Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

Monday, February 18, 2019

Homily for Wednesday of Holy Week - Holy Anointing Service - (April 4, 2018)

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

     Tonight, we come together as a community of faith, seeking the healing power of Jesus.  All of us in this Church know that the Sacraments are not equivalent to magic we would see in Harry Potter or from Pen and Teller.  Rather, the Sacraments are vehicles of God’s grace and help to conform us into Jesus Christ.  We cannot just receive a Sacrament and hope for the best, every time we receive a Sacrament, we need to have the right disposition of the heart.  It is just like going to exercise at the gym; we can go to the gym seven days a week for an hour at a time, but if we do not change our habits outside of the gym, we will not lose any weight.  This is a reality I am very familiar with.

     When we come to receive the Sacraments, if we just take the Body of Christ and think, “ok, I’m all set now, Jesus is going to take over,” and we do not try to live like Jesus outside of these holy walls, then we are not doing it right and we are not worthy of the grace being given to us.  The same is true for the other Sacraments as well.  If you and your fiancĂ© are not getting along, the Sacrament of Marriage will not change that by itself. 

    Tonight, if you are here because you think getting anointed with Holy Oil is going to take away your aches and pains, I hate to break it to you, but it probably will not happen.  Do not get me wrong here, certainly, with God all things are possible and who am I to say how God plans on working tonight; however, if we all receive this Sacrament without faith and belief and without planning on becoming more like Jesus, then we have all wasted our time coming here.

    My brothers and sisters, what does Jesus do at the start of our Gospel?  He says: “Father, Lord of heaven and earth, to You I offer praise.”  The very first thing Jesus does is give praise and thanks to God.  That should be our prayer every morning when we wake up and every night as we fall asleep: “Thank you, Jesus.”  That is the starting point of putting our hearts in the right disposition.  “Thank you, Jesus.”

    Our Lord then says, “Everything has been given over to Me by My Father. No one knows the Son but the Father, and no one knows the Father but the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal Him.”  Friends, tonight the Father and the Son are being revealed to us.  God the Father is certainly present in this holy temple because where two or three are gathered together in Jesus’ name, the Blessed Trinity is here among us. 

    The Father is here present with us because He desires to be with His children. He desires that we gather in His Holy House to worship and adore Him and to share Himself with us in the person of His Divine Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus is with us because the red lamp next to the tabernacle and the veil which covers the tabernacle let us know that the Divine Person is truly here present in the Eucharist. We stand in the presence of the Divine Majesty, the Sovereign King and Ruler of the Universe.  Finally, the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father through the Son, is soon going to make Himself very busy when, in a few minutes, I shall anoint each of you with the Oil of Gladness and Healing, by which God’s grace shall come upon you.  

    My brothers and sisters, God is real, God is here, and He wants to heal you of every infirmity, both of soul and body because He loves you. Jesus says to us: “Come to Me all you who are labored and are heavy burdened, and I will give you rest.”  You see, tonight is not about taking away our aches and pains; rather, tonight is about giving you rest.

    We all come here tonight with various pains and ills: cancer, depression, anxiety, diabetes, heart disease, neurological diseases, loneliness, fear, anger, and many other problems.  The Church does not reserve this Sacrament for people who are physically sick; this Sacrament is for anyone who is suffering in mind, body, or spirit.  Jesus told us tonight in our Gospel to come to Him because He is “gentle and humble of heart. Your souls will find rest, for His yoke is easy and His burden light.”  Thank you, Jesus.

    The Blessed and Most Trinity is here and active.  The Lord wants to heal you of all your pain and suffering, physical or not, and most importantly, the Lord wants to give you rest.  Tonight is about healing the heart and the soul.  Know that Jesus loves you and He wants your love in return.  It starts with the simple prayer: “Thank you, Jesus.”  It ends with eternal rest in the new and eternal Jerusalem.  

    From the time of the ministry of Jesus, healing has been at the center of the Gospel message. In the world of the New Testament, where suffering and sickness are so obviously part of the human condition, the word that is most often used for healing is 'salvation': people are 'saved' from their suffering. Healing is healing of body and soul. The two go together.

    In the New Testament, one of the great signs of the coming of God's reign is the healing that Jesus brings. St. Luke tells how, when Jesus returned from his forty-day spiritual struggle in the wilderness, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, He preached in the synagogue of Nazareth, His home town. First, He read from the scroll:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim
release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

Then, He began to say to them, 'Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing' (Lk 4:21).

