Christ is risen! Truly He is risen!
It has been three weeks since we celebrated Great and Holy Pascha and we are well into the festal season. And yet, for many during this extraordinary time, the traditional Paschal greeting flows from pious lips mixed with bitter feelings of sorrow and confusion. The disruption to our religious and social lives caused by Covid-19 has been felt the world over. We have endured a very unconventional Pascha, to say the least. In the midst of what would normally be considered a joyous time of celebration of Christ’s victory over death, we are yet reminded that death is still with us. And as we struggle to reconcile the paradox of Christ’s resurrection juxtaposed to the seemingly all-pervasive death around us, we are reminded once again of death’s presence, not only in the abstract, but as a very specific evil that inflicts very specific persons. Amidst the flurry of our bright and sad Paschal celebrations, death has reemerged in our consciousness in a profoundly tragic, yet sadly, all-too familiar way in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. Our country has been turned completely upside-down over the last few months, yet it seems that our most haunting legacy has remained intact: the unjust slaying of black bodies.
And yet, as horrific as Ahmaud’s death is, it comes as no surprise to those within the black community, for whom this killing is only the latest in one long funeral procession beginning at the very founding of this country. Indeed, this is not the first Paschal season to be marked by racial violence. How many Easters have been celebrated in this country in segregated churches? How many Easters did white mobs organize the lynching of black men and women and distribute commemorative tokens for the occasion? How many blemished sacrifices have been offered on this soil; Christians worshipping the crucified and resurrected body of Christ, while simultaneously injuring, murdering and oppressing the black body of Jesus? Sadly, the killing of Ahmaud Arbery is hardly anomalous, and it is to the great shame of our country.
As counter-intuitive as it may be, however, the recognition of death during the Paschal season is quite fitting. On the third Saturday after Pascha, the Gospel reading comes from John 15:17- 16:2. In it, the Lord reminds his disciples that they will experience hatred and oppression from the world. He tells them that because the world hated and eventually killed him, it will do the same to his followers. As modern readers of the Gospel, we may be tempted to read this passage as warning of the inevitable and unqualified persecution of Christians simply because they believe in Jesus. But the world didn’t hate the disciples because they were Christians in name only. The Gospel tells us Christ’s disciples were hated because they followed Jesus— they went where Jesus went and did what Jesus did. Christ led them, as he leads us, to become lowly and identify with the hated, even to the point of death.
Quoting the Psalmist, the Lord says, “They hated me without a cause.” In his incarnation, crucifixion and decent into death, Christ becomes the one who is hated without a cause. Christ joins the Psalmist and all humans that have been hated without a cause. Throughout his life, Christ identifies with the lowly, the poor, the hated, the outcast, the sinner and the suffering. And at the Final Judgement, Christ will consider actions done to “the least of these” as done unto Him. It is because of his downward movement, his solidarity with the hated and the suffering, that Christ tells his followers that they should expect the same. If anyone is to follow Christ, they follow him into his identification with the hated and they follow him into death.
What does it mean to be a Christian (a follower of Christ) in the wake of the lynching of a black man? In his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone says, “The lynched black victim experienced the same fate as the crucified Christ and thus became the most potent symbol for understanding the true meaning of the salvation achieved through ‘God on the Cross.’” The unjust killing of Ahmaud Arbery, or Bothem Jean, or Trayvon Martin, or Emmett Till or the many other black brothers and sisters in this country brings the cross out of our religious observances and into our lives. And it is by identifying with these victims that we embrace the cross and follow after Christ. Cone says further, “The real scandal of the gospel is this: humanity’s salvation is revealed in the cross of the condemned criminal Jesus, and humanity’s salvation is available only through our solidarity with the crucified people in our midst.” 1 The connection between following Christ and identifying with suffering humanity was also made by Elder Sophrony when he said, “The Son of man has taken into Himself all mankind — He has accepted the ‘whole Adam’ and suffered for him. St. Paul said that we, too, ought to think and feel like Christ — having ‘the same mind which was in Christ.’” 2 If we want to be with Christ, we must suffer with those who suffer.
