Fr. Patrick’s ’12 Pascha Sermon

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Christ is Risen!

Just in case you’ve forgotten the reason I offer a few words at this time is not that I think I have anything important to say, but mostly to give you a rest after standing all this time.  We should be a little tired after the usual Lenten season and Holy Week, though wouldn’t you agree that it’s been a beautiful Lenten season and an inspiring Holy Week?

This is a feast of Life and a feast of Light.  In all our gifts from God nothing that we do can earn these gifts.  It’s because of God’s love for us that He gives them to us.  He wants so much for us to receive them, and to become sons and children of God; sons by adoption those who follow the Son of God.

In the world of darkness sometimes it’s hard to imagine how anybody can really come to know the Lord.  As we struggle with our desires, or sins, our uncertainties and doubts, our fallen nature, it truly is a miracle for any man, any woman or any child to be given the Light and to receive the Light, and to recognize Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Savior of our souls, and all that He did for us.

I recall in college, when before I started coming back to the church more regularly, there was a Pascha at St. Elias Antiochian Church, a small little parish in LaCrosse, with about half the people who are here on a good day.  I hadn’t really done much that lent and when I spoke to the priest he simply encouraged me to come to church.  So I came.  And when I came that night, in spite of all my lack of preparation and relative disinterest up to that point something remarkable happened.  I cannot explain it, I guess ultimately it lead me here to this place where I now stand in these beautiful white vestments (by the way, handed down to me by His Grace, Bishop ANTHONY).

Anyway, something happened that day.  That for some reason as the people who couldn’t hold a candle to what you all sing here, so beautifully and wonderfully coordinated as always, they couldn’t hold a candle to this, somehow in the beauty of their sincere hearts and faith the Light of Christ was shown [to me].  And when they sang “Christ is Risen,” on that day, I started to believe.  I may have [believed] before that, I’m not sure, but sure after that I started to believe.  It was remarkable, the clarity after that, the clarity of everything I was hearing, which having grown up in the Greek church I didn’t really understand very much when I was a kid.  I had to follow a book and I never knew where they were so I was guessing all the time.  After I got older I figured it out.  But it all made sense.  And I knew that somehow in my youth, all those years going to church, my parents dragging me, Mom always reminding me even still today that I wasn’t always happy about going to church, they went and they took me.  We hardly ever missed [church,] maybe three times in eighteen years.  Somehow the Word of God came through all of that.  Because when you proclaim the Truth the soul hears it, when you proclaim the Truth the soul knows, whether it’s in English, Greek, Arabic, Russian, Romanian, Spanish, whatever.  Whether you understand it or not when Truth is being proclaimed it enters the heart and it rests there, it resides there until one day hopefully we respond to it with conviction, commitment and trust.

I was not in a particularly pious state of life at that time and I honestly don’t know why God gave that to me.  It was a little tiny thing but it was greater than the expanse of heaven.  For any of you who have experienced this, and I hope that you all have in one way or another, to even have a drop of this Light, a little beam of it just somehow penetrating the darkness of our lives, and we begin to see clearly of what life is for, what life is about, then things begin to make sense.  Our priorities change, the order of our lives become ordered by the will of God as we desire and pursue a life in His Kingdom not just in some distant future but today, for the Kingdom of God is near in the Resurrected Christ.  And for us to live near Christ, well, it is heaven.  Pray God help us to live near Christ and remember Him always.  We pray God give us a little grace, just a little., maybe on this night for all of us, maybe somehow through this Lenten journey and Holy Week, or maybe in the season of Pascha.  Who knows when it will come?  But as Christians here we stand ready to receive, ready to enjoy this great Feast, and to give glory to God Who loves and Who came to this earth in the flesh, Who taught us, Who healed us, Who suffered for us, Who died for us, Who was buried for us and Who rose from the dead so that He might be the first born of the dead, and that we might follow Him in the Resurrection unto Life Eternal!  May we see this clearly in the face of all that we are going through in this life; to trust in God and continue to seek Him with all our hearts, again, to live with Him now and always.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Christ is Risen!

