Entries with tag scripture .

Saving Room for Christ

Every year I look forward to holiday foods. At Thanksgiving, it’s the stuffing and cranberry sauce. At Christmas, it’s the ham. At Pascha, it’s the lamb…and well, anything related to meat or cheese. And as a Southerner, we seem to always have deviled eggs and sweet tea at every important family gathering too.

 

And you better believe I make sure to save room for that food! After all, the thin guy always has to get seconds and thirds or the host isn’t happy.

 

But what would happen if we came to holiday meals already full? The holiday spread would become just…another meal. Just more of the same.

 

During the Advent season, as we are getting closer to Christmas, we are surrounded by Christmas music, Christmas lights, Christmas coffee drinks…we get so filled up with Christmastime that Christmas itself can feel anti-climactic. After weeks of worrying over gifts, planning our holiday schedule, and running here and there, the actual feast of Christmas comes and goes before we know it.

 

We forget to meet Jesus in that quiet cave in Bethlehem. We can get so filled up on Christmas that we forget to leave room for Christ.

 

Here are three things the Church offers to help us to come to the feast prepared and to meet Him this Christmas.

 

1. Fasting

 

We know to skip breakfast before going to Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, because we want to make room for the good stuff. Similarly, the Church gives us the practice of fasting so that we can make room for Christ in our lives; or rather so that we can make Him the center of our lives. Instead of filling up on all that the world has to offer us, we are given periods throughout the year to put some limits on ourselves to train us to seek Christ. As we hunger and thirst for food before the Liturgy, we are reminded that Jesus alone can satisfy us. We come to church hungry, and the first thing we taste is Christ.

 

It’s easy to ignore practices like fasting as if they were just the tradition of man, until we remember that Jesus fasted (Matthew 4:1-2) and He said that His disciples were to fast, too (Matthew 9:14-15). The Church has a calendar of feasts and fasts, many of which can be hard to remember, but here’s a simple outline we can follow. Before major feasts, we prepare ourselves by fasting from certain foods and activities to prepare ourselves for the feast. We also fast throughout the year on Wednesdays and Fridays in remembrance of Jesus’ betrayal and death on the cross.   

 

But how can we fast this Advent period? The Nativity Fast lasts for the forty days leading up to Christmas. If you haven’t begun, you can begin today. If you don’t fast on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year, perhaps you could begin by fasting from meat on Wednesdays and Fridays during the Nativity Fast. If we are not accustomed to fasting, we should begin by making some step towards the tradition of the Church. As we live in an individualized culture, the temptation is to come up with something unique for ourselves instead of following the tried and true way of the Church. The best thing, though, is that you speak to your parish priest and ask his advice on what might work best for you and your family this year.

 

2. Confession, scripture, and prayer

 

Fasting during the Nativity period helps us to save room for Christ in our lives. Another practice during this period is to go to the sacrament of confession. Jesus desires that all of us who are “heavy laden” with our life’s concerns and worries will come to Him so that He can give us rest in Himself (Matthew 11:28). As we confess and we lay everything at the feet of Christ, we can walk away freer and lightened from those things we keep carrying along with us.

 

And as we are lightened through fasting and confession, we will have room to grow in our relationship with Christ. We can commit to saying some prayers in the morning and at night before going to sleep. We can set aside five to ten minutes each day to read scripture. When was the last time you read the whole of one of the gospels? It can be especially helpful for us to focus on one gospel, like the Gospel of Matthew or Luke during this period. As we read the life and the words of Jesus, we can encounter Him anew each time. And when we come to Liturgy on Christmas, we will be prepared to welcome Him.

 

3. Serving others

 

We worry a lot about presents during Christmastime. Did we get this person what they’d want? We think we’re thinking about people during Christmas, but usually we are just focused on the idea that we have to get everyone something. Is our focus on serving others or just getting them gifts? Are we focused on loving our neighbor? Are we remembering to love our enemy by praying for them?

 

Our Orthodox history is filled with saints who committed their lives to the service of the poor, the needy, the sick, and the fatherless. St. John Chrysostom served the poor in the streets of Antioch and preached the rest of his life about the importance of direct service. St. Basil devoted his life to service and his sermons continue to inspire us today to give back to those who are in need. Modern saints like St. Elizabeth the New Martyr and St. Maria Skobtsova show us that service is something we are all called to do today.

 

We can all find a way to give back to others who are in need today. Have you considered writing letters to those in prison through the Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry? How might you assist the work of IOCC or OCMC? How can you serve the Orthodox orphanages like those in Mexico or India? And on a local level, how can you work with local food pantries or social services help a family in need to have a Christmas dinner?

