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Wednesday, 6 December 2017

The Purpose of the Incarnation of the Son of God

By Bishop Alexander of Buenos Aires, 1938-2005

Translated by Seraphim Larin & Daniel Olson

The parable of the lost sheep speaks graphically and vividly of the purpose of the coming of the Son of God into the world.  The good shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep, by which is meant the angelic world, and sets out for the mountains in order to seek out his lost sheep - the human race perishing in sins.  The shepherd’s great love for the perishing sheep is evident not only in the fact that he solicitously seeks it, but especially in the fact that after finding it, he takes it upon his shoulders and carries it back.  In other words, God, by His power, returns to man the innocence, holiness and blessedness lost by him; having united Himself with our human nature, the Son of God, according to the word of the Prophet, “hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows” (Esaias, Ch. 53).

Christ became man not only to teach us the true way and to show us a good example.  He became man in order to unite us with Himself, to join our feeble, diseased human nature to His Divinity.  The Nativity of Christ testifies to the fact that we attain the ultimate aim of our life not only by faith and by striving for good, but chiefly by the regenerating power of the incarnate Son of God, with Whom we are united.

Delving deeply into the mystery of the incarnation of the Son of God, we see that it is closely bound up with the mystery of Holy Communion and with the Church, which, according to apostolic teaching, is the mystical Body of Christ.  In the Holy Communion of the Body and Blood of Christ, a man is joined to the Divine-human nature of Christ; he unites with Him and in this union is wholly transfigured.  At the same time, in Holy Communion, a Christian unites also with other members of the Church - and thus the mystical Body of Christ grows.

Heterodox Christians who do not believe in Holy Communion understand union with Christ in an allegorical, metaphorical sense, or in the sense of only a spiritual communion with Him.  But for spiritual communion, the incarnation of the Son of God is superfluous.  After all, even before the Nativity of Christ, the prophets and the righteous were counted worthy of grace-filled communion with God.

One must understand that man is ill not only spiritually, but also physically: all of human nature has been harmed by sin.  It is essential, therefore, to heal the whole man, not only his spiritual part.  To remove any doubt in the necessity for total communion with Himself, the Lord Jesus Christ, in His discourse on the Bread of Life, speaks thus: “Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you.  Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day...  He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him” (John 6:53-54, 56).  Later, Christ uses the metaphor of the grapevine to explain to His disciples that it is precisely in close union with Him that man receives the strength essential for spiritual development and perfection: “As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.  I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).

Some holy Fathers have justly likened Holy Communion to the mystical tree of life, from which our primogenitors ate in Eden, and which afterwards St. John the Theologian saw in Paradise (Gen. 2:9, Rev. 2:7, 22:2).  In Holy Communion, a Christian is joined to the immortal life of the God-Man.

Thus, the purpose of the incarnation of the Son of God lies in the spiritual and physical regeneration of man.  Spiritual renewal is accomplished throughout the course of a Christian’s whole life.  But the renewal of his physical nature is completed on the day of the general resurrection of the dead, when the righteous shall shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father (Matt. 13:43).

Originally appeared in The Shepherd, December 2007

Saturday, 25 November 2017

A True Celebration of Christmas

Traditional Orthodox Christians celebrate the Nativity of Christ on 25th December according to the Old Calendar (7th January on the New Calendar). The Nativity Fast begins for us on 28th November (New Calendar) and therefore coincides with both the run-up to Western Christmas and the festival itself.

Western Christmas has become an almost completely non-religious festival in the UK, but the practice of giving gifts at Christmas has a Christian foundation. St. Nicholas of Myra, whose memory we celebrate on 6th/19th December, was the inspiration for Santa Claus due to his practice of leaving gifts anonymously for the poor.

On the 12th/25th November, just before the start of the Nativity Fast, we celebrate two more saints who are famous for their deeds of mercy to the poor. St. John the Almsgiver (right) became Patriarch of Alexandra in 610 AD and immediately asked for a complete census of all the poor and beggars in the city – there were found to be over 7500.  St. John decreed that they were all to be clothed and fed every day and said: ‘Those whom you call poor and beggars, these I proclaim my masters and helpers. For they, and they only, are really able to help us and bestow upon us the Kingdom of Heaven.’

St. John also built hospitals and refuges for refugees feeling from the capture of Jerusalem by the Persians and used up the resources of the Church to feed and care for them. St. John reposed in 619 in his homeland of Cyprus.

In the Greek Church, the memory of St. Martin of Tours is also kept on 12th November. St. Martin, like St. John the Almsgiver, was known as ‘The Merciful’ during his life for his many acts of charity to the poor.

St. Martin was born in 316 in Pannonia (modern-day Hungary) but he grew up in Italy. Although his family were pagans, St. Martin received permission to become  a catechumen at the age of ten. Even at a young age, St. Martin was renowned for his acts of mercy to the poor, once cutting his military cloak in two in order to give half to clothe a beggar (left). St. Martin was mocked by his friends for this act, but that night Christ appeared to Him clothed in the cloak that St. Martin had given to the beggar. Christ said: ‘Martin, while still a catechumen has clothed me in this garment.'

St. Martin was baptized soon after and, following his discharge from the army, travelled to Poitiers and became a disciple of St. Hilary. In 371 the people of Tours compelled him to become their bishop. Saint Martin reposed in the year 397.

Using the examples of these two Saints, we can turn the feast of Western Christmas into a useful preparation for the celebration of Orthodox Christmas. The Nativity Fast is a time of repentance and spiritual struggle in order for us to be spiritually nourished and renewed on the Feast of the Nativity of Christ. The ever-memorable Metropolitan Cyprian explains this further:

It is certain that only the Christ-bearing faithful, that is, those who live their Christian calling and identity in repentance and holiness of life, and therefore believe unshakeably that in the God-Man ‘there dwells bodily the fullness of the Divinity’ ­–­ only they I repeat, are able to approach this great Feast and to appreciate its magnitude.  A necessary condition for one to live the Mysteries of our pure Orthodox Faith, and especially the Nativity of our Saviour Christ, is a personal rebirth and renewal through the life of Grace, which is granted to us in the God-built workshop of holiness, our Mother and nourisher, the Church.

Metropolitan Cyprian calls the Church a ‘workshop of holiness’ and this expression illustrates perfectly how we should understand the Church and our role in Her. St. Paul calls us to ‘work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who works in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure (Phil. 2: 12-13). Giving money to the poor (almsgiving) is part of this work we do in order to make sure our faith is living and not dead (cf. James 2:17). 

It is only right that most of the money that our parish gives to charity each year goes to the help the poorest in the world. In the UK we simply do not have the depth of poverty that is found in developing countries where millions of people do not even have access to safe drinking water. Thousands die each day in these countries from a lack of things that we in the U.K. take for granted.

Nevertheless there are levels of poverty in some parts of Europe that have to be seen to be believed. Stranded migrants in Greece, for example, depend on our Church for food and medical care. Many elderly Greeks have to choose between medical care and food: they can’t afford both.  

Western Christmas has, for as long as anyone can remember, been a time for eating, drinking and enjoying time with the family.  We should remember at this time those who do not have anyone to celebrate with, or even a house to celebrate in.

The festive period is an excellent chance to volunteer at a homeless shelter; volunteers are always needed at this time of year. Many Church of England families invite an elderly neighbour to Christmas Dinner and this is something that we should be doing too. Even though Western Christmas is a fast day for us there is nothing stopping us doing something creative with fish, wine and oil! 

Our pure Orthodox Faith, therefore, is the foundation on which a true celebration of Christmas is built on.  As well as being renowned for their compassion, both St. John and St. Martin were unflinching in their opposition to heresy. St. John proclaimed the two natures of Christ in opposition to the Monophysites and St. Martin preached the Divinity of Christ thereby opposing the heresy of Arianism.
Following the example of these saints, we must never compromise our Orthodox Faith. However, genuine Orthodoxy does not consist in theoretically opposing wrong beliefs or theoretically believing correctly. It is only by being ‘rooted and grounded in love’ that we are able to know the ‘love of Christ which passes all knowledge’ (Eph. 3:17,19). If our correct belief is not demonstrated by love of our neighbour we shall be like the barren fig tree (cf. Luke 13:6-9) and consigned with those of whom Christ says: ‘I know you not’ (Matt. 7:23).

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Archbishop Welby is going to Heaven

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, caused a minor stir recently when he said the following in an interview with Alastair Campbell published in GQ magazine.[1]

Campbell: 'Will you go to Heaven?'
Welby: 'Yes.'
Campbell: 'Will I go to Heaven?'
Welby: 'That's up to you.'

Although Archbishop Welby’s answers sound arrogant to Orthodox ears, they are entirely consistent with his beliefs and not just personal conceit. Welby also categorically states in the same interview that he believes in the Virgin Birth and the Divinity of Christ so he is not a liberal in the Anglican sense.

