OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No.25 (6th September 2020)
The mosaic shown here was created by Byzantine craftsmen working in Sicily. It is part of a series depicting the creation of the world through the divine Word, or Logos, who is Christ himself. This Logos, the fourth gospel tells us, was “in the beginning with God. All things were made by him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1: 2-3).
For Orthodox spirituality, the beauty of God’s creation has always been important, and at the time of the church’s new year, at the beginning ofSeptember, it has become customary to sing an Akathist to God’s creation that was written only quite recently. (In our own community we usually replaceVespers with this Akathist on the first Saturday in September.) There seems to be some doubt about its origin. Sometimes it is attributed to Metropolitan Tryphon Turkestanov, who died in 1934, and sometimes to Archpriest Gregory Petrov, who died in 1940 as a prisoner in a Siberian labour camp, a martyr for the faith. This latter attribution is not surprising, since the Akathist echoes a theme found in a poem written by the martyr shortly before his death:
What is my praise before thee? I have not heard the cherubim singing, that is the lot of souls sublime, but I know how nature praises thee. In winter I have thought about the whole earthPraying quietly to thee in the silence of the moon,Wrapped around in a mantle of white, sparkling with diamonds of snow.I have seen how the rising sun rejoiced in thee, The choirs of birds sang forth glory.I have heard how secretly the forest noises thee abroad,How the winds sing, the waters gurgle, and the choirs of stars preach of theeIn serried motion through unending space.
The important thing about the Akathist is not, however, who composed it but the fact that it reflects something that is central to our Orthodox ethos. It is not only about the creation, but it is worth noting how often the beauty of creation comes into its reflections. Since this is the time of year when we usually sing this Akathist, it seems appropriate to me that, instead of giving you the usual personal reflections that I give you in these newsletters, I should simply give you its full text, either to incorporate in your own prayers or perhaps to read slowly and reflectively before you begin those prayers. This text (in a “you”version rather than the “thou” translation that we usually use) is as follows:
Incorruptible Lord, your right hand controls the whole course of human life, according to the decrees of your Providence for our salvation. We give you thanks for all your blessings, known and unknown: for our earthly life and for the heavenly joys of your kingdom which is to come. Henceforth extend your mercies towards us as we sing: Glory to you, O God, from age to age!I
I was born a weak, defenceless child, but your angel, spreading his radiant wings, guarded my cradle. From my birth, your love has illumined my paths, and has wondrously guided me towards the light of eternity. From my first day until now, the generous gifts of your providence have been wonderfully showered upon me. I give you thanks, and with all those who have come to know you, I exclaim:
Glory to you for calling me into being,
Glory to you for spreading out before me the beauty of the universe,
Glory to you for revealing to me through heaven and earth the eternal book of wisdom,
Glory to your eternity within this fleeting world,
Glory to you for your mercies, seen and unseen,
Glory to you for every sigh of my sorrow,
Glory to you for every step in my life's journey, for every moment of joy,
Glory to you, O God, from age to age.
O Lord, how lovely it is to be your guest:Breeze full of scent; mountains reaching to the skies; Waters like a boundless mirror,Reflecting the sun's golden rays and the scudding clouds.All nature murmurs mysteriously, breathing depths of tenderness, Birds and beasts bear the imprint of your love,Blessed are you, mother earth, in your fleeting loveliness, Which wakens our yearning for happiness that will last for ever In the land where, amid beauty that grows not old,Rings out the cry: Alleluia!
You brought me into this life as into an enchanted paradise. We have seen the sky, like a deep blue cup ringing with birds in the azure heights. We have listened to the soothing murmur of the forest and the sweet-sounding music of the waters. We have tasted fragrant fruit of fine flavour and sweet-scented honey. How pleasant is our stay with you on earth: it is a joy to be your guest.
Glory to you for the feast-day of life,
Glory to you for the perfume of lilies and roses,
Glory to you for each different taste of berry and fruit,
Glory to you for the sparkling silver of early morning dew,
Glory to you for each smiling, peaceful awakening,
Glory to you for eternal life in us, a messenger of heaven,
Glory to you, O God, from age to age.
