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We’re Still Chanting the Earliest Known Prayer to the Virgin Mary

22 Mar

theotokos papyrus

During this Great Lent many of us Orthodox Christians throughout Connecticut have been visiting each others’ churches on Sunday evenings to celebrate lenten Vespers together. Every time we gather for this service, we chant a wonderful prayer to the Mother of God:

“Beneath your compassion, we take refuge, O Theotokos. Despise not our supplication in our adversities, but deliver us from perils and sorrow, O only-blessed one.”

Recently, I found an article that dates this prayer back to the middle of the third century! Isn’t it heartening to discover that early Christians honored the Mother of God and asked for her intercessory prayer, and that we Orthodox Christians in the 21st century continue this tradition?

I received permission to reprint the article and the prayer, from the blogger who posted it. I hope you enjoy its content (below), which includes as well information about the feast days dedicated to the Mother of God.

And, remember, we celebrate one of those feasts this week, March 24-25: the Annunciation, that is, the announcement by the Angel Gabriel that the Virgin Mary would give birth to the Christ Child, Jesus, the Savior of the World.

Here’s the article from the blog:

Posted by on Sep 9, 2014 in Blog

The earliest known prayer to the Theotokos (Greek, Θεοτοκος, meaning “Bearer of God”) is a prayer found on a fragment of papyrus dating back to approximately AD 250. In 1917, the John Rylands Library (1) in Manchester, England, acquired a large panel of Egyptian papyrus. The prayer is located on the fragment recorded as reference number Greek Papyrus 470. The prayer appears to be from a Coptic Christmas liturgy or vespers written in Koine Greek although the fragment in question may be a private copy of the prayer. The prayer is still chanted in the Orthodox Church to this day at the end of nearly every Vespers service during Lent. It is also found in the worship services of the Roman Catholic and Oriental Churches.

The early date of this prayer is important for a number of reasons, one of which is that it supports our understanding that the term Theotokos was not just a theological concept defended at the Third Ecumenical Council in AD 431, but was already in popular use and well-known several centuries before the Nestorian heresy.  As St. Gregory of Nazianzus stated in AD 379, “If someone does not uphold that the holy Mary is Theotokos, he is separated from divinity.” (Letter 101, PG 37, 177C)  Early Christians recognized the Theotokos as a powerful intercessor for those who are suffering and in need of protection. Christians have been seeking her intercessions from the time of the ancient Church and well over a thousand years up to this very day.

prayer

Beneath thy compassion,
 We take refuge, O Mother of God:
  do not despise our petitions in time of trouble,
but rescue us from dangers,
only pure one, only blessed one.

Hear the hymn in Greek:  Υπο την σην ευσπλαγχνιαν καταφευγομεν Θεοτοκε. τας ημων ικεσιας μη παριδης εν περιστασει, αλλ’ εκ κινδυνων λυτρωσαι ημας, μονη αγνη, μονη ευλογημενη.

See also our video on “The Icon of the Dormition of the Theotokos” and the video on “Our Pilgrimage to Where the Theotokos Fell Asleep”.

An excerpt from “The Significance of the Term Theotokos” from The Byzantine Fathers of the Fifth Century (Fr. Georges Florovsky) June, 1987.

“The term Theotokos — Θεοτοκος — does not mean the same as “Mother of God” in English or the common Latin translation. In English one must translate Theotokos as “Bearer of God.” The correct Latin would be deipara or dei genetrix, not Mater Dei. Had Nestorius been more prudent he would have realized that the term Theotokos had a comparatively long usage — it had been used by Origen, by Alexander of Alexandria, by Eusebius of Caesarea, Cyril of Jerusalem, Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and Cyril. In the Latin West Tertullian had used the term Dei Mater in De patientia 3 and Ambrose also used it in his Hexaemeron V, 65 (Patrologia Latina. 14, 248A). More significant is that the Antiochene theologian Eustathius (bishop of Antioch from c.324 to 330), so often considered a forerunner of Nestorius, had some remarkably un-Antiochene tendencies in his Christology, one of which was the use of the term Theotokos.”

