Dear Readers: A long time supporter of the Mystagogy Resource Center has informed me that they would like to donate $3000 to help me continue the work of this ministry, but they will only do it as a matching donation, which means that this generous donation will only be made after you help me raise a total of $3000. If you can help make this happen, it will be greatly appreciated and it would be greatly helpful to me, as I have not done a fundraiser this year. If you enjoy the work done here and want to see more of it, please make whatever contribution you can through the DONATE link below. Thank you!
(Total So Far - Day 9: $2680)

December 31, 2011

St. Peter of Damascus: On Resolution

If you want to do something good, do it; and if you cannot do it, then resolve to do it, and you will have achieved the resolution even if you do not fulfill the action itself. Thus a habit, whether good or bad, can gradually and spontaneously be overcome. If this were not the case, no criminals would ever be saved, whereas in fact not only have they been saved, but many have become conspicuous for their excellence. Think what a great gulf separates the criminal from the saint; yet resolution finally overcame habit.

- Saint Peter of Damascus

December 29, 2011

14,000 Infants (Holy Innocents) Slain by Herod in Bethlehem

The infant-slaying Herod mentioned here is the same one that ruled at the time of Christ's Nativity. In those days, certain Magi, who were wise and noble men, perhaps even kings, set forth from the East, and came to Jerusalem, seeking the King of the Jews, Who had been born; and they said that in the East, where their homeland was, an unusual and strange star had appeared two years before, which, according to an ancient oracle (Num 24:17), was to signify the birth of some great king of the Jews. "For we have seen His star in the east," they said, "and have come to worship Him" (Matt. 2:2). Hearing these things, Herod was troubled, and the whole city together with him. Then, having inquired and been informed by the high priests and scribes of the people that, according to the prophecies, Christ was to be born in Bethlehem, he sent the Magi thither and ordered them that, when they would find the Child, to inform him, so that he also - as he affirmed - might go and worship Him.

But the Magi, after they had worshipped, departed by another way to their own country by a divine command. Then Herod was wroth and sent men to slay all the infants of Bethlehem and the parts round about, from two years old and under, thinking that with them he would also certainly slay the King Who had been born. But this vain man who fought against God was mocked, since Jesus the Child, with Mary His Mother, under the protection of Joseph the Betrothed, fled into Egypt at the command of an Angel. As for those innocent infants, they became the first Martyrs slain in behalf of Christ. But their blood-thirsty executioner, the persecutor of Christ, came down with dropsy after a short time, with his members rotting and being eaten by worms, and he ended his life in a most wretched manner.

Apolytikion in the First Tone
Be Thou entreated for the sake of the sufferings of Thy Saints which they endured for Thee, O Lord, and do Thou heal all our pains, we pray, O Friend of man.

Kontakion in the Fourth Tone
When the King was born in Bethlehem, the Magi arrived from the East with gifts guided by a Star on high, but Herod was troubled and mowed down the children like wheat; for he lamented that his power would soon be destroyed.

Source: Holy Transfiguration Monastery - Brookline, MA

The Arrest and Imprisonment of Elder Ephraim of Vatopaidi

For those who havn't followed the news of Elder Ephraim's arrest and imprisonment over the past few days, below are a few articles, mainly English, that have appeared in the news. It was reported that Elder Ephraim left Mount Athos with much joy, accompanied by his over 120 disciples at Vatopaidi Monastery and numerous other clergy, monks and abbots. He said "Don't feel sad for me, for I am a monk and in the hands of the Panagia, as I have always been. Feel sad for those who caused this." The bells of the Monastery rang in celebration as Elder Ephraim left the Holy Mountain for his jail cell in Athens, where many Metropolitans and clergy visited him and thousands of faithful are supporting him.

A Hagiorite Monk Is Being Sent To Prison For ‘Accusations’ They Cannot Prove!

The Holy Community of Mount Athos Stands By Elder Ephraim of Vatopaidi

Guardian of Holy Virgin's Belt from Mt. Athos Decides To Go To Jail

Greek Abbot Jailed Pending Trial Over Land Scandal Probe That Cost Ministers Their Jobs

Cypriot Abbot To Be Held Behind Bars in Greece

Greek Monk On His Way To Jail

Photos of Elder Ephraim Leaving Mount Athos

Photos and Video of Protests Supporting Elder Ephraim

Russian Orthodox Rise in Defense of Arrested Vatopedi Monk

Patriarch Kirill Asks Greek President To Release Vatopedi Monastery Superior From Custody

Vatopedi Monk in Jail as Minister Warns 'Meddlers'

Archimandrite Yefrem's Arrest Violates European Human Rights Court's Decisions - Russian Foreign Ministry

Greece Jails Abbot Ephraim in Mount Athos Fraud Case

Father Ephraim - Prisoner of Cell 2 in the Koridallos Prison

Assembly of Bishops Condemns Imprisonment of Archbishop Jovan by FYROM and Asks for His Release

December 27, 2011, New York

Upon receiving the information that Archbishop Jovan of Ochrid was arrested on December 12, 2011, while entering the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) from the border with Greece, the Hierarchs of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America reaffirm the position taken by the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA) in August 2005, and furthermore restate that the persecution and new imprisonment of Archbishop Jovan by FYROM are an outrage, and ask for his immediate release.

This arrest has a history of several years and began when the schismatic church of FYROM started persecuting the canonical Archbishopric of Ochrid, an autonomous part of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

This imprisonment, as did the previous ones, violates religious freedom in a supposedly free state. That a recognized, canonical Orthodox Christian hierarch can be imprisoned once again under false allegations, and while trying to fulfill his religious responsibilities, is simply absurd.

We join again the Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church in demanding the release of Archbishop Jovan. We ask the government of FYROM to correct this injustice and to free Archbishop Jovan without delay. Furthermore, we call upon our governments to intercede and implement appropriate measures to hasten this process.


December 27, 2011

The Unworthy Priest

The icon above is located in the Cemetary Church of All Saints in the town of Perama of Rethymno in Crete, the seat of the municipality of Mylopotamou, and was painted by the iconographer Emmanuel Sephake.

The prototype for this icon is in the historic Church of the Holy Trinity in the same town (probably from the Venetian era), near the Monastery of Arkadiou in Rethymno, and is found in the Holy Sanctuary, roughly next to the Holy Prothesis table. The priest serving in the Sanctuary sees it across from him, though it is not visible to those outside the Sanctuary. It is directed, therefore, to the priest, and is aimed at his constant moral diligence.

The icon depicts an angel standing on a priest holding the Holy Chalice and dressed in priestly vestments. It bears the inscription "The Unworthy Priest".

This icon, it is assumed, is based on an old story which says that once there was a priest who got drunk one Saturday night, and went the next day to serve Divine Liturgy. However, as his wife was going to church, she saw him outside, tied to a tree. When she went inside, she saw him again, serving Divine Liturgy! She was surprised. After the Liturgy, her husband revealed how an angel prevented him from liturgizing, and served Divine Liturgy in his stead and with his appearance.

The meaning of the story is that, no matter how unworthy a priest may be, this does not hinder the validity of the Holy Mysteries, for it is the grace of God which completes them, not the priest himself. But priests should be worthy of their work, otherwise they will face consequences, now and in eternity.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.

The Original Words To The Song "Good King Wenceslas"

We remember Saint Stephen the Protomartyr on December 27, two days after Christmas, while in the West he is remembered on December 26. Hence the popular Christmas Carol:

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even.

This describes an action of King Wenceslas on the day after Christmas Day. The tune used with this song is older than the words (written circa 1850) and was previously used with a hymn often sung on the feasts of St. Stephen and other martyrs. It begins:

Christian friends, your voices raise.
Wake the day with gladness.
God himself to joy and praise
turns our human sadness:
Joy that martyrs won their crown,
opened heaven's bright portal,
when they laid the mortal down
for the life immortal.

This hymn was written by Saint Joseph the Hymnographer in the 9th century.

Listen here.

December 26, 2011

Panagia Alexiotissa In Patras, Greece

Panagia Alexiotissa (Feast Day - December 26)
The Holy Church of Panagia Alexiotissa dates prior to 1713. This parish church also serves as a cemetery located in the upper city of Patras. Tradition says it was an old chapel of Gerokomeio Monastery.

