Sermon on the Mount

The gospel appointed for this Sunday in the Byzantine Rite is an excerpt from what is commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount. The reason for this designation is that Jesus “went up on a mountain” to deliver this message. The Sermon on the Mount is the longest continuous section of Jesus speaking found in the New Testament. Tradition identifies the location of this sermon to be a large hill known as Karn Hattin, located near Capernaum along the Sea of Galilee.

Jesus’ teachings during the Sermon on the Mount represent the major ideals of the Christian life, describing what a believer’s life should be like in faith, thoughts, words, and actions. In His sermon, Jesus taught that discipleship is not merely adherence to a set of legal precepts, but rather it is an all-encompassing conversion and commitment of every aspect of one’s life. Jesus’ teaching was a novel and radical paradigm shift from the established religious practice of the day.

Although society has changed a great deal since the time of Jesus, the fundamental message of the Sermon on the Mount remains relevant. The core message centers on a person’s priorities. A life of authentic discipleship is characterized by one that prioritizes pursuit of God as primary. To live in accordance with the precepts of Jesus’ teaching means that one adopts values, behaviors, and priorities that manifest faithfulness to God and compassion for others, rather than the rugged individualism and rampant consumerism prevalent in modern Western societies.

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Candles In Worship – Part III

Since ancient times at hierarchical (bishop) services, special candle-holders have been used. The faithful reverently bow their heads when blessed by the Bishop with the dikeri (representing the two natures of Christ) and the trikeri (representing the Holy Trinity). Candles are also lit during the celebration of the Holy Eucharist (Liturgy/Mass).

Holy Baptism is celebrated with the priest fully vested and all the candles lit. Three candles are lit before the baptismal font as a sign that the Baptism is accomplished in the Name of the Holy Trinity; and the person to be baptized (if an adult) and the sponsors hold lit candles in their hands during the procession around the font as an expression of joy at the entry of a new member into the Church of Christ.

At the betrothal ceremony, the priest hands the couple lit candles before they enter the church to receive the Sacrament of Matrimony, throughout which they hold the lit candles as a symbol of their profound love for each other and of their desire to live with the blessing of the Church.

At the Sacrament of Holy Unction, seven candles are lit around the vessel of Holy Oil as a sign of the grace-bestowing action of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. And when the body of a deceased person is brought in the church, four candles are placed about the coffin to form a cross to show that the deceased was a Christian. During the funeral service, as well as memorial services, the faithful stand with lit candles as a sign that the deceased’s soul has left this world and entered into the Unwaning Light of God, the Kingdom of Heaven.

During the Vespers portion of the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, the priest blesses the congregation with a lit candle and censer, proclaiming: “The Light of Christ illumines all!” On the Eve of the Nativity of Christ and the Theophany, a lit candle is placed before the festal Icon in the middle of the church to remind us of the birth and appearance on earth of Christ Our Savior, the Giver of Light. At all Divine Liturgies, lit candles are carried in procession at various parts of the service.

Thus candles and lampadas are lit at all church services with a wide variety of spiritual and symbolic meanings; for it is God Who said, “Let light shine out of darkness, [and] Who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (1 Cor. 4:6). So too, lit candles in the church are also an expression of the worshippers’ adoration and love for God, their voluntary sacrifices, and their joy of the spiritual triumph of the Church. The candles, by their burning, remind one of the Unwaning Light which in the Kingdom of Heaven makes glad the souls of the righteous who have pleased God.

Candles In Worship – Part II

The early teachers of the Church also witnessed to the spiritual significance of candles. In the 2nd Century, Tertullian wrote:

“We never hold a service without candles, yet we use them not just to dispel night’s gloom; we also hold our services in daylight but in order to represent by this Christ, the Uncreated Light, without Whom we would in broad daylight wander as if lost in darkness” [ Works, 3rd ed., Kiev, 1915, p.76].

The Blessed Jerome wrote in the 4th Century:

“In all the Eastern Churches, candles are lit even in the daytime when one is to read the Gospels, in truth not to dispel the darkness, but as a sign of joy…in order under that factual light to feel that Light of which we read in the Psalms (119:105): ‘Thy word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path'” [Works, part IV, 2nd ed., Kiev, 1900, pp.301-302].

St. Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, wrote in the 7th Century:

“Lampadas and candles represent the Eternal Light, and also the light which shines from the righteous” [Writings of the Holy Fathers…, St. Petersburg, 1855, Vol. I, p.270].

The Holy Fathers of the 7th Ecumenical Council decreed that in the Orthodox Catholic Church, the holy Icons and Relics, the Cross of Christ, and the Holy Gospel were to be honored by censing and by the lighting of candles; and the Blessed Simeon of Thessalonica (15th Century) wrote that candles are also lit before the Icons of the Saints, for the sake of their good deeds that shine in this world.

The faithful light candles before the icons as a sign of their faith and hope in God’s help that is always sent to all who entreat with faith and prayers. The candle is also a symbol of our burning and grateful love for God.

Candles in Worship- Part I

Candles and icon lamps (lampadas) have a special symbolic meaning in the Christian Church, and candles play a significant role in Orthodox-Catholic Christian liturgical services. In the Old Testament, when the first temple of God was built on earth, the tabernacle services were held in it with lamps as the Lord Himself ordained (Exodus 40:5, 25). Following the example of the Old Testament worship, the lighting of candles and of lampadas was without fail included in the New Testament Church’s services.

The Acts of the Apostles mentions the lighting of lamps during the services in the time of the Apostles. Thus, in Troas, where Christ’s followers used to gather on the first day of the week (Sunday) to break bread, that is, to celebrate the Eucharist, there were many lights in the upper chamber (Acts 20:8). This reference to the large number of lamps signifies that they were not used simply for lighting, but for their spiritual significance, as well.

The early Christian ritual of carrying a lamp into the evening service led to the present-day order of Vespers with its processional entrance and the singing of the ancient hymn, O Jesus Christ, the Joyful Light…, which expresses the Christian teaching of spiritual light that illumines humanity in recognizing Christ as the Source of the grace-bestowing light. The order of the morning service of Matins is also linked to the theme of the Uncreated Light of Christ, manifested in His Incarnation and Resurrection.

Feast of All Saints of North America

“What does the daily invocation of the saints signify — of different ones each day, during the whole year, and during our whole life? It signifies that God’s saints live and are near us, ever ready to help us, by the grace of God. We live together with them in the house of our Heavenly Father, only in different parts of it. We live in the earthly, they in the heavenly half; but we can converse with them, and they with us. God’s saints are near to the believing heart, and are ready in a moment to help those who call upon them with faith and love” – Saint John of Kronstadt.

In the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, the calendar of saints provides a familiar life rhythm, organizing the liturgical year by associating each day with one or more saints. The tradition of a sanctoral calendar arose from the early Christian custom of commemorating each martyr annually on the date of his or her death. Over time the calendar evolved to include not only martyrs, but all those recognized for their lives of faithful obedience to Christ.

Saints are usually recognized first by a local community, often by people who directly knew them. As their popularity grows, the local council of bishops conducts an investigation of the person’s life. If the investigation results in a favorable finding, the synod of bishops acknowledges the person’s sanctity and then formally conducts a liturgical service of “glorification.” The Church teaches that it does not “make” saints via the liturgical service, but rather “recognizes” them.

As local churches grew and matured, differing lists of saints began to be compiled in the various lands. So in addition to the liturgical calendar of universally recognized saints, each local church developed its own calendar of local saints.

On this second Sunday after Pentecost, the Eastern Rite liturgical calendar appoints the commemoration of all these local saints, known and unknown, who have shone forth in one’s own land. Accordingly, we commemorate on this day all the saints who established and nurtured the Faith in our own American homeland. This day’s commemoration is an extension of last week’s celebration of All Saints and naturally flows from the Feast of Pentecost, for God provided the means for holiness by sending the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Through the intercessions of all the saints of North America, may we be deemed worthy to one day also be numbered among the saints!

