Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A BROKEN BRANCH GRAFTED IN

We are blessed at Holy Cross parish. Two years ago we were part of a small English and Celtic (Anglican) branch torn from the Vine, struggling merely to hold onto the faith while our broken branch was tossed about by every wind of doctrine. Today, we are reunited with Orthodox Christians around the world. No longer a broken branch, we have been grafted back into the Vine and are now in full sacramental communion with first century Orthodox Christian communities in the Holy City of Jerusalem, the mother Church of Christendom; Antioch where the book of Acts says the disciples were first called Christians; and Egypt where the Evangelist St. Mark brought the Gospel. We are now fully united with hundreds of millions of Orthodox Christians on every Continent on earth! 

We have a family in the parish traveling to Italy this summer and they asked me to find a church for them to attend. I sent them contact information for 167 Orthodox parishes in Italy. I could have found more, but I thought that should give them enough choices! Here in the United States there around 2,000 congregations, with hundreds more in Canada, along with about eighty monastic communities. We have two colleges, many seminaries (plus distance education opportunities), and parochial schools.

By being grafted back into the Orthodox Church from which our English (Anglican) forbearers were torn away against their will by the Norman Conquest in AD 1066, we have not abandoned our English and Celtic heritage and patrimony, but preserved it. Reunited with the whole, the Holy Spirit has breathed new life into Western Orthodoxy and the Western Church is being rebuilt. This is an exciting time to be alive. Rather than circling our wagons and trying to merely hang on and preserve our Faith and patrimony as we had been forced to do for a generation, we are part of a new movement of the Holy Spirit and have a role in rebuilding the Western Church. There are already dozens of Western Rite Orthodox congregations and monastic communities in North America, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and on the Continent of Europe, and this is just the beginning. We are finally free to flourish in union with the whole. We no longer have to fight our own Church - our Church fights for us!

Our Lord founded His Church nearly 2,000 years ago, promised that the gates of hell would never prevail against it, commanded that we "hear [obey] the Church," and said that He would be with His Church until the end of the age when He returns to inaugurate His Kingdom in its fullness. For a thousand years there was essentially one Church. There were five regional Patriarchates or administrative centers in the Church: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria in Egypt, Antioch, and Jerusalem. In AD 1054, Rome unilaterally changed the Nicene Creed and fell away from unity, eventually becoming known as the Roman Catholic Church. The other four Patriarchates, 80% of the Church, maintained the Creed as written and is known as the Orthodox (Right Worship/Right Belief) Church or the Orthodox Catholic Church. In 1054, the English Church (ecclesia anglicana) did not accept the Roman innovations and remained loyal to the Orthodox Christian Faith. This led to the Norman Conquest in 1066. All but one of the native English bishops were replaced by Normans and the Church of England was forced into submission.

After Rome changed the Nicene Creed the Roman Church continued to make changes in the Faith leading to the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant Reformation shattered Western Christendom like a hammer blow against a glass window. Today, according to the journal First Things, there are 45,000 divided and competing Western Christian denominations, with an expected 70,000 by 2050. These 45,000 are denominations, and this number does not take into consideration the vast numbers of independent, interdenominational and nondenominational local congregations. In addition to all of this chaos, there remains the one Orthodox Catholic Church, still unchanged and unchanging, earnestly contending for the faith once delivered unto the saints (Jude 3) and committed to the Canon of St. Vincent of Lerins that the Catholic Faith is that which has been believed, "everywhere, always and by all."

It is no longer necessary to become Eastern in order to be an Orthodox Christian. The Western Church which fell away in 1054, is being rebuilt. St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco said, "Never, never, never let anyone tell you that in order to be Orthodox you must be Eastern. The West was Orthodox for a thousand years." 

A visit to Holy Cross parish on a Sunday morning will find us worshipping according to the English Use of the Western Rite. The Music we use for the Ordinary of the Mass is the familiar Merbecke, with Gregorian chant used for the Propers. There are no "cradle Orthodox" at Holy Cross parish. We are all converts. We come from backgrounds as different as Anglican is from Baptist, and the Assemblies of God from Roman Catholicism, yet we have all united together on the basis of the Faith and Order of the Undivided Church. 

John Paul II had said, "If at the beginning of the third millennium we are to overcome the divisions of the second millennium, we must return to the consensus of the first millennium." What he said was true. We have embraced the consensus of the first millennium — and we invite you to do the same. Whatever your Christian tradition may be today, your ancestors were Orthodox Christians until at least 1054.

The doors to Holy Cross parish and to the Western Rite of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) are wide open, the welcome mat is out, and the lights are on. Everyone is always welcome. Join with us and become a part of rebuilding the Western Church in America and throughout the Western world. This is a move of the Holy Spirit and you can have a part in it! 

Saturday, April 11, 2015

EASTER SUNDAY (April 12th) SERVICES

Sunday, April 12th, is Easter Sunday. We will celebrate a Solemn Liturgy of the Holy Eucharist at 10:00 AM, followed by fellowship and refreshments in our parish hall. Easter Sunday, known anciently as Holy Pascha, the Christian Passover, is the Feast of Feasts. It is the most important day in human history! You will not want to miss it!!!

There will be joyous Easter hymns, Gregorian chant, Paschal Scripture readings, an uplifting sermon, the blessing of Holy Communion, red Easter Eggs, and refreshments and warm fellowship in our parish hall. The church will be filled with beautiful flowers, the Paschal Candle will herald Christ's Resurrection from the dead, and the liturgical colour will be a festive white.

Holy Cross Orthodox Church is a faithful and friendly church, and everyone is always welcome! We are located at 7545 Main Street, in the Ralston Suburb of Omaha, Nebraska. For more information visit our parish website at: www.holycrossomaha.net or call (402) 573-6558. I am looking forward to seeing you on the Feast of Feasts. 

The ancient Christian Paschal greeting, still used among Orthodox Christians, is "Christ is Risen!," with the response, "He is Risen Indeed!" 

English:  Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! 

Hebrew: Ha Masheeha houh quam!  Be emet quam!

Gaelic:  Taw creest ereen! Taw shay ereen guhdyne!

Anglo-Saxon:  Crist aras! Crist sodhlice aras!

Welsh: Atgyfododd Crist! Atgyfododd yn wir! 

Greek:  Christos anesti! Alithos anesti!

Latin:  Christus resurrexit! Vere resurrexit!

Russian:  Khristos voskrese! Voistinu voskrese! 

Coptic:  Pchristos aftooun! Alethos aftooun!