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CHRIST IS RISEN! Pascha, 2012

Christ is Risen!  Indeed He is Risen!  Great Lent, 2012, has passed.  Holy Week is come and gone.  Pascha is here and the season of Life, Light and Joy has begun.  It was another wonderful time of preparation and celebration at St. Ignatius and we share here just a few memories of God’s blessings from this year’s Pascha.  This was the first year where inclement weather prevented us from processing outside after lighting our candles.  It is rare to have serious thunder storms so early in April.  We made do, however, and processed indoors and did the reading of the Resurrection Gospel and all the rest from in front of the closed Holy Doors.  The thunder outside could not compete with the thunderous singing of “Christ is Risen” inside!

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Fr. Patrick’s Meditation from April, 2012, Parish Newsletter

   “Remembering a sin that we have committed does not mean that the sin has not been forgiven.  This remembrance of our sins is only a warning to us lest we become proud and sin again.  In fact, we – not God – are the ones who cannot forgive ourselves.”

Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica

      Many years ago I had the opportunity to become familiar with Orthodox prayers from several different sources.  There was one prayer in particular that made a big impression on me; it included asking God to forgive a long, enumerated list of a wide variety of more and less common sins.  There is one sin from that list that keeps popping up in readings, conversations, and probably most commonly while hearing confessions.  That sin is called, “the remembrance of wrongs.”  I have sought explanation about this sin and believe I have been able to understand its meaning and nuances.  At this holy time of the year it is very appropriate to meditate on the topic of forgiveness.

Are there good remembrances and bad remembrances of sins?  It seems to be so.  Since the Elder has explained somewhat here the good remembrance let us look at the bad remembrance.  It is my experience that the bad remembrance has two components.  First, there can be certain attachments to a sin which continue to arouse one’s interest.  Yes, even one who is sincere in their repentance can still be attracted to the sins from which they are repenting.  Therefore remembering a past sin can be a major source of temptation and provocation, especially if it is remembered with nostalgia and in detail.  Second, there is the distinct possibility that one remembers their sins because they are afraid that God has not forgiven them.  This is something I’m certain every priest hears from time to time as a confessor: spiritual children re-confessing certain sins “just in case” God didn’t hear and forgive them the first time.  When this is the case I am always compassionate, but there are times when I have to be both compassionate and firm.   If the remembrance of our sins is based in doubt over God’s forgiveness then we are adding sin to sin.  One must be reminded in these situations that God’s forgiveness is, like His love, absolute and unconditional.  What are we preparing ourselves for during the holy Lenten season?  It is the entrance into the death and resurrection of our Lord.  While we should be doing this every day of our lives the annual journey of Lent and the celebration of Pascha is time set aside not as a simple commemoration of a distant, dusty past but as a complete and present affirmation of the work of the Cross and the mystery of the empty tomb.

When one uses words like “absolute” and “unconditional” when referring to God’s forgiveness it must be understood that this does not mean “cheap grace.”  First of all, since God’s grace can never be earned (what could a man do to earn/deserve this priceless gift?) it can never be “cheap.”  The point is this: when Jesus died on the Cross He did not did not die for only some sins, He died for ALL sins.  While the covering of this grace is beyond comprehension, we are yet asked to understand – and accept – this grace as the gift of love in which it is intended.  When in Confession or in our daily prayers we ask God to forgive our sins we are essentially asking for a gift that we have already received.  Why do we do this?  We find an answer in the Elder’s words “we – not God – are the ones who cannot forgive ourselves.”  The confession of sin is an act of contrition where we openly admit our mistakes, before God and our confessor, and offer our conscience at the altar of forgiveness.  Each of us must know that a man can deceive himself into thinking there is nothing “wrong” with him and therefore he doe not need confession, but the clear truth is that a man can never deceive his conscience.  The cleansing we receive through sincere confession readies the soul through the conscience to stand before God in judgment; it is the preparation of man’s inner heart and mind to receive the great gift that has already been given.  Our belief in this gift is vital to our growth in virtue which, when lacking, according to St. Peter’s second letter, is a direct result of forgetting that we’ve been “cleansed from [our] old sins” (1:3-9).  Or to put it in a more colloquial way, “The man who forgets his past is bound to repeat it.”

