OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No.76 (12th September 2021)
This coming Tuesday (14 th September) is Holy Cross day, and in our liturgy on Sunday the readings reflect this forthcoming feast. Traditionally, Orthodox churches in this Holy Cross season have a cross laid in a bed of basil in the middle of the church because it is one of the occasions of the year on which our contemplation is focused on the cross, though not in quite the same way as it is on Good Friday, when we are caught up in the events of the day of our Lord’s death. Even on that day, we venerate the cross with a sense of anticipation of the resurrection, singing at Mattins:
Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the Cross. He who is King of the angels is arrayed in a crown of thorns. He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery. He who in Jordan set Adam free receives blows upon His face. The Bridegroom of the Church is transfixed with nails. The Son of the Virgin is pierced with a spear. We venerate Thy Passion, O Christ. Show us also Thy glorious Resurrection.
On feasts like the one we celebrate now, however, the link with the resurrection is even more strongly stressed, and what we tend to stress is Christ’s victory over the powers of evil and death, together with what our blessing prayer calls “the power of the precious and life-giving cross.”
This is a very ancient Christian emphasis, and the fact that it was not peculiar to Eastern Christianity is - as I said in the Newsletter a year ago - shown by the famous Anglo-Saxon poem, The Dream of the Rood, written in about the eighth century. (Rood simply means “cross,” and we still talk about the “rood-screen” that is to be found in some old English churches, which traditionally had a cross at the top) This poem seems to have been written only shortly before the carving of the Anglo-Saxon cross in Ruthwell, Dumfrieshire (then part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria), which has part of the poem carved on it in runes. (This is shown in its present site - in Ruthwell’s parish church). As well as having a panel showing Christ trampling on the beasts (a symbol of victory over of evil) this cross is a reminder of the unity of the church in those days, since it has another panel showing a scene that is to be found in other early Christian monuments of Britain, indicating ancient British links with, and interest in, the monasticism of the Christian east. This panel shows St. Anthony with St. Paul (the first hermit) sharing bread in the desert of Egypt.
Most of us find that, because the English language has changed so much, the Dream of the Rood, when written in its original Anglo-Saxon, is impossible to read now, so that we need a translation. Translated into modern English, the poem begins: Listen! The choicest of visions I wish to tell, which came as a dream in middle-night, after voice-bearers lay at rest. It seemed that I saw a most wondrous tree born aloft, wound round by light, brightest of beams.
This “wondrous tree” was the cross, and the poem goes on to give the cross’s own account of what had occurred when Christ was nailed to it. This account focuses on the victory of a kind of warrior. This imagery appealed to the Anglo-Saxon mind, which was still to some extent a pagan one, and the poem has sometimes been seen as an essentially pagan version of the Christian message. To see it in this way is, however, surely wrong, since this kind of victory imagery was common in early Christianity. If, for example, we look at an early Western Christian writer like Venantius Fortunatus – a bishop who wrote in the late sixth century - we find a very similar sentiment. In one of his Latin hymns, Pange Lingua (in the translation made by J. M. Neale) two of the verses are as follows:
Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle, Sing the ending of the fray; Now above the Cross, the trophy, Sound the loud triumphant lay: Tell how Christ, the world's Redeemer, As a Victim won the day. Faithful cross, true sign of triumph, Be for all the noblest tree; None in foliage, none in blossom, None in fruit thine equal be; Symbol of the world's redemption, For the weight that hung on thee!
This hymn became a standard part of the Western services for Good Friday, and it has precisely the same kind of stress on victory as does The Dream of the Rood.
Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia has said that “Orthodox feel thoroughly at home in the language of [this] great Latin hymn,” but modern western Christians tend “to think of the crucifixion in isolation, separating it too sharply from the Resurrection. As a result, the vision of Christ as a suffering God is in practice replaced by a vision of his suffering humanity; the western worshipper, when he meditates upon the cross, is encouraged all too often to feel a morbid sympathy with the Man of Sorrows, rather than adore the victorious and triumphant king.”
At this feast of the cross we can, if we follow the Orthodox and ancient Christian understanding, truly adore the victorious and triumphant king.
With love in Christ,
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No. 74 (29th August 2021)
Today is the day on which we remember the beheading of St. John the Baptist and Forerunner. A well-known icon of the church shows Christ the Ruler of All (Pantocrator) – with St.John on one side and the Mother of God on the other. It is usually known as the deesis icon, (meaning “entreaty”.) In early examples, it was often placed in the church building on the templon beam or above doors, though it also appears on icons and devotional ivories. One of the most famous examples is a mosaic in the church of the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) in Constantinople.
After the development of the full iconostasis screen, there was room, at least in large church buildings, for a larger "Deesis row" or "Great Deesis" of full-length figures, and the number of figures expanded. (In small churches like ours, however, there was insufficient room for this.) Usually, this row is to be found above the level of the doors, and usually below (but sometimes above) the row depicting the Twelve Great Feasts. The central Christ is therefore above the main door in the screen. Soon seven figures, usually one to a panel, were standard. In order of proximity to Christ in the centre, there were: on the left (Christ's right) the mother of God, the Archangel Michael and St Peter, and on the right St. John the Forerunner, the Archangel Gabriel and St. Paul. Especially in Russian examples, a number of saints of local significance are often included behind these, as space allows, while in the Greek tradition the Apostles are more likely to occupy extra panels. The presence of the mother of God and St. John is one of the differences with the Western Christ in Majesty, where the four evangelists and/or their symbols are more commonly included around Christ.
Why were the mother of God and St. John the Forerunner the figures placed nearest to Christ? One reason was that they represent the peak of Old Testament piety, each in a different way contributing directly to what was to be done by Christ himself. However, while the mother of God has retained her place in the popular Orthodox understanding of the links between the old and new covenants, there is perhaps a tendency for St. John to seem less important. It was, however, his preaching that prepared people to respond to Christ, whose shoes, he said, he was unfit to untie (see today’s epistle reading.) He is seen by us as the last and greatest of the prophets and, like the mother of God, he is a particular reminder to us of how, through the law and all the previous prophets, there had been a long preparation for the coming of Christ. He is also a reminder that the vocation of the prophet is no easy one, and may – like the vocation of any Christian - end in martyrdom.
St. John the Forerunner and Baptist pray for us.
With love in Christ,
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No. 71 (1st August 2021)
Friday will be the Feast of the Transfiguration, our patronal festival. As usual when this feast occurs on a weekday, we shall celebrate it as a parish on the following Sunday, when the liturgy will be followed by our annual parish picnic. I will send the details nearer the time but – as I did in the last newsletter - I would ask you now to regard this as something you really ought to attend (and bring friends or family if you can.) It will be so lovely if most of us can get together in a way that builds up our common life.
The transfiguration is the event in which Jesus was seen, radiant in glory, by three of his followers: Peter, James and John. It is described in three of the gospels (Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8, and Luke 9:28-36) and is alluded to in the second letter of Peter (2 Peter 1:16-18) (and possibly also in the prologue of the fourth gospel (John 1:1-14.))
In Greek, the term used for transfiguration is metamorphosis – a term that in English we use only to refer to the abrupt change in appearance of creatures like butterflies when they emerge from the pupa stage of their lives. This English use of the term metamorphis provides us with an interesting way of thinking about what Peter, James and John experienced. Until early modern times, people thought that a caterpillar dies when it enters the pupa stage, and that the butterfly that emerges from what seems to be putrefaction is a different creature altogether. In a similar way, many people see our own deaths as leading to nothing that can be thought of as continuous with the beings we have been on earth. What Peter, James and John saw was, however, a pointer towards something different. They saw Jesus with Moses and Elijah, and these two Old Testament figures were always seen as pointing towards the age to come.
In that age, according to Christian belief, we shall have bodies that are different to our present ones but also continuous with them in an important way. We too will undergo a kind of metamorphosis after we “fall asleep in the Lord,” casting off what some of the Fathers called our “garments of skin” and living in a “resurrection body.” Like Jesus’ body – both on the mountain and after his resurrection - this resurrection body will be continuous with our earthly body but also very different: it will be glorified. As St. Paul once put it (1 Corinthians 15:44): our body will be “sown in dishonour and raised in glory, sown in weakness and raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.”
What was experienced by Peter, James and John was, then, a foretaste, not only of what was to be experienced by the disciples after Jesus’ resurrection, when he appeared to them in a body not limited by natural constraints (such as closed doors.) It was a foretaste also of what ultimately all of us are called to: nothing less than the glory that comes from becoming “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).
With love in Christ,
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No. 70 (25th July 2021)
I’d like to remind you that in two weeks’ time – on 8th August, the Sunday after the Feast of the Transfiguration – we shall have our patronal festival liturgy followed by our traditional parish picnic, to which everybody contributes some food (though if you are unable to bring food there will always be enough to go round). I will send the details nearer the time, but would ask you now to regard this as something you really ought to attend (and brings friends or family if you can). Because of the Covid problem, it has been a very long time since more than a few of our parishioners and friends have been able to get together at any one time, and since any parish is a kind of “family” we should regard out patronal feast not only as important religiously, because of the event it commemorates, but also as a kind of family gathering. For me, one of the joys of being the parish priest here has been the sense that we are, in fact, not the kind of family that goes in for family squabbles, but the kind in which there is a great deal of mutual support and affection. It will be so lovely if most of us can get together in a way that builds up our common life.
Before I end, a reminder that Ian will be giving a talk about St. Maria of Paris in eight days’ time, on Monday 2 nd August, at 7 p.m. This can be watched - provided you have registered in advance – on Zoom. To register, click onto: https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZEtdu2pqT8uGNLWPSe3iA5Tq6WAJplpLf.
With love in Christ,
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No. 69 (18th July 2021)
I’m not going to speak about anything theological in this Newsletter, but simply remark on how extraordinary it is that we’ve now reached our 69th Covid Newsletter – something that was hardly imaginable when the series of Newsletters started. Even now, as you all know, the future of the pandemic is uncertain, though the vaccination programme has certainly reduced the probability of death in any individual case of infection. Whether the government is right in doing away with all legal restrictions is not something I’m going to comment on here, but inevitably the controversy surrounding that decision has knock-on effects for us as a congregation.
These led, this week, to a joint meeting of our Trustees and Parish Advisory Council, at which we discussed whether – and how far – to ease the restrictions in our services that up until now have had legal backing. Taking into account both the difficulties of ventilation in our church building and the views that parishioners have expressed, the meeting decided that for the time being we should maintain the restrictions of the last few months. This means, among other things, that we will still restrict numbers to four “bubbles” at any service and, if you want to attend a service in person, you will need to apply to me for a place during the previous week and, if given one, you must wear a mask when you come. The safeguards relating to receiving the sacrament at the Liturgy will remain in place. The only change will be that we will remove the “netball court” markings on the floor, indicating bubble areas, since by now we are all aware of how each bubble gets roughly a quarter of the floor area for its use, and these markings are no longer useful.
We will review the situation in September, by which time the consequences of the government’s decisions will be more evident. Obviously we hope that a return to something like “normal” may be possible then. In the meantime, if you are reluctant to come to church even with these safeguards in place, don’t forget that I am always willing to bring communion to your home, using the service for communion of the sick, and that we will continue to put out our services on Zoom roughly every other week.
With love in Christ,
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No. 68 (11th July 2021)
This is the Sunday on which all the “New Martyrs” are commemorated. By this term we mean those who, in relatively modern times, have died for their faith. In the Greek church the emphasis is often on the “New Martyrs of the Turkish Yoke” – those in the Hellenic world who, in the centuries under Ottoman rule after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, often suffered for their faith. In the Russian church, the term “New Martyrs” is usually used to refer to those who, after the revolution of 1917, suffered under the Bolsheviks. (It is estimated that more suffered death for their faith in these years than in the first three hundred years of the church’s life).
