Pastoral Reflections
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Introduction

What follows are a set of brief pastoral reflections that I have composed for our monthly bulletin beginning in Nov. 2022.

May 2024

What better reflection for Pascha, that St John Chrysostom's Pascha Sermon!

The Paschal Sermon of St. John Chrysostom


If any man be devout and love God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast. If any man be a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord. If any have labored long in fasting, let him now receive his recompense. If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast. If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; because he shall in nowise be deprived thereof. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing. If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first; He gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has wrought from the first hour.


And He shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; and to the one He gives, and upon the other He bestows gifts. And He both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts and praises the offering. Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honor the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.


Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness. let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

April 2024

Pastoral Reflection: Following the Humility of Christ: We emphasize Christ’s humility during Holy Week in his final journey to the Cross. But divine humility pervades His entire incarnation. This is evident on Palm Sunday; for following on the heels of the raising of Lazarus from the dead, Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time. The entry is victorious: children throw down their garments before him and wave palm branches. He receives the praise: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” (Mk 11.9 and Jn 12.13;). But the pomp and majesty that normally accompanies a royal entry is replaced with humility and meekness. “O you who ride on the cherubim and are praised by the seraphim, you have sat, O gracious Lord, like David on a foal, and the children honored you with praise fitting for God.” The humility and meekness that mark Christ’s entry into Jerusalem thus continue the paradoxical and wondrous expression of the compassion that informs his Incarnation as the suffering servant: the one willing to suffer with and for us (com-passio): “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” (Is 55.4) Moreover, Christ’s humility in his incarnation is expressed in his fundamental solidarity with us and willingness to serve us for our sake—Christ as the Good Samaritan..

 Humility involves a radical and honest acceptance of ourselves before God and before our fellow humans and creation. We are, first of all, to be humble before God. This involves an honest and ongoing repentance over our sinfulness—and how that has estranged us from God—as well as profound thanks for the blessings that God has given us, especially through Christ’s Incarnation, to restore us to the fullness of life. However, our humility also involves a fundamental acceptance of the vulnerability and weakness that belongs to us as created being: without God, we are simply nothing. This is, after all, what Adam and Eve could not accept in the Garden of Eden when they decided to disobey God.

Humility, thus, is a “gateway to dispassion” (Peter of Damascus). Through dispassion we are rid of the impulsions, desires, thoughts, and images of things and our fellow humans that lead us to sin— everything in us that separates us from God and breaks apart our relations with others and with ourselves. Dispassion in particular requires the elimination of those passions and fears by which we denigrate and condemn others. Humility leading to dispassion helps us attain to a perfect love of God which leads us to love and care for our fellow humans as did Christ, the Good Samaritan.

Something for you to ponder during Great Lent as you journey with Christ in his journey to Jerusalem: God himself is humble because he is love. God humbled himself out of love. Therefore, not only does humility open us to God: it clothes us with Christ, the humbled God. Humility is the ornament of the godhead. The Word clothed himself in it when he became man. By it he lived among us in the flesh . . . And anyone who wraps himself in it truly makes himself like him who came down from on high and clothed his grandeur and glory in humility. (St. Isaac of Nineveh, Ascetic Treatises)

March 2024

Pastoral Reflection: Beware of Pseudo-Righteousness:
Jesus relates the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee to “some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others.” (Lk 18.9) The Parable of the Prodigal Son is prompted by this: “all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained, saying, ‘This Man [a]receives sinners and eats with them.’” (Lk 15:1-2). The two parables have an interesting connection. The Prodigal Son, who leaves home and his Father as utterly selfish, finally returns home in profound repentance saying: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.” (Lk 15:18-19).” He’s basically like the Publican who, “beating his breast” while standing outside of the temple says, “Lord have mercy on mercy a sinner.” (Lk 18:13).


In contrast to the Publican, the Pharisee pumps himself up while denigrating the Publican since he basically follows all of the rules (tithing and fasting). His counterpart in the Parable of the Prodigal Son? The Older Brother who, when he discovers that his father is going to welcome his younger brother home and throw a big feast, gets angry at his father because he has “never transgressed any of the father’s commandments” unlike that “son of yours” who is getting a great feast. Like the Pharisee, he pumps himself up in his legalistic righteousness and despises his brother whom he will no longer regard as his brother.


