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From Pascha to Pentecost

by Mary Lanser

Hear my cry O God, listen to my prayer from the ends of the earth I call to you, when my heart is faint. Lead me to a rock that is higher than I for you are my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy.” (Psalm 60:1-3)

“Lead me to a rock that is higher than I”—What an odd little petition. To paraphrase: Get me out of here, O Lord! Lead me to a cave in the mountains so that I may stand on the ledge and listen for Your voice. Set me on a rock in the middle of a rushing river swollen by floodwaters tumbling fast and dangerous, or on a startling desert-stone formation to take my feet up away from burning sands. What are we to make of this?

Sometimes the images that we conjure when we call upon God to rescue us in a hurry are amusing. We are like a child with its arms raised begging to be picked up so to see what’s going on in a moment of confusion, or to be rescued from some overwhelming contact with the world at ground level, or simply to seek a restful moment on a strong shoulder. Sometimes we only need a moment to catch our breath. Other times we long for and seek something more enduring.

Luke opens the Book of Acts telling us about the post-Resurrection Christ on earth: “To them (the Apostles) He presented himself living, after His passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking of the Kingdom of God.” (Acts 1:3) The language of the Christ presenting Himself “living” to the Apostles after his Resurrection indicates that after His Passion our Lord was exercising the agency of His divinity here on earth, making manifest the Incarnation in a way that the world had never experienced before. This was indeed the same Christ who was presented to us by his holy virgin mother at his Nativity, and the same Christ presented to us in his robe of royal purple and crown of thorns by Pontius Pilate as he said to the crowd: “Behold the man!”

The Risen Christ was and remains the Son of the Living God, second person of the Holy Trinity, but there had been profound changes at the time of His Resurrection. Here in the time between the Resurrect-ion and Pentecost the Apostles met Jesus the Christ who had been raised in power and in glory and whose body was no longer subject in any way to the corrupt-ion, weakness, and mortality of fallen human nature. He was truly and fully the New Adam, and in this glorified and corporeal emblem of eternal life, He demonstrated to the Apostles, and to all of us, what we can also anticipate if we are, as the Son was, willing to accept gracefully the death that is granted to us by the Father, so that we may have life eternal.

Jesus not only speaks of the Kingdom, but He, “living,” presents it to us voluntarily and bodily. There is no separating the Kingdom from God, for they are one as the soul and body are one and we are made in the flesh to be seerers and partakers of the Kingdom which He presents to us in the flesh. During the time between the Resurrection and Pentecost, the time for His teaching us has passed, and has been replaced by the time for showing us how to be and become one with the Kingdom in body, mind and spirit. As the great apostle Paul says:

“Therefore my brethren you also have become dead to the law through the Body of Christ, that you may be married to another–to Him who was raised from the dead that we should bear fruit to God. For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the code of the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death. But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what held us captive, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter.”  (Romans 7:4-6)

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While we wait for the day of the Holy Spirit, we encounter a number of important liturgical moments.

Icon for Thomas Sunday (courtesy

The first is the Sunday of Thomas where we are reminded again of Christ’s passion and death. Looking back now we realize that the Christ of our salvation is known to be true by the stripes and wounds of his passion and crucifixion. Christ Transfigured is truly Christ Crucified and Resurrected. The Risen Christ breathed the Holy Spirit into the Apostles on Thomas Sunday. This is a foretelling of what is to come and why it is necessary. Pentecost comes to present, to us individually and intimately, the living power and promise of the Cross.

The next is the Sunday of the Myrrhbearing Women. Though we read from the Gospel of Mark on that day, it is in the Gospel of John (chapter 20), where we read that “Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, “Why are you weeping?”

Icon for the Sunday of the Myrrhbearing Women (courtesy

This is a striking image and message for it harkens back to the Mosaic covenant of which the Risen Christ is the fulfillment. In Exodus 25, we read: “And you shall put the mercy seat atop the ark and in the ark you shall put the covenant that I shall give you. There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are upon the ark of the covenant, I will speak with you of all that I will give you in commandment for the sons of Israel.” And Christ presented himself, living, to the Apostles and spoke to them of the Kingdom of God.

The next three Sundays take us back to key moments in the life of Jesus, for us and for the season. The first Sunday in this grouping gives us the story of the miraculous healing of the paralytic, the next is the story of the Samaritan woman and the third is the Sunday of the story of the man born blind. The one element that draws all of these stories together into a resurrectional theme is water. The Sheep’s Pool for the Sunday of the Paralytic. Jacob’s Well for the Sunday of the Samaritan Women, and the Pool of Siloam for the Sunday of the Man Born Blind. As we wait for Pentecost these three Sundays remind us that through the Power of the Holy Spirit we all partake of the living water that comes down from heaven.

Icon for the Sunday of the Paralytic (courtesy

The Sunday of the Paralytic signals Jesus’ resurrectional power over the body, over flesh. for the paralytic had been ill for decades and in all that time there was no one to help him in his disreputable state. Even such deep-seated and resolute weakness can be restored in faith. This story also draws our attention back to the mercy seat by making clear the relationship between sin and physical illness. Jesus says to the man, “See, you are well! Sin no more , that nothing worse befall you.” (John 5:14)

The story also demonstrates that some of us will be healed indirectly by the powers of heaven, and others will receive direct healing by the power of the risen Christ. Therefore we see that some are healed by the angel disturbing the water in the pool and others are healed by Christ directly so that when the power of the Holy Spirit comes into the world at Pentecost, we are strengthened in knowledge and in power to be one body in Christ. to love and heal one another in Christ, Jesus and know that his healing power is still active in this world.

Icon for the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman (courtesy

Now before we advance to the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman there is another crucial moment in our waiting for Pentecost. As there is a Sunday of mid-Lent, with its focus on the Cross, there is also a mid-Pentecost, falling on Wednesday, which has as its focus the pouring out of the Holy Spirit as we experience the pouring out of the Living Water that is Christ, Jesus. The reading for that day comes again from the Gospel of John (7:10-24) and tells of Jesus when he went into the Temple to teach in the middle of the Feast of Tabernacles.

