When you fast……..

When you fast……….

Last time we looked at Our Lord’s invitation to pray, mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount. A few verses later, he invites us to fast (Matt 4 vv16,17).

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Like everything that God offers us, it is our choice whether or not we accept, but as with anything that God offers, the advantages of accepting the invitation far outweigh the disadvantages of non-acceptance.

One of the issues that we face is that for many of us, if truth be told, we have a misconception of fasting for spiritual reasons. This, in many ways is understandable, because we live in an era where we are bombarded with various diet plans, advised which foods are good for us and which are not, and it is easy to get lost, especially as there are those who advocate fasting as a means to good health.

Fasting, of course, certainly in the Christian understanding, does not necessarily refer to food. And because the Church has a keen understanding of how the human psyche works, guides her children to fast successfully with maximum benefits for them.

My personal spiritual journey began in the Village Chapel. When I was about 18 I joined a church in the next town. After a few years I moved with work to the other side of the country and joined a church there. Sadly in none of these places of worship were we ever taught about fasting. It was left to certain books, written by well known Christian writers to try and help us. Sadly, and I found this from the experience of running a Church Bookstall, very few people actually read books. Fasting was a complete mystery.

Two of the scriptures which intrigued me were Matt 17 v 21 and Mark 9 v 29. They are parallel accounts of the same incident, where Jesus gives instruction on dealing with a demon-possessed person. “This kind,” Jesus said, talking about the demon, “can only come out by prayer and fasting.”

How, I wondered, do you “fast” when you met a demon-possessed person? Clearly one does not “plan” to meet a demon-possessed person, and when you did meet one, you could not go away for a while to fast about it. No, there had to be another way.

Jesus grew up in the synagogue system, which followed a plan of yearly liturgical worship-feasting and fasting on different days to celebrate or express sorrow at certain faith events in history that had shown the mercies of God to the people of Israel. He would be familiar with this cycle and without a doubt would be used to regular times of prayer and fasting, as well as periods of feasting.

This, no doubt, is what Our Lord was referring to when He taught that demons come out only by prayer and fasting-a life of regular prayer and fasting is what enables a person to live that holy life which gives them the power to cast demons out.

So it is a shame that certain parts of Christianity seem to ignore the importance of fasting. It seems (and this is just an observation, and I would be very happy to be proved wrong)), but it seems that non-liturgical forms of Christianity are the least likely to encourage or teach regular periods of fasting.

In the post on Prayer, we discussed The Didache, a document from the Early Church-a very early document, probably written before the Gospels were committed to pen and paper-and a document which explains how Christians ought to live out their lives.

One of the subjects The Didache looks at is Fasting. Remember The Didache was written during the lifetime of several of the Apostles, that the people who compiled The Didache may well have seen or even known Jesus personally, so with that kind of provenance, it more than likely will reflect Early Church, First Century practice from the group who were closest to Jesus.

The Didache teaches that Christians should fast on Wednesdays and Fridays-Wednesdays because it was on Wednesday that Judas betrayed Our Lord and Fridays because it was on Friday that Jesus died for our sins.

This practice has lasted in the Orthodox Church, but in churches which have come out of the former Western Patriarchate, it is not encouraged as much. Anglicans and Roman Catholics both practice fasting on Fridays-when I was at school, we always had fish for school dinner, this was a hangover from the days when religious views were more strictly observed. But most other groups, although encouraging fasting, do not keep to any of the guidelines of the Apostolic Church.

There are other ways of fasting. Some time ago I was talking to a member of another Christian group about Lent, telling them about (amongst other things) the Lenten Fast. This person looked at me, wide-eyed and asked if we went without food for forty days.

These comments, I suspect, reflect how a lot of people understand fasting. The Church is very wise in her guidance to her children, after all, no one could work for a long period of time without some form of sustenance. The Lenten Fast is normally a vegan diet-no meat, no dairy-it may sound easy, but the experience of those who join the Orthodox Church in their later years is that it is less demanding on the body’s internal system to build up over a number of years the habit of a strict Lenten Fast. The Church also recognises that people who work at heavy manual work have more energy demands than those whose profession is more sedentary. Those who are ill, or women who are pregnant, also have dietary demands that need to be taken into account. Of course all this should be done with the guidance of a person’s priest, spiritual father or confessor.

