Thursday, December 29, 2011

Meditation or Prayer?

Prayer is an essential part of our Orthodox way of Life.  I spent most of my life without a daily prayer habit.  Because of my separation from God, I was lured into participating in a meditation practice.  Fortunately, it supported the use of Christian prayers including the Jesus Prayer.  But it was only a technique for quieting and stilling the mind. It was very useful, giving me the ability to deal with high levels of stress and to avoid anger, but I knew there was more.  I was led then to a return and full acceptance of my Orthodox faith.  I sought help from a spiritual father, albeit with reluctance at first. With the direction of my spiritual father, I stopped the use of the Jesus prayer for a while as I had to learn that it is properly practiced only as a true prayer and not by merely repeating the words as was taught in the meditation practice. I was using it as a technique rather than a prayer. After a year I again began using the Jesus Prayer, but now as part of a broader rule of prayer and practice of my Orthodox faith. I learned with some difficulty that the recitation of the Jesus prayer has to be a true prayer, not just a repetition of the words.  This means praying with a contrite heart, and a full recognition of my sinfulness, seeking with sincerity God's mercy.  I learned after many years that peace and joy only comes with true prayer as taught in the Orthodox Tradition. 

Matthew the Poor says the following about prayer,
"Let him who does not pray expect nothing whatsoever from God- neither salvation nor renewal no direction nor grace. Rather, he is consigned to the whims and fancy of his own mind, the will of his own ego, and the direction of his own thinking. He is like one who has rejected the intervention of the Lord Jesus in his life, like one who hides himself from the Spirit of God. A man who does not pray is one who is content with his own condition. He wishes to remain as he is and not be changed, renewed or saved. His life unconsciously changes from bad to worse. He recedes spiritually day after day. The ties that bind him to the earth and to the flesh increase without his awareness. His ego remains the source of all his desires and ambitions.
As for his relationship with Christ, it remains only superficial and outward. It has no power to change or amend anything. The possibility to even deny Christ at times of danger, temptation, illness, or poverty becomes imminent.
So if man does not pray, he can never be changed or renewed, and he who is not changed or renewed can have no genuine or effective relationship with Christ. His worship, however active, is nothing but an outward protrusion or a superficial growth. In the end it breaks off, bearing no fruit." 
All this I can affirm. When I was meditating I often felt content with my own efforts. I did not feel it necessary to go to Church regularly. I eventually reached a point of intense guilt for rejecting Jesus and recognized I was becoming very self-centered. I had made myself the authority on about everything, especially anything that had to do with my spiritual practice. I learned the most important spiritual lesson, that without a comprehensive daily prayer rule, within the Tradition of the Church, it is difficult if not impossible to develop a relationship with God. Daily prayer must be coupled with a regular participation in the Sacraments of the Chruch and a reading of Scripture and teachings of the Church Fathers. One supports the other. Meditation can help as a transition, but one must eventually surrender to the teachings of Christ through prayer, surrender to the Traditions of the Church and seek a spiritual father as a guide. One needs someone who is a bit more spiritually mature in the Orthodox Tradition to show you the proper way to a sound Orthodox prayer life.

For help on developing a daily prayer rule go to the website Orthodox Prayer

Reference: From “Orthodox Prayer Life: The Interior Way” by Fr. Matthew the Poor

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Dealing with Pain

Dealing with pain is a major problem for many people in these times.  Pain killer Vicodin is now the most prescribed drug in the US.  
What is pain?  It seems to come from many causes.  We have deep pain because of a loss of a loved one. We can have pain from an operation where our body has been cut open and is in the process of healing.  We can have pain from other unknown sources such as in arthritis or fibromyalgia.  Reachers now acknowledge that drugs are only a apart of the solution for those who suffer from chronic pain. 

Pain can be seen in many ways.  For example, when we work out and then feel pain in our muscles, we take this a  good sign of a strenuous workout that will lead us to greater strength.  But this is quite different from pain one suffers from fibromyalgia where there is little hope that it will ever go away.  But it is also know that those who are anxious about pain will experience greater pain for longer periods of time after surgery.  So, pain is not purely physical even though it may be initiated by a physical condition.  How we respond to can make a difference.

We can take Christ Himself who suffered torture as he was led to His crucifixion. He had the foreknowledge that this would lead Him back to heaven through His Resurrection so He could send us the Holy Spirit for our healing.  We also have the examples of the martyrs who saw joy in the horrendous tortures they we had imposed on them.  They had faith that this pain and probable death would only lead them to a union with God and eternal life in His kingdom.  As a result they gladly endured pain.

