Brothers and Sisters, today is a day twice blessed, for not only is it the Fifth Sunday of the Great Fast, the Sunday on which we celebrate each Lenten season St. Mary of Egypt, but it is also April 1, by the Julian calendar, of course, and therefore the yearly day of remembrance of that Saint as well, the great desert Saint of true and complete repentance. When Mary met St. Zosima in the desert, we are told by St. Sophronius, her biographer in the Book of the Lives of the Saints, and when Zosima asked her about her life, she replied to St. Zosima: “It distresses me, father, to relate to thee the shamelessness of my deeds. Forgive me.” And the good Saint did absolve her of the sins of which she was so ashamed, as she put it, a “life of debauchery” in which she “ruined her virginity and surrendered [herself] to insatiable lust.” And what did St. Zosima do after that? St. Sophronius tells us he glorified the Lord, fell to the ground, and “kissed the woman’s footprints.” Having heard her confession, when St. Zosima returned to her he brought her the holy, precious, and most pure Body and Blood of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and he communed her because she had confessed her sins and repented heartfully. After 17 confessed years of the deadly sin of lust, and after 17 years in the desert, naked and alone, he communed her, and when St. Mary died, the elder Zosisma returned to her and “washed her feet with tears and for a long time he entreated the venerable Mary to pray for the whole world.” And today, Brothers and Sisters, we too entreat St. Mary of Egypt to pray for us, and for the whole world.
The Gospel reading for St. Mary’s commemoration, that was not read today, is from the 7th Chapter of Luke in which is related the story of Christ’s visit to dine at the house of a Pharisee named Simon:
“And, behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster box of ointment,
And stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment…
And he turned to the woman, and said unto Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head.
Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet.
My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment.
Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.
And he said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven.
And they that sat at meat with him began to say within themselves, Who is this that forgiveth sins also?
And he said to the woman, Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace.”
Those words, Brothers and Sisters, are the words we should long in our hearts to hear: “ Thy sins are forgiven…..go in peace.” We long to hear those words especially today, when the sands in the hourglass of the Great Fast are rapidly and inexorably running from the top bulb to the bottom. St. Mary of Egypt’s life story is encapsulated in the short passage of the Epistle on her day that comes from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians and is so familiar to all of us:
“ For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Neither male nor female; all of us without regard to our station in life have to live our lives in accordance with the opportunity we were given in the sacrament of Baptism at which time we “put on Christ” as Mary. St. Mary of Egypt’s life is reflected through the lens of Crime and Punishment, a novel of repentance and redemption, in which Feodor Dostoyevsky gives us the memorable character Sofia Marmeladov, or Sonia as she is known by her diminutive, the daughter of a drunkard, a self-sacrificial and innocent girl, who, for the welfare of her family, is forced into prostitution to feed her family. Sonya meets and befriends Raskolnikov, the perpetrator of an horrific murder, who eventually acknowledges his guilt in a full confession, and is condemned to serve time in Siberia, 7 years of hard labor. Sonya follows him there to help him find his redemption. Dostoevsky writes this about the murderer and the prostitute: “How it happened [Raskolnikov] did not know. But all at once something seemed to seize him and fling him at [Sonya’s] feet. He wept and threw his arms round her knees. For the first instant she was terribly frightened and she turned pale. She jumped up and looked at him trembling. But at the same moment she understood, and a light of infinite happiness came into her eyes.”
The life of St. Mary of Egypt can be of great benefit to each of us to target the way to salvation. Those who fall to the feet of the Lord with tears of repentance, following the examples we have learned about today, are following St. Mary on the desert path to eternal life. During this week in the evening here in our church, with the only light being that of flickering beeswax tapers, we read and sang the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete in honor of St. Mary. And one of the verses stands out as a bright beacon on that desert path:
“Pouring out the vessel of tears as myrrh upon Thy head, O Savior, I call out to Thee as did the Harlot, seeking mercy; I offer my supplications and beg to receive forgiveness.”
O Venerable Father Andrew pray to God for us!”
Brothers and Sisters: In the theatres of ancient Greece a large crane-like device was used, usually at the end of a tragedy, to bring an actor onto the stage who would appear, dressed as a Greek god, and would come out of nowhere to solve all the terrible problems of the characters in the play. This prop, translated into Latin, was known as a deus ex machina, or literally “god from the machine.” This past week in the Wall St. Journal ran a story that was entitled: “Deus ex Machina: Religions Use Robots to Connect with the Public.” The story reports on two uses of electronic devices, referred to as robots, that were developed for use in western churches. Parenthetically, it may be of interest that the word “robot” is of Slavic origin; robota, from the verb “to work,” was used to describe a peasant, a serf, who was forced to work on a noble’s landholdings, and the term was picked up by a Czech playwright in the 1920s and changed into “robot” to describe automata without souls in his drama, a class of man made, artificial, and exploited, workers, and that word has stuck around for 100 years. The Protestant oriented robot in the news article is named Bless U 2, a reconfigured ATM machine that was developed to celebrate the 500th anniversary Martin Luther’s nailing the 97 Theses up on the door of a church. The report says that over 10,000 people approached this robot to obtain a ‘blessing.” The resulting poll of those pilgrims was mixed, but surprisingly positive. The other robot is named SanTO, short for Sanctified Theomorphic Operator, a machine in the form of a dashboard style, plastic figure of a saint, to which the user/penitent can apparently offer his or her confession and receive immediate advice by way of artificial intelligence. There’s no indication that any church has sanctioned these robots, but also no evidence of official statements against the use of either of them. While some technology, such as the cell phone that is broadcasting this Divine Liturgy to those who cannot be here today, can be salutary, we need to be aware of, and wary of, uses of technology like these robots intended to be used in ways that are not prescribed by the rubrics of the Orthodox Church.
Artificial intelligence, the tech gurus tell us, will make our lives better. But the Book of Proverbs, read during this Lenten period, teaches away from that advice. On the very first Wednesday of the Great Fast we heard read in this church from chapter 2 of Proverbs that: “For the Lord gives wisdom, from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; he stores up wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk in integrity, guarding the paths of justice and preserving the way of his saints.” It’s not just coincidence that the Orthodox Deacon exclaims “Wisdom!” as a prelude to both the Epistle and Gospel readings at each Divine Liturgy, for that is exactly what we have the opportunity to take from those readings, not intelligence, which is much less useful to our salvation, but Wisdom, so crucial to our salvation. Further in Proverbs, chapter 8, that crucial trait rings out loud and clear: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” Turning on the “Insight” algorithm is a tall order for Artificial Intelligence engineers, probably an impossible one, but an easy task for the man or woman who fears the Lord and cares fervently for his or her own salvation. Simply stated, there is no Artificial Wisdom.
At the end of the reading of St. Paul’s letter to the Hebrews today we heard: “So also Christ glorified not himself to be made a high priest; but he that said unto him, Thou art my Son, today have I begotten thee. As he saith also in another place, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedek.” We hear the name Melchisedek a number of times in our Orthodox services, notably in the Liturgy on the Feast of Christ’s Nativity, but who was he? The answer is in chapter 14 of the Book of Genesis recounting the story of Abram, whom God would rename Abraham: “And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God. And he blessed him, and said, Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth.” Melchizedek, the high priest, in a sense, came out to nowhere, not unlike a deus ex machina, to bless Abram and to bring bread and wine, foreshadowing the gifts that Our Lord would use at the Last Supper, the gifts that each and every Sunday become, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, the Precious, Holy, and Most Pure Body and Blood of Christ. Melchizedek is intoned by the Deacon in the introit of the Little Entrance on Nativity that uses two verses of Psalm 109 (Sept.):
“The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool. The Lord hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.”
In a certain sense, Christ, as a High Priest of Melchizedek’s order, as well came into the world when the world was least expecting Him; His Incarnation--- His Nativity takes place in the least grand of circumstances, in a manger among the animals and shepherds, Our Lord to those shepherds seemed to have come out of the blue: and of course His Appearance to the Forerunner and those who were awaiting baptism at the Jordan, that we celebrate at the Feast of Theophany, was an epiphany itself, God Himself coming seemingly out of nowhere after His forty days of fasting and temptation by the devil in the desert. The image of the Life Giving Cross that you see replicated inside the bulletin today for the Third Sunday of Lent, the Sunday of the Veneration of the Cross, reminds us that indeed Melchizedek, King of Salem, was the Old Testament precursor of Our Lord, because the Slavonic letters under the long crossbar on which Christ’s hands were nailed spell out “King of Glory.” Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave up His life for us by accepting a lonely death on that Cross, was both King and Priest, just as Melchizedek who preceded Him. His Incarnation and Appearance on this mortal coil may have been unexpected by most, not unlike a deus ex machina, but His voluntary sacrifice through crucifixion on that Cross opened the doors of Paradise to the Wise Thief, crucified with Him, and also to all of us as well, as God solved the terrible problem of death that had reigned supreme on earth since the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.
