On the Dormition

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Church of the Chora, Constantinople

How amazing, my brothers and sisters in the love of Christ! Today she who gave birth to the life of all people has moved on to be a sharer in that life. The life which was begotten before the ages from the Father, which is God and the Word of God, which she bore in the flesh and nursed from her own breasts, the life that built all things from nothing and generated life in them–this life she has inherited, and has come as its mother to share in it above all the holy ranks of heaven and earth. The life that is the fountainhead of the universe she received from God and made a spring for this world, the light of mortal beings; for it is written, “The life was the light of men and women” (Jn 1:3f). She has gone to dwell with this light, the true and substantial light, “the shining-forth of the glory of God the Father” (Heb 1:3), which lightens the world, which has become flesh through her by the Holy Spirit, “enlightening every man and woman who comes into the world” (Jn 1:9). And when Christ our God, co-eternal with his Father and the Spirit, chose by decree to take her to himself, to share in his glory–his most-blessed mother, who is, after him, the greatest of all beings–all the angels and archangels rushed through the air to gather in a joyful visit to this world, sent from heaven by God to be the celebrants of her holy falling-asleep…

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Hagia Sophia, Thessaloniki

The radiant cloud that bore the Lord of glory has been lifted up–lifted up to him: she who flashed forth his perfect divinity in her body like lightning, who rained down holy gifts from him on everything under heaven. There the orbit of that spiritual moon above our world, which the prophet spoke of (Hab 3:11), comes to completion: the moon which gave birth to the sun who is one of those three suns that share a single substance–the Trinity, as revealed by the tradition of the Fathers. “And the moon stood still in the tracks” of her virginity (Hab 3:11); [she is] truly the Mother of God, revealing his radiance that all of this creation might come to know its God. She is received with rejoicing and unspeakable delight in the house of God the Father, herself the house which God had built for his Son, who dwelt in her without being circumscribed and was made flesh from her by the Holy Spirit; who remained in her nine months and became an infant; yet who was God inseparable from his Father and the Spirit. She who was made the dwelling-place of the consubstantial Trinity has come to a better dwelling–she who is forever his home, having heard from the archangel Gabriel, “The Holy Spirit will come down upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the one born of you will be called holy, the Son of God” (Lk 1:35). So she is glorified above the holy ranks of heaven and earth; she is transplanted from here, as “from glory to glory” (2 Cor 3:18)–the mortal bush that bore the fire of divinity (see Ex 3:2f)–to “the land of the living” (Ps 116:9), where she shall join in radiating the light of the face of Christ our God, who was truly and wholly contained in her womb: preserved unburnt by him, as the one who, above all women, is blessed with the name of Virgin Mother.

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Church of the Chora, Constantinople

Excerpt from “An Ecomium on the Dormition of Our Most Holy Lady, Mary, Mother of God and Ever-Virgin” by Our Father the Holy Modestus, Archbishop of Jerusalem. From On the Dormition of Mary, published by SVS Press, 1998.

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On Behalf of All and for All

As the deacon or priest elevates the Holy Gifts during the Divine Liturgy, he says, “Thine own of Thine own, we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all.” These words, based on I Chronicles 29:14, remind us that the Liturgy is not “ours,” because it is offered for all people. The words also remind us that we have no gifts to offer God that are “ours” and not already His. In fact we have nothing that is ours–but we do have a God Who graciously “deigns to accept at our hands” that which we offer Him.

photo: Luke Bullock

photo: Luke Bullock

Guiding our actions by these words is one way for each of us to “expand the mission” in our own parishes. Many of our parish communities happily welcome and accept visitors and newcomers. But there are still parishes in which visitors may be ignored, treated indifferently, or made to feel downright uneasy. Perhaps that happens when parish members forget that the Liturgy, the Church, the coffee hour are not “theirs”–at least not according to the words they hear each time the Holy Gifts are offered.

We all know people who became part of the Orthodox Christian family because someone welcomed them on their first parish visit and encouraged them to continue exploring the faith. These seekers-who-became-members bring diverse personal abilities to the Church, including skills that strengthen our collective effort to reach out to more people. In other words, they help us “expand the mission.” How can we do less than welcome them, in the name of the One to Whom everything belongs, and from Whom everyone receives?

