"We have not only to be called Christians, but to be Christians." St. Ignatius of Antioch
Commemorated February 2
Today the Church commemorates an important event in the earthly life of our Lord Jesus Christ (Luke 2:22-40). Forty days after His birth the God-Infant was taken to the Jerusalem Temple, the center of the nation’s religious life. According to the Law of Moses (Lev. 12:2-8), a woman who gave birth to a male child was forbidden to enter the Temple of God for forty days. At the end of this time the mother came to the Temple with the child, to offer a young lamb or pigeon to the Lord as a purification sacrifice. The Most Holy Virgin, the Mother of God, had no need of purification, since she had given birth to the Source of purity and sanctity without defilement. However, she humbly fulfilled the requirements of the Law.
At this time the righteous Elder Simeon (February 3) was living in Jerusalem. It had been revealed to him that he would not die until he should behold the promised Messiah. By inspiration from above, Saint Simeon went to the Temple at the very moment when the Most Holy Theotokos and Saint Joseph had brought the Infant Jesus to fulfill the Law.
The God-Receiver Simeon took the divine Child in his arms, and giving thanks to God, he spoke the words repeated by the Church each evening at Vespers: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people, a light to enlighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel” (Luke 2:29-32). Saint Simeon said to the Most Holy Virgin: “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be spoken against. Yea, a sword shall pierce through your own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35).
At the Temple was the 84-year-old widow Anna the Prophetess, daughter of Phanuel (February 3), “who did not leave the temple, but served God with fasting and prayers night and day. She arrived just when Saint Simeon met the divine Child. She also gave thanks to the Lord and spoke of Him to all those who were looking for redemption in Jerusalem” (Luke 2:37-38). In the icon of the Feast she holds a scroll which reads: “This Child has established Heaven and earth.”
Before Christ was born, righteous men and women lived by faith in the promised Messiah, and awaited His coming. The Righteous Simeon and the Prophetess Anna, the last righteous people of the Old Testament, were deemed worthy to meet the Savior in the Temple.
The Feast of the Meeting of the Lord is among the most ancient feasts of the Christian Church. We have sermons on the Feast by the holy bishops Methodius of Patara (+ 312), Cyril of Jerusalem (+ 360), Gregory the Theologian (+ 389), Amphilocius of Iconium (+ 394), Gregory of Nyssa (+ 400), and John Chrysostom (+ 407). Despite its early origin, this Feast was not celebrated so splendidly until the sixth century.
In 528, during the reign of Justinian, an earthquake killed many people in Antioch. Other misfortunes followed this one. In 541 a terrible plague broke out in Constantinople, carrying off several thousand people each day. During this time of widespread suffering, a solemn prayer service (Litia) for deliverence from evils was celebrated on the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord, and the plague ceased. In thanksgiving to God, the Church established a more solemn celebration of this Feast.
Church hymnographers have adorned this Feast with their hymns: Saint Andrew of Crete in the seventh century; Saint Cosmas Bishop of Maium, Saint John of Damascus, and Saint Germanus Patriarch of Constantinople in the eighth century; and Saint Joseph, Archbishop of Thessalonica in the ninth century.
On this day we also commemorate the icon of the Most Holy Theotokos known as “the Softening of Evil Hearts” or “Simeon’s Prophecy.” The Mother of God is depicted without Her Child, with seven swords piercing her breast: three from the left side, three from the right, and one from below.
A similar icon, “Of the Seven Swords” (August 13) shows three swords on the left side and four from the right.
The icon “Simeon’s Prophecy” symbolizes the fulfillment of the prophecy of the righteous Elder Simeon: “a sword shall pierce through your own soul” (Luke 2:35).
Commemorated January 6
Theophany is the Feast which reveals the Most Holy Trinity to the world through the Baptism of the Lord (Mt.3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22). God the Father spoke from Heaven about the Son, the Son was baptized by Saint John the Forerunner, and the Holy Spirit descended upon the Son in the form of a dove. From ancient times this Feast was called the Day of Illumination and the Feast of Lights, since God is Light and has appeared to illumine “those who sat in darkness,” and “in the region of the shadow of death” (Mt.4:16), and to save the fallen race of mankind by grace.
