Third Sunday of Great Lent: The Sunday of the Cross “Christ’s Outstretched Arms”

Our Alumnus, the Very Reverend Steven J. Belonick (M.Div. ’77), is rector of Holy Ghost Russian Orthodox Church in Bridgeport, CT. On the Sunday of Cross, he delivered this homily, reflecting upon the Cross as a symbol of both judgment and mercy.

Third Sunday of Great Lent: The Sunday of the Cross
“Christ’s Outstretched Arms”
By The Very Reverend Steven J. Belonick © 2017

Today, we have reached the midpoint of Great Lent in our journey to Pascha. I pray that you have not used this time in vain but have taken advantage of this opportunity to grow closer to God. At this midpoint the Church once again offers us the Cross of Christ to venerate and to reflect upon its place in our Christian life.

Cross_Synaxis Blog_2017To help us in our reflection, I want to refer you back to a prescribed reading that was given to us this past week from the Book of Isaiah. I hope you took the time to read it (Isaiah 9.9–10.4). This reading describes the chaos that existed in Israel when the Prophet Isaiah lived. Let me describe some of it for you.

Pride and arrogance had filled the hearts of the people. They believed that they were wiser than God and refused to turn to the Him, even though danger was all around. Wickedness burned like a forest fire among them, and yet they remained unrepentant. Moral decay reigned unencumbered, and civil war was an ever-present reality. Enemies from the north were preparing to invade. Brother fought against brother, tribe against tribe. Describing these horrible circumstances that raged in his midst, Isaiah wrote these words: “For all this, God’s anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still” (Isaiah 9.12, 17, 21; 10.4).  Four times within this passage Isaiah uses these same words as a kind of refrain.

This phrase indicates that despite all the destruction around them and God’s call to repentance, the Israelites chose to sink deeper and deeper into sin—even to the point of cannibalism, due to famine! And, so God continued to stretch out His hand. In other words, He continued to permit the cycle of destruction that was devastating their lives.

This haunting refrain, however, not only describes God’s anger at His people but also, at the very same time, His mercy. How so?

If you read the passage carefully, you will find that there is a fascinating sequence to the ever-worsening judgments and disasters permitted by God.[1] First, He throws down idolatrous Israel’s altars and shrines. Second, He cuts Judah and Israel to pieces. Third, He fuels a fire, and, fourth, He gives them over to cannibalism. A modern commentator on this passage, Peter J. Leithart, states: “Israel is being sacrificed: Dismembered, burned, eaten. Yahweh’s response to Israel’s injustice is to sacrifice Israel.”

Leithart goes on to explain that this passage prophesies the death of Jesus. Jesus is the Child of God, the Lamb of God, who is cut, bruised, sacrificed on the wood of the Cross, and then given to us as food. In His crucified body, Jesus takes upon Himself Israel’s sin; He is sacrificed instead of them, and He thus delivers Israel from their sin and punishment. “Yahweh’s justice triumphs over Israel’s injustice,” says Leithart, “when the child is cut, when He is placed on the altar of the world, when He is given over to food, when He becomes sacrificial Israel to deliver sacrificed Israel.”

“For all this God’s anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still.” What a powerful message, for it tells us that God permitted punishment and destruction while at the same time promising overwhelming mercy.

And, what a lesson for us today! God was angry because the Israelites had turned away from Him, and likewise, His anger burns towards us when we sin. We must not deny this reality.

And yet, as He stretches out His hand—permitting us to suffer the consequences of our own sins—He has a merciful plan in mind. His plan is for us to return to our senses, after we find ourselves in squalor, in danger, and in a cycle of self-destruction due to our leaving His embrace, due to our disregarding His commandments.

The Cross that we venerate today, like Isaiah’s prophecy, perfectly illustrates God’s judgement and mercy. (For the judgment and mercy of God are always inextricably intertwined!)

Scripture confirms this. After Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, He knew that His arrest and death were imminent. His hour had come. He became reflective and began to speak about His death openly. He said to his disciples: “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour” (John 12.27). Then He said: “Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12.31–32).

So, the Cross is a judgment on us because it shows to what extent we human beings will go to reject God, to take His care and authority in vain, and to direct our allegiance elsewhere, apart from Him. But the Cross is also a source of mercy. On the Cross God’s Son still “stretches out His hands toward us,” but this time in a different way. Nailed to the tree with arms outstretched, He forgives us, He invites us, and He welcomes us. The hands of our Lord are stretched out now for us to come to Him.

At this midpoint of Lent we begin to feel the effects of fasting, and we begin to feel the temptation to weaken our resolve to complete the course of the fast. But just like a military leader shows the colors of the flag when he sees his troops growing weary, so the Church raises the Cross of our Savior to inspire us.

May the sign of the Cross motivate us to keep going, to finish the race, to be conquerors of our passions, to complete the course of the fast, and to celebrate the Feast of Feasts, our Lord’s Resurrection. As our Lord stretches out His hands to us this day, may we in turn reciprocate by stretching out our hands to grasp His. AMEN.

[1] Here I credit research from the article: “His Anger Does Not Turn,” by Peter J. Leithart, 10 April 2011, in Credenda Agenda.

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Matushka Juliana Schmemann, an “Original Brick”: A Remembrance

Mat Juliana Schmemann_40th Day_March2017_photo

On this 40th day of the repose of Matushka Juliana Schmemann (†), it is our joy to remember her love of Christ and His Church, by sharing a poignant essay written by Shamassey Mary Honoré, wife of current seminarian Deacon Andrew Honoré and granddaughter of both Archpriest Peter E. Gillquist (†) and Archpriest Jon Braun, both of whom knew Matushka Juliana and her husband, Protopresbyter Alexander (†), long-time Dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, very well. Shamassey Mary’s essay reminds us how Matushka Juliana’s personal faith in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ continued to inspire and vivify those around her, even as she neared the gates of death and the threshold of heaven.

Matushka Juliana will be remembered at a Panikhida in Three Hierarchs Chapel on Friday, March 10th, at 5 p.m. Memory Eternal to our beloved Mother in Christ!


Matushka Juliana Schmemann, an “Original Brick”: A Remembrance
By Shamassey Mary Honoré

Just another day at St. Vladimir’s

It was the “new normal.” My husband was a brand-new, first-year seminarian at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Autumn 2015. One Saturday night in October, we walked past the Seminary’s bookstore on our way home from Great Vespers. Both of us simultaneously stopped when we noticed—both in depth and texture—a brick sticking out of the wall. A small plaque under it revealed that it was an “original brick from the Orthodox Seminary” that had previously existed in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

We discussed it for a bit, thinking it odd that we had not noticed the little brick before, even though between the two of us we had been to the bookstore over a dozen times in the past six weeks. And we wondered: What must have that original Orthodox Seminary been like? And, what had become of it, since this little brick was here in our wall at St. Vladimir’s?

I would have forgotten all about it, except that a few days later, I met a couple of living “original bricks.” I happened to write about that experience in an email to my mom and grandma…

On October 6, I took [my two young sons] to go visit Matushka Juliana (Schmemann) at her assisted-living facility about a mile from St. Vladimir’s. I was a little nervous, to say the least, as it isn’t every day one introduces oneself and boyish kin to a 91-year-old stranger who, together with her husband, is the stuff of legend in the American Orthodox world. When I got to her room, I happily discovered there her daughter Masha, who informed me that today was, in fact, Matushka’s 92nd birthday!!