Sources:

1.  Image Reproduced by courtesy of the University Librarian and Director, The John Rylands University Library, The University of Manchester.  For more information on the fragment, visit: http://tinyurl.com/kh3fy5d

2.  “The Significance of the Term Theotokos” from The Byzantine Fathers of the Fifth Century (Fr. Georges Florovsky) June, 1987.

God’s House for the Homeless

23 Feb

ATT00010I’ll admit it: I’m weary of winter in Connecticut.

Mother Nature’s exceptional doses of snow, ice, and windchill have caused me to curl up at home more than usual, thus contributing to a little more girth and much less mirth!

Oddly and simultaneously, I have experienced untold gratitude that I have a home to retreat to. Daily watching the homeless on the streets of Bridgeport heightens my thanks to God for the warmth, food, shelter, clean water, and privacy afforded me through my own home. “Cabin fever, ain’t so bad,” I remind myself.

Many times this season, as I watched black ice form and blizzards blow outside my living room window, I’d wonder: “How are the homeless surviving this night?”

20150218_160429

Dave Lepesko and Outreach Ministry volunteers

So, when our Outreach Ministry Chair, Dave Lepesko, gathered his team to prepare a meal for the homeless at Beth-El Center, Inc. (a local shelter), I was all in to join them. We spent the evening there on Wednesday, February 18th. We couldn’t provide a permanent roof, but we could provide friendship and warm food for empty bellies, and good conversation and a decent hug or handshake. I sat with three “gentlemen” who told me their stories, and when I asked their greatest need, I got an answer not totally unexpected: “a job.”

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Preparing a meal at Beth-El

Dave’s team is not stopping with one meal at one homeless shelter. Currently, they’re putting together “emergency bags” for the homeless who live in Bridgeport. These sturdy canvas bags will contain toiletries, toilet paper, space blankets and hand warmers, fruit and bottled water, and a prayer card with contact info that will lead them to our “church home” on East Main Street if they care to visit. (The bags are screened with an image of Holy Ghost Church as well!)

I’m so touched by Dave’s leadership and his team’s concern for our brothers and sisters in need. But, they’re not even stopping there! For the future, they are beginning to develop “hand up” programs to complement their “hand out” ministry. That is, they’re researching programs that will permanently improve lives in the neighborhood: mobile health clinics, teen character-building arts/drama programs, nutrition demonstrations, a pre-school for disadvantaged children, and even possibly a home-away-from home for families whose loved ones are in the Burn Unit of Bridgeport Hospital.

Right now, they’re just exploring possibilities, and they will be approaching the Parish Council for approval once their plans begin to firm up. But I know that their careful, meticulous research and faith in God is going to result in good for our neighbors down the road.

Who knows? Someday, they may actually be able to offer one of the “gentlemen” I sat with at Beth-El what he desires most: a job.

May God help them, and us, to discern His will, Fr. Steven, Pastor

P.S. Did you know that “Beth-El” means “House of God” in Hebrew?

Praying for Those Fallen Asleep in the Lord

15 Feb
Koliva!

Koliva!

In the New Testament we find a gentle phrase referring to Christians who have died: St. Paul, in his Letter to the Thessalonians, calls them “those who have fallen asleep in the Lord.” The phrase comes from a passage describing the end of the world and foretelling what will happen to us Christians, both living and dead, when our Lord Jesus Christ returns in His glory:

“According to the Lord’s word,
we tell you that we who are still alive,
who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven,
with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel
and with the trumpet call of God,
and the dead in Christ will rise first.
After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.
And so we will be with the Lord forever.” (I Thessalonians 4:15-17)

This biblical passage is jam-packed with information about the afterlife and our future life as Christians. First of all, this passage informs us that our loved ones who have died, if they have believed in Christ Jesus, are not gone for good; they are still with the Lord, and they will awake to new life and will rise again at the Coming of Jesus. Second, this passage tells us that we Christians who are alive will be joined again with our departed loved ones. Then we all shall be with the Lord…together and forever.

