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In a prayer, St. Patrick, whose memory we celebrate today, said the following:
“O God, my God, Almighty King, I humbly worship thee. Thou art King of kings, Lord of lords. Thou art the Judge of every age. Thou art the Redeemer of souls. Thou art the Liberator of those who believe. Thou art the Hope of those who labour. Thou art the Comforter of those who sorrow. Thou art the Way to those who wander. Thou art Master to the nations. Thou art the Creator of all creatures. Thou art the Lover of all good. Thou art the Prince of all virtues. Thou art the joy of all Thy saints. Thou art life unending. Thou art joy in truth.” 
“Thou art joy in truth.” What does St. Patrick mean? He means that Christ, to Whom the prayer is addressed, is Truth, and for us that means joy. We have joy because we have confidence that Jesus not only speaks the Truth, but is, Himself, the Truth. What did the Lord say concerning Himself? He said: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14: 6). We cannot know the truth, we cannot fully experience the joy of the truth, unless we are united to Christ. And we cannot be united to Christ unless the dross of sin and the passions are cleaned out of our hearts, and we make room for Him to dwell there instead. Unless we live a life in accordance with the loving and healing commandments of Christ, we will never experience the joy of being united with Jesus Who is the Truth. Listen to what St. Gregory of Sinai says:
“To try to discover the meaning of the commandments through study and reading without actually living in accordance with them is like mistaking a shadow of something for its reality. It is only by participating in the truth that you can share in the meaning of truth. If you search for the meaning without participating in the truth and without having been initiated into it, you will find only a besotted kind of wisdom. You will be among those whom St Jude categorized as ‘soulical’ or ‘worldly’ because they lack the Spirit, no matter how much they may boast of their knowledge of the truth” (Philokalia, IV, p. 216:22).
This is precisely what Great Lent is trying to help us with – shoveling out the dung by repentance and confession, and cleaning-up via obedience to the commandments. We are also called-upon to make room for Christ by saying “no” to the stomach in order to say “yes” to Christ in His Holy Mysteries.
The Sunday of Orthodoxy celebrates the victory of the “iconodules” over the “iconoclasts,” true. But more than that, it is the victory of joy in the Truth. Heresy, no matter how “logical,” no matter how “reasonable,” no matter how “theological,” no matter how “comfortable,” it is always the enemy of Truth and therefore the enemy of Christ, and therefore the enemy of Joy. Heresy is the tool of the enemy of our souls, to snag us off of the Ladder to Paradise and instead, send us falling head-first into the yawning jaws of hell. Heresy, such that denies that the divine can be present in the material, therefore also denies that the Second Person of the Trinity, the Logos, the Only-Begotten Son of the Father, could take our flesh,  the flesh of theVirgin Mary, sanctify it, deify it, and take it up into heaven. Such heresy is to be denounced, decried, and anathematized! Hence we hear these frightful words from the Synodikon of Orthodoxy, taken from the “Rite of Orthodoxy,” celebrated in cathedrals and monasteries on this day:
To them who persist in the heresy of denying icons, or rather the apostasy of denying Christ, and are not counseled by the Mosaic law to be led to their salvation, nor are they convinced to return to piety by the apostolic teachings, nor are they induced by patristic exhortations and explanations to abandon their deception, nor are they persuaded by the agreement of the Churches of God throughout the whole world, but once for all have united themselves to the opinions of the Jews and Greeks; for those things wherewith the latter directly blaspheme the prototype, the former likewise have not blushed to insult in His icon Him that is depicted therein; therefore, to them who are incorrigibly possessed by this deception, and have their ears covered towards every Divine word and spiritual teaching, as already being putrified members, and having cut themselves off from the common body of the Church, Anathema! (x3).
And what does this “anathema!” mean? St. Theophan the Recluse says: “an anathema is precisely separation from the Church, or the exclusion from her midst of those who do not fulfill the conditions of unity with her and begin to think differently from the way she does, differently from the way they themselves promised to think upon joining her. Recollect how it happened! Arius appeared, who held impious opinions concerning Christ the Savior, so that with these notions he distorted the very act of our salvation. What was done with him? First he was admonished, and admonished many times by every persuasive and touching means possible. But since he stubbornly insisted upon his opinion, he was condemned and excommunicated from the Church.” Since heresies effect and wound others, and put roadblocks in the path that leads to salvation, the Holy Church must, by necessity, remove such roadblocks. St. John Maximovitch says that “Anathema means complete separation from the Church,” but he also says, “Anathema’ is not a final damnation: until death repentance is possible. ‘Anathema’ is fearsome not because the Church wishes anyone evil or God seeks their damnation. They, (God and the Church), desire that all be saved. But it is a fearsome thing to stand before the presence of God in the state of hardened evil, (because) nothing is hidden from Him.”
So beloved, let us now return to the previous topic, the joy in truth. We Orthodox cannot but rejoice because we have been given the fulness of truth, the clear path to the Kingdom, and complete access to the Saviour. “We have seen the true light. We have received the heavenly Spirit. We have found the TRUE faith!” Isn’t that what we sing? As David danced with joy before the ark of the covenant (2 Samuel 6:14) which was adorned with the images of the holy angels, today we too dance with joy at the restoration of the Holy icons, and the re-affirmation of the Incarnation of the Son of God. I’ll end with another quote from the Synodikon of Orthodoxy:
As the prophets have seen, as the apostles have taught, as the Church has received, as the teachers have set forth in dogmas, as the whole world has understood, as Grace has shone forth, as the truth was demonstrated, as falsehood was banished, as wisdom was emboldened, as Christ has awarded; thus do we believe, thus we speak, thus we preach Christ our true God and His saints, honoring them in words, in writings, in thoughts, in sacrifices, in temples, and in icons, worshipping and respecting the One as God and Master, and honoring the others, and apportioning relative worship to them, because of our common Master for they are His genuine servants. This is the Faith of the apostles, this is the Faith of the fathers, this is the Faith of the Orthodox, this Faith hath established the whole world.” Amen.

Forgiveness Sunday 2019
Matthew 6: 14-21
I’d like to begin this morning with a story from the Bible. Let’s go back to Genesis where we learn about the Twelve Patriarchs. The 11th son born to Jacob was Joseph. God revealed His plan for the life of Joseph when he was still a young boy. Joseph excitedly talked with his brothers about God’s plans. His brothers became jealous and eventually sold him into slavery while telling their father Jacob that his favorite son had been killed by a wild animal.
