Sunday of Zacchaeus

1 Timothy 4:9-16; Luke 19:1-10

Though there is no special office for this Sunday, it is commonly seen as the beginning of our preparation for the Feast of our Lord’s Resurrection. Today we must be Zacchaeus. When Jesus came to Jericho, “Now a man there named Zacchaeus, who was a chief tax collector and also a wealthy man, was seeking to see who Jesus was; but he could not see him because of the crowd, for he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus, who was about to pass that way.” Today is where we start our search for God, who is coming to take away the sin of the world. Today we must be filled with the desire to see God, as was Zacchaeus. Today we must acknowledge our sins, for Jesus is coming to St. Stephens in Phoenix, today he is coming into our homes, more exactly, into the home of our heart. What a contrast between Zacchaeus and the Blind Man of last week’s gospel, who could not see and begged Jesus for sight. Zacchaeus could see and yet climbs the sycamore tree to get the best possible view. What a contrast between Zacchaeus and the rich young man of two Sundays ago.

The rich young man could not let even one penny of his riches escape his grasp, but Zacchaeus says, “Half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.” Today, Jesus tells us, “Salvation has come to this home.” It is already Pascha, if we turn to our Lord in his mercy, if we seek him with the zeal of Zacchaeus.

Today St. Paul’s promise is fulfilled, “We have set our hope on the living God, who is the savior of all, especially of those who believe” (1 Timothy 4:10). Today we must be among those who believe.

Meditation by Archpriest David Petras

Blessing of Water

As a cradle Byzantine, my memories of church when I was a young boy are spotty. They touch only those aspects that somehow grasped my attention. One of these was the blessing of the water on Theophany: the solemn prayer, the priest lifting up the trikirion and thrusting it into the water, the going up to receive the holy water for our home. I don’t remember how much I understood, but this was a very powerful part of our faith.

The Christian faith does not depend on exotic substances, in magical elixirs, in secret formulas, but the Christian faith is the transformation of simple gifts of life – of water, of bread, of wine, of oil. Our water is no longer ordinary water, but it has been touched by the feet of God incarnate. Merely to see this day, merely to drink this water, merely to pray to Jesus baptized by a human hand transforms us. We need water to live, to drink it for nourishment, to wash with it to be kept clean, and now to be baptized with it for the life and cleansing of our souls as well as our bodies. The prayer for the consecration of water on Theophany may be said to be thrilling. We use words in ways we do not usually use them. The words come to the water, and all creation is transformed.

And so the priest prays: “By your will you brought forth all things from nothingness into being; by your might you control creation, and by your providence you govern the world. You created all things from four elements, and crowned the cycle of the year with four seasons. The spiritual powers tremble before you. The sun praises you, the moon glorifies you, the stars serve you. Light obeys you, the depths tremble before you, and the springs adore you. You spread out the heavens like a tent. You established the earth upon the waters. You fringed the seas with beaches of sand. You poured forth air for breathing. The angelic powers serve you; the ranks of archangels worship you; the many-eyed cherubim and the six-winged seraphim stand before you or hover over you, yet they dare not gaze at your unapproachable glory. Although you are God, boundless, indescribable, and without beginning, you came upon earth, and taking the likeness of a servant, became like one of us.”

Theophany – God is manifest! Nothing will ever be the same again, and it is in all these created elements that are free and available to us all.

Schmemann at the beginning of 2018

At the beginning of a new year the following words of Father Alexander Schmemann give us much to think about:

“…What then gives meaning to a particular day, to the TODAY we live in? Is it not simply one day out of a long sequence of days that each one of us has to live through? Yet for me, as a Christian, its new and deep meaning comes from the past. It is a day related to Christ’s coming into the world, a day AFTER His coming, and thus the Christian is the one who first of all, REMEMBERS. He can forget Christ; he can wake up in the morning and think only of the petty concerns of that particular day, yet, on a deeper level, even these minor concerns become a very different experience if he remembers that he is not simply John Smith who has to do this or that, but the one to whom Christ has come, whose life Christ has assumed and has given new meaning. “Today,” however, has a second meaning, because it is also a day BEFORE Christ’s return. Thus I am always living between the two comings of Christ: the one in the past, the other in the future. And finally, the meaning of TODAY comes to me from the words of Christ, who says that He is ALWAYS with me. “And lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Mt 27:20). Past, present, future – we see that the time in which we live is not only the time of the calendar, but the time that is shaped from inside and transformed by faith, by Christian experience. It is related to the coming of Christ in the past, to His coming in the future, and to His presence now…”

Sunday after Christmas: Commemorating of David, Joseph and James

On this Sunday, we commemorate three men who had a relationship with Jesus: David, his forefather; Joseph, his foster father; and James, his brother through Joseph. Each of these man were shown mercy by God. David committed a great sin, to win the wife of Uriah, he had Uriah put into the front lines of battle, so that he was killed. The prophet Nathan brought this sin to light and David did repentance and lost his son.

Joseph found Mary pregnant and decided to divorce her, but an angel told him to take her as his wife. James was among Jesus’ relatives who did not accept him as a prophet, but after the resurrection, he repented and became the leader of the church at Jerusalem.

We might remember also three women who were among Jesus’ foremothers. Rachel was the wife of Jacob, who loved her more than Leah. However, when Jacob worked for seven years for Laban to win Rachel’s hand, Laban insisted he marry his eldest daughter Leah. Jacob then worked another seven years for Rachel. However, Rachel was barren until finally she gave birth to Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son. Jacob took his family and fled Laban, and Rachel stole Laban’s family icons. When Laban caught up with Jacob, Jacob cursed the thief of his icons, not knowing that it was his beloved wife Rachel. The curse was fulfilled when Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin. Rachel is mentioned in today’s Gospel as weeping when the children of Bethlehem are massacred by King Herod, but the gospel says, “no comfort for her, for they are no more.”

We might also mention Ruth, who was a foreigner – like the Magi. She married a Hebrew man from Bethlehem who died, and Ruth followed her mother-in-law back to Bethlehem, and there tricked Boaz into marriage, becoming the great-grandmother of David and ancestor of our Lord.

We might also mention Tamar, who lost her husband, whose brother refused to have children by her. She disguised herself as a prostitute and became pregnant with her father-in-law, Judah, who wanted to have her executed for prostitution until he was shown to be the father. So she, too, became an ancestor of Jesus through trickery.

Does not today’s feast remind us that we all have a relationship now with God through our Lord Jesus Christ and we are all in need of his mercy.

Synaxis of the Theotokos

Many Byzantine feasts have a commemoration on the day after a great feast called a “synaxis,” that is, an “assembly” or “gathering” in honor of one who participated in the feast. No more honorable person could ever be found than the holy Lady, the Mother of God.

This feast of her Synaxis was actually the most ancient, the first, celebration of her memory on the church calendar, because her giving birth to the Son of God was truly her greatest glory. It was by her free will, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word. (Luke 1:38),” that our God and Creator became one of us. It was certainly her joy that she gave birth to this child, but we commemorate on this day all the suffering she bore because of her choice, the near repudiation by Joseph, the persecution of her son by Herod, causing them to flee for their lives to Egypt, until, at the end, she had to endure seeing her beloved son crucified as a common criminal on the cross. So Simeon the prophet told her, “ “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted, and you yourself a sword will pierce, so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. (Luke 2:34-35)” Truly, she became by her suffering an intercessor with her Son.

We must ask if we are prepared, as St. Paul, who wrote “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body. (Colossians 1:24)” We also have the comfort of knowing, if we unite our will with that of Mary, that we, too, can become bearers of God through Communion in his Body and Blood by our own free will.

Meditation by Archpriest David Petras

Christmas

The Christmas Day Liturgy Gospel is the story of the Magi, the astrologers from Persia, who discover the birth of the King of Kings by observing the stars. In this way, they are brought from the pagan superstition to worship of the one true God.
 
