Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Worship of the Trinity was made Manifest

Greetings during the Feast of Theophany, when Orthodox Christians commemorate the Baptism of Christ in the River Jordan. The significance of this great feast, which is every bit as important as the Nativity of Christ (Christmas), is expressed in the troparion hymn for the day:

When You, O Lord
were baptized in the Jordan,
The worship of the Trinity
was made manifest, 
For the voice of the Father
bore witness to You,
And called You His beloved Son. 
And the Spirit, in the form of a dove, 
Confirmed the truthfulness of His word. 
O Christ, our God,
You have revealed Yourself 
And have enlightened the world,
Glory to You!

The worship of Christ as Lord, "Light of Light" and Enlightener of the World is also strongly emphasized in the kontakion for the feast:

Today You have shown forth
to the world, O Lord, 
and the light of Your countenance
has been signed on us. 
Knowing You, we sing Your praises. 
You have come and revealed Yourself, 
O unapproachable Light.

This Feast has great import for us vis a vis Islam, as we can glean from the below sermon by Schema-hieromonk Ambrose Young. In his homily, Fr Ambrose connects the many theophanies from the Old Testamental period with the Great Theophany of the Coming of Christ. He also contrasts the false pagan theophanies of ancient times with the true divine theophanies of the Old and New Testaments. 

We may rightly include Islam with the false pagan religions and their artificial theophanies. For unlike the many true divine theophanies of the Old and New Testaments, which were witnessed by others and set down by the witnesses for the edification of the faithful, there were no witnesses to Muhammad's so-called "revelations." Muhammad brought forth his revelations — his theophanies — without corroboration, and when challenged as to why he should be believed to be the messenger of God, he replied that his revelations point to him, that they themselves — i.e. the Qur'an — are the greatest miracle. Muhammad provides the epitome of a closed, self-defining system: "Believe in me, for I bring you these revelations, which point to me as the bringer of these revelations."  Is this not just like the pagans of Delphi, Egypt or Rome (described below) who displayed their false idols to the people for adoration? Islam is no less idolatrous for its extreme iconoclasm.  

St John of Damascus was quite right in ridiculing the credulity and gullibility of those who would accept "revelations" from Muhammad with no witnesses or corroboration. Christ Himself, while holding up John the Baptist as His witness (JN 5:31-35), challenged the people to examine His works, for they are proof of His Divine Sonship:

"If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me; but if I do, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, that you may know and believe that the Father is in Me, and I in Him" (JN 10:37-38; see also JN 5:36).

(Much has been written elsewhere of Muhammad's works — war, slaughter, rape, pedophilia, enslavement of captives, concubinage, and much more — so we won't belabor the point here.)

Of the highest importance for us as we celebrate this important feast, the New Testament Theophanies of God (The Baptism of Christ, and the Transfiguration of Christ) reveal God as Love, as a loving communion of Three Divine Persons united in One Essence, co-eternal, co-working, and co-redeeming mankind and the whole of the cosmos. And this is made known to us through the entry into human history of the Co-Eternal Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, who proved Himself to be He Who Is through His words, actions, miracles, and ultimately through His voluntary suffering, crucifixion, death, resurrection and ascension/glorification. We affirm that Christ reveals the true character of God through His entire self-emptying (Greek: kenotic) mission. 

The Great Feast of Theophany thus reveals not just Christ, but Who God Is: God as Love, God as intimately connected with mankind, God as Trinity. And as Christ triumphs over death through His Resurrection, so Truth triumphs over falsehood, Light over darkness, Love over hate, the Church over the gates of hell.

Islam, in its doctrinal hatred towards Christianity reveals its brittle weakness and gnawing self-doubt. The very existence of merely one faithful Christian is the full repudiation of Islam as a false religion. But the more forcefully Islam denies the Trinity, denies that Jesus Christ is God Incarnate, denies the resurrection, and condemns Christians, the more it shows what it is afraid of: Truth, Light, Life, Faith. Islam's most devout adherents — based on the Qur'an, and the sayings and example of Muhammad — rage against and mercilessly persecute our Christian brothers and sisters all around the globe, and in so doing reveal the actual source and purpose of Islam, as well as its ultimate destiny, which is abject and eternal failure and condemnation. 

