The witness of Orthodoxy did not begin in North America with elaborate missionary plans, and programs, but with a handful of monks including our blessed St. Herman, from the Valaam monastery who arrived in Alaska in 1794. The spiritual home of Orthodoxy in North America is not in some palatial and beautiful cathedral in the largest city, but a hand-dug cave that served as his monastic cell and then grave, on an isolated island (Spruce Island). Maybe it is because of the humble beginning of Orthodoxy in North America that the Lord saw fit to take what was foolish in the eyes of the world, and glorify it (1 Cor. 1:18-25), blessing our continent with the saving grace of God’s mercy.
St. Herman was the cornerstone of the tiny Alaskan Orthodox mission. He dedicated his life to God through repentance, prayer, and he served the local Aleut tribes with devotion and selflessness. The example of Orthodoxy’s start in North America should be something of a light for those who are desperately looking for some genuine witness of love, selflessness and humility (especially when it comes to the positive and affirming interaction of Christianity with Indigenous peoples).
It is for those wanting to see a concrete demonstration of God’s mercy in the craziness of 21st century, the life of St. Herman is so important. For as the Lord blessed his labours and love even in isolation and seeming insignificance, He can bless our labours and love. Our Church in North America is a witness of this, our Archdiocese is a witness of this, our little parish is a profound witness of this.
Let us not be disheartened by our lack of resources, our lack of time, our lack of power, but follow the example of offering sacrifice of praise to Christ, seeking His mercy and life itself (Jn. 14:6), and bearing that life to the world.
Great Vespers will be served on Tuesday evening (Dec. 12th) at 6:00 pm and Divine Liturgy on Wednesday morning (Dec. 13th) at 10:00 am
+ Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann (1983)
It is very providential that Fr. Alexander Schmemann reposed in the Lord on the feast day of St. Herman. Although separated by centuries, and cultures, Fr. Alexander’s zeal for the fullness of the faith, complemented the work done by St. Herman in proclaiming a living and dynamic Christianity to a whole new world. Fr. Alexander’s work and countless writings made something seemingly foreign, exotic and esoteric, into something that is accessible and normative for those wanting a deeper and more intimate relationship with our loving God.
It is not an exaggeration that without the freshness and accessibility of Fr. Alexander’s writings (at the time there were very very few books about Orthodoxy theology written by Orthodox Christians available in English), my parents might never have become Orthodox, and by extension I might never have become Orthodox, yet alone a priest!
Our Church today in North America has in many ways been shaped by his love of God, and his tireless proclamation of the Lord’s salvation and victory as manifested in the sacramental life of the Church (especially through the Eucharist). Like St. Herman, the work of Fr. Alexander has been a witness of the Lord’s love as lived out by the Church in North America, our Archdiocese, and especially our little parish.
May his memory be eternal.
We will serve a Panikhida for Fr. Alexander after Vespers on Tuesday (Dec. 12th)
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.
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.
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 preachesthe 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.
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.
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.
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)?
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).
Of the issues and challenges facing all Christians, especially the ancient Orthodox Church, none is greater than understanding the nature of sin.
Because issues like physician-assisted suicide, same sex marriage, gender equality, abortion, nationalism, present seemingly insurmountable challenges to how Christians bear witness to the saving work of Jesus Christ, we are left as mute as fish when asked the hard questions about what it is to be human in a world ravaged by violence, poverty, injustice, war, pornography and exploitation. It is our inability to deal with the issue of sin (the underlying element in the above-mentioned concerns) and to repent properly, that paralyze us.
Sin. This is the one issue that pastors, priests, and faithful alike either talk about all the time, or never mention. This was highlighted to me recently when a young man related to me that he has been bouncing around between Churches, only ever hearing about either the burning judgement of sinners, or that everything is happy and sin doesn’t matter at all.
Although one might not find such extremes in the Orthodox Church, to one degree or another, we as Christians vacillate between both. Regardless if it is burning hellfire, or fluffy clouds, our reaction to sin tends to be more about an external choice, than the inclination of the heart.
The problem is that both perspectives are different sides of the same coin, where sin is seen more as an exclusive legal definition or status, the result of breaking divine canons, and choosing the laws of man over the laws of God. Although there is some merit to this point of view, it is only an aspect of understanding the nature of sin. This approach was not a factor shaping the Orthodox teaching of salvation and the work of God in humanity. In short, it is incompatible with the whole Christian experience.
The verb for sin comes from the Greek word “hamartia” which simply means straying off the path, or missing the mark. And whether it is intentional or unintentional, it has more to do with the disposition and inclination of one’s heart to God, and neighbour, and ourselves. Instead of following the path of righteousness towards our Creator, and serving our brothers and sisters, in the excellent way of humility which the Lord showed us,, we follow our own path, skewing the aim of glory and everlasting life by our own targets, desires and passions.
To be fair, some sin carries with it greater consequences and legal ramifications, but no matter how great that sin might be, such as those of the prostitute who came to Christ at Simon the Pharisee’s house (Lk. 7) or how innocent it might be (such as a white lie), it is the perversion of our will, that seeks its own end (no matter how futile it might be) at the expense of God, neighbour, and especially our health and wellbeing.
We are given the life of St. Mary of Egypt on this last Sunday of Great Lent in order, to consider not only what sin is and how it affects our lives, but to consider the abounding forgiveness that Christ to offers all humanity. We, like St. Mary and the prostitute in the Gospel of St. Luke (read in honour of St. Mary), are to one degree or another are broken and storm-tossed by urges, desires, passions and anxieties. We struggle to do what is right, to rise above our mistakes, shortcomings, and sin. And like St. Mary we find ourselves stuck on the threshold of something great and profound, spiritually barred from entering and encountering the life-saving wood of the Cross (her conversion happened at the feast of the Exaltaion of the Cross, Sept. 14th); barred from encountering a God who offers Himself for the life of the world in His passion, death and Resurrection.
And like her, we, no matter how hard we might try, find ourselves spiritually blocked, and exhausted. We find ourselves looking to do what is right, but unwilling to accept the reasons for why it is right; wanting to be loved, without being willing to surrender to that love, and offer our love back. It is in the reflecting upon her life that we see her comprehension of what sin is, its causes and effects, but more importantly we see the love needed in order to effect profound change in her repenting heart.
St. Mary’s conversion was not simply a status, from bad to good, or an acceptance of a legal formula and principle, motivated by the fear of eternal punishment, nor was it a realization that her sins didn’t really matter. It was the profound change of her heart, a true repentance inspired by her love of Christ who loved her first (1Jn 4:19). For like the prostitute at Simon’s house she loved much, and much was forgiven.
We can explain away sin as antiquated or unjust legal principles; we can make sin a legal principle, defining and condemning those whom we consider “bad”. But only love can change our heart, showing sin to be what it is: missing of the mark of a life in Christ Jesus.
Only the love of God and neighbour can kindle the fire that burns up the thorns of those transgressions that choke our hearts. Only love can heal and bring resolution, breaking down the wall of enmity that separates humanity from God. Only love can strengthen us to walk with Christ to His life-giving passion, and only love can help us look beyond the despair of the pierced and broken body of our Lord laid in a new tomb. And only love can reveal the miracle of the empty tomb on the third day.
Only love can enable us to receive the free gift of life and the forgiveness of sins. Those who come to the Lord in confession, receive forgiveness that at the hands of the priest who offering the prayer of absolution says:
“May God who forgave David through Nathan the prophet when he confessed his sins and Peter weeping bitterly for His denial, the sinful women weeping at His feet, the tax collector and the prodigal; may that same God forgive you all things through me a sinner both in this age and the in the age to come, and set you uncondemned before His dread judgment seat. And now having no further cares for the sins which you have confessed, go in peace.”
Understanding the nature of sin and explaining it in this broken world, might be the biggest challenge facing Christianity. But it is the change of our heart, our repentance cultivated by love that leaves sin empty, and death its most terrible expression, mute, as the proclamation that “Christ is Risen” is shouted from the roof tops.
The whole of our life, is to actualize the image of God, and achieving the divine likeness that humanity was created in. Every day should be a movement towards this; yet we find that the cares of our daily lives, and the concerns for this and that, slowly mask and cover who we are in the eyes of God.
The Church gives us the tools of increased fasting, prayer, almsgiving, and good works during this season of Great Lent, to help peel away those masks of security and comfort from our lives, revealing our blessed nature. Yet these elements are not automatic guarantees of this happening. We don’t engage in these struggles to gain favor by checking off one task or the other; we engage in these struggles to identify with a God who identifies with our broken humanity.
He is a God who empties Himself “and being found in human form He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a Cross”. (Phil 2:7-9). And this is the point: that by the Cross, the Lord breaks down the division between humanity and God, not as some act of payment or punishment on our behalf, but out of love. The Lord perfects our nature, and shares it with us in His Resurrection.
As we enter into the middle of the fast, the Church presents for consideration this Cross of Christ, to remind us of the centrality of the Cross in our life. This must be the beginning of our journey and the destination of our journey-to be truly alive. This Cross of our Lord reminds us that our fasting is not simply a labour independent of God, but a labour that shows the love of Jesus Christ who out of love surrender even His will to the Father, for our sake.
We can go through our whole life fasting, serving, reading, working for the good of others. But unless we, like our gracious Lord, surrender our will, our passions, our security, our life on the Cross out of love for God and neighbour, nothing we could ever do (however good it might be) would help us see that it is God upon the Cross, and not some mortal victim. And sadly we would not see the love poured out for us, and live the life offered to us.