The Feast of Tabernacles is significant because it celebrates the forty years that Moses and the Hebrew people spent in the desert. The Feast of Booths/Tabernacles is directly associated with the Passover and Hebrew Pentecost which is the Feast of the Law and is celebrated, traditionally, fifty days after Passover and marks the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. There is also a direct reference in the reading to the fact that the Temple priests seek to kill Jesus for healing the paralytic on the Sabbath. Jesus reminds them that circumcision is a part of Mosaic law, and circumcisions are performed on the Sabbath. He asks then why it is that the law would allow the act of circumcision on the Sabbath, and yet punish an act of healing for the whole body on that same day. And so we are once again reminded of the suffering and sacrifice of the Cross to heal and restore the consequences of the disobedience and ingratitude of mankind. In addition to the reference to the Law in this feast, there is yet another liturgical connection made between the Sunday of the Paralytic and the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman by associating the water from the rock struck by Moses that is celebrated during the Feast of Tabernacles, and the living water that comes down from heaven and it is reflected in the Tropar and Kontak of the feast:

Having come to the middle of the Feast, refresh my thirsty soul with streams of piety; for Thou, O Saviour, didst cry to all: Let him who thirsts come to Me and drink. O Christ our God, Source of Life, glory to Thee.  — Troparion, Tone 8

When the Feast of the law was half over, O Lord and Creator of all, Thou didst say to the bystanders, O Christ our God: Come and draw the water of immortality. Therefore we fall down before Thee and cry with faith: Grant us Thy bounties, for Thou art the Source of our Life.  — Kontakion, Tone 4

The Sunday of the Samaritan Woman is noteworthy for a number of reasons. For example, Jesus was passing through Samaria on his way to Galilee, actually to avoid a confrontation with the Pharisees in Judea who were noticing that Jesus seemed to have more followers than John the Baptist. When we arrive at Jacob’s Well—tying the new covenant back to the old—Jesus asks a Samaritan woman to give him something to drink. This is not the only place where Jesus indicates that He wants us to offer Him small, mundane kindnesses as a gesture of our regard for Him and our love. Sometimes He requests material things and sometimes he asks that we give something of our internal or spiritual selves, even if it is only refraining from some small habit of sin. He asks this of us so that we may increase the room in our hearts for Him.

Then we have a most obvious reminder that Moses brought forth water from a rock, and it quenched a temporary thirst, but Jesus comes to offer us the Water of Life because so we will never thirst again. The water that He offers becomes a wellspring within us, which we can share with others, as long as we give to Him those bits of ourselves that make room in our hearts for Him. Pentecost brings with it the Power of the Holy Spirit that gives us the strength, the means, and the place—the Church—to be filled with the water coming down from heaven.

Icon for the Sunday of the Blind Man (courtesy

The following Sunday is the Sunday of the Man Born Blind, and here we add Light to the thematic theological symbol of Water. We are brought face to face, once more, with the Risen Light of the World, fully alive, still teaching, and illuminating the Apostles concerning the Kingdom of Heaven. A kontakion from the canon, enforces this fact:  “With eyes that are spiritually blind I come to you, O Christ and like the man who was blind since birth, I cry out to you with repentance: You are a shining Light to those who are in darkness.” This vivid association between water and light cannot help but to remind us of the power of our Baptism in water and the Spirit.

Again during Matins of that Sunday we hear: “You gave sight to the blind man who met you O Christ and you ordered him to wash in the pool of Siloam that he might see and announce your divinity which has appeared in the flesh for the salvation of all.”

And this brings us to reflect on yet another common element found in each of the three Sundays: the Paralytic, the Samaritan Woman, and the Man Born Blind. These three stories each bear the element of witness to the divinity of Jesus:

“Behold the anointed Messiah has appeared on earth. The Samaritan woman proclaimed to the town: It was written in the Law of old that a great prophet would come both God and man. He knew all my deeds. He uncovered everything hidden in the depths of my heart. The whole town ran and saw the truth of her words. They marvelled confirmed in faith by the sight.”  — Wednesday Vespers of the Week of the Samaritan Woman

“Jesus went up to Jerusalem to the Sheep Pool, in Hebrew called Bethesda…The Lord saw there a man with a chronic illness and He asked Him: Do you want to be healed?…I have spent my money on physicians and received no help from any one. The Physician of soul and body said to him: Take up your pallet and walk; proclaim to the whole world the greatness of my mercy and my might deeds.” — Monday Matins of the Week of the Paralytic

On these three Sundays of great miracles, we are to witness the divinity of Jesus to the world and the promise of Christ to send the Holy Spirit is to give to us, through the Church, the power to be and become disciples who will not hesitate to speak out in the assembly and give testimony to the glory of the Lord of Hosts.

Icon for Ascension (courtesy

And finally we reach the penultimate feast, that of the Ascension and now we can return to Psalm 60 and the rock that is higher than I, as we take leave, liturgically, of the Paschal feast, and Jesus returns to the Father to be seated at the right hand. The Feast is full of references to mountain-tops.

“God who appeared on Mount Sinai and gave the Law to Moses the prophet is now raised up bodily from the Mount of Olives. Let us praise Him all together, for he is clothed in glory.” and then “O Christ, You raised up human nature which had been subjected to the corruption of the grave, and you exalted it by your Ascension into heaven where you glorify us with You.” — Matins of Ascension

So that the Rock that is higher than I is, in fact, Jesus, Lord, Redeemer, King.

It is also on the Feast of the Ascension during Matins that our attention is turned fully to what is to come: “O graciousness which surpasses understanding! O mystery which invokes wonder! The Master of the universe goes from earth to heaven and sends the Holy Spirit to his disciples to illumine their hearts and enkindle them with his grace. The Lord said to his disciples: Remain in Jerusalem and I will send you a Paraclete who is seated with the Father and with Me…”

Icon for the Sunday of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council (

Finally, the Sunday after the Ascension is called the Sunday of the Holy Fathers and commemorates the bishops who sat at the Council of Nicea. It is not the sanctity of individual bishops that is the focus of this feast but rather the fact that these bishops gave testament to the divinity of Christ. In this way the Sunday of The Holy Fathers carries forward the message of witnessing from the Sundays of the miracles and draws attention to the intimate relationships between and among Christ, ourselves, the Holy Spirit and the Church.

