St Phoebe the Deaconess

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deaconess of the church at Cenchreae, that you may receive her in the Lord as befits the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a helper of many and of myself as well.  (Romans 16:1-2)

We commemorate St Phoebe the Deaconess on September 3.  She is given the special title, “Equal to the Apostles“, a designation shared by only a very few saints in the Orthodox Church including three First Century Women: Mary Magdalene, Photini, and Thekla.   Sadly,  we know little about St Phoebe or about what the role of deaconess was in the 1st Century other than that the role existed.

Furthermore, not only has the tradition of the Orthodox Church often referred to St Phoebe as ‘Equal to the Apostles,’ she is also considered as the prototype of the woman deacon, the first deaconess of the Church.  The second of the ordination prayers for the female diaconate compares the woman being ordained to Phoebe.  The prayer implores God to ‘fill her with the grace of the diaconate …., ‘just as you gave the grace of Your diaconate … to Phoebe, whom You called to the work of ministry…’  Like St Stephen for the male deacon, St Phoebe is seen as a prototype for all subsequent women deacons.  She is often referred to as one who is ‘equal to the apostles.’  This title, which the Church has bestowed only on some saints, generally signifies their important role in the process of evangelizaton.””   (Kyriake Karidoyanes FitzGerald in WOMEN AND THE PREISTHOOD, p 97-98)

Origen (d. 254AD) commenting in the 3rd Century on Romans 16:1-2 (cited above) writes:

And this passage teaches with apostolic authority that women are likewise appointed to the ministry of the Church.  With great praise and commendation Paul honors Phoebe, who was placed in this service in the church in Cenchreae, as he enumerates as well her illustrious accomplishments and says: She has assisted everyone to such an extent, that is, in her being at hand for necessities, that she even gave assistance to me in my necessities and apostolic labors with the complete dedication of mind.  I would call her work similar to the hospitality of Lot, who, while he received strangers at all times, one time even merited to receive angels in hospitality (Gen 19:1; Heb 13:2). In a similar way Abraham too, while he was always meeting strangers, merited even to have the Lord, together with angels, turn aside to his tent (Gen 18:1-2).

So also this devout Phoebe, while she stands near everyone and accommodates everyone, merited to assist and to accommodate the Apostle as well. And therefore, this passage teaches two things at the same time: As we have said, women are to be considered ministers in the Church, and the kind who have assisted many and who through good services have merited attaining unto apostolic praise ought to be received in the ministry.  He exhorts even this, that those who look after good works in the churches should receive, in turn, recompense and honor from the brothers, so that in whatever things there is a need, whether in spiritual or even fleshly services, they should be held in honor.”  (COMMENTARY ON THE EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS Books 6-10, pp 290-291)

Origen writing in the 3rd Century is still aware of the role of deaconess and considers women eligible to be official ministers in the church.  He portrays ministry as being one of hospitality and assisting others.   In the Fifth Century Bishop Theodoret [d. 457AD] commenting on 1 Timothy 3:11 still speaks about the role of women deacons in the church:

“The women likewise, in other words, the (women) deacons, ‘must be serious, no slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things.’  What he prescribes for men, he also prescribes in the same or similar manner for women.   Just as he says that deacons must be ‘serious,’ so he also says that women must be serious.  Just as he forbids the men to be ‘double tongued,’ so too he forbids the women to be ‘slanders.’ And as he forbids the men to be ‘addicted to much wine,’ so also he commands the women to be ‘temperate.'”  (Kyriake Karidoyanes FitzGerald in WOMEN AND THE PREISTHOOD, p 96)

For Theoderet, all of the virtuous requirements for a male Christian to become a deacon, apply to women seeking to become deaconesses.   There is some level of equality of ministry between male and female deacons.

The order of the deaconess is still accepted a century later when the Emperor Justinian issues legislation about women deacons.  Valerie Karras notes:

“The historical record makes clear that female deacons were considered part of the broader ‘priesthood’ (Greek  hieroyne) – the ordained  orders of bishop, presbyter (priest), and deacon – as evidenced by Justinian‘s [d. 565AD] applying that term to them in his legislation. … It is true that female deacon’s ministry was restricted almost exclusively to women in the Church, following society norms in general, was private as opposed to public in nature.   …. However, the evidence is so overwhelming that most scholars – in particular virtually all scholars specializing in the are of liturgical theology – view Byzantine deaconesses as fully ordained to the diaconate.”  (THINKING THROUGH FAITH, pp 144-145 + footnote 45).

