Monday, April 24, 2006

The Holy Tomb of Jesus Christ

Every year, Orthodox Christians gather in Jerusalem at the Church of the Resurrection, also known as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, on Pascha (Easter) to celebrate the glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ.

According to Eusebius, the Emperor Hadrian had covered up the Holy Sepulchre (Tomb) with dirt and built upon it a pagan temple dedicated to the goddess, Venus. When the Emperor Constantine ascended to the throne of the Roman Empire, his devout Christian mother, Helena, traveled to Jerusalem. She found the place of Christ's Crucifixion and the Holy Sepulchre. When Helena found these holy places, Constantine built a church at the site. The Holy Sepulchre itself is enclosed in a structure called an edicule inside the rotunda of the church.

The annual Paschal celebration at the Holy Sepulchre includes the Ceremony of the Holy Light (or Holy Fire). Only the Orthodox Patriarch of the Church of Jerusalem possesses the honor of receiving the miraculously appearing Holy Light from the Tomb. Information on the Holy Light and photos are available from the website of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. An article by Niels Christian Hvidt on the Holy Fire is available at the Orthodox Christian Information Center ( is a website dedicated specifically to the miracle. An article from the Russian News & Information Agency confirming the descent of Holy Fire on the Holy Sepulchre last year (2005) is available on the SpiritHit News site ( A great photo of the event accompanies the article.

"Come ye take light from the Light that is never overtaken by night. Come glorify the Christ, risen from the dead."

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. (Photo from the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands, available at Used by permission.)

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Great & Holy Pascha (Easter)

Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!
Christos Anesti! Alethos Anesti!
Almaseeh qam! Hakkan qam!
Christos voskrese! Voistinu voskrese!
Christus resurrexit! Vere resurrexit!
Christ is risen from the dead,
trampling down death by death,
and on those in the tombs bestowing life!

Friday, April 21, 2006

Today He is suspended on a Tree
who suspended the earth over the waters.
A crown of thorns was placed
on the head
of the King of angels.
He who wore a false purple robe
covered the heavens with clouds.
He was smitten who, in the Jordan, delivered Adam.
The Groom of the Church was fastened with nails
and the Son of the Virgin was pierced with a spear.
Thy suffering we adore, O Christ.
Make us to behold thy glorious Resurrection.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

St. Mary of Egypt: A Woman for Our Generation

A hiermonk (priest-monk) named Zosimas walked deep into the Palestinian desert to spend several weeks alone in prayer and fasting. While there, he hoped to find a man of superior holiness who could help him with his own spiritual struggle. On his twentieth day in the wilderness, as he was praying, he saw a creature whose form resembled a human being. It was thin and naked. It had dark skin that looked as though it had been darkened by the sun and white hair that fell just below the shoulders. It was a woman. He ran after her. When he approached her she told him that she couldn’t turn around because she was a woman and naked. Zosimas gave her his cloak. After covering her body she turned around, addressed Zosimas by name, and recognized him as a priest, although he was dressed in the simple clothing of a monk.

Believing that God had led him into the desert to meet her, Zosimas begged the woman to tell him her story. Although ashamed of her past, she spoke to him about the life she once lived and how she came to reside in the desert.

She was a native Egyptian. Leaving her parents at the age of twelve, she traveled to the city of Alexandria, where she lost her virginity, became enslaved to lustful passions, and gladly fed her all-consuming desire for sexual pleasure. Her income came from begging and spinning flax, not prostitution. Even though men offered to pay her for her services she refused the money. She didn’t sleep with them for the money. She enjoyed it.

One summer she saw a group of Egyptians and Libyans heading toward the shore to board a ship that would carry them to Jerusalem where they could venerate the Precious and Life-giving Cross upon which Jesus Christ had been crucified. She wanted to go on the trip, not as a spiritual pilgrimage, but to find more men with whom she could satisfy her appetite for sexual pleasure. Since she didn’t have any money, she offered her body as payment. Not only did she seduce men onboard the ship, but after reaching land she continued to seek out lovers among both the residents of Jerusalem and foreigners who were visiting the city. Even on the holy feast day of the Exaltation of the Cross she was still looking for young men to take to bed.

