Saturday, April 30, 2016

Homily on the Harrowing of Hell

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

On this solemn day, on this Holy Saturday, when we contemplate the lifeless body of Christ enclosed in the tomb, we recall how Jesus literally went to the “outskirts” of existence by His death on the Cross and His descent into Hell.

Scripture calls the abode of the dead Sheol (Hebrew) or Hades (Greek), because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. In his First Letter, St. Peter tells us, “Put to death in the flesh, Jesus was brought to life in the spirit. In it, He also went to preach to the spirits in prison…” (Peter 3:19). In other words, the holy souls who lived and died before Christ’s redemptive act was accomplished were finally delivered from their captivity when Christ opened the gates of heaven to them by His sacrificial death on the Cross and His descent into Hell.

In the ancient Holy Saturday homily which I will read shortly, this moment of deliverance is wondrously described: “What is happening? Today there is great silence over the earth, a great silence because the King sleeps. The earth was in terror and was still, because God slept in the flesh and raised up those who were sleeping from the ages. God has died in the flesh, and the underworld has trembled. Truly He goes to seek out our first parent like a lost sheep. He wishes to visit those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. He goes to free the prisoners Adam and Eve from their pains, He Who is God, and Adam’s son.”

By His saving death and His descent into Hell, Jesus has brought the Gospel and the Cross to the furthermost reaches of existence itself. May His example embolden us all to do the same. May we become joyful messengers of Christ’s victory over sin and death to everyone we meet, even to those who live on the edges and in the darkest places of our communities and world.

Something strange is happening today. There is a great silence on the earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The King fell asleep when His soul was separated from His Body on Good Friday afternoon. He remained asleep until His soul reanimated His Body on Easter morning. But during the silence and stillness of the King’s sleep, He harrowed Hell and destroyed forever the power of death over the righteous.

Our Lord’s descent into hell is well attested to by divine revelation. For example, Christ says, “…as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a whale, so will the Son of man be three days and three nights in the belly of the earth.” (Matthew 12:40). Further, in the Acts of the Apostles, St. Peter says, “David foresaw and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that He was not abandoned to Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption” (Acts 2:31).

Christ descended into Hell so as to manifest His power and authority to the underworld. As St. Paul writes, “At Jesus’s name every knee must bend in the heavens, on the earth, and under the earth, and every tongue proclaim to the glory of God the Father: Jesus Christ is Lord!” (Philippians 2:10-11) But secondly, and more importantly, Our Lord descended into Hell to deliver His loved ones from their exile. He came to reward those who, from our first father Adam, to His own foster-father, St. Joseph, had fought the good fight and had finished the race. The King descended into Hell in order to bring nothing less than His own beatific vision, the very paradise which He promised to Dismas just a few hours before (Luke 23:43), to these just and holy souls.

At this time, as is custom in our tradition, I would like to read to you the Ancient Homily on Christ’s Descent into Hell. I ask you to ponder it quietly and reflectively as you gaze upon the tomb here before you.




Homily on the Passion

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

Today is Good Friday, a day both strange and wonderful. As we stand at the foot of the Cross with the Mother of Jesus and the disciple whom Jesus loved, we cannot help but be struck by the many paradoxes of this day. A paradox is something which seems to be contradictory, impossible, even absurd, yet beyond the superficial is, in reality, true. To speak of the paradoxes of the Passion is to disclose the very center of that which is the object of our faith. Paradoxes of the Passion call us to look past the shallowness of man and see the Crucifixion of Christ from God’s perspective; for the death of Christ was not what it superficially seemed.

Taticus, the Roman historian states concerning Judea during the whole life and ministry of Jesus, His trial, His crucifixion and His resurrection, one sentence: “Nothing of significance happened during those days.” That is a paradox. The greatest historian of that time period says that nothing of significance or importance happened in Judea when Jesus walked the earth and gave His life for mankind. And yet, our minds and attention are riveted on that day and that life as the center of time and eternity.

The events of Good Friday force us to look at and re-evaluate our natural human logic and value system. To most human beings, there is no coercive value in the Cross of Christ. It alone will not constrain you, it will not compel you, it will not force you. It stands there, on the top of Calvary, as history’s greatest paradox: justice out of injustice, light out of darkness, healing out of wounds, life out of death. The Cross does not impose itself on you but stands blatantly in front of you, calling you to believe that God was at work in that mysterious paradox of the Passion.

The great paradox of the Cross consists of many smaller and less conspicuous paradoxes which most of us never really give much consideration to. The first of these is the paradox of strength out of weakness. Those who stood before the Cross on Good Friday only saw a man mangled, beaten and humiliated hanging on the Cross suffering a slow and agonizing death. Gazing upon Jesus hanging on the Cross, they saw a weak and defeated man.

When we gaze upon the weakness of Jesus as he made His way along the Via Dolorosa for example, the image we are presented with is that of a man struggling to carry the heavy burden of the Cross. We overlook the fact that Jesus making His way to Golgotha took a great deal of internal strength and fortitude. Especially since He knew what was waiting for Him at the end of that long walk.

When we listen to the Gospel accounts of the Passion, they are mostly presented to us in the present tense. Thus, they place us right there as active witnesses to and participants in the events and activities of that day.

What took place on that Good Friday 2,000 plus years ago is just as real for us today as it was then. Like waves that crash upon a beach over and over again, the many images of Good Friday continually crash into our hearts and minds so that we never forget their meaning and significance. We see Jesus bruised and bloodied, struggling under the weight of the Cross as He makes His way to Calvary. And even though they had compelled Simon of Cyrene to carry the Cross of Jesus, a contingent of soldiers was eventually forced to carry the staggering Christ through the streets of Jerusalem.

So that you may better understand the significance of this, those to be crucified were to be taken the longest, not the shortest, way to the place of execution outside the city walls. (John 14:20). Here we can see the first paradox of the Passion. He who bore the sins of us all not only had to have someone else carry His cross but He Himself had to be carried. St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Hebrews that, “he upholds all things by the Word of His power.” (Hebrews 1:3) He who bears all things by the Word of His power, had Himself to be borne on the way. He that carried the sins of the world Himself had to be carried. This is the first paradox of the Passion.

The humiliation and horror of the walk along the Via Dolorosa to Calvary is attached to an ugly word, Golgotha. Galgutha, as it is pronounced in Aramaic, has a gargling, gurgling, guttural sound. It sounds much like the sound that is made when a person is imminently close to death.
The word Golgotha means the “place of the skull.” Even that description denotes something ugly and frightening.

In many paintings of the crucifixion, Christ is depicted as valiantly facing death standing straight and tall with a glow of light surrounding Him that is strong and vibrant. But the reality is that this is not how Christ went to His death at all. The nature and degree of the torture Our Lord endured prior to making His way to Calvary was brutal to the extreme. A man could have died just from the kind of treatment Jesus received before He was crucified. Having endured such brutal treatment, Jesus was weak, faint, and exhausted. He had already lost a great deal of blood and He was beaten almost beyond recognition.

Have you even compared how Jesus died with how the other heroes of the ancient world died? Take Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, for example, both of which set the standard for courage and strength. When you read about the mighty heroes like Achilles and Hercules, you will find that they go to their death with a certain dignity, strength and vitality. Or when you read the account of the death of Socrates, you find him dying in dignity surrounded by his disciples. Or, when you read Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History accounts of the death of the martyrs, you read the story of St. Polycarp of Smyrna who goes to his death with strength, dignity and force of life. He stood at the stake, not tied up, but freely while the flames consumed him. Even those who followed after Our Lord in the trail of martyrs died with strength and vitality. But no so the Christ; for it is the paradox of the Cross that our strength comes out of His utter weakness, our endurance out of His faintness, our fortitude out of His agony and suffering, our healing out of His wounds, our life out of His death. So He dies a death that is more of a struggle than even that of the martyrs.