Welby’s background in the Evangelical parish Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) could explain his certainty that he is going to Heaven. HTB became famous in the 1990s for embracing the ‘Toronto Blessing’ and events there made the UK and international press:

The youthful throng buzzes with anticipation more common at a rock concert or a rugby match. After the usual scripture readings, prayers, and singing, the chairs are cleared away. Curate Nicky Gumbel prays that the Holy Spirit will come upon the congregation. Soon, a woman begins laughing. Others gradually join her with hearty belly laughs. A young worshipper falls to the floor, hands twitching. Another falls, then another and another. Within half an hour, there are bodies everywhere as supplicants sob, shake, roar like lions, and strangest of all, laugh uncontrollably.[2]

Alpha Course literature no longer mentions the Toronto Blessing, but earlier editions of the talks that accompany the course mentioned it specifically:

Ellie Mumford told us a little bit of what she had seen in Toronto then she said ‘Now we’ll invite the Holy Spirit to come’ and the moment she said that, one of the people there was thrown, literally, across the room and was lying on the floor, just howling and laughing … making the most incredible noise … [3]

This behaviour resembles the actions of those possessed by demons that we read about in the Gospels:  

And one of the multitude answered and said, Teacher, I have brought unto you my son, who has a dumb spirit; And wherever he takes him, he throws him down: and he foams, and gnashes with his teeth, and wastes away: and I spoke to your disciples that they should cast him out; and they could not. He answered him, and said, O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I bear with you? Bring him unto me. And they brought him unto him: and when he saw him, immediately the spirit convulsed him; and he fell on the ground, and wallowed foaming (Matt. 9:17-20).

At Pentecost, the apostles did not bark like dogs, roar like lions or writhe on the ground. On the contrary, as we hear in the service for Pentecost, ‘each one of them there present heard spoken his native tongue’. In other words, the apostles were given the gift of speaking foreign languages. 

We don’t have time in this article to discuss the Alpha Course in great detail, but the Course, and the worship at HTB are rooted in the so-called Faith Movement. This movement promotes many heretical beliefs, one of which, ‘faith in faith’, is outlined below by the Baptist pastor Dr. Nick Needham:

‘Faith’ is an independent spiritual force, a basic law of the universe. God Himself is a ‘faith God’: He created the universe by His faith. This involved God in visualising the universe in His imagination, and then speaking it into existence with ‘faith-filled words’—saying ‘Let it be’ and believing that it would be. Man also can use the same power and create his own reality. This involves visualising what you want, and then speaking it into existence with faith in your creative words (‘Positive confession’—sometimes called ‘Name it and claim it’).[4]

According to the above theory, people can ‘create’ reality by wishing it into existence. Followers of the Alpha Course, for example, invite Jesus into their life and this becomes a reality because they have ‘named it and claimed it’. This theory also explains why follows of the Alpha Course believe that they will go to Heaven.

The Alpha Course has also been criticized by Reformed Protestants for promoting ‘easy believism’ – the belief that one needs to accept Christ as Saviour but not necessarily as Lord. In other words, ‘easy believers’ can continue their lives without obeying Christ’s commandments as long as they accept Christ as Saviour. In similar fashion, the Alpha Course ignores Christ’s role as Judge and Lord in order to promote a more accessible Jesus. HTB’s own magazine describes the course as ‘fun and unthreatening - just like our Lord Himself!’ [5]

We have only quoted a small part of Welby’s interview, but it is clear that the idea he is putting forward here is not Orthodox. We cannot be saved simply by telling ourselves we are. Nor can people can save themselves solely by their own actions. This idea was condemned by the Orthodox Church in the fifth century – it is called the heresy of Pelagianism.

People who are convinced that they are going to Heaven are forgetting that we will be judged by God for our deeds on earth as Saint Paul teaches: ‘For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad’ (2.Cor. 5:10).

Christ is the Judge of All and Almighty God. Christ Himself says: ‘As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is just, because I do not seek My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me (John 5:30) ‘And yet if I judge, my judgment is true: for I am not alone, but I and the Father that sent me' (John 8:16).

We preach Christ as Saviour and Lord Who, when He comes again in glory, will reveal the hidden things of darkness and make manifest the counsels of our hearts (cf. 1. Cor. 4:5). Christ teaches:

Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? And in thy name have cast out devils? And in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, you that work iniquity (Matt. 7: 22-23).

Even though Christ is a Just Judge, the chances of us entering the Kingdom of Heaven are far from certain. Even St. Paul did not dare to say that he was already saved or going to heaven: ‘Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own’ (Phil. 3:12). In a similar vein, St. Paul likens our Christian life to an athletic race: ‘Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain (1. Cor. 9:24).

We must repent of our sins and struggle to run the race well, but we cannot earn salvation by our works. It is for reason that the Church describes our spiritual life as cooperation with the Holy Spirit. This cooperation between our works on earth and grace is called synergy. St. Paul uses the word ‘synergy’ in this context when he says: ‘We are fellow workers (synergoi) with God’ (1. Cor. 3:9).  

Salvation is not solely up to us, because as Christ says: ‘Without me ye can do nothing’ (John 15:5). However, our contribution is indispensable because, as St. James the Apostle teaches, ‘Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead (James 2:17).

Our personal salvation is therefore not assured unless we continue to ‘fight the good fight of faith and lay hold on eternal life’ (cf. 1 Cor. 6:12). Who among us can say that we are fighting this good fight as well as we should? Who among us can say that we have no sin? We cannot, therefore, declare that we will go to Heaven.

