CHRIST COMES FROM HEAVEN – MEET YE HIM!
2,019 years ago…
This year marks 2,019 years from that blessed day when the Lord Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah, the Saviour of mankind, came down to us on earth. In order to appreciate this miracle more fully, we would do well to acquaint ourselves in greater detail with the circumstances surrounding the Nativity of Christ. These details are not present in the Gospel readings which we hear in church, but we find them in the so-called “apocrypha,” i.e. writings about the life of the Saviour on earth, particularly during His infancy and youth. These writings appeared in the first centuries of Christianity, and although they were not included in the New Testament, they were accepted by the Church as pious memoirs of the earthly life of Jesus Christ. The most prominent piece of apocryphal literature was the “Infancy Gospel of James,” on which the Church based its detailed narrative concerning the Nativity of Christ.
Christ was born after His Mother, the Holy Virgin Mary, was betrothed to the righteous Joseph, who was 80 years old at that time. The Virgin Mary was given to Joseph under the guise of matrimony, in order for him to protect Her virginity and take care of Her. The venerable Joseph became Mary’s husband at a time when She had already conceived of the Holy Spirit, because the Lord wished to conceal from Satan the mystery of His incarnation from the Most-pure Virgin. For this reason He hid Her virginity within matrimony, so that the enemy would not know that this was the very Virgin of Whom the prophet Isaiah had said: Behold, a Virgin shall conceive, and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Emmanuel, and in order that the devil would have no knowledge of the manner in which God would reside among men, for ever since Isaiah announced his prophecy, the devil watched over all maidens with great vigilance, lest one of them conceive without a husband and give birth while remaining a virgin.
When the Virgin Mary’s pregnancy became apparent, the venerable Joseph was greatly bewildered and, thinking in human terms, began suspecting that Her conception was the result of sin. However, being a just man, he did not wish to denounce Her, so that She would not be subjected to stoning in accordance with the law of Moses, but decided to either secretly let Her go, or to leave Her and go far away himself. But as he was pondering thus, an angel appeared to him in a dream and said: “Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife.” The angel named Mary the wife of Joseph in order to refute the thought of possible adultery, and also in order to honor lawful matrimony on a par with chastity. Saint Basil the Great says: “The angel named Mary both a Virgin and an espoused wife, in order to honor chastity and, at the same time, hold matrimony beyond reproach. Virginity was chosen as being necessary for the holy birth, while lawful espousal – as the beginning of matrimony – was performed so that no one would think that the birth was the product of sin.”
After that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus to take a census of the entire Empire, and all the people went to be registered, each into his own city. Thus Joseph, together with the Virgin Mary, went forth from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, into the city of David which was called Bethlehem, because they were from the house and lineage of David. Bethlehem is a small town not far to the south from Jerusalem, at a distance of three days’ travel from Nazareth. It is called the city of David, because David was born there and anointed king there. And near Bethlehem, to the east, there was a cave in a rocky hill on which the city of Bethlehem is situated. Not far from this cave there was a field belonging to a certain Salome, who lived in Bethlehem and was a relative of both Joseph and the Virgin Mary.
The field of Salome, later called the “shepherds’ field”;
here the angels appeared to the shepherds with the glad tidings of Christ’s Nativity.
When Joseph and Mary were approaching the city, the time came for the Holy Virgin to give birth, and Joseph began searching for a place to stay the night. However, there was no place at the common inn, because not only the inn, but the entire city was filled due to the multitude of people who had come for the census. For this reason Joseph went to the cave near the field of his relative Salome. This cave served as shelter for the cattle that grazed in the field, and in this cave, at midnight, the Holy Virgin painlessly gave birth to our Lord Jesus Christ. Saint Gregory of Nicea says of the extraordinary birth of the Saviour: “A Virgin conceived, a Virgin carried in Her womb, a Virgin gave birth, a Virgin remained virgin; never on earth has there been a miracle such as this.”
Church of the Nativity of Christ, situated over the cave of Bethlehem.
Everyone who enters the church must bend low as a sign of humility,
in order to pass through the low door.
The Holy Virgin gave birth to Christ without a husband just as Adam produced Eve without a wife; Saint John Chrysostome speaks of it thus: “Just as Adam produced a woman without a wife, so the Virgin gave birth to a Man without a husband, repaying Eve’s debt. Just as Adam remained whole after a rib was removed from his body, so the Virgin remained incorruptible after the birth of the Infant.”
The birth of the Saviour also took place without the customary aid of a midwife. This is mentioned by Saint Athanasius of Alexandria: “Behold the mysterious birth by the Virgin: She gave birth by Herself, She swaddled the Infant by Herself, not allowing anyone to touch the Most-pure Issue with unclean hands; She Herself served the One Who was born from Her, and swaddled Him, and placed Him in the manger.” Thus the Virgin Mary Herself took care of Her Divine Infant as She awaited the arrival of Her relative Salome, whom Joseph had gone to summon in order to provide help to Mary. But Salome arrived when everything was already done and, unable to believe that the birth had been virginal and painless, she tried to determine with the aid of a midwife’s customary methods whether this was truly so. But she was immediately punished for her audacity – her probing hand became suddenly inflamed and withered. However, when she placed her struck hand upon the Divine Infant, the hand was immediately healed and became completely well. Then Salome believed that the Mother was a Virgin and that the Infant was God.
After that the Holy Virgin, having wrapped Her most precious Infant in fine white linen swaddling clothes which had been prepared in advance and brought with them from Nazareth, and having placed Him in a manger which stood in that cave, kneeled on the ground and bowed to Him as to Her God and Creator.
