Aiming Your Prayer: An Rogation Homily

In the nine days following Our Lord’s Ascension, the Holy Apostles and the disciples spent their time in prayer. St Luke tells us that they self-quarantined for their spiritual well-being, not in fear but in preparation, not to keep away from others but to enter into a deeper, closer communion with God.

That’s what prayer is. Entering into a deeper, closer communion with God. Taking our relationship with our Father beyond the wanting and asking stage, beyond seeing God as the one who is supposed to sort out our life, make things better, and fulfill our requests.

Yet too often, my prayer, perhaps like yours, is a list of things that we want God to do, or a list of people we want God to bless. So when we pray, we lay out a series of asks or appeals or even sometimes some demands.

It’s okay to give God a list. But when we do, we’re having a one-way conversation. A monologue, where we say stuff and don’t expect to hear anything back. That is, if we actually say our prayers out loud. But how many times do I pray not aloud but simply in my head? How many times is my prayer to my Father a mental activity; me thinking my requests?

Jesus meets us at this very basic and simple level in today’s Gospel. And He wishes to nudge and lead us into better prayer. He begins where we’re at when He says, “Whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you. Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.”

Asking. With the expectation of getting. Perhaps that’s why our prayers lag. Why we find them a chore. Why praying isn’t enough. Because we see them as transactional, me approaching God and expecting some kind of payoff. As is God is nothing more than a sugar daddy.

When we see God that way, then we think praying is about getting results. Either I should feel differently, or I should see some change (in me, in my situation, in others). And when we don’t get that, we think that prayer is not being heard and not working.

The key to prayer, however, is not the word “Ask.” The Holy Apostles and the disciples did not spend 9 days pestering the Holy Trinity with repeated, mantra-like, petitions and requests. They did not think they could pray themselves out of their difficulties, or pray away the stress, or be prayer warriors for good against evil. The Holy Apostles and the disciples spent 9 days both listening to Our Lord, and then aligning their will and desire with His.

That’s a more mature type of prayer. One that I truly need to work on, and perhaps you as well.

That’s a notion of prayer that begins not with me and my fears and desires and goals for myself or others. Rather, that’s a notion of prayer that begins with taking in and taking to heart Our Lord’s desires, His fears about us, and His vision of what we can truly be in Him.

And that prayer begins with these words: “In my Name. Ask in my Name.”

What does it means to ask in Christ’s name? Two things. First, we’re setting aside, in fact casting off, what we want and think is best in favor of whatever Our Lord Jesus gives, offers, and bestows on us. And second, we’re focused on things that go beyond today’s inconveniences, frustrations, and hardships; and instead are zeroing in on the things that make for our unending peace and joy.

In prayer, that’s what we really should be after. Not temporary fixes or momentary relief. But uninterrupted peace, and the joy that cannot fade. In Jesus’ own words, we’re praying ‘in that day,’ for His day—His day which we get a glimpse of at Mass, and which the angels and saints by their prayers support us in attaining fully after the grave.

So not just getting through life. But getting into the abundant life. That’s the goal of our prayer. So our prayer is aimed at a life where our first thought each day is no longer “what shall I eat, what shall I wear, what shall I do.” Rather, our life is focused on living completely and without reservation for another; and living without limiting our Father to a giver of stuff.

Living life fully. We can do that now, even if we are restricted and limited. Heaven knows that holy men and women did that—in gulags, in concentration camps, in isolation units. And apart from the extremes, they lived life fully in monastic cells, in simple homes, in uncluttered lives—by living in relationship, in communion, in the joy of their heavenly Father.

Living life fully, even though we are now restricted; living unencumbered by the clutter in our heads and the many things we think we must have; living the life to come, now in the present—that is where our prayer should lead.

Our prayer, then, ought not be based on what we can get from God. Instead, our prayer should be entering into a conversation with a person. In fact, with the three Persons who speak with the same united voice.

That the Three-in-One speak implies that we hear. In fact, that our prayer begins with hearing. That we listen when we pray.

So much noise gets in the way. In our heart. In our head. In the stuff swirling around us. So much noise, which distracts, frightens, worries, and creates doubts.

To quiet the noise means that we begin simply: by saying aloud the words that Our Lord Jesus prayed. Words that speak to our anxieties and hopes. Words that chase away the noise, as we listen attentively.

The listening, then, is not listening for something inside our hearts or minds. The listening is picking up and reading aloud the words of the Psalms. And thinking through how they fit. And asking the Spirit to help us see what is hard to see.

Starting with the Psalms is starting with the Prayer Book Jesus wrote and used. Those prayers are less about asking or telling God what to do, and more about talking to our Father and His Son about what angers or frustrates, what scares or worries, and what excites and encourages us.

That’s the kind of conversation that builds and maintains a relationship. And that’s what the Holy Apostles and the disciples were doing, isolated from all others, for nine days. They were laying open their hearts by borrowing words that Jesus Himself had loaned them in His Psalms.

And then we progress in our prayers from asking—to saying, “We are sure that You know all things, and have no need that anyone should ask You” anything. On account of this, we will be with You, O Lord, regardless of how our life now is; we will take up Your words and make them our own, so that Your way and will truly becomes our will and way of life.