We are all sinners and we must repent, acknowledging how far we away from even beginning to keep Christ’s commandments. It is for this reason, that time and again in the services of the Orthodox Church we ask for the mercy of God. For example, in the Orthodox funeral service we chant:

I am an image of Thine ineffable glory even though I bear the wounds of sin; take compassion on Thy creature, O Master, and cleanse me by Thy loving-kindness; and grant me the desired fatherland, making me again a dweller of Paradise.

We cannot, like Archbishop Welby, say that we are going to Heaven. We acknowledge that we are sinners, but we trust in the mercy and love of God ‘Who desires that all men be saved and come unto the knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim. 2:4).

[2] Richard Ostling, 'Laughing for the Lord'. Time Magazine. Aug 15, 1994.
[3] Talk 9 Edition 1 (2000)
[5] Alpha News Feb 1997

Saturday, 11 November 2017

The Church is the Body of Christ

By Saint John of Shanghai the Wonderworker

'Christ is the Head of the Body, the Church, which is His Body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all' (Col. 1:18, Eph.1:23). 

In the sacred Scriptures the Church is repeatedly called the Body of Christ. “Rejoice in my sufferings for you … for His body’s sake, which is the Church” (Col. 1:24), writes the holy Apostle Paul. The Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers were given by Christ “for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:11-12). 

At the same time, it is into the Body and Blood of Christ that the bread and wine are changed during the Divine Liturgy, and the faithful partake of them. Thus it was instituted by Christ Himself, when at the Mystical Supper He imparted Communion unto His Apostles with the words, “Take, eat, this is My body; drink ye all from it, this is My blood of the New Testament” (Matt. 26:26-28). 

How at one and the same time can the Body of Christ be manifest both as the Church and as the Holy Mysteries? 

In the one case and in the other the designation “Body of Christ” is not used metaphorically, but in the actual meaning of the words. We believe that the Holy Mysteries, while maintaining the appearance of bread and wine, are the very Body and very Blood of Christ. We also believe and confess that Christ is the Son of the Living God, Who came into the world to save sinners, became a man truly and that His flesh, taken from the Virgin Mary, was actually human flesh; that in body and soul Christ was truly a man in every respect like unto us, except for sin, and that at the same time He remains true God. The Son of God’s Divine Nature was not diminished or changed when He was incarnate, neither was His human nature changed thereby, but it fully retained all its human characteristics. 

The Divinity and the humanity are united in the One Person of the Lord Jesus Christ, without change, and without blending for ever, undivided and inseparably. The Son of God was incarnate so that people might be made ‘partakers of the Divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4), so that man, who had fallen into sin and death, might be freed therefrom and be made immortal.  

When we are united with Christ, we receive Divine Grace, which grants human nature the power of victory over sin and death. The Lord Jesus Christ showed people the way of victory over sin by His teaching and He grants us eternal life, making us participants in His eternal kingdom through His Resurrection. That we might receive this Divine Grace from Him, the closest possible communion with Him is indispensable. Drawing all to Himself by Divine love and uniting them to Himself, the Lord united one to another those who love Him and had come thereunto, uniting them within the One Church.

The Church is unity in Christ, the closest union with Christ for all who rightly believe in Him and love Him, the union of all of them in Christ.  This is what the Church comprises from her earthly part even to her heavenly.
The Son of God came to earth and was incarnate, to raise man to Heaven, to make him again a citizen of Paradise, restoring him again to his original condition of sinlessness and wholeness, and to unite him to Himself. 

This is achieved through the action of the Grace of God, which is imparted through the Church, but it also requires effort on the part of man himself. God saves His fallen creature through His love for him, but man’s love for his Creator is also needed, and without it it is impossible for him to be saved. When it strives towards God and cleaves to the Lord in its humble love, the soul of man receives power, which cleanses it of sin, and strengthens it to battle with sin unto complete victory.
In this battle the body also participates; though it now appears to be the dwelling-place and instrument of sin, it is intended to be the instrument of righteousness and the vessel of sanctity. 

God made man, breathing a Godlike spirit into the animate body which He had first created from the earth. The body must be the instrument of the soul which is subservient to God. Through it the soul of man is manifest in the material world. Through the body and its particular members, the soul reveals its characteristics and the nature which God has given it as His image, and thus the body is a manifestation of the image of God and “our beauty is fashioned after the image of God” (verses from the Funeral Service). 

When the first-created people fell away from their Creator spiritually, the body, which hitherto had been subservient to the soul, receiving its orders through the soul, ceased to be subject unto it and began to strive to rule over it. The law of the flesh took the place of the law of God within man.
Sin, which thus cut man off from the source of life, God, also separated man himself. He lost the oneness in his soul, between soul and body, and death came upon him. The soul, no longer watered by the streams of life, could no longer impart them to the body. The body became corruptible, languidness became the portion of the soul. 