One modern martyr – one of my favourite saints (partly because she was a bit idiosyncratic and did not always “follow the rules”) - will be talked about in a Zoom talk by Subdeacon Ian at 7 p.m. on 2nd August, as part of a series of talks organised by the Orthodox Fellowship of St. John the Baptist. You will need to register to watch the talk, and the details of how to do this (and of the whole series of talks) may be found by clicking onto: https:/forerunner.org.uk/our-news/
The saint he will be talking about is Saint Maria (Skobtsova) of Paris, who died in a Nazi concentration camp on Holy Saturday in 1945, having been sent there for helping Jews in Paris during the German occupation, providing false baptismal certificates so that they could pretend not to be Jews. It is sometimes said that she voluntarily went to her death, taking the place of someone else who had been chosen.
A “martyr” is not only, however, one who suffers death to witness to the faith. The term simply means “one who witnesses,” and in the early Irish church there was sometimes talk of kinds of martyrdom other than the “red” sort that involved the spilling of blood. A seventh century homily put it this way: White martyrdom consists in a man’s abandoning everything he loves for God’s sake, though he suffer fasting or labour thereat. Green martyrdom consists in this, that by means of fasting and labour he frees himself from his evil desires, or suffers toil in penance and repentance.
To witness to our faith is possible, of course, in many other ways. It can involve any act in which we go out of our way for someone else, witnessing to the command to “love your neighbour as yourself.” It can be as simple as admitting to friends and acquaintances that we find our faith meaningful, despite the fact that we live in a world in which many (including perhaps these friends and acquaintances) will think us “a bit barmy” because of our faith. What we cannot do, as Christians, is to hide our faith and try to live “like everyone else.” What will you do this coming week that witnesses to your faith?
With love in Christ,
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No. 67 (4th July 2021)
Today is the Sunday on which we commemorate All Saints of Britain and Ireland. Very recently I found on the internet a sermon by Fr. Gregory Hallam for this day, which (though much longer than sermons in our Russian tradition usually are) says much what I would want to say, so I shall fill up this Newsletter with that sermon.
A Land of Saints Again A Sermon preached by Archpriest Gregory Hallam in the Summer of 2013
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen. This is the feast of all the Saints of Great Britain and Ireland. We may summarise this as the feast of the Saints of the Isles. Now, it is a bit of a revelation to many people that the Orthodox Church venerates the Saints of the west. Well we do, in fact we venerate the vast majority of them and I will explain why this is the case in a moment. There is a great Greek saint of the island of Paros, St Arsenios, who lived in the 19th century. He said this, “when the church of the British Isles begins to venerate her own saints, then the Church will grow”. But can the Isles ever again become a land of saints in the same way that she once was? Well of course she can. Indeed, looking back over the second millennium, not all the people that might be recognised by the Orthodox Church, by canonisation, by glorification, are actually listed. They are known to God. We need to look into the history of this a little, so bear with me.
Thousands, yes thousands, not just a few of the friends of God, the saints, sanctified these isles. Bardsey Island in Wales itself hosted many hundred although popular lore calls this remote place the land of 20,000 saints! So we are not talking here about an isolated phenomenon. The calendar of the Saints of the Isles is so huge that few, if any churches celebrate them all … and yes, they are all Orthodox …. Western Orthodox! Strikingly, however, in the 2nd millennium barely a handful made it into Rome’s calendar. In fact before the Reformation, when Christians started killing Christians, the number of British saints in the 500 year period since the Norman Conquest was precisely thirteen; thirteen in 500 years! Actually all of these were in the first 250 years, none in the second 250 years and only two after the Third Crusade […] If you contrast this paltry few with the thousands of saints glorified before the Norman Conquest in 1066 then any observant historian, not just a woman or man of faith, would have to ask – why this big change from so many thousands to a number little more than that spanned by two hands? One of the reasons is that it became just so expensive to present a case to Rome for the making of a Saint in the 2nd millennium, a process that became more and more centralised and removed from the local churches of the west. There are many other reasons but I don’t have time to go into these now. For now we just need to be aware of this development.
It may have taken a long time but, increasingly in the west, concerned Christians became much more vocal. For 150 years before the reformation there were stirrings of dissatisfaction in England. Prominent amongst those who felt this way was a man called John Wycliff and he made the following observation which I think is highly significant. Now remember, when he talks about: “the pride of the Pope” he was not being anti-Catholic. He himself was a Catholic Christian who did not desire to leave the Church but he was facing active persecution from Rome based on his alleged involvement with sectarians. That aside, I want you to concentrate on the second part of what he said not particularly the first in these good ‘ole ecumenical days’! This is what he said in 1383 in his work on ‘Christ and his Adversary’:“The pride of the Pope is the reason why the Greeks are divided from the so-called faithful. It is we westerners, too fanatical by far, who have been divided from the faithful Greeks and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Now John Wycliff is commonly taken to be a great Protestant hero, but remember he was a pre-Reformation Catholic Christian. As such he led the way in having the sense that the problems arose from the west being out of sync with the Church of the East. “The Greeks” was a common reference by folk at the time to “that lot who broke away from us in 1054” – the so called Great Schism. Of course, we Orthodox say that it was the west that broke away from us in 1054 albeit that the growing estrangement spanned several hundred years. Notice that the Norman invasion took place just 12 years after the Great Schism and in many ways the Normans were complicit in the split as we shall see. We now have an historical context for the apparent drying up of the saints in the Isles in the 2nd Millennium. This certainly does not, however, imply the absence of sanctity itself on British soil in the 2nd millennium. As I have said, God has billions of friends and is not limited by our sinful situations. Who makes it into the list of saints after 1066 is another matter entirely. This had more to do with the way with which the Latin Church handled and nurtured sanctity. The way in which this happened lies beyond the scope of this little homily, but we might say that Christianity, in some sense, went underground. The accounting for this lay not so much with Rome initially but rather with the Franks, because the Frankish agenda, shared fully by the Normans, was to re-establish the power of a western imperium.
The existence of a ‘Greek church’ or more accurately Constantinople as New Rome was frankly an embarrassment and a frustration of that end. You may recall that in the controversy over the filioque, the Pope at the time resisted this unilateral change to the Creed and had the original version inscribed on silver tablets and installed in the Church of St Peter in Rome. However, it was the Franks who pressurised Rome subsequently to accept it. It was the Franks who pushed forward the agenda of removing the holy icons from western churches in favour of statuary. In all of this the Franks and their Norman Plantagenet cousins wanted to put clear blue water between east and west in what became known as the Carolingian Renaissance. This then is what Wycliff was referring to; the tragic pushing away of the western Latin church from its fellowship with the Greeks. With that developed an increasing fanaticism in the west. That’s the history. If we look again at the Lollards and Wycliff, the Hussites and other reformers in Europe at the time and try to gauge what they are wanting, we discover that they are not so much looking for a new break away church, at least to begin with, but rather a reformed western Catholic Church and thereby to remain as Catholics within it. The tragedy is that such movements of renewal starting well before the Reformation proved incapable of regenerating British Christianity along Orthodox lines and the reason for this lay in their compromised spiritual foundations. Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting by quoting Wycliff that somehow the Orthodox Church has a common cause with Protestant Christians; far from it. The so called cure proved in many ways to be worse than the disease in the endless schisms generated by the Reformation and its aftermath. It has rightly been observed by Orthodox commentators that the Reformation did not go far enough, that is in the right direction. In fact it went twice as far in the wrong direction!
Wycliff’s perception that the whole of Christianity in the west had departed from its spiritual roots held in common with the Christian east was, however, fundamentally correct. But even he, like so many others, failed to achieve the reforms that he embraced by trying to apply broken tools to mend broken machinery. As you know, if you want to repair a car engine you don’t use dodgy tools, but rather the right tools. In a deep sense this ‘broken mending’ continues to be pursued in the west by all those reform movements, both Catholic and Protestant, that have tried vainly to put things right. So, more positively, where do we go from here? We live in an age in which Christians are seeking a unity which is Christ’s will for His church. How do we go beyond this western ‘broken mending’ into a deeper ecumenism that truly seeks
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No.57 (25th April 2021)
On this Palm Sunday I shall not write much, because the story of the last few days of Our Lord’s earthly life - on which we concentrate throughout this week - is so well known. It takes up much of the gospel narratives, and at the Service of the Twelve Gospels on Thursday we shall hear this story – up to the time of the crucifixion – at great length from all four of them.
If we do no more than read the gospel narratives of these last few days of Our Lord’s earthly life, however, we will tend to read them simply as recounting something that happened a couple of thousand years ago. If we re-live these events in the context of the services of this week, however, we shall experience them differently: as happening now, as we pray. This is one of the extraordinary things about Orthodox worship: it enables us to see what we “remember” of that time life as a manifestation in time of an eternal reality that becomes present to us in our worship. This is why I encourage all of you, not only to participate in the Saturday evening Paschal service – which goes on until the early hours of Sunday morning – but also, unless prevented by work, to participate in the Good Friday Vespers, when we being out the embroidered icon of the dead Christ – the epitaphios – which will remain in the centre of the church until just before the Paschal Mattins of Saturday evening and after that will remain on the Holy Table until the eve of Ascension Day. (Our own epitaphios is very precious to us because it was embroidered by one of our parishioners, now departed. Although it may not be quite as ornate as some of the very old ones to be found in various churches and museums around the world, it is treasured by us just as much as those would be if we possessed them).
Over and above these two services, do try to participate in at least one of the others over this period. This will enable you to enter into the kind of experience I’ve described.
Later in the week, Father Patrick will be away taking services in our Deanery’s parish in Exeter, and the services for the end of Holy Week and for Pascha itself will be taken by me.
(I will send the Zoom link nearer the time, and remind you of the arrangements for communion that you have already been given details of.) These services – which can only be watched on Zoom because of my need to continue isolating - will be as follows:
Thursday 29th April, 7.00 p.m. Service of the 12 Gospels.
Friday 30th April, 2.00 p.m. Good Friday Vespers
Saturday 1st May, 2.00 p.m. Holy Saturday Vespers
10.30 p.m. Paschal Mattins and Liturgy (ending in the
early hours of Sunday morning)
Sunday 2nd May, 3.00 p.m. Paschal Vespers
I very much hope that this coming week will be, for all of you, a blessed one.
With love in Christ,
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we find ourselves at one of the greatest moments of the year. We are at the threshold of Great and Holy Week. God’s providence is giving us yet another occasion to thank Him for His providential love, and more specifically to thank Him for His death and resurrection. We are being given another occasion to thank God for taking upon Himself a wholly unjust and undeserving death to give us a way out of the just death we all owe. Although death may be the end of our corrupt and temporal life, yet it does not have the final word; Christ’s resurrection does. And if we are willing and desirous, we too can partake in Christ’s victory over death. And this week is perhaps the best time to renew this desire.
We shall become partakers of Christ’s victory if we show gratitude for His cross and if we carry our own personal cross. As our holy Fathers teach us, only those things for which we thank God for truly become ours, because we receive them as they are: a pure gift from God. On a very daily and practical level, St Sophrony the Athonite used to say that if we do not thank God for the food we eat, it is as if we had stolen it. Our food, ultimately, comes from God, as does everything else. Therefore, it is only natural that we thank Him for it.
But Christ’s death and resurrection are the ultimate gift from God to man: God’s very own life and flesh sacrificed and offered so that we may live forever. Not to thank Him for this gift is the height of ingratitude and tantamount to blasphemy. We can thank God every day for this gift. We do this in a more concrete way at every Divine Liturgy. But the Church, in her wisdom and with all the beauty she possesses, has also given us this most holy of weeks, which we are about to enter with eagerness (dare I say even a certain sacred excitement) as another opportunity to live and gratefully embrace this wondrous gift. And thus, by continual thanksgiving, we gradually enter into and assimilate the very life of the pre-eternal and ever- living God. What could be more precious than this? What could be more desirous?
