November 2010


St. Andrew the First-Called

Andrew, first-called of the Apostles, and brother of Peter, their leader: intercede with the Master of all that He may grant peace to the world and great mercy to our souls. (Apolytikion)

Today we celebrate the memory of the holy, glorious and illustrious first-called Apostle Andrew, the patron of the Church of Constantinople. St. Andrew’s immediate response to our Lord’s call is an example for all of us in our journey of faith.

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” they said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’ clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. Youa re to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter). (John 1:35-42)

Just as our Lord offered the invitation first to Andrew, “Come and see,” so he offers the same invitation to us. Our faith is not a logical proposition; it is an experience of a living person who loves us and whom we love.

Let us praise for his courage Andrew the theologian, first Apostle of the Savior and brother of Peter, for just as he drew his brother to Christ, he is crying out to us: “Come, for we have found the One the world desires!” (Kontakion)

St. Andrew also gives us an example of discipleship when he is called with Peter from their nets. His response is immediate and without hesitation.

Call of Peter and Andew

As [Jesus] walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net intot he sea–for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. (Matthew 3:18-20)

“Follow me”. What do these words mean? For Andrew, it meant leaving his “comfort zone”, abandoning his profession, his world, everything he knew, to follow a young rabbi who was teaching strange things about a new vision of the Kingdom of God. “Follow me”. We receive the same call at our Baptism and every day of our lives. It means we must abandon our egos, our self-absorption, the “feel good” philosophy of our society and allow ourselves to be guided on the path which Christ walks ahead of us. This path is the rough path of the cross, but our only sure safety is to put our feet in his footsteps, to go where he leads, the leave ourselves open to the new life and love that he gives us on the way.

Let us acclaim Andrew, the herald of the Faith and servant of the Word, who fishes men from the depths of error, holding in his hands the rod of the Cross and casting divine power as a net to draw souls from the abyss of evil and to present them as an acceptable offering to our God. O faithful, ceaselessly sing to him with the choirs of disciples of Christ, that he intercede before him to show us favor on the day of judgment. (Doxastikon of the Ainoi)

St. Andrew gave the perfect witness of his faith and love by his death. After having preached in Greece, Bithynia and Thrace, he went to Patras in Greece. As the story is told in the Synaxarion vol. 2 by Hieromonk Makarios of Simonos Petra (1999, p. 282):

At Patras Andrew healed Maximilla, the Proconsul’s wife, of an incurable illness, and so brought her to the faith. The other inhabitants of Patras also shared in the blessings he brought with him, and there was soon a large community of Christians in the city. During the absence of teh Proconsul Aegeates, Saint Andrew converted his brother and deputy, Stratocles. On his return, Aegeates was enraged to observe the gains made by the Christians even in his own household, and he had the Apostle arrested. In prison Andrew continued preaching, and he ordained Stratocles as Bishop of Patras. Some days later the Apostle was summarily condemned to be crucified head downwards. How joyful he was to imitate Christ even in the way he was to die for him! After restraining the friends who wanted to procure his freedom, Andrew blessed his faithful for the last time and gave up his soul to God. Aegeates died a violent death soon after, as punishment for his iniquity, and his wealth was distributed to the poor by Stratocles, who built the cathedral church over the place of the Apostle’s martyrdom.

When we are hesitant or doubtful about our role as disciples of Christ, let us turn to St. Andrew and ask him for his assistance to “come and see”.

Having found the primary object of your desires, the One who put on our nature in the compassion of his heart, O Andrew, you united yourself to him in the fervor of your love. You cried out to your brother, “We have found Christ, the One whom the prophets announced in the Spirit. Let us go, that his beauty may delight our souls and spirits; so that, enlightened by his splendor, we may drive away the darkness of ignorance and the night of error, praising and blessing the Lord who grants the world great mercy!” (from the Aposticha of Vespers)

Sts. Barsanupios and John

The practical wisdom of the Desert Fathers always amazes me. You would think that these hermits, hardened by their ascetical practices in the merciless desert would have lost all connection to humanity. The common image of the “holy man” would also make us think that they were “other worldly”, not concerned at all with the affairs of this world, completely intent on God.

But when we read their words, they are full of such insight into the human condition, so full of compassion and even of humor, that they totally undermine all our preconceived notions of holiness. The closer they come to God, the closer they are to their fellow pilgrims.

I am particularly fond of two particular Desert Fathers, Sts. Barsanuphios and John. They lived in the Palestinian desert in the 6th century. Their remoteness attracted people to come to seek their wisdom and direction. Their responses are direct and amazingly sensitive to the weaknesses of humanity.

I would like to cite one particular question and answer that has always struck me by its compassion and directness. The questioner wants to know about the appropriateness of keeping church financial records.

Question: Is it a good thing to keep the accounts of a church?

