“As Orthodox Christians and as Americans, we express our sadness and pain for our brothers and sisters all over the world who find themselves in tragic circumstances of hostility, violence and war, where families have been torn apart, displaced and where people are denied basic human rights. Following the example of Christ, we are called to offer unconditional love to our fellow men while starting immediately to pray for them. In our great country, which has historically and practically welcomed people of every nation, tribe, and tongue, we have the distinct privilege and honor to offer philoxenia – love of the stranger – to humans from all walks of life.
The New Testament is replete with an ethos of philoxenia – love of the stranger – based not on fear but on care and on gratitude. Welcome one another, says Saint Paul in his letter to the Romans, even as Christ welcomed you (Rom. 15:7). Christian philoxenia must not only be extended to those close to us, but must be extended to those near and far away, and even to those who will not reciprocate—to the poor, the stranger, even those who hate us. For Christ says, if you love only those who love you, what credit is that to you? (Luke 14:14).
As a vital expression of love, we must continue to fervently pray for peace for the entire humanity, especially for those affected by difficult circumstances. Our fellow humans who are suffering under terrible conditions and ordeals all over the world are expecting justice and begging for our love and prayers; even the least
among them. As Christ said, Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me (Matt. 25:40). In these most difficult times, the strongest expression of our philoxenia becomes a very urgent matter.
United as one people, as one nation under God, let us proceed courageously, prudently, and lovingly. Always with the help of the Almighty God!”
Solomon’s Porch: A Blog of In Communion
Acts 5:12 “And they were all together in Solomon’s Portch.” Solomon’s Porch was a place where the early disciples gathered, witnessed many good works among the people, and were in one accord. And, of course, they talked about it all. Today we gather to talk in many places, most visibly in the public square via the internet. The good works are done anywhere Christians roll up their sleeves and get to it. Our blog is a place to engage in healthy analysis of the needs around us, centered on Christ the Truth, to help us go and do good works.
Click one of the images above for featured content from the latest print issue of In Communion. Scroll down for other content from the issue or look on the “In Communion” menu above and select “In Communion: Previous Issues”.
Also see our newest “Prayers” page which you can access through the “Content by Category” menu, or click here. We are building a library of prayers that you may find useful as you pray for peace.
Theological research has always been a mandate of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship as well as In Communion, and this year we have launched a new research project on the saints of the Church. It has become customary to feature saints on the cover of our journal for several years now, and to use the saints as the launching point for each publication. We have now begun a formal and systematic study of the hagiographies of the Church, with the hope of producing a book-length publication on the subject: A Mercy of Peace.
Every day of the year, the Church celebrates dozens of holy people whose lives illumine the Church. These saintly luminaries reveal the mind of the Church in a special way. The teachings and activities of the saints do not carry the same authority as the liturgical, canonical, or conciliar texts of the Church, but instead shed light on the Gospel and the teachings of Christ in a way that canons, formulas, and liturgical texts cannot. Saints are humans, just like us, who took the message of Christ to heart, and who lived out that message in radical ways. The witness of the saints is diverse. Hagiographies do not provide us with doctrine, methods of prayer, or rules for behavior. Instead, they provide us with stories. In them we read narratives and tales of heroic individuals attempting, and
sometimes failing, to proclaim that the Kingdom of God reigns, while at the same time laboring in a world that seems alien to the values of poverty, meekness, mercy, peace, and justice that define Christ’s Kingdom. Without the witness of these saints, the tradition of our Church would merely be a record of methods of prayer,
rules for Church governance, and a few dogmatic statements of belief. It is the saints which make our tradition a living one.
Every Orthodox community has a special devotion to certain saints, and the OPF is no different. Looking through our past publications, you will see St. Maria of Paris, St. Dmitry Klepinin, St. Elizabeth the New Martyr, and St. Alexander Schmorell appear again and again. Among the saints, there is one in particular to which the OPF has the highest devotion, and that is Mary, the Mother of God herself. The OPF is formally dedicated to the Protection of the Mother of God, and in many places the name of our organization is written “The Orthodox Peace Fellowship of the Protection of the Mother of God.” An icon of the Protection of the Mother of God was even specially painted for the OPF, and has since come to adorn everything that the OPF does.
The Feast of the Protection of the Mother of God is celebrated on October 1, or on October 28, depending on the jurisdiction. This feast commemorates a series of events, the first of which occurred in the summer of 626, where Constantinople was saved from an enemy invasion, not by force of arms, but through the non-military, supernatural intervention of the Mother of God. It is recorded that while Emperor Heraclius and the entire army were away, the city of Constantinople wasattacked simultaneously by the Scythians and the Persians. Left defenseless, thepeople began to pray fervently. Patriarch Sergius began to lead processions through the city. In response to the threat of invasion and death, the people gathered, they marched, they prayed, and they kept vigil. The center of this activity was at the Great Church of the Theotokos, which was near the city gates. As the account goes, their actions paid off. A hurricane soon swept through the region, scattering the enemy ships and routing the sieging armies. In icons commemorating
this, “The Mother of God is seen standing on a small cloud, hovering in the air above the faithful. She has both arms outstretched in a gesture of supplication, expressing her prayer of intercession. Two angels hold by either end a great veil which billows in the form of a vault over the Mother of God.” (The Meaning of Icons by Leonid Ouspensky and Vladimir Lossky, printed in our Fall 2007 issue of In
Communion) Other icons simply depict Mary holding out her veil as a sign of protection. The Russian word Pokrov (Покров), and the Greek Skepi (Σκέπη) both mean “veil” or “shroud,” as well as “protection” or intercession.”
