Monday, 14 July 2014

St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite and a life of purpose

Today we celebrated the memory of one of my favourite Fathers of the Church, St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite. His written work, which is extensive, is characterised by a wonderful talent for synthesis. When reading his works, one hears not only the voice of St. Nicodemos himself, but that of St. John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, Nilus, and other pillars of the faith. The Hagiorite was blessed with an extraordinary memory, and quotes at length from these texts which he knew by heart, word-for-word. His works are therefore a great entry point for anyone wishing to familiarise themselves with the wider patristic corpus.

What I particularly love about St. Nicodemos is his insistence that everything be done with purpose. The Kollyvades movement, for example, of which he was a part, opposed the practice of conducting memorial services on Sundays, the day of the Resurrection, instead of the Sabbath (Saturday), when we remember those who have gone to their rest in the Lord, and of course the Lord’s own burial and descent into Hades. For St. Nicodemos, the moving of memorials from Saturday to Sunday undermined the theological significance of both those days, as well as the memorial service itself. Not only this, but the habit of moving things to the nearest Sunday so as to accommodate those who do not attend church during the week risks making Christianity a Sunday-only religion, rather than an integral part of ones daily life. Indeed, in his Christian Morality, the saint laments how laypeople in his day only attended church twice or thrice a week, rather than twice a day (for Vespers and Matins) as had always been the norm for pious Christians since the early Church.

Yet this tendency is also what makes St. Nicodemos, like many of the other Fathers, unpalatable for some modern readers. They find him overly harsh for calling condemnable everyday things that most of us consider perfectly harmless. He is dismissed as a fanatic, a monastic zealot, not suitable for lay readers. Yet his apparent fanaticism stems precisely from this insistence that all we do must have purpose and meaning. It is the very antithesis of the pharisaism and legalism of which he, and those like him, are often accused. A Pharisee is one who does things for their own sake, without care for or to the detriment of their actual purpose or meaning. St. Nicodemos strict approach, however, stems from his desire to avoid precisely such an empty and meaningless observance of ritual and rules. For him, conducting memorials on Sunday for the sake of convenience, for example, is a pharisaic act, reducing the memorial to an empty ritual by removing it from its theological context.

As men of constant prayer, the Church Fathers made no real distinction between the religious and secular. God must stand at the centre of all aspects of life. For this reason, St. Nicodemos’ insistence on purpose extends beyond what we normally think of as exclusively religious. He condemns, for example, the playing of board games, secular music and dancing. He does this not because they are in and of themselves wicked things, but because they are distractions and a waste of time, time given to us for repentance, for drawing nearer to God, time which we will never be able to regain once lost, precious hours, minutes and seconds those who died without repentance would give anything to get back. Had he lived today, I am confident the longest chapters in Christian Morality would have dealt with all the time wasted on YouTube and social media. If something cannot bring us closer to God, then it is void of purpose, and if it is void of purpose it is ultimately destructive, no matter how benign a thing it may seem to be in and of itself. If we are offended by such admonitions, it is ultimately because we view the call to repentance, the call to a closer relationship with Christ, as something negative. Rather than seeing this as a positive call to lay aside our earthly cares to make room for something deeper and better, to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, all our strength and all our mind, we staunchly cling to the various comforts and addictions from which we derive temporal pleasure, and interpret any attempt to call us out of our complacency as an unwarranted attack on our person.

The extent to which we apply his words to our own lives is naturally a matter of personal discretion and requires the discernment of one’s spiritual father. As with any spiritual text, including the Divine Scriptures, caution is needed, as many fall prey to “temptations from the right”, attempting to do too much too soon, burning out and falling into despair or faithlessness as a result. Nonetheless, when we analyse our reaction to his words, we see that they become a mirror in which we can catch a glimpse of our true spiritual condition. When the saint calls us to this higher, more purposeful way of life, it is one thing to answer “I’m not ready” or “I’m too weak” in honest humility and quite another to proudly dismiss the call as foolishness or backward extremism. We seem to forget that it was not a zealot monk, but the Lord Himself, who said, “If thou wouldest be perfect, go, sell that which thou hast, and give to the poor.”

May the prayers and wisdom of our holy father Nicodemos help us lead a life of greater purpose and to meet the call to turn to Christ with enthusiasm and joy, not prideful resistance.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The first Orthodox Christian in America

