Kindly Penance: A Homily for Lent IV

Several weeks ago when we followed Jesus out into the wilderness, we thought we knew where he was leading us. For we had followed this route many times before, year after year. But perhaps it became too familiar. Perhaps we took for granted that He would lead us in the same way as before. Or perhaps we had simply become complacent.

But this year, the way is different. This year, as we follow Jesus into the wilderness, the route is more challenging than usual, and a little more difficult.

That should not surprise us. For every year during Lent, in our morning prayers, we sing these words:

Spare not, we pray, to send us here
Some penance kindly but severe.

A “penance kindly but severe.”

Kindly. And yet also a severity suited to us, to what we can bear. For while we chafe at not being with each other, we can still reach out to each other—and we should! And while we are exasperated about being deprived of our usual comforts, we are not denied of our basic needs. And while we may long to receive Holy Communion, we will not be deprived of the Eucharist for this year.

Unlike our brothers and sisters before us, we are not being tortured for our beliefs. We are not isolated or quarantined in a camp or arena or gulag for the crime of being Christian and gathering as Church.

This year’s penance is tough, but not brutal. Inconvenient, but not debilitating. Full of anxiety and frustration, but not filled with unending agony.

So it is kindly. Yet also severe enough, so that we do not take for granted our Easter joy, our gathering as community, our built-in need not just to chat but to talk face to face, and most of all not just to see but to be—with each other.

The severity is just hard enough so that our appetites might be re-adjusted—so that we may itch less for momentary diversions, and long much more for the one thing needful, the thing that truly makes for our enduring peace. So that we truly hunger and thirst for the Righteous One, as He gives Himself into our bodies in the Eucharist; and thereby hunger and thirst to be righteous, and just, in our dealings with others.

In this Lent, we are more and more like the multitude in today’s Gospel. They also follow Jesus into the wilderness. They follow because they trust He will not lead them astray. They follow because long to receive whatever He chooses to give.

They were without food in the wilderness. Not by their choice, but because Our Lord leads them there. Yet they were sustained by being with Our Lord, being hearing His teaching, by receiving His grace.

No doubt, Our Lord is letting us live through this time in order to give us the opportunity to find our true shelter in Him. And to acknowledge that, on the big things, we are not in control. That we need to turn our eyes, our minds, and our hearts not inward but outward and upward, knowing that, in the end, all we have and all we are comes from His gracious hand.

This crowd of more than 5000 show us how to live this kindly penance. Their appetites are whetted by their hunger; and ours by this uncommon means of penance. Yet they teach us to live in hope; to live knowing that Our Lord, as He always does, will come through.

As Pascha approached for these folks, as their hearts and minds were more and more attuned to the coming feast, Our Lord determined to feed them. And with more than enough. But it’s not about food. It’s about the bread. The Bread from Heaven, the Living Bread, which is Our Lord.

  • Who does not disappoint us in our hope.
  • Who satisfies our longing.
  • Who renews our life.
  • Who increases our joy.

That happens, most clearly, in the Holy Eucharist. But our hope, our life, and our joy is also fed, especially during these strange days, when we immerse ourselves more and more in prayer. When we draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith. When we, in earnest prayer, draw near to God so that He may draw near to us.

Drawing near to God, and God drawing near to us: that is what must feed us now.

Not next Sunday, perhaps not this Easter, but soon this kindly penance will lift. And if we use this time rightly, if we take advantage of this long Lent, then we will relish the prayer we sing each morning:

Soon will that day, thy day, appear
And all things with its brightness cheer:
We will rejoice in it, as we
Return thereby to grace and thee.

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Incarnation & Disease

Our present situation is part of why God became man.

The primary reason, of course, is so that we might have communion with God, so that we might live in a close intimate relationship with God, so that we might behold God as he is, in the same way that he knows us as we are. He knows us as we are because God became man; which means that he took into Himself all that we are in our humanity, without sin. Even the result of sin—our vulnerability, our contingency, our need to be healed, our death—every weakness that we have in our mortal condition; all of this God in Christ took into Himself. And he did this so that we might know him and behold him as he is in his heavenly kingdom.

That is the primary reason God became man. That is the primary reason we celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation of our Lord; the day when God was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary and so became incarnate.

