31 December 2009

On the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, and Judaizers

Christ is born!

For many reasons, I have not been able to post much lately. However, I wanted to get a good Christmas post in while the Feast is still going on, and so here we are. Yesterday marked the mid-point of the feast, the sixth of the twelve days during which we celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, according to the flesh. Today, the seventh day, is the even of another feast which is sometimes forgotten between the the first day of Christmas, and Theophany (twelve days later), and that is the Circumcision of Christ.

Of course, there are questions like "Why would we celebrate that?" Especially when St. Paul urges the Gentile Christians not to be circumcised. In fact, St. Paul was the defender of the Orthodox position at the first council of the Church, in Jerusalem, recorded in Acts 15; the only aspects of the Law required of Gentile Christians was to refrain from eating blood, or from animals that had been strangled, or meat offered to idols, and not to engage in fornication. So why the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ?

Well, the answer for that lies in the epistles of St. Paul as well. In fact, in addition to the rather striking statement in 1 Corinthians, chapter seven, "Was any one at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was any one at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God," St. Paul also gives a good defense of not only this matter, but of those who would seek to Judaize in general in the Epistle to the Galatians (III:2-29):

Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so many things in vain? -- if it really is in vain. Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? Thus Abraham "believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." So you see that it is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, "In you shall all the nations be blessed." So then, those who are men of faith are blessed with Abraham who had faith. For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, "Cursed be every one who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them." Now it is evident that no man is justified before God by the law; for "He who through faith is righteous shall live"; but the law does not rest on faith, for "He who does them shall live by them." Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us -- for it is written, "Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree" -- that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. To give a human example, brethren: no one annuls even a man's will, or adds to it, once it has been ratified. Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, "And to offsprings," referring to many; but, referring to one, "And to your offspring," which is Christ. This is what I mean: the law, which came four hundred and thirty years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance is by the law, it is no longer by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise. Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made; and it was ordained by angels through an intermediary. Now an intermediary implies more than one; but God is one. Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not; for if a law had been given which could make alive, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the scripture consigned all things to sin, that what was promised to faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed. So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.
So there we have it. Christ was circumcised according to the Law so that the Law could be fulfilled in one of Abraham's offspring, that the nations might be blessed through him. And so it is that the need for circumcision according to the Law has passed away, along with the other strictures of the Law not outlined by the Holy Apostles in Acts 15. If you have been baptized into Christ, you have put on Christ--St. Paul seems to take his statement there quite literally. There is no need to Judaize in order to be saved.

This is especially important, this time of year, because there are certain among the heterodox who made vicious slander about the birth of the Lord, saying that the early Church apostatized and "moved" the celebration to the Birth of Christ in order to coincide with the pagan festivals centered on the Winter Solstice, such as that of Sol Invictus or Mithras or the indigenous Celtic religion. Many of these people make much of the association of examples from Christ's life and how they fit the "pattern" established by the Jewish festivals. And since there is no festival, in the Mosaic Law, for midwinter, they conclude that the celebration of Christmas is, in fact, an error that became popular to give Christians something to do while their pagan neighbors were partying during midwinter.

Of course, there is a Jewish festival in midwinter--Hanukkah, the Feast of Lights. Of course, the Miracle of the Lamps occurs in the Maccabees, scriptures that have been excised not only from the Old Testament that the Protestants use, but also from the scriptures used by modern Jews (who, nevertheless, celebrate the festival for eight nights). The significance of the number eight here should mean something too--for, since the earliest times, the number eight has been associated with Christ. The Kingdom of Heaven is called the Eighth Day, and the whole of the new creation is centered on the theological significance of the perfection of Christ, who is both Alpha and Omega, origin and ending, the summation of all things. So, if the Light burned for eight days in the temple, through a miracle, why do we fail to see that the True Light burned for eight days in a cave in Bethlehem of Judea, in a manger of beasts, revealing for us that He was both Truly God and Truly Man, and that the uncontainable, uncircumscribable God, submitted to the circumcision of His flesh to as evidence of His equality with us in His taking on flesh. In submitting to circumcision, He proved His humanity--He was able to be cut, to have that flesh which He put on removed, foreshadowing for those with eyes to see it, His passion and the pains which He would suffer for us all.

