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Sunday of Orthodoxy

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by George Parsenios

+ In the name of the Father and the Son and Holy Spirit.

Today the Church does not celebrate one of her Saints, nor does she commemorate a wondrous event in the life of our Lord. Today, rather, on this, the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the Church rejoices in her own being, praising the God whose power and glory she announces to the world. And as we celebrate this feast of the Church, we are reminded by St. Paul in today’s epistle reading of the vast dimensions of our Church.

We read first of our Fathers from the Old Testament, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel and all the prophets. Then, we are told of the great cloud of witnesses who look down upon us from the heavens. Thus, the Apostle Paul remembers both those who have walked before us in history and those who await us in eternity. This is the Church we celebrate today, stretching beyond all mortal boundaries, confined neither by time nor place.

Moreover, we have much to celebrate from the here and now, in the Orthodox Church in the Americas. The Church is firmly planted on American soil and conspicuously woven into the fabric of the American religious experience. Adult converts are entering the Orthodox Church at a pace unrivalled in the history of this continent.

However, before we applaud too much our current situation, we must consider our condition more critically. Many of those entering the Church today come from one or another Protestant denomination. And they have come to the Orthodox Church because the arguments of history and the testimony of Scripture have convinced them that the Orthodox Church is the Apostolic Church. Very few, however, attribute their conversion to the contemporary witness of the Orthodox Church. Rather, they are prompted by the Holy Spirit to conversion based on what the Orthodox Church has been and should be, not by what they have seen lived out before their eyes.

And where are the Buddhists, the atheists, the neo-pagans? Why are they not entering the Church of Christ? The fact is, we cannot hope to persuade them with academic calls to examine the historical evidence. The only means to convince such people is to prove by our lives and our most basic motivations that what we have is better than the rest, that what we have is the salvation of mankind and the solution to the problems that plague modern men and women. Only in this way will people be convinced that no god is so great a god as our God, who alone works wonders.

Certainly, our history, our liturgical and theological and ascetical traditions are crucial to our Christian life. But, crucial in what way? To be our distinguishing characteristic? Is it our task simply to maintain them until Christ comes again? Is this the feature that is to distinguish the people of God - that we are traditional? I think not. That sounds a good deal like Pharisaism.

What, then, is to distinguish us, what are we to show the world that it does not have? We are to show it Love. Our Lord says, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Christians are to love each other. And this is the definitive mark of the early Church. To the ancient Romans, the Christians were an odd lot, both ridiculed and persecuted. But at least one Roman remarked, and I parpaphrase, “The Christians are indeed peculiar people, but they are strongly devoted to one another. They have deep love for one another.”

Here, to this Roman, the practices and traditions of the Church were an object of ridicule. They were silly. What impressed him was how following these practices had changed people. Herein lies the value of our traditions and acts of piety. They are essential, but only as tools, only to change us into people who love fully and completely.

To put it another way, our traditions and practices are like our training ground. But as soldiers who spend years in rigorous training, we must be able to perform when we enter the field of battle. Otherwise, all the drills and practice are worthless. Likewise, if we follow our various rules of fasting and prayer and make our theology fit the Church’s faith, but then are not changed by all this effort, if we are not more vigilant to make sure that we love our fellow Christians, we are St. Paul’s clanging gongs and crashing cymbals.

And where is our field of battle? In what arena are we to wage our war? Surely, many answers could satisy this question. Today, I will concentrate on two, one a little smaller in scale, the other a little larger.

First, the smaller one.

There is a brief moment that separates our thoughts from our words and actions. In this moment we know what we are about to do. When we lose our temper, there is an instant - sometimes imperceptible, but it is there - in which we know that we are about to lose our temper. Or, we know that we are about to insult someone. And we do it anyway. Well, this moment is our battlefield. This is our arena, our competition. One of the chief purposes of controlling our food intake, of fasting, is to instill in us a greater vigilance, a deeper awareness of our words and actions. We must cultivate this vigilance in order that we not say things that sting or burn or hurt. To work on this small scale, at this basic level, will do much to help us to love more. Each word is significant. As someone once said, “God is in the details.”

But details make up bigger things. And this leads me to my second issue, the larger one, that is, our community, this School. The majority of the students here will someday serve our Archdiocese in some significant capacity, most of us as priests. And the behaviors that we develop here, the relationships that we form here, will effect the life of the Church considerably. If we learn to love one another here, this will be reflected in the Church as a whole. If we do not, this will also be reflected in tomorrow’s Church.

It is ridiculous to think that two priests would hate one another, but it is a reality here that we seminarians hate one another. And over what? Usually nothing more than minor personality quirks. Or, we are so driven by competitiveness that our fellow students are not our brothers and sisters, but our opponents. And so we greet the success of others with fear and dread, instead of rejoicing that others have glorified God with their talents.

Certainly some sense of competition is unavoidable. But it should always be positive. We should see the successes of others as an example of what we can achieve, and this should spur us on to higher things, and encourage us when we falter and grow tired.

Finally, our community would improve greatly if we could apologize to one another. Husbands and wives are told to live by the rule of never going to sleep angry. They are never to end a day without resolving the conflicts of that day. Surely, this applies equally to us. In our intimate environment, conflicts will arise, whether on the football field, in the dormitory, or at the chanter’s stand. Like the husband and wife who do not go to sleep on their anger, let us not participate in the Eucharist with anger toward each other. A quick apology and granting of forgiveness will do much to keep what are essentially pointless arguments from escalating into what could be life-long enmity. What is more, our participation in liturgical life will not be merely a ??????p undertaking, but will serve to make us a more loving, a more Christian, community.

To close then, the Church is to be a haven of love in a world where, in our Lord’s words, “love has grown cold”. When we are known to the world for reasons other than our love for one another, even if for our rich and glorious traditions, this cannot be a good thing. We must struggle more diligently to use our customs and rituals in order to transform us into people who love one another. When we fast, our fasting is to make us more aware of our words, more careful not to offend or damage our fellow Christians. And when we involve ourselves in the liturgical life of the Church, it is necessary for our ritual to inform our lives, to add a texture to it, to ensure that when we participate in the ultimate act of love, the Eucharist, we do so as a community of love. Only in this way will the Church in America truly witness to Orthodoxy. We will then be firmly in line with the faith of our fathers, stretching back to the prophets mentioned by the Apostle Paul - Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah and David. And we will be pleasing to the Saints and the Bodiless Powers who form that great cloud of witnesses on high. We will be the historical Church, but more importantly, we will be the transcendant Church. Our God is love. We are His body. We must be love. Amen.



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