Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Homily for the Third Sunday after Pentecost 2017

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

This morning, Jesus tries to help us distinguish between what is good, better, and best about living our lives in this fallen world. He tells us that no one can serve two masters. Have you ever tried doing that? Being faithful to God while at the same time pursuing the allures of the world? The effort it takes to do both will undoubtedly wear you out and make life very uncomfortable. Jesus says that we will either hate the one and hold to the other. Or we will hold to the one and despise the other. When it comes to God and money, we cannot serve both. Either we will turn from God and pursue the money, or we will despise wealth and live in God. The truth is, money and material wealth do not bring us real happiness or fulfillment. Neither can we find fulfillment in God if what we really want are the things that money offers.

The world tells us to get things. In fact, the world tells us to get whatever we can get at any cost. This thinking extends to our relationships as well.  Sadly, many people maintain relationships with others based upon what the other person can do for them or what they can get from them, and oftentimes at their expense. What often happens as a result, is that our desires for things usually end up hurting a lot of people, creating many long-lasting emotional and psychological scars along the way.

Jesus warns us about the perils of having a divided heart when it comes to the things of this world. Solomon was a man whom God blessed with many good and wonderful things. In fact, he had an abundance of riches beyond his wildest dreams. He was the richest king there ever was. He had 700 wives and 300 mistresses. I can only imagine how much effort he put into taking care of and satisfying them all. Solomon had a lot to contend with aside from ruling a kingdom and dealing with so many family issues. But God blessed Solomon with extraordinary wisdom. Solomon said this about all the getting we do in this world: “Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore, get wisdom and with all thy getting, get understanding” (Proverbs 4:7). Jesus put it in plainer language for us: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).

The people of Jesus’s time were not that different from you and me. They had bills to pay and taxes to pay.  They had hopes and dreams for their children’s future. I am sure they wanted a new home with a two-chariot garage. And, I am sure they wanted to have a place by the lake where they could spend their summers. But are these things really the most important goals in life?

Jesus’ words are meant to untie the knots their wants and our wants. He explains to us that our Heavenly Father supplies and fulfills our needs. The things that we want or desire are usually our own foolish desires and really have nothing to do with our happiness. Our wants are all too often unnecessary excesses.

We have no reason to worry about chasing after the things of this world when we have a Father who provides everything we need. God causes the trees to produce fruit and the ground to produce food. He has given us rivers and streams to drink and fish from. He has covered us with the arms of those who love us. Everything we really need has already been provided for by Him. But many of us are not content with having our needs satisfied. We have wants as well. And the world multiplies those wants, again and again, to pull us away from what God has provided so that we are no longer content with just having our needs met.

Jesus paints a beautiful picture for us in this morning’s Gospel reading as He tells us to consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. Jesus tells us that they are provided and cared for by our Heavenly Father in wonderful ways even though they are unable to reap and sow. The birds still sing and the flowers give up a beautiful fragrance even though they are far more insignificant to our Heavenly Father than us. Jesus says that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed as beautiful as the flowers of the field. And if God takes such care to take such care and attention to feed the birds and dress the flowers, how much more will He care for you?

So, dear ones, Jesus tells us to stop worrying about this and that and tomorrow’s problems today. Each day has enough for us to contend with. Walk by faith, trusting in God to take care of everything. Our hearts should desire the things of God instead of the things of this world. What things has the world got you caught up in seeking after today?

Jesus says, “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). Our Heavenly Father knows what we need and those things have eternal value, not just temporal or worldly value. In all things that God gives us, we receive wisdom, and in getting wisdom, we get understanding.

Never forget, beloved, that no one loves you more than your Heavenly Father and that He shall always supply all your needs according to His great goodness and infinite love through our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Good Shepherd of all. Good shepherds care for their flocks, and Christ cares deeply about each one of us.  Our Lord loves us with a love that knows no bounds; so much so that He gave up His life for us that we may be freed from bondage to sin and be reunited once again with God.

I encourage, dear ones, turn away from the world and its vanities and false treasures. “do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21). This admonition of the Lord will never fail you.

I confess that many times I myself have not heeded these words of the Savior. I find that almost all the things I have fretted about, worried about, or stressed about never happened or turned out the way I had thought they would. I wasted a lot of time and energy on things I could not control or that, in the end, turned out to be unimportant, meaningless, or insignificant.

