St. Botolph's Orthodox Church

St. Botolph's Newsletter, January 2023 (THEOPHANY)


Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

THE SIGN OF JONAH

An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign,

but no sign will be given to it except the sign of

Jonah (Matthew 16.4).


Diaspora, noun. 'A population scattered across regions which are separate from its geographic place of origin'. Are we a diaspora? Insofar as the Christian faith originates in Palestina (Israel) on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, every Greek in Athens and every Russian in Moscow is in diaspora. We need not be 12th century BC Athenian merchants, 1745 Highland Scots, 1851 Irish, or 1915 Armenians to scatter in diaspora. We are more akin to the Jews of old. When Solomon's Temple fell to the Babylonians in 587 BC, the fortress of Masada to the Romans in 70 AD, they scattered across the Mediterranean and beyond.

There are sound reasons, however, why we shall never scatter. No one has power to exile us.

Exile, noun. 'Penal expulsion from one's native country.' Some historians have called the Jewish diaspora an exile (Hebrew: galuṭ). True, Emperor Titus expelled the stiff-necked, rebellious Volk or ethnos from its ancestral homeland in order to ensure the Pax Romana. When one such Jew called Yēšūa haMāšiyaḥ, Jesus the Christ, commands his disciples to go among all the nations (Matthew 28.18-20), does he exile or scatter them? We need not be enemies of Caesar such as the holy Apostle John dying on Patmos around 100 AD or John the Golden Mouth dying on the shores of Comana, Pontus, in 407. We need only be renters. No landlords have exiled us from our homeland. No temple is our homeland. We simply have pulled up stakes and relocated elsewhere.

If we are 'in exile' after the 1st of January 2023, it is neither from Bishopsgate Street nor from 74 Westbourne Road, Islington. Our exile began on the day of our baptism, when holy chrism first anointed our brows. Whatever our ancestry, those of us born in Britain, Canada, Australia, or elsewhere are NOT in diaspora. There is NO 'Orthodox diaspora', to employ the phyletistic, i.e., tribal and heretical term that equates Romania or Cyprus or Lebanon with the Kingdom of God. There are Greek, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Lebanese and similar 'diasporas' but no 'Orthodox' … except one. We are all in diaspora, if not exile, from the Kingdom.

A wild-eyed, long-haired, gaunt-cheeked Fanatic from the semi-Gentile region called haGālīl (in a word, land of Gentiles) infiltrates the land of the Jews. Bad enough, he heals blind beggars or lame layabouts, raving lunatics and pock-marked whores. He speaks in riddles and confounds, rather enrages, experts in the Law. 'Who are you? No, really?' ask the scrubbed church-goers, the churchwardens, the parish clergy. 'Show us a sign'. 'Can you tell from the setting sun that it shall be a fair day?' he asks in return. 'Then why can't you tell who and what I am?' Passionate, easily moved as he is, he lashes out: 'You deserve no plain, straightforward sign. You shall see no sign but the sign of Jonah' (Matthew 16.1-4). Predictably, he never explains what he means by alluding to a prophet who spends three days and nights in a fish's belly.

The Sign of Jonah unveils the real exile in which we find ourselves, the real diaspora that has nothing to do with dancing the hasaposérviko or the hópak. Those who equate Orthodox faith with folk dances, the taste of baklava, or the obscure syllables of a language that they rejoice in being unable to grasp never feel the pain of this exile. Instead of waiting in the recesses of that 'great fish' (Jonah 1.17), they dress it in olive oil, garlic, and basil, if not Middle Eastern za'atar, and roast it in the oven. Refusing to die to this exile - to fall into the jaws of the fish - they never emerge from it. Those who deny death cannot enter the Resurrection. After three days - in the grave - Christ the Giver of Life rises again.

Whether we wait three weeks, three months, or three years to find the place of worship that we shall truly call our own, this exile shall be our Sign of Jonah. Gathering in private homes in or near London, this taste of exile shall set apart those who are faithful. Some who never entered our tents in the desert of Islington have kept in touch with us. They stand shoulder-to-shoulder by those whom we have seen every week. Those who 'toyed' with us shall fall away. 'They went out [from us] that it might become plain that they all are not of us' (I John 2.19). So it always is. God prunes the tree that it might bring forth much fruit.

