Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Holy Week: Services of the Bridegroom


Introduction
Beginning on the evening of Palm Sunday and continuing through the evening of Holy Tuesday, the Orthodox Church observes a special service known as the Service of the Bridegroom. Each evening service is the Matins or Orthros service of the following day (e.g. the service held on Sunday evening is the Orthros service for Holy Monday). The name of the service is from the figure of the Bridegroom in the parable of the Ten Virgins found in Matthew 25:1-13.

Background
The first part of Holy Week presents us with an array of themes based chiefly on the last days of Jesus' earthly life. The story of the Passion, as told and recorded by the Evangelists, is preceded by a series of incidents located in Jerusalem and a collection of parables, sayings and discourses centered on Jesus' divine sonship, the kingdom of God, the Parousia, and Jesus' castigation of the hypocrisy and dark motives of the religious leaders. The observances of the first three days of Great Week are rooted in these incidents and sayings. The three days constitute a single liturgical unit. They have the same cycle and system of daily prayer. The Scripture lessons, hymns, commemorations, and ceremonials that make up the festal elements in the respective services of the cycle highlight significant aspects of salvation history, by calling to mind the events that anticipated the Passion and by proclaiming the inevitability and significance of the Parousia.

The Orthros of each of these days is called the Service of the Bridegroom (Akolouthia tou Nimfiou). The name comes from the central figure in the well-known parable of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-13). The title Bridegroom suggests the intimacy of love. It is not without significance that the kingdom of God is compared to a bridal feast and a bridal chamber. The Christ of the Passion is the divine Bridegroom of the Church. The imagery connotes the final union of the Lover and the beloved. The title Bridegroom also suggests the Parousia. In the patristic tradition, the aforementioned parable is related to the Second Coming; and is associated with the need for spiritual vigilance and preparedness, by which we are enabled to keep the divine commandments and receive the blessings of the age to come. The troparion "Behold the Bridegroom comes in the middle of the night…", which is sung at the beginning of the Orthros of Great Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, relates the worshiping community to that essential expectation: watching and waiting for the Lord, who will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Holy Monday
On Holy Monday we commemorate Joseph the Patriarch, the beloved son of Jacob. A major figure of the Old Testament, Joseph's story is told in the final section of the Book of Genesis (chs. 37-50). Because of his exceptional qualities and remarkable life, our patristic and liturgical tradition portrays Joseph as tipos Christou, i.e., as a prototype, prefigurement or image of Christ. The story of Joseph illustrates the mystery of God's providence, promise and redemption. Innocent, chaste and righteous, his life bears witness to the power of God's love and promise. The lesson to be learned from Joseph's life, as it bears upon the ultimate redemption wrought by the death and resurrection of Christ, is summed up in the words he addressed to his brothers who had previously betrayed him, “’Fear not ... As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ Thus he reassured them and comforted them” (Genesis 50:19-21). The commemoration of the noble, blessed and saintly Joseph reminds us that in the great events of the Old Testament, the Church recognizes the realities of the New Testament.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

On the Annunciation to the Holy Virgin Mary by St. Gregory Thaumaturgus


It is our duty to present to God, like sacrifices, all the festivals and hymnal celebrations; and first of all, the annunciation to the holy mother of God, to wit, the salutation made to her by the angel, Hail, thou that art highly favoured! For first of all wisdom and saving doctrine in the New Testament was this salutation, Hail, thou that art highly favoured! conveyed to us from the Father of lights. And this address, highly favoured, embraced the whole nature of men. Hail, thou that art highly favoured in the holy conception and in the glorious pregnancy, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. And again the Lord, who came for the purpose of accomplishing a saving passion, said, I will see you, and you shall rejoice; and your joy no man takes from you. And after His resurrection again, by the hand of the holy women, He gave us first of all the salutation Hail!  And again, the apostle made the announcement in similar terms, saying, Rejoice evermore: pray without ceasing: in everything give thanks. See, then, dearly beloved, how the Lord has conferred upon us everywhere, and indivisibly, the joy that is beyond conception, and perennial. For since the holy Virgin, in the life of the flesh, was in possession of the incorruptible citizenship, and walked as such in all manner of virtues, and lived a life more excellent than man's common standard; therefore the Word that comes from God the Father thought it meet to assume the flesh, and endue the perfect man from her, in order that in the same flesh in which sin entered into the world, and death by sin, sin might be condemned in the flesh, and that the tempter of sin might be overcome in the burying of the holy body, and that therewith also the beginning of the resurrection might be exhibited, and life eternal instituted in the world, and fellowship established for men with God the Father. And what shall we state, or what shall we pass by here? Or who shall explain what is incomprehensible in the mystery? 

