Exultation of the Cross–A Sermon

Before Thy Cross, we bow down in worship, O Master, and Thy holy resurrection we glorify! (A hymn sung in place of “Holy God” in the Orthodox Liturgy on the feast of the Exultation of the Cross)

Exaltation of the Cross—A sermon

Beloved of God, as we celebrate this feast of the Exaltation of the Cross; let us consider what the Cross means for us. Today in the Gospel we read of the event of our Lord’s crucifixion. But what does this mean for us. Well, one thing that should be evident is that the Cross is a manifestation of the love of God for man. Our Lord Jesus Christ voluntarily gave Himself up to death, to a painful and shameful death of being nailed naked to the Cross. He is God, He could have avoided this, but this was God’s plan for our salvation.

When anyone does us a favor, or some good thing for us, or gives us a gift, don’t we feel indebted to that person? Don’t we feel love for that person in return for the favor done to us? Then how much more should it be so with God. When one of the Holy Trinity, God the Son, willingly suffers for us to the point of death, the death of the Cross, how can we do otherwise than return love, for love?

The Holy Apostle John the Theologian writes of this: “We love Him, because He first loved us” (I John 4:19). “Hereby we have known love: because He laid down His life for us” (I John 3:16). “In this was manifested the love of God in us, that God sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (I John 4:9-10).

So the Cross is a motivation for us to love God, and indeed we cannot help but do so. This, then, is one spiritual exercise for us: to ponder the sufferings of our Lord on the Cross. This can be done by reading the Gospel narrations on this, or the services of the Church on the Cross, like Holy Friday, the Sunday of the Cross during Great Lent and today’s feast. But there is something more to the Cross; to love God for the saving work of the Cross is one thing, but to be on a cross is something more. This is when our faith is tested. Will we endure in the time of temptation? The Elder Joseph the Younger of Vatopedi Monastery on the Holy Mountain writes very nicely about bearing a Cross in his teaching on trials. So he says:

Trials or temptations (peirasmoi) have been so named because they produce experience (peira) in those who are tried. As to their nature, they comprise all the distressing events in life, from the smallest pain to the greatest of all which is death. In a word, we call them a cross, because just as a cross tortures a man and puts him to death, so distressing things in general lay him low and destroy him. Tribulations do not have their origin in the creation that was from the beginning, but are parasitic, consequences accompanying our fallen state.…

But blessed be our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, who transformed the terrible threat and conspiracy against our nature….[Through] the martyrdom of His Cross, the comprehensive cross, the whole profusion of sadness and the totality of trials—all these were transformed from then on into means and methods of salvation for us. Since then and in perpetuity, all the throngs of the righteous, all the clouds of martyrs, all the choirs of the saved and all those who will press on towards life until the end of the age will look upon their trials with gratitude as the most practical method of attaining Life. (Elder Joseph the Hesychast by Elder Joseph, pp. 66-7)

So bearing the crosses that come upon us greatly help in the process of salvation. But crosses are not only exterior, there are also interior crosses which are perhaps even more profitable for salvation. St. Innocent of Alaska writes of this:

Whoever wants to be a true disciple and follower of Jesus Christ must, without fail, bear internal crosses as well.

Internal crosses can be found at all times, and more easily than external ones. You have only to direct your attention to yourself and to examine your soul with a sense of penitence, and a thousand internal crosses will at once present themselves. For instance, consider: How did you come to be in this world? Why are you in this world at all? Do you live as you ought to live? And so on. Pay due attention to this, and you will see at first glance that, being the creation and work of the hands of the Almighty God, you exist in this world solely, with all your actions, with all your life and with your whole being, to glorify His holy and great Name. But you not only fail to glorify Him, but on the contrary you offend and dishonor Him by your sinful life. Then recollect and consider: What awaits you on the other side of the grave? On which side will you be at the time of Christ’s dread judgment, on the left or the right? (Indication to the Way of the Kingdom of Heaven, St. Innocent of Alaska, pp. 28-9)

In such a manner does St. Innocent continue to speak of internal crosses. Such reflections help in a process of purification and lulling of the passions, it is a personal repentance. But where does all this lead us? Our response of loving Christ because of His sacrifice for us on the Cross is one good thing. Then bearing the crosses that come our way is something more. Then the voluntary taking up of an interior cross of penitential prayer is again something more. But where does this lead us. Does this yet lead us to something more?

It should, it should lead us to a universal repentance, since by the acute perception of our own fallen state we also have a perception of the fallen state of mankind. So the natural response would be to pray for the salvation of others. And so if we really develop this perception and this prayer for our fellow men, then the content of our heart would be the desire for the salvation of all. Thus we would mount a cross together with Christ, we would be in Christ, and co-crucified with Christ, for the world. A spiritual child of Archimandrite Sophrony—Fr. Zachariah—expressed the opinion that the content of the heart of our Lord Jesus Christ when He was in Gethsemane was the salvation of all. And when He was crucified the content of His heart was the salvation of all. When He was buried and when He rose, the content of His heart was the salvation of all. Finally, when He ascended and sat at the right hand of the Father, the content of His heart was the salvation of all. If we also have this same content of heart, then we would be in Christ, we would be co-crucified with Him through painful prayer for the salvation of the world. Then the words of the Apostle John the Theologian would apply to us: “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren” (IJohn 3:14).

“Call No Man you Father”

What follows in this post is a sermon which focuses on the epistle reading of our Church for this past Sunday.     

“Call No Man your Father”

     Beloved of God, rather than speaking about the Sunday Gospel of today I would like to concentrate on something else; that is, I would like to focus on our epistle reading.  In particular, I would like to consider one particular verse, that is, the following words of the holy Apostle Paul:  “For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.”

     It is important for us to point out this verse and consider the message it conveys because the traditions of our holy Orthodox faith are sometimes challenged by those outside the Church.  These particular words of the Apostle Paul bring a response from those who would critique us for calling our priests father – a critique they base on the words of St. Matthew in his Gospel where he says, “And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven.” On the surface, these two passages seem to conflict with one another; but these excerpts, as with the whole of the Scripture—especially the New Testament—must be seen and interpreted within the life and tradition of the Church.  This is so, first of all, because the Christian faith and the Christian Church existed before the New Testament.  And it is the Church, with the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit, which “produced” the New Testament; it was not the New Testament that produced the Church.   As is known, the New Testament is comprised of 27 books. These books were selected by the Church from a multitude of other early Christian writings which were circulated under the name of Apostles.  

     From Church History we discover that the need for defining a specific Canon for the New Testament arose around the end of the 2nd century when certain heretics tried to define their own Canon.  For this reason, various Fathers of the Church began referring to specific books which they considered divinely inspired.  It was not until the latter half of the 4th century that this problem of the Canon of the New Testament was solved.  In 367, Athanasius the Great presented a complete list of the books which he believed should be considered divinely inspired, and this was accepted by the Church in the East. A little later on, in 397 the same books were made official in the West with the Synod of Carthage. 

      So, what we must first realize is that the tradition of calling a priest a father is actually older than the official collection [or Canon] of the books we call the New Testament.  And those holy men of the Church who confirmed for us the books of the New Testament obviously had no problem with these words of St. Matthew and St. Paul even though on the surface they may appear contradictory.  So let us take a detailed look into this subject and consider both why we call a priest a father, and exactly what is meant by our Lord’s words as recorded by St. Matthew.

     The words we find in this particular passage of St. Matthew’s Gospel must not be taken literally on the surface because if we were really to take them literally to an extreme we would need to find a new name for our parents. We would be prohibited from calling our male parent “father”; and this, of course, would be ridiculous.

    But let us listen again to the words of the Apostle Paul: “For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.” Saint Paul calls himself a father to the Corinthians.  This is how he describes the relationship he has with the Corinthians – that of a priest to the laity of the Church.  This is also a living relationship which is expressed by the word father.  As a father begets a child, cares for the child and supplies its needs while growing up in this world, so too, does the priest do for his spiritual children.

