When I was young, my parents would share stories during our Sunday Lunches which I liken today as them admitting they were human… i.e., they taught us they could and did make mistakes; they could and did own up to them. They helped my brothers and me understand that while we all will “miss the mark” in life, they always would love us. Our parents reminded us throughout our youthful lives that God loves us unconditionally. He always waits for us to return and reconcile with Him and others when we fail in our endeavors to obey and honor Him.
In memory of all of our parents who taught us to value and celebrate Holy Pascha, I want to reflect on a real-life incident in which I made a mistake and learned from it… just as my parents always assured me would happen if I were sincere and honest with God, with others, and with myself!
“Come, receive the light from the unwaning (unending) light . . .”
A few years ago on Holy Saturday night, I cried out these exact words in the utter darkness of church. Indeed, at midnight on Pascha (Easter), I joined the faithful in celebrating our cherished remembrance of the Resurrection of our Risen Lord from the dead. I well recall how our entire church was bathed in darkness so pervasive that I became overwhelmed and momentarily lost my bearings in chanting the words of this familiar hymn. As a result, I felt helpless and unable to continue until a welcome voice from the congregation confirmed to me where I should be. I express my thanksgiving for this supportive act, albeit to most, perhaps my stumbling was either unnoticed or considered less than significant since so much was going on.
Looking back now, I realize I had misplaced my focal point and it was not until I focused on the solitary and welcome light of the Paschal Candle itself that I understood that it would enable me to see clearly once more and be restored and encouraged. Indeed, in a rather abrupt and unforgettable way, our Lord bathed me in His unending light amidst that curtain of darkness. He offered me a wonderful reminder of my dependence upon Him for guidance and direction.
“. . . and glorify Christ, Who has risen from the dead.”
During the Paschal Divine Liturgy that followed, as I continued to lift up the Paschal Candle representing the “Light of Christ,” I easily forgot my earlier feelings of insecurity, because the church was now inundated with awe-inspiring light from the candles of more than one hundred faithful worshippers of His Body who were present and supporting me. Yes, our mutual worship during the liturgy, joined by the congregational choir led by our chantors and choir members guided us to an uplifting celebration of God’s glorious and triumphal presence.
In the early hours of Pascha/Easter, together we received His Precious Body and Blood offered for the forgiveness of our sins and life everlasting. Everywhere about me I easily “saw” the unity of God’s children worshipping together and praising His Holy Name. Everywhere I was “inspired” by His divine love, mercy, and peace. Everywhere I “experienced” His highly visible signs of renewal and salvation as we basked in the “unending light” of the Risen Christ in our midst!
“Having beheld the Resurrection of Christ . . .”
In response to encountering “Heaven on Earth” during our Paschal Liturgy that year, I glorify Him for this blessing. While my physical blindness at midnight was merely temporary, among us there are those who cannot physically see anytime, and who have learned to recognize our Risen Lord’s presence every moment of their lives in spite of their hardship and disability. God is using them to “shine”
His unwaning light so that we all recognize that He is ever present in our lives. Indeed, my experience at midnight underscored His power and influence in the lives of all of those who rely on Him every conscious moment of their existence. In serving as our eyes and overcoming our blindness, our Risen Lord enables all to see and discern His divine grace at all times and in all places.
“. . . let us worship the Holy Lord Jesus . . .”
I want to share an extraordinary witness I cherish closely since my short-lived Paschal blindness incident. Just a couple of weeks earlier that year, I was blessed to con-celebrate both the Sunday Hierarchical Divine Liturgy and the Presanctified Liturgy at our Annunciation Cathedral in Atlanta, Georgia, with His Eminence Metropolitan Alexios and His Excellency Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia, joined by my brother Greek Orthodox clergy. At the second worship service on Wednesday evening, around 6:15 p.m., with plenty of light highlighting the massive interior of the Metropolis Cathedral with its glorious majesty, I witnessed an amazing icon of God’s Glorious Presence in our midst.
“The light of Christ enlightens all.”
Unnoticed by the majority of worshippers present, as Metropolitan Alexios offered incense during the worship service and exclaimed “The light of Christ enlightens all”, near the front left wall of the Cathedral Nave where I had passed just three days earlier, I observed God’s resplendent presence in the heart and soul of one of His most vulnerable and perhaps ignored
sheep – a young blind woman who converted to Orthodoxy on her own choosing and ever since has struggled to live her life in its fullness. She faithfully embraces our Risen Lord and His faith without direct intervention or dependence of those who routinely welcome and embrace her presence in their midst. Indeed, to most observers, she is coping very well, but that is easy to assume but not necessarily the case . . .
“Make us also here on earth worthy to glorify You with pure hearts.”
