Dormition Fast


Today marks the first day of the Fast in Rememberance of the Theotokos, the Holy Virgin. The Orthodox Church has four great fasts during the year. The current fast begins today and culminates in the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos on August 15. It is a fixed fast, it occurs during the same dates each year, as opposed to Pascha, which is moveable. 

During fasting seasons I am asked by close friends or colleagues why I am fasting, since it is not common for our Protestant friends to have structured fasts. We are appointed to fast for four major feasts in the Orthodox Tradition: Great Lent, Advent, Apostles Fast, and Dormition Fast. The first two festal fasting periods last forty days, while the next two are for two weeks. We are currently in preparation for this last feast, the Dormition of the Theotokos (mother of God) –the Church starts its New Year on the 1st day of September.
In the primitive Church, Sunday and Pascha were the only feasts, both commemorating not just Christ’s resurrection, but also the whole mystery of salvation. The development of the festal cycle can be explained as the elucidation of the paschal mystery by breaking it up into its component parts, from the Annunciation to Pentecost.

Pascha is the Feast of Feasts and is the pinnacle of everything celebrated in the Church. It is the culmination of the cycle of the Church year and that which we are always celebrating. Without the crucifixion and resurrection there can be no Christianity. Everything celebrated in the Church then has these two events as the cornerstone to all other celebrations. The two events of the crucifixion and resurrection are inextricably connected and each is meaningless without the other.
Just as we know that the holy icons are theological expressions of the incarnation of Christ, we believe that the feasts of the Church are theological expressions of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. It makes no difference which holy person is depicted in the holy image; it portrays a holy person in as much as he or she is an icon of the incarnate Word of God. Likewise, any feast celebrated throughout the Church calendar is an expression of the crucifixion and resurrection. Feasts lose their impact, in fact their whole purpose, if they are not remembered through the lens of this two-fold event.
The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate how the Dormition of the Theotokos bears witness to this Paschal mystery by examining the hymns of the feast and their relationship to Pascha.
Any person who has spent time in any service of the Orthodox Church becomes soon aware of the importance of the Theotokos in the liturgical life of the Church. The Church considers Jesus to be the new Adam, but it also regards Mary as the new Eve. Eve aided in bringing man out of Union with God, while Mary was the woman who helped to bring mankind back to this union through her instrumental place in the Incarnation of Christ, the second person of the Holy Trinity.
Our Church Tradition is to remember those holy men and women who the Church sees fit to recognize as holy persons, Saints, on the day of their repose. August 15th is the day the Church remembers the most revered Saint of the Church, the Virgin Mary. During these days, we remember and recount the holy way that these men and women lived their lives, serving as an example to all of us within the Church as icons of Christ.
Of all women who have ever lived, it was this specific person who God chose as the Vessel through which he would take on a material body. We teach that every person is endowed with free will; we all have the ability to choose Christ, or to turn away from Him. Mary said yes to God and was the portal through which God brought forth to the world the only begotten Son of God. It is through this event that God took on a human body and became man. As is stated by St. Athanasius, “God become man, so that man might become God.”
The Holy Virgin served as a temple for the dwelling of God, so that He might become man. This god-man would later suffer, die, and be resurrected in order to free mankind from the bondage of death and sin forever. The fact that God sent his messenger, Archangel Gabriel, to a woman to ask her to bring flesh to a Son shows His love for His creation. Life is exactly what she brought into the world. Christianity is not static, it is not a one-time pronouncement, but a dynamic life in Christ; our goal is to become partakers of His divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) by following his precepts. Likewise, Mary was not a passive instrument, but an active participant in the eventual redemption of the world.
The Liturgical life of the Church is one of our great treasures; our doctrines are taught and lived through our worship. One of the hymns sung to the Blessed Virgin is as follows:
“Neither the grave nor death could contain the Theotokos, the unshakable hope, ever vigilant in intercession and protection. As Mother of life, He who dwelt in the ever-virginal womb transposed her to life.”

