One of my favorite prayers of the Orthodox faith is the Prayer of St. Ephraim. It is well-known as we pray it during Lent as part of our weekday services including the Presanctified Liturgy. The prayer goes like this: “O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk. But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant. Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.” The prayer as a whole ties in nicely to our themes this morning- having a judgmental spirit and self awareness.
Judging others and a lack of self awareness or, perhaps better, self examination go hand-in-hand and both are challenges that we are all in a battle to overcome. Our own lack of self reflection and a judging attitude go back to our earliest history. Consider the story of Adam and Eve. Once in paradise, they are given one commandment- don’t eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. This commandment was really less about the fruit than about self awareness in relationship to God. He is God, we are his creation. It is the natural order. The one commandment was really about honoring God. But, of course, we failed and have continued to fail in this endeavor since the initial partaking of the forbidden fruit.
And so after our grand failure, God goes to Adam and Eve and questions them. We are all familiar with the story- it is the first account of “passing the buck”... Adam immediately blames Eve (and God himself!) for the disobedience. “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” Not to be outdone, Eve, when confronted, passes the buck onto the Serpent- “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” Both Adam and Eve missed the mark- not just because of their disobedience- but because of their lack of self reflection, accountability and remorse over their own choices and a tendency to point the finger elsewhere.
We are really no different, and so in our Gospel readings this morning, Jesus raises the same concerns. Our reading this morning comes towards the end of a long series of teaching that begins in Chapter 5 of Matthew, with the Sermon on the Mount and continues until the end of Chapter 7. The teachings are about how to obtain the Kingdom of Heaven and they cover a variety of does and don’ts for the Christian life. In our reading this morning, found at the beginning of Chapter 7. In this passage, Jesus tells us not to judge, lest we be judged and in the next breath, gives us an example of pulling the log out of our own eye before pointing out the speck of dust in anothers.
Here we see a spirit of judgment being used in the same context as a lack of self examination. We are instructed not only not to judge, lest we be judged- but also are instructed that we should not judge the small speck in our brothers eye when we have a log in our own eye. A couple of words about this. First off, a word about judgment. Judging is not the same as discernment. We are called to be discerning, as Paul states in his Letter to the Phillipians, “And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment, that you may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ…”
So what is the difference? Judgment implies condemning. Judgment implies a power differential- where one person is criticizing another and condemning them as a person. It implies an ego trip for the judger- one is I boosting oneself up at another’s expense. An example of this would be the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The Pharisee judges the tax collector in his prayer, “I’m so thankful I am not like this other guy because I pray and fast…” The pharisee is boosting his own ego up while condemning another. Jesus condemns this behavior, saying the tax collector, who was humble and repentant, went away justified while the pharisee was not.
Discernment is our cognitive ability to make decisions on what is good and bad for ourselves. It is also the ability to see what is best for another without condemning them. We can all discern that lying is bad. Discernment implies helping another to see the harm without condemning them as an evil person.
We see a lot of judging in our political arenas right now. People are judging the overall character of others based on who they voted for (or will vote for), what their opinions of the protests and riots are and a host of other things. BUt what we need to see, as Christians, is that we can be discerning and disagree with other people’s choices without condemning them as individuals. We are to see that all people are God’s good creation.
In the Lord’s Prayer, we say “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” The idea is that we will be forgiven to the measure we forgive others. The same principle is at work when Jesus says “Judge not, lest you be judged.” The statement does not mean that by avoiding judging others we will utterly avoid any judgment on our own sins. But it is a warning that if we are condemning towards others, without self examination and repentance, our own judgment before God will be harsher because we have not shown compassion, mercy, and charity.
We see this in the story of the debtor who begged his master for mercy on his great debt. The master extends forgiveness, but then the forgiven servant goes out and harshly treats a fellow servant who owed him money. When the master hears what the servant has done, he is thrown into prison because he didn’t show mercy. When we show charity, mercy, forgiveness, and compassion to those around us and do not judge them- we open ourselves up to God’s mercy and charity towards us. The measure we give is the measure we will receive.
