Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Homily for the First Sunday after Pentecost

The following homily was originally written by St. Ignatius Brianchianov, a bishop of the Church of Russia, who lived from 1807 to 1867. It has been adapted for our day.


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

“Whosoever therefore shall confess Me before men, Him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny Me before men, him will I also deny before My Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 32-33). The Lord said this to His disciples who stood before Him then; the All-Seeing Lord, Who sees the distant future as the present, said it to all of His disciples, without exception, of all times and countries; the Lord said it also to you who stand here, in His holy temple, who have numbered yourselves amongst His disciples through holy Baptism. As lightening that flashes from one edge of the skies to the other without losing any of its brilliance, so has the Lord’s sentence reached to us through twenty-one centuries, proclaimed in the Gospels in all power and clarity. The Lord’s disciples are not only those who call themselves Christians in His name, not only those who took vows of service to Him—His disciples are those who truly confess Him as their Lord, confess Him as their fully empowered Master and eternal King, following His teachings as the teachings of the Lord, fulfilling His commandments as the commandment of the Lord. Their confession must be made with mind, heart, word, deed, and their entire lives. Shame, timidity, and wavering are not tolerated in this confession.

Confession requires decisive self-denial. It must be triumphant. It must be made as if in the open arena, before all mankind, before angels, saints, and fallen angels, before the gaze of earth and heaven. For we are made a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men (1 Corinthians 4:9), as the Apostle Paul says of himself and the rest of the Holy Apostles. The Apostles were not ashamed or afraid to confess the God-man Who was punished with a shameful execution, sentenced by judges ecclesiastical and civil; they were not ashamed or afraid to confess before ecclesiastical and civil judges, before the powerful and wise of the earth, before tyrants and torturers, faced with torments and execution, with violent death. The holy martyrs bore such confession to the Lord; they gave the entire space of the earth their blood to drink, proclaiming to the all the earth their holy testimony of the truth of the knowledge of God and worship of God.

Monastic saints confessed the Lord with unseen martyrdom and constant self-denial throughout the course of their lives: they served as a point of union between earth and heaven, between angels and men, belonging to heaven during their time on the earth, entering into communion with angels and their hosts while yet in their earthly habitations. The pleasers of God who labored in the world confessed the Lord by their disdain and complete disregard for worldly principles, and to these people the Gospel words could be justly applied: These are in the world, yet they are not of the world (John. 17:11, 16). Confession of the Lord joined with resolute and total denial of the world and of themselves was the sign of all the saints.

Whoever confesses the Lord during his earthly sojourn as the Lord taught, whoever proves through his own life that he precisely confesses the Lord as his Lord and God—him will the Lord confess as His disciple; He will confess His true disciples not only before the whole universe, but before God the Father. God the Son’s confession of a person before God the Father leads that person into a most intimate unity with God (cf. John 14:20).

When a person confesses God in a way that is pleasing to Him and as prescribed by Him, it is a sign that God has chosen that person. The fruit of a good human will is inclusion amongst the ranks of the chosen.

Weak, ambiguous confession is not accepted, it is refused as something unneeded, as something unworthy of God. It is not enough to confess secretly within the soul; it is necessary to confess with the lips and by words. Confession with words is not enough - it is necessary to confess with deeds and by life. The Lord said, “Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of Me and of My words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels (Mark. 8:38). He must not only confess the Lord, not only acknowledge His Divinity and sovereignty; he must confess His teaching, His commandments. His commandments are confessed by fulfilling them. Fulfilling them contrary to the generally accepted customs of human society is the confession of the Lord and His words before men. Human society is called sinful and adulterous because it has mostly inclined towards sinful life; it has betrayed and traded love of God for love of sin. The customs that reign in the world, having the weight of law higher than all laws, is contrary to, at enmity with, a life that is pleasing to God. A life that is pleasing to God is an object of hatred and mockery for the proud world. In order to escape the world’s hatred, persecution, and darts, a heart that is weak and unconfirmed in faith leans toward man-pleasing, betrays the Lord’s teachings, and excludes itself from the ranks of the chosen.

The Lord confirms His disciples in faithfulness to Him and His teachings; He confirms them with threatening words and sentences, timely pronounced. Whosoever therefore shall confess Me before men, him will I confess also before My Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny Me before men, him will I also deny before My Father which is in heaven (Mt. 10:32-33).

Dependency upon human society is not as strong as dependency upon family. It is easier to refuse to submit to the demands of society than to refuse to submit to the demands of family. Family demands are aided by the laws of nature, and when these demands are in concord with the law of God, then that very law of God aids them. The servant of Christ often finds himself perplexed by conflicting demands, not knowing which of them should be met as pleasing to God. The Lord in His foresight resolves this perplexity to complete satisfaction. He completed the above words with the following: “He that loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me: and he that loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me (Matthew 10:37). “He who prefers the will of his parents or any other relatives according to the flesh over My will, he who prefers their way of thinking and philosophy over My teaching, he who prefers to please them rather than please Me, is not worthy of Me.”

Difficulties and hindrances to confession of Christ that work against a Christian from the outside are insignificant when compared with the difficulties and hindrances that are within us. Sin which lives in the mind, heart, and body directly opposes confession of Christ, confession by fulfilling His commandments; sin stubbornly opposes this fulfillment. The most natural goodness, when damaged by sin, makes confession difficult by endeavoring to introduce and mix the confession of fallen nature into it. The confession of Christ is ruined by this mixture; it ascribes an incomplete fallenness to fallen nature, and detracts from the significance of Christ - a significance which is all-perfect, and therefore cannot tolerate such impurity. It demands firm recognition of the corruption of fallen nature.\

It is possible to draw back from human society, or from relatives; but where do you go to get away from yourself? Where can you hide from your own nature? How do you escape it? In order to be freed from slavery to fallen nature, the Lord commands us to crucify our nature; that is, to deny its reason and will, to nail the mind’s activity and the heart’s attractions to the commandments of the Gospels. Thus, they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts (Galatians 5:24): they have crucified their carnal mind and their fallen nature’s will, upon which the soul’s and body’s sinful attractions, and sinful life, are founded and built. Thus was the world crucified to the Apostle and the Apostle to the world (Galatians 6:14).

The holy prophet David prayed to God to be granted the strength and ability to so crucify himself: “Nail down my flesh with the fear of Thee (Psalm 118:12); that is, my carnal mind and my will, so that they would remain immobilized! Establish for Thy servant Thine oracle unto fear of Thee (Psalm 118:38), so that I might be steadily guided in my seen and unseen activity by Thy word.”

He who mortifies his fallen nature with the sword of Christ’s teaching - whosoever shall lose his life for My sake and the Gospel’s”, says the Lord, “the same shall save it (Mark 8:35; Matthew 10:39). On the contrary, whoever acts according to the reasoning and attractions of his fallen nature, mistakenly accepting them as good – “He that finds his life shall lose it. And he that takes not his cross, who does not take the yoke of My commandments upon himself, and follows not after Me, in self-denial, but follows his own self, is not worthy of Me.” (Matthew 10:38–39).

