Have This in Mind

Imagine a world where this doesn’t just happen at the Olympics, but in all aspects of life – even Church!

I think all of you have probably seen this photo from last week.

According to the Independent, here’s what happened:

New Zealand athlete Nikki Hamblin fell four and a half laps into the race on Tuesday, accidently tripping up America’s Abbey D’Agostino with around 2,000m left to run.

 D’Agostino, 24, quickly got back up, but, rather than carrying on with the race, she stopped to help her fellow competitor who remained on the ground and appeared to be crying after falling hard on her shoulder.

 …D’Agostino helped Hamblin back on to her feet but had injured her leg in the accident.

 Refusing to quit, D’Agostino ran the rest of the race with what appeared to be a right ankle injury, while 28-year-old Hamblin stayed by her side to help her continue.

 Hamblin later finished in 29th place, one ahead of D’Agostino who limped across the finish line.

 The pair embraced at the finish, before D’Agostino was taken from the track in a wheelchair.

This story has gotten a lot of press. Many people have cited this as the spirit of the Olympics.

The helping of a fellow athlete truly is inspirational.

In fact, I was so encouraged by it that I shared it on my personal Facebook page with this caption:

May this spirit become contagious in all we do – religion, politics, class, gender, race – everything!

THIS IS ALSO THE CHRISTIAN SPIRIT!

What is so refreshing about this story is it’s a story of one human helping another. It’s not about the worst of humanity.

There were no personal agendas.

D’Agostino wasn’t expecting anything in return. It was simply about helping a fellow athlete.

It’s this spirit that should infuse every aspect of a Christian’s life.

The great apostle St. Paul once put it this way,

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name,” (Philippians 2:5-9 RSV)

In other words, St. Paul is telling us to be like D’Agostino, asking us to slow down and help our brother or sister who needs us.

He then gives Christ as an example of someone who humbled himself to raise us up.

As the second person of the Trinity and divine, it was unfitting for Christ to take on human flesh and die a miserable death. Yet, out of love, he did that for us!

As a result, Christ’s death destroys death and we are offered a renewed life. We are a new creation with a new way of living.

Christ humbled himself to raise us up.

D’Agostino humbled herself to raise up her fellow athlete.

Humbling ourselves to raise up our neighbor is what the Christian life is all about.

LIVING A LIFE FOR OTHERS

Imagine a world where we all stop to help one another!

Imagine a world where we work together to overcome our differences.

Imagine a world where we listen instead of constantly interjecting our opinions.

Imagine a world where we strive to empathize* with others.

We don’t have to give up who we are. We don’t have to give up our values, or our way of life, but we should work to build up our neighbor – even if their values differ than ours.

This message is transformative and it’s what the Gospel is all about!

News text and photos from: Alexandra Sims,”Rio 2016: Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin embody ‘Olympic spirit’ by helping each other finish race.” The Independent 17 August 2016.


Alumnus Father Dustin M. Lyon (M.Div., magna cum laude, ’11), is rector of St. Elias the Prophet Greek Orthodox Church, Dubuque, Iowa. Father Dustin, who in his undergraduate years studied archeology, has a wonderful personal story to tell about his discovery of the Orthodox Christian faith, and you can read more of his writings on his blog, “Rediscovering Christianity”:  www.dustinlyon.orgPlease keep him and his wife, Presbytera Nicki, in prayer as they serve the Lord! 

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“Prof” Sergius Verhovskoy 1986-2016, Memory Eternal!

August 4, 2016

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the falling asleep in the Lord of Professor Serge S. Verhovskoy professor emeritus of Dogmatic Theology and Ethics, and Provost of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary (SVOTS) from 1955 until his retirement in 1981.

verhovskoy_4 August 1986He was born in Sarzha Russia in 1907. He left Russia with his parents and sisters in his early youth following the Bolshevik Revolution. He completed his secondary education in Prague, Czechoslovakia before moving to Paris, France. Greatly influenced by Fr. Georges Florovsky, while studying at St. Sergius Theological Institute between 1932–36, he became known for his passion for Orthodox Tradition, grounded in the Patristic Fathers and the Holy Scripture, and he was an open and vocal critic of the popular “Russian émigré intelligentsia,” to Paris. By the early 1950s he was recognized as an important theologian and writer, and was invited by Fr. Florovsky to join him in NYC in the forming of SVOTS.

