This is part 2 of Fr. Thomas Hopko's talk on The Ascension delivered at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church (OCA) in Parma, OH. Our thanks to Protodeacon Anthony Kall at Holy Trinity for the recordings.
May 26, 2014 Length: 1:08:55
I’d like to introduce this afternoon the implication and implications of what we were saying this morning about the conviction about the crucified Christ being raised and glorified and in the kingdom already, in the glory of God the Father already, who has given to us, as he ascends into heaven, the Holy Spirit, his own Spirit, breathed upon us so that we could live and have the power and the grace by faith to live in communion with him and his glory while we’re still here on earth. The way that we enter into that communion with glory, fundamentally and essentially, is by suffering with him, by loving with him. We have the great commandment that you will love the Lord God with all your mind, soul, heart, and strength. The only Person who ever did that was Jesus of Nazareth, God’s Son; none of us have done that. So he loves God right to the end, no matter what God asks of him; no matter how much he has a sense of being forsaken by God, he remains faithful in the love of God, and that is proven by his love for everyone around him without exception and especially his enemies, especially those who hate him.
St. Silouan on Mt. Athos who writes about this so beautifully and simply—died in 1938—he said, “Until we are ready to love with the love with which God loves us in Jesus the Son of his love, by the Holy Spirit with whom he pours his love into our heart, we’ll never know God.” That means a love for the enemy. Until we are loving everyone and everything without qualification, we remain estranged from God, estranged from Christ. So this is our understanding of things.
We said that even in the icon we see that the Church lives in function of the glorified Christ, that he was raised and glorified and he is coming in glory. In fact, in the Scripture when it speaks about Christ in the book of Revelation, the hallway you have out here, he is the alpha, the omega, the beginning and the end—but it’s interesting to note that he said that that he is the one—it’s often put into cupolas in our church—who is—he who is, that’s the name of God in Moses; that’s the name God… when Moses said, “What is your name?” he said, “I am who I am; he who is.” But then they add in the Apocalypse: “Who is, who was”—always was, never was not—and then it doesn’t say, “who will be” or “who will be forever.” It doesn’t say that. It says, “He is the one who is, who was, and who is coming.” Who is coming: so our whole life on earth until the Lord comes in glory is to live beneath his glory, so to speak, in function of his glorification and our adoration of him and our obedience to him until he comes again in glory.
Our Christian life is a life of expectation. It’s memory and expectation. We remember everything that God is doing; we have to deal with all that. And then we expect him to come, and we wait for him. I think one of the saddest things of all is that Christians have lost this sense of expectation, that it will all be resolved. Sometimes you get depressed, you get all those kind of things, you wonder what’s happening. Well, we know that—it is our faith—he is coming again in glory, and he will know what to do. He will know what to do; he’ll know how to do it. He will be merciful to everybody. He will forgive everyone. He will do what is necessary.
Here part of our faith is that we can affirm this, but you can’t say we don’t even have the foggiest idea of what’s going to happen—we do! We have an idea. Dr. Arseniev used to speak of “glimpse”: we have a glimpse through the Holy Spirit in the Church. You want to know how it’s going to be? Just go into church and look. You can see how it’s going to be; it’s already there. The Church is the image of the coming kingdom. St. Maximus says the Old Testament was a type or prefiguration of the Church of the New Testament, but the New Testament Church is not a type or a prefiguration; it’s an icon, it’s a presence already now of that coming kingdom, given to us, that we live by as long as we are in this world.
So we live under the glorified, enthroned Christ who is coming. In some of the early churches that began to be built in the fourth, fifth century, they would put over the altar in the church not just the Christ in glory, but they sometimes would put the empty throne. You’d have the throne with nobody sitting on it—it’s in Ravenna, for example—because that means he’s on his way. He’s on his way, and we are expecting him. We are hungering and thirsting for him. And we know that when he comes, all manner of thing will be well.
There’s a wonderful British mystic lady named Dame Julian of Norwich, and she’s quite a person, and she said in her writings, which are called showings, she said: When the kingdom of God comes and Christ comes in glory, and those who love him will be so delighted by his presence—and there’s a technical word for “presence”: parousia, his presence, his being there—she said not only a part of that joy and delight will be in what he does, but in how he does it—because we don’t know how he’s going to pull it off. That’s part of what we’re waiting for. “How are you ever going to pull this off?” “Don’t worry. I know how. I’m God!” [Laughter] “I’ll know what to do.”
But we know that no one will go to hell by mistake. God’s judgment will be totally accurate. Only those who blaspheme the Spirit and really don’t want him will be lost. If there’s people who are lost, it’s because they choose to be lost. He loves everyone to the end. Even the fires of hell, so to speak, are his love for the people who do not want that love. But he loves and he loves and he loves to the end, and that’s what we’re waiting for; that’s what we’re expecting—but that’s what we already experience by the life of faith in the Church.
So I think probably in the Scriptures here, we could just quote the Apostle Paul, again to Colossions, [the] letter where he said in Christ dwells the whole fullness of divinity bodily: pleroma theotis somatikos. In Slavonic they say polnota bozhestveniya, in a body, concretely. He is the head and the ruler over all authority, over all reality. We were buried with him in baptism. We gave ourselves to him and we died with him. Then it says: If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. There we have our sentence again, this constantly repeated sentence. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died.
