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November-December 2019

posted Jan 21, 2020, 1:13 PM by St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church

Over the last few years, I have said several times in conversations that one of the reasons that I enjoy reading Fr. Stephen Freeman’s articles is that he is able to put into words things that are only rough ideas in my head. I recently found another occasion to say that. In a comment on a recent article, he wrote: “Being able to live with suffering – because it’s the right thing to do – an obedience to the commandments of God – [i[s pretty anti-modern. So, my repentance begins with working at accepting my own suffering with thanksgiving and to labor for others in theirs.” . 

The quote above may seem strange at the beginning of an article for the period leading to Christmas. It is, after all, a time where we are invited to think happy thoughts, sing happy songs, and buy happiness. But what is this happiness supposed to be? After all, the concept of happiness is deeply embedded in American history, with the “pursuit of happiness” being described as an inalienable right. 

One way to look at happiness is to equate it to pleasure and, as a corollary, the avoidance of pain and suffering at any cost. Yet one could just look around and see how easily evil can find its way into such an understanding and how fleeting such a happiness truly is. 

From a Christian perspective, a better way of looking at happiness is through the lens of the Psalm 1, which begins "Blessed is the man." The Greek word translated as 'blessed' is μακάριος, which in most circumstances is translated as 'happy.' And who does Psalm 1 say this blessed man is? He is one who "has not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, and has not stood in the way of sinners, and has not sat in the seat of evil men. But his pleasure is in the law of the Lord; and in his law will he meditate day and night."

Quintessentially, the man spoken of in the psalm is Christ, the one who delighted in and fulfilled God's law. And, as we know, this involved suffering; a suffering foretold very soon after His birth.

We don’t even have to dive deep into theological matters to begin finding a connection between Jesus's birth and His suffering. The carol “I wonder as I wander” repeatedly says 

I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus my Saviour did come for to die

The Incarnation of the Son of God leads to His Passion. However, the suffering is not restricted to Him alone. The Theotokos received this message very soon after giving birth to Jesus: “Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed (Lk. 2:34-35).” When she had said to the archangel, “Be it done to me according to your word,” the Theotokos willingly accepted to become the mother of the Father’s Son, with everything that brought about, including a mother’s share in her Son’s suffering.

There is no question that the Incarnation and Passion are closely connected: the Son was incarnate so that humanity might be restored and that restoration could only be accomplished through suffering. Like the Theotokos, the Son also willingly accepted everything that was to come for the salvation of the world. Several texts, both in Scripture and the services of the Church make that abundantly clear.

In the garden of Gethsemane, we see the humanity of Jesus assenting to the divine will: “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will” (Matt. 26:39). This is not the cheap assent of someone who does not know what is coming or who will only pretend to undergo the sufferings to come (as some have tried to claim in every age since the Incarnation). It is, rather, the assent of someone who understands the purpose of that suffering and is willing to bear in order to bring that end about. Jesus reiterates His willing bearing of the upcoming suffering when Peter attempts to prevent His capture. Jesus tells him: “Put your sword into the sheath. Shall I not drink the cup which My Father has given Me?” (Jn. 18:11) 

At Saturday Vespers in Mode 2, one of the hymns says “It was the will of God to be born, and you most pure Virgin, have carried him, an infant in your arms” (Saturday evening Vespers, aposticha, mode 2, Both now…). We sing the previous verse roughly every eight weeks, so we are reminded of this teaching of the Church at least that often. As God, the Son knew what was to happen and we are told that it was His will for the Incarnation (and, therefore, the Passion) to occur. The Son was not forced by the Father to do that which the Father willed. Rather, the Son Himself willed that which would lead to the salvation of humanity.

So, we find in Christ a suffering willingly undertaken for love of God, His law, and His creation. Throughout the ages, each saint has also willingly taken up suffering - for his or her salvation or for the salvation of others. I pray that, by God's grace, we follow the example of Christ and His saints and choose that which fulfills God's commandments, that which is good, that which is holy, over that which is easy and over our own desires when they would direct us otherwise. Paradoxically, in this way we also become μακάριοι and are able to fully partake of the joy of the season.

With love in Christ,
+Fr. Peter

September-October 2019

posted Oct 28, 2019, 6:39 AM by St. John's Webmaster

Among believing Americans of various Christian denominations and different religions, there is an emerging trend of beliefs. Sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton noted the following five defining characteristic of what they termed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism:

- A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.

- God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.

- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

- God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to solve a problem.

- Good people go to heaven when they die.

