What the Church need is more St. Nicholas.

The wonder working Icon of St. Nicholas, from the Cathedral in Ottawa.

My father once told me that if you want a strong Church, and a engaged and loving community, we must all be like Christ and not like  those great leaders and rulers, theologians and philosophers, gurus or mystics, however influential, pious, and powerful they might be. Yet despite the logic and simplicity of his observation, the weight of  ensuring a strong community that grows and prospers is an issue that I and many other pastors and those in church life wrestle with.

We dream up new programs and ways to proclaim the Gospel and engage the hearts and souls of the world around us, but this is ultimately as fruitless as trying to reinvent the wheel.  

One such thought was presented in an article I read a while ago, that asserted that what Christianity needed to enable growth and relevance, was more entrepreneurs and not shepherds (pastors).

Although I thought this was an off-the-cuff opinion of a mega church pastor whose aim was to challenge pastors to be more apostolic (or entrepreneurial) and to encourage business men and women to apply their talents in service to the church, it nonetheless is an expression that seems to have permeated church life regardless of the size of the congregation or denomination. (Someone recently once told me that if this kind of model worked for microbreweries and designer coffee bars, why shouldn’t it work for the Church.)

Beyond the desire for more active pastors (which we can all agree upon), the expectation of results and growth from Church leadership (in our case bishops, priests and parish councils)  has more people looking at the qualities and successes of business and commerce with directors, supervisors and managers as an improved way in which to grow and be relevant.

Although there is some common ground between churches and commerce that could benefit, grow and enrich a community, the application of this as a model for leadership in the Church is ultimately the fruit of a tradition  where “God is up there, and we are down here”: and the sacramental presence of Christ, and the sacrificial responsibility of the faithful (the royal priesthood) are simply symbolic.

The danger is that this approach runs the risk of making the whole economy of salvation a business plan, and not the manifestation of the Kingdom. It risks making the faithful into consumers, and not participants.

As Orthodox Christians, we are immersed by our services and prayers into the active work of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; and it is the saints, those men and women throughout the ages who proclaimed Jesus Christ, who works all things for our salvation by the Holy Spirit poured into our hearts, (See Rom. 5:5) to the Glory of God the Father “whose good will it is to give us the Kingdom” (Lk. 12:32). We need to look no further than at the witness of our beloved patron St. Nicholas to see this.

The life of St. Nicholas, his kindness and generosity, his zeal for the faith and  his selflessness, has transcended cultures, centuries, and even a Christian context, becoming the foundation of our beloved Santa Claus. It is a testimony to his work that he is one of the most beloved and cherished saints throughout the ages.

I suppose that we could call St. Nicholas an “entrepreneur” rather than a “shepherd” perse;  but if we are consistent with the traditional witness of the Church throughout the centuries, it would be more accurate to say that St. Nicholas in his vocation as a bishop heeded the word of the Good  Shepherd, Jesus Christ to “feed my sheep”. This was not  because it was a proven method to grow the Church, but rather because it was the life of Christ he wanted to share, and the responsibility given to him in baptism and revealed in his ordination and consecration as a priest and then bishop.

From his constant prayers and intercessions, to his boldness at the Council of Nicaea (325), St. Nicholas, time and time again, showed Christ’s saving love and work (as he does now even in our little parish) . He multiplied the fruit of the Holy Spirit for those seeking meaning and life beyond the mundane and corruptible.

We remember with love this blessed Archshepherd because his corruptible and limited life (after all, he was just a human like you and me), was made incorruptible and boundless in bearing Christ’s saving love to the world, and throughout the ages.

The challenge he presents to bishops and priests (who bear the burden of responsibility) and all the faithful, is to grow the Church, that it be enrich with mercy and grace, that it might prosper and multiply. He does not ask us to reinvent with new programs and systems the deposit of faith given to us in the waters of baptism, and in Chrismation, but rather to manifest the faith through “taking up our cross daily” and following Christ (Lk. 9:23). We are inspired to be like Christ, to be like St. Nicholas whose very life manifests the work of the Holy Spirit, the saving gift of life in Jesus Christ.

It is in this way, that we all will build a strong Church, and an engaged and loving community that will stand until the end of time.

By the prayers of St. Nicholas, may we be strengthened in this.

 

Holy Hiromartyr Seraphim pray to God for us.