Finally, Jesus teaches us to carefully examine our own conscience and to judge ourselves. Rather than worrying about trivial sins of others and judging them, we need to look at our own failings and fix them. St. John Crystostom addresses how judging ourselves is for our own spiritual benefit, while judging others is to our detriment.
You who are so spiteful as to see even the little faulty details in others, how have you become so careless with your own affairs that you avoid your own major faults? “First remove the plank from your eye.” You see that Jesus does not forbid judging but commands that one first remove the plank from one’s own eye. One may then set right the issues relating to others. For each person knows his own affairs better than others know them. And each one sees major faults easier than smaller ones. And each one loves oneself more than one’s neighbor. So if you are really motivated by genuine concern, I urge you to show this concern for yourself first, because your own sin is both more certain and greater.
We certainly can show genuine concern for others by helping them to discern, not judge, their own failings, but before we endeavor to do this- we need to examine ourselves critically, repent, and work on our own sins. If we cannot see our own sin, how can we possibly be ready to genuinely and lovingly help others to see their sin? This is why many of the great confessors of the Church have lived humble lives of self reflection and repentance. It is why many of them have been given a strong gift of discernment of others' sins- because they are constantly searching their own heart and repenting.
As we move towards the presanctified gifts this morning, let us examine our own hearts and entreat God for forgiveness. Let us repent of judging others and entreat God to forgive us for condemning our fellow creations. And let us endeavor in the days and weeks ahead to remind ourselves to constantly be examining our own hearts and to avoid judging others. Rather, let us, in the words of St. Ephraim, seek a “spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love.”
Glory to Jesus Christ, Glory forever!
- Deacon Kevin HaanSaturday June 20, 2020
The title of this morning’s homily is, “What is the Purpose of the Church?” From the outset, this title is too big of a question for a short homily. It could easily be a series of homilies or even a Ph. D dissertation. It is a BIG question. In fact I can’t possibly explore the depth of this in a few minutes, however, our Scripture readings this morning give us insights into a couple of facets of the reason the Church exists.
Last week, I spoke about the liturgical season we have been in the past two, now three weeks. It is a transition from the Paschal season to Pentecost. Last Sunday was the celebration of the Feast of Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit came upon believers to equip them for ministry to the world. This, of course, is one of the primary reasons for the existence of the Church- to spread the good news of salvation. Indeed, the Great Commission itself tells us of one of the primary reasons for the Church’s existence: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Here we see that the reason for the Church is to spread the Gospel, to administer sacraments (baptism), and equipping the new believers- which in both ancient and modern times takes place in the catechumenate. From the Great Commision then, we see that one of the primary purposes of the Church is to evangelize, administer sacraments such as baptism, and prepare converts for life in the faith.
Evangelism, however, is also accomplished in other ways. Consider this morning’s gospel reading. The first part is about basic human compassion and sacrifice for those around us. Jesus says, “Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you.” The point is to give of ourselves freely to those in need. We are to offer to help others freely because they are God’s good creation. This flies in the face of what society teaches us. Our world teaches us to value material items, it carefully trains us to be materialistic.
The whole field of advertising is designed to get you to desire a product you may not need or want. Our consumer society leads us to desire more and more- we have, as economists say, “unlimited wants”. Our desires lead to greed and greed is the enemy of human compassion to those in genuine need. Jesus uses the idea of giving over your cloak to show that even the things that you are currently using may be fair game. If we have a coat and someone isfreezing, can we offer it to them? This is easy in concept, but challenging to actually put into practice.
So what does this have to do with evangelism? One is reminded of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow, a psychologist, argued that there are stages of needs that humans have. Basic needs need to be met in order for the person to advance to a higher state. We see this in education. If the base need of hunger is not met, a student can’t focus enough to learn. Thus the advent of food programs. Likewise, meeting people’s basic needs is the first step to their salvation. Interestingly enough, I founda statement from the Salvation Army to this effect, “At the Salvation Army - Fox Cities, we know that feeding the person is the first step before you can feed the soul.” Evangelism includes meeting people’s basic needs. Needs met opens the heart to the message of the Gospel.
