On the first Sunday of Great Lent, we celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy in the historic restoration of holy icons. And as the Church has done since 843 AD, we boldly proclaim to the world, “This is the Apostolic Faith.” Is this a statement of fact or a question?
There’s a simple test to measure this: to what extent do we imitate the apostles in following Christ in the hard realities of His Gospel—keeping the commandments, seeing Christ in the least of the brethren, being clean on the inside amidst temptations from the outside, forgiving those who would kill us, plucking out eyes and cutting off arms to prevent us from sinning, overcoming evil with good, blessing those who curse us? This is the icon of godly life Our Lord offers for veneration to those who would follow Him.
In these terms, we must honestly confess today that our lives are often the epitome of iconoclasm—not a shattering of wood and painted images but a desecration of the very icon of godly life announced and manifested by Our Lord and followed by the apostles.
We raise up our holy icons on the Sunday of Orthodoxy yet often forget each and every icon, regardless of who or what is depicted, invariably points only to Jesus Christ, “the icon of God.” We often fail to comprehend their relevance to our modern lives, that through them, just as on Pascha night, the Risen Lord shows us His hands and His side, gives us His peace, and reminds us that He endured everything for our salvation.
How often do our icons inspire us to echo words like Mary’s Magnificat: “for He Who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name” (Luke 1:49). We’re sometimes quicker to critique an icon’s artistic style than piously kiss it. And we probably spend considerably more time venerating the 42-inch flat-screen plasma icon at home than the precious, holy icons of Our Church.
Ultimately, despite all their personal shortcomings and fears, every apostle, save one, followed Christ in similar fashion, laying down their lives “for the life of the world and its salvation.” This was the price the apostles paid, willingly, for the right, privilege, and honor of following Jesus Christ. This was their painful realization of Saint Paul’s words to Timothy: “Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2/3:12).
Let’s fast-forward to 2015 and consider also the heroic martyric witness of our countless Orthodox brethren in the Middle East today—whose lives resemble those we laud in the Orthodoxy Sunday epistle from Hebrews—who, because of their apostolic faith “were tortured… suffered mocking and scourging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword… destitute, afflicted, ill-treated… wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.” Are we as diligent to read such testimony as we are the ingredients on food labels?
The best way to celebrate the Triumph of Orthodoxy is to work ceaselessly to conform our lives to our bold declaration—“This is the Apostolic Faith”—to assure it’s not a question but a statement of fact. How do we do this? After Peter protested Jesus’ announcement that He was going to Jerusalem where He’d die and rise again, Our Lord responded to Peter saying, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men” (Matthew 16:23).
That’s where apostles belong—following along behind Our Lord, in His footsteps; yes, even as those footsteps lead to Golgotha—to follow Him when the burden is light and when we feel the full weight of the Cross, to follow Him as the Victorious Lord and Master of our lives Who alone can triumph over all things and without Whom we can triumph over nothing.
It’s because the apostles knew their place—behind the Lord—that their mission was successful, that “their proclamation went out into all the earth and their words to the ends of the universe, that “the Lord added daily to the Church those who were being saved.” It’s because they humbly venerated the icon of godly life revealed by their Master that Truth prevailed. This is the fruit of Apostolic Faith we must work together to harvest today, that Orthodoxy may truly triumph—first in our personal lives, then in our parish communities, and ultimately, in the world.
As our sacred words and holy images proclaim, may we increasingly become, with Peter, “eyewitnesses of the majesty of God.” May we say with Thomas: “My Lord and My God,” with Philip “Come and see,” and with John, “That which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—we proclaim also to you, so that you may have fellowship with us” (1 John 1:3). Only then can Orthodoxy really triumph and the sequel to the Acts of the Apostles be written in our day.
May we ambitiously take up this challenge and fulfill our great apostolic commission as people “sent” by God.
Gathering at the Orthodox Church in Hasakah, Syria
Gathering at the Orthodox Church in Hasakah, Syria
Syrian Christians Traumatized in Deadly Attack
Baltimore, MD (IOCC) — Fleeing for their lives, more than 2,400 exhausted and traumatized Christians from northeastern Syria sought refuge in the towns of Hasakah and Qamishli after their small communities were terrorized this week. The attackers targeted a stretch of villages along the southern bank of the Khabour River, where they burned homes and churches, murdered a fleeing 16-year-old boy, and abducted 150 Assyrian Christian men, women and children from their homes.
For those who managed to escape the attack and seek shelter in Hasakah, International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC), with its church partner, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East (GOPA), is providing food, medical attention, and emergency aid. IOCC/GOPA, which has offices in both Hasakah and Qamishli, is responding to the immediate needs of more than 1,000 displaced Syrian families seeking shelter at the Syriac Orthodox Church and the Assyrian Church in the Al Nasreh neighborhood of Hasakah with the distribution of food parcels, bedding, infant clothing and shoes. More than 600 of the survivors who fled the onslaught are children.
IOCC, an ACT Alliance member, is one of the few humanitarian organizations inside Syria providing immediate assistance to displaced families and elderly who have endured four years of a brutal war. Working in 28 offices across Syria, IOCC has provided relief to 2.5 million vulnerable people inside Syria since 2012.
Beloved Holy Cross parishioner Dolores (Dee) Elena Popp Hranitz, 75, fell-asleep in the Lord in the early morning of Friday, January 23 at Geisinger Medical Center, Danville. A visitation will be held at Holy Cross Church on Monday, January 26 at 10am, with the Funeral Service at 11:00am. The parish will provide a luncheon in the Orthodox Fellowship Center following the service, after which her body will be transported to Indiana, PA for additional services and burial. Having suffered long, may the Lord grant His newly-departed servant Elena rest where there is neither sickness, sorrow, nor sighing but life everlasting. “Memory Eternal."