Researchers have learned a lot about the mechanism of pain in the body.  Those with chronic pain exhibit a malfunction in the brain's pain processing system.  The pain signals deviate into the areas of the brain involved with emotion, perception of danger and can actually cause gray matter to atrophy.

Researchers have found that pain can be relieved by distracting attention away from the pain.  Guided imagery, mindfulness meditation have both been shown to reduce the pain perceived by the individual.  In one study subjects reported 40% less pain intensity and 57% less unpleasantness while meditating.

Dr Mackey of Stanford reported a study where he showed students photos of a loved one while applying a pain stimuli from a hot probe.  They reported feeling 44% less pain while focusing on their loved one than on just a friend.

Now as a Christian, who do we love more than anything else?  Of course it is Jesus Christ.  We have a pain reliever that has been tested and proven for thousands of years.  If techniques such as guided imagery, meditation, or pictures of loved ones can reduce pain how much more will the practice of the Jesus prayer help us.

The practice of the Jesus Prayer is so simple yet so powerful  When we practice it for 20 minutes each day, Jesus becomes part of our moment by moment life. Then, when we have any pain, we immediately call on Him, His image, for comfort.

Painkillers can help but also can lead to overuse.  Deaths to overdoses have more than quadrupled between 1998 and 2008. Remember that pain is more than physical. True Joy always comes from an intimate relationship with God. The Church gives you all the necessary means to nurture this relationship.

More on the Jesus prayer


Saturday, December 24, 2011


A Sermon by St John of Kronstadt on the Nativity of Christ

The Word became flesh; that is, the Son of God, co-eternal with God the Father andwith the Holy Spirit, became human – having become incarnate of the Holy Spirit andthe Virgin Mary. O, wondrous, awesome and salvific mystery! The One Who had nobeginning took on a beginning according to humanity; the One without flesh assumedflesh. God became man – without ceasing to be God. The Unapproachable Onebecame approachable to all, in the aspect of an humble servant. Why, and for whatreason, was there such condescension [shown] on the part of the Creator toward Histransgressing creatures – toward humanity which, through an act of its own will hadfallen away from God, its Creator?

It was by reason of a supreme, inexpressible mercy toward His creation on the part ofthe Master, Who could not bear to see the entire race of mankind – which, He, increating, had endowed with wondrous gifts – enslaved by the devil and thus destined foreternal suffering and torment.

And the Word became flesh! order to make us earthly beings into heavenly ones, inorder to make sinners into saints; in order to raise us up from corruption intoincorruption, from earth to heaven; from enslavement to sin and the devil – into theglorious freedom of children of God; from death – into immortality, in order to make ussons of God and to seat us together with Him upon the Throne as His royal children.O, boundless compassion of God! O, inexpressible wisdom of God! O, great wonder,astounding not only the human mind, but the angelic [mind] as well!

Let us glorify God! With the coming of the Son of God in the flesh upon the earth, withHis offering Himself up as a sacrifice for the sinful human race, there is given to thosewho believe the blessing of the Heavenly Father, replacing that curse which had beenuttered by God in the beginning; they are adopted and receive the promise of an eternalinheritance of life. To a humanity orphaned by reason of sin, the Heavenly Fatherreturns anew through the mystery of re-birth, that is, through baptism and repentance.People are freed of the tormenting, death-bearing authority of the devil, of the afflictionsof sin and of various passions.

Human nature is deified for the sake of the boundless compassion of the Son of God;and its sins are purified; the defiled are sanctified. The ailing are healed. Upon those indishonour are boundless honour and glory bestowed.
Those in darkness are enlightened by the Divine light of grace and reason.

The human mind is given the rational power of God – we have the mind of Christ (Cor.2, 16), says the Holy apostle Paul. To the human heart, the heart of Christ is given. Theperishable is made immortal. Those naked and wounded by sin and by passions areadorned in Divine glory. Those who hunger and thirst are sated and assuaged by thenourishing and soul-strengthening Word of God and by the most pure Body and DivineBlood of Christ. The inconsolable are consoled. Those ravaged by the devil have been –and continue to be – delivered.

What, then, O, brethren, is required of us in order that we might avail ourselves of all thegrace brought unto us from on high by the coming to earth of the Son of God? What isnecessary, first of all, is faith in the Son of God, in the Gospel as the salvation-bestowing heavenly teaching; a true repentance of sins and the correction of life and of heart; communion in prayer and in the mysteries [sacraments]; the knowledge andfulfillment of Christʼs commandments. Also necessary are the virtues: Christian humility,alms-giving, continence, purity and chastity, simplicity and goodness of heart.