While this passage is specifically about giving material things to those who are in need of physical / material help, the principles are applicable to other areas beyond the material. Can we freely offer a listening ear, our compassion, kindness, and empathy to those in need? Humanity has more than material needs, although those are the most basic that we should seek to help others with. Often giving of our time and emotional self is a challenge. Like physical needs, meeting emotional needs is also a doorway to being able to share the faith.
But then Jesus offers perhaps a harder challenge: “You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” This is easy to gloss over, but if you think about it, this is highly counter-cultural. The world doesn’ teach us to love our enemies- it teaches us to hate them and not only to hate them, but to seek revenge, to get “even”. The world is full of Hatfields and McCoys- people who take a dispute and escalate it until it reaches grand scales and massive carnage. We are taught to vilify, gossip, and undermine our enemies.
If you still doubt me, consider our politics these days. Each side demonizes the other. There is never any good on the other side- they never have a valid point. OUr politics have become simple. If you don’t share my viewpoint you are evil, a Nazi, a Commie, racist, an extremist, hack, any number of phobes, the list goes on.... The generalization and stereotyping is overused by both sides to almost become meaningless- except that the levels of malice are so great it is nauseating. It is reaching the point that words, on both sides, are spurring people to evil actions against those they choose to neither understand or see as human beings.
God has another way. He calls us to have compassion on our enemies. To pray for them. To love them. Love doesn’t always mean agreement. But it does mean having compassion and looking out for the best interest of others. An acquaintance of mine once defined loves as “authentic concern for the legitimate interests of others.” I like this definition. It doesn’t call for overly emotional love, it doesn’t call for a false face. It calls for genuine compassion and looking out for our fellow men and women.
This is what we are called to and it is very difficult to achieve when the approach is not reciprocated. It is difficult to love those who vilify us, attack us at work, undermine us, gossip against us.... But this is exactly what Christ calls us to do when he tells us to turn the other cheek.
Returning to evangelism... what would be the impact if Christians lived this out. What if we balanced our steadfast beliefs with genuine love. Many Christians are openly hostile to those who have different lifestyles or have made life choices that are counter to what we believe God has called us to. But what if we, as Christians, demonstrated genuine compassion rather than non-stop criticism. What if we refused to be bated by those who hate us and attack us and instead offer a kind word. Would it change people’s perceptions of us? Would some be intrigued?
We have been talking this morning about the purpose of the Church. We have talked about evangelism, sacraments, and equipping of new believers as some of those reasons we exist as a body. There is one more from our passage I’d like to address. The Apostle Paul, writing to the Church at Rome, writes,“I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you, that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both yours and mine.”
Another reason we exist is to equip each other, to encourage the use of all our spiritual gifts on behalf of the community and the world, but also to encourage each other. If we are to live sacrificially for the world, if we are to seek to live a holy life, if we seek to love those who do us harm- we will need support. No one, save Christ himself, can do this on their own. We need each other for mutual support and encouragement. When we are frustrated with those who hate us, we need someone to remind us what our end goals are.
When we struggle with sin, psychological stresses, or other troubles in our lives- we need words of compassion and support. This is why meeting together is so important. We cannot succeed in living the faith in isolation. Even the monks of the desert needed fellowship on occasion. We, living in a secular, hostile world, need it all the more. BUt glory to Jesus Christ, who gave us his spirit and established his church for just this reason.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
Deacon Kevin Haan, from his Homily on Saturday, June 13
Christ is Risen!
We know that the Gospels chronicle the earthly ministry and teachings of Jesus Christ. A reading from one of the four Gospels is offered at almost every Divine Service because the ministry and teachings of Christ are the center of our Christian faith.
The Epistles of St. Paul, as well as the other Epistles (James, Peter, John, Jude) are letters to the early churches, with pastoral exhortation, encouragement, and advice for troubleshooting problems. The same issues that have plagued society since the time of the Fall continue to plague our society today. Love was a challenge in the early church—it is still a challenge in the modern church. That’s why we still read from I Corinthians 13 about love, as an example.
