Pentecost, the Feast of the Church

By Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann (+)
St. Vladimir’s Seminary Quarterly, Spring & Summer 1953, Nos. 3, 4, pp 38–42

Schmemann Alexander2This past Sunday, we Orthodox Christians heard sermons in our parishes about the meaning of Pentecost, which celebrates the Descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the abiding presence of the Spirit in the Church throughout the ages.
In this essay, Father Alexander (Dean of St. Vladimir’s 1962–1983) also begins by speaking about major themes that characterize this great feast: the presence and actions of the Spirit in the Church, the revelation of the Holy Trinity, and the purification of each person’s soul in the body of Christ.
However, one of the most interesting portions of Father Alexander’s essay, published in 1953, is his explanation of the “Kneeling Prayers,” that mark the Vespers services following the Divine Liturgy for the feast, and that section is reprinted here.

The peculiar characteristic of the Liturgy on the day of Pentecost is that it is immediately followed by a Vesper service that is commonly called “kneeling prayers.” This Vesper service signifies the transition form the first major theme—the joy of the coming of the Spirit—to the second—the prayer for the abiding of the Spirit in us, for His help in our earthly life.

icon-pentecost2Litany supplications are added: “For the people present who are awaiting the Grace of the Holy Spirit…that the Lord may strengthen us into the attainment of a good and acceptable end…For those who are in need of help.”  And in the sticheras for “Lord I have cried unto Thee” (which repeat the chvalitny of the Matins service) and in the great prokeimenon, “Who is a great God like our God?,” the fullness of joy comes once more.

But immediately after the prokemin, people are asked to kneel down. This first bending of the knees after Easter signifies the conclusion of the Triodion—the fact that the Church now enters the “narrow path” of struggling, and of the difficult daily acquisitions of the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, in this first prayer, we bring to God our repentance and augmented prayers for forgiveness of sins—the first condition for entering into the kingdom, into the perfect joy. In the second prayer, we pray to the Holy Spirit for help, that He would teach us to pray and to follow the true path, that He would enlighten us in the dark and difficult night of our life. Finally, in the third prayer, we remember our fathers and brethren who have departed, who have finished their earthly journey, but who are united with us in the eternal love of the Church.

To every one of these prayers the usual evening prayers are added. So again begins the night of the history of the world, in which the Church has to wander.

In this “night,” the enemies’ tricks are awaiting us: temptations, the whole burden of sin and our feebleness. The joy of Easter has been completed, and we again have to wait for the dawn of the eternal day of Christ’s kingdom. Therefore we are praying on our knees for help and protection, so that we may pass this night and attain to the morning.

However, as we know our weakness, we also know the joy of the Spirit who has come:  we know that we have not remained orphans. The benediction at the end of the Vespers service bears His testimony to it: “He emptied Himself…came down on earth to take upon Himself our human nature wholly and to deify it…He sent down His Spirit upon His Holy Apostles, who were illumined by the Spirit and through whom the whole world was illumined.”

At the Compline service of the same day a special canon to the Holy Spirit is sung, where we experience once more the feast of His coming and His abiding in the Church. It is significant that all the irmosi of this canon, except the first, are taken from the canon of the Nativity! The coming of the Spirit fulfills that which began when the Word became flesh. “Christ was born, now the Holy Spirit descends as if returning Christ to us, who ‘is and shall be’ in the Church with us forever.”

It would be impossible to enumerate all the details of the services commemorating the Feast of Pentecost, which blend into one perfect harmony, making us truly feel the breathing of the Holy Spirit. This harmony reveals itself fully only in the Liturgy, only in the common act of worship. As we have said, the Feast of Pentecost concludes the Triodion, and we enter the “ordinary season” of the year. However, there are no ordinary days for the Church. Every week has its cycle, which is concluded with its own small Easter—“Sunday.”

The Church is always living a divine-human life. Heaven and earth, promise and fulfillment are mysteriously united in Her. On the Feast of Pentecost, we adorn our churches with flowers and green branches, for the Church is truly an evergreen tree. Therefore on the First Sunday after Pentecost, we celebrate the memory of all the saints, whose holiness is the glory of the Church and a testimony to the Holy Spirit, who is ever present in Her.

