Pascha (Easter) comes with a great note of joy in the Christian world. Christ is risen from the dead and our hearts rejoice. That joy begins to wane as the days pass. Our lives settle back down to the mundane tasks at hand. After 40 days, the Church marks the Feast of the Ascension, often attended by only a handful of the faithful (Rome has more-or-less moved the Ascension to a Sunday to make it easier). Some excitement returns with the Feast of Pentecost, 50 days after Pascha, which conveniently falls on a Sunday making its observance easier in a too-busy-to-notice world. Lost in all of this, however, is a subtext (perhaps it is the main text).
It is a liturgical practice that in Orthodoxy begins some weeks before Great Lent. It is a frontal assault on Hades.
The traditional name for these celebrations is “Soul Saturdays.” They are celebrations of the Divine Liturgy on Saturday mornings offered for the souls of the departed. Most of the Saturdays in Great Lent have them. They make a fitting prelude for Holy Week and Pascha. At Pascha, Christ Himself “tramples down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestows life.” This is the Great and Holy Sabbath – the true and Great Soul Saturday. This is the great theme of Pascha itself. Christ’s Resurrection is, strangely, not so much about Christ as it is about Christ’s action. Many modern Christians treat Pascha (Easter) as though it were a celebration of Jesus’ personal return after a tragic death.
Orthodoxy views Christ’s Holy Week, Crucifixion, Descent into Hades and Resurrection as one unending, uninterrupted assault on Hades. This is the great mystery of Pascha – the destruction of death and Hades. Death is the “last enemy.” Those who forget this are like soldiers who have forgotten the purpose of the war in which they fight.
The cycle of prayers assaulting Hades reaches a climax on the day of Pentecost. On the evening of that Sunday, the faithful gather for Vespers. During that service, they kneel for the first time since Pascha. And in that kneeling, the Church teaches them the boldness of prayer, the cry of human hearts for God’s solace and relief. Three lengthy prayers are offered, the third of which completes and fulfills the prayers that began so many weeks before in the Soul Saturdays:
Priest: O Christ our God, the ever-flowing Spring, life-giving, illuminating, creative Power, coeternal with the Father, Who hast most excellently fulfilled the whole dispensation of the salvation of mankind, and didst tear apart the indestructible bonds of death, break asunder the bolts of Hades, and tread down the multitude of evil spirits, offering Thyself as a blameless Sacrifice and offering us Thy pure, spotless and sinless body, Who, by this fearsome, inscrutable divine service didst grant us life everlasting; O Thou Who didst descend into Hades, and demolish the eternal bars, revealing an ascent to those who were in the lower abode; Who with the lure of divine wisdom didst entice the dragon, the head of subtle evil, and with Thy boundless power bound him in abysmal hell, in inextinguishable fire, and extreme darkness. O Wisdom of the Father, Thou great of Name Who dost manifest Thyself a great Helper to those who are in distress; a luminous Light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death; Thou art the Lord of everlasting glory, the beloved Son of the Most High Father, eternal Light from eternal Light, Thou Sun of justice! … Who also, on this all-perfect and saving feast, dost deign to receive oblations and supplications for those bound in Hades, and grantest unto us the great hope that rest and comfort will be sent down from Thee to the departed from the grief that binds them. (edited for length)
I can recall the first time in my priesthood that I offered this prayer. I had a copy in front of me, but had not read it before the service, nor had I ever heard it. I trembled as I offered the words above…astounded by their boldness. I had never heard such boldness before the Throne of God within the walls of the Church itself. It is also a reminder of the weakness and infirmity of the legal imagery of salvation. The legal view requires of God that He be the enforcer of Hades. To such a prayer He could only reply: “I cannot grant such things because of my Justice!”
The Descent of Christ into Hades itself demonstrates God’s willingness towards our salvation. And the prayer’s imagery here reveals God’s strength:
Who didst descend into Hades, and demolish the eternal bars, revealing an ascent to those who were in the lower abode; Who with the lure of divine wisdom didst entice the dragon, the head of subtle evil, and with Thy boundless power bound him in abysmal hell, in inextinguishable fire, and extreme darkness.