The Holy Church, intending to explain most satisfactorily the fate of God’s chosen ones in both time and eternity, has determined that after hearing the terrible, impartial, and resolute sentence from the mouth of God, we should read today the Lord’s answer to the Apostle Peter’s question: “Then answered Peter and said unto him, ‘Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?’” (Matthew 19:27). The Lord promised great honor to the twelve Apostles. As the God-man is the only eternal King of Israel, that is, of all Christians, the spiritual Israel - which must consist of all nations of the earth and finally inhabit the promised land, heaven - it is natural that the God-man’s Apostles, through whom all the nations came to submit to Him, should be made the leaders and judges of this new Israel, this eternal, heavenly nation. Having informed the Apostles of their significance in the state of human eternity (Matthew 19:28), the Lord adds, “And every one that has forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, (Matthew 19:29) for My sake, and the Gospel’s … shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:29–30; cf. Mt. 19:29).

Persecution is what earthly life is called. It is persecution because humans were cast down to the earth and subjected to a sojourn of suffering upon it for transgressing God’s commandments? It is a place and time of persecution for the followers of Christ, because the prince of this world reigns here, the reign of sin is most widespread here, sin being the enemy of Christ’s followers, cruelly persecuting and oppressing them without interruption. They are subjected to the many different torments of sin both within them and from the outside. The fallen spirits who thirst for their destruction, work against them with frenzied hatred and incredible craftiness; working against them also are the majority of people, who have willingly enslaved themselves to the fallen spirits, and who serve them as blind, unhappy instruments; working against them also are their own passions and weaknesses.

The followers of Christ receive even in this temporary exile a hundred fold more than what they have forsaken for Christ’s sake and for the sake of His commandments. They tangibly receive the grace of the All-Holy Spirit. Before Divine grace brings consolation, all the joys and consolations of the world are destroyed; before spiritual riches, before spiritual glory, all the riches and glory of the world are destroyed; in the eyes of the saints, sinful and fleshly pleasures are disgusting filth, filled with deathly bitterness; the state of the rich and glorious of the world is like a whited sepulcher that is shiny on the outside, but inside full of stink and decay - those qualities inseparable from every corpse. A soul corrupted by eternal death - alienation from Christ - can be justly called a corpse.

All earthly good things and advantages abandon a person and remain on the earth, when, according to the inescapable and inexorable law of death, he leaves the earth and settles irrevocably into eternity. Divine grace, however, follows a different rule: it accompanies to regions beyond the grave that person who acquired it here. As soon as he casts his body, like chains, away from himself, the grace that was hitherto bound by flesh extends itself broadly and magnificently. It serves as a pledge and testimony for the chosen one of God. When he appears before the judgment that awaits every human being after death, and presents his testimony and pledge, grace fittingly brings him spiritual, eternal, indescribable, and boundless riches, splendor, and delight in heaven as the logical outcome. In the world to come (Mark 10:30) he shall inherit everlasting life (Matthew 19:29), said the Lord - life so superabundant and refined, that fleshly man, who bases his thoughts about the unknown upon his knowledge of the known, cannot construct any understanding of it. May we also be vouchsafed, for precise confession of the Lord, to inherit this life prepared for all of us by the unfathomable, boundless mercy of the Lord, Who has redeemed us through Himself.

Amen.


Sunday, June 19, 2016

Homily for Pentecost

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

The Feast of Pentecost, which we celebrate today, recalls the day on which the Holy Spirit of God descended upon the Apostles, fired them up and sent them into the world on the universal mission of the Church. The choice of this festival for this particular demonstration of God’s power is by no means an accident. Pentecost is simply the Greek name for the ancient Jewish Feast of Weeks or Shavuot. This celebration comes fifty days after Passover and recalls the gift of the Law by God on Mount Sinai to Moses. Passover is the day when the Hebrew people were freed from tyranny and slavery in Egypt and the Angel of Death and begin their journey to the Promised Land. The giving of the law is the day they sign up as the People of God and begin that sacred task of bringing the knowledge of the one true God to the world.

So it is by no accident that Jesus Christ is sacrificed at Passover. The Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, is offered on Calvary to turn away the Angel of Death and launch all who are in His Body on their journey to the Promised Land. The Feast of Pentecost, the fifty days after Pascha, sees the gift not of the law but of no less than the Holy Spirit of God Who, the prophets have foretold, will one day write the law of God on the hearts of the faithful.

The Holy Spirit is the mark of the faithful and is God’s sign of claiming them all for His own and sending them into the world to proclaim the one true God and the way of Salvation. In the Gospel of St. Luke, we are given a vivid description of the events of the day. But there is a little peculiarity which, in English, goes unnoticed. The English text says that they were all together. The Greek text tells us that they were all together – together. This is to emphasize that, not only were all the members of the Apostolic college in the same physical location but they were, as one of the older translations has it, ‘of one accord,’ meaning that they were all of one mind and one heart. They were also, all of them individually and as a unified body, waiting on God. This is a prerequisite of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the evangelical work of the Church: Together – Together.

In that upper room on that Day of Pentecost so many centuries ago the four elements of created order come together. The little houses of clay, created by God from the dust of the earth, washed in the waters of the baptism of repentance, are suddenly infused with the breath of God, the unseen mover, the mighty rushing wind of the Spirit, the Life-giver and Consoler, the Spirit of True and the Fire of Love. All who are present, together-together, are then crowned by the energizing, purifying and sanctifying fire of God’s love and power.

Our celebration of Pentecost today looks back to the original marking out of God’s people and then forward to the mission of the Universal Church. The Law that leads the faithful in the way of God now becomes fully infused by the Holy Spirit within the soul of man by the mystery of the sacramental life of the Church.

Exactly what kind of change takes place in each of us when we freely receive the Holy Spirit is best described by St. Basil the Great. He writes, “Souls in whom the Spirit shines become spiritual themselves and a source of grace for others. The Spirit gives us the foreknowledge of the future, understanding of the mysteries of faith, and insight into the hidden meaning of Scripture. Through the Spirit, we become citizens of Heaven, we enter eternal happiness, we abide in God.”

This is the promise held out to us in the Holy Mysteries or Sacraments of the Church. In Baptism, we are washed clean of sin and made the sons and daughters of God. In Chrismation or confirmation, we receive and are sealed with the gift and grace of the Holy Spirit. In the Eucharist, we receive the Body and Blood of Christ, thus becoming part of the Body of Christ. This is the same Christ who suffered and died, and Who is risen, ascended and glorified. This is the Christ, Jesus, Who is both God and Man and whose divinity translates our humanity into eternity. So, St. Basil concludes that, since we are in the God-Man Christ Who is present to us in the Holy Mysteries by the Holy Spirit, the divine life of God: ‘Through the Spirit we acquire a likeness of God.’ Thus, we become like Jesus. That is the meaning of “Christening.” St. Basil then concludes with the stunning sentence: “Through the Spirit we attain what is beyond our most sublime aspirations – we become God.”

This is what is working within us at the Divine Liturgy. It is what St. Athanasius describes as ‘the divinization of Man,’ it is the key to living in eternity in the All Holy Presence of the Father. Only as sons and daughters, purified by the fire of the Holy Spirit, can we be in Christ and share in His life that is both divine and eternal. That message is the Gospel of hope that the Church holds out to all mankind.

The road to eternity begins with the spiritual fire of Pentecost and leads, via the sacramental life faithfully and fully lived, to Heaven. Our task is, like the Apostles on fire with the love of God, is to pour into the streets of our towns and cities and to speak to all who will listen, in language that they understand, ‘the might works of God’ and invite them on this journey into the heart of God.

In the dramatic events of that first Pentecost, when the bewildered and excited disciples poured into the streets, they had one purpose in mind: to let the Word go forth. And it did! The Word went forth from Jerusalem to Judea, and on to Corinth and Ephesus and Rome and Africa and Asia Minor and Spain and Gaul and even, eventually, to America.