But as we said above, we also need to carry our own cross in order to inherit the life of God. As St Philaret of Moscow puts it, our own personal cross becomes the key by which we enter into the victorious cross of Christ. Taking up our cross should be the natural response to what Christ has done for us through His cross. We need not fear taking up our cross. We do not invent or devise it ourselves, but Christ’s loving providence for us arranges it. The all-knowing God is the one who sets ‘our contest’. He knows what we are able to do and what is beyond our measure. And it is the same loving God who gives the reward, which is to abide in His love forever. As we know, without the cross there would be no resurrection. Therefore, by refusing to carry our own cross we are also refusing the reward of the cross: paradise. Therefore, brethren, let us prepare our hearts to thank God for His suffering on our behalf and for His glorious resurrection. Let us also renew our desire this coming week to willingly and whole-heartedly embrace our own cross. And then we will be in a position to receive Christ’s very life into our hearts and live with Him in love and gratitude forevermore. With these few words, I wish everyone Καλή Ανάσταση! May God grant us all to become inheritors, partakers and possessors of His resurrection.
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No.56 (18th April 2021)
I’m occasionally asked, when I speak of how wonderful is the Orthodox Church, whether there is anything in it that needs to change. When I’m asked this, today’s gospel reading (Mark 10:32-45) often comes to mind. In it, we hear of how Jesus, reacting to the desire of James and John for glory, stresses that “whoever will be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve …”
The reason this passage comes to mind is that I have to admit that, at the human level, our church does have a tendency towards what a modern Orthodox writer has labelled as “coercive authoritarianism.” Our leaders do not, sadly, always act as if their authority is an “authority of responsibility” – something that arises from a relationship with those for whom they are responsible, a relationship in which consultation can and should play an important part. There are historical factors that make this situation understandable, but when we look to the early Church we find a pattern somewhat different to that which now prevails. (Indeed, bishops were then elected by the people of their diocese, not imposed on them by the ecclesiastical powers that be.) The Moscow council of 1917-18 tried to remedy this tendency to coercive authoritarianism, but in Russia the revolution prevented any changes based on the decisions of this council. There were attempts, in some dioceses in Western Europe, to set up structures that were in the spirit of what the council had attempted, but sadly these have effectively come to nothing. Perhaps in our church life, as well as in our personal lives, there is a need for the kind of radical repentance which would come from taking the words of today’s gospel reading with due seriousness.
Radical repentance is very much on our minds on this fifth Sunday of Lent because it is the day on which we remember St. Mary of Egypt, whose legend is known to us because she told something of her history to Saint Zosima, whom she met in he desert, and whose own account of what he heard was eventually written down by Saint Sophronius, the seventh century Patriarch of Jerusalem. Mary was a reformed prostitute, who, after turning to Christ, spent many years as a hermit in the Egyptian desert. Her icon depicts her after all her years of desert asceticism, burned black by the sun and with short, grey, dishevelled hair, covered by the cloak that she asked Zosima to give her to cover her nakedness when they met. (In Western iconography she is usually shown at the beginning of her time in the desert: as a young woman with long hair covering her nakedness and carrying the three loaves that she took with her into the desert.
Some scholars have seen in the story of Mary a distinction between the radical nature of Mary’s repentance and a tendency in Zosima to want power and reputation within his monastery. Whether this is a valid interpretation I’m not sure, but it does point us towards the way in which today’s gospel reading highlights one aspect of our tendency to forget that “whoever will be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” The story of Mary has many layers of meaning, however, and the simplest of them is also the most profound: that, whatever depths of sin we have sunk to, the mercy and forgiveness of God is always possible for us. What is required is, quite simply, repentance, which means a turning around of our lives. In the case of Mary, this turning around was dramatic; for us it may be less obvious to the outside observer, but it needs nonetheless to be a radical turning away from all that stands between us and God. In this last week of Lent and in the Holy Week that follows, we have the opportunity to undertake that repentance. Let us not waste the opportunity.
With love in Christ,
SERMON ON MARK 10:32-45
Today is the Fifth Sunday of Lent. We have completed five weeks of prayer and fasting. There is just one more week of Lent, then Holy Week and then we will arrive at Pascha. Towards the end of this period of repentance, the church presents us with one of greatest role models for anyone aspiring to a life of repentance. This is St Mary of Egypt, whose memory we keep today.
As a young woman in Egypt, Mary was a prostitute. One day, she decided to board a ship heading towards Jerusalem. It was an organised pilgrimage, yet Mary was able to find customers on the ship and this is how she paid for her passage. When she arrived at the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, she could not enter. An invisible force held her back. It was as if her feet were stuck to the pavement outside. She began to understand why she was prevented from entering the church. It was her very sinful life. Looking up she saw an icon of the Panagia. This icon is now in the church which is used by the Greek Orthodox Arabs next door to the Holy Sepulchre. St Mary of Egypt prayed earnestly to the Panagia, repenting of her sins and asking to be allowed into the church. Mary entered the church and thus began her life of repentance. Having venerated the Cross, she left for the Jordan. On the bank of the Jordan in the Church of St John the Baptist she received Holy Communion. Then she crossed the river and spent the rest of her life in the Palestinian desert. Mary was tormented by mad desires and passions but, after years of temptation, she overcame the passions and had a great inner peace.
In every liturgy, we pray that we ‘may spend the remainder of our life in peace and repentance’. This is exactly what Mary of Egypt did. She realised that her life as a young woman had been very sinful and so restoring her relationship with God required a radical approach. Each one of us is called to repent of our sins and this season of Lent is a time when the church asks us to concentrate on repairing our relationship with God, which we have injured by our sins.
On Wednesday evening last week, we had the service of the Great Canon, the very long penitential prayer composed by St Andrew of Crete. In addition to the Great Canon, there are troparia in honour of St Andrew of Crete and also troparia in honour of St Mary of Egypt. This shows us just how significant she is in the Orthodox Church’s understanding of Lent.
After forty years alone in the desert, Mary met the hieromonk St. Zosima who had gone into the desert to pray during Lent. Zosima spotted an unknown figure in the desert and chased after it. When he caught up, the figure said, ‘Abba Zosima, I am a naked woman, throw me thy clothing that, turning to thee, I may have thy blessing.’ Immediately, Zosima, who was wise in spiritual things, understood that the woman, who had never seen him before, could not have called his name, unless she had the gift of foresight. He threw his cloak to the woman, who put it on and turned around and fell to the ground, asking for a blessing. Zosima also fell on his knees, asking for her blessing. This seems extraordinary – a priest asking a barely clothed woman for a blessing. Mary reminded him that he was a priest and that it was proper for him to give the blessing.
Poor old Zosima was terrified. He said to the woman, ‘O Mother, Bearer of the Spirit’. Zosima recognised Mary was not a mad woman living in the desert but a Bearer of the Spirit. What do we mean by ‘Bearer of the Spirit’? Whenever we say prayers, in church or our own private prayers, we begin with the prayer, ‘O Heavenly King, O Comforter, the Sprit of truth, which art in all places and fillest all things, the treasure of blessings and giver of life; come and abide in us; cleanse us from all impurity; and of Thy goodness, save our souls.’ We ask the Holy Spirit to come and abide in us. We desire to become temples of the Holy Spirit. Mary had taken very extreme measures – spending most of her life alone in the wilderness – but she did this in order to achieve the one thing to which all Christians are called – the acquisition of the Holy Spirit.
The acquisition of the Holy Spirit is not a momentary experience of the presence of God – a few hours in church on a Sunday morning – but making our souls and bodies permanently capable of being a dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. At our baptism, we received the Holy Spirit; but, when we sin, as St Paul puts it, we ‘quench the Holy Spirit’. We extinguish the power of the Holy Spirit within us. We are given further opportunities to rekindle the Grace of the Holy Spirit within us – these opportunities are the other Mysteries of the Church, especially Holy Communion. Though only great saints, like St Mary of Egypt, reach the point of acquiring the Holy Spirit’s constant presence and guidance, with permanent deliverance from the passions, the path to communion with God, is open to all of us. In the Orthodox Church, we have all of the resources to pursue acquisition of the Holy Spirit in His fullness. It is up to us to make use of them.
I’ve been aware of the need for advance planning for Holy Week and Pascha, especially as Fr. Patrick will be away taking services in the Exeter parish over that period, so that attending services in person will not be possible for parishioners (other than my own family) because of my “clinically extremely vulnerable” status..
I have had in mind, as I’ve thought about this, both my own need to continue to isolate as far as possible, and also the needs of all parishioners to receive communion in the Paschal season.
What I have decided is that I shall take - and have available on Zoom - at least some of the services normally held in the latter part of Holy Week, which I encourage you to watch on your computer since Pascha should always come as the culmination of the services of the days before. (Details of these services will be announced nearer the time.) I will also take, and have available on Zoom, the full service on
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No. 53 (28th March 2020)
Usually, when we speak of the “Fathers” of the church we think of those who lived in the first few centuries of the church’s life and contributed to the development of classical Christian doctrine. However, St. Gregory Palamas - whom we commemorate on this second Sunday of Lent – is often thought of as one of the Fathers even though he lived as late as the fourteenth century, first as a monk on Mount Athos and later as Archbishop of Thessalonica. Like the earlier Fathers, he too defended the Christian faith. This came about because he was asked by the monks of Mount Athos to champion their practice of “hesychasm” - which literally means stillness or rest, but was applied to the practice and understanding of the spiritual life that had grown up within Orthodox monasticism over many centuries. This hesychasm was being attacked in a rationalist kind of way, and Gregory was exactly the man to come to its defence, since he was not only a monk by background but also a trained philosopher and a subtle theologian.
One of the monastic practices that was being questioned was the use of the “Jesus prayer,” in which there were many repetitions of the simple petition “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, Have mercy on me” (sometimes adding at the end, “a sinner.”) Repetition is, of course, something that has a good psychological effect, and many Eastern religions use what they call “mantras” in a way that is, superficially, quite like the use of the Jesus prayer. Our use of repetition in the Jesus prayer goes to a much deeper level of our being, however, since the words are a kind of summary of our whole faith. The Orthodox experience over the centuries has been that regular use of the prayer can have the effect of what the hesychasts called “drawing the mind into the heart.” While Western understandings usually use the term “heart” to refer to the seat of the emotions – and thus assume it has nothing to do with the mind – this is not the case in Orthodoxy. The heart is, in the hesychastic tradition, seen as the spiritual centre of our being. “Drawing the mind into the heart” is seen by us as a process that is central to the development of spiritual maturity and psychic wholeness. It takes us beyond thoughts and emotions to something deeper.
In the monastic life, there are ways in which this goal is pursued that are simply not open to those of us who have to live busy lives in the world. The great thing about the Jesus prayer, however, is that it can be used by us whenever we are doing something that doesn’t require concentration – when we’re driving to work, for example, or doing the washing up. Because of this, it is a prayer that is suitable for anyone, and not just for the person in the monastic life.
If you want to think about what the prayer can mean for us, you might like to look at a talk by Metropolitan Kallistos that is available on YouTube:
One of the things that he mentions in the talk is that the use of the Jesus prayer is probably more widespread now than in the past, and not only among Orthodox. In my Anglican days, my bishop for a few years was the late Simon Barrington-Ward, who learned the use of the prayer directly from Saint Sophrony of Essex. In his talks and writings, Bishop Simon has encouraged many in his own church to use the prayer, and you might, after you’ve watched Metropolitan Kallistos, like to look at another talk about the Jesus prayer by him:
With love in Christ,
SERMON ΟΝ MARK 2:1-12
The Church remembers the healing of two Paralytics in her Sunday Gospel readings. There is the Paralytic by the pool of Siloam who has no one to help him get down into the water when it is troubled, that is read after Pascha, and the Paralytic that we hear about today, who has four friends absolutely determined to get him in front of Jesus Christ to be healed. It is frequently pointed out that it is the faith of his friends that seems to be truly significant, but as some of the Fathers have stressed the man allowed his friends to take him to Jesus. Nevertheless our own personal faith may, when we pray for others, also bring about their healing and Salvation.
