Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee

For Byzantine Catholics, Sunday Feb. 10 is the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, which is the first of then “pre-Lenten Sundays.”

The journey of the feast of lights was a journey to specific holy places. It is a journey which we now make in spirit, in order to find the light of Christ. Soon after this journey, we begin another journey, going with our Lord to Jerusalem, as he foretold in the Gospel of St. Luke: “When the days for his being taken up (which John calls his glorification) were fulfilled, he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.” During the Great Fast, then, we make another journey that ends in the holy city of Jerusalem, as Jesus said, “Yet I must continue on my way today, tomorrow, and the following day, for it is impossible that a prophet should die outside of Jerusalem” (Luke 13:33). But his death is his glorification, “by death he tramples death,” and it is the way to resurrection, to a resurrection promised to all. Our journey likewise ends in life (resurrection) and in light, as the Gospel of Paschal Sunday, the Day of Resurrection says, “ The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

The journey to light in the Christmas – Theophany – Encounter cycle ends in the temple, where the incarnate temple of God enters into the holy Temple, and there is proclaimed to the world by Simeon and Anna, who witness to his glory. The journey of the Great Fast then begins in the Temple, and two men go there to pray. One witnesses to pride and self-righteousness, the other to humility and repentance. The whole of the Great Fast is for us to make our choice on which to imitate. To be a Christian means to hear our Lord’s warning, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever exalts himself will be exalted.” This is the central meaning of the Great Fast, as our Lord invites us, “Come and see.”

Meditation by Archpriest David Petras

Thirty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Read: 1 Timothy 1:15-17; Luke 18:35-43 (Readings of the 31st Sunday after Pentecost)

We must learn how to read Scripture. It is not lessons of the past, but the reality of God’s presence among us today, in the here and now. One of the most frequent ways that Jesus steps into our lives is by his works of healing.

In Matthew 11:5 Jesus tells us, “the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.” Today we hear this good news, today the blind see. Jesus often gave sight to the blind, telling them, “Your faith has saved you.” This is what he says to the blind man of Jericho. He cannot see who Jesus is, but when those around him say, “Jesus is passing by,” he immediately shouts as loud as he can, “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me.” For Jesus, though he is the Word of God, has become one of us, of the family of David.

We might think that the gospel is about physical sight, but it is more than that, it is why faith is necessary. All of us, whether physically blind or spiritually blind, need Jesus who said, “I am the light of the world.” This is why we call baptism “enlightenment.” This is why we must confess that Jesus came to save sinners, “of whom we are the first.” We can say this sincerely, because we know the power of sin in our own hearts, and not in the hearts of others.

We will say this today here in this church as we approach Holy Communion, as we approach the light and life of the world today: you are Christ, the Son of the living God, who came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the first.” We say this not to crush ourselves down, but as St. Paul tells us to today’s Epistle, but that we might be “mercifully treated, so that in me, as the foremost, Christ Jesus might display all his patience as an example for those who would come to believe in him for everlasting life.” Only in faith, then, do we see the true “light and life.”

Image: Jesus Healing the Blind Man of Jericho (Codex of Egberti)

Meditation by Archpriest David Petras

The Seal of the Gift of the Holy Spirit

The feast of Theophany is not only about baptism in water, but about the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Kontakion declares, “You have revealed yourself to the world today; and your light, O Lord, has set its seal on us.” When we enter into the life of the Trinity, we receive the gift of the Spirit as the priest anoints us with the words, “the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit.” We find this phrase in the Epistle of St. Paul to the Ephesians, “In [Christ] you also, who have heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and have believed in him, were sealed with the promised holy Spirit, which is the first installment of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s possession, to the praise of his glory” (1:13-14). Today in the Church, there is a movement called the “charismatic movement.” It wants to re-emphasize that all who have been baptized into Christ have received the gift of the Holy Spirit. This manifests itself in different ways according to our individual talents. On the Sunday after Theophany, St. Paul says, “And he gave some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the extent of the full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13).

The Spirit is given so that Christ may live in us according to fullness. When Communion is distributed, the Body and Blood of Christ are united in the cup with the words, “The fullness of the Holy Spirit.” Why are these charisms, these spiritual gifts, not more evident today? Perhaps it is because we are not as open to hearing the Spirit within us, there is too much individualism and pride. The Spirit is given that we might support one another in community, the Spirit does not support our own ideologies, but the truth of God. The words of the gospel and the teaching of the Church cannot contradict the Spirit, but we sometimes give them our own interpretations. The Spirit truly guides us to truth, as Jesus promised, “when he comes, the Spirit of truth, he will guide you to all truth” (John 16:13). However, we must not hear what we “want to hear,” nor the echo of our own thoughts, but only the working of the Holy Spirit, leading us to the Father through Christ.