     We see this expressed in other places in the Scriptures, as well; so let us take a look at some examples. In the book of Judges (17:10), a man named Micah from the mountains of Ephraim is mentioned.  We see that he invites a Levite traveler to live with him, and he says to the Levite, “Dwell with me and be a father and priest to me.” In another place, we see Elisha saying to the prophet Elijah: “My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and its horsemen.” (IIKings 2:12) This took place shortly before they parted and Elijah was taken up into heaven. Later we see that Elisha, who then became the foremost prophet in Israel, was referred to as father by the kings of Israel. King Joash used these same words for the Prophet Elisha, when he went to see him while he was on his deathbed. There the king said to him, “O my father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof.”(IIKings 13:14)

     Therefore we should not doubt this tradition of our Church, that is, the tradition of calling a priest father.  But as for the words found in St. Matthew, we must consider the context in which our Lord was speaking.  When He said these words our Lord was critiquing the Scribes and Pharisees for their pride and vain glory and He was warning His disciples not to fall into the same thing.  Many of the religious leaders in the time of our Lord prided themselves on their position and they were vainglorious, that is they loved the attention and praise of the people.  Our Lord, when He told the disciples “Call no man your father,” was critiquing this pride and vain glory. So then, when we Orthodox call a priest “father” we are not breaking this injunction of our Lord. Even so, let us look into ways in which this is sometimes broken so we can more fully understand what our Lord is telling us.

     First, there is sometimes a tendency for a sectarian spirit to arise in the Church, and this is something we must avoid.  We see that this is what was happening in Corinth, and this is what the Apostle Paul was speaking against when he wrote: Some of you are saying I am of Apollos or I am of Cephas or I am of Paul.  Some of the Church community at Corinth were naming themselves by a man on earth; they were putting up one of the apostles as their living head here on earth, and this was causing division in the Church. They were measuring themselves by one of the apostles, and in their pride each was saying the one whom they followed was the best and this was making a schism in the body of Christ.  They were calling a man on earth their father. This also, is basically the same thing that has occurred with Roman Catholicism and the Papacy, they set up one single man as an absolute head over all of the Church—something that has never been acceptable to Orthodoxy.  Perhaps what is even worse is that we see some of the protestant confessions repeating the same thing – naming themselves by a man, for instance Calvanists or Lutherans.  It is such actions as these that our Lord was speaking against when He said call no man your father upon earth.   

     There is one more point that we must take into consideration which applies not only to this text but the whole of the Gospel of St. Matthew.  It is traditionally believed that St. Matthew wrote his Gospel in Aramaic and that it was later translated into Greek by the Apostle James the Brother of the Lord. It is unfortunate that the Aramaic text is not extant. However, any Greek scholar, upon reading the Gospel of St. Matthew, would easily recognize that Greek was not the writer’s (or translator’s) first language.  This is especially true with some of the finer points of grammar which might naturally allow for the possibility of an obscurity and thus the possibility of having variant meanings of certain texts.  Therefore, as Orthodox faithful today we must remain within the tradition of the Church and accept how our Church interprets the Scriptures.  In light of this, here is a question for us to ponder: Is St. Matthew actually warning us not to call ourselves by the name of any man on earth as being “our father”?  We can call many priests “father”, but for the whole Church to call any man “our father” is something quite different and unacceptable. So then, to call our priests  father—a spiritual father—is acceptable to God; and we see this from the words of the Holy Apostle Paul we heard in today’s epistle and which I will repeat again: “For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers: for in Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel.”

     Let us keep our faith and hold fast to the traditions that we have received from our Church because our Church is the holy and apostolic Church.  By apostolic we mean we can trace the consecration of our bishops in a direct line back to the apostles of Christ.  Therefore we can say that Christ is the father and founder of our Church – not some man who picked up the Bible and interpreted it according to his own mind, for this is another error we see among many protestants.  Some of them call themselves “Bible churches”, but their faith is built upon the teachings of this man or that man who at some time or another interpreted the Bible according to his own mind.  Therefore, a man is the founding father of their faith, and not our Lord Jesus Christ.  In the final analysis, they must admit that a man is their father and not God.  But for us, by the apostolic succession of our bishops, we are able to confidently proclaim that our Lord Jesus Christ is the founder and father and head of our Church.  To Him be glory together with His Father Who is without beginning and his all-holy good and life-creating Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages.  Amen.    

 

Obedience: Reflections on the Orthodox Concept and Its Apllication in America (continuation)

All that has been said in part one on this topic is a general sketch of the concept of obedience as seen in our ascetic, or more precisely monastic tradition. Without question it is to the lives and writings of the monastic fathers of the Church where we must turn in order to gain understanding of the concept of obedience. Therefore a question may arise: How does this apply to the laity? Is the same obedience expected of a layman as the monastic? In answer to this we should first take a look at the sacraments which make one a member of the Church and a member of the monastic ranks. In the monastic tonsure which brings one fully into the monastic order there are vows of poverty, virginity and obedience. In Baptism which is the entrance of any given person into the Church there are vows to renounce Satan and unite oneself to Christ. In Baptism there is no vow of obedience. In the monastic ranks one seeks to go a step above and beyond the spiritual life that is attainable in the world, and all the circumstances of life in a monastery are geared for this. This is true for obedience, the monastic is expected to go a step above and beyond the layman, and his living conditions are set up for this. So then, what can we say about obedience for a layman and especially for us in America?

Perhaps it would be prudent to consider the people with whom we are dealing; especially since in this country the Church is challenged to function in a living situation it has never experienced before. America has never been nor is an Orthodox monarchy which is the environment that Orthodoxy has existed in since the time of St. Constantine until recent times. Nor is this a country that is primarily Orthodox and has been permeated with Orthodox life for centuries. It is a country that does not have the experience of widespread types of slavery or slavish submission to despotic ruling powers. Nor are we simple, we are complex, intelligent and free thinkers. And especially in our age of technology when there is a danger of the destruction of personhood under the threat of being categorized as a number and filed away in a computer obedience can be repulsive. So now we raise the question: How do we institute obedience in the life of the Church in America?

Possibly a very wise method of employing obedience in our country and our times can be found in the manner in which one of the Athonite elders carries out the role of spiritual fatherhood. It is the Elder Vasileos of the monastery of Iveron (4) that reference is being made to. Father Vasileos has an acute sensitivity to the needs of every particular person that comes before him. He does not set one strict program in his monastery that everyone is obliged to follow exactly, nor does he assign a rule for anyone without considering the particular person that is before him and his needs. For example, in the case of a rule of prayer he does not expect someone who comes to him to completely change what they had previously done and accept a standard form from him; rather he builds on what a person is already doing. He does not demand blind obedience but he is very flexible, approachable, and open – again I emphasize open to the particular person before him: He does not categorize the person according to the human nature that he shares with every other man but he is sympathetic to the personal essence of the one before him. He will make a suggestion and point someone in a particular direction but he prefers each to exercise their free will in a task or spiritual endeavor that needs to be done. This way is a very practical method of dispensing the Orthodox practice of obedience for us today in America. In order to practice obedience most people today in this country need to know why they are doing something. For – as was pointed out above – we are complex, intelligent and free thinkers. We want to understand the meaning and significance of what we do, this is instilled in us by our environment, from the time we begin to reason, as this gives us needed motivation. Perhaps what is most important is we need to know that the particular personal entity that is unique to each of us is being considered and respected.

In putting all this together we can surmise that obedience should not be something abstract, an impersonal, lifeless work; rather it is an exercise that depends upon and issues forth from a relationship between two people, a relationship of love. A mutual exchange of love is the essence of the relationship between a spiritual father and child. As a result of this relationship the spiritual father takes upon himself the direction, all the burdens and ultimate salvation of the one who submits to him. Likewise upon the foundation of knowing he has found a father of experience to whose way of thought he is attracted and who loves him and respects his personhood the spiritual child in returns loves and has faith which results in his doing obedience. So this is its aspect in the interrelations between two particular persons, while in its personal aspect it is the humble acknowledgment of the inability to guide one’s self.

For the layman, obedience should not be an escape from the responsibilities laid upon someone by society and family, for the purpose of obedience is to know and do God’s will and not to “pass the buck” to someone else. Nor should obedience debilitate one’s ability to function; on the contrary it should help to make one mature. The interchange with a spiritual father and any resulting obedience should be focused on the struggle against our sinful habits and the acquisition of virtues. The spiritual father’s role is like that of St. John the Baptist; that is, to point one to Christ and to bring one to maturity in Christ. As one grows in their relationship with Christ, His most pure Mother and the saints, and is formed by the life of the Church one’s understanding is developed. Thus the scope and extent of the need of direction and obedience is diminished. So in conclusion, we could say, “Obedie nce is a spiritual state, it is a state of harmony with the Holy Spirit and the Church.” (5)

  

(4) The Monastery of Iveron is one of the twenty monasteries on the HolyMountain in Greece.

