Sermon delivered by His Eminence Metropolitan Demetrius on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost at Saint John of San Francisco Orthodox Monastery, Cobleskill, NY. November 8/21, 2021
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today, we celebrate the feast of the Holy Archangels and all the hosts of the angels. And one of the early church Fathers, Saint Dionysius the Areopagite, had a vision of the angels. This is the same Father who said, "The finite mind of man cannot comprehend the surpassingly infinite mind of God." It's like saying, one small grain of sand in the vast ocean, even that is not a comparison between the mind of man and the mind of God.
We are called to acquire the mind of Christ. Our Lord became man so that we might become gods by grace. But we must know our limitations. We must understand all those things which the Holy Fathers teach us concerning the fallen mind of man, that after the fall and because of the fall we have certain proclivities. We are very proud, and our thinking process goes through, what I call, the “pride-ometer”. Our thinking process has been affected, and so this is the reason why the Holy Fathers always teach us to pray for illumination and enlightenment: so that we can think clearly.
Even the great Fathers -- as you've heard me say many times -- like St. Gregory Palamas, continuously prayed, "O Lord, enlighten my darkness!" He never tried to prove that he was enlightened, but he prayed that God would enlighten his darkness. And so, it follows that this man became a light in the world because he turned towards God. And he understood that only by God could we actually think normally and be normal human beings.
As we've said many times before, man is not normal if he's disconnected with God. He needs that connection with God. So, our Savior became a man, as we said, in order to redeem us and in order to make us gods by grace, in order to bring us to proper thinking. He rebuked the Pharisees and the Jews who were not thinking properly, and He taught them that they were off.
They went off because they fell into many temptations and they trusted themselves too much. They didn't see the hand of God in their lives! St. Isaac the Syrian tells us, "You must see the providence of God in your life, in every step." Things happen for one of two reasons: either it's the will of God, or it's by the permission of God. And even by the permission of God, still, God has in sight His will. He permits us to have our epitemia, if you will. He permits us to be chastised. It's not a punishment per se, but a chastisement. He cleanses us because He loves us! And so He gave us free will (and it so happens that even the angels in heaven had free will).
And when He came, He worked many miracles. Today, we have a couple of miracles in our gospel lection that we read -- the appointed gospel reading for this Sunday -- and we read that our Savior was going to heal a little girl who was dying. And on the way, there were multitudes because He had already become famous.
Everybody here on earth has his own problem. Everybody's looking for a way out of the veil of tears and our Lord permits us to have grief in this life for one reason: because we are reminded that this life is the veil of tears. This is not paradise; it doesn't end here. And only in paradise will we find that there is no sorrow nor sighing, but joy everlasting! So every time we go through a different type of grief in this life, we are reminded that this life is the veil of tears, and we are reminded to look towards those things which await us. We must handle each and every situation as Christians, because if we fail, then, our salvation is in danger.
So the throngs were looking for help. Everybody had his own grief. Everybody was looking for a way out. And among this crowd, there was one lady who had an issue of blood. And she touched the hem of His garment and she was healed. And in this particular case, our Savior said, "Who touched me?" and the people denied. And then the apostles of our Savior, the disciples of our Savior said, "Behold the throng! There are so many people here, and you're asking, 'Who touched me?'!" Of course, our Savior always tries to teach us things and so He made a point. And there's a reason why He does everything! And so He said, "Someone touched me because I perceive that power came out of me." And the woman confessed that she touched the hem of His garment and then she was healed immediately; she could tell right away that she was healed.
We've seen and we've come across people who already feel that their body is healed or their soul is healed, in one way or another. This is what happens in the Church; it's no surprise. From the time of our Savior to our very own times, the Holy Spirit is very active in the Church.
