Today’s gospel reading from St. Matthew is about sovereigns, about those who have supreme power. That’s what sovereignty is all about. But it’s not simply about the “certain king” about whom Christ speaks in the first sentence of His parable: “Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants.” Certainly Our Lord makes it clear that that “certain king” is God, whom He calls “My heavenly Father” in the last line of the reading, distinguishing those who are unworthy, because of their failures to forgive, to be called children of God the Father. But there may well be another sovereign in the parable: the “one [who] was brought unto him, which owed him ten thousand talents.” What sovereignty, you might ask, did this man have. Was he merely a debtor? The clue here might be the amount of the debt: ten thousand talents was a fortune, not just a lot of money, but a king’s ransom. Just one talent may have represented 130 lbs. of gold in Christ’s time, and those hundred pence, or denarii, that were owed by the second servant to the first, were at the very most equal to one ten thousandth of the debt owed by the first. For that reason, the heavily indebted man may be seen to be more like a sovereign himself, someone with a lot of responsibility to God, having power over many, but as we can tell from the parable, having abused that power.
But the history of the Church is replete with sovereigns who reigned justly, with faith in the Risen Christ and with actions that evidence their Christian morality. Foreshadowing this righteousness in reigning is the story in Luke’s gospel of the centurion who had complete faith in Our Lord when he asked Him to heal his servant. Remember, that the centurion told Christ: “For I also am a man set under authority, having under me soldiers, and I say unto one, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh.” And St. Luke tells us that Jesus “marveled at him” saying: “ I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.” After the Resurrection, the first leader that followed in the steps of that centurion was St. Constantine, the Roman emperor who in 313 AD in his Edict of Milan put an end to the persecution of Christians. In fewer than 70 years, Christianity would become the official religion of the Roman Empire, and due to these efforts Constantine the Great was not only glorified by the Church, but also the title “Equal to the Apostle” was bestowed upon him.
Another sovereign on whom that title was bestowed is the Holy Grand Prince Vladimir, Equal to the Apostles, by whose sovereign actions Christianity was brought from Constantinople to the land of Rus one thousand and thirty years ago when his subjects, the people of Kiev, were baptized en masse in the Dnieper River after Vladimir himself had been baptized earlier in the city of Chersonesus on the Crimean Peninsula. The Baptism in the Dnieper is the subject of a famous painting by Klavdy Lebedev, a Russian artist of the nineteenth century that is used a model for frescos in a number of churches in Russian and America.
Two weeks ago our Patriarch Kyrill called the Baptism of Rus in the Dnieper a “watershed in the history of our peoples…because it changed forever the entire Slavic civilization.” As we know through the words that Patriarch Kyrill has instructed us to pray each Sunday in the Litany of Supplication, the very place of the Baptism of Rus is currently a place of sorrow and strife, so the priest prays for “speedy reconciliation” and for God to “Lead unto sanctuary those bereft of shelter, feed the hungry, comfort those who weep, and unite divided.” In his Epistle on the 1030th Anniversary of the Baptism of Rus, our Patriarch reminded us to emulate “Prince Vladimir, Equal to the Apostles, who, having ‘put off the old man with his deeds and put on the new man’ gave his heart to the Lord Jesus forever.”
Also, only a few weeks ago, another sovereign was remembered for his deeds by the Church. On the night of July 16, 1918 the Tsar Nicholas II, his wife Tsarina Alexandra, their five children—Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei—as well as a number of others, were brutally murdered in Yekaterinburg, east of the Urals, by the Bolsheviks. On the 100th Anniversary of that terrible day, our Patriarch Kyrill led a procession of over 100,000 that started out late on July 16 from Yekaterinburg’s Church on the Blood, which was built on the site of the murders, and ended in the early hours of July 17 at the place where the bodies of the Tsar and his family had been dumped by the Bolsheviks about 21 kilometers away, more than 10 miles. As you may know, Tsar Nicholas and his entire family were glorified in 2000 by the Russian Orthodox Church as Passion Bearers, as it was then stated that “In the last Orthodox Russian monarch and members of his family we see people who sincerely strove to incarnate in their lives the commands of the Gospel.”
What is a Passion Bearer? Perhaps the words of the Troparion to the Royal Family can help us understand:
“Most noble and sublime was your life and death, O Sovereigns; / Wise Nicholas and blest Alexandra, we praise you, / Acclaiming your piety, meekness, faith, and humility, / Whereby you attained to crowns of glory in Christ our God, / With your five renowned and godly children of blessed fame. / O passion-bearers decked in purple, intercede for us.”
Some might find it hard to understand how sovereigns, not just St. Constantine, St. Vladimir, or St. Nicholas, but also how rulers like St. Louis, the Ninth, King of France, for whom our city of St. Louis is named, or St. Edward the Confessor, King of England, might be considered saintly.
To those who are given much, like the man with the 10,000 talents in the parable, much is expected by God. The goal is to meet that expectation, whether sovereigns with crowns, or people like us in America today, who have no title or scepter, but do indeed have sovereignty because we have our own free will which is the true sovereignty of the spirit, we too are expected to use that sovereignty in our own deeds so as to “give our lives to the Lord Jesus forever” as St. Vladimir did.
Fr. Emmanuel Pratsinakis gave the sermon on Sunday, August 5.
TENTH SUNDAY OF MATTHEW
I COR. 4:9-16
The life and sacred mission of a Pioneer, a Church Trailblazer, is most alluring. Although it is a life full of challenges, dangers and struggles, it is off-set by a life of eminence, infused with many heroic and high standing moments, exuding spiritual distinction. You are correct to assume that the earliest Church Pioneers are the Holy Apostles. It is to the Apostles of the Church, these frontiersmen of our faith, that today's Epistle Lesson is dedicated.
The Holy Apostles opened new avenues of faith and firmly grounded the joy of an identifiable God in people's lives. They traveled in every direction, preaching in uncharted and previously unexplored regions. They met with races never before known to Mediterranean peoples and conveyed the message of God's salvation. Indeed, they were the first religious explorers, missioners and renovators that embellished the Universe, teaching God's love to all.
There was a cost factor. Their mission was a constant uphill battle filled with unexpected challenges. In today's lesson, Paul describes the many demands the apostles endured while serving in the field.
"...at the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are ill clad, buffeted and homeless,
and we labor, working with our own hands. We are reviled and persecuted,
we are slandered..."
The Holy Apostles were true heroes. They never surrendered their Creed. They never yielded their faith. They never said, "I had enough". They ran twenty-four/seven in every direction ministering to all people. They were universal light bearers in a dark and gloomy world.
Their Mission was simple: to open up Christian pathways even in the most primitive and untraveled areas of the world. They proudly shared the Light of Christ, Christian civility and respect for all to the many rough tribes. As today, we enjoy residing in this Christian Country, we are urged not to be thoroughly naive. There are yet many untraveled roads and coarse byways that remain oblivious to the message of Jesus Christ. Yes, even in America! There are neighborhoods in Philadelphia, New York that Christ was never given a chance to shine in the hearts of the citizens. There are many who have not yet been introduced (or even re-introduced) to the truth of God's love and His justice.
These dark souls are parallel to those masses which the apostles of yesteryear confronted. The people referred to and described by Matt. 4:16 as:
"those living in the shadow of death"
We need apostles today more than ever for the hungry and thirsty masses: Men, Women, Young Adults are needed to bring the light of Christ to those living in darkness. They are needed to preach Jesus Christ to those who have never heard of Him, or having heard, have forgotten or did not fully grasp Christ's impact. We need willing frontiersmen and frontierswomen to bring the Light of Christ to every dark crevice of the world just as the Original Twelve. Once illumined in Christ, their lives will be filled with many blessings of Christ.
Allow me, please, to ask a simple question?
Have you every thought of yourselves as direct descendants of the Apostles?
Have you ever taken a moment to consider that all of us are descendants of the great pioneers of the faith? (Actually, the Twelve Apostles pre-date the SAR and the DAR (Sons and Daughters) of the American Revolution.) St. Paul writes in today's Epistle:
For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers (or mothers).
For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel.
It's true that our Christian Genealogy traces back 2000 years. The Apostles are our Fathers and Mothers in the Christian life. They bequeathed Christianity and the teachings the Holy Gospel to us. Our Bishops, our Clergy come directly from the Apostles. (I was ordained by a bishop who was ordained by other bishops, who were ordained by other bishops. This succession began with the Holy Apostles.) The Church calls this Apostolic Succession. Proudly we proclaim our Church "Apostolic. It is founded on the apostolic foundations of Jesus Christ. See Eph. 2:20
"...built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, with Christ Jesus
Himself as the Chief Cornerstone."
Think about your heritage. Study your lineage carefully. Allow today's lesson to be your "spiritual ancestry".com We are the descendants of the Holy Apostles. We are the grandchildren of the early pioneers of the Church. There is no other Honor more notable than the one we hold. There is no other Tribute more noble than being a family member of the original Apostolic Cluster. In our veins flows the Blood of Heroes. Our DNA reflects the same Spiritual DNA as the Apostles'.
Be careful not to contaminate your apostolic bloodline and your apostolic ancestry. Our noble life needs to reflect high values and honorable pursuits. Always keep the Apostles' dedication in your mind. Remember always that the Apostles committed themselves to Christian priorities and discounted tremendous inhibitors. We are the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. (BTW, That's a good title for a t-shirt: "We are the One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church".) Treasure this identity with firmness and resolve. Safe guard it. Don't give credit to the piercing cries of agitators or the hysterical shrieks of provocateurs. Orthodoxy is the Mother Church of Christianity. We, alone, have safely guarded the truths of the faith and shared them through the centuries. It is a great honor for us to trace our lineage back to the Venerable Apostles.
The last line of todays reading sums up Paul's conclusion:
I urge you, then, to be imitators of me, (Paul)
We all know that the earth's vegetation needs moisture. God provides constant rain so the earth will flourish. The Psalms written by King David the Prophet were many. He did not confine himself to one or two. David wanted to drill into us the importance of commitment. Both of these examples are important for us. Both examples mentioned today, prompt us. As human beings, we need constant reminders. Paul understood this concept and tells the Corinthians and us to "imitate Paul". In a symbolic way, this is another refreshing rainfall to sustain the earth. It is a reminder of our Christian Commitment. Let us therefore imitate St. Paul and all the Apostles of Christ. May their Spiritual Bequest and the example of their faith and values be ours.
Sermon Presented by Fr. Emmanuel
The Church, as the Body of Christ, most definitely suffers when Christian divisions and schisms develop. Unfortunately, many times in the past as well as today, the people promoting the schisms, have not totally assimilated the Christian Spirit in their hearts. This is evident on every level: from leadership roles to general membership. Small mindedness and lack of understanding have caused divisions in Churches throughout history. Many of these divisions begin small and then turn into larger movements evoking the general membership to abandon the Church. Schism is against the grain of the Church. Tradition compares the Church to the seamless tunic that Jesus Christ wore.
John 19:23: “When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took His clothes…This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom.”
The seamless tunic represents the “One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church…”. If we believe that the Church is One, then why are there so many fights and disagreements?
Today’s Epistle is a Personal Appeal made by St. Paul, Apostle to the Nations and the acknowledged founder of numerous local Churches around the Mediterranean basin. Although today Paul is specifically directing himself to the local parishes of yesteryear, by extension, he is also speaking to us today. Paul appeals to Christians to maintain unity within our local churches. He tells us today, to direct our attention to: “those things that unite us, ….our commonalities”.
Children of a given family are all different, yet all are bonded by their common lineage and by their common family name. They hail from the same parents and view each other as brothers and sisters. The citizens of a nation are also bound by a common history, speak the same language, sacrifice for similar ideals, and celebrate common achievements.
As members of the Christian Church, we are united by the person of Jesus Christ. His Cross becomes our Cross, as we gain membership by baptism, grow our common faith, and foster hope of God’s Eternal Kingdom. We are all Christians: followers of Christ. We belong to the same Family: the Christian Church. We are united together by Christ’s ultimate sacrifice, His blood. All of us speak the same language, the language of love. Gal. 3:28 tells us that:
“There is neither Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Certainly, differences occur. Yet the entire membership is responsible to reunite the fallen away members. This is evident from time honored Church traditions and the ancient common faith of our Fathers. Our differences are minuscule, compared to the numerous and tremendous factors that unite us.
Parish squabbles unfortunately resemble those experienced in clubs, fraternities, societies and organizations. Most differences stem from arrogance and personal gain: whether financial or other wise. We are called to avoid such arguments. They are divisive. Unity, however, must always be maintained, especially when we concentrate on the bigger picture: Our Salvation.
Let’s review the issues mentioned in the today’s Epistle Lesson that caused dissension in Ancient Corinth. The Corinthians had aligned themselves behind different apostles. Some favored Paul, others Peter, others still Apollos. Each faction was head strong and obstinate. They were fanatics with control issues. One would say, “I am a follower of Paul.” Another expressed a different allegiance, “I am a follower of Peter.” Paul warns the Corinthians back then and us today not to attach ourselves to a specific apostle or a particular teacher. Rather, we must realize that teachers, apostles, clergymen have a singular role: to teach salvation.
Although Christ is taught and preached to us by a specific person, we are called to focus on Christ, Who offers Salvation and not on the teachers who teach salvation. We are followers of Christ, not followers of humans. Teachers, apostles, bishops, priests are likened to Ambassadors for Christ. Certainly they are respected, cherished and loved. The leader of the Church however is Jesus Christ. Bishops, priests, parish council members, youth directors, chanters, choir masters can be compared to members of a Presidential Cabinet. Important? Of course. Don’t forget however that Jesus Christ is the Leader, the Governor, the President, the Prime Minister. Paul teaches us in I Cor. 4:1:
“So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God.”
Today Paul calls us to place our loyalty on Christ and not His servants. The relationship between the faithful and Christ must be strong, intimate, close, absolute, yet without diversions. This relationship of the faithful with Christ is meaningfully reflected, forged and even hammered throughout our worship services. We are expected to accept, express our affection and even honor our teachers in the faith. Never, however, should we lift them so high that the personhood or the station of Jesus is covered up, hidden or concealed in the Church. It is such resolve that creates division and schism in the congregations. The body of Christ is One. Christ is One. We are all His servants.
We are living in troubled times. Who will guide us? Who can nurture us? Who will direct us unto salvation? One person cannot do everything. Everyone is needed.
Let us today reaffirm our love and our faith in Jesus Christ, the leader of the Church. Let us pledge our unity to Him so the Gospel of Christ will be disseminated to the four corner of the earth. The meaning that our people are searching for is Jesus Christ.
A united front, a joint effort of clergy and congregants, can shine the light of Christ in the hearts of our congregation. All of us are necessary in order for the ship to sail. The captain however is Jesus Christ.
In today’s Gospel, when Our Lord called the two fishermen walking on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, Andrew and Simon, He knew that they would be part of that “great cloud of witnesses” that we celebrated one week ago on the All Saints’ Day. St. Andrew, who is known as the First Called, and his brother, whom Christ would rename Peter, the Rock, were handpicked to join the Old Testament Saints that we saw on the icon of All Saints last Sunday and the Prophets, of which St. John the Baptist was the last. And there would be ten more, starting with James and John, about whom we also hear today.
On the Sunday that follows All Saints, the Church celebrates a more narrow group in the great cloud, what are called the regional saints. We are fortunate to have two regional groups to celebrate: Russian and North American. Many of the North American saints of course came to this land from Russia as the Russian American Company explored and colonized the land across the Bering Straits, Alaska. One of those saints is perhaps most representative of both regions, and that is St. Innocent, known both as Metropolitan of Moscow, and as St. Innocent of Alaska, and is also referred to as Equal to the Apostles and Enlightener of North America.
