“What we got” Amen!

As many of you are well aware, the lockdown in Manitoba has been extended for another two weeks, and is already present in many parts of our country. Although this was not unexpected, given the rise in COVID infections following Christmas and New Years, it is nonetheless disappointing. As much as we might think that things should change, or however we might get upset (legitimately or not) we, as Fr. Thomas Hopko would say, “are called to do, as best as we can with what we got, and what we got is this”.

When this all started, I would tell people that “the end is in sight”, or “this will pass”, or “we are almost there”. Well after almost a year of saying this I am finding that the words are ringing sort of hollow. This lockdown could be extended again, or come and go as COVID infections inevitably rise and fall; and given the monumental task of vaccinating our population, we could be facing some sort of restrictions (however great – like not being able to publicly serve at Church, or small – like wearing a face mask) for the better part of 2021. Maybe I am wrong, but it looks like this is “what we got” for awhile. 

This would be totally disheartening if our life as Christians was simply an expression of community, culture, class, or virtualistic conceptions of life. Thankfully our lives as Christians are not expressed in those temporal things, but rather through our faith in a loving and selfless God who seeks to save our broken and mortal nature by assuming it in the God Man Jesus Christ born for our salvation. Transforming it in the Holy Spirit, poured into our hearts, and glorifying it at the right hand of the Father. Indeed as Orthodox Christians, “what we got” indeed is the Kingdom of heaven, that not even “the gates of Hades can prevail against” (Mt.16:18) let alone these restrictions. 

I truly wish I could say in good conscience “the end is in sight”, or “this will pass”, or we are almost there”, but I can’t. The only thing I can say is that Christ is with us in this. He is with us in our loneliness, He is with us in our fear, He is with us in our frustration, He is with us in our injustice, He is with us in our struggles, and poverty, He is with us in our sickness, He is even with us in our death; or to sum it up; Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life. 

I really don’t know what else could be said, or even should be said. Please O gracious and merciful Lord, give us strength to say and hear these words everyday! 

Building a fire and preparing for Theophany.

I have always been challenged when it comes to building fires. They always burn themselves up in a flash because they are mainly fueled by flammable paper;  never catch because I have packed everything tightly with no room for oxygen to feed the fire;  or worse produce a huge cloud of smoke that chokes everyone. Indeed the process  of building a fire is something that I (and many others) overthink and work on; along with many other elements in my life. Especially my life as a Christian. 

And this is something to consider as we prepare ourselves for the blessed feast of the Theophany of our Lord. His baptism in the Jordan river. 

We hear the words of St. John the Baptist calls us, implores us, even warns us to bear the fruits of repentance in preparation of the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the” (Jn. 1:29), and to receive a baptism not of water – that which is created, but of the Holy Spirit – that which is of God. Indeed a baptism of fire. 

The Baptist calls us to build a spiritual fire in our hearts that might set our hearts ablaze with the love of God and neighbour alike. The challenge is to build a fire that burns, bringing warmth and light to those around it. 

Yet we find ourselves stocking a fire with paper and flammable items that, like our emotional response to the love of God, and the blessings bestowed upon us, blaze brightly, but are consumed as quickly as they begin, only to blacken and singe the kindling of prayer,  fasting, good works, humility and mercy. We find ourselves tragically suffocating our sacrifice by heaping on all our rituals, good works, prayers, and principles, yet leaving no room for the Holy Spirit to feed the flames of love and mercy. Worse still, we create a noxious and poisonous cloud of smoke that chokes a life love and mercy out of  ourselves and those around us. 

But if we incline our hearts to the words of the Baptist, and reclaim our baptism in Christ, the spiritual fire we build transforms us the way that paper, kindling, and logs are transformed by fire. 

The emotional responses to God, ignite the kindling of prayer, fasting, good works, humility and mercy, with thanksgiving and praise. This kindling of prayer, fasting, good works, humility and mercy, which burns longer and with warmth to ignite our wooden hearts with a deeper compilation of God’s mercy, that burns throughout the blessings and tragedies of life with light that illuminates the darkness of our broken nature with everlasting life, and warmth, that melts away our cold hearts with eternal love. 