Christmas, then, is not the Christian appropriation of some pagan feast, but the fulfillment of yet another Jewish one; and in keeping it properly, with all the attendant days of the twelve day feast, we see that on the eighth day, Christ is circumcised in the flesh, so that we might be free of the law and can be circumcised in our hearts. And thus, the arguments of those who would try to destroy the importance of the Feast of the Nativity, or Christmas, by calling it a pagan feast do so at their own peril: for to deny that significance of the Feast where we celebrate the Incarnation (which includes the Feasts of the Nativity, the Synaxis of the Mother of God, the Circumcision of Christ, and culminates with the Theophany, that is, the revealing of His Godhood at His baptism in the Jordan) is to deny that He is the God made man, the Savior of the world, who put on flesh for our sake and suffered that we might be free of the curse of sin and death. Woe to those who deny His Divinity! But greater woe to those who deny His humanity, for, as St. Gregory the Theologian so eloquently stated, "That which is unassumed is unhealed." If Christ is not fully man, in addition to being fully God, then whatever part of Him was not totally as we are, that same part was not redeemed by Him for us. And to say that He was not the perfect sacrifice for sin is the same thing as saying that He is not the Savior, not the Christ.

So, in the spirit of Christmas, let us leave such foolish notions alone, and remember that:

Kontakion of the Feast (Tone 3)

Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One,
and the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One.
Angels with Shepherds glorify Him,
the wise men journey with the star;
since for our sake the eternal God was born as a little child.

23 December 2009

The Ten Holy Martyrs of Crete

from the Synaxarion:

The Ten Holy Martyrs of Crete: Theodulus, Satorninus, Euporus, Gelasius, Eunician, Zoticus, Pompius, Agathopus, Basilides and Evarestus suffered for Christ during the III Century under the emperor Decius (249-251). The governor of Crete, named Decius just like the emperor, fiercely persecuted the Cretan Church. One time there were brought before him 10 Christians from various cities of Crete, who at the trial steadfastly confessed their faith in Christ and refused to worship idols. Over the course of 30 days they were subjected to cruel tortures, and with the help of God they all persevered, glorifying God. Before their death they prayed, that the Lord would enlighten their torturers with the light of the true faith. All the saints were beheaded.

17 December 2009

The Holy Prophet Daniel and the Three Holy Youths

from the Synaxarion:

The Holy Prophet Daniel and the Three Holy Youths Ananias, Azarias and Misael: In the years following 600 B.C. Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians, the Temple built by Solomon was destroyed, and many of the Israelite people were led away into the Babylonian Captivity. Among the captives were also the illustrious youths Daniel, Ananias, Azarias and Misael. The emperor of Babylon, Nebuchadnessar, gave orders to instruct them in the Chaldean wisdom, and to dress them in finery at his court. But they, in cleaving to the commandments of their faith, refused the extravagance and led a strict manner of life; they indeed sustained themselves on only vegetables and water. The Lord granted them wisdom, and to Saint Daniel -- the gift of perspicacity and the interpretation of dreams. The holy Prophet Daniel, having preserved sacred faith in the One God and trusting on His almighty help, in his wisdom surpassed all the Chaldean astrologers and sorcerers, and was made a confidant to the emperor Nebuchadnessar. One time Nebuchadnessar had a strange dream, which terrified him, but upon awakening he forgot the details of the vision. The Babylonian wise-men seemed powerless to learn what the emperor had dreamt. Thereupon the holy Prophet Daniel gave glory before all to the power of the True God, revealing not only the content of the dream, but also its prophetic significance. After this Daniel was elevated by the emperor to be a lord of the realm of Babylonia.

During these times the emperor Nebuchadnessar gave orders to erect in his likeness -- an huge statue, to which it was decreed to accord the honours befitting a god. For their refusal to do this, the three holy lads -- Ananias, Azarias and Misael -- were thrust into a burning fiery furnace. The flames shot out over the furnace 49 cubits, felling the Chaldeans standing about, but the holy lads walked amidst the flames, offering up prayer and psalmody to the Lord (Dan. 3: 26-90). The Angel of the Lord in appearing made cool the flames, and the lads remained unharmed. The emperor, upon seeing this, commanded them to come out, and was converted to the True God.

Under the following emperor Balthasar, Saint Daniel interpreted a mysterious inscription ("Mene, Takel, Phares"), which had appeared on the wall of the palace during the time of a banquet (Dan. 5: 1-31), which foretold the downfall of the Babylonian realm. Under the Persian emperor Darius, Saint Daniel was slandered by his enemies, and was thrown into a den with hungry lions, but they did not touch him, and he remained unharmed. The emperor Darius then in rejoicing over Daniel gave orders throughout all his realm to worship the God of Daniel, "since that He is the Living and Ever-Existing God, and His Kingdom is unbounded, and His sovereignty is without end" (Dan. 6: 1-29). The holy Prophet Daniel sorrowed deeply for his people, who then were undergoing righteous chastisement for a multitude of sins and offenses, for transgressing the laws of God, -- resulting in the grievous Babylonian Captivity and the destruction of Jerusalem: "My God, incline Thine ear and hearken, open Thine eyes and look upon our desolation and upon the city, in which is spoken Thine Name; wherefore do we make our supplication before Thee, trusting in hope not upon our own righteousness, but upon Thy great mercy" (Dan. 9: 18). By his righteous life and prayer for the redeeming of the iniquity of his people, there was revealed to the holy prophet the destiny of the nation of Israel and the fate of all the world.

During the interpretation of the dream of the emperor Nebuchadnessar, the Prophet Daniel declared about the kingdoms replacing one another and about the great final kingdom -- the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ (Dan. 2: 44). The prophetic vision about the seventy of weeks (Dan. 9: 24-27) tells the world about the signs of the First and the Second Comings of the Lord Jesus Christ and is connected with those events (Dan. 12: 1-12). Saint Daniel interceded for his people before the successor to Darius, the emperor Cyrus, who esteemed him highly, and who decreed freedom for the Israelite people. Daniel himself and his fellows Ananias, Azarias and Misael, all survived into old age, but died in captivity. According to the testimony of Sainted Cyril of Alexandria (Comm. 9 June), Saints Ananias, Azarias and Misael were beheaded on orders of the Persian emperor Chambyses.

Troparion of the Holy Prophet Daniel and the Three Children (Tone 4)
Great are the achievements of faith!/ In the fountain of flame, as in refreshing water,/ the Three Holy Children rejoiced./ And the Prophet Daniel proved a shepherd of lions as of sheep./ By their prayers, O Christ our God, save our souls.

Kontakion of the Prophet Daniel (Tone 3)
When thy pure heart was purged by the Spirit,/ thou didst become a vessel of clear prophecy;/ for thou seest things afar off as though they were close at hand./ Thou didst tame the lions when thou wast cast into their den./ Therefore we honour thee, O blessed Prophet, glorious Daniel.

Kontakion of the Three Children in Babylon (Tone 2)
An image made with hands you would not worship, O thrice blessed three;/ but protected by the ineffable Essence you were glorified in your ordeal by fire./ From the midst of the devouring flames you called upon God, crying:/ Hasten, O compassionate One,/ in Thy mercy come to our aid,/ for if Thou willest Thou canst.

16 December 2009

Some Thoughts about Today's Gospel

I published some thoughts about today's Scripture lesson at the DC blog. If you are interested in reading them, you can do that here.

15 December 2009

The Monk Pardus the Hermit

from the Synaxarion:

The Monk Pardus the Hermit, a Roman, was involved in his youth with the teamster's craft. One time when he set off to Jericho, a boy accidentally fell under the legs of his camels. The camels trampled the boy to death. Shaken by this occurrence, Pardus took monastic vows, and withdrew to Mount Arion. Thinking himself under the condemnation of a murderer, and seeking a punishment of death, the Monk Pardus entered the cave-den of a lion. He poked the wild beast and prodded it with a spear so that the lion would rend him apart, but the creature would not touch the hermit. The Monk Pardus then took off his clothes and lay down upon the path that the lion would take for water. But even here, the lion merely leaped over the hermit. And the elder then perceived, that he had been forgiven by the Lord. Having returned to his mountain, the Monk Pardus dwelt there in fasting and prayer until the end of his days. He died in the 4th Century.

12 December 2009

St. Herman of Alaska

Troparion (Tone 4)

O blessed Father Herman of Alaska,
North star of Christ's holy Church,
The light of your holy life and great deeds
Guides those who follow the Orthodox way.
Together we lift high the Holy Cross
You planted firmly in America.
Let all behold and glorify Jesus Christ,
Singing his holy Resurrection.

Kontakion (Tone 3)

The eternal light of Christ our Savior
Guided you, blessed Father Herman,
On your evangelical journey to America
To proclaim the Gospel of peace.
Now you stand before the throne of glory;
Intercede for your land and its people:
Peace for the world and salvation for our souls!