To this Lord Jesus, who prays the Father for us, together with His all-holy Father and live-giving Spirit, belongs all glory, honor, and worship: now and ever and unto the ages of ages.

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Taking Care

The Sacraments are essential to your life. This means that they maintain not just your spiritual well-being but your entire welfare. For our life is lived toward one goal: to attain, through the grave, the kingdom of heaven. The Holy Sacraments are the means to this end since they both strengthen your life in God here and now, and prepare you to attain their fullness in the life to come.

For this reason, these Sacred Mysteries are the essential ministry of St Michael’s Church. They are the primary reason why the parish was formed, why the Metropolitan assigns you a priest, and why we desire to gather. Without the Sacraments, our care and love for each is vapid and insipid since it lacks Christ Himself and His Spirit’s energy.

While other things also take place at St Michael’s, the most vital and very necessary activity for your soul, as well as your body, is providing the Eucharist and Private Confession.

Lately we’ve been restricted, for good reason. But little by little, with safety and precaution, I’m now able to offer these vital life-sustaining aids to you. And I’m so honored and grateful that many of you have made your confession and come for Holy Communion this past week. The conditions are not what we are used to, but what we now offer is an important step in the right direction.

Some may be cautious or nervous, and for good reason. Only you will know the right balance for you between prudence and fear. But I promise and firmly intend, with the help of many others, to make sure that this work of God so necessary for your life is carried out with the diligence, care, and safety of at least the other places you frequent to receive food and other earth-bound essential services.

May God continue to be merciful to us as we wait patiently for Him. For He blesses those who set their hope in Him.

Make an appointment for Private Confession
Make an appointment for Holy Communion

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Patience & Trust: Easter IV Homily

Pandemics, like death, can, if we let them, focus the mind. And the spirit. On what, or who, we take for granted. On where our priorities truly lie. On whether we are more anxious about sickness and death than we are about our spiritual well-being. On whether our life in God is so marginal that it simply withers when our routine is broken.

Pandemics, like death, can focus the mind. If we let them.

We lose that focus when we’re caught up in complaining. Or anxiety. Or judging. Or caring more about how the decisions and behaviors impact us.

Our focus should be on others. How they are. What they need. How we can help. Offering tranquility and peace of mind. And sharing, or even carrying, their heartaches, frustrations, and burdens.

Our focus should be outside of ourselves.

And so, ultimately, our focus should be on our Lord God: His commands to love anyone more than ourselves; and His promise that, no matter what, even in the worst, He is working for our good and will sees us through and is using whatever is now to draw us closer to Him.

Our Lord indeed draws us closer. Let’s not pull back. Let’s not lose focus or be distracted from His love. Let’s look beyond ourselves and our demands and our fears.

Our Lord’s promises and even His commands, which are always for our benefit: that is what we should love and desire, more than life itself. For His commands, even when they rub us wrong, and His promises, even when they seem far away—these are the two virtues on the path to more abundant life. The two virtues that pull us out of the rut of increasing apprehension and selfishness.

You know, you recall, that’s what you prayed for at the beginning of this Mass: that, together we might love what the Lord commands, and desire what He promises. And why? So that amid the changes of the world, our hearts may there be fixed where true joys are to be found.

If this pandemic has convinced you of anything, perhaps it has convinced you that this is not the best of all possible worlds. That true joys are not to be found where you located them last year, two months ago, or even yesterday. And that the rising tension—deeply within you and certainly among us—that mounting friction cannot lead anywhere good.

And the way out is not to fight better. Or to wish harder. The way out is by shifting away from the noise, and into the stillness that Our Lord gives. In the stillness found not in apathy or in giving up, but in knowing and trusting, with great patience, that our Lord always gets His way, always comes through, and works out everything for the best to those who love Him and keep His commandments.

Yet the Lord’s comfort and consolation does not always come quickly. He does not act according to our calendar. He lets things simmer, as He is now, not because He is unwilling or unready, but because He wishes to strengthen our trust and confidence in Him; because He desires to produce godly patience; because patience, which is also known as perseverance, is the pavement on the path to abundant life.

These recent days certainly require greater patience—patience with our own expectations, with others, with those in authority, and with our Lord God. These recent days also require greater trust—which means relying on others, but most of all relying on God. That’s hard to do because relying on others is not our ‘go-to’ nature. We want to be self-reliant because it puts us in control of our own fate. But trust, with patience, asks us to pin our hopes to someone else, depending on them to do what is best for me.

That’s hard enough with someone we love, with whom we spend each day. That trust seems harder and harder when it comes to our heavenly Father. Because we see Him as so distant, when He is really so near. Because we often see Him not as our Father, but as a rule-maker who limits us and whose rules must be avoided.

But trusting that Our Lord’s ways are truly for our good; and that they are not only the best way, but the only way out of our morass—that’s what we pin ourselves to when we are baptized, when we confess and hear the absolution, when we receive the Eucharist, when we pray. Whenever the Holy Spirit draws us closer to God, then we are being asked to truly trust, and to be truly patient as Our Lord, in His strange ways, arranges everything for your own salvation.

