Category Archives: Lent Services

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

St. Mary of Egypt 334-421 AD (Fifth Sunday in Lent)

As a young woman in the city of Alexandria, Egypt, Saint Mary became a prostitute. She did not do this because of necessity but to gratify her own lusts. After living this way for over a decade she decided to go with the pilgrims to Jerusalem for the feast of the Holy Cross. She did this not out of piety but in effect, as a vacation. She planned to support herself by seducing other pilgrims. She tried to enter the church of the Holy Sepulcher but an invisible force prevented her from entering.
This happened three times. And then she realized she could not enter the church because of her sinful way of life. Looking at an icon of the Mother of God, she resolved to end her sinful lifestyle.  Then she was able to enter the church and venerate the icon. She then heard a voice telling her to go to the monastery of St. John the Baptist on the bank of the Jordan River. There we went to confession and received Holy Communion. She then crossed the Jordan River and went to live alone in the desert. She lived alone for over forty years seeking to win the struggle over her passions.
We only know the story of St. Mary because a year before her death she met Saint Zosima of Palestine. She told him her story and asked that he come to bring her Holy Communion the following year. When St. Zosima was bringing her Communion she walked across the Jordan River to meet him. A year later, Saint Zosima went to look for her in the desert and found her lying dead and he buried her. Saint Zosima told her story to the brethren of his monastery and it was finally written down by Saint Sophronius.
The example of St. Mary of Egypt teaches us that it is always possible to repent and change one’s life no matter how far from God we have gone.

Troparion — Tone 8
The image of God was truly preserved in you, mother, / for you took up the Cross and followed Christ. / By so doing, you taught us to disregard the flesh, for it passes away, / but to care instead for the soul, since it is immortal. / Therefore your spirit, holy mother Mary, Rejoices with the angels!

Kontakion — Tone 3
Having been a sinful woman, / you became through repentance a Bride of Christ. / Having attained angelic life, / you defeated demons with the weapon of the Cross. / Therefore, most glorious Mary, you are a Bride of the Kingdom!

Fr. John

St. John Climacus (522-606AD) – The Fourth Sunday of Lent

On this day the church commemorates St. John of the Ladder. He is called this because he wrote a book on the human soul and journey called “The Ladder of Divine Ascent”, in which he compares this journey with a ladder reaching from earth to heaven.  St. John was the abbot of the monastery of St. Catherine at the base of Mount Sinai where God appeared to Moses in the burning bush.
The monastery contains what is traditionally said to be the bush in which God appears to Moses and is one of the oldest still functioning monasteries in the world, being founded by
Emperor Justinian in 565 AD.
Saint John entered the monastery when he was sixteen years old. Having spent time learning to be a monk he felt called to greater solitude. He lived as a hermit in a cave at the base of Mt. Sinai. When he was about 75 years old, the monks of the monastery, knowing of his holiness and wisdom, asked him to become their Igumen or Abbot. At the request of the abbot of another monastery, in the early seventh century he wrote the book “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” showing a ladder of thirty rungs (referring to the thirty years Jesus spent before he began his public ministry). This book is one of the most important books in Christian history and is often read during Great Lent. In some Orthodox monasteries the Ladder is read during the monastic meal. In some places during Lent is read in Church on Lenten weekdays. Although this book was written for monastics, all Christians can benefit from its wisdom.

Fr. John

 The Ladder of Divine Ascent