The secondary reason is our present situation. Not just our situation where we are deprived of the goods that we are so used to, the goods that we take advantage of, the goods we take for granted. Our present situation is more dire than that.

Our present situation is that we take God for granted—the Good that he is; the Good from which all good things find their source; the Good that we falsely believe is our right; the Good that we too often take for granted.

In order to rescue us from our present situation—not simply the Coronavirus, or the threat of death, or the loss of economic security, or the shaking of our sure footing—more importantly, to rescue us from the deprivation of our life in God—that is also why God became man. Why He was conceived in the womb of the virgin. Why He was incarnate.

God saw that we were slowly killing ourselves; and that we were scared to death, and therefore moving not toward Him as our Life, but away from Him in irrational fear. He saw that we were threatened—and worse yet, that our very existence, our Life in Him, was threatened. The very things that He had made good, we now in absurd fear turned against ourselves. The very things that He gave us to sustain life, we now handed over to death.

Seeing all this, seeing that we were mindlessly digging our own hell—God determined to have mercy on us. He pitied us as a father pities His misguided children, and so He stepped in. But when He stepped in, Our Lord did not force us to turn back to Him. He did not erase our ability to turn away from Him. But by becoming one of us, one with us, Christ Jesus made our way of escape, and gave us the strength to escape with Him and in Him. And He does this by taking as His own a body, a physicality, a materialness, that is foreign to His nature. And by granting that body the capability of communing with God and in God—that is His incarnation. And that is what we celebrate.

So, as many of the church fathers say today with certainty, today is the celebration of the beginning of our salvation. For Our Lord’s suffering and death and resurrection, His experience of our common condition with viruses and deprivation and death—that is possible, that is truly real, only because God assumes and takes into Himself all that makes us who we are.

And thus, taking from us our greatest weaknesses, receiving from us the capability to die, and putting all of this to death in Himself, Our Lord Jesus offered our human nature, cured and purged, to His Father because He was in love with all humans.

Let us not take for granted this great gift. Let us not, in our present situation, get so caught up in fear and anxiety that we lose sight of the greater good from our good God. And the greater good is this—that while we may, for a while, endure a ‘penance kindly, but severe;’ although we may, for a while, be deprived of our usual life—all of this our kindly Lord knows, and assumed, so that He might bring us back to Him; more so, so that He might give us greater and worthier gifts.

To whom, with His Father, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, belongs all glory, honor, and worship; now and forever, world without end.

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Sheltering-in-Place during Lent: A Homily

I am sure it doesn’t feel like it, but sheltering ourselves in place can really help us—not  just physically, by avoiding or spreading the virus. Best of all, sheltering can help us spiritually, with our Lenten discipline. For, really, what is Lent about? It’s about cleaning our spiritual house by increasing our prayers, by working on self-control, and by living less inside ourselves and more outward toward others. When we are safe-at-home, we can do that: by spending less time on our self-serving passions, and by spending more time in prayer and in reaching out to others.

Cleaning our spiritual house: that’s what today’s Gospel describes. For Jesus doesn’t simply heal a man. He casts out a devil. And when the devil is cast out, the man is healed. Or, to say it another way, Our Lord re-calibrates the man and cleans out the spiritual clutter the devil brings, so that this man may now live more fully focused on and devoted to the Lord.

And if we use these weeks wisely, if we use them as a Lenten exercise, Our Blessed Lord can help us achieve the same: re-calibration with a more focused, more devoted life in Him.

To do that, we need to see these days not as a nuisance but as a blessing; not as something that keeps us away from our normal routine, but as hours and days and weeks that allow us to pull closer to Christ. Not as minutes and hours and days that need to be filled, but as more time for prayer, more time for spiritual reading, more time for developing good habits, and more time to live outside ourselves.

But there are two dangers. The first is that we’ll agree with the sentiment but fritter away the time. And that will happen if we see this as a vacation. Or if we get wrapped up in our fears and anxieties. Or if we wonder why others aren’t doing what they’re supposed to. When we do that, we’re wasting our time on things that do not edify or strength us spiritually.

Let us, instead, spend our energy on reading the Scriptures, on praying with our family, and on making ourselves available, as much as our situation allows.

The second danger is that we’ll actually see these days as a great blessing, we’ll actually immerse ourselves more and more in prayer for others, we’ll actually grow closer in our relationship with the Lord—and then we’ll go back to business-as-usual once the crisis passes.