This is why we are must pray for our suffering Christian brethren throughout the Islamic world, that they would stand firm in the Faith, and bear witness as righteous confessors of Christ Jesus. But we are also compelled to reach out with the Love of Christ to our Muslim neighbors, and offer to them the humble truth of loving communion with the God Who is Love, Who takes away the sins of the world, and frees men from hatred, division, blindness and condemnation. And may many be saved!

Theophany at the Baptism of our Lord
Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple Skete

In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

In Orthodox Christianity we call the commemoration of the Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan by St. John the Baptist the “Theophany”, a word which comes from the ancient Greek and means the “appearance” or “showing forth of God".  It can also refer to a divine revelation.

In Greece, at Delphi, the “Theophania” was an annual festival in spring celebrating the return of the god Apollo from his winter quarters. The culmination of this feast was a display of statue of Apollo to worshipers, normally kept hidden in the sanctuary. Later Roman mystery religions also often included similar brief displays of images to enthusiastic worshippers.  The ancient Egyptians did the same with their multitude of gods and goddesses, keeping them hidden in a dark inner sanctum except once or twice a year, when these idols were brought forth for people to look upon and adore.

Sometimes we Orthodox tend, wrongly, to think of our Feast of the Theophany as the only example of this in human history, in the Scriptures, but this is not true.  As I said, ancient pagans saw various manifestations or appearances or experiences oftheir “gods” as theophanies, too.  We see this all through ancient literature.

But of course for Christians and Jews the term has a very limited and specific meaning: it marks a true manifestation or literal appearance of the presence of the true God to man.  The Old Testament makes it very clear that God did in fact reveal Himself to man, and did so several times and in different ways. This is not a matter for our speculation or philosophizing; this is an object of belief, of faith.  These theophanies were not just some “state of mind” or “feeling”, but an actual appearance—sometimes in the form of a mighty angel or angels (as in the case of Abraham at the Oak of Mamre).  These visions of Almighty God were not at all uncommon, and some of them were so startling, even shocking, that the seers could not bear to look upon them and could find few or no words to describe them.

For instance, in the Book of Exodus the Theophany which Moses experienced on Mount Sinai, although it is described in rather simple and calm language, was accompanied by thunder and lightning, flame reaching up to the very skies (like a volcano, except that Sinai is not a volcano!), the shatteringly loud notes of a trumpet, and the whole mountain shaking.  And out of the midst of this overwhelming manifestation God’s voice was then heard, revealing the Ten Commandments.  The account in Deuteronomy of this same event adds that God appeared like a shining sun and was accompanied by myriads of holy angels.

I could go on to describe other theophanies in the Old Testament, primarily those to Isaiah and Ezekiel, but I’ve said enough here to show why it’s important to read Scripture, and not only the New Testament, but the Old as well.  For by doing this we see that the Theophany of our Lord Jesus Christ in the New Testament is merely the culmination of many earlier clear manifestations of the divine in the Old Testament.

Nothing, however, was like the Theophany which occurred at the baptism of the Lord.

Therefore what, exactly, was the “manifestation” or “Theophany” of God at the Lord’s baptism?  Well, it marked one of only two occasions when all three Persons of the Trinity were revealed simultaneously to humanity: God the Father by speaking through the clouds, God the Son being baptized in the river, and God the Holy Spirit in the shape of a dove descending from heaven (the other occasion was Christ’s Transfiguration on Mount Tabor).  This was the first public display of Christ as God the Incarnate Word, the first time this revelation was given to the world and testified to by God the Father Himself, who said, “This is my beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased.”