The name "Alexiotissa" stems from the old verb "alexo" which has origins from the root "alex" which means "to avert". The people of this region thus place their hopes in the Theotokos to avert all evils and destructions that may come their way. The church holds an icon titled Panagia Alexiotissa that is old, with artistic value and silver lining.

The former Metropolitan of Patras, Nikodemos, established the feast of Panagia Alexiotissa in 1994 to be celebrated annually on the Synaxis of the Theotokos on December 26th. He also composed a Service of Praise and Supplication Service to Panagia Alexiotissa.

Within the Holy Altar there is a second Holy Altar dedicated to the Archangels together with an icon offered by the Union of Butchers in 1869. For this reason the church also celebrates on the feast of the Synaxis of the Archangels on November 8th.

Also, on the northeastern part of the church, there is a chapel dedicated to Saint Lazarus, who was four days dead and raised by Christ. Metropolitan Nikodemos dedicated this chapel on 15 June 1991 and celebrates on the Saturday of Lazarus as well as October 17th (the day his relics were transferred from Cyprus to Constantinople).

During the Revolution of 1821, the Turks burned alive the parish priest of this church, Papa George, and kidnapped his three children. His wife, the presvytera, sought out her children throughout the Ottoman Empire. She eventually found one of her sons, Constantine. In 1972 the Achaia company of Patras erected a monument in memory of Papa George in the precincts of the church.

See also:

Manger Scene at Panagia Alexiotissa in Patras, Greece

Listen to the Supplication Service here.

Russian Church Reacts To Elder Ephraim's Arrest

The arrest of Cypriot monk Abbot Ephraim just before Christmas was an act of 'unprecedented savagery', said sources within the Moscow Orthodox Patriarchate as reported by Kathimerini and Sky news channels in Athens.

Sarah Fenwick
December 25, 2011
Cyprus News Report

The Russian and Greek Orthodox churches have very close ties and it is expected that there will be more reactions against Ephraim's arrest on charges of money laundering in connection with a property exchange between Vatopaidi Monastery and the state, says the report.

Russian Orthodox churchmen have made representations to Mount Athos and Patriarch Bartholomew saying that Ephraim's arrest is disproportionate to the charges. The monk's health is not good and the Greek government should ensure an objective, open-minded, honest and democratic process, said the Russian church in a message broadcast by many Russian media channels. Ephraim is bedridden and under guard in his monk's cell in Vatopaidi Monastery.

There is speculation that there are political reasons behind Ephraim's arrest as he is considered to be Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's spiritual father and recently visited Moscow to meet with him. Russia-Greece relations are at their worst point in decades, say analysts, amid perceived insults to the Russian ambassador in Athens after former Prime Minister George Papandreou refused to meet with him, and the perception that the Greek government is overly influenced by Russia's rival for influence in the region - the US.

Russian and US oil-and-gas companies are also eyeing immense reserves of hydrocarbons around Greece and Cyprus, and there is more speculation that Ephraim - who has long held influence with Putin - has been taken out of the picture while the latest round of bidding for undersea hydrocarbon exploration gets underway.

Whether Ephraim's arrest is a deliberate insult directed at Putin, or just a case of Greece's slow justice system finally swinging into action remains to be seen, but one thing is certain, the timing of the monk's arrest just before Christmas is as provocative a move as any towards Orthodox Church believers.

In further developments, Cyprus Archbishop Chrysostomos II said that the clergy and monks have to be very careful to stay away from business transactions, in a breathtaking example of the pot calling the kettle black. The Cyprus Orthodox Church is one of the wealthiest in the world, with interests ranging from banking, property and hotels to beer-making.

Read also:

Russian Foundation Calls on the Heads of Christian Orthodox Churches to Defend Abbot Efraim

Russian Church Believes Vatopedi Rector's Arrest Groundless Sanction

Elder Ephraim of Vatopaidi Confined To His Monastic Cell

Abbot Ephraim is confined to bed with high fever while he has also been diagnosed with blood sugar deregulation as it was confirmed by a medical examiner accompanying the prosecutor.

December 25, 2011

Civilian administrator of Mount Athos Aristos Kasmiroglou on Saturday told the Athens News Agency (AMNA) that Vatopaidi Monastery Abbot Ephraim will be kept under guard in his monk cell following a decision by Thessaloniki First Instance Court prosecutor Antonis Papamattheou.

The prosecutor visited the monastery with Halkidiki Police Director Konstantinos Papoutsis to execute a pending warrant for Abbot Ephraim’s arrest issued on Friday by a Court of Appeals Judges’ Council in Athens.

Abbot Ephraim is confined to bed with high fever while he has also been diagnosed with blood sugar deregulation as it was confirmed by a medical examiner accompanying the prosecutor.

The Court of Appeals Judges’ Council on Friday decided that Abbot Ephraim of the Vatopaidi Monastery, one of the leading defendants in a notorious case concerning suspect land swaps between the monastery and the Greek state, be held in custody pending trial.

The ruling was in favour of the stance adopted earlier by examining magistrate Irene Kalou, who disagreed with prosecutor Panagiotis Matzounis suggesting that Abbot Ephraim be released with conditions after posting bail of 200,000 euros.

December 24, 2011

Elder Ephraim of Vatopaidi To Be Imprisoned

On December 23 by decree of the Council members of the Court of Appeals, Ephraim of the Vatopaidi Monastery was sentenced to preventive detention. This was reported by the Greek news agencies Romfea and Amen.

The court's decision is related to the so-called "Vatopaidi scandal", filed in connection with the exchange of part of the monastery estates, which was characterized as a violation of the law.

Members of the Court of Appeals sided with the investigator I. Kalu, who demanded imprisonment of the accused while the prosecutor P. Madzunis suggested leaving him free on bail.

Thus far it is unclear whether Archimandrite Ephraim will remain under house arrest in Vatopaidi Monastery or will be placed in a detention cell outside of Athos. Particularly regrettable for the brethren of Vatopaidi Monastery and the entire Christian world is that this event occurred just before Christmas.

It appears the Greek government has begun its "cleansing" by imprisoning one of Orthodoxy's most revered elders, and left a bunch of political scandals who owe millions without impunity to enjoy Christmas in ski resorts both in Greece and abroad.

Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens and All Greece responded to the decision with the following statement: "... The essence of the case I did not know and I respect the Greek justice. But I am very concerned, like any Christian, by the timing of the issuance of the decree of custody of Abbot Ephraim of the Vatopaidi Monastery on Christmas Day. And no more needs to be said."

The abbots and all the fathers of Mount Athos stand behind Elder Ephraim. Metropolitans and clergy throughout Greece have expressed outrage at the turn of events. Metropolitan Athanasios of Limassol called the decision "very sad", and after speaking with Elder Ephraim following the decision, said: "The elder is very calm and has surrendered to the will of God. Whatever God allows, may it be blessed, he told me." He further said: "For Elder Ephraim, this trial is a blessing from God and an opportunity for spiritual ascent."

It is not yet known why the Greek judicial system came to their conclusions. According to the law, detention is only permitted if the accused is unknown, about to escape, has a history of attempted escape, or there is sufficient evidence the defendant will commit further crimes.

How Frank Capra's Christian Faith Influenced His Films

By Maria Elena De Las Carreras Kuntz

The career of Frank Capra coincided with the golden age of Hollywood, and many of his films are recognized as classics. Still, most critics seem not to have noticed that Capra's work reflects a profoundly Catholic vision of reality, a vision framed by the Sermon on the Mount. Because his cinema does not have an ethnic Italian flavor, like the Irishness of film director John Ford, this Catholicism is often perceived as an addendum to a body of work primarily concerned with a celebration of American life and its democratic ideals.

The youngest of seven surviving children, Frank Capra was born in rural Sicily in 1897. His family immigrated to the United States in 1903 and settled in Los Angeles. Struggling to overcome the limitations of the working-class immigrant, Capra worked his way through college as a chemical engineer.

In the mid-1920s, Capra got involved in cinema as a gag writer for silent comedy producer Hal Roach and his Our Gang series and then for Mack Sennett, whose comedy shorts have become classics. Paired up with comedian Harry Langdon as a writer and later as a director of two features, The Strong Man (1926) and Long Pants (1927), Capra helped develop Langdon's comic persona-"the man-child whose only ally was God," in Capra's words.

When he joined Columbia Pictures in the late 1920s, it was a B-movie company headed by the savvy and autocratic Harry Cohn. The studio's stock soon rose, and Capra began a twelve-year association that would catapult him to fame and fortune.

