Wednesday, March 27, 2019

There is Life after Death ( Saint Paisios )

Saint Paisios relates the following experience:
I knew an old woman who was very stingy. Her daughter was very good, and whatever she wanted to give as alms she would throw out the window so she could leave the house with empty hands, because her mother would always check to see if she was taking anything. Then she would go pick up whatever it was and give it away. But if she told her mother that “the monk” [that is, me] had asked for something, then her mother would be willing to give it up.
After her death, I saw a young man [her guardian angel], and he said to me, “Come—so-and-so wants you.” I couldn’t understand what happened to me, but we were standing in front of a grave in Konitsa. He moved his hand, like this, and the grave opened. Inside, I saw a grimy mess and the old woman, who had started to decay. She was calling out, “Monk, save me.”My heart went out to her. Feeling sorry for her, I climbed down inside and without being repulsed I embraced her and asked, “What’s wrong?”She said, “Tell me, didn’t I always give you anything you asked, willingly?”“Yes,” I said, “that’s true.”“All right,” the young man reasurred her.He moved his hand like this again and closed the grave like a curtain, and I was back in my cell.
The sisters from the monastery of Souroti asked me, “What happened to you on the feast of Saint Andrew?” I answered, “Pray for so-and-so’s soul.”Two months later, I saw her again. High above an abyss, there was a plateau with palaces, a lot of houses, and many people. The old woman was up there. She was very happy with the face of a small child that had just a tiny spot that her angel was also scrubbing to clean off. In the abyss, in the distance, I saw people being beaten and harassed, and trying to climb up.I embraced her out of joy. I took her aside a little, so the people in the abyss wouldn’t see us and be hurt. She said to me, “Come on, let me show you the place where the Lord has put me.”
From the book Athonite Fathers & Athonite Matters. 
There was a simple and compassionate monk, named Fr. Gregory, who worked as an attendantin the geriatric hospital of the Monastery of St. Paul (on Mount Athos).He himself told me [relates Elder Paisios] the following event from his life. About forty years ago, when he was serving in the monastery’s geriatric hospital, one of the other monks gave him a bunch of grapes as a blessing. He decided not to eat any of the grapes; rather, he cut them into smaller bunches and shared them amongst the elderly monks. 
One monk, out of extreme appreciation—because they were the first grapes of the season he had eaten—kept wishing him, “Good Paradise to you! May you find these in Paradise!” The attendant, with simplicity, replied jokingly:“Go ahead and eat your grapes, blessed soul. Paradise and Hell are here in this life.”Although he was only joking and didn’t believe what he said—furthermore, he also had the excuse of being simpleminded—this is what happened to him.
That night he had a frightful dream, which he experienced as if he was awake! He found himself gazing out over a sea of fire. Across the other side, there was a beautiful bay with crystal palaces. From the distance, he noticed that there was a venerable elder who lived there. The elder was radiant—even his beard appeared to be of silk. There, he also encountered a brother from the monastery who had fallen asleep in the Lord three years prior. He began to ask the brother about these palaces (which impressed him tremendously), and about the venerable elder.“He is Elder Abraham,” replied the brother, “and this beautiful coastline with the crystal palaces is ‘the bosom of Abraham,’ where the righteous souls come to rest.”When righteous Abraham heard the brother saying these words, he looked at Fr. Gregory and ordered him with a stern voice:“Get out of here! You have no place here!”When Fr. Gregory heard Patriarch Abraham censuring him, he quickly turned around to leave; however, he hadn’t gone too far when the flames from the sea caught up to him. The fire started to scorch him, and he woke up from the pain. To his surprise, his leg was burnt and covered in blisters at the exact area where he had felt the fire burning him. The pain in his leg continued for another twenty days before the wounds finally healed with the aid of various ointments and practical remedies.Fr. Gregory bitterly repented for what he had said, and in the future he was much more careful with his words. 
From the book The Wondrous Miracles of St. Nektarios
A lady, who had never met St. Nektarios (†1920) while he was alive, related that her husband (who was not a particularly faithful or pious man) happened to kiss the right hand of the holy hierarch during the funeral procession when his body was being transferred from Athens to Aegina. To his amazement, he felt the Saint’s hand warm and soft, and ever since then he became a pious and faithful Christian.After hearing her husband’s account, she was saddened by the fact that she did not have the opportunity to venerate the body as well. That same night, the saint appeared to her. She found herself within a church. She noticed that His Eminence was standing before the Royal Gate, full of light and serving the Liturgy, while the faithful in the church cried out: “Nektarios became a saint!” She then cut through the crowd with her son, she approached the hierarch, received his blessing, and left full of joy.
Shortly thereafter she visited the Monastery to venerate the grave of the recently deceased hierarch. When she saw a photograph of him, she was astonished at the resemblance because, as already mentioned above, she had never seen him when he was alive.
Five months after the repose of St. Nektarios, the nuns wanted to place an honorary marble top over his grave. The Abbess Xeni, however, was reluctant because in order to set the marble in place, the grave would have to be opened, and she feared that the remains may emit a foul odor, indicative of all corpses. She had not revealed these thoughts to any one else, when one night a certain nun saw St. Nektarios in a vision.