Matushka Juliana was sweet and fiery. She loved seeing the boys. After a few minutes of small talk, who should walk in to wish birthday greetings but Matushka Marie Meyendorff! It was kind of surreal, sitting there with the now aged and white-haired matriarchs of not just the Orthodox Church in America (OCA, the jurisdiction), but of THE Orthodox Church in America (not the jurisdiction). What an image, right here in front of me! I was in awe to see it, myself a young mom with my babies, from the very theological institution that each of their husbands had governed, nurtured, loved, and lived decades before. And this commonality they shared was, of course, established on a much firmer foundation: that of being refugees and strangers in a new land, where they came to nurture and share their great love of Christ and His Church. The matriarchs mostly talked together while they held hands and sat chatting in Russian.

It was crazy to think about afterwards, and I came home feeling a bit stunned. Not that there was anything presumptuous about these “tiny giants” of the Orthodox Church, but more to just think about each of them in my shoes 65ish years ago, and wondering where we (the current students/families) will be in 65ish years…I know there will be those among us, even our current classmates, who will be called to “take up the torch” so to speak. Just another day at St. Vladimir’s!

Original Brick 2017-02-18 004I was honored to have met this very special “original brick” of our Seminary and our Church. It put into perspective for me the urgency and importance of implementing what we learn here at the Seminary. One could say that to be a seminarian, and to become a worker in God’s field, is to aspire to join the firm foundation of “original bricks” that have been laid before, by God’s grace.

Hello and goodbye

Fast-forward to a chilly wintry day in early December 2016. I went with my grandma, Khouria Marilyn Gillquist—widow of Fr. Peter Gillquist— for a visit with Matushka Juliana. Gram was in town from Bloomington, Indiana, for a brief visit with my little family. She was old friends with Fr. Alexander Schmemann, of blessed memory, and Matushka Juliana.

We weren’t expecting much…we had been told that Matushka was slowing down and mostly slept. We were expecting a short visit. “Ten minutes!” we kept reminding each other. But Matushka was very happy to see us, and after that first ten minutes she remembered and understood exactly who we were. Then proceeded a wonderful hour: she wanted to know everything about everyone, and we were amazed as the minutes flew by and she talked and talked with perfect clarity.

She shared with us that she was in much pain. She was confined to a wheelchair and had really been suffering physically. She said how hard it was to grow old, and that she had asked God many times that she might be granted to die.

“I went up Jacob’s ladder!” she told us. “‘Knock knock knock! Can I come in?’…and St Peter told me ‘No, no, no! [shaking her finger] It is not your turn!’ So, here I am still!”

I began to feel dismayed and truly sorry when she solemnly declared, “I am not human anymore.” Age and deterioration had robbed her of most abilities, and pain and suffering riddled her body. But then, as if to combat our pity, she straightened up as best as she could and with quiet gusto exclaimed, “I love Jesus. Always in my mind…Jesus…Jesus…Jesus!”

She said it with closed eyes, giving Gram and me a moment to share a glance and wipe away our tears. I reached out to touch Matushka’s weary, weathered hand, and she instinctively held my fingers in her grasp for the rest of the conversation.

I could see her truly “waking” now. Our shared humanity and remembrances of old times were the greatest medicine. Talk of Jesus and heaven and Fr. Alexander were a balm to her tired soul. She and my grandmother shared joyful sorrow over the loss of their priest husbands, of how they continually missed them and yet had not truly lost them. I sat there as the neophyte. I couldn’t help but think of the “original brick” outside the bookstore a year earlier, and how here was this living “original brick” before me once again, aged and frail, but ready for the journey to eternity.

Suddenly she turned to me, and began to ask all about “my Deacon.” I had explained earlier on that my husband was a second-year seminarian at St. Vladimir’s, and newly ordained to the diaconate in the Antiochian Orthodox Church.

“How is your Deacon? How does he like St. Vladimir’s?” she wanted to know.

I told her he liked it very well, and that he was working hard and learning so much! Seminary can be difficult, I expressed, but we truly love it and are so grateful to have three years of such excellent training and care there. She declared how much her husband had loved St. Vladimir’s, how it was his life and his legacy. I felt humbled and touched.

Already an hour was spent, and it was time to go. I knew this was goodbye…we would not see Matushka Juliana again, but what a gift this precious hour had been!

I went to give her a hug, and kiss, and to say thank you. Suddenly, she grabbed me by the shoulder and pulled me very close to her face—mere inches apart we were. She looked with clear blue eyes right into my very soul and with firm urgency said, “We brought Orthodoxy to America. It is up to you to bring America to Orthodoxy! This is your mission! Tell your Deacon! Tell them at St. Vladimir’s! This is the task of your generation! The most important thing: you must bring America to Orthodoxy.”

“I will. I promise I will tell them what you say,” I finally managed to say, through tears.

She proceeded to give me a blessing, the sign of the cross over me, a sweet kiss, and a strong squeeze of my hands. It was truly amongst the humblest and most holy moments of my life.

Giving thanks

When I learned of Matushka’s death just a few short weeks later, I felt real, overwhelming joy. She had such an incredible life, and now she was suffering no longer, and was with her sweetest “Jesus…Jesus…Jesus!” I can only imagine the reunion with Fr. Alexander. She died on January 29, the eve of their wedding anniversary, which happens to also be the feast day of the Three Holy Hierarchs, the patrons of our chapel here at St. Vladimir’s Seminary.

At our festal liturgy the next morning, I felt joy to know that Matushka was partaking in the heavenly liturgy, while we worshipped at the liturgy for the Three Hierarchs’ feast day. During the Epistle reading, I began to weep. The second verse is well-known and has been a comfort many times to me, and surely to all Christians:

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8)

The reading goes on to speak of Christ as the perfect and most holy sacrifice for us, and ends with these words:

Therefore let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach.

For here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come.

Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name.

But do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased. (Hebrews 13:13–16)

I stood weeping there, because I was so struck by the truth and beauty of the words Matushka Juliana had spoken to me at the end of our meeting, in light of the Epistle that I was hearing now. And today, on the feast of the Three Holy Hierarchs, patrons of our beloved St. Vladimir’s Seminary Chapel, she was certainly “giving thanks to His name.”

We proceeded to listen to the Holy Gospel, from Matthew 5:14–19:

You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden.
Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.
Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.
Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.
For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.
Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Armed, as it were, with these sacred words, I could not help but think extensively on Matushka’s commission to “bring America to Orthodoxy!”

This is our mission!

Matushka’s funeral was truly glorious. I was standing to the far right side of the church, looking straight out towards her coffin, which was surrounded by many clergy, the Schmemann family, and beautiful flowers. Floating above was a massive and beautifully written icon of the Resurrection. The service was moving and beautiful. Afterwards, I went to give Matushka that last kiss, and felt as though I could gaze upon her forever; so at peace and so beautiful was she. I asked her to forgive me, and I promised her that I would take up my mission of sharing.

I hadn’t thought until then about my email a year ago, when I wrote: “I know there will be those among us, even our current classmates, who will be called to ‘take up the torch’ so to speak.” And suddenly, I realized: I am one of them, one of “us.”

I met an “original brick,” and her memory will live on forever, in a far greater way than the “original brick” in the wall next to the bookstore. No matter our age or position, gifts or struggles, blessings or sufferings, talents or trials, we know this is true: “That Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” True for Orthodoxy in America! True for bringing America to Orthodoxy! This is our mission!

Thank you, Matushka Juliana! I love you! Memory eternal.

© Mary Honoré 2017
For permission to reprint contact: info@svots.edu

Listen to Matushka Juliana speaking about her book, The Joy to Serve.

