Sunday, April 5, 2015

Homily for Palm Sunday

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest (Mt. 21:9)!”

Dear brothers and sisters, yesterday we commemorated the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Today, with palm branches in hand, let us lay aside all earthly cares and receive the King of All, the Son of David, “mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden (Zech. 9:9).” Why did the Lord come into Jerusalem like this? Why did He come riding on such a lowly animal?

First, the donkey is a humble animal. When a king rides triumphantly into a city, he is accompanied by many armed men and strikes fear into the hearts of the inhabitants. The King of All comes riding on a simple animal, in simple clothing, accompanied by men of no renown. This is the opposite of the wisdom of the world, for as the Holy Apostle Paul says, “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty (1 Cor. 1:27).” See how the young and innocent children gather around Him, praising Him from their hearts, waving the palm branches? They did not see a poor man riding upon a donkey. Rather, as a hymn from last night’s vigil tells us: “They saw the Master of all riding upon a colt, as though upon the cherubim!”

Second, the donkey is an animal of peace. Our Lord is not like a conquering king on a horse; He has no desire to force us to become His slaves. Rather, He is depicted as entering into Jerusalem, meek and unarmed. As He says to St. John in the Book of Revelation: “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me (Rev. 3:20).” Christ does not capture us with an irresistible grace, but allows us the choice to reject Him.

Instead of forcing the Jews to accept Him as their Messiah, He laments over their hard-heartedness, and says: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not (Mt. 23:27)!” Indeed, although the multitudes shouted “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they will soon cry out “Crucify Him!”

Finally, the donkey is a beast of burden. When an earthly king conquers a city, he imposes harsh laws, compels men to labor for him, and exacts tribute. Our Lord did not come into Jerusalem in order to burden His subjects, but rather to take up their burdens upon Himself. For as the Prophet Isaiah said: “He took our infirmities, and bore our diseases (Is. 53:4).” Instead of imposing harsh laws, Our Lord came to loose them from the curse of the Law. Instead of forced labor, Our Lord came to free them from the slavery to sin. Instead of exacting tribute, Our Lord came to pay their ancestral debt, to free them from the tyranny of the devil.

Indeed, Our Lord came to conquer, but not an earthly kingdom, for His kingdom is “not of this world (Jn. 18:36).” Rather, He came to conquer the empire of sin and death ruled by the devil. However, the Jews did not want the heavenly kingdom. They wanted an earthly kingdom; or rather earthly power, for they were willing to bow to Caesar if they received some kind of benefit. They did not want to have anything to do with Christ. They attributed His miracles to the devil and even wanted to kill Lazarus because the miracle of his return from the grave inspired the people.

The Jewish leaders thus had a childish mentality, and hearts harder than stones. In their hands they bore staves, to arrest and beat their Messiah. In their mouths they bore evil tongues, to blaspheme and mock their God. Finally, they bore him to the Romans, to be given the death of a common criminal.

The Jews did many wicked things to Our Lord, but what about us? Will we be accounted more worthy? Or rather, will we not be held more accountable, because we received more than they did? They had Moses and the Prophets, but we have Christ. They received the Law, but we received the Gospel and the Holy Spirit. They ate manna in the wilderness and died, but we will eat the Bread of Life, the medicine of immortality, the Holy Eucharist.

Let us be more watchful over our thoughts and actions. How many of us commit the same sins over and over again? How many of us praise God with our lips but curse our brother in our heart? Let us not receive Christ at one moment and crucify Him in the next. Rather than imitating the Jews whor , let us imitate the Hebrew children who carried branches and praised the Son of David. Let us also consider the lowly donkey, bearing the Savior, peaceable and humble, and thus bear one another’s burdens. In so doing, we will enter the great procession of saints into the New Jerusalem, the eternal kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, to Whom be all glory, honor, and worship unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Homily for Lazarus Saturday

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Dear brothers and sisters, today we commemorate the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus lay in the tomb for four days. His body, bound in the grave clothes, began to decompose and stink. Outside the tomb, his sisters Martha and Mary wept and lamented, while Death, that all-devouring wolf, licked his chops and exulted with Hades.

The joy of Death and Hades turned into lamentation when they heard the voice of the Son of Man saying, “Lazarus, come forth!” A hymn written by St. Romanos the Melodist depicts Death and Hades screaming in terror when they saw the divine power of Christ permeating the body of Lazarus, 
“making his body ready for the summons of the giver of life, arranging his hair, weaving his membranes, and putting together his viscera, extending all his veins, sending blood into them again, mending his arteries, so that Lazarus, ready when he is called, will arise.”
The gospels tell us that Christ restored to life two other people: the son of the widow from Naïn, and the daughter of Jairus. However, these two had just died; their bodies were still fresh when Jesus called them back to life. Lazarus, on the other hand, was already dead for four days, and his body succumbed to the law of nature and began to return to the elements from whence they came. For when Adam fell into sin and turned against the Giver of Life, the Lord told him: “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return (Gen. 3:19).” Our Lord came to annul that ancient curse, to return Adam to his former estate. He overcame the stronghold of death, and reversed the course of nature. He restored Lazarus to life and called him from the grave, in anticipation of His own resurrection from the dead eight days later.

