Tag Archives: homily

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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Meeting of the Lord and Zacchaeus

A homily delivered in the Three Hierarchs Chapel at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary on the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple and Zacchaeus Sunday (Sunday, February 2, 2014).

Giotto, Presentation of Christ at the Temple, 1306, Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua, Italy

Giotto, Presentation of Christ at the Temple, 1306, Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua, Italy

Today, as we celebrate the meeting of Christ and the righteous Simeon and Anna, in the temple, we come to an end of a series of feasts that have taken us through the darkness of the long and cold winter nights: a series of feasts bringing out different aspects of God’s search or outreach to us: the Word becoming flesh in the small dark cavern, in the depths of the earth, the manifestation of God to us, through the passage through the waters.

And now, in obedience to the Mosaic Law, forty days after his birth, Christ, the first-born son, is brought to the temple so that he might complete the law, and the law might be completed by him.

Being brought to the temple, he is met by the righteous elder Simeon and the prophetess Anna: the old now passes, and the new has come, and the place where they meet, where the old meets the new and the new is revealed, is in the Temple, the place to which Jesus is brought as a sacrifice.

We heard last night in the readings from Isaiah that it was in the temple that Isaiah saw the Lord of glory enthroned and prophesied, that this same Lord would be worshipped by none other than the Egyptians—the biblical symbol of the gentiles hostile to Israel and their God. Now these words are fulfilled: Christ is brought into the temple, and he rests in the arms of the elder as on a throne. Israel’s glory has dawned in Christ, who is the light of revelation to the Gentiles. And now that Israel has accomplished its task of bringing the Messiah into the world, Simeon can depart in peace: the promises made in the beginning to Abraham about the calling of the nations are now fulfilled, so that in Abraham’s seed, all nations of the world are now blessed.

The very age of the righteous elder and the prophetess indicate the passing away of the ancient customs, the rituals and prescriptions, for these were only ever, as the apostle puts it, a shadow of the good things to come whereas the reality belongs to Christ, the one who was received in the arms of the elder, the one who was to cause the fall and rising again of many in Israel, the one who thus bestows upon us the resurrection—the new creation. All this, the righteous elder Simeon sees, and more: he foresees the pain that would wound the one who gave birth painlessly to the Son of God, that he will be a sign spoken against—but a sign that therefore reveals the thoughts of our hearts.

Today then, standing in the temple with Simeon, we do indeed come to the completion of the movement of God towards us, so that we can also say, let us depart in peace: the glory of God is revealed, enlightening those who sat in darkness.

Jesus and Zaccheus, Basilica of Sant’Angelo in Formis, Capua (Caserta) [© Bruno Brunelli]

Jesus and Zaccheus, Basilica of Sant’Angelo in Formis, Capua (Caserta)

But if the movement of God towards us is completed in this way, our movement now begins. We must begin to set our own sights upon the journey to Jerusalem, something we are reminded about by the second Gospel reading today: that about Zacchaeus—which alerts us to the coming pre-Lenten Sundays. If this movement of God towards us is indeed light coming into the world, enlightening those who sit in darkness, then there are various points of which we should take note.

Firstly, it means that we must recognize that we are indeed the ones who have been sitting in darkness. Only now, in the light of Christ, can we begin to realize how dark indeed has been our supposedly enlightened world and our all-too-human behavior, however decent, civilized, polite, it may seem. And, recognizing that we are the ones sitting in darkness, our response should be as Zacchaeus: not simply waiting around on the off-chance that the Lord will pass by, but, the Gospel says, he eagerly sought the Lord; he demonstrated an intense desire to seek him out, to actively find him.

The second point would be that as we begin to allow his light to shine upon us and in us, we will certainly begin to understand what it means that he is a sign spoken against, revealing the thoughts of our hearts; for as we begin to try to live by this sign, we will assuredly find all our resistances coming to the surface, all the reasons, the thoughts of our hearts which usually remain unconscious, all the reasons why we should do otherwise, or with less enthusiasm or zeal, or perhaps start tomorrow. In other words, the light that we are given enables us to see ourselves as we truly are, a feat that St Isaac says is greater than raising the dead. This is our own path to Golgotha. And, as with Zacchaeus, this requires recognizing how we stand. The Gospel reading places great emphasis on Zacchaeus’ small stature. He was short. Zacchaeus knew that he had to be lifted up, up from this earth, to see the Lord, and he does this by ascending the tree, an image of taking up the cross. Our problem, on the other hand, is that we do not know this: we think that we are something, something great and grand, someone important, with our own sense of self-worth.

We are indeed important and valuable in God’s eyes: out of love for us, he came to dwell among us, to save, redeem, and recreate us. But it is all too easy for our own sense of well-being and self-worth to get in the way, to prevent us from even realizing that we stand in need of what God has to offer; we spend most of our lives in delusion, not knowing that we are, in fact, small, needy, sinful, before him: it is for the sinners that he has come, to call them to repentance, not those who imagine themselves to be basically alright, needing Christ only for an extra religious element to their lives.

And finally, although we have been given so much more to see than was Simeon (we have repeatedly been present at his birth, his baptism, his passion and his resurrection), we have not yet really begun to see the Lord as did Simeon: to know that he is indeed our rest, our eternal rest, to find in him the peace that keeps us in peace throughout the storms of the sea of life, rather than being blown about from one crisis to the next, from one emotional bruise to another, or from one preoccupying thought to yet another habituated action that we will regret. Rather, what is required of us, to find this peace, is the repentance shown by Zacchaeus: a ready repentance, a change of mind, manifest not only in how we feel about things, but how we act: “half my goods I give to the poor; and will restore fourfold what I have defrauded.”

It is in these ways that we move from sitting in darkness to being enlightened by the light of God—the light that is also the peace of God. So let us pray that we may also learn to meet Jesus in the temple, so that we might also find in him the completion of our heart’s desire, and so ourselves come to know his mercy and peace; for this, as we will sing shortly, is the true sacrifice of praise.

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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February 3, 2014 · 8:45 pm

Can you hear the wolves?

A homily delivered in the Three Hierarchs Chapel at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary on the Feast of St. John Chrysostom (Tuesday, November 13, 2012).

At night, the shepherds would have heard the wolves. The shepherds in the time of Jesus took their flocks out into the countryside to find pasture and water. Journeying far from the safety of the village or the city, settling down for the night, they could hear the hungry wolves that prowled in the distance. Remember, this was not the Wild West; shepherds did not carry lever action Winchester rifles to fend off predators. The shepherds in Jesus’ day would have had a wooden staff, a sling, and a bag of small round stones. Shepherds had to be brave folks who could face danger. But at night, as the small fire would have been dying down to embers, and as the sheep settled down, they would have heard the wolves, and it would have sent a chill up the spine of the bravest shepherd.

Can you hear the wolves?

When Hurricane Sandy knocked us off the grid and devastated the Tri-State Area, could you hear the wolves?

As the national election shook the country and inflamed passions of anger and bitterness between brothers and sisters, could you hear the wolves?

Hearing about scandals and controversy within the Church on the national level, in the parish, or between friends and family, can you hear the wolves?

It is awfully tempting to run for it, isn’t it? Just give up the whole thing and run for your life. Today Jesus tells us that if the shepherd was a hired hand, if the sheep weren’t his own and if he caught a glimpse of those ravenous wolves advancing towards the sheep, he’d abandon the flock and run for his life. And the sheep scatter, and the wolves attack at will. Now, if we are merely talking about livestock, then a shepherd might fare pretty well if he ran for his life. There are only so many wolves, maybe a dozen or so, and odds are that a pack of wolves would much rather go after a young lamb, a slow pregnant female, or an old feeble sheep.

But here is the problem.

Jesus is not giving advice on caring for livestock; he is speaking of a spiritual reality.

And the wolves that Jesus is talking about are not of this world. They are demons, intent on dividing the Body of Christ and devouring human souls. So, if the shepherd runs away and leaves the flock of Christ to the demonic wolves, there is no safety for anyone. The demonic powers of Satan will not only hunt down every last one of the sheep but also go after every shepherd that runs and tries to save his own life.

But our shepherd is not a hired hand.

Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ lays down His life for His reason-endowed flock. He offers His life as He is suspended on the Cross so that we would know, without a doubt, that He loves us and that we belong to Him. Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd. He knows His own flock, and His flock knows Him. We hear His voice and we follow Him.

St. John Chrysostom, 13th c. manuscript illumination

Today we celebrate the life of St. John Chrysostom, a man who listened to the voice of the Good Shepherd, a man who followed in the footsteps of Christ, a man who did the work of the Gospel. He served the flock of Christ in the midst of a wilderness of sin: Constantinople, with its spectacles and games, its greed and its wealth, its lust and its passion. The demonic wolves in that capital city threatened the flock of Christ more than any predators in the Jordan Valley ever threatened a flock of sheep. In the midst of that danger, St. John stood by the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable, constantly providing for spiritual and material needs. Ravening wolves attacked him from every side. On one side, strict disciplinarians said that he was too soft in his merciful appeal to sinners. He would say, “If you have fallen a second time, or even a thousand times into sin, come and you shall be healed.” On the other side, influential and wealthy bishops and priests mocked him for his austere lifestyle and publicly accused him of mismanagement, claiming that his care of the poor was a “waste” of Church money. Finally, he was attacked head-on by a vain and decadent empress and her imperial court, who did not feel it was right for a bishop to criticize their public spectacles.

Exile of St. John Chrysostom, Menologion of Basil II, ca. 1000

Yet in spite of it all St. John stood by his flock and never ran for his life. Facing the imperial threat he said, “Though the sea roar and the wave rise high, they cannot overwhelm the ship of Jesus Christ. I fear not death which is my gain, nor exile for the whole earth is the Lord’s, nor the loss of goods for I came naked into the world and I can carry nothing out of it.”He stood by his flock until armed guards dragged him out of the city into exile. But even in exile, he wrote letters and exhorted his friends and spiritual children, reminding them of the love of God and the mercy of Christ. And in his death, out in the lonely, harsh place where he had been literally dragged in chains, he completed his course by laying down his life, in emulation of Christ the Good Shepherd. And with his last breath, saying, “Glory be to God for all things.”

Hearing the Word of God, preaching the Gospel and standing by the weak and the vulnerable, even when it costs you your life: this is the legacy of St. John Chrysostom.

This is our life. This is our work. This is our calling.

Today we follow Christ the Good Shepherd. When a stranger is hungry, we feed him. When a sister is lonely, we sit by her side. When a brother is angry, we patiently listen to him, just like God always patiently listens to us. We follow Christ the Good Shepherd; we hear His word and know that we belong to Him. And we lay down our life for others, just like He laid down His life for us.

Christ the Good Shepherd, 5th c.

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 Associate Professor of Homiletics and Rhetoric and Director of Field Education.

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What does it mean to be an Apostle?

A homily delivered in the Three Hierarchs Chapel at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary on the Feast of the Holy Apostle Onesimus of the Seventy (Wednesday, February 15, 2012).

What does it mean to be an Apostle?

What kind of person is an Apostle?

Christ and His Apostles, Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

Being pious Orthodox we hold Apostles in high esteem. They are writers of gospels, and epistles. Their proclamation has gone out into all the earth, and their words to the ends of the universe. Their icons adorn the walls of the sanctuary. Apostles are important, and famous, and holy. And when people are regarded as important and famous and holy, we have a tendency to regard them as distant and exotic. Like famous artists or historical figures, like Bach and Beethoven, or Michelangelo, or Abraham Lincoln.

And at some level it is safer this way. Isn’t it?

If the apostles are unusual and extraordinary, then we really can’t be like them, which sort of lets us off the hook. Because being an apostle is hard work. An apostle does not get to sit around. Apostle means the one who is “sent out” If you are an apostle, Christ entrusts you with His teaching, he seals you with the gift of the Holy Spirit, and he sends you out to preach the good news, in season and out of season, to any and all people, using whatever means available, so that some might be saved. Now that’s not an easy job description, not to mention many of the apostles suffered great persecution and died as martyrs. So it is perhaps rather comforting to say to ourselves,

“I try to be a good Christian, but I’m no apostle.”

But if the apostles are exotic and distant, then the Christ who they preached becomes exotic and distant. If the apostles’ work and ministry is something remote and inaccessible, then Christ who sent them becomes remote and inaccessible. Yet we know that that is not who Christ is. He is the Son of God, who took flesh and became man, he died a painful humiliating death on the Cross, he endured three days in the tomb, and he was raised from the dead. Christ did all of that, so that we might be reconciled to God, so that we might be united to God, so that in Christ we might never, ever be alone.

So what does it mean to be an apostle?

Who were the apostles?

We know that the apostle Paul violently persecuted the Church in his younger days. And Christ chose him to be an apostle. Today we hear about the Apostle Peter who famously denied Jesus three times, publicly abandoning Christ in his darkest hour, swearing that he did not know Jesus. Yet Christ forgave Peter, and sent him out as an apostle.

Peter Denies Jesus, Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

Today we celebrate the life of Onesimus, one of the Seventy Apostles. Onesimus was a slave in Phrygia, which is in modern day Turkey. At some point Onesimus did something to offend his master and fearing severe punishment, he fled to Rome but ended up in prison. In the Roman Empire, runaway slaves were dealt with extremely harshly. But in Rome, Onesimus met St. Paul who was also in prison. I suppose we could say that Onesimus was something of a captive audience, but in the course of their relationship Onesimus was baptized. St. Paul then wrote a letter to Onesimus’ master Philemon  and in the gentlest terms, St. Paul implores Philemon to receive Onesimus in a spirit of Christian love, not as a runaway slave, but as a brother in Christ. This letter became part of the New Testament. It is said that Philemon not only received Onesimus in love, but sent him out to serve the in the Apostolic work of St. Paul and the others.

Holy Apostle Onesimus of the Seventy, St. Petka Chapel, Belgrade

So what does it take to be an apostle?

An apostle can be a persecutor, a betrayer, and even a runaway slave. But ultimately, an apostle is a man, or a woman (we can’t forget Nina the enlightener of Georgia and equal to the apostles). An apostle is a man or woman who hears God’s call and goes to serve specific people. Christ never sends apostles to places; He sends them to serve people. Of course, in a formal sense, there are the 12 and the 70.

But in a real sense we are all apostles.

We have all heard the teaching of Christ, we have been sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit, and now Christ sends us out to do his work.

Where is he sending you?

Christ Multiplies the Loaves and Fish, Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

It could be to a remote international mission field, or an old dying parish in New England, or a mission in the southwest. But none of us are going there today. Today Christ is sending us to our workplace, or to the classroom, or to our home, or to the hospital, or to the CVS, or to the grocery store. And in all of those places we will meet people with hopes and dreams and fears, and Christ sends us to them.

Today, like St. Onesimus, be an apostle to the people you meet. Bring them the love, and mercy and joy of Jesus Christ. This is what it means to be an apostle, and it is a vocation for all of us.

Fr. 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 Associate Professor of Homiletics and Rhetoric and Director of Field Education.


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