Tag Archives: homily

A feast of water

A homily delivered in Three Hierarchs Chapel at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary on January 6, 2016.

Readings for the day may be accessed here.

Theophany 2016 2016-01-06 029 fixed

 

 

Archpriest Chad Hatfield is the first Chancellor of St. Vladimir’s Seminary. Father Chad came to SVOTS from St. Herman Seminary in Alaska, where he was serving as the Dean. He presently serves as a member of the Metropolitan Council of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). His experience in various pastoral, teaching and administrative roles, spread over some 30 years of ordained ministry, are now blended into the Chancellor’s ministry at SVOTS.

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The turning point of time

A homily delivered in Three Hierarchs Chapel at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary on December 25, 2015.

 

Today, at this feast, we stand at the turning point of time.

 

angelsNot simply another turning point, as the world spins on its axis, or rotates around the sun, but the turning point of time itself; the moment from which we measure all time. And more: it is a turning point in the heavens themselves, opening towards us on earth, so that we can hear the angels singing the praise of God, if we have the ears to hear them, not our usual physical sense of sound, which at this time of year is bombarded by all sorts of noise, some of it claiming to be religious – but usually the religion of consumption; but with a purified hearing.

 

It is a turning point at which strange things happen.

 

According to an old tale, told by another story teller, in the night between Christmas Eve and the morning of Christmas day, all the animals can speak, though few hear them or know what they say; Simpkin, the cat, as he wanders through the streets looking for mice to eat, can hear them chattering away and singing; but he was not admitted into their conversation; for he had hidden some twist and was prowling for mice to eat, as his master lay sick in bed, muttering to himself: no more twist.

 

That nature is overturned on this night is indeed an old idea. In the second century prayer for midnight, we hear:

 

In this hour every creature hushes for a brief moment to praise the Lord; stars and plants and water stand still at that instant; all the hosts of angels ministering to Him, together with the souls of the righteous, praise God.

 

And from the same period, we hear, in the Protoevangelium of James, how Mary and Joseph also stop, when Mary feels the stirrings of the babe in her womb ready to be born. They find a cave and Joseph goes off to find a midwife:

 

shepherdBut I, Joseph, was walking and I was not walking. I looked up to the vault of the sky, and I saw it standing still, and into the air, and I saw that it was greatly disturbed, and the birds of the sky were at rest. …

Everyone was looking up. I saw a flock of sheep being herded, but they were standing still … I looked down at the torrential stream, and I saw some goats whose mouths were over the water, but they were not drinking.

Then suddenly everything returned to its normal course.

 

As Christ is born, creation stands still—strange things happen and nature is overturned, the heavens themselves are turned, and we can, if we listen, hear the angels praising (and the mice singing).

 

It is in this midnight silence, Wisdom says, that the firstborn Egyptians were slain by the destroying angel, so that the firstborn of God, Israel, might be set free from slavery, when the Word descended from heaven. While peaceful silence enveloped all things, and night was in the middle of its own swift course, from heaven, from the royal throne, your all-powerful Word, leapt as a stern warrior, into the midst of the land marked for destruction, bearing your irrevocable command as a sharp rapier; standing, it filled all things with death and while it touched heaven, it stood on the earth.

 

This act, in silence, is what we celebrate today, as we too are set free from slavery, when the firstborn Son of God, Christ himself, is born from the Virgin, uniting heaven and earth, and we, in the midst of the death he casts upon the earth, are brought back to life.

 

Three mysteries of God, St Ignatius says, were worked in silence: the virginity of Mary, the birth of Christ, and the Cross. They were shrouded in silence, hidden from this world and its rulers, so that, when creation is silent, God can work, for Christ is the Word emerging from this silence. And it is this silence that St Ignatius asks of the Roman Christians, so that he too might follow Christ in his Passion, and so become a word of God, as did all those martyrs we celebrated in the days leading up to this birth of Christ; for as St Ignatius also says, Christ, the head, is not born without his body also being born.

 

It is this silence, then, that we need, if we are going to hear the angelic ranks singing in amazement today, and to join in their hymns of praise. This is something we will never hear, or be part of, if we remain on the prowl, as was Simpkin, looking to fill our stomachs by eating others, all the while keeping for ourselves what others need. Only when he repented, and brought to his master that which he had held back, only then was the magnificent garment that the mice had been working on only then was it able to be completed.

 

Christ’s body, miraculously woven in the womb of the Virgin, as she spins the thread, the twist, is today present on earth. That it weaves together heaven and earth is possible only because the heavens themselves are opened when they turn today, and when they are opened we can see the end to which the whole of creation (animals as well) are working.

 

Let us not say, then, that we have no more twist, nothing to contribute to the weaving of the glorious body of Christ, but instead give glory, thanksgiving, and praise for all that God has done for us today, giving of ourselves, giving our very selves, in return for truly today, Christ is born!

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Ayios Nicolaos tis Stegis, Nicosia, Cyprus

 

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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The moment we were first called

A homily for the Apostle Andrew, the Holy and All-Praised First Called (commemorated on November 30).

Walking through this dark, cold morning, did you happen to ask yourself, “What in the world am I doing?”

What were we looking for when we got out of bed this morning? What were we looking for when we came to this place—whether we came from the other side of the world, or the other side of the street?

Have we found it? What are we looking for now?

When St. Andrew first followed Jesus, our Lord looked at him and asked, “What do you seek?”

639px-Duccio_di_Buoninsegna_036

The calling of the apostles Peter and Andrew. Duccio di Buoninsegna.

What were we seeking when we were first called?

Something inspired us to leave everything and follow Christ to this place. Perhaps it was a fire that burned in our souls, or a light that guided us through the darkness, or a Word that spoke to us in our loneliness.

As Andrew, and Simon Peter and Phillip and Nathanael are called, they leave everything and follow Christ. And we can imagine that in those early days, there was a great deal of excitement, perhaps even some back slapping and self-congratulation. “We have found Him of whom Moses in the law, and also the prophets, wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

We have found Him, you and I, we are the chosen ones, we can see something amazing in Jesus, and so we leave everything to follow Christ.

But it is a LONG path.

It stretches from the wilderness of Jordan, throughout the Galilee, across the perilous waters of that sea, to the land of the Gaderenes and back, and ultimately the path leads up the long and treacherous road to Jerusalem.

It is a path that starts out bright, hopeful, exciting, thrilling even, but it gets harder, and harder.

And standing there on the Mount of Olives, looking across the Kidron Valley at the Temple, we wonder, just as Andrew did, “Lord, all that you have foretold, when will it come to pass?” But when it becomes clear that the journey ends with a shameful, dishonorable death on Golgotha, nailed to the cross, we realize just how hard it is to follow Christ.

Duccio carrying of the cross

The carrying of the cross. Duccio di Buoninsegna.

It was not easy for St. Andrew, and it is certainly not easy for us.

But it is frighteningly easy to fall away. So frighteningly easy to deny Christ, voluntarily or involuntarily, in word or in deed, in knowledge or in ignorance.

And so today, on this cold, dark, morning, we may feel a bit like Andrew and the other disciples who were so dispirited as Jesus hung upon the Cross. But just because we might be dispirited, does not mean that we are defeated.

In those dark days, Andrew’s faith may not have burned as bright as it once had in those exciting days of leaving everything and following Christ. And this morning maybe our faith does not burn as bright as it once did, when we first we made exciting decisions to go off in new directions. Perhaps Andrew’s faith was nothing more than the tiniest spark of a smoldering wick. And perhaps that is all the faith that we have.

But that one small spark is all it takes.

pentecost

Pentecost. Duccio di Buoninsegna.

In that upper room on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the apostles, the smoldering wick of faith was fanned into a tongue of fire. No matter how weak their faith had been, each one of them became a light in the darkness, and they were sent out into the world to bring Christ to a lonely world.

At that moment Andrew began to understood his calling.

Christ

According to legend, he traveled far and wide, preaching the Gospel in Cyprus, Georgia, Romania, and Kiev. And in his most difficult moments, on those cold dark mornings, hundreds and hundreds of miles from the warm shores of the Sea of Galilee, perhaps he thought back to Jesus’ first words, “What are you seeking?”

No matter where he was, no matter what he was doing, no matter how dark or cold, he needed to look no further than his own heart, for as St. Paul says, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” (Rom 5.5) Filled with that love, Andrew saw the image of God in everyone he met. He saw the image of God in the poor, the angry, the sick, the despairing, the lonely, the stranger. It was this love of God that allowed him to rejoice and give thanks even as he offered his life as a martyr.

Today as we give thanks in this Liturgy, we pray to God, “Send down your holy spirit upon us and upon these gifts.” As we pray this prayer today, may God remind us of the moment that we were first called.

Andrew

By the prayers of St. Andrew the First Called, may we fulfill our calling to do God’s work: being faithful in everything we do, especially those things that are annoying or unpleasant; offering a kind word to the people that God places in our life, especially the ones who are the most difficult to love; and giving thanks to God for all things, especially the crosses that we are blessed to bear on this day.

By the prayers of St. Andrew the First Called, may our hearts catch fire with faith in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

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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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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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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Ten Things for Holy Week

Sermon, Fifth Sunday of Lent 2015 (St Mary of Egypt)
Mark 10:32-45

This morning, James and John desire to be seated with Christ in His Glory. And our Lord, to test them, asks whether they are able to drink the cup that He drinks, and to be baptized with the baptism with which He is baptized. James and John answer, “We are able!” The response from Jesus, in a nutshell, is: be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

palm sunday vigil outsideToday is the last Sunday of Great Lent, and on Friday evening just five days from now, we will begin the celebration of Holy Week. Friday evening will open a ten day long procession to the cross, to the tomb, and to the resurrection.

And as we get ready, our Lord extends the same invitation to us as He extended to James and John. To all of us who wish to see His glory, who desire to be by His side at Pascha, Jesus first says to you and to me, “but are you able and willing to drink the cup that I drink from? Are you able to walk with me through Holy Week? Are you willing to be by my side, and to carry my cross with me?”

I hope your answer is yes. I hope that Pascha is not just a Sunday on which we show up, having given no thought to Christ on the days of Holy Week.

To help us prepare — to help us take up and drink from the Lord’s same cup — I wanted to share a list of 10 things to do during Holy Week. These are ten recommendations for how to be baptized with the same baptism with which our Lord is baptized.

(1) Go to as many services as you can. We offer a large number. Usually, at least two each day. And if you can’t go to every service, set aside time to read prayerfully through those you cannot attend. It is through worship that we return and unite ourselves to Christ. The services of Holy Week are not just memory exercises. Holy Week is a single unbroken Liturgy that over ten days invites us to participate in the saving love of Jesus Christ, not to just remember some events from long ago. The love which Jesus shows is real, it is now, and we are invited through worship to receive it.

Does it seem unreasonable to attend Church so much in a single week? Of course it does! But Christ’s love for us is extreme and intense. And so we return that love during Holy Week in a way that is beyond reason!

(2) Intensify your fasting. Each person is called to fast as he or she is able. Some are able to fast more, some less. During Holy week, each of us should increase the intensity of the fast. Think about how you have followed the fast up to this point. During Holy Week, continue what you do, and then do a little bit more. Do you fast just a few days a week? Increase the number of your fasting days. Are you fasting from meat only? Consider fasting from dairy as well. Consider eating smaller meals each time. For some, it may be possible to eat only two small meals a day rather than three. Holy Week is a time in which we should increase our hunger for Christ, and physical hunger is one way to do so. Physical hunger reminds us that we need what God offers, and fasting helps us to focus on the love of Christ. Fasting is hard, but remember the good gift which waits for us at the Paschal Liturgy of the Resurrection — the good gift of Christ Himself!

Bridegroom in Chapel(3) Create silence. Disconnect entirely from your cell phone, email, internet usage and especially social media. (If any of this is needed for work or school, designate a window of usage of no more than a few hours.) Do not watch TV, or listen to the radio. Cancel all lessons, sports, and social activities. It’s only for one week. The world will still be there after Pascha. When we create silence in this way, we give ourselves the space and opportunity to be drawn by Christ more deeply into His words and actions during Holy Week. We remove some of the man-made barriers that separate us from “drinking from his cup” (Mark 10:38). And if we do not create silence, then the noise of this world will easily overwhelm the “still small voice” through which the Holy Spirit speaks (1 Kings 19:12). To hear the voice of Christ, we have to silence the relentless cascade of screed and distraction we otherwise allow the world to pump full force into our hearts and minds.

(4) Create prayer. Turn on some church music. In particular, listen to the hymns of Holy Week. And learn something about each hymn you hear: On what day do we sing this hymn? During which service? What is the place and purpose of this hymn? The hymns of Passion Week create holy echoes that help to connect our worship with the rest of daily life. Singing “Behold the Bridegroom” at the services which begin Holy Week is good, but hearing and singing the same hymn while driving, walking, or cleaning the house is even better. Doing so, we allow the prayer of the Church to become the prayer of everyday life.

(5) Be still. Set aside time each day to sit quietly in front of an icon of Christ, about 20-30 minutes. Light a candle, say a short prayer, and then simply wait in silence for the Lord to speak a word, or to bestow a deeper sense of His presence. Being silent is a way of saying to God, “I am here. And I wait on no other than You. Visit me in my smallness.” Stillness during Holy Week is a good practice for the experience of Great and Holy Friday and Saturday. The most eloquent word ever spoken is the silence of our dead Savior while hanging on the cross, and while lying in the tomb. His silence says everything. The stillness of His death is the great action that redeems and sanctifies all the world. His silence on the cross shouts down hell. His stillness in the tomb explodes the realm of the dead and bestows life on all. When we practice stillness and silence during Holy Week, we are preparing to unite our silence to Christ’s. We are preparing to die with our Savior … so that we too might be raised to new life!

(6) Always be with Christ (as Fr +Tom Hopko reminds us). Occupy your mind as often as you can with a short prayer. If you do not already have the habit of praying the Jesus Prayer, Holy Week is a great time to begin: “O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” This prayer increases our awareness of the nearness of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It reminds us that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God. Christ is always with us, and through continual prayer, we work to do the same — to always be with our Lord who loves and strengthens us.

(7) Read a Gospel. Set aside time each day to read several chapters from either Matthew, Mark, or Luke. (We save John for after Pascha!) And remember that in the Gospels, we do not find words about Christ, we find words from Christ. Each verse of Holy Scripture is a word spoken directly to you by the raised and glorified Lord. Each word is a word for now, each word is a new word that you have never received before. Enjoy the gift! Jesus wants to give it to you!

plaschanitsa closeup(8) Seek forgiveness and healing. Chances are, each of us has at least a small handful of relationships in need of healing. During Holy Week, work for that healing. Admit your mistakes, and forgive the mistakes made by others. Offer yourself in love to at least one other person from whom you are estranged. Make a phone call, send a letter or email — you have a blessing to use email in this one case! — or schedule a coffee date. Remember how much you love this person, and remember that we were created to live in peace and joy with one another. Christ’s love for us is ENORMOUS compare to pettiness we so often hold on to. And if you have been deeply harmed by another person, seek help! Reach out to someone — your spouse, another family member or friend, your priest — and ask for guidance. Search through prayer, fasting, and honest communication for a way forward. As they say, holding onto anger (or hatred, or resentment, or vengefulness) is like swallowing poison and expecting someone else to die. Seek release from what possesses. Enjoy the lightness of a relationship that has been healed and restored.

(9) Call someone who is sick or lonely. Visit them if you can. Share yourself with someone who needs you. Our parishes, and our neighborhoods, are filled with people who are dying of loneliness and isolation. Extend yourself and give them the gift of human presence. One of the great themes of Holy Week is abandonment — how our Lord was abandoned by just about everyone, including it seems by His own Father. As we seek to unite ourselves to Christ through prayer and worship during Holy Week, may we not at the same time abandon those who need us. To be united to Christ, we must at the same time strengthen our solidarity with all those around us. We are part of the mystical body of Christ, and we are called to a life of unity and communion with one another.

Chapel pascha fishbowl(10) Think about Bright Week and beyond! With Pascha comes the true light that enlightens the whole world and each person in it. As we unite ourselves to Christ, the radiance of the Resurrection changes everything. The week after Pascha is truly a Bright Week — the Resurrection colors all with brilliance and beauty. Nothing should ever be the same. Let this Holy Week be a launching pad into the rest of life. Having united ourselves to Christ in both death and resurrection — having lived out our baptism through the celebration of Holy Week — we should get ready to proclaim the good news in all that we do. May we remember that every Sunday is a “little Pascha” and that each time we gather to celebrate the Liturgy we proclaim Christ’s death and we confess His resurrection. And if every Sunday is a little Pascha, then every week is a little Holy Week. Each day of the year is a day on which we give thanks for the Holy Mysteries we last received, and look forward to being received by Christ once again at the life-giving chalice. Holy Week and Pascha occur once a year, but they are the rule, not the exception. Holy Week and Pascha are the models for every week of the year. Jesus Christ touches all of time through the Cross, and all of time collapses into the eternal now of His divine love. May we live all of life in the light of the Resurrection!

 

The Rev. Theophan Whitfield (SVOTS ’10) is the rector of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Salem, Massachusetts. Father Theophan had been a teacher for fifteen years at independent schools, first in New York City and later in Connecticut, prior to pursuing studies at St. Vladimir’s. He and his wife, Matushka Manna, have three daughters: Ayame, Miya, and Emi.

Photos: Leanne Parrott Photography

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The Nativity of the Theotokos

Homily for the feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, September 8

Let us rejoice today as we celebrate this first major feast of the new ecclesiastical year. Today begins the economy of our salvation; the barrenness of our nature is loosed, for the barren woman gives birth to the one who will bear God; the Gate-facing-East of the mystical temple comes into being, through which the Lord God himself will enter as the Great High Priest, yet leaving the gate closed; the book of the Word of Life is opened, confirming the preaching of the prophets; and the bridal chamber appears, in whom divine and human are united into one.

Nativity of the Virgin (Theotokos), Church of the Virgin Hodegetria, Patriarchate of Pec, Serbia (Image: BLAGO Archives)

Nativity of the Virgin (Theotokos), Church of the Virgin Hodegetria, Patriarchate of Pec, Serbia (Image: BLAGO Archives)

Today really is the beginning, and also the end, or perhaps rather the end and the beginning together: the end of shadows and promises, and the revelation of reality and truth; the end of the old covenant, and the beginning of the new; the end of the old creation, and the inauguration of the new.

Today the period of the Law concludes, and a new era of grace dawns. The beautiful hymnography that we have been singing last night and this morning depicts for us, in a multitude of ways–so many ways, in fact, that it is hard to comprehend–how all the things spoken of in the Law and the Prophets are fulfilled in the Theotokos, revealing to us a deeper and more profound mystery than we had previously imagined.

The prophecies have given way to their fulfillment, the types to the realities, the letter to the Spirit: She is the Gate of Paradise, the Burning Bush, the Ark of the Covenant, the Temple of Life.

As so, the old covenant gives way to the new. What was enacted on earth in times long past today becomes a spiritual reality in the present, bringing to an end the shadow–sacrifices in the Temple, propitiating deities–so that we might offer the only sacrifice acceptable to God, and ourselves become living temples of God, dwelling in his paradise, nourished by the Tree of Life.

The old covenant has passed, and so too has the long history of the old creation that culminates in the birth of the Virgin–this creation and its history has come to an end; the new creation is inaugurated, not a new work, but one which recreates the old.

Of old we were fashioned from virgin earth, molded by the hand of God and receiving the breath of the Lord. Now God prepares virgin soil anew, not from elsewhere, for then Christ would not be human, would not be our Savior, our creator and our redeemer.

He takes virgin earth from our own stock, as it were, from our own flesh, and it is from this virgin earth, the body of the Virgin, by the power of the Spirit, that the Word of God will fashion for himself a body in which to appear, revealing to us true divinity and true humanity–in one, together–united in the bridal chamber of the womb.

Our minds were turned to our bodies, caught fast in material things, and so the Word comes to us in bodily form, to grab our attention, and for this he must prepare for himself new virgin earth.

Our minds were turned to the earth, preferring the dust from which we were taken rather than the things of heaven, and so setting ourselves on a course which could only lead back to that dust…to death.

In the period of the old creation, the events of the old covenant–the Law and the Prophets–could not of themselves rectify us, restore us to our former life, put an end to the death that was at work in our earth; and so the Word took that earth to himself, and by offering himself to death, turned death inside out, so that now it becomes the means of life.

Taking earth to himself, he gilds the mud that we are with divinity, adorning us such that the King himself desire our beauty. This is the goal for which the whole of creation has been groaning in travail: the revelation of the children of God in their glorious liberty. It is the inauguration of this new creation that we now celebrate, for today there comes into being the one through whom it is possible.

Nativity of the Virgin (Theotokos), Gracanica Monastery, Serbia (Image: BLAGO Archives)

Nativity of the Virgin (Theotokos), Gracanica Monastery, Serbia (Image: BLAGO Archives)

The hymns for this day in fact speak of the Virgin as being preordained to this role, fore-ordained to usher in the new creation.

Here, really, is the heart of the mystery: for God could not have revealed himself upon earth, in this way–divinity and humanity united in one person, one face–he could not have done this without earth that could respond to him freely and positively.

The original creation, the old creation, was created by divine fiat–let there be! It was merely passive.

But the realization of the divine purpose for creation depends upon the human fiat–let it be! “Let it be to me according to your word!” It depends upon there being earth ready and willing to be taken and fashioned by the hands of God.

As we look back now at the old covenant, fulfilled in the Theotokos born today, and at the old creation, now ready to be refashioned into a new creation , we can perhaps see that the whole economy turns upon the earth, for the human being, said an early father, is earth that suffers (Epistle of Barnabas 6.9).

What had seemed its frailty, that it is nothing but dust and will return to the dust, is in fact its strength–the earthen vessels containing heavenly power–when it holds itself open, ready to be fashioned, to bear the fingerprints of its Creator.

Today the virgin is born, the temple through which the High Priest enters the world,

The virgin is born, in whose womb divinity and humanity come together,

The virgin is born, and all creation is renewed, for the economy of salvation begins.

Let us sing the praises of the Virgin, then, and offer thanksgiving to God–let it indeed be!

 

cross_stands__52149.1406224506.300.300Published in The Cross Stands While the World Turns: Homilies for the Cycles of the Year, by The Very Rev. Dr. John Behr.

 

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