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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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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Holy Saturday: Baptism and the Great Commission

Baptism is Christian initiation. The goal of this process and its culminating rite is not some individualized, purely personal experience. The goal of baptism is initiation into a community of faith, a church. It is entrance into a way of life together, not a rite to do something to or for an individual in private. It asserts from its beginning that to be a follower of Christ means to be grafted into the Body of Christ. There is no Christian without church, no faith outside the community of faith.

Christian initiation and its attendant rite of baptism is the proper and primary business of the church. The church has been told to make disciples by “baptizing and teaching” (Matt 28:19-20). Our major work is the evangelistic business of claiming people for the Kingdom and fitting them for life in that Kingdom. Baptism is that rich, multi-faceted, complex way of engaging the body, head, and heart in that strange and glorious work of claiming, instructing, washing, anointing, blessing, and receiving people for the Kingdom.[1]

These words, written over thirty years ago by a Duke Divinity School professor, did as much to inform my theology of baptism as any other words I have read, either while in or after leaving seminary. In truth these two paragraphs stand as the foundation for my own theology of mission. The Orthodox Church is in the business of making converts. The Great Commission, given by our Lord in the closing words of Matthew’s Gospel, is not an option. Archbishop Anastasios of Albania has stated two remarkable things concerning evangelization: “A Church without mission is a contradiction in terms,” and “Indifference to mission is a negation of Orthodoxy.”[2] I would expand this by saying: “A Christian not engaged in mission is simply not a Christian.”

I am one of those people who are Orthodox by conviction. Like thousands of others in recent years, I made a choice to enter the Holy Orthodox Church, not counting the cost and believing that I had found the “pearl of great price” (Matt 13:46). I have not changed my belief that I was uniting myself to the Church of the Apostles. What I have done is matured in my Orthodoxy, to the point where I can now clearly see the need to rediscover, in most of the Orthodox Christian world, a new zeal for making the Great Commission central, once again, in our common life.

For too many in Orthodoxy, words like “evangelism” and “outreach” are not claimed as our own and are given over to others. This sad fact keeps the “Pearl of Great Price” hidden in ghetto worlds where cultural preservation and so called “ethnic pride” is substituted for the “Gospel Truth.” All too easily our faith communities have created a surrogate gospel supported by surrogate ministries that betray our baptismal identities as Orthodox Christians.

If we accept the dominical charge that we are to “go forth” to all nations, we will do well once again to consider the scripture readings and homilies on the Sundays of Great Lent: they are directed to those who are “preparing for holy illumination.” This is true even in parishes where there are no candidates for baptism being prepared. The Church is catholic and throughout the world we find catechumens seeking to be united to Christ and His Church. Great Lent is the baptismal season of the ecclesiastical year, and preaching must stir this memory and fill the faithful with zeal to share the treasure of their faith. The faithful are also called to listen closely to the prayers offered in the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts and to “pray for these brethren who are preparing for holy illumination and for their salvation.”

The blessing of hearing and preaching directed to those preparing to enter the Church through baptism, chrismation, and Eucharist triggers the rediscovery of our own baptismal identity. We are called to once again recognize that having been united to Christ and to one another in Christ, we are His Body. We have been sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit, and we recall that this is not merely a past event, a static reality, but a “stream of living water” (John 7:38).

By privatizing the rite of holy baptism, we have separated the corporate nature of the mystery from the very people who are called to nurture the newly baptized. We have turned baptism into something precious for infants, and we have forgotten the radical nature of what it means to “put on Christ.” The gospel is not only a belief, but a way of life, and, in this life, our values—the values of the Kingdom—often find us at odds with the beliefs, values, and way of life accepted by the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, which is passing and is not eternal.

If Orthodox Christians are once again to proclaim the glad tidings with boldness, we will need to restore the centrality of The Great Commission. We will need to bring ourselves to a fresh response to the New Testament teaching that we did not choose God but he chose us (John 15:16). We are his hands, feet, and voice in this present world. Life in the Kingdom involves our synergia in response to the love offering from God. We are invited to a conversion. We must become as little children to enter the Kingdom (Matt 18:3).

Many years ago I read a book written by Archbishop Joost de Blank of Cape Town titled This is Conversion.[3] I have never forgotten how convicted I was, to use an evangelical term, of just how radical true conversion is. Try turning the other cheek when struck and you will know exactly what I mean. To go down into the watery grave of holy baptism is to rise to a radical, new way of life. Is this not why Jesus says: “If you have ears to hear, then hear”? (Rev 13:9). To hear the Beatitudes is easy but to live the Beatitudes is radical to the extreme!

This radical conversion and way of life that Christians willingly embrace are exactly what preachers are called to proclaim and to make clear to those who seek to fully unite themselves to Christ. To be signed and sealed with the sign of the cross is to be marked as a Christian, and, come the dread day of judgment, an account must be given from one so marked. This is why a lukewarm faith—an anemic response to the great gift given in holy baptism—is so deadly. This is true for us as individual Christians and corporately as the Church. A Christian not engaged in evangelism is simply not a Christian!

We who are members of the Orthodox Church make the audacious claim to have “put on Christ” and to possess “right faith and right worship.” This is why we must be very conscious of our Lord’s words as we live our lives as baptized Christians: “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin” (John 15:22).

I have been told, but I don’t know the source, that Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann was once asked what the Orthodox Church needed in order to experience a revival. He responded: “Nothing, as we have everything we needed. All we must do is begin to use what we already possess.” We have many positive signs that a recovery of the centrality of The Great Commission is underway. Many parishes have not only restored the prayers of the catechumenate, but they also have catechumens preparing for baptism and reception into the Church.