Response by Barsanuphios

If you keep the accounts of the churhc, you are actually keeping the accounts of God. for you are God’s steward. Therefore, you are obliged to keep the accounts in such a way as to feed the poor and the orphans, if there is any surplus. After all, God is their Father and nurturer, and you are administering their goods. If there is no surplus, you should do what you can to make one. Otherwise, you are not keeping the accoutns of the church but only taking care of yourself. If that is what you are doing, then you are not keeping the accounts for God, but for the devil. Do everything, then, acording to God and you shall find your reward with him.

This is the time of year when churches are putting together their budgets. We do not hesitate to include line items for church repair, for salaries, for all sorts of “necessities”. But when it comes to putting in line items for the poor, for missions, for religious education, suddenly “there’s not enough money left”. Barsanuphios responds to that with a simple: “Then get some.” There is no excuse for not having money available from the church for the poor and needy; just as God has made us stewards of his creation and out of that we give an amount that serves as the token or symbol of our love for God, so also the Church itself needs to put aside a token or symbol of its love for God to take care of God’s children.

St. James, in his Universal Epistle, already expressed this thought:

If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?

No excuses! We have the clear command of Scripture and the Fathers. We need to witness to the nature of the Church in the world. Our beautiful buildings and social halls are meaningless if we do not provide for the fundamental needs of those who are suffering want. And if we do not have the money to do so, we need to make sure we raise it!

Elder Porphyrios

From the great Elder Porphyrios On Prayer (Wounded by Love: the Life and Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios, p. 126-127):

Let us love Christ. Then the name of Christ will burst forth from within us with impellent desire, with fervor, with divine eros. We will shout His name secretly, without speaking words. let us stand before God in adoration, humbly, and in the footsteps of Christ–that Christ may free us from every trace of our fallen nature. Let us ask for tears to be given to us before prayer. but be careful! Do not let your right hand know what the left is doing (Matthew 6:3). Pray with contrition: “Am I worthy for You to give such grace, O Christ?” And then these tears become tears of gratitude. I am deeply moved; I have not done the will of God, but I ask for His mercy.

Pray to God with love and yearning, in tranquility, with meekness, gently and without forcing yourself. And when you repeat the prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me,” say it slowly, humbly, gently and with divine love. Pronounce the name of Christ with sweetness. Say the words one at a time: “Lord…Jesus…Christ…have mercy on me”, smoothly, tenderly, affectionately, silently, secretly mystically, but with exaltation, with longing, with passion, without tension, force or unbecoming emphasis, without compulsion and pressure. In the way a mother speaks to the child she loves: “my little boy…my darling girl…my little Johnny…my wee Mary!” With longing. Yes, longing.  That’s the whole secret. Here the heart is speaking: “My little child, my joy!” My Lord, my Jesus, my Jesus, my Jesus!” What you have in your heart and in your mind, that is what you express with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind (Luke 10:27).

No need to add anything to this!

Yesterday was Black Friday. It gets its name from the fact that the amount of shopping that goes on today usually puts businesses in the black. However, to me the description “black” always has a different connotation. It is the festival of consumerism, the feast of the god of this world. Not that shopping or buying gifts is bad; but the greed encouraged by society and manifested today throughs a black pall over any sense of generosity or love.

In our New Testament Challenge passage for today (Mark 6:30-52) we hear our Lord tell the disciples:

“Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going and they had no leisure even to eat (6:31).

The press of the crowds even disturbed our Lord. He saw that the constant coming and going of people, the constant stream of people in distress, illness, sins all in need of healing was wearing down the disciples. So they planned to get away from the crowd for some “spiritual battery recharging.”

To their surprise, the crowds figured out where they were going and beat them to the place. But, instead of chasing them away, our Lord had pity on them.

…and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. (6:34)

The desert place turned out to be as busy as every other place. But our Lord doesn’t chase them away. He doesn’t complain about the crowd. His first reaction is love and compassion. And he begins to heal their souls through his teaching.

But what about the desert place and the promised quiet. Our Lord shows us that the desert place is not necessarily some physical location (although it can be; we see him going up into the mountain alone to pray in 6:46); rather the desert place can even exist in the midst of the crowds. We need to retreat to the desert place in our heart, the place where the healing words of Christ give us rest and refreshment. Even if we go out into the crowds on Black Friday, we do not need to let our spiritual concentration become distracted. Our hearts can still be at peace. While we walk through malls or stand in the endless checkout lines, the Jesus Prayer can fill our hearts and minds and pour a refreshing balm over our souls. There will be a lot of jostling, a lot of rude people shoving ahead of us. But keeping our hearts and minds centered on our Lord through the Jesus Prayer will help us retain our patience and calm.

