Sermons

Eulogy for My Mother

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Sandra Faye Damick (née Bullert) - August 2, 1953 - August 24, 2014
Sandra Faye Damick (née Bullert) – August 2, 1953 – August 24, 2014

This eulogy was written for my mother’s funeral on August 29, 2014. A few months before, she was diagnosed with a Class 4 glioblastoma (brain cancer) which ultimately claimed her life. A somewhat shorter version of this text was delivered at the funeral service.

Funeral Service of Sandy Damick, August 29, 2014
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
Colorado Springs, Colorado

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

As a Christian pastor, I have delivered many eulogies and sermons at funerals. Some have been for people I have known for some time, some for only a short time, and some for people I never met while they were still alive. No matter how well the departed person is known, anyone who speaks at funerals can tell you that it is never an easy task to find the right words to shape fittingly for the moment. Yet nevertheless, a eulogy must be spoken.

The people of our family often like to pause and reflect on what particular words mean, and today I want to draw attention to this word eulogy. It is from Greek, and it means “a good word” or “a blessing.” Colloquially, people use it to mean the good words that are said about someone at his funeral, but in its Christian context, it is larger than that. A funeral blessing must be a blessing for those who hear it, not only to bring fit remembrance of the person who has departed, but to affect the hearers in a larger way.

So what “good word” can a son offer for his mother?

There is no more powerful nor vivid image of motherhood in Scripture or really in human history than the relationship between the Firstborn of all creation and His mother, that is, our Lord Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. And if one is to search for that “good word” for a mother, here is a good place to look.

When the Archangel Gabriel said to the young Mary that she would become the mother of the Son of God, her response to him was “Let it be to me according to your word.” Some may see in this statement a mere acquiescence. After all, what does one say in the face of an archangel with a message from God? One hardly says “No, thank you.” But we must remember that her consent was preceded first by a question of wonder, that she did not understand how this conception could be. The consent of the Virgin was not given out of a sense of inevitability or fate. She was not the helpless plaything of an overbearing deity like the women who encountered the pagan gods of old. No, this was the chosen alignment of her will with the will of the one true God.

And as I think of the life of my own mother, she really was the same. There were many times when she was presented with some great task—whether it was a task that the world would consider great or not does not really matter—and she did not merely resign herself to its inevitability. She could have said no. Should could have escaped. She could have quit.

But that wasn’t my mother. She chose to give her consent. She chose to align her will with the will of God, and just like the mother of the Lord Jesus, that choice put into practice again and again throughout her life eventually became almost reflexive. She got to the point where she did not have to mull over in her mind whether to do what God set before her. She simply did it. She chose kindness so many times that she became kind. She chose service so many times that she became a servant.

There are other incidents in the life of the mother of Jesus that are also worth mentioning here. The Gospels mention a moment when she and his brothers wanted to see Him, and He responded “My mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:19-21). And there is another moment when a woman in a crowd shouted out, “Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts which nursed You!” and He responded, “More than that, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:27-28).

These are not rebukes of His mother, despite what some may say. What son could rebuke his mother like that, especially publicly? Rather, these sayings from the Lord Jesus underline how He felt about His mother—her motherhood and the blessedness that she had were because she heard the word of God and she did it.

This is something that I not only admired about my mother but which imparted to me and to many who knew her a core sense of identity—blessedness is to hear the word of God and to keep it, to do it, to make it who you are. No one could ever doubt this about my mother. And although it may not be that “all generations” will call my mother blessed as they have the mother of Jesus Christ (Luke 1:48), there is no doubt that this generation will call her blessed.

But why? Is it because of these qualities that my mother has? Yes, but we have to ask where she came by them, and not only what the content of her character was but what the context of her character was. It is clear to me that it is the same for her as it was for the mother of Jesus, who said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, / And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. / For He has regarded the lowly state of his maidservant; / For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. / For He Who is mighty has done great things for me. / And holy is His name. / And His mercy is on those who fear Him / From generation to generation” (Luke 1:46-50).

This is indeed the message of my mother’s life. It is the same message as anyone who says to God, “Let it be to me according to your word.” Christ’s mother followed Him even to death, and she even stood at the cross and watched her Son die. And now my mother has followed that same Son even to death, and we have watched her die, some from nearby and some from far away. But as the Lord’s mother witnessed just a few days after her Son’s death, death is not the end. For there was something much bigger happening, something much bigger even than that which can be encompassed by the grief of those who love watching their beloved slip from this life.

Earlier this week, as it became known among my friends that my mother had died, many of them greeted me with what might be thought of as a curious greeting. It is a greeting which I believe is unique to the Christians of the Middle East, who have stood as witnesses to the reality of Jesus Christ for some twenty centuries now, and many of whom make up my own flock and are in my circles. And how did they greet me on the death of my mother? They said to me, “Christ is risen!”

The Lord Jesus said: “Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself, and has given Him authority to execute judgment also, because He is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:24-29).