A star marks the place where Jesus Christ was born
To the manger were tethered an ox and a donkey, whom Joseph had brought with them from Nazareth. The donkey carried the pregnant Virgin while they traveled, and the ox was to be sold in order to buy all that was necessary and also to pay Caesar’s tax. Both of these mute animals, standing at the manger, warmed the Infant with their breath, it being wintertime.
Concerning the time of Christ’s Nativity, the 6th Ecumenical Council says that it was midnight from Saturday to Sunday, “for on that day God created light; on that same day the Lord was born; on that same day He arose from the dead; and on that same day He poured out His Holy Spirit upon His disciples.” Just as the Lord was conceived on a Friday during the annunciation, and on a Friday He was crucified; so was He born on a Sunday, and on a Sunday He arose from the dead.
At the time of Christ’s Nativity various miracles took place in the world. At the very moment of Christ’s birth, a spring of water issued from a rock in the cave of Bethlehem (for the Virgin Mary to be able to bathe Her Most-pure Infant), while in Rome a pagan temple, considered to be eternal, crumbled together with its idols, and three suns appeared in the sky, while in Judea, despite wintertime, the vineyards flowered. Most extraordinary of all was the appearance of the angels as described in the Gospel.
Opposite the cave in which Christ was born, there stood a high tower in which the shepherds lived. During that night three of them did not sleep, but watched over their flock, and suddenly a bright angel appeared to them, shining with radiant glory; seeing the angel, the shepherds were greatly afeared. But the angel, bidding them to leave their fear, brought them glad tidings of the joy which had come to the entire world through the birth of the Saviour. At the same time he gave them a sign of the veracity of his tidings: ye shall find, he said, a Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. As the angel was speaking to the shepherds, suddenly the singing of a multitude of angels was heard in the air, glorifying God and chanting: glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill among men. After this wondrous appearance and singing of the angels, the shepherds hurried toward the cave in order to see whether the angel’s words were true. Upon entering the cave, they saw the Most-pure Virgin Mary, and the righteous elder Joseph, and also the swaddled Infant lying in the manger. And believing without doubt that this was the Lord Jesus Christ, the awaited Messiah, they knelt before Him and told of everything that they had seen and heard, and of all that the angel had said to them about this Infant. And all those who were present (Joseph, Salome, and other friends and relatives who had come there in the meantime) marveled at the shepherds’ words, especially the Holy Mother of God, Who kept all the words in Her heart. And the shepherds returned to their own place, glorifying and praising God.
THOUGHTS ON THE NATIVITY OF CHRIST
O clear night, in which appeared the Most-pure, Who had come to purify us! May our hearing be pure, and the gaze of our eyes be chaste, and the words of our lips be sincere. This night is a night of reconciliation: let no one hold anger against one’s brother or offend him. This night brought peace to the whole world: let no one threaten. This is the night of the Meekest One: let no one be cruel. This is the night of the Humblest One: let no one be vain. Now is the day of joy: let us not seek revenge for offenses. Now is the day of goodwill: let us not be cruel. In this day of quietude let us not be overcome with wrath. Today God has come down to sinners: do not be vain, o sinner! Today the Richest One has beggared Himself for us: ye rich men, invite the poor to your feast. Today we have received a gift for which we had not asked: let us be charitable to those who ask from us. This day has opened the doors of heaven to our prayers: let us open our doors to those who ask us for forgiveness. Today Divinity took upon Itself the stamp of mankind, so that mankind could be adorned with the stamp of Divinity.
Blessed is the Infant Who has brought joy to Bethlehem! Blessed is the Youth Who has brought renewal to mankind! Blessed is the Fruit which has given Itself to those who hunger! Blessed is the Rich One, Who has suddenly enriched our poverty! Thanks be to the Source Who has borne our cruel-heartedness! Praise be to the One Who has no need of our laudations, but wishes us to extol Him in order to reward us afterwards. O Merciful One, Thou art a sea of glory that has no need of our glorification. Accept in Thy mercy this small drop of glorification, because by Thy grace Thou hast encouraged me to praise Thee.
HOMILY FOR THE MEETING AT THE TEMPLE
In today’s wonderful feast the holy Church revives in our memory the Gospel event in which Christ our Saviour was brought by the Mother of God and the pious elder Joseph to the temple of Jerusalem as a 40-day-old infant, according to lawful custom.
But it was not only the bringing to the Old Testament temple of the One Who created a new and most perfect tabernacle that took place on that day; a sacrifice was offered not only for the One Who subsequently became the great and sole sacrifice of the New Testament. Something much more wondrous and mysterious took place here: the old Testament, in the person of its best representatives – the righteous God-receiver Simeon and the prophetess Anna – met the promised Redeemer Who had come into the world, and offered thanksgiving to God for the thousand-year-old course it had just concluded.
“There was a man in Jerusalem, – the Evangelist tells us, – whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Spirit, that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:25-26).
Church tradition has preserved more detailed information on the righteous Simeon than is given to us by the Evangelist.
In the year 271 B.C., the Egyptian king Ptolomaeus Philadelphus, who was engaged in establishing the great library of Alexandria, wished to have in it the holy Jewish books translated into Greek. In order to have his wish fulfilled, Ptolomaeus applied to the Jewish high priest Eleazarus with a request for assistance in translating the books of the Holy Bible. Fulfilling the king’s request, Eleazarus assigned this task to 72 interpreters/translators. Among them was the righteous Simeon.
While translating the book of the prophet Isaiah, Simeon came to the place where the Old Testament evangelist says: “Behold, a Virgin will conceive in the womb and will bear a Son”… Simeon was cast into doubt: how can a virgin become a mother… And suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared to him and foretold him that death would not come to him, Simeon, until the day when he would see with his own eyes the Lord’s Christ, born of a Virgin.
