Death and the Saints

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Sunday of All Saints, June 15, 2014
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Death and the afterlife are topics which are often on the minds of clergy, but they were especially on my mind this past week, as we not only experienced the death of one of our sisters in Christ in this parish but my own family also came face to face with the possible death of my mother, thousands of miles away in South Africa where she and my father were visiting on business. But death is no stranger to Orthodox Christians. One might even say that we are a Church that confronts death with a boldness and frankness that are rarely seen elsewhere in the world.

And on this Sunday of All Saints, we again confront death. It might not seem obvious that this should be a day when we confront death, when we celebrate a feast for all the saints. But if we look into how this feast day came to be celebrated in the Orthodox Church, we will understand perhaps a little better.

Initially, this feast was the Feast of All Martyrs. During this feast, the Church celebrated all those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their love and faith in Jesus Christ. The word martyr itself means “witness,” and so a martyr is one who witnesses to Christ even in death. And the martyrs were in the early Church those who were most immediately venerated as “holy,” which itself is a word meaning “set apart.” And in the Greek of the early Church, holy and saint are the same word.

But the Church also recognized that it was not only those killed for their faith who witnessed to the truth of Christ in a holy way but that there were others. And so the word saint came to be applied to other witnesses, as well. So this Sunday’s commemoration includes all the saints, whether they were killed for their faith or not. And this feast developed further to what it is today, which is a celebration not only of all the saints whose names are listed in the canonical books of the Church but of all the saints who have been well-pleasing to God, even if their names and stories are unknown to the Church.

It is in this broadest sense that I would like us to contemplate today the meaning of this feast and most especially the meaning of what it means to be a saint. The Scriptures make use of the word saint in a broader sense than just what we usually now think of, namely, someone who is “officially” a saint, whose name is included in the synaxarion, who may have hymns for church services dedicated to them, who may have icons, etc.

In the Scriptures, saint is used to refer of course to those departed who are venerated from of old, as we heard in today’s reading from Hebrews, who did all those amazing things like subduing kingdoms, stopping the mouths of lions, etc. But it is also used to refer to those who are not yet departed from this earthly life—indeed, saint is used in Scripture to refer to all faithful Christians.

Now, if a “saint” can be any faithful Christian, does it then make sense to single out certain people as “saints” in a more “official” way, such that they are publicly venerated? Yes, of course it does, for the Scriptures themselves do it, as we heard in Hebrews today. We hear in that epistle that “all the saints” did those marvelous things, but of course that is not true of “all the saints” in that broadest sense meaning “every Christian.” So we can rightly use the word saint to refer to those people who especially witnessed to faith in Christ in an extraordinary way, and we can also use it to refer to all Christians, to all of ourselves, though it is probably best rightly said not directly about oneself. To say “I am a saint” could be pretty misleading!

But what is perhaps most interesting here is that, after Paul says in Hebrews all those amazing things that these saints have done, he links them together with his readers. He writes this: “And all these, having obtained a witness through their faith, did not receive the promise, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”

He has been speaking of Old Testament saints, of course, so when he says that they “did not receive the promise,” he is referring to the coming of the Messiah Whom they had not yet received. But more importantly, he says that God had foreseen something better, that “apart from us they should not be made perfect.” What this means is that the perfection of the promise given to those who are in Christ among Paul’s audience is the same perfection given to those who came before Jesus’ advent. And we may also, I think, say quite rightly that this is the same perfection given to the saints who came after.

Thus, the holiness of the Old Covenant saints, the holiness of the saints of the New Covenant, and whatever holiness we in our unworthiness may have received from God, is really all the same. We may think of ourselves as something radically different from the saints, but we’re really not. They’re just people, just like us. The difference is just one of degree, not of kind. They may be better at being witnesses to Christ, but they are not something that we’re not. We’re all witnesses. We’re all saints.

So what does all of this have to do with death? That’s where we started today, with the claim that Orthodoxy takes a long, hard look at death and confronts it. In the passage we read from Hebrews, Paul says that the reason the saints suffered all the things they did and did not try to escape those sufferings was “so that they might obtain a better resurrection.” That’s the link here between the saints and death.

As Christians, we believe in the resurrection. We believe that everyone will be resurrected at the end of time, the “first fruits” of that promise being the resurrection of Christ Himself, which is what also enabled that general resurrection for all mankind. All mankind will be raised—some to a resurrection of judgment and some to a resurrection of life. But if we desire a “better resurrection,” as Paul describes the resurrection of life, then we have to do as the saints did—suffer for Christ, suffer in a Christlike manner, and not seek to escape that suffering.

So what is a saint? A saint is one who bears not just the hope of future resurrection to eternal life within himself, but someone who makes that hope truly present within his everyday life. This week, as I myself witnessed death and a close brush with it, I was reminded very intensely of that hope, and that hope came shining through,

When we die, we enter into a time of waiting while our souls are separated from our bodies. But there will come a future time when all the dead will be raised, and our souls and bodies will be put back together. That hope that Christians especially bear within us of not just “life after death” but rather “life after life after death” can have a radical effect on our lives right now. It is why we do not have to fear death, either for ourselves or for our family and loved ones, because we know that it is only temporary. Death itself will have an end to it. We will of course miss those who depart before us, and it is right that we should grieve, for death is a terrible thing, but we do not grieve as those who have no hope. Our grief is a hopeful grief, a godly sorrow.

But even beyond not fearing death, we also have the possibility of bearing resurrection within our lives at this very moment, by anticipation of what is to come. For one thing, because we know that there will be a time after death, a time after the resurrection when a renewed heaven and earth will be established, all ruled by the perfect presence of God, that means that we can hold all earthly orders—including governments—somewhat lightly. Our ultimate citizenship is elsewhere. We accept earthly governments and structures as useful but only temporarily useful. We don’t have to let politics and systems and power get to us.