This is the truth which my mother knew and which she witnessed to again and again—that the Son of God, Who is God and therefore has life in Himself, will someday raise His divine-human voice, and every single person who has ever died will stand up out of their graves and live. But first we wait. My mother has now gone to that place of waiting, where she receives a foretaste of what is to come, where she along with her mother and father and all of departed mankind await the resurrection. And it’s coming. Because Christ is risen, death is slain. Because Christ is risen, Hell has no victory. Because Christ is risen, this moment which seems now to overwhelm us will someday pass away and be just a memory.

The memory of these recent days which will be most treasured for me will be how my mother on that Sunday night now about a month ago called her closest family to her and took each one of them into her arms and prayed a blessing for us. Her thought was not to her own suffering nor comfort. Rather, she wanted to give each of us something of what she herself had received from the Lord of Resurrection, and she spoke also of the work that God had appointed for each of us.

An ancient account, preserved in Christian history, recounts some of the words which the mother of Jesus said before she herself was about to depart this life. They may be legendary—who knows?—but their truth rises above the issue of historical fact. Having gathered the Apostles to herself, brought there from the ends of the earth where they had been preaching Christ, she said to them:

“Do not sorrow, my children, for you make me sad when I see you cry so. Although I shall be going to my Son, O friends of my Son, yet I will not be apart from you… Do not darken my joy by your sorrow and mourning. Much rather, rejoice with me, for I am going to my Son and God. My body, which I have myself prepared for burial, commit to the earth in Gethsemane. Afterward, return again to the preaching of the Gospel appointed to you. If the Lord should will it, you shall see me after my departure” (The Great Synaxaristes, August 15).

This is what life—and death—are really about, a longing to see the Son of God. It is what gave my mother joy and peace as she began her own passage from this life. One might say that she stared death in its face, but really, she had no time for that—she was looking into the Face of Christ. We long to see her now, to wish that this all had never happened. But no matter what happens, we shall all someday die, as well, should the Lord tarry a few more years. But the direction we all must aim for is this same one, the one that will enable us to see her after her departure.

That direction is the great and holy hope of Christians, the hope of the resurrection of all. For just as Christ rose from the dead, we too shall all likewise be raised. And rising, our song shall be:

“O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown! Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen! Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice! Christ is risen, and life reigns! Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave! For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen” (Paschal Sermon of St. John Chrysostom).

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.

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!

Returning to the Paradise I’ve Never Seen

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Sunday of Forgiveness, March 2, 2014
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

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

Today is called the Sunday of Forgiveness, most especially because of the service that we will celebrate here this evening, Forgiveness Vespers, when all of us will ask each other to forgive what we have thought, said and done in our sinfulness. But there is another theme that is woven throughout the hymns for this Sunday that stands before the beginning of the Great Fast. That theme is also a theme of beginnings, though it may also be thought of as a theme of endings. And what is this theme? It is the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.

We know what happens when Adam and Eve sin, when they eat of that one thing forbidden to them by their God, when they rip themselves away from the perfect harmony they enjoyed with the Creator—they are driven out of Eden. And God sets up one of the cherubim there at the entrance of the garden with a flaming sword, guarding the Tree of Life.

Although the Scripture does not depict their reaction to this exile, the hymnographers of Orthodoxy have imagined what happens next—Adam sits outside of Paradise and weeps for what he has lost.

There is a common expression: “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” And perhaps that applies here in some sense to Adam as he sits outside of Paradise. But I have never been to Paradise. How can you know what you’ve lost if you’ve never had it?

We who were born after the loss of Paradise find ourselves on this side of the flaming sword of the cherubim do not know what it is that Adam lost. We are born into this world like people born blind. How does a blind man who has never seen anything know how to understand when someone tries to tell him about what it means to see? Or about sunlight? About color? About beauty?

This is where we find ourselves. This is why so much spiritual exhortation can seem like nonsense. For a blind man who does not know how to see at all, telling him about sights like sunlight, about details like color, or about more transcendent abstractions like beauty is just so much non sequitur. He has no frame of reference, no experience to connect those words to.

Here we stand, at the threshold of Great Lent, and we are being asked to strive, to work, to struggle, to attain to a place we have never been, to beauty we have never known, to behold a light that we do not know how to see. How can Great Lent be a “return” to Paradise when we do not even know what Paradise looks like?

We live here, on the other side, where everything is broken, corrupted, incomplete, wounded.

Those born this side of the Fall of Adam and Eve are born without the memory of Paradise. We do not know what we have lost, because we never had it. We have never seen it. We never walked in Eden, smelled its air, tasted its fruit, named the animals, or walked with our God in the cool of the day. We have never known what it means to love without any selfishness or reservation whatsoever, what it means to have total peace, what it’s like to know that God is there and that He loves us without any question.

The good news of the Gospel that is revealed to us in a particular, powerful way during this holy season of Lent is that there is a light that shines into our blindness, a beauty that shows itself in our ignorance, a music that gets beyond our deafness. For you see, while Adam lost for us what was given to him by God, a new Adam has come.

