OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No.22 (16th August 2020)
Although our church will be open for the Liturgy today, the majority of us (myself included) will not be there because we still judge the danger from COVID-19 to be too great (especially if we are old or have underlying health conditions.) It seems appropriate, therefore, to keep these occasional newsletters going for the time being.
Today is the day after the feast of the dormition (the “falling asleep”) of the "Mother of God", and this is a feast of which I’m particularly fond. As with two of the other feasts of the "Mother of God" – those which focus on her birth (8th September) and her entry into the temple (21st November) - the special texts for the services of the day and the icon of the feast are based primarily on non-biblical material that is in part legendary. The legend involved in today’s feast has eleven of the apostles, together with three other early church leaders, being carried miraculously on clouds to her deathbed. (It is this gathering that is shown in the icon, with Mary’s soul –symbolised as a baby – being received by Christ himself.) Only theApostle Thomas, according to the story, arrived too late for her death and burial and, because he wanted to look at her one last time, her tomb was opened for him and her body had disappeared, having been taken with her soul directly to heaven. (Another version has Thomas actually seeing her ascending.) As Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleiahas said, we do not necessarily have to insist on “the literal truth of every element of this account”. Rather, we must look at the deeper meaning that it conveys, which is that Mary, the Mother of God, “has passed beyond death and judgment and lives wholly in the age to come. The Resurrection of the body, which all Christians await, has in her case been anticipated and is already an accomplished fact.” This does not mean, Metropolitan Kallistos goes on, “that she is dissociated from the rest of humanity and placed in a wholly different category; for we all hope to share one day in that same glory of the Resurrection of the Body which she enjoys even now. So far from being separated, Our Lady remains always most intimately linked to mankind – linked through her urgent and unceasing intercession on our behalf. ‘Lady, behold thy Son … Behold thy mother’ (John19:26-27). The Church has long seen, in these words of Our Lord from the Cross, the giving to Mary of a universal motherhood: she is mother not to John only, but to all the children of God.”
It is this deeper meaning that we can contemplate when we hear the expostilarion for this feast – one of the most beautiful pieces of music that we hear in our Slavic tradition of music. This is appointed to be sung at the mattins of the feast, but in small parishes like ours, which do not usually have mattins, it is often, as it is in our parish, sung during the priest’s communion at the Liturgy. Its words are as follows:
Ye apostles who are gathered here from the ends of the earth.
Bury my body, bury my body in Gethsemane;
And thou, my son and my God, receive my soul.
With love in Christ,
SERMON ON Matt 17. 14-23
Today is the Sunday following the feast of the Dormition of the "Mother of God". Being one of the Great Feasts, we celebrate it for several days and so today, together with the usual Sunday hymns of the Resurrection, we sing hymns of this feast as well as. To begin to understand the spiritual meaning the Dormition of the "Mother of God" we need to listen carefully to the words of the troparion: ‘In giving birth thou didst keep thy virginity, in falling asleep thou didst not forsake the world, O "Mother of God". Thou art passed over into life, who art the "Mother of Life", and by thine intercessions dost deliver our souls from death’.
Let us consider this hymn, one bit at a time. ‘In giving birth thou didst keep thy virginity’: The Church believes that Mary was a virgin before, during and after she gave birth to Jesus. ‘Ever-virgin’ was a title assigned to her by the fifth Ecumenical Council. The virginal birth is a central dogma of the Orthodox Christian faith. We pronounce in the Creed, ‘was incarnate of the Holy Ghost and the "Virgin" Mary’. ‘In falling asleep’: That is what ‘dormition’ means – falling asleep. Yes, Mary experienced bodily death as all human beings do because bodily death is one of the consequences of the Fall of Adam.
‘Thou didst not forsake the world’: On the third day after her burial, when the apostles were eating together and raised up the ‘artos’ in Jesus’ name, as was their custom, Mary "appeared" in the air, saying to them, ‘Rejoice! For I am with you all days.’ In memory of this in the trapeza of some Orthodox monasteries, the abbot elevates a particle of bread called the Panagia, saying ‘Great is the name of the Holy Trinity’ followed by ‘O most holy "Mother of God", come to our aid’.
‘O Mother of God’ is next in the troparion. "Mother of God" is the title given to Mary by the third Ecumenical Council. It is the most important of Mary’s titles. We honour her because she is the "Mother" of God, not in isolation but because of her relationship to Christ. ‘Thou art passed over into life who art the Mother of Life’. Mary experienced bodily deαth but for her the Resurrection of the Body has been "anticipated". Tradition tells us that her tomb was found "empty". Mary in both soul and body has passed beyond death and judgement and lives in the age to come - as we say in the Creed, ‘we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life in the age to come’. That bodily glory which Mary now enjoys, all of us hope one day to share!
‘By thine intercessions dost deliver our souls from death’. In every church service, we ask Mary to intercede for us. We pray: Through the prayers of the "Mother of God", save us o Saviour! and Most holy "Mother of God", save us!. We also sang the Paraclisis to the "Mother of God" on the days of fasting before the feast. At this time of year, normally many thousands of Christians go on pilgrimage to one of the shrines of the "Mother of God". Perhaps one of the most moving things I have ever seen on television is that of pilgrims going on their knees from the port of Tinos to the church dedicated to the Annunciation.
So as we celebrate this great feast in honour of the "Mother of God", let us remember the hymn revealed by the Archangel Gabriel to a monk on Mount Athos: ‘It is very meet and right to call thee blessed who didst bring forth God, ever blessed and most pure and the "Mother of God".’
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No.21 (9th August 2020)
For our gathering today to celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration, please come down the road opposite the church towards the ford and, after the row of cottages on the left, come into the second entrance (there is a slightly overgrown sign to the right of it saying “Ford Cottage.”) You’ll find us there, ready to begin the Typika service at noon. The picnic will start about half an hour later. (You can park either where you usually do near the church or else beyond the entrance to our house, on the roadside verge.) Please bring members of your family if they’d like to come and either a picnic blanket or a folding chair to sit on. Also, bring everything you need for the picnic since, because of the coronavirus legislation, we won’t be sharing anything. It will be very important to maintain social distancing, but nevertheless we very much look forward to seeing those of you who are able to come.
As you all know, we have been working towards trying to open the church for regular worship from 16th August (a week today) and Steve Riley-Elliott has put a lot of hard work into producing the risk assessment and guidelines that are required before that will be possible. (See above) However, once his document could be assessed by the Trustees and the Parish Advisory Council, both bodies were fairly evenly split about whether or not to re-open in a week’s time. Because of this division of opinion, I have used my casting vote in the Trustees and the fact that the Parish Advisory Council is only “advisory” to make a decision, which
is as follows:
1) We shall have two Liturgies (16th and 30th August) and two Typika services (23rd August and 6th September.) After these four services we shall review the situation in the light of our experience of those services. (If a local lockdown is established at any time over that period, we will cease offering services immediately.)
2) At the Liturgies, only the celebrant (Fr. Patrick) will receive communion. (The majority of both the Trustees and the Parish Advisory Council agreed that there exists no safe means of others receiving communion that is consistent with our archbishop’s decision that we cannot give communion other than by using a shared spoon, which is something that we “should not” do according to the government’s guidelines.)
3) At all of these services, masks must be brought by those attending and be worn throughout the service (except by the priest and the Reader when they are speaking or chanting.)
4) In accordance with the risk assessment rules, there will be only very limited places for worshippers in order that social distancing can be maintained. Those wishing to attend any service must inform me (by email at firstname.lastname@example.org) of their wish to come, and places will be allocated on a “first come first served” basis.
I would stress that we have not yet reached the stage of the pandemic at which there is no risk of infection in attending any of these services. We have attempted, through the restrictions we’ve put in place, to lower this risk, but we cannot make the risk negligible. The archdiocesan guidelines indicate that people of 70 and over, and people with health conditions that give concern, should not attend, and although we will not refuse admission to people in either of these groups, my own advice is that they should take this archdiocesan advice very seriously.
Even those who are not in either of these groups are, in my judgment, perfectly justified if they choose not to come for the time being. It is for each of us to make an assessment of the situation and to make a decision about whether or not to attend. Those who choose not to are, in my judgment, in no way blameworthy. (I myself, because of an underlying health condition, will not be present, and neither will Cathie, my wife, because of her sense of the need to shield me from possible infection. Her absence means that there will probably be no choir unless another choir member is present who is willing to sing the choir sections of the service as a solo.)
One final thing: those who feel in very particular need of the sacrament over this period can contact me to arrange a “sick communion” service in their home. I look forward to seeing you at today’s Typika and picnic!
With love in Christ.
SERMON ON 1 Cor 3:9-17
In today’s Epistle reading, St Paul reminds us of the tremendous gift and privilege that has been given to us as baptised members of Christ’s Holy Church. The Spirit of God now dwells within us, and Christ has become the foundation on which we build our lives, a foundation that cannot be shaken or taken away. However, while we should rejoice in that fact, we must not become complacent. Although the foundation is there, and we have been given all we need to build upon it, what we choose to build remains up to us. The foundation might be unshakable, but what good is that to us if we build upon it a house of cards that will come tumbling down
at the slightest gust of wind? And it is not just a question of effort, but of whether that effort is well spent (building a house of cards is difficult and time consuming precisely because of how unstable it is!). As the Psalmist says, “Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it” (Psal. 127:1). In order for the house to stand, we have to be God’s co-labourers (Theou synergoi), and the story told in today’s Gospel reading is a perfect illustration of precisely this notion of synergy with God.
Christ, the eternal Word of God made flesh, is seen walking on the water. St Peter calls out to him and says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water”. Peter steps out of the boat onto the sea, and begins to walk. At that moment, his foundation was not the water under his feet, which could not have supported him, but rather his faith in Christ. When we are joined to Christ we become, as the same Apostle says in his second epistle, “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), and this is what allowed Peter at that moment to do what the Lord had done and walk on the water. We saw this also last Thursday when we celebrated the Transfiguration of the Lord, and Peter and the other two Apostles saw Jesus on Mount Tabor shining with the uncreated light. The Fathers tell us that it was not Christ who was transfigured at that moment, but rather the eyes of the Apostles which were opened to see Jesus as he truly is; they were granted some form of participation in his divine energies.
However, although this possibility of participation is a gift freely given, it requires this same cooperation, the synergy that Paul mentions. The Lord did not withdraw from Peter, he did not take back the gift given to him. Rather it was Peter who took his eyes off the Lord, saw the storm, became afraid and lost faith. He stepped off the Rock, which is Christ, and back into the sea and thus immediately began to sink.
The foundation has been laid, the tools are at our disposal, but as for what we build and whether we make use of those tools, the choice is ours. As we work to build our lives, do we keep our gaze fixed on Christ and with him build things that will last into eternity, or do we turn aside to focus on the storm and build something that will only last as long as the temporary concerns and troubles of this life? More importantly, when we do go wrong, do we cry “Lord, help me”, as did Peter, or do we choose to drown in our self-reliance?
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No.20 (2nd August 2020)
This newsletter will be focused on practical matters, mostly related to our beginning to come together again for worship. As I told you a couple of weeks ago (in Newsletter 18), we are now in the process of producing and discussing the risk assessment that government regulations insist on before any church building opens.(Steve Riley-Elliot has put a lot of work into this and I am grateful to him both for this and for agreeing to act as a kind of overseer of the rules when we reassemble in the church for the first time.) It now seems very likely that we will be able to have fortnightly Liturgies from 16th August onwards, with a Typika service on the Sundays in between. (The precise restrictions that will need to be enforced by Steve are still to be determined by the Trustees and the Parish Advisory Council, and I’ll tell you about these in our next newsletter.)