So in this particular case, our Lord permitted that the miracle would be known by all. Oftentimes in the gospel passages, we read our Savior saying, "Tell no man," because our Savior gives us an example to follow - that we, ourselves, should always be humble and that we should never proclaim ourselves as miracle workers, but that all grace comes through God. And we see that even the saints work miracles only by God; the gift is given to them by God.
And, so, our Savior continued on the path of His work and He went to heal the daughter of the ruler of the Synagogue, Jairus. We find that even somebody who was a ruler of the Synagogue was in this desperate situation wherein his daughter was dying. And he didn't know what to do so he called the Master, our Savior Jesus Christ. The people said, "Trouble not the Master, your daughter is dead." And our Savior said, "Fear not, only believe."
Now, you've heard me say many times that whenever we're in church and we hear the gospel and we hear the services, God is speaking to us. And these words He said not only to that ruler, but He says it to us: "Fear not, only believe," because our Lord gives to us according to our faith. It is true, obviously, that God works in His Church, but we must also have the faith which is necessary for God to work because as we said, God gives us free will. So we have to cooperate with Him and work with Him. "Fear not, only believe."
And, so, our Savior continued and He went. And it says that they laughed Him to scorn when He said that she's sleeping. In death, we are only sleeping! Death is not natural to us. We were made in the image and likeness of God to remain in paradise forever. And death is a result of sin; and this is why at funerals we mourn and why we are sad at the separation that we find ourselves in when we lose someone in this life. But this sadness is only temporary if we all find our salvation.
So, this separation between soul and body is not normal, not natural, but a consequence of sin. And from the time of our departure from this world up until the second coming of our Savior, we are what we call "asleep". But we are not asleep in the sense that we are not conscious. We very much can tell whether we are in paradise or whether we are in hell, in torment. And, so, He finally reached the girl, and she rose from the dead at the word of our Savior. And in this particular case He says, "Tell no man." Our Savior is the all-knowing God. In one place, as we said, He proclaims the miracle, in another place He says, "tell no man."
People oftentimes are left confused by the events of life. They wonder why God permitted one thing or another thing to happen. But, if we live here as if we're going to be here forever, we will definitely be confused. This is because we have not yet comprehended, even though we talk about it, and even if we, ourselves, would say it over and over, we still would not comprehend that the finite mind of man cannot comprehend the surpassingly infinite mind of God. And God, in His wisdom, knows that these few years that we live here are nothing. He's eternal: no beginning, no end. We have a beginning, but we will have no end. And, so, He knows what's best for us. Any wise person will do the math and realize that these few years are just a few years. It just takes patience to realize this. And our Savior says, "in your patience possess ye your souls."
So, as we said, we celebrate the feast, the great feast of the holy angels. Saint Dionysius the Areopagite had a vision, and that's why he says, “The finite man cannot comprehend the surprisingly infinite mind of God” where he saw angels. And it was revealed to him that there are nine orders of angels. And in his vision and in his deep understanding, he conveys to us in human language, as much as he could articulate and explain to us that the highest order of angels passes on to the next order of angels, grace, which comes from the throne of God. And that order passes on to the next order, and that order passes on to the next order and it goes all the way to the last order of angels. And the last order of angels is “angels”: they have the simple name, “angels”.
The first order of the angels is Seraphim – first, Seraphim, second, Cherubim, and third, Thrones. And, so, these angels then, of course, receive grace, even though they receive it from each order which is above them. Obviously, it all comes from God. The last order of angels passes [grace] on to us, that is our own guardian angels.
And I've been trying to help people to understand, and I'm trying to figure out myself, too, how when we stand here in church -- especially in the divine liturgy -- if we could only see the invisible world. It's like -- if you'll forgive the example since we live in this world that we have -- it's like somebody's watching some type of a movie, and there are people who are walking around but they can't see the invisible beings. That's exactly what happens here. That's exactly what happens! This temple is full of angels. At this very moment, the Holy Altar is full of holy angels.