They had to go through exceptional difficulties to get him in front of the Lord: not only did they have to get the paralytic onto the roof, but also had to break through the roof and make a large enough hole to let their friend down. Just imagine the clouds of dust descending on the Lord’s audience! Imagine the face of the householder when he saw his roof being broken!
Yet, St Mark is making a more important point, when telling us of this miracle in his Gospel. The point has to do with sin and the forgiveness of sins. Evidently the man’s sins were in some way responsible for his illness. We are not told what, and when he appears before the Lord says that his sins are forgiven. When Jesus taught, it appears to frequently have scribes or Pharisees coming to see what was going on and what would be said. Often they would complain about what Jesus is doing, especially if he heals on the Sabbath.
Here they say nothing, but it is what they are thinking that the Lord perceives – and this in itself is an indication of the Lord’s divinity: for we find these words in the book of Chronicles,“For thou, thou only, knowest the hearts of the children of men” (Chron. 6:30). So, what they are thinking is that only God can forgive sins. And thus the miracle demonstrates exactly their inner thoughts, because not only does the Lord forgive the man’s sins, but through and with this forgiveness he heals the man of his paralysis.
From time to time in Britain we find ourselves in conversation with Protestants who argue that the forgiveness of sins is entirely dependent on Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross – his crucifixion. In fact there is forgiveness of sins through the Cross, but it was not necessary for Christ to die, for him to be able to forgive sins. He forgives sins frequently in the Gospels and this passage is an excellent example of him doing just that. The point of the crucifixion is partly to overcome sin but, much more important, to overcome death and it is this that we are now preparing ourselves for as we advance towards the Anastasis, the Resurrection, that we look forward to at Pascha. Amen.
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No. 52 (21st March 2020)
In the centre of the church on this first Sunday of Lent we remember the “Sunday of Orthodoxy.” It represents the decision of the seventh ecumenical council, held in 787, to restore icons to their place in the church’s worship after more than a hundred and fifty years of controversy. The opponents of icons thought that there was a tendency to give to icons the worship due to God alone, and at first those who wanted to retain the use of icons didn’t have an adequate answer to this charge. Eventually, however, they made a distinction between the worship (latreia in Greek) that is due to God alone and the veneration (proskynesis) that is proper in relation to things other than God, such as the saints. This veneration, they insisted, can be carried out through the way in which we treat the images of these saints since, as they put it, “the veneration offered to the image is carried over to the prototype.”
At the heart of this controversy was an issue that had been around since the earliest years of the church: that of whether use of “material” things is somehow opposed to the “spiritual” life. In ancient Greek philosophy, the spiritual and material were often seen as being locked in battle, and the earliest Christian heresy was in fact linked to this mistaken notion. It involved denial that Christ was really human on the grounds that to be human was to be made of matter and therefore to be subject to suffering. Christ was, these early heretics claimed, only pretending to be human. Later, other heretics put it the other way round. If Christ was fully human, they said, then he couldn’t really be God incarnate, since God was by definition immaterial. If it really was the case that “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14), they reasoned, then this Word was somehow less divine that the Father was. The Fathers of the Church were, however, adamant in their opposition to both of these tendencies. Christ, they insisted, was both fully God and fully human in a “union without confusion.” The incarnation, they insisted, had truly meant that the material world had been taken up into the life of God (and this had been God’s intention from the very beginning; the incarnation was not, in their view, simply a response to human sin.) Our eternal life did not, they insisted, involve escaping the material world; it involved being caught up in its glorification.
The person who was most emphatic in working this all out in the period of controversy about icons was St. John of Damascus, who died in 749, and I shall end with a quotation (quite a long one) from his arguments at the time:
Our opponents say, “God commanded Moses the law-giver, ‘You will worship the Lord your God, and only him, and not make an image for yourself of anything in heaven above, or on the earth below.’” [Ex. 20:3-4] But they are wrong, and do not know the Scriptures. The letter kills while the spirit gives life, [2 Cor. 3:6] and they fail to find the spiritual meaning hidden in the letter. I say to these people, the Lord who taught you this would teach you more. Listen to the law-giver’s interpretation of this law in Deuteronomy: “This is to stop you looking up to the heavens and, seeing the sun, moon and stars, being deceived by error and worshipping and serving them.” [Deut. 4.19] The whole point of this is that we should not adore a created thing more than the Creator, nor give true worship to anything but him. But worship of false gods is not the same as venerating holy images […]
When you think of God, who is a pure spirit, becoming man for your sake, then you can clothe him in a human form. When the invisible becomes visible to the eye, you may then draw his form. When he who is a pure spirit […] takes on the form of a servant and a body of flesh, then you may draw his likeness, and show it to anyone who is willing to contemplate it. Depict his coming down, his virgin birth, his baptism in the Jordan, his transfiguration on Mount Tabor, his all-powerful sufferings, his death and miracles, the proofs of his deity, the deeds he performed in the flesh through divine power, his saving Cross, his grave, his resurrection and his ascent into heaven […]
Have no fear or anxiety; not all veneration is the same […] Worship is one thing, veneration another […] You must understand that there are different degrees of worship. First of all is the full worship which we show to God, who alone is by nature worthy of worship. But, for the sake of God who is worshipful by nature, we honour and venerate his saints and servants […]
In the old days, the incorporeal and infinite God was never depicted. Now, however, when God has been seen clothed in flesh, and talking with mortals, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter, I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honouring that matter which works my salvation. […]
I honour all matter, and venerate it. Through it, filled, as it were, with a divine power and grace, my salvation has come to me. Was the three-times happy and blessed wood of the Cross not matter? Was the sacred and holy mountain of Calvary not matter? What of the life-giving rock, the Holy Tomb, the source of our resurrection — was it not matter? Is the holy book of the Gospels not matter? Is the blessed table which gives us the Bread of Life not matter? Are the gold and silver, out of which crosses and altar-plate and chalices are made not matter? And before all these things, is not the body and blood of our Lord matter? Either stop venerating all these things, or submit to the tradition of the Church in the venerating of images, honouring God and his friends, and following in this the grace of the Holy Spirit. Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable. Nothing that God has made is. Only that which does not come from God is despicable — our own invention, the spontaneous decision to disregard the law of human nature, i.e., sin.
With love in Christ,
SERMON on John 1:44-52
Today’s gospel relates to us how Christ met Philip and Nathanael, who were among his earliest disciples. The story in itself may seem insignificant. At first, Nathanael doubts the significance of an insignificant man from Nazareth: ‘Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?’ However, as simple as it may look, Saint John the Evangelist reveals within the simplicity of his account the most profound principles of man’s encounter with God.
Our human intellect is unable to comprehend the fulness of the Divine life that Christ brings unto us. But only through ‘personal’ experience of Christ — ‘come and see’— can we begin to comprehend the mystery of the salvation that Christ has brought to mankind, which ‘passeth all understanding’. In this respect, the Gospel is not only a revelation about God, but about man, as he was conceived in the original thought of God the Trinity. At the same time, it also testifies to the fulness of the Divine love for mankind: ‘Man is indeed the ‘target’ of Divine love, the crown, the meaning, the ultimate goal of creation’.
Some scholars suggest that the theme of the deification of man is the prime message of this Gospel narrative. The expression ‘angels ascending and descending upon the son of man’ is interpreted as not necessarily referring to Christ Himself but to any human being — any ‘son of man’. Thus, we can see that the theme of the deification of man runs in parallel with theme of God becoming man: these are two sides of one and the same coin. The whole composition of the Gospel of John highlights this perspective: starting with universal setting of the prologue: ‘In the beginning was the Word’ (Jon. 1:1) which describes the story of creation, it moves towards the ultimate end — a personal dialo
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No. 51 (14th March 2020)
Newsletter number 51! These weekly Newsletters - intended only for the Covid period - have now come out for a year! Let’s hope that it won’t be too long before they become unnecessary.
Next week Father Patrick will be taking the service and at least a few people can be present as long as we keep to the social distancing rules (which in the case of our small church means a maximum of four households).
This Sunday the formal act of forgiveness that occurs every year will happen on this “Forgiveness Sunday” just before Lent. Properly speaking, it should occur after Vespers in the afternoon, but in our local custom it occurs straight after the Liturgy. In this act, we ask forgiveness of each other and embrace as a sign of that forgiveness, remembering both the Lord’s prayer - in which we ask that we should be forgiven “as we forgive those who trespass against us” - and also the words spoken by Jesus in the gospel reading for today: that “if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you.”
As these words indicate, the notion of forgiveness of others is at the heart of the Christian message. But, of course, forgiveness is not always easy. If someone has really hurt us, or has hurt someone we love, then forgiving them is a process, not something that we can just do. The beginning of this process will be an act of will: to treat the person we want to be able to forgive as if he or she is already forgiven. To really feel forgiveness, deep inside, may not come immediately (that is something that requires the grace of God,) but that act of will is the start of the journey. It is, so to speak, part of the training we need.
The Fathers of the Church speak about the need for dispassion: the putting aside or transfiguring of the various passions that enslave us. Anger is one of those passions, and just as the act of will I’ve talked about is part of the training we require in relation to anger, so the disciplines associated with the Lenten period are a kind of general training in dispassion. One of the passions we most obviously feel, for example, relates to food, which (as is obvious in certain kinds of eating disorder) can be used neurotically as nothing more than a sort of comfort. To fast in the Lenten season is a training in not being enslaved by this false comfort. Of course, we do need food to stay alive, and ultimately the enjoyment of food - when it is properly seen as a means of communion with God - is a central part of our lives. We are not taught by the Church to be puritans, who are suspicious of the joy that good things can bring, but are encouraged to be people who see the point in asceticism, which is nothing other than training ourselves: doing what is necessary to free ourselves, by God’s grace, from slavery to the passions, so as to be able use all good things properly.
Fasting on its own can do nothing, however. The Church has always seen three things as properly going together in the Lenten season: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, each of which reinforces the good effects of the other two. Do, therefore, think about how your life of prayer can be enhanced in this period. Do think about giving more financial support than usual to those who need it.
Do take seriously the pattern of fasting that the Church recommends: not treating it as a set of difficult “rules” to obey, but as a pattern to be modified as appropriate to your particular situation. (The old or ill, for example, should certainly not try to keep the “rules” in all their rigour, and some would say that in a society that has a very different diet to that of the Mediterranean area, where the “rules” were originally developed, we need modifications of those “rules” even for the young and healthy). It is better to have a simple set of practices that we can stick to than to attempt something we shall find impossible.
Our services for today focus not only on forgiveness but also on the biblical story of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. We may have doubts about whether Paradise ever existed as a historical state, but then so did St. Maximos the Confessor (who saw creation and “Fall” as simultaneous.). The story remains an important one, however, because it points towards the way in which “this world” is not our true home, and that we properly have a kind of nostalgia for Paradise. “This world” is one in which the conditions are right for our journey towards what our funeral service calls the “homeland for which we long.” May this coming Lenten period be for all of us a significant and useful part of that journey!
With love in Christ,
SERMON FOR CHEESEFARE SUNDAY
Today we stand at the starting line of the great season of spiritual renewal known as “Great Lent”. It is indeed a starting line, like that of a great race: a challenge, a chance for us to take a better look at ourselves, stripped of our usual self-delusions and pretensions. This Great Lent provides us with the perfect environment through which this may be achieved. Fr Alexander Schmemann, in his book on Great Lent, describes Lent as “the liberation of our enslavement to sin, from the prison of this world”.
Sin is seen by the Fathers of the Church more as a sickness, an affliction common to all of humanity, rather than as a stain on our honour, or a criminal conviction on our soul. In this way we can see that the act of repentance – metanoia in the Greek – is an examination of ourselves undertaken in a sober manner, devoid of self-pity, blame or the oh so modern fad of victimhood. Today’s Gospel reading therefore provides us with the tools that will be needed for us to make any progress in this endeavour:
1) Forgiveness: “If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you”. We begin by forgiving our fellowmen with all of our heart and praying for them. We forgive them and abstain from doing harm to them, even if they do harm to us. In this we follow the example of our Lord’s life. Jesus gave us only one commandment, that we should “love one another”, in other words that we should forgive just as He Himself forgave. This allows us to create a space in our heart for our fellow humans, to fill the space normally taken up by our ego with love for others, and in doing so we allow God’s grace to work within us.