This new Adam has emptied Himself and by His own will taken up the frailty of our flesh, the weakness of our birth, the exile of our expulsion from Paradise.

Christ’s experience of human suffering, of taking all our sins onto Himself, breaks through the “Catch 22” of trying to find our way back to a Paradise we have never known. Neither the season of Lent nor any part of the Christian life is about groping around for a Paradise that we cannot see, cannot touch, cannot know and wouldn’t know how to recognize if we came upon it. No, it is about connecting with Jesus Christ.

God sees our disconnection, our blindness to the glory of the Paradise that Adam lost. He knows that we are lost, that we are born so lost that we do not even know what to look for. He does not wait for us to find Him. He is finding us. He has come here to us by sending His Son. He shows us the way to Paradise through the Cross and Resurrection.

In seeking out Jesus, we do not have to seek something we cannot know, someone we cannot find. He is here. He is human, just as we are, of the same species as we are. He is present to us, and He has provided us with numerous ways to connect with Him. We do not have to grope around in the dark. In a sense, spiritual life is really quite simple. We just have to show up and do it.

There are so many ways to seek Jesus, to be with Him. We hear His voice in the Gospels. We see His face in the holy icons. We touch Him directly in the sacraments. And when we lay aside our earthly cares through fasting and non-possessiveness, we can experience those things all the more intensely. And perhaps most powerfully and poignantly in this blessed season, when we offer up even our hurt and our suffering and our emptiness and our loneliness to Him, He joins it to His own. For He knows what exile is like. He knows what it means to be far from home.

During His time on this Earth, Jesus was a man of sorrows. He was hungry. He was thirsty. He was homeless. He was hated. He was beaten. He was rejected. He was ridiculed. He was nailed to a cross. He carried all human sorrow within Him. He is the Second Adam. And just as the first Adam brought all this upon us through his disobedience, the Second Adam carried it all through His obedience, an obedience even unto death itself.

That is why we can go to Him, why we can meet Him, why He meets us in our own pain and brokenness. He enters into our darkness. He is accessible. He is present.

And why is it that the key to returning to Paradise is Jesus? Why is it that we seek Him out in order to find the home that we really have never known?

Here is the secret to why this beautiful Lenten springtime works: It is because Jesus is Paradise.

You see, what Adam truly lost was not just residence in a beautiful garden. That may have been true, whether literally or metaphorically, but what is truly lost in the fall from grace is, well, grace. What was lost by Adam was his communion, his closeness with God. That is what made Paradise what it was. It was that there was no separation from God, no imperfection, no corruption, no brokenness at all. There was life and light and beauty and glory, because there was God and because there Adam knew God and was known by God. And when Adam sinned, God comes looking for him and Adam hides himself—not because God did not know where he was or because Adam could truly hide, but because there was now a separation between them.

Thus, the Paradise that we lost in Adam and yet never knew we can gain in the New Adam, for He is that Paradise. And even though in this life it will never be complete, we can still know that beauty, that wonder, that sweetness and consolation, for He is that Paradise that was lost to our blindness. And then one day, we will see Him face to face.

To our God therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Meeting the Lord

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Meeting of the Lord in the Temple, February 2, 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 arrive now at the fortieth day from our Lord’s birth, when His mother and foster father Joseph bring Him to the Temple in Jerusalem to fulfill what was written in the Law of Moses concerning the first-born son of any family, that he should be dedicated to the Lord and a worthy sacrifice be offered as part of this special moment in the life of the family. The Lord Jesus is received there into the arms of the righteous Simeon, who had been waiting to see the promised Messiah for many long years and then prophesied about what was to come for this newly-born King of the Jews.

There is so much that may be said here that we do not have time to say it all, but today, on this great feast, I would like us to meditate on a few things.

First, we are brought to consider that this same custom is retained in the Orthodox Church, though it is altered in a few ways. On the fortieth day from a child’s birth, he and his mother come to the church and are received there by the priest. The priest prays over both the child and his mother, and then carries the child into the church temple.

The prayers for the mother are said to provide a preparation for her to be received back into the communion of the Eucharist. She has stayed home for these forty days and has been out of communion for an extended time. Normally, when someone has been absent from communion for at least three Sundays, he is in essence excommunicated and needs to be brought back in to communion through the mystery of confession. But a new mother has been absent from communion involuntarily and for a laudable reason. Yet that separation has occurred. Thus, instead of receiving her back into communion through confession, these special prayers are said on the fortieth day from her giving birth.

Prayers are also said for the child, and there is variation here between different Orthodox traditions. In some cases, these prayers of “churching” are done only after the child has been baptized. In our tradition, however, these prayers are said before the baptism and include content hoping that the child will soon be baptized, which can occur even immediately. Indeed, for many reasons it is preferable to baptize a child as soon as possible after this point.

