For nothing is hid that shall not be made manifest, nor anything secret that shall not be known and come to light. 18 Take heed then how you hear; for to him who has will more be given, and from him who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away.” 19 Then his mother and his brothers came to him, but they could not reach him for the crowd. 20 And he was told, “Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you.” 21 But he said to them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” (Revised Standard Version)
See also: Matthew 12:46-50, Mark 3:31-35
Based on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Eighth Sunday after the Holy Cross), the following are suggested themes for sermon topics:
Feast of All Saints
Throughout the church year, we designate specific dates to remember known saints, but what about saints that are unknown, whose stories are untold? This is the Feast of All Saints (Տօն Ամենայն Սրբոց, Հնոց եւ Նորոց, Յայտից եւ Անյայտից). Although always celebrated on a Saturday, the actual date on which the feast is observed varies depending on the length of the season of the Cross, which begins with the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross and ends on the Sunday nearest November 18th. (Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, the Armenian Church does not celebrate this feast on November 1 unless it happens to fall on that date in a particular year).
It’s important to remember that those who live holy lives do not become saints only when the Church officially recognizes and canonizes them. In other words, the Church does not make saints, God makes saints. So, naturally there are those who have lived a holy life and were just as dedicated to Jesus Christ as the saints we know and remember, but to us are unknown. The Church, through the eyes of faith, recognizes certain people as saints, but also proclaims that others are also restfully living in the presence of Christ and praying for us – as Saints. The Feast of All Saints, the Old and the New, the Known and the Unknown, remembers them.
And we, as the Church, have the privilege of asking the Saints to pray or intercede for us as we believe they are still members of the Church, the Body of Christ, even if they have passed on. Intercession in the Armenian Church is understood as the Armenian word «բարեխօսութիւն» (parekhosootyoon) implies – to put in a good word and speak on our behalf to God. Just as any believer would rightfully ask a fellow believer to pray (mediate or intercede) for them, we ask all of the saints to do the same.
Is each one of us striving toward sainthood? Not in order to be known, but because it is the proper and right way to live. As baptized Christians, we are called to be like Christ, to be holy persons, to be saints! In fact, the Armenian word սուրբ (soorp) translates as both “saint” and “holy,” not as two different things, but as one reality. We should never settle for less by telling ourselves we will never become saints because sainthood is reserved for other people, people who are better. In his first letter to the Corinthians (11:1), St. Paul tells his community, as well as us today, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” St. Paul also opens and closes many of his letters by referring to members of the church as “saints” (See Romans 1:7, I Corinthians 1:2, II Corinthians 1:1, Ephesians 1:1, Philippians 1:1, Colossians 1:2) making the term synonymous with “believers.” Why? Because true believers are members of a community who not only have been baptized but live like Jesus Christ, thus making them holy people, or “saints.”
This doesn’t lessen the status of the official Saints of the Church. For sure, they have identified with Christ in his suffering, they have taken up the Cross as Jesus told all of his followers to do, they listened to his words and obeyed his commandments. They are exemplary citizens of the Kingdom of God and members of the new family that Jesus came to inaugurate. But even if the Church never recognizes us as official Saints to be venerated, are we living a life that honors God, one that models discipleship, one that will be remembered after we pass on, not because of what or how much we donated to the Church or what was named after us, but because we in some way shaped the Church, because our story invites others to encounter and unite with Christ? What kind of legacy are we pursuing? What will be our story in this life and after we have passed into the inheritance of the saints? As individuals? As a community?
One of the lectionary readings for this day tells us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who cheer us on to live a holy and saintly life, to run the race of perseverance as we fix our eyes on Jesus. Together, the Saints, the old and the new, the known and the unknown, have run that race and have persevered. They have shaped and built the Church and modeled what it looks like to be Christian. And as Christians, we are called to be more than just inspired by the Saints. We are called to emulate their very lives and actions. As we ask all Saints to intercede for us,
Let us [also] run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. (Hebrews 12:1-2)
The New Family
This narrative is too often misunderstood and as a result, distorted. Jesus’ response should not be interpreted as lessening the importance of his earthly mother nor should it be used as a prooftext to criticize the ancient Church’s understanding and veneration of Mary. There is no portion of Scripture, including this one, that undermines Mary’s title as Mother of God or that she should not be honored as such. All of this is a severe distraction from what is actually happening within this narrative. What Jesus came to do and is demonstrating here was to build a new family that transcends earthly familial bonds, a family in communion with him, a family grounded in hearing and doing the word of God. The fourth-century Church Father St. Basil the Great (of Caesarea) writes,
Intimacy with the Lord is not explained in terms of kinship according to the flesh, but it is achieved by cheerful willingness in doing the will of God.