Joseph was bought by a man who eventually recognized Joseph’s honesty. The man gave Joseph great freedom even though he was still a slave. Eventually Joseph was wrongly accused of a crime and ended up in prison. Joseph’s integrity won him favor with the jail keepers and he became a guard over other prisoners. Through time God elevated Joseph to great power within the kingdom.
The brothers thought Joseph was dead. They did not suspect that the man they stood before was their own brother Joseph. When Joseph revealed himself, they were shocked and horrified to know he was alive. They had feared for years that he would come back and seek vengeance. After the family was reunited they lived together in Egypt. When their father Jacob died, the brothers began to fear even more that Joseph would finally show his hatred towards them (Genesis 50:15). Joseph was heartbroken when he learned they still did not trust him and that they feared what he would do to them (Genesis 50:17).
This amazing story of forgiveness culminates with these words from Joseph to his brothers:
“And Joseph said to them, ‘Fear not, for I am God's (servant). Ye took counsel against me for evil, but God took counsel for me for good, that the matter might be as it is to-day, and that many people might be fed.’ And he said to them, ‘Fear not, I will take care of you, and your families:’ and he comforted them, and spoke kindly to them” (Genesis 50:19-21, LXX).
“I am God’s servant” said Joseph. “I can do nothing but behave as such toward you. You have done me evil, but like God, I will forgive you with all my heart. I will love you and I will take care of you because you have repented of your evil-doing.”
Behaving like God is a tall order, and forgiveness is perhaps the tallest. Yet St. Augustine says: “You are just on the point of saying to me, ‘But I am not God, I am a man, a sinner.’ God be thanked that you confess that you have sins. Forgive then, that they may be forgiven you. Yet the Lord our God Himself exhorts us to imitate Him. And concerning Him the Apostle Peter said, ‘Christ has suffered for us, leaving you an example that you should follow His steps’...(and) lest ye should think it is too high a thing to imitate Christ, hear the Apostle (Paul) saying, ‘Forgive one another, even as God in Christ has forgiven you. Be therefore imitators of God.’ These are the Apostle's words, not mine. Is it a proud thing to imitate God? Hear the Apostle, ‘Be imitators of God as dearly beloved children.’”
Breathing in and out is essential to our biological life just as the giving and receiving of forgiveness is essential to our spiritual life. St. Tikhon of Zadonsk says: “Do we refuse to forgive? God, too, will refuse to forgive us. As we treat our neighbours, so also does God treat us. The forgiveness or unforgiveness of your sins, then, and hence also your salvation or destruction, depend on you yourself. For without forgiveness...there is no salvation. You can see for yourself how serious it is.”
I will end with a partial text from a sermon given by my late Seminary professor, Fr. Alexander Schemann who said:
“Now we have to forgive each other whether or not we have any explicit sins or crimes against each other. That reconciliation is another epiphany of the Church as the Kingdom of God. We are saved because we are in the Body of Christ. We are saved because we accept from Christ the world and the essential order. And finally, we accept Christ when we accept each other. Everything else is a lie and hypocrisy.
So, fathers, brothers, sisters: let us forgive one another. Let us not think about why. There is enough to think about. Let us do it. Right now, in a kind of deep breath, say: “Lord, help us to forgive. Lord, renew all these relationships.” What a chance is given here for love to triumph! – for unity to reflect the Divine unity, and for everything essential to return as life itself. What a chance! Is the answer we give today yes or no? Are we going to that forgiveness? Are we gladly accepting it? Or is it something which we do just because it is on the calendar – today, you follow, forgiveness; tomorrow, let’s do…? No! this is the crucial moment. This is the beginning of Lent. This is our spring “repair” because reconciliation is the powerful renewal of the ruin.
So, please, for the sake of Christ: let us forgive each other. The first thing I am asking all of you, my spiritual family, is to forgive me. Imagine how many temptations of laziness, of avoiding too much, and so on and so forth. What a constant defense of my own interests, health, or this or that… I know that I don’t even have an ounce of this self-giving, self-sacrifice which is truly a true repentance, the true renewal of love. Please forgive me and pray for me, so that what I am preaching I could first of all somehow, be it only a little bit, integrate and incarnate in my life. Amen. (SVS, Forgiveness Sunday, 1983).

Matthew 25: 31-46
Lying is a terrible sin. Solomon says that “a lying mouth destroys the soul” (Wisdom, 1:11) and Joshua ben Sirach says that a lie is “a foul blot on the character of a man” (Sirach 20:24 ). Lying is always connected to Satan whom Jesus calls the “father of lies” (John 8:44). Lying is prohibited by the Eighth Commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness,” yet how many of us lie every day, or if not every day, frequently? Usually we tell “little white lies” don’t we? Sometimes we tell whopping, ugly lies. Sometimes we lie to our loved ones. Sometimes we lie to our father confessor. Ordinarily we know when we are telling a lie. Even those who are habitual liars know when they are lying, right? But what about those times when we say something, perhaps we even say it over and over, yet we really don’t believe it? Let me give an example.
Every morning, every evening, and at nearly every divine service we confess our belief that the Lord Jesus Christ “shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead.” We do that, don’t we? This is Article 7 of the Creed, the Symbol of our Faith. We will all sing it together later in this service. By repeating these words we are saying, in effect, “I believe that the Lord is coming back, and I believe that there will be a dread Last Judgment.” But many of us don’t really think much about the Last Judgment, we don’t think about the ultimate consequences for our sins. That’s what this Sunday is all about. It reminds us that we need to think about what we belive, and especially about our appearance before the fearful judgment seat of Christ. It reminds us too, that a big part of our judgment will depend not on what we said, but on what we did. Today’s Gospel makes it clear.
Brethren, we understand that our sins literally separate us from God, but which sins? Most of us know that breaking the Ten Commandments will separate us from God; Denying our faith, murder, stealing, lying, etc. But today’s parable wants to remind us that one of the standards of judgment is how we treat other people, how we consider other people, especially the poor and the needy.