In mystic commemoration of this incredible revelation at the Jordan River, water is especially blessed on this day, and used by the faithful throughout the year and also for the annual blessing of homes by the priest.

Now, all of this is rather easy to say, easy to talk about, “nice” words, even.  But think for a moment about what it really means and what it meant to John the Baptist and his followers, and also the followers of Christ who were present, and what it meant to all of creation, and what it should mean to us today.  I’m not talking here so much about the remarkable external signs—the voice of God the Father, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, and Jesus, standing in the River Jordan.  I’m talking about what is behind all of this; what it means.

Of course there were already indications, hints, about God the Holy Trinity in the Old Testament, but it is only in the New that it becomes unmistakably clear—that God is one in essence, but triple in person yet undivided, and this Holy Trinity is to be worshipped and adored by us in one single and inseparable worship.  Thus, even when we have prayers addressed to one Person of the Trinity, those prayers almost always end in a glorification of all Three Persons of the Godhead.  And when we specifically address the All-Holy Trinity in our prayers and services, it is in the singular, not the plural, number, for God is One, always, and forever.

It is this revelation—that God is a Oneness in essence expressed as a Trinity of persons—that sets Christianity completely and irrevocably apart from all other religions on the face of the earth.  It is also one of the ways in which we differentiate what I call loosely mainstream doctrinal Christians from those groups that call themselves Christian but do not believe in the dogma of the Trinity as expressed here—such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and other sectarian groups.

It’s important for us to try and grasp the meaning of this doctrine—as difficult as this is with our very frail, fallen, limited, and feeble minds—because the dogma of the Three Persons reveals something about the inner, mystical life of God Himself--: it shows how God is love, as St. John the Evangelist testifies.  One person alone cannot love.  And since God existed eternally before He created the universe and our world, this love which is God could not be something that was extended to His creation, which didn’t yet exist.  Rather, His love was manifest between the Trinity of Persons in Him.

The late Archpriest Michael Pomazansky, in his important work, “Orthodox Dogmatic Theology,” further explains that “God in His very essence is wholly consciousness and thought and self-awareness, each of these three eternal manifestations of Himself by the one God has self-awareness, and therefore each one is a Person....Thus, when in Christian doctrine we speak of the unity of the Tri-unity of God, we are trying to describe the mystical inward life hidden in the depths of the Divinity, revealed to the world in time, in the New Testament, by the sending down of the Son of God from the Father into the world and by the activity of the wonderworking, life-giving, saving power of the Comforter, the Holy Spirit.”

Today, to the degree that people have any faith, any beliefs, many see God as something very vague and insubstantial, often equated with good behavior, being nice, etc.  Some will even use the phrase “Lord”—but who knows what this really means to them?   However, for us it means something very dramatic, revelational, and clear: God is a Holy and Divine Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We have God above us, the ever-flowing source of everything that is and the foundation of all being, Who loves and cares so much for us that He sent His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to be with us, right here on earth, and Who took our sins upon us for our salvation, Whom we receive in the Holy Mystery of the Eucharist; and finally, there is God in us and in all of creation, that is, the Person of the Holy Spirit, who is the Giver of Life.  It is this God, this tri-une God, which was manifested to us on the occasion of the Lord’s baptism in the River Jordan, witnessed by a great multitude, and it is this God, and this God only and no other, that we worship and adore.

The dogma of the Trinity is not something that was developed and added on later to the Christian faith, as some heretics claim.  It was there from the beginning, and the allusions, both in the Old Testament and the very specific allusions in the New, testify to this.  Very early Holy Fathers of the Church spoke about their faith in the Holy Trinity, as also did the very earliest liturgical services of the Church.  Similarly, and in obedience to Scripture, from the very beginning all baptisms have been performed in the Name of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

...Throughout her history, the Church has undergone great disturbances in defending this dogma, and the same is true even today... As did the early Christians who were martyred not only for their faith in Christ but their faith in the tri-une God, we too must be prepared to defend with our lives and go to our deaths, if need be, in defense of this fundamental and over-arching truth, and we must not hesitate to speak of it in our relationships with others.  I’m not suggesting that we be preachy and intrusive in the private spiritual beliefs of others, but that we be discerning and alert to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, so that when someone speaks very vaguely of God or “the Lord,” we quietly but warmly affirm our belief in the Trinity and be prepared to give an explanation.