The Book of Revelation was placed in the Canon of New Testament Scripture with the provision that it would not be read aloud in church. Centuries ago, before people couldn’t read, no one read this book. Now that people have learned how to read, we see the wisdom of the early church that this book not be read in services, as it is very confusing to most readers.
Which brings us to the Book of Acts. This book was written by St. Luke, as a continuation of his Gospel. It chronicles the establishment of the early church, beginning with the Ascension and Pentecost, and following the ministry of St. Peter (the leader of the Apostles) and later of St. Paul, who was converted to the faith and who with St. Peter is held to be the Paramount of the Apostles.
Much of what is written in Acts gives us not only an insight into the early Church, but a foundation on which our modern churches should conduct themselves. It is no coincidence that the book of Acts is read during the Paschal season. In the season of renewal of our faith, the book of Acts reinforces renewal of our purpose as a church. In the readings from Acts of the previous Sundays of the Paschal season, we read about trust and faith, the basic work of the church, and how God can work through each person. Today brings several new lessons.
The passage begins by recounting the fear that rose over the stoning to death of St. Stephen, and who were now afraid to speak the Word of God to anyone except the Jews. They feared the reaction of the Gentiles. This is a natural reaction to fear is to not take chances. The passage continues that there were certain people from Cyprus and Cyrene who courageously preached the Good News to the Greek as well. God’s hand was with them and protected them from hostility, allowing for the message to take root with them, so that many were believing. The lesson here is the God’s hand goes with those who faithfully teach the Word of God, providing protection and encouragement. And that we should take changes and preach the Word of God to everyone, whether we think they will receive it or reject it.
Word of conversion of Gentiles reached Jerusalem and the Apostles dispatched Barnabas (one of the Seventy Apostles) to Antioch. Barnabas was glad when he came and saw the grace of God at work, and that a large number of people was added to the Lord. One sad lesson from church history is that newcomers to the faith haven’t always been well-received. In fact, in some Orthodox church communities, especially ones that are heavily ethnic, people outside of the dominant ethnic group (Greek, Romanian, Russian, etc.) are not received well. It is feared that outsiders will “dilute the ethnicity.” This comment was actually made to me in the last few weeks, and I serve a community that is not very heavily Greek. So, it is a reality in some of our communities, a sad reality at that. The lesson here is that we should rejoice when people come to Christ, whatever ethnic group they come from. And if non-Greeks join a Greek Orthodox Church, or non-Romanians join a Romanian Orthodox Church, this should be met with joy, not with consternation.
Barnabas, we are told, spend a whole year in this new church community, teaching a large number of people. The lesson here is that we don’t just bring people in for the sake of bringing them in, but we take time to teach them, and people who join the church take time to learn. There have been countless examples of people who have been part of the church for years and lack basic knowledge of the faith. There have also been countless examples of people who have joined the church but have left quickly because they were not embraced. We must embrace visitors and make teaching and learning a priority for everyone, regardless of how long they have been a member.
Finally, when Agabus stood up and foretold that a great famine was going to come over all the world, the disciples got together and organized a relief effort, each one according to his ability. The lesson here is that our church communities are not islands or entities unto themselves. We are part of a greater network of Christian churches, we are part of the city in which our church is located, we are part of a country, and we are connected indeed with all people. Our churches therefore should be set up with ample funds to be sent outside the community—across town or across the world—to help those who are in need.
There are many lessons to be learned about church history from the Book of Acts. Let us take those lessons and apply them to our church communities and our Christian lives!
Psalm 16—God Is Our Security
Preserve me, O God, for in Thee I take refuge. I say to the Lord, “Thou art my Lord; I have no good apart from Thee. As for the saints in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight. Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows; their libations of blood I will not pour out or take their names upon my lips. The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; Thou holdest my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage. I bless the Lord who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I keep the Lord always before me; because He is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also dwells secure. For Thou doest not give me up to Sheol, or let Thy godly one see the Pit. Thou dost show me the path of life; in Thy presence there is fullness of joy, in Thy right hand are pleasures forevermore.