On the Saturday before Pentecost, some 49 days after Pascha, the Church offers the last in the cycle of Soul Saturdays. And on Pentecost itself, and now on bended knee, it boldly goes where only Christ has gone before in victory. As was proclaimed in the Paschal homily of St. John Chrysostom:
Christ is risen! And not one of the dead is left in the grave, for Christ having risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
A beloved friend from my youth who has sustained a boldness in Christ through many trials has said that he doesn’t like to pray “safe” prayers. On this holy day, we leave the safety of our fear and dare to walk where Christ has gone before.
Patriarch Theodore of Alexandria and All Africa was invited by Metropolitan Ignatios to Volos to preside over the Great Divine Liturgy on the Feast of Ascension, and to open the 2019 Maritime Week, which is dedicated to Alexandria. The primate of the Church of Alexandria officiated at the Vespers service in the Church of the Ascension in Volos, concelebrated by Metropolitan Theophylaktos of Tripoli and Metropolitan George of Guinea from the Patriarchate of Alexandria, Metropolitan Ioakim of Helenopolis, and Metropolitan Ignatios of Demetrias. Metropolitan Ignatios of Demetrias expressed the joy and love of the local Church, in the presence of the second highest primate of the Orthodox Church. Metropolitan Ignatios referred to his personal ties with Patriarch Theodore while he highlighted the close links between Magnesia and the Church of Alexandria. He also spoke of the hopeful future of Orthodoxy in the Dark Continent: “In Africa, as in Asia, lies the future of Christianity and Orthodoxy. We know that you devote all your energies and charisma to respond to this historic duty of evangelizing our African siblings.” Subsequently, Patriarch Theodore received the highest honorary award of the Metropolis of Demetrias, as a recognition of the great services offered to the Orthodox Church as a whole. In his address, Patriarch Theodore, referring to the Great Feast of the Ascension, pointed out that “Ascension is not an act of separation but a promise that Jesus is with us. If Jesus is in heaven, if we believe Him, if we hope in Him, and if we love Him, then we are also with Him. Despite the persecutions, the suffering, and the temptations, the good news of the Gospel were spread and transformed the Mediterranean into an Apostolic Sea while Alexandria, the flagship of the Horn of Africa, became the great city of the Divine Word of God.” Patriarch Theodore thanked Metropolitan Ignatios for this award.
Saint Peter illustriously occupied the throne of Alexandria for twelve years, and, as Eusebius says, "was a divine example of a bishop on account of the excellence of his life and his study of the sacred Scriptures" (see Eusebius, Eccl. Hist., Book VII, 3 2; Book VIII 11, 13; and Book IX, 6). He excommunicated Arius for his sympathy with the Meletian schism. When Arius learned that Saint Peter had been imprisoned, he sent many priests and deacons to him, asking that he receive him back into the communion of the Church before his martyrdom. When the ambassadors of Arius, who had not, like Saint Peter, perceived the ruin he would engender, were astonished at the vehemence with which Saint Peter refused to receive Arius again, he revealed to them a dread vision he had seen, in which the Master Christ had appeared to him as a child wearing a garment torn from head to foot. When Saint Peter asked the Lord who rent His garment, the Lord answered that it was Arius, and that he must not be received back into communion. The holy hieromartyr Peter was beheaded during the reign of Maximinus in the year 312; he is called the "Seal of the Martyrs," because he was the last Bishop of Alexandria to suffer martyrdom under the pagan Emperors. His successors to the throne of Alexandria, Saints Alexander and Athanasius the Great, brought to final victory the battle against Arius' heresy which Saint Peter had begun. [More here].
Kontakion of Peter, Archbishop of Alexandria Fourth Tone
O divine unshakeable towers of Christ's Church, pillars of true piety who are most mighty and divine: Clement and Peter, ye all-acclaimed, by your entreaties, protect and guard all of us.