For me personally, I am in awe of her unexplainable and truly gifted ability to have brought others, including the physically blind, into His Holy Body. My friend, Heather, is a woman whose life can never compare with yours or mine. Every moment of her existence is lived in total and desolate physical darkness, and no matter how much light I would like to give her in the form of physical sight, it is only the “unwaning light of Christ” that enables her to overcome the threats of the difficulties unseen to us, but ever lurking in her path each moment of her life. Heather’s solitary and isolated perspective of life can never be comprehended by those of us who perceive life in the “normal” context of beauty and freedom that each of us often take for granted. Her success in her everyday world is sustained exclusively by our Resurrected Lord, Who has made her “on earth worthy, to glorify Him with a pure heart.”
While our spouses and children support and encourage us, Heather lives alone, with only one companion, whom she calls Zahara, a name whose perfect literal Greek transliteration is the English word for “Sahara” – the world’s largest hot desert – perhaps a subtle Freudian reference to her own personal sightless and desolate world, or hopefully, it is a derivative of the familiar Greek word for sugar (“zahari”).
Notwithstanding, Zahara, the companion working dog God has provided to my friend as a “seeing-eye” dog, serves faithfully and flawlessly to lead her “Master” from the “desert” of her inner existence to the “sweetness of life” that God has granted to each of us. Ironically, Heather, as the “Master” is completely dependent on her “servant” dog for her every freedom and movement. Zahara, with love and devotion, carries out her duties without complaints, without selfishness, and with constant sacrifice, while others in her breed are routinely adopted as “pets” to be pampered and spoiled, without the slightest expectation of being depended upon for the survival of their owner(s). In short, Zahara is God’s gift to Heather and enables her to taste the “sweetness” of life rather than be abandoned in the isolation and dryness of the hot and barren desert that otherwise would be her fate without such devotion and support.
“Let my prayer be set before You, and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.”
My theophany moment during that Presanctified Liturgy in the Cathedral – when God revealed His spectacular presence in my midst – was offered with the backdrop of His “Transfiguration of our Lord Icon” behind His physically blind servant Heather, underscored by a candle and its flame lifted up by Fr. Christos Mars as we stood next to one another in the Altar. I believe that through God’s divine grace, Fr. Chris’ candle’s placement in front of Heather and the Icon of the Transfiguration of our Lord “reflects the transfigured light of our Risen Christ” in the dynamic and ongoing relationship between Heaven and Earth, between the Church Triumphant and the Church Militant, and between Heather [and each of us] and the Apostles of Christ within His Kingdom who seek to offer us His Good News! Truly, we have been given a special insight into God’s presence in our midst, involving one of His very special children, and how He never abandons or forgets them during their trials and tribulations.
In the photo of the Transfiguration icon with Heather at its base, I discerned an amazing sight – Christ Jesus’ transcendent light, joined by His Prophets of Old, Elijah and Moses, overshadowing His three Apostles, Peter, John, and James on Mt. Tabor. Oblivious to the massive and overwhelming Icon of the Transfiguration of our Lord behind her, the small and almost unnoticed figure of Heather is nonetheless in our Risen Lord’s sight and in the midst of those surrounding Him. Heather reflects the light of Christ in the world, and observe how she appears so full of God’s Spirit as she lifts up her hands in grateful response to the hymn being sung at the moment this photo was taken and Metropolitan Alexios was offering incense throughout the Cathedral: “Let my prayer be set before You as incense; and the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.” Heather, unaware of the Transfiguration Icon behind her, is offering her personal sacrifice with the “fear of God, with faith, and with love,” anticipating in joyful expectation the Holy Eucharist which will sustain her in the “desert” of her world and reward her with His sweetness. Also notice how the sunlight highlights, like a laser beam, the youthful Apostle John in the icon . . . upon closer inspection, his countenance and demeanor of humility worshipping our Transfigured Lord is similarly reflected in Heather’s raised and submissive posture of humble supplication to our Lord. St. John appears to be leaning forward from the wall and supporting and uplifting Heather as she prays, and he literally seems to draw her into the peace of our Transfigured Lord without her knowledge and effort.
“Holy, holy, holy, Lord Sabaoth, heaven and earth are filled with Your glory.”
I offer glory to God for this “manifestation of His love and presence in our lives.” Likewise, while I experienced only a momentary lack of sight as Pascha arrived, I am in awe of my friend and co-worker, Heather Stubbs’ living continuously without any fear as she confronts each aspect of life physically blind, but spiritually full of God’s grace . . . as she offers her amazing witness in an almost unnoticed presence to remind me and you in a unique and memorable way of His Power and Presence to transfigure . . . to transform, . . . and to forever change us from a life of doubt and fear, to one that joins the Heavenly Chorus in proclaiming His Victory with the Angelic Anthem of “Holy, holy, holy, Lord Sabaoth, heaven and earth are filled with Your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord. Hosanna to God in the highest.”
Christ is Risen! Truly, He is Risen!
*(Texts in subtitles and italics refer to well-known Orthodox Hymns and Exclamations from the Midnight Resurrection Service, the Presanctified Liturgy, and the Divine Liturgy.)