In 1941, war came. Before joining the fight, Capra teamed up with Robert Riskin to make the political comedy-drama Meet John Doe (1941) as an independent production. Between 1942 and 1945, Capra produced the outstanding Why We Fight series, commissioned by General George Marshall to explain to the soldiers the reasons behind the U.S. involvement in the war. In 1946 Capra made his classic It's a Wonderful Life (1946) for Liberty Films, the company he had started after the war with directors William Wyler and George Stevens. After the flop of the political comedy State of the Union in 1948, Capra directed two Bing Crosby pictures for Paramount, Riding High (1950) and Here Comes the Groom (1951).

But by the mid-1950s-after a series of box-office failures-Capra had slid from his cinematic heights. Bell Telephone hired him to make four TV science specials, and his Hollywood comeback yielded only two minor works, A Hole in the Head, a 1959 vehicle for Frank Sinatra, and Pocketful of Miracles (1961) with Bette Davis.

Capra's slow fade into obscurity was finally reversed in 1971 with the publication of his entertaining autobiography The Name Above the Title. Besides keeping him busy on the lecture circuit, it marked a revival of interest in his cinema, considered too sentimental and patriotic in the turbulent Sixties when it was mockingly termed "Capracorn."

The French auteur theory-according to which the director is the single creative force behind the collaborative effort of filmmaking-led to a reevaluation of Capra. No longer considered a ham-fisted sentimentalist, Capra was seen as an artist with a vision and style traceable through a body of work that spanned four decades and more than 40 films.

Capra's Formula for Success

As a gag writer, Capra had a knack for the visual joke and the humorous angle. You can see this comic sense at work in the collection of endearing characters and hysterical romantic entanglements in his films. For example, It Happened One Night (1934), a taming-of-the-shrew road movie set on a bus and in three motels, stars Clark Gable as a wisecracking newspaperman paired up with a spoiled heiress, Claudette Colbert. There's a running joke about the "walls of Jericho"-a blanket hanging from a rope to separate the beds-mischievously marking the progressive falling in love of the protagonists. This battle of the sexes became the blueprint for the Hollywood screwball comedy.

In this and other romantic comedies and melodramas of the early 1930s, Capra and Riskin experimented with a comic formula and plot structure film historian Richard Griffith described as a "fantasy of goodwill." In Capra's stories, "a messianic innocent, not unlike the classic simpletons of literature, pits himself against the forces of entrenched greed. His experience defeats him strategically, but his gallant integrity in the face of temptation calls forth the goodwill of the 'little people,' and through their combined protest, he triumphs."

The formula had been perfected by the time Capra made Mr. Deeds Goes to Town in 1936. Gary Cooper plays the mild-mannered Mr. Deeds, a small-town tuba player who confounds and outsmarts New York's high society when he decides to use a $20 million inheritance to help farmers become landowners. A cynical newspaperwoman (Jean Arthur) deceives him to get an exclusive scoop on the "Cinderella man" but ends up falling in love with him instead. During the climactic (and very funny) insanity hearing, Mr. Deeds outwits his enemies, redeems the heroine, and is warmly supported by the crowd he has helped. Mr. Deeds is one of many Capra films that shows the power of goodness to effect change in the hearts of those willing to undergo an experience of conversion. When novelist Graham Greene reviewed the movie, he outlined the Capra formula in moral terms: "the theme of goodness and simplicity manhandled in a deeply selfish and brutal world."

Capra and screenwriter Sidney Buchman retooled this same moral formula in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), adding a strong political twist. The film offered an explicit defense of America and its Christian values on the eve of World War II. The film won the widespread support of the public. Predictably, others-like Joseph Kennedy, ambassador to Great Britain-feared that even a fictional story about compromise and corruption in the U.S. Senate would demoralize allied nations.

In the film, Jimmy Stewart plays an idealistic young senator who's almost destroyed by the political machinery of a jaded senior senator (Claude Rains) and a shrewd political operator (Edward Arnold)-the prototypical Capra villain. A savvy woman (Jean Arthur again) at first dismisses as utopian Mr. Smith's idea to create a national camp for Boy Rangers and then slowly falls for him. After her change of heart, she uses her insider's knowledge to help Mr. Smith navigate a sea of sharks and defend the principles of liberty, truth, and democracy in a climactic filibuster scene. Reading from the Declaration of Independence and 1 Corinthians 13-the hymn to charity-the exhausted Mr. Smith rouses the support of the people and uncovers the shadowy machinations of the powerful.

Meet John Doe is Capra's darkest film-a political fable about a fascist newspaper tycoon (Edward Arnold) who fabricates a story about an ordinary man who decides to commit suicide on Christmas Eve as a protest against the state of the world. John Doe is really Long John Willoughby, an unemployed baseball player portrayed by Gary Cooper. At first, Willoughby is happy to cooperate with the plot hatched by-who else?-an ambitious newspaperwoman (Barbara Stanwyck). But when he sees the success of the John Doe clubs of neighborly goodwill that his radio speeches have inspired, he has a change of heart and confesses the scam at a packed baseball stadium. This time, the opposition isn't a group of corrupt politicians or greedy businessmen but an ominous underground movement to squash the country's democratic institutions.

A Moralist for the People

Mr. Deeds, Mr. Smith, and John Doe are often studied as a trilogy of progressive social comedies that dramatized American values and ideas with exceptional artistry and found a unique place with the public. As film historian Robert Sklar noted, the films "gave Americans a pleasing and convincing image of themselves."

Because Capra's vision of America coincided with that of the majority of his audience, his work was consistently popular until the war.

To this trilogy of films about the common man should be added the Capra-Riskin film version of You Can't Take It With You (1938), made between Mr. Deeds and Mr. Smith and based on the successful Broadway play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. The Vanderhofs, a clan of happy eccentrics led by Lionel Barrymore, live like lilies of the field. Their pursuit of various vocations is a source of great comedy. This oasis is threatened by a powerful Wall Street banker (Edward Arnold) who has development plans for the neighborhood. The film depicts the clash between the communitarian/utopian values of common folks and the worst aspects of the WASP ethic as embodied in the greedy banker. The banker's son (Jimmy Stewart) and Vanderhof's granddaughter (Jean Arthur) fall in love. As the film closes, Vanderhof and the banker reconcile with a harmonica duet. Capra commented that the film gave him "a golden opportunity to dramatize 'Love Thy Neighbor'.... Christ's spiritual law can be the most powerful sustaining force in anyone's life."

A Wonderful Life

It's a Wonderful Life is a work of summation, whose undercurrent of angst can be interpreted in different ways. At the heart of the film lies the conflict between the desires of the heart and the needs of the common good. The hero of the story, George Bailey (played by Stewart), struggles throughout the picture with this irreconcilable conflict within himself. Even though his nemesis, Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore), typifies the classic Capra villain, he's really more an external manifestation of one side of George's divided spirit than an autonomous character.

Most of the film is an extended flashback, in which an apprentice guardian angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) reviews George's life as the head of a small-town building and loan. Believing he has failed as a husband, father, and businessman, George is contemplating suicide on Christmas Eve. With Clarence, we see key moments in George's life, moments when he had to make important choices about family, friends, and career. In spite of his desire to escape Bedford Falls, George has chosen to stay so that he can run the lending institution founded by his father for the "garlic-eaters" (Potter's word) who can't afford Potter's bank loans.

His dreams of college, travel, and a professional life in the big city fall by the wayside. George marries and starts a family. Now, on the day before Christmas, a careless mistake on the part of his absentminded uncle threatens to wipe out the Building and Loan and give Potter complete control of the town. George is on the brink of total despair.

Enter Clarence. God sends the angel to prevent George from jumping off a bridge. By making George see what Bedford Falls would be like without him, Clarence leads him to an experience of conversion. This "unborn" sequence is shot in stark visual contrast with that of the extended flashback, using film noir techniques. It shows how the absence of George's goodness would have left the town to be devoured by evil:

Bedford Falls, renamed Pottersville, becomes an urban hell of mean little people, beginning with George's embittered mother and the wife he never married (Donna Reed). Awakened by this desolate vision, George turns away from the bridge's parapet to return home, where he's surrounded by the warmth and affection of family and friends, who will together save the Building and Loan from insolvency. The hero's wry smile at the close is a wink to the audience; he has seen, understood, and accepted life in all its glory and imperfection.