But Jesus’ weakness was a willing weakness. In other words, there is some weakness which is only circumstantial. It is a weakness due to conditions and not due to character or will. Christ’s debilitation was induced, not characteristic of His personality. Thus in His weakness, in His extreme suffering and agony, Christ manifested great strength and fortitude. This is another paradox of the Passion. In ultimate suffering there is great strength and courage.

The Talmud tells us that certain women of Jerusalem offered a drugged drink to those who were suffering the excruciating pain of crucifixion. The word “excruciating” comes from the Latin word, “ex crucis” which means “out of the Cross,” thus referencing in our own daily speech what took place on Good Friday.

It is a paradox within a paradox that one of the first things given to Jesus in His life was myrrh, an embalming agent, by the wise men who bore testimony from the east. And now, the last thing offered to Him by a world that basically offered Him nothing, was a drugged drink as He hung dying in agony upon the Cross. But Jesus refused what was offered to Him. He was determined to taste the punishment inflicted upon Him and His ensuing death with His eyes wide open. In order to make a perfect sacrifice and pay for the sins of the world, He needed full use of His human faculties to completely drain the cup which was the Father’s will for Him to drink. Jesus was not going to sleep through the Cross as the disciples slept in the Garden of Gethsemane.

We should understand that the emptiness of Christ, the emptying out of Himself involved not only the refusal to grasp equality with the Father, that willingness to empty Himself by becoming obedient unto death, even death on the Cross. It would seem to be enough that he would die on the Cross with sinners, but the bottom, the very low point of that emptying may have been the humiliation, degradation and shame of public nakedness. Knowing that shame, the Jews even required that a man would be clothed when he was stoned for blasphemy, but they took from Jesus the only thing He had, the very clothes on His back.  

It seems to me, when I read the Gospels, that the only thing we are specifically told that Jesus of Nazareth owned was the robe for which the Roman centurions gambled while He hung dying on the Cross. But there was one other thing God made His own on earth, and that was the Cross itself.  From the shame and indignity of the Cross comes glory and a crown. Another paradox!

Jesus’s bitterest enemies, the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin, who stood as witnesses to what took place at Calvary, unwittingly give testimony to Him as King. Their taunts at the Cross are really affirmations.. The verbal stones they throw at Him are, in reality, glorious prophecies that proclaim the Gospel. The same can also be said of Pilate, who ordered that an inscription of the charge against Jesus be nailed to the Cross above Jesus’s head for all to see:  “The King of the Jews.” While Pilate intended this as sarcasm, it was in very fact a statement of truth.

Pilate’s intent certainly was not to affirm Jesus as the King of the Jews but to further humiliate Jesus. You see, Pilate was a man who did not liked to be toyed with. During Jesus’s trial, when he said to Jesus, “Do you not realize that I have the power to release you and the power to crucify you?” Pilate heard a prisoner tell him what no prisoner had ever told him before. “You would have no power unless it was given to you from above.” Pilate was not the kind of man who would have easily forgotten that. Thus, he mocks the One Who had said it by placing the inscription over Christ’s head on the Cross.

It has often semi-jokingly been said that Pilate wrote the first Christian sermon and published it in three languages. What he wrote in the language of justice and the empire, Latin, and in the language of the Jewish people and religion, Hebrew, and in Greek, the common language of the whole civilized world, confessed to the world the truth that Jesus of Nazareth is King of the Jews. The Jews protested against what Pilate did but he remained adamant in his decision that the inscription remain on the Cross. Thus, all those who saw the inscription and went their own way when the spectacle was finished, went away with that proclamation in their minds, wondering if it was, in fact, true. As it turned out, Pilate unwittingly told the truth.

Good Friday truly is a day of paradoxes and contrasts, but it is also a day of reckoning and manifestation. Reckoning because we see clearly that God’s power is unassailable and will always win out over evil, manifestation because in suffering and agony shines forth majesty, splendor and kingship. The Blood and water which spilled out from the side of Jesus  as He hung on the Cross was not just another gory element of a very gruesome scene, but a powerful mixture which gave birth to the Church and ushered in God’s Kingdom on earth.

Here is the truth of Good Friday. Though He appeared defeated, Christ was the only victor. The Cross, a symbol of defeat, shame, and pain, is also the source of glory, life and salvation. Whoever is crushed by the Cross is a winner. Whoever wins without the Cross is a loser.

Each one of us has a cross to carry. Each one of us would like to be something we are not, to have something we do not have, to be able to accomplish something we cannot. In the shadow of the Cross, we need to renounce once and for all what we are and what we are not, that is to say, we need to put off the old man and put on new garments of light and righteousness.

May Our Lord give us a love of our cross just as He had for His. Instead of bearing the Holy Wood with disgust, our Redeemer embraced and kissed it because He was fulfilling His mission on earth. Our cross consists in fulfilling our mission. Let us embrace it tearfully and lovingly. And let us say, “I will never cease to ask for strength to carry my cross, and I will carry it to the height of my Calvary!”

Our Lord bore every sort of pain and suffering, much like a king going to his coronation. He did this with dignity, with serenity, steadfastly and without hesitation. Nothing was spared Him, whether physically or spiritually. He entered into the depths of suffering with the resolution of a hero, thus appearing before the justice of the Eternal father gloriously arrayed and resplendent with pain. This is how He saved the human race. With each step He took toward Calvary, the redemption of the human race shone brighter and brighter.

For Orthodox Catholic Christians, the Cross is central to the life of faith. Let us never look away from the Cross but keep our gaze fixed upon it, for it is our strength. So too, let us never forget the Passion of Christ. Let us not commemorate only once a year, but every Friday of the year; so important it is to the life of every human being and the human race as a while.

May the events of this holy and great day remain forever in your hearts and minds and may you never forget the great thing that was done for you today.


Amen.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Homily on the Holy Eucharist

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

This evening, my dear children, we enter into the most sacred days of Holy Week and the Church’s liturgical year: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Pascha. It is important for us to see these days as a unity. I say this because there is a tendency in many ecclesial communities to separate them and give greater importance to one day over the other.

Certainly Pascha or Easter is the Feast of Feasts, but there would be no Pascha if there was not a Holy Thursday, or Good Friday or Holy Saturday. For example, many people today do not want to deal with Good Friday because it involves sacrifice and suffering and death. Our culture today avoids anything that has to do with sacrifice, suffering and death. Everything has to be bright and cheery and effortless. So they ignore Good Friday and focus their attention on Easter. Some communities do not like Holy Thursday because it deals with service and servanthood. Those two words are also anathema to many people today. There are many who also do not like Holy Thursday because it deals with the institution of the Divine Liturgy or Mass and this is something which they simply cannot subscribe to. Then there are those who only want Easter Sunday. For them, Christianity is the universal presence of Jesus and His affirmation, His acceptance, but they do not want to hear about His moral law and teachings or the Holy Mysteries or Sacraments which He instituted.

Tonight we celebrate two of those Holy Mysteries or Sacraments: the Sacrament of Holy Orders and the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. This morning, at the Chrism Liturgy, I spoke in great detail about the Holy Priesthood. This evening, I would like to talk about the Holy Eucharist and the Divine Liturgy, because it was that Last Supper which has become for us the foundation of the Divine Liturgy we celebrate every Sunday and feast day.

In our Gospel reading tonight, we hear the account of the institution of the Holy Eucharist, and at the end of the Liturgy, during the service of the washing of the feet, we will hear the Gospel of the washing of the feet. In both these Gospels, Jesus tells His Apostles what He wishes to hand on to them, and how they are to live.

Jesus knew that at some point that night, He would be arrested, subjected to a mock trial, then be led out to a horrible and humiliating death. And He had no illusions about the men who reclined with Him at table at the Last Supper that Holy Thursday night. He saw through their play acting. Their behavior would be exactly like that of a lot of people today when things get difficult, “I am out of here!” But worse, the chief Apostle, Peter, would actually pretend that he did not even know Jesus. Still, Jesus did not write them off; far from it. He wanted to be present to them in an unbreakable and permanent way. That is what a New Testament or New Covenant means. So Jesus gave them a lasting memorial, the Holy Eucharist. “This is My Body, which is given up for you.” And He did the same with the cup, “This is the cup of My Blood, the blood of the new and everlasting Covenant; it will be shed for you and for many for the remission of sins. Do this in remembrance of Me.”

