(Delivered by the Rector, Father Geoffrey, at the annual parish meeting of All Saints of North America Orthodox Church, January 27, 2013)
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Beloved Brothers & Sisters in Christ:
Each year at this time, I as your rector review the past year in the life of the parish, first in a simple, statistical format, then secondly, in an anecdotal manner, as a reflection on our parish mission statement.
The statistical report is most simple.
Our parish over the year 2012 presents as follows:• Baptisms/Chrismations: 3• Catechumens: 1• Memorial Services: 5• Marriages/Ordinations and Funerals: 0
The anecdotal report is much more complex and nuanced.
In many respects, our parish has been an excellent model of a functioning Christian community, whose focus on the holy services, love, and repentance, is something some other parishes only dream of experiencing.
It would be a mistake, however, to suggest that this is "enough", or that our parish has come to a place where it can rest comfortably and continue to function as it has for the past few years. Those who have been part of the parish since its early days, who have seen the remarkable changes God has wrought among us, also understand that there is much that can and will happen in the future of our community, and that we must be vigilant not to fall into paralysis in the spiritual life, and thereby to actually miss doing the will of God.
Fellowship among the faithful and visitors to our parish has often been recognized as a strength with which we have been blessed. This is obviously true. Visitors to the parish often comment on this, and it is for this reason that our parish enjoys many brothers and sisters in Christ who consider themselves "friends of the parish".
It is important that this be generally the case: it is not enough for those who are seeking Christ and His love simply find one or two friendly souls in our church, nor is it enough for seekers and faithful to like the priest, or be thankful for the good work of the warden, or admire the great labours of the choir director or the parish cleaning team, because brothers and sisters, we will all move on, or we will die. Like the icon of the Mother of God, we must all be pointing people continually to Jesus Christ, and to the saving Mysteries of His Holy Orthodox Church. This is the way in which our love for others will be sustained, and the way in which God will be able to sustain other people who seek it here.
This is the reason so many of the ways in which we each sacrifice our time become means to glorify God, and to point other people to God. Many denominations emphasize giving "credit" to everyone: this is not the same as giving thanks, which we must of course, always do. "Credit" must always go to Christ, and this is the reason that our physical labours in the parish contribute to a Christian Orthodox life here that is greater than the sum of its parts. When we prepare food for the Brotherhood Breakfast or weekly potluck luncheons, we help this cooperation with God to happen, when the Holy Spirit works through circumstances to help us when we are together as faithful, communing Members of the Body of Christ. The same is true when we call or visit those who are sick - which is incidentally the role of the laity as much as the priest.
The same is also true when we practice tithing - the giving of ten percent of our income to Christ and His Church. There is a reason our parish does not erect plaques or make announcements of the donors to the parish, of those who sponsor icons or renovations or liturgical items. This reason is the fact that we are trying to live as Christians, not as the fundraising arm of the Royal Ontario Museum. It also reflects a basic understanding that the temple in which we worship should be at least as well suited to the worship of God as our homes are well-suited to modern life: reason tithing is so central to living out real Christianity.
PRAYER for INNER STILLNESS
The past year has seen a modest increase in our schedule of holy services, and attendance at the services, especially during midweek services. This is important for many reasons, but I would like to mention one spiritual reason this is so essential. When we are alone throughout the week - from Monday to Saturday - cut off from other Orthodox faithful and the common prayers of the Church, our insecurities have a tendency to turn us inward, away from God and brothers and sisters in Christ. Attending the holy services (along with tithing, acts of mercy, and work to maintain the church) turn us outward, toward each other, and most importantly, toward God.
This is the only way in which we can really have communion with God, even if we receive Holy Communion every Sunday. This is even more a risk for those who do not attend Liturgy each Sunday. We must ask: what is the reality of our daily life, as so-called "Orthodox Christians"? Do we pray for each other, do we keep our daily prayer rule, do we arrange to serve memorials for the departed, do we seek prayers for special needs? More pointedly, do we take time off work, or time away from an otherwise "free" Saturday to mark the feasts of the Lord and His saints by partaking in the holy services of the Church? This is the meaning of the term "to be in Communion" with the Orthodox Church, that goes beyond simply partaking of the holy chalice.
Many times, people have confessed to experiencing distractedness or dryness in their prayers at home, or an inability or lack of desire to complete prayers - or even to start them. A fuller Communion with Christ - which comes only through spiritual exertion, and the sacrifice of our time - is the only medicine against this state.
HOLY MYSTERIES for TRANSFORMATION
This is reflected in the related area of the partaking in the Holy Mysteries of the Church - notably Holy Communion, Holy Confession, Holy Baptism, Holy Matrimony, and the Anointing of the Sick.
It is not enough to simply come to watch the life of the Church as a spectator: Christ says that if we do not partake of His Body and Blood, we have no life in us - we operate completely on our own strength, which very quickly leaves us. This is the reason that Christ gives Baptism to the Church, to allow those outside Her to enter into this Gift of God's Grace.