What shames me and embarrasses more than anything else is that my faith in God was not as strong as I professed it to be. At times, I found myself despairing and without hope. When we place too much or all our confidence and hopes in the world, we will inevitably end up being disappointed. God is the only answer to our problems. Thus, our faith needs to be strong and vibrant. Our God is our sure hope. That is why we say at the end of every Divine Liturgy and Divine Service: “Glory to You, O Christ God our sure hope; glory to You!”

Ever since I had my near-death experience last November and having to deal with all the medical issues and complications since then, I wonder if it is not the result of all the stress I have in my life. It goes without saying that much of the stress we experience in our life is self-created. Certainly, my great sinfulness has much to do with my present physical condition.  Sin can and does wreak havoc on the body; as does stress and anxiety. It is a terrible thing when we must rely on medications and antacids to keep us healthy and calm.

There is no question that God did not intend for us to live like this. He does not want His children to suffer. How many of us fret and worry over things that happen in our life? There are many things we deal with every day, things that relate to work, school, children, family, our careers, etc. There are so many things in life to worry about. But does worrying about them add one minute more to our lives? No. it does not. In fact, worrying, and the stress it creates, reduces our lifespan.

I think what Jesus is trying to teach us this morning is that worry can be just as destructive to our spiritual health as it is to our physical health. We should not incessantly worry about the basic needs of life because such anxiety stems from little or even a complete lack of faith.

Jesus teaches us that we must recognize that our Heavenly Father is watching over us and knows all that we need. If we invest ourselves in the work of God’s kingdom in the world, we will become less anxious about the future. But for this to happen, we must stay focused on God.

We must seek the things of God and all that He considers righteous as our top priority in life. We must change the way we think and act, conforming our lives to that of Jesus Christ, who is our perfect model of holiness and righteousness. We must submit ourselves to God’s laws and be faithful disciples and servants of the Lord.  God will provide for us; we have nothing to worry about when we put our lives in the hands of God.

Trusting God completely and putting ourselves completely in His hands is not an easy thing to do; it requires great faith and trust. But when we take that step, our lives change for the better. When we seek God first, then all that we desire and want will follow in due course. God will always give us what we need and what is beneficial for our souls. We may not always get what we want, but that is because not everything we want or desire may be good for us spiritually or physically. And God knows this. There are times in our life when God simply says, “No.”

If your life has become overwhelming, stressful, and filled with anxiety, then take some time to evaluate what is going on. Take a step back and look at the big picture of where you are now in life and where you are heading. If you are overwhelmed and anxious, then some of the things you are doing may need to be re-evaluated; some things may have to be discontinued; some adjusted or changed; some may just need more focus and others less attention.

Be aware of the motives for why you are doing what you are doing. In other words, make sure that your motives for doing something are pure and honorable. Do not do anything out of selfishness, greed or pride. In all things, focus on God; make His life your life. Desire the holy things of God. Concentrate on building up your treasure in heaven and not on this earth, for what you gather and store up here on earth will eventually pass away. Remember the old saying, “You cannot take it with you.” Once you die, all that you worked for, worried about and stressed about, will become the treasure of someone else. What will you say then to the King when you stand before His throne on the day of judgment?

Seek first the Kingdom of God, my children. That is where you will find your true happiness and fulfillment.



Saturday, June 24, 2017

Homily for the Second Sunday after Pentecost 2017

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

“Come, follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” What a beautiful invitation. “Come, follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” This invitation has a two-fold purpose. The first is a general invitation to all of us to take up the work of evangelization, the work of building up the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, and adding members to the Household of God. The second purpose is a call directed to the sons of the Church to become priests of Jesus Christ, ministers of the Most High.

Jesus’ invitation to follow Him and allow Him to make us fishers of men is foundational to the growth of the Church. But somewhere along the line, we have forgotten this, both a Christians and as Church.

For years, I have been frustrated and bothered by the gimmick versus Gospel approach to ministry and evangelization. Unfortunately, this has become quite commonplace in the Catholic Church today and has been standard fare in the various Protestant denominations for decades. It seems that our brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church and those in the Protestant ecclesial communities do not think Christ’s Gospel is quite good enough to reach folks, so they come up with all kinds of gimmicks and gadgets to get people in the door, to keep their attention, and to grow the Church.

How many priests and other clergy do you know that use clever tricks and treats to get people into the pews and keep them coming back week after week? Never mind that true believers should have the desire to attend Divine Services to worship and give thanks to the Almighty God in spirit and truth, regardless of how “entertaining” things may or may not be.