Following this event in 626, it became custom to devote prayers to Mary for protection, as the story had a tremendous impact on the public consciousness of the Byzantine people. It is reported that several other times following this event (in 677, 717-718, and in 860) Mary appeared and intervened, preventing invasions and routing armies through supernatural means. These events imprinted themselves on the Byzantine conscience, making it even more commonplace for Orthodox to resort to prayer, rather than arms, in times of danger. Mary was given the title “Defender General” by the Church, and it was to her that the Byzantines would first look for defense. This “feminine defense paradigm” came to exert a powerful influence over medieval Orthodox culture, as Dr. Marian Simion recounts:
“[T]he feminine defense paradigm had been a dominant motif in Orthodox Christianity, which deconstructed the masculinity of war and consistently skewed the meaning of violence away from an exclusive physical expression. This paradigm prevented the adoption of a Just War theory, due to structural and phenomenological implications. First, the feminine defense paradigm affected the institutional self-perception of the Orthodox Church; secondly, it redefined human connectedness; and thirdly, it deeply influenced the spiritual life of the Orthodox Christians in terms of feminine protection, as expressed in the devotion to Virgin Mary.”
-Marion Simion, Religion and Public Policy: Human Rights, Conflict, and Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 2015), 200
Dr. Simion further elaborates on these points, noting that the motif of Mary’s protection shifted the Church away from viewing Christianity through a masculine lens of retribution, and instead viewed Christianity as paradigmatically about care and protection. This reinforced attitudes towards caring for the poor, the vulnerable, the sick, the stranger, and the prisoner. This likely also contributed to the fact that the Church in the East never developed retributive theories of the atonement, or views of God that emphasized retribution and violence. As Dr. Simion further summarizes, “The effect of such imagery and mnemotic analogies over the Orthodox society was that they contributed to a sense of social cohesion, which in essence had collectively celebrated meekness and life, rather than valor and sacrificial death–thus discouraging any rush to violence. Furthermore, such illustrations simply maintained that violence leads to alienation, destruction and death, and that it ultimately destroys and humiliates God’s own creation.”
Even in the military texts of the late Byzantine Empire, peace was always viewed as normative. Often times, these popular sentiments caused Emperors, such as Leo VI, to encounter difficulty in raising support for the armed forces. This is in part due to the pervasive belief in Mary as the Protector General and the dominance of the feminine defense paradigm. In fact, the Byzantine Empire was viewed as “effeminate” by the Franks because of their aversion to war. As Dr. Simion concludes, “Thus, within the spirituality of warfare, the feminine motif had been profound and complex enough to have influenced the attitudes towards war more directly. It is clear that such influences generated attitudes which often prevented wars of aggression, while wars of defense had increasingly involved non-violent means. Moreover, with Virgin Mary’s patronage over the imperial City and civil society, the Orthodox Church advocates human interaction (including with enemies), based on sharing, reconciliation, maternal instincts,
nurturing, restoration and recreation of relationships, social connectedness, forgiveness, meekness, etc.”
The feast of the Protection of the Mother of God was formally added to the calendar after another instance of protection in the 10th century. During another siege, Sts. Andrew and Epiphanius were holding vigil in the Church of the Theotokos, when suddenly they saw a familiar woman enter the church and begin walking up the aisle. “On reaching the center of the church, the Mother of God
knelt down and remained long in prayer, her face bathed in tears. When she had prayed yet again before the altar, she took off the shining veil which enveloped her and, holding it above her head, extended it over all the people present in the church.” (In Communion Fall 2007) After this, the siege ended with neither bloodshed nor violence.
The most recent story associated with this feast day occurred during WWII, which explains why the feast is celebrated on October 28 in the Greek tradition. That was the day that Mussolini had given Prime Minister Metaxas for surrendering to the Italian forces, lest they be invaded. It is recorded that Metaxas simply sent a telegram in response which read, “Oxi,” which means “no.”
That morning, Greeks of all political persuasions filled the streets, gathering and marching, shouting “Oxi!” October 28 is still celebrated in Greece as “Oxi Day,” commemorating the Greek resistance to the Axis forces. The Church participated in this resistance nonviolently, protecting many Jews, and refusing to cooperate with evil. In 1952, the Church of Greece formally moved the feast of the Protection to the 28th, connecting the ancient feminine defense paradigm to the activities of peace and resistance which Orthodox Christians still undertake today.
In our own way, we at In Communion also hope to stand in this tradition, kneeling down next to the weeping Mother of God in this suffering world, clinging to her soft and nurturing veil, our own faces bathed in tears, praying with her for a world under siege by violence. Let us pray for peace in the words of the Akathist:
“O Champion General, I your City now inscribe to youTriumphant anthems as the tokens of my gratitude,Being rescued from the terrors, O Mother of God.Inasmuch as you have power unassailable, From all kinds of perils free me so that unto youI may cry aloud: Rejoice, O unwedded Bride.” IC
Ouspensky, Leonid, and Vladimir Lossky. “The Protection of the Mother of God.” In Communion, no. 47 (October 27, 2007).
Demetrios. “Encyclical of Archbishop Demetrios for OXI Day 2015.” October 23, 2015. http://www.goarch.org/news/encyclicaloxiday2015.
Simion, Marian. “Just War Theory and Orthodox Christianity.” THE ANNALS OF THE ACADEMY OF ROMANIAN SCIENTISTS, Vol. 3, no. 1 (2011): 23-45.
The following reflection is an excerpt from His Grace Bishop Seraphim Sigrist’s 2017 book Tapestry, in which he reflects upon themes of peace and conflict as they are seen through the lens of two apple orchards.