These elements can seem attractive. However, for someone who believes that Christ is the Way and the Truth, and the Life, the important question is “are they true?”. Because Christ is the Truth, St. Paul could then teach: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable if anything is excellent or praiseworthy think about such things” (Phil. 4:8). As Christians, trying not to nitpick, we can generally agree to the first two points. Similarly, we can find some agreement with the last point, but not without some caveats, including:

- only God knows those who are truly good, and 

- we may often not be able to understand His judgments (“Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you [chief priests and elders]” Matt. 21:31).

That being said, the third and fourth points do not fit within the framework of Christianity. The third point begins by stating that the central goal of life is to be happy. From a Christian perspective the goal of life can be expressed in various ways. We can talk about it as becoming “holy as God is holy” (cf. 1 Pet. 1:16 ), acquiring the Holy Spirit according to the words of St. Seraphim of Sarov, becoming partakers of God (cf. 2 Pet. 1:4), or uniting ourselves to Christ, as we affirm in the baptism service. A common thread of these descriptions for the goal of our life is that they are not centered on the self; the center of the Christian life is God. 

Looking at the second part of the third point, how we feel about ourselves, whether good or bad, is an evaluation (conscious and subconscious) performed by the self and based on criteria which are developed by the self (consciously and subconsciously). Whether good or bad, such evaluations are generally unreliable. As an antidote, the Church directs us to live our lives in repentance, commending them in their entirely to Christ our God. Doing that, we can say with St. Paul that we live “not having a righteousness of [our] own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith” (Phil. 3:9).

The fourth point is just as problematic from a Christian perspective. A common prayer talks about the Holy Spirit as being “everywhere present and filling all things.” That does not sound like a God who is not involved in life. In Orthros, one of the hymns we sing in mode 3 says: “In the Holy Spirit, as in the Father and the Son, radiates intrinsically every gift of goodness. And in Him all things both live and move.” That is a central tenet of our faith: that everything exists in God and because of God and, without His sustenance, nothing can exist. God is, because of Who He is, involved in everyone’s life at every moment. We can choose to ignore that involvement and we may even try to run away from it, but that does not change God’s presence and His involvement. If we do not exist except by God’s grace and, if the goal of life is to be united with Christ, then it makes no sense to say that God does not need to be involved in one’s life.

There is very little required of a person who subscribes to the tenets of Moral Therapeutic Deism, in terms of both belief and action. If the main goal in life is to be happy, many elements of Christianity in general and Orthodox Christianity in particular do not make sense. What is the point of communal worship, which St. Paul admonishes his audience in Hebrews not to forsake? What is the point of confession? Or fasting? What, even, is the point of communion? Put all that together, what does it matter that one be Orthodox? But if life is about being united with Christ, everything changes. All things that bring us in communion with Christ and facilitate that communion are no longer nice adornments, old fashioned practices, or occasional disruptions and burdens to be borne. They are part of the “one thing needful;” things which the Church has kept and is offering to us for our salvation, that we may fulfill our vocation to be the likeness of God. Coming to that realization changes how we understand ourselves as Orthodox Christians, how we live our lives, and how we relate to the Church. 

May God grant us grace to recognize Him everywhere and at all times and to always strive towards communion with Christ.

With love in Christ,
+Fr. Peter

July-August 2019

posted Oct 28, 2019, 6:38 AM by St. John's Webmaster

Before a recent baptism, a passage from the Gospel according to John came to mind: 

 Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down from heaven—not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever” (Jn. 6:53-58).

Baptism is the sacrament of entry into the Church. Historical documents show us that the sacrament used to take part in the context of the Divine Liturgy, the entire body of the local church being a witness to the entry of the new person(s) into that body. That Liturgy also marked the first time that the baptized person received the Eucharist. If the prayers of baptism ask that the newly illumined be united with Christ in His death and resurrection, in holy communion the sacrament of baptism fulfills its purpose: we receive within us and are united with the body and blood of Christ.

I have heard of a practice wherein the parents and godparents are reminded to bring the newly baptized to receive communion for three Sundays after baptism. It is perhaps a pious practice, but it missed the point of Christ’s words above. Christ compared His body and blood to the manna which fed the Israelites in the desert. He used the word “feed”: “He who feeds on Me.” The manna fell daily for the Israelites. Feeding is a habitual activity, something that happens repeatedly and often. So Christ insists that for us to truly have life, we need to partake of Him. This is because God is the only one who has life in Himself. He is, as the prayer says, “the giver of life.” A refusal of communion with Him is but a journey to chaos and non-existence.