Our Lord Jesus Christ is the resurrection and the life, and whosoever believes in Him, even if he dies, will live. At the same time, Our Lord is also a man like us, having assumed human nature in its fullness, yet without sin. We see this when, as man, He asked where Lazarus is buried, though as God He knew all things. As man, He was grieved by His friend’s death, and wept, but as God He raised him from the dead.

The friends of Jesus, Martha and Mary, had great faith in Him. Martha confessed that He was “the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world (Jn. 11:27).” And because of their great faith, the Lord, out of His compassion and love for them raised Lazarus from the dead.

What does this teach us? First, as St. Gregory the Theologian tells us, it teaches us of the power of intercession. Lazarus was dead, and he could not do anything for himself, but because of the great faith and love of his sisters, Christ heard their supplications and restored him to life. Of course, they did not expect Him to raise their brother from the dead, and we should not expect such miracles either, for as it is written, “An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign (Mt. 12:39).” But we should remember that the dead need our prayers, because they cannot do anything for themselves, the time for repentance having ended for them.

A second mystery revealed by the raising of Lazarus is that of friendship with Christ. It is strange to think that the Lord, who is “no respecter of persons (Rom. 2:11),” should have friends, especially such close friends as Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. However, the gospel tells us that He loved them very much. It is not because He had some kind of partiality towards them, but that they responded to His love to a much greater extent than did others.

Our Lord loves each of us as much as he loves Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, and desires that we enter into communion with Him, a communion of deep friendship. Sadly, we do not listen to the words of our Shepherd, but instead seek other pastures. We go astray in our thoughts, our words, and our deeds. We seek comfort and security not in the Lord, but in ourselves. Little by little, we bind ourselves with our passions, until we cannot break free from them, and we enclose ourselves in a tomb of our own making. Who can save us from this predicament, from this “body of death (Rom. 7:24)?”

Christ is calling us to come out of ourselves, out of our selfishness, our desires for lust and power, to be loosed from our passions. Many of us despair that it is too late, that we cannot turn back from our way, but Christ, who is able to bring Lazarus from the tomb after his body began to stink, can bring you back from the decay of sin.

Come forth! And be loosed from the bands of sin!
Come forth! And be loosed from the bands of corruption!
Come forth! And be loosed from the bands of death!

Let us receive Christ’s gift of forgiveness purchased for us through His Cross and Resurrection, a miracle greater than the raising of the dead, and not squander it. Let us instead be mindful of our end and live according to the Gospel, so that we may be raised with Lazarus on the last day and glorify the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Friday, April 3, 2015

St. Gregory the Theologian (First Oration on Pascha)

This is the first oration of St. Gregory the Theologian (†390), given when he was a newly-ordained priest in his home town of Nazianzus. St. Gregory was ordained against his will by his father, St. Gregory of Nazianzus the Elder, to assist him and eventually take over his bishopric. Out of a sense of humility and a desire to lead a contemplative life, St. Gregory fled to Pontus, but soon returned to Nazianzus to deliver this sermon.

I adapted the translation from the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers to give it more of an Orthodox flavor (since the original translators were Protestants) and with comparison with the original Greek. Most of the changes are contained in the first paragraph, which now match the translations of the paschal liturgical texts, which were inspired by this oration. I also have adapted notes from the 1912 Russian edition of St. Gregory’s works.

Our Father among the Saints Gregory the Theologian, Archbishop of Constantinople

Oration I
On the Holy Pascha and His Tardiness

1. It is the day of Resurrection, and an auspicious beginning. Let us be radiant for the feast, and let us embrace one another. Let us say, Brethren, even to them who hate us (Is. 66:5); much more to those who have done or suffered aught out of love for us. Let us forgive all things on the Resurrection: let us give one another pardon, I for the noble tyranny which I have suffered (for I can now call it thus); and you who exercised it, if you had cause to blame my tardiness; for perhaps this tardiness may be more precious in God’s sight than the haste of others. For it is a good thing even to hold back from God for a little while, as did the great Moses of old (Ex. 4:10), and Jeremiah later on (Jer. 1:6); and then to run readily to Him when He calls, as did Aaron (Ex. 4:27) and Isaiah (Is. 1:6), so only both be done in a dutiful spirit;—the former because of his own want of strength; the latter because of the might of Him that calleth.

