Bishop John A. Elya
10-22, 1998 – Holy Abercius Visit to Rome
I am pleased to send my cordial greetings to my friends in Cyberspace from the Eternal City and from the Vatican Hill. I came here on October 17 with the Bishops of New England on the Quinquennial Visit to the Holy See of Rome as requested of all bishops by Canon Law every five years: two Achdioceses (Boston and Hartford), nine R. C. Dioceses (Worcester, MA; Fall River, MA; Springfield, MA; Manchester, NH;Burlington, VT; Portland, ME; Providence, RI; Norwich, CT, and Bridgeport, CT; and two Byzantine Catholic Dioceses: Stamford, Ukrainian and Newton, Melkite.
The “Synaxarion” of the day in our Byzantine Prayer Book brought tears to my eyes. What a coincidence! I spontaneously applied it to myself and to my brother bishops Nicholas Samra (Melkite) and Basil Losten (Ukrainian) who are making the visit with me, together with the Bishops of New England, headed by Cardinal Bernard Law, Archbishop of Boston, and Archbishop Daniel Cronin of Hartford. The following quotation is taken from our prayer book, the well-know “Byzantine Daily Worship” (BDW) published by Archbishop Joseph Rays and Baron Jose de Vinck. Alleluia Press, 1969. Page 486.
October 22 –
Commemoration of the Holy Abercius, the Equal of the Apostles, Bishop of Hieropolis, the Wonderworker. (NB. The other marvelous Commemoration of the day, that of the Seven Holy Children martyred in Ephesus, should warrant another report equally fascinating)
“Abercius was Bishop of Hieropolis in Phrygia at the time of Emperor Marcus Antoninus (161-180). He died toward the end of the second century. In the manner of early Christians, he inscribed the following words on his own tombstone: ‘I the citizen of a distinguished town have built this tomb … My name is Abercius. I am a disciple of a Shepherd most pure who leads his flock of sheep over mountain and plain. He has immense eyes that see all things. He it is who taught me the faithful Scriptures, who sent me to Rome to see the sovereign City and to look upon the Queen clothed in gold and shod in gold.
There did I see a people bearing a brilliant seal … and wherever I went, faith was leading me. Everywhere it offered me a fresh-water Fish, very large and pure, caught by an immaculate virgin. She gave it as food to friends, untiringly. She also has a delicious Wine that she serves with Bread… Let the brother who understands pray for Abercius.’ This tombstone is now in the Lateran Museum in Rome.”
Last Sunday, 10-18, we concelebrated the Divine Liturgy with His Holiness Pope John Paul II at St. Peter Plaza with over half a million people attending. That celebration marked the 20th Anniversary of the Pontificate of the Holy Father and the 40th Anniversary of his Episcopal ordination. Tuesday, 10-20, we celebrated the Divine Liturgy near the tomb of the Apostle Peter, and today, Thursday, near the tomb of the Apostle Paul at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. These two Liturgies form a part of the Pilgrimage or Quinquennial visit. Yesterday, Wednesday, we attended the public audience at St. Peter Square. The Pope addressed the thousands of pilgrims from all over the world in Italian, French, English, German, Spanish and Polish. After the Public audience, we had a most moving tour of the “Vatican Grottoes.” We had a close look at the tomb of the Apostle Peter. We took note how Emperor Constantine built the physical church building literally over the relics of Peter the Rock as Our Lord had intended to build it spiritually – “You are Peter, the Rock, and over that rock I will build my Church, and the power of Hades will not prevail against it.”.
Today, Thursday, I had a 15 minute private audience with His Holiness, together with Auxiliary Bishop Nicholas Samra. Later on we took our lunch with His Holiness together with other 12 bishops of New England. Another group of 13 bishops were guests of His Holiness at lunch two Days ago. We were all impressed by his energy despite his recent illness, his sensitivity and his eagerness to learn from each of us about our respective dioceses and to respond to our questions. One great event is still waiting, when, this coming Saturday, we will concelebrate the Divine Liturgy with His Holiness in his private chapel. The final official act of our Visit to the Eternal City will be the concelebrated Mass with His Eminence Bernard Cardinal Law in the church of Santa Suzanna, the titular church of his Eminence in Rome.
This Visit to the Pope is required of all Catholic bishops by Church Law every five years, hence the name quinquennial, that is every five years. It gives them the occasion to report about the progress in their respective dioceses, to visit the various “dicasteries”, i.e. church ministeries, to strengthen their communion with the Pope, the Successor of St. Peter and the Guardian of Church unity in the supremacy of love.
At the Annunciation Cathedral
May 10, 1998
“If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you ‘give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:10)
(A short word about Mother’s Day…)
Did anyone time the beautiful Gospel reading we just heard? Was it 10 or 15 minutes? Whatever time it took, it was worth it. (I hope I can say the same of the following short remarks.) How long was the last movie you watched, or the last reception you attended? Were they too long? Longer than 15 minutes. The important thing is not how long it is, but how full and how interesting. There are two sides to our lives, the heavenly and the earthly, the physical reality and the spiritual reality. As long as we are down on earth, we are tempted to give more importance to the earthly over the heavenly. We are more interested about the minutes it takes than about the lesson it gives. Oftentimes, we are more interested about the price we pay than about the value we acquire. “A cynic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
The Gospel reading of the day is very rich in contrast between the heavenly and the earthly reality. The Samaritan woman comes to draw physical water, an earthly purpose. Jesus presents her with spiritual water, heavenly response. The Samaritan woman was seeking to quench her physical thirst. Jesus offers her the spiritual drink to quench her spiritual needs. Jesus says to her:
“Everyone who drinks this (physical) water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (2:13-15)
The woman asks Jesus about the material place for true worship; is it Mount Gerizim in Samaria or the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem? Jesus draws her attention to the spiritual dimension of worship. “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in Spirit and truth.” By the way, this may explain, although it does not excuse, why the Christian world at large has not shown the proper concern about the Holy Land, about the Holy Sepulcher of Christ and the Church of the Resurrection and about the other Holy Places, as compared to the Moslems and the Jews and, most of all, the original inhabitants of the land who have suffered from this lack of concern.