It is a sad fact that many of our brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church and other ecclesial communities want “big screen productions.” They want a stage instead of a pulpit. They want actors and sports figures and politicians speaking from the pulpit on the major hot-button social and moral issues of the day. They want dancers and performers swaying and jumping down the aisles on Easter morning. They have Santa Claus bringing up the gifts and children putting on a living Nativity play in place of the Gospel. In short, they want to be entertained instead of worshipping God in the most sublime and perfect form of worship and prayer there is.

I have heard of Catholic and Protestant parishes resorting to gimmick’s like “give-a-aways” as an enticement to get people to come to church. For example, one Catholic parish on Mother’s Day several years ago gave away $50 gift-certificates for a spa makeover to the mothers who came to Mass that day. This same parish did a similar “promotion” for Father’s Day. To the fathers in the parish who came to Mass, they gave away fishing rods, tackle boxes and some other fishing gear. It was reported that both these “promotions” were quite successful in raising attendance. In fact, it was reported that attendance at both these “events” exceeded previous years’ attendance records for both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day by 160%. Since they were the largest crowds the parish had ever seen on previous Mother’s Day and Father’s Day Masses, it must have been good, right? I do not believe so.

We do not need “gimmicks” to make the Gospel relevant or appealing. The Gospel itself is sufficient. Christ is sufficient. We do not need to decorate or enhance either of them just to get someone’s attention. All we need to do is preach and live the Word, in season and out.

I know “gimmicks’ draw crowds but that is not what we are called to do. As members of the Body of Christ, we are not called by our baptism to draw crowds. We are called to bear witness to Jesus Christ and His Gospel and to live faithfully in them both. In other words, we are called to be faithful disciples of Jesus, and to make more disciples, teaching them to observe all that He commanded.

I will take it for granted that everyone here this morning wants to be useful to Jesus. If you do not, then I would question whether you could be a true believer in Christ. If you truly want to be useful to Christ, you must first embrace all His Words and teachings, without exception. Then, and only then, will you be able to truly become a fisher of men.

As Orthodox Catholic Christians, it is an urgent task for us to carry out the command to bring people to Christ. I think most of us understand this but the question is, “How can we influence others to come to Christ?” The answer is very simple. Live the Gospel as your life’s rule and live fully in Christ, doing all that He commands you to do. Follow the path which He Himself carved out for you.

We cannot be fishers of men if we do not learn how to fish. The sinner will not convert the sinner. The ungodly man will not convert the ungodly man. What is more to the point, the worldly Christian will not convert the world. To convert the sinner, we must become righteous. To convert the ungodly, we must be godlike, we must become holy. To convert the world, we must renounce the world and seek the Kingdom of God, we must seek to live in Christ.

If you are of the world, no doubt the world will love you as its own, but you cannot save the world. If you walk in darkness, and belong to the kingdom of darkness, you cannot remove the darkness. If you march with the armies of the evil one, you cannot defeat them. I believe that one reason why the Church at this moment in time has so little influence over the world is because the world has so much influence over the Church.

Jesus comes to you today, and says, “Follow Me!” Was Jesus found at the theatre? Was he found at sporting events? Was he found at places of amusement or entertainment? Was he found “hanging out” with the elite of His day? No, He was not. He was found among the sick. He associated with sinners and outcasts. He was found among the marginalized and despised of men. Like a physician, He went among them healing them and comforting them. Like Him, we too must walk among the forgotten and poor. Not just the physically or materially poor, but the spiritually poor as well. Do not think for a moment that those who seem to be well-off have it all together. They may have everything they want materially, but I can assure you many of them are suffering from spiritual poverty.

There is a great gulf that exists between people of the world and the Savior. It is to those whom Christ calls from the world that He entrusts the work of saving those who are in the world from themselves and from the temptations and assaults of the evil one. The ones that Christ call to this great work we call “priests.” These priests are called to come and live with Christ. They are to be associated with Him every day. They listen to Him teach the eternal Gospel. They are His personal servants and His close friends. They bear witness to the miracles He performs and the justice He meets out.  They are called to be one with Him in His work and to continue His ministry on earth.

Priests are called to be the living icons of Christ among the faithful. They are the spiritual fathers and elders of the people, teaching them how to live the life of the Savior and follow His example. They impart and interpret God’s laws and teachings. They feed the faithful with the Bread of Life and the Cup of Eternal Salvation. Like good shepherds they care for and guide the flocks which they tend, keeping them safe from the attacks of wolves and other predators.

