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Homily for the Sunday of Orthodoxy, Given in the Cathedral of Trebinje, 2007

By the Most Reverend Atanasije, Retired Bishop of Zahumlje and Herzegovina

Bishop Atanasije (Jevtic) is one of the most outstanding contemporary Orthodox theologians. Born in 1938 in the town of Brdarica in western Serbia, he studied theology at Saint Sava's Seminary in Belgrade, the Theological Faculty of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Belgrade, the Theological Seminary in Halki, and the Theological Faculty of the University of Athens, where he was awarded a doctoral degree in 1967 for his thesis entitled "The Ecclesiology of the Apostle Paul According to Saint John Chrysostom." He has taught at the Saint Serge Institute in Paris and the Theological Faculty in Belgrade, of which he has also served as Dean, and has lectured internationally. He was one of the founders of the Theological Faculty of Saint Basil of Ostrog in Foca (Bosnia and Hercegovina), of which he was elected Rector in 1994. He was a close and trusted spiritual son of the Blessed Archimandrite Justin (Popovic), by whom he was tonsured in 1960. Consecrated a Bishop in 1991, he retired in 1996 due to his failing health. He has been an outspoken advocate of the rights of persecuted Serbs in Kosovo for many years. The author of a multitude of books and of over one hundred articles in a variety of languages, his book Christ—The Alpha and Omega was published in English by the Western American Diocese of the Serbian Orthodox Church in 2007.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

“Rabbi, Thou art the Son of God!” This was the confession of Nathaniel, an honorable, modest, hitherto unnoticed disciple of Christ. When Philip said, Come, we have found the Messiah, we have found Christ, Him Who was prophesied by Moses and the Prophets, Nathaniel asked: Who is He? (cf., Jn 1:45-46). He told him, according to the human understanding of the time: It is Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph (Jn. 1:45). Can anything good come from Nazareth, a remote town on the north side of Galilee that had been despised to begin with because many heathens had mixed with the Jews in Galilee? Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?

Come and see, Philip said to him (Jn. 1:46). They started walking, and before they reached Christ, He said to Nathaniel, Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile. Nathaniel asked, Whence knowest Thou me? When thou wast under the fig tree, I saw thee (Jn. 1:47-48). With these words, rather unclear at first sight, Christ shows that He saw him under the fig tree. My God, the Lord thus revealed the whole mystery of Nathaniel. The Saints say that Nathaniel was praying at that time: O God of our fathers, send us the One whom Thou hast promised. Send us the Messiah, the Savior. The Lord saw that prayer and He saw Nathaniel’s heart. This is why Nathaniel’s heart immediately responded with the word Rabbi, which is to say “teacher,” which is what the Jews today call each rabbi, that is, teacher. (The leaders of the Jewish communities are called rabbis, which means teachers. They have not had priests since the Temple was destroyed or, to put it better, since Christ the High Priest came, the eternal High Priest. They no longer have priests but they use the word rabbi—teacher.)

Rabbi, Thou art the Son of God! (Jn. 1:49). The Lord answers him: Thou hast seen this and have rejoiced, but thou wilt see more than this. Thou wilt see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man (cf., Jn. 1:50-51). What Christ says here is, in turn, a connection to the Jewish forefather Jacob’s great vision of the heavens opening and a ladder reaching from earth to heaven, with the Lord standing above the ladder, and angels descending and ascending to Him (Gen. 28:12-13), connecting heaven and the earth. This is now fulfilled, the Lord tells Nathaniel, who was clearly familiar with the entire tradition of Moses and the Prophets, and was therefore expecting the coming of the Messiah. The Lord now reveals this to him: I am the Son of God, Who has become the Son of Man, and the angels are ascending and descending upon Me. That is to say: I have joined heaven and earth, and the ladder is the Mother of God, the Theotokos.

The Lord says to him: I am not the son of Joseph, but the Son of the Virgin, the Son of Man and simultaneously the Son of God. This is how the Lord, in short, revealed His mystery and the mystery of man to Nathaniel. But He has also revealed to us the mystery of today’s feast, brothers and sisters. This is why this Gospel is read today. Today is revealed the eternal Exemplar, the Prototype, the Original, the Archetype of the human image in Christ the God-Man.