Leif Eriksson discovers America by Hans Dahl 
While people are increasingly becoming aware of the fact that the Norse explorer Leif Eriksson was the first European to reach America, some 500 years before Christopher Columbus, few realise that he was there as part of a Christian mission. Fewer still realise that he was an Orthodox Christian. Having become a hirdman of King Olaf Tryggvason* in Norway, Leif had himself accepted baptism into the Christian faith, and had received from the King orders to travel to Greenland with a priest in order to convert the Norse settlements there. It was on this mission that his ships were blown off course, ending up in what he later called Vinland. After successfully converting the Greenlanders to Christ, Leif and his crew returned to this Newfoundland, building permanent settlements in what is now called L'Anse aux Meadows. These would almost certainly have included places of worship. While the Norwegian presence in North America was short lived, the fact that the first Christian presence on the continent was Orthodox is significant. It should also be noted that while King Olaf Tryggvason had accepted baptism at Canterbury in England, the first Christian rulers in Scandinavia were kinsmen of the rulers of Gardarike, or Kiev (The Rus, of course, were not Slavs but Scandinavians, most hailing from Sweden). Olaf had himself grown up under the protection of Grand Prince Valdemar (Vladimir), who famously converted the Rus to Christianity in 988. Norse Christianity was therefore coloured by Eastern influences from the beginning. Indeed, Harald Hardrada, the last of Norway's pre-schism Christian kings was openly rebuked by Rome for easternising the Norwegian Church by bringing into the country a number of priests and bishops, not only from Novgorod and Gardarike, but also Miklagard (Constantinople), where he had headed the Varangian guard in service of the Byzantine emperor. The first Christian presence in the Americas, then, was not merely Orthodox in the sense of pre-schism, but would have had ties to the cultural and ecclesiastical traditions through which the same Orthodox faith has been introduced to America in modern times.

*Not to be confused with the later king, St. Olaf Haraldson, whose memory is celebrated on the 29th of July (Olsok).

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

We offer Thee incense...?

This post is more of an open question which will probably interest very few people, and to which I do not know the answer. Among Eastern Orthodox, the use of incense in personal prayer at home is a very common practice and, in my over-keen teen-convert days, my room often looked like something out of a cypress-scented Cheech and Chong movie. As such, I was quite surprised to discover that in Cyprus – where, despite centuries of foreign occupation and plenty of Western influence, many ancient traditions are preserved which have been lost elsewhere – the use of incense in the home is a novel practice, not known to the older generations. Dried olive leaves are used, but incense is strictly for church.

The practice is also largely unknown among laypeople in the Oriental Orthodox churches (another repository of ancient liturgical traditions now lost to us). While in the Eastern Orthodox (Byzantine) tradition, only a priest can bless the incense, the Oriental churches also maintain the older tradition whereby only the priest may apply incense to the thurible. The word “thurible” itself derives, via French and Latin, from the Greek “θύειν”, meaning “to sacrifice.” Someone with better knowledge of Greek than I will have to confirm whether the Greek “θυμίαμα” (incense) derives from the same root. However, when the priest blesses the incense, the notion of sacrifice is clear: “We offer Thee incense, O Christ our God, for a savour of spiritual fragrance. Having accepted it at Thy heavenly altar, send down upon us in return the grace of Thine all-holy Spirit.” The Liturgy of St. James, which contains several longer prayers for the blessing of incense, brings this out even more clearly. To sacrifice, as we know, is the prerogative of the priesthood. Laypeople may bring offerings – bread, wine, wheat, oil, incense – but it is the priest who blesses and the priest who offers.

The incense used in private devotion is not blessed, so it is not, strictly speaking, a case of laypeople taking upon themselves the roles which belong exclusively to the priesthood, but in that case, is it an “offering”? If so, in what sense? Perhaps in the same way that the oil in ones votive lamp, lit while at prayer (or constantly), is an offering, but the role of incense in worship is something much more substantial than a mere sign of devotion, and certainly more than a religious mood-setter or liturgical air freshener. It is an act of sacrifice.

This is not a question about “right or wrong”, but I’m hoping someone can satisfy my nerdy curiosity as to when the use of incense among the laity became widespread and normative, and whether it arose as something completely unrelated to the use of incense in church (and later became identified with it) or if it was a borrowing (perhaps inappropriately) by the laity of a priestly liturgical function. In the latter case, might it stem from the now common malpractice, particularly in the Greek tradition, of allowing altar-servers (or sometimes any random man in the congregation) to cense during the Great Entrance or when being handed the censer by a priest or deacon?[1]

Thoughts anyone?



[1] Strictly speaking, use of the censer is not permitted to anyone below the rank of deacon, nor mere handling of the censer by anyone below the rank of subdeacon.

Monday, 9 December 2013

The Protoevangelion of St. James

On the 9th of December, the Church celebrates the conception by St. Anna of the Most Holy Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary. The information we have about this story comes from the so-called Protoevangelion of St. James. The book is not regarded by the Church as Scripture, but She nonetheless recognises that much of its content is true and reliable (One could perhaps compare it to St. Jude quoting the non-canonical Book of Enoch and Assumption of Moses in his Epistle, v.9, 14-15). As such, those parts of it which are not made use of in the Church's hymnography and iconography should be read with a certain degree of caution. The below translation is taken from the Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 8.