(5) A comment of one of the Fathers of the Monastery of St. John the Baptist at Essex, England.

 

 

Obedience: Reflections on the Orthodox concept and its application in America

“Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” (Luke 1:38)

Since the subject of this post is obedience I decided to begin with this quote, rather than a hymn, because it shows us the obedience of the Theotokos.   

Obedience: Reflections on the Orthodox Concept and Its Application in America

Obedience is something that is an integral component of man’s nature, because man is a creature. And any created being lacks self-sufficiency and is in need of outside help. It is to God, the Creator, that every rational creature must turn to for help and consequently it is to God that obedience is due. When God created Adam and placed him in paradise he had a free relationship with God and a pure, undistorted communion with Him. He was the first created and so his obedience was directly to God without an intermediary.

Adam was given one commandment from God: “Thou shalt not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 2:17). Adam ate of the fruit and in his sin of disobedience his relationship and communion with God were distorted along with his very being, which is in the image of God. So with the passage of time and the multiplication of mankind upon the earth this distortion of man’s being and his relationship with God has become augmented. Our being, our human nature, must become whole once again and we must re-establish a relationship with God and communion with Him. We need to be shown the way, we need someone to guide us, and therefore we need to practice obedience. As we do not have that free relationship with God and the pure, undistorted communion that Adam had our obedience will not be directly to God. Instead we practice obedience to a spiritual father who is traveling upon this path of renewal of being and reconciliation with God.

In order for this obedience to bring forth the desired fruits it must be done in the context of our Orthodox Church, since everything that has been mentioned above can be employed not only by Christians outside the Church but even by those who have no faith in Christ as the Son of God and Savior of the world. Indeed there are other ascetical traditions outside of Christianity that have many similarities to ours, but in the final analysis they are humanistic; they do not bear the grace of the Holy Spirit. Just as our venerable Father Seraphim of Sarov says in his conversation with Nicholas Motivilov: “Only those good deeds done for the sake of Christ can bring us the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Everything else, though it be good, but not done for the sake of Christ, will not bring us a reward in the life to come. Neither will it bring us the grace of God here in the present.”(1) This holds true for obedience, it must be done for the sake of Christ, that is, our focus must be on Christ, we practice obedience because Christ wants this of us and He commands it. The Lord Himself enjoined the execution of obedience when He said to His apostles: “If ye love Me, ye will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). The Apostles were the first to practice obedience and they did this to our Lord Jesus Christ during his life in the flesh upon the earth. We also observe this divinely instituted endeavor of obedience. And in so doing we follow the example first set for us by Christ; He said in the Gospel, “I have come not to do mine own will, but the will of the Father which hast sent me” (John 6:48). And the Holy Apostle Paul points out that Christ “became obedient unto death, even death upon the cross” (Phil. 2:8). So in doing obedience we imitate the Lord Himself and we execute the commandment of the Lord to the Apostles, we seek to do the will of God and not our own; thus we please Christ and have the hope of receiving the grace of the Holy Spirit.

It is precisely because of this hope of discovering the will of God and receiving the grace of the Holy Spirit that obedience is seen as a sacrament in our Orthodox ascetic tradition. Therefore, “the relationship between a spiritual father and child is considered a holy and mystical relationship and many fathers have termed it a ‘Holy adoption’. It is commonly said that in doing obedience to a spiritual father, one does – as it were – obedience to Christ Himself. The spiritual father is he to whom one goes and discloses all the inner thoughts and actions of the soul and who then takes on the responsibility for that person’s spiritual direction and ultimate salvation. The spiritual father must recognize and know everything that involves that child, just as the child must trust completely and do obedience to the father, because it is the spiritual father who will advise and help direct that person for the better and if need be give a penance to that child so as to benefit spiritually. Just as when we go to a physician we must disclose and confide in him all our symptoms, aches and pains so that he can make a proper diagnosis; so too with the spiritual father, who is the physician of our souls. We must confide in him and disclose all our inner symptoms, aches and pains so that he may effectively give us the right medicine for our passions and sins and he must watch and chart our progress to see if we take the medicine correctly he gives us for the health of our souls.” So then, through the practice of obedience one mortifies their will and understanding – in the warfare on the path of repentance – before their spiritual father who has much more experience.

But how does obedience and such a relationship come to be? Is it a mechanical arbitrary action that takes place between any individual seeking guidance and priest whether in the monastery or the world? Again according to the ascetic tradition of our Church obedience is a voluntary act and so, too, is choice of a spiritual father. According to several Athonite fathers, “One who desires monasticism must seek for a spiritual father who suits his character, who he is attracted to, with whom he shares a like-mindedness and can heal his soul. When he finds such a one and enters a monastery then he practices absolute obedience. Those in the world must act in a like manner and seek a spiritual father just as he who desires monasticism does and then practice absolute obedience but not before that time. Perhaps they will not find such a person but in the end it is Christ Who will save and not the spiritual father.” St. Symeon the New Theologian admonishes one to pray to God to point out a spiritual father and then one must follow him wherever he leads one. Yet he adds that if the Spirit points out another, then the person must leave the first and go to the other.

In practice what we can say about obedience? One contemporary elder, when asked about obedience simply answered: “When your spiritual father asks you to do something, do it.” Again, one eldress (3) once when giving a talk to her sisters said, “Through the prayers of the Elder we are going to speak about spiritual obedience.” The eldress when on to speak about the need of absolute, blind obedience, without questioning or thinking. She went on to recall a story of an event when their elder was once visiting the convent. One evening when it was already dark he told one of the sisters to go to their cemetery. This was dangerous as animals could be roaming about yet the sister obeyed without questioning. When the sister had gone some distance the elder called her and told her to come back and she immediately did so. She said he had done this to test her faith, and she praised the obedience of this sister. She also quoted the elder who had said, “When a man has spiritual obedience he also has spiritual states.” Thus she explained spiritual obedience. There are indeed many cases in the lives and sayings of monastics both ancient and contemporary that laud blind obedience. In like manner there are many cases when an obedient spiritual child is rewarded and saved from one danger or another by calling on God’s help through the prayers of their spiritual father. This is because obedience is a sacrament through which God works.  to be continued…

 

1) The Joy of the Holy, St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, Harry Boosalis, pg. 94

(2) Excerpts from an unpublished letter of the late Eldress Taxiarchia of the Convent of the Nativity of the Theotokos at Saxonburg, Pennsylvania.

(3) This eldress is the late Mother Makrina (+1995) of the Convent of the Panagia “the Directress” at Portaria in Greece.

 

 

Pentecost

Tropar of Pentecost

Blessed art Thou O Christ our God, Who hast revealed the fishermen as supremely wise, by sending down upon them the Holy Spirit; through them Thou didst draw the world into Thy net, O Lover of mankind, glory be to Thee! 

Pentecost

Pentecost

Some teachers in the Church have referred to the feast of Pentecost as the birthday of the Church.  This is the day when early Church received the baptism foretold by our Lord Jesus Christ.  This is the day when the members of the Church received a spiritual birth, a birth in the Holy Spirit.  Therefore I would like to say something about the sacrament of Baptism which originated with this event of the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

 

 

St. Diadochos of Photiki has something informative and eye opening to tell us about the grace we receive in Baptism. St. Diadokos was born at the beginning of the fifth century.  During his tenure as bishop the Church was troubled by the Messalians.  “They claimed that Baptism and the other sacraments were powerless to drive the demon completely out of the soul, and that it continued to co-habit with grace in the heart of the Christian.  According to them, only constant prayer can drive Satan out of the heart and, once it is acquired, the ‘perfect’ have no further need to be bound either by the sacraments or the rest of the Church’s life.” (The Synaxarion, Volume Four, Holy Covent of The Annunciation of our Lady, Ormylia [Chalkidike], pp. 261-2) 

 In reply to this error St. Diadochos writes:

Before holy baptism, grace encourages the soul towards good from the outside, while Satan lurks in its depths, trying to block all the intellect’s way of approach to the divine.  But from the moment that we are reborn through baptism, the demon is outside, grace is within.  Thus, whereas before baptism error ruled the soul, after baptism truth rules it. Nevertheless, even after baptism Satan still acts on the soul, often, indeed, to a greater degree than before.  This is not because he is present in the soul together with grace; on the contrary, it is because he uses the body’s humours (1) to befog the intellect with the delight of mindless pleasures.   (The Philokalia, Volume One, p 279)

