To be loved is to be forgiven. To love is to forgive.

Having prepared for the our journey to Great Lent by seeing Zacchaeus’  humility, the Publican’s repentance, and the  Prodigal Son’s return;  and having contemplated the Last Judgment and the fruits of repentance, we now stand at the threshold of the Fast, and hear the word of the Lord “if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” (Mt. 6:14). Indeed forgiveness is the keystone that holds our Christian life together, and manifests the love of God for us. 

It is this divine love that holds all things together being both sacrificial and unfettered with demands and conditions. It is a love that forgives us “even while we were still sinner” (Rm. 5:8); even from the Cross. 

It is at the foot of the cross where we see the perfect love of God suffering because He loved us; and it is where we hear His words “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” (Lk. 23:34). The question is how will we respond to that forgiveness?

It is not rocket science to understand that to be loved is the primary foundation in which to love. Loving homes  produce loving families, loving families produce loving children, loving Churches produce loving communities, loving people produce more loving people. One doesn’t have to be a Orthodox Christian, let alone a Christians to understand this. For if forgiveness is the ultimate expression of love, the same logic applies to forgiveness. 

Forgiving homes produce forgiving families, forgiving families  produce forgiving children, forgiving  Churches produce forgiving communities, forgiving people produce more forgiving people. It stands to reason that we can not love if we are not loved, and we certainly can not forgive if we are not forgiven. But here is the thing. We are indeed loved, and we are indeed forgiven! 

Our Lenten journey of repentance should help us see the love of God for us,  manifested in everything that surrounds us; and profoundly it should reveal His forgiveness for us, and in turn love and forgive those around us. 

Yet what good is the love of God and His forgiveness for us, if we are unwilling to accept it and offer it in return to those around us. Love is simply idolatry if it is not shared sacrificially, and forgiveness is  a cheap sentiment or  business transaction  if it is not offered out of love.

To accept God’s love is to participate in God’s saving and redemptive life, and to bear witness to that love in our relationships. To accept God’s forgiveness is to equally participate in His just and merciful love, and to bear witness to it in our relationships. 

To refuse to love and forgive -even those who hate you- (Mt. 5:44), is to hear the words of forgiveness offered from the Cross, and to leave it beating our breasts without understanding and consultation, or even worse, to mock him spitefully. Lord have mercy! 

May we take this season of fasting, mercy and prayer to learn to love as He has loved us, and profoundly manifest that life saving love in our forgiveness of those around us. Holding fast to His words “forgive us our trespasses  as we forgive those who trespass (indebted)  against us”. 

The Judgement of love.

This past Sunday of the Last Judgment set before us the end of our journey The Lord’s saving victory over death and sin. Pascha. It is on that blessed day that we enter the empty tomb and even participate in this victory over death, the “last enemy” (1Cor. 15:26). It calls the whole world to participate, regardless of who they are, where they are from, or what they do. Yet our Lenten journey and participation in this feast of feasts is fruitless, if not fatal if we show up on that blessed third day with resentment and indifference in our hearts towards the “least of these” (Mt. 25: 40/45), those who are hungry and thirsty, are strangers, naked, sick or in prison. 

Indeed His victory on that saving day, foreshadows that last and great day and our judgement. His Resurrection confronts us with His love for humanity, and the question is whether we have journeyed to this day with that same love? He has fed our lives with the never ending joy of His victory over death, quenching our thirst for life in a lifeless world; but have we offered even the crumbs of hope to those starving, or shed a tear for dried up by sin? He has suffered shame, and injustice, violence and poverty, becoming “obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” (Phil 2:7-8), that we might not be alone and a stranger in our times of shame, injustice, violence and poverty; but have we offered even a warm word or prayer for those who are  strangers, that they might feel loved?  He has clothed us in the light of the Resurrection, but have we ever clothed with the most modest garments of care and concern, those stripped of dignity and love by sin? His pierced hands, feet, and side, are the marks of His love for humanity, a witness to the healing of our wounded hearts and the mortal sickness of our nature, bringing forth our proclamation “My Lord and my God”(Jn. 20:28); but have our wounds borne witness to our love of God and neighbour, or brought forth anything but bitterness and pain? He has smashed the gates of death, bringing “liberty to captives” (Is. 61:1/ Lk. 4:16) and those in the bondage of sin; but have we released, let alone unlocked, the chains bonds we shackle our brothers and sisters with? 

