In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the Seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of Hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!” Then flew one of the Seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.”
Isaiah 6: 1-7
Christ is Risen!
Thank you for the MANY MANY messages I received yesterday on the 25th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. I feel very encouraged and motivated. It was very beautiful to read how we have a personal connection even though I have not met many of you in person. Last night I celebrated the Divine Liturgy, as I always do on my anniversary. Unlike other years, I decided to write out some remarks, some of them personal which you probably do not know. I would like to share these thoughts with you today. And we will resume our study of St. Basil’s Liturgy tomorrow. We are about 12 reflections away from the conclusion of this study.
Thank you for coming tonight. Today is not a normal liturgical day. So everyone who is here tonight I know is here for me and I’m grateful for your presence and your prayers. This moment of the Divine Liturgy is where the ordination of a priest takes place. The number one role of the priest is to be the celebrant of the Divine Liturgy, and the other sacraments of the church. The ordination takes place here, after the Gifts have been placed on the altar, but before they are consecrated. The man who is being ordained a priest has served to this point in the Divine Liturgy as a deacon, as a helper. By the time the gifts are consecrated, he will be in his new role.
God calls certain people to certain things. I remember telling this to a group of people, that I believe God called me to be a priest. And someone said “that’s the most arrogant thing I’ve ever heard, you think God tapped you on the shoulder and said I want you to be a priest.” And the answer is yes, I think He did. Just like I think He taps other people to be doctors, teachers, parents and all the other roles we have in society. Some don’t answer their calling, but everyone has a calling. And this is mine. I knew that I would be a priest when I was seven, the first time I stepped foot into the holy altar as an altar boy. I had just finished first grade, and it was July of 1979. Somewhere around that time, my parents told me the story of how I got my name. I wasn’t named for my paternal grandfather, as most first-born sons are in our culture. I was named because of a prayer they made on the Sunday of the Holy Cross on March 14, 1971. Having been told they could not have children, they prayed to God for a son, promising to name him Stavros after the Holy Cross. I was born one year later, March 14, 1972, same day, same hour, as their prayer. From the age of 7 until the age of 20, I kept my thoughts of the priesthood to myself. I never told anyone, not my parents, not my priest, not a soul. And I struggled with the thoughts, every day. In college, the thoughts were so overwhelming, I had a hard time thinking of anything else. Until one day, while traveling on a plane over the ocean, I had this dream where I saw and heard a choir of angels, I woke up and saw what looked like the fingers of a large hand in the rays of the sun, I saw this as the hand of God. At this moment, I literally couldn’t take it anymore and I said quietly to God, “Ok, You win, I’ll go.” When I told my parents, they told me, “remember the story of how you got your name, well, we left out one detail. When we promised to name you Stavros, we also promised to give you back to God, as a priest, that’s why we specifically asked for a son. We never told you because we wanted to see if you would figure it out on your own, and now you have.” So, away I went to the seminary in 1994, married Lisa in 1995, got ordained as a deacon in spring of 1997, and served in that role for a year, as the deacon to His Eminence Metropolitan Methodios of Boston.
May 15, 1998 was a Friday. The Archbishop of America was in Boston for our graduation from the seminary which was going to be on Saturday, and he decided Friday was the day I’d be ordained. I had only ten days’ notice by the way.
When a person is ordained, they make a speech to the ordaining bishop, stating why they are there. My spiritual father told me to give the speech as if I was giving it to Christ Himself. My thoughts included a veiled promise that I have faithfully kept. Then two priests took me by the arms, like a prisoner going off to execution, or in spiritual terms, like a lamb to the slaughter, and led me around the altar table three times, as the clergy sang the hymns from the wedding service, except this time I was marrying the church. This second marriage to the church, for every married man who has done it, begins a life-long struggle to balance his family and his church family. I feel on a daily basis that I fail one family or the other and sometimes both of them. This is perhaps the heaviest cross of the priesthood.
I knelt in front of the holy altar, the bishop placed his hand on my head, and prayed for the Holy Spirit to come down on me, to heal that which is infirm and complete that which is lacking in me. I knelt at the Holy Altar this evening, to offer the prayer before the Great Entrance, because I always kneel this day, in the same posture I did that day, hands crossed, my head buried in them, and to ask for God’s grace to come again, because I am still infirm and lacking and I still need that grace, perhaps even more so now than then.
The weight of this ministry is not understood by others. In Isaiah 53:3, Isaiah foretells of Jesus as “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we esteemed Him not.” I’ve felt the pain of rejection frequently in ministry, on at least a weekly if not sometimes a daily basis. I am not Jesus, far from Him, but I feel that pain as a man of sorrows, misunderstood by many, even hated by some. I am acquainted with grief. I’ve made the painful walk down the center aisle of the church to bring a casket in at the beginning of a funeral over 200 times, and as the years go by, that walk seems longer and longer. What’s made it even more sad is how many times I have made it for a child, over 20 times, including again 17 days ago.
In Isaiah 6, the prophet tells of a magnificent vision in the temple, where he sees and hears the angels, the foundations of the temple shake and the whole house is filled with smoke. I have seen this vision many times, this is the joy of the priesthood. I’m remembering a dear friend who died many years ago, who made his confession in my presence. I forgot what he said a few minutes after he said it, but I remember his voice being like thunder, and feeling like this temple was shaking as the Holy Spirit descended on him to wipe out his sins. I have been privileged to be in the room numerous times when people have taken their last breath, and each time that happens, I have fallen to my knees out of respect for the angels that descend into the room to take the soul out of the body and take it to the Lord. I have celebrated the Divine Liturgy over 2,500 times. And yes, at many of them I wasn’t into it, like all of us, sometimes this is boring, even for me. There have been a precious few, one in particular, when I felt I was in heaven, surrounded by the angels. There have been times when I was so overwhelmed, I didn’t think I had the proper time to write something or enough energy to take another step, and so many times, the Holy Spirit has sent me the grace to complete what I was lacking, to write the sermon for me, to give me the strength on two hours of sleep at summer camp to hear 12 hours of confessions and still be focused. So many times, He has provided the things I have lacked.
