Today we celebrate one of the twelve great feasts of the Church, the Annunciation of the Theotokos. Appropriately named, this feast brings about ‘good news’ for the world. The Archangel Gabriel brings news to the young virgin Mary that she will give birth to a boy who will grow up to be the Savior of the world. For us as faithful Christians, the purpose of this visit seems rather logical to announce a conception although it is an incomprehensible miracle that a virgin would conceive. But the larger meaning for this feast is the news that the world needed the direct intervention of God in order to restore humankind to the glory for which it was intended at the time of Creation. Essentially God entered the world as a baby and suffered and sacrificed himself to restore the glory and beauty of His people.
This year as we are not able to celebrate this feast as we do every year I would like to offer you ‘good news’ from the Lord God who is announced into the world. The brokenness that affects our entire world at this time is overwhelming and we are afraid and, some of us, in great danger. The first word of good news I wish to share is ‘assurance’ that God will always be with us, as the Evangelist Matthew reminds us “...and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen.” (Matt 28:20) The second word of good news is ‘comfort’ from our Lord God, precisely as the Apostle Paul instructs his congregation in Corinth “... who comforts us in all tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (2 Corinthians 1:4).
While these days are made dark and fearful by this world pandemic; the truth is we still have many comforts. Most of us have a warm home in which to stay and are able to continue to work from home. Most of us are not going to experience hunger or any grave need. We have an incredible amount of entertainment available to us via modern day technologies, which would have been unthinkable only a generation earlier. However, there are people even in our communities who may not have the same level of hope for assurance of God’s presence nor the comforts of the basics of life as we do.
Dear friends in the Merciful Lord, I find myself filled with hope and assured of the Spirit of God moving about in our midst because even though we are separated we are indeed united in prayer. The comfort I enjoy in spite of the limitations, gives me an opportunity to find ways to attend to the needs of a brother or sister who lacks some of those basics of life. I urge all of us to find ways to share Christ’s assurance and comfort with everyone we can.
This brief article was originally written for the "Separate But United" series of Pastoral Messages and published on the Metropolis of Chicago website on Annunciation Day, 25 March 2020!
This holy father has a significant role for Orthodox Christians. Scholars believe that he was born in 1296 and lived until either 1357 or 1359. He was raised in Constantinople at the court of the Emperor Andronicos Paleologos II, to whom his father had been a courtier. Unfortunately, St. Gregory’s father died young but the emperor provided for the family, including education. The Emperor took great interest in the young boy as he showed great academic aptitude; and had aspirations to involve him in government and sent him to further his education in the sciences and philosophy.
Gregory withdrew to Mt. Athos at the age of 20 and began to live an ascetic monastic life at Vatopaidi Monastery under St. Nicodemos and later under St. Nicephorus. He later transferred to the Great Lavra Monastery, where his duties were primarily in the kitchen and as a cantor. In time he received the blessing to withdraw into a more ascetic life of hesychasm focusing on the “Prayer of the Heart” or the “Jesus Prayer”.
The Athonite monks withdrew to Thessalonica in 1326 due to the attacks of the Ottoman Turks. St. Gregory was ordained a priest there but returned and to continue his hesychastic life. For most of his monastic life, St. Gregory wrote and preached in debate with a certain Barlaam, who opposed the practice of hesychasm and St. Gregory’s teachings on the Uncreated Light of Christ. This was a great academic battle between Gregory and Barlaam which included even a series of six Church Councils in Constantinople between 1341 & 1351. St. Gregory and the Palamatie theology are well loved by the Church. He was glorified as a saint in 1368 and his relics life in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Thessalonica. He is commemorated on November 14 and the second Sunday of Great Lent.
Every year on the first Sunday of Great Lent we celebrate differently because we are invited to bring icons to church. Children are invited to process with clergy showing icons of the patron saints, Christ or the Holy Virgin Mary and general celebratory state of joy radiates among the people. Truly, we joyfully celebrate an event that brought about great joy to faithful Christians many centuries ago.
The Vespers of Sunday evening celebrates the event when iconography was fully restored once and for all as good and useful in our churches and homes. The event took place in the year 843 AD in Constantinople, when a procession with icons took place in the city headed by Patriarch Methodios and Empress Theodora along with her son Emperor Michael III. At the Hagia Sofia Cathedral in Constantinople clergy and laity together proclaimed the honor and veneration of icons as true Christian teaching. All rejoiced then but this proclamation had come with great turmoil and strife which lasted more than a century.
In the year 787 AD in the city of Nicaea, the Seventh Ecumenical Council convened by the Empress Irene already proclaimed the doctrine of veneration of iconography as true Christian doctrine but the debate which began earlier in 726 AD continued even after the Ecumenical Council until the glorious event of 843 in Constantinople. Repeatedly icons were removed from churches by iconoclasts and returned to churches by iconodules.
We do not worship icons, as worship is only due to God, but we venerate them as items which express the teachings of the Holy Church offering honor and veneration to the saints and events which they depict. May our forefathers and foremothers, especially the Holy Mothers Irene and Theodora, strengthen us to keep the teachings of the faith with piety and holiness!
Week after week the most important worship gathering for Orthodox Christians is the Sunday morning Divine Liturgy. This week is different because on Sunday evening we served the Vespers of Forgiveness which ushered us into the Holy and Great Lent. This Forgiveness Vespers indeed stands apart and it makes it the focus of that particular day and in the entire year in the liturgical cycle of our Holy Church.
One of the Compunction Hymns of the Forgiveness Vespers is: “Savior, wash me with my tears, for I have been soiled by many sins. Therefore I fall prostrate before You and implore: I have sinned; have mercy on me, O God.” The Forgiveness Vespers starts off the cycle of Lenten services in general. Additionally, it is also the first in a series of Sunday evening vespers services called the Solemn Vespers which will continue until the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt.
This particular Vespers includes a ritual of requesting and offering forgiveness to one another in a manner that involves our entire being. We prostrate before one another, kneeling and lowering the forehead all the way to the ground. Both say to one another: “Forgive me, a sinner.” and both also respond: “God forgives, and I forgive.” Rising from the prostration we embrace and kiss each other on the cheek as we have offered the cleansing of forgiveness.
St. Matthew tells us: “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you your trespasses (Matthew 6:14). We begin our most significant season of fasting with this in mind. We are called to practice forgiveness at all times as we repeat the same teaching even in the Lord’s Prayer several times a day, but on this day we engage the entire person in a distinct action.
May we be made worthy for the Kingdom of Heaven by the mysteries of the Church through which the Holy Spirit flows!