What began with a few frightened people in a darkened room in Jerusalem has spilled out and touched every corner of the globe. You will find the Word preached in every language, just as on that very first Pentecost, and understood in billions of hearts for more than 21 centuries. And it all began on this day we celebrate: Pentecost, the birthday of the Church.

As true as it is that today is the birthday of the Church, I like to think of it more as the Epiphany or manifestation of the Church. I say this because, in reality, the Church was actually established when Christ hung on the Cross. Our tradition tells us that the Church was born with the death of Christ. Pentecost, in its proper sense, represents the Church coming to its fullness, and that is what is what is very important to us today, as we celebrate the Feast today.

The essence of today’s celebration is that Jesus and the Father have fulfilled their promise to us, that they would not leave us orphans, that they would send the Holy Spirit to empower us, to enliven us, to guide us to the truth, and today is the day that happens. Today, we celebrate the life-changing gift, the gift of the Holy Spirit.

After Jesus ascended into heaven, the disciples felt like orphans, abandoned and confused. More than that, they were afraid, afraid of many things, but particularly of the Jewish authorities. So they were hiding behind locked doors. That was their comfort zone, their sense of safety and security. Within the room where they sat and talked together, they felt safe and supported and protected. But what they were doing was, in fact, in completely opposite to what Jesus had entrusted, even commanded, them to do, which was to go out to all the world and proclaim the good news. We can understand their worries and anxieties, and their fears.

We might call it cowardice, but for the disciples in the upper room, they felt safe. We all know what it means to be in our comfort zone. But Jesus appeared to them there, in their comfort zone, and his first message was ‘peace.’ After that, He imparted unto them, His gift; the gift of the Holy Spirit.

When Jesus came into the midst of His apostles and disciples, he greets them with the words, “Peace be with you!” It was necessary for Jesus to say this because their peace was disturbed in many ways. There peace with God was troubled; they had sinned against Him, some by denying Him, others by running away.

To put them at ease, Jesus offers them the peace of reconciliation with God. The same peace we receive in the Holy Mysteries. The peace that Jesus gives is not the absence of trouble but rather the confidence that He is here with us always.

The peace of the Apostles and disciples was disturbed because they were depressed and hesitant in their faith. And to this He says, “Peace be with you.” Jesus meant this desire for peace to put them at ease, to reassure them and to lift the doubt and fear from their hearts. He speaks these words to each of us constantly during every Divine Liturgy and worship service of the Church.

When the Holy Spirit descended upon them, they were filled with love and truth, and began to speak in foreign languages. So here is the moment of epiphany, the manifestation of the Church, and the manifestation of Her mission to all people. The gift of the Holy Spirit transforms them, right then and there, from being cowards, to being courageous. We know what happened from there. They all went out proclaiming the message of the Gospel, to all people in their own languages according to the inklings of the Holy Spirit.

The same Holy Spirit is dwelling within each one of us today, empowering us to get out of our comfort zones and to proclaim the message of peace to all people. It is hard work, but it is only burdensome if we are weak in faith and belief.

God wants to channel within us His grace. He wishes to make us instruments of His peace. This is God’s work; we are just His instruments and workers. There are many ways we can preach the message of peace. We do not have to go to other countries or remote places to preach the Gospel. There are plenty of opportunities, right here in the community in which we live to spread the Word.

We are a people sent forth. When we go out of this church today, just give a genuine smile to the stranger you meet on the street. Give a call to someone you have not spoken to in a while. Invite someone who is alone and without family to have dinner with you. Volunteer some of your time to work at your local animal shelter. Plant some flowers and trees to renew the creation God has entrusted to our care.

On this particular Sunday, five words sum up the meaning the Feast we celebrate today: “Let the Word go forth!” And we are the ones entrusted with this most noble task. We need now, more than ever, to keep spreading the Word and to remind ourselves of the rugged beginnings of this rugged faith we profess and to carry it on and live it fully, just as the first Christians did.

We need, quite simply, to throw open the windows of our fear and doubt and uncertainty to let in the Light and let the Word go forth. It is a daunting task, but it is not one that we undertake alone. We have the Holy Spirit, and we have each other. We have the Spirit to keep the flame of faith and zeal alive with His seven-fold gifts: the gifts of wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. We have the Spirit to uplift us when we are struggling and discouraged, to strengthen us when we are weak, to console us when we are grieving, to reassure us when we are frightened. So you see, we are not in this alone.

St. John, in his Gospel, tells us: “The Spirit of truth will guide you to all truth.” The Holy Spirit is our guide, and more than that, our role model. In his Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul calls us to “live in the Spirit.” And he then reminds us what beautiful fruits that kind of living offers: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

When you consider all that, you realize what living in the Spirit really means: it is, in fact, living in Christ, and by extension living not only in Christ, but in His Father as well. The early Christians had a name for that: “the Way.” This is our way. This is the Orthodox Catholic way of life. You find it today in some very surprising places. You find it lived out in the hospitality and care offered by Mercy House to the residents of Alphabet City in Lower Manhattan. You will find it in Phoenix, Arizona where FOCUS North America provides meals, supplies and medical care to over 200 children a day. You will find it in Orlando, Florida during the annual Christmas party for the homeless provided by St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church. And you will find it here in our own Cathedral community, where dozens of dedicated and loving parishioners joyfully serve the most needy and vulnerable of God’s children living in the Mohawk Valley.

Yes, you find it in churches from Utica to Uganda, where faithful men, women and children offer their prayers to God, asking for healing, or reconciliation, or peace and roll up their sleeves to serve those of their brothers and sisters who are in need or suffering. You find it anywhere a Christian strives to hold the hand of someone who is hurting, bring comfort to someone who is lonely, or restore faith to someone who has lost it. We keep the flame of Pentecost alive and burning and follow “the Way” when our greatest ambition is simply to be like Christ.

As Christians, we should not ask what God can do for us but what we can do for God. Our ancestors in the early Church understood this. They knew that they existed to serve God and be like Him. We are the beneficiaries of their knowledge, and of their witness, which was sometimes manifested in blood. All of us who gather to pray and remember and rejoice on this Pentecost are heirs of that first Pentecost. Those first Christians cleared the path and often died trying, so that we could walk in their footsteps, so that we could walk “The Way” today.

So today, dare to ask the questions: Where will our footsteps take us? Who will be the beneficiaries of our choices? Who will carry the flame, the torch of faith, as it is passed? It is up to each of us to ensure that there are positive answers to each of those questions. This Pentecost, let us ask the Holy Spirit to touch and inflame all of our hearts, as He touched and fills the hearts of the disciples on the first Pentecost. Just as Jesus gave His first disciples the gift of the Holy Spirit, so he breathes on us the same Holy Spirit who equips us with power, grace, and strength.

As we continue our celebration today, let us pray, “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Your faithful and kindle in them the fire of Your love, and renew the face of the earth.” Let the fire burn over you, so the flame of love and truth will spread like wildfire. This Pentecost, go ahead. Strike a match. Set the world ablaze and let the Word go forth.


Amen.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Homily for the Commemoration of the Dead

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

Today we are celebrating one of the most fundamental and most consoling truths of Orthodox Catholicism: that death is not the end of life, but the beginning of eternal life. Holy Tradition testifies that, from the earliest days of the Church, Christians have prayed for the dead. The days of commemoration varied although, over time, the Church fixed certain days so that for example, on Saturdays during Great Lent, which we call Souls Saturday, we commemorate the dead. In similar fashion, we gather together on the Saturday before Pentecost, as we do today, to commemorate and remember the dead.