The Saint asked her, “How are you?”“Well,” replied the nun, “through your holy prayers your Eminence.” Then the Saint said, “Bow, so that I may cross you.” After she bowed, St. Nektarios crossed her three times and then asked, “Do I smell?” After the nun answered that she does not smell anything, he asked her more overtly, “do I stink?”“Who says that you stink, your Eminence?” replied the nun. “How is it possible for you to smell bad?”“The abbess says so.”“Which abbess?” inquired the sister.“Abbess Xeni. Take a look at me. Is there anything missing?” He then showed her his hands, his feet, and his back and asked, “Am I not fully intact?”“Yes, you are completely intact,” agreed the nun.The nun informed Abbess Xeni of her vision.
 In following, the grave was opened and, indeed, the saint’s body was found incorrupt and completely intact. They witnessed that his head, his hands, and his feet were bendable. The entire body of the Saint appeared as a person who was asleep.
From the book Narrations from Dionysiou Monastery
 Our brother Ignatios fell asleep in the Lord on June 7, 1953, at the age of 64. After developing a persistent headache, he was sent to Thessaloniki where he was diagnosed with meningitis. One week later, he passed away and was buried at the same hospital chapel of St. Photini. Mr. Sotirios Tsaganos who was a relative of the deceased was present at the funeral. A short while later, Mr. Sotiris informed me of the following in a letter he sent me: “I have seen many dead people; however, monk Igantios looked as if he was alive. His face was bright and shiny.” Three years after his death in August of 1956, our Abbot Archimandrite Gabriel was in Thessaloniki, at which time he went to the aforementioned chapel cemetery in order to exhume and transfer the remains to our Monastery. When the sexton who was unearthing the grave reached the remains, he exclaimed the following: “Oh, my! It’s too soon. We should have waited longer.” He said this because he observed that the garments were fully intact and looked just like they did at the time of burial. Thus, he assumed that the body underneath had notdecomposed entirely either.
 However, he was in for a surprise! Even though the shirt, socks, belt, and rasso were intact and had not disintegrated, underneath, the bones were found bare and yellowish-brown in color—a discovery that greatly astonished the sexton.After the relics were translated to our Monastery, on August 11 of the same year, we conducted a memorial service. At the conclusion of the service, the skull (which had been placed within a reliquary box and set on a small table) began to emit an extraordinary fragrance that was felt by most of the monks present in the church. Some of the monks asserted that this was a result of Divine Grace; others doubted and maintained that perhaps aromatic compounds had been used to wash the skull during the disinterment in Thessaloniki.
 The following morning, I went to the Abbot and asked him if he had washed the skull with any perfumes when the remains were uncovered. “No. No such thing happened,” he replied. “I washed it with plain water. I washed it myself with my own hands.”The reverend Abbot Archimandrite Gabriel also told me the following: “On my way back from our dependency one day, I met a virtuous elder named Serapion who lives in a neighboring hermitage. When brother Ignatios’ name came up during the conversation,the elder related the following: ‘I was very indebted to father Ignatios.
 During the two times he was assigned as the steward of your dependency, he would provide me with food and clothing, as well as other things I was in need of. He was an extremely merciful and compassionate man. When I found out that he passed away, moved by love, gratitude, and indebtedness, I began to pray for him with my prayer rope, beseeching our Lord to forgive him of any sins he may have had as a human, and to place him in Paradise along with the saved souls. 
On the fifteenth day, as I was praying in this manner, my cell suddenly filled with a strong, bright light and amidst it I saw our brother Ignatios alive, joyful, and shining. He bowed his head to me, and with love and respect said: ‘Thank you Fr. Serapion. Thank you for your love. Please, do not tire yourself anymore for me because our merciful Lord saved me, and I am very well, fortunate, and blissful amongst the saved saints.’ This is what he told me, and he immediately vanished.’”This is what my reverend Abbot related to me concerning our beloved brother Ignatios. May we all mimic his life and conduct to the glory of Christ our God. Amen. 
From the book Saint Paisios of Mount Athos
“As soon as I went to live at the skete,” recalls Saint Paisios,“an elderly gentleman whom everyone referred to as old Thanasis and who worked for Philotheou Monastery as a forester, found out about it and came to see me. He was a friend of mine, and he brought me some blessings, since I had just moved to the skete, and I did not have anything.I thanked him, and I told him to write down the names of his departed relatives, so that I could commemorate them. Influenced by a certain Jehovah’s Witness, he replied, ‘When someone dies, there is nothing else—after death everything is lost.’”“Soon after that, he himself died. When I found out, I went to Philotheou Monastery and saw his grave. Every day I prayed from my heart for God to give rest to his soul. About twenty days after Mr. Thanasis passed away, I found out that someone from Philotheou was looking for me. It was one of the stewards of the monastery, and he came to me all upset. ‘Father,’ he said to me, ‘old Thanasis, the one who just died, came to me and complained that I have forgotten him and have not done anything for him.And he told methat you are the only one who helps him with your prayers. The truth is, I have not commemorated him in my prayers. Now that I have become a steward of the monastery, I take care of the office, and I have a lot of work ... What can I do? I have alsostopped doing my own prayer rule.’”This event strengthened the Elder, so that he henceforth prayed even more for the souls of all the departed.
From the book Saint Paisios of the Mount Athos