More importantly, however, we can know that what we do in this age that orients us toward the age that is to come will itself last into that age to come. The love that you now give will last forever. The suffering that you now experience will last forever, though not as suffering but rather as refinement and perfection. It is suffering here, but there it will be glory.

The gifts that you give, the work that you do, the compassion and creativity that you show—all these things are the building blocks of the true civilization that is being established and is already breaking through. We see the beginnings of that civilization here in the Church, where God’s order is most perfectly expressed, but that order will someday become universal.

We often think of “heaven” as some kind of static “place” we go to when we die, but the age to come is really about the age that will happen after that temporary waiting period we go to when we die. There will be work to do in the age to come, things to be fashioned and built and created. It will be a new creation from God, but we don’t have to wait until then. We can participate in it right now. What we do now that contributes to that resurrected reality will last forever. We build now and invest now for that ultimate future. There will be much to do then, and we can begin working on it now. And we do that because we have that hope of resurrection.

So as we face death, as we face suffering, as we face all the struggles of this world, let us remember that we do so not as those who have no hope. We do all this with hope. We do all this with a sense of progress, that here we are really accomplishing something. And those who have been shown to the Church as saints, even those who have not been formally named among their number but nonetheless have kept that hope within themselves, they are all building something, too.

And that is how we confront death. Death is just another chapter—a short chapter and not the last chapter—in the great story of Christ’s resurrection, that resurrection that will someday encompass this whole universe. But for now, that resurrection breaks through here and there. But someday, we will all rise up, and everything we build to everlasting glory in this age will be there in the age that is to come. And what glory and joy that will be!

To Christ, Who is the resurrection and the life, be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

The Pentecostal Fountain

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pentecostNote: An audio recording of this sermon is also available via Ancient Faith Radio.

Sunday of Pentecost, June 8, 2014
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

We come now to the “last day of the feast,” the fiftieth day from Pascha, the day of Pentecost. On this feast, we not only commemorate or celebrate the giving of the Holy Spirit as a gift to the Church, but we actually experience it mystically. We are standing there with the Apostles and the other disciples of Jesus. That Pentecost has become “today” for us, or rather, for us, our “today” has become that Pentecost.

And for all those who have been baptized and chrismated into Holy Orthodoxy, that same Spirit rests on us that rested on the Apostles and gave them such power and faith.

I have to admit that when I think about Pentecost and the Scriptures that speak of it, I mostly focus on this passage from the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles we first heard read today, which recounts the actual event of the giving of the Holy Spirit, how the Apostles preached and everyone heard in his own language, how in that same chapter we learn that 3,000 were baptized in a single day.

But we should also turn to the Gospel reading when considering Pentecost, which was chosen for this feast by our Fathers just as much as the reading from Acts. In this reading, which has selections from both the seventh and eighth chapters of John’s Gospel, we read how Jesus predicts the first Christian Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit would be given. It is perhaps not obvious from His words that that’s what He’s doing, but John himself gives us that interpretation. Let’s hear again the beginning of that passage:

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.’” Now this He said about the Spirit, which those who believed in Him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

First, we should note that there is one parallel here from the beginning. John says that Jesus stood up “on the last day of the feast, the great day.” Now, we are here at the “last day” of the Paschal season, and it is indeed a “great day,” the day of Pentecost. And the pairing of Pentecost with Pascha has its roots in Judaism, which celebrated Pentecost on the fiftieth day after Passover. And Pascha is simply the Greek word for Passover.

But the “last day” which Jesus is standing up on here is not the Jewish Pentecost. Rather, here He is speaking on the final day of the Feast of Tabernacles, which was one of the three great feasts of ancient Judaism (along with Passover and Pentecost). This feast commemorated the time when the Hebrew people wandered in the wilderness for forty years after coming out of Egypt and before they came to the Promised Land. During these years, they lived in mobile tabernacles. And so during the feast, the Jews would build temporary housing outside of their own homes and live in it during the feast. Faithful Jews still do this to this very day.

So Jesus stands up here on this final day of the Feast of Tabernacles and says, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.’” What does this have to do with the Feast of Tabernacles?

In Jesus’ time, the feast would be concluded by a ritual pouring out of water from the pool of Siloam mixed with wine on the foot of the sacrificial altar. This pouring out would both be for a purification of the altar and also in commemoration of the time that the Hebrews during their wandering in the wilderness had no water to drink, and so a rock was struck by Moses (Exodus 17:1-7), and God miraculously caused it to become a fountain. The altar here became the symbolic rock from which flowed forth life-giving water.

When Paul writes his first epistle to the Corinthians, he makes mention of this event in its tenth chapter. He says that the Hebrews “all drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from a spiritual Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (I Cor. 10:4).

And so we have here a confluence of different images that come together, First, we see the ancient rock in the wilderness which Moses struck and which God caused to become a fountain of the water of life. Then, we see the sacrificial altar in the Temple in Jerusalem which had water poured out at its foot at the end of the Feast of Tabernacles to commemorate this event.

And now, we see Christ, Whom Paul calls “the Rock.” Christ is Himself struck, though not by Moses, but by the people who supposedly follow Moses. Christ Himself pours forth not water and wine, but blood and water when He is pierced while hanging on the Cross. And now we who worship at the altar of Christ see that same altar pour forth for us wine and water that have been changed to become Christ’s Blood.

All of these events and images come together to form a sort of messy mosaic of truth and power that we experience every time we celebrate the divine Eucharist.

But why does John say that Jesus is speaking about Pentecost, that day when the Holy Spirit was given as gift to those who follow Christ? Let’s hear that passage again:

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.’” Now this He said about the Spirit, which those who believed in Him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

Jesus speaks here of those who believe in Him—which is not just a simple agreement with particular propositions, but a true belief which carries with it true action, faith, piety, etc. The giving of the Spirit to the believer is described this way: “Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.” Rather than the water that came from the rock by Moses’ act or the water that is poured out on the altar during the feast, there is a new water, a living water which comes from Christ, and this living water is the very Spirit of God, the Third Person of the Holy Trinity.

