Gospel According to Matthew 1:1-25 May 10, 2010Posted by St. Nicholas of Myra Orthodox Mission in Sermons.
Today we are beginning our final preparations to mark the Nativity of Christ, to celebrate Christmas. Today’s Gospel reading, although somewhat long, demonstrates to us that Jesus Christ is indeed born as a real man with a real family history. This should help to impress upon us that in His human nature God became like us so that He could enter fully into our sphere of being, so to speak, and redeem all aspects of human existence. As the Fathers pointed out, those things God did not take onto Himself have not been saved.
We are free to ask then, what needs to be saved? Well, if we take a close look at our family life, our relations with others in general, we are bound to see that something is not working properly. We may be estranged from a parent or a child, we may have difficult relations with our work colleagues, we may even be annoyed with other members of the choir who behave childishly or aggressively.
None of this should really come to us as a surprise, however. The evil one, who opposes God’s will essentially out of pride, uses every bit of spiritual ammunition he can to disrupt our lives. This is done by using our own inclinations to anger, to jealousy, to lust, to sloth, against us, all the while encouraging us to think that our actions are somehow righteous. We must be reminded over and over again that there is, as the Psalmist says, not one person who is righteous before God, not one. This does not mean that any of us are condemned; it means that at all times we should be endeavouring to kill our own will, our own desires, and our own feelings, to see more clearly the will of God who loves us and calls us all to be saved.
The proof that God wants us to be saved is to be found, among other places, in the fact that as Scripture says: “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (Jn.3.16).
Christmas, the Feast of the Incarnation of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ, is the time of year when we Christians can rejoice that Salvation has come to the world. Salvation has come in the person Christ who is meek and lowly of heart. The God and Creator of the universe is meek and humble, and sets us an example. He could have chosen to be born in a palace, powerful from His birth, or to a wealthy family, but instead he chose poverty and a cave. This is our example.
The next time I feel misused or rejected, I should bear in mind that the human race has seen God, we have had God come to us, out of love for us, and we wanted to be rid of Him. We crucified Him. We continue to reject Him by being jealous and petty-minded, and self-centered and generally willful. That we suffer from our own foolish decisions is without doubt. That God wishes us to leave all this behind, and to live with love for Him and our neighbours is also without doubt. Christmas means that God has begun our transformation from half-animal, individuals governed by their appetites and moods, to the person created in the image and likeness of Divinity. He has done this by taking on human flesh and entering into the world where we live.
This is why I have until now, been trying to discipline myself in the fast before the Nativity, and why I examine my life. Have I begun to appreciate what this Feast means for me, or have I continued to make excuses for my lack of love, and lack of fervour in the spread of the Good News that God is with us?
Gospel According to St. Matthew 25:14-30 May 10, 2010Posted by St. Nicholas of Myra Orthodox Mission in Sermons.
In other passages of Gospel, Jesus Christ tells us that He will come again suddenly to judge the earth. In this parable, we are shown just how that judgment may be for us if we do not repent and amend our life with good works. Good works are not necessarily handing out food or money to the needy. As believers, we should see how we are best suited to serve Christ and His Church. What this parable tells us is that we cannot pick and choose what we are capable of, or what we are ready to do. God has given us gifts, and we ought to use them for His service. He wishes all good things for us and only good, and knows who we are only as God can. Being the source of all life and all wisdom, the Lord should naturally be the one to whom we look for guidance and understanding. This is important enough that during the Divine Liturgy we pray particularly for growth in faith, and spiritual understanding
It is also quite possible that my gifts are not the ones I want them to be. I might wish desperately to sing in the choir, but if I cannot listen to others and sing in harmony, then I had better give it another thought. I may want to be a teacher of the faith, but if I am unable to communicate the faith in a way that is understandable or clear, then it would be better for me to search for something else. These are different ways in which I can end up burying my talents in the ground.
The most obvious way to bury a talent is sloth, perhaps, and all of us wrestle with this regularly. It is natural for humans to say to themselves “I’ll do it later when I have more energy, when I have more time, when I feel more like doing it . . .”, and in the end never get around to the things that we think about as merely eventual needs instead of immediate needs.
This is why the Lord has warned us that His coming would be sudden, and that we should not wait or hesitate to do what we can to do good in the world and please Him. God wants us to be in heaven with Him and not in a hell of our own creation.
As believers we should do good works out of love for God and for our neighbour. Everything we offer should be a free-will offering, and a joyous one. This is the way God has shown us He would like us to follow. However, because of my pride, my selfishness, my laziness, I seldom offer praise to God with joy, and offer Him what He is due because of His generosity towards me. The world continues not to be transformed by my love in any way, and those who are in pain are left feeling that if there is a God, that He does not care, and that life is pointless anyhow.