The life of the Church is an eternal Pentecost, the eternal coming of the Holy Spirit, and so, “whosoever thirsteth, let him come and drink” (John 7:37).

I Ascend unto My Father, and your Father

By Archpriest Steven Kostoff (Master of Divinity ’81)

Our alumnus Fr. Steven Kostoff, has made education and teaching a central part of his priesthood.

As pastor of Christ the Savior-Holy Spirit Orthodox Church, in Norwood, OH, he has established an annual regimen of insightful studies to nourish and build up his flock: a multi-week Summer Bible Study, a six-week long Fall Adult Education Class, a special Winter Reading Circle in which a work of classic literature is discussed, and an occasional parish-wide discussion event, concentrated for an evening or two on key topics of interest. These are in addition to his classes for catechumens and his burgeoning church school.

Father Steven Kostoff

Moreover, Fr. Steven is an Adjunct Faculty Member at Xavier University, Cincinnati, OH, where he teaches “The Eastern Orthodox Church”; “Christian Mysticism”; and “The Russian Religious Mind.” (He earned his undergraduate degree at Wayne State University in Russian Studies). And, he is the author of The Divine Liturgy: Meaning, Preparation & Practice (Synaxis Press).

In this Synaxis Blog, Fr. Steven shares with us a word about our Lord’s Ascension, reflecting especially upon our heavenly witness to the world, as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Homily, May 25, 2017

According to the mind of the Church, the Risen Lord is also the Ascended Lord. In the words of Father Georges Florovsky, “In the Ascension resides the meaning and the fullness of Christ’s Resurrection.” Though the visible presence of the Risen Lord ended 40 days after His Resurrection, that did not mean that His actual presence was withdrawn. Christ solemnly taught His disciples—and us through them—“Behold, I am with you always, to the close of the age” [Matthew 28:20]. The risen, ascended and glorified Lord is the Head of His body, the Church. The Lord remains present in the Mysteries/Sacraments of the Church. This reinforces our need to participate in the sacramental life of the Church, especially the Eucharist, through which we receive the deified flesh and blood of the Son of God “unto life everlasting.”

Christ ascended to be seated at “the right hand of the Father” in glory, thus lifting up the human nature He assumed in the Incarnation into the very inner life of God. Once the Son of God became the Son of Man, taking our human nature through suffering and death—”the Passover”—and then rising from the dead and ascending to heaven, at no point in this paschal mystery did He discard or leave His human nature behind. For all eternity, Christ is Theanthropos—God and man. The deified humanity of the Lord is the sign of our future destiny “in Christ.” For this reason, the Apostle Paul could write, “your life is hidden with Christ in God” [Colossians 3:3].

The words of the “two men … in white robes” (clearly angels) who stood by the disciples as they gazed at Christ being “lifted up” as recorded by Saint Luke in Acts 1:11, point toward something very clear and essential for us to grasp as members of the Church who continue to exist within the historical time of the world: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, Who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.” The disciples will remain in the world, and must fulfill their vocation as the chosen apostles who will proclaim the Word of God to the world of the crucified and risen Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. They cannot spend their time gazing into heaven awaiting the return of the Lord. That hour has not been revealed: “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by His own authority” [1:7]. The “work” of the Church is the task set before them, and they must do this until their very last breath. They will carry out this work once they receive the power of the Holy Spirit—the “promise of My Father”—as Christ said to them in Luke 24:49.

