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January-February 2018

posted Mar 17, 2018, 8:25 AM by St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church

October 2017 marked the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. During that month, there were a number of articles written about the effects of the Reformation in various spheres of life. One such article (The True Church and the American Church: How Protestant Ecclesiology Got Here, by Fr. Stephen DeYoung) talked about how our understanding of what the Church is has changed. The early reformers believed in the one church, as we continue to profess in the Creed. Yet, as any substantial unity of worship and belief began to fade, this understanding of what the Church is also began to fade. And we end up with a situation as that described by Fr. Stephen Freeman in his Getting Saved on Star Trek where “[the mother] was willing, she said, for her son to be Baptized, but not to “join the Church.” The two were very distinct things in her mind.” 

For the Orthodox, baptism is, among other things, specifically entrance into the body of Christ, which is the Church. In the prayers in the narthex we pray that God make the one being baptized “a reason-endowed sheep of the holy Flock of Your Christ, and honorable member of Your Church, a hallowed vessel, a child of Light, and heir of Your Kingdom.” So, in baptism, we become members of the Church and therefore, as St. Paul teaches us, we become “members of one another” (Rom. 12:5). For this reason, the Church has never viewed salvation as merely an individual pursuit. And it is for this reason that I find the Paraklesis service to be of great importance for a Greek Orthodox parish.

In the practice of other Orthodox churches (e.g., Romanian and Antiochian) names of parishioners in need of prayer (and, let’s face it, we are all in need of prayer) are commemorated during each Divine Liturgy. Since that is not part of the Greek Orthodox practice in the United States unless a bishop is presiding at the Liturgy, the paraklesis service becomes our opportunity to act on the understanding that we are connected to one another, that our salvation is connected to that of those around us, by praying by name for one another. Now, a paraklesis service, unlike a Liturgy, can be celebrated even by the priest alone, but a service without a congregation, while retaining its intrinsic goodness, diminishes the role of both the priest and the laity. The priest is not a professional pray-er, perhaps akin to the wailers that would attend funeral processions in days of yore, and the laity are not merely along for the ride during the services. The prayers of the laity and the priest are meant to be lifted up together – the body of the local church caring in harmony for the salvation of all those commemorated.

Of course, no consideration of us as members of the Church is complete without considering the Church and the Eucharist as the body of Christ. In no other way do we so completely make present the image of Christians as members of a body as when we are united with Christ and, implicitly, with one another, in the Eucharist. The Church takes this union into which we enter very seriously. In the prayers of preparation for Holy Communion, we find this admonition: As you are about to eat the body of the Master, approach with fear lest you be burned, for it is fire.  And before you drink in communion the blood, be first reconciled with all those you have offended; then you may take courage to eat the mystic Food. We have here an echo of St. Paul’s words: “If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men” (Rom. 12:18). The Church calls us to a restoration of peace before partaking of the Eucharist. It is for a similar reason that, right before partaking of the divine gifts the priests asks “My brothers and sisters, forgive me, the unworthy priest” – this is never a mere ritual act, but a final attempt, should there be something that he forgot or something to which he was unable to attend, for the priest to be reconciled to the faithful prior to communing of Christ. So, if we have caused someone to have reason not to want to be united with us in the body of Christ, the Church calls us to do whatever is in our power to restore that communion before we come to the divine Communion.

With love in Christ,
+Fr. Peter

October-December 2017

posted Mar 17, 2018, 8:17 AM by St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church

This year at Camp St. George one of the themes of the Christian education sessions was prayer. We talked about different ways we can look at prayer: personal prayer, communal/liturgical prayer, silent prayer, prayer of the heart, spoken prayer, sung prayer, morning prayer, evening prayer, night prayer. On the first day we looked at prayer through the lens of two saints: St. Patrick, enlightener of Ireland, and St. Andrei Rublev, the iconographer. Both saints were men of prayer.

In the part of the lesson which covered St. Patrick, we read that he prayed 100 psalms every night. Those prayers were part of a life dedicated to the service of God. They were a means by which St. Patrick received the grace and strength of God in order to follow the path that was set before him - a path that led him back to the land where he had been taken into slavery. They drew him into the righteousness of God, so that he himself became righteous and was then able to work miracles. The rich prayer life of St. Patrick helped him become an embodiment of St. James’ words: “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (James 5:16).