And not only is this water received by the believer, but the believer himself becomes a fountain which pours forth this water. This effect is seen most powerfully on that day of Pentecost when the Spirit is poured out on the followers of Jesus. It is not only that they are given what they need so that they may be saved, but that they also become fountains of salvation to others.

They communicate Christ to others by their presence, by their words, by their actions in this world. They are inspired. They inspire. They become fountains of the Spirit for the world. This effect is seen best in the saints, but it is available to all, the calling and destiny of every Christian.

And how are we to become those fountains of the Spirit for all? It is not enough only to be baptized and chrismated, though that is the beginning of this great gift of the Holy Spirit. It is not enough to be a “church member,” because clearly simple “membership” isn’t turning everyone into fountains of the Holy Spirit.

Rather, we must drink deeply at the well of Christ. We become converted by Christ into someone who is still ourselves and yet not ourselves—a new person, a renewed person. We become like the Apostles. Remember Peter’s betrayal of Christ? At Pentecost he became Christ’s faithful servant. Remember how most of them deserted Him before the passion? At Pentecost, they become missionaries. Remember how they balked at interactions with Gentiles and Samaritans? At Pentecost, they stepped outside themselves and their prejudices and began to preach and to bring Christ to all.

They became fountains of the life-giving Holy Spirit, who moves in all and seals us in the Son of God. We can become that, too. So let us drink deeply of the living water.

To our Lord Jesus Christ therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Facing Antioch: Hopes for the Antiochian Archdiocese Nominating Convention and Beyond

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We in the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America come now to a historic moment, one that has not been seen for nearly half a century. That may sound a bit melodramatic, especially considering that we are really only a small community, both when compared with the rest of our country and especially when compared with the Orthodox world in general. But it is nevertheless historic for us, and there are many parties outside our archdiocese who are interested in what is happening for us right now.

I’ve twice written previously on my thoughts about our future:

In this final post in this series before our special nominating convention which will take place in just a few days, I’d like to focus on what my hopes are for our future specifically in terms of one central theme: spiritual renewal.

When the Orthodox Youth Movement was founded in the Middle East in 1942, its founders observed that church life in their place and time had largely devolved for the faithful into a kind of “institutional” relation to the Church. In 1964, Metropolitan Georges (Khodr) wrote about that time:

Popular piety, like the piety of other Mediterranean Christians, is profoundly ritualistic. Service books and diverse manuals of devotion put the allegorical and spiritual meaning of the Liturgy into relief, but the psychology of the ordinary Christian remains dominated by the sensual and aesthetic aspect of the Offices. The great majority of the faithful do not penetrate in any way into the spiritual significance of the rite. They often bring with them authentic private piety, but a sense of the liturgical community and of the bond between the individual person and the praying assembly is rarely consciously experienced by the majority of the faithful.

(A Sign of God: Orthodoxy 1964: A Pan-Orthodox Symposium, pp. 266-67, as noted in a recent podcast by Nicholas Chapman)

How many of us have seen this same thing in our own parishes? The great majority of the faithful—and I do mean here the faithful, and not the nominal, who bear the name of Orthodoxy but have little to do with church life—do not really relate to the worship of the Church in a genuinely engaged and personal way. The chanting is beautiful, the sermon is inspiring, the iconography is beautiful, the feeling is moving, etc., but the theological and spiritual character of the Church’s services and inner life is largely absent from most of the faithful’s experience.

How did this come to be? I think it is a temptation for all religions but especially liturgical ones for people to “institutionalize” their membership, and Orthodoxy is no exception. The faithful can attend services, even faithfully, work in various parish activities, fast consistently, say their morning and evening prayers, etc., but have little in the way of that genuine engagement with the meaningful content of the worship services and the whole of spiritual life. What was intended by Christ as a mystagogy—a spiritual initiation into a new life—becomes “church membership.”

Such devolution of church life is not, I think, anyone’s conscious decision but rather the result of what one might call a kind of spiritual entropy, the gradual decay that comes when a community is not watered with the blood of martyrdom, whether literal or figurative. So what is needed is a new martyrdom. Christianity is the only faith whose central act is the martyrdom of its God. And since we humans become like whatever we worship, we Christians are all becoming martyrs, “witnesses” to the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.

And since we in the Antiochian Archdiocese find ourselves in a place where we can assess where we have been and where we are going, it seems to me that now is the time to ask ourselves what that martyrdom will look like, how we can be renewed.

As I’ve been able to find relevant translated materials (which are not extensive), I have lately been exploring some of the lessons of renewal that can be learned from the Orthodox Youth Movement—which still exists, by the way, and even has its own ongoing internal conversation about “a renewal of the renewal,” since it is now some 72 years old. It had many effects in church life in the Middle East, most of which are almost entirely positive. As I noted in my first post in this series on the American Antiochian future, it resulted in a marked increase in religious education, monastic vocation, asceticism, more vigorous parish life, etc.

That is a lot to contemplate all at once, but from the words of Metropolitan Georges above, the real emphasis of the Movement that is its genius is a sense of personal engagement with the life and spirituality of the Church’s tradition. One has to begin there before one can contemplate too deeply questions of larger structural changes. We can build all kinds of institutions and programs, but if there is not underlying them the character of genuine Christian love for Christ and one another and a theological revival in every sense, they will be like the “fast of demons,” which is strong and undeniable yet not vivified by faith.