Professor Verhovskoy always seemed to live “beneath the radar,” until it was necessary for someone to step forward to speak the Truth, which he always did without hesitation—an issue for which he continually chided his students: “You are called to be ‘Ezekiels,’ yet you are silent.” And when [seminary Dean] Fr. Alexander Schmemann expressly and adamantly responded to the “Sorrowful Epistle” of Metropolitan Philaret (Voznesensky), by stating, “I trust people like Prof. SS Verhovskoy,” he might well have duly cited him in his description of the role of the theologian:

The theologian has no rights, no power to govern and to administer that which belongs exclusively to the hierarchy. But it is his sacred duty to supply the hierarchy and, indeed, the whole Church with the pure teaching of the Church and to stand by that truth even when it is not considered “opportune.” It must be admitted that much too often our official “academic” theology has failed to accept this “obedience” and preferred quiet complacency. It has thus become accomplice to many deviations and distortions from which the whole Orthodox Church suffers today. But again, it was not so with the Fathers…they suffered from the various “power structures” of their days for their refusal to opt for the compromise or to accept silent obedience to evil. And the fact is that ultimately the Church followed them and not those who, then as today, have a thousand excellent reasons for avoiding the “abstract principles” and preferring the “demands of reality.”

And like many great men, he was a character. He loved the “Motown Sound” and he borrowed every one of my original blues albums—from Muddy Waters to Howlin’ Wolf – and he loved nothing more than to have a student drop by for tea and discussion, day or evening, or listen to us play guitars and sing “the rock music.”

When his beloved wife, Olga, died of sudden cardiac arrest while preparing to attend liturgy on St. Thomas Sunday, the word went out that “Prof” wanted students to be with him. Coming to his home on campus, [we saw] a large circle of chairs was arranged in his living room; students came and went, as a samovar served tea, and he taught “dogmatic theology”—life, marriage, death, the Last Things, the Resurrection—as he told stories, wept, and laughed, and we sang, and reminisced over the course of an amazing day.

At the end of his life, I had arranged for a very small favor in arranging for his care. He called my busy office, and he would not take “He cannot take your call now,” for an answer. And when my supervisor finally was forced to interrupt me, “Prof” simply said, “Well, my dear, I don’t know, but you are somehow an angel.”

Me, Prof?” It was all I could do not to cry like a child. It was like the life affirmation you had always wanted, and the warmest hug you never expected! Memory eternal, beloved Professor, and may your soul rest with the saints!

Michael Stankovich is a Research Consultant in Behavioural Genetics and Forensic Psychiatry. He received his MD from the Faculté de Médecine, Pierre et Marie Curie – Sorbonne Universités, and his MSW from San Diego State University. He was employed by the UCSD School of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry, in contract with the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation, transitioning inmates with a mental health designation (including nearly 500 sex-offenders and child-sexual predators) into the Parole Out-Patient treatment system. He graduated from St. Vladimir’s in the Class of 1978.   

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Music Education in Our Church

As a newborn, I didn’t breathe for my first two weeks. Perhaps I just didn’t feel like it, I don’t really know the reason. As a result, I was hooked up to a machine that took all the blood out of my body, oxygenated it, and then put it back in. Thinking about it now, it’s pretty cool. It sounds like something out of Star Trek. It went on for a week or two. The only real human interaction I had during that time was with my dad. He would sit next to the contraption I was isolated in and sing to me. Just sing. Eventually, I came home from the hospital. Home was filled with music. My parents, my dad especially, would just walk around the house singing…constantly. My parents were never into the music of the 80’s (I don’t know why), so the music they would often sing was church music. Beautiful hymns.

In the car, the tapes were not Michael Jackson or Van Halen, they were from St. Vladimir’s Seminary. Tuesday nights was choir rehearsal, and both parents would go—which of course meant I went. I could say that I spent my formative years immersed in the music of the Orthodox Church. As a result of this, I always felt very comfortable in the choir loft or at the chanter’s stand. As a kid, I would just stand there. One particular Sunday, however, all that changed. I went up into the choir loft as I would often do, just wandered up there, and the new choir director told me to leave. I wasn’t allowed there because I was too young. I remember it vividly—I was crushed.

Across the country, school districts have money problems that cause cutbacks in their music education programs. Programs that supported three or four music teachers are now relying on one to do all those jobs. As a result, the kids miss out on some wonderful opportunities. In parish life, if kids are talented, their parents might suggest that they sing in the choir. Unfortunately, the kids that are not considered talented are left out. More often than not, kids experience what I experienced. As a result, our youth feel left out liturgically.

