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.
Matthew 10:32-33 New King James Version (NKJV) Confess Christ Before Men
32 “Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. 33 But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven.
37 He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. 38 And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.
27 Then Peter answered and said to Him, “See, we have left all and followed You. Therefore, what shall we have?”
28 So Jesus said to them, “Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother [a]or wife or children or [b]lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.
Do you have a favourite Hymn? I am sure most of us do. I also have hymns that I struggle with. One such hymn for me is “Onward Christian Soldiers”. It is not so much the hymn itself but more to do with my inability to connect with the ‘Soldier’ concept. The thought of being a soldier ‘marching off to war’ just doesn’t work for me. However, I have for many years thought that I would very much like to be Samurai for Our Lord!
Well a significant part of the appeal is Bushido. This was the code of conduct for Japan's warrior classes from perhaps as early as the eighth century through modern times. The principles of bushido emphasized honour, courage, skill in the martial arts, and loyalty to a warrior's master (daimyo) above all else. Loyalty and honour to a master; is this not what is required if we are to confess Christ, if we are to love Christ before father or mother …
The katana sword was first adopted as a Samurai blade in the late 13th century. Since then, katanas have become an iconic symbol of the Japanese Samurai tradition. Interestingly, if we look at the omitted verse 34 from our gospel reading our Lord says;
“Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword.”
The sword of Christ is of course the truth; The Truth about who He is as God and the truth about how to follow Him as Lord.
A sword has a sharp blade for cutting and to be effective, must be wielded skilfully.
It is crucial to ensure that what needs to be cut is cut swiftly and accurately. This is true for both the Samurai Katana and sword of Christ.
A Samurai must study and work hard to be a skilled swordsman. One cannot just walk off the street, pick up a scalpel, call oneself a surgeon and begin operating. Rather, a surgeon is highly educated and trained, with many years of study and practice.
These same principles are required of us if we are to use the sword of Christ be it to defeat an enemy, like a Samurai, or remove unnecessary or diseased parts, like a surgeon. A Samurai’s commitment to his vocation must be absolute. Would one expect a person to qualify as a surgeon if attendance at medical school was hit and miss, if attendance at lectures was infrequent or if the student arrived halfway through or near the end of the lectures? Or what if study books were rarely opened and studied at home? What if the student decided to do some other activity, when it was time to watch/help the attending surgeon?
We each need to become skilled in cutting out the unnecessary and sinful parts of your life. In today’s Epistle reading (Hebrews 11:33 – 12:2), it says we must “Lay aside every weight and sin.” (v.12:1). Sin is like a spiritual cancer that needs to be cut out and excised. Because, unless it is removed, it will continue grow until it takes over and destroys the soul. When we know how to use the sword, we can effectively eliminate self-serving habits from our life. We can identify and prioritise that which is most important for our life.
How can we possibly ‘confess Christ before Men’ if we rarely/irregularly attend His school—the Church? When we come late to class—the Divine Liturgy? When we rarely open His textbook—the Bible? As followers of Christ we too must be educated and trained in the ways of God before we can skilfully wield the sword of Truth.
Like for many children, this is a time for home education. But soon we will again be free to join together for worship, to attend the vigil, to serve the liturgy. May we do all do this with joy and a new commitment of loyalty and honour to our master, skilfully using the sword of Christ knowing that “whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven”
“Through the prayers of all our holy fathers,
Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God,
have mercy on us”
So, what would you prefer; would you rather lose £10 or find £10?
I think it is safe to say that we all experience ‘loss aversion’ that is our tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains. Loss and giving up can be difficult concepts for us to accept, since both are often equated to failure and it has been suggested that losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as gains. For many, if not all of us, loss and giving up have been a dominant feature of this pandemic period.
There is however a different dimension to loss a giving up. I refer to the spiritual life. Let me take you back to the start of our life with Covid-19 (Coronavirus). Fr David shared his thoughts and the thoughts of Elder Zacharias of Essex with regard to ‘Hesychia’. This is a state when there is an inner stillness and one abides alone in spirit with God; attained only through loss and giving up!