Ethiopian:  Christos t'ensah em' muhtan! Exai' ab-her eokala!

"Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing Life!"

Christ is Risen - Our Joy!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

THE MIRACLE OF THE HOLY FIRE

Have you heard of the Miracle of the Holy Fire? It is an awesome, miraculous act of God that has taken place at the same time, in the same manner, in the same place, every single year since the first century. It takes place in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the holiest place on earth, where our Blessed Lord Jesus Christ was buried and rose from the dead. The miracle happens every year on Orthodox Easter, the day of Christ’s Resurrection that was anciently observed by all Christians, and remains the day observed by Orthodox Christians today.

Christianity is not a subjective religion. It is not about “sincerely held beliefs.” It is about facts.  We do not merely “believe,” we know! The Apostle Peter writes, “For we do not  follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty” (II Pet. 1:16).

Our Lord did not just leave a book for us to read and try to figure out, He established a Church and promised that the gates of hell would never prevail against it. In other words, He promised that the Church He built would exist until He returns, and that it would remain Orthodox (correct) in Faith throughout time. Jesus is the head of the Church, the Church is His Body, and the Holy Spirit dwells in it, leading it into all truth. The Church is a miracle of God. It is a Divine Institution and a living organism. It has no earthly head, but no one has ever been able to destroy it from without: not the pagan Romans, not the God-hating communists, and not militant Islam; and no heresy has ever been able to destroy it from within or splinter it. Sure, Christians and clergy can fall away into heresy and schism like Arius did, but the Orthodox Catholic Church always remains visibly one and united in Faith and Order under its only head: Jesus Christ. It is “the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (I Tim. 3:15). The Orthodox Christian Faith, by its very nature, cannot change (Jude 3) and has not changed over the centuries. It is forever the same. The Orthodox Church is not a denomination, it is the One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church established by Christ, and we have Christ’s own promise that the gates of hell will never prevail against it.

At the time of the Great Schism in AD 1054, the English Church, ecclesia anglicana, remained a faithful local Orthodox Church. This led to the Norman Invasion and conquest in 1066. Orthodox England was conquered, all but one of the native British bishops were uncanonically replaced by Normans, and the Church was forced to submit to Rome by force of arms. In 1534, the English Reformation began with the goal of restoring the Faith and Order of the “Undivided” Church. That mission was advanced by the Caroline Divines of the 17th century and the Oxford Movement of the 19th and 20th centuries. Anglicanism could take us to the door of the Church, but we had to walk through that door. After almost a thousand years of separation, traditional Anglicans are being restored to visible unity with the Orthodox Catholic Church from which our fathers were torn away against their will by the Norman Conquest. In recent years Anglicans made up the second largest group of converts to the Orthodox Church. Today they may well be the largest group. The Western Church is being rebuilt before our eyes, and we have a part in it. There are now Western Rite Orthodox congregations and monastic communities in North America, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, and on the continent of Europe, and our numbers are growing. This is a miracle of God for those who have eyes to see it. 

God is not distant from us. He is with us, and in us, and is at work all around us. He loves us. Life is filled with the miraculous, if only we have the eyes to see it. Sadly, no one is as blind as he who will not see. The Miracle of the Holy Fire is an objective miracle that, as I have said, has taken place at the same time every year since the first century, in the holiest place on earth, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. The Miracle of the Holy Fire is an objective sign of Christ’s loving presence with His Church in this world.

Bishop George of Mayfield who visited our parish last May has sent me a wonderful article about this ancient and on-going miracle. The article includes amazing video. I am forwarding it on to you. Please read the article and view the video. I promise you that It will bless and encourage you. Feel free to share it with others. Here is the Link:

http://stpeterorthodoxchurch.com/the-miracle-of-the-holy-fire-2/

We were created to know, love and serve God in this life and to be happy with Him forever in heaven. God calls us into union with Himself. Union with God is the goal of the Christian life. We are not called merely to be servants of God, as wonderful as that would be, but to be His sons and daughters — to become by grace what our Lord Jesus Christ is by nature. This is what theologians call theosis. Union with God is a very personal relationship. Building and maintaining any relationship takes time, effort and sacrifice. Each of us needs to ask ourselves how much time, effort and personal sacrifice am I putting into building and maintaining my relationship with God through Christ? Building a close personal relationship with someone means saying things like, I love you, I want to spend time with you, I want to talk with you and walk with you, I am sorry that I hurt or offended you, and I want to be with you forever. But we must do more than say these things in words, we must say them with our very lives. 

We are now in Holy Week. Have you made a spiritually profitable use of Lent? The Prophet Isaiah writes, “Seek the Lord while He may be found. Call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, And the unrighteous man his thoughts; Let him return to the Lord, And he will have mercy on him; And to our God, For he will abundantly pardon” (Is. 55:6-7).

Tomorrow, Wednesday, April 8th, is Spy Wednesday on the Western Orthodox Kalendar. Judas professed to be a disciple of Christ and was even in fellowship with the disciples, but he was not among the faithful. While professing to be a follower of Christ, he betrayed Him by his actions. Later, the Apostle Peter would deny even knowing Jesus out of fear. The difference is that Judas despaired in the end and was lost, while St. Peter repented and was restored, never to doubt or deny Christ again. The way of repentance is the way of restoration, healing, union with God, and life. Lent is a season of repentance and a time for growing in union with God. 

If you have made a spiritually profitable use of Lent, don’t stop now — press on. If you have not made a very profitable use of Lent, there is still time. Holy Week is the holiest week of the year. You can still heed the call to repentance and to serious discipleship. Let us all  accompany Christ in His passion during Holy Week that we might rejoice in His Victory over death and hell on Holy Pascha.

Confessions will be heard on Spy Wednesday, April 8th, from 11:15 to 11:45 AM, and by appointment; and the Liturgy of the Holy Eucharist will be celebrated at 12:10 PM.

Maundy Thursday, April 9th, is a very, very important day for us. It is on this day that we celebrate the institution of the Holy Eucharist by our Blessed Lord on the night in which He was betrayed. Services are at 6:30 PM. Come, and mystically gather together with the apostles in the Upper Room in Jerusalem, and take part in the institution of the Holy Eucharist and receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion as if from our Lord’s own hands. Then, leave the Upper Room and cross over into the Garden of Gethsemane with our Lord and the apostles and obey His call to watch and pray by praying Vespers. Finally, be there when Judas and the soldiers appear and take Him away as represented in the Stripping of the Altar and the removal of the Blessed Sacrament from the tabernacle. 