Patience and trust is the way of all those who hope in the Lord. Patience and trust is what draws us closer to Our Lord and urges us to love Him all the more. Patience and trust is what our life in God is all about. For when we have patience and trust, then we have true freedom—freedom from fear, freedom from anxiety, freedom from grief and heartache. And when we have patience and trust, then we have put aside our selfish desires, and our passions are aligned to Our Lord and His will.

Our Lord gives us His Holy Spirit in order to work in us patience and trust. This Spirit molds us to be of one mind and will—to have the mind of Christ, and to realize that what the Lord wills is actually what we truly want and must have.

This Spirit-given patience and trust sees us safely through suffering, all anxiety, and even through martyrdom. And this patience and trust keeps our hearts and minds fixed on the heavenly goal so that we are not distracted by the cares of this life.

And as He did throughout all ages, the Holy Spirit helps us see that, what we think we need and what we say is best, is small; and that what is truly for our advantage is so much greater.

To get there, the Holy Spirit aids us first by refreshing our hearts; and then by inspiring in us a sturdy hope together with true patience; and finally, by increasing our faith in God’s mercy, especially when we begin to see what our self-serving, anxious and earthy ways have gotten us.

If there is any lesson at all to be learned, patience and trust is the lesson that Our Lord is teaching us these days. Just as taught the same to the holy apostles, to the holy martyrs, and to all who have ever seen that living in this life requires greater help than we can ever contrive.

Let us not lose focus. Let us earnestly desire to acquire, through His church-given gifts, the perseverance and faith poured into us by Christ’s Spirit. And we do that when we truly are not hearers only, but doers of the word by being diligent in our prayers, faithful in our communion, and regular in our confession. And above all, let us fear the loss of nothing in this life, but instead fix our hearts and minds living in the life of Our Lord Jesus Christ; to whom, with the Father in the unity of the same Holy Spirit, belongs all glory, honor and worship throughout all ages of ages.

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Only a Little While: Easter III Homily

For a little while we are enduring sadness and suffering. This “little while” is not chiefly about the current pandemic. The sadness and suffering Our Lord references is persecution for the Faith, mistreatment and discrimination for being Christian, and increased inner turmoil caused by the devil, an unsympathetic society, and our own passions. So our sorrow comes both from forces outside our control, as well as from within ourselves: the ways we confront, deal with, and internalize the things that frighten and create anxiety.

Do we let what we hear, what we feel, what we experience control how we respond to others? And what we think and believe about God? And our ability to manage our bodies and words? Or do we live without fear, in holiness and righteousness, all the days of our life? Knowing that whatever hurts our bodies can be readily and quickly overcome by the same Lord who offers us the healing of our souls, the medicine of immortality, and the hope of a glorified, transformed body?

Our Lord speaks about spiritual suffering. He refers to a sadness akin to when He Himself wept over the destruction of His city, His people, His loved ones. Yet those words are not only about that time, or another place, or other people. It is significant that we, in this time and place, also hear Our Lord’s comfort within his simple phrase: “a little while.”

Without a doubt, the effects of the pestilence we are experiencing also are hidden within the Lord’s “little while.” For a little while we will need to exercise patience, prudence, good will, balance, caution, and extra kindness. And we’ll need to keep in check our desires to blame, to judge, and most of all to fear. But the comfort is this: it’s only a ‘little while,’ even though it feels intolerably long and insufferable.

When St Peter endured this ‘little while,’ as this holy Apostle was hounded by the government and eventually executed for Christ’s sake, he nevertheless urged us to exercise our Christian faith by maintaining respect and obedience for those in authority, no matter who they were or how they treat us. “Submit to every human institution,” he teaches. Not just those institutions established by God, such as bishops or marriage. Certainly, we should seek to uplift, and not denigrate, these. But for St Peter the words, ‘every human institution’ specifically refer to an emperor and a society that does not tolerate the Christian faith. However counter-intuitive it sounds, however much we might chafe against those we are sure are in the wrong, we are still to ‘honor all men’ in the same way that we ‘love the brotherhood’ and ‘fear God.’

For this reason, the mindset of St Peter, which is the mind of Christ, is that we sacrifice all, suffer all, endure all, for the sake of everyone else. If we consider this carefully, then we will see a balance. On the one hand, getting upset at being inconvenienced is selfish. For being inconvenienced for the sake of protecting our brothers and sisters is a part of living God’s love and charity. On the other hand, our concern for another should not morph into a godless arrogance. Our action or inaction does not control whether a person lives or dies. And so while we cannot be cavalier and live as if the other person’s health or fears don’t matter, we must not also let our ours fear of infecting others become a form of pride that pushes aside the mercy and justice of God. For the sake of another and with the mind of Christ, then, we need to determine to set aside all pride, all fear, all selfishness, and all that inconveniences so that another may draw near with a true heart to the God of love.