On the second Sunday after Pascha, we commemorate the myrrh bearing women. In many ways, the story of the myrrh bearing women is a sort of reversal of what St. John Chrysostom described in his Paschal Homily, “[Hell] took a body, and met God face to face.” 3 The myrrh bearing women came to Christ’s tomb, not expecting to meet God, but expecting to show love for Jesus, the dead man. They came with spices to care for his human body. The Church, in her wisdom, places this gospel reading during the Paschal season because she wants us to remember that it is only when we draw near to human death with love that we can experience the presence of God. In the story of the myrrh bearing women, we see the extreme unity between our proximity to God and our care for human suffering and death.
What this requires of us— especially white Christians— is more than “white guilt.” Identifying completely with suffering humanity, and thereby joining Christ, involves repenting of sins we would normally not consider “ours.” Elder Sophrony says, “According to the second commandment, Love thy neighbor as thyself, each of us must, and can, comprise all mankind in our own personal being. Then all the evil that occurs in the world will be seen, not as something extraneous but as our own.” 4 In one sense, we are responsible for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. We are collectively infected with a deep spiritual sickness that has produced countless lynchings, racism and injustice. But what is required is love, not self-loathing, and not performative breast beating in an effort to placate our guilt.
So, what do we do? First, let us bring myrrh to the tomb of Ahmaud Arbery. Let us mourn with those who mourn. Let us pray for rest for his soul and comfort for his family and community. Let us do what the Church does in times of death: let us grieve. In grieving, the Church resists the power of death and insists that it is wrong, it is unnatural and it has been defeated. Let us use the various ways that the Church provides for us to respond to death. Many will commemorate Ahmaud in prayers for the departed during Divine Liturgy. Others will spend these days leading up to Pentecost praying for his soul with the Akathist for Those Who Have Fallen Asleep. Let us not forget his name, and the names of the others who have been killed as a result of racial hatred— those that have been hated without a cause. Let us care for Christ’s body where it has been cut down in the streets of Georgia, or Ferguson, or Sanford. Let us also care for our black brothers and sisters that carry in their body and mind the burden of death. Let us not turn away or quickly forget because it is painful, for it is only in drawing near to death that we will encounter the Living God.
Lastly, as we identify with those who are killed, let us also not be afraid to identify with those who kill. Elder Sophrony said that “each time we refuse to take on ourselves the blame for our common evil, for the actions of our neighbor, we are repeating the same sin [of Adam] and likewise shattering the unity of Man.” 5 In embracing all of humanity as Christ does, we also must confront the evil that lies within all of us. As we pray for the repentance of Ahmaud’s killers, we must also repent. We must confront the ways that our fears, insecurities and jealousies prompt us to think and act in ways that destroy and kill. In our fear of death, our desire to preserve our life, we take from others, we scapegoat our fellow human being. We must confront the racism that exists in our hearts, the habits of thought that prompt us to make stereotyped judgements about black people or people of color. We must confront the reflex to justify a killing like that of Ahmaud Arbery when we presume guilt by asking, “What did he do?” We must repent of the ways that we have simply accepted his death and others like him as “normal,” or unavoidable. By accepting responsibility, we accept the need to change.
These are opportunities for our faith to become alive and for us to experience the resurrection. As Christians, we have no fear of death and bear no condemnation. Because Christ is risen, we are delivered from death’s power and thereby free to confront death in our hearts and in our society. Let us meet Christ then, bringing myrrh to his body that we have also slain, that he may raise us up from our death in his resurrection. Let us live, and not only sing, the Paschal Hymn:
“This is the day of resurrection. Let us be illumined by the feast. Let us embrace each other. Let us call ‘Brothers’ even those that hate us, and forgive all by the resurrection, and so let us cry: Christ is risen from the dead, Trampling down death by death, And upon those in the tombs bestowing life!” 6
1 James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 160.
2 Archimandrite Sophrony, Saint Silouan the Athonite, trans. Rosemary Edmonds (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s
Seminary Press, 1991), 47.
3 St John Chrysostom, “The Paschal Sermon,” https://www.oca.org/fs/sermons/the-paschal-sermon.
4 Sophrony, 122.
5 Sophrony, 121.
6 Verses for Paschal Matins.
Orthodox Prison Ministry Workshop and Retreat
with Fr. Stephen Powley, Zossima Daugherty, and others
January 24-26 2019
Meet & Greet: 7 pm Thursday
Workshop and Retreat: Friday 9-7 and Saturday 9-5
All meals provided
Hosted by Saint Dismas Orthodox Prison Ministry and Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church, Fletcher, NC
For more information: https://theocpm.org/event/saint-dismas-orthodox-prison-ministry-workshop-and-retreat
Join us for our 3rd Annual Conference with Father Turbo to be equipped to deal with many of the social issues that are trying to keep this nation and our communities in darkness of sleep.