The apples are gone now from the tree out front . . . These orchards from other years and other places. . . The tree here today standing between the seasons. Those trees which seem in memory to suggest not only the past but also the future.
Butovo: Apples Falling from the Past
In the afternoon we travel from Moscow to Butovo a place to the south of Moscow which was a killing ground used by the Communists for people from the Moscow area, and in particular in 1937 and 1938.
On the way a lady speaks of Fr. Pavel Florensky’s scientific work on seawater during the days before his execution in the northern Solovki camp, and of his intention to do a second volume of Pillar and Ground of Truth, this time focused on humanity, as the first is on God. Since we do not have it, drafts were destroyed, we do not know what the final position of his thought was. Then she says we are getting near Butovo and she wishes to be silent for these moments.
There is a new church and a bell tower and there are stones with the inscriptions of many names of those murdered here. In the church the attendants tell us that the names of 10,000 are known but countless others unknown. Included are 900 bishops and priests. Enough record remains of them,that 250 of the 10,000 here have been formally recognized as saints by the Church. 10,000 in the Moscow region in 1937-1938 in just this one place. Think of the whole land and of the whole Communist period.
But we will remember also the day when they will return, and all our mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and ourselves also will return. I think of Peter de Vries, who wrote, “The recognition of how long, how very long, is the mourners’ bench upon which we sit, arms linked in undeluded friendship—all of us, brief links ourselves, in the eternal pity,” and so it is not wrong that there are flowers and apple trees also even, beside a mourners bench long enough to stretch to Eden where there were also apples and flowers, or perhaps, indeed, it must be the same garden because it will return. Will return and has returned. We walk in the apple orchard,and there are flowers now and apples on the trees. When we leave, ladies from the church follow us to the gate with a big plate of apples newly fallen, and we eat them in the car. Someone says,“Every centimeter of this place is soaked with blood . . . eating these apples is like communion.”
Krakow: Apples Falling from the Future
Now we have come to the chalet-like retreat center of Andrej and Samita on a hillside near the ancient Polish city of Krakow. Here we will spend the night. It is a good place with apple trees everywhere and I know I must be deeply feeling it a good place because I feel the desire to climb the trees,as when a boy. We sit around a table under the trees,and there is nothing lacking,and the apples are falling continually. This year there are more than ever, it seems, now one falls, now three but it almost seems they are growing faster than falling and how perfect and round they are and how fine the taste . . . and there is watermelon and coffee too and talk about interior monasticism. . . and Andrej says . . . we must open ourselves to God who is coming not from the past but from the future . . .apples falling like cherry blossoms into, or rather from,a future momentarily at least made present in love and peace.
And under the apple trees Anika played the guitar and sang beneath the weaving branches.
The next morning we spread a cloth on a table in the middle of the orchard and in the early bright light do our service of shared bread and wine . . . Apples falling still . . . some great joyful mystery in these ripening and falling apples somehow offering themselves as we offer all things as best we can . . .and again the growth seeming to more than keep pace with the falling . . .a circulation of heaven and earth. Our host Andrej says in conversation after that there is much writing about Spirit, about the Holy Spirit, about Pneumatology as it is called, but this is to make it an abstraction and an object not the subject, not the One who acts. . . what is needed he said is “Pneumatics,” the seeing of the Spirit’s operation in persons and in the world . . .
Bishop Seraphim (Sigrist)
by Matthew Franklin Cooper
China is now portrayed in much of the news media as the world’s fastest-growing Christian country, and an increasing amount of attention is being paid to the plight of Christians inside China. Without downplaying either the successes or the struggles of modern Chinese Christians, particularly vis-à-vis the state, much of this coverage lacks a certain historical dimension, relevant to modern Orthodox and Catholic efforts inside China. Christianity – Eastern Christianity – has a long history in China which includes notable and well-respected individuals in Chinese culture.
An interesting bit of history I came across recently in my traverses through Chinese opera in prose translation, is that Guo Ziyi 郭子仪, the ‘loyal and martial’ Prince of Fenyang 汾阳郭忠武王, historical military governor (jiedushi 节度使) of Shuofang Prefecture 朔方郡 (centred on present-day Ordos in Inner Mongolia) during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD) and literary inspiration for one of the heroes of Hong Sheng’s opera The Palace of Eternal Youth 《长生殿》, was in fact a member of the Syriac-Persian Nestorian Church of the East, a committed advocate for the rights of Christians in the Tang Empire, and – if such a thing can be believed – a peaceful warrior.
Guo’s portrayal in The Palace of Eternal Youth was that of an ‘upright and loyal official’ (zhongchen 忠臣) of the Tang court, an embodiment of Confucian virtues and righteousness, a cautious and deliberating general, generous to his troops and therefore popular, and one of the earliest officials to understand the deep threat posed by allowing An Lushan to go free. It was Guo’s swift and timely actions that allowed Emperor Minghuang to escape Chang’an with his life, and which allowed Emperor Suzong to regain control of the Empire after Yang Yuhuan’s death.