Beloved, if we must, let us remember our past sins, but only in ways that are helpful; beyond this let us more importantly remember the Cross and the empty tomb, now as we once again approach Holy Pascha, and always.  The love of God is seen in the Life that He has given us and desires us to receive.  May we receive it joyfully and each day realize with thankfulness that the Kingdom of God is near!

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March Meditation – St. Nikolai Velimirovic

… Meditate On These Things                    Philippians 4:8

 Commentary of the Sunday of Forgiveness and Fasting (abridged)

“For a soldier in battle, the first rule is not to surrender to the enemy.  A lonely, hungry, cold and naked soldier will be greatly tempted to give himself up to the enemy.  The cunning enemy will make use of his predicament in all possible ways.  The enemy may himself be hungry, cold, ragged and naked, but he will, to show an illusion of the abundance that he has, throw the soldier a little bread and some piece of clothing.

Satan is constantly seeking men, right from the day when he deceived the first man.  He seeks to draw Christ's soldiers to himself with every possible delusion, luring him with false promises and showing him his illusory wealth.  There is none hungrier than he, but he shows bread to the hungry, calling on them to surrender.  There is none more naked than he, but he attracts men to the colors of his false and illusory clothing.  There is none poorer than he, but he, like a magician at a fair, rubs two coins together and skillfully shows the onlookers the millions he seems to have.  “He is a liar; and the father of lies” (John 8:44), and all his power and all his possessions have only an illusory existence.  Pointing out to His followers all the devil's deceits and weapons, the Lord Jesus showed them, by both word and deed, how to resist and with what weapons to fight.

Christ Himself is the main weapon for us His followers; His presence with us and His power within us are our chief weapons.  But, apart from Christ's own presence and power that are our main weapons in the battle against the evil spirit, the Lord Jesus, with His aid, has offered other sorts of weapons.  These weapons are: constant repentance, constant almsgiving, constant prayer, constant joy in the Lord, fear of the Judgment, willing endurance of suffering for His sake with faith and hope, the forgiving of insults, looking on this world as it is as though it has no existence, partaking in His holy Mysteries, vigils and fasting.

When fasting is understood in a true, Christian sense it is not legalistic or pharisaic.  There is very little value in abstaining from food without abstinence from [sin] and the illusion of earthly riches.  The hypocrites are they who fast, not for the sake of God, nor for their own souls, but because of men, that men should see their fasting and praise them for it.  They have indeed received their reward.

The most important regulation that we are given about fasting is that we do so for the sake of God and for the salvation of our soul.  And this means: fast from all evil thoughts.  Do the same with your tongue.  Do the same with your heart.  Do the same with the will of your soul.  In other words: bridle and restrain your inner man, who is of priority and importance, from every evil, and incline him to everything that is good.

Keep your senses from everything that is superfluous and dangerous.  Restrain your eyes from constantly wandering; restrain your ears from listening to anything that does not serve the soul's salvation; restrain your nose; restrain your tongue and your stomach; restrain the whole of your body from becoming over-refined and demanding of you more than it needs for survival.  This is fasting that leads to salvation.  This is the fast that Christ recommends, a fast free of hypocrisy, a fast that drives out evil spirits and brings man a glorious victory and many fruits, both in this life and the next.  How could a Christian not rejoice when he arms himself with this fasting against his soul's most fearsome opponents?

So let us open our eyes while there is still time.  Let us be firmly convinced that the final victory will belong to Christ, our King and Commander.  Let us, then, hasten to take up the victorious weapon that He has offered us for the battle – the precious fast – the weapon that is, when rightly borne, fearsome and deadly to our enemy.

Let us refrain from excessive eating and drinking, so that our hearts do not fail us (Luke 21:26) and drown in corruption and darkness.  Let us refrain from choosing earthly treasures, so that Satan may not separate us from Christ and suggest surrender to us.  And when we fast, let us not fast for the praise of men but for our soul's salvation and the glory of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.”

