Do you know the Lord?

Do you know the Lord?

In this post I want to say something about bringing the so-called, “saved Christians” into the Church. A problem often seen with any type of convert who comes into the Church is that they bring old baggage in with them. With the “saved Christians” one dangerous thing is their former concept of spiritual life. They accept Christ as their personal Savior, therefore they say know the Lord and are saved. They have an emotional enthusiasm and describe the atmosphere they find themselves in as spiritual. However what they experienced is an initial call to repentance; and what Orthodoxy says is the beginning, they imagine to be the end. And so, they have this idea that they know the Lord and are spiritual. Some of them, in coming into the Church limit themselves to changing a few doctrines only and bring such an idea of spiritual life along with them.

Those of us who would make a reply to such persons need to have a good foundation in the ascetic teaching of the Holy Fathers of our Church. We need to respond to these “saved” Protestants, also to the Pentecostals and Charismatics who sadly get carried away in their false conception of spiritual life. Therefore I would like very briefly, in a nutshell, to say something about the ascetic tradition of our Church.

I will try to do this as simply as possible with the hope of not becoming too technical for my readers. Our Holy Fathers teach that man is disparate which means two-part: body and soul. There are three aspects or powers of the soul, they are the intellectual, desiring and incensive aspects. This last is sometimes called the power of anger, “it can more generally be defined as the force provoking vehement feelings” (Philokalia Volume 1, p. 358). The intellectual is meant to rule over the other two and to be fed by and formed with the things of God. The power of desire should be turned away from worldly pleasure and turned to God, while the incensive should be used to fight sin and as zeal for God.

The mind is the inner power of the intellectual aspect of the soul; it functions in two ways. One way is rational, used for the things needed to be accomplished in this world, and the other way is contemplative. In the contemplative way the mind can come to be united with the heart, which is its true place before the fall. This is what the fathers term the spirit of man, that is, the intellectual aspect of the soul working in its highest capacity. This is the contemplative way just described. It is to worship God in spirit, but it is still human effort, the human spirit reaching out towards God and not a direct action of God within. Speaking of this, Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakarov) teaches that when the old man has been crucified to a sufficient degree, a divine transformation takes place. This is a long process of purification through ascetic effort. It is then that the action of Another involuntarily wells up within, it is not my action but the action of The Other within me. It is the action (or energy) of God in which one can participate. It is then, that perhaps, one can humbly say he knows the Lord in some small degree.

The Commemoration of the First Ecumenical Council

A Sermon on the Sunday of the commemoration of the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council

Beloved of God, today we commemorate the holy fathers of the first ecumenical council. These holy fathers were defenders of the faith, they fought against heresy. They guarded the Church from the Arian heresy. So let us talk about this today. This false teaching arose in the early fourth century and it is called after its originator a man named Arius. Arius was from Lybia in Northern Africa. He was a priest and in charge of one of the principle churches in the city of Alexandria. Here he attained success as a preacher and was known for his asceticism. But he fell away from the truth he denied that our Lord Jesus Christ was true God—as the Creed says He is true God of true God. Rather he maintained that our Lord Jesus the Son of God was not eternal but created by the Father from nothing as an instrument for the creation of the world and therefore Arius taught that the Son was not God by nature, but a changeable creature.

It was because of these lies Arius was excommunicated by the Bishop of Alexandria, and then the holy fathers we commemorate this Sunday met in Nicaea in the year 325 and condemned Arius and his teaching. So this Arius who was a priest and a respected preacher and ascetic became a heretic and one of the greatest enemies of the truth in the history of the Church. He was one of those whom the apostle Paul spoke of in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles we heard today. He said, “For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn every one night and day with tears.” (Act 20:29-31)

This is something that should cause us to fear for he spoke of those who would speak perverse things and draw away disciples after them. He spoke of both false teachers whom he called wolves coming from without, and even teachers from within like Arius who will draw the faithful away from the truth. We must fear and be watchful as the apostle said, we must be watchful and hold fast to the truth that the Church has preserved for us. For false teachers still appear today. In keeping watch over ourselves it is not only sin in the form of the transgression of the commandments that we need to fight against, but we must also reject everything which is foreign to the teaching of the Church in doctrine. So both our life and thought must be in harmony with that which we see in the tradition of the Church.

Let us again consider Arius, he was a member of the Church who was obviously in good standing and well thought of. For he was ordained a deacon by one of our saints, Peter of Alexandria, and then priest by St. Peter’s successor, and he was respected in this office but then he fell into heresy and is renown as an enemy of the Church and God. He was condemned by the council of the holy fathers we commemorate today and he remained in his error, he refused to repent and accept the truth. Why did he act thus? In his pride he listened to himself, he trusted himself; he did not humbly submit his ideas to the Church and listen to the Church.

