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Listening to Lessons from the Unborn

Father Lawrence Farley

Good theology can pop up in unexpected places.  One such place is the writing of Dr. Seuss, author of children’s books.  My favorite theological work of his is How The Grinch Stole Christmas, a story of conversion and redemption.  I also like his pro-life treatise, though it is doubtful that he considered it to be such when he wrote it.  It is called Horton Hears A Who, and contains the theological assertion, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”  That would include tiny little persons living inside their mothers.  Or, in the more elegant words of our own Holy Synod in the OCA, “the unborn in the womb are already adorned with God’s image and likeness.”  The unborn and the newly born, by the very fact of their being, can teach us a thing or two, and I would like to pass along two of these lessons.First of all, the unborn teach us that we enter into this world already loved, wanted, and valued.  As my own dad always said, “Babies bring their love with them.”  I remember seeing a young baby wearing a little shirt bearing the words “Another little tax deduction.”  That is true, of course (thank you, Caesar), but it is not why the child is loved or valued.  No one loves the child because of its utility.  Babies cannot help cook the meals, or clean the house, or even clean themselves.  Strictly speaking, apart from such tax deductions, they have no immediate utilitarian value whatsoever.  We love them not because they are useful, but simply because they are.  They enter the world pre-loved, even though they may not be self-consciously aware of it (or of much else).  In cases of abortion, of course, there is, shall we say, a deficit of such parental love.  But even here they are still loved and valued, if not by their parents or by Planned Parenthood or others in the abortion industry, then by God Himself.  It is as the Psalmist sings: “Though my father and mother abandon me, the Lord will take me up” [Psalm 27:10].  A Planned Parenthood slogan proclaims, “Every child a wanted child!”  As a matter of fact, every child is a wanted child, for God wants and loves every child conceived.

By this the unborn teach us that God loves every one of us regardless of our behavior, loving the worst sinner equally along with the greatest saint.  That is because the source and quality of His love is not rooted in us, but in Him.  He loves not because of what He sees in us, but simply because He is love.  If we refuse to respond to this already given love and choose to spurn Him, doing what He hates and hurting our fellow man, we will receive no benefit from that love.  If we choose to love Him in return and strive to live in a way that pleases Him, then we will benefit from this love, and will save our souls.  But the love remains nonetheless.  As Saint John famously said, “We love because He first loved us” [1 John 4:19].  We enter this world already loved; our task is simply to respond to it and love God in return.

The second thing that the unborn teach us is that we are completely dependent on others, starting with God.  People in the abortion debate sometimes talk about “the viability of the fetus,” debating when a child is capable of living life on its own outside the womb.  Is the fetus viable at 39 weeks?  At 35 weeks?  Earlier?  But this debate, reasonable in medical terms, is misleading if translated into a theological principle.  For, strictly speaking, the baby is not viable even after a full term birth.  If the baby is not cared for, and fed, and kept warm, even outside the womb, then it will die — as will you and I.  If I am not cared for, and fed, and kept warm, I will die too.  We are none of us viable in that sense, for we are all mortal, and only survive because we are part of a vast network of mutual support.

Our culture values independence.  We admire the person who loudly proclaims, “I don’t depend on anybody for anything!” and who boasts of needing no one.  We can feed and clothe ourselves, we say; we are self-sustaining.  But these assertions hide the truth that in fact no one feeds himself.  The food that I eat every day is grown by someone else (called a farmer), and then processed by someone else (called a manufacturer), and then shipped to my store by yet someone else again (called a trucker), and then sold to me and put into my hands by yet another (called a retail worker).  Even the farmer who can grow and eat most of his own food is still dependent upon God for the sun and the rain.  We are all united, whether we acknowledge it or not, in a vast world-wide web of mutual inter-dependence.  I am viable and survive only because of others.