AscensionWhatever our vocation may be, we too witness to Christ and the work of the Church as we await the fullness of God’s Kingdom according to the times or seasons of the Father. If we believe in the resurrected and ascended Lord, then we are “witnesses” of Him and to Him to the world. That witness may express itself in words or deeds—or both. Of course, we need to follow the teaching of the Apostle Paul who wrote: “Set your minds on things above, not on things that are on earth” [Colossians 3:2]. Yet, keeping our “minds on things above” has nothing to do with escaping into a dream-like fantasy world or the abandonment of earthly responsibilities under the pretext of a vague mystical inclination or “pseudo-piety.” It is about an awareness that the Kingdom of God is “in our midst” and that our earthly life is a preparation for the life to come, a life we are yearning for with our whole heart. It is that awareness that makes all of our earthly struggles and accomplishments meaningful. And when the Apostle Paul teaches us not to set our minds “on things that are on earth,” he does not mean that there is nothing of value that is on earth. He is referring to the “worldliness” of questionable—or clearly sinful—pursuits that draw our minds away inexorably from “things above.” We are prone to forget about heaven when we concentrate solely on the earth. For this reason alone it is so important to develop a life of prayer, a time when we can “set our minds on things above,” strengthening us for the struggles of our daily life, and keeping the Person of Christ ever before our inward gaze.

In our daily Prayer Rule we continue to refrain from using “O Heavenly King” until the Day of Pentecost. We no longer sing the Paschal Troparion, “Christ is risen from the dead,” but replace it from Ascension to Pentecost with the Troparion of the Ascension: “Thou hast ascended in glory, O Christ our God, granting joy to Thy disciples by the promise of the Holy Spirit. Through the Blessing they were assured that Thou art the Son of God, the Redeemer of the world!”

“When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” [Colossians 3:4]

“Healed to Rise Up and Walk”: Homily for the Sunday of the Paralytic in the Orthodox Church

By the Reverend Dr. Philip LeMasters

Father Philip is Professor of Christian Ethics here at St. Vladimir’s, and a member of the Board of Trustees. He also is Professor of Religion and Director of the Honors Program at McMurry University in Abilene, Texas, and the pastor of St. Luke’s Orthodox Church.

Father Philip is the author of several books in the area of moral theology, most recently, The Forgotten Faith: Ancient Insights for Contemporary Believers from Eastern Christianity (Cascade Books 2013). He has been an invited participant at recent international Orthodox consultations on peace ethics in Greece, Romania, and Syria. A graduate of Baylor University and Rice University, he holds a Ph.D. in Christian Theology and Ethics from Duke University and an M.A. in Applied Orthodox Theology from the University of Balamand.

Synaxis Blog_McMasters_7MAY17jpg

John 5:1-15 (Gospel)

1 After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 2 Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches. 3 In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water. 4 For an angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had.

5 Now a certain man was there who had an infirmity thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” 7 The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me.” 8 Jesus said to him, “Rise, take up your bed and walk.” 9 And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked. And that day was the Sabbath.

10 The Jews therefore said to him who was cured, “It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your bed.” 11 He answered them, “He who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your bed and walk.’” 12 Then they asked him, “Who is the Man who said to you, ‘Take up your bed and walk’?” 13 But the one who was healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, a multitude being in that place.

14 Afterward Jesus found him in the temple, and said to him, “See, you have been made well. Sin no more, lest a worse thing come upon you.” 15 The man departed and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.

Christ is risen!

We do not like to be dragged down or held back by problems that we cannot solve. Whether it is our own health, a broken relationship with others, or a complex set of circumstances over which we have little control, it is very frustrating to know our weakness before seemingly insurmountable challenges.

That is surely how the invalids, blind, lame, and paralyzed felt as they waited for the chance to be healed by being the first to reach the pool of water troubled by the angel. Due to their illnesses, many must have despaired over ever being healed. The man who had been paralyzed for 38 years was one of those, for there was no one to help him move toward the water. Here we have an image of humanity before the coming of Christ. The Jews had a Temple in which animals were sacrificed, and the pool provided water for washing lambs before they were offered to God. This scene occurs at the Jewish feast of Pentecost, which commemorated Moses receiving the Law, which was given by angels.