In the strength of the Holy Spirit each flower gives out its scent - sweet perfume, delicate colour, beauty of the whole universe revealed in the tiniest thing. Glory and honour to God the Giver of life, who covers the fields with their carpet of flowers, crowns the plains with harvest of gold and the blue of corn-flowers, and our souls with the joy of contemplating him. O be joyful and sing to him: Alleluia!
How glorious you are in the triumph of spring, when every creature awakes to new life and joyfully sings your praises with a thousand tongues: you are the source of life, the conqueror of death. By the light of the moon nightingales sing: the plains and the woods put on their wedding garment, white as snow. All the earth is your promised bride awaiting her bridegroom who does not know decay. If the grass of the field is clothed like this, how gloriously shall we be transfigured in the coming age of the resurrection: how radiant our bodies, how resplendent our souls!
Glory to you, bringing from the darkness of the earth an endless variety of colours, tastes and scents,
Glory to you for the warmth and tenderness of the world of nature,
Glory to you for surrounding us with thousands of your works,
Glory to you for the depth of your wisdom: the whole world is a living sign of it,
Glory to you: on my knees, I kiss the traces of your unseen hand,
Glory to you for setting before us the dazzling light of eternal life,
Glory to you for the hope of the unutterable, imperishable beauty of immortality,
Glory to you, O God, from age to age.
How filled with sweetness are those whose thoughts dwell on you: how life-giving your holy Word; to speak with you is more soothing than anointing with oil, sweeter than the honeycomb. Praying to you refreshes us and gives us wings: our hearts overflow with warmth; a majesty filled with wisdom permeates nature and all of life!Where you are not, there is only emptiness. Where you are, the soul is filled with abundance, and its song resounds like a torrent of life: Alleluia!
When over the earth the light of the setting sun fades away, when the peace of eternal sleep and the quiet of the declining day reign over all, I see your dwelling-place like tents filled with light, reflected in the shapes of the clouds at dusk: fiery and purple, gold and blue, they speak prophet-like of the ineffable beauty of your heavenly court, and solemnly call: let us go to the Father!
Glory to you in the quiet hour of evening,
Glory to you, covering the world with deep peace,
Glory to you for the last ray of the setting sun,
Glory to you for the rest of blissful sleep,
Glory to you for your mercy in the midst of darkness, when the whole world has parted company with us,
Glory to you for the tender emotion of a soul moved to prayer,
Glory to you for the pledge of our awakening on the day which has no evening,
Glory to you, O God, from age to age.
The storms of life do not frighten those whose hearts are ablaze with the light of your flame. Outside is the darkness of the whirlwind, the terror and howling of the storm.But in their souls reign quiet and light. Christ is there, and the heart sings: Alleluia!
I see your heaven glowing with stars. How rich you are, how much light is yours!Eternity watches me by the rays of the distant stars: I am small, insignificant, but theLord is with me, his loving hand protects me wherever I go.
Glory to you for the trouble you take for me at all times,
Glory for the people your Providence gave me to meet,
Glory to you for the love of my dear ones, the faithfulness of friends,
Glory to you for the gentleness of the animals which serve me,
Glory to you for the light-filled moments of life,
Glory to you for the radiant joy in my heart,
Glory to you for the joy of living, moving and seeing,
Glory to you, O God, from age to age.
How great and how close you are in the powerful track of the storm; how mighty your right arm in the blinding flash of the lightning; how awesome is your greatness! The voice of the Lord is over the fields and amid the rustling forests, the voice of the Lord is in the birth of thunder and of rain, the voice of the Lord is over the many waters.Praise to you in the roar of mountains ablaze. You shake the earth like a garment.You pile up to the sky the waves of the sea. Praise to you, bringing low the pride of man, bringing from his heart the cry of repentance: Alleluia!
When the lightning flash has lit up the feasting-hall, how feeble seems the light of the lamps. Likewise, amidst the strongest joys of my existence, you suddenly flashed in my soul. After your blinding light, how drab, dull and unreal seemed all those joys!Passionately, my soul would run after you.