Let us, then, O brothers and sisters, bring these virtues as a gift to the One Who wasborn for the sake of our salvation – let us bring them in place of the gold, frankincenseand myrrh which the Magi brought Him, as to One Who is King, God, and Man, come todie for us. This, from us, shall be the most-pleasing form of sacrifice to God and to theInfant Jesus Christ.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

What was the New Life Christ's Birth Brought?

The birth of Jesus, the Incarnation of God, brought to all people a new life. It was a renewal of mankind. This was a cosmic event unparalleled in the history of man. From henceforth the life of man was different

Saint Anthony gives us some insight into this new life.
It is not said in vain, brothers, that Christ brought new lifeto the earth. We see that he turned the human soul around completely; changed itsnature, as it were. Formerly people accumulated wealth, now they have started to give itaway; formerly they feared prisons and torments, now the Apostles exultantly thank Godfor them; formerly they feared afflictions, now St. James writes to the Christians: "Mybrethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations" (1:2). On earth, as before,there is injustice, and sickness, and poverty, and all kinds of offences, and the moretime passes, the more of this there will be, as the Lord predicted, as well as the HolyApostles Peter, Jude, Paul and John. But the souls of Christians were not overwhelmedor crushed by all these afflictions. They came to know another blessedness -- inner and spiritual -- and if they grieved about anything, then it was only about their falls into sinand the sins of their neighbours.
the Nativity was the beginning of a new life as recorded in the Scriptures of the New Testament. This new life did not begin with a statement of earthly wealth, but began in totally humility and poverty. In Bethlehem God was born as man in a stable. Was this because he could not have been born elsewhere? Of course not. God could have chosen the wealthiest palace if this was what He desired. But He came to bring to earth a divine economy and chose the humblest of places. He came to uplift mankind beyond eartly riches, to enable us to return to a life in His kingdom.
Saint Anthony writes,
Look what happens according to the customs of the new life. He to Whom all thehouses, all the towns, and the whole universe belong, deprives Himself of the lasthuman dwellings and takes up His abode together with beasts, committing Himself to anirrational manger instead of the throne of cherubim. O people! Is it for you to struggleand torment each other for preference in honor, cleanliness and comfort, when Goddoes not spurn not being allowed in to where people are and is satisfied with an animalshed! Man! You murmured about your poverty, you looked with an envious eye on therich and famous, you lamented the poverty of your own hut, your grieved that you areaccounted as one of the simple folk. Go down yet lower in your station in life, and youwill be accounted to be with God! You considered it a great honour to approach thedoorstep of a lord, but look how easily you can obtain a dwelling equal to God's house.You look at palaces with desire, ! because kings live in them or have lived in them; lookrather at the stall where the incarnate Son of God dwelt. You see where is the beginningof the new teaching, of the new life, of the new customs. If you follow after Christ in thisway, no place will be crowded for you. If everyone takes to heart the image of Christ'slife, then there will be plenty of room and no offence for anyone. 
This new life that was brought by this new Birth was one not according to the desires of this world, but was to welcome us into a home that is much greater, the house of God. God became man so we could rejoin wirth Him in His house. His birth united His divine being with our human being so we could become divine.
So, to what are we called in this new home? Saint Anthony tells us the following:
And so, the new life in Christ consists in willingly renouncing worldly goods and notgrieving when they are taken away by force. Perhaps you cannot direct your mind thisway at once. But to the extent that you willingly deprive yourself of earthly enjoyments,however reluctantly: fast, offend yourself by giving to the poor or giving way to others,do not become angry or take revenge for oppression, but bear offences in silence; -- tothe extent that you crucify the old man in yourself -- to this extent will a new fount ofgrace-filled life flor out of your heart. "He that believeth on Me," says the Lord, "out ofhis belly shall flow rivers of living water: (Jn. 7,38). It is no longer either riches, or health,or glory, or the destruction of enemies that will make you rejoice, but, just as a farmerrejoices over a ripening field, or a hunter over a lot of wild fowl fluttering about, or anartist over the beauty of a sunset -- so you will rejoice over praye! r, spiritual reading andthe opportunity to be kind to your neighbour, either by giving, or consoling one who isgrieving, calming one who is angry, or bringing a villain to his senses. The impious Jewsdid not want to accept this new life: they wanted earthly happiness, and the destructionof enemies, and human glory, and vain riches. It is the same thing which their foolishpupils want even now, Europeans of various nationalities, and many here in Russia.They have forgotten Christ, have come to hate Christ's abasement and love thetreasures of the land of Egypt, not like the great Moses (Heb. 11:26), but "like theancient foolish people in the wilderness."