2) Fasting: Fasting is not a dry set of rules telling us what we can or cannot eat or do. Rather, it is “the refusal to accept the desires and urges of our fallen nature as normal, the effort to free ourselves from the dictatorship of flesh and matter over the spirit”. More precisely, it is the bringing of the body and the soul back into its correct equilibrium. We do not do this in the manner of the “Scribes and Pharisees,” criticising with our heart and tongue whilst we make a great boast of swapping animal products for a “plant based lifestyle”. We take a break from social media; we refrain from idle gossip and the tendency towards division, opposition and hatred, and return to unity, solidarity and love.
3) Charity: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth... but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven... For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also”. Charity is the truest of all Christian virtues because it has at its core an act of kenosis, self-emptying love. Charity is not about dropping a few coins into a collection tray, but of visiting others in hospital and prison (current pandemic measures permitting), volunteering for soup kitchens, donating to food banks, looking after those who are genuinely destitute or unable to leave their homes such as the old or infirm. A phone call can be just as important as a shopping run for these members of our communities.
With these in mind, let us allow the spirit of this season to enlighten us. As one of the hymns from tonight’s Vespers proclaims “Behold, now is the accepted time: behold, now is the season of repentance. Let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light, that having sailed across the great sea of the Fast, we may reach the third-day Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of our souls”. Amen!
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No. 50 (7th March 2021)
Although next week’s Sunday Liturgy will be available to watch on Zoom, this Sunday’s Liturgy cannot be. This is a pity because it is the Sunday of the Last Judgment, and this judgment is a topic on which we all need to reflect.
There is one side of the Voronetz monastery in Romania, which is covered with a huge icon depicting this judgment. There have been times when images of this kind (common also in medieval churches in the West) have been used to instil fear as a way of controlling people. When this has been done, there has been a tendency to see God’s love and justice as two such different things that they can hardly be reconciled. Orthodoxy has, however, often stressed that what we shall all ultimately experience is not God’s wrath but the fire of his love. Those who have not acquired this love within themselves will experience it in a very different way than those who have.
An image that is often used to illustrate this idea is that of a wooden stick and an iron bar pushed into a fire. The stick is destroyed. The iron bar, by contrast, glows and gives off heat itself. It is not destroyed, but it comes to have the same kind of heat as the fire itself does. It is this picture, I think, that we need to have in mind. As believers, we have – as the second letter of Peter (1:4) puts it - “become partakers of the divine nature,” so that when we come face to face with God we will find that the fire of his love is already within us so that we will be able to experience it as bliss.
All the same, we must not be complacent, and the notion of judgment is a warning to us. In our prayers immediately before communion, each of us acknowledges that Christ “came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first.” This sense of being the “first” among sinners may seem a bit over the top when we consider some of the things that go on in the world. However, even if our particular sins seem very mild compared to some of those committed by others, what we must never forget is the fact that, as believers, we don’t have the excuse of ignorance that these others usually have. We may truly be the “first” among sinners because, despite acknowledging the infinite love of God, in practice we respond to that love as though it did not exist.
On the other hand, unlike those in ignorance we do have hope. St. Silouan the Athonite used to say “Keep your mind in hell and do not despair.” On this Sunday of the Last Judgment, that is surely a saying to ponder on. So also is another saying of that saint: “Understand two thoughts and fear them. One says ‘You are a saint,’ and the others says ‘You won’t be saved.’ Both of these thoughts are from the enemy. But think this way: I am a great sinner, but the Lord is merciful. He loves people very much, and he will forgive my sins.”
As I’ve stressed in the last two newsletters, these Sundays before the beginning of Lent are a time in which to prepare, through repentance, for the fast itself. (This coming week is of course a week of preliminary fasting, in which we give up meat, which is only one of the things that we shall give up after next Sunday – “Cheesefare Sunday” - the day after which the full fast begins. In the West – because of a slightly different way of calculating the length of the fast – the day before the fast begins occurs on a Tuesday. It is the day called Shrove Tuesday or “pancake day.” Most people now forget that the pancakes were originally cooked on that day because - just as in traditional Orthodox practice on “Cheesefare Sunday” - the last of the dairy and other animal products were used up before the fast. What people also forget, however, is that “Shrove” Tuesday relates to being “shriven”- absolved of one’s sins. The Western church then – just as the Orthodox Church still does – saw this season as one in which the sacrament of confession is particularly appropriate. If we take seriously the need for repentance, then the usefulness of this sacrament must not be underestimated, and Lent is an excellent time to receive it. (Both Fr. Patrick and myself are happy to make ourselves available for this purpose.)
With love in Christ,
THE FINAL JUDGEMENT - TIME AND OUTCOME
The Final Judgement, being the final stage of mankind before paradise, bears the most significant formative and normative role in the ethics of the life of every Christian and every society in this world. It is final and irreversible, involving, entangled together, all the human vices and virtues. Come the judgment, only the results of the free will remain, and nothing can be done to reverse, amend or rectify the actions and the preferences of man in his lifetime.
It is this moment of the Final Judgement, and how things will happen, that our Lord Jesus Christ narrates in the Gospel of Matthew, and no parallel of this revelation exists in any other of the four gospels. There are two features in the final judgment reading that draw most of the attention of Christians. Both have been a source of controversy and heresy over the centuries. The first feature is the time of the Final Judgment, and the second is the outcome of the judgment.
The first, the exact time, as it is stated with the word “when” at the introduction of the pericope, has caused many misinterpretations, speculations, and fear. The egotistic perception of God by man has turned into an interpretation standpoint, and a tool for terrifying people and leading them to heresies (Jehovah’s witnesses), misconceptions about faith and God and it has even led to mass suicide and murder (Jamestown, Guyana, 18th November 1978, MRTCG, Uganda, 2000), as Jesus Himself warned (Matt. 24:11).
There is only one way to know the time for that Final Judgment: to love God and trust our lives in His hands. A given time and date is something that no man can ever know or calculate, as this is something that only God Father knows and not even God Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, as He clearly states: “But as for that day and hour, nobody knows it, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, no one but the Father only” (Matt. 24:36). Therefore, whoever tries to calculate the time of the Second Coming drives himself to illusion and the people who shall believe him will be led to repudiation of God. However, it seems that human curiosity and fear cannot be soothed by that statement alone, so Jesus says that man will know that the time has come: “Take the fig tree as a parable: as soon as its twigs grow supple and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. So with you when you see all these things: know that he is near, at the very gates” (Matt. 24:32-33).
For the faithful then, the time of the Second Coming and the Final Judgment is every minute in time, which renders the quest for determining an approximate or specific time for it irrelevant. The faithful experiences the final judgment every single minute of his life, as this is indissolubly tied to the love of God. Every single moment that man has his heart full of love and trust to God, he pre-experiences the Final Judgment and rejoices at its outcome.
This outcome, as a notion, is the most
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No. 41 (27th December 2020)
This will not be a long newsletter. It is simply to wish you a very happy Christmas and a fruitful New Year. The spiritual fruitfulness of the coming year will, of course, be compromised by our inability – at least in the early months – to meet properly for worship, since for the time being we’ll be continuing our present pattern of having some kind of service each Sunday but with only a very limited number of people present because of the danger of spreading the coronavirus. (There will be Liturgies on 3rd, 10th and 24th January and a Typika today and on 17th January.) This problem of being unable to come together can, however, be at least partially overcome by each of us following, in our private prayers, the readings for each day. With this in mind, please think about buying the lectionary for the year, which is available from Ian Randall for £5. (It is useful in telling you, not only the readings for each day, but also the saints commemorated and the fasting rules that are applicable on that day. If you would like one, please contact him on email@example.com and he will send one; we can collect the money from you later.)
With love in Christ, Fr. Christopher
SERMON ON MATT 2:13-23
Today’s Gospel reading appears far from festal. We hear how the coming of the Saviour was accompanied by a horrific slaughter of children in Bethlehem. Yet we incorporate even this reading in our Christmas joyous celebration. This is in itself is a strong message. With the coming of Christ and with the dawn of eternity and everlasting life, the world was transformed dramatically. Evil, even in its ugliest and strongest form, can no longer prevail over good, and this is the eternal victory that Christ has brought with His coming. Death, however horrific it may be, is no longer an end, but the beginning: it is from this perspective that we are able to rejoice for the innocents slaughtered by Herod. Their story prefigures Christ’s victory that is not temporal, but eternal.
From a point of view of eternal life these innocents were privileged to suffer for Christ’s sake: they are the youngest martyrs ever known to the history of Christianity. They prefigure the martyrdom of Christ and set the tone of the whole journey for us Christians: “ Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Tim. 3:12). Just as with those children, from the very first days of His life Christ suffered unending persecution, His life was under a constant threat that continued until the very end of His ministry when He was finally nailed to the Cross. Yet the end of this journey is the beginning of eternal glory and universal authority: “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth”. (Mat. 28:16). Through earthly humiliations – to heavenly glory, through weakness in the face of human authorities – to almighty divine power, through universal rejection – to God’s Kingdom of love: ‘This is the lot of those of our kin (i.e. Christians), – St Theophan writes. Those who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus have their paradise not here, on earth, but there in heaven. The Earth gives them nothing but deprivations, afflictions and persecutions. It is because Christians are led by principles that are different to those who rule the earth and live for the Earth and want to have their paradise here on Earth. These two kinds of people cannot live in harmony: the earthly people, as masters of this world, persecute those ‘strangers’ who look for the heavenly Kingdom. But the goodness of God turns all these afflictions into everlasting good, so that we can call with confidence and courage: “Glory to God for everything” (see: St Theophan the Recluse’s commentary on 2 Tim 3:16).
Christ and His Gospel have transformed our vision of reality, of human history, of human values. This new has started with the story of children. In a remarkable way it prefigures Christ’s resurrection and with Him the resurrection of all of us. The slaughter of the children allows us to look at the tragedy of death from a new perspective. Yes, this story is a part of our Christmas celebration as we sense profoundly that with the coming of Christ “the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:26).
This story at the outset of the Gospel points to the end of the Gospel, which the faithful celebrate with the words: “Christ is risen from the dead, by death He has overcome death and to them in the graves has He given life”.
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No. 40 (20th December 2020)
The icons that Leon Liddament and Fr. David Meyrick produced for our church over the years have made our building a very special one, and as Christmas approaches we inevitably think, not only of the living friends whom - under normal circumstances - we would meet at this time of year, but also the departed ones, like them, whose presence we would so much have liked still to be possible. Because our Liturgy is always seen by us as the coming together of the heavenly kingdom and earthly life, however, there is a sense in which all who have turned to God, in and through Christ, are - whether living or departed - joined together in union with Christ whenever we celebrate the Holy Liturgy, since this Liturgy is, for our Orthodox understanding, a foretaste of the heavenly kingdom.
In this period of pandemic, it has been a great sorrow that we have not been able to come together, Sunday by Sunday and feast by feast, to celebrate the Liturgy. Through the work of Patrick and Ian we have, when the regulations have allowed it, usually managed to have a Liturgy once a fortnight and a Typika service on the Sundays in between. For those services, however, the regulations have meant that the numbers of those allowed to attend has been severely limited, and even in this period of preparing for and then celebrating the feast of the Nativity, this limitation will continue. This weekend’s Typika still has a few places to spare (please let me know, if you want to come and have not already told me) but the Liturgy on Christmas Eve is, sadly, already “fully booked.” For this reason, and knowing that some of you will welcome this, we have decided to use Zoom to stream a Liturgy on Christmas day at 10.30 a.m., taken by myself (with my family doing the singing and readings, but with no one else present because I am shielding.) This will mean that those unable to attend the service the day before can – at least on a computer screen – experience our normal Nativity worship. The link will be:
Let us all hope that the vaccines that are now becoming available will make this a one-off, and that well before the next time we celebrate the Nativity (and even perhaps before we reach Pascha) we’ll be able to meet together as usual. In the meantime, I can only wish you all a very happy Christmas and hope that you will follow our Christmas day service online.