And so the years passed … But God did not send death to Simeon. He lived and waited for the fulfillment of all that the Lord’s angel had foretold him. And finally that day arrived… The prophecy came to pass: the Virgin Mother came to the temple, holding the Divine Infant-Son in Her arms. Moved by the Holy Spirit, Simeon came there as well. Joyfully he took the Infant into his elderly arms and on behalf of the entire Old Testament gave thanks to God in a solemn and ardent prayer: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word; for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people: a light to enlighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel.”
The Old Testament had fulfilled its mission. It had prepared the world for receiving the Saviour and could now freely repose. All that had been foretold to the forefathers now came to pass. The seed of the Woman had bruised the head of the serpent. A Virgin gave birth to a Son and called Him Emmanuel, which means: “God is with us.” The Old Testament could say its “now lettest Thou depart.”
But in giving thanks to God for the fulfillment of His promises, in thanking Him for the “glory of the people of Israel,” the righteous Simeon goes farther than the majority of his contemporaries, who believed that salvation was the exclusive lot of the Jews. He openly testifies that a new grace-filled kingdom will open up for all, both the Jews and the Gentiles. The Divine Infant Who had been brought to the temple will open His fatherly embrace to the entire universe.
And in finishing his prayer of thanksgiving, the righteous Simeon prophesies the New Testament fate of his dearest Jewish people: “Behold, this child (Christ) is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against.”
He testifies that the coming of Christ will divide the people of Israel into two halves: God’s Israel and the rejected Israel, and then, turning to the Mother of God, Who was standing amazed by all that was happening, and foreseeing the anguish of Her maternal heart at the foot of Golgotha, Simeon says: “Yea, a sword shall pierce through Thy own soul also.”
Commemorating now this sacred event, glorifying the Lord Who had so graciously appeared on our sinful earth, lauding His Most-holy Mother and the guardian of Her virginity – the elder Joseph, and venerating the righteous Simeon and the prophetess Anna, we should remember that sooner or later in the life of each one of us will come the hour of this “now lettest Thou depart.”
For if the sons of the Old Testament lived by their faith in the coming Christ, we, the new Israel, live and attain salvation by our faith in the arrived Redeemer. If their duty was to believe in the forthcoming Saviour, then our duty is to love the arrived Saviour, Who has redeemed the world with His blood and Who summons all of us to repay love with love. The righteous Simeon fulfilled his duty of faith to the very end, and faith did not put him to shame: he could say with joy and relief: “Now lettest Thou depart.”
May the Lord grant that all of us fulfill our duty of love and preserve Christ’s commandments to the very end. Only then, finishing our life’s course, each one of us will be able to utter with a pure conscience, bravely and daringly, the New Testament “now lettest Thou depart,” spoken erstwhile by the apostle Paul: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love His appearing.”
(Hieromonk Methody, “Before the eyes of God’s truth”)
(Reprinted from “Orthodox Russia, No. 15, 2007)
We are now standing, dear brethren, at the threshold of the Great Lent. This lent is like a spiritual season of spring. Just as nature is now awakening from its long winter sleep, everything is coming to life, warming up, blossoming, – so our soul must awaken from the sleep of sin, must come to life, be warmed by the rays of repentance, blossom with virtues, prepare itself for the wondrous and joyous Resurrection of Christ. But in nature, before spring can take hold, the snow on the ground must melt, and the ice covering the rivers and lakes must break. We must do the same with our frozen soul – break the ice of enmity, resentment, anger, irritation. For this purpose the Church offers us, at the threshold of the Great Lent, the moving rite of forgiveness. On this so-called Forgiveness Sunday the first brief Lenten service (a vespers) is served, at the end of which we must sincerely ask forgiveness of each other and make peace with everyone.
Why is it so necessary and important to embark upon the Great Lent in a state of reconciliation? Apostle John the Theologian explains to us in one of his epistles that whoever claims to love God, but at the same time hates his neighbor, – such a person is a liar. Why? Because whoever does not love his neighbor, whom he can see, how can he love God, Whom he cannot see? Therefore, whoever loves God sincerely will also love other people, who are God’s creation.
But how can we really love these other people, who offend us, irritate us, who are often so rude, unpleasant, downright nasty? We can resolve this problem in a practical manner in two stages.
The first stage consists of a careful and totally objective examination of our own selves, of checking out our own spiritual condition. The Lord Himself tells us: “Why do you look at the twig in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? You should first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will know how to deal with the twig in your brother’s eye.” This means that the primary source of enmity and quarreling are our own sins, mainly pride, egoism, and envy. Perhaps our neighbor did not pay enough attention to us, did not praise our efforts, did not appreciate our talents? And so we start feeling resentment and animosity towards him, and all because our pride has been wounded, our ego has been offended, our envy has been stirred up. But here we must honestly concede that the fault lies within ourselves. And if we rid ourselves of vanity and fill our hearts with humility, then our hateful neighbor will suddenly appear to us in a pleasant, kind, friendly light.
But let us suppose that we have honestly examined ourselves and exonerated ourselves of all malice, yet our neighbor continues to appear disagreeable and hostile to us? Then we move on to the second stage, which consists of the ability to distinguish between the innate person and his sins. In this case we must try to love the individual himself, but not his sins. It is comparable to looking at a rose, which is a most beautiful flower, but has prickly thorns. We carefully avoid the thorns and enjoy the rose. Our attitude towards people must be the same – we must look at their good characteristics and stay away from the bad ones, and even more than that – we must cover their negative side with pity and compassion. Every person who is filled with anger, envy, etc. must be pitied, because such a person is in spiritual trouble; we must help him with our compassion and understanding rather than quarrel with him.
At the end of the first Lenten vespers we hear the wonderful prayer of repentance composed by St. Ephraim the Syrian – “Lord and Master of my life,” – at the end of which we expressly ask God: Lord, let me see my own sins and refrain from judging my brother. Amen.