Let me share with you some verses of Scripture:
"He who despises his neighbor sins, but blessed is he who is kind to the needy." Proverbs 14:21
"He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God." Proverbs 14:31
"He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done." Proverbs 19:17
The Great Fast wants us to repent. Repentance, metanoia, means to change our minds, change our thinking, change our attitude about who we are, what we do, and how we relate to others. God, through Isaiah tells us what a true fast must include, saying: “loose every burden of iniquity, untie the knots of hard dealings, set the bruised free, and cancel every unjust account. Break thy bread with the hungry, and lead the unsheltered poor to thy house: if thou seest one naked, clothe him, and thou shalt not disregard thine own relatives.
Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thy health shall speedily spring forth: and thy righteousness shall go before thee, and the glory of God shall compass thee” (Isaiah 58: 6-8).
Our actions are far more important than our words. Pharaoh made many promises, both to God and to Moses, but he didn’t follow through. He didn’t really believe that God would make good on His promise of judgment. Great Lent wants to remind us to make good on our promises. The Lord Jesus said, "Why do you call me, 'Lord, Lord,' but do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). And what, exactly, is He telling us to do today? Our Lord is telling us to be the kind of people who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, show hospitality to foreigners, (which is what the Greek says), clothe those who have no clothing, to visit and comfort the sick and the imprisoned. In other words, the Lord expects us to be kind, compassionate, and merciful towards others, to truly reflect not only the image, but also the likeness of God.
This brings me to another important element of this parable. The Lord says: “And before Him shall be gathered all nations, and He shall separate them one from another as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats. And He shall set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left” (v 32-33). Why are the righteous called sheep and the unrighteous goats? Much has to do with their outward appearance and behaviour. St Cyril of Jerusalem said: “How does the shepherd make the separation? Does he examine out of a book which is a sheep and which a goat? or does he distinguish by their evident marks? Does not the wool show the sheep, and the hairy and rough skin the goat? In like manner, if thou hast been just now cleansed (by baptism) from thy sins, thy deeds shall be henceforth as pure wool; and thy robe shall remain unstained...By thy vesture shall thou be known for a sheep. But if thou be found hairy, like Esau, who was rough with hair, and wicked in mind, who for food lost his birthright and sold his privilege, thou shalt be one of those on the left hand.” Even more, sheep are gentle in demeanor, they love to stay close to their flock, and eagerly follow their leader. Goats tend to be aggressive, stubborn, and independent. They love to kick and butt with their horns in order to gain advantage. Sheep will only eat clean food, while goats are known for being voracious consumers of anything, whether clean or unclean. Finally, we have to look at their faces. The face of a sheep appears mild and kindly. The face of the goat has sharp features, two prominent turned-back horns, and a short, straggly beard. So the “likeness” of the sheep is the likeness of Christ, Who, as the Lamb of God, gave Himself up for the life of the world. The face of the goat reflects the “likeness” of Satan. Those who follow Satan, look and behave like him!
So, beloved, let us flee from the behaviour of the goats and seek to imitate the gentle ways of God’s sheep. Let us sing together with St Andrew of Crete: “Spare, O Savior, Thine own creature, and seek, as Shepherd, Thy lost sheep; snatch this stray away from the wolf, and make me a pet lamb in Thy sheep pasture” (Thursday of the First Week, Ode 8). Amen.

Luke 18: 10-14
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
If we want to understand the meaning of today’s parable, we needn’t look any further than the Lord’s words from the verse that came just before:

"And He (i.e, the Lord) spoke also this parable unto certain men who trust in themselves that they are righteous, and despise others (Luke 18:9.)"

Luke tells us that this parable is specifically aimed at a particular group of people, “certain men” it says, who believe that they are righteous and godly, yet they judge and condemn others. These are the Pharisees, of course, but we can all learn a lesson from them, can’t we? That’s why the account is preserved for us in the Bible! The Pharisees are confident that they are good and that they follow the commandments God perfectly. They are mistaken, though, if they despise others. That’s why the Lord, in another place, says to the Pharisees: “Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice!’” (Matthew 9: 13). Sacrifice, the Greek word θυσίαν, means religious offerings. So the Lord is saying: “I desire to see mercy coming from you rather than all of your religious offerings!” In another place, God chastises His stiff-necked and backsliding people by saying to them: “Do not offer your vain sacrifices to Me anymore: your incense is an abomination to Me. Your new moons, and your sabbaths, and your great feasts I will not abide, your assemblies are wicked...your fasting, and your Sabbath rest from work, your new moons also, and your festivals my soul hates: ye have become loathsome to me; I will no more pardon your sins. When ye stretch forth your hands, I will turn away mine eyes from you: and though ye make many supplications, I will not hearken to you;” (Isaiah 1:13, 15 LXX). Why did He say this to them? Because “they have rebelled against me. The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master's crib: but Israel does not know me, and the people have not regarded me. Ah, sinful nation, a people full of sins, an evil seed, lawless children: ye have forsaken the Lord, and provoked the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 1:2-4). In other words, God’s people had turned away from Him. Oh, sure, they were still doing “religion,” but they forgot about their relationship with God. They forgot that if they were truly close to God, then they would naturally become more like Him, reflecting not only the image of God, but also the “likeness” of God. And what is God like? Psalm 102/103 tells us: He forgives all of our transgressions, He heals all our diseases; He crowns us with mercy and compassion; He satisfies our yearnings with good things. The Lord executes mercy and judgment for all that are oppressed. The Lord is compassionate and kind, patient, and full of mercy.
Does that sound like the Pharisee in today’s Gospel? Did he have thoughts of compassion and mercy, and forgiveness toward the tax-collector? No, quite the opposite. This Pharisee didn’t come to the temple to pray out of piety. No, he came to the temple in order to be seen there! This Pharisee didn’t come to the temple to make his tithes and offerings to God. No, he came to brag about his tithes, and show off about his fasting, etc. He came to put himself on display like a preening peacock! He offered nothing but vainglory. What does the Lord Jesus say about such people?
“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe of mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” (Luke 11:42).
“You neglect justice and the love of God.” In other words, “You don’t love God and you don’t judge or treat others fairly. You don’t see people like God sees people. You have to make others look small in order to foster the illusion that you are somehow bigger and better.”