But for the present let us fall back upon our subject. Gabriel was sent to the holy virgin; the incorporeal was dispatched to her who in the body pursued the incorruptible conversation, and lived in purity and in virtues. And when he came to her, he first addressed her with the salutation, Hail, thou that art highly favoured! The Lord is with you. Hail, thou that art highly favoured! For you do what is worthy of joy indeed, since you have put on the vesture of purity, and are girt with the cincture of prudence. Hail, thou that art highly favoured! For to your lot it has fallen to be the vehicle of celestial joy. Hail, thou that art highly favoured! For through you joy is decreed for the whole creation, and the human race receives again by you its pristine dignity. Hail, thou that art highly favoured! For in your arms the Creator of all things shall be carried. And she was perplexed by this word; for she was inexperienced in all the addresses of men, and welcomed quiet, as the mother of prudence and purity; (yet) being a pure, and immaculate, and stainless image herself, she shrank not in terror from the angelic apparition, like most of the prophets, as indeed true virginity has a kind of affinity and equality with the angels.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee by His Eminence Metropolitan Panteleimon of Antinoes


It was very characteristic of our Lord Jesus Christ that in order to teach the Divine Truth, He used examples taken from the daily life of His times. In this way He was able to help those who believed in Him to apply the Divine Truth in their own lives.

In the Parable of today's Gospel, our Lord showed us two different types of men, who both went up to the Temple to pray. He also mentioned a very significant point, their different religious and social class. The first was a Pharisee and the second a Publican.

Now, amongst the Jews of the time, there were different religious parties. The most important of these were the Pharisees, who were strict observer of the Law of Moses; the Sadducees who believed that there is no resurrection; the Ninevees, who were dedicated to God, and the Essenes, who were ascetics.

The Pharasees boasted that they followed the Law of Moses literally. They wore special clothes and could always be easily recognised in a crowd of people. Το use the words of our Lord, "they do all their deeds to be seen by men; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honour at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, and salutations in the marketplace, and being called rabbi by men" (Matt. 23:5-7). They separated themselves from the rest of the people, believing themselves to be the just in the Eyes of God. The Publican on the other hand, belonged to a group who were hated and despised by rich and poor alike.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Divine Theophany by His Eminence Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos


The Feast of the Theophany refers to the Baptism of Christ in the River Jordan by Saint John the Forerunner, who is called the Baptist. This took place when Christ reached the age of thirty (30) years, before He began His formal work (His earthly Ministry) of teaching and before His later Sufferings for the salvation of the human race.

The choice of thirty years for the beginning of Christ's formal activity in the world is related to the fact that the biological formation of the human organism reaches its fullness at that time. Moreover He would have been more acceptable to the Israelites at this time.

This event is described by the Holy Evangelists (Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:32-34). We shall not go into all its details, but will emphasize some basic theological and Christological Truths.

Not many events are mentioned in Holy Scripture in the interval between the Meeting of Christ and Baptism of Christ. What we know about are the flight into Egypt and the return from there, as well as the presence of Christ in the Temple when he was twelve years old.

This is not without reason and purpose. The Gospels were not written to describe the whole history of Christ, but to present the Incarnation Son and Logos/Word of God, and what Christ taught, what He did and what He suffered for the human race. In essence the Gospels were catechetical aids. So the historical events of Christ's life and the references to His childhood years were not needed. His appearance in the Temple was included in the Gospel because it was the early evidence that He was the Son of God.

The absence of the events of His childhood and adolescent age does not mean that Christ was absent from Judaea. Christ lived close to His mother and foster-father Joseph and was "subject to them" (St. Luke 2:51). The things that some people say without any evidence are not valid but are the invention of imagination, that Christ went to other countries, such as the Indies, and there spent his life until the age of thirty years, when He suddenly made His appearance in Nazareth and at the River Jordan. For if such a thing had happened, it would have made an enormous impression on His compatriots when He appeared.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Christmas Tree and Orthodox Tradition by Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos of Nafpaktos


I suspect that the custom of decorating a tree at Christmas time is not simply a custom which came to us from the West and which we should replace with other more Orthodox customs. To be sure, I have not gone into the history of the Christmas tree and where it originated, but I think that it is connected with the Christmas feast and its true meaning.

First, it is not unrelated to the prophecy of the Prophet Isaiah: "There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots" (Is. 11:1). St. Cosmas the Poet had this prophecy in mind when he wrote of Christ as the blossom which rose up out of the Virgin stem from the stump of Jesse. The root is Jesse, David’s father, the rod is King David, the flower which came from the root and the rod is the Theotokos.

And the fruit which came forth from the flower of the Panagia is Christ. Holy Scripture presents this wonderfully. Thus the Christmas tree can remind us of the genealogical tree of Christ as Man, the love of God, but also the successive purifications of the Forefathers of Christ. At the top is the star which is the God-Man (Theanthropos) Christ.

Then, the Christmas tree reminds us of the tree of knowledge as well as the tree of life, but especially the latter. It underlines clearly the truth that Christ is the tree of life and that we cannot live or fulfill the purpose of our existence unless we taste of this tree, "the producer of life". Christmas cannot be conceived without Holy Communion.

And of course as for Holy Communion it is not possible to partake of deification in Christ without having conquered the devil when we found ourselves faced with temptation relative to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, where our freedom is tried. We rejoice and celebrate, because "the Tree of Life blossomed from the Virgin in the cave".

