“The Cross is the protector of the whole world; the Cross is the splendour of the Church; the Cross is the glory of kings; the Cross is the support of the faithful; the Cross is the glory of angels and the terror of demons!”
(Exapostilarion for Wednesdays and Fridays)
What an amazing joy it must have been when the Holy Cross on which Our Saviour had been crucified was discovered in 327AD. The Emperor Constantine asked his mother Helena to visit the Holy sites in Jerusalem and to her joy the Holy Cross was discovered. Following this, soon afterwards, The Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built. Over the centuries, the Cross has become the most important sign of our Salvation, indeed we venerate it with great honour for the Cross was not only the instrument of Our Lord’s shameful, yet life-giving death but it was also THE TREE OF LIFE. The Tree of Life noted in the Garden of Eden was guarded by angels once Adam and Eve had fallen from grace and disappeared from view. Now it was brought into view again in the form of the Holy Cross. Thus, we have in our midst the Tree of Life, the enduring sign of our Salvation and the new life brought to us by Our Lord who sacrificed himself upon it.
“When the Cross was planted on earth, the arrogance of the demon fell and disappeared, for Adam returned to Paradise from which he had once been expelled. Paradise was opened for all; glory to You, O Holy God, who have willed so to do!” (Canon, Tone 2)
In the Gospel for the Sunday after the Feast (Mark 8: 34 ff), we have these challenging words from Our Lord:
“ Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me.”
What does this mean? It means that we are to embrace fully our life in Christ and ensure that this is at the forefront of all our earthly thoughts and endeavours. Taking up the Cross is not negative and a punitive burden but the very fullness of our life. John Henry Newman, now declared a Saint by the Roman Church, says this:
“Fear not that life may come to an end but rather fear that it may never have had a beginning.”
This is why St Paul in his letter to the Romans gives this understanding:
“None of us lives to himself. and no one dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die. we are the
Lord’s” (Rom 14: 6-9).
We are to do all for the Lord, and in our life together, for only in this, is life in fullness. The Holy Cross reminds us of this, everyday, as we gaze upon it. We receive the challenge again and again: THIS DAY TO TAKE UP THE CROSS that your life may be transformed; that you may enter into the fullness of life.
St Paul also says;
“ The message of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God”.
It seems that the Leaders of the Established Church of this land have been silent at a national level, throughout the whole of this coronavirus episode . At a national level there has been no comforting and no encouragement and no enlightening guidance on offer. Above all there has been no voice of prophecy giving a clear message of what the Church is about and what the Gospel of Christ has to offer. No proclamation that the message of the Cross is the power of God to those who seek to be saved and live life to the full. Just quoting St Paul and St John Henry Newman as above could have been a focus of such prophecy. It has to be proclaimed loud and clear, that the way forward for the nation, is not only to overcome the Coronavirus, and to restore the economy, though this is necessary. Rather, it is for all to realise that without God, our Creator and the one who has given us new life, there is no real life and there is no safe future. This land and its people must return to Christian roots for sustenance and life and a new way forward. As Saint John Henry said; all should “fear not that life may come to an end but rather fear that it
may never have had a beginning”. Only life in God gives fullness of life. Without God at the helm, all is lost.
On this day we hold high the Cross, the Life Saving Cross, the Tree of Life and challenge ourselves and all in this land to live for Christ, to take up the Cross of love, the Cross of salvation. The Cross can lead us forward to renewal and fulfilment of life. For “The Tree of Life, the true spiritual vine, is hung upon the tree of the Cross, as a fountain of sweet healing wine for all mankind” (Sunday, tone 4, matins ode 3). We are now lifted up, by the Cross, from the Fall; and saved from the destructive wood of the forbidden tree.
As one looks at the drawing above; we see a hand drawing another hand, but which is drawing the first hand, but which hand is drawing which? Our mind is challenged, it doesn’t make sense!
This is so often true also of the faith we profess. We are often called to flip things upside down, to view things from a different perspective, to accept that, which to many, makes no sense or is illogical. It is all so paradoxical.
Interestingly, Orthodox and Paradox are two words having much in common. The "dox" that ends both terms have roots in the Greek word doxa, which means "belief" or "opinion."(In later Christian usage, doxa came to mean "glory," but only as an extension of its much older philosophical meaning, which is "belief"). “Ortho” has a Greek root meaning to straight, correct, or upright.And so, if a doxa is an opinion or a belief, then ortho-doxa is a "correct or right belief."Similarly, the prefix “para” has a Greek root meaning "beyond" or "outside of"; and so, something that is "para doxa,", is beyond belief, contradicting what we might commonly believe to be true.