Fallen humanity, however, remained spiritually weak and sick. They lacked the strength to fulfill God’s requirements, and certainly could not conquer death, the wages of sin for all those who have fallen short of the glory of God. The sacrificial system of the Temple foreshadowed the great Self-Offering of our Lord on the Cross, but did not heal anyone from the ravages of spiritual corruption or raise anyone from the grave. It was a great blessing for the Jews to have the Law, but surely also a tremendous frustration not to have the strength to obey it fully. Only Christ Himself fulfilled the Law, which is why He can call and empower us to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt. 5:48)

In contrast, the paralyzed man represents all who lack the power to move themselves to complete healing, to find the fulfillment of our common human calling to become like God in holiness. Notice that he did not call out to Christ to help him; instead, the Lord reached out to him, asking “Do you want to be healed?” That may seem like a strange question, for presumably anyone waiting by a pool for healing after 38 years of illness would want to be made well. But think for a moment about how we have all learned to adapt to our favorite sins, how we have become comfortable with whatever forms of corruption have become second nature to us over the years. By virtue of coming to Church, we are apparently religious people, but that does not mean that we truly want to be healed. For to be healed means obeying the Lord’s command to this fellow: “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.” It requires making the effort to rise up in obedience, to be transformed personally in how we live each day, and to grow in holiness.

It would not have sufficed for that man to have remained on his bed and have warm feelings about how Christ had healed him. Just as anyone who lies motionless for a long time will become weak and unable to rise up and walk on his own power, the same will be true of us spiritually if we try to rest content with simply believing ideas about God or having positive emotions about Him. If we are not gaining strength by actually serving Him faithfully, we will become paralyzed and unable to cooperate with our Lord’s gracious healing energies. Any spiritual health that we claim in that state will be a figment of our imagination.

The good news is that the Lord does not simply provide us with a set of rules to follow or services to perform. He makes us participants in Himself by grace. He unites us to Himself, raising us up with Him from slavery to sin and death to the great dignity of those who share in His eternal life. The Savior makes us members of His own Body, the Church. He is the Bridegroom and we are the Bride. He makes us radiant in holiness, like an iron left in the fire of the divine glory. That is how He heals us such that we have the strength to obey His command to get up from our bed of corruption and move forward in a blessed life of holiness.

Though we may not yet have the eyes to see it, this healing and strengthening of our humanity happens to this day through our life in the Church. In our reading from Acts [9:32–42], St. Peter heals a paralyzed man and commands him to get up. He even raises a woman from death. Peter did not do this by his own power or authority, but because the Lord was working through him. He said to the paralyzed man, “Jesus Christ heals you…” Throughout Acts, we read of how the Lord works through His Body, the Church, to enable people to participate personally in the new life of the resurrection that He shares with us by grace.

That is not, however, a life of merely having our names on a church membership roll or of calling ourselves Orthodox Christians. If our faithfulness extends only that far, we will become as weak as a person who remains immobile in bed and refuses to stand up and walk. We must not be like those poor souls waiting by the pool for someone else to move them into the healing water. On His own gracious initiative, Jesus Christ has given each of us the strength to overcome the paralysis of sin through His resurrection. He does not simply give us commands; He gives us Himself. And our life in His Body, the Church, is truly our participation in Him.

We receive His healing of our souls when we humbly repent of our sins in Confession. We are nourished for the life of the Kingdom by His Body and Blood in Holy Communion. When we offer our time, energy, and resources to support the ministries of the Church, we rise up from selfishness to participate in the abundant generosity of the Lord. When we stop thinking of ourselves as isolated individuals and instead as members of a Body with a common life in Christ, we will be able to love and serve one another in ways that will open us to His strength personally and collectively in powerful ways.

In the joy of the resurrection, we must learn to see that embracing our life together in Christ is an essential dimension of obeying His command to “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.” He calls each of us to turn away from the paralyzing weakness of selfishness and laziness that would make whatever sins we have become comfortable with appear more important than serving Him in His Body, the Church, where the glory and power of the resurrection are fully present.

Think about that for a moment. Pascha is not an isolated event that happened long ago, but an entrance into the new day of the Kingdom of Heaven, which is fully open to us in the worship and common life of this parish. The Savior calls each of us, weakened and held back by the corruptions of sin, to get up and move forward in the blessed life for which He made us in His image and likeness. That is why He died and rose again, to raise us up with Him for a life of holiness, to restore us to the ancient dignity of Paradise.