The celebration of the Nativity is a call to let go of the attachments we have to the pleasures of this world so we can gain a much greater joy. This seems so far removed from how we celebrate this event today. We are busy making our lists, making sure everyone knows the worldly item we most desire in hopes that we might receive it as a gift. We are busy sorting through ads to find the best deals on the many purchases we will make. We are decorating our surroundings with images of Santa, reindeer, snowmen and possibly a few angels, but mostly with worldly symbols. It seems we have forgotten what the day called Christmas is really about.
Saint Anthoy reminds us that this day opens for us a new path to eternal life.
Christ God taught us, brothers, to teach others not to seek for rights,but to renounce them, not to demand equality with the gentry, but self-abasement, not tofight, but to give way, not to commit crimes, but to bear offences. This is how themanifest Sun of Righteousness "hath given us light and understanding" (1 Jn. 5:20), hasopened for us the path to eternal and blessed life; this is what all righteousness inhuman society is based on. 
How are we to celebrate? Rejoice in His glory and the gift we have received to join with God for eternal life in His kingdom. Let us give thanks and glorify God.
Saint Anthony concludes,
Then let us, brothers, glorify the Lord Who has appeared,rejoice! in His Nativity! Nothing will take this joy away from us, -- neither poverty, noroffences, nor labour day and night: He has blessed all this, and magnified it, andsanctified it with Himself in the town of Bethlehem. Let is draw instruction from here, andto Him, Who has loved us, glory and honour, power and worship, with the Father andthe Spirit for ever. Amen.

Reference: SERMON ON THE NATIVITY OF CHRIST by Blessed Metropolitan Anthony, 1906 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

What Are Our Doubts About the Nativity?

The birth of Christ is not something that can be understood. It is a mystery how God could become man while remaining fully God. But this is what we are about to celebrate. No decorations, no social gatherings, no gifts can help us appreciate the significance of this event in history. We can ponder the question of how could Mary remain a virgin and give birth, but this is only a small part of this glorious event. Surely if God can create the universe, He can become man taking on flesh through a virgin. How all of this leads us to great wonder and awe regarding the nature of our God, our Lord, our Savior, our Creator!

St. Gregory the Wonderworker says the following:

Neither with words would I attempt to speak of this, nor in thought would I dare to approach it, since the Divine Nature is not subject toobservation, nor approachable by thought, nor containable by the hapless reasoning.Needful only is to believe in the power of His works. The laws of corporeal nature are evident: a married woman conceives and gives birth to a son in accord with the purpose of marriage; but when the Unwedded Virgin gives birth to the son miraculously, and afterbirth remains a Virgin, — then is manifest and higher corporeal nature. We can comprehend what exists according to the laws of corporeal nature, but afront that which is beyond the laws of nature, we fall silent, not through fear, but more so through sin-wrought fallibility. We must needs fall silent, in silent stillness to reverence virtue with aworthy reverence and, not going beyond the far limits (of word), to be vouchsafed the heavenly gifts.

He reminds us that the only thing needful is "to believe in the power of His works." With faith all is possible and understood. Let us hold this wonder in Fath as we approach Christmas day.

St. Gregory says,

The new wonders do strike me with awe. The Ancient of Days is become a Child, to make people children of God. Sitting in glory in the Heavens, because of His love for mankind, He now lays in a manger of dumb beasts.

His way of coming is so significant. To be born in a stinky stable, taking as a crib the feeding trough for animals, shows the incredible humbleness and tenderness He chooses to come to our aid. We would never choose such a place for one of our children to be born. How different is He that comes to us as God Incarnate!

St. Gregory continues,

Moreover, He that is become the God-Man is born, not as ordinarily man is born — He is born as God made Man, manifest of this by His Own Divine power, since if He were born according to the general laws of nature, the Word would seem something imperfect. Therefore, He was born of the Virgin and shone forth; therefore, having been born, He preserved unharmed the virginal womb, so that the hitherto unheard of manner of the Nativity should be for us a sign of great mystery. 

How often do we try to hold God to the laws of nature, the laws He Himself did create! Why do we hear all the debates about how Mary could possibly remain a virgin? Let us let go of our limited rational thoughts and embrace the true nature of this miracle that occurred over 2000 years ago. Let us freely rejoice with faith at this event. Our hesitation in our belief is shown to be normal as seen by the reaction of Joseph who was not the father of Jesus.