St. Seraphim of Uglich
This Saturday (Nov. 4th) marks the 80th anniversary of martyrdom of St. Seraphim (Samoilovich) of Uglich.
St. Seraphim served with St. Tikhon first in Russia, and then under him as a missionary priest and teacher in Alaska.  Bishop Tikhon deeply appreciated this zealous missionary’s personal piety and his sensitive and appropriate treatment of the newly enlightened flock. Due to the harsh Alaskan climate he returned to Russia in 1908. In the darkness that was Bolshevik revolution, St. Seraphim was elevated to Episcopacy despite being in an out of prison. He even at one point governed the Church as the substitute for the Patriarchal Locum Tenens (who happened to be in prison)

While Archbishop Seraphim governed, he did not appoint any deputies in case of his arrest. Therefore when the Soviet agents interrogated him asking “Who will be the head of the Church if we do not free you?” He replied “The Lord Jesus Christ Himself,”. The Soviets looked at him in amazement and said: “All of you bishops have left behind deputies, as did Patriarch Tikhon and Metropolitan Peter.” The Archbishop’s response was  “Well, I have left the Church in the hands of the Lord God.”

This kind of faith and proclamation eventually landed Archbishop Seraphim at the notorious Solovki labour camp in Northern Russia, where in 1937 he was executed.

There is a beautiful connection between the formative years of service of this Archbishop and Martyr, cultivated in the mission fields of Alaska; where the need of clarity and truth as witnessed in the Gospel was an imperative for  bringing people to Christ: and same clarity and truth as witnessed in the Gospel  that would not let him bow himself, or the Church to any idol or ideology.  A connection made manifest in the love of Jesus Christ for humanity by the precious and life giving Cross.
Holy Hiromartyr Seraphim, who served in North America, and those who suffered with him, pray to God for us.

Standing with St. Demetrios and #MeToo.

Although on the surface, comparing the 4th century Greco-Roman world with our  21st century Winnipeg (and the Western world, for that matter) might seem like comparing apples to rocks, especially considering the many centuries that have past, and the changes that have taken place. Yet the world that St. Demetrios lived in some 1700 years ago, bears some striking similarities to our age today.  

The 4th century world of St. Demetrios was a cosmopolitan culture (especially in large trade centers like Thessaloniki) with many different nations and ethnic groups from one end of the known world to the other, all living under the political, social and economic law and order of the Roman Empire.It was a society that had access (the ancient world equivalent of global trade) to tin from the British Islands, silk and spices from the orient, grain from Africa, and furs from the north. There also existed a plurality of diverse religions and beliefs that ensured the security and stability of the Emperor and Empire, regardless if  Baal, Zeus, Perun or fire was worshipped. Like most empires (both old and new), the exploitation of people was a cornerstone of its power. It was slaves, and those who had no rights or status that served households, worked the fields, built those magnificent structures and buildings, and provided entertainment in the colosemes. Life was cheap, even meaningless unless you were powerful, wealthy, and prosperous.

In the successive centuries that have gone by, many things have changed; but if one looks with a critical eye at our 21st century culture, those values that established one of the greatest empires the world has ever known, are ever present- especially the exploitation of people by those with wealth, prosperity, and power.

Granted, we don’t live in a global empire, nor do we see Justin Trudeau  as a  “god” (as great as he might seem to some). The dominance of Western culture and commerce has brought law and order through the rule of liberal democracies, and free market societies. We, can get pineapples from South America in January, and Canadian souvenirs made in China. We like those ancients  can still believe whatever we want, as long as we confess wealth, prosperity and power; those values that have replaced the pagan gods of old, and ensured that we can live in luxury and ease.

Sadly, we also rely on the exploitation of men, women and children, those who are weak and vulnerable, to serve, work, build, and entertain us in our demand and desire for those values.

It is not that the blessings of wealth, prosperity, and even power are as bad now as they might have been 1700 years ago. Rather, their priority and our  belief in them, as some kind of gods (or to use a more contemporary term “truths”), stand at odds with the Christian Gospel.

Jesus Christ “did not come to to be served, but to serve, and give His life a ransom for many” (Mt. 20:28). He “made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men…  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a Cross” (Phil. 2:7-8)

Through this, “Jesus Christ the Son of God… True God, of True God” (as we say in our Creed) took what was foolish in the world to shame the wise…what is weak in the world to shame the strong….what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are.” (1 Cor 1:27-28). The Lord’s strength is revealed in weakness, and not in the might of the Roman Empire or any other empire.  (2 Cor. 12:19).  

It is in this context that we see the courage of St. Demetrios. Having being a loyal and dedicated soldier and governor, he with boldness proclaimed Christ to those in Thessaloniki, against the orders of the Emperor. When called to give an account of his faith to the Emperor, St. Demetrios confessed his loyalty to the one true King, and his belief in one true God, and not the many lies that had built an Empire.

Rejecting the Emperor’s platitudes, and promises of riches and power if he forsook Christ, and dismissing the threats of torture and death, St. Demetrios stood as one who rejected the glory of this world in order to be “crowned with the glory that does not fade away” (1 Pet. 5:4). He would not be complicit to the Emperor’s vanity and desires, nor would he participate in that madness, choosing to be a victim as Christ was a victim on the Cross for our salvation, rather than victimize and abuse.