You will perhaps remember that a week today, on 9th August – which is a week before our use of the church building begins again ––you are invited (if rain is not forecast on that day) to bring a picnic to our garden at Ford Cottage. That day would normally be our parish feast day, since it is the Sunday after the Feast of the Transfiguration.We can’t, of course, share food between households because of coronavirus regulations, so please bring everything you need in the way of food and drink for yourselves, as well as seating if you can’t just sit on the grass. This will not be a “gathering” in the strict sense of the term, since each household will be having its picnic independently of any other household, and will be socially distanced from any other household in the way that government regulations require. It will, however, be easy for households to chat to each other from a distance of a few feet, so it will in practice be the kind of meeting of parishioners for which we’ve longed during all these months of lockdown. We’ll begin the picnic at 12.30 p.m.
Half an hour before the picnic begins - at noon - you are also invited to stand – in a socially distanced way – just outside the back door of our house - Ford Cottage - for a Typika service, which will be sung by me and by members of my own family. This will be held just inside that door, in our icon corner, so that by standing outside, not too far away from the open door, you should be able to hear it perfectly. I very much look forward to seeing all of you again then.
The other practical thing that I want to discuss today is the money needed to keep our church going, which is now being looked after on our behalf by Steve Riley-Elliot (since he has now taken over from Rose Hannis as the Trustees’ Treasurer.) Since we have had no Sunday collections for a long time, our income for this year is much less than it would normally have been. Thanks to Anna Heaton’s bequest, this is not a disaster for us – at least not yet – but it would be very helpful to us if you could do what some people are already doing: that is, give regularly in future through a standing order to your bank. With this newsletter I shall therefore be sending a form to enable this, together with a gift aid declaration (which makes your donation even more valuable to us if you are a taxpayer.) These forms should be sent to Steve, whose address is on the form. (Indeed, even if you already give by standing order, Steve would find it helpful if you could cancel your existing order and send this new one to him. The reason he asks this is that these existing standing orders are in practice paid into three different accounts, and this complicates things unnecessarily.) If you have any questions about all this, Steve will be happy to discuss them with you by phone (07949-700214).
I am so much looking forward to seeing you all next Sunday, though if the long-term forecast proves inaccurate, and it looks like rain nearer the time, I may have to cancel the event at short notice.
With love in Christ,
Standing Order Form
To the Manager (Please write the name and address of your bank below)
I/we hereby authorise you to debit my/our Account below
Beginning Date. End Date or Ongoing
Account to be credited:
Holy Transfiguration Walsingham, Orthodox Christian Property Trust
Account Number. 44575130
Sort Code 52-41-29
Please return this form to the Church Treasurer:
5 Fieldfare Way,
GIFT AID FORM
Holy Transfiguration, Great Walsingham, Orthodox Christian Property Trust (Registered Charity Number 1165848) In order to Gift Aid your donation you must tick the box below:
I want to gift aid my donation of £ and any donations I make in the future to the Holy Transfiguration, Great Walsingham, Orthodox Christian Property Trust.
I am a UK taxpayer and understand that if I pay less Income Tax and/or Capital Gains Tax than the amount of Gift Aid claimed on all my donations in that tax year it is my responsibility to pay any difference.
Title: ______ First Name or Initial:_______________________________________
Signature:_____________________________________ Date: _________________
Please notify the Treasurer or the Clergy if
You wish to cancel this declaration
Change your Name or Home Address
No longer pay sufficient tax on your income and/or capital gains.
Gift Aid is linked to basic tax rate, currently 20%, which allows charities to reclaim 25p for every £1 donated. If you pay income tax at the higher or additional rate and want to receive the additional tax relief due to you, you must include all of your Gift Aid donations on your Self-Assessment tax return or ask HM Revenue and Customs to adjust your tax code
Please return this form to the Church Treasurer:
5 Fieldfare Way,
SERMON ON Matthew 14:14-22
What a tragedy when we are proud of our Orthodox Christian Faith, but do not actually live it. What a tragedy when our conduct actually undermines the life-transforming message of the Cross, so desperately needed now, as ever, by our aching and confused world. What a tragedy when individual egos obscure our sight of the One Who is the Truth, our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ.
Such was the case here in Corinth. The Christian community had fallen into this trap in various ways. Other bad things were going on, but, in today’s Epistle reading, what is highlighted is their getting fixated on who had baptised them, setting up a league table of the apostolic leaders, promoting personalities, dividing into factions, and in so doing damaging the life and witness of the church. How easily we get drawn into focusing on things in the life of the church which matter little, and thereby end up undermining the things which matter a lot. The Holy Apostle pleads with them to be united, ‘perfectly joined together’, in their speaking, their mind, and their judgement. This is how the church should be. This is what happens when we are deeply rooted in the life of Christ. This is what happens when we are kneeling together in humility at the foot of the Cross. This is the blessed experience of authentic Christian community life (cf. Psal. 132).
Sadly, it seems that the Corinthian Christians had lost sight of the transforming power of the Cross. Although the community, comprising both Jews and Greeks (Acts18.1-11), had come into being through its life giving message, they still lived in a world of beguiling philosophies, adept speakers, and rhetorical devices. Such were now apparently grabbing their attention again. But St Paul reminds them very specifically that the Gospel of Christ cannot be preached ‘with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect’ (v.17).
Think about it. This was how the Gospel conquered the Ancient World, all by the innate power of the Cross. Uneducated men had outshone the whole world. St John Chrysostom in his third Homily on First Corinthians, likens it to twelve non-military men beating a professional army. Nakedness against men at arms. What about the modern world? There is still the temptation to be dazzled by the wisdom of words. There is still the temptation to latch onto personalities and get into contentions. There is still the temptation to lose sight of the power of the Cross. There is only one thing to do. Let the power of the Cross have its full effect in our lives, and astound those around us by our way of life, rather than by our words.
This is what St John Chrysosotom calls, ‘the unanswerable argument, the argument from conduct’. He is also very clear that when our lives do not demonstrate what we say we believe as Christians, ‘this is what stays the unbelievers from becoming Christians’. The
Corinthian Christians, wrapped up in their own agendas, were clearly not thinking about the effect of their behaviour on the non-Christian people around them. If we have fallen into this same trap, may God forgive us, and enable us again to know the life-transforming power of the Cross in our own hearts and lives.
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No.19 (26th July 2020)
A few newsletters ago (number 13), I put at the top a photograph of a mosaic depicting the creation of the heavenly bodies, which appears also at the top of this newsletter. I’ve put it there on this occasion because today’s readings are about faith, and my background in the sciences inevitably makes me wonder what it means to have faith in God - the creator and redeemer of the world - if you are, like me, a trained scientist who believes in the broad accuracy of the modern scientific account of how the cosmos came to be as it is.
Here it is important to recognise that faith – pistis in Greek – is not quite the same as belief that some set of statements is “true.” Ultimately, faith in God is trust in God. I once heard our archbishop say something that I thought very wise: he said that “the Church proclaims Truth but it doesn’t define it.” What I took him to mean was that what the Church proclaims is nothing less than Christ himself – “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6) – and it does so both in its worship and in its words (doctrinal formulae, scriptural texts, and so on.) These words often have many layers of meaning. The Genesis accounts of the creation, for example, convey to us a fundamental truth: that the cosmos in which we live has its origin in the will of God. What those accounts do not do, however, is give us what we would nowadays call a “scientific” account of how the cosmos came to be as it is. Rather, as Saints Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus learned from the early Christian philosopher, Origen, scripture has layers of meaning, and the literal meaning may sometimes be ignored if there is good reason to do so, since it is of less importance than its moral and mystical meanings. Indeed, these two saints, writing in the fourth century of the Christian era, made an anthology of Origen’s writings and began it with Origen’s statement that certain passages of scripture, “by means of seeming history, though the incidents never occurred, figuratively reveal certain mysteries.” Whether, in choosing this passage to open their anthology, they actually had in mind the Genesis creation accounts is not clear. However, when we look at St. Basil’s commentary on those accounts, we certainly find that he applied this insight to them. Indeed, he almost seems to have anticipated modern evolutionary theory. As one modern scholar has put it, “Basil expresses his conviction that although the Creator's word is spoken in an instant, the Creation's obedient response is extended in time.” Indeed, he goes on, at times Basil speaks “in language that seems almost to anticipate modern scientific concepts.”
It is for this reason that modern arguments about “the Bible versus science” simply make no sense to an Orthodox Christian. We are not biblical fundamentalists but the inheritors of a profound and subtle tradition of biblical interpretation. Those who want to set up a battle between science and religious faith are therefore mistaking fundamentalist religion for the real thing. Indeed, they are often making other mistakes as well. The biologist Richard Dawkins, for example, famous for his authorship of The God Delusion, makes so many philosophical mistakes in his arguments for atheism that the philosopher Michael Ruse – himself an atheist – has declared publicly that Dawkins is the kind of atheist who makes him “ashamed to be an atheist.”
We do, however, need to interpret the well-established theories of modern science in a way that challenges some of the ways in which they are often interpreted. When we speak of “laws of nature,” for example, we need to go beyond the way in which they are often understood, in which there is no sense of their relationship to God. Having a sense of that relationship does not mean that we need to use these laws scientifically in a way that is different to that of the atheist scientist. For us, however, the laws that any created thing obeys are a manifestation of the presence of God in that thing. (In technical theological and philosophical language, they are an aspect of the logos of each thing, about which St. Maximus the Confessor spoke, or of the divine energies spoken of by St. Gregory Palamas. As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware has put it, Maximos’s thinking focuses on the way in which “Christ the creator Logos has implanted in every thing a characteristic logos, a ‘thought’ or ‘word’ which is God’s intention for that thing, its inner essence which makes it distinctively itself and at the same time draws it towards the divine realm,” while for Palamas’s complementary thinking, God, in “his essence … is infinitely transcendent, utterly beyond all created being, beyond all participation from the human side. But in his energies – which are nothing less than God himself in action – God is inexhaustibly immanent, maintaining all things in being, animating them, making each of them a sacrament of his dynamic presence.”)
The fact that we now interpret these two traditional and complementary ways of thinking at least partly in relation to the laws of nature is an example of how our Orthodox Tradition can be expressed differently at different times. As Metropolitan Kallistos has put it, “Loyalty to Tradition, properly understood, is not something mechanical, a passive and automatic process of transmitting the accepted wisdom of an era in the distant past.” Tradition is, he says, “not static but dynamic, not a dead acceptance of the past but a living discovery of the Holy Spirit in the present. Tradition, while inwardly changeless (for God does not change) is constantly assuming new forms, which supplement the old without superseding them.”
It is not, of course, everyone’s vocation to try to work out what these new forms should be. (Indeed, few are qualified for that task.) What each of us can do, however, is to use our faith, our trust in God, to assure ourselves that this task is now - as it has been throughout the Church’s history - one which can be successfully undertaken as “a living discovery of the Holy Spirit in the present.” And if anyone tells us that “science has disproved the validity of faith,” we can treat that statement with the scorn it deserves.