Suppose in the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, God came down extended his mercy and forgiveness to the Publican and threw a feast for him. Likely the Pharisee would have had the same hissy-fit as the Older Brother. Both of them play the “I’m righteous” game in a completely legalistic style. Neither of them can deal with God’s mercy and forgiveness for the sinners they despise.


In Mark 2.17, Jesus comments “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.” But there are no righteous people among us who do not need repentance. So Jesus is calling all human beings to repentance. But the pseudo-righteous won’t respond to the call since they don’t think they are sinners. So, “hunger and thirst after righteousness” as Christ says (Mt 5:6)—utter conformity and service to God. But always remember that you are the chief among sinners (from St Paul as we confess before communion).


Whom might you keep in mind and imitate during this journey through Lent? The Theotokos, the handmaiden/servant of God who, as Jesus said about her: “hears the word of God and keeps it.” (Lk 11:27).

January 2024

Pastoral Reflection: One of my favorite hymns for the Feast of Christ’s Nativity is: “Ye mountains and ye hills, ye plains and valleys, ye peoples, tribes, and nations, and all things that have breath, shout with jubilation, be filled with divine gladness; for the Redemption of all is come, the timeless Word of God made subject to time because of His compassion.” In the early Church, the Nativity and the Theophany/Baptism of Christ were celebrated together on January 6. So we can sing this same hymn for Theophany and Baptism of Christ. Made visible to a few persons at his nativity, His first general public manifestation as Christ is at his baptism. We are made very aware of His divinity and His humanity at His Baptism since this is the first recorded theophany of God as the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This theophany makes clear that the compassion of the incarnate Son of God for us expresses the compassion of the Father and the Holy Spirit, which is why we call our icon of the Trinity the Hospitality of Abraham after Rublev’s famous icon.


We experience this hospitality at every eucharist in the Anaphora Prayer. Christ is our high priest — “the one who offers, and is offered, the one who receives and is received”; and the Anaphora prayer is offered to the Father who blesses us through the Holy Spirit to guides us to experience the mystery of the eucharist and to change the gifts of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.


The eucharistic gifts are offered within the Church and our ability to receive them first requires our baptism. As we pray during the service of the Great Blessing of the Water “For you, O Master, for the sake of your compassion could not endure to behold the race of man tormented by the devil; but you came and saved us…You sanctified the streams of the Jordan…, crushing the heads of the dragons that lurked therein.” Our Baptism is the mystery, or sacrament, of the Church in which we are welcomed into the Church to begin our own journey into the kingdom of heaven. Although Christ is sinless, in his humility, he made himself the bearer of all of our sins through His baptism so that we could all be saved.

I added an icon of Christ the Good Samaritan next to the icon of the Theophany and Baptism of Christ because it shows Christ bearing us in our sinfulness and brokenness. As Blessed Theophlyact described Christ as the Good Samaritan: “Our Lord and God . . . journeyed to us. . . . He did not just catch a glimpse of us as He happened to pass by. He actually came to us and lived together with us and spoke to us. Therefore, He at once bound up our wounds.” As we celebrate this Feast in the context of our personal and collective brokenness, sinfulness, and weakness, please be aware that in His solidarity with us, He together with His Father and Holy Spirit bear us and bear with us in our sinfulness to bring us into the fullness of life, which we call deification, as well as the redemption of all creation. May the wonder and joy we are invited to experience at His Nativity extend to the Feast of the Theophany and His Baptism and throughout our entire lives.