Glory to you, the Goal in whom mankind's highest dreams come true,
Glory to you, for our unquenchable thirst for communion with God,
Glory to you, making us dissatisfied with earthly things,
Glory to you, clothing us with the finest rays of your light,
Glory to you, destroying the power of the spirits of darkness, dooming all evil to destruction,
Glory to you for the joy of hearing your voice, for the happiness of your presence and of living in your love,
Glory to you, O God, from age to age.
In the wondrous blending of sounds it is your call we hear. In the harmony of many voices, stirred by the musical tones, dazzled by art's creativeness, we learn from you the splendour of melody and song, and receive a foretaste of the coming kingdom. All true beauty draws the soul towards you in powerful invocation, and makes it sing triumphantly: Alleluia!
The outpouring of the Holy Spirit enlightens the thoughts of artists, poets, and scientists. Their great minds receive from you prophetic insights into your laws, and reveal to us the depth of your creative wisdom. Unwittingly, their works speak of you; how great you are in all you have created, how great you are in man!
Glory to you, showing your unfathomable might in the laws of the universe!
Glory to you, for all nature is permeated by your laws,
Glory to you for what you have revealed to us in your goodness,
Glory to you for all that remains hidden from us in your wisdom,
Glory to you for the inventiveness of the human mind,
Glory to you for the invigorating effort of work,
Glory to you for the tongues of fire which bring inspiration,
Glory to you, O God, from age to age.
How near you are in the days of sickness; you yourself visit the sick; you bend over the sufferer's bed: his heart speaks to you. With your peace you enlighten the soul burdened with affliction and pain: you send unexpected help. You comfort, you are Love, bringing trial and salvation, and to you we sing the hymn: Alleluia!
When in childhood I called upon you consciously for the first time, you heard my prayer and sacred peace came down into my soul. Then I understood that you are good; blessed are those who turn to you. Unceasingly, I started to call upon you, and now I call upon your Name:
Glory to you, satisfying my desires with good things,
Glory to you, watching over me day and night,
Glory to you, calming tribulations and bereavement with the healing flow of time,
Glory to you, no loss is irreparable when you are there, to all you give eternal life,
Glory to you, making immortal all that is lofty and good, promising to welcome the dead,
Glory to you, O God, from age to age.
Why is it that on a feast day the whole of nature mysteriously smiles? Why does a marvellous lightness then fill our hearts, to which nothing earthly can be compared?The very air in the altar and in God's house becomes luminous. It is the breath of grace, the reflection of the glory of Mount Tabor; heaven and earth then sing this praise: Alleluia!
When you inspire me to serve my neighbour, and make humility shine in my soul, one of your deep-piercing rays of light falls into my heart: it then becomes glowing, like iron in the furnace. I have seen your Face, mysterious and elusive.
Glory to you, transfiguring our lives with deeds of love,
Glory to you, making wonderfully sweet each one of your commandments,
Glory to you, clearly present in fragrant compassion,
Glory to you, sending us failures and afflictions to make us sensitive to other people's sufferings,
Glory to you, promising high rewards for precious good deeds,
Glory to you, welcoming the impulse of our heart's love,
Glory to you, for raising love above everything on earth or in heaven,
Glory to you, O God, from age to age.
No one can put together what has crumbled into dust, but you can heal men whose conscience has become twisted; you give the soul its former beauty, which long ago it had lost without a hope of change. With you, nothing is hopeless. You are Love.You are the creator and the redeemer of all things. We praise you with this song:Alleluia!
My God, you know the fall of proud Lucifer. Save me through the power of your grace; do not allow me to fall away from you, do not allow me to doubt you. Sharpen my ear, that at every minute of my life I may hear your mysterious voice; and I call upon you, who are everywhere present.