In our Italo-Greek tradition, on this day, and also on the Feast of All Souls, which is observed on November 2nd, after the Divine Liturgy and Memorial Service which follows, the faithful visit the cemeteries where their loved ones are buried. Afterwards, they gather with other family members and share a meal and memories of those who have died. These days are not sad occasions, but ones of prayer and remembrance and hope.

In the Office of the Parting of the Soul from the Body, which is read when death is imminent, we hear the words: “Go forth from this world, O Christian soul, in the name of God the Almighty Father Who created you, in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, who suffered and died for you, in the name of the Holy Spirit, Who was poured out upon you. Yes, go forth, O faithful Christian! May you live in peace this day and may your home be with God in Zion, with Mary the Ever-Virgin Mother of God, with St. Joseph, her most chaste spouse, with all the angels, and with Sts. Peter and Paul and all the apostles, martyrs and saints. May you return to your Creator who formed you from the dust of the earth, and may the most holy Theotokos, together with the whole host and court of heaven come to meet you as you go forth from this life; may you see your Redeemer and Savior face to face and live with Him in eternal happiness and joy.”

In this prayer we commend our loved ones to the care of Almighty God and start them on their journey to meet the Lord. It is also the time when we begin praying unceasing for them, that God will have mercy and compassion on them and be merciful to them in judgment. It is the constant teaching of the Church since Apostolic times that the departed can be helped by our prayers, offerings and good deeds. Our great Father among the Saints, St. John Chrysostom, in speaking of the faithful departed, reminded his people:  “Let us assist them according to our power. Let us think of some advantage for them, small though it be, but let us assist them. How and in what way? By praying for them, by asking others to pray for them, and by constantly giving alms to the poor in their behalf!” (Homily on Philippians 3, 4).

It is of great consolation for us, the surviving relatives and friends of our faithful departed, to be able to help them and thus remain united to them by a bond of everlasting love. St. Ambrose of Milan, preaching at the commemoration of Emperor Theodosius on the fortieth day after his death in 395, consoled those in attendance at the memorial service with these words, “I love the man and I will not abandon him until, by my tears and prayers, I shall lead him into the Holy Mountain of God (Psalm 2:6), where there is life eternal!” (Funeral Oration on Theodosius, 37).

The custom of offering prayers and sacrifices for the departed comes to us from the Old Testament. Holy Scripture praises the custom as holy and wholesome or pious, as it is written in the Second Book of Maccabees, Chapter 12, Verse 45: “it is, therefore, a holy and wholesome thing to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from sins.”

In the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, the commemoration of the dead is considered as one of the main works of mercy. St. Paul prayed for his devoted friend Onesiphorus, that the Lord “grant him mercy” as he stands before God’s judgment seat. ( 2 Timothy 1:18).

All the early Liturgies of the Church, including the most ancient one, the Liturgy of St. James, contain a prayer for the for the departed. In the Divine Liturgies of St. Peter the Apostle, St. John Chrysostom and St. Basil the Great are also included. St. John Chrysostom interprets this in these words: “Not in vain did the Apostles order that remembrance should be made of the dead in the awesome Mysteries (i.e., the Liturgy). They knew that great gain resulted to them (the deceased), and great benefit. For when the whole assembly of the people stands with uplifted hands and that awesome Sacrifice lies displayed, how shall we not prevail with God by our entreaty for them? And this we do for those who have departed in faith!” (Homily on Philippians 3,4).

The Apostolic Constitutions, written in the 4th century, prescribed that during the Divine Liturgy, the deacon should remind the faithful to pray for the deceased, saying: “Let us pray for our brothers and sisters who have fallen asleep in Christ, that God, the Lover of mankind, Who has received their souls, may forgive them every voluntary and involuntary sin, and may be merciful and gracious to them, placing them in the land of righteousness, where there is no pain, sorrow or lamentation.” (Apostolic Constitutions, VIII, 41).

In the Byzantine Church, we commemorate the deceased every day at the Divine Liturgy immediately after the Consecration of the Holy Gifts with the petition: “Remember, O Lord, all those who have departed this life in the hope of resurrection unto life eternal, N.N., and grant them rest where the light of Your face sines upon them.” (Liturgies of St. Peter the Apostle and of St. John Chrysostom).

In the liturgical calendar of the Italo-Greek Orthodox Church, Saturdays are dedicated, in a special way, to prayer for the deceased. Following St. John Damascene, the Synaxarion supplies us with the following instruction: “The Sabbath (Saturday) in Hebrew means rest, since on that day God rested from His work. (Genesis 2:2-3). We make a remembrance of the deceased on that ‘day of rest’ for they are ‘resting’ from all their earthly cares.”

When commemorating our departed, we constantly implore God to give them eternal rest since, according to the Scriptures, to enter into God’s rest means to join Him in an eternal life of happiness. (Hebrews 4:3-11; Revelation 14:13). St. Ambrose explains this by saying: “it is a great rest which fulfills the prayer of the living, a most glorious promise.” (Oration on Theodosius, 37).

In the Italo-Greek Church, as in all Byzantine Churches, on the Saturday before Pentecost we commemorate “all the departed souls since Adam.” By the Descent of the Holy Spirit, commemorated on Pentecost Sunday, the economy of our salvation was completed. Since the will of God is that “all men be saved” (I Timothy 2:4), therefore the day preceding the Feast of Pentecost is set aside as a day of prayer for all the deceased so that they be included in the salutary work of Christ.

From the beginning of Christianity, local Churches kept registers of their living members as well as those who departed. These registers were wooden tablets made of wood, ivory, or precious metals artistically decorated with carvings and bound together by rings. They are known as “diptychs,” taken from the Greek word “diptychon,” which means “anything folded in two”. These were used in Church to commemorate the living and the dead at the Divine Liturgy since the fourth century.

In the Byzantine Church, these dyptichs played an important role since the names of heretics and the excommunicated were removed from them and, by the same token, these were excluded from the liturgical prayers. They came into disuse sometime during the fourteenth century and, eventually, they were replaced by official lists of the deceased members of individual families issued by the pastor of a parish. These were called “grammata,” meaning a written letter or document. The list of deceased members of a family, made in booklet form in our Italo-Greek tradition, are called “piccolo libro ricordo” or “little remembrance book” and are used to commemorate the deceased at the Liturgy of Prothesis (Preparation) at the Divine Liturgy and the memorial services on the Souls Saturdays during Great Lent, as well as at the memorial service conducted on the Saturday before Pentecost.

The custom of announcing the names of the deceased during the liturgical services can be traced back to the first centuries of Christianity. Already in the fourth century, the practice was strongly defended by St. Epiphanius as a “firmly established tradition” in the Church. In his Panarios,, he writes: Concerning the ritual of reading the names of the deceased, what can be more useful or suitable; what can be more worthy of admiration?” (Panarios 75, 8).

This venerable custom was transmitted to us by our ancestors as a part of our beautiful spiritual heritage. Every year, twice a year, families in our Church give the lists of their departed loves ones to their priest with the request that they be mentioned at the services held for the deceased on the Souls Saturdays of Great Lent. These lists are kept in a special small hand-carved wooden reliquary that is kept on the Altar next to the tabernacle. On Holy Saturday, this reliquary is placed near the tomb of Our Lord.

The lists given for today’s commemoration of the faithful departed are on the Altar of Prothesis in the reliquary and will be carried in Great Entrance, after which they will be placed next to the tabernacle, where they will remain until the memorial service which will be held after this morning’s Divine Liturgy. St. John Chrysostom assures us that: “It is a great honor to be worthy of mention, while the celebration of the Holy Mysteries is going on.” (Homily on the Acts 21, 4).