The words “Equal to the Apostles” is a very special designation that has be reserved for those saints who are responsible for doing the same kind of missionary work that the Twelve Apostles, like St. Andrew and St. Peter, did, and for that reason it has been applied to St. Constantine the Great, who opened the doors for Christianity in the Roman Empire in 312 AD and St. Vladimir by whose decree Rus was baptized in the Dnieper River at Kiev in 980.
Why St. Innocent has had that very special title applied to him is easy to see from a little bit about his life: Ivan Popov was born in 1797 in a village on the shores of Lake Baikal in Irkutsk into the family of a church sacristan, hence the last name which means “priestly” that was about as standard in Russia as “Smith” is in America. That name would not last, however, because Ivan, as a young seminarian was chosen to be the recipient of the last name “Veniaminov,” to distinguish him from all the other John Smiths, in order to remember the beloved local Bishop Benjamin who had recently fallen asleep in the Lord. Once ordained, Fr. John volunteered for missionary work in the New World in which his predecessors, such as the monk St. German, had made great strides in bringing Orthodoxy to America. Fr. John was ordered to serve the island of Unalaska in 1824 to which he traveled with his entire family and immediately built a Church dedicated to the Ascension of Our Lord with the help of the Native American Aleuts, whose language he learned very quickly. So quickly, in fact that Fr. John translated the Gospel of St. Matthew, the very words we heard today, into Aleut by 1828. Tales of his exploits traveling in a two seat kayak over incredibly long distances in freezing water to visit his flock on the many Aleutian islands. After a few years, Fr. John was transferred to Novoarkhangelsk (or New Arkhangelsk), which we now call Sitka, from which he was called back to Russia to discuss his request that the Synod support an expansion of missionary work in Russian America, but while back he found out that his matushka had fallen asleep in the Lord. At the urging of the bishops, he was tonsured a monk in 1840 taking the name Innocent, remembering the well known Bishop Innocent of Irkutsk, and was consecrated Bishop of Kamchatka and the Aleutian Islands. At the end of his missionary work, then Archbishop Innocent returned to Russia, where he eventually was appointed to be Metropolitan of Moscow, the highest position in the Church, there being no Patriarch since the days of Peter the Great. Metropolitan Innocent fell asleep in the Lord in 1879 and was buried in the St. Sergius Trinity Lavra, where his relics were found in 1994 and can be venerated today. He was glorified by the Russian Church in 1977 and revered in both the Russian and American churches, and that’s why he is so perfect a representative of today’s celebration.
While in America in 1833, St. Innocent wrote his best known work in the Aleut language: The Indication of the Way into the Kingdom of Heaven. This book, on the most important topic in all of our lives, was translated into Russian later, and then English as well as many other languages. In that way it’s a real American text. A few years back in our Orthodox Reading Society here at St. Michael Church, named of course for the Saint of which we now speak, we studied the Indication alongside a very readable biography of St. Innocent written by Paul Garrett. In the very first sentence of the Indication, you can just hear Fr. John preaching to his native flock: “People were not created merely to live here on earth like animals that disappear after their death, but to live with God and in God, and to live not for a hundred or a thousand years, but to live eternally.” Fr. John was a very organized thinker and writer as is shown by these early word outlining the Way to Heaven:
“I divide my book into four parts:
- On the benefits which Jesus Christ has granted us by his death.
- How Jesus Christ lived on earth, and what He suffered for us.
- The way by which we must go into the Kingdom of Heaven.
- How Jesus Christ helps us to go by this way, and how we can receive this help.”
Brothers and Sisters, while we may feel we know enough about the first two topics in that outline that were addressed to the Aleuts who just learning about Christ, all of us can benefit from all four parts of the Indication. For example, on the topic of sainthood, the topic that has dominated these two Sundays after Pentecost, Fr. John tells us: “Look at the Saints! They were not all hermits; and they were like us at first and were not sinless, and they were also engaged in worldly affairs, cares and duties, and many of them had a family as well. But while doing their worldly occupations and duties, they did not forget at the same time their duties as Christians; and while living in the world, they made their way at the same time into the Kingdom of Heaven and often led others with them as well.” St. Innocent tells us plainly throughout the Indication how important the sacrament of confession is to staying on the Way to the Kingdom because he reminds us that we all fall into sin from time to time but “do not despair and think that all is lost; but quickly and fervently fall down before God with penitence and prayer, and the Holy Spirit will return to you again.” The Holy Spirit, whose descent upon the Apostles we celebrated only two Sundays ago, and the Holy Spirit that was first learned about by Native Americans in their own language almost 200 years ago, being taught by a Saint of Russia and a Saint of America, St. Innocent. We Americans can as well learn quite a lot more about the Holy Spirit by studying the Indication of the Way into the Kingdom of Heaven, the very same “Kingdom” about which St. Matthew’s gospel as read today says that Christ was teaching in Galilee. St. Innocent’s book is a true treasure of America authorship that we can read in our own language.
Here is a link to the Indication: https://www.stmaryofegypt.org/files/library/Indication.pdf
All Saints Day First Sunday After Pentecost
"Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us." With this wonderfully eloquent phrase "so great a cloud of witnesses," St. Paul explains the beauty and majesty of All Saints Day, which according to the early church fathers was always celebrated on the first Sunday after Pentecost. And, of course, we in the Eastern Church continue that celebration today, even as the West pushed the celebration of All Saints of the Christian Church into autumn, which is now obscured, perhaps better said polluted, by what used to be called All Hallows Eve.
One way to best understand the "great cloud of witnesses" might be to study closely the icon of All Saints Day, a copy of which the altar servers are distributing and which also graces the bulletin today.
The scene of this icon is set in Heaven with Christ as the central figure, while closest by Him are the Theotokos, the Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John, and three of the Archangels, while a host of cherubim and seraphim seemingly supporting Him holding the book of the Gospels in the pose known as Pantocrator, or Ruler of All, All Powerful One. It is important to note that the "great cloud of witnesses" that takes up most of the icon are depicted as overflowing the circle of Heaven, thereby symbolizing that more and more saints are being added all of the time, and Brothers and Sisters, that is what we are called to do with our lives, to reach theosis as has been reached by the saints shown in the icon. We strive to reach theosis by getting closer to God.
At the bottom of the icon are three figures that may need explanation: At the left is Abraham who is holding a righteous soul to his chest. If you remember from dismissal of the Panykhida service, the Bosom of Abraham is recited as the place for rest of the departed souls. On the right is Jacob, who is holding the Twelve Tribes of Israel in a cloth, reflecting the words of Christ in today's Gospel: "Verily I say unto you, That ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel." And the figure in the middle is the Wise Thief, holding his own cross and having a place in Heaven as Christ had told him: "This day you shall be with me in Paradise."
There are more Old Testament references in the icon: At the top left of the icon is King David holding a scroll with "God is wondrous in his saints" from his Psalm 66 and on the right is King Solomon showing us his words "The righteous live forever" from the Book of Wisdom. Under Christ's mandorla Adam and Eve are bowing down toward the Throne of Preparation, an empty seat on which Our Lord will sit at the Last Judgment. On top of the pillow on that seat is Christ's vesture that was taken from Him by the soldiers at His Crucifixion and right below the Throne is the Life Giving Cross of the Crucifixion, being elevated by St. Helen and her son, the first Christian Emperor of Rome, St. Constantine, just as the Cross was found by St. Helen and held up by the bishop on the Feastday of the Elevation of the Cross. This is why we also celebrate St. Helen and St. Constantine individually today on the first Sunday after Pentecost.
