Orthodox Church of the Mother of God

Joy of all the Sorrowful - Mays Landing, NJ (f. 1966)

Pastoral Letter of SCOBA Hierarchs

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How is it possible for sin and grace to dwell in the same heart, as if there were two different hearts? The illustration of a fire may help. If you have a fire below a vessel and you put some wood on it, the fire flares up and the water in the vessel heats up and boils. But if you fail to put more wood on the fire it begins to fade gradually and goes out. In our hearts is the heavenly fire of grace. If we pray and meditate on the love of Christ, we add wood to the fire and our hearts burn with longing for God. If, on the contrary, we are negligent and give our attention to worldly affairs, vice enters the heart, takes it over and torments us. Nevertheless, the heart remembers the peace which it tasted earlier and begins to repent, to direct itself afresh towards God. On the one hand, then, peace is brought nearer, on the other, we are seeking it fervently in prayer. It is like stirring the fire which is warming the heart. The vessel of the heart is very deep, so deep that the Bible says God searches the abyss of it. If a person deviates from the way of God's commandments, he puts himself under the power of sin. And because the heart is a deep abyss, sin goes right down into it in order to take over its territory. So it is necessary for grace also, slowly, to descend to those depths. [St. Macarius  - Homily 40, 7ff. (PG34, 765ff.)]

The Joy of Our Witness

"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." (Matthew 28:19-20)

57. The fundamental impulse of the Church is to share the Good News. The Lord Himself charged His Apostles to preach the Gospel everywhere. Both "apostle" and "mission" have the same root meaning: "to be sent." The Apostles were first and foremost missionaries. The Church is both the product of and agent for the proclamation of the Gospel. We who believe today are both the result of their mission and agents charged with sharing this Good News with others. The energy that drives this impulse is the same joy that the Apostles had: the experience of knowing Christ our Lord, risen from the dead.

58. Personal witness and personal experience form the basis of mission. St. Paul lays out the basic rationale and methodology of mission. He says, "But how are they to call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can they preach unless they are sent? As it is written, 'How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news!' So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ" (Romans 10:14-17).

59. When said like this, it becomes so simple and obvious. Without us, the Gospel would not be preached. God designed it this way. There needs to be person-to-person contact for the Good News to be transmitted. We trace our lineage through the millennia to the Apostles themselves. But each person in that line was told the story and believed, and believing shared his or her joy with someone else. We could cite many examples, but we will choose just one.

60. Following the Lord's Resurrection and the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles, Philip was led by an angel to go to Gaza. There he met an Ethiopian who happened to be a highranking official in the court of Candace the Queen of Ethiopia. He had been worshipping in Jerusalem. His heart was open. He was already searching for God. Philip found him reading from the book of Isaiah and asked him if he understood what he was reading. The Ethiopian said to Philip, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" Philip took the opportunity and told him of Jesus - His life, death and resurrection, and the salvation offered to all in His name. The Ethiopian believed and was baptized! The Holy Scriptures record that his response was one of going forth in joy (cf. Acts 8:26-40).

61. We speak of the Church as being Apostolic and Catholic. The first meaning of "Apostolic" is that the Church is in the line of the Apostles. However, Apostolic also means to proclaim the Gospel actively to everyone that we might encounter. It means that we, like Philip, are sent into the world. Moreover, when we refer to the Church as Catholic we mean that the proclamation of the Good News belongs to all people and to all times.

62. At the urging of Philip and as a result of his own joy, this man from Ethiopia felt compelled to proclaim Christ and to share the Good News with everyone around him. From this one encounter on the road to Gaza, a whole nation became Christian. From the power of God that manifests itself when the Gospel story is told, peoples' lives can be and are changed. We should never discount the chance meeting or the odd question. We can never predict when God will present us with an opportunity to witness to our joy in Him.

63. Therefore, do not be ashamed of the Gospel, because, "it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, 'He who through faith is righteous shall live'" (Romans 1:16-17). Our willingness to witness to the Gospel by our words and actions reveals the power of God to those around us. We speak the words that are lodged in our hearts, words that have become for us living water.

64. Mission should not to be reduced to words alone. Mission implies care for the whole human person. It means reaching out to everyone around us. The Gospel is for all people. Reaching out may also require that we think through our preconceptions of who our particular parish is meant to serve. These may not be just the people of our own ethnic, social or economic group. In some places it may mean selflessly serving an inner-city neighborhood in which we find ourselves. Regardless of where we are, our neighbors should be able to recognize the richness of our faith by the way we live and serve others.

65. Mission is first and foremost a person-to-person encounter. It requires that we engage the person in front of us in a real and genuine way, being as open to that person as we would like for him or her to be with us. In the name of Christ, we put ourselves on the line, becoming transparent to others so that Christ can work through us. Mission thus causes as much change in us as it does in the person to whom we announce the Good News.

66. Mission means action. St. James counsels us: "Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves" (James 1:22). When our Lord encountered people, He addressed actual, physical needs they had. He healed the sick, fed the hungry, comforted the despondent, and raised the dead. It was through His ministry to their physical needs that they knew His love and concern. Fundamentally, we are psychosomatic beings, that is, we are composed of both matter and spirit. We have both physical needs and spiritual longings. It is difficult, if not impossible, to hear the Good News of salvation if one's stomach is empty. If one is sick or even dying, how can one know the love of God, if someone does not come and minister to one's pain? Our preaching is hollow if it is not accompanied by concrete actions.