    The reading we heard from St. James shows how, from an early stage, the Church practiced anointing with oil as a means of healing. In the passage we heard read, the Apostle James tells us that if any are sick, they should send for the elders of the church. The word for 'elders', presbyteroi, is the word from which we Orthodox Catholics derive our use of the word 'priest' In a later generation, St. James might have said, 'Send for the priest or the priests.'

    In the Rite of Anointing, the priests are to pray over the sick person, to anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord, and then, he says, 'the prayer of faith will save the sick and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven' (5:15). The Apostle James goes on to tell the Christians that they should confess their sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that they may be healed (16). The prayer of the righteous person, he says, is powerful and effective. He gives the example of Elijah, who, according to the First Book of Kings, prayed that there would be no rain, and for three and a half years there was no rain; and then he prayed again, and it rained, 'and the earth yielded its harvest'.

    As so often in understanding the New Testament, we have to know something of the Old Testament background to see what St. James is getting at. According to the Book of Kings (1 Kings 17:1), Ahab was one of the worst kings of Israel. He had turned from the true God to serve the Canaanite god Baal. To demonstrate the error of his ways, Elijah prophesied three and a half years of drought. During that time, Elijah went to Zarephath (1 Kings 17:8) on the coast, to the house of a widow, who had one son and was living in extreme poverty. 

    Despite her own desperate need, she received the prophet hospitably. In response, Elijah ensured that throughout the drought she did not want for the basics to feed herself and her household: meal and oil. The story in Kings goes on to tell how the widow's son was suddenly taken ill and died - which would have been a complete disaster for a dependent single woman - but Elijah lay upon him and prayed to God that he would recover. Elijah's prayer of faith saved the sick child and raised him up. This is the picture that St. James has in mind.

    There is a reference to the same story in the New Testament (Luke 4:25), just after Jesus' sermon in the synagogue at Nazareth. When Jesus told the congregation that Isaiah's prophecy about the coming of the God's reign, with its prediction of healing and liberation, was being fulfilled before their eyes, they would have none of it. Jesus then answered by saying that 'No prophet is accepted in his own hometown' and, then, that there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when there was a famine for three and a half years, but only to the widow of Zarephath was he sent.

    The point for us is that sometimes and in certain circumstances, like the widow, we may see and experience God working with extraordinary power, but there is nothing automatic about it. Lots of people - like the other widows in Israel - do not experience God working in that way. God works as God chooses. This gives us a way of approaching the text from James, because, though we may pray for healing with great faith, healing does not always come in the way that we want it to come, and sometimes does not seem to come at all.

    To understand the Apostle’s instructions about anointing, we need to understand the symbolism of oil. Anointing with oil is a symbol and sign of God's blessing. In the twenty-third psalm, the psalmist says, 'You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows' (Psalm 23: 5) and then goes on to say, 'Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever'. The whole of Psalm 23 is a wonderful meditation on what it means to be anointed and blessed by God. Psalm 133, which is even shorter, uses the picture of anointing as a picture of the blessing of unity amongst Christians: 'How very good and lovely it is when kindred live together in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron. It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion' (Psalm 133:1-3). This is exactly the point St. James makes when he tells us to confess our sins to one another: reconciliation and unity is a wonderful thing. It is itself a blessing of God, and it brings health, it brings fruitfulness, to our lives.

    What then can we expect if we are anointed, with prayer for healing, as the Church has done from the very beginning? I believe we can expect the Risen Christ to work by His Spirit as He worked in His earthly ministry. The Church has from the beginning believed that the first sort of healing we need is forgiveness of sins - and this is what Christ came to bring. The Apostle James is just as interested in the forgiveness of sins as he is in healing: we tend to think we can have one without the other.

   In the Gospel, healing of soul and of the body go together. Reconciliation with God and with one another is itself a powerful form of healing. Having said that, we can expect, with the Apostle James, that sometimes, through anointing, there will indeed be wonderful healing of the body or the mind that goes beyond anything medical science can explain. Mostly, though, the healing that comes with anointing will come in the form of forgiveness, renewal, restoration, and reconciliation. This is the spiritual healing so necessary a prerequisite for physical and emotional healing.

    Sometimes, as in the ministry of Jesus at Nazareth, there will be no evident healing at all.
It helps to look very closely at what St. James says. He says that the prayer of faith will 'save the sick' and that 'the Lord will raise them up'. Given the background of the story of Elijah, it seems clear that James' first meaning is that the Lord will restore physical health. But we have to appreciate that in Christian teaching the language of salvation applies beyond death.

