In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
I would like to sincerely thank you for this opportunity today. I thank you also for the very warm reception into the parish community. It has been a tremendous blessing and a source of great joy. May God grant that we continue to grow together. Thank you as well to my family and friends who have travelled today to be here to worship with us. For my father who was hoping to be here, I humbly ask your prayers as he prepares for coronary bypass surgery. Most notably, thank you, Fr. Andoni, for being a dear friend and beloved spiritual father. I thank you for the overwhelming blessing to be serving with you in the Holy Altar of our Lord and for overseeing my studies in the Faith of our Fathers and of our Lord Jesus Christ.
At the outset of this series of homilies, I should like to remind myself, as I heard again recently from Fr. Thomas Hopko, that our Faith is not one of philosophy, or of ideas, or even of doctrines, but rather a Faith that is entirely defined by a Person. A Faith defined by the Living Word of God, the Incarnate God Himself; a Faith solely defined by the Person of Jesus Christ. In our affirmation that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior, indeed God Himself made flesh, we must next ask these provocative and challenging questions: Why did God take on human flesh? Why did He suffer a most humiliating death after a brief earthly ministry of some three years? Why did He rise from the dead, ascend to Glory and, proceeding from the Father, send the Holy Spirit? In essence, what is being realized in the Paschal hymn, “Christ is Risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those within the tombs bestowing life!”? What is the ultimate gift given freely to God’s children in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? What does it mean when St. Paul tells us that the baptized have “put on Christ”? It is only in exploring the Church’s understanding of these seemingly lofty questions that we can even begin to appreciate the role of Christ in the redemption of man.
To begin, let us look to our beginning: For it is only in knowing that from which we have fallen that we can understand that to which we are called in Christ. In doing so, I humbly reintroduce us to the beloved Galatian Holy Father of the 10th and 11th centuries, St. Symeon the New Theologian (+ 1022). Born to Byzantine provincial nobles, St. Symeon received only the basics of a primary Greek school education until he was about eleven years of age. He finished his secondary education at the age of 14 in the court of the two brother Emperors Basil and Constantine. At 14, he met St. Symeon the Studite, who became his spiritual father and who led him into the life of asceticism and prayer. Though at this point he sought the monastic life, his spiritual father had him wait until the age of 27. During this period of preparation, St. Symeon’s elder continued to counsel and guide him, preparing him gradually for the monastic life even in the midst of worldly cares. St. Symeon occupied himself with the management of an aristocrat’s household and likely entered the service of his Emperor. While ‘busy in the world’ he also strove to live a monk’s life in the evenings, spending his time in night vigils and the reading of spiritual works: A lesson indeed for all of us as we seek a life of prayer in a world that is so often rather distracting. Within a few short months of entering the monastery of his spiritual father at the age of 27, St. Symeon, in obedience to his elder, left for the Monastery of St. Mammas in Constantinople. By the time he was 30, St. Symeon was tonsured a monk, ordained a priest and elected abbot of the monastery, a position he held for some twenty-five years. His writings and teachings were aimed at returning the monasteries to their traditional role in the early church, urging the monks to take up a life of simplicity, asceticism, purity of heart, and constant prayer. He attracted many monks and clergy with his reputation for learning and sanctity. At the rousing of the devil, some in the Church indeed rose up against St. Symeon and his fervor, exiling him to small village near Chrysopolis.There he found a deserted chapel that had been dedicated to Saint Macrina on land owned by one of his spiritual children who then donated the land and proceeds to begin a new monastery. St. Symeon’s disciples appealed to Sergius II, then Patriarch of Constantinople, to lift the order of exile. Sergius lifted the exile order completely and offered to re-establish Symeon at the Monastery of St. Mammas and consecrate him as Bishop, though only with the qualification that he must show some restraint in his celebration of Symeon the Studite’s feast day. Refusing to compromise (I am reminded here of how easy it is for me to compromise for far less!), St. Symeon was given the Patriarch’s blessing to “live together with your disciples and act according to your good pleasure.” Remaining at Saint Macrina, he was free of monks who were averse to his discipline and zeal, and free from direct conflict with Church authorities.He wrote during that time and made himself accessible to all who wanted to see him. St.Symeon spent the last thirteen years of his life in exile, dying on March 12, 1022. It is recorded that he foretold his own death many years previously, and on his last day called together all of the monks to sing the funeral hymns. During his life he received the gift of working miracles. Numerous miracles also took place after his death; one of them being the miraculous discovery of his icon. St. Symeon is one of only three Saints given the title of Theologian in the Church, the others being St. John the Evangelist of apostolic times and St. Gregory Naziansus of the golden age of Patristic literature. This is a title given to St. Symeon as a result of his direct experience of God and the divine revelation granted to him.