This journey to Lent, and this journey to Pascha is ultimately a journey to the end of our life and to our judgement. “Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live…and come forth – those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation”(Jn. 5:25/29). As we prepare for this journey, we are implored to look beyond our indifference and malice, and see the judgement of love revealed in the Lord’s Resurrection. Inclining our hearts to that divine love that feeds, gives drink, visits, heals, clothes and liberates the “least of these” manifested to us and those with us on that beautiful and saving third day. May we have the eyes and hearts to enter the empty tomb with that love. 

Step by step.

Two weeks ago, we took our first steps towards the Lord’s saving Resurrection in the commemoration of the Publican repentance, and we are Liturgically encouraged to build on that momentum in our commemoration of the Prodigal Son this Sunday. Last Sunday we were illumined by the need of repentance in our relationship with God and neighbour alike, this Sunday we are shown what to do with that repentance. That is leave the swine and slop of this world, its broken promises and heart aches, and  return home to the Father’s love. 

We all repent to one degree or another, recognizing our failings and sins towards God and neighbour alike. But what we do with that repentance is another thing. We saw Zacchaeus repentance demonstrated by giving half of his goods to the poor and restoring fourfold whom he defrauded. and we see this weekend, the Prodigal Son “coming to himself” in repentance, and returning home. This movement and demonstration of repentance is contrasted with the repentance of Judas. Poor Judas had the wisdom to recognize ““I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” (Mt. 27:4) but was not willing to do something about it or to reconcile himself to the one he sinned against, but in despair hung himself.  And this is the thing; repentance is our heart recognizing we have broken a relationship. It is an acceptance of our shame having betrayed God and neighbour alike. But if that repentance is nothing that moves us to return home to the Father’s love, or to give to those we have defrauded spiritually, physically, and socially, it is of no good. In fact it is profoundly self destructive driving us to insanity. 

In the same way we were implored to seek and meet the Lord like Zacchaeus, and to flee from the pride of the Pharisee, we ought to equally move towards reconciling ourselves with God and neighbour alike. Repentance is the first step on our journey to the Lord’s Pascha, doing something about it is indeed that second step that brings us closer to that Holy day, and brings us closer to His forgiving and loving mercy. 

May the Lord bless us in this, step by step.

Lenten preseason.

Last Sunday we began our journey to the Lord’s Resurrection with the Liturgical cycle of services known as the Triodion.  Yet given that we actually don’t begin Great Lent for another few weeks, the commemoration of the Publican and Pharisee, the Prodigal Son, and the Sunday of the Last Judgement, are a kind of Lenten preseason.

In the same way that professional sports teams take the time preceding their regular season to work out the kinks in their lineups, or work to better integrate strategies, and assess weaknesses; we as Orthodox Christians are provided this time to do the same in preparation for the arena that is Great Lent. 

It is in the arena that great sporting events take place, and unbelievable displays of talent, strength, and endurance are displayed. But for Christians the word “arena” generally brings up images and thoughts of the places where Christians of the first few centuries were thrown to wild beasts and or were executed for the enjoyment of  pagan emperors and spectators alike.
Indeed our whole life as Christians places us in the arena to one degree or another, like those martyrs of old. It is where we strive to “lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us… and run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12: 1-2). Great Lent is a season where we strip aside those elements and temptations that distract us from the life and death reality that is our confession of Jesus Christ. 

Truly it is in this arena where we offer our witness (literally our martyrdom) and die to the world, for the “life of the world” (Jn. 6:51) as manifested in the victory of our Lord over sin and death on the Holy Pascha. It is where we “play for keeps” and where victories and defeats matter. “No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier. And also if anyone competes in athletics, he is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules.”  (1 Tim. 4:4-5). This spiritual season of Great Lent, places the priority on being prepared to compete, and as St. Paul notes “know the rules”. These rules are not necessarily the guidelines and parameters of what one should eat or not eat, or what services one should attend. These are important, but at the heart of these rules is love. 