In the ancient Church it was the custom to baptize catechumens at the Vespers of Theophany, so that Baptism also is revealed as the spiritual illumination of mankind.
The origin of the Feast of Theophany goes back to Apostolic times, and it is mentioned in The Apostolic Constitutions (Book V:13). From the second century we have the testimony of Saint Clement of Alexandria concerning the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord, and the night vigil before this Feast.
There is a third century dialogue about the services for Theophany between the holy martyr Hippolytus and Saint Gregory the Wonderworker. In the following centuries, from the fourth to ninth century, all the great Fathers of the Church: Gregory the Theologian, John Chrysostom, Ambrose of Milan, John of Damascus, commented on the Feast of Theophany.
The monks Joseph the Studite, Theophanes and Byzantios composed much liturgical music for this Feast, which is sung at Orthodox services even today. Saint John of Damascus said that the Lord was baptized, not because He Himself had need for cleansing, but “to bury human sin by water,” to fulfill the Law, to reveal the mystery of the Holy Trinity, and finally, to sanctify “the nature of water” and to offer us the form and example of Baptism.
On the Feast of the Baptism of Christ, the Holy Church proclaims our faith in the most sublime mystery, incomprehensible to human intellect, of one God in three Persons. It teaches us to confess and glorify the Holy Trinity, one in Essence and Undivided. It exposes and overthrows the errors of ancient teachings which attempted to explain the Creator of the world by reason, and in human terms.
The Church shows the necessity of Baptism for believers in Christ, and it inspires us with a sense of deep gratitude for the illumination and purification of our sinful nature. The Church teaches that our salvation and cleansing from sin is possible only by the power of the grace of the Holy Spirit, therefore it is necessary to preserve worthily these gifts of the grace of holy Baptism, keeping clean this priceless garb, for “As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ” (Gal 3:27).
When You, O Lord were baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest. For the voice of the Father bore witness to You, and called You His beloved Son. And the Spirit, in the form of a dove, confirmed the truthfulness of His word. O Christ, our God, You have revealed Yourself, and have enlightened the world, glory to You!
Commemorated January 1
On the eighth day after His Nativity, our Lord Jesus Christ was circumcised in accordance with the Old Testament Law. All male infants underwent circumcision as a sign of God’s Covenant with the holy Forefather Abraham and his descendants [Genesis 17:10-14, Leviticus 12:3].
After this ritual, the Divine Infant was given the name Jesus, as the Archangel Gabriel declared on the day of the Annunciation to the Most Holy Theotokos [Luke 1:31-33, 2:21]. The Fathers of the Church explain that the Lord, the Creator of the Law, underwent circumcision in order to give people an example of how faithfully the divine ordinances ought to be fulfilled. The Lord was circumcised so that later no one would doubt that He had truly assumed human flesh, and that His Incarnation was not merely an illusion, as certain heretics had taught.
In the New Testament, the ritual of circumcision gave way to the Mystery of Baptism, which it prefigured [Colossians 2:11-12]. Accounts of the Feast of the Circumcision of the Lord continue in the Eastern Church right up through the fourth century. The Canon of the Feast was written by Saint Stephen of the Saint Sava Monastery.
In addition to circumcision, which the Lord accepted as a sign of God’s Covenant with mankind, He also received the Name Jesus [Savior] on the eighth day after His Nativity as an indication of His service, the work of the salvation of the world [Matthew 1:21; Mark 9:38-39, 16:17; Luke 10:17; Acts 3:6, 16; Philippians 2:9-10]. These two events -- the Lord’s Circumcision and Naming -- remind Christians that they have entered into a New Covenant with God and “are circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ” [Colossians 2:11]. The very name “Christian” is a sign of mankind’s entrance into a New Covenant with God.