St Cyril of Alexandria says: “Our virtue...must not be contaminated with sin, but must be focused and blameless, and free from anything that can bring blame upon us. For what profit is there in fasting twice a week, if your doing so only serves as a pretext for ignorance and vanity, and makes you condescending, haughty, and selfish? You tithe from your possessions, and boast about it; that’s bad enough, but then you, in another way, provoke God's anger by accusing and condemning others because of it. You are puffed up. You have crowned yourself with a crown of righteousness that God has not given to you, but rather, you heap praises upon yourself. ‘For I am not,’ he says, ‘like other people.’ Moderate yourself, O Pharisee: put a guard on your mouth and a strong door over your lips (see Psalm 140 LXX). Reduce your pride: for arrogance is both accursed and hated by God. Although you fast, if you do it with a puffed up mind, and it will avail you nothing. Your labour will be unrewarded; for you have mingled dung with your perfume.”
So, now, what about the publican, i.e. the tax collector? What do we learn from him? Well, tax collectors were universally despised in 1st century Palestine. Why? Was it because they were the agents of the hated occupying Roman Empire? Yes, but that wasn’t the worst bit. The tax-collectors also padded their own personal income by misrepresenting how much each person owed. They were thieves. They were corrupt. That being said, why does the tax-collector leave the temple forgiven? Why was it that only his prayer was heard? He leaves forgiven because he was humble. Humility is the opposite of pride. Humility is the antidote to pride. When the tax-collector came to the temple he was already weeping over his sins. Psalm 50/51 says that God will not despise “a broken and contrite heart.” The tax-collector was already broken by the grace of the Holy Spirit. “God be merciful to me, a sinner” was his only prayer. His heart, his soul, and the words of his mouth were all connected to God. There was no phony religiosity in the tax-collector at all, only sincere, raw, repentance.
So today the Church asks us to meditate on and incorporate these lessons into our own hearts and minds. The words of the Triodion tell us how:
Let us cast foolish pride from our souls, learning to think with truth and humility; let us not try to justify ourselves, but to hate pride’s delusion, and so with the Publican, obtain God’s mercy. // Let us flee from the pride of the Pharisee and learn humility from the Publican’s tears! Let us cry out to our Saviour: Have mercy on us, O only merciful One! Amen.

Zacchaeus Sunday
You’ve all seen the Geico commercial from 2013 that’s now being shown again on TV’s all across the land. A camel is seen strolling through an office and says: Uh-oh! Guess what day it is! Guess what day it is! Huh? Anybody? Julie! Hey...guess what day it is! Ah come on, I know you can hear me. Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike, what day is it Mike? Huh? Guess what day it is!”
An unamused yet resigned woman at her desk reluctantly replies: “It’s hump day.”
Well, this isn’t Wednesday, this isn’t hump day, but I’m kind-of excited about this day. Do you know why? Do you know what day this is? THIS is Zacchaeus Sunday! This is the Sunday before the beginning of the Lenten Triodion, the Постнаѧ Трїωдь, and that’s exciting! So, what, exactly, IS the Lenten Triodion, you might ask. Well, it's the Church’s liturgical book that provides us with all the specials hymns and texts for the Great and Holy 40-Day Fast, the weeks leading up to the Fast, and includes all of Holy Week too. For those of us who follow the ustav, the “rule” of the Russian Orthodox Church, we ALWAYS know when the Lenten Triodion is about to appear because on the Sunday before it starts we ALWAYS hear the Gospel reading that tells us about Zacchaeus, the repentant tax-collector, who desired, more than anything, to see Christ.
The Holy Fathers placed today's Gospel here to prepare us, little by little, for the dawning of the season of Great Lent. Knowing that we are basically slow to exhibit a desire for repentance, the Holy Fathers, by Zacchaeus' example, teach us in these preliminary weeks the need to recognize our sins, our need to turn away from them, and our need to always seek our Lord Jesus Christ.
Now Zacchaeus, was an earnest and wealthy chief tax-collector appointed by the Romans to gather the Roman taxes from the citizens of Jericho. The Holy Apostle and Evangelist Luke describes him and his situation as we heard in the Gospel reading this morning in Luke 19:1-10. We learned from this passage that Zacchaeus was very short, and because of this, he knew he would be unable to see the Lord Jesus Christ as He was passing through Jericho. He had a brilliant idea, though, he climbed up into a sycamore tree in order to see Him. Smart, huh? Where do you think he got that idea from? His own intelligence? Partly. From the Holy Spirit? Absolutely! But I think the Holy Spirit inspired and his brain reacted to what he observed around him. I think he took his cue from the children. Don't you? Kids are always having to deal with the problem of being too short. I bet Zacchaeus saw what the children were doing, and he imitated them. After all, what does the Gospel say, “Truly I say unto you, Unless you turn around, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:3.) Now this action of climbing a tree like a kid had to be humiliating for Zacchaeus, but it didn't stop him. He disregarded the embarrassment. He willingly became a fool for Christ’s sake (1 Cornthians 4:10).  And what happened as a result? The Lord saw and acknowledged the humility, the good effort, and the sincere faith of Zacchaeus, so He called him by name and announced His wish to be a guest in his house, saying to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house" (Luke 19:5).
Zacchaeus accepted this call with all his soul, and he rushed with complete joy and received the Lord Jesus into his home and offered Him hospitality eagerly. It wasn't only because he believed in Christ with all his soul that he hosted Him with such willingness, but also because he actively repented for his former sins, and he said to the Lord, "Behold, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold" (Luke 19:8). We see by this example that sincere repentance inspires generosity toward God. That’s why almsgiving is always an integral part of the lenten journey – almsgiving towards God via support for the Church, and almsgiving towards God via support of the poor.
Now, going back to the meal with Zacchaeus and his family. The jealous and wicked Pharisees couldn't stand this, and the Gospel says they all murmured, "He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner"" (Luke 19:7); but the Lord, who knows the hearts of everyone, looked into the heart of Zacchaeus and, honoring the genuineness of his repentance, forgave and blessed him and all his household, saying, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham" (Luke 19:9).
Zacchaeus' conversion, (because that's what it was), offers us two important lessons: first, God's compassion flows like a river when we confess our sins with a heart-felt desire to repent, and second, God blesses us with abundant grace when we PROVE our words with our actions. In this, the good Zacchaeus even exceeded the Law of Moses in his generosity, and for that reason, he was accounted worthy of the Lord's blessing.
So whatever became of Zacchaeus the diminutive tax-collector? After the Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension of the Lord, the sacred tradition of our church tells us that Zacchaeus became one of the 70 apostles, and a disciple of the Holy Apostle Peter, who afterwards ordained him Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine. His memory is celebrated on April 20.