Here if we are Christians we really must believe: we have died. When we were baptized, we died. We died with him in baptism. We were raised to newness of life. We no longer have interests or investments or anything here in the fallen, perverted world. It’s God’s world; it’s the world that God loves. It’s the world that God loved so that he sent his Son. It’s the world that he saved. It’s the world that’s going to become at the end the full kingdom of God. But yet, as my son Johnny likes to say—he’s a priest—he says, “We ain’t in heaven yet.” We’re still in this world, but we testify to that reality and we trust God with it all.
So you have died; your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you will appear with him in glory. You will appear with him in glory. And the saints of the Church—I will say something about that in a minute—they already are filled with that glory. They already shine with that glory. St. Anthony the Great, it was said in his Life, the Coptic Life, that he had his resurrected body before he even died. He had the new body of Christ before he died. We put on that body of Christ, that glorified body, and we can live in it, already now, if, of course, we’re really ready to die with him and that means really to suffer with him, to suffer for righteousness’s sake, not to suffer just to suffer. If you like to suffer just to suffer, well, you’re a crazy Russian, probably, and you belong in a mental institution. [Laughter]
But there’s neurotic suffering, pathological, stupid suffering, suffering for fighting against reality or not getting what you want and all that kind of stuff. But if we totally give ourselves to him in love, we will suffer, but it will be redemptive. It will be joyful. It will go together like a paradox. Orthodoxy is paradoxy. In all the holy Fathers, they say, commenting on this, they’ll say: Beware of any consolation before crucifixion. Beware any exaltation before humiliation. Beware of any deification before degradation. That’s St. Isaac I’m quoting now. If you wanted to speak fancy Greek—I have to show that I used to be a professor—if you use Greek, you say beware of any theosis before kenosis. Theosis means deification; kenosis means self-emptying, giving yourself totally to the other.
So when he says Christ who is our life appears, then you will also appear with him in glory. In glory: we will appear with him in glory. This we can already experience. St. Paul said: The life I live now I no longer live, but Christ lives in me, and the life that I now live, I live by faith in him who loved me and gave himself for me, and that’s what became the content of my life. So when Christ who is our life—he is our life… What makes life life for us? It would be Christ. That’s it. He’s also our peace, he’s also our wisdom, he’s also our power, he’s also our glory, he’s also everything. That’s what he is for us. St. Paul even says it. He said: All and in all things in Christ, everything filled with Christ.
Now this letter, it continues to say: Therefore, if this is so—if all we are saying so far is so—then he continues: put to death, therefore, what is earthly in you. Kill it. Mortify it: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, covetousness, love of money, which is idolatry, he says, idolatry. On account of these things, the wrath of God is coming. In these you once walked when you lived in them, but now that you believe in the Gospel, put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, foul talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off—and it says here in the RSV—the old nature—actually in Greek it says the old humanity, the old man, the old anthropos, the old humanity, the human—with its practices, and you have put on a new humanity. There’s a new humanity.
Christ makes everything new. By the way, that’s important. He doesn’t make all new things; he makes all things new. So everything is made new. There’s a new covenant, there’s a new spirit, there’s a new song, there’s a new creation. We are a new creation in Christ. There’s a new heaven, there’s a new earth. By the way, the only thing that there is no “new” would be Israel. There’s one Israel of God, and that is by faith, not by flesh and blood. If you say that the Church is the new Israel, it’s wrong; technically, according to Scripture, it’s wrong. The Church is the Israel of God, because the Israel of God is reduced to one Person, Jesus of Nazareth. All of humanity is reduced to one Person, Jesus of Nazareth, and that’s where we find our life.
So there it says: You have put on the new humanity, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator. Anyone who knows the Orthodox baptismal service knows that that’s a line of the prayer when they’re blessing the water to baptize a person. Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcized and uncircumcized, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, Ukrainian, Russian, Greek—I don’t know what the heck they want to say—but Christ is all and in all. That’s what it is. So then it says: Put on, then, as God’s chosen, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, patience, forbearing one another. If anyone has a complaint against another, forgiving each other. As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
Above all these things, put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony, and let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body, and be thankful. In fact, you could translate that: be eucharistic, because the heart of our Church is gratitude. Every Sunday at the Divine Liturgy, it’s the Eucharist, it’s gratitude, for everything that God has done for us and in us and with us and to us, whatever it is. Sometimes you wonder what the heck he’s up to. You really do. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly. Teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with eucharist, again with thankfulness, in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks—again this eucharistic word—to God the Father through him.
Now all this is not only possible for us, but it’s that to which we are called. We have to realize at some point that the Christian life is a humanly impossible life without the grace of God. You can’t do it by making resolutions and grinding your teeth and clenching your fists and looking for the right spiritual father or something. That ain’t the way it works. That isn’t the way it works. It works by fidelity to the smallest little things in the everyday character of life, by the grace of God: by faith, by grace. It’s all by faith and grace, and everything else is just impossible.
And so you have in the Scripture three times mentioned a line that you hear people say a lot: “With God, all things are possible” or “With God, nothing shall be impossible,” but it’s very interesting to note when those sentences are said. One of them is said when the Son of God is going to be born of a Virgin of the Holy Spirit, and when he’s asked, Gabriel said, “With God, nothing will be impossible. Elizabeth will have a child in her old age. You will be inspired by the Holy Spirit, because with God nothing shall be impossible.” The other time is in the Gethsemane garden, when Jesus is praying in the garden of Gethsemane, and that’ in all four gospels. He says to God the Father, “Abba, Father”—“Abba” is an endearing name for father—“all things are possible for you. Let this cup pass if it be possible. Nevertheless, not my will but your will be done.” God says, “My will is that you get crucified, because if you don’t, you will not save the world.” It’s the only way that that’s possible; there isn’t any other way.