“The stadium of virtue is now open;
those who wish to compete, enter
therein, girded for the good contest of
Lent, for those who compete according
to the rules shall receive their laurels
rightfully. Taking up the full armor of
the Cross, let us do battle against the
Enemy. As an impregnable wall, we
have the Faith, prayer as our breast‐
plate, and acts of mercy as our helmet.
Instead of sword, there is fasting,
which cuts every evil from the heart.
He who does this shall attain a true
crown from Christ, the King of all, on
Judgment Day. Amen.”
Brothers and Sisters, those stirring words were used to lift up the spirits of the Christians living in the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople, almost 1700 years ago by the Golden Tongued One, St. John Chrysostom. To lift up the spirits of those early Christians as each of them prepared for his or her personal Lenten journey, just as each of us do here on this first Sunday of the Great Lent here in modern America. Those same words lift us up as well, especially here in modern America in which athletic contests are seemingly so important in our lives. While Lent has only just begun, it’s not necessarily the first inning in our quest for salvation; in fact, each of us could easily be deep in the fourth quarter, without knowing it, and with no time outs left. We don’t get overtime to reach eternal life, but we do get a lot of second chances on instant replay, because God’s mercy is so boundless as to allow us to confess our sins and with a contrite heart repent sincerely, and by so doing have every last sin erased completely, just as the bobble at shortstop that was first ruled an error, changed into a hit by the one Great Scorer, to use a poetic reference.
Assuming you are in your ninth inning is always the most prudent approach to salvation. The words of the Kondak of the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, sung this week here in our church, are guaranteed to stir us to that needed immediate action:
“My soul, my soul arise! Why art thou sleeping? The end is drawing near and thou wilt be confounded. Awake then and be watchful, that thou mayest be spared by Christ God, Who is everywhere and fillest all things.”
Putting together the immediacy of St. Andrew’s words with the words of the prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian (that we heard during the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts this week) to “give to me your servant the spirit of …humility” can give each of us a fast start out of the blocks on our Lenten marathon, a long run to get back to God, for as St. Ignatii has written: “Where there is no humility, there is no Christian virtue; and where there is true humility, there are all the virtues in their fullness.” But don’t be fooled: Humility is difficult, especially in today’s internet driven world in which arrogance and anonymity are the rule; that’s why we need those words of St. Ephrem to beg God for the strength and wisdom to be humble. In a not very well known pop song titled “Trap Door” one can find some incredibly perceptive nuggets of understanding of our human condition: “It’s a funny thing about humility, just as soon as you know you’re being humble, you’re no longer humble.” Humility is hard; one has to filter out the feedback that justifies just about everything we do, because as the song continues: “It’s a funny thing about pride, when you’re being proud, you should be ashamed.” The composer of this song is not to my knowledge an Orthodox Christian, but he certainly has the basics down pat when he sings: “It’s a funny thing about life, you have to give up your life to be alive; you have to suffer to know compassion, you can’t want nothing if you want satisfaction….watch out for that trap door.”
Let’s begin the race, Brothers and Sisters, this Lent by focusing right from the starting blocks on humility. It’s a hard thing to do, but then, with a clear view of salvation through “a humble acknowledgment of one’s own sinfulness,” can each of us can avoid falling through our own personal, and self-made, trap door, and only then can we with all due speed follow the words of St. Andrew of Crete: “Come, O wretched soul, and together with thy body confess to the Creator of all so that henceforth, thou shalt abstain from thy past foolishness and offer tears of repentance to God.”
Today Brothers and Sisters is the Sunday of the Last Judgment, a phrase that has taken on many shades of meaning over the last two thousand years. On the one hand, the outward lesson in Christ’s parable of the Sheep and the Goats in St. Matthew’s Gospel seems quite clear, but the Gospel reading ends with Christ’s warning: “And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.” [As an aside, that outward lesson will be vividly illustrated in the video that will be presented by Archangel Kino after Divine Liturgy. Please stay for that.] Those words “everlasting punishment” formed the basis for what was called the “Great Awakening,” an evangelical revival that became popular in England and its colonies here in America during the 1730s and 1740s. Jonathan Edwards, a Congregationalist Protestant minister, who later became President of The College of New Jersey, that would be renamed Princeton University, is seen as a leading proponent of this revival, especially because of a famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” given in 1741 in Enfield, Connecticut. Edwards’ reliance on that translation “everlasting punishment” as used in the King James Bible is transparent in his sermon of what used to be called “fire and brimstone” with frightening words such as: "There is nothing that keeps wicked men at any one moment out of hell, but the mere pleasure of God." The sermon carries the clear message that because “it is natural to care for oneself or to think that others may care for them, men should not think themselves safe from God's wrath.” And this is what the Western world calls the “Enlightenment.”
But can this possibly be a fair reading of Christ’s parable? Just from a purely translation point of view, the answer is clearly “No.” The two Greek words used in St. Matthew’s Gospel have shades of meaning: the word that gets translated as “punishment” also has the meaning of “correction” or being “cut off” as a branch is pruned from a fruit tree. And the Greek word that is translated as “eternal” is more properly as an indeterminate period of time, an eon, not necessarily forever. That concept of being cut off is a very Orthodox one---During the anaphora, when the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, as the priest prays three times, the Deacon answers the second prayer with these words from Psalm 50: “Cast me not away from Thy presence and take not Thy Holy Spirit from me.” That verse from the Psalm, Brothers and Sisters, sets out the perfect definition of salvation--- salvation for each of us is not to be cast away from the face of God, but to be with God for at least an eon, if not forever. And the first response of the Deacon to that same prayer in the anaphora tell us how to get there by quoting that Psalm: “Create in me a clean heart O God and renew a right spirit within me.”
Still, the concept of the Last Judgment is an awesome one, and that’s the right use of the overused word of today’s texting craze “awesome.” The Last Judgment does mean that we have to stand, as the Deacon says before Communion, “In the Fear of God and with Faith.” St. Ignati Brianchaninov gives us some good advice:
“Only the true Christian - who constantly watches over his heart, who studies the law of God day and night, who tries to fulfill the commandments of the Gospel with assiduity - can see his passions…. The eyes of the mind, healed completely by the Gospel, finally see the bottomless abyss of the fall of man. The Christian sees the full effects of the fall in himself, because he sees his passions. The passions are the badge of the sinful, death-bearing disease that has struck all mankind.”
That bottomless abyss, the abyss that Dostoevsky writes about as well when he expounds upon the “accursed questions,” is an awesome concept that we need to keep in our nous, in our “eyes of the mind” as St. Ignati says. That’s why in many churches in Russia an icon of the Last Judgment, usually in the manner of a fresco, fills the entire back wall of the nave so that it’s the last thing the faithful see as they leave the church to go out into the secular world. But if you look at an icon that depicts the Last Judgment, for example the one replicated in the bulletin today, you will see it’s not all fire and brimstone: on Goat’s side, yes, it looks pretty horrible, but on the Sheep side is the uncreated light of Christ showing the way to eternal life. In our St. Innocent Orthodox Reading Society meeting yesterday we read that penance is not “for the sake of appeasing an offended God or an atonement of a sinner in the face of Divine Justice.” Even Jonathan Edwards had to admit at the end of his sermon that: “And now you have an extraordinary opportunity, a day when Christ has flung the Door of Mercy wide open and stands in the door calling and crying with a loud voice to poor sinners.” Brothers and Sisters, the Last Judgment is real, just as God’s incredibly patient and merciful love is real and unbounded. But repentance is the key to salvation, as so artfully stated in the prayer that the Priest reads at the beginning of the Sacrament of Confession:
“For thou hast said O Lord: With desire have I desired not the death of a sinner, but rather that he should turn from the wickedness he has committed and live and that even unto seventy times seven sins ought to be forgiven. For thy majesty is incomparable and thy mercy is illimitable and if thou shouldest regard iniquity who should stand? For thou art the God of the pentitent.”
Today’s Epistle reading echoes the advice of St. Paul to Timothy, whom he calls “my own son in the faith.” Tomorrow, February 4, is the day each year that we commemorate the Apostle Timothy, known as one of the Seventy, who was converted to Christianity in the year 52 AD by St. Paul when he visited the city of Lystra in what is now modern day Turkey where Timothy was born. Not only did Timothy become an ardent student of St. Paul, but he was his constant companion and was eventually ordained by Paul to be the Bishop of the city of Ephesus, a very important center of early Christianity on the Aegean coastline, the place where St. John the Evangelist wrote his Gospel. In his letter to Timothy, St. Paul’s words should be well known to all of us, as he says: “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.” Of course, the prayer before communion paraphrases Paul’s words to Timothy: “Who came into the world to save sinners of whom I am first.”