What joyous news!

As we approach the season of Great Lent in anticipation of celebrating our Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection, we set aside a few special days to remember and pray for our loved ones who have “fallen asleep.” On one Saturday just before Lent starts, and on three Saturdays during Lent, we sing special petitions on their behalf and we remember them all by name. These “Memorial Saturdays” remind us that our loved ones, though dead physically, are alive in Christ.

searchOn these “Memorial Saturdays,” some Orthodox Christians have another special custom. Following the end of Divine Liturgy and the reception of Holy Communion, the priest blesses a special dish called “koliva,” which contains wheat berries, nuts, and honey. The sprouted wheat is a sign of resurrected life (John 12:24), and the honey is a reminder of the sweetness of God’s Kingdom.

Many people ask us Orthodox Christians: “Why do you pray for the dead?” Our answer is simple: “We pray for them because they are not dead; they are alive in Christ and they still are part of our community. Just as we who are on earth pray for each other, so we pray for those “fallen asleep in the Lord,” and we know that the saints in the Lord are also praying for us (Revelation 5:88:4). Best of all, someday, all of us “will be with the Lord forever.”

In Him, Father Steven, pastor

P.S. You may listen to my sermon for our first Memorial Saturday, February 14th, titled, “Asleep in the Lord.”

Blessing my favorite icon

8 Feb

On Sunday, February 1st, I was very pleased to have the opportunity after Divine Liturgy to bestow a blessing on one of my favorite icons. This icon is known as “Christ the Pantocrator,” which means “Christ the Ruler,” or more literally “Christ the Almighty.”George receives the blessed icon

The icon had been brought to Holy Ghost Church by Jorge, a young man interested in Orthodox Christianity and seeking to learn more about it. Jorge already had attended many services at our parish, and I couldn’t have been more joyous that he had now chosen a replica of this famous icon to help him in his personal prayer life at home.

The original of this icon is the oldest known image of Jesus Christ in existence. It is believed to have been painted about AD 550 and has been held at St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai in Egypt for nearly 1500 years.

Christ the AlmightyBut, the icon is unique in another way, and its singularity may be discovered in the haunting gaze of Jesus Christ depicted on it. A careful look reveals that Jesus’ eyes in this image, and the two sides of his face, are painted with totally different expressions.

Looking straight on at the icon, you’ll notice that the right side of His face (that is, to your left) reveals a softer, gentler, expression, while the left side of His face (that is, to your right), with its arched eyebrow, conveys a sterner, piercing expression. In fact, if you could split the icon in half and re-paint it with the two different sides of His face symmetrically aligned, you’d actually end up with two very different-looking images of Jesus!Composite_christ_pantocrator

“Christ the Almighty” was painted in this way for a reason: the icon depicts the two natures of Christ, that is, His humanity and His divinity. This is appropriate, for not only is Jesus our Brother who has experienced all our pain and suffering, but He also is our Judge and King.

I have a replica of this icon hanging in my own office, and it reminds me each day of an amazing reality: Jesus is my Friend, but He also is my Lord. When I need His compassion, I gaze at this icon; when I need His reprimand, I gaze at this icon.

May our friend Jorge enjoy the richness of this image, receiving from Jesus daily exactly what he needs. I know that every time I look at this icon, I do.

In Him, Father Steven, Pastor

Feast of the Presentation of the Lord

2 Feb

Dear Parish Family and Friends,

On February 2 the Orthodox Church celebrates one of the 12 major feasts of the year: “The Presentation of the Lord in the Temple.” The feast recalls both an historical event and also reveals the significance of that event for us humans.

Icon by Andrei Rublev

Icon by Andrei Rublev

You may read about the biblical basis for today’s feast by clicking here: Luke 2:22-40. The Scripture recounts how the parents of the Child Jesus presented their 40-day-old son in the Temple in Jerusalem. They were required to do so by the Old Testament law, which commanded that “every male child that opens the womb will be called ‘holy to God'” (Exodus 13:12). In other words, Jewish parents were to offer and dedicate their first-born male child to God. In order to “redeem” (that is, to symbolically buy back) their child, they were to offer a sacrifice of two turtle doves or a young lamb in exchange for him.

