Friday, March 25, 2016

Homily for the Feast of the Annunciation

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

The Lord Himself will give a sign to the House of David says the prophet Isaiah. A sign not asked for but freely given. “The young woman is with child and will bear a son and she will name Him Emmanuel.” Do you suppose that when Ahaz heard this he had even the slightest inkling of the events being foretold by Isaiah? But this prophesy is fulfilled in St. Luke’s Gospel account of the Annunciation. The Angel Gabriel comes to Mary to tell her that by the power of the Holy Spirit, she will conceive and bear a son and she shall name Him Jesus.

In today’s Gospel reading for the Feast of the Annunciation, we heard tell that Gabriel “came to her” but we have no other information as to how that transpired. Did Gabriel suddenly appear? Did he drop out of the sky? Did he come on a cloud with sounds of thunder? Or did he fly in, waving his wings and stirring up a cloud of dust? He was God’s messenger, so did he have a loud trumpet fanfare or did he simply appear quietly, with reserve and an unassuming presence, so as to soften the shock?

In the Bible, most angels seem to have looked human when they appeared. Is it possible that Gabriel too looked just like an average human being when he came to Mary?  We simply do not know. What we do know, however, that where this event occurred is the most unlikely of places: Nazareth, where nothing good can come from (at least it was thought of that way at the time).

Such an occurrence would be enough to frighten anyone but this young woman, thought to be somewhere between the age of 12 and 15 years of age asks the logical question: “How can this be since I am still a virgin? After Gabriel’s assurances that the Holy Spirit will come upon her, Mary accepts the reality of what is happening to her. She freely consents to the divine work that God has undertaken. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word.”

I cannot even begin to imagine what emotions and thoughts were running through Mary’s mind at that moment, what inner turmoil she must have felt. Think about it for a minute. This young woman accepts God’s will for her, she says yes to the amazing idea that God the Son would be born into the world and she would be His mother. And, as amazing as that sounds, add to her feelings of turmoil the knowledge that the consequences of her decision to submit to God’s will would almost certainly have included stoning. Faced with a truly incredulous proposition accompanied by the virtual certainty of the most severe physical punishment, she accepts her destiny in full and complete obedience to the will of God.

The easiest thing for Mary to do would have been to run away, either literally or emotionally, but she stands fast, and with complete and utter submission and faith, says, “Here I am. I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word.” This is one of the most profound scriptural statements about holding the course when things get rough; standing with God even in the face of great fear and uncertainty.

What Mary teaches us by her submission and obedience is that we are not our own but God’s. Ultimately, our destinies lie with Him. No matter how hard we try to ignore the fact, or even disavow it, our lives are intimately bound up and intertwined with that of the Almighty. How that relationship works though, is really entirely dependent upon us. If we cooperate with God, if we submit ourselves to His guidance and influence, our lives will soar to heights we never thought possible. But if we turn away from Him, our existence will be mediocre, even miserable and unbearable. We cannot trust ourselves to our own thoughts and reasoning because they will always be subject to the worldly influences around us. Thus, we need the Lord to help us in our earthly journey. We must be able to clearly discern what is right for us, and only the Word of God can help us do that; for God’s light alone dispels the darkness and confusion of our fallen nature and illumines the path to salvation for all men. Mary, in her own discernment, understood this. That is why she willingly said “Yes” to God; she knew that God would never fail her or mislead her. She trusted totally in God’s wisdom and truth.

At the moment the Virgin gave her consent, both heaven and earth were changed. The course for redemption and salvation was set and there was no going back. Man’s destiny now finds a new future in the Incarnation of Christ. Hope and promise find a new place in the scheme of human existence. From Mary’s simple but powerful act of submission and obedience comes the conversion and renewal of human life; conversion from a life of sin and darkness to a life of eternal joy and light.

How open are we to true and ongoing conversion of our lives? Can we truly say those words God so longs to hear from our lips, “Let it be done to me according to Your word?” Or do we add a mental list of caveats and exceptions? Do we start out truly wanting to accept God’s desires for us and later, when the going gets tough, do we falter and turn away? Sadly, the answer for most of us, and I include myself in this group, is that we often do.

So, what are you going to do when your angels comes to you? God’s call to us is usually more subtle than an angel suddenly appearing out of nowhere. I have no doubt that an angel can arrive to visit us with great fanfare but I think it is more likely that God calls us through the angels of everyday life, of those we meet on the street. For you see, the man standing in front of you in the check-out line at Walmart, or the female customer service agent checking you in at the Delta Airlines terminal in Atlanta, or the small child begging you for money on the street in Bangladesh can actually be one of God’s angels sent to give you a message from the Lord.

We must remain especially vigilant and always be on the lookout for God’s angels. Is it the homeless woman with four children, living in an abandoned car, who tells us she is blessed? Is she our angel? She very well could be.

Is it the drug addict who steals to support a habit he or she cannot break free of on their own? Is he or she our angel? They very well could be.

Is it the teenage girl or boy forced into sexual slavery at the corner of 42nd Street and 7th Avenue in New York who looks at us with painful eyes that beg: “Please don’t let this happen to anyone else.” Is he or she our angel? They very well could be.

Is it a friend who cares deeply enough about you to tell you when you are headed down the wrong path? Is that your angel? It very well could be.

Is it the nurse in a hospice who shows us how to serve with love and grace in the face of certain and frequent death? Is that your angel? It very well could be.