 

December 2023

—A Reflection on the Nativity of Christ—
He was a baby and a child, so that you may become a perfect human.
He was wrapped in swaddling clothes, so that you may be freed from the snares of death.
He was in a manger, so that you may be in the altar.
He was on earth, so that you may be in heaven.
He had no place in the inn, so that you may have a mansion in the Kingdom.
He, being rich, became poor for your sake,
He chose to lack for Himself, so that He might be bound for all...
The sobs of that humbled infancy cleanse me; those tears wash away my sins.
—St Ambrose of Milan, Commentary on Luke 2:6

November 2023

Pastoral reflection: Fasting in preparation for the Nativity of our Lord. The Philip’s or Nativity Fast is the second major fast in our church after the fasting during Great Lent. It is designed to help us in  struggling with and hopefully subduing the passions that lead us away from God and to assist with drawing near to God. I found an excellent article about the true meaning of fasting. The author, Dr Phipip Kariatlis, draws on several  hymns from the Triodion about the purpose of fasting. I find no similar hymns during the Nativity Fast. But they can certainly be applied to this fast. He begins by noting that simply focusing on the foods to be prepared and when they are  to be eaten is not the true meaning of purpose of fasting as part of our spiritual journey towards meeting Christ and our deification. By way on contrast he cites several hymns from the Triodion about fasting along with his own comments that I would encourage you to ponder as you prepare to engage in the Nativity Fast:

Let us fast in a way that is acceptable and pleasing to the Lord. True fasting is flight from evils, temperance of the tongue, refrain from anger, separation from lustful desires, and from lies, from falsehood and from perjury. The absence of all these makes our fasting true and acceptable (Great Vespers of Pure Monday).

Dr Kariatlis observes: “This hymn ‘is an injunction for purity.’ The meaning of purity, like fasting, ought not to be impoverished… Accordingly, purification is understood as internal consistency or integrity of character which, in the face of temptation, remains totally devoted to God.”

Let us observe the fast, not only by abstinence from food, but also by separating ourselves from every bodily passion… so that we may be counted worthy to partake of the Lamb… the Son of God… Thus, we shall be lifted up on high in the joy of virtue and by the delight of excellent works we shall be glad in God, the Lover of Humankind (A troparion from Tuesday during the first week of Great Lent).

Dr. Kariatlis observes: “fasting finds its true meaning when the outward abstinence of food is connected with the inward struggle to intensify our longing for God through the dynamic of purity and repentance—the consummation of which is realized in Holy Communion.”

While fasting with the body, o brethren, let us also fast in spirit; let us loosen every connection with injustice… Let us give bread to the hungry and introduce into our house the poor who have no roof to cover them, that we may receive from Christ our God the great mercy (From the first liturgy of the Pre-sanctified Gifts).

Dr Kariatlis observes: “True fasting requires not only fasting from foods but also practical works of compassion which, in this case, include working towards overcoming injustice and extending hospitality—philoxenia—especially to those in need. In simple terms, the hymn underscores that there cannot be genuine fasting without love towards the ‘other, especially those in most need.” (“The True Meaning of Fasting in the Orthodox Church” https://publicorthodoxy.org/2018/02/17/true-meaning-of-fasting/)

 

October 2023

Pastoral reflection: We were created to show the Trinity and Christ’s love by sharing with others and striving for the common good:

In the Orthodox Christian spiritual life, our hearts are the spiritual center of our existence. Our heart is not a place filled with mere sentimental emotions. It is the place in which we each of us—body, soul, mind, and spirit—is able to stand in God’s presence. But the heart is also the place of all kinds of passions and thoughts that will close off this meeting place between ourselves and God if we yield to them. Our heart is the inner battle ground of good and evil. To resolve this battle, we are called to live like Christ, to “put on Christ” (Rom. 13:14), or to become imitators or living icons of Christ.

However, striving to be a living icon of God is a bit like being a wind spinner. The wind blows, the spinner turns, and it passes the wind on. A well-made spinner doesn’t try to hold onto the wind or hoard it. It responds to all breezes. But we humans have to be very vigilant about the “winds” and “breezes” to which we respond. There are the many breezes of our own passions and thoughts, seductive influences of our society, and daemonic temptations. These breezes blow us away from God, our neighbors, and ourselves into the prideful individualism of seeking our own self-interest above everything else. If we respond to these breezes, we become obsessed “selfies” cut off from any fullness of life. To counter these winds and breezes, we must attend to the breeze or wind of the Holy Spirit who, with the Father and the Son, sanctifies us and renews our lives. For wind of the Spirit directs us to the kingdom of heaven, which Christ tells us is even now at hand, in which we are enabled to love the Lord our God with all our hearts and minds, and to love one another as Christ has loved us. We are to be perfected and deified as living icons of Christ in community with others. Metropolitan Kallistos once wrote:

The human being is made in the Trinitarian image in the image, that is to say, of God who is not just one, but one in three. Man is therefore called to express himself, as God does, in community or communion…We become ourselves ―fully human according to the divine image ― only when living in and for others. We become human by sharing (“The Mystery of the Human Person).

This means that we live not just for our own personal good but for the common good of our fellow humans. As St John Chrysostom powerfully wrote:

But how may we become imitators of Christ? By acting in everything for the common good, and not merely seeking our own…. Let no one therefore seek his own good. In truth, a person (really) seeks his own good when he looks to that of his neighbor…. What is their good is ours; we are one body, and parts and limbs one of another. Let us not live though we were torn apart. Let no one say, “such a person is no friend of mine, nor relation, nor neighbor, I have nothing to do with him, how shall I approach, and how address him?” Though he be neither relation nor friend, yet he is a human being, who shares the same nature with you, has the same Master. He is your fellow-servant, and fellow-sojourner, for he is born in the same world (Commentary on Gospel of St. John).

Archbishop Anastasios (Yannoulatos) of Albania well expressed how this living for and with others in community should shape our own “liturgy after the Liturgy.”

The Liturgy is not an escape from life, but a continuous transformation of life according to the prototype Jesus Christ, through the power of the Spirit… since the Liturgy is the participation of the great event of liberation from the demonic powers, then the continuation of Liturgy in life means a continuous liberation from the powers of the evil that are working inside us, a continual reorientation and openness to insights and efforts aimed at liberating human persons from all demonic structures of injustice, exploitation, agony, loneliness, and at creating real communion of persons in love (cited in Ion Bria, “The Liturgy after the Liturgy”)

September 2023

Pastoral reflection: The beginning of the Church Year (Sept 1) as a great time to work on repentance:

I often cite St. John Chrysostom’s wonderful comment that “repentance means not doing the same thing over and over again.” He says this to point out that repentance does not just mean looking back and confessing your sins and receiving forgiveness but also looking forward with a change of heart and mind ( metanoia) to “get your act together” by not doing the same things over and over again for which you repent. But doing the same thing over and over again is not always sinful. If, in imitation of Christ, I try to be a truthful person, a caring person, and steadfastly devout, then I always try to tell the truth, care for people, center my life on God and Christ— over and over again! Why? Because these actions express the kind of person I am: e.g., my dispositions and my good character traits or virtues.

This is the beginning of the Church Year (see https://www.oca.org/saints/lives/2023/09/01/501-church-new-year for information about this feast.) In many places, September marks the time in which farmers harvest many things they have planted. Hopefully, they give thanks to God for a good harvest that helps them and others. But farmers likely often have to pay attention to a bad harvest and give thought to how, with their resources and what they can manage, they can try to overcome things that lead to such harvests when they plant in the spring. So, in the spirit of the New Church Year, this is a great time to take stock of whom we have become this past Church year in our actions, thoughts, passions, purposes, etc. Remember our spiritual life is not something apart from our everyday life: It is our everyday life animated and guided by the Holy Spirit, Christ, and the Father.

So “harvest” this past Church year and, with honesty and humility, thank God for where you are “on track” in imitating Christ as well as repent (confess) for where you have gone astray (or keep going astray) and also move forward to working with God to overcome these things. If you keep falling down, work with God to get up again. Try to fashion some really good New Year’s Resolutions that you will try to keep. (Thanks to my wife, Eileen for adding this last point when we chatted about it!) Who are great guides? Consider the two great feasts that start the Church Year: the Nativity of the Theotokos and the Elevation of the Cross. Follow Christ by imitating the Theotokos: the person who “hears the word of God and keeps it” (Lk 11:28) and who freely declared herself to be a servant of God when she accepted God’s invitation through Gabriel to be the Mother of God (Lk 1:26-38). And how do we do this – by bearing our cross in following Christ as Christ bore his Cross to heal us from sin. And what goal do we hope for? Look forward to next August when we end the Church with the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos. She died but was given the great gift of being fully deified in her entire humanity: body, soul, and spirit. Christ brought her into the fullness of life that we all hope to attain. We can’t accomplish that deification by ourselves; it is a gift. But we can cooperate with Christ as best we can in our journey—and a life of repentance is utterly essential to that journey.