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Homily on the Sunday of Orthodoxy

On Sunday, March 5, 2017, Archpriest Chad Hatfield, president of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, was guest homilist during the Great Vespers service celebrating the Sunday of Orthodoxy, at Holy Ghost Russian Orthodox Church, Bridgeport, Connecticut—whose rector is Archpriest Steven J. Belonick, seminary alumnus (M.Div. ’77). The parish hosted the event, which was sponsored by the New England Clergy Association.

In this intriguing homily, Fr. Chad acts as both sleuth and visionary: he traces the origins of the Sunday of Orthodoxy and its subsequent celebration up to the present day, and then relates both little known and better known efforts at Orthodox Christian unity in the USA. He includes such historical tidbits as the words of St. Tikhon of Moscow in two of his homilies at Orthodoxy of Sunday Great Vespers, and the FOGCPJA (Federated Orthodox Greek Catholic Primary Jurisdictions in America) formed to address the crisis of Orthodox Christian soldiers during WWII not having dog tags to identify their religion properly! In closing, Fr. Chad urges a call to the Orthodox churches in North America to “a corporate repentance and a recommitment to becoming the Orthodox Christian Church in America—one house, one shared faith, and one common witness?”


Orthodoxy Sunday Vespers – 5 March 2017
Holy Ghost Russian Orthodox Church (OCA), Bridgeport, CT
Archpriest Chad Hatfield, President, SVOTS

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Fathers, brothers and sisters in Christ, I want to thank Archpriest Steven Belonick for hosting this Inter-Orthodox Vespers this evening as we mark the first Sunday of Great Lent. This day is often called the “Sunday of the Triumph” of Holy Orthodoxy. We have been keeping this feast and the practice of processing with our icons and crosses since the Empress Theodora ordered Patriarch Methodius—who by all accounts was a godly Patriarch of Constantinople—in AD 843 on the First Sunday of Great Lent, to assemble the faithful for a procession with the icons, crosses, and candles, so that the holy images might be restored to the Church for veneration.

The Empress Theodora did not have the support of her late husband, Emperor Theophilus. In a dream she saw a vision of her husband being tortured for his heterodoxy as an Iconoclast. In the dream she saw herself pleading for her husband, and the voice of an Angel spoke to her, saying: “Great is your faith, o woman!” She was told that by her prayers and tears forgiveness had been granted to Theophilus.  The intercessions of the priests and faithful had been heard.

Patriarch Methodius had previously written the names of all of the heretical emperors, including Theophilus, on a plain piece of paper and had placed it under the Holy Table. After his own encounter with an Angel, who told him that his intercessions had been heard and that Theophilus had been forgiven, he tested his vision by going to retrieve the paper—finding not a single name left on it! This good news was shared with the Empress and her son Michael, and thus was the beginning of this festival day.

So, we now have our history. History is very important to Orthodox Christians. We like to look back. One bit of history that I want to share this evening, is closer to our own day. That is the question: When exactly did we start gathering on the evening of Orthodoxy Sunday, with a focus on “Orthodox Unity”? I am not sure that I have an exact answer. I don’t have an exact date or time. What I do have is some more history.

We know that after the Bolshevik Revolution, 1917–18, the Orthodox Church in North America was unable to maintain the canonical unity that had, more or less, prevailed since the arrival of those first Missionaries on Kodiak Island in Alaska in 1794. Their missionary efforts are the foundation for Orthodoxy in the New World. The Church is founded on the blood of martyrs, and we have that blood in the martyrs Juvenaly and his companion and St. Peter the Aleut. This is all part of our local church history, and it is foundational for American Orthodoxy.

We also have, as part of our American Orthodox patrimony, the vision of St. Tikhon, our own Archbishop, here in America, who would return to Russia and be elected Patriarch of Moscow and All-Russia during the 1917–18 Sobor that paralleled the time of the Revolution. This year marks the 100th anniversary of his election as Patriarch and his Enthronement. Hear the words of this great saint preached on Orthodoxy Sunday in 1903:

Holding to the Orthodox Faith, as to something holy, living it with all their hearts and prizing it above all, Orthodox people ought, moreover, to endeavor to spread it among people of other creeds. Christ the Savior has said that: “neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candle stand, and it gives light to all that are in the house” (Matthew 5.15). The light of Orthodoxy was not lit to shine only on a small number of men. The Orthodox Church is universal; it remembers the words of its Founder: “Go ye into the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Luke 16.14). “Go ye therefore and teach all nations” (Matthew 28.19). We ought to share our spiritual wealth, our truth, light and joy with others who are deprived of these blessings, but often are seeking them and thirsting for them.

In his “Farewell Sermon,” also preached on Orthodoxy Sunday in his San Francisco Cathedral in 1907, he sounded a similar note, worth hearing once again tonight:

…it is not enough, brethren, only to celebrate “The Triumph of Orthodoxy.” It is necessary for us personally to promote and contribute to this triumph. And for this we must reverently preserve the Orthodox Faith, standing firm in it in spite of the fact that we live in a non-Orthodox country, and not pleading as an excuse for our apostasy that “it is not the old land here but America, a free country, and therefore it is impossible to follow everything that the Church requires.” As if the word of Christ is only suitable for the old land and not for the entire world! As if the Church of Christ is not catholic! As if the Orthodox Faith did not “establish the universe.”

St. Tikhon had a vision for an ethnically diverse yet united Orthodox Church and Evangelical Witness to and in America. It was set in motion with the consecration of St. Raphael of Brooklyn as an Auxiliary Bishop but never fully achieved. Church politics, ethnic divisions and xenophobic fears, and finally, the Bolshevik Revolution, would shatter Orthodoxy in America into camps and the divided house that we now find ourselves in today.

Russian Americans would become two groups; Serbs would become two; Antiochians would divide between New York and Toledo; Albanians, Bulgarians, and Romanians, would divide; and property lawsuits took a toll with Greeks, Russians, Arabs—everybody. So much for making an Evangelical witness in the New World! We looked tribal to outsiders, and we were tribal for those on the inside. We not only fought about languages, but we had calendar divisions and even communities where someone from the “wrong” Old Country Village was not welcome in a particular parish. We even divided cemeteries in some places so that we would not share space even in death!

We did face a crisis when our American boys were being drafted into military service in WW II. Orthodoxy was not recognized as a religion identity option, so there were no dog tags to identify “EO” Eastern Orthodox. We had to choose “C” for “Catholic” or “P” for “Protestant.” Some even got “J” for “Jewish” when they stated that they were “Orthodox.”

F-O-G-C-P-J-A the “Federated Orthodox Greek Catholic Primary Jurisdictions in America” would be formed to address this crisis. I am not, this evening, going to give you the whole history, but if you are interested you can check it out on Ancient Faith Radio or go to OrthodoxHistory.org.

In short, when an Orthodox priest, Fr. John Gelsinger was drafted, his father contacted a certain George E. Phillies, an attorney in Buffalo, New York who happened to be both Orthodox and Episcopalian and a Free Mason. (Our history is fascinating with some most interesting characters!)

With his legal skills he was able to bring together the “Big Four” hierarchs of the time, representing Antiochians, Greeks, Serbs, and Russians. This was an important foundation for what we do here tonight. It was an attempt at Orthodox unity that did bring about “EO” dog tags for our Orthodox Military members, and clarification of identity as a legal Christian church by the government (There is a famous photo of these bishops with Governor Thomas Dewey of New York). But, our unity effort lasted only until November 1944, when the Russians pulled out. Metropolitan Antony Bashir did his best to keep it going, at least on paper, but it failed in the end.

