Homily from the Fifth Sunday of Great Lent, from the Divine Liturgy on April 5, 2020. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen. Glory to Jesus Christ!
Today is another strange Sunday. During Lent, or really any Sunday, it’s kind of difficult to speak or give a homily to an empty church — or an almost empty church! I don’t want to minimize those two who are here! And of course many are here in spirit. I want you to try and remember, when the services are going on, as I read earlier this week in a beautiful quote from someone; if you’re not able to be in church, if you’re somehow prohibited from being in church but you really want to be there, your guardian angels come here in your stead, and represent you. So we can’t see them, but our church right now is full, completely full of angels! Because you want to be here, but you’re not able to be here.
This virus has changed a lot of things for us, but not permanently, God-willing, not permanently. We have to prioritize, and we have to think about what’s important in our lives. And this has given us all a lot of time to think! Unless we’re spending all of our time on “social media,” and not giving ourselves a break at all! It’s very important that we take a break from that. It can become very addictive. I’m just learning that for myself; I can somewhat feel that I’ve become a bit enslaved to Facebook. But we don’t have to let that be so. It’s a good tool! And we have to remember that’s all it is, a tool, just like a wrench, or a car, or anything else.
And so during these days when we’re enclosed, we don’t have to “tune in” all day long, all the time! We can spend time, and make time, praying, and just being quiet. It’s very important that we do that (i.e., make time to pray and be quiet), because we need to keep our sanity. Because in our days, all the information that we get bombarded with, it’s insane, and it can make us insane to pay attention to everything that’s out there. So it’s very important for us to pay attention ( to what we’re spending our time on, to the messages we’re taking in ).
Try to imagine, even the disciples who day in and day out were walking with Christ, hearing what He had to say, and seeing what He did and all of His actions; perhaps they began to take Him for granted; perhaps they didn’t really begin yet to understand who it was they were with. You have to wonder if we don’t do the same thing ourselves with our families and our friends, and our church. So that when we’re actually deprived of seeing them, of being with them, and of being in church, we really begin to appreciate all these things I’ve mentioned a lot more, hopefully.
So, the disciples were with Jesus every day. They never had a break from Him. Here Jesus is, speaking to them and telling them something very, very, important. I’ll back up here and share with you from one of our Gospel readings (Mark 10:32-45): “Now they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was going before them; and they were amazed. And as they followed they were afraid. Then He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them the things that would happen to Him.” So here we go. This is something very important that He wants to share with them. Not just as their “manager” or “supervisor,” but as someone who has really adopted them. He has become like an older brother for them, a protector, who really loves them. “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man” He’s speaking of Himself, “will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and deliver Him to the Gentiles; and they will mock Him, and scourge Him, and spit on Him, and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again.”
That is a powerful message. You have to wonder, if you heard this, if someone told you this and you knew it was about them, what would you think?
“Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Him, saying, ‘Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask.’ And He said to them, ‘What do you want Me to do for you?’ They said to Him, ‘Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory.’”
And so right away, right away they’re — at least some of them — thinking about themselves — certainly not all of the disciples, but a couple of them thinking, “perhaps this is an opportunity for us?” I don’t know. Who knows what they were thinking at that time. But you can see how the message of the Gospel and the message that we hear so often can become lost, because we hear it so often, because we don’t appreciate it and we stop paying attention. Perhaps we think, “Well I’ve heard this a lot but, I don’t think it’ll ever happen. It’s always the same, I’ve heard it before. And so it goes in one ear and out the other. Now, today, we’re at a point in our lives when we need to recall the things we’ve been told in the Gospels, and maybe we need to recall all those things we’ve been told in all those homilies and sermons about loving God, loving our neighbor, and especially those about faith! Because right now, our faith is really being tested.
We have faith, we’re people “of faith,” and we talk about that a lot. But now we really have to exercise our faith. And really, really believe in God. Really believe He’s out there, because things aren’t going so well for everybody in the world right now. And the temptation is there to think, “Is there even a God?” “I’ve lost my job,” or “I’ve been furloughed or temporarily let go,” “just had my hours reduced.” Things are bad right now, all over the world! “What’s happening? Is there a God?”
So that’s when we have to remember, when God created the world, He created it good. He put us in Paradise! He put us in Paradise! It was He who created us to walk with Him, day in and day out. Everyday! And it was us, our forebears, who chose to be disobedient. who chose to do something the Lord told them expressly not to do. They did it anyway; they gave in to the thoughts, the temptation of the evil one. They heard that little suggestion that we’ve often heard ourselves, so many times: “Oh, this isn’t so bad. This is not really so serious.” For example, “You don’t need to fast today. You’re tired, give yourself a break.” But it’s very important for us to remember, even these little things are important.
But certainly, that’s not what our faith is “in.” Our faith isn’t “in” the fasts and the rules and things. Our faith is in God. And that’s where our love should be directed. And so those who love, and dare I say, “Those who love greatly,” as we heard in the Gospel today, desire to be obedient to Christ out of love for Him. Not out of a need to follow all the rules and check all the right boxes. That’s what we need to look for in our lives. Love. This of course is a gift. This gift is something which we heard about today, which came as a result of great heart-felt repentance. But I should add, this repentance is also a gift and is born out of love!