The Christmas Troparion is about these Magi: “Your birth, O Christ our God, has shed upon the world the light of knowledge; for through it, those who worshipped the stars have learned from a star to worship you, the Sun of Justice, and to know you, the Dawn from on High. Glory to you, O Lord!”
 
The psalms of the antiphons are chosen both because they are together in the Book of Psalms (Psalms 109-110-111) and because they shine light on the feast. The Entrance Hymn, Psalm 109:3-4) are a prophecy of Christ, “From the womb, before the morning star, I have begotten you. The Lord has sworn and he will not repent: You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchisedek.” Of Melchisedek, because, as the Vigil Ambon Prayer says, Christ is “without father (according to the flesh), without mother or ancestry (in his eternal birth from the Father, though he is born of a virgin mother, and of the house of David).
 
The Ambon Prayer explains, “For in your eternal birth a woman had no part, nor a man in your becoming flesh in time.” People today sometimes have an “allergic reaction” against dogma, but this dogma tells us what the birth of Christ means for us. It is, as St. Paul tells us, “Christ in you, the hope for glory. (Colossians 1:27)” We all come from a human father and mother, we all have a human ancestry, but our lives are limited by these circumstances. We come into the world by birth from a mother, and in the end we all must die, but the birth of Christ now gives an infinite value to the lives of each and every one of us. Psalm 86, sung at the Royal Hours, proclaims, “Zion shall be called ‘Mother’, for all (each and everyone of us) shall be her children (we are children of the one God).” The Psalm continues “It is he, the Lord Most High, who gives each his place. In his register of peoples he writes ’These are her children.’” The census of Jerusalem at the birth of Christ is thus made eternal.
 
We are all now “Christians,” registered in the name of Christ forever. Christmas, therefore, is a baptismal feast, for by baptism we are registered in the name of God, “the servant of God (name) is baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” At this Liturgy, then, we sing “All you who have been baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ!” Truly “Alleluia!” Melchisedek also means that Christ is our High Priest. It is he alone who mediates between God and humankind, he alone is the Savior who reconciles God and humankind, and he offered the one true sacrifice, now and forever. We see his sacrifice in his death on the Cross and his Resurrection, for sacrifices do not end in annihilation, but in life. Christ’s sacrifice as the one High Priesthood, in which we all share, brings life, and it begins today, for in his very coming into this world, the sacrifice is initiated. Today, he begins to offer himself to the Father, as he prays before his passion, “not my will, but yours be done, O Father.” This is why the dogma that he is “the Transcendent One,” the “Unapproachable,” now made approachable as a homeless Baby in the cave, is essential to an understanding of the feast. It is the way we “come to share in the divine nature. (2 Peter 1:4)” Christ comes from eternity, “from before the morning star,” he alone is the light of the world, “the Dawn from on High.” All of this, in every detail, is reaffirmed in the Epistle, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption. As proof that you are children, God sent the spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying out, ‘Abba, Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.” (Galatians 4:4-7)
 
The Ambon Prayer is again our profession of faith, “O Christ our God, from before all ages, you shone forth from the eternal Father and were not liable to suffering.” To the one now, “encompassing all things” in his divinity and making it possible for us to be God-like, (though we were in the image and likeness of God from creation) to the one now born in the cave and wrapped in restricting swaddling clothes, we offer our simple praise, like the gifts “of the praise of the shepherds and the worship and gifts of the Magi.”
 
The worship of the Magi is mentioned first, because although they brought very expensive gifts: gold (because gold was a gift for kings); frankincense (for incense is a gift for priests, who offer incense as a sign of mediation before God), and myrrh (because myrrh was used to bury the dead, and Christ was to die for our salvation), their greatest gift is simply their worship and praise. If we can offer Christ the gift of our faith, this makes the expensive gifts of the Magi mere trifles. “O Son of God, born of the virgin, save us who sing to you, alleluia.”
Meditation by Archpriest David Petras

Holy Supper on Christmas Eve

A twelve-dish Christmas Eve supper is traditionally prepared in many Eastern European and Northern European cultures, especially those that were formerly part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, including Polish, Lithuanian and Ukrainian. The meal (Lithuanian: Kūčios, Polish: Wigilia or wieczerza wigilijna, Ukrainian: Свята вечеря, Sviata vecheria) consists of twelve meatless dishes representing the twelve months of the year. The tradition of the supper can be traced back to pre-Christian times and connected with remembrance of the souls of deceased ancestors.