The love of God, and having God’s heart for others: that is how we live in this ‘little while.’ This is the mindset Our Lord wishes to impart, the approach He gives with the words “a little while.” While everything swirls around us, while unease and dread builds within us, while it feels like things will get worse even as they seem to be getting better—let’s remember that this is not unprecedented; and that we have a Lord and God who has already been through the worst for us, and is able to lead safely us through even worse days than these.

Worse days than these are the days of the martyrs. We are not yet martyrs; neither should we volunteer to be martyrs. Yet we should also recall that we are not greater than our Master. Our blessed Jesus endured the worst with patience and with love for all, even those who tortured and abused Him. Yet He did not recoil. Because He prayed for His Father’s support and was not disappointed in His hope.

Since we are in Christ, it should not surprise us when we face times of heartache and disquietude. We should not be shaken when evil and tyranny and death and unsettling times arise. And we should not be rocked off the foundation Our Lord is, the foundation He has built within us by the Holy Mysteries.

The insufferable: that’s what we’re built for by the waters of Holy Baptism. The unbearable: that’s what Private Confession gets us through. The unendurable: that’s what the Holy Eucharist has been strengthening us for in previous months and years.

And so that we do not lose heart but take heart; so that we don’t give up or give in; so that we see the full and abundant Light and Life that awaits: that’s why Our Lord gives us in His Psalms both words that fit our complaints, and His words that comfort and reassure.

The insufferable: that is what Our Lord’s promises in Word, in prayer, and in Sacraments are designed to get us through. And why He is not slack in giving us what we need spiritually; and why, no matter how alone we feel, He and His saints are always with us, and will never leave us nor forsake us.

Near the surface of Our Lord’s ‘little while’ is the expectation which corresponds to that of an expectant mother who’s about to give birth. A pregnant mother endures all and sacrifices much of their life for the good of the little person growing within them. And when the time comes, there are signs and indications, but she doesn’t know precisely when she will be delivered. But she knows it will happen and when it does, her joy will exceed her travail.

The expectant mothers need to be our example. Like them, we need to soldier on knowing that the ‘little while’ of our ‘birth pangs’ will be followed by an even ‘longer while’ of heavenly gladness.

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Go Safe, Go Slow: Re-Opening the Parish

Dear Parishioners & Friends:

Christ is risen!

In the spirit of love, His Eminence has provided us with a modification to his previous Directive as a first phase to reopening our church in a measured way. This Directive gives us prudent path toward receiving the Sacraments beginning Sunday, May 17.

Since it is a first step, there are many details. These details are important to meet various regulations, but they can also seem a bit overwhelming.

I found it very helpful to join with His Eminence in a Zoom call yesterday with nearly 300 priests and deacons in the Archdiocese. He spoke about the details and answered our many questions. In the same way, I will be pleased to talk with you and answer any questions you have when we have our Zoom call this Sunday after Mass.

Before getting to the details, let me first summarize the spirit and tone of the Directive and today’s call.

His Eminence urges us to not be afraid, and at the same time to be prudent. None of us wants to do anything that will hurt others—either physically or, most importantly, spiritually. To paraphrase His Eminence, “When the life of humans is endangered, doctors use their tools and we [bishops and priests] use our tools: prayer, forgiveness of sins, material aid—all toward the goal of saving souls.”

That was the loving message from His Eminence. It is a message of hope and encouragement, and filled with pastoral wisdom.

In collaboration with our Diocesan Bishops, His Eminence has given us discretion in proceeding with caution in the upcoming weeks. By your continued prayers, they hope that this gradual increase in our sacramental life will not require any reversal of the positive trends that we have recently observed.

As you know, the situation in Los Angeles county is different than in other places. Therefore, with pastoral discretion, here is how we will implement His Eminence’s instructions at St Michael’s:

Liturgy Online

  • Saturday Vespers, Sunday Lauds, and Sunday Mass will continue to be live streamed as before. (Other services will not be live streamed except for Ascension Day.)

Receiving Holy Communion

  • Laity may receive communion in family groups after the Mass by registering in advance. To register, you must contact Fr John the day before, and he will assign your family group a time between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. (A “family group” consists of those who live in the same dwelling.)
  • All who attend must wear a face covering, except at the moment when Holy Communion is received. (“The celebrant should not wear a face covering while serving.”)
  • Holy Communion will be offered in the usual manner. For your safety, Fr John will clean his fingers and hands frequently when giving communion.
  • Before receiving Holy Communion, prepare yourself by saying at least Psalm 42 [41], 84 [83], and 122 [121]. For your convenience, these Psalms, with other prayers before Communion, are attached.
  • Those experiencing cold or flu symptoms (fever, coughing, fatigue, etc.), the elderly, and any at-risk persons should remain at home, and may contact Fr John for an individual appointment to receive Confession and Holy Communion.
  • Before your scheduled time, please remain in your car and maintain appropriate physical distancing, wearing a face covering, if you interact with anyone outside your family group.
  • After receiving communion, please depart in the prescribed pattern and in a timely manner so that the next family group may enter.

