This is a homily I gave on Sunday, February 3, at my parish. Unless you go to my parish, you will likely be disappointed. (Well, actually, I suppose even if you went to my parish, you might have been disappointed, but let’s pretend otherwise.) In any event, it was directed at more local concerns than my usual. The last twelve months have been a little difficult for us, which accounts for some of what you will read, assuming you continue on.
But Saturday, February 2, was a wonderful day, as we consecrated our new property, and look forward to the construction of our permanent home. Our Dean, Fr. Michael Rosco, flew down from New Jersey to preside, and an impressively large contingent from our closest diocesan neighbors at St. Joseph’s in Asheville drove the four hours to be with us. It was a very wonderful day.
Now we just have to build the Temple. Pray for us!
Yesterday we celebrated one of the twelve feasts of the Lord, a major feast of the Church. It was the Meeting of the Lord at the Temple, and as we stood at the property on East Cherokee Drive, consecrating the land to the service of God, I could not help but be struck by the rightness, by the appropriateness of the day.
You will remember the story of the Feast. In accordance with Jewish law, the Virgin Mary and Joseph went to the Temple in Jerusalem forty days after Jesus’ birth. There, they presented the child, as a first born son, to the service of God. This was a requirement of the law. In the Book of Exodus, we find God’s commandment that the people “sanctify to me all the first-born, whatever opens the womb”. As we see repeatedly, Christ in every way fulfilled the ancient law, being obedient to His Father in all things.
But the law was also directed at purification. As Metropolitan Hierotheos points out, it was considered that under the law both the mother and the child required purification. This is not to say that children are not a blessing, nor that childbirth is itself something which is unclean, yet under the law it was a matter which required ritual purification.
As we know, of course, neither Christ nor the Theotokos required purification or cleansing. The birth was virgin, and the Father of Christ was no man. Yet it was fitting and entirely expected that Christ, the Son of God, would fulfill the law in each and every respect.
But there were others in the Temple that day, and it is on them that my thoughts have turned over the last week, and particularly yesterday. The first is the Righteous Simeon. The tradition of the Church tells us a great deal about him. We are told that he was one of the 70 translators of the Old Testament into Greek, the Septuagint. Locked into separate rooms, so that each of their translations would be their independent work, uninfluenced by others, each of the 70 produced identical translations. Simeon, however, expressed skepticism at the translation of the passage in Isaiah which foretold that a virgin would give birth, saying that it was impossible and could never happen. He received a revelation from the Holy Spirit, was scolded for his disbelief, and was told that he would live to see the Son of God in the flesh. For many long years, Simeon lived in expectation of the day that he would be blessed to see the Messiah, truly born of a virgin. On the day on which the Infant Jesus was taken to the Temple, he was told by the Holy Spirit to go to the Temple, and that the time he had awaited for so long was at hand.
The Prophetess Anna was the other person that St. Luke talks about on that day. An elderly woman, long a widow, she had devoted her life after her husband died to prayer and to fasting. Her devotion to God was so great that she was divinely given insight into the truth concerning the child, and what his coming meant to all people.
Two people. A man and a woman. For years they had dreamed of and longed for this day, when they would finally saw God face to face. And while God in the flesh could have been revealed to them anyplace, that ultimate revelation happened in the Temple, in the house of God.
It is in the Temple that Simeon saw the fulfillment of his greatest desire, of the salvation that he has sought for so long.
It is in the Temple that the Righteous Anna, having devoted her life to prayer and supplication to God, is finally allowed to see God face to face, and is granted her ultimate understanding of the meaning of the Lord’s birth.
It is in the Temple that the old met the new, and the New was revealed. It is in the Temple that the Lord was presented as a pure sacrifice. It is to the Temple that the Virgin Mary, the very Theotokos, and St. Joseph humbly came, without complaint and with joy, to fulfill their duty in all piety and peacefulness.
The Temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed, but we now stand on the threshold of building and offering our own Temple to the service of the Lord. It is no coincidence that Orthodox churches have traditionally been referred to as Temples. The Lord himself said that “where two or three are gathered, there I am also”. While God reveals Himself in all places and at all times, it is in the Temple that we come together to worship, to join our voices with those throughout eternity, saints and believers, angels and archangels, before the very throne of God. We meet to serve a molieben, to supplicate God for aid and assistance. We meet and serve vespers, and ask that “our prayers may arise in Thy sight as incense”, offering our evening worship to God. And on Sundays and feast days, Soul Saturdays and Presanctified Liturgies, we meet and eat and drink of the most pure body of Christ.
All of this happens in the Church, in the Orthodox temple. Just as the Christ child was presented at the Temple so many years ago, he comes and he meets us. To be sure, He has always done so, in all the years that this mission has been in existence. He has met us in chapels of other faiths, in restaurants, in conference rooms and in basements. But never before have we been in a position to build a true temple, a sacred space in which God abides, and where every time we open the door, the Lord meets us. A space where icons grace the walls and we can gaze into the eyes of the great saints of the church. A space where our incense freely rises to mingle with our prayers. A space where angels guard our altar, where we tread sanctified and holy ground every time we open the doors.
We have never had this. But we are on the threshold, the very doorway, of this great blessing and stunning miracle of God.
We have never had a home. But now we can see it, taking shape before our very eyes. I assure you; the angels see it and sing. The saints see it and thank God for the fulfillment of their prayers. We should look at it, and fall to our knees in thanksgiving.
The importance of this act, of this struggle, cannot be overstated. It is an act of faith, not in ourselves, not in the building committee, not in Father or in this Deacon, but faith in God Himself. We build so that we may see our salvation. We build so that we may see God face to face. We build so that people we do not know, men and women who have not yet been born, will come to God, and will come and worship at the Divine Liturgy and at Vespers, long after each and every one of us is gone, our souls remembered only by our merciful God. Like us, the people in years to come will gather in times of great joy, in times of great sorrow and fear, but always in gratitude and with love.
If we stop to think about it, this is something that we can scarcely comprehend. Imagine! In a pasture, located in a place where Orthodoxy is largely unknown, a temple arises, bringing the faith to great numbers of people who have never heard of the Apostolic Church. You cannot tell me that St. Herman of Alaska, St. Innocent, Sts Cyril and Methodius, have not stood before the throne in supplication for us.
We have an opportunity to bring the witness of true Orthodoxy to those in desperate need of hearing of the genuine spirit of faithfulness, of sacrifice and of love. We have the opportunity to bring pure doctrine and true faith to a place that is awash in shallow spirituality. You cannot tell me that the great saints of love, St. John the Theologian, St. John Chrysostom, St. Seraphim of Sarov, have not interceded for us.
We have survived for over a decade, through difficulties and discouragement. You cannot tell me that our patroness, St. Elizabeth, has not beseeched the Lord for us.
And you can never, ever tell me that our beloved Theotokos has not constantly interceded for this mission, and for each and every one of us.
In the consecration of our land yesterday, we took an enormous step. This is an act of consummate faith, and of consummate obedience. The saints intercede for us. How can we despair? The Theotokos comes to our aid. How can we be faint hearted? God himself is with us. Who can stand against Him?
This Sunday – this weekend – let us be glad. If you have been distressed, take courage. If you have been doubtful, thrust your cares on God. This year, at the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord, we have met Him in a new and astonishing way. We see before us the vision of a new Temple, in the Orthodox church of St. Elizabeth. In this Temple, we and our children and our children’s children, along with great numbers of people we cannot know and cannot imagine, will meet the Lord.