In some parts of Poland a similar tradition of thirteen meatless dishes on Christmas Eve is practiced.

The specific dishes may differ from country to country, but many of them are universal. Due to the Nativity Fast, no meat, eggs or milk (including cheese) are allowed during the supper. Thus fish, mushrooms and various types of grain are the main offerings.

In Poland and Ukraine the supper begins with eating soup. Kutia, poppy milk (aguonų pienas) together with kūčiukai are served as a dessert and forms a significant part of the Lithuanian Christmas Eve menu. Poppy seeds are widely used for Christmas Eve dishes, because they symbolize abundance and prosperity.

Regarding the fish dishes, usually herring, carp or pike are eaten. In Lithuania herring (Lithuanian: silkė) dishes are rich and variable. Usually silkė su morkomis (herring with carrots), or silkė su grybais (herring with mushrooms) are served on Christmas Eve.

Mushrooms, especially dried or pickled, are also one of the main dishes eaten on Christmas Eve. Sauerkraut (Polish: Kiszona kapusta, Russian: Ква́шеная капу́ста, Kváshyenaya kapústa) with wild mushrooms or peas, red borsch, mushroom or fish soups are eaten in Poland and Ukraine.

Boiled or deep fried dumplings (Polish: pierogi, Ukrainian: вареники, varenyky, Lithuanian: auselės) with a wide variety of fillings (including sweet cabbage, mushrooms and crushed poppy seeds), are among the most popular dishes. Doughnuts filled with jam (Polish: pączki, Ukrainian: пампушки, pampushky) are served for a dessert in Ukraine, but in Lithuania sweet dishes are not common, as they are believed inappropriate for the atmosphere of the evening.

Traditional Ukrainian Sviata vecheria meal.

As for beverages, traditionally dried fruit compote or cranberry kisiel (Lithuanian: spanguolių kisielius) are common[citation needed]. In earlier times oaten kisiel was more common.

There is the whole ritual before the meal begins. Once the first star appears on the sky, each member of family washes his face, hands and legs in cold water saying: “Be as healthy as this water is.” The most brave people go to local rivers or lakes and have a short swim there. After the water procedure is finished, the family goes on with a prayer, often the Our Father. [1] After the prayer the head of the household will anoint each person present with honey, making the sign of the Cross on their forehead, saying: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: may you have sweetness and many good things in life and in the new year.”

Ukrainian Christmas Traditions

Christmas is a very special celebration for Ukrainians. Many traditions and rituals are observed, and each aspect of Christmas has a special meaning. Everyone is wearing their best clothes and the house has been cleaned top to bottom for the day, although all spider webs are left untouched. Legends about the generosity of spiders at Christmas mean they are not to be disturbed. What else is going on in the house?

Icons and Didukh

Didukh is the Ukrainian name for the wheat sheaf brought into the house on Christmas Eve. It is home for spirits of the ancestors for the season and is made of the very best wheat of the harvest.

Icons are a centerpiece of traditional Ukrainian homes and are usually decorated with rushnyky (embroidered or woven ritual towels). Nativity icons have special significance since they represent beliefs surrounding the birth of Jesus.

Sviatyi Vechir (Holy Supper)

There are many dishes on the table. Usually twelve meatless dishes are served during the Christmas Eve Supper or Sviatyi Vechir (Holy Supper). The food vary from region to region and from family to family, the most common include: kutia (wheat and poppy seed dish), borshch (beet soup), varenyky (perogies), kolachi (braided bread). The dishes are all meatless due to the belief that a Lenten meal cleanses the soul in preparation to welcome the Christ child into ones heart and home.