"Think not it is of small things you art hearing when you hear of this birth, but rouse up your mind and straightway tremble, being told that God has come upon earth" [Saint John Chrysostom].
Since October, we've been incited, with considerable help from corporate America, to think about Christmas. Store aisles of decorations appeared overnight, urging us to consider how we can create just the right ambiance to adorn and enhance our celebration. Countless colorful product catalogs and advertising circulars have been filling our physical and virtual mailboxes and newspapers for weeks, encouraging us to think about those "perfect gifts" for those special people in our lives. Grocery stores have been prodding us to plan impeccable party platters for our holiday entertaining. And no matter where we go, the sounds of Christmas fill the air; stirring us to persevere in our determined efforts to make this "the best Christmas ever."
Then, the day arrives: "It's Christmas!" It's now time to experience all the happiness and merriment for which we've been preparing for so long, to see our myriad plans come to fruition, to savor the fulfillment of our considerable investments, and to taste the fruits of our labors while feeling the joy we've been envisioning for months.
But, to borrow a line from the popular classic, Twas the Night Before Christmas, "and what to our wondering eyes should appear?" The inflatable Santa in the front yard has succumbed to the elements and deflated, symbolic of how many will feel in coming days. The recycling bins and trash cans already overflow with the remnants of a season just beginning. That perfect gift of a power screwdriver, alas, has no power, and if we hear the song, "Grandma got run over by a reindeer" one more time, we'll sue the radio station for harassment! Yep, "it's the most wonderful time of the year!"
In the midst of all the commercialism, relativism -- and dare I say paganism -- that surrounds us these days, our Holy Church calls us to celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in worship, as our living witness to the Truth. What IS the Truth from which all things "Christmassy" flow, the Truth that has become so obscured as to be dissolved amidst the "holiday" wrappings and trappings, the Truth that historically hit the world with such force that its impact literally split time in two?
The Truth lies in our simple three-word greeting: "Christ is Born." Though we say this a thousand times, we still fall short in comprehending this profound mystery. We know what it means to be born. The greeting also assumes we know Who Christ is. Is this a fair assumption?
We know Christ historically. Saint Matthew's Gospel opens with Jesus' human genealogy -- His "family tree." He was a real Person Who lived in real time in a real place. Even non-believers can't argue this. We also know Christ theologically. Our Creed articulates our belief that He is "the Son of God... Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man." And we certainly know Christ liturgically and sacramentally. In every Liturgy we intimately "know" Christ "in the breaking of the Bread." So our Holy Church cannot but bear witness to the Truth of Christ each and every time we gather for worship.
But history and theology can amount to little more than nicely packaged words without practical application. And worship services and sacraments can be little more than pious, ancient and empty rituals if separated from their Divine Source. The Truth of Jesus Christ is that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father" (John 1:14).
When we spiritually and enthusiastically shout our "Amen" to the Truth of Christ as manifested and announced in the Church, and live by that shout, we truly hear the song of angels, behold the brightness of the star, exercise the humility of the Mother of God, express the wonder of the shepherds, and give Christ the gift of ourselves, more precious than the gifts of the Magi. This is how we "give flesh" to the Gospel's words that package the Christmas story. And in this, our joy becomes full, our hearts become glad, our souls rejoice, and our feasting becomes a spiritual banquet at the heavenly table of the everlasting Kingdom of God.
"No one will be saved simply by knowing God's will; salvation lies in doing it." -- St Nicholas of Zicha
The famous parable of the Good Samaritan tells of a man being mugged and left half dead on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. The first to come upon him were a priest and a Levite, but they passed by. We’re not told the reasons they passed by, but can speculate. The levite, a “religious professional,” was likely enroute to or from “work.” The priest was perhaps fearful he’d defile himself and thus become unable to perform his priestly service by coming into contact with someone shedding blood. Maybe they were just running late, afraid they too would be mugged, or even that the wounded man was faking his injuries. This is worthy of thought. After all, don’t we sometimes pass by needy neighbors for similar reasons?!
In any case, along comes our hero, the good Samaritan, who shows compassion to the beaten man, pouring oil and wine on his wounds—symbolic of the mysteries of the Church wherein Christ Himself is manifested as the good Samaritan to us, who are wounded by sin. After applying this primitive treatment, the Samaritan raises the bar in his compassion. He puts the wounded man on his own mule, transports him to a nearby inn, and gives money to the innkeeper to ensure the ongoing care and recovery of the wounded man. In addition, the Samaritan makes a pledge to reimburse the innkeeper for any further expenses incurred. So not only does the Samaritan take a personal interest in a needy neighbor—sharing his time, effort, wine, oil, money, and mule—but he also enlists the support of another. There is really no clearer call to charity than this parable. And as Jesus challenged an inquisitive lawyer to embrace compassion, so too our Holy Church repeatedly challenges us to “go and do likewise.”
We’re all well aware of the urgent and genuine needs of our neighbors. And since the Orthodox Church is pretty much everywhere in the world, the word “neighbor” for us has global application. No, we can’t begin to help everyone, but neither can we violate Our Lord’s commandment to show compassion to the wounded neighbors on our paths or our doorsteps.
Indeed, we should and do show our compassion by praying for them, but that’s not enough. The Bible says, “If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?” [James 2:14-15]. It’s akin to wishing ‘Merry Christmas’ to someone who’s just lost everything. Our faith must blossom into good works, not just good wishes. Actions always speak louder than words. In fact, in the parable, we notice the absence of words. The Samaritan didn’t interrogate the wounded man, he just acted. What wounded neighbors need is not rhetoric but resources. In identifying Himself with the least of the brethren, Our Lord says, “I was hungry and you gave me food,” not “I was hungry and you formed a task force to discuss it or you applied for a government grant.” Our financial donations toward various charities, though helping to empower the Church to show compassion on our behalf, don’t absolve us from personal responsibility.