The question asked of us today is whether we stand with St. Demetrios in defiance to the worship of wealth, prosperity and power, and its exploitation of humanity?  Or do we remain complicit and willing partners in its presence?

There are many examples illustrating the justification of exploitation from around the world, from African blood diamonds, east Asian sweatshops, to human trafficking in prostitution. But those issues seem a world away and unrelated to many of us, whereas the revelations three weeks ago of extensive  sexual abuse and assaults by the Hollywood movie magnate Harvey Weinstein have raised the awareness of sexual abuse and harassment in our Western culture.

These reports revealed the dark side of the entertainment industry, and although this darkness is nothing we haven’t seen or heard of before, it  became a touchstone for those (namely women) who have faced sexual abuse and harassment of one form or another, from strangers, friends, employers and mentors.

With the use of social media, over 1.7 million women (from Hollywood starlets to suburban housewives) have used the  “#MeToo” tag, to reveal how tragically  pervasive this issue of sexual abuse, harassment and assault is.

These numbers and these stories  (which I believe are the tip of the iceberg) shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone with half a heart to see that we live in a culture that is increasingly exploitive and abusive, and that we live in an empire, of sorts, that worships at the altar of wealth, prosperity and power. This is at the expense of the young, weak and vulnerable: men and, in this case, women. Being Christians, we are compelled to act.

The behaviour of Harvey Weinstein, and many others who have used their wealth, prosperity and power to victimize millions of women is reprehensible. Yet if  we remain complicit with them and those who participate in this darkness,  and do not stand with the blessed martyr Demetrios in our confession of Jesus Christ, and His Cross that manifests God’s love of the world, how is it that we are not as reprehensible?

The choice is obvious, especially if we call ourselves Christians. Let us stand firm in our proclamation of Christ and His righteousness that knows no boundaries, no race, no gender, against this madness; and like Demetrios let us bear witness to a God who preaches the Gospel to the poor, brings healing to the brokenhearted, declares liberty to the captives, brings sight to the blind, and proclaims liberty to those who are oppressed” (Lk. 4:18).

Let us take a stand against   to those who would abuse their wealth, prosperity and power, as Demetrios did those many centuries ago, and does even now as our heavenly patron and saint. Let us be being intercessors for the young and old, the weak and vulnerable;  our  mothers, sisters, wives; our  fathers, brothers and husbands.

Holy martyr Demetrios, pray to God for us that we might have the strength to do this.

 

Offering Thanksgiving in Hell. (A meditation on the Las Vegas shooting, and Edmonton terror attack)

“Keep your mind in Hell, and do not despair”.

It is a strange proposition to consider, especially as it come from one of the most renowned Saints in the last century, St. Silouan of Mount Athos. Yet with a closer look, its relevance and clarity rings out; especially in light of the insanity that has rocked the world in the last week or so.  

The context for this quote came about fifteen years after St. Silouan had a vision of Christ that changed his life. During all those years he had struggled in prayer against distracting thoughts. Tired and exhausted from his labours, he wanted one day to bow before an Icon of the Lord, yet a terrible demon stood in his way.  He heard a voice (although he was alone):  “The proud always suffer from demons” Therefore St. Silouan asked how he could defeat pride. The Lord’s response was: “Keep your mind in Hell, and do not despair”. This moment changed his life even more than that first miraculous vision of Christ.  

We have to keep in mind that Hell isn’t simply a place of punishment and torment for  “bad and evil” people; it is rather the consequence which come to  those who would rather have the universe (and people) serve them, those whose struggle for autonomy vomits a hated towards God and neighbour alike. It is consequence which come to those who choose darkness over  light,  lies over truth and ultimately death and decay over life.

This is something to consider as we recoil from the profound tragedies in Las Vegas, and Edmonton last week: that for all the security and prosperity  given to us through our Western culture, we are still vulnerable.For those who are rebelling against God, and focusing on themselves, no matter what we do, where we go, or who we have around us.

This should come as no surprise for us if we have a half a heart to see the darkness and real evil that rained down death upon concert-goers in Las Vegas, or the darkness and real evil that drove into crowded sidewalks in Edmonton; for “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). It truly can seem that humanity is in a kind of Hell.

It is in this context that St. Siloan’s vision can bring clarity and hope, especially as we celebrate Thanksgiving (Canadian style).

To despair is to reject the goodwill of God, and to hold onto the faults and circumstances of one’s life, bearing in solitude  its burdens of anxiety, fear, anger, and enmity, (however petty or profound they might be). It sees nothing more than what is in front of it; it has no relationship or community, and can not look back.

Its opposite is thanksgiving, the movement  to look  through those faults and circumstances that impede us,  to something better, and to grab hold of those bonds that unite us. It is to look back with the perspective of having been loved and having offered love; or to put it in a Christian context, to have been loved by God, and to offer our love to Him.