On Good Friday, April 10th, Matins and the Liturgy of the Word (Ante-Communion) will be prayed at 10:00 AM at a bare altar with an empty tabernacle, without the sanctuary light, candles or burning lampadas. Come and accompany Jesus during His mockery of a trial before Pilate. Hear the same crowd who cried out “Hosanna to the Son of David” on Palm Sunday now cry out “Crucify Him,” and remember just how easy it is to worship God with our lips while our hearts can be far from Him. Accompany our Lord along the way of sorrows and up Mount Calvary. As Christ was determined to lay down His life for us, let us be determined to live for Him.

Good Friday evening we will gather back in the church at 6:30 PM for Vespers as our Lord is buried in a borrowed tomb. Christ died for us while we were, and are, yet sinners. It is a sad day, but we know that the story does not end there. It is Good Friday, but we know that Easter Sunday is coming! More about Easter Even and Holy Pascha (Easter) later...

Please follow the link and read the article about the Miracle of the Holy Fire, watch the Video, and do all you can to arrange your schedule to attend as many Holy Week Services as possible. They are all different. Holy Week is the week that changed the world forever, and this week can be a week that changes your life. Be sure to invite family and friends to join you in accompanying our Lord Jesus Christ through this holiest of weeks, culminating in His glorious Resurrection on Holy Pascha. On Easter Sunday, April 12th, we will celebrate a Solemn Liturgy of the Holy Eucharist at 10:00 AM. I’ll be looking forward to seeing you there. Jesus Christ is the Truth Revealed. Orthodox Christianity is the Truth Lived. Let’s live it!

Friday, March 6, 2015

RECOMMENDED LENTEN READING

It has long been the practice of serious Christians to include reading with the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Rather than recommending a single book to be read, I am recommending five books. I hope that you will choose at least one of these books to read during Lent. Here are my recommendations for your Lenten reading: 

God and You: Person to Person, by Fr. Anthony M. Coniaris, published by Light and Life Publishing. This important book by the popular Orthodox writer Fr. Anthony Coniaris is a guide to “Developing a Daily Personal relationship with Jesus.” The goal of this book is to bring readers into a deeper personal relationship with Jesus Christ on a “person to person” basis. Fr. Stanley S. Harakas of Holy Cross Seminary says, “My advice — put it at the top of your reading list.” I agree!

The Christian Old Testament - Looking at the Hebrew Scriptures through Christian Eyes, by Fr. Lawrence R. Farley, published by Ancient Faith Publishing (Conciliar Press).  “Many Christians see the Old Testament as ‘the other Testament’: a source of exciting stories to tell the kids, but not very relevant to the Christian life. The Christian Old Testament reveals the Hebrew Scriptures as the essential context of Christianity, as well as a many-layered revelation of Christ Himself. Follow along as Fr. Lawrence Farley explores the Christian significance of every book of the Old Testament” (From the back cover).

Popular Orthodox Christian writer and speaker Presbytera Frederica Mathewes-Green writes regarding The Christian Old Testament, by Fr. Lawrence Farley: “Does the story of Christ begin in the manager? Or when Gabriel announced to the Theotokos that she would bear a son? No, God began telling the story of Christ to the Jewish people thousands of years earlier, in the beauty and mystery of the book we call the Old Testament. Christians will find their faith enriched in unexpected ways by this insightful book.” This book will forever change the way you look at the Old Testament Scriptures, and will enrich your Bible reading, study and Lectio Divina (a Latin term, meaning "divine reading.” Lectio Divina describes a way of reading the Holy Scriptures whereby we gradually let go of our own agenda and open ourselves to what God wants to say to us). 


The Way of a Pilgrim and the Pilgrim Continues His Way, various publishers. This book is a spiritual classic. Follow this anonymous nineteenth century Russian pilgrim as he takes you across the vast land of Holy Russia in search of an answer to one compelling question: How does one pray without ceasing? Finally, share in his deep joy when his search turns up an ancient treasure: the Jesus Prayer, handed down by untold generations of Orthodox Christians. The ancient words from the Christian past become alive in his joyful heart. As they came alive for him, they can come alive for us also. This is a book that changes lives, and it can change yours!

The Orthodox Way, Revised Edition, by Bishop Kallistos Ware, published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. This book is an introduction to the doctrine, worship and life of Orthodox Christianity. It covers many of the fundamental issues of theology: God as hidden yet revealed; the problem of evil; the nature of salvation; the meaning of faith; prayer; and death and what lies beyond. Doctrinal issues are not presented as dry, abstract propositions for theological debate, but as affecting the whole of the Christian  life. A powerful, enlightening and uplifting book.

Unseen Warfare, as edited by Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain and revised by Theophan the Recluse, published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. “This spiritual classic was written by Lorenzo Scupoli, a sixteenth century Venetian priest. Immensely popular in its own day, it was ranked by Francis de Sales with the Imitation of Christ. In the general rapport between Western and Eastern Christendom, it reached [St.] Nicodemus of Mount Athos and later, in the nineteenth century, [St.] Theophan the recluse, both of whom edited and translated the work. Rich in its references to the teachings of the Saints and Fathers, Unseen Warfare combines the insights of West and East... “ (From the back cover).  This book is a must read! 

Contact Information:

Light and Life Publishing: 1-952-925-3888; www.light-n-life.com

Ancient Faith Publishing (Conciliar Press): 1-800-967-7377; www.store.ancientfaith.com

St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 1-800-204-BOOK (2665); www.svspress.com

Jesus Christ is the Truth Revealed.
Orthodox Christianity is the Truth Lived.
Let's Live It!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

SHROVETIDE

This year Ash Wednesday falls on February 25th, and with it Lent begins. The three days before Ash Wednesday are known in the English tradition as Shrovetide.  Sunday, February 22nd, is Quinquagesima Sunday, also known as Shrove Sunday, the next day is Shrove Monday, also known as Collop Monday, and Tuesday, February 24th, is Shrove Tuesday.

Shrovetide is the English equivalent for “Carnival” used in much of Southwestern Europe. However, the word Carnival did not anciently mean what the word suggests to modern ears. The word Carnival comes from the Latin carne levare, meaning the  “taking away of flesh” which marked the beginning of Lent. The English name of Shrovetide is much clearer in meaning than Carnival.

The word “shrove” is the past tense of the English verb “shrive,” which means to confess one’s sins and to receive absolution from a priest. Shrovetide gets its name from the shriving or making use of the sacrament of Confession that English Christians were expected to do before Lent begins. In the ancient Anglo-Saxon Ecclesiastical Institutes translated by Abbot Aelfric about AD 1000, it says, “In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him as he then may hear by his deeds what he is to do.”