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God created man in the image of His Son so that, at the time of Christ’s incarnation, the Son of God could become man, assume the image of man, and reveal the dimensions and ranges of the human image, so that man could become God-like, Christ-like, Trinity-like. This is what Philip was saying to Nathaniel when he said, Come and see. Nathaniel went, and the Lord helped him to open his heart further, and that is when he recognized the Son of God in Him, in that “son of Joseph,” as He was regarded. Among the Jews, it was mandatory that a girl not remain unmarried. But, because the Holy Virgin Mary had vowed her virginity to God, the high priest of the time gave her to Joseph, as his betrothed, so that under the guise of marriage her secret could be kept —the secret being that from her, by the Holy Spirit, that is, by God Himself, the New Adam would be born, just as Adam was born in the beginning without a woman. Birth from a woman, that is, the normal human kind of birth, is not the only kind of birth. God can, as He said, of these stones raise up children of Abraham (Mt. 3:9). But God arranged it so that people would be born of Adam and Eve. Christ also followed that human path by becoming man: He went through the womb of the virgin-mother, and his father was the Heavenly Father. And He was born as the true Son of God and Son of Man, the one and only Christ, the eternal Representation, the Image of the True and Living God, the Image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15). He has now become the true image, the face, the icon of man; that is to say, the Original of our image has revealed Himself, the Prototype of Man. This is what we celebrate today, on the Sunday of Orthodoxy.

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What is Orthodoxy? Brothers and children, it is not an ideology; it is not a religion or a philosophy; nor is it an organization, but is first and foremost the revelation of the True God and the true man, face to face. That phrase ”face to face” could not be translated from Hebrew into Greek by the Jewish translators in the third century before Christ. Since they could not find a proper phrase in the Greek language, which had been developed by philosophers, poets and writers, they introduced a new phrase into the Greek language to be able to describe this reality: face to face (prosopon pros prosopon), or rather, person to person (enopios enopio). When one man meets another, he finds himself facing another face, and the other one is also facing him. This is the mystery of the meeting of persons, and this is today’s Feast of Orthodoxy: the true glory of the Human Face and Person, the human Image and Appearance, the human God-like Icon. This is what we depict and confess today in the Holy Icons, painting them, honoring them, kissing and venerating them, because we are humans made of souls and bodies, with eyes, and representable and portrayable. And this is why Christ became man, why He became visible, portrayable, and representable. We therefore depict the Image of God that has been revealed to us, and we portray the Image of God, the Icon of God, as it has been manifest in Christ the God-Man and His Saints, those truly God-like and Christ-like people.

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In ancient times, when people came from all over the world to the Egyptian desert to see Saint Anthony, to ask him something spiritually profitable, to beseech him for something, a man who had come from Rome only stood and looked at him, without asking anything. When he returned, his traveling companion asked him: “You asked nothing of Saint Anthony?” He said, “I only looked at him; it was enough for me to look at him.” Witnesses say that they could listen to Saint Nikolaj Velimirovic for over two hours, as long as he would speak, just by looking at him, by looking into his eyes that were as deep as the sea. They say that Saint Stefan the Tall, Despot of Serbia, also had eyes of that sort, eyes into which people could sink and immerse themselves, rejoicing as they looked at him. Such were the eyes of Christ also, all-seeing eyes, which on this day saw Nathaniel under the fig tree and saw his heart desiring to see Him.

There are some icons that show what those divine eyes were like, those clear and penetrating eyes of Christ, those eyes that saw Nathaniel under the fig tree today, which recognized in him a true Israelite. Israel is the name that God gave to the Forefather Jacob when he saw the Lord, and the heavens opened, with angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man, Who was standing above the ladder. That was the name that Jacob received: Israel; Is-ra-El = the man who sees God, who beholds God, a God-seer, a God-beholder. This is the name inherited by every true Israelite, every truly God-like man who has discovered his own prototype in God, and is then transfigured according to his Original, according to the Prototype of Christ.