St Paul, in I Corinthians 7 v 5, talks about married couples fasting from intimate relations. In the Orthodox Church, the Divine Liturgy is not served during Lent (just to clarify, in the Orthodox Church, Saturdays and Sundays are not part of Lent) which is why the weekday Liturgies are replaced with services of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts, which are a combination of Vespers and Communion but without the epiklesis-which is not needed because the bread and wine are already sanctified. The Orthodox Church also fasts from reading the New Testament during these times-generally they are seen as periods of preparation, hence all readings are from the Old Testament, which is seen as a preparation for the coming of God’s Messiah in the New Testament.

None of this is of course compulsory for the Christian, because everything has to start with a desire for God. Metropolitan Kallistos Ware once said, paraphrasing St John Chrysostom, that “it is better to enter Lent, eating meat, with the right attitude, then enter Lent fasting with the wrong attitude.”

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If we truly desire God, then we will do what it takes to know Him better, but if we do not truly desire God, why bother?

Lord, teach us to pray……

Without a doubt, one of the most famous passages of the Bible is the “Sermon on the Mount”. Someone once told me the “psychology behind the Sermon on the Mount was wonderful”. To be honest I am not sure what that person meant then, and I still do not today. It seems to me that the Sermon on the Mount is full of very practical advice, not only for our spiritual journey but also for the ups and downs of day-to-day life.

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What many people may not be aware of, is that Jesus, like many good (and bad) preachers, preached the same sermon twice. In Matthew’s Gospel (chapters 5-7), it is recorded that Jesus preached this sermon on a small hill-hence the name, The Sermon on the Mount. In Luke’s Gospel, it is recorded that Jesus preached the same sermon but this time whilst on a flat piece of ground-hence it is called The Sermon on the Plain (chapter 6 vv17-49).The two are not exactly identical, which is what shows us that Jesus peached the same sermon-or very similar sermon-twice.

One of the difference is that in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus majors on the benefits of private spiritual activities-specifically prayer, fasting and alms-giving.

Let us consider prayer:

Matthew 6 v 5: Jesus says “When you pray…” Clearly Jesus is expecting us to pray, he does not say “If you pray…..” as if it is an option, neither does He say “You must pray…..” as if it is a legal requirement, but “When you pray….” making it an invitation, and like all invitations, we can accept or refuse, but if we do accept then there are rewards for us.

We are told that when we pray, we should pray in secret, and “Our Father, who sees in secret will reward us openly” (OSB). By “secret” Jesus means “your room” with the door shut.

Jesus also teaches us what to pray:

Our Father in heaven,

Hallowed be Your name.

Your kingdom come.

Your will be done

On earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our debts,

As we forgive our debtors.

And do not lead us into temptation,

But deliver us from the evil one.

For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

(Matt 6 v 9-14 OSB)

We call it The Lord’s Prayer-although in reality it is the Disciple’s Prayer-the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus in John’s Gospel ch14-16 should rightly be called The Lord’s Prayer, since that is the prayer which Jesus made to His Father in Heaven, but Tradition has dictated otherwise. Nevertheless,these are the words that Jesus said we should pray, and when we find it difficult to put into our word what we want to say to God, as we so often do, then why not use the words that Our Saviour taught us?

One of the most fascinating discoveries of the past 150 years is a document called The Didache. Scholars had known of the existence of this document for hundreds of years, as it had been referred to in various documents of Church History, but no one knew of a copy until one was found in a library in Constantinople in in 1873 by Philotheos Bryennios, who was Metropolitan of Nicomedia and later on a Latin translation of the first five chapters was discovered in 1900 by a certain J. Schlecht.

The New Testament consists of three types of literature; The Epistles (the earliest documents) written to correct practices in the Early Church which had developed incorrrectly; The Gospels, accounts of Jesus’ life which have a theological slant to them, and Prophecy (The Apocalypse). Nowhere is there a manual of how to live the Christian life or how to run services. It seems that the Apostolic Band gave verbal instructions for this-or maybe, since most early converts came from a Jewish background, Early Christian services were Synagogue services with the devlopment that the Messiah had come and the Law fulfilled.

That is where The Didache comes in. The name Didache in Greek means “Teaching” or “Training” and talks about the praxis of the early Church. One thing it spends time on is prayer. The Didache, which is dated about AD70-that is to say between the writing of the Epistles and the writing of The Gospels, even quotes the whole of The Lord’s Prayer and suggests that it should be said three times a day.

Perhaps this is a practice we might consider in the Church today-especially for those who are not clergy or monastics, that one way we could develop our prayer life is by the simple use of The Lord’s Prayer in the morning, at lunch time and at evening before bed. It is short, it was taught to us by Our Lord Himself and it says everything that needs to be said in prayer.