For many, that which is ‘Orthodox’ often appears to be a ‘Paradox’. For instance, we are monotheists, we believe in one God. But we call that God a Trinity, one God in three persons; but how can God be both 1 and 3? – A paradox? Again, The Orthodox Church believes that Our Lord, Jesus, while on earth, was fully Immortal God and, at the same time, fully Mortal Man. How can He be both? And then of course we have the Mother of our Lord; A virgin mother?
"O Mother that hath known no man, thou didst conceive, not experiencing corruption,
lending a body to the Word,
the Creator of all, becoming a receptacle to thine insupportable Creator,
a dwelling-place to thine incomprehensible Maker."
On Monday it is the feast of The Elevation of the Holy Cross, also referred to as the Exaltation of the Cross, one of the Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church. This feast commemorates two events: Firstly, The finding of the Cross by the Empress Helen (the mother of St. Constantine the Great) on Golgotha in 326 AD, the place where Christ was crucified. Then recovery of the Cross from the Persians who had taken the Cross as a prize after sacking Jerusalem in 614 AD. It was recovered by the forces of the Byzantine Empire in 627 AD. The Cross was taken into the temple of the Resurrection, where it was joyously held up for veneration by the faithful.
Now, when it comes to a paradox, is there anything more paradoxical than the Cross of Our Lord? As the Apostle Paul writes 1 Corinthians I: 23,
“But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness;”
The Apostle tells us that the Jews seek signs because that is what the prophets gave them, although even then they did not believe. Their expectation of the Messiah was of one who would triumph over Israel’s enemies and establish Jerusalem as the centre of the world. Death by crucifixion was shameful and unthinkable. Their Messiah was to be exalted, not humiliated.
Greek speculative philosophy generally regarded the realm of the spirit and ideas as good and vastly superior to the inferior world of matter. With such a world view the whole idea of a God who became man and assumed the limitations of mortality by assuming a material body subject to suffering and death, was unthinkable. For Greeks salvation was through the mystical reception of knowledge, which would free them from the bondage of the physical world and enable them to share in the spiritual realm. The whole cycle of creation and redemption was unthinkable to them.
At the heart of the Orthodox Christian mysteries there is usually a paradox: The Creator who becomes a creature; the virgin who gives birth but remains a virgin; of the way to life being through death; of the poor being rich; of the weak being strong. To the unbeliever it is simply contradiction and disingenuous, proving the foolishness of the Gospel, and the credulity of Christians. To the believer, however, the wisdom of God is not the same as the wisdom of this world. Origen states that it is the world’s wisdom that is foolish “even though the simplicity of God’s wisdom makes those who have it appear foolish in the eyes of the world. Believers have received this divine wisdom and thus in this world appear to be fools.” It is not surprising therefore that the Orthodox Church has a whole category of saints known as “Fools for Christ.”
From an object of destruction and shame, the cross has become the emblem of pride and respect. We raise it high over our churches; we decorate our most sacred objects with it whether they are buildings, or fabrics; we suspend it around our necks; we sign ourselves with the cross when we begin our prayers; we use it to bless our food. The Cross is a ubiquitous and potent symbol. In itself it is a means of grace. Saint Antony the Great speaks of defending himself by faith and the sign of the cross.
Drawing by Maurits Cornelis Escher (1898-1972), Drawn in 1948, Pencil on paper
Troparion of the Exaltation of the Cross
O Lord, save Thy people, and bless Thine inheritance.
Grant victories to the Orthodox Christians over their adversaries;
and by virtue of Thy Cross, preserve Thy habitation.
The 13th Sunday After Pentecost
(Matthew 21: 33-42 – A trap for Jesus)
I remember once being told that, on becoming a Christian, the last thing to be converted is your wallet! For many people money and finances are considered to be very personal and of course we often hear the misquoted 1 Timothy 6:10, “the love of money is the root of all of evil”.
But what do we really know about money?
For instance, did you know that Pound sterling is the world's oldest currency still in use. That most banknotes contain traces of cocaine. With so much anxiety about hygiene and cleanliness, did you realise that the average European banknote is home to 26,000 colonies of bacteria. Perhaps you think that the penny in your pocket isn't worth very much? Uzbekistan's tiyin is worth around 3,000 times less than a British penny.
How about this one! Did you know that one can arrange the newer 1p, 2p, 5p, 10p, 20p and 50p coins to reveal an esoteric shield design that mimics the coat of arms on the £1 coin? This clever feature was created by designer Matthew Dent in 2008.
It would be easy to think that our Gospel reading was about money and whether the Jews should pay taxes to the Roman authorities. The Pharisees and the Herodians anticipated that Jesus would oppose the tax, their purpose being to hand him over to the power and authority of the governor. The questioners flattered Jesus by praising his integrity, impartiality, and devotion to truth. Then they asked him whether or not it is right for Jews to pay the taxes demanded by Caesar. Jesus first called them hypocrites and then asked one of them to produce a Roman coin that would be suitable for paying Caesar's tax. One of them showed him a Roman Coin (a denarius, and he asked them whose head and inscription were on it. They answered, "Caesar's," and he responded: "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's". The questioners “marvelled"; unable to trap him any further, and being satisfied with the answer, they went away.
Because the denarius bears the image of Caesar it is right and proper to give it to Caesar.
What if we extend this same principle to ourselves, we each bear the image of God; we therefore belong to God. So, what does that require us to render to God?
The answer of cause is EVERYTHING! God is Lord over all!
Interestingly; the value of 6,000 denarii was equal to one talent. A talent being a unit of weight of approximately 80 pounds (36 kg), and when used as a unit of money, was valued for that weight of silver.
Now, we may not possess denarii but we each have a few ‘talents’, natural aptitude or skills; talents that we can offer for the service of our Lord. But, perhaps more importantly, we each have many gifts. As the Dutch Catholic priest, professor, writer and theologian, Henri J.M. Nouwen reminds us these gifts are how we express our humanity, they are a part of who we are; friendship, kindness, patience, joy, peace, forgiveness, gentleness, love, hope, trust and many, many more. These are true gift; gifts that have the power to bring healing to the deepest hurts.
However, A gift only becomes a gift when it is received and accepted by another and we can be sure that anything that we offer to our Lord with love and faith will be received “ …and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you.” [Luke 6:38]
With prayer and love in XC
Caesar's Coin, by Peter Paul Rubens (1612-1614)
In my homily for St Seraphim’s Feast on the third Sunday of July, I referred to his understanding of our Orthodox faith. He reminded us of the importance of our baptism, restoring us as we should be and, by associated chrismation, giving us ‘the seal and gift of the Holy Spirit - the most precious gift we can ever receive’. He added, ‘The grace of baptism is so great and so indispensable to mankind, so life-giving that it is never taken away’. even if we fall into error, the grace remains with us.
St Seraphim continues, ‘If, after our baptism, we never sinned, then we would be eternally holy, blessed, God-bearing, pure and free from all impurity of body and spirit, pleasing to God. However, the trouble is that gaining in age, we do not gain in grace, or in godly wisdom, as Our Lord Jesus Christ did. Instead, we gradually become corrupted, denying ourselves the grace of the All Holy Spirit of God, and becoming, in varying degrees, sinners, yes, most sinful people’, We fall away from what we should be.
Here is our aspiration and our failing; good intentions but difficulty achieving them. Yet there is one who held fully to these aspirations and did not fail, and she is our exemplar and one for whom we should give thanks, praise and follow.
Yes, on this day, when we celebrate the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God, we remember the Most Holy Birth-giver of God, even Our Blessed Lady and Ever Virgin Mary. She was the one who did not fall into corruption (sinfulness). Born of ageing parents, through the special grace of God, she remained innocent and pure as all children born to mankind. In her, this purity and innocence continued. She became prayerful, attentive to God, ready to be the first Christian Saint when called to be so.
Although the devil deceived Eve and she together with Adam fell from God, in due time He found a woman, so pure, prayerful (totally in tune with Him) and lovely, that He was able to give us the Saviour born of her seed. She filled with the Holy Spirit, and with her eternal motherly care, not only gave birth to and supported her son but in doing so, crushed within herself the serpent’s head. She was not immaculate by conception, but by prayer and faithful attentiveness to God. Hence, the Church is able to sing out:
O blessed Lady, the creator of All dwelt bodily in your womb in order to refashion mankind which was fallen and wandering because of the serpent. For our sake, you ineffably gave birth to our God in the flesh, thus, delivering from death and renewing the human race. Wherefore, we sing and glorify the grace given you by God, O pure Virgin, unwedded Bride, and entreat you to be delivered from all suffering.........He ineffably emptied Himself within your womb; and rising from you like a Sun, He shed the light of His Divinity upon the whole world, delivering it from the darkness of idolatry. (Aposticha, Saturday vespers, Tone 4).
‘The Fire of the Divinity dwelt in you and nourished the Lord and Creator of all’.
To follow the Holy Mother, as St Seraphim inspires us, the aim of our life, like hers, is to acquire the Holy Spirit. ‘Fasting, vigils, prayer, chastity and all other good deeds done for the sake of Christ, however good they are, do not alone, constitute the aim of Christian life. The aim of our life is to understand what doing good deeds for Christ really means; it is the grace of the Holy Spirit, which these works bring us. It is by gaining and acquiring this grace (achieved through good deeds) that alone is the aim of Christian life’. Good deeds done for the sake of Christ bring forth the fruit of the Holy Spirit since the Holy Spirit came into the world for the sake of Christ.