Glory to you for providential circumstances,
Glory to you for helpful forebodings,
Glory to you for the teaching of your secret voice,
Glory to you, for revelations you give us in dreams or awake,
Glory to you for scattering our vain imaginations,
Glory to you, freeing us from the fire of passions through suffering,
Glory to you, who for our salvation, brings down proudness of heart,
Glory to you, O God, from age to age.
Beyond the icy sequence of the ages, I feel the warmth of your divine Breath, I hear the throbbing of your blood. You are already near: part of time has already gone by. I see your Cross: it is there for my sake. My spirit is but dust before your Cross: here is the triumph of love and redemption, here throughout the ages unceasingly rises the praise: Alleluia!
Blessed is he who will share your mystical supper in your kingdom; but even here on earth you have granted me this blessedness. How many times, with your divine hand, you offered me your Body and your Blood; while I, a great sinner, received these sacred Gifts and felt your ineffable and supernatural love.
Glory to you for the inconceivable and life-giving power of grace,
Glory to you who established your Church as a haven of peace for a tormented world,
Glory to you for giving us new birth in the life-giving waters of baptism,
Glory to you, restoring to those who repent purity white as the unstained lily,
Glory to you, unfathomable abyss of forgiveness,
Glory to you for the cup of life, for the bread of eternal joy,
Glory to you who raise us to heaven,
Glory to you, O God, from age to age.
More than once have I seen the reflection of your glory in the faces of the dead. What beauty, what heavenly joy shone in them! How light their features, now made spiritual! This was the triumph of happiness and peace found once again; in their silence they were calling on you. At the hour of my death, illumine also my soul which calls to you: Alleluia!
How poor is my praise before you! I have not heard the song of the Cherubim, a joy reserved to the souls on high, but I know the praises nature sings to you. In winter, I see how in the moonlit silence the whole earth offers you prayer, wrapped in its white mantle of snow, sparkling like diamonds. I see the rising sun rejoice in you, and I hear the chorus of birds raise a hymn of glory. I hear the forest mysteriously rustling in your honour, the winds sing of your, the waters murmur and the processions of stars proclaim you as they move in harmony for ever in the depths of infinite space.What is my poor worship? All nature obeys you, I do not; yet while I live, I see your love. I long to thank you, pray to you and call upon your Name.
Glory to you, who has shown us the light,
Glory to you, who loved us with a deep unfathomable and divine love,
Glory to you, who blesses us with the light, with a host of angels and saints,
Glory to you, Father most holy, revealing us your kingdom in your commandments,
Glory to you, Holy Spirit, life-giving Sun of the world to come,
Glory to you for all things, divine and most merciful Trinity,
Glory to you, O God, from age to age.
Life-giving and most merciful Trinity, receive our thanksgiving for all your kindnesses; make us worthy of your blessings, so that, when we have brought a profit from the talents you have entrusted to us, we may enter into the eternal joy of our Lord, singing the triumphal hymn: Alleluia.
With love in Christ,
SERMON ON Matt 21:33-42
Today we have a feast dedicated to the Archangel Michael, although his main celebration is on the 8th of November along with Archangel Gabriel. This feast commemorates the great miracle that Archangel Michael performed, when he rescued a church building from destruction. It was the pagans, moved by envy, that wanted to destroy the building and its holy spring by turning the course of two rivers against them. Yet, the Archangel appeared and, by means of the Cross and a great earthquake, miraculously diverted the waters into an underground course and thus saved the building. After that the name of the place changed from Colossae to Chonae, which means "funnels" in Greek.
In the Synaxárion we read, “He appeared like a new Noah, for on the Sixth he caused a rock to appear as a shield against an advancing flood.” This recalls the words in the Second Epistle of Peter, ‘God preserved Noah, a herald of righteousness, with seven other persons, when he brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly’ (2 Pet. 2, 5). It is worth mentioned that in his first Epistle Peter, the water of baptism is compared with Noah’s ark as well: ‘They did not obey in former times, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building
of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water’ (1 Pet. 3,20). Thus, the holy. Baptism which corresponds to the spiritual function of the water now saves us from any evil and corruption: ‘And this water symbolises the baptism that now saves you also, not the removal of dirt from the body, but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ’ (1 Pet. 3,21).