I want to draw our attention to one particular detail here, one of the ways in which the Church has altered the Jewish custom. In the Law of Moses, it is only the first-born son who is brought in this way into the Temple. Yet we bring every child, whether boy or girl, first-born or last-born. Why is that?

It is because the reason we bring children to the church temple on their fortieth day includes not only the Jewish notion of dedication to God and thanksgiving for the birth of a child, but also we add to it identification with Christ. Jews dedicated the first-born sons because Moses told them to, but we Christians dedicate all our children because Christ Himself deigned to be dedicated in this way. And imitating Christ and becoming one with Christ is available not only to first-born sons but to every human person.

This broadening of such customs fits in with the larger narrative of how the Church has appropriated and received its Jewish inheritance. Prior to the coming of Christ, the Jews were the chosen people and had access to a revelation not given to the rest of mankind. But with the coming of Christ, the age of the New Israel is inaugurated, and every human person is now welcome to enter into the New Israel, whatever his nationality, ethnicity or status from birth. There is no one who cannot become one with Christ. And so we bring all of our children to begin their life of becoming one with Christ by this custom of dedication on the fortieth day from their birth.

Besides our personal connection with this feast, however, there is also something cosmic going on. This is not only a moment that each of us can connect to individually, but it is a moment in the Big Story, the story of how God is saving the world, which is what gives it its power and meaning. When we bring our forty day old children to be dedicated here in this holy temple, we are not only asking for a blessing for them and their mothers but we are also entering them into the cosmic narrative of salvation itself.

For we see here the passing of one covenant and the inauguration of another. The Old Covenant, represented here in the person of Simeon, is nearing its final days. The age of the ethnic, biological definition of Israel is coming to a close, and a age of entrance into the New Israel through baptism is now dawning. The age of shadows and figures is passing, and the age of direct revelation in its fullness has now come.

Here in that Temple in Jerusalem that was made for the worship of God before the Incarnation now comes the incarnate God-man Himself. He is being dedicated to the Lord, but He is Himself the Lord. This earthly mother, accompanied by a foster-father, offers Him up to the heavenly Father, and He is offered up in the Temple that was made to worship Him.

Here, the Creator is being held in the arms of His creation. Here, the One Who is infinite and omnipotent appears as finite and helpless, sheltered from harm in the arms of His own creatures, whom He Himself shelters from harm. His parents come full of hope for the future of this child, and yet it is He Who is hope itself, the hope of all the ends of the earth, the hope of every creature.

It is such a beautiful, powerful moment. I love this feast because of how tenderly, how gently, how poetically it teaches us about the incarnation of the Son of God, met here in the Temple as both the Son of God and the Son of Mary.

As we contemplate this great feast of the Church, we should see ourselves becoming part of this story. The Meeting of the Lord in the Temple is not just “the reason” that we bring forty day old babies to the Church, though we can indeed understand it that way. Rather, this is one of many ways in which we enter into the life of Christ.

Because He is born into this world, we meet Him there. When He is dedicated in the Temple, we meet Him there. When He is baptized, we meet Him there. When He suffers and dies, we meet Him there. And when He is raised from the dead and ascends into Heaven, we meet Him there. Wherever Christ is, that is where we long to be.

We join ourselves to every part of His life and experience, not just in terms of mental remembrance but in mystical solidarity and identity with the God Who became man. We go to be with Him because we want to know Him, to be one with Him, to receive the divine power by grace that is His by nature.

And so here we have another opportunity to meet Him. So let us go out to meet Him, this Lord of glory Who became incarnate as a little child and is now being brought by His blessed mother and His righteous foster father into the Temple of His own glory.

Let us not only dedicate our little children in imitation of Christ’s dedication, but let us dedicate ourselves—perhaps again, perhaps for the first time—so that we may also be found held in the arms of the righteous Simeon, so that we also may see the salvation that he saw and know the mercy and peace and beauty of the Lord that will last not only into our departure from this life as it did with him, but also through all eternity.

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

The Beginning of Baptism

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Sunday after Theophany, January 12, 2014
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

A recording of this sermon can be heard via Ancient Faith Radio.

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

Today is the Sunday after the Great Feast of Theophany, and even though the feast is now past, we are still within the afterfeast of Theophany, which is completed on January 14th. The content of this feast is of course the baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan at the hand of John the Forerunner, and it is taught by the Church that this baptism was not for the forgiveness of any sins committed by Jesus—God forbid!—but rather to make Christian baptism possible and indeed to begin the sanctification of the whole world.

As we contemplate these themes, I would like to focus in on one of them, and that is that Christ’s baptism inaugurates Christian baptism.

We think of baptism as a quintessentially Christian practice nowadays, but there are other religions that baptize, and first-century Judaism was one of them. Before Jesus Himself was baptized, His cousin John was out in the wilderness baptizing people. Certainly John was not baptizing anyone into the Church with Christian baptism, because it hadn’t been established yet by Christ. So what is John’s baptism about? The baptism of John was a Jewish ritual that was associated with repentance and the remission of sins.

