Category Archives: Lent Services

The Orthodox Faith – Salvation History (5a)

We are continuing our look at how events and people in the Old Testament foreshadow events and people in the New Testament and the life of the church.

One if the most important events in the Judeo-Christian history and indeed in human history is the giving of the Law on Mt. Sinai. We remember that scene. After the Jewish people had escaped from slavery in Egypt, they wandered in the desert for forty years. In the third month of their wandering they came to Mt. Sinai and God called Moses, the Jewish leader to ascend the mountain. We see this in Exodus.

On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people who were in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God; and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. And Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire; and the smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain quaked greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. And the Lord came down upon Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain; and the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. (Ex 19:16-21)

At this point God gives the Ten Commandments as can be seen in Exodus 20:1-18.

And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. “You shall have no other gods before me. “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments. “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor, and do all your work;  but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your manservant, or your maidservant, or your cattle, or the sojourner who is within your gates;  for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it. “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you. “You shall not kill. “You shall not commit adultery. “You shall not steal. “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his manservant, or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” Now when all the people perceived the thunderings and the lightnings and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled; and they stood afar off. (Ex 20:1-18)

When we think of the Ten Commandments we think only of the ten brief moral laws. However Jewish tradition holds that most of the laws given in the first five books of the Bible were given to Moses then. So the fundamental laws given to humanity in Old Testament times were given to Moses on Mt. Sinai.

Important as the laws found in the Old Testament are, there is always the danger that these laws will be something external to us and the observance of these laws a mere formality. Therefore, many times in the Old Testament God promised through his prophets that there would come a new law, written on human hearts by the Holy Spirit. For example:

“Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, `Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” Thus says the Lord, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar — the Lord of hosts is his name:  “If this fixed order departs from before me, says the Lord then shall the descendants of Israel cease from being a nation before me forever.” Thus says the Lord: “If the heavens above can be measured, and the foundations of the earth below can be explored, then I will cast off all the descendants of Israel for all that they have done, says the Lord.” (Jeremiah 31:32-37)

Or

A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. (Ezekiel 36:26-27)

In other words, the law will not be something external, placed on us by a distant God, but will rather be a law written on our hearts. This new law which is the fulfillment of the Old Testament can only happen when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles and the Theotokos on the day of Pentecost.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – Salvation History (4)

As we have seen in previous articles, events and people in the Old Testament point forward to and foreshadow the events and people in the New Testament and in the life of the church. For example, the manna with which God fed the Jews in the desert points forward to Christ feeding the 5000 in the wilderness, to the Last Supper and to the Holy Communion we receive at the Divine Liturgy.

The Jewish people were saved by going down into the sea which Moses had miraculously parted. In the same way we are saved by going down into the waters of Baptism.

We continue the same theme here. Consider the following quote from St. Paul.

“I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink. For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ.” (I Cor 10:1-4)

What is St. Paul talking about here? What is the supernatural Rock which followed them? To answer this question, we have to go back to the Exodus which describes the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. It says,

“All the congregation of the people of Israel moved on from the wilderness of Sin by stages, according to the commandment of the Lord, and camped at Reph’idim; but there was no water for the people to drink. Therefore the people found fault with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” And Moses said to them, “Why do you find fault with me? Why do you put the Lord to the proof?” But the people thirsted there for water, and the people murmured against Moses, and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?” So Moses cried to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” And the Lord said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel; and take in your hand the rod with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, that the people may drink.” And Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel.” (Ex 17:1-6)

The verses in St. Paul we see a reference to the “rock” which followed them. This may seem strange or even amusing. But St. Paul tells us the rock was Jesus Christ. The main point is important and clear.

In the desert people need water and water is often hard to find. God giving water to the Jews is a sign of God’s love for His people. Just as Jesus Christ is “bread from heaven” He is also the “living water”. We remember that when Christ speaks to the Samaritan woman he says

“the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, `Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.'”  Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” (Jn 7:37-39)

In other words, water is necessary for life, physical life. In the same way this “living water” is necessary for our spiritual health. St. John tells us that this living water is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was given on the day of Pentecost.