Saint Gregory says,

Joseph did not dare to speak in opposition, and the righteous man did not wish to reprove the Holy Virgin; he did not want to believe any suspicion of sin nor pronounce against the Holy Virgin words of slander; but the Son to be born he did not wish to acknowledge as his, since he knew, that He — was not of him. And although he was perplexed and had doubts, Who such an Infant should be, and pondered it over — he then had an heavenly vision, an Angel appeared to him andencouraged him with the words:

“Fear not, Joseph, son of David; He That shall be born of Mary is called Holy and the Son of God; that is: the Holy Spirit shalt come upon the Immaculate Virgin, and the power of the Most High will overshadow Her” (Mt 1:20-21; Lk 1:35).

He says, he had doubts, but God sent an angel to comfort him showing the true faith he had to fight off his doubts. Let us pray to also receive strength to overcome all doubts we too may have and in the process strengthen our faith. God became man so we could visibly relate to Him and then join with Him to become like Him. In this way we enter into His Kingdom with eternal life

Since mankind abandoned God, in place of Him worshiping graven images of humans, God the Word thus assumed the image of man, so that in banishing error and restoring truth, He should consign to oblivion the worshiping of idols and for Himself to be accorded Divine honor, since to Him becometh all glory and honor unto ages of ages. Amen! 

Glory be to God in the highest!

Reference: Discourse on the Nativity of Christ by St. Gregory the Wonderworker 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Saint Gregory and the Incarnation

Why did God,  "the Word of God Himself, Who is before all worlds, the Invisable, the Incomprehensible, the Bodiless, Beginning of Beginning, Light of Light, the Source of Life and Immortality, the Image of Archetypal Beauty, the unmovable Seal, the unchangeable Image, the Father's Definition and Word," become man? Why did He take on our human flesh, our human will, all aspects of our humanness except for sin?

Saint Gregory the Theologian says,
He partakes of my flesh that He may both save the image and make the flesh immortal... The Good Shepherd, He who lays down His life for His sheep, came to seek that which had strayed...He humbles Himself, that He may raise up with Himself the soul that was tottering to a fall under a weight of sin....[for] my perfection and return to the first condition of Adam.

Often we only think of baby Jesus, a precious child of Mary and Joseph who are normally shown standing over the manger like two young adoring parents. We forget that this was not a normal birth. We forget that the seed in conception came from the Holy Spirit and the birth was a virgin birth. We forget that Joseph was not the father. We forget that He was much older than Mary and was chosen as the protecter of Mary so she could live her life as a virgin. We forget that this child is God, the Creator of the universe. We forget why we celebrate this event as it gets hurried with all the worldly activities that have become associated with this time of year. The gift giving and receiving, the many parties, the decorations, the children stories about snowmen and reindeer all seem to dominate this event. And of course there is Santa Claus which has become the main event, overshadowing even worship in Church on Chrstmas day. The idea that God actually became man while remaining fully God is easily lost in all the activities.

Saint Gregory writes,
Adore the birth by which you were loosed from the chains of your birth (Luke 2:1-5), and honor little Bethlehem, which has led you back to Paradise.... With shepherds glorify Him; with angels join in chorus;with archangels sing hymns. Let this Festival be common to the powers upon earth.

Reference: On the Manisfestation of God in the Birth of the Christ, Oration 38 of Saint Gregory the Theologian

Friday, December 16, 2011

Saint Leo the Great - Insight in the Nature of Joy in the Nativity

Why does the new life of Jesus, born of a woman, bring such joy? Why do the angels sing, the wiseman come from afar, and the shepherds glorify Him? 

Saint Leo the Great says the following: 

Our Saviour, dearly-beloved, was born today (Christmas day): let us be glad. For there is no proper place for sadness, when we keep the birthday of the Life, which destroys the fear of mortality and brings to us the joy of promised eternity. No one is kept from sharing in this happiness. There is for all one common measure of joy, because as our Lord, the destroyer of sin and death, finds none free from the charge, so He comes to free us all. 

How do we miss this obvious fact in all the standard Protestant hymns we hear this time of year? Christ is born, God becomes man, so He can destroy the fear of death. The joy we should feel at this time is the joy that we are now promised eternal life with God in His kingdom. Jesus comes not as a baby, but as the destroyer of sin and death.