That’s the greater danger. And it’s the danger Our Lord warns us about in today’s Gospel. For He tells us, in effect, that Lenten house cleaning should be done not for its own sake, but to make more room in our daily routine for our Lord. For when we do Lent just because it’s Lent, then we’ve actually made things worse. For then it’s one step forward during Lent, and two steps back after Easter.

One response to this danger is to say to ourselves, “So, why even bother beginning? Why do Lent at all if there’s the possibility that we’ll backslide? And why make meaningful, spiritual use of our sheltering time if I already know that I won’t keep it up when life gets back to normal?”

The better response, however, is to establish a new normal: where more prayer becomes the new norm; where living for the end becomes our new way of living.

When we do that—when Lent becomes our way of life—then Christ, the Stronger Man, not only overthrows the strong devil; Christ Jesus also then moves in and makes His home in us. Which is what we should want. And what we should aim for, especially now as we have the time, the blessing of time not spent on the freeways, the blessing of time to say more prayers and live more in love with our Father.

These sheltering days—they really can be a blessing if we use them wisely, in prayer and attentiveness to Our Lord, to those who suffer, for those who are first-responders, and in supplication for our city, state, nation, and all humanity.

Through the prayers of the Holy Mother of God, and of all the saints, may our Father have mercy on us and, by His grace, lead us in these days closer to Him; who lives and reigns with His Son, our Hope and Salvation, together with His all-Holy and Life-Giving Spirit; now and for ever, world without end.

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Watching Our Live-Stream Mass

Be assured of my prayers, and that each one of you is close to my heart while we adjust to our temporary living and work situation.

In his latest directive, Metropolitan Joseph has required all parishes in California (and other states like New York) to celebrate Mass (Divine Liturgy) on Sunday, together with Lauds (Orthros). However, only three persons may be present during these services: the priest, one server, and one chanter.

His Eminence also encourages all parishes to live-stream the liturgical services so that people may pray together, albeit imperfectly, in their homes while they follow the directives of the government.

We live-streamed last night’s prayers, and will do the same tomorrow morning from 9 a.m. until the end of Mass. (The Mass will begin at 10 a.m.).

Here is the link: https://stmichaelwhittier.org/parish-site/videos.

This link automatically takes you to our Facebook page. You don’t need a Facebook account to watch the services; however, you may need to expand the picture. We have learned that this will work much better on a computer than on a phone.

THIS NEXT PART IS IMPORTANT

It is really hard, and unreal, to participate in the Mass by watching it on a device in your home. It’s easy to get distracted, to get up and get something, or to do several things at once. I urge you to resist these temptations as you watch.

Here are practical tips to get the most out of the live-streamed Mass:

  • Before 9 a.m., place your device (phone, television, computer, tablet) on or near your icon corner; OR, surround your device with one or more icons.
  • Turn off all possible distractions (phone, notifications, oven, alarms, etc.)
  • Like you do before church, take care of all personal needs beforehand.
  • Dress like you would for a regular Sunday Mass. (Casual clothes may encourage a casual, non-prayerful attitude.)
  • Follow your regular pattern for maintaining the Eucharistic fast, refraining from food, coffee, etc. until after the Mass.
  • Print the attached service booklets and have them in hand.
  • Follow along during the services, and sing/speak along with us, in whatever way you normally would do during the Mass.
  • As you are able, stand, sit, and kneel as you normally would do during the Mass.
  • Finally, resist the urge to offer any comments online until after the Mass is over.

In short, I encourage you to make these few hours a time of sincere devotion and worship.

These are strange days, but they can be a blessing if we use them rightly:

  • By spending some of our “shelter time” in prayer and spiritual reading
  • By caring for each other and those in need in whatever way we can (even by simply making a phone call)
  • By entering more deeply into the fast itself

Again, please be assured of my prayers.

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Better At Prayer

We can do better at prayer. Myself included. Perhaps the reason our prayers lag, or why we find it a chore, or why it just doesn’t seem exciting, is because we expect an immediate payoff. Prayers, we think, should get some result. Either we should feel differently, or we should see some change (in us, in our situation, in others). And when we don’t, we think that prayer is a pointless exercise, something not worth continuing.

In our minds, we know that’s a wrong approach to prayer. But in our heart and, most importantly, in our will, we’re not convinced.