But there is yet another way for us to show compassion for our neighbors that’s not related in the parable. It’s simply this: If we really love our neighbors, we will also make every effort to warn them not to travel dangerous paths!
The road from Jerusalem to Jericho, where the beaten man had been mugged, had a reputation among locals as being an extremely dangerous one. Some historians refer to it as the “road of blood,” upon which unscrupulous robbers hid, waiting to pounce on new victims. So the story of the good Samaritan would’ve been a “non-story” had some compassionate neighbor told the traveler, “You’re risking your life if you go that way!” Instead of being called “the good Samaritan,” the parable could’ve been called “the foolish traveler!”
If we see people following dangerous paths in their lives, if we really love them, isn’t one of the best ways to show them our love to warn them of danger? As parents, we show compassion to our children in exactly this way—“don’t run into the street, don’t touch a hot stove, don’t get into a car with strangers, don’t hang around with bad people, don’t do drugs, etc.” Many roads in life are full of danger. Yet how often do we see neighbors following such grievous paths and remain silent or pass them by? Perhaps we ourselves are, knowingly or unknowingly, on such paths, and only the compassion of another can save us from being wounded, beaten or destroyed, or at least incite us to consider an alternate, safer route.
In this sense, the Church must intentionally strive to fulfill the role of Christ as the good Samaritan. The Church is to be a lighthouse that guides lost and wandering souls to the Kingdom of God—“a haven of peace in a tortured world.” Thus, the Church is a life-saving station that nurtures that equips and dispatches good Samaritans to be neighbors to others, or a spiritual GPS that displays the preferred path to a desired destination and warns of the dangers inherent on other roads.
Each of us has, in our individual lives, been beaten, bruised, wounded and left for dead, in one way or the other, by the “thugs” of passions and sin. But, thanks be to God, Jesus Christ has repeatedly been—and will forever be—our good Samaritan, applying His healing oil and wine to our wounds in the Mysteries of His Holy Church.
Especially as our thoughts now turn to Advent, Thanksgiving and the Great Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord, may our love for our neighbor truly take flesh in doing God’s will, so that we in the Church truly may be the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world,” for that’s what our good Samaritan, Jesus Christ, calls us to be—and do!
"Gone Fishin'... For Men!"
One of the best ways to accomplish virtually anything is to enlist the support of others. This holds true for any worthy endeavor, from the simplest to the greatest. It should therefore come as no great surprise to us to read and understand Luke 5. Our Lord, desiring to save the world (the highest of all endeavors!) enlists the support of His first disciples. We generally refer to this reading as "Fishers of Men". In the rationale of corporate America, we may call it "Phase One of Christ's Strategic Plan."
Our Lord was preaching in His homeland when He initiates this phase. Approaching the Sea of Galilee, He watched as some rather frustrated fishermen were bringing their boats back to the shore. Among them were two sets of brothers; Peter and Andrew, and James and John. (Andrew has to wait until the next chapter in Luke to be mentioned. Luke, essentially Peter's secretary, apparently chose to show some preferential treatment and leave Andy out of his version of the "fisherman's call.") It is with these simple fishermen that Our Lord begins to implement His plan. He uses one of the boats as a pulpit. Then He requests Simon to head for middle of the lake, the deepest part, and once again let down his nets. Simon, though perhaps initially insulted by this advice, obeys the Lord. Lo and behold, the catch of fish now is so great that the nets began to break, another boat is summoned, and both of them begin to sink from the sheer weight of the caught fish. This episode certainly must have accounted for some legendary fish stories!
Simon couldn't believe his eyes! He immediately fell down before the Lord in humility, telling Him essentially that he (Simon) was not worthy to be graced by such an awesome and almighty power. But Jesus said to him; "Fear not, from now on, you will catch men." And the reading concludes, "when they had brought their boats to land, they forsook all and followed Him."
Mission accomplished! Phase One of Christ's plan was complete. He had succeeded in enlisting the support of others; apostles who would serve as His ambassadors in subsequent phases of His Divine Plan for the salvation of the world.
Notice here a couple of things in particular which pertain to all of us as apostles of Christ. First, Our Lord calls the fishermen 'at work.' They're not sitting around daydreaming, playing fantasy football or even praying. They're doing what they do to earn their livelihood! There's wisdom in this for us. Christ wants workers as His disciples. Those prone to idleness or laziness need not apply! He must be surrounded by what St Paul calls "fellow workers with Him." It's been said by many that one of the greatest stumbling-blocks to the growth of the Church today are 'pew potatoes': those who noblely find there way to the Sunday Liturgy but fail to pray or work for the Kingdom of Christ once they leave. Christ calls workers!
Next, notice the humility and obedience of the fishermen. These are essential qualities of fellow-workers of Christ. When Christ told Simon to go out into the middle of the lake, after going all night without catching a single fish, Simon could very easily have shunned the request and said something to Jesus on the order of; "Who do you think you are, telling me, a professional fisherman, how to fish?!" But nevertheless, he obeyed Christ. This is a lesson in faith for us! Regardless of our life experience, we must exercise obedience in faith; even though it may appear in the eyes of the world as foolish, fanatical, old-fashioned or irrelevant. Faith implies a humility that accepts and embraces the commands of God and acts accordingly.
Equally important in this is the symbolic element of what may be summarized in one word: evangelization -- the determined and intentional effort to joyfully live and share the good news of Christ! This is at the heart of Christ's command to Simon to "Launch out into the deep and let down your nets".
Historically, this referred to the Jews and the Gentiles. The Jews were those 'close to the shore' who, with the benefit of the entire Old Testament, should be easily 'caught' in the net of Christ. It was the Gentiles who were 'out in the deep'; those who would need to be persuaded and convinced of God's love through the person of Jesus Christ and His fellow workers!