This is the feast that Orthodoxy celebrates today. Godless iconoclast emperors and godless mighty men tried [to fight against icons], sadly, with the help of a few bishops; very few Christian laity were on the side of iconoclasm, and not a single monk, but there were a few bishops and priests. It was mainly the iconoclast emperors, fighters against God and against Christ, who gave the orders to remove the Holy Icons from Churches. Then Islam appeared. This was on the bridge from the seventh to the eighth centuries. Arabs were breaking in from the East, attacking Byzantium and mocking the Christians: “See, our Prophet (or rather pseudo-prophet) has restored the faith that forbids the making of a graven image of anything in heaven or on earth.” The iconoclastic emperors were from those eastern parts, and they wavered, being weak in faith. Facing the powerful Arabs, they wanted to please them, so they started forbidding, removing, destroying, and burning Icons in the Christian Church. At first, they raised them higher so that Christians could not reach them and venerate them. In the West, this practice unfortunately started from the time of Charlemagne and the Franks (eighth century): the practice of raising icons beyond people’s reach. (There were also statues there that they had introduced instead of icons). The iconoclast emperor, Leo the Issaurian, of Armenia, started destroying icons. At that time a great number of them were lost. Fortunately, they were preserved on Sinai, in some places in Cyprus, and in some catacombs, so we can still find icons from the pre-iconoclastic period. The struggle was great and lasted a long time. In the end, the Church won, and on the First Sunday of the Great Lent in the year 843 the feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy was established, the Triumph of the True Faith in the human Archetype. This took place at the time of the Holy Patriarch Methodios, who preceded Saint Photios, the godfather of us Slavs, after whom Saint Methodios, the brother of Saint Cyril the Slav, was most probably named. It was during their time that the feast of the Sunday of Orthodoxy was established, the feast we today celebrate.

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Brothers and sisters, have you heard anywhere in the world today—in all these world summits, conferences, and propaganda—that anyone anywhere preaches, testifies to, confesses, or shows the true image of man, or that anyone speaks of the importance of the human image, of human God-likeness? The only thing being propagated and advertised are some faceless and, to the Godlike and Christ-like man, degrading systems, some “Europe,” some “integration” (either European or trans-Atlantic), some “transitions,” “reforms” and other generalized, “global” as they call them, ideas and abstractions that are exterior to us and apart from us, outside man and apart from man, and are not for man as a God-like creature, a creature that is the icon of God. The ideal of man, either as an individual or as a community of God-like and God-resembling beings, cannot be those famous “standards” of Europe, Euro-America, globalism, or whatever else. All this is paraphrased a little differently from what the Marxists tried to impose on us at the time when everything was turned into certain “classes” and certain “movements,” mass “happiness”—chimeras and abstractions whose results we have seen and felt on our own skin. As a smart man from Novi Beograd said at the time: “The working class has abolished the worker. We, the workers of Novi Beograd, want a church. We collected countless signatures in one of the blocks of Novi Beograd during the sixties. But they will not let it happen. The Communist Party is not allowing it! The obstacle are a few people, the upper echelon, who are deciding our fate, supposedly ‘in the name of the people’ and in the name of the working class.”

Brothers and gentlemen, such are also many of today’s abstractions of the so-called European Parliament, the United Nations—various groups (contact or crisis groups), which are also dehumanized, faceless abstractions, inhuman and iconoclastic, human creations working toward the destruction of mankind. Their result is that “their footprints smell of inhumanity!” They speak of justice, but there are no specific just people. They speak of freedom, but there are no free people, because they impose on human hearts and human consciences that which defaces man. They want a crowd, and an obedient one at that. They wish to flatten out every self-willed and disobedient person with their steam roller, and the name of that steam roller is, as you well know, NATO—that armed alliance, that brutal force, that “partnership for peace,” and yet wherever they appear, they bring disorder, war, bloodshed, and injustice. (The best example of this is Kosovo.) I remember how the martyred and tormented, both wrong and right, both guilty and innocent Radovan Karadzic used to talk. “That force,” he said, “seeks the reason for its existence. It is devising and imagining ways to find the reason for its existence.” That is why they invented that “partnership for peace,” while in actuality, wherever they show up they sow war. And they are preparing for a new war. As the Prophet said: They speak peace, peace, and they sow war, because war is in their heart (cf., Is. 59:8). Peace has never been spoken of more than today, and there have never been more wars. The Lord prophesied that, There will be wars and rumors of wars, there will be earthquakes, there will be disasters (cf., Mt. 24:6-8). But do not fool us, then, into thinking that this is the main thing. On the contrary, it suppresses that which is the main thing in man and in mankind, and that is God-likeness.

