March 25, 2015 Length: 10:05
On Monday, March 23, 2015, Fr. Thomas Hopko was prayed into God's presence by hundreds of friends, hierarchs, clergy, and family. The funeral homily was given by Fr. John Behr, Dean at St. Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. [Amen.]
How can one find the words, the appropriate words, to speak of one who was such a master of words? For Fr. Thomas could speak so eloquently and so inspiringly, at length, in homilies and lectures, anecdotes and reminiscences—for he was a master story-teller, raconteur, as well as a master preacher and teacher—and also, briefly, in his maxims, profoundly but also simply, always speaking the truth in love, in books and more recently in apparently endless podcasts. And yet, he lies speechless before us.
I only knew Fr. Tom from the time that he became dean in the seminary, when he was at the height of his power, his heart aflame with the love of God and Christ, with the Scriptures and the Gospel, and especially with the Cross, the power of the Resurrection. The number of people he inspired and formed, influenced and touched, both as priest and teacher at the school and throughout all the world, really is incalculable. He clearly was an extraordinary figure, a man of God and a powerful force. And yet, he now lies powerless, still and silent.
Fr. Tom was a protopresbyter, the first among priests, and a priest to priests, forming priests to serve in the Church, and ministering to those priests in their ministry, always speaking prophetically and urgently to those in the Church about the challenge of our times, urging them to remain faithful to their calling, to their first love, and also speaking prophetically to the Church, even critically, especially in times of great crisis.
As a priest, he showed the face of God and his love to his people, helping them bring their own sufferings and brokenness as an offering to the One who was broken by them and for them on Golgotha; and in so doing, transforming that brokenness into occasions of grace and joy and growth in Christ, into occasions of thanksgiving; and often, in return, being crucified by them, struck on all sides like an anvil. As St. Polycarp suggests, it’s a lot of every priest. And yet, he now lies before us, his offering and ministry finished.
And Fr. Tom was, of course, also a kind and loving husband, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. And those he leaves behind are clearly a testimony to him in so many ways. The life of a priest’s family is not an easy one. They are called without any choice on their part to share in the cross that he bears, knowing him as a head of a family, their own family, and yet also the head of a family which is larger than themselves, with many other demands on him, resulting in frequent absences and unintended pain. And so here his departure is the more personal, the more grievous, the more bitter.
In all these ways, then, and more, we have known our dearly beloved and departed in blessed memory—father, husband, brother, teacher, guide, comforter, counselor—in all his strength, all his vitality, and in all his weaknesses as well. And now we see him in his final frailty and weakness. We see him dead.
As we’ve been hearing in the hymns, all our life is spent under a shadow. It’s nothing but a snatched breath which will expire, for all our strength and powers will fail us in the end. What is the life of man upon the earth but a pale shadow of that to which he is called? And yet, as Christ reminds us, as Christ reminds the Apostle, it’s precisely in that weakness that the strength of God is made perfect. Where there is sin our lives, there grace abounds. What appears as weaknesses become the very place where God works through his transforming power. And now the final frailty of death is the very moment at which the power of God is most perfectly realized.
In this world, our life is hidden with Christ in God. And so, paradoxically, as our beloved father departs from us, his life and identity in Christ, previously only glimpsed through the shadow of the flesh, now becomes more visible than when we knew him in the flesh, more personal and true than it could ever do in this world, becomes more powerfully present in the eternity of God, not limited by space or time.
So where this departure is most personal and grievous it is also, then, the most capable of becoming the most powerfully transforming, when it’s realized that the cross of the one imposed on others in his family is in fact the cross of Christ, leading us to know ourselves as children of the heavenly Father. His departure from us as a priest is likewise his complete offering, finished, perfected, with the aer which is about to cover his face concealing his identity, just as it conceals the eucharistic Gifts in their entrance into the heavenly, holy place, making his very identity in his exodus from us as an entrance into the kingdom, his very identity to be a eucharistic offering, with his body becoming the pure bread of Christ, just as with the martyrs Polycarp and Ignatius.
And the silence of the one gifted with words, with human utterance, with great eloquence—his silence now has greater resonance than any merely humanly offered words. When St. Ignatius was on his way to Rome, he urged the Christians in Rome not to hold him back from his impending death. He said, “If you tried to hold onto me, I will be nothing but a human utterance; but if you are silent,” he adds, “If you are silent and let me go to the Father, I will become a word of God.” And so now also the one that we have known for his great eloquence, for his words, he himself becomes a word of God, as we learn to see God at work in his creatures, no longer hearing Fr. Thomas speak to us, but hearing God speak to us through him.
So may he rest in peace, in the hands of his Lord and our Lord, the One who takes our clay to fashion living human beings, the glory of God. And may he rise in that glory and as that glory, both in the Resurrection to come and even now in Christ in our midst. Amen.