To sing is a human constant. Human beings have raised their voices in song throughout time and place to express joy, grief, pain, love and emotions otherwise inexpressible. We tell stories and share the spirit of cultures through folksongs and ballads. I remember from my childhood how any group of adults sitting together might spontaneously erupt into harmonious song. As an adult I’ve come to recognize how those folksongs created a bond and a solace for the maelstrom of feelings they evoked. Ukrainians are known for being a people of song. Non-speakers often describe the sound of our language as melodic and, despite repression during the Soviet era, Ukrainian styles of singing have endured. Our orthodox tradition has been a haven for song, since we believe that our voices are God’s instrument and so we pray in acappella song and chanting. Today it seems our rich heritage of song is fading. Fewer of us go caroling; singing seems to be allotted to professionals. . . Perhaps if we try, we can keep the spirit alive. This is the time of Theophany, the time of our most internationally famous Ukrainian carol: Shchedryk (The Carol of the Bells). The carol is based on a folk chant predating Christianity but Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych wrote the music in 1914. In 1921 he was murdered by Soviet police. In 1936 Peter Wilhousky wrote the English lyrics that have been translated into countless languages. (read the story of shchedryk). The Ukrainian lyrics bring wishes of a (shchedryj) generous bountiful year for us. May it be filled with songs of joy.
Theophany, along with Easter and Christmas, comprise the 3 great Holy Days of the Church year. We hold this trilogy of commemorations because they contain the essence of our Faith Tradition; they hold the mystery of the Divine Trinity. Our liturgical and cultural practices persistently reinforce the number 3, so that its symbolism of eternity, wholeness, and dynamic movement vibrates through our collective being. The Trinity presents God as infinite love. This Love is so great that it cannot be thought of as contained—Love continually flows beyond self to other—in this way being triune and, as such, encompassing us, humanity, in its outpouring.
We reflect Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River in our Baptismal sacrament, using water to mark our entry into the family of the Church. Because of the Theophany, when we saw God as Heavenly (invisible), human (embodied), and spirit (everywhere), the river water was sanctified and thus we believe all earthly matter is sanctified, including humanity, including you and me.
And so together, we drink the water blessed at church, we eat the blessed food at our Kutia, and we love each other into the wholeness of the Trinity of God.
In the Christmas compline we repeatedly sing out the reason that we celebrate the Nativity: God is with us. But this year I find that the accompanying exhortation particularly resonates with me. “Rozumite” translates as a plea (or demand?) to understand—grasp, fathom—the unfathomable reality of God joining us as a fellow human being! We can say it: “GOD IS WITH US.” Yet, getting our head around this is an ongoing process for for over 2 thousand years.
Somehow we have inherited a misleading notion of God as a mighty controller, deciding when or not (and how) we live, suffer, and die. This idea of God is simply not the message of the Gospels. God in
Christ demonstrated that God WITH us, does not mean that human events are manipulated; tragedy, illness, pain remain a constant in our lives. Christ demonstrates that God is in us—in you, in me. Also, easily said, but less easily grasped. I believe we crumple before the need to really comprehend this, because it seems to demand so much from us. Christ asks us to follow his example. We know what happened to him! Accepting that God is with us is in effect accepting that God “is us”—our responsibility—and frankly that seems more than a bit daunting.
We sing in the baptismal hymn that we have “put on” Christ. There it is. In our regular ordinary lives, we, when we can let ourselves accept God’s love for us, in our ordinary humanness, in our ordinary brokenness and daily less-than-perfect routines, schedules, sicknesses, and irritations, Divine love lives through us, whether we know it or not; God is with us regardless of who we are, but we can enjoy so much more contentment when we channel the peace and strength that living love can bring. It’s not a one shot decision; there is no formula or doctrine to follow Christ. It is as simple and as daunting as each day, context, and event presents. Living love, it seems, is desiring, trying, to be open to love in myself and in others. We help each other to be Christ in the smallest acts of kindness. . .
In the words of Mother Teresa: “People are often unreasonable and self centered. Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of ulterior motives. Be kind anyway. If you are honest, people may cheat you. Be honest anyway. If you find happiness, people may be jealous. Be happy anyway. The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow. Do good. Give the world the best you have and it may never be enough. Give your best anyway. .”
Julian Calendar celebration of Christ’s Nativity:
January 6th: 9:30 p.m. Christmas Compline followed by the Divine Liturgy
January 7th: 11:00 a.m. Christmas Divine Liturgy
January 8 & 9th: 10:00 a.m. Divine Liturgy
January 10th: 6:00 p.m. Divine Liturgy
January 19th (Feast of Theophany–Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan):
10:00 a.m. Divine Liturgy followed by traditional parish meal (kuttya)
Christmas is a time of memories. Of course, the primary memory is of the birth of the Saviour. However, it is inseparable from memories of our childhood and the security and warmth of home. Christmas carols recall those memories, of years long ago. Today’s Sunday reminds us that to fully understand what the Nativity is about we need to include the memories of stories of the Old Testament. Jesus’ birth is not some unexpected, dramatic event. Rather, in the midst of the quiet and humility of Bethlehem, the Child who is born is the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament—the fulfillment of God’s desire and intention to be with us.