Christ came to earth to raise up the fallen image again, and to bring it back to unity with Him, Whose image it was. Uniting him with Himself, God elevated man to his original goodness in all its fullness.

Granting grace and sanctification to the soul, Christ also purified, strengthened, healed and hallowed soul and body. ‘He that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit with the Lord’ (1 Cor. 6:17). The body, then, of the man united with the Lord, must be the Lord’s instrument, serving for the fulfilment of His will and being part of the Body of Christ. 

That man might be wholly sanctified, the body of the servant of the Lord must be united with the Body of Christ, and this is achieved in the Mystery of Holy Communion. The very Body and very Blood of Christ, which we partake of, become part of the great Body of Christ.

Of course, for there to be union with Christ, it is not enough simply to unite our body with the Body of Christ. The tasting of the Body of Christ becomes beneficial, when with the soul we strive towards Him and are united with Him. The reception of the Body of Christ, when spiritually we are turning aside from Him, is like the touching of Christ by those who beat Him, and scourged Him and crucified Him. Their contact with Him did not serve for their salvation or healing, but was unto condemnation. 

Those who receive Communion, though, with reverence, love and a readiness to place themselves at His service, intimately unite themselves with Him, and they become instruments of His Divine will. 

‘He that eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood dwelleth in Me, and I in him’ (John 6:56). 

Having united himself with the Risen Lord, and through Him with the whole Ever-Existing Trinity, a man draws strength from Him unto eternal life and himself becomes immortal. 

‘As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth Me, even he shall live by Me’ (John 6:57). 

All those who believe in Christ and are united with Him by giving themselves to Him and through the reception of the Grace of God together comprise the Church of Christ, the Head of which is Christ Himself, and those enter into Him are His members. 

Invisible to the physical eye, Christ clearly manifests Himself on earth through His Church, just as the soul of man, which is invisible, manifests itself through its body. The Church is the Body of Christ because her members are united with Christ through His Divine Mysteries, and because through her Christ acts within the world. 

We commune of the Body and Blood of Christ so that we might be members of the Body of Christ (the Church). 

This is not achieved instantaneously. The fullest abiding in the Church is the condition of victory over sin and a complete cleansing therefrom. Everything sinful to a certain degree alienates us from the Church and separates us from the Church. This is why, at confession, this prayer is read over every penitent: ‘Reconcile, and unite to Thy holy Church.’ Through repentance the Christian is cleansed; in the communion of the Holy Mysteries he is united most closely with Christ, but then again the dust of sin settles upon him and he is estranged from Christ and the Church and therefore again needs repentance and Communion. 

Right until a man’s earthly life ends, to the very departure of his soul from the body, the battle between sin and righteousness continues within him. However exalted, spiritual or moral a condition he may have reached, it is possible for him by degrees or even precipitately to fall deeply into the abyss of sin. So it is indispensable for us, at each and every communion of the holy Body and Blood of Christ, to strengthen our communion with Him and bedew ourselves with the living streams of the Grace of the Holy Spirit which flow within the Body of the Church. The importance of communing of the Holy Mysteries is demonstrated by the Life of the venerable Onouphrius the Great, to whom, along with the other hermits who dwelt in that desert, the Angels brought Holy Communion; by the venerable Mary of Egypt whose last wish, after many years of living in the desert, was to receive the Holy Mysteries; by the venerable Sabbatius of Solovki and by a host of others. It was not vainly that the Lord said: ‘Amen, Amen, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, ye have no life in you’ (John 6:53). 

The communion of the Body and Blood of Christ is the reception within oneself of the Risen Christ, the Conqueror of death, Who grants to those who are with Him victory over sin and death.

When we preserve in ourselves the grace-filled gift of Communion, we have the pledge and presaging of the blessed life of soul and body. 

Until the very 'Day of Christ', His second Coming and Judgment of all the world, the battle between sin and righteousness will continue, both within each individual man, and among all mankind.
The earthly Church unites all those born again by way of Baptism, who have taken up the Cross of the battle with sin, and who follow the Contest-setter of that battle, Christ. The Divine Eucharist, the offering of the bloodless sacrifice and the communion thereof, sanctifies and strengthens those who participate; it makes those who taste of the Body and Blood of Christ true members of His Body, the Church. But it is only at death that a man may determine whether until his last breath he was actually a member of the Body of Christ, or whether sin prevailed within him and expelled the grace that he had received in the Holy Mysteries and which bound him to Christ. 

He who dies in grace, as a member of the earthly Church, is translated from the Church on earth to that in heaven, but he who has forsaken the earthly [Church] does not enter into the heavenly, for that part of the Church which is on earth is the road to the heavenly. 

The more a man finds himself under the action of the grace of Communion and the more closely he binds himself to Christ, the more he will inherit communion with Christ in His Kingdom which is to come.