So God says no, and God always answers prayers, except sometimes he says no. Praying is not telling God what he already knows and telling him what he ought to do about it, and then when he doesn’t do it you want to give him some advice or say he doesn’t exist. One interesting thing about the Church Fathers: they say you should always pray to God about everything, so that when it does not happen, you know it will be God’s will, because if you don’t pray, you won’t know that it’s not God’s will unless you pray for it and don’t get it. So not getting it is a big part of the story, which means God knows better than we do. But we accept everything from the hand of God as a gift, as a grace. There’s always something saving in it, even when you can’t see it, even when it seems it’s unbearable, even when it seems like it’s crazy; it’s not crazy.
Well, you might put it this way: God is crazy, as far as this world’s rationality is concerned. As St. Paul said, we preach the word of the cross. To Jews, and now Islam, Muslims, it’s just scandalous. Become a man, be flesh, be crucified, be killed, be rejected, be spit upon? This is nonsense! And for the philosophers among us, it’s not rational. But, as St. Paul says, for us who believe, this is the wisdom and power of God. To the Jews and the Muslims, it’s a scandal; to the Gentiles and the philosophers and the secular people, it’s madness. Well, the Greek word is morea, where you get the word “moron”: it’s moronic. But for us who believe, that’s the truth; it’s the life, but you’ve got to submit yourself to it. You have to give yourself to it in order for it to happen, and you can’t hold anything back.
That’s why Jesus not only says, “He who loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me; he who loves brother, sister, children more than me is not worthy of me; he who loves lands and possessions is not worthy of me,” but he also says in St. Luke’s gospel, 14th chapter, not only, “He who loves father and mother more than me,” he goes a step further even—and this is Jesus speaking—“Unless you hate your father, your mother, your brother, your sister, your children, your lands, your ethnicity, your money, your possessions, your whole psyche, your whole life in this world, you cannot be my disciple.” The Fathers call it the dispassionate hatred. It’s a hyperbole; it’s overstating something to make a point, because nothing can take the place of God in a person’s life, and nothing can hold the place of God, and if it does, we’re an idolater.
Here part of the problem is that religion itself can be an idol. Orthodoxy can be an idol. We live in Orthodoxy and sign our letters, “Yours in Orthodoxy,” but we’ve never read the New Testament and we don’t know what the Gospel is about—but we’re Orthodox. Well, that ain’t going to float. It’s not going to help us. In fact, on the day of judgment, we can say to God—Jesus said this on the Sermon on the Mountain—“We prophesied in your name, we did miracles in your name, we cast out demons in your name, spent our whole life as a priest in your name,” and he’ll say, “Depart from me, you evil-doer; I don’t know you,” because it was not done for the love of God and neighbor; it was done for some other reason, some other self-serving reason. And when you see a Christian who in old age is grouchy and bitter and unhappy, you can only ask that question: What were you doing all along? What have I been doing all along, that this would be the final state of my life as a Christian? God have mercy! So we go through this.
Here I’d like to say, just for the sake of shorthand, that for this to actually happen… And by the way, the third “with God, all things are possible”? One was the Incarnation, the other was the crucifixion? There’s only one time more when you have the sentence in the Scripture. It’s when the rich young man came to Jesus and said, “What should I do to have eternal life?” And he said, “You should keep the commandments.” He said, “Which ones?” He said, “Worship the Lord God; have no other gods. Honor your father and your mother. Keep the sabbath day holy. Don’t kill. Don’t fornicate. Don’t commit adultery.” And the young man says, “I have done these things from my youth. What else is there?” And then Jesus says, “If you will be perfect”—by the way, that Anthony heard that, and that’s why he had the risen body before he died—“you’ll give everything to the poor and you’ll come and follow me.” And then the man leaves, right?
And then the apostles say to Jesus, “Lord, if that’s your teaching, who can be saved?” Jesus doesn’t say, “Well, anyone who tries harder, gets the right spiritual father, finds the right denomination, the church that appeals to their feelings or something…” He doesn’t say that. He says, “Nobody.” “Who then can be saved?” He says, “No one—but with God it’s possible. With God it’s possible even for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God,” which means that possessions are the greatest idol and slavery that you can have. That’s what our society is all built on now, and that’s why it’s hell. That’s why it’s hell on earth.
So with God all things are possible, but to live this impossible possible life by grace and by faith, I think that you can sum it up here and say: If I’m going to do this, first of all, I have to want to do it. I have to desire to do it. I have to be ready to pay the cost to do it. I have to put everything aside in order to do it. If that is there, then I think that you could say—and I certainly would say—that our Church, Orthodox Church and Christian Church, everything is available for us to have that happen. No matter how badly we think about things—whether the priests are crooks or God knows what, Orthodoxy united in America, one Church and all that stuff: all that can take place without God and not being for God—so it has to be out of love for God, love for the neighbor, in gratitude, in thanksgiving to God for his salvation. For that to happen, if a person really wants it—and that’s critical; that is critical, because if we don’t want it, it ain’t going to happen—but if we want it, then I think we could sort of sum up how it can work for us, if we’re actually living under him who is raised and glorified and is coming again.