St. Paul found Timothy’s life to be an extraordinary example for all of us, saying in his second letter to his disciple: “Thou hast followed me in teaching, in life, in disposition, faith, magnanimity, love and patience in afflictions and suffering.” This, Brothers and Sisters, is so clearly an admonition to all of us that our faith must inform our entire lives, that Orthodox Christianity is a full time job, heavy lifting, a way of life tied inexorably to a yearly cycle of feasts and fasts.
But the “real world” out there is not tied to those cycles, and in fact is diametrically opposed to them. The greatest feastday of modern, secular America is today, a day in February each year that is ironically a Sunday each year. Sunday, the day of the Resurrection, is for us Christians the Sabbath Day, and as such it is governed by the Ten Commandments: “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy; six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work, but the Seventh is the Sabbath of the Lord Thy God.” [Elementary school age kids used to have to memorize all Ten in public school in old America.] But in new America we can now discern a new trend about the days of the week: TGIM. Yes, believe it or not this stands for Thank God It’s Monday and it’s the battle cry for a new cult, the cult of work, and not just 40 hours of work a week, but workaholic work. Of course, the opposite side of the coin stamped Thank God It’s Monday is Isn’t It Great It’s Not Sunday. This week an article on the internet started with these words: “Young Americans are least likely to affiliate with religion, but that hasn’t stopped them from finding their own form of worship.” Citing a NY Times piece, called “Why are Young People Pretending to Love Work?” the article went on to say that workaholism is “fueling a growing culture centered around optimized performance and productivity.” Any cult, and this is truly a cult, is in direct opposition to another of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shall no other God before thee.”
Beloved in the Lord archpastors, all-honorable priests and deacons, God-loving monks and nuns, dear brothers and sisters:
From the depths of my heart I congratulate you all on the great and world-saving feast of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Today, like the shepherds of Bethlehem two thousand years ago, with joy and loving-tenderness we hearken to the triumphant voice of the angel: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Lk 2:14). In hearing these wondrous words, our hearts find comfort and are filled with thanksgiving to the Maker. The Lord Almighty, “the mighty God, the everlasting Father” (Is 9:6), comes down to us and is born into the world as a simple human being. The psalmist and prophet David proclaimed these words through the Holy Spirit which have come true: “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth shall spring out of the earth; and righteousness shall look down from heaven” (Ps 85:10-11). And it has come to pass that “unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given (Is 9:6) that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (Jn 3:16).
Throughout history humankind has assiduously sought out God, longing for the lost communion with its Maker. And in response to these endeavors, in response to hearts and hands raised up towards the heavens, the Lord has manifested his love for the human race and has extended towards us his saving hand. After thousands of years God and the human person have finally encountered each other in Jesus Christ, heaven and earth have been united, and the hopes of the sons and daughters of Adam have been fulfilled.
In Christ’s Nativity there has been revealed to us at one and the same time both a Mystery and a Revelation. The human mind is indeed unable to grasp fully how the Maker and Provider of the world – God, who by his nature is boundless – comes into our world torn apart by sin and reveals himself in the form of a helpless Child born in the cave where the shepherds and the animals sought refuge from the bad weather. The glory which was exalted by the heavenly powers, disseminated by the wise men from the east and witnessed by the humble shepherds, is proclaimed loudly to all ends of the earth. All of this allows us to glimpse the depths of the unfathomable wisdom of God, it makes us a part of the Trinity’s hidden plan for the salvation of the human person.
Today we know that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son… so that the world through him might be saved” (Jn 3:16-17). And now, “being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God, … because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given unto us” (Rom 5:1-2, 5).
Let us, then, bow reverently before the humble manger where the quiet and meek Infant lies. Let us bow down with the fear of God and trembling, for it is here that there begins the earthly way of the cross of the Lord Jesus, it is here that our salvation begins. Let us bow down and glorify the Son who is born of the Pre-eternal Father, rejoicing in the ineffable peace which surpasses all understanding and which fills our souls.
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” we again and again joyfully sing after the choir of angels. The love of God, revealed in the Nativity of the Savior, brings true peace to people. This peace cannot be shaken either by everyday turmoil, social upheaval, political chaos or even armed conflict, for “in Christ’s peace there mysteriously lives such a spiritual power which can subdue all earthly affliction and beguilements” (St. Ignatius Bryanchaninov, Ascetic Works).
Yet how are we to acquire a peaceful disposition of the heart? How are we to become the possessors of this great spiritual gift? The holy fathers are unanimous in stating that the work of Christ’s peace in a human being is a true sign of his abiding in the Gospel commandments. Of them “above all” – we are taught by the apostle Paul – “put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness. And let the peace of God,” says the apostle, “rule in your hearts, to which also you are called” (Col 3:14-15).
The Lord seeks out people of good will – those people who observe his law, who will testify to those near and those afar to salvation and “proclaim the mighty acts of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet 2:9).
Let us, then, be worthy of this lofty calling and thereby, “seeing thy most glorious Nativity, which took place in the cave, let us all the more spurn the vanities of the world” (8th Kontakion of the Akathist Hymn to the Nativity of Christ), and we shall be transported spiritually to the heavens in glorifying the Maker of all things and in sharing our joy in the incarnate Savior with those around us, with those who need our care, who are downcast or who are in straightened circumstances.
May the Lord inspire us all upon the arduous Christian life so that henceforth faith be strengthened within us, that hope fades not and that love shall ever grow; so that as we become part of the solemnity of the radiant feast of the Nativity we shall unceasingly proclaim to the world the “great mystery of godliness” (1 Tim 3:16) and bring comfort and Christ’s blessed peace to people. Amen.
PATRIARCH OF MOSCOW AND ALL RUSSIA
Today’s reading from St. Luke’s Gospel is about numbers, specifically about the number 10 which of course is the base of all common numbering systems used around the world. Ten is the number of fingers (and toes) humans have and for that reason it’s easy to see why counting up to ten in the base 10 system was developed early and continues to this very day. That St. Luke goes out of his way to tell us that there were ten lepers who called out to Christ, not “a number of” or “a few,” indicates that we might look for some meaning in the details of the numbers. Details such as that of the ten, nine were by implication Jews and only one was different, a Samaritan, as St. Luke tells us “a stranger.” We know quite well that Our Lord is Himself referred to as a Stranger, notably in the hymn that is sung on Holy Friday each year, the hymn based on the words of Joseph of Arimathea as he went courageously into Pilate to claim the body of Jesus for a proper burial: ”Give me this stranger, who has no place to lay His head. Give me this stranger, whom the evil disciple delivered to death. Give me this stranger, whom His Mother saw hanging on the Cross, and with a mother’s sorrow she cried weeping: Woe is me my Child! Woe is me Light of mine eyes and beloved fruit of my womb!” Christ took on the nature of man, He emptied Himself, and He became a suffering Stranger just as the Samaritan leper who suffered with the awful disease of leprosy. But by becoming the suffering Stranger Christ shows us the way to eternal life, cleansing us from Ancestral Sin, just as He easily cleansed the Samaritan leper. So easily, that His word alone cleansed all ten leprous men and He made sure to have them all go to the priests to have the cleansing miracle verified. Samaritans were, as the Blessed Theophylact says, “accursed foreigners,” “Assyrians,” and because they were not Jews, Theophylact tells us to have no despair as Gentiles, because Christ came for all men, all 7.7 billion people on earth today.
And that brings us back to numbers. Specifically the number nine, the nine Jews who did not “turn back” to Jesus, as the Samaritan did. Jesus didn’t force the nine to come back when the priests pronounced them clean, or even suggest that they should come back. That’s not what Jesus does. He doesn’t force or demand anything. And by what happened with the Samaritan, we know that He didn’t need to suggest or force anything. The lesson is in the Samaritan’s unprompted, voluntary, and heartfelt showing of thanksgiving before our Lord. So let’s review the numbers: Of those 7.7 billion people in the world today, only about 4% are Orthodox Christians, but all of the Christians in the world, about 12% are Orthodox. That’s just about the same percentage of the lepers (10%) who came back to thank God. And we Orthodox in America are pretty close to that percentage as well, being a bit more than 7% of all who designate themselves as Christian in the USA today. One out of ten, Brothers and Sisters, one out of ten is not an encouraging ratio, especially when it comes to the ultimate cleansing: to our Salvation, to Eternal Life through Christ Our Lord. When we do the numbers, we have to make sure that we are not in the 90% category, for as Christ said: “Were there not ten cleansed? but where are the nine? There are not found that returned to give glory to God, save this stranger. And he said unto him, Arise, go thy way: thy faith hath made thee whole.”
What is the sin of the rich man in today's gospel? Was it just because he was rich? That in itself was apparently just luck, because Christ says in the parable that his ground "brought forth plentifully." Had there been a famine, he would probably not have been rich. Or was his sin greed? Well, it doesn't seem so, because all we know is that he is intent on putting up more storage barns, not that he was trying to get more. Why wouldn't a person want to "eat, drink, and be merry"? Don't most of us want that? Doesn't our own Declaration of Independence even tell us that God gave us certain "unalienable rights" that include the right to pursue happiness?