There is a story of a Japanese sage who served tea to an enquiring professor. The sage poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”, he cried. “Like this cup,” the sage replied, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you anything unless you first empty your cup?”
This Sunday is 8th Sunday of Pascha, Holy Pentecost and is followed by The Day of the Holy Spirit on Monday. Pentecost Sunday commemorates the coming of the Holy Spirit in the form of flames to the Apostles, as recorded in the New Testament in Acts, 2. The Holy Spirit allowed the apostles to speak in other languages through 'tongues of fire', and they started preaching the Gospel to the Jews who come to Jerusalem for the feast of Shavuot (Pentecost), a festival that celebrates the giving of the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai. We recognise this day as the birth of the Church for two reasons. Firstly, the descent of the Holy Spirit completed the Trinity - the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit - the basis of Christian theology. Secondly, it was the first time that the Apostles had preached to the masses.
And so, Pentecost is a celebration. However, Henri Nouwen reminds us that …
"We cannot celebrate Christmas when there is nothing new born here and now; we cannot celebrate Easter when no new life becomes visible; we cannot celebrate Pentecost when there is no Spirit whatsoever to celebrate. Celebration is the recognition that something is there and needs to be made visible so that we can all say yes to it.’
This is not a time of loss, of giving up or of emptying, but rather This is a time to celebrate the coming and receiving of the Holy spirit. At baptism/Chrismation we each had the name of the Holy Trinity invoked over us. We were washed clean of sin. And coming out of the baptismal font, for those of us who were baptized in the Orthodox Church, we immediately received the sacrament of Chrismation, we received the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit dwells in each of us.
In the Orthodox Church this is the only prayer, among all the prayers of the Church, that is ad- dressed to the Holy Spirit and for the last 50 days we have ‘given up’ saying our introductory Prayer to The Holy Spirit
“O Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, who art everywhere and fillest all things, Treasury of Blessings and Giver of Life: come and abide in us, cleanse us from all impurity and of thy goodness, save our souls.”
The prayer is so important that we should preface all of our prayers with it! But arguably it is just as important that we remember and understand what it is we are saying and why. I therefore invite you, for the next few days to look at the Prayer to the Holy Spirit phrase by phrase; to perhaps use each phrase as a daily meditation.
Meditations on the Prayer to the Holy Spirit.
O Heavenly King,
and cleanse us from all impurity --
Forty days after Christ’s resurrection, He was taken up into the Heavens before the disciples, and so forty days after Pascha, falls the Feast of the Ascension.
The icon for the feast shows the events as described in the Book of Acts, though as with all Holy Icons there is more revealed than just a straight retelling of the story in pictures.
Based on the accounts written by St Luke in his Gospel (Luke 24:36-53) and the Book of Acts (Acts 1:1-12), the icon of the Ascension is correspondingly ancient. One of the earliest surviving images of the Ascension, a full-page illustration from the 6th century Rabbula Gospels, is remarkably similar to all subsequent icons, with precious few variations. Icons from St Catherine’s monastery in Sinai, for example, show little change between images of the Ascension made in the 6th century with those painted almost 600 years later.
Regardless of age or location, the Icon of the Ascension seems to have been “canonized” early on in the Church’s history.
The Ascension scenes fall naturally into two zones, an upper heavenly part and a lower earthly part and symbolises both confusion and peace: the former is borne of worldly reasoning, whilst the latter comes from divine, heavenly, order.
The image itself is characterized by colour: the robes of the Apostles, the Mother of God, the Angels, and Christ Himself surrounded by light; all this being very appropriate this, on of the twelve Great Feasts.
In the Holy Scriptures, Jesus is described as being “taken up” into the skies and disappearing from sight behind a cloud. This seems to be at odds with imagery of the icon. Seemingly contrary, the icon of the event shows Christ in glory: surrounded by a mandorla (or circle) of light, flanked by angels, and arrayed in brilliant golden robes. Indeed, the similarity between the appearance of Christ at His Ascension, and the appearance of Christ at His Second Coming are striking!