The Birth of Mary the Holy Mother of God, and Very Glorious Mother of Jesus Christ

1.  In the records of the twelve tribes of Israel was Joachim, a man rich exceedingly; and he brought his offerings double, saying:  There shall be of my superabundance to all the people, and there shall be the offering for my forgiveness to the Lord for a propitiation for me.  For the great day of the Lord was at hand, and the sons of Israel were bringing their offerings.  And there stood over against him Rubim, saying:  It is not meet for thee first to bring thine offerings, because thou hast not made seed in Israel.  And Joachim was exceedingly grieved, and went away to the registers of the twelve tribes of the people, saying:  I shall see the registers of the twelve tribes of Israel, as to whether I alone have not made seed in Israel.  And he searched, and found that all the righteous had raised up seed in Israel.  And he called to mind the patriarch Abraham, that in the last day God gave him a son Isaac.  And Joachim was exceedingly grieved, and did not come into the presence of his wife; but he retired to the desert, and there pitched his tent, and fasted forty days and forty nights, saying in himself:  I will not go down either for food or for drink until the Lord my God shall look upon me, and prayer shall be my food and drink.

2.  And his wife Anna mourned in two mournings, and lamented in two lamentations, saying:  I shall bewail my widowhood; I shall bewail my childlessness.  And the great day of the Lord was at hand; and Judith her maid-servant said:  How long dost thou humiliate thy soul?  Behold, the great day of the Lord is at hand, and it is unlawful for thee to mourn.  But take this head-band, which the woman that made it gave to me; for it is not proper that I should wear it, because I am a maid-servant, and it has a royal appearance.  And Anna said:  Depart from me; for I have not done such things, and the Lord has brought me very low.  I fear that some wicked person has given it to thee, and thou hast come to make me a sharer in thy sin.  And Judith said:  Why should I curse thee, seeing that the Lord hath shut thy womb, so as not to give thee fruit in Israel?  And Anna was grieved exceedingly, and put off her garments of mourning, and cleaned her head, and put on her wedding garments, and about the ninth hour went down to the garden to walk.  And she saw a laurel, and sat under it, and prayed to the Lord, saying:  O God of our fathers, bless me and hear my prayer, as Thou didst bless the womb of Sarah, and didst give her a son Isaac.

3.  And gazing towards the heaven, she saw a sparrow’s nest in the laurel, and made a lamentation in herself, saying:  Alas! who begot me? and what womb produced me? because I have become a curse in the presence of the sons of Israel, and I have been reproached, and they have driven me in derision out of the temple of the Lord.  Alas! to what have I been likened?  I am not like the fowls of the heaven, because even the fowls of the heaven are productive before Thee, O Lord.  Alas! to what have I been likened?  I am not like the beasts of the earth, because even the beasts of the earth are productive before Thee, O Lord.  Alas! to what have I been likened?  I am not like these waters, because even these waters are productive before Thee, O Lord.  Alas! to what have I been likened?  I am not like this earth, because even the earth bringeth forth its fruits in season, and blesseth Thee, O Lord.

4.  And, behold, an angel of the Lord stood by, saying:  Anna, Anna, the Lord hath heard thy prayer, and thou shalt conceive, and shall bring forth; and thy seed shall be spoken of in all the world.  And Anna said:  As the Lord my God liveth, if I beget either male or female, I will bring it as a gift to the Lord my God; and it shall minister to Him in holy things all the days of its life.  And, behold, two angels came, saying to her:  Behold, Joachim thy husband is coming with his flocks.  For an angel of the Lord went down to him, saying:  Joachim, Joachim, the Lord God hath heard thy prayer.  Go down hence; for, behold, thy wife Anna shall conceive.  And Joachim went down and called his shepherds, saying:  Bring me hither ten she-lambs without spot or blemish, and they shall be for the Lord my God; and bring me twelve tender calves, and they shall be for the priests and the elders; and a hundred goats for all the people.  And, behold, Joachim came with his flocks; and Anna stood by the gate, and saw Joachim coming, and she ran and hung upon his neck, saying:  Now I know that the Lord God hath blessed me exceedingly; for, behold the widow no longer a widow, and I the childless shall conceive.  And Joachim rested the first day in his house.

5.  And on the following day he brought his offerings, saying in himself:  If the Lord God has been rendered gracious to me, the plate on the priest’s forehead will make it manifest to me.  And Joachim brought his offerings, and observed attentively the priest’s plate when he went up to the altar of the Lord, and he saw no sin in himself.  And Joachim said:  Now I know that the Lord has been gracious unto me, and has remitted all my sins.  And he went down from the temple of the Lord justified, and departed to his own house.  And her months were fulfilled, and in the ninth month Anna brought forth.  And she said to the midwife:  What have I brought forth? and she said:  A girl.  And said Anna:  My soul has been magnified this day.  And she laid her down.  And the days having been fulfilled, Anna was purified, and gave the breast to the child, and called her name Mary.

