Let it be

“Today the Theotokos, the temple that is to hold God, is led into the Temple and Zacharias receives her… Let us cry aloud with Gabriel: Rejoice, you who are full of grace, the Lord is with you, he who has great mercy.” So we sang at Vespers last night. The one who is to become the temple and palace of God is led into the temple.



Presentation of the Theotokos in the Temple (Chora Church, 14th c, Istanbul)


In the readings last night, we heard how, of old, the tabernacle was constructed according to the command of God as the place where the ark of testimony was to be placed, covered with a veil, illumined by candlesticks and lamps, with incense offered on a golden altar, and with the tabernacle and all the vessels anointed with the oil of anointing.


We heard that when it was finished, the tabernacle was overshadowed by the cloud and filled with the glory of the Lord, so that no one, not even Moses, was able to enter the tent.


Now, today, the Theotokos is led into the temple of the Lord, to preach Christ to all, and to become the temple, the dwelling place of the glory of God, overshadowed by the Holy Spirit; and not only the dwelling place, as the tabernacle of old, but the one who gives birth to God, so that in her and through her, in and through a human being, the glory of God radiates to the world.


All aspects of the temple point to her; she is their fulfillment. She is the jar containing the manna, the ark of the covenant, the rod of Aaron which budded forth, and all the other images we use to praise her. As we sang: “The written law has passed away and vanished as a shadow, and the rays of grace have shone forth at your entry into the temple of God, O undefiled Virgin Mother.” All the Law and the Prophets point to her; the reality has come and the shadows have passed away.


She is, as we sing, the fulfillment of the dispensation of the whole economy, indeed, of the whole of creation. As St Nicodemus put it: the world was created for Mary… and she for Christ. The whole world was created for the one who would say, “Let it be!”—the one who gives space to God as his temple and so allows the creator to enter his creation.


The tabernacle made by hands finds its fulfillment in the temple that is Mary, and through her, God enters this world to dwell amongst us, no longer hidden in the inner sanctuary in the man-made temple in Jerusalem, but dwelling among us, and now us in him.


She is the gate, as Ezekiel says, through which the Lord has entered the world: “O Gate of the Lord, unto you I open the gates of the temple,” Zacharias exclaims. “I now know and believe that the deliverance of Israel shall come to dwell openly in our midst.”


For this deliverance to come about, however, we must go one step further into the temple. The epistle reading spoke of how the priests would go into the outer tabernacle to perform their ritual services, but the high priest alone would go into the Holy of Holies only once a year, to offer blood for himself and the errors of the people.


The apostle continues: Christ himself, the High Priest of the good things to come, entered the greater and more perfect tabernacle, the one not made by human hands, entering once for all, offering not the blood of animal sacrifices, but his own blood, so securing an eternal redemption for all.


It is by his self-sacrifice that Christ enters this more perfect tabernacle and does so once-for-all… so that the gate remains shut: “It shall not be opened, and no man shall enter by it, for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it. Therefore it shall remain shut,” says Ezekiel.


His sacrifice is once and for all—for all people and for all time. It is an eternal sacrifice and an eternal redemption. The gateway remains shut, but salvation is available for all.


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Blessing by the Priests (Chora Church, 14th c, Istanbul)


Today, then, as the Theotokos enters the temple, preaching Christ to all, she becomes the one through whom the glory of God enters this world, by being the gateway through which the Lord enters the more perfect tabernacle, offering his eternal sacrifice and being the High Priest of the good things to come. She is the bridge, the passageway or the exodus from creation to recreation and redemption.


The Temple is both the place where God enters the world and the place where the sacrifice is made; and these two aspects—the womb and the tomb—cannot be separated.


For all this to happen, of course, Mary had to say: “Let it be!” Not only “Let the power of the most high overshadow me,” but also, “Let the sword piece my heart, too.”


Yet these words of Mary—“Let it be!”—are glaringly absent from the hymnography for this feast. The reason for this is because, today, as we celebrate this feast, she is our “Let it be!” She is the completion or culmination of creation as it—as we—respond to the Word of God.