This is can be a difficult line to read. Perhaps even more difficult are verses which speak of God not listening to prayer. The book of Proverbs says that "One who turns away his ear from hearing the law, Even his prayer is an abomination” (Prov. 28:9). And Isaiah makes it explicit: Even though you make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood (Is. 1:15). So, God “hears the prayers of the righteous” (Prov. 15) but there are also prayers God does not hear. For most of us, this is not a possibility that we often think about. It is somewhat comforting, though ultimately falsely so, to imagine that God is there, ready to be of service, waiting for us to call on Him, and He will listen and do as He is bid.

However, God is not a machine. In the Old Testament, God underscores His independence by revealing to Moses not a name, but a rather mysterious statement: “I am who I am” or “I am the one who is.” This is in a cultural and historical context where knowing someone’s name was believed to grant some power or control over that someone. By not  revealing a name, God not only underscores His unknowability, but also lets it be known that He is neither controlled, nor manipulated. 

And so, God is the one who is - the only one who has existence in Himself - and who created us for a life of communion with Him and one another. Prayer is something that happens in the context of that communion. We are righteous inasmuch as we are in communion with Him and live according to His commandments. It is in this context that, at every Vespers service, we say: "Blessed are you, O Lord, teach me your commandments. Blessed are you, Master, grant me understanding of your commandments. Blessed are you, Holy One, enlighten me with your commandments.”

These petitions are a brief way of talking about part of our spiritual journey of purification, illumination, and deification. Specifically, the commandments play a role in our purification and illumination. We can read one of the prayers in preparation for Holy Communion in this context. St. Symeon the New Theologian says: “ Do not reject me, nor my words, nor my ways, nor even my shamelessness, but give me courage to say what I desire, O my Christ; and even more, teach me what to do and what to say.” The willingness to be taught what to do, to attempt to be obedient to the commandments is the beginning of the journey.

It feels backwards: aren’t we supposed to think our way into “better selves,” rather than acting ourselves into it? Yet, the experience of the saints is that a life lived in the commandments creates a clean heart, which leads to the vision of God, as Christ Himself said in the beatitudes. In seeing God and communing with Him, we know and understand His will. It is then that we can say with St. John the Theologian: Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us (1 Jn. 5:14).

May our Lord teach us His righteousness and may He always hear our prayers.

With love in Christ,
+Fr. Peter

 

 

 

July-August 2017

posted Nov 14, 2017, 2:39 PM by St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church

For many of us, summer is a time to get away. This year, I even remembered far enough ahead of time to plan a vacation for our family. The fact that we left home without having planned all our accommodations along the way is something we will keep just between us. In the end, we did make it back without having to use the van as sleeping quarters. Along the way, we (barely) managed not to drive off the road in hilly Missouri, transformed on-line friends into real-life ones, and visited dear friends. We also stopped by church. 

By a happy coincidence, Symeon’s godfather was scheduled to serve at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Church in Wichita Falls, TX, the Saturday of our trip – something he does about twice a year. As Holy Cross had been my spiritual home for three and a half years and, in some ways, the place where my journey towards the priesthood began, it was a pleasure to return and see some of the people who helped make me feel at home six thousand miles away from home. 

The next day we went to Fr. Nicholas’s church, St. Demetrios in Ft. Worth. Fr. Nicholas and I had come in and graduated together (both of us in three years), and had been in the same chant group at seminary. Both of us had been ordained before graduation, but these were the first Liturgies we served together. I had looked forward to these services and it was a blessing to be there… even though at St. Demetrios, Orthros begins at 7:45 and Liturgy around 9. Somehow, at least for one Sunday, that did not seem unreasonably early.

Fr. Nicholas wanted to make sure that I did not get rusty during vacation and offered me the opportunity to preach. And then, all of a sudden, everything was done by 11:30, which felt strange, and strangely enjoyable: Sunday afternoon had more than a couple of hours. 

The final church stop of our trip was at Archangel Michael and All Angels skete in Weatherby, MO. We had visited there a couple of years ago and it was good to see all the changes that had taken place. A barn with farm equipment had been added, fields of wheat were growing, and several varieties of grape vines had been planted this year and were being worked on as we arrived. There are plans for a church next to the current chapel. We arrived as the workday seemed to be in full swing, at 7:40 in the morning. Rains were coming and the work needed to get done, we were told. We stayed, we ate breakfast, we looked at the beautiful monastery grounds, and we had the opportunity to venerate the relics of several saints, including St. Mary Magdalene and St. Helen, in the chapel. Looking around the monastery I was reminded of how much care monasteries give to their surroundings: so many varieties of plants arranged in orderly patterns and providing for many of the daily needs of the monastery. Even the roof of the refectory was made in such a way that it can be used as a garden. 