In a recent article Fr. Stephen DeYoung writes that God, in His creative work, gives order to the world. He states that “Human persons are created to continue this work of giving order to the creation and filling it with life.  This ordering of the world forms the scriptural understanding of justice and expresses itself in the Torah in the form of commandments, through the keeping of which human life will bring that structure to the world as a whole. Sin as a force is opposed to this order and seeks to destroy it, reducing human life to chaos and death.  It is only through these structures, however, that life can have meaning and purpose” (“Being and Chaos” at

Fr. Stephen argues that a rightly-ordered life, lived in the light of the commandments, is transformative not just of the world at large and but also of ourselves and our relationships with God and one another. That transformation is essential, because “what it means to “live” or even to “exist” is to participate in these correctly ordered relationships with other human persons, the rest of the creation, and preeminently with God, the Holy Trinity [...] the breaking of these relationships through sin, the disintegration of good order, or exile constitute death and non-existence” (“Being and Chaos” at 

So, as Christians, we understand that true life requires that we be united with one another through Christ’s presence in us, as He Himself proclaimed (cf. Jn. 17:23). An instinctual example of our perception of the truth of that understanding is that saying that the saints seem “more alive.” The saints have united themselves to Christ in such a way that His life shines through them. As a result, the encounter with a living saint can be unsettling, as it reveals to us that which is lacking in our lives. In the book for our summer reading club, Mat. Constantina Palmer says of such an encounter: “His gaze was piercing. I couldn’t look him in the eyes” (The Scent of Holiness, p. 96). Despite its unsettling nature, encountering a saint is also life-giving, full of peace and grace. 

The saints show us the heights to which we can ascend. Their union with Christ began just like ours, “being planted in the likeness of Your death through Baptism, [to] become a sharer of [His] Resurrection” (prayer of the blessing of the water from the sacrament of baptism) and was sustained through the communion of His precious Body and Blood. May God grant us the grace to follow their example. As for us, let us prepare our hearts for that grace through frequent participation in the sacrament of communion, being made ready through the sacrament of confession.

With love in Christ,

+Fr. Peter

May-June 2019

posted Aug 27, 2019, 2:23 PM by St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church

Christ is risen!

Well, for Sam, who (sometimes) attends St. Mark’s Orthodox Church, in a hypothetical situation near you, He is only kinda risen. He said, “It really makes you feel nice inside, especially when you hear the choir sing it and the soprano with the nice, big voice is there. And really, that’s what faith is all about.” When pressed further, he elaborated: “Well, you can’t really take everything at face value. We’re in the twenty-first century and someone rising from the dead just doesn’t happen, does it? Besides, if we believe that, then we have to believe all that other stuff… you know… that in order to gain your life you have to lose it? What sort of riddle is that? Tithing? There’s college for the kids, retirement, visiting the family in the Old Country… Communion? The wine that Father uses is pretty good, but I prefer mine a little more on the dry side. Confession? I don’t need anyone to know what I’m really like, not even my wife. Last week Father preached on a prayer of St. Eph… something… ‘Lord and master of my life’ - this is America, the land of the free.”

Do you know Sam? Do you have a little bit of Sam in you? Does it seem that faith is as flimsy as a feel-good story? The apostles certainly did not think so. Their witness (martyria) to what they had seen and heard and their Spirit-filled strength bear witness to the truth of Christ, His teachings, and His bodily resurrection and ascension. So what is faith all about? The simple answer is that faith is trust in God so that our entire life is lived under the guidance of His commandments. But that is a very general answer and likely not a very helpful one in terms of everyday life. So, perhaps a better question is what does a life of faith look like?

It looks like selling all one’s possessions to go dwell in the desert and live a life of prayer as St. Anthony the Great did.

It looks like traveling from town to town over an entire continent to serve those in need as St. Raphael of Brooklyn did. Or across two continents, as St. Herman of Alaska did… mostly on foot.

It looks like risking your life to save others in danger as St. Maria of Paris did.

It looks like devoting your life and your family life to Christ as Ss. Basil the elder and Emily did, five of whose children are also saints of the Church.

It looks like weeping and kneeling in front of the icon of the Theotokos in full acknowledgement of sins, as St. Mary of Egypt did.

It may look like Patrick and Anne. They are a couple who also attend St. Mark’s, but do so every Sunday and often during the week, as well. They were inspired by St. Anthony and, having read an article by Kh. Frederica Mathewes-Green, they decided to not only tithe to the Church, but give to several charities, as well. This means they live in a modest home and their two cars are older and show some wear and tear, but their goal is to store treasure where moth does not eat and rust does not consume. They were inspired by Ss. Raphael, Herman, and Maria so they work to find time to volunteer at the local food pantry and pregnancy support center with their children. They were inspired by Ss. Basil and Emily, so they work to make sure church comes first on their children’s schedule. This means fewer activities for the kids, but in the end that is turning out to be more of a blessing than they expected. They were inspired by St. Mary of Egypt, so they (and their older children) have regular confession appointments with their priest. 