Outside of the doors of the church, there are many demons waiting. They are waiting to take away those things which we may have received here in church. And we said it's commensurate; we have to be able to cooperate with God. And in church now we have no understanding of the gifts that we can receive. If only we were wise! If only we could connect to the words which are chanted and the words which are said here in the sanctuary, and we were watchful, and if we understood the invisible world.
St. Ieronymos of Aegina said something very fearful to clergymen whenever they would visit him. He would say, "If you don't see your guardian angel serving with you, don't serve." That's what he would say! St. Isaac the Syrian said something also magnificent: "Greater is the person who sees with his spiritual eyes than the one who sees with his physical eyes." So, at least, if we could be a little more “with it” spiritually, if you will, if we could only be a little more open and receptive to grace, the angels which are near us could enter into our minds and our hearts, and penetrate into our thinking and help us to be illumined. That's exactly what happens with the demons.
In today's gospel passage, our Savior spoke not only about the angels, but about Satan. He says, "I beheld Satan fall from heaven." This is because if Satan had not fallen and if all those angels had not fallen, we would have celebrated their feast today. But none of that would have happened, and because of the result of the fall, and so on and so forth, to our very day, things have happened and we are in the state we are in because Satan fell and because he managed to poison Adam and Eve. And when he spoke in the ears of Eve, venom was planted into her heart. The exact same thing happens to us, my beloved Orthodox Christians: that's why we must be alert!
In the divine liturgy, in the secret prayers, oftentimes we actually make reference to the angels, and particularly, at the είσοδο, the entrance with the gospel. When the hierarch enters into the sanctuary to serve the divine liturgy, there is a prayer that he says, and he asks that our entrance be an entrance with holy angels. And truly, the angels descend and truly the angels, as we said, are present!
So, what do we do to be wise? We ask them to come and enlighten us and help us in all the difficulties and difficult circumstances that we find ourselves in in this life. But, particularly, we ask them to help us acquire the mind of Jesus Christ so that we may understand how these days are passing quickly. And the Fathers tell us that if we have passed all of our tests, so to speak, if we were to have handled all the temptations right in this life, at the end we will have such joy in our departure from this life!
But let's say, we failed many tests -- and, definitely, we all have failed many tests. Then what do we do? We certainly don't fall into despair. We fall on our knees, we fall on our knees and say, "God, forgive me!" "God help me, I cannot continue without you, O Lord.""I'm incapable, O Lord, of being a true Christian without your help. Send me Thine angels to help me, O Lord."And, shortly, we will chant the Χερουβικών -- the Cherubic Hymn, the hymn of the angels. Remember, there are nine orders of angels. That is specifically called the Cherubic Hymn -- the Χερουβικών, which is the second order of the angels. And we chant, “Let us” -- all of us -- “who mystically represent the cherubim and chant the Thrice Holy Hymn unto the life-creating Trinity now lay aside all earthly care.”
We chant the Thrice Holy Hymn. Oh, how powerful is that Thrice Holy Hymn! The angels chanted, "Holy, holy, holy! Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us!"
And we, also, chant in the liturgy the Thrice Holy Hymn. If we could only see the angels trembling here in the liturgy, especially during those moments at the heart of the liturgy, from the Cherubic Hymn up until the consecration of the Holy Gifts, which is the heart of the divine liturgy. The angels are here around the Holy Altar and they're trembling in awe at the greatness of this mystery. And where are we? This is why I say if only we could understand and perceive the great things that God has given to us! And we are indifferent.
“Let us lay aside all earthly care,” says the hymn. For what reason? So that we may receive the King of all, escorted invisibly by the angelic orders -- that means the angels -- so that we may receive the King of all, Jesus Christ, escorted invisibly by the angelic orders.
That's when we have the είσοδο, the entrance with the Holy Gifts, and we see that lanterns proceed and the censer precedes the gifts, the bread and wine which are to be consecrated. That procession is preceded by angels, as well, and they are in awe and trembling.