Church and Politics in the First Millennium

AD313 was an important year for Christians. It was the year that the Emperor Constantine passed a piece of legislation called The Edict of Milan.

Most Christians lived within the Roman Empire-there were a few in Caledonia (now Scotland) beyond Hadrian’s Wall which separated the southern Roman part of the island of Britain from the northern Celtic tribes. Christianity had also begun to spread out into the Persian Empire, to the east of Jerusalem.

For the Christians who lived within the Roman Empire, however, the Edict of Milan came as a welcome relief. Fundamentally, it lifted the persecutions that had been the lot of Christianity for the past two hundred and fifty years or so. Those persecutions happened in periods, some periods lasting several years and some Emperors had been sympathetic to Christianity, but nevertheless it was a threat which hung over the heads of Christian like some sword of Damocles.

Constantine was different. On the way to fight his opponent he had a vision from God, who had promised him victory inn the forthcoming battle. When this victory came, Constantine became sympathetic to the Christian God.

Two years previously, the then Emperor Galerius had issued an Edict of Toleration towards Christians who were growing in numbers and whose support Galerius was keen to obtain. Galerius unfortunately died and his deputy Maximus, reverted to persecuting Christians. Constantine was Maximus’ enemy and when Maximus was defeated at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, where Constantine had had his vision, the new Emperor went one step further and legislated for tolerance of any religion.

It now became illegal to persecute anyone for their religious beliefs.

For Christians it was carpe diem. There are many reasons why it happened but one of the most important must be that with freedom from persecution and freedom to travel, Christians took the opportunity to assemble together and sort out some of the issues and apparent contradictions that had grown up around Christianity during the years of persecution.

This assembly was held in a town called Nicea which is south of Constantinople and tackled, amongst other things, who the Christ was.

This was the first of seven Councils, called Ecumenical because their decisions affected the whole of the Church (the word “Ecumenical” comes from the Greek οικουμενικό which means “relating to the whole Church” and comes from the Greek word for household-a reference to Ephesians 2 v 19 which talks about the Church being the “household of God” (OSB).

One of the things that was discussed during those Councils was how to govern, administrate the various churches and ensure that the problems of the Period of Persecution, when intercommunication was difficult, would be avoided in the future.

Over a period of time, five groupings or Patriarchates emerged: there were the three “Petrine Patriarchates” (Antioch and Rome, both founded by St Peter, and Alexandria, founded by St Peter’s disciple, St Mark), the Patriarchate of Constantinople/Byzantium, founded by St Peter’s brother St Andrew the First Called, and seat of the Emperor, and finally the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the scene of Our Lord’s activities on earth.

One of the ideas behind this arrangement was to ensure that the different Churches would keep talking and this would act as a buffer to stop any ideas which were not in line with the “faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1 v3) entering the Church.

Sadly it did not work out that way.

This is not the place to go into all the ups and downs of Church History, especially the history of that period. What I would like to, however is reflect on some of the developments which affect us today.

Despite the the natural affiliation that the three Petrine Patriarchates had, it soon became obvious there weer deep divisions between Rome and, not only the two other Petrine Patriarchates but also Constantinople and Jerusalem.

The bottom line was that the Patriarchate of Rome covered the Western Roman Empire and the lingua franca there was Latin. In the remaining Patriarchates it was Greek. The problem was that no one in the Roman Patriarchate had bothered to learn Greek and no-one in the Greek speaking Patriarchates bothered to learn Latin. Not the greatest day in the history of the Church, because East could not talk to West and vice versa. It meant that the theology being produced by both sides could not be read and that there was no cross-fertilisation of thought.

The Patriarchate of Rome had been given a special honour. Since Rome the city had been the first capital of the empire, the Bishop of the city, Patriarch of the West was appointed as the final court of appeal in any inter-Church dispute. Of the five Patriarchs-a tile given them by the Emperor Justinian-Rome was given a place of honour: in Latin: “primus inter pares”-first amongst equals. All bishops were perceived to be equal, the Roman bishop, because Rome had once been the capital of the Empire was made first bishop as a point of honour, but, and this is most important, NOT of power. All bishops were deemed equal and the churches should be ruled by conciliatory agreement-that is, everyone had to agree for something to go through.