So, dear ones, the Holy Fathers, knowing the weakness of our human nature, and the difficulty involved for us to change from a sinful, and self-centered life to one of humility and repentance, placed this Gospel lesson before us today to instill in us a desire to repent and to see Jesus, just like Zacchaeus had. Having his example before us, let us now begin to prepare ourselves mentally for the approaching podvig, the spiritual and physical struggle, of the Great Fast. Let us begin to prepare ourselves for our journey to Golotha, and to that Holy and Life-giving Tree of the Cross. Let us prepare ourselves to climb that Tree in humility and sincerity, in order that we might be made worthy to behold Jesus, resurrected and glorified.
Through the prayers of the Holy Apostle Zacchaeus, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.

The Canaanite Woman
Sermon on: The Canaanite Woman
Matthew 15: 21-28
February 3, 2019
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Dear Brothers and Sisters, Glory to Jesus Christ!
Before talking about the Canaanite woman and today’s Gospel, I’d like to look briefly at another section in another Gospel – Chapter 11 of St Luke. Luke 11 begins with the disciples asking Jesus how to pray. And what does He teach them? “Our Father, Who art in heaven...” That’s right, the Lord’s Prayer. And then what happens? Immediately the Lord gives them a parable: “Which of you shall have a friend, and go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has come to me on his journey, and I have nothing to set before him’;  and he will answer from within and say, ‘Do not trouble me; the door is now shut, and my children are...in bed; I cannot rise and give to you’ I say to you, though he will not rise and give to him because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will rise and give him as many as he needs” (Luke 11: 5-8).
In other words, it wasn’t friendship that roused the man from his bed to render aid, it was because his friend continued to pound on the door and cry out to him that he got up. It was persistence.
What comes next in chapter 11 of Luke? The Lord then says: “So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” (Luke 11: 9-10).
This is how most translations have it, and they’re wrong. Why? Because the Greek says: “So I say to you, keep on asking, and it will be given to you; keep on seeking, and you will find; keep on knocking, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who continues to ask receives, and those who continue to seek find, and to those who continue to knock it will be opened.”
Why is this important? Because it teaches persistence: persistence in prayer, persistence in seeking God, persistence in asking God for help. We don’t just say the Lord’s prayer once. We repeat it many times during the course of the day and at least once during every divine service.
The Canaanite woman, (who is called Justa in an ancient epistle ascribed to Clement of Rome,) has a daughter, (named Verenika in the same epistle) who is demon-possessed. Now Justa is presumably a pagan. Yet, this remarkable pagan woman put the Household of God to shame when she cried out to Jesus: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.” She asks Jesus to hear her plea by declaring Him to be both God and the Christ, both God and the Messiah! And how did Jesus react? He pretended not to hear her. So what did she do? She cried out again even louder, annoying the disciples. What does Jesus do? He tells her that He was sent only to the Jews...never mind that He was currently stand on Gentile ground! So what does she do? She cries out even louder, calling Him, again, “Lord,” and begging for His help. That’s when the Lord replies with the curious reply that “the children’s bread should not be given to the puppies!” Yes, it’s “puppies.” I’ve told you this before, probably every time this reading comes up. And what happened to the leftover food on the table, and especially the spilt food from the places where the kids sat? Right, it DID, eventually go...where? That’s right, to the puppies, the kitties, the pets. Jesus was testing her and she knew it. She entered quite willingly and quite happily into this test, because she had faith that Jesus was going to do for her what she asked Him to do – deliver her daughter from the grips of a demon. Jesus knew two very important things about Justa, she had strong faith and she had even stronger persistence in her prayer! Jesus wanted His disciples, and all those others standinging around, to know just what faith and persistence looked like!  St. John Chrysostom says that her success in obtaining her daughter’s healing was due to her persistence.”
Persistence in prayer is hard. Perseverance in prayer is work. Waiting for God is difficult. Not getting what we want right away is disappointing. But we need to learn the same lesson that the disciples needed to learn from the Canaanite woman, right? Persevere and endure. Force yourself.
St. Ambrose of Optina says: “If you do not feel like praying, you have to force yourself. The Holy Fathers say that prayer with force is higher than prayer unforced. You do not want to do it, but force yourself. The Kingdom of Heaven is taken by force (Matt. 11:12).”
And St. Macarius the Great says: “The person who daily forces himself to persevere in prayer becomes enflamed with Divine passion and fiery desire emanating from a spiritual love for God, and receives the grace of the sanctifying perfection of the Spirit.”
May God bless us all with the grace to follow the example of the Canaanite woman. Let us imitate her strong faith. Let us imitate her courage to draw near to Christ despite many obstacles. And most of all, let us imitate her persistence and perseverance in prayer, so that the demons flee far away from us, and the “grace of the sanctifying perfection of the Spirit” comes instead. Amen.

Today’s feast of the Three Hierarchs is an interesting one. It celebrates three important saints all together on a single day - Saint Basil The Great, Saint Gregory The Theologian And Saint John Chrysostom. Now each of these saints DO have their own individual feast days. St. Basil the Great is celebrated on January 1st; St. Gregory the Theologian on January 25th; and St. John Chrysostom on January 27th. According to the Prologue, this combined feast day, January 30, was instituted during the reign of Emperor Alexius Comnenus. St. Nikolai Velimirovich writes: “At one time a debate arose among the people concerning who of the three is the greatest? Some extolled Basil because of his purity and courage; others extolled Gregory for his unequaled depth and lofty mind in theology; still others extolled Chrysostom because of his eloquence and clarity in expounding the Faith. Thus some were called Basilians, others Gregorgians, and the third were called Johannites. This debate was settled by Divine Providence to the benefit of the Church and to an even greater glory of the three saints. Bishop John of Euchaita (June 14) had a vision in a dream: At first, all three of these saints appeared to him separately in great glory and indescribable beauty, and after that all three appeared together. They said to him, ‘As you see, we are one in God and there is nothing contradictory in us; neither is there a first or a second among us.’ The saints also advised Bishop John that he write a common service for them and to order a common feast day of celebration. Following this wonderful vision, the debate was settled in this manner: January 30 would be designated as the common feast of these three hierarchs.”
So there you have it, the official explanation or reason for this holy day. Division, factions. Isn’t it awful? Believe it or not, we see evidence of exactly this kind of division occurring even in the Bible! St. Paul in First Corinthians chastises the faithful there, writing: “Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as spiritual people, but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ.  I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not behaving like mere human beings?... So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Peter, all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God” (1 Corinthians 3: 1-4; 21-23).