Guo Ziyi served as a military general under four Tang Emperors (Minghuang, Suzong, Daizong and Dezong), and was distinguished by his service to the Tang in putting down the rebellion of An Lushan. However, some of his greatest victories were achieved by being a peaceful warrior. In the true spirit of Sun Wu (or, indeed, in the spirit of some of the military martyrs of the Church!), Guo Ziyi was able to ‘subdue the enemy without fighting’. In the wake of the An Lushan rebellion, sensing weakness, the semi-independent Tibetan Empire and the Uighur Khaghanate sent invasion forces to loot, pillage, harry and invade chunks of the Tang Empire. Guo Ziyi was able to force the Tibetans to retreat with a mere four thousand tired and grumbling troops, using misdirection and trickery (lighting fires at various intervals and firing off firecrackers to confuse them and make them believe they were surrounded). In another instance, at the age of seventy, he went himself, unarmed and unarmoured, toward the Uighur camp. When they, who had been told he was dead, saw him and recognised him, they knelt down and surrendered to him at once, and joined his army to fight against the Tibetans.
He ‘turned the other cheek’ in domestic affairs as well – never fighting back even when he was slandered by jealous members of the eunuch faction at the Tang court, particularly Yu Chao’en. In another instance, his son boasted to his wife, a Tang princess, that his father Ziyi, powerful general that he was, could become Emperor any time he wanted. Guo Ziyi, who valued loyalty above every other consideration, punished his son severely for that boast, imprisoning him and offering him up before Emperor Daizong for judgement. But when Emperor Daizong entered the court, he forgave the junior Guo, saying, ‘When son and daughter fight, it’s better as old men to pretend to be deaf.’
Interestingly, however, it was Guo’s selfless and grateful treatment of the great Tang poet Li Bai 李白 – then suspected of desertion during the An Lushan rebellion – that exhibited in literary critic Wu Jingxiong’s 吴经熊 view the Christian temperament of the good general. Li Bai had saved Guo’s life long before, when he had been facing court-martial and execution for offending his commander in Shanxi. From The Four Seasons of Tang Poetry (pardon the Wade-Giles):
Unfortunately for Li Po, the troops of Prince Ling were routed in 757, and our poet had to escape to P’eng-tse in Kiangsi, but was caught and put in prison. He was sentenced to death, but Kuo Tzu-i, whom he had saved twenty years before, and who was by this time Minister of War and commander-in-chief of the imperial troops, went to the new Emperor and offered to ransom the life of Li Po by giving up his own official rank. Incidentally, Kuo Tzu-i, the greatest soldier-statesman of T’ang, was a Nestorian, and in this case he certainly showed the spirit of Christ. As a result of his intercession, the death sentence was remitted, and instead Li Po was banished to Yeh Lang.
For all of Guo Ziyi’s distinction in military service, being a servant of Christ he was also truly a man of peace, who desired peace and stability for his country above everything else, even though that state was not guided by Christian values. He was willing to subordinate his own personal interests and even suffer personal insults from high officials without complaining or retaliating, if doing so meant that he could preserve the dynasty. Interestingly, the same virtues and skill that made Guo Ziyi a great general who could win battles without fighting and who became respected without striving for power and titles, also made him respected among the Confucian literati of his own time.
Guo Ziyi’s example may be something for Chinese Christians – indeed, all Christians – to consider. Balancing one’s loyalties to the ‘two cities’ is never easy, let alone practising an ethic of peace from a position of military authority, and Guo Ziyi’s example shows both the limitations and the personal sacrifices and risks entailed. At the same time, the fascination of Guo is that he shows a loyalty both to the Chinese dynasts and to Christian praxis to be possible.
August 15 we celebrate the Dormition of the Theotokos, the falling asleep of Mary. August 15 is also the anniversary of the end of the Arab-Byzantine wars, by a miracle of the Theotokos.
For centuries, the Romans faced instability on their eastern front. The longest conflict in history is the series of Roman-Persian wars, which began 50 years before the birth of Christ. These wars ended in the 7th century when the Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphates conquered the Sassanid Empire. This did not bring peace to the Byzantine Empire, however, for these new Empires began their own expansionist campaign known as the Arab Conquests. This campaign culminated in the siege of Constantinople in 718.
The Byzantines were a notoriously peace-loving people, and viewed with derision by their contemporaries for this. They preferred to avoid open battle, often refused to fight offensively, and went to great lengths to achieve diplomatic solutions, even if it meant paying hefty tributes. As such, when the siege began, the Byzantine Emperor offered a gold ransom for every single person in the city if the siege were called off. Unfortunately the Umayyads refused.
What followed was a grim thirteen moth siege. Unfavorable winds hindered the Umayyad navy, while a harsh winter overwhelmed the troops. On August 15, 718, the Umayyads decided the siege was a failure and withdrew. Reportedly, a great storm and volcanic activity hindered the retreat of the invaders.
Inside the city that day, the faithful had gathered in the churches to celebrate the Feast of the Dormition, the falling asleep of the Theotokos. The people of Constantinople attributed the peace that had broken out to Mary, and began commemorating the day as a ‘miracle’. They did not attribute the peace to their soldiers or their defensive capabilities. Rather, they saw in the decision of the Umayyads to withdraw the intervention of the Queen of Peace, who softens the heart of those who have grown violent.
In the aftermath, peace and stability was established on the eastern front for the first time in 9 centuries. Historians attribute this to the events of August 15, 718. The Byzantines refused to take advantage of the weakened state of the Umayyad forces following the siege. Had they done so, they could have conquered much of the Arab territory, and may have sown the seeds for another few centuries of conflict. Instead, they sought to win peace and security. Aside from scattered instances of banditry, the frontier did not experience any major war again until the thirteenth century with the beginning of the Ottoman-Byzantine conflict. The Abbasid Empire replaced the Umayyad, and the Roman Byzantines sent emissaries on peace missions, establishing a robust cultural exchange and several centuries of peace. For once, in the middle of Byzantine history, war was over.