This is us. How does it happen? I like to put it this way. Five Ss, I would say. Five Ss, which we have. We have them already. We have everything we read. The first S would be Scripture, the holy Scriptures. We have to read them and contemplate them and try to put them into practice more than we breathe, because that’s where we get the vision, that’s where we see the reality, that’s where we read all these things. It’s really terrible, when you think of it, especially perhaps even Orthodox: we like all these spirituality books, we like to read about the holy elders and this and that, but we don’t know the Bible. We don’t know the holy Scriptures. All of the holy Fathers say everything has its foundation on the canonized Scriptures of the Church, which are those which are formal witnesses to the living tradition of Orthodox Christianity on earth.
They were written, and more was written than the New Testament 27 books. If you take the spurious books, there are many more of them than the New Testament, many more. Sometimes even on TV now they call them the lost books of the Bible, as if some male chauvinist suppressed them because I don’t know what, they were for equality with women or something. That is just total madness, but one thing is definitely true. One thing is definitely true: that not everything that was written even in the earliest Church is in conformity with the truth of the Gospel as lived by those whom we call the Orthodox. It was these 27 books that were canonized, not the other ones. They say: these are the trustworthy ones. Read these. Read them in church. Don’t read any other things. This is what we are taught by the holy people as what is in conformity with our living tradition of Orthodoxy. So these 27 books.
But in order to live by them, you’ve got to know what they say. People have opinions about the Bible. You say: did you ever read it? Well, not exactly. What do you mean “not exactly”? You either read it or you didn’t. You either contemplate it and chew it and live by it every day, or you don’t. What is a subtle temptation here is that you can be interested in all other kinds of stuff, but if that foundation is not there… Like St. John Chrysostom says, every cause of discord, disharmony, division in the Church comes from two things. One is the ignorance of the holy Scripture and the absolutely irresponsible way in which men are made priests and bishops. That’s what he said.
Now, we could read the Scripture. In the earliest time, people couldn’t read. I was a priest in Warren, Ohio, 50 years ago. I had 60 ladies in my church who couldn’t read. When I first got there, three old ladies came to the door. My wife answers the door. They said, “We’d like to give names for the priest to pray.” My wife says, “Okay, come in,” she gives them paper and a pencil, and they said, “My ne morzh mech pisate. We don’t know how to write.” So my wife had to write down the names for them. But they knew the Bible.
One old lady, she couldn’t read or write, I went to see her. She asked me my name. I said, “Thomas.” She told me the whole story, and I said, “Oh, I see you read the Bible.” She says, “Father, I don’t know how to read.” I said, “You don’t know how to read and you know that story in detail?” She looked at me as if I was nuts and said, “I’ve gone to church my whole life. I’ve heard that. I’ve sung the songs. I’ve been at St. Thomas Sunday. How could I not know what is said there?” But you have to have the desire to know and to listen and to go, and now we can read. We have eyes, we have ears, we have these Scriptures. Everything begins on the foundation of those Scriptures. If it doesn’t, it will be screwed up for sure.
Sometimes we have a complex, like: The Protestants know the Scriptures; we don’t. That’s just baloney, total baloney. I had people in my church saying to me, “Father, what you said in that sermon can’t be right.” I said, “Why not?” “Well, there was this preacher on the radio and he didn’t say that, and you know, they really know the Bible.” I said, “You think I don’t? What have I been doing for the last six years of my life?” [Laughter] But, sadly enough, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes even the priests are not interested.
You know there’s a canon law in the Church that you can’t be made a bishop unless you can recite the 150 psalms by heart. Yeah, Seventh Ecumenical Council. Because they said if you can’t do that, how can you teach anything? We don’t even know how to find the book of psalms in the Bible! [Laughter] Let alone read it. But you’ve got to make that effort, just a little bit every day, and read it again and read it over and try to practice what you understand. What you don’t understand, bracket or write a question down. Find someone maybe to help you understand. Some parts none of us will understand, probably.
But in any case, it’s there. So the first S is the Scriptures. Then in addition to the Scriptures, we have services, the Church services, the liturgical worship of the body of Christ, which antedates even the writings of these Scriptures. These Scriptures are canonized because they are in accordance with our worship. St. Irenaeus said that in the third century. These Scriptures are dependable because they are conforming with the tradition that we have received when we pray in church. So we have the prayers of the Church, and we have all these Ascensions and Pentecosts and Christmas, Epiphany—they’re all festivals in the Bible. They all begin in the Old Testament. They’re christened in the New Testament; they’re given a new meaning. But you can’t come to see that unless you’re involved in it, unless you go to it, unless you want to understand it. You can’t just go there because, I don’t know, you like to hear Slavonic and go to Orthodox Disneyland on Sunday so you can forget about your job so you can have stuffed cabbages and feel like you’re a kid again in Pennsylvania or something. That’s not what it’s about.
It’s hard work to go to church. It’s blood to the end. You stand there, you hear, you don’t understand, you come… I think most people who come to church and then leave, it’s because at some point or other they realize: I’ve either got to take this seriously, or I’ve got to get the hell out of here. Because you can’t keep standing there. It says in the Scriptures: the word of God is a two-edged sword; it cuts the bones and marrow, the heart. Well, we go to church to get lacerated. If you see a church that has a sign: Enter, relax, pray—sue them for malpractice! [Laughter] That’s the last thing that’s going to happen—and believe me, it’ll happen, but it’ll be the last thing; it won’t be the first thing. First you’ve got to be brought through fire and water. You’ve got to be purified, you’ve got to be cleansed, you’ve got to be scrubbed. You’ve got to reorganize your mind and your heart. You’ve got to go there and stand there. You don’t look around and you don’t judge this one or that one. You’re just there.
