Thursday, December 29, 2005

The First Among the Saints

In one of my favorite icons Christ, the King of All, sits upon His eternal throne, holding in His left hand the Gospels that reveal Him to the world, and offering with His right hand the sign of blessing. His mother, the Virgin Mary, stands at His right hand while John the Baptist, His cousin and prophet, stands to His left. Both Mary and John are facing Him, lifting up their hands toward Him in prayer and supplication. They are standing before Christ, praying for us. Mary and John the Baptist are honored as first among all the Saints in heaven. These two, who have dedicated their whole lives to Christ, lead all the Saints in heaven in prayer for us, the Church on earth.

The Archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary and announced to the young, innocent, virgin girl that she would miraculously give birth to a son, the very Son of God, who would be conceived in her by the Holy Spirit. She responded to Gabriel in perfect childlike faith, saying, “Behold the servant of the Lord! Let the things you have said happen according to your word.” Her response teaches us how we should respond to God in our own lives. Whatever God calls us to do, we should completely submit ourselves to His divine will so that we may fulfill His purpose and destiny for our lives. Mary is our model of faith, obedience, and selflessness. She was not only Jesus’ mother, but also one of His most loyal disciples. Christ was her Savior, her Lord, and her God. Her path of discipleship was not an easy one because she experienced Christ’s humiliation, rejection, suffering, and death, not only as His disciple, but also as His own mother, the one who carried Him in her womb, gave birth to Him in a cave, escaped with him to a foreign country to protect him, observed His miraculous ministry, beheld his rejection, witnessed his pain, and stood in the shadow of His cross. When Jesus was an infant, a holy man in the Temple named Simeon took him into His arms. After prophesying to Mary about what her son would face in life, he said to her, “A sword shall pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2.34). Indeed, she felt the pain of a sword as she watched her Son die, His broken body hanging by the nails of an executioner’s cross.

As Mary suffered with Christ, she was also filled with the joy of His resurrection. Her Son, whom she had seen crucified, was raised to immortal life, never to die again. He ascended into heaven, taking His rightful place as ruler over all creation. Many centuries after her own falling asleep, she now stands in the eternal presence of her Son, ceaselessly praying for us.

Before the Virgin May became pregnant with her divine child, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth conceived. The Archangel Gabriel told Elizabeth’s husband that their son, who would be named John, would prepare people’s hearts to receive the Lord when he came among them. Even before his birth, John recognized Jesus. When Mary visited John’s mother during their pregnancies, John leaped within Elizabeth’s womb in the presence of Mary and the unborn Jesus. During his life, John lived in the wilderness, preaching and baptizing in the Jordan River. He didn’t wear soft, fine robes, but rustic camel skins. As a prophet he tirelessly proclaimed to everyone about the One far greater than himself who would come after him whose sandals he was not worthy to untie. Jesus taught that John was the prophet revealed in the Holy Scripture when it said, “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee” (Matt. 10.10, RSV). Because of his bold proclamation of the truth, John was imprisoned and beheaded by order of King Herod. John remained a loyal disciple of Jesus Christ throughout his life on earth. Today, he stands by the throne of Christ, with Mary and all the Saints of heaven, offering prayers for us.

May we always honor and bless the mother of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and his Forerunner and Prophet, the Baptist John. Let us remember their lives, follow their examples, and ask for their prayers that we too may live lives of purity, selflessness, love, humility, and perfect faith as dedicated disciples of Christ, our God.

Copyright © 2005 by Dana S. Kees. Adapted from “Our Life in the Saints,” The Mystery of You: A Collection of Writings, Vol. 1, Copyright © 2004 by Dana S. Kees. (The icon, called “Deisis,” is from the Church of Holy Wisdom (St. Sophia) in Constantinople. The image is in the public domain.)

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Our Life with the Saints

The Orthodox Christian Church is the mystical community of saints, united by Christ and indwelled by the Holy Spirit. Each one of us, part of the one Church founded by Christ, is individually called to be holy and to live a holy life. Those of us in the world who are running the spiritual race with endurance, however imperfectly, are joined and encouraged by the Saints who have victoriously finished the race and now dwell with Christ in heaven. They surround us as a “great cloud of witnesses,” constantly praying for us (Hebrews 12.1-2).

As we ask our brothers and sisters in Christ here on the earth to pray for us, we also ask the Saints in heaven to pray. We ask them to intercede on our behalf for the "salvation of our souls," a salvation that ultimately means a rescue from sin and death to live forever in the eternal kingdom of heaven. Salvation, however, is not just “otherworldly,” pertaining only to our life after we depart this temporary world. Salvation also includes our practical, earthy needs: physical healing, spiritual guidance, purification from self-centered attitudes, freedom from anxiety, depression, and addiction, along with rescue from war, hunger, floods, temptations, unemployment, accidents, crime, persecution, conflict in our relationships, and help with our other daily needs. Salvation encompasses the whole life of the whole person, in the next life and also in the life we live every day.

Heaven is filled with Saints whose prayers for us rise to God like offerings of incense (Revelation 5.8). They embodied Christ when they lived on the earth, demonstrating for us how to follow Him. They immersed themselves in prayer, showing us how we should pray. Now they pray for us from above. Men are among the Saints, as well as women. Both children and adults are present. Several were monarchs. Many lived with simplicity in poverty. Patriarchs who pastored nations are present with reclusive hermits. Monks stand alongside married couples. There are murdered martyrs, tortured confessors, and others who fell asleep peacefully, completing a long life. Men and women who died during the time of the Apostles stand beside the multitudes who have died in the past century. All of the Saints in heaven and all of the saints on the earth are united in Christ as one Church, undivided. Although we are now separated by a thin veil preventing our eyes from seeing our family members in heaven, we still mystically live and worship together as one body, one family, joined together by the Holy Spirit.

Icons of the Saints that encourage us to emulate their lives fill Orthodox churches. The Saints always point us to Christ and reveal the light of Christ in their own lives, offering us an example of how to live in the world. In Orthodox churches, lamps often hang in front of icons of the Saints. (These icons present the Saints, not as they appeared on the earth, but as holy ones now dwelling in Christ’s eternal presence.) The lamp’s light reminds us that a Saint is only a Saint because Christ, who is the True Light, illumines his or her life as a beacon in the world to radiate truth, love, faith, and peace to all. By following their Christ-like examples, helped by their prayerful intercessions, we strive for the goal of spiritual purification so that the divine light of Christ Himself will shrine brightly through us to illuminate the world around us.

With all the Saints, let us commend ourselves and our whole lives to Christ our God.

O God, save thy people, and bless thine inheritance. Visit thy world with mercies and bounties. Exalt the estate of Orthodox Christians, and send down upon us thy rich mercies. Through the intercessions of our all-immaculate Lady Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary; by the might of the precious and life-giving Cross; by the protection of the honorable Bodiless Powers of heaven; at the supplication of the honorable, glorious Prophet, Fore-runner and baptist John; of the holy, glorious, all-laudable Apostles; of our Fathers among the Saints, great Hierarchs and Ecumenical Teachers, Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom; of our Holy Father Nicholas, Archbishop of Myra in Lucia, the Wonder-worker; of the holy, glorious and right-victorious Martyrs; of our venerable and God-bearing Fathers; of the holy and righteous ancestors of God, Joachim and Anna; of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, whose memory we celebrate, and of all thy Saints, we beseech thee, O most merciful Lord, hearken unto the petitions of us sinners who make our supplications unto thee, and have mercy upon us.

Through the mercies and bounties and compassion of thine Only-begotten Son, with whom thou art blessed, together with thy all-holy, and good, and life-giving Spirit; now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.
-A prayer from Orthros, Antiochian Orthodox Christian Service Book, 67-68.

Copyright © 2005 by Dana S. Kees. Adapted from "Our Life with the Saints," The Mystery of You: A Collection of Writings, Vol. 1, Copyright © 2004 by the same author. (Icon from the IconoGraphics Colorworks Collection, Used by permission.)

