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 Parnell delivers Homily on Psalm 137

We first published this homily in January 2013 on 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?


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


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

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Homily: “The Publican and the Pharisee”


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?


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.


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?


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.


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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Witnessing to the Giver of Life!

321432Sunday, January 22, 2017 was observed as “Sanctity of Life Sunday” in Orthodox Christian parishes across the United States. The commemoration, which marks the 44th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in the U.S., served as a prelude to the annual March for Life, to be held at the U.S. Capitol on Friday, January 27.

Our seminary President, Archpriest Chad Hatfield, will be participating with many of our seminarians and their families in the annual March for Life. As we prepare for that day, we will be reflecting on the words of Metropolitan Tikhon, primate of the Orthodox Church in America, and spiritual head and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of our Seminary. Read his Archpastoral Message, below.

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Light Shining through the Darkness

St. Gregory of Nazianzus
Festal Orations • Popular Patristics Series 36
Trans.Nonna Verna Harrison
(SVS Press 2008)

In the East the feast of Epiphany, January 6, originally included Christ’s birth, the adoration of the magi, and Christ’s baptism, a pattern that survives in the Armenian Church to the present day. When St. Gregory wrote his orations, the two festal dates of the Nativity and Epiphany were just beginning to be reorganized. The following excerpts—taken from St. Gregory’s Oration 38, originally titled “On the Theophany,” and his Oration 39, originally titled “On the Holy Lights”—address both the Incarnation and Baptism of our Lord. St. Gregory’s edifying words illumine our spiritual paths as we continue to meditate upon both recent feasts.


Oration 38

1 Christ is born, give glory; Christ is from the heavens, go to meet him; Christ is on earth, be lifted up. “Sing to the Lord, all the earth,” and, to say both together, “Let the heavens be glad and let the earth rejoice,” for the heavenly one is now earthly. Christ is in the flesh, exult with trembling and joy; trembling because of sin, joy because of hope.

3 Now is the feast of Theophany, and so also of Nativity; for it is called both, since two names are ascribed to one reality. For God appeared to human beings through birth.

4 This is our festival, this is the feast we celebrate today, in which God comes to live with human beings that we may journey toward God, or return—for to speak thus is more exact—that laying aside the old human being we may be clothed with the new, and that as in Adam we have died so we may live in Christ, born with Christ and crucified with him, buried with him and rising with him.

17 Run after the star, and bring gifts with the magi, gold and frankincense and myrrh, as to a king and a God and one dead for your sake. With the shepherds give glory, with the angels sing hymns, with the archangels dance.

18 Travel blamelessly through all the stages of Christ’s life and all his powers, as a disciple of Christ. Be purified, be circumcised, that is remove the veil that has surrounded you since birth. After this teach in the temple, drive out the traders in divine things, be stoned if necessary that you suffer this; you will escape from those throwing the stone, I know well, and you will flee through the midst of them like God. For the Word is not stoned. If you are brought before Herod, do not answer for the most part. He will revere your silence more than the long discourses of others. If you are scourged, seek the other tortures. Taste the gall. Drink the vinegar, seek the spittings, accept the blows, the beatings; be crowned with the thorns through the harshness of life in accord with God. Put on the scarlet robe, accept the reed, and the worship of those who mock the truth. Finally, be crucified with him, die with him, be buried with him willingly, so as also to be resurrected with him and glorified with him and reign with him, seeing God as far as is possible and being seen by him, who is worshipped and glorified in the Trinity, whom even now we pray to be manifest to us as clearly as is possible to prisoners of the flesh, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and sovereignty unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Oration 39

1 The holy day of lights, to which we have come and which we are deemed worthy to celebrate today, takes its origin from the baptism of my Christ, the true light, which illumines every human being coming into the world, effects my purification, and strengthens the light we received form him from the beginning, which we darkened and blotted out through sin.

2 Therefore listen to the divine voice, which resounds very strongly in me, the initiate and the initiator of these mysteries; and may it also resound in you: “I am the light of the world.” And because of this “come near to him and be illumined and your faces will not be ashamed,” being marked with the sign of the true light. It is the time for rebirth; let us be born from above. It is time of refashioning; let us receive again the first Adam. Let us not remain what we are but  become what we once were.

*Image of the icon of the Nativity and Epiphany, fresco, posted with permission from St. Steven’s Serbian Orthodox Cathedral, Alhambra, CA

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“Where Is Your Faith?”