However, there may be even more to it. In the Bible we also see examples of regional and ethnic division. In John 1:45-46 we read: “Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the Torah and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’”  What was wrong with Nazareth? According to recent archaeological and other evidence, Nazareth was a small village at the time of Christ. What made it distinct from other small towns and villages in Galilee, was that it was very sympathetic to and supportive of the religious teachings and traditions of the Judean/Jerusalem leadership – the Scribes, Pharisees, and the other hypocrites! Perhaps this is why Nazareth, His hometown, so thoroughly rejected Jesus and His message when He visited there with His disciples (See Matthew 13: 53-57). That’s why Philip, a true Galilean, says “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
So in the Bible we see rivalries and sometimes even hatred among the various peoples and locations in Palestine: Galilee vs Judea; Jews vs Samaritans, there were Zealots and Essenes, and many more. So what about Basil, Gregory, and John? All of them were the favorite saints of the locations in which they lived or presided, and all of them within the borders of modern Turkey, ancient Asia Minor. For St John Chrysostom he has two places of “favorite son” status: Antioch (just barely south of the Asia Minor border), and Constantinople; for St Basil – Caesarea in Cappadocia I; and for Gregory, the town of Nazianzus in Cappadocia II. (Cappadocia was divided into two administrative sections, 1 & 2). Regional, sectional, and even ethnic rivalries existed even way back in ancient times. This divisive bickering behavior concerning the Three Hierarchs was still raging in Asia Minor even as late as the mid 11th century. How do we know that? We know that because that’s when St. John, Bishop of Euchaita presided. He’s the one who was visited by the Three Hierarchs themselves in order to put an end to the divisions!
I think that there is an important lesson to be learned here today for the Orthodox world. I am speaking, of course, about the situation in Ukraine, but the lesson applies everywhere. We would all do well to remember that in Christ there is no difference: Jew or Greek; slave or free; male or female; Paul, Apollos or Peter; Basil, Gregory or John; Constantinople, Caesarea or Nazianzus. Regional, sectional, political, ethnic, racial, or any other kind of divisions that rear their ugly heads in the Church of Christ are anathema! They rip apart the garment of the unity of Christ’s body, and fulfill the fondest wishes of the Devil, whose very name means “the Divider!” Ethnic and nationalistic notions should not figure into the establishment of autocephalous churches at all. In fact, the Holy pan-Orthodox Synod held in Constantinople on 10th September 1872, condemned ethno-phyletism as a modern ecclesial heresy, saying that “the Church should not be confused with the destiny of any single nation or any single race.” Alas, “it is a consummation devoutly to be wished,” as Shakespeare has Prince Hamlet say. Well, we can do more than wish; we can pray. We can pray to the Three Holy Hierarchs, Basil, Gregory and John, that they intercede fervently on behalf of our church to the Merciful God; and perhaps we might even dare to pray that they would appear once again, to bring about the healing of all ethno-phyletistic divisions that have so recently infected some parts of the Orthodox Church. Amen.

Sermon on Theophany 2019
January 6, 2019
St John Chrysostom asks: “Why is this day called ‘Theophany?’ Because Christ made Himself known to all on this day, on the day He was baptized, and not on the day He was born.  Before this day He was not known to the people. And to demonstrate that the people did not know Who He was, John the Baptist says: "In your midst stands Him Whom ye know not" (John 1:26). And how can it be surprising that others did not know Him, when even the Baptist himself did not know Him until that day? "And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit." (John 1:33).
When Jesus comes to the banks of the Jordan, he doesn’t just come to meet His cousin, He doesn’t just come to show Himself to the penitents standing there in the water, He doesn’t just come to fulfill the prophecies in Isaiah concerning John the Baptist preparing the way for the Messiah, He doesn’t just come to find some who would become His disciples there, no, He comes to meet us! All of us. Just as Jesus descended into Hades to find all of those thousands or millions who were waiting for Him there, He first came to the Jordan to meet all of us who are waiting for Him here. Isn’t that wonderful?
John the Baptist said to everyone standing there: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). The Lamb of God comes to save the world, the whole world. It doesn’t mean the planet, it means all of us human beings. The God-Man comes to the Jordan to reveal Himself to us. This idea struck me hard last night at the Vigil service when during Matins we were singing “The Lord is God and hath appeared unto us.” The word “appeared” in the original Greek is “epefanen” like “epiphany!” Our Lord, Jesus, is GOD, and has appeared, has shown forth, to US at the Jordan, at His baptism by John! What a joy! What a miracle!
But that’s not all! Theophany is also the first clear revelation of God the Holy Trinity to the world. How do we know this? Because God the Father spoke from Heaven about the Son, the Son was baptized by Saint John the Forerunner in the Jordan, and the Holy Spirit descended upon the Son in the form of a dove. God the Holy Trinity is clearly revealed!
I’d like to finish by saying just a few words about the icon of Theophany. The symbolism of this icon is very important for understanding the feast. First of all, Jesus is depicted as either totally naked, or nearly so. Why? Throughout the creation narrative in Genesis we see God creating and then declaring it “good.” Adam and Eve were created together in God’s image.  They were both beautiful, and while they lacked physical garments, they were clothed in the glory of the “image” and “likeness” of God.  However, when they fell into sin, they hid in shame until God brought them garments of skin to wear (which symbolizes the sinful, animal-like tendency that now obscures our true nature).  Their natural beauty was corrupted into an image of shame and object of lust.  Adam and Eve fell, and with them fell creation.
Now, we see Jesus Christ: he represents the second Adam (1 Cor 15).  In shame and nakedness, Adam hid.  Yet Christ comes in his majesty, both as God and man, both in glory and nakedness, completely unashamed, representing the beauty of the undefiled human being, made possible through Him.
We see the beginning of a new creation in Theophany.  Things are being set right.  Christ has come not only to cleanse and restore mankind, but to adopt us as heirs into his Kingdom.  And when we receive His glory, not only are we redeemed, but we draw all of creation with us into the final restoration.  That is why “creation groans” in eager expectation, awaiting the manifestation of the children of God. (Rom 8)
At the top of the icon we see the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus in the form a dove. The Holy Spirit is depicted in a divine mandorla pointing downward.  In this manner, says St. Gregory Palamas, “The Father, using His own pre-eternal and consubstantial and supercelestial Spirit as His finger, calls out and points from heaven, openly declaring and proclaiming to all that the One being baptized by John in the Jordan was His beloved Son, while at the same time manifesting His unity with Him.” (St. Gregory Palamas, Homily 60.15).  St. John Chrysostom emphasizes that the heavens were opened, and the Spirit descends upon us so that we can ascend with Christ and the Spirit to the Father in Heaven. For the first time since the fall of mankind, the Heavens were opened to us.