But if sin continues to act in a man’s soul even unto death, then his body will be subject to its consequences, which bear in themselves sickness and death, and from them it will only be liberated when it decomposes after the death of that man and when it rises free of them in the General Resurrection. He who is united soul and body to Christ in this life, will be united with Him soul and body in the life to come. The grace-filled streams of the Life-creating Mysteries of the Body and Blood of Christ are manifest as the sources of our eternal joy in communion with the Risen Christ and in seeing His glory face to face. 

Even though sin does not completely alienate one from the race of man, nonetheless its consequences act not only upon individual people, but, through them, upon them upon the earthly activity of the whole Church. Constantly heresies, schisms and disorders appear, tearing away a portion of the faithful. From of old, breaks in commemoration between the local churches or within sections of them have agitated the Church, and in the Divine services we constantly hear prayers that such things might be cut short. 

‘We ask for concord among the Churches’, ‘the union of the Churches’ (Canon of the Resurrection, Plagal Fourth Tone), ‘that the dissension of the Churches might be set in order’ (Service of the Archangels, 8th November) ­– these and other similar petitions has the Orthodox Church offered up over the course of the centuries. On the Great Sabbath itself, before the Winding-Sheet, the Church cries out: ‘Birthgiver of Life, O most blameless and most holy Virgin: Quell every offence within our most Holy Church, blessing us with peace forever, O Good Maid’. 

Only when Christ appears in the clouds, will the tempter be trampled down and only then will all offences and temptations disappear. 

When the battle between good and evil, between life and death, is finished, then will the Church on earth be delivered into the Church Triumphant, in which “God will be all in all” (see 1 Cor. 15:28). 

In the coming Kingdom of Christ, there will be no need to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, for all those who have been deemed worthy will be in the closest bodily communion with Him and will delight in the pre-eternal light of the Life-originating Trinity, experiencing a blessedness which no tongue can describe and which our feeble minds cannot comprehend. Therefore, after the communion of the holy Mysteries of Christ at the Liturgy, in the sanctuary they always say the prayer which is sung on the paschal days, ‘O great and most sacred Pascha, Christ; O Wisdom and Word and power of God! Grant that we may partake of Thee fully in the unwaning day of Thy kingdom.’
Translated from Slova - the Homilies of St John of Shanghai, published by Russkiy Pastyr in San Francisco, in 1994.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Poppies and Remembrance Day

World War One ended at 11 a.m. on the 11th November 1918 with the signing of the Armistice that signalled the defeat of Germany. As a consequence, the 11th of November is kept as Remembrance Day on which we commemorate those members of the British and Commonwealth armed forces who have died in the service of our country. The nearest Sunday to the 11th is also kept as Remembrance Sunday which is marked by a service led by Bishop of London at the Cenotaph in London. On both days, a two-minute silence is kept at 11 a.m.

Remembrance Sunday is problematic for traditional Orthodox Christians for two reasons. Firstly, there is no provision in the services of the Orthodox Church for a two-minute silence during the Divine Liturgy. Secondly, Remembrance Sunday is essentially a Church of England service, and we should not participate in joint prayers with those who are not Orthodox. These problems however, do not mean that we cannot wear a poppy – far from it! The poppy itself is not a religious symbol and we should all wear one or at least donate to the British Legion’s Poppy Appeal that offers support both to the relatives of the fallen and also to members of the armed forces wounded in the service of our country.

The Poppy Appeal’s symbol, the red poppy, was chosen as a non-religious symbol of remembrance for those fallen in battle because it grew on the battlefields where some of most savage battles of WW1 were fought. These fields had been reduced to a sea of mud by almost continuous shelling and were littered with unburied bodies. The poppy is a symbol of hope that something beautiful can emerge from chaos and bloodshed. The poppy was not chosen because of its blood-red colour. 

It is worth noting that the poppy is a not a symbol of support for British military conflicts. Unfortunately, in recent years wearing a poppy has become a sign of support for the British military rather than symbol of remembrance for the fallen. For example, an ill-judged Poppy Appeal advert stated that we stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with our armed forces – the same phrase Tony Blair used to promise Britain’s support for the Second Iraq War.

The Early Christians honoured the Roman Emperors as St. Peter the Apostle teaches: ‘Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king’ (1 Pet. 2:17). We therefore pray for the Queen in every service of the Orthodox Church because she is our Head of State, and we honour our armed forces because they are servants of the Crown and are prepared to offer their lives in defence of our country. 

Showing respect to our military though, does not mean that we have to approve of every military conflict that they are involved in. It is not at all contradictory to wear a red poppy and at the same time campaign against ill-advised or illegal military interventions.

In addition, we, as Orthodox Christians living in the west, are in a peculiar position because Britain and the Soviet Union were on the same side in WW2. As a result, the British Government had to turn a blind eye to the crimes committed by the Soviet Communists who were directly responsible for an estimated twenty million deaths.

