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Category: Feast Days (Page 1 of 6)

A Time of Waiting, A Time of Hoping

Christ Resurrecting Lazarus

 

On the Saturday preceding Palm Sunday, the Orthodox Church commemorates Christ bringing Lazarus back from the dead.  This event is a foreshadowing of Christ’s greater victory over Death and Hades.

In 2020, Western Easter falls on a different date.  While the Western churches celebrate Easter, Orthodoxy will be celebrating Palm Sunday.  The COVID19 (coronavirus) pandemic has impacted many of us directly or indirectly.  The pandemic has made us aware that the threat of death is not far away. In this time when the menace of death stares us in the face we need to hold fast to our faith in God.

The story of Lazarus’ falling ill, Jesus’ delay in coming, and Lazarus’ surprising resurrection is given in the Gospel of John 11:1-44.  Lazarus’ two sisters, Martha and Mary, are depicted at the bottom of the icon above.  In the Gospel narrative is an interesting exchange between Martha and Jesus.

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha said to Him, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live.  And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.  Do you believe this?”

She said to Him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”  (John 11:23-28; NKJV)

Here we see Martha moving from faith in an event to faith in a Person, Jesus Christ.  Jesus’ goal here is to lead Martha (and us) to a personal trust in him.  Here Saint Martha serves as an example of Christian discipleship.

The story of Lazarus teaches us about the need for faith in a time of sickness, suffering, and even death.  The story also teaches us about God’s compassion in our times of suffering and confusion and darkness.  The Orthodox Church sings this hymn on the Saturday of Lazarus:

O Saviour who lovest mankind, Thou hast wept over the dead, in this way showing to all the peoples that, being God, Thou hast become man for our sakes; and, shedding tears by Thine own choice, Thou hast given us proof of Thy heartfelt love. (Lenten Triodion p. 472)

Lazarus’ resurrection is significant as the first of many defeats that Christ would inflict on Hell.  The Orthodox liturgy recounts in a dialogue between Hell and Lazarus:

‘I implore thee, Lazarus,’ said hell, ‘rise up, depart quickly from my bonds and be gone.  It is better for me to lament bitterly for the loss of one, rather than of all those whom I swallowed in my hunger.’ (Lenten Triodion p. 473)

Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday serve as the prelude to Orthodoxy’s Holy Week.  As we progress through Holy Week, we come closer to the darkness and pain of Christ’s Passion.  As Orthodox Christians we do not rush to the happy ending of Easter Sunday, rather through the Holy Week services we walk with Christ in the last days of his earthly life, then we stand patiently at the foot of the Cross with the Virgin Mary and the Apostle John (John 19:25-27).  When we fall sick or experience deep pain, time seems to come to a standstill.  We find ourselves waiting for God to come through for us.  This waiting for God is a test of our faith in God.  Holy Week is a time for waiting and a time for hoping.  So likewise our life here on earth is a time of waiting and a time of hoping.  We are like Jesus’ friend Lazarus who suffered sickness and death, and we are like Martha who looked forward to the hope of the resurrection.

Robert Arakaki

 

Resource

The Lenten Triodion.  2002.  Translated by Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware.  (pp. 472-473)

 

 

Preparing for Lent

Feeling overwhelmed by sin?

 

The Orthodox Church prepares for Lent by observing a series of Sundays, each with a particular theme. On the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, the Orthodox faithful hear one of Jesus’ well known parables and are urged to reflect on the importance of repentance for our spiritual recovery. One way we learn the meaning of repentance is through the hymns and prayers of the Church. One especially powerful prayer sung in the Vespers service for the Sunday of the Prodigal Son goes:

I was entrusted with a sinless and living land, but I sowed the ground with sin and reaped with a sickle the ears of slothfulness; in thick sheaves I garnered my actions, but winnowed them not on the threshing floor of repentance. But I beg Thee, my God, the pre-eternal husbandman, with the wind of Thy loving-kindness winnow the chaff of my works, and grant to my soul the corn of forgiveness; shut me in Thy heavenly storehouse and save me. (Lenten Triodion p. 112; emphasis added)

Frederica Mathewes-Green in Facing East (p. 13) describes this hymn as a blend of the just-as-I-am humility but with a flourish of eloquent rhetoric. This prayer resonates with me because I spend a fair amount of time doing yard work. I find it frustrating after having made a part of my yard immaculate seeing weeds reappear over and over. This for me is a picture of the situation in my soul.

Heaven was intended to be our home, but due to our sins we have gone into exile, living in a foreign land strangers to God. In another part of the Vespers service is the prayer:

As the Prodigal Son I come to Thee; merciful Lord. I have wasted my whole life in a foreign land; I have scattered the wealth which Thou gavest me, O Father. Receive me in repentance, O God, and have mercy on me. (Lenten Triodion p. 113)

Sin is more than a legal violation. It is also the state of estrangement in which one is far removed from God. Therefore, salvation is more than legal righteousness; it also involves union with God. Repentance is key to our return to God. Repentance is more than remorse – feeling bad or having regrets over what one has done. Repentance goes a step beyond remorse and involves the renunciation of sin and a return back to God. Judas Iscariot had remorse, but Simon Peter returned to Jesus. The prodigal son had remorse when he longed to eat what the pigs were eating, but repented when he came to himself and resolved to go back home to his father (Luke 15:17-18).