11 December 2009

The Holy Martyr Mirax

from the Synaxarion:

The Holy Martyr Mirax was born into a Christian family that lived in the city of Tennes (Egypt) during the VII Century. He was raised in piety, but yielded to demonic temptation and renounced the Holy Cross, going over to the ruler of Egypt named Amir, and taking up sword in hand he entered into the service of the Arabs. His parents, grieving over the terrible downfall of their son, prayed for him incessantly. And then the grace of God illumined the heart of the prodigal. He deeply repented and returned home. His parents counselled him to openly declare about his fall into darkness and his repentance. Saint Mirax obeyed them. The ruler condemned him to tortures, after which the saint was beheaded and cast into the sea (this occurred not earlier than the year 640).

Holy Martyr Mirax, pray to God for us!

03 December 2009

St. John the Silent

from the Synaxarion:

The Monk John the Silent was born in about the year 454 in the city of Armenian Nicopolis, into the family of a military-commander named Enkratios and his wife Euphemia. The boy early on began to study Holy Scripture and with all his heart he loved solitude and prayer.

With the portion of inheritance coming to him after the death of his parents, the youth John built a church in the Name of the Most Holy Mother of God. At 18 years of age John together with 10 monks lived nearby the church, in fasting, prayer and temperance. At the request of the citizens of the city of Colonia, the Sebasteia metropolitan ordained the 28 year old John as bishop of the Colonia Church. Having assumed ecclesial governance, the saint did not alter his strict ascetic manner of life. Under the influence of the saint in a Christian manner lived also his kinsfolk -- his brother Pergamios (an associate of the emperors Zenon and Anastasius) and his nephew Theodore (an associate of the emperor Justinian).

In John's tenth year as bishop, the governance in Armenia was assumed by Pazinikos, the husband of the saint's sister, Maria. The new governor began forcibly to interfere in spiritual and ecclesiastical matters. Unrest arose within the church. Saint John thereupon set off to Constantinople and through archbishop Euphymios he besought the emperor Zenon to defend the Armenian Church from the churlish encroachments.

Overwhelmed by worldly quarrels, John secretly left his bishopric and sailed to Jerusalem. With tears he besought God to show him the place, where he might live and find salvation. A bright star appeared, which led Saint John to the Lavra monastery of the Monk Sava. John, concealing his bishop's dignity, was accepted amidst the brethren as a simple novice. Under the guidance of the hegumen Saint Sava (Comm. 5 December), the Monk John for more than 4 years fulfilled obedience at very heavy work in the construction of a vagrants home, and of a monastery for newly-made monks. Seeing Saint John's humility and love of toil, Saint Sava reckoned him worthy of ordination to presbyter. But Saint John had happened to reveal his secret to the Jerusalem Patriarch Elias (494-517), and with the blessing of this primate of the Jerusalem Church, the Monk John took a vow of silence. Soon the Lord also revealed Saint John's secret to the Monk Sava. The Monk John spent four years in his cell, receiving no one and not going out even for church.

Desirous of ever greater solitude and increased abstinence, the Monk John quit the Lavra and withdrew into the wilderness, where he spent more than nine years, nourishing himself off of the grasses. Here he survived a devastating incursion of the Saracens and did not perish, only because that the Lord sent him a defender, -- a ferocious lion, at the sight of which the enemy, which more than once seeking to kill the monk, instead scattered in fright. Tradition speaks of many a miracle, effected through the prayer of the Monk John during this time in the wilderness.

When the holy hegumen Saint Sava returned, having for an extended period gone off to Scythopolis, he persuaded the Monk John to forsake the wilderness and again resettle at the monastery. And after this, the Lord in miraculous manner revealed to everyone at the Lavra, that Saint John was actually a bishop.

When the Monk John reached age seventy, his holy and God-bearing spiritual father Saint Sava died. The saint grieved deeply over this demise. Saint Sava appeared to him in a vision, and having consoled him, he foretold, that there was much toil ahead in the struggle with heresy. And actually, Saint John did have to forsake his cell so as to strengthen the brethren in the struggle with the heresy of the Origenists.

The Monk John the Silent spent 66 years at the Lavra of the Monk Sava the Sanctified. By his constant ascetic efforts, by his untiring prayer and humble wisdom, the Monk John acquired the grace of the Holy Spirit: through his prayer happened many a miracle, the secret thoughts of people were discerned by the saint, he healed the sick and the demoniac, and even during his life he saved from certain destruction those invoking his name, and from a fig-tree seed thrown by the saint onto dry soil there sprouted up a beautiful and fruitful tree.
The Monk John the Silent expired to the Lord at age 104 in peace.