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

The Place of Holy Relics in the Orthodox Church ( St. Justin Popovich )

The Place of Holy Relics in the Orthodox Church

Without doubt, matter is represented in the human body in a manner which is most puzzling, most mysterious, and most complex. The brain: What wondrous mysteries pass between its physical and spiritual parts! How vast is the experience of the human race. In no manner can one ever fully comprehend or grasp these mysteries. Indeed, little of this is accessible to the human senses or intellectual investigation. So it is also with the heart of man, formed as it is entirely and solely from cosmic mysteries. So formed, too, are every cell, every molecule, every atom. Everyone and all are set on their mystical path toward God, toward the God-Man. Inasmuch as it was created by God, the Logos, matter possesses this same theocentricity. Moreover, by His advent into our earthly world, by His all-embracing condescension as God and Man for the redemption of the world, the Lord Christ clearly demonstrated that not only the soul, but matter also was created by God and for God, and that He is God and Man; and for it, matter, He is all and everything in the same manner as for the soul. Being created by God, the Logos, matter is, in its innermost core, God-longing and Christ-longing.

The most obvious proof of this is the fact that God the Word has become Incarnate, has become man (St. John 1:14). By His Incarnation, matter has been magnified with Divine glory and has entered into the grace- and virtue-bestowing, ascetic aim of deification, or union with Christ. God has become flesh, has become human, so that the entire man, the entire body, might be filled with God and with His miracle-working forces and powers. In the God-Man, the Lord Christ, and His Body, all matter has been set on a path toward Christ —the path of deification, transfiguration, sanctification, resurrection, and ascent to an eternal glory surpassing that of the Cherubim. And all of this takes place and will continue to take place through the Divine and human Body of the Church, which is truly the God-Man Christ in the total fullness of His Divine and Human Person, the fullness "that fills all in all" (Ephesians 1:23). Through its Divine and human existence in the Church, the human body, as matter, as substance, is sanctified by the Holy Spirit and in this way participates in the life of the Trinity. Matter thus attains its transcendent, divine meaning and goal, its eternal blessedness and its immortal joy in the God-Man.

The holiness of the Saints—both the holiness of their souls and of their bodies—derives from their zealous grace- and virtue-bestowing lives in the Body of the Church of Christ, of the God-Man. In this sense, holiness completely envelopes the human person—the entire soul and body and all that enters into the mystical composition of the human body. The holiness of the Saints does not hold forth only in their souls, but it necessarily extends to their bodies; so it is that both the body and the soul of a saint are sanctified. Thus we, in piously venerating the Saints, also venerate the entire person, in this manner not separating the holy soul from the holy body. Our pious veneration of the Saints' relics is a natural part of our pious respect for and prayerful entreaty to the Saints. All of this constitutes one indivisible ascetic act, just as the soul and body constitute the single, indivisible person of the Saint. Clearly, during his life on the earth, the Saint, by a continuous and singular grace- and virtue-bestowing synergy of soul and body, attains to the sanctification of his person, filling both the soul and body with the grace of the Holy Spirit and so transforming them into vessels of the holy mysteries and holy virtues. It is completely natural, again, to show pious reverence both to the former and to the latter, both to soul and body, both of them holy vessels of God's grace. When the charismatic power of Christ issues forth, it makes Grace-filled all the constituent parts of the human person and the person in his entirety. By unceasing enactment of the ascetic efforts set forth in the Gospels, Saints gradually fill themselves with the Holy Spirit, so that their sacred bodies, according to the word of the holy Apostle, become temples of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 6:19; 3:17), Christ dwelling by faith in their hearts (Ephesians 3:17) and by fruitful love also fulfilling the commandments of God the Father. Establishing themselves in the Holy Spirit through grace-bestowing ascetic labors, the Saints participate in the life of the Trinity, becoming sons of the Holy Trinity, temples of the Living God (II Corinthians 6:16); their whole lives thus flow from the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. By piously venerating the holy relics of the Saints, the Church reveres them as temples of the Holy Spirit, temples of the Living God, in which God dwells by Grace even after the earthly death of the Saints. And by His most wise and good Will, God creates miracles in and through these relics. Moreover, the miracles which derive from the holy relics witness also to the fact that their pious veneration by the people is pleasing to God.

The pious veneration of holy relics, based on their miraculous nature, originated from Divine Revelation. Even in the Old Testament God deigned to celebrate with miracles the holy relics of certain of those who were well-pleasing to Him. Thus, by the touch of the holy relics of the Prophet Elisea, a dead man was resurrected. The tomb and bones of this Prophet, who had prophesied to Jeroboam the destruction of idolatrous altars, were greatly revered in Judea. The Patriarch Joseph also left a testament to the sons of Israel to preserve his bones in Egypt and, during their exodus, to carry them to the promised land (Genesis 50:25).

The New Testament raised the human body to the sublime and divine heights, endowing it with a glory which the Cherubim and Seraphim do not possess. The Good News of the New Testament concerning the body—the significance and goal of the human body—is that, together with the soul, it achieves and inherits immortal life in Divine eternity. The Lord Christ has come to deify, to make Christ-like, the entire man, that is, the soul and body, and this by the resurrection, insuring thereby victory over death and eternal life. No one ever elevated the human body as did the Lord Christ by His bodily resurrection, the ascension of His body into heaven, and its eternal session at the right hand of God the Father. In this way, the Resurrected Christ extended the promise of resurrection to the nature of the human body—"having made for all flesh a path to eternal life." Thus man now knows that the body is created for eternity through union with the God-Man and that his divine work on earth is to struggle, with the soul, for eternal life; to struggle, with all those means that convey grace and virtue, to make himself grace-filled, fulfilled by Divine grace, and created anew as the temple of the Holy Spirit, the temple of the Living God.

Bearing in mind that this New Testamental notion of the human body has been achieved and realized in the persons of the Saints, Christians show a pious veneration for the bodies of the Saints, towards holy relics, the temples of the Holy Spirit, Who by God's grace abides within them. But Holy Revelation indicates that by God's immeasurable love for man, the Holy Spirit abides through His grace not only in the bodies of the Saints, but also in their clothing. So it is that the handkerchiefs of the holy apostle Paul healed the ill and expelled unclean spirits (Acts 19:12). With his mantle the Prophet Elias struck the water, separating the waters of the Jordan, and along the dry bed of the river crossed the Jordan with his disciple Elisea (IV Kings 2:8). The prophet Elisea did the very same thing, himself, with the same mantle, after the taking-up of Elias into heaven (IV Kings 2:14). All this has its verification and source in the Divine power that rested in the garments of the Savior, which encompassed His most pure and Divine body. Moreover, by His inexpressible love for man, the Divine Lord allows the servants of His Divinity to work miracles not only through their bodies and clothing, but even with the shadow of their bodies, which is evident in an occurrence with the holy apostle Peter: his shadow healed an ill man and expelled unclean spirits (Acts 5:15-16).

