It is customary for us to congratulate relatives and friends with their Namesday or birthday; we wish them good health and a long life. Today is the Feast of Pentecost, a great celebration – the birthday of Christ’s Church on earth. Therefore, on this joyful day, when we see so many people gathered to pray, when we rejoice to see many of those who rarely come to our church, it is appropriate that we take the opportunity to speak to you, brothers and sisters, sincerely, “heart-to-heart”.
This very Feast of the Holy Trinity likewise summons us to preach, because on this day, nearly two thousand years ago, the holy Apostles, who had just received the grace of the Holy Spirit and were strengthened in faith and mind, fearlessly went forth to preach. And their fiery, inspiring word, their zeal for the Lord, immediately won the hearts of their listeners: that day three thousand souls were baptized (Acts 2:41). Our joy would be great if even one heart were brought to the Church through listening to our humble sermon. It is about this coming to the Church that I should like to speak.
On the occasion of today’s birthday of the Church, we extend our heartfelt wish in the form of an appeal – let us fill our churches! The temple is the House of God, a house of prayer, and in this holy house we offer up four kinds of prayer: supplicatory, penitential, thanksgiving and doxology. We all know that a man in sorrow, misfortune, or need runs to the Lord with supplicatory prayer…When one of our close ones dies, we hasten to church to ask the Lord to give rest to his soul and number him with the righteous. And we ourselves, when we are visited by a serious illness, ask God in church for healing and to grant us strength. Glory to God for such seeking and asking of God’s help!
Penitential prayer is also a form of supplication, because in repenting we ask the Lord God for the forgiveness of our sins.
And so, we have received what it was we asked: the Lord heard our prayer – and then what? How many return to church and give thanks? “Where are the nine?” asked the Saviour concerning the ten lepers who were cleansed. There are not found that returned to give glory to God, save this stranger (Luke 17:17-18). How quickly we forget God’s benefits towards us!
Let us take the following example. We make every effort to give our children a good education, but we neglect their spiritual upbringing. And so, our children successfully graduate form high schools and colleges, but how many of them, or their parents, turn to thank the Lord for the education they received and for the God-given ability to acquire it? Do not these same young people go on to become mercenary doctors, unrighteous judges and, in general, greedy acquirers of earthly goods?
We can observe this thankless attitude towards God’s beneficence even among those who approach the greatest of His gifts – the Holy Mysteries. How many communicants leave church without waiting to listen to the thanksgiving prayers?
How may consider it their sacred duty to make the sign of the cross before and after meals? And likewise, in going to bed, to thank the Lord for all the good things He granted them that day?
With great sorrow we must admit that we have not accustomed ourselves to thanksgiving prayer.
In looking over the four different kinds of prayer, one can say that the most exalted is doxology – this is the prayer of a “singing heart”. A person who loves God and everything godly feels a constant need for communion with his Creator and Providence. This need constitutes for him the very breath of life, and the heart of such a person – like a fount of pure, living water – washes his entire being, filling him with joy and peace in the Lord. What could be more pleasing and desirable for such a soul than to glorify God in common with likeminded believers, in the prayer of the Church? Such a genuinely Christian Orthodox soul feels that the words of the Saviour--where two or three are gathered together in My Name, there am I in the midst of them (Matt. 18 20)--are not only a promise but an inviolable realization, discerned through spiritual experience,
For such a person, divine services in church are a joy and a supreme mercy of communion m peace with the Lord: My peace I give unto you And if sincere entreaty to the Lord is combined with unselfish gratitude toward Him and joyful praise of the glory of God, this undoubtedly stems from an abundance of love for God and a depth of faith in Him
What can we conclude from the above? Only this, that if our churches are not filled with people praying, it is evidence that the people have ceased to feel joy in church prayer, that their life is filled with earthly concerns. And this is obvious from the many announcements of various parties and other entertainments, some of which are ,scheduled at the most inappropriate times. On Holy Pascha, for example, gatherings to "break the fast" are planned "after the Paschal Matins"--as though they cannot wait, like true Christians, 'until after the Divine Liturgy. Such people have, at the center of their family life, not religious discussions and reading but television, with its violent and indecent programs, or the constant struggle to acquire the ' good things" of this world a struggle which occupies them seven days of the week. Here there is neither the time nor the desire for prayer.
Although these are rather sad thoughts on such a bright and joyous Feast, they are expressed out of love, out of a desire to help everyone onto the path of fervent spiritual activity and to make the Church the center of our lives.
At the same time, we should not forget words of joy on this great Feast of spiritual renewal. Just look at the beautiful flowers which we are holding, and at the branches decorating our church truly, these are symbols of renewal. Winter has gone, and with it the sleep of nature. Everything has awakened, fragrant like these flowers which are symbolic of the beauty in life!
Remember how the holy Apostles who had been hiding from fear of the Jews, boldly set forth in their spiritually renewed state to preach the Gospel. Here--in the illumination of our souls through the light of Truth--is our promise and our renewal, and here we attain that promised land where we shall find joy unspeakable and lasting peace... Then will our hearts be open to receive the desired gifts of the Holy Spirit. It is precisely this that the Church calls us to today in the prayer to the Holy Spirit, when we all sing "with one mouth and one heart."
There is no doubt that the sincerely believing soul thirsts to be free of this world, with its suffocating cares and concerns and which lies in all manner of evil. The soul feels that it exists here in captivity or in prison; it is a world foreign to its spirit and its nature. Prayer releases a person from this captivity to freedom, and returns him to his Father's House.
And so, brethren, let us approach this sweet converse with the Lord and, turning from the fleeting 'good things' of this world, let us fill our holy churches, and thus ascend the blessed path of the salvation of our souls.
St. Alexander Nevsky Parish,
Howell, New Jersey