As I’ve learned more about this approach to church life, I’ve come to decide that in my own parish community, we are going to be exploring how we can find this renewal for ourselves. The vehicle we’re using for this is the Fellowship of St. John the Divine, a lay organization of the archdiocese with chapters in many parishes. (In some ways, the FSJD parallels the OYM.) It is not so much that we are dead or stultified, etc., but that, just as Metropolitan Georges observed 50 years ago, we have a lot of “institutionalized” relating to the Church going on. It’s not everyone, but it’s enough that it is a real concern. So we’re adopting two practices over the next months:

  • The full list of every person associated with the parish has been divided up into parts and distributed to members of the Fellowship of St. John the Divine for daily prayer. Every person in the parish will be prayed for every day.
  • Once a month, the Fellowship will come together, not for a business meeting or for a class, but for a time of intercessory prayer and one other spiritual practice. The latter may include: a brief meditation on a scriptural or patristic quote, saying the Jesus Prayer together (probably with one person saying it out loud; this is a practice of some Athonite sketes) or reading the Psalms out loud to one another.

We need spiritual renewal, both individually and corporately. It is not that the faithful are unfaithful, but perhaps they have never been taught about this kind of personal engagement with the depths of Orthodox tradition. Perhaps they have never seen what it looks like. So we are going to be doing some of those things at St. Paul’s in Emmaus, Pennsylvania.

So where does this leave the question of where we as an archdiocese are going, especially in terms of our new Metropolitan Archbishop? If he were to ask me what I would like to see to initiate spiritual renewal for all of us, what would I say?

There are a lot of things I could mention, but there are three in particular that I hope for in the next chapter of the life of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America:

  • An emphasis on monasticism: Not only will this provide a deeper “bench” for episcopal candidates (it’s not very deep at the moment), but monasticism provides a living and radical witness to all the faithful of what personal engagement with the faith can be like.
  • Bringing the lessons of the Orthodox Youth Movement to North America: The OYM is now the official youth organization of the Patriarchate of Antioch. It has no presence in North America. Perhaps the key here would be to re-tool Teen SOYO and the Fellowship of St. John the Divine to reflect what the OYM has learned over the years. (The OYM of course has its own internal controversies and is sometimes controversial within the patriarchate, but that doesn’t cancel out its overall contribution to church life.)
  • Opening the lines of communication to Antioch: I’ve written before (here and here) about why we—and all Orthodox Christians in America—need access to the spiritual riches of Orthodoxy in the Middle East. We need to hear from them, and they need to hear from us. There needs to be more translation going on, more media, more connection across the Atlantic.

So, that’s my “wishlist.” I have no idea who our next Metropolitan might be. Especially from what I have seen of the Patriarch and the Holy Synod of Antioch, I trust them to elect the man whom God has in mind. And my hope for our nominating convention this week is not just that we would vote, wanting this man or that, but that we would be gathering in a churchly manner, the royal priesthood of God, aware spiritually of one another, connecting spiritually to one another, and uniting our prayers for inspiration from the Holy Spirit to move in all of us in a new and beautiful way.

Pentecost is coming!

Coming this Fall: Ancient Faith Blogs

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Ancient Faith Ministries, the people who bring you Ancient Faith Radio and Ancient Faith Publishing (formerly Conciliar Press) have officially announced a new project for this Fall: Ancient Faith Blogs.

The beans being spilled:

If you’re like me, you follow several Orthodox blogs, but you don’t have the time or inclination to look into other such blogs that may or may not share the same quality. But what if the best and most reliable blogs on the internet were gathered in a single place, making it easy for you to consume and then cross-reference their content while resting assured that your reading stands on solid theological ground? I’m not talking new blogs, mind you, but rather the cream of the crop of what already exists, compiled together and carrying the imprimatur of Ancient Faith Ministries, one of the most trusted sources of Orthodox media in the world. Introducing Ancient Faith Blogs—your one-stop location for the very best Orthodox writing on the internet. Look for it this fall in conjunction with AFR 5.0, the most ambitious iteration of Ancient Faith Radio to date.

You will see several familiar blogs on the site, including Roads from Emmaus and Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, as well as almost a dozen others. There will be a couple new ones in the mix, as well, which I’m particularly looking forward to. Each weblog will have its own site within the site, but there will also be aggregators giving you multiple posts to browse through at the same time. And while most of the weblogs will be dedicated to constantly updating content, some will be oriented toward building resources while also including moving content.

In some ways, this will be similar to what Patheos is doing with its “Faith Channels,” but it will be fully Orthodox and integrated with Ancient Faith rather than dealing with all the concerns that Patheos deals with by being multi-religious and more specifically commercial.

This is something totally new in the online Orthodox world, and I think it’s going to be great. Be on the lookout.

Spiritual Renewal and the Healing of the Blind

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Sunday of the Blind Man, May 25, 2014
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen. Christ is risen!

On this sixth and final Sunday during the forty days we celebrate Christ’s resurrection, we begin to contemplate the completion of this celebration with the account from John’s Gospel of the healing of the man born blind.

Having fasted and prayed our way through Great Lent, perhaps with not as much success as we had hoped, we came to Holy Pascha and rejoiced, not just in our lamb and hamburgers and kielbasi and chocolate milk and cheese, but in the resurrection of our God, in the resurrection of ourselves. Even if it was only a little, we died during Lent, and we have been raised to life again with our Lord Jesus.

And soon, those who remain in Him will also experience His ascension and the great gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Our hearts therefore naturally turn to the question of what we are to do now, what we will be doing when we come to that “ordinary” time, when in a few weeks our Sundays are named by counting their distance from Pentecost. What did I retain from Lent and Pascha and the Ascension and Pentecost?

This greatest season in the Church year, which lasts for nearly three months altogether, is fundamentally about spiritual renewal. It is about taking a fresh look at myself and asking not just “What can I stop doing wrong?” or even “What can I do to try harder to do good?” but rather something much more profound and even more accessible: “What do I see?”