When I go down this path, and praying feels tedious, I go back to the basics. I ask myself, “Why do I pray”? Perhaps you also have asked the same question.

We pray because we want to maintain our relationship with God. That relationship is not based on what we can get from God. So praying is not like going to the doctor in order to get a prescription or to get better. And praying is not like going to the bank to get a loan, or withdraw money. We don’t pray to get things from God.

Neither do we pray to tell God what to do. Certainly, we want God to help our family and friends, especially when they have serious health or financial or employment concerns. But looking at God as the one who fixes our problems or tends to our needs does not help build a healthy relationship with Him.

Since prayer is about a relationship with God, we should not think about praying to ‘God.’ That’s too abstract, and too impersonal. We should, instead, remember that we are talking to our Father, and His Son whose personal name is ‘Jesus.’ When we realize we’re talking not to a Supreme Being but to a Person (a divine person, but still a real person), then our prayers will become more personal, and not just a to-do list.

With any relationship, the most important thing is communication. Not information, but conversation. Not relaying data, but expressing our hopes and fears. Our prayer to our Father should be the same way. We know that He knows us and what we need. But to talk with our Father, to converse with His Son Jesus, to speak with Him is to say both how we feel and what we think.

That’s how the prayers go in the Psalms—the prayerbook Jesus wrote and used. Those prayers are less about asking or telling God what to do, and more about talking to our Father and His Son about what angers or frustrates, what scares or worries, and what excites and encourages us.

That’s the kind of conversation that builds and maintains a relationship. And that’s what we want in prayer.

One important aspect to that conversation—so important that we too often overlook it—is the simple act of saying, ‘Thanks.’ Again, the Psalms are filled with many words of thanksgiving. And so should we.

Very simply, very practically speaking, our most common everyday prayer should be to give thanks to our Father every time we eat. Saying ‘Grace’ at every meal (before and after) is not simply polite; it’s the way friends speak to each other. And we speak that way both because it expresses our heartfelt feeling, and because we don’t want to take the other person for granted.

So this Lent, as a way to rebuild your relationship with God, begin by saying “Grace” (i.e., thanking your Father) before and after you eat your meals. As that becomes a habit, start saying thank you to Our Lord every time you receive some benefit (not matter how small or insignificant). And then, finally, add to these some words that express your fears and hopes. Using the Psalms, I’ve found, is very effective in doing this relationship-building, since it helps me identify thoughts and feelings that I often overlook.

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Annual Lenten Retreat

To aid your Lenten Fast with prayer and meditation, the Society of St Benedict of St Michael Antiochian Orthodox Church will host the V Rev Patrick Cardine on Saturday, March 14, for a day-long Lenten Retreat.

Fr Patrick will present three meditations on the theme “Discovering Stability in Community.” Fr Patrick is the Pastor of St Patrick Orthodox Church in Bealeton VA.

His meditations will be will surrounded by prayer and Liturgy, silence for reflection and private prayer, and opportunities for confession.

The retreat begins with First Hour (Prime) prayers at 9 a.m. and concludes by 3 p.m. with Ninth Hour (None) prayers.

Fast friendly meals will be provided; however, child care is not offered. St Michael Church is located at 3333 Workman Mill Road, Whittier CA 90601.

Please RSVP by sending an email to St Michael Church (stmichaelwhittier@gmail.com) or by telephoning the parish office (562.692.6121).

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The Light of the World

Homily for Candlemas

Presentation of Christ in the Temple

Forty (40). The number of humanity’s struggle toward perfection. Our wrestling not with flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Forty. The number which denotes our purification, scraping off the rough edges, smoothing of the crooked places, scrubbing off our impurities and sins so that we might stand holy and without blemish before Our Lord God. 40 days. The waiting time. The time we wait for the Lord’s grace to guide us through, to make the way of escape, so that we may be rescued from the perils of our own sins. And so, 40 is the time of patience.

For 40 days, St Simeon has been patiently waiting. He has heard that the holy girl he and Anna once mentored has given birth to the Messiah. Simeon knows that, according to the custom of the Law, she will present the Holy Child in the Holy Temple. But he must wait. 40 days. The time of patience. The time when he enters deeply into prayer so that he is not distracted, but can be focused, fully present, when the Christ Child arrives.