As you know, I have always encouraged everyone, especially all families who have lost loved ones, to attend all the prescribed memorial services on the Souls Saturdays of Great Lent and that of today because by your and their presence and personal prayers and by receiving Holy Communion, you strengthen the bond of love with those who have gone before us and indeed keep their memories everlasting and eternal.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus, after celebrating the funeral services for his brother Caesarius, concluded his eulogy with the following words: “Part of my funeral gift is now completed. The remainder we will pay by offering ever year, as long as we live, our honors and memorials for him!” (Oration VII, 17). We also should emulate St. Gregory by remembering our departed loved ones, especially on days such as today, as long as we live, and point out to those coming after us the wholesomeness of this beautiful and praiseworthy custom of praying for and remembering our departed loved ones.

In the burial service according to the Byzantine rite, the Church places the following words on the lips of the deceased, as we sing the hymns prescribed in bidding our departed loved one our final farewell: “Come, all you that love me and bid me farewell, for I shall no longer walk with you nor talk with you, since I am going to my Judge, Who shows no favors and rewards or punishes everyone according to his deeds. Therefore, I beg and implore all of you, pray for me continually to Christ our God that, on account of my sins, I may not be doomed into the place of affliction, but rather be granted a place where the light of life is shining!”

As is our custom, we will celebrate a memorial service for all of our faithful departed immediately after the Divine Liturgy. In addition to remembering our own loved ones, we will also be remembering today the forty-nine people who were killed in last Sunday’s terrorist attack in Orlando, Florida. As you know, it has been our custom since 9/11 to do this. Let us pray, beloved, that peace and harmony, tolerance and understanding will finally come to the human family and that these kinds of tragedies will disappear from among us forever.

May the memory of all those who have died be an everlasting remembrance.

Amen.



Sunday, June 12, 2016

Homily for the Seventh Sunday of Pascha

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

Our Gospel reading for this morning comes from Jesus’ priestly prayer which He prayed the night before His death on the Cross. He addressed His Father in heaven asking that the disciples might remain faithful to the world which He had given them, that they might remain faithful to the Father, and that they might remain together as a group, or fellowship of believers.

In the 5th century A.D., St. Clement, the Bishop of Alexandria, said that in this prayer, Jesus was acting like a high priest for His people. It is for this reason that this prayer is named the Great Priestly Prayer of Christ, because Jesus was praying on behalf of the disciples to His Father in heaven the same way a priest in the Old Testament would offer intercession on behalf of the nation of Israel and in the way our priests today offer their prayers on behalf of the people of God in the Church. So, this is not a lesson or sermon that Jesus is giving; it is not a time for the Apostles to be interrupting to ask questions as they had done so many times before, but a time to listen and learn.

This is one of the few times when Jesus, in prayer, purposely made His prayer to be heard by those around Him, namely His Apostles. Most of the time when He prayed, Jesus prayed privately, going off by Himself. But this time, Our Lord intended His prayer to be heard by others. Later, on this same evening, Jesus will pray again in the Garden of Gethsemane. There, He will invite only three of the Apostles to ‘remain with Me and watch.’ But here, during the Last Supper, they are all present to hear the only prayer of Jesus recorded in such detail in all the Gospels. And through the inspired record that St. John has left us, so are we.

In the Old Testament, there were three holy offices instituted by God: Prophets, Priests and Kings. No one assumed these offices on their own. Only those called by God and properly appointed by the anointing of the Holy Spirit entered into these offices. Although Jesus is the perfect fulfillment of all three of these offices, it is the office of Priest that occupies our attention here.

The work of the priest was to mediate for man to God. Priests carried out their work at the Temple where they would take the sacrifices that the people would bring and present them to God on behalf of the people. There were “thank offerings” and “memorial offerings” that were given. But mostly, there were “sin offerings” that were made.  The priest was called a “servant of God” who would take the animal from the one making the offering in atonement for their sins, present it to the Lord, and sacrifice it. This was the work of the Old Testament priests.

In addition to the priests of the Temple there was also a High Priest. The High Priest did not mediate for a man or woman and their family before God. Rather, He mediated for the whole nation of Israel collectively. The High Priest would carry out one very special offering to the Lord. Every year, on the Day of Atonement, no one entered the Temple except the High Priest. He alone would take one animal, a lamb, into the Temple on behalf of the whole nation and sacrifice it at the altar. And then, the High Priest would take the blood of that lamb behind the curtain, into the Holy of Holies, and pour it right onto the Ark of the Covenant, where God Himself was located. And in this way, the High Priest would atone for the sins of the whole nation by one sacrifice, “once for all.”

So, it should not be too hard for us to see why Jesus Christ is our Great High Priest. He is the great Mediator between man and God. He offers one sacrifice for the sins of the whole world to God, a sacrifice far more significant than any of the sacrifices ever made by any of the High Priests of Israel. Jesus offers Himself, for He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. He is the “Paschal Lamb,” the Passover Lamb.

Now, in the Upper Room, just before He gives His Body over to be sacrificed and His blood to be shed, Jesus prays. Here we see our Great High Priest interceding for His disciples, and for all who will believe through their word. Christ prays for us too. We heard this Great Priestly Prayer of Christ in its entirety during the Passion Service on Holy and Good Friday. It is the most profound and beautiful prayer ever uttered. I encourage you all to go home today and read this prayer again. If you have a family, gather them together and read the prayer, which you can find in the Gospel of St. John, before your meal today. You will find it in seventeenth chapter of the Gospel of St. John, verses 1-26.

In the prayer, Jesus prays first for Himself: “Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son that the Son may glorify You, since You have given Him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all You have given Him.”

Several times throughout the Gospels, we heard that Jesus’ hour had not yet come. The first episode in John’s Gospel takes place at the wedding in Cana. Jesus’ mother tells Him to do something about the lack of wine. Jesus replied, “My hour has not yet come.” When the religious leaders try to seize Jesus and even stone Him, they were not able to because “His time had not yet come.”

Now Jesus says, ‘The hour has come.” The great hour to which the eternal clock had been set was the hour when the Son of God would be crucified on the cross. And Jesus prays to the Father that He would be a worthy High Priest. “Father, the hour has come, glorify Your Son.”

To “glorify” means to give honor and dignity and respect that can be seen by others. To “glorify” is more of a public action, not a mere private one. Jesus is asking to be glorified so that His glory may be seen by others. And in seeing His glory, they will worship Him. And in worshipping Him, they will worship the One who sent Him.

So as the disciples listen to Jesus’ prayer and hear Him pray, “Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son that the Son may glorify You,” what do you think they were thinking? That the time had finally arrived for Jesus to do what they had hoped all along He would do? That the hour had come for Him to break the teeth of those who caused Him so much trouble? That the hour had come for Him to finally organize a revolution to overthrow the government and clean up the corruption in the Temple? Or that the hour had come for Him to call down a legion of angels from heaven to fight for Him and establish His earthly Kingdom? Probably they were thinking all of these things. It is not secret that many of the Apostles and disciples were looking for Jesus to free them from the tyrannical yoke of Roman rule. But that is not why Jesus came into the world. Oh, He did come to free the people from bondage, but from the bondage of sin, from the bondage of their own egos, pride and sinfulness.