To encourage people to make their confessions before the beginning of Lent, special plays or masques were performed throughout England which portrayed the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ or the Last judgement. These masques were especially common on the night of Shrove Tuesday. Shrovetide prepared English Christians for a serious and spiritually profitable Lent. Lent would then become an opportunity for repentance and  a greater commitment to discipleship, bearing fruit in spiritual renewal and revival.

Shrove Monday is also known as Collop Monday. Collops refer to the remnants of meat. The collops referred to here are the remnants of cured meats such as bacon that were not expected to remain edible once Lent was over and the eating of meat allowed again. A traditional Collop Monday supper in ancient England would include thick slices of bacon along with eggs, and the fat from the bacon would be saved for Shrove Tuesday to be use in the frying of pancakes.

Shrove Tuesday is also commonly known as Pancake Day. The English custom of eating pancakes was undoubtedly suggested by the need to use up the eggs and fats that would be given up during Lent. It is from Shrove Tuesday that Pancake races and the practice of flipping pancakes derives. It is a quaint custom to flip each pancake three times on Shrove Tuesday in honour of the Blessed Trinity. 

Lenten fasting practices differed somewhat is various parts of the Church. The ancient practice in Canterbury is found in a letter of St. Gregory the Great (d. 604) to St. Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury: “We abstain from flesh, meat and from all things that come from flesh, as milk, cheese, and eggs.” These were the ancient fasting rules governing the Church in Canterbury: hence Collop Monday and pancakes on Shrove Tuesday. For the same reason, Easter is celebrated with decorated eggs, fresh breads and delicious meats. The elderly, children and the infirm should not attempt such strict fasting.

This coming Sunday, February 22nd, is Quinquagesima, the beginning of Shrovetide. Christian Education is at 9:00 AM, followed by Matins (Morning Prayer) at 9:30 AM, with the Liturgy of the Holy Eucharist at 10:00 AM. Our monthly potluck luncheon will follow the Liturgy. During the luncheon we will be showing a thirty minute, up-to-date and inspiring documentary on the Holy Mountain of Mount Athos.  You will not want to miss this film!

Confessions will be heard on Shrove Tuesday from 11:45 AM to 12:45 PM, on Ash Wednesday from 11:45 AM to 12:45 PM, and by appointment. There is no better way to begin Lent than by being shriven (confessed and absolved). Confession is good for the soul.

Our parish Sisterhood is hosting a Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper on Tuesday evening, February 24th, at 6:30 PM. This is not a parish fundraiser. There is no charge for the supper, but a free-will offering will be taken to cover expenses. Please be sure to invite family and friends to this traditional and fun event.

Ash Wednesday Services are Wednesday evening, February 25th, at 6:30 PM, and include the sung Litany followed by the celebration of the Liturgy of the Holy Eucharist with the Imposition of Ashes. Please plan to attend this important Service as Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the holy season of Lent.

Lenten fasting teaches detachment, and self-denial teaches self control. The food money saved during Lent should be used to benefit the poor, not ourselves. Everyone is encouraged to use the savings to buy more food for our parish food bins so we can provide even more help for those most in need.

Lent is not just about fasting and self-denial. Far from it. It is also a good time to reflect on our spiritual life and to make changes. Am I praying every day? Am I reading the Holy Scriptures and spiritually profitable books? Lent is a wonderful time to begin spending more time in prayer and reading more. Am I faithful in my Sunday church attendance? This is fundamental. If I am not faithful in my Sunday church attendance there is no better time to make a commitment to become faithful than Lent. With a little extra effort could I make it to the Eucharistic Liturgy on a Wednesday or Thursday in addition to Sunday? Receiving Holy Communion in the midst of the week will change your week. Making it a habit will change your life. Am I partaking in entertainment or engaging in behavior that is sinful or near occasions of sin? Am I resisting sin and genuinely striving to live a holy life, or am I explaining away and excusing my sins rather than repenting of them? Am I a serious and practicing Christian or is my spiritual life more talk than walk? Am I double minded? Am I living a double life? Have I stopped or nearly stopped attending church and receiving the sacraments? Do I worship God with my lips while my heart is far from Him?  Lent is a time for deeper commitment, and for new beginnings. You can begin again. You can come home again...

The spiritual life is like anything else, you will get out of it what you put into it. No pain, no gain. No cross, no crown. Lent is a wonderful time to invest in your spiritual life. May Almighty God bless you with a holy and spiritually profitable Lent, and with a blessed and joyous Easter!  

Friday, January 23, 2015

EVANGELISM EXPLOSION - Orthodox Christianity: Winning the World for Christ!

Before His Ascension our Lord Jesus Christ gave a Great Commission to His Church. He said to the apostles, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:18-20).

Our Lord knew that this mission could not be fulfilled by merely human means. He promised His Church power from on high: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

From the very beginning all of the powers of hell have tried to stop the Great Commission from being fulfilled. This dark opposition has included outward persecution and inward corruption. From the birth of Christianity until St. Constantine’s edict of toleration in AD 313, Christians were persecuted with some 3,000,000 martyrs shedding their blood as witnesses for Christ. Millions more lost property, children, status, and had to live lives in the shadows, but the Church could not be stopped from fulfilling its mission. Tertullian (AD 160-225) had written that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church; and that seed grew into a great harvest as the Church overcame its persecutors through the Gospel and transformed the pagan Roman Empire into what has become known as Christendom.

After failing to crush the Church through persecution, the strategy then turned to corrupting it from within. Soon the Arian heresy arose, which denied the divinity of Christ; but the Church answered by holding an Oecumenical Council in Nicea in AD 325, and adopting what has become known as the Nicene Creed which is recited at the Liturgy of the Holy Eucharist every Sunday and Holy Day. 

Although persecutions and heresies continued to arise and threaten the Church, nothing has been able to stop it from advancing its mission. The Church was established by Jesus Christ Himself (Matt. 16:18), it is His body (Eph. 5:30-32), of which He is the head (Col. 1:18). The Church is not just a fellowship of believers or a human organization, but a Divine institution and a living organism. Jesus commanded his disciples to “Hear the Church” (Matt. 18:17), assuring them that they could trust the Church because the “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:16), for it is led by the Holy Spirit (John 15:26-27; 16:12-15), and is “the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (I Tim. 3:15).