Then, it was time to come back home. And it is good to be home, but I wanted to write a little about the churches we visited, because each church is different. Something here and there might strike us as something we could use at St. John. So, when you go to church on your vacations this summer, if you see something you think we could do, or even something you liked, even if we might not be able to do it currently, please let me know. And, if you have already returned, let me know where you went and what you saw. If, in academic circles, copying is plagiarism, in the spiritual life, copying that which is good is the way of ascent towards God. Let us be as spiritual bees, pick up that which is sweet from the spiritual places we visit, and bring it to St. John to sweeten the honey of our spiritual life. 

May God grant all of you safe travels wherever you may go.

With love in Christ,
+Fr. Peter

May-June 2017

posted Jul 31, 2017, 6:09 AM by St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church

“He is not here; he has risen!” These words of the angel to the myrrh-bearing women transformed their sorrow into joy and brought to all of us the hope of the resurrection. And so we greet one another with “Christ is risen,” proclaiming the same message of joy that the myrrh-bearers received.

After the resurrection, Christ was with His disciples for forty days. What did Christ do in that time? St. Luke tells us that on the very day of the resurrection He met Luke and Cleopas on the road to Emmaus. There, “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Lk. 24:27). After that encounter, Jesus continued teaching: “He said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’  Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.” (Lk 24:44-45). Jesus had been teaching – both the disciples and the people – prior to the resurrection: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people” (Mt. 4:23). Yet, in order to make sure that the Scriptures would be properly understood in the light of the resurrection, He continued to teach while He was still with His disciples.

St. Luke seems to emphasize the importance that Jesus placed on teaching the disciples after the resurrection, but it is not just those in the “inner circle” of the faith (if such a thing even existed) that are supposed to know the Scriptures and their interpretation. St. Matthew relates this commandment of Jesus’s: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20). The disciples obeyed and did exactly that. The letters of the apostles are full of instruction in the faith to the communities that he founded. And, of course, we have the story of the Ethiopian eunuch:

Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian[a] eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.

“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading: 

“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
    and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth.

In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
    Who can speak of his descendants?
    For his life was taken from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?”  Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus. (Acts 8:26-35)

By virtue of our baptism we have become disciples of Christ and, as disciples, we are to be engaged in a life-long process of learning about Christ and how to obey His commandments. And, just like the disciples and the Ethiopian eunuch, we, too need instruction in order to understand. There are several ways to receive this instruction.

The first is through the services and hymns of the church. Especially at great feasts, the Old Testament readings at Vespers are placed in a context that illuminates their understanding in the Church. The hymns for those feasts also reference Old Testament themes that find their fulfillment in the feasts we celebrate. Other hymns, especially the katavasiae at Orthros, also connect Old Testament themes with the New Testament.

The second way of receiving instruction is through reading the works of the saints and other trustworthy materials. The sermons and writings of St. John Chrysostom, St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Ambrose of Milan, and many others, are full of useful instruction in both the faith and the practical application of that faith.

The third way is to avail ourselves of educational opportunities: seminars, webinars, presentations, retreats, and educational series provided by parishes and dioceses. The Metropolis of Chicago, for example has resources available at http://www.goreligiousedchicago.org (Metropolis department of religious education) and http://www.gocfamilysynaxis.org/ (family ministry). And, as always, if there is a topic you would like to learn more about, I would love to hear from you, so I can include it in one of our educational series.

May God grant us the thirst for knowledge about God that the Ethiopian eunuch had and may He grant us guides that can lead us to encounter the risen Christ.

With love in Christ,
+Fr. Peter

March - April 2017

posted Jun 19, 2017, 2:27 PM by St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church

Every year in Great Lent, the Church reads a great part of the book of Isaiah. There are many reasons for this practice. The most important are the beautiful messianic prophecies and the promises that all nations will know the true God, both of which are found throughout the book. The Great Compline hymn, “God is with us,” is taken from various parts of Isaiah, as well. Those themes are hard to miss in the Lenten services. Here, however, I would like to focus on one more, small connection between Isaiah and Great Lent:

 I, even I, am he that blots out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and thy sins; and I will not remember them. But do thou remember, and let us plead together: do thou first confess thy transgressions, that thou mayest be justified (Isaiah 43:25-26).

This passage is closely echoed in the New Testament: “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” (1 Jn. 1:8).