This Sunday speaks to us of the many figures of old who witnessed and taught (often against the accepted views of the day) that God’s sole desire is to be with us. Whether Abraham or Moses, Isaiah or Jeremiah, their message is simple: God is loving and compassionate. God wants us to understand this. In spite of humanity’s errors and sins, God has always been with us, forgiven us, and called us into union. When humanity was created, we walked with God in the garden. Adam rejected this relationship, but God never gave up on us. God continues to love and care for us. This is the ever-gracious God who comes to us in the Saviour. The holy forefathers, the entire story of Israel, creation itself, are all reminders of the graciousness of God—of GOD WITH US!
Here we are, greeting a 2019 Mykolaj! Despite planetary crisis, despite insatiable greed, despite corrupt leaders and senseless violence, we, nevertheless, are celebrating the actions of a bishop who lived almost 2 thousand years ago. Not because we have to, but because this most popular saint of all time reawakens our fun-loving goodness. In the dead of winter, when the nights are longest, Mykolaj pops onto the scene, reminding us that being human is full of wonder and (de)light. How amazing that you and I should relate to a 4th c wealthy Greek cleric. But we can because this man’s actions illuminate Christ—embodied Love. Christmas is the joyous recognition that our humanity, our universe, and our life in all its complexity, are truly sacred. It’s a fact that popular culture has used St Nicholas as a symbol of consumer culture and gift-giving at this time of year. However, I believe that we relate to Mykolaj because he, in his position of wealth and power, responded with compassion to ordinary people in his local community. He noticed individuals; he noticed what they needed and felt moved to do what he could to help. The legends describe not simply generosity, but rather simple human kindness: kindness shown in secret and playful ways. Kindness is its own reward, makes us feel good, makes us smile. Especially in these times of darkness, whether literal or figurative, kindness is a gift we all crave and we can give in abundance just by noticing those around us and sharing our smiles. We greet Mykolaj in each other. Happy holy-days!
This Sunday’s parable of the Good Samaritan is among the most popular of all bible stories. Good Samaritan is even a common synonym for philanthropy. Because it’s so familiar, we might too easily miss this parable’s shocking significance to our life circumstances here and now. In Gospel times, Jesus’s Samaritan figure would have been shocking—scandalous. Samaritans were considered unclean, justifiably despicable, to be avoided at all costs. Who would we see as equivalent to that? This figure is beyond simply a foreigner, or a member of a different faith. Who is so beyond my sphere of comfort? Your sphere of acceptance? A member of ISIS? A convicted criminal? Perhaps a drug addict or . . . a family member who has hurt us? We know in our hearts whom we do not consider “a part” of “us”. Christ’s radical call is to recognize this “other” as so completely an equal to me that I cannot help but be “moved to compassion” to the extent that I will spare no expense for their well being.
Christ calls us to something much more amazing and crazy difficult than charity. The parable suggests that there are no differences amongst humans. Our categories and hierarchies of worth are artificially constructed. In God we are one. In and through Christ we—you and I—carry God’s love in the world. The Samaritan parable today is deeply political, ethical, spiritual. Our “neighbours” are waiting to get into our country, from Africa, the Middle East, South and Central America, from Ukraine. Like the injured person in Luke’s gospel, they are unnamed, unidentified, except for their woundedness. They wait by my roadside. How do I respond?
This past Thursday we entered into a new phase of our liturgical year: Pylypivka, the pre-Christmas fast. Often people associate this fast with the difficulties faced by the Holy Family during their journey to Bethlehem. This is a nice symbolic explanation, but it denies the important liturgical roots of the season. Pylypivka prepares us for a major feastday (just as Great Lent prepares us for Easter). All fasts provide the opportunity to prepare ourselves to accordingly celebrate a feastday. Preparation is important and can take many forms. It is not simply about not eating meat on certain days! Fasts are meant to be periods of reflection, restraint, and good works. They are an extension of our common liturgical prayer, because “liturgy” means the work of the people (that expresses our faith).
I think we should all be very proud of our common efforts in the parish: our community prayer, sharing over coffee, work in the kitchen, project SMILE, the shipment of winter wear to the Donetsk Exarchate, etc. But each of us can live this fast in our daily lives: perhaps more self control in our conversations, more kindness to those around us, more care in our use of natural resources (for example water or electricity), more intentional spending by buying what we need, not simply what we want. This fast can help us to live out our Christian vocation more consciously.
The beginning of the Revolution of Dignity on the Maidan in Kyiv
November 21 has long been an important date on the calendar for Ukrainians, but since 2013 it has taken on additional significance. On the evening of the 21st in 2013 over a thousand people began a protest in the central square in Kyiv, condemning the decision of the Yanukovych government to back away from an earlier decision to enter into an Association Agreement with the European Union. This government’s rejection of Europe, back into the arms of Russia, was widely condemned in Ukraine, but particularly by university students who took to the streets. No one expected the first protest to swell into a massive revolution of historic proportions. In a violent attempt to scatter the protesters, the authorities brutally attacked in the night of Dec. 10-11. In support of the protestors the bells of St. Michael’s Cathedral sounded, waking the citizens of Kyiv, and calling them to the Maidan. In response thousands came in support and joined the student demonstrators! A few weeks earlier the monks of St. Michael’s had opened their door to demonstrators offering them food and a place to sleep, but on that December night their care and hospitality took on new meaning: in the middle ages the bells of St. Michael’s had rung to warn Kyivites of oncoming attacks by Tatars – now they rang announcing the need to rise up and claim their rights as free citizens in a free Ukraine!
St. Michael’s patronage over Kyiv could not be clearer!