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!
The Triodion began with the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, when we observe one man realizing his brokenness and need for God’s mercy. Last Sunday we encountered the Prodigal Son who sinned but repented and received the embrace of his father. On this third Sunday in the sequence the Church offers us a caution.
Known as Judgment Sunday the theme of this day reminds us that at Christ’s Second and Glorious Coming he comes as a Merciful but also a Righteous Judge. Yes, indeed, we will have to face Him as the judge of our lives, and this is fearful. In the gospel according to St. John 5:27 we learn that the Son also has the authority to execute judgment. Again in verse 30 the Lord Jesus states “as I hear I judge and my judgment is righteous.” Truly, our lives will be evaluated and a decision will have to be made. It’s a fearful reality and we pray that it is type of fear which is the beginning of wisdom and the knowledge of the Holy One is the beginning of understanding (Proverbs 9:10). The Oikos of Matins expresses our inner thoughts “...I am frightened at the accusations of my conscience…”. Such a fearsome experience happens to us each day because we cannot escape our own conscience.
The punishment for a life of godless deeds is described as a river of fire which we ask the Merciful Judge to forgive. In the Kontakion of Matins we ask Him to come to our rescue and to count us worthy to stand at His Right Hand. We head into the final week of preparation before the start of Great Lent and the next Sunday brings the consolation for our fears of this Sunday.
Matins, a preparatory service to the Divine Liturgy on Sundays and feast days, is packed with instructive hymns and readings. Matins is a complex service of the liturgical life of the Church, especially because it changes its format dramatically from weekdays to Sundays and on the Great Feasts. Following Psalm 50(51), also known as the Repentance Psalm, the cantor sings a set of three hymns, which change completely for Triodion and Great Lent.
The first hymn asks the Lord Jesus Christ, addressing Him by the descriptor Giver of Life, to open the gates of repentance within us. This is a striking statement considering that repentance requires us to take action; rather than something being done on our behalf. Indeed, the next segment of the hymn specifies that we, of our own will, hurry to enter the Lord’s Temple in order to bring the temples of our bodies to His. Immediately after, the hymn has a confessional nature because it presents the recognition that our bodies are defiled by our sinfulness. The hymn closes with our prayer asking the compassionate and merciful Christ to cleanse the temples of our bodies so that we may be united to His Temple.
This poetic imagery of the hymn alternates between the proclamation of Christ’s purity and the realization of our need for purity in order to be one with God. Admission of illness is the first step of healing and this preparatory hymn for Great Lent helps us internalize this clarity for our minds and souls. The imagery is further beautified when we realize that we bring our physical bodies to the physical temple of Christ’s Body and in turn Christ’s Body and Blood enter into the temples of our bodies at the Eucharist. How Awesome our Lord is!
At first glance this word is just another word originating from the Greek language and is used commonly in liturgical life of the Church. However, this word has taken on a number of meanings especially among North American Orthodox Christians.
We use the word “Triodion” to refer to a particular liturgical book used primarily by the cantors but also the clergy. This book contains all the special hymns and readings for the variety of services during the period of three weeks of preparation before, the six weeks of Great Lent, and (sometimes) the holy and great Week leading up to Pascha.
The second use of the word is in reference to a period of time, but that itself is confusing. Some people use the word Triodion to mean the entire nine weeks of preparation and Great Lent. Others prefer to use the term only in reference to the three weeks before the start of Great Lent. It’s difficult to call any of the above practices incorrect, while simultaneously recognizing that more preciseness may be desirable.
The word itself stems from the word “three” in Greek and it was originally used to identify that in the service of Matins the Canon is composed in three odes each. This specific rubric of our Matins service is prescribed throughout the entire period of nine weeks.
However, the most important aspect is to understand and internalize is not the detailed meaning of a term rather that this brings us into a period of time which prepares at first our minds, then bodies, and all together our entire being for the Resurrection of our Savior Jesus Christ. Each Sunday has a theme which serves as a new rung on the ladder that raises us toward Pascha. We begin the Triodion this Sunday with the commemoration of the Publican and Pharisee! Blessed Triodion!