Later on, he tells us of the gifts given in baptism as follows:

Divine grace confers on us two gifts through the baptism of regeneration, one being infinitely superior to the other. The first gift is given to us at once, when grace renews us in the actual waters of baptism and cleanses all the lineaments of our soul, that is, the image of God in us, by washing away every stain of sin. The second—our likeness to God—requires our co-operation. When the intellect begins to perceive the Holy Spirit with full consciousness, we should realize that grace is beginning to paint the divine likeness over the divine image in us. Artists first draw the outline of a man in monochrome, and then add one colour after another, until little by little they capture the likeness of the subject down to the smallest details. In the same way the grace of God starts by remaking the divine image in man into what it was when he was first created. But when it sees us longing with all our heart for the beauty of the divine likeness and humbly standing naked in its atelier (2), then by making one virtue after another come into flower and exalting the beauty of the soul ‘from glory to glory’ (2 Cor. 3:18), it depicts the divine likeness on the soul. (ibid. p. 288)

Yet, with all this, he shows us that progress is still to be made:

Our power of perception shows us that we are being formed into the divine likeness; but the perfecting of this likeness we shall know only by the light of grace. For through its power of perception the intellect regains all the virtues, other than spiritual love…but no one can acquire spiritual love unless he experiences fully and clearly the illumination of the Holy Spirit. If the intellect does not receive the perfection of the divine likeness through such illumination, although it may have almost every other virtue, it will still have no share in perfect love. Only when it has been made like God—in so far, of course, as this is possible—does it bear the likeness of divine love as well. (ibid.)

So here, St. Diadochos, tells us something of the struggle of the baptized Christian soldier. We are called to preserve that which is in the image and ascend to that which is the likeness of our God. By the power of the All-Holy Spirit, together with our ascetic labors may we acquire such a state.  Amen.   

1 Humour: In early Western physiological theory, one of the four body fluids thought to determine a person’s temperament and features. As hypothesized by Galen,  the four cardinal humours were blood, phlegm, choler (yellow bile), and melancholy (black bile). The variant mixture of these humours in each person determined his “complexion” or temperament and his mental and physical qualities. The ideal person had the perfectly proportioned mixture of the four fluids; a disproportionate amount of one humour created a personality dominated by one set of related emotions (e.g., a choleric man was easily angered, proud, ambitious, and vengeful).

2 Atelier is the French word for “workshop”, and in English is used primarily for the workshop of an artist in the fine arts or decorative arts, where a principal master and a number of assistants, students, and apprentices worked together producing pieces released in the master’s name.

 

 

Development in CHrist as a Calling to Pray for the World (continued)

Man follows the pattern set forth in Christ but in a reciprocal way.  He is of one essence with all his fellows [he shares the same essence with them], but he is still a person  in himself.  He is human and receives that which he did not possess – i.e., participation in the divine nature – through grace.  This participation in the divine nature is a gift , and thus, by virtue of the Incarnation, man now lives a twofold manner of existence:   one divine – which he receives as a gift; and the other human – which he possesses by nature.  It is open to man (5) to choose to participate in the divine nature by grace. When he does so, his human nature is not lost but is perfected. 

In his human nature fashioned in the image of the Trinitarian God, man exists as a person having a common substance or essence with every other human being, while at the same time possessing his own particular, individual being or substance.   He exists as many persons who are consubstantial with one another.  The tradition of our Church teaches that each individual strives through ascetic struggle to ascend in the likeness of God in order to become a pure vessel of the grace of God.  One struggles to become a “God-bearer”, a living repository of the Holy Spirit and thus of the divine virtues revealed to us by Christ. Having Christ as our prototype, this is the aim of the ascetic endeavors that the Church puts forth for us.  However, being created in God’s image man is also, as already stated, an ontological community of being, a community of persons sharing the same essence and meant to exist in relationship with each other.  Though many persons, man shares a common human nature or essence with his fellows and thus comprises an ontological community of being.  Our ascetic efforts should lead us to an existential knowledge of this; that is, they should lead not only to the development of virtues but also to the experience of the communal property that is natural to man.

Thus considering mankind as a community of individual persons with a common human nature, and the potential (5a) of participating in the divine nature by grace, one might ponder this: wheredoes the development of personhood in Christ lead us?  Where does this lead us when we see each man as a person consisting of a human nature with the possibility (5b) of participating in the Divine nature?   Where does the development of our human nature and this participation in the Divine lead us according to the model given us in Christ?  Christ is perfect God and perfect man. If the life of God is completely and perfectly active within us, andin our human nature we are functioning to the highest degree. When we are in possession of our being and the hidden man of the heart participates in the uncreated energy of God, then what have we become?  We have become a properly functioning human being in Christ beingenlivened by the grace of the Holy Spirit.

Let us reflect upon these words, “A properly functioning human being in Christ being enlivened by the grace of the Holy Spirit” and then let us see if we can further explain the subject at hand.  Through the incarnation of the Son of God in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ we have become partakers of the divine nature (6).  As Christ is one Person with two natures, human and divine, so we also [to a certain degree] follow this pattern, yet not perfectly. (7)  By nature we have a human manner of existence. By grace we partake of the divine nature and participate in the uncreated energy of God.  The grace of God in which we participate is a manifestation of God’s love. St. Silouan indicates this when he writes, “The Holy Spirit in the saints is love”.  The Holy Spirit teaches love; and the Holy Spirit desires the salvation of all mankind.  Through development of personhood in Christ we simultaneously come in contact with our natural common human essence in the image of God and the divine nature or energy of God. The first leads us to the understanding of our existence as a community of being and love on the human level.  The second inspires us with love on a divine level and with the longing for the salvation of all mankind.  In this way our manner of existence becomes one of intercession for the world because of the fall of man and his state of separation from God.  The development of personhood in Christ leads us to prayerful longing for the salvation of all mankind because in unison with divine grace working within us, our human nature begins to function properly.  Through our human nature we are united indissolubly to all mankind and through divine grace—which is ours as a gift—the love of God is activated within us.  So, in one who is perfected in divine love, the individual characteristics of the self  becomes secondary but are not obliterated. The prime force and form of existence is a communal one enlivened by the grace of the Holy Spirit.  Therefore, as Archimandrite Sophrony writes: “man transcends the boundaries of his own individuality and enters into a new form of being—personal being in the likeness of Christ”.  One participates in Christ’s love for man and likewise in His suffering for the fallen race of Adam.  Therefore we can conclude that development of personhood in Christ brings one to a state of intercession “par excellence” and it is thus “a calling to pray for the world”.

 *                        *                        *

 “A saint is a sign for his generation”, these words were spoken by one of the monks of St. John the Baptist Monastery founded by Archimandrite Sophrony.  They were said in reference to St. Silouan ; but I believe that we could also call Fr. Sophrony a sign to his generation.  In this cruel world in which love has grown cold, in a world where personal identity is vanishing and we are either a statistic or part of something that is pressed into a general mold,  Fr. Sophrony stands out as a sign.  He indicates to us a new way to view deification, a new definition that does not alter that which has been handed down, but instead reveals another side of the truth.  Deification is the complete development of personhood in Christ.

People today need to know that each of us is a particular creation, and – in a certain sense – someone special.  We cannot endure the destruction of our particular personal identity – this would be inhuman and unnatural.  Each of us is someone that is unique, unlike any other; and therefore each person is a new encounter with God.  Each of us can give to God something no one else can, that is, ourselves; and yet, simutaneously we are an ontological community of being.  Both our nature and manner of existence are communal.  This concept of communal existence is also quite expedient for us to understand today because of the complete breakdown we see in community life.  People are enchanted by the fascinations of the world and this engenders a lack of communication. The result is that people share entertainment but never themselves.  Families are rarely communities these days but function instead in an idiorythmic manner with each member going in their own direction. 

We particularly need to understand this latter point, that is, that we are meant to exist as a community.  Fr. Sophrony is a sign to our times pointing out to us that in ourselves we are each a particular person; yet the manner of existence in which we are only truly alive is a communal one that is expressed in relationship with God and each other.   