When this hymn is broken down, we get a peak at the mystery of salvation. Orthodox Christology teaches that Jesus is God who became man by taking on human flesh. It was with this human body that he suffered, died, and was resurrected. He did this in full humanity, yet retained His full divinity. He is perfect God and at the same time perfect man. It was necessary for Him to take on a human body and become what we are so that we can become like He is. It was by taking on a material body that he redeemed the material world including all of us, who were fashioned in His image. Christ destroyed the power of sin, death, and the power of the devil; and man, should he choose to become a partaker in His divine nature, is able to achieve this ancient state. The fruit of the womb is blessed because of what it contains.
‘Believe that my sayings are true, O all-holy Lady, utterly without spot.’ And she cried aloud, ‘Let it be unto me according to thy word: and I shall bear Him that is without flesh, who shall borrow flesh from me, that through this mingling He may lead man up unto his ancient glory, for He alone has power so to do’. (Festal Menaion, p 440)

The Church appoints specific Gospel and Epistle readings for major Feasts. The readings for the Dormition reflect the role that Mary played in the salvation of man, which culminates in the death and resurrection of Christ.
Gospel
Luke 1:39-49, 56
In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And Mary remained with her about three months, and returned to her home.
Epistle
Philippians 2:5-11
Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 
The Gospel reflect Mary’s joy in bringing forth our Savior, while the Epistle reading brings us back to the point first stated, how all feasts relate to Pascha–the Feast of Feasts.
There is a hymn in the Great Compline of the Feast that celebrates the mystery of salvation and Mary’s role in that plan:
Today there come glad tidings of joy: it is the feast of the Virgin. Things below are joined to things above. Adam is renewed, and Eve set free from her ancient sorrow; and the Tabernacle of the human nature which the Lord took upon Himself, making divine the substance He assumed, is consecrated as a Temple of God. O mystery! The manner of His emptying is unknown; the fashion of His conceiving is ineffable. An angel ministers at the wonder; a virgin womb receives the Son. The Holy Spirit is sent down; the Father on high gives His consent; and so the covenant is brought to pass by common counsel. In Him and through Him are we saved, and together with Gabriel let us cry aloud unto the Virgin: ‘Hail, thou who art full of grace: the Lord is with thee. From thee has Christ our God and our Salvation taken human nature, raising it up unto Himself. Pray to Him that our souls may be saved.’

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How We Can Affect the Salvation of Others

Paralytic

I have heard it said by Orthodox Christian teachers that the only thing a person can do on his own is go to Hell. In order to be saved, we need others. We need others for a couple of reasons. We are all connected in an ontological way, we are all in this together. We need to serve others in order to love, and love is transformative. Christianity requires loving others more and showing self love less. We love ourselves by loving God and others. Self-love is counter to the message, to our spiritual well being. We love ourselves by finding our full joy in God, through Christ, in the Holy Spirit. The best way to love our neighbor is by helping them to do the same.

It is an interesting discussion to think about how we can help others spiritually, or how others can help us.

In America it is common to hear people say that they are not going to baptize their kids or take them to church, because they might be ‘influencing’ the child/person unfairly. Their position is that they will teach them how to be a ‘good person’ and then let them make their own decision.

We Orthodox baptize our babies. Roman Catholics baptize, but don’t Chrismate them until they are older. They can’t commune until after they’re ‘confirmed’. Most Evangelicals and baptists don’t baptize infants until they reach the age of ‘accountability’.

The question that we are asking is, don’t we parents, friends, and loved ones have any affect on youth, friends, or family?

Orthodox have a great deal of theology for our positions, but I heard a podcast today that made me want to share a few of the highlights on this blog.

The podcast was given by Fr. Thomas Hopko about the Healing of the Paralytic.

Jesus was preaching in Capernaum. He was surrounded by so many people that it was not possible for the paralytic to be brought to him. The persons who brought him had to come in through the roof. These men who brought the paralytic must have gone through quite an effort to remove tile from a roof, fashion an opening, and then lower their friend to Jesus.

The text as written by St. Mark tells us that the man was brought by four men. “And they came, bringing to him a paralytic carried by four men.” (Mk 2:3).  Jesus was so impressed with their faith–note the use of the plural pronoun–that he forgave the sins of the paralytic.” And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “My son, your sins are forgiven.” (Mk 2:5) The text doesn’t tell us whether the paralytic asked these men to take him to Jesus. We just know that the text says that he was impressed with their faith, so he healed the paralytic. The text does not tell us about a single word uttered by the paralytic. We don’t know that he accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior. We are told of nothing other than the faith of four men who brought a paralytic to Jesus.

