This Thursday we celebrate the feast day of two very blessed saints, whose contribution to our lives today in 21st century North America, can never be overlooked. That of Sts Constantine and his mother Helen.
Had it not been for Constantine’s courage to even consider Christianity (let alone fight for the Roman Empire under the sign of the cross), and to allow it to be practiced freely, would we be serving and praying here some 1700 years latter? Had it not been for the faith and encouragement of Constantine’s mother Helen, Would the future Emperor and Saint, have ever known that Christianity was more than a threat to the imperial cult, and Roman Empire (like every one of his predecessors- just look at the list of martyrs)? Who knows, yet here we are. Glory to God.
There are many (far too many) people who would say that Constantine and Helen were only opportunistic in accepting Christianity. Yet history is full of men and women who when presented with an opportunity to do the right thing, the most successful, or even the only thing, have instead fallen away- out of fear, pride, and selfishness. Not Sts. Constantine and Helen; and the fact we celebrate their memory bears witness to that!
May each decision we make however big or small, bear witness to the Love of the Lord manifested even years if not centuries later.
This week we have the joy of commemorating two profound and wonderful saints who labored here in North America as missionaries, St. Vasily Martysz (Monday May 4th- the 75th anniversary of his martyrdom) and St. Alexis Toth (Thursday May 7th).
Although most people know about St. Alexis, whose conviction that faith of his ancestors, was that of Orthodox Christianity and not Roman Catholicism, manifested the return of millions of Eastern Catholics to Orthodoxy over a hundred years ago. Although the founders of St. Nicholas might not have known of St. Alexis, they certainly followed his example in returning to Orthodoxy from Ukrainian Catholicism when they settled in Narol just over a hundred years ago.
Not as many people know about St. Vasily Martysz, whose service in the Orthodox Church, extended through Alaska, Pennsylvania, Alberta, Russia, and back to his home in Poland. He even served for a time as the Dean of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba (in which he would have being an active element in facilitating the founding of our parish in 1911). I encourage everyone to follow the links and read (or re-read) about their lives and witness.
Nonetheless, like all the saints who have manifested the mercy and love of the Lord throughout the ages, both saints, through their service and labours preserved what was given to them in their role as missionaries. They also insured that we would have an inheritance richer than anything we could ever imagine; that of Orthodox Christianity. As I was thinking about them, and their work, it dawned on me how they both manifested the witness of Joseph of Arimathia and Nicodemus (whom we commemorated this past Sunday) in their lives and labours here in North America.
As both Joseph (Mk. 15:43) and Nicodemus (Jn. 3:1-21) sought out the Lord, both Sts. Alexis and Vasily sought out the Lord, searching for him even if it meant traveling around the world to encounter Him from the woods of Alaska to the rolling hills of Pennsylvania, to the expansive prairies of Canada. As both Joseph and Nicodemus left the security and status of the Jewish Sanhedrin and leadership in following Christ, so too did Sts. Alexis and Vasily in forsaking the security of homelands or denomination, loosing everything to gain Christ.
As both Joseph and Nicodemus did not abandon the Lord, even in death and failure, but in boldness, served Him out of love and thanksgiving taking him down from the Cross, wrapping and anointing Him, and placing Him in a new tomb, so too did Sts. Alexis and Vasily faithfully serve the Chruch, serve the Lord. They did not abandon the small and disjointed Orthodox communities scattered throughout this continent, bruised and beat down by sectarian strife, racism, pressures to assimilate both culturally and spiritually as Americans or Canadians. Rather like Joseph and Nicodemus in the face of unimaginable odds and against unimaginable challenges, offered their love as shepherds for their flocks without care for their own lives.
I suppose you could make this comparison with almost any saint. Yet the connection offered by them to a historical Eastern Orthodoxy manifested in a new world in circumstances that were very familiar to the founders of our Church (even within in our grandparents lives), reveals their work as something close and personal; and by extension, it reveals the witness of Sts. Joseph and Nicodemus equally as something close and personal. The challenge for us today is to preserve what has been given us, by Sts. Alexis and Vasily, and insure for future generations, an inheritance richer than anything one could ever imagine; that of Orthodox Christianity.
