Walk into a 3rd-century Church at Yale Art Museum!

10 May

Saturday, May 4, 2015 * Yale Museum of Art

CIMG0160 copy

Dn. Evan Freeman explaining the icons on the walls of the house church in Dura-Europos

What was the Christian Church like in the mid-3rd century?

Recently, fifteen of us from Holy Ghost Church took a tour of the Dura-Europos” exhibit at Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven to find out. 

Dura-Europos, now located in modern Syria, was once a Roman outpost. In the mid-3rd century it was home not only Roman soldiers but also to a fascinating mix of ancient cultures: pagans, Christians, Jews, and adherents of mystery religions and cults.

Eventually the city was overrun by Persians, abandoned by Rome, and buried in the desert sands. But it was unearthed in the 1920s and 1930s during excavations sponsored by Yale University and the French Academy of Inscriptions and Letters.

Earliest Christian icons

Earliest Christian icons

Archeologists found astounding artifacts: a shrine to the god Mithras, a synagogue whose assembly room walls were covered with painted biblical scenes, and one of the earliest Christian house churches. The paintings and sculpture from these buildings—and the over 12,000 artifacts of daily life excavated by the archaeologists now preserved at the Yale University Art Gallery—present a vivid picture of life in a Roman city in the 3rd century A.D.

For us Orthodox Christians, the house church is an especially priceless find. What is a “house church” and why is finding it so important?

Step into ancient Rome at the Dura-Europos exhibit

Step into ancient Rome at the Dura-Europos exhibit

We know that prior to the 4th century, Christians met in homes to worship; they were not free to build churches, since their religion was not sanctioned by the Roman Empire. So, they designated sections of their homes for common worship, and they met secretly together to celebrate the Eucharist.

The Dura-Europos exhibit at Yale University Art Gallery includes whole sections of walls from a portion of a house church that was used as a place to perform baptisms. These wall sections now supply us with first-hand evidence of the earliest Christian art, and they provide us with clues as to how early Christians worshipped.

Dn. Evan Freeman also describing floor tiles from a later Byzantine Church

Dn. Evan Freeman also describing floor tiles from a later Byzantine Church

We gaped at the primitively painted but unmistakable gospel story images on these wall sections: the Samaritan woman at the well; Jesus the Good Shepherd; the healing of the Paralytic; the Apostle Peter grasping the Lord’s hand on the waters of the sea. We were gazing at some of the very first icons ever painted!

Parishioners decipher the gospel stories depicted.

Parishioners decipher the gospel stories depicted

Deacon Evan Freeman, a graduate of St. Vladimir’s Seminary and now a doctoral student in the field of Byzantine Art History at Yale University, acted as our guide. We were so impressed with the exhibit that we are planning another tour with Deacon Evan, so that more of our parishioners may step back in time into this utterly fascinating space. You’ll be hearing about an upcoming August tour soon, and I’ll let you know when a sign-up sheet is available.

In our risen Lord, Fr. Steven, Pastor

P.S. Thanks to Frank Krasowski for the photos!

Katie and Jessica complete first Confession class

10 May
Katie and Jessica cut their cake!

Katie and Jessica cut their cake!

On Palm Sunday, our church community honored Katie and Jessica, who received the sacrament of Confession for the first time on the eve of Lazarus Saturday, April 3, 2015. The church prepared a luncheon in their honor, which included a celebratory cake. They each also received a beautiful Easter egg necklace to wear during the Paschal season—and to wear during future Paschal seasons, as a reminder of the day!

Palm Sunday celebration

Palm Sunday celebration

Both girls had worked hard during Great Lent to prepare to give their first Confession. During their Sunday church school classes with me, they studied some very difficult concepts—ideas that baffle even adult minds!

We discussed perplexing questions like:

  • What is sin, and how does it affect us?
  • Why do we confess our sins?
  • How do we prepare for Confession?
  • What kinds of sins should we confess?
  • How do we actually give a Confession to a priest?
  • How do we go about asking for forgiveness from people we have hurt, and from God—and how do we forgive ourselves?

Katie and Jessica asked penetrating questions and displayed a lot of courage, astuteness, and thoughtfulness. So, they came well-prepared to give their first Confession and to receive God’s forgiveness.