Christ in glory, is often depicted as seated upon a “rainbow”. This comes directly from the Book of Revelation, regarding the Last Judgment and Second Coming of Jesus Christ:
Immediately I was in the Spirit; and behold, a throne set in heaven, and One sat on the throne. And He who sat there was like a jasper and a sardius stone in appearance; and there was a rainbow around the throne, in appearance like an emerald. (Rev 4:2-3)
The reason Christ ascending into Heaven is depicted the same as Christ’s Second Coming is because of the words of the angels present at the Ascension:
“Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11)
And so the Icon depicts Jesus’ Ascension and Second Coming “in like manner”. Not that the disciples below Christ fully understand these words yet.
The distinction between heavenly peace and worldly confusion is most apparent upon the Mount of Olives. The Apostles look up in a combination of fear and wonder, their arms waving like the olive trees on the mount.
In the centre, the two angels “in white apparel” exhort the men to cease their gazing into heaven and return to Jerusalem to receive the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.
Between the two angels stands Mary the Mother of God, hands raised in prayer, not staring up, but peacefully toward us. Already overshadowed by the Holy Spirit since Christ’s conception, Mary appears to understand the deep mysteries of her Son’s birth, death, resurrection and ascension, already hoping on Christ’s return.
This hope brings her the divine peace shared by Jesus Christ and the angels: they all have halos signifying the grace and glory of God, whereas the disordered Apostles do not.
The Ascension, as well as showing the historical event of Christ’s ascension, also symbolically depicts the Church. This is most evident by the Apostle Paul being present in the icon, despite the Ascension occurring before Paul’s conversion (recounted later in the Book of Acts).This is not an uncommon depiction in holy icons: the icon of Pentecost also shows Paul, as it too is an icon of the Church.
The differences and similarities between the two festal icons (the feasts being only 10 days apart) are deliberate. Before the coming of the Holy Spirit the Church is put into a certain amount of confusion by the physical absence of Christ. At Pentecost – by the power of the Holy Spirit – the Church, again represented by the Apostles, is shown in order. And the Apostles get their halos.
There is a great joy of the Orthodox Church as we reflect on and live through the services of Passion Week and Pascha. We are brought into living the Gospel, a direct experience, making Scripture alive. Not by reading, not by hearing but by living the Gospel, really present in this Holy time. Now, we are at Mid-Pentecost, we look back with joy to the Resurrection and its reality for us, and now we begin to look forward, in anticipation, to Pentecost which will have the same reality, a living experience.
It is not surprising that the Sunday after Mid-Pentecost is devoted to The Samaritan Woman. In the Gospel (Jn. 4: 5-42) there is a vivid account of Our Lord sitting at Jacob’s Well at Sychar in Samaria..... and meeting the Samaritan Woman. To open the conversation, He asks her for a drink. She is astonished that a Jew would even speak to her and ask something of a Samaritan woman and so a conversation takes place which will change her life. Our Lord says, ‘If only you knew what God is offering and who it is saying to you, “Give me a drink”, you would have been the one to ask, and he would have given you living water.’ He then recalls His teaching given at Jewish Feast of Booths (Tabernacles) in the previous autumn, ‘The water I shall give is a spring of water, welling up for eternal life. Let anyone who is thirsty come to me .... and drink... From his heart shall flow streams of living water’ (John 7: 37-39). The Samaritan woman is so inspired by this meeting that she longs for this water, ‘Give me this living water’ , she cried. But first she had to set her life in order. Our Lord pointed out that she had had five husbands and the one with her now was not her husband. This had to be sorted before she could go forward and then she was able to become Photini, the enlightened one.
The Troparion for Mid Pentecost refers to Our Lord’s teaching at the Jewish Feast of Booths:
“In the middle point of this festive season, give my thirsty soul to drink of the waters of true worship; for You called out to all men: 'Whoever is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink!' O Christ God, Fountain of Life, glory to you.”