    In the language of the New Testament, Jesus was 'saved' from oblivion after the crucifixion and 'raised' to the right hand of God. In the same way, the Apostle James' language of 'salvation' and of being 'raised' may apply beyond death. Yet, if we have faith and give ourselves over totally to God, then we can rightly believe that God heals and takes care of all things

    If there is no physical healing in response to our prayers this does not mean our prayers are useless. We take it in faith that they are powerful and effective, and that they play their part in sickness being transformed from something absolutely negative and destructive to something which may bring good to the sick person and to those around them. Even in continuing, debilitating sickness and in death we may experience God's 'salvation'. Indeed, thinking back to Psalm 23, it is precisely in such dark times (in 'the valley of the shadow of death') that we may find in a special way the presence of God's goodness and mercy.

    Tonight, my dear friends, be aware of God’s presence among us and His power to heal and forgive; for He alone is the Great Physician of our souls and bodies and only He can bring us true respite, consolation, and comfort.


Sunday, February 17, 2019

2018 Homily for Palm Sunday - (April 1, 2018)

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

“Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!

When we encounter Jesus and the Gospel, we immediately sense that we are dealing with something that is not of this world.  To be a Christian is not the same as being a member of an organization.  When we join an organization, we make a commitment to the goals and objectives of the organization, but we still have our own private lives that we live outside of the meetings and activities of the organization.

Christianity is essentially different.  When we embrace Jesus as the way, the truth and the life, we are faced with the reality that He encompasses our entire being.  Christianity is a way of life; a state of mind and being. It is a way of life that lifts us up; up out of the darkness of sin and despair and sets us in the presence of transfiguring and transforming light, the light which is none other than Jesus Christ Himself. 

Jesus wants to send His Spirit deep into the depths of our heart and soul. He wants to fill us with Himself that we may once again become what God initially created us to be, beings living in perfect and harmonious communion with Him. God wants us to be perfect as He is perfect. God desires this so much for us that He sent His Only-begotten Son into the world to offer Himself as the expiation for the sins of mankind.

On Palm Sunday, we come face to face with Jesus.  Thus, we come face to face with the reality of how we are to live our lives each day.  Jesus, the Savior of the world and the king of the universe was born in the humility of Bethlehem.  All throughout the Gospels, He taught his apostles and disciples the importance of humility.

His followers had already heard His piercing words: "blessed are the meek" and "blessed are the peacemakers."  But, He continued to affirm the importance of the virtue of humility when He held a child and said: "unless you become like a child, you shall not enter the Kingdom of God." 

The Apostles continued to struggle with pride and Jesus continued to teach its importance. "Anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be your slave."  

When the first Palm Sunday took place, Jesus, the king of heaven and earth, once again gave a lesson of humility.  He entered into Jerusalem riding upon a donkey. His humble entrance into Jerusalem clearly illustrates that God is humble.  God in His might, power, and majesty, is also a humble God.  He is not like the gods of the ancient Greeks and Romans.  He is not like the powerful people of yesterday and today that will do anything in order to gain prestige, power, and money. 

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once said: "A key point in which God and man differ is pride: in God, there is no pride, for He is wholly fullness and is wholly oriented to loving and giving life whereas in we human beings pride is deeply rooted and requires constant vigilance and purification. We, who are small, aspire to appear great, to be among the first, whereas God who is truly great is not afraid of humbling Himself and putting Himself last." (Angelus, September 23, 2012).

Christianity is all-encompassing. The way of life that we are called to live is essentially different from anything known to humanity before the coming of Christ and even after His coming.  For this reason, the Incarnation of the Word made flesh is the most unique event in human history.

The mysteries surrounding Holy Week offer a contrast between the humility of Jesus and the perverse pride of Caiphas, the Pharisees, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Judas and all those who cried out that He be crucified. We can see today, in America for example, what the sin of pride has done to us: the Eternal God and Creator of the universe has been replaced in the hearts and minds of many by the gods of self-love, money, sexual promiscuity, and perversion, the lust of power, etc.

The Church has lost its moral standing and influence because many of its priests and bishops have succumbed to the temptations and lures of this world and the call of the Prince of Darkness. Where Christ was once the foundation and center of American society, He has, as in days of old, been rejected and abandoned by those whom He created out of love and to be with Him throughout all eternity.

Mankind has become arrogant, cold, and indifferent to his fellow men. Children are murdered while still in their mother’s womb because they are considered inconvenient by irresponsible and selfish couples who seek only to satisfy their animal instincts and insatiable appetites for sexual pleasure and gratification. The elderly are abandoned to nursing homes and assisted care facilities because they have become a burden either to their families or to society. Physician-assisted suicide is rapidly becoming more and more accessible both here in the United States and throughout the world.