The Dormition appropriately coincides with the commemoration of this peace every year. Observance of the feast began sometime in the sixth century, just at the end of the Roman-Sassanid wars. It commemorates the death of Mary. But rather than being referred to in these terms, the phrase Dormition, or falling asleep is used. The reason for this is that the Dormition became a mirror of Christ’s glorification. Christ died violently on the cross, while himself remaining nonviolent, so that death itself could be killed. Christ stormed hades so that no one else would have to languish there. Christ was glorified by the Father, gaining a resurrection body and returning to the shekinah of the Heavenly Father. Christians commemorate this with a great fast, followed by a great feast.
The traditions that came to be associated with the Dormition mirror this. Christians first fast for fifteen days, and then feast. Mary is commemorated as dying peacefully, and then after three days is glorified, raised from the dead and taken to the shekinah presence of God. Because Christ has been glorified and death has died, Mary does not fully die as one would have before Christ. Rather she ‘falls asleep’ and is then raised and glorified. Everything evokes Christ’s death, but is modified. The icons of the Crucifixion and Resurrection are filled with action. The Dormition icon rests peacefully. Christ holds the infant Mary, evoking and contrasting the tumultuous birth of Christ. The reason behind this modified parallelism is that Mary comes to represent all humanity. All humans are destined not to die, but to be raised because of the raising of Christ. And with Mary we see this in the middle of history, rather than at the end.
Taken together, these two commemorations complement one another. Death has died because Christ is risen and we have seen this in this world, in the middle of history. War is over because of the victory of the Prince of Peace, and we can see this as well in the middle of history. War, death, destruction have lost. Peace is secured. This is not just an end times proclamation, but insofar as we live in Christ and honor his mother, we too can taste of these things in our own time.
As Mary herself showed us on the Feast of the Dormition in 718, there is no better icon of the death of death than the end of war.
editor, In Communion
Children who are born on a day close to Christmas may fear or feel that their birthday celebration is lost in this day, but there is a deep way in which it cannot be a loss because Christmas is the real birthday of each of us and to approach Bethlehem is to approach the moment of our own birth.
This is because God in accepting human life revealed all human life joined to eternity, your birth and my birth are shown too, by the birth at Christmas, to be endlessly beginning in God. Life is divine and human because of the Godmanhood of Jesus. There is no death, all things are eternal. Egocentricity lets go of its boundaries and is born in personhood.
A child approaches Christmas with a joy and sense of wonder which are already an intuition of this. For those older, for us, there is a journey perhaps back and inward to that beginning which is our own Bethlehem, past all of the routine and tiredness and memory of things done poorly, of failures, of gain and of loss, roads taken and untaken and of the shadow of death, of having come to terms with life as it is, past all that to a beginning.
… my soul hurrying
Could not speak for tears,
When she saw her own Child,
Lost so many years.
Down she knelt, up she ran
To the Babe restored:
“O my Joy,” she sighed to it,
She wept, “O my Lord!”
This going back and inward, this meditation, aims on an individual level to imitate what God has accomplished at Christmas on a cosmic level.
The happiness that I wish you at this Christmas is then profound and new it does not arise from our perhaps pious Christian practice over the years, good though that is in its way, nor even from those childhood memories which are themselves close to the beginning but only an intuition of it. As Eric Rohmer expressed it “it is a living joy a joy of today. The birth we celebrate is not only that of Jesus but our birth as well, each of us is asked to believe in a fresh joy for tonight, we must pledge ourselves in a new hope.”
Then we see that the star above is the Christmas star, and all things that live are in its light. The holiness of the real is always there, totally accessible, intimate and immediate…
We see at this place where time and eternity meet, this beginning place, that it is indeed a beginning for us today whatever our age, the beginning of a way of life and an adventure in joining moment to moment on the way into that holiness which is life as adventure, life as becoming and becoming as divine.
The Christmas message of His Grace Bishop Seraphim (Sigrist)
Christians are the people of hope.
This is especially the case during the season of advent and the following celebration of Christmas. Hope is a peculiar thing in this world; without God the violence and death of the world would be all that most humans would have to look forward to. Yet, we find in this season a great joy and a hope for a kingdom of peace and life. The most striking poems of hope come from the Prophets, those lone voices speaking out at the edges of civilization, declaring that another world is possible.
The people who walked in darkness
Have seen a great light;
Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death,
Upon them a light has shined.
For You have broken the yoke of their burden
And the staff across their shoulder,
The rod of his oppressor,
As in the day of Midian.
For every warrior’s boot used in battle,
And the garments rolled in blood,
Will be used for burning as fuel for fire.
For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of His government and peace
There will be no end
These are the words of the Prophet Isaiah who announced this Kingdom of Peace from of old. The words of the prophets are full of life, of the Holy Spirit. They speak hope to a world “rolled in blood.”
There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse,
And a Branch shall grow out of his roots.
The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him,
But with righteousness He shall judge the poor,
And decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
“The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb,
The leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
The calf and the young lion and the lamb together;
And a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
Their young ones shall lie down together;
And the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play by the cobra’s hole,
And the weaned child shall put his hand in the viper’s den.
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain,
For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
As the waters cover the sea.
And in that day there shall be a Root of Jesse,
Who shall stand as a banner to the people;
For the Gentiles shall seek Him,
And will assemble the outcasts of Israel
The prophets spoke of a world without killing, without enmity, without exploitation. A world where the violent are converted to the way of a peaceful child. A world where the outcasts of Israel, and even those gentile foreigners, are brought together. Where race and nationality no longer divide. These things would all be brought about by the Messiah. The Christ. The King. This King would raise a new banner for the nations. A banner of peace. A banner of hope. When this Christ comes, the order of the nations will be overturned. The Kingdom of God turns the way of the world on its head.
