Reflection on the Nativity of the Theotokos

My dear friend and brother in Christ, Fr. Richard René, has agreed to gift us with what I hope will be a series of reflections on the great feasts we celebrate throughout the year. Today, on the great feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, I share his first reflection with you all…

We are all aware that the school year began this past week. What may not be so clear to us is that the liturgical year also began a week ago, on September 1st, and that the first Great Feast of the Church liturgical year is the birth of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.

According to the traditional account, the Virgin Mary was born of a woman named Anna, who was barren in her old age. The story itself echoes a number similar stories throughout the Old Testament. The most well-known is that of Sarah, who bore Isaac in her old age by God’s word. Jacob and Esau were born to Isaac and Rebekah as an answer to prayer, because she was barren. And then there was Hannah, who bore the prophet Samuel in her barrenness, and Elizabeth, who bore the prophet and forerunner John in her old age by a similar miracle.

In the world of the Old Testament Scriptures, one of the main signs of God’s blessing was the provision of children. The Psalmist reflects this basic understanding when he says, Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table. Lo, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the LORD… May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem all the days of your life! May you see your children’s children! Peace be upon Israel!

If obedience to God’s commandments resulted in the blessing of children, barrenness was the sign that God was withholding His blessing, usually because His people were not keeping His law. And what if the barren women were themselves righteous and obedient, as Sarah, Rebekah, Hannah and Elizabeth undoubtedly were? In the symbolism of the Scriptures, the message is profound: their failure have children was a sign that humanity is fundamentally unable to keep the Law by its own initiative; we need something more than mere righteousness. The miraculous births from these barren women prophesy that God Himself would have to extend His grace—through His own Son—to fulfill the law and pour out His blessings on His people.

In this sense, the birth of the Theotokos is not just another Old Testament story in the line of Sarai, Rebecca, Hannah and even Elizabeth. Unlike those other women, Mary is the one who gave birth to God the Word. She does not so much represent the old Israel, waiting for God to have favor and redeem humanity, so much as she represents the new Israel—the people of God who have received the fullness of God’s Word in Christ. As such she embodies not so much the human need for God’s grace as much as the human willingness to receive God’s grace—by hearing His Word and accepting it. That the Virgin was herself born of a barren woman, then, tells us in the poetry and symbolism of the Church that not only do human beings need God’s grace in order to fulfill their destiny as His children, but even more than that, the human willingness to receive God’s grace is itself something God gives!

As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are continuing striving to accept and accomplish God’s will. Finding this willingness is often our greatest struggle. We know the right thing to do, but we cannot bring ourselves to do it. Ours is the anguish of the Apostle Paul who said, I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?

Today’s feast tells us that willingness itself is a gift. Our task is not primarily to obey God’s Word by a sheer act of will—we cannot do this because of our spiritual barrenness. Nor can we even force ourselves to be willing to obey Him, for in that too our wills are drought-stricken and dry. Rather, our first and foremost task as Christians, laid out for us at the beginning of this Church year, is simply to be open—simply to cry out for the willingness to do what is right.

In that cry we make a space within ourselves, a womb for God’s mercy to come and fill us with the willingness to bear Christ in our bodies, and in bearing Him who alone fulfilled the commandments of God, to find the righteousness for which we were created as children of the Most High.

Article on “Orthodox Easter”

The Source has just published its article on “Orthodox Easter”, which incorporates some of my answers to Hayden’s questions that I shared with you. It’s pretty good, though I might want to put a bit more of transcendent spin on Hayden’s conclusion that “Ultimately, for Orthodox Christians, Pascha comes down to basic humble needs.” The context of Hayden’s statement seems to imply that those “basic humble needs” are for food and family. That is ultimately true, as our most basic needs are for food – hence our focus on the “spiritual food” God has given us, the Eucharist – and family – hence our coming together as the family of God, the Church, in celebration of our adoption as sons of God, accomplished through Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection!

