This Sermon, by His Grace Bishop DEMETRI, was preached at the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy at the Pilgrimage of  Ss Thekla & Raphael on Saturday, September 21, 2002.

 

A Journey of Veneration and Pilgrimage:

In the Footsteps of the Saints!

 

(In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit!)

I. Introduction

Someone has said that, “even the longest journey begins with the first step.” This is very true.  However, many journeys have become very long simply because the first step was not in the right direction.   Surely we can all agree that Moses and the children of Israel spent 40 years in the desert because most refused to step in the right direction of complete obedience to God.  Thus, we can conclude that the best journey – indeed, the best pilgrimage — always begins with a step in the right direction – in obedience to God and in expectation of His grace and love.

This is what most of those we call saints are known for:  stepping out in faith and obedience towards God. In fact, they move towards God in such a way, that they were soon living totally within God.   They entered into union with God, and were deified!  They were deified on more than just a spiritual level.   Rather, it included their entire being: soul, mind, body and even their clothing! These materials parts of the saints are known as relics.

Christians of the second century reverently gathered the remains of those who were martyred for Christ – such as Ignatius the God-bearer, Polycarp of Smyrna, and Irenaeus of Lyons.   They constructed churches over their tombs; they erected altars and tables of oblation, and celebrated the Eucharist over their earthly resting places.

By the word “relic” the ancient Christians always understood either an entire body preserved incorrupt or a portion thereof.   Even the bone fragments of the holy Saints were included, since the executioners quite often cut into pieces the Christians they had killed, throwing them to the wild beasts to be devoured.   What remained of the bodies of the martyrs, the Christians gathered with profound reverence and with hymns of prayer.   They would often have to bribe those on guard with gold in order to obtain the relics.   At such gatherings the annals and accounts of the heroes who endured torture and death for the name of Christ were read.

Orthodox Christians, emulating the ancient forms of worship of the early Christians, have prayerfully honored their own ascetics who strove in the arena of life to receive a crown, and have glorified them, for the Holy Scriptures say: “I will… honor them that honor Me” (I Kings 2:30).

II. Veneration of Saints

The Saints in their lifetime already were filled with the Holy Spirit,” says St. John of Damascus:

and when they died the grace of the Holy Spirit was still present with their souls, as well as with their bodies in the graves. . . not because of their nature but because of [God’s] grace and its activity.

We all know that the body of a believing Christian is the temple of the Holy Spirit.   Here, within our body, the life of Jesus is to be revealed and becomes real to us and the world.   Through the Communion of the Holy Mysteries of the Body and Blood of Christ, Christ Himself unites with the soul and body of believers in the closest possible manner.  His deified Body and Blood become our body and blood!  We must believe in our heart Christ’s words, when He said:  “He that eateth My Flesh, and drinketh My Blood, dwelleth in Me, and I in him” (Jn. 6:56).

In this same manner the bodies of the ascetics, Saints and friends of God, work great signs and wonders by the power of God.   In accordance with God’s will, the relics of the Saints are shown to be those means or instruments whereby the Lord has been well pleased to bestow the gifts of His grace upon the faithful.   This was a result of their faithful pilgrimage towards God.   We are called to walk in the footsteps of the Saints!

III. St. Thekla & St. Raphael

I have noted in years past, that our own pilgrimage begins the moment we decide upon going towards God.  At that moment, when we begin our spiritual movement and prayers to God, our journey begins to benefit our soul.   We begin to draw nearer to God, and to our goal of uniting with Him.  This is how we begin to walk in the footsteps of the Saints — whether it be our life-long pilgrimage — or a pilgrimage to such a place as this.  In this manner, everything that happens from that point until our return home will come to serve our spiritual enrichment.

Now let us turn our attention to the Holy Pilgrimage that we are now experiencing.  All of us had to journey to get here — that fact is certain – whether it be one block or hundreds of miles.  Let me ask this question:  What is the spiritual purpose in our being here?

We all know that this pilgrimage is dedicated to Holy Martyr St. Thekla, who is called “Equal to the Apostles.”  This pilgrimage is held each year at this time because of the Feast of St. Thekla.

As the time for this pilgrimage approached, we were expectant that we would be enriched spiritually, but we may not have known in what ways.  This is a particular kind of pilgrimage in that we are not visiting the place where Saint Thekla lived, nor where the miracles that God performed through her took place.  Although we are not journeying to Maaloula — the monastery built upon the site where she is entombed — we are here in the presence of the Holy Martyr St. Thekla on this Mountain.   For, contained here in her shrine, we find her icon and a fragment of her Holy Relics, which we know to be deified in the same manner as she is in spirit.