The eternal good news of Holy Revelation about sacred relics and their pious veneration is proved, and is continually being proved, by Holy Tradition from Apostolic times to the present day. Innumerable are the sacred relics of the holy Chosen Ones of God throughout the Orthodox world. Their miracles are innumerable. The pious veneration of these relics by Orthodox Christians is everywhere to be found. And without doubt this is because the holy relics, through their miracles, incite the Orthodox toward their pious veneration. From the very beginning, in Apostolic times, Christians piously preserved the honored relics of the Holy Forerunner and the holy Apostles, so that these could be preserved even for us. As well, during the times of persecution the sacred remains of the bodies of the holy Martyrs were taken away by Christians and hidden in their homes. From that time until now, the sacred relics of the holy Chosen Ones of God have, by their miracles, poured forth the immortal joy of our faith into the hearts of Orthodox Christians. The proofs concerning this are countless. We shall cite only several.

The way that the holy relics of the Saints were translated and greeted is in a touching manner described by St. Chrysostomos in a eulogy on St. Ignatios: "You, inhabitants of Antioch, have sent forth a bishop and received a martyr; you sent him forth with prayers, and received him back with crowns; and not only you, but all the cities which lay between. For how do you think that they behaved when they saw his remains being brought back? What pleasure was produced! How they rejoiced! With what laudations on all sides did they beset the crowned one! For as with a noble athlete, who has wrestled down all his antagonists, and who comes forth with radiant glory from the arena, the spectators receive him, and do not suffer him to tread the earth, bringing him home on their shoulders and according him countless praises. So also every city in turn received this Saint from Rome, and bearing him upon their shoulders as far as this city, escorted the crowned one with praises, hymning the champion.... At this time the holy Martyr bestows grace to the very same cities, establishing them in piety, and from that time to this day he enriches this city."

Speaking of the miraculous power of holy relics, Saint Ephraim the Syrian relates the following concerning the holy Martyrs: "Even after death they act as if alive, healing the sick, expelling demons, and by the power of the Lord rejecting every evil influence of the demons. This is because the miraculous grace of the Holy Spirit is always present in the holy relics."

During the finding of the relics of Saints Gervasius and Protasius, St. Ambrose, in speaking to his listeners, relates this with pious enthusiasm: "You know—indeed, you have yourselves seen—that many are cleansed from evil spirits, that very many also, having touched with their hands the robe of the Saints, are freed from those ailments which oppressed them. You see that the miracles of old times are renewed, when through the coming of the Lord Jesus grace was more abundantly shed forth upon the earth, and that many bodies are healed as it were by the shadow of the holy bodies. How many napkins are passed about! How many garments, laid upon the holy relics and endowed with the power of healing, are claimed! All are glad to touch even the outside thread, and whosoever touches it will be made whole."

Speaking of the miracles produced by holy relics, the blessed Augustine says: "To what do these miracles witness, but to this faith which preaches Christ risen in the flesh and ascended with the same flesh into heaven? For the martyrs themselves were martyrs, that is to say, were witnesses of this faith.... For this faith they gave their lives, and can now ask these benefits from the Lord in whose name they were slain. For this faith their extraordinary constancy was exercised, so that in these miracles great power was manifested as the result. For if the resurrection of the flesh to eternal life had not taken place in Christ, and were not to be accomplished in His people, as predicted by Christ..., why do the martyrs who were slain for this faith which proclaims the resurrection possess such power? ...These miracles attest this faith which preaches the resurrection of the flesh unto eternal life."

Saint Damascene, summarizing the life-giving teaching of Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition concerning the pious veneration of holy relics, preaches in a Cherubic manner from the altar of his God-bearing and Christ-like soul: "The Saints have become according to grace that which the Lord Christ is according to nature. That is, they have become gods according to grace: pure and living habitations of God. For God says: 'I will dwell in them, walk in them, and I will be their God' (II Corinthians 6:16; Leviticus 16:12). The Holy Scriptures likewise say: 'the souls of the righteous are in God's hand, and death cannot lay hold of them' (Wisdom of Solomon 3:1). For death is rather the sleep of Saints than their death. Further: 'Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His Saints' (Psalm 119:6). What, then, is more precious than to be in the hand of God? For God is life and light, and those who are in God's hand are in life and light. Further, that God dwells even in their bodies in a spiritual manner the all-divine Apostle attests: 'Know ye not that your bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit dwelling in you?' (I Corinthians 3:16). And, 'the Lord is Spirit' (II Corinthians 3:17). Thus, the evangelical truth: 'If anyone destroy the temple of God, him will God destroy—for the temple of God is holy, and ye are that temple' (I Corinthians 3:17). Surely, then, we must ascribe honor to the living temples of God, the living dwelling-places of God. These, while they lived, stood with boldness before God. The Lord Christ granted us the relics of the Saints to be fountains of salvation unto us, pouring forth manifold blessings and abounding in sweetly fragrant oil. Let no one disbelieve this! For if water burst in the desert from the steep and solid rock according to God's will (Exodus 17:6), and from the jawbone of an ass to quench Samson's thirst (Judges 15:14-19), is it then unbelievable that fragrant oil should spring forth from relics of the holy Martyrs? By no means, at least to those who know the omnipotence of God and the honor which He accords to His Saints. According to the Old Testament law, everyone who touched a dead body was considered impure (Numbers 19:11). However, the Saints are not dead. For from the time when He Who is Himself Life and the Author of life was counted among the dead, we do not call those dead who have fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection and with faith in Him. For how could a dead body work miracles? And how, through the holy relics, are demons driven off, diseases dispelled, the sick made well, the blind restored to sight, lepers cleansed, temptations and tribulations overcome; and how does every good gift come down from the Father of lights (St. James 1:17) to those who pray with sure faith?"