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The focus of the Feast’s readings from Acts is on Paul’s pastoral care of the flock and of the importance of teaching right doctrine and the importance of the Holy Spirit in securing the testimony of the Life of Christ and our lives in Christ: “…now I go bound in the spirit to Jerusalem, not knowing the things that will happen to me there…For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God, therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers to shepherd the church of God which He purchased by His own blood.” (Acts 20:22-28)

In this way, we are prepared to address the various themes presented to us at Pentecost. We begin to see the need for the illumination of the Holy Spirit so that we have the power to be and become what Christ has asked of us here, to be witnesses to the Truth, and to go and make disciples. We begin to see that for us to do these things the Holy Orthodox Faith and Orthodox Church has been bequeathed to us as the sure path to salvation for ourselves and for all whose lives we manage to reach out and touch. We come to realize that as the Body of Christ, the Church here on earth is indeed the Rock that is higher than I.

Blessed journey into the Feast!

Editor’s Note: Mary Lanser is the leader of Holy Trinity’s Women’s Ministry. You can reach her at

A Reflection on the Bridegroom Icon

BridegroomOur faith teaches that Christ became man so that we might by grace become God.  It is in this icon that we clearly see the import of this exchange. Here we do not see as we might expect, a groom full of joy and dressed up in handsome clothing, with a king’s crown on, and ribbons binding the hands of the couple as a symbol of how love binds them together. Rather,  in this icon we see a sorrowful Christ, a captive whose hands are bound, who is without a wedding garment, and who is wearing a crown of thorns.  It is here in this icon that we see Christ as having fully entered into the mess, the brokenness, the sorrow, of the Fall. He comes to his bride in humble clothing to match hers.

We know however, that the story does not end here. Although here He “weeps over Jerusalem” yet, “for the joy set before Him he endured the cross”—The joy over one sinner who repents, the joy of seeing His bride without spot or wrinkle, dressed in the glorious garment of His purity and light.  It is at Pascha that we will see the groom and bride as we expect in the fullness of joy and the beauty of holiness.

The Paschal Icon focuses our gaze on the Kingdom to come in hope and expectation, but it is in this icon that we are reminded of Christ’s example for us of how to live in a fallen world—that in the face of sin, love must be humble in order to act as a healing balm to the proud, love must be sacrificial and self-denying as a healing balm in the face of the selfishness surrounding us.  It is in this icon that we see what it means that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” It is in this icon that we hear Christ saying, “As I have loved you, so you also must love one another.”

— Anna Stickles

Great Lent: Rejoice in the Fast

by Dn. David Smith

Smith - Version 2Winter has the potential to give us “snow days”—days of grace and contemplation because of a winter storm, when life is “forced” providentially to slow down and our agendas com-pelled to yield to the greater work of God. It is an opportunity granted to us for refreshment if we but step into it and receive it with faith, hope, and love as God’s gift.

Such is Great Lent, the Great Fast. We have entered into this providential season of contemplation and of grace: of prayer and of fasting and of almsgiving. Like the other fasts, this one is afforded to us by the Church for our renewal through the personal and communal practice of intensified spiritual disciplines. It is the Great Fast, however, because of its more intense rigor, a rigor preceding and leading us into the Resurrection of Christ God, a rigor worthy of the Church’s participation and of the Great and Holy Pascha. It is a holy season and a divinely appointed opportunity for our spiritual renewal and reclamation (shades of Ebenezer Scrooge here).

But, the question is: Will we receive this holy season as a gift of utter grace for our salvation or will we bear it, begrudge it, put up with it, tolerate it, resent it, and not find joy in the salvation it offers us? May we not forget last month’s parable of the elder brother of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). It is the younger brother, the prodigal, who tends to get our attention and limelight. (Pesky younger siblings and troublemakers tend to!)


Icon of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-24), courtesy of

However, this parable of our Lord is just as much about the older brother as it is about the younger. It is a sad commentary that the elder—and obviously, more responsible—sibling could not rejoice in the return of the family’s black sheep to the fold. Perhaps it takes the heart of a father to thoroughly bask in such a return or repentance.

But, at the same time, it certainly is not out of the question for such joy to be shared by all in the family, including the dutiful older brother. Sadly, despite never leaving the family estate and the preserve of his father, the dutiful elder son of the family could not tolerate such wasteful extravagance on someone who had obviously failed and proven his unworthiness!

Sadly, having served faithfully his father “these many years,” going about his father’s business each and every day without so much as a request, the elder son, loved dearly by his father, had lost the joy (I wonder, did he ever have it?) of being a part of the family, of celebrating the fact that he was the son of so loving and forgiving a father as his. It is so very easy to “neglect [the joy] of so great a salvation” (Heb. 2:3) when we get focused solely on our fulfill-ing of “obligations” and start comparing ourselves to others who may not be living up to our standards. Insidiously, the old devil turns our attention from whence we have come and saps our hearts of the joy of being made sons and daughters of our heavenly Father by Whose utter grace “we live, and move, and have our [very] being” (Acts 17:28)

In these holy days of “obligation,” the Church invites us to “rejoice and be exceedingly glad” (Matt. 5:12) in the midst of the “duty” of our Lenten labors, basking in the sublime reality that we are profoundly loved by God our Father, though unworthy sinners that we are. Through the coming of our true elder Brother, Jesus Christ, in the flesh we have all been made children of the Most High to share in the joy of His Kingdom (Rom. 14:17-18).

“What God Has Joined Together…”
Orthodox Affirmations of Marriage

Photo credit: A.E.Landes Photography ©2014On Friday, June 26, news came that the Supreme Court had narrowly ruled in favor of so called “same-sex marriage.” I say “so called” because no court can redefine what God has instituted, namely that marriage is a sacrament, a mystery, a lifelong union of husband and wife representing the mystical union between Christ and His Church. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no man put asunder (Matt. 19:6; Mark 10:9).

