On February 2nd, most of the U.S. waits to hear the verdict of Phil the groundhog concerning the end of winter. The Orthodox Church, however, is already preparing for “spring”. It is on this day that the Church celebrates the Presentation of the Lord. This is the day that Joseph and Mary bring the infant Jesus to the Temple and they bring with them a sacrifice of turtledoves. Before they can accomplish this though, St. Symeon meets them at the entrance. There Symeon says, “Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace according to thy word, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples; a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel.” Tradition holds that Symeon was one of the Jewish scribes/priests that helped to compose the Septuagint, or Greek, Old Testament. When he translated a verse from Isaiah as “Behold a virgin shall bear a child…” instead of “a young maiden”, he was amazed and he doubted. Little did he know that all of the 70 scribes had done the exact same thing. Because he doubted, the archangel Gabriel appeared to him and told Symeon that he would live to see this miracle. This all occurred 100-150 years before Christ’s birth! Finally, Symeon saw the Messiah coming in the form of this young babe, born of a virgin, and he weeps in joy. For here in Jesus he sees the great love of God that will free us from the bondage to death, the never-ending “winter”. He sees in the child the Son of Righteousness that thaws the hearts of men and that sheds the heavenly light to a people who sit in darkness and shadow. So if you catch yourself watching to see if Phil sees his shadow, rejoice in your heart knowing that the Light of Christ has so illumined the world that we no longer fear the dark for it is only illusion and smoke.
In comedy, whether slapstick, stand-up, or just a good party joke, there is an adage that says “Timing is everything.” The delivery of the message makes the moment. What made the great duos of Martin and Lewis, Abbot and Costello, or Crosby and Hope so funny was that they rehearsed lines and practices until they had it down pat. That effort made them appear as geniuses. Without that forethought or foreknowledge of the material they would have made mistakes and errors and the laughter would not have been from amusement but from scorn as the spectators saw not geniuses but fools.
Now one may ask, what does comedy have to do with the church? Truthfully, not much. The mission of the Church and our salvation is not a thing to be mocked at or laugh about. Yet at the same time we can learn something from the attitudes present in and towards such “fools”. The Scriptures and the witness of the saints, especially within the Slavic tradition, describe different types of foolishness. In Scripture we read of the rich man who seek only his own comfort, whom God calls a “fool” (Luke 12:20). We also read of the “foolish virgins” (Matthew 25:1-13) and of the “foolish disciples” on the road to Emmaus, who are “slow to believe” (Luke 24:25) and understand the things that have happened to Jesus. These moments of fools and foolishness concern the denial of God and His work of salvation. The rich man serves only himself and not others by hoarding his goods; the “foolish” virgins do not prepare for God’s plan and lose the light and their way; and the disciples have not kept faith with the Christ and the Father but instead are scattered and afraid, ignorant of Scripture’s message and promise.
Yet, in Scripture we also see those that are foolish in a different way. In his first letter to the Corinthians St. Paul calls those who labor for God as “fools for Christ’s sake” (1 Cor. 4:10). We also read of those who mocked the Apostles at Pentecost saying, “They are full of new wine” (Acts 2:13), thus calling them drunks and fools. In both of these cases, in contrast to the other fools mentioned above, the Apostles speak knowing God’s plan and message for mankind. That message is inherent in the sacrifice of Jesus. It is a message that can only be understood by those who reject the foolish “wisdom of the world” (1 Cor. 1:20) and turn instead to the cross that appears to be “foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:18) itself. That is why Paul also says that the cross is “to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness…because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1:23-25).
This rejection of the world can be seen most clearly in the monastic life and especially in the saints, mainly from the Slavic tradition, who are called the “fools for Christ”. The men and women that fall into the latter expression of the ascetic life presented themselves before their fellow men in order to be mocked. They played the part of fools to show the hypocrisy of the mockers. Through the sacrifice of their “dignity” they even corrected the actions and misdeeds of Tsars.
