Alone with the Bridegroom (Holy Week and Pascha away from Church)

During the first three days of this Holy Week, we and many other Churches served those beloved and dear “Bridegroom Matins” as a meditation and clarification of what the Lord will be doing to heal our broken and mortal nature; by going to, and dying for His bride the Church, “that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.” (Heb. 5:25-27). And in the middle of the Church arrayed in flowers is the Icon of of the Bridegroom (Ο Νυμφίος — Ho Nymphios —).

Truly, it is a very striking image that we are more likely to note as His “Extreme Humility” (a similar but different Icon), but it is certainly anything other than what we would consider an image of a Bridegroom; after all, most bridegrooms generally are well dressed and giddy (if not a little nervous). Yet this Icon speaks volumes to the length the Lord goes to be with His beloved, to be with us. We see in this Icon, the Lord’s movement to us is not about Himself, it is all about us. He humbles Himself so completely to demonstrate this; being bound like a criminal by our sins, crowned with thorns- by our vanity and pride, and arrayed in mockery with a cloak and reed- by our contempt, so that He might transform our broken and mortal nature by His self emptying love. 

Yet this understanding can be lost on us with everyday life, getting the family ready for Church, preparing for the feast and all. Indeed we can lose perspective on what we are preparing for, and who it is we are doing these things for; The Bridegroom, the Lord. For The Bridegroom comes to offer a ransom for our humanity- disciples and us seek to sell Him in betrayal. The Bridegroom comes and offers Himself in a feast- His disciples and us, argue about who is the greatest. The Bridegroom comes to serve- His disciples and us, we protest. The Bridegroom is betrayed- and His disciples and us, we flee. Indeed The Bridegroom comes and we are unprepared (Mt. 25: 1-13).

It is in this that we see maybe the most striking aspect of the Bridegroom Icon, that the Lord is alone in His sorrow, abused, shamed and abandoned; with only His humble and undying love left. 

This is something to consider in the light of the new Public Health Orders that have come into place in Manitoba (and across the country). We have spent our Lenten season in anticipation of the Lord’s Holy Pascha. We have prepared ourselves through fasting, prayer and acts of mercy for that glorious third day, like a bridegroom (and bride for that matter) preparing for a wedding, only to have this feast of feasts pulled out from underneath us like a carpet, even while it was so close. It  feels like we have been betrayed, we have been relegated, we have been protested against, and we have been abandoned. Indeed, we, like the Icon of The Bridegroom are truly alone, unable to participate in the Liturgical, cultural, and social life of the Church in a normal way. 

We have been stripped of those elements of grace and respect that we associate with our preparation for Pascha, and like the Lord have been humbled by circumstances beyond our control. The question is, what is left to offer the Lord when everything has been taken away? To answer this is to see the Icon of the Bridegroom for what it offers; love, and only love. There are no snappy suits (or bridal gowns), no services; no laurel wreaths or gilded crowns, no beautiful temple to be in; no cheering bridal party, no brothers and sisters in Christ to share our Pascal joy with; there is only love, witnessed in the most profound way.

It might seem that I am just promoting these Public Health Orders, or cowering to an antagonistic civil authority. Far from it! I don’t like these orders, although I am sympathetic to their goals (reduction of infection) yet any disobedience to either the civil authorities and Bishop would have drastic effects for myself and more importantly our community. Regardless of what I might think or feel about the whole situation, I know that the Lord is in this all. 

Maybe, just maybe, the Lord has permitted these restrictions as a way of helping us understand the mystery of God’s love for humanity as revealed in this Holy Week, and profoundly understand the miracle that is Pascha. That as St John Chrysostom proclaims  “Hades It took a body (broken and shamed one relegated as criminal), and met God face to face. It took earth (the finite and corruptible), and encountered Heaven (the infinite and everlasting). It took that which was seen (creation), and fell upon the unseen (the Creator).

Maybe, just maybe we have been stripped of those blessed elements of the Holy Week and Paschal services, to be like Him; alone with only our love to offer. 

Maybe, just maybe, this is what we need to do to realize that we are not alone in our sorrow, abused, shamed and abandoned by the world around us. Rather we have the Risen Christ with us, calling us by name, and offering His peace and life to us, which can not be taken away. 

These are difficult times, and our prayer is that we might see the Lord’s love through it all: and moreover respond to it with the proclamation that Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

“How can this be?” Reflection on the Annunciation by Dr. Daryl Schantz.