A Gift to the Lord for the Feast of the Nativity
“And they brought Him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matt. 2:11). It was customary in the East to bring gifts to prominent people. The Queen of Sheba visited Solomon and brought him aromatic oils, much gold, precious stones, etc. That is why the Magi brought gifts to the Infant Jesus and gave them to His Mother. And in our times, some carry on the tradition of giving presents to each other on the Feast of our Lord’s Nativity. What gift would be the most pleasing to our Lord? Let us look at the treasures which the Magi brought – can we not imitate their example?
Firstly, they brought gold – the most precious metal. But King David says that God’s Word is more precious and more desirable than precious gold. This means that if we study God’s Word and preserve it in our hearts, we have a gift which to the Lord is more precious than gold. This is His gift – Truth; there is nothing more precious than that.
Secondly, they brought frankincense. This is a kind of fragrant incense which by God’s command was used in the Old Testament tabernacle and in the temple. It has a very pleasant fragrance; rising to the heavens like clouds, it serves as a gift of thanksgiving, pleasing to God. If we bring our gift of thanksgiving to God, as the Psalmsinger says, would it not be more pleasing to God than frankincense? Is not our soul, sending the fragrance of thanksgiving to the heavens, worth more than incense?
Finally, the Magi brought myrrh. Like frankincense, it is obtained from trees growing mostly in Arabia. To obtain it, the tree bark is cut and from it comes an aromatic sap that is used as part of the fragrant oil with which kings and high priests were anointed. The word myrrh means bitterness or sorrow. Could not we bring such a gift to the Lord as well? Do we not sorrow and feel remorse over our sins? Heartfelt sorrow over our sins – this is our myrrh.
Thus we, too, can bring to our King the same gifts which the Magi brought to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We can bring Him God’s truth in our hearts, as King David says: “Your word I hid in my heart.” We can sincerely thank Him for coming down to earth for our salvation. We can confess before Him our sorrow over our sins, for which He had died. If we do so, then we will be as wise as the Magi, and we will bring Him real gifts – true gold, incense, and myrrh.
THE SACRAMENT OF PENITENCE
(see beginning here)
Discourses on confession (3)
Our Lord Jesus Christ said to His apostles: “I give ye the power to bind and loose the sins of men. Whosoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whosoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:18). The apostles took this gift and this power, and passed it on successively to their disciples and to divine hierarchs, from the times of the apostles to this very day, and the hierarchs ordained priests, endowing them with the same power to bind and loose the sins of men. This should be a matter of belief for everyone who comes to confession and lowers his head under the epitrahelion and hand of a priest of God. Moreover, you should not be troubled by the circumstance of the priest being a man like yourself, suffering the same temptations as other people, and not being free of sins, which he also confesses to his father-confessor. However, it is not the angels whom the Lord entrusted to free penitents of their sinful burden, but humans, lawfully ordained priests; we must not inquire into the reason for this, but should obey Christ and believe without any doubt that true remission of sins is granted through the priest, and that all those who have confessed properly leave confession with a soul as pure as after the sacrament of baptism. For this reason it is said about confession and the sacrament of penitence that “penitents are baptized with a second baptism.”
But it is of utmost importance to confess properly.
First of all, it is absolutely necessary to make peace with everyone before coming to confession. The Lord said: “Forgive and ye shall be forgiven. But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:15). In that case, even if the priest, who does not possess the gift of clairvoyance as saints do, says to the penitent: “I forgive and loose thee of all thy sins,” Christ Himself, Who stands there invisibly and accepts the confession of those who repent properly, will quietly say to the one who has not made his peace: “But I do not forgive and loose thee, because thou hast not, in accordance with My commandment, begged forgiveness of those whom thou hast offended, or who have something against thee.” And if such a one dares to take communion, he shall be judged and condemned.
What should we do?
Never come to confession without having made peace with everyone. It happens sometimes that our offenders are far away, and if we went to them, we would not get back to church in time. In that case, make your peace with them mentally, but firmly promise to yourself to go and see them as soon as you return home.
What happens if the one with whom you are trying to make peace refuses to do so and says: “I do not forgive you”?
Ask his forgiveness humbly, patiently, but persistently. If even then he refuses to forgive you, may God be his judge, for in that case his own sins will not be forgiven. And you may tranquilly go to confession, since you have done all you possibly could to make peace.
Another requisite for the complete remission of sins is a full revelation of all one’s sins to the confessor during confession, especially heavy sins, those which lie as a heavy stone on the penitent’s conscience. Do not be embarrassed to reveal your sins to a person who has sworn – under penalty of his own perdition – never to reveal anything which a penitent says to him in confession. Thus you will avoid shame before heaven and mankind on the Day of Judgment, because all the sins which you have confessed on earth will not be remembered there at all, having been erased by the mercy of God.
As you come up to communion, that Chalice of Life, you must firmly believe that during the Eucharistic canon, when the priest reads a special prayer in the altar and blesses the prepared prosphora and the red grape wine mixed with water in the chalice, at that moment they are transformed by the Holy Spirit into the Holy Gifts of the Body and Blood of Christ. Without belief in that this bread is the true Body of Christ and the wine is the true and precious Blood of Christ, – without such a firm and absolutely necessary belief it is better not to even approach the Chalice. There were cases when for disbelief the Lord scorched the lips of the doubters (I have seen and heard live witnesses who had personally received such a fearsome lesson). It may be that the Lord will not scorch a doubter visibly, but that which has been taken without faith will, alas, only serve to judge and condemn the person.
