In the months of November and December we are inundated with messages of ‘giving thanks’ and ‘spreading Christmas cheer.’ While nice sentiments on the surface, they all point towards one thing: consuming. To prepare for Christmas, we are told we need to start shopping as early as October 1st to get the perfect gift. We are encouraged to wait in line on black Friday for that one-time-only sale. On Thanksgiving, we are shown images of tables overflowing with food and the latest decorations to give the day ‘that holiday feel.’ These messages come through the medium of commercials, targeted Instagram advertisements, Hallmark movies, and signs on the side of the highway. It’s easy to get caught up in the consumerist mentality of the holiday season and feel like these are the markers we need to meet in order to participate in and prepare for the joy of Christmas. I have certainly been guilty of that at points in my life!
And yet, when I look to the Church for how to prepare for Christmas, the great Feast of the Incarnation of Christ, I hear very different messages. Instead of consuming and indulging, we are called to abstain through fasting, to empty ourselves so that we may increase our prayer life, and to give as we have received. And what have we received? LIFE and life abundantly! As we heard in the Epistle this past Sunday, “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…” Ephesians 2:4-5). It was out of love, that God created us and gave us His only begotten Son so that we may learn to love as He loved. As Orthodox Christians, the season of advent leads us to the humble beginnings of the birth of our Lord and Savior, whose mother gave up her own will to allow the will of God to be made manifest.
In contrast to the messages of consumerism, when we inundate our hearts with the messages the Church provides us during this season, the natural response becomes: how can I “praise the Lord, exalting him evermore” (1st Canon of the Nativity) and consider more deeply what I can do to offer that love back to God and my neighbor.
So what can we do to offer that love?
To me, it begins with cultivating a heart for service. And how do we do that? First and foremost, we immerse ourselves in the life of the Church, the word of the Lord, and become intimately familiar with the ways in which Christ served. Christ’s service on earth was radical acts of love where he broke societal norms and boundaries to heal the wounds of others and enter into the sufferings of those most ostracized. His life was a life of service and that is what we are called to cultivate–a life of service that is rooted in the love of Christ.
This is not something that happens overnight. It happens in the small ways in which we intentionally choose to switch our attention from ways we can consume to ways we can give out of our abundance for the sake of the other and out of love for God. This season, consider: what is one thing you could do, however small, to cultivate a heart for service?
If you are someone who is yearning to cultivate a heart for service and feels a desire to serve in a radical way, I invite you to consider looking into the newest ministry of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops—Orthodox Volunteer Corps (OVC). The mission of OVC is to ignite and equip Orthodox young adults to catalyze transformative service for the Church and world. Through an immersive 10-month experience, young adults will live in solidarity with the most vulnerable, learn to embody justice and mercy, and give of their head, hearts, and hands in service. Corps Members will work four days a week at a local nonprofit, live in community with other Orthodox young adults, participate in faith and leadership formation seminars, and immerse themselves in the life of the Church. If you are between the ages of 21-29 and you feel called to a life of service, we encourage you to begin that process by applying to OVC! Applications are due February 15, 2022 and you can apply online here: https://orthodoxvolunteercorps.org/
Director of Strategic Growth for CrossRoad Institute and Chair of the Orthodox Volunteer Corps Advisory Council
Kyra Limberakis received her bachelor’s degree from Villanova University and her Master of Theological Studies from the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry where she focused her studies on youth and young adult ministry and the ministry of women in the church. Kyra’s experience in youth work spans 10+ years and includes serving as staff for her metropolis camp, Ionian Village, Orthodox Christian Fellowship, and CrossRoad—all programs that were part of her own faith formation. As a college student, she participated in OCF’s College Conference and Real Break programs and later on served as the Real Break Thessaloniki lay leader in 2018 and 2019. She will be a workshop speaker at this year’s College Conference East.
“We should follow the example of the birds. They’re always joyful whereas we are always bothered by something.” -Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica
Sometimes it can be easy to forget about the presence of God in our daily lives, especially when we experience pain, loneliness, fear, or spiritual drought. In moments such as these, we might believe that these feelings give us more cause to despair in our suffering, rather than push us to seek reasons to hope in spite of them. During this past year particularly, I have found myself paying more attention to the simple blessings in life that I would normally take for granted. These ordinary, little blessings often remind me of God’s presence in my daily life and fill me with hope for the new day. Blessings come in a myriad of forms. As a result, there are endless ways that one could feel hopeful. For the sake of brevity, I wish to relate one particular day that I experienced last semester in order to illustrate what I mean when I say the simplest blessings can give us hope.