This is why our Church, our faith, our tradition, our position and standing up for what we are, that is, our identity if you will, is man himself first and then the deeds of man, first the Image of God in man, and then business and organization around man. First the God-Man, and then everything else will be added. Seek first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you (Mt. 6:33). Placing priority on the external relations, conditions, business, things, is actually a denying and despising of man and mankind as persons. Take a family, for example. I was born into a Serbian family in which the mother gave birth to ten children, six of whom are living. Imagine if Mother had treated everyone exactly the same way. There was equality for all in some ways, but not in all things. First of all, we were not given as equal by God: four sisters and two brothers, different sizes, different ages and compositions, different health, different appearances and gifts. For example, four sang nicely, and I and my youngest sister were poor singers, and we were all in the same family. Such a thing as imposed equality cannot exist, as Saint Nikolaj Velimirovic used to say, an equality of the kind that would cut off people’s heads. There is another kind of equality, true equality: we are all children of God, we are all brothers. But you cannot even make the fingers on your hands equal; you cannot trim them down to make them all the same size. Today’s steam roller of the world order wants to bring equality everywhere, but what is actually happening is that a group of tyrannical people, or rather inhuman creatures of their own interests and goals, are trying to submit all others to it. Do not tell me that those who have entered the European Union are free. Go there and try to live in Switzerland or Sweden. Ask our people who used to live there what their marriages are like, what their families are like, what are their children like. The trough is not for man, the gutter is not for man, even bread by itself is not for man, as precious as it is, for the Lord said: Man shall not live by bread alone (Mt. 5:4).

I say all this not to deny the need for human organization, society, order, and business and things, but, as they say, “Do not put the carriage in front of the horse.” We know what needs to come first, what second, and what third in life. The Lord said: Seek first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you (Mt. 6:33). In another place, Christ said: These things also ought to be done and not disregarded. But what if the first thing, the main thing, that which manifests us as God’s children, as God-like creatures, is suppressed and denied? They will not even hear the word God, far less accept the reality of God, the presence of Christ, in Europe. This is because man does not come first for them either. The Lord said: Either make the tree good, and his fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt and its fruit corrupt: for the tree is known by his fruit (Mt. 12:33). Put man first, the Image of man, the Image of God in man, and then everything else will be added to that man.

May God and this Holy place forgive me for speaking so: the kind of people that rush into Europe are those who start salivating when they hear the word Europe, without realizing what sorts of evil are present in Europe and what sorts of evils come from Europe, both for us and for her. For three centuries they have been carving our destiny and imposing their “solutions,” and they will never accept any responsibility for the decisions they have imposed on us; it is always we that are guilty. We see the decisions they are imposing now, and which they then change, considering they have the right, and we do not, especially when it comes to the greatly-martyred Kosovo and Metohija! And what are the results of their “solutions,” of those imposed “decisions”?

But God lives and our souls shall live, as God’s prophets and saints used to say. It was in this way that they existed and survived. We shall also survive in this way, but only by holding on to what is most important: man’s God-likeness. When you see your brother, you have seen your God—this was an expression of the desert-dwellers who secluded themselves in order to approach God more, but who honored their brother and therefore bowed to each other. That bowing of one brother to another is the bowing before a living Icon, and is itself depicted on our Holy Icons, just as a mother likes to have a picture of her child, her son, or one friend of another. Man is a creature with eyes, a creature that can be depicted, a portrayable creature, a creature that loves to see and rejoice, to have all his senses participate in joy, including the eye—that great gift from God by which we see; we are seers, we are man-seers and God-seers! Sight is a gift from God. So is hearing, and singing, and touch. There is the mystery of touch, there is taste for food, there is touch and embrace, and it is all given by God and blessed by God. But all in due order in its time and place.

