Hear O sons, a father’s instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight; for I give you good precepts: do not forsake my teaching.
Proverbs 4: 1-2
Not every sermon I offer or Prayer Team message that I write will inspire everyone who hears or reads it. I’m sure some of them don’t inspire anyone. The sermon I offered yesterday, which was a reflection about my recent trip to Holy Cross Seminary, generated a lot of response in my parish. I want to share this message with you. The Gospel lesson from yesterday was Mark 8:34-9:1, and this passage is referred to throughout the sermon. We will reflect on St. Basil’s Liturgy Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, then spend two days on the Feast of the Annunciation, before resuming St. Basil again next week.
I had the blessing to go to Holy Cross Seminary in Brookline, Massachusetts this past Thursday, Friday and yesterday. I was asked to be part of a program called “Be Attentive: Conversations on Vocational Discernment.” The situation at our Seminary is pretty dire—only seven seminarians will graduate this year. Only eight graduated last year. Only seven started this year. The church can’t make it like this. The church doesn’t need people with a pulse at the Seminary. It needs people with a call, with a love for Christ, with a fire to share Him with others, and with a work ethic to back it all up. It doesn’t need people, it needs the right people. And the purpose of this seminar was to invite 21 people to help them discern if they are the right people for this ministry.
There are two things I wanted to share from the trip—one was a presentation by Fr. Nick Louh, the priest in Jacksonville, Florida. It was about “The Priest Outside the Parish”. He talked about the Great Commission to spread the Gospel to all nations. He talked about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. He talked about going out into the community and finding the unchurched, those who have never heard of Christ and bringing Christ to them. He asked some pretty hard questions—like “What would Christ think about you and your efforts in this regard?” “What would Christ think of you right now?” and “What would Christ think of our parish?” He talked about parishes and parishioners that want to only maintain what they have versus parishes who want to expand who they serve. I’m not doing it justice, and when I get a copy of his powerpoint, I’ll remember more of these excellent points and sobering questions and share them with you because they are certainly worthy.
The second thing I wanted to share is something we did early yesterday morning as the sun was coming up over frigid New England. All 21 of these prospective students stood around the altar table in the Chapel. And all six of us presenters, the Chaplain, and the Chief of Staff of the Seminary, also a priest, each took a turn standing in front of the altar and sharing with them what it means to us to stand in front of the Holy Altar. One of the priests, a convert to Orthodoxy, talked about how he was drawn to the church by the architecture, and the perfect architectural plan of a church. He reminded us that the chandeliers of a church represent the stars in the skies, and that the dome of the church represents heaven itself. That there is Christ, above all things created. Coming down from the dome is the half-dome, the Platitera, which reminds us that Christ descended from heaven to become one of us, and He did that by means of one of us, the Virgin Mary. Coming down from the Platitera, we see Christ on the cross, which is the reason why He came down from heaven in the first place. The altar table represents the throne of God, because Christ sits on this throne at all times, in the presence of Holy Communion. The altar table also represents the tomb of Christ, because on it lays the sacrifice of Christ, His Body and Blood that we lay on it each time we celebrate the Divine Liturgy. The Holy Spirit descends from heaven, and breathes life into our sacrifice, so that it comes alive, just as Christ did again at the Resurrection. And then at the moment we are invited to receive Holy Communion, it is as if Christ Himself springs forth from the tomb and offers us a piece of His Resurrected Body, in preparation for our Resurrection. So that we are alive in Christ. So that we are alive in Christ.
A quick glance of the news at the airport brought me back to the reality that most of the world is not alive in Christ. We are angry. Another angry press conference, another special interest group demanding its share of whatever it feels entitled to. Another angry mob wanting to protest. It’s like the daily living out of the verse we heard in today’s Gospel lesson—what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his own soul? We are chasing the world and it’s costing us our souls. Last night, I got an email from an old friend in Asheville, where I used to serve, to let me know that my former chanter had passed away. He was a kind man, and like everyone who dies, the whole world of his life is gone. His business, gone. His family, gone. His home, gone. His health and vitality, gone. All that is left of him is his soul, now on its way to meet the Lord for judgment. His whole world, gone. His soul, all that remains. Are we working so hard to gain the world, that we’re selling out our souls in the process. That’s not to say we can’t ever smile, or do anything fun, like watch the NCAA tournament as I did with my family last night. But today is a sober reminder that if we care only for the world, and never think of our souls, at some point, we will be in trouble.
The concluding phrase of a prayer in the Divine Liturgy, is called an ekphonesis, an exclamation of glory to God, to whom we offer all prayers. For instance, at the end of a set of petitions, the priest will offer an ekphonesis such as “For to You belongs all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and forever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.” As he does this, he is supposed to raise his hands. This priest, who so eloquently described the architecture of the church, told us how when he stands in front of the Altar Table and offers an ekphonesis, he raises his hands, looks at Jesus on the cross, and imagines that he is putting his hands over the hands of Jesus, that he goes right on the cross with Jesus, that he does the same things Jesus did when He was on that cross. And what did He do on that cross, besides die for our sins? He showed us how we are to live, and how we are to die.
He forgave those who were murdering Him. We have a hard time forgiving a misunderstanding or a misstep. He showed us that real forgiveness is to forgive anyone, even someone who is murdering you.