Private Confession

  • Given the inability to confess during Lent and the long absence from Communion, as well as anxiety, fear, despair, and other passions we have all felt during this pandemic, you are encouraged to come to the Sacrament of Penance (Private Confession) before receiving the Eucharist.
  • Confession will be available by appointment on weekdays and Saturdays.
  • Physical distancing between Fr John and the penitent will be observed; and the absolution will be spoken from a distance without placing a hand on the penitent’s head.

Cleaning and Sanitizing

  • Before May 15, the entire facility will be professionally deep-cleaned and sanitized for your safety.
  • When you arrive, we ask that you refrain from touching the pews, door handles, or other items (except the top of the communion rail, which will be sanitized between each person).
  • Hand sanitizer will be available in the Narthex. Because supplies are short, we ask that you consider bringing your own for personal use.
  • Please observe all posted signs which encourage good hygiene practices.

Other Gatherings

  • The church and parish hall are closed for all non-liturgical functions. All Bible studies, Didache, catechetical instruction, organizational meetings, and various groups will continue to meet online (i.e., via Zoom).
  • Beginning May 18, by appointment only the church will be open during the week for private prayer and lighting candles. Fr John will be available during this time to lead a devotion or meet with you, following the safe procedures in effect in our county. If you come during these times, please limit your contact with furniture, pews, etc. and follow posted signs when you make use of this opportunity.
  • Mass will be celebrated daily (see schedule below) and family groups may register to receive communion after the Mass on any of those days. To register, you must contact Fr John the day before who will assign your family group a time.
    • Mondays: 7 p.m.
    • Tuesdays: 9 a.m.
    • Wednesdays: 9 a.m.
    • Thursdays: 9 a.m.
    • Fridays: 7 p.m.
    • Saturdays: 9 a.m.

Finally, His Eminence made it clear that our Archdiocese is partnering with other Orthodox bishops as well as Catholic bishops and Protestant leaders to petition our State Government and Governor to certify in clear terms that clergy as “essential workers” and worship as “essential.”

Your patience, understanding, care for others, and most especially prayers for our state and nation during this pandemic health crisis are appreciated and welcome. And, by the prayers of the Holy Archangel Michael, may our parish family be guarded and protected from all harm.

Your spiritual father in Christ,

Rev Msgr John W Fenton

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The Healing Cross: A Homily

The dirt had been cleared away, and the three wooden crosses lay carelessly in their grave one on top of the other. No honor, no respect, no veneration had been shown these instruments of death. And why should they have been? They were used to execute criminals: traitors, murders, serial thieves. The worst of the worst. The people who threaten our bodily life, and so scare us more than he who can destroy the soul. For we fear all threats to our quality of life, and are too glib about threats to our spirit, to our life in God.

Yet one of these crosses had been used to rescue us from threats we don’t take seriously; threats we put off for another day. One of these killing implements was actually life-giving: in a way we too often take with indifference. One of these murderous tools was the sweetest wood which had soaked in the blood of the Just One, pierced by sweetest iron. One of these was Faithful Cross above all other, the one and only noble Tree, the Tree of Life Himself whose fruit is our redemption, whose foliage and blossom cures us from the contagion of fear.

Which one? How to tell? That was the question that confronted Empress Helen. Looking down, she and the others with her had no way of knowing if they had simply found more Roman artifacts or the wood of the True Cross on which had hung our salvation.

The Bishop knew. He knew that the Cross of Jesus, the Cross of Sorrow, was where God’s blood was shed to heal and restore and transform not just humans, but all of creation. And if it healed all, then it could heal one.

So the Bishop fetched a woman wracked with infirmity, the very picture of our weakened state, one whose illness made people shrink back in fear and cringe in horror. That one woman, like the mother pleading for her daughter’s healing, like the woman who hemorrhaged for 12 years, like the little girl lying dead on her bed—that woman was brought to the blood of Jesus, embedded and inseparable from the wood. Instead of reaching to touch the hem of His garment, the healing, life-giving wood was gently applied to her disease-riddled body.

And as the relic of the True Cross touched her, all death and disease fled in fear. Now the virus that frightened ran away. Now the fatal illness was cured. Now the Grim Reaper’s grip was broken.

Not that the lady nevermore died. Lazarus, Talitha, the man from Nain, and the bodies of the saints that came out of the tombs after Our Lord’s resurrection: their bodies eventually gave out. Because their rising at that point was a sign of what was to come, and so not yet the glorification and transfiguration of their bodies. But that doesn’t mean that nothing happened to this dear woman and the others. Rather, it means that Tartarus and the grave, and we in our fear of death, all learned that death’s grip is not permanent; that mortality is terminated one day; and, in fact, that death is converted from the decay to transformation.

All of that the Holy Cross gains for us. All of that Christ’s death and resurrection opened up for us.

And so the woman was cured, by the touch of the relic of the True Cross. And since that relic has not changed; since Christ’s blood is still mingled with the wood; since Our Lord’s Cross remains the means of salvation—such a cure from disease, such a delay of the grave is also available to us, when it pleases Our Lord, in our own relic of the True Cross.