6.  And the child grew strong day by day; and when she was six months old, her mother set her on the ground to try whether she could stand, and she walked seven steps and came into her bosom; and she snatched her up, saying:  As the Lord my God liveth, thou shalt not walk on this earth until I bring thee into the temple of the Lord.  And she made a sanctuary in her bed-chamber, and allowed nothing common or unclean to pass through her.  And she called the undefiled daughters of the Hebrews, and they led her astray.  And when she was a year old, Joachim made a great feast, and invited the priests, and the scribes, and the elders, and all the people of Israel.  And Joachim brought the child to the priests; and they blessed her, saying:  O God of our fathers, bless this child, and give her an everlasting name to be named in all generations.  And all the people said:  So be it, so be it, amen.  And he brought her to the chief priests; and they blessed her, saying:  O God most high, look upon this child, and bless her with the utmost blessing, which shall be for ever.  And her mother snatched her up, and took her into the sanctuary of her bed-chamber, and gave her the breast.  And Anna made a song to the Lord God, saying:  I will sing a song to the Lord my God, for He hath looked upon me, and hath taken away the reproach of mine enemies; and the Lord hath given the fruit of His righteousness, singular in its kind, and richly endowed before Him.  Who will tell the sons of Rubim that Anna gives suck?  Hear, hear, ye twelve tribes of Israel, that Anna gives suck.  And she laid her to rest in the bed-chamber of her sanctuary, and went out and ministered unto them.  And when the supper was ended, they went down rejoicing, and glorifying the God of Israel.

7.  And her months were added to the child.  And the child was two years old, and Joachim said:  Let us take her up to the temple of the Lord, that we may pay the vow that we have vowed, lest perchance the Lord send to us, and our offering be not received.  And Anna said:  Let us wait for the third year, in order that the child may not seek for father or mother.  And Joachim said:  So let us wait.  And the child was three years old, and Joachim said:  Invite the daughters of the Hebrews that are undefiled, and let them take each a lamp, and let them stand with the lamps burning, that the child may not turn back, and her heart be captivated from the temple of the Lord.  And they did so until they went up into the temple of the Lord.  And the priest received her, and kissed her, and blessed her, saying:  The Lord has magnified thy name in all generations.  In thee, on the last of the days, the Lord will manifest His redemption to the sons of Israel.  And he set her down upon the third step of the altar, and the Lord God sent grace upon her; and she danced with her feet, and all the house of Israel loved her.

8.  And her parents went down marvelling, and praising the Lord God, because the child had not turned back.  And Mary was in the temple of the Lord as if she were a dove that dwelt there, and she received food from the hand of an angel.  And when she was twelve years old there was held a council of the priests, saying:  Behold, Mary has reached the age of twelve years in the temple of the Lord.  What then shall we do with her, lest perchance she defile the sanctuary of the Lord?  And they said to the high priest:  Thou standest by the altar of the Lord; go in, and pray concerning her; and whatever the Lord shall manifest unto thee, that also will we do.  And the high priest went in, taking the robe with the twelve bells into the holy of holies; and he prayed concerning her.  And behold an angel of the Lord stood by him, saying unto him:  Zacharias, Zacharias, go out and assemble the widowers of the people, and let them bring each his rod; and to whomsoever the Lord shall show a sign, his wife shall she be.  And the heralds went out through all the circuit of Judæa, and the trumpet of the Lord sounded, and all ran.

9.  And Joseph, throwing away his axe, went out to meet them; and when they had assembled, they went away to the high priest, taking with them their rods.  And he, taking the rods of all of them, entered into the temple, and prayed; and having ended his prayer, he took the rods and came out, and gave them to them:  but there was no sign in them, and Joseph took his rod last; and, behold, a dove came out of the rod, and flew upon Joseph’s head.  And the priest said to Joseph, Thou hast been chosen by lot to take into thy keeping the virgin of the Lord.  But Joseph refused, saying:  I have children, and I am an old man, and she is a young girl.  I am afraid lest I become a laughing-stock to the sons of Israel.  And the priest said to Joseph:  Fear the Lord thy God, and remember what the Lord did to Dathan, and Abiram, and Korah; how the earth opened, and they were swallowed up on account of their contradiction.  And now fear, O Joseph, lest the same things happen in thy house.  And Joseph was afraid, and took her into his keeping.  And Joseph said to Mary:  Behold, I have received thee from the temple of the Lord; and now I leave thee in my house, and go away to build my buildings, and I shall come to thee.  The Lord will protect thee.

10.  And there was a council of the priests, saying:  Let us make a veil for the temple of the Lord.  And the priest said:  Call to me the undefiled virgins of the family of David.  And the officers went away, and sought, and found seven virgins.  And the priest remembered the child Mary, that she was of the family of David, and undefiled before God.  And the officers went away and brought her.  And they brought them into the temple of the Lord.  And the priest said:  Choose for me by lot who shall spin the gold, and the white, and the fine linen, and the silk, and the blue, and the scarlet, and the true purple.  And the true purple and the scarlet fell to the lot of Mary, and she took them, and went away to her house.  And at that time Zacharias was dumb, and Samuel was in his place until the time that Zacharias spake.  And Mary took the scarlet, and span it.