In this time of exile following 1 January 2023, the chief priests, the scribes, the Pharisees and Sadducees shall stand at the foot of a Tree. 'If the youthful, multi-ethnic, English-speaking "cult" with weekly lunches, its intense catechesis, and its crazy fanatic of a priest is worth saving', they shall mock, 'why does it wander homeless?' 'If you are the King of the Jews', cry mainline Israel (and mainstream Rome), 'save yourself!' (Luke 23.27). Had this fanatic not threatened to pull down the Temple and rebuild it in three days? At the foot of yet another cross, near another city, the centurion Longinus watches the earth quake, the rocks divide into pieces, at the instant of the Rebel Messiah's death. 'Surely', reports Luke, 'this was a righteous man!' (Luke 23.47). It is left for the Apostles Matthew and Mark to report a change of soul: 'Truly, this man was the Son of God!' (Matthew 27.54, Mark 15.39). A jaded pagan comes to believe in one God and his Only Son because, even in death, the Son of God never surrenders.

'No compromise, no surrender. Never, never, never!' was my weekly war cry into the camera in the UK lockdown of March 2020 to March 2021. As months in exile dragged on, the numbers of weekly viewers across the world soared. (The OCA Dean of Ontario, his wife, and his children shouted 'Never, never, never!' in unison with me). By the end of lockdown, our weekly numbers had increased. By August of 2022, the calibre of no fewer than eleven (11) catechumens was unparalleled. Of those whom I received by baptism or chrism and those who remain, no single one was lost. As our exile abated, many a new Longinus appeared. In the few months that we sojourned on Westbourne Road, no fewer than four (4) entered the ranks of the communicants. Had the year of catechesis been broad and easy (Matthew 7.13-14) - a few informal chats, one or two articles to skim - these numbers would count for nothing. Instead, I required much of the listeners as I require much of myself. Whatever trials our latest exile brings, I for one shall never compromise what an Incarnate Logos, the Apostles, and the Fathers have bequeathed me. I for one shall never surrender those whom God entrusts to me to the wolf of souls. I, for one, say to doubt and fear: 'Never, never, never!' The Sign of Jonah is emblazoned on my body and on my soul, No enemy, no weakling shall erase it. Never. Never. Never.

Stay tuned.

HOME AWAY FROM HOME

Our landlords at 74 Westbourne Road have located full-time, seven-day tenants to replace us. From 8 January 2023, we shall be gathering for abbreviated Orthros and the Divine Liturgy at Subdeacon Alexandru Pop's house. If you are interested in attending, please email me and I shall inform our host. For security reasons, I do not disclose private addresses.

Subdeacon Alexandru has hosted feasts for our parish family and can accommodate around twenty (20) adults. Our weekly numbers hover around thirty. Sixteen or seventeen (16-17) of our weekly regulars have committed. Naturally, priority goes to those who actually receive the Precious Gifts on a weekly basis and catechumens who attend weekly. Please bring food for lunch in order to respect the generosity of our hosts.

For more information concerning our move, please email Reader Joachim Vesely (phelement@gmail.com) who is coordinating it.

ENDING THE SHADOW, ROLLING THE VEIL: The Circumcision of Christ

The Christian year begins on 1st September, not 1 January. If you get so drunk on 31 December that you vomit your entrails, it shall all be in vain. You shall miss not the first morning of the year but the Circumcision of Our Lord.

Christianity is not Judaism. From the number of nominal Christians who scour the Hebrew Scriptures (e.g., Exodus 20.2-17 or Deuteronomy 5.6-21) and the 'ethical' guidelines in Romans or I Timothy, you would never know. The 'teachings of Jesus' (apparently a Palestinian Buddha, if not a Gentiles' Hillel) are not the Gospel. The Gospel is not clean hands that never filch an Oreo from a cookie jar. The Gospel is dirty hands - blood-stained, semen-stained hands - that regularly die and rise from the dead. He who comes not in order to 'abolish' the Law and the Prophets comes not in order to reiterate but precisely 'to fulfil' (Matthew 5.17). As the apolytikion for the Circumcision (1 January) states, he submits to the Law of the Foreskin in order to end the shadow and roll away the veil. Until he takes flesh, the Law is the shadow, the veil covering who God really is. Clipping the foreskin of the Jewish male on the eighth day (Genesis 17.10-12, Leviticus 12.3) foreshadows the sacrifice that one such Jewish Male shall offer.

The Gospel depicts no circumcision of a foreskin but of the heart. After three days of searching, Our Lady and Saint Joseph come upon Our Lord at age twelve sitting in the Temple and astounding the rabbis (Luke 2.41-52). Wisdom is no longer to be found in a book. Wisdom is a Person.

A NOTE on The CAPPADOCIAN FATHERS

Just as many pseudodox who invoke the canons (i.e., guidelines, not laws) cannot quote one, so many who uphold 'the Fathers' have never actually read them. Books in hand, they quote this or that modern elder – especially, if he lurks inside a cave, sports a ten-foot beard, and rants wildly about 'the' Antichrist around every corner. Actual Orthodox read the Gospel and the Fathers.

Where should one start? Basil the Great (330-370)'s On the Holy Spirit will give you a firm basis of Orthodox belief before delving into Saints John of Damascus (675 -749), Maximos the Confessor (580-662), or Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) - all of whom read it. Gregory of Nyssa (335-395)'s Life of Moses will show how to read the Hebrew Scriptures in a Christian way. Gregory the Theologian (329-390) - often called Gregory of Nazianzus - writes verse that augments his best friend Basil and Basil's younger brother, Gregory of Nyssa. Born in the rocky region of Cappadocia, these three - Basil, Gregory, and Gregory - are called the Cappadocian Fathers.

Add John 'Chrysostom' or Golden Mouth (347-402), who lived in the same century as they, and you have built on firm soil. Athanasius of Alexandria (296-373)'s Life of Saint Anthony is an ideal doorway into the 'spiritual' (prayer/monastic) life of the Orthodox Church. Apart from his influence on Saints Basil and Gregory of Nyssa, no figure better deserves the nickname 'Father of Orthodoxy'.

We honour Saint Athanasius (18th January) alongside Saints Basil (1st), Gregory of Nyssa (10th), Gregory the Theologian (25th), and John Chrysostom (27th and 30th) all in one month. We even add the monks: Seraphim of Sarov (2nd), Anthony the Great (17th), Makarios of Egypt (19th), Euthymios (20th), and Ephraim the Syrian (28th). We honour Saint Maximos (21st) at the end of the week of saints, as though he were saying: 'Read them before me'.

In an age when shallow souls prefer to skim, read slowly, wisely, and well.

SERPENTS IN THE WATER: Theophany

A magic show is an epiphany. A sunrise is an epiphany. An epi-phan-ía only means, at most, a lifting of the veil. THEO-phan-ía means lifting the veil on God.

In the early Church, Theophany, not Christmas, was the foremost feast of winter. It unveiled why Christ was born: to 'appear' in the waters of the River Jordan for his baptism at the hand of his own creature, Yôḥānān haMatbīl or John the Immerser. As his foot parts the river, something like a dove appears overhead (Matthew 3.16) and a Voice is heard proclaiming, 'This is my beloved son' (Matthew 3.17). Those with eyes to see recognise the Holy Spirit, those with ears God the Father. God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, manifests himself.

Blessing the waters of a font, river, lake, or sea on Holy Theophany is no magic. In signing the water with a cross, the priest banishes all hidden dangers - dragons, or serpents, or the primordial chaos, the Leviathan (Job 41.1) - lurking in the darkest places of creation. Blessing the water, he restores creation to God. The water that we take home is for sipping, washing, and consecrating to God everything that he entrusts to us.

If you are coming to Subdeacon Alexandru's on SUNDAY 8 JANUARY, please bring a clean bottle (preferably glass) to draw holy water from the font

LEPROUS LIKE US: Preparing for the Lenten Spring

Lent comes from the Old English lencten, to lengthen. As March and April arrive, the days really do grow longer. Twilight no longer falls at 3:30 or 4:00 pm. Trees and grasses begin to pollinate, preparing for a season of growth. Lent is therefore not a season of misery but joy. We eat what makes us light, not heavy; healthy, not sick; alive, not close to death. If you treat Lent as a diet, flexing your moral muscles, it is Big Mack time.

We prepare spiritually for the Great Lenten fast before Pascha (9 April 2023) with no brooding over a diet. Rather, we look to the form of Hansen's Disease (leprosy) that afflicts us all. Impure water, abandoned road kill, the bacteria from scraps that cause this disfiguring illness are in fact only signs of sin: repressed anger, abandoning souls that need us, the bacteria that clings to the icy, inflated ego, twisting all thoughts and events to its own selfish purpose. All sin is leprosy: no mere bestial drive but something colder and more cunning – in a word, a refusal to grow. In this run-up to Great Lent, we consider three forms of leprosy: physical, social, and spiritual.