This symbolic meaning needs to be updated because it's an evangelical challenge confronting the entire Church still today. For example, most if not all of our 'parish nets' have been successful in 'catching those close to the shore.' By the grace of God, we welcome among us numerous souls who have had no prior exposure, affiliation or familiarity with the Orthodox Church but who courageously venture into our temples and ultimately become "hooked" (increasingly, these days, after have done their homework via the internet before risking a foot in the door!). We don't have to do a whole lot of "fishing" to catch them. In most cases, all we have to do is 'let down our net', offer the opportunity, provide the facility, beauty and environment of the Church, and in they come!
But as Our Lord directed the apostles, so He directs us; "launch out into the deep". This is to say; don't be content with only those who can be easily "caught." Launch out -- into the communities and neighborhoods that surround us, the shattered families and broken lives of those we hardly know, into relationships with those who must be persuaded and convinced of God's love, mercy and healing through our 'fishing.'
Thanks be to God, many parishes have been successful to some degree in this challenge to "Go fishin'... for men!" But each of us, baptized into Christ and nourished by the Holy Sacraments, must accept this challenge, personally! We must each live up to the commitments we have made to God and His Church at some point in our lives.
Look again at the profession of faith that converts proclaim in the service for their reception into the Church: "This true faith of the Holy Orthodox Church, which I now voluntarily confess and truly hold, I will firmly maintain and confess, whole and unchanged, even until my last breath, God being my helper. And I will teach and proclaim it, insofar as I am able. And I will strive to fulfill its obligations with zeal and joy, preserving my heart in purity and good deeds." (Sounds pretty serious, doesn't it?!)
It's in accordance with this solemn profession that everyone of us who is in communion with Christ and His Church must act! We're all supposed to be 'fishers of men!' Yes, Our Lord is still 'the point-Man' in His strategic plan for the salvation of the world. But each time we gather as His Body the Church, we're reminded that He expects us to be His dedicated ambassadors and tireless workers -- humble and obedient fishermen -- to help execute His Plan: to catch a great catch for the Kingdom and glory of God!
"We pray to Thee, O Lord Our God, that the suffering people of Ukraine be granted the wisdom, mutual respect and love which will protect them from violence, preserve them in peace, and bring them unity and justice for the sake of the Gospel of Christ. And that Thou wilt grant comfort and consolation to the wounded and grieving, give rest to the souls of the departed, and grant strength to those who minister to all in Thy Holy Name."
They've been working hard for a good portion of their young lives perfecting their skills with bats, balls and gloves, hoping someday to visit the Field of Dreams for the Little League World Series! At significant expense, they've come from around the world with coaches, families, friends and fans making meaningful sacrifices to support and encourage them.
Along the way, they've forged lifelong friendships, melded as teammates working toward a common goal and, now in Williamsport, been exposed to peers, peoples and cultures that open their eyes to the world.
Notwithstanding their diverse talents and individual skills -- like the young girl on the Philadelphia team throwing 70 mph fastballs! -- they come to Williamsport to compete as teams.
We commend and congratulate them not only for "making it" but also for inspiring a worldwide audience by their good sportsmanship, dedication and team spirit.
Little leaguers remind us that teamwork is essential in many areas of life besides sports. Working toward common goals invariably draws people closer and closer together. And the more ambitious and lofty the goal, the greater the effort required to achieve it. Each team member must contribute their best effort to the collective process. If and when the goal is achieved, how sweet are the results!
Champions are not crowned because of whim, but hard work in the trenches of daily life that prepare them for the field of competition -- for "the prize."
There's much in this that relates to faith groups like the Christian community. Though some suggest, "it's just between me and God," the sacred scriptures invariably reveal a "team approach." The analogy of the apostle Paul calling the Church "the Body of Christ" is most instructive. He writes, "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you,' nor again the head to the feet, 'I have no need of you' and "If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together" (I Corinthians 12:21,26). Clearly he's talking about a "team approach"!
Consider the "team" Jesus Himself assembled to carry out His divine mission and ministry! Look at the "apostolic dugout." Over here we have a pair of professional adversaries: Matthew the tax-collector sitting with Simon the Zealot -- one collects the taxes to support a regime the other is fighting to eradicate. Further down the bench we see esteemed "sons of thunder," James and John, who dare to demand places further up in the batting order. Leading off is Peter the triple-denier, followed by his brother and business partner Andrew. In the on-deck circle is the impatient Philip chomping at the bit, while behind him is friend Nathanael enjoying the shade of a fig tree as he contemplates the mysteries of the universe. A money-loving Judas actually tries to sabotage the effort (definitely NOT a team player). And when the game's nearly over, Thomas the chronically-late doubter arrives. Could there be a bunch of less likely candidates to gather together to form a team that would ultimately "turn the world upside down"? (Acts 17:6).
Individuals, with their respective talents, gifts and skills, can certainly accomplish and achieve much. But, for "a greater good," gather them together, bring their individual talents to bear under inspired leadership toward a common goal, support and encourage them in their dedicated efforts, and watch what happens!
The Church: A Body in Motion
“With what garlands of praise shall we crown Peter and Paul, the greatest among the heralds of the word of God, distinct in their person but one in spirit. The one, the chief ruler of the Apostles; the other who labored more than the rest. Christ our God fittingly crowned them with immortal glory, for He alone possesses great mercy” [Vespers, the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul].
How wonderfully the feast of Saints Peter and Paul fits into the liturgical scheme of our Holy Church as yet another manifestation of the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. These two great pillars of the Church offer us significantly more practical wisdom than we imagine. The confession of Peter—that Jesus is “truly the Christ, the Son of the Living God”—is the rock of faith upon which the Church is built. And the perils of Paul, wherein he came to rely totally on the sufficiency of God’s grace, is something for all of us to consider. But in addition to their individual lives and struggles as recounted in the festal readings, it is their combined witness and testimony from which we can learn a great deal.
