Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Then shall I know just as I also am known
(I Corinthians 13. 12).
KEEPING UP APPEARANCES
… is a British TV sitcom originally aired on BBC1 from 1990 to 1995. It surrounds an eccentric, middle-class (or a wannabe) social climber named Mts. Hyacinth Bucket (Patricia Routledge). Born to a working class family who periodically show up and embarrass her, Hyacinth adorns her home with finely double-glazed Avignon and Royal Doulton china, hosts candlelight suppers, adopts an RP accent, and insists that her surname is really pronounced 'Bouquet'. The broad Northern accents of her sister Rose, her sister Daisy, and Daisy's rotund, 'bone-idle' husband Onslow give it all away. Much to the chagrin of Hyacinth's long-suffering husband Richard Bucket, Hyacinth goes to ludicrous lengths in order to appear higher in class than she is. An immensely popular satire on south-east English stereotypes about social class, it applies to the Orthodox Church.
As the Church year begins on 1 September, are we merely keeping up appearances? Or are we focused on substance? Do we prefer to seem pretty or to shine forth true? Do we dine on finely double-glazed china or paper plates – as long as what we eat nourishes our souls?
Since leaving Bishopsgate in August 2022, Westbourne in January 2023, and our North London 'catacomb' in April 2023, our community has had no permanent home. Currently camping out in the far north of London, we do not advertise our whereabouts. Instead, enquirers must email me for the address. Almost weekly, however, I receive as many as five emails from strangers who wish to visit. Since we occupy a privately-rented venue, not a public temple, this policy assures that only trustworthy persons cross our threshold. Being comparatively remote also helps. Most casual enquirers 'flake' on us, that is, never show up at all. A few travel between 90 minutes to 2. 5 hours and integrate into our family in Christ. Why do they make the effort? Is it live-streams, hard-hitting homilies on topical subjects, or simply the Divine Liturgy in English? We present no services on Royal Doulton china. We offer no one a fantasy tour of the Aegean Islands or trek in the Russian taiga. We offer a community of 20-30 genuine believers.
Under garish designs that our landlords erected long before us, behind a makeshift iconostasis, in a part of London where we are blessedly unknown, we hold no doors open to idle tourists. No drunks guzzling whisky or gin hurl curses at us from a churchyard bench. No bloated, privileged thrill-seekers, craving an ecumenical hors d'oeuvre on a platter of Sunday roast, spew syllables of contempt when denied the Eucharist in the queue. No once-a-year temple-goers demand that the priest baptise a child before the werewolves catch him. We are blessedly free of intruders. If a church tourist never comes back, at least s/he realises that this community of worshippers is not bent on candle-lit suppers but the Lord's Supper. We need never double-glaze our baptismal font, poor plastic cistern that it is. Every catechumen who rises up from its waters, however, has waded through 12 months of rigorous training in the faith. When s/he finally receives the seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit, s/he genuinely believes. S/he has learned no posh, put-on RP so as to sound respectable. S/he now speaks the grunts and roars of the martyrs, the sighs of ascetics, and the cries of prophets hollowing out the antechambers of Sheol, the place of the dead. S/he carries her own bucket of living water from the well, never mistaking it for a bouquet. Our family in Christ engenders no bone-idle rich but the blessed poor, persecuted for justice and heirs to the Kingdom of heaven. In brief, we mean it. Those who do not find no home among us. Those who do never leave.
This first month of the year (September, not January!) sees two Great Feasts that point the way. The Nativity of Our Lady (8, deferred to 10 September), the Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary, answers the prayer of an infertile old woman who has carried the stigma of her childless womb. Despair turns into the highest hope. The glorious Exaltation of the Precious and Life-giving Cross (14, deferred to 17 September) sees that baby girl's Child carry the burdens of mankind: the fear, self-doubt, agony of tormenting thoughts, and physical anguish that are all parts of our death. Crafted in order to humiliate and extend a prisoner's pain, the two bars become a throne of glory. Death becomes the door to Life. If ever we give up hope of locating a more permanent, centrally-situated church structure; if ever our tabernacle in the desert offends our eye; if ever it shames us that we cannot keep up appearances, this month of September addresses our woe. Who could imagine that a child of old age — a girl, at that — could bear in her womb the One who makes all things new (Revelation 21. 5)? Who could imagine that an Outcast, whom respectable folk slander, courts condemn, and friends forsake at the hour of his death, could burn out Sheol from inside? We do so because we care less for how things appear than for what they really are. We trade in appearances for love.
