[remembrance] of her martyrs, ascetics, and in her faithful people, and for this, we must be thankful to God.
On the other hand, the Church has come short of fulfilling its mission: There has been a failure to truly and deeply Christianize the world. There is a tragic division in Christianity itself. Also, there is so much more that the Church could have done to clothe the naked, feed the hungry and to bring comfort to the sick.
Sadly, it seems that in some cases modern practice has rendered the Bible and the dogmas of the Church into formulae to be preserved rather than lived and experienced. Dogma and ethics have been separated. Piety and theology have become two different domains. In fact, the more pious one is, the less of a theologian he or she is. All this has led to a marginalization of theology from ordinary life, even from Church life.
Another sorrow, particularly for us Orthodox, is an infiltration of the Church by nationalism and ethnic self-interest, using the Church to further this purpose. Obviously, this is a direct and open violation of Orthodox ecclesiology. There can be little doubt that we cannot be proud and happy of this, although unfortunately we seem to have blessed it by allowing it to continue.
We have inherited this, and much more, from the past, from the two millennia of Church history, some of it offering us reasons to be thankful, while another part giving us grounds for repentance. An awareness of both of these will be extremely helpful as we approach the new millennium. I must add also that I feel that we must approach this new historical period with great optimism . . . optimism for the future of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
We might ask: "Is our Christian optimism warranted or are we whistling in the dark as we tend to do when we are unsure and frightened?” After all, are we not living in a world that has become secular and godless, a world that has lost the sense of God, the sense of the holy, the sense of the sacred and, consequently, the sense of sin? Are we not living in a world in which right and wrong are giving way to personal opinion and preference and true and false to political correctness? Are we not living in a world in which the culture of death is eroding respect for human life in its beginning, at its end and in between? How can we look to the future with a realistic hope for a new springtime of Christian life?
We can, because optimism is inherent to our Christian consciousness . . . and our understanding of the divine depth of the mystery of the Incarnation. Two thousand years ago “The Word was made flesh and lived amongst us” (Jn 1:14). In this singular act He “ . . . made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:9-10). This is the source of our understanding of the significance of the Incarnation, and this is the divine source of the optimism that we must have for the future.
When we began this Jubilee Year, we were reminded of these great mysteries. As pastors and leaders, we have a unique opportunity to make this a year of grace, of loving-kindness, of conversion, of reconciliation and of restoration. We must all be motivated and invigorated to make the most of this great opportunity in our Parishes, Missions and in our communities. [ ] With God’s help, we are the ones who will make this happen, and I encourage you to rise up and meet this challenge.
The first step is to bring about a renewal in the life or our parish communities. This means that we must first draw more and more from our liturgical life, particularly the Eucharist. With the Eucharist as the pinnacle of our life in the Church, our life in Christ is renewed. As Father Alexander Schmemann writes, the Eucharist is “ . . . the source of that renewal for which we hope. And I do believe, as the Church has always believed, that this upward journey begins with the ‘laying aside of all earthly cares’”.
With a revived emphasis on the Eucharist and attendance at the Divine Services, there will also be a greater effort toward preparation and reconciliation . . . of attention to the Word of God through the Holy Scripture . . . of prayer . . . and of participation in the Sacrament of Confession.
It has been observed that the frequency of individuals coming to confession has dropped in the last twenty years. The reason for this may be in the hurried pace of our society today which may not allow time to be given to this important act of self-examination and repentance. Part of the solution to this problem is found in education. Simply telling your flock that they should come to confession will not make them come. There must be more. They must feel the need to come . . . they must understand that in the sacrament of confession, they will obtain the “medicine” that they need for the many burdens that they have. If a person fully understands in their heart the forgiveness that is available to them when they genuinely confess their sins to God . . . that they have nothing to fear and everything to gain . . . they will come.
It is up to you to help each and every person in your parish to gain this understanding. This must be one of our greatest priorities and highest goals for this Jubilee Year . . . that there be a revival of our Orthodox Christian faithful so that they may be reconciled with God and with each other.
There is no separation between reconciliation with God and the reconciliation that must take place between one and another. A community cannot be reconciled with God if anger, jealously, self-interest, and hunger for power exists among the people. Each of these negative and destructive attitudes are erased when they are replace[d] with a heart-felt understanding of what it means to be a servant of God. We need only look to our Lord for the model to follow – the highest example of servanthood.
This applies to everyone, and particularly the ones who aspire to be leaders in the parish. Individuals are not leaders just because they have the most money, or are the most popular, or are successful in business. First, they are the right leaders because they have taken on the virtues of an Orthodox Christian, faithful to their responsibilities to God. Second, they know that they are servant[s], and that they must act as a servant does, according to the will of their Master . . . our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ.
These transformations will take place as we journey to “come home to the Lord”. A focus on the Eucharist and the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church . . . a return to the sacrament of Confession and penance . . . the reconciliation of our parish communities with God and each other . . . and a community working together as true servants for the Glory of God. This is the formula for renewal within our Church and a return to our Lord.