Preserve me, O ______, for in Thee I take refuge. See how many things we can fill in the blank with.
Preserve me, O house, for in Thee I take refuge, until I have to move, or you become too big for me to manage, or until the kids move out and I downsize you.
Preserve me, O job, for in Thee I take refuge, until I decide I’ve had enough and quit, or I become old and retire, or they decide they can do better with young and cheaper and get rid of me.
We can’t rely on houses or jobs to preserve us until the end. They come and go. Let’s go to some things that are more permanent.
Preserve me, O spouse, for in Thee I take refuge, I love you with all my heart, but most likely one of us will die first and then I won’t have you.
Preserve me, O children, for in Thee I take refuge, or at least I might once you are an adult, until you marry and have a family of your own.
And even though we love our spouses and our families, we can’t even rely on them until the END. We can rely on them today, but there are plenty of widows who don’t have spouses to rely on and plenty of parents whose children have moved far away. Ok, let’s go to something more personal, our own selves.
Preserve me, O self, for in Thee I take refuge. Except for if I get sick then I might not even be able to do that.
This is why our trust should be placed first and foremost in God, because He is our security. Psalm 16:1 reads: “I will say to the Lord, “Thou art my Lord, I have no good apart from Thee.’” And that’s true. At the end of the day, our faith in God is all we truly have. This is why we read in II Corinthians 6:10, that we can be “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” Because with a strong faith in God, we can be stripped of everything we have and everyone we love and still feel rich. And without a strong faith in God, we can have everything and everyone and still feel poor and empty. We have no permanent good apart from the Lord. And with the Lord, we are rich despite permanent or temporary loss.
In a time where we are uncertain of how we will move forward as a society, or what the future holds for our health, we can move forward confidently with the Lord, with Him as a security and a surety.
Psalm 16 reads as an affirming statement of faith in God. Read some of these verses over and over again and hold them as mantras, as banners to carry in uncertain times:
“The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; Thou holdest my lot.” (v. 5) The stock market doesn’t hold it, real estate doesn’t hold it, the news cycle doesn’t dictate it.
“I keep the Lord always before me.” (v. 8) In good times and bad times, on good days and tough ones.
“Because He is my right hand, I shall not be moved.” (v.8) No challenge will separate me from God.
“In Thy presence there is fullness of joy.” (v. 11) Because of the Lord, there is always a place I can find joy.
And because of these things, it is possible for our hearts to be glad, for our souls to rejoice and for our bodies to dwell secure, (v. 9) even in a world that is constantly insecure. Covid-19 did not inaugurate insecurity in the world. Perhaps it punctuated it. But insecurity has been around forever and will still be here when the current challenges have passed. When we hold the Lord and our faith deep within us, we can be filled with joy seemingly at all times. The human side of us will despair at loss. The presence of God in us allows us to see all loss as temporary, and instead to focus on the permanent joy that comes from God. The challenge in a life that is filled with challenges and often with sorrows is to find God’s joy even in sorrow. And this is why we need prayer, Scripture, worship, and encouragement from others, in order to feel filled with God even as life often makes us feel empty.
- Father Stavros, St. John the Baptist, Tampa, FL
Now when He rose early on the first day of the week, He appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom He had cast out seven demons. She went out and told those who had been with Him, as they mourned and wept. But when they heard that He was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it. After this He appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country.
And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them. Afterward He appeared to the eleven themselves as they sat at table; and He upbraided them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw Him after He had risen. And He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.
And these signs will accompany those who believe: in My name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
So then the Lord Jesus, after He had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it. Amen.
Mark 16: 9-20
(Third Eothinon Gospel)
Christ is Risen!
The day after Pascha is a very important day in your life! Why? Because it sets the tone for the rest of your year until next Lent. There is no “virtual” church today. During most years, the Holy Week journey is exhausting for us physically. And emotionally. This year, with “virtual” church, the “come down” from Holy Week is likely to be different. We didn’t actually go to church each day, or see friends, or receive sacraments. In fact, many of us probably struggled to stay engaged.