We experience a similar plague of emptiness of spirit among us when an otherwise faithful person comes to disregard the blessing God gives to ma human relationship in the Holy Mystery of Matrimony. I cannot tell you how many lives are repeatedly burnt out by the plagues of sexual addictions and premarital and extramarital activity. These passions are tearing great wounds into our society, and Orthodox Christians are just as afflicted by them as anyone else. This is one of the reasons that our 2013 Orthodox Spirituality Series is scheduled to address these issues specifically. It is sometimes frustrating to come across Orthodox clergy and laity who believe the Church can pastorally care for people without addressing this spiritual tidal wave: this is absolutely foolish, yet it is the product of fear. Our Lord Jesus Christ tells us that perfect love for Him casts out such fear, so we must have courage to do His will in this sensitive, essential area, and to bring His children to the Holy Mystery of Matrimony, and beyond that, to the spiritual healing of the soul.
On the question of Holy Communion, it is interesting to note that the number of faithful partaking each week continues - almost without variance - to represent almost exactly 50% of those in attendance. This is a very good thing, which I believe represents a good balance between a reverence toward the Holy Mysteries, and a recognition that we need to receive them very regularly. In stating this, we must not fail to observe the necessary preparation for receiving the Holy Things. Each time we partake of Holy Communion, we must allow ourselves time to spend the evening before in quietness, as well as attending or saying at home the prayers of Vespers or the Vigil. It is also normal to read at least one Akathist to Christ, the Mother of God, or a saint (among old Russians, this was three Akathists, and two canons, by the way). Faithful should note that an Akathist Hymn refers to prayers that are said while standing; it is not proper to remain in the church for the reading of one, or to read one at home, while sitting down. The same can be said for most of our prayers, since this assists us in being attentive to the words. We must also be aware that regular confession is not simply as regular as we like: if we have not Confessed our sins in the last month, we simply should not receive Holy Communion. We must be ready, brothers and sisters, lest we drink the Judgement of God upon ourselves, as Christ tells us.
Conversely, we must also rid ourselves of the anti-Christian idea that we can successfully live a Christian life while rarely or never partaking of these Holy Mysteries.
EDUCATION through WATCHFULNESS OVER THE HEART
In the area of spiritual education, the last year has seen regular opportunities for our young people and our adult faithful to participate in regular spiritual instruction. This should be the norm for everyone, including clergy. If we are not receiving such instruction from the Church, we are still being shaped on these questions by the views of the world: spiritual education is an inoculation against falsehood, which we all need.
Yet this kind of spiritual education is not enough - in fact, it is not even the norm for Orthodox Christians. As some have discovered, the necessary benefits of Christian pilgrimage to monasteries or other holy places immerses the faithful person in an environment that shapes the soul, gradually removing the distortion that the world creates inside us. We need such education of the heart.
For the times we cannot make such journeys, I believe we are long past due in our parish to make a much more vigorous use of media, such as DVDs and other broadcasts, to bring these experiences closer to our faithful. I am very torn about the best way to do this. There are many excellent resources, yet there is much junk that calls itself "Orthodox", as well. It is my intention, during this tenth anniversary year of our parish, to survey the faithful, to determine the ways in which media can best be used to assist this need. When you are approached, either personally or through email regarding this ministry, please take the time to respond, since it is a priority that should have been addressed some time ago. Additionally, we are experiencing the growth of young teens in the parish, and the relative absence of formal spiritual education for them has not escaped your rector's attention. I would be grateful for your thoughts on how we could make this happen on a regular basis.
FINALLY, a word on EVANGELISM
Evangelism - the sharing of the Gospel of Christ and His Holy Church with the world outside - is primarily the responsibility of the faithful, not the priest. The priest is primarily for the care of the faithful. In this respect, many faithful feel unprepared for such work. Perhaps even, in a parish that is comfortable and friendly, we can sometimes set aside this responsibility. Yet as an old Protestant hymn says, each of us may be the only Bible some people ever read.
Let me reassure you: as you deepen your participation in the life of the Church, as you fast and say your prayers each day, as you draw to mind and repent of your sins and receive Holy Communion, and as you hear the words of the Gospel and the lives of the saints, you receive the very training that the apostles and saints had in their mission work. Our western world is increasingly dry, disinterested, and narcissistic: we can do very little to change it, and whatever impact God allows us to have must come first through a change in our own souls, toward greater holiness.
This means far more than just doing good, or looking good. If our life from Monday to Saturday looks pretty much the same - or even worse - than the secular or marginally Christian people around us, then we are falling short of the true goal of the Christian life, that is, the acquisition of holiness.
If we are living a life that is encompassed in Christ and His Church, everything we do will be improved, and made to reflect the grace of God. And when that happens, we will not have to do anything special: God will simply work through our everyday lives to bring His Gospel to others.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.