In fact Our Lord proclaimed, ‘Whoever drinks of the water I will give will never thirst. The water I will give for the life of the world will be water springing up within.’ St John adds, ‘He was speaking of the Spirit which those who believed in Him were to receive at Pentecost.
At this mid point of the Feast we look forward to the second great consequence of Our Lord’s Resurrection, even the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that we might be enlightened and empowered in our vocation. We recall that when we were received into the Holy Orthodox Church we were referred to as The Newly Enlightened......(and given a new name). We have to live up to this name as if it were Photini of Photinus. Photini and her two sons and four daughters became great ambassadors of the faith with their earthly lives ending with brutal martyrdom. Before Photini could become this devoted handmaid of God, she had to put her life in order. For us, also, we must not only thirst, but also ensure there is nothing in our lives which holds us back from full enlightenment and empowerment to live to our full Christian vocation. This, with Photini, is our preparation for Pentecost when the Holy Spirit will be poured on us again.
We note that our Lord did not compel, He never does, but He gave witness to the new life which was available and Photini responded. This new life is also available to us for “Christ is Risen!” and we are empowered by the Holy Spirit as long as our life is not a sham!
How do you feel about the situation in which we currently find ourselves?
Listening to the news, social media and socially distanced individuals I have heard and read extremes of opinion; for some, bliss. Whilst for others, a living hell! We do not like to be victims of problems we cannot solve. Whether it is a health-related issue, a damaged relationship or a combination of complex issues of which we have no control. Few of us cope well in such situations. How would you feel if you felt despondent for your past and hopeless for your future?
How must the paralysed man in todays gospel reading have felt? He had been paralysed for 38 years. We do not know his age but, as the length of his condition is reported, I think we can assume that this was not something he had experienced from birth. I think we can also assume that for many years this man had been coming to the pool waiting and hoping to be healed. He had seen others delivered and healed each year. Whilst he, bound by his infirmity, continued to suffer. Did this man feel dragged down by his infirmity? Did he fall back in despair and despondency? Did this man feel anger that in all the time he had been waiting to enter the pool, not a single person had shown compassion on him and helped him into the pool? Not at all!
St John Chrysostom teaches us; “Great is the profit of the divine scriptures, and all sufficient is the aid which comes from them…for the divine oracles are a treasury of all manner of medicines….in the Scriptures we may find abundant resource. Perhaps, the most efficacious of all the remedies to be found in the Holy Scriptures is humility! Notice the humility of the paralysed man, this man wanting so much to be healed. When Christ asks him if he wants to be healed, he doesn’t just say ‘yes’, but humbly says “I have no one to put me into the pool…”. The man showed no particular evidence of faith. There is nothing to suggest he was waiting for Jesus. And yet our Lord, filled with compassion, heals him. We do not know if the paralysed man had faith or not; whether he was a good person or not. What we do know is that he demonstrated humility.
The UK has a rich history of preventing ill health and has led the way globally. Edward Jenner developed the first smallpox vaccine in 1796. The link between contaminated water and cholera was identified using data analytics in England in 1854. Penicillin was discovered by Sir Alexander Fleming in 1928. British scientists led the medical science and built the evidence base to establish the link between smoking and cancer during the 1950s. In 2007 it became illegal in England to smoke in enclosed public spaces. In 2015 we became one of the first countries to introduce a national publicly- funded vaccination programme to protect children against meningitis type B. Now we have ‘social distancing’ and self-isolation to combat Covid-19 (Coronavirus).
We all know that prevention is better than cure. And we see this principle being applied in our Lords encounter with the formerly paralysed man when they meet again in the temple.
‘14 Afterward Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him,
“See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.”
Why did Jesus say this? Was the man paralysed because of some historical sin? Probably not. Rather, I think, Jesus is pulling together the spiritual and physical. Jesus is saying that sin causes something far worse than physical paralysis. We may ask, what could possibly be worse than being physically paralysed?