Which is why today is the most critical Bright Monday we’ve ever had. We didn’t get as much of a spiritual infusion as we usually get during Holy Week probably. It’s back to home schooling kids, trying to manage work, home and them. Holy Week might have been a good diversion from the coronavirus news and collateral concern but those things will be right back front and center today. Hopefully you took away something positive from the Holy Week journey. If nothing else, hopefully you are more committed to making the journey next year.
When we sang “Let all things begin anew in the Light of the Resurrected Christ,” it didn’t mean that all of our problems got wiped out. It means that we have new lenses through which to see our challenges. Hopefully in the last week, even with “virtual” worship, we have gained a new lens of forgiveness, a new lens of optimism, a new lens of hope. Hopefully we have received an infusion of patience as well.
So, today, when you have the urge to say something unkind, be purposeful in refraining from that. When you have the urge to cut someone off in traffic, be purposefully patient. When you have the urge to snap at someone, resist that. If the Resurrection was a sign of Christ healing the fissure between us and Him, we should use the Resurrection as an opportunity to heal the fissures between us and Him and us and one another.
For the next forty days, we will greet each other with the words “Christ is Risen” and we will respond with “Truly He is risen.” Will we faithfully do this? Or will the joy of the Resurrection quickly pass from our lips as well? I use the Paschal greeting in all correspondence and I try to answer the phone the same way, even when I know the caller isn’t Orthodox. It is a small and simple way to keep Christ in the conversation, in the consciousness.
Christ is Risen, and that matters. That matters for our whole life. As we read in the Gospel of John at the Resurrection, which is the scripture quote, “to as many as received Him, to them He gave the power to become children of God.” When our parents took us out to dinner for our birthdays, or did special things for us, we were grateful. Gratitude seems very fleeting in the world today. Someone does something for us, and we think almost immediately what else will they do for us? If the first sin was ingratitude, then we have to offer the Paschal greeting with a sense of gratitude. More important, we have to live the reality of Christ’s resurrection with gratitude.
To say, “Christ is Risen but I’m still going to pick a petty fight with my spouse, or my coworker or with someone” doesn’t fit.
Neither does “Christ is Risen and I will be a maniacal driver.”
Or “Christ is Risen but I’m going to make people nervous every time they see me.”
Or “Christ is Risen and nothing is going to change in my life from two weeks ago.”
Christ is Risen and that matters. Christ is Risen and that calls us to change. Christ is Risen and that calls us to action. Christ is Risen and that calls us to continue to grow TOWARDS Him.
Last week, you set aside extra time for God. Make sure you set some time aside for Him today, and tomorrow, and every day.
Resurrection Day! O peoples, let us brilliantly shine! Pascha, the Lord’s Pascha! For Christ our God has out of death passed us over into life, and likewise from earth to heaven, as we now sing unto Him a triumphal hymn. (From the Matins of the Resurrection, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
I invite you to be different today than you were a week ago!
St. John the Baptist, Tampa, FL
Today is a day of joy in the Orthodox Church as we celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation of the Most Holy Theotokos. We recall on this day that the Archangel Gabriel came to the young maiden, Mary, telling her of God’s plan that she has been chosen to bring salvation into the world by giving birth to the “Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:31-32). This is a great mystery of the Church, for it is truly incomprehensible to think of the Lord humbling himself to become man, knowing that one day His life would be sacrificed as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). Mary accepts the news from Gabriel with a simple yet profound answer, when she says, “Let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)
We are also called to set aside our personal desires, and follow the commandments of the Lord and search out His will for our lives, so that one day we may reap the reward of eternal salvation. It is important for us to remember the Virgin Mary’s examples of obedience and selflessness so that we may be inspired in our daily lives to serve the Lord in a more meaningful way.
The Annunciation is at the core of our faith as Orthodox Christians. In fact, it is so important to our salvation that we interrupt our Lenten disciplines with a joyful celebration that is the embodiment of the Gospel, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have life eternal. For God sent His Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.” (John 3:16-17) My beloved brothers and sisters in the Lord, it is a certainty that without the Virgin Mary accepting God’s will, there would be no salvation.
