On the Day of Christ’s Baptism — Part 1

by St. John Chrysostom

Our father among the saints John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, was a notable Christian bishop and preacher from the fourth and fifth centuries in Syria and Constantinople. He is famous for eloquence in public speaking and his denunciation of abuse of authority in the Church and in the Roman Empire of the time. His banishments demonstrated that secular powers had strong influence in the eastern Church at this period in history.

We shall now say something about the present feast. Many celebrate the feast days and know their designations, but the cause for which they were established they know not. Thus concerning this, that the present feast is called Theophany — everyone knows; but what this is — Theophany, and whether it be one thing or another, they know not. And this is shameful — every year to celebrate the feast day and not know its reason. [Read more…]

The Twelve Days of Christmas

In the Christian tradition of both east and west, the twelve days of Christmas refer to the period from Christmas Day to Theophany. The days leading up to Christmas were for preparation; a practice affirmed in the Orthodox tradition by the Christmas fast that runs from November 15 to Christmas day. The celebration of Christmas did not begin until the first of the twelve days.

As our culture became more commercialized, the period of celebration shifted from Thanksgiving to Christmas Day. Christmas celebration increasingly conforms to the shopping cycle while the older tradition falls by the wayside. It’s an worrisome shift because as the tradition dims, the knowledge that the period of preparation imparted diminishes with it.

Our Orthodox traditions — from fasting cycles to worship –exist to teach us how to live in Christ. The traditions impart discipline. These disciplines are never an end in themselves but neither can life in Christ be sustained apart from them.

The traditions only make sense only when they have the Gospel as their reference. If we forget that these traditions are given to us to help us lay hold of Christ, then they appear to be superfluous and the disciplines they encourage us to do seem to serve no real purpose. We start to evaluate the discipline by the values of the dominant culture — by a cost-benefit calculus, rather than seeing them as ways to morally reorient ourselves towards Christ.

Instead of preparing for the birth of Christ through inward reorientation, we follow the direction of the dominant culture and skip any preparation altogether. We party instead of fast. We get caught up in the commercial energy of the season rather than wait on the Spirit of God.

It’s a dangerous path. Our culture is becoming increasingly secularized; the sacred dimension of creation is slipping from view. This loss of this sacred sensibility has grave ramifications for society that are expressed in many different ways such as the vulgarization of popular culture or the reduction of an unborn child to a commodity. If this view prevails our culture will inevitably view man as nothing more than an animal or a machine.

But man is more than an animal or a machine. The scriptures reveal man is created in the image and likeness of God, a phrase that means that man is not complete unless he partakes of God — God must be part of man’s life. This longing — this innate knowledge that man is created for God — never leaves man although a person can bury it if he so chooses.

A secularized mind is blind to the inherent holiness of life. Maintaining our traditions is one way to avoid this debilitating malady. Christmas is not just “Jesus’ birthday” (an impoverished notion heard more and more even among Orthodox faithful), but much more.

The birth of Christ and His baptism ought never to be divorced. Both events define the Christmas season. It imparts to the Christian the knowledge that Christ’s coming into the world and Christ’s sanctification of the waters makes our new life possible — a sonship by adoption accomplished through baptism.

When the link between Christmas and Theophany is broken (and by neglecting the proper preparation we break it), the cultural memory of the promise of new birth expresses itself in weakened and ultimately insufficient cultural forms. These forms function as a new tradition.

Religion is not the product of culture; religion is the source, writes philosopher Russell Kirk. “It’s from an association in a cult, abody of worshipers, that human community grows…when belief in the cult has been wretchedly enfeebled, the culture will decay swiftly. The material order restson the spiritual order.”*

Orthodox Christianity can contribute to the recovery of the moral foundation of American culture by imparting knowledge that can strengthen and deepen that foundation. It won’t happen however, if the Orthodox faithful adopt the practices of the dominant culture in place of their own tradition.

*Russell Kirk “Civilization with Religion” The Heritage Foundation Report (July 24, 1992).

The Proskomide — Service of Preparation of the Holy Gifts

Long before most people arrive at Church, the priest prepares the Holy Gifts (the bread and wine that will be consecrated into the body and blood of Christ) in a small service called the Proskomedi. He cuts pieces of a loaf of bread called the prosphora (“before the gifts”) and places them on dish called a paten, and then pours water and wine into the chalice. This is what is carried through the congregation during the Great Procession in the Divine Liturgy. This is also the time when the names you submit to the priest are first read.

