Thursday, January 25, 2007

January 25: Saint Gregory the Theologian

Today the Church remembers St Gregory Nazianzen, one of the few Fathers to be honored with the title "Theologian." In the icon to the left, he is pictured with St Basil the Great and St John Chrysostom, the Three Hierarchs, who will be commemorated together on January 30.

On of my favorite passages from St Gregory's writings is this excerpt from his second Easter oration, in which he discusses the "ransom theory" of the atonement -- that is, to whom the precious Blood of Christ was offered on the Cross:

"Now we are to examine another fact and dogma, neglected by most people, but in my judgment well worth enquiring into. To whom was that Blood offered that was shed for us, and why was It shed? I mean the precious and famous Blood of our God and High Priest and Sacrifice.

We were detained in bondage by the Evil One, sold under sin, and receiving pleasure in exchange for wickedness. Now, since a ransom belongs only to him who holds in bondage, I ask to whom was this offered, and for what cause?

If to the Evil One, fie upon the outrage! If the robber receives ransom, not only from God, but a ransom which consists of God Himself, and has such an illustrious payment for his tyranny, then it would have been right for him to have left us alone altogether!

But if to God the Father, I ask first, how? For it was not by Him that we were being oppressed. And next, on what principle did the Blood of His only-begotten Son delight the Father, who would not receive even Isaac, when he was being sacrificed by his father, [Abraham,] but changed the sacrifice by putting a ram in the place of the human victim? (See Gen 22).

Is it not evident that the Father accepts Him, but neither asked for Him nor demanded Him; but on account of the incarnation, and because Humanity must be sanctified by the Humanity of God, that He might deliver us Himself, and overcome the tyrant (i.e., the devil) and draw us to Himself by the mediation of His Son who also arranged this to the honor of the Father, whom it is manifest He obeys in all things."

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

January 24: Saint Xenia of Petersburg

Saint Xenia lived during the eighteenth century, but little is known of her life or of her family. She passed most of her life in Petersburg during the reigns of the empresses Elizabeth and Catherine II.

Xenia Grigorievna Petrova was the wife of an army officer, Major Andrew Petrov. After the wedding, the couple lived in St Petersburg. St Xenia became a widow at the age of twenty-six when her husband suddenly died at a party. She grieved for the loss of her husband, and especially because he died without Confession or Holy Communion.

Once her earthly happiness ended, she did not look for it again. From that time forward, Xenia lost interest in the things of this world, and followed the difficult path of foolishness for the sake of Christ. The basis for this strange way of life is to be found in the first Epistle to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1:18-24, 1 Cor. 2:14, 1 Cor. 3:18-19). The Lord strengthened her and helped her to bear sorrow and misfortune patiently for the next forty-five years.

She started wearing her husband's clothing, and insisted that she be addressed as "Andrew Feodorovich." She told people that it was she, and not her husband, who had died. In a certain sense, this was perfectly true. She abandoned her former way of life and experienced a spiritual rebirth. When she gave away her house and possessions to the poor, her relatives complained to the authorities. After speaking to Xenia, the officials were conviced that she was in her right mind and was entitled to dispose of her property as she saw fit. Soon she had nothing left for herself, so she wandered through the poor section of Petersburg with no place to lay her head. She refused all assistance from her relatives, happy to be free of worldly attachments.

When her late husband's red and green uniform wore out, she clothed herself in rags of those colors. After a while, Xenia left Petersburg for eight years. It is believed that she visited holy Elders and ascetics throughout Russia seeking instruction in the spiritual life. She may have visited St Theodore of Sanaxar (February 19), who had been a military man himself. His life changed dramatically when a young officer died at a drinking party. Perhaps this officer was St Xenia's husband. In any case, she knew St Theodore and profited from his instructions.

St Xenia eventually returned to the poor section of Petersburg, where she was mocked and insulted because of her strange behavior. When she did accept money from people it was only small amounts, which she used to help the poor. She spent her nights praying without sleep in a field outside the city. Prayer strengthened her, and in her heart's conversation with the Lord she found the support she needed on her difficult path.