So now we come back to “timing is everything”. In the Church’s case, though, it’s not the timing of the message, but the timing of our foolishness. Do we time our lives to the beat of the world or to the beat of God? If we read the material, Scripture; and we practice, have a prayer life, and live the life of the Church; and we make the time and effort to be “for Christ’s sake” then we are joyful fools, like St. Laurence who said, while cooked over a fire, “Turn me over. I am done on this side.” If we do not do these things then the world will laugh in scorn as we stumble through life and God will not laugh at all and we will just be fools.
At the end of the Divine Liturgy the priest declares, “Let us go forth in peace.” The people’s response is: “In the name of the Lord.” This call and response are at the heart of the Christian witness. The understanding that each Christian is meant to go out into the world in the “name of the Lord”, meaning both to take His name, as “little Christs” or Christians, and to act in His name among the nations, is the central reality of Christ’s message in Matthew, “…go and make disciples of all nations…” (Mt. 28:19). However, the simple reading that sees this dialogue between the priest and the people as only a means of ending that particular Liturgy misses the point of each Christian’s need to be with others in Christ.
To truly understand what it means to “go forth in the name of the Lord” we must look beyond the simple meaning that modern English imparts to the phrase. The way to do this is to look into Scripture and see what God has done when those who follow Him go forth from one setting to another. When we look at the reality of the journeys undertaken by all those whom God has called we see that there is always an element of return in the going.
When one goes out in the authority of the Lord, one is also expected to come back as well. In fact, if there is no return then the journey is incomplete. If we look at Moses, who went forth into the wilderness, he returns to Egypt to bring God’s people out of Egypt and back to the “Promised Land”. In this case there are two moments of going forth: Moses’ and that of the Israelites who, having gone into Egypt, now return to the land of Jacob, their ancestor. There is even a third element of the going out and return in that the Jews bring back the bones of Joseph who was sold into slavery and went out of the land of Jacob, his father, and now returns with the people of God. Christ Himself also makes this journey into Egypt and back to the land of Jacob while an infant. Christ also journeys out from Jerusalem and returns to it for His crucifixion. Likewise, when he sends His disciples out to heal those in the countryside they return to Him. And the greatest return of all is that Christ returns us to the proper place at God’s side when He ascends, restoring our nature to the full image and likeness of God.
The early Christians also understood this need to go out and come back. The Apostles went from Jerusalem to proclaim the Gospel and returned to the Holy City for counsel and to hold councils. Paul when confronted by Christ goes into the wilderness and returns to Damascus to begin his own apostleship. As Christianity spread throughout the Empire, Christians of all ranks regularly made “returns” of their own, no longer simply to one city, but to all the places that God had worked through the Apostles and their successors. These journeys, or pilgrimages, connected the separated Christian communities in a way not possible in a purely physical way. As each Christian prepared to go forth he/she also prepared to return with a renewed spirit and a restored understanding of being in Christ. Each time one went on a pilgrimage it meant leaving behind anything that separated the pilgrim from God and instead trusting God to strengthen and illumine the one making the journey and through them others when they returned home. In this way the missionary mind of the Church is continually renewed in each of us.
Those who read this who have never “made” a retreat or gone on a pilgrimage will find that their journey into the life of Christ is still incomplete. They stand isolated and not yet whole within the life of the Christian community. They will find that time passes too quickly. Yet there is hope if we remember: the start of the journey of a lifetime, the return to Christ, begins with our taking a first step.
Dn. Joseph reflects on the centurion's encounter with Christ, and that the authority that the centurion seeks is one that comes from love. It is his love for his servant, his brother and neighbor that shows the faith that Christ says is more than any He has encountered even in Israel.
