St. Patrick and the Triumph of Orthodoxy.

I have very deep Irish roots (among every other nationality that I am descendant of), that have there place in this continent when my great, great, great, grandparents landed on the shores of Grosse Île in Quebec during the late 1800’s with the countless thousands that settled in Canada for a new and better life.

That heritage never really had a spiritual context for me especially as an Orthodox Christian, where the bulk of our saints came from the Mediterranean or Slavic world. Of course I knew about St. Patrick an other Celtic and Irish saints, but I never considered that as being more significant than the memory of St. Alexis the man of God (who shares the same feast day with St. Patrick).

This changed for me one day when I had a conversation with my father about his great grandparents and about their generosity and love. I remarked at one point that we, as Orthodox Christians (a priest and deacon to boot)  had totally broken from the cultural and spiritual world that was theirs. He looked at me with a quiet smile (always the indication I was about to be schooled) and said, “not at all!”

I think he noticed my perplexed look, and went on to talk about their culture and more profoundly their faith in Christ, was in fact our heritage as Orthodox Christians, as they were the spiritual children and heirs of St. Patrick and those Celtic saints who manifested the Kingdom  in Ireland.

Our ancestors great faith in Christ had come through the experiences and relationships of family and friends throughout the ages, and even more from the saints. Those known like St. Patrick, and those known only to God prayed (and pray) for their, and our salvation, and our safe shelter in the Orthodox Church; down to this very day. My father went on to quote the Epistle read on this Sunday of Orthodoxy “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith”, (Heb.12:1).

The task he noted was that as Orthodox Christians, and of having Irish decent, we now had to carry on what St. Patrick and those thousands of men and women did. What my great, great, great, grandparents did; “run with endurance the race that is set before us looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith”.

This is something to consider as we celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy, and the establishment of Icons as being proper to our salvation.

The Incarnation made real the Kingdom in the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, and the lives of the saints who bore witness to that Kingdom, even in poverty, rejection, and death. “God with us” and has been with us throughout the ages as depicted in paint and stone. The seeds of faith planted in Ireland some 1600 years ago by St. Patrick, proclaimed this Triumph of Orthodoxy down to my great, great, great, grandparents, down to my father.

The Kingdom of Heaven, God with us, revealed in  Downpatrick Ireland where St. Patrick reposed; the Kingdom of Heaven, God with us, revealed in County Clare Ireland by my forefathers and mothers, the Kingdom of Heaven, revealed in this new country.

With prayer, fasting and charity, as witnessed by St. Patrick, may the Kingdom of Heaven, God with us, be revealed at St. Nicholas in Narol, and past down throughout the world and in every generation.

 

Holy Bishop  Patrick, pray to God For us!

Clean Week and St. Andrew of Crete.

     In many Orthodox Churches and communities, the first week of Great Lent is commonly known as “clean week”, where an extra emphasis is placed on the cleaning of ones conscience, through prayer, service, fasting and humility. It starts on the Sunday when we go around to each other asking forgiveness, and likewise forgiving those who ask us; and it continues on the Monday when we hear or read the first of the many Old Testament lessons appointed for Great Lent.
     Wash yourselves and ye shall be clean; put away the wicked ways from your souls before Mine eyes; cease to do evil; learn to do well. Seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, consider the fatherless, and plead for the widow. Come then, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: Though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white as snow; and though they be red like crimson, I will make them white as wool (6th hour of Clean Monday Isaiah 1:16-18)
     Although this movement continues through to Palm Sunday (one could say it continues through our whole lives), the character of Great Lent is formed in these first few days; Clean week. To help us form this character we are given the opportunity to “seek judgement, relieve the oppressed, consider the fatherless, and plead for the widow”;  and by it encounter the Lord who has come to save us, through the witness of scripture (both old and new Testament) in the hymns and prayers of the Canon of  St. Andrew of Crete.
     The service  is a dialog between St. Andrew and his soul (and by extension each of us and our soul) where the theme is an urgent exhortation to change one’s life. St Andrew always mentions his own sinfulness in striking contrast to God’s abundant mercy, through the use of  literally hundreds of references to good and bad examples from scripture, to “convince himself” to repent (and by extension each of us and our soul).
     St. Andrew’s service, offers us a chance to “Imitate the God-loving deeds of the righteous and shun the sins of the wicked” (Tuesday: Ode 8), and greet the proclamation of “Christ is Risen” on the Lord’s saving Pascha, with truly a clean conscience.
May the Lord bless.

One day, two North American Saints (the feast day of St. Herman of Alaska, and the repose of Fr. Alexander Schmemann).


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)

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.

 

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)?

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.