For reference, I include the full text of my interview with Hayden Case below:

Firstly, tell us about your role at St John’s:
I’m the priest and pastor at St. John of Shanghai Orthodox Church. My role is to lead in prayer and to take care of the spiritual needs of the people in our community.
What does your Easter period involve?
Our Easter – or, as we usually refer to it, our Pascha (the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew word for “Passover”) is the grand, celebratory, festal finish to a period of forty days (Lent) plus another week (Holy Week) of fasting from meat, fish, and dairy – a period of intense spiritual discipline in which our prayer services are longer, more frequent, and more solemn than usual. The aim of these spiritual disciplines is repentance – to examine our minds and hearts and to change them, or, rather, to allow God to change them as needed.
During the nightly services of Holy Week, we remember and relive the last week of Jesus’ life, culminating in a combined reading of all the accounts of his death on the eve of Good Friday, and a solemn funeral procession and entrance into the church as “tomb” on the eve of Holy Saturday. Our local custom is for all who can to keep prayerful vigil over the icon of Christ’s body in the “tomb” all that night. Then, precisely at midnight on Sunday morning, after another solemn and anticipation-filled procession around the church, I knock on the door of the “tomb” and we all enter, singing and shouting “Christ is risen!” into a building newly bedecked with white flowers and ablaze with light.
How is Orthodox Easter celebrated at St John’s?
When we enter into the church and Pascha has come, we begin the most joyful service of the Orthodox year, the “Feast of feasts, Holy Day of holy days,” as we sing that night. As the church is censed repeatedly, I cry out “Christ is risen!” and everyone shouts back, “Indeed, He is risen!” Because Pascha is being celebrated throughout the Orthodox world at this time, our custom is also to give the Paschal greeting and response in as many languages as we can manage – and I usually manage to stump most of my parishioners when I shout out in my very rusty Japanese, “????????” (Harisutosu fukkatsu!)
After the service is over, we bless our Paschal baskets, filled with foods we have been fasting from for the duration of Lent and Holy Week – and then our local custom is to feast on the contents of those blessed baskets, sharing them with everyone around us. Later that Sunday – usually around 4pm – we celebrate Paschal Vespers, a short and particularly joyful version of our usual evening service, after which we feast again, this time with a full meal in which roast lamb is usually the main attraction.
What can a newcomer experience on Easter at St John’s?
All who come are welcome to participate in every aspect of the Paschal service, with the exception of communion, which is reserved for baptized Orthodox Christians who have fully prepared themselves to receive it. The service can be a little overwhelming for first-timers, as we stand (in what are usually fairly close quarters!) for the full two-and-a-half hours of the service – so it is important to remember that no one present will think any less of a newcomer for bowing out of the service or sitting down for a while!
In what ways do you respect or celebrate Easter?
The aforementioned Easter baskets, Paschal service, and great feast are the main ways we honour and celebrate Easter, but there are many other Easter customs arising out of the cultures that Orthodox Christianity has engaged with – mostly tied in with the Paschal themes of Christ’s death and resurrection – probably the most famous symbol of new life being the beautifully decorated Ukrainian Easter eggs.
The festal period of Pascha also extends throughout the whole week following the great feast, which is known as “Bright Week”. Throughout this period we do not fast, we greet one another with the exclamation, “Christ is risen!” and all church services held during this period – even funerals! – are exceptionally joyful.
How do families celebrate Easter with their children?
Children participate in every aspect of the Paschal experience: helping to prepare the Easter baskets, joining in the processions, at some points sleeping in back corners of the church, at others joining in the singing and feasting however late (or early!) it may be. Some families will hold Easter-egg hunts for their children – and some churches as well… The children’s Easter-egg hunt was a long-established custom at the seminary I attended, for example.
What differences are there between Easter and Orthodox Easter?
The most obvious difference between “Western Easter” and Orthodox Pascha is the date. While the feast-days occasionally coincide, Orthodox Christians still calculate the date of Easter on the old calendar established under Julius Caesar, a calendar which many Orthodox Churches still employ. At St. John’s, we use the modern calendar for most of our “fixed feasts” (we celebrate Christmas on December 25 according to the Gregorian calendar, for example), but in order that all the Orthodox Christian churches may celebrate the great “Feast of feasts” together, we calculate the date of Pascha following the more ancient Christian tradition.
Feel free to add anything else here:
While there are other differences between the “Western” celebration of Easter and the Orthodox celebration of Pascha, it would be misleading to make those differences a primary focus. In fact, it is our common understanding of the central and primary importance of what all Christians celebrate at Easter – our understanding that Jesus did not simply die on the cross, but that three days later he rose from the dead – that unites Christians all around the world, and that puts the central focus of every version of Christianity not on death, but on life and on God’s love for us.

We have a new website!

Welcome to the new St. John of Shanghai website! We hope it reflects the heart and soul of our community as well as presents the most sought-after information on the home page, for both new and return visitors.

Please stand by as we iron out small wrinkles in the site’s appearance in the next while. We have noticed some issues in Internet Explorer 6 and 7 for Windows, which we hope to have corrected as soon as possible.


The St. John of Shanghai Orthodox Church web team