With love in Christ,
SERMON ON MATTHEW 9:27-35
In today’s Gospel reading, St Matthew reminds us that through faith in Christ our lives can be transformed, and we can be made whole, while also warning us that hard- heartedness leads us away from Christ, no matter how religious we might externally appear. The Evangelist immediately places before us two blind men. Blindness, along with other physical ailments, was a cause to be considered an outcast at the time of Christ, and also illness had a close link with sin. The two men initially express a confused belief in Christ shouting, “Have mercy on us, Son of David”. Here they recognise Christ as the Messiah, as Son of David, and perhaps as St Theophylact of Ochrid points out, through asking for mercy, have begun to understand Christ’s divine nature to some extent. Christ does not react instantaneously, instead, he asks them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?”. In doing so, he is asking them to confess their faith, and is respecting their freedom as humans, made in the image of God. The blind men’s response is a simple and heartfelt “Yes, Lord”, to which Christ replies “According to your faith let it be done to you”.
The two men make a direct confession of their belief. Christ, however, while healing them also calls them to cooperation with God in accepting the miracle, as the miracle is done, “according to your faith”. Having regained their sight, Christ asks them out of humility and to avoid people discovering who he truly is to, “See that no one knows of this”. The two blind men promptly spread the news of their healing, not out of disobedience to Christ’s instruction, but rather out of thanksgiving and joy for their being made whole again.
Following this, another healing takes place, “a demoniac who was mute was brought to him... the one who had been mute spoke”. In this case the man is so overcome by evil and his health, and unable both physically and spiritual to express his belief, that Christ simply heals the man without initially requiring his faith and cooperation. The people of the area were amazed, and set Christ, through his authority to heal by a word alone, above the Prophets and Patriarchs of Israel, “never has anything like this been seen in Israel”. The Pharisees, placed in opposition to Christ, are unable to accept, unlike the blind men, that what Christ is doing is from God, and instead suggest that, “by the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons”. As we know (from Matthew 12:25) this is simply not possible, “every city or house divided against itself will not stand”. Christ’s work can only come from God as he is preaching the Kingdom, healing illness, and forgiving sins. The work of the demons is diametrically opposed to such a ministry.
St Matthew calls us to place ourselves in the shoes of the blind men. While we have faith in Christ and follow him, there will be times when we find ourselves spiritually blind, and cut off from God through our sins. In some ways, this is an even deeper blindness than the physical one the men experienced. Christ asks us to turn back to him, through repentance and confession, and is waiting expectantly for us to make that return. It is not enough for us for Christ to ask us to make that return, we actually have to cooperate with him, through our confession of faith, through returning to the Church, through engaging with the ascetic life, and through seeking reconciliation through confession. We are made in the image of God and have free will, as such Christ is not a spiritual “fanatic” who will force us to do things; we have to proclaim that “yes”, and accept our being made whole, and having received it, aim to maintain this synergy with God as much as possible, in case we sink back into spiritual darkness.
If we allow Christ to transform us in this way, we can begin to enter into theosis and accept Christ’s transformational healing more and more in our lives, and draw ever closer to him. However, in saying this, as in the case of the demoniac, we are not limiting Christ, if we become too separated from God, then he entirely capable of making that first move, and re-orientating us towards him, and initiating that discussion of return and cooperation. Like the blind men and the crowds let us be thankful for Christ’s healing in our lives and that of others, and flee the hard-heartedness, ingratitude and thanklessness the Pharisees displayed! May the light of Christ illumine all of our blindness!
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No.18 (19th July 2020)
The icon on the email version – of the meeting of Saints Peter and Paul – is put there, not because today is their feast (which was three weeks ago) but because I think we’re edging closer to having regular services again, so that we can look forward to our being together again before too long. Our Trustees and Parish Advisory Council had a joint online meeting on Friday, and we’re going ahead with the risk assessment that government regulations insist on before any church building opens. My feeling is – though I can’t be certain about this – that we may be able to have fortnightly Liturgies from 16th August onwards, with a Typika service on the Sundays in between.
If this does prove to be possible, however, this will not mean that things will immediately get “back to normal.” We may not have lavatory facilities, for instance, and we may need to ask you to “book in” in advance so as not to exceed a relatively safe number of worshippers. (Social distancing – except for members of the same household – will remain in force.) We’ll also ask you to wear face masks in the church building, and there will be no gathering afterwards for refreshments in the parish room. In addition, it seems likely that lay people may not be able to receive communion, since government regulations only allow the sacrament to be given into people’s hands, while our archbishop has made it clear that only the traditional shared spoon is acceptable to him.(The local Antiochian archdiocese has made this “no communion” rule quite clear, while in our own archdiocese it is only implicit.)
Over and above these restrictions, the archdiocesan guidelines actually go beyond what the government regulations require by saying that people of 70 or over “should not” attend. Since these guidelines do not say “must not attend” it will, I think, be for our more elderly parishioners – and those younger ones with health problems - to make their own decisions about whether or not to be present. We must remember, however, that the risk of severe complications is high for those who get the virus and are either in this age group or else suffer certain health problems, so those who decide not to attend for the time being are, in my opinion, justified in being cautious in this way. You should not feel obliged to attend.
Those whose underlying health conditions mean that they are “shielding”must not, of course attend, and sadly I am one of these. (My wife Cathie, in order to shield me, would also be unable to attend.) I can, however, look forward to seeing you all if you accept an invitation. This invitation is forSunday 9th August, when we would, under normal circumstances, have our patronal feast Liturgy followed by lunch in our garden here in Great Walsingham. What I invite you to do – if the weather is fine on that day – is to bring a picnic to our garden, to begin eating around 12.30 p.m. (We can’t, of course, share food between households because of coronavirus regulations, so bring everything you need in the way of food and drink, as well as seating if you can’t just sit on the grass.) This will not be a “gathering” in the strict sense of the term, since each household will be having its picnic independently of any other household, and will be socially distanced from any other household in the way that government regulations require. It will, however, be easy for households to chat to each other from a distance of a few feet, so it will in practice be the kind of meeting of parishioners for which we’ve longed all these months. Half an hour before the picnic begins - at noon - you are also invited to stand – in a socially distanced way – just outside the back door of our house fora Typika service, which will be sung by me and by members of my own family.This will be held just inside that door, in our icon corner, so that by standing outside, not too far away from the open door, you should be able to hear it perfectly. Much will, of course, depend on the weather, and if the forecast a day or two before suggests that rain is likely, we’ll have to cancel both the service and the picnic.
I look forward to seeing all of you again soon – though, as I’ve indicated, this depends (for 9th August) on the weather. On subsequent Sundays, the opportunity to meet other parishioners will depend on our being able to develop procedures for services that are appropriate in the light of our risk assessment. Ido hope that this will be possible, though - as I’ve said - it can’t be taken for granted.
With love in Christ,
SERMON ON THE GOSPEL READING “You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14)
On the Sunday that falls between the 13th to the 19th of July, we remember the six hundred and thirty holy and God-bearing Fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon in the year 451 A.D. They made clear that Christ is fully God and fully human: one person with two natures. They rejected the views of the Monophysites who claimed the Lord has only one nature: that is, Christ after His incarnation bears only the divine nature, which is what the presbyter Eutyches of Constantinople taught. If that was the case, we could not participate in His divine life – for we are simply humans – and it would be hard to see how Christ’s death
and resurrection had a transformative impact on us. Today’s commemoration is not simply a reminder about Church history; it is a proclamation of the Gospel, for Jesus Christ must be both fully God and fully human in order to bring us into eternal light and true life in Christ.
The Saviour wants us to shine with holiness, like the Church Fathers, such that we become “the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14), illuminating it with goodness so that all will give glory to God (Matt. 5:16). So, it is not enough to refrain from the physical acts of sin but to “be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Therefore, our calling is much higher than being merely nice. Jesus did not “come to abolish the law and the prophets” of the Old Testament, “but to fulfil them” (Matt. 5:17). Those who “shall be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven” are those who obey the commandments and teach others to do so. And, likewise, those who relax God’s requirements and teach others to follow their example “shall be called least in the kingdom of Heaven” (see Matt. 5:19). As Orthodox Christians we must show other people what the faith contains. It contains an ethic, which calls us to act correctly, just as we believe correctly: think straight, believe straight, act straight: that is the Orthodox rule of life. St Paul was conveying this is the epistle today.
The Church Fathers shed light on the Holy Scriptures regarding the person of Christ in the Ecumenical Councils. The Councils are infallible as the highest authority in the Orthodox Church and are guided by the grace of the Holy Spirit, when finally accepted by the Church. Eutyches and Dioscorus the Patriarch of Alexandria were excommunicated for preaching a false theology on Christ. Those who accepted the Monophysites’ teachings are called non-Chalcedonian or Oriental Orthodox, such as the Assyrian, Armenian, Ethiopian, Indian (St Thomas Malabar in South India), Syro-Jacobite and Copts in Egypt. All of them unfortunately broke away from the Catholic and Apostolic Church after the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553 A.D. Thankfully, today these groups have good relations with the Orthodox Church and are in dialogue to resolve their differences. The person of Christ was further discussed up to the Sixth Ecumenical Council. This shows how much the Church Fathers tried to resolve these issues through theological dialogue.
Chalcedon laid down that Christ was revealed in two natures without confusion, change, division, or separation. Chalcedon also established that the difference. between the divine nature and the human nature of Christ is not abolished by their union. The two natures unite to form one person–hypostasis (prosopon). Anything else claimed about Christ just isn’t true. That is why Chalcedon still matters. For the Creed of Chalcedon is the whole truth: the Catholic and Apostolic Faith which makes the Church Holy.
In decisive moments of Church History, the Holy Ecumenical Councils promulgated their dogmatic definitions, as trustworthy delimitations in the spiritual battle for the purity of Orthodoxy, which will last until such time, as «all shall come into the unity of faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God» (Eph. 4:13). In the struggle with new heresies (false beliefs), the Church does not abandon its former dogmatic concepts nor replace them with some sort of new formulations. The dogmatic formulae of the Holy Ecumenical Councils need never be superseded; they remain always contemporary to the Living Tradition of the Church (see Canon I of the Council of Trullo). Holy Fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council enlighten us Orthodox Christians and others to know the True Christ as experienced, revealed and proclaimed by the holy Apostles and the Church Fathers who received it from them. Amen.
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No.17 (12th July 2020)
Before I say anything else, I need this week to say something about a problem that has arisen close to home. Father David, our assistant priest, was taken into hospital this week with a heart problem, and although he is now back home, he is still far from well and I hope that he and Joanna will be very much in your prayers at this time. One of the lovely things about our parish community is, I think, that there is a great deal of mutual support among us, sometimes of an obviously practical nature, and sometimes simply in our prayer for one another – which, if we believe in prayer as we should do, in also a practical means of support. There are also others in our little community, or associated with it, who are in need of our prayers at the moment, so please do remember all of us in your prayers.
I myself am feeling slightly under the weather today, so this newsletter will not be a long one, but will consist simply of two quotations from well-known saints – not ancient ones but ones who lived recently enough to have been photographed. Both quotations are on the subject of intercession, and stress the link between our prayer for others and our love for them.