What I can see comes to my mind when I think about this blind man whom Jesus heals today. He is blind from birth. He had no accident that made him blind. He has always been this way. It is not his fault he is blind. It is also not his parents’ fault. He does not know any other way of living. Seeing is something he hears people talk about, but he has no experience of it. So it may seem to him like a secret that everyone around him is in on but that he just cannot understand. They talk about things like color and light and darkness, but he doesn’t know any of these things. He doesn’t even know darkness. His sight is not darkened. It’s just not there.

But of course he has always lived this way. He knows that he stumbles sometimes and that he has to beg in order to find food, but that is his life. It is normal. It is his routine. It may not even be that big of a deal. He doesn’t have the sensation of having lost anything, so he may not really feel that he lacks something except that people tell him that he does.

And that is how I sometimes come to Lent and Pascha. I do not always arrive there with the sense that I have to accomplish something, that I really need any kind of spiritual renewal. I’m plugging along in my routine, and it’s normal for me. It’s my life. Yes, people say that I could be holy, that I could have a life filled with more spiritual energy and awareness and vision, but I’ve never really needed that before. So what’s the big deal?

This question of spiritual renewal has been on my mind recently, and not only because of this holy season, but also because of the transition that our Archdiocese now finds itself in—we have lost our Father in Christ Metropolitan Philip, and we are waiting expectantly for our new Father to be revealed. God knows who he will be, and He is preparing his heart. God is at work preparing the hearts of those who will participate in our nominating convention, and He is at work preparing the hearts of the metropolitans of the Holy Synod of Antioch who will elect our metropolitan.

And there is one purpose in God’s mind for us in choosing our chief shepherd—spiritual renewal. It is not so much that we have all been spiritually dead and useless, though perhaps that may be true for some. Rather, it is that we have come so far in the routine that we have had, and it is time now for something new to be brought to us. It is time that we receive a new kind of sight, a kind of sight which God knows and is preparing but we perhaps cannot quite yet imagine. But let us try to imagine some of what spiritual renewal might mean.

For some who are in church, it is not that they have no faith or do not care or are nominal Christians. But they often relate to the Church in a primarily institutional way or surface kind of way. They may be touched or impressed by the aesthetic of what they experience in church—the sounds and the sights and smells—but not penetrate very deeply into the spiritual significance of the liturgy and other services. There may be a strong private piety even, and even an emotional engagement, yet not much in the way of a deeper sense of what the purpose of church services is beyond experiencing a quiet or inspiring place to withdraw from the world for a while.

One of the results of this approach is that the bond between the individual believer and the liturgical community as a whole is not very strong. This manifests itself not only in that some folks do not really know other parishioners who are not their family but also in that there is less draw for services other than the Sunday liturgy. It is not so much that people are shunning fellow parishioners or shunning Saturday Vespers, but that there is not that personal bond of love and spiritual connection that would draw them together as the worshiping community.

For many parishioners, this really is normal. It is the routine. It’s spiritual life, even “faithful” church life. Yet like the blind man, there is something they do not see, something that perhaps they are not aware is even available to be seen. They are not turning away from it, because they don’t even know that it’s there.

But there could be a bond, a much deeper bond between us. I know that many of us pray for one another, but are all of us doing so? Is every name in the parish directory being prayed for? Are we praying for one another at home? Do we rejoice with all in the parish who rejoice and weep with all those who weep? At coffee hour and outside of these walls, do we connect in love with more than just our accustomed family or friends?

God has brought all of us here together in this place to pray together because, as St. Ignatius of Antioch once wrote in one of his epistles, “When you frequently come together, the powers of Satan are destroyed and his destructive force is annihilated by the concord of your faith.” What we do here together has great power, especially as we do it together. Do we have a sense when we are here praying together that we are indeed praying not alone but together, that our combined prayers have a powerful effect? Do we know that we are indeed a spiritual force?

So you see that there is much room for spiritual renewal for us—for both me and you, for us together. And I hope that you will join me in seeking this renewal. We will not merely expect it from our new chief shepherd and high priest when God reveals his name to us in a few weeks, but we will expect it from ourselves. We will pray. We will call upon God to bring us that renewal.

Yes, in many ways, we have come far, and we have much to be thankful for and even to be humbly proud of. At the same time, we have come through Lent. We have celebrated Pascha. And we are now awaiting the Ascension of our Lord and His sending to us the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. When the Holy Spirit comes upon me, what will I be? Will I receive that fiery Spirit, that divine Wind and be filled with renewal, with love for you, with love for the God Who brought us together? Will I join my prayers together with yours so that we may annihilate the powers of Satan together? Will I be drawn to be with you in every way, to pour myself out for you and make this holy community not just an important part of my life, but my whole life?

Our Lord Jesus came to give sight to the blind. He came to give resurrection to all and ascension to those who would follow Him. And He returned from whence He came to give us the Holy Spirit. How will I be renewed? How will we be renewed? When our eyes are opened by the touch of Christ, what will we see?

To the Lord Jesus Christ, be all glory, honor and worship, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen. Christ is risen!

Becoming a Bridge: Christ and the Woman at the Well

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Note: An audio recording of this sermon is also available via Ancient Faith Radio.

Sunday of the Samaritan Woman, May 18, 2014
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen. Christ is risen!

Today on this fifth Sunday of the great feast of all feasts, Holy Pascha, we meditate on the mystery of the Lord’s approach of the Samaritan Woman, the Woman at the Well. This woman comes to this well that had been founded by Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, so many centuries before, that she may draw water to bring home for her thirsty household. And there at the well, she finds Jesus sitting there.

She could immediately tell from His clothing and bearing that she had met a Jew Who followed the Law of Moses, because when he asked her to get Him something to drink, she responded, “How is it that Thou, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” For as the Scriptures tell us, the Jews did not speak with Samaritans, and as is even now in the case in many places in that region, it was not proper that a man should address a woman alone. So she is taken aback when he speaks to her.