And a word about that mandorla in which Christ sits: On each corner we can see a different image---starting at the top left, an angel; top right, an eagle; bottom left, a lion; and bottom right, a bull. Of course, these are symbolic of the four Evangelists, respectively, St. Matthew, St. John, St. Mark, and St. Luke. The Old Testament foreshadowing of the Evangelists is found in the book of St. Ezekiel the Prophet who wrote: "As for the likeness of their faces, they four had the face of a man and a face of a lion on the right side; and they four had the face of an ox on the left side; they four also had the face of an eagle." The same images are carried into the Book of Revelation in which St. John wrote: "And the first beast was like a lion, and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had the face as a man, and the fourth beast was a flying eagle." Later in today's service, listen closely during the Anaphora for these words: "Singing the triumphant hymn, shouting, crying aloud, and saying" because each of those four verbs are associated with one of the Evangelists: The eagle, St. John, singing; the ox, St. Luke, shouting; the lion, St. Mark, crying aloud; and the angel, St. Matthew, saying. Each of these four attributes come from how each of their gospels begin: For example, St. Mark's gospel begins by writing about John the Baptist who was in the desert, the wilderness in which the lion lurks.
Take a closer look at the icon later today and you will note that the saints are shown in organized groups: The Apostles are to the right of Christ (on the left side of the icon) shown holding churches in their hands. On the bottom right side, women saints are grouped standing behind St. Helen. You might recognize St. Catherine wearing a crown in that group. Other saints are recognizable as well, such as St. Nicholas in the group of Holy Hierarchs to the left of Adam or St. Seraphim of Sarov in the group of monastics to the right of Eve. Heaven is well ordered. And stocked with an unending, unfinished cloud of witnesses. For as Our Lord said as recorded at the end of St. Matthew's Gospel today: "And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name's sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life. But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first."
Do the words of today’s Gospel reading seem familiar to you? If you remember back to Holy Thursday evening, these words were read at the end of the very long first Passion Gospel that stretches over almost four chapters in St. John’s Gospel and begins just as Judas leaves the Upper Room to go out to betray Our Lord. The beginning of that first Passion Gospel records Christ’s last directions to His disciples, and His promise to return to them “in a little while.” But today’s Gospel records the words Our Lord spoke after those directions, words He spoke directly to His Father, but for the benefit of His disciples, and ultimately us as well. Listen again to how St. John describes the scene:
“These words spake Jesus, and lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee: As thou hast given him power over all flesh, that he should give eternal life to as many as thou hast given him. And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.”
Jesus told them, and tells us, that He has been given power over all flesh, but that power is specifically for the purpose of granting eternal life. As we know well, each of us has but one critical goal in our lives: to prepare for our own salvation. And that salvation comes only through the Holy Resurrection of Our Lord, but how does Christ’s power over all flesh effect our salvation? An instructive way to think about this can be found in chapter 24 of the Gospel of St. Luke that I read this past Thursday here in our Church on the Feast of Christ’s Ascension. I have reprinted the Gospel reading and you can pick up a copy on the candle desk to take home with you if you choose. The backdrop for the lesson is takes place just after the Risen Lord had appeared to Cleopas and another disciple at Emmaus and those two return to Jerusalem to tell the disciples what had happened. Here’s what St. Luke reported in words we read on every Feast of the Ascension: “And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit. And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have. And when he had thus spoken, he shewed them his hands and his feet. And while they yet believed not for joy, and wondered, he said unto them, Have ye here any meat? And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, and of an honeycomb. And he took it, and did eat before them.”
Not only did the Risen Christ eat with the two at Emmaus, but the specifics of what He ate after that with the disciples, that fish and honeycomb, demonstrate Christ’s power over all flesh, demonstrate that His Resurrection was in both soul and body, else how could He have eaten anything without a body. Just as the Theotokos in both body and soul was taken to Heaven at her Dormition, so too Christ’s Ascension into Heaven in both soul and body shows us, Brothers and Sisters, how our deaths will not forever disassociate our bodies from our souls. In the chapter entitled “Resurrection of the Bodies of the Dead” in his book “How Our Departed Ones Live—The Experience of the Orthodox Church,” the Monk Mitrophan in the late 1800s wrote “God created man immortal both in soul and body. The law and the word of God are unchanging; the soul and body are immortal, that is, once created they are never destroyed---and the soul and body remain forever.” In almost every culture in the world, when a human being dies, he or she is buried in the ground. The origin of the word “bury” is based on the idea of keeping, of saving up; while we tend to think of burial as putting an end to, just think of what it means to a dog to “bury” a bone---to save it for later. In Russian, the word “berech” comes from the same root and it means to keep, to spare. We believe that, not unlike the dry bones in the Prophecy of Ezekiel, that is read every year after we complete the procession with the plaschanitza during Matins of Holy Saturday, the dry bones that heard the word of the Lord and lived again, that our bodies will live again. Much of St. Paul’s first Epistle to the Corinthians was devoted to convincing the unsure people of Corinth, who were brought up in the tradition of the Greek philosophy that taught that resurrection of the dead is “madness,” to believe in the Resurrection of Christ, and then to believe in their own resurrections. In Chapter 15 Paul writes: “ So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body.”
The idea that St. Paul expresses about a “spiritual body” explains how Our Lord ate the broiled fish and the honeycomb, but also was able with that spiritual body to stand in the midst of the disciples when the doors were closed, as St. John tells us in the Gospel of St. Thomas Sunday. A spiritual body that go through solid walls, be invisible, that can ascend into Heaven, but can also partake of food as human bodies do. St. John Chrysostom tells us plainly that all of us will have spiritual bodies when he writes: “The resurrection of the dead will be like the Resurrection of Christ.” That’s why we bury the dead, why we don’t cremate the body. Our bodies are like the “corn of wheat” that Christ said must fall into the ground and die, so that it can later “ bringeth forth much fruit.” Monk Mitrophan puts everything together for us when he writes that “the decomposition of our body is necessary, inescapable, so that there could be a new body, appropriate to the new, eternal life beyond the grave at its second union with the soul.”
These words are so vital to our salvation, as we remember that death is the “last enemy” and has been destroyed and all of this is clearly reflected in the true messages of Our Lord and Savior, both in His acknowledgement to His Father of His “power over all flesh” and in the His meeting in the flesh with His Apostles just before His glorious Ascension in both body and soul into Heaven. And as we await the Feast of the Pentecost next week, we remember the words of the Troparion of the Feastday: “O Christ God, You have ascended in Glory, Granting joy to Your disciples by the promise of the Holy Spirit.”
Brothers and Sisters, if you are interested in reading Monk Mitrophan’s book, here is a link to the publisher’s website:
And here is a review of that book:
Christ is Risen!
If you listen closely, the last few lines of the readings from St. John’s gospel and from St. Luke’s chapter of the Book of Acts express the same thought: Speaking of the jailer, St. Luke tells us that:
“And he took them (Paul and Silas) the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes; and was baptized, he and all his, straightway. And when he had brought them (Paul and Silas) into his house, he set meat before them, and rejoiced, believing in God with all his house.”
And speaking of the man blind from birth, St. John tells us that:
“Jesus heard that they had cast him out; and when he had found him, he said unto him, Dost thou believe on the Son of God? He answered and said, Who is he, Lord, that I might believe on him. And Jesus said unto him, Thou hast both seen him, and it is he that talketh with thee. And he said, Lord, I believe. And he worshipped him.”
In each case, the jailer and the blind man believed because of the events that happened to them as recounted in the readings and they became Christians; we, on the other hand, believe, but without proof, without having been a party to the events that gave rise to the belief of the jailer or the blind man. We too are Christians, but what exactly do we believe? That precise question was the focus of the most recent study that was done by the good people at the Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life: When Americans Say They Believe in God, What Do They Mean? In a study of 4,700 American adults just last December, incredibly enough almost 90% answered the simple question: “Do you believe in God, or not?” and said that they believe in God (80%) or some higher power (9%). Even more encouraging is the finding that three quarters of Americans say that they talk to God. In my view, that means that 75% of people pray in one way or another, and that’s a lot more prayer than you could possibly believe if you listen to the popular media. But nonetheless only about ½ of those surveyed say that they believe in the God of the Bible, and I wonder whether the people surveyed even think about whether that use of the word “Bible” includes the New Testament from which I read to you today. Today, we commemorate St. Ignatius (or Ignati) Brianchaninov, Bishop of the Caucasus, a prolific writer on Orthodoxy who wrote these lines one hundred and fifty years ago that go right to the heart of the Pew Study today: “Many approach the Lord, but few decide to follow Him. Many read the Gospels, find comfort in them, become inspired by their noble and holy teaching, but few decide to model their actions according to the commandments of the Gospel. The Lord says to all who approach Him and desire to be joined to Him: ‘If anyone comes to Me,’ and does not renounce the world and himself, ‘he cannot be My disciple.’”