The first is from St. John of Cronstadt, (St. John of Cronstadt, 1829-1909) who said this: “Do not let pass any opportunity to pray for anyone, either at his request or at the request of his relatives, friends, of those who esteem him, or of his acquaintances. The Lord looks favourably upon the prayer of our love, and upon our boldness before Him. Besides this, prayer for others is very beneficial to the one himself who prays for others; it purifies the heart, strengthens faith and hope in God, and enkindles our love for God and our neighbour.”
T he second teacher I want to quote is St. Porphyrios, (St. Porphyrios, 1906-1991) who said something very similar: “Prayer for others which is made gently and with deep love is selfless and has great spiritual benefit. It brings grace to the person who prays and also to the person for whom he is praying. When you have great love and this love moves you to prayer, then the waves of love are transmitted and affect the person for whom you are praying and you create around him a shield of protection and you influence him, you lead him towards what is good. When He sees your efforts, God bestows His grace abundantly on both you and on the person you are praying for.” He then adds, “But we must die to ourselves. Do you understand?”
With love in Christ,
SERMON ON Matthew 8:28-34, 9:1
Not only the opening verse of today’s first reading, from the Holy Apostle’s Letter to the Romans (10:1-10), contains the word heart but four other verses too. his short reading speaks briefly about the Law, that of the Old Covenant and its relevance for those who have found its true meaning and fulfilment in Christ who proclaimed his coming not to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfil them (Matt. 5:17).
When the question of law is raised it will almost certainly at some time or another involve the issue of letter and spirit. Conflicts between the spirit, that is the essential purpose and meaning of the law, and the letter, its formal and rigid implementation, are not always easily resolved and it may be necessary for oikonomia (dispensation) and philanthropia (loving kindness) to be shown. Might we think of the spirit as those things belonging to the heart and those of the letter to the head and so sometimes the heart should be allowed to rule the head? In truth it would be best when both are in full accord.
Frequently in the Holy Gospels we read of such conflicts and whilst upholding the law, the resolution of a problem involved seemingly disobeying the law, an example is when Christ’s actions including healing on the Jewish Sabbath incurred severe criticism from the chief upholders of the Law. After being questioned for allowing his disciples to pick grains of wheat when passing through a field on the Sabbath Jesus responded by saying “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” and he reminded the Pharisees of notable examples from the Old Testament times (Mar. 2:23-28) after which declaring: “The Son of Man is also Lord of the Sabbath.”
There will be times when we do not achieve our personal heart’s desire and begin to look here and there to discover why, find alternatives and perhaps to blame others or even God for this disappointment until by both heart and mind we recognise the path to which we are truly called even if it turns out to be something quite different from that we first imagined. “Where your treasure is, there will your hearts be also.” (Matt. 6:21). Jesus said those words to make it clear that earthly treasures must not be our ultimate goal in life for they do not last and are subject to decay but the things of heaven – the treasure to which our hearts belong - is worthy of our desire and is eternal.
In his sermon - The Divine Liturgy: the Window of Heaven - Archimandrite Aimilianos, formerly abbot of the monastery of Great Meteoron and the Monastery of Simonopetra in Mount Athos, wrote the following: “We find ourselves in church. As we’ve said, it is the most suitable place from which to look at heaven. But where is the window? How do we open it? The answer is simple. The window is the Divine Liturgy which we are celebrating. We aim to turn our eyes toward spiritual things. Let us therefore turn our soul to the Holy Spirit, and let us ask him to shine his light on the darkness of our thoughts. When he does, we will be able to feel, to believe, to understand, and make our own, everything which is said and done during the Divine Liturgy.”
In this we lift up our hearts and can have no greater hearts desire, especially when we have for a while been deprived of so great a blessing, gathering in penitence and thanksgiving. Glory to God!
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No.15 (28th June 2020)
In the church to the left on the wall is an icon that would normally be in the centre of the church building today, when we commemorate All Saints of Britain. It is one of my favourite icons, and the version we have in our church is only a photographic reproduction because the original is in the Russian cathedral in London. It was produced in Walsingham, however, by Fr. David Meyrick, so that it is special for us in more ways than one.
Father David’s geography, we might note, was not quite as good as his icon technique, since the icon has written on it “All Saints of the British Isles and Ireland.” This is wrong because, just as England is simply a part of Britain, Ireland is simply part of the “British Isles”, the latter being no more than a geographical term for the group of islands of which Ireland and Britain are parts. Was Fr. David perhaps anticipating the time in which we now live, with its sensitivity - or perhaps over-sensitivity - about anything that might be associated with colonialism? In this context, the term “British Isles” may seem to some to be a negation of Irish nationhood and therefore, in their view, in need of replacement. Indeed, we in the local Orthodox Church seem already to have anticipated this need by referring, in today’s troparion - for all the saints of Britain and Ireland - not to the “British Isles” but to “these northern isles.” The troparion goes like this:
O enlighteners and teachers of these northern isles,
Ye who have shed the light of the truth of God abroad in the land,
Pray for us unto Him we beseech you,
That He will have mercy on us and teach us in singleness of heart to glorify Him.
I see, however, that in in the lectionary we’re supposed today to commemorate “All Saints of Britain” – with no mention of Ireland. When did Ireland get dropped, I wonder? I’m not sure about that, but what I am sure of is that dropping Ireland makes no historical sense. British and Irish Christianity were inextricably intertwined in the period in which most of those shown on the icon lived.
How did Christianity arrive in our “northern isles”? The legend that St. Joseph of Arimathea brought it to Glastonbury seems to be a late invention, but the story of it being brought by St. Aristoboulos - one of the “seventy” mentioned in the New Testament – may not be without foundation. Certainly, southern Britain – like the rest of the Roman Empire, of which it was then a part – received the gospel at an early date, even if good evidence of an organised church (rather than isolated Christian households) is not really to be found before the early fourth century. In Ireland, which was not part of the Roman Empire, it seems likely that Christianity arrived later than it did in Britain, probably through trading links with Spain, and even then it seems to have existed only in the south. In the north, a Christian presence had to wait for the later mission of St. Patrick – who was what we would now call a Welshman, though not from Wales, as it is now, but from the coastal parts of what is now north-west England.
In the fifth century, the abandonment of southern Britain by the Roman Empire, and the subsequent arrival of the English - the pagan Angles and Saxons from the northern European mainland - reversed this steady expansion of Christianity throughout the Northern Isles. By the middle of the sixth century, much of what we now call England (Angle-land) was once more pagan, though we can speculate that Christian belief may have survived in at least some households of the enslaved British/Welsh underclass, and it certainly survived in Wales, where bishops still functioned. This English paganism was overthrown by two missions: one Irish and one Roman. The Irish one came through the setting up, in 563 by St. Columba, of the Irish monastery of Iona, in what is now Western Scotland. (The term “Scot” originally meant Irish.) Much of what we now call Scotland was eventually Christianised from this monastery, and one of its daughter houses, on the island of Lindisfarne in Northumbria, was responsible – through St. Aidan (who arrived there in 635) - for the re-evangelisation of much of northern England. In 597 another mission, from Rome, was led by St. Augustine of Canterbury, who was sent to the Kingdom of Kent by St. Gregory of the Dialogues (or St.Gregory the Great as he is usually known in the West.) It is said that Pope Gregory decided on this mission after seeing some beautiful young, pale-skinned slaves for sale in the Roman market and asked where they came from. He was told that they were Angles and, on hearing this, is said to have remarked “not Angles but angels if they were Christians.”
The Roman and Irish forms of Christianity eventually met, and minor differences between them caused a certain amount of friction, though both seem to have been entirely Orthodox in faith. Differences included the ways in which monks were tonsured and the way in which the date of Easter was calculated, so that sometimes one lot were celebrating Easter on the same day as the other lot were still on Palm Sunday. (This kind of calendar problem is, of course, one that is still with us in a different form.) A synod was held in Whitby in 664 to try to establish common usage, and it was decided that Roman customs should be followed rather than Irish ones. This decision was generally accepted, although there were some in the Irish party who did not accept it for many years afterwards.
Missions from the Northern Isles in this period were of great importance in spreading and reinforcing Christianity in the Western European mainland. The Irishman, St. Columbanus -who died in 615 - was an important figure in spreading Christianity in many parts of Europe.St. Boniface, an Englishman from Crediton, who died in 754, was the main apostle of parts of Germany and became Archbishop of Mainz. In the 780s and 790s, Alcuin of York was the main intellectual force in the court of Charlemagne in Aachen.
What we sometimes forget is that by the time Greece was fully Christianised (only in the 9th century in the Mani area) and Russia was converted (998), these northern Isles had already been Christian for centuries. Admittedly, the pagan Scandinavian invasions of the ninth and tenth centuries meant that parts of Britain had to be evangelised all over again but, even when we take this into account, we must recognise that in this country we are in ancient Christian territory. Moreover, before the split between the Eastern and Western parts of the Christian world, in 1054, these Christians of the Northern Isles were Orthodox Christians. They were part of a world in which Christians of East and West were in full communion with one another. (Indeed, even after 1054, it was not clear for many years that a real split had occurred. When, in the late eleventh century, many Anglo-Saxons fled from the Norman invaders after the Battle of Hastings, and went to Constantinople to join the Varangian guard that protected the Byzantine emperor, they were permitted to set up English parishes, both there and in the “English” villages by the Black Sea where they were settled after completing their military service. One of their churches in Constantinople is known to have been dedicated to St. Augustine of Canterbury.)
On our icon screen in Great Walsingham is a lovely icon of two of our very local saints: Withburga and Fursey (see below.) These two exemplify all that I have said. St. Fursey (who died around 650) was an Irishman, brought up in the Connacht area of Ireland, who was the first recorded Irish missionary to East Anglia. (Later he continued his missionary work in what is now France.) St. Withburga (who died in 743) was an English princess, who was brought up in the court of her father, King Anna of East Anglia, who had endowed Fursey’s monastery in Norfolk. She lived as a solitary at Holkham and then as an abbess at Dereham. Perhaps we should celebrate today by adding to our usual prayers these two petitions: All Saints of Britain and Ireland, pray for us; St. Withburga and St. Fursey, pray for us.
With love in Christ,
Sermon on Matthew 6:22-33
As Christians living in a world that seeks to make God irrelevant, Christ’s word to us today is a calling to vigilance. Christians have no part in conventional secular society that ranks pleasure, power and possessions above all things. And yet the temptation to fit in, seek after a comfortable life, and negligently to fall into worshipping false gods instead of seeking first God’s Kingdom and righteousness, is murderously close to our hearts.
The broken reality of life is that a person often stubbornly and unrepentantly tries to serve more than one master. Their loyalties are tragically divided as they convince themselves they can at the same time cherish all kinds of thoughts and desires that are impure, behave in ways contrary to the Christian life, take the gifts that come to them ‘from above’ as their own belongings, and still be reckoned Christians because they fulfil some external Christian duties which tick a box but do not change their idolatrous hearts.
But how tragic to allow life to go by in the darkness of a divided existence in the cold embrace of the world while professing a faith that rather than saving, is wavering. Let not a double minded man, says St James, think he shall receive any thing of the Lord’ (Jam. 1, 7). No, we Christians should be looking up, steadfastly lifting up our eyes to heaven for our bodies to be ‘full of light’ because ‘help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth’ (Ps. 121, 2). As sunflowers turn to the light of the sun to open into their fullness, so faith turns us to the light of God which shines in our hearts ‘to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ (2 Cor. 4, 6) . The Hebrew word for repentance, teshuvah, means to turn our life towards God, and to know God is the true glory of the human being.