Patrick and Anne are a hypothetical example and the saints above are but a few of the myriad that we have on our calendar. We have monastics and married saints, confessors, martyrs, kings and emperors, beggars, fools for Christ, pillar- and rock- and cave- and hut-dwellers, and many others. In each life we can find some element to emulate, though it will likely not look exactly the way it looked in the life of that saint. There is often need for a time of discernment and a process of trial and error, and there may often be frustrations in trying to make things work. At those times, we can, perhaps, be inspired by St. Paul and his frustrations which can be gleaned from his letters to the Corinthians, Ephesians, Thessalonians… God will get us through frustrations, also.

May He grant us the grace and wisdom to be like Patrick and Anne, living out our belief that truly, Christ is risen. And may He give us grace to love Sam, too.

With love in Christ,
+Fr. Peter

March - April 2019

posted May 10, 2019, 6:42 AM by St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church

The third Sunday of Lent is the Sunday of the Holy Cross. The services of the entire following week reflect on the meaning of the Cross. They remind us that the Cross has been transformed from an instrument of torture into one of healing; from a tool of punishment to one of encouragement. At Vespers on Saturday evening we sing

Longed for worldwide, O Cross of the Lord, * brilliantly shine the lightning bolts of your grace divine * in hearts of believers * who with true faith honor you * and with God-inspired love * venerate you. * Through you have the bitter tears and the sorrow now disappeared; * we have been rescued from the traps and the snares of death, * and we have gone over to unending happiness. * Show us the splendid majesty of your holy comeliness, * on us your servants bestowing the right rewards of our abstinence. * With faith we are praying * to receive your rich protection and great mercy.

We look upon the cross and see the Life itself hanging upon it. We behold in the image of the Cross the boundless love of God for His creation and, in the middle of the penitential season of Lent, we affirm that bitter tears and sorrow have disappeared, being replaced by unending happiness. This is surely a strange thing to say, as sorrows and tears never seem too far away. To understand how we can talk about unending happiness, let us consider the following two texts.

First, in the Orthros for Sundays in mode 4, one of the anavathmoi (hymns of ascent) says:

Whosoever has acquired hope in the Lord is superior to all whatsoever might grieve him.

The brief hymn recognizes that occasions for grief continue to assail the Christian. A Christian, however, is not overcome by grief. Rather, trusting in the Lord and remembering His promises of help, forgiveness, and resurrection, he conquers grief through faith and hope. We need to remember Christ and continually draw near to Him. This is one of the reasons the Jesus prayer is essential to our lives: it helps us keep Jesus close to mind and call upon His help and mercy to overcome the difficulties and griefs of life. This remembrance breeds hope and hope in the Lord is truly a great support and cause of joy in the midst of trials and tribulations.

The second text that helps us understand how joy is present in the life of a Christian is from the Letter to the Romans 8:18:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.

Again, as we saw in the brief hymn in Orthros, the grief and suffering that exist in this life are not dismissed. Indeed, grief and suffering are manifestations of our own crosses and, as Fr. Dumitru Staniloae says, “without the cross there can be no true growth and no true strengthening of the spiritual life” (The Victory of the Cross - kindle version). Fr. Dumitru continues “Our cross can be lightened by the power of the cross of Christ, who carried it being totally pure and innocent; and it is he who will raise us up, if we do not remain rooted in our own wickedness” (The Victory of the Cross).

Great Lent is an annual reminder for us to continue carrying our crosses, or, if we have put them down, to pick them back up. For Christ, the Cross was martyrdom. For us, a cross truly born, is a different kind of martyrdom. Fr. Dumitru again notes that “it is certain that because of our human condition after the Fall, we have not replied fully and satisfactorily either to God or to our neighbor. In our recognition of our fault we begin to live our true personal relationship of dialogue with God” (The Victory of the Cross). But this is not an easy thing - to admit failure, mistake, guilt. And so, the Church has placed the celebration of the Cross in the middle of Lent, as a source of strength. A reminder that, Christ, the only one who bore His Cross blamelessly and who has granted the gift of life to the world, also grants grace to those who bear their crosses and it is by His grace and His strength that we are ultimately able to bear them.

With love in Christ,
+Fr. Peter

January-February 2019

posted Apr 23, 2019, 1:26 PM by St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church

During the past year or so, more parishioners have fallen asleep in the Lord than in my first five years at St. John put together. Some of those losses were somewhat expected, some came as a shock. It was this set of circumstances that prompted me to include the two-part series on preparing for death in the Orthodox Church in the previous newsletters. I would like to conclude the series with a few considerations on the mystery of confession.

