Greetings to all our faithful Christian Believers as we are about to celebrate the second of the two great Winter Feasts, the great Feast of Epiphany – the first great Feast of Winter being, of course, Christmas.
May the peace of Christ, the wisdom of Christ and the Church's joy in Christ thrive in your heart and in your mind, in your words, and in all your deeds.
At Christmas we stand in rapt wonder before the unfathomable mystery of God's decision to become a man, to become incarnate – even as you and I are incarnate – God's merciful decision to share our lot. God's reason for doing this consists of one word: love. He did it for us, because of His love for us. God shares our life, so that we might share His.
With Christmas just past, we now stand in rapt wonder before the great humility of our God Who elects to come before St. John the Baptist, and to enter the waters of Jordan River to be baptized on the feast of Theophany (the showing forth of God).
But during this season of these great Christian feasts, many of us will be tempted by a familiar conflict: Do I go to Church, or do I stay home, or do something else?
First off, yes, there are valid reasons to be absent from Church. There really are. Most (but not all) of them have to do with health issues – my own illness or the illness of someone who depends on me.
In the Russian Church, people who are absent from a Liturgy are often referred to (during the Great Entrance) as those who are absent for a cause worthy of a blessing.
But secondly, if we have a conflict between taking part in a Liturgy or taking part in something else, and if we choose that something else, our choice to be absent needs to be utterly honest at every level. It has to truly and honestly be worthy of a blessing. After all there is Grace in the services themselves that is unavailable from the secular world.
I would like to remind myself and all of you of some basic truths that we need to remember whenever we are tempted by some conflict about presence at or absence from the Church's Liturgy. I have always found myself turning to the Parables in the New Testament to clear my head and to focus my thinking. (The word parable [παραβολη] is a Greek term, with a range of meanings – among them, an illustration). If it’s basic truth that we seek, our Lord’s Parables are a good place to look.
One such Parable (which you can find in the Gospel of St. Luke, chapter 14, verse 19) has to do with people who turn down an invitation to a feast. The feast that is really at issue here is the Liturgy – nothing less than the eucharistic feast of the Body and Blood of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
As it turns out, three men are mentioned, who, like all of us at one time or another, have a temptation, a conflict: do I go to the feast or do I take care of some personal business? To feast, or not to feast?
The three men all choose their own personal business over the business of God – the Liturgy.
The first has bought property (in an age that has no Wall Street, no portfolios, no savings accounts, and which uses property and herds of animals living on that property, to calculate personal wealth). He wants to check his property out: it's a serious excuse – it is his financial security.
The second man has to check out teams of oxen (in an age that has no tractors, bulldozers or pickups) – oxen, on which his very livelihood and that of his family depends. It's also a serious excuse. Again, the man’s financial security is at stake.
The third has just married and needs to spend time with his wife (in an age when marriages were arranged by families and, surprising as it sounds to us, this man very likely met his wife for the first time at their wedding!) – another serious excuse.
And yet . . . look where our Lord takes this Parable!
The one giving the feast is angered by these men who excuse themselves from his feast; he rejects them (none of those men who were invited shall taste of my feast) and others take their place.
So the issue of responding to the (Lord's) Feast – the Church’s Divine Liturgy, in fact – turns out to be a little more complicated than just being absent from an event. And what seems important to us (here's the point – the "moral" – of the Parable) when we are using worldly standards to deal with a temptation, turns out to be the wrong move, because we’re using the wrong standards to begin with.
For those of us who too easily choose to be absent from the Liturgy, Christ's Parable gives us food for serious reflection. Do we need to turn our life around with respect to our Church attendance? Have we failed to take account of some of the deeper, underlying issues here? Do we actually take into account what Christ clearly says is at stake?
Another temptation involves the exertion it may take for us to get to the Liturgy. We may be tempted to absent ourselves because (especially out here in the West in our Portland Diocese) the Liturgies are few and far between. And I do mean far. We may face a long drive to church in order to keep faith with Christ's clear teaching.
I'm sympathetic – but I also say, Good enough – it probably should involve some effort on our part, to take part in the Divine Liturgy and to receive the eucharistic Gifts of the Body and Blood of our God and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Why should something of this magnitude be easy? At least I'm in an automobile – I don't have to walk or ride a mule! Perhaps I need to view the drive as a pilgrimage!
In the ancient Church, it was often illegal for Christians to assemble in a Liturgy. It meant that Christians could be arrested, for choosing to go to Church. But they did it, Sunday after Sunday, Feast after Feast, no matter how dangerous their presence in the Liturgy might be.
Even after the Church found her place in the world, persecution was not over. Great heresies swept the world and, for example, during the long period when the ikonoclasts were in power (8th and 9th centuries A.D.), again, true Orthodox Christians risked their lives to take part in the real Liturgy of the real Church. Many were caught and martyred – and yet, the practice of choosing to be present in the Liturgy at all costs and no matter the danger was exactly what they did.
The universal practice of the early Church contradicts a common but seriously mistaken belief prevalent in non-Orthodox America today – namely, that You can be just as good a Christian and never go to Church.
The plain truth is that real Christians, from the beginning, risked their lives to go to Church and would have thought the idea that you can be Christian without the Church was nothing but jabberwocky! Why let the ideas of post-Christians determine the behaviour of those of us who choose to remain actual Christians in the 21st century?
The Church is the Body of Christ: read St. Paul. Can you be just as good a Christian without Christ? Or do you buy into the secular nonsense about Christless Christmases and similar extremist views?
For 70 years in the 20th century, the atheist communists did everything in their power to destroy the Church behind the Iron Curtain.
More believing Christians died as martyrs in the atheist controlled countries in that 70-year period than in all the preceding 1900 years. And yet, decade after decade, humble, pious Russian, Serbian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Georgian, and Albanian believers risked their lives to take part in Liturgies. And we're not even mentioning the 500 years of the Moslem Yoke in the Balkans and Greece, or the 1400 years in the Middle East and North Africa, that provided the Church with yet more thousands of Martyrs!
Despite the long distance some of us have to travel to get to the Liturgy, we don't have to risk our very lives, we don't have to risk being arrested and tortured in unspeakably horrifying circumstances – but we most certainly do have to bear witness to our faith in Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world, and this witness does commit us to willingly make the effort to be in Church. We have to make some sacrifices if we’re going to call ourselves true Orthodox Christians.
Do we know that the Greek term for this witness that we make, is the same word used for martyrdom?
We will always have other things to do. So, our struggle is to decide to be present or to be absent from the Liturgy – a genuine struggle against a serious temptation – and that's really a good thing: Without temptations, we will not be saved!
Also – especially in America – another of our temptations involves deciding whether to go to a worship service with a group that isn't Orthodox, because we are told that, if that group seems to honor Jesus Christ, it's OK to pray and worship with them. Plus, they're usually a lot closer to where we live than the real Church is!
What, then, do we do when we hear a voice, right in the New Testament itself, addressing our Lord as Jesus, Thou Son of the most high God? (Gospel of St. Mark chapter 5, verses 1-20). Because it turns out that this voice that seems to be confessing Christ is identified as the voice of an unclean spirit which had infested a man in the village of Gedara – and this demon was busy destroying that man!
Not everyone who confesses that Jesus Christ is the Son of God is automatically someone with whom you and I want to be associated in prayer and worship! Check it out!
After all, look at the fate of that "confessing" demon (who turns out to be not one, but many demons) in the story of the Gadarenian demoniac: they all end up inside a bunch of pigs! And the pigs all end up drowning! Not good. And yet, they confessed that Jesus Christ is the Son of the most high God! Food for thought, there, my Brethren!
And so, confessing the Lord Jesus Christ turns out to not be the automatic highway to heaven that some in this country claim it is. They isolate statements out of context. Of course, the context they lack is the Church. But we see the results of taking isolated texts out of context well-documented in an important incident in the Bible.
Do you remember this incident?
You can find it in the Gospel of St. Matthew, chapter 7, verses 21-23, where our Lord says the following: Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.
Truly, these are tough words. We need to study them with great care, because you and I do not ever want to hear our Saviour, Jesus Christ, say to us, I never knew you. Depart from Me. God forbid that we should hear such words from our Saviour!
And note that the Lord says Many are they who – prophesying in His name, casting out devils in His name – mistakenly believe that they enjoy a saving relationship with Christ!
Many! Imagine that!
Beloved Brothers and Sisters in Christ: like any good athlete, any good violinist, any good student – anyone who is good at doing anything – we need to practice our skill. We need to keep it sharp and we need to make a good habit of practicing it as often as possible. There is no other way.
An athlete puts himself through agonies to win a track event! A violinist makes remarkable sacrifices of time, of social life, of fun, to be in such good practice that his performance deeply moves an audience.
So, just what is it that you and I will willingly, and even eagerly do, to inherit eternal life? Or, to express our deep love for our Lord Jesus Christ? And yet, we do not give much thought to being absent – routinely – from the Liturgy? Is this a little like the athlete who does not practice good nutrition and does not attend workouts? Is this the violinist who skips practicing and engages in a sport that pretty much ruins his fingering? Does any of that make sense? No, none of that makes any sense at all.
The point is, of course, that we cannot say we want one thing, but then act in such a way as to suggest that, in fact, we do not want that one thing at all. This is illogical and inconsistent. It involves us in fact of the terrible sin of hypocrisy (saying this and doing the opposite!) Again, not good.
It's the same with our faith: we have to live it. We have to make a good habit of it. And just as it was in the early Church and in the New Testament, there is no way for us today to live the Christian faith that does not involve us in the Christian liturgy.
If we start skipping athletic or musical (or any other skilled) practices, and the time between practices becomes longer and longer, we will lose our skills, we will play badly, whether we're playing the violin or playing baseball or taking a final exam.
The exact same thing is true of our living our faith. Does not the Psalmist say that regular liturgical prayer gives us the strengths and skills that whet our hunger for more? And where else do we acquire this saving hunger than in the true Church (Psalm 83:1).
As the saying goes, if a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing well. We are not living the Orthodox faith by absenting ourselves from the Liturgy.
You knew that, right?
We also need to understand that the Orthodox faith is not like the faith of non-orthodox Christians – we should not expect the true faith to be a kind of “done deal”: we still have real struggles ahead of us and we really can’t be saved without them!
In fact, everyone, including the non-orthodox, admit that the Orthodox Church is an ascetic Church – and that word ascetic is another Greek word (ασκητικος) – and the reason I point this out to you is that the word ascetic, in Greek, refers to the exercises and workouts practiced by the ancient Greek athletes – the folks who brought us the Olympics – so that they would remain in top condition, always ready to enter a competition or to defend their city from an enemy.
Christians have more and better reasons by far to win eternal life than athletes had to win their laurels by pinning someone down in a wrestling match. We have to be prepared to make at least as many – and as demanding – sacrifices in the matter of the Church’s Liturgy as do athletes in the matter of working out for the next contest!
It was the Fathers of the Church who took that Greek word ascetic out of the wrestling ring and brought it into the Church. Therefore, we Orthodox Christians do not sit in the bleachers as spectators, watching others exert themselves. Orthodox Christians are, so to speak, always part of the action itself – they are on the mat, they are active, not passive. We probably need to think more about that than we do, these days.
I once asked a Russian theologian in America – who admired much in this country – to tell us what it is about us Americans that he found a bit difficult to deal with.
His answer was this: Well, there is one characteristic about many Americans that I think is a problem – and that is, many Americans seem to find it hard to be serious about serious things.
I never forgot his incisive remark. I took it to heart the day he said it, and it has only become the more compelling as the years have passed.
We do not very often get together with the Bishop out here in the Portland Diocese, for a presentation or lecture or assembly, and the fault for this is the Bishop's – it is my fault. For that, I ask your forgiveness.
But I've noticed that both here, in northern California, and in some other areas of our far-flung Portland Diocese (we cover the entire Pacific Time Zone plus some parts of the Mountain Time Zone!), we are experiencing a falling-off of regular Church attendance. In this, I fear we are falling prey to the powerful temptation of secularism that defines modern America. We need to turn this alarming trend around.
Secularism is the denial of Jesus Christ and the rejection of the Gospel. It is the most fundamental enemy the Church faces today.
I thought that this wondrous season in the midst of the great Winter Feasts – Incarnation and Baptism – God’s absolute love and God’s absolute humility – would be a good time for me to speak with you at some length about these concerns – that this is a good time for you and me to be serious about serious things!
It goes without saying, beloved Brothers and Sisters, that I pray you will all, all, be at the beautiful Liturgy for the Feast of our Saviour's baptism in Jordan River tomorrow, Sunday January 6 (Church calendar)/19 (civil calendar).
May you all be blessed to receive the life-giving, sin-erasing eucharistic Gifts of the Body and Blood of our Lord, God and Redeemer, Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world, Who said, No man cometh unto the Father, but by Me (Gospel of St. John, chapter 14, verse 6).
In Christ's love, asking your prayers, and praying that God's blessings will be yours throughout this new year,
+Bishop Sergios of Portland
St. Gregory of Sinai Monastery
Eve of the Great Feast of Theophany
18 January (civil date)/ 05 January (church calendar) 2014
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