For this is truth, and, as the Lord Himself taught us, “the Truth shall set you free.”

In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Ominous Highlights

Here is a quick collection of extremely insightful news stories and analysis. Each one is worth a thorough read, but if you even skim the first paragraph or two of each, you'll get the gist.

Keeping up with the news on the jihad front is, sadly, a necessary part of this work. One senses it bubbling up all over, like a pot coming to a boil. For Christians, however, awareness of all this should not prompt despair, but rather compel us to persevere and grow deeper in our most holy faith.

Such has been the message of the saints throughout two millennia. St John admonishes us in the Book of the Apocalypse,

He who leads into captivity shall go into captivity; he who kills with the sword must be killed with the sword. Here is the patience and the faith of the saints (Rev 13:10).
And the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever; and they have no rest day or night, who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name. Here is the patience of the saints; here are those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus. Then I heard a voice from heaven saying to me, “Write: ‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on’” (Rev 14:11-13).
Christ has come to set us free. Therefore, those who lead into captivity are themselves spiritual captives of the devil, and will be confined with him in hell. Those who kill with the sword shall find themselves confounded by the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, and are spiritually dead. (And who was it who spread his evil religion by the sword? That this is a rhetorical question does not prevent us from openly condemning Muhammad, whom St John of Damascus identified as the prophet of antichrist.)

Now the warning against receiving the mark of the beast, according to many holy fathers, is not referring so much to a physical mark, nor to a subcutaneous barcode or transmitter or some such thing, but rather to the giving of assent and the submission of one's will. This can take the form of a merely functional choice, in order for one to preserve one's way of life in the world. This is why in Rev 14:9 the angel warns of the torments to come upon those who "worship the beast and his image, and receives his mark on his forehead or on his hand."

The fathers teach us that the mark on the forehead indicates the assent of the mind and will, and coupling with the dictates of the beast. The mark on the hand may point to a mere superficial acceptance of domination, so as to be able to buy and sell and live in peace. Other fathers warn that the mark on the right hand indicates the rejection of Christ, for it is with the right hand that we make the sign of the Cross. Thus concealing our faith so as to "coexist" and keep ourselves safe from persecution may extend to not making the sign of the Cross in public. Such a simple sin of omission becomes our condemnation!

The notion that a Christian could preserve his faith while accepting the temporal domination of the beast is repudiated by this image. This is why the faithful Russian hierarchs in the 1920s, like Bishop Theophan of Poltava and others, condemned the Soviet regime as of the antichrist, and were mercilessly persecuted and slaughtered for it. They knew that even tacit acceptance of the rule of the beast was a denial of Christ. Here also is the secret, infernal implication of the profane dhimma contract in Islamic sharia: the "third way" offered to Christians by their Muslim conquerors (if they refuse to convert to Islam) is to acknowledge the superiority of Islam and deny their right to build or repair their churches, deny any right to openly practice their faith, ring their bells, wear a cross, or show any outward sign of their Christian faith, including making the sign of the Cross! Thus the terms of the dhimma contract are not merely oppressive, but lead to a de facto denial of Christ and acceptance of the mark on the hand. Christian dhimmis thus suffer a most horrendous form of living martyrdom, striving to preserve their faith when everything raised against them demands they deny it.

Yet we must not lose hope! All of these images in the Apocalypse are given to us to strengthen and embolden our patience and our faith. The Lord tells us, "Lift up your heads, for your redemption draws nigh" (LK 21:28).

Let us consider these spiritual realities as we survey the ominous signs below.

