But when the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they came together. 35 And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question, to test him. 36 “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?”37 And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. 40 On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” 41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them a question, 42 saying, “What do you think of the Christ? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43 He said to them, “How is it then that David, inspired by the Spirit, calls him Lord, saying, 44 ‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, till I put thy enemies under thy feet’? 45 If David thus calls him Lord, how is he his son?” 46 And no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did any one dare to ask him any more questions. 23 Then said Jesus to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; 3 so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice. 4 They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by men; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, 6 and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and salutations in the market places, and being called rabbi by men. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brethren. 9 And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Neither be called masters, for you have one master, the Christ. 11 He who is greatest among you shall be your servant; 12 whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. 13 “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you shut the kingdom of heaven against men; for you neither enter yourselves, nor allow those who would enter to go in. 15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you traverse sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. 16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If any one swears by the temple, it is nothing; but if any one swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ 17 You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? 18 And you say, ‘If any one swears by the altar, it is nothing; but if any one swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ 19 You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 So he who swears by the altar, swears by it and by everything on it; 21 and he who swears by the temple, swears by it and by him who dwells in it; 22 and he who swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it. 23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! 25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you cleanse the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity. 26 You blind Pharisee! first cleanse the inside of the cup and of the plate, that the outside also may be clean. 27 “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. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but within you are full of hypocrisy and iniquity. 29 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the monuments of the righteous, 30 saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 Thus you witness against yourselves, that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. 33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? 34 Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, 35 that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly, I say to you, all this will come upon this generation. 37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not! 38 Behold, your house is forsaken and desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'” (Revised Standard Version)
Based on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Feast of the Annunciation to the Mother of God [Gospel Reading – Luke 1:26-38], Sixth Sunday of Great Lent: Sunday of Advent), the following are suggested themes for sermon topics:
Living In Between Advents
As citizens of the Kingdom of God, we the Church find ourselves in between two advents of Jesus Christ. The first coming of Christ was one of humility, the King of Kings born as an infant in a cave. The second advent of Christ is one of power and glory. What does the advent (գալուստ), or coming, of Christ have to do with our lives today? The entirety of our faith is learning to live in between these two advents, now. Everything we do and practice as the Church is a participation in the life of the Kingdom of God that is present and is still to come. It is the present life that Jesus addresses before his last line,
For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’
In Sunday’s Gospel, we read at length a dialogue between Jesus and two different sects or factions of Jews in first-century Palestine, the Pharisees and Sadducees. With love, Jesus sternly exposes and denounces those who teach a different path to greatness than the true path, the one path that leads to himself. He goes on to challenge their poor leadership as evangelists, their oath making, stewardship and giving, and overall integrity. He calls them out for going through the motions, obeying traditions for the sake of preservation, meanwhile, blocking others from entering the Kingdom of God and maturing in their faith. Perhaps we, as individuals or as the Church, fit somewhere on that list.
Just as Jesus calls out the hypocrisy of living as a “whitewashed tomb,” appearing holy on the outside but unclean on the inside, St. John Chrysostom gives us a profound warning of how to live, how to examine ourselves before the coming of Christ:
The members of the body of Christ have become a tomb of uncleanness? Remember your sonship and how you were born. Consider of what things you have been counted worthy. Recall what sort of garment you received in baptism. You were intended to be a temple without fault, beautiful, not adorned with gold or pearls but with the spirit that is more precious than these. You are hardly ready to appear in the city above if you remain a sepulcher below.
Again, Christ’s commandments are how to live now in between his two advents. And when he returns he will ask of us, the Church, the same questions with which he left us. Do the actions of the Pharisees and Sadducees reflect our own lives, our parish life, or do we gloss over them as if he is speaking to someone else? Is it thinkable that Jesus laments over the Armenian Church? What in the Church have we made to be more important than integrity, being a witness, and discipling others? Perhaps we allow finances, politics, culture, language, or other “sacred cows” to compete with the true path to greatness. Have we become complacent, playing it safe, insisting on doing business as usual? Do our lives reflect the Body of Christ ready and awaiting the coming and appearance of our Lord? Be ready always, living each moment as if Jesus Christ is coming, as if he is already here!
