Zechariah and Elizabeth

On September 5 we Orthodox commemorate the Holy Prophet Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of St John the Forerunner.  Their narrative is found in Luke 1:5-80.


Everything we know about the blessed Saints Zechariah and Elizabeth is contained in one chapter of the Bible – Luke 1.  There is something very humbling in this fact.  How little we know about this holy married couple.  Their memory has been praised throughout the 2000 year history of Christianity, yet all that we know about them is contained in about 60 bible verses of one chapter.  From the perspective of the history of the world, there role is very small though unique.  God called them to achieve one particular thing – to give birth to the last Old Testament prophet, the prophet who would herald the coming of the Messiah.  They accomplished their God-given task and are honored both by God and the Church ever since.

Interestingly, St Luke begins his entire Gospel account with the story of Zechariah.  Zechariah is chosen to offer incense before the Lord in the Jerusalem Temple.  This tiny event marks for St Luke the beginning of the New Covenant between God and His people.  The beginning of the salvation of the world is ignited when one Jewish priest burns some incense in the Temple.

Zechariah marks the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the entire new covenant.  Yet after his experience in the Temple of God he will not appear again in the entire bible.   St Luke thought him significant enough to begin the Gospel with his story, but no other New Testament author even mentions Zechariah.

God has assigned for each of us a special task to accomplish in the world.  However great or simple, however significant or small, our salvation is linked to this task God has given us each to do.  God chooses you specifically to accomplish the task only you can do.  Each of us is irreplaceable in God’s plan for our salvation.  The best way to know what our task is, is to be a person of prayer.  By constantly being in God’s presence and by keeping our heart looking toward God, we will be given the guidance we need to accomplish our unique task.  Being God centered, living a godly life, meditating on God’s Word, worshiping God, all help us to realize what it is God has created us to do.

St Luke says Zechariah and Elizabeth were both righteous in God’s eyes, without any fault in keeping God’s commandments.  They each had a prayer life and studied God’s teachings, living according to those teachings.  Thus they prepared themselves to do God’s will.

But note, according to St Luke they were judged harshly by many as being cursed since they had no children.  However, their righteousness was seen by God and they were favored by God even though in the world they had no physical or spiritual reward from God which they could show to others.

It is a lesson for us – remain faithful to God even if you don’t feel you are blessed by God.  Even if you see sinners prospering, don’t be deceived into thinking God doesn’t see or that God doesn’t care or that God doesn’t exist.  God’s favor does not always come to us in ways that the world can measure it.

Zechariah is an example of a truly prayerful person.  Pure prayer emerges from a righteous person.  Prayer shapes our hearts and mins to conform to the will of the loving and merciful God.

Zechariah, the man concerned with pleasing God hears the words of the angel: “Your prayers have been heard.”  What does Zechariah do when he learns God has actually accepted his prayers?

He trembles with fear!

What would you do if God told you He was going to grant you everything you asked for in prayer?   You might think you had just found the greatest Genie in the world.  But are you willing to be responsible for what happens to the world if God grants all of your silly or self-centered wishes?  For if God gives you all you wish for, so too will God hold you to account for all that happens as your will ripples out into the world.

Think about the poor Zechariah after the angel spoke to him.  Not only was he an old man and childless, but now dumb and deaf too!   He hardly seems to be the image of a man blessed by God.  But if we were to judge him for all that is apparently wrong in his life, we would be so wrong, for this is a man whom God considers righteous and blameless even though for all appearances he seems cursed in life.

Finally a few thoughts about Elizabeth.  She too is considered righteous and humble.  No angel speaks to her to tell her what is happening.  She has lived a long life, quietly faithful to God yet harshly judged and gossiped about by family and neighbors because she has no children.  No doubt they made fun or her and condemned her for sins real or imagined.  Now her husband comes home deaf as a door nail and unable to tell her about God’s favor.

These two saints lived long lives in faithfulness to God, but had little to show for it – at least until the end of their lives when God blessed them with one child.  That child is the forerunner of the salvation of the world.

The Peace God Wills for Us


“O Lord, grant rest in blessed repose to your servants, the military men and women who gave their lives in service to our country and for the sake of peace of the world 70 years ago today,  and make their memories to be eternal.”

A prayer from St. Silouan the Athonite  which is apropos for this the 70th Anniversary of the D-Day invasion:

“O Merciful Lord, grant us Your peace,

as You did give peace to the Holy Apostles,

‘My peace I give unto you.’

Lord, grant that we also may delight in Your peace.

The Holy Apostles received Your peace,

and spread it over the whole world,

and in saving people they did not lose their peace,

nor did it grow less with them.

Glory be to the Lord and His compassion – He loves us greatly, and gives us His peace and the grace of the Holy Spirit.” 

(Archimandrite Sophrony, St. Silouan the Athonite, p 313)

Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica says:

“How will we know whether we are living according to the will of God or not?