It is hard for people to accept this mystery. It is a sacrament, and to many seems strange. “How can He give us His body to eat?” some said even when Christ first explained this sacrament to the people. And many of them left Him at that time and did not follow Him. Thus the Lord showed that He does not force anyone to come to Him, but that He is to be followed exclusively on a voluntary basis.
And what did He say of His Holy Communion? “Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, ye have no life in you. Whosoever eateth My Body, and drinketh My Blood, hath eternal life: and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:53-54).
And now let us look at our sins in the light of the words of the Holy Scriptures.
Forgive us, Lord, first of all, that we do not instruct ourselves in the law of God day and night, that we do not like to hear or read the Lord’s exhortations, that pious conversations seem boring to us, that it is often hard for us to stand in church, where a multitude of God’s commandments are proclaimed and explained. This is the work of Satan, who envelops us in boredom and drowsiness during the reading of the Holy Scripture or the sermon, and we pander to him, often grumbling that the readings and the sermons are too long. We should be glad that God’s sermons are still being heard in churches, that the Lord has not yet deprived us of hearing the Word of God.
Repent before God and urge your somnolent souls to wake up and joyfully and attentively listen to every word of God, preserving it in your heart as did the Mother of God or the other blessed Mary, who sat at the feet of Jesus in order to hear His word. And do not simply be inattentive and forgetful listeners, but those who love the words of the Lord, who fulfill them in life – not in word, neither in tongue, but in deed and in truth (1 John 3:18).
(To be continued)
CHRIST ON TRIAL BEFORE PILATE
(see beginning here)
Events at the Cross
As Christ was being crucified, two thieves were crucified at the same time. The thieves’ crosses were placed one on the right and the other on the left side of Christ; this was done at the express wish of Jesus’ enemies, who thus wished to show Him as the most criminal among criminals. However, in trying to blacken Christ’s innocence with their falsehood, the enemies, not even knowing what they were doing, contributed to an even greater confirmation of the truth, for it was said in a prophecy about Christ: “His soul was given up unto death, and He was numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12).
After the crucifixion, the soldiers immediately began to divide among themselves the clothes of the crucified; Christ’s outer garments were divided into four parts, one part for each soldier; but it was decided not to tear up His robe, which was woven as a single piece from top to bottom, but to cast lots for it. Yet even this seemingly insignificant circumstance becomes quite noteworthy, because even this was foretold in the psalms of King David: “And they parted My garments among them, and upon My vesture did they cast lots” (Psalm 22:18). With such accuracy did God’s Providence depict several centuries in advance even the smallest instances of Christ’s suffering.
When crucifixions took place, small wooden boards were hammered to the cross over the heads of each crucified person, stating their name and crime. Over the head of Jesus Christ Pilate ordered the following superscription to be affixed: Christ of Nazareth, King of the Jews. This superscription was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, because, besides the Jews, there were many Greeks and Romans in Jerusalem. By means of such a superscription Pilate wished to show that this constituted the entire accusation – that the Crucified One was acknowledged as the King of the Jews, or Christ. However, reading these words, many people could possibly conclude that this was actually the expected Christ, Whom the Jews had been unable to protect from the Romans or had betrayed Him themselves. Seeing such a superscription, the high priests immediately became indignant over it, because they thought that the pagan Pilate was mocking their humbled authority and the Jewish people. It seemed to their minds that Pilate was saying with this superscription: this is how I deal with Jewish kings! Therefore, they straightaway hurried over to Pilate with the request that he change the writing – you should not, they said, write: king of the Jews, but rather: I am the king of the Jews; this will show that we do not acknowledge Him as king, but that it was only He who called Himself king. But Pilate, wishing to revenge himself on them for having forced him to condemn Christ to death, answered them with absolute power: what I wrote, I wrote. Of course this was all being done unconsciously, but in reality it was actually being established that Christ was King, and the superscription in three languages confirmed this, according to the law of Moses: in the presence of two or three witnesses let every word stand. In general, in everything that happened to Jesus Christ, it could be seen that Providence itself, without violating human will, was directing all affairs and accomplishing its destinies. It seemed that everything was taking place by chance, each person was acting in accordance with his will, yet at the same time the visions and the words of the prophets were coming to pass, and eternal truth was being fulfilled.
Let us see what happened further. The messengers to Pilate were forced to return to Golgotha and leave the same superscription; then the high priests’ indignation at such humiliation of their authority turned against the innocent Christ Who was hanging before them on the cross. Even earlier, passing in front of the cross, they tried to poison the moments of His suffering with their malicious mockery; and now they made an even greater attempt to humiliate Him. While the people stood and watched in bewilderment, – for it was sad to see a righteous person crucified, and the people knew that for a long time even Pilate had not wanted to condemn Him, and that the high priests were the sole cause of it all, – the scribes and the Pharisees, as though wishing to account for their evil deed, passed before Christ’s cross, wagging their heads and saying loudly, so that the people could hear: “Eh! Thou that destroyest the temple and buildest it in three days, save Thyself. If Thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross.” Thus mocking Him, they also reviled Him, turning to one another and saying: “He saved others, but He cannot save Himself! Let Him save Himself, if He be Christ, the chosen of God. If He be truly the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, for us to see and believe, and we will believe in Him. He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now, if He is pleasing to Him, for He said: I am the Son of God.” With these last words they almost deliberately repeated the words of King David, who with his innocent suffering foreshadowed his Descendant, saying in his psalms: “All they that see me laugh me to scorn; they speak with their lips, shaking their heads, saying: He trusted in the Lord that would deliver him; let Him deliver him, if he is pleasing to Him” (Psalm 22:7-8). So truly were prophetic words fulfilled in the words and actions of the very people who said and did them! And it was precisely here, at the cross, that the rays of prophetic contemplations, scattered throughout the Scriptures, became centered.