The Sunday of Orthodoxy restores this order. It reminds us today to venerate Thy most pure Image, O Lord, according to which Thou has created us. Thou hast come to save us, to cleanse us and renew us, to develop in us the God-like dignity of God’s children, sons of the Heavenly Father, Thy brothers. Thou hast come to renew the image according to the Prototype. There is nothing more beautiful and joyous than when man, by repentance and by returning to his true God-likeness, is reborn and renewed, and when he thus gladdens himself and others, including the angels in heaven, who descend from the Lord to us and ascend from us to the Lord, because Christ has opened Heaven and all heavens for us. It is joy, such as there is on a child’s face after it cries and then its face shines and is joyous like that of an angel. Let children cry, let your hearts cry also. Mankind today is striving to remove all trouble, sorrow, misfortune, crying—but not in order to make people happy, but to keep people untroubled, to keep their consciences untroubled. In the misfortunate America I saw when I was there, advertisements for funeral homes say: “We Understand You.” That is their advertisement. Which is to say: they take the dead person from you, they treat the body, make a puppet out of it, and bring it to you at the grave site so that the relatives can never experience the seeing off, the meeting and the farewell, and also the desire, full of love, to remain in unity, and then to nurture the memory afterwards, to commemorate and honor the reposed in love and prayer until the Lord comes again and until the general resurrection. Do Americans or Europeans keep the memory of those killed men, those poor people whom they send to the war zones of the world? I was a witness to it in Kosovo. Do you know how many of these Americans and these NATO troops have died of sorrow, of sadness, of suicide? That is why they are so aggressive and so impatient and rash, because they do not find the Image of God in themselves, in another person, in all other peoples and nations, not seeing what we are and who we are, where we are and what we are rushing into.

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Brethren and children, the Orthodox tradition is to stand before the Holy Icons, or by one’s bed, and think: Where was I today? What have I done? And to pray: O Lord, forgive; I have sinned as a man; do Thou, as God, forgive! That is why Thou art God. That is why Thou hast created me, that is why Thou lovest me. That is why Thou hast come into the world, and become man, and lived and suffered with us. And Thou hast died for us, but Thou wast also resurrected and granted us eternal life. Help me, O Lord, to be the way Thou hast made me to be, the way I ought to be—God-like and Christ-like. That is the return to oneself, the return of the son who took the father’s property and left, who wasted all his wealth and then saw what he had gotten himself into (Lk. 15). Man needs not only these things: food, drink, property, things of this world and age. These are also necessary: food and drink, knowledge, and organization. But that is not the most important thing for man, that is not his biggest problem. Misfortunes are so great and are only becoming deeper in this world and this life, because a human being cannot endure abuse. Just like nature cannot endure abuse. Marxists and today’s capitalists have proclaimed exploitation, the use of nature as if it were a beast that needed to be butchered and have its insides gutted and consumed. That is the goal of today’s consumer society. This is why the Earth is taking revenge. God-given nature is taking revenge around us. This is the famous ecological or environmental [domoslovni] problem of today. There is domostroj, which is the ordering of the household, and there is also care for the household, domoslov: domoslov refers to the family, to the human environment, to surroundings, to the environment in which we live. Nature is taking revenge. Human nature is taking revenge even more, the soul and the body, because of abuse. Just look at how many new illnesses there are! Regardless of how many new cures are found, there will only be (I am no prophet but it is so) more and more diseases, and they will become only more and more complicated. But, thank God, He has implanted much good and a great deal of talent in man, so there will also be solutions to these problems. The world will not come to an end, nor will mankind, until God says it is the end of the world and history. But we need to strive for the quality, for the substance, of our human life. The Sunday of Orthodoxy testifies of this to us, it relates this to us.

