Ancient Answers


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Do you live by love, or by fear?

It seems that my Logos bible software is no longer putting up slides with daily Bible verses, so I have to look elsewhere for illustrated Bible verses. I’m not artistic, so I can’t create my own Bible slides. Today I choose to reflect on 1 John 4:18 φόβος οὐκ ἔστιν ἐν τῇ ἀγάπῃ, ἀλλ’ ἡ τελεία ἀγάπη ἔξω βάλλει τὸν φόβον, ὅτι ὁ φόβος κόλασιν ἔχει, ὁ δὲ φοβούμενος οὐ τετελείωται ἐν τῇ ἀγάπῃ – There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love. The word κόλασιν is translated as punishment in most English versions, but it can also be more strongly translated as torment. The context of this verse is the final judgment. The sentence immediately preceding (verse 17) tells us “that we may have confidence for the day of judgment.” So it seems obvious that the fear that John refers to in verse 18 is the fear of punishment on the day of judgment.

The only other place in the New Testament where the word κόλασις occurs is in the parable of the sheep and goats (Mathew 25:31-46). At the very end of the parable Jesus sends the goats to “eternal punishment” κόλασιν αἰώνιον. But in the same parable Jesus also refers to the “eternal fire” – τὸ πῦρ τὸ αἰώνιον – that awaits the devil and his angels. Because Jesus in the parable sends the goats to the eternal fire and torment/punishment of κόλασις, the word κόλασις eventually came to mean “hell”, and that is still its meaning in modern Greek.

So, to go back to 1 John 4:18, fear has to do with hell and punishment. I translate the Greek, ὁ φόβος κόλασιν ἔχει, as “fear has torment in mind.” Or even, “fear has hell in mind”!

But the man or woman who lives in the love of God does not live in fear. And not only fear of punishment or hell, but fear of life! Have you noticed how fearful we have become as a society? We are afraid of terrorism, afraid of hackers, afraid of immigrants, afraid of viruses – but also afraid of vaccines to prevent viruses (figure that one out!) – afraid of the food and water we consume, afraid of going out at night or walking alone, afraid of being stopped by the police, afraid, afraid, afraid… And politicians exploit these fears and magnify them with their own fear-mongering and fake news.

I used to begin my morning by reading the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Guardian in order to get a good summary of real news – not the fake news pushed by others. I will continue to support and subscribe online to these newspapers, as well as our local newspaper, because I believe in the freedom of the press and the essential role that truth-telling newspapers have in a democracy. I trust these newspapers, but if the choice is between real news and fake news, I now prefer to spend  more time with the good news – the good news of Jesus Christ, that is. Not that I’m sticking my head in the sand to avoid knowing what’s going on, but because reading the good news gives me a better perspective when I turn to the New York Times or the Guardian.

There is a culture of fear that has grown disproportionately far beyond the real dangers out there. And fear separates us from our fellow humans. And ultimately fear separates us from God.

But isn’t it strange that the parable of the sheep and goats hardly scares anyone, while we lock our doors and our hearts to the countless fears that preoccupy us? We’re not scared of God because we’ve turned God into a meaningless “higher power” or “the man upstairs” – and these are the wrong reasons for not being afraid of God. We are missing the real reason for not being afraid of God: namely, that God is love and perfect love casts out fear. And perhaps it is love that is missing in our lives, real love – love not rooted in fear or self-interest, but love as God showed love in his Son, Jesus Christ. “For God so loved the world….” Think about how love can transform your fears into rational caution rather than irrational fear of everything that moves. Now read the whole passage in the First Letter of John that explains it all, better than I can.