The Ten Lepers (15th January) of Luke 17.12-19 stand afar off and ask Our Lord simply to be merciful to them. 'Show yourselves to the priests', Our Lord commands. As they walk, each one feels a nose where none was and a smooth skin where it was wrinkled. Only one of them turns, falls on his knees, and thanks the Physician. Predictably, he is a Samaritan. Judeans despise natives of the region just south of Galilee. 'Really just Gentiles', they whisper. As in all societies that have become psychologically inbred, often a foreigner sees what natives cannot.

Zakkai of Jericho, better known as Zacchaeus (22nd January), of Luke 19.1-10 is a puny, rich tax collector who would fleece his own people for profit. He also happens to be even shorter in stature than I. Hearing that the renowned Physician from Nazareth is passing by, he climbs into the nearest sycamore to see. 'Come down, Zakkai', Our Lord invites him, 'I shall be your guest this day'. As if out of nowhere, the rich man pledges half of his assets to the poor and four times as much as he defrauded anyone. 'Now this really is a son of Abraham', Our Lord praises the social midget who has grown by ten feet. His leprosy falls by his own word.

The last of January's pre-Lenten Sundays, the Canaanite or Syro-Phoenician woman (i.e., an ancestress of today's Lebanese) of Matthew 15.21-28 pleads with Our Lord to heal her little girl whom a demon has possessed. For a pious Jew, she herself is demon-possessed just by virtue of being a pagan. Testing her, Our Lord refuses: 'Shall I toss Israel's loaf to a Phoenician dog?' Immune to the insult, she quips: 'Even dogs eat scraps'. The trust that this pagan idolater dares to show foreshadows a time when most Christians are Gentiles. Her leprosy of the spirit, like Zakkai's, falls away by her own words. Whether you are deformed or diseased in body, a great sinner, or even a pure pagan, all that is necessary to begin ending your exile is a tear. Then you shall be brave enough to humble yourself.

If one were to ask me for a word suitable for the run-up to Great Lent, I should say: Humility is gratitude. You are humble, therefore open to grace, in the degree to which you are grateful. An outspoken, irate 'fanatic' such as John the Golden Mouth dies in exile in an inn on the shores of the Black Sea, saying 'Glory to God for all things!' In some quarters, it has become traditional to close Orthodox books with these words.

AGE OF THE PHILOSOPHER

Aristotle (384-322 BC) calls it the age of the philosopher. Like the 6th century sage Lao Tzu, he believed that the mind (and heart) finally acquire insight into the deeper meaning of reality, keen ability to distinguish between what seems and what is, and consequently the right if not the duty to advise the young. In some traditional cultures of Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa, the village assembles whenever someone reaches this age in order to ask his or her blessing. He, or she, has become an elder.

Having lost some two-thirds of my eyesight, I finally boast a grey beard and strands of silver in my hair. Asthmatic since age ten and arthritic since thirty-five, I rely on inner passion - above all, anger at injustice - to force my body beyond its limits. This pattern applies no less now. Where I once battled for myself, now I wage war for you. Having taught the Orthodox faith since 1990, it is hardly time to lay down the tools. On the contrary: I shall fight all the more. In the week of the saints between the Sunday of the Ten Lepers and the Sunday of Zacchaeus, on the eve of the Theophany according to the Julian Calendar, I shall come of age.

I turn sixty (60) on 18 January 2023.

HOPE

When King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon (605-562 BC) first besieged Jerusalem in 597 BC, an assembly of pious Jews hoped that he would spare the Temple. It was, after all, the epicentre of Mosaic faith since King Solomon erected it around 990 BC. Without the sacrifices prescribed in Exodus and Leviticus, how could the faith in Ádōnāi, the Lord of Israel, survive? After 587, there was no Temple. After 70 AD, all that remained of Herod's Temple was its Western Wall.

And yet in synagogues and homes, the faith of Old Israel survived. If the Old, why not the New?

Our Crucified Lord is quite aware that 'church tourists' will seek after signs and wonders. 'Most assuredly I say to you', he rebukes casual half-belief, 'you seek Me not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled' (John 6.26). Fans of bells and smells, of a replicated Cyprus, Romania, or Ukraine, of that stable construct called Christendom which so stealthily substitutes for Christianity shall fall away. A 'religion' based exclusively on a temple might as well be Hindu. It has little to do with Christ. As always, religion and faith at best are but remote cousins. At worst, they are strangers, if not enemies. The ties that bind our parish family are stronger than the walls of a temple. You forge them with your prayers, your hopes, and your love. In this time of exile, I shall be faithful to you and to our family in Christ. Shall you?

Yours faithfully in Christ,

Fr. Alexander.



For older newsletters, please visit the Newsletter Archive.