Icons as Teachers

Archpriest John Matusiak (+2019) 

(Fr. John Matusiak fell asleep in the Lord on August 15, 2019 (Feast of Dormition). He was a gifted preacher, author and educator, as well as an iconographer.  In his memory we offer the following edited article written by him for the Orthodox Church in America’s Department of Religious Education.  May his memory be eternal!)

There exists a certain temptation on the part of many to complicate and/or thoroughly misunderstand the Orthodox Church's liturgy.  Some non-Orthodox condemn it as something ancient, archaic, mystical, mysterious, exotic, eclectic, ethnic and esoteric. Others praise it because it transports them into the time-warp "before Vatican II changed everything."  Orthodox Christians often define liturgy as something which has been "handed down" as part of our "cultural heritage," to be "preserved" and "treasured" by "our people.”  And the media could not possibly pass it up without rave reviews which note how "colorful" and "symbolic" it is. (Not so) oddly enough, none of the above has anything whatsoever to do with liturgy. To the contrary. Orthodox liturgy is quite basic. It involves the gathering together of God's people who, in "laying aside all earthly cares" engage in worship while learning more about Him and His Kingdom.  Worship and education. Hardly exotic!

Liturgical Art

In many instances, the so-called "trimmings" of Orthodox worship are equally misunderstood. This is especially so in the case of iconography. Icons are more often than not viewed as "decorative alternatives" to modern religious art, bad religious art, or no religious art. Through the ages they have been condemned by iconoclasts, humanized by Russian Emperors, restored by atheists, prized by collectors, and "featured" at Bloomingdale's and Neiman-Marcus. Icons may be appreciated for their "folksy," "primitive" or "other-worldly" properties, but in the process their true purpose and meaning are trivialized at best.

Icons cannot be defined as "religious art." Nor can they be termed "decorative." They are, first and foremost, functional. By their very essence, icons are inseparable from prayer and worship. Consequently, icons might best be termed "liturgical art." Orthodox doctrine would go so far as to say that apart from liturgy icons have no function whatsoever. In this sense, they are the "windows of God's Kingdom."

Theology in Color

Icons are the "blackboards of God's Kingdom" as well. In addition to their functional use in worship, they serve to educate. Like the liturgy, they teach us about God, the Theotokos, the saints, and ourselves. They transcend and transfigure "all earthly cares" so that we might gain a glimpse of God's existence while considering (or reconsidering) our own. Icons are often referred to as "theology in color." They present the Church's teachings in line, form, chroma and hue rather than with words. This was especially important in the early days of the Church when books and widespread literacy were rare. Church walls became wordless textbooks with the introduction of frescoes, which served to transform the church's interior into "sacred" space while presenting the Christian message visually.

The traditional arrangement of frescoes, if faithfully adhered to, surrounds the worshipper with the central mysteries of salvation, not only aiding in the liturgical celebration of those mysteries but in their intellectual comprehension as well. The schematic arrangement calls for Old Testament scenes and personalities, from creation through the prophets, on the narthex walls. The nave is adorned with New Testament scenes, from the Annunciation and Nativity of Christ to His Crucifixion, Death and Burial. Within the altar one finds the victorious resurrected Christ, while on the altar ceiling the Theotokos, like the ceiling itself, literally unites heaven and earth. The central cupola, representing the space-less heavens, bears the icon of Christ the "Pantocrator," or All-powerful. And the pillars, which stand in the midst of the faithful, are generally adorned with individual martyrs and other saints who literally "join" the congregation before the throne of God. (St. Theodosius Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio; St. Vladimir Church, Trenton, New Jersey; Ss. Peter and Paul Church, Syracuse, New York; and Three Saints Church, Ansonia, Connecticut, are among the…churches in America which follow this or similar schematic arrangement.)

Far from being decorative, this iconographic scheme transcends the very space in which it exists. Rather than "containing" space, the frescoes eliminate it. The faithful, regardless of the moment, are not so much surrounded by "events"; rather, they are placed into the very midst of these events as participants in Christ's timeless and space-less work of salvation.

 Teach with words, write with letters, paint with colors, all in conformity with the tradition. Painting is as genuine as the content of the books; it is a work of divine grace because what is represented is holy. 

Symeon of Thessalonica


From the moment the divinity united itself to our nature, our nature was glorified as by lifegiving and wholesome medicine, and received access to incorruptibility: this is why the death of the saints is celebrated, temples are built in their honor, and their icons are painted and venerated.

St. John of Damascus

Lessons in Images

Individual icons, whether they be frescoes or portable wooden panels, not only educate through placement and use; their content also serves to enlighten the faithful.

When one thinks of the "Last Supper," Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece usually comes to mind. It may be found everywhere-religious shops, black-velvet-paint-by-number kits, Aunt Helen's dining room wall. It's title accurately describes its content: Christ and the apostles are gathered (curiously, they are all sitting on the same side of the table!) for their last meal together.

From an iconographic point of view, da Vinci's work, for all its artistic excellence and emotional strength, leaves out the "punch line." The main point of the event was the institution of the Eucharist, not the opportunity to get together for one last meal. If anything, this was the "First Supper," not the last, inasmuch as it was different than any other meal shared previously.