The question that each of us, every day, should keep in mind as we pray to God each day is the same question that was asked of Christ in St. Luke's Gospel today: "Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" This is clearly the most important question in the world, and clearly the most important question in each of our own lives. This may not seem important at all, especially when one is hale and hearty, but that will not always last. This is the most important question for anyone: a millennial running a marathon, a mother taking care of three young kids, or a senior citizen, anywhere, and in any state of health. Our own salvation must be the centerpiece of our very existence, because if we lose sight of it, we will easily be lead astray, and more easily fall into sin, as the devil desires and on which he constantly works. Since we do inevitably fall into that trap, and sin, the only way to relieve the burden of our sins is through the sacrament of Confession and, after that, through the sacrament of Communion. The twin sacraments, together always. We all need help to approach the Holy Chalice that contains the most precious thing in the entire world, truly the Body and Blood of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. There's lots of help available. This Divine Liturgy book, which is found in every pew in this Holy House, contains much more than just the order of the service---it contains that help. If you turn to page 93, read along with me this prayer to be said before Communion: O Lord Jesus Christ, my God, that the partaking of thy precious and Life-giving Mysteries may not be to my condemnation, nor may not through the weakness of my soul and body be received unworthily; but grant that, even unto my last breath, I may partake of a portion of thy Holy Gifts without condemnation, unto the Communion of thy Holy Spirit, as a preparation for eternal Life and for a good defence at thy dread Judgement Seat; so that I, together with all thine elect, may also receive those incorruptible good things which thou hast prepared for them that love thee, O Lord; in whom thou art glorified forever. Amen
Now turn to page 105 for the prayers after Communion: I thank Thee, O Lord my God, for Thou hast not rejected me, a sinner, but hast made me worthy to be a partaker of Thy Holy Things. I thank Thee, for Thou hast permitted me, the unworthy, to commune of Thy most pure and Heavenly, Gifts. But, O Master Who lovest mankind, Who for our sakes didst die and rise again, and gavest us these awesome and life-creating Mysteries for the good and sanctification of our souls and bodies; let them be for the healing of our soul and body, the repelling of every adversary, the illumining of the eyes of my heart, the peace of my spiritual power, a faith unashamed, a love unfeigned, the fulfilling of wisdom, the observing of Thy commandments, the receiving of Thy divine grace, and the attaining of Thy Kingdom. Preserved by them in Thy holiness, may I always remember Thy grace and live not for myself alone, but for Thee, our Master and Benefactor. May I pass from this life in the hope of eternal life, and so attain to the everlasting rest, where the voice of those who feast is unceasing, and the gladness of those who behold the goodness of Thy countenance is unending. For Thou art the true desire and the ineffable joy of those who love Thee, O Christ our God, and all creation sings Thy praise forever. Amen.
While these books are a wonderful help to us, both before and after Holy Communion, unfortunately they do not contain any prayers prior to or after Confession. The altar servers are distributing copies of examples of those types of prayers (copies are attached to this sermon). The prayer before communion was written by St. Symeon the New Theologian. What do we know about this saint?
St. Symeon is one of only three saints that bear the high title "Theologian," the other two being St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus. St. Symeon was born into Byzantine nobility and lived during the latter part of the tenth century AD. Sidestepping a planned career in the law arranged by his family, he was tonsured a monk early in life and by the age of thirty had become the igumen (or abbott) of St. Mamas Monastery. He practiced the Jesus Prayer; he wrote extensively--- instructional works for monks, prayers, and church poetry--- and many of his works were compiled into the Philokalia. His works stressed the need for every Christian to have a spiritual father to guide him in his quest for eternal life. The prayer before Confession that he wrote demonstrates that teaching:
"And vouchsafe me, poor and naked of all virtue, to fall with tears at the feet of my spiritual father, and call his holy soul to mercy, to have mercy on me. .... For Thou knowest, O Lord, that I want to save myself, and that my evil habit is an obstacle. But all things are possible unto Thee, O Master, which are impossible for man."
We need to pray both before and after Confession. The words in the second prayer on the handout are so important to our understanding of how important confession is and how important keeping the promise to repent is as well:
"O Lord of mercy! Through Thy gracious goodness, my conscience is now unburdened of sins which oppressed me, and in the humblest manner of which I am capable, I revealed to Thy priest all my sins that I could recollect. I humbly beseech Thee: accept this confession and forgive me all my trespasses, those which I have forgotten, as well as those I have remembered. ..... Yet, O Lord, I firmly resolve through Thy merciful assistance, never to consent to any mortal sin, from which I humbly beseech Thee to preserve me while I live."
Preservation from sin. That's the ultimate help that we need for our salvation.
A Prayer before Confession
St. Symeon the New Theologian
O God and Lord of all! Who hath the power over every breath and soul, the only One able to heal me, hearken unto the prayer of me, the wretched one, and, having put him to death, destroy the serpent nestling within me by the descent of the All-Holy and Life-Creating Spirit. And vouchsafe me, poor and naked of all virtue, to fall with tears at the feet of my spiritual father, and call his holy soul to mercy, to have mercy on me. And grant, O Lord, unto my heart humility and good thoughts, becoming a sinner, who hath consented to repent unto Thee, and do not abandon unto the end the one soul, which hath united itself unto Thee and hath confessed Thee, and instead of all the world hath chosen Thee and hath preferred Thee. For Thou knowest, O Lord, that I want to save myself, and that my evil habit is an obstacle. But all things are possible unto Thee, O Master, which are impossible for man. Amen.
Prayer After Confession
O Lord of mercy! Through Thy gracious goodness, my conscience is now unburdened of sins which oppressed me, and in the humblest manner of which I am capable, I revealed to Thy priest all my sins that I could recollect. I humbly beseech Thee: accept this confession and forgive me all my trespasses, those which I have forgotten, as well as those I have remembered. Grant me grace, Lord, to live more carefully hereafter and to refrain from my former vices, which I utterly detest. I firmly resolve never to be guilty of them, but especially my most bountiful and merciful Savior, enable me to withstand those temptations with which I am most troubled, and to avoid all occasions for offending Thee again. If a just man falls seven times in the day, how much more reason have I to fear for myself, O Lord, and dread that I shall not be steadfast in my resolution, having through my own frailty and vicious habits increased the natural blindness and weakness in which I was born. Yet, O Lord, I firmly resolve through Thy merciful assistance, never to consent to any mortal sin, from which I humbly beseech Thee to preserve me while I live; as to my other sins and imperfections, I resolve to stand up against hem and hope, through Thy goodness, at length to avoid them. Amen.
Today we should direct our thoughts toward three women---two of whom appear in today’s gospel reading from St. Luke, the first, the daughter of Jairus, the leader of the synagogue, and the second of the three dead whom Jesus resurrected, and, the second, the woman with the flow of blood. The third is a fictional character in an American novel that we discussed yesterday at our St. Innocent Orthodox Reading Society meeting here at our Church. Two real women, one fictional, but the story of each is instructive for each of our own salvations, and that is really all that matters in our lives.
The woman with the flow of blood provides the most accessible lesson: when she touched the hem of His garment, Our Lord know that the touch was certainly not what Peter had used as an excuse—that the multitude had just pressed up against Him. Yes, they had, but that one woman touched the Savior noetically, that is, with her mind, her understanding, first, and only after that did she touch the Lord intentionally, and in a bodily way. When we hear Christ say “Who touched me?” in the Gospel, we should understand that He is saying more than just that, He is saying “Who touched me with faith?” because He knew when the power went out of Him, that the person who had intentionally reached toward Him did so with ultimate faith in His power to heal. She was certainly not just part of the madding crowd.
That makes woman #1’s story pretty easy to understand. If we have pure faith, we can reach out to God and He will hear us. That doesn’t mean He will give you what you want, just that He will hear us and decide what’s best for each of our salvations.
Now what about woman #2? A young girl, a dying girl as the Gospel unfolds, but quite alive, up and eating meat, at the end of the Gospel reading. The daughter of an important man, Jairus, the leader of the synagogue, but it seems that she doesn’t have a lot to do with her resurrection, seemingly she is merely the beneficiary of her father’s heartfelt supplication to Christ. Her father’s faith is what saved her. And truly that faith was a lot less than the actual result; Jairus never expected, or asked for his daughter’s resurrection, he only asked Christ to cure his ailing daughter, and his faith that Jesus had the power to do that was good enough for an even greater miracle. That’s exactly why we Orthodox Christians pray for the sick, but more importantly, pray for the dead as well. Because we know, we are sure, that at the Last Judgment those prayers can help our fathers, our mothers, and others who have fallen asleep before the dread judgment seat of Christ, just as the prayers of Jairus helped his dead child.