In commenting on the Isaiah passage, the Fathers of the Church tell us to “Groan bitterly, sacrifice confession (for, he says, “Declare first your transgressions that you may be justified”), sacrifice contrition of heart” (St. John Chrysostom). They remind us that “prayer and confession with humility are voluntary acts. Therefore it is enjoined, ‘First tell your sins, that you may be justified’ ” (St. Clement of Alexandria). St. Jerome tells us that “we are just when we acknowledge that we are sinners, and our justice depends not on our personal merit but rather on the mercy of God.” Finally, returning to St. John Chrysostom, he encourages us by saying that “Time does not excuse; rather, the manner of the repentant individual erases the sin. One individual may wait a long time and not gain salvation, and another, who confesses genuinely, is stripped of the sin inside a short time.”

The passage is just two verses long, but the quotes above are only a small selection from the various commentaries on them. Such is the importance of repentance and confession in the life of the Orthodox. Indeed they are so important that St. Theophan the Recluse said that “it is impossible to live at peace with God without continual repentance” (in The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, p. 227). As radical as St. Theophan’s statement may seem, it is little more than a restatement of the petition we pray at each Divine Liturgy: “That we may complete the remaining time of our life in peace and repentance, let us ask the Lord.” And, while repentance should be continual, we need our annual reminder to refocus on it.

We are now in that time when repentance is brought into clearer focus. Beginning with the first Sunday of the Triodion and continuing through Holy Week, many hymns are written and are meant to be prayed in the first person singular.

At Orthros on Sundays, we sing:

When I ponder in my wretchedness on the many terrible things that I have done, I tremble for that fearful day, the Day of Judgment. But trusting in the mercy of Your compassion, like David I cry to You, "Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your great mercy" (Troparion following the Orthros Gospel).

And in the canon of St. Andrew:

I confess to You, O Christ my King: I have sinned; I have sinned like the brethren of Joseph, who once sold the fruit of purity and chastity (Compline, Clean Monday, ode 5).

These are but two examples of the hymns that call us to repentance and confession. Let us listen to them with our ears, minds, and hearts. Let us hear the many other hymns and prayers that the Church places before us in order to help us draw near to God. Let us read them and pray them, not merely as hymns someone wrote a long time ago, but as coming from the depths of our hearts at the very moment we encounter them, for this is the way of salvation.

Archimandrite Zacharias, expounding on the spiritual inheritance of St. Silouan of Mt. Athos, explains it thus:

By putting ourselves voluntarily before the judgment of God, that is to say, by examining ourselves strictly in the light of His commandments (that is our judgment) He gives us ‘a mouth and wisdom’. He puts in our mouth, rather in our heart, the prayer of repentance, which justifies us. St. John the Divine says that there is a way for man to become infalliblethe only way upon earth that man can be infallibleis when he acknowledges his sinfulness (Archimandrite Zacharias, The Enlargement of the Heart).

Archimandrite Zacharias refers to the text in 1 John quoted above, which parallels the text of Isaiah. And so we see, some two thousand seven hundred years after Isaiah the prophet lived, the truth he taught regarding the necessity of repentance, preserved fully in the life of the Church.

May our Lord give us the grace to bring this truth into our lives so that we may arrive at the Feast of Feasts with bright hearts, filled with the grace that God bestows upon those who repent with fervor.

With love in Christ,
+Fr. Peter

January - February 2017

posted Mar 14, 2017, 8:53 AM by St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church

“Gone away is the blue bird; here to stay is the new bird,” says Winter Wonderland. It seems that the beginning of a year brings with it a sense of renewal, an idea that there is a new start to be made. New year’s resolutions are just an illustration of that mentality. Sometimes—perhaps when we think of what happens to new year’s resolutions by the time February comes around—this renewal idea seems a bit silly. But I think the mistake is one of focus, not one of essence. For, you see, there is another renewal that is brought to mind at this time of year: the renewal of humanity and of all creation.

In His Incarnation, the Lord refashioned humanity. In Orthros, at the katavasiae for the feast we sing:

Prophet Habakkuk in his ode was foretelling mankind's remaking, when of old he was granted to see its type in a manner past expression: From the Virgin mountain as a newborn infant the Logos emerged, to refashion the peoples.