The Feast of the Ascension of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ is celebrated each year on the fortieth day after the Great and Holy Feast of Pascha (Easter). Since the date of Pascha changes each year, the date of the Feast of the Ascension changes. The Feast is always celebrated on a Thursday. The Feast itself commemorates when, on the fortieth day after His Resurrection, Jesus led His disciples to the Mount of Olives, and after blessing them and asking them to wait for the fulfillment of the promise of the Holy Spirit, He ascended into heaven.
The story of the Ascension of our Lord, celebrated as one of the Twelve Great Feasts of the Church, is found in the book of the Acts of the Apostles 1:3-11. It is also mentioned in the Gospels of Mark (16:19) and Luke (24:50-53). The moment of the Ascension is told in one sentence: "He was lifted up before their eyes in a cloud which took Him from their sight" (Acts 1:9). Christ made His last appearance on earth, forty days after His Resurrection from the dead. The Acts of the Apostles states that the disciples were in Jerusalem. Jesus appeared before them and commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the "Promise of the Father". He stated, "You shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now" (Acts 1:5). After Jesus gave these instructions, He led the disciples to the Mount of Olives. Here, He commissioned them to be His witnesses "in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth" (Acts 1:8). It is also at this time that the disciples were directed by Christ to "go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19). Jesus also told them that He would be with them always, "even to the end of the world" (Matthew 28:20). As the disciples watched, Jesus lifted up His hands, blessed them, and then was taken up out of their sight (Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9). Two angels appeared to them and asked them why they were gazing into heaven. Then one of the angels said, "This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as you have seen Him going into heaven" (Acts 1:11).
Icon of the Feast
The icon of The Ascension of Our Lord is a joyous icon. It is painted with bright colors. Christ is shown ascending in His glory in a mandorla A mandorla is a design which is almond-shaped or round. Inside the mandorla is the figure of a holy person. Christ blesses the assembly with His right hand. In His left is a scroll. The scroll is a symbol of teaching. This icon shows that the Lord in heaven is the source of blessing. In addition, Jesus is the source of knowledge. The icon reminds us that Christ continues to be the source of the teaching and message of the Church, blessing and guiding those to whom He has entrusted his work. The Theotokos occupies a very special place in this icon. She is in the center of the icon, immediately below the ascending Christ. The gesture of her hands is gesture of prayer. She is clearly outlined by the whiteness of the garments of the angels. The Theotokos is depicted in a very calm pose. This is quite different from the appearance of the Disciples. They are moving about, talking to one another and looking and pointing towards heaven. The entire group, the Theotokos and the disciples represent the Church.
The icon of the Ascension includes some who did not witness the Ascension. St. Paul is shown to the left of the Theotokos, but we know that he was not present at the Ascension. At that time, St. Paul did not yet believe in Jesus. But he became a Christian and one of the greatest Apostles and missionaries of Church. The icon expresses the sovereignty of Christ over His Church; He is its Head, its guide, its source of inspiration and teaching; it receives its commission and ministry from Him, and fulfils it in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Orthodox Christian Celebration of the Feast of the Ascension
This Feast of our Lord is celebrated with the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, which is conducted on the day of the Feast and preceded by the Matins service. A Great Vespers is conducted on the evening before the day of the Feast. Scripture readings for the Feast are the following: At Vespers: Isaiah 2:2-3, 62:10-63:9; Zechariah 14:1,4,8-11. At the Orthros (Matins) Mark 16:9-20; At the Divine Liturgy: Acts 1:1-12; Luke 24:36-53. Hymns of the Feast
Apolytikion (Fourth Tone)
O Christ our God, You ascended in Glory and gladdened Your disciples by the promise of the Holy Spirit. Your blessing assured them that You are the Son of God, the Redeemer of the world. Kontakion (Plagal of the Second Tone)
O Christ our God, upon fulfilling Your dispensation for our sake, You ascended in Glory, uniting the earthly with the heavenly. You were never separate but remained inseparable, and cried out to those who love You, "I am with you and no one is against you."
