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.
To know is Life
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.
The Tree of life
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.
Transforming the World
When Thou, O Lord, was baptized in the Jordan the worship of the Trinity was made manifest. For the voice of the Father bore witness to Thee and called Thee His beloved Son. And the Spirit, in the likeness of a dove confirmed the truthfulness of His words. Wherefore, O Christ, our God, Who has revealed Thyself and enlightened the world, glory to Thee.
(Troparion of Theophany)
As we end the Advent season the church moves directly into the preparation for and celebration of the Feast of Theophany. This great feast of the church should be a transcendent moment in the life of each and every Christian for it reveals to us the mystery of the Trinity and the nature of our salvation. It is a moment that should inform our actions and through us, as disciples of Christ, “enlighten the world.”
The usual name that the western Christian world gives this feast is “Epiphany.” In Greek this word means “something revealed.” However, in the Orthodox Church the proper name for the feast is “Theophany,” or the specific revelation of God. This is an important distinction for us because the event on the banks of and in the waters of the Jordan River open our minds to the work of God. Thus this is no simple revelation but God stripping away the darkness and revealing Himself.
This “theophanic” event brings to the world the true knowledge of God. The Father speaks from the heavens and reveals that this person, Jesus, is really His beloved Son. Then as Jesus comes out of the waters the Holy Spirit descends and settles on Him and confirms that this man speaks with the authority of the Father and glorifies that same Father. This is the first moment that the Trinity is revealed in the New Testament and that God opens the mind of believers to this knowledge, not speaking in shadows but in the fullness of truth for our salvation. This is not to say that God didn’t also reveal this mystery in the Old Testament, see Genesis 1:26. But the revelations in the Old Testament are what St. Paul speaks of when he says: “we see in a mirror dimly…” (1 Corinthians 13:12). With the Incarnation at the Nativity we now “see face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12) the means of our salvation.
Since God has chosen, in all humility, “Permit it to be so for now, for thus it is fitting, for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15), to take on this fragile form of ours, this act of revelation changes our lives, transfiguring them, because the Son shares our very nature. Similarly, by going into the waters of the Jordan, Christ changes the nature of the waters, from chaotic to harmonious, and since they touch all creation the nature of creation changes as well.
This is also why we bless homes and such with the water that is remade in the prayers of the “Great blessing of water” in this season. Just as God brought creation into existence from the abyss in the beginning (Genesis 1:1-5), so too Christ renews and remakes it through the waters of the Jordan, “He is smitten on the cheek, Who in the Jordan delivered Adam” (15th Antiphon of Holy Friday Matins). The beginning of the mystery of Pascha and our salvation is revealed in this moment and this act and the whole world is enlightened and “called out of darkness” (1 Peter 2:9) by this revelation of God.
The Entry of the Theotokos to the Temple
Once again the Church gathers to honor a momentous occasion in the life of Mary. Just one week after beginning the Advent Fast, we celebrate the feast of her entrance to the Temple. It seems exceedingly strange that the Church should maintain a feast of Mary so close to the opening of the second longest fast of the liturgical year. Why this focus on her entrance, which as Protestants rightly point out, isn’t even in the Bible?
Once again the answer isn’t what we might first think. This feast isn’t just about Mary and a misguided exaltation of her. All feasts, icons, music and action within the Church occur for one, and only one purpose: to remind us of God’s work of salvation. Those who criticize our veneration of this day are right, it does not appear in the scriptures. But the reason for that is not because it is a fictitious account, or that Mary is unworthy of such respect. The story of Mary appears in a book written by James, the brother of the Lord and the first bishop of Jerusalem, called the Protoevangelion. This book tells us the names of Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna. It also tells us that they were righteous before God. Nevertheless, Anna was barren. They prayed to God that they might know the joys of a child and they pledged to dedicate any child to the Temple. Because they were righteous God granted them the blessing of a daughter, and because they were righteous they fulfilled their vow and brought Mary to the Temple when she turned six. Because they were righteous they, like Abraham before them, offered their child in sacrifice.
This act, as well as all others Mary witnessed growing up in their blessed home, prepared her for the day, 10 years later, when Gabriel would appear to proclaim God’s will. Mary was sacrificed to the Temple that she might understand the sacrifice God was making in sending his Son, who would ultimately take the place of Isaac and be the true sacrifice for the sins of the people, of all people. Mary’s entrance shows the depths of faith that we must have in order to truly be called Christian.
The feast shows us the faith of her parents that allowed them to fulfill their pledge to God, knowing that she would leave their lives, but also knowing the great joy God had brought them through her. It teaches us the value of the blessing that a child’s life, and we are all children, brings, even when the child is only with us for a short time. It shows us the deep, abiding love that faith brings. A love that bears any burden because it is a love that endures no matter the separation of body or soul. When Mary enters the Temple on that day God’s love encompasses her and her parents, and through their righteous sacrifice we will ultimately see the depth and breadth of God’s own love for us through his express image, Jesus Christ who is incarnate through this young girl. Let us all humbly and meekly approach God that He may bless us with the joy that Joachim and Anna knew when someone enters our life. Let us also pray that we may show them the great love God has for all. Finally, let us hope that we may all enter the Temple that is in heaven and share food at the altar so that we may all make Christ incarnate in our lives.
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.