The system began to break down when in the mid 800s there was an issue over who should be elected as new Patriarch of Constantinople. There were two candidates: a layman called Photius and a bishop called Ignatius. For various reasons it became difficult to decide who should be Patriarch. According to custom, the matter was referred to Rome, to Pope Nicholas. Nicholas acted not as an intermediary or a mediator, but as if it was his responsibility to appoint the new Patriarch. Nicholas succeeded in annoying all the Eastern bishops and set the trend for Rome to make decisions without consulting anyone else.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the Mediterranean Sea, other events were conspiring to make things more difficult. The King of the Franks (the are which is now roughly France and Germany) was a man called Charles the Great, history knows him better as Charlemagne. It was Charlemagne who more than any other person in the first millennium, managed to destroy the unity of the Church. Charlemagne wanted to be more than a great king-he wanted to be an Emperor. There was only one thing holding him up: there was already an Emperor, albeit in Constantinople.

To understand the situation, it is important to realise that although the Western Roman Empire ha been destroyed by barbarians and petty kingdoms set up to replace it, all these new countries looked back in awe at the Empire and aspired to be like it. Thus, to them there was only ONE Emperor and although he had no legal power, each of the Babarian kings thought of him as The Emperor. If Charlemagne claimed to be Emperor he would be the laughing stock of Western Europe. So he had to do something to destroy the Eastern Emperor in Western eyes in such a way as to make his claim to be Emperor legitimate.

In AD589 there had been a Council held in Toledo in Spain. In an effort to combat Arianism in Spain by making the Son like the Father in all things (specifically, being a source of the Holy Spirit’s procession although this subordinated the Holy Spirit), the Council added the additional phrase ‘and the Son’ (the Filioque) to the Nicene-Constantinoplitan Creed despite the declarations of previous Ecumenical Councils that no changes were to be made without the consent of another Ecumenical Council.

Charlemagne took this decision and tried to force the Patriarchate of the West to recognise as legitimate the addition of the “Filioque”. To their credit, they refused. However, Charlemagne arranged for his court theologians to pressurise Rome to accept it. But the Pope still resisted, even having a silver table made with the Creed on it, without the offending clause. Charlemagne, however, made sure that in the lands he ruled over-which were extensive-that Creed was said with the filioque. Eventually Charlemagne’s rule extended even to Rome.

When that happened, he had himself crowned as Emperor and accused his opposite number in Constantinople of heresy. If the Emperor in Constantinople was a heretic, he could not be the legitimate Emperor, and thus the way was cleared for Charlemagne to recognised as The Emperor.

By his politics, Charlemagne sowed the seeds which brought about division in the Church of the old Roman Empire.

Jesus and Mary

ORTHODOX TEACHING

Protestant: Why do you Orthodox worship Mary?

Orthodox: We don’t, we honour Mary, we only worship God.

Protestant: Why do you honour Mary?

Orthodox: We honour her because Jesus honoured her

Protestant: How do you know Jesus honoured her?

Orthodox: Because of the Fourth Commandment, Jesus obeyed it perfectly.

Orthodox: If Jesus honoured His Mother, why don’t you?

Protestant: The Bible doesn’t tell us too.

Orthodox: But the Bible tells us that we are to imitate Christ in all things (I Corinthians 11)

How do you feel towards someone who loves your mother? Don’t you love that person in return?

85 Years Ago Today: J. R. R. Tolkien Convinces C. S. Lewis That Christ Is the True Myth

85 Years Ago Today: J. R. R. Tolkien Convinces C. S. Lewis That Christ Is the True Myth

On an early Sunday morning, September 20, 1931, three 30-something English professors took a stroll together on Addison’s Walk in the grounds of Magdalen College at the University of Oxford:

  • 32-year-old C. S. Lewis (Fellow and Tutor of English Literature at Magdalen College, Oxford),
  • 39-year-old J. R. R. Tolkien (Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford), and
  • 35-year-old Hugo Dyson (Tutor and Lecturer at Reading University).

Their time together had begun the evening before at dinner, but their conversation went late into the night.

After Tolkien left around 3 a.m., Lewis and Dyson continued talking until they retired at  4 a.m.

The following Tuesday (September 22), Lewis recounted the scene to his longtime friend and correspondent, Arthur Greeves:

We began on metaphor and myth—interrupted by a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still, warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining. We all held our breath, the other two appreciating the ecstasy of such a thing almost as you would.

We continued (in my room) on Christianity: a good long satisfying talk in which I learned a lot: then discussed the difference between love and friendship—then finally drifted back to poetry and books.

Later in the letter, discussing the writings of William Morris (a 19th-century English novelist and poet who had greatly influenced Lewis from his youth), Lewis notes:

These hauntingly beautiful lands which somehow never satisfy,—this passion to escape from death plus the certainty that life owes all its charm to mortality—these push you on to the real thing because they fill you with desire and yet prove absolutely clearly that in Morris’s world that desire cannot be satisfied.