Today, we also honor Greek Independence Day, recalling the bravery of our forefathers in their fight for independence. Nearly two centuries ago, the people of Greece responded to the Good News with their uprising against the Ottoman Empire. Those Hellenes knew first-hand the taste of oppression, and they fought valiantly for their freedom.
The themes of the Feast of the Annunciation and Greek Independence Day are intertwined, because both celebrate the restoration and renewal of the dignity for all: The Feast through the saving work of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; and the commemoration of the Independence of Greece through the liberating struggle of our forebears.
This year’s celebration may be overshadowed as we grapple with the pandemic of the Coronavirus. We are still physically separated from one another and from our parishes. But we must not let these circumstances take away from our joy, and from always emanating the love of Jesus Christ in all of our actions. We must also continue to lift up in prayer all those who are ailing, those who are caring for the sick, and those whose livelihoods are suffering at this time.
And finally, my beloved faithful, let us remember the beautiful hymn Ti Ipermacho and the powerful message it carried as it called upon the Virgin Mary to deliver the Queen City of Constantinople from attack. Let us proclaim this hymn of victory with strong voices, seeking the intercessions of the Theotokos for the safe deliverance from the suffering we are experiencing in our world.
Wishing you all a blessed Feast of the Annunciation – Hronia Polla!
God Bless You!
A Prayer in Light of the Coronavirus Epidemic
By Metropolitan Joel of Edessa (a contemporary Orthodox Bishop)
Lord Jesus Christ our God, the chief Physician of our souls and bodies, Who became man for us to cure the great wound of humanity; Who did not reject the ten lepers who suffered from an incurable disease, but purified them by Thy salvific Grace; Who, being God-man, passed Thy days on this earth serving and healing all who were sick and those who are ill; Who served and restored to health the paralytics, the blind, those who had committed grave sins, the demonized, as well as those who suffered both in the flesh and in the mind, now amiably accept our supplication.
And by Thy power, expel this deadly virus that bears the shape of a crown, which has brought fear, and evendeath, to those who are sick and wrongfully suffering.
And if, on account of our many sins, Thou hast allowed for this temptation to come to pass, we beseech Thee, as being merciful, that Thou mightest lift this from us and from the entire world.
If Thou hast allowed for this to come upon us as a test of faith, put a stop to the troubles of the sick due to this epidemic.
If this has spread because of the wickedness of the adversary or the indifference of frivolous people, extinguish its power as the Almighty God.
Protect the youth, keep watch over those who have become ill, and heal the elderly who have been infected by this accursed virus. Also, purge us all from unrest of the heart; and instead of this, grant us health, comfort, and progress, through the intercessions of the Lady Theotokos and all of Thy saints. Amen.
As I further reflect on the terrible pandemic which overshadows the entire world and our own Nation, I have concluded that we must act in defense of our families and neighbors by temporarily restricting gathering together. We must also continue to be even more concerned for our neighbor, for others, and do our part to prevent the spread of the virus.
Therefore, I am terminating all gatherings at least until March 31, when we will review the status of the pandemic as determined by medical and government sources.
I hope and pray that with our efforts to restrict the spread of the virus combined with those of our friends and neighbors, we may have passed the worst of this crisis by Holy Week and Pascha and thus might be able to gather safely to celebrate the joyful mysteries of Christ's Passion and Resurrection. In the meantime, we will create a Resource page on our website to help you pray the services at home with your families.
May God protect and sustain us all.
In the late hours of Saturday, December 7, 2019, Elder Ephraim of Philotheou peacefully fell asleep in the Lord at Saint Anthony Monastery in Florence, Arizona at the age of 92. As the founder of 17 monastic communities in the United States, Elder Ephraim was responsible for the growth of Orthodox monasticism in this country.
Elder Ephraim was prolific in his teachings and writings, including several commentaries on his personal experiences and knowledge gained from his time as a disciple of Saint Joseph the Hesychast. His experiences as the abbot of Philotheou Monastery on Mount Athos, as well as being a hieromonk for 71 years and an elder for 50 years, made Elder Ephraim a significant spiritual guide for thousands of people throughout the world.
“To earn one’s crown of righteousness and the gift of eternal life is truly a blessing, and it was something that Elder Ephraim strived for throughout his time on this earth,” stated His Eminence Metropolitan Gerasimos of San Francisco. “Every moment of every day was spent in prayer, fasting and worship, and I know that God to whom he prayed so fervently has welcomed Elder Ephraim into paradise.”
The Funeral Service for Elder Ephraim will be prayed on Wednesday, December 11, 2019 at 1:00 p.m. at Saint Anthony Greek Orthodox Monastery, 4784 N. Saint Joseph’s Way, Florence, AZ 85232. His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros of America will preside at the funeral service. His Eminence Metropolitan Gerasimos of San Francisco will also serve at the funeral, along with other hierarchs of the Eparchial Synod of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Members of the monastic communities, clergy and faithful from throughout the Archdiocese and abroad will also journey to Saint Anthony Monastery to pay their respects to Elder Ephraim.
Beloved in the Lord,
Having begun the Nativity Fast period and as we enter the holiday season, we have entered a rich time in our lives as Orthodox Christians. Like the beauty of the decor that will fill our homes, the Church fills us with spiritual beauty in this season, calling us to become more aware of God's presence in our lives.
This festive season begins with our American celebration of Thanksgiving. Our homes will be open to our family and friends for a feast that celebrates how we have been blessed by God. As we gather at the table, consider the following benediction from the Book of Sirah: "Bless the God of all, who in every way does great things...May He give us gladness of heart!" (Sirah 50:22-23). Our first action this season is to acknowledge that God blesses us every day for which we should bow our heads in thanks.
Then we will celebrate some of the most renowned saints of our Church: Katherine the Great Martyr who was just celebrated, Andrew the First-called, Barbara the Great Martyr, John of Damascus, Savas the Sanctified, Nicholas of Myra, Spyridon of Trimythous, and Eleftherios of Illyria. They adorn our calendar with beauty and light. Each in their unique lives, they are examples of lives lived in Christ. They are examples of faith, of witness, and of suffering, but they are also examples of philanthropy, of excellence in teaching, and of pastoral leadership. As we celebrate their feasts we should strive to study their lives as models for our imitation as followers of Christ today.
Finally, we will reach the culmination of the season when we begin the celebration of the Nativity of our Savior Jesus Christ. For us, desiring to know God, we look to Jesus Christ. God enters history and the world when Christ is born. As the Gospel of John states, "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father"(John 1:14). The incarnation of Christ is a mystery, that is to say, it is far beyond our understanding. Saint Gregory the Theologian taught, "He was laid in a manger-but he was glorified by angels, and proclaimed by a star, and worshiped by the Magi." We will all sing in the Kontakion of Christmas, "for to us there has been born a little child, God before the ages."
Dearly Beloved, the Church invites us to prepare to celebrate the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ through this rich and meaningful season. A hymn of Christmas begins, "Make ready...." These days are our time to ready ourselves through the fast, through prayers, through philanthropic acts, and reflection upon the mystery of the incarnation and on the lives of God's Saints, and as we continually thank Him for His divine condescension. God's presence in our lives must be evident by our awareness of this mystery of the incarnation, through this season of beauty, lights and color.
As we grow in awareness, as we see the lights and colors of the season, let us share them with our brothers and sisters who are in need. At a time when many live in the darkness of isolation and loneliness, of poverty, and ostracization and marginalization, our families and parishes can radiate the beauty and light of faith in Jesus Christ through acts of hospitality, understanding, and philanthropy. In so doing we bear witness to the light so that the world might believe (cf John 1, 7-8).
May our Savior, Who is coming to us as a little babe, grant you all His Kindness and Mercy.
With Love in Christ,
+ G E R A S I M O S
Metropolitan of San Francisco