Indeed, we do not stand before Heaven with any confidence except through our incorporation into the death and resurrection of Christ by the water of baptism. And still we need to be on our guard about falling away from faith into the power of evil. In the Apóstolos (Epistle reading) for today we are commanded, ‘Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong’. In this we may address the Archangel with confidence, “Rescue us from dangers, for you are the commander of the powers above’.
Furthermore, as we read a verse from the Praises set for Orthros (Matins) today, we unite our voices with the heavenly powers: “Let those of us who are on earth celebrate God like the angels in heaven; he is seated on his throne of glory. Let us sing to him, ‘You are holy, O heavenly Father, co-eternal Word and all-holy Spirit’’. ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ is the solemn refrain that we hear many times in our worship. It recalls the call of the prophet Isaiah and the song of the angels in the Apocalypse. Our solemn Liturgy this morning unites those of who are on earth with the worship of the heavenly hosts. Among them let the Archangel Michael be our intercessor.
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No.24 (30th August 2020)
This coming Thursday – 3rd September - we shall, on the anniversary of his death, have a Panikhida in remembrance of Leon Liddament at 6 p.m. This will be at his grave in St. Peter’s churchyard in Great Walsingham unless it is raining, in which case it will be in the church (where there are a number of the icons he produced.) All are welcome.
Leon was one of two Walsingham iconographers. The other was Fr. David Meyrick, whose icons on our screen and in our dome are such an important part of our church building. He and Leon came here together in the 1960’s. Without them, our parish would not exist because - although there had previously been a temporary Orthodox presence in Walsingham - it was the group that formed around them in St. Seraphim’s which eventually formed our parish. When our present church building – then the redundant Methodist chapel – came up for sale in the mid-1980’s, the future of St. Seraphim’s was uncertain because the long-term intentions of its landlords were unclear. Fr. David (by this time already in poor health) encouraged those around him – people like Richard,Pauline, and Sylvia, who are still with us - to buy and transform the redundant Methodist chapel and to form a parish to worship in it. This purchase was achieved through a great deal of effort and sacrificial giving, and Fr. PhilipSteer, who had been Fr. David’s deacon, became the parish priest. (It is a joy to us that he and Presbytera Philippa are regular attenders even now.)
At one level, we can see our parish simply as providing a spiritual home for a relatively small number of people (there have never been more than a couple of dozen regular worshippers.) Even if we could say no more about our parish than this, we could still think of it as being of great importance. It may be, however, that we can also see ourselves as something more than this: as being, in addition, an example – along with a growing number of other parishes in the
West – of something that is important for the Orthodox Church as a whole. This example comes from the fact that we are a congregation made up of many different nationalities, and this multi-national character witnesses to the fact that Orthodoxy has a universal mission. (This universal mission is symbolised by the way in which the gospel is read in our Easter service in as many languages as we can manage.) This mission is hampered by the way in which too many Orthodox people – both in “traditional” Orthodox countries and in the West -still think of their faith in terms of their national background. I remember being rather shocked, the first time I visited the Holy Land in the 1980’s, at seeing Orthodox churches that had a sign outside saying “Greek Orthodox Church.” I wondered how on earth a church whose members were mostly Arabs could possibly be “Greek.” I was also shocked, when I asked about this, to be informed that most of the bishops of the Jerusalem Patriarchate were Greeks, and that many of the Arab Christians of the area had left the Orthodox Church to join the Eastern Rite Catholics simply because they felt that, as Arabs, they would be treated better there.