When a new church was being built in the Smolensk cemetery, St Xenia brought bricks to the site. She did this in secret, during the night, so that no one would know.

Soon her great virtue and spiritual gifts began to be noticed. She prophesied future events affecting the citizens of Petersburg, and even the royal family. Against her will, she became known as someone pleasing to God, and nearly everyone loved her.They said, "Xenia does not belong to this world, she belongs to God." People regarded her visits to their homes or shops as a great blessing. St Xenia loved children, and mothers rejoiced when the childless widow would stand and pray over a baby's crib, or kiss a child. They believed that the blessed one's kiss would bring that child good fortune.

St Xenia lived about forty-five years after the death of her husband, and departed to the Lord at the age of seventy-one. The exact date and circumstances of her death are not known, but it probably took place at the end of the eighteenth century. She was buried in the Smolensk cemetery.

By the 1820s, people flocked to her grave to pray for her soul, and to ask her to intercede with God for them. So many visitors took earth from her grave that it had to be replaced every year. Later, a chapel was built over her grave.

Those who turn to St Xenia in prayer receive healing from illness, and deliverance from their afflictions. She is also known for helping people who seeking employment.

Troparion - Tone 8

In you, O mother was carefully preserved what is according to the image.
For you took up the Cross and followed Christ.
By so doing, you taught us to disregard the flesh for it passes away,
But to care instead for the soul since it is immortal.
Therefore, O Blessed Xenia, your spirit rejoices with the Angels.

Kontakion - Tone 7

Having loved the poverty of Christ,
You are now being satisfied at the Immortal Banquet.
By the humility of the Cross, you received the power of God.
Having acquired the gift of miraculous help, O Blessed Xenia,
Beseech Christ God, that by repentance
We may be delivered from every evil thing.

From the website of the Orthodox Church in America.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Dragons are there... but there too is God

On January 19 the Church remembers Saint Makarios the Great, one of the most important teachers of the spiritual life from the fourth and fifth centuries.

An excerpt from one of his homilies:

"The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. There are rough and uneven roads; there are precipices; but there too is God, the angels, life and the Kingdom, light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and treasures of grace. All things are within it."

Troparion - Tone 1

Dweller of the desert and angel in the body
you were shown to be a wonder-worker, our God-bearing Father Macarius.
You received heavenly gifts through fasting, vigil, and prayer:
healing the sick and the souls of those drawn to you by faith.
Glory to Him who gave you strength!
Glory to Him who granted you a crown!
Glory to Him who through you grants healing to all!

For more on Saint Makarios, visit the website of the Orthodox Church in America.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

January 18: Saints Athanasius and Cyril

Saints Athanasius and Cyril were Archbishops of Alexandria. These wise teachers of truth and defenders of Christ's Church share a joint Feast in recognition of their dogmatic writings which affirm the truth of the Orthodox Faith, correctly interpret the Holy Scripture, and censure the delusions of the heretics.

St Athanasius took part in the First Ecumenical Council when he was still a deacon. He surpassed everyone there in his zeal to uphold the teaching that Christ is consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father, and not merely a creature, as the Arians proclaimed.

This radiant beacon of Orthodoxy spent most of his life in exile from his See, because of the plotting of his enemies. He returned to his flock as he was approaching the end of his life. Like an evening star, he illumined the Orthodox faithful with his words for a little while, then reposed in 373. He is also commemorated on May 2 (the transfer of his holy relics).

Troparion - Tone 3

You shone forth with works of Orthodoxy and quenched all heresy,
and became victorious trophy-bearers, hierarchs Athanasius and Cyril.
You enriched all things with piety and greatly adorned the Church,
and worthily found Christ God,
who grants His great mercy to all.

(From the website of the Orthodox Church in America)

Friday, January 12, 2007

More Americans Join Orthodox Churches

It's always heartening to see stories like this one in USA Today:

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Greg Mencotti worried he would never find a spiritual home.

The Sunday school teacher grew up Roman Catholic, lost his faith and became an atheist. Eventually, he returned to Christianity, this time as a born-again Christian, spending years worshipping in a Methodist congregation. Still, he felt his search wasn't over.

