Becoming Human - Sermon on the Feast of Pentecost (2024)

Becoming Human - Sermon on the Feast of Pentecost (2024) - Holy Cross Monastery

For the following reason, too, we recognize that the Gospel is truly from God:  He created us for one reason, that He might bless us with Himself and not that He might bless us with food, drink, and carnal relations—a blessing He gave to asses, pigs, and other animals.  It is only in this world that men and women marry. As for the next life, they will not marry.  Instead, like angels of God, they will arise together and become the children of God, having become children of the resurrection and gods with Him in eternal life.  Not gods in nature, but through the communion of life…This is something that does not occur to any of the other religions.  All they can think about is the earth, food and drink, carnal relations and the pleasures of the body.  They know nothing else. Like beasts, it is for this alone that their soul yearns.

Thus writes Theodore Abu-Qurrah, a Syrian bishop writing under Muslim rule in the 9th century.

How appropriate then is it to remember these words in our times and for this feast, the feast of Pentecost, the first fruits of deification realized among humans.  Today, Our Lord Jesus Christ fulfills His promise to send the Holy Spirit into the world. The dust He once formed in the beginning to make man and into which He breathed the Breath of Life fell through the deception of the devil. Christ took upon Himself this dust, becoming man, uniting it to Himself, to deliver us from bondage to the devil. And through sending down the Holy Spirit, He makes man, once fallen and worse than dirt, to become god.

As our world has cast out Christ and any notion of the transcendent, we clearly see the horrifying and distressing results of such apostasy. No longer believing in the great promise of deification, or even of a Deifier, mankind is left desperately grasping at the only good it can recognize—sensual and base pleasure, like brute beasts as Bishop Theodore remarks. Dust desiring dust. Waiting to be blown away into oblivion. Dust holding onto dust, fretful over every speck that slips away.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for us to fathom what deification truly means. St. Augustine tells us, “God wants to bestow on you more gifts than you ask for”. Would that we knew how to ask! It’s hard for us to ask because while we can see the final result in the lives of the saints, we need to be constantly reminded of the next steps to take along the way.

I remember in college hearing a priest give a talk where he gave very simple yet profound advice. He said, “The most important thing you can be doing is the task right in front of you.  The most important person in your life is the person right in front of you”. Here he nicely cuts away any foreboding existential crisis of someone trying to figure out God’s will for his life. Follow the commandments in our immediate context and with those we are currently with.

Today I would like to offer you the life of the Paschal Martyr, Fr. Trophim as an excellent example of his pursuit of holiness through his relentless awareness of the tasks and people in front of him.

Fr. Trophim, Leonid in the world, grew up in Siberia. He was the oldest of 5 children and times were difficult in the 50s in the Soviet Union. His siblings got along and played together. Everyone had their chores to do, fetching water, cleaning the cowshed, chopping wood. And young Leonid not only did not complain about his tasks, but also would help his siblings as soon as he finished. During the summers, he would pick mushrooms and berries to sell at the grocery stores to help support his siblings for the school year.  He worked as a cowherd in the summers when he got older under an abusive boss and yet did not complain about his treatment.  

While Leonid was baptized as an infant, he was not raised in the Church. Yet he had such love and devotion and forgiveness.  Leonid was very aware of the tasks and people in front of him. He learned how to make boots and made them well, he learned artistic photography and taught his brother, he learned how to ring the bells at his parish.  After he arrived at the monastery, he was upset that the binding was coming undone from an old book, so he learned bookbinding. Neighbors of the monastery would ask for help and he would bring that tractor and plow their gardens and farms. He stretched himself so thin that he couldn’t get all of his own obediences done and received penances for them—which he did without complaining.  In this way, he lived in a truly human matter. Everyone noticed his kindness and compassion. Everyone loved him. And God crowned his efforts with a martyr’s crown on Pascha in 1993. 

Fr. Trophim spent his whole life fulfilling St. Theophan’s advice for how to approach work. St. Theophan tells us, “Whatever occupation, great or small, reflect that it is the omni-present Lord Himself who orders you to perform it and who watches to see how you are carrying it out. If you keep this thought constantly in mind you will fulfill attentively all the duties assigned to you and at the same time, you will remember the Lord…and your thoughts will cease to wander hither and thither.” (236). We have many duties and tasks to perform throughout the day. Some we enjoy, some we secretly hope will be taken away from us. Whether we are working outside in the summer heat, sitting in front of a computer screen all day, cleaning toilets, washing dishes, or simply enduring the crosses of our ill health, if we do it conscientiously and with faith that God is giving it to us for the salvation of our soul, we will not only fulfill our tasks, but St. Theophan also tells us our thoughts will be more focused. We will have some inner peace. We will create a space in our hearts to offer prayer to God.  In this way, we will become the human beings we are supposed to be. Instead of the frenetic and harried office workers, stressed factory workers, bored janitors and resentful dish washers we can find ourselves to be when we work without diligence and without God.

It's so important for us to remember to follow St. Theophan’s advice every day. To firmly believe that whatever is set out right in front of us in this moment, whoever we come across right now is exactly what we need and who we need to be with for our salvation. But how easily this slips away from us because we don’t like the tasks in front us and avoid them, or we don’t take them seriously and ignore our mistakes, or because we don’t want to be bothered by the brother we encounter. And so we let the days slip by unchanged, or rather, further fractured.

It is a hard path to become saints, and we make it harder for ourselves when we are not diligent at our work and when we do not live for our brothers. Being faithful and being diligent are not the same as being successful, although often they do go hand in hand. And it’s the work right in front of us that God is asking us to do.  This is what that requires faith on our part. The work that we are given may or not have to do with utility, it may be above or beneath our abilities. In every case, God can use our tasks to humble us or to exercise us in skills and virtues He knows we are capable of acquiring. Whether or not the time we spend in a particular obedience or activity will produce transferable skills later in life does not matter. What matters are the virtues we cultivate in doing what’s in front of us—patience, attentiveness and care.  These are infinitely transferrable wherever we find ourselves. God makes saints exactly where He finds them.

It can be discouraging for us to focus on the task at hand if it seems boring, unnecessary, or worthless. We can yearn to be given something that fits our talents, we can regret the great projects and skills we used to cultivate and think now we’re just wasting potential.  St. Seraphim of Vyritsa, a God-bearing elder who lived in the Soviet Union, had a spiritual daughter, Olga, who as a young woman asked him what she should do with her life. He told her to sell tickets for the Trams in the city. Not only that, but to write down how many tickets she sells and to do the same number of prostrations every day as tickets she sold and ask God to save the souls of the customers. He told her, “Many people will be saved by your prayers if you bear your cross to the end”.

Selling tickets for the city tram—she continued doing this for decades. The wise of this world would look down on her life as pathetic, her job as menial, and her impact on the world as negligible. To compound the disdain with which modern secular man who chases after fleeting pleasures might evaluate her life, let us consider that if she had lived in our times, her job could probably be completely taken over by machines. But the foolishness of God is wiser than men. What does God think of those who work at menial tasks?  How does God value those whose work is insignificant and unnoticed?  Because she fulfilled her obedience to her elder and carried her cross to the end, God not only blessed her with long life, but also bestowed upon her one of the highest gifts of the Holy Spirit—the gift of prophesy. God not only saved her in her insignificant and forgettable job, He deified her in this life as a testimony to how much He values obedience and diligence.

The care and attention we put into our work will translate to care and attention for prayer. It will translate into care and attention to our brothers, to our neighbors, to strangers, to our enemies.  It will translate into us becoming human and more than human.

As we celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit today and throughout this week, let us remember Father Trophim’s example of attention and care and Olga’s faithfulness to God in an otherwise “dead-end” job. Let us remember that God does not merely want to save us in the tasks He gives us day by day. He wants them to be the means of our sanctification, the channel through which His grace flows in, the occasion for sending down upon us the Gifts of the Holy Spirit.  So that out of our hearts, too, rivers of living water might flow. Amen.

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