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Orthodox Christmas Music: What We Believe, We Pray

Orthodox Christians sometimes say to others, "If you want to know what we believe, come and see how we pray." What we believe, the teachings passed down to us from the time of the Holy Apostles, is revealed in our ancient services through both the readings from the Holy Scripture and through our prayerful music. When Orthodox Christians gather together for worship, we should always open our hearts, our eyes, and our ears. I recommend the same for non-Orthodox visitors so that they may see and hear how we worship, what we believe, and how we live. Below are some of the words sung during the Divine Liturgy on Christmas, the Feast of the Holy Nativity. The songs are our prayers that reveal the answer to the question, "Who is Jesus?," and remind us what He has done for us.

The Troparion of the Nativity

Thy Nativity, O Christ our God,
has shone to the world the light of wisdom.
For by it those who worshipped the stars,
were taught by a star to adore Thee, the Sun of Righteousness,
and to know Thee, the Orient from on high.
O Lord, glory to Thee!

The Kontakion of the Nativity

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!

Post-Gospel Stikhera

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.
Today all creation is filled with joy, for Christ is born of the Virgin.
Now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Today all creation is filled with joy, for Christ is born of the Virgin.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to Thy great goodness
and according to the abundance of Thy compassion blot out my transgressions.
Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace.
Today Bethlehem receives Him, who sits forever with the Father.
Today the angels glorify with holy hymns the Babe that is born:
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will among men.

Megalynarion of the Nativity

O my soul, magnify her who is more honorable
and who is more glorious than the heavenly hosts.
A mystery, I behold, which is strange and wondrous.
The cave is heaven and the Virgin is the throne of the Cherubim.
In the confines of the manger is laid the infinite Christ, our God,
whom we praise and magnify.

(Note on the Megalynarion: This song is in honor of Mary, the Virgin mother of Christ. Songs that honor the Virgin Mary always direct our attention to her Son and reveal His true identity. Christ, the King of All, who sits in heaven upon the throne of angelic Cherubim, was born in a cave and sat upon His mother, who lovingly laid the One who fills all things in the confining space of a manger.)

May we all keep these words close to our hearts during the Christmas season and meditate on their meaning for our lives in the coming year, the Year of Our Lord, two thousand six.

Copyright © 2005 by Dana S. Kees. Photo Copyright © 2005 by Dana S. Kees. Words of liturgical music in the Public Domain.

In a Bethlehem Cave

During the reign of the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus, Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem, a small town only a few miles from Jerusalem that sits upon a high ridge overlooking the green valley below. She gave birth to him in a cave, wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger. Simple shepherds from the nearbye fields, hearing of his birth from the angels, visited him in the cave.

Early Christians venerated the place where Christ was born. Only about 150 years after Jesus’ birth, Justin Martyr, who was born less than fifty miles from Bethlehem, wrote these words: “Should anyone desire proof for the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem let him consider that - in harmony with the story of his birth - a cave is shown in Bethlehem where he was born and a manger in the cave where he lay wrapped in swaddling clothes.” When Constantine the Great ascended to the throne of the Roman Empire, ending the bloody persecutions against the Church and legalizing the Faith, his mother, Helena, a devout Christian, traveled all the way to the Holy Land on a pilgrimage to find the sacred places associated with Jesus’ life. When she reached Bethlehem she visited the cave where Jesus was born.

Emperor Constantine built the Church of the Nativity over the cave. The original church structure remained for about two centuries when it was destroyed during a Samaritan uprising. Emperor Justinian rebuilt the Church of the Nativity, which is still standing today, making it the oldest church in the Holy Land. Inside the cave of the Nativity a 14-point silver star on the marble floor, encompassed by 15 every-burning vigil lamps, marks the place of Christ’s birth.

The Church has survived centuries of conflict. Tradition indicates that when the Persians invaded Bethlehem they decided not to destroy the church after they saw the church’s paintings of the Magi, the Wise Men from the East, who themselves were portrayed as wearing Persian clothing. In April 2002, Israeli Defense Forces invaded Bethlehem, prompting Palestinian gunmen to force their way into the Church of the Nativity, a place of refuge, to escape the Israeli forces pursuing them. A standoff ensued for 38 days until the gunmen, along with several peace activists, agreed to leave.