We’ve probably all heard of Sir Isaac Newton, the 17th century English mathematician who, among other things, formulated the laws of gravity and motion. In doing so, Newton coined two words to describe the forces of motion: centripetal and centrifugal. Centripetal force is what keeps things down on earth though the planet revolves at incredible speed. Centrifugal force moves things away from a center point—like going around a curve on a roller coaster and your body is forced toward the outside. Can’t we see these ‘forces of motion’ wonderfully illustrated in the persons of Peter and Paul?
Peter, as seen in his epistles, was always encouraging the early Church and Christians in the Roman diaspora to maintain unity within a hostile environment. He instructed Christians to band and keep together, regardless of the distance that separated them, in order to bear witness to Christ. “Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love of the brethren, a tender heart and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8). Peter was a centripetal force for the Church.
Paul, on the other hand, was the missionary apostle; the centrifugal force of the Church that challenged her, and led the challenge, to expand her mission to include the Gentiles: “...I am eager to preach the Gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the Gospel: it is the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:15-16).
Do you see the wisdom here? The Church was, is and must always be ‘a Body in motion;’ living and active, never stagnant. And the forces of motion and perfectly exemplified, respectfully, by Peter and Paul. Without the centripetal force of Peter, the Church would have become little more than loosely connected groups ‘doing their own thing’ with no cohesiveness or foundation upon which to build in a unified manner. And without the centrifugal force of Paul, the Church would have remained a relatively small Jewish sect in Palestine. The Church needed both of these ‘forces’ to implement the great Commission of Our Lord to teach and baptize all nations!
In like manner, we—as individuals and members of parish communities—need to practically apply these same forces of motion today. Our lives must be centered on Jesus Christ, anchored in intimate communion with Him Who alone is the Source of our being and the Author of our Salvation. We need centripetal force to keep us grounded in faith as we go about our daily activities and face the trials and tribulations of life. And the Church wonderfully provides this in her worship, sacraments, and ascetic life. But we also need the centrifugal force that ‘moves’ us to adapt to changing circumstances and relationships, helps us to gain new insights into God’s love for us, and share our faith with others!
The laws of motion are also important for practical administrative purposes within the Church. Every parish must recognize two types of goals in its collective life: maintenance and growth. We must be good stewards of what God has entrusted to us and concerned with the welfare of our parishioners. But we must also be willing to adapt, expand and widen our scope to fulfill our function as the Church to ‘teach all nations’.
May we learn from the example of Peter and Paul of the diversity of spiritual gifts within the Church that, though they may not always reflect uniformity, nevertheless serve a common purpose: to reveal, manifest and announce the living God that all may know Him and love Him as we do, and keep the Body of Christ ‘in motion’!
Pray for Meriam
"...for once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light, (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true)" -- Ephesians 5:8-9
Here's a widely-reported and very troubling "breaking news" story from today's headlines. It's about a 27-year-old woman in Sudan, Meriam Ibrahim. She was born to a Muslim father and an Ethiopian Orthodox Christian mother. Her father abandoned the home when she was a young child.
Nevertheless, in Sudan, children are expected to follow the religion of their fathers. Three years ago, Meriam married a professing Christian man and about a year later gave birth to a son. She's now expecting another child and is eight-plus months pregnant.
Sudanese law prohibits women from marrying non-Muslims, although men can marry whomever they want without any penalty whatsoever. So on May 11, 2014 (ironically Mothers' Day) Meriam was convicted of apostasy for rejecting Islam and was given four days to recant, which would save her life.
But unlike countless others who've faced similar sentences in Sudan and elsewhere, she refused to renounce her faith and convert to Islam. After four days, on May 15, she appeared again before the court and declared openly and emphatically: "I am a Christian, and I will remain a Christian."
In response, Judge Abbas Khalifa pronounced his verdict. "I sentence you to be hanged to death." As if this weren't horrific enough, Meriam was also convicted by the court of committing "zena" -- an implication of adultery for marrying a non-Muslim. And for this alleged crime, she was also sentenced to receive 100 lashes -- before the imposition of the sentence of hanging!
Currently, with her 18-month-old son and the child in her womb, Meriam remains shackled in a prison, awaiting the carrying-out of the sentences.
Ibrahim's husband said he's utterly distraught over the sentence and is fervently praying that it be somehow overturned.
Human rights groups worldwide have condemned the sentence, characterizing it as "heinous" and "abhorrent." Amnesty International calls it "a flagrant breach of international human rights law."
The U.S. National Security Council issued a statement, saying: "We continue to urge Sudan to fulfill its constitutional promise of religious freedom, and to respect the fundamental freedoms and universal human rights of all its people." And a written report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, citing that 60 percent of Sudan identifies as Muslim and that the nation's president, Omar al-Bashir, seeks to enforce Sharia law, says: "Conversion from Islam is a crime punishable by death, suspected converts to Christianity face societal pressures, and government security personnel intimidate and sometimes torture those suspected of conversion."
Meriam's extremely poignant story is yet another contemporary example of the struggles and dangers of living a Christian life. Rightly did the Apostle Paul warn his disciple Timothy: "Indeed all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (2 Timothy 3:12).
As we draw near the Great Feast of Our Lord's Ascension, we remember the myriad lessons we've received during Lent, Holy Week and Pascha. The Church has offered us more sermons on Jesus Christ as "the Light of the world" than we can begin to count.
Still, we seem insistent and even content to choose the darkness of the world rather than the Light of the world. Though we're repeatedly called to "lay aside all earthly cares," we, like spoiled children, enthusiastically chase after them and then complain that we're simply helpless victims of modern society! We excuse ourselves from sharing real fellowship with certain others, even fellow communicants and family members, because they (for whatever reason) irritate us while we pursue relationships with certain others whose religious faith and ideology are diametrically opposed to what we believe is "good, right and true." We're all in favor of human rights and human freedom and human tolerance and human justice for all --- at least until they burden MY life, limit MY freedom, challenge MY opinions, and conflict with MY understanding of justice.