Matushka Valerie Zahirsky (SVOTS ’74) chairs the Orthodox Church in America’s Department of Christian Education. She is the wife of Archpriest Michael Zahirsky (SVOTS ’75), Rector of Saints Peter and Paul Church, Moundsville, WV. This article first appeared in the commemorative book for the 18th All American Council and is republished here with permission of the author.

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This, then, is how you should pray…

This is part one in a four part series on The Lord’s Prayer by Dr. George Parsenios, Sessional Professor of New Testament at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. This article is republished with the permission of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

Woman Praying, Catacombs of Priscilla, Roma

Woman Praying, Catacombs of Priscilla, Rome

Why is this called “the Lord’s Prayer”? It was given to us by Jesus, the Lord. The Old Testament associates the name “Lord” with the one God of Israel (Deut. 6:4), and New Testament authors apply the title “Lord” to Jesus in order to proclaim his divine identity. Paul says that every tongue should confess that “Jesus is Lord” (Phil. 2:11) and Thomas calls Jesus “my Lord and my God” (John 20:28). The Lord’s Prayer appears in Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4. The version in Matthew is better known, and is also the one used in the prayer life of the Church. This brief exposition will proceed, therefore, verse by verse through Matthew’s version.

“Our Father, who art in heaven”

The Lord’s Prayer is not addressed to “my” but to “our” Father. Individual Christians are not lone believers who have “personal relationships” with “my” God. True fellowship with God requires fellowship with other true believers (I John 1:3-4). Tertulian makes the matter plain when he says, “We cannot call God our Father unless we call the Church our Mother.”

Christ with Sts Pter and Paul, Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter, Rome

Christ with Sts. Peter and Paul, Catacombs of Marcellinus and Peter, Rome

The Father is “in heaven.” The entire Lord’s Prayer can be read in light of this phrase. If the Father is “in heaven,” the dominant concern of the Lord’s Prayer is that God’s will “be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We look forward to that future day when Christ will return, making all things new. The Lord’s Prayer is defined by this future hope in two related ways. Some parts of the prayer call for Christ to return quickly and for God to complete his work in the world. Other petitions focus on the time up until Christ comes, praying for glimpses of heavenly life even now on earth.

These twin concerns–the heavenly future and the earthly present–lie behind even those phrases that seem concerned with other things, like the next petition, “Hallowed be thy name.” Asking God to make his name hallowed, or holy (agiastheto), is specifically a call for God to renew the world. In Ezekiel 36:23, God complains that his name has been profaned among the nations and that Israel has caused his name to be derided and mocked. When he promises to correct the errors of all humanity, God says, “I will hallow (agiaso) my name.” Praying for God’s name to be “hallowed” will thus lead us also to pray the next petition: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

“Give us this day our daily bread”

Loaves and Fish, Catacombs of St. Callixtus, Rome

Loaves and Fish, Catacombs of St. Callixtus, Rome

As St. Cyprian notes, this verse can support several literal and spiritual interpretations. In one sense, the petition reminds us how to live as we await the return of Christ. If our focus is on the arrival of God’s heavenly reign, we cannot be anxious about life on earth. Jesus says, “Do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ …Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:31-33). We thus request only enough bread for “this day.” From another perspective, life in heaven is often characterized as a great banquet (Matt. 22:1-14). Praying for bread, in this sense, is equivalent to praying for Christ to return, in order that we might enjoy this heavenly banquet now, on “this day.” From yet another perspective, Jesus tells us that he is himself the “bread of life” (John 6:51) which we share when we partake of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist (John 6:53). To ask for daily bread in this sense is to pray to be worthy of regular participation in the Eucharist.

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Consumed by the fire of the Spirit

A homily for Pentecost.

 

Today, on this fiftieth day after Pascha, the feast of Pentecost, we stand at a decisive turning point:
We counted all the weeks that lead us through Great Lent to Pascha,
and then the weeks after Pascha,
But from now own, until we begin again next year the journey to Jerusalem and the Passion,
every week is counted from this Sunday – the Sundays of Pentecost.