The Sunday after Christmas

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.

Meditation by Archpriest David Petras

The Three Holy Children

The Byzantine liturgical calendar of the Ukrainian Church has given us today the feast of The Three Holy Children. The feast day commemorates a most fascinating event (experience) of people of faith in the face of evil.

“You did not worship the image circumscribed by hands (χειρόγραφον εἰκόνα), / O thrice-blessed ones, / but armed with the uncircumscribed Essence (ἀγράφῳ οὐσίᾳ), / you were glorified in a trial by fire. / From the midst of unbearable flames you called on God, crying: / Hasten, O compassionate One! / Speedily come to our aid, / for You are merciful and able to do as You will.” (Sunday of the Forefathers, Kontakion-Hymn)

The “thrice-blessed ones” are the Three Holy Children, Shadrach, Mesach, and Abednego, kinsmen of the Prophet Daniel in the tribe of Judah, led away together with him and other Jews into Babylonian Captivity. King Nebuchadnezzar had the three youths thrown into a fiery furnace, (in which they famously remained unharmed), after they refused to worship a golden image of Nebuchadnezzar, which he had constructed and ordered the people to worship (Dan. 3).

Why does this story receive so much “press” in our Church’s liturgical tradition, and especially in the weeks preceding Christmas? Because it signifies the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, on several levels. First, it reflects Daniel’s interpretation of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Dan 2: 31-35), in which a statue made of expensive metals was destroyed by “a rock hewn from a mountain, not by human hands.” The Church understands this “Rock” to signify Jesus Christ, called in our Church’s hymnography the “Rock Hewn Not-by-Hands” (λίθος ἀχειρότμητος / камень нерукосечный), from the “Mountain“ that signifies the Holy Virgin. The power of His coming to us in the flesh destroys the “power” of false deities, “circumscribed by hands.” The faith of the Three Youths, in the True God, overcomes the “power” and fiery flames of Nebuchadnezzar’s falsehood, prefiguring the ultimate victory of Jesus Christ, our death-trampling Lord. And second, the fiery furnace, in which the Three Children remain unharmed, signifies the Virgin Birth, because the Theotokos’s virginity remained intact, and she –unharmed, even though she received, and gave birth to, the “consuming fire” Who is God Himself (Deut. 4: 24).

As we continue to head toward Bethlehem, on this journey of the Nativity Fast, I say Thank You, Lord. I thank You for coming to us, as a Child amongst Your children; entering the “fiery furnace” of our world, and making it safe and even salvific for us. “Speedily come to our aid, for You are merciful and able to do as You will.”

Sunday of the Forefathers

In Colossians 3:4 we read: “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-Ninth Sunday after Pentecost 2018

Read: Colossians 3:12-16; Luke 17:12-19

“And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body. And be thankful” (Colossians 3:15).

“And one of them, realizing he had been healed, returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him. He was a Samaritan. Jesus said in reply, “Ten were cleansed, were they not? Where are the other nine? Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?” (Luke 17:15-18).

This Sunday comes between two great feasts: thanksgiving and Christmas. On Thanksgiving we feed ourselves with the bounties of God’s creation, and, hopefully, thank him for these blessings, because, as we pray in the common Ambon Prayer, “you are the giver of every perfect gift.” On the coming feast of Christmas, we are already thinking of what gifts we can give to each other, and parents will teach their children to give thanks to everyone who gives them a gift. The word for gift in Greek is “eucharist,” which means “to really show favor to another.” If someone shows favor to us, it is humanly natural and normal for us to show favor in return according to our means. Jesus comments the even sinners do good to those who do good to them (Luke 6:33). Of course, sometimes that doesn’t happen and we call that a betrayal. On Christmas, God is the one who shows the greatest favor, as the angels sang at his birth, ““Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14). This gift is God’s only Son, whom the Father gave to the world “so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (John 3:16).

This is so important that we repeat this passage from Scripture in every Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. This gift is also the gift of peace, for St. Paul tells us that Christ is the peace of God, “For he is our peace, he who made both one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity, through his flesh, abolishing the law with its commandments and legal claims, that he might create in himself one new person in place of the two, thus establishing peace” (Ephesians 2:14-15). For this, like the healed leper, we must give thanks to God. But if God shows us this great favor, “what,” as the psalmist says, “can I return to the Lord for all he has given me?” (Psalm 115:3). God has no need of anything that we can give him. What we can give him is our sacrifice of praise, our words of glorification. We are like the little drummer boy in the popular Christmas sing, “I played my best for him.” Precisely in receiving God’s gift of love and peace, we are ourselves transformed into God’s love and peace, so that St. Paul tells us in today’s epistle,. “let the peace of Christ control your hearts,” so that we can “put on then, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another” (Colossians 3:12-13). To do this would be our Christmas thanksgiving.