Romans 3:21-25 reads: “But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets,  even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,  being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”

In 1 John 1:8-10 we find the following: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.”

Finally, in our funeral and memorial services we ask, “As a good and loving God, forgive every sin he (she, they) has (have) committed in word, deed, or thought, for there is no one who lives and does not sin.”

Every priest has heard, “Father, I’m okay,” and “I don’t have anything to confess.” The three quotes above (and others like them) witness against these statements. Indeed, St. John the Theologian, the beloved disciple who had lain on the Savior’s breast at the mystical supper and to whom the Lord entrusted His mother, is so bold as to say that we make God a liar through such statements: a heavy accusation.

At this point it needs to be said that there are various reasons why Orthodox Christians would say they have no need for confession and I will take the remainder of this article to look at some of them.

Reason #1: Shame. “If I go to confession, someone other than I will know my sinfulness, and I am ashamed of it enough on my own without someone else knowing.” To this Fr. Stephen Freeman replies:

Our shame clouds the heart and the mind and we fail to see ourselves and the world as they are.

The only path to the truth in these situations is to bear the shame. St. John Climacus says, “You cannot escape shame except by shame.” (4.62) It is worth noting that the Elder Sophrony advised, “Teach them to bear a little shame.” This is something we do along and along, as the soul is able to bear it.

The inner act of acknowledging our shame, and sitting in its presence without anger or sadness, is an act of self-emptying. When we are in such a place we pray, “O God, comfort me.” It is then that the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, can enter in and grant us the great comfort of the image of Christ being formed in us. It banishes anger and dissipates sadness. (

Reason #2: Fear. “The priest will punish me and will never look at me the same way again.”

This reason is based on a misunderstanding of the purpose of confession, for confession is not about punishment. St. John Cassian gives us insight into its true purpose:

“The old man said to me: ‘Take heart, my son. Without my saying anything, your confession has set you free from this captivity. Today you have won a victory over the adversary who had beaten you. Through your confession you have brought him down more completely than when you yourself were down as a result of that silence which he had prompted. No word uttered by you or by anyone else had stopped him, and until now you had given him the whip-hand over you.” (quoted in “Repentance and Confession in the Orthodox Church” by Dn. John Chryssavgis, p.28).

The priest is not there to punish, nor to judge, but as a witness and, by God’s grace, a healer. As many priests have said, sin is boring, not fascinating, not unique, not memorable. It is not something that the priest will dwell on. As the prayer at the end of confession says: “as for the sins which you have confessed, having no further care, go in peace.”

Reason #3: Inattentiveness. “I haven’t really thought about sin or confession.”

This is sometimes linked to reason 1: thinking about sin and confession can be uncomfortable. Sometimes it has to do with busy-ness and simply not stopping to think about our actions, thoughts, and desires. The good news, if we fall into this category, is that we can do something about it, make ourselves sit down and examine our consciences. There are even guides to confession in a variety of formats. The bad news is that no one else can do it for us.

Reason #4: Pride or spiritual blindness. “No, I really I don’t have anything to confess.”

If the words of St. Paul and St. John the Theologian above were not persuasive enough to convince that this is never the case, I have nothing to add.

May the time of our departure find us prepared.

With love in Christ,

+Fr. Peter

November - December 2018

posted Jan 9, 2019, 7:05 PM by St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church

In the Royal Hours of Christmas, celebrated usually the morning before the feast, one of the hymns we sing says:

He is our God:

There is no other to compare with Him.

Born of a Virgin, He comes to live with mankind.

The only-begotten Son appears as a mortal Man.

He rests in a lowly manger.

The Lord of glory is wrapped in swaddling clothes.

A star leads the wise men to worship Him,

and with them we sing:

Holy Trinity, save our souls!

This hymn is one of the many places in which the Church meditates on the mystery and paradox of the In­car­na­tion. These meditations are often accompanied by ex­cla­ma­tions, as we see in another hymn from the Royal Hours:

Listen, heaven! Give ear, O earth!

Let the foundations of the earth be shaken!

Let trembling seize the regions beneath the earth,

for our God and Creator has clothed Himself in created flesh;

He fashioned all creation, yet reveals Himself in the womb of her that He formed.

O the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!

How incomprehensible are His judgments;

and how unsearchable His ways!

The reason the Church brings these hymns before us is that she knows that the God who reveals Himself in this way is very different from the idea most of us have (often sub­consciously) about God. The Incarnation and Crucifixion are the essential ways in which He reveals Himself to us. God’s power is not only made perfect in human weakness as revealed to St. Paul, but it is also perfectly manifested in the perceived weakness of becoming a mortal man and being put to death on a cross. As Christ Himself shows and tells us, His suf­fering is willingly chosen. St. Luke relates the following episode:

And all they in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath, and rose up, and thrust him out of the city, and led him unto the brow of the hill whereon their city was built, that they might cast him down headlong. But he passing through the midst of them went his way (Lk 4:28-30).