I commend to your reading the statement on marriage and sexuality that was issued by the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in 2013. (The assembly is made up of all the active Orthodox bishops in this country, of every jurisdiction.) Below you can also find specific declarations made by our diocesan hierarch, Archbishop Melchisedek, and those made by the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church of America.

— Fr. John Reeves

Statements on Marriage and Human Sexuality

2013 Assembly Statement on Marriage and Sexuality

Article I

We, the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America, representing millions of Orthodox Christians in the United States of America, Canada and Central America, express our deep concern over recent actions on the part of our respective governments and certain societal trends concerning the status of marriage in our countries, in particular the legalization of same-sex unions.

Article II

The Orthodox Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality, firmly grounded in Holy Scripture, two millennia of Church Tradition, and Canon Law, holds that the sacrament of marriage consists in the union of a man and a woman, and that authentic marriage reflects the sacred unity that exists between Christ and His Bride, the Church.

Article III

Persons with homosexual orientation are to be cared for with the same mercy and love that is bestowed on all of humanity by our Lord Jesus Christ. Moreover, the Church is a spiritual hospital, where we all are called to find the healing of our fallen humanity through Jesus Christ, who assumed human nature in order to restore it. All of us struggle with various passions, and it is only within the Church that we find the means of overcoming these passions with the assistance of God’s grace. Acting upon any sexual attraction outside of sacramental marriage, whether the attraction is heterosexual or homosexual, alien-ates us from God.

Article IV

We exhort the clergy and faithful of the Orthodox Church to bear witness to the timeless teachings of Christ by striving for purity and holiness in their own lives, by instructing their families and communities in the precepts of the Holy Gospel, and by placing their trust in our Lord, who “has overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

Article V

Finally, we encourage our faithful to approach their parish priest or spiritual father with any questions or concerns about this statement and its practical repercussions in their daily lives.

To the Clergy and Faithful of the Diocese of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania:

It is by now common knowledge that the Supreme Court of the United States rendered a decision on Friday, June 26. which declared that marriage between members of the same sex is a constitutional right. This ruling effectively overturned laws in several states which declared such unions to be illegal, and ruled that such unions can be legally performed in all states.

While this ruling marks a significant change in the way that homosexuality is regarded according to the civil statutes, it in no way affects the teaching and practice of the Orthodox Christian Church either in this country or anywhere else in the world. In the interests of clarity, it should be understood that Orthodox Parish Churches are not “Wedding Chapels.” Our Churches do not function as places where the sacrament of Holy Matrimony is offered to the public at large on a non-sectarian basis for a fee. Nobody can be married in an Orthodox Church who is not a member in good standing. The qualifications to be a “Member in good standing” have not changed. A member in good standing must be someone who has been properly received into the Church, a faithful believer in the teachings of the Church, a regular participant in the sacraments of Confession and Communion, and gives regular financial and material support to the parish. Persons who do not meet these criteria do not have a blessing to be married in the Church, and no clergy have a blessing to ignore or in any way set aside these criteria.

The Church, following the direct teaching of Jesus Christ, allows for no other form of marriage:

which made them at the beginning made them male and female. And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain. but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. (Matthew 19:4-6).

Thus anyone who contracts or who has, in the past, contracted such a relationship and does not repent of that relationship, in addition to those who live together in a conjugal relationship without being married, are not to be communed.

I encourage our clergy and faithful to refresh their knowledge of Church teaching on these matters by reading the Synodal Affirmation on the Mystery of Marriage (see next tab) and and the Statement of the Assembly of Bishops of the United States (see first tab).

Any further questions may be addressed through my office.

Sincerely in Christ,

Archbishop of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania

Encyclical Letter of the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America on Marriage

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

We find it imperative to address you on an issue of crucial importance for the Christian life. An increasingly secularized world tends more and more to neglect the traditional biblical understanding of marriage and family. Misunderstanding freedom and proclaiming the progress of a humanity supposedly too mature, sophisticated and scientific to follow Christ’s Gospel, many have abandoned its moral demands. The consequences are plain for all to see: the family is disintegrating, legalized abortion is killing millions of unborn children, corrupt sexual behavior is rampant. The moral foundations of society are collapsing.

We, the bishops of the Orthodox Church in America, therefore proclaim anew to you, the flock entrusted to our care, the great and holy vision of marriage that is gloriously preserved and manifested in the doctrine, liturgy and canonical tradition of the Church. We do not make this proclamation in the name of an outdated conservatism or because we consider our present society intrinsically more corrupt than the past generations. We speak because we are concerned for the welfare and salvation both of you, the members of our flock, and of all men. We speak of “that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our own eyes … concerning the word of life” (John 1:1). We speak because we know the Truth of the Gospel of Christ to be the eternal Truth, the one needful thing, the good portion (Luke 10:42) for all men, in all times and places.

Many Orthodox, non-Orthodox, and even non-Christians admire our beautiful Marriage Service. Our task is to show them the vision that this Service reveals, a vision of marriage as an icon of the Trinitarian life of God Himself, and to indicate the responsibility and commitment that this vision of marriage implies.

We therefore appeal to all of you who are responsible for the life of our parishes and for the future of our youth to make a common effort to provide appropriate guidance and help to all in matrimonial matters, both through your own personal examples of pure and upright lives and undefiled marriages and also through words of exhortation and explanation, “knowing how you ought to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6), and through programs of education.

From the Old Testament Scriptures we learn that God created man “in His own image,” “male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27), and, since that beginning, “a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24), Man and woman are mutually complementary, and this complementarity, expressed in their union and common activity, reflects the very image and likeness of God. This spiritual basis of marriage clearly transcends, without suppressing, the fleshly union of the bodies. Fleshly relations when separated from spiritual ones are depraved; they must be woven into the pure and total love between a man and a woman united in marriage.