And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And He shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
In these ancient words we hear their hope and expectation, foretelling of a great wonder. Mary herself continues this tradition, writing the oldest advent hymn in history, the Magnificat. In this hymn she references the prophets of old and continues their prophetic message, singing
My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant;
For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed.
For He who is mighty has done great things for me,
And holy is His name.
And His mercy is on those who fear Him
From generation to generation.
He has shown strength with His arm;
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
And exalted the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich He has sent away empty.
He has helped His servant Israel,
In remembrance of His mercy,
As He spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and to his seed forever.
‘As He spoke our fathers.’ What did God speak to our fathers? He spoke of casting down the mighty from their thrones, of sending the rich away, of lifting up the lowly, and of filling the poor and the hungry with good things. This is a prophecy of hope. There are so many in this world today who are oppressed by the mighty, who are poor and starving, who live daily in fear of death from violent men. The way of the world is a way of death. And yet Mary, in the tradition of the Prophets, found a “great light” to hope in. This light would destroy the Kingdoms of this world and their way of death.
And then was born, a child. And it was proclaimed by heaven itself,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, goodwill among all people.”
This is the proclamation of the Kingdom for which the ancient tradition of hope had waited. Peace on Earth. Good will among all people. And this peace did not come through overthrowing the kings of this world with violence, as many zealots had hoped. It did not come on a fiery chariot. It did not come with a sword. It came in a manger, as a little child. The little child that Isaiah foretold, leading the lion and lamb. The most helpless, weak, meek, and poor child the world had seen. Born as a political refugee under a violent Herod. Born to a poor, teenage, unwed mother. Born to the care of the elderly Joseph, a working man. This King wore only a crown of suffering. He overthrew death by dying rather than by killing. He conquered the violent and dark world, not with more violence as so many from Alexander to Napolean have tried to do, but with simple words, with love, with peace. Just as the prophets foretold, he exalted the poor and lowly. Christ Jesus began his ministry with the words of Isaiah, echoing his prophecies,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free.
This day as I sit, filled with joy of the Nativity services, of the birth of our Lord, of family and of love I think of all those who do not have homes or family or peace. Those who now are clinging for their life in the face of violence, poverty, hunger, and captivity. And I hope for the Christ who has come and will come again to set us all free. I think of the words of the Christmas poem Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote many years ago in the face of the darkness of the American Civil War, where brother killed brother,
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.
With these words I remember that Christ was not born once long ago, but that he is indeed born in us whenever we imitate him, in meekness, in poverty, in righteousness, in peacemaking. And I remember that even after the Christmas season is over, we remain in advent, in the season of hope. An advent that will last until Christ’s Kingdom comes, on Earth as it is in heaven. Until that time we will continue to proclaim the words of hope, as we do every liturgy, “Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will among all people.”
Today is the feast day of St. Cybi the Tanned. He was born in 483 the son of Salomon, a warrior king in Wales. Cybi left his home while he was still young and traveled to Jerusalem and to Rome to venerate the Holy sites of Christianity. While there he became a priest and then a bishop. When he returned home he discovered that he was now the king and the commander of his father’s army. He refused to accept these positions. He refused to be the commander-in-chief.
Today is also election day in the United States. Many Americans today will go to the ballot and choose the next commander-in-chief, as well as many other officials. This will conclude a very lengthy and divisive election season that has seen many self-proclaimed Christians compete for the office of commander-in-chief.
In the Church, we confess Jesus to be the King. He is our ruler. At various times during Church history, this has distinguished Christians as a peculiar people. St. Theagenes of Parium for example, who lived during the reign of St. Constantine, was martyred for refusing to pledge allegiance to Licinius, Constantine’s co-emperor who co-wrote the Edict of Milan. St. Theagenes said “I serve my King, and I cannot serve another… I am a Christian, and it is not possible for me to desert my Lord and King.” Or in another of my favorite anecdotes, after the fall of communism in Russia, a monk was interviewed. He was asked if he were glad that the oppression had ceased and that a better government was now in place. The monk replied that it did not make much of a difference to him. He said he was only surprised that it happened during his lifetime. He told the reporter that earthly kingdoms come and earthly kingdoms fall, and we should care not much for these, for it is the eternal kingdom where our hope is.
Christians were often reviled in Roman empire for their proclamation that Jesus was King. They were called atheists for refusing to worship the imperial gods. And their proclamation that Jesus was King often meant that Caesar was not. St. Luke records the anxiety that some had about Christians in the Book of Acts: “These who have turned the world upside down have come here too… and these are all acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king—Jesus.”
St. Cybi is not the only saint who has refused to rule because of his Christianity. St. Cadoc, a contemporary of Cybi who lived not to far from the saint also refused to succeed his father as king and refused to command his father’s army. Similarly, in 155, in one of the earliest works of Christian apologetics, a disciple of St. Justin named Tatian writes: “I do not wish to be a ruler. I do not strive for wealth. I refuse offices connected with military command.” Such a sentiment is not that far off from what Jesus himself practiced. Before Christ began his ministry, he went off into the wilderness to fast and pray. While there Christ faced several temptations sent by the devil. These temptations all concerned various ways that Christ could fulfill his messianic mission, different ways that he could conduct his ministry. Christ was tempted to act as many of his contemporaries expected him to, to perform great miracles and to conquer the world, ruling it as Messiah and King. Christ refused these temptations, instead choosing to be a different type of Messiah, a different type of King. The evangelist tells us that if Christ were to have conquered the nations and ruled them all, that this would not have served God, but would have served Satan. “The devil took [Jesus] to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.””