As Christians, we have to understand that the perfect expression of thanksgiving is embodied or accurately made divine in the life of Jesus Christ, through His life-giving passion and death (1 Cor. 11:26) .

We see this so beautifully put in the Divine Liturgy at  its offering (Anaphora): “in the night in which He was given up – or rather, gave Himself up for the life of the world – took bread in His holy, pure and blameless  hands; and when He had given thanks and blessed, and hallowed it, and broken it,  He gave it to his disciples and apostles saying: “take eat, this is My Body which is broken for you, for the remission of sins”;  and likewise after supper He took the cup saying: “drink of it all of you, this is My Blood of the new covenant which is shed for you and for many, for the remission of sins!”.

The very thanksgiving (literally Eucharist) the Lord offered was not merely some reflection on good things of life. What was offered by Christ at that blessed table was thanksgiving, despite the Cross that stood in front of Him: who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2). What was offered by Christ, despite His being forsaken all was a thanksgiving to the Father who has glorified Him and will glorify Him (Jn. 12:28); “for God raised Him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for Him to be held by it“. (Acts 2:24). What was offered by Christ, despite the fall of humanity, was thanksgiving for the whole of His creation:  “for God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever should believe in Him should have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).

It is in this that countless generations have been able to be truly thankful, regardless if it were at home with one’s family or in a concentration camp in Siberia. Despite being in a Hell of one form or another, those prisoners (and those who picked up their Crosses and followed Christ) could see beyond the grief and challenges set before them, clearly seeing the love of God who endured the Cross for them. They knew that nothing (not even death) could separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus (Rm. 8:39), and that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights” (Jm. 1:17).

“Keep your mind in Hell, and do not despair” for Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and “wiping away every tear from (our) eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:4). This is truly something to be thankful for.

 

 

 

 

   

 

The Cross and our children (what we can learn from Sts. Sophia, Faith, Hope and Love)

There is something providential that on the Sunday after the feast of the Elevation of the Cross, when we heard the words of the Lord: “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mk. 8:35), we also remembered one of the most beloved families in the Orthodox Church, the martyrs Sophia, and her children Faith, Hope, and Love.

As a faithful and pious family they were summoned to the Emperor Hadrian (yes the same Emperor who built an ineffective garden wall to defend Roman England ) after being denounced as Christians. Despite the fear of what awaited them, they presented themselves as if they were at a feast, full of joy and courage. Starting with the children, the Emperor tried to compel and bribe them to offer sacrifices to an idol of the goddess Artemis. But each in turn rebuked him with the proclamation that they worshipped the one God, and His beloved Son Jesus Christ. The Emperor, dismayed at the courage of a twelve year old (Faith), a ten year old (Hope) and a nine year old (Love), at first promised them riches and security, but each time they proclaimed their faith in the one God in heaven. He then threatened and tortured them, and yet they did not yield.

Encouraged by their mother who was forced to witness the unspeakable tortures inflicted on them, each child remained steadfast to the love of the Lord, each in turn proclaiming and exalting the Lord in thanksgiving, until they were finally beheaded, leaving a grieving mother to take her broken children and bury them, herself falling asleep in the Lord some three days later at their graves.

The courage of Sophia in this trial is something that seems impossible for any parent to understand, but what also seems impossible to understand is the courage and faith of these three children, which leaves us as awestruck as the Emperor and those with him.

The courage of Faith, Hope and Love was not some characteristic that they were miraculously born with, neither was it a special kind of grace that made them separate from us (to suffer). Rather their faith was something they witnessed in their mother and had learnt from her.. Sophia (in translation, Wisdom) indeed imparted to her children a wisdom that this world could not comprehend (1 Cor. 1:18-25). This was the work of a loving mother who took up her Cross daily in, manifesting the saving work of Christ in her household in those little things that showed what true faith, hope and love were. All that these children offered was all that they had received.

We thankfully don’t live in a time or  place where confessing our faith is a matter of life and death for ourselves or our children (although this is a fact of life in many parts of the world). Yet the pressures and temptations of our culture that seek to break apart our families and hearts are overwhelming. The promises of cheap love, and counterfeit relationships, and a life that has more to do with what possessions or lifestyles one has (or never will have) beat on us like the blows of a torturer.

The question which will be asked of us as Christian pastors, parents, family, mentors, and teachers, is what example are we giving our children? How are we preparing our children to deal with this broken world?

Do we offer a moral and pious example that has more to do with being good people? Or do we offer a way of life that preserves one’s cultural or family traditions (“we go to Church on Sundays because that is what we have always done”), or our personal opinions or customs (“I am a Christian because it feels right”) ? Or do we do the “one thing needful” (Lk. 10:42), and heed the words of the Lord which challenge us to “take up our cross and follow Christ”.