The life of St. Ignati is a testament to his advice; born into a wealthy family, achieving honors in every school he attended, and rising quickly in Petersburg literary society in the early 1800s, Dimitri Brianchaninov gave it all up to follow Christ, and became Monk Ignati at the age of twenty, eventually to serve as the Abbot of the St. Sergius Monastery.
So what happens to when people who say they believe in God, and even listen to the Gospels, but don’t follow Christ? Well, another recent study may provide the answer: The health services corporation, Cigna, just released the results of a survey of 20,000 American adults that concluded that most of us are lonely. There’s something called the UCLA Loneliness Scale, twenty questions that are geared to determine whether a person is clinically lonely, and just about ½ of Americans are lonely. For example, those surveyed were asked whether they often, sometimes, rarely, or never felt that: A. Their interests and ideas are not shared by those around them; B. They are unable to reach out and communicate with others; and C. They feel isolated from others. And the survey shows that being “alone” is not the same as being “lonely.” Many people who live with others are not alone, but they are certainly lonely on the UCLA scale. It may surprise you to learn that the word “lonely” did not even come into the English language until Shakespeare invented it (first used in his play Coriolanus). Four of his fellow Englishmen 350 years later used his word to created one of the most popular musical works of the twentieth century, a work that shone a bright light on the loneliness of modern life. Ancient people might have been alone at times, but only modern people apparently know loneliness. So even though almost 90% of Americans presumably believe in God according to Pew, most of them feel lonely, feel isolated, according to Cigna, and Cigna has a real interest in this because mental health and physical health go hand in hand. Are these results in conflict; if, so how can we explain the conflict? More importantly, how can we cure the loneliness?
The simple answer might be to remember back to Pascha, to midnight and to the procession while we all walked together and all together sang: “Make us also who are on earth worthy to glorify Thee with a pure heart.” Was anyone lonely then? Is it even possible to be lonely, to feel isolated from others, when we together here today in the Divine Liturgy as a group pray for our salvation, pray for the peace of the world, pray for all Orthodox Christians? The English word “liturgy” comes directly from the Greek “leitourgia” which means “work of the people,” that is, the people working together, as a corporate group, working and praying for our salvation. That we are all here praying together is never more evident than in the words sung by the choir near the end of the Liturgy: “We have seen the true Light; We have received the heavenly Spirit; We have found the true Faith, worshipping the undivided Trinity, who has saved us. Brothers and Sisters, the antidote to the isolation of the modern world, the cure for anyone who is lonely, is standing in this church and praying together in the Divine Liturgy, praying together with others for our salvation. Love is the cure for loneliness, the love of God the Father, as in the words of the blessing in the Divine Liturgy, the love we have for each other in the Divine Liturgy. All you need is that Love.
Christ is Risen!
"See my servant will act wisely; He will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. Just as there were many who were appalled at Him...He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to Him, nothing in His appearance that we should desire Him. He was despised and rejected by men...Surely He took up our inﬁrmities and carried our sorrows...but He was pierced for our transgressions...The punishment that brought us peace was upon Him and by His wounds we are healed...and we, like sheep that have gone astray..."
Jesus' acceptance of self-sacriﬁce, a death by Cruciﬁxion, gave way for God to respond by oﬀering, new life, the Resurrection. Because Jesus obeyed His Father and willingly accepted the way of the Cross, God lovingly responded by oﬀering (Pascha) the Kingdom of God. We rejoice with the New World of God which is free from illness and death. Death no longer has dominion..... the stings gone. God has granted us eternity, life beyond the grave.
Today, as we stand looking backwards in history, we see man's journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, we see the parallel journey of Christ and His disciples to Jerusalem for the Cruciﬁxion and ultimately, receiving the Resurrection, and we stand awestruck. Could we have ever anticipated such a ﬁnale? Man can only learn of God's wonder and understand the total meaning of our life's journey when, as Christ, we learn to fully obey God and sacriﬁce ourselves for the sake of others.
In a few days we shall relive the ﬁnal days of Christ. We shall intensely relive Golgotha and the glorious Resurrection. Christ's journey came across many inhibitors. Our life's journey to the Promised Land also has many dead ends. Did we already forget how easy God removes such barriers, much as He opened the road for Jesus' Resurrection (the new Promised land)?
Death and New Life are recurring events in our journey with Christ. These were not singular events of the past but are repeated continuously in the present and the future. Let us absorb completely God's wonder and His purpose for us. Lets us understand that our life is not a random event but a call to obey God fully and serve Him by oﬀering ourselves sacriﬁcially to others in need.
At the end of today’s gospel we hear Jesus telling His disciples: “The Son of man is delivered into the hands of men, and they shall kill him; and after that he is killed, he shall rise the third day.” So with these words we have reached already and again the Fourth Sunday of the Fast, with a hint of the Resurrection to come with precious few days left to prepare. Perhaps the best way to prepare for the Resurrection is the Sacrament of Confession. Since we had planned to have a round table discussion about the Sacrament yesterday afternoon, I decided before the mini-retreat to base this sermon on whatever came up is discussion yesterday; here are three questions, each of which lead to lively discussions: Question Number 1: what should or could a good confession be? First off, it actually may be more difficult to describe a confession that is not good, because every confession is worthwhile, as long as the words that the penitent choses to say before God are truthful. Notice that the words are said before God; the priest with the penitent to serve the Sacrament, and sins are confessed before and in the presence of God. But to reach “what a good confession should or could be” does require more; Fr. Alexander Elchaninov in his Diary of a Russian Priest wrote that: “Confession is an act of fervent, heartfelt repentance, a thirst for purification; it springs from an awareness of what is holy, it means dying to sin and coming alive again to sanctity.” Repentance is crucial to a “good confession;” after all, the word penitent means (according to Merriam Webster): “a person who repents their sins or wrongdoings and (in the Christian Church) seeks forgiveness from God.”
Question Number 2: Should I make a list of my sins and bring it with me? A good question and one without a pat answer. I have confessed both babushkas and young Americans who brought list, sometimes detailed ones. The value in bringing a list is not so much in not forgetting something, as it is in preparing ahead of time in order for the penitent to state clearly before God what is weighing down her or his conscience. Without specifics as to the sin committed, it’s very difficult to make any progress in stopping that sin. If one confesses to being a “bad person,” how can that person concentrate on changing? What should be changed? A sin undefined is a sin that can’t be overcome. Fr. Alexander explains this perfectly: “Preparation for confession…means striving to attain such a state of consciousness, seriousness, and prayer that your sins will become as clear as is they had been exposed to light. In other words, you should bring to your confessor not a list of sins but a feeling of repentance… a contrite heart.” It’s the clarity of the oral description of sins, stated out loud to God, that allows the truly repentant person to know exactly what behavior has to be changed, if one is to have any hope of changing for the better.
Question Number 3: How do I get past being afraid to go to confession? Firstly, today, being the Sunday of St. John Climacus, who gave us the Ladder of Divine Ascent, we can take solace in his wonderful advice: “Do not be afraid, even though you fall every day, so long as you do not depart from the ways of God; stand courageously and the angel who guards you will respect your patience.” But secondly, a large part of this issue has to do with not knowing what to expect in the sacrament, sort of fear of the unknown, especially if one has not confessed one’s sins in a long time or, for younger people, may have never had the Sacrament. This fear is easily cured by asking for advice from your confessor before confession, especially because the focus of confession is not to obtain advice from the priest during the Sacrament. A few years ago Matushka and I attended a retreat at which an inspirational lecture was given by an archimandrite about confession. Immediately at the end of the talk another Matushka sitting next to us leapt to her feet and said something I will never ever forget: “Father, I just can’t wait to go to confession.” That, Brothers and Sisters, is the best example I can give you of the “thirst for purification” that was quoted in the section on Question Number 1. And truly none of us can really wait too long to confess our sins, because as Elchaninov says: “Insensibility… deadness of soul—these are the result of long established sins which have not been confessed in time. The soul is greatly eased if we immediately confess the sin we have just committed, while we still feel its pang. Confession, if postponed, leads to insensibility.” Other writers have described that feeling as a hardening of the soul, a dullness to sin, indifference to our own conscience and lack of concern for our own salvation. Today we commemorate the uncovering of the relics in 1966 of St. Luke, the Blessed Surgeon of Crimea. In explaining the section on despondency in St. Ephrem’s Prayer to his flock as their Archbishop, St. Luke wrote this: “If you open your heart before a pastor of the Church at confession and receive the Body and Blood of Christ, you will feel relief and joy, and the spirit of despondency will be driven away from you in disgrace.” It’s the promise of that very relief and joy that overwhelms any possible feeling of apprehension or uncertainty about confession, and the confessing of sins that must precede absolution is a crucial prerequisite to entry into the Sacrament of Communion.
Yesterday we discussed the role of the priest in the Sacrament, especially since it is God to whom we confess, not the priest. I say “we” because the topic of the confession of the clergy came up, given that some may not realize that deacons, priests, and, yes, even hierarchs must confess their sins to God and in the presence of another clergy. It is of no small note that a priest removes his pectoral cross before he confesses, because all of us must stand before God in the same way, as repentant sinners seeking God’s infinite mercy. But as for the role of the priest, we can all profit from the words of St. John Chrysostom in one of his many recorded sermons: “The silversmith, when he fashions a vessel and lays it aside, will find it the next day just as he left it. This is not so with [priests]. Exactly the opposite since we have not lifeless objects to create but rational beings. We do not, then, find you as when we left, but after we have labored diligently to refashion your thinking and increase your zeal, urgent matters pull you away and create for us all kinds of difficulty. For this reason I plead with you to help in the work yourself and when you leave here show the same interest in your well being that I have shown for your improvement.” A final note on the concept of what constitutes a “good confession.” The consensus of the discussion group was that leaving the sacrament with tears in one’s eyes is a strong indication of a good confession. This Thursday evening we will again sing the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete and we will hear these definitive words on the concept of a “good confession:” “Take my heavy sinful burden away from me and give me tears of repentance!” The water of your baptism washed away your sins then, but only the water of your tears of repentance can wash away your sins now. Brothers and Sisters.
"...wake up the soul during Lent..."
"My soul, my soul, rise up! Why art thou sleeping?" With these stinging words begins the Kondak of the Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, the beautiful, heart rending service that takes place in the darkened church lit only by a few candles that is served on each of the first four days of Lent. Even though we stand only on the second Sunday of the fast today, we know from past experience that in the blink of an eye, Great Lent will turn abruptly into Holy Week and the very next line in that Kondak will weigh heavily on us: "The end draws near and soon you will be troubled." Brothers and Sister, the time is now to take an inventory, and a critical one, of how much progress each of us has made this year on our journey back to God. Can you honestly say that you have used the three pronged tool of Lent---the tool of fasting, of prayer, of almsgiving-to tune up your soul for this journey?
Another way to wake up the soul during Lent is by putting down the remote, putting down the mouse, putting down the iphone, and picking up a book, a book that can pick up, and wake up, your soul. Each year I like to make suggestions for Lenten readings; after the veneration of the Cross today this flyer will be available with a few books suggested by Holy Trinity Publications. Most years I will put down a book that I was unable to finish before Lent started and pick up a book such as one of those on the flyer starting right on the first Monday of Lent. But this year, being about halfway through a book I had been gifted, I decided to press on, mainly because this mostly secular work was so obviously based on Judeo/Christian teachings that my soul was wide awake while reading. And I am glad I did press on. This book is a sort of how to book, the kind of book I really never read, but its insights into life as it has come to be lived in the 21st century, giving a set of rules for living as an "antidote to chaos" as the dust cover says, owe so much to the Book of Genesis and to the Gospels as to be valuable Lenten fare for the soul. I bring this up not to recommend this book, but rather because the author uses three words over and over again in describing the character traits that lead to chaos in our lives: deceitfulness, arrogance, and resentfulness. Hearing this constant refrain, I began to wonder whether the true antidote to chaos can be found in St. Ephrem's Prayer, even though not one of those words-deceitfulness, arrogance, nor resentfulness--- is found in that prayer. Now first of all, the matter of translation: St. Ephrem, who lived in the 300's in the very area of Syria on the border of what is now Turkey where civil war has been raging for the last few years, wrote in the Syriac language, so his prayer had to be translated into Greek first, and then later was translated into Slavonic. That's why you might hear different words when the prayer is recited. Just as an example, the first sentence of the Greek version translated into English states "Give not to me the spirit of idleness,...." while the Slavonic translated into English yields: "Take away from me the spirit of idleness....." These are very different concepts. But even more to the point for the trio of words I was trying to understand: In both Greek and Slavonic, the word that is translated into English as "chastity" is just too narrow, implying being chaste only in a sexual way, where in fact the Syriac word used by St. Ephrem can be translated into Slavonic as tselomoodriya (which is literally "whole mindedness") meaning soundness of mind, discretion, and prudence, and this is consistent with the more broad Greek term as well. And then I knew that the antidotes to the three chaotic tendencies that pollute our lives in the 21st century---deceitfulness, arrogance, and resentfulness---- were indeed to be found in the second line of St. Ephrem's Prayer.... for humility overcomes arrogance, for love overwhelms resentfulness, and because a sound mind is incapable of deceit.
St. Ephrem's prayer is recited by the priest at two different times in the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts---in front of the closed Royal Doors in this manner: first, at each sentence of the prayer a full prostration is made (kneeling down and placing the forehead to the floor) by the priest whose actions are followed by the congregation; then, the priest stands and prays twelve times: God have mercy on me a sinner; and lastly, the priest recites the full prayer with a full prostration at the end of the prayer only, followed by the congregation. As a result, St. Ephrem's prayer is conjoined with a short version of the Jesus Prayer: "O Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner." Of course, the use of the Jesus Prayer as a manner of prayer without ceasing in what is called the hesychast manner is the reason that the second Sunday of Lent is known as the Second Triumph of Orthodoxy, for it was the overcoming of the controversy concerning the use of that prayer by the skillfulness and theologically firm thinking of St. Gregory of Palamas, who lived in the 1300's and who defended the use of the Jesus Prayer from those who sought to ban its use, that is seen as a Triumph of Orthodoxy, on the same level as the Triumph of Orthodoxy that we celebrated last Sunday, the Triumph that brought icons back into the church even though the iconoclasts had attempted to ban them. St. Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonika in Greece, whose icon is on the tetrapod today, is celebrated each second Sunday of the Great Fast as a defender of the faith, faith in the very Gospel reading from St. Mark today in which we see that Christ will indeed forgive those sins about which we cry for mercy in the Jesus Prayer, that in truth and in fact even deceitfulness, arrogance, and resentfulness can be forgiven. For like the paralytic in the Gospel, we are paralyzed by our sins, but throughout Lent we can repent and earn that forgiveness if we remember these words of Our Lord: "Why reason ye these things in your hearts? Whether is it easier to say to the sick of the palsy, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and take up thy bed, and walk? But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins." We must say, as Christ did, "Arise," but we need to say "Arise, O my soul, why are you sleeping?" O Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner.
February 18, 2018 Tone 4 St. Theodosius Martyr Agatha
Forgive me, Brothers and Sisters.