For a great New Church Year Resolution: Commemorate the Theotokos and all of the saints and commend your entire life to Christ our God!

June 2023

Saint John Chrysostom, Homily for Pentecost (extracts)
Let us spiritually extol the grace of the Holy Spirit in spiritual hymns, since spiritual grace has on this day shown upon us from heaven. Though our words are too weak to express adequately the greatness of this [grace], we shall praise its power and activity to the extent of our abilities; for the Holy Spirit probes all things, even the depths of divinity.
We are celebrating the day of Pentecost, the day of the Descent of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles, [the day of] the hope of perfection, the end of expectation, the longing for salvation, the fulfillment of prayer and the image of patience… In the beginning the Spirit of God moved over the water, and later, in the time of Christ, the same Holy Spirit of God rested [upon him]. Then He moved, and now He rested, as being one in essence, equal in honor, ever-existent and unoriginate together with the Father and the Son.

He Who by the flight of a dove over the waters of the Flood heralded fair weather to Noah, the same Holy Spirit, by the sight of a dove at the waters of the Jordan, showed the world the Sonship of Him Who was baptized. Moreover, the Lord had a terrifying answer for those who dared to utter blasphemy against the Holy Spirit: “Whosoever speaks [blasphemy] against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.” As is well known, where He is absent, every sort of corruption sets in. David, however, so loved the presence of this same Holy Spirit that he prayed to God, saying, “Thy Holy Spirit shall lead me in the land of uprightness.”


This same Holy Spirit of God came to dwell in the holy Virgin Mary, embracing her with the communion of the Divine Word at the good pleasure of the Father, and making her the Theotokos… By the action of the same Holy Spirit, the Lord Himself, when He was giving His Apostles His teaching in detail and strengthening their minds for the time of His Passion, said to them: “If I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you.”


This Holy Spirit enlightens souls and sanctifies bodies. It was the same Holy Spirit Who descended upon the Apostles and filled them with divine wisdom. ..Many are the gifts of the Holy Spirit; many and all-powerful are His gifts… He is one in essence, one in principle and one in counsel with the Father and the Son…
Moreover, the Spirit [is called] the Comforter, because He is also our advocate with the Father. And not only is He with the Father, but He is always with us also as a gift. let us strive to keep our souls and our bodies undefiled as we glorify the Most holy and consubstantial Trinity, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

May 2023

Three Sundays of Pascha are devoted to the healing ministry of Christ: the Sundays of the Paralytic, the Samaritan Woman, and the Blind Man. They bracket the Midfeast of Pentecost when we look back to the Resurrection and forward to the Feast of Pentecost – the Descent of the Holy Spirit. In each of these events, Christ takes the initiative to approach individuals and offer healing both physical and spiritual even though they are at the margins of society: the paralytic who lies by the pool of Bethesda for thirty-eight years ignored by those around him (John 5:1-15); the Samaritan woman, for whom Jews had great animosity and who comes to the well to draw water at the heat of day rather than with the other women in the morning (John 4:5-42); and the man born blind who has been reduced to living as a beggar (John 9:1-32). The events of these Sundays look back to the Resurrection because they remind us that Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection are an extension and fulfillment of the compassion and love of his healing ministry while He lived among us.

Yet after His resurrection, He ascends into heaven. Matthew (28.17) notes that even some of the disciples had doubts or perplexities about Christ after His Resurrection. In contrast to the Theotokos, the Apostles are portrayed in the Icon for the Ascension in a state of some disarray. So, for all of those who were healed by and drawn into a communion with Christ during His life, what happens when He departs? Will they be abandoned or only “gain access” to Christ at a distance? Christ himself gives the answer when He meets the Samaritan woman: “But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4.23-24). The Spirit is the Comforter whom Christ promised to the disciples but only if He departed from this earth (John 16:7).