May this season of Pascha be our entrance as a parish into the joy of the Kingdom. That will happen when we rise up, from whatever corruptions are holding us back, to a life of obedience in serving Him and one another in His Body, the Church. That is the only way to answer the question that He asks each of us today and every day: “Do you want to be healed?”

Christ is risen!

Reprinted with permission by the author: © 2012-2017 Fr. Philip LeMasters · All Rights Reserved.

“From Death…to Life” Archpriest John Behr, Dean

On Holy Friday, our seminary Dean, Fr. John Behr, delivered a sermon that includes several lines from “East Coker,” the second poem of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, in which the poet meditates upon the cycle of life—birth, death, rebellion, and return.

In his homily, Fr. John deftly interweaves the poem’s lines with the main theme of Holy Friday: in order to truly be alive, we Christians must follow the footsteps of Christ into death. Through the trials of earthly life, we have to “unlearn” the futility of our tendency toward self-preservation and self-satisfaction, in order to receive immortal life as a gift from our heavenly Father. From the tomb of our own death—as we are co-crucified with Christ and as we enter into a loving relationship of obedience to our Father—will spring forth everlasting life.

Let us rejoice in this Truth during this Bright Season!


Standing at the tomb, having just buried the body of Christ, we enter into the midpoint— the still point—of the Paschal Triduum, the three-day celebration of the Paschal Mystery.

At Matins, we stood before the crucified Christ,
as the chill ascended from his feet to his knees,
and upwards to the hands into which the nails were driven,
as he was put to death,
or rather voluntarily gave himself up for the life of the world,
so that, as T.S. Eliot put it, the wounded surgeon plies the steel,
turning the nails driven into his hands
into the scalpel used by surgeon,
but exercised now with bleeding hands
so that we feel the sharp compassion of the healer’s art,
          questioning the distempered part.

A strange and mysterious reversal takes place here:
we think that we are tending to the dead body of the Christ,
burying him with due reverence and sorrow;
that we are still living and healthy, while he is placed in the earth;
but it is he who is attending to us,
and in so doing, showing us that our only health is the disease,
if we obey the dying nurse.

There is no other path to life than the one that he first takes,
and we too must now follow in his footsteps.
As we do so, we will find out that his constant care is not to please,
to attend to our wishes and desires, for a life happy and full,
but rather to remind us of our and Adam’s curse,

That our attempt to snatch life from the tree, to have it on our own terms,
even if we then resolve to devote some of it to God and our neighbor,
while we do all we can do to preserve our life, to secure it, to supposedly save it,
this condemns us to death—for not having received it as a gift
a gift to be given,
a giving of life in which alone is found that life which cannot be touched by death.

And so, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.
until we too learn, not only in our heads but in our guts,
that we do not have life in ourselves.

With his life spent, expended upon us, and now with his body placed in the earth
The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
All our life on this earth, and ending in the earth, is the cure that leads us to life,
a paedagogy, educating us, teaching us that life comes from the tomb,
for it is given to those in the tombs;

And what a lot we have to unlearn!

We spend the greater part of our so-called life trying to be something other than the weak and vulnerable flesh and blood that we are;
trying to be somewhere else;
creating an identity for ourselves, and grieved when things don’t go our way
so that our lives are veiled by sorrow and grief, by suffering,
but not the life-creating suffering that we are shown in these days.
In this earthly hospital and school, then,
we learn not to place our hope on anything we can achieve in it,
or anything that appears in it
for this world too passes away,
and all the monuments and achievements of human beings turn to dust.

And so, placed in this world as a hospital,
if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care.

The compassion of our Father is limitless and unconstrained;
we are held in his loving care,
as he works tirelessly and ceaseless in every way to bring us to receive his love and life
to change our hearts from stone into flesh,
broken and contrite, but also merciful and loving as he is and his and our heavenly Father.