And when the Child arrives, imagine the joy. Not just the joy of seeing the happiness on the face of these parents. And not just the joy of holding a newborn. Consider the joy of St Simeon, who has waited for the Consolation of Israel; who had waited patiently to see the Lord’s Christ; who had believed God’s promise, and now was eager not just to hear, but to see and hold the fulfillment.

Consider old St Simeon, both seeing and then getting to hold this Holy Infant. His joy and wonderment and awe exceed everything we feel when we get to hold a newborn. He is ecstatic; truly beside himself with delight. And not just because the old man holds new life, which gives hope for the future. But because this old man gets to carry the King of the universe. He gets to hold the Lord of heaven and earth. He beholds and nestles God Himself.

The blessed candles you held when I read the Gospel—those candles let you, for a moment, be Simeon. They let you, in a visual symbol, hold Christ Himself. For who is Jesus? He is the light of all humanity; the light which shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overwhelm it. And we don’t just say as if it’s a nice metaphor. Jesus calls Himself the Light of the world. He says: “I am the light of the world. He whofollows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life. If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world.

What does this mean, that Jesus is the Light of the world? It means that Our Lord Jesus chases away the confusion the devil plants; that He scatters the dark fears and designs of our mind; that He helps us see what is good and holy and right, even when it conflicts with what we want. But most of all, this Light which is Jesus—by His Spirit He purifies, and burns away, and refines our vision of Truth and Good so that we may be enabled to discern whatever is pleasing to God and profitable for our salvation.

Think of the other time we carry candles. They are unlit as we walk into church. Only the large candle shines on that dark night—the large candle that we give thanks for when we hear the words, “Lumen Christi; The Light of Christ.” We walk together into the church led by the candle, from which all other candles are lit. And we do this precisely because Our Lord’s resurrection from the dead means that death has passed over us; that death no longer has a claim on us; that the grave is not the end but the hallway to our full and abundant life in God. That candle at the Paschal Vigil proclaims, without words, that our salvation has been won, and that the dark night of Good Friday has led us to the glorious light of Easter.

That’s what St Simeon sees when he holds the Infant Jesus. He sees not just a baby, but the Lord of Life. Not just another child, but his way—and our way—out of this world’s fakeness, this world’s empty promises, this world’s dreariness, and this world’s death. And so Simeon cries out, “Mine eyes have seen thy salvation!” For he sees, lying in his arms, snuggled to his chest, the Savior Himself and his salvation.

The lighted candle you hold is very much like the 40-day old Baby which Simeon held. Both are vulnerable, a bit annoying to hold, needing our attention, and easily ignored on our way to other things. Yet if you are attentive, if you see what you really have, if you see beyond the candle to the reality that this little flame proclaims, then you can enter into the joy of St Simeon; then this day is as joyous for you as it was for Simeon and Anna.

Yet you have something much more than Simeon and Anna had. And you get to hold the Christ Child much closer than they did. For they could only carry Jesus in their arms. You get to carry Him in your heart. They could only make their arms and body a shelter. You get to make a soft and undefiled bed within the secret chamber of your mind and soul. They could only coo at the Blessed Child and see what would be. You get to have Him enter more deeply into you in the Eucharist, and you get to see what already is.

And as you do—as you enter more deeply into Christ, and as He scatters the dark night of your soul—then the words Simeon proclaims, and the words that Jesus says about Himself: these words now become true for you. For it is not only Christ Jesus who is the light of the nations, the light of the world. Jesus also says that those who hold Him dear, who feed on Him and carefully tend the light that He is and gives: these also are lights to the world. For listen to His words: You are the light of the world. So let light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.

And for now, that happens during our 40 days. During our time of patience. During this day, this week, this year, this lifetime when we struggle toward perfection. During the days that God has graciously given us, now in this life, to scrape off the rough edges and scrub away our impurities so that we might stand holy and without blemish before Our Lord God; to whom, with His Son, the Lord of light, together with the Holy Spirit, belongs all glory, honor, and worship: now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.

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Why the Kisses?

One common observation made by visitors and inquirers regarding Orthodoxy has to do with one of the main forms of respect and veneration that we practice: kissing. Whether it is an icon in the narthex, the feet of the statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the relics of the saints, or the hand of the priest, we tend to show our love, our veneration, and our respect towards holy things by kissing them. This is, indeed, an ancient practice.