Saint Leo continues,

Let the saint exult in that he draws near to victory. Let the sinner be glad in that he is invited to being pardon. Let the gentile take courage in that he is called to life. For the Son of God in the fullness of time which the inscrutable depth of the Divine counsel has determined, has taken on him the nature of man, thereby to reconcile it to its Author: in order that the inventor of death, the devil, might be conquered. And in this conflict undertaken for us, the fight was fought on great and wondrous principles of fairness.

Why are we so joyful at this time of year? God came to defeat Satan and liberate us from the chains of death. What does this have to do with gift giving, with the parties, with the "Christmas Spirit." A warrior is born who is a peacemaker, bringing us all peace in our hearts from the gift he bestows on us. Without the fear of death we can now willingly sacrifice our own self-will out of selfless love to do God's will and show our love for others as well as God. We gain the ability to live His commandments through becoming a member of His body as we are joined with Him in Baptism and are nurtured regularly as we take His Body and Blood into our body through Holy Communion. It is the Incarnation that makes all this possible. Let's properly glorify Him in this great Feast of the Church.

Sain Leo says,

Christian, acknowledge your dignity, and becoming a partner in the Divine nature, refuse to return to the old baseness by degenerate conduct. Remember the Head and the Body of which you are a member. Remember that you were rescued from the power of darkness and brought out into God's light and kingdom. By the mystery of Baptism you were made the temple of the Holy Ghost: and do not subject yourself once more to the devil; because your purchase money is the blood of Christ, because He shall judge you in truth Who ransomed you in mercy, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit reigns forever and ever. 

Reference: Sermons on the Feast of the Nativity of Christ by St Leo the Great, Sermon 21

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Saint Gregory and the Incarnation

Why did God,  "the Word of God Himself, Who is before all worlds, the Invisable, the Incomprehensible, the Bodiless, Beginning of Beginning, Light of Light, the Source of Life and Immortality, the Image of Archetypal Beauty, the unmovable Seal, the unchangeable Image, the Father's Definition and Word," become man? Why did He take on our human flesh, our human will, all aspects of our humanness except for sin?

Saint Gregory the Theologian says,
He partakes of my flesh that He may both save the image and make the flesh immortal... The Good Shepherd, He who lays down His life for His sheep, came to seek that which had strayed...He humbles Himself, that He may raise up with Himself the soul that was tottering to a fall under a weight of sin....[for] my perfection and return to the first condition of Adam.

Often we only think of baby Jesus, a precious child of Mary and Joseph who are normally show standing over the manger like two young adoring parents. We forget that this was not a normal birth. We forget that the seed in conception came from the Holy Spirit and the birth was from a virgin. We forget that Joseph was not the father. We forget that He was much older than Mary and was chosen as the protecter of Mary so she could live life as a virgin. We forget that this child is God, the Creator of the universe. We forget why we celebrate this event as it gets hurried with all the worldly activities that have become associated with this time of year. The gift giving and receiving, the many parties, the decorations, the children stories about snowmen and reindeer all seem to dominate this event. The idea that God actually became man while remaining fully God is lost in all the activities.

Saint Gregory writes,
Adore the birth by which you were loosed from the chains of your birth (Luke 2:1-5), and honor little Bethlehem, which has led you back to Paradise.... With shepherds glorify Him; with angels join in chorus;with archangels sing hymns. Let this Festival be common to the powers upon earth.

Reference: On the Manisfestation of God in the Birth of the Christ, Oration 38 of Saint Gregory the Theologian

Celebrating the Incarnation

I am struck by how so many, including myself, have trivialized the event that has received such popular celebration. Businesses and schools are shutdown, many for a week, gift giving in excess is the norm. Parties are given, often with elaborate decorations and free flowing drinks. Many even string lights outlining the whole house. Streets in many towns are decorated. But why are we all going to all this trouble? Is this the way we are called to celebrate God? Is this how we worship?

Saint Gregory the Theologian writes,
Christ is born, glorify Him! Christ from heaven, go out to meet Him! Sing to the Lord and the whole earth...rejoice with trembling and joy!
So how are we to glorify and meet Him?

Gregory says,
Let us keep the Feast, not after the manner of a heathen festival, but after a godly sort; not after the way of the world, but in a fashion above the world; not as our own but as belonging to Him who is ours, or rather as our Master's; not as of weakness, but as of healing; not as of creation, but of re-creation.
And how shall this be? Let us not decorate our porches, nor organize dances, nor adorn our streets. Let us not feast the eye, nor enchant the ear with music... Let us not toast with fragrant wines, the specialties of cooks,... Let us not strive to outdo each other in intemperance...
We, the object of whose adoration is the Word, if we must in some way have luxury, let us seek it in word, and in the divine Law, and in histories, especially those that are the origin of this feast, so that our luxury may be akin to and not far removed from Him Who has called us together.