11.  And she took the pitcher, and went out to fill it with water.  And, behold, a voice saying:  Hail, thou who hast received grace; the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women! And she looked round, on the right hand and on the left, to see whence this voice came.  And she went away, trembling, to her house, and put down the pitcher; and taking the purple, she sat down on her seat, and drew it out.  And, behold, an angel of the Lord stood before her, saying:  Fear not, Mary; for thou hast found grace before the Lord of all, and thou shalt conceive, according to His word.  And she hearing, reasoned with herself, saying:  Shall I conceive by the Lord, the living God? and shall I bring forth as every woman brings forth?  And the angel of the Lord said:  Not so, Mary; for the power of the Lord shall overshadow thee:  wherefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of the Most High.  And thou shalt call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins.  And Mary said:  Behold, the servant of the Lord before His face:  let it be unto me according to thy word.

12.  And she made the purple and the scarlet, and took them to the priest.  And the priest blessed her, and said:  Mary, the Lord God hath magnified thy name, and thou shalt be blessed in all the generations of the earth.  And Mary, with great joy, went away to Elizabeth her kinswoman, and knocked at the door.  And when Elizabeth heard her, she threw away the scarlet, and ran to the door, and opened it; and seeing Mary, she blessed her, and said:  Whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? for, behold, that which is in me leaped and blessed thee.  But Mary had forgotten the mysteries of which the archangel Gabriel had spoken, and gazed up into heaven, and said:  Who am I, O Lord, that all the generations of the earth should bless me?  And she remained three months with Elizabeth; and day by day she grew bigger.  And Mary being afraid, went away to her own house, and hid herself from the sons of Israel.  And she was sixteen years old when these mysteries happened.

13.  And she was in her sixth month; and, behold, Joseph came back from his building, and, entering into his house, he discovered that she was big with child.  And he smote his face, and threw himself on the ground upon the sackcloth, and wept bitterly, saying:  With what face shall I look upon the Lord my God? and what prayer shall I make about this maiden? because I received her a virgin out of the temple of the Lord, and I have not watched over her.  Who is it that has hunted me down?  Who has done this evil thing in my house, and defiled the virgin?  Has not the history of Adam been repeated in me?  For just as Adam was in the hour of his singing praise, and the serpent came, and found Eve alone, and completely deceived her, so it has happened to me also.  And Joseph stood up from the sackcloth, and called Mary, and said to her:  O thou who hast been cared for by God, why hast thou done this and forgotten the Lord thy God?  Why hast thou brought low thy soul, thou that wast brought up in the holy of holies, and that didst receive food from the hand of an angel?  And she wept bitterly, saying:  I am innocent, and have known no man.  And Joseph said to her:  Whence then is that which is in thy womb?  And she said:  As the Lord my God liveth, I do not know whence it is to me.

14.  And Joseph was greatly afraid, and retired from her, and considered what he should do in regard to her.  And Joseph said:  If I conceal her sin, I find myself fighting against the law of the Lord; and if I expose her to the sons of Israel, I am afraid lest that which is in her be from an angel, and I shall be found giving up innocent blood to the doom of death.  What then shall I do with her?  I will put her away from me secretly.  And night came upon him; and, behold, an angel of the Lord appears to him in a dream, saying:  Be not afraid for this maiden, for that which is in her is of the Holy Spirit; and she will bring forth a Son, and thou shalt call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.  And Joseph arose from sleep, and glorified the God of Israel, who had given him this grace; and he kept her.

15.  And Annas the scribe came to him, and said:  Why hast thou not appeared in our assembly?  And Joseph said to him:  Because I was weary from my journey, and rested the first day.  And he turned, and saw that Mary was with child.  And he ran away to the priest, and said to him:  Joseph, whom thou didst vouch for, has committed a grievous crime.  And the priest said:  How so?  And he said:  He has defiled the virgin whom he received out of the temple of the Lord, and has married her by stealth, and has not revealed it to the sons of Israel.  And the priest answering, said:  Has Joseph done this?  Then said Annas the scribe:  Send officers, and thou wilt find the virgin with child.  And the officers went away, and found it as he had said; and they brought her along with Joseph to the tribunal.  And the priest said:  Mary, why hast thou done this? and why hast thou brought thy soul low, and forgotten the Lord thy God?  Thou that wast reared in the holy of holies, and that didst receive food from the hand of an angel, and didst hear the hymns, and didst dance before Him, why hast thou done this?  And she wept bitterly, saying:  As the Lord my God liveth, I am pure before Him, and know not a man.  And the priest said to Joseph:  Why hast thou done this?  And Joseph said:  As the Lord liveth, I am pure concerning her.  Then said the priest:  Bear not false witness, but speak the truth.  Thou hast married her by stealth, and hast not revealed it to the sons of Israel, and hast not bowed thy head under the strong hand, that thy seed might be blessed.  And Joseph was silent.