“SCOBA,” or the Standing Conference of Orthodox Bishops in America, would eventually be created in yet one more attempt to create a Pan-Orthodox witness and unity in America. It never became a true functioning local synod, as some thought that it would, but agencies such as the Orthodox Christian Mission Center, International Orthodox Christian Charities, Orthodox Scouting, and Christian Education Groups would find an umbrella through SCOBA. These were all a good things, and we thank God!

The bold gathering in Ligonier, Pennsylvania in 1994 was both an historic moment full of great hope but also a marker in our history where the vision of what could be was lit like a candle for all to see. As the candle was extinguished, for whatever reasons, so went much of the energy to push for Orthodox administrative unity in America.

So, we have continued to gather once a year on the Sunday of Orthodox for Vespers, as we do tonight, and many a sermon as been preached on the necessity for a unified Orthodox voice and presence in America. That is all well and good, but in reality do we not find ourselves, despite the creation of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in America as a replacement for SCOBA, as “Balkanized” as ever?

What is now commonly called the “Council of Crete,” convened this past summer, has not in truth, energized us to move forward and to finally fulfill the vision of St. Tikhon’s American Orthodoxy, where we can successfully make a united Orthodox witness in a culture that is seeking the treasures we possess. We seem pathetic, for the most part, when it comes to sharing the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” with others. People still look into our “tent” looking for the Church of Christ and finding instead a camp of tribes. What they see is hardly a picture of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

St. Tikhon, did not see himself as only the “Archbishop of the Orthodox in America.” He saw himself as the “Archbishop of America,” and all of the sheep were counted as members of his flock. Both Orthodox and non-Orthodox were his spiritual children. As we mark the 100th Anniversary of his election as Patriarch of Moscow and we remember his contribution to the life of the Church in North America, can we not recommit ourselves to bringing “Orthodoxy to America” and “America to Orthodoxy”?

In this spiritual tithe of the year when we seek true repentance and amendment of life as individual disciples of the Living Lord, can we not also call the Church in our land to a corporate repentance and recommitment to becoming the Orthodox Christian Church in America—one house, one shared faith, and one common witness?

We can’t afford to make peace with our unhappy divisions. We need to repent of whatever stumbling blocks keep us from being united in Christ in all things.

We have a most powerful intercessor in this cause in the person of St. Tikhon. We have heard his words and hopefully caught a glimpse of his vision for what can, and should, be Orthodoxy in America, today.

Ask yourself, as I ask myself—what do we need to do to set in motion the action steps needed to complete the vision of a faithful witness given by a saint who loved America, served it in the Name of his Lord, and who calls us to unity in Christ this very night? Ask, in your prayers this Great Lent—what needs to be done by you personally and corporately by our various churches, dioceses, archdioceses, and metropolises to achieve an end to the division and brokenness that the events of history have created and we now live with? If nothing else all of us can utter the words: “Holy Tikhon, pray unto God for us!”

Listen to an audio file of Fr. Chad’s homily here:

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Archpastoral Message of His Beatitude Metropolitan Tikhon, Primate of the Orthodox Church in America and Chairman of the Board of Trustees, St. Vladimir’s Seminary

Great Lent 2017

All mortal life is but one day, so it is said, to those who labour with love.
There are forty days in the Fast: let us keep them all with joy
[Canticle IX of the Canon, Monday of the First Week].

To the Venerable Monastics, Reverend Clergy and Pious Faithful of the Orthodox Church in America:

2017-0227-gethsemaneAs the gates of repentance of Great Lent open to us and we take delight in the pleasures of the Fast, I ask your forgiveness for all the ways that I have offended or disappointed you, my brothers and sisters in Christ. The cross that each of us bears is one chosen especially for us according to our needs, but we recall the words of the Apostle, “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear” (I Corinthians 10:13). I am grateful for your prayers, support and labors on behalf of the Orthodox Church in America and for your prayerful remembrance of her Primate and the Holy Synod.

During these days, I especially recall the blessings of this week at the Monastery of Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk when the majority of the time, for both monastics and seminarians, was spent participating in the full and rich divine services offered. My hope is that each of you can find some time this week to preserve for yourselves some moments of spiritual rest and renewal, even as you attend to the necessary tasks of family life, work, school, and other responsibilities.

I have found the following passage from the Homilies of Saint Gregory Palamas to be an encouraging reminder of how the transformative effects of our liturgical and spiritual disciplines can be found universally throughout history. This great saint offered the following words in his 6th homily for the Wednesday of the First Week of Great Lent:

For the last two weeks our city was given over to gluttony and lack of self-restraint, and straight away we had troubles, shouting, fights, disturbances, shameless songs and obscene laughter. But this week when the fast came it made everything more honourable. It took us away from frivolity’s expensive cares, stopped us toiling for the sake of our useless stomachs, set us instead to works of repentance and persuaded us not to labor for the food which perishes but for the food which endures to eternal life.

Where are now the slaughter of animals, the aroma of roasting meat, the variety of sauces and the cooks’ best endeavours? Where are the men who run around the streets and pollute the air with their impure voices? Where are those who beat the drum and make music around houses and tables, and their devotees who join in with applause and eat their fill of the food set before them to the accompaniment of kettledrums and flutes? Where are those who spend their days and nights at parties, who are always looking for places to drink, who keep each other company in drunkenness and the shameful acts that result from it? Once the fast was proclaimed all these evils went away and all things good took their place. Instead of disgusting songs, mouths now sing holy psalms. Instead of obscene laughter, there is salutary sorrow and tears. instead of undisciplined outings and wanderings, everyone takes one and the same way to Christ’s Holy Church. If unlimited eating produces a dense swarm of sins, fasting is the root of all virtues and the foundation of God’s commandments.

We may not live in Thessalonica in the 14th century, but I know that every Orthodox Christian has experienced the change that takes place during the First Week of Great Lent, both inwardly and outwardly. Though we are a small and humble Church on a very large continent, I pray that we all may continue to bear witness to Christ in this fallen world and that, by God’s grace, the transfiguration of our hearts, our communities and our society by the light of Christ and the resurrection, will continue for the life of the world and it’s salvation.

Please forgive me and pray for me, a sinner.

+ Tikhon
Archbishop of Washington
Metropolitan of All America and Canada

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Artistic Innovation in the Middle Ages and Today: Encountering Christ in Cologne Cathedral

This essay, by Dn. Evan J. Freeman, seminary alumnus (M.Div. ’09, Th.M. ’12), reminds us of the recent Gospel admonition heard on the “Sunday of the Last Judgment”: “I was a stranger and you took me in.” (Matt 25:35). Deacon Evan, who is a Ph.D. candidate at Yale University and also the lecturer in Liturgical Arts at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, explains how the sacred arts—at times through powerful imagery—can proclaim God’s Word in every age.

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25)


img_2225I recently visited Cologne Cathedral, a towering Gothic edifice and UNESCO World Heritage Site overlooking the Rhine in western Germany. Begun in 1248 but not completed until 1880, it was the tallest building in the world from 1880-1884 and remains one of the world’s largest churches to this day. Pilgrims and tourists flock to the cathedral daily, both to pray but also to admire its impressive architecture and numerous other masterpieces of sacred art contained within. On my recent visit, two artworks in particular struck me—one medieval and the other postmodern—that each highlight the vital role of artistic creativity in Christianity’s perennial quest to understand and proclaim God’s eternal Word in every age.

img_8797The renowned Gero Cross was at the top of my list of things to see in Cologne Cathedral (recently discussed by Annika Elisabeth Fisher in “Cross Altar and Crucifix in Ottonian Cologne—Past Narrative, Present Ritual, Future Resurrection”). Probably commissioned by Archbishop Gero around 970 to stand above an altar dedicated to the Crucifixion, the Gero Cross is now set in a Baroque frame and situated north of the high altar. Carved in oak then painted and gilded, the life-size sculpture renders the dead Christ with striking naturalism. Christ’s distended stomach projects outward toward the viewer, while His taught arm muscles strain to support the weight of His lifeless body. Eyes closed, His head slumps in death.