And how do we think of glory and being glorified? Do we not think of glory and our own glorification in terms of power, success, and prosperity?  When we pray, how many of us say to the effect, “Glorify me, Father, with good looks and successful career and a fancy car and a lot of money so that others will show me the honor, dignity and respect that I deserve. And I will glorify You by being humble and meek about it all and saying that it all came from You.” This is the way we pray that God would glorify us, is it not? We are not interested in or concerned with glorifying God but only glorifying ourselves and acquiring as much glory for ourselves as we possibly can.

But Jesus is about to be arrested, bound and falsely accused and in this, God will glorify Him. He will be “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces” (Isaiah 53:3) and in this, God will glorify Him. Crucified, died and buried, and in this, God the Father will glorify His Son.

God’s ways are not our ways are they? His thoughts are not our thoughts either. We pray that God would profit a man so that he gains the whole world. But God says, “What will profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?” (Matthew 16:26). But what if that same man were to lose everything: goods, fame, honor, spouse and home, and wind up in a homeless shelter, and through this, he comes to repentance and faith and dies and goes to heaven? Then he is glorified and God is glorified in him and all of heaven rejoices. But who prays for this? How many of us pray for enlightenment, for repentance, for a change of heart, for a change in the way we think and act?

God’s ways are not our ways. Jesus is glorified in His terrible suffering and death. This is what the Father sent the Son into the world to do. His perfect and willing obedience to do the Father’s will glorifies the Father. “I glorified you on earth having accomplished the work that You gave Me to do. Now, Father, glorify Me in Your own presence with the glory I had with You before the world existed.”

We know how the story turns out. Jesus suffered and died and God raised Him from the dead and, in this, the Son is glorified. Seated at the right hand of the Father, and given the “name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phillipians 2:9), Jesus has been glorified. You see, my dear children, glory comes from suffering, struggle and tribulation. Our lives are transformed by suffering and difficulties. That is not to say that we should go out and look for difficulties and problems. But when they do come our way, we should meet them and accept them with great grace, dignity and faith. If our faith is strong and firm, we shall be able to drink the bitter cup of suffering and adversity with same courage Our Lord did on Good Friday.

We cannot help but notice however that in all of this, Jesus is no further ahead than He had always been. This is not a glory that is bestowed on the Son that He did not previously have. This is the glory that He had with the Father before the world existed. Jesus set aside the glory that was rightfully His for a time. Now, the hour has come for His glory to be resumed. So, there was a bigger purpose behind all of this.

Clearly, the Father sent the Son into the world to suffer and die, and the Son came into the world and accomplished the Father’s will not for the sake of His own glory or for the Father’s glory. He did this for our sake, so that we may see His glory and worship Him.

Jesus prays for us. “I have made known Your name to the people whom You gave me out of the world. Yours they were and You gave them to Me, and they have kept Your word. Now they know everything that You have given Me is from You. For I have given them the words that You gave Me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from You; and they have believed that You have sent Me. I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom You have given Me, for they are Yours. All mine are Yours and Yours are mine, and I am glorified in them.”

The Father and the Son are in such perfect unity that the Father gives His Word to the Son so that the Son may speak His Word to men and by His Word, bring them to the knowledge of God. And the Son speaks the Father’s Word to all whom the Father has given Him, and they hear the Word and receive it, and the Son gives to those who were at one time estranged and dead in their sins, back to the Father, alive and as the children of God.

So, what is this that Jesus prays for His disciples and for you and me who believe through their word? This is nothing less than eternal life. “That you know God, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom He has sent.” This is the prayer that our Great High Priest prays for you and for me.

That our attention is being directed to these holy words the week before Pentecost is significant and poignant. Having heard His prayer, we anticipate with joy the coming of the Holy Spirit, Who proceeds from the Father, Who reminds us of Jesus, Who gives us the knowledge of the only true God, which is love and eternal life.

What shall we say to this? What else can we say but “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.

Amen.


Thursday, June 9, 2016

Homily for the Feast of the Ascension

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

The Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord into heaven has always observed in the Church as a holy day of obligation. One may wonder why Holy Mother Church places so much emphasis on the Ascension of Christ since He has died and conquered death with His Resurrection. Does this feast have much significance for us? Sometimes I wonder. If one were to gauge importance and significance of feasts such as the Ascension by attendance at Vigil or Divine Liturgy, one would have to say there is not much significance for the average believer. But church attendance and zeal for the faith are subject matter for a homily at another time.

The ascension of Christ certainly gives more value to our Christian faith. This is because the Ascension is a celebration of hope and reassurance, not just for the first Apostles but for the entire Church. It gives us the hope and reassurance that Christ has not only conquered death but has opened the gates of heaven for us so that, being the first born from the dead, all those who die in Him will gain direct entrance into heaven, if they have lived righteous and holy lives in accordance with His teachings and the laws of God.

I am sure a lot of people wonder why Christ has to physically ascend into heaven since He did not descend from heaven physically. The reason is that His physical ascension was to prove the fact that His glorified body was actually taken up to heaven with the fullness of His humanity. Thus, in the Ascension, we see the hypostatic union, the union of the human and divine natures of Christ, being manifested to the world. The Ascension is a confirmation that at the completion of our earthly pilgrimage, we shall also be united body and soul and ascend into heaven to be with our Lord and Master. The Ascension also symbolizes Christ’s physical absence in the world.

Ever since Christ physically ascended into heaven, there has been the temptation to deny His presence on earth. We have seen this happen time and time and time again throughout the centuries, with millions upon millions of people denying Christ, His teachings and His instructions. At no other time since the Ascension has this been more evident than in the times in which we now live. Growing numbers of people everywhere seem to be denying Christ and of those who do not, they seem to be trying to reimagine Him in their own image and likeness. Instead of embracing the truths which Christ has defined and instructed us in, they are intent on reinterpreting and redefining those truths in light of their own flawed reasoning and to suit their own narcissistic behavior.

Even though Christ has ascended into heaven to sit in glory at the right hand of the Father, he is not entirely absent from us. Christ is still present in and through the Church. In the Gospel of St. Matthew, Our Lord promised us that He would be with us until the end of time. Each time we celebrate the Word and the Holy Mysteries, especially the Eucharist, we encounter Christ in a very personal and intimate way. And of course He is still present in our fellow men. Certainly Christ is still in our midst! He has remained faithful to His promise to us and will continue to do so despite our stubbornness, pride and even our disbelief.

At His Ascension, Christ assumed the role of mediator, a facilitator and a judge. He is sitting at the right hand of God the Father to intercede for those He has redeemed, and that is why the Father grants whatever is asked in His name. As a facilitator, He has gone to make the promise of the Father come true – the descent of the Holy Spirit. He has gone to prepare a place for us in the “many mansions in His Father’s house” (John 14:3) so that where He is we may also be. As a judge, he sits at the throne ready to judge us at the end of our lives.

It saddens me greatly that people do not take seriously what will happen to them at their death. Many people are going to be quite surprised at what will happen on that day, at that very moment their soul departs from their body and they are standing before the majesty of God, before Christ sitting on the throne of judgment. I don’t know about you, but the mere thought of that day send chills up and down my spine. As much as I want and long to see my Lord and Savior, I tremble in fear because I know that I have a great deal to account for. I don’t know about you, but I want my experience with the Lord when I meet Him to be a joyful and happy one. That can only happen if I live my life according to His teachings and commands. Thus, I need to work out my salvation prayerfully, thoughtfully, seriously, conscientiously, and with great vigor. It is something you all must do too, if you want to enter paradise.