The truth is we cannot be looking in two directions, at once above and below, just as darkness is incompatible with light. As Christians we have to make a stand and choose where to pitch our tent: unspotted from the world beside quiet waters in the land of hope, or where doubt and fear reign and where moth and rust corrupt.
We can live as Christians because Christ has taken away fear and doubt from our life. The fear of death is the source of all our anxiety to secure our material existence so that this purpose becomes the idol we serve. The fear of death extinguishes love between people as the other becomes a threat to our existence. But we have been delivered from the fear of death by Christ’s death and resurrection, the devil has been destroyed, and we no longer need to live “all [our] lifetime subject to bondage” (Heb. 2, 15). We have no enemies who can threaten us because “God demonstrates His own love toward us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5, 8) Instead of destroying us in our sins ‘we are reconciled with God through the death of His Son’ (Rom. 5, 10). His inexhaustible life is our inheritance.
Even when tribulations and temptations come, our thought and our peace should be undisturbed for ‘whom the Lord loves he chastens’ (Heb. 12, 6). Moreover, such is Christ’s victory over sin and death that we are to ‘glory in tribulations’ says St Paul in today’s epistle, which ultimately produce hope in us. And our hope will not fail ‘because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us’ (5, 5). Christ says to us in the storms of our life as he did to the disciples in the storm on the lake ‘be of good cheer; it
is I; do not be afraid’. (Matt. 14, 27) and ‘my peace I give to you... let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid’ (Joh. 14, 27).
May we live, therefore, not as our fallen thoughts and worries, but as our faith dictates. Let us use our worries and fears as a springboard to lift up our hearts in prayer for the grace to turn back to God and put Christ and his kingdom at the centre of our life. His light will flood into our hearts and peace and joy will overcome the darkness and disorder within us if, St Theophan the Recluse says, we struggle to think, act and desire that alone which is pleasing to God, coupled with the action of God’s grace within us from our participation in the divine mysteries. Our only concern is for union with Christ. But as the Divine Liturgy teaches us we can only receive the King of all, if we lay aside every earthly care.
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No.14 (21st June 2020)
In our last newsletter, I spoke about some of the Byzantine mosaics that I had seen in Greece and Sicily. Today, I want to focus on an icon in another part of the Orthodox world, which I saw for the first time only ten years ago. It is not a mosaic but a very large fresco, which is painted onto the outside wall of the church of the Voronet monastery in Romania. (I was lucky enough to revisit this church when I was once again in Romania a couple of years ago, for a conference that I had helped to organise.) It is a somewhat complex icon of the Last Judgment. I want to talk about it today because of a book I have been reading this week about the concept of an everlasting Hell.
Before speaking about that book, however, some personal history might be helpful. I’ll start with the fact that by the time I was eight or nine years old, I’d decided that Hell couldn’t possibly exist. My reasoning was that if it lasted ten years, it would have to be pretty bad to be a due punishment for one’s sins. However, I reasoned, if it lasted twenty years then it would have to be only half as bad as that; and if it lasted two hundred years it would have to be only a tenth as bad as if it lasted twenty years. But, I thought, Hell is supposed to last forever. If this is so, I reasoned, then following this line of argument leads inevitably to the conclusion that Hell can only involve a degree of discomfort so small as to be negligible; and a Hell that is bad only at that very low level could hardly be thought of as Hell at all. (It was a bad argument, perhaps, but not a bad attempt for an eight year old would-be theologian!)
As I grew older, I began to look at this topic in a different way, not least because of the Orthodox perspectives which (from the age of eighteen or so) were beginning to become important to me. I read in Metropolitan Kallistos’s book, The Orthodox Church, (written while he was still Timothy Ware) that those who thought of Hell as incompatible with a just and loving God were displaying “a sad and perilous confusion of thought.” While it is true, the Metropolitan went on, “that God loves us with an infinite love, it is also true that He has given us free will, and since we have free will, it is possible for us to reject God. Since free will exists, Hell exists; for Hell is nothing else than the rejection of God. … Hell is not so much a place where God imprisons man, as a place where man, by misusing his free will, chooses to imprison himself.” Even in Hell, the Metropolitan went on, “the wicked are not deprived of the love of God, but by their own choice they experience as suffering what the saints experience as joy. The love of God will be an intolerable torment for those who have not acquired it within themselves.
”This understanding was the one which, until this week, I thought beyond debate in our Orthodox community. Admittedly, I did wonder how the notion of people in an eternal Hell could be squared with a number of biblical statements. (Think, for example, of Romans 5:18-19: “Just as through one transgression came condemnation for all human beings, so also through one act of righteousness came rectification of life for all human beings”; or of 1 Corinthians 15:22: “As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive”; or of Titus2:11: “For the grace of God has appeared, giving salvation to all human beings”; or of 2 Corinthians 5:19: God was in Christ reconciling the cosmos to himself, not accounting their trespasses to them.”) Nevertheless, despite these and numerous similar New Testament passages, I somehow saw the notion of an eternal Hell as central to Jesus’ teachings about judgment - the separation of the sheep from the goats and so on. We must, I thought, believe that an eternal Hell exists as a potential destination beyond the Last Judgment. At best, I thought, we could hope (though we could have no certainty) that this Hell would have no inhabitants, since between their deaths and the Last Judgment there might be, for everyone, a kind of “middle state” in which repentance was still possible. (This “middle state” would be experienced by the Saints as “Paradise” and by others as suffering, since they would have to come to terms with what their lives had been. They would experience this suffering, however, not as “punishment,” as assumed in the Roman Catholic understanding of “Purgatory.”Rather, they would experience the purification necessary before entering into that Bliss which even the Saints would find more perfect than the Paradise that they had experienced up to this point.)
What the book I have read this week has led me to do is to look at this issue more carefully than I had previously done. It was published last year by the Yale University Press, and it is by one of the most interesting theological scholars who are members of our church: DavidBentley Hart. It is called That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation. I should warn you - in case you’re thinking of reading it - that it is not an easy read, since it assumes a knowledge of the history of theological thought that few are likely to possess. It stresses a number of points, however, which when digested are relatively straightforward.The four most important of these points are, in my judgment:
(i) that biblical statements of the kind noted above are far clearer in their meaning than those that apparently speak differently, and that the biblical terms that we translate as “Hell” and “eternal” are far too complex in meaning to lead directly to the notion of an “eternal Hell” – in fact, according to Hart, they most often refer to a temporary state;
(ii) that in the early centuries of the church it was in fact common to take the stance that St. Gregory of Nyssa did – that ultimately all would be saved. (Indeed, as Metropolitan Kallistos notes, Gregory went as far as to say that Christians should pray even for the redemption of the Devil);
(iii) that the arguments based on “free will,” which are often used in conventional defences of the existence of eternal punishment, are not really coherent;
(iv) that the kind of argument I worked out at the age of eight is in fact a good one in certain respects, because punishment should be proportionate to guilt.
There are, it must be said, aspects of Hart’s book that may be questionable, so it can’t be taken as an irrefutable argument on this topic. For me, though, it provides a way of thinking that enlarges the kind of “standard” Orthodox view set out by Metropolitan Kallistos. Hart encourages us, in fact, to adopt the kind of approach we find in the work of some of the Fathers, in which - as he puts it - the biblical statements about judgment and reconciliation point to two different “horizons,” comparable to those we experience when we walk over the brow of a hill and find a different view beyond it. Some biblical images, he argues, speak in terms of judgment and point to the division “between those who have surrendered to God’s love and those who have not.” Others, he insists, “refers to that final horizon of all horizons, ‘beyond all ages,’ where even those who have travelled as far from God as it is possible to go, through every possible self-imposed hell, will at the last find themselves in the home to which they are called from everlasting, their hearts purged of every last residue of hatred and pride.” And as Hart notes, this fits extremely well with what the Apostle Paul speaks of in his first letter to the Corinthians (15: 23-24), when he explains how each event of the “end times” will be in its “proper order; Christ as the first fruits, thereafter those who are in Christ at his arrival, then the full completion, when he delivers the Kingdom to him who is God theFather.”
In practice, Hart’s view is a contested one among Christians, and we may wish to treat it with caution and simply to fall back on Metropolitan Kallistos’s view of the Orthodox understanding. We should note, however, that the Metropolitan admits that “several of theFathers … believed that in the end all will be reconciled to God.” This fact – especially int he light of Hart’s arguments – suggests that we may legitimately question the Metropolitan’s statement that it is “heretical to say that all must be saved, for this is to deny free will.”Whatever our view on this, however, we can surely affirm his further assertion that “it is legitimate to hope that all may be saved. Until the Last Day comes, we must not despair of anyone’s salvation, but must long and pray for the reconciliation of all without exception.”
One criticism of Hart’s book that has already emerged in the Orthodox world is that its message, if widely propagated, would be counter-productive because, as St. John Chrysostom once put it, “we are so wretchedly disposed that, if there were no fear of hell, we would not choose readily to do any good thing” (Homily 5 on Romans). This criticism is, however, surely questionable on two grounds. One is the observation that punishment can be an adequate deterrent even when it is limited in length; it need not be of everlasting duration.(Hart, we must remember, is not claiming that a hell of suffering will not exist for the wicked, nor is he claiming that it is not to be feared. Rather, he is pointing to the way in which, both in the scriptures and in the works of some of the Fathers, there are indications that this suffering may not be everlasting.) The second reason for questioning this criticism is that it is surely too pessimistic about the motivations of believers. Some of us may in the past have gone through a period in which fear of hell has been a major motivation for us. If we are still in that state, however, then we have a long way to go on our spiritual path. If we are mature disciples of the Lord, then our continuing discipleship is not due to fear of hell, but to our sense that to be a disciple is a privilege and is our true calling. In today’s gospel reading, we hear about the calling, first of Simon Peter and Andrew, and then of James, the son of Zebedee, and of his brother John. Jesus didn’t frighten them with threats of hell; he simply said “Follow me.” He says the same to us. We respond, not because of fear but because of love.
With love in Christ,
SERMON ON Matthew 4:18-23
Dear brethren, I would like to share a few thoughts with you about one of the most frequently used and most important words in our vocabulary. I am speaking about the word love. It is a word we all use. It is something we all desire to be the object of. Love is a word the Church uses continuously. But it is the same word that is used by the world, in songs, in poems and in other expressions of the human spirit. The question is, whilst we may be using the same word, do we use it with the same meaning? The Fathers of our Church were not primarily concerned with words but with their content. When the Fathers would engage in dogmatical dispute, it was never solely over words, but over their meaning.
My impression is that though the world and the Church both speak about love their meaning not only differs, but is diametrically opposed. The one is sheer selfishness, whilst the other is utterly selfless. When the world says I love this or that person, this or that group, type of food etc., it is simply expressing what it likes, what ‘I’ like and what makes ‘me’ feel happy. It is, therefore, basically selfish and egotistic. But when the Church invites us to love, it is not telling us to do what we like, but what the other likes, or rather what the other needs. Worldly love is selfish, whilst Gospel love is selfless. The world tells us to think of ‘number one’. That is not completely true. Yes, think of number one; that is correct. But who is number one? The deceitful world will say you are, while the Church will say, no, God and your brother is.