The universal faith of the Church concerning the pious veneration of holy relics was confirmed by the God-bearing Fathers of the Seventh Œcumenical Synod in its decrees: "Our Lord Jesus Christ granted to us the relics of Saints as a salvation-bearing source which pours forth varied benefits on the infirm. Consequently, those who presume to abandon the relics of the Martyrs: if they be hierarchs, let them be deposed; if however monastics or laymen, let them merely be excommunicated."

....That a pious veneration of the holy relics is a constituent part of the salvation rendered by the God-Man is also evidenced by the following facts: from the depths of sacred antiquity, churches were built on the graves and relics of Saints, and the holy Liturgy is performed only on antimensia, in which are placed parts of the holy relics. Moreover, the divine service books, especially the Menaion, are replete with prayers and hymns which refer to the pious veneration of holy relics....

All in all, the mystery of holy relics is at the heart of the universal mystery of the New Testament: the incarnation of God. The full mystery of the human body is explained by the incarnation, the embodiment of God in the God-Man, the Lord Jesus Christ. For this reason, then, the Gospel message concerning the body: "The body for the Lord, and the Lord for the body" (I Corinthians 6:13). And through a human body also the entire creation, all of matter, received its divine significance, the universal meaning of the God-Man. By man, who is sanctified in the Church by the holy mysteries and the holy virtues, the creation and even matter are sanctified, united to Christ. There accrues to this also a joy—the myrrh-streaming property of many relics. This wonder of myrrh has been given to the holy relics in order to indicate that Christians are truly "a sweet-savour of Christ unto God" (II Corinthians 2:15), sweet-smelling to God and to heaven. The truth of the Gospel is that the sin of man is a foul odor before God and every sin pleases the devil. Through the holy mysteries and holy virtues, Christians become "a sweet-savour of Christ unto God." For this reason, then, the holy relics of the Saints pour forth myrrh.

From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. VII, No. 1, p. 9. Translated from the Serbian by the Reverend Gregory Telepneff.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Sunday of Orthodoxy ( Constantine Zalalas )

Today, the first Sunday of Great Lent, our church celebrates its victory against heresy and more specifically the decisive defeat of Iconoclasm on March 11 843 AD. We celebrate this event not only for the icons, but for the fact that the Orthodox Church is the only form of Christianity which has preserved the teachings of the seven Ecumenical Councils without addition or subtraction down through the centuries.

The 7th Ecumenical Council preserved and safeguarded the truth in its successful defense of the Holy Icons. In doing so our Holy Fathers anathematized the unrepentant icon-fighters, the Iconoclasts, who contended that since Jesus Christ is God it is not permissible to depict Him in icons because the divine is invisible and therefore it should not be depicted. This theological battle lasted over 150 years, and thousands of martyrs were added to the celestial altar. Some of our pacifist Christians in their lack of understanding often judge this element of the Orthodox Church as unnecessary triumphalism. According to them it is egotistical to claim that we the Orthodox have the entire truth.

The church being the Body and the Bride of Christ, is spotless and without wrinkle, and the pillar and the foundation of the truth. Without the absolute truth we lose the path that leads to God's likeness, which is the purpose of our creation. So why the battles, over dogma, over doctrine, over icons and biblical interpretation? The church fathers and especially the defenders of the faith were not some querulous characters. Most of them were monastics, like St. Anthony, St. Maximos the Confessor, St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Gregory Palamas, and St. Nikodemos The Hagiorite. They were hesychasts – they loved solitude!!! But they defended the faith not because God was in danger or His Church was in danger. Never! They were shepherding the flock! They fought because of their pure love for God's people who were infected by the spiritual disease of Arius, or Nestorios or Apollinarios or Dioskoros. They were defending the traffic signals, the bridges, the road signs,and the guardrails of the narrow path that leads to God, to the source of love and perfect freedom. The dogmas, the commandments, the statues found in the gospel are not some juridical, legalistic inventions of priests to keep the populations under their thumb! And, Christ did not incarnate to teach us some good manners or to give us some reward after we die!

This is the pitiable plight of the descendants of Luther, Calvin, and the early reformers who completed the derailment of their followers from the already derailed schismatic Church of Rome. Take for example some recent claims of some contemporary icons of the Protestant Mega-Churches. "Jesus had an ego. He said, 'I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me. ' Wow, what an ego trip he was on! " (Robert Schuller, "The Phil Donahue Show " 9/12/1980). Ego trip? Not exactly!

This statement is totally irresponsible, and contrary to Christ's hypostatic union of the two natures, the unconfused union of divinity and humanity. Christ said, "Learn from me because I am of a meek and humble heart and I will give you rest." So Christ does not have a trace of egotism because egotism is demonic and in Christ there is no sin.

More recently this same pastor (before 9/11) professed on national television: "It would not bother me if my descendants became Moslems". More new-age psycho-babble is heard from his disciple Rick Warren of Orange County California, author of The Purpose-Driven Life. Warren states, "Learn to Love yourself… Be true to yourself… Forgive yourself… Believe in yourself" (Ladies Home Journal March 2005, page 36). Doesn't this sound like the sermon of the serpent to Eve in the garden? You can reach theosis (divinization) by yourself, you don't need to involve God!