The Holy Spirit unites the Theotokos, the disciples and all of us in the Body of Christ (the Church). As St John Chrysostom writes: “The Church is a hospital for souls. She does not condemn on behalf of sins, but grants remission of sins. In the Church, the joyful sustain their joy. In the Church, those worried acquire merriment, and those saddened, joy. In the Church, the troubled find relief, and the heavy-laden, rest.” In the Church, we are graced with the sacraments which are made possible through the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit. The aim of this: to draw us, everyone, into deification: the complete fullness of our lives united with God at the general resurrection. Indeed, even those who have departed their life in Christ are now drawn into a “place of brightness, a place of refreshment, a place of repose, where all sickness, sighing, and sorrow have fled away.” (Orthodox Funeral Service)

April 2023

For this month: I am providing: 

The Catechetical (Paschal) Sermon
St. John Chrysostom

If any man be devout and love God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast. If any man be a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord. If any have labored long in fasting, let him now receive his recompense. If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast. If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; because he shall in nowise be deprived thereof. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing. If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first; He gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has wrought from the first hour.

And He shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; and to the one He gives, and upon the other He bestows gifts. And He both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts and praises the offering. Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honor the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.

Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness. let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

March 2023
Transfiguration of Christ
Transfiguration of Christ
Transfiguration of Christ
Passion of Christ
Passion of Christ
Passion of Christ
Our Lenten Journey

Pastoral reflection, Fr John: On August 6, we celebrate the joyous feast of the Transfiguration of Christ in which the uncreated light and glory of His divinity was manifest to the disciples. This event points to the “splendor of the resurrection” and the “beauty of the divine kingdom” (St John Chrysostom). For St. Dionysius the Areopagite and other Fathers, this fore-shadows how we will be transformed to be filled with the glory divine light of God, “we shall be equal to the angels and will be sons of God, being sons of the resurrection” (Luke 29:36). Christ’s transfiguration takes place forty days before his passion and death. It also shows the “glory of the Cross” (St John Chrysostom)

So, bearing Christ’s transfiguration in mind is also fitting for our Lenten journey. Recall, that Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, is the messiah foretold in the Old Testament—the Suffering Servant, “despised and rejected by men. A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” Yet, “He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Is 53:3-4). On Mount Tabor, the uncreated light of His divinity that transfigures Him in his humanity manifests the compassion, mercy, and love that shapes His journey among us. He is transfigured in His humility and complete acceptance of the weakness and vulnerability of our lives.

During our Lenten Journey, we should take up our cross in humility, repentance, and service to follow Christ, our Suffering Servant, as we approach his passion and death. That is our way to partake of the “Light of Christ that illumines all” (Presanctified Liturgy) and, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, to partake of and reflect in our own lives, the love, mercy, and compassion of Christ. Prepare yourself as best you can to stand with the Theotokos at the foot of the Cross, rather than abandon Him or betray Him. Given the addictive qualities of our sins, always confess and ask for forgiveness as you tend to abandon or betray Him.

During your journey through Lent, always remember to say the prayer of St. Ephrem:

“O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of idleness, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.

But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Your servant.

Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother and sister, for blessed art You, unto ages of ages. Amen.”


Always call upon the Theotokos with this ancient prayer to her:

“Beneath your compassion we take refuge, O Theotokos: despise not our petitions in distress:

but deliver us from peril, for you alone are pure and alone blessed.”

February 2023
Repentance, Sadness, and Despondency

Pastoral reflection, Fr John: I found a remarkable set of quotes by saints on repentance and sadness and despondency. I am presenting some them for reflection and guidance. Remember repentance involves real humility and honesty about the ways we have failed to love God, others, and indeed properly love ourselves as living icons of Christ. But repentance is also always forward looking: after being forgiven, “take up your bed and walk!”

“The path leading to perfection is long. Pray to God so that He will strengthen you. Patiently accept your falls and, having stood up, immediately run to God, not remaining in that place where you have fallen. Do not despair if you keep falling into your old sins. Many of them are strong because they have received the force of habit. Only with the passage of time and with fervour will they be conquered. Don’t let anything deprive you of hope.” ~Saint Nektarios of Aegina

“To repent is not to look downwards at my own shortcomings, but upwards at God’s Love. It is not to look backwards with self-reproach but forward with trustfulness. It is to see not what I have failed to be, but what by the Grace of Christ I might yet become.” ~Saint John Climacus

Fr John: Alas, at times, we can fall into a trap of despondency when we start to lose hope about our life or, even though God forgives us, we cannot forgive ourselves. Beware of this trap – it is daemonic in origin. If you repent and receive forgiveness from God for your sins, don’t succumb to the temptation to refuse to forgive yourself. You are not better, smarter, or more justified in judging yourself than God! Humbly accept God’s love and forgiveness.

“When despondency seizes us, let us not give into it. Rather, fortified and protected by the light of faith, let us with great courage say to the spirit of evil: ‘What are you to us, you who are cut off from God, a fugitive from Heaven, and a slave to evil? You dare not to do anything to us: Christ, the Son of God, has dominion over us and over everything. Leave us, you thing of bane. We are made steadfast by the uprightness of His Cross. Serpent, we trample on your head'” ~Saint Seraphim of Sarov

“When you are Praying alone, and your spirit is dejected, and you are wearied and oppressed by your loneliness, remember then, as always, that God the Trinity looks upon you with eyes brighter than the sun; also, all the Angels, your own Guardian Angel, and all the Saints of God. Truly they do; for they are all one in God, and where God is, there are they also.” ~Saint John of Kronstadt (https://www.stparaskevi.org.au/holy-quotes/)

January 2023
The Feast of the Theophany and Baptism of the Lord

Pastoral reflection, Fr John: The Feast of the Theophany and Baptism of the Lord is a marvelous feast of the hospitality of Christ and the Trinity towards us. Hospitality (philoxenia) literally means a love of strangers. Showing hospitality to strangers—all strangers—was a common expectation throughout much of the ancient world. A chief mark of hospitality was that hosts invited strangers into their dwellings to provide for them and offer fellowship to them (e.g., Abraham in Gen. 18).

To hospitably welcome us into His own dwelling place, the Kingdom of God, Christ first enters our dwelling place through his Incarnation. However, despite its created beauty and goodness, our dwelling place, corrupted by sinfulness, is a place where we become estranged from God through our sins. So, Christ’s Theophany and Baptism is a major event in His work to welcome us home by ending our estrangement from Him so that we can become the persons He created us to be: living icons of Christ. At his Baptism, He descends into the River Jordan and takes upon Himself all of the brokenness of our world. The Holy Spirit descends upon Him; the waters are sanctified.

Christ’s Baptism prefigures the gift of the sacrament or mystery of Baptism that He gives us through the Church. The water in which we are is baptized is sanctified and we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit to set us on the journey to return home with Christ and the Trinity. Christ and the Trinity show the same hospitality to each of us throughout our lives within the Church and the sacraments; and simply being with and for us throughout our lives: God after all is closer to us than we are to ourselves (St Augustine) and as St. John Chrysostom observed “God loves us more than a father, mother, friend, or any else could love, and even more than we are able to love ourselves.”
Through worship and a Christlike hospitality to others, give thanks to the hospitality the Trinity and Christ have shown to you. In Christ, Fr John

December 2022
Entering the Heart

Pastoral reflection: “Let us lift up our hearts!” But how do we enter the heart?   In one sense, we are always in our heart; but it is often disordered and stormy. Why? All too often within our heart, we only find ourselves. I become the center of myself and not God. Everything revolves around me: my hurts, my angers, my pains, my pleasures, my desires, my passions, my thoughts and plans, my distractions, my plans, my ego. None of us, as Adam and Eve sadly discovered, can free us from this self-centered disorder by ourselves.

