Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Even with the blessings of Great Lent which is immediately upon us, there are no words that can, or should, take our attention away from the catastrophic atrocities that are taking place some 6,000 miles away in Ukraine. As Christians, we pray for the safety of the innocents and hope that the balm of peace can heal the wounds of war. I am no expert on any subject that speaks to this situation at hand. I recently read an article written by the Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis, a former professor at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology and spokesman of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. His is a voice I trust.
Dn. John is a brilliant scholar and a tremendously beautiful human being. He offered his thoughts on the invasion of Ukraine and its implication on the Church and society. We, as Orthodox Christians – lay people, clergy, hierarchs in particularly must take seriously the words of Dn. John. They will challenge us, they will jolt us, they will convict us, they will inspire us to strive to be imitators of Christ.
May God be merciful to us. May He make His face to shine upon us. May He bless us.
Few, if any, would go so far as to claim that Patriarch Kirill, as head of the Orthodox Church in Russia (or “the Russias,” as he likes to say), could be charged with crimes against humanity or war crimes for not preventing unwarranted and unjustifiable military aggression that has cost innocent lives in just the last few days. At the same time, many, if not most, would concur that President Putin should be charged with such atrocities.
Even with his egregious violations of conventional law, however, Putin could never destroy the international order by himself without the loyal support and moral endorsement—whether silent or explicit—of a complicit partner-in-crime. Both state and church there dream of a larger world, a universal Russia, a “Russian World” (Russkiy Mir). But when the punching gloves and the bling vestments are removed, each is using the other for its own interests for imperialism or irredentism; and both are promoting division in an increasingly bi-polar world.
Edward Gibbon long ago derided: “So intimate is the connection between throne and altar, that the banner of the church has very seldom been seen on the side of the people.” In the end, for Putin, the church is merely instrumental, just another arrow in his quiver to reconstitute the Soviet Union, an atheist state. But this time it is under the guise of a Christian theocracy refashioned in the image of the Romanov dynasty, whose double-headed eagle has replaced the Soviet hammer and sickle throughout Russia. Just as Kirill, too, is more than happy to oblige in the re-creation of a powerful church machine aligned with and backed by the state. No blurring of church-state lines here. As for their “soldiers”—secular military and spiritual militants—God alone knows what they have been told they are fighting for.
The critical question, of course, is how the rest of us respond to this 9/11 moment for Europe and the rest of the world. Friends and colleagues have addressed geopolitical aspects or religious ideologies at stake. Without reducing a horrific crime to an academic conversation—whether sociological or ecclesiastical, psychological or geopolitical—I want to limit myself to a personal perspective and experience. I trust that the reader will appreciate my reluctance to lecture or posture on history or theology, and ecclesiology or canon law, when the invasion still rages.
As a clergyman, never in my life have I been so horrified by the pathetic reactions of leaders in my church to current events in the past several years. At the very same time as they scurried to prepare pre-Lenten sermons on the “judgment passages” in Matthew 25 or preach on abstaining from meat—which they define as animals with a backbone!—they issued the most anemic statements about the war of Russia on Ukraine, unable to go beyond the call to pray, while forgetting that Christ himself demonstrated indignation at injustice.
I was hardly as surprised when they blundered more recently through COVID-19, with responses ranging from outright asininity to blatant irresponsibility. But I could not help but compare the tepid assurances of prayers to reactions after mass shootings. And I certainly could not help but wonder why bishops who proudly parade in “right to life” marches did not take to the streets for the “right to defense” of their Ukrainian—Orthodox in so many cases—brothers and sisters. At least Pope Francis stepped outside his office and stepped inside his Fiat to appeal in person to the Russian ambassador. The Archbishop of Canterbury unequivocally condemned Russia’s attack on Ukraine as “an act of great evil.” And the Ecumenical Patriarchate is the only Orthodox Church outside Ukraine to decry Russia’s unprovoked actions as “a violation of human rights and brutal violence against human beings.”
The reality is that the Orthodox Churches have abysmally neglected over the centuries to instruct or inspire their congregations in a way that meaningfully influences and shapes civil society about assuming a stand before socio-political challenges or standing up to failures of a broken state. The truth is that through most of history they have painfully succumbed or perversely submitted to the state, hardly disposed or competent to stand beside a laity exposed to the church’s impotence and the state’s ignorance. How tragic that it was left to the fearless protesters in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and elsewhere in Russia to expose both.
As an American, never in my life have I been so astounded by the partisan breakdown of support for and criticism of Putin, who is dismantling basic norms once taken for granted. The same ideological clash of worldviews is reflected in our own domestic context, where basic norms are likewise under threat. Still, the admiration of certain political pundits for Putin’s clever strategy or worthy ideals is almost unprecedented, rivalled only by the commensurate admiration of certain Orthodox Christians for Putin’s strong faith and deep piety.