That is why this relic is prominent on our tabernacle; why I bless you with it especially during this pandemic; and why, when we are able, I encourage you to venerate our relic of the True Cross. For it is not a piece of religious art, but connects us to Our Lord’s saving work in a way that is only exceeded by the Holy Sacraments.

Yet there is another reason why I bless you with the relic of the True Cross; another reason why the Finding of the Holy Cross is such an important feast; another reason why this sign of execution is a symbol of our faith.

Our life in God is lived not individually, holed up in our homes. It is lived together, beneath of shadow of the cross. For now, for every sensible and prudent reasons, we are necessarily apart. But this separation is not, and can never be, normal for us. We must, in time, come together. Not merely because we like each other, or miss each other, or just want to be together.

We must, in time, come together because our life is no life unless it is lived together, in the community, in the Body which is Christ’s and of which He is the head.

The cross is the symbol of this: of our life together. And it is that symbol especially now, as we bear one another’s burdens in prayer, in acts of charity, in ensuring that justice prevails over greed, and in protecting each other not in fear but out of self-sacrificing love.

All of that, and most especially a love which sacrifices our convenience and even our life for another—all of that is both seen and made real in the Cross of Christ. Looking to the Cross should both bring this to mind, and inspire in each one of us a spirit to live heedless of our selves and mindful only of the lives of the weak, the vulnerable, the unborn, the helpless, the marginalized, and those who place themselves in harm’s way.

That is part of what Christ means when He tells us to take up our cross. Which is really a small portion of His Cross. To take up the cross is to realize that we must be together, because our way, our pathway to sanctity, our road to the resurrection of the body—that is always a route of charity, of selflessness, or love that thinks of no one but another. That is the love that flows from the heart of Christ, whose blood from that pierced heart adheres to the relic that sits on our altar. In that precious blood, which is stuck to the Cross, we see what love is; and most of all, what it means to be united with each other in Christ.

Not yet, but soon we shall be together. While we wait, let’s not get too comfortable with how things are now—with our separation, with the unreal way we connect. We should be grateful for this small mercy which we need in our weakness. And let us recall that, in fortunate and unfortunate circumstances, we are together in Christ. But let us also yearn, and pray earnestly, for that time when our words of concern for each other are met with a true and sincere commitment to be gathered at the foot of the Cross in our parish; and to use that love which flows from Christ’s side on the Cross to live unafraid, unanxious, not giving into passion, but looking forward to that day when the healing that has begun in us is brought to its full completion in the heavenly kingdom; where, by the prayers of the saints, Our Lord Jesus Christ is glorified with His Father and the Holy Spirit, world without end.

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The Finding of the Holy Cross (May 3)

There are two feasts of the Holy Cross that are celebrated in the Western Rite calendar. The one shared with the Eastern Rite is September 14, which we know as “The Exaltation of the Holy Cross.” It commemorates the return from Persia of the (quite large) relic of the Holy Cross after Persia was defeated by Emperor Heraclius. This feast also commemorates the dedication of the Church of the Holy Cross on Mt Calvary. The second feast is called “The Finding [Inventione] of the Holy Cross.” This feast, which occurs on May 3 each year, commemorates St Helen’s discovery of the True Cross.

In the Western tradition, the feast of The Finding of the Holy Cross is of such importance that it is permitted to supersede any Sunday after Easter (except Low Sunday). This is good since it allows us a second celebration of Our Lord’s salvific suffering and life-saving death.

As we recall the story of the finding of the Holy Cross, this feast also brings to mind the healing power of the Holy Cross. For this is how it was determined that the actual cross Our Lord died on was among the three discovered by St Helen. “Macarius, Bishop of Jerusalem, after praying to God, applied each cross to a woman who was suffering from a grievous disease; the first two were of no effect, but at the touch of the third she was healed immediately.”

In this episode, we see that an instrument of suffering becomes a means of healing; the executioner’s tool becomes an aid to life. And this is why such a cruel implement is both a token of glory and the sign to which we look, like the Israelites of old, in order to be rescued from the contagion of sin and the sting of death.

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Meeting Fear: Easter I homily

Fear paralyzed the disciples. That is why they locked themselves in the upper room. They were afraid of the same folks who had conspired and come out against Jesus.

Their eyes fueled their fear. The disciples had seen Jesus die, and get buried. The tomb sealed shut; their hopes dashed—that’s what they had seen. And they reasoned, most reasonably, that whoever killed Jesus would come after them next.

Then came the news. The news was confusing. Some said one thing, others said a different thing. The news was contradictory. And there were all kinds of rumors. So no one knew what to believe, what was true, what was real.

Their eyes, putting together the evidence, the news and rumors they heard—all of those things added up to fear. Fear that paralyzed. Which is why the disciples didn’t venture out. Why they would go nowhere. They thought they were safer at home; and they thought their relatives were safer if they stayed away from them, didn’t go near them, so that they couldn’t be identified as being one of the disciples.

Fear then by the disciples. And our fears now. They have this in common: fear for our life, and for the lives of others. And, more importantly, fear that we’ve lost control; that what we thought was firm and sure, what we relied on, what we knew we knew, what we took for granted—that it had all been shifted. Like an earthquake shifts the ground underneath us.