To enter into our true heart, our true self, we must struggle to become pure of heart, to become, as the Theotokos said, “the servant of the Lord.” We must “commend ourselves and one another to Christ our God.” This requires prayer, worship, and genuine service to God and, thus, to others. But it also requires humility and what our holy fathers and mothers call dispassion—freeing ourselves from all of the passions, thoughts, and concerns that lead us to focus just on ourselves which allows us to discover God and our true self. Each of us is created by God to be a living icon of Christ. We are intrinsically worthy we are but also to be in communion or fellowship with God and one another.  

Here is an “exercise” as we approach Christmas to help with this struggle. Here are two hymns for the Nativity of Christ:

 “Ye mountains and ye hills, ye plains and valleys, ye peoples, tribes, and nations, and all things that have breath, shout with jubilation, be filled with divine gladness; for the Redemption of all is come, the timeless Word of God became subject to time because of His compassion.”

The Troparion for the Nativity: “Your Nativity, O Christ our God, has shone to the world the Light of wisdom! For by it, those who worshipped the stars, were taught by a Star to adore You, the Sun of Righteousness, and to know You, the Orient from on High. O Lord, glory to You!

Don’t just read them. Approach them as icons in word and sound that invite you to be drawn into a presence and experience of Him in and through the Holy Spirit. Center yourself and read or chant them so that they come from within you as though they were something you yourself sincerely composed in your heart to express your love of Christ and to be filled with “divine gladness.” Hopefully, you will encounter someone far more marvelous than you who so loves you that He entered your life to sacrifice Himself for you and all of creation. In Christ, Fr John

November 2022
Let Us Lift up Our Heart

A reflection on the heart in the Orthodox Christian tradition: During the Divine Liturgy—at the beginning of the prayer to consecrate the gifts of bread and wine—the Priest faces the people and intones: “Let us lift up our hearts!” God accepts the praise of those who pray with their whole heart (Litany of Supplication). Indeed, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” (The Third Antiphon, the Beatitudes). What is this heart? Many see the heart simply as a physical object opposed to the head (mind). The head—our rational mind—is the place of objectivity and rationality; the heart, however, is filled with a swarm of merely personal, subjective feelings. What should we do? Just engage in a head-trip of concepts?

Plunge completely into the heart surrounded just by our feelings? Find some way to balance them (usually with the head dominating the heart)?
But this is not the heart in Orthodox Christian faith: May God strengthen us “with power through his Holy Spirit in our inner ‘man’ (being) so that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith” (Eph. 3:16-17). The heart is our inner person: the holistic center of our lives animated by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Our heart is the place where our entire being—physical, mental, affective, and spiritual—is unified to behold God: the Trinity and Christ; and our entire life is to be guided through the grace of the Holy Spirit (Met. Kallistos Ware).

Corrupted by sin, our heart is, alas, the battleground of good and evil within us. With God’s help, we struggle to be pure in heart by freeing ourselves from the toxic, egoistic passions and thoughts that separate us from God and everything else. That’s the purpose of repentance: a change of heart. We also struggle to be pure in heart by stepping beyond all of the ways through which we know and experience created things. We do this aspiring to be drawn by God into a unity with Him, who utterly transcends everything that is created, to become God-like or deified. Some in this life are graced to see the divine, uncreated light (the divine light manifest at the Transfiguration of Christ) and are transformed to behold and be united with the Trinity and Christ in their presence, their divine energies, to us (St. Gregory Palamas). All the righteous are so graced in the next life. Since God is perfect love, united with him, he send us to love one another as Christ loves us (St Maximus the Confessor). How might we enter the heart? How can we overcome the hardened heart that separates us from God, ourselves, and the world around us? More on that next month.

With your entire being, lift up your whole self to God in prayer, worship, veneration of icons, hymn chanting, setting aside all earthly cares and the ways of knowing and experiencing just created things. Try with God’s grace, as best you can, to center yourself in silence and “Lift up your heart!” as do all the saints. In Christ, Fr John

Holy Theophany Orthodox Church
N2107 State Road 67; Walworth, WI 53184
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