In the first Chapter of the Book of Acts (Acts 1:1-11), the angel tells the apostles that Jesus will come back in the same way as they have seen Him go. This second coming is what we regard as the Parousia, when Christ will come in glory to judge the living and the dead.

Therefore, my children, today we are reminded that Christ has not just gone back to heaven but He has also gone to prepare rooms for us in heaven. He will certainly return to judge our fidelity to the tasks He has entrusted to us and the instructions He has given us. Those who think otherwise are ignorant fools. The Lord knows the hearts and ways of the righteous. He also knows the hearts and ways of those who have turned from His ways.

If we have done what is right in the sight of God, if we have fought the good fight, we shall ascend with Christ to heaven where we shall live with Him forever. It that not the best thing in this world that we could hope for and desire? Nothing should excite us more than to live eternally with God. That goal should be our motivation and encouragement when life gets us down and wears us out.

My children, have you really taken time to consider the endless possibilities there are for you when you join your life to that of Christ? Certainly, it is not an easy life. IT does involve suffering and sacrifice, but from that suffering and sacrifice comes great joy and eternal happiness. Just think back about what happened after the Cross and the tomb.

Today, we are invited to be witnesses to the Good News by trying our best to be the bearers, to be evangelists, of the Good News and proclaim it to all people everywhere not just in words but in our actions as well. In fact, our proclamation to others should begin by the exemplary lives we live. Our lives may be the only bible an unbeliever has to read and if we do not proclaim it well, we will lose our reward. Remember what St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians as a reminder to us, “What hope our calling as believers holds for us, what rich glories He has promised the saints will inherit and how infinitely great is the power that he has exercised for us believers”. So, my beloved, do not lose this hope by the evil you do. Rather, repent of your ways, avoid sin, and proclaim the Good News by living a virtuous life. Then you can be sure that when Jesus comes again in glory, you will be numbered among the sheep at His right hand and your joy will be complete.

Amen.



Sunday, June 5, 2016

Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Pascha

Christ is Risen!

Of our five senses, sight is probably the most dominant. When we lose our sense of sight, it can be devastating. Much of our independence is lost and we are left to rely on others for many things in our daily lives. But, as tragic as it is to lose our sense of sight, what is even more serious is the blindness of the heart. When we are spiritually and morally blind, our soul becomes steeped in darkness. Without the guiding light of Christ in our lives, the path to eternal life is obscure and we flounder about lost in the design of our own making.

Our Gospel reading this morning talks about a man who has been physically blind from birth. He has no idea what his parents look like. He has never seen a sunrise or a sunset all his life. The beauty of a rose or the blossoms of an orange tree is unimaginable to him. Most of his dreary life is spent begging on the streets of Jerusalem. The disciples ask Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man, or his parents, that he should be born blind? Jesus tells them that no one’s sins caused the man’s blindness. The man’s is, rather, an opportunity for God to make His works visible through the blind man.

And that is exactly what happens. Jesus takes this opportunity to heal the man and in this way confirms what John’s Gospel says about Jesus, that he is indeed the Light of the world. Without Jesus, we would all be in darkness. When Jesus said that He was the light of the world, he now proves it by restoring the sight of this man.

In the miracle of the healing of this blind man, Jesus draws a distinction between those who know they are blind and those who say they can see. The story ends with Jesus saying there is no excuse for the blindness of the religious leaders. It is not so much that they cannot see, it is rather the fact that they do not want to see. It is a lot like selective hearing. At times we only hear what we want to hear. Likewise, there is a difference between what we see and what we want to see. The Pharisees had a closed door policy when it came to Jesus. They could not see that Jesus was the promised Messiah and yet, the blind man came to see Him as the Son of God.

The Lord discloses many things about Himself every day to those who are open to His example and His teaching. In this instance, Our Lord was revealing Himself for Who He truly is, as God, in the restoration of sight in the blind man. But the Pharisees, who could see, missed it because of their blindness because of their spiritual blindness and the hardness of their hearts.

How many people do you know that do not believe in miracles? There are many who have difficulty in accepting the fact that a miracle has taken place and are stubborn in their refusal to see it for what it truly is. But miracles do happen and at times an even deeper but less dramatic miracle takes place that we tend to overlook.

The Pharisees were closed to the miracle that Jesus had just performed in the healing of the blind man. They were afraid to accept the fact that there was even a deeper miracle happening when many of the witnesses received the inner sight of faith and came to believe in Jesus. The Pharisees were afraid that if most of the people began to believe in Jesus, they would all lose their authority and their position in society.

In a way, I can understand why the religious leaders were skeptical of Jesus’ ways, words and actions. His spitting on the ground and anointing the blind man’s eyes with mud seemed a rather unorthodox way to heal someone of blindness. But, as unorthodox as that method may seem, Jesus does it purposely and deliberately. We can relate this incident to a previous one in the Old Testament. If you recall in Genesis, when God created Adam, He “shaped man from the dust of the ground.” (Genesis 2:7).

Jesus tells us that He continues to carry on the work of creation that began long, long ago but is not yet completed. In our Gospel reading this morning, Jesus uses the soil of the ground to rid the man of his blindness. “…He spat on the ground and made clay of the spittle and anointed the man’s eyes with the clay, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.’” (John 9:6-7). The Pharisees, who had perfect vision, could not connect the two incidents. They were spiritually blind. What do you suppose causes spiritual blindness?

Spiritual blindness can take on many different forms. For example, we could be blinded by prejudice. We could be blinded by avarice, or ignorance, or indifference. Self-interest, ego and pride can blind us. Even politics can cause us to become spiritually blind. Do all politicians operate from a moral, ethical or honest platform? How many people hear can say that they trust all politicians? It is true that there are many who are honest and sincere and try their best to serve their constituents faithfully. But there are those who are voted into office and have compromised missed morals by giving into greed the lust for power and position.

The same holds true for bishops and priests. How many people can say they trust all bishops and priests? Read the newspaper and internet on any given day and one will inevitably find a story about a bishop or priest behaving badly. Certainly, many bishops and most priests are good, holy and righteous men who are striving to fulfill the duties of their holy office responsibly and faithfully, but there are also many who are self-serving, immoral and unethical whose actions bring scandal, embarrassment and dishonor to the Church.

Sadly, a goodly number of bishops and priests today are like the Pharisees of old. Even if they numbered only ten among thousands, that number is too great and can do, and has done, a great amount of damage to the Church. Such clergy are like a fast-growing cancer that creates tumors throughout the body and slowly kills its vital organs. It is a sad thing to have to admit, but our Church is infested with bishops, priests and deacons who are like vampires that suck the lifeblood out of the Body of Christ. They are spiritually blind and because of their blindness, they wreak havoc throughout the Church, causing damage wherever they go. These individuals have lost sight of Christ and so they must encounter Him again. They must seek Him out and ask Him to forgive and heal them.

How many of us here today are suffering from spiritual blindness? How many here are suffering from the affliction and sickness of hard-heartedness? Spiritual blindness may have something to do with fear. When we try to be just, when we try to look out for the poor, to avoid gossip, or try to help out others who are in need of our help, there may be some people who would be annoyed with our Good Samaritan act. We might feel uneasy with their annoyance and do nothing or try to please them by giving in to their way of thinking, or even worse, to their immoral and unethical ways. That is when bad things happen.

Bad things do not just happen without a reason. So, people begin to find reasons for many things that happen to them. And they begin to blame themselves for those things. “I couldn’t hold on to a job, so I must be a big-time loser.” “My children have left the Church and are in trouble with the law, so I must have been a bad parent.” Everything that happens in our lives has a reason behind it. Generally speaking, sin is usually the culprit for our lack of heart as well as our lack of faith.