Sin causes spiritual paralysis and separation from God. This is indeed worse than any physical illness. We live in a world focused primarily on physical appearance and health. A world where many are oblivious to spiritual illness. Just as we are able to feel the pain and discomfort of physical injury, we also need to learn to feel the spiritual pain of our sins. We sprain our ankle and immediately feel the pain. But what do we feel if we slander someone?
Jesus Christ, ‘Physician of soul and body’, asks each of us, weak and sinful as we are, the same question that he asked the paralysed man; “Do you want to be made well?”
If we do, then let us rise up to a life of holiness. Let us open ‘the divine oracles’ (Holy Scriptures) knowing that they are ‘a treasury of all manner of medicines’. When we are permitted let us receive Holy Communion, for the healing of body and soul. And let us not forget Confession, the forgotten medicine.
We can respond to our Lord’s question in the sure and certain knowledge that He can heal physical and spiritual illness, not only because He overcame sin, but because He also overcame the ultimate consequence of sin – death itself!
Christ is Risen!
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing; I was just popping out to the recycle bin when I saw the Hearse. John (not his real name!) was dead! It appears that he fell asleep at the end of March but, because of the Coronavirus (Covid-19) situation, there had been difficulties arranging his funeral and letting others know. The only funeral car available was for Johns coffin. His widow and young son travelled with friends in a private car. Again, due to current restrictions, very few mourners where able to attend.
One cannot avoid hearing and reading stories of those being taken to hospital with the coronavirus who die alone or supported only by a PPE clad nurse. Their families never getting the opportunity to say goodbye. Not able to grieve properly.
We grieve because we loved. After the terrorist attacks on the twin towers, her majesty the Queen said, “grief is the price we pay for love”. Because loss is an inevitable aspect of all human relationships, so too is grief. We grieve naturally, just like we breathe air naturally. It affects all aspects of our existence.
Rituals that address loss have for a long time been built into the religions and cultures of the world. Whether a wailing wall, windows covered in black, ripped clothing, or overt crying, the need to grieve (to feel) and mourn (to do) is a recognized and encouraged phenomenon. The Bible says “there is a time to weep…..a time to mourn” (Ecc.Ch 3).
In our Gospel reading for today, Mark 15: 43-16: 8, we meet grief. There is the grief of Joseph of Arimathea and that of the Holy myrrh-bearing women. These women watched as Joseph took Christ’s body down from the cross. They followed Jesus through his passion, witnessing that he was tried and crucified. They watched as Joseph of Arimathea stepped up and gave Jesus a proper burial in his own tomb. They have seen the stone sealing the tomb. These women loved Jesus, and now they grieve for the loss of their beloved leader. All hope is lost. He is gone. And yet even in the face of hopelessness, these women act. They buy ointments that will help his body dry out as it decays, and sweet spices so that even in death, his body is honoured. Their actions show their steadfast love for Christ, that even after hope is shattered, they go the extra mile to honour Jesus. Such is their love for this dead man. In their actions, we see that the myrrh-bearers come to anoint Christ not out of a desire for any recognition or reward from Jesus, rather they are motivated by their love for Him, and the need to grieve properly.
The disciples, I am sure were also grieving. Things had not turned out the way they had expected. John was the only disciple to stand at the foot the cross, the others had run away in fear and Peter had denied Jesus three times. They were disappointed and they were shocked. They believed that death had been the final word. They too were grieving. However, there is a very different response to the grief experienced by the myrrh-bearing women and that of the disciples.
The myrrh-bearers resisted the temptation to think only about themselves and their loss; rather they kept their focus on serving Jesus as best they could. For them, that meant doing the sorrowful task of giving their departed Lord and friend a decent burial They found the courage and strength not to focus on themselves, but on showing love to Christ as best they could.
If we too love and serve Christ even in the midst of our most difficult struggles in life, then we also will be healed whether of our prideful selfishness or our grief. We will become more fully who our Lord wants us to be through His glorious resurrection. Christ is Risen!
By the intercessions of the Holy Myrrh-Bearers,
O God, have mercy on us and save us.
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