Date: Friday, August 24th and Saturday, 25th
Times: Friday starting at 7:00pm and Saturday starting at 10:00am
Place: Saint John WonderWorker Orthodox Church
543 Cherokee Avenue, Atlanta, GA, 30312
Taste of Africa Lunch: Free!
This article was originally posted on the website of St. Vladimir’s Seminary:
In September, a new poll from NBC News and The Wall Street Journal reported that 7-in-10 Americans viewed race relations in the United States as “poor.” The poll revealed that 28% of the public, including 24% of white and 40% of black Americans, stated that race relations are “very bad,” with another 42 percent of all respondents calling them “fairly bad.”
But here at St. Vladimir’s a new student interest group is addressing the problem: the St. Moses the Black Society endeavors to foster meaningful conversation on race in the Orthodox Church today and to introduce the Orthodox Christian faith to black communities in America. The society, which began to take shape Spring Semester 2017, now officially takes its place alongside four other student-led interest groups, all under the umbrella of our Student Council.
(from left) SVOTS Trustee Carla Ann Newbern Thomas, M.D., Seminarian Dn. Simon Menya, Seminarian Anthony Davis, Seminarian Fr. Chrysostom Onyekakeyah, President Archpriest Chad Hatfield, chapel member Bettye Malone, and Seminarian Loveday Okafor. — Photo from St. Vladimir’s Seminary
The president of the newly organized society is Anthony Davis, a seminarian in the Orthodox Church in America, Diocese of the South, and the faculty advisor is Professor Peter C. Bouteneff. Comprising the society are 10 students, among them three African-American seminarians and three African seminarians.
Seminarian Davis revealed upcoming plans for the budding society.
“First of all,” he said, “I led our initial meeting focused around the scriptural verse, Matthew 28:18–20, in which Jesus directs his disciples to go forth to all other nations, baptizing them and teaching them. I reminded society members that we are supposed to reach out not only to people who look like ourselves; we’re supposed to reach out to everyone.
“Second, we’re going to build our ministry on prayer, especially prayer to some of the African saints,” he noted. “We hope to schedule Akathist services to ask intercession of holy fathers and mothers like St. Moses the Black and St. Mary of Egypt.
“Third,” he explained, “we hope to minister in facilities like Emmaus House of Harlem, rubbing shoulders with people from black communities, and introducing them to the Orthodox faith.”
The society takes its inspiration from the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black, a national pan-Orthodox organization that desires to make the Orthodox faith available to the African American community and to help the broader Church in realizing this goal. In fact, several members of the St. Moses Society participated in the Brotherhood’s 24th Annual Conference held October 6–8, 2017, in Princeton, NJ, which was titled, “Growing Closer to Christ, Growing Closer Together,”. Seminary Board of Trustee member, Carla Ann Newbern Thomas, M.D., spearheaded and organized that national conference, and seminary president, Fr. Chad Hatfield, led the seminary community contingent. (Read related story, which includes photo of St. Vladimir’s attendees.)
View videos of St. Moses the Black Society members Seminarian Sacristan Anthony Davis and Seminarian Deacon Simon Menya, as they explain how important the daily liturgical life in Three Hierarchs Chapel is to their spiritual formation.
Dear brothers and sisters of the Brotherhood of St Moses the Black,
I greet you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ!
Only one year has passed since our last conference and through the grace of God and your prayers, we are able to assemble again.
We find ourselves in the midst of turmoil and confusion in our country. But Jesus Christ has overcome this world, and if we would only follow his instructions concerning how we ought to treat each other and how we should be disposed towards Caesar, we will prevail.
People are responding to the injustice that we see all around us. The BSMB response will not be lock step with that which I’ve come to call “high secularism”. High secularism, for which I have respect, is the thought of intelligent, sensitive, well-meaning people who yet remain outside the salvific ark of Orthodoxy. These are righteous people, but unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, we should in nowise enter the Kingdom of Heaven” Matt. 5:20.