The feast of the Meeting of the Lord celebrated every year on February 2, 40 days after Christ’s birth, instills in us a beautiful image because of our tradition of Churching Prayers for newborn babies. It’s one of the most joyous occasions for a priest also, and it is a beautiful sight for the entire congregation as the priest walks down the center of the church all the way to the Altar holding the baby, presenting him to the Lord and the community and praying the beautiful prayers. We can imagine this with the baby Jesus in the arms of the Righteous Simeon at the Temple in Jerusalem with the Prophetess Ana as witness.
The central teaching of this event is that Simeon and Ana were waiting in expectation for the Anointed One of God who would bring peace and comfort to the people of Israel. The Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would live until the Christ was to be shown him. The righteous old man immediately recognized the baby Jesus Christ as the Messiah, the One sent to console the people of Israel. Likewise, Ana recognized Him, the Anointed One, and proclaimed Him to the people as the redemption for Israel. Many others of their time were looking for the consolation of their nation but their search was fruitless because their hearts wanted an earthly consolation that would save them from their Roman occupation or the struggle of everyday life. Simeon and Ana immediately recognized their source of redemption and consolation in the baby Jesus because their hearts desired a divine redemption and the consolation of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Let us wait in expectation for the consolation of God’s people through heavenly gifts, not temporary earthly accomplishments.
For reasons often difficult to comprehend individuals, groups, even entire societies developed a disdain for the rich. It’s an interesting phenomenon among us, humans, because given the choice to be richer than we currently are each of us would choose to be richer. It’s indeed interesting and even disturbing.
This pursuit of undermining the rich even developed into a political system - Communism - which wreaked havoc across the world during the twentieth century. But this isn’t just some political contriving to dominate large groups of people, other political systems conquered and oppressed people. Actually, the disdain for the rich exists in many of us, perhaps in all of us to some degree. This human experience is present in the Bible also. There are some who would accuse Jesus Christ of discriminating against the rich based on His statement from the St. Luke’s gospel (18:25) “For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” One chapter further St. Luke relates the story of Zacchaios (Luke 19:1-10) where we see a rich man given a great blessing. Of course, this rich man is a shining example of searching for the Lord Jesus and opening his heart and his family home to welcome Him.
I firmly believe the Lord Jesus isn’t at all concerned with our earthly net worth, rather with our hearts, minds, and lives in relation to everything we earn and spend. The renewed Zachaios considered it a privilege to be able to share his wealth with those in need. Being poor or rich doesn’t affect our salvation. The rich, just like the poor, are called to holiness through love, repentance, compassion, and charity. This is how our lives are deemed worthy of the kingdom of God.
Today’s Gospel reading from the Evangelist Luke 17:12-19 forces us to examine ourselves. The brief passage relates the story of the ten lepers who are healed by the Lord Jesus Christ at their fervent request. Sadly, only one of them returns to thank his healer. Jesus asks, rhetorically, where the other nine lepers who were healed are.
Of note is the fact that the ten men who were severely ill suffered from an illness separated them from their homes and families. The second notable detail opens the reading in verse 12 where all the lepers recognize Jesus as their Master who can offer them healing. They approach Him calling out: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” Showing that they recognized Him as a source of goodness and compassion for their lives.
Interestingly, unlike other healings that Jesus performed for people, in this case the Lord sends the ten ill men to show themselves to the priests. This would have been a requirement for them as people suffering from leprosy were deemed religiously unclean in addition to being social outcasts. However, they are all healed as they head to show themselves to the priests.
Unfortunately only one of them, a foreigner to the people of Israel, returns filled with thanksgiving and gratitude to the Lord Jesus the source and instrument of his healing.
We often forget where the source of good in our lives lies! Once all goes well in our lives we seem to easily forget both our previous suffering as well as how fervently we prayed asking for God’s mercy on us. Examining our lives we easily find times when we have acted like the ungrateful nine lepers rather than the one who returned. May we be blessed to mindfully remember to be thankful for the mercy and blessings of our Lord Jesus and Master who has mercy on us.