Let it Be
April 7th marks the Feast of the Annunciation to the Holy Mother of God (Աւետումն Սուրբ Աստուածածնի). On this remarkable feast day, the Armenian Church venerates the Mother of God, from whom Christ received his humanity in his first Advent, and to whom he is forever joined in his present and coming Advent. But not only to the Virgin Mary. In the person of Mary the whole of humanity is represented, and to the Church, Christ is forever united. Not preoccupied with personal desires for her own life, the Virgin Mary’s will merged with God’s will as she offered her life to be placed in his hands. And so her role is our role. Her words, which reflect ultimate humility and dependence on God to save and heal us, become the prayer of the Church:
Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.
What does it mean to be a handmaid of the Lord? What should our lives look like if we really pray and mean the words “Let it be”? Is that our prayer? Let’s be honest. We might have our moments when it is our prayer, but we live in a world full of distractions. Distractions that compete with what God wills for us: Let it be? What about my desires? What if God interrupts the plan I have for my life? Perhaps I’ll give him a part of my life rather than all of it. What if God takes our Church mission in a direction with which we are uncomfortable, one that doesn’t allow for personalities, titles, and egos to dominate the community? As sinners, we are constantly reminded that we don’t prefer the ways of God. Let the annunciation of the Lord to the Virgin Mary remind us that God’s ways are not our ways, and rather than allowing the illness of sin to rule our hearts, minds, and bodies, allow the love and presence of God to permeate and heal us.
The Virgin Mary illustrates the necessity of human cooperation within God’s plan of salvation. On the behalf of humanity, the Mother of God said yes, inviting God’s will to be done. And so, we too cooperate with God to accomplish his will in our lives and through us to the lives of others. Again, are we ready, do we really want God to invade our lives with his love and presence? If so, it means we must open ourselves up to his desire for our life, just as the Virgin Mary did. It takes humility and a willingness for God to captivate our heart, the center of our being. Her life was never the same afterward, and thankfully, the Church has been blessed as a result. Likewise, if we accept Mary’s role as our role, if we accept her words as our words, we, like the Mother of God, will become bearers of God to those present in our lives, the bearer of God’s good news and message of love to the world. Do we want our lives to be transformed for God’s will?
Badarak, Advent, and the End of the World
How do we picture the return of Christ? Do we imagine a spectacle like none other, in which a trumpet is blown and Jesus comes out of the sky for all to see in his radiant glory? Do we conjure images of the end of the world from movies and literature? Maybe a virus sweeps over the globe causing panic and fear that this could be how it all ends. Or an interpretation of Scripture about the “Apocalypse” which includes an epic “Battle of Armageddon?”
Perhaps there is another way of understanding the return of Christ that escapes our attention. In the book of Acts (1:10-11) we hear “two men” tell those watching Jesus ascend to heaven say,
Why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.
What does it mean for Jesus to come in the same way he went into heaven? Most, if not all, icons of the ascension of Christ portray his ascension ambiguously, in that viewer cannot tell whether he is ascending to heaven or coming to earth. As a result, he is depicted as continually present in the midst of his people. That is, we are already living under the kingship of Jesus Christ while we also await his coming again bringing with him the fullness of his Kingdom. In other words, the advent of Jesus is both anticipated and already upon us.