The Table

There are two tablecloths on the table. The plain bottom one is for the visiting spirits of the dead, while the top one is where the family eats. The blessing of straw is placed between the tablecloths and on the floor under the table to represent the manger. Sometimes candy and coins are hidden in the straw for the children to find after the meal. Gifts are received weeks earlier on St. Nicholas Day.

The Oven

The entire meal is prepared that day on a large oven, or pich; none of the food is prepared in advance.

The First Star

When the first star appears in the sky, like it did that first Holy Night when Christ was born, the Holy Eve. Once it is seen, the meal may start, but not a moment sooner! Supper begins with the lighting of a candle.

The Carolers

Caroling is a very important tradition in Ukraine. It is usually done between Christmas and Malanka (New Year’s Eve in accordance with the Julian calendar). Koliadky are sung for Christmas and shchedrivky were sung around Malanka. The lead caroler carries a star, which is elaborately decorated for the occasion. If you listen closely, you may be able to hear a choir singing right now!

Sunday of the Forefathers

Colossians 3:4: “When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”

This first phrase from today’s Epistle as the Church begins it’s celebration of the birth of our Lord really tells us what Christmas is all about. This is the announcement of the feast. The Word of God, appearing in our world, is the glory of the believer. He appears in humble surroundings, but invites all to the feast!

The gospel (Luke 14:16-24) tells us that those who are well off refuse the invitation, but it is “the poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind,” who come, it is those in “the highways and hedges” who are “compelled to come.” Mary probably realized this when she prophesied, “He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly.” (Luke 1:52) The angels appear to the shepherds in the fields, and they are invited to the house of the Lord. The glory of the Lord is his humility, and our glory is our humility. For all that, everyone is invited to the banquet, and the wise and the rich from Persia come with expensive gifts, though they too are outsiders, and the epistle tells us “there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all.” (Colossians 3:11)

Those who welcome Christ will put aside “anger, wrath, malice….” (Colossians 3:8) The first sticheron at Christmas chants, “let us proclaim the present mystery by which the partition has been broken and the flaming sword withheld. Now the Cherubim shall let us all come to the Tree of Life.”

This is putting Christ back into Christmas!

Meditation by Archpriest David Petras

Twenty-Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Ephesians 6:10-17; Luke 17:12-19

In today’s Epistle, St. Paul tells us, “draw your strength from the Lord and from his mighty power. Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the devil ….take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” The true weapon of the Christian is not the metal sword, but the sword of the word.” Hebrews tells us, “the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12).”

Christians do not meet violence with violence, but when persecuted, follow the Lord’s teaching, “Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand, for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute. (Luke 21:14-15)” Jesus is the Word of God, and his word is powerful indeed, and so the true power Christians comes when we speak in the truth of our Lord. Our human words may not seem that powerful, but words spoken in Christ can transform our lives. This power does not come from us, but from God, therefore, as St. Paul again says, “yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me, (Galatians 2:20)” and yesterday’s epistle says, “If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit. (Galatians 5:25)” All this has meaning in this Christmas season. We give gifts to one another, and parents instruct their children, say “Thank you,” to those who give you gifts. The words “thank you” are more powerful than the material gifts, for they form bonds of love. As Christians, we, too, say words of “thanks” that bind us in love to God, “the giver of every good and perfect gift. (James 1:17, Ambon Prayer).”

In this church, we utter words of thanksgiving, as we offer our Liturgy, a “sacrifice of praise.” That is why we call the Liturgy the Eucharist, the Greek word for “thanksgiving.” And on Christmas, we offer words to the new-born child, “Christ is born! Glorify him.” We must not only say words with our mouth, “for, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:9)” But Jesus has to lament today that only one in ten cured return to give thanks. The gospel tells us that we must give thanks to God, who alone brought us into being and who alone can give us salvation. Jesus tells us today that this is difficult, because it requires humility and an open heart. Thus only one of the ten lepers gives thanks, and the least expected, the foreigner.