This week's Epistle reading is from Romans 2:10-16. Here St. Paul comments on the difference between hearing the Law and doing it, and how God shows "no partiality", that the judgment is "first to the Jew then to the Gentile". In his reflection on this Fr. Joel explains that in the doing the person chooses to live and act in a certain way, acknowledging that God's way in Christ through the Holy Spirit brings freedom, while hearing only and doing something different leads to a different life, one of slavery and bondage. This is the point of the Law, sin means communion with other gods, the "powers and principalities of darkness" St. Paul speaks of elsewhere, and that kind of communion is unto death.
On June 19th the holiday of Juneteenth is celebrated. In this reflection, offered after the serving of the Canon of Racial Reconciliation, Dn. Joseph relates the history of Juneteenth and the current state of unrest brought about through the recent unjust death of George Floyd and others. Sharing his own experiences both as an African American and as a former Corrections Officer Dn. Joseph draws us to reflect not simply on the earthly freedom that is celebrated on Juneteenth, but to rejoice in the true Freedom that is in Christ Jesus, Who frees all humanity from the slavery and tyranny of sin and death.
The words 'acknowledge' and 'deny' as used in the Scripture read for the Feast of All Saints mean much more than to simply affirm or dismiss what Christ is saying. The words as Christ uses them are as St. Peter says "...the words of eternal life (John 6:68)." To know is to engage and integrate Christ's very life as our own; to deny is to turn away from that life being offered and to ultimately seek disintegration. It is this choice that Fr. Joel reflects on for the Feast of All Saints, all who have yearned for Christ and followed Him.
On the Great Last Day of the Feast and in the wake of George Floyd's death, and the tragic death of so many others recently, Fr. Joel reflects on the state of man's brokenness and how the rebellion of pride is the back drop of both what we face in the divide between the races, and in truth all people, and in our disrespect of the humanity in others. The Holy Spirit is sent into the world to illumine this Truth, and to heal the divisions so that all the nations may receive the Gospel.
Once there was a village that was holding an anniversary celebration. Each family was asked to bring food and one urn of wine; all the wine would be put into a community vat and shared by all. In the time leading up to the celebration everyone prepared the decorations and joined in the festive mood. On the night before the feast one man sat in his home and said to himself, “It’s been tough this year for me and my family, tougher than for others. There’s only so much to go around. I’ll save a little by bringing a jug of water instead of wine to the celebration. After all, once I pour it into the common vat no one will ever know.” Content with his decision the man went to sleep.
The next day the whole village turned out for the festivities. The air was rich with the smells of different foods and everyone, including the man, stood around the vat saying how good the wine was going to taste. Well the morning turned into the afternoon and everyone was ready to taste the wine. The mayor of the town came out and spoke of the sacrifice everyone had made to bring the wine that all would share. Then the crowd held its breath as the mayor took up the hammer to drive in the tap and let the wine flow. It was a mighty swing, the tap went in...and water poured out. You see, it was not just the one man who justified his actions but the whole town, for all had brought water and not wine. Each was convinced that he had it worse than the others and so could get away with doing less.
How ironic, in light of this story, that the first miracle of Jesus in the Gospel of John is the changing of water into wine, while the townspeople of the story manage to do the opposite. The miracle at the wedding of Cana is a miracle not just because water became wine, but because polluted water became the best wine that the steward had ever tasted. Jesus took the accumulated dirt and debris of human life and transformed it into something transcendent and sweet. While the people of the town let the debris of daily human life overwhelm their thoughts and so the transcendent became mundane.
Jesus is able to make things new because he correctly understands the nature of sacrifice, his own and in general. He acknowledges throughout his ministry, both in what he says and what he does, that there is an inherent obligation first to God then to each other. The prime example is of course the “greatest commandment” and the second, “which is like it” (Matthew 22:36-39). Christ shows that commitment to God cannot be halfway; if it is then something will be between us and God. Similarly, love for the “neighbor” cannot be partial either, but must be as strong as love [preservation] of self because that which is loved receives our full attention, “where your treasure is there is your heart” (Matthew 6:21).