Do we as Christian pastors, parents, family, mentors, and teachers, take up our Cross and make prayer a constant element in our lives, not as a response to simple emotions, or only in times of need when we “want something”? Or do we set prayer as a foundation where we dedicate and consecrate some time to stand before the Lord in thanksgiving and supplication.

Do we as Christian pastors, parents, family, mentors, and teachers, take up our Cross and fast from certain food, and habits, not as a way to deny ourselves of the good things in life, or to go on a religious diet, but to humble our passions and desires by putting Christ and our neighbour ahead of our egos and appetites, applying the necessary element of spiritual and physical discipline to deepen our communion with the God of Heaven and earth?

Do we as Christian pastors, parents, family, mentors, and teachers, take up our Cross and partake of regular confession not simply because the priest nags us, but because taking responsibility for one’s sins, wounds, and shortcomings is a fundamental element of what being as human is about, and demonstrating  the joys of being forgiven completely by the Lord?

Do we as Christian pastors, parents, family, mentors, and teachers, take up our Cross and mark the cycles and times of the year by attending services outside of Sunday mornings? Not Do we choose not to regard those programs and tasks such as  swimming lessons, bridge clubs, and laundry days as being more important than the festal life of the Church? Instead, do we make the life of the Church an anchor? Is Christ’s love is the center of whatever programs and tasks we might do?

If we as Christian pastors, parents, family, mentors, and teachers are not willing to take up our Cross, and make Christ the cornerstone of our lives, how can we ever expect our children and those entrusted to us to do it.

But if we do take up our Cross in those little things, at home, at work, at school, and in Church, we make the wisdom of Christ manifest to those around us, and especially our children. It is then that our children, and their children’s children will be able to bear witness to the Faith “once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3); to Hope “because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Rm. 5:5): and to Love, “for God so love the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).

If we as pastors, parents, family, mentors and teachers are unwilling to take up the Cross of Christ for ourselves, we should at least do it for our children and their blessed salvation.

By the prayers of the holy martyrs Sophia, Faith, Hope and Love and all the holy men and women who have served the Lord, may we as Christian pastors, parents, family, mentors, and teachers, take up our Cross, that our children might also be able to.

 

 

Growing and blooming where you are planted, and the feast of all Saints of North America

We have often heard the sage words of wisdom that encourage us to  “grow and bloom where we are planted”. There’s something universal in this axiom,  that suggests that people have the qualities to achieve some kind of happiness, and realize their potential no matter what  situation they find themselves in. It stands to reason that something like this would  resonate within the pages of scripture: regardless of whether we have been given one or three talents (Mt. 25:14-29), or whether we are Jews or Greeks, slave or free, male or female (Gal. 3:28) or whether we are married or not (1 Cor 7:7-24), the saving work of Christ is offered to all. More to the point, the Kingdom is not dependent on our being in the perfect place, with the perfect possessions, and having the perfect social status.

These examples (and many other illustrations throughout scripture) articulate the basic message to “grow and bloom where you are planted”, as a means of realizing the goal of happiness (or more appropriately, holiness). For the Christian, it drives home the point that he/she grows and blooms by cooperating with our perfect God who helps us through the Holy Spirit.

History has shown us those men women and children who throughout the ages put on Christ, making His life theirs, growing and blooming into His divine likeness by forsaking the fallen world of sin and corruption. Regardless of whether they were Greek or Ukrainian, in monasteries, or churches, cities or farms, whether they were emperors, or beggars, in palaces or concentration camps, they have revealed the riches of God’s love and mercy that stretches into eternity. We have come to know them as holy, as saints.

This is something to consider as we commemorate the Saints of North America.

The history of Orthodoxy in North America (some 200 years old) is but a drop in the ocean when compared to the nations in which Orthodoxy was established. Those who in faith came to this new world seeking a better life, faced incredible odds and challenges that at times made life here intolerable. But this is not to say that in our short history, and despite the overwhelming challenges, there were not those who blossomed as witnesses of Christ’s saving victory.

Some are well-known like St. Herman, and St. Tikhon, and some are less known, like Matushka Olga of Alaska, or Metropolitan Leonty (who are among those who have yet to be formally recognized as saints, but nonetheless are recognized as those who built the Church). But in every case, we see them doing what Christians have been doing throughout the ages, from the day of Pentecost until now. They have proclaimed ”the Good News” of Christ’s victory and our liberation from sin and death, making real His saving work and the free gift of life in the Holy Spirit.

It might be strange to consider that this has been done in places like Brooklyn, NY through St. Raphael (Hawaweeny) and San Francisco, CA through St. John (Maximovitch), or in Dallas TX where they discovered that the body of Archbishop Dmitri (Royster)was incorrupt and even in Winnipeg  through our locally venerated saint Archbishop Arseny (Chahovtsov). Yet if we really have faith that the Holy Spirit has been poured out on all flesh (Joel 2:28  [3:1 LXX]), and the Gospel has been preached to the ends of the universe (Ps. 19:4 [Ps. 18:4 LXX]), then the presence of the saints isn’t something that is simply reserved for distant lands and traditional Christian cultures. Rather, it is a profound proclamation that the fullness of a life lived in the Holy Spirit is possible even here in North America. This is demonstrated by all  those who grew and bloomed in Christ, and like a carpet of flowers, have covered our continent.