Surprisingly enough, this embrace of life was a box-office disappointment. Capra called It's a Wonderful Life the greatest film he had ever made: "A film to tell the wary, the disheartened, and the disillusioned; the wino, the junkie, the prostitute; those behind prison walls and those behind Iron Curtains, that no man is a failure! To show those born slow of foot or slow of mind, those oldest sisters condemned to spinsterhood, and those oldest sons condemned to unschooled toil, that each man's life touches so many other lives. And that if he isn't around it would leave an awful hole."

A Vision of the Cross

Capra's biographers and critics agree that the power and consistency of the filmmaker's moral vision are rooted in his own experiences. While his autobiography should be read critically (he had a tendency toward self-aggrandizement), it still provides a good point of departure for examining the way this moral vision was shaped by Capra's Catholic faith.

An individualist by temperament, Capra initially rejected his religious heritage, only gradually growing into it. He wrote that in his early adulthood he was a "Christmas Catholic." But in the mid-1930s, the astonishing success of It Happened One Night triggered an artistic crisis, which resulted in a conversion experience, not unlike the one faced by many of his characters. It was the scolding given him by an anonymous man that pushed him into action: "The talents you have, Mr. Capra, are not your own, not self-acquired. God gave you those talents; they are His gifts to you, to use for His purpose. And when you don't use the gifts God blessed you with, you are an offense to God-and to humanity." Capra later developed this theme in It's a Wonderful Life.

In later years, through the influence of his wife, Lucille Reyburn, Capra returned to the Church. He described himself as "a Catholic in spirit; one who firmly believes that the anti-moral, the intellectual bigots, and the Mafias of ill will may destroy religion, but they will never conquer the cross."

If his films are to be seen as a form of submerged autobiography, then one can understand why so many of them show the clash between a Catholic moral view-represented by the idealist-and the materialistic worldview of his memorable villains, a view that Capra sometimes felt drawn to because of his desire to be a successful Hollywood director.

In Italian and Irish Filmmakers in America, Lee Lourdeaux's 1990 study of John Ford, Frank Capra, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese, the author argues that the Catholic identity of these directors can be probed by examining how the Catholic notions of communion, mediation, and sacramentality are rendered cinematically. Of course, one should be careful about automatically assigning Catholic values to art on the basis of the artist's cultural background or ethnicity. Nevertheless, these three concepts provide us with a good context for understanding Capra's cinema.

Among other things, communion means that our relationship with God does not excuse us from our responsibility toward our neighbor. A joyful sense of community, of belonging to something larger than oneself, is at the heart of Capra's mature works-roughly the ten years from Mr. Deeds to It's a Wonderful Life. But it's also present in earlier films like American Madness, the 1932 social melodrama about a quixotic banker whose business philosophy is to lend on character, not collateral, and who is handsomely repaid by hundreds of small customers when bankruptcy seems imminent. The following year, the comedy Lady for a Day operated on a similar principle: Apple Annie is helped by her beggar friends, a racketeer and his associates, and the New York social elite to impersonate a lady of distinction so that her daughter will be able to marry a Spanish aristocrat. Lost Horizon (1937) is about the utopian Shangri-La, a mysterious community in the Himalayas whose members follow closely the teachings of their lama, a 200-year-old French missionary.

Capra's films celebrate the values associated with life in a community-solidarity and selflessness in particular-but without the close connection to ethnic identity that is so important to the second-generation Italian-Americans represented by Coppola, Scorsese, and Michael Cimino. Lourdeaux notes that Capra's somewhat idealized communities are a blueprint for the principle of subsidiarity, which is so fundamental to the social vision of the Church: Families, neighborhoods, and small organizations provide protection against both anarchy and despotism.

Closely associated with communion is the idea of mediation. Christ is the mediator par excellence. In Capra's narrative pattern, the hero functions as a mediator between the needs of the community and the entrenched forces of greed: Thomas Dickson (the hero in American Madness), Mr. Deeds, Grandpa Vanderhof, Mr. Smith, John Doe, and George Bailey all play that role. In the most Christ-like of these figures-Mr. Smith and John Doe-there are concrete allusions to their "crucifixion" at the hands of the powerful. Their stories reflect the trajectory of the archetypal messianic innocent: through passion and death to resurrection.

Music not only mediates between opposites-as in the harmonica duet in You Can't Take It With You-but also contributes to the creation or reaffirmation of a communal spirit: the impromptu singing of "The Man in the Flying Trapeze" on the bus in It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds playing the tuba in Mandrake Falls, and the singing of "Auld Lang Syne" at the end of It's a Wonderful Life.

Capra uses other recurrent mediators as well: benevolent fathers and father figures, who steer the heroes and heroines toward the common good-to cite just one example, the dead father in The Miracle Woman (1931), whose Christian principles defeat the religious scam cooked up by his vengeful daughter, played by Barbara Stanwyck.

The Dignity of the Underdog

A distinctively Catholic idea, sacramentality is the capacity of things-people, objects, places, the whole cosmos-to carry the presence of God. It invites us to see God in and through His creation. One way this is reflected in Capra's vision is in his portrayal of "little" people and their inherent dignity. While it's true they have the potential to become a mob-as we see in the dark Meet John Doe-it's even truer that the common men are among the meek of the gospel. "The meek can inherit the earth when the John Does start loving their neighbors," John Doe says at the end of his first radio broadcast. Capra said on several occasions that the underlying idea of his movies was actually the Sermon on the Mount.

Although Capra's spiritual vision gets its focus from the Catholic faith, this isn't immediately apparent to most viewers. This is partly because his films contain very little obvious religious imagery.

Capra's Catholic imagination must be traced through his characters and plot structures. Perhaps the single most important theme in Capra's work-from his very first film to his last-is the power of goodness to transform sinful human nature. In many instances, and especially in his early work, goodness manifests itself as a romantic love that thoroughly metamorphoses the people-a contemptuous Broadway actor in The Matinee Idol (1928), a cynical gold digger in Ladies of Leisure (1930), and the unfaithful husband in State of the Union.

Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) presents a funny variant: The misguided love of two eccentric old ladies makes them poison twelve lonely gentlemen to end their misery.

Like the gospel parables, Capra's films show us how love, a gift freely given, comes to ordinary reality and changes it in extraordinary ways-in other words, how the transcendent disrupts the course of human events.

In It's a Wonderful Life, a work of theological optimism, a representative of the divine comes to earth to offer salvation to a soul in despair. The hero arrives at his salvation only after undergoing an experience of powerlessness. His prayer of desolation-"Lord, I'm at the end of my rope"-recalls the loneliness of our Lord's cry in Gethsemane. The pattern is completed with George's resurrection, when he realizes that in spite of its imperfections, life is still wonderful. His love-an analogy for Christ's love-has created a spiritual community, a tangible manifestation of the kingdom of God.

Capra's cinema reminds us that this imperfect world can be redeemed, that the reward is worth the fight, and that life is a gift to be treasured.


American Madness (1932)
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)
Broadway Bill (1934)
Dirigible (1931)
The Donovan Affair (1929)
Flight (1929)
For the Love of Mike (1927)
Forbidden (1932)
Here Comes the Groom (1951)
A Hole in the Head (1959)
It Happened One Night (1934)
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
Ladies of Leisure (1930)
Lady for a Day (1933)
Long Pants (1927)
Lost Horizon (1937)
The Matinee Idol (1928)
Meet John Doe (1941)
The Miracle Woman (1931)
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Platinum Blonde (1931)
Pocketful of Miracles (1961)
The Power of the Press (1928)
Rain or Shine (1930)
Riding High (1950)
Say It With Sables (1928)
So This Is Love (1928)
State of the Union (1948)
The Strong Man (1926)
Submarine (1928)
That Certain Thing (1928)
Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926)
The Way of the Strong (1928)
You Can't Take It With You (1938)
The Younger Generation (1929)

'Why We Fight' Documentaries

Battle of Britain (1943)
Battle of China (1944)
Battle of Russia (1943)
Divide and Conquer (1943)
The Nazi Strike (1943)
The Negro Soldier (1944)
Prelude to War (1943)
War Comes to America (1945)

Maria Elena de las Carreras Kuntz, a Fulbright scholar from Argentina, has a Ph.D. in film studies from UCLA.