If you are sad for whatever reason, this means that you have not given yourself over to God, although from the outside it may seem that you have. He who lives according to God’s will has no worries. When he needs something, he simply prays for it. If he does not receive that which he asked for, he is joyful as though he had received it. A soul that has given itself over to God has no fear of anything, not even robbers, sickness, or death. Whatever happens, such a soul always cries, ‘It was the will of God.’”

(Our Thoughts Determine our Lives: The Life and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, p 154)

The Corrective Sun

Many, maybe most, Americans are sun loving folk and when we think ‘vacation’ we think ‘sun.’   We go to rest and relax in sunny climes and are greatly disappointed if we encounter clouds let alone rain.   On the other hand, often the locals in these sun-worshiping locations are praying for rain. There is an old Arab saying:   “All sun? Makes a desert.”     It means not that sunny skies always will create desert conditions, but if all you ever have is sun and never any rain, you will end up with a drought and then a desert.

If we go back to the desert fathers, who lived in a climate of constant sun, they saw the sun as something other than a smiling yellow disc in the sky under which they vacationed and got a golden tan.  They certainly understood how the sun can relentlessly punish the careless soul.  And they resided in the desert and saw exactly what the desert is:

“Life in the desert meant something totally opposite of what we are inclined to think it was. The desert was a place of death, testing, repentance, and spiritual warfare. It was not a place of escape as much as a place of countercultural engagement. It was not a retreat but the frontlines of spiritual warfare. It is a place where the victory of Christ over sin, death, and the devil was proclaimed, fought, and won. Under the power of the risen Lord, it is where the heart was purified, the passions conquered, sin destroyed, and humanity renewed.”  (Gary M. Burge and Brad Nassif, Bringing Jesus to the Desert, Kindle 262-65)

So keeping in mind what the desert represented to the monastics who fled there, and also  how they experienced the desert sun, we might begin to understand their reading of verses like “the sun will smite/burn you by day” in Psalm 121:6.

“The Psalm says of those who are tempted by thoughts of pleasure, anger, love of praise and the like, that the sun burns them by day and the moon by night (cf. Ps. 121:6). Pray, then, to be sheltered by the cool and refreshing cloud of God’s grace, so that you may escape the scorching heat of the enemy.”  (St. John of Karpathos, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 9260-63)

How many of us moderns would use the metaphor of a “cool and refreshing cloud” for God’s grace?   Though perhaps those of us who have been baked and burned by this summer’s relentless heat wave – and certainly the farmers whose crops are being destroyed by the drought – can  appreciate the beauty of a cloud, and welcome it as a metaphor for a blessing.  In general we associate clouds with gloom, depression and darkness.  The desert though can teach us to offer thanksgiving for the clouds that move over us in life.

Zacchaeus: Receiving the Gift of Christ

Then Jesus entered and passed through Jericho.  Now behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector, and he was rich.  And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not because of the crowd, for he was of short stature.  So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was going to pass that way.  And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him, and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.”  So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully.  But when they saw it, they all complained, saying, “He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner.”  Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.”  And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham;  for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.    (Luke 19:1-10)

St. Nicolai Velimirović, quoting the Gospel of St Matthew writes:

“And he made haste, and came down, and received Him joyfully.  How could [Zacchaeus] not have made haste to the voice that raised the dead to life, stilled the winds, calmed the madmen and dissolved the hard hearts of sinners in tears?  How could he not receive Him whom he had desired only to steal a look from afar?  How could he not rejoice with inexpressible joy when he saw Him in his house, in which none but notorious sinners had dared to set foot?  But this is how the Lord loves when He loves.  This is how He gives when He gives.  He filled the despairing fishermen’ nets to overflowing with fish, so that the net broke; He fed thousands of hungry men in the desert, so that many baskets of fragments were left; He gave not only physical well-being but also spiritual health to the sick who begged for help; He did not forgive some of the sins of the sinner and retain others, but forgave them all.  On all sides kingly acts, kingly mercy and kingly abundance in giving!  So it was on this occasion:  Zacchaeus sought only to see Him, and He did not just allow Himself to be seen, but first called to him and then went in under his roof.  This is how the Lord behaved.  See now the behavior of ordinary, sinful men, puffed up in their own regard and self-esteem:

As a doctor does not visit the healthy but the sick, so the Lord visits those with the sickness of sin. Not those with the health of righteousness.  It is not said in the Gospel that the Lord, on this occasion, visited any righteous man in Jericho, but He made haste to visit the house of sinful Zacchaeus.  Does not every sensible doctor behave in this way when he goes into a hospital?  Does he not go straight to the beds of the most gravely ill?  The whole world represents a great hospital, full to overflowing with sick men and women infected with sin.”      (Bishop Nicolai Velimirović, Homilies, Volume 2, pgs 339-340)

Spiritual Gifts Distributed to the Community

Our parish has its Spiritual Gifts Workshop this weekend – The Called and Gifted Workshop led by Fr. Michael Butler.