This crucial for us today since in today’s world we Orthodox are a minority and we are bombarded with concepts contrary to our faith. Both in the world at large and in religious organizations there is pressure to keep up with the times, to be ever changing. For one to be innovative and invent something new is considered cute and admirable. To be speculative and opinionated, to express and cling to personal opinion is all seen as something praiseworthy. And this pattern or mode of thought creeps into the Church. It was in such a spirit and way of thought that Arius became a heretic and enemy of the Church.

So with today’s commemoration of the Holy fathers of the First Ecumenical Council we learn a lesson. We must be in humble submission to the teachings of the Church. Our opinions and concepts we may form must be checked by the Church. The Apostle Paul says something about this, he writes to the Corinthians: “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds; Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ”. (IICor. 10:4-5) Therefore we should confess that our opinions and concepts must be formed by the mind of the Church. We must cast down imaginations—that is, speculations and opinions and innovations—and make them captive and obedient to Christ.

This is what we must do if we want to fulfill the prayer that Christ offered to God the Father in today’s gospel. Christ said, “all Thine are Mine and Mine are Thine, sanctify them by Thy truth, Thy word is truth.” (John 17:10, 17) If we want to belong to God, if we do not want to be cast away like Arius, we must be in humble obedience to the doctrine taught by our Church which the Lord established. For as the apostle Paul writes to Timothy, the Church is the “pillar and bulwark of the truth”. (I Tim. 3:15)

We should be aware of one more erroneous conception in our day which is based on another quote from today’s Gospel. Our Lord also prayed: “That they all may be one; as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be one in Us: that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me.” (John 17:21) There are many today who, on the pretext of brotherly love and a desire for the unification of separated Christians will make concessions to the truth. They believe it is a fulfillment of our Lord’s prayer, but in reality it is a defilement of the truth—the Orthodox Faith.

So Let us end with that little prayer we offer near the conclusion of our Vespers and Matins services: “Preserve, O God, the holy Orthodox Faith and Orthodox Christians unto the ages of ages”.

Several Pieces of peace

Several Pieces of Peace

After His resurrection, when our Lord appeared to His disciples, He blessed them saying, “Peace be unto you” (Luke 24:36, John 20:19). These words of blessing were the first spoken words of our Lord to the apostles after His resurrection. So now that we are in the after-feast of Pascha—the Resurrection of our Lord, it seems fitting to write something on this subject. As a start I want to recount conversations with two bishops who had acquired a state of peace and then add a few quotes from instructions of St. Seraphim of Sarov.

So I will first say something about the late Romanian Archbishop Victorin. While I was at St. Tikhon’s Monastery he would usually be there for the pilgrimage on Memorial Day weekend. He would travel quite humbly, taking a bus and ask to be picked up from the bus station. Such pilgrimages are normally over busy and the Liturgies with a large number of bishops tend to be somewhat chaotic. Archbishop Victorin never appeared to lose his composure and remained peaceful. I remember one of the servers who helped with the vesting of the bishops was amazed to see how peaceful he was. So I asked the Archbishop how to acquire peace. He first asked me where I lived. When I told him here at the monastery he said, “Fulfill all your obediences with a good conscience.” And he added a few profound words: “Be patient every day in every thing.” It sounds so simple, yet so difficult to attain.

I also once questioned Bishop Basil Rodzianko about the same. Let me say a few words of introduction of what I know about Bishop Basil. This is the Bishop Basil spoken of in the popular book “Everyday Saints” by Archimandrite (now Bishop) Tikhon of Sretensky Monastery in Moscow. As a priest in Russia during communist times he was a renown preacher. He was targeted by the communist and his son was killed by a bomb meant for him. Leaving Russia he spent time in a displaced persons camp. Afterwards he lived first in England and then in America. During this time he worked on broadcasting into Soviet Russia striving to keep the Orthodox Faith alive there and he often traveled giving talks. He acquired such a state of peace that while he was laughing one could visibly see that he continued in that state. It was while he was giving a talk at St. Tikhon’s that I was able to speak a bit with him privately. So I asked him: “Vladika I see you have peace I want this peace, how can I have this peace?”

He first raised his eyes looking this way and that way as if, with his gestures, he were saying: “Who me?” Then he spoke. “This peace is in the Holy Spirit. We begin every service with ‘O Heavenly King’ asking the Holy Spirit to come and abide in us. The Holy Spirit is God; One of the Holy Trinity together with the Father and the Son. The Holy Spirit brings the peace of God to us. If you believe this you can have this peace.”
Then he continued, “The thoughts that go through our mind can cause us to lose the peace of God. These are not our thoughts but if we accept them they enter our heart and become a part of us. If you sin you lose the peace of God and if you commit a big sin it takes a long time to regain the peace of God.”