In the Old Testament we read of kisses as a form of respect, as when Jacob kissed his father Isaac to secure his blessing (Gen 27:27). In the New Testament, the Lord’s feet were kissed by the penitent woman as a sign of devotion and worship (Lk 7:38); there was also the infamous kiss of Judas (Matt 26:49), an ultimate sign of betrayal and the perversion of a holy kiss for ill will. St. Paul tells us in his Epistle to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (2 Cor 13:12). In the Roman world, kissing was the most common form of salutation; one kissed on the lips family members and those of the same social rank (so common, in fact, that we find ordinances banning aristocrats from greeting one another with a kiss on the lips during times of plague), and kissed the hand, foot, or ground in front of those of a higher social standing. So then the practice of kissing as a greeting and of objects as a way to show respect is a major part of our tradition.

As time went on the practice of kissing as a greeting fell out of fashion due to the concerns of arousing inappropriate feelings, but to kiss is still how we show respect to holy things, an act of veneration and a showing of our love. We kiss the Cross on Good Friday to show our love to the Lord who sacrificed himself on that Holy Wood for our salvation. And through that act of veneration it passes through the Cross and to the Lord Himself. This is an important point: we do not worship the item or image itself, but rather He who made all things and who by His Incarnation, by His becoming flesh, sanctified all created matter. We kiss the relics of the saints because in their lives their bodies became conduits of the grace of God due to their closeness to the Lord, and after death they still retain that closeness and grant healing and strength through their relics.

So too, we kiss the priest’s hand not because he himself is worthy of it, but because the priest represents Christ to us, and acts in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, during the Mass. It is also for this reason that the priest disguises himself in vestments, so that the man may be obscured and we might see Christ the Priest and Victim instead. As Abbot Tryphon of Vashon Island Monastery eloquently wrote, “The kissing of the hand of the priest is not about the man, but rather about Christ. It is much like the kissing of an icon, which is not about the veneration of paint and wood, but about the archetype represented in the icon. When we kiss the hand of the bishop or priest, we are not showing respect to the person of the priest but to his sacred office. The priest as priest represents Christ, and is therefore a living icon of Christ. Though he be a sinner, and unworthy in and of himself of such respect, that he touches the Most Holy Things – the Precious Body and Blood of the Lord, the kiss is in actuality, extended to Christ. Through ordination he has received the Grace of God to impart spiritual gifts and blessings, so we should not deprive ourselves of blessings by refusing the priest’s blessing.”

This is why, during the Mass, the deacon, subdeacon, and servers all kiss the priest’s hand. And why, during the Kiss of Peace, the priest first receives the peace of Christ by kissing the altar, and then passing it on to the deacon, who passes it to the subdeacon, and so on. It is the peace of Christ we acquire through the priest. It is not Fr. John’s hand they are kissing, but that of our Lord Jesus. So, too, should we greet the priest by asking his blessing and upon receiving it, kiss the hand of Christ that mystically grants it through the mortal hand of His priest.

In this new year, let us then endeavor to be more aware of the ways in which God reaches out to us and provides us with his love and healing grace: through the hands of his priests, through the holy icons and statues, and through the relics of the saints.

by Sbdn. Ian Abodeely
Pastoral Assistant at St Michael’s Church

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O Blessed Day!

When Our Lord Jesus was eight days old, two things happened in succession. As he was circumcised, Our Lord was given the name Jesus (Luke 2.21).

His circumcision fulfilled a command by God in the Old Testament. That command was a visible sign of the covenant between God and His chosen people. It was also an indication that our mortality traces to our conception, and that our tendency to sin (known as concupiscence) is as inherited as our skin, hair, or eye color.

The holy fathers, however, see something else in St Luke’s mention that Christ is circumcised. This is the first day when Christ’s blood is shed, and so His circumcision both proves that He is truly human and also reveals that our redemption will occur in Christ’s bloodshed on the cross.

That Jesus is named on the day when He is circumcised is not required in the Old Testament; rather, it is in line with a long-standing tradition among the Jews. And, for Luke, the naming of Jesus is as important as His circumcision. For His name explains His purpose.