Twenty-Eighth Sunday after Pentecost 2018

Read: Colossians 1:12-18; Luke 18:18-27

The epistle this Sunday tells us who Jesus truly is. He is the very center of our being. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, …. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead.” St. John tells us the same thing, “All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race” (John 1:3-4). We have the saying, “Put Christ back into Christmas,” but we must take this a step further, “We must put Christ into everything that we are, and in all creation.” Our whole lives must be oriented to Christ, “God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11). This worship is not complete until we imitate the Lord in his love for all who have come to be in his loving-kindness.

In today’s gospel Jesus tells us his will when he tells the young man, “You know the commandments …. There is still one thing left for you: sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have a treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The human problem, perhaps today more than ever, is that we do not have the moral capacity to discern the will of God. The young man was certainly unable to do so, and so our Lord said, “For it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

We consistently confuse our own will for God’s will, and we sing with Frank Sinatra, “I did it my way.” This is because we do not have the moral power to deny ourselves, and look through the eyes of God. The feasts of the birth and of the baptism of Christ are “feasts of light,” as the Fathers taught. St. John tells us that at the birth of Christ, “ the true light, which enlightens everyone, … coming into the world” (John 1:9). The magi saw this light in the star, and the shepherds saw this light in the angels, and both went out of themselves, and came to Bethlehem. Only by leaving their places of comfort, their country or their fields, their work, were they able to see the true light. This is what we must do this Christmas, we must not see our salvation in our own self-interest and comforts, in our own delusions about reality, but only in the good news and the will of God spoken to us through his word, our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Holy Prophet Habakkuk

Today is the feast of the Holy Prophet Habakkuk. As you know, the Byzantine Church pays more attention, liturgically speaking, to the Old Testament prophets.

The fourth Ode of the Canon of Matins is the Hymn of Habakkuk. The Irmosi of the Canon often describe Habakkuk as standing at a guard post (watchtower): “I will stand at my guard post, and station myself upon the rampart; I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what answer he will give to my complaint. (Habakkuk 2:1) Thus, at Paschal Matins, we sing, “Let Habakkuk, speaking in behalf of God, stand with us at the divine watch; let him show us the brilliant Angel who proclaims: “Today, salvation comes to the world; for Christ, being Almighty, is risen.” What Habakkuk saw at his guard post was a vision of the coming of Christ. “God came from Teman, the Holy One from Mount Paran. His glory covered the heavens, and his praise filled the earth; his splendor spread like the light.” Teman is the East, the sunrise from on high in the Christmas Troparion, “those who worshiped the stars have learned from a star to worship you, the Sun of Justice, and to know you, the Dawn from on high.” In the Greek Septuagint, Mount Paran becomes the “dark, shady mountain,” and was seen as a prophecy of the virgin birth of Christ from Mary.

The Christmas Irmos explicitly recognizes this: “O Christ, the rod from Jesse’s root and its flower, you blossomed from the virgin; praiseworthy one, from the overshadowed shady mountain. You came in the flesh from her who knew not man.” What was the result of Christ’s coming, Habakkuk foretells, “He stood and shook the earth; he looked and made the nations tremble. Ancient mountains were shattered, the age-old hills bowed low, age-old orbits collapsed.” The “orbits” were the established journeys of the stars, and indeed, at Christ’s birth, a new star appeared, leading the Magi to Bethlehem.

Habakkuk tells us that our lives will be shaken by the coming of Christ. We must follow the star, for by taking human nature and by rising from the dead, Christ has brought us life.

Meditation by Archpriest David Petras

St Andrew and the work of Christian Unity

It is a legend, but also a symbol, that St. Andrew evangelized the town of Byzantium before it would become a great city. The symbol, therefore, is that Rome, the West, and Constantinople (Byzantium), the East are united in the fraternity of the two apostles, Peter and Paul. In our broken world, the Church is hampered in preaching the gospel by internal divisions. The Catholic and Orthodox Churches are heroically trying to re-unite to preach the one true Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. They are hampered by narrow-minded people in both Churches, who cannot see Christ living in the eucharist of these Churches. There is only one Christ in Holy Communion, and we do not partake of one Christ, and the other another Christ. There is only one Christ born of Mary in Bethlehem, whose Body we cannot divide. Now is the proper time for the one Church to proclaim the one Lord and Savior in the one holy Gospel. We must pray for unity this Christmas that we are not too late.

Meditation by Archpriest David Petras