But, ‘If not done for the sake of Christ, (a good deed) does not bring the blessing of the Holy Spirit’.
All good deeds are pleasing to God. Everyone who loves God and does what is right is pleasing to Him. Here is the key; Love God and not just goodness alone. What is important is not virtuous deeds on their own but what is given through these deeds, namely the fruits of the Holy Spirit and increasing love of God.
The Holy Spirit prepares in our soul the throne of God dwelling with our spirit, in accordance with the Word of Our Lord. As scripture says, ‘I will dwell in them, and walk among them; I will be their God, and they will be my people (Leviticus 26:12, 2Corinthians 6:16). This is the Oil that keeps the lamps burning. Or, as Our Lord said to the Samaritan woman, ‘The water that I shall give shall be a well of water springing unto eternal life’.
On this Feast of the Birth-giver of God, we remember that she is the only one of the human race who lived her whole life filled with the Holy Spirit and continues so in her heavenly throne. We must always honour her and know her important role in God’s saving plan. She exactly shares the fullness of the humanity of the son born of her which why, at her Falling asleep, she realised the first fruits of her son’s Resurrection and was. thus, bodily lifted into heaven.
Most Holy Mother of God pray for us and hold us in the saving grace of your Son.
Today is the Feast of the Transfiguration and to Orthodox Christians the Transfiguration is a very special event in the Christian year. There is a sense in which it sums up the whole mystery of the Incarnation, and beyond that, the mystery of Creation itself.
A first thing to note about the Transfiguration is that it was a very secret event. There were only three witnesses: Peter, James and John. Why only three of them? Why not the Twelve? The obvious answer is that this event was so mysterious and so holy that it was only vouchsafed to a small inner circle. It is as if they had entered an inner sanctuary where life’s deepest secrets are revealed. Of all the Israelites who came out of Egypt, only Moses saw the glory of God – and even he was not permitted to see God face to face. On Mount Tabor however, Christ manifested his glory to three persons – a sort of human trinity – and they were permitted to gaze on his glorious and transfigured Face. On one level it was the mystical proof that Christ was God; and it was given to them to see it, as the Kontakion of the Feast tells us, so that when they saw Christ crucified, they might know that his sacrifice was voluntary.
But there is another layer of meaning in the Transfiguration; or perhaps I should say another layer of manifestation. Orthodox Christians have always seen the great events of Christ’s life in cosmic terms: in their relation not just to ourselves and to the whole of the human race, but to the whole of creation. Thus when Christ was conceived in the womb of the Virgin, he took to himself the material substance of the Universe and sanctified it. At his Baptism in the River Jordan, he effectively baptized the waters of the earth; and at his Transfiguration he manifested God’s glory in the material world.
This is one of the central truths of the Christian faith: that life does have a divine aspect, and that there is in this world a hidden glory which, however fleetingly and however selectively, is sometimes revealed to us. As the poet Wordsworth said of his own adolescent experiences:
There was a time when meadow, grove and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light:
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
To put it simply, matter is spirit-bearing. Great music is more than just an arrangement of sounds; great buildings are more than just stones and mortar. To those who can see discerningly, trees are living Presences, the wings of a great bird are like those of an angel, fire is a mystical portent, and the human face is sometimes suffused with the glory of the divine. Evolution itself bears witness to the gradual spiritualization of things. At each stage in the development of the Earth, new spiritual principles are disclosed: the glorious flowering of the plant kingdom, the conquest of the air, feathers, bird-song, animal parenthood and recreation; the gradual emergence of beauty and love. Even the very processes of erosion work to disclose the glory of the Creator, distilling beauty our of flux, fragmentation and change. By contrast sin and evil make things look more purely physical, because the effect of evil is to kill the life in things. Bad people tend to have bad faces; hatred cannot don the mask of beauty – at any rate in its higher manifestations; and when people and societies cease to believe in spiritual things they begin to produce soulless buildings, soulless communities, soulless entertainment – and soulless lives. The world is a book of strange and wonderful symbols, waiting to be read. If we would see God’s glory we have only to cleanse the doors of perception and look about us.
There is one other thing. Of all the great Feasts in the Christian Year the Transfiguration is most obviously a touchstone of our worship. ‘Lord,’ said Peter in his terror, ‘it is good to be here!’ Yes, it was good, but it was also a soul-shaking experience. Glory, radiance, beauty beyond all human telling, so that the Apostles felt compelled to bow their faces to the earth and adore. Now in its original sense, Orthodoxy means ‘right worship’; and without in any way wishing to disparage non-Orthodox Christians, who sometimes lead more Christ-like lives than we do, it does seem to me that it is only Orthodox worship, in its ineffable and celestial beauty, in its sometimes overwhelming sense of the Divine Presence, that enables us to understand what worship is really all about. And there, it seems to me, is a message for our godless, utilitarian Age, and a truth that we do well to ponder.
Matthew 14: 14-22
Feeding of Five Thousand
Can you find a man's face hidden among the coffee beans?
Trust me, he's in there.
Knowing that there is a face hidden in the picture doesn’t necessarily make it easy to find. Not knowing it is there would render it virtually impossible to notice. The way we look at something will determine what we are likely to see. This is as true for our reading of the Holy scriptures as much as for anything else.
In the history of biblical interpretation, four major types of hermeneutics (the branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation, especially of the Bible or literary texts) have emerged: the literal, moral, allegorical, and anagogical. I wonder how you interpret today's Gospel reading.
Matthew 14 tells us how Christ fed the multitudes – 5000 men plus the women and children. Have you ever noticed just how that is done? First, we have Christ giving thanks. We then have the bread being broken and distributed - Familiar?
Christ gives thanks - Just as we offer the Anaphora or the "Great Thanksgiving" The central prayer of the Eucharist.
Christ breaks the bread – Just as the priest breaks the bread representing our Lord’s body; the Eucharist.
Christ gives it to his disciples to distribute - representing the Priest distributing communion at the Liturgy,
Finally; the people are filled!
When we gather together for the Divine Liturgy we partake in the greatest of miracles! As the priest stands at the altar, he says, “The Lamb of God is broken and distributed, broken yet not divided, ever eaten, yet never consumed; but sanctifies those who partake.”
After all had eaten of the 5 loaves and 2 fish in today’s gospel account, there are taken up 12 baskets full, one for each of the 12 apostles; and these baskets have been passed down from the apostles into the hands of the bishops and priests in every generation and remain ever full – ever eaten yet never consumed!
Is there anything more important than to receive the “most precious and holy Body and Blood of our Lord and God and saviour, Jesus Christ, for the remission of sins and for eternal life”? – what the Fathers call the “Medicine of Immortality.”
The ‘feeding’ miracle(s) are offered to us by all four of the Gospel writers, and in John chapter 6 Christ explains the true significance (John 6:48,51- 56) “I am the bread of life… Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in You…. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life and I will raise him up at the last day…”. The most serious penalty that can be imposed upon an Orthodox Christian is to be cut off from communion – to be ex-communicated. We need to be coming to the cup at every opportunity, this is life!
However, for many, this is just not possible or wise at this present time and our hearts and prayers go out to those of our community that are not able to be present with us at the Divine Liturgy. We pray that we might soon be able to come together and receive the Holy Mysteries; that we might soon gather again at our Lord’s table together with the entire Church visible and invisible. And that He, who gave himself up for the life of the world, may ever lead us into all that He has prepared for each of us, through partaking in His very Body and Blood.
Father Julian, 2/8/2020
On this Sunday, we remember and honour St Seraphim of Sarov, one of the best known of Russian saints across the Christian world in both East and West.
In his conversation with one of his spiritual children, Nikolai Motovilov, St Seraphim spelled out his understanding of the aim of Christian Life saying,” The true aim of our Christian Life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit”. St Seraphim explained this. We as human beings, following Adam and Eve are spirit, soul and body; Adam was made thus from the dust of the earth like all other living creatures. Then God breathed into his face the Breath of Life, the blessing of the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father; without this, Adam would not have completely exceeded all previous creations of God. Adam became the crowning of God’s creation on earth. Now, he possessed the Holy Spirit within himself; this raised him to the dignity of being in the image of God. In this exalted state Adam could indeed see the Lord walking in paradise and the fruits of the Tree of Life would guarantee that Adam and Eve and their offspring would have remained in this exalted position, Lords and Ladies, Kings and Queens of Creation. Adam, when given the Breath of Life, became a living soul, fully alike to God and forever immortal. This Breath of Life breathed into Adam’s face made him wise and knowing to the extent, “that there never was or ever will be a man more wise and knowing than he”. He was admired and obeyed by every creature, “He could comprehend God walking in the garden, he could comprehend all the words of the conversation of the Almighty with him, and the speech of the blessed angels, and the language of all animals, birds and reptiles on earth. Everything which today is hidden from us, as fallen sinful creatures, was for him clear until the Fall”. St Seraphim adds, “the same wisdom and all other blessings and holy qualities were also granted to Eve”.