There are three categories of person that we can love: ourselves, our neighbour (other people) and God. Just as in the parable of the talents, where a man called his servants and distributed his goods, so does God distribute to us a certain capital, a certain amount of love. We, just as those servants were, are entirely free to barter with this capital of love as we see fit.
The world invites us selfishly to keep all this capital for ourselves, to love ourselves and no one else, unless they serve our self-interest. Contrariwise, the Church invites us to put ourselves to the side and to invest all our love in God and in our neighbour. That is how we make the capital of love grow and bear fruit, by giving it to the other. He who selfishly keeps this love for himself can be likened to a battery which instead of externalising its energy, greedily keeps it for itself and ends up self-eroding and self-destructing. This is how one contemporary saint described depression. When you keep all your love for yourself, you end up destroying yourself.
Therefore, brethren, let us thank God for the capital of love He has freely and generously bestowed upon us. Let us barter wisely, for example, the Gospel tells us to repay evil with good. Let us be shrewd merchants. Let us not be another Scrooge with our love, thinking just of ourselves. But let us put God first in our lives - and out of love for God - let us love our neighbour as He commands us and as Christ has shown us. And when the day of judgement comes, may we hear, to our humble astonishment, the Lord welcoming us into His Kingdom.
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No.13 (14th June 2020)
When I was much younger, I had a series of summer holidays in Greece, on each of which I tried to get to at least one of the major Greek sites with Byzantine mosaics. Sometimes the sites were difficult to get to, and once you were there it was not always easy to get in. The most difficult of all, in both respects, was a monastery on the island of Chios, where (in typical Greek fashion) they had decided to shut the monastery for several hours each day, the period of closure beginning fifteen minutes before the earliest bus from the nearest town was due to arrive. After a long and bumpy journey on that bus I arrived, in the hope that I could get in somehow. I did so by turning my watch back and claiming that their clocks must be wrong!
Some of the best Byzantine mosaics are, however, not in Greece at all. They are on the island of Sicily, now part of Italy, where the Normans – not the same ones as invaded England in 1066 but some distant cousins of theirs – managed to take over the island and encouraged an extraordinary civilisation which managed to combine Western European, Byzantine, and Moslem influences in a fascinating way. Although they were Western Christians, they employed craftsmen from the Byzantine world, with the result that some of the best Byzantine mosaics to be found anywhere are to be found there. The one shown at the top of this letter depicts the heavenly bodies being created, and is one of a series depicting the days of creation as described in Genesis. (I am trying to persuade the St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press to use this particular mosaic for the cover of my new book, which is coming out later this year, and is called Science and the Orthodox Christian: A Guide for the Perplexed.)
What may strike us about these mosaics is that Christ is depicted as the creator, and we may feel that this is odd because we tend to think of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as being – respectively - creator, redeemer, and sanctifier. Did the Byzantine craftsmen get it wrong, then, by depicting the involvement of Christ in the act of creation, or were they perhaps depicting the Father in terms of the image of Christ because Christ is the image of the Father?
The answer, I think, is more complex than either of those ideas suggest, and it has to do with the way in which all God’s action is Trinitarian action. St.Irenaeus – one of my favourite early Christian writers – once described the Son and the Holy Spirit as “the two hands of the Father,” and we can see this “two hands” notion in the biblical passages that speak of the creation. In Genesis we read, not just of the Father, but of how “the Spirit of God moved [or hovered] over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:2). In a much less well-known passage (Proverbs 8:22-31) we read of how God created the cosmos with Wisdom at his side. In the King James version, this passage (in which Wisdom speaks) is as follows:
The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was. When there were no depths, I was brought forth; when there were no fountains abounding with water. Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth: While as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the highest part of the dust of the world. When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth: When he established the clouds above: when he strengthened the fountains of the deep: When he gave to the sea his decree, that the waters should not pass his commandment: when he appointed the foundations of the earth: Then I was by him, as one brought up with him: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him; Rejoicing in the habitable part of his earth; and my delights were with the sons of men.
While this notion of “Wisdom” is sometimes identified with the Holy Spirit, it is also sometimes identified with Christ himself, who is often described as “the Wisdom, the Word, and the Power of God.” Indeed, the beginning of the fourth gospel speaks of the Word of God - “through which everything was created” -as precisely that which was “made flesh” in Christ (John 1:1-14). Many scholars have, in fact, seen this notion of God’s Word as a bringing together the idea of Wisdom found in Proverbs and a Greek philosophical notion, in which Word means logical principle. (The Greek term is, in fact, Logos, from which we get the English word logic.) Thus, long before the great work of some of the Fathers of the church, in which the doctrine of the Trinity was worked out in precise philosophical language, the scriptures already pointed towards an understanding of the act of creation that involved not just the Father, but the Son and the Holy Spirit too. In our Orthodox tradition, the feast of Pentecost – which we celebrated last week – is often called Trinity Sunday, because it was the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that led to the recognition that God should be seen as theTrinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. However, Western Christians keep theSunday after Pentecost, a week later, as Trinity Sunday, while we - having already had our Trinity Sunday - keep it as All Saints day. (The Western All Saints Day is 1st November.) These differences of date are, however, simply differences of custom. Both sides proclaim God as the Holy Trinity; both sides give thanks that it is through that Trinity that we are created, redeemed, and sanctified; and both sides proclaim the communion of saints.
With love in Christ,
SERMON ON Matthew 10:32-33, 37-38, 19:27-30
Today’s Gospel may sound very radical for modern man, even utopic. It may give an impression that Christ demands something very sombre and drastic: “He who loves father or mother, son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.” Or “he who does not take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me”. Can God, who is love (1 Jn. 4:8), really be teaching not-love? This is unlikely, because all the commandments of Christ are not designed to destroy, but to build, they do not teach hatred, they teach true love: “He did not come as a thief to steal and to kill and to destroy. He has come so that we might have life and have it more abundantly” (cf. Jn. 10:10). How then are we invited today to “leave houses, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for My name’s sake” (Mt 19:30).
St Sophrony the Athonite writes: “Christ belongs to the level that is much higher than our love for our father and mother according to the flesh. We do not reject our father and mothers: it would have been against the commandment ‘honour thy father and mother’. But we ascend to a different height from which these commandments come”. Indeed, if we remain on the level of just human love and attachments in our fallen state it will always will be tainted, to small or large degree, with egoism and selfishness, unless we reach the level of Divine love — love “that does not seek her own” (1 Cor. 13:5). Without this selfless divine love, revealed to us by Christ alone through His commandments, families and family relations will remain fragile and likely to break apart. As St John Chrysostom writes: “Such (selfish) love will destroy both the
one who loves and the one who is loved”. It is this mentality that we are invited to leave behind for the sake of a new beginning, regenerated, transformed by Christ’s message.
God the Trinity is the ultimate example and prototype of the human family, and of all human relationships of love. Neither the Father, nor the Son, nor the Holy Spirit has any shadow of egoism. They live entirely for the Others, never for Themselves. It is this Divine image that all our fatherly, motherly, filial and other family loving relations are designed to reflect. And without Christ and His commandments we will never know what it means to be truly a father, or a mother, or a son or daughter as God has designed them to be — as the image and likeness of God. Christ Himself pointed this out once in front of His Mother, saying: “Who is My mother, or My brothers? Whoever does the will of God, the same is My brother and My sister and My mother” (Mk. 3:33-35). And indeed, the Mother of God BECAME His Mother by doing the will of God, and taking up Her Cross of selfless love. It is remarkable that the Mother of God seems to
almost disappear from the scene of Christ’s ministry, overcoming Her own concerns and interests. She perfectly fulfilled all the commandments of Christ. As well as Her Son She “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give Her life” (cf. Mk.10:45). Following Her example let us all take our Cross of true love and follow Christ in our daily relationship with all the people around us growing in Christ-like selflessness, humility and service to them.
We used to talk about “Whit Monday” to signify the bank holiday that occurred on the day after “Whit Sunday” or “Whitsun” – the feast now more commonly called Pentecost. Some think the term “Whit” came from the wearing of white vestments by the Western clergy on that Sunday (although today those churches use red), or else from the Western custom of women attending church on that day wearing white (which itself was perhaps related to the earlier use of white garments for baptism, this being one of the traditional times for baptism.) Others, however, think the term relates not to a colour but to“wit” – not in the sense of humorous speech but in the older sense of wisdom.This is certainly appropriate for this feast, on which we celebrate the event described in the Troparion for today in terms of the way in which fishermen (the disciples and apostles) were made “wise” through the descent of the Holy Spirit,
The traditional Orthodox icon of this event, shown above, is an interesting one, which indicates something of the way in which icons communicate a number of truths to us in a subtle way that may not at first be obvious. It is not simply a picture of an “event,” although it clearly relates to the historical event recorded in the Acts of the Apostles (2:1-4), and picks up certain elements of that story - the “tongues of fire” for instance, represented by the rays descending upon the gathered apostles (which, in some versions of the icon, have these tongues of fire attached to them.) It conveys to us also an eternal reality.
One example of this pointing beyond a historical event is the way in which the apostles, in their semicircle, include St. Paul, who was not yet an apostle when the Holy Spirit was first given. Another is that the evangelists – Matthew Mark,Luke, and John – are shown holding the books that they had not yet written.(The others hold scrolls indicating their teaching authority.) Luke and Mark were, like Paul, not actually present on the day that we commemorate, but like him they are - through their inspiration by the Holy Spirit - central to the church’s witness. As so often is the case with icons, it is an eternal reality, not just an event, that is being communicated. What is indicated symbolically in this particular icon is the way in which it is the church – not just on one particular day but in all the period since that day - that receives the Holy Spirit.At the focal point of the semicircle of apostles – between St. Peter and St. Paul– is another symbol: an empty place, signifying the invisible presence in the church of Christ, its head. (In some old icons this is indicated by having, in that spot, an altar, the throne of his glory. In others, the Mother of God is shown in this place, not only because she was among those present historically, but as a symbol of her role as one who resembles Christ himself in devotion to the will of God, and thus as one whose life is a pattern for all Christians to follow.)
People often ask who the apparently royal figure at the bottom is. This is a symbol of the whole cosmos, crowned with earthly (rather than heavenly) glory, and shown against a black background to indicate a world enveloped by sin – in“darkness and the shadow of death” (Luke 1:79). This figure is present to indicate that, through the descent of the Holy Spirit, the apostles were enabled to bring light to all the peoples of the world. The figure holds a towel on which sit twelve scrolls, which indicate the teaching of the twelve apostles. Through this preaching, the whole universe will be brought into the “new creation.”
If we were able to meet for the Liturgy on this day, we would bring (or be handed) a small bunch of flowers to hold. In some Orthodox churches, not only are flowers used but the floor is strewn with grass and the building is decorated with branches of trees; in Ukraine this leads to the feast being known as “GreenSunday”. Green symbolises new life, of course, and this is precisely what this feast is all about. (Sometimes there is an emphasis on the flowers used being wild ones, and this reflects the ancient Irish use of the wild goose as a symbol of the Holy Spirit – wild because the Spirit is like the wind that “blows where it wills” (John3:8) and is not to be tamed by our inadequate expectations.