We have reached our second week of Great Lent. For many of us, this is a season which, while typically difficult, looks particularly more discouraging that usual. We have experienced an entire year in and out of quarantine and we had all hoped that by this time we would be back to our usual routines. It can feel pointless to practice the disciplines of Lent knowing that our Paschal celebrations will again be muted and lack the togetherness that we all hope for. 

In addition, we have all encountered our own failures; if not in the first hours of the fast, we have met them face to face in the first days of the fast. Maybe it is helpful that ,particularly early in our Lenten season this year, we are given the feast of the Annunciation. This feast which gives our fasting a particular focus, a hope which is much needed. 

The epistle reading for Annunciation does this particularly well by reminding us that our Saviour was, “made like his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful High Priest…For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted.”

We may find it discouraging to think about how our temptations bring failure; but Christ was tempted – without sin. We should rather be reminded how those of us who are parents are particularly able to sympathize with our children, understanding their struggles. This is how Christ stands with us in our trials. His participation in our struggles does not condemn us, but allows us to know that he stands with us, understanding what it is like to be hungry, tired, to feel unwell, and to experience the range of human emotion. 

As noted by St John Chrysostom, “He took on Him our flesh, only for Love to man,” and “now he is not ignorant of our sufferings; not only does He know them as God, but as man also He has known them, by trial wherewith He was tried; He suffered much, He knows how to sympathize. 

This is a message of great hope for us! 

Finally, I wanted to reflect briefly on the Gospel reading for Annunciation. We hear the Angel Gabriel’s report to Mary and her response, “How can this be?” This gospel reading follows immediately after Luke tells the story of the announcement to Zacharias of the conception of St. John the Forerunner. At first glance, his response is not that different, “how can I be sure of this?” However, we know that the response of Zacharias was considered to be reflective of doubt; and as a result, he was unable to speak until after his son was born. 

What is the difference between, Mary’s “how can this be” and Zacharias’ “how can I be sure of this”?

I suggest that the responses were different in that the response of the Mother of God reflects wonder “how can his be” where the response of Zacharias reflects a need for certainty, “how can I be sure of this?”. We live in an era where few things are valued over certainty, knowledge, and material facts. We may be tempted to think less of those who are gullible, who believe others and “get taken”; we prize certainty for ourselves and in ourselves; to have all of the information before we commit to anything. 

While certainty is important in some aspects of our lives, certainty is not what makes for good relationships. What makes for good relationships is trust. In some ways, this need for knowledge and certainty is just the sin of the Garden of Eden coming back around again. Adam and Eve had relationship with God and they traded it away for the fruit of the tree of knowledge. So we see that the Mother of God succeeds where Eve does not. She does not ask for certainty, but she responds in wonder to God’s invitation. 

Today, we are faced with the same challenge. Are we going to limit our relationship with God by looking for certainty? Looking for certainty that our fast is benefitting us? Looking for certainty in the darkness of the pandemic? 

Are we going to expect certainty in our relationships with others? Are we only going to give our time to people who seem to be responding in ways that we expect them to? Are we only going to give our resources to places and people where we can see results?

May we have the ability to respond with the wonder and trust exemplified to us by the Mother of God. In our relationships, in our giving and in our following Christ. And like her, may we come face to face with Christ.

Other people, Icons and the Incarnation.

The Nave of St. Nicholas Metropolian Cathedral (OCA) Washington D.C

.In Jean Paul Sartre’s play “No Exit” three characters find themselves in a kind of Hell. Not the kind of Hell with fire and torment, rather just a room with only other people. They all realize that this is somehow a punishment for their sins, although they claim that it is an injustice they are they, or that a mistake was made. Yet as the play progresses, they grumble and  incite each other as to the real reasons they placed in this circumstance, and in time the real reasons for their predicament comes to light; cowardliness, adultery, murder and there disastrous effects. Through it all they think they are locked in that room, and when one of the characters goes to open the door, he can not compel himself to leave without reconciling and accepting his actions, and the actions of the other characters . Sadly none of the characters are able to leave because they are unwilling to reconcile themselves or the other. What is tragically realized is that Hell is not torture devices or physical punishment, rather  as one of the protagonists states “hell is other people”.