Copyright (c) 2002 by Crisis Magazine

This data file is the sole property of CRISIS MAGAZINE. It may not be altered or edited in any way. It may be reproduced only in its entirety for circulation as "freeware," without charge

In the video below, Jimmy Stewart narrates the wonderful life of Frank Capra. Orthodox Christian readers may also want to read "Life of Frank Capra" in The Orthodox Word, no. 137 (Platina, California: St. Herman Brotherhood, 1987), pp. 371-394.

Lecture On the Incarnation (Fr. George Dragas)

Fr George Dragas
11-13-2010 at a Church Retreat in NH
On The Incarnation Lecture

Largest Nativity Scene in the World

December 9, 2011

City authorities have set up a nativity scene -- certified by Guinness Records as the largest in the world -- as part of their Christmas festivities.

The nativity scene, which cost $2 million to create, sprawls across the parking lot of the giant Azteca stadium.

The scene, which covers 215,000 square feet -- larger than four football fields, has 5,000 figures portraying 57 biblical passages related to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.

Organizers said that it took architects, engineers, designers and historians 70 days to create the project, which was unveiled by Mayor Marcelo Ebrard on Wednesday, 17 days before Christmas.

More than 80 percent of Mexico's population are self-identified Catholics, according to Mexican census figures, and another 9 percent are various denominations of Protestant Christians.

Mexico has no state religion, but Christmas and other Christian observances such as Easter are national holidays.

Greeks, Jews & Hanukkah - A Story That Still Needs To Be Told

Presented by: The American Jewish Committee and The Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Boston. 15 Dec 2011 at Hebrew College, Newton, MA.

Opening welcome and remarks by Rob Leikind - AJC Boston Director, Panayota Katsarou - Acting Consul General of Greece, and His Eminence Metropolitan Methodios of Boston.

Panel discussion with:

Shaye J.D. Cohen, Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy, Harvard University

Fr. George Dragas, Professor of Patristics, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology

December 23, 2011

Elder Paisios On How We Should Celebrate Feasts

In order for us to live the Feasts, we must have our mind on the holy days and not on the jobs we have to do for the holy days. We must think of the events of each holy day (Christmas, Theophany, Pascha, etc.) and say the Prayer glorifying God. In this way we will celebrate with great reverence every Feast. Secular people seek to understand Christmas with pork, Pascha with lamb, and Carnival with confetti. However, true monks each day live the divine events and celebrate continuously.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos

Greek Church Promises To Boost Charity Meals As Poverty Deepens

Derek Gatopoulos
December 22, 2011
Associated Press

The leader of Greece's Orthodox Church on Thursday promised to boost its campaign to provide free meals to the poor and homeless, amid the country's deepening financial crisis.

Archbishop Ieronymos visited a central Athens food bank with members of the country's national football team, to promote a campaign launched this week allowing supermarket shoppers at 10 chains and some 300 stores to donate food to church charities.

Ieronymos said the church was handing out 10,000 portions of food per day in greater Athens, with requests for a greater amount growing "every day."

"It is very saddening to see a scene like this. Thousands of people each day line up for food. That is a sad fact," Ieronymos said, as scores of immigrants waited in heavy rain for foil parcels of macaroni and meat sauce.

He also said in a radio interview: "Every day, the message we get is that more food is needed ... we must take care to consider people's dignity and that of their families."

Greece has taken harsh austerity measures since late 2009 to cut its huge budget deficits and in exchange for rescue loans from other eurozone countries and the International Monetary Fund.

The cuts have caused a sharp decline in living standards, with unemployment hovering at 18 percent and the U.N. International Labor Organization warning in a recent report that 20 percent of the crisis-hit country's population is facing the risk of poverty.

Athens Mayor Giorgos Kaminis said the city was helping feed 200 school children of unemployed parents, following a spate of reports of malnourished students and even children fainting in class.

"There is an alarming rise in the number of homeless and people who are malnourished — and we have found cases of that in schools," Kaminis told state-run NET radio.

"In a very discreet way, the city is handling their meal — there are about 200 children. I hope that number does not increase."

Church volunteer Father Andreas, an Orthodox priest, said more young people are seeking help.

"The number of people needing help is growing every day ... We get every kind of person. Lately there are more young people who have lost their jobs," said the priest, whose small Athens parish hands out 65 food-rations per day, cooked in the church basemen by volunteers.

"We have chicken, meat and fish every day, except on days when the church observes a fast."

More Than 4000 Meals of Love Distributed By Metropolitan of Piraeus

December 23, 2011

His Eminence Metropolitan Seraphim of Piraeus distributed over 4000 meals of love to families affected by the economic crisis, in the presence of the Piraeus Deputy of Education Minister Konstantinou Arvanitopoulos.

It ought to be noted that Metropolitan Seraphim, besides meals of love, also gives financial aid in special cases.

Lastly he wished everyone a Merry Christmas, and soon with the help of God to overcome the difficulties they face.

December 22, 2011

Four Reasons the Star of Bethlehem Was Supernatural

The silver Star marks the exact spot, according to tradition, where Christ was born in Bethlehem.
By St. John Chrysostom

For if you can learn what the star was, and of what kind, and whether it were one of the common stars, or new and unlike the rest, and whether it was a star by nature or a star in appearance only, we shall easily know the other things also. Whence then will these points be manifest? From the very things that are written. Thus, that this star was not of the common sort, or rather not a star at all, as it seems at least to me, but some invisible power transformed into this appearance, is in the first place evident from its very course. For there is not any star that moves by this way, but whether it be the sun you mention, or the moon, or all the other stars, we see them going from east to west; but this was wafted from north to south; for so is Palestine situated with respect to Persia.

In the second place, one may see this from the time also. For it appears not in the night, but in mid-day, while the sun is shining; and this is not within the power of a star, nay not of the moon; for the moon that so much surpasses all, when the beams of the sun appear, straightway hides herself, and vanishes away. But this by the excess of its own splendor overcame even the beams of the sun, appearing brighter than they, and in so much light shining out more illustriously.

In the third place, from its appearing, and hiding itself again. For on their way as far as Palestine it appeared leading them, but after they set foot within Jerusalem, it hid itself: then again, when they had left Herod, having told him on what account they came, and were on the point of departing, it shows itself; all which is not like the motion of a star, but of some power highly endued with reason. For it had not even any course at all of its own, but when they were to move, it moved; when to stand, it stood, dispensing all as need required: in the same kind of way as the pillar of the cloud, now halting and now rousing up the camp of the Jews, when it was needful.

In the fourth place, one may perceive this clearly, from its mode of pointing Him out. For it did not, remaining on high, point out the place; it not being possible for them so to ascertain it, but it came down and performed this office. For you know that a spot of so small dimensions, being only as much as a shed would occupy, or rather as much as the body of a little infant would take up, could not possibly be marked out by a star. For by reason of its immense height, it could not sufficiently distinguish so confined a spot, and discover it to them that were desiring to see it. And this any one may see by the moon, which being so far superior to the stars, seems to all that dwell in the world, and are scattered over so great an extent of earth—seems, I say, near to them every one. How then, tell me, did the star point out a spot so confined, just the space of a manger and shed, unless it left that height and came down, and stood over the very head of the young child? And at this the evangelist was hinting when he said, "Lo, the star went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was."

Do you see, by what store of proofs this star is shown not to be one of the many, nor to have shown itself according to the order of the outward creation? And for what intent did it appear? To reprove the Jews for their insensibility, and to cut off from them all occasion of excuse for their willful ignorance. For, since He who came was to put an end to the ancient polity, and to call the world to the worship of Himself, and to be worshipped in all land and sea, straightway, from the beginning, He opens the door to the Gentiles, willing through strangers to admonish His own people. Thus, because the prophets were continually heard speaking of His advent, and they gave no great heed, He made even barbarians come from a far country, to seek after the king that was among them. And they learn from a Persian tongue first of all, what they would not submit to learn from the prophets; that, if on the one hand they were disposed to be candid, they might have the strongest motive for obedience; if, on the other hand, they were contentious, they might henceforth be deprived of all excuse. For what could they have to say, who did not receive Christ after so many prophets, when they saw that wise men, at the sight of a single star, had received this same, and had worshipped Him who was made manifest. Much in the same way then as He acted in the case of the Ninevites, when He sent Jonas, and as in the case of the Samaritan and the Canaanitish women; so He did likewise in the instance of the magi. For this cause He also said, "The men of Nineveh shall rise up, and shall condemn, and, the Queen of the South shall rise up, and shall condemn this generation" (Matthew 12:41-42) because these believed the lesser things, but the Jews not even the greater.