But here is the miracle we prepare for, as paper, kindling and logs, become inseparable by fire, having been changed by fire; and are no longer inanimate elements, becoming alive with heat and light, our lives are changed and transformed by the divine fire that is the baptism of Christ, and more to the point, our baptism with Christ. 

Our emotions, our prayers, our good works, our compilation of God’s mercy, become inseparable in the Holy Spirit, and the finite elements of our nature become by this fire infinite.

Let us prepare for the Theophany of the Lord, and the promise of being baptized not by water, but by the Holy Spirit, and build a fire that lights up the world with God’s love, 

and “offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe;  for our God is a consuming fire.” (Heb. 12:28-29). 

My dad, Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, and becoming children.

The feast of St. Nicholas always brings up the memory of a personal St. Nicholas/ Santa Claus of sorts… My dad. My father of blessed memory, had the perfect qualities to be a professional Santa Claus. As some of you might be aware, he truly was a kind and loving man, easy to talk to, and always willing to help, and pray. He also looked the part, with kind eyes, a round face, stocky build, and most important of all, a long and thick white beard. Yet despite his perfect Santa looks and disposition, he avoided ever being a professional  Santa Claus or “St. Nick” as his responsibility was that of a priest, husband, caregiver, and that they were better people for the job. He would then smile and say that he couldn’t be St. Nick, because  “I could be defrocked for impersonating a Bishop”. This hesitancy to be St. Nick changed when he was asked by both my brother and sister to help out at the Christmas parties they were organizing. My brother worked as a Child and Family resource worker for Children’s Aid in Ontario, and my sister was a Day Care manager at an inner city YMCA in Ottawa. My dad being a softie around little kids (after all he did have six of his own, and scores of grandchildren), reluctantly agreed. 

I called dad after these two appearances, and asked him if he was inundated with long lists of expensive toys and greedy expectations? His answer surprised me. Yes, lists of expensive toys were given; but more than that, heartfelt concerns for family and friends were offered. More often than not, “Santa” was asked to make sure one’s brother or sister had a nice Christmas and was safe, or that mommy or daddy wouldn’t go away, or that they would have a nice home, or that they did a “bad thing” and were sorry that they hurt people because of it.

Dad was struck by how honest and open these children were to a total stranger… well a stranger in the eyes of adults, but in the eyes of every child, a person that cared for them, regardless of where they were from, who their parents were, whether they lived in a foster home, or even if they did “bad things”. Santa Claus, or as we would call him St. Nicholas Archbishop of Myrra in Lycia. 

It truly is a tragedy that the closest these children (and many, many other people) had ever come to a Saint was an over saturated and commercialized version of St. Nicholas – Santa Claus.  But come close they did, with open and concerned hearts beyond anything most of us could consider. My father certainly wasn’t Santa Claus, St. Nicholas (nor a bishop for that matter) yet for these children from broken and struggling homes and families, he was THAT  friend,  mentor, protector, advocate, and intercessor; an icon of who St. Nicholas really is. He described it like looking at a badly painted Icon of St. Nicholas “it looks nothing like the Saint, and is sort of hard to stare at, but you know it is St. Nicholas, and you know that he intercedes out of love for each of us”

“The thing is” he continued “is that behind every Santa Claus, is St. Nicholas. And beyond a bunch of presents under the tree, is a loving mentor, protector, advocate, intercessor for all of us… and maybe only children can see that”. “For us as Orthodox Christians, it is the opposite, behind every St. Nicholas there is a Santa. Yet having all these beautiful Icons and services written in his honour, and having witnessed his saving intersessions before the Lord for us, do we ever pray the way those children did?”  Well my answer was indecisive “no, we don’t”, to which he replied, “well we better start taking to heart the words of the Lord “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 18:10). 

If St. Nicholas – or Santa Claus- can teach us one thing, it is that the heart of a child can see hope and faith, even if it is masked and disgusted by a old priest wearing Santa Claus suit; and despite what we might think, it looks like the love of St. Nicholas poured out throughout the ages as a witness of God’s saving work and mercy.