Jessica and Katie with Fr. Steven

Jessica and Katie with Fr. Steven

Their first Confession is a reminder to all of us to confess the ways in which we have hurt God, each other, and ourselves. Their first Confession also reminds us to pay attention to the words of the Evangelist John, in his First Epistle:

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (I John:1:9)

The whole church community congratulates Jessica and Katie in taking this enormous step in their spiritual journeys! May God grant them many years!

In our risen Lord Jesus Christ, Father Steven, Pastor

Christ is risen! And He has given us new life!

12 Apr

imgresChrist is risen! Indeed He is risen!

I greet you on the Feast of Feasts of the Orthodox Christian Church, Great and Holy Pascha, or Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

We sing a hymn during this feast that encompasses the whole purpose of the Resurrection: “Unto us He has given eternal life, let us worship His resurrection on the third day.”

But we need to ask, and to understand: What is “eternal life”? 

Often we think of eternal life as the life to come after our physical death, that is, life in heaven. But the Gospels make clear that eternal life does not mean “afterlife” but rather “new life.” Jesus came to give us “new life.” He came to give us the opportunity to have His divine nature within us. That is why He, the Son of God, came, died, and rose again!

Eternal life is not a future gift from God. It is the gift of God Himself, living within us.

Jesus was able to give us this gift, the gift we had lost when our fore-bearers Adam and Eve, disobeyed God and disconnected themselves from God. Jesus Christ, the sinless One, the perfect Human Being, reversed their wrongdoing and restored our communion with God our Father.

How? By exhibiting His perfect obedience to His Father.

On our behalf, Jesus became the “New Adam,” that is, the human being who would obey His Father perfectly, giving up His own will, even to the point of death on a Cross.

Reversing the sins of all humanity—past, present, and future—would demand a huge act of obedience. It would demand extreme humility. But Jesus was willing to take up this task. He was willing to take upon His own shoulders every sin of humanity, every disobedience to God, and to make it null and void by His own obedience.

His obedience to His Father led Him  to a death of utter humility and shame, the death of a criminal. There was no other path for Him to follow, no other way for Him to reverse or to atone for all of humanity’s disobedience. The weight of our sins demanded His extreme and tortuous death. All our acts of disobedience had to be wiped away by a final, ultimate act of obedience by the Son of God. He had always been obedient to His Father, but His death on the Cross was the consummate act of self-denial and obedience…for our sake.

By dying upon the Cross, He reversed the curse of humanity and opened up the path to eternal life, new life…the path of obedience. 

The Letter of St. Paul to the Romans (Romans 6: 9–11) states this perfectly: “Death no longer has dominion over Him…the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise, you also reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God.”

Let us embrace the message of the Risen Lord during this Bright Season. Let us continue to put to death all sin in us, in obedience to our Heavenly Father, and we will experience new life, eternal life!

Wishing you the joy of new life, Father Steven, Pastor

Pray with us during Holy Week

8 Apr

images-1Dear Parish Family and Friends,

This week we will increase our intensity of worship as we draw near to the Crucifixion and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

You are welcome to come to the services, listed below, which will help you draw near to your heavenly King and Lord. Why not download HOLY WEEK 2015, and post it in a prominent place in your home, as a reminder?


Sunday, April 5 Bridegroom Matins of HOLY FRIDAY 4:00pm

Holy Transfiguration Church, New Haven

Monday, April 6 Presanctified Liturgy of HOLY MONDAY 7:00am

Bridegroom Matins of


Tuesday, April 7 Bridegroom Matins of


Wednesday, April 8 Bridegroom Matins of


Washing of Feet

Thursday, April 9 Vesperal Liturgy of


Commemoration of the Last Supper


Reading of the 12 Gospels 7:00pm

Friday, April 10 HOLY FRIDAY

Vespers of the Burial of Christ 2:00pm

Matins of HOLY SATURDAY 7:00pm



Vesperal Liturgy 10:00am

Blessing of Baskets after Liturgy

Nocturnes, Resurrection Matins, 11:30pm

Paschal Liturgy, and Blessing of Baskets


Paschal Vespers 12 noon

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.


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.”


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?”


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.”


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


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


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: