Since November 8th, contributors to Public Orthodoxy have advanced various responses to the unexpected victory of Donald J. Trump. Fr John Jillions proposes that the Church needs to practice a politics of communion, which includes charitable works, prophetic political witness, and renewed ascetical life. Aristotle Papanikolaou asserts that the Church needs to vigorously denounce racist, sexist, and xenophobic rhetoric. Samuel Bauer maintains that before the Church can effectively contribute to the healing of our country, she must “seek forgiveness from the marginalized of society, the very individuals whose dignity it has at times assailed.” Each proposal has merit, but each lacks that one needful thing, the proclamation of the gospel itself. The Church has one word that she, and she alone, can speak to the world–Jesus is risen! There are many penultimate words that the Church may and must speak; but if she does not proclaim Pascha, not just one Sunday a year but every Sunday, all other prophetic and pastoral words are emptied of significance.
Since my retirement I have heard numerous Orthodox homilies. With few exceptions, they have been horrid–poorly constructed, poorly delivered, and lacking in substance. But bad technique may be forgiven if the preacher is at least attempting to proclaim the good news. Alas that has not usually been the case. What I have heard is exhortation … to imitate Christ, obey the ten commandments, be nice to my neighbors, pray more often, confess my sins … even a lengthy harangue scolding the congregation for its failure to support the parish festival. Exhortation and more exhortation–dreary, impotent words that do not convert, do not heal, do not transform, do not deify. A few years ago I listened to an interview with Fr Theodore Stylianopoulos in which he described the kinds of sermons he heard growing up. He called them “try harder” sermons. Yes, I thought, that’s what I’m hearing now. No wonder church is so depressing. If “try harder” is the only word the pastor has to share, then it would be far better to skip the sermon and allow the Divine Liturgy itself to enact the good news of Pascha.
Jesus is risen! This is the apostolic message that transformed the Mediterranean world. It did not refer merely to an event in the past but to an eschatological act that had made possible a radically new kind of discourse–a discourse of unconditional promise and unconquerable hope. Jesus is risen! and you are free from the bondage of sin. Jesus is risen! and you have been liberated from the power of death. Jesus is risen! and you have been freed from the law and every moralism. Jesus is risen! and your existence is good. Jesus is risen! and you may live in the hope that your deepest and truest hopes will be fulfilled. Jesus is risen! and you may embrace your very different neighbor with extravagant love. Jesus is risen! and you may share generously from your bounty. Jesus is risen! and you may dare to live the politics of the coming Kingdom. Jesus is risen!
When was the last time you heard a truly evangelical sermon proclaimed in your parish?
I vividly remember my first Orthodox Pascha. It was all quite glorious … but then came the homily. Instead of announcing the wondrous news of the resurrection and its implications for our lives, the pastor urged us not to celebrate excessively and to maintain niptic sobriety. He concluded his homily with a reminder that non-Orthodox were prohibited from receiving communion (this I already knew) and the Orthodox only permitted if they had kept the Holy Week fast and made their confession. My heart fell. So much for the eucharistic manifestation of the Kingdom. It was as if the Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom had not been recited only an hour earlier.
“Behold, the days are coming,” the prophet declares in the Name of the Lord, “when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord” (Amos 8:11). We are experiencing this famine today. Many priests and congregations pride themselves on their dogmatic orthodoxy and steadfast adherence to tradition, yet the good news of Pascha remains unpreached. To these congregations–but especially to the priests who have been entrusted with the stewardship of the gospel–the terrifying condemnation of Jesus is spoken: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matt 23:27). Exhortations and admonitions will never create the righteousness that justifies. Those who are dead in sin cannot raise themselves from their graves; they cannot pull themselves up by their Pelagian bootstraps. Only the unconditional promise, spoken in the power of Spirit and absolute Love, can bestow the new life that is repentance and faith. But if that word is never declared, where will faith be found?
While it is tempting to think that post-election America needs a more prophetic, socially conscious Orthodoxy, I respectfully suggest that this is wrong-headed, a putting of the political cart before the evangelical ox. If Orthodox Christians are not thinking through their politics with a Christian mind, then this is probably because parish priests are not preaching the gospel and thus not creating a gospel-converted people. And if parish priests are not preaching the gospel, then that, and not something else, is the urgent task now confronting the Church.
The good news of Pascha is the liberating news that our congregations need to hear, the news that America and the world most need to hear. Only the Church can speak it.
Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
Fr. Aidan Kimel is a retired priest of the Western Rite (ROCOR). He blogs regularly at Eclectic Orthodoxy.
Please join us on Monday, February 6, 2017 at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus for “Out of the Flames: Preserving the Manuscript Heritage of Endangered Syriac Christianity in the Middle East,” a lecture presented by Columba Stewart, OSB.