Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

We listen to a conversation Jesus had with the Pharisees in the gospel read at this morning’s Divine Liturgy (Matt. 22:34-44). Right before the section that we heard this morning, from the same 22nd chapter of Matthew’s gospel, we find a short exchange between Jesus and the Sadducees. The Sadducees, together with the Pharisees, made up the ruling class of spiritual Israel. While they had their similarities they also disagreed on many things. This morning’s reading begins right after Jesus had proven the Sadducees wrong on the issue of the resurrection (verses 23-33). In the verse right before the reading heard the holy Evangelist writes, “when the Pharisees heard that He had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together.”

As they rallied together they chose among them one capable enough to “test”, as St. Matthew notes, Jesus. A lawyer among them was chosen, one familiar with the many laws of the Jewish people who, appropriately so, poses the question to Jesus: “what is the most important law.” Besides the ten commandments the Jewish people had compiled a list of over 600 laws and were always, it seemed, in argument over which of the laws was the most important. Therefore, the lawyer’s question put Jesus on the spot, so to speak.

In response, Jesus’ words should not have been all that unfamiliar to either the lawyer nor his friends standing by. After all, a similar command is found in the pages of the Old Testament.  In the book of Deuteronomy, chapter 6:5 we read: “You shall love the Lord your God from your whole heart, from your whole soul, and from your whole power.” While the other commandment proclaimed by Christ isn’t too different than the one found in Leviticus chapter 19:18, “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

St Paul writes about this in his epistles.  He says to the Romans, “my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved…” (10:1). The Jewish people were unable to see past the letter of the law, to discern its spirit. For them Christ was a “stumbling stone”. Subsequently, they viewed the law of God and Christ separately not realizing that Christ is the “end of the law”.

Not accepting Christ, how could they possibly expect to understand Scripture? Therefore, I would suggest that for a moment we not consider so much the answer given by Jesus in this morning’s reading, rather the fact that Jesus is the answer.

I think it is all the more illustrated as the gospel reading continues. Namely, since the Pharisees were all gathered together Jesus decides to turn the tables and pose a question to them. He asks them about the Christ, “Whose son is He?” They all reply, “He is the son of David.”

“Well,” says Jesus, “how then does David call him lord when he says: “The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.”

It was at this point that Jesus, just as He had silenced the Sadducees earlier, silenced the Pharisees as the holy evangelist notes “no one was able to answer Him a word, nor from that day on did anyone dare question Him anymore” (Matt. 22:46).  David was the king of Israel and would never have referred to anyone as “my lord” other than God. Therefore, in this verse from the Old Testament Psalms, God is talking to God. God the Father is talking to God the Son. Since the Pharisees believed that God was one Person they were afraid to answer Jesus.

It is certainly an amazing thing to ponder upon how the Son of God was introduced, revealed, to the Jewish people one thousand years before Jesus was even born with the words of David’s Psalm 110 which he wrote “in Spirit” (for that matter, the fact that all of Scripture is about one Person, Jesus Christ).  And yet they remained ignorant of its meaning. More tragically perhaps is that even after meeting Him face to face, they continue in their ignorance of the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.

I think it can put things in perspective for all of us whenever we have the urge to pick up the Bible and start interpreting it on our own.  We are most fortunate in our Church tradition to have the writings of the holy Fathers and the availability of their many writings and interpretation* of Scripture.

Indeed without Christ there is no way to understand the Bible. Without Christ we can’t understand the law of God, we can’t understand the gospel; without Christ we can’t understand what it means to love. Ultimately, without Christ we can’t even begin to understand ourselves, the purpose and meaning of our lives.

All of these mysteries lie in the person of Jesus Christ who died for our sins and granted us everlasting life. It is only through our faith in Christ but also and more importantly, through our life in Him that we are able to see these things, even though not fully, but certainly with enough clarity to realize that we are created in God’s holy Image and loving Him with all of our heart, soul and mind and our neighbor as ourselves is definitely the answer. Amen.