The [George] MacDonald conception of death—or, to speak more correctly, St Paul’s—is really the answer to Morris: but I don’t think I should have understood it without going through Morris. He is an unwilling witness to the truth. He shows you just how far you can go without knowing God, and that is far enough to force you . . . to go further.

The following month (October 18), Lewis wrote to Greeves again about their conversation:

Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: again, that if I met the idea of a god sacrificing himself to himself . . . I liked it very much and was mysteriously moved by it: again, that the idea of the dying and reviving god (Balder, Adonis, Bacchus) similarly moved me provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels. The reason was that in Pagan stories I was prepared to feel the myth as profound and suggestive of meanings beyond my grasp even tho’ I could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant’.

Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.

You can watch below an imaginative reconstruction of their conversation:

Years later Lewis wrote a poem entitled “What the Bird Said Early in the Year,” which not coincidentally is set in Addison’s Walk, and has to do with a spell becoming undone.

I heard in Addison’s Walk a bird sing clear:
This year the summer will come true. This year. This year.

Winds will not strip the blossom from the apple trees
This year, nor want of rain destroy the peas.

This year time’s nature will no more defeat you,
Nor all the promised moments in their passing cheat you.

This time they will not lead you round and back
To Autumn, one year older, by the well-worn track.

This year, this year, as all these flowers foretell,
We shall escape the circle and undo the spell.

Often deceived, yet open once again your heart,
Quick, quick, quick, quick!—the gates are drawn apart.

Let him who has ears to hear, hear.

Postscript

Some readers might wonder about the relationship between this event and Lewis’s conversion to theism, and then his actual conversion to Christianity.

Conversion to Theism

In his 1955 memoir, Surprised by Joy, Lewis famously tells his readers that he finally abandoned his resistance to God, becoming “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England,” in the Trinity Term (the eight weeks from late April to late June) in 1929.

That dating would seem to settle the matter. And it did for virtually all Lewis scholars, until Alister McGrath was researching the question for his 2013 biography, C. S. Lewis—A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. In short, McGrath believes that Lewis was off by one year in his recollection, and that it was actually Trinity Term of 1930 (possibly in mid–June). If McGrath is correct, then the conversation with Tolkien (September 1931) was a little more than a year after Lewis began to believe in God (June 1930).

McGrath came to this conclusion for four reasons:

First, . . . a close and continuous reading of his works—especially his correspondence—reveals no sign of a significant change in tone or mood throughout 1929, and even in early 1930. Between September 1925 and January 1930, Lewis’s writings disclose no hint of any radical change of heart or mind, or even a pending change. If Lewis was converted in 1929, this supposedly pivotal event seems to have made no impact on his writings—including his letters to his closest friends at that time, Owen Barfield and Arthur Greeves.

Second, Lewis’s widowed father died in September 1929. If Lewis’s chronology of his own conversion is accepted, Lewis had come to believe in God at the time of his father’s death. Yet Lewis’s correspondence makes no reference at all to any impact of a belief in God, however emergent, upon his final days spent with his father, his subsequent funeral, and its emotional aftermath. Might, I wondered, the death of Lewis’s faith have been a stimulus to him to think about God, rather than something he approached from an existing theistic perspective? If Lewis discovered God in the summer of 1930, his father’s death the previous year might well have marked a turning point in his thinking.

Third, Lewis’s account of the dynamics of his conversion in Surprised by Joy speaks of God closing in on him, taking the initiative, and ultimately overwhelming him. We find echoes of this language in a short letter from Lewis to Owen Barfield, written hastily on 3 February 1930, which speaks of the “spirit” becoming “much more personal,” “taking the offensive” and “behaving just like God.” Lewis asked Barfield to come and see him soon, before he made a rash decision to “enter a monastery.” Barfield was later unequivocal about the significance of this letter for Lewis’s spiritual development: it marked “the beginning of his conversion.” The letter reflects Lewis’s language about the pressures he experienced immediately before his conversion. Yet this conversion is clearly ahead of him, not behind him.

Fourth, Lewis makes it clear that his behaviour changed as a result of his new belief in God. Although still not committed to Christianity, he now began to attend both his local parish church on Sundays, and college chapel on weekdays. Yet Lewis’s correspondence makes no reference to regular attendance at any Oxford church or Magdalen College chapel in 1929, or the first half of 1930.

Yet things change decisively in October 1930. In a letter to his close friend and confidant Arthur Greeves, dated 29 October 1930, Lewis mentions that he now goes to bed earlier than he used, to, as he has now “started going to morning chapel at 8.” This is presented as a new development, a significant change in his routine, dating from the beginning of the academic year 1930–1. The date of this change of habit makes sense if Lewis discovered God in the summer of 1930—perhaps in June 1930, right at the end of the academic year. This would explain Lewis starting to attend college chapel in October 1930. The Oxford academic year resumes in October, thus giving Lewis the opportunity to begin attending college chapel regularly.

McGrath further notes that Lewis was “unreliable when it comes to relating his internal and external world.”

When it comes to dates, months, and days, Lewis gets things muddled. Lewis himself remarked on this failing in 1957, shortly after the publication of Surprised by Joy: he could now, he confessed, “never remember dates.” His older brother Warnie declared that Lewis had a “life-long inability to keep track of dates.” When Lewis became Vice-President of Magdalen College, Oxford in 1941—a fixed-term appointment with essentially administrative responsibilities, which rotated around the fellowship—he was soon found to be incapable of carrying out one of the chief responsibilities of this role: arranging for the booking of rooms for college meetings or private engagements. Lewis simply could not remember dates. Rooms were double-booked—if they were booked at all.

Conversion to Christianity

On September 28, 1931—just nine days after Lewis’s conversation with Tolkien on Christ being the true myth—Lewis took the final step in embracing the divinity of Christ while riding in his older brother’s motorcycle sidecar on the way to the newly opened Whipsnade Park Zoo in Bedfordshire. He recounts:

I know very well when, but not how, the final step was taken.

I was driven to Whipsnade one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.

Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought.

The Nativity of the Mother of God-or what does the New Testament really tell us about Mary?

The Nativity of the Mother of God

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Introduction

The Church year runs from September 1st to August 31st. It runs parallel to the Civil Year, but it has little in common with it, although of course the Civil Year incorporates certain elements from the Church Year-eg Christmas and Easter . Like everything in the Orthodox Church, the Church Year is didactic and is designed to bring us to Christ, to teach us how to live the Christian Life and how to enter into everything God has for us in Christ.

The first major feast of the Church Year is the Feast of the Nativity of the Mother of God, which is on September 8th, The final major feast of the Church Year is the Dormition of the Mother of God on August 15th. The Church Year begins and ends with the Birth and the Death of the Mother of God and it is she who guides us through the Church Year and through our lives as Christians.

The Mother of God in Relation to the Church’s Cycle of Feasts

The Feasts of the Virgin Mary are second in importance after those of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the annual cycle of festivals observed by the Orthodox Church because, after our Lord Himself, the All-Holy Virgin is the most blessed person in the Church. Mary is the archetypical Christian, it is she to whom the Angel came, when the Angel spoke the Word of God, she received it in faith. At that moment, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity was incarnated and conceived in her womb. She then brought forth the Christ and presented Him to the World. It is for us to receive the Word of God and incarnate it in our lives and present Him to the World as Mary did.

In the Orthodox Church, the blessed person of the Mother of God is inseparable from the

Blessed Person of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. This is exactly what the name, Theotokos (i.e., the God-bearer, Mother of God, Birth-giver of God) constantly declares:

namely that the place and significance of the Virgin Mary in the Church cannot be

understood apart from her relationship to Our Lord.

This is most tangibly depicted on the iconostasis (the icon screen before the sanctuary) of any Orthodox Church. The icon of the Lord is always on the right of the Beautiful Gate-the Royal Doors, and the icon of the Theotokos is always on the left. This particular icon, depicting the All-Holy Virgin Mary holding our Lord and Saviour as a child in her arms, is the most characteristic of all icons associated with her blessed person. If you were to look to the west of a Church, you would find that Mary is on the right hand of Christ-the Right Hand is the place of honour as opposed to the Left which is the place of judgement.

Icons of the Mother of God as a general rule always show her with Our Lord. The few that do not are icons of the Mother of God during the pre-Incarnation period of her life.

Brief Resume of the Life of the Mother of God

According to the Orthodox Tradition, Mary was born to Joachim and Anna. Joachim and Anna were devout believers in God but they were barren. At that time-the Late Inter Testamental Period-it was believed that barrenness in a married couple was a sign of God’s disfavour. According to the Tradition, this faithful couple prayed for many years that God would bless them with a child. Eventually in their old age, God rewarded them with a beautiful little girl.

God gave them Mary

Because of their thankfulness to God, Joachim and Anna dedicated her to God and when she was old enough, Mary was sent to live in the Temple in Jerusalem and brought up there with a group of young girls, also sent there by their parents.

