Holy Theophany Orthodox Church
A Mission of the OCA
Walworth, Wisconsin

What follows are a set of brief pastoral reflections that I have composed for our monthly bulletin beginning in Nov. 2022.

April 2023

For this month: I am providing: 

The Catechetical (Paschal) Sermon
St. John Chrysostom

If any man be devout and love God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast. If any man be a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord. If any have labored long in fasting, let him now receive his recompense. If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast. If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; because he shall in nowise be deprived thereof. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing. If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first; He gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has wrought from the first hour.

And He shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; and to the one He gives, and upon the other He bestows gifts. And He both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts and praises the offering. Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honor the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.

Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness. let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

March 2023
Transfiguration of Christ
Transfiguration of Christ
Transfiguration of Christ
Passion of Christ
Passion of Christ
Passion of Christ
Our Lenten Journey

Pastoral reflection, Fr John: On August 6, we celebrate the joyous feast of the Transfiguration of Christ in which the uncreated light and glory of His divinity was manifest to the disciples. This event points to the “splendor of the resurrection” and the “beauty of the divine kingdom” (St John Chrysostom). For St. Dionysius the Areopagite and other Fathers, this fore-shadows how we will be transformed to be filled with the glory divine light of God, “we shall be equal to the angels and will be sons of God, being sons of the resurrection” (Luke 29:36). Christ’s transfiguration takes place forty days before his passion and death. It also shows the “glory of the Cross” (St John Chrysostom)

So, bearing Christ’s transfiguration in mind is also fitting for our Lenten journey. Recall, that Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, is the messiah foretold in the Old Testament—the Suffering Servant, “despised and rejected by men. A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” Yet, “He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Is 53:3-4). On Mount Tabor, the uncreated light of His divinity that transfigures Him in his humanity manifests the compassion, mercy, and love that shapes His journey among us. He is transfigured in His humility and complete acceptance of the weakness and vulnerability of our lives.

During our Lenten Journey, we should take up our cross in humility, repentance, and service to follow Christ, our Suffering Servant, as we approach his passion and death. That is our way to partake of the “Light of Christ that illumines all” (Presanctified Liturgy) and, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, to partake of and reflect in our own lives, the love, mercy, and compassion of Christ. Prepare yourself as best you can to stand with the Theotokos at the foot of the Cross, rather than abandon Him or betray Him. Given the addictive qualities of our sins, always confess and ask for forgiveness as you tend to abandon or betray Him.

During your journey through Lent, always remember to say the prayer of St. Ephrem:

“O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of idleness, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.

But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Your servant.

Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother and sister, for blessed art You, unto ages of ages. Amen.”

Always call upon the Theotokos with this ancient prayer to her:

“Beneath your compassion we take refuge, O Theotokos: despise not our petitions in distress:

but deliver us from peril, for you alone are pure and alone blessed.”

February 2023
Repentance, Sadness, and Despondency

Pastoral reflection, Fr John: I found a remarkable set of quotes by saints on repentance and sadness and despondency. I am presenting some them for reflection and guidance. Remember repentance involves real humility and honesty about the ways we have failed to love God, others, and indeed properly love ourselves as living icons of Christ. But repentance is also always forward looking: after being forgiven, “take up your bed and walk!”

“The path leading to perfection is long. Pray to God so that He will strengthen you. Patiently accept your falls and, having stood up, immediately run to God, not remaining in that place where you have fallen. Do not despair if you keep falling into your old sins. Many of them are strong because they have received the force of habit. Only with the passage of time and with fervour will they be conquered. Don’t let anything deprive you of hope.” ~Saint Nektarios of Aegina

“To repent is not to look downwards at my own shortcomings, but upwards at God’s Love. It is not to look backwards with self-reproach but forward with trustfulness. It is to see not what I have failed to be, but what by the Grace of Christ I might yet become.” ~Saint John Climacus

Fr John: Alas, at times, we can fall into a trap of despondency when we start to lose hope about our life or, even though God forgives us, we cannot forgive ourselves. Beware of this trap – it is daemonic in origin. If you repent and receive forgiveness from God for your sins, don’t succumb to the temptation to refuse to forgive yourself. You are not better, smarter, or more justified in judging yourself than God! Humbly accept God’s love and forgiveness.

“When despondency seizes us, let us not give into it. Rather, fortified and protected by the light of faith, let us with great courage say to the spirit of evil: ‘What are you to us, you who are cut off from God, a fugitive from Heaven, and a slave to evil? You dare not to do anything to us: Christ, the Son of God, has dominion over us and over everything. Leave us, you thing of bane. We are made steadfast by the uprightness of His Cross. Serpent, we trample on your head'” ~Saint Seraphim of Sarov

“When you are Praying alone, and your spirit is dejected, and you are wearied and oppressed by your loneliness, remember then, as always, that God the Trinity looks upon you with eyes brighter than the sun; also, all the Angels, your own Guardian Angel, and all the Saints of God. Truly they do; for they are all one in God, and where God is, there are they also.” ~Saint John of Kronstadt (https://www.stparaskevi.org.au/holy-quotes/)

January 2023
The Feast of the Theophany and Baptism of the Lord

Pastoral reflection, Fr John: The Feast of the Theophany and Baptism of the Lord is a marvelous feast of the hospitality of Christ and the Trinity towards us. Hospitality (philoxenia) literally means a love of strangers. Showing hospitality to strangers—all strangers—was a common expectation throughout much of the ancient world. A chief mark of hospitality was that hosts invited strangers into their dwellings to provide for them and offer fellowship to them (e.g., Abraham in Gen. 18).

To hospitably welcome us into His own dwelling place, the Kingdom of God, Christ first enters our dwelling place through his Incarnation. However, despite its created beauty and goodness, our dwelling place, corrupted by sinfulness, is a place where we become estranged from God through our sins. So, Christ’s Theophany and Baptism is a major event in His work to welcome us home by ending our estrangement from Him so that we can become the persons He created us to be: living icons of Christ. At his Baptism, He descends into the River Jordan and takes upon Himself all of the brokenness of our world. The Holy Spirit descends upon Him; the waters are sanctified.

Christ’s Baptism prefigures the gift of the sacrament or mystery of Baptism that He gives us through the Church. The water in which we are is baptized is sanctified and we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit to set us on the journey to return home with Christ and the Trinity. Christ and the Trinity show the same hospitality to each of us throughout our lives within the Church and the sacraments; and simply being with and for us throughout our lives: God after all is closer to us than we are to ourselves (St Augustine) and as St. John Chrysostom observed “God loves us more than a father, mother, friend, or any else could love, and even more than we are able to love ourselves.”
Through worship and a Christlike hospitality to others, give thanks to the hospitality the Trinity and Christ have shown to you. In Christ, Fr John

December 2022
Entering the Heart

Pastoral reflection: “Let us lift up our hearts!” But how do we enter the heart?   In one sense, we are always in our heart; but it is often disordered and stormy. Why? All too often within our heart, we only find ourselves. I become the center of myself and not God. Everything revolves around me: my hurts, my angers, my pains, my pleasures, my desires, my passions, my thoughts and plans, my distractions, my plans, my ego. None of us, as Adam and Eve sadly discovered, can free us from this self-centered disorder by ourselves.

To enter into our true heart, our true self, we must struggle to become pure of heart, to become, as the Theotokos said, “the servant of the Lord.” We must “commend ourselves and one another to Christ our God.” This requires prayer, worship, and genuine service to God and, thus, to others. But it also requires humility and what our holy fathers and mothers call dispassion—freeing ourselves from all of the passions, thoughts, and concerns that lead us to focus just on ourselves which allows us to discover God and our true self. Each of us is created by God to be a living icon of Christ. We are intrinsically worthy we are but also to be in communion or fellowship with God and one another.  

Here is an “exercise” as we approach Christmas to help with this struggle. Here are two hymns for the Nativity of Christ:

 “Ye mountains and ye hills, ye plains and valleys, ye peoples, tribes, and nations, and all things that have breath, shout with jubilation, be filled with divine gladness; for the Redemption of all is come, the timeless Word of God became subject to time because of His compassion.”

The Troparion for the Nativity: “Your Nativity, O Christ our God, has shone to the world the Light of wisdom! For by it, those who worshipped the stars, were taught by a Star to adore You, the Sun of Righteousness, and to know You, the Orient from on High. O Lord, glory to You!

Don’t just read them. Approach them as icons in word and sound that invite you to be drawn into a presence and experience of Him in and through the Holy Spirit. Center yourself and read or chant them so that they come from within you as though they were something you yourself sincerely composed in your heart to express your love of Christ and to be filled with “divine gladness.” Hopefully, you will encounter someone far more marvelous than you who so loves you that He entered your life to sacrifice Himself for you and all of creation. In Christ, Fr John

November 2022
Let Us Lift up Our Heart

A reflection on the heart in the Orthodox Christian tradition: During the Divine Liturgy—at the beginning of the prayer to consecrate the gifts of bread and wine—the Priest faces the people and intones: “Let us lift up our hearts!” God accepts the praise of those who pray with their whole heart (Litany of Supplication). Indeed, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” (The Third Antiphon, the Beatitudes). What is this heart? Many see the heart simply as a physical object opposed to the head (mind). The head—our rational mind—is the place of objectivity and rationality; the heart, however, is filled with a swarm of merely personal, subjective feelings. What should we do? Just engage in a head-trip of concepts?

Plunge completely into the heart surrounded just by our feelings? Find some way to balance them (usually with the head dominating the heart)?
But this is not the heart in Orthodox Christian faith: May God strengthen us “with power through his Holy Spirit in our inner ‘man’ (being) so that Christ may dwell in our hearts through faith” (Eph. 3:16-17). The heart is our inner person: the holistic center of our lives animated by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Our heart is the place where our entire being—physical, mental, affective, and spiritual—is unified to behold God: the Trinity and Christ; and our entire life is to be guided through the grace of the Holy Spirit (Met. Kallistos Ware).

Corrupted by sin, our heart is, alas, the battleground of good and evil within us. With God’s help, we struggle to be pure in heart by freeing ourselves from the toxic, egoistic passions and thoughts that separate us from God and everything else. That’s the purpose of repentance: a change of heart. We also struggle to be pure in heart by stepping beyond all of the ways through which we know and experience created things. We do this aspiring to be drawn by God into a unity with Him, who utterly transcends everything that is created, to become God-like or deified. Some in this life are graced to see the divine, uncreated light (the divine light manifest at the Transfiguration of Christ) and are transformed to behold and be united with the Trinity and Christ in their presence, their divine energies, to us (St. Gregory Palamas). All the righteous are so graced in the next life. Since God is perfect love, united with him, he send us to love one another as Christ loves us (St Maximus the Confessor). How might we enter the heart? How can we overcome the hardened heart that separates us from God, ourselves, and the world around us? More on that next month.

With your entire being, lift up your whole self to God in prayer, worship, veneration of icons, hymn chanting, setting aside all earthly cares and the ways of knowing and experiencing just created things. Try with God’s grace, as best you can, to center yourself in silence and “Lift up your heart!” as do all the saints. In Christ, Fr John