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Matters of Language

At last Sunday’s Matins I was shocked by the language in the Doxastikon of the Praises. The text refers to the Resurrection Gospel that was read earlier in the Matins service and which described the encounter of Mary Magdalene with the resurrected Jesus. Here is a translation of the Doxastikon:

Verily, the fervid tears of Mary were not shed in vain; for behold she was found worthy to learn from the angels, and to look at your face, O Jesus. But since she was a weak woman she was still thinking of earthly things. Therefore, she was turned away from touching you, O Christ. But she was sent to proclaim to your Disciples, and to tell them the glad tidings of your ascent to the heavenly heritage. With her, therefore, make us worthy of your appearance, O Lord. 

So Mary Magdalene was “a weak woman”, γυνὴ ἀσθενής? Maybe in the mind of the anonymous monk who composed this hymn, but certainly not in the Gospels, where the women, including Mary Magdalene, were the only disciples who stayed with Jesus to the end; except for John, who was the only male disciple at Golgotha.

In Christian traditional language, women are rarely more than weak; after all, they are descendants of Eve, who led Adam to sin by her own weakness in the face of the serpent’s temptation. Even men who know nothing about the Bible or theology – and don’t care to know anything – do not hesitate to blame Eve and women in general for everything that they don’t like. It’s only a short hop from the Doxastikon last Sunday to the hatred of women that we see in our society today.

When women are not “weak” in the medieval traditions of the church, they are sinners or prostitutes. No wonder that the only women that can become “saints” are either virgin martyrs or nuns; or repentant prostitutes who become nuns! Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza published a landmark book in 1983, In Memory of Her. The title of her book comes from the episode in Mark’s Gospel where an unnamed woman anointed Jesus. Immediately there was an uproar among the men against this act under the pretext that it was a waste of money. But Jesus’ response was memorable: “Truly I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mark 14:9). The Greek is even more pointed: ἀμὴν δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν, ὅπου ἐὰν κηρυχθῇ τὸ εὐαγγέλιον εἰς ὅλον τὸν κόσμον, καὶ ὃ ἐποίησεν αὕτη λαληθήσεται εἰς μνημόσυνον αὐτῆς. Because of that conjunction καὶ in the middle of this sentence, I would translate it more like this: “Truly I say to you, wherever in all the world the gospel is proclaimed, this also, what she has done, will be shouted out as a memorial to her.” This act is her memorial for all eternity. But it also becomes part of the gospel, part of the good news of Jesus Christ. Because of that conjunction καὶ! For no other person, man or woman, does Jesus say such a thing. Perhaps the only other saying of Jesus that could be considered as similarly remarkable is what Jesus said to the thief on the cross.

Matthew’s Gospel has the exact same incident almost word-for-word as in Mark (see Matthew 26:6-13). There is a similar incident recounted in Luke 7:36-50, and there it is a sinful woman (presumably a prostitute or an adulteress) who anoints the feet of Jesus and receives forgiveness. But the Luke incident is clearly a different event and a different woman. There is NO similarity with the woman in Mark and Matthew. And yet much of Byzantine and medieval tradition merged both incidents into one: It’s a sinful woman who anointed Jesus!

Schüssler Fiorenza also points out something else that is deeply important and perceptive. In Luke’s narrative the woman washes the feet of Jesus and then anoints his feet with the ointment. It was normal in that society to wash the feet of a visitor; but even there the men make a big deal in Luke’s narrative because the woman was “a sinner.” How could Jesus allow a woman to wash his feet? Shocking! But the woman in Mark and Matthew pours the ointment over Jesus’ head, not his feet. Schüssler Fiorenza goes on to point out:

Since the prophet in the Old Testament anointed the head of the Jewish king, the anointing of Jesus’ head must have been understood immediately as the prophetic recognition of Jesus, the Anointed, the Messiah, the Christ. According to the tradition [accurately reflected by Mark and Matthew] it was a woman who named Jesus by and through her prophetic sign-action. It was a politically dangerous story.

Politically dangerous indeed; as in today’s political climate as well. Far from the world of “weak” women to which much of the Christian tradition has reduced women, here we have a woman who acted as a prophet in the Old Testament sense and proclaimed, by anointing his head, Jesus to be Messiah, the Anointed. Whether she was conscious of this or not, it is enough to say that God intended this woman to be the prophetess for Jesus. Just as another woman, Anna, was prophetess when she and Simeon recognized and blessed the 40-day old infant Jesus.