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Fr. Patrick’s Meditation from February, 2012, Parish Newsletter

“… Meditate On These Things”  Philippians 4:8

A reflection on my recent trip to Lebanon…

There is no greater reality check than real experience.  This thought has been on my mind ever since I began planning my trip to Lebanon for the consecration of our Bishop ANTHONY and the other two new auxiliary bishops of our Archdiocese.  Initially and admittedly this thought was a source of fear; the fear of experiencing something different, challenging what my preconceived and self-convinced notions have been telling me for many years.  As God’s Providence has allowed, it was truly my blessing to see the Mother Church of Antioch first hand.  I’m sure we all agree that it is good for us to be stretched physically, spiritually, mentally and emotionally.  I guess this was my time and I am so grateful to everyone who supported my travel in one way or another.

I will not be so bold as to over-generalize and say that all Americans, and anyone affected by the spirit of western culture, are presumptuous and autonomous.  I do believe, however, that self-governance, whether collectively as a nation or as a matter of personal self-determination, leaves men dangerously subject to the temptations of individuality, isolation and self-praise.  The truth of the matter is that the very air of western culture is permeated with the “dogmas” of individuality and self-determination, and anyone raised in it or living under its influence cannot help but breathe it.

The majority of my thoughts have turned (not surprisingly) to matters of faith and the life of Orthodox Christians in the Church.  I am still sorting through my first experience, as brief as it was, of indigenous Orthodox Christianity.  The cornerstone of St. Ignatius Church, Madison, WI, reads “2004.”  The church where the consecrations took place was built in the 12th century.  Our St. Ignatius Church has yet to raise one generation of Orthodox Christians while Holy Dormition Church at the Balamand Monastery has raised dozens of generations within her walls.  This one thought alone speaks volumes to my soul and my conscience.  Hopefully it does to yours as well.

As I stood before the Patriarch of Antioch, preparing to present my friend for consecration to the Office of Bishop, I couldn’t help but think of how unprepared I was to be standing in this place, a place of deep holiness and history.  I wondered to myself how many pious and reverent priests had stood in this spot, and for the first time in my life I saw directly the order of my Church, from the headship of the Patriarch, to the Synod of Metropolitans, to the priests and deacons, to the chanters, and to the body of the laity standing in prayer, all part of a great tapestry, each important in their own way, ordered and yet equal, individual yet incomplete without the other, a father and his children yet brothers one and all.  I do not wish to romanticize this experience by imposing upon these people any expectations of perfection.  That would be unfair to those involved, and I in no way would want to allege that the Orthodox Christians of Lebanon of think they are somehow standard-bearers for the Church.  In fact I felt quite the opposite.  I felt the people of Lebanon only wanted to share with us their life in Christ, to let us know of their love for us, to feel a part of who we are, and to let us know that they are part of us.  I am certain that in my life I have never felt such a grand expression of hospitality, and I have never felt more certain of my feelings of insignificance stemming from my own life as a self-determined individualist.

I’m afraid this experience has raised more questions than answers as I ask myself, “Where do I/we go from here?”  When early on I expressed apprehension about traveling for the consecrations one of our parishioners told me, “Father, we want you to go.  Your growth from this experience will only help our parish.”  Certainly I hope this will be the case.  And it might be this one point – the American church’s lack of an ordered culture – that will command my attention for the rest of my priesthood.  Forgive me, but I did envy my brother priests in Lebanon who do not have to deal with the diversities of culture and expectation that exist here in America.  I believe there is a common understanding of structure, authority, expectation, and place that stems from the order of this beautiful culture.  While our air is permeated with  “dogmas” of individuality and self-determination, the air in Lebanon is permeated with the dogmas of a shared society and culture.  This did not diminish at all any one’s individual personality or character (in fact, I met many “characters” in Lebanon!); yet it does eliminate at least one layer of uncertainty which allows a priest greater ease in simply doing his job.

These thoughts are just a beginning.  There may be one consolation to being a self-determined individualist, however.  The isolation of an ill-defined or lost social life may very well lead one to seek a connection with the faith community of the Holy Church.

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