Where is the heartfelt joy -- that inner light of our souls -- that enables us to see the glory, majesty and miracles of our God and rejoice in thanksgiving for His grace, gifts and the divine forgiveness springing from the life-creating Cross and empty tomb of Our Lord?! Are we so quick to abandon our joy, recant our faith, renounce our Risen Lord, and burn a pinch of incense to Caesar to save our lives at the expense of our souls!? We need to pray for one another, and especially for Meriam and those like her. We need to let the Light of Christ shine in our hearts that others may see. We need to sing forever with the Church, "Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered. Let those who hate Him flee from before His face." We need to be able to stand in the midst of the fallen world with enough faithfulness and courage to say: "I am a Christian, and I will remain a Christian."
Cable tv gives us a wide variety of channels (filled with "nothing to watch!"). Personally I often revert to the station that has the only news we can really use: The Weather Channel. In addition to the local forecast, they have reports from folks they call "stormchasers." The channel execs dispatch these fearless(?) employees into the heart of every storm where they courageously stand (or at least, try to) in blizzards, tornados, tsunamis and hurricanes, through wind, snow, rain, mud and ice, to deliver eyewitness reports of the awesome power of nature. Whatever they pay them is not enough.
Despite the inherent dangers, risks and hazards, everyone seems to enjoy the thrill, excitement and adventure of the chase -- for whatever. Children at play in a game of tag, for example, are full of excitement and get much exercise engaging in the chase -- as do the parents running after them.
Though we don't often conceive it as such, our desire to engage in the chase carries through adulthood. It's always been the case. In the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes, we read in just a few verses that the great and wise King Solomon chased after pleasure, laughter, wine, jewels, houses, vineyards, fruit trees, silver, gold, orchards and music. And he ultimately "caught" everything he chased!
Reflecting on all the wealth and wisdom and stuff he'd accumulated, however, he says: "Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun" (2:11). Finally, with righteous wisdom, he concludes by saying: "Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man" (12:13).
It can rightly be said that Jesus Christ was the greatest stormchaser Who ever lived. He was sent by His Father into the storm of fallen humanity: not to observe and report but to rescue mankind from the tsunami of sin, the hurricane of corruption, the tornado of death. After revealing in word and deed the will of God to save man and facing the winds and waves of ingratitude, hypocrisy, defiance and contempt, He ultimately, voluntarily, stretched out His arms upon a cross and declared of the storm: "It is finished!" Afterwards, He even went so far as to chase down Adam and Eve who, among countless others, were waiting for Him in the depths of hell!
After weeks of lenten reflection, we now find ourselves excitedly chasing the intense, spiritual joy of Jesus' glorious resurrection from the dead, celebrating our deliverance from the storm, in the hope it will penetrate our hearts with a personal experience of the immeasurable love of Our Lord as revealed through His cross and empty tomb. Easter eggs and chocolate bunnies fall far short of capturing that joy.
We've probably weathered many storms in our lives by God's grace. We've heard His words, seen His miracles and felt His peace. Now, "Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life." And like those who "departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples" (Matthew 28:8) we run to share the good news of the resurrection to a world that often seems to prefer darkness to light, evil to good, and death to life.
Solomon was right. Regardless of the things we're so often consumed with chasing in life, our duty is to fear God and keep His commandments. The Great Stormchaser has visited and redeemed us! Let us worship Him!
The Symphony of Lent
Having had the opportunity to sing an operetta with the local symphony orchestra, it’s remarkable to me how wonderfully our Orthodox liturgical progression from Pre-Lent to Lent to Holy Week to Pascha not only presents “the greatest story ever told,” but also resembles the performance of a musical masterpiece.
I recall how at one rehearsal the conductor, abruptly bringing all to full stop, angrily tapped his baton, stomped his foot and shouted, “You’re not following me! The score says lentando!” Lentando means “to make slow;” slowing down the music’s tempo to create a reflective, contemplative, even solemn mood. This is especially employed in operas to build and enhance the personality and disposition of characters and to give the audience glimpses into their respective life struggles and inner conflicts that will be brought to bear as the story unfolds.
That’s pretty much “lent,” isn’t it?! Time to slow down, to adjust the tempo of our daily lives from the hectic pace that consumes us to a more contemplative one that incites inner reflection and self-awareness. It’s a time to earnestly reflect on our character: what makes us tick, what lifts us up and what drags us down. The mood created by our extra services, their somberness and solemnity, complemented by the readings, hymns, movements, commemorations and participation in confession reveal our desperate need for some serious “lentando” in our lives.
Lentando, however, is not stagnant but dynamic. It lays a foundation upon which to build, paving the way for something to come. In musical terms, it’s normally followed by a variation of “andante calmo,” literally “walking calmly.” Having manifested traits of the characters by slowing to a reasonable, manageable tempo, the piece now assumes and maintains a pace that allows the story to unfold.
The early weeks of Lent likewise assume we have hit our stride, that our pre-lenten instruction has adequately prepared us to adopt a certain rhythm, especially of prayer and fasting. And whereas Forgiveness Sunday Vespers directs us to “begin the fast with joy,” our now “walking calmly” includes “allegretto” as well—a tinge of joyfulness.
By the third week of Lent, when the precious Cross of Our Lord is planted in our midst, our musical score is marked “poco a poco accelerando”—to accelerate, to pick up the pace little by little, not just for the thrill of speed but because our desired destination is slowly coming into view.