We have become overly comfortable living in a culture of death. All of this has been brought about by a false sense of pride and self-worth. We think too much of and about ourselves. We forget that no matter how much we try, perfection in its fullness can never be achieved in this life. Certainly, we can grow in perfection, but only if we live fully in God. Perfection without God is simply impossible.
The remedy for pride is the virtue of humility.  This is the solution for a world so filled with sin and corruption. The absence of humility in a person’s character leads him down a dangerous path, a path that leads away from God and toward eternal damnation.

Humility allows us to see ourselves as we truly are: flawed and sinful individuals, but individuals with great potential, created in the image and likeness of God. Humility is a virtue that sets us free, free of all the delusions we have about ourselves. Humility is the best medicine for a healthy, productive, and prosperous life.

Humility is the lesson of Palm Sunday, the Lord’s Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. As Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, He does not water down the truth of the revelation that He is the Messiah. He is true God and true Man, the Incarnate Word, the one who was to come not to condemn the world, but to save it. Jesus, even though humble, kind, compassionate and gentle, cannot deny the truth of who He is. Jesus is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. The simple and humble people of the Holy Land came out to proclaim the truth that Jesus is the Lord crying out: “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord!”

And yet, as the multitude proclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, there was already at hand a large number of people who had rejected Him.  They were already getting ready for the first Good Friday.  These were the proud who were incapable of believing that Jesus is the Lord. Just like on the first Good Friday, many today refuse to leave aside their pride and fully live the Gospel.  Only the humble can experience the loving presence of Jesus in their lives and be true witnesses of the Gospel. 

Christ came to inaugurate a new kind of kingdom, a new spiritual and eternal kingdom, fit for the new spiritual race of man that He became incarnate and suffered death to grant us. Christ is our peace. Christ is our life. Christ offers us friendship with God. He is our reconciliation. Man will never achieve peace or unity or a lasting kingdom apart from Christ God, the Prince of Peace, the One who alone gives mankind an identity grounded not in this world, which is passing away, but in His eternal Kingdom, grounded in the Truth, which is everlasting.

The message of Palm Sunday, of Christ’s Triumphal entry, is this truth: Christ is the Messiah, the Holy One, the Anointed One of God, the King of Israel, God incarnate, the Sovereign King of both Heaven and earth. He has entered into human nature as man and redeemed it as God. He has come to Jerusalem to accomplish the final life-saving acts of that redemption that will lead Him and us to the cross, the grave, and the glorious resurrection on the third day. He has come to make us whole, humble, truth-loving, children of God.

The notion that God is humble, that He would love us to such an extent that He would become incarnate, one of His own creation, while remaining God and then suffer death and burial and raise Himself from the dead, is absolutely radical: “a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.” Christ God demonstrates this humility, this love, this power in the enemies He vanquishes—Satan and his demons, sin, and death in us.

By means of repentance and obedience to Christ and the Church, we learn, step by step, to give up those vestiges of our former life, having it our way, giving into our passions, our desire to have the Gospel on our prideful and selfish terms. Instead, we follow our Lord, God, and Savior to His holy and life-giving Passion. We too take up our cross in courageous humility and self-denial, the mantel of what it means to be an Orthodox Catholic Christian—to be in the world but not of the world, to love as Christ loves and die to self. We live as inheritors and progenitors of the Faith once received and in continuity with all God’s promises fulfilled.

We do so today through repentance, by readying ourselves for salvation. We do so by participating this week in the holy services, taking their lessons to heart, and journeying with Christ as if this were the last week we have to live and so be changed: we prioritize our life with God, our life and the life of the world. We apply the truth of the revealed Gospel to our lives so that we may celebrate Holy Pascha in faith and love, advanced in our identity in Christ, so that with Christ, we too may be raised from death with Him, our King, and our God; “for if we are united to Him in likeness of His death, so shall we be united to Him by likeness of His resurrection” (Romans 6:5).

I encourage you: make Christ your priority this Holy Week. Receive Him as He comes to us by the Holy Spirit, softly, humbly, but powerfully. If you do so, the coming Holy Week will be a time of renewal, of healing, and of growth in your life, uniting you further with Him who is Life, the vanquisher of sin and death.

No one who asks this of God and makes their priority the divine services given to us by Holy Mother Church this week will go away empty. In this way, Christ’s victory over sin and death will be accomplished in us too. To that end, let us pray for that child-like faith of the children with the palms of victory, who cry out to Him on this day, “O Vanquisher of Death: Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord!”