 

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This feast had originally begun as an agrarian feast, the celebration of the grain harvest,
the first of the crop.
By the time of Christ it had become a commemoration of the promulgation of the covenant:
of how Moses had ascended Sinai and received the gift of the Law;
Because of this, on this day, all the faithful were required to renew their pledge to the covenant.
This feast continued and completed the celebration of the Passover,
a life now lived in the light of that cornerstone event.

 

This is the very setting for the reading that we heard in today’s Gospel:
how Jesus was in Jerusalem on the last day of the feast, the great day,
and standing up, he said:
“If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scriptures said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living waters.”

 

Those who had been sent to arrest him returned to the chief priests and Pharisees empty-handed,
They were perplexed- “no man has ever spoke like this man” they reported.
The Pharisees, who thought of themselves as the keepers of the Law, were indignant:
to them it seemed that Christ had repeatedly broken and flouted the Law;
So, while the crowd was starting to believe in Christ,
the Pharisees dismissed this: the crowd, they argued, clearly don’t know the Law,
and so they are accursed.

 

However, the tables have turned: Christ came not to put an end to the law, but to complete it.

 

And it is this completion that we celebrate today on our feast of Pentecost:
not the law written on stone tablets,
but the Law of God inscribed by the Holy Spirit on the fleshly hearts of human beings.

 

As the Law given through Moses prepared the people of Israel to become a pure and holy nation,
to enter the Promised Land,
so the Law of the Spirit given in Christ prepares us, as the Israel of God, to purify ourselves from the corruption of this world, entering instead into the Kingdom of God.

 

As Moses ascended Sinai, amidst the thunder and lightening, when the Lord came down upon it in fire, and then descended with his face shining so brightly that he covered his face with a veil,
So Christ, having ascended into the heavens through his Passion,
now sends down upon his disciples another paraclete – another intercessor or comforter – who descended upon the apostles in the form of fiery tongues,
so that clothed with power from above,
they might become witnesses to Christ to all the ends of the earth,
calling all human beings to faith in Christ and salvation.

 

pentecost

 

This is the gift of the Spirit that we heard about last night:
in the reading from the book of Numbers – where the Lord took some of the spirit that was on
Moses and put it upon the seventy elders, so that they prophesied.

 

And in the prophecy of Joel, who foretold how the Lord would pout out his spirit upon all flesh.
The prophecy that Peter quotes on the day of Pentecost itself.

 

It is through this gift of the Spirit that we too become witnesses to everything that Christ has accomplished for our sake:
and so time, from this day onwards, is measured as the days of Pentecost.
Next Sunday we will begin our celebration of this time by commemorating all the saints –
all those, that is, who in the Spirit have become images of Christ.

 

The gift of the Spirit, as we heard in the reading from Acts and see in the icon before us,
took the form of tongues of fire resting upon each of the apostles:
tongues – because they were called upon to preach the Word of God,
and fire – because God is a consuming fire.

 

Let us take heed about this:
what we are called to is not simply preaching in the sense of communicating some information,
telling others about something that happened long ago;

 

No, we are to become witnesses – that is, monuments, examples, martyrs – of what Christ has effected,
we are to be consumed by the fire of the Spirit,
so that we are incorporated into the life of God,
to become the body of Christ (as we see on the icon – Jesus is not present)
So that each and every one of us becomes a partaker in Christ’s victory and his Kingdom,
so that we also have the Spirit of God in our hearts, calling upon the heavenly God as Father,
Abba.

 

As we come to realize where our true home lies – that we are not children of this world,
but that our true home, our true happiness and our very life itself is found only with God in his Kingdom,
as we come to realize this,
we will also certainly, even if paradoxically, become ever more dissatisfied with ourselves,
our bondage to sin, to our passions, to our desires,
to all the innumerable ways in which my ego binds me to this world
to the vicious cycles that lead to death and destruction.

 

If we don’t perceive this dissatisfaction, we will never be prompted to leave such things behind,
to ascend with Christ from earth to heaven, where he has gone to prepare a place for us.
And, of course, the only means for this ascent is to follow Christ by ourselves taking up the cross,
something which we are now able to do by the power of the Spirit granted to us.