The witness and martyrdom of  St. Ignatius of Antioch, or Polycarp of Smyrna, among many others, was because they told the emperor that he shouldn’t be eating meat, or that he should be attending more services. Rather it was because they loved the source of love -the Lord- more than the vanities and lies of this age. The offering of ourselves to the Lord, and the witness of our faith in this arena of Great Lent, is realized when we love as these holy martyrs loved (even in the face of death).

These three Sundays in preparation for Great Lent are the opportunity in which we can, in a dedicated way, start to work out the kinks in how we approach such a blessed endeavor,  where we  integrate strategies of fasting, charity and forgiveness into our own lives, and assess the weaknesses of our broken hearts by seeking the Lord and Him alone. 

“Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him”. (Jam. 1:12). A crown placed on our heads with the proclamation that “Christ is Risen” at His Resurrection. May the Lord indeed bless us in this preparation. 

A missionary heart.

Fr. John giving out communion at the consecration of the Sign of the Theotokos in Montreal (2009)

Christianity is by definition a mission; a living tradition that not only proclaims the Gospel (Good news) of God’s saving love and victory over death, but also manifests the life of the Kingdom of God in every age and in every nation.

Yet we tend to lose perspective of this core element of our faith, especially when beset with all kinds of temptations and challenges. Of course we recognize the amazing work of those missionary saints like St. Nino of Georgia, St. Nicholas of Japan, and our own St. Innocent of Alaska, but we generally consign those amazing missionary works to the supernatural and those supernatural people who performed them.

But, if we open our hearts to the life of the Gospel as revealed by the Holy Spirit, we see that those supernatural endeavours were manifested by very ordinary people. For as much as our faith is “mission” it is equally personal. As Fr. John Parker notes “The Apostles told those. Who told those. Who told those. Who told those. All the way through the ages. Until someone told me,” Indeed the mission work of the Church has always had a personal context that has cut through history, cultures, classes, and genders. Even here in Canada. I was reminded about all this with the repose in the Lord of the Archpriest John Tkachuk this past week.

Fr. John was born in 1944 in Lodz, Poland to Archpriest Igor and Maria (Steblinksa) Tkachuk, their family fled before the advancing Soviet forces and succeeded in reaching the American Zone in Germany, from which they were able to emigrate to the United States in 1952. After college, the soon to be Fr. John went to St. Vladimir’s Seminary, where he met and married Mary Schmemann, daughter of Father Alexander and Matushka Juliana Schmemann in 1969. Shortly after his marriage,  John was ordained to the Diaconate and then Priesthood, eventually being assigned to Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral in Montreal, Quebec in 1973, where Father John encouraged the use of English in the Divine Services. Indeed, Fr. John’s commitment to English became a source of tension within the Cathedral, and with the blessing of Archbishop Sylvester (Haruns) he helped found  the Mission of the Sign of the Theotokos in 1978.

We should note, that despite the witness of Orthodox Christianity in Canada for almost a hundred years, and the growing use of English in Orthodox Churches in the United States; only one other Orthodox Church in Canada was fully serving in English at that time (St. Herman of Alaska in Edmonton- which revived a blessing to start only one year earlier). Like St. Herman’s in Edmonton, the establishment of the Sign of the Theotokos in Montreal, was a bold experiment that had a polarizing effect on the relationship with other Orthodox Churches in Canada still very connected to their historical and cultural homelands. Yet without dismissing those historic and cultural roots, Fr. John and  the community of  the Sign of the Theotokos (and Saint Herman’s in Edmonton) revealed something about Orthodox Christianity that was at that time shrouded in foreign languages and customs; that mission of the Church was to “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28:19).

It was in this time, that my family converted to Orthodoxy from Anglicanism, and that my father (Igumen John Scratch +2006) was ordained to serve as the second priest at St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Ottawa.

Fr. John was the only English speaking priest around for my father, and the Mission of the Sign was the only English community in which to draw upon. Although my father was committed to learning Slavonic, and serving the community of St. Nicholas, the terms of his service began to change. He was initially told that he could incorporate English for the small group of English families in attendance, but then told he was using too much English. In addition to this, he was then told that he would only be paid when he could serve in Slavonic fully! This placed an unbearable burden on my father, considering that he had left everything to join the Orthodox Church (including a very well paying career) and had a family of six children to provide for. 