In His Baptism, He identified Himself, voluntarily and without sin, with fallen humanity. Our renewal in Christ is seen again here, as we sing again during Orthros:

In the Spirit, O David, come be present and sing out to those being illumined: Now approach to God in faith and be illumined. Adam who was fallen cried aloud, being the poor man, and truly the Lord heard him; and therefore He has come, and in the streams of the Jordan He renewed him, the corrupted one.

Wash yourselves and be clean, says the Prophet Isaiah, and put away your evildoing from before the Lord's eyes. All you who are thirsty go now to the living water. For Christ will sprinkle those who, believing, run to Him with water that renews; and He baptizes them with the Spirit unto undecaying life.

As we pledge our allegiance to Him in our own sacrament of Baptism, the priest asks God to

“Put off from him (her) the old man, and renew him (her) unto everlasting life. Fill him (her) with the power of Your Holy Spirit, unto union with Your Christ; that he (she) may no longer be a child of the body, but a child of Your Kingdom;”

However, living, as we do, in the world, and being subject to its pushes and pulls, the exchange of the old man and the new becomes a constant, as seen in one of the prayers of the daily office of the ninth hour:

Rescue us from the hand of the adversary and forgive our sins, and mortify our mind set on the flesh; so that we may put off the old man, be clothed with the new, and live for You, our Master and Benefactor. And thus may we follow Your commandments, and arrive at the eternal rest, where the dwelling is of all those who rejoice.

Our renewal parallels our salvation: we have been renewed, we are being renewed, and we will be renewed. Thus, we ask each day that we be constantly renewed in the new life which we received at our entry into the Church. Each day we follow the admonition of St. Paul to put off “the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:22-24).

Christ is the new man, the second and last Adam, in whom creation is recreated, humanity is refashioned, and we are brought to life from being dead in sin. In Him we have been clothed at our baptism, for “as many as have been baptized in Christ have put on Christ.” It is this garment that we need to care for—“preserve unspotted,” as the baptismal service says—in order to have it as an acceptable wedding garment at the heavenly banquet.

The new year is a time when our need for constant renewal in Christ is brought into focus through the feasts we celebrate. Let us use the hymns we hear at this time as reminders to cultivate holiness in our lives: be vigilant with our thoughts, pray, fast (Great Lent begins on February 26, which is sooner that it seems), confess, commune, and be generous with our time, money, and love. Through these, we wash, and are clean; and we put away evil from [our] souls (cf. Is. 1:16). Thus we preserve our garment spotless so we may be counted with the blessed of the Father. 

With love in Christ,
+Fr. Peter

November-December 2016

posted Feb 22, 2017, 2:26 PM by St. John's Webmaster

As some of you know, I like swimming. There is something about the water that shuts out the rest of the world for me and allows me to recharge. For a few meters as I glide off each wall, the only sound in the world is that of water going by my ears. I like that near-silence, made precious by its fleeting nature.

The alarm, the coffee maker, the engine, road repair machinery, the ambulance driving by, the clickety-clack of the keyboard, radio, tv, birds, dogs… we are surrounded by sound. Sometimes the sounds have practical purposes: they wake us up, the remind us of things we need to do, they warn us to pay attention to something. Sometimes the sounds are restorative and bring and restfulness. And then there are the other sounds. They are ever-present and everywhere. They do not require our attention, so we can easily assume that they do not affect us.

Little by little, our brain adapts to its environment. Noises become normal for us; we expect to be surrounded by them. They become a habit formed without our choosing; one that leaves us uncomfortable in those few times when we find ourselves in a quiet place. We become addicted to the distraction that everyday noise brings. This is already a problem for our spiritual lives, because, while God is everywhere present and filling all things, for us to be attuned to his presence, we need to be able to hear a small, still voice, light breeze, or vibrant silence (cf. 3Kgds/1 Kings 19:12).

There is a second problem associated with constant noise and distraction in our lives: they prevent us from paying attention to our thoughts. The lack of attention to our thoughts does not mean that we stop having them.We all know that at any given time, thoughts pass through our heads that range from the ridiculous to the sublime, from silly to grandiose, from evil to holy. The desert fathers knew this well, too.

One brother came to Abba Pimen and said, "All sorts of distracting thoughts keep coming into my mind, and I'm in danger because of them." Then the elder pushed him out into the open air and said, "Open up your cloak and capture the wind in it!" But he objected, "I can't do it." So the elder said to him, "Exactly! And if you can't catch the wind, neither can you prevent distracting thoughts from coming into your head. Your job is just to say no to them."