Over the centuries heretic after heretic has arisen and spread his errors, but the Church could not be  overcome by them. There have always been churchmen who would embrace novel teachings and, out of pride and self-will (“I know more than the Church does”), fall away from the Church to follow various teachers or even their own ideas, but the Church has always continued on in the Orthodox Christian Faith as promised by our Lord.  

The Church was originally established in Jerusalem and the indigenous Christians of Jerusalem and the Holy Land remain Orthodox to this day. The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch and the Christians of Antioch have always remained Orthodox. In fact, there are some 500,000 Antiochian Orthodox Christians in Syria and 300,000 more in Lebanon today. The seven churches of the Book of Revelation are in Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey, and that area remains to this day under the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey). The churches in Greece to whom the Apostle Paul wrote his many epistles have always remained Orthodox and are part of the Greek Orthodox Church. Only the Church of Rome is no longer Orthodox, having unilaterally changed the Nicene Creed and fallen away in AD 1054.

Since changing the Nicene Creed the Roman Church has continued to makes changes in its doctrine, adding such novelties as indulgences and purgatory, leading to an explosion called the Protestant Reformation. Unfortunately, the “Reformers” did not seek to restore the Faith and Order of the Undivided Church (to use a common Western term) and to return to unity with the Orthodox Church, but instead invented the novel notion of sola scriptura and the private interpretation of the Scriptures, with every man doing what was right in his own eyes, leading to split after split after split, until today there are more than 30,000 divided, disagreeing and competing Protestant denominations with five more being started every week, plus uncountable numbers of independent, interdenominational and nondenominational churches. 

The Protestant Reformation shattered Western Christendom like a hammer blow against a glass window. Yet, despite the chaos caused by changing the Faith and falling away from the Orthodox Church, the Church of Rome continued to evolve and change the Faith, adding such novelties as the Immaculate Conception in 1854 and Papal Infallibility in 1870, thus carrying it farther and farther from “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).

Through all of this controversy and division in the West, the Orthodox Church - sometimes called the Eastern Orthodox Church - remained unchanged and unchanging.  St. Mark of Ephesus said, “There can be no compromise in matters of the Orthodox Faith.”

Unable to destroy the Church from within, the powers of darkness returned to trying to crush the Church through persecution. Middle Eastern and North African Christians have suffered under Islamic domination and persecution since the seventh century, all of Asia Minor since the 15th century, and then Greece and the Balkan nations in Europe until the 19th century. Spain too suffered from Moslem occupation; and Jihadist armies eventually reached the gates of Vienna before being pushed back. In Russia and Eastern Europe the Church suffered from Mongol and Tatar invasions and occupations. 

In the 20th century came the worst persecution up to that time — persecution by atheistic communism in Russia and later throughout Eastern and Central Europe, and elsewhere. While an estimated 3,000,000 Christians died as martyrs over three centuries in the pagan Roman Empire, an estimated 20,000,000 Christians died as martyrs in just over 70 years in the Soviet Union. 

Yet, despite the rise and fall of various heresies, and centuries of brutal persecution, the gates of hell could not prevail against the Church and the Work of the Church continues to advance. The Orthodox Church cannot be destroyed or prevented from fulfilling the Great Commission because it is a Divine institution, a living organism, the body of which Christ is the Head, and it is led and empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Under Lenin and Stalin millions died for their faith and there was a wholesale closing of churches. In 1937, after twenty years of brutal communist dictatorship, Stalinist Russia conducted a census. Everyone over the age of 16 had to answer on the census form whether they were a believer or an unbeliever. In the census, 55.3 million people, 56.7% openly declared themselves believers! Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) wrote, “Thus, despite the mass persecution of the clergy and faithful, the closure and destruction of churches and monasteries, and despite the danger of being shot or repressed that threatened everyone — including their families — who openly confessed their faith in God, more than one half of the adult population proclaimed their religiosity in 1937” (Orthodox Christianity, The History and Canonical Structure of the Orthodox Church, by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, c. 2011, pp. 272-273). 

Why did God allow the Bolshevik Revolution to take place in Russia and for the communists to persecute Christians? After the stoning of St. Stephen the Protomartyr the Book of Acts records, “At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles” (Acts 8:1). This scattering of Christians actually spread the Church and advanced the work of the Great Commission. The rest of Acts chapter 8 records how Philip, one of the deacons ordained in Acts chapter 6, took the Gospel to Samaria, “And the multitudes with one accord heeded the things spoken by Philip” (Acts 8:6), and “both men and women were baptized” (Acts 8:12). We also know from history that it was during this persecution that St. Joseph of Arimathea left Jerusalem and carried the Gospel to Britain.

God has used the communist persecution, much as he used the persecution recorded in the eighth chapter of the Book of Acts, to spread the Faith throughout the world. St. John of San Francisco, himself a Russian émigré, said in 1938:

“In chastising, the Lord at the same time also shows the Russian people the way to salvation by making it a preacher of Orthodoxy in the whole world.  The Russian Diaspora has made all the ends of the world familiar with Orthodoxy; the mass of Russian exiles, for the most part, is unconsciously a preacher of Orthodoxy....  To the Russians abroad it has been granted to shine in the whole world with the light of Orthodoxy, so that other peoples, seeing their good deeds, might glorify our Father Who is in heaven, and thus obtain salvation for themselves....  The Diaspora will have to be converted to the path of repentance and, having acquired forgiveness for itself through prayer to God and through being reborn spiritually (will) become capable also of giving rebirth to our suffering homeland” [The Orthodox Word, 1973, no. 50, pp. 92, 94].

The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia occurred in October 1917. At the time of the Revolution there were around 60,000 Orthodox churches in Russia, plus large numbers of chapels, monastic communities, and shrines. However, by the time that Russian Christians celebrated the millennium of the Baptism of Russia in 1988, after seventy years under the communist yoke, there were only 7,000 churches still open. But God was about to work a miracle. God sent a spiritual revival that has led to a new Springtime for the Orthodox Church and has advanced the Work of the Great Commission all around the world.

Although there were only 7,000 Russian Orthodox churches open in the Soviet Union in 1988 when the millennium of the Baptism of Russia was celebrated, by the end of 1989 there were around 11,000! By 1994, there were around 16,000; and by the year 2000 there were some 19,500. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Orthodox Church has opened more than 26,000 churches; that is more than three churches a day each and every day for almost a quarter of a century, and this resurgence just continues to gather steam.

Monasticism has always been considered the best gauge of the spiritual health of a Church. A spiritual healthy Church will have an abundance of men and women entering the monastic life, an unhealthy Church will have few; a dead Church will have none. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Orthodox Church has established more than 800 new monastic communities. 