Homily on Luke 8.22–25 delivered in Three Hierarchs Chapel on October 12, 2016
By Seminarian Philip Maikkula

philip_maikkua_0-medium_300_x_300_maxIn the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“Where is your faith?” Did you notice that question? Our Lord asked his disciples…where is your faith?

It’s almost a silly question. After all, the disciples seemingly did everything right. They got into the boat with Jesus to sail across the Sea of Galilee, and when the weather turned for the worst, they cried out to Jesus in their moment of distress.

You might imagine their emphatic reply to our Lord’s question: “Our faith is in you Lord! That is why we called out to you to rescue us.” But is that really what’s going on? After all, if the disciples were faithful to Christ, then why then did our Lord question their faith?

Notice a few things.

Notice, our Lord didn’t say, “Have a little more faith,” as if the disciples were panicking because they didn’t quite think that Jesus could handle the situation. If that were the case, you might imagine Christ turning to the disciples to say: “Don’t worry…I’ve got this.” But of course our Lord didn’t say that, because, the disciples weren’t struggling with too little faith.

Notice also, our Lord didn’t say, “Keep the faith,” as if the disciples were losing faith at the sight of waves crashing into their boat. If that were the case, you might imagine Christ turning to his disciples and saying with a reassuring nod: “Keep your chin up!” But of course Christ didn’t say that, because the disciples weren’t struggling to simply keep their faith.

Notice again, our Lord didn’t say, “Understand your faith,” as if the main problem for the disciples were the quality of their catechesis. If the solution to the disciples fear and panic were purely academic, then you might imagine our Lord saying, “Get a little education.” But of course, our Lord didn’t say that.

Instead what did he say? “Where is your faith?” You see, the disciples had faith. They had it. But their faith was in their own ability, their own skills, and their own achievements. These were profession fisherman, after all, who spent countless hours on the Sea of Galilee. They were experts with boats and knew about storms on the sea.

You see, the disciples’ main problem was that they had placed their faith in themselves.

They treated our Lord like we might treat a life preserver: there in case of emergency, but normally we manage things on own. You can see this is true because the disciples only turned to Christ when it seemed that all hope was lost and the boat was going under. They only needed Him when their own skills had come to an end.

Today, Our Lord is asking us, “Where is your faith?” I would guess that all of us have found ourselves, like the disciples in some degree, experts in our own little worlds that we know so well and can control. Professionals. Skilled. Practiced. Whether it be at our jobs, our homes, our schooling, or our hobbies.

Yet, I dare say we all have found ourselves like the disciples, overwhelmed by the storms of life. In those situations, it’s so easy for us to trust our own strength, our own abilities, and our own talents. In fact, like the disciples, it precisely in those areas in which we feel most confident that we tend to forget that God is in the boat with us. And when the storms of life rage, how often do we find ourselves overwhelmed by fear, anxiety, and despair because we have been relying on ourselves instead of Christ.

The Holy Prophet Moses reminds us in his farewell speech to the Israelites: “Be strong and of good courage, do not fear or be in dread…for it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.”[1] You see, because the Lord Our God is with us always, whether in the calm or in the midst of the storm, we need not rely upon our own strength. Because Christ is with us, we place our faith in Him rather than ourselves.

I’m reminded of the example of the Three Holy Youths, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. I’m sure you remember the story. King Nebuchadnezzar had set up a giant statue of gold in Babylon and commanded all the people of the land to bow down in worship when they heard the music play. But when the music began, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to worship the idol of the king. When spies informed the king of the actions of the young men, he was filled with fury. He had warned that those who would not obey would face death in a fiery furnace. How dare anyone disobey his command!

Yet, even when brought before the king and offered another chance to bow down and worship the golden image, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused the king’s command. You see, the Three Holy Youths remembered the God was with them, and because their faith was completely in our Lord, they had peace.

They told the king: “Our God is able to rescue us from the fiery furnace, and he can deliver us from your hand, but even if he doesn’t, we will not worship the idols of Babylon.” Because their faith was in God, they could calmly face any storm, even death.

So when the king heated the furnace seven times hotter than normal, and the flames leapt so high that even those who threw the three youths into the furnace perished because of the heat, even still, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were faithful to the last.

And what did the king see?…four men standing in the flames. Just as Moses had promised long ago, our Lord Jesus Christ is with us. He was with the Three Holy Youths in the furnace. He was with the disciples in the midst of the storm. He is with us in the midst of our lives.