Commemorated December 29
14,000 Holy Infants were killed by King Herod in Bethlehem. When the time came for the Incarnation of the Son of God and His Birth of the Most Holy Virgin Mary, Magi in the East beheld a new star in the heavens, foretelling the Nativity of the King of the Jews. They journeyed immediately to Jerusalem to worship the Child, and the star showed them the way. Having worshipped the divine Infant, they did not return to Jerusalem to Herod, as he had ordered them, but being warned by God in a dream, they went back to their country by another way. Herod finally realized that his scheme to find the Child would not be successful, and he ordered that all the male children two years old and younger at Bethlehem and its surroundings be killed. He thought that the divine Infant, Whom he considered a rival, would be among the dead children.
The murdered infants thus became the first martyrs for Christ. The rage of Herod fell also on Simeon the God-Receiver (February 3), who declared before everyone in the Temple that the Messiah had been born. When the holy Elder died, Herod would not give permission for him to be properly buried. On the orders of King Herod, the holy prophet and priest Zachariah was also killed. He was murdered in Jerusalem between the Temple and the altar (Mt. 23:35) because he would not tell the whereabouts of his son John, the future Baptist of the Lord Jesus Christ.
As acceptable victims and freshly plucked flowers, as divine first-fruits and newborn lambs, you were offered to Christ who was born as a child, holy innocents. You mocked Herod’s wickedness; now we beseech you: “Unceasingly pray for our souls.”
When the King was born in Bethlehem, the Magi came from the east. Having been guided by the star on high, they brought Him gifts. But in his exceeding wrath, Herod mowed down the infants as wheat; lamenting that the rule of his kingdom had come to an end.
Commemorated December 27
The saint whose name leads all the rest who have sacrificed their lives for Jesus Christ is Stephen, the first martyr of Christendom because he would have been the last to deny him.
Stephen was one of the seven deacons of the original Church of Christ in Jerusalem, sharing his duties with six others - Philip, Prochoros, Nikanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas.
It was the function of the deacons to assist much as they do today in such matters as communion but with the additional responsibility of spreading the new faith and at the same time being ever on alert for the imminent danger that came with being a Christian in those early days.
Before entering the service of Christ, the young Stephen had studied under the renowned rabbinical tutor Gamaliel, who had been the mentor of the great St. Paul.
Not unlike Paul he was a qualified religious scholar who once sought to discredit the Saviour, until he came to know Jesus Christ and to embrace him as Paul did in that dramatic confrontation on the road to Damascus.
The full attention he had been giving to the Law of the ancient covenant he now directed to the new faith with zeal equal to that of those who enjoyed the company of the Messiah. There was no hint that he would be the very first casualty in the cause of the Nazarene, but each and every one of the missionaries was aware of the danger involved and chose to ignore it in their anxiety to serve.
Stephen seems to have confined his missionary work and preaching to the city of Jerusalem, the city in which he had prepared himself under the Pharisee Gamaliel for quite another career.
Well versed in the Scriptures, he used the Old Testament to full advantage in promoting the Messiah, citing the passages that were ample evidence out of the mouths of the ancient prophets of God that a Saviour would be born and that the Saviour was among them even now in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
It was with considerable anger and frustration that the men who had studied with him under Gamaliel now viewed the defector from their ranks, being particularly piqued when Stephen boldly challenged them in the synagogues.
He must have done this several times and, in all probability, been unceremoniously ushered from the premises more than once, but there came an occasion when he addressed himself to an extremely hostile Council of elders whose anger drove them to more than just having Stephen put out.
The mob that turned on Stephen worked itself into such a feverous pitch that by the time he had been seized and dragged into the street a cry went up for his blood and grew into a crescendo demanding his death. Dragged to the gates of Jerusalem and stoned him to death.
The gallant young Stephen died a brutal death at the hands of those with whom he had grown up. In the Book of Acts there is an account that Paul was among the onlookers who made no effort to save Stephen.