16.  And the priest said:  Give up the virgin whom thou didst receive out of the temple of the Lord.  And Joseph burst into tears.  And the priest said:  I will give you to drink of the water of the ordeal of the Lord, and He shall make manifest your sins in your eyes.  And the priest took the water, and gave Joseph to drink and sent him away to the hill-country; and he returned unhurt.  And he gave to Mary also to drink, and sent her away to the hill-country; and she returned unhurt.  And all the people wondered that sin did not appear in them.  And the priest said:  If the Lord God has not made manifest your sins, neither do I judge you.  And he sent them away.  And Joseph took Mary, and went away to his own house, rejoicing and glorifying the God of Israel.

17.  And there was an order from the Emperor Augustus, that all in Bethlehem of Judæa should be enrolled.  And Joseph said:  I shall enrol my sons, but what shall I do with this maiden?  How shall I enrol her?  As my wife?  I am ashamed.  As my daughter then?  But all the sons of Israel know that she is not my daughter.  The day of the Lord shall itself bring it to pass as the Lord will.  And he saddled the ass, and set her upon it; and his son led it, and Joseph followed.  And when they had come within three miles, Joseph turned and saw her sorrowful; and he said to himself:  Likely that which is in her distresses her.  And again Joseph turned and saw her laughing.  And he said to her:  Mary, how is it that I see in thy face at one time laughter, at another sorrow?  And Mary said to Joseph:  Because I see two peoples with my eyes; the one weeping and lamenting, and the other rejoicing and exulting.  And they came into the middle of the road, and Mary said to him:  Take me down from off the ass, for that which is in me presses to come forth.  And he took her down from off the ass, and said to her:  Whither shall I lead thee, and cover thy disgrace? for the place is desert.

18.  And he found a cave there, and led her into it; and leaving his two sons beside her, he went out to seek a widwife in the district of Bethlehem. And I Joseph was walking, and was not walking; and I looked up into the sky, and saw the sky astonished; and I looked up to the pole of the heavens, and saw it standing, and the birds of the air keeping still.  And I looked down upon the earth, and saw a trough lying, and work-people reclining: and their hands were in the trough.  And those that were eating did not eat, and those that were rising did not carry it up, and those that were conveying anything to their mouths did not convey it; but the faces of all were looking upwards.  And I saw the sheep walking, and the sheep stood still; and the shepherd raised his hand to strike them, and his hand remained up.  And I looked upon the current of the river, and I saw the mouths of the kids resting on the water and not drinking, and all things in a moment were driven from their course.

19.  And I saw a woman coming down from the hill-country, and she said to me:  O man, whither art thou going?  And I said:  I am seeking an Hebrew midwife.  And she answered and said unto me:  Art thou of Israel?  And I said to her:  Yes.  And she said:  And who is it that is bringing forth in the cave?  And I said:  A woman betrothed to me.  And she said to me:  Is she not thy wife?  And I said to her:  It is Mary that was reared in the temple of the Lord, and I obtained her by lot as my wife.  And yet she is not my wife, but has conceived of the Holy Spirit.

And the widwife said to him:  Is this true?  And Joseph said to her:  Come and see.  And the midwife went away with him.  And they stood in the place of the cave, and behold a luminous cloud overshadowed the cave.  And the midwife said:  My soul has been magnified this day, because mine eyes have seen strange things—because salvation has been brought forth to Israel.  And immediately the cloud disappeared out of the cave, and a great light shone in the cave, so that the eyes could not bear it.  And in a little that light gradually decreased, until the infant appeared, and went and took the breast from His mother Mary.  And the midwife cried out, and said:  This is a great day to me, because I have seen this strange sight.  And the midwife went forth out of the cave, and Salome met her.  And she said to her:  Salome, Salome, I have a strange sight to relate to thee:  a virgin has brought forth—a thing which her nature admits not of.  Then said Salome:  As the Lord my God liveth, unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth.

20.  And the midwife went in, and said to Mary:  Show thyself; for no small controversy has arisen about thee.  And Salome put in her finger, and cried out, and said:  Woe is me for mine iniquity and mine unbelief, because I have tempted the living God; and, behold, my hand is dropping off as if burned with fire.  And she bent her knees before the Lord, saying:  O God of my fathers, remember that I am the seed of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob; do not make a show of me to the sons of Israel, but restore me to the poor; for Thou knowest, O Lord, that in Thy name I have performed my services, and that I have received my reward at Thy hand.  And, behold, an angel of the Lord stood by her, saying to her:  Salome, Salome, the Lord hath heard thee.  Put thy hand to the infant, and carry it, and thou wilt have safety and joy.  And Salome went and carried it, saying:  I will worship Him, because a great King has been born to Israel.  And, behold, Salome was immediately cured, and she went forth out of the cave justified.  And behold a voice saying:  Salome, Salome, tell not the strange things thou hast seen, until the child has come into Jerusalem.