“His name was called Jesus” because that was the name the Angel Gabriel gave to both Mary (Luke 1.31) and Joseph (Matthew 1.18) on separate occasions. On the day of Our Lord’s conception, when Mary was told to call his name “Jesus” she was also informed that “He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest” (Luke 1.32). Joseph heard the Angel’s command when he was dreaming, and was told that the name “Jesus” means, “He shall save.”

Most people give their children a particular name for a reason: to honor a relative or loved one or hero; to connect the child to a patron saints; in the hope that the child will have the qualities that the name describes or elicits; or simply because it sounds nice. However, very often in the Scriptures, names describe a particular human short-coming (like the name, Isaac) or an attribute or blessing from God.

Joseph and Mary obediently follow the Angel’s direction. Like Elizabeth and Zacharias, they don’t name the Holy Child after a relative, but submit their will to the Lord. For they understand that Jesus’ name describes what He will do: He will save His people from their sins.

Because this name is divinely given, and because it proclaims our salvation, the name of Jesus should not be used as an exclamation when something surprising happens. For this is the name by which we are saved, the name above all names, and the name which will cause every knee to bow. (Philippians 2.10) Therefore, this name should always be spoken with holy reverence, and as a prayer.

In fact, it is best to nod the head in prayerful submission whenever we hear or say the holy name of Jesus. By itself, this little action will remind us that Our Lord’s Name and His circumcision fit neatly together. For when Jesus bleeds at His circumcision, He already begins to live up to His name as the Savior who will sacrifice Himself for the sake of all creation.

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Keeping Track of Time

One of the themes for the First Sunday in Advent is to be ‘watchful.’ In the Epistle, St Paul urges us to ‘know the hour’ and in the Gospel Jesus tells us that ‘the kingdom of God is at hand.’ The reason for this watchfulness is aptly given in the prayer after communion: ‘that we may with worthy reverence approach the coming festival of our redemption.’

For the past 1000 years, the Catholic and Orthodox churches in Europe and North America have prepared for and approached the Feast of the Nativity with fasting and prayer. During these days, Friday abstinence is extended to the one-meal fast on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. And additional times for prayer – most especially the radiantly beautiful Rorate Mass – have been provided.

There is also another precious custom kept primarily in the home that helps us be watching and ‘know the hour.’ That custom is the Advent wreath.

The advent wreath consists of two things: candles and greens. The candles remind us that, as the days shorten and darkness increases, ‘the Light who enlightens all’ will soon be born. And the greens remind us that this Light who cannot be overwhelmed is also the Life of all.

The Advent wreath helps us keep track of time by the way the candles are used. Four candles (three purple and one rose) prepare to count down the Sundays before Christ Mass. Each week, another candle is lit increasing our anticipation until, in the last few days before the feast, all four colored candles are burning.

Of course, the candles are not lit merely to provide light. Like the candles we light in front of our icons and statues, they are symbols of faith while helping us center our prayers. So also with the Advent wreath. This outward act of counting down does us most good when it is coupled with the inward and spiritual action of reading Scripture, praying, and singing a hymn.

Here’s my suggestion, based on long-standing practice: In the evening, when the day has wound down, turn down or off all other lights, and light the appropriate number of Advent candles. As these candles shed their cheerful light with their warm glow, say the Our Father and Hail Mary and another fitting prayer. You may also wish to read a brief Scripture selection and sing an Advent hymn or a song in honor of the Holy Mother of God.

Dedicating yourself daily to this simple devotional practice will heighten your anticipation of Our Lord’s Nativity. It will also make you mindful of the time, and will assist you in being ‘watchful’ in your words and actions so that your ‘rough places’ may be made smoother.

This devotional may also bring to mind that Our Lord comes both to disperse the darkness that too often infects our souls, and to warm the coldness that we sometimes feel toward God and others.

But let me take this one step further: On Christ Mass Day, replace the colored candles with four white candles, and keep up the same practice during each of the Twelve Days until the Feast of the Epiphany. With this routine, you will enter the New Year with the daily habit of prayer, meditation, and song. Can there be a better way to chase way gloom from our homes, and to be ever mindful of Our Lord’s nearness?

Wishing you and yours a joyful preparation for the Feast of Our Lord’s Nativity, I remain your spiritual father in Christ,

Fr John

Postscript: The ‘Prayers for Advent and Christmas’ that I’ve prepared are designed to make easier Scripture, prayer, and hymn selections.

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