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
In some of the classic Disney movies, the princess is in the forest surrounded by animals that befriend her and even sing with her. They follow her and adore her. These scenes reveal a character with purity of heart, a soul that was so undefiled that even nature was unafraid of her.
These scenes spoke to people at the time the movies were released, and even to myself when I was a child. They reminded us of a memory we all instinctively carry within us: the memory of Eden. In the Garden all of nature was subject to man and was at peace with him. After the fall into sin, the animals became afraid of man because while we are still in the image of God, that image has been soiled and defiled by sin.
Now, division exists between man and nature, and it is our fault. To be pure is the most natural state for humans, it is a naturally divine mode of existence. As the activity of sin progresses within us, we continually regress from being unnatural to being anti-natural.
Today our society is so far from being natural that we laugh and scoff at these scenes where the Disney princess is in complete harmony with all around her. We call this unreal, when it is we ourselves who have lost our grip on reality. I write this with pain in my heart, knowing that I too have greatly contributed to the impure state of the world.
May she move us to tears as we see just how far we have fallen away from what is truest to our nature. May we not settle for the vulgarity and stupidity that is called “entertainment” today. May we weep and repent of our hardheartedness: that we look upon purity and call it “silly” or “ridiculous.”
A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, “You are mad, you are not like us.” -Abba Anthony
For this reason, I think it is imperative that both children and adults today read the lives of the saints. These blessed women and men are an extension and expression of the life of the resurrected God-man; they remind us of what it truly means to be both natural and normal. This reminder is crucial in a society that is not only abnormal, but anti-normal and anti-natural.
Even what we consider beauty today confirms this idea. Gray hair and wrinkles are despised while we embellish natural qualities to an unnatural state. Men get “buff” in the gym while women have surgery to modify their God-given bodies to fit the abnormal ideal of beauty, which seems to center exclusively upon sexuality.
Let us look to the saints, many of whom were real life examples of the Disney princesses, in that they were pure of heart and completely at harmony with nature. May we cast aside worldly vanities to cling to the Cross, to Life, and to purity. Our Lord Jesus taught that the pure of heart will see God, and it is only those who attain that purity who are able to see God around us, God within us, God in nature, and God in those people surrounding us.
May our Lord Jesus grant us this purity by blessing our ascetic efforts and granting us grace in the struggle to cut off the tentacles in which the world has enmeshed our hearts and minds.
While the classical Disney princesses are certainly not perfect examples of the saintly life, they are a good starting place that children can understand.
Also, I think the way we treat Disney Princesses today reveals why so many Protestant converts wrestle with honoring the Theotokos and actually believing that she is the “ever-virgin Mary” who lived a life of prayer and purity. We mock this concept because the idea of a chaste, pure, enlightened soul is nothing more than a pious fairy tale to us who have slumped so far into abnormality.
From Orthodox Road
The Elevation of the Cross, celebrated on the fourteenth of September, commemorates the finding of Christ’s Cross by Saint Helen, the mother of the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century; and, after it was taken by the Persians, of its recovery by the Emperor Heraclius in the seventh century at which time it was “elevated” in the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem.
From this latter event the “universal elevation” of the Cross was celebrated annually in all of the churches of the Christian Empire.
The day of the Elevation of the Cross became, as it were, the national holiday of the Eastern Christian Empire similar to the Fourth of July in the United States. The Cross, the official emblem of the Empire which was placed on all public buildings and uniforms, was officially elevated on this day by the bishops and priests. They blessed the four directions of the universe with the Cross, while the faithful repeated the chanting of “Lord have mercy.” This ritual is still done in the churches today after the solemn presentation and elevation of the Cross at the end of the Vigil service of the holy day following the Great Doxology of Matins.
The troparion of the feast which was, one might say, the “national anthem” sung on all public occasions in the Christian Empires of Byzantium and Russia, originally petitioned God to save the people, to grant victory in war and to preserve the empire “by the virtue of the Cross.” Today the troparion, and all the hymns of the day, are “spiritualized” as the “adversaries” become the spiritually wicked and sinful including the devil and his armies, and “Orthodox Christians” replace the names of ruling officials of the Empire.
O Lord, save Thy people and bless Thine inheritance. Grant victories to the Orthodox Christians over their adversaries; and by the virtue of Thy Cross, preserve Thy habitation (Troparion).
As Thou was mercifully crucified for our sake, grant mercy to those who are called by Thy name; make all Orthodox Christians glad by Thy power, granting them victories over their adversaries, by bestowing on them the invincible trophy, Thy weapon of peace (Kontakion).
The holy day of the Elevation of the Cross, although it has an obviously “political” origin, has a place of great significance in the Church today. It remains with us as a day of fasting and prayer, a day when we recall that the Cross is the only sign worthy of our total allegiance, and that our salvation comes not by “victories” of any earthly sort but by the only true and lasting victory of the crucifixion of Christ and our co-crucifixion with him.
When we elevate the Cross and bow down before it in veneration and worship to God, we proclaim that we belong to the Kingdom “not of this world,” and that our only true and enduring citizenship is with the saints in the “city of God” (Eph 2.19; Heb 11.10; Rev 21–22).
The first Old Testamental reading of the Vespers of the day tells of the “tree” which changes the bitter waters into sweetness—the symbol of the Tree of the Cross (Ex 15.22–16.1). The second reading reminds us that the Lord chastens and corrects those whom He loves and that Divine Wisdom is “a Tree of life to those who lay hold upon her and trust in her, as in the Lord” (Prov 3.11–18). Again the reference is to the Cross which is, as the epistle reading of the day proclaims, “to those who are called . . . the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1.24).
The third Old Testament reading is from the Prophecy of Isaiah which tells of the “city of the Lord” where both Jews and Gentiles will live together and “shall bow themselves down” at the place of God’s feet and “shall know that I the Lord am Thy Saviour and Thy Redeemer, the mighty One of Israel” (Is 60.11–16). Here we have the direct reference to God’s city where men shall worship at His feet; and together with the psalm line repeated constantly during the services which calls us to “bow before His footstool,” we have once again the reference to the Holy Cross (Ps 99.5, 110.1, et al.).
Before Thy Cross, we bow down in worship, O Master, and Thy holy resurrection, we glorify (Hymn of Veneration before the Cross).
This central hymn of the Elevation of the Cross which lasts for eight days in the Church is sung many times. It replaces the Thrice-Holy of the Divine Liturgy. The normal antiphons are also replaced by special verses from the psalms which have direct reference to Christ’s crucifixion on the Cross (Ps 22, 74, 99). At the Matins, in the gospel reading from Saint John, Christ says that when He is elevated on the Cross He will draw all men to Himself (Jn 12.28–36). The long gospel reading at the Divine Liturgy is the passion account from this same gospel.
Thus, at the Elevation of the Cross the Christians make their official rededication to the crucified Lord and pledge their undivided allegiance to Him by the adoration of His holy feet nailed to the life-creating Cross. This is the meaning of this holy day of fasting and repentance in the Church today.
A New Ecclesiastical Year is always a time of optimism in our parishes. The many ministries of our communities resume after their summer hiatus and they begin with fresh energy, filled with possibilities to see our parishes grow and our faithful grow in their faith in Christ and devotion to His Holy Orthodox Church.
The optimism and hope of the New Ecclesiastical Year are sorely needed at this time. Our summer has been difficult and painful in many places. We have seen the stories about mass shootings in Gilroy, California; El Paso and Dallas, Texas; and Dayton, Ohio. We have seen the stories of the rise of violent acts of hatred, racism, and bigotry directed towards our fellow man, simply because of their race, ethnicity, or religion. This kind of behavior and attitude goes by many names because hatred always looks for new opportunities and ways to express itself.