The situation in the Holy Land is, of course, a complex one politically, so that this may not be a good example to use to illustrate the problem I’ve mentioned. Even so, lots of other examples can be found. Our own Ecumenical Patriarch has gone as far as to say that “nationalism remains one of the central problems of the church.” Despite the fact that phyletism – the putting together of ecclesiastical and national identity – was condemned as a heresy at a pan-Orthodox council in Constantinople in 1872, it is still rife among the members of our church. It is phyletism that clearly lies behind the reluctance of many of the “national” churches to re-think the way in which they have set up their own dioceses in the West, outside of their traditional areas of jurisdiction. This setting up of dioceses for particular nationalities may have been justifiable historically for pastoral reasons. Today, however, there can be no justification for continuing to go against the basic principle of church organisation, which is that any particular city, town or village should be in a single, well-defined, territorial diocese. (Arguably, only the Ecumenical Patriarch should have the right to set up such a diocese in Western Europe because, as senior patriarch, he can be regarded as a sort of “locum tenens” in the Patriarchate of Rome.) The present situation – in which more than a dozen Orthodox diocesan bishops believe that they have the right to set up a parish here in Walsingham if they want to – is surely no longer acceptable as a solution to the problem of howOrthodox people in the West should be provided for. Though it is not easy to see how a transition to a proper organisation can be organised, it is clear that there is an urgent need for a pan-Orthodox council that will deal with this issue.
What has this to do with our own parish? Well, the important point, as I see it, is that this “political” situation in relation to the various “national” churches is reflected in many of the parishes that they have set up in the West. Too many of these parishes have remained the spiritual equivalents of ethnic ghettoes. Our own parish and those like it are, by contrast, examples of the kind of multi-national parish that should become increasingly the norm in the West. The example that we set does not arise from any particular virtue that we have, but simply from the way in which our creation and development have come about. One important factor in many of these multi-national parishes is the presence of people from non-Orthodox countries who are converts to Orthodoxy. (Indeed, in some parishes, such as ours, they form the majority.) Another is the way in which immigrants to the West have sometimes found themselves far from an Orthodox parish set up to serve their compatriots but near to another parish which they have decided to attend: either a parish that is already multi-national or else one that now has its national identity diluted by their presence.
The result of factors such as these has been that the atmosphere of these multi-national parishes has become less defined by a particular national heritage and more expressive of a kind of Orthodoxy to which no national label can readily be attached. For many members of such parishes, it was now only in formal jurisdictional terms that such labels continue to have any meaning. Rather than describing ourselves as “Greek” or “Russian” Orthodox (or whatever else might still technically be the case) we often simply use the term “Orthodox” or“Eastern Orthodox.” And because of their makeup, parishes like ours have often found it appropriate to follow the longstanding Orthodox practice of adopting the main local language in worship. (The most famous historical example of this is the translation of scriptural and liturgical texts from Greek into Slavonic, begun by Saints Cyril and Methodius in the ninth century.) In parishes like ours, we use English, not because we are “English Orthodox” but because we are“local” Orthodox in a country in which the main language happens to be English, so that it is more likely to be understood by the majority of parishioners than is any other.
The real point of all this is quite simple: as Christians, we can certainly be fond of our original homelands and cultural backgrounds, just as we can be fond of our families. We can never, however, be nationalists, especially in our church life. Rather, as St. John Chrysostom once put it:If you are a Christian, no earthly city is yours. Of our City ‘the Builder and Maker is God.’ Though we may gain possession of the whole world, we are but strangers and sojourners in it all. We are enrolled in heaven: our citizenship is there! Let us not, after the manner of little children, despise things that are great, and admire those which are little! Not our city’s greatness, but virtue of soul is our ornament and defence”
With love in Christ,
SERMON ON Matthew 19:16-26
“Why do you call me good? One there is who is good (that is, God.)” It is no great surprise to say that the New Testament, and Scripture in general, can be difficult texts for a modern person to get to grips with. As with anything in our faith, we are separated from the context and history of our faith by a variety of different factors, including our society, our lack of historical and even “cultural” knowledge. That is why it is of paramount importance to know and to seek to find out just what the teachings of the Church are, to be informed and edified by them.