In his discourse on love (I Corinthians 13), the Apostle Paul reflects on truths that he has come to know the hard way. He is no longer a child (v. 11). Although the darkened glass, the mirror in which no man yet sees himself, still blocks his eyes (v. 12), he is convinced that one day all the masks shall fall. We shall see as God sees us. Half-hearted hypocrisy shall wither away like the blade of burnt grass in the sun. Those whom only God honours shall sit on twelve thrones and judge the twelve tribes of Israel. The poor in spirit, the mournful or meek, those who hunger and thirst after justice, those who love mercy, those who desire only the honour of God, those who sow seeds of peace, and those whom this world of greed betrays and casts into the street shall inherit the Kingdom of God (Matthew 5. 3-12, Luke 6. 20-22). Beware, adds the evangelist Luke, if you flourish in this world (Luke 6. 24-26). When the time comes to know as you are known, to see as you are seen, you may not like what you see.
Poor and persecuted, we persist. Homeless, we hunger for the food that lasts (John 6. 27). Ours is not the Roman god Janus, whose two faces look forward and backward at once. Ours is the Crucified Son of the Virgin who looks only to the Kingdom. We do not bother keeping up what we might ideally appear to be. We are what we are.
We are nothing but what we are.
NO FLAKES NEED APPLY
We need no casual tourists who drop a penny, maybe a fiver, in a basket and never look us in the face again. 'Nice little service', they chatter. 'A bit odd — utterly foreign, after all — but it helps one feel open-minded, well nigh ecumenical'. We need no such semi-conscious contempt. We subside on food that nourishes us better than bran flakes.
We need souls that hunger for truths that no one surrenders on a whim. We need souls that will thirst for wine that no priest waters down. We need those who NEED US. If you so hunger and thirst, if you dare to disclose a little about who you are and why you look to us for life, if you are one of those many far-flung souls whom we have not seen since 2022… simply email me at: alexander. tefft1@gmail. com and I shall send you the directions to reach us.
'Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness [δικαιοσύνην, that which is just], for they shall be filled' (Matthew 5. 6).
A GENUINE HOPE: the Nativity of Our Lady
Before Our Lord, the Logos or meaning of all that is, takes flesh of a Virgin, age 12, the worst of all fates that frequently befall a Middle Eastern woman is a barren womb. Sarai, wife of Abram, her daughter-in-law Rebekah, and her daughter-in-law Rachel all bore this shame, each in her own time. The patriarchs Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Benjamin thus were answers to a childless mother's prayer. The wife of Manoah and mother of Samson (Judges 13), Hannah the mother of Samuel the prophet (I Kingdoms / I Samuel 1-2) likewise begged the God of Israel to fill that empty space inside. When aged Anna, wife of wealthy Joachim, prays to God for a child, she is not alone. She alone, however, promises God that the child born of her barren womb shall be all his. That child shall grow up in the Temple at Jerusalem. No lullaby shall rock her to sleep save chanted prayers. No arms shall hold her but God's.
As the year ends with Our Lady's falling asleep, so it begins with her birth. It is not yet her Entry into the Temple (21 November), fulfilling her mother Anna's vow. It is not yet her Annunciation (25 March), when an archangel tells the pre-teen something inconceivable. It is her birthday. On this day, the sole source of God's human identity comes to life. Conceived in the womb of the Old Covenant, Our Lady shall become the womb of the New. Anna's child shall carry a Child in her womb who fashioned Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph before she herself was ever born. Our Lord Jesus Christ is no ghostly illusion of a man. He does not appear human. He is – thanks to the 'Yes' from the lips of old Anna's hope. Could the childless wife of Joachim conceive that she would become the grandmother of her own Creator? There is no more genuine hope than to give hope — Hope himself — to all mankind.