67. Our Lord said, "You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor does one light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before people, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven." (Matthew 5:14-16) Jesus put in plain words the relationship between the proclamation of the Gospel, our own good works, and the willingness of people to worship the true God as a consequence. How are people to know the power of God if we who claim to believe do not act any differently than those who make no such claim? Or, as St. John says, "If anyone says, 'I love God,' and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen" (1 John 4:20).

68. One of the distinctive characteristics of Orthodox Christian thinking is that it sees the Gospel message not as law, but as relationship. We speak of the mystery of the Holy Trinity - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - in terms of the relationship of love that exists among them. We speak of the "economy" or plan of salvation in terms of the desire of God to heal the relationship between us and Him that we damaged through sin. We see in the example of our Lord the way in which He reached out to those who were separated from God. He ate with publicans, welcomed harlots, and consoled thieves even while on the Cross. The missionary principle of the Orthodox Church is to meet people where they are, on their own terms, in order to show them how much more they can become through the love of God.

69. Practically speaking, how does one do this? We have many examples in the holy men and women who have preceded us. St. Isaac the Syrian describes the compassionate heart of the person of true faith: "What can one say of a soul, of a heart, filled with compassion? It is a heart which burns with love for every creature: for human beings, birds, and animals, for serpents and for demons. The thought of them and the sight of them make the tears of the saint flow. And this immense and intense compassion, which flows from the heart of the saints, makes them unable to bear the sight of the smallest, most insignificant wound in any creature. Thus they pray ceaselessly, with tears, even for animals, for enemies of the truth and for those who do them wrong."(15)

70. The primary witness we can offer to one another is the holiness of our life. This testifies to the truth of the Gospel's message in a way nothing else can. The heart of the spiritual person is open to the pain of others. Such persons have become transparent love, having left their own egoism behind. The spiritual person ascribes infinite value to the most unassuming of persons, because the Son of God Himself, in becoming incarnate, gave this infinite value to every person. At the same time, the example of humility offered by the holy person humbles the pride of others, in this way constantly reaffirming the God-based equality between people.(16)

71. The greatest gift we have to offer our nation is the rich spiritual tradition of Orthodox Christianity. This tradition is grounded in the real difficulties presented by life, but it also points to a way in which we might understand and transcend these difficulties. It is a profound commentary on human psychology and behavior, and also shows how we might overcome the demons that tempt our souls. It presents the world we see around us as real and good, while lifting us up to another, even more glorious reality.

72. One of the most effective missionary tools we have is the worship of our Church, especially the Divine Liturgy, the Eucharist. In Eastern Europe and the Middle East, during the 400 years of Ottoman Turkish rule, the liturgy was one of the primary methods of preserving and proclaiming the faith. People who were illiterate learned the Holy Scriptures and teachings of our faith by listening to the readings and hymns of the services. During the over 70 years of Communist persecution in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus, and the over 50 years in the other nations of Eastern Europe, our Christian faith was literally saved by the liturgy. When it was impossible, on pain of imprisonment and even death, to preach the Gospel, the Word of God was made known through the liturgy. Countless martyrs were educated in the school of faith, love and joy that is the Divine Liturgy. The suffering and death accepted for Christ by the hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Christians was a true "martyria," a true witness to the death and resurrection of Christ.

73. In this country we have a different challenge. Among the forms of "persecution" that we face is complacency and self-satisfaction. We must pay careful attention to the way in which we conduct worship, and especially the Divine Liturgy. The Eucharist is the summing up of the whole reality of the salvation of the world. The Church of Christ gathers to remember the saving acts of God so that She can become the agent for the transformation of the world. In the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom we ask that the Holy Spirit come down upon us and upon the Gifts. We must take care that the celebration does not become a mechanistic ritual, but remains a living action, an active prayer of the entire assembly that at once changes both us and all those around us.

74. We who participate in the Divine Liturgy know of its power to transform. Many have had the experience of inviting a friend or family member who may not be Orthodox to attend the Divine Liturgy. We know how people sense upon entering an Orthodox Church that this is a different and special space - the "heaven on earth" experienced in Constantinople in A.D. 988 by the ambassadors of Vladimir, the Prince of Kiev, in his search for a faith for his people. Yet, have we used this missionary gift to its fullest potential?

75. Often the liturgy is celebrated in a language that is not understood by all. And even when the language may not be an impediment, the indifferent manner in which the liturgy is sometime celebrated serves to distance rather than draw us near to God. We must not make Orthodoxy exotic. It should be approachable and accessible. The liturgy is the action of the people; people should be drawn into this action. The liturgy is the action of the Body of Christ; it should build the holy community that is the Church. In the Divine Liturgy, there are no spectators, only active participants. When celebrated carefully, with faith and with love, God's transforming power can be felt by all.

76. This transfiguring power of the Liturgy also requires us to act. Recently some have begun to speak of the "Liturgy after the Liturgy." This means that the spiritual work of the Divine Liturgy must continue even as we leave the Church. As we are changed, so must we work for that change within the society around us. As we are sanctified, so we are charged with bringing this sanctification into the world.

77. From the very foundation of Christianity the Church always concerned herself with the well-being of the most vulnerable. The Greek word "philanthropos" - from which we take the English words "philanthropist" and "philanthropic" - originally was a title attributed only to God, because He alone is the one who truly loves humanity. Gradually, those people who reflected God's loving compassion for us, for the weakest among us, also came to be known as "philanthropists." To be philanthropic is more than to give money to a charity; although it is that, too. It is to become loving and compassionate, especially to the least among us, in the same way God is loving and compassionate to us.

78. Through our words and through our actions, we must show the world the liturgy that brings heaven to earth, so that earth can be brought to heaven.


 

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