Let us now hear a few words from St. Seraphim concerning peace. These are taken from his instructions as they appear in the book: In the Footsteps of a Saint (St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press 2006). There are some applicable words in the section, “Concerning Renunciation of the World”:

The fear of God is obtained at the time when a man, having renounced the world and all that is in the world, focuses all his thoughts and feelings on the one notion of the law of God, wholly immersing himself in contemplation of God and in perceptions of the blessedness promised by the saints.
It is impossible to renounce the world and to come to a state of spiritual contemplation while remaining in the world. For as long as the passions are not calmed it is impossible to acquire peace of soul; and the passions are not quieted as long as we are surrounded with things that arouse the passions. In order to come to perfect passionlessness and attain perfect stillness of soul, it is necessary to struggle much in spiritual reflection and prayer. But how is it possible to wholly and serenely immerse oneself in the contemplation of God and instruction in His law, and to lift one’s whole soul to Him in ardent prayer, while remaining amidst the incessant noise of the passions warring in the world? The world lies in evil. (p.24)

Concerning peace of soul, St. Seraphim says:

If a man does not abandon worldly concerns he cannot have peace of soul. Peace of soul is attained through afflictions. The Scriptures say, “We have gone through fire and water and Thou hast led us to rest” (Ps. 65:12). He who desires to be pleasing to God must pass through many afflictions. How can we extol the martyrs for the suffering that they endured for the sake of God is we are not able to endure a little fever?
Nothing is so helpful in the acquisition of interior peace as silence, and to keep conversations with others as short as possible; but one should converse with oneself unceasingly.
Nothing is better than peace in Christ, for in it every warfare of the spirits of the air and earth is destroyed. “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities, against powers, against rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” (Eph. 6:12).
The sign of a wise soul is when a man has his mind descend within himself and has activity in his heart. Then the grace of God envelops him and he abides in a peaceful state and through it in a most peaceful state. In a peaceful state, that is, with a good conscience. In the most peaceful state since the mind contemplates within itself the grace of the Holy Spirit, in accordance with the word of God: “His place is in peace”  (Ps. 75:3)(pp.28-9)

When St. Seraphim speaks of a good conscience it is doubtful that he means on a merely psychological level. Before this he speaks of a man having his mind descend within himself and having activity in the heart. It is more likely he means to be in a state of “standing with the mind in the heart before God”—to use an expression of St. Theophan the Recluse. One will thus feel as though they are living in the presence of God and according to His will and have peace. To transgress the conscience will destroy this state, but to remain in it will prepare one to receive more grace—a deeper state of peace. One will no longer just be standing before God but could actually participate in His action within. Perhaps this is what David meant: “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 45:11)

Palm Sunday/Holy Week-A Reflection

This past weekend we celebrated one of the few days of glory for our Lord Jesus Christ during His earthly life. On Palm Sunday He was received by the crowds in Jerusalem as a victor, as their King. For they heard of the sign of raising Lazarus from the dead, and they believed He was their Messiah Who was to come. But who was it that received Him in this way?

It was the common people, who honored our Lord in this way. St. John tells us it was those who came up to the feast; not the inhabitants of Jerusalem, but the country people that came from various and even remote parts to worship at the feast. The Gospel reading says that the crowd there came up to the feast some time before to purify themselves. Many perhaps, would have looked down upon them as crude, but Christ “chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” (ICor. 1:27) For Christ, as we know, values men by the state of their souls, not their position and titles of honor. And so, it follows, that He is honored by the multitude rather than by the magnificent of this world. And it was probably a universal crowd not much different than Pentecost when St. Luke tells us that “the visitors consisted of Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians.” (Acts 2:9-11)

So this simple universal crowd receives our Lord Jesus Christ and what do they say? It is interesting to compare what the four evangelists say:

St Matthew writes: “And the crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’” (Mat. 21:9)

And St Mark tells us: “And those who went before and those who followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!’” (Mark 11:9-10)

St. Luke briefly states: “Blessed be the King that cometh in the name of the Lord: peace in heaven, and glory in the highest.” (Luke 19:38)

Finally in the gospel of St John: “So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!’” (John 12:13)

The people were looking to Him as the awaited Messiah, but they had a preconception of what the Messiah would be. Our Lord is called the Son of David, king, king of Israel and He Who would usher in the kingdom of David. So the multitude was really looking for an earthly kingdom and a warrior like David to deliver them from Roman rule.

It was the simple folk who were receptive to the Lord, but were they discreet, were they wise? We shall soon be reading the Passion Gospels and see how this same crowd that cried out, “Hosanna” will cry out, “Crucify Him!” Why were they so easily swayed by the Jewish religious leaders so as to turn against our Lord Who did so many signs in their presence? Their minds were set on things of this world, and on earthly glory. They saw before them Jesus bound like a criminal being judged by Pilate, and having been delivered up by their own high priest. They believed He would be a triumphant warrior and set up a kingdom of Israel. But here they see Him as someone helplessly bound standing before the judgment seat of Pilate. So they were swayed and led astray by their religious leaders.

This should be a lesson for us. Is there any danger of us being led astray? We are serving Bridegroom Matins for the first three days of Holy Week which instruct us to be watchful and look to the coming of the Lord. We indeed appear to be drawing close to that actual happening. But the Lord said, “When the Son of Man comes will He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8) The first Eldress (Taxiarchia) of the convent of the Birth of the Theotokos near Pittsburg once commented: “Our holy fathers feared the days that are coming upon us, and they said that those who merely keep the faith will be great.” St. Amvrossy of Optina wrote that in the last times heresies will begin entering because of the poverty in piety. In that letter he spoke as though he thought his correspondent could possibly live to see those days. We need to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. And Friday, when we venerate the Plachanitsa, when we behold Christ Who died for the salvation all; perhaps the theme of our prayers should be:

Preserve, O God, the Holy Orthodox Faith and Orthodox Christians unto the ages of ages.

The Theotokos at the Cross (conclusion)

The Theotokos at the Cross (conclusion)

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
(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

The Theotokos at the Cross

The Theotokos at the Cross

Since we are in the week of the veneration of the Cross and have just celebrated the Annunciation–on the Old Calendar–I have decided to post something on the Theotokos at the Cross. This will be in two posts and the endnotes will be in the second of these. What follows is an article in the book, “O Full of Grace, Glory to Thee”.

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. In addition, she saw that as time passed, life continued under the inherited curse and grew ever worse, God’s creature made in His image was estranged from the Creator and became more and more closely associated with the one who had evilly schemed to crush him….No one was capable of putting an end to this impulse which brings destruction on all men alike, or to the uncheckable rush of our race towards hell. 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, to constrain Him who is above compulsion, and quickly draw Him towards us, that He might remove the curse from among us, halt the advance of the fire burning men’s souls, weaken our enemies, answer our prayers, shine upon us with the light that never sets and, having healed our sickness, unite His creature with Himself.

Having thought over these things so revelant to her, 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 their 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….to be continued

The Annunciation: Did Mary doubt?

The Annunciation: Did Mary doubt?
I apologize to my readers for being late with this post. I was hoping to have it ready in the middle of last week before celebrating the Sunday of the Cross. But since we are still approaching the Annunciation on the Old Calendar, and time-wise it is actually a universal event, I hope this will be of interest.

And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, “Rejoice, O full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.” And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, “Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God. And, 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 forever; 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?” (Luke 1:26-34)

Why wasn’t Mary rebuked as Zechariah? In the Temple when the angel announced to him that his wife would bear a son he replied, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years?” Their answers to the angel are basically the same. So then, why wasn’t Mary rebuked? Did Mary doubt?   Our Lady Theotokos did not doubt, she exercised discretion. As a person’s purity increases so does his discernment. Our most pure Lady Theotokos was discreet. In order to understand this we must consider the historical background and look into the account of Mary’s life before the visit of the Archangel Gabriel.

From the age of three she lived at the Temple of the Lord in of the Lord in Jerusalem. When she reached the marriageable age for young women of her time she was obliged to leave the Temple and marry. But we learn from early Christian literature that Mary had vowed to remain a virgin. So let us take a few excerpts from the historical information we have available (I will use the titles for these works as given by recent scholars). First “The Protoevangelium of James” tells us:

When she was twelve years old there was held a council of the priests, saying: Behold, Mary has reached the age of twelve years in the temple of the Lord. What then shall we do with her, test perchance she defile the sanctuary of the Lord? And they said to the high priest: Thou standest by the altar of the Lord; go in, and pray concerning her; and whatever the Lord shall manifest unto thee, that also will we do. And the high priest went in, taking the robe with the twelve bells into the holy of holies; and he prayed concerning her. And behold an angel of the Lord stood by him, saying unto him: Zacharias, Zacharias, go out and assemble the widowers of the people, and let them bring each his rod; and to whomsoever the Lord shall show a sign, his wife shall she be. (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 8, p. 363)

This lacks detail and leaves us with a question that needs to be answered: Why did the high priest need to pray specially for her? Why was she different from all the other young women at the Temple? In “The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew” we read more:

Then Abiathar the priest offered gifts without end to the high priests, in order that he might obtain her as wife to his son. But Mary forbade them, saying: It cannot be that I should know a man, or that a man should know me. For all the priests and all her relations kept saying to her: God is worshipped in children and adored in posterity, as has always happened among the sons of Israel. But Mary answered and said unto them: God is worshipped in chastity, as is proved first of all. For before Abel there was none righteous among men, and he by his offerings pleased God, and was without mercy slain by him who displeased Him. Two crowns, therefore, he received-of oblation and of virginity, because in his flesh there was no pollution. Elias also, when he was in the flesh, was taken up in the flesh, because he kept his flesh unspotted. Now I, from my infancy in the temple of God, have learned that virginity can be sufficiently dear to God. And so, because I can offer what is dear to God, I have resolved in my heart that I should not know a man at all.
Now it came to pass, when she was fourteen years old, and on this account there was occasion for the Pharisees’ saying that it was now a custom that no woman of that age should abide in the temple of God. (Ibid, pp. 371-2)

Finally, in “The Gospel of the Nativity of Mary” we have a few more details:

The virgin of the Lord advanced in age and in virtues; and though, in the words of the Psalmist, her father and mother had forsaken her, the Lord took her up.7 For daily was she visited by angels, daily did she enjoy a divine vision, which preserved her from all evil, and made her to abound in all good. And so she reached her fourteenth year; and not only were the wicked unable to charge her with anything worthy of reproach, but all the good, who knew her life and conversation, judged her to be worthy of admiration. Then the high priest publicly announced that the virgins who were publicly settled in the temple, and had reached this time of life, should return home and get married, according to the custom of the nation and the ripeness of their years. The others readily obeyed this command; but Mary alone, the virgin of the Lord, answered that she could not do this, saying both that her parents had devoted her to the service of the Lord, and that, moreover, she herself had made to the Lord a vow of virginity, which she would never inviolate by any intercourse with man. And the high priest, being placed in great perplexity of mind, seeing that neither did he think that the vow should be broken contrary to the Scripture, which says, Vow and pay, nor did he dare to introduce a custom unknown to the nation, gave order that at the festival, which was at hand, all the chief persons from Jerusalem and the neighbourhood should be present, in order that from their advice he might know what was to be done in so doubtful a case. And when this took place, they resolved unanimously that the Lord should be consulted upon this matter. And when they all bowed themselves in prayer, the high priest went to consult God in the usual way. Nor had they long to wait: in the hearing of all a voice issued from the oracle and from the mercy-seat, that, according to the prophecy of Isaiah, a man should be sought out to whom the virgin ought to be entrusted and espoused. For it is clear that Isaiah says: A rod shall come forth from the root of Jesse, and a flower shall ascend from his root; and the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and strength, the spirit of wisdom and piety; and he shall be filled with the spirit of the fear of the Lord. According to this prophecy, therefore, he predicted that all of the house and family of David that were unmarried and fit for marriage should bring their rods to the altar; and that he whose rod after it was brought should produce a flower, and upon the end of whose rod the Spirit of the Lord should settle in the form of a dove, was the man to whom the virgin ought to be entrusted and espoused. (Ibid. pp. 385-6)

We see that young Mary had a vow of virginity which was blessed by the priests. So then, who is this that comes to her and tells her she will bear a child. Is it really an Archangel or is it satan tempting again as he did with Eve. Young Mary, who was to become the Mother of God, was discreet and she questioned. And when she learned that the conception would come to pass through the power of the Holy Spirit without the touch of man she replied: “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord, be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke1:38).

Through the prayers of the all-holy Theotokos may we acquire these virtues of discretion and obedience.

Strict/too Strict

Strict/too Strict (continued)

In continuing to write about the topic “Strict/too Strict” I will get back to the error or deficiency in our struggles which I mentioned previously.  As was stated in the former post in addition to straying through the extremes of neglect or strictness we can still err while observing what is required, while fulfilling the normal expected precepts of the letter.  How can we err?  Before giving an answer, I shall first refer at some excerpts from two of our saints, and begin with St. Theophan the Recluse. He writes:

Prayer is the primary work of the moral and religious life.  The root of this life is a free and conscious relationship with God, which then directs everything.  It is the practice of prayer that expresses this free and conscious attitude towards God,…Our prayer reflects our attitude to God, and our attitude to God is reflected in prayer.  And since this attitude is not identical in different people, so the kind of prayer is not identical either.  He who is careless of salvation has a different attitude to God from him who has abandoned sin and is zealous for virtue, but has not yet entered within himself, and works for the Lord only outwardly.  Finally, he who has entered within and carries the Lord in himself, standing before Him has yet another attitude.  The first man is negligent in prayer just as he is negligent in life; and he prays in church and at home merely according to the established custom, without attention or feeling.  The second man reads many prayers and goes often to church, trying at the same time to keep his attention from wandering and to experience feelings in accordance with the prayers which are read, although he is very seldom successful.  The third man, wholly concentrated within, stands with his mind before God, and prays to Him in his heart without distraction, without long verbal prayers. (The Art of Prayer, Igumen Chariton, Faber and Faber London 1973, pp. 61-2)

Now let us take another example and have a look at the teaching of St. Paisius Velichkovsky on the Jesus Prayer. We see the following:

I wish to speak also of people who uproot passions.  There are those who rejoice when offended, “but because they hope to have a reward.  Such a person uproots passions, but not wisely.  Another rejoices when offended and feels that the offense was deserved, since he provoked it himself.  Such a person uproots passions wisely.  Finally, there is such a person who not only rejoices when offended and considers himself blameworthy, but also grieves over his offender’s embarrassment.  May God lead us into such a condition of soul!  For a clearer understanding of each of these ways of life let us also say the following: the first one, submitting himself to the law, performs only his chanting, while the second motivates himself toward mental activity and always has with himself the name of Jesus Christ for the destruction of the enemy and the passions.  One rejoices if he only completes his chanting, while the other thanks God if he performs prayer in silence, without being disturbed by evil thoughts.  One desires quantity, while the other—quality.  One, as he rushes to fulfill the proper amount of chanting, soon develops a joyful conceit, on which he depends to nurture and grow an internal Pharisee within himself, if he does not hearken to himself.  The other, in attaching great value to the quality of the prayer, has an understanding of his weakness and God’s help.  While praying, or rather while calling upon the Lord Jesus against the wiles of the enemy, the passions, and evil thoughts, he sees their destruction by Christ’s awesome name and comprehends God’s strength and help.  On the other hand being constrained and confused by evil thoughts, he understands his weakness, for he cannot withstand them by virtue of his strength alone.  And it is this which comprises his whole rule and his whole life.  And although the enemy can suggest joyous conceit and pharisaic thoughts to him as well, he encounters in this spiritual warrior a readiness to call upon Christ against all evil thoughts, and in this way he does not attain success in his wiles.  (Starets Paisii Velichkovskii, Fr. Sergii Chetverikov, Norland Publishing Company, 1980, pp.166-7)

So we can err by missing the point of our prayers and church services, which is to enter within.   As we have seen above in St. Theophan, he who, “has abandoned sin and is zealous for virtue, but has not yet entered within himself, and works for the Lord only outwardly”; however, “he who has entered within and carries the Lord in himself”. Elsewhere St Theophan teaches us: “The principle thing is to stand with the mind in the heart before God, and to go on standing before Him unceasingly day and night, until the end of life.” (The Art of Prayer, p. 63)  Likewise St. Seraphim of Sarov tells us: “The sign of a wise soul is when a man has his mind descend within himself and has activity in his heart.” (In the Footsteps of a Saint, St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, p. 27)  Finally, St. Ignatius Brianchaninov has expressed the opinion that in paradise Adam had union of mind and heart, yet this was disrupted by the fall. (see The Arena, Bishop Ignatius Brianchaninov, Madras, 1970, p.85)  The Liturgical commemoration for the Sunday before Great Lent is “The Expulsion from Paradise”.  Our aim should be to return to the paradise which we lost.  Paradise is within, if we descend with the mind into the heart; we shall be at the meeting place between God and man.  Amen.  So be it.

 

 

 

Strict/Too Strict

As we are approaching the beginning of Great Lent I would like to share a few thoughts on the dangers of being strict or too strict.  And I want to stress that I am only sharing a few thoughts on this subject for it seems to me that a book or volumes of books could be written on this topic.  If we err in the opposite way, that is, if rather than being strict we become lazy or negligent we can easily perceive it; but the dangers of being strict or too strict often escape notice.  This is probably because there is usually pride behind it; and pride hardens the heart and blinds the mind.   In the Proverbs it rightly says: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”  (16:18)

 

So then, in Great Lent there are the two extremes to avoid, that is, of being lazy and neglectful on the one hand and also of being too strict on the other hand.   In addition we can elude both extremes yet still err while observing what is required, by fulfilling the normal expected precepts of the letter.  How can we err in the latter?  I will leave that off for now and first say a little about being too strict.

 

Being too strict is an error that is usually the result of the lack of discrimination and always mixed with pride.   In short St. Seraphim tells us: “If we willfully exhaust our body to the point that the soul also is exhausted, then such an oppression would be indiscreet even though it may be done to gain virtue.” (In the Footsteps of a Saint, St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press 2006, p.26)

 

Let us now go on to something more detailed, from the conferences of St. John Cassian we see in the Volume I of the Philokalia a Chapter “On the Holy Fathers of Sketis and on Discrimination”.  Here Abba Moses tells of a story when he was a youth.  Some elders came to see Abba Anthony (the Great) and asked him which virtue is the greatest of all.  All present gave his opinion: Some thought it was fasting and keeping vigil, others voluntary poverty and detachment, others acts of compassion and so on.  Last of all Anthony pointed out that many who have practiced such virtues had nevertheless fallen away miserably from virtue and slipped into vice.

He then said:

What was it, then, that made them stray from the straight path?  In my opinion it was simply that they did not possess the grace of discrimination; for it is this virtue that teaches a man to walk the royal road, swerving neither to the right through immoderate self-control, nor to the left through indifference and laxity.   Discrimination is a kind of eye and lantern of the soul, as it is said in the Gospel passage: ‘The light of the body is the eye; is therefore thy eye is pure, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is evil, your whole body will be full of darkness’ (Matt. 6:22-3). (p. 99)…

Then Abba Moses continued:

This was Anthony’s statement, and it was approved by the other fathers.  But in order to confirm what St. Anthony said by means of fresh examples of our own times, we should recall Abba Hiron and how a few days ago, as we ourselves saw, he was thrown down from the height of the ascetic state to the depths of death by the deception of the devil.  We know how he spent some fifty years in the nearby desert, following a life of great severity and the strictest self-control, seeking our and living in parts of the desert wilder than those inhabited by any of the other monks there.  This same man cast all the fathers and brothers of the nearby desert into inconsolable grief because, after so many labors and struggles, he was deceived by the devil and suffered such a disastrous fall.  This would of not happened to him had he been armed with the virtue of discrimination, which would have taught him to trust, not his own judgment, but rather the advice of his fathers and brethren.  Following his own judgment he fasted and isolated himself to such a degree that he did not even come to the church for the Holy Pascha, lest by meeting the fathers and brethren and feeding with them he would be obliged to eat lentils or whatever else was brought to the table, thereby appearing to fall short of the target which he had set for himself.