It is no wonder that 50% of the American Christian children graduate from a four-year college not only with a college degree but with a high degree of denial of faith in Jesus Christ. False doctrines of an angry God, a God so angry that He needs to sacrifice His Own Son to satisfy His justice have deleterious effects on the minds of our American youth. True doctrines or true dogmas are not some laws written up at some conferences called Ecumenical Councils. The church Fathers had empirical knowledge of the Holy Trinity, of the two natures of Christ, of the Love of God, in the uncreated light. They experienced these revealed ontologies and then they expressed them in theological terms. The dogmas or the commandments do not necessarily save man, they simply open the road. They guide the faithful to reach catharsis and illumination to experience and taste the reality of God. This, however, cannot take place outside of the Orthodox dogma. Take the dogma of the Holy Trinity, for example. We cannot be called Christians without the dogma of the Triune God. The fact that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three persons with One Essence, is of paramount importance in our spiritual life and ultimately in our overall behavior towards our fellow human being. Dogmas influence our daily existence. In Christianity we have a personal God, not a higher power. A higher power has might and force, but not love. Salvation without love is hatred, and love that does not preserve freedom is destruction. Saint Nickolai Velimirovich observes, "For someone to conceive a God without a son translates to conceiving a God without love: without a co-eternal son, who then did God love pre-eternally before the Creation of the World? This would mean that God did not know how to love. " The repercussions of this are very overt in the religion of Islam. The Quran ridicules the teaching of the Holy Trinity. At the Temple of Omar, one of the most holy sites of Mohamedanism, the following commandment is engraved on the wall: "Faithful, know that Allah has no Son ".

The repercussions of this false teaching permeate and pervert man's entire life. If God does not love someone else before creation, then who does He love, Himself ? Such an emotion is not love but selfishness and egotism. Since God according to Islam, does not have a Son, it is not surprising that there is no mention of God's love within the Quran. Moreover, if it is not mentioned in the Quran it will not be developed by chance or flourish among its faithful. Mohammed never mentions love with regard to Allah at all. He only emphasizes might, power, justice, submission and mercy - mercy if you are obedient and if you are a good child of Allah! If you offend Mohammad or Allah, or if you choose to doubt your submission to this faith, then according to Mohammed you don't deserve to live.

Let's not go too far. The God of the West presents similar idiosyncrasies mainly because the Western theologians after the schism followed Plato and Aristotle to defend their faith against the rising threat of Islam. They confused the energies of God with the essence of God as a result of the Anselmian Theology and thus distorted the Orthodox revelation. Adam 's fall,they teach, offended the justice of God. This made God angry,so angry that He needed to sacrifice His Own Son to satisfy His "need " for justice and righteousness! If we are obedient to this God of "needs " He is happy with us, but if we cross Him His divine wrath is aroused!!! The Popes of the West needed an army to defend this ideology. Holy Inquisition and the fear of being burned at the stake defended these false religious doctrines for a number of years. After the Age of Enlightenment however, Europe fell into Deism and Agnosticism mainly because of these flaws of the Western Christian theological system. We are not immune from this issue in our Orthodox world today,especially when we reduce the gospel to morality and ethics by ignoring the main purpose of our life,the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. Doing this drives our children into the embrace of existentialism and agnosticism. According to the Fathers, true faith (Orthodoxia) will lead to true practice (Orthopraxia). True faith and true life are indispensably connected.

Returning to the subject of Icons, allow me to ask the same question I posed to some of our teenagers after Liturgy this morning: Who would you think was the first iconographer or iconmaker of our church? Most people would venture to say St. Luke. In reality, the first iconmaker, the first iconographer was God Himself. Of Course! He made us, he created us "Kat ' 'Eikova, " according to his Icon. So the first iconagrapher is the Holy Trinity, our God. In Genesis 1:36 we read, "Let us make man… " (the "us " revealing the multiplicity of persons in God)– "according to our image " or "kat 'eikona imeteran. " Therefore, according to Scripture, Christ is the Icon of God the Father and Adam was created in the image, in the "Eikona ", of Jesus Christ. The basis of this theological feud over icons was the dogma of the Incarnation. The Orthodox maintained that we came to know God because He became flesh. Our God is no longer imageless. The iconoclasts were heavily influenced by the rise of Islam which began to conquer the outer parts of the Byzantine Empire during the 7th century. Leo the Isavrian managed to have the right arm of St. John of Damascus cut off because of his brilliant theology in the defense of the icons. Syria at the time was under Moslem occupation. The iconoclasts essentially undermined God's incarnation and more specifically, they undermined the humanity of God the Logos. It is known that Islam is highly iconoclastic. No images of any kind are permitted in the Mosque. But this is the other side of the same coin of Monophysitism. The 1st Ecumenical Council safeguarded the dogma of Christ's Divinity against Arius who taught that Christ was created in time. The 7th Ecumenical Council defended the teaching of Christ 's Humanity – that is, that Christ is the God-man. The central teaching of St. Athanasios' Homily on the Incarnation revered world wide even by Protestants like C.S. Lewis was:

"God became man so man can become God by grace! " The Logos became Flesh – so man can become Logos by grace. To this day biblical fundamentalists will tell you, "I only accept the Holy Scripture. " But you wouldn't have a New Testament without the Church. The Church came first! St. Athanasios the Great filtered out for us the pseudo-gospels and the pseudo-epistles and canonized the 27 Books of the New Testament. So how can you trust these 27 books as authentic and not trust the theology or the church of the Saint who compiled them? If the Holy Spirit was with him, and it certainly was, when he was fighting Arius and selecting the authentic books of the New Testament ,it was also with him when he used the term Theotokos or Birthgiver of God for the Ever Virgin Mary. The very term Theotokos is the jetty that crushes all Christological heresies. When we name the Virgin Mary "Theotokos" we leave no doubt about the identity of Her Child.He is God or "Theos"in Greek. He is the God-man. Salvation is attainable only though the God-human person of Jesus Christ. According to the scriptural interpretation of the Church Fathers,salvation is a journey from the image to the likeness. We are created according to God's image and we are given the potential at our baptism to enter the stadium of virtues to acquire the likeness. Christ gives us the grace, the spiritual weapons, but we must exercise our free will. We do not believe in predestination because we cannot have a God of predestination and a God of freewill at the same time. One of these two Gods does not exist.