I sincerely hope that fellow Americans will not be fixated on prices at the gas pump, for which the administration resorts to apologizing to the public and which the opposition reduces to accusations against the government. Hopefully we have learned from the last European war about the perils of silence and indifference, of waiting too long before confronting Hitler. Hopefully, too, we have learned that the world order—and not just Ukraine’s freedom—is at stake, as embattled Ukrainian President Zelensky has bravely articulated in videos from Kyiv, crying in a wilderness.
Putin has brazenly violated the international order, just as Kirill has flagrantly ignored the ecclesiastical order by breaking communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate over its right to grant autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, another courageous breakaway from Kirill’s Russias. The response of the global community (including the United States) will determine whether and how law prevails in the long term. And the response of the religious community (including the Orthodox Church) will determine whether and how love prevails in the long term.
If faith has taught me something, it is that, in the grand scheme of things, progress is possible and even inevitable. Whether with reluctance or resistance, Russia will at some point be forced to disabuse itself of its historical dreams or ideological destiny and walk with the rest of the world in the twenty-first century. Whether the Orthodox leaders know it or like it, the world may take a step backward for a period of time, but it will invariably move many more steps forward.
History may sometimes flatter “sophisticated” villains—secular and spiritual. But history never flatters shameless villains—who do not even pretend to charm their constituents. And if theology has taught me something, it is that, in the far-reaching perspective of God, evil never prevails over good. Sin can never be the final or perpetual word. Neither will Putin’s monstrosity. Nor, quite frankly, will Kirill’s passivity.
Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis is a deacon of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
With Love in Christ,
Fr. Anthony Savas
Real humility has nothing to do with creating in myself a low self-image or making myself feel guilty. It means recognizing that all my talents and virtues are gifts from God, gifts for which I am profoundly thankful. These gifts are entrusted to me so I can share them with people around me. I also share in their gifts, for which I am thankful to those people and to God. Real humility is also a recognition in practice that God loves each of my neighbors just as he loves me, so each one is invaluable.Sr. Nonna Verna Harrison
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
As many of you know, I was in Southern California during the middle of this past week for the funeral service of an old friend, Sr. Nonna Harrison. Though you may not have come into contact with her, she knew of our community very faithfully. I have also written about her once or twice in my weekly messages to the community. At only 68 years old, Sr. Nonna left this world too soon, but leaves behind a spiritual legacy in her prolific writings and in the hearts of her former students, colleagues, sister monastics, family and friends. She had a brilliant mind, a kind heart, a patient soul, a high tolerance for pain and suffering, and above all, she loved Jeus Christ. She served Him. She followed Him. She trusted in Him. She studied Him and she taught Him.
Sr. Nonna was a well-known scholar in the fields of Patristics and early church history. She primarily taught at non-Orthodox seminaries with the hope of exposing the broader, Western cadre of Christendom to the importance of the formational centuries of the Church. In so doing, of course, she exposed them to Orthodoxy. Her studies took her from Yale University to Oxford University to Berkely. Her home library was like nothing I’ve ever seen and her ability to spot translate from Ancient Greek to English was impressive.
Even more impressive was the fact that she was legally and almost entirely blind. She had one eye that was always shut, and the other, she described as looking through a cardboard paper towel tube.
For the last year and a half, right up until her stroke about five weeks ago, she used her two good ears, and her one, partial eye, and faithfully worshipped with us at St. Anna’s via live stream.
Your parish was her parish.
This tall, imposing and yes, even intimidating nun was prayerfully standing at your side as you came to church. She prayed with you. She sang with you. She did everything but receive Communion with you. It was her intention to one day travel here and worship with us in person – to offer a Bible Study, conduct a retreat, teach a lesson. Her health did not permit this goal to become a reality. But of course, from the glory of Christ’s Heavenly Throne, she continues to pray with, and for us.
Sr. Nonna was laid to rest in the beautiful mountains above Santa Paula, California. Nestled in those glorious hills, is the small Monastery of St. Barbara. The Abess, Mother Victoria was gracious to receive Sr. Nonna for her final, earthly resting place, and to allow me to be the celebrant of her funeral. My participation in her final act of Christian witness was an opportunity for her to be connected, for the last time, to our St. Anna parish. This parish brought her great joy, our services, in her own words, were the “source of countless blessings.” Every member of our community was spiritually beside me as we laid her to rest.
Sr. Nonna’s primary academic interest was in the area of theological anthropology. She expanded the question of what it means to be human by contemplating what it means to be human, created in God’s image. This was her life’s work. This was her passion. She taught us to see God’s imprint in all aspects of life, not just in our faces, (that is, the literal image) but in all avenues of connectedness.