The early Christians buried Stephen in a small chapel in Jerusalem, which was dedicated to his memory and was known as the chapel of St. Stephen the Protomartyr (First Martyr).
Because of all you have endured for Christ our God, you have been given a royal crown, O First and Holy Martyr Stephen! You have put your persecutors to shame and have seen your Saviour enthroned at the right hand of the Father. Do not cease to intercede for the salvation of our souls.
Commemorated December 25
But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son (Galatians 4:4) to save the human race. And when nine months were fulfilled from the Annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel had appeared to the Most-holy Virgin in Nazareth, saying, Rejoice, thou that art highly favoured … behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a Son (Luke 1:28, 31), at that time there went forth a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the people of the Roman Empire should be taxed. In accordance with this decree, everyone had to go to his own town and be registered. That is why the righteous Joseph came with the Most-holy Virgin to Bethlehem, the city of David, for they were both of the royal lineage of David. Since many people descended on this small town for the census, Joseph and Mary were unable to find lodging in any house, and they sought shelter in a cave which shepherds used as a sheepfold. In this cave – on the night between Saturday and Sunday, on the 25th of December – the Most-holy Virgin gave birth to the Savior of the world, the Lord Jesus Christ. Giving birth to Him without pain just as He was conceived without sin by the Holy Spirit and not by man, she herself wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, worshiped Him as God, and laid Him in a manger. Then the righteous Joseph drew near and worshiped Him as the Divine Fruit of the Virgin’s womb. Then the shepherds came in from the fields, directed by an angel of God, and worshiped Him as the Messiah and Savior. The shepherds heard a multitude of God’s angels singing: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men (Luke 2:14). At that time three wise men arrived from the east, led by a wondrous star, bearing their gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. They worshiped Him as the King of kings, and offered Him their gifts (Matthew 2). Thus entered the world He Whose coming was foretold by the prophets, and Who was born in the same manner in which it had been prophesied: of a Most-holy Virgin, in the town of Bethlehem, of the lineage of David according to the flesh, at the time when there was no king in Jerusalem of the lineage of Judah, but rather when Herod, a foreigner, was reigning. After many types and prefigurings, messengers and heralds, prophets and righteous men, wise men and kings, finally He appeared, the Lord of the world and King of kings, to perform the work of the salvation of mankind, which could not be performed by His servants. To Him be eternal glory and praise! Amen.
Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, hath shined the light of knowledge upon the world; for thereby they that worshipped the stars were instructed by a star to worship Thee, the Sun of Righteousness, and to know Thee, the Dayspring from on high. O Lord, glory be to Thee.
Today, the Virgin bears Him who is transcendent, and the earth presents the cave to Him who is beyond reach. Angels, along with shepherds glorify Him. The Magi make their way to Him by a star. For a new child has been born for us, the God before all ages.
Commemorated December 20
St. Ignatius, otherwise known as Theophorus, which in Greek means "God-Bearer," led the Christian Church during a critical period of her history. Pious tradition has always maintained that he was the little child that Christ held on His lap when he uttered the immortal words, “Let the children come unto me.” What is known for certain is that he grew up to be a disciple of the Apostles, St. Peter personally ordained him a Bishop, and his name is mentioned in the book of Romans.
Not much is known about St. Ignatius’ life until he began his famous last journey—on foot—to Rome, where he was thrown to the lions as portrayed in his icons. On his way to his death, many churches sent representatives to him, and fortunately for future Christians, he sent letters back to the churches. Thanks to St. Polycarp, seven of these letters survived; in them, we find some of the earliest teachings about the organization, practices, and beliefs of the Church. He emphasized the importance of loyalty and obedience to the bishop, as well as the salvific power of the Eucharist, "the flesh of Christ," "the gift of God," "the medicine of immortality." On December 20, 107, during the reign of Emperor Trajan, St. Ignatius ended his life in a Roman arena, torn to bits by beasts. Rather than discouraging the fledgling faith of Christianity as the Romans had hoped, his noble death ignited and strengthened the faith of many.
