On this, the second Sunday of Great and Holy Lent we commemorate the life and teachings of St. Gregory Palamas. The life of St. Gregory is quite fascinating and inspiring and I want each of you to read it later tonight. Parents, you will have a responsibility to really strengthen and encourage your children over the next few weeks. It is no use to moan and complain because the kids are home. Instead we can start the day by giving thanks to God for all things. We can use this time to teach our children how to turn fear into fuel for prayer and a vibrant faith. We can use this time to follow the life and example of St. Gregory Palamas and make God our obsession.
This has been a week full of news and worries and concerns. People are worried about the economy. Many are worried about the novel coronavirus that is spreading like wildfire throughout the world. It is ok to have some fear. Fear can be a healthy response to real threats or dangers. It allows us to prepare as best we can. It is not ok to have anxiety. Anxiety is irrational fear that is driven by our overactive imaginations and passions and under active faith in God. Anxiety is often the result of obsession about ourselves, our physical health and obsession over all of the bad things in the world. As we focus on what is going wrong in the world, we magnify those things and make them bigger. We make them the focus of our lives by giving them too much attention in our lives.
Let me remind you that it is great and holy Lent. Now is not the time to obsess over the news. We already know what is happening in the news. The virus will infect twice the number of people every 3-4 days. Hundreds of thousands, if not millons of people will be infected all over this country. It is not a matter of if, but when. Lent is not given to us to focus on this sickness. It is now our time to focus, to make God our obsession. That is what is meant by the Lord when He says “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength.”
Orthodox Christians have lived through times of great tribulation. Through plagues, floods, persecutions, beheadings, wars, famines and earthquakes to name a few. We will continue to have these difficulties in this life. Don’t think you can run away from this by watching the news and being anxious. You can’t run away from the troubles of life. But you can run to Christ who is our shelter in this and every storm. Let your anxieties be turned into fuel for your prayers. If you do not feel anxiety for yourself, good. Start praying for others. Start with those that you know and then pray for those that are suffering all over the world. Pray that God would have mercy on them.
I am not saying that we should be careless. We are being reasonably careful. We want people to be healthy. We want to slow the rate of infection within the community, out of love for the church community and the larger community. But for all the talk of fear for peoples lives and their health, I have not heard anyone speak with such concern ever, for the health of their souls.
About 647,000 Americans die of heart disease every year. About 600,000 die every year from cancer. More than 600,000 Americans die from abortions in the United States each year. About 80,000 Americans die every year from Diabetes. Each and every year, at least 12,000 die of the flu. In some years that number is even greater, up to roughly 60,000. About 38,000 Americans die every year in car accidents. By the grace of God, until now we have only had 50 deaths in the United States from the novel coronavirus.
I care about your physical health. I want you to be physically healthy, but all of this is nothing compared to my desire for your spiritual well being. I will be sad if one of you is sick or if God forbid, one of you passes away. But I cannot live with myself if one of you is spiritually unprepared to die. Let me remind you that everyone is going to die physically, but whether we live or die spiritually, is another matter, an eternal matter. Here we live a short physical life, at best usually 70 or 80 years, but the soul will live eternally and it will be reunited with the body. So whatever efforts we make to strengthen the soul, whatever efforts we make to boost our spiritual immune system, whatever efforts we make to know God and to love our neighbors, these things will be with us long after we leave this life. They will be a part of us forever. My brothers and sisters, this is not the time to be afraid, but the time to have courage and deep faith because God will never leave us or forsake us! We are His children and He is our Father! All of our worries will not add a single day to our lives, because our days are all numbered by the God who has also numbered the all of the stars and each grain of sand.
All of the fathers of the Church tell us to be afraid, but what do they tell us to fear? Listen to this quote by St. John of Kronstadt, he says “Fear evil like fire. Don’t let it touch your heart..” Imagine what a beautiful life we would have if we feared evil the same way that we fear sicknesses? Imagine what peace of soul we would have! Imagine how strong our families and churches and country would be!
Many of the fathers also tell us to fear God. Indeed Holy Scripture teaches this. The proverb says “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Pro1:7). Ecclesiates 12:13 says “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep His commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” And again in the Proverbs we hear “The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, to depart from the snares of death” (Pro14:27).
This is a time that might feel strange. We are a bit disoriented, we are off balance. But it is time to quickly find your footing and strengthen your resolve and your determination not to allow anything to distract you from the real struggle, this struggle to know and to love God with every fiber of our being. That is the example of St. Gregory Palamas and because of his great struggle, he was given a great vision and experience of God’s grace.
We do not fear death, because we have already died and been buried with Christ. That is why the martyrs had courage. They were weak, but God was their strength. We also have courage through our faith in Jesus Christ, who is our way, and our life and offers us a share in His glorious resurrection. May you all have this courage and hope through Our Lord Jesus Christ who is our refuge and our salvation. Amen.