 

5 Here we use the terms “it is open” and afterwards “potential” and “possibility” because this gift of deification is not involuntary but dependent upon our will.  Man must exercise his will and struggle, then the gift of deification is completed through synergy—a co-working of God and man.  

5a Refer back to footnote 4

5b Refer back to footnote 4

6 IIPeter 1:4

7 We cannot follow his pattern exactly because we do not have two natures.  We do not possess the divine nature rather we are given a participation in it as a gift.

 

 

Development of Personhood in Christ as a Calling to Pray for the World

A hymn to the Theotokos

O protection of Christians that cannot be put to shame, O mediation unto the Creator unfailing, disdain not the suppliant voices of sinners; but be quick, O good one, to help us who in faith cry unto thee; hasten to intercession and speed thou to make supplication, thou who dost ever protect, O Theotokos, them that honour thee. (from the post Communion prayers, trans. from Prayer Book, Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, NY, p. 385)

Development of Personhood in Christ as a Calling to Pray for the World(1)

This is one of the subjects that Archimandrite Sophrony wanted his spiritual children to elucidate. He has said that personhood is the gift of God whereby one comes into possession of their being. One of his monks illustrated this by using the example of repentance for one’s sins and the resulting contrition of heart. This contrition unites the mind with the heart, and one of its consequences is a state of sobriety and through this we begin to come into possession of our being, the inner man, the hidden man of the heart. Sobriety born of contrition brings us in control of ourselves, and makes us masters of ourselves. In this state of sobriety the mind is united with the heart which was its natural place before the Fall. This is the beginning of the process of development of personhood. The final fruit of this is to come into complete possession of our being.(2) When we are thus in possession of our being, we become the person we truly are, the person whom God created us to be. We become true, authentic, genuine and proper human beings. We are spontaneous and not pretentious; true to ourselves, true to the particular person that God made each of us to be. On the other hand, to the degree that we are influenced by passions and thoughts contrary to God, we are false. However, in referring to the process of developing our person in Christ, Archimandrite Sophrony writes of a state where man “transcends the boundaries of his own individuality and enters into a new form of being – personal being in the likeness of Christ.” In his book, His Life Is Mine, in the chapter entitled, “The Prayer of Gethsemane”, he writes of this, and he implies that this development of personhood in Christ makes one a sharer in the Gethsemane prayer of Christ. It is here that Archimandrite Sophrony expresses the belief that this prayer was a prayer of intercession for the salvation of the fallen race of Adam, an outpouring of Divine love. So then, he who becomes Christ-like, who develops his person in Christ, participates in His divine love and likewise in His suffering for fallen Adam. Since we live in a fallen world, a world which awaits judgment, love in a reason-endowed creature will inevitably manifest itself as a condition of intercession. Thus this development of personhood in Christ becomes a calling to pray for the world. In such prayer one can become foremost a vessel of the Holy Spirit yet without losing his particular identity. This is the subject we shall continue to develop below.

In speaking of the development of personhood in Christ we must begin with the Holy Trinity because in the beginning God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness”. Thus we must speak first about the Trinity collectively and then particularly about our Lord Jesus Christ. The Trinity is an ontological community of being: three Persons in one essence, consubstantial with one another. There is a hierarchy within the Trinity: God the Father exists as the source of all, God the Son exists as the only-begotten Son and Word of God in the bosom of the Father, and the Holy Spirit exists as the Giver of Life Who proceeds from the Person of the Father. The Trinity is a perfect unity, existing in perfect harmony, dispensing and upholding all creation in utter concord, in perfect union of will, and in perfect submission and agreement to each other in perfect love. “God is love”, as St. John the Theologian says; God, then, is a community of being united in love, existing in love, affecting all things in love. The condition of being and the underlying energy or operation of God is love. Thus the prototype for mankind as a race living in relationship with each other is, in fact, the Trinity. Therefore, in a collective sense, man as the image and likeness of God in Trinity is an ontological community of being. Man is a community of being united in love, created to exist in love. Man is meant to accomplish and fulfill everything he does in love.

Now, in considering each man as an individual, as a distinct entity, we must look to our Lord Jesus Christ as the prototype. Who is Jesus the Christ? Christ is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity . He is the Son of God: of one essence with the Father and the Holy Spirit, begotten of the Father. His “begotteness” is, always has been, and always will be. He is God by nature and, and He took upon Himself what He was not: man’s human nature, thus making it divine. He is one Person with two natures: Divine and human. Christ is our prototype: the prototype of the perfect man, the prototype of the new man. He is the God-man Who brings this union into effect through the Incarnation. Through His Incarnation God the Son puts man back on the pathway to the attainment of the likeness of God, and He even brings the nature of man above and beyond its original capacity by uniting it to His divine nature. By taking complete human nature from one of our race—the all-pure Virgin Mary—and being made truly flesh, Christ makes us partakers of the divine nature for “He becomes mortal man and still remains God.”(3) Furthermore, this participation in the divine nature which He gives us is not external but something internal and organic.(4)

to be continued…

1 This is a revision of an article first published in the “St. Tikhon’s Seminary Theological Journal”, Vol. 2, 1994  

2 According to the same aforementioned monk of Archmandrite Sophrony’s community the final end of this development is deification. Therefore we could say that Archimandrite Sophrony is giving to us a fresh definition of deification: the complete development of personhood in Christ.

3 See first canon of the Nativity of our Lord ode one tropar two and ode three tropar two. (The Festal Menaion pgs. 269,271)

4 The term “organic” in reference to this union of God with man is not usually employed but it has been used by the Elder of Vatopedi Monastery Joseph the Younger, for example: “True believers ‘undergo’ this communion with God and experience the energies of divine influences organically”. (Elder Joseph the Hesychast by Elder Joseph pg. 204)

The Prayer of Gethsemane

A Hymn to the Theotokos

Weep not for Me, O Mother, beholding in the sepulcher the Son whom thou hast conceived without seed in thy womb.  For I shall arise and be glorified, and as God I shall exalt in everlasting glory those who magnify thee with faith and love.  (Ninth Irmos of the Holy Saturday Matins Canon, The Lenten Triodion, St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, p. 51)

The Prayer of Gethsemane

This is the title of a Chapter in the book, His Life is Mine by Archmandrite Sophrony.  Now that we are in Holy Week I plan to quote something from the aforementioned Chapter and so, pass on a thought for consideration.  This will also serve as an introduction to an articles I will soon post: “Development of Personhood in Christ as a Calling to pray for the World.”  Archmandrite Sophrony believes that the prayer of our Lord in Gethsemane was a prayer for the salvation of all mankind.  And this is something to think about as we approach Holy Friday: What should we pray for at that time?  Maybe we need to think how the world seems to have basically rejected our Lord Jesus Christ and pray for the salvation of all.  So now a quote from Father Sophrony’s book, His life is Mine:

Christ’s prayer in the garden of Gethsemane is the noblest of all prayers by its virtue and power to atone for the sins of the world.  Offered to the Eternal God the Father in a spirit of divine love it continues to shine, a light that cannot be extinguished, for ever drawing to itself the souls that have preserved their likeness to God.  Christ included the whole human race in this prayer, from the first Adam to the last man to be born of woman.    We lack existential knowledge of such love and so its permanent significance is hidden from us.  Victorious in eternity, Christ’s love on the earthly plane spells extreme suffering.  No one has ever known such suffering as Christ endured.  He descended into hell, into the most painful hell of all, the hell of love.  This is a sphere of existence which can only be apprehended through spiritual love—of love that has been granted us to know from on High.  It is vital to have experienced, if only once, the heavenly fire which Christ brought with him; to know with our entire being what it is to be even a little like Christ….

When, as I have said, a shadow of a likeness to the Gethsemane prayer is granted him, man then transcends the boundaries of his own individuality and enters into a new form of being—personal being in the likeness of Christ.  By participating in the sufferings of his Divine love, we, too, in spirit can experience a little of his death and of the power of his resurrection.  “For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death” (in deep prayer for the world and consuming desire for the salvation of all) “we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection” (Rom. 6.5).  when it is given to us from on high to enter this new sphere of Being, we arrive at “the ends of the world” (ICor. 10.11) and pass into the light of Divine Eternity.