Eventually through history the role of the deaconess disappeared almost completely from the Orthodox Church, though a few saints revived some form of the office from time to time including St. Elizabeth the New Martyr of Russia (d. 1918).

“Inspired  by Mother Elizabeth, the sisters of the House of Mercy saw themselves as accomplishing the ancient diaconal way of service to the Lord:

‘Monasticism achieves salvation principally through the sinner transfiguration of the human person by means of an intensive prayer life, contemplation and the renunciation of the world.  Deaconesses served God, saving the other and their souls by an active love, exercising mercy towards the poor, the sinner and the afflicted in the name of Christ.  The Martha and Mary House wises to restore the forgotten path of diaconal  service of Christian love.  The House does not reject monasteries, but rather places itself by their side, united with them in the service of God, the neighbor and their soul.’ (St Elizabeth)”  (Paul Ladouceur, “In My Father’s House There are Many Mansions (Jn 14:2), SVTQ, Vol 55 #4 2011, p 454)

The spirit and ministry of St. Phoebe the Deaconess, Equal the Apostles, lives on in the Orthodox Church, for a church which relies on tradition should not forget its past.

St. Phoebe pray to God for us.

Being a Saint

“Orthodox lay theologian Paul Evdokimov reminds us that becoming a saint has little to do with virtue and a great deal to do with goodness, being like God. And everyone can be like God! . . .

‘[S]aints by their nature are as disturbing as they are inspiring. They inspire by their glorious witness and achievements: they are the promise that we can truly live as God intended, in God’s own image. But they disturb, for they are the constant reminder of how much we fall short of the life to which we are called. We are given our true model and challenged to conform to it. Hagiography, like the saints who are its subjects, also inspires and disturbs, for it too, contains an ever-present critique of our failings as a church. (Susan Ashbrook Harvey)’

(Michael Plekon, Hidden Holiness, p. 2 & 23)

Saints: Dedicated to God

If you want to learn from the lives of the saints what complete dedication to the love of the Lord means and from Holy Scripture inspired by God, look to Job. How he gave up all he possessed, so to speak: children, wealth, livestock, servants, and everything else that he had, stripping himself completely to escape and save himself. He even gave up his very clothing, throwing it at Satan; yet all the time he never blasphemed in word, neither in his heart nor with his lips before the Lord. But on the contrary he blessed the Lord saying: ‘The Lord gave; the Lord has taken away. As it has pleased the Lord, so be it. Blessed be the name of the Lord‘ (Jb 1:21). Although it was true that he had many possessions, but tested by the Lord, he showed that God alone was his possession.

Just as the bodily eyes see all things distinctly, so also to the souls of the saints the beauties of the Godhead are manifested and seen. Christians are absorbed in contemplating them and they ponder over them. But to bodily eyes that glory is hidden, while to the believing soul it is distinctly revealed. This is the dead soul the Lord raises to life out of sin, just as he also raises up dead bodies as he prepares for the soul a new heaven and a new earth (Rv. 21:1; Is 65:127) and a sun of righteousness, giving the soul all things out of his Godhead.

(Pseudo-Macarius, The Fifty Spiritual Homilies, p. 71 & 203)

The Conception of St John the Forerunner

The events of Luke 1:5-25 describe the miraculous events which prophesied the conception of St John the Forerunner.  His parents, Zacharias and Elizabeth, were considered by God to be holy, and yet there earthly marriage had not been blessed with children, a very troubling sign for any believer in ancient Israel.

There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judea, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah. His wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both well advanced in years.