Adam and Eve, by breaking with God, gave up this priceless gift of God and this was so until the coming into the world of Our Lord Jesus Christ. However, the action of the Holy Spirit was fully and continually known to the human race as we see in the lives of Noah, Abraham, Moses, the Children of Israel coming out of Egypt and in the lives and understandings of the Prophets. Latterly, we see this in Simeon who received God into his arms at 40 days after his birth as a man, and the prophetess Anna and, of course, John the Baptist and Forerunner. The full restitution occurred when Our Lord completed His task of Salvation when He breathed on the Apostles and renewed the Breath of Life in them which had been squandered by Adam. He gave them the same grace of the Spirit of God that Adam had lost. Then, at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit entered them fully filling them with the power of Divine Grace. We have evidence of this in the driven apostolic lives they lived and as when St Paul said, “The ‘Holy Spirit went with us”. The Apostles were always instructed by the Holy Spirit about everything and acted accordingly. St Seraphim said to Motovilov, “Our lack of understanding occurs because of our lack of attention to matters concerning salvation...... because of this we do not understand the words of scripture as we should.....because we do not seek the grace of God and let it enter our souls..... thus, we do not have the enlightenment from above, from the Lord God which is sent into the hearts of those who hunger and thirst after His righteousness with their whole heart”.
This fire inspired blessing of the Holy Spirit is given to all the faithful in Christ, in the sacrament of Holy Baptism when we are anointed with the Holy Chrism with the words, “The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit”. This is the most precious gift we have ever received. If, after our baptism, we never sinned then we should be eternally holy, blessed, God-Bearing and pure; free of all impurity of body and spirit. We would be restored to all that Adam was before the Fall or rather all that Our lord Jesus Christ is. Even with our sinfulness, this transfiguration is not only available to us but is how we should be. It is the theosis so well proclaimed in our Orthodox faith.
Hence, the goal of our Christian life consists in acquiring the Spirit of God and this, according to the teaching of St Seraphim, is the goal of every Christian who lives in a spiritual manner. There is so much more that can be said and I hope that you will be able to read The Aim of Christian Life, The Conversation of St Seraphim of Sarov with N.A. Motovilov (Saints Alive Press).
The Epistle for St Seraphim’s feast, Galatians 5:22 to 6:2 helps us on our way: “ But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law......
If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit......
(Let us ) bear one another burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ”.
We should also remember St Seraphim’s dictum: “My Joy! Acquire the Spirit of Peace and thousands around you shall be saved.”
For our thoughts and instruction,
I wonder what you would list if asked “What should you believe in?” That very question was asked in a recent survey, the result of which is as follows –
1. Yourself. 2. Others (the goodness of). 3. The power of kindness. 4. That this too shall pass. 5. Your inner strength. 6. Courage. 7. Hope. 8. Your influence on the world around you. 9. The truth. 10. The power of words. 11. Hard work. 12. Your goals and dreams. 13. Change. 14. Forgiveness. 15. Your power over your thoughts and feelings. 16. Learning. 17. Self-discover. 18. Fairness. 19. Humanity. 20. Peace.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I find this list very disappointing; not least because belief in ‘self’ comes top!
What we ‘believe’ is so very important!
If what we believe shapes our thoughts, and determines our perception of reality, then I think we can agree with A W Tozer that, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us”
I am sure we are all very familiar with today's gospel reading. We have all read, or heard, how a Roman centurion asks Jesus for his help because his servant is ill. Jesus offers to go to the centurion's house to perform a healing, but the centurion hesitates and suggests that Jesus' word of authority would be sufficient. Impressed, Jesus comments approvingly, “Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.” The servant is then healed that same day.
How did Jesus know this man, this Roman centurion had faith?
When we truly believe in something, we think and act in ways to make it real. This is why the Apostle James tells us that “faith without works is dead” (James 2v26).
So, what are the ‘works, which accompany the centurion’s faith.
Well, He sought healing for his servant. This is an account of a person beseeching our Lord on behalf of another, resembling other Gospel events such as Jairus and the Syro-Phoenician women praying for their daughters (Mark 5:23; 7:24-30).
These are accounts of intercessory prayer, intercession being a “supplication to God on behalf of another person.” To pray for others is the most critical skill we can learn. In fact, we cannot learn any higher form of prayer unless we learn to pray for others. This is because ardent, frequent prayer for others embodies two great virtues, love and faith.
We are self-centred creatures; remember what came top of the most important things to believe! - and rarely think of others and even more rarely feel their pain, but our Lord knows it. We are called to become like our Lord, to have His heart. He cares for all people, at all times. We cannot claim to know God if we do not love, and according to the scriptures, we cannot love God unless we love our neighbour (1 John 4:20)
We also express our faith when we pray for others, because we poor, weak creatures are afflicted with the delusion that we somehow can control things. The truth is, only God can heal, without God nothing is good. Praying for others contradicts and rebukes this foolish self-reliance.
So, how can we learn and develop our intercessory prayer? There are practical and spiritual considerations.
The most important consideration is that we make a commitment to pray for others, and value doing it as much as breathing. It is not always easy, and our passions and the ‘enemy’ will continually try to distract us. If we do not have a resolute heart, we will make very little progress.