What I wish especially to emphasize today in this encounter between the Samaritan Woman and our Savior Jesus Christ is how He does not emphasize their difference but instead makes Himself into a bridge for her.

He becomes a bridge for her in that He chooses to reach out to her as a man to a woman. Even now, men and women, while we may be attracted to one another, often find each other almost impossible to understand and even sometimes we may think that the other is impossible to live with. This can be true even outside of romantic relationships. Men tend to group with other men, and women with women. And there is nothing wrong with connecting with people who are like you. But there is something wrong with shunning people who are not like you. Jesus here becomes a bridge for her and overcomes this opposition of men with women by taking the initiative and by addressing her with kindness and love, beginning by making a request of her: “Give Me a drink.”

He also becomes a bridge for her between peoples. He is a Jew, and Jews have traditionally treated the Samaritans with disdain. They are regarded as heretics who only have some of the Law of Moses, and they are also looked upon as miscegenated half-breeds whose forebears had inter-married with the surrounding pagan peoples. But He reaches out to her, becoming a bridge and connecting her to their father Abraham through their common reverence for Jacob at his well.

Christ also becomes a bridge for her between righteousness and unrighteousness. She had sinned and had been with many men, marrying many times and even at that moment, living sinfully with a man who was not her husband. Yet He still offered to her His own presence, His own words of wisdom and love. He did not turn away from her because she was an “undesirable” who did things that were not fitting for someone righteous like Him, someone Who followed the Law of Moses perfectly.

The Lord Jesus also becomes a bridge for her in the matter of worship. She knows only one kind of worship, and that is the worship of the Samaritans which took place on their holy mountain that Jacob had set apart many centuries before. She also knows that Jews say that worship is to take place in the Temple in Jerusalem. But of course no Samaritan could enter that Temple and offer worship there. And He offers her a solution, becoming a bridge not just for her as a Samaritan but indeed for the whole world—His Father is seeking true worshipers, who will worship in spirit and truth, not just on the Samaritan mountain nor in the Temple, but indeed in every place. The old boundaries were being taken down, and forgiveness and communion can happen anywhere.

He also becomes a bridge for her to hope. She knows of the Messiah, the One coming into the world Who will tell her all things, but as a Samaritan, as a sinful woman, as one separated, she has no hope for access to the Messiah—the Messiah of the Jews. And the Messiah is a figure of legend and ancient prophecy. That she would find that figure sitting at the well of her fathers would not have occurred to her. But here He is, the hope of all, the promised Anointed One, the Christ, bringing hope to her even in the midst of her separation and hopelessness.

And ultimately, He becomes a bridge for her to God. For in Himself, He is both God and man. He is the God Who is man and the man Who is God. She met a divine Person, but she was able to meet Him because He is man. She saw His human body which is an element of His human nature, yet she accessed His divine wisdom, His divine clairvoyance, His divine love, which are the energies and the actions possible because of His divine nature. In Him, she becomes a partaker of the divine nature.

And in all these same ways, He has become a bridge also for us. We who are at odds with one another because of differences of gender and race and culture and class and wealth can become one because of how He has bridged all of mankind together in Himself, giving us all to eat and drink of His glorified flesh and blood. We who are not born into the chosen people of God, not naturally of Israel, have been brought into that people because He has bridged the way for us. He has become the New Jacob, the New Israel into Whom all the nations of the earth may gather as one chosen people, the new race of Christians.

He also is the bridge for us to righteousness, something we could never accomplish on our own. Try being truly kind and loving for just one day! Yet He gives us His own holiness so that we can be transformed, released from the drudgery of merely “trying hard” on our own strength, given access to divine strength. And He also is the bridge for us to true worship. He not only provides for us the possibility of worship in spirit and in truth in every place, but He is Himself the priest Who offers the sacrifice, the One Who is sacrificed and the One Who receives the sacrifice. And He also is the One Who distributes the sacrifice, which is Himself. He is everywhere and become everything for us.

And in all this, He is the bridge between God and man, being Himself both God and man. We touch His humanity and so access His divinity. There is no other such bridge, no other way to contact our God except through His Christ, His Son, this Jesus Who is the God-man. And thus the ancient boundary of our sin is torn down, and we are set free to celebrate in the vast beauty of divine grace.

Having received all this, the Samaritan Woman—who soon takes the name Photini, meaning “the enlightened one,” for she had received light—she herself becomes a bridge. For she bridges the way between Jesus and her own people. She goes and tells them about Him, and then He is invited to come and stay with them. And when they meet Him, they believe.

In this beautiful account of how Jesus becomes a bridge for Photini and then how she does the same for her people, we should find ourselves in that same story. We should not, of course, be as the disciples, who stood to the side questioning the whole thing, even if mostly in their hearts.

Rather, we first see ourselves as the woman, who encounters Christ and is connected by Him to so many things she had been lacking, most especially to the very presence of God Himself.

But we also try in whatever ways we can to see ourselves in Christ, that we may also become bridges to other people. We cannot allow the old boundaries to persist, the boundaries that keep us from each other, that keep us from righteousness, that keep us from worship, that keep us from God Himself. We become bridges so that those whom God brings us will be able to connect not just with one another, but in all these ways and in all these things to Jesus Christ.

And we again see ourselves as the woman, who herself becomes a bridge, connecting those whom she loves and who know her best to the Messiah Who has come into the world to save us and give us that living water that will never dry up and never run out.

To our Lord Jesus Christ therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen. Christ is risen!

“We speak one language: Antiochian”: More Thoughts on the Future of the Antiochian Archdiocese and Orthodoxy in America

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If you’ve done any reading from modern Orthodox saints, you know that there is a certain tone among the holy elders of Greece, another from Russia and so forth. Each culture enculturates the Gospel in its own authentic way and speaks of the truth of Jesus Christ with its own voice.

