and therefore he will be blinded by pride and self-opinion and puffing himself up, will make himself ridiculous. Thus, understanding is quite independent of education, but dependent on humility and purity of heart. For it is not written, ‘Blessed are the educated’, but: ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’.
On account of this you will notice that wherever there is pride, there are stubbornly-held opinions and therefore divisions. For pride leads to disunity, humility to unity. This is what we sing of in another hymn today, the kontakion. We recognise that at the time when men in their pride built the Tower of Babel, there was a confusion of tongues. Indeed the very word ‘Babel’ has become a synonym for confusion. On the other hand, we recognise that among the humble the Holy Spirit brought unity and different peoples were able to understand one another despite difference of language. Why is this? It is because opinions and opinionatedness and so divisions are the fruit of impurity in the heart, the fruit of pride.
For example, many people say of the Church: ‘Ah yes, that is a good idea, but I do not go to Church because there are so many divisions and splits’. But no divisions exist in the Church, they exist only among those who break away from the Church and Her Spirit, the Holy Spirit. All divisions, from the most ancient to the most modern, exist because of pride. If we look at every single split from the Church, we find pride, either personal or collective.
Thus there are those split away from the Church because of their nationality and language and politics: collective pride They refuse to belong to the same Church as those of another nationality and language and politics. This is true of the Monophysites in Egypt and Armenia; it is true of Roman Catholics with their Latin racial and cultural base; it is true of Anglicans who prefer to follow a specific English Protestant culture from after the Reformation instead of English Orthodox culture of their forebears of the First Millennium. Then there are those who leave the Church because they prefer to follow one man instead of God. All such groups are named after the man they prefer to follow, be they Wesleyans or Calvinists, Lutherans or Arians and so on.
All these groups, whether they follow a political or a national or a personal ideology, end up leaving the Church. Why? Because they put the things of this world first and the Spirit second. Where there is the Holy Spirit, there is unity. Where the Holy Spirit is not, there is an ideology of whatever sort, and thus division. ‘By their fruits ye shall know them’.
That is why today faithful Orthodox Christians, members of the Church, of all ages and all over the world and of all nationalities and languages celebrate the Feast of Pentecost together. Today we concelebrate the Feast with the Apostles and the Fathers, the Martyrs and the Confessors, of all ages, of ages past and of the present age and of the age to come. Today we concelebrate going back in history, with the New Russian Martyrs and Confessors, with the Martyrs and Confessors of the Croat yoke, with the Chinese Martyrs whose feast-day it is, with the Martyrs and Confessors under the Turks, with the English Martyrs under the Danes like St Edmund, with the Martyrs and Confessors of North Africa, with the Martyrs and Confessors of Ancient Rome, with the Martyrs and Confessors of Asia Minor, with all Orthodox Christians of all the ages. And this day we concelebrate the same Faith with the faithful in our churches in Jerusalem, in Alaska, in Siberia, in Argentina, in Uganda, in France, in Athens, in Tokyo, in Lisbon, in Sydney, in Bucharest, in Ottawa, in San Francisco. For we confess the same Orthodox Faith of the Holy Spirit, ‘Who proceeds from the Father and rests on the Son’, for we confess the same Orthodox Faith of the Holy Spirit, Who brings Wisdom and Unity wherever there is humility and purity of heart.
4. Sundays after Pentecost.
All Saints Sunday.
Today, on this the last day of June, we come to the last service in a cycle of services. That cycle began over 120 days ago at the end of February with the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. That Sunday preceded the weeks of fasting of Great Lent which led up to the central event of the whole Church Year — the Resurrection of Christ. And since then we have followed the services of Bright Week and the Sundays after it to the Ascension, Pentecost and now today, the Feast of All Saints. This whole cycle of 120 days, one third of the year is like a Church Year inside the Church Year.
Today’s Feast is the result of all that has gone before it. The purpose of all the events in Christ’s life, from His Conception to the Resurrection and the Ascension and Pentecost is to make Saints. That is the purpose of the Church, to make people holy. Today’s Feast is the Feast of the identity of the Church, of Her sacred personality. For a Church that does not make Saints is not a Church, it is merely an institution which abuses the word ‘Church’.
What is a Saint? Firstly, we should understand that Saints are not born, they are made. We are all born potentially to become Saints. The only difference between ourselves who are not Saints and the Saints, is that they are people who are continually picking themselves up after sinning, continually repenting until they attain holiness, whereas we give up.
We should also say that there are two sorts of Saints — Confessors and Martyrs. Some Martyrs led very bad lives but then, when it came to the ultimate sacrifice, they found Faith in themselves, sufficient for them to prefer to confess Christ rather than live, and so sacrificed everything for Christ. We recognise their sacrifice and honour it. However, in our time, in our land, it would seem that we are not called to be Martyrs, but Confessors. What is a Confessor, how do we recognise a Confessor?
First of all, we could ask people who live near the person whom we believe to be a Confessor. They would know that person’s way of life. But this would not be enough in itself. This would tell us only if the person were righteous or not. And holiness is more than righteousness. Holiness is that utter devotion to God, the confession of Christ before men, the taking up of one’s cross and following, to which Christ will bear witness before His Father in Heaven. It is never denying Christ. It is this devotion of which He speaks in today’s Gospel, which is above devotion to husband or wife, father or mother, brother or sister, son or daughter. And we can be even more precise than this.
We have already said that the purpose of the Church is to make Saints. And the characteristics of the Saints are also those of the Church. At every Liturgy and at morning prayers we sing and read the Creed, in which we confess that we believe in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. These words which define the Church, One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic, are also words that define the Saints.
The Saints are One because they are all together. We speak of the communion of the saints. And in today’s Gospel, our Lord speaks of those who have followed Him who will judge the Twelve Tribes of Israel seated on the Twelve Thrones around Him. The Saints are One, they are united.
The Saints are also obviously holy. The word Saint means holy.
The Saints are also Catholic. This word does not mean Roman Catholic. We mean ‘Catholic’ in the original sense of the word. ‘Catholic’ means the same in all places and at all times. Thus today, on this Feast of All Saints, we commemorate all the Saints of all countries and of all centuries and of all backgrounds. We recall Saints of all ages, of all nationalities, men, women and children, the poor and the rich, the old and the young, the healthy and the sick. They all confessed the same Orthodox Faith. The Saints are universal in time and space; they are ‘Catholic’.
Finally, the Saints are Apostolic, for they share in the same Faith and Tradition as the Apostles.
Today, by chance, we are also commemorating a local Saint, St Botolph, who in the seventh century was the Abbot and Founder of a monastery at Iken, which is less than thirty miles from here. In St Botolph’s life we can see that he too possessed all the characteristics of the Saints.
Thus he was One, united with others. He travelled widely, everywhere he was respected as a man of God, everywhere he met unanimity and made unanimity.
He was holy. Immediately after he passed away, he was venerated as a Saint of God.
St Botolph was ‘Catholic’, for his veneration was widespread and went even as far as Kiev. Moreover, it has lasted in time, even to this day.
Finally, he was Apostolic, because he shared in the same faith as the Apostles, he revered them and read their writings and obeyed and lived according to their precepts.
I would like to finish today by quoting the story of another Saint from the seventh century.
It is the story of a pious priest who served in a cemetery church. One night, at prayer, he saw a brilliant light hovering over the grave of a newly-buried man, a soldier. He went to look, and saw an angel. At first afraid, he took courage and spoke to the angel who reassured him. The priest asked the angel why the newly-buried soldier was special, how he had come to merit the presence of the angel. The angel replied: ‘It is because not a single day of his life passed without him asking for the prayers of all the Saints of whom he had ever heard.
The way ahead for us is clear.
Third Sunday after Pentecost.
Today’s Gospel is taken from the Sermon on the Mount, the first piece of preaching in Christ’s public life.
In it Our Lord says that the light of the body is the eye. If the eye is light, so the body will be light. But if the eye is dark, so the body will be dark. By ‘eye’ is meant the soul, for the eye is the window of the soul. In these words Our Lord says that we are not to blame our bodies for our sins. Our bodies are the servants of our souls. If our souls are corrupted, then so also will be our bodies. On the other hand, if our souls are clean, then our bodies will also be clean. It is not our bodies which control our lives, or even our minds, but our souls. And it is our souls that we are called on to cleanse, cultivate and refine first of all. It is the spiritual which has primacy in our lives. Once our souls are clean, then our minds and our bodies will also be cleaned.
Neither can we serve two Masters, the master of the material world and the master of the spiritual world. One must be superior to the other. Thus we cannot serve God, the master of the spiritual, and Mammon, the master of the fallen world. The word Mammon is simply the word in the language spoken by Christ for ‘money’. This saying runs counter to the whole ideology of modernity. Our societies are called ‘capitalist’, for they are based on investments, stock exchanges, ‘capital’, in other words, money. Indeed the whole modern world is ruled by currencies, whether the dollar or some other currency dependent on the dollar. Furthermore, the philosophy which guides modern governments and much of human nature is called ‘monetarism’, in other words the belief in the primacy of money in human life and human motivation. Such a philosophy causes panic and depression both among those who have no money and also among those who have a lot, for such a philosophy excludes God from the workings of society and men, basing everything on the idolatry of paper and electronic numbers.
‘Take no thought for your life’, says Our Lord. The birds are nourished by God, the flowers grow, and they take no thought. We are told not to devote ourselves to what might or might not happen tomorrow. No-one by taking thought, can add anything to his stature. The Gospel tells us to do our best and then leave the rest to God, to trust in God. Modern life, on the other hand, tells us to constantly worry, to be stressed. Such worry only causes depression, for it excludes God and His loving providence. On the other hand, there is nothing inevitable in the life of those who believe in God and His providence. Even the most horrendous situations can evolve positively, if we let God into our lives and societies. If we include God, then we can exclude worry and depression.
We can see this in our own lives and in the lives of those around us. In the last few years we have all known apparently impossible circumstances and situations, dead ends, which have been resolved by unexpected events. Those unexpected events are solutions which have come from the providential love of God. As they say: ‘Man proposes, but God disposes’. The fact is that we do not always, if ever, know what is best, simply because we do not have a long-term view, let alone the eternal view of God which utterly changes all our perspectives. However, ‘Your Father knows you need all these things’, says Christ. And He tells us that if we put the spiritual first, then all other things will work out around that: ‘Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all those things will be added unto you’.
It is no coincidence that this Gospel reading coincides this year with the Sunday of all the Local Saints. Usually this Feast of the Local Saints follows immediately after the Sunday of All Saints. However, because last Sunday was the Feast of the Nativity of St John the Baptist, this year the Church moved the Feast of the Local Saints to this Sunday. This is the Sunday when local Orthodox Churches remember their own Saints: the Russian Church remembers the Saints of Russia, the Romanian Church those of Romania, the Americans remember the Saints who shone forth in America, on Mount Athos they remember the Saints of Athos, and so on.
Today’s Gospel is also a Gospel for all the Local Saints. For what did the Saints do? They simply put the Kingdom of God and His righteousness first. These values, to put the things of the spirit first, are the values of the Saints of God. They are exactly the opposite of the values of modern society, which puts anti-Gospel and anti-spiritual values first. By following the Gospel, we challenge all the crudity and barbarianism of the modern world. And spiritual values prove that the only true revolution is the revolution that occurs in individual human lives and societies as a whole, when human hearts and souls put the spiritual first.
May all the Saints of our lands pray to God for us that we may come to partake of their values and their lives.
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost.
As we have heard, today’s Gospel concerns the healing of the servant of the centurion. In the Roman Army the rank of centurion was given to a soldier who was at the head of one hundred soldiers. There are two particularly striking things about this centurion.
First of all he was clearly a man of virtue for he cared for the health of his servant. He was not one of those who considered human life expendable. He did not say to himself: ‘My servant is ill, I’ll let him die and tomorrow I will buy a slave at the market to replace him’. He must therefore have taken very seriously his responsibilities towards the one hundred soldiers under his command.
Secondly, his attitude towards other human-beings is confirmed by the fact that this centurion had implicit faith in Christ, the Creator of all human-beings, and in His power to heal. ‘Speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed’. This faith was far greater than that of the Jews. Despite their Old Testament heritage, all that they could do was criticise, find fault and destroy. The centurion, on the other hand, had complete faith in the power of Christ.
In return for these qualities Our Lord granted the centurion, and so all the faithful human race whom the centurion represents, two things.
Firstly, Christ grants the Kingdom of Heaven to the centurion and to all faithful humanity. The Kingdom is no longer for the Jews only, but it is opened up to all. ‘Many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven’. In other words it is no longer race that gives salvation, but faith. The Jews took it for granted in a racist way, that they would be saved and not the rest of humanity. But today it is revealed that we shall be judged according to our faith, not according to some external sign of nationality or facial features or skin-colour. Faith is now, in the words of Christ, the one quality that opens up the Kingdom of God. No artificial human boundaries and standards serve any purpose any longer, it is faith in the grace and power of God that saves.
Secondly and following on from this, this Gospel reveals to us that it is faith that determines not only our future in the Kingdom of God, but it also determines our present. ‘As thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee’. In the context of the centurion, of the man of faith, these words are comforting and healing. But these words are terrible for those without faith. They say that as we believe, so shall it be done unto us. If we believe in virtue, so we shall receive virtue. But if we believe in vice, so we shall receive vice. Those who live by the sword shall perish by the sword. If we love our neighbour, they will mostly love us. If we hate our neighbour, they will mostly hate us. Our lives are determined by the faith in them. Our lives are determined by our beliefs. Without faith, our lives are empty. With faith, our lives are full.
This understanding of this Gospel proves that our only chance of happiness in this world or the next is to believe in, and so base our lives on, the highest virtues. If we do this, then our lives will be transformed, not only in the here and now but also in the life to come. And what is the highest virtue? All mankind will agree that it is Love. And this is the Christian Revelation, in the words of St John the Evangelist, that God is Love.
From this day forth let us therefore shape our lives around the virtue of Love in the firm assurance and knowledge that all else will come aright as a result. For as we believe, so shall it be done unto us. Therefore let us live and believe with love for others.
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost.
Today’s Gospel concerns the casting out of demons from two possessed men, their entry into a herd of swine and the suicide of those swine. There are several things that we can learn from this Gospel.
Firstly, we should note that the Gergesenes who owned the swine were disobeying the Jewish Law. The Jews did not and do not eat pork. The Jews who lived in this region were therefore disobeying their own Law. That is why the swineherd ‘besought’ Christ to leave their area, virtually chasing the Son of God away. We cannot help thinking that the disobedience of these people explains why two of them at least had become possessed.
Therefore we learn that disobedience of God leads to misfortune.
Secondly, it is clear from the Gospel that devils exist and that they can possess men. All too often we meet naïve people who call themselves Christians but have been so hoodwinked by the Devil that they maintain that devils do not exist and that they most certainly cannot enter into men. Such people have clearly not read the Gospel with understanding and have little experience of life. In this context we may ask ourselves about the meaning of the word ‘possession’. The Fathers of the Church, many of whom we commemorate today, tell us that that we cannot simply become possessed overnight. Possession is the ultimate stage in a process. The first stage of that process is when we begin to surrender our free will and we ‘entertain’ demons and demonic thoughts in a habitual manner. The second stage is when demons come to obsess us; we are almost unable to fight against demonic influence over us. Demonic thoughts stalk us, becoming an obsession. The third stage is possession, when demons actually come to live inside us, to own or possess us as their property. This is when we have totally surrendered our free will to resist.
Therefore we learn that the Devil and demonic possession are realities.
Thirdly, in today’s Gospel we should notice three characteristics of the devils. First of all, they dwell in tombs. They live in tombs because the devils are spiritually dead. Also the devils are violent, alien to the spirit of peace, ‘exceeding fierce, so that no man might pass by that way’. Finally, the devils are also believers. This should not surprise us. For the devils are bodiless, spiritual beings, fallen angels. Here we should remember that there are many sorts of spirituality, one of which is the spirituality of the demons. Unlike men, who are made foolish because they are deluded by bodily, material things, the devils see reality as it is, they see the spiritual basis of all things. Thus they confess Christ as He really is: as the ‘Son of God’. They have no illusions that Christ may only be some man, albeit a prophet, or a mere man though of great intelligence or giftedness. No, He is the Son of God and that is clear to them. The devils know spiritual reality. According to one Father of the Church, St Simeon the New Theologian, the devils lack only one thing: Love. Indeed, according to him: ‘theology without love is the theology of the demons’.
Therefore we learn that Love is the abiding characteristic of God.
Lastly, we see from today’s Gospel that animals may sometimes behave better than men. For what do the two men possessed by devils do? They survive, living among tombs. On the other hand, the entry of devils inside animals is enough to make them commit suicide. They cannot bear the presence of evil within them. Yet very often we hear that some people have ‘behaved like animals’. This is often untrue and unjust. Animals, for example, do not kill their own species. Animals are sensitive to the presence of evil and fear the presence of supernatural demons, running away from them. This is because animals, who have no eternal, immortal souls, belong to the natural world and fear the supernatural. Men, on the other hand, belong partly to that natural, material, bodily world, but partly to the spiritual world. They are therefore subject to the influence of spirits, whether the spirits of God from the angelic world, or else to the spirits of Evil, from Satan.
Therefore we learn that we are all subject to spiritual influences, to the spirit of evil or to the spirit of good.
What are we to do? Let us flee the spirit of evil. Otherwise we too will finish by living in the tombs of the spiritually dead. Otherwise we too will be owned by devils and none will pass our way. Otherwise we too will run ‘violently down a steep place into the sea and perish in the waters’.
And let us instead of all this cleave to the Spirit of God, which we know from the Gospels, from the Apostles, from the Fathers and from the Saints of the Church of God.
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost.
