Kindly Penance: A Homily for Lent IV

Several weeks ago when we followed Jesus out into the wilderness, we thought we knew where he was leading us. For we had followed this route many times before, year after year. But perhaps it became too familiar. Perhaps we took for granted that He would lead us in the same way as before. Or perhaps we had simply become complacent.

But this year, the way is different. This year, as we follow Jesus into the wilderness, the route is more challenging than usual, and a little more difficult.

That should not surprise us. For every year during Lent, in our morning prayers, we sing these words:

Spare not, we pray, to send us here
Some penance kindly but severe.

A “penance kindly but severe.”

Kindly. And yet also a severity suited to us, to what we can bear. For while we chafe at not being with each other, we can still reach out to each other—and we should! And while we are exasperated about being deprived of our usual comforts, we are not denied of our basic needs. And while we may long to receive Holy Communion, we will not be deprived of the Eucharist for this year.

Unlike our brothers and sisters before us, we are not being tortured for our beliefs. We are not isolated or quarantined in a camp or arena or gulag for the crime of being Christian and gathering as Church.

This year’s penance is tough, but not brutal. Inconvenient, but not debilitating. Full of anxiety and frustration, but not filled with unending agony.

So it is kindly. Yet also severe enough, so that we do not take for granted our Easter joy, our gathering as community, our built-in need not just to chat but to talk face to face, and most of all not just to see but to be—with each other.

The severity is just hard enough so that our appetites might be re-adjusted—so that we may itch less for momentary diversions, and long much more for the one thing needful, the thing that truly makes for our enduring peace. So that we truly hunger and thirst for the Righteous One, as He gives Himself into our bodies in the Eucharist; and thereby hunger and thirst to be righteous, and just, in our dealings with others.

In this Lent, we are more and more like the multitude in today’s Gospel. They also follow Jesus into the wilderness. They follow because they trust He will not lead them astray. They follow because long to receive whatever He chooses to give.

They were without food in the wilderness. Not by their choice, but because Our Lord leads them there. Yet they were sustained by being with Our Lord, being hearing His teaching, by receiving His grace.

No doubt, Our Lord is letting us live through this time in order to give us the opportunity to find our true shelter in Him. And to acknowledge that, on the big things, we are not in control. That we need to turn our eyes, our minds, and our hearts not inward but outward and upward, knowing that, in the end, all we have and all we are comes from His gracious hand.

This crowd of more than 5000 show us how to live this kindly penance. Their appetites are whetted by their hunger; and ours by this uncommon means of penance. Yet they teach us to live in hope; to live knowing that Our Lord, as He always does, will come through.

As Pascha approached for these folks, as their hearts and minds were more and more attuned to the coming feast, Our Lord determined to feed them. And with more than enough. But it’s not about food. It’s about the bread. The Bread from Heaven, the Living Bread, which is Our Lord.

  • Who does not disappoint us in our hope.
  • Who satisfies our longing.
  • Who renews our life.
  • Who increases our joy.

That happens, most clearly, in the Holy Eucharist. But our hope, our life, and our joy is also fed, especially during these strange days, when we immerse ourselves more and more in prayer. When we draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith. When we, in earnest prayer, draw near to God so that He may draw near to us.

Drawing near to God, and God drawing near to us: that is what must feed us now.

Not next Sunday, perhaps not this Easter, but soon this kindly penance will lift. And if we use this time rightly, if we take advantage of this long Lent, then we will relish the prayer we sing each morning:

Soon will that day, thy day, appear
And all things with its brightness cheer:
We will rejoice in it, as we
Return thereby to grace and thee.

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Incarnation & Disease

Our present situation is part of why God became man.

The primary reason, of course, is so that we might have communion with God, so that we might live in a close intimate relationship with God, so that we might behold God as he is, in the same way that he knows us as we are. He knows us as we are because God became man; which means that he took into Himself all that we are in our humanity, without sin. Even the result of sin—our vulnerability, our contingency, our need to be healed, our death—every weakness that we have in our mortal condition; all of this God in Christ took into Himself. And he did this so that we might know him and behold him as he is in his heavenly kingdom.

That is the primary reason God became man. That is the primary reason we celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation of our Lord; the day when God was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary and so became incarnate.

The secondary reason is our present situation. Not just our situation where we are deprived of the goods that we are so used to, the goods that we take advantage of, the goods we take for granted. Our present situation is more dire than that.

Our present situation is that we take God for granted—the Good that he is; the Good from which all good things find their source; the Good that we falsely believe is our right; the Good that we too often take for granted.

In order to rescue us from our present situation—not simply the Coronavirus, or the threat of death, or the loss of economic security, or the shaking of our sure footing—more importantly, to rescue us from the deprivation of our life in God—that is also why God became man. Why He was conceived in the womb of the virgin. Why He was incarnate.

God saw that we were slowly killing ourselves; and that we were scared to death, and therefore moving not toward Him as our Life, but away from Him in irrational fear. He saw that we were threatened—and worse yet, that our very existence, our Life in Him, was threatened. The very things that He had made good, we now in absurd fear turned against ourselves. The very things that He gave us to sustain life, we now handed over to death.

Seeing all this, seeing that we were mindlessly digging our own hell—God determined to have mercy on us. He pitied us as a father pities His misguided children, and so He stepped in. But when He stepped in, Our Lord did not force us to turn back to Him. He did not erase our ability to turn away from Him. But by becoming one of us, one with us, Christ Jesus made our way of escape, and gave us the strength to escape with Him and in Him. And He does this by taking as His own a body, a physicality, a materialness, that is foreign to His nature. And by granting that body the capability of communing with God and in God—that is His incarnation. And that is what we celebrate.

So, as many of the church fathers say today with certainty, today is the celebration of the beginning of our salvation. For Our Lord’s suffering and death and resurrection, His experience of our common condition with viruses and deprivation and death—that is possible, that is truly real, only because God assumes and takes into Himself all that makes us who we are.

And thus, taking from us our greatest weaknesses, receiving from us the capability to die, and putting all of this to death in Himself, Our Lord Jesus offered our human nature, cured and purged, to His Father because He was in love with all humans.

Let us not take for granted this great gift. Let us not, in our present situation, get so caught up in fear and anxiety that we lose sight of the greater good from our good God. And the greater good is this—that while we may, for a while, endure a ‘penance kindly, but severe;’ although we may, for a while, be deprived of our usual life—all of this our kindly Lord knows, and assumed, so that He might bring us back to Him; more so, so that He might give us greater and worthier gifts.

To whom, with His Father, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, belongs all glory, honor, and worship; now and forever, world without end.

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Annunciation of BVM (Livestream)

The Feast of the Annunciation will be celebrated tomorrow with Mass at 10 a.m. We will use the same procedure as last Sunday. Click on this link: or https://www.facebook.com/stmichaelwhittier/videos/

Livestream will begin at 9:00 with Lauds at 9:15, Mass at 10 a.m. If your schedule does not allow you to join us at those times, you may worship with us later in the day.

PLEASE REMEMBER: This is an not ‘netflix,’ but an opportunity for you to worship with us during this extraordinary and strange time. Toward that end, I ask you to review these recommendations:

Asking your prayers,

Fr John

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Watching Our Live-Stream Mass

Be assured of my prayers, and that each one of you is close to my heart while we adjust to our temporary living and work situation.

In his latest directive, Metropolitan Joseph has required all parishes in California (and other states like New York) to celebrate Mass (Divine Liturgy) on Sunday, together with Lauds (Orthros). However, only three persons may be present during these services: the priest, one server, and one chanter.

His Eminence also encourages all parishes to live-stream the liturgical services so that people may pray together, albeit imperfectly, in their homes while they follow the directives of the government.

We live-streamed last night’s prayers, and will do the same tomorrow morning from 9 a.m. until the end of Mass. (The Mass will begin at 10 a.m.).

Here is the link: https://stmichaelwhittier.org/parish-site/videos.

This link automatically takes you to our Facebook page. You don’t need a Facebook account to watch the services; however, you may need to expand the picture. We have learned that this will work much better on a computer than on a phone.

THIS NEXT PART IS IMPORTANT

It is really hard, and unreal, to participate in the Mass by watching it on a device in your home. It’s easy to get distracted, to get up and get something, or to do several things at once. I urge you to resist these temptations as you watch.

Here are practical tips to get the most out of the live-streamed Mass:

  • Before 9 a.m., place your device (phone, television, computer, tablet) on or near your icon corner; OR, surround your device with one or more icons.
  • Turn off all possible distractions (phone, notifications, oven, alarms, etc.)
  • Like you do before church, take care of all personal needs beforehand.
  • Dress like you would for a regular Sunday Mass. (Casual clothes may encourage a casual, non-prayerful attitude.)
  • Follow your regular pattern for maintaining the Eucharistic fast, refraining from food, coffee, etc. until after the Mass.
  • Print the attached service booklets and have them in hand.
  • Follow along during the services, and sing/speak along with us, in whatever way you normally would do during the Mass.
  • As you are able, stand, sit, and kneel as you normally would do during the Mass.
  • Finally, resist the urge to offer any comments online until after the Mass is over.

In short, I encourage you to make these few hours a time of sincere devotion and worship.

These are strange days, but they can be a blessing if we use them rightly:

  • By spending some of our “shelter time” in prayer and spiritual reading
  • By caring for each other and those in need in whatever way we can (even by simply making a phone call)
  • By entering more deeply into the fast itself

Again, please be assured of my prayers.

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Resources During These Days

“Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12.32)

​During these extraordinary times, when you are prevented from attending Mass daily and on Sundays and are relegated to the reality of God’s kingdom relayed through pixels, please be assured of my prayers.

Above all else, do not let fear have the upper hand, nor the devil steal your joy. Instead, as your spiritual father, I urge you to see this time as a deepening of your Lenten devotion:

  • a time to pray more purposefully, particularly with your parish family
  • a time to set aside worldly distractions, especially the ‘virtual’ world
  • a time to love more deliberately, by helping concretely those in need
  • a time to limit your appetites, so that you don’t feed your fears

To aid you in this godly endeavor, I offer you three resources that we have recently put together. These are:

  • Daily Prayer at Home During Lent
  • Prayer in Time of Pestilence
  • An Act of Spiritual Communion

Use the Daily Prayer to join the church, from your home, in the Scriptures and prayers appointed for daily Lenten Masses.

Use the Prayer in Time of Pestilence, both to join us in your home as we pray this on Friday evenings at the church; and as an additional prayer throughout the week.

Use the Act of Spiritual Communion to assist you as you abstain from the Holy Eucharist until we are able, with great joy, to gather again.

You may also wish to listen to the podcast “The Fathers Speak,” which consists of me reading selections from the holy fathers based on the Gospel reading from the daily Mass.

Finally, let us in prayer and in deed do what we can to take care of each other and our neighbors, particularly those who live alone and have no family nearby. Please help me by checking on each other proactively and letting me know who may be sick or in need. As much as I am able, I will bring food, medicine or hygiene products to those who can’t get out. If you’re willing to help, please let me know.

Be assured that each of you are close to my heart, and that my love for you increases even as our contact is decreased.

May God have mercy on us, and comfort us during this affliction.

Your spiritual father in Christ,

Fr John

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Coronavirus: The Latest Archdiocese Directive

There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. (1 Jn 4.18)

Pastoral Counsel

It was good to see so many of you at today’s Mass. I’m confident that, during these Lenten days when our faith is being tried, you find great consolation in Our Lord’s Body (both ecclesial and eucharistic). Together and individually, let us offer our prayers

  • for those afflicted in body (for those suffering the virus and its material effects)
  • for those afflicted in mind (suffering isolation and loneliness)
  • and for those afflicted in spirit (suffering fear, anxiety, and doubt)

In fact, those working from home or limited in their movements might want to devote their ‘extra’ time to prayer, as well as checking in on relatives, friends, neighbors, and parishioners.

Above all else, as I have said before, let us not give into fear. Rather, let us see these days as part of our Lenten sacrifice, a time when (as Hannah, Elijah, Job, and Anna) we can grow closer to our Father in the midst of our trial.

From the Archdiocese

After this morning’s Mass, His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph sent the following encyclical, updating the measures the Antiochian parishes will take during the rapidly changing situation of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result of this directive, at St Michael’s Church:

  • All Bible studies, Parish Council, Men’s Workshop, Antiochian Women, Society of St Benedict, and other non-liturgical meetings and gatherings are cancelled.
  • Lauds and Mass will be celebrated only on Sunday, with only myself, servers, and the choir in attendance.
  • We will make every attempt to live-stream our Sunday liturgy. You will be notified when we have the details in place.
  • On Friday, in keeping with the spirit of the Metropolitan’s directive, we will offer the Rosary at 7 p.m. followed immediately by “Prayer in the Time of Pestilence” (which includes blessing with the Relic of the True Cross). We will attempt to live-stream this devotion as well, since only myself, servers, and choir may attend.
  • With your help, we will continue our daily cleaning and sanitizing. But we need your help to be diligent about this.
  • I will be putting together and sending to you daily prayers and readings.
  • The church will be open from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. every day to give you the opportunity to offer individual prayers and light candles.
  • I will keep individual appointments with those who need the ministry of the Church.

On a Personal Note

This is an extraordinary time, but not unprecedented. The Church has lived through worse diseases than COVID-19 and has emerged stronger every time because she has served the faithful without fear, and has found strength and comfort in the Eucharist and in prayer. And, true to her Lord, the Church has always been willing to sacrifice her well-being for the welfare of those who draw near in time of need. The greatest harm we can do to others and ourselves, then, is to let the devil drive us away from others, and God’s sacred mysteries. Of course, we must be prudent, which includes acts of love that are often inconvenient. But let our love be not because we are afraid of what may happen, but because we cling to Love Himself who casts out every fear.

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Coronavirus Update

The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear. The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom then shall I be afraid. (Prayed at every Sunday Matins)

Earlier this week, I wrote that “we need to take this and other influenza viruses seriously. Yet let us not be overwhelmed.” To say it another way, do not let fear paralyze us so that we are afraid to worship God together or to care for others; and let us deny our inclination to think only of our needs. These three are intertwined, so that one cannot be emphasized at the expense of the others.

Coupling this spiritual sense with common sense is increasingly important as the situation with the COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) continues to develop. Toward this end, after consultation with Bishop John and in line with the Metropolitan’s encyclical (attached), St Michael’s will be implementing these measures to be loving, to ease fears, and to encourage our mutual worship of our merciful Lord:

  • The Lenten Retreat will be held tomorrow, as planned. We ask that those who attend be mindful of social distancing practices out of love for others.
    • According to the CDC, “Social distancing means remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings, and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) from others when possible.”
  • Our service schedule remains unchanged. We need to pray frequently as a parish during this time; for that is what Christians have always done in times of pestilence and anxiety.
  • During all Masses until further notice:
    • We will receive communion single file at the rail, not kneeling side by side
    • The Holy Bread will not be available
    • The offering basin will not be passed down the aisle; instead, a basin will be placed on a table near the entrance
    • The icon in the Narthex should be reverenced by making the sign of the cross and bowing toward it
    • After the Mass, you may greet me in the manner that is most comfortable to you.
  • The usual practice of myself and all servers washing their hands will be observed. We also have hand-sanitizer which will be available for their use.
  • Until further notice, coffee will be available after Mass but lunch will not be served and Didache will not be offered. You may join us for coffee according to your comfort level, and ask that you are mindful of social distancing practices out of love for others.
  • We are being diligent (even as I write this) to wipe down all services and door handles with disinfectant solutions.
  • If you are sick and/or present the symptoms of fever or shortness of breath, please stay home and seek medical attention. And please telephone, text, or email me so that I can include you in my prayers.
  • There are prayers in your St Ambrose Prayerbook (or other Orthodox prayerbooks) that I encourage you to pray. I also ask you to meditate on Psalm 27 (quoted above) and Psalm 54.

Additionally, please be mindful of these statements from the CDC and WHO:

  • “Older adults (i.e., 60’s and up) and people who have severe underlying chronic medical conditions like heart or lung disease or diabetes seem to be at higher risk for developing more serious complications from COVID-19 illness.” If you fall into one of these categories and would rather not venture out of your home, please let me know and I will bring you communion.
  • “A mask should be worn by infectious patients any time they leave the isolation room.” And “wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.” But “if you are healthy, you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with suspected 2019-nCoV infection.”

You can be of help to us in one very simple way:

  • By donating disinfectant wipes
  • By donating hand sanitizer

Above all, please resist the temptation of the devil and the fear you might feel to avoid Mass. This is the time when, as we are able, we care for each other by praying together.

Please know that I am staying in contact with the Archdiocesan Headquarters during this pandemic, and if they send out further updates affecting our parish life, I will let you know.

As I minister to you, I covet your prayers.

May God have mercy on us all.

Your spiritual father in Christ,

Fr John

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Coronavirus: Some Spiritual Reflections

I think it is no coincidence that the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is becoming more prevalent among us in this area during the Holy Season of Lent. For it seems likely that Satan is using this potentially debilitating or fatal virus to frustrate our Lenten plan by keeping us from acts of charity towards others, or attending Mass, or practicing self-control and self-denial. Yet while we are rightly concerned, let us also not be undone nor overcome with fear.

We should, of course, use common sense when dealing with any virus. Fever and shortness of breath appear to be the most common symptoms that distinguish this strain from the common cold. Therefore, if you suffer these symptoms or other flu-like symptoms, then by all means take care of yourself and act in love toward those with whom you may associate. (This may mean making choices about attendance at Mass.) As for my part, I will frequently clean my hands and will do all I can to ensure that our common spaces are clean.

Since the devil uses this, and other sicknesses, to drive a wedge between us and others, we should couple common sense with spiritual sense. To assist you with this, let me reflect on three phrases from the Our Father that we recite in our daily prayers and at church. For this prayer, and these phrases in particular, ought to help quell our fear and increase our confidence in our loving Father who directs and protects us at all times.

When we say, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we are stating and acknowledging that things don’t spin out of control, but that Our Lord is the God even of viruses. This does not mean that God is the cause of sickness; that traces back to our corrupt condition. It means that our Father does not use these events to frustrate or frighten. That can be easy to forget as we increasingly hear concern about the virus’ spread. It is the devil that plays on our fears with these events to cause us to feel, believe, and think the worst for ourselves and our family. Yet our prayer reminds us that our Lord God always gets his way, and nothing—not even sickness—will prevent Him from doing what He knows is best for us. Remembering this, as we say, “Thy will be done,” gives us a perspective that is not fatalistic or fearful, but hopeful and calming.

“Give us this day our daily bread” is not simply about making sure we have food and the things we need. On a deeper level, these words also assure us that our heavenly Father arranges everything for our salvation. “In everything God works for good with those who love him.” (Rom 8.28) So when we are sick and when we are healthy, our Lord is not only in charge but also looking toward a greater purpose: life for Him and with Him both in this world and in the life of the world to come. Keeping in mind this longer view can certainly ease our hearts as well as our minds.

Finally, our prayer that our Father “deliver us from evil” means that we are confident that He will protect and guide us through even the worst. In the Mass, this petition is expanded to include “every evil past, present, and to come.” Too often, as we pray these words, we think only of big evils. But every evil includes all manner of sickness or injury. During this particular time, let us ask the intercessions of the Blessed Mother and the Saints, that Our Lord, by His lovingkindness, may keep us and our loved ones “safe from all disquietude” (i.e., everything that unsettles us). And as we say that prayer, our fears will subside since our faith is that our Father makes good on His promise to help and deliver us.

Certainly, we need to take this and other influenza viruses seriously. Yet let us not be overwhelmed. Common sense helps when sickness is rampant. And if we add the spiritual sense that I’ve briefly mentioned above, then our fears will decline, and we’ll be able to continue our Lenten plan of charity, self-control, and prayer together and individually.

May God be merciful to us and bless us!

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Annual Lenten Retreat

To aid your Lenten Fast with prayer and meditation, the Society of St Benedict of St Michael Antiochian Orthodox Church will host the V Rev Patrick Cardine on Saturday, March 14, for a day-long Lenten Retreat.

Fr Patrick will present three meditations on the theme “Discovering Stability in Community.” Fr Patrick is the Pastor of St Patrick Orthodox Church in Bealeton VA.

His meditations will be will surrounded by prayer and Liturgy, silence for reflection and private prayer, and opportunities for confession.

The retreat begins with First Hour (Prime) prayers at 9 a.m. and concludes by 3 p.m. with Ninth Hour (None) prayers.

Fast friendly meals will be provided; however, child care is not offered. St Michael Church is located at 3333 Workman Mill Road, Whittier CA 90601.

Please RSVP by sending an email to St Michael Church (stmichaelwhittier@gmail.com) or by telephoning the parish office (562.692.6121).

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Advent Retreat

The Society of St Benedict will host the annual Advent Retreat on December 14 from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m. The Very Reverend Patrick Henry Reardon from All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago will offer three meditations during the retreat.

Fr Patrick is known for his podcasts and sermons on Ancient Faith Radio, and for his many books on the Saints, the Atonement, and the Scriptures. He is also known for his work with the Fellowship of St James.

In the pattern of a Benedictine retreat, Fr Patrick’s meditations will be surrounded by prayer and quiet meditation. The minor hours from the Monastic Breviary (prime, terce, sext, none) will be prayed and Mass (Divine Liturgy) will be celebrated. Generous time will also be allotted for quiet contemplation on the meditations.

This retreat is primarily for you—to help remove you, for at least a few hours, from the many distractions in December so that you can focus on the gift of Our Lord in our flesh.

The retreat begins with Prime at 9 a.m. and concludes by 3 p.m. with None and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. Please RSVP by email (StMichaelWhittier@gmail.com) or telephone (562.692.6121).

There is no cost and meals are provided. Donations are gratefully accepted.

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