Another popular tradition existing in both West and East is that of decorating the church with roses at Pentecost. This use of roses led to a popular designation of Pentecost as Festa Rosalia "Rose Feast" in the West, and as rousália in Greek. This led to Rusalii becoming the Romanian term for the feast. (In modern times, however, the term in Greek refers to the eve of Pentecost, not Pentecost itself; or, in the case of one part of Greece, to the Monday and Tuesday after Pascha.)However, customs – colourful and even occasionally important as they maybe – are not what Pentecost is really about. St. John Chrysostom was aware of this when he warned his flock not to allow the custom of using flowers for adornment of the church building to replace spiritually adorning themselves with virtue, the fruit of the Holy Spirit. The fruits of the Spirit, St. Paul tells us, are “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). It is only when we have all these adornments as constant aspects of our lives that we can even begin to dare to believe that we have truly achieved what St. Seraphim of Sarov called “the true aim of our Christian life … the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God.”
With love in Christ,
SERMON ON JOHN 7: 37-52 - 8:12
Today, we celebrate the descending of the Holy Spirit on us and dwelling with us. The Holy Church was established through this event, when, on the day of Pentecost fifty days after the Resurrection of the Lord, the Spirit came upon the Apostles on Mount Sion with ‘a sound like the rush of a violent wind.’ In this way, was the Church, the body of Christ, brought into being, and the Church began to live its life in the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit began to live within the Church. And through the apostolic succession the Holy Spirit continues to live in the Church until this day. Hopefully, today, you are reading this sermon in the church, where you regularly worship. At the time this text is being prepared, churches have had to close their doors, as so many people are dying daily of the current pandemic. It may be consoling to think, during such difficult times, that the Holy Spirit, truly, is ‘everywhere present’, and that He is ‘the Heavenly King’ and ‘the Comforter’, who can find us wherever we might be. After all, we ask Him to ‘come and dwell in us.’
We, of course, live the action of the Holy Spirit within the Church, within the body of Christ, and we do not look for it elsewhere, for there are also false spirits, which try to trick us on to deceptive paths. Instead, bearing within us the gifts given to us in and by the Church, e.g. in baptism, Holy Communion, and confession, we can with these gifts survive through such difficult times, in so far as we remain faithful in our hearts to Christ and to His Spirit.
The Holy Spirit lives in our Church, in the sacraments, in the Scriptures, in the souls of the faithful. The holiness of the Church and of the saints springs from the Holy Spirit. Priesthood is established by the Holy Spirit. Our souls are nourished by the grace of the Holy Spirit, and when we feel far from it, in times of spiritual struggle, we may say with groaning, as did St Silouan the Athonite: ‘My soul yearns after You, O Lord, and I seek You in tears. Look upon my affliction, and lighten my darkness, that my soul may rejoice again.’
The question we need to ask ourselves is, whether or not we make it possible for the Holy Spirit to continue dwelling in us and in our Church. As Orthodox Christians, we need both the correct faith but also a life corresponding to this faith to enable the active presence of the Holy Spirit in our communities and our personal lives. That our Church is called ‘Holy’ demands from us, too, an attitude of continuous repentance and the desire to become more and more similar to our Lord, Jesus Christ.
It is very serious, for example, that whilst thousands of people have died owing to the present pandemic, the figure of those who were not allowed even to be born into this world is far higher. Other reprehensible activity that our world is full of, such as, gambling, sorcery, occult, indecent media on the internet, drugs, adultery, immoral relationships, etc., all this is extremely serious from a spiritual and moral point of view for the whole of humanity, and for the Church.
Those living a conscientious Christian life, who have not been involved with any of the above-mentioned evils, should nonetheless not think that they are perfectly all right. We all have sinned and we all fall short of the holiness of Christ and His Holy Spirit. St Silouan teaches that we can lose the love of Christ through ‘pride and conceit, hostility, fault-finding and envy,’ but also ‘because of an incontinent thought or attachment to earthly things.’
Let us all, therefore, join our hearts and minds to these words of the Kneeling Prayers of Pentecost which are said in the Vespers this afternoon and, putting our full trust in our meek and humble Lord, say: ‘Lord, Measure our wickedness according to the measure of Your bounties. Set over against the multitude of our transgressions Your boundless compassion. Look down from Your holy habitation, from heaven, Lord, and bless Your people, who await Your rich mercy.’
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No.11 (31st MAY 2020)
I’ve never taken part in a pub quiz, not because I dislike pubs (I’m actually rather fond of the old-fashioned country kind) but because my knowledge of contemporary culture is almost non-existent, and my team would suffer as a result. I feel that if I did take part, I’d be regarded a bit like the judge who, after hearing a witness refer to the Beatles (this was when Beatle mania was at its height) is reported to have looked puzzled and to have asked “And who, pray, are the Beatles?”
In more abstruse quizzes, however, I sometimes do quite well. When asked the kind of question that stumps a lot of people – such as “Which is the only country in the world ever to have legally banned the celebration of Christmas” – I can often give the correct answer straight away.
The answer to that particular question is, oddly enough, England. The Puritan parliament of 1647 – with its Calvinist suspicion of anything not explicitly to be found in scripture - not only banned Christmas, but declared 25th December to be a day of fasting, and inspectors were appointed to go round checking that no-one was cooking a special Christmas dinner. Not until the restoration of CharlesII in 1660 was the ban removed, though in Scotland after 1688, when the Calvinists there once again got the upper hand, Christmas - while not actually banned - was effectively ignored by the bulk of the population. (This continued until almost within living memory. Christmas was regarded there as an ordinary working day, and those minority churches that celebrated Christmas put on services before dawn so that those of their people who would have to go to work later would be able to join one another for worship before doing so.)
It was, in fact, part of the genius of the ancient, undivided church to have an annual calendar that included feasts and fasts that were not explicitly to be found in scripture. That church had, in fact, a good sense of the realities of human psychology, and recognised the way in which an annual calendar of feasts and fasts fits in with the way in which human psychology – with its evolutionary roots in the seasons of the year – actually works. Of course, some of what the church Fathers decided was appropriate had roots in the OldTestament. The old weekly keeping of the Sabbath - on Saturday, though Scottish “sabbatarians” who call Sunday the sabbath don’t seem to realise this - was replaced by the Sunday keeping of the Lord’s day, the day of resurrection.The Fathers also naturally associated Christ’s death and resurrection with the old annual Passover feast, which had been understood largely in terms of the exodus from Egypt into the promised land, though it was originally a Spring agricultural festival. The resulting date for the Christian paschal feast was therefore tied to the old way of calculating the date of Passover. (This was linked to the first full moon after the Spring equinox, and this linkage remains for our calculation of the date of Pascha. This is why the date varies, though theWestern Christian calculation – based on better astronomical calculations – in fact reflects the intentions of the Fathers better than our own calculation does.)
The important thing, though, is that what has been called the calendar’s“sanctification of time” is an important aid to our spiritual life. This is especially the case at this time of year, since the period from the beginning ofHoly Week up to the feast of Pentecost (in a week’s time) actually allows us to live through the period from Christ’s entry to Jerusalem to the coming of theHoly Spirit in a way that reflects what Jesus’ disciples actually experienced from day to day over that period. Today - the Sunday after the Feast of theAscension - we are, at one level, living through exactly what they lived through after the ascension: waiting for the gift that was promised and rememberingChrist’s assurance that “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Comforter will not come to you” (John 16:7). At another level of our being, however, we are not “waiting” for that gift but are rejoicing in it as a permanent feature of our lives. That is the beauty of the sanctification of time that our calendar reflects. We live at two levels at once: in time and in eternity.In our eucharistic prayer we “remember” both the past (the life, death and resurrection of Christ) and the future (the fulfilment of all God’s purposes through his coming again.) In a similar way, by living through the sequence of all that God has done by following our calendar, the whole of what is commemorated on the different days and seasons of that calendar is made present to us simultaneously.
With love in Christ,
SERMON ON "When he had spoken thus, he knelt down and prayed with them all" (Acts 20:36)
Saint Paul spoke to the leaders of the church in Ephesus about the problems that would arise from false teaching coming both from outside the church and from within to lead people away from the truth revealed in Christ. When he had finished he prayed with those leaders. Praying together was as important as speaking to them. Prayer, opening ourselves to God, should provide the context and framework for all that we do.
The First Ecumenical Council, which we commemorate today, had a model in the meeting of Saint Paul and Saint Barnabas with the Apostles and leaders of the Church in Jerusalem, recorded in Acts 15. This meeting was to resolve a dispute about practical matters, but was rooted in prayer. The conclusion uses the phrase: «it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us». From this we see that the meeting was conducted in prayer in order to find the will of God, rather than being conducted simply to find a majority or a consensus on a purely human basis.
Commenting on Acts 20:36, Saint John Chrysostom describes Saint Paul’s prayer in this context as being «with much feeling» (Homily 45 on the Acts of the Apostles). Our prayer should show the same feeling. We should pray with others and for others, rather than for ourselves. Through our prayer we show our love for one another and enable them to know God’s love for them. Praying for our leaders and with our leaders is an essential part of this to enable them to lead us in the way of God.
Our prayer should leave room for us to listen to God, rather than just talking at him. We need to find God’s will for us, to enable us to follow in the way of truth and to hear "the word of his grace" so that we may receive "the inheritance among all those who are sanctified" (Acts 20:32). The philosopher Kierkegaard reminds us that "the function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays", (Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, 1847). We pray that we may conform ourselves to God and be open to his guidance.
Saint Paul tells us to "pray without ceasing" (I Thes. 5:17). How we follow that instruction will vary, but we should all be moving along the path of making our whole life based in prayer. An anonymous author, writing of Saint Gregory Palamas, states: "Let no one think, my brother Christians, that it is the duty only of priests and monks to pray without ceasing, and not of laymen. No, no; it is the duty of all of us Christians to remain always in prayer". Making prayer the basis of our lives requires work and practice. If we persevere in it then we have a living experience of the presence of God with us and be able to resist those who seek to separate us from the truth. "I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them" (Acts 20:29-30). Praying daily and continually with and for our leaders, as Saint Paul prayed with the leaders of the church in Ephesus, will help us to grow in faith, and enable us to receive the true teaching about God as proclaimed in Scripture and clarified in the works of the Fathers of the Church and in the decisions of the First and later Ecumenical Council.
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No.10 (24th MAY 2020)
Since we shall commemorate the Ascension of Christ this coming Thursday, I have put an icon of that event at the top of this newsletter. The passage in which the event is described – in the Acts of the Apostles (1:6-11) –is of course one with which we are all familiar.
I first became particularly aware of Ascension Day as a seven year old schoolboy, when I moved to the second of the four primary schools that I attended. (No, I wasn’t expelled from three of them, but my father’s job meant that we had to move quite frequently.) This second school was a Church of England one, and on Ascension Day we had to arrive at school at the usual time but then were taken, not to lessons, but straight to the local parish church for a service in honour of the day. We then got the rest of the day off, which of course made Ascension Day a rather special one in the year. Quite how I understood the ascension at the age of seven I can’t really remember. I had certainly outgrown the notion that I’d had at the age of four: that God lived in Devon, where we could have a holiday so as to visit him. (After all, my bedtime prayers always included “Our Father, who art in …) I had probably not yet, however, outgrown the notion of heaven being – as the children’s hymn of that period put it - “above the bright blue sky,” so I imagine that I took the account in the Acts of the Apostles as a straightforward eye-witness account.