If Gregory's words make you feel a bit guilty in the way you traditionally celebrate this most miraculous event of the Incarnation of God, so be it. It does me. Remind yourself of the teaching of the Church and how she calls for a fast in preparation. Be reminded that instead of waiting with anticipation for the arrival of Santa, the Church has an all night vigil in prayer climaxed with the celebration of the Divine Liturgy and receiving His very Body and Blood into our own bodies to be united with Him, just as he united Himself with us. Following this we have a period of celebration, celebrating God becoming man so we could become gods, become like Him, joining in union with Him for eternal life in His Kingdom.

Let's seek ways to celebrate this spiritual event that is not like the heathen feast of pagans, but as is due the God of infinite mercy who now lives in our hearts because of His Becoming man.

Reference: On The Manifestation of God in the birth of the Christ, oration 38 of St Gregory the Theologian

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Incarnation - Nativity Icon

Orthodox Christians do not celebrate the birth of baby Jesus, we celebrate the Incarnation.  What?, you say. What is the Incarnation?  This is an important word as it means God becomes Man. This is what we celebrate. The birth of Jesus was that moment in history when God sent His only begotten Son to become like us, taking on human flesh for our healing. This miracle of miracles took place though the ascent of Mary whom we call the Theotokos, Birth-giver of God.  God with His divine will became man, taking on a human will in human flesh so Man could unite his human will with God’s divine will. From the time of Adam and Eve, man was separated from God ,unable to follow God’s law. The Incarnation is the beginning of the transformation of mankind so we can be reunited with God.
Nativity Icon
To the right you can see the icon of the Nativity. Let’s look at each element of this icon to learn what it communicates to us.
The Star
In the top center you see a blueish light, which represents the star which guided people to witness the Incarnation.  Was this a real star? Probably not.  It was most likely a spiritual sign not seen by everyone. You can see that it points to the Christ Child who is lying in a manger.
The birth place
Christ was born in a cave, which is shown as a dark place.  This was a reality as well as symbolic. Christ came to bring the light of knowledge to overcome the darkness of our ignorance. The star symbolizes this as well. It brings bright light to the dark cave, showing us the way to Christ. It is a light pointing us to the Truth. In the area where Christ was born, it was common to have a stable in caves carved in the hills of that region.
But why did he choose a stable?  Stables are where animals are kept and you can see the animals looking at the Christ child in the icon.  Where animals are it is also smelly and not the normal place anyone would choose to bear a child. This shows us the great humility of Christ. He could have chosen to be born in a palace if he wanted to, but he chose the most humble of places, a stable.  This is a message for us, to be humble like Him.
Christ’s clothing
What kind of clothes is Christ wearing?  He is wrapped in linen.  This is how a person was wrapped in those day for burial after his death.  This is showing us that  He is destined to the same fate after His Crucifixion where He was able to claim victory over death in His Resurrection.
Mary, The Theotokos.  
She is shown in the center of the icon to show her importance in this event. She was the instrument of God to bring about His incarnation. She gave her ascent to bear the Son of God. Surely an awesome responsibility. She is looking away to show her humility and wonder at this wondrous event.
Joseph and the devil
In the lower left corner of the icon you will see two men. An old man and one with a cane. The old man with the halo is Joseph. He was old because he was appointed as a mature man to protect Mary so she could remain a virgin. Some say he was 70 - 80 years old. Since he was not the father of the baby, he is being tempted by the man with the cane who is Satan. He is trying to raise Joseph’s doubts about the possibility of a virgin birth. This shows how difficult it is for all of us to accept things that are beyond our reason.
Near the top you can see angles.  Angels are from heaven and they glorify God.  You see them here to glorify the Christ Child and herald the good news to all the world, because it is not just a child that has been born, but God himself who has become man.
On the upper right you can see two shepherds with their sheep below. An angel is telling them about this miraculous birth calling them to come and glorify Him. Why shepherds?  Would you go to college to become a shepherd?  Of course not. Shepherds are among the simplest of people. This indicates that God did not become Man for those who are privileged, but for the simplest of people. He calls all to follow Him so all people can be united with God in eternal life.
One shepherd is playing a reed flute, which shows that human music is also appropriate for the glorification of God.
The wise men or Magi
To the left you will find three men on horses. These were men who came all the way from Persia following the star. They were probably astronomers, scientists of their day. They saw the star which was a symbol for them of a great cosmic event. They followed it to find the Incarnation of God.  Knowing how important this was they brought gifts of the highest value in appreciation of what God had done.  They came some time after the birth, so you can see that in an icon we can have many events that happen even at different times being shown to tell the complete story.
In the lower right we have the women who are preparing the font for the cleansing of the baby after it was born. This shows the humanity of Jesus. This too is symbolic of the baptism we are to undergo, to be united with Christ, cleansing us of our sins and receiving a transformation in our heart with the Holy Spirit, which is sealed with our Chrismation.
Biblical Story
The story of the Nativity of Christ is beautifully told in the Holy Scriptures. The story is found in Matthew 1:18-25 and in Luke 2:1-20.
Apolytikion: (Fourth Tone)
Your birth, O Christ our God, dawned the light of knowledge upon the earth. For by Your birth those who adored stars, were taught by a star, to worship You, the Sun of Justice and to know You, Orient from on High. O Lord, glory to You.
Kontakion: (Third Tone)
Today, the Virgin bears Him who is transcendent, and the earth presents the cave to Him who is beyond reach. Angels, along with shepherds glorify Him. The Magi make their way to Him by a star. For a new child has been born for us, the God before all ages.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Work of Patience and Humility