There are two things to note here. The first is the wisdom of Abba Pimen and his advice (to which we will return shortly). The second is the brother who came seeking help: he comes knowing that there is a problem; to a certain extent even knowing what the problem is. These thoughts are distracting and sometimes beguiling. If we are not aware of them, they can lead us into danger. If we are distracted or fooled, we can easily say yes to a thought to which we should be saying no. And, as the Church teaches, assent to a sinful thought is the beginning of sin.

And here we come back to Abba Pimen. What he tells the brother is that a thought, on its own, is not the problem. Thoughts come and, as he says, we cannot help that. We may, as time goes on, if we are vigilant about our thoughts and nourish ourselves with holy materials, become less susceptible to sinful thoughts, but, in this life, they do not disappear entirely. So, what is left to us is the response to thoughts. Abba Pimen puts it very simply: our job is to say no to sinful thoughts.

Getting there, however, requires that we be aware of the kinds of thoughts we have. We need to be in the position of the brother, who knew he was facing an obstacle which hindered his spiritual life and was an obstacle to his knowing and encountering God. We begin by finding time away from the noise; time to become aware of our thoughts, to learn what kinds of sin we are susceptible to. 

We also need time to feed holy nourishment to our souls, so that they are strengthened in what is good and learn to choose it. This is where the services of the Church can help by filling our ears with grace-filled words of Scripture and prayer, with poetic recollections of the lives of the saints and with meditations on the meanings of the feasts for our lives. The various prayers of the church, said attentively in our prayer corners, and scripture readings are also helpful. And, occasionally, it helps to have someone – perhaps not quite of the stature of Abba Pimen, who is a saint of our church – but someone who is traveling the same spiritual path and to whom we can go to receive counsel about the practical aspects of growing in vigilance over our thoughts.

As we come to November and December, it is a rich time of celebrating important saints and meditating on the great mystery of the incarnation and nativity of our Lord. Let us take the opportunities presented to us to nourish our souls with the grace of our services and do the necessary work that leads to vigilance over our thoughts. Directing our lives in this manner is a gift worthy of the infant lying in a manger. Let us offer it to Him as we draw near to worship Him and glorify Him.

With love in Christ,
+Fr. Peter

September-October 2016

posted Nov 30, 2016, 11:07 AM by St. John's Webmaster

Orthodoxy is a faith of preparation. In the ultimate sense, we live our lives as preparation for eternal life, but we also prepare for things on a smaller scale. The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about preparation is Great Lent and Holy Week. We spend eight weeks preparing for the feast of feasts through fasting, added services, and a more rigorous prayer life. Similarly, though in a less intense manner, we spend time preparing for Christmas, Dormition, and the feast of Ss. Peter and Paul.

Of a more regular nature is our preparation for receiving the Eucharist. This reception is the essential act that unites us with Christ and with one another: “Whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in Me and I in him.” St. Basil the Great is explicit about the importance of this reception: “To communicate each day and to partake of the holy Body and Blood of Christ is good and beneficial; for He says quite plainly: ‘He that eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood has eternal life.’ Who can doubt that to share continually in life is the same thing as having life abundantly? We ourselves communicate four times each week…and on other days if there is a commemoration of any saint” (Letter to a patrician lady Caesarea).

I would like to focus here on this preparation for the Eucharist. There are several components that work together to prepare us to receive the holy Body and precious Blood of our Lord. There is a daily component: the remembrance that God is “a fire consuming the unworthy,” as we affirm in the last part of our pre-communion prayers. And each of us knows that, as St. Chrysostom says earlier in the pre-communion prayers that ”I am not worthy, Master and Lord, that You should enter under the roof of my soul.” So each day we ask God that, by His Grace, He transform our lives and make us worthy to receive His most precious and life-giving gifts.

A second component of our preparation consists of the pre-communion prayers mentioned above. In order to discern the Body and Blood of Christ and to be prepared to receive them, we have these preparatory prayers, which have come to us from some of the great saints of the Church – John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, Symeon the New Theologian, John of Damascus, and Symeon the Translator (Metaphrastes). In one of the prayers from Compline, we ask that God “correct our thoughts [and] purify our minds.” This is the role of the pre-communion prayers: to correct our thoughts and purify our minds so that we can see with our mind’s eye the magnitude and intensity of what is set before us in the holy Eucharist. Depending on your prayer book, the number of pre-communion prayers may vary and a canon may or may not be included. Personally, I like my Romanian prayer book, which includes twelve prayers – a nice, Biblically-sound number – but the number of prayers is not as important as the attention and faithfulness with which we pray them.