It can help if we make a list of people to pray for; family, friends, clergy. Absolutely, all of your enemies, and everybody you do not like, or have any estrangement with. Of course, the sick, and those for whom we have been asked to pray, together with all of members of our parish.
Ideally, we should pray for everyone on the list, at least once every day. This should not be rushed. This is not about firing off a bunch of names after saying a few quick prayers in the morning or evening. We should give our intercessions the time and the environment they deserve
When we intercede for others all we need do is ask for God’s mercy. Mercy, not in the legal sense but God’s mercy; His undeserved, freely given, unconditional love. And because of this, His love for us, He will help us in every way, but only if we ask, and if we try to live according to His will.
The power of belief is, itself, something to believe in. When we believe in something, you think and act in ways to make it real. So, choose what you believe in carefully. The Orthodox Church firmly believes in the power of prayer and intercessions. Do you?
In my pastoral letter for 6th Sunday of Pascha (24 May) I mentioned the importance of the Sacrament of Confession. I should like to say more about this.
Last Sunday, for All Saints of Britain, I talked about our being made in the image of God and, hence, icons (the Greek word for image) of Christ. Of course, if we likened this to one of our painted icons, we see the fading of age, paint chipped off, smudged areas, parts touched-up and the general result of wear and tear and weather. But yet it is clearly recognised, a hint of original beauty is still there, we recognise the image clearly. This well-worn icon has to be restored and can only be done through the hands of an expert iconographer. Pursuing this thought for ourselves, we too have to be restored and this must be done by the expert, even Christ Himself. When we go for the Sacrament of Confession, yes, we are in the presence of the priest, but the meeting is with Christ, and it is He who is there to restore.
A question often raised is this, why should the Sacrament of Confession be necessary, when a private confession of sins should be enough? Some also say, is it not an alternative to counselling or psychotherapy? The answer to the latter is no, the Sacrament of Confession, is quite different to counselling and psychotherapy and yes, the Sacrament of Confession, with a priest is attendance, is necessary.
We are of a complex make-up. Our very means of survival is for unpleasant, and stressful experiences, including sin, to be tucked away in the unconscious part of our mind, 'out of sight, out of mind’. Hence, we have to pray, before confession, that the Holy Spirit will enlighten the dark places of our heart, to enable us to make a full and honest confession. This is done more thoroughly when we have to stand with a priest in attendance. People will discover what a relief it is for these dark ‘secrets’ to be revealed, ‘found out’ , if you like. Our nature is to try very hard that we are not found out. We try not to be sinners with regard to each other and even to God Himself, so we can never jump out of the rut into true freedom without help. We make every effort, often and usually unconsciously, to hide or deny our sinful nature. Even if we do find time to make the effort to discover and confess privately, it is never complete. St Paul, when he had undergone his conversion and made his confession, never denied that he had been a real enemy of Christ, and the deeds he had committed were appalling. The Sacrament of Confession may be hard to face, yet we have to say, ‘This is what I am, and I am ashamed of it, I am sorry, and I want to start afresh’.
Public Confession was initiated in the early Church because of the profound sense of Oneness, the sense of belonging together in Christ and in the Church. It was recognised that the Church could be wounded and disfigured by anyone's sinfulness or unfaithfulness. A person who had acted against the integrity of the Body, the integrity of its faith, had to confess because what was important was the matter of his salvation from death to life in the Body to which he belonged, and the healing of the whole Church. The reason why confession is so different from counselling or psychotherapy is because it is about restoring a person to life in Christ, restoring his full communion within the Body of Christ, the Church. As St Paul in 1 Corinthians 12, writes that the Body is one and has many members, we have all been baptised into the One Body which is Christ. No member can say to another, 'I have no need of thee’, all are necessary for the full life of the Body. Estrangement of one person from the Church by whatever means is a failure of love. The second lack of love is murder understood by Our Lord’s elaboration of this Commandment, ‘Whoever is angry with his brother without a cause…. whoever curses his brother (or belittles him) …is in danger of hell fire’ (Matt 5:21–22). The third sin highlighted by the early church was that of adultery because it is sin against the love God has given to two people. These sins are incompatible with belonging to the Church, the Body of Christ because as one Body, we live the life of Christ Himself and such healing and restoration to communion can only be brought about by Christ Himself. If by our sin we have wounded the Body of Christ, no healing is possible unless we go to Christ Himself for such healing and this is the purpose of Sacramental Confession.