Take as an example, the above statement by Christ “One there is who is good”. What does He mean? Is He denying his divinity? Not quite; St. John Chrysostom explains to us that the rich young man considered Jesus a mere man and one of the crowd, and a Jewish teacher. For this reason, he spoke to Jesus as he would to any other man. St Theophylact, in his well know gospel commentary explains in far more terse terms: “This means ‘If you call Me good thinking I am one of the teachers, you speak wrongly, for no man is essentially good’, both because we are changeable and easily turned away from good; and because, by comparison with God’s goodness, human goodness is counted as wickedness”. It must be noted at this point that Christ says this not to deprive men of their goodness, but in order to make a direct contrast to the goodness of God.
It is also important to emphasise the great affection with which Jesus treated this young man. Jesus sees the good will with which the young man comes to see Him, and indeed sees the goodwill in all of us who try to approach Him with love and understanding. Jesus looks upon the young man with compassion, and though the young man has done everything he needs to, in accordance with the Law of Moses, he still needs to internalise that loving righteousness that the Law was directing the Jews to attain. “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me”. Unfortunately, the young man was unable to do so, for he had many possessions.
Jesus’ sorrow at the failure of the rich man is not directed against riches, but at those who are held in subjection by them. We are sometimes more interested in our material goods than our own true “spiritual” inheritance. We concentrate on buying the best birthday presents and forget to go to Church at Christmas to celebrate Christ’s birthday. We strive to give our children the best secular education possible but neglect to set aside even a few minutes a day for prayer or educating ourselves about our faith. Then, we wonder why our children are
indifferent and resistant to going to church. We will follow the highs and lows of our favourite football team, singers, or influencers, and dream of emulating them, yet we look with scorn and derision when a young person wants to follow Christ or even contemplate a future serving the Church!
All of this may be to a greater or lesser extent true in our lives, yet we should not despair. One of the important lessons that the current pandemic has taught us is the real value of what is important. The realisation that these material things are transient, they truly are insignificant in the great scheme of our lives. Let us remind ourselves therefore that “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of Lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” Let us learn to love God truly, leaving behind all the material and worldly cares of this life. Finally, let us remind ourselves of the words of the Evangelist John, who says, “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love”.
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No.23 (23rd August 2020)
Our epistle reading for today is very interesting because it contains comments by the Apostle Paul about the other apostles’ wives. It’s a reminder to us that our present custom of having only unmarried bishops was not a feature of the earliest church.
Why, in the course of the church’s history, did this change? The answer seems to lie in the way in which, in the fourth century, the church - after centuries of sporadic persecution - suddenly became respectable and even fashionable, with support from the most powerful people in society. This posed a problem as well as an opportunity. The opportunity was that it was now easier to get a hearing among non-Christians and to spread the gospel. The problem was that some of the non-Christians who now accepted the faith did so, not out of conviction, but because it was a way to “get on” in life. One of the results of this new situation was that the monastic life – which had existed only in an embryonic way up to this point – suddenly took on a new relevance, since it was able to provide an example of living a life that pointed unambiguously to the need to “seek first theKingdom of God and his righteousness (Matthew 6:33).” Many went into the desert (or its equivalent) to live a life wholly devoted to God, and the good result of this was that the monastic life could be seen as a kind of pattern forgetting priorities right that all could follow, even if non-monastics would have to do it in a different way. The bad result was that the vocation of the majority –to live a life in the world with a family, which required an income to support that life – came gradually to be undervalued by some.
One of the outcomes of the high esteem in which monastics were held was that bishops – who at this stage were still elected by the members of their diocese – tended to be chosen from those who had adopted the monastic life. It was assumed that those who were elected and were already married would separate from their wives and become monks (though at least one is reported to have refused to do this and to have been allowed to keep his wife with him.)After a time, however – from about the sixth century onwards - only unmarried men were elected, and some even began to wonder whether even the more junior clergy should also be celibate. However, the Orthodox Church never took this idea up in the way that the Roman church did a few centuries later, and our ordinary parish clergy are still usually married.
The Orthodox custom of choosing bishops from among the unmarried had –and still has – real advantages. The bishop is someone who really can devote himself to his diocese without having to worry about providing for a family and giving them enough of his time. Nevertheless, it has the disadvantage that it can seem to suggest that somehow the life of ordinary, married people is a second-class one. This was certainly a view that some mistakenly took in the early centuries, and it became necessary, in this situation, for the church to stress, inits marriage service, that marriage is honourable and must, indeed, be seen as a sacrament. As Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia has observed, married life,“no less than the life of the monk, is a special vocation, requiring a particular gift or charisma from the Holy Spirit.”