The earth had quaked. Twice. Once on Friday afternoon and once early Sunday morning. Yet the scarier quaking was not outside but within.

And so, in fear, terrified that normal and expected was gone—in fear the disciples hid.

How does Jesus meet our fears? Not by saying, “It will be okay.” Not by trying to talk us through it. He simply shows Himself and says “Peace. Peace be with you. My peace. Not the illusory, porous peace that the world gives. But the peace which is Me. The peace which exceeds your imagination because it surpasses your understanding.”

And then He gave rock solid evidence of that peace. His peace. Which is designed and given to chase away all fear. Every fear. Fear of conspirators. Fear of viruses. Fear of death.

“He showed them His hands and His side.” The wounds. The torn and blood-soaked flesh. The evidence of the terror behind their fears, now transformed. What they had tasted on the night of He was betrayed; what they would taste again on Pentecost. His Body and Blood—that was the rock-solid evidence of His peace. That is what made real His love for them, because His love is inseparable from His flesh. And it eased their fears. For perfect love casts out fear. And there He was, Perfect Love in the flesh, wounded because of their fear and yet resurrected in order to restore a heavenly new-normal. Perfect Love Himself casting away their fear.

Clearly, one of them was not paralyzed by fear. Clearly, one of them was out and about, taking chances, doing what needed to be done, risking his safety and the safety of others. You see, Thomas was not with them when Jesus appeared to ease their fears.

It’s not that Thomas was unafraid or reckless. And it’s not that this one had greater faith. For when they said, “We have seen the Lord,” he refused to believe it. For the rumors, the news, even the change in their demeanor did not affect him. Stubbornly. Not out of careless love or humble acceptance. But because of stubborn pride, Thomas refused to shelter with the others.

So another kind of fear. But still fear.

How does our Jesus meet fear? Not by scolding. Not by setting us straight. Not by clamping down. And not even with impotent compassion. Jesus meets fear with fearlessness. The fearlessness buried within the peace that He is.

And so, “Peace be with you,” He says again. And the rock-solid foundation of His peace—the price He paid to set us free. His life laid on the line so that we could be safe.

Thomas is invited to reach out, to thrust, to touch and grab His Lord so that his hands might confirm what his eyes see and his ears hear. So that the sacrifice, now raised, might solidify the peace.

But Thomas does not reach out. He does not touch. He sees a man, and declares that this Man is “My Lord and my God.” And that is enough for Thomas. To know that Peace Himself stands before Him. To realize that Jesus’ presence can chase away fear. To be confident that the Lord’s word of peace, for now, in this time, is sufficient.

Thomas and the others will get to handle the Lord’s Body. They will get to taste and see the goodness that the Lord is. But for now, in this time, the blessing is that fears can be dispersed when we hold onto our Jesus, even when we are deprived of seeing, feeling, tasting.

This is not to say that the Eucharist is unimportant; that we can live without the medicine of immortality. By no means! However, what good is that medicine if we do not see it with faith? What good is Christ’s Body if we do not, with Thomas-like faith, say “My Lord and my God” when it is held before our eyes? And what help is it if we still live in our fears? If we still behave as if everything here and now matters more than the greater things we receive when we gather?

St Paul urges us to live not as persons who find meaning in dust, but as persons who live now in heaven. Not as those who identify with all our human fears and weaknesses, but as those who identify with and bear the fearless image of the resurrected, glorified, transfigured Christ.

To get past their fears, Thomas and the other disciples had to be content with nothing more than the words of peace that came from Christ’s mouth. And seeing Him at a distance, without handling His hands and side. And letting His Word sink in. As that settled deeply within them, then they were reintroduced to the peace that adheres to Christ’s Body and Blood. And then the medicine became a truly healing remedy.

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Jesus & Satan in Hades

As Our Lord Jesus Christ descends into hell, the devil says, “Who are you? You look like an ordinary human, but you stride about like someone who’s in charge. Are you not afraid?”

In reply, Jesus says, “I’m not afraid. I’m not afraid of the terror of war. I’m not afraid of the horror of famine. I’m not afraid of the panic in pestilence. Because I’m not afraid of death or hell. And I’m not afraid because you because I am God’s Son.”

Satan answers again, “So are you claiming to be God? The God who can overrule my God-given claim over the dead; my authority over the grave?”

Our Lord responds, “I am indeed the Lord God. I am the Lord who cast you to the earth, and permitted you to rule the underworld. I am the Lord who allowed you to terrorize men and women so that they might seek Me.”

“So then what are you doing here?” says the Accuser of all mankind.

“I am,” say Our Lord. “I am the One who has now entered your territory in order to reclaim and take back all those who are Mine, all who recognize Me and wish to follow Me out.

“So I am here to release all people from all their fears: the fear of war, the fear of being shorted, the fear of pestilence, the fear of death. I know that when they see Me and My love, they will no longer fear. For perfect love casts out all fear. And I know that when have no fear, they will live boldly. The fearless disregard their own danger. And so the fearless live for others.”