St John Chrysostom in his sermon on this narrative reminds his listeners about the Jews who believed themselves to be God’s people by virtue of being able to trace their earthly lineage to Abraham. In John’s Gospel (8:39) the Jews answered Jesus, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus replies going straight to the heart of the issue and the error of their thinking: “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do what Abraham did.” Chrysostom explains,
“We have Abraham as our father,” does not mean that the Jews were not naturally of Abraham, but that it profits them nothing to be of Abraham unless they had the affinity by character, which Christ also declared when he said, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham,” not depriving them of their kindred according to the flesh, but teaching them to seek after that affinity which is greater than it, and more real.
In other words, what marked the life of Abraham was faith, and his lineage, i.e. his children, were those who, like Abraham, obeyed and had faith in God. Salvation did not come to the Jews based on their earthly lineage. There is a much greater lineage. One that is a matter of salvation, a matter of life and death. Chrysostom goes on to say,
For there is only one nobleness, to do the will of God. This kind of noble birth is better than the other and more real.
This doesn’t mean our familial bonds are meaningless, rather they point to the eternal mystery of the Church as a family, that Christianity is relational, it’s about fellowship, communion (հաղորդութիւն, κοινωνία): see I John 1:3, 1:6-7, I Corinthians 1:9, 10:16. Just as the union that takes place in a marriage is an image of the Church, when Jesus responds by saying, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it,” he is raising us to a new level of communion, a new bond, a new family, a family in which his Father becomes our Father.
Sin, unholy living is the disease of dysfunction in the family of the human race, in all of creation. Jesus came to heal that disease, to restore us, to build a new family to inhabit a new world. Who among us is listening to what God is doing? Who among us is following Jesus so closely that he is more important to us than our own family? When we examine our lives, what matters more than communion with God, more than doing and hearing his word? Is it the bonds of our family? If so, listen to the words of Christ in the Gospel of Matthew, difficult to hear in the first century and difficult to hear today:
For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. (Matthew 10:35-38)
Here again, we hear Jesus telling us that earthly connections, including familial, are less noble than the rebirth we experience in Christ, a life in which we are called to follow Jesus to the Cross. A life of sacrificial love and forgiveness, a life in which all of our suffering is redeemed, a life in which sin and death lose.
If we examine our parish community, how would we define our bond, our connection, that which ties us together? Is our answer one of eternal value, one of God’s will and in line with what God is doing in this world, or is it of an earthly nature? Throughout the Gospels and throughout the life of the Church, Jesus is constantly after us to align our priorities with his will. Will we hear and do his word? Or will we allow the disease of sin, that which distracts us from the Lord and breaks our communion with our heavenly Father, that which harms us and allows us to be harmed to overtake us and sweep through our lives, through our community?
The New Family and Badarak
The table within a home has long been considered a sacred place of bonding, a symbol of fellowship and unity. Even if gathering at the table with our family is a rare occurrence in today’s overly busy culture, it is not just to coldly ingest food for the sake of survival in the presence of company, but for fellowship, to bond and commune with whom we love.
In the book of The Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke writes about the life and practices of the first-century Church. He tells us the earliest Christians, “Devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” The Armenian word for fellowship in this verse, and elsewhere in the Bible, is հաղորդութեիւն (haghortootyoon), the same word for communion, the same word we use for Holy Communion (Սուրբ Հաղորդութեիւն).
As we gather at the “table of immortal life,” a phrase from the song Kohanamk sung at the end of Badarak, our ultimate desire and prayer as a Church family should be for the Holy Spirit to unite all of the faithful together in Christ through the sacred meal of his Body and Blood. In this way, around the holy table, we truly become the Church in its fullest sense.
