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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. (https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/glory2godforallthings/2015/11/13/unavoidable-suffering-and-salvation-the-way-of-shame/)


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   [ updated Oct 1, 2018, 9:44 PM ]

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   [ updated Aug 8, 2018, 2:00 PM ]

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

March-April 2018

posted Aug 8, 2018, 1:55 PM by St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church

We are in Great Lent: a time of intense spiritual ascesis, of focus on the ultimate purpose of life: union with Christ. In our religious education class this winter, as we looked through the prayers in preparation for Holy Communion, we found repeated references to this union. In a prayer of St. Basil the Great, we saw the following passage:

Teach me to attain perfect holiness in the fear of you, that with the clear witness of my conscience I may re­ceive a por­tion of You holy Things and be united with Your holy Body and Blood, and have You dwelling and remaining in me with the Father and Your Holy Spirit.

St. Symeon the New Theologian sets these words before us:

[Y]ou, my Lord, have said: “Whoever eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood abides in Me and I in him”; wholly true is the word of my Lord and God. For whoever partakes of your divine and deifying Gifts certainly is not alone, but is with you, my Christ, the Light of the Triune Sun Which illumines the world. That I may not remain alone without You, the Giver of Life, my Breath, my Life, my Joy, the Salvation of the world, I have therefore drawn near to You, as You see, with tears and with a contrite spirit. Ransom of my offenses, I beseech You to receive me, that I may partake without condemnation of Your life-giving and perfect Mysteries, and that You may re­main, as You have said, with me, thrice-wretched as I am, lest the tempter find me without Your grace and craftily seize me and, having deceived me, seduce me from Your deifying words.

We see in the words of these two great saints of the Church the importance of the Eucharist in our ever-growing union with God. In particular, the words of St. Symeon are striking in several ways. First, there is the description of the attitude with which we approach the Eucharist—with tears and a con­­trite spirit, in no way trusting our own righteousness to make us worthy of receiving. Instead, with fear and tremb­ling, we approach because we have been invited to the banquet. And we approach —and here is the second striking part of St. Symeon’s words—because, without God’s grace, we are prone to deception, to believing as good things those which are not, to being seduced by the temp­or­ary pleasures of the world over against the eter­nal joy of the king­dom. In other words, we need the Eucharist for the illumi­na­tion of our minds, hearts, and souls.

St. Symeon has already given us a glimpse in­to the proper attitude for approaching the Eu­charist. The call of the priest for us to ap­proach with “fear of God, faith, and love” gives us more guidance for approaching the Eu­char­ist. An in­ter­esting thing to note is that an es­pecially strict fast is not specifically mentioned in these prayers. This is by no means to say that fasting is not important—Great Lent, with its strict fast­ing practices is an extremely im­por­tant part of Christian spiritual life—but the connection of fasting and Eucharist is not an absolute one. Ce­r­tainly, outside of fasting pe­ri­ods, there is no requirement from the Church that one fast for an entire week before re­ceiv­ing the Eucharist. Additionally, health issues can require dietary changes that make fasting according to the practice of the Church im­pos­si­ble. So, to pre­pare for the Eucharist, we fast according to the Church calendar and the gui­dance of our priest, according to our strength.

The things said thus far show how im­por­tant the reception of the Eucharist is. Does that mean that we should receive at every Liturgy? Ideally, the answer would be yes. However, we live in a world where circum­stances are often less than ideal. So when should we refrain from receiving the Eucharist? A good practice is to pre­­pare to come to the Liturgy early. The epis­tle and gospel readings are part of our prep­a­r­a­tion for the Eucharist. If we find ourselves com­ing after the readings (outside of emergencies), it would be prudent to refrain from receiving at that particular Liturgy: the Eucharist deserves our respect and our time. The offering of our time in order to arrive early is part of our draw­ing near with fear of God.

The other circumstance where we must not receive the Eucharist is if we have fallen into cer­tain sins such as taking a life (by a voluntary or in­vol­untary action, inside or outside the womb), sexual activity outside of the sacrament of mar­ri­age, or wishing someone ill. In these cases, the sacrament of confession and following the gui­dance of the priest hearing the confession are necessary before returning to Communion. The guidance may include abstention from com­mu­n­ion for a period of time as a spiritual treat­ment, but the goal of confession is the res­to­r­a­tion of a person to full communion with the Church, the full cleansing and healing of a soul so that it may receive the Holy Sacrament safe­ly, for the Eucharist is fire, as the prayers in prep­aration for communion remind us. So con­fession works here together with the Eucharist and in this way sin never need have the last word in the life of the faithful. This is part of the unspeakable beauty of God that St. Symeon also speaks about in his writings.

And so, being in Lent, let us do the work of preparation for the Eucharist. Let us partake of the sacrament of confession, and let us prepare to receive at every Liturgy, and, if we are un­able, let us get up and try again and again, by the grace of God. Thus, being guarded and guided by the presence of God within us, having received

the pure, immortal, life-giving and fearful Mysteries, unto forgiveness of sins and for eternal life; for sanctification, and en­light­en­ment, and strength, and healing, and health of soul and body; and for the blotting out and complete destruction of my evil reason­ings, and intentions, and prejudices, and the nocturnal fantasies of dark evil spirits (St. John Chrysostom)

may we reach the greatest of feasts with the greatest of joys.

With love in Christ,
+Fr. Peter

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

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