A third component of our preparation is the Liturgy itself. Here, we hear the epistle and Gospel for the day. The Savior told his disciples that “You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you” (Jn. 15:3). We, too, are cleansed – and thus prepared to receive the awesome mysteries of His Body and Blood – by the word He speaks to us at the Divine Liturgy through the epistle and Gospel. And, of course, in the Lord’s Prayer we pray that we be given our daily bread – that which is necessary for life – and the ultimate food necessary for life in Christ is His Body and Blood.

The three components above happen for each and every Liturgy. The fourth component does not usually happen with the same frequency, but it should nevertheless happen regularly, being of no less importance: the sacrament of confession. It is in this sacrament that we are cleansed in a personal manner of the stain of our sin, removing those things which darken our souls, so that we may more fully perceive the Body and Blood of Christ and receive Them for illumination and salvation.

All of the above are essential and indispensable elements of the spiritual life. There are also a couple of preparatory elements in which not everyone participates: the preparation of the gifts by those who offer them and the preparation by the celebrant priest or bishop.

I was reminded at blessing of the grapes at Transfiguration that the grapes, too, were blessed in part to become wine to be offered back, for the Holy Eucharist. These days, however, we think mostly of the prosforo. The prosforo is a blessed offering of our time and talent, a portion of which is to become the Body of Christ. Yet, I think it is something to consider for most of us. The thought of something that I have made becoming the Body of Christ is awe-inspiring. I do not know how much of what I do is sanctified, but there is this one thing that I can do and which will become the holiest of all things. And for me, there is something else in the baking of the prosforo: I often think of the saints for whose feast the prosfora I make will be used. These saints inspire me; they show me what life can become when we dare to allow Christ to transform it; they pray for me. Baking and offering a prosforo for their feastday Liturgy is but a small token of my gratitude for what they have done.

Finally, an element of preparation that is most often happens “behind the scenes” is the Proskomede. This is the service of the preparation of the gifts, which takes place either before or during Orthros. Here, the celebrant lifts pieces out of the prosforo – the Lamb inscribed with IC XC NI KA (Jesus Christ conquers), pieces for the Theotokos and the saints, a piece for the bishop, and pieces while praying for the living and the departed. These pieces, offered on behalf of the faithful, will be placed in the cup containing the Body and Blood of Christ towards the end of the Liturgy.

The holy fathers of the Church speak often of vigilance as being a necessary element of the spiritual life. Let us, therefore be vigilant in our preparation for the reception of the holy Body and precious Blood of our Savior and let us be vigilant that we prepare to receive the holy gifts as often as possible.

With love in the risen Christ,
+Fr. Peter

2014 Theophany message

posted Jan 2, 2015, 11:53 AM by St. John's Webmaster   [ updated Jan 2, 2015, 11:53 AM ]

Now that we have started to celebrate the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord and Savior in the flesh, as always, we look forward. On January 6, we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus Christ in the River Jordan by St. John the Baptist, where the Holy Trinity was revealed: Theophany, or Epiphany. The Orthodox Church traditionally associates this Great Feast with the great blessing of waters, an echo of Christ's sanctification of the living water of the Jordan. Our Theophany services include the Royal Hours on Monday, January 5, at 9:00 a.m.; Vesperal Liturgy (of St. Basil) with the great blessing of the waters (inside) on Monday, January 5, at 5:30 p.m.; Orthros, Divine Liturgy (of St. John Chrysostom), and the great blessing of the waters (inside) on Tuesday, January 6, starting at 9:00 a.m. Come early to read psalms!

We will joyfully join for an outdoor blessing of the waters in Coralville at the IRP Dam Pedestrian Bridge (near Iowa River Power Restaurant, 501 1st Avenue, Coralville) with the parishes of St. George and St. Raphael on Saturday, January 10, at 4:00 p.m., followed by pan-Orthodox Vespers at St. Raphael at 5:00 p.m., with a fellowship meal to follow.

Our parish is blessed to have St. John the Baptist as our patron, and therefore our altar feast is his synaxis on January 7. On the day following a great festal event, we celebrate the saint or saints who was involved in that event as a synaxis, which is why we celebrate St. John on a day which is not his conception (September 23), birth (June 24), death (August 29), or even the finding of his blessed head (February 24 and May 25) or the translation of his relics (October 12). Close on the heels of the celebrations for Theophany, we will celebrate Great Vespers on Tuesday, January 6, at 6:00 p.m., with Orthros and Liturgy on Wednesday, January 7, starting at 9:00 a.m. Come early to read psalms!