Jesus asks the Samaritan woman to bring her husband. She admits that she has no husband. The one with whom she was living was not her husband. There was the difference between a physical relationship and the spiritual one sanctioned according to God’s plan.
The disciples offered Jesus material food. “Rabbi, eat.” (2:31) Jesus replied about His spiritual food, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” (4:32) “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish His work. (4:34) Later on, when the crowd came to Him, Jesus reproached them:
“Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled. Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on Him, the Father, God, has set His seal.” (John 6:26-28)
The disciples looked at the harvest, the material grain which was due in four months. Jesus drew their attention to the spiritual harvest already ripe to be gathered joyfully. (2:35)
The task of our Christian religion is to emphasize the spiritual meaning of our words and of our lives. We are made of flesh and blood; we have to take care of this body which is mortal; but St. Paul reminds us: “We know that if our earthly dwelling, a tent, should be destroyed, we have a building from God, a dwelling not made with hands, eternal in heaven.” (2 Corinthians 5:1)
When we come to church, we are reminded at the beginning of the Liturgy of the faithful: “Let us lay aside all earthly cares, that we may welcome the King of all.” A little later, the priest turns to the people and invites them: “Let us lift up our hearts!” And the people answers: “We lift them up to the Lord.” These two invitations should not go unnoticed. Every time we attend the Divine Liturgy and we hear this invitation, “Let us lay aside all earthly care… Let us lift up our hearts…” and we respond to it sincerely, we are carried up from the earthly plan to the heavenly. “Our citizenship is in heaven,” writes St. Paul, “and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 3:20)
The Lord said: “I am the light of the world.” He also said to His disciples:
“You are the light of the world.” Of course, He was talking of the spiritual and moral light.
In our family, in our business, in our relationships, in the sweet and sour of life, it makes a great difference if we look down or if we look up.
“Two men looked out from their prison’s bars
The one saw mud, the other stars.”
Although our personality is one (hopefully!), there are two tendencies which pull us in opposite directions and threaten sometimes to tear us apart. These are the two poles of our reality called respectively in the Scriptures: the flesh and the spirit. According to St. Paul who addresses us in his Epistle to the Romans, we (hopefully!) “live not according to the flesh, but according to the spirit. Those who live according to the flesh are intent on the things of the flesh, those who live according to the spirit, on the things of the spirit. The tendency of the flesh is toward death, but that of the spirit toward life and peace. The flesh in its tendency is at enmity with God.” (Romans 8:4-7)
The worst we can do is to draw religion to our lower level and so to deprive ourselves from the benefit of religion altogether. A Latin proverb says:
Corruptio optimi pessima”, which means the corruption of the best is the worst corruption. This is what we do when we forget about the higher meaning of religion and stick to the earthly level. Here are some examples:
The marriage celebration in church is the occasion of asking God’s blessings over the couple joined to each other forever by the loving power of God. However, we see some people concerned about the external ceremony and about the wedding reception more than about the necessary preparation for the marriage itself. Man and woman are attracted to each other and want to unite body and soul in order to form a family. God blesses this human love and elevates it to the level of mystery, or sacrament. Husband and wife represent Christ the bridegroom and His bride, the Church.
In baptism, the social aspects sometimes blind the spiritual aspects. Sometimes people attach more importance to the reception following baptism than to the religious ceremony itself. Many people take a short cut directly to the house or the banquet hall instead of coming to church for the real thing. Here are striking examples of “the tail wagging the dog!” What is more important the mysterious effect of the crowning ceremony and of the mysterious rebirth through baptism or the social gathering which expresses our gratitude to God for His abundant blessings? When we chose a godfather or a godmother for our baby at baptism, how many times we give priority to human considerations and forget altogether what we are doing? A godfather or godmother are supposed to be exemplary Christian who set the example to the newly baptized. I cannot sponsor a new member into a society if I am not myself a member in good standing in that society.
Here is another example of the “two levels” of interest which separate the flesh from the spirit: We lovingly assure material food and clothing and social necessities and education to our children? How much are we concerned about their religious education? Parents who have registered their children in the Sunday School, and of course, the teachers who volunteer to teach them and who take time to attend special meetings and courses to enable themselves to teach well, are to be commended for setting their priority on the spiritual rather than on the material level.
When young men or women think of a career. How many think of becoming a teacher, an engineer, a medical doctor, a lawyer, a business man or woman, etc.? Are we willing to give a chance to becoming a priest or a religious? Why should God come second in our consideration? To serve God full time is the best way to fulfill our life and assure our happiness for time and eternity. I wouldn’t exchange the service of the Lord for any other job in the world!
In summery, are we looking up most of the time or looking down? With Jesus or without Jesus, that makes the greatest difference. Let us invite Jesus into our hearts as the Samaritan people urged Him to stay with them. And He stayed two days. That made the difference between time and eternity.
The Kondakion of the day sums it up beautifully. This is what the Greek word Kondakion means, putting it together as in a nutshell:
“The Samaritan woman came to the well with faith and saw you the Master of Wisdom: You satisfied the thirst of her soul, and she inherited the kingdom of heaven forever.”
As the Samaritan woman, may we all encounter with faith and with love Jesus our Lord, the Master of wisdom and the Father of Lights. Let Him satisfy the thirst of our souls and make us inherit the kingdom of heaven. Amen.
To the clergy, laity and friends of the Melkite Eparchy of Newton. Grace to you and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ who is risen from the dead.