The Gospel lesson for today is perhaps a hopeful message for any couple wanting to have a baby, but having a difficult time conceiving a child.  That being said, I don’t think that is the main lesson of this passage.  Rather than promising that childless couples will be given children, the very point of this lesson is that God was bringing about a rare and unusual event  – God is intervening in history and changing history for God is now working out His plan for the salvation of the world.  If Zacharias and Elizabeth already had 5-6 children, having another one wouldn’t be miraculous.   How would one know that God had helped bring it about, if it was already a common occurrence for this couple?    Like the Virgin birth of Jesus, the conception of John the Baptist is miraculous precisely because it is unheard of – an aged woman, past her natural childbearing years, gets pregnant.  Nature couldn’t make this happen – it happens because God has intervened in history to make something seemingly impossible to occur.  The Gospel narrative wants us to understand that what happens is an intervention from God, not something that was inevitable or natural or expected.

We see in this lesson both Elizabeth and her husband Zacharias are considered blameless, free of sin, and righteous before God.  So we know that their inability to conceive a child is not some punishment from God.  Having children is certainly considered blessed in the Scriptures, and to be unable to produce offspring was very troubling to couples as they had to wonder if they were somehow being punished by God for their sins.  But the Scriptures make it clear in this case, Elizabeth and Zacharias are not to  blame for having no children.  And we know from later in the Gospel lesson, that both of them had even prayed for children.  Here they are good people, righteous people, praying people, and yet their prayers had not been answered, and they did not receive the blessing they had hoped for.  And what they are hoping for – a child – is not something supernatural.  All they want is to have a normal life – they are only asking for something normal, not miraculous.  So we see that even the righteous and blameless don’t get everything they want, and sometimes are even denied a “normal” life.  We can all learn from Elizabeth and  Zacharias about dealing with life’s frustrations – no prosperity Gospel for these Gospel saints!  The story suggests now that they are old, they are no longer worrying about having children.  They remain faithful to God and have accepted their lot in life.  Even if friends and neighbors whisper about them that they must have sinned somehow and lost God’s favor – they were denied the natural joy of children because God was dealing with them.

We can learn from this, that we might not receive some blessings in life which we dearly want.  And it may not be because of sin, or because our prayers aren’t acceptable, or because God is ignoring us.  It may not be that our prayers are greedy or grasping – we might simply want to be normal, we might simply want what everyone else has, or what is natural to have.   Even saints in our tradition had to deal with disappointment, not having their holy dreams fulfilled, not being blessed as much as other people.  It is not necessarily a sign that one is in God’s disfavor. What may be happening is that God’s plan is being worked out but we have limited vision and cannot see the big picture or a big enough picture to understand what is happening in our lives.  Here is a call for us to trust the Lord God.

So it was, that while he was serving as priest before God in the order of his division, according to the custom of the priesthood, his lot fell to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord. And the whole multitude of the people was praying outside at the hour of incense.

Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord, and shall drink neither wine nor strong drink. He will also be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.

Zacharias is terrified at seeing an angel at the altar of incense.  But this angel tells him that God in fact has heard his prayer and that Elizabeth is going to get pregnant and give him a son.  This is a true miracle!  Not only will Zacharias be given a son, but this son is chosen and blessed by God, he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.  He is going to do God’s will.  The son is going to be everything a righteous priest might hope for.  It is worth waiting on the Lord, even if you have to wait 40 years before you receive a holy gift from God.

And we do learn in this a lesson about our prayer life, especially about constantly asking God to grant us things.  God hears our prayer, but answers them in His time.  We want everything to be done instantly, and God answers in eternity.  And we learn that we should be careful what we ask for ourselves in this world, because God is working out His eternal plan, and we might find God’s answer to our prayers to come at a time we least expect it, in a way we don’t want, and fulfilling His plan more than ours!

And Zacharias said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years.”

Despite the fact that Zacharias is amazed at the appearance of the angel, he is not so amazed that he believes what the angel tells him.  One might think that just the appearance of the angel would have been enough of a miracle to convince Zacharias that something special was happening.  But Zacharias wants some sign better than an angel appearing to him.  The angel appearing to him is not sign enough for Zacharias.

But Zacharias may have been thinking, “Great, now that I’m an old man, now you are going to give me a son?  Why couldn’t you have done this 40 years ago when it mattered?  My wife and I are too old for this!”

And the angel answered and said to him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and was sent to speak to you and bring you these glad tidings. But behold, you will be mute and not able to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words which will be fulfilled in their own time.

