In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. [Amen.]
I am sorely tempted to deliver a homily other than that which I prepared today on the great power of fellowship. I say this because these last two weeks I’ve been really feeling terrible. I’ve been very sad, and it’s been really a horrible two weeks. As a matter of fact, not this Sunday but the Sunday before, I woke up on Sunday morning and my mind woke up before my body did. My eyes were shut, and I didn’t want to open my eyes. I said, “Lord, is there any way I don’t have to open my eyes today?” It was Sunday morning; I don’t think that’s going to work. I didn’t want to open them, and then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, the picture of the face of George Younes appeared in my mind, and I saw it as big as day, and he was lifting his eyebrows like this, like he does, and he had a big George Younes smile. All of a sudden, I could open my eyes. I opened them up, it was a beautiful Sunday, and I came.
The devils have been laughing at me and really making terrible fun of me for two weeks, through some sorrows—many sorrows, too many sorrows, and I was feeling again this week, midweek, I was feeling the same way. I visited the Layouns’ house to do a house blessing, and I set up my holy water and the candle, and I looked up, and there on the ledge was a big, beautiful picture of Reader Elie looking right at me. It was the same smile, the same face as George, but it wasn’t George; it was Elie. It fixed me, again.
This morning—it’s okay. I was in the Orthros service, and feeling kind of lonely, to tell you the truth. It’s very unusual not to have a concelebrant this last year, a concelebrating priest, that is. Thank God for the deacons. I went to blow my nose, and I turned off my mic and gave it a good blow… or two or three. And then Kentigern came running across, and he said, “Father, it would be good to turn your mic off before you do something like that.” And I thought to myself, “You know, that’s absolutely appropriate that that happened, consonant with my last two weeks. Go ahead and laugh, devils.” This is what I said to myself.
But I see your faces, and I thank God for you, and I thank God for the tremendous encouragement in this life: in the midst of the sorrows, we have each other, and we have our mutual love for God and for one another, and I’m not sure there’s anything, any depressing thing, as powerful as the encouragement of the brethren. I’m not sure. But I’m not going to give you that homily, about the power of fellowship.
I want to speak a little bit about the call of Great Lent, which you hear today. Last night, if you were here for Great Vespers, you would have seen a beautiful annual ritual. In the middle of the service when the chanters are chanting the “Lord, I have cried” and they’re just coming to sing the verses for the day, they stop. Everything goes silent, and the protopsaltis, the main chanter, leaves the chanter’s stand, and he comes here to the soleas, right in front of the icon of our Savior, because below the icon of our Savior is a big book. And he looks at our Savior, and he makes three prostrations to the ground, and he picks up that book, he kisses it, and he takes it back to the chanter’s stand where it will stay for the next ten weeks and be the liturgical book from which we chant the Lenten services, all the way through Holy Week, all the way up to the midnight office, just before, in the middle of the night, we celebrate Pascha.
This book is called the Triodion, the three odes. It’s called that because, during this period, during the Lenten period, the usual canons that we sing in nine odes, many of them are not nine; they’re three. This is what took place last night. We’re entering the most holy period of the year, brothers and sisters. We are in now the Triodion, and so we’re on this first of those formal Triodion Sundays that prepare us for the entrance into Lent, which is the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, in which the bells of heaven are ringing, asking us to eschew pride, the pride of the Pharisee, and to cultivate humility which is the foundation or the bed upon which every other virtue is built. A Christian life, a good life, the life that pleases our Savior, is the life that is built on the rock of humility, and that refuses, no matter how much progress down the narrow road to the kingdom that we make, humility refuses to allow us ever to take credit for the progress God has helped us make, but to always stay low and stay close to the Lord, thanking him for everything. This is how you build a beautiful life. This is the first Sunday of the Triodion.
Lent marks us, brothers and sisters. Lent is the glory of the Orthodox. Last Sunday, part of my discouragement and depression was that I visited my mom’s house, as I like to do, and I visited my mom’s house during the Super Bowl, just before halftime. I got there, there was like a minute left. To me it looked like the game was over already. And then I sat down, and we were talking, and some bozo named Bruno Mars came onto the television. Now, I wasn’t particular attention, and, frankly, I couldn’t understand anything he was saying, except my mother has closed captioning on her television, so everything said comes out written. And, wow, the first line caught my eye, and I paid much attention after that.
What did I see? What came up on the screen in millions of American households? Before the eyes of millions of Americans, mostly Christian and a great number of young people, what did I see? These words: “Never had much faith in love or miracles, but swimming in your love, baby, is spiritual. Your sex takes me to paradise. When you spend the night, I am born again.” I went from having a nice Sunday. I literally leapt out of my seat in fury. I didn’t know what to say or do. My arms were going all over. If Bruno Mars was there, I would have violated the canons that tell priests you can’t strike sinners to correct them; you have to persuade them. Wow.
I couldn’t believe what I [saw], so I went onto the internet to see if he really said this, and he did. And I read I can’t tell you how many reviews of this “wonderful, energetic, dynamic Bruno ‘the Loser’ Mars.” 115 million people watched it, the largest Super Bowl halftime show ever watched, and every single person was completely slimed. No wonder the Christian faith is dying in this land. Our country is filled with believers who see no problem with listening to blasphemy, have no problem with our most sacred truths being mocked before the entire country while we sit and smile, eat our hot dogs, drink our beer, clap, and bounce around.
Our Lord descended from heaven, he humbled himself by becoming a man, and he suffered death on a cross in order to free us from our sins and to grant us the Holy Spirit, so that by possessing the Holy Spirit and being possessed by the Holy Spirit we might become spiritual. Bruno “the Loser” Mars thinks that was all unnecessary: all you have to do to become spiritual is swim in your girlfriend’s love. Our Lord fought the devils, he conquered death, he rose from the dead, and on the fortieth day he ascended to heaven, blazing a way for us into paradise, but Bruno “the Loser” Mars thinks all you have to do to go to paradise is to have sex with your lover. Our Lord sanctified the waters, he instituted the holy priesthood, so that souls could be resurrected and born again in holy baptism, but Bruno “the Loser” Mars thinks all you have to do is to spend the night with your girlfriend and you will be born again.
You know, brothers and sisters, honestly, fifty years ago the man would have been seriously fined for his sickening display. A hundred years ago, he would have had the full weight of anti-vulgarity and media censorship laws brought down on his neck, and he would have never worked again. Today he’s celebrated as “high-energy” and “dynamic” and “the best Super Bowl show ever.” Really, we should be concerned. Of course about Bruno “the Loser” Mars; we should. But more, about ourselves.
How is it possible to be authentic Christians and not end up on the day of judgment with a vaporous, empty faith that will do us no good? How can we live in the midst of a vulgar and holiness-hating culture and still love God? How can we not be one of the 115 million, brothers and sisters? Were you some of them? Did you sit there and watch that, listen to the most holy things, like being born again, being spiritual, and going to paradise, mocked and turned into images for sexual immorality on television on the most-watched show of the whole year and do nothing? Did you write the station and complain? Did you tell yourself, “I’m going to write the commissioner of the NFL”? Did you pray?
I think we’re desensitized, radically desensitized and slimed, and the answer, brothers and sisters, the answer is the Triodion. The answer is Great Lent. We have absolutely no authentic Christian life without Lent. The consecration of Lent, which is ancient and universal in the Church, is a call to the true faith, a faith that evidences itself in works. Lent will never let us get away with that kind of stuff.
Lent calls us to prove our faith by spiritual effort, by spiritual struggle: in some labors, in some vigils, in some fastings, in altering your prayers, your sleep schedule, coming to church even in the middle of the night. It calls us to service, to confession, worship, and almsgiving, and the acquisition of humility. Lent is the death-knell of the satanic concept of “cheap grace” which enables so many to be deceived into thinking that they could be right with God and right with Bruno “the Loser” Mars at the same time—and such is impossible!
Our consecration in Great Lent is what sanctifies the whole year. There’s enough grace from the Lord in Lent and Holy Week to sustain us in this degraded and fallen society for the whole year. The Church is calling us today, at this first Sunday of the Triodion, to a spiritual engagement, to spiritual work, or, in St. Paul’s words, “to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.”
I think that how we approach Lent, how we think about Lent, how we feel on the inside about Lent, is a window into our spiritual disposition. If all we can think about is how sad we are that we’re not going to eat hamburgers and ice cream, if all we can think about is what we’re going to give up, brothers and sisters, let that witness be a witness to us that we are lovers of pleasure and the flesh: we will never be saved, I promise you. If that’s our mentality, if that’s the only thing we can think about when we think about Lent.
Let us rather think like Christians, that this is the holy time. This is the time when we celebrate the most sublime things, when the Lord draws near to us, and we prepare to become partakers of new life, resurrection life. That’s the disposition that we ought to have towards Lent. That’s why we love Lent and always have. Lent is the annual spring cleaning of our souls. It’s the annual rearranging or reestablishing of our priorities as Christians. We hear again our Lord’s words to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and not to seek it tenth.
Whether or not we will be judged by our Lord to be true followers or authentic Christians is very much determined by how we embrace Great and Holy Lent, because to embrace Lent means to embrace spiritual effort and struggle for the Lord’s sake, and to eschew Lent means to reject spiritual effort and struggle. You know, brothers and sisters, many times in the Scriptures our faith is compared to a seed. St. Peter writes, “You have been born again, not of seed which is perishable but imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” That’s 1 Peter 1. And St. John in his first epistle says, “No one who’s born of God practices sin.” Let me repeat that: “No one born of God practices sin, because God’s seeds abide in him, and he cannot sin because he is born of God.”
The seed of God is in us, and this is what keeps us from living in the sin of the world. Our Lord says that if we have faith like a mustard seed, we’re capable of moving mountains. With a seed, there’s two states. A seed can either be dormant and just a seed, or it can germinate, it can be fruit-bearing, and it can produce. Everyone who’s been baptized, everyone who has been born again in holy baptism, has this seed of God placed within them. The question is: What will happen to that seed? Will it lie dormant the whole person’s life, being covered over by Bruno “the Loser” Mars and his way of life that he propagates as some sort of proselytizer for paganism? Or will it be cultivated, will it be joined to the living waters, will it be exposed to the sun of Christ, will it be planted in the soil of the Church and therefore produce beautiful things?
You know, I heard a beautiful story recently about an archaeological dig in which some mummies thousands of years old were discovered in Egypt, and in the stomach of the mummies were seeds that they had eaten and had not been digested. These seeds were extracted by the archaeologists and then germinated. Thousands of years later. Now, that’s very encouraging. That’s very encouraging for this reason: if your seed has been dormant for a long time, it’s okay, because you’re not dead. Bring it to the sun. Put it in the water. Plant it in the soil of the Church’s life, especially the sacred soil of Lent. Who knows what that seed—thousands of years old, or maybe just ten, or maybe one—who knows what’s going to happen to that seed, brothers and sisters?
This is the difference that will be evidenced at the last judgment. Everyone starts the same in baptism. We baptized little Karina last night. I told you about baptizing little Phoebe. We have these two beautiful little children. What will they become? Everything depends on what happens to that seed that has been planted in both of them. Cultivate it. Nourish it. Water it. Cause it to grow. Make this Lent a beautiful, fruitful field in your own life. To the glory of God. Amen.