The challenge for us is to see (even seek out) those saints who have shone forth in North America.  They took what would have been to them a strange world and culture, making  it as fertile as the richest soil.

In like manner, we are called to live as they did: loving everyone, speaking peace, being patience and kind, offering good works, remaining faithful, gentle, and selfless (see Gal. 5:22-23). We are called to grow and bloom here in Manitoba, Canada, North America, and bear the fruits of eternal life.

By the prayers of all those saints known and unknown who blossomed in North America, may we be strengthened in this.

Looking to the saints. Becoming saints.

 

There are those moments that confront us now and again, that call into question why we do what we do as Orthodox Christians. How do we know that our prayers mean something, or that our sacrifice of praise at Church on Sunday is not some pantomime to make us feel important and special? How do we know that the faith handed down from generation to generation is divine and full of grace, made manifest by the Holy Spirit? In short, how do we know we are the Church?

Some of the answers to these kinds of questions are found the scriptures: the witness of a God who acts to save humanity from sin and ultimately death. That, along with holy tradition (the context in which we understand scripture and participate in the mysteries of God’s saving work), help humanity understand who God is, who Jesus Christ is and what is the Gospel; and by extension help us understand why we are Christians.

But as scripture can come across as “dead words” or a cultural artifact of a bygone era (as I have been told many times), and holy tradition can be misunderstood as simply the “laws of man”, and can come across as abstract concepts of data to process, and customs to follow, it is the men, women and children who have immersed themselves in scripture, and confessed Christ, who stand out as lights that bear witness to a living faith.

It is one thing to read about God. It is a completely other thing to encounter those who have been transformed and transfigured by God, by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. These are the saints.

From the greatest saint to the least, from those universally known (like St. Nicholas) to those known only to God, the saints are men, women and children who have striven to conquer the challenges of everyday life, fear, injustice, strife and violence, poverty and even death by marking every element of their lives with the love of God who Himself conquered all this by His passion and life-giving death on the cross.

This is something to consider as we bask in the warmth of Pentecost celebrated a week ago. For the saints are those who received the Holy Spirit, God Himself, as if mystically in the upper room on that holy Pentecost after the Lord’s Resurrection, and by the Holy Spirit demonstrated the power of scripture by living it, and manifesting the victory won by Christ by participating with Him, and bearing witness to the love of God poured out on all humanity. By the Spirit, they were (and are) those who confessed that love is stronger than hate, peace stronger than violence, long-suffering stronger than striking, kindness stronger than ambivalence, goodness stronger than wickedness, faithfulness stronger than fear, and self-control stronger than selfishness (Gal 5:22-23).

If their was any question about why we do what we do, the saints make real our purpose by showing us that it is “the Fathers good pleasure to give (us) the kingdom” (Lk. 12:32)

Maybe the questions should be: Do I pray and offer good works like a saint who in his or her love for humanity, makes real the love of God? Do I offer my sacrifice of praise like a saint, who even in death can offer thanksgiving to a God who defeats death by death and shares His victory of eternal life with us? Will I hand down to my family and friends a living faith and inheritance that bears witness to God’s saving work throughout the ages? In short, will I make real the Pentecostal miracle like a saint, and confess that Jesus is the Christ, who abides in us, that we might abide in Him (see 1 Jn. 4:15), and that no “height or depth nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rm. 8:39)?

Father Bob’s Wisdom. The Meeting of the Lord (2009)

Meeting of the Lord

This feast, celebrated on February 2, is known in the Orthodox Church as The Presentation of Christ in the Temple. Another name for the feast is The Meeting of our Lord. Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians call the feast, The Purification of the Holy Virgin. About 450 AD in Jerusalem, people began the custom of holding lighted candles during the Divine Liturgy of this feast day. Therefore, some churches in the West refer to this holy day as Candlemas or the Liturgy of the Candles. The Feast of the Presentation concludes the observances related to the Nativity of Christ, a period that opened on November 15 with the beginning of the Nativity fast.

The story of the Presentation is told in St. Luke’s Gospel which we just read. Mary and Joseph were faithful Jews and observed their religious customs. An important custom was for the couple to take their first-born son to the Temple. The baby was taken to the Temple forty days after his birth and was dedicated to God. In addition, if the parents were wealthy, they were to bring a lamb and a young pigeon or a turtle dove to be offered as a sacrifice at the Temple. The custom provided that if the parents were poor, they were to offer two pigeons or two turtle doves for the sacrifice.