(In Orthodoxy, this same event is depicted) in a totally different manner. Christ is pictured in the center, distributing His Body to six awe-struck apostles to His right, while sharing His Blood with another six to His left. The icon emphasizes the essential "event within the event." Appropriately, Orthodoxy refers to this as the "Mystical Supper" or the "Institution of the Eucharist."

The birth of Christ brings to mind countless Christmas cards "manger scenes." The traditional Nativity icon…while…accurately recalling the key elements surrounding Christ's birth - the Virgin, child, animals, shepherds, Magi, angels - is radically different than anything produced by the folks at Hallmark.

Perhaps the most noticeable differences are the positions of Mary and Joseph. Rather than kneeling on either side of Christ, Mary rests while Joseph ponders whether or not to "put away" his betrothed. Above, angels hover in adoration. To the viewer's right they announce the Saviour's birth to the startled shepherds, while to the left they offer warnings to the Magi. The bottom right corner shows two women servants bathing the newly-born Christ.

Why is the Nativity icon so different from the usual manger scene? Again, it serves to awaken within the faithful an appreciation for Who was born rather than how He was born. Comparing the icon to the gospel narratives, one discovers that the icon faithfully reproduces the scriptural accounts in every detail. Yet the icon goes even further by visually teaching that the newly-born child is also the pre-eternal God. This is accomplished by the very composition itself.

Christ is depicted in the center of the icon. The Creator of all is surrounded by His creation, angels, humans, earth, sky, light, darkness, animals and plants. The top half of the icon teaches that the child is indeed God. The angels proclaim Him, as does the star, which pierces the earth with Heaven itself. Yet the bottom half of the icon teaches that Christ is also man. He is bathed like every other new-born; Mary rests, as every new mother must; and Joseph, not fully comprehending the event, is faced with a very human decision. Not one aspect of the Saviour’s birth or the doctrine of Christ is missing in this icon.

"The Virgin of the Sign," (often placed in the Church’s apse, just behind and above the altar):  Unlike the famous Renaissance Madonnas which depict little more than maternal emotion, this icon instructs the viewer in a number of other ways.

First and foremost, the Theotokos is not holding Christ. Rather, He appears to be suspended in front of her in a circle. The mother-child relationship is presented, yet it is not the most important statement made by the icon.  Christ is not suspended in front of the Virgin. He is depicted within her and coming forth from her, surrounded by the same uncreated light which surrounds Him in the Transfiguration icon. The Church proclaims Mary as the Theotokos, the one who literally bore God in her womb. This vital theological point is accurately expressed in this icon.

Learning by Doing

Icons, like liturgy, exist for worship as well as education. That which they impart, however, does not simply satisfy the intellect. Icons, as we have seen above, also serve to educate by experience. While they relate events and the people involved in them, they also invite the faithful to "lay aside all earthly cares" and become participants as well.


Mystical Supper Icon CC BY-SA 2.0 Fr. Ted Bobosh @ https://www.flickr.com/photos/frted/5713012090

Cultivating the Image of Divine Beauty

Archpriest Steven Kostoff


(On August 6 we celebrate) the Great Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, which we will continue to celebrate through Sunday, August 13, the Leave-taking of the Feast.  The mysterious presence of Beauty is revealed on Mount Tabor in an overwhelming manner as Christ is transfigured, resplendent in divine glory.  This is the beauty of the first-formed human creatures, created to reflect the beauty of the divine nature, for by grace they—and we—were created in the image and likeness of God.  And they were placed in a world that also reflected this divine beauty.  That is why God, after completing the creation process, declared that it was all “very good.”

Yet, the presence of sin marred that beauty.  This lost beauty was restored to humanity when the Son of God assumed our human nature, uniting it to His divine Person and revealing the glory of God in a human being.  Thus, on Mount Tabor, Christ reveals the beauty of His divine nature and the beauty of our created human nature.  This is why the Transfiguration is often referred to as a “Feast of Beauty.”

The Russian novelist Dostoevsky [+1881] famously and somewhat enigmatically once said, “Beauty will save the world.”  Yet, Dostoevsky also realized that in a world filled with sin, beauty can evoke responses that fall short of any saving value.  In fact, beauty can even degenerate toward sin and sensuality, as one of Dostoevsky’s greatest creations, Dmitri Karamazov, acknowledged with great anguish.  Therefore, for Dostoevsky beauty itself had to be “saved” and linked to Truth and Goodness.  Thus, for the Russian novelist, beauty is not simply an aesthetic concept, but one that must have a moral, ethical and spiritual dimension for it to be rightly perceived and experienced.  And for Dostoevsky—as well as for not only great artists, but for the great minds of the Church—beauty is not an abstract concept or Idea.  Beauty is a Person, and this Person is Christ.  In Christ, Truth, Goodness and Beauty are harmoniously united.  This is why Dostoevesky also spoke of the “radiant image of Christ.”

In another famous passage from his pen, found in one of his letters, Dostoevsky articulated his personal “creed” as he writes, “I have constructed for myself a symbol of faith in which everything is clear and holy for me.  The symbol is very clear, here it is:  to believe that there is nothing more beautiful, more profound, more sympathetic, more reasonable, more courageous and more perfect than Christ, and not only is there nothing, but I tell myself with jealous love that never could there be.”