This is what it is to submit to the paternal care, to obey the dying nurse
and to undergo the surgery of the wounded surgeon plying the steel.

The medicine he offers us, the medicine of immortality, as St. Ignatius calls it,
is nothing other than his flesh and blood:

As Eliot concludes:
The dripping blood our only drink
The bloody flesh our only food:
and he continues:

In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood—
And, again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.

Let us, then, now and in the hours that come, prepare ourselves to enjoy the Master’s hospitality at the Paschal Feast;
knowing that we are not sound and substantial,
but prepared to partake of the cup that he has drunk, to its bitter end;
and so become living witnesses, martyrs, in this world and for this world;
inviting others to come and also taste that the Lord is good, chrestos.

Be my witnesses/martyrs, says God through Isaiah;
for I too am a witness and so is my servant.

Then, living this way, in spite of everything, we too may witness that this Friday
is in deed and truth good.



Excerpt from “East Coker” from FOUR QUARTETS by T.S. Eliot.  Copyright © 1940 by T.S. Eliot, renewed 1968 by Esme Valerie Eliot. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.


[Photos: Glen Mules]

The Archpastoral Message of His Beatitude, Metropolitan Tikhon Primate of the Orthodox Church in America & Chairman of the Seminary Board of Trustees on the Great and Holy Pascha 2017

To the Venerable Hierarchs, Reverend Clergy, Monastics, Distinguished Stewards, and the entire family of the Orthodox Church in America:


Paschal icon_Mules
(Photo: Glen Mules)

The radiant day of the Resurrection of Christ has dawned and our Paschal celebrations have bathed us in the glorious light of renewal and regeneration. Today is a completely new day, a day which began when the divine brilliance pierced and dispelled the darkness of Hades and ended with the remarkable explosion which took place when Eternal Life crushed death and corruption.

On this new and bright day, our faith is renewed along with that of the Myrrhbearing Women standing by the open tomb; our hope is confirmed along with that of the Apostles on the road to Emmaus; and our love is strengthened along with that of the Mother of God who remained ever at the side of her Son.

Even if we count ourselves among the numbers of those who previously denied or deserted the crucified Lord, such hesitation or shame cannot withstand the force of the new life of this day.

We know too well that there is no human being who lives and yet does not sin, and the consequences of the Fall are reflected in a world overshadowed by war, terrorism, and human misery. Nevertheless, this dark reality loses its hold on us today because we have tasted of the new drink from the fountain of incorruption, which fills us with spiritual courage and divine hope.

This courage and hope are not simply fleeting emotions of the moment but rather an experience of the life of the risen Lord Who fills our hearts with such joy that every day and every moment of our existence we can sing paschal hymns such as this:

How divine! How beloved!
How sweet is Thy voice, O Christ!
For Thou hast faithfully promised to be with us
to the end of the world.
Having this as our anchor of hope,
we the faithful rejoice.

With my archpastoral blessing and love in the Risen Lord,

+ Tikhon
Archbishop of Washington
Metropolitan of All America and Canada

The Power of Christ’s Tears

As we approach Holy Week, this article by Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann, dean of St. Vladimir’s Seminary 1961–1983, and professor of Liturgy Theology, especially reminds us how the Light of Christ continually pierces the darkness of our “stinking” world—as Fr. Alexander so bluntly puts it. Moreover, it reminds us that Christ, as a human being and as God, weeps with us over the chaos and corruption we experience daily, ever standing by our side, ever lifting our eyes to horizons beyond the darkness, and ever entering that darkness on our behalf. During our sojourn through the upcoming services of Holy Week, let us absorb the texts and hymns of the services, allowing them to penetrate our souls and minds with wisdom, as we contemplate the power of Christ’s tears, which spring from His infinite love and which ultimately overcome our last enemy: Death.

The Beginning of the Cross: Saturday of Lazarus

Lazarus-01“Having fulfilled Forty Days… we ask to see the Holy Week of Thy Passion.” With these words sung at Vespers of Friday, Lent comes to its end and we enter into the annual commemoration of Christ’s suffering, death and Resurrection. It begins on the Saturday of Lazarus. The double feast of Lazarus’ resurrection and the Entrance of the Lord to Jerusalem (Palm Sunday) is described in liturgical texts as the “beginning of the Cross” and is to be understood therefore, within the context of the Holy Week.