Jesus must have told his disciples about these temptations, since none of the evangelists were there to witness this event. So it is likely that he wanted them to know just what kind of Messiah he was to be. And the evangelists must have included them early in their narratives to signal to us what kind of ruler Christ was. But not all of his disciples got the point. One tradition states that Judas betrayed Christ not because he hated him or did not believe in him. Rather, Judas was fed up with Christ not fulfilling the Messianic prophecies. Judas was likely a Zealot, who wanted the Messiah to rise up and conquer the Roman empire and rule as King in their place. Is possible that Judas thought that if the Romans came to arrest Jesus, it would force his hand and he would begin the revolution. St. Peter may also have had this in the back of his mind when he drew his sword and cut off the ear of the soldier who tried to arrest Christ. But here again it is recorded that Christ broke with expectations, healing the soldier and reprimanding Peter.
So what do we make of St. Cybi and the rest of these traditions? Should we conclude that temporal rule is always incompatible with Christianity? Some may draw this conclusion, and there is evidence that many saints thought as much, but this is not that kind of essay. There are in the Christian tradition many saints who were rulers. I’m particularly fond of the saying of St. Vladimir, the great Christian prince:
Above all things: do not forget the poor, but support them to the extent of your means. Give to the orphan, protect the widow, and permit the mighty to destroy no man. Take not the life of the just or the unjust, nor permit him to be killed. Destroy no Christian soul, even though he be guilty of murder.
This essay isn’t meant to criticize any Christian who seeks higher office (Lord knows that they will get plenty of criticism without my help). Nor is it meant to discourage anyone from voting. I voted in this election with St. Vladimir’s words in mind, using my vote to support the poor, protect the widow, and to keep the mighty from destroying men and from taking the lives of the just and the unjust. But I also have many Orthodox friends who never vote, because they consider themselves to be Orthodox Christians and for them this means living as the citizen of another Kingdom. Vote shares the same root as devotion after all. Some of these friends are monastics and clergy who refrain from voting as an expression of their tonsure, while others are lay. But however you vote or don’t vote, the life and witness of St. Cybi still remains relevant.
The witness of the saints should redirect our lives towards greater piety and a deeper life in Christ. So in celebration of St. Cybi we should prayerfully examine ourselves and our conscience. Where do we place our hope? It is in rulers and in princes? As we Orthodox pray in the words of the psalmist during our divine services, “Put not your trust in princes, or in mortals in whom there is no salvation.”
While we might not get martyred for proclaiming Christ as King, we still may ask ourselves, do we really behave as if Christ were the King of our lives? How often over the past year have we talked about Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump? How many hours have we spent watching clips of them, reading about their activities, attending events, giving money. How many times have we promoted them on social media? And how often over the past year have we talked about Jesus Christ? How many hours have we spent praying to him, reading the gospel, attending Church, giving our money and time to meet him in the poor, the prisoner, the sick, and the hungry? How many social media posts have we made promoting Christ? Have we used our social capital to push people towards our preferred candidate, who will be gone in 4 or 8 years or have we used our social capital to promote our King, who will reign forever? How anxious are we about the next 4 years? In the Gospel for yesterday (on the new calendar), Christ tells us “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat, nor about your body, what you shall put on… For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well.” Are we mindful of this, or do we seek what all the nations of the world seek?
Though we may vote and throw our lot in with the nations of this world we should not forget to devote ourselves to Christ first and foremost. We should not allow political divisions to keep us from loving others, and should not allow politics to give occasion to hate our brethren. We proclaim that there is another King (or another president) named Jesus whenever we place the Kingdom first, whenever we choose love over hate, forgiveness over revenge, charity over greed. We pledge our allegiance to Christ whenever we live according to the Beatitudes rather than the virtues of the world, mercy rather than severity, peacemaking rather than warmaking, meekness rather than strength, poverty rather than wealth. And in this way how we live on November 7 and November 9 matters far more than how we vote on November 8. We live according to the words of the anonymous second century Christian apologist, “The Christians dwell in their own countries, but only as sojourners; they bear their share in all things as citizens, and they endure all hardships as strangers. Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and every fatherland is foreign.” We share in the responsibilities of this world as citizens, while at the same time being a stranger to it.
And this leaves us with one final reflection. What is November 8, 2016? Is it election day first and the feast of St. Cybi second? Or is today the feast of St. Cybi, a day for celebration and greater commitment to Christ first and foremost, which also happens to be the day of the election? We should ask ourselves what we are trying to gain today. Are we seeking to gain wisdom and devotion from the holy saints, or are we trying to gain a political victory? Which matters to us more, truly and sincerely today? Is it Christ? And what good will it do us to gain the whole world if we are to lose our soul?
St Cybi was called “the tanned” because he would often walk facing the sun, and so grew tan. The Church teaches that Christ is “the sun of righteousness” and that if we spend our life seeking him, we will glow with the radiance of his light. Let us then seek to always hold the sun before us, above all else. Let us walk in this light and not stray towards any other goal.
May St. Cybi give us the strength To walk facing the Son of God, seeking not to rule others, but to be ruled by our Lord.
A light appeared from above and everything changed. In the sky there was a great cloud, and the light radiated forth brighter than the sun. There was a thunderous sound, as if the heavens had opened. “This is my son whom I love, listen to him,” said the voice. The disciples fell to the ground. Christ then said to them “Do not be afraid.” This event on Mt. Tabor was a great mystery to the world, the Transfiguration.