Fr. John Peck, pastor of St. George Greek Orthodox Church in Prescott Arizona prepared a video on the Proskomedi Service. You can view it here.

Christianity Without Pentecost

What happens when Orthodox Christian experience Ascension, but not Pentecost?

by: Fr. Josiah Trenham

The last ten days in the Church have been unusual. In some sense we have been living between two realities. On the leave-taking of Pascha we ceased the sustained celebration of the Holy Resurrection of the Lord as well as our saying, “Christ is risen. Truly He is risen.” The next day we celebrated the Glorious Ascension of our Savior into the heavens to sit at the right hand of the Father. For these days between Ascension and Pentecost we have been in a waiting mode. We, like the Apostles of old, have been heeding our Lord’s ascension instructions to “wait in Jerusalem to be clothed with power from on high” (St. Lk. 24:49). We have been waiting for the Holy Spirit to come.

Why were the Apostles waiting?

The obvious answer to this question is that they were waiting because the Lord Jesus commanded them to tarry until Pentecost. There is, however, much more to this waiting than that. We must understand very clearly the difference between the apostles before Pentecost and after Pentecost. Something dramatic happened to them that changed them personally. They were transformed. Fear turned into martyric boldness; fishermen became the world’s teachers; doubt was replaced by mountain-moving faith. All because of Pentecost.

The Necessity of Pentecost

Some of us do not understand the necessity of Pentecost. Pentecost is many things, and we have spoken about these realities before. Pentecost is revelation of the Holy Trinity to the world. This is why this Feast is also called “Trinity Day” in the Church. The Apostles knew the Father. They had become the disciples of the Son. And now they were filled with the Holy Spirit. Pentecost is also the birthday of the New Testament Church. It is the democratization of the Spirit of God to all believers. It is the unification of all mankind, and the definitive beginning to the reversal of the chaos of the Tower of Babel. All of these things we have previously discussed, but today I wish to point out that Holy Pentecost is the evidence that Christianity is not a man-made or earthly religion. It is not a set of ethical standards. It is not for moral guidance. Christianity is a miraculous and divine communion between God and man. Christianity is the spiritualization or divination of man.

If Christianity were simply a man-made religion, even if it were the best and most beautiful man-made religion, there would be no need for the disciples to tarry in Jerusalem these days awaiting Pentecost. Why would they need to? They had for years lived in close contact with Christ, and had been His most intimate students. They could have simply begun to write and teach and pass on what they had learned. They had been fully trained, and so it is time to start training. This is how it is with every other of the world’s religions. Not so with Christianity. Christianity is not about ideas, moral guidance, ethical norms, social structures, etc.. Christianity, of course, is not free from these things, but this is not what Holy Orthodoxy is about. Holy Orthodoxy is about the coming of the Holy Spirit into man. It is about human transformation and deification, not ideas. There is no Christianity without Pentecost. Orthodoxy without the Holy Spirit is not Orthodoxy.

Many Christians tragically live between Ascension and Pentecost

With that said is it not tragic how often we live with our Orthodoxy as a set of ideas. We think we are Orthodox because we believe certain things in our heads and were born or converted to a certain family or at a certain time. If the Apostles had remained in the state they were in between Ascension and Pentecost they would never have brought the Gospel to the world. They would never have become the great saints they did. They would never have crushed the demons like they did. They did all of these things because they were living in union with the Holy Spirit of God.

Sometimes we Orthodox evidence little proof that we are living post-Pentecost. Our faith is weak. We are bound by sins. We have little Christian joy. We read or listen to the Acts of the Apostles and think that the Apostles were living a different way of life. We pick up and read a book on the life of a particular saint and the saint’s mode of being appears to us to be foreign and almost unintelligible. Why? Because we are not living in the Holy Spirit. We are more like the fearful and doubting disciples prior to Pentecost. Others around us seem to be radiant. They endure trials with joy. They don’t worry. Why? Because they are in a dynamic relationship with the Holy Spirit. They are sincerely praying the Prayer to the Holy Spirit, “O Heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art in all places and filleth all things, the Treasury of Good Things and Giver of Life, come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every stain, and save our souls O Good One.” The Holy Spirit is in these ones abiding in them, cleanses them, and saving them!