DSC_0028-1024x685During college and post-college years, I spent my summers as a counselor at the Antiochian Village. The most beautiful choir I have ever heard is found there: over 300 children singing to the glory of God, in unison. Perhaps the most amazing thing is how well they know the music of our church. When on the Challenge Course, a group will often sing a hymn while hiking or following the completion of a task. When walking from one activity to another, they sing to St. Raphael. During the morning program chanting lessons, all they want to sing is their favorite hymn. How many of us can even name their favorite hymn, let alone sing all the words from memory?

Many faith traditions utilize youth choirs. Protestant and Catholic churches often have hymns offered by children’s voices or children’s bell choirs. A close friend from college was the music director of a Roman Catholic Church in the Pittsburgh area. They had one mass entirely led by the children: the children were the choir, the cantors, and sometimes even the piano/organ players. Similarly, in many Antiochian parishes, Saturday nights often bring “Camp Vespers.” The teens of the church sing and chant Vespers just like they would at camp during the summer. This can become the foundation for a youth choir in a parish.

It is important to note that calling it “Camp Vespers” is somewhat a misnomer. Vespers is Vespers, though the practice of congregational singing is what is unique to the camp setting. Additionally, we do not want to not exclude children that have not been to summer camp. That said, the idea behind a “Camp Vespers” is what is important. Maybe it begins as a once a month occurrence on Saturdays, then twice a month, eventually every Saturday is “Youth Vespers,” and further down the line it is simply everyone singing Vespers together. The youth choir can then begin participating on Sundays. The children can sing during communion and gradually have the children singing more and more.

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The keys to having a successful youth choir are bringing the children together for the first time (possibly the most difficult), strong leadership, and consistency. One way to ensure this is the integration of music education into the current education already happening within the parish. Sunday School can begin each week with singing all together and learning the hymns of liturgy for that week. Additionally, youth participation ensures the continuity of our church choirs. We begin training the next generation of our choirs with our youth. Our youth learn the Divine Liturgy and begin to take ownership of the Church as full and equal participants.

The music of our Church is some of the most beautiful music in the world and also some of the most powerful. It unites people from around the world and calls people to Christ. We must invite our children to participate in making this music.

During the Cherubic Hymn we sing:

We who mystically represent the Cherubim, and sing to the life-giving Trinity the thrice-holy hymn, let us now lay aside all earthly cares: that we may receive the King of all, who comes invisibly upborne by the Angelic Hosts. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

How can we keep our children from representing the Cherubim and singing to the life-giving Trinity?


Gregory J. Abdalah is the Youth Pastor of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Phoenix, Arizona and has been working in youth ministry in various capacities for 15 years. Greg holds a Bachelor of Music in Vocal Performance from Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA and a Master of Divinity from St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary and is currently in the midst of a Doctor of Ministry from SVOTS. He serves as the President of the SVOTS Alumni Association, and on the SVOTS Board of Trustees.

 Originally printed in The Word, January 2005. Updated, December 2015.

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Through the Cross, Joy

Let us commend ourselves…
The first few days after the miscarriage were foggy and confusing. We were devastated. Afraid. Empty. We weren’t so much angry with God as numb. We shut down and withdrew. Why did we have to let go of the child we never met? Our emotional turmoil mirrored the winter weather: swirling snow shut everything down, and we were shut inside with our grief.

On the third day, God gave us a great gift to begin the slow process of healing. The blizzard dissipated, leaving everything hushed by a serene blanket of white snow. With everyone else inside to enjoy the day off, cozy with family before their fireplaces, the world outside remained quiet and pure, unspoiled. A new beginning. We alone emerged, tentatively, into that peaceful silence; tentatively, we entrusted part of our broken selves back to the Creator.

The next place we felt comfortable was in church, the Saturday night Vigil. We didn’t have to make meaningless small talk or look anyone in the eye. Others prayed by candlelight; we simply stood, holding onto the stillness from the previous day, letting the prayers wash over us. Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee. The prayers in preparation for Sunday, the day of resurrection ­­already, but not yet. For Thy Name’s sake have I waited for Thee. We sat in the hushed service together, keeping watch before the icon of St. Anna the Prophetess, who is practiced at receiving children. We decided to commend our lost child to her, and to remember her with the same name. From the morning watch until night, let Israel hope in the Lord. Perhaps we could relearn how to commend ourselves to Christ, too.