The Transfiguration is not just a sign that Christ shows us the Divine, but a sign that we too will one day shine in the radiance of Divine life. The Church teaches that every human is the bearer of the image of God and is the real Body of Christ. The Earth too bears that image, for it bears us, it is the chalice which holds the most sacred thing in creation- life. Orthodox Christians believe that all creation will be transfigured, and that if we just “listen to him,” we will love all humans, love all creation, love all life, and honor the sacred beauty therein.
71 years ago today, on the feast of the Transfiguration, a light appeared from above and everything changed. In the sky there was a great cloud, and the light radiated forth brighter than the sun. There was a thunderous sound, as if the heavens had opened. In an instant 66,000 souls fell to the ground, never to get up again. The city of Hiroshima was obliterated by a single bomb, the A-Bomb. The land was disfigured, irradiated. Over 100,000 ended up perishing from its effects, and those who survived it were changed, bearing the disfiguration in their bodies. This Bomb was a great mystery to the world, and through it the United States meant to speak to the world and to say “Be afraid.”
The primary goals of the bombing were as much military as psychological. The Americans were hoping to strike fear into the Japanese, forcing them to surrender, and to strike fear into the world, establishing the dominance of the United States. Hiroshima was ideally suited to these ends, due to its compact nature. Nuclear weapons expend most of their energy at the epicenter of the blast, and so a special city would be required to showcase how disfiguring the weapon could be. As a bonus, there were weapons stored in the city which could legitimate the civilian casualties of the attack.
Hiroshima was chosen to be the site of revelation to the world. The bomb had been revealed to a select group in New Mexico earlier that summer. The scientists and officials watched with great reverence and devotion. One blind woman miles away said she saw the light as well. A semi-official report of that first blast read “Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief.” The operation was named Trinity.
The Orthodox Church teaches that the Transfiguration is a second Theophany. At Theophany, the Trinity was revealed to the world. At Transfiguration, it was revealed to a select group.
Visit Hiroshima today, and you may still see the disfiguration. As Robin Wright recounts,
Everything about Hiroshima is haunting, particularly the stories and remnants of extinguished young lives collected in the museum. There’s a battered lunchbox belonging to Shigeru Orimen, who was in his first year of junior high. His mother was able to identify the boy’s burned body because he was still clutching it. There’s a shredded school cap and uniform on a skeletal mannequin. They were assembled from meagre rags of clothing left on three boys, aged twelve to fifteen, who happened to be a thousand yards from the bomb’s hypocenter above Hiroshima. There’s a re-created panorama of a woman and child fleeing the blast. Covered with soot and dust, their skin is scorched and bloody, their hair, fried, stands on end, and ripped pieces of clothing hang off their bodies as they attempt to escape the fires consuming the city. The eeriest display is a ghostlike shadow imprinted on a stone step as the blast vaporized the human being who had been sitting there.
Also present in the museum is a small, charred tricycle. It belonged to a three year old boy who had been outside riding it when the 16 kiloton bomb, called “Little Boy” by the Americans, was dropped on the city. His father would find him later in the rubble, on death’s doorstep, still clinging to the handlebars of the tricycle. What did the world gain with the death of this child and the many other children of the city?
Overhead, another American plane accompanied the B-29 bomber. This plane was there to silently observe the effects of the bomb. It was named “Necessary Evil” by the Americans.
Three days later, another bomb was dropped over Nagasaki. The crew were all Christians and just before leaving, they sat with two Christian Chaplains who blessed them and their mission. Nagasaki was home to the largest Christian community in Japan. Over half of the Christians in Japan were killed by the bomb, succeeding where 200 years of intense persecution by the Japanese government had failed. The steeple of the Cathedral of St. Mary was used by the bombers for targeting. The bomb exploded directly over the Cathedral, which was the largest Christian Church in the orient at the time, with over 15,000 members. Exactly one week before Hiroshima was bombed was the feast of St. John the Soldier of Constantinople. St. John was canonized for his refusal to kill Christians and other innocents and for disobeying orders to do so. Some of the crew expressed doubt about the bomb they were dropping, but “orders were orders.” Orthodox Christians were among those killed in the blast.
Orthodoxy was brought to Japan by St. Nicholas, a Russian. He was a voice of peace, having once nonviolently disarmed a Samurai through his preaching. He was protected by the people during the anti-Russian sentiment that reined during the Russian-Japanese war, for he was beloved. The bomb was not as merciful to the Christian population.
In the ensuing years, wars were waged over the bomb. An arms race broke out in the world, to be won by those who could disfigure the world the most, even destroy it. Proxy battles were fought in Vietnam, Korea, and Afghanistan. We still live in the shadow of the bomb today. But there is not just shadow, but also the light of Tabor.
Today we celebrate. The Transfiguration is a promise to a broken world. A promise that all scars will be healed, all divisions overcome, all wars ended, and all souls restored. The Earth will no longer be a crucible of destruction, but the realm of the Kingdom. Atomic radiation will not shine forth from broken bodies, but the uncreated light from transfigured ones. Men will no longer aspire to harness the power of God, but will kneel before their king. There will no longer be cause to be afraid.
Today we remember. Once again the human race had looked upon itself and the world it inhabited with fear, hatred, and violence, and resorted to the most heinous mass execution of civilians that had ever occurred in an instant- the fruits of our dehumanizing fear. Against this, we find the words of the Transfigured whispering to us, “do not be afraid.” Let us pray that we do not need another great cloud and light before we “listen to him.”
contributing editor, In Communion