One of the skills that Mary was trained in, was weaving, and her job was to help weave the Curtain which separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple Complex. The Holy of Holies was that part of the Temple which only the High Priest could visit once a year to present an offering to God for the sins of the nation. It was divided from the rest of the Temple by a thick heavy curtain which would need regular maintenance to prevent it wearing out. Mary was one of the young women tasked with that role.

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The Annunciation is the name given to the important event when the Archangel Gabriel visited the young Mary-she was probably in her early teens when it happened. The Archangel Gabriel told her that she would conceive and bear God’s Son. In the Biblical account (Luke 1:26-39) Mary is in Galilee when the visit occurred. On the icon of the Annunciation, Mary is holding a red thread, because despite being away from Jerusalem, she still carried on the work that God had given her. In the Orthodox Tradition, Mary conceived at that point. On some icons of the Annunciation, Mary is shown with a smaller icon of Our Lord where her womb is to indicate this Truth. The Icon of the Annunciation is always written on the Royal Doors on the Iconostasis, because it is through the Royal Doors that we receive the Body and Blood of Christ at Communion.

annunciation

Clearly Mary was at the birth of Christ in Bethlehem (Luke 2 v 1-7)

Mary was His Mother and brought up the young Jesus with her husband Joseph (Lk 2 v39-40) It is however important to remember that in the Orthodox Church that Joseph, the Step-father of Our Lord is known as St Joseph the Betrothed. Although Joseph and Mary would have gone through a legal Jewish wedding blessed in the Synagogue, it was never consummated, Mary remains Ever-Virgin.

Mary was with Jesus during His Ministry (John 2v 3), she was also there at His Crucifixion-John 19 v25-for her undoubtedly a most painful emotional experience, we can only begin to wonder what was going through her mind at that time.

On Tuesday and Thursday evenings in Vespers and Matins, we sing a very special kind of hymn called a stavrotheotikon. Stavro comes from the Greek σταυρός meaning cross and a theotikon which is a hymn to the Mother of God, so a stavrotheotikon is a hymn or meditation on the Mother of God at the foot of the Cross.

The reason we sing them on Tuesday and Thursday evening Vespers and Matins, is that these services are the beginning of the Worship Cycle for Wednesdays and Fridays-on Wednesdays we fast to remember that Judas betrayed Our Lord and Friday we fast to remember Our Lord’s Death.

Mary was with the Disciples after the Resurrection: (Acts 1 v12-14) and was cared for by the Apostle John(John 19 v 26, 27). It is often asked why Our Lord asked John the Beloved Disciple to care for His Mother. According to the Orthodox Tradition, John (and his brother James-the Sons of Thunder) were the cousins of Our Lord, so He was actually asking His natural Family to care for His Mother-as opposed to His adopted family, the children of Joseph. Just out of interest, there is most interesting book called “The Easter Enigma” by John Wenham, an Anglican cleric and theologian, written to confute the heresies of the late David Jenkins, who had been ordained Bishop of Durham. One of the things that Wenham does is to closely examine the accounts of the Crucifixion in the Four Gospels, giving close attention to who was there. From his studies he too comes to the conclusion that John and James were cousins of Jesus! It is reassuring when the world of academia confirms what the Church teaches by faith!

The Tradition of the Orthodox Church is that John cared for Mary until her Dormition. At the Dormition, Orthodox Christians believe that the Mother of God died, that the Lord took up her soul to heaven, and that her body was transposed to Heaven three days later, as some of the Fathers teach. This is a fitting end to the Life of this, the most remarkable of all women born on Earth. Even her Dormition has important lessons to teach us. After we die, we still have a hope that Our Lord Himself will come and take our bodies to be with Him in His Resurrection,

The Empty Tomb of Mary in Gethsemane

It is interesting that there are many relics of the saints found all over the World, but there are none of the Mary, Mother of God. Given her importance to Roman Catholic Christians, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Oriental Orthodox Christians this is very surprising, unless of course her body was transposed into Heaven as the Tradition tells us it was.

The Orthodox Church believes that Mary was chosen by God to be the Mother of God-it was all part of God’s plan of Salvation. When we make plans to do something we look at all eventualities and try to anticipate what to do if something goes wrong. If we are like that, how much more unlikely is God to leave anything to chance? It seems to me that one of the things we learn from Matthew 1 v 1-17, Luke 3 v 23-28 is that God knew beforehand and had it all worked out-including Mary’s role in His Plan of Salvation.

Was Mary sinless?