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When we leave at the end of the Divine Service, having partaken of Communion, to walk around the church and carry the Holy Icons and sing, We venerate Thy Holy Image, Thy Icon, O Lord, let us also ask this of the Lord: Show us, O Lord, as Thou hast shown Nathaniel, Thy Divine Image in ourselves and in our brethren, so that we may observe Thy Prototype, which is ours, given to us and conveyed to us. Then may we know by this that we are Orthodox. I repeat, Orthodoxy is not a big organization, a mighty force. You will hear many people ask: “What is the Church doing?” I say: “It is doing nothing, but it serves Divine Liturgy.” This was also said by a Russian priest at a meeting in Europe, when Russians were first allowed to leave the country after Stalin’s horrific persecutions. He and others were met by Protestants, Catholics, the organizers of the meeting, and they asked him: “What is the Russian Church doing? What mission does it have in Russia today?” And the priest said: We serve the Liturgy! Others laughed, not understanding that this is the greatest work that can be accomplished in this world and in this history, behind which is God’s Eternity.

This is why Orthodoxy is that which holds on to the Most Important One, as the Lord said, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful (Lk. 10:41-42). The rest is needful also, Martha’s job was needful, to be the host, to serve—but Mary had chosen the better part, the same better part which Nathaniel choses today.

Imagine what a refined soul this Nathaniel was, what fineness, and the Church points out exactly this today. Philip saw Nathaniel and told him, Come and see, we have found the Messiah. “Is it possible?” Nathaniel said. And the Lord knew him, and revealed that Nathaniel yearned exactly for that, yearned for Him as our Prototype!

May the Lord grant that our hearts and souls be like Nathaniel’s. And may we meet the Lord. We will meet Him one day, but it is even better when He recognizes His image in us in this life and in this world, as the Holy Scriptures say. He will say to some: “I know you not.” He will say this to those who have become deformed, dehumanized, to the godless. There are some around us, God forgive the expression, some human freaks who preach only themselves, their deformity and fallen nature. God forgive me for mentioning them today. I ask your forgiveness also, but we do have to beware of such people and yearn, as Nathaniel did, for Christ as our true Image. He is the True Man as God-Man, the true Savior of man. He is the only true and all-saving Lover of Mankind.

Let us be like Nathaniel. Let our souls yearn for the courts of the Lord, for the beauty for which He has created us. People love art; icons are art. There is no beauty so pure, so spiritual, so permanent, as our Holy Icons, which we normally call Byzantine, but are in fact pan-Orthodox, and Serbian and of all humanity. Such are the White Angel of Mileseva, the Crucifixion of Studenica, the Christ of Decani, the Theotokos of Hilandar, the Dormition of Sopocani, etc. That is the true art, the eternal beauty—divine beauty. Man loves art, but not to be faced with perversions, all sorts of deformities, all sorts of defacements of man, scenes where there is no longer man or the human Image, but abstractions, as I said earlier, when there are only “general categories,” certain self-proclaimed “standards,” certain conceptions and fictions that have nothing in common with me as a God-like creature, nothing in common with our children or with the true people of God. Those who impose themselves on us would like to deface us, to take God’s image from us—and this is what is demonic about them. The devil would like to erase God’s Image from man—that is his whole action and labor, his job. He will not succeed, though, because God is stronger, and God’s endowments in man are deeper, but we do need to help both ourselves and others. It will not happen by itself. Let us help ourselves. Let us help God, Who desires us as true sons of God, as God’s children, to be God-like. He does not desire servants or slaves. So, let us help Him, because nothing will happen without us. Without this we do not live, we do not breathe, we do not pray, we cannot be rational, we cannot be truly rational and not irrational creatures, we cannot be God-like, and Christ-like, and Christ-wise, and God-wise, and human-wise.

To our God, to our Prototype, to the Father Who sent His Only-begotten Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and to the One who gave us this great Feast, the Triumph of Orthodoxy, the Feast of our God-likeness, to Him be glory and praise unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Translated from the Serbian by Father Serafim (Baltic). Edited, with Web introduction by Hierodeacon Samuel (Nedelsky). Published in Orthodox Life , No. 2, 2007, pp. 14-23. Posted here with their permission on 10/11/2007.