Excerpt from the book titled The Feasts of the Lord: An Introduction to the 12 Feasts and Orthodox Christology, 1993.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Why Are Prayers Said in Church Without Kneeling on All Sundays and from Pascha Until Pentecost?


As is evident from the Holy Scriptures, bows, kneeling and prostrations were employed during prayer even in the Old Testament. The holy Prophet King David refers to bowing down to God or to His temple in many of the psalms, for example: "Bow down to the Lord in His holy court" (Ps. 28:2); "I shall bow down toward Thy holy temple in fear of Thee" (Ps. 5:8); "O come, let us worship and fall down before Him" (Ps. 94:6); "Let us go forth into His tabernacles, let us bow down at the place where His feet have stood" (Ps. 131:7), etc.

About kneeling, it is known that the holy Prophet Daniel, for example, thrice daily "knelt upon his knees, and prayed and gave thanks before his God" (Dan. 6:10). Full prostrations are also mentioned in the books of the Old Testament. For example: the Prophets Moses and Aaron besought God, "having fallen on their faces" (Numbers 16:22), to be merciful to the children of Israel who had grievously sinned. In the New Testament also, the custom of performing kneelings, prostrations and, of course, bows had been preserved and still had a place at the time of the earthly life of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who sanctified this Old Testament custom by His own example, praying on bended knees and failing down upon His face. Thus, we know from the Holy Gospels that before His passion, in the Garden of Gethsemane, He "kneeled down, and prayed" (Matt. 26:39), "fell on the ground and prayed" (Mark 14:35). And after the Lord's ascension, during the time of the holy apostles, this custom, of which the Holy Scriptures also speak, existed unchanged. For example, the holy Protomartyr and Archdeacon Stephen "knelt down," and prayed for his enemies who were stoning him (Acts 7:60); the Apostle Peter, before raising Tabitha from the dead, "knelt down, and prayed" (Acts 9:40), etc. It is an indisputable fact that, as under the first successors of the apostles, so even in much later periods of the existence of the Church of Christ, kneelings, bows and prostrations upon the ground were always employed by true believers at domestic prayers and at the divine services. In antiquity, among the other bodily activities, kneeling was considered the outward manifestation of prayer most pleasing to God. Thus, St. Ambrose of Milan says: "Beyond the rest of the ascetic labors, kneeling has the power to assuage the wrath of God and to evoke His mercy" (Book VI on the Six Days of Creation, ch. 9).

The canons concerning bows and kneelings now accepted by the Orthodox Church and set forth in the books of the divine services, and particularly in the Church Typicon, are observed in monasteries. But in general, Orthodox Christian laymen who have zeal are, of course, permitted to pray on their knees in church and to make full prostrations whenever they wish, excepting only those times when the Gospel, Epistle, Old Testament readings, six psalms and sermon are read. The Holy Church lovingly regards such people, and does not constrain their devout feelings. However, the exceptions with regard to Sundays and the days between Pascha and Pentecost apply generally to everyone. According to ancient tradition and a clear church law, kneeling must not be performed on these days. The brilliant solemnity of the events which the Church commemorates throughout the period of Pentecost and on Sundays precludes, in and of itself, any external manifestation of sorrow or lamentation over one's sins: for ever since Jesus Christ, "blotting out the handwriting of the ordinances that was against us, ... nailing it to His Cross; and having spoiled principalities and powers, He made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it" (Col. 2:14-15)—ever since then "there is, therefore, no condemnation to them who are in Jesus Christ" (Rom. 8:1).

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Why the Nativity Fast Has Been Established


The Orthodox Church prepares its faithful to welcome the Nativity of Christ in a worthy manner by means of a 40-day Nativity fast, which lasts from November 28th to January 6th (by the new calendar).

Besides generally known reasons, the Nativity fast is also undertaken by Orthodox Christians in order to venerate the suffering and sorrow undergone by the Holy Mother of God at the hands of the scribes and the Pharisees just prior to the sacred event of Christ’s Nativity.

Holy Tradition tells us that shortly before the righteous Joseph and the Holy Virgin set off for Bethlehem, they were subjected to the following tribulation. A certain scribe by the name of Ananias, entering their home and seeing the Virgin pregnant, was severely distressed and went to the High Priest and the entire Jewish council, saying: “Joseph the carpenter, who has been regarded as a righteous man, has committed an iniquity. He has secretly violated the Virgin Who was given to him from the temple of God for safekeeping. And now She is with child.” Then the High Priest’s servants went to Joseph’s house, took Mary and Joseph, and brought them to the High Priest, who began to denounce and shame the Most-blessed Virgin Mary.

But the Holy Virgin, crying in deep sorrow, replied: “The Lord God is My witness that I am innocent and have known no man.” Then the High Priest accused the righteous Joseph, but the latter swore on oath that he was not guilty of this sin. Yet the High Priest did not believe them and subjected them to the trial that was customary in those times, (when a woman suspected of violation was given to drink bitter water that had been cursed by the High Priest). However, the trial just served to confirm the innocence of the Holy Virgin and the righteous Joseph. All those present were amazed at this, unable to understand how a Virgin could simultaneously be with child and yet remain inviolate.