She noticed that the people around her began making their way to the church to see the lifting up of the Precious Cross. She followed them there, but when she tried to enter the church she was stopped by an invisible force. Unable to pass through the door, she was swept aside by the crowd. Thinking that her problem was caused by some kind of womanly weakness, she tried using her elbows to push her way through the people. Again, while everyone else passed beside her to go inside, she was unable to enter as though a detachment of soldiers were guarding the way. After three or four attempts, exhausted, without strength for another try, she walked to the corner of the porch and stood alone.

Why couldn’t she enter the church to see the Life-giving Cross? The reason became apparent to her. She had been barred from the church because of her sinful lifestyle. The filth of sin had polluted her soul. As the eyes of her heart opened to see her shameful way of life, she cried tears of repentance and beat her breast in deep sorrow.

Looking up, she saw above her an icon of the Virgin Mary. In desperation she prayed,

O Lady, Mother of God, who gave birth in the flesh to God the Word, I know that it’s no honor or praise to you when one as impure and depraved as I am looks upon your icon, O ever-virgin, who kept your body and soul in purity. I justifiably inspire hatred and disgust in the presence of your virginal purity, but I’ve heard that God, who was born of you, became a man for the purpose of calling sinners to repentance. So, help me, because I have no other help. Order that the entrance of the church be opened to me. Let me see the Tree, worthy of honor, on which He who was born of you suffered in the flesh and on which He shed His holy blood for the redemption of sinners and for me, unworthy as I am. Be my faithful witness before your Son that I will never again defile my body by the impurity of fornication. As soon as I have seen the Tree of the Cross, I will renounce the world and its temptations and will go wherever you will lead me.
After her prayer, she walked into the crowd. The same force which once prevented her from entering the church seemed to clear her way. She explained to Zosimas what she saw when she entered the church: “I saw the Life-giving Cross. I also saw the Mysteries of God and how the Lord accepts repentance.”

When she left the church, she asked the Virgin Mary to lead her down the path to repentance. She heard a voice speak these words: “If you cross the Jordan you will find glorious rest.” Leaving behind her sinful life, she began living a life of repentance motivated and guided by the Holy Spirit.

By the time Zosimas met this woman, whose name was Mary, she had lived in the desert beyond the Jordan River about forty-seven years. During her first seventeen years in the desert she fought the wild beasts of her passions, the self-centered desires for pleasure that once kept her heart far from God. He past life haunted her. Those old unspiritual songs she once sung with enthusiasm remained fresh in her memory. They confused her mind. Sometimes she was tempted to start singing them again. The sexual appetite she once glutinously satisfied sought to regain control of her soul. “A fire was kindled in my miserable heart that seemed to consume me and to make me thirsty for embraces.” Through a spiritual lifestyle, including fasting and prayer, she overcame the evil passions, was healed of her self-inflicted wounds, and received the purifying grace of God.

St. Mary of Egypt, who fell asleep in the Lord in 522 AD, is a woman that our generation should get to know. So many young men and women in our own time can relate to her before she turned her life around through repentance. How many Americans are inflicting spiritual wounds upon themselves, desecrating the sanctity of their bodies, defiling the image of God within them, and following self-centered passions that lead them farther and farther away from the beauty of Paradise? There are so many young people in America who accept lustful passions and behaviors as “natural,” although they are really corruptions of our human nature that are contrary to sexual wholeness and spiritual life. Our culture, ignorant of the true and living God, accepts and promotes sexual sins that damage the soul, while ridiculing the pure and innocent. The sickness of American culture has caused a great deal of confusion and pain in our generation.

The life of St. Mary offers hope for those who have ripped and stained their virginal purity and lay in despair. Through repentance, turning to the loving God who heals, restores, and transforms, they can throw off their ruined garments and be clothed once again with the radiant garments of purity and holiness. No matter how distant they find themselves from God and how much they have been enslaved to sinful passions, God will meet them where they are and set them free. They can leave behind their sins and begin a life renewed by the Spirit. Through a lifestyle of repentance, the passions calm so that the temporary pleasures of the body lose their luster compared to the pleasure of union with the One who bestows every good and perfect thing upon us.