After his death, the saint’s followers lovingly carried his relics back to Antioch, where they remained until 637, when they were transferred to the Church of St. Clement in Rome.
Apolytikion of Ignatius the God-Bearer
As a sharer of the ways and a successor to the throne of the Apostles, O inspired of God, thou foundest discipline to be a means of ascent to divine vision. Wherefore, having rightly divided the word of truth, thou didst also contest for the Faith even unto blood, O Hieromartyr Ignatius. Intercede with Christ our God that our souls be saved.
Commemorated December 12
Fr. Nicholas Belcher
On December 12, the Holy Orthodox Church commemorates the memory of Saint Spyridon the Wonderworker. In his early life, Spyridon was a humble shepherd, married to a pious woman with whom he was raising a family. When his wife fell asleep in the Lord at a young age, Spyridon faithfully continued raising his children and caring for his flock. According to divine providence, Sypridon was elected and consecrated as the bishop of Trymithous, thus becoming a father to spiritual children and a shepherd to reason-endowed sheep. Despite the dignity of his new ecclesial rank, the saint continued in his labors as a humble shepherd.
St. Spyridon is known as a Wonderworker because of the many and great miracles God worked through him. His prayers ended a drought, healed the sick, and raised the dead. He foretold future events, and discerned the inner thoughts of men. He attended the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, and although he was not a man of learning, he ably refuted the heretical sophistry of the heresiarch, Arius.
In our contemporary times, there are those who read the Lives of the Saints with skepticism, doubting the accounts of great miracles. Many may read the life of St. Spyridon and think that it is full of legendary elements that could not possibly be historically true. Perhaps because the miracles are so wondrous, God left us a wonder to help us remain faithful – namely the incorrupt relics of St. Spyridon that reside on the Greek island of Corfu. As hard as it may be to fathom, we can today see the incorrupt face of the man who argued face-to-face with Arius and fought alongside of St. Athanasius the Great and St. Nicholas of Myra. To this day, there are miracles that flow from those holy relics by the holy prayers of this saint.
We celebrate this feast during our time of preparation for celebrating the Virgin Birth of the Son and Word of God. We are tempted to celebrate the feast in a secular way, concentrating our efforts on the decorations and gifts and forgetting to reflect on the wondrous nature of Christ's birth. The feast of St. Spyridon serves to remind us of the reality of the wonders God works in human history. We are reminded that there is nothing irrational (alogos) in our believing in the Word (Logos) taken flesh. We are reminded that the wondrous birth of Christ gave birth to the wonders worked by the Saints. We are reminded that God desires to give birth to wonders in our own lives – most importantly the miracles of repentance and sanctification.
We are also reminded that the wonders of God always come about through humility. As the Word of God entered human history in a cave surrounded by dumb beasts, so the miracles of St. Spyridon happened while he continued his work as a humble shepherd even after his ordination to the episcopacy. Let us spend these days before the feast practicing the virtue of humility by means of our fasting, repenting, praying, and forgiving others – strengthened in our faith through the witness and prayers of St. Spyridon.
Troparion of St. Spyridon
Thou wast a champion of the First Council and a wonderworker, O Godbearing Father Spyridon. Thou didst speak to one dead in the grave, and change a serpent to gold; and while thou wast chanting the holy prayers the Angels were serving with thee. Glory to Him Who has glorified thee; glory to Him Who has crowned thee; glory to Him Who through thee works healings for all.
Commemorated December 9
Saint Anna, the mother of the Virgin Mary, was the youngest daughter of the priest Nathan from Bethlehem, descended from the tribe of Levi. She married Saint Joachim (September 9), who was a native of Galilee.
For a long time Saint Anna was childless, but after twenty years, through the fervent prayer of both spouses, an angel of the Lord announced to them that they would be the parents of a daughter, Who would bring blessings to the whole human race.