“All true beauty has the power to draw the soul towards thee, and to make it sing in ecstasy: Alleluia!”-Akathist of Thanksgiving
Back in early September, I was having a really rough time… a lot of things had piled up and I felt very low. In an attempt to calm down, I stepped outside in my yard to be by myself for a just few minutes. It was very chilly that evening, but I didn’t mind because it smelled so refreshing and I enjoyed the touch of the cold grass under my bare feet. While I was walking through my yard trying to focus on my breathing I began to cry, but I had been fighting tears throughout the evening, so it felt liberating to let it all out for just a few minutes. It was around 5:00 and the moon was slowly rising as the sun sank low into the west, casting a pink light onto the lavender clouds to my left. I became somewhat lost in the silence and birdsong of dusk, but after a few turns around my yard, I came back inside to a steeping cup of hot tea, and into the arms of my mother.
“Stand at the brink of despair, and when you see that you cannot bear it anymore, draw back a little, and have a cup of tea” – Elder Sophrony of Essex
As a result of the cold temperatures of the outdoors the heat of my home became more welcoming to me, the warm tea was made more desirable than it was before, and my solitude made the company of others more pleasurable. Within the simplicity of the evening, I found that my struggle did not seem quite so formidable as it did before I went outside. At the time I felt so horrible about myself and yet looking back on those few minutes, I now see that they were a gift from God… a sort of reset button. After returning indoors from the stillness of the evening, I felt like I had fresh eyes to see the little blessings that I was unaware of only minutes before; this realization gave me hope to push onward because I felt the love of God around me made manifest is the simple blessings before me.
“In your spiritual life engage in your daily contest simply, easily, and without force. What is simple is also what is the most precious.” -St. Porphyrios
That evening I was reminded that there will always be trials to face, but more importantly, I realized that oftentimes the most subtle blessings can be reason enough to provide us with hope for a better tomorrow. Sometimes we become so wrapped up in our own suffering that we forget to pay attention to these little, hidden blessings which can open both our eyes and heart to God’s presence and His everlasting love. Christ never ceases to bless us, even in the tiniest of ways and he gives us infinite reasons to hope each day just through our wondering at His greatness and love for us.
“We should be spectators every day of the wonders of God.” -Mother Gavrilia
Some of us may be familiar with the greeting “Christ is in our midst,” and even though that can be a difficult thing to remember… He is and ever shall be. Whether we are reminded of His presence in the deliciousness of a homecooked meal, the taste of a warm mug of tea (or coffee), in the time spent with others, music that we listen to, or in the laughter of a small child (I could go on and on… ad infinitum!), we should always remember that God is present there with us! Such seemingly commonplace things give me hope because they remind me of His everlasting love for mankind. Glory be to God for all things!
“Do not fight to expel the darkness from the chamber of your soul. Instead open a tiny aperture for light to enter and the darkness will disappear.” -St. Porphyrios
by Magdalena Hudson
Hello, my name is Magdalena and I am currently pursuing a degree in Nursing. I attended CrossRoad Summer Institute a couple of years ago, which ultimately led me to my first experience with OCF at SLI 2019, needless to say both of these events changed my life! In my free time I love to learn new things, read, listen to music, be outdoors, draw, spend quality time with loved ones, and the list just goes on! This past year I made many wonderful friends through online opportunities and I am looking forward to the experiences yet to come.
If my life came with a pack of thank you cards, I would have sent them all by now. One for my father and his steady reassurance in every circumstance. One for my aunt, with her welcoming kitchen and mugs of tea. Two for my best friend and the way she makes me laugh, and the list goes on. If I had thank you cards for my gratitude I would have stuffed so many envelopes by now that USPS would dread stopping at my mailbox.
And yet, as easy as it is for me to show my thanks to the people I love, I often find myself caught on the idea of writing a thank you note to God. How do I pour nineteen years worth of gratitude for all the joys and sorrows of my life into a 4×6 card? And even if I could, how do I get past the fact that my prayer is too insignificant – that my miniscule act of praise is not enough, that even though my cup runneth over, it is too messy to put a stamp on and mail to God?
When I am overwhelmed with thoughts like these, I think of the second verse of Psalm 140.
“Let my prayer arise before thy sight as incense, and let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice.” (Psalm 140:2 OSB)
While prayer and sacrifice may seem entirely unrelated to gratitude, they hold more in common than you might think. As Orthodox Christians, we know that thankfulness is ultimately demonstrated in sacrificial love. We see this in the Gospel reading from this past Sunday (Luke 12:16-21).