St. Mary was led into the desert. Does this mean that everyone who leaves behind a lifestyle of sexual sin will need to live the rest of his or her life alone in a deserted place? No, the desert is not for everybody. Perhaps God will lead some people in our generation away from society into the wilderness to live alone as hermits. Maybe He will draw some into monastic communities to fast and pray with others dedicated to the same kind of life. As God knew what St. Mary needed to overcome her sins, He knows what each one of us personally needs to overcome ours. Most people will probably live their lives of repentance while remaining in society. Instead of escaping to the wilderness or a monastery, some will remain unmarried, finding refuge in the life of a parish. For others, a marriage blessed by the Church and nurtured within the Church will be their path of salvation. Marriage is a relationship in which a husband and wife can repent of their past sins together and express their sexuality with one another in love and purity, without sin or shame.

St. Mary’s personal story involves repentance from sexual sins in particular, but she’s a model of repentance in general. Her life encourages us to repent of every kind of sin that afflicts us and draws us from God, in whose image we have been made. No matter what particular sins we find ourselves committing, repentance leads us to healing and wholeness. St. Mary shows us how to leave behind everything that hinders our spiritual health and growth, and to stay on the path to Paradise. Although she struggled violently against her former ways of thinking and acting for many years before she overcame them, she kept the Faith, remained in prayer, and stayed on course, guided and strengthened by the Holy Spirit. Healing sometimes takes time, but the Great Physician of our souls is always with us to care for us through the process. Let’s follow St. Mary’s example and ask her to prayerfully intercede with Christ, our God, on our behalf.

O Thou who searches the depths of our heart, who hast foreseen all things concerning us before we came into existence, Thou hast delivered from a life of bondage the woman who fled to Thee, O Saviour; and with never-silent voice she cries out to Thy tender love: ‘O ye priests bless Him, and ye people exalt Him above all for ever.’

O holy transformation, that brought thee to a better way of life! O godlike love that hated carnal pleasures! O burning faith in God! We bless thee, Mary worthy of all praise, and we exalt thee above all for ever.

O holy Mary, thou hast received the recompense for thy toil, and the due reward for all the labours whereby thou hast cast down the vengeful enemy. And now thou singest with the angels, crying aloud with never-silent voice and exalting Christ above all for ever. (Triodion)

The complete story of St. Mary of Egypt, as recorded by St Sophronius, Patriarch of Jerusalem, can be found at An abbreviated version of the story is printed in First Fruits of Prayer by Frederica Mathewes-Green, Paraclete Press, 2006.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. (The verses quoted at the end of this essay are from Vespers and Matins of the Fifth Sunday of Lent on which we celebrate the memory of Our Holy Mother, Mary of Egypt, canticle 8, 2nd canon, taken from the Lenten Triodion, St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 2001. The icon of St. Mary of Egypt is from the IconoGraphics ColorWorks Library, Theologic Systems, Used by permission.)

Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Catechumen: Preparing for Illumination

On Wednesday evening, we gathered together for the solemn Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. (The Holy Gifts are called presanctified because they, the bread and wine, were consecrated on the previous Sunday for Holy Communion during the week.) During the Liturgy, we prayed a special prayer for a particular group of people called catechumens:

O God our God, the Creator and Maker of all things, who willest that all men should be saved, and should come to the knowledge of the truth, look upon Thy servants the catechumens and deliver them from their former delusion and from the wiles of the adversary. And call them unto life eternal, enlightening their souls and bodies and numbering them with Thy rational flock, which is called by Thy holy name.

What is a catechumen? A catechumen is one who is learning the Faith. He or she is a person who has renounced paganism and is preparing to become an Orthodox Christian through the mystery of Holy Baptism.*

In the summer following my 18th birthday I found myself on a military base standing at attention with a group of other young men. We were being yelled at by an instructor. Welcome to Basic Military Training. I arrived there with the clothes on my back and a suitcase in my hand. Soon after my colleagues and I stepped off the bus, the process of turning undisciplined civilians into professional military men began. The military stripped us of our identities. They shaved our heads, took away our clothes, and gave us camouflage uniforms to put on. Everything we brought with us, except for a short list of acceptable items, were packed into our suitcases and locked away. We had come to the base looking like a bunch of guys from varying backgrounds with different personalities. The military took away our individuality. After a while we all looked like we belonged to the same group. Our instructors wanted to teach us how to think like a single unit and work together as a team. They intended to educate us in the essentials of military duty, socialize us in the military way of life, and instill in us the values of honor, integrity, and discipline.