Christianity without Pentecost is Empty Form!

If our Orthodox life is not permeated with the presence of the Holy Spirit it is all in vain! Consider first that the Holy Sacraments or Mysteries of the Church are all dependent completely upon the Holy Spirit. Baptism saves us because we are not born of the water alone, but of water and the Spirit (St. Jn. 3:3-5). Chrismation itself is an individual’s personal Pentecost. The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Ordination is the special bequeathal of the Holy Spirit to men, and the substance of the priesthood is that priests bear the Holy Spirit in the community. This is why our Lord gathered the twelve together and breathed upon them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. Whoever’s sins you remit are remitted. Whoever’s sins you retain are retained” (St. John 20:23). Marriage is simply temporal and earthly if it is not consecrated by the Holy Spirit and bound together in His love. Holy Unction without the Holy Spirit is simply a complex skin treatment! It is the Holy Spirit in the sacred oil healing our souls and bodies! Confession is insincere and pointless unless it is a Spirit-inspired compunction and a Spirit-empowered absolution. And think of the Mystery of Mysteries and the Sacrament of Sacraments: the Holy Eucharist. The existence of the Holy Eucharist is completely dependent upon the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit Whom the priest calls down upon the Holy Table in the epiklesis: “changing them by Thy Holy Spirit.”

This liturgical reality is beautifully evidenced in many different saints’ lives, especially those saints who were bishops or priests responsible for the celebration of the eucharist. The story is told of St. Basil the Great that he had hanging over his altar a beautiful oil lamp made in the form of a golden dove. Always at the time of the transformation of the gifts the dove would begin to swing. A similar story is told about our Holy Father John of San Francisco and Shanghai. St. John would see the Holy Spirit descend as fire into the holy chalice at the epiklesis as he served liturgy. On one occasion the liturgy was delayed because St. John would not go on since he saw no fire. Wondering why he turned to his deacon and saw his face was covered over in a black cloud. Asking the deacon what was wrong the deacon confessed that he had not prepared for the liturgy properly. Once the deacon divested and left the altar the fire came and liturgy could continue.

All of the Holy Mysteries are empty forms without the Holy Spirit, and this may be said about all matters of our faith and practice. Fasting is simply dieting if it is not an attempt to acquire the Holy Spirit. It is not a coincidence that our Lord went into the desert to fast for forty days “led by the Holy Spirit” (St. Lk. 4:1). Sin is not overcome except by the Holy Spirit. He is One Who enables us to “mortify the deeds of the body” (Rom. 8:13). We could go on and on. There is no prayer without the Holy Spirit praying in us. There is no church without the Holy Spirit. There is no Church Temple without the Holy Spirit. This is why when we erect a true church temple the bishop chrismates the altar and the temple itself. The Temple has its own Pentecost for it truly becomes not simply a functional gathering place, but the House of God and Temple of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit lives there. If He does not then the Temple become a Temple of Satan (Rev. 2:9).

Our Goal is to Acquire the Holy Spirit

In the light of truth we see then that St. Seraphim was correct when he was asked by someone, “What is the purpose of this life?”, and he answered, “The acquisition of the Holy Spirit.” “If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” (St.Lk. 11:11-13). All of our Christian effort and spiritual struggle is guided toward this one thing: obtaining an increase of the Holy Spirit. This is what it means to become spiritual. This is the goal of Christianity: the union of man with God by the Holy Spirit. Let us not betray the true nature of our religion by living as though Orthodoxy was about ideas, morals, etc.. Nonsense. Christianity is about becoming one with the True God: by grace becoming what He is. Now some of you may be thinking, “But how do we experience Pentecost? What do I do if I feel stuck between Ascension and Pentecost?” An answer to these questions will be given in next Sunday’s homily.

Now to God the Father, and to the Ascended Lord Jesus Christ, and to the Holy Spirit poured forth today be all glory. Amen.

Fr. Josiah Trenham is the pastor of St. Andrew Orthodox Church in Riverside, CA.