If we were baptized as infants, than some man or woman brought us to where Jesus is. If we came to church later in life, it is likely that some man or woman brought us to where Jesus is. Other people were instrumental in our salvation. The prayers of a good man availeth much.

Should we not–following the command to love our neighbor– bring someone in need to where Jesus is?

Fort Ross

My grandfather gave me a cross to wear shortly after I became Orthodox in 1998. He told me that it was an example of a cross found on a Russian pilgrim in California. There was an inscription on the back in Cyrillic. I couldn’t remember what he told me it read. He and my uncle, his son, wore the same cross. I had an second one that I gave to a friend when he was received into the Orthodox Church a few years later. But, I didn’t know how to find another cross like this.

Last  year I spent some time surfing the web to find another cross, so that I could get one for my son. After some amount of time, I found it. It was sold by a place called the Fort Ross Conservancy. I understood that it was some sort of museum, but that was really all I knew. The important thing was that I was able to order that cross!

I recently started reading an excellent book that I highly recommend, Orthodox Christians in America: a Short History, by John Erickson. This is a great read for those who want to learn more about the the missionary activities of the Russians and how it spread into North America. It is an interesting and quick read, and well worth the modest investment of time and money. It was here that I found out a little more about Fort Ross. In short, there was a company called the Russian-American Company, which was a state-sponsored Russian group that came over through Alaska. They had a monopoly on various forms of trade. They employed both locals and Russians. Their southernmost post was in Fort Ross, which is in California, about 45 miles north of San Francisco. The Russian workers wanted to have a Church and priest to attend to their religious needs. A great number of missionary activities came out of this. We have heard about the great missionary monk, Herman.

Later another priest came to minister to the people, both indigenious and Russian. His name was Fr. John (Ioann) Veniaminov. He came from Russia and attended to the needs of those in the various posts of the company including this post in Fort Ross. This priest was eventually elevated to Bishop, taking the name Innocent. Attached is a picture of the chapel where these workers prayed together with Veniaminov. We know him now as Saint Innocent, Apostle to America, and Enlightener of Alaska. Saint Innocent conducted many services, baptisms, weddings, and funerals in Fort Ross. The cross I referred to earlier was found on the remains of a man who was buried within the compound. The Russian Orthodox Church reburied the remains with the cross in the cemetery, but took a mold of it before reburial. The skull and cross-bones symbolize the victory of life over death. The Cyrillic writing on the back reads “Save and Preserve.”

 

Mother Teresa

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With the recent news that Mother Teresa will be canonized by Pope Francis, I thought I would share a few thoughts about what I know about her.

While the Orthodox Church doesn’t recognize Saints outside of the Eastern Orthodox Church, we can certainly see Christ at work in people who have set their life toward Him.

Her attitude and life are very Orthodox.

One can look to her interview by Time Magazine to see her attitude toward her life in Christ.

Christ tells us to love the Lord our God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Mother Teresa took on the task of BEING the neighbor. She sees Christ in those in need. She allows others to see Christ in her.

In Orthodoxy we teach that our life on Earth is about becoming Partakers of the Divine Nature. We do this by feeding the poor, clothing the naked, and caring for the sick. By showing love to others we are showing love to Christ. We cannot be saved alone–we are called to serve others. On our own we can only be damned.

Orthodox Theology teaches self empying, kenosis. This is the putting aside of earthy desires and empying ourselves, so that we can be filled with Christ. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).

Mother Teresa in her Time interview described herself as a pencil in the hand of a writer. She is only an instrument, allowing herself to be a vehicle of Divine Grace–to be used by the author as He sees fit. She allowed herself to be a tool in His hand. She has lived the example of the Christian. We must also see Christ in others. If we see others this way, how would that affect our relationships with our fellow man?

She did not worry about yesterday or tomorrow. She did not track numbers or converts–that is for Christ to decide, she said. She just did her job and let God worry about the details. She prayed always and always talked about her love for Jesus.

She spoke out against abortion–at Harvard of all places. She was booed, but it did not phase her.