As of 2006, the Russian Orthodox Church had five theological academies, two Orthodox Universities, two theological institutes, thirty-seven seminaries, thirty-eight lower level theological schools, in one diocese a pastoral school, and departments of theology in twenty-one universities. 

After seven decades of persecution, atheistic propaganda in the media and atheistic teaching in the schools, the Russian people are being overwhelmingly won back to Christ. “According to statistics, approximately 70% of Russia’s population considered themselves members of the Russian Orthodox Church. The majority of believers in the Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldavia belong to the Moscow Patriarchate, and in the Baltic States (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) and Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan) the majority of Orthodox believers belong to the Russian Orthodox Church... the total number of members of the Russian Church in Russia, in the aforementioned countries, as well as outside them, is approximately 160 million — more than those of all other local Orthodox Churches combined"(ibid, Alfeyev, p. 290). That is more than twice the membership of the Anglican Communion, and the Russian Church is just one of the autocephalous local Orthodox Churches.

The Russian Orthodox Church has gone from a marginalized and persecuted body of believers with only around 7,000 open churches to a resurgent Church with more than 160,000,000 members world-wide in less than a quarter of a century. This is a miracle and can only be the work of God!

This spiritual revival and resurgence of the Church is not limited to the Church of Russia either. It is a world-wide movement of the Holy Spirit. There is good news to report from every continent on earth, including the frozen Antarctic where the first Orthodox church was opened in 2004.

To report to you what is happening everywhere would take a book, not a Blog post. But I would like to highlight just a few countries. Like Russia, Romania suffered for decades under communism. After the fall of the brutal Ceausescu regime in 1989, the Romanian Orthodox Church regained its freedom. Romania is not a large country by any means, but as of 2006, there were 20,000,000 faithful, 13,000 parishes, more than 500 monastic communities with more than 7,000 monastics, two theological faculties and seven seminaries.

Serbia suffered under communism and then in war as Yugoslavia broke up into separate states.  Yet the 1990s witnessed a revival and a renewal of church life in Serbia. In 2006, little Serbia had 8,000,000 faithful, more than 3,500 parishes, more than 200 monastic communities, two theological faculties and six seminaries.

The tiny Balkan nation of Albania is a real miracle story. Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) writes, “In January 1946 the communist party headed by E. Hoxa (1908-1985) came to power in Albania. Thereafter began the systematic persecution of the faithful, which took on mass proportions. In 1967 Albania became the first nation in the world to officially ban all religious services. After this all clergy were executed, imprisoned or exiled, and hundreds of churches and most monasteries were destroyed. The Orthodox Church in Albania ceased to legally exist and its governing structure was annihilated. In 1973 Archbishop Damian of Tirana and All Albania died in prison. The revival of the Albanian Church began in 1991, after the fall of the communist regime. Since no single Albanian bishop remained alive at this time, a bishop from the Church of Greece, Archbishop Anastasios (Yannoulatos) was elected first hierarch of the Church. From 1992 to 2002 several bishops were consecrated, including ethnic Albanians, as well as 114 priests. Moreover 74 new churches were built, 65 churches and 5 monasteries were rebuilt from ruins, and 130 churches were restored” (ibid, Alfeyev, p. 309). From having to start over with no churches or clergy after decades of brutal persecution to 269 churches and 5 monasteries in ten years — that is a work of God! 

There is a new and exciting move of the Holy Spirit going on in the Philippines. Thousands of people who share much the same background as traditional Anglicans are pouring into the Orthodox Church. In early 2014, a whole diocese of the Philippine Independent Church converted to Orthodoxy together with its two bishops, all of its priests, and 28 parishes. Later in the year their example was imitated by 8 more PIC bishops and 25 more parishes. In total, 53 PIC parishes in the Philippines have come into Orthodoxy so far, with the largest having 1,500 members! The Philippine Independent Church was established by clergy and laity who left Roman Catholicism early in the 20th century and formed a national Catholic Church in communion with the Utrecht Union of Old Catholic Churches and the Anglican Communion. They are now converting to Orthodoxy en masse and the Moscow Patriarchate has organized them as the Philippine Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate).

Large numbers of Africans are being won to Christ and are being baptized and added to the Church (Acts 2:47). The Patriarchate of Alexandria in Egypt has jurisdiction over the continent of Africa, and marvelous things are happening there. The Patriarchate of Alexandria fell under Islamic domination when Egypt was conquered in AD 640. For nine centuries, from 640 to 1517, the Christians in Egypt suffered under non-Christian Arab domination, only to be replaced in 1517 by the Ottoman Turks, and then by Egyptian Moslem overlords. For nearly a millennium and a half the Christians in Egypt have been repressed for their faith in Christ. Unexpectedly (moves of God usually take us by surprise!), a revival began in 1926 after Meletios (Metaxakis), the former Patriarch of Constantinople became Patriarch of Alexandria. Since that time the Patriarchate of Alexandria has carried on aggressive and wide ranging missionary work throughout the African continent and the membership of the Alexandrian Orthodox Patriarchate has grown ten-fold.

The work of the Church in Israel very interesting. The Church of Jerusalem is the mother Church of Christendom and is one of the five ancient Orthodox Patriarchates. The Church there was predominantly a Jewish Christian Church until the Second Jewish War against Rome (AD 132-135), after which the Jews were expelled from the city and the Church became wholly non-Jewish with a Greek bishop. Today the Patriarch is still a Greek, and the Church is made up primarily of Palestinian Christians. So how is the Church to reach the Jewish population of the new State of Israel? No need to wonder, God already had a plan. Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) explains: “The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union and post-Soviet states from the 1970s to 1990s led to a significant growth of the Moscow Patriarchate’s flock in Israel, since many of the ethnic Jews who emigrated were Orthodox Christians. Pastoral care for them is conducted by the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission and the church institutions under its jurisdiction, with the permission of the patriarchate of Jerusalem” (ibid, Alfeyev, p. 302). I have experienced the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom in Hebrew over the Internet from Israel. It is an heavenly experience!

One day Eugene Rose, the future Fr. Seraphim Rose, asked St. John of San Francisco a question that he had been pondering: “Nearly all the peoples of the earth have had the Gospel preached to them. Does this mean that it’s the end of the world, as the Scriptures say?” “No,” St. John replied, “the Gospel of Christ must be preached in all tongues throughout the world in an Orthodox context. Only then will the end come.” 