Critics of Christianity often say that Christianity restricts human freedom, that it binds us with all sorts of rule and regulations. But if we look at the Bible, we see that Christianity is about liberation, about our freedom from slavery. The whole Book of Exodus is about the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. In the same way, Christ frees us from slavery to sin and death. When we act out our passions, our sins bind and restrict our freedom. This bondage makes it difficult to love God and our neighbor. The Christian life is a process of regaining our freedom. And of course, our greatest fear is death. Christ, who rose from the dead, promises us that He will raise us up also. Christ is the conqueror of death and the water of Baptism, and the Body and Blood of Holy Communion incorporating us into Christ’s victory over death. Or to put it another way, Jesus said, “…you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (17B)

In the church, Pentecost is a beginning and end. It is an end in the sense that it is the fulfillment of Christ’s mission on earth. In fact, it is the fulfillment of all the prophesies and predictions about the coming of the Messiah which run through the whole Old Testament. But Pentecost is also the beginning of the Church. In fact, Pentecost is often called the “birthday of the Church” because the Church could not begin without the Holy Spirit.

Christianity is a historical religion and is not based simply on philosophy or ideas. Rather it is based on God’s actions in history. To give some examples, God called Abraham to leave his homeland so he could become the father of many nations; Moses led the Jewish people out of captivity in Egypt; Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, died and rose from the dead in Jerusalem.

However, our faith is not based simply on historical events. One has to see the meaning in historical events. For example, many historians would admit that the Jewish people escaped from Egypt but would say the parting of the sea was a natural phenomenon of winds and tides, not believing that God had worked a miracle. Many critics would accept that the Myrrh-bearing women and the Apostles could not find Christ’s body in the tomb on Easter morning. However, they do not accept that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. They offer alternative interpretations.  They will say that the Apostles stole the body of Christ so that they could start the Church. Others have said that the women and the Apostles went to the wrong tomb. Still, others would say that the Apostles were hallucinating. It is only we who accept that Jesus Christ is the divine Son of God will understand that Jesus came into the world to die and rise again to destroy the power of death. This is the Christian confession of faith and without this faith, the story of the empty tomb is just a story.

For these reasons, icons are not simply naturalistic portraits about events in history. Rather, they explain the meaning of what happened through the language of symbols. This is true in the case of the Pentecost icon. In this icon we see the Apostles gathered on Mount Zion and the Apostles sitting in a semi-circle. At the top of the icon, there is a semi-circle with rays coming from it. The semi-circle symbolizes the Holy Spirit sending the rays as tongues of fire signifying the descent of the Holy Spirit. In the center of the semi-circle of the Apostles, there is an empty place. This is the place of Jesus Christ, the head of the Church. It is unoccupied of course because Christ had ascended into heaven and is no longer visible in this world. St. Paul is also found in the icon. St. Paul was not present on the day of Pentecost and was not even a Christian at the time. However, though is preaching and writings he is an important part of the foundation of the Church. The four Gospels writers – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – are present holding their Gospels, although they had not yet been written at the time.

In another semi-circle at the bottom, we see a figure of a king in a dark place. He is cosmos, representing the whole world as it was bound by sin. His presence reminds us that Christ came to save the whole universe in addition to saving humanity. In some icons, he is shown coming out of the darkness into the light, showing Christ’s victory over the darkness of sin.

So we can see the icon of Pentecost give us the Christian meaning of what happened on the day of Pentecost.

To summarize, our faith is based on God’s actions in history, but we wouldn’t understand this without our faith. In this way, icons such as the Pentecost icon, show us the true meaning of the events.

Fr. John

The Orthodox Faith – The Symbol of Faith (17A)

One of the most frequently used prayers of the Orthodox Church is:

O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who art everywhere and fillest all things. Treasury of blessings and Giver of Life, come and abide in us and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Good One.

Most Orthodox services begin with this prayer. But interestingly enough, it is not  prayed from Pascha (Easter) to Pentecost. Easter, of course, is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Forty days later the feast of Ascension, which commemorates Christ’s Ascension into heaven. Fifty days after Easter is Pentecost (Pentecost means fifty in Greek). As during His earthly ministry Jesus Christ prophesied the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (John 7: 37-19):

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, `Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.'” Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

In other words, the Holy Spirit would not be given until after Christ had been glorified, i.e., until Christ had risen from the dead. Christ is predicting the coming of the Holy Spirit fifty days after His resurrection. As mentioned above, Pentecost is the Greek word for fifty. Originally it was a Jewish feast day. It was the fiftieth day after Passover. In the Greek Old Testament it is called the “Feast of Weeks”. In Judaism Pentecost was a harvest festival. It was celebrated seven weeks after the beginning of the wheat harvest. On Pentecost, the first fruits of the harvest were offered in the temple of Jerusalem as a thanksgiving to God for a successful harvest. After the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple the first fruits could no longer be offered in the Temple, so that Pentecost was celebrated as the giving of the new law to Moses on Mount Sinai.