The angels on the right side are waiting to attend and dress him after the baptism, reminding us of the Psalm “The Lord is King, He is clothed with majesty” (Psalm 93:1). John the Baptist, while baptizing Jesus is usually turned away or looking at the Spirit descending upon Christ.  This signifies that Theophany is about elevating Jesus Christ. John seeks no glory for himself. In fact, John seeks the opposite, saying: “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3:30). This is the revelation of John’s great humility. There is an axe leaning on a small tree near John the Baptist, which reflects his warning that our lives must bear fruit or else we will be removed like a tree is removed with an axe. Jesus is not submerged in the water, for creation was baptized in Him, not vice versa.
Lastly, the strange little men or creatures riding fish at the bottom of the icon represent the Jordan River and the Sea, both fleeing at the sight of something much bigger and greater than themselves entering the water.  As the Psalms say:  “The waters saw Thee, O God, the waters saw Thee and were afraid; the deeps were troubled” (Psalm 76:15) and “The sea beheld and fled, [the River] Jordan turned back” (Psalm 113:3).
At Theophany the Church invites us to renew ourselves in Christ, through this celebration of His baptism, and by the Blessing of Water. He steps into the water not because He needs it, but because we need it. Let us thank God for His wonderful revelation to us! Let us, brethren, learn from our Savior, who, having no sin, nonetheless came to John in order to be baptized by him; let us learn from Him the God-pleasing and fragrant virtue of humility, without which, as the holy fathers have said, no other virtue whatsoever can be attained.

The Parable of the Great Supper
Sermon on the Parable of the Great Supper (Luke 14:16-24)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Beloved Brothers and Sisters,
Lame excuses seem to be a regular feature of human life, don’t they? They usually result from the need for a hasty explanation when we are caught doing something we shouldn’t, or neglecting to do something that we should have. Right? “The dog ate my homework.” “My alarm didn’t go off!” And then there’s the classic biblical lame excuse: “The wife which you gave me, she gave it to me and so I ate it!” (Genesis 3:12). But today’s Gospel reading features excuses which have nothing to do with trying to avoid blame or punishment. These excuses are not made in haste. No one is being caught, or confronted, or accused of anything. These excuses are intentional, and what’s worse, they are insulting.
“The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of ground, and I must go and see it. I ask you to have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to test them. I ask you to have me excused.’ Still another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’
The dog eating the homework is at least something that is plausible, if utterly unlikely. The “alarm not sounding” really can happen, but it’s usually due to human error, myself being the human. Someone else may play a role (or not!) in my actions, but, as we all have been taught, when we come to confession, we should never, ever name or blame anybody else for our own sins. “Grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother” says the great penitential prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian.
But these excuses in the Lord’s parable are ridiculous. They have zero plausibility. They are nonsensical. “I bought land and need to go see it?” Who does that? And even if it were so, the “seeing” of the land could be done at any time. And who would buy five animals and not check to make sure that they were strong and healthy prior to purchase? And being married? Since when does marriage prevent one from attending an event? The truth is, these excuse-makers simply don’t want to go. The parable is of course is directed to the pharisees and lawyers who were sitting at a table with Jesus. That’s the context. They despised Jesus, and were watching Him. They were trying to expose Him as a fraud, a charlatan and a law-breaker, grilling Him about this and that. Finally Jesus shows them, by this parable, that they really have no interest in the Heavenly Kingdom, and the Messiah’s Banquet. They excuse themselves from faith and discipleship based on the absurdities of the false religion they themselves created and which the Lord describes as “binding men’s backs with heavy and grief-producing burdens which they themselves are unwilling to touch with even so much as a finger” (Matthew 23:4). The excuses are ridiculous because they think Jesus is ridiculous. They have no intention of recognizing this Jesus as the Messiah, so they insult His intelligence. As Ezekiel rightly relates: “Son of man, you are living in a rebellious house. They have eyes to see but do not see, and ears to hear but do not hear, for they are a rebellious house” (Ezekiel 12:2). But the streets and the lanes, the highways and hedges refer to those whom the Lord will invite to sit with Him at His table – the Gentiles. But that’s another story!
So, what should the invited guests have done? They should have run with eagerness to the table of Christ! They should have danced with joy to be called to discipleship. And what does this mean? The holy apostle to the Gentiles tells us in today’s epistle reading tells us (Colossians 3:4-11)! In order to attend the banquet, we need to be dressed in the appropriate garments, right? In this case, the garment is Christ Himself. “As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ” says St. Paul in another place (Galatians 3:27). So in order for us to put on the new garments, the “new man” in Christ, we must first shed the old clothes of the “old man” (Ephesians 4:22). And what are these old clothes of the old, sinful humanity?
St. Paul just told us in the epistle:
“sexual immorality, (and by the way, Paul uses the Greek word “porneia” which includes pornography along with the rest of it!), uncleanness, passions, evil desires, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” And then he continues: “But now, you yourselves, are to put off all these: anger, wrath (furious lashing-out), malice (simmering, seething ill-will), blasphemy, and filthy language out of your mouths. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds” (Colossians 3:8-9). To shed these deformities of sin, man is restored to who he was truly created to be, and permits the acquisition of the “likeness” of God, says St. John Chrysostom (Homilies on Colossians, verses 9&10). 
And that brings us to today’s important commemoration of the Church calendar, the second Sunday before the Nativity of Christ, the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers. The ancestors of Christ according to the flesh are remembered today, along with all the great Fathers and Mothers and Prophets of the Old Testament, starting with Adam, Abraham, the Righteous Sarah, Isaac and Jacob, including Holy Prophet Elias and Daniel, and concluding with Holy Prophet Zechariah, Ss Joachim and Anna, Holy Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist. They lived before the Law and under the Law, and are remembered for their holiness, bravery, humility, and all of the virtues which constitute the garment of Christ. That’s why we are constantly reminded that we should become familiar with the Scriptures, both Old and New, in order to imitate the good deeds of the righteous and flee the ways of the wicked (See Canon of St Andrew of Crete, Ode 8, Tuesday of the First Week.)
