Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed. So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no better than a slave, though he is the owner of all the estate; but he is under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. So with us; when we were children, we were slaves to the elemental spirits of the universe. But when the time had fully come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.
Galatians 3:23-29; 4:1-5 (Epistle of the Feast of St. Paraskevi)
Why study the lives of the saints? There are so many. They lived so long ago. Isn’t studying their lives just like religious trivia? That’s depends on the way we approach our study. One could probably list many reasons to study their lives, but there are two reasons that jump out at me. One reason is the historical context of our faith. There have been saints in every century and their witness for Christ has allowed the faith to survive and to thrive for two thousand years.
For instance, there are various saints in Russia in the 20th century whose witness for Christ allowed the Church to survive there during decades of Communist oppression. However, the saints of the early centuries, though we are far removed from them, are also important. Without their contribution, we wouldn’t have our church today—they persevered through earlier centuries of persecution. More importantly, we study the lives of the saints for inspiration. We build faith through experience—our own experience and the experience of others.
Have you ever had the experience of trusting someone you don’t know? We all have—we have all had the experience of meeting a new doctor and trusting him or her with our health. Why would we trust a doctor we don’t know with our health? Either because someone referred us to the doctor—they are vouching for the doctor’s competence. Or because we’ve had our own experience with good doctors, even ones that we don’t know well, which allows us to trust other doctors that we don’t know well.
Reading about the lives of the saints gives us encouragement to be like them. Let’s take a pause and think about baseball for a minute. Anyone who is a baseball fan knows who Babe Ruth is. He lived in the 1920s, before just about all of us were alive. He was a prodigious home run hitter. He helped shape the modern game. Without him, we probably wouldn’t have the game we have today. Many kids want to be just like him, even though they never saw him play. It’s the same way with the saints. We recognize people who are pillars of Christianity, without whose contribution we wouldn’t have the church we have today. And we then want to emulate their example, even though we didn’t personally know them.
Today’s saint, Paraskevi, lived in the second century, during a time when Christians were being persecuted by the Roman Empire. She was born to wealthy Christian parents who desperately wanted a child. When their prayer was answered, they named their daughter “Paraskevi,” which is the Greek word for “Day of Preparation” or Friday (the day before the Jewish Sabbath). It was the day on which Christ was crucified, and they wanted to dedicate their daughter to him. She had a solid Christian upbringing.
When her parents died, Paraskevi was 20. She divested herself of all of her wealth by helping other people. News of an attractive young lady going from place to place and helping people with great generosity quickly reached the ears of the Roman authorities who were persecuting Christians. Captured by the Roman Emperor Antoninus, she was tortured so that she would renounce her faith. One of the tortures involved boiling her in hot oil and tar. She was unscathed. The emperor was so upset that he went to the vat to see what kind of sorcery Paraskevi was doing and he was blinded by the steam. Paraskevi healed his blindness (which is why she has become the patron saint of those with eye problems). The emperor released her. The next emperor, Marcus Aurelius, was not so kind to Paraskevi. He ordered her tortured and when the tortures didn’t work, he had her beheaded.
The Epistle lesson from the Galatians, which is read on her feastday, reminds us that before Christ came, there was a Law (Mosaic Law, based on the Ten Commandments) that guided God’s people. However, it also confined them. There was a lot to learn about the Law and people were frustrated just trying to learn it. When Christ came, the Law was summarized into two commandments—love God and love neighbor. And faith is based not on obedience and knowledge but on loving God, and loving others. Galatians 3:27 has become a hymn that is sung at every baptism, and at other liturgical services of the year: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” And, as the Epistle continues, if we have put on Christ, we are “no longer Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (3:28) Thus, each of us should have, as our priority, to do the work of Christ.
And what is that work? We receive that answer from the life of St. Paraskevi and two words that summarize her life—preparation and sight. We are spend our lives preparing for see Christ. Every day of our lives should be a “paraskevi”, a day of spiritual preparation. Every day should be a day of prayer and a day to do works of Christian love and charity. There are opportunities for charity at work and at home every day. Secondly, our life’s work is to see Christ with more and more spiritual clarity, and to help others do that as well. When we are actively sinning, we cannot see Christ. For we cannot see Christ and hurt Him (or others) at the same time. It’s like if we have an icon of Christ in our hand, we have to flip it over or put it in our pocket in order to sin, and when we sin, we are putting it away, instead of keeping it front and center. To see Christ clearly means to keep Him front and center in our minds and hearts so that our actions follow. When we spend our lives serving Him, we will see Him more clearly. He won’t be a mystery. We won’t have to have faith because of others, or have to trust without experience. We will have faith and trust in Him because of our own experience.
Your diligence corresponded to your name, Paraskevi, which denotes preparedness. Through faith you inherited the promised dwelling that was prepared for you, O prize-winning Martyr. Therefore you pour out cures and healings, and you intercede on behalf of our souls. (Apolytkion of St. Paraskevi, Trans. By Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
Make today a day of preparation to see Christ by spending time with Him in prayer and purposely and intentionally looking for opportunities to serve others. Saint Paraskevi didn’t set out to go and convert people to Christ. She set out to serve others. Her witness for Him is what has brought untold numbers of people to Christ. May we do the same!
St John the Baptist Greek Orthodox, Tampa, FL
And when a great crowd came together and people from town after town came to Him, He said in a parable: “A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trodden under foot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns grew with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew, and yielded a hundredfold.”
When I was a few years into my priesthood, and still in my late 20s, I told my Spiritual Father that I was becoming frustrated in my ministry because I didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere in bringing people closer to Christ. He said to me, “What did you expect? That after a sermon people will run up to the altar and say they ‘are save’ or they ‘totally get it’”? I told him, basically that’s what I thought, that people would be stirred to action by a service or a sermon or a retreat, that I was working hard and I couldn’t see any results.
So, he took out the Bible and opened to the Parable of the Sower in Luke 8, and said that this parable is a metaphor for ministry. He said to me “Imagine that you have a large bag of seed. Every morning, you get up and walk down the road throwing the seed on both sides. At night when you are tired, you put the bag down, you sleep and the next morning you get up and start throwing the seed again. Here’s the thing though: you never get to look back over your shoulder at the seed you’ve thrown and it’s a one-way street, you never get to come back and see what you’ve thrown. You’ve got to be content with throwing the seed. If you are obsessed with seeing the seed grow, you are going to have a miserable life and probably a short ministry.”
That conversation changed my way of thinking about ministry. Of course it took years and a lot of heartache for that to happen. So, here is some advice to everyone who gets involved in ministry. You don’t necessarily see the seed grow. You have to be content to throw the seed. (As an aside, I’m writing this reflection while at summer camp. We have campers with us for seven days at a time. During this time, we infuse them with spirituality, encouragement, and advice on how to live a Christ-centered life. And then they leave. We don’t get to go home with them, or see them in school next month, or see if our work bears any fruit. That’s not the goal of summer camp. The goal has simply become to sow the seed. We cannot control the hearts that the seed will land in. We have to be content to simply sow the seed.)
In parish ministry, not every event is spectacular. I used to be obsessed with numbers, like how many people attend a Divine Liturgy. I no longer obsess about numbers. When the Divine Liturgy is celebrated on a weekday, I know that the church will not be filled, especially on minor feast days. Maybe 5-10 people will show up. And on those days, I still give a good effort in celebrating the Divine Liturgy. I offer a short homily to those who are present. (Another aside, I gave a lecture at the Seminary entitled “the top 25 things I didn’t learn here” and one of the things on my list was “how to celebrate the Divine Liturgy in front of three people.” The point was that when I was the Seminary, we always had many chanters, many altar boys and many congregants at every Divine Liturgy. We never celebrated Divine Liturgy with one chanter, no altar boys and three people in the pews. That was a change when I became a parish priest. It’s easy to have energy on Pascha when the church is filled to capacity. It is something entirely different to bring energy when there are only three people in the church.) I’ve come to realize that God is not going to ask me how many people showed up at a weekday Divine Liturgy. He’ll be more concerned with how many Divine Liturgies I offered, how many opportunities I gave people in my community to worship.
Many people who are reading this message are involved with church work—they sing in the choir, or teach Sunday school, or help out with the youth group or serve on the Parish Council. My message to you is don’t be obsessed with seeing the fruit of your efforts. The seed you sow may grow years after you are gone. Be content to throw the seed and throw it as much and as often as you can.
For work outside of church, it’s the same principle. Throw the seed of Christ—of love, kindness, encouragement, peace, etc.—to everyone. Say kind words, help others, show Christ-like love—these are the seeds we sow. How they grow is not up to us. The kind of hearts the seed lands in we cannot control. Christ is not going to ask us how much seed we grew, but how much we sowed. After all, the Parable of the Sower is not called the Parable of the Grower. The seed is God’s word. We all have the ability to throw it to others.
What is in our heart is the soil in which the seed grows. I have never converted anyone to anything regarding the faith. I throw the seed. The Holy Spirit then works in conjunction with the person who receives the seed to grow it in their heart. In addition to all having the potential to be sowers of the seed, we are all individually growers of the seed that has been thrown to us. Thus, we need to each be cultivating the seeds in our own hearts so that Christ grows in us and with Christ in us, we can “throw” Him to others.
It’s not about how many people come to an event that God is concerned with, but how many events, how many chances we offer for people to come closer to Him. This applies to our churches and to our lives outside of church as well.
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then out mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.” The Lord has done great things for us; we were glad. Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses of the Negeb! May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy! He that goes forth weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him. Psalm 126
Grow the seed of God in your heart. Spread it to others. Don’t focus on the growth of the seeds you sow. Be vigilant in sowing them!
+Fr. Stavros, St. John the Baptist GOC, Tampa, FL
Taken from the 'Transforming our Church' series