“How did you get here? Who let you in?” the diabolical one wonders.

“You let me in. You foolishly thought that when I took a body, you could defeat Me. You thought that, when we met in the wilderness, you had not won because I was not yet weak enough. And so, as I determined, as I willed, evil men abused and tortured Me, and put Me to death. And, like a fish seeing a shiny object, you were hooked. By my death on the cross, I captured you. For you thought that you had swallowed a man, like all other humans; but you encountered God Himself.

“And here is my real intent. I will undo your envy, your cruel deception. You tricked humans into ruining my creation, but I will make all things new again. So I’m here to ‘let the whole world perceive and know that things cast down are being raised up, things grown old are being made new, and all things are returning to their perfection.’”

“But I,” says the devil, “I continue to work on earth. Look, I have made wars. I have raised up evil tyrants and terrorists. I have people in the same nation, and state, and city against each other. I have weakened economies, and governments, and relationships. And even now, I’ve returned with pandemic.”

Jesus, shaking His head, said: “You have done nothing. For nothing happens without my say-so. And nothing is outside of the works of my salvation. So I’ve permitted these things, as I let you weaken Job. But what you’ve not learned, what you will never learn, is that I know Mine, and Mine own know Me. They know that I will never leave them, I will never forsake them; no matter how bleak things look, no matter how hopeless things feel. They know this, because they know that in this combat stupendous, when Life and Death contended, the victory always remains with the Life of the world.”

And with that, the earth quaked in wild jubilation so that “the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after Christ’s resurrection.”

Beloved, in our baptism and the holy sacraments, in the cup of salvation, we have taken a sip of this resurrection of Christ and His saints. May we, by our faith and love, merit draining the entire cup when we are “caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.”

NOTE: Inspired by the latter half of sermon 65 (On the Resurrection of Lazarus)
by St Peter Chrysologus.

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Unimaginable Joy? Easter Day Homily

Christ is risen! Nothing else matters.

Which is why one of our bishops once said that, “Other people would not think this a time for festival. [But] far from being a time of distress, it is a time of unimaginable joy.”

How can this be? How can today be a time for unimaginable joy?

Today we truly want to gather; and yet, out of love of each other and all others, and in obedience to our bishops, we are deprived of what we really want. Deprived so much that it hurts—perhaps more deeply than we think. Which may be why we’re acting out in ways that are uncharacteristic; or feel a bone-deep sadness; or sense more keenly our separation.

Forty days ago, we began our Lent with our usual expectation, our usual anticipation. And then the usual became unusual. Our fast shifted dramatically, and our Lent became less comfortable and more strict.

Today, of all days, we should be together. And rejoicing. And all our pent-up Lenten discipline should be bursting forth. Yet instead, it feels as if Lent has been extended; as if we need to fast from the Eucharist and from each other for another 20 or 30 or 40 days. As if we need to repeat Lent again.

So how can this be a time for festival? How can this be not a time of distress, but a day of unimaginable joy?

It is, not because we feel right, or feel like celebrating. Today is a day of joy precisely because of what we celebrate today. Precisely because Christ is risen.

And now, because of this year, because of the unsettling circumstances of this year—now we get to understand in a more profound way, what Our Lord’s resurrection means.

We celebrate the end of death’s grip. So death may come, but it has no hold on us. Since Christ is risen, we slip through the Grim Reapers fingers into the joy of heaven.

We celebrate the end of fear and anxiety. For our deepest fears, our most anxious feelings, are tied directly to our mortality. But this day of resurrection means that all that scares, all that makes us uneasy—all that has been overthrown. And, with Christ beside us, supporting us, embracing us—as He always does—in Him, we can rest secure. And so our uneasiness may be calmed in Him. Our disquiet may be soothed and appeased.

That’s, of course, easy to say. And it may be hard to imagine. But this is a day, not when uncertainties, but when our faith allows us to say, Christ is risen! This is a day when we defiantly say to the devil, death, and all doubts, that Christ is risen! This is the day when we look through the tears, looking each other in the eye, and say, Christ is risen!

For this is the day of all days, the day of resurrection, the day when we acknowledge that what happens here is a light momentary affliction which can be borne with equanimity and Christian poise since we know what lies beyond, and what fullness of gladness awaits us.

St Dionysius of Alexandria was the author of the words I said at the beginning: that “Other people would not think this a time for festival. [But] far from being a time of distress, it is a time of unimaginable joy.”

He said that to his diocese in the midst of a time worse than ours, during one of the deadliest pandemics in history, when 5000 people died each day in one city.

St Dionysius could say that because he not only believed in the resurrection, but he also was convinced that the truth of Christ’s resurrection has the power to shape how we think, how we behave, how we live in this time.

And so he was not promoting unrealistic hope as a way of ignoring empirical tragedy. Instead, this saintly bishop was rejoicing in the opportunity such circumstances present for our faith––to go out of our way to love and serve our neighbors, spreading gospel hope, in both word and deed, in times of great fear.

And this we can do for only one reason: because Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death and viruses, and bestowing life and the joy of living in those who hold fast to Him.

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