In the New Testament Scripture, from the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, we learn that marriage is a unique and unbreakable union of husband and wife joined by God Himself: “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder” (Matthew 19:6). The Marriage Service likewise makes it clear that the bridegroom and the bride are united not by themselves, but by God: “For by Thee is the husband joined unto the wife” (Marriage Service). For this reason the Orthodox Marriage Service is devoid of any oaths or marriage vows on the part of the couple. Their desire and freely given consent are certainly necessary for the marriage, for sacraments are not acts of magic that eliminate the need for human cooperation. Yet no vow or oath can possibly join a man and a woman together in the gracious and absolute way called for in Christian marriage. The true Christian marriage is effected by God Himself. In such a union, described by St. Paul as “a great mystery” (Ephesians 5:32), human love and desire for companionship become a love pervaded and sanctified by divine grace: water is transformed into the good wine, as it was at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee. In a Christian marriage husband and wife manifest in their own lives the union between God and His beloved people; between Christ, the Bridegroom, and the Church, His Bride (Ephesians 5:32). God accompanies husband and wife, bringing them into a unity which will be revealed as perfect and eternal in His Kingdom, and filling their lives with the Holy Spirit so that selfishness and division may be overcome. He sanctifies and purifies their total relationship. According to the prayers of the Marriage Service, God communicates to those being joined in unity and love, faith and oneness of mind, holiness, purity and chastity, joy and glory, and the possibility for eternal life. He unites them in body and spirit, heart and mind.

Obviously, Christian marriage will never find its ultimate fulfillment and happiness in this world. Like all things in Christ, marriage too must pass through the cross, through temptation, suffering, trial and finally death, before coming to its ultimate consummation in the Resurrection and the Kingdom of God which will come in power at the end of the ages. All this Christian couples experience as they strive to realize in their own lives the great gift given to them by God in marriage: “Thou hast set upon their heads crowns of precious stones; they asked life of Thee, and Thou gavest it them” (Psalm 21, the Prokeimenon of the Marriage Service). For those who fight the good fight as good and faithful servants, the crowns become their eternal reward as witnesses to Christ and the wedding garments are transformed into robes of salvation and eternal glory.

Marriage is the most perfect realization of love between a man and a woman: two become one. Love unites in such a way that two lives become one life in perfect harmony. This love, sanctified by God, is the great source of the happiness which is sought in marriage, and in it lies a power that transforms both those who love and those who are loved. Because of this transforming power of love, all the difficulties and defects in family life can be overcome. True love never ceases, whether in this world or in the age to come. Faithfulness and confidence must reign in marriage, for there can be no deception in love. When husband and wife are united by love, they share a common life and help each other in everything they do, for their love for each other expresses itself in mutual help and support.

Such love implies a relationship in marriage which is total in character. Husband and wife must live not for purely individual gratification, but for each other, for such is the meaning of true love. Marriage must be offered to God continually and consciously, and it must always be rooted in the life and teachings of the Church. Husband and wife can achieve their final glorification in the age to come only by self-sacrifice for the sake of one another in this life unto the glory of God. Christian marriage is a specific application of one of Christ’s fundamental teachings: “He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:39).

The greatest miracle of this divinely sanctified love of marriage is the procreation of good, fair and holy children. In the image of God who brings forth life in love, the Christian marriage, a unity in love established by God, brings forth holy and good life (1 Cor. 7:14).

The perfect marriage can only be one, single and unique. The prototype of marriage, the unity between Christ and His Church, excludes multiple marriages: Christ has only one Church; the Church has no other Christ. Even death cannot break the bond of perfect love. Therefore, the Church does not advocate second or third marriages, even for widows or widowers; rather, they are tolerated as condescension to human frailty and weakness, while fourth marriages are totally forbidden.

The crowning which takes place in the Marriage Service reveals the bridegroom and the bride to be a new community in Christ. The husband is the head of this community, as God is the head of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:3) and as Christ “is the head of the Church” (Ephesians 5:23). His headship is not a power over his wife and family, but a divinely-given responsibility, to be discharged after the image of Christ, the perfect man. “. . . a man approved of God among you” (Acts 2:22). His headship is a service of love and sacrifice. He is to nourish and cherish his wife and family “as Christ does the Church” (Ephesians 5:29). The wife is the helpmate of her husband, his beloved companion for life, his source of joy and wellbeing. In Eve, the mother of life, the fullness of life was revealed, for without her Adam was alone and had no companion fit for him (Genesis 2:18). As the bearer of life in the conception of children, the wife has an immediate concern for life and its quality. It is she who gives content to the life of her husband and family: purity, kindness, peace, gentleness and the concern for others. Her true adornment is “the imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious” (1 Peter 3:4).

To live up to its high calling, the Christian family must be firmly established in the Faith. Husband and wife must strive to learn more about the Faith and to accept its teachings as the law of their life. It must become for them the authority, against which all else that they read, hear or see is tested and evaluated. It is especially important that the Christian family participate in the life of the Church; by praying at home, by coming to the church services, by participating in the sacraments, by observing the Church’s fasts and feasts and by keeping her traditions. It is also important that the Christian family participate in the general life of their parish and have as friends those distinguished by a firm personal faith and purity of life.

Each Christian must seek the advice and guidance of the pastors of the Church. Especially before entering into marriage, Orthodox men and women must contact their pastor, so that he might explain the true nature of marriage in the Church and help them better to understand all the demands of a truly spiritual and moral family life. Each family likewise must continue to live under the guidance and with the help of the Church and her pastors.

With the help of God all the difficulties and misfortunes which are inevitable in life will be overcome, because what is impossible for man is possible for God. With faith in God, the husband will be truly capable of leading the family in the way of salvation toward the Kingdom of God, loving his wife and his children more than himself. With the help of God, the wife will be capable of being a source of purity, holiness and love for the entire family. And the children born for God in such a family from the beginning will be brought up as Christians. Such a family will be a beautiful model and source of faith, goodness and kindness for all those around it.