I will not attempt to tell you how you, personally, should rally around today’s movements and protests. I will, however, address how the Brotherhood can participate in these events. We can act through prayer, fasting and forgiving our brothers their trespasses.
Very few of us, other than I, have directly experienced police brutality, in my case to the point of being handcuffed at gunpoint and pushed into the backseat of a police car and threatened with being taken to the woods and left for the wolves. If not for the prayers of right-believing Christians, the descendants of slaves, I wouldn’t have escaped. So, I can, with some authority, talk about how we overcome unjust and cruel treatment at the hands of the godless authorities. We endure it with longsuffering, we turn away from hatred, and we pray for those who despitefully use us and say all manner of evil against us falsely for His names’s sake, for great will our reward be in Heaven. If we don’t act for the sake of Christ, our labors are in vain. This may sound lofty, but the whole enterprise of being an Orthodox Christian is lofty, and not of this world.
Black lives matter. What we are saying is, “I am a human being. Treat me like one.” When I proposed to the All American Council of my jurisdiction that we resolve to make every effort to reach out to African Americans, I was met with, “but we should reach out to all people, so why specify African Americans?” In other words, the painfully familiar, “all lives matter”. Of course, all lives matter, but that’s not the point, is it. This kind of response comes from some of those outside of our experience, and we need to be steadfast and patient in educating them about what it means to be Black in America and Black in the American Orthodox Church. That’s part of what this Brotherhood is called to do. Nevertheless, our engagement with this movement must transcend high secularism.
How do we do that? We march, but as Orthodox we march with holy images, banners, incense and prayers. Were we to publicly proclaim our faith this way, we’d soon find out who our real brothers are, Orthodox or not. I suspect we’d have friends within the movement and enemies within the Church. Regardless, if we want to make a change, we reach towards heaven, not to the unrighteous wisdom of this world.
I know a Jewish woman who told me once that the central question of her life was “if they threw me into a concentration camp, the intent of which was to turn me into an animal, how could I remain a human being?” Her answer, she said, was most deeply revealed in the Church. We aren’t promised fairness, kindness, dignity, love, or any other right and pleasant thing from this world. But we know the source of all those things, and that we are loved. Hold on to that, brothers and sisters and to each other, in Christ. Yes, with each passing year the deception is stronger, “normalcy” becomes more confused, and it gets harder and harder to do those things prescribed for us in Holy Scripture, to yield to the Word of God. This is our struggle, and it is very real.
Do what you feel you must to join your efforts to those crying out for change. Hold fast to the words of Our Lord, “these things have I spoken unto you, that in Me you might have peace, in the world you will have tribulations, but be of good cheer! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33.
May God bless you,
“Fifteen thousand people were gathered outside. Jacob Campbell, sheriff of Grant County, had threatened to shoot into the crowd if it didn’t disperse, but women and children stood in the front ranks, calling his bluff. Hooded Klansmen and Marion police cleared a path through the crowd for Cameron, and when he reached the elm tree a noose was fastened around his neck. Cameron prayed silently, waiting to die. The photographer captured another image of the smiling and festive crowd.
But then they all fell silent. Cameron heard a woman’s voice: “Take this boy back. He had nothing to do with the killing and the rape.” The noose was removed from his neck, the crowd began to break up, and Cameron staggered back to the jail.”
Cameron in the jail cell he occupied the night of the lynching. — Johnson Publishing Company, via BuzzFeed
(Retrieved from https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/life-stories-he-survived-a-lynching-now-he-wont-let-us-forget/Content?oid=908694 on October 16, 2017)
James Cameron, the youth mentioned in this story, was one of our speakers at the St. Moses the Black Conference during the 1990’s. He was the last victim of an actual lynching in the United States, but lived to tell about it! When he, in his 80s, told us of this experience in the 1930s in Marion, Indiana, I asked him, “Who do you think the woman was that invisibly spoke to the crowd?” He said, “The Mother of God!”