The common Troparion of these days explicitly affirms that by raising Lazarus from the dead, Christ confirmed the truth of general resurrection. It is highly significant that we are led into the darkness of the Cross by one of the twelve major feasts of the Church. Light and joy shine not only at the end of Holy Week but also at its beginning; they illumine darkness itself, reveal its ultimate meaning.

All those familiar with Orthodox worship know the peculiar, almost paradoxical character of Lazarus Saturday services. It is a Sunday, i.e., a Resurrection, service on a Saturday, a day usually devoted to the liturgical commemoration of the dead. And the joy that permeates these services stresses one central theme: the forthcoming victory of Christ over Hades. Hades is the Biblical term for Death in its universal power, for that inescapable darkness and destruction that swallows all life and poisons with its shadow the whole world. But now—with Lazarus’ resurrection—”death begins to tremble.” For there the decisive duel between Life and Death begins, and it gives us the key to the entire liturgical mystery of Pascha. In the early church Lazarus Saturday was called “announcement of Pascha”, it announces and anticipates, indeed, the wonderful light and peace of the next Saturday—the Great and Holy Saturday, the day of the Life-giving Tomb.

Lazarus, the Friend of Jesus

Let us first of all understand that Lazarus, the friend of Jesus, personifies the whole mankind and also each man, and Bethany, the home of Lazarus the Man, is the symbol of the whole world as a home of man. For each man was created friend of God and called to this Divine friendship: the knowledge of God, the communion with Him, the sharing of life with Him. “In Him was life and the life was the light of men.” (John 1:4) And yet this Friend whom God loves, whom in love He has created, i.e. called to life, is destroyed and annihilated by a power which God has not created: death. God encounters in His own world a power that destroys His work and annihilates His design. The world is but lamentation and sorrow, tears and death.

How is this possible? How did this happen? These are the questions implied in John’s slow and detailed narrative of Jesus’ coming to the grave of His friend. And once there, “Jesus wept.” (John 11:35) Why does He weep if He knows that in a moment He will call Lazarus back to life? Byzantine hymnographers fail to grasp the true meaning of these tears. They ascribe them to His human nature, whereas the power of resurrection belongs to God in Him. But the Orthodox Church teaches that all actions of Christ are “theandric,” i.e., both Divine and human, are actions of the one and same God-Man. But then His very tears are Divine. Jesus weeps because He contemplates the triumph of death and destruction in the world created by God.

Love, the Power of Life

“It stinketh.” say the Jews trying to prevent Jesus from approaching the corpse, and this awful warning applies to the whole world, to all life. God is Life and the Giver of Life. He called man into the Divine reality of Life and behold “it stinketh”…The world was created to reflect and proclaim the glory of God and “it stinketh.”

At the grave of Lazarus God encounters Death, the reality of anti-life, of destruction and despair. He meets His Enemy, who has taken away from Him His World and become its prince. And we who follow Jesus as He approaches the grave, enter with Him into that hour of His, which He announced so often as the climax and the fulfillment of his whole work.

The Cross, its necessity and universal meaning are announced in the shortest verse of the Gospel: “and Jesus wept”… We understand now that it is because He wept, i.e., loved His friend Lazarus, that Jesus had the power of calling him back to life. The power of Resurrection is not a divine “power in itself,” but power of love, or rather love as power.

God is Love and Love is life, Love creates Life…It is Love that weeps at the grave and it is Love that restores life. This is the meaning of the Divine tears of Jesus. In them love is at work again—recreating, redeeming, restoring the darkened life of man: “Lazarus, come forth!…” And this is why Lazarus Saturday is the beginning of both: the Cross, as the Supreme sacrifice of love, the Resurrection, as the ultimate triumph of love.

Originally published by the Department of Religious Education, Orthodox Church in America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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