This is not simply true in the world, but in the Kingdom also.  God could have arranged the economy of salvation so that it was simply “me and Jesus.”  But He chose otherwise; it is “me-in-the-Church and Jesus.”  Thus, to become born again and begin new life with God, I need to be baptized by others.  Then I need to receive Holy Communion from others.  I experience the saving and transforming Presence of Christ when I gather together with others, even if that gathering be as small as two or three people [Matthew 18:20].  I cannot be saved apart from the prayers of the Mother of God, and the apostles, and the saints, and the angels.  I cannot be saved apart from the prayers of the others in my local congregation.  We are all saved together, as we continue to worship together and pray together, both for the world and for each other.  That is why all the images of salvation in the Scriptures are so relentlessly corporate: we are saved not as individuals, but as part of a people Israel; not as single sheep, but as a united flock; not on our own, but as citizens of a city — for when the Bride of the Lamb descends in beauty from heaven, it comes down as a city [Revelations 21:2].  And a city, of course, is a place where people live together in community, depending on one another for their daily needs.  We are dependent upon one another, both in creation and redemption.

Theology can indeed be found in unexpected places.  Our Lord, citing the Psalter, said that out of the mouths of babes, God has brought perfect praise [Matthew 21:16, Psalm 8:12].  He also has brought from there good theology as well.

The Holy Glorious and All-Praised Leaders of the Apostles, Peter and Paul (June 29)

Sermon of Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo

Today the Holy Church piously remembers the sufferings of the Holy Glorious and All-Praised Apostles Peter and Paul.

St. Peter, the fervent follower of Jesus Christ, for the profound confession of His Divinity: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” was deemed worthy by the Savior to hear in answer, “Blessed art thou, Simon … I tell thee, that thou art Peter [Petrus], and on this stone [petra] I build My Church” (Mt.16:16-18). On “this stone” [petra], is on that which thou sayest: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God” it is on this thy confession I build My Church. Wherefore the “thou art Peter”: it is from the “stone” [petra] that Peter [Petrus] is, and not from Peter [Petrus] that the “stone” [petra] is, just as the Christian is from Christ, and not Christ from the Christian. Do you want to know, from what sort of “rock” [petra] the Apostle Peter [Petrus] was named? Hear the Apostle Paul: “Brethren, I do not want ye to be ignorant,” says the Apostle of Christ, “how all our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; and did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ” (1 Cor.10: 1-4). Here is the from whence the “Rock” is Peter.

Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the final days of His earthly life, in the days of His mission to the race of man, chose from among the disciples His twelve Apostles to preach the Word of God. Among them, the Apostle Peter for his fiery ardor was vouchsafed to occupy the first place (Mt.10:2) and to be as it were the representative person for all the Church. Therefore it is said to him, preferentially, after the confession: “I will give unto thee the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth, shall be bound in the heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth: shall be loosed in heaven” (Mt.16: 19). Therefore it was not one man, but rather the One Universal Church, that received these “keys” and the right “to bind and loosen.” And that it was actually the Church that received this right, and not exclusively a single person, turn your attention to another place of the Scriptures, where the same Lord says to all His Apostles, “Receive ye the Holy Spirit” and further after this, “Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them: and whose soever sins ye retain, are retained” (John 20: 22-23); or: “whatsoever ye bind upon the earth, shall be bound in Heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth, shall be loosened in heaven” (Mt.18:18). Thus, it is the Church that binds, the Church that loosens; the Church, built upon the foundational cornerstone, Jesus Christ Himself (Eph 2:20), doth bind and loosen. Let both the binding and the loosening be feared: the loosening, in order not to fall under this again; the binding, in order not to remain forever in this condition. Therefore “Iniquities ensnare a man, and everyone is bound in the chains of his own sins,” says Wisdom (Prov 5:22); and except for Holy Church nowhere is it possible to receive the loosening.

After His Resurrection the Lord entrusted the Apostle Peter to shepherd His spiritual flock not because, that among the disciples only Peter alone was pre-deserved to shepherd the flock of Christ, but Christ addresses Himself chiefly to Peter because, that Peter was first among the Apostles and as such the representative of the Church; besides which, having turned in this instance to Peter alone, as to the top Apostle, Christ by this confirms the unity of the Church. “Simon of John” — says the Lord to Peter — “lovest thou Me?” — and the Apostle answered: “Yea, Lord, Thou knowest that I love Thee”; and a second time it was thus asked, and a second time he thus answered; being asked a third time, seeing that as it were not believed, he was saddened. But how is it possible for him not to believe That One, Who knew his heart? And wherefore then Peter answered: “Lord, Thou knowest all; Thou knowest that I love Thee.” “And sayeth Jesus to him” all three times “Feed My sheep” (John 20:15-17).