Pray to God for us Holy Bishop Nicholas

A sister in Christ.

Not many people at St. Nicholas have met Fadi’s Aunt Ramia Toma. Some may have not known of her beyond praying for her during each of our services, and that she donated the beautiful Icon of St. Constantine and Helen. Yet her witness for love of our Lord, in the midst of a debilitating sickness is something that brought her closer to Christ, and closer to us.

At her funeral I talked about the struggle I had coming up with a sermon. Generally before I give a sermon I go for a walk to put things together in my head, and nothing was working. I would start, and then stop, start again and come to a stop unable to make any headway. I couldn’t speak about Ramia, to family and friends who knew her, loved her, were loved by her, cared for her, and were cared for by her; and I couldn’t speak about the providential love of the Lord who worked to save Ramia in her suffering.

Well, I guess I could have spoken about those things honestly, yet they both came across as being either trite, pithy, or sanctimonious given the person Ramia was, and the suffering she went through before she reposed. Then it dawned on me, that instead of preaching about what everyone knew, or preaching a “theological” sermon, I would  preach about what Ramia showed and taught me.

My ever so few interactions with Ramia, chastened me because of my hard heart and skeptical nature. Visits challenged me to look beyond the comforts of life, and to carry my cross. She inspired me with a love of Christ that lacked nothing, her soul was full of a peace and calm that most people could only dream about.

Ramia showed and taught me what faith was, by her faith; for she even, at the darkest moments of pain, knew that Christ and his most holy Mother were with her, and death could not separate her from that love (Rm. 8:38). She showed and taught me about hope; for she clung to the promise that in Christ, and only Christ, could life be lived, fully and eternally. She showed and taught me about humility; for she would look at the Icon of the Most Holy Theotokos, and say, “what is my pain, compared to you seeing your son upon the Cross” and when she would look at the Icon of our Lord crucified, she would say “what is my pain, compared to your love for humanity, which You came to save and heal, and yet You were repaid  with a desolate Cross on which You died for us”. For she had the humility to see that all of this was not about her, but the love of the Lord.

Profoundly she showed and taught me what thanksgiving was. In having nothing (in the eyes of the world) she found something to be thankful for; her family that cared for her, (even her young nephew Matthew’s dry and witty jokes). She was thankful to me and the Church for our prayers and services, and moreover she was thankful every time she received the Eucharist. When she received communion, it was as if all those things that cloud our vision of God’s love, would melt away, the pain, the anxiety, the fear, the concerns, even death itself (which was always a threatening presence). All of it, would be swallowed up in her reception of the Lord’s Body and Blood; the Thanksgiving of all thanksgivings!  

For Ramia’s family and friends, the hard part begins; trying to understand and reconcile the loss of such a loving woman -a profound loss. But if we hold fast to what she showed and taught, there will be that peace she lived out, that chastens, convicting our hard hearts. Ever imploring us to soften our hearts to the love of the Lord in faith, knowing that He has conquered death by His death. A peace that challenges us to look beyond those distractions of a life that is passing away, through humility to see the love of Christ for us manifested upon the Cross; clinging to the hope of the Lord’s saving love that wipes away every last tear (Rev. 21:4).  A peace that inspires us to love God and neighbour alike, for He has love us first (1 Jn. 4:19), and offering our thanksgiving to the Lord for His victory over death, shared with us in the Eucharist. Oh, that we would approach the chalice with her tears of thanksgiving! 

For those at St. Nicholas who never knew Ramia, or only knew her briefly; the hard part is to understand and reconcile that the faith, hope, humility, and thanksgiving that she offered the Lord through unimaginable circumstances, revealed the “one thing needed…which will not be taken away from her” (Lk. 10:42); life, true life (Jn. 17:3). It is a life that chastens, challenges, and inspires us to seek greater peace, and enter deeper communion with our Lord, who in His love for us “appeared on earth and lived among men. Becoming incarnate from a holy virgin, He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being conformed to the body of our lowliness, that He might conform us to the image of His glory” (Anaphora of St. Basil). 