Two thousand years ago, early in the morning, death and darkness were shattered by the brilliant light of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, on that first Easter morning. The apostles responded with fear and wonder as the joyful news of the resurrection was proclaimed by Mary Magdalene. She, who had stood at the foot of the cross with the Virgin Mary, Mother of Jesus, and John, the beloved disciple, was honored as the first herald of the resurrection of the Lord our Savior. Today, with the Virgin Mary, with Mary Magdalene and the other holy Ointment Bearing Women, with the Eleven Apostles and the with millions and billions who followed, we celebrate the resurrection of Christ, our Savior, with great joy and excitement. As we “rush” through the doors of the Church at the Hajmi (the Rush Service) on the morning of Pascha, we joyfully sing,
“Today is the Day of the resurrection, O nations, let us be joyful; for this Passover is the Passover of the Lord, in that Christ our God made us pass from death to life, and from earth to Heaven, we who sing to Him triumphal praise.” (First Ode)
What joy and excitement fill our hearts as we sing the Canon of the Resurrection and as we celebrate the Divine Liturgy singing over and over again, “Christ is risen from the dead, and by His death He has trampled upon death, and has given life to those who are in the tombs.” Victory is the word of the day; victory of good over evil, of life over death, of love over hatred, of generosity over selfishness, of trust over fear and of joy over sadness. For forty days during the Paschal Season, we greet one another, “Christ is risen!” – “He is truly risen!” To be effective and authentic, this greeting cannot be said only in Church at Liturgy, but in all times and places. The victory, joy and hope of the resurrection of our Savior must radiate in all our words and all our actions every day and every hour without cease.
Like Mary Magdalene, we are called today to be the heralds of the glorious resurrection of the Lord. We can make the resurrection of Jesus Christ more or less believable by our actions. Our neighborly love, our forgiveness toward those who have hurt us, and our service to those in need can convince others of the love of our Risen Lord. Words fly away. Actions hold convincing power. As Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, “Kindness has converted more people than zeal, science, or eloquence.” You may be the only Gospel a person may ever read.
The world today, in many ways, is in denial of the reality, of the joy and of the exhilarating feeling of victory brought about by the resurrection of Christ. ‘Today is the Day of the Resurrection . . .’ Today our world is in particular need of witnesses to the Glorious Resurrection. Our modern society is so obsessed with rationalism and materialism, that we have no room for the things of the heart. We tend to analyze and try to prove to such a degree that we have lost our sense of Mystery. As long as the disciples on the Road to Emmaus were trying to figure things out, they did not recognize the risen Jesus. But when He entered their home and sat at table with them, they recognized Him immediately in the breaking of the bread. (Luke 24:33-35) We can make the difference. We can be the witnesses of Christ’s resurrection today. We must be witnesses to His resurrection today. “Christ is counting on us!”
The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the very basis of our Christian faith. The kerygma (preaching) of the early Church was, ‘Jesus is Lord !’ and ‘Jesus is risen !’ (Romans 10:9) Saint Paul exhorts us, ‘if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. . . But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.’ (I Corinthians 15:14, 20) It is the sacred duty of every Christian, especially those of us of the Eastern tradition with our particularly beautiful and powerful resurrection prayers, to celebrate the resurrection of Christ, to live the resurrection of Christ, and to proclaim the resurrection of Christ.
This call to be a resurrection people is indeed a great challenge, but the power that God gives us to live out this call is even greater. The Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells is you and me. (cf. Romans 8:11) Imagine such power. The grace of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead is living inside us empowering us to live the virtuous life, to show kindness to those in need, and through a life of prayer and union with God, to shine Jesus to all we meet.
Just as the women were afraid of the great stone blocking the entrance to the tomb, we too, often have a large stone blocking us from shining the light of our risen Savior to others. That stone is often our pride and selfishness or a sinful habit in our lives. It can often be a refusal to forgive someone who has hurt us or against whom we bear a grudge. It can be laziness in our prayer life, or our fear or rigidity. The Holy Spirit, dwelling in our hearts, wants to free us. But before that can happen, we must give Him the control of our lives. As long as I keep the control, the Holy Spirit cannot take the control. As long as I’m doing things ‘my way’, I’m not doing them ‘God’s way’. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.” (Isaiah 55:8)
This is the Year of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, has consecrated this year to the Holy Spirit in a special way as we prepare for the year 2000. Join me in asking the Holy Spirit to take control so that all our thoughts will be His, all our words will be His, and all our actions will be His. Let us ask Him especially to guide our Melkite Church in the United States and the Middle East, its place of origin and of authority toward internal peace among its members and toward peace and fruitful cooperation between her and her sister churches according to His prayer at the Last Supper “That all may be one.” (John 17). Let us ask Him also to direct the hearts of those in charge to pursue and achieve a permanent and just peace in Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq and in other troubled spots around the world.
Finally, please keep me in your prayers as your servant. I would be truly grateful to God and to each of you if you would pray one extra prayer a day for me to fulfill faithfully my responsibility toward God and toward each of you. May God bless you and all your loved ones. Be assured of a special place in my prayers and in my heart, with my love in our Risen Lord..
Christ is risen! He is truly risen!
+John A. Elya
Mark 10:32-45 – Annunciation Cathedral, 3-29-98
“The Son of Man has not come to be served but to serve – to give His life as ransom for the many.” (Mark 10:45)
After five weeks of fasting, of praying and of heightening our awareness of our spiritual needs and of the needs of others, we hear today’s Gospel inviting us to join Our Lord and the 12 Apostles in their last trip to Jerusalem. They had walked this road several times before. But this time, they sense something dreadful. It feels like an overcast atmosphere of sadness and fear of the unknown.
How beautiful and inspiring is the hymn which the Byzantine Church sings at the Bridegroom Service on Monday of the Holy Week:
“As the Lord was going to His voluntary passions, He told His Apostles on the road: ‘Behold, we are ascending into Jerusalem, and the Son of Man is going to be betrayed as it was written about Him.’ So, we too, let us follow Him with a pure conscience; and let us be crucified with Him; and let us die with Him, renouncing the pleasures of this life; so that we will live with Him and we will hear Him saying: ‘I am ascending no more to the earthly Jerusalem in order to suffer; but I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God. Then He will take us up with Him to the High Jerusalem in the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Jesus suffered in order to show us how to cope with suffering. He died in order to show us how to overcome death by His death. Soon, we will be singing, “Christ is risen from the death and by His death he has trampled upon death.” By His suffering, He showed us the road to victory over suffering and death. We have to suffer sometimes in life; when we do, we know how to overcome suffering; namely: by accepting it patiently and joyfully as Jesus did, suffering takes a higher dimension. Suffering acquires a meaning when joined to the suffering of Christ. We humans are born in imperfection. We may cause or deserve our suffering. But Jesus is the innocent one. His sufferings are sustained for the salvation of humankind. We read in Isaiah (chapter 53) :
“It was our infirmities that He bore, our sufferings that He endured. While we thought of Him as stricken, as one smitten by God and afflicted. But He was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins, Upon Him was the chastisement that makes us whole. By His stripes we were healed. We had all gone astray like sheep, each following his own way; But the Lord laid upon Him the guilt of us all.” (Isaiah 53: 4-6)
My dear brothers and sisters,
The suffering with Jesus is a road to the joy of the Resurrection. The Hill of Calvary is the road to the Hill of the Ascension; and the cold and dark tomb is the road to the tomb empty and bright. It is a bitter sweet reality that good things require usually a special effort as a price. I hear people often say: “Why is it that anything I enjoy is illegal, immoral or fattening? Of course, a special effort is required just to live. We need to wake up and stay awake and jump out of bed and work to earn a living. However, we do not mind the effort and the suffering if we have the right motivation.
There are three drives in a human being, three drives which motivate him or her to go through life’s hardships: They are legitimate and providential in order to assure our interest in living. They are (1)the pleasure of the senses which, if taken in moderation, assure our interest in life and our survival. If there is no pleasure, there would be no will to live. (2)However, “man does not live by bread alone,” but needs money and material goods to assure one’s sensual pleasure; this is why we have the instinct of saving money. “Keep your white bread for your black day,” says an Arabic proverb. (3)And last and not least, there is the drive or instinct of self esteem.
These three drives, pleasure of the senses, instinct of saving money or material goods and, finally, the self esteem can be exaggerated in us at the expense of the love of neighbor and of God. St. John the beloved considered the exaggeration of these instincts as the product of an evil world. This is why he wrote in his First Universal Epistle: “My children, do not love the world or the things of the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, sensual lust, enticement of the eyes (that is covetousness and greed) and a pretentious life (the pride of life) is not from the Father but is from the world.” I John 2:15-16) These three worldly tendencies mentioned by the Apostle John, namely: lust of the flesh, greed and pride of life are countered by the three religious vows of chastity (lust of the flesh), poverty (greed) and obedience (pride of life). Today’s Gospel deals with the third of these obstacles to our true happiness, namely: “the pride of life.”
While on the road to Jerusalem, the Apostles were discussing, yet arguing among themselves about who is the most important among them. John and James came straight forward and had their mother ask Jesus: Please, Lord, she said, have my two darling sons, John and James, sit one at your right hand and the other at your left hand in your kingdom. The other Apostles, seized by jealousy, got angry at John and James. Then Jesus calls His Apostles and warns them against the lust for power. He commands them: “Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant. Whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:43-45) The lust for power has been the cause of ruin of too many of our churches. In the famous prayer of St. Ephrem which we repeat constantly during the period of Lent says:
“Lord, Master of my life, grant that I may not be infected with the spirit of slothfulness and inquisitiveness, with the spirit of ambition and vain talking.”
Ambition is the translation of the Greek word “Philarchia” which the Greek English dictionary translates as; “Lust of power.”
In the Church of Christ the Servant, service is the name of the game, not domination. Those who hold authority are called public servants not public bosses. Do you know the difference between a politician and a statesman? “A statesman is one who works for you; a politician is one who makes you work for him or her.” This is why priestly orders start with Diaconate which means service, and it never stops from being a priestly Diaconate and an Episcopal Diaconate entrusted with the power to dispense the mysteries of God’s love, but never ceasing a service to the people of God.
Jesus is “the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world.” “The Lord laid upon Him the guilt of us all.” As we heard in the Gospel of the day: He came not to be served, but to serve, and to lay His life as a ransom for many.” Most of us are selfish most of the time. Most of the time, we think and even say: “Give me. Give me.” But Jesus is a constant giving. Jesus is our perfect example of the perfect giver, the one who gives without asking anything in return. He came not to be served but to serve. When He asks us to serve Him, it is only for our own happiness. He doesn’t need us. We need Him.
In conclusion, Let no day pass us by without doing some good to somebody in honor of Christ the Servant. During this week, and today in particular, let us honor Christ the Servant by imitating his readiness to serve. During this week, and today in particular, let us do something, some kindness to someone in need.
Here are some examples:
- Let us volunteer to serve the church in whatever need there is.
- Let us visit or at least make a telephone call to a home bound person. There are so many lonely persons in nursing homes.
- Let us do a favor to someone in need being conscious that we are serving Jesus in that person. Whatever we do to the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters we do it to Him.
- Let the light shine through our service. Let us keep in mind our Lord’s declaration: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.”
- May this new cycle of grace bring us one step closer to our Lord and Savior Jesus who profits from all occasions to remind us of His love. May His love be our guide to true fulfillment and true happiness. May His name be praised by our thoughts, our words and especially our service to each other during this holy season and every day of the year.
FEAST DAY OF THE ANNUNCIATION CATHEDRAL – Roslindale, MA 3-25-98
“Mary said: ‘I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me as you say.’ With that the angel left her.” (Luke 1:38)
HAPPY FEAST DAY !
“A Birthday is the day in which everyone is happy, because You were born.” We thank God for our Church of the Annunciation. All churches are good; but our church’s name is Goodness, the Good News. The name in Greek (Evangelismos) and in Arabic (Bishara) means precisely “Good News.” I hope and pray that this “good news attitude” prevail among us on the day of our feast and every day of the year.
Every time we celebrate the divine Liturgy in this church of the Annunciation, we sing: “Today is the beginning of our salvation and the revelation of the mystery that was planned from all eternity.” (Troparion of the Annunciation) We say “Today” every time; but today IS the day. Today all the other parishes and communities of the Byzantine churches sing with us: “Today is the beginning of our salvation.”
Rejoice! Today is the beginning of our salvation. Yesterday is history; it is no more. Tomorrow is mystery, a promising hope; it is not yet. Today is the real story. There is a fact which is often forgotten when we come to pray; namely: our prayers and religious symbols are not mere remembrances of past events, but a reenactment of these events. In some way, we make these events present as we remember them. In some way, we do not only represent them; but we make them present. Does this sound like magic? This is the magic of God’s love. When, for instance, He said to His Apostles at the last Supper: “Do this in memory of me.” He did not ask us only to remember Him in the breaking of the bread; but to make Him present again. When we say, “Today is the beginning……….” We do not only remember an occurrence, what happened to the Virgin Mary; but we make the event effective to us. We do not remember only that we were saved; we enjoy and thank God for our salvation. We can say that we “realize” what we symbolize. And there again, we “realize,” that is we make it real. If, when we wake up from our sleep, we realize that we had a beautiful dream; this is good enough. But if we wake up and work to realize our dream, that is to make it real; this certainly is much better.
The word of the day is “YES”.
On the day of the Annunciation, Mary answered the angel: Yes, let it be done. this “Yes” uttered by Mary marked the beginning of our Salvation.” Mary’s “Yes” was both an echo and a starter of the Redeeming “Yes” uttered by the Word of God in eternity: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you have prepared for me. Holocausts and sin offerings you took no delight in. Then I said, as is written of me in the book, ‘I have come to do your will, O God’.” (Hebrews 10:5-7; Psalm 40:7)
OUR RESPONSE TO GOD’S LOVE = YES, LORD
Following the example of Jesus and Mary, the response to the flow of God’s love in us is, from our part, an open heart and mind, a spontaneous YES. The core of religion is surrender. Any encounter with God awaits a Yes or a No, a surrender or a rebellion. If we do not say yes, then we are saying no, for the time being. “Not to decide is to decide”. “Whoever is not with me is against me”, says Jesus. The best way to live our life is to live in complete surrender to the will of God.
“Sweet, sweet surrender” says an old American song: “Sweet, sweet surrender, Life without care, Like fish in the water And bird in the air.”
What follows surrender to God’s will? Certainly not passivity, but active realization of our life according to the plan of God. The “yes” response to God’s call is not a passive, lazy state, a quietist attitude. An attentive passivity or rather vigilant receptivity is the best way to enable the respondent to spring to full activity. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21) St. Paul shouts: “I have the strength for everything through Him who empowers me.” (Philippians 4:13) “We are well aware that God works with those who love Him, those who have been called in accordance with His purpose, and turns everything to their good”. (Romans 8:28) “If God is for us, who can be against us……(Romans 8:31)
Our “Yes” to God may be about the death of a dear person, an incurable sickness, a problem which bothers us, a sacrifice which is requested from us, a person difficult to get along with, a bad habit we are requested to correct, a good habit we are encouraged to acquire. Today is the day.
THE ‘YES’ TO GOD , MAKING US ONE WITH HIM, TRANSLATES ITSELF BY “ENTHUSIASM” = “GOD IN US” ….
May this Feast of the Annunciation be a real beginning, a new beginning of our salvation, a beginning of more awareness of His presence in our life and in the life of those whom we meet or with whom we live or work. The “Yes” of Jesus caused our salvation. Mary’s “Yes” was the beginning of our salvation. Our “Yes” to God’s will in us will put the final touch on God’s saving love in our life. Amen.
Come, Lord Jesus and transform our lives into Yours on this auspicious day of your Incarnation, during the remaining time of this holy Season, throughout the coming Paschal season and for many years to come, and for time and eternity. Amen.
HEALING OF THE PARALYTIC (MARK 2:1-12)
St. Ann Church – West Paterson, NJ – 3-8-98
FORGIVENESS OF SINS
“My son, your sins are forgiven you… (mark 2:5)
Did you ever paint your house or your porch? … I haven’t either. However I was told that you should not try to put new paint over old paint. People scratch the old paint with sandpaper before applying the new paint. Otherwise the brittle surface of the old paint would show through the new layer and the house would look worse than before. When I send my clothes to the cleaners, if there is a stain, it should be removed before the coat is ironed. You don’t apply new paint over old; you don’t iron a piece of cloth before taking away the stains.
When people buy an old house, there are regulations about taking the lead and the asbestos out. Surgeons do not operate on a patient if he/she has fever. It is a fact also that surgeons sometimes postpone operations if they find the patient too worried and disturbed. This is why they try to reassure the patient and to put him or her at ease before going into the operating room.
Now, a poor, helpless crippled man was carried to Jesus. He was let down through the roof, as his carriers could not make their way through the crowd. He was seeking a healing from his physical sickness. He was begging our Lord for physical health. What does Jesus do? “Take courage, my son,” He said, “your sins are forgiven you!”
The crippled man must have thought: “What do my sins have to do with it? I want to be healed. I want to be able to move my feet to walk where I want to go. I want to be able to move my hands freely and to take care of myself without relying on others’ help.” But, as our Divine Master is concerned, “first things first!” He heals the patient’s mind and spirit before he even attempts to heal his body.” It seems that the physical sickness of that crippled man was caused by emotional and spiritual stress. He had on his conscience some sins which robbed him of his peace of mind. Before healing the symptoms, Jesus attacks the cause. Before treating the effects of the sickness, Jesus delivers him from the cause which was sin – S-I-N. “Don’t cut the tail of a serpent and let it go,” tells an Arabic poet. “If you are brave cut its head too.”
Before the birth of our Lord Jesus, the angel announced to Joseph: Mary “will bear a son, and you are to name Him Jesus (that is Savior), because He will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21) And what was the last instruction of Our Lord Jesus the Savior to His Apostles before He ascended to heaven? He said to them as quoted by the Evangelist Luke: “Thus it is written that the Messiah must suffer and rise from the dead on the third day. In his name, repentance for the forgiveness of sins is to be preached to all the nations…” (Luke 24:46-47)
I heard a long time ago, sometime in the early 60’s, a sermon by Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen on Sin. He started by saying: “It used to be that the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Mother was her unique privilege.” (She alone is most holy, spotless, all-pure, most highly blessed and ever-virgin Mary, as we repeat in our Byzantine Liturgy). “But today,” continued Archbishop Sheen, “everybody is immaculate. Nobody admits to be a sinner. Nobody pleads guilty. There is no sin anymore”.
My dear friends,
The most dangerous sin is to deny the reality of sin. The Arabic verse: “If someone says I make no mistake, count mistake number one.” ( … )
The story of the old man who met in the street a group of children having a so-called “lying contest.” Prizes would be given to the ones who tell the biggest lies. The old man was righteously angry. He said: “I am eighty years old and I never lied in my life.” He got the first prize.
The most dangerous virus is the undetected virus. The most dangerous spy is the undercover undiscovered spy. This is why, before we can teach virtue, we have to denounce vice. Before you can fill your cup with your favorite drink, you have to make sure that your cup is not already full with something else. Do I have to prove the reality of sin all around us? War, violence, racism, mistrust, hatred, abortion, divorce, greed, lust, exploitation, rape, murder are a part of our society. We think sometimes that, thanks to education and civilization, we will keep improving the social and moral conditions of the human race. Then we hear shocking news such as collective rapes, staged suicides, so-called mercy killing, satanic cults, drug epidemics, spread of AIDS around the world, mass murders, ethnic cleansing. What a dirty word, this so-called cleansing! You cannot make your group clean by pouring the blood of a full group of people who don’t agree with you!
New foreign students at Harvard University are briefed about some areas of Cambridge and Boston, MA, which are more dangerous than others. Thank God, West Newton where is our Eparchial residence is thought to be a safe area. Hear this: Last year around this time, someone entered into our inner driveway during the night and broke into one of the cars. No place is safe anymore.
Individually and collectively, we are all sinners. The confession of David the King becomes a reality in our mind: “Indeed, in guilt was I born, and in sin my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 50/51:7)
The time of the Holy and Great Lent is given to us for healing, healing of our body, and especially healing of our memories, of our mind and of our spirit. Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Let Him take away our sins. Let us surrender to His divine mercy. We started Lent with the Vespers of Forgiveness. Let us prepare ourselves to the great feast of Pascha with a general cleansing of our heart and mind. Let us get rid of any hatred or resentment and of that particular vice which keeps us apart from God or from people with whom God put us. Until we recognize our sinfulness and name our spiritual disease, we are far away from full healing.
Sometimes, if we have grave sins on our conscience, we need to obtain God’s forgiveness, not only by confessing our sins to God and amending our lives, but to submit our sins to the power of the keys, that is to confess them to the priest. Then, we will be sure that we are forgiven. This is what Our Lord commanded His Apostles on that evening after His Resurrection. “He breathed on them and said to them: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain they are retained.'” (John 20:22-23) When we come to the Divine Liturgy and we are aware of a grave sin on our conscience, we must remove the dirt before receiving communion. Let us not put new paint over old paint before cleaning away the old paint.
Finally, last and not least, as we have heard it many times during this holy season, it is worth repeating: Fasting from food should be coupled by fasting from wrong talking and from wrong doing. It should also be accompnied by prayer and by the work of mercy. Lenten devotions are provided in the evenings three times a week besides the noon time services.
It is true that if we eat God does not decrease and if we fast God does not increase. However, when we fast we can say with St. John the Baptist, let me decrease and let Jesus increse. Less of me, more of Jesus. Then, if we give to the needy what we save by fasting, then we fulfill the physical and the spiritual fast. The Diocesan Program of the Shepherd Care invites us to save from food and to give what we save to charity. You have received your “Shepherd’s Care boxes.” Please return them full, as long as you fill them with your sacrifices. When we couple or triple our fasting and our works of mercy by prayer, then we have given a due balance to our outlook on life and on religion.
May God bless our continued fast, forgive us our sins and give us a good preparation for the joys of His glorious Resurrection.
To Him be glory forever. Amen.
at the Annunciation Cathedral, Roslindale, MA – 2-15-98
Sometimes I hear people complain about the cold weather during winter or about the heat during the summer. My answer is: “If it is seasonable, then it is reasonable.” You expect cold weather during winter and warm weather during the summer. If spring or fall was there the whole year, life would be dull indeed. The beauty of life is in the variety, if we learn to appreciate it. “Variety is the spice of life, ” says a popular proverb. And the first sign of life is movement. Take our heart throbbing on and off, on and off; take our breathing in and out, in and out; take our life in general, day follows night follows day; and work follows rest follows work. How beautiful is the regular change of seasons here in New England! Splendid foliage during the Fall; snow all around during winter, — “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!” mild weather during the Spring, enjoyable as short as it comes. We may apply the same sense of “beauty in variety” to our church calendar. In our worship, there is always something new. If you do not notice it every time you come to church, then you are missing something, and prayer would be dull indeed, and you would be wasting your time. There are different modes for different festivities. There are joyful hymns during the joyful feast such as Christmas and Easter; devotional — I don’t say sad, but devotional during the penitential season which is Lent.
The great festivities in our calendar are prepared by a purifying period of fast and abstinence. We prepare ourselves for the Nativity of the Lord with a period of penance. This period starts in our Melkite discipline on December 10. It is concluded with the Paramony or Vigil of Christmas with a strict fast until noon and abstinence from meat and meat products the whole day. A similar one day of fast and abstinence precedes the feast of Theophany (January 6). The feast of the Dormition of our Lady on August 15 also is preceded by a two week fasting. However, the greatest preparation is for the greatest feast, Easter/Pascha or the Resurrection of our Lord. Its popular name in Arabic is “Al-Yiid Al-qabiir,” The Great Feast, the greatest of all feasts. St. Paul writes to the first Christians: “If Christ did not rise from the dead, our faith would be in vain and we would be the most miserable people.” So the most important feast in our calendar year, and I would say the most important event in history, is the Resurrection of our Lord.
The feast of the Resurrection of Christ is so important that we prepare for it during forty days; and we finish our preparation by another week which we call the Holy Week. But, hear this: We dedicate four or five extra weeks of preparation to the preparation. If the Holy Lent is a preparation for Easter, the five or six Sundays preceding Lent are given to us to prepare ourselves for this great season.
The Sunday of Zacchaeus invited us to show eagerness to seek God and readiness to do His Will, as did Zacchaeus.
Some years, depending on the date of Easter, we have also the Sunday of the Canaanite Woman. That Sunday reminds us that faith can move mountains and can heal at a distance. We are given the outstanding example of the Canaanite Woman of humble and persistent faith. If we have no faith, then we have no religion and no spiritual life, and our fasting would be useless.
The Sunday of the Pharisee and the Publican invited us to show humility. It showed us the contrast between the humility of the Publican and the arrogance of the self-righteous Pharisee. Christ exalts the humble and humiliates the proud, He “fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich empty away” (Magnificat), He afflicts the comfortable and comforts the afflicted, He chooses the fool to confuse the wise; so that our sufficiency is not from us, but from God.
The Sunday of the Prodigal Son invited us to repentance. Whatever are our sins, it is never too late to come back to our Father’s home. As good as we are, we can always correct and improve.
On the final Sunday of preparation, that is next Sunday, we will hear again, among other things, Christ exhorting us to forgive our enemies and to set up our priorities straight by investing our life in heavenly things. First things first! “Where is your treasure,” says Jesus, “there your heart will be also.”
This Sunday, the Meatfare Sunday, we are reminded of the Last Judgment. “Laughs best who laughs last,” says a popular proverb. In our human condition, we all have our ups and our downs. The most important is the last moment which, we hope and pray, will find us up and will keep us up in happiness for all eternity. We pray at the Divine Liturgy: “That the end of our life may be Christian, painless, unashamed and peaceful, and for a good defense before the awesome judgment seat of Christ, let us ask the Lord. Grant this, O Lord.”
We forget too easily about the last judgment. Do we pay attention when we recite the Creed: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and of His kingdom there shall be no end”?
“Remember your last things and you will never sin.” The long range thinking versus the short range pleasure…
What are we going to be judged on in the Last Judgment? Of course, there are the Ten Commandments. More than the commandments in general, the most important is the general attitude, the fundamental option. “Where is your treasure, there your heart will be.” However the Gospel of the day focuses our attention on one commandment in particular, the greatest of them all, the commandment of love. According to the Gospel of the day, the judgment will be on the love we show to God through our neighbor, be it a close relative, a friend or a stranger whom we meet. As long as we are selfish and we consider ourselves as the center of the world, our life is useless and meaningless. Our life starts having real meaning when we take note of something or someone beyond ourselves: upward to God through prayer, or inward to God through prayer and fasting and surrendering to His love, and outward, all around us is the reality of other people created like us in the image of God, especially the needy, the lonely, the homeless, the strangers, the hungry, the sick, those in prison, etc. St. John the Beloved writes to us in his first letter:
“If someone has worldly means sees a brother in need and refuses him compassion, how can the love of God remain in him? Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth.
Our neighbor is the living image of God… We do not see God; but we see our neighbor. Our love to God is shown by our love to our neighbor. St. John the Beloved reminds us clearly of this truth in his First Epistle: “Whoever says that he loves God, but hates his neighbor, is a liar; for how could he love God Whom he does not see, if he hates his brother whom he sees?”
In conclusion, let us tune in to God’s love and God’s wisdom during this holy season. For this week in particular, let us do something, some kindness to someone in need. Here are some examples: Let us give an extra smile to some person who is sad or confused. “If you see a person without a smile, lend him or her one smile of yours. Let us visit or at least make a telephone call to a home bound person. There are so many lonely persons in nursing homes. Let us be kind and gentle and considerate to people around us. Let the light of Christ shine through our actions. Let us keep in mind our Lord’s declaration in today’s Gospel: “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, this you do unto me.”
On Thanksgiving Day, 4 years ago, I read in a newspaper a story which I may entitle: “Jolly Joe.” That was the story of a truck driver who, while crossing the country, noticed a nursing home near the highway. He would mail a greeting card addressed to “my friends in the nursing home” and sign it “Joe” with no return address. The residents of the nursing home were delighted to receive these friendly cards and wishes that they could meet Joe in person someday. They put in front of the nursing home a large sign visible from the highway: “Jolly Joe, we love you so. Stop by sometime and say Hello.”
May this new cycle of grace bring us one step closer to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ Who profits from all occasions to show us His love. May His love be our guide to true fulfillment and true happiness. May His name be praised by our thoughts, our words and our deeds during this coming season of the Great and Holy Lent, and every day of the year. To Him be glory for ever.
St. Basil Seminary Chapel, Methuen New Year’s Midnight Divine Liturgy -& St. Joseph, Lawrence, MA – 1-1-98
“JESUS PROGRESSED STEADILY IN WISDOM AND AGE AND GRACE BEFORE GOD AND MEN.”
(Luke 2:52 – Conclusion of the Gospel reading of January 1)
A new year is a new hope, a new chance on life. A new year is a challenge for growth. It is in fact just a statement of growth which becomes a challenge only if we assume it. Grow we must; we have no choice. Time goes on. It never stops. And we grow on and on with time. We may be shrinking in more than one way; however, we absolutely keep growing steadily with the tic tac of the old watch and with the rolling over of months and years.
St. Luke tells us that Jesus was steadily growing before God His Father and men His brothers and sisters,
- a- in age,
- b- in wisdom and
- c- in grace
A – GROWING IN AGE – Concerning age and the rolling on of time, we have no choice but to grow. Often, I ask a little child: – How old are you? (Indicating with his or her little fingers) Five. “How come? Last year you were only four!” I had a Birthday.
Whether we want it or not, we are today one year older than last year. Willy-nilly, the new year finds us older than we ever were, yet younger than we ever will be! You are now few seconds older than when I started my homily. Growing in age with Christ and with mother nature is a fact of life. The challenge is to do the growing in the other two fields mentioned by Luke – wisdom and grace.
B – GROWING IN WISDOM – Growing in wisdom separates, so to speak, the wheat from the chaff. Age affects our body. Wisdom stimulates our mind. We share our age with the animals and the plants and the minerals around us. But we alone have the awareness of our existence. We may share knowledge with the animal kingdom, but animals are not aware of their knowledge. They don’t know that they know and they do not reflect about it. This is why they do not accumulate knowledge and they do not use their knowledge to acquire more knowledge. Animals have feelings; but we have yet to see an animal write a book about its feelings. Wisdom enables us to put our knowledge and awareness to good use.
A little girl asked a parrot: “Say, birdie, can you talk?” The parrot answered: “Yes, honey. Can you fly?”
For thousands of years parrots knew how to mimic human beings; but they never progressed in their skill (unless taught by humans)
We read in the Book of Proverbs: “Four things are among the smallest on the earth, and yet are exceedingly wise:
- (a) Ants – a species not strong, yet they store up their food in the summer;
- (b) Rock-badgers (wild rabbits) – a species not mighty, yet they make their home in the crag;
- (c) Locusts – they have no kings, yet they migrate all in array;
- (d) Lizards – you can catch them in your hand, yet they find their way into kings’ palaces.”
These words were written three thousand years ago. Do you think that ants and rabbits and locusts and lizards have grown any bit in knowledge and wisdom during these 3,000 years? Only human beings grow and keep growing; because they are made in the image of God. Human beings have learned how to talk and how to fly. Aeronautics has progressed to take people out of space and into the stars. They have invented the telephone and then the television and the computers and what will come next God only knows. They have fed knowledge to computers which can perform instant translations or can render human voice into typewritten words.
C – GROWING IN GRACE – Grace is God’s presence in our life. If age finds us with the material world around us, and if wisdom makes us human, then grace makes us divine.
Age goes on with the rhythm of nature and with the movement of the stars. It is as fast this year as it has been thousands of years ago. Wisdom, instead, keeps growing and accumulating at an ascending speed. Like a giant snow ball, it keeps growing to marvelous dimensions. It is a known fact that humanity has acquired more knowledge in the last 25 years than in all the preceding centuries combined.
How much have we grown in the spiritual dimensions and in our union with God during the past year? And during the past 25 years? Unfortunately, some people grow in age, but never grow in wisdom. Some of them grow in age and human wisdom, but never grow spiritually. They look to the spiritual eye like a big elephant with the head of a bird.
The challenge of growth in New Year’s Day is a part of a continuum with God’s Epiphany or appearance on earth, started with Christmas (December 25) and concluded with the Theophany celebration (January 6, prolonged until the 14). The birth of Christ in the flesh (Incarnation) and His divine Apparition (Theophany) draw our human life to new heights. Christ came to share our human nature and to make us sharers of His divine life. When Christ said in John 10:10, “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly,” he meant most of all the spiritual life, our life in God.
By His Incarnation and His Theophany, Christ is calling us as His followers not to be contented with our animal level or with our human level of existence, but to live the life of the Spirit.
A tree is beautiful; it bears leaves, flowers and fruits. It is full of a life of its own. But that life of a tree is nothing, compared to the life of a bird perched on its branches. A bird feels and moves and sings and praises God in a much better way than a tree. Did you hear Victor Hugo’s verses about a bird praising the Lord: (simple, but delightful)
“On a tree
Is a bird
Because it has wings”.
Yet the beautiful life of a bird is nothing compared to the life of a human being. What is the use of living if you don’t know that you are alive? A bird has instincts only. It reacts to its environment; but it is not capable to reflect upon it. So human life is much much higher than animal life.
Yet as beautiful and noble as is human life, it is nothing compared to the life in the spirit, that life that Jesus came to give us: “I came, he says, that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10). He also said: “I am the way, the truth and the life”. The true life in its highest form, is the life that God gave us through our first parents before the fall, as they came out pure from God’s hands: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness”, He said, (Genesis 1:26) and he “blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7) He restored this spiritual life to us through His Son Jesus. All creatures came to be by a word from God. Man alone is a divine breath, an authentic image. This is the true life given to us at creation, then lost by our first parents, then restored to us by Jesus Christ, Son of God.
We sing in the Kondakion of the Vigil of Christmas:
“Christ is born to bring back to life
The likeness that was lost of old.”
And in the Kondakion of the Vigil of Epiphany, Christ addresses John the Baptizer:
“Fear not of baptizing me;
For by my own will I have indeed
Come to save Adam,
The first created man.”
Every year is supposed to bring us one step closer to our spiritual fulfillment. This year 1998 in particular is dedicated to the Holy Spirit as a new step toward the great year 2,000, the year of the great Jubilee with which we welcome the Third Millennium of our Salvation. We can apply to us the words written almost two thousand years ago by St. Paul to the first Christians: “Now our salvation is nearer than when we came to believe. The night is far advanced: the day is at hand. Let us therefore lay aside the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.” (Romans 13:11-12)
Let the new year be a year of renewal, of awareness in God’s love and of readiness to answer God’s call to live in His presence and do His will. “I have come to do your will, O God.” (Hebrews 10:5-7)
Have a happy and prosperous and spiritually fulfilling new year!