Let us commend each other…
The close community at St. Vladimir’s carried us. Two priests came to see us shortly after it happened. They listened, they prayed; they assured us we could always call on them. They were kind and wise in their brevity. Perhaps one of the best lessons in the art of pastoral care.

The best gift our friends gave us at first was space. The second best was food. The evening after our loss came a knock at the door: no one there, just a bag of groceries and warm comfort food. And a note: We’ve been there; we’re here for you. Two of our closest friends. First there was a wave of guilt—how had we not known and acknowledged their pain? Then a stronger feeling, like a firm embrace: they loved us anyway, and there was nothing we could do about it.

We were not prepared for the gentle compassion we received. No one smothered us, but somehow, discretely, we were assured of everyone’s support. Family sent cards. A baby blanket in memoriam. We were even less prepared for the number of friends who had also miscarried. Obadiah. Innocent. Anna. They all had names, icons in the family prayer corner. How had we never noticed? Another couple of our closest friends invited us in. They had been there, too. You’ll never forget her. It still hits us unexpectedly after three years. Tears. Hugs. A deep bond that only comes with vulnerability and shared experience. Only in reflecting back do we see how we made it through.

With every act of kindness toward us, every tear shed with us, every prayer said secretly for us: our friends and family commended us to Christ when we were too lost and lethargic to know where to turn.

Let us commend all our life unto Christ our God.
Slowly the pain dulled, the sobs came less frequently, and we returned to life as usual. We mercifully receded from the spotlight. Nothing would ever be the same, but neither did it have to remain bleak. There were new pains, new fears, new questions; but we were finding a new resilience, and new wisdom. God had not left us during the most painful time of our lives, and in fact, we had never been closer to or more loved by our friends. As we practiced ­­haltingly ­­ giving every thorny part of our life over to God, we found that the pain was not to be avoided or merely endured, but could actually be cultivated into the most precious fruit­bearing tree. Now the flaming sword no longer guards the gates of Eden; Behold, through the Cross joy has come into all the world. Enter again into paradise.

After forty days of mourning, of lamentation, of the cold beginning of a New York spring—Pascha. In spite of ourselves, we dove into the celebration. Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life. Still not yet, not fully. But it felt closer; more certain. We grew to believe with more zeal than ever before. The child that never saw the light of day—her story did not, in fact, end before it began. We hope to meet her one day.

After forty days of paschal joy, of the hope of resurrection and reunion, of sunny days and blooming flowers, we had a memorial service and found out we were pregnant again. At the beginning of this year, our son was born, healthy and happy, by the grace of God. He cannot replace Anna, or erase the scar from our hearts; neither will he be overshadowed by her. Rather, he will grow up under the watchful protection of the Prophetess Anna and the Wonderworker Nicholas. And standing together in our prayer corner, before their icons and by their prayers, we three together will learn to commend ourselves, and each other, and all our life unto Christ our God.

cannons

Andrew, Melissa, and Nicholas Cannon live at St. Vladimir’s, where Andrew is in his final semester of his studies in the Master of Arts program.

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Words of life

Sermon, Fourth Saturday of Lent 2016

Gospel readings for April 9, 2016

 

Imagine, if you will, life as a deaf person. More specifically, imagine all of the things that you can do in the course of a day that would be nearly impossible, or at least significantly more difficult, if you were deaf. How would you wake up in the morning if you couldn’t hear your alarm clock? How would you answer the phone at work if you can’t hear the person on the other end? How could you talk to someone at the grocery store if they couldn’t speak American Sign Language?

Now imagine life as a deaf person in the first century, and not just a deaf person, but mute as well. This existence would have been one of severe limitations, and of austere loneliness and isolation. There were no subtitles, no sign language, no detailed communication whatsoever! This is the picture that the Gospel paints for us today; the man that Jesus heals had to be brought to him, a man who was deaf and without speech. But it is the way that Jesus heals him that is so peculiar; Jesus heals a deaf man by speaking to him. Think about that for just a moment; how many times would someone have spoken a word, or a multitude of words to this man? The words would have entered his ears and then evaporated into the ether, unheard and unheeded, and the speaker, with a puzzled look, would have eventually given up and walked away.