I would say that if anybody is having troubles with God, they have to read the Scriptures every day a little bit and go to the church. If they’re Orthodox people who are having trouble with Orthodoxy, I would say this: no service on church council, no singing in the choir, no serving in the altar, no putting on any robe—not playing any role. You just stand there and listen. And do that for six months; then we’ll talk.
I have a piece of paper that when people write me about these things, I write back to them. If you’re willing to do these things, I’ll talk to you. If you’re not, we’re wasting my time and yours. The first thing is to want it; the second thing is to pray. Even if you don’t believe in God, say, “To whom it may concern…” [Laughter] “If you are there, please do something with me, but I am ready to hear you. I am ready to change. I am ready to be instructed and inspired. And I am, but then I have to know that if I am going to come to know you, it’s because you know me and that you are going to reveal yourself to me within the context of these Scriptures and this assembly called the Church which is incarnated in space and time as worship.” It’s a baptismal, pentecostal, eucharistic communion, the Church of Christ.
And that all has to do with death, because baptism is death with Christ. Do you not know that as many of you as are baptized into Christ are baptized into his death? We were buried with him in baptism, and we were raised with him to newness of life. All those who have been baptized into Christ, they put on Christ, and they live according to Christ, and they have no life that’s in this world at all defined by that.
As you know, I was just quoting the epistle at a baptism service. When I was teaching at seminary I used to like to have fun, because I would say to the students, like a question, “What is the epistle reading and the gospel reading for the Paschal vigil on Great and Holy Saturday, the long St. Basil service with all the Old Testament readings? What is the epistle and the gospel at that service?” Almost always, the student would say, “Oh, Father, come on. That’s an easy question. It’s the same readings as at baptism.” I said, “Oh, you sure of that?” “Yeah, of course.” I said, “Well, you know, that’s not exactly right.” They’d say, “Well, what do you mean?” I said, “Those aren’t the readings at baptism. Those are the readings at the holy Pascha, which are then read at a baptism.” It’s this service that’s read at a baptism, not the other way around, because that’s when you’re celebrating the death of Christ, being buried in the tomb on the sabbath day, totally giving himself to God and to us for the salvation of the world and dying, literally dying in the flesh, because the only way he can trample down death is by death. Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs, giving life.
So he has to die, and we have to die, too. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you. So it begins by death. And then once you’re in there, you receive the Holy Spirit. You’re anointed all over your whole body, to be clothed with Christ in order to be able to die with him so that we could live with him out of love for God.
Then of course the holy Eucharist, as St. Paul said—and it’s only mentioned once in the entire New Testament outside the four gospels—We proclaim his death until he comes. That’s what we preach in this world: his death. We still wear our crosses. You can’t proclaim his resurrection unless you’ve died with him, and you don’t even know what that means. So we have to die with him, and that’s why the worship, in spirit and in truth, of Orthodox Christianity, the high point is: Take, eat, this is my body, broken for you. Drink of it, all of you; this is my blood, shed for you and for the life of the world. It’s the broken body and the shed blood that we participate in until he comes again in glory. Why? So that we could offer our bodies to be broken and our blood to be shed, because if our bodies are not broken with him and if our blood is not shed with him, there is no way we will enter into his glory; no way. It’s just impossible; it’s closed to us.
So that’s our proclamation. We preach Christ crucified. So you have the Scriptures and you have the services. The services, you go through a year, and you see all the different aspects of this. You have the lenten time and the Paschal time and the Pentecostal period. You have 88 days in the winter of the celebration of the Incarnation and the Epiphany on the Jordan. It starts with Christmas [Fast] on November 15 and doesn’t end until the Leavetaking of the Meeting in the Temple on February 9. Then you just blink a little bit and you’re starting Great Lent. [Laughter] Zacchaeus, Publican and Pharisee, Prodigal Son—you go through that again and again and again, and it fashions you, it forms you, it purifies you, it illumines you. This is what it is.
So you have the Scriptures and you have the services. Then you have also the sacraments, the mysteries of faith: the baptism, the Eucharist, the unction of the sick, the confession of our sins, the consecration of our marriages. All this is given to us to consecrate the life so that we could learn how to love as Christ loves. Actually, I promised I would—God help me—write a little essay about a book that’s being published at St. Tikhon’s about marriage. I’m going to try to write a little thing called “Learning to Love: Reflections on Marriage and Monasticism,” because, technically speaking, those are the only two ways you can learn how to love with the love with which God in Christ loves us, because it involves fidelity, it involves suffering, it involves killing your own will. St. John Climacus says: Consider every day where you are not slandered or misunderstood or falsely accused as a loss. I used to like to joke: Oh, that’s easy. If you don’t want to have a day that’s ever lost, just get married! [Laughter] Just get married.
By the way, I think in Scripture it’s a very clear teaching that if you’re a real Christian, St. Paul teaches especially in 1 Corinthians 7 that it’s easier to be single, not more difficult. Oh, if you’re a lecher, it’s more difficult, but even then we don’t want to marry; we have sex now without it, so no problem. But what we have to say here is that I think if you read what St. Paul is actually writing there, what he says is this: If you’re really going to deny yourself, you’re really going to take up your cross, you’re really going to die for Christ, you’re really going to be able to sacrifice whatever is asked of you, it’s a heck of a lot easier if you’re all alone, because if you’re married, then you’ve got to do it together. That’s a lot harder.