From the first chapters of the Book of Genesis with the story of Creation and the Fall of mankind, we know that the source of all illness is sin, the disobedience of God.
Mainly, of course, our illnesses are not the consequence of our personal sins, but rather the consequences of unconscious sin, the sin that is all around us in the world and to which we are subject. Modern science, for example, tells us that many illnesses are the result of bacteria coming from the world and attacking a weakness in our organisms. Such a weakness may be inherited through what we now call genes. Or perhaps that weakness has developed in old age when our organisms have begun to fail as they wear out. Sometimes in such cases the use of medicine or even surgical operations can bring us relief.
On the other hand some weaknesses may be the result of overeating or an unhealthy diet, or the use of alcohol or other drugs, or a lack of physical activity. Or such a weakness may also be the result of a state of mind. For instance, it is well-known how one person gets well more quickly than another. This is the result of willpower, the feeling that we still have something to do, that there is still something to live for, we still have a purpose in life. ‘I can’t be ill now, I have no time’. It is well-known that our mental state controls our physical state and we all know of cases of hypochondria.
In today’s Gospel from Matthew Chapter 9, the cause of the illness of the man who was sick is clearly not bacteria, old age or a poor mental state, but unforgiven sins. Our Lord says to the man: ‘Thy sins be forgiven thee’, and the man is healed.
It must be said that the cause of many illnesses, both physical and mental, in modern society is exactly the same as in this case — unforgiven personal sins, since unforgiven sins are extremely common. And they are unforgiven because they are unconfessed, never said at confession and therefore never asked forgiveness for.
Indeed we can consider that the sacrament of confession is like a spiritual barometer which tells us of the state of any society. Among Protestants confession does not exist, although there are Protestants who do ask forgiveness of God and of one another. In Roman Catholic societies confession has all but fallen into disuse, even though it has been given various fashionable names such as ‘the sacrament of reconciliation’. And we as Orthodox have nothing to boast of, since many Orthodox too never go to confession, or go once a year, and as a result hardly ever go to communion.
The sacrament of confession is a spiritual barometer because for confession to take place, we need humility, the humility to go before God in front of a witness and confess to God our sins. But if we do not go to confession, we must not expect the divine healing that is necessary in our lives. If we are true believers, then it is for us to go to Christ and be healed by Him through the sacraments that He has given us in His Body, His Church. May it be so!
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost.
Today’s Gospel from Chapter 9 of St Matthew concerns the healing carried out by Christ through the expulsion of a demon. What can we learn from this Gospel?
First of all, we should note that the healing performed by Christ in the Gospel is permanent, it is for good and salvation, it is for repentance and thanksgiving. Here we should be cautious. There are many who claim today that they have been healed by all manner of ‘spiritual healers’ and ‘therapists’. However, there is a great difference between the healing given by Christ and the ‘healings’ of such individuals who will often charge huge sums of money for their alleged healings. Although some such healings may be genuine, the results of a natural psychic ability, others are undoubtedly demonic. For since demonic influence is the cause of all illness, demons are also able to withdraw temporarily from their victim’s soul, mind and body, thus giving the illusion of ‘healing’, in order to increase their hold on their victims. Such ‘healings’ are always temporary, for the demons always return, unable to resist the soft target of a weak and infected person. Such ‘healings’ are always destructive, for they are not for the good and salvation and repentance of their victim, but for their further subjection and submission to the powers of the Evil One.
Secondly, today’s Gospel informs us of the reality of demons. In recent times, at least since the Second World War, which followed the First World War because there was no repentance after it, when Satan received an almost unheard of power in the world, demons have been appearing more and more often to mankind. The most remarkable thing is that people have been so hoodwinked by the Devil that they have not recognised the demons for what they are.
For instance, both Stalin and Hitler were clearly puppets whose strings were pulled by legions of demons, and yet tens of million of people blindly followed their monstrous evils and handed over their empty souls to their ideologies, believing in what they preached. But today, if you tell a historian or a journalist that Hitler and Stalin were puppets of the Devil and that all that they did was planned by demons, they will laugh at you. And if you tell them that every subsequent and previous war and act of violence from the killing of Abel to the crashing of jets into the Twin Towers and the screams of three thousand creatures of God burnt alive in kerosene, had the same demonic cause, they will mock you.
At the same time during the Second World War, large numbers of people began to see lights in the skies (‘great signs from heaven’, as the Gospel of St Luke calls them). Many began to call these lights ‘unidentified flying objects’. Others said that they had seen and met ‘aliens’. Of course, in one sense, they were right: the lights that they saw were indeed the lights of ‘aliens’, the Satanic beings, devils who are the face of Death, which is alien to mankind, who was created immortal by God. Again, people are not able to ‘identify’ the faces of demons, even when eyewitnesses draw pictures which clearly show demons: they are indeed ‘unidentified flying objects’ to all those outside Church consciousness. Worse still, in the foolishness that is born in the human soul when it denies God, men began to worship these devils, declaring them to be from ‘a higher civilisation’ and more ‘intelligent than we are’. And they are indeed more intelligent than non-believers, for the demons ‘believe and they tremble’.
Again in recent times, the face of the Devil has been revealed in all sorts of ‘magical’ tricks, in levitations and much-publicised spiritual frauds, in slavery to drugs, such as the mass-killers of alcohol and tobacco, banes of the last century. Or else in slavery to sex, which for example today has tens of thousands of young girls and boys from Eastern Europe selling their bodies for bread on the streets of Western Europe to depraved men who deny Christ and the Gospel. And the same is going on in every Sodom and Gomorrah on every Continent of the world. The result of this is the worldwide epidemic of AIDS which has already claimed tens of millions of victims and which will undoubtedly be the Black Death of the the Twenty-First Century.
And we can also hear the delighted cackling of demons in the face of the terrible so-called ‘natural’ disasters of flood and drought, earthquake and hurricane, volcano and forest fire, which mankind has recently brought on itself through the abuse of the resources of God’s creation.
What are we to do? How are we to protect ourselves against this ever-rising tide of demonism, before the face of naked evil?
The world, unfortunately, can do nothing, since it denies the primal cause of all this, it is frightened to take responsibility for its own actions and consequently return to the Enduring Faith of the Church of Christ. That would be asking for humility, asking Western ‘civilisation’ to admit that it was wrong all along and that the true measure of all things is not man who wallows in the excrement of his depravity, but Christ, the Perfect Man, the God-Man.
We, however, who know the cause of all this evil, can protect ourselves by asking for the protection of God, Who is the Lord of all and can stop the demons in their tracks and contain them in the confines of hell, if only we ask Him to do this by refusing to let the demons occupy our souls and minds and bodies. In other words we must ask for healing, that selfsame healing that Christ gave in today’s Gospel. And this we do through the source of all healing, which is in the Resurrected Body of Christ, the Church. The Church is not a social club, not coffee-time, the Church is not a show for religious dilettantes and hobbymakers, the Church is not a welfare-State, the Church is the place where we bare our souls to Christ and receive healing from sin and death through the sacraments and fasts and prayers which we accept by making our will conform to that of Christ.
Let us make no mistake: without the Church our fate is awful. Without the Church there are no values, no morals, no spirituality, only the charlatanism of the deluded. In Russian there is a proverb: ‘Bez Boga, ne do poroga’ — ‘if you are without God, you may not enter’. And indeed people do not enter into salvation without God.
Where are we going? Towards the floods of the demons or towards the healing of Christ? It is our choice. Let us decide today.
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost.
Today’s Gospel from St Matthew relates to us the feeding of the five thousand and the miraculous multiplication of loaves and fishes. The account of this event is to be found in all Four Gospels. From the details that are added in the other Gospels we know that this event took place in the third year of the Saviour’s public preaching, after the beheading of St John the Baptist. From it we can learn several things.
First of all, we should note that this was an enormous crowd, almost unimaginable in size, of five thousand men plus women and children. We notice how they followed Christ on foot in the heat of the day into the wilderness and without food. What faith and devotion we see here, when there are Orthodox who claim to be unable to come to church on Sundays in their cars, because the church is too far from their beds!
Secondly, we can see that this miracle took place not for the personal vanity or glory of the Saviour, but out of compassion for the people. We can see this in many miracles of Christ and it is mentioned again in today’s Gospel how the Lord healed because He ‘took pity’ on the sick. Each miracle of Christ is an act of love performed out of compassion.
Thirdly, we see also how before He performed the miracle, Our Lord took up the five loaves and fishes, and then looked up to Heaven and thanked the Father and blessed the food. Here He sets us Orthodox the example of praying before eating. How many Orthodox often forget even to make the sign of the cross before eating! And yet the Saviour Himself, ‘by Whom all things were made’, asks for the blessing of the Father before eating.
Fourthly, we can compare the humble conditions in which this miracle happened, in the wilderness, sitting on the grass, with the conditions in which just previously St John the Baptist’s death had been ordered, at Herod’s luxurious birthday banquet.
Fifthly, we can see how this miracle is also a revelation of the Saviour’s divinity, of the power of Christ.
The miracle takes place when the day is already far spent, but Christ is not limited by time; He is the Lord of Time.
The miracle takes place in a desert place, in the wilderness; Christ is also the Lord of Space.
He blesses and multiplies bread and fish; He is also the Lord of Land and Sea.
Finally, in this miracle we see how Christ not only feeds us with material food, but also with spiritual food, for, as it is written in the Holy Scriptures, man shall not live by bread alone. We see this in the numbers mentioned in this Gospel.
Why five loaves? The number five, as we read in the Psalms and in the prayers of thanksgiving after communion, represent our five senses, being, which is fed by Christ, the Bread of Life.
Why two fishes? They represent the two parts of the New Testament, the Gospels and the Epistles, which were written by fishermen become fishers of men, for we are spiritually fed by their writings.
Why twelve baskets of fragments? They represent the twelve Apostles who preach to the ends of the universe, the fragments who feed our souls with the words of Christ through the Holy Spirit.
Let us this day open our minds and souls to Christ our True God that we too may be fed and satiated with the Bread of Life.
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost.
We are all probably familiar with the story of Noah from the Old Testament. We recall how God spoke to him alone of the coming Flood, because of his righteousness. We recall how Noah built a huge ship, the Ark, how God commanded him to put animals and in living things inside it, so that they would not perish, and how alone among mankind he and his family did not drown, but lived, making him our common forefather. And we recall too how when the waters subsided, the Ark was left high and dry somewhere on Mt Ararat.
There are some people who are much taken with the literal facts of this story. Thus, over the years several expeditions have been sent out to Mt Ararat in order to find the Ark or fragments of it. Others have searched the depths of the Black Sea, hoping to find the remains of some city or civilisation from before the age of Noah. Yet others, archaeologists, have delved into the layers of earth in the Middle East, looking for evidence of the Flood in a great level of silt.
Although these investigations have a certain human interest, as Orthodox Christians, what interests us more than all this is the spiritual meaning of the story of the Flood.
First of all, we note that because Noah was pure in heart God spoke to his heart, he and his family were saved.
Secondly, we see that the Flood is a sign of baptism, our cleansing and salvation from the corruption of the earth.
Thirdly, we understand that the Ark Itself is a symbol of the Church, the Ark of Salvation, in Which we can weather the floods of the passions of this world, riding out the storms of this world.
Today’s Gospel may remind us of many signs and symbols in the story of Noah:
The disciples in a boat are ourselves.
The Sea of Galilee is the sea of life.
The night in which they sail is the darkness of our ignorance.
The ‘boisterous wind’ which causes the storm, is the attacks of the demons.
The storm is the trials and tribulations of this life.
And the fourth watch when Christ comes is just before dawn. For the first watch, in the darkness of the night, is the covenant with Abraham. The second watch is the commandments given to Moses. The third watch is the Prophets who foretold the Coming of Christ. And the fourth watch is Christ Who comes Himself.
Christ can walk on the waters because He made the waters, He is the Creating Hand of God the Father; By Him ‘all things were made’. And as soon as He enters the boat, the wind calms. The flimsy craft of human undertakings, ‘tossed with waves’, becomes with Christ the unsinkable Ark of Salvation, the Church of Which Christ is the Head. And with Christ we all, like Peter, are saved and confess Him: ‘Of a truth Thou art the Son of God’.
Today, Christ speaks to the heart of each one of us: ‘O Thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?’
Tenth Sunday after Pentecost.
The events of today’s Gospel occurred just after the descent of Our Lord from Mt Tabor where He had been transfigured. They are described to us in the three Gospels of St Matthew, St Mark and St Luke. These events raise a number of questions which we are called on to answer.
The first question is: What was the precise nature of the illness of this man’s son?
This was no ordinary illness or medical condition, for our Lord cast a demon out of the son; the man’s son was possessed. It was not therefore ‘epilepsy’ as some modernistic translations have it. Indeed in liturgical English, the child is described as ‘lunatick’. This word refers to the concept that our mental condition can change according to the phases of the moon. I do not wish to express an opinion about the truth or untruth of that concept, I would leave that to experts, to physicians. However, I do believe that this word ‘lunatick’ does reveal a deeper truth. Just as the moon changes, so there are a number of illnesses which cause a great changeability or instability in character and modern psychiatry has various names for those illnesses. And we can see this changeability or instability in the sick son. Sometimes he would fall into the fire, at other times he would fall into the water. In other words the demon, who lived inside the son, was trying to destroy him by burning him to death or drowning him, in order to occupy that soul to all eternity.
The falling into fire and water also show us how the demons abuse God’s creation. Fire is not a tool with which to burn and destroy, but a gift of God for heating, cooking and other useful activities. Water is not a tool with which to drown, but a gift of God for drinking and washing and other useful activities. Moreover, we can see how fire is also a symbol of the fire of passion and anger which can possess those who are attacked by demons, and water is a symbol of the waves of melancholy which can also possess those who are attacked by demons.
The second question is: How did the demon get inside the man’s son and possess him?
To this question we have the reply of Christ: ‘O faithless and perverse generation’. The demon came into possession of the son through unbelief, faithlessness. Not only the son’s unbelief, but also the unbelief of the father and others around the son who could have cared for him and given him faith. However, as with everything that God allows to happen, there is a positive, Providential aspect to this illness. It is clear that because of the illness of the son, the father has been brought to know humility. Thus he calls Christ, ‘Lord’ and asks, ‘Have mercy on my son’. This shows humility, not pride. The proud man does not address another as Lord, for he considers himself to be Lord. And the proud man does not ask for mercy, for he considers that he does not need mercy. In other words, the father has become realistic, for the very word humility in English comes from the word ‘humus’, which means ‘earth’ or ‘ground’. In another words, to be humble is to have one’s feet on the earth, to be realistic, and not to submit to the illusions of pride and self-reliance.
The third question is: What is the solution to the sickness of the son?
The answer is ‘prayer and fasting’, for this is how Christ casts the demon out of the son. For prayer is not talking about God, as some imagine, it is talking with God, as we know. And fasting is not some kind of secular dieting, it is abstaining from the things of the body in order to draw nearer to the things of the soul. Prayer and fasting are the deepening of faith. The Fathers of the Church call prayer and fasting a ‘two-edged sword’. In other words, where there is prayer and fasting, there is faith. And as a Father of the nineteenth century, St Theophan the Recluse, wrote: ‘Where there is no prayer and fasting, there are the demons’.
Referring to the word of St Theophan, we could say therefore that much of the modern world has become the dwelling-place of demons, for the modern world mocks prayer and fasting. And referring to the instability of the demoniac son, we can also refer to the instability of the modern world. It seems that each day that passes brings us news of some new instability, some new disaster and misfortune.
In this last month in this country we have heard of the case of two young girls, abducted and murdered in a town where, it had seemed, nothing ever happened. This case should be especially close to us, for the town of Soham is where one of our two main patrons, St Felix, founded an Orthodox monastery in the seventh century. Indeed the successor to St Felix as Bishop of East Anglia was a monk, called Thomas, who came from that very monastery. How is it that in such a small town this double murder of children occurred? Clearly, because that town has lost its monastery, lost the holy relics of St Felix which were once honoured there, and in that town today there is no or not enough prayer and fasting. Otherwise the demon who clearly impelled the murderer of those two girls to carry out his crime could not have acted. The demon who pushed him into this deed would have been prevented by the presence of prayer and fasting.
Internationally, we can say the same of many other terrible problems. ‘Where there is no prayer and fasting, there are the demons’. We can take, for example, the case of AIDS. A disease that has killed tens of millions and destroyed the lives of millions of innocent children: ‘Where there is no prayer and fasting, there are the demons’. The same can be said of the problems of the many wars that have erupted in all parts of the world. Here it is the demons of hatred who impel mankind to self-destruction. ‘Where there is no prayer and fasting, there are the demons’. Or the case of the pollution of the environment, of God’s Creation. Here it is the demons of greed who impel mankind to self-destruction. And the same is true even of so-called natural disasters. Would God allow earthquakes and hurricanes, floods and forest fires, to take place if there were pious people who were fasting and praying in those regions, impeding the demons from having the freedom to act in their quest to see man destroy himself?
The fact is that, whenever we our faithless and cease to pray and fast, then we lose the protection of the grace of God and we are beseiged by demons and the world falls into fire or water. And we should not think like the inhabitants of the town of Soham that we are immune to any disaster. The words, ‘It could not happen here’, or ‘Nothing ever happens here’, are no longer true. In Russia before the Revolution people said the same thing, but holy men like St Theophan the Recluse, St Ignatius, St John of Kronstadt and many others, all correctly prophesied that if people did not return to faithfulness, to prayer and fasting, then a great disaster would befall them. And so it happened and Russia became the favoured resort of the demons: ‘Where there is no prayer and fasting, there are the demons’. As the Apsotle says: ‘God is not mocked’ (Galatians 6, 7).