The Orthodox Church does not accept the teaching that the Mother of God was exempted from the consequences of ancestral sin (death, corruption, sin, etc.) at the moment of her conception by virtue of the future merits of Her Son. Only Christ was born perfectly holy and sinless, as Saint Ambrose of Milan teaches in Chapter Two of his Commentary on Luke. The Holy Virgin was like everyone else in Her mortality, and in being subject to temptation, although She committed no personal sins. She was not a deified creature removed from the rest of humanity. If this were the case, She would not have been truly human, and the nature that Christ took from Her would not have been truly human either. If Christ does not truly share our human nature, then the possibilty of our salvation is in doubt.
The Conception of the Virgin Mary by Saint Anna took place at Jerusalem. The many icons depicting the Conception by Saint Anna show the Most Holy Theotokos trampling the serpent underfoot.
“In the icon Saints Joachim and Anna are usually depicted with hands folded in prayer; their eyes are also directed upward and they contemplate the Mother of God, Who stands in the air with outstretched hands; under Her feet is an orb encircled by a serpent (symbolizing the devil), which strives to conquer all the universe by its power.”
There are also icons in which Saint Anna holds the Most Holy Virgin on her left arm as an infant. On Saint Anna’s face is a look of reverence. A large ancient icon, painted on canvas, is located in the village of Minkovetsa in the Dubensk district of Volhynia diocese. From ancient times this Feast was especially venerated by pregnant women in Russia.
Today the bonds of barrenness are broken, God has heard the prayers of Joachim and Anna. He has promised them beyond all their hopes to bear the Maiden of God, by whom the uncircumscribed One was born as mortal Man; He commanded an angel to cry to her: “Rejoice, O full of grace, the Lord is with you!”
Commemorated December 6
Saint Nicholas was born about 275 AD in Myra, a town of Lycia in Asia Minor. His uncle was the bishop of the town and educated Nicholas for life in the Church. In due time, Nicholas was ordained by his uncle and eventually succeeded him as Bishop the Christian Church in the Asia Minor city of Myra (now Demre, Turkey) in the fourth century AD.
He is beloved throughout the Christian East for his kindness and help, both during his life and afterward. He is called "Wonderworker" (or "Miraculous" or "Miracle-Worker", different translations of the Greek "thavmatourgos") for the miracles which he performed and which he still performs, by God's grace. Many accounts of Saint Nicholas are available on the World Wide Web.
The most famous story about St. Nicholas concerns a man who, because of extreme poverty, had agreed to sell his three daughters into slavery. St. Nicholas heard about it and came in the night, leaving behind him a bag with enough gold in it to save one of the children. Three times he came secretly so that the man would not know from where the money came. On the third night, the man saw him and asked for the Saint's forgiveness because he had nearly sold his children as slaves. Because of this and similar acts, St. Nicholas became the patron saint of children and the type of the cheerful giver of good gifts.
In the Protestant West, which suppressed the invocation of saints, Saint Nicholas became popularly known as Santa Claus.
In accordance with early Christian tradition, saints are remembered in the Orthodox Church on the date of their passing from this life into the next. Saint Nicholas is thus remembered on December 6. Orthodox Christianity maintains that even though people are dead according to this life, that they are alive in the spiritual realm, and continue to pray for us. Our "prayers to the saints" are actually requests that they pray for us, much as we ask believers who are still alive in the flesh to pray for us.
The remains of St. Nicholas now repose principally in Bari, Italy, having been transported there in 1087 A.D. after Myra fell to Islamic invaders. A fragrant liquid (myrrh) still exudes from the relics. Miracles are performed even today through the intercessions of St. Nicholas. Turkey also claims to possess bones of Saint Nicholas.
THE APOLYTIKION (HYMN) OF ST. NICHOLAS
An example of the Faith and a life of humility, as a teacher of abstinence you did inspire and lead your flock, and through the truthfulness of your deeds were exalted by greatness, through your humility uplifting all and by poverty gaining wealth. Father and hierarch Nicholas, intercede with Christ our God that our souls may be saved.