21.  And, behold, Joseph was ready to go into Judæa.  And there was a great commotion in Bethlehem of Judæa, for Magi came, saying:  Where is he that is born king of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and have come to worship him.  And when Herod heard, he was much disturbed, and sent officers to the Magi.  And he sent for the priests, and examined them, saying:  How is it written about the Christ? where is He to be born?  And they said:  In Bethlehem of Judæa, for so it is written.  And he sent them away.  And he examined the Magi, saying to them:  What sign have you seen in reference to the king that has been born?  And the Magi said:  We have seen a star of great size shining among these stars, and obscuring their light, so that the stars did not appear; and we thus knew that a king has been born to Israel, and we have come to worship him.  And Herod said:  Go and seek him; and if you find him, let me know, in order that I also may go and worship him.  And the Magi went out.  And, behold, the star which they had seen in the east went before them until they came to the cave, and it stood over the top of the cave.  And the Magi saw the infant with His mother Mary; and they brought forth from their bag gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.  And having been warned by the angel not to go into Judæa, they went into their own country by another road.

22.  And when Herod knew that he had been mocked by the Magi, in a rage he sent murderers, saying to them:  Slay the children from two years old and under.  And Mary, having heard that the children were being killed, was afraid, and took the infant and swaddled Him, and put Him into an ox-stall.  And Elizabeth, having heard that they were searching for John, took him and went up into the hill-country, and kept looking where to conceal him.  And there was no place of concealment.  And Elizabeth, groaning with a loud voice, says:  O mountain of God, receive mother and child.  And immediately the mountain was cleft, and received her.  And a light shone about them, for an angel of the Lord was with them, watching over them.

23.  And Herod searched for John, and sent officers to Zacharias, saying:  Where hast thou hid thy son?  And he, answering, said to them:  I am the servant of God in holy things, and I sit constantly in the temple of the Lord:  I do not know where my son is.  And the officers went away, and reported all these things to Herod.  And Herod was enraged, and said:  His son is destined to be king over Israel.  And he sent to him again, saying:  Tell the truth; where is thy son? for thou knowest that thy life is in my hand.  And Zacharias said:  I am God’s martyr, if thou sheddest my blood; for the Lord will receive my spirit, because thou sheddest innocent blood at the vestibule of the temple of the Lord.  And Zacharias was murdered about daybreak.  And the sons of Israel did not know that he had been murdered.

24.  But at the hour of the salutation the priests went away, and Zacharias did not come forth to meet them with a blessing, according to his custom.  And the priests stood waiting for Zacharias to salute him at the prayer, and to glorify the Most High.  And he still delaying, they were all afraid.  But one of them ventured to go in, and he saw clotted blood beside the altar; and he heard a voice saying:  Zacharias has been murdered, and his blood shall not be wiped up until his avenger come.  And hearing this saying, he was afraid, and went out and told it to the priests.  And they ventured in, and saw what had happened; and the fretwork of the temple made a wailing noise, and they rent their clothes from the top even to the bottom.  And they found not his body, but they found his blood turned into stone.  And they were afraid, and went out and reported to the people that Zacharias had been murdered.  And all the tribes of the people heard, and mourned, and lamented for him three days and three nights.  And after the three days, the priests consulted as to whom they should put in his place; and the lot fell upon Simeon.  For it was he who had been warned by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death until he should see the Christ in the flesh.

And I James that wrote this history in Jerusalem, a commotion having arisen when Herod died, withdrew myself to the wilderness until the commotion in Jerusalem ceased, glorifying the Lord God, who had given me the gift and the wisdom to write this history.  And grace shall be with them that fear our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory to ages of ages.  Amen.

Friday, 22 November 2013

St. Ambrose of Milan on the Paralytic

"What was read yesterday? An angel, the scripture said, descended at a certain moment into the pool, and whenever the angel descended, the waters moved; and whoever was first into the water was healed of whatever sickness he had. That was a figure of our Lord Jesus Christ who was to come.

"An angel: why? Because he himself is the angel of great counsel. At a certain moment: because the angel used to wait until the final hour, so that he might seize the day in its dying moments, and put off its decline. As often as the angel came down, the waters moved. You may be thinking: ‘Why does it not move now?’ Listen to the answer: signs are for the unbeliever, the believer has his faith.

"Whoever went down into the water first was healed of all his sickness. What does ‘first’ mean? Was it a priority of time or of dignity? It carries both meanings. The one to go down first in the order of time was healed first: that is, the Jews rather than the gentiles. The one to go down first in the order of dignity was healed first: that is, he who had the fear of God, zeal for righteousness, the grace of charity, the love of chastity. But in those days only one was saved. In those days, he alone was cured who went down first; and this was in figure. How much greater is the grace of the Church in which all those who go down into the water are saved.

"See the mystery here. Our Lord Jesus Christ came to the pool: many sick people were lying there. Yes, certainly there were many sick lying there, and only one was cured. Then he said to the man who was paralysed: ‘Go down into the water’. He replied: ‘I have no man to take me down’. See where you are baptised, see the source of your baptism. It is none other than the cross of Christ, the death of Christ. Here is the whole mystery: he suffered for you. In him you are redeemed, in him you are saved.