It is these qualities that make Christ such an attractive figure that a well-disposed mind and heart not unduly influenced by the marks of a fallen world will almost naturally turn to as an “ideal,” but again as a concrete living Person.  There is a passage from the personal diary of Father Alexander Elchaninov [+1934] that captures that same intuition as found in Dostoevsky:  “It is impossible not to love Christ.  If we saw Him now, we should not be able to take our eyes off Him, we should ‘listen to Him in rapture;’ we should flock around Him as did the multitudes in the Gospels.  All that is required of us is not to resist.  We have only to yield to Him, to the contemplation of His image—in the Gospels, in the saints, in the Church—and He will take possession of our hearts.”

Here, again, there is an inherent moral, ethical and spiritual dimension from that beauty that flows outward from Christ.  This is rendered in the form of very practical and concrete advice in the words of Vladimir Solovyov [+1900], for many the greatest Russian philosopher known to us: “Before any important decision, let us evoke in our soul the image of Christ.  Let us concentrate our attention upon it and ask ourselves: Would He Himself do this action?  Or, in other words: Will He approve of it or not?  To all I propose this rule: it does not deceive.  In every dubious case, as soon as the possibility of a choice is offered to you, remember Christ.  Picture to yourself His living Person, as it really is, and entrust Him with the burden of your doubts.  Let men of good will, as individuals, as social factors, as leaders of men and peoples, apply this criterion, and they will really be able, in the name of truth, to show to others the way toward God.”

This concreteness is all the more interesting, for Solovyov was often a highly speculative thinker.  That which he wrote just over a century ago is hardly a public ideal any longer—to our great loss.  It is our role to maintain and cultivate the image of divine beauty in our lives as seen in the face of the incarnate and transfigured Christ as a sacred obligation. (Taken from the Orthodox Church in America’s website).

“We’re All Dying, Aren’t We?”

“We’re All Dying, Aren’t We?”

We live in what has been called a “death denying culture.” People naturally cannot deny the actual existence of death; they just do not like to think about or prepare for the inevitable. Each Christian has an opportunity to transform by faith, his or her repose into a victory over death by God’s grace, in imitation of Christ.  In this provocative article Fr. Lawrence Farley addresses these and other related topics.

St. Vladimir Seminary Night

Sunday, June 2

We extend an invitation to a special event on Sunday evening June 2, being hosted by St. Barbara Orthodox Church: Big Hats and Cocktails. Essentially this will be a multi-faceted fundraiser for St. Vladimir Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, New York. The night will feature unique, elegantly prepared Western cuisine such as bacon wrapped quail and jumbo stuffed shrimp, in addition to a number of other options.  A salad bar and thematic dessert along with a cash bar will also be provided. Participants will hear live Texas Swing Music by a local band, the Uptown Drifters. The venue is equally attractive, River Ranch in the Ft. Worth Stockyards, 500 NE 23rd Street.   

Archpriest Chad Hatfield, the President of St. Vladimir’s, will be a keynote speaker that night.  We will hear as well from Archpriest Philip LeMasters, Pastor at St. Luke Antiochian Orthodox Church in Abilene and Professor at McMurry College; Archpriest Jason Foster, Dean and Pastor at Nativity of our Lord Orthodox Church in Shreveport; and Fr. Photius Avant, Pastor at St. Sava Orthodox Church in Plano/Allen.     

Individual tickets for the event start at $35.00 a person with additional levels of sponsorship available. Tickets should be purchased no later than May 26 through the St. Vladimir Seminary website, www.svots.edu/events, or by calling 914.961.8313, x330 and speaking with Matushka Robyn Hatrak. Early ticket purchases by May 15 will be greatly appreciated and will help with preparations.     

As is well known Orthodox Church history is characterized by an immense emphasis on prayer and missionary activity, as well as on theology.  Consequently, seminaries as communities of prayer and study have always occupied an extremely important place within the Church’s life. They prepare future leaders for Godly service as bishops, priests, and deacons. Seminaries also provide Orthodoxy with faithful and knowledgeable lay leaders (men and women) who help guide the Church from many positions of ministry as choir directors, religious educators, council members, youth coordinators, counselors, diocesan assembly and national council delegates, lay chaplains, and so on.  

Please make your plans to join us on June 2 for the St. Vladimir Seminary Night, Big Hats and Cocktails. It promises to be an enjoyable evening, and your participation will help with the education of future Church leaders.  Please feel free to forward or to pass this information to anyone you think may be interested. Thank you in advance for your participation and generosity.

Paschal (Resurrection) Season: 2019

Introduction and Bright Week

The week following Pascha (Easter), is called Bright Week, by the Church.  Pascha is celebrated this year by the Orthodox Church on April 28, one week after Christians of the Western Tradition.  As Holy Week was a final time of anticipation and preparation for “the Feast of Feasts,” so Bright Week is a period of unique Resurrection joy, manifested outwardly in diverse ways.  For instance, during Bright Week there is no fasting at all from various types of food; all liturgical hymns, ideally, are to be sung rather than read; and the Church remains highly decorated, with the royal doors and deacon’s doors of the iconostasis left open as they were during the Midnight Service.  This latter practice emphasizes visually that the gates of God’s Kingdom have been open to man through the Cross, Tomb and Resurrection of Christ.  Services during Bright Week are celebrated in a particularly glorious manner, identical to that experienced during the Midnight Service and Resurrection Vespers on Pascha Sunday.  The traditional announcement, “Christ is Risen,” is sung repeatedly by the Church choir, and people greet one another with this same message of hope.