I have attached a brief article she wrote several years ago entitled “Serving and Being Served as Image of God.” This is one of my favorites among her essays. She had a knack for helping us see God’s imprint upon us in the most unexpected of places. Great Lent is nearing. We should all be personally and collectively challenged to use those days wisely, to be better individuals upon the completion of the Fast, and to translate our new-found transformation into benefits for the common good.
Sr. Nonna could not see, but she could feel. She was sensitive to the plights of the oppressed and her heart was greatly wounded for the sake of those who suffer. In the coming days of intensified spiritual warfare, let us include her in our prayers for inspiration, strength, focus, purpose, clarity, gratitude and compunction.
We may have lost a mighty warrior here on earth. But we gained a prayerful advocate in Heaven.
Sr. Nonna, may your Memory be Ever Eternal.
With Love in XC
Fr. Anthony Savas
Rejoice, O Virgin Theotokos, Full of Grace! From you shone the Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God, enlightening those who sat in darkness! Rejoice and be glad, O righteous elder; you accepted in your arms the Redeemer of our souls who grants us the resurrection –Troparion Hymn of the Feast
Dear Brothers and sisters in Christ,
The Feast of our Lord’s Presentation into the Temple is this Wednesday Morning. Orthros is at 8:00 am followed by the Divine Liturgy at 9:00 am. We will also commemorate our Second Anniversary of the First Divine Liturgy in our present church building. Recall the special blessings and events of that mystically vibrant day. Our hearts were afire as each and every one of us carried a sacred object from our former location to our present. His Eminence Metropolitan Isaiah commenced services that morning with the Orthros at St. Thomas More, and he met us to open the doors in our new church. You all worked and prayed so hard for that day to come.
You have continued to be visionary, generous, committed, Spirit-filled, and faithful, as we continue our journey toward the Kingdom. Much has taken place during our short history. To His glory, much work still remains, building up our body of believers and serving the needs of His precious lambs. For us, in the last church location we shall ever need, this journey continued on the day of the Presentation. What a glorious Feast, it is!
Forty days after Christ was born, He was presented to God in the Jerusalem Temple according to the Mosaic Law. At this time as well His mother Mary underwent the ritual purification and offered the sacrifices as prescribed in the Law. Thus, forty days after Christmas, on the second of February, the Church celebrates the feast of the presentation called the Presentation of the Lord.
The meeting of Christ by the elder Simeon and the prophetess Anna (Luke 2:22–36) is the main event of the feast of Christ’s presentation in the Temple. It was “revealed to Simeon by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26) and, inspired by the same Spirit, he came to the Temple where he met the new-born Messiah, took Him in his arms and said the words which are now chanted each evening at the end of the Orthodox Vespers service:
Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for mine eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for the revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to Your people Israel.Luke 2:29–32
At this time as well, Simeon predicted that Jesus would be the “sign which is spoken against” and that He would cause “the fall and the rising of many in Israel.” He also foretold Mary’s sufferings because of her son (Luke 22:34–35). Anna also was present and, giving thanks to God “she spoke of Jesus to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38).
In the service of the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, the fact emphasized is that Christ, the Son and Word of God through Whom the world was created, now is held as an infant in Simeon’s hands; this same Son of God, the Giver of the Law, now Himself fulfills the Law, carried in arms as a human child.
Receive him, O Simeon, whom Moses on Mount Sinai beheld in the darkness as the Giver of the Law. Receive him as a babe now obeying the Law. For he it is of whom the Law and the Prophets have spoken, incarnate for our sake and saving mankind. Come let us adore him!
Let the door of heaven open today, for the Eternal Word of the Father, without giving up his divinity, has been incarnate of the Virgin in time. And as a babe of forty days he is voluntarily brought by his mother to the Temple, according to the Law. And the elder Simeon takes him in his arms and cries out: Lord now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, O Lord, who has come to save the human race—glory to Thee!Vespers Verses of the Feast
The Vespers and Orthros of the feast of the Presentation of the Lord are filled with hymns on this theme. The Divine Liturgy is celebrated with the lines from the canticle of Mary forming the prokeimenon and the words of Simeon being the verses for the Alleluia. The gospel readings tell of the meeting, while the Old Testament readings at Vespers refer to the Law of the purification in Leviticus, the vision of Isaiah in the Temple of the Thrice-Holy Lord, and the gift of faith to the Egyptians prophesied by Isaiah when the light of the Lord shall be a “revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32).
The celebration of the Presentation of the Lord in the church is not merely a historical commemoration. Inspired by the same Holy Spirit as Simeon and led by the same Spirit into the Church of the Messiah, the members of the Church also can claim their own “meeting” with the Lord, and so also can witness that they too can “depart in peace” since their eyes have seen the salvation of God in the person of his Christ.
With Love in Christ,
Fr. Anthony Savas