By the prayers of St. Joseph and Nicodemus, and of St. Alexis and Vasily, may we be inspired to serve the Lord and neighbor with the same love they manifested.
We are made to see the Love of God in the midst of this catastrophe. For some, turning our hearts towards God can be difficult in the best of times (when we think we are doing so well), and now impossible in times like this, when we would rather think about just caring for ourselves. Yet here we are, remarkably aware that Christ is with us, in the same way that Christ was close to Peter. As He was close enough to Peter to grasp his hands as he sank in the raging waters of fear and anxiety (Mt. 14:30), the Lord is close to each one of us. Alas we can’t see Christ through our own broken hearts and sinful passions.
This closeness is measured in love and not anxiety; in repentance and not regret, in steps and not kilometers (or miles), and it is something to consider as we head into the second half of Great Lent with the Sunday of St. John of the Ladder. St. John called his work THE LADDER (or the Ladder of Divine Ascent), for the book is “a fixed ladder leading from earthly things to the Holy of Holies….” It has been a fixture in the lives of Orthodox Christians since 7th century, associated with the fourth Sunday in Lent.
No ladder is practical, useful, or safe if the steps are spaced too far apart. Equally our faith is unpractical, useless and even dangerous if we believe that God is distant from us. It is a temptation that undermines the reality of a loving Lord. Do we think that we need superhuman faith to be “saved” from drowning by crying for help from a distant ship? Do we think we need to take giant leaps of faith in order to rise above the brokenness? No. The Lord is WITH us. As close as he was to Peter in the Sea of Galilee; as close as that next rung on a ladder, and closer than our next breath.
Our love for God, in thanksgiving for his saving mercy, is a step away from the uncertainty and anxiety of this virus, for He says to us “take courage; I have conquered the world!” I have conquered this virus.
Our movement of repentance from self centered sin, is a step away from inaction and despair. For Christ has forgiven us from the cross, and given us a hope that “does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rm. 5:5).
Our steps towards the Lord and His Kingdom are small movements of heart that reveal the Lord’s love for us “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.” (Philp. 2:6-8).
And this is the mystery that confounds the world around us. For as we step higher towards the Kingdom and the Lord we love, He has in absolute love stepped down to our broken, sick and mortal humanity. How much closer can the Lord be with us even now?
Most of us spend our lives completely oblivious about death, and especially our own death.
Death is an almost mythic circumstance or result that happens in movies, video games, and on TV. Even in our own lives, death is sanitized and swept under the carpet as to seem like someone has gone on a once in a lifetime cruise. Thus “celebration of life” has replaced the funeral. But that doesn’t change the reality, we all will die, Lord have mercy!
The tragedy of our fallen nature is that we are born mortal. It lies dormant in our DNA, it is around the corner, it faces us with those who are angry and insane, abusive, and evil. No one knows when we will die. The thing about the scale and global impact of this virus, is that it shatters the illusion that we will one day ride into the sunset. Sadly not true for any of us.
Christians have to remember, remember and remember, that we have died to this world, to its power, pride, riches, and glory (none of which will save us from death). If we have died to this world in baptism, the words of St. Paul (who knew a thing or two about life and death) ring loud and true.
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.(Rm. 8:18-21). And “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written:“For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.” Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor 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. 8:35-39)
It is Christ who lies sick with those afflicted with the Covid 19 virus. It is Christ who works with those caring for them. It is Christ who has conquered death by His death, and has shared that victory with those who have cast their hope on him saying, “Lord save me” (Mt. 14:10).
This virus, if anything, should thrust us to His saving love, and highlight our affirmation in His words “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (Jn. 16:33)
May the Lord bless our caution and actions, and bring about the end of this sickness, and profoundly, His Kingdom promised to us without cost or measure.
The first week of Great Lent is generally known as clean week, it is a chance for each of us to start anew; with a clean slate so to speak. In this we are given the opportunity to “clean ourselves” by dedicating our consciences, homes, and habits to Christ through prayer, work, fasting, humility, and confession. It starts on the Sunday by asking each others forgiveness, and likewise forgive those who ask us. It continues on Monday and throughout the week, and ultimately to Pascha.