Here, we can make a very serious mistake. Because Jesus described the Eucharist as a “remembrance”, we can get the wrong idea that the Divine Liturgy is like acting out a play, just remembering a past event. Two things need to be said regarding this erroneous belief. First, for people of Jesus’ day memory or remembrance was so much more important that it is to us today. They did not have computers and books could not be mass produced, so they relied greatly on their memories, and their memories were so much more developed as ours. For them to remember a past event was more than recall; it brings the happening out of the past and applies it to the people right here and now. We heard this in tonight’s Old Testament reading. When the Israelites recalled the Exodus during their Passover meal, they did not just say, “This happened to our fathers.” To this very day, when Jewish people celebrate the Passover, the youngest son asks his father, “Why is this night different from any other night?” The father responds, “Tonight is the night we are saved from slavery in Egypt.” To remember makes present a past event.

But there is something much, much more important when we remember the Last Supper. We know that Jesus is different from any other person in history. Jesus not only died, but He rose from the dead. He was not a mere mortal man, but the Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, God Himself. When we recall someone like Abraham Lincoln, or the Apostle Peter, or even our own beloved Archbishop Gennadios of blessed memory, we are thinking of someone who lived in the past. But when we recall and remember Jesus, we are speaking of someone who is alive and present to us today.

That is why the Church teaches that it is Jesus Himself who celebrates the sacraments in the person of our bishops and priests. It is He who will baptize and chrismate at the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. It is He who forgives sins in confession. And at the Divine Liturgy, the celebrant is not so much Archbishop Stephen, but Christ Himself who offers the sacrifice which He also accepts. He is both the Offerer and the Offered, the Receiver and the Received. That is my greatest consolation as a priest. I know I am weak. I know that I am great sinner. Try as I may, I am often distracted sometimes during the most solemn moment of the Divine Liturgy. It is amazing how, during the Anaphora, for example, it will hit me that I should have called someone, or I find myself wondering if I locked the door of my house or turned off the water in the sink in the bathroom, or how much I want breakfast because I am hungry. I know I need to fight against those distractions, but at the same time I take comfort in the fact it is not me, but Jesus who is offering the sacrifice of the Divine Liturgy. Lord knows it is not easy for us to be human beings. We have so many flaws, weaknesses and shortcomings. So many things we need to pay attention to and attend to just to get through one day. It can be very overwhelming and distracting to our real mission and purpose.

In addition to instituting the Holy Eucharist and the Divine Liturgy, Our Lord Jesus also instituted the Holy Priesthood. He had taught and formed the Twelve Apostles for three years so that His authority would be their authority. “He who hears you hears Me.” A priest is someone who offers sacrifice on behalf of and for the people. This new priesthood would offer the perfect sacrifice, the one Jesus Himself would offer on the next day, His death on the Cross. “This is My Body which will be given up for you. This is My Blood which will be shed for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.”

Sometimes, I have this discussion with one of my priest friends. He says that he wants people to appreciate him for who he is, not for his office. I say the opposite. I want people to first love the priesthood. If it turns out that some of them like me personally or agree with me, that is frosting on the cake. We haven’t resolved our argument because he comes back saying we should do everything we can to be lovable in order to draw people to Christ. I can hardly disagree with that. Still, the point is we need to look beyond the individual priest to the person of Christ Himself. It is He alone who matters in the long run.

If we believe the Last Supper to be the first ordination of the first priests of the Church, we have to admit that Peter did not do such a great job in his first assignment. He started off with extravagant promises. “Though they all fall away because of You, I will never fall away.” (Matthew 26:33), and “Even if I must die with You, I will not deny You.” (Matthew 26:35). To put it charitably, his subsequent actions did not match his initial promises. But Peter’s greatness is found in his profound repentance. He picked up again and in the process learned to rely on the Lord completely. He did not throw in the towel but persevered and it is for this reason that Christ appointed him chief of the Apostles.  “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.” (Luke 22:31-32). Then, in the Gospel of St. John, we hear Jesus say to Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?” Peter said to Him, "Yes, Lord, You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Feed My lambs.” A second time, He said to him, "Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Peter responded a second time, “Yes, Lord, You know that I love You.” Jesus said to him, “Tend My sheep.” He said to Peter a third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was grieved because Jesus had said to him a third time, “Do you love Me?” And he said to Jesus, “Lord, you know everything; You know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed My sheep.” (John 21:15-17).

And we can identify with Peter’s reaction to Jesus washing his feet. One of the hardest things to get volunteers for is the Holy Thursday feet washing. Because we do not have priests to participate in the rite, I most always have to call upon men in and outside of the cathedral parish to help me out. It is amazing how reluctant and uneasy many people are to take off their shoes and socks in front of the congregation and have their feet washed. Sure, it is humbling for me as a bishop to take off my vestments, to kneel down and wash, then dry and kiss another man’s feet. But I know that it is, in a way, even more humbling for those who are having their feet washed and kissed. Humility is one of the characteristics of the Holy Priesthood, together with those of service and servant leadership.

Together with the washing of feet, which will take place at the end of the Divine Liturgy, you will also be witnesses to another unique ritual, that of the procession of the Holy Oils. During the Great Entrance, you will see members of the congregation bring in procession, together with the Oblation and other gifts, vessels containing the Sacred Chrism and the Holy Oils of the Catechumens and the Sick which I consecrated and blessed at this morning’s Divine Liturgy of the Chrism.

These oils are very important to the sacramental life of the Church. They will be used throughout the year in the administration of the Holy Mysteries of Baptism and Chrismation, in the Sacrament of Holy Orders, and in the Sacrament of Holy Anointing. Chrism will also be used in the consecration of new antimensia, altars and churches. The Holy Oils are sacramental; they convey the grace of the Holy Spirit and are the instruments used by God to bless, anoint, heal and strengthen His people. We do not venerate or worship the Holy Oils, but we honor them and respect them as being one of the holy things of God. And that is why they are with us tonight, to remind us of the holy things of God that should always be in our minds and hearts.

Tonight is a very special night, for on this night, Our Lord Jesus Christ instituted the Holy Eucharist, the most sublime Mystery of the Church and the center of its life. Whatever I say tonight in reference to the Holy Eucharist will never be adequate enough to convey a perfect understanding of this greatest of mysteries. No human words could possibly express the awesome realities and truths which surround the Eucharist. I am sad for those Christians who refute or deny the Eucharist, for they deprive themselves of the Bread of Life and the Cup of Eternal Salvation which brings healing, enlightenment and eternal life to those who believe and whose hearts are pure and holy.

In order for us to have even a basic knowledge or understanding of the Eucharist, it is important to look into what the Eucharist is not. The Eucharist is not a “symbol” or “sign.” Nor do the bread and wine cease to exist as bread and wine when they become the Body and Blood of Christ. No, the elements of bread and wine remain while at the same time becoming the actual Body and Blood of Christ. The term that is often used to describe this reality is “transubstantiation,” although you will not really hear it used that often in the Orthodox Church. Simply put, and I do mean simply put because theological discussions regarding the Eucharist are very complex, transubstantiation means “change.”

Some people believe that at the consecration, the bread and wine cease to exist and that the Body and Blood of Christ is created out of nothing to take the place of the bread and wine. This belief is termed “Annihilation” and it is heretical. It is founded on the false belief that the ordinary elements of life are annihilated and supplanted by grace. Thus, grace does not build on nature but in fact destroys nature.