 

*****

 

We might already feel like we’re getting swept up in the preparations for Christmas. The point for us, whether we are starting now, or if we have been preparing all Advent long, is that we commit to growing closer to Christ today. If we are emptying ourselves of our pride and worldly concerns, our hearts will be open to Christ and to the many ways we can serve our neighbor.

 

What is your experience of fasting? Have you been to confession recently? How could you better serve those in need?

 

 

Want more from Y2AM? Subscribe to our email list and get weekly tips for your spiritual life every Monday! And you can support Y2AM even more by becoming a monthly Patreon supporter. As little as $1 a month can help us continue the work we’re doing.

 

Sam is the Pastoral Assistant at Saint Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He grew up in Powhatan, Virginia and studied International Affairs and Spanish at James Madison University. Sam received his MDiv from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in 2013. He loves food, languages and good coffee.

Photo Credit: depositphotos

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On God and Gilmore Girls

In case you’ve been living under a rock, Gilmore Girls is being revived for a final four episodes (thank you, Netflix!) at the end of the month.

 

And in case you don’t know me, I don’t love many things in this world as much as I love Gilmore Girls.

 

I can’t even begin to explain all of the ways that the show resonates with me. But here’s a start. There’s a point during which Lorelai and Rory, the two main characters, are watching a TV show with Rory’s boyfriend and he asks, “So, it’s a show?” and they respond, “It’s a lifestyle,” and, “It’s a religion.” And many Gilmore Girls lovers have taken to having that as their tagline for this show, which is fitting.

 

While I obviously do not consider Gilmore Girls to be my religion, I do know the show like the back of my hand (seriously...ask me anything). Because when you love something so much, you take as much time be acquainted with it as I have with Gilmore Girls.

 

And when you love something, it becomes a part of you, even long after it’s gone. I mean, Gilmore Girls has been off the air for almost ten years, and there is still something magical about it every time I watch. I can still even remember the last time that I watched it on live television: the series finale, during which I sat in my basement, on the couch, bawling.

 

Every time I turn it on now, I see something new in every character, event, and episode. That’s how it’s retained it’s magic for me for so long. I am excited for the fact that it is being brought back but, to be quite honest, my hopes aren’t that high because the show has already worked it’s magic on me. As corny (or crazy) as it sounds, Gilmore Girls has affected my worldview. For example, almost every life situation that I have, or that someone else has, conjures up an image of Gilmore Girls for me. Some people appreciate it when I share the parallels, and others don’t, but it’s where my mind goes regardless.

 

I’m not quite sure how this can happen with something like a TV show. I mean, it’s a completely intangible thing. I can visit the set (and I have!), I can meet the actors, writers, and producers involved, but I will never be in Stars Hollow, I will never meet Lorelai Gilmore.

 

It’s kind of like my faith in that way. It’s intangible, but I know that it’s there. In an even more real way than Gilmore Girls. And although I haven’t directly interacted with Christ, the way that His presence shapes me is undoubtable.

 

And His words, which I can still read, and His acts, which I can still read about, are such a big part of me having faith.

 

I was sitting in Liturgy a few Sundays ago, when we read the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, and I heard something new in the story that I had never focused on before. While I don’t know everything about the Scriptures, this is a story that I thought I knew well, and yet I still found something new in revisiting it. I kept thinking about how if I had just ignored this story, had glossed over it because I’ve heard it before, I would have missed something that resonated with me moreso on that day than it ever had.

 

As we continue to go to church week after week, we are going to hear the same things year after year. So it’s up to us to find something new, something to light a spark in us and keep our faith alive, in every passage of Scripture.

 

The fact that I can learn more about Christ by attending Divine Liturgy every Sunday, by reading the Scriptures, and by simply allowing Him to enter my life is amazing. And, unlike Gilmore Girls, of which there is a finite amount of knowledge that I can gather, I will not run out of things to learn about Christ. This fact really keeps me going through the good times (season 1) and the bad times (season 7).

 

Regardless of what happens in the future, if my faith in Christ wavers or if I hate the revival episodes of Gilmore Girls, I can look back on my life and say that I have learned a lot about, and loved, both of these things wholeheartedly. And that fact will be enough to keep me coming back to old episodes of Gilmore Girls, and to church, where the Scriptures will show me something new every time I sit down in the pews.

 

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Want more from Y2AM?  Subscribe to our email list and get weekly tips for your spiritual life every Monday!  And you can support Y2AM even more by becoming a monthly Patreon supporter.  As little as $1 a month can help us continue the work we’re doing.