The language of church tradition needs a major overhaul, so we don’t resort to labels like “a weak woman” to describe one of the strongest and most remarkable persons in the life of Christ. And so we don’t turn every woman who went to Jesus into a prostitute or sinner. I’m not advocating political correctness of any sort. The label “politically correct” becomes a convenient way out for men in power. This is not about political correctness – it’s about linguistic correctness and accurate exegesis! But then that last sentence is probably beyond the vocabulary of many men in our society, including men in positions of power.

But what about Mary, the mother of Jesus, the most visible woman in the New Testament? She is the highest of all the saints in the church’s estimation. She is held as a model of purity, humility, faith and faithfulness, devotion, and everything positive that can be said about a person of faith. Surely she doesn’t need any “politically correct” help. Think again. In the most commonly used hymn devoted to her we sing these words:

More honorable than the cherubim and beyond compare more glorious than the seraphim, without defilement you gave birth to God the Word. True Theotokos we magnify you.

A beautiful hymn to be sure, that properly elevates Mary beyond even the highest angels. But maybe she’s elevated too high, so she ceases to be a woman? Note how the hymn describe her birth-giving of Jesus: “without defilement” or “uncorruptedly” – αδιαφθόρως. Why is her birth-giving without defilement, without corruption? Is it a defilement to give birth? Is it corruption? Is her birth-giving “without defilement” because it was a virgin birth? So every other human birth is a defilement? Do I have to be politically correct to say that there is a problem with the anthropology behind such language? I prefer to believe that this is not the authentic language of the church! And yet there it is, in one of the most frequently sung hymns. I prefer to think it is the language of male monks. It is indeed a tragedy that once monasticism became an organ of the imperial church instead of what it was at the beginning – an act of resistance against the state church and the empire – the church allowed monks to become the primary hymn composers. And that is still the case today. And it’s a mistake, in my opinion; a weakness in our otherwise rich liturgical tradition.

A fellow church member was rejoicing that Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the US Supreme Court. He looks forward to the Supreme Court now overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that legalized abortion in the United States over 40 years ago. I told him that if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, there will be revolution and women will rise up. That’s okay, was his reply, we’ll put them right back in their place.

I don’t expect anything from politicians and Supreme Court justices. But the church listens to another teacher, the Holy Spirit. Shouldn’t we start by taking an honest look at our language and how we interpret the Bible? It would be a good start toward healing our attitude to women – and to men, for that matter.


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When God is rejected

God’s love for the world entailed also a love for the nations. The Bible does not shy away from the political overtones of God’s ways. But God’s desire for the nations has always – without exception – been disappointed. Yes, disappointed – from the very beginning. God’s desire was that his people would be “a light for the nations” as the verse from Isaiah boldly proclaims.

But what happens when the people of God become like the “nations”? Then the light is no more. In the early days of the Jewish people, after their exodus from Egypt and their settling in the promised land, they were led by “judges” – men or women (yes, women!) of wisdom and spiritual (and military!) strength. Samuel was the last of the judges. Two books in the Old Testament are named for him, because of the huge role he played in the early life of the nation of Israel. In chapter 7 of the First Book of Samuel we read:

Then Samuel said to all the house of Israel, “If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you, and direct your heart to the Lord, and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” So Israel put away the Baals and the Ashtaroth, and they served the Lord only.