The readings for Monday speak of a dedication, and new beginnings as we start the fast. “…Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes. Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rebuke the oppressor; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow. “Come now, and let us reason together,” says the Lord, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool. If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land…” (Is. 1:16-19, read at the 6th hour) and “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…” (Gen. 1:1 read at Vespers).
Clean week helps us form those habits which reveal not our will but the “Lords will” manifested in mercy love and forgiveness. It is the “Lord’s will” that contrasted with our own will that is highlighted in the the services of clean week, specifically in the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. This service is a dialog between St. Andrew and his soul (and by extension our own souls). We are exhorted to choose the “Lord’s will” as exemplified through the righteous men and women of scripture, contrasted with our own will and sinfulness witnessed in the faithlessness of those charterers in scripture that rejected the Lord’s love.
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), so that proclamation of “Christ is Risen” with is made with clean hearts and consciences that recognize that it is the Lord’s will, not our will that brings a peace and joy that not even death can take away.
This Sunday we begin our methodical and deliberate journey to the joyous feast of Pascha. Although Great Lent formally begins on March 2nd, we are given the three preceding Sundays as an opportunity to understand what it is that we are journeying too, why it is important, and what the journey asks of us.
Through these three Sundays of preparation for the fast, we encounter through scripture, and hymns the themes of: repentance, restoration, hope and love. We also encounter themes of pride, rejection, greed and indifference. All this is given to us that we might see what is of God and His love for us, and what is of our own brokenness and fear.
It is the recalling of our vocation of having put on Christ in our baptism, sealed by Holy Spirit in our Chrismation, and a communicant in Him through eating and drinking His Body and Blood.
This journey to Pascha, this journey to reclaim our vocation, starts with the example of humility exemplified by the Publican in the Gospel for this Sunday. It is humility and not pride that brings restoration to the publican, “a son of Abraham”. It is humility that brings restoration to us, “for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” (Lk. 19:9-10). Humility is the most important element in our journey, in our reclaiming our vocation in Christ. Without it, how can there be real repentance, how can there be any charity and love? There can’t.
Let us begin this journey, this recall of our vocation, with the humility of the Publican, and the assurance that “he who humbles himself will be exalted.”Exalted even on the third day, the Lord’s glorious Pascha.
Something to consider as we light our candles and are illumined by them in our celebration of the feast of the meeting of the Lord and the reception of the “Light to enlighten the Gentiles” (Lk 2:32)
“The candles lit before icons of saints reflect their ardent love for God for Whose sake they gave up everything that man prizes in life, including their very lives, as did the holy apostles, martyrs and others. These candles also mean that these saints are lamps burning for us and providing light for us by their own saintly living, their virtues and their ardent intercession for us before God through their constant prayers by day and night. The burning candles also stand for our ardent zeal and the sincere sacrifice we make out of reverence and gratitude to them for their solicitude on our behalf before God.”
+ St. John of Kronstadt
Blessing of candles. It is always a joy for me, when I turn around to bless the faithful on a Sunday morning, and see our chandelier, and candle stands glowing with warmth and beauty of lit candles . Truly having lit candles in an Orthodox Chruch, is pretty much the expectation for the faithful attending services, and even those who are distantly engaged in the life of the Church, as candles manifest our prayers for family and friends, and our hope in the promise that “light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it “ (Jn. 1:5). It is not as if, without candles our prayers and hope is in vain (obviously they are some Churches that can’t have candles, not to mention situations where open flame is not the smartest thing), but they help us visualize our love for friends and family, and the fact that even the smallest flame can bring clarity and hope in what the Lord does for us in dispelling the darkness of sin and death.
Before we celebrate the Divine Liturgy for the feast of the meeting of the Lord, we will bless candles and pray that by His grace and mercy, the light they share, glows with the same love we have for our neighbour, and a hope that does not disappoint (Heb. 6:18-19), in Christ’s saving victory over the darkness of sin and death.