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*Fr. Seraphim Holland offers some interesting thoughts on the interpretation of Holy Scripture, especially when he shares his experiences as a young Protestant seminarian. He says, among other things, “
When I was a student at Southern Nazarene University preparing to become a Protestant Minister, when I was taught how to study the Bible, we were not taught to consult sacred Tradition or the writings of the Fathers — not even those fathers that knew the Apostles personally. We were told that the Church fathers were all allegorists, and that they really didn’t have a clue as to what the Bible was really saying.” Read the article, “The Orthodox Mind” here, Part II, C – Arrogance/Hubris/Prelest

Open Your Hearts to God


“Let me tell you the last words my late professor told me; he was a layperson and laymen have a great role in the Church. When I became a young hierodeacon and I needed to preach he told me, ‘Child, talk about only that which you have experienced, only talk about that and the world will recognize you’. The same applies to you, that which you experienced at least in foreboding, premonition, in a nostalgia turned forward, witness that to the children. This, with faith, can be done through love. Show love to the children, but not a babying, pampering or an overindulging love. This is not love. God’s love is a Cross love, Cross-resurrection. At times it’s even strict but it’s always salvific. So should you show the children, teach them to open their hearts to God. The heart is the source of man, everything comes from the heart.”

Bishop Atanasije (Jevtic) to the teachers at the beginning of the new school year in Belgrade.

The Cross as the Symbol of Love

I have found myself in circles in the past where mentioning the “feast” of the “Cross” is considered blasphemous.

In some so-called “Christian” confessions the cross is utterly ignored, completely avoided. It’s utterly blasphemous to wear a cross around oneʼs neck, to have one hanging from the rear view mirror, much less to make the sign of the cross or to adorn churches and homes with this holy and sacred symbol.

Many of these people come from Bible-based churches. Yet, when we read in the Bible how the Apostle Paul came to preach to the Corinthians we notice that he didnʼt promise wisdom and education but rather simply told them: “I am determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1. Cor. 2:2). Similarly, he wrote to the Galatians: “God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Gal. 6:14). St. John Chrysostom, commenting on this verse, writes, “It is as if a prisoner who had not been ashamed of his king should, after the king had come to the prisoner and himself loosen the chains, become ashamed of him on that account.”

For us Orthodox Christians, therefore, our faith would seem empty, void of anything worth celebrating, nothing to “boast” about if before us we were neglected the holy image of the Cross. Certainly we would err in neglecting to mention that the center of Orthodox theology is found in the Resurrection of Christ, what we refer to as the Feast of all feasts. So then we ask: if Christ defeated death, if with His Resurrection He triumphed over the cross, why do we even bother remembering the holy Cross?

Moreover, why didnʼt the holy Apostle say that he knows only Jesus Christ resurrected and not crucified? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that God didnʼt merely dwell among men, instruct them in the ways of the holy virtues and then mechanically go to His passion because thatʼs what, as many Western Christians will explain, was foretold and prophesied and thatʼs what He “had to do”. No, from the early days of the Christian church the image of Christ crucified on the cross has played a great part in Christian piety; that prayerful contemplation that Christ suffered not because He “had to” but because of me and my sins. His love for us is not mechanical, He doesnʼt love us because He is God and, as such, has to. His love for us is personal! And, as Bishop Stefan notes in his homily, His Cross has become the “throne” of that love, “the symbol of mercy, proof of forgiveness…” and so on.

This feast of the Holy Cross celebrated in September is in commemoration of an event separate from the actual crucifixion. We commemorate the discovery of the true Cross by St. Helen and the solemn dedication of the sanctuary of the Resurrection, built by order of Emperor Constantine.  Nonetheless, on this feast day, a day of strict fasting, it is inseparable from that great event of our Lordʼs Passion as we sing at the Vesper service, “The Cross by its elevation calleth the whole creation to praise the pure Passion, the Passion of Him who was elevated thereon; for having slain thereupon him who had slain us, He brought to life us who had been slain…for He is compassionate.”

“It is not our custom to sell our faith…”

A new English translation (not certain whether it’s the first and only English translation) of St. Nikolai’s letters is available.

Entitled Missionary Letters of St Nikolai Velimirovich, Part 1, it was translated by Hieromonk Serafim (Baltic) of New Gracanica Monastery in Grayslake, Illinois. If interested you can purchase a copy at the Diocesan Bookstore of the Eastern American Diocese. Contact Deacon Dragoslav Kosic.