The Church of the Holy Nativity, still under the protection of the Orthodox Christian Church, is one of the most sacred places in the world, but the Holy Nativity is much more than a historical event in a geographic location. For us, it is a present reality.

(Pictures of Palestinian Christian children in the Church of the Nativity are available on the website. The pictures are from December 2003. Photos include: lighting a candle and prayer, another baby in the cave. There is also a photo of Palestinian Christians lighting candles in prayer taken only a few days ago.)

Copyright © 2005 by Dana S. Kees
(Based upon the text of a presentation for Christmas 2004. Photos from Used by permission.)

Saturday, December 24, 2005

The Song of the Angels

The artist who painted this piece, William Bouguereau, is my favorite Western artist. The Song of the Angels depicts the infant Jesus sleeping on the lap of Mary, his mother, while angels serenade him with their music. The spiritual reality depicted by the painting is that the living God who created all things in existence and who fills the whole universe humbled himself, taking on human flesh and coming into the world as a child. Christ is seated upon his throne, the Theotokos ("the God-bearer") who gave birth to him, surrounded by the heavenly hosts who worship him unceasingly.

You may see a larger version of The Song of the Angels on the Wikipedia website with another of Bouguereau's paintings, The Virgin With Angels, reflecting the same theme. The Seated Madonna is available on the Art Renewal Center website. (These images are in the public domain.)

Friday, December 23, 2005

The Grapevine Wreath

In the Appalachian hills of West Virginia, where I grew up, people commonly hang up wreaths made of dried, twisted grapevines during the Christmas season. One year my mother found the ambition to construct one herself. In fulfillment of my responsibility to the project, I took in hand an old machete from the garage and climbed the frozen hill behind our house toward the forest. Standing in the crisp December air at dusk I chopped long, wild vines and tugged at them until they let loose. They looked dead like everything else around me this time of year, but they clung to the trees and each other like little children determined not to let go. When I had pulled them all free, I dragged them down the hill toward the warm house with glowing windows, my home.

In the kitchen, Mom rolled the rugged vines into a perfect circle and made the dead wood beautiful with Christmas-red ribbon and little bells linked together on a golden chain. She hung the finished wreath, like a royal crown, on the wall for all to see.

We were all watching TV that night when my Dad let out a good laugh. What was so funny? Looking at the wreath he said, “That’s not a grapevine. That’s poison oak.” Dad not only correctly identified the substance of the wreath, but he managed to diagnose the cause of the strange skin rash that afflicted my hands. The doctors at the emergency center I visited a few hours earlier seemed baffled. I didn’t realize one could be poisoned by dormant vines in the winter. Now I know.

A wreath made of poison oak can look like one made of grapevines, but they are not the same. (One might think that a boy who grew up along Grapevine Creek would know the difference). One is genuine, but the other can cause pain. It’s wise to know the difference.
The Feast of the Nativity is almost here. (I won’t be making a wreath this year). Christmas is a celebration of Christ’s birth, a remembrance of the time when the eternal God who fills the whole universe and created all things became human like us. This is the Christmas of Orthodox Christians. Unfortunately, another Christmas exists in America, a secular Christmas focused on consumerism. All the Christmas decorations displayed in early November probably have much more to do with enticing us to spend money in businesses than drawing our attention to the birth of Christ in a cave. If they religiously follow the secular holiday, Americans will be drawn by sparkling lights that lead, not to the real Light of the World, but to worldly merchandise nobody really needs. The genuine Christmas is not about the gifts we give or receive, but a celebration of the One we have been given, the Son of God, who took upon Himself human flesh about 2000 years ago, and who visits us and gives Himself to us every week through the mystery of Holy Communion.

The giving of gifts this time of year is a great tradition, but if we spend more time, effort, and worry dealing in gifts than worshipping the living Christ, we may be more faithfully following the tenets of a secular holiday than observing the Feast of the Nativity as our ancestors have taught us. Keeping the secular holiday may not cause physical pain, like handling poison oak, but it’s not nearly as fulfilling, inspiring, calming, and good for us as experiencing the real thing.

Copyright © 2005 by Dana S. Kees. Printed in The Messenger, published by St. George Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church, Houston, TX. Photo Copyright © 2005 by Dana S. Kees.