“Hell is other people” might be one of Sartre’s most famous quotes, and certainly speaks to the struggle to reconcile oneself with one’s actions, all the while dealing with other people going through the same kinds of crises. Indeed we don’t have to be an French existentialist philosopher to recognize this to one degree or another. Yet we as Orthodox Christians have been given the opportunity to recognize that equally “Heaven is other people”. 

This is something to consider in celebrating the Sunday of Orthodoxy, where we proclaim the veneration icons being more than a triumph of beautifully decorated Churches. For the triumph of Orthodoxy is none other than the triumph of the proclamation of the Incarnation – God with us (Mt. 1:23). The depiction of our Lord in painted Icons, mosaics, manuscripts, and tapestries bear witness that the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (Jn. 1:14), and that in taking on our broken and mortal nature he has “broken down the middle wall of separation… so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace,” (Eph. 2:14-15). The great defender of Icons, St. John of Damascus states this so profoundly when he states “what is not assumed (that is our broken and mortal nature) can not be healed”.

 Indeed the Incarnation – That we will celebrate this coming week- is, as its principle hymn proclaims “the beginning of our salvation”. It is this event that makes way for our transformation and ultimately transfiguration. From being mortal and finite beings, limited by necessity, to being immortal and infinite in Christ. Truly that the salvation and victory of the Lord shared with us by the Holy Spirit. In the same way that we depict the Lord in Icons as a witness to his Incarnation, we also depict  the saints. Those men and women who throughout the ages have shown us by the grace of the Holy Spirit, what a life in Christ is like. The Icons of the saints, like the Icons of the Lord, are the manifestation of “God with us”.

We indeed are called to be saints, and called to reconcile our broken lives throughout this fast our vocation as being created for holiness and sanctity. Though our fasting, prayers and charity, we are called to remove the filters of pride, anxiety, lust and greed, that obscure the Lord saving presence in our lives, and profoundly obscure the image of God that “other people” are created in. We should be doing this every day of our life, but we are given this season of fasting to consider “other people”. 

Are we complaining about the injustices of life (of which they are many) or are we praying for the strength to endure our daily hardships whatever they might be? Are we pleading that there has been a mistake in the circumstance that we find ourselves in (of which we might be victims of), or are we striving to see Christ’s saving providence in them? Are we blaming those around us (of which we can do so legitimately), or are we accepting our responsibility for our broken lives? are we unwilling to reconcile our sins (however great or small) or are we willing to accept them and offer them to the Lord? 

Indeed “Hell is other people” if we are unwilling to accept the Incarnation of our Lord and God and saviour Jesus Christ, manifested in Icons of Him; and it is Hell, if we are unable to accept that a transformed and transfigured life and Christ offers in the Icons of the Saints. Tragically  “Hell is other people” both here and now, and profoundly in eternity, if we are unwilling to reconcile ourselves to the God and neighbour alike. The wonder is, if we are willing to reconciling ourselves  to God and neighbour alike, we see not only is “Heaven other people” but we are able to behold that “Great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) that surrounds us, singing the hymn of the Lord’s victory; and the blessing to be able to leave that “Hell” through the door that Sartre’s tragic characters could not, seeing  “heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” 

May the Lord strengthen us in this season of fasting to see such wonders. The Kingdom of revealed in “other people” both those in the Icons, and those called to be in Icons.

Preparing the Family for Great Lent (Matushka Iryna Galadza)

Last Sunday, the soft and somber sound of The Rivers of Babylon hinted at the approaching season of repentance. The familiar Sundays of the Publican and the Pharisee, The Prodigal Son, and the Last Judgment prepare us for the spiritual journey of the Great Fast, a journey facilitated by liturgical services, spiritual reading, Lenten missions, fasting and prayer. This season of great challenges (when embraced with joy) brings great spiritual rewards. What about our children? How do they fit into the demanding spiritual disciplines of this holy season? What can parents do to help their children – even the littlest ones – experience the period of the Great Fast on a deeper level, a level that goes beyond the usual decorating of Easter eggs (pysanky) and preparing a new outfit for Easter Sunday? How do we root our children in the joyous discipline of this Great Fast so that it becomes for them an absolutely essential part of the rhythm of their life? We must speak to them about the mystery of their faith – about Christ’s death and resurrection, about repentance and new life – in the language they know best, the language of the senses. 

