Parma, OH - On Thursday, 24 November 2016, His Grace Bishop Irinej of Eastern America celebrated the Holy Hierarchical Liturgy at the St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Cathedral in Parma, Ohio.
A substantial gathering of worshippers came to liturgically honor the memory of St. Stephen of Dechani and to celebrate Thanksgiving Day, beginning with the celebration of the Divine Liturgy.
Concelebrating with His Grace were the Very Reverend Protopresbyter-Stavrophor Dr Zivojin Jakovljevic, Dean of the New York City Cathedral and former parish priest, the Venerable Protosingelos Sava (Medakovich) of Monastery Marcha, the Very Reverend Protopresbyter Dragoslav Kosic, current parish priest, the Reverend Presbyter Dragan Goronjic, Dean of the Cleveland Deanery, and the Reverend Presbyter Vedran Grabic. Responses were rendered by the Cleveland Njegosh Choir under the direction of Mr. Milan Damljanovic.
Following the reading of the Gospel Lections for the day, His Grace edified those gathered on the nature of the double celebration of St. Stephen of Dechani and Thanksgiving Day as understood from the context of Holy Scripture:
“Beloved, we have gathered today to celebrate as Serbian Orthodox Christians the feast of St Stephen of Dechani - and we also celebrate, as those who live here in the United States of America, the great feast of Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving is, essentially, a Christian Holiday and therefore a Christian Feast day. If we listen to what St. Paul has written in his first letter to the Thessalonians (5:16-18), he has noted the following: If you wish to be recognized as a follower of Christ, there must be three things that are perceivable in your being: First, and foremost, rejoice at all times. Why? Because even during trials and tribulations, those who are called to follow Christ will be filled with joy. And, as is rightfully put forth in the New Testament, how will they recognize that we are Christians? The answer is by our joy. For he who has no joy does not know of the living God. Secondly, pray constantly. For he who prays at all times is in communion with the living God. And for that reason the third component is that which explains the first and the second component - which is always give thanks to God for everything.
In fact we heard two Gospel lections being read this morning. The first one accorded to the Feast of St Stephen of Dechani, spoke to us about Christ and about his Father who sent him, and those who would hate us in this world for being followers of the living God who provides us with our life. He also comforts us by adding, do know that if the world hates you it has hated me first. Why? “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19).
Thereafter, the second Gospel lection which we heard, prescribed for Thanksgiving Day, was about the ten lepers. And as we know out of ten lepers who were so hideously disfigured by their disease, having been cured entirely, only one remembered to turn around and give thanks to Jesus Christ for his healing.
Now it is interesting that in the Serbian language we have two words for healing. They are essentially the same, and yet substantially different. When somebody is ill and they go to a physician and he prescribes medicine for them, we would say that is to go to a doctor to obtain healing - “lecenje”. The second word, however, is different and that is when you seek healing from God Incarnate, Jesus Christ. And in so doing, through the intercessions of our Church and through the healing which is offered it is above and beyond medicine and medical treatment. And that’s why we say, in Serbian, “iscelenje” because you return somebody’s wholeness and thereby restore their dignity. You return their entirety, you return their being to them as God intended them to be. And therein lies the difference.
But how are we to express our thanks when we go through difficult circumstances in life and they are not always something for which we care to offer gratitude. As mentioned earlier in my Serbian portion of the homily, St John the Divine describes God as ‘light’ (I John 1:5). In the Epistle to the Hebrews (12:29), God is described as ‘fire’.
When we wish to be cleansed, think about what do we do when we have unearthed a precious metal in its raw form from the very earth which God gave us? The only way to clean it, to purify it, is to put into fire. Fire is an interesting substance because fire can give us life, as it can give us warmth and maintain our very being. And yet, fire can destroy.
But the question is, is it ever God who performs acts of destruction? No it is not. However, does God allow such acts to transpire from time to time? Yes. Why? In order that we may garner from that tragic incident an important lesson for us and for our salvation.
And so even when tragedy strikes, we are to thank God for saving us and for holding our hands through that tragedy, saving us and clearing a path for each and every one of us that will lead us from this life into life eternal. For that reason, every human being is called to be a person of Thanksgiving.
The great teacher of Orthodoxy, Alexander Schmemann would have stated in the Latin language, every person is ‘homo adorans’ - the being that can raise his hands in prayer and offer thanks to the living God. For only he who offers thanks fulfills himself as a person. And this was integral to Fr Alexander’s last sermon which he spoke on this earth, before passing into life eternal, on Thanksgiving Day (24 November 1983): “Everyone capable of thanksgiving”, he stated, “is capable of salvation and eternal joy.”
And for that reason, at the very heart of our Liturgy, we have the Eucharistic Canon as ‘eucharist’, in Greek, means thanksgiving. Every Liturgy is the service of thanksgiving. Therefore, whenever we gather, no matter how impoverished we are as individuals, the community is sacred. And when we gather in the community, we form a common union with each other. We commune with each other. And wherever two or three are gathered in Christ, he will be in their midst. For that reason the Holy Fathers stated, and it cannot be repeated often enough, when we gather as a community within the context of Liturgy we become a perfected community of Christ’s love. Because he is in our midst and God is here present, and we are no longer merely on the face of this earth but we have been transposed into the Kingdom of Heaven. Look about you, look at the walls of this church and behold how these icons speak to us.
Do these walls exist as such anymore? Does this ceiling exist as such? No. It is become for us that critical and important window into eternity for everything that is on the earth embraces in its center, in our midst, the kingdom of heaven, which is present. Indeed, look at how the holy ones gaze at us through the prism of eternity.
For all of you who celebrate today, on this day, your patronal feast St Stephen of Dechani, may you have a blessed celebration of your patronal feast. And for all of us who celebrate today Thanksgiving, may our celebration truly be blessed, may it be filled with thanks, and may we also - which is essential - take out time during this day to remember the indigenous people of the Americas who so suffered when settlers at times forcibly took their place amongst them. Though it was not us personally, however many others came, displaced them and to this day they have yet to receive their proper and just place in society. Our prayers must also be with them as much as with our families and those whom we love.