When I started my Basic Training I had already made a firm commitment to serve in the military by taking the oath of enlistment. Nevertheless, until I had completed Basic Training I was in an ambiguous state. My identity was uncertain. The military was forming me into the kind of person they wanted me to be, but the process was not yet complete. I wasn’t really a civilian anymore, but I wasn’t completely initiated into the military yet either.

As nations prepare young men and women for military life through a period of initial training, the Orthodox Church prepares men and women for initiation into the fullness of the spiritual life. As people turn from paganism to the true Faith, they must learn a new way of understanding the world and adopt the Church’s common beliefs as their own. (The process of abandoning an old way of life for the new life in the Faith can be challenging spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally.) Catechumens learn basic knowledge of the Faith through formal instruction, build relationships with Orthodox Christians, and observe how the spiritual life is practically lived within the Church and out in the world by the Church. This period of preparation allows the catechumen to begin to understand what being an Orthodox Christian, a cross-bearing disciple of Jesus Christ, really means.

Catechumens are stripped of their old pagan identities. While they aren’t yet Orthodox Christians, “the Faithful,” they aren’t pagans anymore either since they’ve already begun their spiritual journey toward their entrance into the Church, the mystical community of Christ’s own. The catechumen’s training culminates in Holy Baptism, whereby the person is united with Christ, received into the Church, initiated into the Holy Mysteries, and illumined by divine knowledge. Once received into the Church, the newly illumined Orthodox Christian begins living the fullness of the spiritual way of life, the journey of salvation that leads to union with God. He or she still lives in this world, but now lives here as a traveler who truly belongs to the kingdom of heaven. Having received as a catechumen basic instruction, the spiritual milk of an infant, the illumined one is now ready to receive the more substantial nourishment necessary for spiritual maturity and growth.

Let’s remember the catechumens in our prayers, and also ask God to bring us more men and women who seek spiritual truth, rebirth, renewal, healing, and wholeness through a relationship with the true and living God.

Reveal, O Master, Thy countenance to those who are preparing for holy illumination and who long to put away the pollution of sin. Enlighten their minds. Secure them in the faith. Establish them in hope. Perfect them in love. Show them to be honorable members of Thy Christ, who gave Himself as a deliverance for our souls.

* Note: I use the word pagan in the ancient sense to mean a non-Christian, one who does not know, through experience, the true and living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The term paganism refers to non-Christian religions or ways of life. In contemporary times, a catechumen may also be a Christian who is outside of the Holy Orthodox Church and is preparing to unite himself or herself with the Church. Christians outside of the Church who have already been baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity are usually received through the mystery of Holy Chrismation.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. Photo copyright © 2005 by Dana S. Kees. (Prayers for the catechumens from The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts as published by the Department of Religious Education, Orthodox Church in America.)

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Thoughts on Repentance

Our Creator made Adam and Eve, our first parents, in His own image and likeness. While clothed with physical bodies, they bore the image of the Spirit who fills all things and cannot be contained. God created them to reflect the radiance of His own divine light, ever-flourishing life, pure goodness, and selfless love. Our first parents used their freedom, not to embrace the loving One who nurtured them, but to turn away from Him. Instead of obeying the One who knew the best for them, Adam and Eve thought they could do better following their own desires. Their actions brought spiritual darkness, evil, and self-centeredness into the creation. Another way of saying this is that Adam and Eve brought death into the world. Death is a reality in the world because our first parents’ sinned. Sin causes death.

Death is a sickness, a disease that afflicts us all. It seems natural to us because we see it all around us, but it’s not really natural. It’s an aberration, the desecration of life. God didn’t intend for death to be a part of His creation. Death is the result of our sin because when we reject God, we separate ourselves from the Source of Life. We have the freedom to remain in Life, but also the freedom to leave it behind.

Physical sickness and bodily death are aspects of death, but the influence of death is far more pervasive. We were not only born afflicted by physical death, which will cause our mortal bodies to die, but we are also afflicted with spiritual death, spiritual sickness. Our warped thoughts and feelings, and skewed vision of the world, draws our hearts away from God, our Creator and Healer. While we still bear the image of God, sin has distorted this image. Although we remain mirrors that reflect the brilliant glory of God, we are scratched, cracked, and blackened by the pollution of sin.