When the Child Jesus was brought to the Temple, he was among dozens of other first-born sons being dedicated to God. However, two righteous older people in the Temple that day recognized that this baby boy was special, unique, among all the others. One, Simeon the elder, and the other, Anna the prophetess, recognized Him as the the Messiah, the King of Israel, who would redeem all people from sin.

The main hymn for this feast reveals its significance:

“Rejoice, O Virgin Theotokos, full of grace,
from you rose the Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God,
enlightening those who sat in darkness.
Rejoice and be glad, O righteous elder,
for you accepted in your arms the Redeemer of our souls,
Who grants us the Resurrection.” -Troparion of the Feast, Tone 1

One of my favorite liturgical texts occurs in the Matins service of this feast. In this poetic text, Jesus, the Christ Child, speaks to the old man, Simeon, in the Temple, and says:

“It is not you who hold me, but I uphold you!”

As we celebrate this feast, let us remember to accept the Child Jesus with open arms, but also let us remember that God holds us in His arms!

May our Lord be with you all, Fr. Steven, Pastor

Water and Holy Water: Paradise lost and regained

5 Jan
Baptism of Our Lord Jesus

Baptism of Our Lord Jesus

On January 5th and 6th we celebrated services for the Feast of Epiphany (also called “Theophany”) which commemorates the baptism of our Lord Jesus in the Jordan River. The feast also recalls the revelation of the Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:13–17; Mark 1:9–11; Luke 3:21–23), which occurred at Jesus’ baptism.

Following the tradition of the Orthodox Church, we blessed water on the eve of the feast and the feast itself, in a huge font. We will take jars of this holy water home to drink, and I’ll come around to parishioners’ homes to sprinkle the interiors of them with this blessed water. Why?

Water = Life, Death, & Cleansing

Water = Life, Death, & Cleansing

In my homily on the eve of the feast I mentioned that water does three things for humankind:

  1. It gives life…the brain and heart are composed of 73% water, and the lungs are about 83% water. The skin contains 64% water, muscles and kidneys are 79%, and even the bones are watery: 31% (According to H.H. Mitchell, Journal of Biological Chemistry 158). Each day humans must consume a certain amount of water to survive.
  2. It causes death…just think of the devastating hurricanes, floods, and mudslides wrought by water.
  3. And it cleanses…we remove dirt from our skin on the outside when we wash with it, and we detox our cells on the inside when we drink it.

Water is an essential and powerful element in our natural life!

When we are baptized in holy water in the Orthodox Church (that is, water over which the priest has prayed and has asked the Holy Spirit of God to enter), we believe that God works through the sanctified water to wash away our sins, putting to death the “Old Adam”—or old human nature—within us, and giving us a renewed nature—the nature of the “New Adam,” Jesus Christ.

Water is an essential and powerful element in our spiritual life!

Blessing of the water

Blessing of the water

In ancient times, the Jordan River was believed to be in the center of the universe and was believed to provide water for all the ends of the earth. Therefore, when Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, He was indicating (through His own bodily entrance into the water)  that He came to sanctify not just the waters of the Jordan River, but the whole world, the whole universe. Jesus came to renew all of humankind and the whole earth, and He signified this by His baptism in the Jordan.

So…we Orthodox Christians use holy water in baptism, we drink it for healing purposes, and we bless our homes (and other things, like animals, cars, gardens, and so forth) with it. In doing so, we proclaim that our natural world, through Jesus Christ, has been and continues to be renewed through His Holy Spirit.

But here’s the important point: Holy water is simply water, but the way water was originally meant to be by God. In the beginning, all of creation was to be filled with the Spirit of God, all of creation was “very good” (Genesis 1:31), or holy. Blessing water annually simply reminds us of the goodness of Paradise—once lost but now regained through Jesus Christ.