I am posting one of the letters included in the collection in which he states, among other things, “Orthodoxy today is between two unbalanced extremes…the Muslims…and the western heterodox…” (hi-lited below) . Unfortunately, I can’t tell what year this is from. Perhaps further reading will reveal it. The first edition includes 100 letters.

LETTER 68
TO THE BROTHERHOOD OF “SAINT ELIJAH” ABOUT A SOWER OF TARES

You tell me that a young man with new faith has come among you. He speaks against everything – against the Church, against the Saints, icons, the Cross, patron Saint’s days, and he is especially set against the Holy Mother of God. He goes from house to house, from shop to shop, and distributes free magazines and books in which is written what he speaks of – all sorts of blasphemies against the true Faith. He says he came from America and he wants to enlighten. He also says that all of America believes the way he does. He will not reveal what sect he belongs to, but that he is a heretic and from some sect is obvious to you already.

Let me not speak to you brethren; let the Apostles of God speak. Here is what Apostle Paul commands, “Reject a heretic because such is subverted to sins and has already condemned himself” (Titus 3:110-11). St. Peter calls such people false teachers prophesying their appearance in the world. He says, “There will be false teachers among you who will bring heresies and condemnation…speaking proud and blasphemous words” (2 Peter 2). Clairvoyant John the Evangelist warns, “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they be of God; for many false prophets have come into the world” (1 John 4).

And as for me, I tell you brethren – that young man lies when he says that all of America is of his faith. A lie is the same as a tare; and he is the sower of tares. In America, the Orthodox Church also exists, with many churches, priests and bishops. Those are our people, our brothers in faith: Russians, Serbs, Bulgarians, Greeks, Romanians, Albanians and Syrians. Even under the heavy yoke of hard labor, and now under an even heavier one of unemployment, they beautifully hold on to their faith and carefully guard their souls against sowers of tares. So, since those sectarians have not managed to convert our brothers in America away from Orthodoxy, they have sent their agents into the Balkans to try to buy our souls with their ungodly money and literature.

We did not sell ourselves to the Turks for wealth or position of authority, and now shall we sell ourselves to American tradesmen for their dollars? It is not our custom to sell our faith for a bowl of lentil soup. We have traveled through this life with our faith for more than a thousand years. We shed blood for it; it gave us the Spirit. We have tried it and found that it is true, sweet and salvific. Our Saints are alive and keep manifesting themselves even until today through various signs and wonders. As the electric current comes down through wires, so the power of God comes down through the Saints. The Father likes to glorify His favorite children by showing His glory through them. The power and help of God’s Saints was felt not only by us, but by our Muslims too.

Orthodoxy is today between two unbalanced extremes. On one side are the Muslims who admit the power of our faith but do not recognize the Scripture of our faith. On the other side are the western heterodox  who recognize the Scripture but not the power of faith. Divine Paul writes of these latter ones, that, “they have a form of Godliness but denying the power thereof.” So he advises Timothy to “stay away from both”. We have kept both the Scripture, the Holy Bible, and the Power, that is, the signs and wonders of God in His Saints, the Cross, icons, through prayers and Holy Mysteries.

And do we need to defend the Most Holy Theotokos from blasphemers? She defends herself enough. Those who blaspheme Her, moan with pain on their deathbed. Among us was a baptized man who spitefully trampled on the icon of the Mother of God. He was ill for a long time before death. He kept defending himself from someone by waving his arms through the air. He yelled day and night, “Hagarenes! Black Hagarenes! Get away from me!” When a canon to the Theotokos was read for him, he settled down. Then he wept, saying, “The Mother of God just came and chased the Hagarenes away from me with her staff.” For a couple of days he wept and kissed and touched the icon of the Theotokos, whispering, “Thank you, O Mother of God! You forgave me.” And quietly singing “It is truly meet…” he departed from us in stillness.

May the blessing of God strengthen you, brethren.

The Sign of the Cross

Old news on these days leading us to the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.

[Moscow, March 17, 2006 Interfax] – Scientists have proved experimentally the miracle-working properties of the sign of the cross and prayer.

