Dear Friends in Christ,
Christ is Risen! Χριστός ανέστη!
I write you this message during Bright Week, the glorious week immediately following Pascha, the feast of the Resurrection of Christ. The theme of Pascha (Easter) is exemplified by the following hymn:
It is the day of Resurrection; Let us be radiant in the festival! Let us embrace one another! Let us call brothers, even those who hate us: And forgive all things in the resurrection; and therefore let us proclaim: Christ is risen from the dead, by death hath He trampled down death and on those in the graves hath He bestowed Life!
Bright Week is also called Renewal Week, because all things are renewed through the Resurrection. For those of us who were baptized as adults, we can point to the time when we died with Christ, and were raised with him (c.f. Gal. 3:16), and life was not the same as it was before. For the majority of us, who were baptized as infants, we may not remember our baptism, but we can look back on a childhood being raised with an exposure to God and closeness to God that some are not fortunate to have. But for all of us, who have sinned even after baptism, Lent was a time when we remembered the struggle to overcome sin, and we prepared for the glorious day of Pascha. Whether we started at the beginning, or around the middle collected ourselves, or during the few days before Pascha gave ourselves a swift kick and began fasting, when we arrived at the blessed day, we arrived together. We celebrated the Passion of Our Lord, and then His burial service, with the Epitaphios (burial shroud) which we took around the Church on Friday night, housed in the beautiful kouvouklion (bier) constructed lovingly by one of our parishioners. And on Saturday night, we dimmed the lights of the Church, the artificial lights so indicative of our modern life of self-will, and as I, the priest, chanted “Come, receive the light…” we took candles in our hands, and illumined the whole Church. We heard the glorious Gospel, and sang the familiar hymn, “Christ is Risen from the dead…”!
But as I said in my short sermon that night, let us take this joy out in to the world with us! We cannot hide the light that we have received, nor can we conceal the radiance of Divine Grace which is imprinted on us, either through our fear of rejection, or through darkening it by our sins. We’ve been renewed, and let us therefore renew others, through our love, our support, our “being there” for them in their own times of need. Some of you were not able to make it to the services; for some it is so far, for others, there is a distrust of Church due to past hurts, bad experiences. We were praying for all of you who were absent for “honorable reasons” and I even prayed for those who were absent for not-so-honorable reasons! Our mission here is to pray for the whole world, but especially for the community in which we were planted, Greenville and Eastern Carolina.
This year brought yet another surprise for the faithful though; just as we were winding down from the excitement of Pascha, we were greeted with the angelic salutation to Mary; for Wednesday of Bright Week was also the feast of the Annunciation! The Annunciation, which commemorates the appearance of the Angel to Mary to announce the good news of the conception of Christ, normally occurs during Lent. But due to the early date of Pascha, we instead continue the joy began on Sunday with great joy on Wednesday! We sang in Church:
Today is the crown of our salvation, and the revelation of the mystery which is from before the ages! The Son of God becometh the Son of the Virgin, and Gabriel announceth the glad tidings of grace. Wherefore, with him let us cry out to the Theotokos: Rejoice, O thou who art full of grace! The Lord is with thee!”
Mary, the Theotokos (God-bearer) heard the greeting of the Angel, and she accepted God’s will: “be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38). A startled teenager was given the news that she would bear God Himself in her womb. God had picked a vulnerable girl to be His champion, His protector! But it was not random, as some of our non-Orthodox friends suggest. No, God, who knows everything before it occurs, chose the Virgin Mary because she was to be the human who most perfectly aligned herself with the will of God, out of all the women of Sthe Earth in all times. He chose the precious and all-blameless girl who was herself a gift from God (her parents, Joachim and Anna, were childless, according to the tradition of the Church, yet Anna conceived by the grace of God).
This lesson is instructive for all of us; God does not choose to work through the strong, but rather through the pure of heart. We may be small in number, we may be powerless to stop the evil in front of us, but if we respond in faith to God’s prompting, and if we maintain ourselves always pure, we can be like David, called to stand in front of the Goliath of sin. We have no power to stop evil, nor any power to accomplish great works, but Christ will work through us, if we allow Him to. Even when we see no immediate gain or immediate solution, the cosmic plan enacted before the ages is unfolding before us. God Himself tells us: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 45:10 LXX [46:10 Hebrew]). Stillness is both a calmness in our hearts in the face of trouble, but also a stillness of soul, in the face of our passions. If we fight our passions and are still, not following anger, gluttony, lust, and judgmentalism, then we will be still in the face of uncertainty, because we will have God dwelling within us. Stillness (hesychia in Greek) is a topic frequently encountered in the writings of the Holy Fathers, such as the Philokalia, and is another example of how we can only understand the depth of the Bible by recourse to the context in which it was written.
Having celebrated Pascha and the Annunciation both, a double-header of a week, let us be still, and accept God’s will. Let us resolve to return to Church, we who have been absent. And let us pray for each other, and support this mission work, which is gradually transforming this community.
Christ is Risen!