Time: You and John Paul II, among other Church leaders, have spoken out against certain lifestyles in the West, against materialism and abortion. How alarmed are you?

Mother Teresa: I always say one thing: If a mother can kill her own child, then what is left of the West to be destroyed? It is difficult to explain , but it is just that.

Time: When you spoke at Harvard University a few years ago, you said abortion was a great evil and people booed. What did you think when people booed you?

Mother Teresa: I offered it to our Lord. It’s all for Him, no? I let Him say what He wants.

Time: But these people who booed you would say that they also only want the best for women?

Mother Teresa: That may be. But we must tell the truth.

Time: And that is?

Mother Teresa: We have no right to kill. Thou shalt not kill, a commandment of God. And still should we kill the helpless one, the little one? You see we get so excited because people are throwing bombs and so many are being killed. For the grown ups, there is so much excitement in the world. But that little one in the womb, not even a sound? He cannot even escape. That child is the poorest of the poor.

And so, if we believe that in Orthodoxy, we have been given absolutely everything–The Kingdom–should we not also offer this type of witness and service to the world?

Hers is the type of witness that is reflective of a loving God.

Children and Church

kids-in-church

Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann

Children and Church

As a general rule, children like attending Church, and this instinctive attraction to and interest in Church services is the foundation on which we must build our religious education. When parents worry that children will get tired because services are long and are sorry for them, they usually subconsciously express their concern not for their children but for themselves. Children penetrate more easily than do adults into the world of ritual, of liturgical symbolism. They feel and appreciate the atmosphere of our Church services. The experience of Holiness, the sense of encounter with Someone Who is beyond daily life, that mysterium tremendum that is at the root of all religion and is the core of our services is more accessible to our children than it is to us. “Except ye become as little children,” these words apply to the receptivity, the open-mindedness, the naturalness, which we lose when we grow out of childhood. How many men have devoted their lives to the service of God and consecrated themselves to the Church because from childhood they have kept their love for the house of worship and the joy of liturgical experience! Therefore, the first duty of parents and educators is to “suffer little children and forbid them not” (Matt. 19:14) to attend Church. It is in Church before every place else that children must hear the word of God. In a classroom the word is difficult to understand, it remains abstract, but in church it is in its own element. In childhood we have the capacity to understand, not intellectually, but with our whole being, that there is no greater joy on earth than to be in Church, to participate in Church services, to breathe the fragrance of the Kingdom of Heaven, which is “the joy and peace of the Holy Spirit.”

Church attendance should be complemented from the earliest days of childhood by the home atmosphere, which precedes and prolongs the mood of the Church. Let us take Sunday morning. How can a child sense the holiness of that morning and of that which he will see in Church if the home is full of the blare of radio and TV, the parents are smoking and reading the papers, and there reigns a generally profane atmosphere? Church attendance should be preceded by a sense of being gathered in, a quiet, a certain solemnity. The lighting of vigil lights before the icons, the reading of the Scripture lessons, clean and fresh clothes, the festively tidied-up rooms – so frequently parents do not realize how all these things shape the religious consciousness of the child, make an imprint which no later tribulations will ever efface. On the eve and on the day of Sundays and Church feasts, during Lent, on the days when we prepare ourselves for Confession and Communion, the home must reflect the Church, must be illuminated by the light that we bring back from worship.

And now let us speak of the school. It seems self-evident to me that to organize so-called “Sunday School” lessons during Divine Liturgy is in deep contradiction with the spirit of Orthodoxy. The Sunday Liturgy is a joyful gathering of the Church community, and the child must know and experience this long before he is able to understand the deep meaning of this gathering. It seems to me that the choice of Sunday for church school is not a very good one. Sunday is primarily a liturgical day; therefore, it should be Church-centered and Liturgy-centered. It would be far better to have church school on Saturdays before the Vigil or Vespers service. The argument that parents cannot and will not bring children to church twice a week is merely admitting indolence and sinful negligence of what is important to our children. Saturdayevening is the beginning of Sunday and should be liturgically sanctified just as much as Sunday morning. Why, in all Orthodox churches the world over Vespers or the Vigil is served on the eve of Feasts and Sundays. There is no reason why we too cannot arrange our church life according to principle: School—Vespers—Liturgy, where School would be for children the essential preparation and introduction to the Day of the Lord, His resurrection.