He had already for long been deceived in this way by his own willfulness when, coming upon an angel of Satan, he bowed before him as if he were an angel of light.  The angel commanded him to hurl himself, into a very deep well so that he might then know by experience , because of his great virtue and ascetic efforts, that he would never again be subject to any danger.  His darkened mind failed to discern who was suggesting this to him, and he hurled himself into the well during the night.  Soon afterwards the brethren, discovering what had happened, were only just able to pull him up half dead.  He lived for two more days and died on the third. (pp. 100-1)

May God preserve us from such and all the snares of the enemy!…to be continued

 

 

The Meeting of our Lord

The feast of the Meeting of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ is this month, February 2nd. As we are now in the middle of the Old and New Calendar commemorations I have decided to post a sermon on this feast. The following is taken from the book, “O Full of Grace Glory to Thee”.

Beloved of God, this feast of the meeting of the Lord is unique in the sense that there are a variety of points set forth. To begin with, in Christ, we see the fulfillment of the Law, “And the Lord spake unto Moses saying, sanctify unto me all the firstborn, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast: it is mine” (Ex. 13:1-2). The ninth ode of the canon speaks of this: “In the shadow and the letter of the Law, let us, the faithful discern a figure: every male child that opens the womb shall be sanctified to God”. (1) So this Law pointed to Christ Who is the “firstborn Son and Word of the Father without beginning, the firstborn Child of a Mother who had not known man”. (2) This feast, then, returns us to the theme of the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ—God the Word, the firstborn and only-begotten Son of the Father becomes the firstborn and only-begotten Child of a virgin mother. The hymns speak of His assumption of our human nature and its result: our salvation.

Next we have His most pure Mother, our Lady Theotokos, coming with the Christ-Child to the Temple in order to fulfill the rite of purification prescribed by the Law of Moses. Finally, we have the encounter of the righteous Simeon with our Lord; he takes into his arms Jesus—the eternal God become a babe—and declares that He is the Savior of the world. Today let us consider the second of these themes we have mentioned, and speak specifically about Mary, the Mother of God, coming to the Temple to fulfill the Jewish rite of purification for a woman after childbirth.

A question could be raised: Did the Theotokos need purification? Was she unclean according to the Law of Moses? What does the consciousness of the Church tell us? She was neither unclean nor in need of purification. Just as her Son our Lord Jesus Christ went to baptism with no need for it but rather to “fulfill all righteousness” (Mat. 3:15), so too, His most pure Mother, although she was not in need of purification, submitted to the law. Perhaps a question could be raised based on the Gospel narrative concerning this event? Doesn’t it say: “when the days of her purification according to the Law of Moses were fulfilled” (Luke 2:22). Since the Gospel says “her purification”, one could conclude that this must indicate she needed it. However, the King James Version is being quoted here, and it is this or the New King James version which are used in most of our parishes. This latter also says, “her purification”. Unfortunately it is a mistranslation, the original Greek is plural, it says, tou katharismou auton, the pronoun is plural, it would be properly translated as their purification, and not her purification. Yet the law itself, which she came to fulfill does use the singular, and refers specifically to the woman who gave birth, it states: “And when the days of her purifying are fulfilled” (Lev. 12:6). But by changing the pronoun to the plural, St. Luke is referring to the purification of the Jews prescribed by the Law of Moses to which the Mother of God submitted although she had no need. (3)

So then, exactly what does this law say about the purification of women? In the book of Leviticus we read:

And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, “Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If a woman have conceived seed, and born a man child: then she shall be unclean seven days; and in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. And she shall then continue in the blood of her purifying three and thirty days” (Lev. 12: 1-4).

We see, then, that it was in giving birth through conception by seed, and by the loss of blood, that the new mother was considered unclean, and so in need of purification. In the Law, the loss of seed or blood, and childbirth are spoken of as making one unclean, and of the second it is specifically written, “the life of the flesh is in the blood” (Lev. 17:11). These types of “uncleanness” were not thought of as a voluntary act of sin, but rather as a diminution in vitality of life, and an involuntary separation from God.
However, with the Mother of God, there was “a conception without seed” (4), we know it was without the touch of man but rather, “that which was conceived in her was of the Holy Ghost” (Mat. 1:20). Yet what about the birth giving, was it natural? Was the birth of the pre-eternal uncreated God, according to the flesh, natural? It had both a natural and supernatural aspect. It was natural only in the aspect that the Son of God did pass through her womb with our human nature that He assumed from her. Again, it was above nature, for we confess the Theotokos to be virgin before, during, and after birth giving. Physically she is ever-virgin. Although Christ passed through her womb He kept it sealed. Even though we may occasionally have a hymn as in the Vespers service last night which said: “Now the God of purity as a holy child has opened a pure womb”(5), we still need to keep our thoughts within the tradition of our Orthodox faith. We should not conclude that the seal of her virginity was broken. This, of course, is not the teaching of the Church, it is false. The expression of opening the womb is an allusion back to the Old Testament law, and in this context it is actually another way of saying first-born. (6)