The blessing is that we have Ramia showing and teaching us, praying for us, as we pray for her. Truly a sister in the Risen and Glorified Christ! 

Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!

Χριστὸς ἀνέστη! Ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη!

!المسيح قام! حقا قام

May her memory be eternal. 

The paradox of sanctity.

As Christians we should recognize paradox after paradox in the scriptures, and life of the Church, that on the surface seems to make no sense. Yet, we are called to live out those paradoxes, regardless if they are the Beatitudes sung at every Liturgy,  or to “love our enemies (Mt. 5:43)and ultimately to “lose our life that we might save it” (Mk. 8:35)by  “taking up our cross and following Christ” (Lk. 9:33). We see Abraham and Sarah, given the promise that their descendants will be greater than the stars of heaven, despite being barren, and we see the image of a serpent being raised -bringing healing to the sick and suffering Israelites in Sinai. The most profound paradox of a Virgin birth of the Incarnate God; Jesus Christ “light of light, true God of true God” “who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God,  but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men” (Phip. 2:6-7)

We also see these paradoxes in the life of the Church. We are hierarchical, yet at our core we are conciliatory, we have Canons and rules, yet also have economia and flexibility. We are steeped in tradition, yet are ever meeting current circumstances, we look back with reverence on our history and stories, but are always looking forward to the future of the Kingdom. As we consider the the 74th anniversary of the repose of Archbishop Arseny (Chahovstov) of Winnipeg (Oct. 4th 1946), we see how our broken, mortal and sinful humanity can, by Grace, be recognized and revered as holy, as “Saints”.

Each paradox presents us an opportunity to find resolution in the person of Jesus Christ. It is in His abiding presence, manifested by the Holy Spirit,  that the infinite encounters the finite to fill it eternally, and the Lord of Glory meets a sinful humanity to redeem it  eternally. 
For those who have responded to the call of the Lord, all those paradoxes (that we struggle to understand) are smoothed over and made clear and plain. We see in those who have cried out like Isaiah “Lord send me” (Is. 6:8), exemplary lives and the manifestation of faith in God. We see the perfection in all the virtues, which are crowned by standing up for the faith, even unto the shedding of blood. We also see the manifestations of wonders and signs (miracles) as signs of God. Indeed these are the  “holy ones of God”, these are the Saints of our Church.

In sharp contrast to the perceived notion that saints are made when the Church Hierarchy says so ( a “top down” process); the  Orthodox Church’s  method of recognizing a Saint, has always been somewhat of a “bottom up” process. The faithful (of one region or another), continue a relationship they had with those who served them even after their death, bestowing the description of “holy” because they did the Holy work of God. Sometimes those descriptions change from describing their actions (so-and-so did holy work), to defining them by those actions (so-and-so is holy because they did that work). In short, calling  them a “Saint”. Sometimes (but not often) the Church Hierarchy will take notice of these holy people, and proclaim their sanctity by Glorifying or Canonizing them. 

Our encounter with Archbishop Arseny, started over a hundred years ago as a missionary in the United States, and then in Canada. From his first assignments in Eastern Pennsylvania assisting St. Alexis Toth’s mission of reuniting Ukrainian, and Carpatho-Rusyns to Orthodoxy, to the founding of St. Tikhon’s (in 1905) monastery and pastoral school (1910) a source of blessing for over a century. In 1908 he was assigned to Holy Trinity Sobor in Winnipeg MB with the task of organizing and founding parishes for the thousands of Ukrainian and Romanian settlers flocking to the Prairies (and the continued work reuniting them to the Orthodox Church). This led to a golden era in the life of the Church in Canada. After a return to Russia for health reasons, and the ensuing chaos following the Russian Revolution, he was elevated to the Episcopate in Serbia to be the bishop of Canada at the request of Metropolitan Platon. 

