On the evening of Monday, 21st November 2011, Hieromonk James of the Old Cathedral of the Holy Virgin, ‘Joy of All Who Sorrow’ on Fulton Street, visited St. John’s Academy in order to speak to our parents at the third of this year’s Parents Evenings. Taking as his topic Thanksgiving, the Giving of Thanks and the Nativity Fast, Fr James spoke to a gathering of some 30 school parents on a host of interconnected themes relevant to the life of every Orthodox Christian at this important and holy time of year.
Beginning with a brief overview of the history of the American holiday of Thanksgiving, which we prepare to celebrate later this week, Fr James spoke of the great ordeals experienced by the pilgrims who arrived in the New World so many centuries ago (such as the fact that more than 50% died of sickness or other causes within their first year in the territory), and yet the great devotion to divine Providence that nonetheless inspired them. This was a general devotion to God that allowed the first proclamation of Thanksgiving to be conjoined, by President George Washington, to the hope that the American people might '…express the thankfulness of their hearts and their gratitude to their divine Benefactor’, and ‘acknowledge our many and great obligations to Almighty God, and implore Him to continue and confirm the blessings we have experienced.’ Though the holiday existed for many generations at the ongoing will of the presidents, only many decades later was it declared by Congress as a permanent holiday: ‘A day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwells in the heavens.’ Father James drew attention to the way in which a belief in God formed an integral part of American culture, even up until the middle of the past century—and that the famous separation of Church and State exists in order to prevent a single state church from becoming oppressive in the nation, not the active expression of religious belief even within the culture or state itself. He noted that the forefathers of this land would react with abhorrence to the hostile trends toward religious freedom and practice experienced in our culture today, which resemble the very oppression from which the pilgrims fled to come to this land and life.
Images from Hieromonk James's talk, including a few treats brought for the occasion.
Father James then proceeded to speak about the uniquely Orthodox understanding of just what it is that we are thankful for as Christian people: the coming of Jesus Christ into the world in human flesh. In his discussion on the Nativity Fast, Father examined the nature of fasting through history, as well as the concept of the passions and how combatting them must form part of the way that we give thanks to God.
His talk culminated in a moving description of all the God has offered to us, through His love, in the Incarnation, and how our response must be an act of true thanksgiving that lays down our life before Him in order to respond to His saving grace. ‘The Lord became man to dwell in each one of us — but fasting is the means by which we truly enter into this glorious feast’, Father James said towards the end of his remarks. ‘There is only one thing that will determine whether you truly feel the deep joy of the Feast … and this is how deeply you have entered into the fast.’
As is the usual custom, the evening continued with some time for discussion, as well as a brief conversation about the life of the Academy and ‘business’ matters for the appraisal of the parents.
All the parents, teachers and administration of St. John’s Academy are grateful to Hieromonk James for taking the time to deliver such moving and instructive words to all of us, inspiring us to lives of deeper thanksgiving as we approach the mystery of Christ’s coming in the flesh in this Nativity season.