 

As we take these steps, we will also assuredly begin to experience that which was spoken about in the third reading from last night: the words of Ezekiel about how the Lord will take out our hearts of stone and replace them with hearts of flesh – merciful, loving and compassionate.

 

It is this that God desires – a broken spirit and a contrite heart.
It is this that is indeed the fulfillment of the law;
and it is this bloodless sacrifice that we now offer him, as we lift up our hearts to the Lord.

 

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cross_stands__52149-1406224506-300-300For more homilies by Fr. John Behr, check out The Cross Stands While the World Turns: Homilies for the Cycles of the Year.

Photography by Leanne Parrott Photography.

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“Christ’s Ascension is our Uplifiting” – St Leo the Great on the Ascension

St Leo the Great (icon by Archim. Kyprian - Jordanville, NY)

St Leo the Great (by Archimandrite Kyprian)

Since the blessed and glorious resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, whereby the divine power in three days raised the true temple of God, which the wickedness of the Jews had overthrown, the sacred forty days, dearly-beloved, are today ended, which by most holy appointment were devoted to our most profitable instruction, so that, during the period that the Lord thus protracted the lingering of His bodily presence, our faith in the resurrection might be fortified by needful proofs. For Christ’s death had much disturbed the disciples’ hearts, and a kind of torpor of distrust had crept over their grief-laden minds at his torture on the cross, at his giving up the ghost, at his lifeless body’s burial.

The Risen Christ and the Empty Tomb (Rabulla Gospels, 6th c.)

Christ’s Resurrection (Rabulla Gospels, 6th c.)

For, when the holy women, as the Gospel-story has revealed, brought word of the stone rolled away from the tomb, the sepulchre emptied of the body, and the angels bearing witness to the living Lord, their words seemed like ravings to the Apostles and other disciples. Which doubtfulness, the result of human weakness, the Spirit of truth would most assuredly not have permitted to exist in his own preacher’s breasts, had not their trembling anxiety and careful hesitation laid the foundations of our faith. It was our perplexities and our dangers that were provided for in the apostles: it was ourselves who in these men were taught how to meet the cavillings of the ungodly and the arguments of earthly wisdom. We are instructed by their lookings, we are taught by their hearings, we are convinced by their handlings. Let us give thanks to the divine management and the holy fathers’ necessary slowness of belief. Others doubted, that we might not doubt.

The Risen Christ with the Apostles (Decani, 14th c.)

The Risen Christ with the Apostles (Decani, 14th c.)

II. Those days, therefore, dearly-beloved, which intervened between the Lord’s resurrection and ascension did not pass by in uneventful leisure, but great mysteries were ratified in them, deep truths revealed. In them the fear of awful death was removed, and the immortality not only of the soul but also of the flesh established. In them, through the Lord’s breathing upon them, the Holy Spirit is poured upon all the apostles, and to the blessed Apostle Peter beyond the rest the care of the Lord’s flock is entrusted, in addition to the keys of the kingdom.

Great mysteries were ratified… deep truths revealed.

Christ on the Road to Emmaus (Cloisters Collection, c. 850)

Christ on the Road to Emmaus (Cloisters Collection, c. 850)

Then it was that the Lord joined the two disciples as a companion on the way, and, to the sweeping away of all the clouds of our uncertainty, upbraided them with the slowness of their timorous hearts. Their enlightened hearts catch the flame of faith, and lukewarm as they have been, are made to burn while the Lord unfolds the scriptures. In the breaking of bread also their eyes are opened as they eat with him: how far more blessed is the opening of their eyes, to whom the glorification of their nature is revealed than that of our first parents, on whom fell the disastrous consequences of their transgression.