Great repentance brought this woman who we read about before the Lord, when Jesus went to Simon’s the Pharisee’s house, to eat with him (Luke: 36-50). This woman who had the reputation, apparently, of being a great sinner; she came to Him there in repentance. Knowing Who He was, seeing that “this is real; this God that I’ve heard so much about! This is real and I can believe in Him!” And she came to Him and desired to change her life. And she desired to express her love and her repentance to Him. She couldn’t put it into words. All she had were tears. Tears and the ointment with which she anointed His feet. She repented. And Christ responded. Christ responded to her with love, as Simon sat there next to Christ, judging her. And judging Christ for allowing her even to touch Him. Priding himself, in offering some hospitality to this rabbi. And Christ put it so well, after he’s (the pharisee) done judging her, He says to Simon “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has washed My feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head. You gave Me no kiss, but this woman has not ceased to kiss My feet since the time I came in. You did not anoint My head with oil, but this woman has anointed My feet with fragrant oil. Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much. But to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little.”
Brothers and sisters, this is the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt, which is why we read that Gospel, with the sinful woman and Simon the Pharisee. And Christ, forgiving the woman who repented simply with her tears, and her act of love, with her whole heart. That’s all Christ wants from us. That’s all He really asks from us.
And again, when we are judged (at the Last Judgement) we will not be asked how we kept the rules, we will be asked how we loved. How did we treat our neighbor? Did we love God? And did we love our neighbor?
It is out of that lov, that we respond in church in obedience and follow the fasts. Because, we love our church. Like our beloved parents, when they asked us to do something, we do it out of love, hopefully. That’s the ideal, anyway. We do it out of love. That’s why we respond in obedience to Christ, and His Church. We respond out of love. And so from that time forward, I’m sure the woman from today’s Gospel, led a very different life. A life of love, for God and her neighbor, and a life of obedience to the Church, humble obedience.
And so now (in these days) we have to practice a different kind of obedience. Our Church and our hierarchs are actually asking us to stay away from church. How odd is that? Especially during Lent. We’re supposed to be spending more time in church! But we’re being asked to do the opposite. That seems so unreal! So you know if something like this is going on (something this serious) God is with us. God is with us. God has not abandoned us, but totally the opposite! He’s given us an opportunity, that we may show love for our neighbor, by staying home. That we, out of love for our hierarchs, will not come to church. Odd though that seems, because we care for our neighbor, we don’t want to expose our neighbor to something that could hurt them. It’s not the words that come from our mouth that could hurt our neighbor, but simply being near them. This is difficult for us, because we want to be near our loved ones and our friends. But we have to respond to Christ with tears and with obedience. And respond to Him with our whole heart, like the woman in today’s Gospel.
It is because of our sins, brothers and sisters, that this virus is here, because creation is fallen. All of these things that happen around the world, wars, diseases, viruses, things like this happen because of sin. And so this is the time for us, and the Lord is allowing this all to happen so we will see this, and we will repent. Like the woman in today’s Gospel, and like St. Mary of Egypt, whose life you all know; but if you don’t, please read the life of St. Mary of Egypt; to see how she repented, and how that repentance bore such fruit. It’s just amazing! This woman who was once a complete sinner, through repentance became a great saint! She became one of the holy desert mothers of the Church. We have many holy fathers and mothers of the desert in the Church.
So as we respond, by, in some cases, just sitting still, perhaps reading more, I would encourage you again to pray more! I have some words that were shared with us earlier in the week, by His Grace Bishop Alexis of Bethesda. This is the last paragraph of a letter that he sent to the Church this week, and it’s very good, and it’s encouraging and encourages all of us. Hopefully we can all respond to our current circumstances in this way, or at least somewhat similarly to his exhortation:
“This Pascha, let’s sanctify our homes and lives in wonderful ways. Let’s humbly do whatever is necessary to make one room in our home into a Church. If we don’t have an oil lamp burning before the icon of the Most Pure Virgin Theotokos, let’s try to acquire one. If we don’t have a hand censer, charcoal, and incense, let’s decide to order them. And then with a humble, but grateful heart, let’s worship the holy Lord Jesus Christ, the only sinless One. Let’s venerate the icons in our homes, let’s light our vigil light, let’s cense our icons, let’s make our prostrations, and let’s make the words of whatever prayers we offer our own. Let’s mean what we say. Let’s trust in the Lord. Saint Isaac the Syrian once wrote, ‘The prayer of a humble man is like a word spoken from the mouth into an ear.’ (In other words the prayer of a humble person goes directly into God’s ear.) Let’s speak to God now as His humbled children, for in this time of trial, He will surely ‘hearken not the voice of our cry’ (Psalm 5:2) and in turn make our peace as a river and our righteousness as the waves of the sea (Isaiah 48:18).
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen. Glory to Jesus Christ!