Often, when we are overtaken with boredom regarding our spiritual practices, we will also find we are easily overtaken with despair when confronted with events that do not go as we desire. This is an indication of our spiritual immaturity. We need both patience and humility because they are important works in our spiritual life.

Saint Seraphim says,
A lofty and sound soul does not despair over misfortunes, of whatever sort they may be. Our life is as it were a house of temptations and trials; but we will not renounce the Lord for as long as He allows the tester to remain with us and for as long as we must wait to be revived through patience and secure passionlessness!
All the trials of this life are opportunities for our spiritual growth. Even the most difficult situation provides a chance to demonstrate our love and gratitude for all God's works. This is how we learn to practice patience.
Saint Seraphim tells us,
One should always endure any trial for the sake of God with gratitude. Our life is a single minute in comparison with eternity.
Saint Paul says,
The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed with the glory which shall be revealed in us (Rom 8:18).
Saint James says,
"My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing." (James 1:2-4 NKJV)
Humility goes with patience. It is about our willingness to accept whatever comes our way, instead of holding on to the notion that the life of this world should operate by our own ideas or standards. When we are demeaned by others challenging our personal honor we should make an effort to forgive them. We should consider that we are unworthy of this honor we think we possess. It is our work to learn to humble ourselves always.
Saint Seraphim says,
Let us love humility and we shall see the glory of God; for where humility issues forth, there the glory off God abounds.

Reference: Little Russian Philokalia, Vol 1, pp 34 - 37

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Work of Overcoming Boredom

One of the most difficult types of spiritual work that we must do is to resist boredom in our spiritual practices. Once we make the commitment to know God and are following a rule we have established with our spiritual father's approval, we need great strength to stick with it. When it comes time for prayer we will find ourselves battling with forces to keep us away from it.  We will be too tired, or too busy with work or other leisure activities. We easily rationalize by giving priority to all other things, even watching a mind numbing TV show.

Once in prayer the forces of boredom do not stop, they increase. If we are still praying in the mind, our mind will tire or become bored with the prayer and begin to entertain all other kinds of thoughts. It will act like a butterfly shifting from thought to thought while the words of our prayer are gong on in the background of our mind.  This is no longer prayer.

Boredom also applies to those times when we are supposed to go to Liturgy. We find ourselves making excuses to stay away. "Its my only day off and I need some rest."  Frequently, we hear the excuse that the liturgy is always the same. Or another is "I can pray anywhere even here in my own bed."  These excuses are an indication of a severe case of boredom. 

When our spiritual life is overtaken by boredom, we will find we prefer to doing almost anything to praying, going to Liturgy, fasting or reading Scripture. Instead we will seek to fill our time with idle conversation, entertainment with TV, Internet, electronic games and so forth.

The problem is that we have not properly organized our personal life to include a balance of activities that include work, family, play and spiritual practice. If we do not have an ordered life, we will find we will be easily attacked by boredom.
What is the solution? Making a commitment to avoid the distracting activities. A firm rule combined with patience is needed. It is a struggle as we are engaged in signal warfare. We have to be prepared for a battle and put our total effort to win this battle. Otherwise, the negative forces of the world will defeat you, and your desire to be united with God will remain only a remote possibility.