The water blessed at the services of Theophany is traditionally used to bless homes of the faithful. An email has been sent to everyone on the parish listserv with the house blessing schedule and instructions; those who do not respond to the email and who are both local and on our mailing list will receive the schedule and instructions by mail. The beginning of Lent is the traditional end to "house-blessing season," and this year it will come early (Monday, February 23), so please make arrangements as soon as possible. Since the water from the Theophany great blessing of the waters is used, the home blessing service will only take about 5 minutes! If you would like your home (or car or business) blessed, please contact Fr. Peter to make arrangements. His joy is to assist God in consecrating all of creation.

2014-09-21 message

posted Sep 20, 2014, 3:46 PM by St. John's Webmaster   [ updated Sep 20, 2014, 3:46 PM ]

The Holy Protomartyr and Equal of the Apostles Thecla was born in the city of Iconium. She was the daughter of rich and illustrious parents, and she was distinguished by extraordinary beauty. At eighteen years of age they betrothed her to an eminent youth. But after she heard the preaching of the holy Apostle Paul about the Savior, St. Thecla with all her heart came to love the Lord Jesus Christ, and she steadfastly resolved not to enter into marriage, but rather to devote all her life to preaching the Gospel. 

St. Thecla’s mother was opposed to her daughter’s plans and insisted that she marry her betrothed. St. Thecla’s fiancé also complained to the prefect of the city about the Apostle Paul, accusing him of turning his bride against him. The prefect locked up St Paul in prison. 

During the night St. Thecla secretly ran away from her house, and she bribed the prison guards, giving them all her gold ornaments, and so made her way into the prison to the prisoner. For three days she sat at the feet of the Apostle Paul, listening to his fatherly precepts. Thecla’s disappearance was discovered, and servants were sent out everywhere looking for her. Finally, they found her in the prison and brought her home by force. 

When she continued to refuse marriage, St. Thecla was sentenced to be burned. Without flinching, the holy martyr went into the fire and made the Sign of the Cross over herself. At this moment the Savior appeared to her, blessing her present deed, and inexpressible joy filled her holy soul. 

A strong downpour of rain and hail extinguished the fire. The torturers scattered in fear. St. Thecla, kept safe by the Lord, searched and found St. Paul, who was nearby with St. Barnabas and others, praying for her. St. Thecla went with them preaching the Gospel in Antioch. There, she was pursued by a certain dignitary named Alexander, who was captivated by her beauty. St. Thecla refused his offer of marriage, and so she was condemned to death for being a Christian. Twice they set loose hungry wild animals upon her, but they would not touch the holy virgin. Instead, they lay down meekly and licked her feet. 

The Providence of God preserved the holy martyr unharmed through all her torments. Finally, they tied her to two oxen and began to chase her with red-hot rods, but the strong cords broke asunder like cobwebs, and the oxen ran off, leaving St. Thecla unharmed. The people began shouting, “Great is the God of the Christians!” The prefect himself became terrified, realizing that the holy martyr was being kept safe by the Almighty God, Whom she served and gave orders to set free the servant of God Thecla. 

With the blessing of the Apostle Paul, St. Thecla then settled in a desolate region of Isaurian Seleucia and dwelt there for many years, constantly preaching the Word of God and healing the sick through her prayer. St. Thecla converted many pagans to Christ, and the Church appropriately names her as “Equal- to-the-Apostles.” 

When St. Thecla was already a ninety-year-old woman, pagan sorcerers became incensed at her for treating the sick for free. They were unable to comprehend that the saint was healing the sick by the power of the grace of Christ, and they presumed that the virgin-goddess Artemis was her special helper. Envious of St. Thecla, they sent their followers to defile her. When they came near her, St. Thecla cried out for help to Christ the Savior, and a rock split open and hid the holy virgin. Thus did St. Thecla offer up her holy soul to the Lord. 

The holy Church glorifies the Protomartyr Thecla as “the glory of women and guide for the suffering, opening up the way through every torment.” From of old many churches were dedicated to her. The Protomartyr Thecla, a prayerful intercessor for ascetics, is also invoked during the tonsure of women into monasticism. 

(adapted from oca.org) 

On Wednesday, September 24, the area clergy will gather at St. George to concelebrate Orthros and Divine Liturgy for the feast of St. Thecla. 

With love in Christ,
+Fr. Peter

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