He showed mercy to a thief whose life had been rendered meaningless by his society. He was found unworthy to live, unworthy of any mercy. And yet, Christ found mercy for even him. As an aside, one of the 21 prospective students, a man named Christos, is an older man, maybe 60. He asked me the other day if I thought he was too old to answer the call of Christ to be a priest. I answered him, we are never too old, and it is never too late. That thief on the cross answered the call to Christ in the dying moments of his life. With his hands outstretched, he never put them together to offer a prayer. Yet Christ told him “Today you will be with Me in paradise,” and the ministry of the thief is spoken of more than the ministry of any priest, because in the Divine Liturgy this morning, we didn’t say the name of any priest, or theologian, or professor, but we remembered the thief, that’s how profound his ministry was. It’s actually never too late in this life to come to Christ, to take up the cross and follow. When this life is over, however, it is too late. And because we never know when this life will end, we should not delay.
Christ took care of people, even as He was dying, as He ministered to His mother and His disciple.
And Christ died with perfect faith in God, He said, “Father, into YOUR hands I commit My Spirit.”
Today is the third Sunday of Lent. We are halfway through the Lenten journey. Today is designated as the Sunday of the Holy Cross. In a few moments we will have a procession of the Holy Cross, the cross will be carried around the church, and pass over each of our heads, as we kneel. I hope as the cross passes over your heads, that you’ll give a thought about what it means to take your hands and place them over the hands of Christ, to live as He showed us when He extended His hands on it—to forgive those who don’t deserve forgiveness. To have mercy on those who don’t deserve mercy. To trust in God above everything else. To be like the thief who made the most of His encounter with Christ, to remember that Christ descended from heaven and came forth from the tomb alive, and because of this, we are alive in Him, not only for everlasting life, but in this life. To remember the words of St. Paul to the Romans that are read at every baptism, that we also should consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:11) To remember the words of the Gospel today, that whoever wishes to come after Christ, must deny himself, take up the cross and follow. The daily news cycle of anger does not reflect this. Our daily obsession with likes on social media does not reflect this. Our pursuit of gaining the whole world does not reflect this. Working on our souls gains this. That doesn’t mean we can’t watch a basketball game, or laugh, or have fun, or even get upset sometimes. It doesn’t mean we have to be a priest, or lead a church community. It does mean, however, that we need to be in sync with Christ, to stretch out our hands, as He stretched out His, and to place our hands in His hands, to live a life where forgiveness, mercy, generosity, charity, sacrifice and love are not just words we are reminded of in church occasionally, but words we live by every day.
Yesterday, I learned something that I didn’t know, and I did something I’ve never done. The Seminary has a relic of the Holy Cross of Christ. I knew that. What I didn’t know if that it was a gift from an old seminary in the Middle East that closed its doors in the 1930s, and gave this relic of the cross to our new seminary in 1937. I didn’t know that. And this is why our seminary is named for the Holy Cross, because the chapel of the Holy Cross is at the center of the campus, the relic of the Holy Cross is at the center of the chapel, and the sacrifice Christ made on the Holy Cross must be in the heart of every priest, every student, and indeed every Christian. When I was at the Seminary, many years ago, we would venerate the relic of the Holy Cross from time to time, but never did I dare to actually pick up the relic in my hands. Yesterday, the priests and the prospective students were actually invited to pick up the relic and hold in our hands the cross of Christ, to place our hands on the place where His hands once were. It was, actually, a pretty powerful moment. While most of you will never have this opportunity, in the tangible way I did yesterday, symbolically, we all have this opportunity to take up the cross and follow each time we remember to live as Christ did when He was on the cross, and each time we deny the world to work on our souls.
I hope you have a good week this week. I hope you have fun this week. I hope you laugh this week. Christ had good weeks, He had good friends, He liked to laugh, He liked to have fun. But He didn’t do these things to the exclusion of the most important things. He never forgot His purpose. So have a good week, but don’t forget your purpose—to take up the cross and follow, and to enhance your soul, even if it comes at the expense to some of the temptations that life is so full of. Because at the end of the day, you only need one “like” on the totality of your life—and that’s the like that we pray comes from Christ at the last judgment.
What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his own soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? Nothing. Let us be reminded that if we want to follow Christ, if we can to be resurrected like He was, if we want to sit at the right hand of the Father, as He does, then we need to deny ourselves, take up the cross and follow. May this day remind you of that. May it remind you of that line of Christ in the architecture of this church, from heaven, to earth, to the cross, to the tomb, to the Resurrection, to YOU. And may you come eagerly to the Divine Liturgy, as you have today, to partake of the Resurrected Christ so that our souls can be perfected as only He can perfect them, so that the line of our life goes from receiving the Resurrected Christ, to carrying our cross, with the help of the Panagia and the saints, to heaven. This is what it means to carry our cross, and this is where our cross leads, not to popularity on earth, but to glory in heaven. Amen.
Out of the depths I cry to Thee, O Lord! Lord, hear my voice! Let Thy ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications! If Thou, O Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with Thee that Thou mayest be feared. I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning. O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with Him is plenteous redemption. And He will redeem Israel from all His iniquities. Psalm 130