You may learn more by listening to my homily the eve of the feast,  Water = Life, Death, & Cleansing; and my homily on the feast day: Drinking the Water of Life.

Please check our church bulletin to view the schedule of home blessings that I will be following in January: January 4, 2015_BULLETIN. And, please welcome the water of life into your homes.

A blessed Feast of Epiphany to you!

Father Steven

Vespers cancelled Saturday, January 3, 2015 due to snowstorm! See you Sunday for important meeting!

3 Jan

Dear Friends,KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

We’re canceling vespers for Saturday, January 3rd at 4 p.m. due to the snowstorm, but we will see you all for Divine Liturgy Sunday, January 4th, at 9:00 a.m.!

Remember that after Divine Liturgy and during coffee hour on Sunday, January 4, from 11 a.m. to noon, we also are having a special presentation by the firm that has completed an architectural and engineering study on our church: TLB Architecture, LLC, of Chester, CT.

Parishioners, please stay for this very important informational meeting. Tim Brewer and Roger Williams, architects from TLB Architecture, will make a special, personal presentation about their recent study completed November 2014, and then they will answer your questions.

It is crucial that all parish members have a forthright, complete, realistic understanding of the current condition of our building and the costs associated with rectifying issues that need repair or remedy. This will be your only opportunity to question the architects directly, so please do take advantage of their being present with you.

Thank you, Fr. Steven

Our 2014 website stats in review: Happy New Year!

30 Dec

Ever wonder if anyone reads our website at Holy Ghost Church? They do!

We use an outfit called “WordPress” for our website’s content management system, and WordPress’s helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report about Fr. Steven’s “Pastor’s Corner” blog and our website and sent the statistics to us. What a surprise! See below and then click to read more!

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 9,700 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report. Give it a few seconds to load up, then scroll down!

Twelve Days of Christmas: Christ is born! Glorify Him!

28 Dec

We welcome visitors!On December 25th we celebrated the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, and now we are greeting each other with the traditional words used by Orthodox Christians: “Christ is born! Glorify Him!”

These words come from the Christmas canon, a long set of hymns composed by St. John of Damascus, a great musician of the 8th century. But St. John actually took them from a theological oration written by St. Gregory of Nazianzus, a bishop of the fourth century. These words from St. Gregory’s 38th Theological Oration are now so familiar to us Orthodox Christians, as we sing and proclaim them annually:

Christ is born; glorify Him.

Christ from heaven; go out to meet Him.

Christ on earth; be exalted.

The Nativity Season itself lasts 12 days, until the Eve of the Feast of Epiphany on January 5th, and during this time we neither fast nor kneel. Instead, we rejoice greatly!Decorated for Christmas

I hope that your Twelve Days of Christmas has contained the peace and joy given by the Christ Child. I know that mine has.

The Nativity services were rich with Old Testament prophecies and New Testament hope. I’ve enjoyed celebrating the Holy Days following the Nativity: The Synaxis of the Theotokos; The Feast of Protomartyr Stephen (for whom I am named); The Righteous Joseph the Betrothed, David the King and James the Brother of the Lord.

This past week God has given me the privilege of a wonderful, and wondrous time spent with my family: my wife, two sons, and two new daughters-in-law, as well as extended family at a 98th birthday party for my father! And, I was able to take in a fascinating exhibit at the Yale University Art Museum, which featured artifacts and art from the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD from pagan, Jewish, and Christian buildings in a region called Dura-Europos, including the most ancient Christian church known to humankind.

The whole week, I’ve sensed, not only during church services but also during special outings (and even mundane tasks) that Christ is with me, with us, in every little detail. “God is with us!” as we proclaim on Nativity Eve. He is real in His humanity, and He has come to make our life divine. Let’s rejoice in this glorious wonder and surrender to this great privilege.

Christ is born! Glorify Him!

Worship with us this Christmas week!

21 Dec

Nativity_Services_HolyGhost_2014

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