Besides this, the triple appealing of the Savior to Peter and the triple confession of Peter before the Lord had a particular beneficial purpose for the Apostle. That one, to whom was given “the keys of the kingdom” and the right “to bind and to loose,” bound himself thrice by fear and cowardice (Mt.26:69-75), and the Lord thrice loosens him by His appeal and in turn by his confession of strong love. And to shepherd literally the flock of Christ was acquired by all the Apostles and their successors. “Take heed, therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock,” the Apostle Paul urges church presbyters, “over which the Holy Spirit hath made you overseers, to feed the Church of the God, which He hath purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28); and the Apostle Peter to the elders: “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof not by constraint, but willingly: not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind: neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being examples to the flock. And when is appeared the Prince of pastors, ye will receive unfading crowns of glory” (1 Pet. 5:2-4).

It is remarkable that Christ, having said to Peter: “Feed My sheep,” did not say: “Feed thy sheep,” but rather to feed, good servant, the sheep of the Lord. “Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Cor.1:13). “Feed My sheep”. Wherefore “wolfish robbers, wolfish oppressors, deceitful teachers and mercenaries, not being concerned about the flock” (Mt.7:15; Acts 20:29; 2 Pet 2:1; John 10:12), having plundered a strange flock and making of the spoils as though it be of their own particular gain, they think that they feed their flock. Such are not good pastors, as pastors of the Lord. “The good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep” (John 10:11), entrusted to Him by the chief Shepherd Himself (1 Pet 5:4). And the Apostle Peter, true to his calling, gave his soul for the very flock of Christ, having sealed his apostleship by a martyr’s death, is now glorified throughout all the world.

The Apostle Paul, formerly Saul, was changed from a robbing wolf into a meek lamb. Formerly he was an enemy of the Church, then is manifest as an Apostle. Formerly he stalked it, then preached it. Having received from the high priests the authority at large to throw all Christians in chains for execution, he was already on the way, he breathed out “threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1), he thirsted for blood, but “He that dwells in the Heavens shall laugh him to scorn” (Ps 2:4). When he, “having persecuted and vexed” in such manner “the Church of God” (1Cor.15:9; Acts 8:5), he came near Damascus, and the Lord from Heaven called to him: “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?” and I am here, and I am there, I am everywhere: here is My head; there is My body. There becomes nothing of a surprise in this; we ourselves are members of the Body of Christ. “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me; it is hard for thee to kick against the goad” (Acts 9:4-5). Saul, however, “trembling and frightened”, cried out: “Who art Thou, Lord?” The Lord answered him, “I am Jesus Whom thou persecutest.”

And Saul suddenly undergoes a change: “What wantest Thou me to do?” — he cries out. And suddenly for him there is the Voice: “Arise, and go to the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do” (Acts 9:6). Here the Lord sends Ananias: “Arise and go into the street” to a man, “by the name of Saul,” and baptize him, “for this one is a chosen vessel unto Me, to bear My name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel” (Acts 9: 11, 15, 18). This vessel must be filled with My Grace. “Ananias, however, answered: Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he hath done to Thy saints in Jerusalem: and here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Thy Name” (Acts 9:13-14). But the Lord urgently commands Ananias: “Search for and fetch him, for this vessel is chosen by Me: for I shall show him what great things he must suffer for My name’s sake” (Acts 9:11, 15-16).

And actually the Lord did show the Apostle Paul what things he had to suffer for His Name. He instructed him the deeds; He did not stop at the chains, the fetters, the prisons and shipwrecks; He Himself felt for him in his sufferings, He Himself guided him towards this day. On a single day the memory of the sufferings of both these Apostles is celebrated, though they suffered on separate days, but by the spirit and the closeness of their suffering they constitute one. Peter went first, and Paul followed soon after him. Formerly called Saul, and then Paul, having transformed his pride into humility. His very name (Paulus), meaning “small, little, less,” demonstrates this. What is the Apostle Paul after this? Ask him, and he himself gives answer to this: “I am,” says he, “the least of the Apostles… but I have labored more abundantly than all of them: yet not I, but the grace of God, which was with me” (1 Cor.15:9-10).

And so, brethren, celebrating now the memory of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, remembering their venerable sufferings, we esteem their true faith and holy life, we esteem the innocence of their sufferings and pure confession. Loving in them the sublime quality and imitating them by great exploits, “in which to be likened to them” (2 Thess 3: 5-9), and we shall attain to that eternal bliss which is prepared for all the saints. The path of our life before was more grievous, thornier, harder, but “we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12: 1), having passed by along it, made now for us easier, and lighter, and more readily passable. First there passed along it “the author and finisher of our faith,” our Lord Jesus Christ Himself (Heb 12: 2); His daring Apostles followed after Him; then the martyrs, children, women, virgins and a great multitude of witnesses. Who acted in them and helped them on this path? He Who said, “Without Me ye can do nothing” (John 15: 5).

Troparion — Tone 4

First-enthroned of the apostles, / teachers of the universe: / Entreat the Master of all / to grant peace to the world, / and to our souls great mercy!

Kontakion — Tone 2

O Lord, You have taken up to eternal rest / and to the enjoyment of Your blessings / the two divinely-inspired preachers, the leaders of the Apostles, / for You have accepted their labors and deaths as a sweet-smelling sacrifice, / for You alone know what lies in the hearts of men.

Kontakion — Tone 2

Today Christ the Rock glorifies with highest honor / The rock of Faith and leader of the Apostles, / Together with Paul and the company of the twelve, / Whose memory we celebrate with eagerness of faith, / Giving glory to the one who gave glory to them!

 

Saint John the Baptist

The Seal of the Prophets

The importance of John the Baptizer may be gauged by the amount of paint and ink the Church spends on him.  His portrait is painted and is found on every single icon-screen in all the churches, regardless of whether or not he is that church’s patron saint.  And many hymns have been written to celebrate his life.  Much ink is required for these hymns — he has many feasts.  Fifty-seven feasts each year in fact: the feasts of his conception on September 23, his birth on June 24, his beheading on August 29, the synaxis celebrating his role as the Lord’s baptizer on January 7, the feasts of his relics on February 24 and May 25, and every Tuesday of the 52 weeks of the year, which celebrate him in the weekly liturgical cycle.  That is a lot of feasts, requiring a lot of hymns.

This should only be expected for someone the Lord described as the greatest born of women (Matthew 11:11).  Yet, as the Lord went on to say, even the least of those in the kingdom was greater than John, for John stood outside the coming kingdom, suffering death at the hands of Herod before he could enter it himself.  John was, in fact, the embodiment of the Old Testament’s message, and as such he stood at the end of the long line of sacred history.  “All the prophets and the Law prophesied until John” (v. 13), who was the final prophet, the seal of the prophets, for after him there could be no more Old Testament prophecy.  He was the prophetic hinge, connecting the Old Covenant with the New.  In his ministry and message we find the entirety of the Old Testament distilled and offered to the Church.  Of that message, I would mention three things.

Firstly, John tells us to repent and that repentance is the only way to avoid the coming judgment of God.  That judgment will be thorough — not a little pruning of a few stray sinful branches, but the felling of the whole tree.  And repentance is urgently required, that that judgment is even now impending and threatening.  The axe of divine judgment is being laid at the root to the tree; the first blow of the axe is imminent, and there is no time to lose.

One might perhaps imagine that being part of a religious body would be enough to save.  It is not so.  Many Jews imagined that as the children of Abraham and members of the Chosen People they were immune and safe from divine wrath.  That wrath was for the Gentiles, not for Jews.  They were the children of Abraham, and were therefore safe.  John thundered against such presumption.  Being a child of Abraham was no great thing: “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Matthew 3:9).  (This probably involves a play on words which vanishes in translation: from these stones [Hebrew eben] God is able to raise up servants/ sons [Hebrew ebed].)  If the Jews of old were not saved by racial membership, neither are we Gentiles by ecclesiastical membership.  What matters is repentance, which alone gives meaning to our inclusion in the Body of Christ.  Repentance is not something we do before we can serve God; it is what serving God consists of.

Secondly, we may ask what do we repent of?  What does God want from us?  The Pharisees were sure that repentance consisted of scrupulous attention to the minutiae of the Law, and fastidious care in keeping the Sabbath and ritual purification.  A truly devout person would wash one’s hands before eating just in case they had contracted ceremonial defilement in the marketplace (see Mark 7:3f).  Is that what repentance consists of?  Does God primarily want us to be more religious?  John taught otherwise.  Repentance consisted of care for the poor and of contentment with one’s lot.  “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise” (Luke 3:11).  Notoriously sinful tax-collectors?  Let them “collect no more than was appointed” for them, cheating no one.  Soldiers?  “Rob no one by violence, and be content with your wages” (v. 12-14).

Here we see the explication of the constant theme of the Old Testament prophets.  All the prophets denounced social injustice and said that to know God was not to be religious, but to be kind to the poor (Jeremiah 22:16).  One of them, Micah, summed it all up:  “He has showed you, O man, what is good — what does Yahweh require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).  The first and great commandment to love God manifests itself in its corollary, the commandment to love your neighbour as yourself.  If you love God Whom you have not seen, you will surely also love your neighbour whom you have seen (1 John 4:20).

Thirdly, John teaches us that Christ is everything.  Technically Jesus became John’s disciple when He was baptized by him.  Yet when John had his vision of a harmless dove descending upon Jesus after He was praying on the riverside after His baptism, John knew that Jesus was the sinless Messiah, the One Who would baptize in the Holy Spirit, the One Whose way he was preparing.  When John’s disciples found out that Jesus branched out on His own and was baptizing and making His own disciples, they were incensed and jealous on John’s behalf.  John was serene, recognizing in this the hand of God.  Of course all men were going to Jesus and He was winning the hearts of Israel.  Should not the bridegroom win the bride?  John was simply the friend of the bridegroom, the Best Man, and like the Best Man he rejoiced to see the bridegroom win his bride.  “He must increase, and I must decrease” (John 4:25-30).

John speaks these words to us as well.  When our egos swell and we become angry at others, this is the sign that we must decrease, and let our egos shrink back to a normal size.  Jesus Christ must increase in our lives so that all our attention is on Him.

John was not just the Baptizer, he was the Forerunner, and his life had no other purpose than to reveal Christ and prepare His way.  From his place on our icon-screens, John tells us that we also have no other purpose but to serve the Lord.

By Father Lawrence Farley

 

 

 

About the Author

Fr. Lawrence Farley, formerly an Anglican priest and graduate of Wycliffe College in Toronto, Canada in 1979, converted to Orthodoxy in 1985 and then studied at St. Tikhon’s Seminary in South Canaan, Pennsylvania.  After ordination he traveled to Surrey, B.C. to begin a new mission under the OCA, St. Herman of Alaska Church.  The Church has grown from its original twelve members, and now owns a building in Langley, B.C. The community has planted a number of daughter churches, including parishes in Victoria, Comox and Vancouver.

Fr. Lawrence is the author of many books including the Bible Study Companion SeriesLet Us Attend: A Journey through the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, and A Daily Calendar of Saints. He has also written a series of Akathists published by Alexander Press, and his articles have appeared in numerous publications.

Fr. Lawrence has a podcast each weekday on Ancient Faith Radio called Coffee Cup Commentaries, and writes monthly for Sounding, the blog of Orthodox Christian Network. He has given a number of parish retreats in the U.S. and Canada, as well as being a guest-lecturer yearly at Regent College in Vancouver. Father lives in Surrey with his wife Donna; he and Matushka Donna have two grown daughters and five grandchildren. He regularly updates his blog, “No Other Foundation”.

PENTECOST

In the Church’s annual liturgical cycle, Pentecost is “the last and great day.” It is the celebration by the Church of the coming of the Holy Spirit as the end—the achievement and fulfillment—of the entire history of salvation. For the same reason, however, it is also the celebration of the beginning: it is the “birthday” of the Church as the presence among us of the Holy Spirit, of the new life in Christ, of grace, knowledge, adoption to God and holiness.

This double meaning and double joy is revealed to us, first of all, in the very name of the feast. Pentecost in Greek means fifty, and in the sacred biblical symbolism of numbers, the number fifty symbolizes both the fulness of time and that which is beyond time: the Kingdom of God itself. It symbolizes the fulness of time by its first component: 49, which is the fulness of seven (7 x 7): the number of time. And, it symbolizes that which is beyond time by its second component: 49 + 1, this one being the new day, the “day without evening” of God’s eternal Kingdom. With the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Christ’s disciples, the time of salvation, the Divine work of redemption has been completed, the fulness revealed, all gifts bestowed: it belongs to us now to “appropriate” these gifts, to be that which we have become in Christ: participants and citizens of His Kingdom.