“ And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.” So with St. Paul’s words in mind let us approach the Great Lent that is nigh before us, our annual pilgrimage back to God. In his Diary, Fr. Alexander Elchaninov wrote: “Lent strengthens the spirit of man. In Lent man goes out to meet the angels and the demons.” This year let’s meet that challenge with an unbending resolve to undertake the three tasks to which we are called each year: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
First, prayer. This past week we celebrated here in our church the Feast of the Meeting of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the Temple, one of the twelve Great Feasts of the Orthodox Church. This Feast seems to have been given a number of names, but the use of the translation of the Greek into Meeting is probably the best, for as the Ever Virgin Mary and St. Joseph brought the infant Jesus to the Temple 40 days after His birth, as required by Jewish law to redeem the male child by making a sacrifice of birds and to purify the mother after 40 days from childbirth, the family met an old man, Simeon, who had waited for years to see the Messiah as he had been promised by God he would before he died, and upon meeting the infant St. Luke tells us that St. Simeon uttered these famous words: LORD, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace; according to Thy word: for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people: to be a light to lighten the gentiles and to be the glory of Thy people Israel. Brothers and Sisters, you will hear this prayer of St. Simeon twice later today: firstly, because the prayer, referred to as Nunc Dimittis in the Latin church, is sung by the choir near the end of the service of vespers in the Orthodox church, and we will serve a part of the Forgiveness Vespers at the end of the Liturgy today. Secondly, because we will baptize and chrismate the infant Virginia here today after Liturgy, and the churching of the child at the end of those two sacraments requires the recitation of St. Simeon’s prayer by the priest.
A second prayer that you will hear today that you have not perhaps heard for a while is the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, the prayer we use throughout Lent. The entire prayer is printed on the face of the bulletin; if you don’t have a copy of St. Ephraim’s prayer at home, please keep the bulletin and place the front page somewhere where you will see it every day. As I have in the past, I will speak more about this critical prayer for Lent during the next six weeks.
While we are called to increase our prayer, we are also called to the second requirement of Lent, fasting. Brothers and Sisters, fasting is a lot more than just giving up certain foods. If you saw the video “Becoming Truly Human” last Sunday, you heard a number of young people describe themselves as “spiritual” and as such they feel that they have no need for organized religion, and especially no need for the rules of organized religion. Metropolitan Kallistos, you may know him as the former Timothy Ware author of the classic “Orthodox Church,” has written: “One reason for the decline in fasting is surely the heretical attitude toward human nature, a false ‘spiritualism’ which rejects or ignores the body, viewing man solely in terms of a reasoning brain.” Christ tells us in today’s gospel exactly how to fast: “ Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.”
St. John Chrysostom takes the words of Our Lord and ties fasting to the third requirement of Lent, almsgiving, when he says:
“The fast is of real value only when it stems from a pure heart; when one is ready to deny wealth, and stand above money; when one is ready to give alms to the poor; when one has love and affection, not only for one's own children, but also for the orphans and the poor. One manifests real fasting when he is ready to deprive himself of food, in order that the hungry and destitute might be fed. One really fasts when he maintains his equilibrium under all stress, never allowing himself to lose his temper and explode like a volcano, destroying everyone around him. A genuine fast involves the willingness to discard all vain ambition, which often results in destruction — not only for those who practice it, but for all who are close to them. One who is actually fasting never manifests covetousness or jealousy.”
That oil that Christ tells us to use on our faces is in fact an almsgiving it itself, for when we put on Christ in baptism He is in our heads, and anointing our heads is symbolic of pouring out our own deeds of mercy, and when He tells us to wash our faces, He is telling us to do that with the tears of repentance.
And that repentance is a crucial part of our pilgrimage back to God this year. How can we truly repent without the sacrament of Confession, without stating our sins out loud before God, without declaring our true intention “to turn from our wickedness and live,” as the prayer of confession so beautifully says. And here, on the Sunday of Cheesefare, we can make a clean start toward true repentance by forgiving all of those around us and not even near us, for any sins that we might feel have affected us, for as Our Lord said: “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
Please forgive me. Father Gregory
Then the King will say to those on His right hand:"Come, you whom My Father has blessed, take for your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundations of the world."
And God will publicly announce His rewards."For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger, and you made me welcome". People find themselves confused by their part in God's plan for salvation.
Many people make a mistake regarding this season, and its meaning for the faithful. Let us be certain not to do this, Instead, let us willingly accept Lent and grow with it.
I thought that it would be a mistake not to remember that which brought us to where we are today. It starts as a story of some time ago and far away.
The people who came from Europe, and who founded this and other churches like it came from Lemkovia in Eastern Europe.
In those days repressions were imposed on "Russophile" clergy, both Uniate and Orthodox. The area also had informers. Not only the police, village clerks, and sheriffs and teachers, as well as members of the clergy denounced their neighbors.
In some areas of Carpatho-Russia, the entire educated class: priests, lawyers, judges, teachers, high school and university students were all arrested. The prisons were quickly filled with people accused of treason.Suddenly, the word orthodox was replaced by the word catholic.
Throughout the Carpathian region a tremendous upheaval shook the parishes. Life had become difficult for the few orthodox priests and their families in Carpatho-Russia and Galecia.
One such priest was Maxime Sandovich. He was born in Xhdynya. His father was a prosperous farmer who also served as cantor in the local parish church. Maxime’s father could see his son was talented, and he arranged for him to live at the dormitory in Novy Senaz. There he had the opportunity to study the Russian literature, language and history; as well as the history of the christian church, and culture. The students were supervised by a teacher from Russia.
Maxime was able to cross the border into Russia and then entered novitiate at the great Lavra of Pochaev in Volymia. The abbot there introduced him to Archbishop Anthony who helped those men who wanted to study in Russia. Early in 1905 Vladyka sent this student (Maxime) to Zhitomir.
Maxime studied there and and graduated in 1910. He then returned home to visit his family at Easter and Bright Week. Word of his arrival soon reached the ears of certain villagers who had spent some time in American Orthodox churches and making their confessions to other Orthodox priests then came to Maxime and begged him to stay, obtain priestly ordination, and organize an orthodox parish.
In November of 1911 Father Maxime and his wife travelled to his native village of Zhdynya. Walking through the marketplace, the some of the people seeing an orthodox priest dressed in a long riassa, wearing a pectoral cross, who was also not shaving or cutting his beard made fun of him saying: "Look , St Nicholas has come to the Carpathians.”
When the people there learned that Father Maxime was at his father's house, they sent a delegation an invited him to find/start an Orthodox parish. Shortly after he served the first liturgy in the new parish, he received a letter addressed to him as a "lay man”, which he refused to accept.
The next letter was addressed correctly. But it forbid him to conduct services. When he refused to comply he was jailed for a month.This provides us with an idea of what life was about. Not only was Father Maxime separated from his father and wife, shortly thereafter, he was shot.
The church celebrates festivals that are for us to understand and to celebrate - Christmas is not one of these.
In Christmas, God shows us his divine nature combined with his human nature. This is not something we can easily understand. The only way to make sense of Christmas is to understand it as a feast of the love of the creator for his creatures.
Jesus Christ’s divine nature exists for all eternity. His human nature came from a Jewish background. The blood that flowed in his veins was from the royal house of David. This came from his mother Mary, who though poor, belonged to the lineage of the great King David.
Saint Matthew shares witness and he opens his Gospel sharing a record of the ancestry from which Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham, was born.
The name “Jesus” was fairly common among the Jews. In the original Hebrew language, it was Joshua. The angel told Joseph that Mary would “bear a son, whom they would call Jesus, for he is to save his people from their sins.”
Jesus was given another name at the same time –
Behold, the virgin shall be with child,
And shall bear a son
And they shall call him Emmanuel
Which means God is with us
Let us all remember these words. For it is the truth.
God is with us.