There are also those who believe that at the consecration, the Body and Blood of Christ are really and truly present along with the bread and wine. This belief is called “consubstantiation.” This false belief proposes that the words of consecration do not change the bread and wine but rather the Body and Blood of Christ are created out of nothing and made present together with the bread and wine. Thus, in the Sacred Species there are two substances (substantial dualism). The host contains the bread and the Body of Christ and the cup contains the wine and the Blood of Christ. The error here is the assumption that the ordinary elements of life are not sanctified by grace and that grace and nature work independently. The belief in consubstantiation with regard to the Eucharist is also heretical.

In the Orthodox Church, we teach that the very substance of bread is itself changed into the Body of Christ and that the wine is also changed into the very Blood of Christ. By implication, the ordinary elements of bread and wine are not annihilated or supplanted by grace but are themselves truly sanctified by grace. In other words, grace builds on nature and sanctifies the ordinary elements of life. That is why we see in the ordinary bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Christ. We do not get caught up in trying to explain how and why this happens, but we know that it does happen by the power of the Holy Spirit, which we call down upon the gifts during the Holy Anaphora of the Divine Liturgy. We may use the term “transubstantiation” to describe this action in human terms as a way of explaining and discussing what happens regarding the Eucharist, but we do not box ourselves in to a clinical explanation of what happens, preferring rather to see it as a great mystery and awesome work of God.

The Eucharist has great power to change. When we receive Holy Communion, we receive Christ into ourselves. While the change of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ takes place on the altar of sacrifice at the moment of consecration, a second “transubstantiation” takes place in the person receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. In this second transubstantiation, we see the substantial change effected on the soul of the recipient by divine grace. This soul of the recipient becomes “transubstantiated” or substantially changed and in it Christ becomes truly present.

The difference between the first transubstantiation and the second is the degree to which the substance is changed. In the first, the bread and wine become mystically and supernaturally transformed into the real Body and Blood of Christ with the qualities of permanent presence and adorability. But in the second, the recipient becomes “God-bearer,” infused with the qualities and attributes of Christ, to the extent one’s behavior cooperates with the divine presence within him or her.

Christ spoke of this second transubstantiation when He said, “My flesh is real food and My Blood is real drink. Those who eat My flesh and drink My Blood abide in me and I in them.” (John 6:55-56). Thus, those who eat the Eucharistic species become Eucharistic beings, bearing in themselves Christ, Who is God. When we receive the Holy Eucharist, Christ is not changed into us, but we are changed into Christ.

My children, the whole purpose of this discourse this evening is to enable you to understand better what took place that Holy Thursday some 2,000 years ago and what happens when you receive Jesus in the Holy Eucharist. Christ effected a magnificent and awesome mystery that no human being will ever fully understand or appreciate. Our concern is not about what happens to the bread and wine after consecration or how it happens but what happens to us after we receive the Body and Blood of Christ in Holy Communion.

The questions we need to ask are: “Do I feel any change in myself when I receive the Eucharist? Does the Eucharist in any way challenge me? Do I believe that Christ is in me and I in Him? If the answer to any of these questions is “No”, then you have a serious problem which needs immediate attention.

The Eucharist is Christ’s sacrifice to the Father through the Holy Spirit and in receiving it, we should also offer ourselves as living and acceptable sacrifices to God for the good of the whole universe. We make this possible when we deny ourselves mundane pleasure in exchange for divine grace. The Eucharist, which means “thanksgiving” in Greek is also Christ’s form of thanksgiving to the Father, and in receiving it, our words and actions should portray our gratitude to God Who has redeemed us in Christ.

We see the prefiguration of the Eucharist as sacrifice and thanksgiving when Melchizedek offered the sacrifice of bread and wine to God and Abram offered his thanksgiving after his victory in battle. The Divine Liturgy is, then, the most perfect way of offering the Eucharist as our sacrifice and thanksgiving to God.

Christ instituted the Holy Eucharist and asked His Apostles to celebrate it in His memory, so that, whenever and wherever we gather as God’s people to celebrate the Eucharist, Christ feeds us with His Word and with His Body and Blood, just as He did that Holy Thursday some 2,000 years ago. Consider this, my children, and ponder its’ significance: Ever since that first Divine Liturgy on that first Holy Thursday, the Divine Liturgy has been celebrated every Sunday without fail throughout the world. In fact, as the Church has grown and expanded throughout the centuries, it can truthfully be said that the Divine Liturgy is being celebrated every day somewhere in the world. What does this say to you?

My beloved children, if we understand “Holy Mystery” or Sacrament” to mean a physical sign of a spiritual reality, then we know that Jesus is the sacrament of God, the Church is the sacrament of Jesus, and the Holy Eucharist is the sacrament of the Church. It stands to reason then, that we who receive the Holy Eucharist, who bear Christ within ourselves, should be the sacrament of love to everyone we encounter and meet. We should, all of us, have a great and intense love for the Eucharist. We should make the Holy Eucharist alive in the communities in which we live because the Divine Liturgy is an invitation to all who believe to be transformed into the Received. For this reason, certain thoughts, words and deeds should not be associated with us in any way. Therefore, let us always strive not only to receive the Holy Eucharist worthily but also be transformed into what we receive.

Amen.


Archbishop's Instruction on Foot Washing

I have received several email inquiries regarding our tradition of the Rite of Washing of Feet done at the Divine Liturgy of Holy Thursday. Specifically, questions were asked if we allowed women to participate in the ritual and if our practice was “inclusive.” These questions were posed not by members of the Italo-Greek Orthodox Church but by non-members who are, I suspect, for one reason or another, curious as to where we stand on this particular “issue.”

Let me begin first by reading an excerpt of the Canonical Instruction and Decree I issued in February 2006 regarding this matter, which states:  “The ritual of washing feet is to be done ONLY in the Cathedral church of the Italo-Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of the Americas and Canada and the Cathedral church of the Archdiocese of Siracusa and All Sicily on Holy Thursday and ONLY by the Bishop. This ritual is NOT to be done in parishes or missions. In the Italo-Greek Church, as in all other Local Orthodox Churches, the ritual of washing feet is reserved exclusively to bishops. In our Italo-Greek Church, the normal practice is for the Bishop to wash the feet of twelve priests. If twelve priests are not available, then the Bishop may, for obvious reasons of necessity, include deacons so that the required number of twelve is attained. If there are not sufficient numbers of priests and deacons available to attain the required number of twelve, the Bishop may invite other men (of mature stature and intellectual understanding) to participate in the ritual.” As we can see from this norm, only men may participate in the Holy Thursday ritual of washing feet. This regulation has not changed and thus remains in full force. It addition, it is understood that the use of deacons and non-clergy males is only to be permitted when there are not enough priests available to conduct the rite.

Let me be perfectly clear about this ritual as it is practiced in the Italo-Greek Orthodox Church. The Bishop washes and kisses ONLY the feet of men. There is no foot washing of married or unmarried women by the Bishop. The public washing and kissing of feet of women on the part of a man, in our case, a bishop, is considered highly improper, inappropriate and even scandalous.

I mention the kissing of feet because this has been a part of our Holy Thursday tradition for generations, longer than I can remember. While Christ never kissed the feet of His Apostles (His feet are kissed in humble gratitude and in homage to Him as King) after He washed their feet, my predecessors of blessed memory at some point initiated and carried on this act as an enhanced gesture of service and humility. The kissing of someone’s feet is a sign of subjection and subservience to the one whose feet are being kissed. Bishops, and by extension priests, are consecrated ministers of Word and Sacrament, and are therefore not subject to those to whom they bring the Good News or the Life-Giving Holy Eucharist. Nevertheless, I have chosen to retain the kissing of feet as the quintessential symbol of service and humility that should identify and characterize every bishop, especially in this day and age when many bishops have lost sight of who and what they truly are.