 

christhealsdeafman chora church

Christ heals the deaf man, 14th century mosaic, Kariye Camii, Istanbul (Church of the Holy Saviour, Chora)

 

How many of us are just like this deaf man? The words of those around us enter our ears, good words from good people. But even though they enter our ears, they remain unheard and unheeded. Maybe it’s the council that the priest gives to us when we go to confession. Maybe it’s the advice that our parents give when we’re making big life-decisions. Or maybe it’s something that we read in a book of sayings of the fathers. Whatever the source of the words, so often we, like the deaf man, move on without actually hearing what was said.

But why is it so important for us to hear these words?

So often, after we are approached or reproached, admonished or encouraged, we remain unchanged. For better or for worse, the words of those around us inspire and encourage us. They comfort us, they motivate us, they amaze us, they edify us, and sometimes they trouble us; and these experiences have the power to transform us. And it is the opening of our ears that is the gateway to this transformation. But there is something different about Jesus’ words; they are uttered by the Son of God, and he who hears those words will live. “Be opened!” These words didn’t just enter his ears; they sank deep into his heart, changing him.

Here at the liturgy, we encounter words like the ones that healed the deaf man, words of life. Every Sunday, as we gather for the liturgy, we have an encounter much the same as the one that Jesus had with the deaf man. We listen to the reading of the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, the epic story of how God came as a man to save his creation from the clutches of death.

We have the amazing ability to be healed, to be TRANSFORMED! Now, there is no guarantee that when these words enter our ears we will hear them, much less obey. But it is these words that have the power to sink deep into our hearts, into the marrow of our bones, into our very beings, opening our ears and transforming the way that we live our lives. These words, these words of transformation, are the words of Jesus Christ.

Now, I know what you’re going to say next; “But Father, there’s so much more to liturgy than listening to the Gospel!” And while I’m hesitant to agree with that statement, you’re right; the liturgy is a Gospel encounter, and an important part of that is hearing the Gospel read and preached, but the work of the liturgy is more varied than just that.

Again we see an example of this in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus speaks words of life that transform the deaf man, but he also touches the deaf man, on his tongue. Now, of course we can be rational and say that it makes sense that Jesus would touch a mute man’s tongue to heal him, where else would he touch him? But this intimate action has deeper significance for us than just cold, rational, logical analog. The deaf man receives words of life, and also the touch of Christ on his tongue, loosing it and allowing him to speak plainly. And what is the first thing that the man does with his newly found speech? He speaks to everyone he meets, telling them of the miraculous things that Jesus Christ had done for him! So too do we, after receiving the sweet Savior on our tongues, receive the ability and the zeal to tell everyone about the marvelous things he has done for us and all mankind! Just as the Psalmist says, so too can we say, “My soul is satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you.” Our tongues are not just loosened to speak plainly, but powerfully, and with praise.

And so, on this memorial Saturday, the last of the Lenten season for this year, we are given this story of complete healing for our own healing. We are told of the truth of Christ, that whoever hears his words and believes in the one who sent him has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life. Because they have heard and believed the words of he who was sent, they are transformed. This is who we pray for at the great entrance when we commemorate those who have fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection of the life to come.

This is that hope; to hear the words of Christ, to let them renew and transform us, and to have tongues that are able to praise, bless, and worship Christ, telling everyone that we meet of the incomparable glory of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.


Father Ryan Bishop is a third-year seminarian at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. Fr. Ryan earned a Bachelor of Arts in Biblical Studies from Columbia Bible College in 2006, and a Joinery Foundations Certificate in 2008. After several years in the cabinetry industry, he decided to work for himself from home, making furniture and looking after his two children. In 2013, the Bishop family embarked on their journey to New York, in order for Fr. Ryan to participate in the Master of Divinity program at St. Vladimir’s. He was ordained to the Holy Priesthood on February 28, 2016, by His Eminence Irenée, Archbishop of Ottawa and the Archdiocese of Canada.

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Everyone loves a winner

Everyone loves a winner.

We celebrate athletes that run and jump, throw and catch better and faster than anyone else. We marvel at entrepreneurs who start companies that earn billions of dollars. We idolize the actors and musicians who are at the top of their craft. Everyone loves a winner.

We live in a culture that worships winners. It’s all about winning elections, winning arguments, winning friends and influencing people. Winning may be our greatest obsession. What does it take to win? What strategy will give us an advantage over our opponent? What kind of training and preparation will give us the edge that we need to come out on top? We work and plan and scheme to figure out a way to win, and then we dream about the glory that will be ours.

peter

Christ appearing to the Disciples on a mountain in Galilee (detail). Church of the Protaton, Mt. Athos.