In Orthodoxy, repentance is more than a one-time event. For Orthodox Christians, repentance is a continuous, ongoing process throughout life. We sin; we repent; we sin again; and we repent again. This cycle continues throughout life. Every Sunday we pray that we may live out our lives in peace and repentance. The good news is that when we repent, God is there to receive us back.

 

Icon of the Prodigal Son

Repentance in the Reformed and Orthodox Traditions

Repentance is a good example of how synergy underlies our salvation in Christ. We repent and God receives us back gladly. Unlike the heresy of Pelagianism which teaches that salvation depends on our exercising our will power, Christianity teaches God’s grace and mercy prepares the way for our return. God initiates and we respond.  God is the source of our salvation.

The Orthodox paradigm of salvation rests on two premises: (1) that God loves all people and (2) that all of us, even though fallen sinners, still retain free will. Our souls may have been damaged and corrupted by sin, but we still have the capacity to respond to God who is Love (1 John 4:8). Love does not coerce, but waits. The father in the parable of the Prodigal Son considered the wayward son dead in a certain sense but was waiting in hope for his return (see Luke 15:32).  The Orthodox paradigm of synergism differs sharply from the Reformed paradigm of monergism. In the Reformed paradigm the human will has been so damaged by the Fall that humanity lacks the capacity to return to God unless one has been predestined. We find the doctrine of monergism in the major confessions of the Reformed tradition.

Other men do not share this conflict since they do not have God’s Spirit, but they readily follow and obey sin and feel no regrets, since they act as the devil and their corrupt nature urge. But the sons of God fight against sin; sob and mourn when they find themselves tempted to do evil; and, if they fall, rise again with earnest and unfeigned repentance. They do these things, not by their own power, but by the power of the Lord Jesus, apart from whom they can do nothing. (Chapter 13 – Scots Confession; emphasis added)

Now we expressly say that this repentance is a sheer gift of God and not a work of our strength. (Chapter 14 – Second Helvetic Confession; emphasis added)

Where Calvinism believes that humanity has lost all capacity to respond to God’s grace, Orthodoxy and the early Church Fathers taught that man has retained free will after the Fall the ability to respond to God. See my articles: (1) “Calvin Dissing the Fathers” and (2) “Plucking the TULIP.”

While Calvinism part ways with Orthodoxy over synergism, there is a shared understanding that repentance involves dying to self and being renewed in the Spirit.

Because they acknowledge Christ the only head and foundation of the Church, and, resting on him, daily renew themselves by repentance, and patiently bear the cross laid upon them. (Chapter 17 – Second Helvetic Confession; emphasis added)

Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin, and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of, and endeavor after, new obedience. (Q. 87 – Westminster Shorter Catechism)

 

Ladder of Divine Ascent. Source

Repentance and Spiritual Warfare

Repentance is an important part of spiritual warfare. When we sin, we under the influence of demons. Repentance is key to breaking the power of the demons in our lives.

I have become enslaved to every evil and in my wretchedness I have bowed down before the demons that provoke the passions; through heedlessness I have lost possession of myself. O Saviour, heavenly Father, take pity on me as I flee for refuge to Thy many mercies. (Lenten Triodion p. 117)

Missing from the Reformed understanding of repentance is the context of spiritual warfare. A search of the PCUSA’s Book of Confessions yielded only three results for “demons.” In Orthodoxy, there is a keen awareness of the Christian life as spiritual warfare. Prior to baptism, in the Rite of Exorcism the catechumen (candidate) renounces Satan three times. Throughout the Orthodox life are reminders of the need to battle the passions of the flesh and resist the demons. We do this in order to “fight the good fight” and to “finish the race” as the Apostle Paul put it in 2 Timothy 4:7.

 

Holy Thursday Service at St. Mary Orthodox Church in Cambridge, MA.

Repentance and Returning to God

Lent is a journey. During the season of Lent, just as the Prodigal Son repented and made his journey back home, so likewise Orthodox Christians daily repent of their sins and undertake a return journey to the kingdom of God. Our journey is not outward and physical, but rather inward. Every day of Lent we undertake the disciplines of fasting, prayers, and acts of charity. The Lenten journey culminates in the midnight Pascha (Easter) Liturgy. After weeks of carrying our cross, repenting of sins, battling the passions of the flesh, and spending time in prayer, we are welcomed home by our loving heavenly Father. The fatted calf symbolizes the Eucharistic celebration. The Prodigal Son reclothed with the best robe symbolizes the newly baptized who are clothed with Christ. In the joyful resurrectional hymns the Church rejoices and makes merry as did the Father and the household over the return of the Prodigal Son.