And every man on whom God has bestowed the rare and dread privilege of knowing to a minute degree the agony of Christ’s prayer in the garden of Gethsemane will stumble on, slowly and painfully, to a cogent awareness of the resurrection of his own soul and a perception of Christ’s undeniable, ineluctable victory.  He will know “that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him” (Rom. 6.9)  And now, O Christ, by the gift of Thy love which passeth all understanding I, too, have crossed from death to life…

Now—I am. (pp. 91, 95)

 

 

Akathist SAturday

 

 

 

A hymn from the Matins canon of Akathist Saturday

Rejoice radiant dawn who alone bearest Christ the Sun; rejoice, dwelling place of the Light. Thou hast dispersed the gloom and utterly destroyed the demons of the darkness.  (The Lenten Triodion, trans. Mother Mary and Bishop Kallistos Ware, p. 428)

A Sermon on Akathist Saturday 

Beloved of God, in the liturgical cycle of this day when we read the Akathist to the Theotokos it is like a second Synaxis for her, we k now that the day after the Nativity of our Lord is the feast of the Synaxis to the Theotokos when we honor her through whom He came into the world, Mary, the virgin mother of God.  And, as I said this day is like a second Synaxis.  So today let us honor her by considering the honor and glory that God has bestowed upon her, the mother of God the Son according to the flesh.  In particular, let us reflect upon two things that we know and confess as Orthodox Christians, which are, that she is the highest of all creation, and she is ever-virgin.

Let us first consider her place among created beings in God’s kingdom, and then her ever-virginity.  When the Apostles James, and John asked our Lord to be at His right hand, and left in His kingdom, He answered, “it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared of my Father” (Matt. 20:23).  Who has this honor to be at the right and left of our Lord Jesus Christ in His kingdom?  Our iconographic tradition shows us what the Church teaches; we often see in triptychs the Theotokos at His right, and St. John the Baptist at His left.  We can especially see this in an iconostasis that has multiple rows, which include Christ enthroned in the center, here again, the Theotokos is on Christ’s right. The Psalmist also prefigures this when he says, “At Thy right hand stood the Queen, arrayed in a vesture of inwoven gold, adorned in varied colors” (Ps. 44:8).  And in the proskomedia, a priest utters these words of prayer, when he places the particle of prosphora taken out in memory of the Theotokos to the right of the Lamb, which becomes the Body of Christ.  It is so natural and logical that this would be so.  Whom among the race of men would God, the Father, honor more than the one through whom His pre-eternal Son, in time, became man?  No one!  It is inconceivable that anyone would be given more honor than she who conceived His Son in her womb, and gave birth to Him according to the flesh, Mary, the Mother of God.

So then Mary, the Mother of God, is the highest of all creation.  She is more spacious than the heavens, for she contained within herself God, Whom the heavens cannot contain.  She has pre-eminence over all the heavenly hosts, for as a loving mother–the Mother of God, according to the flesh–she held in her embrace, and looked upon Him at Whom they dare not gaze.  She is indeed more honorable than the Cherubim, and more glorious than the Seraphim, for without defilement, that is, as a virgin, without knowing the touch of a man, she gave birth to God the Word.   So she is the one through whom God has wrought our salvation.  She is our Mediatress through whom the Son of God became our Mediator, therefore she is a bridge which joins earth to heaven.  She was foretold by many figures and prophecies.  She is the bush that burned without being consumed which Moses beheld (Ex. 3:2), for she received within herself the fire of Divinity yet her human nature remained intact.  She is the living ark of God made golden by the Divine Spirit, who contained not the tablets of the law and the pot of manna, but rather Christ-God, the Lawgiver and bread of Life (Ex. 25:10-11, Heb.9:4).  She is the rod of Aaron that budded forth (Num. 17:8), not a simple flower of this world, but the flower of immortal life, Christ our God.  She is the ladder that Jacob beheld (Gen. 8:12), by whom God descended to become man.  She is the fleece of Gideon wet with dew (Judges 6:37-40); for as dew comes upon the earth so quietly and inconspicuously, thus did she in an unnoticed and modest manner conceive and give birth to Christ our God.  She is the light cloud (Is. 19:1), upon whom the Lord sits as the Prophet Isaiah said.  She is the closed gate (Ez. 42:2), of which the prophet Ezekiel wrote, by whom the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered.  She is the unhewn mountain that the prophet Daniel saw (Dan. 2:45), from whom our Lord Jesus Christ proceeded.  She is the overshadowed mountain seen by the prophet Habakkuk from whom the Holy One would come (Hab. 3:3 Sept.).  In short, she is the mother of our God, the second Person of the Holy Trinity incarnate, therefore whom among created beings can be compared to her?

Let us now move on to pondering the ever-virginity of the Theotokos.  When we speak of her “ever-virginity” there are several aspects of her virginity to discuss.  First of all she gave birth without knowing a man, as the prophet Isaiah foretold: “A virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Is. 7:14).  For the conception was of the Holy Spirit, and it was God, the Son, the second Person of the Holy Trinity Who took flesh from her and became incarnate for our salvation.  As the Archangel Gabriel disclosed to her when she questioned her conception and birthgiving, “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee” (Luke 1:35).

In a homily on the Annunciation St. Gregory the Wonderworker, Bishop of Neo-Caesarea, points out that the ever-virginity of the Theotokos was foretold by the prophet Isaiah.  Thus he writes:

‘In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph.’ Hear what the prophet says about this man and the virgin: ‘This book that is sealed shall be delivered to a man that is learned.’  What is meant by this sealed book, but just the virgin undefiled?  From whom is this to be given?  From the priests evidently.  And to whom?  To the artisan Joseph.  As, then, the priests espoused Mary to Joseph as to a prudent husband, and committed her to his care in expectation of the time of marriage, and as it behoved him then on obtaining her to keep the virgin untouched, this was announced by the prophet long before, when he said: ‘This book that is sealed shall be delivered to a man that is learned.’  And that man will say, I cannot read it.  But why canst thou not read it, O Joseph?  ‘I cannot read it’, he says, ‘because the book is sealed’. (1)  For whom, then, is it preserved?  It is preserved as a place of sojourn for the Maker of the universe. (2)    

So she was the unwedded bride of God who never knew the touch of man.  And when we call the Theotokos, “ever-virgin” this does not only mean that she never knew the touch of a man, but also that she physically remained a virgin.  She was virgin before, during, and after birth.  This teaching of our Church has also been incorporated into our iconographic tradition.  The three stars which are upon the forehead, and two shoulders of the Theotokos, indicate that she was a virgin before, during, and after childbirth.  The seal of her virginity was never broken.  Is this difficult to believe?  Yet it is so natural and reasonable that Christ God would do this for His Mother.  It fits so beautifully into God’s dispensation for the salvation of man, and life in His eternal kingdom, that Christ God would have His mother according to the flesh as ever-virgin, and the highest of all creation.  This was a small thing for our omnipotent God to do, yet infinitely glorious.

So in concluding, let us not omit anything that could enhance our honoring Mary, the Mother of God, this day.  Let us briefly first contemplate what manner of person she was, and what quality of character she possessed, and afterwards offer her a short eulogy.  The former we can find in the following excerpt from a letter of St. Ignatius the God-bearer, to St. John the Theologian:

But Salome also, [the daughter of Anna, ] whom thou lovest, who stayed with her five months at Jerusalem, and some other well-known persons, relate that she is full of all graces and all virtues, after the manner of a virgin, fruitful in virtue and grace.  And, as they report, she is cheerful in persecutions and afflictions, free from murmuring in the midst of penury and want, grateful to those that injure her, and rejoices when exposed to troubles: she sympathizes with the wretched and the afflicted as sharing in their afflictions, and is not slow to come to their assistance. Moreover, she shines forth gloriously as contending in the fight of faith against the pernicious conflicts of vicious principles or conduct.  She is the lady of our new religion and repentance, and the handmaid among the faithful of all works of piety.  She is indeed devoted to the humble, and she humbles herself more devotedly than the devoted, and is wonderfully magnified by all, while at the same time she suffers detraction from the Scribes and Pharisees. Besides these points, many relate to us numerous other things regarding her. We do not, however, go so far as to believe all in every particular; nor do we mention such to thee. But, as we are informed by those who are worthy of credit, there is in Mary the mother of Jesus an angelic purity of nature allied with the nature of humanity.  And such reports as these have greatly excited our emotions, and urge us eagerly to desire a sight of this (if it be lawful so to speak) heavenly prodigy and most sacred marvel. (3)

– thus St. Ignatius wrote of the Theotokos. (4)

Finally, in closing, let us offer us our eulogy to the most pure Mother of God with the words of St. Gregory the Wonderworker:

Thy praise, O most holy Virgin, surpasses all laudation, by reason of the God who received the flesh and was born man of thee. To thee every creature, of things in heaven, and things on earth, and things under the earth, offers the meet offering of honour.  For thou hast been indeed set forth as the true cherubic throne. Thou shinest as the very brightness of light in the high places of the kingdoms of intelligence; where the Father, who is without beginning, and whose power thou hadst overshadowing thee, is glorified; where also the Son is worshipped, whom thou didst bear according to the flesh; and where the Holy Spirit is praised, who effected in thy womb the generation of the mighty King. Through thee, O thou that art highly favoured, is the holy and consubstantial Trinity known in the world. Together with thyself, deem us also worthy to be made partakers of thy perfect grace in Jesus Christ our Lord: with whom, and with the Holy Spirit, be glory to the Father, now and ever, and unto the ages of the ages. Amen. (5)

 

(1) The complete verse referred to reads as follows: “And the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one that is learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I cannot; for it is sealed” (Is. 29:11).