The Great Commission charges the Church with a two-fold mission: First, to make disciples of all nations; and Second, to teach them to observe all things that Christ has commanded. That means that the Church is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to those who do not know Him, and the fullness of the Orthodox Christian Faith to those who do. That is why, to quote St. John of San Francisco, “The Gospel of Christ must be preached in all tongues throughout the world in an Orthodox context.”

Tremendous missionary work is being done all around the world and a harvest is being reaped in Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, Oceania and South America. The unevangelized are hearing the Gospel, and Christians of every tradition are finding their way home to the Orthodox Church. In 2007, Patriarch Alexei of Moscow wrote, “Orthodoxy is one of the few religious confessions whose membership is growing rather than declining.” 

What about in the United States? Is the Orthodox Church growing here at home? Yes, it is! “The percentage of growth of Orthodox Christianity in America was higher than any other major classification of Christianity mentioned in the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1995” (Turning to Tradition, Converts and the making of the American Orthodox Church, by D. Oliver Herbel, Oxford University Press, c. 2014, p. 8).  

It is often difficult to gather membership facts about Orthodoxy in America because religious studies often group Orthodox Christians with mainline Protestants as neither Roman Catholics or Evangelicals. However the 2008 US Landscape Survey reported that 23%, virtually one in four, of  Orthodox Christians in the United States, are converts.  That is an amazing statistic!

Orthodoxy in North America is no longer an immigrant Church. The vast majority of Orthodox Christians here are native born. One-third of the Orthodox clergy in America are converts. About a third of the membership of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, America’s largest Orthodox jurisdiction with 525 parishes, 20 monastic communities and about a half a million faithful are converts; and 51% the laity and 59% of the clergy of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) are converts. Many of the clergy and laity of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) are converts, including dozens of Western Rite clergymen and their congregations.  Three ROCOR bishops in America are converts as well: two from Anglicanism and one from Roman Catholicism. The same can be said of other jurisdictions in North America. Three out of four Orthodox parishes in the United States use English as the language of the Liturgy, and 81% use English as the language for sermons.

There are now around 2,000 Orthodox parishes in the United States, plus hundreds more in Canada. As I have already said, monasticism has always been considered a good way to gauge the health of the Church, and monasticism is thriving and growing in North America. There are around eighty monastic communities in the United States with others in Canada. 

God has been doing an amazing work in North America. St. Alexis Toth (1853-1909) was a Uniate (Roman) Catholic priest who arrived in America from the Subcarpathian region of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1889. Uniate Catholics are the descendants of Orthodox Christians who converted to Roman Catholicism under pressure from Roman Catholic dominated governments in their homelands, while maintaining their Eastern Rite and culture. After arriving in Minneapolis, Minnesota Fr. Alexis was subjected to the same second class status at the hands of the Roman authorities that he had experienced in his homeland. With religious freedom in America, Fr. Alexis was able to return to the Church of his Fathers, the Orthodox Church, where he served as a priest for the rest of his life.  He dedicated himself to reaching out to other Uniates and helping them return to the Orthodox Church. Due to his missionary work or the influence of his legacy and prayers after his death, an estimated 200,000 Uniate Catholics returned to the Orthodox Church in the United States in the 20th century. Our Lord promised, “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you (Acts 1:8), and St. Alexis Toth was used powerfully by God.

Fr. Raphael Morgan (c. 1869-1916) was a black man from Jamaica who was an Anglican deacon and a missionary to Africa. In 1904 Deacon Morgan travelled to Russia. Upon returning home he wrote of his visit: “I shall speak boldly and loudly about the brotherly feelings entertained here [in Russia] in the bosom of the holy Orthodox Church towards its Anglican sister of North America, and about the prayers which are offered here daily for the union of all Catholic Christendom” (ibid, Herbel, p. 69). 

Upon his return to America Deacon Morgan began developing a personal relationship with the Greek Orthodox clergy in Philadelphia. Eventually Morgan’s approach changed. He could no longer see any reason for Anglicans maintaining a separate Church, and he and his family entered the Orthodox Church. On August 15/28, 1907, the Feast of the Dormition, Raphael Morgan, an immigrant to the United States from Jamaica, was ordained to the Orthodox priesthood in Constantinople. He was the first man of African American descent born in the New World to be ordained a priest in the Orthodox Church. 

While his outreach to black Americans won only a small number of souls during his lifetime, through others influenced by Fr. Raphael’s ministry thousands of former Anglicans in Africa entered the Orthodox Church through the Patriarchate of Alexandria. Today there are growing numbers of African Americans who are finding there way home to the Orthodox Church, and the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black is a pan-Orthodox community dedicated to reaching out to African Americans in North America.

Traditional Anglicans in America and throughout the world are entering the Orthodox Church in large numbers. Twenty years ago Anglicans made up the second largest group of converts to the Orthodox Church. Today they may well be the largest group. In the past, the Eastern Rite was the only option, but today Anglicans can return to the Church of their Fathers and retain their Western spiritual, cultural, liturgical patrimony.

The restoration of Western Orthodoxy is another sign of the world-wide Orthodox resurgence. With the Great Schism of 1054, and the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, Western Christendom and the Western rites became essentially lost to the Orthodox Church, and the Church became culturally and liturgically an Eastern Orthodox Church. But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries the concept of Western Orthodoxy was restored by the Russian Orthodox Church. With the coming of the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and then World War II and the Iron Curtain, this restoration was slow, difficult and experienced setbacks. Writing to Western Rite Orthodox Christians in France in the 1960s, St. John of San Francisco said, “I have foreseen these difficulties and still others to come. The greater the difficulties, the greater the success of an enterprise. An enterprise without difficulties is an enterprise without a future.” By the grace of God, various difficulties have been overcome and the Western Rite is now thriving in the Russian  Orthodox Church.

Two great 20th century Russian Orthodox Saints were champions of the restoration of Western Orthodoxy. The first was St. Tikhon (Belavin), and the other was St. John of San Francisco. 

St. Tikhon was the Orthodox bishop of America where he became close friends with the saintly Anglican bishop Charles Grafton of Fon du Lac, Wisconsin. Through his efforts the English Use of the Western Rite received approval in principle from the Holy Synod in Russia for use by Anglican converts to Orthodoxy, provided some necessary enrichments were made. The English Use of the Western Rite which came into Orthodox use decades later has been called the Liturgy of St. Tikhon in his honor. St. Tikhon was elected Patriarch of Moscow as the Bolsheviks were  seizing control of the government of Russia. He suffered greatly as leader of the Church, was a Confessor of the Faith, and is one of the New Martyrs of Russia.