That led him to the Holy Spirit Antiochian Orthodox Church in Huntington, W. Va., a denomination with Mideast roots that, like all Orthodox groups, traces its origins to the earliest days of Christianity.

Today, Mencotti is one of about 250 million Orthodox believers worldwide — and among a significant number of newcomers attracted to this ancient way of worship. The trend is especially notable since so few in the United States know about the Orthodox churches here.

Read it all here.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Orthodox Church - A visual journey

Magnificent video from the OCA mission in Valdosta, Georgia!

Watch and take delight that the Lord is good!

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Celebrating Theophany in Baton Rouge

Over at the Church website, we've just posted the schedule of services for the coming weeks at
Saint Matthew the Apostle Orthodox Church:

Troparion - Tone 1

When You, O Lord were baptized in the Jordan
The worship of the Trinity was made manifest
For the voice of the Father bore witness to You
And called You His beloved Son.
And the Spirit, in the form of a dove,
Confirmed the truthfulness of His word.
O Christ, our God, You have revealed Yourself
And have enlightened the world, glory to You!

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Fathers, the Scriptures, and the transfiguration of all things...

The feast of Saint Benedict is still two months away, but I'm posting his icon because I just read and deeply appreciated R. R. Reno's recent First Things essay, "The Return of the Fathers."

Professor Reno notes the curious counter-cultural movement in some segments of the western academic and ecclesiastical worlds to return to an examination and analysis of our patristic inheritance, the corpus patronum. This examination, in turn, is driving a re-immersion in the world of Holy Scripture.

Such, of course, is one of the defining hallmarks of Orthodoxy...

Here are the last several paragraphs of the essay:

In 411, Alaric sacked the city of Rome. Through the next three centuries, the western Roman empire was shattered by invasion after invasion. It was a hard time dominated by fierce men as cultural fragmentation and turmoil gave the upper hand to cunning and strength. Yet the warriors who so dominated the affairs of men were not, finally, in control of their future. For it was during this time that a young man named Benedict rallied the power of love. Benedict was a son of Old Narnia, a noble Roman by birth. He was born to assume a position of power and responsibility in a world both civilized and Christianized. But that world was being destroyed, and, instead of trying to find a fragment or piece to hang on to, Benedict retreated to a cave outside Rome in order to purify his soul and dwell more fully in the way of Christ.

Holiness is a powerful magnet, and others came to Benedict for guidance and inspiration. He eventually came out of his cave with a small force of men and founded a monastery on Monte Cassino. He wrote a rule for the community, the Rule of St. Benedict. Shorn of metaphysics, shorn of classical rhetoric, shorn of the glories of a great culture Christianized, the Rule was the pure essence of the patristic project. Plain, direct, and simple, it organized life around unending daily prayer and prepared the souls of the monks for obedience. The Rule and its life of discipline impaled generations of monks upon the sword of Scripture. In this way, their hearts were, to recall Augustine’s image of his own and his friend’s conversion, pierced by God’s love.

The issues preoccupying editorial pages and the evening news are not trivial or unimportant. We have a duty to fight for moral truth in a Western culture increasingly committed to a velvet barbarism. This will certainly involve defending and buttressing fragments of a Christian culture now being eroded. The libraries of the great monasteries that sprang from the renewing power of St. Benedict’s Rule preserved the intellectual and literary achievements of antiquity, and the vision of mutual submission and cooperation given flesh in the working communities of monks gave a bloody world hope of peace. We owe our own age nothing less.

But we should not confuse what we must do for the defense of life and social sanity with the deeper task of renewing Christian culture in the West. St. Benedict’s Rule did far more than any battle or palace coup to shape the future of what was to become Europe. We must do what we can to limit the damage done by the barbarians of our time, but the renewal of the culture they now control will require the revolutionary power of people whose lives are immersed in Scripture. Men and women saturated by Scripture are as explosive as rags soaked in gasoline, but, unlike Molotov cocktails, the fire of divine love transforms and perfects rather than destroys and consumes. This the Fathers knew, and this they teach us as they return.