When the music accelerates, it’s taking you somewhere; there’s a “crescendo”—a “growing”—to emphasize an imminent crucial point of the story it seeks to tell. Crescendo is a movement toward a point that prepares the audience to experience and embrace the climax of the story, with voices and orchestra collectively manifesting their individual talents at optimal levels to “bring the story home.” Jesus weeping at the tomb of Lazarus, only to call him to come forth after four days represents, at least to me, a great crescendo!
Each day of Holy Week represents “a symphony within the symphony.” Like acts of a play, each building upon the one before, they’d be musically-marked “presto;” literally meaning “very fast,” but more appropriately “ready.” Everything to this point of the symphony has been preparing the audience not merely to passively observe, but “enter into” the story’s summit. All the variations in tempo, dynamics and mood; the array of sounds produced by combinations of instruments and voices; the musicians fully offering themselves in sacrificial service to achieve the desired end-result—all resources have been brought to bear and now stand ready to deliver “the message;” to the experience of its zenith.
There are many musical terms to be considered in reference to Great and Holy Pascha. My choice would be “vivace”—“vivacious”—joyously unrestrained, enthusiastic, exuberant, lively! That’s a pretty good word to describe our celebration of the glorious resurrection of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! If after progressing through the various stages, movements and elements of the score you arrive at the end and cannot muster some serious “vivace” at the proclamation of “Christ is Risen,” you just haven’t been listening at all.
The world continues its insanity at a frantic pace, with no storyline, truth, morality or particular destination in mind. So many threatening and horrific events occurring these days are merely the latest, tragic reminders of the frailty and fallenness of the world. But the symphony of Lent draws us into the premier masterpiece of God’s mission “for the life of the world and its salvation.”
Holy Cross is the only Orthodox church in six counties of northcentral Pennsylvania and one of the most unique church buildings you'll find anywhere! The parish, founded in 1977, is part of the Diocese of Eastern Pennsylvania (doepa.org) of the Orthodox Church in America (oca.org).
The Orthodox Church dates back to the day of Pentecost as the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of the eastern Roman Empire and exists to give glory to our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ, His Father and the Holy Spirit; to worship the Holy Trinity in spirit and in truth and to perpetuate the saving ministry of Christ through the faith once for all delivered to the saints. To this day, She remains unchanged in doctrine and order of worship and stands as a humble witness to the life and belief of the continuing Christian flock. She was and is the Church of the martyrs and the Holy Fathers who defended the divinity and humanity of the Lord Jesus Christ and the proper understanding of the Holy Trinity's revelation to It's creation.
Orthodoxy came to America through Alaska in the 18th century and, fed by immigration, spread across the continent, often appearing as an insulated sect open only to people of certain ethnic backgrounds.
This unfortunate image of the Church has changed dramatically in recent years as the Orthodox Church has turned Her attention to all Americans who are seeking the joys of fullness and continuity in their knowledge of God's revelation.
This transition is beautifully exemplified atHoly Cross Orthodox Church in Williamsport PA, where all services are in English and people of all backgrounds are welcomed into Orthodoxy's life of communion with God and the Church's calm, pastoral, yet unflinching resistance to the tragic and seemingly unending compromise of truth and life in contemporary society.
The basic structure of Holy Cross Church is a former 200-year-old log barn of hand-hewn timbers, painstakingly dismantled, delivered and reassembled on site from a location some five miles away. Beginning in June, 1987, over the next 17 months, the pastor and parishioners volunteered their talents and tireless efforts in all phases of the construction process. The use of logs seemed appropriate for Williamsport, the one-time 'log capital of the world'. The distinctive 'onion domes' were built on site and hoisted into place as the crowning glory of the church, surmounted by hand-crafted crosses plated with gold leaf. The church was formally consecrated on November 12, 1988 (and has since become affectionately well-known throughout the region as "the little, wooden Orthodox church").
In 1997-98, a beautification project was undertaken including the construction and installation of a new icon screen and hand-painted icons. The church interior has been referred to as "something like heaven". Traditional stained glass windows enhance the incredible beauty of the timeless Orthodox iconography.
The parish opened its Orthodox Fellowship Center located directly behind the church in July, 2002 -- another parishioner-built structure. After its opening, the church basement was transformed into our education center with classrooms and a library. Next to the church is our rectory and parish office.
You are welcome to join us in worship:
SATURDAYS, Vespers at 6:30 pm
SUNDAYS, Divine Liturgy at 10:00 am
Weekdays as announced
Our worship is sung by the priest and people (no musical instruments). Though we usually stand in worship, we do have pews. Children participate in worship together with their families. We offer a host of ministries, weekly education programs and seasonal inquirers sessions.
Thanks for visiting our website!
Call us for further info at (570) 322-3020.
THE ORTHODOX CHURCH
The Orthodox Church was founded by our Lord Jesus Christ and is the living manifestation of His presence in the history of the mankind. The most conspicuous characteristics of Orthodoxy are its rich liturgical life and its faithfulness to the apostolic tradition. It is believed by Orthodox Christians that their Church has preserved the tradition and continuity of the ancient Church in its fullness compared to other Christian denominations which have departed from the common tradition of the Church of the first ten centuries. Today Orthodox Church numbers approximately 300 million Christians who follow the faith and practices that were defined by the first seven Ecumenical Councils. The word orthodox ("right belief” or “right glory") has traditionally been used, in the Greek-speaking Christian world, to designate communities, or individuals, who preserved the true faith (as defined by those councils), as opposed to those who were declared heretical. The official designation of the church in its liturgical and canonical texts is "the Orthodox Catholic Church" (gr. catholicos = universal).