Blessed Seraphim Rose, a beloved monk of more recent repose, expressed that though St. Symeon’s voice speaks to us from nearly a thousand years ago, his message is every bit as edifying today as it was yesterday. His Christian world and ours have little differences between them. By his day, Christ’s Church had become well established and has seen little outward change since. As such, it is easy to see how we can take the Church for granted and thus begin to yearn again for the authentic Christian experience that can be fully satisfied by nothing else this world may offer. In St. Symeon, we are reminded that outward membership in the Church is not soul-saving in itself. Our life in the Church, however sacramental we believe it may be, will not save us by itself, but rather provide us the means for cultivating the seed of Grace given to us at Baptism. Errant teaching, even among some within the Church, has deprived many of the knowledge of what the Grace of God was truly intended to provide His children. Such errors can often be traced to speculation about the beginnings of man and the universe – namely creation, the state of the first created man, Adam, and his fall from this created state. This in turn results in vague ideas about the future age of blessedness, which is the goal of our earthly Christian life. In declaring Symeon a Saint and proclaiming him Theologian, the Church affirms the scriptural and Patristic basis of his writing and further embraces the depth of his teaching knowing that he speaks from divine revelation – having himself seen both the beginning and the future age. As Blessed Fr. Seraphim states, the revelations of St. Symeon “are of special value to Orthodox Christians because they give the theological foundation of the Christian life of struggle: the original state of man from which Adam fell tells us of our deepest nature (that for which we were created), of which our present fallen nature is a corruption that is to be overcome; and the future state of blessedness is the goal to which our Christian struggle is aimed, and to which we can attain, by God’s grace (indeed through Christ), even despite our fallen state.” It is precisely this body of theology obtained by St. Symeon through divine revelation that we will explore in detail, through God’s grace, in the time ahead.
In keeping with the Church’s teaching regarding our eternal purpose, St. Symeon saw nothing less than personal union with God as the goal and end of human existence. The Church describes the process of such union as deification or theosis – as Orthodox Christians we hear these terms frequently, though do we truly appreciate their necessary value to our souls? Our minds can barely begin to comprehend the ever-popular words of St. Irenaeus – “God became man in order that man might become god.” St. Symeon rightly affirms that such a process again became possible to mankind only after the incarnation of the Word of God, Jesus Christ. It is thus through the Grace given to man in Christ Jesus, that we can again struggle toward the state of blessed union for which Adam was created and had the necessary tools before the fall. In the coming sermons, I hope that God would enlighten each of us to better understand that this very process of salvation begins here and that, in Christ, we can indeed begin to experience the Kingdom of God now, within our own hearts and within our neighbors. Christ Himself reminds us that, “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you.” I would hope that we would grow together in our understanding, lest we despair, that salvation is a process: one of being recreated time and again as we grow, may God grant, closer into the likeness of our Savior, ever acquiring more of His Grace.
Again, it is in our Baptism in Christ that we are given the precious seed of Grace that we are to cultivate – something we seek to do through regular participation in the church services and sacraments, through praying to God and reading the Gospels, and through following the commandments, which allows us to align our will to that of God. While these ideas may seem lofty and out of reach, perhaps reserved for only a few select individuals within the Church, we hear them today in hopes of peaking our desire for more. I do, however, challenge each one of us, until we meet again, to remember that which we have already heard – namely that outward participation in the Church is not enough. In the words of my patron, St. Serphim of Sarov, “Note well that it is only good works done in the name of Christ that bring us the fruits of the Spirit.”
In closing, may we thus go forward recalling that it is only in the regeneration of the fallen person into the new life of Christ that any saving activity can occur in ourselves and thus bring the Light of Christ to a world which so craves it. In the words of the Romanian Priest, prisoner and confessor of the Faith, Fr. George Calciu of blessed memory, “You are in Christ’s Church whenever you uplift someone bent down in sorrow, or when you give alms to the poor, and visit the sick. You are in Christ’s Church when you cry out: “Lord, help me.” You are in Christ’s Church when you are good and patient, when you refuse to get angry at your brother, even if he has wounded your feelings. You are in Christ’s Church when you pray: ‘Lord, forgive him.’… God is building His Church upon you. You are the rock of His Church against which nothing can prevail… Let us (each one of us) build churches with our faith, churches which no human power (nor the devil) can pull down, a church whose foundation is Christ… Feel for your brother alongside you. Never ask: ‘Who is he?’ Rather say: ‘He is no stranger; he is my brother. He is the Church of Christ just as I am (and we here are).”
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.