Orthodox Christians do not share the Protestant objections to the sinlessness of the Mother of God, which are based on false premises. Protestant Christians, by and large, identify the Virgin Mary with the rest of humanity and fail to see the distinct qualities, and the Grace that abides in her, which make her the New Eve. They also find unacceptable the dogma of the “Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” which the Roman Catholic Church declared in 1950 and which not only suggests that the Mother of God’s death or dormition is not real, but also that she is Co-redeemer (co-redemptrix) and co-mediator (co-mediatrix) with the Lord. The Roman Catholic position gives priority to Mary rather than to Christ, inasmuch it suggests that He is immaculate because of her, instead of her being immaculate because of Him.

The Roman Catholics are, however, attempting to answer a difficult question: Can sinless flesh be born of sinful flesh? But West and East have differing views on Sin. In the Orthodox view Adam and Eve sinned due to immaturity-they were meant to grow into God, which is why He put them in the Garden of Eden, but instead they chose to disobey God, not understanding the consequences. In like manner we too are meant to grow into God-theosis-and we sin, not because we have to or because we have inherited something that makes us sin, but because we choose to. Mary chose not to sin, she was not immaculately born, but she chose to be holy. The lesson for us is that we too can choose to be holy-but in the case of Mary, by her being holy as God knew she would be, she was able to be the chosen vessel to bring the Saviour of the World to the World.

The fact that there is no Biblical verification of the facts of Mary’s birth is incidental to the meaning of the feast. Even if the actual background of the event as celebrated in the Church is questionable from an historical point of view, the divine meaning of it “for us men and for our salvation” is obvious. There had to be one born of human flesh and blood who would be spiritually capable of being the Mother of Christ, and she herself had to be born into the world of persons who were spiritually capable of being her parents.”

Fr Thomas Hopko

Joachim and Anna by their faithfulness in a difficult situation, and by being faithful in prayer had proved themselves worthy of the trust that God put in them by giving them Mary.

Readings of the Services of the Nativity of the Mother of God.

Vespers:

During Vespers, there are thee Readings-all from the Old Testament. The Old Testament period is the time of Preparation for the Coming of Messiah and so as we prepare ourselves for the Divine Liturgy on the Feast day, and we listen to Prophetic Words that foreshadow the Mother of God :

Gen 28:10-17 The account of Jacob’s Ladder, when Jacob saw the Angels of God ascending and descending (note the order of words). Mary is the Ladder between Heaven and Earth by which Christ came to the Earth.

Ezekiel 43:27-44:4 The account of the Living Temple filled with Divine Glory. Mary’s womb was filled with the One whose Glory filled All Heaven

Proverbs 9:1-11 The account of Wisdom building her house-Mary is of course the dwelling place of God. Wisdom in the Old Testament, especially in the Book of Proverbs, is generally understood as referring to God.

Matins:

One reading from Mary herself

Luke 1:46-56 The Magnificat-Mary’s Great Hymn of Praise to God

Liturgy:

The Readings for the Feast are the ones which are always read at Feasts of the Mother of God.

Phil 2: 5-11: Christ emptying Himself and taking on the likeness of a servant. These verses describe the emptying that the Second Person of the Holy Trinity had to do to become the Saviour of Mankind

Luke 11: 27-28 note a more ACCURATE translation:

27As Jesus was saying these things, a woman called out from the crowd and said to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts which nursed you!” 28But Jesus said, “Yes, and more than that, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” (EOB)

The woman in the crowd glorifies the Mother of Jesus, and the Lord himself responds that the same blessedness which his mother receives is for all “who hear the word of God and keep it.”

Conclusion:

The Supplicatory Prayer to the Most Holy Theotokos (part):

O undefiled, untainted, uncorrupted, most pure, chaste Virgin, Thou Bride of God and Sovereign Lady, who didst unite the Word of God to mankind through thy most glorious birth giving, and hast linked the apostate nature of our race with the heavenly; who art the only hope of the hopeless, and the helper of the struggling, the ever-ready protection of them that hasten unto thee, and the refuge of all Christians (from Small Compline)

Our Lord is the Christ, fully God and fully Man, these two aspects of Him are linked in a way which is beyond our comprehension-we are taught to “avoid difficult questions beyond human grasp” because “clever theologians soon become heretics”-the Bishop of Metilene in Armenia, 457ad. But it is something we take on by faith, that Mary played a vital part in bringing about our salvation, because it was through her that Our Lord received His Flesh. Ephesians 2 v 6 states that God raised us up with him, and granted us to sit with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, (EOB). We, the Church are the Bridge between Heaven and Earth and we can only be that Bridge because Mary the Mother of God went there first.

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