Sin can also be a cause of much of our spiritual blindness. It actually blinds us to many of the good things that God would like us to enjoy in life. For example, did not God place Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden? In that garden they had no cares or worries. What words would you have had for Adam and Eve after they were evicted from the Garden? Perhaps you might have said something like this: “It was Paradise, Adam and Eve! What more could you ask for?” There were all kinds of fruit trees in the Garden and you were free to eat of every fruit except one. But no! You weren’t satisfied. You wanted more! Satan came along and blinded you to the point where you could only see the forbidden tree and the craving for the fruit of that tree was overpowering. You just had to have it, didn’t you? And so you fell into Satan’s trap! What were you thinking?”

Is that not how criminals are born? Is that not how home ground terrorists operate? They strike back at the community or country that gave them life. They, like Adam and Eve, fall into Satan’s trap and despite all the good things that have been provided for them, turn their backs on their country and try to destroy the very hand that feeds them.

I would like you to think about this for a moment. What has Jesus done for us? Why are you and I here in this Cathedral this morning? Most of us come here for a reason every Sunday and some come even during the week. We are here because we believe that Jesus is the Light of the world. By the grace of God, Jesus comes into our lives and changes us. he heals us of our spiritual blindness. He gives us eyes of faith to see and believe in Him even though we do not deserve it. That, and more, is what Jesus does for us. That is why we are here every Sunday – to worship and thank Him for all His mercy and goodness.

Jesus said, “For judgment have I come into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.” Does that sentence make any sense? What is today’s Gospel all about? Is it about a blind man being healed? Or is this a story about those with sight going blind?

Many of the lessons we hear in the Gospel are in the forms of parables. Today’s Gospel is no different except that it is a parable with a paradox. Just when we think He means one thing, Jesus flips our perspective and we see something else. When we first heard this morning’s Gospel, we heard the story of a man born blind, of Christ healing that man’s physical blindness. But what have I been talking about? I have been talking more about spiritual blindness. Because, as you see, that is what today’s Gospel reading is really about - the spiritual blindness that affects many of us.

Today’s story about the blind man is the story of our own spiritual growth. We are the blind man as we grapple in our lives for guidance and direction. The problem is, we are looking for that guidance and direction in all the wrong places and from all the wrong people. We should be looking for guidance and direction only from God. We must ask God daily to show us the way. We must ask God to heal our spiritual blindness so that we can clearly see the way before us.

The world offers us a false sense of security. It directs in ways that do not lead to salvation or true happiness but rather to perdition and destruction. All the roads of the world lead to destruction and the culture of death. That is because the roads are attractive, smooth and easily navigable. There appear to be no obstacles or curves, only a straight freeway. The only thing is, that freeway leads straight to hell.

In order to get to where we truly want to be, we must first be cured of our spiritual blindness. To grow more spiritually we, like the man in this morning’s Gospel, have to be challenged. We must face struggle. We must face opposition. We must stand up for the truth and live it as Christ has done. We must understand that we live in a world filled with deceit, with false images of happiness and contentment. We must fight against the life-destroying poisons of consumerism, commercialism, sexual relativism, moral and ethical laxity, greed, and the allure of power and wealth.

This morning’s story of the blind man can easily be our story. We can be like Him and acknowledge Jesus for Who and what He is or, we can be like the Pharisees, whose spiritual blindness kept them in hardness of heart and unbelief. If you cannot accept, endure and work through tests and challenges to your faith, then you are just like the Pharisees: bitter, cynical, unbelieving and hard-hearted.

In the end, our life in the Church should be our rock because no intellectual argument can replace the experience of God. It is in the Church that we find God living and true. Christ lives and reigns completely in the Church and reveals all things to us as His disciples, that is, of course, if we are not suffering from spiritual blindness.

Each of us needs to find ways to experience God more fully in our lives. One way is to make sure that our participation in the Divine Liturgy is what it is supposed to be. If we are here thinking about matters of the world and not focusing on the worship and praise of God, of giving Him thanks for His many blessings upon us, then we must change our behavior and ask god to heal our spiritual blindness. Another way is to pray more. How is your prayer life? Do you set aside time every day to speak privately with God? If not, this is something that you must correct. Another way is to read the Scriptures and spiritual literature, especially the writings of the fathers and mothers of the Church and the lives of the Saints. And then, there is going out and doing something unselfish for another person. Goods works are the fruit of faith; they manifest a deep and healthy faith rooted in the Gospel and the laws of God.

Remember those times in your life when you were spiritually connected, both to God and the Church? How God felt real to you? How your vision for the future seemed clearer? What is different from then and now? The difference is that you had some experience – a spiritual one. What do you need to do to get back to your experience with God? We cannot ask God to do tricks for us, as that removes our free will from us. However, we can ask God to remove our spiritual blindness.

Let us not be like the Pharisees in today’s Gospel. As a person gains physical sight, in the world this can be wealth, power, and position, they lose their spiritual sight. The Pharisees represent the part of us that does not accept, and sometimes even rejects straight away, spiritual experience. It is our “wiser” arrogant intellectual side that insists that spiritual development fir into our rules. Under its influence, we resist transformation, even when we witness it. We dismiss what we do not control that is threatening. We rationalize away God’s will.

Given the comparison of the man’s physical blindness and the Pharisee’s spiritual blindness, the message is very clear. The spiritual blindness is much worse. The reason it is much worse is that it is harder to imaging or be worried about. But spiritual blindness is much more dangerous than physical blindness. But it is hard for us to believe. It is especially hard for us in the Church, who are supposed to be people of faith, to believe when our spiritual leaders are so corrupt and disingenuous. They are the spiritually blind leading the spiritually blind. They do not see or understand the Truth. They do not experience God in their lives, they only pretend to. Rather, they consume themselves with the pleasures and vanities of this world, seeking their own material gain and comfort while their flocks and the Church suffer great indignities and injustices because of them. Because they do not believe, the faithful come not to believe. Their spiritual blindness causes great harm in many ways.

The world in which we live is an illusion. It is a deception. It is not real. We have deluded ourselves into believing we see something that is not there. The good light of the world, and there is much in it, is hidden from our eyes because of our spiritual blindness. Being aware of our spiritual blindness, like being aware of and admitting our addiction to drugs, alcohol, sex, money or material things is the first step to spiritual recovery. The Gospel calls it repentance. This happens when the man asks this Stranger to heal him. Our greatest danger is that we listen to the voice of the Pharisee within us; that we ignore Jesus and His love even as he stands right in front of us. We might think it takes a lot of work to find Jesus and gain that experience, but the truth is it actually takes a lot of work to ignore Him.

Are you the blind man gaining spiritual insight, or the Pharisee denying what you know is spiritually true? All of us are a mix of both. And yet, ultimately that will be our judgment. It will not be standing before the throne and making a pitch for our heavenly worthiness after death. Judgment takes place when we have Jesus standing in front of us, leading us, and we refuse to see Him. We rationalize it away. We listen to the voices of evil within, and call that religious. Jesus said, “For judgment I came into the world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.” The man in the story was blind so that two thousand years later we can learn about spiritual sight. Those who had sight and could see back then never really did see. The same holds true today. Those who see really do not see at all.

Let us all pray to God that he opens our spiritual eyes, and we see our true spiritual selves in this material and false world. And let us each ask God’s guidance and courage to follow the path that sight offers us.

Christ is Risen!