Now, this was not an invention of John’s but was already an established part of Jewish tradition. Ancient Judaism had a number of different kinds of ritual washings for various purposes, and a few of them included full-body immersion as in Christian baptism. The Scriptures tell us in this case that John was baptizing people as part of repentance and forgiveness of sins, doing his job as the “voice crying in the wilderness” prophesied in the fortieth chapter of Isaiah, preparing people for the coming of Jesus. And there is also a traditional Jewish use of full-immersion washing that is required in order to convert to Judaism.

So we see here three elements of Jewish baptism that are familiar to us—repentance, forgiveness and conversion. All three of these aspects to baptism are retained in Christian baptism. We may not think too much about repentance and forgiveness or even conversion when a baby is being baptized, but these things are still operative. Even a newborn infant who has not committed any personal sins still bears the inheritance of the infection of sin from Adam and Eve that needs baptism in order to begin its cure. This aspect is a bit clearer when we baptize an adult, which is always preceded by confession, because adults have indeed committed personal sins.
Yet when Jesus is baptized, He is not merely co-opting the Jewish ritual cleansing for Christian purposes. He is adding something to it. When people are baptized into the Church, they are not only repenting, being forgiven and converting. They are also putting on Christ, as St. Paul says in Galatians 3:27 and as we sing at the baptismal service and on certain feast days: “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”

“Putting on Christ” is not just a metaphor. When someone is baptized, Christ comes to dwell in him and His identity begins to work on the newly-baptized person’s identity. The image of God in that person can begin to grow that person into God’s likeness, as well. That potential is activated. Someone who is baptized begins to become like Christ. The union of the divine and human that is Christ’s by nature can become ours by grace. He is both God and man, and we can become human beings in union with God.

But what is activated by baptism is not absolute and perfect for all time. It has to be cultivated and built upon over time for it to become truly effective. Baptism is not a magic spell that guarantees the recipient a place in the resurrection of the righteous at the end of time. It is rather a preparation for the synergistic working together of God and man that is the spiritual life, which has the potential to lead to everlasting life, but only if worked out, as St. Paul says, “with fear and trembling.” If it is not worked out throughout life, then the result is not everlasting life but rather everlasting dying.

So we can put on Christ, but we can also put off Christ. Even though baptism would never be repeated for someone who throws off its power, and even though he will always have that great grace of baptism, it is only effective for him if he keeps it and nurtures it and helps it to grow by cooperating with it.

And that is part of what Christian baptism retains from Jewish baptism, that characteristic of repentance and the forgiveness of sins. In order for baptism to continue its work in us, we have to continue to repent. It is not a one-time event that permanently seals our eternal destiny. It is the beginning of a journey.

And as we journey with Christ to become more like Christ, we will also see that the sanctification given in baptism begins to work on what is around us, as well. It works on other people, in that the hope and grace within us also draw other people to Christ. When they see that love of God genuinely within us, that humble spirit of kindness and compassion, then they are also attracted to God’s love and may also become filled with God’s grace, which is His real presence within.

But the sanctification which baptism gives us also works on even the world around us on a cosmic scale. Many of the saints saw the natural world begin to work differently around them, no longer bound by the curse that was laid when Adam and Eve sinned. Wild animals became tame. The earth and the elements of water and so forth became more easily fertile and helpful to them rather than as obstacles that have to be overcome. And someday, that harmony of creation that is seen in a small amount around the saints will grow to encompass the whole cosmos at the end of all things.

For when Christ comes to be baptized in the Jordan, He does so to begin His reclamation of all creation, with mankind at the very center of it all. His love and power and glory and healing flow into that water and from there flow into the world. And it can flow through us, as well, if we will open ourselves up to it.

I know that life often can be complicated, confusing, painful and even tragic. What makes it possible for Orthodox Christians not only to endure all this but actually to thrive and to progress in holiness and love is knowing that someday this will all pass away. Someday, the disharmony will again become harmony. Someday, all the tears will be wiped from every eye. Someday, what began there in the Jordan 2,000 years ago will finally be complete and will reach into every place.

In the meantime, we muddle forward. And we do so with hope and love, because God has called us not only to endure the suffering of this world, but actually to participate in His sanctification and transformation of it. He has called us to be blessed with His holiness by means, among other things, of the purification and operation holy water. And He has also called us to bless those around us with that same holy water, to bless the world with it, as well, to bring His power everywhere.

Holy water is one of the many means of blessing that God has given us, but of all those means, it is perhaps the most primal and the most universal. It is sprinkled everywhere without hesitation. There is nothing that cannot be touched by it and changed by it, given the possibility for revealing God’s goodness in everything. Sometimes, that revelation is invisible to us, but sometimes, it also becomes visible.

And the greatest of all the blessings of holy water is that great mystery of holy baptism, which was given to us so many centuries ago and yet remains new as today for all who would come and receive its cleansing power.