Let us with repentance begin our Lenten journey. Let us with perseverance make our journey back home to God who is waiting for us.

Robert Arakaki

 

Resources

Robert Arakaki. 2018. “Does John 6:44 Teach Predestination?OrthodoxBridge.
Robert Arakaki. 2013. “Calvin Dissing the Fathers.” OrthodoxBridge.
Robert Arakaki. 2012. “Plucking the TULIP.OrthodoxBridge.
Frederica Mathewes-Green. 1997. Facing East: A Pilgrim’s Journey into the Mysteries of Orthodoxy. HarperSanFrancisco.
Mother Mary and Kallistos Ware. 2002. The Lenten Triodion. St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press.
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). 2014. Book of Confessions.

 

 

“Dear Santa”? or “Holy Nicholas of Myra, Pray for us!”

Which is Santa is more in keeping with Christian discipleship?

Modern American made-up Santa Claus

 

OR the real Santa Claus?

 

The Original Santa – Saint Nicholas of Myra (270-343)

 

Today when people think of Santa Claus, they think of a kindly, white-bearded man who brings presents to good boys and girls all around the world.  In anticipation of Santa’s coming, children are encouraged to write “Dear Santa” letters.  It is unfortunate that this Santa has been an adaptation to modern consumer culture where people feel obliged to head for the shopping mall or go online to purchase presents in order to meet their social obligations.

The LIfe and Example of Saint Nicholas

The life and example of the real Santa, Saint Nicholas of Myra (270-343), present a challenge to our materialistic post-Christian culture.  A devout Christian, Saint Nicholas put Christ first in his life.  The icon above shows him wearing the bishop’s vestments.  In his left hand he is holding the Gospel book and with his right hand is blessing the viewer with the sign of the Cross.  His life was an example of charity and service to others.

 

An Example of Humble Charity

The image of the modern Santa carrying a huge bag over his shoulder likely goes back to a well-known story in which a certain poor man had three daughters.  Their impoverished state meant that either the daughters would remain unmarried or probably be sold into prostitution.  Hearing of the girls’ plight, Nicholas decided to help them.  Being very modest, Nicholas came on several nights and threw a bag of gold, one for each daughter, into the open window.  On the third night, the father was waiting and caught Nicholas in the act.  Nicholas told the father that it was God that he ought to give thanks to.  The article “Saint Nicholas of Myra” on the website Book of Days Tales describes the numerous variations of this incident and how the variations gave rise to an assortment of practices carried out today.  In one story, Nicholas threw a bag of gold coins through the window, in another he slipped the gold coins into the stockings left hanging to dry, and in yet another Nicholas dropped the bag of gold coins down the chimney.  This has resulted in the present day customs of the stockings hanging in front of the chimney, the gold-wrapped chocolate coins given out on Christmas Day.

 

This example of Nicholas’ humble charity for the poor provides an inspiration for those who wish to follow in the path of Jesus Christ who taught:

But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners love those who love them.  And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners do the same.  And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you?  For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back.  But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High.  For He is kind to the unthankful and evil.  Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful. (Luke 6:32-36; Orthodox Study Bible).

 

Fervent Defender of the Faith

First Ecumenical Council – Nicea (325)

Christians who have an interest in theology and church history, especially the Council of Nicea (325) and the struggle against the heresy of Arianism, will be intrigued to learn that Nicholas Archbishop of Myra was present at the First Ecumenical Council.  The story goes that Nicholas was so offended by Arius’ heretical views that he went up and slapped him.  For this breach of decorum, Emperor Constantine had Nicholas stripped of his office and thrown into prison.  He was later reinstated.  This is no meek and mild Santa Claus but a staunch defender of the Faith!

 

Holy Nicholas Pray for Us!

There is in the Orthodox Church the practice of asking the saints to pray for them.  Saint Nicholas is also known as Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker due to the numerous miracles attributed to his prayers.  Below is one of the hymns the Orthodox Church sings in honor this great saint.  It should be noted that we are asking Saint NIcholas to pray with us to our God and Savior Jesus Christ.

The truth of things hath revealed thee to thy flock as a rule of faith, an icon of meekness, and a teacher of temperance; for this cause, thou hast achieved the heights by humility, riches by poverty. O Father and Hierarch Nicholas, intercede with Christ God that our souls be saved. (Apolytikion Tone 4)

One of the blessings of Orthodoxy is that we do not pray alone but in the company of the saints who have gone before us and serve as examples of Christlike maturity.  Learning from the life and example of Saint Nicholas can help us hold fast to the true spirit of Christmas, which is preparing for the birth of our God and Savior Jesus Christ who came to serve others.

Robert Arakaki

 

See also

Remembering St. Nicholas, Recovering a Christian Heritage.” OrthodoxBridge 7 December 2011.

 

 

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