Now finally, the third woman—another young girl but this one a product of 50’s America—a girl repulsed by her view of the secular life around her, with its egotism, its focus on the here and now, its commercialism. A well drawn character in what came to be a rather popular novel*---she was upset, mentally and physically, by her yearning for more, and in this case the “more” was a direct pipeline to some “more” than all that what had repulsed her. The pipeline she chose, rather unexpectedly and out of serendipity, was the Jesus Prayer---“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” But what this young woman lacked, but what the woman with the flow of blood had, what Jairus had, was faith. Faith in the Risen Lord, Our Savior, Jesus Christ, to which that prayer has to be aimed. While her quest was a noble one, toward a “spiritual life,” rather than the obviously unsatisfying, and moreso flimsy unfocused life in the material world, she lacked the critical component of faith, faith in the one Truth, Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Without that faith, the mere rote recitation of those words that make up the Jesus Prayer as a “mantra” does not and cannot provide the desired result, but in fact can be harmful. Without faith, as much as someone wants to be “spiritual,” as much as one recognizes the fatal flaws of materialism in the world around us, one’s quest is doomed, and merely becomes a never ending, unsatisfying, sampling of lots and lots of false gods that promise satisfaction on a syncretic earth, rather than what we really must strive to obtain--- life everlasting through the Glorious Resurrection of Our Lord, Our God, Our Savior, Jesus Christ.
*Franny and Zooey (1961) by J. D. Salinger
St. Luke’s account of Christ allowing the demons to get their wish and to go into herd of pigs was used, as we know, by Dostoyevsky as the epigraph to his Novel “Demons.” The title of that novel is also translated into English as “The Possessed,” but that title puts more of an emphasis on the man who was plagued by the legion of devils, rather than the devils themselves as Dostoyevsky would have wanted the focus to be. The novelist would have wanted that focus because his book was a story about the activities of violent revolutionaries in the late 1800s in Russia, foreshadowing the terrible carnage of the Bolshevik revolution that actually came to pass, albeit almost 50 years after the publication of the novel. Dostoevsky used the Demons who came out of the possessed man in St. Luke’s gospel to represent the bloodthirsty and immoral plotters, and that’s why the focus is on Demons.
But from the perspective of what we can learn from the Gospel lesson today, we should focus our attention not on the devils, but first of all on the people who witnessed Christ’s miracle: The Gadarenes. As St. Luke tells us: “Then the whole multitude of the country of the Gadarenes round about besought him to depart from them; for they were taken with great fear: and he went up into the ship, and returned back again.” The Gadarenes were afraid; they didn’t want Christ to upset their normal routines as swineherds, so they asked Him to leave. Brothers and Sisters, we need to take a good hard look at our own lives: Do we act as the Gadarenes did? In our actions or in our omissions to act, do we in essence ask Christ to depart from our lives so that our normal routines can go on and not be disrupted? Of course, as we sit here in the church today, that seems farfetched. After all we are here in church, aren’t we? But let’s look closer. When we have a miracle of Christ right in front of us, do we drop what we are doing in our normal routine and run to the miracle? A few weeks ago, we in our city were blessed to have the miraculous myrrh streaming Iveron Icon of the Theotokos only a block and a half away from our church. Christ calls us to put aside our normal routine and run to the miracle, and yet, do we, by not acting, by not running to the icon, in essence ask Christ to depart from us? We were blessed to have the Holy Fire, the “light that never fails” that miraculously ignites the candles brought into the Church of the Sepulcher at midnight on Holy Saturday, be brought from Jerusalem in a specially made carrier in a specially designated plane flying across the seas to our own church after Pascha two years ago. Did we put aside our normal routine, and run to the miracle? We especially have to think about these events in a relative way as well; had a special exhibit come to the Museum of Art or had the Olympic torch come to be carried through the city, would we have made the effort then? When Christ calls us to come to Divine Liturgy on a Feastday that happens to fall on a weekday (for example our upcoming Patronal Feastday of St. Michael that falls this year on the day before Thanksgiving), do we run to meet Him, or does our normal routine take precedence? When Christ gives to us the chance to partake of the mysteries of the inseparable sacraments He Himself has given us, the miracles of Confession and Communion, the joined sacraments that give us the chance to relieve ourselves of the weight of our weighty sins through repentance, and the chance to prepare ourselves for eternal life by partaking after that repentance of the Holy and Precious Body and Blood of our Savior, do we run to the sacraments? Or do we, through omission, just carry on in our normal routine?
Brothers and Sisters, if we can somehow break out of that normal routine mode, we can become like the man who is the second focus of the lesson of the demons and the pigs: The cured demoniac. As St. Luke told us: “ Now the man out of whom the devils were departed besought him that he might be with him: but Jesus sent him away, saying, Return to thine own house, and shew how great things God hath done unto thee. And he went his way, and published throughout the whole city how great things Jesus had done unto him.” When do break the routine, we aren’t out of the woods yet. Christ tells us that we have to make sure we tell others about the great things that God has done for each of us. There are many ways to accomplish this, and those ways need not be up to the level of missionary work abroad, or proselytizing at home, but rather can be accomplished simply by acknowledging your faith in Christ on a daily basis even in little ways, such as saying the Lord’s Prayer as a family, whether at home or in a restaurant; by not being afraid to say that you “thank God” for your getting over the flu; or by telling your co-workers why you won’t be coming in on January 7. A wonderful way to accomplish this is to come to our church on Thanksgiving morning at 10am for the service of a moleben, a giving of thanks to Our God for the relatively comfortable lives we live in this great nation and for the freedoms that we have. Publishing the great things Jesus has done for you isn’t that hard, it doesn’t take much time and doesn’t require the expenditure of money, but what it does take is perseverance and courage, especially in today’s post Christian America. The home run that we can hit each day is putting the two things together: running to, rather than away from, Christ’s miracles and publishing our acknowledgments of the miracles that Christ has given us. And the best way to remember how to do that is to focus your thoughts every morning during prayer on your own salvation. Each and every morning. Salvation comes through those miracles and the acknowledgement of them, and keeping salvation in the forefront of our lives shines two bright lights on where we are headed during the day.
Today's Gospel reading relates Christ's parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Let's be clear about this, Our Lord is speaking in a parable here, not recounting an event, as some may assume, which would make the lesson somewhat hard to understand if indeed there were already some, like the beggar Lazarus, who were already in heaven before Christ's Glorious Resurrection. In Western Christianity, this parable is known as Dives and Lazarus; the word dives is Latin for rich man, not the name of the rich man in the parable who goes unnamed, further showing that this is a parable, rather than history. The use of the name Lazarus, which comes from the Hebrew "God is my help" is symbolic in that sense, but it does remind us of Lazarus, the friend of Jesus, whom Our Lord resurrected after being in the tomb for four days. So we should be clear also: the Lazarus in the parable is not that real person, Lazarus. It's interesting to note that the word "lazaretto," meaning a place for quarantine of people having communicable diseases, comes from this parable, since Lazarus had sores and could well have been a leper. There was a lazaretto in Tinicum Township in the late 1700s because of a yellow fever scare in Philadelphia. And in this parable Jesus uses the Hebrew phrase "in Abraham's bosom," which of course we all recognize as being used as a synonym for Heaven in the benediction at the end of the panykhida service. The parable was the subject of many paintings in the medieval west, but is also the basis for Orthodox icons such as the one below:
This parable, however, is found only in St. Luke's Gospel, not reported on by the other synoptic Evangelists, St. Mark or St. Matthew. Since today's bulletin cover speaks about the Four Evangelists, this may be a good time to learn more about these four men and how their works fit together. The bulletin uses the term "synoptic," which comes from the Greek word "synopsis" meaning seeing all together, or seeing from the same viewpoint, since the ministry of Jesus as told by Matthew, Mark, and Luke is on the whole very similar in both substance and in chronology. St. John the Evangelist is not grouped with the other three because his Gospel is very different. Why is that? And how do we explain some of the apparent differences between any two of the synoptics? Or why, for example, does only St. Luke report on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.
Let's look first at the identity of each of these men and how they came to know the ministry of Christ of which they wrote? Who were each of these men? Only two were apostles---St. Matthew and St. John---and as such we know that they had firsthand, eyewitness, information because they walked with and lived with Our Lord. St. John, being the youngest of the disciples, was Christ's favorite, as we know from many verses in the Gospels----he is the disciple "whom Jesus loved, who also leaned on His breast at supper," that of course being the Last Supper. John 21:20. In all four gospels, John, the son of Zebedee and brother of the Apostle James, was, along with Peter and Andrew, among the first to follow Our Lord and to stay with him to the end. As we know, Peter, James, and John were taken by Christ up on Mt. Tabor where they witnessed His Glorious Transfiguration.
We also know that Matthew, as a disciple, had eyewitness evidence of the ministry of Christ. St. Luke's gospel identifies him as Levi (Luke 5:27) and St. Mark calls him Levi son of Alphaeus (Mark 2:14); Matthew identifies himself as Matthew the publican, or tax collector (Matthew 9:9).