Sermon December 31, 2017
Tone 5 Sunday of the Fathers 30th Sunday
On the Orthodox Christian calendar every day is a Name Day; but for many reasons today, the last day of the secular year and the Sunday before the Nativity of Our Lord, we can see as a Names Day. A treasure trove of names. The first obvious reference to names is the first part of the first Chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew that is read on the Sunday before Christmas: 16 verses that are comprised in their entirety of names. Fifty names spanning forty two generations. Fifty names of judges, of kings, and of priest, according to the three generations; but also fifty names of harlots, such as Rahab, of those born of adultery, such as Solomon born of Uriah's wife by David, and gentiles, such as the Moabite woman Ruth. All the way from Abraham the father of the Hebrews to Joseph and then to the Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary, forty two generations and thousands upon thousands of names.
And the entire text of St. Paul's letter to the Hebrews, of which only a part was read here today, is similarly awash in names: Going back all the way to Abel and Cain, and Noah, and Abraham's lineage (that we celebrated on the day of the Forefathers last Sunday) all the way through Moses and Samson and Samuel and all the prophets "who through faith subdued kingdoms." The emphasis on names is continued in the celebration of the Ancestors of Christ, as the Sunday before Christmas is called, which group of names includes those in the family tree of the Virgin Mary, since the genealogy as set forth in Matthew is in accordance with the Hebrew tradition of tracing the family only through males. So today the Fathers of the church tell us that we also celebrate Joachim, the father of Mary, who was the son of Bar-Panther , son of Levi, son of Nathan, son of King David; hence, Mary is the Root of Jesse, the father of King David, just as Isaiah the Prophet wrote: "And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse will stand for an ensign of the people." And in the Tropar and Kondak for this Sunday of the Ancestors we hear more names: Daniel and the Three Holy Youths. Who are these youths? The name day for Daniel the Prophet, whom most know as having been deported to Babylon and there served King Nebuchadnezzar as an interpreter of dreams, was yesterday, December 30, and with him are celebrated the Three Holy Children: Ananias, Misael, and Azarias. These three Hebrew boys, renamed in captivity Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, refused to bow down to the golden idol that King Nebuchadnezzar had set up and were thrown into the fiery furnace by the Chaldeans. But as Daniel, who by the way had been renamed Belteshazzar by his captors, wrote in his Book, the three youths survived when the Archangel Michael came to them in the furnace, cooled the flames, and led them to safety. This part of Daniel is read in its entirety on Holy Saturday, foreshadowing the Resurrection, and the three boys with six names are always celebrated before the Nativity Feast.
The name of the saint that we celebrate today may be known to many, but not much may be known about him: St. Sebastian was a Roman educated in Milan during the last days of the persecution of Christians. He rose to the be the head of the imperial guards during the murderous reign of Diocletian and, as a Christian, and as he had converted many of his soldiers to Christianity, he was interrogated personally by the Emperor who sentenced him to be tied to a tree and shot with arrows. There are many Western works of art celebrating St. Sebastian, such as Peter Paul Ruben's painting in the handout, that show him pierced by arrows, but the Lives of the Saints tell us that St. Sebastian miraculously survived that torture, and was nursed back to health by Irene, the wife of one of the martyrs with him. He was later beaten to death in the Coliseum at the order of Diocletian. The Orthodox icon of St. Sebastian in the handout shows him holding the arrows that could not kill him.
Names are important, but names of people are of paramount importance. Shakespeare was right when he said "A rose by any other name;" and we do give our pets endearing names, but the name of a human being is a name that identifies a soul, an eternal soul. When each of us approaches the chalice, both laypeople and clergy, we say out loud to God our first names, the names by which we were baptized. There is no need for a last name, because God knows each of us by our baptismal names. That's why when we pray for the living or for the departed, whether at the proskomedia or during a litany or at a panykhida, we use only first names, baptismal names, the names by which Christ will recognize each of us at the Last Judgment.
And two final names for today: for near the end of Matthew's gospel we heard the famous words: "Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God is with us." The prophet who is referenced is Isaiah, for in chapter 7, verse 14 of his prophecy, it is written: "Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign: Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel." Then why, one might ask, does the Gospel reading today end by telling us that Joseph called the son Jesus? The explanation by the Fathers of the church is that Joseph obeyed the angel who commanded him: "Thou shalt call his name Jesus," while the prophecy of Isaiah as interpreted says that "they" shall use the word Emmanuel; and that name is a reflection of all of the events in the life of Jesus Christ that proved that Him to be God. A name earned by doing, rather than just a name given at birth. For that reason, next Saturday at the Compline Service the choir, remembering all of the events in the life of Christ and His Glorious Resurrection by which He earned the name Emmanuel, shall sing out joyfully: "God is with Us!"
Two of the most famous of those “saints in light” we commemorate today and on Tuesday: St. Barbara the Great Martyr today and St. Nicholas on Tuesday with Divine Liturgy at 10am.
St. Barbara, the daughter of wealthy pagan named Dioscorus during the 3rd Century AD, secretly became a Christian, notwithstanding her father’s efforts to hide her away in a high tower and arrange for her marriage to someone he found suitable. When the father ordered a bath house with two windows to be built on the property, Barbara secretly changed the plans to have three windows built in honor of the Holy Trinity, sending Dioscorus into a rage. He ordered Barbara to be tortured in order to turn her from Christ, but she refused steadfastly, causing a woman in the crowd, Juliana, to denounce the torturers. As a result both women were beheaded, Barbara by her own father. But Dioscorus was struck by lightning for his evil deeds and because of that St. Barbara is the patron of artillerymen, miners, and those who work with explosives, such as bomb disposal squads, of which now, unfortunately, we have way too many. She is the patron saint of the Italian navy, and in fact the hold of ship in which explosives are kept in Spanish is “santabarbara.” Of course, of the city of Santa Barbara, California was named after her. In many western paintings and Orthodox icons of St. Barbara a tower appears in the landscape, in remembrance of her father’s imprisonment of her, as well as St. Juliana, the woman who stood up for her and was also martyred. Unfortunately, her Feastday has been removed from the Roman Calendar, even as the British, Canadian, and Australian armies continue to remember St. Barbara on December 4. The Epistle reading for St. Barbara comes from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians which contains the truly famous lines:
"For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus."
"For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ"
That last phrase substitutes for “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal” in the Divine Liturgy on certain feast days and is sung in the Sacrament of Chrismation. St. Barbara’s faith as expressed in those three windows she commissioned that lead to her martyrdom is remembered in the Kondak for her Feastday:
Singing the praises of the Trinity, / you followed God by enduring suffering; / you renounced the multitude of idols, / O holy martyr Barbara. / In your struggles, you were not frightened by the threats of your torturers, but cried out in a loud voice: / “I worship the Trinity in one God-head
Most of us know a lot more about St. Nicholas than we probably did before today about St. Barbara: that he was a Bishop of Myra in Lycia in Anatolia(now Turkey) in the 4th Century AD, that he attended the First Ecumenical Council at Nicea at which he fought strongly against Arianism (the heresy that taught that Christ was begotten of God the Father at some point in time after the creation, and was therefore subordinate to God), that by doing so he was instrumental in the writing of the Nicene Creed (which negates Arianism completely by including the phrase “begotten of the Father before all ages”), and that he is known for his miracles (hence the name St. Nicholas the Wonderworker) and his acts of kindness which led to the western concept of St. Nicholas as Santa Claus. But let’s just focus on the Epistle to the Hebrews that will be read here in our church this Tuesday:
“Make you perfect in every good work to do his will, working in you that which is well pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”
“Every good work:” the perfect remembrance of the Wonderworker Nicolas. The tropar to St. Nicholas gives us the words we need to pray to the Sainted Bishop of Myra for the rest of Advent and always, to pray to him for the sake of our salvation:
In truth you were revealed to your flock as a rule of faith, / an image of humility and a teacher of abstinence; / your humility exalted you; / your poverty enriched you. / Hierarch Father Nicholas, / entreat Christ our God / that our souls may be saved.