This year, as you celebrate the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil the Great on the morning of Holy Saturday, be aware this is the traditional time to baptize those whom we have been praying for throughout the Great Fast. The Old Testament readings from Genesis, Jonah, and Daniel are intended to be read at the actual time of holy baptism for the catechumens. They prepare us to hear St. Paul addressing the Church at Rome with these words:

Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 6:3-11)

Matthew 28:1-20 soon follows this epistle reading. The Great Commission in the gospel reading is placed at the center of the initiation rites for the newly baptized to hear and for the faithful also to hear, helping them to remember their own baptism and to give thanks to God for the gift of eternal life.

 

Archpriest Chad Hatfield became the first Chancellor of St. Vladimir’s Seminary in 2007. He previously served as dean of St. Herman Seminary, Kodiak, Alaska, and was founding priest of All Saints Orthodox Church, Salina, Kansas and St. Mary Magdalene Mission, Manhattan, Kansas. Before converting to the Orthodox Christian faith, he and his family were missionaries in South Africa. Currently, he is developing a missiology component in St. Vladimir’s Curriculum. He earned M.Div. and S.T.M. degrees from Nashotah House Seminary, which also granted him a Doctor of Divinity honoris causa in 2008.


[1] William H. Willimon, Remember Who You Are: Baptism, a Model for Christian Life (Nashville, TN: The Upper Room, 1980), 22-23.

[2] Luke Veronis, Go Forth, from the Foreward (Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 2009), 10.

[3] (New York: Morehouse-Gorhma Co.), 1958.

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“My only desire is to cling to God”

Monk and sunbeamStripped of all knowledge, lacking in every good thought or deed, without memory from the past or wish for the future, as useless as a worn-out rag, unfeeling as a stone in the path, corroded as a worm-eaten mushroom in the woods, mortal as a fish on the shore and grieved to tears over this wretched plight of yours, thus you will stand in prayer before the Almighty, your judge and Creator and Father, your Saviour and Master, the Spirit of Truth and Giver of Life; and like the Prodigal Son you will stammer out of the depths of your impotency: Father, I have sinned against heaven and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son (Luke 15:21). Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

You know your impotence and let yourself lie like a grain of dust before the Almighty, and out of your wretchedness grows love to your fellow men as those created by the Lord and aglow with Him. He in His unfathomable being takes notice of them; it is enough for you to offer everything for them.

The strange thing has now come to pass that the deeper you pressed into your own heart, the farther and higher you climbed out of yourself. The outward conditions of your life are the same: you wash dishes and care for the children, you go to work, draw your salary and pay your taxes. You do everything pertaining to your external life as a person in a society, since there is no chance of leaving it. But you have resigned yourself. You have given away one thing in order to receive another.

Icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent (St Catherine's Monastery, 12th c.). St John Climacus is shown at the top of the ladder.

Icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent (St Catherine’s Monastery, 12th c.). St John Climacus is shown at the top of the ladder.

… And if I have Thee, what more do I ask on earth? Nothing, answers St. John Climacus, but ceaselessly praying, silently to cling to Thee. Some are enslaved by riches, others by honour, still others by acquiring possessions; my only desire is to cling to God.

Prayer, with all it contains of self-renunciation, has become your real life, which you keep up as though only for the sake of prayer. Walking with God (Genesis 6:9) is from now on the only thing that has real value for you, and it includes all heavenly and earthly events. For him who bears Christ within himself there is neither death nor illness or any earthly clamour; he has already stepped into eternal life, and that embraces everything.

Night and day the heavenly seed sprouts in your heart and grows, you know not how. The earth produces of itself, your heart’s soil, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear (Mark 4:27-8).

The saints speak of something they call the inextinguishable light. It is a light not of the eye but of the heart that never ceases to walk in purity and clearness. It swiftly leaves the darkness behind, and constantly strives towards the day’s height. Its constant quality is to be continually purified. This is the light of eternity that can never go out, and that shines through the veil of time and matter. But the saints never say that this light is given to them, but that it is given only to those who have purified their hearts in love for the Lord, on the narrow way which they have freely chosen.

The narrow way has no end: its quality is eternity. There every moment is a moment of beginning—the present includes the future: the day of judgment; the present includes the past: creation; for Christ is timelessly present everywhere, both in hell and in heaven. With the coming of the One, plurality disappears, even in time and space. Everything happens simultaneously, now and here and everywhere, in the depths of your heart. There you meet what you sought: the depth and height and breadth of the Cross: the Saviour and salvation.

Therefore, if you wish to save your soul and win eternal life, arise moment by moment from your dullness, bless yourself with the sign of the Cross and say: Let me, Lord, make a good beginning, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Way of the Ascetics (SVS Press)

Way of the Ascetics (SVS Press)

This excerpt is from the final chapter of Way of the Ascetics by Tito Colliander (SVS Press).

“Drawing on collected sayings of the holy men of the East, he presents, for the Western reader, something of the atmosphere of Orthodox spirituality. For Orthodoxy is not primarily a system or a correctness of doctrinal formulations. Doxa means glory. Orthodoxy is therefore concerned with the ‘right glory,’ and it is therefore rooted in the sense of theology as inseparable from human transformation. The purpose of theology is nothing less than the transfiguring of human life ‘from glory to glory’ (2 Cor 3:18)” (from the introduction).

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