Saint John of Kronstadt

Saint John of Kronstadt is one of the saints commemorated today on the Byzantine liturgical calendar.

Born Ivan Ilyich Sergiev (1829-1908), he was known to his contemporaries as Fr John of Kronstadt and was the most revered figure of the Orthodox Church of Russia in the half-century leading up to the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.

Saint John of Kronstadt is best known through his spiritual journal “My Life in Christ,” that has been read by millions. The following are a few of his best known quotes:

“Our wickedness shall not overpower the unspeakable goodness and mercy of God; our dullness shall not overpower God’s wisdom, nor our infirmity God’s omnipotence.”

“A Christian must always be kind, gracious, and wise to conquer evil by good.”

“Your Lord is a God of mercy and bountifulness: be a source of mercy and bountifulness to your neighbors. If you will be such, you will find salvation yourself with everlasting glory.”

Sunday of All Saints

On this first Sunday after Pentecost, we commemorate all those who have lived holy lives in obedience to the teachings of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Christians have been honoring saints and martyrs since at least the second century AD. Initially this day was solely a commemoration of the holy martyrs. It was only later in Church history that this day became a commemoration of all the righteous ones made perfect in the Faith.

The Byzantine Rite’s commemoration of All Saints on the Sunday following Pentecost has a logical liturgical sequence. In the first we celebrate the outpouring of the grace of the Holy Spirit; in the second we commemorate the result of the grace of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those who have responded to the call to faithfully follow Christ.

It is important for us to understand that saints are not super human beings, but rather they fully share our human nature with all of its struggles, temptations, and failings. All of them in their time and in their circumstances of life fulfilled our Lord’s commandments to love God and to love neighbor as self. Through acquiring the grace and power of the Holy Spirit, their lives were redeemed and transformed. On this special day, the Church honors every saint, known and unknown. We celebrate these holy individuals and ask for their prayers and intercessions.

It is a sacred and ancient tradition to adorn our churches, chapels, and homes with icons of the saints. These images remind us of the great diversity of the righteous ones: martyrs, confessors, ascetics, fools for Christ, educated people, simple people, rich, poor, male, female, bishops, monastics, and lay people.

The Sunday of All Saints is not the remembrance of the superhuman faith and power of a select few, but it is the celebration of God’s ability to use flawed people to do holy things. Jesus calls each of us in our uniqueness and invites us to sainthood by the gift of divine grace of the Holy Spirit. Let us remember today all the deeply faithful and deeply flawed saints through whom the glory of God has been revealed to the world.

The Aim of the Christian Life

Greetings on the Day of the Holy Spirit! God sent the Holy Spirit into the world on Pentecost; and, thereafter, it became possible for people to become participants in the fullness of divine grace. An example of the grace of the Holy Spirit at work within the life and words of Saint Seraphim has been preserved for us.

In November of 1831, a pious Orthodox Christian named Nicholas Motovilov met with Saint Seraphim and recorded his conversation. The notes by Motovilov were transcribed and published by Sergius Nilus, who wrote the following introduction:

“This revelation is undoubtedly of worldwide significance. True, there is nothing essentially new in it, for the full revelation was given to the apostles from the very day of Pentecost. But now that people have forgotten the fundamental truths of Christian life and are immersed in the darkness of materialism or the exterior and routine performance of ‘ascetic labors,’ St. Seraphim’s revelation is truly extraordinary, as indeed he himself regarded it.”

On this Feast of the Holy Spirit, we offer for your reading a brief excerpt of the conversation of Saint Seraphim of Sarov with Motovilov regarding the acquisition of the Holy Spirit as the aim of the Christian life:

“They have said to you: ‘Go to Church, pray to God, do the commandments of God, do good—that is the aim of the Christian life.’ Some were even indignant with you for being occupied with profane curiosity and said to you: ‘Do not seek things that are beyond you.’ But they did not speak as they should. And now poor Seraphim will explain to you in what this aim really consists. Prayer, fasting, vigil and all other Christian activities, however good they may be in themselves, do not constitute the aim of our Christian life, although they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end. The true aim of our Christian life consists in the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God.”