St. Cyril of Alexandria comments on this passage, saying, “He did not refuse to suffer—he had come to do that very thing—but to wait for a suitable time. Now at the beginning of his preach­ing, it would have been the wrong time to have suffered before he had proclaimed the word of truth.” Christ Himself chooses the time of His passion, and St. Matthew bears witness to this through Jesus’s words at His betrayal:

[D]o you think that I cannot now pray to My Father, and He will provide Me with more than twelve legions of angels? How then could the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must happen thus? (Matt 26:53-54)

Our God displays His power in allowing Him­self to be contained in the womb of the Theo­tokos, in choosing to suffer, in trampling death by death. It is not surprising Jesus had to specifically teach the apostles about the mean­ing of power as a follower of His.

But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Matt 20:25-28).

Thus, power, for a Christian, is expressed as the power to control our desire for worldly pow­er. To follow Christ is to resist the tempt­a­tion to lord it over others, to avoid making our way the yardstick by which other things are measured, to stay away or step away from positions of power when they affect our spirit­ual lives and prevent us from seeking first the king­dom of heaven. This was never an easy thing to do. If the apostles were tempted by the idea of power in worldly terms, we can be expect to encounter this temptation ourselves.

Should the temptation come, let us look at the icon of the Nativity. There are elements of power in the worship offered to the Child, but the center of the icon has the Lord of the uni­verse wrapped in swaddling clothes. The cave, the manger, and the animals provide the perfect display of the humility of Christ. The worship is offered as it is proper to the divinity, and it is freely given. In this context it does nothing to detract from the humble environment in which Christ was born.

Let us also look upon the icon of Christ on the cross and remember, as we see Jesus, with His eyes closed as though asleep, that we are looking upon the Son of God, as He completed the work that He descended to earth to do. It is not by accident that in the icons of the Cruci­fi­xion Christ’s face looks as though He is sleep­ing. Of course, as the Creator of Life, He is not bound by death, and therefore that depiction is entirely appropriate and accurate. But that icon­­ography also imparts to us a sense of the peace which is present in the very completion of the work of God.

So, as we prepare to receive the Christ Child, let us especially learn from and imitate His humility. Let us use the prayers, hymns, and icons of the Church to guide us, so that we may become humble enough for Him to come and dwell in the manger of our hearts.

With love in Christ, 
+Fr. Peter

September-October 2018

posted Jan 9, 2019, 7:01 PM by St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church

Icons have always been a means of teaching the faith. From depictions of the great feasts of the Church, to events in the lives of the saints, they tell a story about who God is and who we are in relation to Him. One of the icons that elo­­quent­ly speaks about God is that of the Extreme Humil­i­ty. A brief explanation of this icon at iconreader.wordpress .com says:

At the arrival of unjust persecution, bow your head. At the jeers of false accusations, cross your arms over your heart, whether physically or interiorly, and gratefully receive what is spitefully offered. And when faced with the question, ‘How far, how far do I tolerate this shame, this injustice’, remember that the answer is the grave. This is what the icon labels ‘Ex­treme Humility’, and it is humility that we must strive to emu­late each day. (Hieromonk Irenaeus)

In contrast with this description stand the vices of vain­glory (or self-esteem) and pride.

St. John Cassian wrote about these vices as he advised a bishop by the name of Kastor. About self-esteem, he said:

When it cannot seduce a man with extravagant clothing, it tries to tempt him by means of shabby ones. When it cannot flatter him with honor, it inflates him by causing him to en­dure what seems to be dishonor. When it cannot persuade him to feel proud of his display of eloquence, it entices him through silence into thinking he has achieved stillness. When it cannot puff him up with the thought of his luxurious table, it lures him into fasting for the sake of praise (Philokalia v.1 p.90).

Some instances of vainglory and pride are easy to iden­ti­fy. The expression that one is “full of himself” is one way to de­scribe such instances. But pride finds its way in by more in­sidious means. 

Pride often whispers in our ears that we should measure ourselves by certain standards and leads us into depression and unhealthy behaviors when we fall short. We become ill and are unable to do as much for the church, or financial hardships come and things change. We become unable to do the things we used to, or to fulfill our stewardship and we are tempted to fade away. A toxic kind of shame tells us that we are less of a person than we were before misfortune befell us. How can we continue to show up? What will other people think? These negative thoughts, known in Church tradition as logismoi, assault us and weaken us. After all, Christians will continue to see Christ within us and remember that we are created in the image and likeness of God. And God will rejoice that we are part of those gath­er­ed together in His name.

Self-esteem sometimes whispers in our ears that we are fine—we do not need to change, we do not need to repent, we do not need to learn more about ourselves or God. The road of re­pen­tance is at times difficult and pride makes it easy to listen to the logismoi that allow us to take the easy way. And yet, a desert father, Ab­ba Sisoes, on his death bed, said that he had not yet begun to repent. The Church com­mem­o­rates him on July 6 as St. Sisoes the Great.

In a related way, pride can color our re­ac­tions to criticism. It whispers to us that, after all, if we are fine, any suggestion that something about us needs to change can only come be­cause the person making the suggestion dislikes us. Anger is certainly justified in that case, for how dare someone make such a suggestion?

We can clearly see the pervasiveness of these vices and the care needed to avoid them. To help us in doing that, let us return to St. John Cassian. Against self-esteem, he counsels: The person who wants to engage fully in spirit­ual combat and to win the crown of right­eous­ness must try by every means to overcome this beast that assumes such varied forms. He should always keep in mind the words of Da­vid: “The Lord has scattered the bones of those who please men” (Ps. 53:5). He should not do any­­thing with a view to being praised by other peo­ple, but should seek God's reward only, al­ways rejecting the thoughts of self-praise that enter his heart and always regarding himself as nothing before God. In this way he will be freed, with God's help, from the demon of self-esteem (Philokalia v.1 p.92).

With regard to pride, the saint counsels:

We should feel fear and guard our hearts with ex­treme care from the deadly spirit of pride. When we have attained some degree of holi­ness we should always repeat to ourselves the words of the apostle: 'Yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me' (1 Cor. 15:10), as well as what was said by the Lord: 'Without Me you can do nothing' (Jn. 15:5) [...] The thief who re­ceiv­ed the kingdom of heaven, though not as the reward of virtue, is a true witness to the fact that salvation is ours through the grace and mercy of God. All of your holy fathers knew this and all with one accord teach that per­fec­tion in holiness can be achieved only through humility. Humility, in its turn, can be achieved only through faith, fear of God, gentle­ness, and the shedding of all possessions. (Philo­kalia v.1. p.94)

Let us pay attention to our thoughts and the state of our hearts and listen to the counsels of St. John, that we may be free of self-esteem and pride, gain humility, and become perfect as our Father is perfect 

With love in Christ, 
+Fr. Peter

July- August 2018

posted Oct 1, 2018, 9:43 PM by St. John's Webmaster

The later part of summer in our Orthodox faith centers on the Dormition of the Theotokos. The feast and the two paraklesis services that are served daily in the period prec­ed­ing it remind us of the important place of the Virgin Mary in the Church and in the lives of the faithful. This is by no means new. St. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, whom tradition holds to be the child picked up by Jesus when He said “Let the little children come to me,” wrote to the Theotokos.

Thou oughtest to have comforted and consoled me who am a neophyte, and a disciple of thy [beloved] John. For I have heard things wonderful to tell respecting thy [son] Jesus, and I am astonished by such a report. But I desire with my whole heart to obtain information concerning the things which I have heard from thee, who wast always intimate and allied with Him, and who wast acquainted with [all] His secrets. I have also written to thee at another time, and have asked thee concerning the same things. Fare thou well; and let the neophytes who are with me be comforted of thee, and by thee, and in thee. Amen.

We see here the reverence that a bishop of the Church, a man whose faith was such that he asked his fellow Christ­ians not to prevent his martyrdom, has for the Theotokos. He acknowledges that, by virtue of her closeness to Christ, she is “acquainted with His secrets.” She knows Him better than St. Ignatius does and is able to make Him known to those who so desire. That intimacy that the Theotokos has with her Son and God is the reason we are able to sing:

Relentless onslaughts of distressing troubles now disquiet my humble soul. * And the gloomy clouds of tribulation shroud my heart. * But since you are, O Bride of God, * Theotokos and Mother * of the divine pre-eternal Light, * shine on me the light that is full of joy. (Great Paraklesis)

In our services dedicated to the Theotokos, we join in with St. Ignatius; we ask that the Theo­tokos teach us about her Son. We know that she is a trustworthy guide, for she never did look to gain favor or a position for herself. As she said to the archangel Gabriel at the Annun­ciation “behold, the maiden of the Lord” so in her reply to St. Ignatius she shows her humility. She begins her reply with “The lowly handmaid of Christ Jesus to Ignatius, her beloved fellow-disciple.” As at the Annun­ciation, the focus is not on her, but on God. Yes, she plays an im­por­tant role in salvation, but that role is to guide us to her Son and that is a role she performs with utmost humility.