Many of us have been taught that we were born into this world as sinners guilty of Adam and Eve’s original sin. This idea is not in harmony with the Orthodox Christian Faith. The doctrine that Adam and Eve’s guilt is passed on from generation to generation may have originated with St. Augustine, whose writings have influenced many churches in the Western world. (St. Augustine is regarded as a Saint by the Orthodox Church, but he was not infallible when he expressed his theological opinions.) According to the Faith of the Holy Apostles, we inherit death, not guilt, from our first parents. We are born into this world as innocent infants. It is true that we are all sinners, every one of us, but not because we are born guilty. We are guilty sinners because we commit sin. We misuse our freedom to disobey our loving Father, who created us and who knows the best way for us. We choose to act according to our self-centered desires instead of expressing selfless love. We live in a way that keeps us in darkness rather than leading us to the One who is Light and enlightens our hearts and minds. We submit ourselves to the destructive passions within us that draw us away from God instead of drawing near to the One who purifies the desires of our hearts.

The truth that we’ve inherited death from our first parents is the bad news. The good news is that we can be freed from the curse of death. Our souls can be healed from the illness that keeps us from experiencing fullness of life. We can overcome spiritual death, restore the image of God within us, regain the likeness of our Creator, and find true life, immortal life. We can end our isolation from the Spirit, restore communion, and experience union with God. Through the process of salvation, spiritual healing, we become “divinized,” reflecting the divine radiance of God like polished mirrors in the sun. We can even surpass the spiritual maturity of our first parents. Even more, by overcoming spiritual death in this life, we also overcome physical death. If we are spiritually alive when our mortal bodies die, then we will rise from the dead with spiritually transformed bodies that will never die, and we will live forever in Paradise in the presence of God.

The process of liberation and healing involves repentance. Repentance is a spiritual U-turn. If you’re in your car driving somewhere and you realize that you’re going the wrong way, in the opposite direction of your destination, you need to find a place to turn around so you can start heading the right way. If you need to go south, continuing northward won’t help your cause. On the road of life, if we go in the direction of sin we will find ourselves at the gates of hell, eternal death. If we go in the direction of repentance we will reach Paradise, eternal life. Repentance is the recognition that we’re going the wrong way, and the change of direction that puts us on the right course for the right place.

Repentance is much more than a feeling of guilt. (We should never be lazy and just wallow in our guilt.) It’s also more than confession, although confession and repentance are like sisters. (Someone can confess a sin without being sorry for committing it and without any intention to repent. What kind of confession is that?) Repentance is a radical change of the mind (and heart) about the way we are, how we see things, and what we do. It’s a change from black to white, a conversion of the soul. When we really repent of a sin we never intend to commit that sin again. If we do commit the same sin again, we repent again with the same intention, hoping through divine power to overcome it. Repentance is a lifestyle, a continual process of looking honestly inside our hearts to discover and expose the soul-polluting sins within us, confessing them to God, and boldly throwing them off like old, dirty clothes.

When we turn away from our sins, we don’t just turn toward goodness, ethics, or morality as abstract ideas. We turn to God Himself, the Source of every good and perfect thing. Since sin is the rejection of God and a turning away from Him, repentance means turning back to God to fully embrace Him. He is always ready to run toward us with arms outstretched to forgive us and welcome us home. The more we reject self-centeredness and return to the One who is Love Himself, the more He fills our hearts with self-giving love. The more we turn from darkness, the absence of light, and return to the Light Himself, the more He enlightens our minds and hearts with divine illumination. The more we leave our isolation, the more He communes with us. The more we repent of the sins that sicken our souls and turn back to our loving Creator, the more He heals us from spiritual illness, the more alive we become, and the more we take on His divine image and likeness. By His death and triumphant resurrection, Christ has defeated death and has swung open the gates of Paradise. If we live a life of repentance, purifying ourselves through His divine grace, we can return to Paradise and live in union with our loving Creator forever.

We hear a lot these days about self-esteem, achieving success, and reaching our full potential. Self-improvement experts, books, and seminars may improve some aspects of our lives, but they ultimately fail because they only deal with the surface-level symptoms of our real problem, death. Since our main problem involves spiritual sickness, we need a spiritual path to recovery. When we realize our true identity as descendents of Adam and Eve and live an ongoing lifestyle of sincere repentance to liberate ourselves from our sins, we can finally experience the divine healing and personal transformation we desire. This is the only way we can ever reach our full potential and return to Paradise.

Copyright © 2006 by Dana S. Kees. Photo copyright © 2004 by Dana S. Kees.