On the other hand, where there is faith, there is prayer and fasting, and there the demons cannot go. All is possible if there is faith. Faith moves mountains. We have the words of Christ which tell us this.
Moreover, where there is no faith, there is no hope but despair. And where there is no hope, there is no love but hatred. And where there is neither faith nor hope nor love, there you will not find the mother of these three virtues, Wisdom. Instead you will find foolishness.
For who is Wisdom? Wisdom is the Wisdom of God, the Wisdom of the Word of God: Wisdom is Christ. So where there is no Christ, there is no Wisdom and where there is no Wisdom, there is neither love, nor hope, nor faith. And the land of no faith, no hope, no love and no Wisdom is the destination of the contemporary world, if it does not change its direction. It is not too late. As today’s Gospel has made clear, it is all a question of faith. Let us then be faithful.
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost.
Today’s Gospel from St Matthew concerns our need to forgive one another. Without forgiveness on our part, God cannot forgive us. Why?
In English the word forgive is connected with the word give. It is the same in many other languages. In French to forgive is pardonner, to give is donner. In German to forgive is vergeben, to give is geben. In other words, forgiving and giving are connected. Indeed to forgive someone is actually to give of ourselves. Not to give money or a present, but to give of ourselves. To forgive is to sacrifice part of ourselves for someone else.
Where there is no forgiveness, there the heart has set itself against self-sacrifice, against giving of itself. Where there is no forgiveness, there is hardness of heart, self-love and pride, enmity and bitterness, rancour and hatred, stony-heartedness, the refusal of the grace of God.
Now the very aim of our Faith, the reason for its existence, is precisely that, the cleansing of the heart from all such stony-heartedness, from all such rancour and refusal of God’s grace. In other words, it could be said that the aim of our Faith is to obtain a forgiving heart. And here we enter into the very essence of our Orthodox Christian Faith.
For why did God allow His own Son to become man, and suffer, and of His own will go up onto the Cross? Why did the Father see His Only-born Son sacrificed?
It was all an act of forgiveness. The forgiveness of the sins of humanity, and the showing of the way to freedom from those sins. This is why, in the Prayer that the Lord gave us, we pray: ‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those that trespass against us’. Although God forgives us, we may be unable to accept His forgiveness, if first our heart is not ready, in a fit state to accept God’s forgiveness, if first we have not forgiven others, if first we have not rid ourselves from our stony-heartedness.
It has been said that forgiveness is the essence of our Christian Faith.
For instance, forgiveness contrasts with the pharisaic, vendetta spirit of the Old Testament: ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth’, which is the ideology of the Jewish State to this day.
Forgiveness contrasts with the Muslim religion, which speaks of fanatical holy war, death for those who renounce Islam and become Christian.
It contrasts with the fanaticism of those pagan religions which make human sacrifice.
It contrasts with modern paganism which is always seeking reasons for vendettas, to sue in court, to seek ‘damages’.
Of course there have been, and are, so-called Christians who have also fallen away from Christ’s Gospel Truth and engaged in the same sort of ideology, launching ‘Crusades’, ‘Inquisitions’, ‘holy wars’, burnings at the stake and massacres — all in the Name of Christ the Good Shepherd. But we do not take such people seriously as Christians, for we know that they are foolish and merely besmirch the All-Honourable Name of Christ. We know that they are not Orthodox Christians. They merely take the Name of Christ and His Church in order to try and justify their own cruel stony-heartedness and personal passions. They do not have the Holy Spirit, for the Holy Spirit is the spirit of forgiveness.
For where there is no forgiveness, there there is no Holy Spirit. Where there is no Holy Spirit, there there is no forgiveness. Such is the spiritual law.
Christ gave us the ultimate example of forgiveness. He, All-Innocent, hung on the Cross to forgive us. We too have to accept a little crucifixion of ourselves in order to forgive others. And if we find that difficult, let us remember that Christ’s Crucifixion was followed by His Resurrection. And so our little self-crucifixion, our forgiving of others, will be followed by our little resurrection — our being forgiven by God. And so, just as the rain is followed by the sun, so sorrow is followed by joy.
God, forgive us!
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost.
Today’s Gospel concerns the young man who asked Christ what it is necessary to do in order to have eternal life.
Our Lord tells him first of all to keep the commandments: thou shalt not murder, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not bear false witness, honour thy father and mother — all the commandments given by divine inspiration to Moses. However, our Lord, here and elsewhere in the Gospels, sums up those commandments, by giving only two commandments: Love God and love thy neighbour as thyself.
As it is said elsewhere in the Gospels, these two commandments are linked. For as we know from recent human history, from the history of dictators and tyrants, World Wars and human misery, those who do not love God, do not love God’s creation. And the summit of God’s creation is mankind. Those who hate men are those who have first hated God. And such haters of men are also those who hate the rest of God’s creation: those who recklessly cut down forests and pollute the air and the water and the earth, these too are haters of God, for it is clear that they hate God’s Creation. And thus they do the work of the Devil, which is hatred.
As others have put it, those who deny the Fatherhood of God, deny also the Brotherhood of man.
Let us also notice how our Lord tells us in this Gospel that we are to love our neighbour as ourselves. What does this mean?
This does not mean that we are to love ourselves in the sense that we must be selfish, self-centred, pandering to our every whim and desire. It means that we are to love ourselves as we were created by God, not to love ourselves as we are now, all sinful and sullied, but to love ourselves as God intended us to be, bright, sinless, as Adam and Eve were in Paradise.
And here we enter into the understanding of that terrible mystery of self-hatred, self-destruction through alcohol or other drugs, self-mutilation, even of suicide, that is, self-murder. Those who enter on to such paths are those who have so lost faith, being so blinded by misfortune and depression, that they have lost all faith in God to restore them to what they could be and have so lost faith in themselves, that they are ready to undertake their self-destruction. Having become blind to the Beauty of the Creator, they have become blind to the original and potential beauty of the Creation, which they are.
The young man who spoke to Christ today kept the commandments. Probably, this was fairly easy for him, he had been well brought up, he had been well instructed. However, our Lord tells him that there is a higher way to salvation, a way to become perfect. This is for him to give away all his wealth. The disciples, not yet enlightened by the Crucifixion, the Resurrection and the Descent of the Holy Spirit, were astonished at Christ’s words about the rich and asked who could be saved. His words seemed to them to be hard words and that therefore none could be saved.
However, if we examine more closely Christ’s words, we see that He does not say that the rich cannot be saved. Rather, He says that those who are attached to their riches cannot be saved. And this is the tragedy of the soul of the young man, For he went away sorrowful, for he had ‘great possessions’. In other words, the discerning eyes of Christ saw that the young man was unlike those disciples who had abandoned their fishing-boat in order to follow the Saviour; it was not so much that the young man had many possessions, rather that he was possessed by his possessions.
And this is the secret of wealth. In the history of the Church and in the Lives of the Saints, we can often read of many people who came into great wealth, but they did not allow themselves to become possessed of their wealth. They were wealthy for a time, and then gave it away, to orphanages, to beggars, to charities, to churches, to monasteries. They understood that wealth is granted by God, only for a time and only for a purpose. God calls the wealthy not to be possessors, but rather distributors, of wealth. We are called to be channels, instruments, agents of the grace and benefactions of God. Nothing should come from ourselves, we should be like mirrors reflecting God’s Will and Infinite Mercy.
Now, in this same Gospel, Christ tells us that in fact salvation is impossible with men, but that all things are possible with God. What do these words imply regarding our way of life?
First of all, we should not think that we are able to do anything by ourselves and certainly we are unable to save ourselves. Above all we should not think that what God allows us to do, we can do well, or even perfectly. Perfectionism comes from the sin of pride. Those who are perfectionist are too demanding with themselves and too demanding with others. Such people often feel frustrated, they become disillusioned, falling into discouragement and even despair. We are to avoid the spirit of self-reliance, the pride of doing things from ourselves. In any important undertaking, we are to ask for God’s blessing, to ask Him for His help, for His guidance.
On the other hand, we are not simply to sit back and abandon all efforts, expecting God to do everything for us.
Our Lord tells us how to live in today’s Gospel. He says: Do your best, and He will look after everything else. If we do what is possible, God will do what is impossible. But if we do not first do what is possible, then He will not do for us what is impossible.
We are never to despair, to lose hope, we are never to disbelieve in the results of Faith. As we sing in the Great Prokimenon: Our God is a great God, for He works wonders’. For it is He alone Who makes the impossible possible and the unattainable attainable. Glory to thee, O God, glory to thee!
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Today’s Gospel is the parable of the vineyard. An owner built a vineyard, hedged it around, built a winepress and a tower and then let it out to tenants. When he sent servants to take the rent, they were beaten and stoned. He sent others, but they did the same. And when the owner sent own his son, they killed him.
In this parable, the vineyard is Israel. The owner is God. Israel is hedged around with natural borders. The winepress is the altar, the tower is the Temple. The tenants are the Jews. The servants are those sent by God, the prophets and holy ones who reminded the Jews that Israel was not theirs but God’s. But what did the Jews do? They beat and stoned and killed first the servants and then the heir, the Son of God. Why? Because they wanted everything for themselves. And so they ceased to be God’s people, they ceased to be Israel and were cast out of their land and scattered over all the face of the earth. Israel was given to others: the New Israel, the Church, was born.
However, this parable is also addressed today to us Orthodox of the New Israel. The vineyard is the planet where we Orthodox Christians live. It is hedged around by the presence of the Church. The wine-press is the altar. And the tower is the Church. And the servants are the saints. And we Orthodox should ask ourselves what we have done with God’s saints who have been sent twice for our repentance?
When the remnant of the Roman Empire in Constantinople was under threat, God sent one of His servants there, St Mark of Ephesus, to warn the Orthodox to keep faith with the Church. Many did not, and so the Empire fell.
When the mighty Russian Empire was under threat at the beginning of the last century, God sent another servant and prophet, St John of Kronstadt, to warn the people to repent. Many did not, and so that Empire too fell.
Always those who have denied Christ and His Church have thought that the world belonged to them and that therefore they could do what they wanted with it. Always they have wanted to replace Christ with their own philosophies and ideologies and politics, their own religion. God has sent servants to us Orthodox of the New Israel twice; the next time He will send His Son and that will be the Second Coming, the Coming of the Heir.
This parable is also addressed to each of us today in a personal sense. The vineyard is our own soul. It is hedged around with prayer, our guardian-angel, our patron-saint. The wine-press is where we offer ourselves to Christ. The tower is our inner church where we pray to God. We are tenants of our God-created souls. The servants sent to us are all those occasions when God speaks to us. He speaks to us in prayer, He speaks to us through the word of His Scriptures, He speaks to us through every opportunity, every meeting, every event that comes into our lives. He speaks to us through the presence of His Church in the world.
And how do we react? Do we reject everything sent to us, everything allowed to us, as a chance to do better, to make good our weaknesses? Do we fail to heed God? Do we ignore the Church? If so, then we too beat and stone and kill the servants of God. We are warned: the Heir is coming.
At the end of the parable of the vineyard, Christ says: ‘The stone that the builders rejected is become the head of the corner, and it is marvellous in our eyes’. The stone rejected is of course the Rock of Faith, Christ Himself, for He was rejected and crucified. And yet He became the head of the corner and it is marvellous in our eyes. Let us too be rocks of faith then, and though the world will reject us, we too shall become heads of the corner, and it will be marvellous in the eyes of God and men. Glory to Thee, O God, glory to Thee!
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost.
Today’s Gospel summarises our whole faith: ‘Love God and love your neighbour as yourself’. Unfortunately, we are so accustomed to hearing these words that we sometimes forget what they mean.
In fact in order to love God, two things are necessary.
First of all, we must believe in a God Who is the Creator of all things. It is no use believing in a god who is just a convenient idea, on whom we can peg responsibilities or blame, as it pleases us. For example, it is very common nowadays to hear the words: ‘We all have the same god’. These words are quite untrue. Thus there are some people for whom god is a bottle of whisky, with others their idol is a pop star or a football team. We do not have the same god.
Secondly we have to believe in a God who is Love. For example, as regards religions other than Christianity, we do not have the same god. Buddhists for example do not have a god: Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion. Hindus believe in a multitude of gods, who try and do the strangest things. Muslims believe in a god who rewards warfare and acts of terrorism. The Jews believe in a god who takes revenge, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. Only the Christian God is the Maker of all and also the God of Love.
All the teachings of the Church are based on Love. The Christian God is a God in Three Persons, Who love each other, a perfect Unity in Diversity. The Christian God is He who sent His Son to earth. In an act of self-sacrificial Love He gave up His life out of compassion for mankind. And when the Son had of His own will thus saved mankind from sin by being crucified and risen, overcoming death by death, the same Son sent the Comforter from His Father to us, the Comforter, Who is the Holy Spirit, the Presence of God, the Spirit of Truth and Love.
It is true that throughout history the name of the Church has been abused and misused by various people as a political tool. Nevertheless the mere fact that the Church continues to exist after two thousand years and the truths of Christ are still preached through Her, is proof that the Church is not a human institution, but a divine one. However the name of the Church has been compromised, the Church Herself as the Body of Christ remains beyond all compromise.
The second commandment given by Christ is to love our neighbours as ourselves. Christ says that this commandment is like the first one. For if we are called to love the Creator, then we must surely also love His Creation, including our fellow-men, who are made in the image and the likeness of God the Creator. In this commandment we are also called to love ourselves, not in the sense of selfishness and vain self-admiration, but in the sense of the words of a popular song: ‘Everybody’s beautiful in their own way’. Of course, these words are sentimental and emotional, but they still express the truth of the Gospel that there is potential good in all human beings — the image or beauty of God is within us. It is this image or beauty of God which we have first to discover, and then to develop, so that the likeness of God may grow within us. In order to do this, we must listen to the voice of God calling us to our true destiny.
The lack of faith in the loving Creator always and inevitably leads to hatred of His Creation, that is, hatred of our neighbours, and then hatred of ourselves.
For instance, in the nineteenth century there was a German philosopher who, hating the Creator, the Christian God of Love, wrote that: ‘God is dead’. In the twenty-first century, within three generations of that foolish man’s death in a lunatic asylum, the leaders of his people had started two World Wars and performed acts of hatred of their neighbours, genocide, on an organised and industrial scale unseen before the twentieth century. The leaders of other peoples, no better, also adopted the thought of this philosopher, and they too from Soviet Russia to China, from Croatia to Rwanda, carried out acts of hatred of their neighbours, genocide.
One cannot help fearing that this assassination of God in men’s hearts in the nineteenth century, followed by the assassination of God’s Creation in the twentieth century, will not be followed by the assassination of ourselves through some self-inflicted catastrophe, ecological or in warfare, in the twenty-first century. Thus:
In the nineteenth century — the murder of God — Deicide.
In the twentieth century — the murder of our neighbours — genocide.
In the twenty-first century — the murder of ourselves — suicide.
But perhaps such thoughts are too gloomy. After all, there were moments in the twentieth century, when people said that the end of the world was coming. But each time humanity drew back from the brink of self-destruction, from suicide. Most recently during the lifetimes of many of us, in the missile crisis in Cuba. Even today, although humanity has the means to destroy itself many times over with what are now fashionably called ‘weapons of mass destruction’, whether nuclear, chemical or biological, the world goes on.
In the Scriptures the holy Apostle Paul writes that at the end of the world the love for others will grow cold. It seems that this has not yet happened. For as long as there are a few who continue to keep the commandments, to love God and love their neighbour as themselves, the world will continue. It is still not too late to draw back from suicide, and genocide, and Deicide.
What are we to do? In the words of the Psalms, it is all very clear:
‘Seek God and your soul shall live’.
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost.
Today’s Gospel of the talents is perhaps well-known to us — but like any other Gospel, each time that we read it, new points strike us.
Firstly, we may notice that in this Gospel the Lord gives each of His servants a different number of talents. We are not equal to one another — we are different from one another. This does not mean that the Lord prefers one person to another. Simply it means that the Lord knows what is best for each one of us, and He gives, as the Gospel says, ‘to every man according unto several ability’. In other words, the Lord never gives us something to do which is beyond our ability, whatever we may demand of ourselves, He asks of us to cultivate only the abilities that we do have and that He knows that we have. Thus, He asks one who is clever with his hands to use them to make beneficial things out of cement, or wood or metal or some other material. He does not ask him to plan huge buildings. He who has to plan huge buildings, the architect, has been given gifts in mathematics and physics and drawing, and he himself may be quite unable to use his hands to make anything. In a similar way, I once met a famous composer who could not sing, and a famous singer who could not compose. The Lord gives each of us abilities and we are called to use them to do something for God. We are different. Our equality comes only from using our different abilities to an equal extent. Our equality is not in the values of this world, but spiritually, before the face of God, in the extent to which we use our various God-given gifts.
Secondly, this parable speaks of the man who was given only one talent which he went out and buried, failing to multiply it. When called to account, as we all shall be at the end of the world, he excuses himself for his laziness, answering the Lord: ‘I knew that thou art a hard man’. This is the answer of the selfish man, who has done nothing with his God-given talents, who has done nothing for his neighbour, but has kept his talent for himself, burying it. Unlike his fellow-servants, he has achieved nothing, on account of his selfishness.
Thirdly, this answer is also the answer of the sinful man, who always justifies himself, who always blames others for his failures. Self-justification is one of the worst sins, it is an aspect of pride, for it discloses the human heart which is so selfish, so locked up in itself, that it is incapable of taking blame, of recognising its own sin, of being humble and therefore willing to improve.
It is this sin which is most harshly judged, for which is promised casting out unto outer darkness and weeping and gnashing of teeth. This day, therefore, we should ask ourselves what we are doing with our God-given lives and our God-given gifts. Are we bottling them up, complaining that others are hard with us, or are we using them, in their different ways, for the building-up of the Kingdom of God?