The Christian ideal of marriage and family, manhood and womanhood, is incomparably more exalted, balanced and fulfilling than those broken, one-sided or totally erroneous ideologies of today’s world which reduce the meaning of human life to the satisfaction of sexual appetites, material security, or to other such limited functions and desires. In Christ man is revealed as son and friend of God. He is able to become a member of Christ in soul and body. In the Christian marriage, he is able to achieve an eternal, unique and total union in love.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ: be true men and women. Be faithful to the Christian ideal of marriage and family. Let our Christian families be united in mutual love and concern. Husbands and wives: love each other; love your children. Children: respect your parents. “Submit yourselves one to another in the fear of God” (Ephesians 5:21). “Mortify immorality, impurity, evil desire … on account of these the wrath of God is coming” (Colossians 3:5-6).

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If Christ Be Not Risen, Our Faith Is Vain

by Fr. John Reeves

Last year on Western Easter, Marianne Budde, the Episcopal Bishop of Washington, DC, opined that if someone were to discover a tomb with Jesus’ remains in it, “the entire enterprise would not come crashing down.” ( This isn’t a new notion. In fact, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe it as doctrine. But it’s been around a lot longer than that.

The belief that Jesus did not rise bodily from the dead is part of the Gnostic family of heresies, this one in particular being called “docetism”, (from Greek, δοχειν, to appear). In other words, Jesus would only have appeared as man. This would make Him a divine spirit masquerading in human form; His death was only an appearance, as well as his Resurrection. If that is the case, the Resurrection would be superfluous.

Such errant preaching and teaching led me from the Episcopal Church to Orthodoxy almost forty years ago. It is sad to see how the denials of the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the Miracles, and oh yes, the Resurrection, have been multiplied over the past five decades.

Either Christ rose from the dead, or death is not conquered. If death is not conquered, we are still in our sins, to borrow from St. Athanasius (cf. On the Incarnation). Either Christ was and remains God in the flesh, before, during, and after his Passion and Resurrection, or all that we are about to celebrate is simply play-acting, a myth, a drama without much to compel it.

In writing to the Church in Corinth, this is St. Paul’s point: our faith, our life, and our eternal salvation are all based upon the Resurrection of Christ. If the Resurrection is not true, in what then do we place our hope? St. Paul says that his preaching, and our faith, would then be vain, pointless. He does not talk about the moral teaching of Jesus. He does not exhort the Corinthians merely to live ethical lives. He is blunt: Christ’s resurrection is our hope of resurrection. Without His victory over sin and death, we are all losers.

The story is told of a young man arrested during Soviet days for shouting “Christ is risen!” in front of Lenin’s tomb. Upon being interrogated, he was asked why he was “disturbing the peace.”

He asked his questioners simply, “Is there a body in Lenin’s tomb?”

“Of course, young man! Everyone knows that!” was the brusque reply.

“Christ’s tomb is empty! Christ is risen!”

On Pascha night, at Orthodox churches around the world, bishops, priests, deacons, and laymen will wait for the “Light of Christ” to pierce the darkness, in anticipation of the Resurrection. We know Christ’s tomb is empty. We fill the night skies with the cry which makes devils tremble: “Christ is risen!”

And we will say it, not merely because it is our tradition, but because it is the truth, a truth we believe down to the core of our being, down to the marrow in our bones. That in a nutshell is Orthodoxy: the Truth about God, the Truth about Man, and the Truth about Christ—God’s rising from the dead to save Man from sin and death. Otherwise, why bother?

And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.” (1 Cor. 15:14)


Advent 2013: Preparing for God to Come

by Fr. Basil Biberdorf

June 14, 2012And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel.” This is from God’s condemnation of the serpent at the Fall (Genesis 3:15), and is commonly known as the protoevangelium, the “first Gospel.”

Thus, from the beginning, the coming of Christ is anticipated. A descendant of the fallen man and woman would be the undoing of the one who tempted them. (And, oddly, the woman thinks she has birthed this savior herself—“I have acquired a man from the Lord”—although this child turns out to be not the savior, but rather the first murderer.) This One who would bruise the serpent’s heel would be awaited by all of God’s people (Gen. 4:1). It is this sense of anticipation that characterizes the entirety of the Nativity Fast. We think on the expectant people of God, characterized so well by the mournful Western hymn, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” We think on the Virgin who bears the Creator of all in her very womb, and the One who will finally appear to us in the flesh.

We can consider the mystery of how a young woman, a “girl” in our own time, betrothed to an old man, who is great with child, trusting without faltering, as she and her husband make their way to their ancestral city. We can marvel that the Creator of all is born, not into luxury, comfort, and power, but into poverty and lowliness. The Son of God himself deigns not only to be carried in the womb of one of his creatures, but he consents to being born in a way, and into circumstances, none of us would desire for our own children. Yet this is the God we wait for. The difficulty in our time is that we want to skip the anticipation. We like instant gratification, not “good things come to those who wait.” We would rather live in the celebration right now—feasting and rejoicing—instead of making ready, and watching expectantly.

This is where the Nativity Fast comes in. Unlike the Great Fast, this fast doesn’t place the emphasis on repentance: our need to recognize our true state before God and desire that it be otherwise. Rather, the emphasis is squarely on anticipation. We eat less, and omit certain foods, so as to build the hunger in ourselves for the One who is truly needful. We focus our prayers on the arrival of that Christ who comes to save us from our sins. We recall the burning bush (Ex. 3), and Moses taking off his sandals because he was on holy ground, then marvel at the Virgin who touches and contains God. We recall Isaiah who was cleansed by the hot coal (Is. 6:7), then see the Virgin cleansed by Christ inside her. We, too, behold this Creator who comes united to human flesh without destroying it by fire.

As we journey in this season of the Nativity Fast, let us not be in a great hurry to reach our destination. Let us proceed slowly, savoring those wondrous anticipations we have been given to us in Scripture. Let us sing the hymns, making the anticipation of old our anticipation today. Let us forgo our favorite foods, not because we are sad, but because something—some One—greater awaits us at the end of the journey: God Himself, born as a child.

Out of the Depths I Cry Unto Thee

June 14, 2012by Fr. Basil Biberdorf

At every vespers service we sing “Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord; O Lord, hear my voice.” In the wake of the death we have witnessed recently, particularly the monster of a tornado last month in Moore, Oklahoma, words like these become the unutterable cry of the heart. It was an EF5 tornado, the strongest category with 200+ mph winds, and estimated at over one mile wide, which destroyed two elementary schools at dismissal time and wiped entire neighborhoods off the map. Parents and rescuers were left to search for children, other loved ones, and pets in the rubble, working against time, power outages, and road closures to save those whom they could. At the end of the confusion and chaos, the final death toll stood at 24, including 9 children.