(2) Saint Gregory, Bishop of Neocaesarea, The Third Homily on the Annunciation to the Holy Virgin Mary, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, The Writings of the Fathers down to A. D. 325, ed. The Rev. Alexander Roberts, D. D., and James Donaldson, LL. D., Vol. VI, Grand Rapids Michigan, WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, p.66.

(3) Saint Ignatius, The Epistle of Ignatius to St. John the Apostle, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Writings of the Fathers down to 325 A. D., ed. The Rev. Alexander Robert, D.D., and James Donaldson, LL., D.D., Vol. I, The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, Grand Rapids, Michigan, WM. B Eerdmans publishing Company, 1956, p. 124

(4) Although this letter has been attributed to St. Ignatius the exact authorship is uncertain.

(5) Saint Gregory, Bishop of Neocaesarea, The Second Homily on the Annunciation to the Holy Virgin Mary, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, The Writings of the Fathers down to A. D. 325, ed. The Rev. Alexander Roberts, D. D., and James Donaldson, LL. D., Vol. VI, Grand Rapids Michigan, WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956, p. 65

 

The Theotokos at the Cross

Foreword

Since we are celebrating the Sunday in Great Lent dedicated to the Cross and two days later is the Annunciation I thought would combine these two and speak about the Cross as an event in the life of the Theotokos. Therefore I am simply going to post a Chapter from the book, “O Full of Grace Glory to Thee.” And since many hymns to the Theotokos will be quoted I will not begin with one in this post.

The Theotokos at the Cross

What did the Theotokos experience at the Cross of her Son and God? This is the question we want to ponder in this article. The Scriptures, together with historical information from apocryphal sources, and other early Christian writings have said nothing directly about this. There is no doubt that an exact answer has not been revealed to us, as St. Silouan the Athonite acknowledges:

The Mother of God committed to writing neither her thoughts nor her love for God and her Son, nor her soul’s suffering at the Crucifixion, because we could not have understood, for her love for God is stronger and more ardent than the love of the Seraphim and Cherubim, and all the host of angels and archangels marvel at her. (1)

Some of our Church Fathers, however, have contemplated this question and expressed opinions on this topic. These opinions cannot be termed dogma. That is because a reply to this question has neither been revealed in the historical record available to us, nor has it been formally investigated and articulated by the Church. Consequently, we also can only set forward an opinion on this theme.

In responding to this issue, we must first consider what knowledge was revealed to the Theotokos concerning her Son. What did the Theotokos know and think about her Son? When she stood at the Cross of our Lord, in addition to the fact that she knew He was her Son according to the flesh, whom did she believe Him to be? Let us begin our inquiry by considering the time she spent in the Temple in Jerusalem as a child and examining what St. Gregory Palamas says about this part of her life.

St. Gregory writes of the Theotokos:

With profound understanding she listened to the writings of Moses and the revelations of the other prophets when, every Saturday, all the people gathered outside, as the Law ordained. She learnt about Adam and Eve and everything that happened to them: how they were brought out of non-being, settled in paradise and given a commandment there; about the evil one’s ruinous counsel and the resulting theft; about their explusion from paradise on that account, the loss of immortality and the change to this way of life full of pain….When the holy Virgin Maid heard and understood this, she was filled with pity for humanity and, with the aim of finding a remedy to counteract this great affliction, she resolved at once to turn with her whole mind to God. She took it upon herself to represent us,..the Virgin full of grace interceded for all humanity in an amazing way defying description. (2)

It is quite logical and natural that the one of whom God would choose to be born would ascertain this. The notion that the Theotokos, even during her life in the Temple, would understand the catastrophe of the fall of man along with the need of a Savior, and therefore become our advocate before God, fits, just so precisely, perfectly, and beautifully into God’s intricately woven plan for our salvation. Mary, who was to give birth to God, went above and beyond the mainstream of Judaic thought, which was expecting the Messiah to be an earthly king. She was able to perceive the true role of the Messiah to be the One who would heal the effects of the fall. And so the young girl, Mary, “interceded for all humanity in an amazing way defying description.”

In continuing our inquiry, we shall now turn to accounts from the Scriptures, beginning with the Annunciation. The young maiden Mary, who had lived in the Temple from infancy, expressed a desire to keep her virginity; therefore she was put into the care of the elderly Joseph and espoused to him. And the Archangel Gabriel being sent from God came to Mary and said,

Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women…behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end. Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man? And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God. (Luke 1:28-35)

One of the great Archangels of God appears to Mary, informing her that she shall bear a child without the touch of a man, Who shall inherit the throne of David, Whose kingdom shall have no end and Who shall be called the Son of God. Mary knew the Scriptures very well; such things were never seen in the history of Israel. A woman to conceive without the seed of a man – this was to be the prerogative of her who would bear the Messiah (cf. Is. 7:14). And a man being called the Son of God – this appellation was not known to apply to any born of man; it was only the One Who joined the three young men in the Babylonian furnace Who was thus called (cf. Dan. 3:25). Who then, was this that was to be born of her?

As we know, soon after the Annunciation, Mary visited her cousin Elisabeth. And when Mary greeted her:

Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. (Luke 1:41-44)

In his Gospel St. Luke tells us that Mary abode with Elisabeth about three months and returned home. This would have been until the time of the birth of St. John the Baptist. St. Luke records in his gospel:

And his [John the Baptist’s] father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Ghost, and prophesied, saying, Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people, and hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David; as he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began: that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us; to perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant; the oath which he sware to our father Abraham. (Luke 1:67-73)

And concerning his son, Zacharias continues to say,

And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; to give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us. (Luke 1:76-78)

And so Mary, who was to become the Theotokos, was conscious of all this. Let us reiterate: from the time of her life in the Temple, she discerned from the Scriptures the need of a Savior who would deliver the race of Adam from the consequence of the fall in paradise. She desired this and prayed for it with her whole heart; it was the focal point of her life in the Temple. She is told by the Archangel Gabriel that she would bear a son without the touch of a man who shall be called the Son of God and of His kingdom there shall be no end. Elisabeth says to her, “And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Then the priest Zachrias prophesies calling the Son to be born of her, “an horn of salvation”, and signifies Him as the One whom the prophets foretold. As he continues, he speaks of salvation through remission of sins. Mary knew all this, who did she believe her Son would be?

Now let us proceed to the Nativity of our Lord and God and Savoir Jesus Christ in the flesh. The righteous Joseph sees that his betrothed is with child—the young Mary, whom he received into his care from the Temple because she wanted to preserve her virginity. As he was troubled and considered putting her away, an angel appears to him in a dream revealing the Child’s conception of the Holy Spirit. Joseph is told to name the child Jesus, “for he shall save his people from their sins” (Mat. 1:21). Who was it that preserved the information of this occurrence? Nowhere do the Gospels speak of Joseph being alive at the time of Christ’s public ministry. So it is not possible that any of the evangelists could have heard this directly from Joseph. It is obvious that he must have told Mary, his betrothed. So again she hears that the Son to Whom she would give birth was to save His people from their sins. How would He accomplish this?

