St. Silouan the Athonite Mission Parish

Sermons

“It Fills me with Awe”

By Very Rev. Roberto Ubertino
On St. John’s Feast Day (Nov. 11, 2005)

Our Great Father John on the day of his enthronement in the city of Alexandria as Patriarch of the Orthodox….with the support of the Emperor and Nicetas Prefect of Egypt his adoptive brother, convened the nobles and the wealthy of the city. It was the year 611AD.

Alexandria had been the city of Athanasious, Cyril, Clement the pillars of Orthodoxy they had been the defenders of the faith of the faith that had established the Universe.

Nonetheless, at St. John’s arrival the city counted only 7 Orthodox Churches, most of the people’s hearts had turned away from the Orthodox faith and St. John predecessor has been murdered by an angry mob. Alexandria was truly a cosmopolitan center, a center of knowledge but it was at the time St. John became patriarch, a place of enormous social problems and hopeless poverty.

In the presence of all the dignitaries of the city St John began his rule as orthodox patriarch with a declaration of faith. Like the Great Basil St. John knew that faith is energized by love and so he asked, “How many masters do I have in this city?

To their dismay he replied, “Those whom you call the poor and for whom you have no consideration this day I declare as my masters, for the poor and the only the poor are able to bestow upon us the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Concretely this meant that the needs of the poor needed to be assessed and a plan to meet those needs established before St. John would consent to enter the church as patriarch. “Only then” says Leontius his biographer” like a true shepherd and not a hireling he went with his sacred flock and the concourse of sacred bishops to the Holy Church and was enthroned by the will of God.”

Patriarch John or “humble John” as he liked to be called, his life is not about philanthropy. He was not a “do gooder”, other wise he would have little to say to us today.

To truly understand the life of “humble John” one has to remember that he was a bishop and had been chosen to uphold the Orthodox faith. He found himself among people who for the most part had rejected the Orthodox faith. How was he to succeed where Athanasius, Cyril, Clement had failed? His contemporises say that he succeeded by “proposing the Orthodox faith to the people through a compassion and love which had NO LIMITS. As chief shepherd of Alexandria he did not see his love for the poor as a form of social work but rather he understood his love in theological terms as the correct presentation of the Orthodox faith. As Nikolai Fedorov an orthodox Russian philosopher would say 1400 years later, “our social program is the dogma of the Holy Trinity”.

As patriarch, humble John would live in such a way as to become a living icon of the very compassion that moved God to become flesh and to suffer for us. So he is for us a teacher of two important realities.

The First is that love and compassion for those who are poor is a deep place of theology where we encounter with Christ as defined by the council of Calcedon.

Quote Mother Maria:

“a man encounters the terrible, inspiring…He encounters…the authentic image of God in man, the very incarnate icon of God in the World, a glimmer of the mystery of the Incarnation and Godmanhood. And man must unconditionally and unreservedly accept this terrible Revelation of God, must bow down before the image of God in his brother. And only when he feels it, sees it, and understands it, will yet another mystery be revealed to him, which demands of him his most strenuous struggle…He will see how this image of God is obscured, distorted by an evil power…In the name of the love for this image of God that pierces his heart, he will want to begin a struggle with the devil.”

“Here it is important to stress once more that quite often various exercises in external virtue – feeding vagabonds, sheltering beggars, and so on – are also accepted, as it were, by those who follow the path of self-salvation. But they are accepted as ascetic exercises useful for the soul. Of course, this is not the love that the Gospel teaches us, and it was not for this kind of love that Christ was crucified. His love, given to us in inheritance, is true sacrificial love, the giving of the soul not in order to receive it back with interest, so to speak, not as an act in its own name, but as an act in the name of a neighbour, and only in his name, our love for whom reveals to us the image of God in him. Here we cannot reason like this: Christ gave us the firm and true teaching that we meet Him in every poor and unhappy man. Let us take that into consideration and give this poor and unhappy man our love, because he only seems poor and unhappy to us, but in fact he is the King of Heaven, and with Him our gifts will not go for nothing, but will return to us a hundredfold. No, the poor and unhappy man is indeed poor and unhappy, and in him Christ is indeed present in a humiliated way, and we receive him in the name of the love of Christ, not because we will be rewarded, but because we are aflame with this sacrificial love of Christ and in it we are united with Him, with His suffering on the Cross, and we suffer not for the sake of our purification and salvation, but for the sake of this poor and unhappy man whose suffering is alleviated by ours. One cannot love sacrificially in one’s own name, but only in the name of Christ, in the name of the image of God that is revealed to us in man.”

The second reality that humble John’s life teaches us is that love of the poor is a path of mystical communion with God as St. Isaac the Syrian teaches, “that all the saints in striving for perfection long to be God in perfect love for their neighbour,” “to live in such a way one can attain the regions of lofty and divine contemplation.”

“The possibility of attaining lofty and divine contemplation (theoria) through the love of others - not merely as an idea but in the most concrete and practical ways of service and love.” (Praxis)

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep for that is the sign of purity. Be sick with the sick. Shed tears with the sinners. Rejoice with those who repent.” (Isaac the Syrian)

Love each person, all persons equally and you will expel all passions. (St. Thallassios)

St. Maximus the confessor. “Nothing is so apt for divinization and nearness to God than mercy offered with pleasure and joy from the soul for those who are poor…to act thus is to become God by grace and participation…for the poor man is God, Became involved with compassion rather than passion!!.”

“Sophrony” he who serves others saves his soul for eternal life”.

St. Symeon the New Theologian: “Visit the sick, console the distressed, do not ignore the hungry and thirsty and do not make your longing for prayer a pretext for turning away anyone who asks for your help for love is greater that prayer.”

The poor is the sacrament of Christ! no one more than St. John Chrysostom understood this as he spoke about the liturgy after the liturgy. Not as a mean to an end but an encounter that ultimately takes place in the depths of each of our very souls.

“Theophanes the Recluse “the way to perfection is through the realization that we are blind, naked and poor.”

To concluded St. John’s Mission named after “humble John” is not a social agency or a philanthropic religious institution. St. John’s Mission must be what the orthodox faith was for St. John the Merciful a way to live the Orthodox faith a place to do theology as Fr. Justin Popivich said “do it and you will know it”. It is a place to learn the path to intimate communion with God, expressed in the humblest and most mundane and concrete way that love can take.

I believe Mother Maria best sums up the way, the path for us, what today we have come to celebrate and ask the saints to help us follow and faithfully live till our end…

“The way to God lies through love of people. At the Last Judgment I shall not be asked whether I was successful in my ascetic exercises, nor how many bows and prostrations I made. Instead I shall be asked, Did I feel the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners. That is all I shall be asked. About every poor, hungry and imprisoned person the Saviour says “I”: “I was hungry, and thirsty, I was sick and in prison.” To think that he puts an equal sign between himself and anyone in need….I always knew it, but now it has somehow penetrated to my sinews. It fills me with awe.”

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