Source: From Homily 6 On the Gospel of Matthew

Thousands In Thessaloniki Venerate the True Cross

Archimandrite Claudio, abbot of the Holy Monastery of the Honorable Cross in Jerusalem, travelled to Thessaloniki on Wednesday 21 December 2011 to bless the people with the True Cross of Christ embedded onto an icon of Sts. Constantine and Helen. This icon is found in the Holy Tomb of Christ in the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem. It is currently on display for veneration in the Church of Saint Anastasia the Pharmakolytria (Dec. 22) in honor of her feast day until January 2nd, where they we have daily Vespers, Matins and Suppication Services.

December 21, 2011

The Orthodox Celebration of Christmas

By Professor Ioannes Fountoules

Preamble: In a few days we will celebrate the great Feast of the Christian world, the Feast of Christmas. The Church will bring once again before the eyes of our soul the event of the birth of the Lord and will summon us to venerate together with the shepherds and the magi the newly-born King and to praise together with the armies of the heavenly angels the humanization of the God of peace and love. The “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will among men” (Luke 2:14), the angelic hymn of the birth, will be echoed again in our church temples. In the newly-born infant of Bethlehem we will see our born Savior, the God who became humanized. In this infant we will see the “redemption” which “the Lord sent to his people” (Ps. 110:9), because within his infantile body it is not only God that is hidden, but the fullness of our salvation, the renewal and deification of our corruptible nature, the new creation; the man who becomes God, this mystery of the salvation and redemption of us all. Precisely because of its theological significance, the Feast of Christmas together with the Feast of Pascha constitute the two great poles around which the entire liturgical year turns. Pascha is the peak of the movable Feasts, and Christmas, of the immovable Feasts. Christmas, in particular, is the “Metropolis” of the Feasts, according to Saint John Chrysostom (To Philogonios 3), because the event which we celebrate in this Feast is the presupposition of all the other sign-posts of our salvation. If Christ had not been born, he would not be baptized, nor would he teach, nor would he do miracles, nor would he suffer, nor would he have arisen from the dead. Already at the birth of Christ, the salvation of our nature has been potentially accomplished. The divine nature and the human nature have been united in Christ. Jesus Christ, the God-man, constitutes the living icon and the guarantee of the future recapitulation of all things in Christ.

The history of the celebration of Christmas

1) Christmas and Epiphany: After all this, one would have expected the Feast of Christmas to be chronologically the first Feast of the Christian Calendar. Nevertheless, the Feast of Pascha, and its weekly repetition every Sunday, is much older than the Feast of Christmas. The celebration of the Feast of Christmas emerged for the first time together with the Feast of the Baptism of Christ among Gnostic heretical sects in the middle of the 2nd century and specifically on the 6th of January, which was the old date of the winter solstice. Up until the 4th century the East celebrated on this day these two Feasts using the name “Epiphany” or “Theophany.”

2) Establishing a date for the celebration of Christmas: The exact day of the birth of Christ is not known to us from the Gospels. We only have indications in the Gospel of Luke (census, journey of a pregnant mother, lodging in a stable of animals, shepherds keeping night-watch over their flock), that this birth took place during the winter months. The followers of the Gnostic Vasileides specified this date as the 20th of May, or the 19th or the 20th of April.

The Feast of Christmas was introduced for the first time in Rome separately from the Feast of the Epiphany which was always celebrated on the 6th of January. The 25th of December was specified as the date of the celebration of Christmas, not because it was calculated that Christ must have been born on this date, but for the same reason on account of which the 6th of January had been specified in the East as the date of the Epiphany. The 25th of December was then, according to the new calendar, the date of the winter solstice. This was the day when the pagans celebrated the birthday of the unconquerable sun, because this day marked the increase of the duration of the day, which signaled the victory of the light over darkness. To this pagan Feast the Christian Church very wisely juxtaposed the birth of the true light, of the intelligent sun of righteousness, of Christ, who dawned from the Virgin and enlightened the human race which lied in darkness and in the shadow of death. This combination was so effectual that within a few years the Feast of Christmas spread almost throughout the entire Christian world. From Rome it was disseminated in the West. Around 376 we find it in the Churches of Antioch and Caesarea in Cappadocia; and around 431 we find it in Jerusalem and gradually in all the Churches of the East, apart from the Armenian.

3) The Feast of Christmas and other related Feasts: At the same time with its dissemination, a new attempt for justifying it historically made its appearance. The Forerunner was apprehended 6 months before the Annunciation of the Theotokos (Luke 1:26). On the basis of the 25th of December, the Annunciation must have taken place 9 months before, in other words, on the 25th of March, and the arrest of the Forerunner on the 23rd of September. The Father of the Forerunner was the priest Zachariah, who entered the sanctuary in order to offer incense and saw an angel who predicted the arrest of the Baptist (Luke 1:9-11). Here things get compressed in order to supply an answer to what is sought. Zachariah becomes high-priest and does not enter into the sanctuary, but into the holies of holies of the Jewish temple. It was in these holies of holies that the High-priest entered once a year, on the Feast of Expiation. This Feast is placed a little before the 23rd of September. So, we arrive at the same dates from another direction: The 23rd of September is the conception of the Forerunner; the 25th of March is the Annunciation of the Theotokos, “on the sixth month;” on the 24th of June is the birth of the Forerunner and, 6 months later, on the 25th of December, the birth of Christ.

4) The development of the celebration of the Feast of Christmas: The preexisting Feast of Pascha, as we noted before, exerted an influence on the formation of the Feast of Christmas. In Jerusalem, during the 4th century, as the pilgrim Aetheria (Egeria) tells us in her Peregrinatio (Description of Pilgrimage to the Holy Land) bears witness, a nocturnal Liturgy was celebrated in imitation of that of Pascha by the Bishop of Jerusalem at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. After this, the entire congregation with the clergy and the Bishop at the head walked to Jerusalem signing a litany, “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.” Shortly after their arrival at the Church of the Resurrection, a second Liturgy was celebrated. With the passage of time the influence of Pascha became all the greater. In today’s form of the services we can easily discern the degree and the elements of these influences, especially in the period of the Fore-feast, which lies before us.

5) The Sunday before Christmas: A preparatory week was first added to the Feast of Christmas. It was named “Sunday of the Holy Fathers.” By Fathers are not meant here the Fathers of the Church, but the human ancestors of Christ according to the flesh, especially Abraham, the leader of the Hebrew race. Later on the theme of this Sunday was expanded and comprised all the pre-Christian righteous people of the Old Testament (Heb. 11:9-10, 32-40), whether ancestors of Christ or not. The Gospel reading, read on that occasion, as is still done today, was the genealogy of Christ, which is contained in the first chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew; and the Apostle was the pericope from the Epistle to the Hebrews which refers to the sufferings of those men of the Old Testament “who became martyrs for the faith.”

6) The Sunday of the Fore-Fathers: This expansion of the festal content of the “Sunday before Christmas” and the trend of developing the preparatory period resulted later in the splitting, so to speak, of this Sunday and transferring part of its theme to the Sunday preceding it. So, two Sundays of the holy Fathers were specified and, in order to distinguish them, the older one was called “Sunday Before the Birth of Christ,” and the other retained the old name, “Sunday of the Holy Fathers” with the only difference that “Holy Fathers” became “Forefathers” in order to avoid confusion with the Feasts of the Holy Fathers of the Ecumenical Synods. The Gospel reading assigned to this Sunday speaks of the great Banquet of the Kingdom of Heaven, to which many from the East and the West will come to sit with Abraham, whereas the sons of the nuptial chamber, the Israelites, will remain outside (Luke 13:10-17). The theme of this Sunday was further enriched by transferring to it the commemoration of the prophet Daniel and the three youths from the 17th of December.