We might begin with a visual message. The Great Fast is a time for change. In church, the color of altar vestments changes from bright to dark and festive embroideries are put away. At home, the icon corner is tidied and pussy willows (loza) from the previous year’s Palm Sunday are burned. The Prayer of St. Ephraim is taped to the wall near the icons and pictures of deceased members of the family to be remembered in prayer might be placed near the icon corner. Embroideries are taken down, washed, starched and put away, ready to bring out for Pascha. Decorated eggs, so often left out on display year-round, are also placed out of sight. Covering the television with a cloth might be a reminder of the family’s commitment to fast from this visual distraction. The house is tidied – somewhat bare- inviting its inhabitants to change their routine, to replace television with books or conversation and to be more diligent in their prayer. The absence of familiar decorations in the home – the “emptiness” – is a constant reminder that this is a time of year that is set apart for the very special purpose of refocusing our life on Christ, who fills the emptiness in us.

 A visual “toning down” needs to be accompanied by an auditory one. The sound of blearing radios, televisions and noisy computer games assault the ears, disrupt interior peace and affect the behavior of adults and children alike. Older children need guidance in choosing appropriate music for listening. The family might agree to observe periods of “quiet time” on certain days. Perhaps, supper could begin by reading aloud from the Lives of the Saints or stories from the Bible. Take care to choose literary versions that are appropriate for the age of your children or simply tell the stories in your own words and discuss the pearls of wisdom hidden in them. Children need to experience the haunting sounds of Lenten hymns. Bring them to church for the extraordinary liturgical services of Lent (tempering frequency of attendance with the age of your child) and give them the opportunity to fall in love with such ancient melodies as “Let my prayer arise like incense before you…” so that as adults they might thirst for these and await the Great Fast with great anticipation.  

 It is often a fragrance that evokes for adults a memory of childhood. The fragrances that surround activities during the Great Fast are many: incense during prayer in church and at home, lilies at the services of holy week, paska baking in the oven, fresh spring air that flows through the open windows as the home is being cleaned for the feast, pungent egg dyes and melting beeswax. Involve the children in all of these activities, so that their little noses might be close to the fragrances that will bond them for life to the rituals that heighten the anticipation of Pascha. Do not protect them from getting their hands sticky with dough or stained with dyes, for they need to touch and experience all that this holy season has to offer.   

 One of the most challenging aspects of the Great Fast is the fasting. If adults have difficulty adjusting to simpler meals and different tastes, what can we expect from children? Most important here is the attitude of the parents toward their own fasting. If seen as a burden, all of the benefits of this spiritual exercise are lost. Fasting is a challenge, but it need not be a burden. It must never be presented strictly as a duty to suddenly be assumed at the magic age of 12. Fasting is a privilege, to be practiced out of love, increasing the measure of sacrifice in appropriate degrees throughout childhood and beyond. When approached with a positive attitude, fasting presents an invaluable opportunity to train children in the virtue of self-control. Plant the seeds of humility, by teaching children not to boast of their fasting nor be critical of those who do not observe the fast. Teach them to offer and receive hospitality graciously, without drawing attention to their fasting. Be reasonable when setting dietary expectations, taking into account the nutritional demands of growing bodies and the health and maturity of the children. For little children, the absence of sweet treats from their diets is a big sacrifice. While drawing children closer to keeping the prescribed fast, take great care to set goals that are achievable, thus encouraging acceptance of greater challenges. Once children have experienced sacrifice, they come closer to appreciating Christ’s sacrifice for us  

The challenges of the Great Fast can only be met with the grace that accompanies prayer and reception of the Holy Communion. Memorize the Prayer of St. Ephraim and pray it with your children daily, making the accompanying prostrations (poklony). Feed them with the Body and Blood of Christ so that they may “taste and see how good the Lord is” who suffered for the sake of giving us new life. Teach little children to ask for forgiveness of those they have hurt and offer it graciously to those who seek it from them. Great Lent is a most appropriate time to prepare children for their First Confession and review with older ones the process of examining their conscience in preparation for their Easter Confession, which they will approach with confidence when presented with the good example of their parents.   

The more effort invested teaching our children to live the Great Fast in a holistic way, involving all the senses and faculties God has given them, the more rooted they will be in their faith. When the Great Fast no longer seems “long enough” – when you anticipate it with gladness and it becomes an indispensable part of the rhythm of your life – you will know that your efforts have been blessed. Then, the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection will be accompanied with indescribable joy!   

Matushka Iryna Galadza, St. Elias Ukrainian Catholic Church, Brapmton ON.

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.