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost.
Tired of the crowds and the Pharisees with their cunning attacks, our Lord left the Jews and went into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. Why? Humanly speaking, he was quite simply fed up with the ruses of the Jews, especially the Pharisees. But divinely speaking, he went to the land of Tyre and Sidon to reveal the Universal Kingdom of God to the pagans who lived there.
These two towns which still exist today were not Jewish in origin, but Syro-Phenician and Greek. In other words they were pagan. Indeed, the woman with whom today’s Gospel is concerned was also a pagan, a Canaanite. When she first spoke to the Saviour, the disciples, who were Jews, naturally would have nothing to do with her and wanted her sent away. But the Lord considered that she belonged to the lost sheep of the House of Israel, and that therefore she should speak and so His Divine mission to the ‘lost sheep of the House of Israel’ should be revealed.
We should note that the Canaanite women recognised that her daughter had a devil. She did not make up some story, full of excuses and blame, that her daughter was ill. No, she had faith and recognised the demons for what they are. Here, we see the faith of the Canaanite woman, for although she had suffered the bigotry and prejudice of the Jews, yet she was still willing to plead for the help of a Jew, the help of Christ, calling Him ‘Thou Son of David’.
It would seem to us that Christ’s reply to her, virtually calling her a dog, was very hard. In fact, of course, He was merely testing her reaction and thus revealing her faith, a faith greater than that of the Jews, especially the Pharisees, with whom He had recently spoken. Indeed, the Canaanite woman was not insulted by Christ’s words. Instead, in all humility, she replied that even dogs are glad to eat the crumbs that fall from the table of the Master. Thus she had shown not only faith, but also humility
At once she was rewarded with the healing of her daughter at a distance, a miraculous healing, like that of the servant of the centurion, miracles which can take place only through the might of the Saviour, Who overcomes the barriers of space and time to heal. Thus we see that for any miracle to take place, we first need faith and then humility, the faith and humility of the Canaanite woman, who asks for Christ’s mercy and help.
However, if we go further and penetrate into the inner meaning of this miracle of faith and humility, we will find even deeper significance.
This miracle occurred in the land of Tyre and Sidon. Now, scholars tell us that the word ‘Tyre’ means ‘beseiged’. And the daughter of the Canaanite woman was exactly in that situation — she was beseiged by demons. Indeed the pagan world as a whole was beseiged by demons whom it even worshipped.
And the word ‘Sidon’ means ‘those who seek’. And there were those in the pagan world who did just that — they did seek, for they were not so engrossed in vice that they could not, like the Canaanite woman, still seek the truth.
Finally, the word ‘Canaan’ means ‘prepared by humility’. And that is precisely the case of the Canaanite woman. For if we are beseiged by demons and we seek, prepared by humility, then we shall find Christ, as did the Canaanite woman from Tyre and Sidon.
Here we should be careful for there are those who seek and do not find. This is because they are not prepared by humility. They are indeed doing the opposite of seeking, they are ‘self-seeking’, in other words seeking only to dominate through pride and seeking to intrigue through selfishness. They are not seeking the healing of their soul, for in their pride they do not even acknowledge it to be ill.
Today’s Gospel then has a universal significance, especially for today’s neo-pagan world. For today’s world is like Tyre ‘beseiged’ by demons. Part of it is content to remain like that. Part of it seeks its own advantage in such a situation. But part of it is genuinely coming out from Sidon, ‘seeking’ and ‘prepared by humility’. That part is ready to accept even the crumbs that fall from the table of the Master. And what are those crumbs? They are the crumbs of the Bread of Life, the Body of Christ, the Eucharist of the Church. This is available to all who seek with humility through prayer, fasting and confession. And those who seek thus, will assuredly find.
Let us this day, like the Canaanite woman, also cry out:
Have mercy on us, O Lord! Lord help us!
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost.
How is the authority of Christ expressed?
The authority of Christ is expressed in His words contained in the Gospels and, above all in His acts, especially in the act of His Resurrection from the dead.
How then is the authority of the Church expressed? Who can speak with authority about the Church? Who can explain the teachings of the Church? Who, in other words, can resurrect our dying souls and fill them with life? Can the authority of the Church be expressed by one man? By a genius? By a Pope? By an Emperor or a King? By our own Bishop?
No. In Biblical times, in which the Church still lives, we have an answer to this question of the authority of the Church.
Today we have heard the Gospel telling how some of the disciples were called and it is in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles that we find the answer to this question of the authority of the Church. That Book tells us in Chapter 15 how, after the Ascension of Christ and after Pentecost, the Apostles gathered together in a Council and discussed and prayed about common problems. This is known as the Council of Jerusalem. At the end of this Council, the Apostles made decisions which, as they said, ‘seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us’ (Acts 15, 28).
In other words the authority of the Church is expressed by the Holy Spirit through groups of those who have succeeded the Apostles and who are gathered in prayer. The authority of the Church is expressed through Church Councils by the Holy Spirit, Who is the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, sent by Christ from the Father, to lead us into all truth.
In Church history there have been Seven Great Councils of Bishops, successors to the Apostles. At these Councils, known as Oecumenical or Universal Councils, there were gathered together not a dozen bishops, not a hundred bishops, but hundreds and hundreds of bishops from all over the Christian world, in order to take decisions on very important issues, defining the bases of our Orthodox Faith.
The last of these Oecumenical Councils took place in the eighth century and it is this, the Seventh Oecumenical Council, that the Church remembers on this Sunday in October every year. The icon showing the Fathers of this Council is in the middle of the church and we are gathered around it.
Some people may ask, but why is it that the last Oecumenical Council took place so long ago and why were there only Seven Oecumenical Councils? The reason for this is simple. It is because all the great issues defining our Faith were resolved at these Seven Councils. Today, the only issues remaining are rather boring administrative ones which have nothing to do with the great doctrinal issues of the Seven Councils.
For example, the Seventh Council in the eighth century actually resolved all the great issues of the twentieth century. The Fathers there said that since Christ truly became a man, we can make images or icons of Him. Moreover, we can paint images or icons of the other saints too. For although the saints were material beings, made of flesh and blood like us, they are made holy, for they, like us, are made in the image of God. Although fallen and sinful, man also has a divine calling. True, man has depth, on account of sin, but man also has height, on account of the image of God within us. We are called to be icons of Christ, for we are made in the image of God.
The enemies of the Fathers of the Seventh Council said the opposite. Known as iconoclasts or image-breakers, they said that Christ had not truly become man. Therefore we cannot paint images or icons of Him. Therefore we cannot have icons of any saints. Ultimately, there are no saints because we are not made in the image of God and therefore we are unable to become like Christ. These people in effect denied the whole essence of our Faith. Therefore they took the icons out of churches and burnt them on huge bonfires, reducing church buildings into vast, empty white barns, devoid of spiritual presence. By denying that Christ had become man, they also denied the image of Christ in man. Denying Christ, they denied man. And so, lo and behold, they began organising masssacres and persecutions, burning not only bonfires of icons, but also burning human-beings on bonfires. They were godless: denying the presence of Christ, they also denied man. They denied the Resurrection of human nature by Christ the Life-Giver, and so they condemned man to death through their death-giving ideology.
Although these iconoclasts, or enemies of Christ, were vanquished in the eighth century, throughout history they have reappeared. In England they reappeared in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when again they burnt the images from churches and also burnt human-beings at the stake, as they stabled their horses in churches and fired their cannon from church towers.
In the twentieth century they reappeared all over the world, hiding behind all sorts of philosophies, both left-wing and right-wing. They dynamited churches, massacred priests and the faithful, and burnt the images of God. Destroying God, they also destroyed man in tens of millions. These disasters that happened all over the world at the end of the Second Millennium, in our own lifetimes, happened because if we deny Christ, then we deny the image of Christ within us and so we deny man who is made in the image of God.
The Fathers of the Seventh Oecumenical Council speak then to the Second and the Third Millennium today. Speaking with the voice of Christ through the Holy Spirit, they say: Rise from the dead and live!
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost.
Terrorism in New York and in Bali. A man almost crucified in Northern Ireland. We hear voices saying: religion again. Yes, indeed, these events carried out by Muslims or by Protestants and Catholics are carried out in the name of religion. And in history we even hear of ‘religious wars’ which often lasted for many years.
In reality of course a ‘religious’ war is an impossibility. In reality all these events simply signify that there are people who are willing to use the name of religion as a pretext to achieve some private and evil purpose. Religion has always been exploited by all manner of dictator, criminal and murderer to justify the basest of aims. Such people use religion as a noble flag and banner behind which they try to conceal their ignoble goals and selves.
History teaches us that all the greatest monuments in civilisation are religious. Be it the pyramids in Egypt or Mexico, the temples of India, Cambodia, China and Japan or the cathedrals of Europe. Therefore rogues and tyrants all use religion to justify and excuse their corrupt aims. They would not take a corrupt or ignoble ideology to justify themselves, no, they always take noble religion and attempt to twist it. Thus the name above all names that tyrants try to abuse is the name of Christ.
The Faith of Christ has been abused to justify all manner of hatred, political, ethnic or personal.
Such hatred is at the basis of all divisions and splits away from the Church, from the very first, that of Judas, to the very last. All divisions from the Church have their roots in the spiritual disease of hatred that comes from pride, from an illusory superiority, from a lack of humility, from hard-heartedness.
The cure for this spiritual disease is in forgiveness. For forgiveness comes from mercy and mercy comes from love, which is one of the names of God. Today’s Gospel, though short, is all about this. Today’s Gospel says that we are to love our enemies. This was and still is the greatest revelation to mankind. It distinguishes the Faith of Christ from all other religions, it defines what it is to be a Christian. A Christian is one who loves his enemies, be they real enemies or imaginary enemies. The Apostle John the Divine writes in his Gospel that one who claims that he loves God the Father but hates his brother is a liar. And at every Liturgy we sing the words of Christ: ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy’.
What then is mercy?
Both in Russian and Old English, the word for mercy is the same: ‘mildheartedness’. To be merciful is to have a mild heart, to have the spirit of compassion, the ability to sympathise and empathise with others. The spirit of mercy, of a mild heart, is grown and cultivated with prayer. To be constantly merciful is to be constantly in prayer. Only prayer softens the heart and makes it compassionate. To be merciful, to have a mild heart, is the opposite of being hard-hearted.
We shall avoid being judged and condemned at the Last Judgement only through acts of mercy. You may forget this sermon, but do not forget these words:
We shall be saved only by acts of mercy. If we show no mercy, we shall receive no salvation.
Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Today’s Gospel concerns the resurrection of the son of the widow of Nain. We recall that this miracle occurred just after the healing of the servant of the centurion, a healing which had taken place at a distance.
We can notice how this miracle of resurrection, like all the Lord’s miracles, happened for two reasons.
Firstly, because as the Son and Creating Word and Wisdom of God, Christ in His divine nature, had the power to work miracles, restoring the laws of creation as they had been intended before the Fall, when there was no sickness or death. Through miracles He showed this power, the unique power of the Son of God. In the particular case of the widow, Christ could show His divine power and disprove the rumours which no doubt were already circulating, that the healing of the centurion’s servant at a distance had been a mere coincidence — he would have recovered anyway.
Secondly, this miracle happened because as a human-being, Christ in his human nature felt pity and had compassion on those who were suffering. In the particular case of the widow, there was great reason for compassion. In those days a widow was likely to become very poor unless she was looked after by her children. Now the only son of the widow of Nain was the only one who could look after his mother. Without him she would have become destitute, a beggar and perhaps would have died of starvation on the streets.
The miracle of the resurrection of the widow’s son was quite unique, unheard of and unseen in human history — only the Son of God could have carried this out. No human healer can raise from the dead. It occurred at the word of Christ and through His physical touch. It occurred at His word, because He is the Word of God, and it occurred through His physical touch, because only contact with the divine and immortal nature can confer resurrection, the overcoming of mortality. Only deathlessness overcomes death, only immortality is greater than mortality.
This miracle proves that the divine power of the Holy Spirit flows not from, but through, Christ’s all-pure human nature. Christ’s Word and Body are Life-Giving, as is later proved in the Gospels by His own physical resurrection. Now since the Church is the Body of Christ, this means that the same power flows through the Church and confers life and healing and resurrection on all who touch Christ in the Church, participating in the spiritual life of the Church.
As regards this resurrection, we notice that the first action of the resurrected son of the widow of Nain was to speak words, the proof that he was really alive, that his soul had indeed been restored to his body. Christ, the Word of God, gave rational words to the man, proof not only of his resurrection but also of the existence of the soul. Only beings who have souls can speak with understanding — animals do not speak, even those which can blindly and irrationally repeat or physically imitate human-beings, like parrots, cannot speak with understanding. The fact that we are created in the image and likeness of the Word of God, means that we have souls, the breath of God within us, and that we are able to speak words.
Symbolically, today’s Gospel has further meanings:
The widow is the soul without God. Such a soul is left destitute, begging and ready to die.
The dead son who was brought outside the town to be buried is the human mind which is outside the Church. It is spiritually dead, unable to understand and speak words of reason, fit only for the funeral of all its deathly philosophies and speculations.
The bier on which the dead body is placed is the human body, which when touched by God, receives its mind and soul and is thus brought to life. Thus it begins to speak divine words, for now it has something to say, it is no longer mute, but is resurrected from death.
Thus a human body which is touched by God is a mind raised from death, a soul which lives, human nature restored and saved from death.
O Lord, restore us this day from the spiritual death around us and within us, as Thou hast restored to life the son of the widow of Nain.
Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost.
Although it is difficult to be a Christian, it can never be said that it is complicated. If we look at all the philosophies and religions of the world, Christianity is by far the simplest. Even all four records of the words of Christ its Founder can be written down in less than one hundred pages. And the contents of those pages are very simple. Often, for instance, Christ speaks in parables, in very simple words, using images of a shepherd, a king, a fisherman, a poor man, a rich man or a vineyard-owner. Each of these parables expresses in a few lines ideas which it would take whole books to explain in the words of the learned.
Thus today’s Gospel is the parable of the sower who went out to sow seed, the Word of God. In it we notice how of the four groups of people who were granted the Word of Life by Christ the sower, only one group actually received it.
The first seed fell by the wayside, it was downtrodden and eaten by ‘the fowl of the air’. By ‘the fowl of the air’ we do not understand the birds, but the demons who inhabit the airs. They are able to ‘devour’ the Word of God from people’s hearts, because their hearts are hard and they tread down the seed of God. The demons can do nothing if we do not first allow them to do what they want.
The second seed fell on rock and failed to germinate and develop roots because there was no moisture. Such seed fails to develop among people whose interest in the things of God is merely superficial, for whom the Faith is just a hobby, a fad. They flare up with emotional excitement but are unable to feed and nourish the Holy Spirit. Their enthusiasm does not turn into faith, because at the first temptation, at the first difficulty, they fall away.
The third seed falls among thorns, Thorns are the weeds of the passions, the cares of this world, with all its riches and pleasures. Those whose souls are choked with such cares can never bring their faith to perfection, it remains undeveloped. Their faith is never a priority and they mix it in with their cares and pleasures.
What are we to do, how are we to avoid falling into one of these three categories of people who never cultivate the seed of God?
The answer is given in today’s Gospel in twelve simple words:
First of all, so that the seed of God does not fall by the wayside and may not be downtrodden or devoured by the demons, we must have an ‘honest and good heart’. We must not be hard. We must not make dishonest excuses for our failings, we must not do evil, we must be honest and good in our hearts. This is called Christianity.
Secondly, so that we do not fall into careless excitement, we must cultivate the seed of God, giving moisture to it, so that it puts out roots and develops, in other words, we must ‘keep the word’, by obeying the commandments. This is called Orthodox Christianity.
Finally, so that the seed of God is not choked with the thorns and weeds of our passions, we must ‘bring forth fruit with patience’. We cannot expect sudden and astonishing progress, with our many worldly cares. We have to be patient and persevere, making what at first may only be a mere interest into our priority and living it as a way of life. This is called salvation.
Thus today Christ gives us not learned volumes of complicated instructions to live by, but three simple rules for salvation:
Have an ‘honest and good heart’.
Keep the word.
Bring forth fruit with patience.
There is no more to say.
Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost.
Last month in this country we suffered terrible gales. Many people had their electricity and telephones cut off. Seven people were killed in accidents, mainly by falling trees. Indeed, it seems that not a day goes by without some natural catastrophe happening and lives lost — here floods, there a hurricane, here a volcano, there an earthquake. Insurance companies with an almost blasphemous attitude call such events ‘Acts of God’. But since they are not caused by God, who actually is to blame?
Some people blame governments for not being prepared. Other people blame big companies which drill for oil and shake the earth’s crust or cut down forests and alter the climate and cause floods. Whatever the truth, never does anyone say — ‘I am to blame’. We accuse others, but never ourselves. Like children who play and then argue, we shift the blame — ‘it wasn’t me, it was him’, ‘it wasn’t my fault’, ‘I didn’t do it on purpose’.
Such a way of thinking is not the way of the Gospel.
Thus, in today’s Gospel, Lazarus did not blame anyone for his poverty and misery. Unlike insurance companies, he certainly did not blaspheme against God for his situation. He did not even reproach the rich man for his meanness. No, he accepted in humility his situation. And because of his humility he went to heaven, to the bosom of Abraham.
As for the rich man, to whom tradition gives the name of Dives, he on the contrary never once thought of thanking God for his wealth. He did not show his gratitude to God by caring for the poor men at his gate. No, he feasted at sumptuous banquets and lived for his belly. No doubt he attributed his wealth to his own imagined cleverness. For he possessed no humility, he had only hard-heartedness, allowing Lazarus to die at his gates, surrounded by stray dogs who licked Lazarus’ sores, while he made merry. And because of his hard-heartedness he went down to hell.