What kind of God lets this happen? We could ask the same thing about the EF5 tornado that struck Moore previously in 1999, killing 40, or the EF5 that struck Joplin, Missouri, in May 2011, killing 162. Indeed, we ask the same thing about all manner of disasters of any origin. How can God allow this? Why doesn’t God do something?

The mystery for us is that God has done something. Fr. Thomas Hopko summarizes: “John Chrysostom has a sermon where people say, ‘Why doesn’t God do something?’ And he says, ‘What do you want Him to do?’ And then he went through this whole litany of everything that God does: He creates the world, we fall. He sends the prophets, He gives the Law. He gives the Commandments. Finally, he sends His own Son. Ultimately, he is crucified. What more is there? So when Jesus, hanging on the Cross, says, “It is fulfilled (tetelestai in Greek, sometimes translated, “It is finished”), it doesn’t simply mean it’s the end of the story. It means that it’s the total accomplishment of everything. Everything now is done. Nothing more can be done.”

The whole world—not just humanity, but the entire created order—was corrupted because of us. Before the Fall, there was no sin, and there was no death. Before the Fall, the destruction we witness from these disasters could not even be contemplated, for, without death, there is no true disaster. In the Fall, not only man is corrupted, but all of creation. “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned,” as St. Paul puts it in Romans 5:12. And, lest we condemn Adam, we must acknowledge that each of us would have sinned in the same way, insisting on our way rather than God’s, and the same destruction would be the result.

God has done something. He ascended the Cross. He partook of the death He did not create, suffering it as one for whom nothing could be more alien. He, too, cried out, “Why have You forsaken me?” with the groaning and anguish that went far deeper than ours could. He, too, cried from the depths. Life Himself entered into death in order to wage war against it, in order to liberate us from it.

Where is God in all of this? On the Cross, His arms open wide in the embrace of His beloved. Those who have reposed have entered into a death that is not permanent because of this embrace. “For as in Adam, all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).

Editor’s Note: Fr. Basil wishes to acknowledge Chad Bird, who wrote an article that inspired this one. Fr. Thomas Hopko’s talk, “Word of the Cross” can be accessed here

A Tale of Two Tough Weeks

by Fr. Lawrence Farley

“A tough week.”

This is how President Obama described the week of April 14—a week that saw acts of terrorism in Boston and a tragic fire and explosion in Texas compounding the other challenges with which life is often filled. Boston also experienced the emotional roller-coaster of lockdown, manhunt, shoot-out, and arrest. A tough week indeed.

These words, however, could also be used to describe another week, long ago, that also was filled with emotion, fear, and death. I refer, of course, to the last week of our Lord’s earthly life.

The week was filled with danger, since it was well known that Jesus’ foes had recently tried to stone Him, a fate which He narrowly escaped (John 11:8). For this reason, His entry into the city had to be secretly pre-arranged, as did the place in the city where He would eat the Passover meal (Mark 11:1f, 14:12f), for if He left the safety of the public crowds, He risked arrest and execution (Mark 14:1-2).

That Passover meal, eaten with the Twelve in secrecy, was marked by fear. He predicted that one of them would betray Him, that He would have to leave them, that they would all deny Him and leave Him alone. As they ate the bread at the beginning of the meal, and as they drank the cup of wine afterward, He declared the bread and wine to be His body and His blood, broken and poured out. They did not know what it all could mean, but they knew talk of death when they heard it.

Then came the catastrophic night of betrayal and arrest, when one of their own inner circle acted as guide to His enemies, and when they all forsook Him and fled. Peter, initially trying to prove himself brave, tagged along later at a distance, only to find himself denying Christ over and over again, as the Lord had predicted. While the disciples scattered and cowered, their Lord was being tried and mocked and beaten by His own people at an illegal all-night trial. When daybreak came, He was handed over to Pilate.

By three o’clock in the afternoon it was all over.

Jesus hung dead on the cross, beaten, disgraced, abandoned by almost all. His adversaries were triumphant. For them it was the most satisfying Passover in a long time. But not for the disciples of the Lord. For them, it was a tough week.

This review of the first Holy Week can help us through our own tough weeks, for it teaches us that God does not save us from fearful suffering and death, but reveals His salvation in the midst of it. The fear-suffused and dark Passover supper would be later revealed as the eternal and joyful Mystic Supper, as the meal of death became the meal of life. The moment of supreme defeat and disgrace on Golgotha would become the cosmic victory of God, when He worked salvation in the midst of the earth.

This shows that all our suffering can be transmuted into joy, if we wait on God. Dark days may tempt us, calling us to despair, to give up on God. Judas gave up: he took a rope and hanged himself. We must not give up.

Despair called to Peter too, for after he denied his Lord time and again, he went out and wept bitterly (Mark 14:72). But, in the end, he did not heed the call to despair. Despite his almost unbearable pain, he persevered, and waited and did not give up.

With God it is always worth the wait. Christ came to Peter and restored him, accepting his repentance and calling him to once again take up his apostolic calling and leadership. He came to all the disciples, forgiving them, gathering them, healing their hearts and breathing His Spirit into them.

Holy Week may have ended with the Cross on Friday and the Tomb on Saturday. But it gave way to the Resurrection on Sunday, the first day of the week and a sign of the timeless eighth day of eternity.

As we go through our lives and endure tough weeks, let us continue to wait on God. When day dawned that first Resurrection morn, all the pain of the past week faded with the passing darkness.

So it will prove for us.

Editor’s Note: Fr. Lawrence Farley is the priest in Langley, B.C., and is the author of many books and Ancient Faith Radio podcasts. This article originally appeared on

Lent: What Kind of Bore Will it Be?