This is probably what Peter was thinking when he and the disciples entered Caesarea Philippi with Jesus. It was there, in that city with its famous pagan temple, that Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” The disciples said, “Some people think that you are John the Baptist, some say that you are Elijah, and others say that you are one of the prophets.” But then, Peter, going for the win, says, “You are the Christ, God’s anointed, the messiah!” Peter does not think of Jesus as some member of the supporting cast; he says that Jesus is the Christ, the one that God sent to deliver His people. But Jesus immediately commands them not to tell anyone about him. Isn’t that strange? Why does Jesus tell them not to say anything about him? It is because Peter was wrong.

Yes, Jesus is the Christ, but what Peter has in mind when he says that Jesus is the “Christ” is completely off base. Peter thinks the Christ will be the great hero who ends up with more money and more power and is more feared than the Emperor of Rome. Peter thinks that the Christ will raise up an army to fight for the Hebrew people and crush their Roman oppressors. Peter thinks that the Christ is going to be a winner on the world’s terms.

Jesus must have known exactly what Peter was thinking.

And this is why Jesus immediately starts telling his disciples that the Christ, the Son of Man, must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes and be killed, and after three days be raised.

Yes, Jesus is the Christ, but he’s a different kind of Christ than the one Peter was looking for. After Jesus spells out very plainly to the disciples that the Christ is not going to bring about victory on human terms, Jesus began to teach the disciples that the Son of man must suffer many things, that he would be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, that he would be killed, and after three days rise again. Jesus told them all of this in plain unequivocal language. But then Peter took him, and began to rebuke him. Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes him. Peter actually rebukes Jesus.

In other words, Peter speaks to Jesus like some sort of campaign manager, “Lord, what are you talking about? Rejection, suffering, being killed…are you kidding me?!? This is not what God’s anointed is supposed to do, and this is certainly NOT what you are going to do!”

Peter thinks that he knows better than Jesus, Peter thinks that Jesus needs to be corrected about what it means to be the Christ. And how easy is it for us to make the same mistake. In our effort to win our own victories, how easy is it to tell God what to do and how to do it?

“Lord, make sure that I get a big payoff.”

“Lord, make sure that my plans work out this time.”

“Lord, do exactly what I want, so that I can win.”

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Christ appearing to the Disciples on a mountain in Galilee (detail). Church of the Protaton, Mt. Athos.

Sometimes we may think that God has strayed from the playbook, things aren’t turning out as we planned so maybe we need to give God a reminder about what God is supposed to do. Peter definitely thought that he had to tell Jesus what to do in order to achieve an earthly victory. That’s why Jesus says to Peter, “Get behind me Satan. For you are not on the side of God but on the side of men.” Jesus tells Peter and us that winning, according to the rules of this world, is a false victory. Christ says “Whoever would save his life would lose it.” An earthly victory is a false victory because, for every army that marches home in victory, there are scores of widows and orphans who weep in the ashes and rubble of defeat. For every billionaire entrepreneur, there are millions of people living in poverty. For everyone who wins an argument, there is someone who is left in anger and resentment. And the bottom line is that we don’t always win. More often than not, when we lose, or when our plans don’t work out, in our desperation we can so easily turn against God and turn against the people we love.

This is exactly what happened to Peter when he denied Jesus on the night before the Crucifixion. In the cold, darkness of that courtyard outside of the house of the high priest, Peter watched and waited, hoping that somehow his plans and schemes for the messiah could still be salvaged. But when the bystanders said, “Hey, aren’t you one of Jesus’ friends; Yeah, you are one of Jesus’ disciples; You are a Galilean, you must be on of Jesus’ followers.” Three times, Peter denied that he knew Jesus, invoking a curse and swearing, “I do not know this man Jesus.”

And when Peter realized what he had done, he broke down and wept. Everything had gone wrong, and in his desperation, he had denied and abandoned Jesus. Peter’s life had become a living hell. To worship the false-victory of this world is to live in hell. Perhaps in that moment, Peter remembered Jesus’ words, “Get behind me Satan.” But in that moment, maybe Peter also remembered what Jesus right after that. Jesus says to His disciples, “Whoever desires to come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” These are the same words that Jesus speaks to us on this third Sunday of Great Lent, the Sunday of the Cross.

The preparation of the Crucifixion 1312 Holy Monastery of Vatopedi Mount Athos

The preparation of the Crucifixion. Monastery of Vatopedi, Mt. Athos.