But it didn’t last long. Have you noticed how few things last long in the Bible? How easy it is for people to forget God and God’s goodness? Is it easy for you to want to be like everyone else and do what everyone else is doing? You’re not alone. In the very next chapter of 1 Samuel, chapter 8, we read one of the most devastating and most political passages in all Scripture:

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint for us a king to govern us like all the nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” And Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Hearken to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. According to all the deeds which they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt even to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are also doing to you. Now then, hearken to their voice; only, you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

The people wanted a king so they could be like “all the nations.” But God explains to Samuel what is really going on. The people are rejecting God; they don’t want God as their king, they want a regular king, like the other nations have. They want to be like everyone else. But God wants them to know how it will be when kings rule over them and instructs Samuel to warn them how things will be when they are ruled by kings. But the people insisted, they wanted a king. And as it turned out for the next five hundred years, most kings were a disaster – as human “kings” and presidents generally are.

God meant his people to be a light to the nations – not to be like the nations. No nation – without any exception – can be a light or a “city on a hill” as some national mythologies like to say. Only people and communities of people can be light to the world, to the nations, and to the nation. Israel failed in its calling because it wanted to be like the nations. The Christian Church has failed because it chose to become an apparatus of nations and kings.

There remains only the hope for people and communities of people to accept the radical calling of God to be LIGHT. The calling is a choice for every one of us and for every community of faith. Do we continue the tradition of cozying up to nations and their leaders, or do we strike out as men and women of resistance to what every one else cheers on? God does not force anyone. But God does lament when his own people choose to be like every one else. God is not like the kings of nations. God is not like anyone else! His leadership in our lives is unique and uniquely transformative. Where can you start today not to be like every one else?


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Thorn in the Flesh

Today we are again in Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians. In our passage today he is in self-reflexive mode, but here he boasts that he has been granted visions and revelations, even vision of Paradise. And not even a vision, but an actual transfer to Paradise – whether in the body or out of the body he did not know. There he heard things that “cannot be told, which man may not utter.” He was taken to heaven, but he could not describe it nor repeat what he heard there. It was a mystical experience that could not be put into words.

In recent years a whole bunch of books have been written about near-death experiences, even books that presume to describe heaven – written by adults and even a child or two! Some people have taken comfort and reassurance in these books. I find it hard to take them seriously. If the great apostle Paul could not describe heaven, how can anyone else? There is a lot of deception in the world, “for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light,” Paul tells us in this same letter, just a couple paragraphs before our reading today. Even Satan can disguise as an angel of light. That’s a powerful statement, even more relevant today than in Paul’s time – because today with the spread of the Internet and instant media and interview shows on TV, any false teaching can be peddled as truth.

So John tells us in his First Letter, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” And Paul also exhorts us, “but test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

Why should we believe Paul that he was taken to heaven? Maybe he was deceived? After all, he is boasting! Shouldn’t that disqualify him? Boasting is self-serving, self-promoting after all. In anyone else yes, but not in Paul’s case. Why? Because he tells us, he is not boasting about his visions; he is boasting about his weaknesses! What? Have you ever heard anyone boast about his weakness? Well yes, there are some who do that, but they are probably nut cases.

Listen again to what Paul writes: And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.

This passage is enough to make Paul a spiritual giant among men – which he is, of course. He even accuses himself here, when he says that a thorn in the flesh was given to him, to harass him, so he wouldn’t get too proud or boastful about the revelations he received. He prayed to God about this thorn in the flesh, but each time God answered him in words beyond our ordinary understanding. Only deep faith can understand the answer God gave to Paul and not turn away from God. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

That is the key; that is the difference between Paul and those who write books about heaven. That’s what makes his talk of heaven authentic.

None of us wants to suffer. None of us wants a thorn in the flesh. None of us wants to be weak or to be seen as weak. To be proud of one’s weakness can easily be interpreted in today’s society as something weird or demented. None of us wants to suffer. Neither did Paul. Three times he prayed to God to take this thorn from him. Three times God refused. Does that remind you of someone else? Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane?

But both Jesus and Paul allowed God’s power to be revealed in their suffering. Jesus’ suffering and death on the Cross brought salvation to the world. Paul’s sufferings showed how God can work through any one of us to show his power. And his power has nothing to do with earthly power or what we humans customarily think of power. God is not a power player. He tried that game several thousand years ago in Egypt and Canaan, to no avail.

Madeleine L’Engle tells of an accident that nearly killed her. In the ambulance and in the hospital she held on to the ancient Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.” She wrote about that experience in her book The Rock That Is Higher. She was viciously attacked by evangelical fundamentalists, accusing her of using that prayer as a mantra, which they considered satanic. Imagine, L’Engle ruminates, the name of Jesus is satanic?!

To ask for mercy is to allow God to work through our weakness and suffering. Our suffering is the place where God’s love and mercy can most brightly shine forth. And that love and mercy are precisely what make up God’s power. And his power is made perfect in weakness – our weakness, Paul’s weakness, Jesus Christ’s weakness! If you suffer today rest in that mercy and grace of God. Go ahead and ask God to take it away from you. Paul did; Jesus did. But if he doesn’t – at least not in the way you hope or in the time you hope – read this passage from Second Corinthians and learn a new source of strength that perhaps you didn’t know before you were given the thorn or suffering that you are enduring.


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The Blessing of Abundance

I was struck by one phrase in the Epistle reading from 2 Corinthians 9:6-11. Τοῦτο δέ, ὁ σπείρων φειδομένως φειδομένως καὶ θερίσει, καὶ ὁ σπείρων ἐπʼ εὐλογίαις ἐπʼ εὐλογίαις καὶ θερίσει. That opening phrase, Τοῦτο δέ, is a call to attention: So now, this…this, pay attention, very important teaching about to follow. “He who sows sparingly – that is, with limits – will also reap sparingly.” Don’t think that by counting every penny, dollar, or every minute that you spend on something or someone you will achieve anything – whether love or a relationship or work to change society or helping someone in need.

How deep is your investment in someone’s life or in a principle you claim to care for? Are you counting pennies or minutes? Or are you invested abundantly, without comfortable limits? ὁ σπείρων ἐπʼ εὐλογίαις ἐπʼ εὐλογίαις καὶ θερίσει – “but he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.” Wow, that’s the phrase that hit me when I read this passage in the original language. It’s the mirror image of the first half of this sentence. The verbs are the same – σπείρω (speiro) and θερίζω (therizo), and the syntax is the same. But here we have the opposite of sparingly, φειδομένως (pheidomenos). Here we have ἐπʼ εὐλογίαις (ep’ eulogiais) – translated as abundantly, the opposite of sparingly. That struck me. εὐλογία (eulogia) usually means blessing. Here it means abundantly?

I went to my lexicons for some help. We know that εὖ λέγειν in ancient Greek meant “to speak well,” either in the sense of “to speak finely” or “to speak well of someone.” But this good speech is related to deeper aspects of a person’s character and disposition. Consider this passage from Plato’s Republic, Πολιτεία, Book 3, 400d:

‘As for speaking style and language,’ I said, ‘they depend on a person’s character, don’t they?’

‘Of course.’

‘And everything else depends on speaking style?’

‘Yes.’

‘It follows, then, that good use of language, harmony, grace, and rhythm all depend on goodness of character. I’m not talking about the state which is actually stupidity, but which we gloss as goodness of character; I’m talking about when the mind really has equipped the character with moral goodness and excellence.’  (Republic, Robin Waterfield, translator, Oxford University Press)

Plato here lists εὐλογία with εὐαρμοστία (good, harmonious temper), εὐσχημοσύνη (gracefulness), εὐρυθμία (good rhythm) and culminates at εὐηθείᾳ (goodness of heart, good nature, guilelessness, simplicity, honesty), a word whose root is ἦθος, from which we get ethics, but which is also the English word ethos: the characteristic spirit of a culture, era, or community as manifested in its beliefs and aspirations; but also the characteristic spirit of a person, as well.