The Christians of Dachau

By Fr. Hans Jacobse

Pascha, 2009

Every Pascha, I repost two stories on OrthodoxyToday.org. that tell how Orthodox prisoners in Dachau held the Paschal Liturgy during their liberation. The first, “The Souls of All are Aflame” provides historical background and detail. The second, “Pascha in Dachau” recounts the story of a prisoner who was there.

Icon of Christ opening the gates of Dachau

Christ opening the gates of Dachau

View a larger image of this icon

Dachua was liberated during Holy Week. The Orthodox believers experienced Christ’s triumph over the forces of darkness by holding a Paschal Liturgy crying out “Christ is Risen!” It is hard to fathom the depravity the evil ideologies fostered in their persecutors short of any direct experience, but anyone who has confronted lesser evils knows that such great evil can exist.

The resurrection of Christ is the final confrontation to the horrors unleashed when the embrace of Nazism and Communism opened the jaws of a deep hell. We see the seeds of horror in our own day too, especially the embrace of the nihilistic fantasies that fuel the arguments that devalue human life. It began with that faceless figure, the one who lies, who is the father of lies and appeals to the base passions of men, who whispered into the ear of man that he can be like God. Some choose to believe him. They whisper anew that first whisper. The whisper gets louder and louder so that in some corners of our world it is proclaimed from the housetops. Evil always masquerades as good, and not until the evil that those ideas hide is laid bare do most men dare face the consequences of their own beliefs. Others of course, never do.

Only the Gospel of Christ, the proclamation that Christ is risen from the dead, reveals that death is an enemy destroyed and exposes the nihilistic embrace of death as a lie. The grand schemes of the social engineers who are intoxicated by their own pride and contemptuous of what is good and true, will one day come to nothing. Babel will fall. But until it does, destruction and suffering still prevail by their hands.

How does evil flourish? Edmund Burke answered the question this way: When good men do nothing. God enters the world through a word. The Gospel of Christ, when preached with authority and by the Spirit of God, tears down strong places. “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers in the heavenly places,” writes the Apostle Paul (Eph. 6:12). Truth, spoken into the world of space and time, draws from and reveals Him who is True, and tears down the towers that men build to reach God.

But preaching the Gospel comes with a cross. The cross is the locus of transformation, the place where death is changed into life. The men in Dachau understood this. Lest the darkness overwhelm them, they instead bore the suffering of Christ in their own bodies just as the Apostle Paul teaches that we must do. They would not let go of Him who had captured them.

Christ’s victory over sin and death begins on the inside. That is where the struggle first takes place. The Apostle Paul taught us about this too. Every disciple has his Garden of Gethsemane, sometimes many in a lifetime. Yet, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” the Apostle Paul wrote while enduring a suffering of his own (Phil. 4:13). He was jailed in Philippi at the time, no small thing in the Roman empire. His suffering however, was for the sake of the Gospel and through it light entered the world.

Carrying our cross is the way that “Christ is born in us.” We should not despise our suffering, but bring our cross to Christ who enables us to carry it and through it, come to know Christ. There are no shortcuts here. “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it,” Jesus said (Matt. 7:13). Death would not have been transformed to life — the gates of Hades would not have been overthrown — had Jesus not ascended the cross. That He did so voluntarily (his death was a capital murder), and that He was innocent of sin according to the Mosaic Law, is why He was able to destroy — through His death — the death to which He was condemned.

We must put to death the “…sin that reigns in our body,” the Apostle Paul teaches us (Rom. 8:13). Harsh circumstances can impose this discipline, but most of us don’t experience the level of hardship that the men in Dachau did. We also don’t see the stark contrast between life and death that the presence of real evil reveals. Sometimes we even accommodate ourselves to evil as long as it does not directly affect us. We don’t want to accept that the the first line between good and evil rests in the heart, as Solzhenitsyn said.

But, if we know that the Gospel is true, even imperfectly, then silence cannot be our lot. We have to speak what is true and do what is right, even when we know it will impose a cost. That cost can become a new cross, just like St. Paul’s imprisonment for preaching the Gospel. But, like St. Paul or the men of Dachau, carrying that cross sheds light in places where it would otherwise not be found.

Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!

Orthodox Christians use the word “Pascha” for Easter. Pascha is derived from Greek usage and is itself a transliteration of the Hebrew word for Passover: “Pesach.”