If we truly want to be obedient to God’s call and reflect the obedience shown by Mary, then we must start by being open to that call, acknowledging that call, and, whether we like what we hear or not, saying simply, and with all humility, “Here I am; let it be done to me according to Your word.”

Obedience and submission to another is never an easy thing to carry out. Most of us will rebel at such an idea. But to the One who knows the very depth of our hearts, such acts secure for us eternal life and joy. We must not be stubborn or strong-willed to stand against such a thing. Mary willingly submitted to God’s will and her decision earned for her the blessedness of heaven. Though she is the Mother of god, she was nevertheless human like us and she used her free will accordingly. God did not force her to make the decision she made. But her faith was pure and strong and she knew in the deepest recesses of her heart that God would not do anything to hurt her. Having trusted in the Almighty, God blessed Mary abundantly and set her above all men. Imagine what awaits us if we, too, follow Mary’s example of obedience and submission to God. Open your hearts and ears to receive God’s call, my children, and do not flee from His angels when they come to visit you.


Sunday, March 20, 2016

Homily for the Sunday of Orthodoxy

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Today is a very special day in the Eastern Church, a day of special commemoration. We call this day, the Sunday of Orthodoxy.  For the most part, we only hear and speak about the Sunday of Orthodoxy in connection with Great Lent. For the rest of the year, though, it pretty much sits on the shelf and is forgotten until we need it again.  Then, we take it off the shelf, dust it off, and get it all nice and prettied up to present to the world again. So, what do we really celebrate on the Sunday of Orthodoxy? Everybody has a basic knowledge of this day right? It’s the day when the veneration of icons was restored to the Church as a legitimate devotional practice.

The first Sunday of Orthodoxy celebration took place on the first Sunday of Lent on February 19, 842, when icons were brought back to the churches in solemn procession. That day, the first Sunday of Lent, was made into a perpetual memory of the triumph of Orthodoxy over the heresy of iconoclasm. But today, what we call the “Feast of Orthodoxy” has a much deeper meaning. Today, for all Orthodox Catholic Christians, the Feast of Orthodoxy has become a feast of the triumph of the Church over all heresies. It is in this sense that the feast is now kept.

At the end of today’s Divine Liturgy, we will celebrate the Service of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, during which anathemas are proclaimed against those who are heretics; those who deny or oppose what the Church professes and teaches. It is a very solemn and even severe service. This service only takes place in cathedral churches. It is not a service to be done in parishes as only the bishop may officiate at this particular liturgy. Some people, especially those outside the Church, may think it very strange that, in this day and age, we would celebrate such a service. Some may even be offended by it, especially when we hear so much talk of ecumenical relations and building good will between the Church and other Christian communities. Yet, the Church must always be faithful to Her divine mission, which is to proclaim and safeguard the eternal truths that have been revealed to Her by the Holy Spirit and entrusted to Her as sole guardian and steward of the holy things of God.

The Service of Orthodoxy is not a mere re-enactment of an historical event, but it is for us today a response to the very realities of the physical world and society in which the Church exists.  It is the Church’s responsibility and duty to identify and point out the errors and evils which not only afflict the world and society but the Church as well.

The Church is always on the journey of purification and in this regard She must always pursue the path of righteousness and holiness, remaining in a constant state of vigilance and self-examination. She must also fight against those who seek to distort and corrupt the Truth which God Himself has revealed to us, His Church, and She must defend and protect God’s children from all errors and untruths. For this reason, today’s feast and celebration has great meaning for us, and we must not take it for granted.

The triumph of Orthodoxy, as represented in the return of sacred images to veneration in the Church, reminds us that there is always something spiritual attached to the natural and physical. In other words, everything in creation teaches us about God and thus, everything is an icon, as it were; a window through which we see clearly the hand and work of God in all things. Creation teaches us about God and through it we come to know Him in greater depth. So too, it is with icons. Icons teach us. They instruct us in the faith and open to us windows through which we can see the holy things of God.

The secular world doesn’t think of or about icons the way we do in the Orthodox Church. These days, when someone mentions the word “icon”, one is more likely to think of the symbols or images that appear on our computer screen. Most would not even think of icons as being the holy images that the Church uses in teaching the Faith and encouraging religious piety. In the 1500 years of Church history before the invention of the printing press, images were important; they played a key role in teaching and the education of the faithful. Few people had books and fewer still were literate. When missionaries went into pagan lands, they took with them icons of Our Lord and Our Lady to help them overcome the initial language barrier that was between them and to introduce them to the Gospel. Sometimes, these original images became beloved by the people, as they could hardly imagine Our Lord and Our Lady looking anything other than those initial holy pictures depicted them to be. So culturally, some images or icons become very important to certain ethnic groups.

Sacred art can teach us about the mysteries of the Bible; events in the life of Our Lord, His Blessed Mother and the saints; and events in the life of the Church, from its beginnings to this very day. And, let’s face it, just because a person can read doesn’t mean that he or she will. Sometimes, an image can encourage such a person to want to know more. So, sacred art can also be a conduit and focus for our contemplation and prayer. Praying before an image of the Lord, or even a statue of Him or the Blessed Mother, allows us to look upon the face of our beloved, and contemplate the face we long to see in heaven. Sacred art, whether it be icons or statues, help us lose ourselves in prayer without words. Sometimes, just looking at an icon or statue of the Lord, the Theotokos, or the saints gives us the opportunity to ponder the mystery of salvation history and of the Church, to become inspired to live more virtuous lives, to live prayerful lives, and to invoke the example, strength and prayers of the Church Triumphant.

You have heard me make mention several times of statues in this homily. There are many in the Orthodox Church who believe the use of statues in churches is “western,” “heterodox,” and even heretical. Let me state that there is nothing unacceptable about the use of statues in Orthodox churches. Simply put, it is just not a part of the Byzantine tradition, although there have been occasions in history when statues depicting an event in the life of Christ have been found in our churches. My point is this. We should not get bent out of shape about statues. They too are sacred images which teach and inspire us and foster piety, respect and reverence within us. And I say this not simply because we have three statues here in our Cathedral, but because we should not be close-minded to other expressions and forms of human artistic endeavor whose sole purpose is to teach the Faith, to glorify God, and to create a more intimate communion with Him.

Statues like that of St. Joseph, Saint Gennaro, Saint Lucy, or of any other saints inspire us and remind us that virtue and holiness and righteousness can be ours also if we remain faithful to God. When we look at the statue of St. Joseph, when we look at the statue of St. Gennaro, when we look upon the statue of St. Lucy, or even upon a statue of Christ Himself or the Blessed Virgin Mary, we remember. We look back in time, but we also look forward. Statues and icons keep our eyes focused on the eternal things. We are taught by their example, and we are reminded that what the individuals they represent have achieved can be ours also.

Some will say, “But Your Eminence, the first commandment specifically forbids the making of any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth below and that we should never bow down to them or serve them. How then can the Church permit the use of such things and encourage veneration of them?” This is also one of the chief accusations that Evangelical and Fundamentalist Protestants use to discredit the authenticity of the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. But what these same Christians fail to realize is that the Israelites themselves were instructed by God Himself to create images and statues in the construction of the Temple at Jerusalem.

The Lord did not prohibit statues and images; He prohibited the adoration of them. If God truly meant that we were not to possess any statues at all, then He would later contradict Himself. Just five chapters after this commandment in Exodus 20, God commanded Moses to build the Ark of the Covenant, which would contain the presence of God and was to be venerated as the holiest place in all of Israel. Here is what God commanded Moses concerning statues:

“And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them, on the two ends of the mercy seat. Make one cherub on the one end, and one cherub on the other end; of one piece with the mercy seat shall you make the cherubim on its two ends (Exodus 25:18-19).

In Numbers 21:8-9, not only did our Lord order Moses to make another statue in the form of a bronze serpent, He commanded the children of Israel to look upon it in order to be healed. The context of the passage is one where Israel had rebelled against God, and a plague of deadly snakes was sent as a just punishment. This statue of a snake had no power of itself – we know from John 3:14 that it was merely a type of Christ – but God used this image of a snake as an instrument to effect healing in His people.

Further, in 1 Kings, Chapter 6, Solomon built a temple for the glory of God, described as follows: “In the inner sanctuary, he made two cherubim of olivewood, each ten cubits high. He put the cherubim in the innermost part of the house. He carved all the walls of the house with carved figures of cherubim and palm trees; and open flowers, in the inner and outer rooms. For the entrance to the inner sanctuary he made doors of olivewood. He covered the two doors of olivewood with carvings of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers; he overlaid them with gold” (1 Kings: 6:-23, 27, 29, 31, 32).

King Solomon ordered the construction of multiple images of things both “in heaven above” (angels) and “in the earth beneath” (palm trees and open flowers). And then, after the completion of the temple, God declared He was pleased with its construction (1 Kings: 9:3).

Why would God use these images of serpents, angels, palm trees, and open flowers? Why didn’t He simply heal the people directly rather than use a “graven image”? Why didn’t He command Moses and Solomon to build and ark and a temple void of any images at all?

First, God knows what His own commandments mean. He never condemned the use of images and statues absolutely. Second, God created man as a being who is essentially spiritual and physical. In order to draw us to Himself, God uses both spiritual and physical means to accomplish this. Thus, He will use such things as icons and statues, frescoes and mosaics; Byzantine chant, Russian polyphony, Gregorian chant and the great choral masterpieces of Mozart, Handel and others, to raise our hearts and minds to Him and open our eyes to His great majesty and glory. Ever since the creation of the world, God’s invisible nature, namely, His eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in things not only made by Him, but by man, to whom He has given the gifts of imagination and great creative power.

Gazing at a sunset, or a great painting of a sunset, and contemplating the greatness of God through the beauty of His creation is not idolatry. Nor is it idolatrous to look at icons or statues, or frescoes or mosaics of great saints of old in order to honor them for the great things God has done through them. It is no more idolatrous for us to desire to imitate their holy lives and honor them than it was for St. Paul to exhort the Corinthians to imitate his own holy life (1 Corinthians 4:16) and to “esteem very highly” those who were “over the Thessalonians in the Lord and admonish them” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13).

It is Jesus Christ Himself who gives us the ultimate example of the value of icons and statues. Indeed, Christ, in his humanity, has opened up an entirely new economy of iconography and statuary. Christ becomes for us the ultimate reason for all representations and images of the angels and saints. This is because, as St. Paul tells us in his Letter to the Colossians, Christ is the image, or icon, of the invisible God. Christ is the ultimate icon! And what does this icon reveal to us? He reveals God the Father. When Jesus said, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father,” in John 14:9, He does not mean that He is the Father. He isn’t. He is the Son. St. Paul, in his Letter to the Hebrews, tells us that “Christ reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of His nature.” That is the essence of what statues and icons are. Just as “the Word became flesh” and revealed the Father to us in a manner beyond the imaginings of men before the advent of Christ, representations of God’s holy angels and faithful servants are also icons of Christ, who by their heroic virtue “reflect the glory of God” as well. Just as St. Paul told the Corinthians to hold up his own life as a paradigm when he said, “I urge you, then, be imitators of me,” the Church continues to hold up men and women of faith as “icons” of the life of Christ lived in fallen human nature aided by grace.

Many Protestants and unbelievers will assert that, while Orthodox and Catholics say we do not adore or worship icons and statues our actions prove otherwise. Yes, it is true that we kiss icons and venerate them and that Catholics pray before statues. According to the Protestants and unbelievers, that amounts to adoration and worship which is due to God alone.

Is kissing an icon or praying before a statue the same as adoring or worshipping it? Absolutely not! Both St. Peter in the Book of Acts and the angel in the Book of Revelation rebuked Cornelius and John, respectively, specifically for adoring them as if each was adoring the Lord. The problem was not with the bowing; it was with the adoration. Bowing does not necessarily entail adoration though. Bowing is an act of respect and honor. For example, Jacob bowed to the ground on his knees seven times to his elder brother Esau (Genesis 33:3). Bathsheba bowed to her husband David (1 Kings 1:16). And Solomon bowed to his mother Bathsheba (1 Kings 2:19).  We even bow to each other on Forgiveness Sunday, when we ask each other’s forgiveness at the start of Great Lent.

Finally, in Revelation 3:9, St. John records the words of Jesus: “Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say they are Jews and are not, but lie, - behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and learn that I have loved you.”  Here, John uses the same verb for “bow down” (proskuneo) that he used in Revelation 19:10 for “adoration” when he acknowledged his own error in adoring the angel. Would anyone dare say that Jesus would make someone commit idolatry? Of course not!

Let us not be modern day Iconolcasts. They us not seek to do away with the veneration of sacred and holy images. And let us not say that icons are the only acceptable artistic forms through which God instructs us and conveys the truth to us. The richness and diversity of human artistic expression, in all its forms, can be used to express the great eternal truths of God and bring us closer to Him. Certainly the Church has the obligation and responsibility of ensuring that such mediums are noble and worthy expressions of those truths, but She also has the equal responsibility to encourage, and be the patron of, those noble efforts which seek to give glory to God and expound the Faith which we hold so dear and have pledged our lives to defend.

Iconoclasm takes not only the form of physical destruction of icons and statues. We can also be guilty of iconoclasm by our speech; by the way we refer to the sacred and holy things of God. Today, we must be very careful that we do not fall into the same trap that Christians of other faith communities have fallen into. The language we use in speaking of the holy things of God, things such as the Holy Mysteries or Sacraments, the Divine Liturgy, etc. must always be reflective of their divine mystery and reality and they must never be spoken of in a profane or vulgar way.

We must never refer to the Divine Liturgy as merely “the Liturgy” or “the Eucharist.” We must refer to it always as the “Divine Liturgy” or the “Holy Divine Liturgy” or even the “Holy Sacrifice of the Divine Liturgy.”  References to the sacred vessels should always be in accordance with their venerable appellations: the chalice, the diskos or paten, the lance or spear. The terms cup, or liturgical dish or knife, as I have often heard some Eastern Catholic clergy call them, is inappropriate and disrespectful, to say the least. Our priests are “celebrants” of the Holy Liturgy and not “presiders.” Words convey meanings and they must be chosen and used carefully.  

The Church has a sacred language, a language which is never outdated. The language of the Church edifies and inspires and it teaches. It is never to be replaced by the vulgar language of secular society. What I mean by “vulgar” is not only profane language, but language which is “common” and “banal.”

Everything we do in church should elevate the soul and mind to the ineffable beauty of God Himself; vestments, music, incense, beeswax candles, oil lamps, all work together to achieve that goal. Churches should never give themselves over to the use of such things as electric or digital votive lamps. Innovations such as “flameless” or battery operated LED candles and vigil lamps are part of a new iconoclasm intended to strip the Church of its sacred and divine identity and turn our parishes into “self-worshipping communities.” This New Iconoclasm of which I speak creates a Church which actually seeks to displace Christ and enthrones us in His place.

It is for this reason that we celebrate the Feast of Orthodoxy today; not merely as a remembrance of an historical event, but to address and deal with the on-going problem of iconoclasm and other heresies which still afflict the Church today. Today, more than ever, our eyes and ears must be attuned to the realities of our surroundings. New heresies and errors are popping up all the time and we must fight against them. May God give us all the courage and strength we need to be defenders of the Holy Orthodox Faith and His holy Church.


Tuesday, March 15, 2016

2016 Archpastoral Letter for the Beginning of Great Lent

To the faithful of the Italo-Greek Orthodox Catholic Church: the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all!

Today, my dear children, we begin the holy forty day period of Great Lent. The Church has given us this season as a sacred time for the renewal and purification of our hearts and souls that, freed from disordered thoughts, affections and attachments, we may deal with the things of this passing world and hold rather to the things that eternally endure.

For Orthodox Christians, Great Lent is a time of resolve and decision. It is a time when we must reflect and make the necessary changes to our lives that bring us in conformance with the life of Christ.

How many times, for example, have I asked myself, “If I had only done that differently in the first place, I wouldn’t find myself in the mess I am in now.” Sometimes, it is only a matter of listening. If I had listened properly in the first place, the outcome of what I did probably would have been different. I know that in my own life, I can do better. There is no doubt that I need to listen more carefully and attentively. I need to open my mind, my heart and my soul so that I can not only hear what others are saying to me but what the Holy Spirit is telling me.

We all think we know what’s best for us. We all think we have the answers and know the best way to do this or that. The fact of the matter is, my children, that none of us has all the answers nor do we know how to do everything.  We must, all of us, listen, especially to the Word of God, for that gives us the best road map to get to where we truly want to be.

Hopefully, during the course of Great Lent, the Word of God will enlighten us and teach us, guide us and lead us, comfort us and convict us, and strengthen us and convert us. The Word of God will teach us the true meaning of sin and mercy, and these are lessons we really need to learn in our lives. Without these lessons, we will continue along the road of perdition, and that will be a very dangerous, even life-threatening journey.

If we are to survive this earthly journey and emerge from it unscathed, then we need to listen more attentively and intently to Him who is Mercy Incarnate. The Word of God will lead us in the ways of mercy, truth and justice. He will comfort us with tender loving mercy, but He will also convict us for our lack of mercy, truth and justice. The Word of God will strengthen us by His compassionate, supporting, and transfiguring love. The Word of God will melt our hard hearts with His deep and constant glance of mercy. During this Great Lent, we must listen more attentively and intently.

And having listened, what will we do then? Well, we can do no better than to contemplate and put into practice the Works of Mercy. This is what is expected of us as Orthodox Catholic Christians: to put into practice in our lives the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

The forty days of Great Lent are marked by an intense time of prayer and preparation, of repentance, penance and fasting. The number 40 is connected with many biblical events, but most especially with the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness preparing for His ministry by facing the temptations that could lead Him to abandon His mission and calling. Christ spent His time in the desert listening, reflecting, praying and fasting. So too do we Christians use these forty days of Great Lent as our time in the desert for introspection, self-examination and repentance. It is also a time of almsgiving, a time when we should focus of reconfiguring our lives to more practical expressions of the spiritual and corporate works of mercy.

Great Lent is a time to place ourselves before God. It is a time to confess our total inadequacy before God.  Great Lent is a time to strip ourselves bare of all pretenses and come before God in dust and ashes. Great Lent is a time to empty ourselves of our false pride. It is a time to draw closer to the Lord. And how do we do this? There are plenty of opportunities and I encourage you all to find time for every one of them. Here are some of the things you can do: attend daily matins and vespers, when offered. Attend the weekly Presanctified Liturgies on Wednesday and Fridays during Great Lent or try to attend at least one of them. Attend the Friday Akathist Hymn to the Theotokos. If you cannot attend, pray the Hymn privately at home. Seek God’s face in serving others by giving yourself to helping in a soup kitchen, visiting the elderly in a local nursing home, being a big brother or big sister to a teen in need, etc. Try to keep the fast as best you can. If it is difficult for you, start small and keep the fast on Wednesdays and Fridays (you have got to learn to walk before you can run). Attend Divine Liturgy every Sunday and set aside the whole of Holy Week to participate in Divine Services, especially those of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, and plan to prepare yourself for and participate in all the Divine Services and events of Pascha.

By striving to observe Great Lent with the greatest degree of devotion and faithfulness, let us gather on Holy Saturday night having been transformed by the season of prayer, repentance and sacrifice with a renewed spirit and great joy. Let us then greet the Resurrection of Christ with joy-filled hearts and with great exuberance shout our witness: Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!

Great Lent is a beautiful time which is necessary for us to stop and step away from our normal routine and to reflect upon the truth about ourselves. We must resolve ourselves to be more authentic in our faith and as the chosen people of God. The authenticity of each and every one of us as individuals and corporately as the Body of Christ can positively impact the secular society of which we are a part and in which we live. Sunday after Sunday during Great Lent, the Word of God should become for us more authentic, that is if we open our hearts and minds to its power and inspiration. Authenticity is a great virtue which we require so that we do not hide behind a mask, a mask which does not permit us to reveal our true self. Authenticity means that we are not afraid to admit the truth about ourselves, both individually and as a society, even if this truth is unattractive. The worst sins in life – those which are difficult to be forgiven – are those sins which we become aware of, yet do not feel guilty about. God earnestly forgives all those who seek Him humbly and contritely. However, He is unable to forgive us if we close the door to our heart. He will continue to knock, but only we hold the key to that door.

Like other things in our life, Great Lent can easily become a matter of routine, especially when, year after year, we repeat the same practices. Routines dampen that beautiful moment of faith which such a period of time is supposed to generate in us. During Great Lent, many are those of our people who dedicate much time and energy to beautiful expressions of external religiosity and piety. Sadly, we note sometimes, such expressions are merely a distraction. They should not diminish the power of the Word of God, but rather they should enhance the fact that Great Lent is a time for us to stir our stagnant waters. It is up to us to let God cleanse us from all external forces which distract us from that which is essential.

I encourage you all to join me this Great Lent in striving to become a more authentic Church. I admonish you all that we cannot stand on the sidelines and maintain a “business as usual” attitude. We must strive to renew our personal encounter with Jesus Christ and in doing so become more of a servant Church, emulating His example of selfless love and self-sacrifice. We do not live for ourselves alone, my children. We live for God and for each other. This is what we must do in society: we must be the image, arms, hands, feet, and mouth of Jesus Christ. We must change our attitudes and ways of doing and thinking so that our Church, the Italo-Greek Orthodox Catholic Church, may be a genuine Christian community whose doors are always open and where nobody is excluded; where Christ is present not only in name and words, but in actions and deeds.

Great Lent is meaningless unless we are willing to change and repent of our former ways. This is a moment of grace in our history. In the face of such grace, we cannot afford to close our eyes and ears. As a Church – in our projects, in the way we serve, in the way we witness, in our judgments on the realities of life – it is necessary for us to become more and more a Church which is capable of serving others without reservation, accompanying and guiding them gently and with love, but also firmly, in faithfulness to the fullness of the teaching of the Church, no matter where they are or from where they hail.

In order to be authentic, our faith must be translated into practical choices which we make on a day-to-day basis: in our parishes and congregations, in our families, in the workplace, in our institutions, and in our interpersonal relationships. This is the only way in which Great Lent will have meaning and in which we can announce the Gospel with joy, the only way in which we can inspire hope in the hearts of more people and in the core of our present day history.

I wish you all a wonderful and fruitful Great Lent. Let us embark upon this journey together and experience, one and all, its transforming power and grace. May God grant that our lives will be changed by our entering fully into the Lenten season and taking full advantage of all that the Church offers us during this holy season to renew and reimage our lives.

Bestowing my Archpastoral blessing upon you all, I ask your holy prayers for my unworthiness. At the same time, please be assured of my continual prayers and affection for you all.

With love in Christ Jesus, I remain,

Your unworthy servant,

Archbishop Stephen

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Homily for Forgiveness Sunday

It’s that time of the year again, my children, when many of us start our Spring cleaning. For us Orthodox Catholic Christians, tomorrow is Clean Monday, the start of the forty day period of Great Lent. Clean Monday reminds us that we must start our spiritual cleaning in preparation for the celebration of Holy Week and Pascha.

Today’s Gospel reading points to our Lenten task and God’s presence with us in it. Our Lenten task is to clean up our spiritual house so that it may be properly prepared for the great event that will soon take place: our meeting the Lord on the Day of Judgment.

Most of us like to present a tidy and neat appearance to the world, but we all have rooms in our houses that are cluttered and filled with stuff that we don’t need. In the spiritual sense, we all have rooms that are filled with selfish motives, shallow goals, greed, envy, etc.; all garbage that eventually piles up and some of which causes the stench of decay.  

If we consider carefully the meaning of today’s Gospel, we should all be able to stand in the midst of this holy assembly and say, with a clear and pure conscience, “I am who I appear to be.” In other words, if we appear to be holy and righteous, we should actually be holy and righteous. Christ admonishes us for us example, that when we fast, we should not put on airs; we should not let anyone know we are fasting. He tells us to anoint our heads and wash our faces. We are who we appear to be. To show signs and gestures that we are fasting doesn’t make us holy and pious. On the contrary, it tells people something quite the opposite. I am who I appear to be. There are, of course, things we don’t share with others for a variety of good reasons, but being able to say, in a positive way, “I am who I appear to be” is a good goal for all Christians.

The season of Great Lent is a time to reflect on how we live our faith, or discipleship, in the world around us. Great Lent is a time to reflect and repent. It is the time in our life when we need to clean out our spiritual house and rid it of all those things that make it smell with the vileness of sin and decay; that present an image which is not becoming to a disciple of Jesus Christ.

How often do we deceive ourselves into believing we are doing our very best? Or that we are giving one hundred and ten percent? That we are exceeding what is expected of us? Only to discover the truth that we are falling far short of what the Lord expects of us. We set the bar too low and oftentimes overestimate our works and accomplishments.

Too many of us labor under the impression that if we do “random acts of kindness” during Great Lent, we are doing the good required of us and thus, we are having a good Lent. Random acts of kindness or giving something up for Lent and sticking to it for the entire 40 days, doesn’t mean we have changed for the better. Nor does keeping the fast in its entirety make us good Orthodox Catholic Christians.

Great Lent is, as I said earlier, about reflection and repentance. But it is also about change. We must be willing to change and conform our lives to that of Christ’s. Rather than doing random acts of kindness, we must do “deliberate acts of kindness.” As Orthodox Catholic Christians, we are called to purposeful reflection, to meditate on and evaluate our actions in light of the Gospel, and to serve others with thoughtfulness and deliberateness. Our good deeds should not be hit or miss, here or there, a couple of times a year things we do, but they should be purposeful, persistent, meaningful acts of kindness, repentance, love and charity filled with a true and living understanding of the Gospel.

Giving up something during Great Lent (which, by the way, is not a tradition of the Eastern Church) is okay, but what God really wants from us over the next forty days is for us to search our hearts and make the decision to give ourselves over to discipleship. God wants us to take each moment and live each moment to the fullest as we make every effort to strive toward perfection and rise above mediocrity. While the season of Great Lent is about penitence and recognizing and acknowledging our flaws and sins and responding with apologies and atonements, Great Lent is also about maturing in our faith and growing in our sanctification and holiness. It is easy to do what is right when we gain recognition and praise. The next time you do a good deed ask yourself, “Would I still do this if no one knew I ever did it?” In the same manner, is it important to you for other people to know that you are fasting? Let me ask you a question, “Why is it so important that other people know you are fasting? What benefits do you reap from it and how does it enhance your worth and value as a person?

Jesus also tells us in today’s Gospel not to store up treasures on earth but rather store up the heavenly treasures; the treasures of God’s blessing and favor which bring eternal life and true happiness. Giving alms during Great Lent, and throughout the year for that matter, for alms-giving is something that should be a normal part of our life as Orthodox Catholic Christians, is one of the ways we implement and live the Gospel of Christ in the world. But it should not be some mechanical or rote action we undertake for the sake of fulfilling an obligation. In other words, we should not do it simply because we are expected to do it, we should do it out of and for love.

The Greek work for “alms” is “eleemousyne,” which means compassion or pity, benevolence and mercy. It is closely related to the word philanthropy. A misconception by most people is that philanthropy has only to do with people of elite wealth. In other words, in order to be a philanthropist, one must have millions of dollars in treasure or riches. This is not true. BY virtue of our Baptism, we are all philanthropists because we are all called to share God's love with others.

“For where your treasure is, there will your heart be.” Most people read this text wrong. I have heard people say that this passage means that if we get our hearts in the right place our treasure will follow. But that is not what this passage means. Jesus said exactly the opposite when He spoke these words. He meant that if we get our treasure in the right place, our hearts will follow. Find someone’s treasure, and you will have found their heart. For example, if a person has built up tremendous wealth and riches but it sits in a bank or safe deposit box, and has not been touched in years, it is safe to say you pretty much know where their heart is. And if a person is just an average Joe, just getting by, but doesn’t remember the poor or needy neighbor around him, you pretty much know where the individual’s heart is.

Jesus wants us to be kind and generous with whatever we have, no matter how much or how little. God wants us not only to share our material resources with others, but He wants us to share our love with them as well. Love is one of the treasures we have but if we do not share it with others, then we are not being a good Christian. We are called to be a blessing to others. We must encourage people with our love and our words. Words too can be a treasure and blessing to others. You have no idea just how precious kind words can be to one who is alone or suffering. I am not talking about flattery or empty words that are intended to benefit you in some way.  No, I am talking about words that bring about a blessing from God, the reward which God bestows upon us for a service either good or bad. It is the reward we earn as our “wages.” For example, we could say, as we read in Romans 6:23, “The wages (or reward) of sin is death; but the gift (or reward) of God for righteous living is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Great Lent reminds us that we are bound together as a flawed and sinful people. Our mistakes mold us. Regrets teach us. Repentance renews us. For the next forty days we will be tested and tempted and our sins will be exposed before us. We will spend this holy season repenting, searching and discerning our purpose in life and as members of the Church. This journey into the wilderness we embark upon now prepares us for what happens next. At the end of Great Lent, we will see Jesus enter Jerusalem in triumph. We will see Him betrayed, mercilessly tortured, crucified, dying, dead, and buried, then rising in glory from the tomb.

Our Lenten journey signifies in our own life just a flash of time, a brief moment between our own birth and death. Great Lent, therefore, is not just about repentance but about new birth, new life. It is an invitation to enter into a deeper appreciation of salvation. Great Lent is a time to pass through the ashes of trial, temptation and tribulation and enter into pardon, forgiveness, renewal, blessing and alms. We go from sack cloth and ashes to grave clothes filled with frankincense and myrrh; from mourning and sadness to exuberant and unbridled joy and rejoicing.

None of us has anything to do with when we are born and even less to do with when we die. But it is these moments between life and death, in between Great Lent and Easter that we ask ourselves, “Does my life have meaning? Am I living a life faithful to the Gospel; to the teachings of Christ and His Church?” Are our hands like those of Jesus? Nail pierced hands reaching out to invite and encourage all those in need and who are suffering? Do our feet, like Jesus’s nail-pierced feet, take us to serve the least, the last, and the lost among us? These are the questions that Great Lent imposes upon us. How will you answer the call of Great Lent?

Let us make this journey together, my children; let us support and encourage each other as we make our way to Calvary and the empty tomb. Let us have a fruitful Great Lent; let us begin by asking each other’s forgiveness for our sins and transgressions. In whatever way I have sinned against all of you and for all that I have said and done which has offended or hurt you, I prostrate myself at your feet and ask your forgiveness. Please forgive me.  Please keep me in your prayers and know that you are always in mine, unworthy and imperfect as they are.

May God bless you all and keep you in His love and under His mercy always.

Paternally yours in the love of Christ,

+Archbishop Stephen

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Homily for the Sunday of the Last Judgment

Today's Gospel tells us what will happen to us on the Day of Judgment. It is, in fact, the story of the Last Judgment. While we are all very familiar with this particular Gospel reading, sometimes I wonder if we really and truly understand it.

Not only does today's reading speak to us about judgment and punishment, it also speaks to us about mercy and compassion. Now, there has been a lot of talk recently about mercy, especially among our Catholic brothers and sisters. But any conversation about mercy must always include discussion about judgment, justice, repentance and penance.

Certainly God's mercy is infinite and available to all, but we must want and desire God's mercy, and we must ask for it. In asking for it, we must first acknowledge our sins, repent of them and, where necessary and possible, make the wrongs we have done right. Then we must do penance.

For many reasons, some of which are difficult to understand, many of us feel attracted to God's mercy, more so than our forefathers and foremothers who have gone before us. Is this attraction because of the societal and civil unrest we find ourselves in? Or is it because of the series of natural disasters which seem to continually plague us? For whatever the reason, it is clear that these happenings make us feel small, vulnerable and helpless in the face of situations that are way out of our control. the things which we cannot control, which are beyond our ability to foresee and thus mitigate before they happen, show us clearly just how weak we are without God's help and goodness.

In the Gospel reading we heard today, we hear how Christ the King separated the sheep from the goats, from the good people from the bad people. The sheep are the faithful ones who showed mercy to their fellow man by the deeds that they did. the goats are those people who did not show mercy, or not enough of it. Those that showed mercy and did good to their fellow man, received the blessing of eternal life. Those who did show mercy, who did not do good to their fellow men, were condemned to the eternal fires of hell.

When we behold the image given to us of the Last Judgment, we are prompted to think of the Prophet David, crying out because of his sin: "If You, O Lord, should mark iniquities: Lord, who could stand it?" (Psalm 129/130). Yet, since God is infinitely perfect, we cannot limit ourselves to looking at only one of His attributes while leaving aside or ignoring the others. In other words, when we consider God's mercy, we must also consider His justice and judgment. And when we consider God's justice and judgment, we must also speak of His mercy. If God had only mercy and no justice, He would be missing something very essential to every rational being, which is to act equitable. That would be absurd and lead us to a distorted notion of the Creator. This is why the Prophet David also says, "The Lord has prepared His throne in judgment. And he shall judge the world in equity; he shall judge the people in justice. (psalm 9:8-10). And also, "The Lord is just, and has loved justice." (Psalm 10:8).

What we must always remember, my children, is that there can be no contradiction between mercy and justice; no opposition or conflict, but only harmony. Again, as the Prophet David tells us: "Mercy and truth have met each other; justice and peace have kissed" (Psalm 84:11). Therefore, we must love God's justice as much as we love His mercy, as both are attributes of the same infinite God and reflect His boundless wisdom and love.

Much of the difficulty we have in understanding the relationship between mercy and justice arise from the erroneous notions we have of mercy from our own human experience. Mercy is a feeling of compassion for and empathy with someone else's suffering and needs, along with the desire or readiness to help him according to one's abilities and capabilities. It is, therefore, more than a merely emotional sentiment that does not lead to action; nor is it mere philanthropy that turns aiding the needy into a quasi-bureaucratic procedure. This is the lesson that today's Gospel tries to teach us.

We are all called to act, to do; not just talk about doing good works but to actually do them. And that doesn't mean doing them a few times a year, like at Thanksgiving or Christmas, but throughout the entire year. And not doing anything at all is even worse.

Mercy must come from true charity toward our neighbor and  must be entirely subject to the guidance of reason,, the judgment of our conscience, and the dictates of justice. But if we do not respond according to the mandates of the Gospel, we leave ourselves open to God's justice and judgment.

Mercy tempers justice by diminishing the punishment or by making its application more benign. But mercy cannot run counter to justice or eliminate it completely. There is no justice without mercy, but there also is no mercy without justice. Justice requires accountability and the owning of one's wrongdoings. Mercy requires these as well but requires, in addition, repentance and penance. The degree of punishment imposed for a wrong will always be determined by a true and sincere repentance and the acceptance of responsibility. When the balance between mercy and justice is lost, the wicked are either allowed to go unpunished or they are punished unreasonably and with brutality. Both things lead to social chaos and cause confusion in people's minds. Indeed, falling to punish one who has broken divine or natural laws weakens the notion of good and evil in peoples' consciences and leads to moral relativism. For its part, cruelty in punishment makes justice odious and distrusted among the people.

Today's Gospel reading reminds us that the works of mercy about which Christ speaks are very much a part of the character of every Christian, or at least they should be. We will all be held accountable on that Great Day of Judgment not only for what we have done, but also for all the things we have failed to do. Do we truly want to be among the goats on that day? Are we so willing to take our chances with eternal damnation and risk salvation by living only for ourselves today?

God's mercy toward us is in no way linked to a feeling of compassion toward us. It comes solely from His infinite goodness and wisdom. It was by an act of mercy and of pure love that God created the whole universe and, in it, rational creatures (angels and men) to participate in His own happiness, in His own life.

Justice and mercy appear in all of God's works because He does everything with order and proportion, which implies the idea of justice. On the other hand, since divine goodness is the ultimate foundation of everything that exists, God's infinite mercy is reflected in all His actions, even His justice.

Even in the damnation of the reprobate mercy is seen, which, though it does not totally remit guilt and its subsequent consequences, it does somewhat alleviate them by inflicting a punishment or sentence short of what is truly deserved. In dealing with the ungodly and the one who has done wrong, justice is seen when God remits sins on account of love, though He Himself has mercifully infused that love. So we read of Mary Magdalene: 'Many sins are forgive her, because she has loved so much" (Luke 7:47).

Let us never forget, my children, that mercy and judgment walk hand in hand. let us not presume that just because God's mercy is infinite, we will not be subject to judgment or His justices for the things we have done, do, and will do, or have failed to do, in our lives.

As we get closer and closer to the beginning of Great Lent, let us keep in mind the reality that we will be judged by God. None of us shall escape judgment, thus it is important for us to constantly keep ourselves in check; regularly reflecting on whether or not we are doing what is expected of us as Christians. We must live the Christian life every day and not just wear the label.

May God have mercy on us all and save us from all that impedes or obstructs our journey to Him.