Gregory of Nyssa, commenting, says: Why give yourself that extra pain? Of course, they thought the Lord was coming soon and whatever, but if you’re a Christian, marriage is still a great mystery. It’s Christ and the Church. The husband’s supposed to love his wife like Christ loved the Church, and he died for her. He gave himself totally for her. The woman’s supposed to honor like the Lord himself, to have a Church that’s a mikra ekklesia, a little Church, where God is glorified. But you have to learn how to do those things in life; they don’t just happen.
If you go to a monastic community, then you have a community that you’re faithful to. You have an abbess; you have brothers and sisters. All the words are used like a family. You have spiritual fathers and mothers, spiritual brothers and sisters, spiritual children. You live together in obedience to each other, bearing each other’s burdens and so fulfilling the law of Christ, as St. Sergius said when he became abbot in Russia. This is what we have.
In our time, when we have practically neither of those, there ain’t much hope. But there still is a challenge, and that is this: Sometimes it’s not so easy to get married or to join a monastery, not so easy. So we have that question: How then do you live? I think that the answer of Scripture would be you still have to belong to a community to which you are answerable. You can’t be a freelance Christian. It should be a parish, ideally, if that would be the case. But there are many people who are single or divorced or whatever that have to try to live the Christian life, but they need to belong concretely—not just in theory, but to actual other human beings with whom they share their life, with whom they can share all their secrets of their darkest moments in their soul in order to be free from all of that side stuff by the grace of God.
But you have to have that; you cannot not have that. The holy Fathers say if you see any person fall, know the reason: they’ve chosen themselves as a spiritual guide. No matter how smart you are, or learned or whatever: if you’ve chosen yourself to determine your own behavior without being under the obedience to another, it’s certain to crash. I’m afraid that that happens all too often. I’m almost tempted to say especially among clergy, who hardly go to confession, who don’t have a spiritual father, do it perfunctorily once a year, and at the same time are speaking about deification and the holy Fathers. That’s a recipe for madness.
Then you’ve got to come to terms with your own life. Here is another absolute conviction of mine in old age: until we come to terms with our childhood, with our family of origin, our own father and mother, our grandparents, what we have received, we can never be a mature Christian, never—because that’s fashioning us, and it’s always painful. There’s always sin involved. In Genesis it says that Seth, the first one born of Adam and Eve, and of course it was outside paradise, it said he was born in the image of Adam, not in the image of God. Adam was in the image of God, but he messed it up, and the children of Adam, which means the whole of humanity, they’re born already screwed up. We’re all born screwed up.
You’ve probably heard me say this a million times, but one of our daughters, Catherine, she used to wear a button in high school: “It’s my father’s fault.” [Laughter] I said, “Got you! You’re right. It is my father’s fault—but you’ve got to do something about it now. Now it’s your problem that I’m your father.” [Laughter] “It’s my problem I have to answer for it, but still it’s your problem, because you have no excuse if you know that.” So sooner or later we’ve got to become brother and sister in Christ under God who is our father. Every role of every parent and ever spiritual father and mother, biological, is to fade themselves out so that we live, then, before God himself. As St. Cyprian said: He who does not have the Church has his mother cannot have God as his father. Because you need mothering, you need nurture, you need instruction, you need comfort. The Holy Spirit does that in the Church for us.
We need this sacramental life. In our tradition we don’t necessarily count seven; we’re not into that kind of stuff. But all the key elements to make up our human life have a sacramental dimension to them by the fact that we’re Christians: that we’re baptized, that we’ve been sealed with the Spirit, that we participate at least once a week in the holy Eucharist, we prepare ourselves, we repent of our sins, we get spiritual guidance, we read the holy Scripture, we say our prayers. Even praying: I always like to say I went through school, I read all these books, I got a Ph.D., I was the dean of a seminary, and then I learned from all of that that what my mother told me when I was eight years old was the truth. She didn’t go to sixth grade. She said: Go to church, say your prayers, and never forget God. That’s it. That’s what all the holy Fathers teach: Go to church—but you’ve got to go to church. And you’ve got to go to church to be in church for the Church’s reason, not to play a role or to check out who’s not there or how many times the priest is waving the cloth at the Creed or something. You’ve got to go there for God, to open yourself before God, and that’s painful.
And you need help with that; you need to have help—which leads, then, to another S: the saints. We have the saints. We have the holy people who interpreted the Scriptures, who lived this life, who’ve been through blood, fire and water. The holy Fathers say the fire is the anger and the water are the tears. And you’ve got to go through all of that in order to be purified. But you’ve got to have help. Isolation is a sign of insanity. You’ve got to have help. We’re members, one of another, and that’s very humble. Here the holy Fathers would say this: the mouth of the elder is opened by the humility of the disciple. If we have humility and want to hear the word of God, we can find it anywhere. Fr. Alexander Schmemann used to say: If God could speak through Balaam’s ass, he can speak through any priest I know! [Laughter] But you have to go there to hear the word of God, not to judge the priest.
Again, my mother—I used to talk about my mother so much that at the seminary the students used to call her Tom-otokos. [Laughter] “What did Tom-otokos say today, the birth-giver of Tom?” But my mother used to say if you go to the church and you’re there for the Church and you’re reading the Scripture, you’re saying your prayer, you’re trying to keep the commandments… She says, if the water’s pure, it doesn’t matter who’s cranking the well. That’s a great thing about Orthodoxy in my opinion, because it doesn’t depend on—as such—the gifts of the pastor or anything else. Now, the pastor can be gifted or he can be a troublesome person. He could even be the cause of trouble. Nevertheless, whoever that man is, on Sunday morning he serves the Divine Liturgy just like everybody else. He doesn’t make it up or change it. He might give a goofy sermon—you can block out that if you want, or pray to God to let me hear some good word in it, by some miracle—but in other words I think that this is very, very important that this is given to us. It’s given to us.
St. Benedict said when you go to church, don’t put your mouth where your mind is; you put your mind where your mouth is. You glorify God by the words which he has given to us for his own glorification. That’s the psalms, that’s the Scripture, that’s the hymns of the Church, that’s the inspired liturgy. And we have to have all of that. That’s what the New Testament Church is. That’s what this is an icon of. That’s an icon of the Church, under the glorified, ascended Lord who is coming again in glory, but he’s with us now. So our lives are hidden in him, and that’s what we live in this world.
So we have saints; we have holy people. We have writings. Sometimes the saints, some of our modern Orthodox saints have been rather pessimistic about life in the last times. In fact, way back in the fourth century, one of the holy Desert Fathers named Ischyron, he said: A time will come when if people will just believe in the Gospel, if they just believe in Christ as given, they will have achieved a spiritual achievement greater than the prophecies and the miracles of our fathers, because it will be so difficult to do. Frankly, I believe that time is here. Just to believe it.
Here, by the way, I can just give you a comforting word, a very comforting word. I love this word. Jesus said (Matthew’s gospel): He who honors a righteous man because he is a righteous person will receive the righteous person’s reward. And he who honors a prophet because he is a prophet of God will receive the prophet’s reward. So I’m comforted. I ain’t a righteous man and I ain’t a prophet, but if I honor those who are, the Lord will save me. But I have to honor those who are and teach them.
Then the holy Fathers, they say this: If you can’t find someone to teach you, or if you can’t read or you don’t have books or are in a prison camp or whatever, St. Theophan the Recluse said in the 19th century: Don’t worry. God will send you sufferings, and it’ll do the same thing. [Laughter] It’ll produce the same result. So the last S is suffering. You have Scripture, you have sacraments, you have services, you have saints, and you have suffering. No one can take that suffering from us, no one.
In 1974 I was at a meeting in Greece, and there was a young monk from Mt. Athos there. He became rather well-known later. His name was Vasileios Gontikakis. He wrote that book, Hymn of Entry, we published at St. Vladimir’s some years ago. He’s retired now, but he was young in those days; so was I. Everybody was bemoaning everything at the meeting. Those from the Communist countries were saying: Our Church is persecuted, we’re controlled, we can’t do anything, we can’t have freedom, we can’t teach anything… The guys from the West like us were saying: We live in a secular society, everything’s materialistic, everything’s nuts, we live just for money and greed and all what Fr. Paul Lazar and I used to call the “p-p” words: profit, possession, power, position, possessions, all those P words. (It’s so interesting: our first saint in America, Herman, had none of any of that stuff. Did you ever notice that?) But in any case, we’re over there bemoaning the fact that we’re in Babylon and all that kind of stuff.
This young monk gets up there, and he says: Brothers! (There were only brothers there, I think. I don’t think there were any sisters there. It’s in the early ‘70s.) We must have hope! We have faith, because we have everything we need, and there’s something that no one can take from us, neither the Bolsheviks nor the secularists or anything. They can’t take it from us. They can’t rob us of this. In fact, they can even help us. And then he said: Our death. Because we all die, and it’s the one thing that unites all human beings. We’re all mortal, and we all die. The moment of truth for us is our death. Death proves everything.
I was telling at lunch how I got this disease I have with the heart, and I basically broke down at one service in church, in tears about Lent, and it happened that I was diagnosed with all this stuff. But anyway, there’s an old nun there, Mother Elizabeth; she’s in her 80s. She said to me: Father Thomas, you made it beyond 70 without a tremor—which was true; I never was sick. The only thing I ever had was a gallbladder operation my whole life. I mean, I had stenosis, pain, all that, but nothing debilitating. She said: So now is the moment of truth, and we will see who you really are and what you really are. That’s what she told me. I said, “Oogh, thanks a lot, Mother.” [Laughter] Now you can show what you really are. Before that, I was just blah-blah.
Those moments come, and we all have to face that, but if we die daily, like St. Paul said, “I die daily,” if I die with Christ in baptism, if I live each day dying to myself to become alive to God, then death itself is transformed into a victory, just like it was for Jesus. And that’s our faith.
Now, if we keep these five Ss, then three other Ss will come for sure. Sanctity will come: holiness, like God is holy. Sacrifice will come, sacrificial life. And, with sanctity and sacrifice will also come—what’s my third S here? See, this is my old age showing itself now; I could look and see what it was, but there’s a third S there. Holiness and sacrifice… Oh yes! Service! You live to serve, not to be served, but to serve, and to give your life as a ransom for many, together with Christ, and that’s the perfect joy. That’s what it is.
Now, none of us can complain that we don’t have what we need. We have it. It’s here. It’s God the Father, the Son Jesus Christ the Lord, the Holy Spirit. The life of the Church, we have it. But as my friend, Fr. Paul, and I used to say, you’ve got to learn how to find the grace in everything. When it seems totally dark and hopeless, you have to say: What’s the grace in this? because it’s there. And sometimes you don’t see it until much later. You look back and say, ah, now I understand, because we understand backwards; we live forward, but we understand backward.
