April 13, 2009
Beloved brothers and sisters in the Lord,
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. (Philippians 4:4)
It is when the world seems to be crashing in all around us that it is most important to recognize some of the fundamentals of our faith. It is one thing for us to appreciate some of the great things that belonging to one of our parishes has to offer, such as the sense of family, of tradition, and of belonging that we experience. The beauty of the Byzantine liturgy and the sense of God’s closeness that we experience in the sacraments are among the most precious gifts of our heritage.
Sometimes we take the things we always knew for granted. Like our heartbeat, which has been going on nonstop almost from the beginning of our days, those things that are most familiar and most intimate to us are the ones that most often escape our attention and reflection. Those of us who have been lifelong members of our Romanian Catholic parishes do not always have the sense that visitors and those who are newly joining our parishes from other traditions have of our faith and practice. It seems somehow strange to us that people who have entirely different ethnic and cultural backgrounds find value in our small and homely experience and want to be part of something that, in all honesty, we had become used to seeing rejected instead by the offspring of our communities’ founders.
What is going on? In the opinion of some of our members, our parishes exist only in order to remain precisely as they recall it from their childhood, and then die as the powerful process of cultural assimilation grinds all immigrants into the same homogenized American powder. What is the use of trying to hold on to our parishes when all around us there are larger, better organized, and vastly better financed Roman Catholic parishes that we could belong to? Is it somehow preordained that only the Latin rite should have a permanent home on these western shores (though even our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers are having a difficult go of it in an environment with fewer and fewer priests)?
Although I can scarcely speak from my own experience regarding what happens in Romania, it has occurred to me, too, that many whose families had been Greek-Catholic prior to past and present political attempts to eliminate the Greek-Catholic Church from national life in Romania may have likewise found it too hard to swim against the cultural tide. Perhaps they have simply chosen to remain where history and political repression have put them. It is just easier to be Orthodox where Orthodoxy is big and powerful, and Roman Catholic or Protestant (or Evangelical) where western Christianity commands the privileges of a majority.
(In both these situations, of course, I am referring to those who exercise religious “preferences” as a path of least resistance in their worlds, not to those who have chosen where they belong out of conviction and an experience of truth. Far be it from me to judge the mystery of another’s life. I am sure that some of our people who have found a spiritual home elsewhere have done so in response to a spiritual hunger they have not been able to satisfy in our parishes, for whatever reason. I have often said that there are two reasons that people leave our communities: either because they don’t love God or because they do.)
Yet, it is precisely into this situation that I believe the Holy Spirit has stepped in—not because we Greek-Catholics are better than anyone else or more deserving of divine grace than other Christians. Rather, it is precisely because we are small and poor and powerless and a little odd that we are more available for God’s purposes in the great march of human destiny. It is easier to divert a trickle than a flood, to water your tomato plants with a garden hose than with a swimming pool. God chooses the little ones of this world to accomplish his will; what we need to do is simply choose that will over our own grandiose pretentions.
This is where the fundamentals come in (note: one can focus on fundamentals without becoming a fundamentalist!): the very simple faith expressed in our Creed and sung in the Gospel reading of Easter, the Prologue of the Gospel of John. As elaborate as our liturgy is, as elaborate as our ceremonies may be, it all comes down to the simple celebration of our faith that God is Father, unconditional love and everlasting mercy; that in Jesus Christ God becomes one of us and shares our story, even unto his own death on a cross; that by enduring death, Jesus has conquered it, has freed humanity from enslavement to it, and has healed this congenital defect that has come down to each woman and man since Adam and Eve. Furthermore: it all comes down to an acknowledgment that, despite the foibles of every age, the Holy Spirit has come to dwell in the world, in an especially unique way in the Church, making of us the Mystical Body of Christ, the extension in time and space of the words and works of our Master through an unbroken communion with him who promised to be with us all days, even to the end of the world.
It is particularly easy to forget this simple story when everything comes crashing down on us, when we are too sick or too busy to keep on doing what we think we are supposed to be doing; when thoughts of our own eventual death or the actual death of one we love threatens to make a mockery of our hope; when all we have worked and sacrificed to build collapses in smoldering ruin because, yes, greedy people (perhaps ourselves among them?) have thought that a house built on plastic could be as sturdy as one built on the Rock. These are times when just being can seem a bitter prospect, and every tomorrow brings fresh disappointment.
But these are also the times that even the Divine Liturgy itself cries out to us, “Wisdom! Be attentive!” If we pay attention and stop to think about it, we can see all around us little signs of life. If you are fortunate, as I am, to belong to a parish that has seen new members you know what I am talking about. Something about us, something so intimate or familiar that we have taken it for granted and barely notice anymore, that something has drawn others into its light while we were busy worrying about our heating bills and parking lots.
That something is the risen Lord Jesus. Somehow, hen we gather to sing “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and bestowing life to those who are in the tombs,” there can be no doubt in the heart of any visitor that this is the truth, and in a cynical and weary world this Truth itself is risen from the grave. We sense his presence in the proclamation of his resurrection, and those who have been looking for him can find him among us: And the word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten Son from the Father (John 1:14).
It is not enough to say that Jesus is God-made-human. This is indeed true, but the point the Evangelist wishes to make is that Jesus, that is to say God, dwelt—indeed, dwells—alongside us. The Greek verb in this passage carries the notion of pitching one’s tent, becoming a fellow traveler and sojourner. Therefore when we are doing our job as a church, we enable other travelers to know and experience the One who is always with us on our way.
For it is Christ who is risen—not someone else, not Moses, nor Muhammad, nor Mother Theresa. Christ is not Napoleon, Caesar, or Alexander the Great. The one who has conquered death is the only one who could conquer it, and the rest of humanity awaits its call to rise from the tombs. Alexander the Great, Caesar, and Napoleon all conquered lands and enslaved kingdoms, and they did so by inflicting great misery and death. They, and others like them, were not conquerors, in truth, but the conquered, having become lackeys and instruments of the great Enemy of the human race, that is, death itself. The one who has overcome death and destroyed this Enemy, who has granted freedom to every child of God, used only the weapons of forgiveness (grace) and truth to accomplish his victory.
And from his fulness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (John 1:16-17). Christ’s resurrection means resurrection for everybody. The task for each of us is to live our immortality here and now, being witnesses to the truth of the grace that has been poured out upon the world. Following Christ in our present lives, and then for all eternity, is something available to us no matter what the circumstance. It is something every one of us can do, no matter how the world cracks and fizzles at our feet, no matter how threatened or frightened or vulnerable we may feel. It takes neither an army, nor money, nor an education, nor powerful connections to be a follower of Christ. It only takes a willing heart and a trusting spirit. And one another.
That is why I am glad to be where I am, part of a little flock that is truly God’s own. As I listen to you sing “Christ is Risen” on Easter Sunday, I know that I am safe at home with you, sheltered in the loving arms of our Savior and wrapped about with the protecting mantle of his Mother. Come what may, I know this simple truth shines from the heart of all our communities, because I have seen how people of all kinds have found light, life, and safety in our midst, as have we. It does not matter whether the Berlin Wall or Wall Street is crumbling to bits all around us. We are safe and we are free, for Christ is risen indeed.
May the Spirit of the risen Christ bring great joy to your hearts this Easter, and may you abide in that joy for all your days. With every good wish and blessing this bright season, I remain
Your brother in the Lord,
(Most Reverend) John Michael Botean
A sinner, and Bishop
Eparchy of St. George in Canton