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

The Springtime of Repentance

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mary-of-egyptSunday of St. Mary of Egypt, April 21, 2013
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

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

Today we remember a woman who walked out into the desert and repented there for more than forty years. On this fifth Sunday of the Great Fast, the Church celebrates St. Mary of Egypt.

Born in the mid-4th century, Mary was a woman dedicated to pleasure. She is sometimes called a prostitute, but that term is not really accurate, because she would not take money in exchange for her wantonness. She was offered it many times, but she would usually refuse it, and sustained herself primarily by begging. And so she lived this way, constantly seeking out new men to engage in fornication. Being beautiful, she was desired by many, and so she lived an “active” lifestyle. She began this way of life when she was twelve years old, having run away from home to the city of Alexandria.

After seventeen years of what became a more and more tortured way of life, she decided to make a pilgrimage to the city of Jerusalem for the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross in September. But she did not go to celebrate the feast. She was instead hoping to find crowds of pilgrims with whom she could satiate her lust, her constant, overwhelming desire. She paid for her travel by prostitution, and when she arrived in Jerusalem, she continued in her manner of life, having found new people to lead into her desperation for physical satisfaction.

She eventually was led to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which includes Golgotha, the place of the crucifixion, within its walls, the holiest place to celebrate the feast of Christ’s Cross. But as she began to enter the doors of that blessed church, she was suddenly stopped by an unseen force. The crowds around her entered, but it was almost as if a great hand was holding her back.

At that moment, something began which the world tells us is really not possible. At that moment, something began which for the world is not in any way desirable. Mary began to repent. And she walked beyond the Jordan River and kept repenting for more than forty years.

When we hear this word repentance, it is likely that we do not hear it as anything positive. It may stir up feelings about guilt. It may sound like judgmentalism or condemnation. It may conjure images in our brains of overbearing, bombastic preachers hurling down sermons on hellfire and brimstone like lightning bolts from angry gods. So why do we talk about repentance so often in the Orthodox Church?

Well, it should probably first be said that there are many so-called churches that have stopped talking about repentance or have tried to massage it out of their message because it is unappealing to their customers—or, I mean, their congregants. And certainly one does not hear about repentance in the public square much any more. It is long since any president declared a day of national fasting and prayer as Abraham Lincoln did in 1863. I daresay there are some things done by those in the public square that need some repentance.

I think there are probably two reasons why repentance is unfashionable. The first is that, as we said earlier, most people have a harsh and painful image of what it means to repent. It is demeaning. It is hard. It is annoying. The second reason is just that we like sin—another word that doesn’t get used too much in public any more.

But since we are Orthodox Christians, we recognize that we need to repent. And since the public proclamation of the Gospel has always begun with the exhortation “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand,” first in the mouth of John the Baptist and then from his cousin the Lord Jesus Christ, we should ask what repentance really is. And then we should ask why we should not flee from repentance but should actually want it. And this will tell us how someone like St. Mary of Egypt could keep repenting for so very long.

The word for “repentance” in Greek is metanoia, and it consists of two different Greek words—meta and nous, with the latter word being changed by the compound. Meta can mean many things, but here it means “change” or “turning.” And the nous is the innermost sense of human beings, the faculty with which we apprehend divine, mystical reality. It is the “heart” or the “eye of the soul.” So metanoia—repentance—is the turning of the eye of the soul, the changing of the heart. It is to direct our innermost gaze away from what is sinful, what separates us from God’s life, and toward what is good, what connects us with the life of our Maker.

That is the etymological and theological description of what repentance means. But for us to understand repentance, I think we may need some illustrative imagery. The place where Mary of Egypt went to engage in her repentance was the desert beyond the Jordan River. There it is said that she watered the place with her tears, the tears she shed over her many years of evil and self-destruction.

And that is what sin does. It is not just a transgression against some cosmic law. It is self-destruction and nothing less. Sometimes the destruction is sudden and devastating, but other times it is the slow dehydration that turns what is fertile into the barrenness of the desert. That is what happened to much of the Middle East, by the way—so much of it was fertile, but through gradual overuse and misuse of the land, it became desert. So it is with human persons. What is beautiful and fertile and full of possibility becomes, over time, bit by bit, dry and thirsty.

Yet repentance is possible. When a soul repents, the rain begins to fall. Sometimes the rain may bounce off the hard ground because it is so unused to receiving it, and so it may seem to do nothing or even to hurt. But over time, the rain begins to soak the land. And where there may at first be mud and erosion, there eventually comes to be fertility and growth.

Repentance is the springtime of the soul, and is it any wonder that we are now in this Lenten season of repentance, right now, at springtime? Even the very word Lent itself actually means “springtime.” We pour repentance into our souls by shedding those things that weigh us down, those useless burdens of sin that look and feel so good but actually are deeply dangerous to us. And when that repentance comes pouring in, all the many virtues of our souls, like flowers in a garden, begin to awaken, to bud and to bloom. They have been sleeping during the long winter of sin, but now they can grow.