The world, which knows him not (John 1:10), does not understand this level of commitment and sacrifice. Adam fell because he sought to attain “godhood” without participation in God’s plan; Saul failed as king because he forgot that the kingship belonged to God and not Saul; the Israelites continually fell away because they forgot sacrifice and coveted what the other nations had. Like the people of the story we all too often let worries and notions of what is needful, based on knowledge of this world, prevent us from meeting the most important of duties, love. St. Paul said that love endures all things, believes all things, hopes all things, love never fails. Love is an obligation that knows no boundaries. It is an obligation whose only burden is faith in the worthiness of the other. That is the sadness of the Village on that day of joy, while each looked only to his own needs, the community suffered as a whole.
This is also the sadness for the Church today. We have forgotten to think as a community sharing the joy of the feast. Yes, we love, but conditionally. I can love you today God, but only between 2 and 4 because the kids have ballet and soccer; I want to give/do more than that but others can give/do more than me. Until one day we all wake up and approach the chalice and “poof,” the wine is now just water and the feast is in the next town over.
O Lord save Thy people, and bless Thine inheritance; and to Thy faithful people grant victory over the enemy, and by the power of Thy Cross protect all those who follow Thee.
- Troparion of the Holy Cross
Pilate said to them, “What then shall I do with Jesus who is called the Christ?” They all said to him, “Let Him be crucified!” With these words the climax of the Gospel begins to take shape. Now Christ will be led to Golgotha where He will suffer the final humiliation, a criminal’s death at the hands of the Gentiles brought about by the condemnations of the Jews, the very people God had called His own.
Yet, after His death, the instrument of His humiliation is a source of awe for His followers. Instead of being an image of oppression it becomes the image of true freedom. The Cross, an instrument of Roman occupation, becomes the symbol of Christian victory. To this day the Cross is an object worthy of veneration, even for those who disavow the use of icons. Why should something so gruesome become so important to the followers of a man killed by it?
The answer is that the Cross, just as every other part of the Gospel, reveals the great Truth, God has remained faithful to His creation. Christ’s submission “to the point of death, even the death of the Cross” (Phil. 2:8) is the ultimate sacrifice. The co-eternal Son and Word has identified totally with those created in the image and likeness of God. He has taken on the burden of an unjust death, and it is in that very act of dying that He reveals what being in the image and likeness of God really means. Through this act He is able to fill hades with the love of God, which brings life, and to return those bound in sin to the One who created them. He makes known both the love of God that never be made out of reach and the real “greater love” of man “for his friends” (John 15:13).
The Cross of Christ is “to the Jews a stumbling block and to the [Gentiles] a foolishness…”, but for the Christian it is the ultimate expression of God’s love for His creation. In the crucifixion of Jesus we are freed not just from an earthly master but from the bondage to the enemy, Death, and we are given the perfect example of humanity in God’s image and likeness, a humanity that bridges the earthly and the heavenly realms.
Through this ancient symbol of oppression Christ showed that the denial of the world and its desires is the path to salvation. It is the great paradox of Christianity; in weakness we are made strong, in humility we are raised up, and in submission to God we are truly set free. This is why Christians still venerate the Cross, for in stretching out His hands on it, Christ has embraced us and surrounded us in His love, reuniting us with our God and Father. By partaking of the “tree of Life” Christ has revealed the knowledge of, and in, God that has healed the wound of ignorance caused by Adam’s partaking of the tree of the Garden of Eden without God.
A Good Word
In the Tradition of the Orthodox Church the request to receive a "good word" is a request to both receive a blessing and to receive wisdom from a spiritual elder in our desire to follow after Christ. May these homilies and writings be to the Glory of God!
Fr. Joel Gillam is the Pastor of St. George Orthodox Church. He is Spiritual Advisor to the Young Adult Ministry in the Diocese, and is a graduate of St. Vladimir Seminary.
Deacon Joseph Clark is the assistant at St. George Orthodox Church. He has a background in Criminal Justice, and currently teaches the Catechumen classes at St. George.