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Maria is the Administrative Coordinator of Y2AM. She is a New York native who isn't completely sold on the city's charm, yet has never left. A proud graduate of Fordham University and occasional runner, she is happiest whenever chocolate, a sale, or a good Gilmore Girls reference is involved.

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Seeing God

It’s easy to see the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, celebrated on Feb. 2, as a lovely scene of domestic bliss. Joseph and Mary bring the newborn Jesus, now 40-days-old to the Temple. Our attention is on the family. Because the Orthodox Christian practice of the 40-day blessing of a newborn is rooted in the Feast, it’s very easy for us to make this connection. When a newborn is presented in our parishes today, all our attention is on the “beautiful baby” making his or her official first entrance into the church.

The Feast also is a significant reminder that the incarnation of the Lord, celebrated at Christmas, overturns the nature of our relationship with God Himself. At the Feast of the Presentation, we remember Simeon, who was promised by God that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah, the Savior of Israel.

Many figures in the Old Testament prophets asked to see God.  Look up the following passages (or have your students look them up):

Genesis 3 – Adam and Eve could only hear God’s presence as He moved about in the Garden.

Exodus 33:18-23.  Moses, the Great Moses, was denied his request to see God. The Lord said to him, “man shall not see me and live.” But God allowed Moses to see his back as He passed by.

1 Kings 19:9-13 – Elijah experiences God in the “still small voice.”

Isaiah 6:1-7 – Isaiah has a vision of God on His throne and realizes that he is a sinful man.

In the Incarnation, at the Nativity and now in the Feast of Presentation, Wise Men, Shepherds and now Simeon and Anna see the Lord face to face. And Simeon holds God incarnate in his arms.  What a reversal! What a paradox!

From this moment on, it is possible to say we have seen God "face to face." --- in the icons, in the Scriptures, in the kiss of peace in the Liturgy, in Holy Communion, and as Christ Himself would eventually teach us, in our neighbor, in the "least of our brothers and sisters" (Matthew 25:40).

Christmas Untangled

Christmas Untangled

The icons and nativity scenes for Christmas that probably all of us display this time of year weave together two biblical narratives with other sources into a coherent whole.  An interesting activity that you can do on your own or with a group of students is to untangle the stories and look at them individually. Doing so provides an opportunity to both enrich our knowledge and appreciation of the story itself, but also hones our skills at reading the Bible and other sources.

This activity is not too difficult as there are just two Nativity stories in scripture and neither of them is too difficult or to long.  I’ll take you through the steps and in parentheses offer answers to questions that you might want to pose to others

Read Matthew 1:18-2:12 

Who is the main actor in this passage? (Joseph. Scholars wonder if the Matthew text is Joseph’s version of events, handed down through his family to the followers of Christ. No way to know with certainty, but it is an interesting thought.).

What is Joseph concerned about? (Always doing the proper thing for Mary and the newborn Jesus. Notice how Joseph is described in Matthew, “a righteous man”).

Who are the special visitors in Matthew?  (The Wise Men. They see the star and are led to search out a new king of Israel and find Jesus. This text is unclear that the Wise Men found Jesus as a baby; they find a child.)

Now do the same with Luke 2:1-19

After reading the passage:

Who is the main actor in this passage? (Mary. Scholars wonder if the Lucan text is Mary’s version of events, handed down by her to the followers of Christ.  One piece of evidence is verse 19, where Mary treasures all these things in her heart. Who else would have known what Mary held in her heart to communicate that to others?)

Who are the special visitors? (Shepherds, who are told by angels to find a newborn lying in a manger. This is the Messiah).

After reading the two, notice how we compress all of this into one event. Our icons and nativity scenes compress the stories into one coherent story for us to contemplate and celebrate.

 

Lamb of God

We will hear the phrase “lamb of God” as we approach Holy Week. It has deep roots in the Old and New Testaments. For Christians, it connects to theological questions about the meaning of Christ’s Passion and our salvation. The topic is huge and rich. I won’t be able to say everything here, and this is only one dimension of the questions about the Passion and savlation, but these points might encourage you to listen more closely to the Scriptures and hymns of the next few weeks.

The Old Testament background

The “sacrifice of Isaac” (Genesis 22). God tests Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son Isaac. The test is “Is our relationship/covenant strong enough that you will honor this terrible request?” As Abraham begins the sacrifice, an angel calls out and stops him. Abraham’s willingness to make the sacrifice proves his faithfulness to God. Abraham then sees a ram, which he offers “as a burnt offering instead of his son.” (Genesis 22:13).