Brothers and Sisters, the journey to Bethlehem for Mary and Joseph was, in the end, a very difficult one. The distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem is about 65 miles. Mary was very pregnant, ready to deliver, so the journey by foot, even with a donkey, had to take about 5 grueling days, ending in a very steep uphill climb to Bethlehem, which sits atop a mountain ridge, near the edge of the Judean desert. This indicates to us that to be with Christ, to be clothed in Christ, to have Christ born within our hearts, to acquire the virtues and to strip away vices, requires effort, struggle, and persistence. St. Nektarios of Aegina (and I’ll finish with his words) said this:
“We have within us deeply rooted weaknesses, passions, and defects. This can not all be cut out with one sharp motion, but patience, persistence, care and attention. 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. However, with the passage of time and with fervor will they be conquered. Don't let anything deprive you of your hope!”
(St. Nectarios of Aegina, Path to Happiness, 3)

Lepers, Gratitude & Faith
Sermon for Sunday December 9th, 2018 “The Ten Lepers”
Luke 17: 12-19
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today’s Gospel concerning the ten lepers is about nothing if it is not about Gratitude. “And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, returned, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at His feet, giving Him thanks.”
The healed leper came back to thank Jesus, but even more than that, he came back to prostrate and worship Him. That’s why Jesus says to him, “Your faith has...” what? “Made you well?” No. “Made you whole?” No, that’s not it. That’s what the translations say, but that’s not what the original Greek says. It says that the Saviour says to the healed leper, “Your faith has SAVED you!” It means so much more than a simple cure of a disease. It means the healing of soul and body, it means the salvation of the whole man, due to his faith and due to his gratitude.
What are we doing during this Advent season dear ones? What is the purpose of our fasting? What is purpose of the Church singing the Christmas Canon at Matins? Why are we singing Christmas carols and preparing delightful Christmas treats? Why are we busying ourselves with decorating, putting up Christmas lights, and shopping for gifts? Why are we making an effort to share our treasure with the poor and with the church? Why? In order to generate gratitude and faith in preparation for the coming feast of the Nativity. We need to be grateful to God because He sent Jesus to us to heal us and to save us from our sins. And we need to rekindle and to share our faith that Jesus is God incarnate Who came to restore our broken and sin-inclined nature to the joy of communion and union with God!
This brings me to one of the icons that is out for veneration today. It’s called the Icon of the Mother of God “Unexpected Joy” and today is one of the days that it is commemorated. Let me tell you a little about it. The history of this icon is related by the Holy Hierarch Dimitry of Rostov in his work, "The Bedewed Fleece." There once was a man, a sinner, (the saint tells us,) who despite living a sinful life, nonetheless had a pious love and devotion to the Mother of God. Without fail, he daily prayed before her icon, saying those words once spoken by the Archangel Gabriel: "Rejoice, thou who art full of grace!" It came to pass that as he was about to go off to engage in some sinful (some say “criminal”) activity, he turned to pray before the icon of the Mother of God. Immediately he began to tremble, as he saw the image of the Mother of God appear to move, and gaze at him. He also saw wounds opening up on the hands, feet and side of the image of the Divine Infant which then dripped blood. Falling to the ground, the transgressor shouted: "O Lady, who has done this?" The Mother of God answered: "You and other sinners who, again and again, are crucifying my Son. You call me merciful. But then why do you insult me with your lawless acts?” “O Mistress,” answered the sinner, “may my sins not overcome your inexpressible goodness! You are the only hope of all sinners. Please, entreat your Son and our God on my behalf.” Our Mistress twice entreated her Son, Christ that the sinner be forgiven, but He remained adamant in His refusal, until finally, the third time, he responded to the persistent entreaties of the Mother of God: “I will fulfill your request. May your will be granted. Because of you, this person’s sins are remitted. Let him, in token of forgiveness, kiss My wounds.” And lo, the forgiven sinner, before whom the inexhaustible mercy of the Mother of God was manifest in such a wonderful manner, raised himself up from the ground, and with inexpressible joy kissed the wounds of his Saviour. From that moment, he lived a clean, righteous and pious life. This event provided the faithful with the inspiration to produce the "Unexpected Joy" icon of the Mother of God. On this icon, as you can see, is depicted a man, on his knees, praying before the icon of the Mother of God. Below the icon is written the opening words of the story: "There was a certain transgressor...etc." So, Advent, too, is all about the coming of the Divine Infant Christ to save all of us sinners from our sins through the agency of the Mother of God, and to change the weeping of our repentance into exquisite and unexpected joy.
The coming of the Christ Child is all about the incarnation, and all about deification. Christ clothed Himself in our humanity, in order that we might be clothed in His Divinity. There is something else here that we can learn from the holy icons. Fr Chad Hatfield reminded me about this at yesterday’s retreat at Holy Trinity Cathedral. You all know, without doubt, that there are very strict canons governing how icons should and should not be made. One such strict area has to do with how colors are used. Did you ever notice, how traditionally, Jesus is always depicted in a long red tunic as an undergarment, and a blue mantle or cloak as His outer garment? And what about His Most-Holy Mother? She is usually, traditionally, clothed in a blue under-tunic and a red maphorion, which is a more shaped mantle with a hood that covers the head. The color scheme is exactly the opposite of Jesus. Did you ever wonder why? In order to understand this, we have to understand the meaning of the colors! Red represents the Divine. Blue represents humanity. Red means the fire of divinity, blue means us because we are made dust and what? Water! Blue stands for water. Some say that a human being is around 65 percent water. Babies are 78 percent. And what’s the rest? Carbon, calcium, various other minerals, in other words, dust, dirt. But I digress. Blue stands for humanity and red for divinity. Christ’s red tunic represents His divinity. The cloak that He puts on, is our humanity, which He takes from the Virgin. For the Virgin, she is human, so her undergarment is blue. The red maphorion that she puts on, is divinity, deification, given to her by Christ. And there you have it...the Gospel. In these two icons we see the Gospel, and we see what Christmas proclaims: God becomes man so that man might become God, that is, deified! And that is the message of Advent. That is the Unexpected Joy of Divine Forgiveness, and that is the Healing of our leprosy of sin and death. Glory to God for all things! Amen.