On October 1/14 each year, Orthodox Christians celebrate the feast of the Protection of the Mother of God. In his Homily on this feast, St. Dimitri of Rostov writes,
“Truly she defends us and adorns us. She defends us when she drives far away from us visible and invisible enemies, when she frees captives from their bonds, when she delivers those tormented by unclean spirits, when she comforts the sorrowing and is the intercessor for the offended and calm haven for those driven by storms; when she feeds the hungry and visits the sick. She adorns us when she covers the shameful nakedness of our lives before God with her supreme merits, like precious garments, and abundant grace, like an inexhaustible treasure that fills our poverty and makes us acceptable in God’s eyes. She adorns us when she covers us who have no wedding garment with her garments, and makes the shameful nakedness of our souls as if unseen to the All-Seeing Eye.”
http://orthochristian.com/107179.html on October 16, 2017)
This of course is exactly what happened to James Cameron on that fateful night of August 7, 1930, when she freed this captive from his bonds, comforted the sorrowing youth and interceded for the offended! Once again the ugly head of racial violence and hatred has emerged in the United States. Yet the calmer of spiritual storms, the Birthgiver of God, Mary, the Ever-Virgin, is waiting for our prayers. As she helped James Cameron then, she is desirous of helping all that are troubled and afflicted in our turbulent days.
Consider these words from the Akathist (the service prayed while standing) to the Protection of the Mother of God:
Rejoice, Thou who dost save us from the attacks of strangers and secret murderers.
Rejoice, Thou who dost guard us with peace and love against family quarrels and the enmities of those of our own blood.
Rejoice, our Joy, protect us from every ill by Thy precious Veil. (Ikos 9)
(Retrieved from http://www.angelfire.com/planet/parastos/akathistprotection.html on October 16, 2017)
In this same akathist, there are prayers for so many ills and troubles. All she is waiting for is for us to ask!
In his homily for the feast, St. Dimitri concludes:
Thus, we celebrate the Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos Virgin, remembering her most glorious appearance in the Blachernae church, seen by Sts. Andrew and Epiphanios. We celebrate, giving thanks to our Protectress for her great mercy shown to the Christian race, and we earnestly pray to her that she would now and always prayerfully protect us who seek her protection. We pray, because without her protection it would be impossible for us, who continually anger God, to live. Sinning over and over again, we are likewise subjected to many punishments according to the words of the Psalmist: Many are the scourges of the sinner (Ps. 31:10). We would have perished long ago for our iniquities if the merciful Sovereign Lady had not interceded for us: “If we had not had Thee ever interceding for us, who would have delivered us from so many dangers, who would have kept us free until now?”
Let us then pray this wonderful akathist. Let us ask for the healing of our nation, for the reconciliation of strife, the deliverance of those that are oppressed, mercy for our many sins, wisdom for our leaders, and for the Protection of this Holy Intercessor, who even now is helping us. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Hieromonk Alexii Altschul
Holy Archangel Michael and All Angels Skete;
A monastery of the Serbian Orthodox Church
“I came to this memorial service because I believe this is an appropriate occasion not only to dedicate myself as well as our Greek Orthodox communicants to the noble cause for which our friend, the Reverend James Reeb, gave his life; but also in order to show our willingness to continue this fight against prejudice, bias, and persecution. In this God-given cause, I feel sure that I have the full and understanding support of our Greek Orthodox faithful of America. For our Greek Orthodox Church and our people fully understand from our heritage and our tradition such sacrificial involvements. Our Church has never hesitated to fight, when it felt it must, for the rights of mankind; and many of our Churchmen have been in the forefront of these battles time and again… .
The ways of God are not always revealed to us, but certainly His choice of this dedicated minister to be the victim of racial hatred and the hero of this struggle to gain unalienable constitutional rights for those American brethren of ours who are denied them, and to die, so to speak, on this battlefield for human dignity and equality, was not accidental or haphazard. Let us seek out in this tragedy a divine lesson for all of us. The Reverend Reeb felt he could not be outside the arena of this bitter struggle, and we, too, must feel that we cannot. Let his martyrdom be an inspiration and a reminder to us that there are times when we must risk everything, including life itself, for those basic American ideals of freedom, justice, and equality, without which this land cannot survive. Our hope and prayer, then, is that we may be given strength to let God know by our acts and deeds, and not only by our words, that like the late Reverend James Reeb, we, too, are the espousers and the fighters in a struggle for which we must be prepared to risk our all.”
– Archbishop Iakovos
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