St Thomas meets the Risen Christ (medieval Russian icon)

St Thomas meets the Risen Christ (medieval Russian icon)

III. And in the course of these and other miracles, when the disciples were harassed by bewildering thoughts, and the Lord had appeared in their midst and said, “Peace be unto you,” that what was passing through their hearts might not be their fixed opinion (for they thought they saw a spirit not flesh), he refutes their thoughts so discordant with the truth, offers to the doubters’ eyes the marks of the cross that remained in his hands and feet, and invites them to handle him with careful scrutiny, because the traces of the nails and spear had been retained to heal the wounds of unbelieving hearts, so that not with wavering faith, but with most steadfast knowledge they might comprehend that the Nature which had been lain in the sepulchre was to sit on God the Father’s throne.

IV. Accordingly, dearly-beloved, throughout this time which elapsed between the Lord’s resurrection and ascension, God’s providence had this in view, to teach and impress upon both the eyes and hearts of His own people that the Lord Jesus Christ might be acknowledged to have as truly risen, as he was truly born, suffered, and died. And hence the most blessed apostles and all the disciples, who had been both bewildered at his death on the cross and backward in believing his resurrection, were so strengthened by the clearness of the truth that when the Lord entered the heights of heaven, not only were they affected with no sadness, but were even filled with great joy.

…above the dignity of all heavenly creatures,
the nature of mankind went up…

The Ascension (Rabulla Gospels, 6th c.)

The Ascension (Rabulla Gospels, 6th c.)

And truly great and unspeakable was their cause for joy, when in the sight of the holy multitude, above the dignity of all heavenly creatures, the nature of mankind went up, to pass above the angels’ ranks and to rise beyond the archangels’ heights, and to have Its uplifting limited by no elevation until, received to sit with the eternal Father, it should be associated on the throne with his glory, to whose nature it was united in the Son. Since then Christ’s ascension is our uplifting, and the hope of the Body [i.e. the Church] is raised, whither the glory of the Head has gone before, let us exult, dearly-beloved, with worthy joy and delight in the loyal paying of thanks. For today not only are we confirmed as possessors of paradise, but have also in Christ penetrated the heights of heaven, and have gained still greater things through Christ’s unspeakable grace than we had lost through the devil’s malice. For us, whom our virulent enemy had driven out from the bliss of our first abode, the Son of God has made members of himself and placed at the right hand of the Father, with whom he lives and reigns in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.

Homily 73 (On the Lord’s Ascension, I)

Translation taken from the Nicene Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 12.

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Baltimore and Bethesda

A homily for the Fourth Sunday of Pascha, 2015.

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

Christ is risen!

There has been a lot of fighting this week. Last night there was a big boxing match with two superstars duking it out. The winner of that fight went home many millions of dollars richer, with the adulation of an international crowd ringing in his ears. Earlier in the week we saw a much larger and poorer fight in the city of Baltimore. A fight that pitted citizen against citizen, against policeman, against shopkeeper, against everything. There were heroes too; people who bravely stood for peace or in defense of the weak. But unlike Vegas on Saturday night, in this fight there were no trophies, no accolades, and no winners.

In the wake of the violence voices from every corner have eagerly hurled blame and solutions into the digital winds. “The problem is racism!” “The problem is black culture!” “The problem is poverty and lack of education!” “The Problem is Obama!” “What we need is more government programs!” “What we need is more individual responsibility!” “What we need is more jobs!” On and on it goes in an endless cacophony of opinion, the most bewildering aspect of which is that there is, in most of it, at least a modicum of truth.

It is true that Baltimore’s police department had a history of abusing the authority it was given. It is true that poverty and difficult circumstances do not excuse wanton destruction and theft. It is true that racism and abuse of power are still sadly common in this country, and it is true that heroic public service is too. If all these things are true; if neither fault nor solution can be ascribed solely to the public, the President, or the police, where does this leave us as we look for a way forward? How can justice and peace be realized? As you might expect, the Gospel reading gives us light for this dark problem.