Today Christ asks us: “Where is your faith?” Let us answer as the Three Youths did from the midst of the storm of flame… “With all our hearts we follow thee.”[2]


[1] Deuteronomy 31.6

[2] Prayer of Azariah 1.18 LXX version of Daniel

Philip Maikkula is a second year seminarian in the Master of Divinity program. Philip and his wife, Whitney, have two children together. After seminary, Philip and his family hope to pursue further studies in the area of Scripture in order to serve the Church.

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The Fifth Sunday of Luke: Good Deeds during Advent

Sermon delivered October 30, 2016
By the Very Reverend Timothy Baclig, SVOTS Class of 1983
Pastor of St. Michael Antiochian Orthodox Church of the San Fernando Valley


Father Timothy Baclig, who grew up in Hawaii, being honored by his parish and family on the occasion of his 30th anniversary to the priesthood.

The lesson of the Fifth Sunday of Luke is among the lessons that introduce us to the season of Advent, preparing us for the Feast that celebrates the birth of our Lord. It focuses our attention upon the practice of good deeds, reminding us of God’s love and personal sacrifice by sending His Son into the world.

In our time there is a great deal of attention being given to the subject of wealth and poverty. St. John Chrysostom spoke at length on the subject. (His writing is available in English, published by St. Vladimir’s Press, entitled: On Wealth and Poverty.)

People whose lives are shaped either by wealth or poverty manifest certain attitudes and behaviors. Significant attitudes and behaviors can also be evident among those whose lives move from poverty to wealth and from wealth to poverty. Very often, whether someone worked to earn his or her wealth, or simply inherited wealth, is very telling.

For Christian believers, the core virtue in the case of both—which is the true test of one’s sincerity—is humility. Humility as a virtue is the foundation Christian love. It is the basis of a “good confession” and the true motive of love. Its opposite is arrogance, selfishness, greed, and hatred—all of which we are warned about by our Tradition, beginning with Christ, the Apostles, and the Holy Fathers. And, their warnings come with their pointing out consequences.

We also hear in the Gospel our Lord’s own warning: “To whom much has been given—much will be required” (Luke 12.48). Money will not buy you everything.

Sadly, there are many who think the opposite. It amazes me how some have believed that pouring millions into a political campaign will guarantee an election. People are not as naïve as some would think. It is sad to think what all of that money could have done to help those who are now facing incredible suffering.

The parable of “The Rich Man and Lazarus” of today’s Gospel lesson is in two parts: 1) the life of the rich man and Lazarus on earth, and 2) their life after death. The two are contrasted to make the following points: There is an eternal perspective to life; and this eternal perspective gives us a sobriety, and an understanding that a spiritual quality is acquired in this life, whether a person is wealthy or in poverty.

In commenting on this parable, St. Gregory the Great speaks of the effects of poverty and riches on the rich man and Lazarus: “The fire of poverty cleansed Lazarus of his evil deeds, and the happiness of this passing life rewarded the good deeds of the rich man. Poverty afflicted [Lazarus] and wiped him clean; wealth rewarded the [rich man] and deprived him of everything else.”

In a commentary by St. Ambrose we hear: “Lazarus was a pauper [one of extreme poverty and lived by charity] in this world, but [was] a rich man before God . . . Yet not all poverty is holy nor is wealth sinful, but as excess dishonors riches, so sanctity commends poverty.”

One’s eternal destiny, therefore, is something that begins in this life, and our stewardship of material things—whether in abundance or in poverty—has a direct effect on our spiritual life.

The message at the beginning of Great Lent (in the Paschal Season) is very similar: “What doth it profit a man if he were to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8.36). We are reminded before Great Lent that insofar as we are merciful to others, so will our Father in heaven be merciful to us; and that doing good to the needy is the same as having done a good deed to the Lord.

Likewise, at the start of the Nativity Fast, and at a time of the year when we are commemorating our nation’s many blessings at Thanksgiving, we are again reminded that merciful kindness, Christian charity, and love are among the spiritual virtues that save us from needless agony and eternal torment.


O Lord, our God of love and great mercies, we thank Thee for your goodness in providing for all of our needs. Purify our hearts and minds from all forms of selfishness, neglect, and arrogance. Grant us the vision to see and to understand the meaning of your Gospel message as we gather about your table and anticipate dining in your heavenly kingdom. Forgive us our sins of omission and renew in us the desire to serve others as serving Thee. For Thou art He who came to serve and not to be served, and unto Thee do we ascribe thanksgiving and worship, together with Thy Father who is from everlasting and Thine all-Holy good and life-giving Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Enjoy more of Father Timothy’s sermons on his parish website.

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