The Chapel of St. Petka

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I thought I should say a word or two about my new header. The church pictured in the header image is the chapel dedicated to St. Paraskeva-Petka located in the famous fortress in Belgrade known as Kalemegdan. We took a stroll through the park one day we were in town.

vasokalemegdan2In Kalemegdan there is a church dedicated to the Nativity of the Mother of God (which is near St. Petka’s chapel; pictured on left). It is believed that this church was built during the reign of the Serbian despot Stefan Lazarevic (1402-27). On a side note, I believe it was Despot Stefan who assigned the Feast of the Ascension to be the Slava of the City of Belgrade. See here for pictures from this year’s Ascension Day Liturgy and Litya through the streets of Belgrade.

The exact place of the original church is unknown, nor is it known whether the church was built at that time or if it was built on an earlier foundation. When Turks captured Belgrade in 1521 the church was either destroyed or turned into an arsenal and it remained as such until 1867 when the Turks gave over the keys to the Serbs to the Belgrade Fortress to then Prince Mihailo Obrenovic. In December of that year the church was rebuilt.

It was damaged during WWI, especially in the fall of 1915 from Austrian artillery attacks from across the Danube and Sava Rivers.  A large number of Serbian soldiers lost their lives defending Belgrade there. The ruined church witnessed the liberation of Belgrade in 1918. Between the wars it functioned as a military church under the auspices of the Ministry of Defense.

After WWII the Church of the Nativity of the Mother of Church, commonly known as “Ruzica”, became a nonparochial church where professors of the Theological Faculty and teachers at the Belgrade Seminary preach and use to perform rites such marriage and baptisms, etc.

The Chapel of St. Petka, on the other, (the one pictured in the header) was built in 1937. Until that time there a cave chapel on that spot, through which the faithful could approach the Well of healing water of St. Petka. During Turkish rule the faithful would freely come to the Well to drink or take some of the water home. In 1917 the Well ran dry but then on the feast of St. Onesimus (28/15 February) the water reappeared. Subsequently, St. Onesimus is the protector of the Well.

The healing water from the Well is still available to this day. A church house was built also in 1937 and was destroyed during the American bombing of Belgrade in 1944. A new house was built on the same place in 1990. (I used Fr. Radomir Popovic’s little booklet about the St. Petka Chapel and the Kalemegdan Ruzica Church for most of the above.)

During our walk to St. Petka’s chapel we got some of the healing water for ourselves (in fact, Vaso is holding a bottle of it in the picture above.) In the picture directly below we are making our way out of the park. There was some sort of an exhibit. The church you see in the background is the Cathedral church in Belgrade which is directly across the street from the Serbian Patriarchate which, as you see, is practically across the street from the Kalemegdan park. The rest of the pictures are of the Kalemegdan fortresss.

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The Earth or our Life

I remember as a kid my friend telling me stories as we rode our bikes up and down the street one day of how his Ascensiongrandfather, who happen to be a minister, had told him stories of how the end of the world is to come soon and the world will be destroyed and all those that believe in Jesus will be taken up to heaven. Once the world is destroyed, he went on, a new one will be made. As we rode our bikes we were quite curious as to what the new one would look like. Maybe the grass will be purple and the sun green and the sky red, we wondered.

That conversation has always stayed with me over the years but, I admit, the colors of the new earth don’t hold my curiosity as much as when I was young. It is this conversation which comes to mind each year we celebrate the Ascension of our Lord. And it was Metropolitan George’s homily I posted yesterday as well as a homily I read by Fr. Ted on his blog here which reminded me even more of it.

In his sermon Fr. Ted asks the question, if Jesus “was mostly interested in heaven, it is strange He taught His followers how to live on earth, and then left His disciples on earth with that work to do.” That is, when He ascended to heaven – and He wanted His disciples to go to heaven – why didn’t He take them along?!?

He concludes:

“On the very day Christ ascended into heaven, even the angels tell the apostles (and us) to quit gawking into heaven as their and our work is on earth. What we need is not Heaven but the Holy Spirit because Jesus is coming back! Our role is to do on earth God’s will as it is done in heaven, which is not the same as saying we need to do God’s will in heaven. We cannot skip the earth or our life here, but rather are to do His work and will on this planet: to be His witnesses, to talk not only about Christ’s death but also about His resurrection. We have to get our heads out of the clouds of heaven and castles in the sky in order to carry out Christ’s mission on earth. The Feast of the Ascension is very much a call to all of us to be ministers of the Gospel, to be the Church, to make disciples of all nations by being witnesses to what God has done in and through His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.”

ascend12This, I think, corresponds with the metropolitan’s words from yesterday’s post when He says that it is not only the Disciples who are dear to the Lord, it is not only His followers He wants in heaven, but indeed the entire world! Everything and everyone! And, in turn, “everything is attracted to heaven”; everything – except only sin, mind you – is pulling towards heaven and heaven towards it.  Although there is a great desire and yearning for this union and communion with one another there is one sure way of not attaining it, which is wondering what color the grass will be on the other side.  “Why do you stand gazing up into heaven?” the angel asked (Acts 1:11). I’m sure it has something to with man’s curiosity which, if we can learn anything from our feline friends, can be a dangerous thing.

There are, it seems, much more important things to concern ourselves with. Namely, with ridding ourselves from that one thing which has absolutely no attraction to heaven which is sin. Indeed, it is in overcoming this which will secure us a place in God’s heavenly kingdom. Or, more accurately, as our Lord tells us, “To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne” (Rev. 3:21).

Christ in His Ascension

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The following is a homily by Metropolitan George (Khodr) of Mount Lebanon. It’s a little lengthy but I think worth the read.

What does Holy Scripture really mean when talking about the Ascension of Christ into Heaven? This occasion or this ‘mystery’, is the fulfillment of the discourse concerning the incarnation of the Word. This is the last chapter that talks about both the divinity and humanity of Christ.

The story develops, according to Mark, after Jesus appeared to His disciples and after He commanded the Gospel to them, “He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God.”[Mark 16:19]. The resurrected Savior is, in His luminous and glorious body, co-enthroned with the Father in a way that He—not only through His divine nature—but also through His victorious and deified human nature, is co-equal to the Father. In the same way where you would co-equate another human being to yourself by offering him a seat on your right-hand side, God the Father also equated His resurrected Christ with Himself.

In Luke’s gospel after He appeared to them for the last time, He was assumed to heaven in such a way it appears that the ascension and the resurrection were not separated by a time interval. In the beginnings of the Acts of the Apostles (which was written by St Luke) He appeared to them for forty days, then “He was parted from them and carried up into heaven.”[Luke 24:51]—and all this having happened after He promised them the Holy Spirit. For me, the forty days, are a symbolic number. Numbers were mainly used in a theological symbolism: This was the amount of time that the people of Israel spent in the desert of Sinai before they reached the Promised Land. Consequently, we can parallel this to Heaven—that Christ attained in His Ascension—which is in fact our Promised Land; or in other words, that the first one was a picture of this latter one. Similarly Moses “was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights” (Exodus 34:28).  Also the prophet Elias spent this amount of time on his way to Sinai. It seems that a symbolic number always precedes the transfigurations [revelations]; particularly in the ascension, the human nature of Christ is transfiguring for the last time and becomes able to co-sit with God. In the same way as God walked in the human nature through the incarnation of His Son, humanity walks in God through the Ascension of Christ.

The action did not take place within dimensions. It is the participation of the human nature, which was purified in Christ, in the heart of God [the divine nature]—These two natures function without confusion, are not divided nor separate, and at no time did they undergo any change—as determined by the 4th Ecumenical Council (451A.D.) That, which had already taken place in the incarnation, similarly takes place in the Ascension according to the same way. The human nature in Christ does not disappear or dissolve but its honor is transfigured [revealed] during His Ascension.

By saying: “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven” (John 3:13), It is not the movement in space, in both situations, that John is referring to but rather he meant that a junction between the two natures had come to happen. The eternal Son becomes incarnate from the moment after Archangel Gabriel’s annunciation to the virgin, and the Divinity assumes the humanity of Christ—since the moment of its creation until fulfillment— in death and resurrection and its revelation in the ascension. The Ascension is the appearance or revelation of what had come to happen, since the moment the Word was incarnate in the womb of Mary. The Son adopted the time and space and voluntarily submitted himself to it, but He again freed himself through His death and resurrection without abandoning His human nature, which was elevated [the human nature] beyond the bondage of time and space. It is merely for the common expression’s sake that it was said “He descended” or “He ascended”. Christ was here because He wanted to heal and free us. After doing such, He “ascended” to heaven. Heaven is the place where man is attracted to, but heaven is not a location. Heaven is not above and neither is the man below it. Him who attainted the divine state is in heaven. The human body, in the General Resurrection, will enter the divine state, which would be expressed as “being in heaven.” When Holy Scripture wanted to express the fulfillment of Christ in the human nature, it said, “He ascended.” In reality, Christ—in His Glory—entered to the Divine expanse or He assumed his humanity to this expanse. Christ is not in a locale; neither do we go to a certain location in order to meet with Him. He comes to us in the Holy Spirit, imprints Himself in us, and assumes us a habitat for Himself. His heaven is within us.

Christ, sitting up on high is glowing with the Holy Spirit. “If I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you… However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth… but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice.” (The sermon of farewell, according to St John). Christ is hidden physically [in the body], but He is active through the Divine Spirit. This Spirit depicts Christ in the human soul. Jesus is not absent, but the intimacy of the relationship between Him and us is stronger than the relation that existed between Him and His disciples. We are always in a state of waiting for Him. His face is turned towards us and ours towards Him.

Man awaits the return of God to abide in him, and God awaits the return of man to Him through repentance, longing and hope. The ascension is the judge in both the two situations; it is the revelation—not only of the transfiguration of God—but also to the transfigurations of men if they walked in God.

And God comes back to you in order that you may remain a complete human, not that you should demolish your human nature, but rather that you reestablish it upon purity. Your God will not annul you, but He will “employ” himself within you; He will not melt you within Himself in the Last Day because you will be resurrected and you will hold your entire self in front of His eyes after that the Holy Spirit has brought your bones back to life. This “move” towards God, in this world and in the world to come, through holiness and righteousness is not a transformation in your human nature in itself, because originally, your nature  exists only if it sprung from the divinity of God.

And if He waited for you, He is waiting with you that you shall elevate [offer] unto him all the works of history as an offering. You only are able to utter creativity through His inspirations. He motivates in you the beauty of your human nature. You are beautified if He found His habitation within you and if you ascended, you will be ascending unto Him and you will not loose anything from all what you originally had of purity, glory and righteousness.

The words that you utter are not truly magnificent, if they are not coming from the light that God pitched into your heart; all the more these words remain human ones. Every great word that was uttered in the times of humanity is a human word; even so if it was descended unto them from the heart of God. The divine “breeze” that descends upon you does not impede you on a creative level; it becomes within you a golden speech. You are not a mere cassette-player replaying God’s words, but you are a creator of beauty springing form within yourself—from your inner soul, which was touched by God—but not abolished and replaced by Him.

If He was the beauty that is within you, then He must have passed by your world. He set it alive within you and through you. The world have no existence without you, it does not exist apart from you. The world is your quadrant and you are its playground. Your world is printed, in its magnitude, on the face of God. Since this world is His creation, it will remain forever after having baptized it, in the Last Day, in His global and eternal Light. It shall remain united in its matter, mind and light all together. The world will become your Lord’s vestment upon the Second Coming of Christ.

Starting from this vision, Christianity is then knit to the history and routed in the eternity at the same time, global and covering the universe with light; Christianity is responsible in time but free from its bondage. It [Christianity] is present in the matter and motivating this matter with the motion of the spirit. That is why Christianity has nothing far apart from the time just for the sake of a “romantic” eternity, nor does it passively stand in the viewer’s stand watching the course of events as they were independent from the human being.

The believer doesn’t escape to a desert—not even if it became his hermitage—for he will have the whole world in his heart and prayers. Some of us may seek solitude for peace and tranquility’s sake, but he is never deserted. His profoundness will become deeper as he stands in the divine presence.

The world is entirely included in Christ’s salvation plan. Everything in the world is His dearly beloved for the exception of sin. Everything in it is attracted to heaven. Our mind is attracted towards heaven as far as this mind is awaking, loving and hugging for the existence. But never in the way, that we shall detest all the good in our world, not in the way that we should become indifferent to the construction, improvement and organizing of the world.

We can never say that this world ascends through its own powers, nor does this world progresses automatically towards the better. But we do preach that God elevates the humans and their surrounding in His loving care. The world is elevated and does not ascend by itself. It struggles and God accepts it and pulls it up to Himself. He, who is sitting up on high in His Bright Body, opens up and embraces him who is longing for Him. After the Ascension of Christ, tomorrow the universe, in its turn, will be received up. These are the ways of the affectionate.

The Three Births of Christ

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“St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite, calling on the witness of Macarios Chrysocephalos and Gregory of Agrigentum, says that Christ in His human nature had three births, the first from the Virgin Mary, the second by Baptism and the third by Resurrection. And with reference to these three births He was called first-born, because in the first He is first-born among many brothers according to the communion of the flesh, in the second He was called first-born of the new creation, and in the third, first-born of the dead. If we are attentive, we shall discover that forty days after these three births, after each of these three happenings of the Lord, there followed an important event. Forty days after His birth He was brought to the Temple, and we have the feast of the Circumcision. Forty days after His Baptism in the Jordan River He conquered the devil in those three temptations. And forty days after His Resurrection He ascended into Heaven and offered to His Father the first-fruits of our own nature.”

Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos
The Feasts of the Lord, “The Divine Ascension”

Sunday of the Blind Man

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When our Lord raised Lazarus from the dead, St. John tells us in his gospel that He “lifted His eyes to heaven” and prayed and afterwards, with a loud voice He said “Lazarus, come forth!” (John 11).

Yet, in the gospel that we hear this morning, in which our Lord gave sight to a man who was born blind, our Lord doesn’t merely give a command. Instead, we heard how He “spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva; and He annointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay” (John 9:6). One wonders, therefore, why did the Lord raise Lazarus with a mere command and for this blind man He had to use clay?

We find the answer in the chapter right before this one in St. John’s gospel, chapter eight. There, Jesus is engaged in a rather long discussion with the Pharisees in which He trys to reveal to them just who He is. The Jews tell Him, among other things, that they are descendants of Abraham and therefore they have the true faith and, subsequently, no need for Jesus. Our Lord tells them that He knows very well that they are the descendants of Abraham and He goes on and on and finally He says something which makes them very angry. He says, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was I AM.” Now, we know from the Old Testament that God reveals Himself to Moses at the burning bush and the name that He gave himself was I AM. So, when Jesus uses this name for Himself – which is to say that He was implying that He was God – it greatly angered the people and, as St. John says in his gospel account: “Then they took up stones to throw at Him; but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by”.

It was as He passed by that He encountered this blind man.  When He goes to heal him He does something in order to prove His claim that He is I AM. In other words, just as God created man from the dust of the earth, so too does our Lord give sight to this man using the ground, spitting upon it and using the saliva to make clay. It was in this way that He wished not only to give sight to this man who was blind, but to also allow those who lacked spiritual sight to see and to believe in His divinity.

For, in the end, what does it mean to be blind? It means to look out the window and see the trees and the grass and the flowers and the animals and to see all of creation and not see God’s fingerprint in everything.  To be blind means to live one’s life not seeing any meaning and purpose, to not see God’s hand in everything that happens to us, guiding us to salvation. This is true blindness. This is the blindness which Christ came to heal us all from. He is, as He says in this morning’s reading, the light of the world who has come to shine upon all things and to be our illumination.

When we doubt, however, when we are of little faith, He doesn’t abandon us nor does He forget us nor does He banish us. Rather, He pursues us. We remember how the disciple Thomas doubted and our Lord instead of rebuking him, instead of casting him out from the disciples, He, instead, invites Him to touch and feel with his hands His wounds. For, in the end, He doesn’t want him, nor does He want any of us, to be unbelieving but to be believing. In that same way, to prove His divinity, to prove His claim that He was before Abraham, to prove that He has come from the heavenly throne out of His great love mankind and for all of us individually – He takes the ground and with His saliva He makes clay and He heals the man who was born blind.

This is the God in whom we believe. The God whose great love for mankind is indescribable and inexpressible. The God who, out of His great mercy, reveals Himself to us thousands of times a day only if we are willing to open our eyes and find Him. It is, therefore, in response to this great love that He has shown towards us that we exclaim with our whole heart and our entire being:  CHRIST IS RISEN!