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.  

Eucharist.

 
By God’s mercy and grace, we are at a point where we can publicly gather together in person, and offer our thanksgiving to the Lord for His victory over death! A joy beyond all joys! 


By this point, many of you have received various emails from the parish council, and myself explaining our Protocols and Procedures (of which there are a few) , as well as the request to notify us of what services you would like to attend. So, as not to sound like a broken record, I won’t repeat them beyond offering my thanksgiving for everyone’s patience, flexibility, and willingness to do whatever it takes to participate in the divine banquet that is offered to us. 


The last three months have been a profound trial for us as Christians. Some of the elements that defined us, (Sunday services and the Eucharist) were no longer elements we could use to help identify us. Besides living as Christians in our daily life with joy for Christ, we are also called to worship in our Church.  We have been truly strangers in a strange world with only memories of Church life to bring comfort. Thankfully we were able to stream services on the internet (and still will be), but even this was somehow a faint image of what we had grown up around; family and friends and those who would become family and friends in Christ.  Truly a  community. 


Yet during this time of separation, we all continued on, never wavering from faith in Christ. Donations were still made, on Sunday mornings we were in our Sunday best, and gathered around computers or phones for an internet church service. You kept in contact with your other brothers and sisters in Christ, seeking to reach out and connect with church friends, and most of all prayed, and prayed for this day when the memory of what we used to do as a parish (offer the  Eucharistic- literally thanksgiving)  would be realized in the Eucharist!

We would not be here today if you had retreated to your homes and waited for something to happen like the release of a new TV episode or sequel in a book series.  We are here today, because all of our congregation never lost sight that we are the Church and never forgot your baptism into Christ. In the same way that Israel never forgot it was “a people holy to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on earth to be his people, his treasured possession” (Det. 7:6), when they were in exile, or scattered throughout the Roman Empire:  you have not forgotten that you are also “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (1 Pet 2:9). 


For this, I will always joyfully offer my thanksgiving to the Lord of Glory with all my heart, soul and mind. 


As we begin this new era, let us look past the isolation and separation from friends and family, services and sacraments, but rather remember the Lord’s providential love that purified us like “silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times” (Ps. 12:6)… that made us better Christians. Glory to God!

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.  

“What we got” Amen!

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

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

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

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

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

Building a fire and preparing for Theophany.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pray to God for us Holy Bishop Nicholas

A sister in Christ.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!

Χριστὸς ἀνέστη! Ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη!

!المسيح قام! حقا قام

May her memory be eternal. 

The paradox of sanctity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Beneath your compassion”

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

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

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

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