Then at the birth of Christ itself, the shepherds receive a revelation of multitudes of angels praising God. In coming to see the Christ-child, they inform the Holy family of it. And Magi from the orient are led to Palestine by a star. After asking Herod, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews?” (Matt. 2:2), “the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was” (Matt. 2:9). All this, far surpassed any occurrence in the history of Israel and the Scriptures – Mary was aware of all this. And so, as it is recorded in the Scriptures, forty days after the Nativity, the Church celebrates His Meeting in the Temple.

And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, the parents brought the child Jesus to Jerusalem to the Temple” (Luke 2:22). It is then that the righteous Symeon signifies Jesus as God’s Savior, “a light to lighten the gentiles and the glory of Israel” (Luke 2: 32). He goes on to tell Mary: “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also” (Luke 2:34-35).

So again, the new born Babe of Mary is designated as Savior, this time by the righteous Symeon. He also calls the Holy Child, “a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of Israel.” Did Mary know exactly who this Child was that she recently gave birth to? Greater things were spoken of Him than any of the prophets. Yet with all this good beyond any expectation, the evil and suffering to come is also foretold. For her Son is described by Symeon as, “a sign to be spoken against”, and she is told, “a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also.” “But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).

In addition to all that has been said thus far, we know that the Theotokos, along with the Apostles and the rest of the followers of Christ, witnessed the miracles of His Divine power and heard His preaching. He healed men’s sicknesses and cast out devils. He had power over the natural world, stilling the sea and winds, changing water into wine and multiplying the loaves and fish. He raised the dead, and even Lazarus after he had been dead four days. He did these things not by praying to God, as the prophets before Him, but by the word of His Own power. Yet Christ also foretold His Passion, the Cross, His death, and Resurrection on the third day.

So now, we come to the Cross. What did the Theotokos experience as she stood before the Cross of her God and her Son: her Son, Whom she conceived without seed just as she was informed by the Archangel Gabriel? Her Son, of Whom it was said, He will inherit the throne of His father David and of His kingdom there will be no end. Her Son, of Whom it was said, “He will save His people from their sins”; and Who was called “Savior”, “a light to the Gentiles and the glory of Israel”. Her Son, Who performed more miracles than all the prophets combined by the word of His Own power and foretold this terrible death of the Cross which she was looking upon. This was her Son, to Whom she gave birth, Whom she held in her arms as a babe – her own Child, Whom she cared for and raised, to Whom she was a mother according to the flesh.

In considering this, let us use the hymnography of the Church as a reference point and particularly the Cross-Theotokions in the Octoechos. Mary, the Theotokos, suffered as a mother and in this was fulfilled St. Symeon’s prophecy.

Standing by the Cross, O Jesus, She Who gave birth to Thee, wept lamenting and cried out: “I cannot bear this, to see Thee to Whom I gave birth nailed on the wood. I escaped the pain of childbirth since I never knew a husband, so how am I now gripped with pain, and wounded in heart. Now is fulfilled the saying which Symeon uttered, ‘A sword shall pierce thy heart O undefiled One.’” (3)

O my Son”, the Virgin cried out with tears, “Now hath a sword of sorrow hast rent my heart in that the assembly of lawbreakers with nails hath nailed Thee to the Cross.” (4)

And there are many places in the Church’s hymnography where the Theotokos refers to Christ in such terms as, “The fairest or most comely of all men”, and she cries out questioning, “Where hath this comliness gone?” She also calls Him, “My sweetest Child”, or “Most exceedingly beloved Child”, and she often exclaims such phrases as: “How is it (or Why is it) that Thou dost hasten to make me childless?” To illustrate her pain, the hymnographers also says that while shedding tears, she tore her hair. So she suffered terribly as a mother and as she is the highest of all creation her love was more than any creature. Therefore she suffered more than any other mother could.

Yet did the Virgin Mary at that time have hope in the Resurrection? Or did she understand her Son was dying on the Cross for the sins of mankind? During her life in the Temple she had already perceived that the Messiah would come to heal the effects of the fall on the whole race of Adam. Her betrothed Joseph was told by the Archangel that her Child “shall save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). Christ openly preached that He would be crucified, and rise again, and that He was the good Shepherd Who would lay down His life for His sheep. Together with all this, if we accept the opinion of St. Gregory Palamas that “She flew high above all created things, saw God’s glory more clearly than Moses (cf. Exod. 33:18-23), and beheld divine grace” (5), then we should conclude that she also far surpassed the Apostles in the understanding of who her Son was, and in the comprehension of the mystery of His dispensation. So at the Cross she not only lamented as a mother but as a faithful handmaiden of the Lord she also glorified her Son and God. As the Church’s hymnography tells us, at the cross she cried out:

Woe is me, my Child! How divine and unutterable is Thy dispensation by which Thou dost enliven Thy creation; I hymn Thy tenderhearted compassion. (6)

The world rejoices receiving deliverance through Thee. My inner self burns beholding Thy crucifixion which Thou dost endure for the sake of Thy merciful kindheartedness, O God, most-good and sinless Lord! (7)

Thou hast torn asunder the record of Adam’s [sin], being pierced with a spear O Master. (8)

But I pray do not leave me in the world alone, but make haste to arise, and also raise up our forefather with Thee.” (9)

So when the Theotokos stood at the foot of the Cross, she suffered terribly, more than any of us could comprehend. She suffered as a mother seeing her Son crucified. She suffered as all the followers of Christ, seeing her Lord crucified. She suffered as a Hebrew seeing her people reject and kill Him Whom she knew to be their Messiah. She was also purer than any born of the race of Adam and all creation, and she loved more than all. Therefore she suffered terribly, more than any of us could comprehend. But what is the consequence of all this suffering? What is its fruit?

We can answer by the words which our Lord Jesus Christ spoke to St. John the Theologian as he stood at the Cross next to the Theotokos. He said, “Behold thy mother” (John 19:27). And so she is truly a mother, she is a mother to all believers. “Verily she is our advocate before God…she dwells in heaven and ever beholds the glory of God, yet she does not forget us, poor wretches that we are, and spreads her compassion over the whole earth, over all peoples.

And this most pure Mother of His, the Lord has bestowed on us. She is our joy and expectation. She is our mother in the spirit, and kin to us by nature, as a human being” (10). She is truly our mother in Christ, she is our “hope, protection, refuge, rest and joy” (11). For, like her Son, in that [she herself] hath suffered being tempted, [she] is able to succour them that are tempted (cf. Heb. 2:18).

So let us close with a fitting hymn of praise to her. Again from the Octoechos which is foremost a work of that great dogmatician and hymnographer of the Orthodox Church – St. John Damascus:

We praise thee O Virgin Theotokos, as she who mediates for the salvation of our race. For thy Son and our God, Who deigned to receive flesh from thee, accepted the passion of the Cross, to deliver us from corruption as the Lover of mankind. (12)

(1) Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), St. Silouan the Athonite, trans. Rosemary Edmonds, Tolleshunt Knights by Maldon, Essex, England, Patriarchal Stavropegic Monastery of St. John the Baptist, 1991, p. 392

(2) Saint Gregory Palamas, Mary the Mother of God, Sermons by Saint Gregory Palamas, edited by Christopher Veniamin, South Canaan, PA, Mount Thabor Publishing 2005, p. 41

(3) The Ochtoechos, Tone 5, Stavrotheotokion on the Friday Matins Aposticha. (All hymns from the Octoechos are original translations from the Slavonic.)

(4) Ibid. Tone 4, Theotokion on the Wednesday Matins Canon of the Cross, Ode 6.

(5) Saint Gregory Palamas, Mary the Mother of God, Sermons by Saint Gregory Palamas, p. 47

(6) The Ochtoechos, Tone 8, Friday Matins, Stavrotheotokion of the Sessional Hymns after the second reading of the Psalter

(7) Ibid., Tone 8 Wednesday Matins, Stavrotheotokion of the Sessional Hymns after the first reading from the Psalter Hymns after the first reading from the Psalter

(8) Ibid., Tone 4, Theotokion on the Friday Matins Canon of the Cross, Ode 4

(9) Ibid., Tone 4 Thursday Vespers, Stavrotheotokin on Lord I call…

(10) Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), St. Silouan the Athonite, p. 393

(11) See Post Communion Prayers, Prayer to the Theotokos

(12) The Ochtoechos, Tone 3, Resurrectional Dismissal Theotokion