As consecrated ministers of God, they share in the afflictions and trials, of the faithful entrusted to their care; they witness their secret agonies, and they see their many tears.

Priests of Jesus Christ are filled with His love, compassion and mercy. They are fountains of healing water which alleviate the spiritual, emotional and physical thirst of the faithful.

They are one with Christ and Christ is one with them. Priests are the mouth, hands, feet, legs and arms of the Lord Jesus.

Priests transform the world. They do so by offering sacrifice, by blessing and sanctifying persons, places and things; by praying constantly, and by fasting. Their entire life is dedicated to preaching and spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Finally, they encourage and lead the faithful in apostolic works and by the example of their lives, they show the way to salvation.

To the young men in our parish and throughout our Archdiocese, I urge to listen carefully for the call of the Lord to serve Him as His priest. Do not turn a deaf ear to Him. Keep an open mind and consider the great things you can do. As a priest, you can change the world; not all at once of course, but one person at a time.

And to all of you in this congregation today, I urge you also to involve yourself more in the work of evangelization. We are all commanded by the Lord to go out from this place to make disciples and build up the Body of Christ. Be creative, beloved, in this work. There is much that can be accomplished in this area.

A Christian should be an apprentice of Jesus and learn the trade of the Savior, the trade of saving souls. But before you can save someone else’s soul, you must first see to the condition of your own soul. Make sure your soul is clean and pure, free from sin and all defilement. Live in fellowship with Christ, and people will notice that you have a certain demeanor about you, one that makes you capable of teaching and winning souls for Christ.

If we are faithful to the Lord, if we are faithful to His message, He will make us “fishers of men.” Some will protest and say, “I am not going to preach this old, old Gospel. It is out of date and out of touch with reality. We need something new and fresh.” What happens then is that these people will preach their own version of the Gospel. They will preach everything but the Gospel. They will preach about love, but a love that has no connection with God. They will preach about the sovereignty of one’s conscience over the moral laws of God. They will preach friendly things and fashionable doctrine. They will preach that punishment of sin is antiquated and that the devil does not exist. They will want to preach to the intellect of this age instead of the eternal things of God.

But truth does not change, beloved. Truth remains the same. Truth is the foundation upon which the world and the universe was created. Truth is the Word of God and it is changeless and eternal.

When Jesus calls a person to be a disciple or an apostle, or a priest, such a person is not at that time what Jesus wanted them to become. He promises to make us into what He wants us to be. Christ does not choose the “cream of the crop” to be His disciples, His apostles, His priests. No, He chooses common laborers. He chooses the poor. He chooses the weak. He chooses the unlikely.

Look at the Apostles. They were not perfect. When Jesus called them, they were men who were simple workers who were poor. They were uneducated, had little spiritual perception, and were self-centered. They were often harsh and proud. They were weak and cowardly and selfish. Yet, Christ called them, formed them and made them leaders of the Church.

God is not bound by who we are. Jesus looked beyond what the Apostles were initially to what they would become. The important principle at work here is those whom Christ has called, He enables and empowers to perform the task to which they have been assigned. Jesus did not simply command His disciples to become fishers of men but He promised to make them fisherman after men’s souls.

When we become fishers of men, we cast the net of the Gospel into the sea of humanity. The lakes in which we fish are the villages, towns and cities of the world. The bait that we use is the example of our own lives and the fulness of the Truth, which only the Orthodox Catholic Church possesses.

In closing this morning, we must understand one of the most effective things good fisherman do. They know that the more often they cast their nets, cast their fishing poles, the greater the likelihood they will catch fish. We must be willing to go where the prospects are and cast our nets a few times.

We may not be like Peter who preached one day and added three thousand souls to the Church. We can, however, be like Andrew who, after he had been brought to the Savior, found his brother, Peter, and brought him to the Lord. Peter fished with a net, so to speak, and caught large numbers. Andrew, meanwhile, fished with a pole and line, catching one fish at a time.

We may not be called upon to preach to great multitudes or even to groups, yet we can witness effectively to individuals one by one – the pole and line method. Either way, we can change the world.


Sunday, June 11, 2017

Homily for the Sunday of All Saints 2017

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

Let us all rejoice in the Lord, beloved, as we celebrate today’s feast in honor of all the Saints. On this day of celebration and remembrance we are challenged to remember that all of us are called to holiness. As we honor the great heroes of the faith, let us aspire to join them in the heavenly kingdom, where the joy of those who feast is unending.

My brothers and sisters, we are all called to be saints. God greatly desires that we dwell with Him forever in heaven. He reaches out to us and provides for us the way, in Christ Jesus, His Son, to be one with Him in Paradise.

The beloved disciple John, exiled on the island of Patmos, had a “vision of a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, “Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb.” All the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures. They prostrated themselves before the throne, worshiped God, and exclaimed, “Amen. Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving, honor, power, and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen.” Then one of the elders spoke up and said to me. “Who are these wearing white robes, and where did they come from?” I said to him, “My lord, you are the one who knows.” He said to me, “These are the ones who have survived the time of great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9-14).

The same beloved disciple wrote letters to the early Church to inspire them to lives of holiness, saying: “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. Everyone who has this hope based on Him makes himself pure, as He is pure.” (1 John 3:1-3).

This is what holiness is, beloved – to become “like Him.” It happens as we live our lives in God and allow Him to live His life in, and through, us every day. We can live immersed in God in a world corrupted by the effects of sin and filled with every imperfection. As we struggle against the allure of sin and the reality of evil we can begin to “see Him as He is,” progress in the path of holiness, and participate in His ongoing work of redemption. This happens as we freely respond to grace.

The path to holiness is also the path to happiness. If we truly believe that God wants us to be happy, then it becomes easy for us to recognize that holiness is the only path true happiness. It may seem to many of us that holiness is an unattainable, even unrealistic, goal. Some may even feel that being holy is unnecessary or even undesirable because it means not doing a lot of things they enjoy, things like watching porn, being sexually promiscuous, using or selling drugs, cheating on their wives or husbands, etc. But, these are not the things that bring us happiness. Eventually, they only bring us unhappiness and discontent.

The saints we celebrate today are not only those who have been publicly canonized or glorified by the Church for veneration. On the contrary, we honor and remember all those righteous souls who from the beginning of the world have been well-pleasing to God, who have found favor in His sight, and who now enjoy eternal life with Him in heaven. Among these may be your mother and father, your grandmother and grandfather, your aunts and uncles, your brothers and sisters – all who lived righteous and holy lives and were found worthy of life in the heavenly kingdom.

The saints we celebrate today are the “great cloud of witnesses” the Apostle Paul refers to in his Letter to the Hebrews, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us.” (Hebrews 12:1).

Those who have passed from this life to the next and whom we honor today inspire us by their lives and deaths. They assist us by their prayers. They call us toward God and forward to Heaven. Our relationship, our communion, with them, is not ended by death, because they are alive in Christ. As St. Paul writes again, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38 – 39).

The early Christians honored the dead and had a special devotion and affection for the martyrs. We have accounts of the martyrdom of such saints as St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Lucy of Syracuse, St. Agatha of Catania, St. Sebastian, and St. Agnes, just to name a few. The Martyrdom of St. Polycarp of Smyrna gives details of how the early Christians honored the martyrs: “Accordingly, we afterwards took up his bones, more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and purer than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, so that when being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.”

For centuries, even from the Apostolic times, it has been the custom of the Church to celebrate the Divine Liturgy over the bones of the “holy ones”, the saints, who gave their lives for love of Jesus Christ and His Church. This is the origin of our practice of “entombing” the relics of saints in the altars of every Orthodox Catholic Church. In our own cathedral, we have the relics of several saints entombed in the main altar. Here in this chapel, in which we gather to make sacrifice and thanksgiving to the Lord, we are celebrating the Divine Liturgy upon an antimension, or portable altar” which contains the relics of St. James the Apostle, the first Bishop of Jerusalem. In addition, as you look around us, we are celebrating our Liturgy in the presence of the remains of many deceased Christians who have gone before us in the hope of resurrection to life eternal.

Christians do not fear death. We view it with the eyes of faith as merely a change in life. As we hear in our funeral liturgy, “Lord, for Your faithful people, life is changed, not ended; and when the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death, we gain an everlasting dwelling place with You in Heaven.” This is the belief of every Orthodox Catholic Christian whose faith is solidly and firmly rooted in Christ.

Death will visit and call for all of us at some point; for some it may be sooner, for others it may be much later. We do not know when we will die, but we should live every day of our life as if it is the last. That does not mean we should go out and live our lives recklessly or irresponsibly, but rather trying to do as much good as we can before our day comes.

The dates of commemorating those who witnessed to the faith by their heroic lives and deaths varied as local communities honored local saints and martyrs. Over time, those feast days became more universally accepted as the rhythm of the Church Year became more uniform.

The first account we have of honoring all the saints is that of St. Ephraim the Syrian (d. 373 A.D.). St. John Chrysostom set aside the first Sunday after Pentecost for this commemoration. So, it is on this Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost that we commemorate all the saints of the Church Universal.

The Feast of All Saints is our “family” feast day. We remember not only the canonized saints of the Church on this day, but all our loved ones who have found favor with God and now live with Him in heaven. They too, like those who gave their lives in martyrdom, have made heroic sacrifices and lived lives of holiness. Thus, we hold them up as models and effective intercessors before the throne of God on our behalf. Today’s celebration is grounded in the ancient Church teaching concerning the Communion of Saints.

Just as we pray for one another, those who have gone on before us pray for us. They are joined to us forever in the communion of love and their prayers are powerful. This ancient and firm belief is attested to in the earliest writings of the Christian tradition. For example, St. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote: “We mention those who have fallen asleep: first the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, that through their prayers and supplications God would receive our petition… (Catechetical Lecture 23:9).

Why should our praise and glorification, or even the celebration of this feast day, mean anything to the saints? What do they care about earthly honors when their heavenly Father honors them by fulfilling the faithful promise of the Son? What does our commendation mean to them? The saints have no need of honor from us; neither does our devotion add the slightest thing to what is theirs. Clearly, if we venerate their memory, it serves us, not them. But I tell you, when I think of them, I feel myself overwhelmed by a tremendous yearning.

Calling the saints to mind inspires, or rather arouses in us, above all else, a longing to enjoy their company. I hope that each one of us here this morning longs to share in the citizenship of heaven, to dwell with the spirits of the blessed, to join the assembly of patriarchs, the ranks of the prophets, the college of the apostles, the great host of the martyrs, the noble company of confessors, and the choir of virgins. In short, we long to be united in happiness with all the saints, among which are included our departed loved ones. But our dispositions change. The Church of all the followers of Christ who have gone before us awaits us, but we do nothing about it. The saints want us to be with them, and we are indifferent. The souls of the just await us, and we ignore them.

Come, my brothers and sisters, let us at length encourage one another in fighting the good fight. We must rise again with Christ into new life. We must seek the world which is above and set our mind on the things of heaven. Let us long for those who are longing for us. Let us hasten to those who are waiting for us. And let us ask those who look for our coming to intercede for us. We should not only want to be with the saints, we should also hope to possess their happiness. While we desire to be in their company, we must also earnestly seek to share in their glory. Do not imagine that there is anything harmful in such an ambition as this; there is no danger in setting our hearts on such glory, on thinking of the things of heaven.

When we commemorate the saints, we are inflamed with another yearning: that Christ our life may also appear to us as He appeared to them and that we may one day share in His glory. Until then, we see Him, not as He is, but as He became for our sake. He is our Head, crowned, not with glory, but with the thorns of our sins. As members of that Head, crowned with thorns, we should be ashamed of what we have done to His Body. We should want to repent and live our lives in such a manner that they give glory to God.

When Christ comes again, His death shall no longer be proclaimed, and we shall know that we also have died, and that our life is hidden with Him. The glorious Head of the Church will appear and His glorified members will shine in splendor with Him, when He forms this lowly body anew into such glory as belongs to Himself.

My brothers and sisters, we should concern ourselves with attaining this glory with a wholehearted and prudent desire. So that we may rightly hope and strive for such blessedness, we must, above all else, seek the prayers and intercessions of the saints. Thus, what is beyond our own powers to obtain will be granted through their intercessions.


Monday, June 5, 2017

Archpastoral Letter for Pentecost 2017

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

Today, beloved, we celebrate the great feast of Pentecost, the feast of the gift of the Holy Spirit and by tradition, the “birthday” of the Church.

Pentecost derives from the Greek word “Pentekoste,” meaning “fiftieth.” In the Jewish tradition, it is also known as the “Feast of Weeks” (Exodus 34:22),  and the “Feast of 50 Days.” For us Orthodox Catholic Christians, it is entirely acceptable to refer to Pentecost by these designations as well, since Pentecost follows fifty days after the Feast of Pascha (Passover). Thus, for us, Pentecost, culminates the fifty days celebration of Pascha.

Pentecost marks the day when the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles while they were cowering and hiding behind locked doors in the Upper Room following Jesus’ resurrection. After receiving the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles immediately went out and proclaimed and preached the Gospel of Jesus to everyone, even those who spoke other languages.

Pentecost has several symbols associated with it. These are wind, fire, and a dove. The first symbol, wind, is taken from the noise the Apostles heard as the Spirit descended upon them (Acts 2:2). After the wind, flames appeared and rested upon the heads of each of the Apostles (Acts 2:3). A dove serves also as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. While there is no mention of a dove in Acts in relation to Pentecost, nevertheless, we associate the dove with the Holy Spirit because of the story of Jesus’s baptism by John in the Jordan River: “After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming upon Him” (Matthew 3:16).

In the process of revealing His plan of salvation for mankind, God established His annual Holy Days around the harvest seasons of His people in the Middle East (Leviticus 23:9-16; Exodus 23:14-16). Just as His people harvested their crops around these three festival seasons, God’s Holy Days show us how He is harvesting people for His Church and for eternal life in His Kingdom.

The feasts and holy days of the Church have meanings that build upon each other. Together, they progressively reveal how God works with humanity. In the feasts and holy days of the Church, the story of salvation history and redemption is told to us. But the Church’s feasts and holy days do more than tell us a story; they are opportunities for us to experience the life of God in intimate and tangible ways. In these celebrations, we come to know God more fully and are thus able to take from them the grace which God desires so much to bestow upon us. That is, if we are so inclined to accept His gifts.

Fifty days ago, in our observance and celebration of Passover, we saw Christ giving of Himself for us so our sins could be forgiven and we could be redeemed from death. We also learned how the Days of Unleavened Bread teach us that we must remove and avoid sin and instead obey God in actions and attitudes. Today, the Feast of Pentecost builds upon and crowns what was begun and brought to completion at Pascha.

As I mentioned earlier, Pentecost is also known as the “Feast of Weeks” and the “Feast of 50 Days.” It is also known as the “Feast of Harvest” (Exodus 23:16), because it represents the first-fruits gathered through the labor of those who completed the spring grain harvests in ancient Israel (Exodus 23:16). Among the Jews, the most popular name for this festival is the “Feast of Weeks,” or “Shavuot,” in Hebrew. When celebrating this festival, the Jewish people also recall the giving of the Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai. For us, as the people of the New Covenant, Pentecost represents the miracle by which we are empowered and given the grace by the Holy Spirit not only to observe all that Jesus commanded us but to live it to the glory of God and to our salvation.

God chose the first Pentecost after Jesus’ Resurrection to pour out His Holy Spirit on 120 believers (Acts 1:15). “Now, when the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly, there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filledf the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:1-4).

The speaking in various languages occurred as a crowd of people from many nations gathered in Jerusalem, with each vistor hearing the disciples in his orm her own native language (Acts 2:6-11). These astounding events demonstrated the presence of the Holy Spirit.

At first, the people of Jerusalem who witnessed the language miracle were astonished, with some of them attributing what happened to the Christians drinking too much wine or beer; in other words, they thought the Christians were drunk. The Apostle Peter, now filled with the Holy Spirit, boldly explained to the crowd that was happening was a fulfillment of the Prophet Joel’s prophecy: “And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh” (Acts 2:17; Joel 2:28).

Peter explained how his listeners could also receive this Spirit: “Repent, and let everyone of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord will call” (Acts 2:38-39).

God used these miracles and Peter’s preaching to add 3,000 people to His Church in one day. These converts were all baptized and received the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:40-41). From this pivotal point, God’s Holy Spirit has been available to all who truly repent and are properly baptized. The Day or Feast of Pentecost is an annual reminder to us that God poured out His Spirit to establoish His Church, the group of the elect, the chosen, who are led by the same Spirit of God.

Humanly speaking, no matter how hard we try not to, we still sin. Acknowledging this inherent weakness of humanity, God lamented, “Oh that they had such a hearty in them that they would fear Me and always keep My commandments that it might be well with them and with their children forever!”(Deuteronomy 5:29).

Here God explains that humankind has a heart problem. Academic knowledge of the law does not enable us to think like God. Being godly in our thoughts, attitudes and actions is beyond the comprehension and ability of men and women who do not have the Holy Spirit within them.

God’s way of thinking produces peace, happiness and a genuine concern for others. Jesus complimented a religious scholar who correctly quoted the essence of God’s law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27).

The essence of God’s law and life is love. God gave His commandments because He loves us. He wants us to be happy, not in ways we think make us happy in this world, but in more realistic and fulfilling ways. In order to obtain the true happiness we seek, however, we must first love God and keep His commandments. Then will our eyes and hearts be opened to see and receive the happiness we so earnestly desire.

God’ commandments are not burdensome. On the contrary, they are freeing and remove from us the real burdens that inhibit and preclude us from experiencing the happiness we so desperately desire and seek. God sends us the gift of His Holy Spirit to enable us to achieve all that we seek for ourselves and others.

Because God’s Spirit took up its abode in the Church on that first Pentecost so long ago, it became possible for the members of the Church to express genuine love. So it is true for us today. The Holy Spirti fills the Church with all that is good, with holiness, righteous and most importantly, with love – the love of God. It is from this love that good, holiness and righteousness find their origin. God’s gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost made it possible for the Church to fully express God’s love in tangible ways. The Holy Spirit planted the seeds of God’s love within us and now we are called to cultivate, nourish and bring that love to fruitful harvest.

Throughout the Bisble, GHod uses the analogy of the harvest and, particularly on Pentecost, firstfruits, to illustrate aspects of His plan of salvation. Israel observed this day in the late spring after the barley and wheat harvests. A special offering of the first ripe grain during the Days of Unleavened Bread, called the wave-sheaf offering, marked the beginning of these harvests, which continued during the next fifty days and led up to Pentecost. Thi spring harvest was the firstfruits of the yearly agricultural cycle.

One of the first harvest lessons of the New Testament is that Jesus Christ “is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). The wave-sheaf offering represented Jesus Christ, who was the “firstborn over all creation” and the “firstborn from the dead” (Colossians 1:15, 18).

In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul speaks of Jesus Christ as “the firstborn of many brethren.” Yet the New Testament Church is also considered to be firstfruits. In speaking of the Father, St. James said, “Of His own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures” (James 1:18).

St. Paul, again in his Letter to the Romans, says to us, “If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His” (Romans 8:9). And, “as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are the children of God” (Romans 8:14). God’s Spirit within us identifies us and sanctifies us and sets us apart from all other human beings who do not know or who have rejected Christ.

Few people realize or understand that God has a definite plan for humankind. This plan is manifested most clearly and simply within the Church. God’s desire is to save all of humanity by offering all people eternal life in His Kingdom. In this world, we are simply at the beginning of the harvest for the Kingdom of God. The Church is the vineyard in which the vine has been planted and it is constantly nourished and fed by the Word of God and the Body and Blood of Christ so that it may bring forth abundant fruit for the harvest.

The Church teaches us that God calls us to Himself; he does not compel or force us to submit to Him or do His will. Such a decision is borne of our free will. When God completed the founding of His Church by filling it with the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, he was expanding His spiritual harvest. It was the beginning of what the Prophet Joel prophesied, that God will ultimately pour out His Spirit on “all flesh.”

The coming of the Holy Spirit dramatically changed the lives of the early Christians. The Book of Acts is filled with accounts of the early Church’s remarkable spiritual impact on the surrounding society. A transformation was so evident that nonbelievers accused the Christians of “Turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). Such was the dynamic, miraculous power of the Holy Spirit.

Pentecost changes us. It wipes away fear. It wipes away division. It opens up cosed doors. Pentecost allows us to go forth into the streets, into the public square, to preach the Good News of salvation, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Pentecost empowers us to go forth and proclaim to all nations and peoples that “Christ is the Lord!”

As the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles as tongues of fire so too does the Spirit descend upon us today. Fire burns away what is useless. Fire refines what is noble. Fire melts the cold and unites the divided. Today, on this great feast of Pentecost, the fire of the holy Spirit purifies and refines us, unites and inspires us. As one Church united in faith, we, the disciples of the Lord and baptized members of His Body, burn with love for the Lord and the desire to share Him with all.

The Holy Spirit, who is the love of God poured out into our hearts, opens our hearts and makes them capable of understanding other people. Human pride always creates divisions and misunderstandings. The Holy Spirit draws us together. Individualism throws up walls of indiffernence and separation. The Holy Spirit breaks down barriers and unites. Selfishness breeds confusion. The Holy Spirit creates communion and fellowship.

The Holy Spirit makes us the dwelling-place of God, a holy temple. The Spirit brings about the one change for which the world has always longed: unity of mind and heart. The Holy Spirit makes us, as diverse and individually unique as we are, one body, one Church. Truly, the Feast of Pentecost is a feast of hope and promise. Let us today open our hearts to the fire that is the love of God. May that fire burn intensely and always in our hearts so that we may go forth as Church and proclaim God’s saving works and Good News of salvation to a wanting, waiting and longing world.