THE VIGIL OF PENTECOST

The all-night Vigil service begins with a solemn invitation:

“Let us celebrate Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit,
The appointed day of promise, and the fulfillment of hope,
The mystery which is as great as it is precious.”

In the coming of the Spirit, the very essence of the Church is revealed:

“The Holy Spirit provides all,
Overflows with prophecy, fulfills the priesthood,
Has taught wisdom to illiterates, has revealed fishermen as theologians,
He brings together the whole council of the Church.”

In the three readings of the Old Testament (Numbers 11:16-17, 24-29; Joel 2:23-32; Ezekiel 36:24-28) we hear the prophecies concerning the Holy Spirit. We are taught that the entire history of mankind was directed towards the day on which God “would pour out His Spirit upon all flesh.” This day has come! All hope, all promises, all expectations have been fulfilled. At the end of the Aposticha hymns, for the first time since Easter, we sing the hymn: “O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth…,” the one with which we inaugurate all our services, all prayers, which is, as it were, the life-breath of the Church, and whose coming to us, whose “descent” upon us in this festal Vigil, is indeed the very experience of the Holy Spirit “coming and abiding in us.”

Having reached its climax, the Vigil continues as an explosion of joy and light for “verily the light of the Comforter has come and illumined the world.” In the Gospel reading (John 20:19-23) the feast is interpreted to us as the feast of the Church, of her divine nature, power and authority. The Lord sends His disciples into the world, as He Himself was sent by His Father. Later, in the antiphons of the Liturgy, we proclaim the universality of the apostles’ preaching, the cosmical significance of the feast, the sanctification of the whole world, the true manifestation of God’s Kingdom.

THE VESPERS OF PENTECOST

The liturgical peculiarity of Pentecost is a very special Vespers of the day itself. Usually this service follows immediately the Divine Liturgy, is “added” to it as its own fulfillment. The service begins as a solemn “summing up” of the entire celebration, as its liturgical synthesis. We hold flowers in our hands symbolizing the joy of the eternal spring, inaugurated by the coming of the Holy Spirit. After the festal Entrance, this joy reaches its climax in the singing of the Great Prokeimenon:

“Who is so great a God as our God?”

Then, having reached this climax, we are invited to kneel. This is our first kneeling since Easter. It signifies that after these fifty days of Paschal joy and fulness, of experiencing the Kingdom of God, the Church now is about to begin her pilgrimage through time and history. It is evening again, and the night approaches, during which temptations and failures await us, when, more than anything else, we need Divine help, that presence and power of the Holy Spirit, who has already revealed to us the joyful End, who now will help us in our effort towards fulfillment and salvation.

All this is revealed in the three prayers which the celebrant reads now as we all kneel and listen to him. In the first prayer, we bring to God our repentance, our increased appeal for forgiveness of sins, the first condition for entering into the Kingdom of God.

In the second prayer, we ask the Holy Spirit to help us, to teach us to pray and to follow the true path in the dark and difficult night of our earthly existence. Finally, in the third prayer, we remember all those who have achieved their earthly journey, but who are united with us in the eternal God of Love.

The joy of Easter has been completed and we again have to wait for the dawn of the Eternal Day. Yet, knowing our weakness, humbling ourselves by kneeling, we also know the joy and the power of the Holy Spirit who has come. We know that God is with us, that in Him is our victory.

Thus is completed the feast of Pentecost and we enter “the ordinary time” of the year. Yet, every Sunday now will be called “after Pentecost”—and this means that it is from the power and light of these fifty days that we shall receive our own power, the Divine help in our daily struggle. At Pentecost we decorate our churches with flowers and green branches—for the Church “never grows old, but is always young.” It is an evergreen, ever-living Tree of grace and life, of joy and comfort. For the Holy Spirit—“the Treasury of Blessings and Giver of Life—comes and abides in us, and cleanses us from all impurity,” and fills our life with meaning, love, faith and hope.