The promise of Christ’s return, his coming again as illustrated in the icons of his ascension, is exactly what takes place in Badarak, the profundity of which is incomprehensible. Just as Jesus ascended, he returns to us in Badarak within the midst of his people. In Badarak, we enter beyond time and space into God’s time, his eternal presence, where this is no before or after, and we joyfully share in the “marriage supper of the lamb” (Revelation 19:9), the feast at the end of the age, a meal that has not yet been eaten, and yet paradoxically, it is shared and eaten whenever we commune at the chalice. Badarak is not a dramatic retelling or an act of remembrance, but the coming of the Kingdom in our midst. As we sing in the hymn for the kiss of peace, “Christ in our midst has been revealed; he who is, God, is here seated,” we the Church, as theologian Vigen Guroian writes, are lifted up into the “Apocalypse,” into that which is hidden, that which is coming, the Advent of Jesus Christ himself, where we meet and are welcomed by the Lord at his Second Coming, “and so we shall always be with the Lord.” (I Thessalonians 4:17)
The last Sunday of Great Lent in the Armenian Church is referred to as the Sunday of Advent. When we think of the word “advent,” which means “coming,” (գալուստ) what comes to mind? It sounds like the future tense. We may think of the “second coming” of Christ. We picture in our minds a future arrival of Jesus Christ in power and glory followed by a future and final judgment, the end of all things. But are Christianity and the end of all things only future oriented? In the Christian sense, the “end” is not a point in time, or the conclusion of a linear historical timeline. The End is a person, Jesus himself.
Jesus Christ is the Beginning and the End, the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Almighty who is, was, and is to come (Revelation 1:8, 22:13). He is the revelation of the End of all things, the fulfillment of all things, the reconciliation and healing of all things, the purpose toward and in which all things live, move, and have their being (Acts 17:28). Jesus Christ is the Eschaton.
[Jesus] was destined before the foundation of the world but was made manifest at the end of the times for your sake. (I Peter 1:20)
But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. (Hebrews 9:26b)
Additionally, in the book of Daniel (7:13-14), the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven is Jesus Christ himself, a coronation event, his enthronement.
I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.
That the Son of Man in Daniel’s prophecy is, in fact, Jesus was confirmed by Jesus himself when he answered the high priest after being asked whether or not he was the Messiah.
Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am; and you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” (Mark 14:61-62)
And it is not coincidental that the author of Acts describes the ascension of Jesus this way: “He was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” This entire reality is expressed every week when we recite the Creed:
He is to come with the same body and with the glory of the Father to judge the living and the dead; of His kingdom there is no end.
Now that we have come to the end of the world, or rather Jesus Christ himself who is the End of all things has come to us, why would we stare into the sky waiting for his return like those in the first chapter of Acts? Or why would we wait for something like a virus to invoke the idea of the world ending? Economic collapse does not mean the end of the world. Separated families, friends, and loved ones is not the end of the world. Not even the closing of Churches, as chilling and salvifically depriving as that may be, signifies the end of the world. No matter what pandemic is ripping through the globe, this is not how the world ends, not when we have faith in the End himself, Jesus Christ.
None of this is to say that Jesus is not coming again, a second time. He is coming again, but he is already here, and so we already experience a foretaste of his return, one that reveals his holiness in us.
And so the End is present, but not how the world perceives it. No matter our circumstances, we are empowered and enlightened now, through baptism, to live as a “new creation” (II Corinthians 5:17) as St. Paul teaches. Through Christ we forgive not just our friends and family, but our enemies. We pray for those who persecute us. We give and expect nothing in return. When struck, we turn the other cheek. The lame walk, the blind receive their sight, bread and fish are multiplied, storms are calmed, our sins are forgiven, and the sick are healed. We can close the doors of our churches, but still find ways to come together to pray and commune with God and with one another – a communion that transcends physical proximity. The end of the world is one in which faith, hope, and love endure no matter what’s out there; when we are given the capacity to love like God loves; when a 72 year-old Catholic priest in Italy with Coronavirus gives up his ventilator for a younger person, in the process laying down his own life.
We know the End is present because in a time and situation like today, we resonate with the words of St. Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians:
In all things, give thankful praise, for this is what God desires for you through Christ Jesus. (I Thessalonians 5:18, trans. from Krapar)
When we can still utter the last words of our beloved St. John Chrysostom:
Փառք քեզ, աստուած, փառք քեզ . յաղագս ամենայնի, տէր, փառք քեզ: Glory to you, God, glory to you. For everything, Lord, glory to you.
That is the version of the end of the world Jesus wants us to believe and live today, because the End himself,
Christ in our midst has been revealed; he who is, God, is here seated.
…and present in our holiness. So that we may glorify the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.