For this Sunday’s Lunch, many of us will eat together after church services. A cherished family tradition, Palm Sunday Luncheon in our local parish hall brings us together for an afternoon of hospitality and fellowship. Growing up, I always looked forward to “eating lunch at church.” On Palm Sunday, everyone seems so happy. We’ve traveled together during Great Lent. We feel connected. Having each received a “Palm Cross”, we are reminded of how it provides us with opportunities to witness our Lord’s Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. Palm Sunday Lunch joins me with my “Church Family.” I feel God’s presence. I see His love in action. I thank Him for making my family and I feel included and part of His Body. I am reminded that I am His Disciple. I realize I am called to share His Good News, not only the joy, but also the struggles of carrying the cross He has given to me with which to help Him.
Looking back at my childhood Palm Sunday Lunches, I recognize my mother didn’t have to go home and cook for her family; she could enjoy that afternoon with friends and family, and relax. Thinking of my early years, I can understand why my father was so happy… he and my mother were teaching their sons to embrace their parish family and come to know that it was an essential part of our religious upbringing.
Spiritual seeds were planted on Palm Sunday weekend. The day before, on the Saturday of Lazarus, we went to church, received Holy Communion with all of our childhood friends, and then we folded Palm Crosses to be blessed on Palm Sunday. It took a while for me to understand how Christ raised His friend Lazaros from the dead back to life. I learned that on Holy and Great Pascha, He would do the same for Himself. Having been baptized and living my life in Christ, I came to trust He will do that for me. As an adult, I look forward and cherish the Saturday of Lazaros and Palm Sunday. These two days bridge the long Lenten journey with the penitential services of Holy Week. For the 40 days of Great Lent, my family and I go to extra weekday church services. We fast. We join service projects and we read Holy Scripture more than usual. Then we come together as a family on the weekend before Holy Week, and with God’s Spirit guiding us, we resolve that beginning Palm Sunday evening and continuing through midnight the following Saturday, we will anticipate celebrating the joy of Christ’s Triumphant Ascent from the land of the dead to the land of the living.
At midnight on Holy Saturday, I couldn’t wait for our Priest to depart from the Holy Altar in complete darkness, and exclaim the words, “Come receive the unending light of Christ.” The hymn ushered in the Feast of Great Pascha – the Passover of Jesus bringing the righteous of the Old Testament who had been confined in Hell into His Eternal Kingdom. In turn, we processed outside with our lit candles and heard the Resurrection Gospel’s proclamation of the Empty Tomb and Jesus’ Triumphant Resurrection. I can never describe the Paschal Divine Liturgy… we are tired, but we are full of joy. It is late, but no one wants to go home to sleep. We are connected… we are one family… in our Risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
I always got excited when my Priest, holding the Paschal Candle, left the Altar before the Divine Liturgy ended around 2:00 a.m. Almost in unison, parishioners began sitting up straight. They held their candles aloft. They waited for the cues from the Priest to “echo” as loud as they could the words of the end of the Paschal Sermon of St. John Chrysostom: “Hell was embittered” and “Christ is Risen!”
With no one drowsy or nodding off, our Priest proclaimed the mystery that captures why we have so much hope in witnessing eternal life in God’s Kingdom:
By descending into Hell, [Christ] made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered when it encountered Thee in the lower regions.
It was embittered, for it was abolished.
It was embittered, for it was mocked.
It was embittered, for it was slain.
It was embittered, for it was overthrown.
It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains.
It took a body, and met God face to face.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.
O Death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?
Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.
For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages.
Amen. (End of St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal Homily)
My brothers and sisters in Christ, Holy Week is special. We don’t “have” to go to the extra church services; we “get” to go to them. In college, I remember mourning that week… not because I was “caught up in the Spirit” with the penitential services that brought me closer to God. No, it was because I felt left out that I didn’t have a car and could not access the daily services to the closest Orthodox Church more than 50 miles away. My parents taught my two brothers and I to look forward and to live Holy Week as a family… sacrificing television, extracurricular activities, and personal conveniences and choices. It is integral to who I am. I belong to Christ; I call myself by His name –a “Christian.” Unless my work or my personal obligations to help my family and others with essential and life-giving needs required my absence, I chose NOT to miss them. This Sunday, at my Palm Sunday Lunch, I will share these thoughts and seek to inspire others to join our parish family as they are able. Our Church is open to everyone.