DSCF2107 - Version 2by Fr. John Reeves

Many words can have more than one meaning. As I began to write this article the word “bore” came to mind, as in full bore. It’s a mechanical term referring to the maximum effort expended to get the most power out of a cylinder, or bore. Just as I was prepared to exhort everyone to put full effort into the remainder of the Fast, I thought of the other meaning of bore, as in to be bored! It made me think that for some, Lent might be approached more as a big bore, something to be endured, designed to take all the fun out of living and dining for forty days, and little else.

Let’s look at the two approaches. One presumes that there is indeed something to “get out” of Lent, that spiritual effort is required, but that in the end maximum benefits are the results. The Church certainly has this understanding. Manifold services are to be accompanied by fasting and additional personal prayer. It is a period which brings “great profit to the soul,” to quote from Lenten hymns.

The other approach, that Lent is a bore, views this time as the following rules and regulations, noting how strictly, or not, one fasts. Little emphasis is placed on prayer, the natural end of fasting. Therefore, attempting to fast can not only be a challenge but a “downer,” a meaningless exercise trying to stay on a semblance of an ecclesiastical diet, but nothing more. It becomes an end, in and of itself, and hence a spiritually insignificant practice.

april-24-2011Of course, the purpose of Orthodoxy is not to fast. It is to draw us into an ever closer relationship with God. During Lent, we have a dedicated, seasonal opportunity to do that, to be drawn ever closer to God by spending more time in prayer and worship and limiting the distractions of food and entertainment. The latter are not bad in and of themselves, but often become the focus of much of our lives.

The many opportunities for “extra” prayer and worship—Presanctified Liturgies, Memorial Saturdays, Mission Vespers—become a natural end of our fasting, if we are fasting to draw nearer to God. Without availing ourselves of them, without going “full bore”, however, limits Lent’s outcome, like underutilizing the potential power of an engine. We might fire on some cylinders, but not all. That’s when Lent becomes a big bore, something to endure at best, until “it’s over” at Pascha.

Clean Week was when we drained the crankcase and changed the oil at Forgiveness Vespers. Perhaps, we accompanied this by changing the timing on our spiritual engines. Or we might have adjusted our carburetors to accommodate a new spiritual regimen, a richer mixture of “fuel” and “air.” But unless we engage the disciplines of Lent fully, we are merely tinkering around in the garage, with an engine that might be idling nicely, but in a car that’s not going anywhere.

We don’t admire a car merely because it idles well, however. What we are really interested in is the ride. That takes more effort but it will demonstrate what the car was actually made for. Souls are like that, too. They aren’t made to idle, any more than cars are. Souls are made for action and movement. A Lenten discipline is a test track, a proving ground for the soul to reach its capacity.

For the rest of Lent, let the brake off and ease into drive. Don’t race the engine, but gradually increase the speed, the intensity of the spiritual effort. Lent won’t seem so boring, and we can make it to a fuller capacity, if not a wide open throttle, by Pascha.

Ultimately the biggest difference between “big bore” and “full bore” in Lent simply depends on the effort we put into it.

Another Salvation Opportunity

Holy Trinity parishioners spread the joy of the season by caroling to area shut-ins.

by Fr. John Bakas

It seems like yesterday when the summer heat was upon us. [Now we have entered] the transformative period called Thanksgiving and Christmas. It is a marvelous and sacred time in our church calendar. Advent is a forgotten 40 days of invitation to renew our commitment to our Lord Jesus Christ. It is forty days to inventory the quality and direction of our lives. It is forty days to avail ourselves of the opportunity of saving our souls. By the Grace of God it is a time to bring balance, holiness, peace and purpose to our lives.

Thanksgiving and Christmas become meaningless and devoid of joy if we only see it as a time of just feasting. Indeed, we ought to also fast, according to our church guidelines. We ought to learn self-denial and bodily self-discipline. But if we only center the Holy season on our stomachs, eating or not eating we miss the whole spiritual purpose.

A saying attributed to the Holy Fathers of the church says: “The devil does not eat, he does not drink and he does not marry and this great ascetic formally is not less a devil”. We must put this into the proper context. Fasting should be a means to draw us closer to God by focusing on Him. In addition to food considerations, the holidays should be a time of spiritual growth and personal life changes.

Let us pray for positive attitude adjustments and habit rehabilitation that brings out the good in all of us and reconciles us to God and to one another. Do you want to make your holidays really count? Do you want to greet Jesus the new born babe with a joyous “Christ is born, Glorify Him”? Consider the following ten “unofficial” Commandments as part of personal renewal. Put them on your refrig-erator door, read them frequently and practice them with conviction and prayer:

  1. Keep skid chains on your tongue; always say less than you think. Cultivate a low, persuasive voice. How you say it, often counts more than what you say.
  2. Make promises sparingly, and keep them faithfully, no matter what it costs.
  3. Never let any opportunity pass to say a kind and encouraging word to or about somebody. Praise good work, regardless of who did it. If criticism is needed, criticize helpfully, never spitefully.
  4. Be interested in others, their pursuits, their work, their homes and families. Make merry with those who rejoice; with those who weep, mourn. Let everyone you meet, however humble, feel that you regard them as a person of importance.
  5. Be cheerful. Don’t burden or depress those around you by dwelling on your minor aches and pains and small disappointments. Remember, everyone is carrying his own cross.
  6. Keep an open mind. Discuss, but don’t argue. It is a mark of a superior heart to be able to disagree without being disagreeable.
  7. Let your virtues speak for themselves. Refuse to talk of another’s vices. Discourage gossip. It is a waste of valuable time and is extremely destructive.
  8. Be careful of another’s feelings. Wit and humor at the other person’s expense are rarely worth it and may hurt when least expected.
  9. Pay no attention to ill-natured remarks about you. Remember, the person who carried the message may not be the most accurate reporter in the world. Simply live so that nobody will believe them.
  10. Don’t be anxious about the credit due you. Do your best and be patient. Forget about yourself, and let others remember. Practice forgiveness and charity.

Happy Advent!

Editor’s Note: The Rev. John Bakas is Dean of St. Sophia’s Cathedral in Los Angeles, CA.  The article appears courtesy of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of San Francisco.
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