Isaiah’s response to the vision was a profound sense of unworthiness. He lamented “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of Hosts!” (Isaiah 6:4) Many days, I feel exactly like Isaiah—lost, unclean, and in a world which is unclean. Sadly, on many days, I don’t feel like Isaiah at all—it’s a job, it’s a paycheck, it’s what I do, and I get angry and frustrated, the lips become unclean, just like everyone else. Getting ordained provides the opportunity for a man to stand in front of the altar, it doesn’t make him a saint. As I begin the second quarter century, this is probably my biggest area for improvement—to feel more the humility of Isaiah. And yet God in His graciousness still calls Isaiah, unclean lips and all. The angels tell Isaiah, as they touch his lips with a burning coal taken from the altar, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.” (Isaiah 6:7) And I have to cling to this hope. I remember when I was ordained a deacon, at the end of my speech, I used a beautiful quote, “with the fear of God, with faith and with love I draw near.” It sounded good, cute, I had heard someone else use it. When I was ordained as a priest a year later, having had a taste of both the joys and sorrows, the last line of that speech was “Please God do not condemn me for what I am about to do.” I think today, “please God don’t condemn me for what I have done and what I am doing.”
After the ordination, these were the vestments I wore for the first time as a priest. I don’t wear them often, I have many sets now, and I want these to last my entire life, in fact this is the set I will be laid to rest in when that time comes. In later years, I would be gifted the responsibility of being a confessor and added the epigonation, and then in my first couple of years at St. John, I would be gifted the offikion of protopesbyter and wear a cross—this one was a gift from my parents, which is why I chose to wear it tonight. Fun fact, the Communion cloth I’m using tonight was a gift from my priest when I was ordained. He gave me three of them. He said “you held this cloth for me when you were a teenager, may it always connect us, and connect you to where you come from.” Two years ago, I gifted three of our Communion cloths to Fr. Kyriakos with the same words.
After the gifts are consecrated, the ordaining bishop will take the newly consecrated Body of Christ, the whole piece, and place it in the hands of the new priest, and say these words, “Receive this Divine Trust, guard it until the second coming of our Lord, at which time He will demand it from you.” This is called the Parakatathiki, and it represents the church and everyone the priest will ever encounter in his ministry. This is charge is both a privilege, a responsibility, and something for which the priest will be accountable for eternity. Most of us priests probably don’t think of this often enough, because if we did we would probably quit and run. I pray that I have honored this divine trust in a way that pleases God. I certainly can do a lot better.
Finishing these comments now, I am thankful to those with whom I have shared this ministry, spiritual children, co-workers, parishioners, friends. I’m thankful for the memories, too numerous to count, of the times I have been moved, inspired and encouraged by you and by working with you. I can’t count how many times I have seen small miracles that confirm to me the present and truth of Jesus Christ. I can’t think of how many things I’ve gotten to do as a priest that only a priest can do, and I am thankful to God for choosing me to do these things. I never thought 25 years ago on the morning that I was ordained that I would spend nearly 19 of the next twenty-five years living in Tampa, Florida. I had visited Florida once as a child on a family vacation and it didn’t end well as our car got stolen in Miami. So I can’t honestly say I had a good opinion of Florida 25 years ago, it would have been the last place I would have wanted to live. I couldn’t imagine directing a summer camp because on the day of my ordination, if you asked me what I was most afraid of the answer would have been “doing youth work.”
But as the saying goes, “we plan and God laughs” or perhaps Isaiah said it best when he wrote, concerning God, “for your thoughts are not my thoughts.” I think God knew what He was doing 52 years ago when my parents knelt and offered their prayer. I think God knew what He was doing when I was born a year later, on that July day in 1979 when I stepped in the altar, throughout my childhood as He kept the call burning in my soul, on May 15, 1998, when He allowed me to be ordained, and in summer of 2004 when He called me to this parish. If I’ve learned one thing, and actually I confess, I’m still trying to learn this one thing, it is that when I let His thoughts be higher than my thoughts, life and ministry are just better. And on every bad day, the root cause is probably that I’ve tried to put my thoughts higher than His. So, thank You God for this call, for the grace which You poured out on me twenty-five years ago, and which You still pour out on me today, despite my unworthiness to receive it. Thank you to Lisa who has shared every good as well as painful step along the way, to Nicholas who has shared the past 16 years, and to you, who share in this ministry in Tampa, and who came here tonight to pray for me. Thank you. The night before my ordination, I wrote in a notebook the characteristics of the parish I hoped to one day serve—right down to little details about altar furnishings, choir arrangements, and other things. I feel blessed that the church I dreamed of back then, actually matches quite closely the one I have served for the past 19 years. As God so wills, I hope I will be standing in front of you for many years to come. And now we close 25 years, one quarter century, and enter into year 26.
Lord, thank You for the gift of ordination to the priesthood. Thank You for the many things I have been able to do as a priest. Thank You for the inspiration to create the Prayer Team and the daily inspiration You provide to keep writing. Bless all the people who are reading this message today—their families, their marriages, and most especially their journeys of faith. Remember them all in Your heavenly kingdom. Amen.