But who were Mark and Luke? Both were members of the group known as The Seventy about whom St. Luke writes in his chapter 10: "After these things the Lord appointed other seventy also, and sent them two by two before his face into every city and place, where he himself would come." So each of them could have had some direct knowledge of the events in their gospels, but more likely did that knowledge come from the men that each followed after the Resurrection: In Mark's case, St. Peter and in Luke's case, St. Paul.
In St. Peter's first epistle he uses the expression "Mark my son" (1 Peter 5:13) and Luke, in many places in The Acts, which we know St. Luke wrote, refers to himself with St. Paul as "we" in relating travels and events. In his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul says "Luke, the beloved physician,... greets you" (Col. 4:14) and in his second letter to Timothy says " only Luke is with me." (2 Tim. 4:11)
In essence, Mark was what is called an amanuensis, or secretary, to Peter and recorded Peter's eyewitness accounts of Christ's ministry while Luke received instruction from St. Paul, who, on his conversion on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1), got his information on Our Lord directly from the Holy Spirit.
Knowing the source of the information, now let's look at the timing of the Gospels. For an number of years after the Resurrection, there were no written records of Christ's life. The story was passed orally from the disciples and Paul as the church was growing. Paul's letters to the new churches that were being founded, called the Epistles, were written earlier than the Gospels, the first such letter, to the Galatians having been written as early as 48AD. When you listen to the Epistles, you will notice that Paul quotes from the Old Testament, but never from the New. The Gospels had not yet been written. Since Luke mentions certain events in the Acts that are historically known and since we know when Paul was executed (64-68 AD) it is likely that Luke's gospel was written during the 50s or early 60s of the first century. While it's not clear which came first, St. Matthew and St. Mark had written their gospels before St. Luke and those writings were known to Luke. St. Luke added five parables that were not written out in Matthew or Mark. Many believe that St. Mark's gospel preceded St. Mathew's and provided a basis for that later gospel, just as all three of the synoptics provided a basis for the youngest of the evangelists, St. John, to write the last gospel of the four. For this reason, St. John chose not merely to repeat the events and parables as set forth in the other three, such as the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, or for that matter the other parables already written, or the genealogies of Christ that Luke and Matthew stated, but instead focused on the Lord's divinity and did that from an eyewitness viewpoint. From his very start: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God" (John 1:1) to the very end, when, as we hear on Holy Thursday in the reading of the twelve gospels, John's intimate knowledge of Christ's last words to His apostles and His prayer: "Father, the hour is come; glorify thy Son, that thy Son also may glorify thee." (John 17:1) Understanding the background of each Evangelist and St. Paul, and the chronologies of their writings, is crucial to understanding the how the New Testament fits together as a whole.
“He that hath ears to hear, let him hear!” We hear Our Lord say these words a number of times in the Gospels, in fact there are ten times in the Gospels that Christ uses this admonition. We hear the words, but do we understand why He says them? If we go back a few verses in Luke’s chapter 8, we find out that Jesus said these words “when many people were gathered together, and were come to Him out of every city.” Because the Lord was speaking in a parable, rather than in a direct way, He uses that phrase about “ears to hear” when He wants to emphasize for those worthy in the crowd that they be more attentive, and inquisitive, to think more about the meaning of the parable; and for those unworthy, might not understand. King David in his Psalm 77 (Septuagint) foretold that the Messiah would “open [His] mouth in parables” and as we know Christ certainly made that prophecy come true, many, many times. So after admonishing the masses to think more about what it meant when some of the seeds sown by the sower, who was in fact Christ Himself, fell among those thorns, for example, Our Lord singles out His disciples for the lesson, since they haven’t really spent much time in thinking about the meaning. “ Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God: but to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand.” In this way, Jesus was preparing those who would become His Apostles for the great work ahead of them, that is, that they might carry on His ministry after His Crucifixion and Glorious Resurrection by founding the Church on Pentecost and spreading the Good News of the Gospels through the growth of the Christian Church.
While the disciples were taught exactly what each of the four landing places for the seeds represented, so that they could understand how to help keep the Word of God in the hearts of those who would make up the first Christians, let us today focus on the Word of God that falls into the thorns, “ they, which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection.” The Blessed Theophylact in explaining this Gospel makes a very clear distinction between being choked by being rich, rather than being choked by the cares of riches, that is, burdened with worries about preserving one’s wealth. As he says, wealth on its own can be a good thing, because riches can be shared with the poor. This point, of course, reminds us of the young rich man, who, when he asked Christ how to achieve eternal life, eventually “went away sorrowful. For he had great possessions,” after Jesus told him “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast and give to the poor.” Matthew 19: 20-22. His desire to preserve his riches proved to be the thorns that choked off Christ’s words in that young rich man. Remember Joseph of Arimathea had riches, but he used them perfectly: “Having taken down Thy most pure Body from the Tree, wrapped it in clean linen and sweet spices and laid it in a new tomb.” And for that, he was glorified and remembered forever as the Noble Joseph.
But Brothers and Sisters, those thorns don’t only spring up because of wealth. Thorns are just as likely to spring up from poverty, and most likely of all to spring up from what might be called a “scattered life,” and by that is meant a life that is lead without constant attention to those Words of God. In his book entitled The Field: Cultivating Salvation St. Ignatii Bryanchanninov wrote extensively and eloquently on the difference between what he called “A Scattered Life and an Attentive Life.” “The sons of the world consider distraction to be innocent, but the Holy Fathers consider it to be the beginning of all evil. A person who is entrenched in his scattered way of living has a very superficial and shallow appreciation of all things — even the most important ones.” In a certain sense, this reminds us of Luke’s Gospel that is read on every Feastday devoted to the Theotokos. The story of Martha and Mary that, for example, was read two weeks ago on the Feast of the Protection of the Mother of God, or Pokrov. Martha was worried about serving dinner to Our Lord and when she complained about her sister Mary who simply sat at the feet of Jesus, Our Lord told her in words that will ring forever: “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful: and Mary has chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” That “good part” is salvation, what St. Ignatii refers to as “even the most important ones.”
St. Ignatii started out his life as the young rich man. Dimitri Alexandrovich Bryanchaninov was born into a wealthy family in Russia in the early 1800s and was sent to study at the Imperial School of Military Engineers in St. Petersburg where he was favorably noticed by the future Tsar Nicholas I. But Dimitri didn’t want a military career, and against the wishes of the Tsar, he wanted to focus his life on the Word of God, was tonsured a monk and given the name Ignatii, and eventually at the urging of the Tsar became Archimandrite of St. Sergius Coastal Monastery near St. Petersburg, where he was to write so many volumes of spiritual instruction, including The Field and a book On Practicing the Jesus Prayer (that, by the way, we will be discussing in part at the next meeting of our St. Innocent Orthodox Reading Society which will be devoted to works about the Jesus Prayer). Even though he wrote 150 years ago, St. Ignatii’s lasting words relate perfectly to the age in which we live of seemingly endless digital distractions:
“It is foolish to waste our short temporal life (given to us to prepare for eternity) on earthly concerns alone, on satisfying our insignificant, endless, insatiable desires and passions. [Such a person] frivolously rushes from one perishable pleasure to the next — forgetting about (or only occasionally remembering) imminent, majestic and terrifying eternity…..As a moth flutters from flower to flower, so the scattered man passes from one earthly pleasure to another — from one useless activity to another.”
St. Ignatii was glorified by the Russian Orthodox Church in the year of the One Thousandth Anniversary of Orthodox Christianity in Rus, 1988.
Brothers and Sisters, we who have ears to hear know where the thorns are growing in our lives and we know quite well how they choke us from time to time. But even knowing that, will we just give in and continue in our scattered lives? Or will we chose the attentive life instead, and focus on the Word of God, as St. Ignatii did…. and as Mary, sitting at His feet did, on the Words of Our Savior? Will we turn our attention to our own salvation, not just today, but each and every day?
"And there came a fear on all: and they glorified God, saying, That a great prophet is risen up among us; and, That God hath visited his people." In today's Gospel, St. Luke relates one of three times (that were recorded in the Gospels) of Christ raising the dead: in this case the son of the widow of Nain; the other two being the daughter of Jairus, a leader of the synagogue in Galilee, located not far from where Jesus had sent the demons into the herd of swine, and of course Lazarus in Bethany before His triumphant entrance into Jerusalem. Where is this place called Nain? Well, it is a real village that yet exists, located in the area called Galilee where Jesus conducted most of His ministry. Take a look at the map that the altar servers are distributing. Nain is circled on your maps; it's located about nine miles south of Nazareth, where Jesus grew up, and is very close to Mt. Tabor where Jesus would be transfigured later in the presence of Peter, John, and James.