Zacharias was not convinced that the angel himself was enough evidence that something miraculous was to occur.  He demanded a sign, and so the angel gives him one – Zacharias is to be struck dumb, his voice is muted completely.  Later in Luke’s Gospel we realize Zacharias is apparently deaf as well (Luke 1:62-64).  He is completely silenced because he wouldn’t believe the voice of the angel – he can neither hear nor speak.  He is not going to be able to tell anyone what he saw, but will come to realize in due time that his wife in fact is pregnant.  And even when he realizes that, he still will be deaf and unable to speak, not knowing if God will ever allow him to hear anything but his own thoughts, yet never able to share them with others.

And the people waited for Zacharias, and marveled that he lingered so long in the temple. But when he came out, he could not speak to them; and they perceived that he had seen a vision in the temple, for he beckoned to them and remained speechless. So it was, as soon as the days of his service were completed, that he departed to his own house. Now after those days his wife Elizabeth conceived; and she hid herself five months, saying, Thus the Lord has dealt with me, in the days when He looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.

Perhaps one of the lessons here is be careful what you ask in prayer.   Make sure you ask for things that you will be happy with no matter how God answers your prayer or  when God chooses to answer it.  Ask only for those things that even if the prayer isn’t answered until 40 years later, you will still want to receive it!  Again, it is lesson to pray for things with an eternal significance, not things that we want immediately but are of no long term consequence.

And be prepared to surrender the blessing you receive back to God.  For Zacharias and Elizabeth’s son would be executed by King Herod – not because their son did any evil.  For as the promise notes, their son will not even drink alcohol.  He will be holy, and even so, he will be martyred because of his faithfulness to God.

St. John the Forerunner, pray to God for us!

May we all want true holiness in our lives and in our families, even if that means we will suffer for the Lord.

John the Baptist: Confess Your Sins

John [the Baptist] had no agenda – his only agenda was God. He administered a type of sacrament, baptism, which was associated with confession of sins and a change of life, not only to Jews but to Gentiles, in particular to Roman soldiers. His followers returned to their homes and occupations, although some joined him in the wilderness for a time. Neither John nor his disciples produced any literature, nor did they start a sect or community, nor did they have any political motivations. John preached repentance in the wilderness. He was not in a city, nor in a temple, nor in a rabbinical school, nor in the courts of law, nor in a government forum. John transcended human institutions and so he did not seek their approbation, nor that of any human being. They were totally superfluous to him. He transformed the world by renouncing it. He calls light, light and darkness, darkness. He dared to say “Thus saith the Lord” which few have the calling and moral authority to say – and even fewer when called actually do so, because they know it’s synonymous with signing one’s own death certificate. John had both the moral authority and the courage to say it to everyone, including to the adulterous King Herod.

John’s message was simple. According to John, nothing can save men except a confession of sins and change of life.”

(Hieromonk Calinic, Challenges of Orthodox Thought and Life, p. 62)

Serving God

Count it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.   (James 1:2-4)

Martyrdom of Juvenaly

Beloved Brother: Those who occupy themselves with the ephemeral and vain world, if they advance and make gains, do not count the trials which they have endured, but rejoice at the progress which they have made. Can you imagine, then, my brother, what joy the soul of a man who undertakes spiritual work for God and finishes it successfully experiences? It is natural for the soul to feel unfading joy, for at the moment of its departure, the good works which it has done will precede it when it ascends to Heaven. At that time the Angels of God will rejoice together with it, as they see it delivered from the powers of darkness. (St. Isaiah, The Evergentinos, p. 37)

Glorious Leaders of the Apostles Peter and Paul

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If, as we have said, we commemorate each of the saints with hymns and appropriate songs of praise, how much more should we celebrate the memory of Peter and Paul, the supreme leaders of the pre-eminent company of the apostles? They are the fathers and guides of all Christians: apostles, martyrs, holy ascetics, priests, hierarchs, pastors and teachers. As chief shepherds and master builders of our common godliness and virtue, they tend and teach us all, like lights in the world, holding forth the word of life (Phil. 2:15–16).