As our faithful are invigorated in this way, they will be compelled to share it with others. First, we “evangelize” within our communities so we in turn may evangelize the world, and no one will be deprived of the “good news” of salvation through Our Lord Jesus Christ. This means that we must be emphasizing in our communities the spirit of the great commission, that we have been given the task of going out into the entire world to bring people to Him and to His Holy Church. This must be accompanied with a more coherent and significant witness of faith in the different spheres of life: in family life, at work and school, and in the political and social arena.
Many times we see our parishes as four walls, built up high to keep the world on the outside so that it may not intrude upon us. Ask yourself this question: “Are visitors to our parish greeted [as] we would greet our Lord Himself?” Some may say “yes”, and I thank God for their good work. But too many may say “no” to that question.
We must tear down the imaginary walls that have been built up, and welcome the world to “come and see.” We must not only be welcoming to the ones who just happen to find us, but to actively see the world as the place where we represent ourselves as Orthodox Christians and share that with others. Teach your flock that their opportunities are endless – at work, at school, in the shops and on the street. It is there we find people who need to come to know God and to come home to the Lord.
Teach your flock how to be a witness to their faith when the opportunity arises. Teach them how to bring a friend or a relative to church with them, and how to introduce them to the their faith. Teach them that their Orthodoxy is not left at the doorstep of the church when they leave it on Sunday morning. . . that they are Orthodox Christians each and every day, hour and minute of the week, and that the way they live their lives will be a witness to their Faith, and that will be attractive to others, just as people were attracted to the Apostles and the faithful who followed them.
My beloved clergy, I have told you how we must lead the flocks that have been entrusted to us to the Lord, but how are we to lead ourselves? We will not be able to influence one person or lead anyone to their salvation if our own is at risk. Too often the work of the clergy is as frenetic as the world about us, working on church building projects, tending to festivals and dinners, and keeping the organization motivated and moving. In all of this activity, sometimes the essential foundation of pastor’s life is undermined.
Of this, St. John of Kronstadt wrote: “A priest, while living on earth, should be setting his affection on things above, not on things on earth (Col. 3:2) and completely devoted to God and the salvation of men! Where are we to obtain all this, from where are we to draw upon such abundant grace? God has given us every grace. We must constantly test ourselves to awaken ourselves from sleepiness, with which the enemy is constantly trying to rob us: we must stir up the gift of God (II Tim 1:6) granted during the laying on of hands – we must day and night be on guard of ourselves and of our flocks.”
This is an important warning to all clergy. We must make certain that we are aware of our own salvation, and not neglecting our own relationship with the Lord. Do not neglect your daily rule of prayer, take time to peacefully read and contemplate the Holy Scriptures, and seek out your Father Confessor when it is time for you to confess your own sins. How many times do we instruct those in our charge to do these things, and we ourselves are neglectful of them? Being faithful to these fundamentals will be reflected in all that you do and say, and will make your work effective. Father Alexander Elchinov wrote: “Every sermon, every lesson, has meaning and value only when it is the result of personal spiritual experience and knowledge. Every sermon pronounced only with our lips is dead and false, and those who listen always unmistakably feel it.”
In addition to these fundamentals, I challenge you to take to heart the accomplishments and the shortcomings, the joys and the sorrows of the Church in her first 2,000 years that I spoke of earlier. For her survival and preserved Traditions, we must give our thanks to God, and to continue to work hard to protect her. We do this by strengthening the parishes that are in our charge, by supporting the missions that are working to grow, and by helping to plant new missions wherever they are needed. We do this by teaching our flocks about the Faith, and by going out into our communities to introduce our Faith to others.
Of all of our sorrows, the disunity of the Orthodox Christian Church and our failure to fully Christianize the world is our greatest. We must take to heart that if we are to “come home to the Lord”, our work will not be complete until every human in the world has done so. This is the great commission that has been given to us, and the Church will never accomplish this as long as it is scattered and bitterly divided. Often, we see this enormous task as being someone else’s work, and do not see our place in it. On the contrary, this is our work . . . this is your work. The truth is, the work cannot be done without the concerted, God-directed efforts of all clergy, working to bring about an environment that will make unity possible. Many of our parishes have made great efforts toward pan-Orthodox cooperation in their communities. These serve as a model for the future of Orthodoxy in America, and they give encouragement and motivation to the hierarchy, as they work toward this lofty goal. These are seemingly small and tentative steps, but they will surely lead toward replacing this great sorrow with the joy of a unified Christian Church throughout the world.
The term Jubilee speaks of joy . . .it is the joy that we have for a very tangible event: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1-14). It is appropriate that we express our great joy at this coming by celebrating the 2,000th anniversary of this awesome event. By doing this, we demonstrate to the world that the Church rejoices in salvation. During this year, we must commit ourselves to work with vigor to bring about a renewal in our Church, so that we may become what God intends us to be, as demonstrated by His miraculous and glorious Incarnation.
It is my fervent prayer that we may all “Come Home to the Lord this Jubilee Year”.