While Bright Week is a time of profound, perhaps uncommon celebration, the Resurrection season is not limited to one week.  For forty days, until Ascension (this year June 6), the faithful recall in songs and greetings the joyous news that ‘Christ has trampled down death by death, bestowing life upon those in the tombs.’  Clergy and altar servers continue to wear their brightest vestments, and everyone stands (rather than kneels) in prayer, both at home and in Church.  The practice of standing in prayer during the Paschal Season serves to stress our belief that in Christ we are already resurrected beings, residents on earth yet citizens of Heaven. The faithful continue this practice until Pentecost (this year June 16), when after Liturgy for the first time since Holy Week we kneel in prayer during three special prayers that are read from the ambo by the clergy.

The five Sundays following Pascha emphasize, through the appointed Scripture readings and hymns, (1.) post-resurrection appearances of Christ;  (2.) the Church’s early life and missionary endeavors (epistle readings are taken from the Book of Acts); and (3.) aspects of baptism, through which we ourselves have died and risen with Christ to a new life in God (Gospel readings are taken from the most “sacramental” of Gospel accounts, that of John the Theologian or Evangelist).  Fr. Thomas Hopko (of blessed memory) in his Orthodox Faith Handbook Series, Volume II, provides a summary of the meaning of the five Sundays of Pascha.  The following contains quotes and paraphrases from that summary.       

Thomas Sunday (May 5)                                                                                   

On the Sunday following Pascha, called in our liturgical books “the Second Sunday,” the stress is on the Apostle Thomas’ vision of Christ.  The significance of the day comes to us in the words of the Gospel:  “Then He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see My hands;  and put out your hand, and place it in My side;  do not be faithless, but believing.” Thomas answered Him,

“My Lord and My God!”  Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen

Me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”  (John 20:27-29).

In this last statement Christ refers to all those who will come after the Apostles and become disciples through their words. This includes Christians of every century, including our own.  We have not seen Christ with our physical eyes, nor touched His risen body with our physical hands, yet in the Holy Spirit we have seen and touched and tasted the Word of Life (1 John 1:1-4), and so we believe.  In the early Church it was only on this day that those baptized at Pascha removed their (baptismal) robes and entered once again into the life of this world.   


The Myrrhbearing Women (May 12)

The Third Sunday after Pascha is dedicated to the Myrrhbearing Women who cared for the body of the Savior at His death and who were the first witnesses of His Resurrection.  The three troparia of Holy Friday, (having to do with the Noble Joseph of Arimethea anointing and burying the Body of Jesus;  Christ’s descent into hell and its defeat;  and the angel’s proclamation to the myrrhbearing women of Christ’s resurrection) are sung once again and form the theme of the day:

     "The noble Joseph, when he had taken down Thy most pure body from the Tree, wrapped it in fine linen and anointed it with spices, and placed it in a new tomb."

      "When Thou didst descend to death, O Life Immortal, Thou didst slay hell with the splendor of Thy Godhead."

      "The angel came to the myrrhbearing women at the tomb and said: Myrrh is fitting for the dead, but Christ has shown Himself a stranger to corruption! So proclaim: The Lord is risen, granting the world great mercy."


The Paralytic (May 19)

The Fourth Sunday is dedicated to Christ’s healing of the Paralytic (John 5).  The man is healed by Christ while waiting to be put down into the pool of water.  Through baptism in the church we too are healed and saved by Christ for eternal life.  Thus, in the church, we are told, together with the paralytic, to “sin no more that nothing worse befall you” (John 5:14).  Our Lord’s question to the man, “Do you want to be healed?” is directed to us as well, reminding us that the gift of life and illumination through the Resurrection brings with it responsibilities.  It must be nurtured and shared with others. 


The Feast of Mid-Pentecost

In the middle of the Fourth Week, there is a day which is called by the Church, the Feast of Mid-Pentecost (this year May 22).  On this day we recall that Christ, “in the middle of the feast” teaches men of His saving mission and offers to all “the waters of immortality” (John 7:14).  Again, we are reminded of the Master’s presence and His saving promise: “If anyone is thirsty let him come to Me and drink” (John 7:37).


The Samaritan Woman (May 26)

The Fifth Sunday after Pascha deals with the Woman of Samaria with whom Christ spoke at Jacob’s Well (John 4).  Again, the theme is the “living water” and the recognition of Jesus as God’s Messiah (John 4: 10-11; 25-26).  We are reminded of our new life in Him, of our own drinking of the “living water,” of our own true worship of God in the Christian Messianic Age “in Spirit and in Truth” (John 4: 23-24).  We see as well that salvation is offered to all:  Jews and Gentiles, men and women, saints and sinners.