However, by the time I was nine or so, I had begun to think of heaven as I still do, not as a place but as a state of being that has nothing to do with the way in which our material universe is set up. By that age I had already begun to take a great interest in astronomy and the possibility of space exploration, so that I can still remember vividly being that age and hearing on the television news about Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. I didn’t, however, think of my faith as conflicting with my knowledge of the solar system, so that although I don’t remember hearing at that time anything about Gagarin’s reported saying that he hadn’t seen God up there, even if I had it wouldn’t have worried me.
It was only quite a lot later that I started to ponder the story of the ascension in the Acts of the Apostles, and wondered why - if heaven wasn’t a place “up there” – the narrative spoke of the disciples “looking intently into the sky as he was going” (Acts 1:10). Surely, I thought, this couldn’t be based on an eyewitness account when the “place” of heaven was so evidently a culturally-influenced mistake. (Certainly, those of Jesus’ time thought of heaven as “up there” but we couldn’t think like that now, could we?) I was tempted to go along with those modernist biblical commentators who saw this passage, not as being based on eyewitness testimony, but as a kind of theological commentary.
Much later still, however, I changed my mind about this. The reason was thatI came to see more deeply into how God communicates truth to us, and how he uses our imagination and expectations to reveal this truth. I knew that the idea of ascension was actually an important one in Jewish thinking at the time ofJesus, and began to realise that the ceasing of Christ being with the disciples in the way that he had since the day of resurrection – a cessation which was necessary for the coming of the Holy Spirit very shortly afterwards - could only be conveyed to those disciples by a visionary experience of him “ascending”into heaven. For that reason, I now believe that they truly did experience – in a visionary rather than a literal way - what is reported in the Acts of the Apostles.
It is sometimes said that we can think of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in terms of God being “for us”, “with us” and “in us.” Like all short formulae it can be used badly, but nevertheless it does point to something important, which is reflected in Jesus saying, according to the fourth gospel, that “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Comforter will not come to you” (John 16:7). Only once God had ceased to be“with us” in the way that he had been - in Jesus’ life before the crucifixion and for a short period after his resurrection - could God be truly “in us” through theHoly Spirit. And as St. Seraphim of Sarov once said, “the true aim of ourChristian life is the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God.” This means that the ascension is to be seen as the essential bridge between the stages of history in which we experience “God with us” and “God in us.” Without it, the true aim of the Christian life would not have been possible.
With love in Christ,
SERMON ON JOHN 9:1-38
Man was created by the Word of God in His image and likeness, to share in the life of God. He was initially given dominion over all plants and animals of the earth, “everything that has the breath of life,” (Gen. 1:30) and the paradise, in which God walked and talked with Adam. This plan was thwarted by the disobedience of Adam and Eve, and the image and likeness to God in them was marred by sin.
The Word of God being conceived and born of the Theotokos, becoming a real man in our historical time; the Son of Man Who shows the image and likeness of God in Himself. And it is this reality which the three gospel readings of the last two Sundays, and today’s Gospel reading, put before us. Note that it is before His Passion and Resurrection, that the Lord heals the Paralytic and speaks to the Samaritan woman. The first had been sick 38 years but had “no man to help him.’ After he was cured and met Jesus again, the Lord admonished him “do not sin again, lest something worse happen to you.” And to the Jews who objected about His healing on the Sabbath He answered: “My Father is working until now, and I am working.”
When the Samaritan woman affirmed “that the Messiah is coming who will teach us all things,” Jesus simply replied “I Who speak to you, am He.”
And today, this poor man who was blind from birth, was healed by the hands of the Lord forming clay from the dust of the earth and His spittle. This repeated the action of creation of Adam (Gen. 2:7) It was the obedience of the blind man, manifesting his faith in this Man he could not see - Who ordered him to the pool of Siloam to wash his eyes - which gave him his sight.
Most of us possess all the normal physical faculties, as did most of the Jews in Jesus’ day. The Gospel is read to us in church; our Christian way of life and thinking is explained further in the Letters of St Paul and other Apostles, also read in church, along with prophecies and lessons from the Old Testament. If we deliberately come late to the Liturgy, and always miss the readings and sermon, what do we know of Christ? Are we obedient to the Church He founded to bring us to life? Do we know more of the Christ than the Jews who interrogated the Blind
Man and his parents after he was given sight by Jesus?
Which of us would not try to appease and evade the real malice of those in authority who had fixed Christ and His followers as the target to be punished, to be shunned by all, like publicans or lepers? The parents answer truthfully, but prudently avoid embroilment in the trouble that threatens. We have every indication, from cumulative signals small and great, that being a Christian today in many parts of the world invites persecution, even to death. So we keep a low profile to avoid trouble. But when it comes, what defence can we give of our faith,
or reason for our hope in Christ?
This man, who knows nothing at all having been blind from birth, sticks firmly to the truth of his story, and resists attempts to make him abjure His Saviour from blindness. He sees the Truth clearly and confesses it. Let us no longer neglect the Christian practice of regular daily prayer, study, and attending church services, so that we too, seeing the Light of the World like the man born blind, may fall down before Him, in grateful worship rather than fearful despair, when we meet the Him at the end of our life.
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No.9 (17th MAY 2020)
Since the archdiocese has been kind enough to give us a document each week that contains not only the Sunday readings but also a short sermon related to them, I have felt free in these newsletters to avoid a sermon of this kind and instead to share with you some of my musings over the week since the last newsletter. This week, like many of us in this lockdown period, I have been doing quite a lot of gardening, and my musings have had a gardening theme.
One of the things that has struck me over the past few days is just how fast weeds can grow, and seem suddenly to appear only a very short time after we think we have carefully weeded the area in which they’re now to be found.Perhaps I’m too inclined to think in theological terms, but I’m struck by how this reflects the way in which we find old, habitual sins reappearing when we think we have got rid of them. Some have wondered whether the Church puts too much emphasis on formal, sacramental confession, and it’s true that theRussian tradition – perhaps under those Western influences that affected it a few centuries ago – tends to put more emphasis on it than do other parts of ourOrthodox Church. Nevertheless, it always strikes me that the practice of regular confession has the same effect as regular hoe-ing or hand-weeding has in the garden: it stops the new growth of unwanted things becoming too rampant, and allows the plants we want – the Christian virtues in this analogy – to grow unimpeded.
This is one of the reasons that - even if we don’t use sacramental confession as regularly as we perhaps ought to – informal confession, as part of our regular private prayer, is certainly something that is necessary. No matter how short the time we feel able to put aside for private prayer each day, we need to reflect regularly on how we have recently fallen short and offer these shortcomings toGod for healing. Once that is done, the adoration, thanksgiving and intercession that should form the other parts of our prayer can go forward, free of the weeds that can impede them. If we confess and repent, then Christ says to us, as he says to the Samaritan woman in today’s gospel: “I do not condemn you; go and sin no more” (John 8:11).
Another of the thoughts that has arisen from my gardening relates to the eternal life for which we hope. Like most gardeners, I look forward to each part of the year because it has its special joys. The daffodils of early April give way to the flowering cherries later that month, which in turn give way to the lilac that is such a delight in early May. That lilac is itself now fading, but the wild guelder rose – which I like even more than the “snowball” kind, of which I have one or two – is just coming into flower in my hedges as I write, and the old-fashioned roses that give me so much pleasure are in bud and will be in their full glory in only a few weeks’ time. Just occasionally, however, I do wish that I could have all these delights at once. However, if I could have everything at once then much of the joy would be lost, since anticipation is an important part of our existence in a world of time. What about the “world to come” though?
We tend to think of eternal life as time going on forever, but another way of looking at it is to see it as reflecting God’s existence outside of time, in whichHe sees all events throughout time “at a glance” (as a medieval writer put it.) If it is the case that nothing that has been good in our earthly life will be lost to us in our eternal life, then perhaps we too will, in eternity, be able to see all those good things “at a glance.” And if there have been things in our life that have not been good, either through our own fault, or the fault of others, or through simple happenstance, then perhaps in eternity we shall see those things too - through God’s forgiveness and through the way in which even evil can be turned to good through His providence - as things in which we can rejoice. When, in theLiturgy, we have the part of the prayer of consecration called the anamnesis –the “remembering” – what we “remember” is not only the past - the life, death and resurrection of Christ - but also the future: his second coming. We“remember” both the past and the future in the sense that both are “made present” to us. Perhaps our eternal life too will involve remembrance in this sense – not a recalling of something that lies in the past but a making present -“at a glance” - of all that we can rejoice in. So perhaps my daffodils, flowering cherries, lilac, wild guelder rose, and old-fashioned roses will, in heaven, flower for me “all at the same time.” And perhaps for all of us, everything that has been good in our lives will be present to us in the same way.
With love in Christ,
SERMON ON John 4:5-42
The Gospel for today is the well known and loved passage concerning the Samaritan woman, who Tradition remembers as St Photini. St John’s Gospel is very carefully crafted with often several layers of meaning and this passage is an excellent example of this.
In the first place we are told that the action takes place at Jacob’s well. Jacob is of immense importance to Jews as he was their universal ancestor, and his name was changed by God to “Israel” after which the whole Nation became known as Israelites. However in this passage we are to think also of two encounters that Jacob had with God. The first was when he dreamed of the ladder going up to heaven with the angels coming and going (Gen. 28:11-15) , and then the time when he wrestled with God after which his name was changed. (Gen. 32:24-29). Therefore by the very name of the place, St John is preparing us for an encounter with God.
At first the woman, a Samaritan, is entirely concerned about material things. Initially with water and then how Christ is to get water out of the well. The Lord however, uses these material ideas to teach about spiritual realities: the water becomes the water of eternal life, so we think immediately of Baptism and then how we are to be sustained eternally by the Holy Spirit. The woman however is not as materially bound as at first appears. When the conversation starts she calls Christ “Lord” which could be merely good manners, but also suggests that she, even at this stage, realises that there is much more to the person she is speaking to, than at first appears.
Following the revelation that Christ knows how many husbands she has, she concludes that Christ must be a prophet. This is an opportunity not to be missed! So she starts to ask all the questions that she would like the answer to, and starts with the issue that divided the Jews and the Samaritans: which temple was the true temple? Where is it that God actually dwells? – In the temple on Mt Zion in Jerusalem or the Samaritan temple on Mt Gerizim in Samaria? Once again the Lord’s answer takes the woman to a new level, a new kind of worship when God will be worshipped everywhere “In Spirit and in Truth”. And here the very word “Truth” reminds us that Christ is Himself the Truth: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”. A concept that is finally revealed at the Lord’s trial, when Pontius Pilate standing face to face with the answer, asks the question “What is Truth?”
Finally St John uses the passage to tell us quite explicitly who the Lord is. The woman says “I know that the Messiah is coming.... He will announce to us all things.” Jesus said to her “I am (ego eimi) the One, that now speaks to you.” (This reflects the question that Moses asked God out of the Burning Bush and Rwas told “ego eimi own” – “I am the One who is”). However she is not yet quite convinced for when she goes into the city, she tells the people to go and see Jesus and asks them the question “This one is not the Christ is he?” The Greek uses the word Μητι which implies uncertainty. But after they have met the Lord, they say to her “We no longer believe because of what you said: for we ourselves have heard, and we know that this one is truly the Saviour of the World, the Christ”.
Thus the Fathers giving us this reading today demonstrate the Truth of our Faith. Jesus is Christ God, the one who saves. Christ is Risen!