We as Orthodox Christians must talk about this sin. We as a Church condemn the sins of racism, bigotry and hatred. We must be especially strong in our condemnation when acts of racism, bigotry and hatred are expressed in the name of religion, including Orthodox Christianity. Nearly twenty years ago, His All-Holiness our Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew stated, "All human beings-regardless of religion, race, national origin, color, creed, or gender-are living icons of God, innately worthy of...respect and dignity. Whenever human beings fail to treat others with this respect, they insult God, the Creator."
The evidence and history of our Church is very clear. In His "Great Commission" (Matthew 28:19), our Lord and Savior commanded us to go to "all nations". There is no discrimination in the statement.
The Orthodox Church over the centuries has spread to all corners of the globe. There are Orthodox Churches literally on all the continents of our planet. Our global Church is comprised of men and women of all races, colors, languages, and cultures. As Saint Paul wrote, "There is neither Jew or Greek...for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28). As a Church through various forums and dialogues, we are actively engaged in seeking dialogue that will produce peaceful relations with all people of all religions, even as we strive especially for the reconciliation of Christians.
We too - as Orthodox Christians and Greek Americans - have experienced discrimination and bigotry because we were "different" from our neighbors. Even today, countless of our fellow Orthodox Christians experience oppression in many parts of the world. Archbishop Iakovos, of blessed memory, marched with Martin Luther King for that reason in the 1960's. And now, just because we in the USA are not direct targets of discrimination, we cannot allow ourselves to become oppressors ourselves. We must always remember the words of Scripture, "You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt"(Exodus 22:21). Saint John the Evangelist wrote, "He who says he is in the light and hates his brother is in the darkness still."(1 John 2:9).
Beloved brothers and sisters, as we begin a New Ecclesiastical Year, even in this time of unsettling news and events, let us remember the command of our Lord and Savior: "Love one another." (John 13:34)
With Love in Christ,
+Metropolitan Gerasimos of San Francisco
+ B A R T H O L O M E W
By God's Mercy
Archbishop of Constantinople-New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch
To All the Plenitude of the Church
Grace, Peace and Mercy from the Maker of All Creation
Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ
Dearest brother Hierarchs and beloved children in the Lord,
With the goodness and grace of the all-bountiful God, today marks the 30th anniversary since the Holy Great Church of Christ established the feast of Indiction and first day of the ecclesiastical year as "the day of environmental protection." We did not only address our Orthodox faithful, nor again just Christian believer or even representatives of other religions, but also political leaders, environmentalists and other scientists, as well as intellectuals and all people of good will, seeking their contribution.
The ecological activities of the Ecumenical Patriarchate served as the inspiration for theology to advance prominently the truth of Christian anthropology and cosmology, the Eucharistic worldview and treatment of creation, along with the spirit of Orthodox asceticism as the basis for understanding the reason for and response to the ecological crisis. The bibliography related to theological ecology or ecological theology is extensive and on the whole constitutes an admirable Orthodox witness before the major challenges of contemporary humanity and earthly life.
Concern for the ecological crisis and for the global dimensions and consequences of sin - of this alienating internal "reversal of values" in humankind - brought to the surface the connection between ecological and social issues as well as for the need to address them jointly. Mobilizing forces for the protection of the integrity of creation and for social justice are interconnected and inseparable actions.
The interest of the Ecumenical Patriarchate for the protection of creation did not arise as a reaction to or as a result of the contemporary ecological crisis. The latter was simply the motivation and occasion for the Church to express, develop, proclaim and promote its environmentally-friendly principles. The foundation of the Church's undiminished concern for the natural environment lies in its ecclesiological identity and theology. Respect and care for creation are a dimension of our faith, the content of our life in the Church and as the Church.
The very life of the Church is "an experienced ecology," an applied respect and care for creation, and the source of its environmental activities. In essence, the interest of the Church for the protection of the environment is the extension of the Holy Eucharist in all dimensions of its relationship to the world.
The liturgical life of the Church, the ascetic ethos, pastoral service and experience of the cross and resurrection by the faithful, the unquenchable desire for eternity: all of these comprise a communion of persons for which the natural reality cannot be reduced to an object or useful matter to meet the needs of an individual or humanity; by contrast, this reality is considered as an act, deed the handiwork of a personal God, who calls us to respect and protect it, thereby rendering us His "coworkers," "stewards," "guardians," and "priests" of creation in order to cultivate a Eucharistic relationship with it.
Care for the natural environment is not an added activity, but an essential expression of church life. It does not have a secular, but rather a purely ecclesiastical character. It is a "liturgical ministry." All of the initiatives and activities of the Church are "applied ecclesiology." In this sense, theological ecology does not merely refer to the development of an ecological awareness or the response to ecological problems on the basis of the principles of Christian anthropology and cosmology.
On the contrary, it involves the renewal of the whole creation in Christ, just as this is realized and experienced in the Holy Eucharist, which is an image and foretaste of the eschatological fullness of the Divine Economy in the doxological wholeness and luminous splendor of the heavenly kingdom.
Most honorable brothers and most precious children in the Lord, The ecological crisis reveals that our world comprises an integral whole, that our problems are global and shared. In order to meet these challenges, we require a multilayered mobilization, a common accord, direction and action. It is inconceivable for humankind to recognize the severity of the problem and yet continue to behave in oblivion.
While in recent decades the dominant model of economic development in the context of globalization - highlighting the fetishism of financial markers and magnification of financial profit - has exacerbated ecological and economic problems, the notion still prevails widely that "there is no other alternative" and that not conforming to the rigid validity logic of the world's economy will lead to unbridled social and financial situations. Thus, any alternative forms of development, along with the power of social solidarity and justice, are overlooked and undermined.
For our part, however, we are obliged to assume greater measures for the application of the ecological and social consequences of our faith. It is extremely vital that our archdioceses and metropolises, as well as many of our parishes and sacred monasteries, have fostered initiatives and activities for the protection of the environment, but also various programs of ecological education. We should pay special attention to the Christian formation of our youth, so that it may function as an area of cultivation and development of an ecological ethos and solidarity.
Childhood and adolescence are particularly susceptible life phases for ecological and social responsiveness. Aware of the urgency of environmental education, the Ecumenical Patriarchate devoted the Third in its series of international Halki Summits to the subject of "Theological Education and Ecological Awareness" (Istanbul, May 31st to June 4th, 2019) with a view to incorporating ecology and environmental awareness into programs and curricula of theological schools and seminaries. The solution to the great challenges of our world is unattainable without spiritual orientation.
In conclusion, then, we wish all of you a favorable and blessed ecclesiastical year, filled with works pleasing to God. We invite the radiant children of the Mother Church throughout the world to pray for the integrity of creation, to be sustainable and charitable in every aspect of their lives, to strive for the protection of the natural environment, as well as the promotion of peace and justice. And we proclaim once more the truth that there can be no genuine progress, when the "very good" creation and the human person made in the image and likeness of God suffer. Finally, through the intercession of the first-among-the-saints Theotokos Pammakaristos, we invoke upon you the life-giving grace and boundless mercy of the Creator and Provider of all.
September 1, 2019
+Bartholomew of Constantinople
Your fervent supplicant before God
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
At Pentecost, we are reminded of the glorious gifts the Holy Spirit bestowed upon the faithful. We are reminded that God wants to be in relationship with us, and He wants the message of the “good news” that lives in our hearts spread to all nations. We are reminded that God wants to nurture and direct our thoughts, words, actions, habits, character, and destiny to the path of love and compassion.
A quote attributed to Frank Outlaw invites us to be concerned of the thoughts we entertain. “Watch your thoughts, they become words. Watch your words, they become action. Watch your actions, they become habits. Watch your habits, they become your character. Watch your character, it becomes your destiny”.
Indeed, we are created in God’s image, and we are the temple of the Holy Spirit: good thoughts and “life should flow out of us”! Thoughts do become our destiny and life! That is why our Church reminds us at Pentecost that the Holy Spirit wants to touch and ignite our hearts to be motivated and directed by thoughts that empowered the Holy Apostles, thoughts filled by God’s Holy Fire.
The simple fishermen became transfigured and were engulfed with the Holy fire of God’s love, and they changed the world with their thoughts and words. The same Holy Spirit wants to stir up our life, to rekindle and to fan the flame in our hearts to burn with His love so we can allow living water to flow from our hearts and irrigate the world with His virtues.
And to allow God’s living water to flow from our heart, we must desire it with all our heart. We must know that we are thirsty for His love and thirsty for His help so we can ask Him for drink to quench our thirst. If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and I will give him drink. This is a promise and Christ’s drink heals and changes lives.
One way of knowing if we are drinking of this living water, and if this life of living water is flowing out of us is to pay attention watching to see if our thoughts are feeding our soul or if our thoughts are eating at our soul. God wants our thoughts to be guided, inspired and motivated by the Holy Spirit to heal and feed our soul.
When we tune into this frequency we will speak with the fruits of the Holy Spirit, not from anger, anxiety, fear, worry. Please know that when we are constantly being fed by the frequency of fear, anger, frustration, panic, anxiety or depression, we are being tuned into thoughts that hurt and eat at our soul.
So the challenge and invitation at Pentecost and every day of our life, is to become a vessel of the Holy Spirit receiving that light so we can offer it back to God and the world. Elder Thaddeus said, “The man who has within him the kingdom of heaven radiates holy thoughts, divine thoughts.”
The Elder also says, “We have Divine power, Divine life, and Divine energy. On the day of the final judgment we shall have to give an answer for the way we have used this Divine power, life, and energy which have been given to us, whether we have contributed to the harmony in the universe, or have sown disharmony.”
Decide to radiate, offer, and emit into the world, kind thoughts, loving actions and a peaceful heart!
By Rev. Father Tom Tsagalakis, Proistamenos
Holy Apostles Greek Orthodox Church - Shoreline, WA
Archpastoral Message of His Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros to the Faithful of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America
My Beloved Faithful of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America:
Χριστὀς Ἀνέστη! Christ is Risen! He is truly risen!
Even though I am, as the Apostle Paul once said, “absent in the body” from you, I am very much with you in heart, in mind, and in spirit (cf. I Cor. 5:3). I wanted to take this moment to communicate with you through this marvelous tool of social media, to express how much I desire to embrace all of you as spiritual children, and to manifest to you the love with which God has graced my heart for the precious flock of the Holy Archdiocese of America.
In the coming days and weeks, we will all be learning about one another. I have already received and continue to receive warm greetings and messages of congratulations from across America, and I am heartened by them all. You will be learning about me, but what I want all of you to know most importantly, is that that I am coming to America not only to be your Archbishop, but I am coming to be your spiritual friend and brother, your servant in the Lord, your co-worker in Christ, and your fellow steward of all the gifts of God that have been bestowed upon the Greek Orthodox Faithful of America. Together we will bring the Holy Archdiocese of America to the greater understanding that we are the Body of Christ, and each of us a precious member.
To you and to all our Orthodox Christian Brethren across America, I bring the blessing of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. I am coming to you as your brother in Christ. And, on June 22nd at my Enthronement, I look forward to embracing our ecumenical and interfaith friends as well, and the whole pluralistic American society that values freedom of conscience and religious liberty with such intensity.
Let this be a time of hope and positive expectation for us all. We have much to accomplish together, and by God’s grace and with His strength, we must surely be victorious.
Χριστὀς Ἀνέστη! Ἀληθῶς Ἀνέστη!
In the Risen Lord,
Archbishop Elpidophoros of America