Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen!
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There is for us – at least for me – a sort of “bright sadness” or “sorrowful joy,” as we Orthodox like to say, in our gathering here today. We are one of the few blessed counties to begin a phased-in re-entry, a kind of return to a pseudo-reality, evidenced here by the absence of the majority of our brethren. Though cleared for re-opening, it is limited or restricted yet by parameters set in place by our shepherds – the governor and our Holy Synod – who are guardians of our souls and our bodies. There is joy in our gathering once again after enduring a seemingly endless hiatus after hitting the pause button quickly, and there is sorrow because we aren’t simply picking up where we had left off, resuming Great and Holy Lent with its beautiful Presanctified Liturgies directing us to Great and Holy Pascha, and there are many who were among us at that time who are not here today because of their being in those high risk categories.
In one sense, we have spanned a great period of time since we last gathered, doing what we could do at our home altars and in opening up the Chapel for prayer and contemplation. There is joy in that and there is sorrow. There is most certainly a sense of deprivation: we were deprived of the joy of Pascha precisely because we were denied the experience of Great and Holy Lent. But there is joy nonetheless because we are not nor have we ever been deprived of God and His tenacious, enduring, loving Presence all throughout this crisis. God is not locked out of our lives! Indeed, God cannot be locked out of our lives little more than locked doors could keep the crucified and risen Jesus at bay, unless, that is, we have locked Him out – bolted and shut the gates of our hearts and minds, denying Him access – because we have refused His Holy Spirit’s comfort and consolation, choosing rather to focus on what we lost during this lockdown or were deprived of rather than Who has been present all along in these days and nights. Christ is risen! Has that changed? Has that truth by which all the saints have lived and died and live again been killed because of this crisis? Christ is risen! Is that true for us today as it was 2000 years ago? Pray tell, why do we still mourn the dead or look for the living among the dead (Lk. 24:1-9)? Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen!
This, in a way, is what the Church celebrates today as we now have been making our way away from the Empty Tomb and back into living our everyday lives. Although we return to normal, that never means the fact of the Resurrection is diminished as we journey away from the Tomb because we live – and die – in the truth and the reality of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. He goes with us regardless of the circumstances of our lives. Our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ is ever with us and we with Him in every moment of this life. The Good Shepherd has come in search of the bruised and lost sheep. He comes to the pool by the Sheep Gate in search of those in need of His health and salvation (Jn. 5:1-15) and He comes, in the person of His shepherd, Peter, to the paralyzed Aeneas and to the deceased Tabitha. He comes to the Church bereaved by the death of Dorcas whose life was adorned with the small acts of charity and almsgiving, whose good works and acts of love endeared her to the hearts of those mourners in Joppa and, more importantly, endeared her to God. The truth and the reality of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is never a distant remembrance but an ever-present power in our lives and in the life of the Church which is the Body of Jesus Christ Himself. For Christ is risen!
One of the things that has always captured my attention in this resurrection story outlined for us in Acts is how the Church remembers Tabitha or Dorcas. And, it makes me ponder just how will the Church one day at my funeral vigil remember me? Just what will be said of me and my life as a priest, as a father, as a husband, a son, and a brother . . . . as a Christian, as a human being? Will my life have adorned the Gospel like hers because the Gospel – the Way and the Kingdom of Jesus – has adorned my life just as it obviously did Tabitha’s?
“Now there was at Joppa,” says St. Luke, “a certain disciple named Tabitha (which interpreted is Dorcas). This woman was full of good woks and almsdeeds which she did.” It was for this very reason that she was a beloved soul, beloved by her neighbors as well as the Church there in Joppa, for her mercies knew no limits. Her acts of charity were not restricted and her faith locked down. No doubt, in keeping with the words of our Lord to us not to make a show of our charity and acts of almsgiving in order to be noticed, Tabitha doubtless followed (Mt. 6:1-4). But, such mercies and kindness cannot long remain concealed. Eventually, their truth comes out, seeps out and is revealed, to the glory of God Who inspires such goodness. “No one is good but God alone,” our Lord once averred (Mt. 19:17; Mk. 10:18; Lk. 18:19), but it is the saints like Tabitha who shine with such goodness because they are so full of God! May it be so for us who live and strive in these after-days of the Resurrection!
I suspect that what St. Luke divulges here about Tabitha is important and we, too, should take note. It prepares us for the story of Cornelius the Centurion in the very next chapter who lived nearby (Ac. 10:1-48). According to Holy Tradition, after his conversion to Jesus Christ under the ministry of St. Peter, he joined the Lord’s Apostle in evangelizing others with the Gospel, was made a Bishop, worked miracles, and died peacefully despite having been imprisoned at one point for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. St. Cornelius is commemorated by the Church on 13 September. What sticks out in Cornelius’ story in Acts, however, is how he is recollected. Though a Roman Gentile and a soldier, at that, he was nonetheless “a devout man and one who feared God with all his house, who gave alms to the people, and prayed to God always” (Ac. 10:1-2). It was his devotion to prayer and his almsgiving which caught the eye of God, however, so that they rose up “’as a memorial before God” (Ac. 10:4, 31). Interestingly enough, St. Luke records another centurion in his Gospel of like character and recognition on whose behalf the Lord Jesus acted (Lk. 7:1-10). Despite the push by certain Christian strains to downplay, even dismiss wholesale, the importance and influence of our charitable acts before God, the Sacred Scriptures are not embarrassed to elevate them by preserving them in its divine revelation.