Speaking of sharing one’s thoughts… Yesterday, the day before the Saturday of Lazaros, I sent an email to my parishioners encouraging them to join me and our parish family to spend the Saturday of Lazaros together. A minute after doing that, I received an unexpected, but welcomed word of encouragement from a dear friend, named Tom, whom I met 14 years ago. Back then, Presbytera Marinda and I traveled a distance of 125 miles one-way three Sundays out of four for me to offer services at Transfiguration Church in Columbus, GA. There, Tom as Parish Council President received us each week and encouraged us and he has never stopped. We’re grateful!
Having shared how powerful this weekend, Holy Week, and Great and Holy Pascha are in the life of Orthodox Christians, I pray that our Risen Lord guide and direct me and each of you to offer His Good News in such a way that brings the lost and hurting sheep into His fold. Tom’s encouraging words remind me how critical yet delicate is the approach we must choose in witnessing the “love of Christ”… whether as ordained clergy or as laymen, whom St. Peter referred to as “the royal priesthood”:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of Him Who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. (1 Peter 2.9)
In his email, Tom shared with me a brief, humble, and timely reminder of the power and potential impact of messages that I will offer throughout my ministry. His gift already has influenced my choice of words. Throughout the day that I received them, I offered the Sacrament of Holy Reconciliation (Confession) to parishioners. The words of encouragement from my friend kept playing in my mind as I sought to comfort and offer God’s mercy to those seeking His forgiveness.
Yes, from pastoral training and experience, I know the importance of Tom’s message. His deliberate choice to share it with me at the dawning of Holy Week affords me with an important reminder to seek God’s will as I minister to His flock. Just like the services of Holy Week, his message to me is a gift. It has the potential to influence me not only throughout Holy Week and Great and Holy Pascha, but hopefully for the rest of my earthly ministry. I thank friends and parishioners like Tom for reminding us that your and my thoughts and words have the potential to “correct or to crush” the heart, soul, and spirit of those God places in our path. May those who read this message likewise understand how vital is the choice, the spirit, and the delivery of our words and actions. They have the potential to either “correct or to crush” the heart, soul, and spirit of others… not only during Holy Week and Pascha, but beyond. Tom shared:
I thank you, Fr. George, for your weekly messages of love and hope… they bring joy, encouragement, and Spiritual food to my heart and soul. I would like to share a lesson that I learned from the eulogy for Mother Mary Angelica* as presented by the Catholic Priest presiding at her funeral. He described her as being able to “correct but not crush” in her relationships with others. She could and would be stern when the need arose but then gentle with a kind word, a pat on the back, or even an embrace to make sure that any correction was offered in love. That message really struck my heart…what a great gift from God she possessed. I can reflect in my life when I was on both the giving and receiving end of crushing correction and ask God for His Forgiveness in both circumstances and ask for His guidance in future relationships.
I offer this to you because of your awesome responsibility to serve as a shepherd for Our Lord’s flock…may His Hand guide and comfort you always and lead you to “correct but not crush”.
Thank you for all you do for us…Good Lent, Holy Week, and Pascha
+++ Your humble brother in Christ, Tom Kubik
*35 years ago, Presbytera Marinda and I lived just a few miles from Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Irondale, AL, where Mother Angelica lived and preached. She died just a few weeks ago, on [Western] Easter Sunday. May her memory be eternal and may her words be a reminder of the power we possess as we choose and offer our own words. May they reflect our Risen Christ’s love, hope, and reconciliation for all! Kalo Pascha/Blessed Pascha!
[photo from Fr. George Tsahakis]