One of the things which makes the particular Antiochian voice distinct—although it is often not well known here in America, as I wrote in my previous post—is that it is not tied to any single ethnicity or culture. The ancient cultures and languages that have called Antiochian Orthodoxy home are diverse—Syriac, Greek, Georgian, Arabic, Cypriot, Central Asian—as are those which now are also home to the Antiochian church—English, American, Central and South American, Turkish, Australian, French, German and others. Ancient Antioch itself was a cosmopolitan city even in the time of the Apostles, and while the city of Antioch of today is now a small Turkish municipality, the spirit of Antiochian identity in its Christian form has remained cosmopolitan and multicultural. Some folks today equate Antiochian with Arabic, but that identification has never really been accurate.

Indeed, one of the greatest voices of the Antiochian church in America, St. Raphael of Brooklyn, regarded himself as being a man who identified with many peoples: “I am an Arab by birth, a Greek by primary education, an American by residence, a Russian at heart, and a Slav in soul.”

Yet while the voice of the Antiochian tradition is spoken in many languages and cultures, there is nevertheless a single “Antiochian language,” so to speak, a particular way of being and speaking in the Orthodox Church that is distinct.

I have been talking about this “Antiochian language” recently with friends who know it far better than I, and one of them mentioned to me a phrase used in the Arabic-language publishing and social media of the patriarchate, which gives this post its title: “We speak one language: Antiochian.” It has also been rendered in English as “Our Language is Antiochian. Our Language is One.” This certainly is not a reference to the Arabic language but rather to a kind of spiritual language, that particular voice which is the spirit of Antioch.

With the attention that our archdiocese here in America has received lately from the Patriarchate of Antioch, our connection to that Antiochian language has been strengthened, and I’ve noticed a particular tone—hard to describe, but definitely distinct. If I had to put adjectives to it, I might choose: accessible, direct, refreshing, bright, earthy, peaceful. It is not dark or hard, but it is also not too yielding or liberal. It is loving and un-self-conscious.

A bridge is being built between ancient Antioch and her children here in North America, and now there is traffic on that bridge, a kind of spiritual commerce and economy that has its own idiom. For many, this may be the first time that someone has “spoken Antiochian” to them. It is not that this has been absent from our archdiocese, but we have simply not had access to it in the way that we have over the past several weeks.

As I said, though, that voice is hard to define with adjectives, so I would like to give a few samples, both ancient and modern, which to me all sing in the same spiritual key, which speak with the same spiritual voice. The subjects are different, but the tone (to me) is the same:

Blessed is the person who has consented to become the close friend of faith and of prayer: he lives in singlemindedness and makes prayer and faith stop by with him. Prayer that rises up in someone’s heart serves to open up for us the door of heaven: that person stands in converse with the Divinity and gives pleasure to the Son of God. Prayer makes peace with the Lord’s anger and with the vehemence of His wrath. In this way too, tears that well up in the eyes can open the door of compassion.

- St. Ephrem the Syrian, “Armenian Hymn No. 1,” 4th c.

St. Ephrem is of course familiar to many Orthodox Christians, and he is not often thought of as “Antiochian” exactly, but this tone is still there. (And one recognizes the Semitic image of God’s “wrath” there, of course.) I especially love the phrase “close friend of faith and of prayer.”

Fast forward several centuries, and that same feeling is still there. Here’s Sulayman al-Ghazzi (Solomon of Gaza), an Arabic-speaking Palestinian bishop from the 11th century:

Not all baptized with water are Christians
   Without the baptism of the life of the world to come;
In Christ the peoples of the earth have been baptized
   Though some of them afterward showed hypocrisy.
They became like a body’s parts in its natural state—
   Some helpful, some unreliable.
How many patriarchs are unpraiseworthy in their service,
   Miserable bishops and metropolitans,
Who are among the heretics, in place of truth,
   Preferring falsehood and slander!
Over them, God has favored a Church
   Whose stones are gathered from all corners and climbs.
Truth has built her edifice
   Rising to heaven on pillars and columns,
Fashioned from chrysolite,
   Precious stones, sapphires, and pearls.
Her foundation is the rock of faith,
   Rooted deep with pillars and walls.
All bodily creatures are pleased to see it
   When it appears in races and colors,
Byzantines, Russians, and Franks
   Joined with Indians, Khuzestanis, Abkhaz, and Alans
Armenians and Pechenegs in agreement
   With the people of the Jazira, namely Harran.
And Copts too, in the Lower Egypt father together
   From Upper Egypt to Qus and Aswan.
People of Shiraz and Ahwaz in harmony
   With Iraq, unto furthest Khorasan.
From the place of the sunrise to the place of its setting,
   To the Euphrates, to Sihon and Gihon.
White, blond, and brown in their churches
   Praise God with the yellow and the black.
All of them have come to the religion of Christ
   And are guided, gaining profit from loss.
Seventy nations, each with a language
   Branching off from one Syriac tongue.[*]
Hebrew was the speech of God’s apostles
   Before they set out with the mission of the Gospel.
Each apostle gained a language,
   Beautiful, reliable, and clear.
Not out of weakness but having heard proof,
   Those to whom they preached responded with faith.
So they spread out among their nations,
   None fearing the devil’s wiles.
When their service to God was done, they slept,
   Having roused many sleepers.

- Suleyman al-Ghazzi, from “Not All Baptized with Water Are Christians” (trans. Samuel Noble), in The Orthodox Church in the Arab World 700-1700: An Anthology of Sources, pp. 163-164

[*] Medieval Arabs, both Muslim and Christian, generally held that Syriac was the language spoken by Adam and Eve.