St. Gregory Palamas teaches in his homily on free will that we are not automatically children of God by our mere baptism. "He came to his own but his own received Him not, but to those who received Him He gave the power (the potential) to become children of God!" So we are becoming children of God by the grace of Christ. Our Church Fathers teach about three states of Christian development: purification, illumination, and theosis (deification). Although repenting Christians can certainly be saved in anyone of these three states of development, only those at the level of theosis reach their full potential in this life and become gods by grace. They become christs by grace and we depict their transfigured bodies on icons, we include them in our liturgical services, and we venerate their icons in our churches. The icon is a visual dogmatic method expressing the truth of our faith in the same light as the Holy Scripture. Are icons graven images or idols? Certainly Not. We stated that the first iconomaker was God and He continued to use iconography in the Old Testament. God Himself commanded Moses to make a bronze snake to heal the dying Israelites. Was that snake an idol? God Himself commanded Moses to create cherubim using pure gold with specific dimensions and place them over the Arc of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies. Were these gold cherubim idols? An idol or a graven image is a depiction of an inexistent being or an inexistent god. The bronze snake was not an idol because it pre-figured Christ on the cross, and the golden cherubim above the golden altar are existing realities of heaven. The golden calf, on the other hand, was indeed an idol because it was depicting an inexistent god. So icons are not idols but precious in the eyes of the Lord! So precious that the Most Holy Theotokos permitted St. Luke to write her personal icon. St. Luke wrote four icons of her when God's mother was still alive and he painted 70 more after her dormition.

In Russia alone we have 200 feast days of miraculous icons for the Mother of God. God is well pleased to glorify His saints and to dispense His grace through created matter. The staff of Moses worked countless miracles, the staff of Aaron budded, and the bones of Elisha resurrected a dead person in the Old Testament. The same God of the Old Testament who is Jesus Christ grants the same experiences to all those who purify themselves like Moses, Prophet Elijah, Aaron, and Elisha. So why are some icons more miraculous than others? One, and perhaps the main reason is the holiness of the iconographer. Each iconographer at the state of theosis is living the reality of Christ 's Transfiguration. As Christ 's Light became manifest it sanctified everything around a certain radius of Mount Tabor. Everything changed into the Kingdom of God. Not only John, James and Peter (who wanted to change his address at that very moment), but even the rocks, the soil, the shrubbery, the clothing of the apostles changed. Everything became brighter than the sun. Likewise a saint is someone who has become a pure vessel of the Holy Spirit – one dead to the world – one who no longer lives but invites Christ to live in him . According to St. Paul, the co-essential Trinity come and make their abode in this person, and in the environment of this saintly Christ-bearing person. So not only the icons, but the shoes, the clothing, the utensils of Saint Spiridon and St. Nektarios, and the chains and the shadow of Peter, and the work rags of St. Paul were full of healing power. So icons painted by saints are especially miraculous. And let's not think that someone needs to be 80 years old like Moses to have this grace. A young child can be at the state of theosis. This was not uncommon before the age of radio, television, cds, and gameboy. Young children at the age of ten or twelve like Father Iakovos Tsalikis, Elder Paisios, and many others had visions of God. One young man of the same caliber lived in Smyrna less than one-hundred years ago. His family was renting an apartment. This young boy was very pure, very spiritual and had an ardent love for the Theotokos, the Virgin Mary. He expressed this love by painting the icon of the Mother of God on the wall of his bedroom and by praying under this icon daily and extensively. After a number of years his family had to move and the landlady was surprised to find an icon on the bedroom wall of the apartment. The new non-Christian tenants were ready to move in and the new lease called for a fresh paint job. Strangely enough, no paint would stick to this fresco. They tried repeatedly to paint over this icon but the new paint was miraculously not only peeling, but falling off of the icon. The landlady was in despair. If the new tenants were Orthodox they would understand, but this was not the case. So she went and purchased a tall new dresser big enough to hide the icon, she pushed it up against the wall and left. The following morning she was walking through the apartment with the new tenants showing them every room. When they opened the door with the icon they found the new dresser face down on the floor of the room and the icon of the Virgin Mother staring them in the face. The icon did not wish to be hidden! God was glorifying his young servant who reached holiness from a very young age, and the Holy Spirit sanctified not only him but the works of his hands. This is central to our Orthodox Faith. The Holy Spirit does not abandon the material nature of man who reaches theosis. This is the theology behind the relics of the Saints. The relics of the Saints, the material belongings of the Saints (i.e. chairs, beds, clothing, crosses, icons) are forever energized by the presence of the Holy Spirit! They are distribution outlets of grace! It is worth mentioning here one of the great surprises relayed to me by Dr. Dimitrios Tsellegidis, Proffessor of Dogmatics of the theological department of the University of Thessaloniki. His doctoral dissertation was on the theology of icons. At some point Dr. Tsellegides visited an elder who was the spiritual father of a convent in Northern Greece. This elder who is still living today happens to be blind by birth. Although he was 100% blind, his spiritual vision is 20/20. After visiting with him and discussing various ecclesiastical topics, our Doctor Tsellegidis expressed some curiosity about the elder's cell. Their dialogue was this.

"Now elder I know that you are totally blind – why then do you have dozens of icons on the walls of your cell? " "Demitri, because of their grace! "

"Elder I understand that, I do know that icons are windows of grace, and that they somehow bring us closer to the saint they depict when we venerate them, but in your case, you cannot see. Wouldn't one or two icons be enough for you to venerate since you really don't know which icon you are venerating? "

"Demitri, of course I know which icon I venerate. Each icon has its own distinct grace! St. Irene has one grace, St. Barbara has her own grace, and St. Nicholas has an altogether different grace. "

The professor and his companions were in disbelief. "Elder I'm sorry but I have a difficult time believing this. Do you mind if we do a little test? Would you please tie your hands behind your back so I can bring you an icon to venerate? " Dr. Tselleggidis takes an icon off the wall from the back of the elder and places it on the elder's lips to venerate.