As a result of Communism, Orthodox Christians ended up fighting on both the Axis and Allied sides in WW2. In Greece, for example, Orthodox Christians fought the Nazis and sheltered their Jewish neighbours. In Serbia, hundreds of thousands of Serbian Orthodox men, women and children were tortured and murdered by the Fascist Ustaše in an attempt to ethnically cleanse the Balkans of Orthodox Christians and to crush the Serbs’ support for the Allies. In contrast, in the Soviet Union, many Orthodox Christians fought with the German Wehrmacht to liberate their country from the horrors of Communism.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of British military interventions, we support the Poppy Appeal because the poppy is not a political symbol, but a remembrance of sacrifice. Christ Himself said: ‘Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’ (John 15:13). The men and women that we remember by wearing a poppy died to preserve the freedoms we enjoy in the U.K. today – the most important of which, for us, is the freedom to worship freely as Orthodox Christians. This sacrifice is especially apparent today; members of the armed forces play a vital role by supporting the police in protecting us from terrorism at home in the U.K.  

There is no reason that we cannot wear a poppy on religious grounds. As Orthodox Christians we are trying to uproot evil and hatred from within our hearts, but we realize that nations sometimes have to defend themselves, and others, against tyranny. Every attempt must be made to avoid war, but sometimes war is unavoidable as Saint Philaret of New York (right) explains:

War in itself is absolutely evil, an extremely sad phenomenon and deeply contrary to the very essence of Christianity. Words cannot express how joyous it would be if people ceased to war with one another and peace reigned on earth. Sad reality speaks quite otherwise, however. Only some dreamers far removed from reality and some narrowly one-sided sectarians can pretend that war can be omitted from real life. [1]

An opposition to all war is termed ‘pacifism’. Pacifists are opposed to war in any circumstances. Saint Philaret refers to these people as ‘dreamers’. Their position is neither realistic nor Orthodox.

According to pacifists, war must be prevented at all costs by countries being nice to their enemies. It doesn’t matter if the enemy doesn’t want to be nice or is completely dedicated to evil. For example, British pacifists supported the Nazis during the 1930s. The Peace Pledge Union (PPU) joined with British fascists in proclaiming their support for Nazi Germany at the time when the Nazis were murdering thousands of disabled men, women and children and preparing the Final Solution. Their support continued even after the start of WW2. 

We are called by Christ to be peacemakers (cf. Matt. 5:9), but Christ Himself tells us that ‘ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass…’(Matt. 24:6). It is clear then, from Christ’s words that wars cannot be avoided. Genuine Orthodox peacemakers do not naively oppose all war, but strive to purify their hearts by repentance and by rooting out all malice and hatred for their neighbour. Christ calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (cf. Matt. 5:44). Acting in this way requires an extremely high degree of spiritual strength. Nonetheless, the saints of the Orthodox Church have achieved this by their love for God and neighbour.

God gave the command ‘Thou shalt not kill’ (Ex. 20:13) as one of the Ten Commandments, but He also commanded the Israelites to fight against their enemies. This verse is more accurately translated as ‘Thou shalt not murder’ which is a very different act from killing someone in warfare. We are actually called to a much higher commandment. Christ teaches: ‘You have heard that it was said to the ancients, “Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.” But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment’ (Matt. 5:21).

The Christian martyrs are perhaps the perfect examples of what Christ commanded and what St. Peter teaches here: ‘Do not render evil for evil, or railing for railing: but on the contrary blessing; knowing that you are unto this called, that you should inherit a blessing’ (1. Pet. 3:9). The martyrs surrendered themselves to the sword and fire for the love of God, but there are also many Orthodox saints who are remembered not only for their piety but also as leaders of their Orthodox people in wars.

For many years, the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) that we mentioned above has been promoting the white poppy as an alternative to the traditional red poppy. The white poppy seems harmless enough, but it is a symbol of the wider peace movement. We have mentioned the PPU’s support of fascism during WW2. In addition, during the Cold War many other western peace organisations were simply fronts for Soviet political activities. These ‘peace’ organizations called for the disarmament of NATO forces, but were silent about the millions killed by Communism in the Soviet Union. For these pacifists, the word ‘peace’ actually meant ‘communist victory’.

Even though pacifism is not Orthodox, the taking of human life is a sin however it occurs. Even soldiers who have justifiably taken human life in battle are still called to repentance by the Church. In his 13th Canon Basil the Great states:

Our Fathers did not consider the killings committed in the course of wars to be classifiable as murders at all, on the score, it seems to me, of allowing a pardon to men fighting in defence of sobriety and piety. Perhaps, though, it might be advisable to refuse them communion for three years, on the ground that they are not clean-handed.