The Blind Man (June 2)

Finally, the Sixth Sunday commemorates the healing of the man blind from birth (John 9).  We are identified with that man who came to see and to believe in Jesus as the Son of God.  The Lord has anointed our eyes with His own divine hands and washed them with the waters of baptism (John 9: 6-11).  In Christ we are given the power to see and confess Him as God’s only-begotten Son, and we are given the ability to comprehend clearly and with love, our own lives, the lives of others and the world around us.


Ascension, Pentecost and All Saints Sunday

The Paschal Season ends with the great feast of Ascension (again, this year June 6) on which believers celebrate the Lord’s ascent in order to be glorified with God the Father and to glorify us with Himself.  He goes in order to “prepare a place” for us, and to take us into the blessedness of God’s presence.  He goes to open the way for all flesh into the “heavenly sanctuary...the Holy Place not made by hands” (See Hebrews 8-10).  Furthermore, Christ ascends in order to send the Holy Spirit (an event celebrated on Pentecost) who proceeds from the Father, to bear witness to Him (Christ) and His Gospel in the world, by making Him (Christ) powerfully present in the lives of His disciples.

On Pentecost (June 16) the Church celebrates the final act of God’s self-revelation and self-donation to the world.  God’s plan of salvation – starting with and including the formation of His chosen people, Israel; the sending of the prophets; the birth of Christ; His teachings, miracles, sufferings, death, burial and resurrection – all of this culminates with the giving of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost and the birth of the New Israel, the Church of God, the life of which is the continued presence of the Spirit in our midst.

The Sunday after Pentecost, that of All Saints  (June 23), reveals the power of the Holy Spirit in this world, the reason that He was given.  The Saints are those who, without a doubt, have been saved and transformed by the Spirit’s presence, a fate open to all who believe.  And then finally, on June 30, we commemorate All Saints of America, as a logical follow up to the previous Sunday.  This celebration affirms God’s presence and activity amongst His disciples in North America, placing before us local and contemporary examples of sanctity.    

Thus, a journey which began for us way back on February 10 with the Sunday of Zacchaeus will end on June 30.  But the journey was taken for a reason.  The seasons of fasting and celebration that we have experienced are to lead us to a deeper faith in Christ as Savior.  They are to instill within us a stronger commitment to our own mission, to be Christ’s witnesses “to the ends of the earth." (Acts 1:8)

(Some of the above information taken from Fr. Thomas Hopko’s, The Orthodox Faith, Volume 2, Worship, published by the

Orthodox Holy Week 2019

St. Barbara Orthodox Christian Church, April 20 - 28

Fr. Basil Zebrun

On Saturday, April 20, Orthodox Christians will begin observing the most solemn of Days leading up to the celebration of Pascha on April 28:  Lazarus Saturday, Palm Sunday and Holy Week.  These nine days are specifically set aside – consecrated – by the Church to commemorate the final and decisive events in the Lord’s earthly life.  Traditionally, during this time, Christians make an effort to “lay aside all earthly cares,” in order to devote themselves to contemplating the central Mysteries of the Faith: the Cross, the Tomb and the Resurrection of Christ.  So significant is this period that some have stressed that during Holy Week “time seems to stand still or earthly life ceases for the faithful, as they go up with the Lord to Jerusalem” (Fr. Thomas Hopko).  May we all look upon the days ahead as sacred, dedicated to our Lord.


Lazarus Saturday & Palm Sunday (April 20 and 21)

These two days form a double feast, anticipating the joy of Pascha.  At the grave of His friend Lazarus, Christ encounters “the last enemy,” death (1 Cor. 15:26).  By raising Lazarus, Christ foreshadows His own decisive victory over death, and the universal resurrection granted to all mankind. Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, “riding on the colt of an ass,” in fulfillment of a prophecy from Zechariah (9:9).   On this occasion our Lord allows the people to greet Him as a Ruler, the only time during His earthly ministry when this occurs.  Christ is indeed the King of Israel, but He comes to reveal and open to mankind His Heavenly Kingdom.  We hold branches of palms and pussy willows of our own on Palm Sunday, greeting Christ as the Lord and Master of our lives. 

Liturgical services for these two days will be celebrated on Saturday morning at 10:00 am, Saturday evening at 6:30 pm, and Sunday morning at 10:00 am.  Palms will be blessed on Saturday night, the eve of Palm Sunday. Services will also be celebrated at Archangel Gabriel Mission in Azle on this weekend.

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Great & Holy Monday, Tuesday & Wednesday (April 22 – April 24)

Having just experienced a foretaste of Pascha we now enter the darkness of Holy Week.  The first three days stress the End Times, the Judgment, and the continual need for vigilance.  They point to the fact that when the world condemned its Maker, it condemned itself, “Now is the judgment of this world” (John 12:31).  They remind us that the world’s rejection of Christ reflects our own rejection of Him, inasmuch as we sin and accept the worldview of those who shouted, “Away with Him, crucify Him!”  Central to the services for these days are the Gospel readings, and the hymns which comment on these lessons.  Among the chief hymns are the Exapostilarion, “Thy Bridal Chamber, I see adorned….,” and the following troparion sung during Matins as the Church is being censed:  “Behold!  The Bridegroom comes at midnight, and blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching:  and again, unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless. Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep, lest you be given up to death, and lest you be shut out of the Kingdom.  But rouse yourself, crying: “Holy! Holy! Holy! art Thou, O our God.  Through the Theotokos, have mercy on us.”  (Troparion)

Liturgical services for these three days will be celebrated at 7:00 pm at St. Barbara’s.