"Oh Demitri this is Saint Catherine the Great. "

"I'm sorry Elder but I think you made a mistake in this case. I hate to tell you but I think I took St. Barbara off the wall. I think you made a mistake! "

"My dear Demitri, the grace of St. Catherine is totally different. Trust me I know St. Barbara very well! Go ahead and read the name of the icon! "

The Professor was flabbergasted when he saw that the blind man could "see " much better than the PhD of dogmatics with perfect natural vision. The icon was that of Saint Catherine indeed! This had Professor Tselleggidis and his company in tears, and quite humbled. The purity and ascetical struggle of this blind elder transformed his inner vision and transfigured his cell to Mount Tabor!

Did you ever consider this? How did the eye witnesses of the Transfigured Lord recognize Moses and Elijah on either side of the Lord on Mount Tabor since they were totally blinded by the Uncreated Light – a light that turned the sunlight into candle light by comparison? Their natural eyes were useless but the eyes of their soul were wide opened! Only with the eyes of their soul did they recognize Moses and Elijah in the Holy Spirit. Does this answer how the blind monk was able to differentiate between the icons of different saints? He was a saint himself – he was at the state of theosis.

In closing I need to say that I'm not Orthodox simply because I was born to Orthodox parents. I am Orthodox because all the experiences of Moses, Aaron, Elijah, Elisha, and all the prophets are lived and experienced only in the Orthodox Church today! The Light of Mount Tabor comes out of the Holy Tomb of Christ every year on Holy Saturday only in Orthodoxy! Our Metropolitan Maximos was an eyewitness of the healing power of this holy fire. The flow of the waters of Jordan still turns backwards when our Orthodox Patriarch blesses and sanctifies the water of the Jordan every Epiphany! We have saintly elders in Orthodoxy with apostolic gifts not lesser than those of St. Paul and Saint Peter. The woman with the issue of blood in the gospel of Saint Mark was healed not by the Word of the Lord, not by His hands, but by the fringes of His cloak.

Here then is the theology of the icon, and of the relics of the Saints if you will: the icons are the FRINGES OF THE LORD'S CLOAK and by extension the fringes of all those who kept their baptismal garment pure and became christs by grace! My friends, we are surrounded by fellow citizens, very good people of many Christian denominations accentuating and emphasizing some doctrine of the gospel. Unbeknownst to them, their leaders have divided the garment of the Lord in thousands of pieces. In Orthodoxy we have not only the Lord with his garment intact but all the fringes of the Lord's Cloak, and His fringes are still miraculous today. In Orthodoxy we preserve all the trimmings of the Lord's banquet and every year during Great Lent our Holy Church invites us to come and enter the stadium of virtues, to search, touch, and taste the sweetness of its life-giving springs, to discover and see "that the Lord of Orthodoxy is good." Once we practice and apply our Orthodox faith, and we begin to explode with the love of Christ. It is then that we successfully begin to share this unfathomable treasure with the sixty million unchurched Americans, including the unchurched Orthodox who are waiting for you, the Good Samaritan, to lead them to the hospital called the Orthodox Church.


Constantine Zalalas
Sunday of Orthodoxy 2006

St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church
Bethlehem PA

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Great Lent: The Path of Following Christ Metropolitan Ioann of St. Petersburg and Ladoga

The True Nature of Fasting
About Great Lent
What Should I Do During Great Lent?

The path of Christ is the path of every Christian. And I also went to tell you that the path that Christ the Savior followed is the path of every one of us Christians.

When the Lord called us into the bosom of the Church, when we received Holy Baptism, and then at a given moment were found worthy of grace, when the Divine light touched our hearts, then we felt an extraordinary joy and, as it were, found ourselves in the Upper Room with Christ. Then everything was luminous and joyful, because the Lord strengthened our spiritual and bodily powers, so that we tasted and knew how good the Lord is.

But out path did not end there. We followed Christ further. We followed the path of teaching, when we had to justify that Divine joy, that Divine grace, which had visited our hearts in the beginning of our ascetic struggle.

Here we, like the Apostles in their time, and like Christ, encountered all kinds of hardships, all kinds of difficult circumstances, and even began to waver. Or, like Christ’s followers of little faith, we even fell asleep at the moment of spiritual trials.

But in order to triumph over sin, in order decisively to establish good in our hearts, we are required to follow Christ even beyond the Garden of Gethsemane. We are required to continue on the path to the house of the high priests Annas and Caiaphas and to go to the Pretoria, to Pontius Pilate, and to hear the terrible words: “Crucify, Crucify Him!”

Then the path will lead us to Golgotha, so that we would be crucified with Christ with our passions and lusts. On this path, we are buried along with the Lord. And only after this will the resurrection of our soul take place. Only then will come the triumph of good in our hearts. And our spiritual rest will be even more established when we, having gone the way of the cross, will receive the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.

This is what we should feel and experience on our salutary path. This path is difficult, but it is essential to follow it. To follow it, in spite of hardships and distress – both from our neighbors, and from our own sinful habits… Sometimes we will not even know what to do. But if we will zealously keep to the path of Christ and, calling upon Divine help, will go fearlessly to Golgotha even to be buried along with Christ, then the Lord will send down upon us His Divine grace, strengthen our weak forces, and help us to overcome all our sinful passions, implanting in their place good habits that will help us to attain to everlasting life with our Lord Jesus Christ.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Two good deeds ( Elder Cleopa )

If you want to go straight before God, you need two walls. Not of brick, or stone or earth, but two spiritual walls.

Have fear of God on the right, because the Prophet Daniel says, '' With fear of God, man is diverted from all evil.''

On the left have fear of death because the Son of Sirach says, ''Son, remember your end and you will not sin. ''

These two good deeds, fear of God and remembrance of death, deliver man from all sin.

Elder Cleopa