In Sunday’s reading, we hear Christ tell his disciples a parable of the man who, after seeing how plentiful the yield of his crops is, decides to tear down his barns and build even larger ones so that he can store up all his grain. In other words, the farmer chooses to celebrate the plentitude of the crops all by himself. He fails to recognize that his grain is a gift from God and that the purpose of a gift is to share it. Instead of showing gratitude for his gift by distributing it to others and sacrificing the wealth that he has accumulated, the farmer holds on to his goods tighter than ever.
Like the farmer, I often find myself failing to show proper gratitude for the gifts I have been given. More often than not, I am unwilling to share my gifts with others. I would rather keep to myself, orbiting around what I’ve been given by God.
Yet as St. Basil tells us in his homily on the parable of the farmer and his barns, “You have been made a minister of God’s goodness, a steward of your fellow servants. Do not suppose that all this was furnished for your own gullet! Resolve to treat the things in your possession as belonging to others.” Though it is easy to be selfish, to put on a pair of blinders and view achievements as solely our own or focus on the benefits that we alone can reap from what God has given us, we are called to give thanks for what we have been given by sacrificing it for others — by opening our barns and celebrating the good things God has given us.
I may not know how to write a thank you card to God, but reading the earlier verse from Psalm 140 through the lens of this week’s Gospel lesson makes the answer crystal clear. The way to thank God for the gifts he has given me is by lifting up my hands in sacrifice — lifting my hands and reaching out to give what I have been given back to God. Christ shines through each and every one of us. Every sacrifice we make to the world whether it be time, money, or the smallest kindness swirls before God’s eyes like rose-scented smoke on Sunday morning.
So when I begin to close in on how I compare to the people around me — when I want to close the doors and count my gifts, grain by grain, I am reminded that this is no evening sacrifice. When I forget the incense of my actions, when I hang my head instead of lifting up my hands, then I am reminded of the celebration that comes with giving thanks. It is then that I push open my heart and treat people with kindness, as living icons of Christ. Only then can I watch my actions turn into incense, and lift my life up as an evening sacrifice.
Student at Seattle Pacific University
I am a second-year student at Seattle Pacific University with a major in sociology. When I’m not sending letters to my friends, you can find me serving as a student leader in my dorm, re-reading my favorite books, or wading through the Seattle rain. It’s an honor to be an OCF student!
We are now in the wake of Thanksgiving, #GivingTuesday, and coursing through the Advent season. Gratitude is a theme that presents itself during this season and its an important quality to have to grow in humility. We Christians are not only ‘thankful’ in an ethereal sense but we are thankful to God. We owe Him everything from the beat in our hearts to the earth we live on.
Where do I start with being thankful to God? The first thing that popped into my head, and now is completely stuck in my head, is Psalm 135 (136), otherwise known as the Polyeleos. It is a beautiful hymn that describes how we can be thankful to God and glorify creation.
You can listen to it here:
If you listen to the lyrics, you can hear King David writing about the thankfulness and gratitude seen in the beauty of God’s creation. But the repeating reason for gratitude? “His mercy endures forever.” What does this mean? It means we can be happy and excited that God gives us an opportunity each and every day to get up, repent, and resist sin. It means that every day we get to wake up with the choice to grow closer to God. It means that we live in a reality where our God loves us with His entire being and the extent of His mercy cannot be known. It means that God has sent His ACTUAL SON to die for us on the cross and in His mercy, redeem us and return us to our fully human state in His presence. His mercy endures forever and ever and unto the ages of ages, so let that sink in, and in turn show your gratitude to God and His creation by giving thanks in the blessings and tribulations you receive each and every day.
This week, I asked the other members of the Student Leadership board to tell me what they are thankful to God for in their lives, these are the replies they sent me:
I’m thankful for the regional and district events that have made my university’s OCF so incredibly close this year in comparison to last year. Without them, members in my OCF would never have been able to see what OCF is, means, and stands for. It inspired our chapter to embody the things we experienced and has given me some of my closest friends at school.
Kristina Anastasiadis, Northeast Student Leader
I’m thankful for my family and friends who challenge me everyday to grow in my faith.
Caroline Retzios, Great Lakes Student Leader
I am thankful for my OCF Real Break trip to Thessaloniki, Greece. My experiences on the trip helped deepen my faith and my relationship with the Lord. Additionally, it provided me the opportunity to meet many extraordinary Christ like individuals who truly changed my life!
Elizabeth Buck, South Student Leader
I’m thankful for Orthodoxy in college. It’s kept me grounded and made me realize what’s most important at all times, and I’m thankful for cows.
Amelia Barron, Midwest Student Leader
I’m thankful for the continual challenges God blesses me with every day, as they have helped me grow in so many ways.