Jesus does not say, “whoever desires to come after me should go out and get himself crucified.” Jesus specifically says, “take up the cross and follow me”—which is the complete opposite of everything we know about winning. To carry your cross is to experience the absolute shame of defeat. It is like the condemned man who is commanded to prepare the noose for his own hanging. It is like the victims in the concentration camp who are forced to dig the pit that will become their own mass grave.

In Jesus’ time, the ritual of forcing a condemned man to carry his cross was murderous mockery. Carrying the cross was part of the bloody Roman propaganda that said, “Behold this man, who disobeyed our commands.

Look at how we crush him and strip him of his last shred of dignity.

Look at how we force him to carry the cross that we will use to execute him.

Look at the power of the Empire, look at how we have won.”

And Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God, submits to the Cross willingly, to show that God’s victory is not the victory of this world. Christ’s death on the Cross is the sign that the power of God is greater than the most hideous power of this world. For in the very midst of the humiliation, and agony of crucifixion, as they nailed his hands and feet to the Cross, Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

And at that moment, the world was forever changed. Because the hateful power of this world was defeated by the Love of God.

By carrying his cross, Jesus shows that the evil of man is powerless against the mercy of God. By carrying his cross, Jesus marches straight into the depths of hell and broke the bonds of sin and death. By carrying his cross, Jesus shows us a way out of the darkness of sin into the pure light of forgiveness. This is the victory of Christ, and this is why we bow down before the Cross.

Jesus’ victory on the Cross is the most unlikely victory that the world has ever seen. Because in the Resurrection, Jesus did not return to take vengeance on the people who betrayed him and murdered him. In the Resurrection, Jesus returned and forgave Peter. And then Jesus sent his disciples out to preach the good news to the very people who had killed him, the gentiles, the Romans.

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Apostle Paul. Church of the Protaton, Mt. Athos.

We see this so clearly in Acts, when Paul and Silas had been arrested and beaten and thrown into jail. There they are in that dark, dank prison, singing hymns and praising God when all of a sudden there was an earthquake and the doors were opened, and all the chains of the prisoners were loosed. When the jailer woke up, and saw what had happened, he assumed that all of the prisoners had escaped, and in his despair, he was about to kill himself. But Paul cried out, “Don’t harm yourself, we are all here.” In that moment, it would have been so easy for Paul to have said, “Ha, let that jailer get what he deserves.” But instead he saved the man from his despair. The jailer cried out, “What must I do to be saved?” And Paul told him about the love and mercy and power of Jesus, the Crucified Messiah.

This is the victory of the Gospel: those small, bright moments of reconciliation, when people who would otherwise be enemies, turn and embrace one another in the love of Christ. This is what it means to take up the cross and follow Christ.

Paul and Silas, and Peter and all the other disciples took up the Cross and followed Christ. They were given divine courage to endure the same kind of humiliation that Christ endured, and to share the love and mercy of God with everyone.

And today, as we fall down before the Holy Cross, as it is lifted up and we praise it in our hymns and songs, we are strengthened with the same divine courage. We face the evil, and the anger of this world, and we take up our cross and follow Christ, showing mercy and forgiveness to everyone around us, glorifying Jesus Christ. For Jesus’ victory, His victory on the Cross, the victory of God’s love, is our one true and lasting victory.


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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A new heart of mercy and love

Readings for the day: 1 Cor. 8:8–9:2; Matt. 25:31–46.

 

Santa Maria Assunta Torcello Angel Detail

Last Judgment (detail), 12th-13thc, Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta.

 

Today is both Meatfare Sunday and the day on which we remember the Last Judgment. The readings we have just heard speak to both of these directly and in complementary ways.

 

With Meatfare Sunday our preparation for Great Lent begins to take on a concretely dietary aspect, as its name indicates. This is the last day before Great Lent for eating meat. Thus begins, as it were, a warm up for the hard exercises, the asceticism, ahead of us.

 

It is very easy to miss the point of such practices. The purpose of such efforts is not simply to do what is expected of us, but instead to allow ourselves to be weaned from our dependency on everything that might separate us from God—not because it is bad in itself, but because of how we relate to it or depend on it. I’m reminded of this every time I persuade myself that I can’t do anything in the morning until I’ve had a cup of coffee: there is nothing at all wrong with coffee; and it is not my body that craves it; it is rather my mental attitude towards coffee or caffeine that has made that cup into my “god.”