When Jesus was forty days old, Mary and Joseph took Him to the Temple in Jerusalem. They were not wealthy, so they took two turtle doves with them to offer as a sacrifice at the Temple. As they arrived at the Temple, Mary and Joseph were met by a very old man named Simeon. He was a holy man and was noted as a very intelligent scholar. Simeon spent much time studying about the prophets of Israel. It was during his studies that he learned of the coming of the Messiah. The Jewish people were waiting for the Messiah to come and deliver Israel from their conquerors. From that time on, Simeon spent his time praying for the Messiah to come. He spent many years in prayer. Finally, while Simeon was praying he heard the voice of God. God promised Simeon that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah.

He who gave the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai now comes to us in the flesh and submits himself to the requirements of this law, not because He needs to, but to show that He is truly one of us in his humanity.

When Simeon saw Jesus, he took the baby in his arms and blessed the Lord and said: “Lord, now let Your servant go in peace according to Your promise, because my eyes have seen Your salvation which you have prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory to your people Israel.” Part of the reason that Simeon can depart now is that the old covenant with its priesthood has passed away, and on this 40th day, our Great High Priest, Jesus Christ, who is the offerer and who is offered, who is the receiver and the received now replaces the Old Testament priesthood which is no longer in effect, no longer necessary.

Also, in the Temple was Anna the Prophetess. She had been a widow for many years. Anna was about eighty-four years old and spent her time in the Temple worshiping, fasting, and praying. When she saw the Christ Child she praised God and spoke of him to all who were awaiting the Messiah.

After Jesus was presented in the Temple, the family returned to Galilee to the town of Nazareth. The Bible tells us that Jesus grew and became strong, and was filled with wisdom.

The Holy Icon of this feast shows that the meeting takes place inside the Temple and in front of the altar. The altar has a book or a scroll on it and is covered by a canopy. The Theotokos stands to the left and is holding out her hands in a gesture of offering. She has just handed her Son to Simeon.

Christ is shown as a child, but He is not in swaddling clothes. He is clothed in a small dress and his legs are bare. Jesus appears to be giving a blessing. Simeon holds Jesus with both hands which are covered. This shows the reverence Simeon had for the Messiah. Simeon is bare headed and there is nothing to show that he is a priest. Some biblical scholars say that Simeon was probably a priest of the Temple or a Doctor of the Law.

Joseph is behind the Theotokos. He is carrying the two turtle doves for the sacrifice. Anna the Prophetess is also standing behind the Theotokos and is pointing to the Christ child.

The words Simeon spoke when he saw the Christ Child are known as “St. Simeon’s Prayer.” This prayer is sung every day at the evening Vespers services of the Church. I believe that in some western churches this prayer is sung at some funerals, where it is of course, quite appropriate.

In the Orthodox Church, both baby boys and baby girls are taken to the Church on the fortieth day after their birth. This is done in remembrance of the Theotokos and Joseph taking the infant Jesus to the Temple.

We too, bless candles before our Divine Liturgy today. They are beautiful lights. We have to be careful in handling them because we are not accustomed to using them in our daily lives. We burn candles in our churches and homes before our icons as a sign of reverence towards those depicted in the icon. The candles also signify our unending prayer going up to the Lord. It is not sufficient just to light a candle—it is the prayer behind the candle which is important. Even if we somehow had no candles available, the prayer could still be offered of course.

The faithful will take these candles home and use them on special occasions and in their prayers. Strictly speaking, it would be good if all the candles we used throughout the year were blessed in the Church. I have heard of people in other places lighting a blessed candle in their home during a storm. Again, the blessed candles are not magic—God willing, as we light a candle in our homes during a time like that, our prayers are going up to the Lord just as the smoke and light from the candle is ascending.

The candles are of course also reflections of Jesus Christ who is the Light of the world. But the light from the candles can remind us that we too must be lights to others in all our lives. The light that we show forth in our day to day living is even more powerful than the light of a candle—it has much more horsepower or candle power. How we live our daily lives in relationship to God and to our fellow human being is the greatest sermon ever preached.

While it sounds awesome that this old man should hold God Incarnate in his elderly arms, it is no less awesome that we, too, receive God Incarnate and Resurrected, Christ our God in our bodies as we partake of His Holy Body and Precious Blood at Holy communion.

This grief of hope.

Igumen John (Scratch)

Igumen John (Scratch)

This past week has always been a challenge for me and for my family as we remember the passing of both my parents. My mother (Matushka Suzanne Scratch) passed away some 19 years ago on the 10th of January, and my father (Igumen John Scratch) 11 years ago on the 15th . By the Lord’s mercy there is a visible sign of their unity in the timing which they were called. Despite the loss of my parents before their golden years, before they could ever enjoy the blessing of all their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, my grief changed over the years.