Great & Holy Thursday (April 25)

During the Matins Service or the Service of the 12 Passion Gospels on Holy Thursday night we “accompany Christ, step by step, from the time of His last discourse with His disciples to His being laid in a new tomb by Joseph of Arimethea and Nicodemus.  Each of the 12 Gospel sections read during the evening service involves us in a new scene:  the arrest of Jesus; His trial; the threefold denial of St. Peter; the scourging and the mockings by the soldiers; the carrying of the Cross; the Crucifixion; the opposing fates of the two thieves; the loving tenderness of the moment when Jesus commits His Mother to the care of His faithful disciple, John;  and the Lord’s final yielding up of the spirit and burial” (Fr. Paul Lazor). The liturgical hymnography for that night comments on the Gospel readings and gives the response of the Church to these events in the life of Christ.  During this service the faithful hold lit candles during the Gospel lessons while kneeling, and in large parishes Church bells are rung before each reading: once for the first reading, twice for the second, and so on.

The Matins Service at St. Barbara’s on Holy Thursday will be at 7:00 pm.  

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Great & Holy Friday (April 26)

On the one hand, this is the most solemn of days, the day of Christ’s Passion, His Death and Burial.  On this day the Church invites us, as we kneel before the tomb of Christ, to realize the awful reality and power of sin and evil in “this world,” and in our own lives as well.   It is this power that led ultimately to “the sin of all sins, the crime of all crimes” the total rejection and murder of God Himself (Fr. Alexander Schmemann).

On the other hand, the Church affirms that this day of evil is also the day of redemption.  “The death of Christ is revealed to us as a saving death, an offering of love” (Fr. Alexander Schmemann).  Holy Friday is the beginning of the Lord’s Pascha, for the One Who is raised, is the One Who is crucified for us and for our salvation.  “By death Christ tramples down death…”  Thus the tomb of Christ, placed in the center of the Church, is lavishly adorned with flowers, for from the tomb comes life.


Liturgical services for Holy Friday will take place at 2:00 pm and at 7:00 pm at St. Barbara’s. 

The afternoon service is often referred to as “Burial Vespers.”  During its celebration the final events in the life of Christ are brought to mind through the scripture readings and the hymnography.  At the conclusion of Vespers the faithful kneel and the choir sings, in a very slow manner, the troparia for the day which speak of Joseph of Arimethea and Nicodemus burying the Body of Jesus; and the angel’s announcement to the Myrrhbearing Women that, “Myrrh is fitting for the dead, but Christ has shown Himself a stranger to corruption.”   As these words are heard the clergy and servers make a procession around the tomb with the “winding sheet” on which is an icon of the crucified Lord. This winding sheet is placed on top of the tomb and venerated by the faithful.

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On Friday night a Matins service is celebrated during which the people sing hymns and lamentations in front of Christ’s tomb.  We hear about how, “hell trembles while Life lies in the tomb, giving life to those who lie dead in the tombs.”  We also begin to hear announcements and foreshadowings of the Resurrection in both the scripture readings and hymns.  In fact, the Alleluia verses chanted after the Epistle reading are the same Resurrectional verses from Psalm 68 chanted by the clergy on Pascha night:  “Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered, let those who hate Him flee from before His face..” (etc.)

Great & Holy Saturday (April 27):

On the morning of this day, at 9:00 am, we will celebrate the Vesperal Liturgy of St. Basil.  This service “inaugurates the Paschal celebration…”  On ‘Lord I Call Upon Thee’ certain Sunday Resurrection hymns are sung, followed by special verses for Holy Saturday which stress the Death of Christ as the descent into Hades, the region of death, for its destruction.

"A pivotal point of the service occurs after the Entrance, when fifteen Old Testament lessons are read, all centered on the promise of the Resurrection, all glorifying the ultimate Victory of God…The epistle lesson is that which is read at Baptisms (Romans 6:3-11), referring to Christ’s Death and Resurrection as the source of the death in us of the “old man,” and the resurrection of the new man, whose life is in the Risen Lord  (Here we must remember that Pascha has always been the most traditional time for Baptisms of catechumens).  During the verses immediately after the epistle reading the dark Lenten vestments and altar coverings are put aside and the clergy vest in their brightest robes.  An announcement of the Resurrection is then read from the last chapter of St. Matthew”s Gospel.   The Liturgy of St. Basil continues in this white and joyful light, revealing the Tomb of Christ as the Life-giving Tomb, introducing us into the ultimate reality of Christ’s Resurrection, communicating His life to us…”  (Fr. Schmemann). 

It should be noted that on Great and Holy Saturday every major act of the Vesperal Liturgy of St. Basil takes place in front of the Tomb, or processes around it:  the Small Entrance; the 15 Old Testament readings;  the Epistle and Gospel readings;  the Great Entrance;  the distribution of Holy Communion;  and the final dismissal prayer. 