And roughly 1,000 years later, we still hear this same direct, refreshing voice from the leaders of the Orthodox Youth Movement:

The Church is the salt of the earth and completes the work of Christ in the world. The Church works, she is present, for the sake of the salvation of the world. We can say that she is the center of being, in her its destiny is achieved. The world corrupts and ages, but the Church is continuously renewed for the sake of the salvation of the world. But if the salt is corrupted, then how can it be salty?

The Church is the group of those who believe in the Lord Jesus and who have united around him to live the life of the Gospel, the life of God. They have no concern except to follow the Lord’s teaching and to follow in his footsteps. The group is in the world and for the world, but at the same time it is not of the world. From the beginning, from the ascension of the Lord to heaven, it is oriented toward the age to come, awaiting the return of the heavenly bridegroom and hastening him on. From now on, it lives in the last days, in the fullness of time, “it uses this world as though it doesn’t use it, and buys as though it doesn’t own.”

- Fr. Elias Morcos, “On Revival in Antioch,” 1964

We become children of the Resurrection when we become bridges of communication and encounter between those who are separated, and between those who are in conflict. Let us be bridges exactly like the Lord who did not ask anything for Himself, but gave the world everything, to such an extent that He offered Himself for the salvation of the world. Let us serve as ways of rapprochement for all. Through love, sacrifice and in deeds and truth we shall build our countries.

We become children of Resurrection when we live our faith in genuineness, depth and meaningfulness. External expressions are bound to change with cultures and ways of living, but the genuine Christian content preserves the trust which has been handed down to the saints under many different circumstances, cases and cultures. Let us imitate the courage of Christ who did not fear anything, even death. Instead He faced the cross with love and brought us to resurrection. Let us face the cross of this crucified East with overwhelming love for all those who are crucified on it, until we reach with them the resurrection we all expect. Let us live these painful days in simplicity, enjoying the bare necessities of life and experiencing the true wealth which is life with God….

Last but not least, we do not forget that God is the Lord of history, so we may always hold to patience and hope which do not fade away. Let us remember the words of the prophets and how much they called, in times of distress, for repentance and faith, until God intervenes and removes the distress. In these troubled days we are witnessing, we are in sore need of faithful witnesses. Let us move out of our distress with more faith, more purity and greater loyalty. When we understand that we only need God and no one else, the effects of resurrection will appear in us and in all our humanity. When this happens all around us shall be transfigured.

- Patriarch John X (Yazigi) of Antioch, Pascha 2013 Pastoral Letter

How should I conduct myself at Pascha? I try to become the Gospel, to become the word so that people may read me and live. Christianity is faces that are illumined in order to give light. This is the living Pascha. It is what causes me to pass through people to the Father’s face. How should I live? “I do not live, it is Christ who lives in me.” Christianity is not a religious system. It is love– that is, clinging to Christ such that you forget your own face in order to see His face and the whole world in His face. If we are people of Pascha, then we are in a state of constantly going beyond ourselves and the world in order to become Him and for Him to become us. It is not a matter of systems and it is not a matter of theoretical principles. Everything is His face, until all faces pass away or we read Him traced upon them.

- Metropolitan Georges (Khodr) of Mount Lebanon, “Who Shall I Be at Pascha?“, 2014

And now this “Antiochian language” is also being spoken to us here directly in America by the representative of our patriarch:

Christ defeated death in our lives! He set us free from fear: from fearing death, from fearing evil, from fearing illness and calamities, from fearing each other, from fearing the uncertainty of the future, from fearing insecurity and unemployment, from fearing violence and terrorism, and from fearing persecution and sufferings for His sake. Instead, He gave us the power and the means to seek the true freedom. The freedom to love each other even though we differ in character, education and profession. The freedom to forgive each other even though we have suffered. The freedom to ask forgiveness from each other even though we have badly hurt each other. The freedom to serve each other even though we differ in origin, background and culture. The freedom to work together even though we differ in thinking, worldview, ability and capacity. The freedom to abide by the truth and raise our children to seek Him. The freedom to defend the unjust and the needy and restore them their rights. The freedom to be at the Lord’s hand, obedient, prayerful and faithful.

Christ defeated death in our reality! He gave us the gift to start anew, to renew our heart, to purify our mind, and to reaffirm our commitment of faith at His service. He restored in us the dignity of our person, the beauty of our nature, and the bounty in our personality.

Christ defeated death in our relationships! Christ is the only mediator between God and man. However, He made us “bridges” of salvation to reach others. As Antiochian Orthodox Christians in North America, we are bequeathed an apostolic “lineage:” tradition, inheritance and mission. In this regard, the image of the “bridge” summarizes the Antiochian witness that emerges out of the past, prompts the present and prepares the future of the Antiochian Orthodox Church on the eve of the election of a new Metropolitan to succeed to His Eminence, Metropolitan Philip of eternal memory.

- Metropolitan Silouan (Moussi) of Argentina, “How to Resurrect with Christ: Pascha 2014 Pastoral Letter

I could give many, many more examples, and of course you can find a good bit of this sort of thing on the Notes on Arab Orthodoxy weblog. But I hope that these passages will suffice to give you some sense of the tone of “speaking Antiochian.” It is different from other languages, and while many of its speakers are these days from the Middle East, it is not the same thing as speaking Arabic, and there is no reason why non-Arabic speakers or people from outside the Middle East cannot speak it. It is a beautiful language, and it speaks to us of our Savior Jesus Christ with a peculiar accent and vocabulary of its own, itself building a bridge between persons, between peoples, and between mankind and God.

As I wrote last week, my hope for us Antiochians here in America is that we may hear more and more “speaking Antiochian” to us, so that we may better learn this beautiful language. And in so doing, not only will our own faith be strengthened, but we will also have something beautiful to offer to our Orthodox brothers and sisters throughout America.