The Holy Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ: Through Christ, man becomes a "partaker of Divine Nature" - Click here & here, please!...
The infamous terrorist group in sub-Saharan Africa recently went door-to-door killing Christians—so who are they, and what do they want? Boko Haram has long been one of the most infamous terrorist groups in the world. Founded in 2002, the group exploded on the scene in 2009 during a failed uprising in northern Nigeria. Since then, they’ve continued a run of terror, most infamously in 2014 when they kidnapped more than 200 female students from a school in Chibok, Nigeria, leading to the worldwide #BringBackOurGirls campaign. Most recently, they killed 25 Christians in a door-to-door murder spree. Independent estimates have found that nearly 35,000 people have been killed in conflicts with Boko Haram since 2011. Their run of death, sexual violence and destruction has lasted for a decade. And yet, it can be hard to know who or what Boko Haram is, or what they want. Here are seven things you should know about Boko Haram—keep them in mind when you pray for your brothers and sisters facing the reality of attacks from Boko Haram on a daily basis.
Their goal is an Islamic state, governed by their version of Islam.
Boko Haram’s ultimate goal is to set up an Islamic state in Nigeria. However, the group has not affiliated with ISIS, which invaded the Middle East. Boko Haram, officially known as Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad (or, since 2016, Wilāyat Gharb Ifrīqīyyah), is an Islamic terrorist group that has killed thousands. But what do they want? The BBC’s translation of their official name suggests their ultimate goal: “People of the Sunnah (the practice and examples of the Prophet Mohammad’s life) for Preaching and Jihad Group.” In short, they view themselves as the ultimate expression of Islam, carrying out the true preaching and mission of the Muslim faith, which in their extremist view means fighting a holy war. Even the name “Boko Haram” roughly means “Western education is forbidden.” They believe anything outside of their radical interpretation of Islam is meant to be fought against and is not to be accepted. To do this, their ultimate aim is to set up an Islamic state in northern Nigeria.
Despite the claims of Nigeria’s leaders, Boko Haram is not defeated.
Since Nigeria President Buhari declared the defeat of Boko Haram, more than 1,300 people have died in attacks. In early 2018, President Muhammad Buhari, the current leader of Nigeria, declared that Boko Haram had been defeated. Since that statement, more than 1,300 people have died at the hands of Boko Haram. In late 2018, in the run-up to the Nigerian presidential election, Boko Haram attacked multiple villages in Northeast Nigeria, again showing they are not defeated but are in fact still a powerful force of terror for Nigerians.
Boko Haram Attacks Christians…
Boko Haram recently went door-to-door in a killing spree that claimed the lives of 25 Christians. Boko Haram specifically targets Christians; the group seems to think Christianity is tied to the West, the non-religious government of Nigeria or other ethnic groups they oppose. Boko Haram frequently targets churches and often attacks villages where Christians are the majority religious group. To Boko Haram, Christians are outsiders to be killed.
…but not only Christians
Boko Haram also attacks mosques like this one outside Bauchi in Nigeria. Boko Haram targets anyone who doesn’t share their narrow view of Islam. That means they often also target more moderate Muslims or Muslims who don’t come from the same school of radical, hardline preaching that Boko Haram claims. One report notes “despite Boko Haram’s murderous hostility to Christians, most of its victims have always been Muslim, not least because the insurgency takes place in a predominantly Muslim part of the country.” Boko Haram targets those it deems to not be “real” Muslims, so they have attacked mosques and Muslim civilians in Nigeria, as well.
The group has split into two factions, one of which has pledged allegiance to ISIS.