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Pascha (April 28)

The Main Resurrection service will begin at 11:30 pm on Saturday night (We ask that everyone try to arrive at least 15 minutes early, those with food even earlier, so that we can begin the service promptly with all lights out in the Church).  This particular service is actually comprised of three services, celebrated together, one after another:  Nocturnes, Matins and the Divine Liturgy.  The entire round of services ends around 2:30 am on Sunday morning and is followed by the blessing of Pascha baskets and the Agape Meal, at which we enjoy fellowship and partake of many non-lenten foods.

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Special features of the Midnight Service include:  Nocturnes (11:30 pm to 12:00 midnight) celebrated in total darkness with only one light for the choir, followed by a triple procession around the outside of the Church, a Resurrection Gospel reading and the first announcement of, “Christ is Risen!”  The Paschal Matins then begins during which the Church is brightly lit and the faithful sing of Christ’s Resurrection in a very joyous manner. Near the end of Matins the Paschal Catechetical Sermon of St. John Chrysostom is read.  During the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom the Gospel from the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel is chanted in several languages, symbolic of the universal character of the Christian Faith.  Immediately after the service food for the Agape Meal is blessed, as well as Pascha (Easter) baskets full of non-fasting foods.

On Sunday afternoon, April 28, at 12:00 noon, we return to the Church to celebrate Resurrection Vespers during which we hear a Gospel reading and more hymns of Christ’s Resurrection.  A continuation of the Agape Meal will be enjoyed after Vespers.


Bright Week (April 29 – May 5)

The week immediately after Pascha is an extended celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection. Although we enjoy a 40-day Paschal season, the services of Bright Week are uniquely joyous, reflecting the specific tone and spirit of Pascha night.  Divine Liturgies and Vespers celebrated during this time are very similar to those of April 28.  There is, as well, no fasting during Bright Week.  We look forward to celebrating Pascha with all of our Church members and friends.  Once again, we encourage everyone to set aside the days ahead as sacred, dedicated to our Lord.

Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!

Life and Prayer

+ Archbishop Anthony Bloom

I would like to say a few words on the relation that exists, not in general terms but somewhat distinctly, between life and prayer, approaching this question from a hitherto unexplored angle. All too often the life we lead testifies against the prayer we offer, and it is only when we have managed to harmonize the terms of our prayer, with our way of life, that our prayer acquires the strength, the splendor and the efficacy which we expect it to yield.

All too often we address the Lord hoping that He will do what we ought to do in His name and in His service. All too often our prayers are elegant, well-prepared discourses, grown stale moreover with the passing of centuries, which we offer to the Lord from day to day, as if it sufficed to repeat to Him from year to year -- with a cold heart and a dull mind -- ardent words that were born in the desert and the wilderness, in the greatest of human sufferings, in the most intense situations that history has ever known.

We reiterate prayers bearing the names of the great spiritual leaders, and we believe that God listens to them, that he takes account of their content -- whereas the only thing that matters to the Lord is the heart of the person addressing Him, the will straining to do His will.

We say: “Lord, lead us not into temptation”; then, with a light step, eager and full of hope, we go straight to where temptation lies in wait for us. Or else we cry: “Lord, Lord, my heart is ready”.  But (ready) for what?  If the Lord were to ask us this question one evening when we have said these words before going to bed, would we not sometimes be obliged to answer “ready to finish the chapter I have begun in this detective novel”. At that moment it is the only thing for which our hearts are ready.  And there are so many occasions on which our prayer remains a dead letter, a letter that kills moreover, because each time we allow our prayer to be dead, instead of making us alive and yielding to us the intensity which it possesses intrinsically, we become increasingly less sensitive to its drive, its impact, and increasingly incapable of living the prayer we utter.

This raises a problem which must be resolved in the life of each individual; we have to transform the terms of our prayer into rules of life. If we have told the Lord that we are seeking His help in order to resist temptation, we have to avoid every occasion of temptation with all the energy of our soul, with all the strength at our disposal. If we have told the Lord that we are heartbroken at the thought that someone is hungry, thirsty or lonely, we must, however, listen to the voice of the Lord replying: “Whom shall I send?,” and stand before him saying: “Here I am, Lord,” and become active without delay. We should never delay sufficiently to allow a superfluous thought to creep into our good intention, placing itself between God's injunction and the action we are about to perform, because the thought that then slips in like a serpent will immediately suggest to us: “Later,” or “Do I really have to? Can't God choose someone who is more free to do his will than I am?” And while we "beat about the bush," the energy which prayer and the divine response had communicated to us will fade away and die within us.

So here we are dealing with something essential, namely a link we have to establish between life and prayer through an act of will, an act which we ourselves perform, which will never be accomplished on its own and can nonetheless transform our lives most profoundly. Read the prayers that are set out for you in the morning and evening office. Select any one of these prayers and make it a rule of life; you will then see that this prayer will never become boring or stale, because with each passing day it will be sharpened, quickened by life itself. Once you have asked the Lord to protect you throughout the day against some compulsion, temptation or difficulty which you have made it your duty to overcome to the best of your ability and despite your human weakness, and your being is filled like a mainsail with the divine breath and power, you will have many things to tell God when you stand before Him in the evening. You will have to thank Him for the help you have received, you will have to repent for the use you have made of it; you will be able to rejoice that He has given you the strength to do His will with your own weak and frail hands, your poor human hands, and allowed you to be His seeing gaze, His heedful ear, His footstep, His love, His incarnate, living, creative compassion.