Seeing the Jewish leaders’ continued mocking of Christ, the Roman soldiers who were guarding the cross also began to revile Him as a pretender, and coming up to Him as to a king, offered Him vinegar and said: “If Thou be the King of the Jews, save Thyself.” And it was not only the Jewish elders and the Roman soldiers who thus reviled Christ, but even one of the thieves who were co-crucified with Him. “If Thou be Christ, save Thyself and us,” – so spoke one of the hanging malefactors.
Amid such universal frenzy, when everyone mocked Jesus Christ and reviled Him, when none of those around Him wished or dared to say even a single word in His defense, amid this general disbelief in Christ, God’s power raised up a defender of His innocence and His Divine majesty, and from a source one could least expect – from one of the crucified malefactors. While one of the hanging thieves tried to humiliate Him, the other one, on the contrary, rebuked his mate, saying: “Dost thou not fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we have been condemned justly, for we have received the due reward for our deeds; but this man hath done nothing amiss.” Thus the wise Dismas (the name of this thief) spoke of Jesus Christ, proclaiming His innocence; and suddenly his heart became illuminated with the light of God’s truth, and his mind was struck as by lightning with the thought of saying to Christ: “Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy kingdom.” Thus the wise thief thought and spoke, expressing heartfelt belief in Christ as the true Lord and King of glory, Who had been awaited by the people of Israel. O, how great was the faith of this truly wise thief! To see a crucified man and confess Him as the Lord; to see a man dying such a disgraceful death and to believe absolutely that He would be an eternally-reigning King: such was the fruit and the crown of supreme faith in Christ!
Of course, one could also say that at that time this confessor of Christ, like all the other Jews including Christ’s disciples, thought of His kingdom in a somewhat imaginary fashion, assuming that it would be established on earth. However, his faith was genuine, and he was absolutely certain that Jesus was the true Christ, Son of the living God, and was definitely either immortal or the conqueror of death. At the same time Dismas demonstrated the kindness of his heart – he advised his mate not to humiliate Christ, but to pity Him as an innocent man unjustly condemned. And for the Lord, Who promised to judge us for every idle word and, consequently, to reward us for every kind word, such heartfelt compassion for Himself could not be forgotten, and so the wise thief’s Divine reward was announced before everyone. Moreover, heartfelt belief in the Lord and hope in His mercy were the most precious things for Christ, according to Whom whosoever believeth in Him would not perish (John 3:16). And thus, while the high priests demanded from Christ that He rather save Himself and not others, He continued even from the cross to save those who believed in Him; turning His serene and loving gaze upon the wise thief, Christ said the following words to him: “Verily I say unto thee, today thou shalt be with Me in paradise.”
Besides these events, which demonstrated that the Jesus hanging on the cross was Christ, there were also omens in nature that showed Him as the Lord of all. It was midday when Christ was raised onto the cross, but a gloom obscured the air; at first it was thought that this would soon pass, as happens during a solar eclipse, but when it was seen that the darkness was not abating, but was even increasing, then many began to realize that this was a sign of God’s wrath. And it was truly a sign from God, because it had been foretold in a prophecy: And it shall come to pass in that day, saith the Lord God, that I will cause the sun to go down at noon, and I will darken the earth in the clear day (Amos 8:9). The city, which had been so noisy throughout the entire morning, now became dismally quiet; the darkness terrified everyone. The people who stood in awe before the cross, waited only for the moment when the King of the Jews would come down from the cross, as the high priests had said: let Him now come down from the cross, and we shall believe in Him. Thus even Christ’s enemies were ready to believe in Him, if only God would help Him be delivered from the cross.
The Mother’s Anguish
The time now came when the prophecy foretold by the righteous Simeon to the Mother of God was fulfilled: Yea, a sword shall pierce through Thy own soul also (Luke 2:35). The One Who was destined to have the greatest glory in heaven after Her Son, was forced to bear the greatest anguish on earth because of Him. And thus, besides the fact that all Her life Her meek heart was struck by the revilement, the persecution, and the blasphemy that greeted Christ everywhere as He preached, who can measure the anguish and sorrow of Her holy soul when She saw the pre-eternal Son of God, Who had taken flesh from Her as though solely for suffering, hanging on a cross? O, how deeply pierced was Her maternal heart, created for love for the beloved Son of God! No one can even imagine it, for who could love as much as the Most-pure loved Her Son and, consequently, suffer as much as the all-holy Mother?! At that moment She endured more pain than all the martyrs, suffered with Her heart more than all the people. For She loved Her Lord more than anyone else ever could.
For the loving Mother even the first news of Her Son’s being seized for trial was like thunder, piercing Her heart unto death. All the wounds given Him by the tormentors’ blows; the thorns that pierced His head; the spitting upon, the hitting, the beating over the head with a cane; and finally the blows of the hammer, pounding nails into His hand and feet, simultaneously penetrated Her heart and pierced Her soul. O, if only She could somehow alleviate the suffering of Her Son, relieve Him of the crown of thorns, hold up His head, which had fallen forward under the burden of torment!... But having no possibility of helping Him Herself, She also did not see anyone who was moved by Her Son’s suffering, who could alleviate some of His pain; on the contrary, all She heard was iniquitous mouths all around, pouring forth revilement against Him. Finally, when the obscuration of visible light chased the gloomy souls away from the cross, the most-holy Mother approached Her Son, and what did She see? – alas, how terribly had human iniquity wounded His entire body! From head to toe there was not a single untouched spot upon Him: the face was bloodied and beaten up; the mouth, the eyes, all was caked with blood; the hands and feet all wounded and pierced through. Blood was still pouring from everywhere – from the head, from the hands, from the feet; He was entirely covered with His blood, beaten up, wounded, divested of His garments, and hung on the cross in disgrace before the whole world. Gazing upon all of this, how did She endure such indescribable anguish of heart and such cruelest sorrow?