He once told me that it was a very “dark time” for him. Always wondering if he had done the right thing in becoming Orthodox, or if he had “chased a fantasy” at the expense of his family? He went on to talk about how, during this time, the only thing that kept him sane and Orthodox (one and the same he noted) was Fr. John and the mission of the Sign in Montreal. It was there that he saw what Orthodoxy was, and what his heart had called him to; the “house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). It was there with Fr. John, that the witness of God’s saving love was manifested- in the love and support of a brother priest- and a community that sought Christ first. It was with Fr. John Tkachuk that the mission imperative of the Church that has been passed down through the ages to eventually him, was now passed down to my father… and eventually to me.

The rest is history as they say. With the encouragement of Fr. John and the community of the Sign, a petition to establish the third English speaking mission Canada (Holy Transfiguration in Ottawa) was blessed by Archbishop Sylvester in 1980, and in the next decades, many English Orthodox communities were founded, and the once token use of English, and French started to become more of the norm across the Archdiocese, and other Orthodox jurisdictions across Canada.

Of course, in addition to Fr. John,  there were other people who set this course for the witness of Orthodoxy in Canada. But none of them had the same kind of influence on my father though such a critical part of his life. Truthfully, I don’t know what my father would have done in those “dark days” had Fr. John, not been there. Nor would I know what our Church would look like without his desire for an Orthodox Church that was first and foremost the Church and everything after that.

But what I do know, and what I am profoundly thankful for, is that despite what flaws and shortcomings Fr. John might have had, he nonetheless understood that to be an Orthodox Christian, was to be a missionary. Preaching the Gospel of God’s saving love and victory over death, and manifesting the life of the Kingdom of God …even here in Canada.

Indeed I am here today because “The Apostles told those. Who told those. Who told those. Who told those. All the way through the ages. Until someone told me”. Fr. John Tkachuk indeed was one of “those”, for which I will continually offer my thanksgiving to God for!

May his memory be eternal!

The feast of the Meeting of the Lord and the meeting of new mothers.

This Tuesday is the blessed feast of the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple (Lk. 2:22-39). Forty days after His birth (that’s right, Christmas was 40 days ago) the child Jesus  was taken to the Jerusalem Temple and a sacrifice of a lamb or doves was offered as a purification sacrifice for the Most Holy Virgin, the Mother of God. It is this aspect of the feast that makes it one of the feasts dedicated in her honour (the reason why many wear blue at church for this feast). Indeed the Theotokos had no need of purification, since she had given birth to the Source of purity and sanctity without defilement or corruption (as we note every time we sing in her honour) yet she humbly fulfilled the requirements of the Law.  

Following this template, women in the Orthodox Church are excused from going to Church for 40 days following the birth of their child (after all, giving birth and caring for a newborn is hard work); and when they return to Church prayers are said over them, that following the Levitical form, pray for purification from the “defilement and corruption” involved in childbirth. Alas, without the proper context and or understanding, these prayers can seem insulting especially in the light of such a beautiful event of bearing a child. Adding insult to injury, the thought that new mothers are restricted from going to Church because they are unclean has led many to disregard this practice, or these prayers. The problem is, that disregarding these elements, affects our understanding of this feast – sort of like throwing the baby out with the bath water (pun intended). 

Jesus constantly challenged the religious understanding of “ritual purity” with His mercy and love, regardless of whether it was eating with unclean hands, or touching/being touched by a menstruating woman, lepers, corpse, or eating with sinners. His life, now shared with us (and new mothers) sanctifies our life with that same mercy and love. The “defilement and corruption” that the prayers said over a new mother and child when they come to the Church after 40 days, speak of the defilement and corruption of all of our human nature. That as broken people, mothers (like everyone else) are bound by the physical limitations and frailties of life. Childbirth is not exempt from this. The Church in these prayers recognizes the beauty and hope a new born child offers, yet recognizes that we as sinners can be disfigured by the effects of sin. And as such, prays for forgiveness and restoration. Like the Holy Theotokos, new mothers have given birth to a child without shame or sin, and the Church like the righteous Symeon receive both with thanksgiving, and joy, and prays specifically for the salvation of that new mother! What a privilege, what holiness, what love. 