Leah Sharibu was kidnapped, along with more than 100 other girls in a Dapchi finishing school, by Boko Haram splinter group ISWAP. Boko Haram’s continued targeting of Muslims is one reason that it split into factions in 2016. In 2015, the leader of Boko Haram had pledged allegiance to ISIS, the group that was in the process of brutally destroying ancient Christian communities in Iraq and Syria. But ISIS demanded Boko Haram stop targeting Muslims and Muslim targets. The leader of Boko Haram refused, so ISIS appointed a new leader. Now, there are two rival groups, one claiming allegiance to ISIS (now known as ISWAP, or the Islamic State’s Western Africa Province) and one still primarily known as Boko Haram that continues to attack mosques and Muslim civilians. Both share a hatred for Christians.
Their victims are in countries besides Nigeria. Thousands have been forced to flee their homes to refugee camps due to the Boko Haram insurgency and its expansion beyond Nigeria. Because Boko Haram is not in a specific geographic area, their attacks have ranged beyond Nigeria. They have also conducted terrorist attacks in Niger, Chad and Cameroon, which has resulted in dramatic refugee and humanitarian crises. They are even regarded as “slave raiders” who target women in raids for “wives” in the areas around Lake Chad, which borders Chad, Niger, Cameroon and Nigeria.
The impact of Boko Haram on the Christian community in Nigeria is staggering.
The situation for Christians in Nigeria is dire, says northern Nigeria Pastor Rev. Dogo. “Christians go to sleep at night no knowing whether they’ll wake up the following day still alive.” In just a small sample of the damage inflicted on the Christian community, a single geographic area has seen 5,000 Catholic Christians killed and 100,000 Catholic Christians displaced. The infamous Chibok kidnappings took place in Chibok, a largely Christian community—some 112 girls remain missing even five years later. In the 2019 World Watch List reporting period, there were more than 3,700 Christians killed in Nigeria. While not all of those deaths are due to Boko Haram, the group still accounts for many deaths in northern Nigeria. And perhaps most devastating, it leads to a constant, gnawing fear for many Christians, uncertain if they will face attacks from Boko Haram at any point.
Top photo: Boko Haram fighters speak in an unidentified place. (AP Photo/Boko Haram, File).
“Police officers carry out continuous raids in private homes where devotees of unrecognized religions, especially Pentecostal Christians, meet for community prayer,” the report said. “They are released only if they disavow their faith.”
Intensifying Friction in Asmara
A crackdown on Christians continues through Eritrea’s capital city of Asmara.
The report also refers to intensifying difficulties between the church and Ertitrea’s government. Authorities are demanding the “full control” of all religious organizations, such as private schools, medical clinics and orphanages.
“The authorities, in fact, demand the full control of all organizations of religious origin, such as private schools, medical clinics and orphanages” the report indicated—all of which provide needed support to the Eritrean population.
Some 66 percent of all Eritreans live below the poverty line; and there remains an extreme lack of resources and poverty alleviation programs.
Only a couple weeks ago, police rounded up 141 Christians, including 23 men, 104 women and 14 minors from Asmara’s Mai Temenai area. Reportedly, officials separated the men and women before taking the women to Police Station Number 4 and the men to Adi Abeito prison, the main prison for Asmara and the surrounding areas. It’s not known where the 14 minors were held.
The ‘North Korea of Africa’
Eritrea’s intricate prison system is known for its brutality, including jailing prisoners in metal shipping containers in the scorching heat–weather conditions that often permeate the country’s tropical desert climate.
Since 1993, Eritrea President Isaias Afwerki has overseen an authoritarian brutal regime that rests on massive human rights violations. Known as the “North Korea of Africa,” the country in the Horn of Africa is consistently in the top 10 on Open Doors’ World Watch List; this year it ranks at No. 7.
Praying for Believers in Eritrea
Pray that everyone in these recent arrests would experience God’s transcendent peace and comfort as they endure this persecution. Pray for the Lord’s spiritual and physical provision to these men, women and children. Pray for courage and wisdom as they interact with authorities. Pray that they will not be fearful but have the grace of the Lord’s peace as they face uncertainty. Pray that the Lord would glorify himself through the testimonies of our brothers and sisters and that they will be surprised by hope. Pray that God would soften the heart of President Afwerki and draw the country’s government leaders to Himself. And pray for the secret church of Eritrea. Ask God to give these believers His wisdom, discernment and courage as they follow Jesus in the volatile country.