With love in Christ,
SERMON ON MATT 1:1-25 (The seed of God in Christ’s Ancestors and Descendants)
This wonderful passage from the Gospel we heard today describes the genealogy of our Lord, enumerating His ancestors from Abraham until David and further till Joseph, the betrothed of the Mother of God. It is marvellous to see the history of the Lord’s ancestors according to His flesh. Abraham is the one who excelled in faith and David the man of a contrite and humble spirit, but all the Lord’s ancestors excelled in these virtues.
From the very beginning, when Adam fell from the face of God, the Lord said to Eve that her seed will crush the head of the serpent and the serpent will bruise the heel of her Son. Already from the beginning of sacred history there is a Gospel foretelling the coming of a supernatural and paradoxical Holy Seed, ‘the Seed of the woman’, that is, of the virginal birth of the Saviour. That Holy Seed will crush satan, and the latter will bruise His heel. This bruising of the Lord is His passion and three days’ burial by which He destroyed the death that had stricken mankind.
When Prophet Isaiah despaired over Israel, God consoled him by a vision in which He said that Israel will not perish, for Israel is like the terebinth tree which, when cut down, innumerable shoots spring forth from it again. This is because Israel bears within its righteous people a Holy Seed that constitutes its stability. All the ancestors of the Lord that excelled in virtue, bearing within themselves that seed of God and the promises that the Messiah would come forth from them at the fullness of time, received a circumcision in the flesh to seal their belonging to their heavenly Master. After the Lord’s coming, His descendants again please Him through faith and a contrite heart, nourishing within them the incorruptible seed of His word, conforming their life and repenting in the light of His commandments. They too received a circumcision - not of the flesh, but of the heart. It is the wound of His love, the power of regeneration to become children of God, to be born anew, as Saint Peter says. The incorruptible seed of His word gradually builds up a tabernacle within their heart, a dwelling place for the Most High to dwell therein.
However, the righteous of the Old Testament did not yet receive the fullness of future glory. They received only ‘the earnest’, as they await us, so that, as members of the one glorious body of which Christ is the Head, we may altogether partake in the Great Supper which the Lord prepared in His Kingdom for those that loved His appearing. This is the glorious body of our Lord mentioned by Saint Paul as the prowess of faith of all those who pleased God through faith, ‘the cloud of witnesses’ both in the Old Testament and in the New. Let us keep alive within us the incorruptible seed of His word and bear a contrite spirit which the Lord does not despise but He bends over it with His incorruptible consolation so that we too may receive that same glory in His Kingdom.
Christ is the sign of God for all generations as Scripture says: ‘this shall be a sign unto you, the humble birth of our Lord in a manger’. The sign of our God is humility as only the spirit of humility can bear the fullness of divine love. Christ humbled Himself to the end to manifest His perfect love for the world which saves it. So we also, if we accept and bear the sign of the Son of man, the spirit of humility and discipleship, then surely, we will become worthy to love Him with all our heart, will all our soul and with our entire being, which is our blessed destiny unto all ages. Amen.
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No. 39 (13th December 2020)
Today – the second Sunday before the Feast of the Nativity – the Church commemorates those it speaks of as the “holy forefathers.” These forefathers are all those men and women who are remembered as either the ancestors of Jesus in the flesh or those who, in their prophetic teaching, looked forward to his coming. The stress of the liturgical texts for the day is on the faith of these forefathers in what God had intended from the beginning: the coming into the world of his Son. (How much they foresaw this in detail is, of course, an interesting historical question, but the point is that what they “knew” was – like all real spiritual knowledge – too deep for words. As the mystics throughout the centuries have testified, the knowledge that God gives is not knowledge “about God” but an intuitive knowledge in which His reality and character are evident.)
Today is also the day on which we commemorate St. Herman of Alaska, who died in 1836, when Alaska was still controlled by Russia. (The Russian government later sold it to the Americans for a paltry sum, partly because they were in desperate need of money at that time and partly to keep the British away from Russian territory by putting a barrier between that territory and Canada.) As the Wikipedia article on St. Herman puts it, his “gentle approach and ascetic life earned him the love and respect of both the native Alaskans and the Russian colonists.”
By chance, in the middle of writing this newsletter, I came across Sir Steven Runciman’s comments on Alaska in his lovely book of reminiscences: “A Traveller’s Alphabet: Partial Memoirs.” (Runciman was one of the twentieth century’s great historians of the Byzantine world, but here he was writing only about his travel experiences.) In the section of this book devoted to Kodiak Island, which is part of Alaska, he has an interesting section on the way in which, in the late eighteenth century, Russian settlers "had brought their priests with them and they set about the conversion of the natives. They acted with sympathy and tact. While I was in Alaska I had the opportunity of seeing copies of the instructions sent out by the Orthodox Metropolitan of Moscow, suggesting how they should proceed. The missionaries were told not to attempt brusquely to abolish established native customs, but merely to modify them if they seemed to be anti-Christian or if possible somehow to incorporate them into Christian practice.
As I read this, I was struck by how much this advice echoed that which had been given more than a thousand years earlier to Saint Augustine of Canterbury by the then Pope of Rome (Saint Gregory of the Dialogues - or Gregory the Great as he is usually known in the West.) In a letter (quoted directly by St. Bede in his History of the English Church and People) the Pope, writing to Saint Mellitus - who was about to join Augustine in England and who was to become the first historically certain Bishop of London and the third Archbishop of Canterbury - asked him to pass on to Augustine his advice about the pagan English whom Augustine had been sent to convert. The custom of sacrificing animals to idols should not be completely abolished, said Gregory, but should be be transferred to Saints’ days. Similarly, the pagan temples of the English should not be destroyed but instead: let the idols that are in them be destroyed; let water be consecrated and sprinkled in the said temples, let altars be erected, and relics placed there. For if those temples are well built, it is requisite that they be converted from the worship of devils to the service of the true God; that the nation, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may remove error from their hearts, and knowing and adoring the true God, may the more freely resort to the places to which they have been accustomed … For there is no doubt that it is impossible to cut off everything at once from their rude natures; because he who endeavours to ascend to the highest place rises by degrees or steps, and not by leaps.
That phrase “rude natures” is an interesting one. Should we see ourselves (whether English or not) as people with “rude natures” who need to ascend “by d
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No. 33 (1st November 2020)
It was lovely to see some of you at our Zoom “tea party” last Sunday afternoon, & since it was a success we’ll repeat it some time. (I’ll let you know when it will be, a little nearer the time.)
Each Sunday, in the Preparation Service in which the priest prepares the bread & wine for the main Liturgy, a number of groups of saints are commemorated, each group having some characteristic in common (being martyrs, for example, or hierarchs.) One of these is the group of “holy unmercenary physicians,” who are remembered for giving medical treatment without charge. Eight of these are normally named individually in that service: Cosmas and Damien, Cyrus & John, Panteleimon & Hermolaos, Mocius & Anecitas. Each of these saints is also, of course, commemorated on a particular day of the year, & today is the day on which we commemorate the first two of these: Cosmas & Damien, whose icon is shown here.
As is so often the case with very early saints, the stories told about Cosmas and Damien are somewhat confused, & as a result three groups of different unmercenary physicians with these names are commemorated by us on different days: those “of Arabia” on 17th October, those “of Rome” on 1st July, & those “of Mesopotamia” - together with their mother, Saint Theodoti – on 1st November, today. Whether these three separate commemorations really refer to three different pairs of physicians, who happened to have the same names, or whether the genuine memories of one pair were elaborated in three different sets of legendary “memories,” is a question that we can leave for the historians to ponder. The important thing for us is that as early as the fourth century - when churches had already been dedicated to them in Egypt and Mesopotamia - these two names were clearly remembered as ones of people of undoubted sanctity, who in their medical work had impressed their contemporaries by taking seriously Christ’s saying: “freely you have received; freely give” (Matthew 10:8).
To be “unmercenary” – to do things for the love of God rather than for money – is a vocation for all of us. Few of us, of course, are in a position to work without pay. Nor are many of us able to follow the advice I heard as a young man, that “the secret of life is to find something you’d do for nothing if you could afford to, and then get some fool to pay you for doing it.” Most of us, in fact, because we need to keep ourselves & our families sheltered clothed & fed, have to spend a good deal of our lives doing things we wouldn’t do for free. Even if this is the case, however, we all still have time to spare in which we can do things for our neighbours in an unmercenary way, & this is very much a part of how we can, as we are commanded, love our neighbours as ourselves.
A tendency in all periods of history – & especially in our own time, when the “greed is good” motto has become common – has been to ignore the Christian requirement for money to be seen as something other than the prime focus of our efforts. As Christians, however, we are aware that we need to fight this tendency. We know that God knows that we have material needs, & also - as Jesus said – that we must “seek first the Kingdom of God & his righteousness, and all these things will be added” (Matthew 6:33).
To do something purely for profit – to seek for what the King James version of the Bible calls “filthy lucre” – is, of course, always a temptation. Not all money is “filthy lucre” of course. This term is, in fact, used in that translation to point to the need for ordained people to preach the gospel for the right reasons, and not for profit (1 Timothy 3, 3 and 8; Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 5:2.) This doesn’t, however, mean that the term “filthy lucre” has no application to laypeople, because behind these warnings lies something that applies to all of us: our Lord’s clear statement that we “cannot serve God and Mammon” - sometimes translated as “cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24). It is not that we should despise what money can buy. Rather, what is necessary is for us to realise that an undue emphasis on money-making can distort our lives in a drastic way. As we read in the epistles, “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evils” (1 Timothy 6:10); “keep your life free of love of money” (Hebrews 13:5).
Does this mean, then, that the material things that money can buy should be of no interest to us? Of course not! Central to our Christian life is our giving of thanks for all the things that we receive. Our Church does, it is true, call us to a life of asceticism, but this is essentially a kind of spiritual training. Our asceticism must never be allowed to become the sort of sour puritanism in which the good things of life are despised. When we fast on Wednesdays and Fridays and in the fasting seasons, for example, this is not because good food, in itself, is somehow bad for us. Our fasting is, rather, designed at least partly to encourage us to keep the very goodness of food fully in view, so that we don’t lose a sense of the way it should be a means of communion with God. As Metropolitan Kallistos once said, we fast from certain foods at certain times “not because we regard the act of eating as shameful, but in order to make all our eating spiritual, sacramental and Eucharistic – no longer a concession to greed but a means of communion with God the giver … A slice of plain cheese or a hard-boiled egg never taste so good as on Easter morning, after seven weeks of fasting.”
Something else comes out of the same basic sense of the goodness of created things, and this is our concern for the poor. We don’t say to the poor “don’t be materialistic; it’s only spiritual things that matter.” We recognise that being deprived of the basic things of life – food, shelter, warm clothing and so on – is to be deprived of a means of communion with God. We recognise, too, that providing the poor with these things must be central to our Christian life. “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need and has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” (1 John 3:17).
