It is arguably one of the most “under-rated” Feast days of our Ecclesiastical Year – The Feast of the Apostles; and yet, it is through these 12 men and the line of their successors throughout the ages that the Holy Spirit works with great power to establish and grow Jesus Christ’s Church – to grow us, the members of His Body. Perhaps because it comes at a time when summer activities are chosen over churchgoing, or perhaps we take their work for granted; whatever the reasons, many Orthodox Christians are not even aware that there is such a feast day! This is an unfortunate reality. We can learn so much and receive so much encouragement through more reflection on their example and legacy.
What I have been musing on during the fast period leading up to this Feast Day is the process of discipleship that led to their readiness to be “sent” out into the world to proclaim the gift of Life that is found in a relationship with Jesus Christ. This was not automatic. It was a result of entering into an intimate relationship with Him. They were first called, and answered the call to follow Him. They learned by watching Him, they learned by listening to Him. They learned by sharing a daily life with Him. And ultimately, they learned by suffering with Him and for Him, watching their beloved Master give up His life on the Cross. They mourned with the deepest grief what they thought was the end of the One they hoped was more powerful than death. They had to endure this loss for a time to see that He was indeed that One. They could not very well proclaim to people suffering various trials that Christ was the answer to their every problem, if they had not first experienced that He is. Alas, “no pain, no gain.”
I met Christ a long time before I became a mom of a child who suffers. I met Him before I had to suffer, during suffering, and after it. He called me when I was little. I followed for a time but when “times of temptations came”(Luke 8:13) I took a path I thought was more comforting, or comfortable. When that path didn’t lead to healing, He again stretched out His arms to me, open, beckoning “Come back to Me, My child.” I met Him with great power in the Sacraments of Confession and Holy Communion, and vowed never to leave Him again. He was the answer to forgiveness of sins, to a new life, the Love I longed for.
Then, He gave to me an opportunity my whole being longed for – to become a mother. He sent me a loving and compassionate, humble husband to grow with and He quickly blessed us with a pregnancy shortly after we were married. All my dreams were coming true – until, they didn’t. My dreams were lofty, idealistic, and honestly vainglorious. I would be a good mom because I would whisper the name of The One to my child. I would teach my children to follow the One Who is the answer to all life’s “whys”, the antidote to all life’s “woes”, the “Way, the Truth, the Life.”(John 14:6) We would be at every church service, pray morning and evening prayers together, keep the fasts and feasts prescribed by the Church, go on picnics and share in the wonder of God’s beautiful creation together. We would move wherever the Lord bid us. We would be an example to the flocks we served. “Me and My house would serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15) Until, we didn’t.
Our child, we learned during pregnancy, was very sick. He had multiple genetic abnormalities, multiple health issues in major organs of his body. We learned our baby had a “broken” heart. It would take many more years to mend our own hearts after his was surgically repaired.
My sweet Lord Whom I said I would never forsake, waited patiently for me to come around again. He tried to love me through my anger and misery, but I “refused to be comforted.”(Jeremiah 31:15) He never stopped sending help. He never stopped calling, even when I stopped my ears from listening for His voice. So much healing was needed. So much pain wrapped up in the invitation to parent a child who would be so misunderstood and suffer so much.
Once again, like the Apostles long ago I took to my old way of life – living on my own terms. Oh, I served my husband and child and went through the motions of being a Christian, while my heart’s wounds could not stop seeping out in various ways. Like Peter said shortly after Jesus’ death, so I said in my loss, “I am going fishing.” (John 21:3) I went fishing for the love that was a faint memory now, toiling all day and night for a catch in the shallow waters of others’ approval. My nets always came up empty. I had to heed His call to “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” (Luke 5:4) I had to go deeper into my pain to really learn He was the only answer, even if He was giving me a cross to bear that seemed at times unbearable. I suppose it’s not a cross if it doesn’t bring you to your knees.
“Through His stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5) became the experience my husband and I began to see in our son’s life. Through his suffering we were being offered an opportunity to heal from the wounds of yore. Thinking they had been sufficiently healed, we did not realize their far-reaching depths. Until, we did.
Peter and John and Thomas, Andrew, Nathaniel, Simon the Zealot, Bartholomew, Phillip, James the Elder and James the Younger, Matthew, Judas Thaddeus, Matthias and the like all had their “first calls,” their faith-wavering moments, their faith-building beholding of miracles, their feeling embraced by God and feeling forsaken by Him too. As followers of Christ, we relive His paths and there is nothing He allows that He cannot heal and transform into a vehicle for good. I am learning also, that He continues to suffer every single pain along with, or rather inside of, each of His children. As a parent with limitations in my own love, I feel every pain and anxiety my child endures very deeply. How much more then, does God in His perfect love feel His children’s afflictions?
The Apostles were first disciples – students in the school of Life. They learned this not only in neat, textbook-like theory, but also in practice. You cannot have true life if you are not willing to live it with all its lurking dangers. “In shipwrecks, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness … in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night” (2 Cor 11:26,27) as we read in the Epistle on this Feast of the Apostles.
What is to be learned from this? At face value the encouragement to suffer is not an inviting prospect. I don’t run to suffering and perhaps this is as it should be. But if the cup He offers me to drink “will not pass if it is His will” (Matt 26:39) then I learn from the Apostles that this cup is worth partaking of. I learn that through it comes the assuredness that Life is indeed more powerful than death, joy more powerful than sadness, and love more powerful than fear. I learn that like them, I will not be fit to be “sent” until I experience this in all its humbling, temporarily painful, sometimes lonely, always true, Life-giving Power.
No Cross, no Resurrection. No death of sin, no life of holiness. No experience, no mission. No pain, no gain. And then, will come the knowledge of the Apostle Paul: “Woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel.” (1 Cor 9:16) Amen.
Presvytera Melanie DiStefano is the Resource Coordinator for the GOA Center for Family Care.