I listened recently to a radio broadcast of our Orthodox radio show hosted by Deacon Gregory Kopchuk in Edmonton. He was interviewing Vladyka Seraphim about the development of the Orthodox Christian faith in Canada. Vladyka made the interesting remark that Christians in general are only beginning to understand how to keep the faith properly. This struck me as quite a good analysis of the situation. We as followers of Christ should approach all aspects of life with a view to serve God as much as possible, and the basic mind-set to have, or heart-set perhaps, is to approach everything with love, but love rather as compassion, as charity, as empathy, not in some amorphous “happy-happy-joy-joy” – “every tin’s gonna be o right” kind of way.
If until now in my life I have not been accomplishing much, it is safe to say that either my approach has been wrong all the while, or I have been trying to do something for which God did not give me any talent. It is necessary for my salvation that I begin to at least to try to figure out where my talent lies, so that I might fulfill not only God’s will but also my own happiness; otherwise there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Sermon on Palm Sunday May 10, 2010Posted by St. Nicholas of Myra Orthodox Mission in Liturgical Year, Sermons.
It is quite interesting to notice how human reaction can be changed from praise to condemnation within only a few days. Today we commemorate Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. This was accomplished in the mist of waving palms, a sign of victory no less, and great cheers: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”! What a moment that must have been for all who were present, rejoicing and laughter, the crowds bustling, and the palm branches waving as the Saviour entered into the city.
Christ had already spoken of what was to come; He knew if no one else did, that this was empty show, the hero worship or celebrity worship, which soon turns to criticism or something much more sinister. There has been a theory put forward that Judas Iscariot betrayed Christ because he had wanted a political, a military saviour, and was trying to force Christ’s hand by putting Him in a situation that would lead to destruction if there were no resistance.
Well, be that as it may, Christ came to show us the way to heaven, not the way to more political struggle and bloodshed. “Peace I give to you”, says our Lord, “but not as the world gives”.
Today is a day for me to examine what it is I expect from Christ, but more importantly what I really think is the true way to follow Him. To begin is self–renunciation. This does not mean neglecting to take care of my health or my appearance, Christ even warns us not to make a show of ascetic struggle, but to offer myself to the Lord in secret. As well, I can tell you that it is extremely frustrating for priests to remind the faithful, and themselves for that matter, over and over again, that Christians should give generously for each other and the common good; self-renunciation means putting my opinions, my prejudices, my feelings on the back burner to be able to see clearly what I might do that is really of help to my neighbour. What I myself think is good for my neighbour might be completely erroneous: God alone knows and understands all things, and it is God alone who is able to act without selfish motives.
The Holy Prophets spoke again and again of how Israel departed from the way of righteousness by adopting the pagan practices of their neighbours, forgetting to keep the commandments given by Moses, turning their back on the one truly existing God. Even in the First Book of the Macabees, we find a description of how many in Israel choose to obey the edicts of a gentile king rather than keep to the faith of their fathers.
Over and over again, mankind proves itself to be fickle shallow and ungrateful. If I had been one of those people standing along the road waving a palm to celebrate the arrival of Christ into Jerusalem, would I have been one of those who later called for His death? Would I simply be one who turned my back and walked away, when things went bad? It takes courage to remain faithful, and the rarity of this characteristic is exemplified by the fact that of all the Disciples, only Saint John was present when Christ was put to death. We are not all called to be martyred in the modern sense of the word, but without a doubt we are called to witness Christ to the World, and not turn back when we encounter even harsh rejection. We ought to remember that the Lord never promised us worldly happiness, but He did promise that He would be with us always, even until the end of the world. Let us not be changed by the world, but remain true To Him who is true to us, and suffered on the cross for our salvation. Amen.
Bishops, deacons & priests May 10, 2010Posted by St. Nicholas of Myra Orthodox Mission in Clergy, Ecclesiology, Theology.
Bishops, Deacons, and Priests: these three orders of clergy exist from an early age in the Orthodox Christian Church; they are rejected by some as unbiblical, and their functions misunderstood by many others. The purpose of this article is not to argue any point, but to explain the character of these three orders in simple terms. Of these three orders, the most ancient is that of Bishop.
In the years following Christ’s Ascension into Heaven, the Apostles were left with the governance and care of the Church. As the Church grew, individuals had to be chosen to help oversee the communities of faith that began to grow throughout the Middle East and beyond. Still being human, the Apostles could not be everywhere that they might be needed at any time. As well, the Apostles soon enough began to leave this world for the Kingdom, and leaders of the Church had to be appointed to guide and support the flock in their absence. An overseer was chosen for each community, and this was the basis for the Episcopate we have today. In Greek, the word for overseer is Episkopos, from which we derive the English word Bishop.