Muslim Persecution of Christians: November, 2011
Raymond Ibrahim

Study Shows U.S. Mosques Repositories of Sharia, Jihad, and Muslim Brotherhood Literature and Preachers

Nigeria's Christmas Present: Blown Up Christians
Nigeria's Blackest Christmas Ever
Raymond Ibrahim

Obama Administration Reverses US Policy in Reaching Out to Muslim Brotherhood
New York Times

The Muslim Brotherhood Will Become Much More Savage After Elections
Coptic Solidarity

Israel Security Council: Obama Naive Regarding Muslim Brotherhood
Naive... or something worse?
Israel National News

Jihad Plotting Persists in Mosques:
Studies from 1999 to the present consistently show that at least 80% of Mosques in U.S. teach jihad, Islamic supremacism, hatred of Christians and Jews, and the necessity to impose Islamic rule.
Human Events

Staten Island Jihadist Blows Lid Off Muslim Plotter Network in U.S.

'Arab Spring' fuels rising tide of discrimination and violence against Christians
Vancouver Sun

Muslim Brotherhood's Supreme Goal: Islamic Caliphate
Al Masri Al Youm

Nigeria: Islamic Militants Boko Haram warn Christians to leave North in three days, or else.

Coptic priest: We will resist reimposition of jizya to the point of martyrdom
JihadWatch via MEMRI

Egypt: Coptic Bishop warns of more church bobbing threats; New Year's festivities canceled, kidnappings on the rise.
Assyrian International News Agency

Saudi Textbooks Teach Islamic Extremism

Distorting Reality to Justify Jihad
Raymond Ibrahim

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Imperative of Orthodox Mission Outreach to Muslims

New Martyr and Missionary Fr Daniil Sysoev
Greetings for the Civil New Year!

In resuming my postings for 2012, I want to especially emphasize the importance of missionary work among our Muslim neighbors. This is a divine imperative, which has both practical and pastoral dimensions, and is urgently needed. I myself am unqualified to advise on the topic, so I will use the approach I have employed in my book, Facing Islam, which is to turn to the examples and teachings of others who have proven to be qualified and proficient. This theme of Missions will be a recurring one going forward, and I will strive to give it its due, with a hefty percentage of postings, balancing some of the more daunting entries sure to come in the new year.

The impetus behind the launch of this initiative is specifically the encouragement of Fr Dcn Yuri Maximov, of the Moscow Theological Academy, with whom I am delighted to have struck up a correspondence. Dcn Yuri was a close friend and co-laborer with Priest-Martyr Daniil Sysoev, who of course is revered for his missionary work among Muslims in Moscow, having converted some eighty from Islam to the Orthodox Faith in Jesus Christ (including some "hard core" Salafists and Wahhabists). Fr Daniil and Dcn Yuri launched an actual missionary program out of the small wooden church in South Moscow dedicated to the Apostle Thomas which Fr Daniil had founded; this met with much success, training ordinary lay people in the essentials of sharing the Orthodox Gospel with others. In a recent email to me, Dcn Yuri writes:

I saw your blog, it has good materials. In USA and Russia we still have a freedom to tell the truth about Islam. In Europe there is no freedom for the theme already... I think it's important for your blog to have more information about mission amongst Muslims. Because to speak truth about Islamic terrorism without mission perspective is way to despair. And if we keep understanding that God make the Muslims as our neighbours for they will know about Christ, we have a good perspective. We start to see Muslims not as the problem, but as the way to fulfill the last comandment of Christ. This is the mention of St. Gregory Palamas, when he was captured by the Turks...

I was very moved when I read this email from Dcn Yuri. Both because I personally struggle against that sense of despair and hopelessness which he warns against, and because I feel personally responsible in writing on this subject to be a voice of encouragement, of hope, and of faith. One senses in Dcn Yuri's words the warmth of an evangelist, the love of a missionary for those who do not yet know Christ. This is what we must labor to acquire in our own hearts. Perhaps it is given to us today to apply the word of St Seraphim of Sarov — to acquire the Holy Spirit — so as to be equipped to share the Orthodox Gospel. Each small effort to advance the Gospel contributes to the spread of the Kingdom of God.