In one respect their loss has become easier, less of a burden for me. Time passes; life goes on. Families, work, and the world bring many challenges and blessings that fill the void of such a profound and untimely loss.

It is not as though I do not grieve that mom and dad are not here to see how my children are growing into beautiful and caring people. (My goodness where has the time gone!) I do. But I am comforted by the fact that my children are turning out as they are because of their grandparents’ prayers and intercessions.

It is not as though I do not grieve that mom and dad are not here to give me guidance and advice as I raise a family and serve a community. I do. But I am comforted by the fact that they also struggled to take up their crosses daily (Lk.9:23) in raising a family and serving a community. We are now bearing the fruits of their labours.

It is not as though I do not miss the unconditional love they offered me and many others. I do; and I am comforted that their love for me, for my family and all those whom they encountered, is perfected in the presence of and in response to a loving God who first loved (them) and us (1 Jn. 4:19).

The grief that now fills my heart is a Godly grief that produces hope (2 Cor. 7:10): one of having received a gift that reveals its treasures and blessings in every moment of my life (whether I am paying attention or not); one of having received a gift which builds up and strengthens, brings light and hope; one of having received a full life from my parents, made whole and complete in the saving victory of Jesus Christ. All the while, I know that I am not worthy of such an inheritance of their love, and that I could never offer anything in repayment except my thanksgiving to God.

It has taken me years to see this context in something that hurts so personally. For thanksgiving is the realization that one has been given something one did not have, nor could get independently. This grief of hope looks forward in gratitude, reflecting on what it has received; It declares generosity while confessing one’s poverty. This grief of hope heals our broken hearts through the bitterness of our tears. It is the natural reaction to being loved, even the love of those who have passed away. Maybe that is what makes it so difficult.

Sadly I have forgotten the sound of my parents’ voices, and detailed experiences with them have become impressions and moments. Yet even as the sands of time have eroded details of those memories, the love my parents gave me, my siblings, and family (and not just biological ones) has not been diminished or even swallowed up in death.

The love offered by my parents has been sanctified by the Lord in His love for humanity, reclaiming us by His voluntary assent and death on the Cross, a love made tangible in our descent into the waters of baptism.

The love offered by our departed grandparents, great-grandparents, brothers and sisters, children and friends, is made holy by the Lord’s love that redeems our broken and mortal nature in His Resurrection. This love made tangible profoundly for us, when we are raised up from the baptismal font.

Profoundly, the love offered by people by throughout all the ages is seen to be participating in His pure love, participating in and united with the Source of all love. The Grace of the Holy Spirit fulfills and renews the power of this love in Christians on the feast of Pentecost.

The love offered by my mother and father and all those departed souls around us, has taught us about the Lord’s love, and it is the Lord’s love that has changed the bitter tears of grief over their deaths to warm tears of thanksgiving for His mercy, and my mother and father’s love.

“For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep” (1Thess 4:13).

MAY THEIR MEMORY BE ETERNAL.

Matushka Suzanne Scratch and her little Scratchlings.

Matushka Suzanne Scratch and her little Scratchlings.

Blessing the Red River.

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Why would you bless the Red River?
I was asked this a few weeks ago, and my response was “because it needs it”.
This river (especially), all rivers, oceans, seas, lakes, streams and springs have for generations provided water, food and transportation; being cornerstones of civilization, and life. They sadly have also become a toilet (literally) for waste, sewage, chemicals, and even human misery. These waters, that were once sources of life, are now blights that mask and disfigure the importance of water in our lives. No one will ever confuse the a nice glass of water from your tap and the water that runs through Winnipeg. In this context it is not a far stretch to see some sort of connection between what our water has become, and the plight of humanity.
Like the water that courses through our rivers, humanity was meant to be a source of love, mercy and grace; to be life. Our humanity created to be robed in righteousness, (Isa. 61:10) has become  masked by the rags of sin. Where once it brought life and hope, it now brings decay and sickness and even death. For this reason the Lord acts to save us, becoming like us in every way (except sin) even dying on the cross that he might restore and renew our polluted and stained nature.
That as the Lord of Glory descends into our polluted and sinful humanity, and by the cross restores humanities’ vocation to be life bearing, we bless even our most polluted waters, commending their water to His saving and purifying grace.
The Red River needs to be blessed, in the same way we need to be saved. That we, like those waters that have cultivated life throughout the ages, might cultivate real life, now and in the age to come.
At 2:00 pm tomorrow (Saturday Jan 7th), we will be blessing the Red River at the end of Magnus Ave. at Prichard park. Not the Redwood boat launch (way to much snow there).
There is parking on the street, and  a few pathways down to the river, without having to scamper down a embankment.
Not to worry we won’t be venturing out to far on the ice.
This service is not for the faint at heart, or those who don’t like the cold, so please dress in layers!
As many come are invited by to the Scratches  to warm up after the service