The Orthodox Church is a family of "autocephalous" (self governing) churches, with the Ecumenical (= universal) Patriarch of Constantinople holding titular or honorary primacy as primus inter pares (the first among equals). The Orthodox Church is not a centralized organization headed by a pontiff. The unity of the Church is rather manifested in common faith and communion in the sacraments and no one but Christ Himself is the real Head of the Church. The number of autocephalous churches has varied in history. Today there are many: the Church of Constantinople (Istanbul), the Church of Alexandria (Egypt), the Church of Antioch (with headquarters in Damascus, Syria), and the Churches of Jerusalem, Russia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Cyprus, Greece, Poland, Albania and America.
There are also "autonomous" churches (retaining a token canonical dependence upon a mother see) in Czech and Slovak republics, Sinai, Crete, Finland, Japan, China and Ukraine. In addition there is also a large Orthodox Diaspora scattered all over the world and administratively divided among various jurisdictions (dependencies of the above mentioned autocephalous churches). The first nine autocephalous churches are headed by patriarchs, the others by archbishops or metropolitans. These titles are strictly honorary as all bishops are completely equal in the power granted to them by the Holy Spirit.
The order of precedence in which the autocephalous churches are listed does not reflect their actual influence or numerical importance. The Patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch, for example, present only shadows of their past glory. Yet there remains a consensus that Constantinople's primacy of honor, recognized by the ancient canons because it was the capital of the ancient Byzantine empire, should remain as a symbol and tool of church unity and cooperation. Modern pan-Orthodox conferences were thus convoked by the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople. Several of the autocephalous churches are de facto national churches, by far the largest being the Russian Church; however, it is not the criterion of nationality but rather the territorial principle that is the norm of organization in the Orthodox Church.
In the wider theological sense "Orthodoxy is not merely a type of purely earthly organization which is headed by patriarchs, bishops and priests who hold the ministry in the Church which officially is called "Orthodox." Orthodoxy is the mystical "Body of Christ," the Head of which is Christ Himself (see Eph. 1:22-23 and Col. 1:18, 24 et seq.), and its composition includes not only priests but all who truly believe in Christ, who have entered in a lawful way through Holy Baptism into the Church He founded, those living upon the earth and those who have died in the Faith and in piety."
The Great Schism between the Eastern and the Western Church (1054) was the culmination of a gradual process of estrangement between the east and west that began in the first centuries of the Christian Era and continued through the Middle Ages. Linguistic and cultural differences, as well as political events, contributed to the estrangement. From the 4th to the 11th century, Constantinople, the center of Eastern Christianity, was also the capital of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire, while Rome, after the barbarian invasions, fell under the influence of the Holy Roman Empire of the West, a political rival. In the West, theology remained under the influence of St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) and gradually lost its immediate contact with the rich theological tradition of the Christian East. In the same time the Roman See was almost completely overtaken by Franks. Theological differences could have probably been settled if there were not two different concepts of church authority. The growth of Roman primacy, based on the concept of the apostolic origin of the Church of Rome which claimed not only titular but also jurisdictional authority above other churches, was incompatible with the traditional Orthodox ecclesiology. The Eastern Christians considered all churches as sister churches and understood the primacy of the Roman bishop only as primus inter pares among his brother bishops. For the East, the highest authority in settling doctrinal disputes could by no means be the authority of a single Church or a single bishop but an Ecumenical Council of all sister churches. In the course of time the Church of Rome adopted various wrong teachings which were not based in the Tradition and finally proclaimed the teaching of the Pope's infallibility when teaching ex cathedra. This widened the gap even more between the Christian East and West. The Protestant communities which split from Rome in the course of centuries diverged even more from the teaching of the Holy Fathers and the Holy Ecumenical Councils. Due to these serious dogmatic differences the Orthodox Church is not in communion with the Roman Catholic and Protestant communities. More traditional Orthodox theologians do not recognize the ecclesial and salvific character of these Western churches at all, while the more liberal ones accept that the Holy Spirit acts to a certain degree within these communities although they do not possess the fullness of grace and spiritual gifts like the Orthodox Church. Many serious Orthodox theologians are of the opinion that between Orthodoxy and heterodox confessions, especially in the sphere of spiritual experience, the understanding of God and salvation, there exists an ontological difference which cannot be simply ascribed to cultural and intellectual estrangement of the East and West but is a direct consequence of a gradual abandonment of the sacred tradition by heterodox Christians.
At the time of the Schism of 1054 between Rome and Constantinople, the membership of the Eastern Orthodox Church was spread throughout the Middle East, the Balkans, and Russia, with its center in Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, which was also called New Rome. The vicissitudes of history have greatly modified the internal structures of the Orthodox Church, but, even today, the bulk of its members live in the same geographic areas. Missionary expansion toward Asia and emigration toward the West, however, have helped to maintain the importance of Orthodoxy worldwide. Today, the Orthodox Church is present almost everywhere in the world and is bearing witness of true, apostolic and patristic tradition to all peoples.
The Orthodox Church is well known for its developed monasticism. The uninterrupted monastic tradition of Orthodox Christianity can be traced from the Egyptian desert monasteries of the 3rd and 4th centuries. Soon monasticism had spread all over the Mediterranean basin and Europe: in Palestine, Syria, Cappadocia, Gaul, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Slavic countries. Monasticism has always been a beacon of Orthodoxy and has made and continues to make a strong and lasting impact on Orthodox spirituality.
The Orthodox Church today is an invaluable treasury of the rich liturgical tradition handed down from the earliest centuries of Christianity. The sense of the sacred, the beauty and grandeur of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy make the presence of heaven on earth live and intensive. Orthodox Church art and music has a very functional role in the liturgical life and helps even the bodily senses to feel the spiritual grandeur of the Lord's mysteries. Orthodox icons are not simply beautiful works of art which have certain aesthetic and didactic functions. They are primarily the means through which we experience the reality of the Heavenly Kingdom on earth. The holy icons enshrine the immeasurable depth of the mystery of Christ's incarnation in defense of which thousands of martyrs sacrificed their lives.