To repent is not to feel guilty. Guilt may encourage us to repent, but it doesn’t always. Guilt is just the pain at recognizing the desert that our souls have become. But pain isn’t repentance. To repent is to turn, to change, to come back to life. We have to see that we have a desert in our souls, and sometimes it takes the upheaval of disaster, depression, divorce, drugs or death to see it. But it doesn’t have to take that. Seeing the desert within may also be inspired by contact with true beauty. Seeing the beauty of Eden, the beauty of Paradise, in the love of our Lord, we realize that we live in the desert. And we want Eden.

And so we repent. We turn back to Eden. We turn to the divine life of Christ, the life of the Holy Trinity granted in communion with the Son of God. This is what it means to repent! It means that we who are dead can be made alive, that we who are dry and thirsty may become fertile and full, that we who are addicted might be set free.

And that is how Mary of Egypt could live in that desert for decades. She was not out there moping around feeling guilty. She was watering her garden. She was tending to the flowers of virtue in her soul. She was walking with God in Eden, just as Adam and Eve had once done. She who had been a desert in the midst of fertility became a walking Paradise in the midst of the desert.

Has this Great Lent been the springtime of your soul? Even if it has not yet been, it still may be. There always is hope. There always is mercy. There always is possibility. Let us repent with joy, brothers and sisters, and so pour the grace of God like long-awaited rain into the desert of our souls.

To our life-giving God, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Where was Christ in the Newtown Massacre?

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Jillian Soto uses a phone to get information about her sister, Victoria Soto, a teacher at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn. on Friday, after a gunman killed more than two dozen people, including 20 children. Victoria Soto, 27, was among those killed. (Jessica Hill/AP)

As I am sure many clergy throughout America did this past Sunday, I preached about the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut that occurred on Friday, December 14.

Update: If you would like to hear the recording of this sermon as it was preached, go here.

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

I normally do the major part of my sermon composition on Thursday, and as with most Thursdays, I had my sermon completed by the end of this past one. But then Friday happened, and I realized that I had to write a new one. So please forgive me if it’s not quite as organized and polished as I would prefer.

If by some happy chance you have not yet heard, on Friday morning in the city of Newtown, Connecticut, a young man killed his mother and then went to the elementary school where she worked and proceeded to gun down twenty children aged six and seven, as well as six women who worked at the school and then, finally, himself.

Newtown is only about thirty miles away from my father’s hometown of Southington, Connecticut. My grandmother still lives there. I’ve driven through Newtown many times on my way to see her, and I’m fairly sure I’ve stopped there a few times. I know what towns in that area are like, and they are deeply ingrained in the years of my father’s youth.

I don’t watch television very often, so when I heard about the shooting, it was through reading it in online news, as well as some reports on the radio. The sense of spectacle that television brings to the news is not really something that I prefer to have in my life. So the means through which I learned about the shooting were somewhat less sensational. Nevertheless, no matter how we learned about this story, it is horrifying.

I’ve thought a good bit about what happened over the past couple of days, as I’m sure that most of you have. Some of us have children about that same age, including me. I’ve also read lots of analysis on this, including a lot of strong political opinions about things like gun control, school security, mental illness, and so forth. No doubt there are politicians already poised “not to let a good crisis go to waste” as soon as a few news cycles have passed and it wouldn’t be too unseemly to seize the moment and turn it to political advantage. If there is one thing we can count on from our political class, it is that they will use moments like this to advance their particular agendas.

What I want to address, though, is the horror of this experience and its spiritual impact, something that the politicians cannot really help us with, though I think some folks want them to and therefore trust them a bit too much in moments like this.

There are many things we could say about the spiritual basis for what happened in Newtown, which of course is now at least the seventh killing spree we’ve had in America this year. We should rightly point out that such things are simply another extension of the culture of death that our society pursues. Is it any wonder that human life occasionally can mean nothing to someone in our nation, with decades of pursuing a foreign policy in which we have trained young men and women pre-emptively to kill an “enemy” who has never attacked us, with decades of pursuing a national lifestyle in which the lives of the most innocent and helpless of us all are at the whims of “choice,” with presidential “kill lists” and drone assassinations, with the dehumanization of nearly anyone accused of a crime as an “animal” or a “monster,” with the militarization of our police forces who all too frequently conduct SWAT team style raids on the wrong houses and kill and traumatize innocent people with near impunity, with the subjection of the God-given sanctity of the human person to the whims of social redefinition and the shifting winds of culture? Is it any wonder?

We could also lend some perspective here and point out that, even while we stand horrified at what still is fairly rare in statistical terms, on the day that twenty children were gunned down in Connecticut, nationwide more than 3,500 children were killed by abortion, never seeing the light of day. While we are shocked at what happened in Newtown—and rightly so—there are people here in our own parish community for whom mass killings, even of children, at the hands of gunmen and suicide bombers is the normal, daily life of family members and friends in the Middle East, where people have been driven out of their homes, their schools and churches burned to the ground, their priests tortured and murdered, their families attacked, held for ransom, killed, etc., etc.