This concern for the poor must be manifested not only in relation to our personal giving – important as that is – but also through the way in which we urge our communities to be organised politically. This is evident from those parts of the Old Testament that give instructions for how the poor are to be treated. Take, for example, the instruction in Leviticus about the harvest: “do not reap to the very edges of your land or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up your fallen grapes. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner” (Leviticus 19: 9-10). This is not simply an instruction to be generous; it sets out an aspect of the political rights of the poor. Even more telling, perhaps, are the “Jubilee” rules set out in the 25 th and 26 th chapters of Leviticus, which insist that every fifty years all commercial debts should be cancelled. Whether this ever actually happened is open to question, but in fact it was not uncommon in the ancient Near East for some kind of periodic debt cancellation to occur. Moreover, until the late Middle Ages the Church had a strong sense that political and commercial life should reflect religious norms. The charging of excess interest on debts, for example, was strictly forbidden as the sin of “usury,” and charging any kind of interest to the poor was frowned on as contravening the Old Testament instruction that “if you lend any money to any … who is poor … you shall not exact any interest from him” (Exodus 22:25). Not until the seventeenth century did our current norms for commercial life become widely accepted, and even then there were strong rearguard reactions in the Christian world. The Roman Catholic papal encyclical Rerum Novarum of 1891, for example, strongly affirmed the importance of private property, and therefore renounced the kind of socialism that would do away with that property. Nevertheless, it quoted with full approval a medieval statement that “Man should not consider his material possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need,” and it stated unequivocally that it was necessary “to save unfortunate working people from the cruelty of men of greed, who use human beings as mere instruments for money-making.”
This can, of course, all sound terribly “anti-capitalist” in the modern sense of that term. However, the Christian attitude to commercial and political issues has always been more complex than that. When Conrad Noel, the early twentieth century “red vicar” of Thaxted was a student, he used to plaster his walls with posters containing apparently revolutionary statements, but he would cover up the bottom part of the poster, which revealed the author of the statement. If anyone commented on the inappropriately political nature of any of these statements - assuming that they had been made by Marx, Engels, or Lenin - he would uncover the part revealing the author. It was always one of the Church Fathers – often Saint John Chrysostom.
The point of all this is that the Church can only take a party political line if certain fundamental Christian values are being ignored by one of the parties, and in normal political life this is only rarely the case. A party’s policies always reflect a mixture of values and technical judgments about how those values can best be promoted in a particular situation. The Church, while it can (and should) comment about values, is in no position to make comments on the technical judgments involved in putting those values into practice. This leaves Christians free to support any political party whose values do not completely clash with Christian ones. We need, nevertheless, to be clear about those values. As the witness of the holy unmercenary physicians indicates, any policy which simply puts money-making above all other values, or which clearly ignores the needs of the poor, is never one that we can support.
With the new lockdown it seems that after today there will be no more services in church for a while. Also I will not, after Thursday, be allowed to bring communion to you at home. In a real emergency I would, of course, be willing to bend these rules, but it would have to be a real emergency. If you would like me to bring you communion in the first part of this coming week - when it is still allowed - please phone me (01328-820108) to arrange this. Don't email because my own computer is still away for repair and I can only get at my email account occasionally on Cathie's computer. (She is not at home every day and sometimes stays the night in Cambridge because of her work, so there will very often be a long delay in replying to any message I receive).
With love in Christ,
SERMON ON LUKE 16:19-31
In Israel of the first century, in the time of Our Lord, and when this Gospel was recorded by St Luke, there was no middle class with which we identify, just rich and poor. Within the frame of that background we must understand the story Our Lord tells of the Rich Man and of Lazarus, the indigent. He was not just poor like most workmen and labourers; he was homeless, and unemployed (lying at the gate of the rich man) & he was repulsively unhealthy (the dogs licked his sores). He longed to be given what they didn’t even want, but nobody let him have that. So he died in misery, and was then carried to Abraham’s bosom; the place where the righteous dwell with God. Later the rich man died, and went to hell and torment.
As St Paul writes to the Corinthians in the passage which was read at Liturgy today, charity never fails, even though faith and teaching and knowledge will pass away. The once rich man is concerned for the inevitable fate of his brothers, who live as he did, and asks that they be warned by Lazarus (for they all saw him at the gate, and ignored him on their way to and from feasting). We see that his love for them endures, even in hell, yet it is powerless, since it bore no fruit on earth. The rich man sees now, that his brothers must repent of the way of life he shared with them, to avoid his fate.
But Abraham denies this request saying that they have Moses, who was the greatest teacher of the people of God until John the Baptist, and the other Prophets. If they will not listen to them, neither will they give heed to one who is risen from the dead. This year, we were not permitted to celebrate Pascha, because our authorities have long despised Him Who is Risen from the dead. All our faith is in Christ, whose followers are called Christians. The authorities and teachers of this world, boast this a post-Christian, even “post-truth,” age. Many believe marxist theories of class war, conflict, and the need for an overturning (revolution) of the Christian civilisation developed over two thousand years. Love is completely absent from their materialist worldview. And this has been the everyday teaching and diet of our schools and universities for at least fifty years.
We and our children are promised by these authorities: housing, food and healthcare for our bodies, in a socialist order of government control. But our souls and those of our children, are left starved of nourishment, and diseased by foul and perverse ideas, with not even crumbs of liberty being permitted them. Abraham reminds us that God is just. Christians cannot fear death. But we must live as Christ teaches in the Gospel; repent our passion for physical safety; feed our souls by active repentance; receive worthily the Holy Gifts of Christ - The Truth and Life, now and for eternity, Amen.
Reading the Synaxarion of Saint Demetrios one is amazed by his courage and dedication. How could a young man with such an illustrious career before him, admired by all, could sacrifice everything, his life itself, for the sake of his faith? St Paul the Apostle, in today’s Epistle Reading, himself in prison and awaiting execution explains to Timothy how this is possible. He tells him that as a Christian he is a soldier of Christ whose constant care should be how to please Him. As such he should not be distracted by worldly cares that cool down one’s zeal and drain his energy. Rather he should focus on how to struggle for Christ as a Christian athlete who wants to be crowned by Him. He will be crowned if he struggles lawfully, that is, not as one wants but according to the will of God.
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No.28 (27th September 2020)
This newsletter is shorter than usual and is coming a little early this week because – after a summer of shielding from the COVID-19 virus – I’m about to take a week’s holiday before the second wave of the virus and the colder weather arrive. If you have any pressing pastoral needs while I’m away please contact Fr. Patrick (who can be contacted by phone on 01362-687031.)
The Americans talk about “vacations” of course, but here in England we still speak about holidays even though the term has lost its original meaning of “holy days.” In the medieval period, people didn’t “go on vacation” in the way we do now but they still, in fact, had plenty of leisure time, since Sundays and other holy days – when only essential work was allowed –actually took up more of the year than our present weekends and holiday periods do. When we sing about the “twelve days of Christmas” we’re singing about one of the longest periods of this kind, but there were plenty of others.
We speak about our time away from work in terms of “recreation” and this has, as one of its meanings, “re-creation”: being created again. We all know how a short period away can sometimes make us feel like “new people” and this is certainly a psychological reality. On holy days, however, we can feel re-created in an even deeper way than when “on vacation”because, if the church’s calendar is part of our lives, we can experience our relationship toGod in a way which makes clear that our “ordinary time” is linked to eternity. “This is eternal life” said Jesus in a prayer to the Father, “that they know you, the only true God, and JesusChrist whom you have sent” (John 17:3). If we truly know the Father and the Son whom he has sent, then that link between ordinary time and eternity is something that we can know aspart of our experience.
On a more mundane note, this coming Sunday’s liturgy is already fully-booked in terms of the space we have available because of our COVID-19 restrictions. If you want to book yourself in to the Liturgy a fortnight after that, or into the Typika service on the Sunday in between, please let me know by email (firstname.lastname@example.org). In general, the Typika services we arrange are less booked up than the Liturgies, so do consider coming to one of those.
With love in Christ,
SERMON ON THE Luke 5:1-11
This morning’s Gospel reading finds us at the beginning of Our Lord’s public ministry in Galilee and the call of his first disciples. This is because from the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross that we celebrated ten days ago until the beginning of Lent the Church reads the Gospel according to St Luke. St Matthew and St Mark also describe the call of four disciples by the lakeside, but St Luke’s account is subtly different from theirs, and it is important when reading the Gospel to pay attention to the particular emphases of each of the Evangelists as they give us the one Gospel.
Firstly, in the other accounts this is the first thing Jesus does after the arrest of St John the Baptist and his own return to Galilee. In St Luke, after he has preached in the synagogue in Nazareth and been rejected, he goes to Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee and begins preaching and working miracles, including healing Simon’s mother-in-law. Simon then already knows him and he is the central character in the story, so much so that Andrew, his brother and colleague, is not even mentioned. Simon has a special place in St Luke’s Gospel. In particular, on Easter morning it is only Simon who goes to visit the tomb after the women have brought the news of the resurrection, as those who were at Orthros heard this morning. It is Simon to whom Jesus appears before he appears to the other disciples, as they tell the two disciples on their return from Emmaus, ‘The Lord has truly risen and has appeared to Simon’.
Secondly, neither Matthew nor Mark says anything about a miraculous catch of fish. The call of Simon reminds us of the call of the Prophet Isaias. Isaias was granted a vision of God in all his glory in the temple in Jerusalem and his immediate reaction was to be acutely aware of his own sinfulness. In the same way, Simon, confronted with the miracle of the catch of fish, is conscious of his own sinfulness in the presence of a manifestation of divine power. Before, he had called Jesus ‘Master’ (Ἐπιστάτα, a word only used by St Luke in the New Testament). Now, he calls him ‘Lord’ (Κύριε). At this point St Luke calls him not just ‘Simon’, but ‘Simon Peter’, adding the name that Jesus himself will give him. Like Isaias, Peter is given a missionary task that of catching not fish but human beings. And there are a great many of them to catch. The net is beginning to break. He will not be able to manage on his own. He will need helpers.
Commenting on this passage, St Cyril of Alexandria says that Jesus first catches the Apostles in his net so that they may do the same the whole world over. As the Apolytikion for Pentecost puts it, ‘Blessed are you, Christ our God, who revealed the fishermen to be most wise by sending, down to them the Holy Spirit, and so through them catching the whole world in a net’. ‘Let us, says St Cyril, ‘admire the skilfulness of the method employed in making a catch of those who were to make a catch of the whole earth, that is the holy Apostles, who, though themselves well skilled in fishing, yet fell into Christ’s net, so that they too, by letting down the net of the Apostolic preaching, might gather to him the inhabitants of the whole world.’ That same task is ours also. We have been baptised, we have seen the true light, we have received the heavenly Spirit and we too, aware like Simon of our sinfulness, must put out our hands to the net to help in the apostolic work of gathering all our fellow humans into the net which is the Church of the Kingdom of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No.27 (20th September 2020)
As the second wave of COVID-19 now appears to be about to hit us in this country, the precautions that our various parishes have taken appear to have been justified. If churches – along with lots of other institutions – had not taken these precautions, the present situation might have been even worse than it is.
Our own parish’s risk assessment – together with our reading of the government’s rules and guidelines – has meant that the maximum number of worshippers in our small church building at any one time is very limited, and even when we have a Liturgy – only once a fortnight at the moment instead of the usual practice of every Sunday - we cannot give communion to laypeople.As I’ve said previously in these newsletters, being unable to receive the sacrament is not to be deprived of the grace that is usually received through that sacrament. What is important is that we desire the sacrament and the grace usually received through it, and that we live lives of repentance that make us worthy to receive these gifts. This worthiness does not arise from any virtue of our own since - as our funeral and panikhida services insist - “there is no one who lives who is without sin.” We are worthy only in in the sense that we accept that we are accepted by God just as we are, and are sincerely able to say, as we do in the prayer immediately before communion, that we believe and confess “that thou art in truth the Christ, the Son of the living God, who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first.” As some of you know, I am not very fond of Western Christian hymns, but one which has words (if not a tune) that I approve of is a pre-communion hymn that goes Just as I am, without one plea / But that thy blood was shed for me,And that thou bids’t me come to thee, / O Lamb of God, I come.This, I think, gets the required attitude just right.
Being “the first” of sinners does not, of course, mean that there are no other people whose thoughts or actions are worse than ours in some abstract sense. It means, rather, that we do not have the excuse of unbelief that these others may have, so that we can have no plea of ignorance. It means also, as our Lord so often insisted, that we are not in a position to judge others and rank them as worse or lesser sinners than ourselves.
The word sin is, in fact, often misunderstood by us, because the Greek word of which it is a translation – hamartia – has as its prime meaning missing the mark (as in an archer’s missing of the target at which an arrow is aimed.) It can sometimes be helpful in our self-examination to think about the “sins” we have committed, but ultimately our sin is not just the conglomeration of all the things we have done that we know to be wrong. When we “commit a sin,” the mark we have missed is not obedience to some ethical rule, but the goal of loving God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and our neighbour as ourselves. It is not a failure to uphold some legal rule, but a failure of relationship. It is that failure of relationship that is healed by Christ.
Because of this understanding of sin, repentance is not ultimately about the development of a sense of guilt at what we have done or failed to do, but about a sober assessment of our shortcomings and a reversal of the attitude that has caused us so often to miss the mark. The Greek word for repentance – metanoia– does not have quite the same sense that the term repentance sometimes has inEnglish, which can lead people either to think that it involves a kind of wallowing in self-loathing or else to see it as a sort of “virtue” that can outweigh the sins against which it is balanced (as in the cartoon below.) Rather, it has the meaning of “turning around”: of “change of mind and heart.”May that change of heart and mind be something that each of us experiences more and more!
With love in Christ,
SERMON ON Mark 8:34 - 9:1
What does it mean to take up the Cross daily? It is not just a question of being prepared to die for Christ, but it is more a question of being prepared to live for Christ. As St. Paul tells us we are called to «offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God - this is your true and proper worship» (Rom. 12: 1-3), and likewise St. Peter tells us "you also like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (1 Pet. 2: 4-6). Christ gave his life for us, and asks us to give our lives to Him. The offering of our lives is to be daily, and is hardest on the difficult days, the days when we are made to feel uncomfortable and unwelcome for being Christians. The difficult days would be difficult no matter where we are or who we are. They would be no easier in a monastery, nor would we find them easier if we were saints.
Saints only become saints by following Christ on the difficult days, the days when they don’t really feel like doing it. However the difficult days do become easier with time and practice. We can prepare for them through the daily practice of prayer and love for Αρχιμ. Χρυσόστομος Μιχαηλίδης our fellow men. We can set about righting the wrongs we’ve done on the bad days when we failed, through the practice of virtue and learning from our mistakes.
A bad day is much easier to face if we have some idea as to what we could do better next time. Turning a bad day into a good day is one of the deep joys of the Christian life. It is the process that saints have become accomplished in doing. It is the process that Christ himself went through by changing the sad day of His death into the glorious day of His Resurrection. It was the days on which he restored Sts. Peter and Thomas to love and fellowship with Himself and their fellow Disciples. It was the day on which the prodigal son decided to return to his father’s house.
Most days though are actually the opposite where we have to ensure that a good day doesn’t turn bad. This is where true sanctity becomes developed. Despite how we might feel when we wake up, every day starts out good: "This is the day that the Lord has made" (Psal. 118). Let us take courage and ask Christ and his Saints to strengthen us on all days.
ON THE HOLY CROSS attributed to St. John Chrysostom
Let us consider of what great blessings for us Christ’s Cross has become the cause. For though the Lord’s Cross sounds sad and bitter, it is in reality full of joy and radiance. For the Cross is the salvation of the Church; the Cross is the boast of those who hope in it; the Cross is reconciliation of enemies to God and conversion of sinners to Christ. For through the Cross we have been delivered from enmity, and through the Cross we have been joined in friendship to God. Through the Cross we have been freed from the tyranny of the devil, and through the Cross we have been delivered from death and destruction. ‘When the Cross was not proclaimed, we were held fast by death; now the, Cross is proclaimed, and we have. Come to despise death, as though it did not exist, while we have come to long for everlasting life. ‘When the Cross was not proclaimed, we were strangers to paradise; but when the Cross appeared, at once a thief was found worthy of paradise. From such darkness the human race has crossed over to infinite light; from death it has been called to everlasting life, from corruption it has been renewed for incorruption. For the eyes of the heart are no longer covered by the darkness that comes through ignorance, but through the Cross they are flooded with the light of knowledge. The ears of the deaf are no longer shut by unbelief, for the deaf have heard the word of the Lord, and the blind have recovered their sight to see the glory of God. These are the gifts we are given through the Cross. What blessing has not been achieved for us through the Cross?
The Cross is proclaimed, and faith in God is confessed and truth prevails in the whole inhabited world. The Cross is proclaimed, and martyrs are revealed and confession of Christ prevails. The Cross is proclaimed, and the resurrection is revealed, life is made manifest, the kingdom of heaven is assured. The Cross has become the cause of all these things, and through the Cross we have been taught to sing. What then is more precious than the Cross? What more profitable for our souls? So let us not be ashamed to name the Cross, but let us confess it with total confidence.
OCCASIONAL NEWSLETTER No.26 (13th September 2020)
Monday is Holy Cross day, and in our Sunday liturgy we shall anticipate this feast by a day. Traditionally, Orthodox churches on this day have a cross, laid in a bed of basil, in the middle of the church (as shown in the photograph) – though in our own church we usually substitute rosemary for basil because the latter is not always easy to come by at this time of year.
This feast is one of the occasions of the year on which we focus on the cross, but not in quite the same way as we do on Good Friday, when we are caught up in the events of the day of our Lord’s death. Even on that day, nevertheless, we venerate the cross with a sense of anticipation of the resurrection, singing at Mattins:
Today He who hung the earth upon the waters is hung upon the Cross. He whois King of the angels is arrayed in a crown of thorns. He who wraps the heavens in clouds is wrapped in the purple of mockery. He who in Jordan set Adam free receives blows upon His face. The Bridegroom of the Church is transfixed with nails. The Son of the Virgin is pierced with a spear. We venerate Thy Passion,O Christ. Show us also Thy glorious Resurrection.
On feasts like the one we celebrate now, however, the link with the resurrection is even more strongly stressed, and what we tend to focus on is Christ’s victory over the powers of evil and death. This is a very ancient Christian emphasis, and the fact that it was not peculiar to Eastern Christianity is shown by the famousAnglo-Saxon poem, The Dream of the Rood. (Rood simply means “cross.”)This poem was written in about the eighth century, only shortly before the carving of the Anglo-Saxon cross in Ruthwell, Dumfrieshire (now in Scotland but then part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria.) This cross - which has part of the poem carved on it in runes – is now in the parish church of Ruthwell and is shown in the photograph.
As well as having a panel showing Christ trampling on the beasts (a symbol of evil) the cross has another panel showing another scene sometimes picked up in the early Christian monuments of Britain, which indicates ancient British links with, and interest in, the monasticism of the Christian east. This panel shows St.Paul the first hermit and St. Anthony sharing bread in the desert of Egypt.
Most of us find that the Dream of the Rood, in its original Anglo-Saxon or oldEnglish, is impossible for us to read now, simply because the English language changed so much after the Norman conquest of 1066, so that old English and Norman French became thoroughly mixed together. In its original version, the poem begins as follows:
Hwæt, iċ swefna cyst secgan wylle,
hwæt mē ġemǣtte tō midre nihte
syðþan reordberend reste wunedon.
Þūhte mē þæt iċ ġesāwe syllicre trēow
5on lyft lǣdan, lēohte bewunden,
Translated into modern English, this becomes
Listen! The choicest of visions I wish to tell,
which came as a dream in middle-night,
after voice-bearers lay at rest.
It seemed that I saw a most wondrous tree
born aloft, wound round by light,
brightest of beams.
This “wondrous tree” was the cross, and the poem goes on to give the cross’s own account of what had occurred when Christ was nailed to it. This account focuses on the victory of a kind of warrior. This imagery appealed to the Anglo-Saxon mind, which was still to some extent a pagan one, and the poem can be seen (and has been seen) as an essentially pagan version of the Christian understanding. To see it in this way is, however, surely wrong, since this kind of victory imagery was common in early Christianity. If, for example, we look at an early Christian writer like Venantius Fortunatus – a bishop of Poitiers who wrote in the late sixth century - we find a very similar sentiment. In one of his hymns, Pange Lingua (in the translation made by J. M. Neale) two of the verses are as follows:
Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle,
Sing the ending of the fray;
Now above the Cross, the trophy,
Sound the loud triumphant lay:
Tell how Christ, the world's Redeemer,
As a Victim won the day.
Faithful cross, true sign of triumph,
Be for all the noblest tree;
None in foliage, none in blossom,
None in fruit thine equal be;
Symbol of the world's redemption,
For the weight that hung on thee!
This hymn became a standard part of the Western services for Good Friday, and it has precisely the same kind of stress on victory as does The Dream of the Rood.
Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia has said that “Orthodox feel thoroughly at home in the language of [this] great Latin hymn” and says the same of another of Venantius’s hymns (again in the J. M. Neale translation):
Fulfilled is all that David told
In true prophetic song of old:
Among the nations, God, said he,
Hath reigned and triumphed from the tree.
Modern western Christians, says Metropolitan Kallistos, tend “to think of the crucifixion in isolation, separating it too sharply from the Resurrection. As a result, the vision of Christ as a suffering God is in practice replaced by a vision of his suffering humanity; the western worshipper, when he meditates upon the cross, is encouraged all too often to feel a morbid sympathy with the Man of Sorrows, rather than adore the victorious and triumphant king.”
At this feast of the cross we can, if we follow the Orthodox and ancientChristian understanding, truly adore the victorious and triumphant king. May we continue to do so throughout our lives!
With love in Christ,
SERMON ON THE GOSPEL John 3:13-17
Today’s reading from St Paul’s epistle to the Galatians encourages us to focus the attention of our hearts on the Cross of Christ. It means noticing that God far from being selfish, sacrifices himself for his creatures. When Jesus was thirty, he, the sinless God-Man, took upon himself all the sins of the world and washed them away by his baptism in the Jordan. He was not washed by the water of Jordan: the water of Jordan was washed by his presence. That is why often in
church we bless water by plunging the Cross of Christ into it.
Let us think a little more about what Jesus did. Instead of proclaiming, I am God, I am in charge of everything, I control everything, he took into himself everything that is wrong and painful, to the point of allowing the important people, the politicians and religious leaders, to humiliate him, make him suffer, and murder him by nailing him to a Cross. God always fills our suffering world with his love. God always takes the humblest place. God never says, look at me, I am so important!
At the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus went into the desert by the Dead Sea for forty days. The devil tried to convince him that he should try and rule the whole world, but Christ rebuked the devil, saying that seeking power in this world would involve him in making a deal with Satan. God alone must be worshipped, not power or money. After that, Jesus spent three years healing the sick, comforting those rejected by others, teaching his disciples to be gentle
and loving and to reject self-importance. He taught us never to divide people into two categories, them and us, but instead to love even our enemies. This is the challenge our Saviour has left us, calling us to see that his Cross forbids us to seek power try to control others.
Now let us look at today’s Gospel (Joh. 3: 13-17). It reminds us that the light has come into the world (3: 19), that is, the revelation of God. We know God when we are aware that the Cross shows God’s nature: The Son of Man must be lifted up on the Cross (3: 14), because God’s glory and joy is to take upon himself everything that is dark in the world and transform it into eternal life. God so loved the world... that he did not send his Son to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (3: 16-17). Our salvation is through faith in Christ, which means loving light and not darkness (3: 19). Light and love are the same thing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends (1 Cor. 13: 4-8).
The Christian Gospel makes demands on us: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you (Luk. 6: 27). In baptism, we are plunged into the death of Christ. A baptised Christian’s ego is dead, and says like Saint Paul, it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me (Gal. 2: 20). Receiving Communion, we become one with the Crucified Lord. Communion gives us eternal life, but the price is high! In his first Epistle to the Corinthians Saint Paul reminds us that, all who eat and drink [Communion] without discerning the body [without realising that Communion implies dying with Christ] eat and drink judgement against themselves (1 Cor. 11: 29). Let us have gratitude for the gift of eternal life. Let us be humble and generous. Amen.