Alex Lountzis, Southeast Student Leader
I’m thankful for the peace felt after receiving confession and the reconciliation I always feel with Christ afterwards. 🙂 + Alex(^) and the entire SLB
Eva Tempenis, Media Student Leader
I am thankful for everyone around me encouraging me to step out of my comfort zone and leading me to new experiences and adventures in life.
Quinn Marquardt, Mountain Student Leader
I am thankful to God for showing my the path to Orthodoxy in college!
Zoe Kanakis, Southwest Student Leader
The SLB has numerous things to be grateful to God. Reflect on what you are grateful for, and say THANK YOU. God and His people need to be thanked for all that they do.
As college students, we have a lot to be thankful for. We are thankful for our family, our friends, our home. A lot of times, we are thankful for simple things like the free food on campus or the email from our professor canceling our 8 a.m. class. I don’t know about everyone else, but every time one of those small things occur to me, I think to myself, “Thank God” and then continue on eating my free pizza or roll back into bed.
But let me tell you something I never do.
I don’t wake up for my 8 a.m. classes and say, “Thank God.” I also don’t utter those words when I use the money that I have to pay for my meal. I usually don’t remember to thank Him at all. Why is that?
Well, as a society, we have a small problem. We love to express our thankfulness to God when things are going well in our lives. But, when everything is just average or going poorly, we forget about God and even question his intentions. Instead of thanking God constantly for what He has given us, we question why He has given us struggles in our lives.
As the Thanksgiving season has come and gone, we have to ask ourselves, how can we work towards being thankful to God every day, no matter what is occurring in our lives? Even if we do not realize it, we do give thanks to God in many ways throughout our daily and spiritual lives.
Did you know that we can give thanks to God by receiving Holy Communion? The word “thanksgiving” translates to Eucharistia in Greek. In turn, the word Eucharist is used in the Orthodox Church to describe the act of the Orthodox faithful receiving the consecrated body and blood of Christ, otherwise known as the sacrament of Holy Communion.
St. John Chrysostom teaches us that one way to be thankful to God is to participate in the Eucharist consistently. He states that “the dread Mysteries, full of such great salvation, which are celebrated at every Liturgy, are also called a Thanksgiving [Eucharistia] because they are the remembrance of many benefits…and in every way cause us to be thankful to Him.” By receiving Holy Communion, we are not only bringing Christ into our lives, we are thanking Christ for giving us life and the hope for the resurrection by remembering what He sacrificed for us all.
St. John Chrysostom also states:
Whenever we are either in poverty, or in sickness, or are being insulted, then let us intensify our thanksgiving; thanksgiving, I mean, not in words, nor with the tongue, but in deeds and works, in mind and in heart; let us give thanks to Him with all our souls.
Here, he gives us new meaning to how we as Orthodox Christians can practice thanksgiving in our lives. He encourages all of us to give thanks to God with our entire soul. According to him, to achieve this we must focus on not only offering our thanksgiving to God with our prayers, but with our acts towards others.
One of my favorite verses from the Bible comes from St. Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” I never really thought about how I could incorporate the message of this verse in my everyday life until about a year ago.
In the summer of 2017, I was given an opportunity to travel to Rosarito, Mexico and spend a week working on building a home for the Ramirez family with Project Mexico. While building the home for the Ramirez family, we all saw how much they rejoiced with us every minute of the day with their radiant smiles and loving hospitality towards us.
We saw their love for Christ when they welcomed us into their home and made a group of thirty missionaries homemade meals every day, even though they barely had money to make ends meet. They were thankful for everything that they had, even though they had very little.
My greatest takeaway from this trip was not that I built a home for a family in need, but that I was able to learn from the Ramirez family what it means to rejoice always and give thanks for everything every single day.
This is why, I believe, St. John Chrysostom states that by helping others, we can and will be able to open our hearts and be able to learn how to be thankful to God with all our souls. Christ gives us many opportunities to give thanks to Him daily in different forms, either through Holy Communion or through good acts towards others. We just have to work on acting on those opportunities given to us by Christ so we can remember to give thanks to him daily and not just one month of the year.
Hi everyone! My name is Joanna Psyhogios. I am from Wilmette, Illinois and I am a member at St. John the Baptist Church in Des Plaines Illinois. My first experience with OCF was during College Conference East and I have been active in participating in College Conference and OCF Retreats ever since. In my free time, I love to play and watch every sport, coach basketball to youth teams, watch movies and TV Shows, and play Jungle Speed (Shoutout to CC Midwest!). I am really excited to share what I have learned about the Orthodox faith through the OCF blogs!