St. John Cassian describes how such gifts are distributed among the members of a community, so that when the members assemble together and work together, Christ in present fully not in any one member but in the collective membership through the distributed gifts given variously to different members.

“For there is one who is adorned with the flowers of knowledge, another who is more strongly fortified by the practice of discretion, another who is solidly founded in patience, one who excels in the virtue of humility and another in that of abstinence, while still another is decked with grace of simplicity, this one surpasses the others by his zeal for magnanimity, that one by mercy, another one by vigils, yet another by silence, and still another by toil.  …  In as much, therefore, as there is wisdom in one, righteousness in another, holiness in another, meekness in another, chastity in another, and humility in another, Christ is now divided among each of the holy ones, member by member.  But when all are assembled together in the unity of faith and virtue, he appears as ‘the perfect man,’ completing the fullness of his body in the joining together and in the characteristics of the individual members.  Until the time comes, then, when God will be all in all, God can be such presently in the fashion that we have spoken of- that is, by virtues partly in all, although he is not yet all in all with respect to the fullness of them.”  (St. John Cassian, THE INSTITUTES, p 119)

Eventually Christ will be all in all, but until the fulfillment of that day, Christ is present to varying degrees through the various gifts distributed throughout the local Christian community.

God’s Mercy: Our Freedom and Our Judgment

St. Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:4-10 –

God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ by grace you have been saved, and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.

 Biblical scholar L. Ann Jervis in her book At the Heart of the Gospel: Suffering in the Earliest Christian Message comments

God’s mercy, not our sense of justice, has always defined God’s relationship to God’s people. In other words, God’s freedom to have compassion on whom God will have compassion (Rom 9:15) is at once God’s righteousness.

While we were still sinners (Romans 5:8), when we were dead in trespasses (Ephesians 2:5), God showed His love for us, dying on the cross in order to save us.  The Cross – the place where the Crucified Lord dies – is His very throne of judgment and His righteousness.  This is the great mystery of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.  

In the end, God has no desire for the death of the sinner (Ezekiel 18:32), nor does He take any pleasure in such a judgment.  God however does, as He always has, allow us humans to make our our choices even about eternal things.  As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Great Divorce  – 

 There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done’, and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’

Thanksgiving Day 2008

Thanksgiving is a good day for us to reflect on our relationship with God.  We can look at two past Presidential Thanksgiving Proclamations to get some sense of how American leaders understood God and why they saw it as important to give thanks to the Creator of the Universe.

First you can read the entire Thanksgiving Proclamation of George Washington, 3 October 1789 and even see his actual handwritten letter of the proclamation.  I want to quote only part of it:

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor– and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness. … and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions– …   To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us–and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.

In other parts of the proclamation Washington acknowledges the favor God has shown to the people of the United States by the outcome of the Revolutionary War.   Thanksgiving is offered because people understand God’s favor is given freely by God not because we have earned or merited that favor.  Washington acknowledges this by asking God to forgive us our sins.  This part of a Thanksgiving proclamation may seem strange to modern American ears – why mention our sins when we are giving thanks to God?   It has to do with the strong sense of unmerited grace.  God favors and blesses America “while we are still sinners” not because we are righteous.  This is the nature of God’s grace, and why we should be thankful.  If we had earned God’s blessings, we wouldn’t need to be thankful as the blessings would be our just payment for work rendered.

Second, you can read the entire Proclamation Establishing Thanksgiving Day by Abraham Lincoln from  October 3, 1863, but I will quote in part:

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.  To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.  … No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things.  They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. …  I do therefore invite my fellow citizens …  to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.   And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

Lincoln like Washington had to acknowledge a war as being part of the nation’s recent experience.   Lincoln like Washington also brings to mind the sins of the nation in his Thanksgiving Proclamation.  He too understood that God shedding His grace on America was not because of America’s righteousness, but because God is favorably disposed to set things right.  It is the sense of one’s sinfulness that makes the experience of God’s blessings so pronounced and which leads to a joyful expression of thanksgiving:  We don’t deserve to live in a blessed land, we are sinners, and yet God has blessed us with abundance.  It is an experience of grace not a story of hard earned payment.

Unfortunately in modern times, we Americans have forgotten about our sins, and see little need to repent and even at times make it to be unpatriotic to refer to our sins or to acknowledge that we Americans individually and as a nation are sinners in need of God’s mercies.  It is however in recognizing our sinfulness and the undeserved favor we have received from God that leads to our Thanksgiving.   We thank God out of our humbleness not in our arrogance.  In arrogance we might think we deserve God’s favor because we are so righteous.  In humility we understand ourselves as sinners, and yet and in spite of our sins, God has showered favor on us.  Thanks be to God.    Thanksgiving certainly is much in line with the spirit of the Nativity Fast and asking God’s forgiveness.  Repentance gives us a greater sense of thanksgiving as we realize how undeserved God’s grace really is, and how special it is to experience the blessings of God despite our sins.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ- by grace you have been saved- and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.   (Ephesians 2:4-9)