And the deacon tells us, "Let us complete our prayer," and we complete our prayer until we finally come to the real, real heart of the "Ευχαριστία." You remember that “Holy Eucharist” comes from the Greek word "Ευχαριστία."
And the deacon says, "Let us stand well, let us stand with fear," repeating the words of Archangel Michael. That's what Archangel Michael said when Satan fell from paradise; that's what we say at every liturgy. And the voice of the archangel tells us to stand well in the temptations of this life. Let us stand well, let us stand with fear, στώμεν καλώσ, στώμεν μετά φόβου!
"Let us attend." That means pay attention. “That we may offer the Holy Oblation in peace” means that we may offer these Holy Gifts in peace. And then the celebrant says the words of Saint Paul, "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all." That's a blessing.
And there is a response that is not necessarily a prayer. It shows the unity that we have in the liturgy and the responsε is: “and with thy spirit”, to you, too.
“Let us lift up our hearts”.How can we be so low and stuck in the mundane things in this divine liturgy? “Let us lift up our hearts,” and the response is, "We lift them to the Lord."
“Ευχαριστήσωμεν του κύριου.”Let us give thanks unto the Lord. When we hear the word, “Ευχαριστήσωμεν”, we hear the word Eucharist, Communion; it's the service of thanksgiving. Then, we give thanks to the Lord for all that He has done for us, and we have secret prayers in the sanctuary that you don't hear.
And at the end of that secret prayer, we make reference to the angels who are singing the triumphal hymn; “shouting, crying, and saying” -- that is referring to the angels. They are singing the triumphal hymn shouting, crying, and saying what? -- "Holy! Holy! Holy!"The thrice Holy: “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Sabaoth: heaven and earth are full of His glory!”What does that mean? It means that at that particular time, heaven and earth are united. The Church is united.
“Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!” We hear these words on Palm Sunday.
And finally, we hear the fearful words, the awesome words, "Take eat: this is My Body,” “Drink ye all of it,” “Drink of it, all of you: this is My Blood." The words which are said by the celebrant, but they are the actual words of Jesus Christ, and when you hear them, you must understand that you are hearing the words from Jesus Christ Himself.
Open the ears of your understanding. Open your heart to understand these things. Understand who you are, “Understand what dignity has been given to you, o man.” as St. Macarius says, that you are able to communicate with God in such a way.
"Wake up, wake up!" That's what the Fathers tell us. Snap out of it! Wake up out of your stupor -- that's what happens every time we come to church. We have to wake up, because all of us have certain proclivities. In the very first book of Genesis, we read that man is inclined to evil from his very youth. So, we said because of the fall, we have this pull towards sin, towards a wrong way of thinking. And only here can we be helped and be saved and receive the remedy for the sickness which each and every one of us has, all of us.
We turn, now, to the physician of our souls and bodies, Jesus Christ, who has blessed us to have His friends as good friends, the angels.And one of the amazing things that the Seraphim are known for -- the highest order of angels -- is their exceeding love. It's like they are just beings of love. Why? Because they are closer to God, Who is Love.
As Saint John, the Theologian says, "God is Love."And we will hear, "Let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess.” “The Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit…”
So, let us, my beloved Orthodox Christians, keep these things in mind, especially now, when we are in church, and the next time you find yourself in the divine liturgy. And listen to the call, the bell, which tries to wake us up. And “Let us stand well,” and “let us stand with fear;” let us not be indifferent. Let us stand together with Archangel Michael and Archangel Gabriel and Archangel Raphael. And by their holy intercessions, and by the help of all the angels, may we finally come to understand the one thing needful, the most important thing for our salvation: God Himself -- Jesus Christ.
And in all the difficulties of our life -- there will be many difficulties and it will be very trying -- let us turn towards the Holy Angels because our Lord has given them to us as helpers. By their holy intercessions, O Lord, have mercy on us and save us, and protect us from the wiles of the evil demons. Amen.