St James in his epistle (James 5:16) advises that all who are in need must come to confess sins to each other. This is directed towards the individual who has fallen away from integrity. It is a coming to Christ, in the presence of a man of prayer, 'And the prayer of the faithful will save the sick, and the Lord will lift him up. And if he has committed sin, he will be forgiven’ (James 5:14-16)
When we come to confession, it is to Christ we come, not to anyone else, to Christ who has given Himself, His life and His death for our salvation. It is not the priest we are coming to. He stands there as the representative of the community, he stands in prayer and to his prayer is added the prayer of the whole community, 'the prayer of the righteous'. The priest is hearing the confession but not listening to it. He is simply holding the penitent to Christ and praying silently. He may, if he feels able, make some comment or give some advice but only if prompted to do so by God. He may say nothing but give the prayer of absolution, or he may say something that is helpful. The most important part of the confession is that the one making it is restored and forgiven, His sin has been put away by Christ who stands there representing the life of God the Father expressed so beautifully in the Parable of Prodigal Son, the Parable of the Loving Father always waiting for his son ( and daughter) to return and to be received with open arms and with love, now to be fully restored.
The process is not a mechanical one. If we have made a good preparation and are prepared for the embarrassment and have the courage, we are integrated into the Christ's death and eternal life. What we have rejected and lost, of what God has given us, our faded image (icon) can now begin further restoration in the hand of the divine ‘iconographer'.
As one priest said, ‘I go to confession because it is provided by the Church as a necessary aid to salvation’. Whatever else, it is certain that Sacramental Confession brings about the forgiveness, the restoration and the healing we require.
Today we continue to remember All Saints and especially those of Great Britain. It is profitable to reflect on why we call them saints. What made them so? The first Apostles and Disciples had experienced the reality of our Lord’s Resurrection and the new understanding and life change they had now been given. Then, they experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit which gave them confidence, strength and ability to go throughout the world proclaiming the Good News of Christ. They emanated God in their lives as if the weaknesses and flaws of their own personality had been set aside.
In due time, Saints arrived in Britain; St Aristobulos of the Seventy is acclaimed as Apostle to Britain in the Greek Synaxarion of Saints; one local tradition is that St Simeon Zelotes was crucified in Caister, Lincolnshire; of more certain tradition, we have St Alban who was martyred circa 209. Missionaries evangelised the British people with David of Wales, prominent among them. Following St Patrick, Columba became the Apostle to Scotland in the fifth century and St Aidan, Apostle to the north from 625 with his pupil, St Chad becoming for us the first English bishop in the Midlands. In every century there were saints who were convinced that Christ had Risen indeed and was with them to befriend, inspire and guide. They realised that they were made in God’ s image and were endeavouring to be transformed into the likeness of Christ by the indwelling and transforming action of the Holy Spirit. It was this Christlikeness radiating through them which enabled them to proclaim the Gospel with authenticity. Radiating from them was a compelling transforming power which impressed men and women and their leaders to turn to Christ. It is important for us to recognise this because we too are called into the same life of sainthood; this is the vocation of every Christian soul. We are made in the image of God; we are icons of Christ. That is why, in every Liturgy, the priests or deacon frequently censes every person in the church gathering after he has censed the painted icons. All are icons of Christ. Of course, sometimes the icon has faded with age, paint has become smudged or has been chipped off, the original has been defaced. Even so, it is still a genuine icon, its face still shines but now it is in need of restoration. Our Christian life is indeed the process of restoration.
Metropolitan Anthony used to point out that when we read a passage of scripture or word of a particular prayer (all prayers have been written by saints) and we feel particularly inspired, then we must stay with that passage and savour it because, at that point, we and God are one and of one heart. These words are relevant for us in a very special and unique way. At that point we are akin to God and this passage which expresses our self must be kept because if we break with it, if we sin against it, we are destroying our self. We are not only stepping away from what God is saying to us, but we are acting against our self, our better self. We are failing to allow our icon to be restored. The Saint is the one who has had such experiences, over and over again, and cherishes each, reflecting upon it and savouring it until, by accumulation of being akin with God, over and over again, he/she is transformed into Christlikeness. He/she has truly become the icon of Christ he/she was always meant to be. Such persons become not only Christlike but also Christ in a different form. Their personality remains but now transfigured; their lives are enlightened with a radiance which enlightens all with whom thy come in contact. The icon of Christ within them shines out.
This, then, is the witness of Saints and a reminder and encouragement to us that we are to be on the same path of saintliness. One famous Jewish Teacher said, that when we come to the Judgment Seat of God, He will not ask if we have become like King David, The Prophet Elijah or any other distinguished godly figure but have we become ourselves; transformed into what God want us to be. This is the saint we are to become, uniquely transformed from image into the likeness of Christ whilst becoming our greater and finer self, an icon restored.
May God bless us in our understanding and our endeavour.
This mainly contains homilies and messages from our priests, although there is some scope to share thoughts and interesting articles which we may want to share with others