We mentioned above that we do not take part in Remembrance Sunday services. The Orthodox Church has Her own services of remembrance for the departed. We commemorate all departed Orthodox Christians on the Soul Sabbaths throughout the year. More specifically we commemorate those Orthodox Christians fallen in battle on the feast of the Beheading of the Forerunner.

We have mentioned praying for Orthodox Christians who have died in battles, but how do we remember non-Orthodox British and Commonwealth soldiers who have given their lives in the service of our country? 

We can pray for the non-Orthodox fallen in battle in our private prayers; the Holy Martyr Varus (right) is called upon in particular to intercede on their behalf. We can give money to charity on their behalf by supporting the Poppy Appeal. Throughout out the year we can help veterans in our parish and the wider community by visiting them and inviting them to our homes especially if they are living on their own. 

Our support for the Poppy Appeal is completely compatible with traditional Orthodoxy. We shall conclude with the some words of Saint Cyril the Enlightener of the Slavs on how we should behave as Orthodox Christians: ‘We meekly endure personal offences; but as a society, we defend each other, laying down or lives for our neighbours’.

[1] Metropolitan Philaret, The Law of God (Chilliwack: Synaxis Press) p.65

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Homily on the Prayer 'Our Father'

 By Father George Cheremetieff

We normally say this prayer by heart, quickly and without attention, and we think that this will please God! I think that such prayer only upsets our Creator. It is easy to say this prayer without attention. But if we reflect upon each petition, this will seem wrong. It is always possible to be hypocritical, but one cannot deceive God. Let us look at the petitions:
Our Father, Which art in the Heavens!

Do we really behave like children of the Great Father and God? How do we dare to call Him Father without fear and trembling?
Hallowed be Thy Name.

How can we make His holy name holy? It is only falsely that we hallow it by hypocritical words, such as the Pharisees whom we condemn used. We can only really hallow the name of the Lord with a good life and chaste thoughts. How far we are from doing this!
Thy Kingdom come.

The Kingdom of God will only come when we all live according to God. Are we really preparing the coming of the Kingdom of God by our lives?

Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.

In Heaven, God's will is fulfilled unflinchingly. And do we on earth really do God's will? No! We want to do our own will, and so in this prayer again we are being hypocritical.
Give us this day our daily bread.

Which means give us today that food which is indispensable for the life of the body. But then we think that this is too little. But we want a little more to spare, so that we can lay some up for the future, and not just enough for today. We do not have faith that the Lord will not abandon us, and we trust God less and less.
And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.

This is what we read. But so that it should accord with our life in reality, we should say: 'And do not forgive us our debts, because we do not forgive our debtors.'
And lead us not into temptation.

We ask this, but we rush after temptations, like wasps after honey. Sin seems so sweet before we commit it, but afterwards we see that we are left naked before the sin. And we still have no desire to mend our ways.
But deliver us from the evil one.

We ask to be delivered from him, and from all the evil which he creates and maintains. But we ourselves do evil and want to do our neighbour evil. And in this way we serve the evil, guileful tempter. So this our petition is hypocritical as well.

Looking at it honestly, there is reason for a man to be horrified. But it is not necessary to lose hope; one cannot be freed from it straightaway. But with God's help, through His Holy Mysteries we can gradually be delivered from hypocrisy, defilement and deception.

One must only remember that by ourselves we can do nothing, and that there is nothing to be proud about. We must humbly beg God's help, and having received it bring and instill into our life one supplication after another. And each one will take much time. And God grant that we might at least fulfil some of these petitions in our life. This is exactly how the Lord's Prayer should act in our life, transfiguring that life and illumining it. This is how we should work on ourselves, honestly and unceasingly. Only do not weaken; only do not get into temptations,and do not give up under the seductions of the dark powers. They seem so deceptively beautiful and enjoyable. And so we do not wish for a moment to understand what deception, what destruction and what filth is contained in them.

We have no strength to turn to God with the heartfelt prayer, 'O Lord, be gracious unto Thy creation.' 'In our thoughts which have been taken captive,' we can find no 'word of appeal'. If we make supplication for it, then often it is only with the lips. But inside we are thinking, 'I will leave it for today; tomorrow, I will repent.' And tomorrow again there is no repentance. And if sudden death were to come, then there would be no tomorrow. Then again, sometimes with the help of God, which is never sparing, we throw off a passion. But then we must again begin the ascent of the ladder of the petitions in the Lord's Prayer. And one day of warfare follows another. And, at the end, unremarked the sunset of life draws near, and the vision that has been enlightened by the struggle perceives the quiet light of evening.

If, with the help of God, the practice of the Lord's Prayer proceeds well, then we shall begin with faith to transcend even its last petition, and experience deliverance from the evil one. O Lord, let not the enemy disturb the quiet evening of my life. And then, crossing over from this earthly boundary, we shall be able joyously to glorify the Lord with all our soul, and with faith to cry out: 'For Thine is the Kingdom, the power and the glory, of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen'.

Saturday, 14 October 2017