Forgiveness Sunday

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Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann

Forgiveness Sunday

In the Orthodox Church, the last Sunday before Great Lent – the day on which, at Vespers, Lent is liturgically announced and inaugurated – is called Forgiveness Sunday. On the morning of that Sunday, at the Divine Liturgy, we hear the words of Christ:

“If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses…” (Mark 6:14-15)

Then after Vespers – after hearing the announcement of Lent in the Great Prokeimenon: “Turn not away Thy face from Thy child for I am afflicted! Hear me speedily! Draw near unto my soul and deliver it!”, after making our entrance into Lenten worship, with its special memories, with the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, with its prostrations – we ask forgiveness from each other, we perform the rite of forgiveness and reconciliation. And as we approach each other with words of reconciliation, the choir intones the Paschal hymns, filling the church with the anticipation of Paschal joy.

What is the meaning of this rite? Why is it that the Church wants us to begin Lenten season with forgiveness and reconciliation? These questions are in order because for too many people Lent means primarily, and almost exclusively, a change of diet, the compliance with ecclesiastical regulations concerning fasting. They understand fasting as an end in itself, as a “good deed” required by God and carrying in itself its merit and its reward. But, the Church spares no effort in revealing to us that fasting is but a means, one among many, towards a higher goal: the spiritual renewal of man, his return to God, true repentance and, therefore, true reconciliation. The Church spares no effort in warning us against a hypocritical and pharisaic fasting, against the reduction of religion to mere external obligations. As a Lenten hymn says:

In vain do you rejoice in no eating, O soul!

For you abstain from food,

But from passions you are not purified.

If you persevere in sin, you will perform a useless fast.

Now, forgiveness stands at the very center of Christian faith and of Christian life because Christianity itself is, above all, the religion of forgiveness. God forgives us, and His forgiveness is in Christ, His Son, Whom He sends to us, so that by sharing in His humanity we may share in His love and be truly reconciled with God. Indeed, Christianity has no other content but love. And it is primarily the renewal of that love, a return to it, a growth in it, that we seek in Great Lent, in fasting and prayer, in the entire spirit and the entire effort of that season. Thus, truly forgiveness is both the beginning of, and the proper condition for the Lenten season.

One may ask, however: Why should I perform this rite when I have no “enemies”? Why should I ask forgiveness from people who have done nothing to me, and whom I hardly know? To ask these questions, is to misunderstand the Orthodox teaching concerning forgiveness. It is true, that open enmity, personal hatred, real animosity may be absent from our life, though if we experience them, it may be easier for us to repent, for these feelings openly contradict Divine commandments. But, the Church reveals to us that there are much subtler ways of offending Divine Love. These are indifference, selfishness, lack of interest in other people, of any real concern for them — in short, that wall which we usually erect around ourselves, thinking that by being “polite” and “friendly” we fulfill God’s commandments. The rite of forgiveness is so important precisely because it makes us realize – be it only for one minute – that our entire relationship to other men is wrong, makes us experience that encounter of one child of God with another, of one person created by God with another, makes us feel that mutual “recognition” which is so terribly lacking in our cold and dehumanized world.

On that unique evening, listening to the joyful Paschal hymns we are called to make a spiritual discovery: to taste of another mode of life and relationship with people, of life whose essence is love. We can discover that always and everywhere Christ, the Divine Love Himself, stands in the midst of us, transforming our mutual alienation into brotherhood. As l advance towards the other, as the other comes to me – we begin to realize that it is Christ Who brings us together by His love for both of us.

And because we make this discovery – and because this discovery is that of the Kingdom of God itself: the Kingdom of Peace and Love, of reconciliation with God and, in Him, with all that exists – we hear the hymns of that Feast, which once a year, “opens to us the doors of Paradise.” We know why we shall fast and pray, what we shall seek during the long Lenten pilgrimage. Forgiveness Sunday: the day on which we acquire the power to make our fasting – true fasting; our effort – true effort; our reconciliation with God – true reconciliation.

 

Father Alexander Schmemann