In the New Testament in the book of Acts we see Pentecost described. Present were the twelve Apostles (after Judas had betrayed Christ Matthias was elected to take his place). Also present were the 120disciples and Mary, the Mother of God. It is described in Acts 2:1-5:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly a sound came from heaven like the rush of a mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them tongues as of fire, distributed and resting on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven.

Tradition tells us that this took place in the Upper Room on Mount Sinai where Jesus had celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples. Further on we see that St. Peter and the other Apostles began to preach in various languages they had never spoken before so that people from any different places heard the Apostles preaching in their own language. This is the true “speaking in tongues”. In modern Christianity there are some Christians who speak in tongues. However, they are saying meaningless syllables. This is different from the true speaking in tongues at Pentecost. Some people thought the Apostles were drunk but St. Peter told the crowd that they were not drunk but filled with the Holy Spirit. He tells the people that the words of the prophet Joel were being fulfilled:

“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.” (Joel 2:28)

St. Peter preached that Jesus Christ was the Messiah promised in the Old Testament.

The crowd was so impressed with the preaching of St. Peter that about 3000 people accepted faith in Jesus and were baptized. Pentecost is the birthday of the Church.

Fr. John

Meditation for Palm Sunday

Icon Palm SundayIt’s easy to be a Christian and to love God when things are going well with us. On a warm, spring day we might spontaneously say ‘thank you’ to God for what He has done for us. As the English poet Robert Browning wrote: “God’s in His heaven, all’s right with the world”. Of course when things start to go wrong we instinctively turn to God in prayer. If we or a loved one gets sick, if we lose a job, if we have family or work problems, we ask God for help. This can comfort us for a while, but then sometimes it seems that God is not answering our prayers. Then we might become bitter, hate God or even lose faith in Him.
In a sense we are like the crowds in Jerusalem during Jesus’ last week. On Palm Sunday Jesus enters Jerusalem in triumph. The crowds cry “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (Jn 12:13). They are ready for Jesus to drive the Romans out of Jerusalem and inaugurate the Messianic kingdom.
Jesus Christ cleanses the Temple, the crowds expect some earthshaking event is going to happen. But then Jesus preaches and teaches as usual. He is not driving the Romans out and bringing in the kingdom. The crowds are disappointed and begin to turn against Him. Then Jesus is arrested, tried, beaten and mocked. The crowds know that this is not supposed to happen to the Messiah. When Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor or Palestine says to the crowd “Behold the man” (Jn 19:5). The crowds replied “…. Crucify him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no crime in him.” The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and by that law he ought to die, because he has made himself the Son of God.” (Jn 19:6-7) The crowds have turned against Jesus because He did not do what they expected Him to do, what they thought He should do.
At times we are like the crowds in Jerusalem. We love Jesus when things are going well with us, but when He seems to not answer our prayers we can turn against Him. But prayers are not magic and Christ does not promise us heaven on earth. He Himself was tortured, beaten and killed. That means Christ knows what it means to suffer, to (literally) bear the cross.
As we accompany Christ through His last days during Holy Week, the scripture reading and the prayer tell us about His suffering. This means we are bearing our own crosses, as terrible as they are sometimes, and Jesus is with us, helping us to bear our cross. He promises us resurrection, of course, at the end of time, but through prayer to our Lord, our reading of scripture and veneration of icons, and above all in receiving Holy Communion, even in the midst of our suffering, we have a foretaste of the coming resurrection.

Tone 1 Troparion
By raising Lazarus from the dead before Thy passion,Thou didst confirm the universal resurrection, O Christ God.Like the children with the palms of victory,we cry out to Thee, O Vanquisher of Death: Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He that comes in the Name of the Lord!
Tone 4 Troparion
When we were buried with Thee in baptism, O Christ God, we were made worthy of eternal life by Thy Resurrection.  Now we praise Thee and sing: Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He that comes in the Name of the Lord!
Tone 6 Kontakion
Sitting on Thy throne in Heaven, carried on a foal on earth, O Christ God, accept the praise of angels and the songs of children, who sing: Blessed is He Who comes to recall Adam!

Fr. John