To wash and kiss the feet of a woman would be a violation of my priestly sense of modesty, propriety and chastity. It also creates and spreads confusion among the faithful regarding the historical symbolism of the “Twelve.” Christ’s act of washing the feet of the Apostles is very intimately tied to the Sacrament of Holy Orders and therefore has a significance which extends beyond what many people, especially in the Catholic Church and the various Protestant sects, see primarily as a gesture or example of humility and service which should be the part of every Christian’s life. However, the washing of feet is no simple demonstration of charity, affection or humility. It is meant to tie together the priesthood of the Old Testament with the visitations from heaven, simultaneously reorienting this ritual with the new reality of Christ’s priesthood in the New Testament.

“And you shall bring Aaron and his sons to the door of the tabernacle of the testimony, and having washed them with water, you shall put on them the holy vestments, that they may minister to Me, and that the unction of them may prosper to an everlasting priesthood.” (Exodus 40:12-13).

“And Moses said to the congregation, “This is the thing which the Lord has commanded to be done.” And Moses brought Aaron and his sons, and washed them with water. And he put on him the coat, and girded him with the sash, and clothed him with the purple tunic, and put the ephod on him, and girded him with the skillfully woven band of the ephod, binding it to him therewith.” (Leviticus 8:5-7).

The two passages which I have just quoted detail the rite of “ordination” or “setting apart” of a priest in the Old Testament. No mention is made of Aaron’s feet or those of his sons being washed. The only people who specifically get feet washed in the Old Testament are the angels that visit Abraham (Genesis 18:4) and the angels that visit Lot (Genesis 19:2). The Old Testament records that only those who came from heaven had their feet washed. In the New Testament, Christ had His feet washed, a recognition that He came from heaven. (Luke 7:38).

In the Old Testament, those who were ordained as priests were ritually washed. When Jesus begins to wash the Apostles’ feet, it is an illustration that He was making them like the ministering angels that came down from heaven. Peter, finally understanding what was happening says, “Lord, not my feet only, but my hands and head!” In essence, by making this statement, Peter was saying to Christ, “Lord, make me Your priest!”

When Jesus finished washing the feet of the Apostles, He says to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I, then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should also do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. I am not speaking of you all; I know whom I have chosen.” (John 13:12-18).

The foregoing passage states very clearly Christ’s mandate to His Apostles. Further, it completes what was started during the supper with the words, “Do this in memory of Me,” which is the ordination of the Apostles as priests of the New Covenant. When Christ speaks of “doing this (washing of feet) unto one another,” He is telling them that they are to keep themselves holy so that they may be ministering angels to His people. In the whole of all the events of Holy Thursday, Christ has established the Priesthood, the Eucharist and the Divine Liturgy, the holy and sacred things which provide for the sanctification and salvation of the people and the fullness of the life of the Church.

Christ washed the feet of His Apostles, His priests, who in turn care for the flocks and congregations entrusted to their care through the confection and ministration of the Holy Mysteries or Sacraments. In the Divine Liturgy which we celebrate on Holy Thursday, the priest is Christ who washes the feet of His priests, who are men.

It is certainly true that in Christ there is neither male nor female and that all disciples are equal before the Lord. But this reality need not be expressed in every liturgical rite or action of the Church, especially one that is so intimately bound up with the institution of the Holy Priesthood and the Holy Eucharist. The Last Supper has much more significance than simply being the last meal of Christ, or His last celebration of the Jewish Passover. Indeed, the historical circumstances of the Last Supper prepare the faithful for the establishment of the Church. The Eucharist is the very life of the Church. There is no Church without the Eucharist and there is no Eucharist without properly ordained bishops and priests.

Our Lord’s washing of the feet of the Apostles was not a tender act of charity intended to be symbolic for everyone outside the Apostolic College, but rather a purifying action to prepare those whom He commissioned to bear the Gospel (Good News) to Israel and throughout the rest of the known world.

To the best of my knowledge, there is no Orthodox Bishop that allows females to participate in the rite of washing of feet on Holy Thursday. If there is, I question their fidelity to the Tradition of the Church on this matter. Why would any Bishop chance inviting scandal into his Church? No bishop should ever deign to wash another man’s wife’s feet or those of an unmarried woman. Need I say how absolutely inappropriate it is for a bishop, who is a monk and a consecrated celibate to touch any woman in such a way?

Now, there are foot washing rites also observed in the Oriental Orthodox Churches. For example, in the Coptic Orthodox Church, the service is performed by the parish priest, not just by a bishop. The priest blesses the foot washing with the cross, just as he would for blessing holy water and he washes the feet of the entire congregation. In the Indian Orthodox or Malankara Orthodox Church, this service is performed only by a bishop. This is done in a rite similar to that used in the Byzantine Church, the only difference being that the bishop washes and kisses the feet of both priests and lay people.

As you can see, every Local Church has its own tradition regarding foot washing. Some include women, some don’t. Is there anything inherently wrong with washing the feet of women along with those of men? The honest answer to that question has to be “No.” Nevertheless, washing women’s feet, is not in keeping with the meaning of the act and the message Christ intended to convey. Therefore all lay people, whenever possible, should be excluded from the rite and the rite itself should be performed only by a bishop.

It is important to remember that the prototype for washing of feet is the Last Supper where Jesus washes not the feet of His disciples, not the feet of people chosen randomly from the crowds, but of the Twelve Apostles, and only the Twelve Apostles.
The humility and service of which Jesus gives an example is certainly something every Christian owes everyone. Nevertheless, the historical origin of the example is Jesus’ washing of the feet of His twelve Apostles. Trying to make the gesture more “inclusive” than what Jesus Himself did distorts the historical image and creates confusion as to its true meaning.

When Christ washed the feet of His Apostles, it was His intent to convey to them not only the ideals of service and humility, but also the ideal of servant leadership, a personal character trait very integral both to the ministry and life of every bishop and priest. Even if we extend the idea of service to include the notion that we, as Christians, must serve one another, the context in which Our Lord performed the rite did not imply this universal ideal of service.

As I have said, in the Italo-Greek Orthodox Church, we do not wash the feet of women, or of children for that matter. It is a ritual reserved to the bishop only, who washes only the feet of men.

I hope the above instruction clarifies, once and for all, the position of our Church on this matter.


Paternally yours in Christ,
+Archbishop Stephen


Homily on the Holy Priesthood

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

We gather together this morning, my brothers and sisters, as the local Church known as the Italo-Greek Orthodox Catholic Church for the annual consecration of the sacred Chrism and the Blessing of the Holy Oils of the Catechumens and of the Sick. These oils will be used throughout the next year to anoint the newly baptized, to seal neophytes with the fullness of the Holy Spirit’s gifts, to consecrate new altars and churches for the solemn celebration of the Divine Liturgy and worship of Almighty God, to consecrate and anoint new bishops and priests, to bring healing to the sick, and to prepare the dying for eternal life. Truly, these holy oils reflect and effect the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit in this local Church, the Spirit who is always moving us to ever greater completion of that mission given to Jesus by His heavenly Father.

Not only do we gather to celebrate the consecration and blessing of these oils, but we are here to celebrate also the institution of the Holy Priesthood. Even though Christ instituted the Priesthood at the Last Supper on Holy Thursday evening, our primary focus at tonight’s Divine Liturgy will be on the institution of the Holy Eucharist. Both sacraments are not only important, but essential, to the life of the Church. It is for this reason that, in order to give both these important Mysteries the attention they deserve, we deal with one, the Priesthood, at this Chrism Liturgy, especially since the Priesthood and Chrism are so intimately linked together, and the other, the Holy Eucharist, at tonight’s Divine Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper.

I would like to begin by talking a bit about the Holy Oils, especially Sacred Chrism. The most important thing we must first understand is that it is Jesus Christ Himself who sanctifies the Chrism and blesses the Oils through the Bishops of the Church. Liturgy is a work. It is the work of Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church. We are here to share in that work.  As Christ is the Head of the Church, we are members of His Body, and so, each of us has a particular role to play in the actions that will take place this morning.