2. A Mystery anointed me; I withdrew for a little while at a Mystery, as much as was needful to examine myself; now I come in with a Mystery, [1] bringing with me the day as a good defender of my cowardice and weakness; that He Who today rose again from the dead may renew me also by His Spirit; and, clothing me with the new man, may give me to His new creation, to those who are begotten after God, as a good modeller and teacher for Christ, willingly both dying with Him and rising again with Him.

3. Yesterday the Lamb was slain and the door-posts were anointed (Ex. 12), and Egypt bewailed her firstborn, and the destroyer passed us over, and the Seal was dreadful and reverend, and we were walled in with the precious blood. Today we have clean escaped from Egypt, from Pharaoh the bitter despot and the armed charioteers, and from clay and brick-making; there will be none to hinder us from keeping a feast to the Lord our God—the feast of our exodus—or from celebrating that feast, not in the old leaven of malice and wickedness, but in the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth (1 Cor. 5:8), carrying with us nothing of ungodly and Egyptian leaven.

4. Yesterday I was crucified with Christ, today I am glorified with Him; yesterday I died with Him, today I am quickened with Him; yesterday I was buried with Him, today I rise with Him. But let us bring forth fruit to Him Who suffered and rose again for us. You will think perhaps that I am going to say gold, or silver, or woven work or transparent and costly stones, the mere passing material of earth, that remains here below, and is for the most part always possessed by bad men, slaves of the world and of the lord of the world. Let us bring forth ourselves, the possession most precious to God, and most fitting; let us give back to the image what is made according to the image. Let us recognize our dignity, let us honour our archetype, let us know the power of the Mystery [2], and for what Christ died.

5. Let us become like Christ, since Christ became like us. Let us become gods for His sake, since He for ours became man. He assumed the worse that He might give us the better; He became poor that we through His poverty might be rich (2 Cor. 8:9); He took upon Him the form of a servant that we might receive back our liberty; He came down that we might be exalted; He was tempted that we might conquer; He was dishonoured that He might glorify us; He died that He might save us; He ascended that He might draw to Himself us, who were lying low in the calamity of sin. Let us give all, bring forth all, to Him Who gave Himself a ransom and a reconciliation for us. But one can give nothing like oneself, understanding the Mystery, and becoming for His sake all that He became for ours.

6. As you see, He offers you a Shepherd; for this is what your Good Shepherd [3], who lays down his life for his sheep, is hoping and praying for, and he asks from you his subjects; and he gives you himself double instead of single, and makes the staff of his old age a staff for your spirit. And he adds to the inanimate temple a living one [4]; to that exceedingly beautiful and heavenly shrine, this poor and small one, yet to him of great value, and built too with much sweat and many labours. Would that I could say it is worthy of his labours. And he places at your disposal all that belongs to him (O great generosity! —or it would be truer to say, O fatherly love!) his hoar hairs, his youth, the temple, the high priest, the testator, the heir, the discourses which you were longing for; and of these not such as are vain and poured out into the air, and which reach no further than the outward ear; but those which the Spirit writes and engraves on tables of stone, or of flesh, not merely superficially graven, nor easily to be rubbed off, but marked very deep, not with ink, but with grace.

7. These are the gifts given you by this august Abraham, this patriarch, this honourable and reverend head, this repository of all good, this standard of virtue, this perfection of the priesthood, who today is bringing to the Lord his willing sacrifice, his only son, him of the promise. Do you on your side offer to God and to us obedience to your Pastors, dwelling in a place of herbage, and being fed by water of refreshment (Ps. 23:2); knowing your Shepherd well, and being known by him (Jn. 10:14); and following when he calls you as a Shepherd frankly through the door; but not following a stranger climbing up into the fold like a robber and a traitor; nor listening to a strange voice when such would take you away by stealth and scatter you from the truth on mountains (Ez. 34:6), and in deserts, and pitfalls, and places which the Lord does not visit; and would lead you away from the sound faith in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the one power and Godhead, Whose voice my sheep always heard (and may they always hear it), but with deceitful and corrupt words would tear them from their true Shepherd. From which may we all be kept, shepherd and flock, as from a poisoned and deadly pasture; guiding and being guided far away from it, that we may all be one in Christ Jesus, now and unto the heavenly rest. To Whom be the glory and the might unto the ages. Amen.


1. St. Gregory here uses the word mystery to refer to a feast. Thus, according to the 1912 SP edition, he was ordained on Nativity, fled on Theophany, and returned for Pascha. However, this interpretation is anachronistic, since Nativity (as a separate feast from Theophany) was not a separate holiday at this point, having been introduced to the Eastern church nearly twenty years after this oration took place.

2. This feast, Pascha.

3. Meaning his father, St. Gregory of Nazianzus the Elder.

4. Referring to himself.