But at the same time, we also used to say: we don’t believe in the Magician, the Mechanic, and the Fairy Godmother. We believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It ain’t magic. God is not a magician. God only will not—how can you say?—touch our freedom, but he cannot, because he made us this way. He made us in his own image and likeness, which is to be free, to know, to love, to serve. And in this fallen world, it always means suffering; it always means death—death to our self.
Some of the great writers—I’m rereading a book of Teresa of Avila, whom I kind of like. She’s a Spanish, 16th-century mystic lady, and she wrote a poem, “Dying that I do not Die,” because she couldn’t really die to herself. She was a Spanish noble lady with a lot of honor and a lot of pride and a lot of gumption and all of that. She felt that there was something there that she had to overcome, and it’s that death to self. But it’s not masochistic. You don’t deny yourself just to deny yourself. If you deny yourself just to deny yourself, you’d better go to Cleveland Clinic: you have a problem, major. But your deny yourself for the sake of God, for the sake of truth, for the sake of the brother or the sister. Like St. Silouan said: When I came to know God in the Holy Spirit, he showed me two things: the cross of Christ and my brother. He said: Your brother is your life.
Your brother or your sister is your life, because we’re made in the image and likeness of God, who even himself as God finds and fulfills himself in the Person of his divine Son from before the foundation of the world. That’s why the Trinitarian Godhead is the only convincing thing. A monad God, a monotheistic God, is not a real God; he’s a self-centered ogre. But our God shares himself by nature. He gives himself totally to his Son. Then the Son brings all that to us on earth, and it’s fulfilled by dying on the cross. So when he finally dies in St. John’s gospel, he says: It is finished. It is accomplished. All things are now done. And that’s what we have to do.
So that’s that test for us. But we have the Scriptures, the sacraments, the services, the saints. We have a lot of occasion for suffering. We can take up our cross every day, and there’s internal crosses, there’s external crosses, there’s crosses from our inheritance, because of our own health, there’s crosses with the people we live with: there’s crosses all over the place. St. Innocent of Alaska, he wrote a nice little book for the native Alaskans about what it means to take up the cross. He says it’s to endure all things for the sake of the love of God. We have them within ourselves and we have them around ourselves, and there’s no way in life to avoid any of that. We have to take it up. He said you have to take up your cross. You don’t just surrender to it; you take it up. You embrace it, you find life in it. He says that’s why it’s called the life-creating cross. This is what it is, and this is what he’s telling us.
As the Church of Christ, and when we glorify him with the Father in the Spirit at the right hand of God in human flesh, we know that there’s only one way to get there, and that’s by doing what he did. There’s some really wild sentences in the Scripture on all of this. In St. John’s gospel, Jesus said: If I do not depart from you and go to the Father, I cannot pour out the Spirit upon you, the living water. But I don’t leave you orphans. I am with you. The Holy Spirit is with you. Then he said this; he said: And this is the work of God: to believe in the One whom he has sent. Then he said this; he said: And those who believe in me will do the works that I do. Then he even said this: And greater works than these will he do (or she do) because I go to the Father—and it’s causal: because I go to the Father and send the Spirit, there are humans who by my grace can have in some sense a wider impact than I even had in my own earthly life. But it’s only because of me and being in me that that can happen.
Here I think it’s very important also to note: if you’re a Christian, a real Christian, you don’t work for God; you don’t work for the Church. If you’re a real Christian, God works through you; the Church is actualized and concretized through you. It’s to let God work in us, that’s what it’s about, and that’s what Christ said. He said: I have no word that’s my own; every word I say is the word I heard from the Father. I have no work of my own; everything that I do is what the Father commands me to do. I have no will of my own, because I follow only the will of the Father who sent me. And if we believe in Christ as testified to in the Scripture, as celebrated in the services, as experienced in the sacraments, as modeled and witnessed in the saints, then that’s what we discover, and then that becomes possible. But we have to want it, we have to be ready to pay the cost, and basically it’s by faith and grace.
The Theotokos was told: Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord. So blessed is everyone who believes that there will be a fulfillment of what the Lord speaks to each one of us, and then each one of us can be highly graced, blagodatsi polnaya, kecharitomene, full of grace. That’s what it is to be human.
But, and—all of this is what the Christian faith is all about. It’s what it’s about, so let’s just beg God that we will at least desire it and make some kind of effort to enter into it. If you just take even Scriptures—the psalms, Isaiah, the New Testament—it’s not even one-third of one volume of Harry Potter. [Laughter] But I would hate to say, right now ask: Everyone who’s read through the whole New Testament, just the New Testament, in the last couple of years, raise your hand. Yeah, there wouldn’t be too many hands raised, I wouldn’t think. So this is where it is.
I think that this basically is… It’s pretty clear what this is about. As Jesus said when he washed the feet at the Supper in St. John’s gospel; he said: You call me Master and Lord, and you are right. But if I am your Master and Lord, you will do what I have done. Then he said: If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. And you can only come to know when you do, and you can only do when you know, and those things go together, and we grow that way forever. According to the Church Fathers, this growth in God and communion with God never ends, even in the age to come. We continue going deeper, wider, fuller, more blessed, forever and ever without end. That’s what we’re called to be as human beings, made in God’s image and likeness and redeemed by the blood of Christ to whom we belong by the Holy Spirit. [Applause]