But notice, Plato writes εὐηθείᾳ ἀκολουθεῖ. The good ethos follows from the abundance of εὖ words. I should point out that at the end of this section in the Republic Plato lists the opposites of the εὖ words: καὶ ἡ μὲν ἀσχημοσύνη καὶ ἀρρυθμία καὶ ἀναρμοστία κακολογίας καὶ κακοηθείας ἀδελφά: “gracelessness and evil rhythm and disharmony are brothers to evil speaking and the evil ethos.” So either you have an abundance of εὖ qualities or the opposites.

ncientanswersdotorg.files.wordpress.com/2018/09/plato.png”> A modern statue of Plato graces the entrance to the University of Athens[/caption]So the

So the phrase ἐπʼ εὐλογίαις derives from this abundance of εὖ words in classical Greek. Even in modern Greek we often say, Ευλογία είναι. The garden produced an abundance of tomatoes this summer? Ευλογία είναι. I have one parishioner, a very generous parishioner, who gives so abundantly and each time tells me Ευλογία είναι. And here is where the abundance blends with the blessing. God has given abundantly to this person who then gives abundantly. It’s all a blessing, all ευλογία. But it’s abundance. God does not count the blessings he pours. He pours blessings. Some we receive, some we don’t receive – either because we’re not paying attention, or we’re too wrapped up in our negativities to catch the blessings. In two weeks we will read the Parable of the Sower and the Seed that shows us how God pours out blessings.

But notice how Paul goes on in the passage from 2 Corinthians:

Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that you may always have enough of everything and may provide in abundance for every good work.

As it is written, “He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures for ever.”

He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your resources and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for great generosity, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.

Note how it works with God’s abundance: You will be enriched in every way for great generosity, or unto great generosity – εἰς πᾶσαν ἁπλότητα – generosity without reserve, without counting pennies or minutes of your time. 

I’ve used the RSV translation here, which is still the standard translation used in our Archdiocese  The NRSV translation, which has become almost the new standard among many Christian writers and theologians because of its gender-inclusiveness (have we gone too far with political correctness?), is very wrong in how it renders the concluding sentence in the passage above. It writes: “You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity…” This rendering communicates something very different from the original text. The RSV and all other English translations understand the text correctly; the NRSV gets it wrong. Why? It implies what we today call the gospel of health and wealth; the false gospel preached in many evangelical and TV versions of Christianity. Namely, that God will enrich you if you are generous – which, of course in today’s evangelical culture usually means generous to the ministry that is preaching this message. This is blatant heresy, and I never imagined that the NRSV, which has become a favourite of liberal Christians, would communicate such a message, whether intentionally or unintentionally. The error is very simple, and it makes all the difference: There is no “your” in the Greek text. God is not going to enrich you because of your generosity. God is going to enrich you so that you will continue in generosity. Even the RSV is not totally correct. The Greek, εἰς πᾶσαν ἁπλότητα, is best translated as “to great generosity” not “for great generosity.”

Dear friends, the vision today is one of abundance. God’s abundance, our abundance – for the health of our lives, of our souls, for the goodness of our character. You don’t need the Senate or the FBI to establish your character. Start by speaking well, eulogia, and continue by thinking of your life in terms of abundance, ep’ eulogiais. Do not think in terms of lack or scarcity. Do not compare your blessings to anyone else’s. Open your heart, your soul, to see the blessings all around you.

Do not compare yourself to anyone. Then you will see that there are no enemies. The key to loving your enemy, that seemingly impossible commandment of Jesus in today’s Gospel reading, is to stop thinking in terms of enemies, that someone is better than you or stronger than you and means you harm. We are all in this together. Guide your mind – as Plato would say – and then guide the people in your life. Think in eulogiais. Every day, Ευλογία είναι. And then you will see more clearly how abundantly God has blessed you.


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Who are you on Golgotha?

On this Sunday after the Elevation of the Cross, this is a Holy Friday sermon. Something very important is missing from all our icons and depictions of the Crucifixion of Christ….

There is no text version of this sermon, only the audio:

A rare example of an icon that includes the two criminals crucified with Christ