There are many things we could use to gain some perspective—not to tell us that what happened in Newtown on Friday wasn’t that big of a deal, but to help us make some sense of it all. And it may also help us to gain some wisdom for what we can do and what we can say.

At its base, our problem is this culture of death, the culture of the diminishing of the human person. And there are moments when we see this diminishing go too far, like on Friday, and we may be tempted, perhaps momentarily or perhaps more compellingly, to begin to lose our faith. How could God permit this? Is the price for us to know God’s goodness really so high? How can we say that suffering can bring about redemption with this kind of suffering?

Such a question is asked in extreme poignancy by the character Ivan Karamazov in the Dostoevsky novel about the brothers by that name, and yesterday I read it quoted by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a devout Roman Catholic, in a column he wrote for this horrible tragedy. Here’s the passage he quoted from Ivan, along with some of his commentary:

“Can you understand,” he asks his more religious sibling, “why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? … Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much?”

Perhaps, Ivan concedes, there will be some final harmony, in which every tear is wiped away and every human woe is revealed as insignificant against the glories of eternity. But such a reconciliation would be bought at “too high a price.” Even the hope of heaven, he tells his brother, isn’t worth “the tears of that one tortured child.”

Douthat goes on to point out that Dostoevsky does not provide any rhetorical argument against Ivan’s complaint against God, a God Ivan might be willing to admit exists, but Whom he rejects because His “price” is “too high.” Rather, Dostoevsky instead demonstrates the goodness of God through the love of his characters in transcending suffering. Douthat writes that this pattern is also found in the New Testament itself, in which God’s love for mankind is established not through a philosophical argument, but through the suffering and death of God Himself as one of us. The cross is the hour of glory for the Son of God.

In case you did not hear, there were also some moments of glory on Friday. At least three of the women killed that cold day in Connecticut put themselves between the shooter and the children—a 27-year-old teacher named Victoria Soto, the school’s 47-year-old principal Dawn Hochsprung and special education teacher Anne Marie Murphy, who was 52. Victoria hid her students in a closet, confronting the shooter and telling them the kids were somewhere else. He gunned her down. Likewise, Dawn physically tried to apprehend the shooter and was also killed for it. Anne Marie died shielding students from the shooter with her own body.

There may well be more stories like these, and we can also compare them to the account of the 14,000 innocent boys two years old and under who were killed by King Herod as he turned his rage toward the infant Jesus, the King of the Jews who threatened him so much. We celebrate their feast just a few days after Christmas.

While reasonable people can disagree on the causes and remedies for evil moments such as these, we ultimately should remember that all death, no matter its cause or its character, is fundamentally evil. All death strikes against God’s purpose for His creation. He did not create suffering. He did not create death. Death is a declaration of war against God Himself, because God is life. God not only creates life by beginning, but He continues to give life, even after physical death.

While of course we have many theological explanations that can be given for how evil came into this world and why God permits man to continue to have free will even in the face of man’s evil, what we should remember and what we must live in our lives is not any explanation. Explanations are useful only insofar as they get us to the business of living. Rather, what we should live is Christ’s conquest of death. We don’t have to figure out death. I don’t think we can. Rather, we as Christians are here to grapple with death and to engage it as an enemy.

As Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote in his brilliant little book For the Life of the World: “Christianity is not reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death, and it reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christ is this Life. And only if Christ is Life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely an enemy to be destroyed, and not a ‘mystery’ to be explained.”

The truest answer to violence is love. The truest answer to death is life. The only prevention for violence is for the heart to have no violence within it. We can legislate all we like, but the violent heart will still find a weapon and the opportunity to use it. We cannot prevent evil through any system devised by mankind. But we can grapple with evil and defeat it, but only with love—real love, too, not just some sentimental feeling, but self-sacrifice. Those women who died with those children demonstrated love. In that moment when they chose to give their lives for the children in their care, it did not matter if they had happy feelings about them—probably some of those kids annoyed them on one day or another. What mattered was the act, the act of defeating death with life. Christ said, “Greater love hath no man than this, than that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

There is no argument, no philosophy, no policy that can properly answer what happened on Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. It all rings hollow in the end, doesn’t it? But as the columnist Ross Douthat also writes, this horrible story comes to us at a time when another story is almost upon us.

You see, in nine days, we will celebrate Christmas. And yes, the story and spirit of Christmas are largely the stuff of sentiment these days. There is the cute baby Jesus, the happy shepherds, the adoring wise men, and so on. But if you look at the icon of the Nativity of Christ, you will also see that the manger is shaped like a coffin, that the myrrh brought by the wise men is the kind of thing that will be used to anoint the dead Jesus, that the swaddling clothes are very much like burial cloths. In the true story of Christmas, Herod rages and the road to the Cross is already begun.

And that is our answer. We stare evil in the face, and we say again and again: Christ is risen!

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