As we can see, Galilee is quite far from Jerusalem, the location of the Temple and the epicenter of both Jewish religious and political life, the area called Judea. For that reason, Galilee was considered the backwoods, the sticks, or as we would say today "the flyover country" of the Hebrews. In Matthew Chapter 4, the region is even referred to as "Galilee of the Gentiles" even though the vast majority of the population were Jews. But to Jesus, this was His native land, and even though He was born in Judea, in Bethlehem, quite near Jerusalem as you can see on the map, and even though He made the trip annually to Jerusalem for the Passover, virtually all of His ministry was here in His native Galilee. But as we know from other Gospels, coming out of Galilee was not thought to lead to greatness, much less the place from which the Messiah would come. Remember that when Christ called Philip to become an apostle, St. John's Gospel tells us that Philip's friend, Nathanael, said: "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" Like Nathanael, a native Galilean, the people of His own hometown refused to believe anything good could come from their village. St. Mark tells us: "And he went out from thence, and came into his own country; and his disciples follow him. And when the sabbath day was come, he began to teach in the synagogue: and many hearing him were astonished, saying, From whence hath this man these things? and what wisdom is this which is given unto him, that even such mighty works are wrought by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary? ....And they were offended at him." And St. Luke tells us that in response Jesus said: "Ye will surely say unto me this proverb, Physician, heal thyself.... Verily I say unto you, No prophet is accepted in his own country." Our Lord called Himself a prophet, but what does that mean? In Hebrew, the word "prophet" meant "one who is called" and the list of Old Testament prophets is a long one: Elijah, Elisha, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel....right up to the last of the Prophets---St. John, as he is formally know, the Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist. When the Old Testament was translated into Greek in the Septuagint, the Greek word "prophetes" was used, meaning "one who speaks beforehand" or "foreteller." Isaiah foretold that the Messiah would be born of a virgin; John the Baptist foretold that while he baptized with water, but that one "mightier than I" shall come and "baptize you with the Holy Spirit;" and of course Our Lord foretold many things, including His own death and Resurrection: "The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise." Mark 9:30. While He called Himself a prophet, Christ said during the Sermon on the Mount that He had not come to "destroy the law or the prophets" but "to fulfill." Matthew 5: 17. But still, during His ministry, many, including the disciples themselves, saw this Master only as a prophet. When He asked them: "Whom do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?" the disciples said: "Some say that thou art John the Baptist; some, Elijah; and others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets." Matthew 16: 13. And even after His Glorious Resurrection, remember what the two disciples on the road to Emmaus said to the Risen Christ: that Jesus of Nazareth was "a prophet mighty in dead and word before God and all the people." Luke 24:19. But, of course, they learned what we know with certitude: That Jesus was more than a prophet, as the people of Nain called Him, but was truly the Son of God, the Messiah foretold by the prophets. Even though, as St. John reminds us that many doubted: "Shall Christ come out of Galilee? Hath not the scripture said that Christ cometh out of the seed of David, out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was?" Brothers and Sisters, looking at those maps 2000 years later, we know that Our Lord did indeed come out of Bethlehem of Judea, and that His humble beginnings in His homeland of Galilee was not just the ministry of a prophet, but the works of the Son of God and Savior of the world.
Today we celebrate the feastday known as the Protection of Our Most Holy Lady, Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary, or as it is known in Slavonic "Pokrov," commemorating the Virgin holding her veil over those worshipping in the Church of Blachernae in the city of Constantinople.
In commemoration of Our Lady's Protection, the vestments used today for our servers and our Church are blue and two gospels are read today, the Gospel for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost and the Gospel of Luke relating the story of Mary and Martha serving Our Lord that is read on feasts dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
The epistle reading today, from St. Paul's letter to the Galatians, begins in a rather legalistic sounding fashion: "But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man." St. Paul was explaining the event of his conversion on the road to Damascus, and by "certifying" his account he was attempting to assure the Galatians of his truthfulness. Truthfulness is such an important trait, and in today's world might be seen as a vanishing virtue.
The altar servers are distributing a copy of an 1890 painting by the famous Russian artist, Nikolai Ge (his forebearers from France, brought with them the family name De Gay, which eventually became "Ge"); the painting depicts Christ before Pilate that is named "Quid Est Veritas?" What is truth? Pilate's question to Christ is found in Chapter 18 of St. John the Theologian's Gospel that is read as one of the Twelve Passion Gospels during Matins of Holy Friday (on the night of Holy Thursday). The Gospel's background for that question must be remembered to understand better the reason for the question, as Pilate says to Jesus:
"Thine own nation and the chief priests have delivered thee unto me: what hast thou done? Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence. Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice. Pilate saith unto him, What is truth? And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find in him no fault at all."
From St. Paul's first letter to Timothy we know that this Church in which we stand today houses the truth, because St. Paul wrote:
"But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
St. Timothy St. Paul
That phrase "The Pillar and the Ground of Truth" was chosen as the title of a 1914 book by Fr. Pavel Florensky, a Russian Orthodox priest and polymath (he was an accomplished theologian, philosopher, mathematician, physicist, electrical engineer, and inventor) who was killed by the Communist in the purges of the 1930s, but only after he supervised the building of the power grid that electrified the Soviet Union during the 1920s. [Fr. Pavel agreed to do this engineering work, but only if he were allowed to wear his cassock and Cross at all times, a demand to which the Bolsheviks had to accede in order to get the technological help needed.] In The Pillar and the Ground of Truth Fr. Pavel undertook the intellectual task of explaining Truth, which explanation had to extend to Pilate's question to Christ. Here is the way Fr. Pavel approached Pilate's question: "[Pilate] did not receive an answer. He did not receive an answer because the question was vain. The Living Answer stood before him, but Pilate did not see the Truth's truthfulness. Let us suppose that the Lord answered the Roman Procurator....with the quiet words "I am the Truth." But even then the questioner would have remained without an answer, for he would not have known how to recognize Truth as truth, could not have been convinced of its genuineness. The knowledge that Pilate lacked, the knowledge that all of mankind lacks above all, is knowledge of the conditions of certitude. What is certitude? It is the discovery of the proper character of truth, the recognition in truth of a certain feature that distinguishes it from untruth. Psychologically, this recognition is expressed as untroubled bliss, the satisfied thirst for truth. [Christ also famously said] 'Ye shall know the Truth and the Truth shall make you free.' Free from what? Free in general from sin."
Did we ever think of Truth, Brothers and Sisters, as bliss? Maybe we have more than we realize because Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and as such brings the bliss of the certitude in His Resurrection into our everyday slogging through the real world. In Dostoyevsky's prophetic novel of revolution, Demons, a conversation between the puppetmaster of the radicals, Stavrogin, and his once-ardent follower, Shatov, centers around Stavrogin's waning faith and waxing violence. Shatov confronts Stavrogin, saying: "But didn't you tell me that if it were mathematically proved to you that the truth excludes Christ, you'd prefer to stick to Christ rather than the truth? Did you say that? Did you?"
In modern America, proof by scientific or mathematic means is not to be questioned. But there is a lot of what some call junk science out there for which questions are not just appropriate, but necessary. How would we react, Brothers and Sisters, if someone tried to prove to us that our faith has no basis in science, and therefore no basis in truth? Would we prefer to stick to Christ, rather than that truth? And while we are in what is called "the real world," how do we deal with our own issues of truth, with a small letter "t"? With so many chances every day to stretch the truth just a little bit, or not tell someone something that he or she really should know, or outright lie, how do we stick to our own obligation to truth? It's not an easy task these days, but it has never been. But once we let a deceitful word out of our mouths, even worse, put that word into a txt or on social media, we have lost the battle of truth. The answer to winning that battle lies in the Epistle of St. James, the Brother of Our Lord:
James 1: 5 "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him."
Prayer clears the way to Truth. We need strength and wisdom from God in order to avoid the pitfall set by the devil of losing our own truth compass. And the perfect prayer to start each day asks the Holy Spirit to help us keep that moral compass pointed toward the Truth:
O Heavenly King the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things, Treasury of Blessings, and Giver of Life, O come and abide in us and cleanse us from every impurity, and save our souls, O Good One.
Brothers and Sisters, During this past week, the Orthodox calendar overflowed with commemorations about which we should all be knowledgeable, given their importance to our salvation. Of course, every week of the year has myriad saints remembered, and some weeks have holy days as well, but this past week was truly noteworthy. On Monday, we remembered St. Moses the Black, a monk and priest in Egypt in the fourth century. Moses, an Ethiopian slave who served an Egyptian political leader, was banished for a crime for which he was merely suspected, and fell in with a band of robbers. His life was turned around completely when he sought shelter with some monks in the desert, so much so that he was tonsured and then ordained. Moses was martyred for the faith at the hands of bandits in 405 AD.