Mary is not simply brought into the temple; she is offered there, she is sacrificed by our “Let it be!” Joachim and Anna, the hymns said, “rejoice exceedingly, for they have offered to God, as a three-year old victim of sacrifice, the Queen without blemish.” Mary is the pure and blameless sacrifice to God on behalf of all human beings, “the dove without blemish and the ewe-lamb of God without spot.” This is what it means to say “Let it be”!


For our high calling, to be conformed to the image and likeness of God, for this to be realized, we too need to be able to say for ourselves: Let it be!


God does not enter into this world except by our offering him space, not a geographical space somewhere else in the world, but our own place—ourselves and our own time, today—the sacrifice of our own sense of self, our attempts to construct our own identity, to set limits and boundaries on how much we are prepared to accept, to say “let it be,” but only on my terms.


No! Our own terms need to be sacrificed if we are to say: Let it be! We must sacrifice ourselves, becoming ourselves temples of God, sacrificing ourselves on the altar of our heart, so that he can now be present in us and through us; we must decrease so that he might increase.


This has been accomplished in our offering of the virgin child Mary. In a month’s time we will sing of how we offer her at Christ’s Nativity and for his Nativity; today we offer her as the temple and the Gate of the Lord, so that High Priest can, by his own once-for-all sacrifice enter the Holy of Holies. We too, even we, can be refashioned—pass through from the creation to the new creation, but only if we can say for ourselves, “Let it be!”


As we present the Theotokos into the temple today, saying to God “Let it be,” let us not misunderstand what it demands of us as ourselves temples of God. May we have the strength to say with her: “Let it be!”


cross_stands__52149-1406224506-300-300For more homilies by Fr. John Behr, check out The Cross Stands While the World Turns: Homilies for the Cycles of the Year.

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Christ is our peace

A homily delivered in Three Hierarchs Chapel at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary on Sunday, November 15, 2015. Readings for the day can be found here.

We have all seen and heard about this barbaric, horrific, and frightening terrorist action that took place in Paris on Friday. Three teams of men, disciplined in dealing death, planned this attack with the help of others and managed to evade an enormous security apparatus that blankets most of the Western world. Notably, at least one of them deviously managed to slip into Europe under the guise of a refugee. Perhaps in the coming days, we will find out more about how this crime came about: who else was involved? Who financed it? Where did they train? But at the same time, the part of story that concerns those who were out on a cold November night for dinner, a concert, a stroll, or a soccer game must also be told. The victims are worthy of our remembrance and our consideration today, and not those who appear strong with weapons that bring death or those who appear mighty and sow fear, confusion, and further enmity.

The victims of this tragedy once again compel us to think on Christ, on His Gospel, and to turn our gaze to Him. Only then can we also bear to look on the dead and the wounded of this November night, and also the dead and the wounded, the marginalized, the outcasts of every age, all those along the side of the road—sick, wounded, destitute, ill-afflicted, dead, and dying—that we would prefer to pass by. Only with Christ can we see them, as the Gospel tells us today, as our neighbor, those whom we must love with the same ferocity, the same devotion, the same ardor that we love God. Consequently, we mourn at the death of our neighbors. We anguish over the wounded. We pray that God receive the dead into His kingdom and that He restore the injured to health. To those who appear strong in their might on Friday, we call out their brutality as senseless and weak.

Extreme Humility (16th c, Meteora, Greece)

Extreme Humility (16th c, Meteora, Greece)

Christ’s own death provides us with the fundamental way of understanding the world according to the Gospel. It is what the Apostle says: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God (I Cor. 1.27-29).” Only with Christ, in our love for Him and our love for our newly defined neighbor, will we truly live. Seeing things in this manner allows us to see past the veil of this world, past the wisdom of this world, and perceive exactly the wisdom of God, Jesus Christ, active in this world.

In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist acts, social media was abuzz with messages of hope, solidarity, and prayers for the people of Paris. One notorious statement emerged and rejected prayers from the different corners of the globe:

“Please don’t pray for Paris. We’ve had enough religion for one night.”

I counter this to the greatest degree I can personally muster: we do not need less religion, we need more. We need Christianity and authentic faith. We need Jesus Christ, because we need to love Him, because He our God. We need to love those around us, those who are far from us, because they are our neighbor. Neither enmity or hatred, but Christ and the peace spoken of in the Epistle today are what we, the entire world, needs.

In other words, what abides, what remains, is exactly that person spoken of in days of old: “The Prince of peace (Is. 9.6),” He “who inhabits eternity, whose name is holy.” Eternal and holy, He remains. He endures. He revives, restores, comforts, and heals us when we turn to him. Christ is our peace (Eph. 2.14), the peace proclaimed far and wide. In all our struggles, in all our affliction, in all our angst, anxiety, and uncertainty about what happens in the present and what the future might bring, Christ is our peace. When we are most vulnerable and feel we are in danger of losing everything, our Lord remains with us.

Jesus Christ (13th-14thc, Church of Protaton, Mount Athos, Greece)

Jesus Christ (13th-14thc, Church of Protaton, Mount Athos, Greece)

Now when Paul speaks about Christ as our peace today, he is not speaking of peace as a state of quiet, personal contentment. Rather he speaks here of reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles in Christ. The resolution to their separation, alienation, and estrangement is faith in God. How are they reconciled? By faith in Christ, who “abolish[ed] in his flesh” what had separated them. He brought forward a new man, reconciling us to God through His blood and His cross. This is not merely a historical fact, or a description of a theological controversy, but exposes for us who we are in reality. We are not strangers or sojourners to the heavenly realms, and citizens of this world. No! We have access to and can be rich in the spiritual treasures, because we are “fellow citizens with the saints…members with of the household of God,” and neighbors one to another. We have been knitted and joined together as the Temple of the Living God, as the dwelling place for the God in the Spirit.

I began today speaking of tragedy. I end today speaking of reassurance, comfort, support, encouragement, hope, and faith, because we are “not like those who have no hope.” We have Christ. We have faith in Christ. We have Peace. He alone is our answer to what ails us and afflicts the world.

Archpriest Alexander Rentel, a 1995 M.Div. graduate of St. Vladimir’s, finished his doctoral dissertation under the direction of Fr. Robert Taft, SJ, at the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome in January 2004. Prior to coming to St. Vladimir’s as a professor, Fr. Alexander was a 2000-2001 Junior Fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C. He has taken numerous research trips to Greece, Italy, and France. He was ordained to the priesthood in July 2001. He and his wife, Nancy (née Homyak, M.Div. 1995) are the proud parents of three children, Dimitrios, Maria, and Daniel.


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Good in itself


Helping a person in need is good in itself.

But the degree of goodness is hugely affected by the attitude with which it is done. If you show resentment because you are helping the person out of a reluctant sense of duty, then the person may receive your help but may feel awkward and embarrassed. This is because he will feel beholden to you. If, on the other hand, you help the person in a spirit of joy, then the help will be received joyfully. The person will feel neither demeaned nor humiliated by your help, but rather will feel glad to have caused you pleasure by receiving your help. And joy is the appropriate attitude with which to help others because acts of generosity are a source of blessing to the giver as well as the receiver.


-St. John Chrysostom (Emphases added)

St. John Chrysostom, along with St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory the Theologian, is a patron of the St. Vladimir’s Seminary Three Hierarchs Chapel. May he always intercede for us.

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Prayer for the acceptance of God’s will

Leanne Parrott Photography.

Leanne Parrott Photography.

O Lord, I do not know what to ask of You. You alone know what are my true needs.

You love me more than I myself know how to love.

Help me to see my real needs which are concealed from me. I do not dare to ask either for a cross or for consolation. I can only wait on You.

My heart is open to You. Visit and help me, for the sake of Your great mercy.

Strike me and heal me; cast me down and raise me up. I worship in silence Your holy will and Your unsearchable ways.

I offer myself as a sacrifice to You. I have no other desire than to fulfill Your will.

Teach me to pray. Pray You Yourself in me. Amen.

-Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow

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Jesus will rise here also

with abpDuring Holy Week and Bright Week, 2015, St. Vladimir’s seminarians Edward Hunter, Lijin Raju, and I had the unbelievable opportunity to travel to Kenya as part of a mission trip sponsored by the Orthodox Christian Mission Center (OCMC), and led by Executive Director Fr. Martin Ritsi. As the result of a generous grant, the three of us were able to travel to Kenya without any expenses of our own. The trip was one that we will never forget, as it has left an imprint on all three of our hearts.

Our first week in Kenya was spent in Nairobi at the Orthodox seminary, which is run by His Eminence Archbishop Makarios of Kenya. The entire time we were there, the staff and students were exceptionally hospitable and His Eminence always went out of his way to ensure that we were taken care of. One of the days, Archimandrite Philip Mugadizi (SVOTS ‘03), told us about the work Archbishop Makarios has done as well as what he hopes to accomplish in the future.

12052567_886952414717873_1722409182556908033_oWe participated with our brother seminarians in the Holy Week services, which the priests served using a mix of English, Greek, and Swahili. On Great and Holy Friday, after we processed with the tomb of Christ through the impoverished neighborhood of Kibera, one of the largest slums in the world, Archbishop Makarios professed, “Jesus has been crucified. But He will rise on the third day. Even if you are in the poorest place, Jesus will rise here also.”

My time at Makarios III Patriarchal Orthodox Seminary worshipping the same Lord and celebrating the same Pascha showed me that the God we all worship is the same one—the same Christ that we all need in order for salvation, the same Christ who has called each of us, as seminarians, to serve in His One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church.

As part of our #GivingTuesday 2015 Campaign, St. Vladimir’s Seminary will be donating 10% of whatever money we raise on December 1 to help build up the theological library of Makarios III Patriarchal Orthodox Seminary.

Shawn Thomas is a third-year seminarian in the Master of Divinity program. He is from Chicago, IL, and his home parish is St. Peter’s Jacobite Syriac Orthodox Church. Take a look at Makarios III Patriarchal Orthodox Seminary, thanks to photos from Fr. Philip Mugadizi and Shawn. You can read about the second week of Shawn’s trip to Kenya here.

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A day to bring the love of Christ into the world

A homily delivered in the Three Hierarchs Chapel at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary on the Feast of St. Demetrios (Monday, October 26, 2015).

Some excuses never get old.

When I was little, if my brother did something to me, I’d do the same back to him. I’d launch a proportionate retaliatory strike. If he pulled my hair, I’d pull his hair. If he punched me in the arm, I’d punch him in the arm. And whenever I got caught, what do you think I said?

“He did it to me first!”

Somehow, without ever having been taught, my kids know the exact same excuse.

“Why did you do that to your brother?”

“He did it to me first!”

This excuse is as old as time, yet every generation picks it up and uses it. And it’s not just kids that use the excuse. Husbands and wives use it to excuse insults and infidelities. Neighbors use this excuse to justify snubs and petty treachery. Nations and regions are torn apart by brutal retaliation and blood feuds. And in every case, it is all based on that age old excuse:

“They did it to us first.”

“Someone hurt me, so I have the RIGHT to hurt them back.”

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. A proportionate, retaliatory strike.

But does it bring life?

There is a famous line from a play, where villagers are being unjustly driven from their homes, and they say, “We should stand our ground, we should fight. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth!” And the main character replies, “Very good. That way the whole world will be blind and toothless.” And it’s true.

Blinded by a quest for justice on our terms we cannot see our neighbor as a human person, created in the image and likeness of God. All we see are dark fearful shadows. And having been rendered toothless, we starve, unable to eat at the table of God’s mercy. Instead we choke on the smoke of our smoldering anger. We dwell on old wounds and grievances as if they could do anything more than poison our souls.

Today Jesus says to us, “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you.” So, according to the age-old excuse, Jesus had every right to hate the world. Of all the people who have ever lived, Jesus had the most reasons to hate the world back. He was innocent. He had done nothing wrong. He had committed no crime. He healed the sick, he gave sight back to the blind, he cast out demons, he fed the multitudes. But yet, he was convicted by the religious authorities of being a blasphemer, and he was convicted by the governor of being a political trouble-maker. So they stripped him naked, and whipped him, and marched him through the city, and nailed him to a cross, and let him hang there until he died.

Hosios Loukas Monastery, Boeotia, Greece, early 11th c

Hosios Loukas Monastery, Boeotia, Greece, early 11th c

If anyone had the right to hate the world it was Jesus.

But he knew better.

Yes, the world hated Jesus, but God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son. God acted first, out of love and mercy and compassion. He came into the world and facing the horrors of the Crucifixion, as the world went mad with hatred, Jesus prayed, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Instead of making excuses, Jesus makes the perfect sacrifice. He offers himself. And today we see that same sacrificial love in the life and death of St. Demetrios.

St. Demetrios was born and raised in a Christian family in the late third century, before Christianity was legal. His father was a high-ranking imperial official in Thessalonica who maintained a secret Church in his home. When Demetrios’ father died, the emperor appointed Demetrios to succeed his father as proconsul.

But in addition to the normal imperial duties of managing and protecting the city, the emperor commanded Demetrios to eradicate Christianity in the city and execute anyone who called on the name of Christ. Demetrios accepted the appointment as proconsul, but instead of carrying out the emperor’s command, he returned to Thessalonica and publicly confessed his Christian faith, proclaiming the Gospel to all that would listen. Upon learning that Demetrios was a Christian and that he had converted many to the faith, the emperor ordered his arrest.

Menologium of Basil II, ca. 1000

Menologium of Basil II, ca. 1000

At dawn on October 26, 306, soldiers came to his cell and ran him through with spears. Instead of making an excuse, St. Demetrios made the perfect sacrifice of his own life.

Martyrdom breaks the cycle of violent retribution. The Christian martyr does not go down in ball of flaming rage, but rather makes a simple statement:

I would prefer to die than to renounce my faith in Christ, so that you may know the power of the love of God.

Since his death and burial, the relics of St. Demetrios have been a source of consolation and inspiration to generations of believers. Multiple empires and hundreds of wars have come and gone since the death of St. Demetrios, but his witness to the love of Jesus Christ remains. The martyr does not die in spite of his persecutors, any more than Jesus died in spite of the world. Rather, the martyr dies for the salvation of the very ones who persecute him.

This is the love of Christ.

This is the power of God.

Relics of St. Demetrios, Hagios Demetrios, Thessaloniki

Relics of St. Demetrios, Hagios Demetrios, Thessaloniki

So today is not a day for excuses. It is a day to bring the love of Christ into the world. Smell the air, right here in the chapel. Do you smell the sweet aroma of myrrh? It is not unlike the myrrh that streams from the tomb of St. Demetrius. It is the wonderful aromatic reminder we have on our clothes every time we return home from Church.

So today, the moment you feel the slightest hint of anger or resentment, think of this smell right now, and remember the love of Christ that fills our hearts this morning. In some small way, perhaps known only to God, sacrifice part of your life for the sake of your neighbor. Respond to an insult with a kind word. Repay an offense with an act of kindness. React to anger with the love of Christ. Offer yourself for the sake of your neighbor, and glorify Jesus Christ.

The Rev. Dr. J. Sergius Halvorsen (SVOTS ’96) received his M.Div. from St. Vladimir’s Seminary and completed his doctoral dissertation at Drew University in 2002. From 2000 to 2011 he taught at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell Connecticut, where he also served as Director of Distance Learning. He was ordained to the priesthood in February 2004, and currently serves on the faculty of SVOTS as Assistant Professor of Homiletics and Rhetoric and Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program.


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Known by a name

A homily delivered in Three Hierarchs Chapel at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary on Sunday, October 25, 2015. The Gospel reading for the day can be found here.

We are so familiar with most of the readings that we hear in Church on Sunday mornings, especially those that recount a memorable parable, that we rarely pay attention to what it might say to us—we think we already know.

So, we heard today the parable of the rich man and Lazarus; and as soon as we hear the first words “There was a rich man”, we think we already know what the parable is going to be about: that the rich are going to have a hard time getting into heaven, while the poor, having had a hard time of it in this life, will get in much more easily.

And then we are tempted to identify ourselves with the poor; after all, even if we are not as poor as some, we certainly are not as rich as others! There are many others who are much richer than we are, and they are certainly going to have a hard time of it. Even if we are not as destitute as Lazarus, we still find ourselves in more hardship than we would prefer—we are not as rich as we would like to be.

But if we pay closer attention, we will see that it is not simply about objective riches/poverty, but about attachment.

Rich Man in the Flame. 14th century, Dečani monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

Rich Man in the Flame. 14th century, Dečani monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

It is striking that in the parable, the rich man is not named—he is simply known as one who is clothed in purple (a royal color), fine linen and who ate well. He is not named; as it says in the Psalms, about those who do not fear God: “I will not make mention of their names with my lips” (15.4). The rich man is not known by name, but is known rather by his possessions. And they are possessions which he has not used for the benefit of others, in a philanthropy, extending God’s own philanthropy—love of mankind; rather they are used for his own adornment and luxurious living.

Known by his possessions, the rich man is in fact possessed by his possessions.

And this is the reason he will have a hard time when he passes on from this life: it is not simply that he has had great possessions, but that he is their possession—they own him. He has not used his wealth for the benefit of others, but been too attached to what he has.

On the other hand, the poor man is named—Lazarus. Yet it is not simply his poverty which grants him a place in the kingdom, but that he has endured the situation into which he was born without complaint. He did not spend his life moaning about it, but rather takes an attitude like Job.

For him to have complained about it, would be like the rich man’s attachment to his possessions: as paradoxical as it might seem, the poor man would have become attached to his poverty—and this in turn would have kept his heart back in this world, and caused him great torment.

Poor Lazarus in Abraham's Bosom. 14th century, Dečani monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

Poor Lazarus in Abraham’s Bosom. 14th century, Dečani monastery, Serbia (courtesy BLAGO Archives)

What the contrast between the rich man and Lazarus sets before us, as with Christ’s others words about material wealth, mamon, and our heart being where our treasure is, what all this presents to us is the challenge to be detached from the things of the world and to place all our hope, trust and love in God.

To live in such detachment, of course, requires faith. After all, it is not the evidence of our eyes that will persuade us that we can in fact give more generously to the poor than we like to think; the evidence of our eyes will always be to the contrary—I will be visibly poorer if I do so. The evidence of our eyes is not enough, and so the parable concludes with Abraham saying that even if someone should return from the dead—providing visible evidence—it would not be enough to persuade; if they do not already believe Moses and the prophets, no visible proof will suffice.

Moses and the prophets, of course, direct us to Christ, as the eternal and unchanging Word of God. And as we heard in the epistle, it is by faith in him that we are made righteous, not by anything that we can do of ourselves. In fact, as Paul said, in our desire to be righteous in him, we will be found to be sinners—that is, we are found to be living without the law, outside of the law. It is no longer a comprehensive system of regulations that we have to fulfill to appease our deity (however much we might tend to view religion in that manner). Rather if the righteousness of God is revealed in his crucified Son, then what is demanded of us is that we be, as Paul said, crucified with him.

And we have learnt from today’s parable a concrete way in which this is lived out is through our detachment from all worldly things; a detachment, not a despising; a detachment which enables us to see all things as the good gifts of God and frees us to use all things for the benefit of others—so that all things are indeed good gifts from God (not merely in word, but in reality), and so that we are not simply known by our possessions, or our achievements, but are known by a name.

And perhaps even more: as Paul concluded, if we are crucified with Christ in this way, then we no longer live, but Christ lives in us. We are called to be Christ’s own presence in this world; let us pray that we have the strength and courage to respond to this upward call of God in Christ, leaving behind all earthly cares to offer a sacrifice of peace and love.

Fr. John Behr (SVOTS ’97) is the Dean of St Vladimir’s Seminary and Professor of Patristics, teaching courses in patristics, dogmatics and scriptural exegesis at the seminary, and also at Fordham University, where he is the Distinguished Lecturer in Patristics.


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