Multiplication of the loaves and fish

Not only does our Lord refresh the hearts of the crowd with his words, he also feeds them. There in the desert place, where there is no food, the disciples bring him five loaves and two fish. The poverty of the desert is suddenly transformed into paradise, the place where food is produced on its own. This food from heaven is also ours in the desert of our souls. Our Lord can transform our souls into a paradise; he can take our small offering of a few loaves of bread and transform them into the nourishment we need to maintain our spiritual strength.

I wanted to continue the theme from yesterday–being thankful for opportunities of showing our love for God. We saw St. Katherine offering prayers of thanksgiving before her martyrdom because giving her life was a public expression of her love. Today in our New Testament Challenge we are reading about the martyrdom of St. John the Baptist. Although the story is told from the perspective of Herod, we can be sure that St. John as well was thankful for this opportunity to show his love for God.

So, am I saying that we need to be thankful for the chance to give up our lives? In a certain sense, yes. Few of us are going to be called to give the ultimate witness which St. Katherine and St. John the Baptist and all the martyrs have given, and have been grateful for the opportunity to witness this love before the world. But every one of us is called to sacrifice a part of our life out of our love for God, and to thank God for the opportunity. Our witness may not be seen by anyone at all, but we are still giving witness before the angels of God that we love God more than our lives.

What do I mean by this? Consider the scene: You are driving along the highway, minding your own business, perhaps lost in your thoughts of the next meeting, or of a family activity for the evening. Suddenly the guy in the next lane cuts you off, dragging you out of your reverie and forcing you to slam on your breaks, nearly avoiding an accident. The adrenaline is flowing, you are angry and your first instict is at least to say some choice and inappropriate words in response. That is our life, our fallen life. However, something deep inside intervenes; you know that if you react in this way you will be betraying the love you have for God and your desire to conform your life to his will. So you stop yourself and your angry reaction, and instead you say a quick Jesus Prayer that God will have mercy on the othe driver and on you. Your whole being screams out with the desire to curse the other person; sometimes the psychological need almost feels like some small part of the torture felt by the martyrs. But you have given up some little part of your fallen life and the satisfaction of your passions in order to give witness to your love for God. No one has seen it, but witness it is nonetheless. And, like the martyrs, your fallen life dies, little by little, to be replaced by the presence of God in your heart. The same pattern is repeated every time we are faced with all those daily temptations which bombard us.

And then, instead of feeling rotten and regretful that you have fallen once again, the heart is light and gives thanks to God for this opportunity to take one more “baby step” towards living a life in conformity with his commandments.

As the last bits of leftover turkey and stuffing are finding their final reincarnation and we are putting ourselves back in gear to prepare for Christmas, the martyrs are calling us to be grateful for these moments of witness, these moments of love, these moments of small triumphs in our daily struggles.

Today we celebrate the memory of the holy Great-martyr Katherine of Alexandria.

St. Katherine

Let us sing of the illustrious bride of Christ, holy Katherine, the protectress of Sinai, who is our refuge and our help. With the sword of the Spirit, she brilliantly silenced the sophistry of the impious; as a crowned martyr, she forever entreats great mercy for us all.

Thanksgiving

For some reason the feast of St. Katherine always reminds me of Thanksgiving. Probably because they almost always coincide in some way, either occuring on the same day, or within a few days of each other.

The coincidence of these two celebrations naturally brings to mind the relationship of giving thanks to martyrdom. The first thing that strikes me about the stories of the martyrs is the gratitude and joy they feel because they have been privileged to bear the ultimate witness to their faith in Christ by enduring tortures and death. The Synaxarion compiled by Hieromonk Makarios of Simonos Petra (vol. 2, 1999, p. 239) illustrates this in the martyrdom of St. Katherine:

On 25 November, Catherine was brought forth from her dungeon to appear at the tribunal, fairer and more radiant with heavenly joy than when she had entered it, for she saw that the day of her union with Christ had come at last. She was taken outside the city and, after a last prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord, who had revealed to her the inexhaustible treasures of true wisdom, she was beheaded in her turn.

This young girl, so wise in the ways of the world, saw all her earthly wisdom as nothing compared with the wisdom and beauty of her Lord. She was about to give a witness to her love for God, and was grateful that such an opportunity was provided to her.

We look at such love with admiration, but at a distance: there’s no way I could ever achieve such a deep love that I would be thankful for my persecutors. When we make that small gesture toward gratitude to God for what he has given us on Thanksgiving, there will be little gratitude expressed that life gives us the constant opportunity to grow deeper in love with God. Yes, we are grateful for family and friends, for health and prosperity, all these things are important gifts. But the greatest gift we have is God’s love towards us, and the grace he gives us to love him in return. Do we love him enough to thank him for this? If not, our prayer should be that God will strengthen our love to the point that, with St. Katherine, we are willing to offer a prayer of thanksgiving for any opportunity to give witness to our love.

St. Clement of Rome

Today we celebrate the memory of our Father among the Saints, Clement, Bishop of Rome. This feast reminds us of the catholicity of the Church through space and time. Clement was a disciple of the Apostles, probably of St. Peter himself, and was consecrate Bishop of Rome in 91 AD.  He experienced the fury of pagan Rome against the nascent Church, and, despite this danger, managed to baptize the Prefect of Rome, Sisinius, and his wife, Theodora. As a result, he was exiled to the Chersonesus in the Crimea, where he ministered to the Christian prisoners in the marble quarries. Because of his ministry, he was subjected to torture and a martyr’s death. An anchor was tied around his neck and he was thrown into the Black Sea.

A hymn from Vespers connects his life in Rome, in the Crimea and in heaven together as a vast cosmic revelation of the divine light, comparing him to the sun, but a sun that travels rather from west to east:

You rose from the West like a radiant sun, O thrice-blessed father, and the earth was brightly illumined by your wondrous teachings as well as by your wounds. Having reached the regions of the East, you set in death. Then you dawned again, O blessed Clement, forever close to Christ in a divine communion, enlightening by the splendor which shines in the Age to come.

St. Clement is best known as the author of the Epsitle of Clement which he addressed to the Church of Corinth. A faction of young people seem to have rebelled against the bishops/presbyters for an unstated reason. St. Clement attempted to restore order to the Church by stressing the importance of order. The Greek word he uses is taxis, and he stresses the point that our Lord established his Church with a certain order, and that all things are done according to order. St. Clement’s exhortation to proper order, to the observance of the proper times for the divine sacrifice and services is a reminder to us today that the taxis or order of our divine services should be observed as far as possible. In the past we have “adjusted” the times of our services, for example, for pastoral reasons. Although that may be a legitimate reason, the Church has placed the services at a certain time for a reason; it is encumbent on ourselves to learn the reasons for the times and seasons of our celebrations, and not to consign them to the pile of “liturgical trivia”.

Some selections from St. Clement’s Epistle to the Corinthians will help us see more clearly the importance of taxis in the Church.

38. Let our whole body, then, be preserved in Christ Jesus; and let everyone be subject to his neighbor, according to the special gift beshowed upon him. Let the strong not despise the weak, and let the weak show respect to the strong. Let the rich man provide for the wants of the poor; and let the poor man bless God, because He has given him one by whom he needs may be supplied. Let the wise man display his wisdom, not by mere words, but through good deeds. Let the humble not bear testimony to himself, but leave witness to be borne to him by another. Let him that is pure in the flesh not grow proud of it, and boast, knowing tht it was another who bestowed on him the gift of continence. Let us consider, then, brethren, of what matter we were made, –who and what manner of being we came into the world, as it were out of a sepulcher, and from utter darkness. he who made us and fashioned us, having prepared His bountiful gifts for us before we were born, introduced us into His world. Since, therefore, we receive all these things from Him, we ought for everything to give Him thanks; to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

St. Clement here presents a beautiful image of the life of the Church. All the members of the Church are subject to one another through humble service, and ultimately that service comes from the gifts God himself has given to us for use in the Church. Our job, then, is to discover the gifts that God has given us and how we can best employ them for others.

In paragraph 40 St. Clement illustrates how the Church is founded not just on the proper ordering of Services, but also on the proper place each person has in the Church. Everyone has a certain rank and a certain place for that rank to perform its part of the Service. Each rank, whether bishop, priest, deacon, or layperson, has its role to play for the glory of God.

40. These things therefore being manifested to us, and since we look into the depths of the divine knowledge, it behooves us to do all things in their proper order, which the Lord has commanded us to perform at stated times. He has enjoined offerings to be presented and service to be performed to Him, and that not thoughtlessly or irregularly, but at the appointed times an dhours. Where and by whom he desires these things to be done, He Himself has fixed by His own supreme will, in order that all things being piously done according to His good pleasure, may be acceptable to Him.

Those, therefore, who present their offerings at the appointed times, are accepted and blessed; for inasmuch as they follow the laws of the Lord, they do not sin. For his own peculiar services are assigned to the high priest, and their own proper place is prescribed to the priests, and their own special ministrations devolve on the Levites. The layperson is bound by the laws that pertain to laypeople.

Our Church is based on this divine order, not one constructed by human intellect or will, no business or academic model, but one that is based on the Trinity itself. But all are united in the worship of God and humble service to one another. In this, St. Clement has captured, already at the end of the 1st century, the universal essence of the Church.

Our Church, then, is based on a divinely established order, not just organized on human or business principles. Let us strive to honor that taxis which keeps the Church from falling apart into chaos or from falling prey to rebellions based on pride.

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