On Wednesday, the Church commemorated the translation of the relics of St. Alexander Nevsky from the town of Vladimir, in which they had been kept for almost 500 years, to the new capital of Russia, St. Petersburg, where they continue to rest today in the Lavra, and that means a monastery of great importance, that is named for St. Alexander, the defender against the invasion from the west and greatest leader of Kievan Rus.
This past Wednesday an estimated 110,000 believers made a procession down Nevsky Prospect to the Lavra in remembrance of the Sainted Prince Alexander.
On Thursday, the late 4th century event known as the Placing of the Belt of the Theotokos was commemorated. The belt that was worn by Our Lady (also called a sash or cincture) was given to the Apostle Thomas at the time of her Dormition and the relic remained in Jerusalem until it was translated to Constantinople, where it was placed in the Church of Blachernae dedicated to the Virgin Mary around the year 400 AD.
The Virgin Mary’s Belt was later transferred to the famous Vatopedi Monastery on Mount Athos where it currently rests after a 2011 tour of Russia that brought out hundreds of thousands of Orthodox faithful who wanted to venerate her relic.
On Friday, the new Church Year began and the saint always remembered on that day is St. Simeon the Stylite, the Syrian monk who lived for 37 years at the top of a column in the desert near Aleppo, a city in the midst of a current war zone, during the 5th century.
On Saturday, the saints commemorated include Sts. Anthony and Theodosius of the Monastery of the Caves of Kiev. These two ascetic saints from the land now known as Ukraine were instrumental in starting the monastic community in the 900s that became one of the most revered in all of the Orthodox world, a place that is now in so much need of our prayers.
In the midst of these commemorations this week, we celebrated the Divine Liturgy on Tuesday remembering the Beheading of St. John the Baptist at the hands of Herod. Most of us will remember that Herod, also called Herod Antipas, the ruler of the area around the Sea of Galilee in which Christ ministered, gave the order to kill the Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John. But how much do we know about the background of the relationship between Herod and St. John? That relationship comes out in chapter 6 of St. Mark’s Gospel that was read on the holy day: “For Herod himself had sent forth and laid hold upon John, and bound him in prison for Herodias' sake, his brother Philip's wife: for he had married her. For John had said unto Herod, It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother's wife. Therefore Herodias had a quarrel against him, and would have killed him; but she could not: For Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man and an holy, and observed him; and when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly.”
Brothers and Sisters, knowing that Herod would promise Salome, the daughter of his wife, anything she desired, which her mother convinced Salome should be the head of John on a silver platter, does it seem to you incredible that Herod did that, given that St. Mark tells us that Herod knew that John was “a just man” and more than that, “an holy” man, and even more, that he “observed” the advice that John gave him. Herod gladly heard the words of John, and we know what the Baptist preached: “Repent!” Nevertheless, hearing that word “gladly”, and even observing the prominence and truthfulness, and holiness, of John, Herod ignored all of that and sinned mightily, knowingly directing the brutal death of another man, a man whom he knew was holy.
Compare that lesson in St. Mark’s Gospel with what we learned from St. Matthew’s Gospel today: a lesson learned by the unprofitable servant who was thrown into outer darkness. We can only guess that unprofitable servant of Christ’s parable would meet Herod in that outer darkness, but their sins seem so different. And indeed, while the unprofitable servant’s sin can be seen as one of omission (he that had received one went and digged in the earth, and hid his lord's money----he took no affirmative steps toward his salvation) while Herod did take action---he ordered the beheading. But one can also see that Herod’s sin was quite similar to the servant’s; he failed to take the action he could have taken, to say “NO” to Salome and Herodias, to stand up for what he believed, even though he had made a silly promise in the secular world. Brothers and Sisters, we have the power to say “NO” to the secular world too. Quite obviously Herod got a large measure of talents, and not only did he not multiply them, he didn’t even bury them. No, he threw them away when he ordered the murder of the Forerunner. But do we say “NO” when we should? Or do we take the easy way out? Do we bury the talents given to us by God in the ground? Or worse, throw them away. If you think about it, it’s nigh impossible to take the paths of sin taken by either Herod or the unprofitable servant if salvation is the ONLY focus of our lives.
In today’s Gospel lesson we have yet another example of the importance of the sacrament of marriage in Christianity. From so many other places in the New Testament we know that Christ is the Bridegroom and that the Church is His Bride. In His parable today, Jesus tells us exactly how we must live our lives on a daily basis in order to reach “the kingdom of heaven” as He puts it in the very first sentence. Our Lord tells us plainly that the king in the parable is God the Father, and that God wants His Son, the Bridegroom to be married in a ceremony in which every human being is called to attend, the marriage feast. And that means everybody. Note that the firstgroup called, and laughed off the invitation, were the Jews, the chosen people, who would not heed the call of the first servant of God, Moses, the first of the Old Testament prophets, and who,as a result, languished for forty years in the wilderness. So God the King sent more servants, the latter prophets, Isaiah and the others, but the chosen ones would not listen to them either.
We should pay close attention to the menu for the wedding feast—ox steak and veal cutlet. The oxen is a reference to the sacrifice of animals as in the Old Testament., but the fattened calf symbolizes a coming change in the way of sacrifice, as the New Testament would endorse the bloodless sacrifice of bread. Those calves were fattened up for the wedding to be served as veal by feeding them lots of grain, the same grain that would go to make that bread that Christ would bless and give as His Body to His disciples at the Last Supper.
After the first group invited to Christ’s wedding feast took a pass, a second group was rounded up, those who were initially not chosen, those out on the highways, the Gentiles. And that poor Gentile who showed up in filthy rags provides the best example we can have as Christ warns us about how one won’t reach the kingdom of heaven. Those ugly rags that cling to that man are his sins, sins that had not been confessed, he had not repented of them, so they clung to him and dragged him down and made it impossible for him to wear, much less even find, proper attire for the wedding. That man without a tux, without a wedding garment, wasn’t ready for the wedding, just as the five foolish virgins in Christ’s parable in Chapter 25 of St. Matthew’s Gospel that starts with: “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.” You will remember that five of the virgins were ready, and had plenty of oil in their lamps, but five had none, and were shut out of the wedding feast when the Bridegroom finally came.
That parable is the basis for the Bridegroom Matins that are celebrated on each of the first three days of Holy Week. Our Lord refers to Himself as the Bridegroom in each of the Synoptic Gospels (that is, the ones that give a chronological synopsis of His life and ministry—Matthew, Mark, and Luke). In St. John’s Gospel at chapter 3 the Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John refers to Jesus as “the Bridegroom,” and then knowing that he is “the friend of the Bridegroom”is the last of the prophets, escorting the Bride, that is the Church of Jesus, the Jews and Gentiles who did get ready for the wedding.
The fact that Christ performed His very first miracle at the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee shows that Our Lord fully endorsed the sacrament of marriage as central to Christianity. In the Orthodox ceremony of the sacrament of marriage, we see this clearly, as the bride andgroom are physically crowned, and those crowns represent the “crowns of the martyrs” as the couple is led around the tetrapod three times by the priest in what is known as the Dance of Isaiah, since the choir begins singing three verses beginning with “Rejoice O Isaiah.” Those same three verses are sung by the clergy in the sacrament of ordination of either a priest or a deacon, as the one to be ordained is lead around the altar table three times. In both cases, the ones led walking in the path of making a total commitment to follow Christ completely in their lives, as martyrs do. And as martyrs do, the bride and groom give their lives up to each other, and to Christ, completely. The epistle reading in the sacrament of marriage, from St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, reiterates the theme of Christ as the Bridegroom: “For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the Church.” Unfortunately, and sadly, this verse is wildly misunderstood in today’s America, mainly in the overlooking of the key concept of the epistle that Christ taught that leaders must be self-sacrificing servants, just as He gave Himself up for His friends, for us. St. Paul admonishes the grooms: “Husbands love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for Her,” and then ends by saying: “This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the Church.” A great mystery indeed, as each and every sacrament of the Church that is performed---baptism, chrismation, confession, communion, marriage, ordination, and unction--- is a great mystery no matter where the sacrament is celebrated. At the micro level, we see ourselves as husbands and wives, but on the macro level, we are all together as the Church. In the Book of Revelation, St. John wrote: “And IJohn saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” When the priest vests for the Liturgy, the first prayer that he says when he puts on the white undergarment (called the podriznik) reflects the gravity of the mystery: “My soul shall rejoice in the Lord, for He has clothed me with the garment of salvation;He has covered me with the robe of gladness; as a bridegroom He has set a crown on me, and as a bride adorns herself with jewels, so H has adorned me.”
Brothers and Sisters, will we be ready when the Bridegroom comes? Will we have a garment of salvation to wear? Will we be dressed up in a suitable wedding garment, one that we have obtained by recent confession and repentance? Will we, like the wise virgins, be ready to greet the Bridegroom with plenty of oil in our lamps? We don’t know when He will come, so weneed to be ready each and every day, all of the time; be ready to be worthy of salvation.
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.