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Their brightness excels that of the other radiantly pious and virtuous saints as the sun outshines the stars, or as the heavens, which declare the sublime glory of God (cf. Ps. 19:1), transcend the skies. In their order and strength they are greater than the heavens, more beautiful than the stars, and swifter than both, and as regards what lies beyond the realm of the senses, it is they who reveal things which surpass the very heavens themselves and indeed the whole universe, and who make them bright with the light “in which there is no variableness neither shadow of turning” (cf. Jas. 1:17).

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Not only do they bring people out of darkness into this wonderful light, but by enlightening them they make them light, the offspring of the perfect light, that each of them may shine like the sun (Matt. 13:43), when the author of light, the God-man and Word, appears in glory.

(St Gregory Palamas, On the Saints, Kindle Location 672-682)

A blessed Feast of the Holy Glorious Leaders of the Apostles, Peter and Paul!

St. Innocent on Orthodox Mission Work

4624867820_b6c41af6dc_nWhat, then, shall we do? How ought we to proceed when, in the words of the Gospel, the harvest is great in our country (i.e., many remain unconverted to Jesus Christ)? “Pray to the Lord of the harvest,” Jesus Himself teaches us [Mt. 9:38]. Thus, first and foremost, we must pray. If even in everyday matters people fall back upon prayer – asking God’s blessing at the beginning of some work and then throughout asking for renewal and strengthening of the work’s might (where prayer means nothing more than help), here, in the matter of conversion, prayer becomes the means itself – and a most effectual of means, for without prayer one cannot expect success even under the most perfect of circumstances.

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Thus, it is not our missionaries alone who must pray; no, we their brethren must further their work by our own prayers. And what ought we to pray for? First, that the Lord will send workers into His harvest; second, that He will open the hearts of those who listen to the Word of the Gospel; third, that He will increase our Society’s numbers more and more; and finally that He will strengthen and confirm in us the desire we all now feel to further this work to the attaining of our goal.

(St. Innocent Apostle to America, Alaskan Missionary Spirituality, p. 141-142)

All Saints (2018)

Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men,” He says, “him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 10.32).

Notice that we cannot boldly proclaim our faith in Christ and confess Him without His strength and assistance. Nor will Our Lord Jesus Christ speak out on our behalf in the age to come, recommend us to the heavenly Father and make us His kin, unless we give Him reason to do so. To make this clear, He does not say, “Whosoever shall confess me before men”, but “Whosoever shall make his confession in Me” (Matt. 10:32), that is to say, whoever is able, in Christ and with His help, to declare his faith with boldness. Likewise, again, He does not say, “I will confess him”” but “I will acknowledge what is in him“, meaning that His confession will be in respect of the good fight and patient endurance which such a person has shown in the cause of godliness.

Take note, however, of what He goes on to say about those who are cowardly and betray the Faith: “But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 10:33). Here He does not say, “Whosoever shall deny in Me”, since the person who denies God does so because he is bereft of God’s help. Why has he been abandoned and forsaken by God? Because he first abandoned God by loving what is transitory and worldly more than the heavenly and everlasting good things promised by Him. In His turn, Christ will not just disown what is in him, but deny him himself, finding in him nothing at all that could be used in his defense.

(St. Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, pp. 200-201)

The Purpose of Fasting for the Nativity

“In a remarkable little book entitled Body of Death and of Glory, the French Orthodox theologian and historian, Olivier Clément, speaks of the fundamental reason for Christian asceticism

Asceticism can only be understood in the perspective of the resurrected, liturgical body. Asceticism signifies the effort to strip away our masks, those neurotic identities that usurp our personal vocation. It is an effort based not on will-power, but on a ceaseless abandonment of oneself to grace…. Asceticism is the struggle, the self-abandonment of openness and faith, which allows the Spirit to transform the anonymous body of our species into a body of ‘language’ that expresses both the person and communion among persons. Thanks to this ascetic struggle, we are gradually transformed from an acquisitive body, that treats the world as its prey, into a body of celebration, that unites itself to the ecclesial liturgy and thereby to the cosmic liturgy.

The aim of the Church’s ascetic practices is to effect this change, a radical transformation of the person, from a body of death to a glorified body, a body of celebration.”  (John Breck, Longing for God, p. 139)