Father Alexander Schmemann (1974)

 

Troparion — Tone 8

Blessed art You O Christ Our God / You have revealed the fishermen as most wise / By sending down upon them the Holy Spirit / Through them You drew the world into Your net / O Lover of Man, Glory to You!

Kontakion — Tone 8

When the most High came down and confused the tongues, / He divided the nations; / But when he distributed the tongues of fire / He called all to unity. / Therefore, with one voice, we glorify the All-holy Spirit!

The Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ

18 May 2018

On the 39th day after Pascha we celebrate the Leave-taking of the Feast of Feasts, commemorating the last day of the Risen Christ’s earthly sojourn. The day following is celebrated as His Leave-taking His Glorious Ascension into Heaven. As Holy Scripture tells us, after Jesus had spoken with His disciples on the Mount of Olives, concerning the coming of the Holy Spirit, as they were looking on, He was lifted up, and a cloud took Him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as He went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, Who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven. Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away (Acts 1:9-12).

The Lord ascended to Heaven not to sadden us with His departure, but in order to do what was best for us. It is to your advantage that I go away, He had told His disciples. For if I do not go away, the Comforter will not come to you (John 16:7). I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Comforter, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth…. The Comforter, the Holy Spirit, Whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things (John 14:16, 26). The Savior saw that His mission on earth was accomplished. The goal of His Incarnation was to proclaim the Divine Truth to the world, to direct men onto the path of repentance and salvation, and deliver us from Eternal Death. The Lord accomplished our salvation and man acquires it through the action of the Holy Spirit.

The Lord knew the trials and tribulations that would be endured by His disciples mockings, scourgings, imprisonment and even death. And thus the Lord ascended to His Heavenly Father that the Spirit might descend from the Father as the Comforter, and fortify His Friends.

The Lord ascended to Heaven in order to prepare for us, too, the path to the Heavenly Mansions, to open the Gates of Paradise, and Himself to be our Guide. Heaven that had been closed to men before the Resurrection now at the Ascension was opened by Christ the Savior.

None of the righteous men of the Old Testament the Patriarchs, the Prophets, and men pleasing to God could enter Heaven. No one has ascended into heaven but He Who descended from heaven, the Son of man (John 3:13), the Lord had said. Our first parent, Adam, closed the Gates of Paradise, and an angel with a flaming sword was placed at the gates. But the New Adam, Our Lord Jesus Christ, through His Ascension, opened the way to Life and Heaven itself. He was followed by the souls of the holy Forefathers, Prophets and hosts of righteous people of the New Testament. All worthy Christians who follow in the footsteps of their Savior, enter Heaven in this way today and so they will in the future.

The Lord ascended to intercede for us with His Heavenly Father. Towards the end of His earthly mission He had said: I go to prepare a place for you. And when I go and prepare a place for you., I will come again and will take you to Myself, that where I am you may be also (John 14:2-3). This same thought was also expressed by the great Preacher of Christ’s teaching, St. Paul, in the Epistle to the Hebrews: Christ has entered, not into a sanctuary made with hands, a copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf (Heb. 9:24). These words fill us with hope, for we now have in Heaven a great Mediator and Advocate for the world with God Christ Our Lord.

Our Lord ascended in a cloud on high, symbolizing the rising smoke of an acceptable sacrifice. Thus the sacrifice was accepted by God and Christ the Lamb that was slain is ushered into the preserve of God where He will be eternally offered in the Holy Eucharist. Therefore we must be worthy of the great mercies of God, capable and ready to receive them. All the power, all the fruit of His divine Ascension, therefore, belong to us, for when He ascended on High, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men (Eph. 4:8). This is why the Church repeatedly proclaims: Clap your hands, all you nations, for Christ is ascended up to the place where He was before [from the Vespers of the Feast].

Troparion of the Feast (Tone 4).

O Christ God, Thou hast ascended in Glory, granting joy to Thy disciples by the promise of the Holy Spirit. Through the blessing they were assured that Thou art the son of God, the Redeemer of the world!

Kontakion of the Feast (Tone 6).

When Thou didst fulfill the dispensation for our sake, and unite earth to heaven: Thou didst ascend in glory, O Christ our God, not being parted from those who love Thee, but remaining with them and crying: I am with you and no one will be against you!