Chrism is a great sacramental. It is, as the liturgy says, a sign. But it is also a source of blessing, infused with the power and grace of the Holy Spirit. It is a way for the Holy Spirit to be shared, passed on, to fill. This is certainly true at Baptism and Chrismation (Confirmation). It is the sign that Chrism expresses and manifests at the ordination of the two priestly orders, the episcopacy and the presbyterate. It is this function of sign and source that the Chrism has when we use it to anoint and consecrate altars and churches.

What is Chrism and what happens when one is “chrismated?” What happens in the sacrament, especially the Holy Mysteries of Initiation (Baptism and Chrismation), when Chrism is used as this source of infusing the Holy Spirit? The answer to that question is clear from the liturgy, especially the consecratory prayer that I will recite over the Chrism. The result of being chrismated is to be a sharer in Christ’s mission as a priest, prophet and king. You will hear me say that, from Christ – literally, “the Anointed One” – Chrism takes its name. And with Chrism God the Father has anointed for Himself priests and kings, prophets and martyrs. The prayer says that through the anointing that confirms Baptism, God transforms the baptized into the likeness of Christ His Son, and gives them a share in His royal, priestly and prophetic work. And so, in the consecration prayer, we will ask that in the sign of Chrism God grant those who are anointed with it royal, priestly and prophetic honor. In our liturgy this morning, we are affirming the teaching of the First Epistle of St. Peter. “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9).

While Chrism plays an important part in the life of the people of God, it is equally important in the consecration and setting apart of men to the Holy Priesthood; the sacramental priesthood of the temple.

The priest is a Christian man who has been raised above the other members of the Church to participate in Our Blessed Lord’s own threefold function of teaching, ruling and sanctifying, and upon whom the powers to do so have been conferred by the Holy Mystery (Sacrament) of Holy Orders, which can only be conferred by a valid Bishop. I say “valid” because only Orthodox and Catholic bishops are true bishops of the Church, inasmuch as they possess unbroken Apostolic Succession. You may hear the term “bishop” used in connection with clergy of the Protestant Anglican/Episcopal communion, or the Lutheran or Methodist Communions. The term is even used in the so-called “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Days Saints” (Mormons), but these are not true bishops, as they do not possess Apostolic Succession in the Church.

A Sacrament, or what we term “Holy Mystery,” is a sacred sign instituted by Christ our Lord to give grace. The Holy Mystery of Holy Orders, however, not only bestows on the priest the graces which he will require to perform his priestly functions fittingly, but imprints upon his soul an indelible seal (the character) by which he receives the power to accomplish sublime acts of worship and sanctification with a power almost divine. For the Church as a whole, then, Holy Orders is indeed a most important Sacrament, for by it chosen men receive the power to administer to the faithful all the other life-giving Sacraments.

Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself instituted the Holy Priesthood on the night of His Last Supper, in the same moment as He instituted the Holy Eucharist, which would become the center of the life of the Church and of the priestly life. Upon his ordination, the priest receives the power of consecrating, offering and administering the most precious Body and Blood of Christ to the faithful, and likewise the power of forgiving and remitting sins or holding them fast.

The lives of holy and pious priests have always exemplified the life of Christ, with whom, by priestly ordination, they are conformed in mind, heart and spirit. Such priests love, above all things, the celebration of Divine Liturgy and the Holy Mystery of Confession, where they reconcile so many sinners to God.

Many other duties follow upon these principal functions of the priest. In the Liturgy of the Hours (principally Matins and Vespers, which are always to be celebrated daily in parish churches), he prays officially in the name of, and for the needs of the whole Church. He teaches the faithful in his homilies and sermons, in religious instruction and catechism lessons, and by his writings what they must believe, and how they must act in accordance with God’s law, strengthened by the graces they receive in the Holy Mysteries. He counsels the doubtful, encourages the weak, consoles the sick and suffering, comforts those who mourn, admonishes the sinners and corrects those who do wrong. In every way, by the sacred powers and authority with which God has invested him through the hands of the Bishop, the priest strives to prepare the men, women and children entrusted to his care for that life of eternal beatitude to which God has destined them.

Human words can barely describe the nature and beauty of the Order of Priesthood. The human mind can only perceive the shadows of the Priesthood and not its full reality, and this is because of the supernatural or divine aspect of the Order of Priesthood.

Priests are rightly called “another Christ,” not because he shares in Christ’s divine nature and human perfection, but because he has been appointed by God to continue Christ’s mission in the world.  He must, therefore, within the limits of his power and his own human frailty, try to live the life of Christ on earth. Like Jesus on the cross, he stands at the altar as a mediator between God and man, lifting up to heaven his hands filled with Christ’s prayers, and offering the redeeming Blood of the Divine Victim, the price of our salvation. He sends up to God the infinite tribute of adoration, thanks and reparation due to Him, which Christ alone can pay for us. In doing this, he brings down upon men a shower of divine grace and precious blessings. He is the face and the heart of the merciful Jesus who forgives sinners, purifies their souls, and directs them towards heaven, through the Holy Mystery of Confession. He is the Good Shepherd who pursues the lost sheep of his flock, brings them back to the fold and leads them to the still waters and green pastures where Our Lord Himself feeds them with His own Flesh and Blood. He is the compassionate Jesus who consoles the afflicted, helps the poor, visits and aids the sick, and prepares the dying for their journey into eternity. He is the way, the truth, the life; for by his preaching and conduct, he sets before his people the doctrine, the example and the life of Jesus. He is a man who, like Jesus, must pass through this world doing good. In a word, he is, above all else, a savior of souls. He is not a priest for himself, for his own temporal or even spiritual welfare; but he is a priest for others. He “is appointed for men,” as St. Paul says (Hebrews 5:1). He has been chosen by God in order that, through the power of Jesus Christ and through his own prayer, labor, and self-sacrifice, he may enable his fellow man to prepare for and deserve a life of eternal glory and happiness in heaven.

The great mission of the priest is to give Jesus Christ to the world. This he does by his example and manner of living. In the priest, Christ becomes visibly present to the people he serves. The priest is the link between God and His people and makes their relationship with the Lord real and tangible. Through the priest, God communicates and interacts with His people. He is the heart and mind and voice of the One Who is truth and gives light and life to every human being.

In his daily life, the priest must limit himself to truly priestly functions. He acts “in persona Christi,” in the person of Christ, and therefore, like his divine Master, he must be a victim immolated to the glory of God, and delivered up for the salvation of souls. He may be a great communicator, diplomat or administrator. He may be a great scholar, theologian or canonist. He may be a zealous social reformer, advocate or activist. But if he is only one or more of these things, he does not measure up to God’s expectation of him as His priest and minister.

The priest, according to the magnificent definition given by St. Paul in his letter to the Hebrews, is a “man taken from among men and ordained for men in the things that pertain to God.” (Hebrews 5:1). The office of priest is not for human things, and things that pass away, but for things divine, enduring and eternal. It matters not that such things may be scorned and repudiated by unbelievers and even the world itself. On the contrary, it is the duty of every priest to point out that such things have always been, do continue, and will always continue to be because they are of God. No matter how violently the things of God are attacked and belittled by the powers of this world, they remain constant and enduring. Such stability and soundness enrages the Evil One and causes him to attack and try to destroy God’s priests. It is for this reason that every priest must hold fast to Christ who is His power and strength, Who is his sure foundation and hope.

No priest is a revolutionary. It is inaccurate to paint such a picture of the priest. Christ Himself was not a revolutionary. Those who believe such a thing are misinformed. Christ was not a revolutionary but rather the King Who came to establish His Kingdom, a kingdom filled with justice and righteousness, with love and mercy and compassion. This is not revolutionary but counter-cultural. Thus, every priest is a sign of contradiction. But just because a priest is counter-cultural doesn’t mean he ought to go about stirring up controversy. The unrest which a priest must incite is the unrest which results from a faithful witness and obedience to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The unrest which the priest must stir up is the fear of God, that intense longing for the Kingdom of God which has brought forth throughout human history unparalleled acts of heroism, love and self-sacrifice.