Christ heals the paralytic, 15th century fresco, Monastery of St John Lampadistis, Church of St Heracleidius, Kalopanayiotis, Cyprus

Christ heals the paralytic, Monastery of St John Lampadistis, Church of St Heracleidius, Kalopanayiotis, Cyprus

Today we hear about a man who had been sitting by a sheep washing pool in Jerusalem for 38 years in the hope of being healed of his paralysis. Once a year the Archangel Michael would disturb the sheepy water and the first person into the pool at that point would be restored to full health. Alas for our poor paralytic. In all the years he sat waiting, never once did he get to the water in time because, unlike many of those who had been healed in the past, he did not have a friend to help him. Jesus sees the man laying there and asks him, “Do you want to be made well?” “Of course!” He gasps excitedly. Actually, no, he doesn’t say that at all. He simply tells Jesus that he can’t get to the water fast enough. He’s fixated on the pool, his old way of thinking about the solution to his problem, and doesn’t know that salvation isn’t in the pool any longer, but in the man standing before him.

In an article written a year ago for this very day, Fr. Lawrence Farley gives the following insight into today’s Gospel:

In John’s subtext, the pool functions as an image of the Law and the man as an image of Israel hoping to find salvation in the Law. The paralytic had been long in his condition, even as Israel had long been waiting for divine salvation. The Bethesda pool was thought to have been stirred by an angel, even as the Law had been given by angels (Acts 7:53). The pool even had five porticoes (John 5:4), even as the Mosaic Law had five books. Like the paralytic who had to stop relying on the pool for salvation and turn instead to Christ, so Israel had to stop relying upon the Law to save them, and also turn to Christ. The old was giving place to the new.

We see this contrast between the old and the new throughout John’s Gospel: not Jewish water, but Christ’s wine, not the old Temple, but Christ’s body, not the manna in the wilderness, but Christ’s flesh. Christian faith involved turning from the old ways to the new, as sacred Jewish history veered upward into the Kingdom and the eschaton. It was as Isaiah foretold long ago: “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you now perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19).

How does this Gospel illumine the ongoing social crisis we saw in Baltimore this past week and may face in our own community in the future? It grounds us in Christ again. Like the paralytic we get fixated on our old external answers. We favor conservative, or progressive, or radical political solutions, and the partial truth they contain, to the intractable problems of human society. We forget that the power that allowed Fr. Roman Braga to confess the faith despite horrendous torture and years of isolation; the power that gave Dr. George Washington Carver, a black man, the willingness to discover, as a blessing to the Jim Crow South, more than 300 uses for its peanut crops; the power that can give frustrated Baltimoreans and world-weary policemen love, compassion, and forgiveness for one another – a true basis for society – is not rooted in politics, economics, criminal or social justice. The power to love one’s enemies, to do good to those who persecute you, and so end the demonic cycle of hatred and violence, is in the grace of the Holy Spirit given as a gift to those who put their faith in Christ.

Eucharistia of Apostles 1, detail (Christ with Angels-Deacons), Monastery Studenica, King's Church, Serbia

Eucharistia of Apostles 1, detail (Christ with Angels-Deacons), Monastery Studenica, King’s Church, Serbia

It seems cliche to say it, but, more than anything else, this is what Baltimoreans need. They need Christ. So do the people in our community where these same tensions are not unknown. And we have Christ, here in the Holy Mysteries, and therefore in ourselves! We are grace-bearing creatures, commanded to be salt and light for those around us. If we obey this divine command and begin to offer Christ to our community, lovingly, patiently, and gently, through prayer, acts of kindness, integrity, fidelity, and all the rest that goes with being His witnesses, He can bring healing to our community by doing in others the work He is doing in us. As Isaiah says, He will lift the low, make the rough smooth, and straighten the crooked. (Is. 40:4)

With His Father, and the All-Holy, Good, and Life-Creating Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Fr. John Cox is a 2011 graduate of St. Vladimir’s Seminary. Following graduation Fr. John and his family were assigned to Dormition of the Theotokos Orthodox Church (OCA, Diocese of the South) in Norfolk, Virginia.

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Ten Things for Holy Week

Sermon, Fifth Sunday of Lent 2015 (St Mary of Egypt)
Mark 10:32-45

This morning, James and John desire to be seated with Christ in His Glory. And our Lord, to test them, asks whether they are able to drink the cup that He drinks, and to be baptized with the baptism with which He is baptized. James and John answer, “We are able!” The response from Jesus, in a nutshell, is: be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

palm sunday vigil outsideToday is the last Sunday of Great Lent, and on Friday evening just five days from now, we will begin the celebration of Holy Week. Friday evening will open a ten day long procession to the cross, to the tomb, and to the resurrection.

And as we get ready, our Lord extends the same invitation to us as He extended to James and John. To all of us who wish to see His glory, who desire to be by His side at Pascha, Jesus first says to you and to me, “but are you able and willing to drink the cup that I drink from? Are you able to walk with me through Holy Week? Are you willing to be by my side, and to carry my cross with me?”

I hope your answer is yes. I hope that Pascha is not just a Sunday on which we show up, having given no thought to Christ on the days of Holy Week.

To help us prepare — to help us take up and drink from the Lord’s same cup — I wanted to share a list of 10 things to do during Holy Week. These are ten recommendations for how to be baptized with the same baptism with which our Lord is baptized.

(1) Go to as many services as you can. We offer a large number. Usually, at least two each day. And if you can’t go to every service, set aside time to read prayerfully through those you cannot attend. It is through worship that we return and unite ourselves to Christ. The services of Holy Week are not just memory exercises. Holy Week is a single unbroken Liturgy that over ten days invites us to participate in the saving love of Jesus Christ, not to just remember some events from long ago. The love which Jesus shows is real, it is now, and we are invited through worship to receive it.

Does it seem unreasonable to attend Church so much in a single week? Of course it does! But Christ’s love for us is extreme and intense. And so we return that love during Holy Week in a way that is beyond reason!

(2) Intensify your fasting. Each person is called to fast as he or she is able. Some are able to fast more, some less. During Holy week, each of us should increase the intensity of the fast. Think about how you have followed the fast up to this point. During Holy Week, continue what you do, and then do a little bit more. Do you fast just a few days a week? Increase the number of your fasting days. Are you fasting from meat only? Consider fasting from dairy as well. Consider eating smaller meals each time. For some, it may be possible to eat only two small meals a day rather than three. Holy Week is a time in which we should increase our hunger for Christ, and physical hunger is one way to do so. Physical hunger reminds us that we need what God offers, and fasting helps us to focus on the love of Christ. Fasting is hard, but remember the good gift which waits for us at the Paschal Liturgy of the Resurrection — the good gift of Christ Himself!

Bridegroom in Chapel(3) Create silence. Disconnect entirely from your cell phone, email, internet usage and especially social media. (If any of this is needed for work or school, designate a window of usage of no more than a few hours.) Do not watch TV, or listen to the radio. Cancel all lessons, sports, and social activities. It’s only for one week. The world will still be there after Pascha. When we create silence in this way, we give ourselves the space and opportunity to be drawn by Christ more deeply into His words and actions during Holy Week. We remove some of the man-made barriers that separate us from “drinking from his cup” (Mark 10:38). And if we do not create silence, then the noise of this world will easily overwhelm the “still small voice” through which the Holy Spirit speaks (1 Kings 19:12). To hear the voice of Christ, we have to silence the relentless cascade of screed and distraction we otherwise allow the world to pump full force into our hearts and minds.

(4) Create prayer. Turn on some church music. In particular, listen to the hymns of Holy Week. And learn something about each hymn you hear: On what day do we sing this hymn? During which service? What is the place and purpose of this hymn? The hymns of Passion Week create holy echoes that help to connect our worship with the rest of daily life. Singing “Behold the Bridegroom” at the services which begin Holy Week is good, but hearing and singing the same hymn while driving, walking, or cleaning the house is even better. Doing so, we allow the prayer of the Church to become the prayer of everyday life.

(5) Be still. Set aside time each day to sit quietly in front of an icon of Christ, about 20-30 minutes. Light a candle, say a short prayer, and then simply wait in silence for the Lord to speak a word, or to bestow a deeper sense of His presence. Being silent is a way of saying to God, “I am here. And I wait on no other than You. Visit me in my smallness.” Stillness during Holy Week is a good practice for the experience of Great and Holy Friday and Saturday. The most eloquent word ever spoken is the silence of our dead Savior while hanging on the cross, and while lying in the tomb. His silence says everything. The stillness of His death is the great action that redeems and sanctifies all the world. His silence on the cross shouts down hell. His stillness in the tomb explodes the realm of the dead and bestows life on all. When we practice stillness and silence during Holy Week, we are preparing to unite our silence to Christ’s. We are preparing to die with our Savior … so that we too might be raised to new life!