7) The Fore-festal period of Christmas: In addition, the Sunday before that of the Forefathers, i.e. the 3rd Sunday before Christmas, was assigned a related fore-festal Gospel reading, by transferring to it the Gospel reading of the 10th Sunday of Luke, which relates the healing of the crippled woman, who was “a daughter of Abraham.” So, the entire month of December acquired a fore-festal character. In effect, it is dedicated to the Old Testament, to the Prophets and Forefathers of Christ, i.e. to the period of the expectation of the Messiah. This is why we see that the Heortologion (=Festal Calendar) assigns the commemoration of the prophet Nahum to the 1st of December, of the prophet Habakkuk to the 2nd, of the prophet Zephaniah to the 6th, of the prophet Haggai to the 16th, and to the prophet Daniel and the three youths to the 17th. Pascha was preceded by a fast. Christmas was also assigned a fore-festal fasting period; at the beginning a fast of a few days, but since the 7th century a 40-day fast like that of the Great Lent, which begins on the 15th of November.

8) Fore-festal hymnology of Christmas: The element, however, which gave, as usual, the particular, preparatory and fore-festal tone to the period before Christmas is the hymnology, which is interposed in the Services of Vespers, Matins, and Compline of these days. This interposing is done in a methodical and upwardly climactic way. The 21st of November marks the beginning of singing the katavasias for Christmas (“Christ is born, glorify…”); the 26th, the addition of the fore-festal kontakio “Today the Virgin comes to give birth to the pre-eternal Word…”; the 30th, the introduction of additional fore-festal troparia. From the 20th of December onwards the fore-festal element dominates all the Services as all the hymns (canons, stichera, kathismata, exaposteilaria, etc.) have a fore-festal character. The most noteworthy among the hymns of this fore-festal period are the series of Aposticha which have the alphabet as their acrostic, a work of Romanos Melodos. These hymns are distributed in sets as Stichera of the Ainoi (Praises). They are all in plagal 2nd tone and prosomoia (of the same tune) of the first troparion (hymn) of this series, which supplies the characteristic theme of all the others:

You Angelic powers, go forward;
You People of Bethlehem, prepare the cradle;
The Word is born; The Wisdom comes forth;
You people of the Church, receive the embrace;
You People of the world, let us say at the joy of the Theotokos:
Blessed be You, our God, who has come, Glory to You.

During this period at the Service of Compline the fore-festal triodia and the kanones are sung, both of which are the work of Symeon Metaphrastes. Both are based for their acrostic and content on the corresponding triodia of the Great Week. So the week before Christmas acquires the character of the Great Week before Pascha by imitating it. This imitation reaches its climax on the Eve of Christmas in the Services of the Great Hours and the Vespers, which have been formed according to the prototype of the Great Hours of Great Friday and of the Great Paschal Vespers.

9) Characteristic hymns of the Sunday of the Fore-Fathers: Here are three characteristic troparia from the Service of the Sunday Before the Birth of Christ, dedicated to the Fore-fathers, which bring out the joy and the hope for the imminent event of Christmas and wonderfully combine the commemoration of the Prophets with the Fathers who lived before the granting of the Law:

In truth raise your voice, O Zion, divine city of God,
and preach the divine memory of the Fathers,
honoring with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob Him who is from everlasting.

For lo! With Judah and Levi we magnify Moses the Great and Aaron the Wonderful, and with David celebrate the memory of Joshua and Samuel.

Inviting all with divine songs and divine praise to the fore-feast of the Birth of Christ, we pray to receive His goodness; for He it is who grants to the world the Great Mercy.

Come, O Elijah, who did ascend of old the divine chariot,
and You, O Elisha of divine mind, rejoice with Ezekiel and Josiah.

Dance, O holy and divinely inspired cluster of the Twelve Prophets, at the Savior’s Birth, and all of You, O Righteous ones, sing with praises.

Pray for us, O blessed Youth, who put out the flame of the furnace by the dew of the Spirit and plead with Christ to grant to our souls the Great Mercy.

The collection of the teachings of the Law
shows the divine Birth of Christ in the flesh,
to those to whom the Grace was preached before the Law,
since they lived by faith above the Law;
Therefore, since they preached to the souls held captives in Hell
that this Birth would cause deliverance from corruption through the resurrection, we cry: O Lord, glory to You!

The celebration of Christmas

The magnificent celebration of the Feast of Christmas, the transcendent Mystery of the Birth of Christ, transports us to the holy cave of Bethlehem in Judea, where Christ is born from the Virgin. Where the shepherds venerate Him and the Magi offer their royal gifts to Him. Where the One who has no beginning acquired a beginning and the Word became incarnate. Where the Angelic doxologies were heard for the first time, and marked the dawn of a New Day, the Epiphany of the Sun of Righteousness. The faithful who conquer their sluggishness and go early to the church services will never forget the awe-inspiring atmosphere of the magnificent Christmas Service of Matins. The echo of the joyous hymns and the sweet-smell of incense inside the imposing temples of Orthodoxy uplift the human spirit beyond space and time. Then, the synaxarion of the Day is announced in Doric and Staccato style, including the iambic verses which were composed by Christophoros Mytilenaios:

On the 25th of this month, we observe the Birth in the flesh
of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.
God is the newly-born, and virgin is the Mother!
What other greater New-thing has creation ever seen?

On the same Day, we observe the veneration of the Magi.
By venerating You, O Word of God, the order of the Gentiles
Have signified the future reverence ascribed to You by all the Nations!

On the same Day, we commemorate the Shepherds who saw the Lord.
The Shepherds left their own flock
And rush to see Christ the Good Shepherd.

To Him be the Glory unto the ages of the ages!

Participating in this celebration one does not know whether he lives in this age or in Byzantine times, or even at that holy Night when these events took place. This is exactly the stupendous mystery of Orthodox worship. It breaks up the boundaries of ages and of the flowing time-conventions of this world. The present, the past and the future are flattened. “Today”, at the Christmas celebration, Christ is born again, as He was born last year and on the same Day during the past ages; and he will continue to be born until the completion of the ages, exactly as He was born on that divine Night of Christmas of the first year of the Christian calendar. In such a context, one realizes that Christ “is the same yesterday and today and unto the ages” (Hebr. 13:8), and that the Church is His body, eternal and ageless like Him; Also, that each one of us is not alone, but a member of that sacred communion of those human beings who have been reborn in Christ, and that this communion is not subject to corruption and time, to yesterday and today and tomorrow, but exists in an eternal and incorruptible “Today”, which is enjoyed by the generations of the believers who were baptized into Christ and put on Christ. This generation of believers reigns with Christ and will continue to do so together with those who came to Christ in the past or those who will come into Him in the future. They will never pass away, because the kingdom of Christ is “a kingdom of all the ages and His reign in every generation and generation” (Psalm 114: 13).

The After-Feast or the Twelve Days of Christmas

1) From Christmas to its Apodosis (Return): As in the case of Pascha there is a fore-festal and a post-festal period, so in the case of Christmas we observe the same arrangement. The great Feast of Christmas is observed for 7 days. On the 26th of December we celebrate the Synaxis of the Theotokos, the Mother of Christ, and we commemorate the flight to Egypt of the holy family. On the 29th we commemorate the infants of Bethlehem, who were slaughtered by Herod. The Sunday that falls within this 7-day period is called the “Sunday After the Birth of Christ” and is dedicated to Joseph who was betrothed to the Virgin, to James the Brother of the Lord (Son of Joseph from another woman before his betrothal to the Theotokos), and to the common forefather, David the King. Throughout this 7-day period, the Christmas hymns are combined with those of the saints and the entire hymnology is repeated on the 31st of December, which marks the Apodosis (the completion) of the Feast of Christmas. The Exaposteilaria of the Matins Service are characteristic:

With James the noble brother of the Lord,
Let us extol David the Fore-father.
Together with Joseph who betrothed the Theotokos
For they served the Divine Birth in Bethlehem in a God-befitting way,
Singing to Him as our God and Master together with the Angels, the Magi and the Shephers.

Our Savior has visited us from on High, as the Dawn of Dawns,
And those who dwelt in darkness and shadow have found the truth
Because the Lord was born from the Virgin.

2) The Feast of the Circumcision on the 8th Day after Christmas: The Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, according to the Law of Moses, which is parallel to the Sunday of Thomas, is celebrated on the 1st of January, the 8th day from Christmas. As the appearance of the Lord to Thomas contributes to the verification of the supernatural event of the Resurrection from the dead by the most doubting and restrained disciple, so the circumcision on the eighth day and the assignment of the name to the newly born constitute both the seal and the confirmation of the perfect Incarnation of Christ; of the assumption of the human form without change; of the reality of the supernatural incarnation of the Word of God; His entry among the people through the circumcision and of his submission to the Law. That 8th day of the appearance and presence of the Risen One in the midst of His disciples is the type of the 8th (ogdoad) of the future age and of the uninterrupted presence and enjoyment of Christ which is associated with it. And this 8th day from the day of His birth “is an icon”, according to the sacred hymnographers, “of the endless life of the future”, or “carries the type of the future,” exactly on account of the official presence of Christ in the flesh in the midst of His people and of the human race as a whole.