When he returned to Canada (in 1926), the eclisaticial order he had put in place 25 years earlier was in ruins. Communities and families were divided, and violent and mindless acts committed even in the name of Christ (Lord have mercy!). He was wounded by agitators in Canora Saskatchewan (He would suffer these injuries for the remainder of his life), and suffered the slander of lies and evil among his detractors. Yet his work in these difficult and dangerous times, ensured that communities like ours at St. Nicholas in Narol (and many others) had a future that transcended nationality, politics, and culture. Through his constant proclamation of the Gospel narrative “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.”, (Mt. 24:35) . Suffering from his injury, his tireless work in serving a diocese that stretched across six provinces, and his age, Archbishop Arseny was compelled to retire in 1937 at the monastery he founded, where he passed away in 1946. 

It is impossible for us today to consider the challenge of traveling across this country multiple times in the days before air travel, yet those thousands and thousands of kilometers were at heart, the missionary witness of God’s love for humanity. Built upon the foundation of Christ with the tools of humility and repentance. 

In light of all this, the question is, how are we to understand the life and role of our Blessed Archbishop Arseny in the Church? Is he a Saint or not? 

These labours indeed demonstrated his  irreproachable faith in God, and perfection in all the virtues, by seeing  how he served out of love, and how he loved those whom he served. His work was, crowned by standing up for the faith, proclaiming the unity of the Orthodox Faith that stretched beyond nations, politics and cultures; even unto the shedding of his blood in being shot for his unwavering fidelity to Christ and suffering slander for His sake. And finally, his work manifested the miracles of God . 

For me this last point is so very poignant. That although surrounded by scores empty Churches (even Orthodox ones), in a culture that wants nothing to do with Christianity, or does not want to pay the cost of that life in Christ; I am part of  community that Archbishop Arseny laboured in and for all those years ago. A growing community of young families, individuals, seniors, professionals and students (most of whom have no historic or cultural connection to Orthodoxy). This is truly a miracle of miracles.

 There is no doubt in my mind that Archbishop Arseny did those holy works of God, and is indeed holy, a “saint” in every sense of the word. His was a journey to reconcile the paradox of “becoming by grace everything that God is, by nature” (St. Athanasius) as exemplified by his loving and dedicated service to God and neighbour alike.

Yet, who am I to say who a saint is -or not; after all this is a “bottom up process”. This recognition of sanctity is the work of the faithful who are encountering  and continuing a relationship with Archbishop Arseny; and continue to describe him as “holy” because he did the Holy work of God, and call him “holy” (even call him  “Saint”) because he manifested the love of God that not even death can end.

The road to Canonization and Glorification is not an easy or simple one, but neither is living a Christian life; indeed they are paradoxes. But we see in the life of the Blessed Arseny, the resolution and unity of something that is impossible to do without God. Be Christians, be Saints.

Christ indeed desires to make us saints, and consecrate our lives as Christians, and it is only by His love, a divine love, that a finite and mortal humanity, can be transformed into icons of HIs image and according to His likeness (Gen. 1:26). It is how the conciliatory   nature of our Church can be Hierarchical, for they spring from the same font that is Christ, the King of Glory, and yet He has come that He might serve (Mt. 20:28).  It is how our Canons and rules can be applied with economy and flexibility, for the “Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath”, as He is the “Lord of the Sabbath” (Mk. 2:27-28). It is how the present circumstances of life can find context in our rich tradition, for our tradition leads us to “the Way the Truth and the Life”(Jn. 14:6). It is how looking forward to the Kingdom has been already manifested throughout history with every saving encounter with Jesus Christ. And on this anniversary of Archbishop Arseny’s repose, how our relationship with him, as broken and sinful as he might have been, is reconciled and healed, revealing what is Holy. A life in,  with, and through Jesus Christ.

We should not get hung up on the question of whether such a holy man like our Archbishop Arseny is a “Saint” or not; or if he will ever be formally glorified or not (although it is our prayerful hope). These considerations are ultimately redundant, because they do not change the relationship in Christ we have with him and with the miracles manifested through him (like my little Church outside Winnipeg). His love, work and prayers offered to the Lord on our behalf, did not end 74 years ago when he fell asleep in the Lord. Rather they began anew, stretching into the eternal Kingdom of God.

Truly, this is a paradox that makes no sense, but neither does the Lord taking on our human nature, and suffering death upon the Cross in His love for humanity. It is only in Christ that this paradox (and all those paradoxes) reveal the wonder of God’s love. And by extension, reveal in Archbishop Arseny that love manifested around us. Regardless of what prefix he has in front of his name. 

By the prayers of our loving and dedicated Archbishop Arseny, may we have the eyes to see this. 

“Beneath your compassion”

This Thursday  Oct 1st  we celebrate the feast of the Protection of the Theotokos. This service started as a commemoration of the deliverance of Constantinople from the invasion of the Slavs, but has through the centuries become a service that is a commemoration not only this historical event (even more ironic as it is feast that is precious in the hearts of Slavic Churches), but also a commemoration of the intercessions made for us by the most holy Theotokos.

We might not be under the assault of invading barbarians, but we are constantly assaulted by the trials and tribulations of life, that seek to discourage, and separate us from the love of the Lord. Yet through all these assaults, the Virgin Mary intercedes with tears and compassion over our situations, and she stretches out her veil of protection on us, as she did over Constantinople those centuries ago. 

Last year my wife commissioned an Icon of the Protection of the Mother of God from our beloved Fr. Vladimir. In this beautiful Icon the Theotokos is doing just that, protecting us, literally. Beyond her beautiful and prayerful stance and poise, we see her covering our little Church of St. Nicholas, and the building the Mission in Winkler was serving at, all beneath her protecting veil.

Such a profound statement of the Theotokos’ love for my wife and family, and all our family at St. Nicholas and the Mission. The Theotokos is indeed an Icon of motherly love that brings us the peace of her son, and the consolation of His saving victory over death and sin, around the world, and especially here. May we have the eyes of faith to see that love and protection stretched over us at St. Nicholas and the Mission in Winkler, and the whole of the world, even in the darkest times. Most Holy Theotokos save us!

Some Perspective.

It is a challenge serving a fraction of the parish. Given the direction to have only 30% occupancy at St. Nicholas at any one service, it can be disheartening for me, and I worry that it also can be disheartening to some. The church seems almost empty on Sunday morning (considering what the attendance was pre-Covid) there is the temptation to think our joyful resurrectional prayer life together as a family in Christ could be forgotten in this pandemic.

But last weekend I had a chance to see beyond our current circumstances and gain some perspective. I served on Saturday in Winkler at the Mission, where there were 25 people, the early Liturgy at St. Nicholas with Fr. Stephen had about 28 people (2 less than full capacity) and I had about 27 people at the second Liturgy (3 less than capacity). Between all three services we had about 80 people! These are numbers we would not have seen before the pandemic! 

Although we seem disjointed and small, and this pandemic has forced us to do things we never ever conceived, we in reality are still the same strong community built on the foundation of faith that is Jesus Christ. It is hard to see that when one only gets a glimpse of sparsely attended service, with only one canter (as I was experiencing), but when we see each fraction as part of the whole (as I did last weekend), we see a “family” that has not grown despondent, but in fact has grown with love and joy. This has everything to do with the faith and love each of you has offered, for which I am eternally thankful for.

Faith, in Jesus Christ, He who is the Way, the Life and the Truth, and we are truly the Church, His body, united in His divine love, greater than this pandemic, greater than even death. 
Love, for it is here at St. Nicholas, that He who is love (1Jn. 4:7) shares His love for humanity. Not in some abstract or simply spiritual way, but sacramentally in our reception of the Eucharist, His Body and Blood. This same offering of the faithful at St. Nicholas unites our disjointed little groups, with each other, and our  little(ish) parish with the whole of the Orthodox world, whether it be in Kyiv, Ottawa, Washington, or Nairobi, and profoundly with the Kingdom of God that we proclaim at the beginning of every Liturgy! This is perspective! May the Lord bless your time and efforts with peace , mercy and joy! 

House of God in Jerusalem, and everywhere.

The feast of the founding of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

This Sunday (Sept. 13th) we celebrate the feast of the founding one of the most important Churches in world, the Holy Sepulcher, built over the tomb of our Lord, and the site where He was crucified. 

We commemorate this event, not simply because it is a historic milestone in the establishment of Christianity throughout the world (it was that), or because this was a magnificent building like Hagia Sophia in Constantinople or St. Peters in Rome (it certainly is), or that it was the first Church (it wasn’t). We commemorate this event, because like all our Churches, whether they are like our St. Nicholas in Narol, or like a store front mission, our commemoration manifests the Kingdom of God, the economy of salvation, and the fount of God’s grace, in the world. Every Church throughout the ages (from the house Churches in the Apostolic era, to the magnificent cathedrals of Byzantium) is modeled spiritually and dogmatically (if not architecturally) by where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is located. The place where the Lord rose on the third day.

We hear in the reading for this feast King Solomon’s words at the founding of the temple in Jerusalem, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You. How much less this temple which I have built!” (3[1] Kings 8:27). Indeed no Church is the home of God, let alone the only place in which we can encounter His saving mercy. Yet as Solomon continues to pray, “That Your eyes may be open toward this temple night and day, toward the place of which You said, ‘My name shall be there,’ that You may hear the prayer which Your servant makes toward this place. And may You hear the supplication of Your servant and of Your people Israel, when they pray toward this place. Hear in heaven Your dwelling place; and when You hear, forgive”. (3[1] Kings 8:29-30).  

For no Church is truly a Church in and of itself in the same way no Christian is a Christian in and of themselves. It is only a Church (or a Christian) when the faithful are gathered together to offer worship and praise ( Latreía and Doxology) in thanksgiving (Eucharist) for the victory of the Lord, over sin and death shared with humanity, in Jesus Christ. This is unfolded for us beautifully in the Epistle read for this feast (and read at the concentration of any Orthodox Church) “Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of the heavenly calling, consider the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, Christ Jesus, who was faithful to Him who appointed Him, as Moses also was faithful in all His house. For this One has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses, inasmuch as He who built the house has more honor than the house.
For every house is built by someone, but He who built all things is God”
(Heb. 3:1-4).

Our “heavenly calling” is built upon our confession that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Mt. 16:16), and in our Churches that this confession can be made, as it is there that the Kingdom of God is present, the economy of salvation revealed, and that  the fount of God’s grace overflows. Because it is in our Churches, however big or small, beautifully adorned or humbly furnished, where the King of Glory, rose from the dead on that beautiful third day, granting life to the world. 
This feast is as much a celebration of all our Churches, as it is a celebration of the consecration of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.

Glory to God! 

The Right-Believing Pulcheria.

Today we commemorate one of my favorite Imperial saints of the Orthodox Church The Right-Believing Pulcheria, Roman/Byzantine Empress (399- 453). 

The balance between political expediency, and a faithful Christian life, is almost impossible to consider; whether it be 1500 years ago, or today in a democratic society. Yet, the witness that St. Pulcheria offered the Roman/Byzantine world, and our own time, speaks volumes to the “one thing needful” (Lk. 10:42) to those who govern, and to ourselves.

Pulcheria was the older sister of the Emperor Theodosious II  and Pulcheria ruled as regent (at about 15 years old) in the Eastern Roman Empire, and then upon the death of her brother, became Empress with her husband, the Right-Believing Marcian (450-453). She marked her reign with humility and remarkably, her desire to live in virginity (living with her husband as brother and sister). Despising the luxuries of being the Augusta of the Empire, and the social expectations of marrying and having heirs, she devoted herself to the care of the sick and needy of the Empire, to her Christian faith, and especially to the Theotokos and ever virgin Mary, who she saw as the role model of a perfect Christian. 
It could be said that she championed the importance and scriptural witness of the Theotokos in the time of Nestorius (the heretical Patriarch who claimed that Jesus was not perfect man and perfect God as His divinity was separate from His humanity, and that the ever virgin Mary was not the

Theotokos – God bearer- but was instead the Christotokos – Christ bearer). Pulcherias’ brother, Theodisous called what is now commemorated as the Third Ecumenical council, where Nestorious and his teachings were condemned. St. Pulcherias advocacy and dedication to the Theotokos, and her life of striving to follow her example of faith and compassion, lead many to proclaim at the end of the council “The virgin Mary has deposed Nestorius. Many years to Pulcheria, she is the one who has strengthened our faith”. 