(6) Always be with Christ (as Fr +Tom Hopko reminds us). Occupy your mind as often as you can with a short prayer. If you do not already have the habit of praying the Jesus Prayer, Holy Week is a great time to begin: “O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” This prayer increases our awareness of the nearness of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It reminds us that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God. Christ is always with us, and through continual prayer, we work to do the same — to always be with our Lord who loves and strengthens us.

(7) Read a Gospel. Set aside time each day to read several chapters from either Matthew, Mark, or Luke. (We save John for after Pascha!) And remember that in the Gospels, we do not find words about Christ, we find words from Christ. Each verse of Holy Scripture is a word spoken directly to you by the raised and glorified Lord. Each word is a word for now, each word is a new word that you have never received before. Enjoy the gift! Jesus wants to give it to you!

plaschanitsa closeup(8) Seek forgiveness and healing. Chances are, each of us has at least a small handful of relationships in need of healing. During Holy Week, work for that healing. Admit your mistakes, and forgive the mistakes made by others. Offer yourself in love to at least one other person from whom you are estranged. Make a phone call, send a letter or email — you have a blessing to use email in this one case! — or schedule a coffee date. Remember how much you love this person, and remember that we were created to live in peace and joy with one another. Christ’s love for us is ENORMOUS compare to pettiness we so often hold on to. And if you have been deeply harmed by another person, seek help! Reach out to someone — your spouse, another family member or friend, your priest — and ask for guidance. Search through prayer, fasting, and honest communication for a way forward. As they say, holding onto anger (or hatred, or resentment, or vengefulness) is like swallowing poison and expecting someone else to die. Seek release from what possesses. Enjoy the lightness of a relationship that has been healed and restored.

(9) Call someone who is sick or lonely. Visit them if you can. Share yourself with someone who needs you. Our parishes, and our neighborhoods, are filled with people who are dying of loneliness and isolation. Extend yourself and give them the gift of human presence. One of the great themes of Holy Week is abandonment — how our Lord was abandoned by just about everyone, including it seems by His own Father. As we seek to unite ourselves to Christ through prayer and worship during Holy Week, may we not at the same time abandon those who need us. To be united to Christ, we must at the same time strengthen our solidarity with all those around us. We are part of the mystical body of Christ, and we are called to a life of unity and communion with one another.

Chapel pascha fishbowl(10) Think about Bright Week and beyond! With Pascha comes the true light that enlightens the whole world and each person in it. As we unite ourselves to Christ, the radiance of the Resurrection changes everything. The week after Pascha is truly a Bright Week — the Resurrection colors all with brilliance and beauty. Nothing should ever be the same. Let this Holy Week be a launching pad into the rest of life. Having united ourselves to Christ in both death and resurrection — having lived out our baptism through the celebration of Holy Week — we should get ready to proclaim the good news in all that we do. May we remember that every Sunday is a “little Pascha” and that each time we gather to celebrate the Liturgy we proclaim Christ’s death and we confess His resurrection. And if every Sunday is a little Pascha, then every week is a little Holy Week. Each day of the year is a day on which we give thanks for the Holy Mysteries we last received, and look forward to being received by Christ once again at the life-giving chalice. Holy Week and Pascha occur once a year, but they are the rule, not the exception. Holy Week and Pascha are the models for every week of the year. Jesus Christ touches all of time through the Cross, and all of time collapses into the eternal now of His divine love. May we live all of life in the light of the Resurrection!

 

The Rev. Theophan Whitfield (SVOTS ’10) is the rector of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Salem, Massachusetts. Father Theophan had been a teacher for fifteen years at independent schools, first in New York City and later in Connecticut, prior to pursuing studies at St. Vladimir’s. He and his wife, Matushka Manna, have three daughters: Ayame, Miya, and Emi.

Photos: Leanne Parrott Photography

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