The revolution which priests must inspire and advocate for is the insurrection of consciences; a revolution which fights against all things which oppose the will of God and the establishment and building up of His Kingdom here on earth. The order which the priest is mandated to disturb is that which covers up the disorders, hatred and injustices of the world. Though he is called to be a good citizen in most sincere obedience to legitimate authority, he is nevertheless bound by the Gospel to work tirelessly for and actively foster a higher goal for mankind. He does this by responsibly carrying out his duties as a consecrated minister and servant of the Most High God.

God communicates great power to priests at their ordination, but they must employ these scared powers as God intends, striving at every moment to conform himself more and more closely to Our Blessed Lord, in whose priesthood he shares. No priest has the power or authority to act independently of Christ or to speak anything other than what Christ speaks. Every priest must always be “of Christ.” The priest is a living icon of Christ and therefore has great power to sway the people. A priest who acts other than as Christ would act is in league with Satan and an active partner with him to destroy not only the Church but the faith of the people.

Every priest is clothed with the power and authority of God; so too, then, should they be clothed with His righteousness, holiness, love and charity. Because they are living icons of the Lord, the life of every priest should be the mirror image of that of the Savior, or rather a continuation of Christ’s life on earth. In this manner, those who look upon the priest will see Christ and be drawn closer to Him.

The holiness of the priest, or in other words, the degree in which he cooperates with God, whose instrument, messenger and minister he is, will, in many ways, be the very measure of the fruits which his ministry will bear.

A good and holy priest is an example of purity in mind and body, an angel of light and knowledge, a slave of love and charity, an apostle of zeal in work and sanctity. He is the living image of Christ in this world, of Christ watching, praying, teaching, working, weeping, going from city to city, from town to town, from village to village, suffering, agonizing, sacrificing Himself and dying for the souls created in His image and likeness. He is the light of those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death. He is the destroyer of error, schisms and heresies, the converter of sinners, the sanctifier of the just, the strength of the weak, the consolation of the afflicted, the treasure of the poor. He is the confusion of hell, the glory of heaven, the terror of demons, the joy of angels, the ruin of Satan’s kingdom, the establishment of Christ’s empire, the pride and joy of the Most Holy Mother of God, and the ornament of the Church.

Every priest is called to live in the midst of the world with no desire for its pleasures; to be a member of every family, yet belong to none; to share in all the sufferings of his people; to penetrate all dark and soul-destroying secrets; to heal all wounds; to go daily from man to God to offer Him their homage and petition; to return from God to man to bring them His pardon and His hope; to have a heart of iron for chastity and virtue, and a heart of flesh for Charity; to teach and instruct; to pardon and console; to bless and be blessed forever! O God, what a wonderful and rich life is that of a priest!

So now, my children, you have a general idea of the priesthood and of the life of a priest: his dignity, his duties, of the zeal which he ought to have. Oh yes, we have seen the bad or dark side of some of our priests, but this is the exception, not the rule. The reason priests have gone bad is because they have not tried to emulate Christ, because they have forgotten who and what they are and who, they represent. Without sanctity and purity of heart, a priest can never be the salt of the earth and light to the people of God, for what is corrupt and contaminated is by no means fit to confer health, and where there is no sanctity, corruption will always dwell.

While there have been and are priests who have fallen and have betrayed Christ and the sacred office which they held or hold, they are few in number compared to the many hundreds of thousands of good priests that have served and do serve God’s Holy Church. Let us not look to the bad priests as a reason to disparage and demean the sacred and holy Order of Priesthood, for the office of Priest is still very much a holy and venerable estate, one of the holy things of God. In this regard, my children, I counsel you to be cognizant of the sin of personal sacrilege. Personal sacrilege means to deal so irreverently with a sacred person, whether by the injury inflicted or the defilement caused, that there is a grievous breach of the honor due to such person.

Every priest is a consecrated minister and servant of Jesus Christ. Having received the laying on of hands by the Bishop and having been anointed with Sacred Chrism, the priest becomes a consecrated and sacred person, a holy thing of God. Thus, any action taken, such as laying violent hands on the person of a priest or bishop, or speaking unjustly or in an otherwise profane or disparaging way about a priest or bishop, constitutes the sin of sacrilege and may be punishable by the sin of excommunication. In the case of any deliberate or intentional act of physical violence against a bishop or priest, the penalty of excommunication is automatically incurred and may even be formally and publically proclaimed if the guilty party does not repent of the act and remains obstinate in the sin. This means that the person guilty of the sin of personal sacrilege who does not repent of the sin is separated from the community of the faithful and the Holy Mysteries of the Church and will enter eternal life already damned. Having said this, every priest must strive in his personal as well as his public life to be holy as God the Father is holy. He must always be watchful and careful not to do anything that will bring scandal, disgrace or dishonor to his sacred office and to himself personally. There is one quality which indisputably links man with God and makes him the pleasing and not-unworthy “dispenser” of His mercy, namely sanctity of life and morals. If this, which is but the super eminent knowledge of Jesus Christ, be lacking in a priest, all things are lacking.

Sanctity alone makes every priest what our divine vocation demands, namely that we are men crucified to the world, men walking in the shadow of the Cross, men walking in the newness of life, in the light and glory of the Resurrection, who, as St. Paul tells us, show themselves to be ministers of God.

To teach, to rule, and to sanctify the members of His Church, Our Blessed Lord Jesus never ceases to summon young men to join the ranks of the priesthood. This call of Christ, Who said, “You have not chosen Me, but I have chosen you” (John 15:16), has received the name of ‘vocation,’ from the Latin verb ‘vocare’, to call. And indeed, no man should dare to present himself for this sacred office unless God has called him to it, unless he “has a vocation.” Neither does any man take the honor of the priesthood to himself,” says St. Paul, “but he that is called by God, as Aaron was.” (Hebrews 5:4).

A vocation to the priesthood is a very serious and awesome thing. Therefore, it should be discerned prayerfully and thoughtfully, but one who feels he hears the call of God to the priesthood in his heart should be encouraged to pursue that call to a resolution. It is important to remember, however, that a man does not choose God, but that God calls Him to service, but this does not mean that a vocation will blossom and bear the fruit of ordination.

The only genuine vocation to the priesthood, the vocation in the strict sense, is the summons by the Bishop to receive the Holy Mystery (Sacrament) of Holy Orders. In other words, it is the acceptance of a candidate for the priesthood by the Bishop, acting in the name of God, that constitutes a true vocation. This important truth has equally important implications.

Every Bishop is obligated to undertake a meticulous effort to choose the most suitable candidates for the Holy Priesthood. In expectation of this summons of the Bishop to Holy Orders, the role of the candidate is to prepare himself conscientiously by pursuing the required program for the intellectual and spiritual formation of future priests which the Church has gradually perfected over the centuries.

This long work of formation to render oneself suitable for the call to the priesthood should be in all its elements the work of divine grace, and have as its soul the persevering intention on the candidate’s part to become a priest, and a good priest.

I speak now to the men in our Church who may be hearing God whispering in their ear. If you do feel that God is calling you, you must act on that call. You should know, however, that a vocation requires no overpowering “feeling” that one is “called.” In other words, a vocation does necessarily develop or come about because of a “personal revelation” or some other extraordinary event.

In actual fact, the intention to become a priest most often takes the form of a decision calmly and prudently made by the candidate himself, usually after prayer, reading, reflection, discussions with his parents, his wife (if he has one), with a priest, and with his Bishop. This is indeed the very way in which a young man customarily formulates his developing desire within himself: “I think I want to become a priest.” And finally, “I do want to become a priest.”

After this decision, the candidate normally enters the seminary to begin his formal training and formation for the priesthood. These years of formation seek to prepare him intellectually and spiritually for the demanding office of priest, and will permit him one day, if he takes advantage of them and acquires the necessary learning and sanctity, humbly to solicit of his Bishop the summons to Holy Orders.