St. Ignatius, with the rest of the Church, approach­es the Theotokos with great love and respect: the mystery of being intimate with God is one that can only be approached with humil­ity and awe. That is true for us, as well as the Theotokos. For the Theotokos, she is aware that her role is an unrepeatable one. She is the rod from the root of Jesse, the unfading rose, the unhewn mountain. She says of herself that “all generations will call [her] blessed,” but in all that she is still “the lowly handmaid of Christ Jesus.” That humility is the example the Theo­tokos sets for our conduct as Christians. In that humility, she herself imitates God who clothed Himself in humility, according to St. Isaac the Syrian:

Humility is the raiment of the Godhead. The Word who became human clothed him­self in it, and he spoke to us in our body. Everyone who has been clothed with humility has truly been made like unto Him who came down from his own exalt­ed­ness and hid the spleen­dor of his majesty and concealed his glory with humility, lest creation be utterly con­sumed by the con­tem­plation of him. (from Ascetical Homilies)

As the one “more exalted than the heavens” and humanity’s greatest example of humility, we draw near to her and ask for her help at this time when we prepare for her dormition, emu­lating her humility

All those

Do you shelter, O Good One,

Those who in their faith flee unto you,

With your strong hand, you protect;

We who sin have no one else,

Who intercedes for us

Before God, praying endlessly,

In ills and all dangers,

For us who are laden with

Our many sins and mistakes;

Mother, of our God in the Highest

Therefore, we fall down to you, humbly;

From all the misfortunes, keep your servants safe. (Small Paraklesis)

Through the intercessions of the Theotokos, Savior, save us!

With love in Christ,
+Fr. Peter

May-June 2018

posted Aug 8, 2018, 2:00 PM by St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church

As this newsletter is getting ready for print, we are close to the feast of mid-Pentecostas the name says, half way between Pascha and Pentecost. The services of the day tell us that, at this point, we are fed spiritually (drawing water from) both feasts. We still bask in the glory of the empty tomb and of the Paschal candle that proclaims to the world that death is vanquished. We are still in the joy of the proclamation that Christ is risen and the kingdom of God is near. At the same time, we look forward to the tongues of fire descending upon the disciples and granting them that power which they had been told to await in Jerusalem. The disciples did not fully become apostles (sent out) until they had obeyed the words of Christ and waited in the city until they were clothed with power from on high. They received this power at Pentecostthe power to make themselves understood to people from various parts of the world, to become all-wise, though being simple fishermen, to endure persecution, torture, and martyrdom.

At the end of one of the services during Holy Week, I mentioned that these services are more than a mere reminder or recollection of things that are past. In Holy Week we enter into that mystical journey to Golgotha. On Thursday evening, Christ's work is indeed finished. On Friday afternoon, Christ goes to rest in His holy tomb. For me, as a priest, there is a palpable relief in going from Holy Thursday evening through Holy Friday morning to Holy Friday afternoon.

Of course, Holy Week, due to the events in which we participate, is a particularly intense period. However, the reality of participating in the divine events commemorated extends to all the feasts of the Church. It is for this reason that so many of the hymns sing of the events of a feast as happening "today." And so, if in Holy Week we travel with Christ to the Cross and at Pascha we are with the myrrh-bearers at the tomb, at Pentecost we are with the apostles as the Spirit is poured out upon the Church. Thus, each Pentecost the Church celebrates can also be a personal Pentecosta renewal of the grace of baptism, a new infusion of grace, the beginning of a bolder life of faith, a step towards being united with Christ in His extreme humility and self-emptying, a more definite affirmation of "Thy will be done" in our lives. So let us ask God to draw us into the mystery of Pentecost and offer to do our part, as well.

You may wonder what our part would be in order to be drawn into the feast. The answers come from Christ and the apostles themselves. The Holy Spirit is a gift of ChristHe is the one who sends the Spirit into the world and so His words to the apostles apply to us as well. Before His Crucifixion, He told them to abide in Him. The apostles put these words into practice through private prayer, study of Scripture, and, as St. Luke tells us, through corporate prayer, as they "were continually in the temple, blessing God." As it was for the apostles, so for us, participation in the life of the Churchthe private daily prayers, the various worship services and sacramentsis indeed preparation, working the soil of our hearts so that, when the new seed of grace is sown, it may find fertile ground in which to take root and bear fruit. Undertaking this preparation with joy, thanksgiving, and love allows God to transform us into His likeness, to make within us a place fit for Him to lay His head.

May we prepare with lightness of heart, in the joy of the Resurrection, and with faith in the promise of the Spirit, and may God lead us into the fullness of Pentecost.

With love in Christ,

+Fr. Peter

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