Top photo: Christians come together to worship and pray in a secret location in Eritrea. Please, see also
Metropolitan Ioannis of Zambia, coordinator of the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy (IAO), took part in the plenary assembly of the Pan-African Parliament, which took place in South Africa.The subject of the parliamentary session was “In 2019, the year of refugees, returnees and displaced populations within the country: Towards durable solutions regarding the forced displacement in Africa.” During the session, Metropolitan Ioannis met with the President of the Pan-African Parliament Mr. Roger Nkodo Dang, conveying the wishes of Patriarch Theodore II of Alexandria. Also, the conference on intercultural and interreligious dialogue was discussed as a powerful tool for achieving peace, stability and combating intolerance and extremism. The conference is an initiative of the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy, the Pan-African Parliament, the Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa and other international organizations.
In Scripture Jesus tells us “The Kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21) How do we know this? We know it when we experience joy, not just happiness, but a feeling that transcends happiness. It is a feeling that comes from the heart when we know God is with us.
But what is the opposite of this? Elder Paisios tells us that it is “when we have anxiety, feelings of guilt, then there is a portion of hell within us.”
When we are sadled with anxiety we have left Paradise and find ourselves mired in hell. This is common condition for most people today. Many drugs that we regularly take are for relieving us from this anxiety we experience in our daily life. But we are capable without any medications to experience joy from all our activities in life.
Elder Paisios says,
“It isn’t difficult to achieve this; but unfortunately, egoism prevents us from this spiritual magnificence.”
What is required to change this anxiety into joy? The key according the Elder Paisios is to allow God to govern our lives. The involves a surrender of our ego to the Church, to Christ whose Church is His Body. In the Church we are guided through the services, sacraments, teachings about prayer and ascetic practices like fasting to overcome our ego-centeredness and become Christ-centered. But first we have to choose to surrender to the teachings of the Church.
We must pray often and for sure every morning and evening. We need to follow the liturgical calendar, and participate regularly in the sacraments, especially Holy Communion and Confession. We must follow the fasting guidelines fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays as well as during the fasting periods like Great Lent. We must read Scripture and the writings of the Holy Fathers. We must make Christ and participation in His Church a top priority in our lives as well as the life of our entire family. Scripture says, “Seek you first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33) Elder Paisios says,
People today have made their lives difficult, because they are not satisfied with a few things, but are constantly chasing after more and more material goods. But those who would like to live a genuine spiritual life must first of all be satisfied with a few things. When their life is simplified, without too many concerns and nuisances, not only will they be liberated from the worldly spirit, they will also have plenty of time available for spiritual things. Otherwise they will tire themselves out by trying to follow the fashion of the times; they will lose their serenity and will gain only great anxiety.”
Examine your life and search for all those things which are not necessary, that only complicate what otherwise could be quite simple.
The elder gives a very simple example of a man who asked him to come to his home. When he arrived he notices that the man took of his shoes and walked carefully on his toes. He asked him, “Why are you walking like that?” He replied, “Its nothing Geronda; I am walking careful so that I don’t ruin the parquet.”
See how easy it is to complicate our lives? We decorate, we clean, we strive to make money so we can redecorate only to worry about maintaining an appearance. The same goes with our clothing. Also our hobbies, our vacations and so forth. How about all the activities we have our children enrolled in. They keep us busy as well as themselves. Where is time for the creative time at home doing art things with Mom or Dad as I remember from my youth; for apple picking, for building a model railroad, for reading, for climbing trees and and laying on top the vines that have grown over them gazing into the heavens wondering how far the sky goes? We organize everything these days and it only complicates our lives, shuts us off from joy making it more burdensome financially and more stressful to keep up with it all. Joy is replaced with achievement which is always only temporary happiness. Seek simplicity in your life and you can discover the Kingdom of God within.
By Elder Paisios of Mount Athos, Spiritual Counsels IV: Family Life, p160