A man might ask, “If the decision to enter the priesthood is not a question of sensible attraction, but a decision that I must prudently make myself, then what basic qualifications should I begin to look for in myself?” The Church principally requires of the future priest intellectual knowledge sufficient to accomplish fittingly his duties and tasks as preacher, teacher, and confessor. He must also possess a moral life as elevated as the sublime dignity which he desires. He must also be a person of prayer and deep spirituality. At the same time, he must be of a good nature, easily able to get along with and work well with others.  Since the seminary exists specifically to develop these essential qualities in a candidate, all men desiring the priesthood are required to attend seminary for a certain amount of time.

In the Italo-Greek Orthodox Church, this period of formation for the priesthood is five years (three years of academic studies and spiritual formation, one year of diaconal service in a parish or other ministry setting, and one year of specialized training for priestly service (parish administration, parish finances, pastoral counseling, canon law, etc). In the sixth month of the fifth year, the candidate may petition the Bishop for sacred ordination to the Priesthood..

In general, candidates for the priesthood must possess the spiritual, emotional, psycholgical and physical stamina and strength to carry out the demanding responsibilities of a priest. Needless to say, no one should make the solemn decision to enter the service of God without the guidance of God Himself. For those of you considering a vocation to the priesthood, be regular in your daily prayers and in your efforts to conquer the sinful tendencies of our fallen nature; and offer special prayers imploring the guidance and enlightenment of the Holy Spirit and the intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos and ever-Virgin Mary, Queen of the clergy, and of all the bishops and priests who have gone before us and who now surround the heavenly altar of God. Most especially, be faithful and regular in your attendance and participation at the Divine Liturgy, and never forget to spend time alone with the Lord in Church as much as you can. Remember that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist enthroned in the tabernacle on the Altar. Do not neglect Him or keep yourself from Him. Be near and close to Him always so that your love for and desire to serve Him may deepen, grow and mature.

Remember that a priest is essentially a man of sacrifice. I personally believe that there is a transcendental relationship between the priest and sacrifice, and between the sacrifice and a priest. One cannot imagine sacrifice without a priest, and the priesthood without sacrifice. And so there is a relationship there that is more than essential; a relationship that goes beyond even the essence of the priest. I say this because Our Lord has put into our hands, into the hands of His priests, the Sacrifice of Himself. This very sacrifice is truly inexpressible; so divine, so mysterious, so sublime, that it surpasses everything we can possibly imagine.

It is an awesome and frightening thing to contemplate that we who are priests, who stand at the Altar during Divine Liturgy, do so in the person of Jesus Christ; and that it is His words, not ours, that produce His presence. Each time we speak the words of the Holy Anaphora, it is not a mere narrative that we read but an action being done, so that we say, “This is My Body,” “This is My Blood.” We do not say, “This is the Body of Jesus Christ,” or “this is the Blood of Jesus Christ.” No, we do not say such things and the reason we do not say such things is because it is Christ Himself who speaks through us. Thus, we say, “This is My Body,” and “This is the cup of My Blood…” Consequently, we are truly in the person of Christ and Christ is truly in us. It is no longer we who speak; it is Our Lord who makes use of our mouths and lips to pronounce these words anew. This, then, is the life of the priest: to be Christ in and for all things and people.

The priesthood is the highest dignity upon earth. There is no other profession or vocation that surpasses in greatness or reward than that of the Priesthood. It surpasses that of kings and emperors, even the life and service of the angels themselves. As St. John Chrysostom tells us, “For the power of kings and rulers is only over the bodies of men, whereas that of the priest is over their souls.” On the priest are conferred powers not conferred upon other mortals or even upon the angels themselves; for to what angel was it ever given to convert bread into the Body of the Lord and wine into the Blood of the Lord by his word? And not all the angels together could grant pardon for a single sin. By his office, a priest is only concerned with heavenly things; he stands between God and man; he lays our petitions before the Most High and conveys divine graces to us. He is a mediator between God and man; the messenger of God to make known His will to men. He is God’s representative, His ambassador, therefore whatever honor we show the priest, we show to God Himself. Does not Our Lord Himself say, “He that hears you hears Me; and he that despises you, despises Me?” (Luke 10:16).

The sacerdotal office is one of immense responsibility and difficulty; the obligations resting upon the priest are neither few nor light. A priest has to say his prayers every day. He must strive to keep the fasts so that his soul, mind, and body remain pure, clean and strengthened. He must spend time in prayer before the Lord in the Eucharist several times a week. This time of quiet meditation and reflection is essential to good and sound spirituality. He must visit and attend to the sick at any hour of the day or night when he is called upon to do so. He must take the Holy Eucharist to the sick and the dying. He must be available to hear the confessions of the faithful at any time and not rush through a confession; he must take great care and the time to provide sound pastoral and spiritual counseling so that sinners may sincerely turn and repent of their sins. He must be not be preoccupied with worldly attractions and amusements. That is not to say he cannot have fun or enjoy the company of friends, but again, he must never do anything of consequence that will bring shame, scandal or disgrace to his holy office, the Church, or himself. He must be solicitous of and generous to the poor and all those in genuine need. And he must do much more besides.

Unfortunately, we must not overlook the fact that priests in this present day and age are frequently the object of suspicion, ridicule and persecution, and that their apostolic labors are frequently overlooked, many times ignored, and almost always ill rewarded. The ardent followers of the world are generally inclined to treat priests as less than a common criminal or fool. Nevertheless, if a wolf comes to attack the sheep, the shepherd must leap to action and their defense. Thus, a priest must risk his own personal safety to safeguard and protect the sheep of his flock. A priest must never forget that he will have to render an account of the souls committed to his charge on the Day of Judgment. It is not an exaggeration to say that the duties of a priest are heavy and onerous. On the day of his ordination, St. John Chrysostom said, “I now need your prayers a thousand-fold more, lest on the Day of Judgment, I should be cast into the exterior darkness.”

Since the sacerdotal office is in itself an office of such great dignity and responsibility, every Orthodox Catholic Christian owes profound respect to the priest on account of his office, even if his life does not correspond to it. The personal virtue of the priest, even the lack thereof, does not impede the Holy Spirit from dispensing grace through him. Nevertheless, an unholy and sinful priest will surely be held to account when he stands before the Lord in judgment, and his judgment will be very severe because of the office he holds.

Nothing can take away the dignity which is attached to the priestly office, not even an ungodly life; therefore we are all obligated to entertain great reverence for it. Even pagan monarchs have been known to manifest deep veneration for the priests of the true God. Almighty God permits his priests to be encompassed and afflicted with spiritual, physical and emotional infirmity in order that they may have more compassion, love and mercy on those that are ignorant and that err. St. Augustine once asked, “Are we to think slightingly of Christ and the Apostles because there was a Judas among them? Who will show me any body of men on earth who are without faults?”

How blameworthy are those individuals who publish far and wide the misdeeds of a priest! Truly, every priest is to be held to a higher standard and must always be corrected and counseled when he sins, fails or otherwise goes astray. Sometimes, because of the gravity of his offense, it will be necessary to remove a priest from ministry. This is sad and is to be lamented, but we don’t stop loving, supporting and caring for and about him. Most importantly, we do not stop praying for him. We do not exclude him from the Body of Christ, but commend him to a life of prayer and repentance. But to condemn every priest because of the sins of a few is an affront to Almighty God. Who among all God’s people is without sin and therefore able to cast the first stone? Regardless of the sins of any individual priest, they do not expunge the dignity of the office.

In closing I want to reiterate that the Holy Priesthood is a life worth living. It is a life to be highly desired and sought after. Every priest must be in love with God. St. Augustine says that, “To fall in love with God is the greatest of romances, to seek Him the greatest adventure, to find Him the greatest human achievement.” This is the process of discerning a priestly vocation. It is a life I strongly recommend to all our young men. There is nothing to lose, but everything to gain. The world is waiting and dying for the love of Christ. The world is waiting for you, my sons! You can make a difference and change the world, one parish at a time!

Amen.