Thus, I would like to offer below an excerpt from an amazing interview conducted in Serbia with Fr Daniil and Dcn Yuri only a week before Fr Daniil's martyrdom. The links to the two portions of this lengthy interview are at the bottom of this post, but I will post excerpts from this treasure from time to time for both its inspirational value, as well as its practical direction. If nothing else, we here in America should feel deeply convicted (and thereby motivated!) by the evangelical warmth and zeal of our heavenly intercessor Fr. Daniil Sysoev — May we have his blessing!

~ ~ ~

Fr. Daniil:  I think that the Lord has now created such a situation that almost the whole world is open for Orthodox missions. Truly, such was not the case 20 years ago. And regarding globalization-this is an act of God in order that the Gospel makes it to the ends of the world, so that the undistorted preaching of the Holy Apostles could reach every people of the earth. If we, Christians, do not use this chance then the Lord will demand an answer from us for the fact that we did not convert people to the light of Orthodoxy. Regarding missions, they are beginning to be revived. We know that there are active missions in the Russian Church and the Greek Church; the Orthodox Church of Alexandria actively preaches. Yuri Valeryevich can talk about that in more detail, and I will speak about Russia.

In Russia there are two types of missions: internal missions targeted at nominal Orthodox, more correctly called catechism, and missions targeted at those outside the Church. Unfortunately, external missions are less active, but it is also starting to intensify right now. Yuri Valeryevich and I, having studied the experience of a number of missionaries, came to the conclusion that it was necessary to create a missionary movement and we did that in the creation of the missionary movement of the Holy Prophet Daniel, where the a program based on the general experience of the Russian Orthodox Church, in a sense, exists. We have courses, over the course of a year, for training Orthodox missionaries which train people to preach on the streets, among sects, among those of other religions, as well as among average nominal Orthodox.

How is this done? People are invited to talk about God; those who have for a long time not been to church, and those who have never been there are invited; people are invited to confession and communion; the unbaptized are offered baptism. At the same time, our missionaries hand out special leaflets in which is explained why one should cross themselves, go to confession, and go to communion and the address of a church is given-this is very important, so that there is a place to send them.

Further is the second stage: catechism. There are a few systems of catechism in use. In my church there is a system of five talks: on God, on the creation of the world, on Christ, on the Holy Mysteries, and on the Law of God. Each talk is two-and-a-half hours long, and during those talks the person is prepared for baptism or reconciliation to the Church if it is a sectarian. They will also read the four Gospels and Acts and then be solemnly joined to the Church. We usually have baptisms at a baptismal liturgy.

Then, after baptism, is the second step: people enter into the life of the Church, studying Holy Scripture. For this we have permanent classes on studying the Bible. Every week, in our church and in a few other churches in Moscow, we study the holy Word of God in detail. This is very important as, for many Protestants, one of the reason why they are not in the Orthodox Church is that the Holy Scripture is not studied. I think that we, having such rich interpretation of the Bible from the Holy Fathers, must use it...

When we talk about the fact that the Church must be missionary, we remember that the Savior Himself, the Lord Jesus Christ, commanded all Christians to preach the Gospel to all people without exception. And, therefore, the Church is obligated to take the Word of God to all people. The Church must be active and not static, and that which is happening in the Russian Church is evidence that it is returning to its apostolic roots. Hundreds of priests and lay persons of our Church preach on the streets, go to the meetings of sectarians, and go to mosques and many then turn to Christ. I think that all of the Orthodox Churches must go and proclaim the Gospel to people. We should not be content with what we already have. Christ has very many sheep which we still have not found. Right now I have studying at my parish a family of Muslims from the Caucuses who wants to be baptized and they said to me, “Why did not you, Orthodox priests, come to our ancestors? Why did they not know about this truth? Why did we never hear about it in Dagestan?”

It often seems to us that we cannot do anything, but this is not so. The Orthodox Church can and does do very much for conversions. Some say that the Lord Himself leads people into the Orthodox Church. Yes, the Lord Himself leads people but through us, and if we lead a person to baptism then we cover a multitude of sins as the Apostle James said. We receive an enormous award in the Heavenly Kingdom if we turn people to repentance. Furthermore, when the Church preaches the Gospel to those outside itself, even to those of other nations, then the Church itself is rejuvenated, strengthened, and flourishes because the Holy Spirit then gives it strength in order to carry out missions also among its own people.

Some say, “First convert your own people then go to others,” but the Lord did not say that. If we have a neighbor who is a Muslim, Catholic, or Protestant why are they still not Orthodox? For we know that outside the Church there is no salvation, and those people, if they do not come into the Orthodox Church will perish forever, they will go into the eternal fire. We had an issue with Chechnya and some ask, “How can we preach to Chechens?” But I say that a Chechen who finds Christ becomes a better Christian than a normal person from a traditional Orthodox family. I had an acquaintance who was a Chechen Wahhabite and he came to me to convert me to Islam. We decided to examine where the truth is. Over the course of two months I told him about Christianity and afterwards he asked me, “And why haven’t you offered to baptize me?” I said, “If you believe you can be baptized,” and he was baptized. His name is now Alexander.

Slaughter of the Innocents

Christ is Born! Glorify Him!

In the Orthodox tradition, we commemorate the first martyrs for Christ on December 29. These are the 14,000 Holy Innocents, all male children under the age of two in the Bethlehem area, whom Herod ordered killed in order to slay the Infant King (MT 2:16-18). This Christmas, as in recent years, we see similar evil efforts to slay Christ and wipe out His kingship, and His Church, which is His kingdom on earth.

In Nigeria, at least five bombings, killing dozens, targeted Christian worshippers during their Nativity services. Last Christmas the same extremist Muslim sect Boko Haram killed eighty Christians in church bombings in Nigeria. In Indonesia, threats from an Islamic group forced one Christian church to hold its services in a member's home. In Iraq, Christians suspended their Nativity services due to the threat of violence, although with heavy security, three Roman Catholic parishes in Iraq were able to celebrate Christmas Mass. In an under-reported footnote to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, the number of Christians has collapsed from 1.5 million ten years ago to less than a third of that number now, as Christians flee persecution from the emboldened Muslim majority.

In Iran this Christmas, authorities detained an entire church, including the children in Sunday school. And, as I have posted before on this blog, the Coptic Orthodox in Egypt are living in fear after years of worsening persecution at the hands of the Muslim majority.

Our Lord quite clearly told us, "If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you also," and "They will persecute you from town to town," and "The time is coming when those who kill you will think they are serving God." Such are the times in which we live, when Muslim persecution of Christians across the globe is advancing, and when in the West, rejection of Christianity and traditional moral uprightness based on the Life in Christ takes the form of open hostility, ridicule and even legislative efforts. Here in America, sin is extolled as the highest good, and the Christian message of repentance and salvation is slandered as 'hate speech'.

Yet we must not cave in to despair, knowing that "He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world." As we begin the new year, let us lift up one another and especially our suffering brothers and sisters before the Lord. Prayer, not despair, is our vocation. Hope is our message. Love, even for our enemies, is our action in the world. And Faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, even in the face of a sea of troubles, is our firm support. In all this, the Orthodox Church is our Ark, as the Holy Fathers tell us, and will prevail, leading us to salvation and eternal life.

May the Lord protect those who are His, and receive the sacrifices of His faithful servants who suffer for His Most Holy Name, the Name of Jesus, before Whom every knee shall bow at the end of the age. Amen.