St. John of San Francisco was a strong supporter of Western Orthodoxy, and was involved in the restoration of the ancient Gallican (French) Rite, the Liturgy of St. Germanus of Paris. St. John said, “Never, never, never let anyone tell you that, in order to be Orthodox, you must be Eastern. The West was fully Orthodox for a thousand years...” 

There are now dozens of Western Rite congregations and monasteries in the United States, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and on the Continent of Europe under the Russian and Antiochian Orthodox Churches, and this is just the beginning. There were six Western Rite ordinations in ROCOR in December 2014 alone. God is doing a marvelous work and wonder in our day. The Church in the West is being rebuilt.

When Western Christians in general and Anglicans in particular enter the Orthodox Church they are not “joining a new Church,” they are simply returning to the Church of their Fathers. At the time of the Great Schism in 1054, the English Church sided with the Eastern Patriarchs against the novelties introduced by Rome. This led to the Norman Invasion of 1066. Had the Normans not invaded England, or had the armies of Orthodox England not lost the battle of Hastings in 1066, Anglicans would be Orthodox Christians today. The word “Anglican” comes from the Latin and simply means English. Anglicans did not leave the Orthodox Church, they were torn away by conquest and force. Restoring the Faith and Order of the Undivided Church was the Vision Glorious of the Oxford Movement, and that vision is now being fulfilled as Anglicans return home to the Church of their Fathers.

The Third Millennium of Christianity is proving to be a New Springtime for the Orthodox Church. The Gospel is going out in power and the unchanged, unchanging and unchangeable Orthodox Christian Church is advancing the Work of the Great Commission and growing world wide. Holy Cross parish is a part of this move of the Holy Spirit. Isn’t it time that you joined us in the work of re-evangelizing the post-Christian West, rebuilding the Western Church, and having a part in this world-wide Evangelism Explosion? I’ll be looking forward to hearing from you: (402) 573-6558; venovak@hughes.net



Thursday, January 15, 2015

HOLINESS — What Is It? Is It Important?

Many Christians today hardly give holiness a second thought. For them, holiness is something for the clergy, the monastics, and especially for the Saints, but not something that needs to be a serious concern for the average Christian. “I am no saint,” Christians are sometimes heard to say.

Is holiness central to the Christian life, or is it an optional extra meant primarily for a few? Is there a universal call to holiness for all Christians? The Sacred Scriptures are clear on the matter: “For I am the LORD your God. You shall therefore consecrate yourselves, and you shall be holy; for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44); “Speak to the congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2); “but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, ‘Be holy, for I am holy’” (I Pet. 1:16); and “Pursue peace with all people, and holiness, without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).

Many Christians view holiness in moral terms — sexual purity, support for traditional marriage and marital fidelity, and opposition to abortion. Still others identify holiness with spending a lot of time in prayer, studying theology, or engaging in ascetic labors; but holiness is not moralism or even asceticism. 

Good morals are fruits of holiness, but not its root; and asceticism is an important means to an end, but not the end in itself. The Apostle Paul writes, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and although I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing” (I Cor. 13:1-3).

Holiness is not something we do or refrain from doing. Holiness is relational. Holiness is union with the Triune God Who is love, and sharing in the holiness of the God-man Jesus Christ. St. John the Divine writes, “And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and He who abides in love abides in God, and God in him” (I John 4:16). 

Our Lord Jesus Christ summarized the torah, the teaching or the Law of God, in one word: Love. “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:37-40). 

The Apostle John writes, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be a propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another... If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar: for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also” (I John 4:7-11; 20-21).

Christian love is self-sacrificing and is manifested in showing compassion and mercy to others, and always wanting what is best for them. “Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails” (I Cor. 13:4-8).

Compassion is when you see a person or another creature in need and you help. Mercy is when you give someone another chance, not a second chance but another chance. Our Lord tells us that we should forgive someone 70 x 7 times, so giving someone merely a second chance falls far short of Christian love. 

Summarizing the ascetical  teaching of St. Isaac the Syrian (d. c. 700), Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) says, “Those who strive for holiness should, first and foremost, imitate God’s love: that all-encompassing co-suffering love that makes no distinction between the righteous and sinners, between friends of the truth and its enemies.”

St. Isaac the Syrian says, “What is a merciful heart?... It is the warming of the heart of man toward all creation, toward people, the birds, the animals,... and all creation. When he remembers them or beholds them his eyes shed tears of a great and intense pity that encompass the heart. And from great suffering his heart diminishes, and cannot endure, hear or see any creature suffer harm or even small grief. Because of this, he brings forth prayers every hour with tears for the speechless creatures, the enemies of truth, and those who do him harm, so that they might be protected and be purified; he also offers prayers with great pity for that which creeps on the earth; this pity is aroused in his heart until he has likened himself in this respect to God” (Ascetical Homilies, Homily 48).

St. Paul writes, “Owe no man anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom. 13:8-10).

What of asceticism? Detachment, self-discipline and self-sacrifice are vital parts of the Christian life. Speaking of the fallen world and its allurements, the Apostle John writes, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world — the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life — is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever” (I John 3:15-17). And St. Paul writes, “But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified” (I Cor. 9:27); “For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you mortify the deeds of the body, you will live (Rom. 8:13); and “Mortify therefore your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col. 3:5).

Holiness is relational. Holiness is a loving union with God who is love. “God is love, and He who abides in love abides in God, and God in him” (I John 4:16). It is love for God, Who first loved us, that unites the Christian in an intimate personal relationship with the Holy Trinity, allows the Holy Spirit to change him from the inside, and motivates and empowers him to be light and salt in the world and to suffer and even lay down his life for Christ. The Christian is to be in the world, but not of the world, and is to live a life of love toward God, mankind and all creation.

St. Isaac the Syrian says, “Love is hot by nature, and when it flares up in a person without measure, it makes the soul foolish. Because of this the heart that has felt this love cannot contain and endure it... It is with this spiritual inebriation that the apostles and martyrs were drunk, and they traveled the entire world, laboring and enduring insults, while others shed blood like water from limbs that were cut off. In the midst of terrible suffering, they did not lose heart but endured valiantly, and being wise, were declared fools. Still others wandered ‘in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth’ (Heb. 11:38-39), and were the most composed and calm during times of trouble. May God grant us to attain this folly!” (Ascetical Homilies, Homily 73)

“And now abide faith, hope, love, these three, but the greatest of these is love” (I Cor. 13:13).