 

We hear Paul remind us that the food itself is not the issue: it makes no difference to God whether we eat meat or don’t. God is not concerned with our diet! We are free in all of this, and it is this freedom which makes what we do of any worth anyway. If we freely, willingly, eagerly even, undertake the disciplines which the Church sets before us, we might just come to be less dependent upon our creature comforts. Only then will we come to realize that we are in fact truly dependent only upon God, for in truth most of us, most of the time, do not realize this. Only then will we come to know God truly, and to know God acting in us.

 

The freedom that Paul had in mind was even more radical: he was talking about the freedom of eating food offered to idols in pagan temples. Eating food that has been offered to idols… ! This is the paradigmatic expression of religious devotion; it is what we do, when we gather together as the body of Christ, to partake in his body. So when Paul says that we are free to eat such food, it is strong language indeed. We can only do this, as he points out, knowing that the idols don’t really exist, so that there is therefore nothing to prevent Christians from eating such food.

 

But he warns us, if our eating such food causes our brothers a scandal, and perhaps leads them astray—so that they also eat such food, while still thinking that idols are somehow real—then we are guilty of misusing our freedom to the destruction of others. We are responsible for having injured the one for whom Christ died.

 

As we move ever closer towards Great Lent, then, we are reminded that we are totally free, with the proviso that what we do must be for the building up, rather than the destruction, of the body of Christ.

 

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Last Judgment (detail).

Having been confirmed in our freedom (and been warned what a dangerous liberty it is), and having heard, over the last two Sundays (the Publican and the Pharisee, and the Prodigal Son) of God’s patience and inexhaustible compassion—that he is ready to receive every sinner who returns to him—we are now reminded in today’s Gospel of the other side of this awesome truth: that the God who receives sinners does so as their judge. As we heard, when Christ comes again in his glory, sitting upon his throne, he comes as our judge.

 

 

We enter Great Lent, therefore, as a period of preparation for the return of our Savior, waiting for him, as we also do on the first days of Holy Week, waiting for the one who will return unexpectedly, in the middle of the night, to take us as he finds us.

 

In both cases we are presented with the humiliated Christ, the man of sorrows—the Bridegroom. In the words of today’s Gospel, Christ identifies himself precisely with the lowly, the outcast and the unwelcome: the hungry, the sick, the destitute, the stranger, the one in prison. These are his brethren, and what we do to the least of these, we do to Christ himself.

 

In all of this, Christ is not a judge in the sense of someone who takes records, evaluates the evidence, and then pronounces a sentence. Definitely not! God bestows his bounty upon the sinners and the righteous alike. Rather it all depends upon our state, how he finds us. How we respond to him then will depend upon the habits that we’re developing even now. It is this that will determine whether we become a vessel of his glorification or of his judgment.

 

The judgment that we bring upon ourselves is one that we are working out even now—in all our dealings with others, here and now, every day and every moment. Notice that nothing particularly great is expected of us (and nothing is said about fasting): we are presented with the poor asking for food, some bread—not a banquet; others asking for a roof, a piece of clothing, some cold water, a visit—nothing much, and certainly nothing which is not in our power to do.

 

In all of this, if we harden our hearts towards others, if we fail to respond to the opportunities which present themselves, then we are already passing judgment on ourselves. If we cannot receive him in his brethren, then we will no longer know how to receive Christ. When Christ returns in glory, we will be told to depart into the eternal fire—fire which is not prepared for us, but for the devil himself.

 

If we cannot respond to our neighbor in need, then the very glory and splendor of Christ when he returns will also be too much for us: for it is the same Christ in each case, even if we do not recognize him.

 

But such lack of compassion is not our proper inheritance; this is not how we were created to be.

 

It is striking that those who did open their hearts and their goods and time to others were also surprised at Christ’s words: “When did we do this to you?” They were not serving the poor out of a sense of duty, or hoping for a reward, but simply acting out of love, and in so doing acquiring a new heart of mercy and love, a heart which opens them up to receive the glory and splendor of Christ.

 

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Last Judgment (detail).

 

This is the inheritance which has been prepared for us from the foundation of the world. Seeing God in one’s neighbor and responding in a Christ-like fashion—this is what it is to be in the image of God, living in the kingdom or paradise of God.

 

Let us pray that we may prepare ourselves for the approaching Lenten season, and also, more generally, that we be able to see every moment of our life as being under the judgment of the returning Christ, for we assuredly are.


 

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

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