Dives’ attitude is rather like that of those clever people who imagine that with their computers and satellites no ill thing will ever befall them. ‘Saved’ by modern science, they imagine that no electrical failure will cause their satellites to fall out of the sky, and that no power cut will ever put their computer out of operation.
Why did God not allow the rich man in Hades to send a message to his brothers to warn them to repent? Because it would have made no difference. God in His foreknowledge knew that they would not have reacted. Since they did not believe the greatest men of their people, Moses and the Prophets, why would they believe their own brother who had led such a futile and superficial life. Prophetically, Christ says in the Gospel, that they would not even have believed one who had been raised from the dead. And indeed, we know that this was so, for Christ was speaking after He had raised the son of the widow of Nain from the dead. Moreover he foreknew that His own death on the Cross and His Resurrection would not by far convince all. And indeed we can add from ourselves that if Christ were to come back and repeat all that He has already done for us, dying and rising from the dead again, there would still be those who would not accept this.
In this way, we can now answer the question we asked at the beginning of this sermon. If God does not cause such natural catastrophes, why then does He allow gales and tornadoes, floods and earthquakes to happen? Who is to blame?
Man himself is to blame, simply because man does not ask God for catastrophes not to happen, because man does not accept God’s power. Man does not seek God’s protection through prayer and repentance, through confession and communion. Man has persuaded himself through modern technology that he is so clever that he can do without God. But modern man has so blinded himself with his cleverness that he has forgotten that he can do nothing to protect himself from the natural elements, only God can do that. Modern man has so blinded himself that the like Dives the rich man, he cannot see Lazarus starving in agony at his gates.
On the other hand, it is also true that there could be many more natural catastrophes. Why have whole cities and lands not been destroyed by earthquakes? Why have whole countries not been consumed by tidal waves? Why has the earth survived for so long despite the accumulation of human sin? Why has God been so patient that He has not allowed all these things to happen?
Only because there are those who have prayed and continue to pray. The Mother of God and the saints and righteous people continue to pray for ‘the peace of the whole world’ and for the salvation of all. This is the only reason why we are still here. The world hangs by the thread of prayer.
For example, exactly sixty years ago, there took place a great and vital battle, the Battle of El Alamein. It was a battle which pitted the forces of the Nazis against the Allied Army, an Army composed not only of English, Scottish and Welsh, but also Irish, Australian, Indian, Polish and Greek forces. I know, for my own father was there. This was a battle which was vital, for had the Allies lost it, then the rest of the war could easily have taken a completely different turn and we might not have had the freedom to be here today and worship as Orthodox Christians in English or in any other language. It was the turn of the tide, the first ever Allied victory against the seemingly invincible enemy. Churchill was to call it ‘not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning’. Many soldiers there, on both sides, saw on the first night of the battle a mysterious light in the sky, seemingly a white figure in the sky, sowing panic among the Afrika Corps. And then among the Greeks, there were those who recalled that they were positioned at El Alamein, the ancient monastery of the Great Martyr St Menas, whose feast-day it is this very Sunday sixty years on. It was St Menas, called on in prayer, who won the victory, sowing confusion among the German forces and putting them to flight.
The world is run not by armies, or politicians or generals or businessman. In reality it is run by prayer and lack of prayer. There will no peace in the world until there is prayer. And we too shall perish like the rich man until we pray to Moses and the Prophets and the One Who is truly Risen from the dead, Christ our True God.
Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost.
Today’s Gospel concerns two miracles, one the healing of an illness and the other the overcoming of death. These two miracles are closely linked, for both illness and death have the same origin, the same cause, they are both the result of sin, both entered the world as a result of the sin of Adam. As the Apostle Paul says in his letter to the Orthodox Christians in Rome, ‘the wages of sin are death’.
Firstly, let us consider the healing of the woman with the issue of blood. We should note that this issue of blood was not that monthly issue of blood suffered by all women, but something else. It had lasted for twelve years. On this subject, it is worth making clear that the monthly issue of blood endured by all women is not of course the result of personal sin, but a result of the general sin of Eve. It is written in the Book of Genesis that women will suffer this as a result of the Fall — ‘in pain thou wilt give birth’. It is for this reason that all devout Orthodox women abstain from communion at that time in the month, not because they are personally responsible, but because they know that they are subject to the ancestral sin of Eve. In the same way men are forced into having to work for a living, into ‘toiling by the sweat of their brow’, as it is written in the Book of Genesis. Both men and women suffer from the Fall, but in different ways.
The issue of blood suffered by this woman was then an illness and it was healed by her touching the fringe of the clothes of Our Saviour, Who, as it is written, felt ‘the power go out of Him’. In these words we have a description of the nature of all illness. If it takes the power of Christ to heal an illness, then it is clear that all illness is in fact something negative, a deficiency, the absence of the power of Christ. Illness is not something that is added, it is rather the sign of a lack, of the unnatural and abnormal absence of the grace of God. As we are told in the Gospel when the woman was healed, she was ‘made whole’. In other words an ill person — and we are all in some way ill — suffers from a lack, we are not whole, for we lack the fullness of the power of Christ within us.
How and why was the woman in the Gospel ‘made whole?’ This question is easy to answer, for Christ Himself says to her that: ‘Thy faith has made thee whole’. In other words, if any of us is to be made whole, to be healed, we must first have faith. If we do not have faith, then we lack something, we are without something, we are faithless or godless. But if we have faith, then healing can be inspired in us by the power of God.
So powerful is this combination of faith and the power of God that it can even overcome death. We see this very clearly in the second miracle, the resurrection of Jairus’ daughter. Here was this young girl, twelve years old, dying. We can scarcely imagine the frantic state of mind of her father Jairus, and yet he had faith, for he was seeking out Christ, the Only One Who could heal his daughter. As a result of Jairus’ faith and the power of Christ, his daughter was not only healed, but healed from death, that is, actually raised for the dead before the eyes of those who mocked Christ. It is written in the Gospel that, ‘her spirit returned to her’. Here is also proof of the existence of the soul. We see that without our souls, our spirits, we are dead.
Today then Christ says to us all: ‘Have faith and I will give you all the power that you need to do My will’. Let us heed His words.
Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost.
If we were to read all four Gospels in one go, I wonder which word would come to our minds to sum up all that we had read.
Perhaps it would be the word ‘Love’, perhaps the word ‘Hope’, but perhaps also the word ‘Life’. For instance, in the Gospels Christ calls Himself ‘the Bread of Life’, ‘Eternal Life’, ‘the Word of Life’, and ‘the Resurrection and the Life’. Also the divine Apostle John writes at the beginning of his Gospel that ‘in Him there was life’ and that ‘those who come to Him have life’.
We can see this most clearly of all in the fact that the central and most important event in the life of Christ is of course His Resurrection from the dead, His overcoming of death. But also throughout the Gospels, there are countless miracles, both resurrections and healings which in the last few weeks have been recounted to us in the Sunday Gospels. And healings, like resurrections, are restorations to Life.
In today’s Gospel, for example, Christ is asked about the commandments, which are to love God and to love our neighbour, and we are told that if we fulfil these commandments, then we shall ‘live’. Christ gives life. And this is also the theme of the parable in today’s Gospel.
This parable is that of the Good Samaritan. We probably know it very well and we understand through it that God calls us to show love for every person whom He wills us to meet, whomever they may be, wherever and whenever we may meet them. However, there is also a spiritual understanding of this parable, which is, as follows.
A certain man goes down from Jerusalem to Jericho. A certain man means any man, any one of us. Jerusalem signifies heaven and Jericho signifies the earth. This is the destiny of us all, to be on earth, although our home is in heaven.
This man falls among thieves who strip him of his raiment, wounding him and leaving him half-dead. Here the thieves are the demons who attack us through our weaknesses and wound us, leaving us weak and spiritually dying, having lost grace and faith, in sorrow and despair.
A priest and then a Levite pass by. By them we understand those who, whatever their outward rank and duty, have hard hearts and show no love, for they are hypocrites and ‘pass by on the other side’.
However a Samaritan passes by and helps the man, showing compassion. Although the Samaritan does not share the fullness of the outward faith, his heart, as we would say, is in the right place and he shows compassion. This Samaritan, the Good Samaritan, represents Christ, Who was rejected by the Jews, but had the essential compassion which the Jews did not have.
The Samaritan, that is Christ, went to the man and bound up his wounds and poured in oil and wine and then set the man on his own beast. This is what Christ did for us: He came to us. In other words He took on our human nature, He became man, one of us. He then bound up our spiritual wounds with His words of Life and poured on us the Love and Hope of salvation, the oil and wine of our souls. Then he set us on his own beast, in other words he gave us Faith with which we are able to walk.
The Samaritan then took the man to an inn, cared for him and gave the innkeeper two pence to look after the man, telling the innkeeper that if it cost more, he would repay him when he returned. By the inn, we would understand the Church, where men can receive Christ’s healing and care. The innkeeper is in particular the priest, the dispenser or agent and channel of sacramental grace and healing. But it is true that all members of the Church are also innkeepers, dispensers of spiritual and other help to those in the world around us.
The two pence represent the two ways in which we are saved. First of all, we need to repent through prayer and fasting. That is the first penny. The second penny, however, is the grace of the sacraments that we receive from God in response to our repentance and prayer and fasting. These two pence together form a virtuous circle. And if we members of the Church of God, ‘innkeepers’, stretch ourselves and give more of ourselves, then Christ will reward us when He returns at the end of the world.
This then is the spiritual meaning of today’s parable. Christ tells it to the lawyer who knows the commandments but, like some eternal intellectual, does not apply them. And Christ says to him: ‘Go and do thou likewise’. And today Christ says to each one of us also: ‘Go and do thou likewise’.
Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost.
The Church Year is punctuated by Feasts of Conceptions and, nine months later, Births. For example we are now preparing for the Feast of the Birth of Christ, Christmas. Nine months before we celebrated His Conception at the Feast of the Annunciation, Lady Day, when the Archangel Gabriel announced to the Virgin that she had conceived through the Holy Spirit.
In September we commemorate the Feast of the Conception of St John the Baptist, and nine months later in June, his birth.
So today we commemorate the Feast of the Conception by St Anne of the Holy Virgin, whose birth we shall celebrate in nine months time, in September.
What do we know of St Joachim and St Anne, the parents of the Virgin Mary?
First of all, we know that St Joachim was descended from St David the King and Prophet and that St Anne was descended through the priestly line from St Aaron the Priest. This is not by chance, for the fruit of the womb of their daughter, the Virgin Mary, was Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Who was indeed King and Prophet and Priest.
Secondly, as regards St Anne, we know that she had two sisters. The first was Mary, the mother of Salome the Myrrhbearer, and the second sister was called Zoia, the mother of St Elizabeth, the mother of St John the Baptist.
Finally, we know that Joachim and Anne had been married for fifty years. They divided their income into three parts. One third they lived off, one third they gave to the Temple in Jerusalem and the other third they gave to the poor. However, they had one great sadness, they were barren. Now among the Jews barrenness was a great stigma. It was not just a matter of the natural need to have children, there was here something far more profound. Pious Jews knew that one day among them would be born a Saviour, the Messiah. Thus there was among Jewish women always a pious hope that one day one of them would give birth to the Saviour or perhaps the mother of the Saviour. Even today, Jews like to have a big family and there are those who still hope to give birth to the Saviour, for the Jews are still mistakenly waiting for Christ to come.
Thus, with this burden of sterility, Joachim and Anne were greatly sorrowed. But, greatly moved, they prayed to God and made a vow that their child would be especially consecrated to God. It was in this way that Anne, like Sarah before her, was blessed with a child in her old age. The Virgin was the fruit of their prayer and their piety.
Today’s Feast is then the feast of marriage blessed by God, the feast of family life and the feast which tells us how to strive to bring up our children. From it we can learn that for children to be born and well brought up, they need the prayer and long-term relationship and commitment of their parents. As the old proverb says: ‘Families who pray together stay together’. Marriage is not made suddenly, for children need the stability of their parents. As another proverb says: ‘Marry in haste, repent at leisure’. Children need the long-term view, for when we marry, we marry for life, so that we can bring up our children in stability.
This is also the theme of today’s Gospel. Here was a rich man who thought only of: ‘Eat, drink and make merry’. He thought only of the short term, of short-term pleasure. He did not think of the long-term view, of the one thing inevitable in our lives, the separation of our souls from our bodies, our deaths. So, as he thought only of the short term, in the night God took his soul.
Now it is true that the Gospel tells us not to think of the long term, of planning for tomorrow, but this is only in the sense of worldly things, of money, food and clothing. But the Gospel also tells us, like today’s Gospel, that as regards the things of the soul, we are to plan ahead, we are to think of our destinies, to have vision. Without vision, we are dead, we have no eternal future.
And that is precisely what St Joachim and St Anne did. They thought of their destinies, their spiritual future. In so doing they brought forth the Mother of our God In thinking of their own eternal destinies, they changed the destiny of all mankind. And so today we commemorate them and give glory to God for them and ask them to pray for us.
Holy and Righteous Joachim and Anne, pray to God for us!
Thirty-Second Sunday after Pentecost.
A blind man is healed. Imagine his wonder at the world which now he sees and which before he had only heard, touched, smelt and tasted. But never seen.
Why was he given this gift of sight? He was given it for the glory of God, so that his outer sight would lead him to inner sight, to seeing with his heart, to faith.
For what use is outer sight if we, like the Pharisees, see but do not understand, see without seeing?
Those with only outer sight see Creation, the forests and the fields, the oceans and the mountains, the Sun, the Moon and the stars, but they fail to see God’s handiwork through them, they do not see the Creator through and beyond Creation.
They see the grass that grows, but do not see the miracle of Creation, for no scientist in the world is capable of creating even a single blade of grass in a laboratory. They see a newborn baby, but do not see the miracle of life. They see their homes and their lives, but do not see how very fortunate they are, and so they continually complain, seeing only blackness and gloom.
They see all these things without seeing beyond them, for somewhere in their hearts they deny God, the Origin of all that is good. They see Creation, but do not see the Creator, like a blind man who does not see the Sun and therefore denies that it even exists. They take for granted their good fortune, never wondering from where it comes and thanking God for it. They remember God at best only when things go wrong.
But Christ heals not only blind men and women but through them whole societies that are blind, leading them from ordinary destinies to extraordinary destinies, leading them from the expected to the unexpected, leading then from the possible to the seemingly impossible. Christ heals also whole Empires of the blind.
Look at the Roman Empire, renowned for its brutality, cruelty and enslavement of millions. It too was converted to the humble faith of the Galilean.
Look at the Hellene Empire, renowned for its foolish and vain ‘Greek’ philosophies, and its confession of the Unknown God, it too fell to the wisdom of the carpenter’s son.
Look at the English Empire, made up of primitive tribesmen, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, worshipping hills and trees, it too fell to the gentleness of the Saviour.
Look at the Russian Empire, renowned for its debauchery and heathenism, worshipping statues and rivers, it too fell to the mildness of Christ.
Other nationalities too were healed of their spiritual blindness through their ‘local heroes’, and discovered the Word of the Gospel and beheld the Vision of the Glory of God.
May this day God grant us too inner sight.
5. Fixed Feasts.
Today we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord, also called Theophany or Epiphany, words which mean the Appearance of God, and this Feast is also called the Enlightenment. For that is exactly what this Feast is about, it is the first public Appearance of Christ, the beginning of His public preaching at the age of 30, and so the Enlightenment of mankind.
Theophany is in fact one of three Trinitarian Feasts in the Church Year, where ‘the worship of the Trinity is made manifest’. For today the voice of the Father bears witness that, ‘This is my beloved Son, in Whom I am well-pleased’, and the Spirit is seen in the form of a dove. Another such Feast is Pentecost, also called Trinity or Trinity Sunday, where the Son sends down the Spirit from the Father, from Whom the Spirit proceeds. Thirdly, there is also the Feast of the Transfiguration, where the voice of the Father is also heard and the Spirit is seen in the form of the Light of Tabor transfiguring the Son.
Today’s Feast proves to the world that Christ is both God and man, that He has two natures. On the one hand, the Father calls Him ‘My beloved Son’ and the Spirit bears witness. On the other hand, as St John the Baptist shows in his humility that he is unworthy even to undo Christ’s shoelaces, the sinless human nature of Christ did not need baptism. Christ underwent baptism in his human nature only because He needed to set us an example, to undergo all that we must undergo in order to be worthy of the Kingdom of God. Christ was indeed human flesh and blood — you cannot baptise a spirit or a ghost — Christ truly took on Himself our human nature.
The effects of the Baptism of Christ’s human nature, of His body and soul, His mind and will, are immediate, for the world around Him may also be baptised through Him. In the icon of today’s Feast we see in the waters of the Jordan a serpent-monster, a demon lurking in the water. Until the time of Christ, the whole world lay in evil. Through Christ’s Coming, however, the whole world can be purified and redeemed. This process began with the purification of water, on which all life depends, of which our own bodies are mainly made up. Through Christ’s Baptism the way is open for the baptism of the whole of mankind and the purification of the whole Cosmos. Christ’s Baptism was the beginning of the purging of the world from evil. Those who reject Baptism allow the world to be filled with evil once more. This is why we baptise the new-born child, before the seeds of evil can come to lurk in his soul. This is why we sprinkle with Theophany water our homes and work-places, our cars and buses — so that no evil can lurk in them.
But what does Baptism mean for us, however, who are already baptised?
Although we believe that there is only One Baptism, in Church practice we use the word baptism in a figurative sense, for the sacrament of Confession is often called ‘a second baptism’. It is through the ‘second baptism’ of Confession that we can renew ourselves by preparing ourselves to receive the Body and Blood of Christ, in the same way as the waters of the Jordan received Christ bodily when He was baptised. Thus among us too the old waters of the Jordan of human sin can be driven back and sin flees, as the demon-serpent is driven out of us by the Appearance of Christ and His Enlightenment of us.