Passover. In the Exodus story (Exodus 12), the tenth plague was the death of every first born child. Moses instructs the Hebrew people to kill the Passover lamb (a year old male lamb without blemish; it could even be a goat) and place some of the blood on the lintel and two doorposts of their homes, so that God would “pass over” and spare the first born. (They were even instructed how to cook the lamb and that they should eat it.) Thus, Passover saved the Hebrew people from death in Egypt and this event led to their freedom and the journey to a new life in God’s promised land.

In Leviticus.  Ancient Judaism practiced animal sacrifice and offerings of other products, such as grains and fruits. The Book of Leviticus (especially chapters 1-7) provides in great detail the instructions and laws pertaining to sacrifices. Their covenant with God required this and the Law of Moses (the Law of Moses was far larger than the Ten Commandments) provided the instructions. Different kinds of offerings and sacrifices were made for various reasons. In each case, the Law prescribed what should be offered or sacrificed, what kind of animal, what kind of cereals and fruits. For example, when Joseph and Mary presented Jesus at the Temple, forty days after His birth, they offered a “pair of pigeons” (Luke 2:24), because they could not afford the lamb that the Law required as a sin offering for the birth (itself a long story, but read Leviticus 12:1-8).

While sacrifices and offerings could be made for a number of reasons, most were made as “atonement” for sins, cleansing of guilt, and the desire for forgiveness. As one person put it, atonement means “at – one – ment.” The importance of the sacrifice was the shedding of blood, meaning death. That the person making the offering also had to kill the animal was a symbolic connection between them. Sin cost a life. The penalty for sin is death, but the animal dies in the place of the sinner.

The ritual of animal sacrifice is prescribed in detail and was designed to make the connection between the sacrifice and the one making the offering. The animal is brought to the Temple by the one making the offering; he places his hand on the animal’s head, slaughters, skins, and butchers it (Remember, these were farmers and were accustomed to this, to provide food.). Usually the fatty portions are then burned on a fiery altar. The priest would sprinkle some of the blood around the altar. In some cases, the individual and or the priests of the Temple would be able to eat the remainder of the sacrifice.

This background should help as we reflect on the Passion of Christ.

 There are two timelines in the Gospels for the events from the Last Supper to the Crucifixion. The Gospel of Mark places the Last Supper on the first day of unleavened bread (Mark 14:12) when the Passover lambs would be slaughtered. The Gospel of John places Jesus’ crucifixion on the same day as the slaughter of the Passover lambs (John 19:14). The following article explains more about this.

http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/people-cultures-in-the-bible/jesus-historical-jesus/was-jesus-last-supper-a-seder/

You should begin seeing the connections to our understanding about Christ’s passion.

Jesus is a Passover lamb. That the Passion of Christ happened around Passover should not be lost on anyone. The Jews were commanded to remember the exodus from Egypt annually. Christ is without blemish, the only sinless one, and is killed like the Passover lamb. Jesus’s death and resurrection frees us from death and leads us to a new way of life in the Kingdom of God, the new Promised Land. This is why we can say Christ is the New Passover.

Jesus is the sacrifice. As He says, “For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45). Christ also says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16).  John the Baptist cried out when seeing Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Only a lamb that is sacrificed could do this. Jesus’s death on the cross is an offering to God. God Himself makes the offering and allows His own son to be killed.

Jesus is the Suffering Servant who has accepted the fallen condition of humanity and “paid the price” for all. As the prophet Isaiah says about Him, “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth. (Isaiah 53:5-7).

Christians have commonly seen Christ’s death on the Cross as an “atonement.” We say Christ died for our sins and His death on the Cross saves us. But the Passover connection should remind us that the death leads to resurrection and the Resurrection of Christ opens the Kingdom of God for those who believe in Him. Salvation means being spared from death and entering the Kingdom of God.

The Church continues to use the phrase and idea “lamb of God."

In the Doxology, we praise Christ as the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, practically a direct quote from John 1:29.

In our liturgical life today, the bread of the Eucharist, one portion of the prosphoro is called the Amnos, the Lamb. It is marked with the ICXC NIKA, meaning Jesus Christ Conquers. Portions of the above verses from Isaiah are recited in the Proskomide service, which prepares the bread and wine before the Liturgy. The Lamb is stabbed with a lance. In the Liturgy, the lamb is offered to God and consecrated as the Body of Christ. And before Holy Communion, the lamb is broken before being placed in the chalice, and in Communion, we eat or consume the lamb.

In the Liturgy, we call the offering a “bloodless sacrifice.”  Christ’s death on the cross is the ultimate, that is, final, sacrifice or offering of blood and flesh. From now on, the only offering needed is bread and wine, done in remembrance of the Lord. Christ Himself told us to do this. This offering and shared meal is a sign of the covenant, the relationship, Christians have with God.

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