Tabitha was a “woman full of good works and charitable deeds . . . .” This is certainly in keeping with what our Lord Jesus has said elsewhere in His Sermon on the Mount. He expounds on the importance of “’[laying] up for yourselves treasures in Heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal’” (Mt. 6:19-21). And St. Paul builds on that very notion and practice when he instructs Bishop Timothy to
Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, Who gives us richly all things to enjoy. Let them do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share, storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on Eternal Life (1 Tm. 6:17-19).
Jesus in another Gospel encourages us to use “’unrighteous mammon’” to make friends of the poor by blessing them with it so that when the time comes, we might be remembered in the eternal habitations (Lk. 16:1-13). Despite the fears and extreme reservations of some Christian groups regarding the extent and role of good works in our Christian faith and living, especially as they touch upon our salvation, Sacred Scripture is not bashful, but forcefully reminds us that God has “prepared [us] for every good work” (2 Tm. 2:21; 3:17), even after telling us that we are “saved by grace through faith” and denying that our salvation is not by works, “lest any man should boast”. Yet, what did God do? He created us “in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them” (Ep. 2:1-10)! We are assured by St. Paul the Apostle of grace that God has purified “for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works” (Ts. 2:14) which are to be maintained because “these things are good and profitable to men” (Ts. 3:8). These works become the standard by which God will judge us when we stand before His throne (Mt. 16:27; 25:31-46; Jn. 5:29; 2 Cr. 5:10; Rv. 19:8; 20:12).
So, what has this to do with us in these “yellow phase” days and modified lockdown? The Resurrection of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ continues to touch our lives and cannot be stymied (unless we choose). We may be restricted, but acts of charity and mercy are not and never are! We are reminded that “Everything we do of value in the eyes of God” gains us God’s recognition and is not wasted! Regardless of our circumstances, the Resurrection – Life out of death! – penetrates and permeates us as the baptized, and we can still “Trust in the Lord, and do good” or said differently, “Hope in the Lord, and work goodness” (Ps. 36 :3). Nothing escapes God’s vigilant eye. The simplest act or word or gesture is a treasure laid up in Heaven, according to Jesus and His Word. Sir Thomas Moore or St. Thomas Moore, as he is known by our Roman Catholic brethren, once quipped that “The ordinary acts we practice every day . . . are of more importance to the soul than their simplicity might suggest.” One of my favorite Old Testament books, the Wisdom of Sirach otherwise known as Ecclesiasticus (translated as “The Church Book”), has quite a bit to say about this. He cautions:
Remember that death does not delay, and the covenant of Hades has not been shown to you. Before you die, do good to a friend, and reach out and give to him based on your ability. Do not let a day go by without doing something good, and do not let any of your desire for doing good escape you (Sr. 14:12-14).
Sirach continues, “A man’s almsgiving is like a seal with [God], and He will treasure the kindness of a man like the pupil [apple] of His eye, after this [God] will arise and repay them, . . . .” (Sr. 17:17-19). Let us not be quick to discount a note of thanks, an email of encouragement, a phone call checking in or of well wishing, a small act of appreciation. Let us not be quick to dismiss an act of not repeating gossip we’ve heard. This act of “not doing” is equally important! Again, Sirach says,
He who rejoices in evil shall be condemned, and he who hates
talkativeness will sin less. Never repeat a word and you will lose nothing at all; with friend or enemy, do not report it, and unless it is a sin for you, do not reveal it. . . . Have you heard a word? Let it die with you. Take courage; it will not burst you (Sr. 19:5-10).
The power of the Resurrection – Pascha joy! – remains ours, even in these days. Although we have been locked down for nearly two months, God hasn’t been so restrained. The way of salvation remains the path we trod with no limits, except those we set. Sin didn’t take a siesta when the governor ordered us to shelter in place, did it? Mercy and charity, therefore, remain unassailed, unimpeded. Can you pray? Then pray for the living. But, moreso, pray for the dead – friends as well as enemies! This is a spiritual work of mercy and grace, especially to our enemies. Who can tell what grace has been given by their remembrance in our prayers before the mercy seat of God? For me, this is one of the most exciting things I can do as an Orthodox Christian: I can pray for those who have died and I can pray for those who are dying and commend them to the maternal care of our Most Blessed Mother and Lady Theotokos, our Panagia.
“At Joppa there was a certain disciple named Tabitha, . . . This woman was full of good works and charitable deeds . . . .” The grace and the power of the Resurrection worked in and through this most beloved woman before she died. And it restored her to life, through the ministry of the Church embodied in St. Peter, not to mention the intercessions of all those whom her good works and alms had touched. No doubt, then, following her temporary “lockdown,” she returned to live the remainder of her days as a most faithful and beloved disciple of Jesus Christ our God! Let this be our desire and our emulation as we become icons of Heaven.
Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen!
Ac. 9:32-42Jn. 5:1-15