Now let us continue with the miraculous birth giving. The Theotokos had no birth pangs, for the birth of God was not subject to the curse that sprang from the disobedience of Eve. This was foretold by the Prophet Isaiah: “Before she travailed, she brought forth; before her pain came, she was delivered of a man child” (Isa. 66:7). But did she have a flow of blood and so become unclean? No! In our services there are countless references where it is stated that she experienced no harm at all in her birth giving. In particular let us look at one, the hymn to the Theotokos that ends the Lord I call verses at the Saturday evening Small Vespers in the fifth tone. It says: “He [Christ] passed through the gates of virginity, and no diminution was left behind in it” (7). The pronoun it refers back to virginity. Furthermore bleeding would mean that the seal of her virginity was broken, and we know she continued a virgin. And even that moment of the birth-giving itself is a mystery known only to God and her, for Joseph the Betrothed left her alone in the cave and went to seek a mid-wife. Having found a pair and returned, he beheld a luminous cloud over the cave, which disappeared followed by a light in the cave and on entering he saw the Theotokos with the Christ-Child. One of the midwives whom the Theotokos permitted to examine her declared: “there has been no spilling of blood in his birth, no pain in bringing him forth. A virgin has conceived, a virgin has brought forth, and a virgin she remains”. (8)

But let us go on to further establish the points we have made and listen to the words of St. Dimitri of Rostov—a small excerpt from a sermon on today’s feast:

Fulfilling this law of the Lord, the Mother of God came into the temple with the Lawgiver. She came to purify herself, although she had no need of purification since she was undefiled, without offense, uncorrupted, most pure. For she who conceived without a man or desire, and gave birth without pain or violation of her virginal purity, was not tainted by the impurity common to women who give birth according to the law of nature. For how could impurity touch her who gave birth to the Source of purity? Christ was born of her like fruit from a tree. And as the tree producing its fruit is neither harmed nor defiled, in the same manner at the birth of Christ—the Blessed Fruit—the Virgin remained unharmed and undefiled. Christ proceeded from her as a ray of the sun that passes through the glass or crystal. In passing through glass or crystal, a sunray does not break up or damage it, but illumines it even more. And Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, did not harm the virginity of His Mother. And the door of natural birth was sealed in purity and preserved in virginity not being defiled with a flow of blood as is common to women. But having passed through her supernaturally, He increased her purity, having sanctified and enlightened her with the light of Divine grace by His proceeding from her. Any purification was absolutely unnecessary for her who gave birth without defilement to God the Word. But in order not to break the law, but to fulfill it, she came to purify herself having all-perfect purity and without any blemish. At the same time, filled with humility, she was not proud of her uncorrupted purity, but she came as if unclean to stand together with the unclean women in front of the doors of the temple of the Lord, and besought purification, not disdaining those who were unclean and sinful.(9)

Thus did our holy hierarch Dimitri speak of our Lady Theotokos. So keeping the purity of our all-holy Lady Theotokos in mind let us increase our love for her and also strive for this virtue of purity. Through her prayers combined with our struggles, may Christ our God purify us from the defilement of sin and passions, and so make us worthy in the life to come with faces unashamed to look upon Him, together with His unoriginate Father, and His most-holy, good and life-creating Spirit, throughout the endless ages, world without end. Amen.

(1) The Festal Menaion, trans. Mother Mary and Kallistos Ware, London: Faber and Faber, 1969, p. 425
(2) Ibid.
(3) The collections of lives of saints (which include commentaries on the feast days) from Greek, Romanian, Russian, and Serbian sources all agree with this.
(4) This is from the ninth irmos of the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete that is used during the first week of Great Lent.
(5) The Festal Menaion, trans. Mother Mary and Kallistos Ware, London: Faber and Faber, 1969, p. 412.
(6) According to Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries a prime meaning for the word translated as opens of the Hebrew (in Exodus) and the Greek (in the Gospel according to St. Luke), is first-born (see http://www.e-sword.net).
(7) This translation is from the Greek text.
(8) The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, 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. VIII, Grand Rapids Michigan, WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956, pp. 374-5.
(9) Lives of the Saints, In the Russian Language following the guidelines of The Four Part Menaion by Saint Dimitri of Rostov, Book Six, trans. Alexander Maximov, Moscow, Russia, Moscow Synodal Press, 1905, pp. 23-4.