These Bishops then inherited the Apostolic care of the Church, the Faith, and the Faithful. In the Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, we ask that the Bishops, in particular the “head” Bishops of a diocese, be granted health and length of days, and the wisdom to “rightly define the word of God’s Truth”. This certainly was the role that the Holy Apostles fulfilled, and it fell upon those whom they appointed, and those who were in turn appointed by their successors. This is where we derive the Apostolic succession of Bishops. These “overseers”, the Bishops, appointed by the Apostles, had to appoint their own successors, so that a stable and reliable witness of the Gospels could be maintained once another generation took its leave of this world.
As the Church grew however, the work of Bishops became busier and more complicated. They needed help. Men of pious character had to be chosen for such work. It is at this point in time that the order of Deacon came into being.
We have this account in the Book of Acts, Chapter 6, beginning at the 1st verse: “In those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, a murmuring arose among the Greeks against the Hebrews, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples to them and said, It is not reasonable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look out among you for seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word. And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicholas a proselyte of Antioch: Whom they set before the apostles: and when they had prayed they laid their hands on them. And the word of God increased; and the number of disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith”.
Without going into greater detail, the Deacon’s role was to help the Bishop serve the faithful in their needs. As the Liturgy of the Church developed, so did the liturgical roles of both the Bishop and the Deacon. Soon enough, because of God’s Grace, the Church would grow so much that an even further division of responsibilities became necessary. This was the birth of the Priesthood.
In the simplest terms, the Priest is the Bishop’s representative in places where the Bishop Himself cannot be present regularly, just as the early Episcopate “filled in” for the Apostles. The Priest then could be described as a kind of Bishop’s proxy. This is why when the Bishop is not present, the Priest is the celebrant of the Holy Mysteries, but must stand aside in the presence of the Episcopate. The role of the Deacon does not change, however, as his order was established first as help for the Episcopate and not for the Priesthood (Presbyterate).
Historically speaking then, the order that is the most widespread, so to speak, in the “modern” clergy is the order with the “shortest pedigree”. Bishoprics, Eparchies or Dioceses all are larger territories over which a Bishop presides. The most familiar division of the Bishopric is the Parish, to which one or more Priests can be assigned. It is an odd historical twist that makes the Deacon the least numerous of the clergy.
The Holy Mysteries can be celebrated without a Deacon, but never without a Priest or Bishop. However, as has been pointed out by venerable persons in the Church, the role of the Deacon in the worship of the Church is such an old one, that his presence is presumed in the rubrics. This is so much the case that rubrics always include a mention of the Deacon’s role, and indicate what would be served were he present to fulfill his ancient service.
When speaking of the clergy’s role in the Church, we can say that all orders are meant mystically to be the presence of Christ in the world. In the vesting prayers, the prayers for the putting on of the epimaniki, poruchi, or cuffs, are the same for Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.
For the right hand:
“O Lord, Thy right hand has been glorified in power. Thy right hand, O Lord, has shattered the enemies. In the greatness of Thy majesty Thou hast overthrown Thy adversaries”.
For the left hand:
“Thy hands have made and fashioned me. Give me understanding that I may learn Thy commandments”.
The cuffs signify that a cleric’s hands are not his own, but belong to Christ, and do His work. They signify also that he relies not upon his own strength but upon God’s. As well, the cuffs represent the bonds with which Christ’s hands were bound at the time of His condemnation to be crucified.
It is customary to name the three orders in sequence of rank: Bishop, Priest, and Deacon. However, to begin this article they were named in the historical order of their appearance. It has been said that only a Bishop is a priest in the fullest sense of the word, because only a Bishop has the charism to ordain others to the priesthood. Neither can we forget that it is only the Bishop who can ordain someone to the Diaconate.
In parallel to Trinitarian theology, we might say that the Bishop is the fountain of priesthood from which all others derive their priesthood. Bishops represent the presence of Christ in the Church, and are called High Priest. However, it is Christ alone who is the Great High Priest, from whom all Grace and Love flows.
This discussion has focused on the three main orders of clergy in the Orthodox Christian Church, but there is much more to the subject than can be discussed in this small space. No mention has been made of Readers or Sub-deacons who also bare the mark of God’s special grace, and who represent the “lesser ranks” of the Priesthood. It is important to say that one thing in all of this is of the essence: Christ founded His Church and chose certain men to serve Him and build it up. The clergy who serve in the Church today are those who have followed in succession to the Apostles, and minister the Holy Mysteries to the people of God. May God have mercy on them, and guide them in the way that they should walk.