The question that could be asked of our politicians today (especially those who identify as Christians), and all of us, is whether we are strengthening the faith? Do we attend to the foot of our Lord and hear the words of peace and life, or bustle about with the business of the day? Do we bear in our hearts the Incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ, or do we bear the concerns of life, and  the anxieties of ordering our homes, work and institutions?
History has in general pictured St. Pulcheria as a single minded zealot (disregarding her principled virginity, humility, and compassion), or an overarching political opportunist. But we as faithful Christians, see a woman, who did what many women at the time could not do, what leaders throughout the ages could not do. St. Pulcheria, following the Most Holy Theotokos’ example, directed everyone to heed to the Lord as she did at the wedding in Cana. “Whatever He (the Lord)

says to you, do it.” (Jn. 2:5). In this we see the miracle of broken politics, and routine changed from tasteless water, into the sweetest wine of eternal life. 

Most holy Pulcheria, pray for us.  

A new beginning, with old problems.

With the advent of September many of us come to the end of holidays. A new school year unfolds, new cycles in at work start, and there is harvest to collect. These changes of routine are almost instinctual, and we don’t think twice about them. It is just what one does, as one has ever done.

Yet this year we are having to consider those changes in a world gripped by a pandemic that stopped everyone dead in their tracks; begging the question of how can we “begin” with the threat of sickness and death hanging over us. The old problem.

It is a challenge that we should not take lightly, especially here in Manitoba where infection rates are on the rise. As we have done since this pandemic hit, and since restrictions were eased, we are careful and mindful of ourselves and others. We do those things asked of us by our Provincial and regional health authority (physical distancing, hand washing, self monitoring, masks ect.) and we manage our behavior in such a way as not to be a scandal to others, or to be an agent of contagion (God forbid). 

But even with these precautions, and the changes to everything that are put in place to insure our health, the new beginning that is the fall, is one saddled with the age old problem of insuring our safety and health.

On the surface, the beginning of a Ecclesiastical (Church) new year does not promise us the safety and security, the bounty and the rewards that we have become accustomed to with the new beginnings of anything (that sense of starting over with a clean slate). but if we look deeper, we find in this beginning, the manifestation of the Lord’s love for humanity. We hear from the Gospel of this feast, “The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD… And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4:18-19, 21). 

It is not as if those in Israel did not have to worry about the challenges of life after their encounter with the Lord in the Synagogue (challenges that make the Covid-19 pandemic seem like a common cold), nor did those in the Roman (Byzantine) empire, in hearing those words, not have to worry about the challenges of their day (not much better than those in Israel in Christ’s time). Of course they all had to do those things that safeguarded their families and welfare; but the Lord was proclaiming to them, as to us today, something much greater.

As it was for those who heard Christ on that day in the Synagogue, and for those in Constantinople who heard this Gospel in the Great Church, this proclamation speaks to us. It is a beginning that doesn’t necessarily speak about  the liberation from the challenges of life (like this pandemic); but more profoundly speaks about the liberation from a cycle of sin and death.

The beginning of the Ecclesiastical (Church) new year, is like the beginning of any year, month, week, day, or moment, where the “Good news” of the Lord’s victory over sin and death is shared with even the poorest soul, bringing hope that death can not vanquish. Where our broken hearts are healed with a divine love, and not the fleeting love this world offers. Where we are set free from the captivity of shame and fear, by our Lord and God, who takes on our nature, to free it eternally. Where we see what real love looks like in the person of the Incarnate Son of God Jesus Christ, and not just an abstracted philosophy or idea. Where we are exalted by His life and not by empty promises.  Indeed this is “acceptable year of the Lord” that even in the midst of the chaos of this pandemic, promises a new beginning, and the hope of a resolution with Him eternally. 

I can think of no better way to start the Church new year, school year, cycle at work, a harvest, or even a day. May the Lord bless and strengthen us in this.