We see in St. Thekla’s life all the attributes which defines sainthood.  The title “saint” literally means a “holy person.” As we are taught, through God, we are all called to be saints.   However, from the earliest time in the Church’s history, certain outstanding men and women have been recognized after their repose as having attained deification — or in other words, union with God.

The test of this is centered upon a careful examination of the life of the individual.  Did their life demonstrate an extraordinary and singular faith and work for the glory of God?   Did their life manifest itself as an exemplary model of Christianity, often in miracles attesting to the power of God?   If so, the Church identifies such an individual as a Saint.  When these rare individuals are identified, they are designated worthy to be venerated because of their holiness, and prayed to as intercessors to God for our health and salvation.

In view of this, I would like to take a moment to highlight the life of this great saint of the Church:

St. Thekla was born in Iconium, which today is in central Turkey.   She was born of prominent pagan parents, and was betrothed at the age of 18.    At the same time, St. Paul had come to Iconium with Barnabas to preach the Gospel to the people there.   St. Thekla had the opportunity to listen to St. Paul for three days and nights, after which she became a Christian and vowed to live her new life as a virgin, in asceticism, so that she could dedicate her entire life to Christ.

Her mother was enraged that Thekla had turned away from her betrothed.   She was beaten, starved, and turned her over to the local judge to be burned.   When St. Thekla was to be burned, God preserved her from the flames.   After that miracle, St. Thekla followed St. Paul to Antioch.   Other miracles happened in  her life as well.

For instance, being persecuted for her Christianity she was condemned to be eaten by wild beasts.   However, animals would not touch her.  Her steadfast faith frustrated the authorities, so she was freed.  She then began to preach the Gospel and brought many to Christ. With the blessing of St. Paul, she then retreated to a solitary place near Seleucia where she lived for a long time in asceticism.

God granted her the gift of healing, which she used freely, which also brought many to the Christian faith.  The doctors in Seleucia were jealous of her healing power, so they sent some young men to assault her, hoping that if she lost her virginity, she would lose her miraculous healing power as well.  Thekla fled, but seeing that the young men were about to capture her, she prayed to God for help in front of a gigantic rock.  The rock opened and hid her.  This open rock became the cave in which she spent the remainder of her life and eventually became her tomb.

St. Thekla is called “The Protomartyr among Women.” Usually we think of a martyr as someone who has died for Christ.   Yet St. Thekla lived to a ripe old age and died a peaceful death.  So what does “martyr” mean in her case?   The word martyr is a Greek word, which means witness.   A Christian martyr, therefore, is someone who gives witness to Christ in his or her life.

Thus, when we make a pilgrimage in honor of a Saint – such as Thekla — there are many things that we can experience.   First, we take time to learn about her life, as I have just imparted to you.  In the story of her life we find a model for our own lives.

This is the importance in learning about the life of a saint.   For, as I have said, we are all called to be saints.  To help us work toward this lofty goal, we have individuals whom the Church has recognized as true saints for us to model our lives after.  As we see in St. Thekla’s life, there is much that we can emulate as we improve ourselves spiritually, seeking our own deification.  The example of her dedication to Our Lord, and the steadfastness of her faith in the face of persecution should be an inspiration to all of us, as we seek to become all that God wishes for us to become.

Second, we take this opportunity to venerate this great saint at her shrine and before her Holy Relics.   Remember, in veneration, we are not worshiping her.   In our veneration, we give respect to the presence of God and His Holiness in her life.   In her relics, we find that matter has indeed been deified, and through our veneration of them, we give glory and praise to God.

Finally, as we gather for prayer, we ask that the Holy Martyr St. Thekla will intercede with God for the salvation of our souls.  How wonderful it is that we have someone who is united with God to be our spokesperson, seeking for us Godly blessings and help.

During this pilgrimage, we are twice blessed in this manner.  As all of you know, in May of 2000, a new saint was glorified by the Orthodox Church in America.   It was a great blessing for me to take part in that holy and historic event.   This new saint is dear to the heart of all Antiochian Christians in this country.  He was an Orthodox pioneer in his missionary efforts at the beginning of the last century.   Thus, we are twice blessed, because the relics of the newly glorified St. Raphael of Brooklyn are also enshrined here on this Holy Mountain.