Come celebrate Our Lady's birthday on Sunday 10 September
THE GENUINE GLORY: the Universal Exaltation of the Life-giving Cross
Since about 1979-1980, when the Reagan-Thatcher era dubbed Madonna Louise Ciconne (born 1958) the 'material girl', it became fashionable for young adults to wear crosses. Avowed atheists or those too self-satisfied, even to deny belief in God, flashed garish crosses in order to highlight cleavage or pectoral muscles. Bars that intersect at the junction of sky and earth, rising and setting sun, suspended no Body high up in the air. No ropes or nails bound the sagging weight, the drooping arms and legs to the old Romans' favourite instrument of torture. No ravens plucked out eyes. No dying eye of Man looked on crowds gawking at the eternal Victim. As mainline 'churches' were selling Christ without his Cross, 20-somethings began selling the Cross without Christ.
No one who has not lifted his or her own cross can grasp what the Cross means. A stumbling block, i. e., scandal (σκάνδαλον), to Jews and stupidity (μωρίαν) to Greeks (I Corinthians 1. 23), the Cross has been a burnt offering on the altar to a vengeful god (substitutionary atonement), blasphemy of declaring that God can die (Islam), or merely a puzzle to unbelievers who can accept 'Jesus' the teacher but never Christ the Sacrifice. Why not a fashion bauble? To paraphrase the author Booth Tarkington (1869-1946), age 20 cannot hear what 40 has to say. It must become 40 first. Until you have drunk deep of suffering, you cannot identify with a God who becomes a man in order to carry you through suffering to the far side.
Of all objects that symbolise the Gospel, the Cross drives the deepest wedge between what appears and what is. Christians and post-Christians do not wear an Empty Tomb. Few except some Pentecostals wear a dove. They wear the apparent symbol of death by which Christ God alone tramples down death.
Come witness what the Cross means on Sunday 17 September
THE SPICE-LADEN TOMB: the Holy Sepulchre
On the Wednesday before the Nativity of Our Lady, we celebrate the miracle of the Archangel Michael at Chonae (Colossae) in ancient Phrygia in the 2nd century. When pagans diverted the rivers Lykokaperos and Kufos in efforts to flood a church erected in the archangel's name, some saw St. Michael strike a rock with his mighty staff. The water sunk into the crack, sparing the Christian temple. On the Wednesday before the great Exaltation of the Cross, we celebrate the founding of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem built on the site of Golgotha.
What do these two events have in common? Much.
Today, 'parcelled out' among Armenians, Copts, Ethiopians, Latins (i. e., Roman Catholics), and Syriacs, the Holy Sepulchre traditionally is ours. After the emperor Constantine saw a vision of the Cross in the heavens in 312, his mother Helena swore to locate the Tomb of Christ. Around 326, the year after the First Council of Nicea, Constantine ordered a church raised on the site of the old pagan temple of Jupiter. By 13 September 335, the Orthodox Church dedicated the Holy Sepulchre. Despite a status quo that has prevailed since 1757, the two holiest sites – Golgotha and the cave of burial — remain Orthodox to this day. The miracle of the holy fire that never goes out is the angelic staff that strikes the rock.
Whenever I prop up my aged limbs on a staff of Indian rosewood that I carry with me to church, I think of the Archangel Michael's that absorbed the floodwater and the rocky hill called Calvary, or Golgotha, that remains ours for over 17 centuries.
Our brains process most stimuli through our eyes. Having lost so much of my vision that I must use lit magnifiers to read and cannot recognise faces in the dim light, I rely on a giant-print book of A4 display sheets in order to offer the Divine Liturgy. I am no longer able to read the ordinary print in the Liturgikon or standard service books. I cannot read print easily unless it is about 30 point and BOLD.
Compensating for my eyesight, my hearing is acute. Screams, raucous laughter, or the stomp of children's feet unnerve me. Few priests who are much older than I are so myopic. Should I ever bellow out 'Volume!' or stare at you for minutes on end, please bear in mind why. Thanks be to God, I see more than appears on the surface. Time takes away one type of eyesight in order to bestow another.
We live in a parish of substance, not shadow; of glory, not glitz; of sincerity, not spin. Someday, when all appearances fall away, we shall see just as we are seen.
Yours faithfully in Christ,
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