Sunday after Theophany.
After Christ was baptised, the first words that He said were: ‘Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’. Why? Because after we have been baptised, we are always tempted and the only way to end temptation is to repent. But what exactly do these words mean? What is repentance? What is the Kingdom of Heaven?
In order to understand the meaning of the word repentance, we must first understand the nature of the opposite of repentance, the reason for repentance — sin. Sin comes to us in three stages.
Firstly, we have a thought, a temptation towards evil. Secondly, we entertain that thought and imagine its attraction until it becomes irresistible. Thirdly we act on that thought that we have entertained. These are the three stages of sin.
Repentance also has three stages.
Firstly, our consciences are pricked, we have the thought that what we have done is bad. Secondly, we entertain that consciousness and develop it until action becomes irresistible. Thirdly, we act. These are the three stages of repentance.
Repentance then is not just an idea, a thought, it is above all an action. Repentance is a change of mind which leads to a practical and visible change in our way of life.
Yes, it is true, that often we seem to come to confession with the same sins as before. Yes, it is true, that often we seem to make no progress, that although we have done wrong yet again, we have no tears, no depth of repentance to make us change our way of life. However, this should not mean that we lose hope, that we despair. That would be to fall to another temptation of the demon, the thought that we are unable to repent and that all our efforts are futile. Merely coming to confession and saying that we are weak, that we have done wrong yet again, that our repentance lacks depth, is an act of repentance in itself. As the Gospel says, we must forgive even unto seven times seventy. Moreover, by continued repentance and the determination to repent, eventually depth of repentance and tears will come to us.
If this is repentance, what then is the Kingdom of Heaven?
Firstly, the Kingdom of Heaven was Christ Himself Who spoke these words to the people of that time, before whom He stood. The Kingdom of Heaven was indeed at hand, for He stood before them.
Secondly, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand in another sense and stands before us in the here and now. The Kingdom of Heaven is here and now, but it depends on our willingness to accept Christ and His Holiness, Mercy and Grace. At this very moment each one of us is in fact able to meet God and enter into His eternal joy, but only if we wish to do so through deep repentance. The joy of the Kingdom of Heaven, simply the state of contentment with God, our well-being, is open to all who wish to accept Christ, the Word of God.
Yes, it is true that our well-being does to some extent depend on whether we have a job, a roof over our heads, enough money to pay our way in the world. But none of these things is absolutely essential, for there are people who have all these things but are still unhappy, they do not have the Kingdom of Heaven. And there are people who have none of these things and yet they are happy, they have the Kingdom of Heaven.
This reminds me of film-stars who marry and then divorce, remarry and redivorce and do this six or seven times, and each time blames the others for the divorce. In fact it is the film-stars who bear the problem inside themselves, in their selfishness and hardness of heart.
It reminds me of someone who goes from country to country and job to job, blaming each uprooting on others. In fact the problem is carried in the suitcase, the problem is with the instability of the person, their inability to get on with others, it is not in external circumstances.
It also reminds me also of the old folk-tale about happiness, which goes like this:
There was once a King who was very sad. He was told by his advisors that he should send out servants to find someone who was completely happy, take the shirt from his back and put it on. Then the King would be completely happy. So the King sent out his servants and they searched up and down the kingdom. Eventually one of the royal servants found a man who was completely happy. The servant returned to the King with the good news. The King asked impatiently: ‘But where then is the man’s shirt’? ‘Unfortunately’, replied the servant, ‘this man who was completely happy was so poor that he did not have a shirt’.
In other words the presence of the Kingdom of Heaven depends ultimately not on our external circumstances but on ourselves, on our interior disposition, on our ability to repent. Indeed it is only if we repent that the Kingdom of Heaven at hand.
May God grant us the desire for that repentance.
Presentation of Christ In the Temple.
Today’s Feast has no fewer than four different names. Each name recalls a different aspect of this Feast. What are they?
First of all, today’s Feast is called the Presentation of Christ. This is because it commemorates the Presentation of Christ by His Mother in the Temple at Jerusalem exactly forty days after His Birth. As we can see from the icon of the Feast, Christ was brought to the Temple by His mother and accompanied by His guardian Joseph, who holds the customary sacrifice of two turtle doves. In the Temple Christ was carried in the arms of the Righteous Simeon and watched over by the Prophetess Anna. This Feast is yet more proof that the Son of God truly became man. Today an infant, not a spirit or an angel, is brought to the Temple.
This meeting between the Righteous Simeon and Anna and the Saviour is why this Feast has another, very common name: ‘The Meeting of the Lord’. According to age-old tradition, Simeon was one of those Seventy translators who in the third century before Christ had translated the Scriptures of the Old Testament into Greek. Coming to the words in the seventh chapter of Isaiah the Prophet, he had been awestruck by the affirmation that a Virgin would give birth. He had been told by the Holy Spirit that he would live until he saw these words fulfilled. At today’s Feast which is the fulfillment of these words, the aged Simeon utters the words: ‘Now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy words, 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’. Soon after uttering these words, he reposed, as did the Righteous Anna, who had also been waiting to see the fulfillment of the promise of the Holy Spirit that she too would see the Messiah in great old age. The Prayer of St Simeon is read at every Vespers service in the Church Year, but at Vespers yesterday, and again tonight, before tomorrow’s Feast of St Simeon and St Anna, it is sung.
According to the Old Testament, the Jews were commanded to present their male children at the Temple in Jerusalem forty days after their Birth. This was to give thanks to God and pray for the purification of the mother and health of the child, for it was considered that after the vital forty-day period it was almost certain that all mortal danger was passed. This is why this Feast has yet another name: ‘The Purification of the Virgin’. The Christ-Child is only forty days old, the salvation of the world is dependent on His Mother. This is why although this Feast is a Feast in honour of Our Lord, the Church is yet in blue, for we also give great honour today to the Mother of God. Indeed, this Feast is the Feast of all mothers.
In our New Testament times, we have the custom of ‘churching’, which is similar to this rite of purification of the mother, which was carried out in the Old Testament, but there are also important differences. First of all, since the Coming of Christ, all children, not only boys, are to be presented in church at the age of forty days. However today, they are to be presented for baptism and chrismation and so made ready for holy communion. Secondly, the Church also appoints prayer to be said over the mother at this critical time. These prayers are firstly in thanksgiving for the physical safety of the mother, but also they are said for the spiritual safety of the mother, in order to ward off what is now called ‘post-natal depression’.
The Presentation, the Meeting and the Purification are then all names given to today’s Feast, but there is yet a fourth name — Candlemas. This name was given to this Feast in memory of the Roman custom of lighting candles at it, which recalls the lights in the Temple at Jerusalem. The custom spread from Rome even to western parts of Russia and in the Russian service-books there is a prayer for the blessing of candles on this day. In this country, Candlemas is connected with many popular sayings concerning weatherlore, witnessing to the popularity of Candlemas in olden times. One such saying for example is: ‘If Candlemas be fair and bright, winter shall have another flight’. This means that if today’s weather is good, we shall have more cold and wintry weather before the Spring.
But what does this Feast mean for us today?
Since it is exactly forty days since Christmas, it is time for us to think about the last forty days and ask ourselves some questions:
What today can we present to the Temple of Christ, the Church? In what condition do we present our souls to Christ? What sacrifices have we made in the last forty days? Have we begun cultivating a new virtue? Have we attempted to give up an old vice? Have we been to confession? Have we taken communion? Have we kept the Wednesday and Friday fasts? Have we read our prayers? Have we set a Christian example to our neighbours? Have we thanked God for all that we have received? What has changed in our way of life since the Birth of Christ forty days ago? What progress has been made?
Whatever our answers to these questions, on this, the Feast of the Meeting of Christ, one thing is certain: If we are not spiritually prepared to meet Christ, then we shall never meet Him.
Before Christ there lived many wise men, in Ancient Greece, in Egypt, in India, in China and in many other places. One Greek was even so wise that he said that men would never come to know the True God unless God Himself first became man, thus he foretold the Coming of Christ.
And today’s Feast is indeed the Feast of the true knowledge of God, as foreseen by that wise Greek. This is the Feast of the Conception of Christ, announced by the Archangel Gabriel and accepted by the Virgin, and it occurs therefore nine months before the Birth of Christ at Christmas. It is, as the hymns of the Church tell us, the crown of our salvation, the beginning of everything. This is why its Greek name is ‘Evangelismos’, which comes from the word ‘Evangelion’ meaning ‘Good News’. This is the feast of the Good News, the Feast of the Gospel. Without this Feast, there would have been no Good News, no Gospel.
Its usual English name is the Annunciation. For it is the Feast not of an announcement, but of the Announcement. It is the ultimate Announcement, for it is the Announcement that God has become man, the Announcement of the Presence of the Wisdom of God amongst us, not of the wisdom of man as before Christ, but of the Wisdom of God. It changes everything in world history, overshadowing and surpassing all that old human wisdom of Ancient Greece, of Egypt, India and China.
But however divine this Feast is, it is also human. The humanity of this Feast is not only in that today God becomes an embryo, it is also in that today the Virgin becomes a Mother. This is why today the Church is in blue, the colour of the Virgin-Mother and why in England this Feast is also known as ‘Lady Day’. Today, in accepting the announcement of the Archangel Gabriel, in accepting the Will of God, the Virgin becomes the highest of all mankind, ‘more honourable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim’. She exceeds in her sacrifice all other men and women in human history, past, present and future. She becomes linked with all eternity and surpasses humanity while remaining human. In a word, this earthly being becomes through her sacrifice the Mother of God, which is why we, though still on earth, commemorate her in heavenly blue.
In accepting this cross of sacrifice, the Mother of God also accepts the approaching Cross of Victory of Her Son. This is a very significant fact and indeed this is a spiritual law. For every sacrifice, for every cross that we take on ourselves according to God’s Will, we receive a spiritual reward. It may not come at once, but it will inevitably come. This is a spiritual law, just as, in the same way, if we fail to make a sacrifice and take up our cross when God calls us to do that, there is also a price to pay, the price of spiritual defeat.
For example, at this moment, and in more than one part of the world, men are fighting, men are slaughtering one another. This is because they are blind to Christ. For when we are blind to Christ, then we are also blind to the meaning of Christ’s Cross. Thus people make war, instead of making peace. For people cannot make peace because that involves a sacrifice, the sacrifice of sharing. If there is no cross of sacrifice, then there is no cross of victory, no cross of Resurrection, just the constant cycle of wars.
The sacrifice of the Mother of God in accepting to bear and nourish God, giving Him her blood, bones and flesh, and raise Him as a man is such that she alone among all mankind can take us outside the cycle of wars and can lead us, if we wish to follow her, into Eternity, to the Resurrection of Christ.
Most Holy Mother of God, save us!
Today our Lord’s human nature was transfigured by the Holy Spirit, proceeding from the Father, Whose voice witnessed to the Son’s divine nature.
We are perhaps reminded of another Feast of the Church taken from the Holy Scriptures, where the divinity of Christ was also witnessed to by the Father and the Spirit proceeding from the Father - Theophany, the Baptism of Christ. Both these feasts have a great prominence in our Church, which has been lost outside Her, where people do not believe in the words of the Holy Scripture, that the Holy Spirit proceeds from God the Father alone.
This Feast shows us firstly that the human and divine natures of Christ are united in One Person, secondly that therefore there is no unity without the Holy Spirit, and thirdly that our Saviour is Lord over Life and Death, for Moses, who died, worships Him, and Elijah, who did not die, also worships Him.
Today, however, I would like to point out an aspect of this Feast which is often overlooked: Mt Tabor, the ‘mountain’ where the Transfiguration occurred. This Mt Tabor is for us a figure of repentance. We note that, like the disciples, in order for us to see the transfiguration or to hope to be transfigured ourselves, we will first have to climb up, to mount, from our present condition. Otherwise any transfiguration or change for the better in our lives is impossible.
Now it is interesting that pilgrims who have been blessed to go to Mt Tabor and their photographs show us that Mt Tabor is not a mountain at all. It is rather a long, sloping hill with many obstacles, rocks and boulders, in the path of those who ascend it. And our transfiguration or salvation is like Mt Tabor. However hard we try, we will not be guaranteed salvation through a swift if arduous climb today. Salvation takes a lifetime, it is a long climb up a long slope, which is why the Lord gives most of us so long to live. Salvation is a long struggle which requires determination and perseverance, patient longsuffering.
Our spiritual progress is then not sudden and dramatic. And there are many obstacles in our path in our daily struggle. To pick up our prayerbooks in the morning and again in the evening is a struggle and there are always obstacles in our path to even this: meals to prepare, trains to catch, phones that ring. Church life is indeed made up of little sacrifices, obstacles overcome. There are prayers to say, fasts to be kept, a donation to be made, the washing-up to be done, flowers bought, the church cleaned, a choir rehearsal to go to, a vigil service to attend, a confession prepared.
As we come now towards the end of the Church’s Year, we may well ask ourselves what the little sacrifices we have made since this Feast last year are . How far have we ascended up our own Mt Tabor? How have we changed over this last year? What have we done to lead a better life since then? How have we improved? What have we given God that we did not give Him before? It is this that we call progress: in what way am I a better Orthodox Christian than a year ago?
In our faith we are called to struggle daily, whatever the rocks or boulders in our way, whether they are pride or selfishness, lust or discouragement, envy or judging of others, we have to struggle to ascend our personal Mt Tabor, we have to fight for our personal transfiguration. That is why it is so important to come to confession and communion.
If we do not do this, then the Church will move away from us. For we can both go up and go down a slope. We can spiritually progress, but we can also spiritually regress. We can be transfigured by the love of God or we can be disfigured by the love of sin. And like progress, regress is not sudden and dramatic, regress too is a slope, as we say, a slippery slope.
Let us therefore take heed and give God what He really wants from us - our hearts and minds spiritually progressing.
From the row of icons of the Twelve Great Feasts on the icon-screen, we see that the very last one on the right has been taken down and placed in the middle of the church. With the Feast of the Dormition, the Falling-Asleep of the Most Holy Mother of God, we come to the ending of the Church’s Year. And we are reminded that the Church’s Year begins in September with the Birth of the Mother of God, as we see from the icon of that Feast to the extreme left of the screen.
Today’s Feast also explains to us the origin of the hymn that we sing to the Mother of God: ‘More honourable than the cherubim, beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim’. These are not simply elegant words that a pious hymnographer sat down and wrote, they have an origin in a spiritual revelation, as all that is in the Church.
For this Feast reminds us of how our Lord from the Cross entrusted the care of His Mother to the Apostle John the Divine. It reminds us of how the Holy Virgin, then aged about sixty, was visited three days before her falling-asleep by the Archangel Gabriel, who long before had announced to her the conception of Christ in her womb. We recall how the Apostles were miraculously brought to Jerusalem to make their farewells. We recall how the Virgin gave away all her earthly possessions to poor widows as she made ready for her burial in Gethsemane, next to her parents Sts Joachim and Anne and also her kinsman Joseph.
We recall how she comforted the grieving, how her house was filled with light, her face shone and her body was fragrant, as Christ came with the angels to take her soul, as we can see from the icon of this Feast. We are reminded how her soul was taken up by Her Son, together with the cherubim and the seraphim, and now we understand the origin of our hymn: ‘More honourable than the cherubim, more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim’. We remember how the Apostles, singing in procession, took her body to the tomb which then they sealed.
We recall how the Apostle Thomas arrived, delayed for three days, and wanted too to make his farewell; and so the tomb was unsealed and found empty except for the burial clothes and the wonderful fragrance. And from the very beginning we Orthodox have piously taken this to mean that the body of the Holy Virgin was so pure that it too had been taken up to Heaven, and that is why we have nowhere any bodily relic of the Mother of God.
And we understand by this that the first in the Kingdom of Heaven after Christ is the Holy Virgin. We understand by this that even given the weakness of human nature it is possible for our bodies to attain to utmost holiness. The Mother of God is, after Christ, the first-fruit of the Resurrection and shows us the way to the life of the Resurrection.
Of course there are people who will tell you that none of this is written in the Bible. But for us Orthodox the Holy Scriptures are only part of the ongoing Revelation of the Holy Spirit, which we call the Tradition. We are not dead to the Spirit, the Spirit speaks to us still, with ever more revelations about the life of the Coming Kingdom.
I began by saying that with this Feast we come to the ending of the Church’s Year. In it we also come to the ending of human life on earth. It is a tradition with us that our cemetery churches are mainly dedicated either to the Resurrection or else to the Dormition. It is a privilege for Orthodox to die on one of these Feasts. For it is indeed our destiny to die; it is the only certain thing in this life; every day that passes we draw one day nearer to our deaths. However, whatever our destiny, our ambition is not to die, but rather to fall asleep, in the manner of the Virgin, and have our souls taken to heaven by the holy angels, that death might become a mere passage from mortal life to immortality, from this deathly life to deathlessness in the Everlasting Kingdom of Christ and all His saints.
Most Holy Mother of God, Save us!
Nativity of the Mother of God.
‘Today is the beginning of joy for all the world; today the winds that bring the tidings of salvation blow’. ‘The barrenness of our nature has been loosed’.
Such are the words with which the Church sings of the feast of the Birth of the Holy Mother of God. Eight days after we celebrated the New Year of the Church, we are now celebrating another New Year, a new beginning for the whole universe, Her Birth.
Why eight days? Because eight is the number of eternity, eight takes us out of time, the repetitive cycle of the seven days of the week, into eternity. With the birth of the Mother of God, there is hope that Eternity, the Pre-eternal God, will enter into human history, into human time. The Uncreated will penetrate into the created. This will be a mystery beyond understanding.
The Holy Virgin was born in the natural way, but not out of lust, but out of the pure wish to give birth to and bring up a child devoted to God. Her father, Joachim, was of the line of David, king and prophet; her mother, Anna, was of the line of Aaron the priest. Their daughter will come to give birth to the Almighty and Unique King of kings, Prophet of prophets and Priest of priests, to Christ himself.
Sts Joachim and Anna are examples to all who wish to have children, all sterile couples. Do not see a doctor until you have prayed to them and had a service of intercession served to them.
Sts Joachim and Anna are examples to all mothers who are with child and their husbands, teaching them how to bear the fruit of the womb.
Sts Joachim and Anna are examples to all parents, teaching us how to bring up children in piety.
Today the barrenness of our nature has been loosed. We were barren because until Christ was born through the Virgin, we were condemned to sin, passion and death, as those who reject the message of Christ remain still today barren and condemned to sin, passion and death. But if we have heard the voice of Christ in our souls, then we are no longer barren, but spiritually fruitful.
Sts Joachim and Anna worked together with the Holy Spirit, with spiritual truth. This was the beginning of their joy. If we can do the same, it will be the beginning of our joy too. We too can free ourselves of the barrenness of our nature, if we stop thinking about our material well-being and start thinking about our spiritual well-being. Then we too will give birth to spiritual truth like Sts Joachim and Anne.
Exaltation of the Cross.
As Orthodox Christians we all know how important the Cross is in our Faith. The Cross is the central fact of the Faith, it is not only where Christ was crucified, as we have heard in today’s Gospel, but it is also where Christ is risen from the dead. It is also written elsewhere in the Gospels that by losing our life through the Cross, we save our life. In other words if we live for Christ, we will save our life. However, if we live for ourselves, we will lose our life. This is the law of our being and we can see it in all areas of human life.
The spoilt child who lives for himself will not share his toys. Thus he is lonely and bored, he has no-one to play with. His life is lost.
The spoilt man or woman who live for themselves will not share their lives. Thus they are lonely, separated or divorced and live singly and in futility. Their lives are lost.
The spoilt couple living for themselves refuse to have children; they want to make money in their careers. Thus they grow old and frustrated, it is too late to have children. Their lives are lost.
The spoilt rich living for themselves will not share their money. Thus they lie forgotten in the grave, their money taken by the government. Thus their futile lives have no-one to remember them and they contain nothing to be remembered for. Their lives are lost.
The spoilt people living for itself will not share its territory. Thus it lives beseiged because of its egoism, hated by its neighbours and all peoples. Its life is lost.
The spoilt dictator living for himself gains the whole world, controlling territories and peoples. Thus he is unloved, hated by all peoples in the prison of all peoples. His life is lost.
Live selfishly, and you will lose everything, your life will be lost in lonely boredom and you will die selfishly.
On the other hand, the history of the Church teaches us that the saints, who lived for Christ, were neither lonely nor bored, neither futile nor lost.
By living for the Cross of Christ, not only do they not taste of death at the Last Judgement, but even more, they do not taste of the spiritual death and loss of lonely and selfish pride. For, by living through the Cross, they taste of the Kingdom of God come with power, the resurrection of their souls, the Easter of the uplifted heart that comes with repentance, the exalted leap for joy that comes when we take up crosses, weaknesses, difficulties, destinies. Then crosses become instruments of victory, weapons of salvation, Exaltation, because we no longer lock ourselves up, selfishly giving nothing, but instead looking to others.
St John Chrysostom speaks of ‘the sacrament of our neighbour’. In other words he means that salvation comes to us through others, the challenges and difficulties brought to us by others. Only the proud can imagine the fantasy that salvation comes from ourselves. Let us today go out and take up our crosses, and rejoice and exalt in them, for they have become through the power of Christ, the instruments of our salvation.
Presentation of Theotokos in the Temple.
The Orthodox Christian Faith is essentially a mysterious Faith, for it can never be fully understood or explained by the human mind. However logical much of our Faith may be, there always come points where the mysterious teachings of the Church can only be accepted by acts, or leaps, of faith. Why is this?
It is because we believe that all Creation is fallen, in other words, our own human nature is fallen and therefore our own human minds are fallen. And it is impossible for fallen creation to understand the Creator and His workings.
Indeed our minds are not even the parts of us which are open to the higher states of knowledge and understanding. The part of us which is higher than the mind and is open to higher states of consciousness is called variously, the soul or heart or spirit. But even this part of us cannot fully understand or explain the Faith. We have to accept that there exists a yet higher knowledge, a higher way of reasoning, a higher consciousness which is above human nature, above fallen human reasoning, above the human heart and spirit.
As Orthodox Christians we believe that this higher way of reasoning and consciousness is called Love. Indeed all the essential mysteries or teachings of our Faith come from Love. Love is stronger and greater than any fallen human reasoning. All acts of Love are beyond any mere human logic and understanding. For example:
Nobody can understand the mystery of the Holy Trinity, Three Persons in One Essence, the ultimate sharing, the ultimate anti-egoism.
Nobody can understand the Creation, which was an act of supreme Love.
Nobody can understand the Virgin Birth, the ultimate human sacrifice.
Nobody can understand the two natures of Christ joined in One Person.
Nobody can understand the Resurrection of Christ, the ultimate Divine sacrifice
Nobody can understand the end of the world, which will usher in the reign of Love.
But we believe in and know all these things as realities.
In the same way, today’s Feast is a mystery, it defies all reason, because it is an act of Love. The Virgin as a four-year-old girl is brought to the Temple by her parents Joachim and Anna. And here she is nourished by an angel, until such time as she will herself accept to become a temple, the Temple, her womb becoming the container for God Incarnate. The Virgin becomes the Mother of God, she who from this day on inhabits the temple, herself becomes the Temple of God.
Through her we clearly see that we all become that which we inhabit.
If we choose to inhabit a world of violence, greed, envy, lust, power politics, those vices will inhabit us. We will become them. We become what we inhabit. But if we inhabit the Church of God, then the Church of God will inhabit us. In the words of the Apostle Paul, we will become living temples of God.
We may well ask ourselves then — which world do we inhabit? Do we inhabit a world of evil or a world of God? And which world therefore inhabits us? Which is our choice?
In today’s Gospel the Mother of God speaks to us through the words of her Son: ‘Blessed are those who hear my word and keep it’. Let us therefore not only hear the words of Christ, but also keep them, inhabiting the world of God, so that God will then come and inhabit us.
Sunday of the Forefathers.
‘Many are called but few are chosen’. So says Christ in today’s Gospel. If we think of the knowledge of God conserved among different peoples in the world before Christ, these words have a special significance.
Some peoples conserved a dim memory of events of the human past. In Australia the Aborigenes kept a vague memory of how God created the world perfect, which they call the ‘Dreamtime’.
All over the world, from Asia to South America, some 120 different peoples and cultures have kept the memory of a great, universal flood, which is known to us in detail through Noah.
In India the Hindus long ago kept an intuition of a Trinitarian God, but among them their knowledge of God became so twisted that their trinity is a trinity of destructive gods.
Other peoples fell even further and began worshipping stones and trees, rivers and mountains, mistaking creation for the Creator. For instance, in this country, thousands of years before Christ, the ‘cleverest’ people, not unlike some today, worshipped the stars, as we can see from the great astronomical monument that they built and called Stonehenge. At that time in Egypt too the cleverest people built huge Pyramids to worship the Sun, and through which they believed that their leaders, the Pharoahs, would become stars.
Other peoples altogether gave up on ever knowing God and declared that the way ahead consisted in following the wisest men of their cultures, Buddha in India, or Confucius in China.
In Ancient Greece, the wisest men declared that men could never know God unless God first revealed Himself to man and in Athens they set up an altar to ‘the Unknown God’.
Many were called but few were chosen, for among all these peoples and cultures, there were representatives of one people who conserved the true history of mankind. This people were the Jews, the ancient Hebrews, the chosen people, and today we commemorate all the righteous among them, our forefathers and foremothers in the Faith. From Adam and Eve on, there were among that people righteous and holy men and women. In their lives they prefigured the life of Christ and foresaw Christ.
Abel, who was murdered by his brother Cain, is a prefiguration of Christ, who was also murdered by men.
Melchizedek the priest is the prefiguration of Christ the High Priest.
Enoch and Elijah, who were taken up to heaven, prefigure Christ Who was also taken up to heaven.
Noah, whose family alone survived the Flood, is a prefiguration of the baptism of purification given to us by Christ.
Job the long-suffering prefigures the longsuffering of Christ.
Abraham, who was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac, prefigures the sacrifice that God the Father made with His Son.
Jacob prefigures Christ, for he saw the ladder that connects earth to heaven, enabling heaven to come down to earth and earth to rise up to heaven.
Joseph, who was betrayed by his twelve brothers, prefigures Christ who was betrayed by His disciples.
Moses, the leader of his people, who was given the great revelation of the Ten Commandments, unsurpassed until Christ gave us the Beatitudes, prefigures Christ, for Moses saw the burning bush unconsumed, which is the Virgin’s womb, which was unconsumed by the fire of Christ.
Joshua, whose name is the same as Christ’s, that is Jesus, the Saviour, prefigures Jesus the Deliverer of His people.
David, related by blood to Christ, saw Christ in the Psalms which he wrote down.
Solomon expressed the Wisdom of God in his Books of Wisdom.
The Prophet Daniel saw the Holy Trinity through the Three Holy Youths in the furnace of Babylon.
The Prophet Isaiah saw Christ the suffering Servant.
The Prophet Jonah prefigures the three-day burial of Christ through his three-day stay in the belly of the whale.
All these holy forefathers together with our holy foremothers, Sarah, Rebecca, Ruth, Deborah and many, many more, whose icons are all on the back wall of our church, which is devoted to the righteous of the Old Testament, all these we commemorate today. All these are in fact our spiritual family, for they saw, long before we were born, the One Whom we confess, Christ our true God Who is Risen from the dead.
Let us in these last few days before the celebration of the Birth of the Saviour on earth, read one, or at least one part, of their writings, for example, in the Book of Genesis, the Book of Exodus, the Book of Proverbs, or simply the Psalms, and let us renew our links with our ancestors in the Orthodox Faith.
Holy Forefathers and Foremothers of Christ, pray to God for us!
Sunday of the Fathers
Last Sunday the Church commemorated all the righteous of the Old Testament who awaited the coming of Christ. Today, the Sunday before the Birth of Christ on earth, the Church remembers all those in the Old Testament who were related to Christ by blood and those who spoke of His Birth as a man. That is why today we have read Christ’s family tree from the Gospel of St Matthew.
In this way the Church shows us that Christ really became a man, that the Son of God really took on human nature. He was not a ghost, an apparition, a myth, a distant imagined god, the abstract god of philosophers. Such a god does not have a family tree. Our God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He has flesh and blood, human ancestors, many of whom sinned greatly, but like David, also repented greatly. By taking on human nature, the Son of God became like us in all ways, in flesh and blood, in tears and sweat, in mind and soul, in heart and will, He differed from us in only one way, He did not sin. Since we know that Christ’s human nature remained sinless, He shows us the way that we too can go in order to strive to avoid sin and so improve and transform our failing human nature.
However, the fact that Christ took on human nature and has a family tree, has another meaning too. Christ is descended from Adam through Abraham and David, through His ancestors Joachim and Anne — in His human nature He is therefore related to us and we are related to Him. He is a cousin of our ancestors. He is one of our own forebears. He is our kith and kin and we are His kith and kin, we belong to the same family. It is now that we understand that with Christ we belong to a family, a family of saints and sinners, but a family of which he is the Head and we are His children, the children of Mother Church and Father God. And believing in the Fatherhood of God, we believe in the Brotherhood of Man.
Holy Fathers of Christ, pray to God for us!
Nativity of Christ.
Before us lies the icon of the Birth of Christ which explains the whole meaning of today’s Feast.
In the bottom right-hand corner the newborn Christ is being bathed. Here is proof that God truly became man — you cannot bathe an idea or a myth or an angel. However, this bathing has another meaning too — it prefigures the future Baptism of Christ by St John the Baptist.
In the bottom left-hand corner stands the Righteous Joseph, the Betrothed. He stands far off, showing that he is not the father of the Christ-Child. He only protects the Virgin. The Devil is trying to tempt him. But as we know from the Scriptures, Joseph rejected these temptations and protected the Virgin until the end. He appears then as an example to all men, who are called on to protect women.
On the centre right stand the shepherds who have come to worship Christ; on the centre left stand the angels who have come to do the same. We are reminded of the hymns of the Church — that the heavens rejoice and the earth makes glad, that heaven and earth are united by God become man.
In the top right-hand corner the angels look up to heaven and down to the earth and to men. We recall their words: ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, goodwill to all men’.
In the top left-hand corner the Wise Men are coming with their gifts — gold for their King, incense for their God and myrrh for their Priest. They have come from human wisdom to worship Divine Wisdom.
At the top of the icon we see a dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit, reflecting the light of the Holy Trinity. Below it even the beasts bow down in worship of Christ.
In the very centre of the icon, wee see the Holy Virgin lying down. On her clothes three stars are visible, one for her virginity before the Birth of Christ, one for her virginity which remained intact during the Birth, the third for her virginity after the Birth. She is with the Christ-Child, the God from before all the ages. He is clothed in pure, white swaddling clothes which stand out from the darkness of the cave where He has been born.
This is not only the icon of the Birth of Christ, it is also the icon of the Burial and the Resurrection of Christ. The present and the future come together here. The swaddling clothes resemble the burial shroud, the cave resembles the tomb, from where Christ rose. His destiny and all our human destiny are portrayed here. For this icon is not only an icon, it is also a map of our souls.
Without Christ our soul is like a dark cave. Empty, cold and unlit. With Christ, they are light, white, warm. All human problems stem from this one source, that we have not put Christ at the centre of our lives, as He is in this icon. Every human sorrow, every difficulty, every grief comes from the absence of Christ, not only individually, but also collectively. Why, whole peoples have fallen into sin and come into humanly insoluble difficulties because they have fallen away from Christ. Every sin is a falling away from Christ, a failure to put Him in the centre of our lives.
Let our prayer on this feast day be that Christ might be born in the hearts of us all and might become the centre of our lives.
Christ is Born!
He is born indeed!
Sunday after Nativity.
On this Sunday the Church commemorates three people who were close to Christ.
First of all, His ancestor, the holy King and Prophet David, who foresaw the Coming of Christ in his Psalms.
Secondly, we recall the righteous Joseph the Betrothed, who protected the Mother of God and her Child before, during and after His birth.
Thirdly, we remember the son of Joseph, James, who accompanied the Mother of God, Christ and Joseph on the flight into Egypt, and later became one of the Apostles and indeed was martyred as James the Righteous, the first Orthodox Bishop of Jerusalem.
It is interesting to recall to Non-Believers the words of the Gospel regarding this Flight into Egypt, and how Joseph was commanded to ‘take the young child and his mother into Egypt’. We note how the Scriptures clearly do not call Christ, ‘Joseph’s son’, or his mother, ‘your wife’. Again the Scriptures say that all this was to fulfil the words of the Scriptures: ‘Out of Egypt have I called my son’, and not, ‘out of Egypt have I called Joseph’s son’.
However, today, I would also like to recall to our attention three others who were closely associated with Christ at this time, the Three Wise Men, called the Magi. They are actually commemorated on Christmas Day itself, but somehow we often overlook them.
The Wise Men, by tradition three in number, came from Babylon, which was at that time a centre of astronomy. They came to worship Christ for they had seen a great sign in the sky. In recent times, various scientists and others have tried to identify this sign either as a star, or else a conjunction of planets, and thus to date the time of Christ’s birth. As Orthodox, we do not believe that the Wise Men found Christ by following a ‘star’. First of all, if it had been a star, would they have been able to follow it by day as well as by night? And above all, we know from the Scriptures that the Wise Men found the Christ-Child because the ‘star’ stopped directly over the house where He was. Stars do not stand over houses. In reality, this was no star — this was the light of the Holy Spirit.
The Wise Men came with presents, gold, incense and myrrh. Gold represented the Kingship of Christ. Incense represented the Priesthood of Christ. Myrrh represented the Prophetic nature of Christ and His triumph over Death. For ourselves today, we may ask what significance these presents have in our relationship with Christ and His Church.
First of all, do we give gold to the Church? I do not mean literally gold, I mean financial support. There are some people who may think that I am being indelicate, unspiritual, but the fact is that the Church needs financial support in order to survive. At this time of the year especially, it might be good for us to look again at how we support the Church in this respect. The Wise Men gave gold to Christ, which may well have paid for the Flight into Egypt. How do we give gold to Christ?
Secondly, do we give incense to the people who form the Church, the members or limbs of the Body of Christ? I do not literally mean incense, I mean respect, love of our neighbours whom we come across every time we attend church. This is what incense means, it is why the priest censes the icons or images in church and also the people who are images of Christ, he is showing honour and respect, not hatred and dislike. Do we honour one another and show concern and love for one another? The Wise Men did to Christ. How do we honour one another, showing love and patience?
Finally, do we give myrrh to those around us? Again, I do not literally mean myrrh, I mean merciful love and compassion to all those whom we meet in our daily life, whoever they may be. The Wise Men gave the mercy of myrrh to Christ. How do we show mercy to those around us who are all made in the image of Christ?
Let us on this Sunday after Christmas, look at what we give to Christ, to those in His Church, and to those in His world, and let us ask ourselves if we are Wise.
Nativity of John the Baptist.
Throughout the ages at various times in their lives people in every generation have asked the questions: ‘What is the purpose of life? What is the point of life?’
Ancient, primitive people, obeying animal instincts, decided that the purpose of life is to mutiply, to reproduce, to have as many offspring as possible, simply in order to ensure the survival of the race.
We can see this near the beginning of the Old Testament when Abraham was told ‘to go forth and multiply’. Gradually, however, as revelation came upon revelation to the chosen people of God in the Old Testament, this command was refined. It was revealed that people were to multiply for a reason other than survival. Barrenness was a stigma, not only because through it men and women failed to ensure survival, but also because it was revealed that somewhere one woman was called to give birth to the Messiah. The Messiah meant the Saviour. Thus children were born to various devout and often aged couples, to Adam and Eve, to Abraham and Sarah, to Jacob and Rachel. Thus sons like Abel and Joseph or Joshua and Samuel and many others all in some sense prefigured the Messiah.
Of course it is true that even the intuition that a Saviour was to be born of a woman was usually distorted and the Jews imagined that the Saviour would appear as some sort of political and nationalistic hero, a freedom-fighter or terrorist, depending on one’s viewpoint. Nonetheless there were those in the Old Testament whose vision and understanding were so pure that they knew that the mother of the Messiah would be no ordinary woman. Thus as a high point of this process of revelation in Chapter 7 of his book, Isaiah the Prophet wrote that ‘a virgin would give birth’.
At the very end of the Old Testament there appeared a particularly devout but childless couple, Zacharias and Elizabeth. It is their story that we have heard in today’s Gospel. Elizabeth, said to be some eighty years old, was barren. This was a particular stigma for her husband was a devout priest who was to set an example by child-bearing with his wife. And then the miracle happened and Elizabeth conceived, We should not that she conceived in the normal way, unlike the Holy Virgin Mary. However, the intention of the parents was particularly godly.
Their son, the Baptist John, thus came to be called ‘the Forerunner of Christ’, a star compared to Christ, the Sun of Righteousness. Our Lord Himself called him the greatest born of women. Thus in the Church he has become the particular patron of monks and is called an earthly angel and a heavenly man. This is why in icons which portray him, he is shown as having wings. These are not of course physical wings, they are the spiritual wings of the dove, of one who prays unceasingly, which is the task of all, but especially of those in the monastic life.
The Holy Baptist stands at the very end of the Old Testament, but also at the very beginning of the New Testament. That is why he appears at the beginning of the Gospels. He opens up a new way and answers in a new way the old question which people have posed from ancient times and which I gave at the beginning of this sermon: ‘What is the purpose of life?’ John the Baptist who never married, who remained a virgin, who prophesied, tells us that the purpose of life is to be spiritually fruitful. This is his prophetic revelation to us. Whether we are called to marriage and having children or not, we are called to bring forth spiritual fruit, to improve the world and not to worsen it, to be fruitful, and not to be barren, as his parents had been.
His spirit is thus utterly opposed to the modern world. This says that if you marry, it matters not if you have children or not. Thus the purpose of marriage is reduced to a sort of legalised fornication. Worse still, some who do desire to have children decide that they do not have to have children as nature decides. They can have a career, amass huge amounts of money and then with the perverted lights of modern science have a child when they are in old age. Then they can choose the sex of the child, the colour of its hair and eyes, the occupation of a donor-father, even rent another’s womb for the child to be born in. They can have a ‘designer baby’. The child thus becomes a toy, of as much importance as a pet dog. And when you are fed up with the child, it can be sent away to a private school, cast away like the old toys of a spoilt child.
But John the Baptist tells us that we are to be spiritually fruitful. He is the model of all children. We should have children because we desire them, because we pray to have them. We should pray that our children will call us and others to repentance. And if the Lord does not grant us to bear children or we have already borne them, then we are to bear virtues instead. And we are to bring up and refine and cultivate our virtues with as much care and love and commitment as children. And thus our virtues will also be calls to repentance.
Today, through his birth, the Holy Forerunner John calls us all to repentance. Let us make ready for the Lord.
St Edmund, King and Martyr.
In the third century a great Church Father, St Cyprian of Carthage, whose icon is on the wall to the left of me, wrote that: ‘The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church’. He knew this from his own experience, for he had witnessed the ends of thousands of martyrs for Christ, indeed he himself was to be martyred. His words echo the fact that the Church was founded on the blood of Christ, on His Cross, on His sacrifice.
Indeed, spiritual progress can only be made through the Cross, through sacrifice. Wherever there is no sacrifice, there the Church becomes a mere institution, a ritual, an empty form. But where there is sacrifice, martyrdom, the Cross, there is spiritual life. We can see this very clearly in the Old Testament. By the time of Christ, for example, the religion of the Hebrews had largely become a nit-picking, hair-splitting ritualistic, formal religion known as pharasaism. Moreover, throughout history some Christians have frequently fallen back into this type of Old Testament religion. However, real religion and all spiritual progress, which is the purpose of religion, is always based not on institutionalised religion, which is spiritual decadence, but on sacrifice, on the Cross, on the martyrs.
Thus, in order to convert the huge Roman Empire to Christianity, it took three centuries of martyrs in all the countries of that Empire. Martyrdom was the precondition of that conversion. Without it conversion could never have taken place.
However, countries which only came later to the Orthodox Faith often only suffered few martyrdoms, at least at first. For example between the tenth and twelfth centuries the Conversion of Russia, with only a few exceptions, took place peacefully. Russia began her sufferings only after that golden age, with the invasion and destruction of the Mongols. In the same way the Conversion of England to Orthodox Christianity, which began only at the end of the sixth century, passed off mainly in peace for some two hundred years. Then, however, for over two hundred years, England was plagued by the invasions of pagans, the Vikings. Furthermore, it was this region of England, the ancient kingdom of East Anglia which suffered the most. Being in the East, facing the Viking homeland of the Danes, the east coast suffered more than anywhere else.
At that time East Anglia was still an independent Kingdom in the English confederation. It was ruled by a young King, still unmarried, in his late twenties. He was called Edmund, which in Old English means ‘noble protection’ And indeed he lived up to his name, having a reputation for compassion and protection, afforded to the weak, the widow and the orphan. His greatest challenge was the arrival of the ravaging Danes. We should note that the attacks and ravages of the Danish Vikings were not those of another race. The Danes and the English were of the same race, so much so that they could more or less understand their kindred languages. There was only one essential difference between the Danish Vikings and the English — the former were heathen, the latter were Christian.
King Edmund began the resistance to the Viking attacks which had destroyed churches and monasteries and homes and villages, up and down the land. Fighting side by side with the great Christian King Alfred, who was later to save England, Edmund did his best, but was finally overwhelmed by the huge numbers of Danes. At Hoxne in the north of Suffolk, the King was captured. Here the Danes made him an offer, to become a puppet-king, a kind of quisling, under their heathen tyranny, or die. Edmund chose not in any way to renounce the Faith, choosing death. An eyewitness report from that time, relates how he was scourged and bound, tied to an oak-tree and then how the Danes fired arrows at him as for target practice. All the time the name of the Saviour did not leave his lips. Finally, suffering immensely from his many wounds, King Edmund was beheaded. It was the year 869.
One of the best-known stories of this region tells how the Danes left, with Edmund’s corpse unburied and his head thrown away into deep brambles. When men came searching, finding the body but not the head, they were called by a wolf, probably Edmund’s own hunting-dog or wolfhound, to the place where the head lay. It is this scene which is portrayed on the icon in the middle of the church.
They took the corpse and head, set them in a hastily-built hut-chapel and immediately miracles began. A light was seen over the tomb, the blind and the sick were healed. Miraculously the head became joined to the body, with only a red scar marking the place of the cruel cut between torso and head. Local people came as pilgrims to venerate Edmund’s relics, which remained intact and incorrupt.
Thirty years passed, the children of the Vikings had settled in England and they had been baptised. Edmund’s body was moved from the small village of Hoxne to the central town of Suffolk, a town which soon became known as St Edmund’s Town — Bury St Edmunds. The children of the Danes and the surviving Danes themselves, now grown old, came to venerate Edmund and minted coins in honour of ‘St Edmund’. Soon, he was known as the Patron Saint of all East Anglia. His symbol of three crowns, representing his kingship, his martyrdom and his virginity, can still be seen on many emblems, crests and flags all over East Anglia to this day.
A little later in the tenth century, the King of England of that time, Athelstan, built a great road from the main port of East Anglia, at St Felix’s Dunwich, to Bury St Edmunds. This pilgrims’ way was known as ‘the King’s Road’ and was the equivalent of the modern A14. Veneration of St Edmund spread all over England and some 60 churches were dedicated to his memory and he was declared the first Patron Saint of England. On hearing his name, the cry would go up, ‘For England and for Freedom’.
Strangely, however, the last recorded miracle over St Edmund’s relics appears to have been in the middle of the eleventh century. As the church at Bury St Edmunds became richer and richer, more and more powerful and more and more institutional and decadent, so spiritual life seemed to wane in it. By the thirteenth century, when the Abbey at Bury St Edmunds owned half of Suffolk, its church had become the third tallest in all Christendom, outranked only by St Sophia’s in Constantinople and St Peter’s in Rome. It was then at the beginning of the thirteenth century that St Edmund’s relics were stolen by French knights and taken to Toulouse in France. Although the abbey continued to be rich and powerful, it finally fell completely and was destroyed in the sixteenth century. We all know today that all that survives of it are some crumbling blocks of masonry in the Abbey Gardens.
However, in the nineteenth century, the oak-tree to which by tradition Edmund had been tied nearly a thousand years before, fell at Hoxne. When it was sawn up, a Danish arrowhead was found. Today it can be seen in the museum in Bury St Edmunds, a relic of all those arrows which had been fired at St Edmund all those years ago. Then at the beginning of the twentieth century, most of the relics of St Edmund were returned to England from France. They lie safe, but concealed, in a Catholic church at Arundel in Sussex. A tiny fragment of them was brought to the Catholic church in Bury St Edmunds in the 1960’s. However, there is an ancient prophecy that all the relics of the saint will be returned to Bury St Edmunds before the end of the world. However, for that to happen, there must first be people here to venerate them in an appropriate manner.
What today can we learn from St Edmund’s sacrifice?
Firstly, that no sacrifice is ever wasted. Sacrifice always inspires and triumphs, even if the inspiration and the victory comes only after, or at the cost of, our earthly lives.
Secondly, we can learn that just as St Edmund freed the heathen from their delusion through his self-sacrifice, we too today can free ourselves from our own personal heathendom, our sin, through our own self-sacrifice.
Thirdly and finally, we can learn that by confessing our faith in St Edmund, we confess our faith in something other than the values of this world, institutional riches and power, we confess eternal values and that it is only those values which will save us, as they of old saved our forbears and all England.
Holy Martyr Edmund, pray to God for us!
Just over sixty years ago, ten miles from here at Sutton Hoo, archaeologists made an amazing discovery. Digging in a low mound of earth, they realized that they had uncovered the burial of King Redwald, one of the first Kings of East Anglia, who had been buried in his ship in the year 625. He had been buried together with several personal possessions, among them, a helmet, a shield, bowls from Egypt, a dish from Constantinople, and also a pair of spoons. One of the spoons was inscribed in Greek letters, Saul, the other was inscribed, again in Greek, Paul.
Historians realized that they had uncovered the still surviving baptismal gift of Redwald from when he had been baptized by the first English Christians in Kent in the early seventh century. This event was spoken of in the history of St Bede the Venerable. Even today it is a custom to make a gift of a spoon at a child’s baptism. The names on the spoons given to Redwald referred of course to St Paul. As a Jew and hater of Christians we know that he had been called Saul. However, on being enlightened and baptized, Saul had changed his name to Paul and then gone on in great zeal and is known to us as the holy Apostle Paul. Thus the pair of spoons that had been buried over thirteen hundred years before and was then discovered, had been intended to symbolize Redwald’s rejection of paganism and his acceptance of Christianity.
From St Bede, we know that in reality, under his wife’s influence, Redwald was to return to East Anglia and then fall back into paganism, never making up his mind whether he was following Saul or Paul. Hence he had been buried as a pagan together with the goods that the pagans had imagined he would need in the afterworld.
Soon after Redwald, another King came to power in East Anglia. His name was Sigebert and he had been instructed in the Christian Faith and baptized by a priest called Felix. After Sigebert arrived, he invited this Felix, now a Bishop, to come and make Christian his Kingdom. This is what happened and today we honour Bishop Felix as the Apostle and Enlightener of all East Anglia.
He it was who brought here not only the Word and Light of Christ, but also built stone churches, monasteries, schools, and introduced books and writing. If he had not come here, there would not be here today a single church of any sort, there would not be a single school, and we would still be living in the barbarism of the past. And all this is because Felix had made a choice in his life, the choice not of Saul, but of Paul. Through this one choice of this one man Felix, a whole Kingdom changed its ways, a whole civilization and new culture was born, one which has shaped our way of life today, especially here, in the very town of St Felix.
Especially in our daily lives, we should think of those two spoons, Saul and Paul, reproductions of which you can go and see at the centre in Sutton Hoo today. They are evidence of the choice that Redwald failed to make, but which Sigebert and Felix did make. They represent the choices that we as individuals, and even whole nations have to make. Do I do this one thing in my job, or do another? Do I tell a lie, or do I tell the truth? Am I honest or am I dishonest? Does a nation go to war or does it remain at peace? In everything that we do, whether we are in lowly positions or in seats of authority, in every dilemma, in every moment of decision, we always have to be guided by the same criterion: ‘Is this the way of Saul, or is this the way of Paul? For the way of Saul is the way against Christ, the way of Paul is the way towards Christ. Whom do we follow?
May we be guided in all things by taking the path of Christ and his servant Saint Felix.
Some time ago I remember overhearing a child ask her mother: ‘Mummy, why does Father Christmas have a beard? And why does he wear such funny clothes?’ Her mother could give no adequate answer, quite simply because she was not an Orthodox Christian. All Orthodox should know the answer to the child’s questions. Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, has a beard and wears such unusual clothes because he is the folklore version of an Orthodox bishop — St Nicholas. Who was St Nicholas?
Born at the end of the third century, in about 280, Nicholas was a very devout young man who, still quite young, became a Bishop and then the Archbishop of the then great city of Myra, which is in the province of Lycia in Asia Minor, which is now called Turkey. There he was renowned for his charitable deeds. There he set up orphanages, hospitals, hostels for the mentally ill, fed the starving in famine, and set up a drainage system so that his people would not die from the diseases incurred by poor hygiene. There he freed captives unjustly imprisoned, saved sailors in stormy seas, redeemed young girls who were bound for child prostitution. In everything he did, he wanted to show that our destiny is not to live as animals, but as the children of God. This is why, as one of the 318 Fathers present at the First Universal Church Council which took place in the year 325 in Nicea, he could not support the blasphemies of Arius.
This Arius was a philosopher, as we would say today, ‘a clever dick’ and stood up at that Council and said that Christ is not the Son of God. Like all who make the wrong choices, that is ‘heretics’ in the language of the Church, in talking about the Person of Christ, Arius talked of himself. For like every single heretic in Church History, Arius replaced the understanding of God, theology, with the understanding of his own self, psychology. Not being able to accept God through Faith, they replace the transcendent Revelation of God, the Reality beyond their tiny minds, with the fruit of their own fertile imaginations and make God into sinful individuals like themselves. Arius indeed was not the Son of God. However, if we were to believe his words that Christ is not the Son of God, then of course Orthodox Christianity would no longer be the one, unique soul-saving Faith, but just another vain philosophy, a mere religion.
So it was that when this Arius blasphemed at the First Council, St Nicholas stood up and slapped him across the face. The other Fathers were horrified by St Nicholas’ violent action, defrocked him and sent him away. St Nicholas did not justify himself by saying that he was trying to silence the demonic blasphemies of Arius, by saying that he was trying to bring this arrogant man to his senses, by saying that if Arius were right, then mankind was condemned to live as animals. Instead he accepted this punishment with humility. However, many of the Fathers saw around St Nicholas a vision of Christ and his Most Holy Mother returning to the saint his episcopal vestments. This was a divine vindication of the action of the saint and indeed he was quickly reinstalled as Archbishop of Myra.
If we were to read the life of St Nicholas up until his repose, we would find that it runs to many, many pages. But if we were to read his life since his blessed repose, we would find that it runs to many, many books. His life since his death is much longer than his life before his death. For he is one of those many saints who has continued to work miracles among all peoples and among all generations up until the present age.
True, today the once great city of Myra is no more. In what is now a Muslim country there stand only the ruins of the great Cathedral of St Nicholas and the ruins of the buildings he had raised up. But St Nicholas is still venerated there, including by Muslims. Indeed he is venerated all over the world, by Orthodox and Non-Orthodox alike. Here in Felixstowe, the chapel at the ferry is dedicated to him and looking out across the haven to the port of Harwich there is the huge spire of St Nicholas’ church, for he is ever the protector of seafarers.
Of St Nicholas’ latest miracles we would quote only one, which came to our attention from a sure source only recently. It was a few years ago, in the 1980’s, that a Russian nuclear submarine was in trouble in the Pacific Ocean. Its engine had stopped and refused to restart. Even in those Soviet times, however, one of the young sailors remembered that his grandmother had told him that St Nicholas always protects sailors. And, despite everything around him, he remembered to pray to St Nicholas at that moment. And through his prayers the engine started up again, over a hundred sailors were saved and the world preserved from untold pollution. St Nicholas is among us still today, here and now, preserving all who pray to him from danger and evil.
Finally, there is one question about St Nicholas which we must answer. Why does everybody love St Nicholas? Why is he so popular? Why do Muslims venerate him? Why do even Protestants dedicate chapels to him? Why do Catholics revere him and guard his relics in Bari in Italy? The answer is simple:
Everybody loves St Nicholas, because St Nicholas loves everybody.
Holy Father Nicholas, pray to God for us!