Some of us may not know about this holy bishop that is now worthy of veneration as a saint, so I will take this opportunity to tell you about him and his ministry:

Saint Raphael was born in Syria in 1860 to pious Orthodox parents.  He was a good student with a avid appetite for learning, and in 1885, he was ordained a deacon.  His burning desire to study led to his being granted permission to continue his theological study in Russia.  While in Russia, he was ordained a priest and elevated to the rank of Archimandrite in 1889, and placed as representative of the Antiochian representation in Moscow.   He was a bold defender of the Antiochian Patriarchate.  Eventually, he was invited to come to the United States in 1895 to be the pastor of the Arabic community in New York.  This was the beginning of the work that God had intended for St. Raphael.

As he zealously tended his flock in New York, he became aware of the many groups of Arabic Orthodox Christians scattered across this continent.  Out of love for his God and faith, he recognized that they would soon be lost to other faiths if they were not given the opportunity to worship as Orthodox Christians.    In the summer of 1896 he undertook the first of several pastoral journeys across this country.   He set out to visit these communities, providing them with an opportunity to worship, confess their sins, to have their children baptized and their daughters and sons married as Orthodox Christians.

To assist in their worship, St. Raphael was given permission to produce liturgical material that was distributed to these budding communities.   Ultimately he was given permission to bring priests from Syria, and to identify educated and worthy laymen who were candidates for ordination to be pastors of these newly established missions.

In order to meet the needs of this growing Church in America, Archimandrite Raphael was elected to be Bishop of Brooklyn, and continued to be the head of the Syro-Arab Orthodox Mission in North America.   On the Third Sunday of Great Lent in 1904, St. Raphael became the first Orthodox Bishop to be consecrated on American soil.

One of his first acts as bishop was to produce a new publication that would bring to his people information on doctrine, worship, and the life of the Church when he was not able to be with them.  He called it Al-Kalimat, a publication that all of us know as The Word Magazine.

From his youth, Saint RAPHAEL’s greatest joy was to serve the Church.   When he came to America, he found his people scattered abroad, and he called them to unity.  He never neglected his flock, but traveled throughout America, Canada, and Mexico in search of them so that he might care for them.   During twenty years of faithful ministry he nurtured them and helped them to grow.   At the time of his death, the Syro-Arab Mission had thirty parishes with 25,000 faithful.

In all of his accomplishments, St. Raphael remained humble, and considered himself an “unworthy servant.”   Yet he did perfectly the work that fell to him.   During this pilgrimage, we will take the opportunity to venerate this saint at the place where his relics are enshrined, and we will say intercessory prayers to him for our soul’s salvation.

You can now see what a great blessing it is for us to be here on this Holy Pilgrimage, on this Holy Mountain.  This is how we gather the spiritual fruit of our effort to make this journey.   This is why it is vital to our spiritual health that we as Christians make Holy Pilgrimages.

IV. Pilgrimage

The point of a pilgrimage is, as we have said, making a right step towards God.   Within the pilgrimage lays struggle – struggle with the journey, and struggle with ourselves and the Holy Spirit.   We must realize that God’s all-embracing power crowns a Christian’s struggles.  This struggle for God acquires fullness and completeness and attains its aim in our union with God.  All the Saints had to struggle.

The original idea behind a pilgrimage was to exert considerable effort in a journey to a place that was known to be more conducive to effective praying – often associated with the Saints or their righteous works.   Rightly understood pilgrimage is an important spiritual discipline that offers the opportunity for a witness, ministry and mission that strengthens of one’s own faith.  It brings together fellow believers throughout the world, thus providing an opportunity for ministry and mission.   It develops a sense of spiritual roots that strengthens the Christian’s faith.

Pilgrimages can have a dramatic effect on people’s lives. Christians going on pilgrimage come back refreshed, feeling close to God and ready to preach His Word to others.   Pilgrimage can resolve any doubts they have about God and Christianity, and they can tell others about the faith without worrying themselves about its integrity.

V. Conclusion

It is my prayer that each of you will return to your homes enriched and revitalized – having made a spiritual connection to Saints Thekla and Raphael.  During your stay, you will be given many opportunities to learn more about your faith at the various workshops.

We will have many opportunities to pray together, and you will have time to pray and meditate in private at the shrines and chapels that are here.   And, you will have the opportunity to spend time in fellowship with your brothers and sisters in Christ; bound by our single spiritual purpose.  For we are all seeking to follow the holy path which leads to God; Whose name is blessed, always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages.  AMEN.