3) Theophany and Hypapante and the 40 Days after Christmas: The festal period continues; the Feast of the Theophany (Epiphany) with its fore-feasts and after-feasts which are extended until the 14th of January is inserted next. And on the following day, the 15th, a new fore-festal period begins, which introduces the Feast of the 40th day from the day of Christ’s birth, the Feast of Hypapante (the Meeting) which is celebrated on the 2nd of February. This Feast marks the conclusion of the Christmas celebrations; their Apodosis (Return), so to speak, the parallel Feast of the Feast of the Ascension, which marks the 40th day from the day of Pascha. Christ, as the 40-day old infant, enters into His temple, the earthly heaven. There He will be welcomed and be recognized by the Prophesy of the Old Testament, which will ask for its expiration and its discharge through the mouth of the righteous Symeon and Anna the Prophetess. And this will be so, because He who was declared by the prophets and was expected to appear, the “light of the revelation of the nations, and “the glory of His people,” the old and the new Israel, did come.

General conclusion of the Christmas-cycle of Feasts

This is in general outline the after-Christmas cycle of feasts. Together with the fore-festal Christmas-cycle which we described above, it covers almost 1/5th of the ecclesiastical year. If we bear in mind that the Feast of Christmas is the basis for a series of immovable Feasts, as we already mentioned, i.e. those of the Annunciation of the Theotokos and of the Conception and Birth of John the Forerunner and Baptist, we can see how accurate is the characterization of this Feast as the pole of the immovable Feasts of the entire ecclesiastical year. The Feast of the Birth of the Lord did find within the liturgical act of the Church its just and fitting place. It became the second Pascha, the first Feast after the queen of Feasts, which gradually became like the first one, without, however, achieving full assimilation with it.

The Feast of Christmas is par excellence the Feast of the Prophesy of the Old Testament. It constitutes the borderline between the two Testaments. The Old Testament foretells and prepares the coming of Christ and ends with His birth. The New Testament begins with the day of the Incarnation. It is the “Day of the Lord, the great and magnificent one,” which is fore-announced by the prophet Joel (3:4). God gave to earth and heaven His promised supernatural omens: “the blood, the fire and the vapor of smoke” (Joel 3:3). These omens were seen and acknowledged by the prophets of the Old Testament with David at their fore-front, and also by the holy men of the New Testament, with the two members of the holy family Joseph and James at their fore-front. All of them come forward to celebrate with the people of God the fulfillment of prophesies, the great Mystery of the Divine Incarnation; the revelation of Joel’s prophetic omen: the blood referring to the Incarnation of the Divine Word, the fire to the Godhead, and the vapor of smoke to the Holy Spirit. This is what the poet-theologian Anatolios declares in the Doxastikon of the Praises of the Sunday after Christmas:

Blood, fire and vapor of smoke are the omens of the earth which Joel foresaw – Blood for the Incarnation, Fire for the Godhead, and Vapor of smoke for the Holy Spirit, Who came to the Virgin and filled the world with fragrance. Great is the Mystery of Your becoming Man, O Lord, Glory to You!

Source: Translated and annotated by Protopresbyter George Dion. Dragas, PhD, DD, DTheol.

December 20, 2011

The Theology of Saint Ignatius the God-bearer

Today, my beloved Christians, our holy Church celebrates the memory of St. Ignatius the God-bearer, bishop of Antioch. This bishop is called "God-bearer" because, according to tradition, he was the child that we read of in the Gospels that Jesus placed in the midst of the disciples and said: "Unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 18:1-3).

Therefore, since the Saint was brought forth by Christ in His hands as a child, so he is called "God-bearer". As for his life we do not know much. We know however that he gave a strong testimony for his faith in Christ to the Emperor Trajan. And for his testimony was led bound by guard soldiers from Antioch to Rome, to be eaten by wild beasts. Along the way from Antioch to Rome he wrote seven letters, famous letters, which have very beautiful theological teaching. Concerning this teaching of St. Ignatius the God-bearer I want, my beloved, to offer a few words in my sermon today.

1. In the days of St. Ignatius there was a great heresy, the heresy of Docetism. They said that Christ was not incarnated in actuality, that He did not receive a real human body, but was a phantasm. And St. Ignatius, although he was very sweet and very humble, for those heretics he expressed himself with very seething expressions. He calls them "wolves in sheeps clothing", "bad herbs", "seed of the evil one" and "anthropomorphic beasts." Indeed such were the Docetists and such are the heretics of all ages, including the Papists. And against the heretics we should speak strongly, according to the example of St. Ignatius and all the holy Fathers of the Church. We must be very careful of heretics, St. Ignatius tells us, because they speak surreptitiously. They offer their bitter poison with honey, he says, and thus mislead the ignorant and lure them into error (cf. Trallians 6). According to the faith of our Church, contrary to what the Docetic heretics said, Jesus Christ the Son of God was truly man incarnate in the holy womb of the Panagia Theotokos. That's why St. Ignatius in his letters (cf. Ephesians 7.2) named Jesus Christ both "by God" and "by Mary" begotten. He names Him both "passionless" and "passionate". "Passionless" because He was God and "passionate" because He was a man.

2. Since Jesus Christ is truly God and truly man, in one word the God-man, that which we commune of during the Divine Liturgy is truly "the Flesh of Christ which suffered" (Smyrneans 7.1), and is the same Blood of Christ shed on Golgotha on Good Friday. Concerning Holy Communion St. Ignatius makes some very beautiful statements, brethren. He says it is the "medicine of immortality", "the antidote to not die". This means that for the sins we do, that bring to us the death of our soul, for an "antidote" to not die, we must commune during the Divine Liturgy of the Body and Blood of Christ. That's why the priest when he communes the faithful, he says: "For life eternal and immortal." For those who commune with a pure heart, St. Ignatius the God-bearer says they become "God-bearing", "Christ-bearing", "temple-bearing" and "holiness-bearing" (Ephesians 9.2)!

3. St. Ignatius is the first to name our Church "Catholic" (Smyrneans 8.2), the name which we hear in our Creed when we say "In One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church." So the Papists are not Catholic, as they want to be called because of their worldly pursuits to spread everywhere, but we, the Orthodox are the actual members of the real Catholic Church. But what is the Church, my brethren? Concerning the Church St. Ignatius says it is the "table of sacrifice" (Ephesians 5.10; Trallians 7.2), that is the Holy Altar, that is the Divine Liturgy which occurs on the Holy Altar. Thus in the Divine Liturgy we receive the essential meaning of what is the Church. And I say now: Since we cannot celebrate the Divine Liturgy together with the Papists, are they not the Papal Church? Only the Orthodox are the Church, which is why we say "In ONE, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church". According to St. Ignatius, the terms and the conditions that someone belongs in the Church is the unity with the Bishop of the local Church which he resides in (Smyrneans 8.1; 9.1; Philadelphians 3.2).

4. Finally, St. Ignatius gives a nice explanation for the engagement of the Virgin Panagia with Joseph, which I want to tell you my brethren. Why did our Panagia get engaged to Joseph, since her purpose was to be a virgin? This happened, according to St. Ignatius, according to the wise plan of God to deceive the Devil. For the Devil heard the prophecy of Isaiah that the Messiah would be born of a virgin (see Isa. 7:14). The thrice-cursed Devil had no interest in the birth of the Messiah, because he would have destroyed his works (cf. 1 John 3:8). So when the Virgin Mary became engaged to Joseph, the Devil thought that not even she will be the Mother of the Messiah, after having become engaged. Just as he deceived the First-Formed and urged them to eat of the bitter fruit, so he was now deceived! And the same deception happened at the death of Christ. St. Ignatius speaks of three "mysteries to be cried aloud", the virginity of Mary and the birth and death of Christ, that "God worked in quietness" (cf. Ephesians 19.1).

With many prayers,

† The Bishop of Gortyna and Megalopolis Jeremiah

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos