Monthly Archives: December 2015

Sunday after the Nativity – The Holy, Righteous Ones: Joseph the Betrothed, David the King and James the Brother of the Lord

Icon - David the KingThe three saints we are commemorating today are all related to our Lord. We will first look at King David on his own and then consider an issue linking St. Joseph and Saint James.
King David was a forefather of Jesus Christ. He was the son of Jesse and he was a shepherd. During a war between the Israelites and the Philistines he killed the giant Goliath, which turned the tide of battle in favor of the Israelites. As a result he became the favorite of King Saul. However, David was so popular that Saul became jealous and tried to have David killed. David fled and did not kill the king when he had the chance. Later on, after Saul and his sons died in battle, David became king. He built a new capital, Jerusalem. David is traditionally believed to be the author of the Book of Psalms, the song book of the church and in every service we use psalms or part of psalms. One can, and should, pray from the psalter on one’s own. One can find the Book of Psalms in the Old Testament or one can obtain it in a separate volume.
One of the most famous psalms is Psalm 50/51 (50 in Greek, Slavonic and Latin, 51 in most English bibles). It was written for the following reason. David caught a glimpse of a woman, Bathsheba, bathing. He began to lust for her and committed adultery with Bathsheba and had her husband, Uriah, put in front of the battle line so he would be killed, making David guilty of murder, too. Later on, David was accused of this crime by the prophet Nathan and he repented. As a result he wrote Psalm 50/51, a psalm of repentance. When we have committed a sin it is appropriate to pray this psalm asking for God’s forgiveness.Icon - St Joseph the Betrothed
On this day we also commemorate St. Joseph, the adoptive father of Jesus and Jesus’ brother, St. James. St. Joseph was a widower, an older man, who married the Web Article December 27, 2015 Mother of God to be her guardian. He was a carpenter and God, through the medium of an angel, told him who Jesus was and to save him and the Virgin Mary by fleeing to Egypt to escape King Herod’s soldiers who were seeking to kill the Christ child. Joseph was also told to return to the Holy Land when Herod was dead. He died when Christ was rather young so we don’t see him much in the Gospel after the stories of the birth of The holy apostle James was Jesus Christ’s “brother” (we will see what this means later on). After Christ’s Ascension St. James became the first bishop of Jerusalem. He often went to pray in the temple in Jerusalem but when he started teaching that Jesus Christ was the son of God he was killed by being thrown off the room of the temple.
The “brother” of Jesus Christ We, as Orthodox, believe that the Mother of God is the Ever-Virgin Mary. That is, we believe that Mary was a virgin before, during and after giving birth and this is the most ancient tradition of the church. However, the Gospel makes mention of the “brothers” of Jesus. Indeed, St. James, as mentioned above, is called the brother of Jesus. So how do we reconcile this apparent contradiction? First of all, in the Bible not every mention of brother refers to biological brothers. Grandsons and nephews are sometimes called brothers. Even people who are good friends and companions can be referred to as brothers. Also, in the Gospel the brother of Jesus are never called sons of Mary, as Jesus is. The contradiction is eliminated when we look at the Protoevangelion of James, a mid-second century book containing early tradition about the Virgin Mary. It tells us that St. Joseph was a widower, with children from his first marriage. He was a pious, elderly man and was chosen to marry the Virgin Mary as her protector and guardian rather than a husband in the usual sense of the tem. What this shows is that the apparent contradiction in the Gospels can often be explained by the teaching of the church as transmitted by the Church Fathers. As Orthodox, we never read the Bible in isolation from the church.
What the example of the saints we commemorate today show is that reading the Bible helps us to understand the things we hear and see in the churchy and the tradition of the church, including the writing of the Fathers, the Liturgy of the church and even its iconography help us to understand the Bible.

Troparion — Tone 2

Proclaim the wonder, O Joseph, to David, the ancestor of God: you saw a Virgin great with Child, you gave glory with the shepherds, you worshipped with the Magi, you received the news from the angel. Pray to Christ God to save our souls!

Kontakion — Tone 3

Today godly David is filled with joy; Joseph and James offer praise. The glorious crown of their kinship with Christ fills them with great joy. They sing praises to the One ineffably born on earth, and they cry out: “O Compassionate One, save those who honor You!”

Fr. John

The Genealogy of Jesus Christ (The Sunday before Christmas)

Icon - geneology of ChristIn today’s Gospel we have the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the long list of his ancestors. For those of us who remember older translations, this was a long list of “begats”, i.e., “Abraham begat Isaac, and Isaac begat Jacob” and so on. Modern translations say something like “Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac was the father of Jacob” and so on. The Bible is full of genealogies and for us these lists are probably the most boring part of the Bible. So why are they there?
We take the people we meet on their own. We do not think of their ancestors. They are who they are as individuals. However, for the ancient Hebrews and for many other ancient people, one did not know another person until one knew that person’s ancestors. A person is never separated from his other ancestors any more than a person is separate from his family now. So to know who Jesus is, we have to know His ancestors. Also, in the Old Testament it was prophesied that the Messiah would be a descendant of King David and this had to be shown in the genealogy.
A note should be added here about the concept of “son” in the Bible. For us, a son is the biological offspring of a man, or the adopted son of a man. But in the Bible, the concept of “son” is broader. Son can mean grandson or even a distant descendant. It could mean nephew. And so the genealogy tells us that Jesus is the son of Abraham and the son of David. We should note that the genealogy does not say that Joseph was the father of Jesus. That is because Jesus had no human father, but was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. However, Joseph was the legal father of Jesus, so Jesus was a legal descendant of King David. We can say that St. Matthew’s genealogy is a Jewish one, showing that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of all the Old Testament prophecies, which promised a Messiah, a redeemer of the House of David and a descendant of Abraham. There is another genealogy given in the third chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel. It traces Jesus’ lineage all the way back to Adam, showing Jesus Christ’s solidarity with the whole human race, not only with the Jewish people. Abraham is the father of the Jewish people, of course, but in Genesis God tells Abraham that in him all nations will be blessed, all nations who come to believe in the God who revealed Himself in the Old Testament, but most fully in Jesus Christ.
Another important thing about the genealogy in St. Matthew’s Gospel is the inclusion of women. This is unusual became women did not ‘count’, so to speak, when determining one’s heritage. By including women, St. Matthew emphasizes their role in the history of salvation. But there is more we can say. Among these women are those who committed gave sins. So, for example, we have Rahab, a prostitute who hid the Hebrew spies from their enemy. We have Bathsheba, who committed adultery with King David. This shows that God never forgets about the sinner, always awaiting their return and repentance, and that repentant sinners (i.e., all of us) have a role to play in the history of salvation. This list also includes foreigners, the non-Jews, for example Ruth, who joined the Jewish people after the death of her Jewish husband. This shows that salvation is not something offered only to the people of a certain nationality or ethnic group, but is open to all of humanity. The presence of Ruth reminds us that even the very Jewish genealogy we find in St. Mathew’s Gospel also reaches beyond Judaism so in that sense it is also inclusive, as St. Luke’s Gospel is.
Actually, much more can and has been written about the genealogy of Jesus Christ as given in St. Matthew’s and St. Luke’s Gospels. They remind us that salvation, although stemming from the Jewish people, has now been offered to all humanity and there is room for repentant sinners and those who seem to be strangers to us.

Troparion — Tone 2

Great are the accomplishments of faith, for the Three Holy Youths rejoiced in the flames as though at the waters of rest, and the prophet Daniel appeared, a shepherd to the lions as though they were sheep. So by their prayers, O Christ God, save our souls!

Kontakion — Tone 1

Rejoice, Bethlehem! Prepare yourself, O Ephratha! The Lamb is on her way to give birth to the Chief Shepherd she carries in her womb. The God-bearing forefathers will rejoice, beholding Him, and with the shepherds, they will glorify the Virgin nursing Him.

Fr. John

St. Herman of Alaska (commemorated August 9th and December 13th)

Icon St. HermanSaint Herman was the first Orthodox saint to be canonized in America and is considered the patron saint of North America by Orthodox Christians.
St. Herman was born in the 1750s in the town of Serpukhov in the Moscow governate. No one knows St. Herman’s first and last name from before his tonsure as a St. Herman first entered the monastic life at Holy Trinity St. Sergius Monastery near Moscow. After five or six years, he transferred to Valaam Monastery on Lake Ladoga. At Valaam St. Herman was taught by Abbot Nazarius who was influenced by the hesychast spirituality of St. Paisius Velechovsky. This was a spiritual discipline of reciting the Jesus Prayer thousands of times a day (at least by monks and nuns. Those of us in the world can benefit by saying the Jesus Prayer on a lesser scale.) At Valaam St. Herman received permission from Abbot Nazarius to live as a hermit some distance from the monastery. While he was leading the solitary life, Metropolitan Gabriel offered to ordain St. Herman for the priesthood and make him head of the Orthodox mission to China. St. Herman refused and lived as a simple monk for the rest of his days.
Moving from one end of the Russian Empire to the other we arrive in Alaska, or Russian America. The Russian presence in Alaska begins with the discovery of Alaska in 1741 by Vitus Bering and Alexei Chirikov. This expedition took 1500 sea otter pelts which were sold to Chinese merchants for 1000 rubles each, obviously a very profitable transaction. Between 1741 and 1798 Russian merchants explored Alaska and the Aleutian islands. Sometimes the Russians fought against the natives, sometimes they intermarried with them. Gregory Shelikhov, a fur trader, subdued the natives of Kodiak Island and with Ivan Golikov founded the Russian American Company, a fur trading company.
Shelikhov founded a school for natives and many of them became Orthodox Christians. The Russian American Company asked the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church to provide a priest for the natives. The Empress Catherine the Great decided to send a mission of ten monks from Valaam Monastery, including St. Herman. They arrived in Alaska in 1794 which marks the beginning of an official Orthodox presence in North America.
When the missionaries got to Kodiak they found that there were more problems than they had expected. The Russian American Company was abusing the natives. Among the Russians themselves alcoholism was widespread and many Russians had taken native mistresses. The monks defended the natives against the Russian American Company and became their protector. Nevertheless, the monks managed to baptize over 7,000 people. In 1807 St. Herman became the head of the mission, despite the fact that he was not a priest. The local population loved him and he ran the mission  school. He was called Apa, which means grandfather in the Aleut language.
However, St. Herman still yearned for the solitary life. Around 1811-1817 St. Herman moved toSt. Herman - Spruce Island Spruce Island, an island separated from Kodiak by about a mile. He lived a strictly ascetic life there, wearing only an inner and outer cassock and a deerskin smock even in the coldest weather. He slept on a wooden bench and used bricks for pillows. He had no blanket and used a wooden board to cover himself. Still, he had visitors and soon built a guesthouse and a school for orphans. The saint died on November 15, 1830. St. Herman was canonized by the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) and the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) in 1970, making St. Herman the first Orthodox saint to be canonized in America. His relics were moved from Spruce Island to Kodiak where they repose in Holy Resurrection Cathedral.
Every year in August pilgrims come to Kodiak for the St. Herman Pilgrimage. The presence of St. Herman is still palpable there and he is deeply loved by the native people of Kodiak, but also by many Christians around the world.

Troparion — Tone 7

Joyful North Star of the Church of Christ, Guiding all people to the Heavenly Kingdom; Teacher and apostle of the True Faith; Intercessor and defender of the oppressed; Adornment of the Orthodox adornment of the Orthodox Church in America: Blessed Father Herman of Alaska, Pray to our Lord Jesus Christ for the salvation of our souls!

Troparion of the Akathist — Tone 4

O blessed Father Herman of Alaska, North star of Christ’s holy Church, the light of your holy life and great deeds guides those who follow the Orthodox way. Together we lift high the Holy Cross you planted firmly in America. Let all behold and glorify Jesus Christ, singing his holy Resurrection.

Kontakion — Tone 3

The eternal light of Christ our Savior guided you, blessed Father Herman, on your evangelical your evangelical journey to America to proclaim the Gospel of peace. Now you stand before the throne of glory; intercede for your land and its people: Peace for the world and salvation for our souls!

Fr. John

St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, Commemorated May 9th and December 6th (270-343 AD)

Icon - St. Nicholas 12-6In religion, as in other fields of life, there are theory and practice. The theory is doctrine, our beliefs about God, beginning with the two fundamental doctrines, the Trinity (God is three persons and one substance) and the Incarnation (the belief that Jesus Christ is fully man and fully God). Of course there is much more to say about God, about humanity, the world and so on. The practice is the practical deeds of love and charity to those in need and our willingness to forgive others.
Sometimes people separate theory and practice in an unbalanced way, but the saints have always combined Orthodoxy (theory) and Orthopraxis (practice) together and this is true of the saint we commemorate today.
St. Nicholas was born in Patara (now in Turkey) to devout parents. He was zealous for God from childhood, observing the fasts of the church from an early age. His parents died when the saint was a child and he was raised by his Uncle Nicholas, who was bishop of Patara. Bishop Nicholas ordained his nephew a priest. In the years 315-318, St. Nicholas lived as a monk in the Holy Land before returning to Asia Minor, to Myra, where he as consecrated bishop in 317.
Around this time a priest named Arius in Alexandria Egypt was teaching that Jesus Christ was not God. He said that Jesus was the most perfect creature that was ever made but he was not God. This teaching became an intense topic of discussion, so much so that it disturbed the peace of the Roman Empire. In response to this the Emperor Constantine called a meeting of bishops in a place called Nicea to settle this issue. At this council Arius explained his point of view, which so upset St. Nicholas that he actually slapped Arius in the face. For this act the other bishops were going to depose him from his rank, but Jesus Christ himself and his Mother appeared to the bishops in their dreams and told them St. Nicholas should not be deposed. Now of course, the church does not approve of striking people, but this shows how zealous St.
Nicholas was for Orthodoxy. St. Nicholas (and the other council fathers) knew that if Jesus Christ were not God he could not destroy the power of sin, death and the devil.
St. Nicholas defended the divinity of Christ, not as an abstract issue, but as a matter of concern for his flock. As we shall see in a moment, St. Nicholas cared deeply about the material needs of his people, but also cared for their spiritual needs.
But of course, St. Nicholas was also famous for his acts of charity, the most famous of which is the following.
There as a man who had three daughters but he did not have enough for the daughters’  owries so they could get married. This meant they might end up as prostitutes. St. Nicholas, heaving this story, went to this man’s house at night and threw three purses withy gold through the window to help these young women. Another version of the story has St. Nicholas throwing the purses down the chimney and they fall into the daughters’ stockings which were hanging on the fireplace to dry. Here we can clearly see St. Nicholas as the forerunner of Santa Claus.
After his death, St. Nicholas relics remained in Myra. However, in the chaos caused by the rise of the military threat of the Seljuk Turks in 1087 the relics were taken to Bari, Italy where they remain today. At his shrine in Bari, both Catholics and Orthodox have a church. Every year on his feast day the relics of St. Nicholas exude a fragrant liquid known as myrrh.
In 2009 the Turkish government asked Italy to return the relics to Turkey. So we see that St. Nicholas is an example of zeal for Orthodoxy, but at the same time an example of zeal in helping others and is venerated beyond the borders of the Orthodox Church. In modern society St. Nicholas has been turned into Santa Claus but his origins are in the church.
Having seen that St. Nicholas was the prototype of Santa Claus, let us look at some of the St. Nicholas/Santa Claus customs around the world.
IRELAND – According to local Irish legend, Saint Nicholas is buried in County Kilkenny, Ireland. The grave is said to be in the ruined Church of St Nicholas in a medieval village, Newtown Jerpoint. Though the church dates from 1170, the grave slab appears to be from the 1300s. The tale tells of a band of Irish-Norman knights from Jerpoint, traveling to the Holy Land to take part in the Crusades. On retreat, as they headed home to Ireland, it is said they seized St Nicholas’ remains, bringing them back to Kilkenny, where the bones were buried.
RUSSIA – Vladimir the Great brought stories of St. Nicholas to Russia in the 11th century. There Nicholas became greatly revered as the protector of the weak, the oppressed and the poor. Russian merchants revering St. Nicholas the Wonderworker as the patron of all who travel on land or sea, dedicated churches to him. As patron of farming and cattle and master of water, St. Nicholas the Wonderworker is present in many sayings. For example, “The winter Nicholas will bring the horse to the stable. The spring Nicholas will feed the horse.”
ITALY – The San Nicola festival commemorates the 1087 arrival of St. Nicholas’ remains in Bari, Catholic Cathedral in Bari ItalyItaly. When Turks conquered Asia Minor, many Christians were afraid they would no longer be permitted to visit the popular site of Nicholas’ tomb in Myra. So Italian sailors spirited the away to Bari where a huge basilica was built in honor of the saint. At the festival every May, Nicola’s statue is taken out to sea for a day. TRussian Church Bari Italyhousands welcome it back to Bari with a lighted procession winding from the harbor to a public square. On St. Nicholas Eve in December, children put a plate on the table with a letter asking for gifts and promising to be good in the coming year. During the night, San Nicola fills most of the requests and piles the plates with chocolates, candies, and other good things.
AUSTRIA – St. Nicholas, the special children’s saint, is honored throughout Austria. It is said that God rewarded Nicholas’ generosity by allowing him to return to earth each year to bring gifts to all the good children. He comes dressed as a bishop with flowing robes and a mitre, carrying a big book and a bishop’s staff. During the year angels, who sometimes come with him, write children’s good and bad deeds in this book. In Austria a strange and frightening creature, Krampus , is usually with St. Nicholas. This devil figure, often in chains, is dressed in fur with a scary mask and a long red tongue. Krampus carries a wooden stick to threaten children but St. Nicholas never lets Krampus harm anyone. Children leave shoes for St. Nicholas on the windowsill or outside their bedroom doors. In the morning they find them with oranges, apples, nuts, sweets, and small toys.
ARUBA – In a Caribbean celebration with origins in the Netherlands, the Dutch Sinterklaas sails into harbor from Spain in mid-November, with his white horse and an entourage of helpers. A parade follows with the saint and his helpers throwing Pepernoten (spice cookies) to the children. On St. Nicholas Eve, 5 December, children put a bucket of water and a shoe filled with hay or a carrot outside for the saint’s big white horse. If they have been good, the shoes will be filled with gifts by morning. If they haven’t been good, Zwarte Piet (St. Nicholas’ helpers) just might pop them into a large sack and carry them back to Spain. During the evening gifts are exchanged in the Dutch way by wrapping them in elaborate disguises and presented with a humorous poem about the recipient.
BULGARIA – Nikulden – December 6th, is a great winter festival. Bulgarians celebrate St. Nicolay as the protector of sailors and fishermen. Like Greek sailors, Bulgarians keep icons of St. Nicolay on shipboard seeking protection from storms. The autumn fishing season ends on Nikulden. The day’s catch is to be offered to the saint and a fish dish, ribnik, carp wrapped in dough or baked with rice is made, along with two special loaves of bread. After wafting incense over the food, the host raises the bread high, and breaks it in half. One half he keeps, the other is left on the table. The cross-shaped crown bone from the fish head (the krakhche) is also kept—it may be buried as a protection for the house or grandmothers used to sew it in children’s caps to protect them from evil. The food is kept out on the table all day to be shared with neighbors and other guests.

St Nicholas the Wonderworker and Archbishop of Myra in Lycia

Troparion — Tone 4

You were revealed to your flock as a rule of faith, an image of humility and a teacher of abstinence; your humility exalted you; your poverty enriched you. Hierarch Father Nicholas, entreat Christ our God that our souls may be saved.

Kontakion — Tone 3

You revealed yourself, O saint, in Myra as a priest, For you fulfilled the Gospel of Christ By giving up your soul for your people, And saving the innocent from death. Therefore you are blessed as one become wise in the grace of God.

Fr. John