‘We have ascertained that the old custom to make a sign of the cross over food and drink before a meal has a profound mystical meaning. Standing behind it is the practical use: the food is purified literally in an instant. This is a great miracle, which happens literally every day,’ physicist Angelina Malakhovskaya said as cited by the Zhizn newspaper on Friday.

Malakhovskaya has studied that power of the sign of the cross with the blessing of the Church for nearly ten years now. She has carried out a great number of experiments, which have been repeatedly verified before their results were made public.

She has discovered in particular the unique bactericidal properties of water after being blessed by an Orthodox prayer and a sign of the cross. The study also revealed a new, earlier unknown property of the Word of God to transform the structure of water, increasing considerably its optical density in the short ultra-violet spectral region, the newspaper writes.

The scientists have verified the impact the Lord’s Prayer and the Orthodox sign of the cross make on pathogenic bacteria. Water samples from various reservoirs – wells, rivers, lakes – were taken for the research. All the samples had goldish taphylococcus, a colon bacillus. It turned out however, that if the Lord’s Prayer is said and a sign of the cross is made over them, the number of harmful bacteria will decrease seven, ten, hundred and even over thousand times.

The experiments were made in such a way as to exclude a possible impact of mental suggestion. The prayer was said by both believer and non-believers, but the number of pathogenic bacteria in various environments with different sets of bacteria still decreased as compared to the reference templates.

The scientists have also proved the beneficial impact that the prayer and the sign of the cross have on people. All the participants in the tests had their blood pressure stabilized and blood indexes improved. Strikingly, the indexes changed towards the healing needed: hypotensive people had their blood pressure raised, while hypertensive people had it reduced.

It was also observed that if the sign of the cross is made offhandedly, with the three fingers put together unscrupulously or placed outside the necessary points – the middle of the forehead, the center of the solar plexus and the recesses in the right and left shoulders – the positive result was much weaker or absent altogether.

We Preach Christ Crucified

The following is a homily delivered by His Grace Bishop STEFAN of blessed memory on the Feast of the Elevation of the Holy Cross, from 1982. He was well known among Serbian Orthodox for his sermons which were simplistic and easy for the people to understand.

We are celebrating the Elevation of the Holy Cross today, dear brothers and sisters. This is a feast that reminds us of the event when the Cross on which our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified was found in Jerusalem.

Church Tradition tells us that St. Helen, the mother of Emperor Constantine, miraculously found the True Cross of Christ on Golgotha. This was at the beginning of the IV century. From that time a tradition began of celebrating this event on September 14. The celebration began first in Jerusalem in the Church of the Resurrection, built by the holy Emperor Constantine on the spot Christ was crucified. That day there was an elevation of the holy Cross of our Lord, elevated so that the people might see it and fall down before it. Taking the example from the Jerusalem church, Christians throughout the world did the same and thus this tradition came to us as well.

This feast was confirmed all the more in the year 627 when the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius freed the Cross from the Persians who held it for fourteen years. From that time many Christians made pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the feast of the Elevation.

In the holy gospel it is written that crucified with our Lord Jesus Christ on great and holy Friday were two thieves, one on either side “and Jesus in the center” (John 19:18). And so the crucified Savior and His Cross has remained in the center of the Christian faith, the services and the entire life of the Christian. This is why St. Paul says, “we preach Christ crucified” (I Cor. 1:23).

The truth of the crucified and resurrected Christ is found in the center of the gospels. This is not only one of the truths of the Christian faith, it is the most significant Christian truth. St. Paul says to the Corinthians, “For I have delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). This central truth of the Christian faith was preached by the apostles “first of all”. “Christ died for our sins”, that we might receive the forgiveness of our sins from God. “He rose again on the third day”, that we too might defeat sin and have life. The miraculous sign of this truth is the Cross of Christ. For this reason do we occasionally see His crucifixion pictured on one side of the cross, with His resurrection on the other.

If this truth were taken out of the gospel then the gospel would cease to exist. Gospel means “good news”, which came since Christ came to the world, suffered for mankind, resurrected defeating Satan and received for all mankind the forgiveness of sins and life eternal. Despite the bad news of man’s sins and guilt, this gospel is the “good news” of the reconciliation between man and God. The righteous One suffered for the unrighteous, the Sinless for the sinners, so that He might bring all men to God the Father. He offered Himself as the blameless Lamb to the sacrifice for all men and all times. He offered Himself to death that He might defeat death. Therefore the Cross on which Christ was crucified, instead of it being a sign of sadness and mourning has become the sign of the greatest joy, the sign of the strengthening of faith and hope. It has become the throne of love, the sign of mercy, proof of forgiveness, the carrier of grace and the flag of peace.

At the same time the Cross is the mystery of our faith – the mystery of the redemption of mankind. How can we explain this mystery? It cannot be the subject of human investigation and human philosophy, but is experienced through sincere faith  and love and our humble thanksgiving to God. For the width of the Cross is equal to the depth of heaven, as the poet says.

From the beginning of the Christian Church the Cross find itself in all the prayers, services and priestly actions. St. John Chrysostom writes of this: “Everything that is done for our sanctification is done in the sign of the cross. If we have to be reborn, this is done in the sign of the cross (baptism). When the mysterious food is prepared for us, it is done in the sign of the cross. Whenever any ritual is done we see the sign of the cross everywhere.  Everything that is done in the service that relates to man’s sanctification is done in the sign of the holy Cross.” In the hymn we sing today, it states: “today the Cross is elevated and the world is sanctified”.  Holy Communion has a special place in the Christian service. This is the bloodless sacrifice – the central point of the Divine Liturgy, which the Savior established on the eve of His suffering on the Cross. He gave His body and shed His blood on the Cross and with the Cross He sanctified the Holy Eucharist, which is in the very center of the Orthodox service. St. Cyril of Jerusalem says, “Let us not be ashamed to confess the Crucified. Let us make with confidence the sign of the Cross with our fingers on the forehead and all things – the bread which we eat, the glass which we drink, in our comings and goings, when we lay down and get up, before walking and before resting (…) let us not forget this sign!”

This is not only a sign of our faith. It is not only a symbol which signifies something. It is not only a decoration which we adorn ourselves with. This is life with the God-man, who suffered because of human injustices, sins and lawlessness. With the Cross we constantly live and always partake in all sufferings for the sake of God’s truth, justice and love. This is true sympathy with all who suffer for God’s truth and justice. It is the sign of a Christian life in Christ and according to Christ. It is the sign of life in love  and life in sacrifice for good. It is the living sign of self denial for the sake of God’s truth and justice. For this reason do we celebrate the Cross.

We celebrate the Cross as a holy sign which helps us strengthen our faith. It is the sign which strengthens our hope in the victory of God and His justice. We wear it on ourselves and carry it in ourselves as a sign of God’s mercy towards mankind and we experience it as a sign of our mercy towards our neighbor. The Cross is a sign that witnesses to the fact that God forgives. At the same time, the Cross is a sign of our will to forgive. The Cross calls us to preach the crucified and resurrected Lord. It reminds us of all the things that our Savior did, who was crucified for our salvation. The Cross calls us to always proclaim “Christ crucified …. the power of God and wisdom of God” (I Cor. 1:23-24).

Today, on the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross, we elevate the Cross of Christ, that we might lift our souls and hearts higher towards the crucified Lord. And that we might have a deeper and stronger experience of His Cross, glorifying Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

A White Gown


I’ve been using translate.google.com lately to try to read the posts of Bishop Ignaty on his blog. It’s a pretty cool thing having a bishop in the blogosphere. Then again, this bishop is pretty cool. Felix Culpa had a post about him some time ago, when he celebrated the Divine Liturgy and even had a baptism on the North Pole. You can find it here.

Below is a post I found on the bishop’s blog. Just beautiful. The google-translate doesn’t do that great of a job, just gives you an idea of what is being said. So, I had some help in fixing this one up.

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“Father, why are you sad?” – a pupil asked the elder.

“People forgotten how to see truth. Three times I showed three of you white clothes with a dirty stain. And I asked, ‘What do you see?’ ‘A dirty stain,’ said every one of you.

And no one thought to answer – a white gown. ”