This is a feast that I hold dear to my heart as the father of four wonderful children, and one who has said these prayers over many new mothers. Anytime I receive that newborn child in my arms, I see the Lord’s mercy that flowed 40 days after His nativity, offered specifically for the mother and no one else. A witness that a light has come into this world, held in the arms of his/her mother.  

St. Xenia and the true purpose of marriage.

This past weekend we  commemorated one of the most beloved and revered Saints of Russia, whose veneration has spread now throughout the Orthodox world; the blessed Xenia of St. Petersburg. What is remarkable about her, is that she was one of those Holy fools for Christ, whose life and actions if experienced now in our own communities, would be considered totally insane, not anything to be associated with the ordered and richly adorned Church, let alone society. But if we dig a little into what makes a fool “Holy” we see that those like St. Xenia, profoundly reveals the richness of God’s love. 

St. Xeina’s journey to sanctity has its start -so to speak- with her marriage to a rising star in the Russian Army, Andrew Petrov, and a life of privilege and status in their future. Yet as their marriage began to bloom it was shaken by the tragedy of Andrew’s sudden death with friends during an evening of drinking and games, without good-bye’s and without preparation of repentance. 

Our blessed Xenias’ life was turned upside down in the grief of losing her beloved, and losing him in such a manner. She started to sell her estate, giving proceeds to the poor of St. Petersburg despite the protests of her family. She clothed herself in her husband’s uniform, and would only answer to his name. She would walk the streets of St. Petersburg, sleeping outside, labouring with others or in secret for others, rejecting the hospitality of those wanting to help her, or giving any charity received to others in greater need. She prophesied, and interceded for those who came to her seeking guidance and help; she prayed, and performed miracles, all on behalf of her departed husband.  All she would ask is that they would turn to God, and say a Panikhida (memorial) for her departed beloved. 

Strangely this devotion to her departed husband is something that is generally overshadowed by the many wonders she performed, and her proclamation of the Lord’s saving love. Certainly she is the patron of those in need, especially for those seeking homes and employment. But I would add to this  that she is in many respects a patron of marriage. 

In every marriage the love between husband and wife is generally manifested by the mutual offering of emotional and material support of the other. Despite everyone’s best efforts, the daily challenges of life (work, kids, chores, ect.)  can strain a relationship and especially its love. In it all we tend to forget that husband and wife have been brought together in Christ. For each other’s salvation in a  mystery and divine vocation, it  reconciles in Christ, the amenity between men and women brought on by the sin of humanity’s fall. It is a union that  reveals the Lord of Glory in one’s home; it reveals true love. 

St. John the Theologian speaks catecorgily that “God is love” (1 Jn. 4:8), and that the love shared between husband and wife expresses this love in the mystery of marriage, as a reflection of Christ’s love for the Church (Eph. 5:21-33). The tragedy St. Xenia losing her husband indeed purified her love (Ps. 66:10) revealing the source of the love, the Lord.

This is the point; that all that our blessed Xenia did, was out of love for the salvation of her husband. Her wearing his uniform, answering only to his name, doing good works for his salvation, and asking for prayers for him, speak volumes to her love of Andrew Petrov. Perfected with the mercy of God.

The question is, whether husbands and wives can be like St. Xenia; prioritizing the sole purpose of marriage. The salvation of each other, in life and even in death. Are we poor for our spouse’s salvation, do we fast for our spouse’s salvation, do we pray for our spouse’s salvation, do we offer charity for our spouse’s salvation, and profoundly, are we humble for our spouse’s salvation?

Indeed, it is well and good that husbands and wives  offer emotional and material support to the other, out of love. But those things which are seen, and valued by the world as being “sane” are ultimately transitory, limited by sin and eventually by death. The offering of a spouse to the other  for their salvation in contrast, participates in the eternal and uncreated love of the Trinity, that not even death can tarnish or end. St. Xenia’s devotion of love for her husband’s salvation was in the eyes of the world very  “insane”. Yet she has shown us the only thing that matters in marriage; the love of God. This might be the only thing that keeps a marriage “sane” in a very insane and broken world. 

By the prayers of our beloved Mother Xenia, may our marriages be strengthened by the love of God, poured into our hearts by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and that our love for each other might be perfected and transformed from that of simple biology and sociology, to that which is of God, unending and eternal love revealed here and now, and in the Kingdom of Heaven.  

“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