Seeing His Mother’s torment, the Saviour expressed His filial love for Her. Here at the cross, together with Her stood the disciple of Christ whom extreme love for Him had brought even to this dangerous place; this was the very disciple who had lain next to Christ at the Mystic Supper. Indicating him with His gaze, Christ said to His Mother: “Woman, here is Thy son.” And to the disciple He then said: “Here is thy mother.” The disciple fulfilled this will of the dying Lord with absolute exactitude: from that time on he took Her into his home and cared for Her like Her own son until Her very dormition (approximately 15 years).
(To be continued)
LIVES OF THE SAINTS
On February 25th (the 12th by the old calendar) the Church commemorates Saint Alexis, Metropolitan of Moscow and all of Russia, the wonderworker.
St. Alexis, scion of the noble Pleshcheyev family, was born in Moscow in 1292 and was given the name Eleutherius. By that time all the major Russian cities had been devastated by the Tatars, but Moscow, a small and insignificant town, had been left alone. Now Moscow began to gather strength and importance, as it became populated by masses of people fleeing from the devastated cities. Eleutherius’ godfather was Prince Ivan Kalita, the future builder of the principality of Moscow. At the age of 26 the saint entered the Theophany monastery in Moscow and became a monk with the name of Alexis. Twenty years later he was ordained as bishop, and in 1954 he was consecrated a metropolitan by Philotheus, Patriarch of Constantinople.
By that time St. Alexis was so renowned as a wonderworker, that his fame spread even to the stronghold of the Tatars, the Golden Horde, and the Tatar khan ordered the saint to come there and heal his wife, who had gone blind. If not, the khan threatened to launch another attack on Russia. The prince and the nobles began to entreat the saint to comply with the khan’s command, in order to save the Church and the homeland. After praying to God for help, St. Alexis embarked on the dangerous journey. Just before his arrival, the khan’s wife Taydula saw a dream in which she was healed by Christian priests in glittering robes. The khan met the saint with great honor and led him to his wife. St. Alexis served a moleben and sprinkled Taydula with holy water. And the miracle occurred: her sight returned! The grateful Taydula then presented the saint with a parcel of land that belonged to her in the Kremlin, and on which the saint afterwards founded the well-known Chudov monastery (which many centuries later was destroyed by the Soviet regime).
St. Alexis was of great importance to Russia, both in the civil and spiritual fields. When Great Prince Ivan II died, St. Alexis became the guardian of his successor, 8-year-old Prince Dimitri, and at the same time he headed the Boyar Duma, the legal body which ruled the principality. The saint was well-aware that Russia’s liberation from the Tatars depended on its unification, and that the diverse and warring principalities could be unified only by neutral Moscow, and for this reason he was a great proponent of the Russian principalities’ becoming united around a sole center – Moscow. Due to his efforts, Russia at that time gained her first major victory over the Tatars.
The saint worked just as earnestly in the religious field. He was an adherent of inner prayer according to the teaching of St. Gregory Palamas, and assisted his friend, Patriarch Philotheus of Constantinople, in the revival of this great spiritual treasure which had nearly been lost. The saint was also friend and mentor to St. Sergius, the future wonderworker of Radonezh. St. Alexis worked hard to transform women’s convents, which until then had been dependent on men’s, into self-reliant units with independent abbesses, and these convents began to flourish. St. Alexis reposed in 1378; his incorruptible relics lie in the Theophany Cathedral in Moscow.
On the same day the Iveron Icon of the Mother of God is celebrated.
This holy icon belonged to a pious widow who lived near the Greek city of Nicea in the era of iconoclasm. When King Theophilus the Iconoclast sent his soldiers throughout the realm to destroy all icons, a group of soldiers came to the house of this widow. One of them, seeing the holy icon, became enraged and struck with his sword the Holy Virgin’s cheek depicted on the icon. But to his horror, blood gushed forth from the wound. Awed by this miracle, the repentant soldier fell on his knees before the icon and abandoned his heresy (and later became a monk). At his suggestion the widow decided to conceal the icon, in order to save it from desecration. After an earnest prayer to the Mother of God, the pious woman set the icon on the sea and saw with great joy that the icon sailed on the waves directly towards the west. Many years later this icon appeared in a tower of flame on the sea near the Iveron monastery on Mount Athos. At that time a certain elder from Georgia, by the name of Gabriel, lived in the Iveron monastery. The Holy Virgin appeared to him in a dream and ordered him to tell the abbot and the brothers that She wished to give them Her icon, in order to help them and protect them, while the elder Gabriel himself She commanded to fearlessly approach the icon and take it into his hands. Then the elder Gabriel, in response to the Holy Virgin’s command, walked on water as on land and brought the icon ashore. The monks greeted the icon with reverence and carried it to their monastery, placing it in the altar. On the following day they did not find the icon in the spot where it had been placed. After a long search they found it on the wall above the monastery gates and once more took it back to the altar, but the following morning they once again found it above the gates. This happened several times before the monks finally understood that it was not they who guarded the icon, but rather the holy icon guarded them. Consequently a church was built above the monastery gates, in which the icon stays even to this day. From the name of the monastery this holy icon began to be called the Iveron icon, while in accordance with its location it became known as “the Gatekeeper.”
In Russia there were several wonderworking copies of the holy Iveron icon. Especially revered was the Iveron icon in Moscow, which stood in the chapel at the Voskresensky gates. This miraculous icon, which worked a multitude of miracles, was revered not only by the inhabitants of Moscow, but by all of Russia. Everyone coming into the capital, and especially members of the Imperial Family, hurried to visit the Iveron chapel and venerate the holy icon, to which molebens were served continuously. Equally revered in our own days was the miraculous Iveron Myrrh-streaming icon, which now, by the will of the Mother of God, has been taken away from us.
BIBLICAL ACCOUNT OF THE FIRST PEOPLE
(see beginning here)
“And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them: Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and have dominion over it. And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered.”
Once again the Lord repeats the commandment given to people in Eden. But now He adds something different. The Lord says: “And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth.” In Eden it was only said: “Have dominion over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” Here, because of the changed relations between man – the crown of creation, who because of his sin did not fulfill his designation – and all other creatures, which arose against him because of that, man is given the weapon of fear instead of the former tranquil and friendly dominion.
And the Lord adds: “Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you.” Here man receives the blessing to eat meat. This was not originally part of God’s plan for man. According to the Divine plan, it was plants and not animals that were to be food for man. Man was to eat the best parts of plants: their fruits, tubers, seeds. Animals were to be man’s servants and participants in his endeavors. Through sin man violated his calling and consequently severed his connection with the animal world, his understanding of the animal world, and the animals’ amicable cooperation with him.
Instead of submitting to man and cooperating with him, the stronger animals started attacking people, while the smaller ones proceeded to harm him in all possible ways. Man became imbued with fear of animals, with hostility towards them, entered into battle with the animal world. After the Deluge their relations changed. Man acquired power over the animals. Now animals would begin to fear man. They would begin hiding from him. But would this not sever all connection between mankind and the animal world? Would they not be divided into two camps that had nothing in common between them?
It was in order to overcome such alienation that Lord gave man permission to eat meat.
Instead of the bright, friendly, and unselfish relations with animals that had predominated in Eden, instead of the tortuous and unnatural relations of men fearing animals, new relations with the animal world are now introduced, built upon the lowered moral state of people after the Fall: mankind starts to see animals as a source of nourishment.
One can only guess that man started to eat meat much earlier, in the antediluvian period of his existence. At least this is what pre-historic archeological data suggests, testifying that Neanderthal man, in whom we can recognize features of antediluvian man, was primarily a meat-eater. But then it was the result of human willfulness, while now Divine permission was given to people for such nourishment, and we know that later on, the Lord miraculously sent His prophet “bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening” for food. And the very Son of God ate “a piece of a broiled fish, and of an honeycomb” (Luke, 24:42). And the 51st Holy Apostolic Rule prescribes: “If someone… refrains from eating meat not for the endeavor of abstention, but by reason of disdain, let him reform, or be excommunicated.” The Church, which esteems fasting so highly, does not approve of vegetarianism as a philosophy.
The difference between the willful meat-eating of primitive man and the God–permitted nourishment of man with meat after the Fall is striking if one delves into its essence. Previously there had existed an embittered struggle between man and beast: the terror of predators and the merciless unconditional extermination of the herbivores for food. Now there was perhaps a selfish, but still caring regard for the animal world. The domestication of animals and care for them became possible.
All the bright and kind relations between man and animals: friendship with a dog, the attachment of horses, the care of a shepherd for mules, sheep and goats, the protection of the animal world that is so highly developed nowadays, but which existed much earlier as well, – all this has its roots not so much in the commandment given by God to people in Eden, but in His new blessing to postdiluvian mankind.
“And God spake unto Noah, and to his sons with him, saying, And I, behold, I establish My covenant with you, and with your seed after you…neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood… This is the token of the covenant which I make between Me and you and every living creature that is with you… I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of an eternal covenant between Me and the earth.”
Is it possible that there had never before been a rainbow? – a skeptical critic would ask. Undoubtedly there was. The Lord does not create it anew. This would contradict the Biblical definition of the seventh day, existing then and lasting till now, as the day when the Lord rested from all His work. But until that time a rainbow was a simple physical phenomenon that had no special meaning, like the fata morgana, the northern lights, etc. From that moment, however, it acquired the meaning of a reminder about the covenant between God and people and the whole world. And blessed are the people who look upon this beautiful natural phenomenon with a feeling of awe and joy.
“And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard: And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent.”
TheEnglish theologian T.C. Chain, a professor at Oxford University, speaking about this extract from the Bible, seriously expresses the opinion that apparently there are two narratives in the Bible about two different Noahs, for the Biblical testimony that “Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God,” and the proof given here that Noah drank wine are incompatible. We can only smile at such a typically Anglo-Saxon naïve idea, to which indecency is a worse crime than sin. There was no sin here: Noah did not yet know the intoxicating properties of wine. And the fact which shocks the English theologian the most – that a righteous man could drink “an intoxicating beverage,” – seems droll to anyone even slightly acquainted with the nations of the Mediterranean culture, for whom wine, usually a weak one, is not a luxury, not an excess, but a daily necessity. Not for nothing does the Lord establish His holiest Sacrament under the guise of bread and wine as the most natural products for man.
“And Ham saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without. And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father's nakedness.”
The selection of mankind had just been performed, it had just been cleansed of corruption by the waters of the Flood, and only the best in it was preserved for further history. And now, in the very first generation of these best people saved by God, a new, disgusting type of sin is born – insolence: a son’s mockery of his father, an inferior’s of a superior, an impudent and shameless insolence.
Noah, upon awakening and learning of his offspring’s behavior, cursed Ham in his posterity and blessed Shem and Japheth. The first racial division of mankind is associated with this event.
(To be continued)
THE NATIVITY OF CHRIST
Those were indeed miraculous times,
The words of prophets came to pass,
Angels descended from above,
The star came rolling from the East,
The world awaited its redemption –
And in the humble Bethlehem manger,
With Eden’s laudatory singing,
The wondrous Infant did shine forth…
– L. Mey
– Translated by Natalia Sheniloff