To the modern tourist walking through Cologne Cathedral, the Gero Cross might seem like just another medieval crucifix, a traditional Christian image from a time long past. But it would be wrong to dismiss the Gero Cross as a conservative work, since it was remarkably innovative in its own time. Before the Ottonian period (919-1024), sculpture in the round had been virtually absent from Christian art, still carrying connotations of pagan idolatry. The Gero Cross marks a period of revival of freestanding statuary in the Christian artistic tradition.

img_8807Depicting a dead Christ was also a relatively recent innovation. Images of the dead Christ on the cross emerged in Byzantium in the post-Iconoclastic period as a means of emphasizing Christ’s human nature. They also appeared in the west in the ninth century in conjunction with theological writings like Paschasius Radbertus’s ninth-century De Corpore et Sanguine Domini that emphasized the real presence of Christ’s body in the Eucharist. What’s more, an eleventh-century text called the Chronicon of Thietmar of Merseburg (written between 1012 and 1018, just a few decades before the Eucharistic debates erupted between Berengar of Tours and Lanfranc in the mid-eleventh century) suggests that the Gero Cross once contained a relic of the True Cross and some of the consecrated bread of the Eucharist. This inclusion of relic and Eucharist made the Gero Cross more than a mere depiction of Christ, and instead transformed it into a kind of reliquary and proto-monstrance (anticipating the appearance of monstrances in the fourteenth century that displayed the Eucharistic bread for veneration).

We can only imagine how surprising and compelling the Gero Cross, with its triple presentation of Christ in image, relic, and Eucharist, must have been to its original medieval audience. Today, crowds of tourists dutifully stop beneath it to consult their guidebooks (or smartphones) for a moment or two before moving on to the next attraction.

img_8770But on my recent visit to Cologne, a much newer artwork also attracted crowds of visitors, and it caught my attention too. Installed in 2016 and located just north of the church’s west entrance, the title of the installation is projected on the floor in multiple languages beginning with German: Christus sitzt im Flüchtlingsboot, “Christ sits in the refugee boat.” Drawing close to the installation, the viewer encounters a small, wooden boat resting on the stone floor of the Gothic church like a Duchamp readymade. The boat is entirely unremarkable, except for its curious presence within the Gothic cathedral.

A caption beside the boat reads:

This fishing boat was confiscated by the Maltese Army in the Mediterranean Ocean. Smugglers were using it on the route from Libya to Italy. The boat is seven meters long and carried up to 100 people. The refugees had no protection from sun, storm or cold. They were not allowed to bring anything, not even food or water. So many people were packed on the boat on the trip over that some suffocated and many survivors collapsed from being unable to breathe.

Some visitors peer into the boat. Despite the title, Christ is nowhere to be found. Flüchtlingsboot is an image of Christ without a Christ. Or rather, Flüchtlingsboot is a kind of mirror, revealing Christ in the twenty-first century viewer’s own time and place. A projector shines photographs of refugees onto the wall behind the boat, evoking Christ’s words in Matthew’s Gospel: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger [xenos] and you welcomed me… as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:35-40). Through these projected images, Flüchtlingsboot invites the viewer to acknowledge Christ in the stranger and to practice hospitality (philoxenia), or “love of the stranger,” as commanded by God in the Hebrew Scriptures (e.g. Gen. 18; Exod. 22:21; Lev. 19:33-34, 23:22, 25.35; Deut. 10:19, 14:19, 23:7, 24:14-22, 27:19; Job 31:32; Ps. 94:1-6, 146:9; Wis. 19:13-14; Isa. 58:7; Ezek. 22:7-22; Zech. 7:9-10; and Mal. 3:5), as well as in the New Testament (e.g. Luk. 10:25-37; Rom. 12:13; 1 Tim. 3:2, 5:10; Tit. 1:8; Heb. 13:2; 1 Pet. 4:9; and 3 Jn. 1:5).

img_8779Combining a found object with projected words and images, the multimedia Flüchtlingsboot is unapologetically postmodern in format. Its power lies precisely in its poignant combination of otherwise disparate elements. The work’s caption transforms a seemingly ordinary fishing boat into a tangible illustration of the migrant’s suffering. Even more than an illustration, the boat is an actual artifact of human suffering, a kind of contact relic akin to the piece of the True Cross inside the Gero Cross. But whereas Gero’s life-size scale and illusionistic carving thrusts an emphatically kataphatic image of the suffering Christ into the physical space of the viewer, Flüchtlingsboot answers with an apophatic vision of Christ, an absence that urges the viewer to look beyond the artwork and into the faces of his or her fellow human beings represented by the projected photographs of refugees. On my recent visit to Cologne, Flüchtlingsboot’s effectiveness was manifest in the constant stream of pilgrims and tourists who gathered around the boat to contemplate the refugee’s plight, offer prayers, and place alms in the nearby collection box for Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS).

Although they both claim to represent Christ, the Gero Cross and Christus sitzt im Flüchtlingsboot are two very different works, serving distinct liturgical functions and aimed at unique historical audiences. The Gero Cross employs medieval materials and techniques to create an illusionistic cult image originally intended for a cross altar in Cologne’s Ottonian cathedral. It combines image, relic, and Eucharist to offer the viewer an embodied encounter with the crucified Christ that evokes medieval descriptions of Christ’s physical presence in the Eucharist.

In contrast, Flüchtlingsboot is a postmodern, multimedia installation that greets tourists and pilgrims alike at the entrance of the cathedral and challenges them to recognize Christ in the suffering refugee before they seek Him in iconic works like the Gero Cross or in the Eucharistic bread. Recalling Last Judgment scenes that decorate the entrance portals of Romanesque churches like St. Foy at Conques in France, Flüchtlingsboot confronts those entering Cologne Cathedral with Christ’s stark description of the Last Judgment in Matthew’s Gospel, paraphrased and contextualized by Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, archbishop of Cologne: “Whoever lets people drown in the Mediterranean lets God drown.”

But despite their differences, the Gero Cross and Flüchtlingsboot are both exemplars of the same dynamic Christian artistic tradition that has embraced creativity in every era as a means of communicating the timeless message of the Gospel to contemporary audiences. As the Greek Orthodox iconographer George Kordis recently told me in an interview for the Sacred Arts Initiative, “Tradition is creativity. If there is a tradition with no creativity it is no tradition anymore, it is something dead… Creativity is a basic characteristic of tradition.” In the tenth century, the Gero Cross daringly innovated by employing a novel naturalistic style and three-dimensional format to promote a new theological insight about Eucharistic realism. Through its postmodern combination of found object and projected words and images, Flüchtlingsboot compellingly reveals the crucified Christ in suffering refugees to its twenty-first century audience.

And as we witness the dark tides of nationalism and xenophobia rising across Europe and North America today, Flüchtlingsboot’s powerful call for hospitality—the Biblical mandate to the love the stranger—couldn’t be more timely or more potent.

This essay was first published on the website of the Sacred Arts Initiative at St. Vladimir’s Seminary.

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Homily: “There are a lot of tears out here in Babylon”

fr_james_young-preachers-festival_2-5jan13_rivers-of-babylon

Fr. James Parnell delivers Homily on Psalm 137

We first published this homily in January 2013 on svots.edu. Written by then-newly ordained seminarian, Priest James Parnell, the homily was delivered by him at the “National Festival of Young Preachers,” in Atlanta, GA, an event sponsored annually by the Academy of Preachers. The festival gathered over 100 Christians between the ages of 16 and 28 for three days of preaching, fellowship, and education, and centered on the theme, “The Gospel and the City.”

Fr. James graduated from SVOTS cum laude in May 2013, with a Master of Divinity degree. While a seminarian, he was a Chaplain Candidate in the New York Army National Guard, as well as Student Council President.

Fr. James had joined the U.S. Army in 2002 and served as an Arabic linguist. He deployed twice to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, first from 2005–2006 and again from 2007–2008, before being commissioned as a Chaplain Candidate in 2009. While in the military, Fr. James received an A.A. in Arabic from the Defense Language Institute–Foreign Language Center and a B.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from the American Military University.

Currently, Fr. James is rector of All Saints Orthodox Church, Hartford, CT. In addition to his duties at All Saints, Father James is a Chaplain (Captain) in the Connecticut Army National Guard, assigned to the 1-102nd Infantry Regiment (Mountain), headquartered in New Haven, Connecticut and offers his service as a Clinical Chaplain at the Veteran’s Affairs Medical Center in West Haven, CT.

He and his wife, Matushka Holly, also an Army veteran and former Arabic linguist, have four children.

Psalm 137

א עַ֥ל נַהֲר֨וֹת׀ בָּבֶ֗ל
שָׁ֣ם יָ֭שַׁבְנוּ גַּם־בָּכִ֑ינוּ
בְּ֝זָכְרֵ֗נוּ אֶת־צִיּֽוֹן:
ב עַֽל־עֲרָבִ֥ים בְּתוֹכָ֑הּ
תָּ֝לִ֗ינוּ כִּנֹּרוֹתֵֽינוּ:
ג כִּ֤י שָׁ֨ם שְֽׁאֵל֢וּנוּ שׁוֹבֵ֡ינוּ דִּבְרֵי־שִׁ֭יר
וְתוֹלָלֵ֣ינוּ שִׂמְחָ֑ה
שִׁ֥ירוּ לָ֗נוּ מִשִּׁ֥יר צִיּֽוֹן:
ד אֵ֗יךְ נָשִׁ֥יר אֶת־שִׁיר־יְ-הֹוָ֑ה
עַ֗ל אַדְמַ֥ת נֵכָֽר:
ה אִֽם־אֶשְׁכָּחֵ֥ךְ יְֽרוּשָׁלִָ֗ם
תִּשְׁכַּ֥ח יְמִינִֽי:
ו תִּדְבַּ֥ק־לְשׁוֹנִ֨י׀ לְחִכִּי֘
אִם־לֹ֪א אֶ֫זְכְּרֵ֥כִי
אִם־לֹ֣א אַ֭עֲלֶה אֶת־יְרוּשָׁלִַ֑ם
עַ֗ל רֹ֣אשׁ שִׂמְחָתִֽי:

1 By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat and also wept,
as we thought of Zion.
2 There on the poplars
we hung up our lyres.
3 For our captors asked us there for songs,
our tormentors, for amusement,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
4 How can we sing a song of Yhwh
on alien soil?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither;
6 Let my tongue stick to my palate
if I cease to think of you,
if I do not keep Jerusalem in memory
even at my happiest hour.

ז זְכֹ֤ר יְ-הֹוָ֨ה׀ לִבְנֵ֬י אֱד֗וֹם
אֵת֘ י֤וֹם יְֽרוּשָׁ֫לִָ֥ם
הָ֭אֹ֣מְרִים עָ֤רוּ׀ עָ֑רוּ
עַ֗ד הַיְס֥וֹד בָּֽהּ:
ח בַּת־בָּבֶ֗ל הַשְּׁד֫וּדָ֥ה
אַשְׁרֵ֥י שֶׁיְשַׁלֶּם־לָ֑ךְ
אֶת־גְּ֝מוּלֵ֗ךְ שֶׁגָּמַ֥לְתְּ לָֽנוּ:
ט אַשְׁרֵ֤י׀ שֶׁיֹּאחֵ֓ז וְנִפֵּ֬ץ
אֶֽת־עֹ֝לָלַ֗יִךְ אֶל־הַסָּֽלַע:

7 Remember, Yhwh, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall;
how they cried, “Strip her, strip her
to her very foundations!”
8 Fair Babylon, you predator,
happy is the one who repays you
in kind what you have inflicted on us;
9 Happy is the one who seizes and dashes
your babies against a rock!

(NJPS with adjustments) 

Psalm 137 is a brutal psalm. To some, it may sound more like an SEC fight song gone wrong. How on earth are we to get “good news” out of a psalm that ends talking about the murder of children? Why on earth would anyone sing this psalm as part of worship? How could they?

psalm-137

Well, in my tradition, we do: Orthodox Christians sing Psalm 137 as part of our worship. Now it is read every Friday morning as part of a block in which we read through the entire book of psalms every week, but it is chanted solemnly, on the three Sundays before Great Lent, at the All-Night Vigil in preparation for the Divine Liturgy. This service commemorates the resurrection of Christ, and in this period, before we begin 40 days of fasting, penance, and prayer, we give this rather harsh psalm a key position.

But why? Why sing a spiteful song about the fall of Jerusalem and the beginning of the Babylonian exile at a service highlighting the resurrection of Christ? No matter how much you spiritualize the text, or highlight the hyperbole, it’s a rough psalm, and a hard one to sing, much less pray.

I’ll be the first to admit that it isn’t one of those that you stick to the mirror or refrigerator. It’s not a mantra or a promise of God that you’ll see touted in an Evangelical bestseller. It’s not on the Royal Ambassadors Scripture Memorization list. It’s not listed in your teen reference Bible as a place to go for comfort.

But it’s one of the most powerful expressions of love for one’s city, one’s homeland, and the feeling of despair that comes when you’re separated from it, perhaps forever. The Psalm concludes in a surprisingly visceral and dramatic way. It’s pretty harsh … not something you’d expect to be sung in church. It’s about the city, sure, but what does that have to do with the Gospel? What does it have to do with Christ?

Everything…. This psalm has everything to do with the Gospel. This psalm was written in the context of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile to Babylon in 586 B.C. but this story has more to do with the Gospels than we might think.

The Psalm opens to a scene of Jerusalemites, inhabitants of what was Zion, that great city. They are no longer there, protected by the walls of their city, the womb of their mother, Zion, but are instead, sitting on the bank of a foreign waterway, the Euphrates River Valley, and they’re weeping; crying rivers of their own in remembrance of the siege that they feel cursed to have survived.

They hang up their lyres, their harps, their musical instruments on the trees, like prisoners on the gallows, for they’d rather have them be silent, dead, and without movement, than be used for the amusement of their captors; those who crushed their city and slaughtered their families without remorse.

“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” they laugh, but the captives cry out, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land…?”1 For the song of Zion is the song of the Lord for the psalmist, that holy city that couldn’t fall, for God was with it. Or so they thought….

The psalmist then makes a series of remembrances; he calls to mind his memory of Jerusalem, invoking a curse on himself if he forgets Jerusalem; if it doesn’t remain his highest joy and the pinnacle of his highest hope. His calls for recollection take a darker turn; he calls out to God: Remember O Lord, how the Edomites, the descendants of the supplanted Esau, on the day of Jerusalem said, “Raze it! Raze it down to its foundations!” 2 He concludes in a roar, lashing out at the great city of Babylon: “O daughter of Babylon, You devastator! You destroyer of our life; Happy shall he be who requites you with what you have done to us! Happy shall he be who takes your little ones; and dashes them against the rock!” 3

Whoa….

There is of course a bit of a revenge fantasy here, but there’s more than just a desire for the attackers to be paid back in spades. It’s more than just the well-worn tit-for-tat of the Middle East. It’s hyperbole, but it’s hyperbole that is used to make a specific point, and to make it abundantly clear: This is about the destruction of a city; the end of existence, at least for the psalmist.

This exile, and its scriptural component in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, is unlike anything else in history. The story of God’s destruction of Jerusalem is unique. It’s not just any city. But then, what is a city? What is its purpose?

In the Ancient Near East, any government, nation, or tribal coalition had a city, the center of that people’s universe. People went out during the day, farming the land outside the city, grazing their animals, fishing and felling trees; but at night, they came back to the city, and the gates were shut. The walls, the gates, were about protection. But even more powerful than the stone walls was the temple of stone that housed your god; the god that protected your city, he was the creator of your world.

That God brought you rain, kept your women and cattle fertile, and kept the storm and sickness at bay. God is the Father of your City. And God placed a person in charge, a King, and the King became his son, for lack of a better term. He was his emissary. This king’s job is to uphold the God-given laws; he issues decrees and enforces them. At the palace you bow before the king, but everyone, the king leading the congregation, bows down to God. So this is your world; your city, your king, your God.

And in the story of Judah, the king and the people get lax. They pay lip service to the deity. When their prayer isn’t answered, they try something else. The king focuses not on the law given to him by God, but on the regional politics. And slowly, God is forgotten; a vestige of our cultural milieu. But when a neighboring king leads his army from another city to your city and sacks it, tears down your idols and your temple, and puts in place the idol of his own god, your world is turned upside down.

You rationalize: obviously their god was stronger than ours. But with Israel, it’s different; Scripture tells us that the destruction of Jerusalem is not a battle that God has lost to Marduk or any other Babylonian idol. No: the desecration of his temple wasn’t proof of God’s weakness, in failing to protect his people, but rather was a show of his strength.

God destroyed his city. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob sent the Babylonians to desecrate his temple and to devastate his people; God did that to his people, because they forgot God. They forgot that their God was The God, the God of heaven and earth, the Most High, the God over Jew and Gentile. Instead of living according to the Law, and being a light to the gentiles, a glory to God, and an example to the other nations, they became just like the other nations.

God says of them: “My people have forgotten me, they burn incense to false gods.”4 Jeremiah warns, “You have eyes and heart only for dishonest gain, for shedding blood and for practicing oppression and violence.”5 And in Lamentations: “The Lord has done what he purposed, has carried out his threat, as he ordained long ago.”6 Still, no one expected it, or knew how to cope. And this story, of God getting our attention with the unexpected, the unthinkable, continues.

Jesus, tells his disciples about the coming destruction of Jerusalem and after it happens, the writers of the New Testament reflect on the utter shock of it: Jerusalem being wiped away; the order that they knew, gone. This is not what they expected. Where was this Messiah that was to bring an end to Roman oppression? What of this Messiah that was to bring the kingdom of God? Now they thought his throne is shattered: it was no more.

The people of Israel, in Psalm 137, are blinded by rage and pain; they’re lost. They had an ideal, an expectation in their head, one of unending peace and prosperity—despite their lack of love for God and their neighbor—and it’s shattered. Similarly, The disciples in Acts, who ask Christ at his ascension, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?,” had built up a city in their own minds, with a throne and a king of their own making, a palace and a temple of their own design.

Scripture is at times like a mirror held up to our human condition: our fears, our doubts, our deepest and darkest thoughts. In Psalm 137, though, we may look away at the ending, for we are not so far from the exilic writer.

That desire to feel safe—to believe that God is somehow on our side is, in our corner, there for us—is just as strong today, in this great pluralistic, democratic nation. We’re still worried, stressed, and scared about our future. And the reality of revenge, of anger, against those we see as Babylonians, our perceived enemies can still drive us to hate those we are called to love.

Increasingly, I hear from other Christians, across denominational and geographical lines, about a perceived war against them; that they are victims of bigotry, of prejudice and intolerance; that there’s a war on Christianity and family values. And these “evil” people, fighting against God’s chosen ones (us, of course), become the targets of our anger, of our vitriol, of our contempt, and we think we’re doing God a favor.

We feel that we have to somehow defend God and his Church; that he needs us to save everyone else and get them to start acting right; that we’ll somehow save the day. We spend millions of dollars supporting this candidate, or that cause, or this ministry, but we forget that Christ has overcome the world.

And too often, we describe ourselves, our life in Christ, by using negatives instead of positives: we don’t do this, we don’t support this, and we’re “pro-this,” when the opposite is meant: we’re against this or that segment of the population; they just won’t fit in our city.

We too build up a city for ourselves, a city made up of us and ours, with walls and gates built not as a sanctuary for all who seek life, but as a bunker for those we think deserve to live. But when this shelter is threatened; when disaster strikes, when crisis comes into our lives, and that illusion of a calm haven is shattered, we despair, or worse, we lash out and fight to protect what’s ours.

Just before the armies of Babylon arrived, Jerusalem was happy in their comfort zone: the walled city. They didn’t feel the need to uphold or share the Law they’d been given. They became insular, greedy, and distrusting of anyone who wasn’t them. And only when God smashed their very foundations, were they forced—or perhaps given the opportunity—to live amongst those they had despised, amongst those whom they’d hated; amongst those whom they didn’t know.

We are so focused on our ministry or our cause, that we’ve hijacked the gospel as a vehicle, forgetting our first love. We are so riled up about this or that issue in society, we have forgotten that, no matter what their sins or proclivities, their soapbox or political party, they—the people we don’t agree with—are made in the image of God, sinners just like us. We’re are just plain scared; we’ve been beaten and bruised, hurt by so many horrible events in our lives, that we just want to be safe, even if it means staying inside our fortress: our church, our circle, our home, our own mind.

But, there’s so much more that God has in store for us. Remember what God spoke to those in Exile through his prophet Jeremiah: “…build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. … Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” 7 It is in seeking the welfare of our neighbors, of those who hate us, our enemies (whether real or imagined), that we find our peace, and not in any elaborate make-believe Christian bubble that we create for ourselves, to protect us from “the world.”

St. Paul, the persecutor turned preacher, writes to new exiles, the Diaspora: “So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go forth to him outside the camp, and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.” 8

Our Lord suffered outside the gate; he was hung upon a cross and died. He was buried and was raised to life by his Father, so that we might become heirs to his kingdom, his everlasting city; that we might be able to live forever with his Father, as our Father, as co-heirs of this inheritance. However, it means suffering outside the gate of our city, today, bearing the abuse he endured, in order to enter into that city which is to come. We can’t build it ourselves, but rather must heed the Shepherd’s voice and enter the door that he has opened: the door of the Cross.

Today: deconstruct the city that you’ve built with your own stones. Better yet, leave it behind and sit down by the waters of Babylon—the world, the seductive world, that we love and desire, yet hate and fear—and sob, cry, weep, and wail. They won’t know that you’re weeping over your lost castle of pride, of self-satisfaction, of religiosity. Indeed, they might not notice at all; there are a lot of tears out here in Babylon.

But once you catch your breath, get to know the people of Babylon, outside your city walls. And instead of dreaming of their destruction, fantasizing about their failure, or hoping for their harm, let go! Instead of boycotting and bullying this group or that; befriend them and be a blessing to them; not in order to trick or convince them, but because it is an opportunity for you.

You can encounter Christ, where you least expect it. Be around them; get to know them; learn to love them—because only by suffering with them, outside the gate of your city, will you find Jesus Christ.

1 Psalm 137.3–4 (RSV)
2 Psalm 137.5 (RSV)
3 Psalm 137.8–9 (RSV)
4 Jeremiah 18.15 (RSV)
5 Jeremiah 22.17 (RSV)
6 Lamentations 2.17 (RSV)
7 Jeremiah 29.4–5, 7 (RSV)
8 Hebrews 13.12–15 (RSV)

*Psalm excerpt and image titled “By the Waters of Babylon” (1882-1883). Artist Evelyn de Morgan Edited by The Torah Website.com

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Homily: “The Publican and the Pharisee”

fr-paul-coats-mat-gerianne-and-daughter-helen

Fr. Paul Coats, Mat. Gerianne, and daughter Helen

We are pleased to share a Homily on Luke 18.10–14 by Priest Paul Coats, Alumnus (M.Div. ’08), Assistant Priest at St. Anthony the Great Orthodox Mission, Rock Hill, SC. As we anticipate our Lenten journey, his thoughtful words on “The Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee” offer us a lodestar to understand how to “fulfill all righteousness,” as the Gospel commands.

[9] He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: [10] “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. [11] The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, `God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. [12] I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ [13] But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, `God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ [14] I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted. (Luke 18.10–14)

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

icon-publican-and-the-pharisee-3In today’s Gospel, Christ tells what must be a shocking parable to many who were doing their best to obey God, as good Jews, and be obedient to the law to the best of their ability. In this parable, it seems that all the best efforts of those trying extra hard to follow God, the Pharisees, are said to be of little value.

With this parable and others like it, for some Christ shattered their whole belief system. He takes someone despised as a lawless sinner, a tax collector, and says that this man can be justified simply by a sincere acknowledgment of his sin, and a request for mercy. This must have been outrageous to those who were convinced that strict obedience to God’s law was the only way to please God and have salvation. After all, isn’t this what all the prophets, beginning with Moses, had said? Isn’t this what God had been communicating with his people all along?

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In regard to zealously following the Law and trying to obey the commandments, Christ was on the side of the Pharisee! We must remember that at the very beginning of his teaching ministry, Christ said, Do not think I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, I have come to fulfill them. And further, whoever relaxes the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven; he who does them and teaches others to do so, will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven. Christ was pleased with the Pharisee’s good works.

But listen to his next words: For unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. And Christ goes on to talk about the kind of righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees: not only do not kill, but do not even be angry with another. Not only stay chaste in marriage, but do not lust—you must be chaste in your mind, too. Instead of being fair (an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth), suffer injustice. Instead of loving those who love you, love those who hate you. And lest we think the bar is set too high, he simply confirms it: You must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

This is the radical inner righteousness that Christ requires of us.

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Christ does not condemn the Pharisee for being honest, just, and moral as the Pharisee claimed himself to be. But the Pharisee’s righteousness was incomplete. His pursuit of righteousness did not lead to love for God or men. He had started down the path of righteousness, toward God, but on the way he took a wrong turn! He had probably started honestly, as many of the Pharisees, such as St. Paul, had started out honestly in pursuit of God. But it had taken such a wrong turn that even someone who had not even started on the path—the tax collector in the story—was ahead of him.

What was the problem here?

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One of the things I learned very early growing up in rural northern Illinois was how to find the North Star in the night sky. We would sometimes be out camping or even hiking in the woods at night, and we needed a way to orient ourselves and find our way back home, back to the road, or back to the camp. If we tried to get a sense of direction from things on earth, things around us, the landscape, some lights in the distance, or trees, we were very likely to get lost in the dark. . . things didn’t seem as they really were at night, and so forth. But if we could find the North Star, we could find our way. In other words, it took a permanent, unchanging reference point to find our way; the moon didn’t work, it changed locations constantly . . . the other stars didn’t work, they also changed directions. But the North Star is always in the same location, directly north, and never moves.

How had the Pharisee gotten so far off track? I think it was this: the Pharisee had as his reference point other people, instead of God. He didn’t have his eyes on God’s righteousness and holiness, he had his eyes on other people.

And this was disastrous, because in his sinfulness and pride, this led to exalting himself above others, inwardly condemning others, and despising them. And so therefore he really blew it. Because of this wrong turn, all his good works were useless, because they strayed from the ultimate goal. Not only that, but he had turned 180 degrees and was using his works of righteousness as a weapon against others, to condemn them, and to despise them.

The tax collector, on the other hand, saw no one but God. He wasn’t looking at the Pharisee . . . he didn’t even physically look up to God, out of shame. But this was because God was too present in his vision. It’s safe to say the only thing in his mind, the only thing in his inner vision, was God and his righteousness. And making God his reference point, he was able to honestly pray the prayer, God, be merciful to me, a sinner. And here, we have what is essentially the Jesus Prayer, one more time. In recent Sundays we heard it from the blind beggar, we heard it from the Canaanite woman, and today we have it from Christ’s own words, which he put in the mouth of the tax collector as he tells this story.

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This story that Christ tells should never be used to somehow try to promote “having faith” over and against good works. This is a false opposition. Christ commanded good works. Good works are meant to be a means to learn true love of God and others, just as the Law was also meant as a means to learn to love God, for the Jews. Orthodox spirituality teaches that we cannot cultivate love for God in our hearts without overt acts of mercy and service to others. In two weeks, we will hear the parable of the Last Judgment to drive this home.

But this parable is a strong warning from Christ that our good works can become a curse if we turn from our true reference point; that good works are meant to lead us to repentance, not self-justification; that our good works are a necessary beginning, and paradoxically the end fruit, of a heart turned toward God, a heart that recognizes its own need for God, a heart that truly loves God with everything it has, and other people as well.

So today Christ warns us strongly about comparing ourselves to others. . . using others, instead of God, as our reference point. I have found this to be very subtle. Do you find yourself subtly judging others? This is an inward disposition that leaves no room for true love. It’s destructive to others because it is not loving them; it’s destructive to ourselves, because it breeds a confidence in oneself, a trusting in ourselves for our own salvation.

Not everyone struggles with this. There are those who have been given the grace of compassion and full acceptance of others. But for those of us who do struggle with it, it is one of the hardest things to stop. When we see someone who bothers us, or who is so different from us in personality and interests and approach, we may almost involuntarily and automatically judge that person. But we become the Pharisee in the parable when we do that.

I have one suggestion in this regard: one of the quickest cures for this is to pray for people we are tempted to judge, and ask God to bless them with all the same things that we ask God to bless us with. Inwardly, then, we’re giving to that person, serving them, and not judging and condemning them. It’s a double blessing—we are released from the sin of comparison, judgment, condemnation and pride, and they are the recipients of a prayer heard by God, and God will honor that prayer in the way best for both the one who prays and the one prayed for.

Brothers and sisters, we are in the preparatory Sundays leading up to Great Lent. We will soon be saying the prayer of St. Ephraim, which ends with “grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother.” Let us begin to prepare, then, by trying to set aside the comparing of ourselves to others, completely. Let us set our eyes on the true reference point, our Lord Jesus Christ. The more we do this, the more we will be able to pray the prayer of the tax collector with sincerity, God, be merciful to me, a sinner. We will not inwardly exalt ourselves over others, and our good works will be a blessing to us and to others and will lead to the love of God. May Christ strengthen us all for this. AMEN

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