"‘I have no man’, he said: that is to say, ‘death came by a man, and the resurrection came by a man’. A man could not go down, could not be saved, if he did not believe that our Lord Jesus took flesh of a virgin. But he who said, ‘I have no man’, was waiting for ‘the mediator between God and man, the man Jesus’; he was expecting him of whom it is written: ‘And the Lord will send a man to save them’. And so he was found worthy to be healed, because he believed in Christ’s coming. Yet he would have been better and more perfect had he believed that he whose coming he was hoping for had already come."

Sermons on the Sacraments 2:3-7James Walsh, S.J. (Trans.) in Edward Yarnold, S.J., The Awe-Inspiring Rites of Initiation: The origins of the R.C.I.A (2nd Ed.), Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994, pp110-112.

Friday, 25 October 2013

Only We Can Hurt Ourselves

by St. John Chrysostom

Check your anger, quench your wrath. If anyone does you injury or violence, weep for him. Do not be vexed, but sow sympathy for him, so that you may not become provoked and say: “My soul has been hurt.” No one’s soul is hurt, unless we hurt our own souls. How is this so? Let me tell you. Has someone stolen your property? He has not hurt you in your soul, but in your purse; but if you bear a grudge against him, you have hurt yourself in your soul. The loss of property did no hurt to your soul, but even helped it; if, however, you do not put aside your anger, you will pay the penalty hereafter for the grudge you bear. Has someone abused and insulted you? He has hurt neither your soul nor your body. But did you return his abuse and insults in kind? You have hurt your own soul and you are going to pay hereafter the penalty for the words you have spoken.

Indeed, I wish, above all things, that you understand that no one has the power to do harm to the soul of the faithful Christian, not even the devil himself. Not only is it a wonderful thing that God has made us incapable of being overcome by any treachery, but that He has fitted us for the practice of virtue. If we be willing, there is nothing to stop us, even if we be poor, weak in body, outcasts, nameless, or slaves. For neither poverty, nor weakness, nor bodily disability, nor slavery, nor any other such thing could be a hindrance to virtue.

And why do I speak of the poor man, the slave, and the nameless? Even if you are in prison, this is no hindrance to virtue. Let me tell you how this is so. Has someone in your household hurt or provoked you? Lay aside your anger against him. Neither prison, nor poverty, nor lack of fame is a hindrance to your doing that, is it? And why call these a hindrance? They even help us and work with us in checking our vanity.

Did you see some other man enjoying prosperity? Do not envy him, for poverty is no hindrance in this case either. Again, when it is time to pray, do so with a sober and wakeful heart, and there will be nothing here to hinder you. Show your meekness, all the mildness of your heart, your temperance, your holiness; these require no external aids. And this is the most important thing about virtue: it has no need of wealth, or power, or glory, or any other such thing. If only the soul be holy, virtue seeks nothing beyond that.

Note well that this same thing is true in the case of grace. Even if a man be lame, or his eyes have been torn out, or he be disabled in body, or has fallen into the most extreme weakness, none of these things prevents grace from coming into the soul. For grace seeks out only the soul which is eager to receive it, and ignores all these external things.

Baptismal Instruction 12:25 in Paul W. Harkins (trans.), St. John Chrysostom, Baptismal Instruction, Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1963, pp.180-2.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Modern Patristic scholarship

I thought these words by Archbishop Chrysostomos of Etna from a recent book review were a wonderfully pithy description of modern patristic scholarship, and something to keep in mind when reading the works of even Orthodox scholars from secular academic institutions, where such a presumptious and agenda-driven approach is not only favoured but required.
One of my misgivings about contemporary Patristic studies is that, while we pious Orthodox seek to find the common mind of the Fathers (the φρὸνιμα τῶν Πατὲρων) and study their writings by climbing the lofty peak of their spiritual insights and experience, secular Patristic scholars often mine that peak for predetermined thought deposits, sifting through the literary gravel of the dust that they thus collect and reducing it to rubble. They then arrange the surviving detritus into a peak or, more often I fear, a molehill of their own making, having lost the heights from which the Fathers write and missing the spiritual concord that allows us, in the first place, to speak of a common Patristic corpus as something more than a collection of writings compiled in historical sequence or according to some thematic scheme. 

That Orthodox scholars also navigate comfortably through talk about ”Chrysostomos,” ”Basil,” and ”Gregory,” et al., studying them with amateurish psychoanalytical imprecision and eschewing any appeal to their spiritual eminence, for fear that the ”objective” secular scholars who prevail today may ridicule them for ”religious tendencies,” is simply deplorable. These poor, insecure seekers after the approbation of the scholars du jour have rushed to be as fashionable as possible. Indeed, to the point of appearing comical in their efforts, they avoid with assiduity the one unpardonable transgression: referring to the Fathers with the title ”Saint” or any honorific designation, lest we attribute to them, in an egregious deviation from academic objectivity, anything but base and wholly mundane motivations in their lives and writings. Praeiudicium objectivum.

Orthodox Tradition, XXX:3 (2013), pp.17.