Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

Cathedral of the Theotokos of Great Grace

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Homily for Trinity Sunday - (January 14, 2018)

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

About one hundred years before the Reformation, an artist named Andrei Rublev painted a depiction of the Trinity. Rublev’s icon is a depiction of part of the Book of Genesis, Chapter 18 when three angelic beings visit Abraham and Abraham presents them with a feast at a table. The icon shows three angelic figures who appear to be in conversation while seated in an equilateral triangle: one at the head of the table, one at the right and one at the left. Throughout the years, theologians have used this icon to explain or understand something about the nature of the Holy Trinity.

The Bible clearly teaches the truth of the existence of the Trinity and while we may not fully understand the mystery - we believe by faith that what God has revealed to us in His word is truth.

The Trinity, the Triune nature of God, is difficult for us to comprehend. It is a mystery. So here is the question: If the Trinity is such a big mystery, why is belief in the Trinity foundational to our faith? Why can we not just believe in “God” and leave it at that? Why do we need to know that God is Three in One? The simple answer is that without the Trinity, we lose the truth and power of the Gospel.

We know the Bible teaches us that by our nature, we are sinful. We know we deserve the wrath of God rather than His compassion, mercy, and love. We know that Jesus, the Son, came to earth to take the punishment for our sins upon Himself. We know that because of Jesus’ death on the Cross, reconciliation with Father was made possible. We know that when Jesus ascended into Heaven after His resurrection, the Holy Spirit came and now empowers the disciples of Jesus to live for God’s honor and glory. We know that each person of the Trinity plays His own role in our redemption. No Trinity, no salvation and no possibility of a restored relationship with God.

So, how can God exist as three distinct persons simultaneously and yet still be One God?
It is the mystery of mysteries. The word, “Trinity” is not found in the Bible, but the Triune Nature of God is taught and demonstrated. The Hospitality of Abraham is one of those demonstrative images.

Last Sunday, we celebrated the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. In his Gospel, St. Matthew tells us: “After His baptism, as Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove upon and settling upon Him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my dearly beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” (Matthew 3:16-17). Here we see the manifestation of the Holy Trinity to men. Each person of the Holy Trinity interacting with each other: God the Father speaks. God the Son is being baptized in the River Jordan. And the Holy Spirit descends like a dove from heaven. All three, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together at the Baptism of Jesus.

The opening verses of the Gospel of St. John say: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made. The Word gave life to everything that was created, and His life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it” (John 1:1-5). This opening paragraph tells us that Jesus already existed, that He is co-eternal with the Father and the Spirit.

The Church’s dogmatic theology proceeds in stages, as “we are able to bear it,” to grasp the deeper meaning of Christ’s person and His revelation. The roots of Trinitarian theology are found in the initial act of creation, where God brings forth all things by His Word and brings order and beauty out of chaos by His Spirit.

More and more information about the Triune nature of the Eternal Living God is revealed by the Holy Spirit as mankind matures spiritually and intellectually over the centuries. God did not reveal everything about Himself at once. For example, sections of Sacred Scripture that were written later in time contain a fuller revelation of God compared to the earlier sections. In other words, God revealed knowledge in a progressive and increasing way throughout Sacred Scripture from the earliest writings to the later writings. This does not mean that the earlier writings of the Bible are inferior or less inspired than the later writings.

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip His people to do every good work.

The Holy Spirit has revealed more about the Nature of God with increasing clarity over the centuries. This progressive revelation of the Triune God finally reaches its completion with the Spirit-inspired Ecumenical Councils, whose dogmatic affirmations elaborate, in perfect continuity, revelation contained in the Holy Scriptures.

Even with the canon of Scripture complete, there are still things about God that have not been revealed to us. There are things about God that our finite minds simply cannot understand. But there will be no more public revelations until such time as Christ comes again at the Second Coming to judge the living and the dead. There will always be private revelations, but such revelations cannot contradict or change “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.”

We believe in the Holy Trinity by faith because there are things about the nature and existence of God we will never be able to fully grasp while remaining alive on this earth. Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see. Through their faith, the people in days of old earned a good reputation. By faith, we understand that the entire universe was formed at God’s command, that what we now see did not come from anything that can be seen.

For now, we trust God’s Word is true. We cannot completely explain the mystery of the Trinity but by faith, we believe in the Triune Nature of God. By faith, we are confident of things we do not see. By faith, we believe in the Triune God. By faith we know we are loved by our heavenly Father. By faith, we know Jesus is our Lord and Savior. By faith, we know the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives. By faith, we are disciples of Christ.

When Jesus returns and we, His disciples, are changed and transformed into His likeness when we are in Heaven in the presence of God; then and only then will the mystery of mysteries, the triune nature of God no longer be a mystery to us. What was hinted at in the Old Testament and demonstrated in the New Testament will be fully revealed to us when we stand in glory with our Lord.

Over the centuries, bishops, theologians, and biblical scholars have attempted to understand the Mystery of the Trinity. People have used various examples and illustrations to try and explain the nature of the Trinity. Some have said that the Trinity is like water, three phases of one substance: steam, liquid, and ice. Some use the analogy of a three-leaf clover - one leaf three parts. Neither of those illustrations or analogies is really an adequate description of the Triune Nature of God.

There is a story told that St. Augustine of Hippo was struggling to understand the doctrine of the Trinity. So, he decided to go for a walk on the beach, where he saw a little boy digging a hole in the sand with a seashell. The boy then ran off to the ocean, filling the shell, and rushed back to pour it into the hole he had made. “What are you doing” St. Augustine asked. “I’m trying to put the ocean into this hole,” the boy replied. Augustine suddenly realized that this was precisely what he was trying to do…to fit the great mysteries of God into his mind.

Friends, I am thankful that although the Trinity is central to our Orthodox Catholic faith, we do not have to fully understand the mystery of the Trinity to believe in God and be in a relationship with Him. It will remain for us a mystery until we are perfected in Christ in the Day of Judgment.

Have you ever tried to solve a mystery? A mystery, in theological terms, is not an enigma, a puzzle or something unknown. A mystery is a truth which was at one time unknown or unrecognized, but which, at some point, is revealed. Let us not deny the mystery, but rather hold it close to our hearts and treasure it, looking forward to the day when it will be fully and completely revealed to us.

Amen.


Homily for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord - (January 7, 2018)

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

Today we read about Jesus’ baptism, which was the start of His ministry on earth. Since baptism represents the washing away of sins, and Jesus was sinless, why did He need to be baptized? It was because His baptism fulfilled God’s saving activity as foretold in the Old Testament and culminating in His death on the cross. In other words, Jesus came to bring salvation to everyone. Jesus was willing to set a good example by doing God’s will, and it was God’s will that everyone who believed in Him be baptized.

John the Baptist’s baptism emphasized repentance or turning away from our sins. Baptism represents the turning away from the old to the new, from our old ways of life to the kingdom of God. The baptism of Jesus (along with the descent of the Spirit, the proclamation of God and the witness of John) was a sign to both the people of his day and to us of something extraordinary. It was a sign that God wanted to become one with us and yet be different from us at the same time. Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension gave baptism an entirely new meaning. Jesus’ baptism was a complete indication of his identification with the kingdom He was announcing.

Jesus’ baptism shows the glory of God’s plan and how all the details are important to God. Jesus heard the Holy Spirit call Him to speak the truth and live with grace. Christ came to identify with sinners and give them His righteousness. His baptism was a part of that righteousness, and it was also a key part of Matthew’s plan to show his Jewish audience that Jesus is “God with us”. Jesus entered the same waters that His Jewish brothers and sisters entered, and by doing so they trusted that the God of Israel was still with them and could deliver them from the forces of evil. Jesus had to join with them to show them how far God would go to be a part of their lives so they could be a part of God’s life.

Jesus shows us the same thing. He shows us how far God will go to be a part of our lives so that we can be a part of God’s life. When He insisted that John should baptize Him, Jesus wanted to melt into the crowd of the marginalized and rejects of society. By being with them, Jesus would raise them up, meet them in their despair, give them hope, be with them in their pain, comfort and cure them, accept them in their shame and bring forgiveness to them. Since Jesus also wants us to have right relationships with all people He went out and preached, healed and reached out to those who asked for forgiveness, who needed healing and who wanted to hear God’s Word.

Jesus was baptized so He could be one with us. Are we bold enough to be one with Him? Can we, like Jesus, go into the dark lives of people to open their eyes and free them from sin? This can be hard to do if we are not washed of our cowardice, of our weakness, of our sins, but when we are washed in the waters of baptism, and confirmed in the Faith of the Apostles, as preached and lived by the Church, Jesus gives us the strength we need.

Jesus’ baptism was for everyone, including the Gentiles. The Book of Acts (Acts 10:34-43) marks the acceptance of the Gentiles into the Christian community. The Gentiles did not have to show any prior observances. God is for everyone. He has no barriers to His love, and we must not put up any barriers to anyone who wants to come to God in faith.

John the Baptist did not want to baptize Jesus because John was faced with the real authority of the Son of God. John did not know what to do. John had to be faithful to his calling, preaching and baptizing, in repentance so that Jesus could be faithful in His calling. We too must be faithful to the calling to which we have been called: Feeding the hungry, caring for the sick and the imprisoned, singing in the choir, visiting the elderly in nursing homes, printing bulletins, cleaning the church, or some other task. God’s way is through humble service to others, and Jesus is the best example of humble service. We have a choice: follow the wide gate to an earthly life that will lead to death and destruction or follow the narrow gate to eternal life. By submitting to baptism, Jesus showed that God cares about us. Jesus came to a place where He did not belong so that we could go to a place where we could not otherwise go.

Jesus’ submission to baptism was no simple act of personal piety. Jesus saw John’s baptism and fiery preaching as a declaration that there would be a new world order where God will set right what the evil world did wrong. By submitting to John’s baptism, Jesus declared that He was ready for this new world order, a new world order He starts with His ministry.

We as Christians are called to live out our baptism actively, consistently, and faithfully. We cannot afford to make ourselves comfortable or do only what will be appreciated, or simply be satisfied with the way things are. We must struggle with what is right and what is wrong, what is important and what is not important. We must fight the good fight that we may inherit the riches of the heavenly Kingdom. Baptism changes us. It is a celebration of grace and an enactment of the Word of God.

As I mentioned earlier, Jesus’ baptism was the start of His earthly ministry. He had to have a clear sense of God’s support and identity before He could begin His mission. Our mission is the same as His mission, and before we can start our mission, we need to have the support and identity that only our faith in Jesus can provide. That identity is as a child of God.

Baptism calls us to service. God had a purpose for Jesus, and He has a purpose for each and every one of us. This purpose will be made clear to us at a time and place of God’s choosing. We cannot change God’s timetable. He does things in His own time and in His own way. He gives us a vision. He reveals to us why we do what we do. He gives us a purpose even in our pain. If we are faithful, great things will happen. They might happen immediately, or they might not happen for two or three generations. They might happen in our lifetime, or they might happen after we die, but if we are faithful to God’s calling, great things will definitely happen.

Doing what God requires is difficult. For some, it means becoming more humble, because they have gotten too proud. For others, it means becoming more forceful, because they are too meek. For others, it means going out and helping the needy. We must also remember that what we think is the right thing to do may not be what God considers to be right. For example, Joseph thought he was doing the right thing when he planned to divorce Mary after she became pregnant, but it was not what God wanted.

Today, as we contemplate the mystery of Christ's baptism, there are a number of things that I would like you to think about when you get home.

In today's culture, many people, even those who are baptized Christians, have great difficulty with their own identity.  Many people wonder what their purpose is in this life.  People find little or no meaning as they carry out their daily activities. A cloud of laziness hangs over many people as they also strive to find direction for their lives.  This Sunday's liturgy shows us that Jesus gives us meaning, purpose, and direction.   It is through the Sacrament of Baptism that we become His disciples.  Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and it is precisely in Jesus that our human existence finds fulfillment.

Moreover, the consideration of Jesus' baptism, gives us an opportunity to remember our own baptism.  If you do not know the date of your own baptism, it is a good idea to go through your personal files and find out when it occurred.  Many people are celebrating the anniversary of their baptism with a special celebration like that of a birthday.  After all, baptism is the day that we are reborn.  We become children of God, active members of the Church, and temples of the Holy Spirit.  Original sin is washed away; we receive sanctifying grace and the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity.  The reality of baptism certainly gives us great cause to celebrate.

Finally, as we contemplate the baptism of the Lord, we are reminded of our apostolic mission as disciples of Jesus Christ.  Jesus commissions the Church to go forth and baptize all nations.  It is erroneous to deny that baptism is essential for salvation.  The large numbers of people who have not been baptized should inspire us to always seek the salvation of souls. The presence of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove at Jesus' baptism underscores the apostolic dimension of baptism, precisely because it is the Holy Spirit who appears as tongues of fire at the moment when the Church begins its mission to baptize all nations.

We must listen for our calling. We must not be afraid if God calls us to do something great. We must not be ashamed if God calls us to do something small. We must be faithful and prepare ourselves to see the heavens open and hear God’s voice saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Amen.


Homily for the Feast of the Epiphany - (January 6, 2018)

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

There is something special about the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord. We are reminded on this day as we celebrate this solemnity within the context of the Divine Liturgy that the Son of God came for all people, Jew and Gentile alike. His saving love is available to everyone, everywhere, in whatever state of life they may find themselves. There is no one outside of God's thirst for love.

Epiphany means manifestation. What the Church celebrates today is the manifestation of our Lord to the whole world; after being made known to the shepherds of Bethlehem He is revealed to the Magi who have come from the East to adore Him. Christian tradition has ever seen in the Magi the first fruits of the Gentiles; they lead in their wake all the peoples of the earth, and thus the Epiphany is an affirmation of universal salvation. St. Leo brings out this point admirably in a sermon, read at Matins, in which he shows in the adoration of the Magi the beginnings of Christian faith, the time when the great mass of the heathen sets off to follow the star which summons it to seek its Savior.

That is the meaning, too, of the wonderful prophecy from Isaiah which the Church appoints to be read at Matins of the feast. This same thought of universal redemption the Church returns to as she sings in the Vigil Service, applying the words to herself, of the union with Christ typified by the wedding feast at Cana, by the baptism of her children foreshadowed by that of Christ in the waters of the Jordan.

Formerly, the Epiphany was an additional day for solemn baptisms, but in the Italo-Greek tradition, this custom was transferred to the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, when the celebration of that feast was adopted by our Church in 1978.

Many traditions and genuine manifestations of popular piety have been developed in relation to the Solemnity of the Lord's Epiphany. Among such forms of popular piety, mention may be made of the solemn proclamation of Easter and the principal dominical feasts. This pious tradition or custom makes a direct connection between Epiphany and Easter and orientates all feasts towards Pascha, the Feast of feasts.

There is also the exchange of "Epiphany gifts", which derives from the gifts offered to Jesus by the three kings (Matthew 2:11) and more radically from the gift made to mankind by God in the birth of Emmanuel amongst us (Isaiah 7: 14; 9: 16; Matthew 1: 23). It is why Epiphany is oftentimes called “Little Christmas.” However, it is important to ensure that the exchange of gifts on the solemnity of the Epiphany retain a Christian character, indicating that its meaning is evangelical: hence the gifts offered should be a genuine expression of popular piety and free from extravagance, luxury, and waste, all of which are extraneous to the Christian origins of this practice.

Finally, there is the blessing of homes, on whose lintels are inscribed the Cross of salvation, together with the indication of the year and the initials of the three wise men (C+M+B), written in blessed chalk. This custom, often accompanied by processions of children accompanied by their parents, expresses the blessing of Christ through the intercession of the three wise men and is an occasion for gathering offerings for charitable and missionary purposes.

Beyond these pious practices and customs, however, the Feast of Epiphany presents us with gifts rich and enduring. They are the gifts of enlightenment, illumination, and discernment. Through the Magi, we are shown the glory and majesty of God. Christ the Light, who illumines and enlightens the world and all mankind, is revealed as God by a star which led the Magi to Bethlehem to worship the newborn King, not just the King of the Jews, but of all men.

The first sentence of this Sunday's Gospel presents us with a contrast between the three principal figures of Jesus, Herod the Great, and the Magi who search the night for the focal point of a star's light, the newborn king of the Jews. Herod stands in between, not as a bridge but as an obstruction whose evil intent is to destroy the Child the Magi seek. Herod represents the opposite of the divine mission of Jesus as well as the goal the magi have in mind in seeking out the Son of God made man.

In comparing and contrasting Jesus, Herod the Great, and the Magi, we can learn an important lesson about how to live our life. Let us begin with Jesus. What was He about? Why did the Son of God appear in time? Why did the Son of God become man? The Church, for centuries, has been consistent in Her teaching as to why the Word was made flesh. She tells us that 1) The "Word became flesh for us to save us by reconciling us with God,” 2) "The Word became flesh so that we might know God's love,” 3) "The Word became flesh to be our model of holiness," 4) "The Word became flesh to make us partakers of the divine nature so that we might become sons and daughters of God,” and 5) “The Word became flesh out of boundless love for humanity, that we may have life and have it abundantly.”

Herod, on the other hand, displayed by his actions something of an entirely different sort. When we think of Herod, we think of tyrants who left terrifying and ugly scars on human history: men such as Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung), and Ivan IV "the Terrible," to name only a few.

Herod the Great was part of a non-Jewish (Edomite) family that held political favor with Rome. He first ruled Galilee and then all of Palestine. He took power in Jerusalem in 37 B.C. and was later appointed "king of the Jews" by the Roman Senate in 40 B.C. to replace the collapsing dynasty of Jewish priestly rulers. He held on to his throne until death. He is credited with initiating and completing extensive building projects, of which the renovation of the Jerusalem Temple, which he rebuilt and expanded, is the most well-known.

Herod was disturbed by the "star" the magi followed because it recalled Old Testament prophecy about the Messiah. In Numbers 24:17, we read Balaam's prediction: "a star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel." Herod was troubled by this prophecy since he was an Edomite and knew the same oracle foretold disaster for his family: "Edom shall be dispossessed" (Num. 24:18).

Herod's unrelenting fear was the loss of his power. That a newborn king had been born was an intolerable threat. With typical worldly maneuvering, Herod seeks to stamp out Jesus and thus yet again secure his political position. As we know, he ordered the death of the Holy Innocents in an attempt to rid himself of this perceived threat. However, Jesus was not the least interested in temporal thrones, worldly power or amassing perishable riches. He wishes not to take anything from Herod. On the contrary, Jesus wants to give something to Herod, something Herod cannot possibly win in any political power-play.

Jesus came to give Himself and therefore His kingdom to others. But this is a type of kingdom Herod apparently could not fathom. This kingdom is not of the world. It cannot be taken by force, coercion or political intrigue.

Herod is infamous for his ruthlessness and single-minded devotion to wiping out his enemies, whether friends or family or anyone else who threatened his throne. History records that Herod murdered his favorite wife and three of his sons.

By worldly standards, Herod was the accomplished political survivor; the powerful ruler who would do whatever it takes to maintain his high seat in his own country. Given his building projects, the restoration of the Temple, and his ability to outmaneuver his opponents, some in his time likely saw him as a visionary. But he was not.

The magi were likely astrologers from Persia who were interested in an extraordinary "star" that appeared shining over the location of the infant king of the Jews. However, it was not merely the "star" that caught their eye. For Someone had first caught their hearts.

While Herod was murderously holding on, the magi were wisely letting go. They were watching and waiting not with intent to murder, but intent on finding new hope and new life. They were surveying the night sky not to insulate themselves but to open themselves to the Divine Other who is Himself the source of life. The magi were looking not merely for a sign from God, but rather for Christ Himself, who is the Word made flesh and the perfect image of the Father. Moved by the promise of what they perceived in the heavens, they left their country behind in search of not merely a star, but THE STAR.

Herod is looking for the wrong things, searching in the wrong places, destroying to shore-up his political position, conspiring to annihilate perceived opponents. But the magi take the humble, submissive and wise approach. They seek what is right and true and beautiful. They journey in search of the good, the wondrous, the ultimate. They head out into the dangerous night, risking their lives in search of Divine Light. The magi are the visionaries.

The star the Magi saw was a sign for all people. It is high and in full view. Its light shines down upon the real Star, Jesus Christ, who came to heal, elevate and restore humanity. The light of Jesus Christ, represented by the star over Bethlehem, illuminates the mystery of man, points the way, and reveals the path to salvation and eternal life.

While one day the Star will give up its life for many, its Light will never fade. It is important to ask yourself, "What type of journey am I on?" Who or what do I pursue? What am I willing to leave behind, what am I willing to risk to find God? Am I surveying the night sky to gain power, or to survive in a fallen world, or to live forever in eternal communion with God, held securely in His loving embrace?

Perhaps you once sought but no longer. Perhaps the evanescent lure of the world has deflected you from the journey of illumination in Christ and forced you off course by your own consent toward the path of darkness. Perhaps your vision has become clouded. If so, turn to the Newborn King, whose vision heals and clarifies and restores; turn to Christ whose love heals and gives sight to the blind, bringing light to those who before could not see.

Jesus Christ is THE VISIONARY. His journey is the one to follow. Christ is the Star whose divine light gives meaning to our lives and completes our journey.

In Jesus' vision, there is eternal life for humanity; within this divine vision of love, we will be made like Him, for we shall see Him as He is (1 John 3:2). The Son of God became man that we might become like God. There is no greater vision.

St. Leo the Great wrote: "Christian, recognize your dignity and, now that you share in God's own nature, do not return to your former base condition by sinning. Remember who is your head and of whose body you are a member. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought into the light of the Kingdom of God."

After the Magi visited Jesus, they are warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and "departed for their country by another way" (Matthew 2:12).

An encounter with the true King of the Jews changes us forever. We might travel back to our country, but it is no longer the familiar home. We might again inhabit old places, but we no longer truly live there. Perhaps we go back to work, to school or to college, but we are different; things are different. The old self is left behind, the new self journeys onward into the new night devoid of darkness. The illumination of the Star guides our every step and movement; the way is no longer uncertain; we are no longer alone. Life is new. We have found an unwavering and certain security in the Light who is Jesus Christ and the Star who infinitely loves. Life becomes lively, exhilarating and joyful even in the midst of suffering. In Christ, we become truly free. In an encounter with the true Visionary, we do not simply embrace His vision but become part of it. We become one with Him.

Amen.