The monastic life is, nevertheless, a very special kind of vocation, and those who respond to this vocation provide for all of us a kind of example of getting our priorities right. Often, the monasteries provide a kind of spiritual powerhouse from which laypeople and the married clergy can draw inspiration.In this country, the monastery in Tolleshunt Knights in Essex has certainly had this effect for many, and the fact that its founder is now recognised as Saint Sophrony is something that is an inspiration to Orthodox in this country. On the next page you will find two photographs of him – one as a young monk on Mount Athos, and one as a much older one in Essex - as well an icon of him (of which a copy has been given to our church by Subdeacon Ian.) The photographs remind us that he was a real human being – one with whom members of our congregation have spoken. The icon reminds us of both his sanctity and the sanctity to which all of us are called, whether through the monastic life that he chose or – as for most of us – through the life of the ordinary Christian believer.
With love in Christ,
SERMON ON Matthew 18:23-45
It is an unfortunate symptom of the fallen human state that we apply different standards - often unconsciously - to ourselves than to other people; as if we ourselves were entirely perfect and innocent, while others who show faults and weaknesses should be brought to justice, disgraced or punished. Even more unfortunately, this may lead us, like the first servant in today’s parable, to attack others for the very same faults that we ourselves suffer from, but conveniently forget. As a result, human attempts at inter-personal justice are at best a messy hypocrisy and at worst a brutal cycle of revenge. But fortunately, God’s justice is a very different matter - not that of a petty tyrant, but of a truly noble King and Father, who is kind and merciful to the good and bad alike, in order to lead us all to repentance through the hope of forgiveness, so that having been forgiven we too might through gratitude increase
in likeness to our heavenly Father and become ourselves merciful to others as He has been to us, even to the extent of striving to love our enemies. But knowing how shallow or short-lived human repentance can be, God warns us in this parable that if we are unforgiving to others, so too God will be unforgiving to us: if we want justice, then that will have to apply to ourselves too; the measure we give will be the measure we receive; if we are merciful, we shall obtain mercy. We cannot have one standard for our self and a different one for others.
Yet many people still find forgiveness very hard, often because of blind pride or anger. Christ’s teaching on forgiveness, however, is very practical and not just an inaccessible ideal, only for saints, as some people think. If I want someone who has treated me badly to see that they are at their fault, I could try to forgive them, and they will then have the space to realise their fault; but if I attack them, even in my mind, they will justify themselves all the more, or even blame me because of the pressure of my anger. And - who knows? - maybe I myself am not without fault in the matter, since conflicts usually have two sides. If I can then ask forgiveness for my own part, I will enable the other to do the same and we can have peace and reconciliation - heaven instead of hell. If someone wrongs us, it is not un-Christian to ask them, in a calm spirit, to account for what they have done. We may then realise that there has
been a mutual misunderstanding, as is so often the case.
But above all, true forgiveness needs to be the fruit of our own repentance and humble confession of our own weaknesses. The more we ignore our own shortcomings, the more we will find those of others unbearable, because we cannot endure the reality of our own state and live in a fantasy. The reality is that we are all fellow-servants of God, and all of us more in His debt than we could ever repay. We all need the forgiveness of God, and, as we know from this parable, that depends on our own willingness to forgive our fellow-servants. So by forgiving those who grieve us, we too can draw down the forgiveness of God for our own sins, many and great as they are. If the insult, injury or injustice which we receive at the hands of others is indeed completely undeserved, then let us rejoice that we are called to heavenly crowns for patience, compassion and love; to the perfect example of forgiveness shown to us by the sinless Christ Himself, who was mocked, scourged, spat upon and crucified, but
said, ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’.
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 email@example.com) 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
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Please notify the Treasurer or the Clergy if
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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.’