How are the dynamics of an earthly family sustained? What does a healthy family look like? Does a family’s strength derive from gossiping, holding grudges, or competing? Or is a bond forged through seeking reconciliation whenever and however possible? Are we willing to apply the same effort into our spiritual family, the Church, our local parish community, as we are into our earthly family? Is our experience in Badarak, at the holy table, one of private devotion, one that merely makes us feel calm and peaceful after a stressful week, or is it a matter of life and death, regardless of our personal feelings and preferences, a real unity of a dysfunctional, sinful family in desperate need of God’s healing and forgiveness, a healing that compels us to forgive one another forming a lasting bond grounded in Christ’s love?
The way to begin this unity with God and his family is by listening to the word of God and doing it. It might be difficult, but it’s far from rocket science. When we listen, when we properly and carefully hear and do the word of God as Jesus instructs us in Sunday’s Gospel reading, we are brought into communion, kinship, fellowship with our Father. And when we know God (not just about him), we know his will, that being unity with him and with others, a peace that forgives and breaks down walls of division. Celebrate and share Holy Communion at the Table (սուրբ սեղան) not as a private devotion, but as a family grounded in hearing and doing the word of God. And don’t only share the kiss of peace with others during Badarak. Make it a daily practice, a way of life.
Lifting Us Up With His Mother
It is not the familial bond Mary has with her son that saves her, but her faith. In fact, one could say that instead of lessening her importance, Jesus is raising us as his disciples to her level. Because Mary listened to the word of God and did the Father’s will, she is the exemplar and pattern to which we aspire as disciples of Christ. To be equated with his mother is an honor for us, not a minimization of her. In other words, rather than minimizing the importance of his mother, Jesus was expanding it. He desires all of his creation to be included in the family of God, and the model family member, the first disciple is his mother, the Virgin Mary.
Mary is blessed for the reason that she kept the word of God, Jesus Christ, in her heart. She lived in communion with her son, not only by way of bearing God in the flesh but through obedience and discipleship. We also are to bear God’s word in our heart as well. St. Cyril of Alexandria in his commentary on the Gospel of Luke writes,
The present lesson teaches us that obedience and listening to God are the causes of every blessing…Now do not let anyone imagine that Christ scorned the honor due to his mother or contemptuously disregarded the love owed to his brothers…His object is to exalt highly his love toward those who are willing to bow the neck to his commands.
At the end of his ministry, while hanging on the Cross, Jesus said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” and to John, “Behold, your mother!” (See John 19:26-27) It was at this moment that Jesus essentially handed his mother over to his family, the Church. By entrusting Mary to the care of his disciple and telling him to recognize her as mother, he established her as mother of the Church by committing all of his faithful disciples to her spiritual maternal care. (Note: if Jesus had actual brothers, i.e. if Mary had other children, he would have given his mother into their care, instead he gives her into the care of one of his disciples, thus supporting the ancient Church’s teaching that the Mother of God is ever-virgin, Jesus being her only son.) Catholicos Simeon Yerevantsi (1763-1780) in his prayer to the Mother of God writes,
You are the joy of the sorrowful, deliverer of the tempted, helper and comfort of believers, and hope and refuge for sinners. In keeping with this, your beloved Son on the cross left to you, through John, those who would believe in him, as a bequest. Saying, “Woman, behold your son,” it was as if [Jesus] said, “Those who believe in me are yours, and henceforth they are committed to you.” Likewise, in the persona of John he said to us who believe: “Behold your mother, from now on ask of her whatever you wish.”
To obey Jesus is to know him (I John 2:3), love him (John 14:15), and to be called his friends (John 15:14). Are we hearing the word of God? Do we ask God to help us listen, to shut off the noise of our egos and selfish desires so that we can lovingly do his will? Are we willing to bow our necks to his commands? Are we living a life of such honor to God as individuals, as families, and as a parish community, that Jesus would look at us and call us his mother and brothers? There shouldn’t be any other status in the world more important or attractive. Մայր սուրբ, բարեխօսեա՜: Mother of God pray for us…