What Are We?Fr. Barnabas Powell
There was a stunning article in the January 2013 issue of Boston Magazine. It was entitled “Losing Our Religion” and the article begins by telling the story of a mother and her 9-year-old son watching a procession of the faithful from the Greek Orthodox church across the street from their home on our Great and Holy Friday. It’s worth reading the whole thing, but I wanted to show you this part of the conversation between this 9-year-old boy and his mother:
“What are they doing?” my son asked.
“It’s some kind of ritual,” I said, dimly realizing it must be their Good Friday.
“Why don’t we do that?”
“Because we’re not Greek Orthodox.”
“What are we?”
I thought of the candy and plastic trinkets I buy for him and his two sisters for Easter every year, of the baskets I place in their rooms as they sleep—and I realized that these things, along with my strained attempts at an indoor Easter-egg hunt in the afternoon (we don’t have a yard), are all that my children know about what is arguably the most sacred holiday in all of Christianity, the religion in which I was raised.
Outside our window, the priest read a long passage aloud, and the crowd sang something in response. After a few more prayers, the congregation made its way down the block and into the church.
Turning from the window, my son repeated his question: “So, what are we?”
I looked at him and felt my face flush.
Wow, “we’re nothing.” A growing number of our youth are growing up in homes just like this. The days of the Faith being practiced by our young people because “that’s the way we’ve always done it” are over. The time for reducing the Faith to mere nostalgic repetition has failed our young people. This failure is now obvious to any honest observer. And that’s a good thing and a dangerous thing!
Look at our Lesson today in Luke 4:38-44:
At that time, Jesus entered Simon’s house. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was ill with a high fever, and they besought him for her. And he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her; and immediately she rose and served them. Now when the sun was setting, all those who had any that were sick with various diseases brought them to him; and he laid his hands on every one of them and healed them. And demons also came out of many, crying, “You are the Son of God!” But he rebuked them, and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Christ. And when it was day he departed and went into a lonely place. And the people sought him and came to him, and would have kept him from leaving them; but he said to them, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.” And he was preaching in the synagogues of Galilee.
Look at how Jesus deals with the sick and spiritually broken of His day! He heals them. He doesn’t ask if they are Republicans or Democrats; Conservative or Liberal; Greeks or Jews; He heals all who come to Him. And even the demons, out of envy and wanting to cause trouble, know Who He is! But He doesn’t stay where He’s doing all this healing. He reveals a deeper truth that transforms the sad reduction of our faith to merely a nostalgic trip to the “old country.” He first goes to a “lonely” place to recharge His energy and to pray and then He GOES ON! He tells them when they want Him to stay “I MUST preach…” He reveals His purpose wasn’t just to bring comfort to a few, but to the whole world. He wasn’t sent just so that a few folks could hoard the faith for themselves alone. He was sent to keep going; keep ministering; until everyone had the chance to escape from being “nothing.”
The Normal Orthodox life always involves transformation. This truth is the difference between a vibrant Faith that passes on the power and wisdom of the Faith and an anemic shadow of Orthodoxy that merely relies on the habit for its existence. The difference between these two mindsets is striking. One survives for generations, and the other quickly descends into a “nationalistic” parody of the Faith that doesn’t change people and eventually becomes nothing but a cultural decoration for those who bother to attend the Church at all. One is a real and living practice of the Faith and the other is a betrayal. The stakes for our children and grandchildren are too great to mince words and try to comfort the cowardly.
In 1314 AD, a child was born to wealthy parents in the Russian city of Rostov, just north of Moscow. The boy was named Bartholomew and was raised in the town of Radonezh. When his parents died, this pious young man gave away his inheritance to the poor and went into the Russian wilderness to become a hermit monk. Even though he had never been trained for this lifestyle of monasticism, the now-named Sergius excelled in piety and virtue. He was able to live such an austere life without falling into the twin pits of either delusion or despondency. This spiritual strength eventually drew more monks to his side and they sought the advice of the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople on how to organize themselves as a healthy Orthodox monastic brotherhood. Patriarch Philotheus advised the monks to organize themselves after the cenobitic life and so Sergius, who was made abbot of the brothers (against his will). St. Sergius assigned each of the brothers specific duties and the brotherhood flourished. What was so different about St. Sergius and his brotherhood was that previous monasteries were established outside of large cities, but St. Sergius began a monastic movement in Russia of monasteries being established in the vast wilderness of the Russian lands. Because of this, the opposite occurred. Monasteries would be formed in the wilderness and towns would be established near them so the people could receive the wisdom of the monks. The Faith so changed these people that the wilderness of Russia was settled because of the growth and practice of the Orthodox Faith!
Today, he who has ears to hear, let him hear: Our faith was meant to be a light to everyone around us. Our faith is meant to transform our daily lives so that those who wander, those who are “nothing” can find their true selves in the gift of our faith. You were meant to be a part of that Divine rescue mission to your family, friends, coworkers, and neighbors so that never again will a 9-year-old boy hear these heartbreaking words from his mother: “We are nothing.” Don’t you want that child, your child, to have a real Normal Orthodox Life?
P.S. Wounded with love for Christ, O Saint, and having followed Him with unwaning desire, you did reject all carnal pleasure, and like the sun you did shine on your homeland. Wherefore, Christ has enriched you with the gift of wonderworking. Remember us who honor your most illustrious memory, that we may cry to you: Rejoice, O divinely-wise Sergius.