Now here is something that can only be achieved through individual effort, and unless this effort is made, life and prayer become dissociated. For a while life carries on as usual, and prayer continues its droning which becomes less and less distinct, less and less disquieting for our conscience; the steadfastness of prayer decreases. And since life makes demands on us whereas prayer comes from God, a timid, loving God who calls us and never imposes Himself on us by brute force, the result is that prayer fades away. Then we console ourselves by saying that we have now embodied our prayer in action; the work of our hands alone represents our worship. 

Yet this is not the attitude we adopt towards our friends, our parents, and those we love. Indeed, on occasions, perhaps always, we do everything we ought to do for their sake; but does this imply that we forget them in our hearts, that our thoughts never turn to them? Of course not! Could it be that God alone enjoys that privilege of being served without ever receiving a glance from us, without our hearts ever becoming fervent and loving at the sound of His Name?   Could it be that God alone is served with indifference? This question gives us something to think about and something to achieve.


Listening to Lessons from the Unborn

January 22 marks the forty-sixth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision regarding abortion in the case of Roe v. Wade.  From its inception the Church has strongly affirmed the sanctity of human life, no matter the age of a person or stage of his or her development.  Each year Orthodox faithful join the January Pro-Life March in the nation’s Capital, with our bishops often addressing the thousands assembled.  This article is a good reflection on this politically controversial and spiritually important topic.

"God or Nothing"

Archpriest Steven Kostoff

Recently, while browsing a bookstore, I was immediately attracted to the title of a new book God or Nothing, by Roman Catholic Cardinal Deacon Robert Sarah.  Although I have not actually read Cardinal Sarah’s work, I would like to reflect on what I believe the title is alluding to, or what direction I would pursue were I the one writing a book with such a title. This is because I have concluded that if God exists, then we are “something.”  However, if God does not exist, then we are “nothing.”  Hence, my affinity for the starkness of this book’s title:  God or Nothing.  This stark contrast is not meant to devalue genuine human experiences.  On the contrary, as human beings we think and feel, we create and love, and these are only a few of the deep experiences that engender both joy and sorrow in life.  Whether one identifies as a theist or an atheist, we all share these experiences, and they endlessly enrich our lives.  Indeed, without them, life would essentially not be worth living.

Yet what is above, below, or behind such meaningful experiences?  If God does not exist, then the inescapable (and, in my opinion, troubling) answer is nothing – literally.  There only exists the void from which we emerged and to which we will return – there is life, then there is decay and death.  This process of descent back into that void can be postponed but never eluded.  The business of living life only disguises this stark truth, which is probably a good thing, otherwise there would be too much despair in the world.  Nonetheless, I am trying to capture this wider-ranging aspect of our existence when I claim that if God is non-existent, then we are “nothing.”  And, of course, there is Dostoevsky’s famous aphorism found throughout his masterpiece The Brother’s Karamazov: “If God does not exist, then everything is permissible.”

Yet if God does indeed exist – as we believe, proclaim, and hopefully live by – then we are genuinely “something.”  We do not hover in a void, but rather our lives are grounded in the ultimate reality.  There is permanence above, below, and behind the world’s transience – our lives count.  Furthermore, they endure beyond the ravages of time and its attendant decay and death. That is because our lives are all contained within the “memory” of God.  (Therefore, it is customary in the Orthodox Church to sing “Memory Eternal” for the departed).

This “something” that we are if God exists is contained in that inexhaustible scriptural revelation that we are created in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gen. 1:26).  Our human capacity to think, feel, create, and love is the result of that wonderful truth – that God is the source and origin of our lives.  It is because of Him we emerged from non-existence into being, which we receive as a gift to receive with thanksgiving.  For this reason, we do not have to justify our intuitive capacity to seek moral, ethical, and spiritual truth.  It is “natural” to be that way, because this conforms to the creative will of God.  The tasks of life may distract us – at times even overwhelm us, but this “living life” (to borrow another phrase from Dostoevsky) signifies something and not nothing.  Even further, if God is, then our lives add up to something much greater than the sum of all our human experiences in this life.  The Gospel would call this “abundant” or “eternal” life (John 3:16, 10:10).

God or Nothing.  All in all, an intriguing title for a book.  I’m not sure I will ever read it, but for one last time I will claim that although stark, this either/or approach is vital – it reflects a deep look at reality.  Could we even speak of a so-called middle choice?  The agnostic “maybe” or “perhaps” does not sound very satisfying or reassuring.  If we have chosen God over nothing, then our vocation is to embody this choice in lives that are full of meaningful pursuits, beginning with the God and Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

 (Father Steven Kostoff is rector of Christ the Savior-Holy Spirit Church, Cincinnati, Ohio. He is also a member of the adjunct faculty of the theology department at Xavier University in Cincinnati, where he has taught various courses on Orthodox theology. The preceding article was taken from Father Steven’s new book, “Monday Morning Meditations:  Reflections of a Parish Priest,” published by Kaloros Press).