Seek First the Kingdom of God: A Reflection for the Nativity Season
On December 6, 2016, His Grace Bishop Thomas, Diocese of Charleston, presented this Nativity reflection to a group of parish council members. His timely words are equally applicable to any and all of the faithful during this holy season of the year.
It is my pleasure to be speaking here this evening. I want to commend you all for your hard work and dedication to your parish. The spiritual health of any parish is a reflection of the spiritual health of its leadership, especially that which is provided by the parish council.
As I begin my reflection, I thought I would offer a short story concerning St. John Maximovitch of San Francisco. On the evening before St. John was going to commemorate the solemn canonization of Fr. John of Kronstadt, he was celebrating the All Night Vigil in preparation for the Divine Liturgy the next day. It so happened that a group of parishioners had organized a Halloween Ball on the very same night of this vigil. Thus, when the All Night Vigil began many people were absent, to the great sorrow of St. John.
After the vigil service, St. John went to the place where the ball was being held. He entered the hall and the music stopped; in absolute silence, he glanced sorrowfully at the revelers. With his staff in hand, he slowly walked around the entire hall. He didn't speak, but the sight of the holy bishop brought general consternation to the party. Saint John then left the hall, but the next day in church he issued a call to all present, to seek the devout Christian life.
This story reminds us that the spiritual life is of prime importance in all we do. We must remember that our first priority must be to seek the kingdom of God above all else. The first requirement as well as the first duty of a parish council member is to possess a sincere desire to imitate the saints in their love for God. While parish council members work with budgets, planning, and the maintenance of buildings, this work is still different from that done by others who deal with such issues. One may have real talent for financial matters or a knack for management, but that should never be why anyone is chosen to be a member of the parish council. This is not how others should remember parish council members.
Instead, we ought to be known for our striving for sanctity through continuous prayer, our repentance and fasting, and our regular attendance at church services. These things should always be the criteria by which a person is selected to serve the parish. Council members should be pillars of the faith community, modeling humility, gentleness, and compassion. The spiritual weapons that help us achieve these virtues are to be found in the church, with the saints, and our Lord Jesus Who is present on the altar table.
The most important gift one can offer a parish our fellow Orthodox Christians is our own striving for theosis and union with God through a life of repentance and reception of the Holy Mysteries. Elder Cleopa of Romania used to tell his spiritual children that the one on the path of salvation finds two walls around him—one to his left and the other to his right. The first wall to the left is the proper fear of God, preferring nothing to Him and His service. The other wall to the right is the remembrance of death. Elder Cleopa would tell his spiritual children that with these two walls as protective boundaries, a Christian could not be led astray from the path that leads to life.
Parish council members perform lofty work with many burdens and responsibilities. In this role, we are stewards of the Gospel and the life of the holy Church, alongside the parish pastor. As St. Paul reminded the Christian community at Ephesus, each one of us must be free of all bitterness, anger, jealousy, and strife, for they grieve the Holy Spirit with which we have been sealed. In parish council meetings and deliberations there can be no room for such things. Given our fallen state and our inclination to the passions, we must make every effort daily to repent, pray unceasingly as St. Paul instructs us, and participate piously and often in the church services.
The parish will thrive if the parish council members lead the way through a continuous striving for holiness. We have heard the saying of St. Seraphim of Sarov many times: “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” In concrete terms, the saintly Seraphim explained how this is to be done:
You cannot be too gentle, too kind. Shun even to appear harsh in your treatment of each other. Joy, radiant joy, streams from the face of him who gives and kindles joy in the heart of him who receives.
All condemnation is from the devil. Never condemn each other…instead of condemning others, strive to reach inner peace.
Keep silent, refrain from judgment. This will raise you above the deadly arrows of slander, insult, and outrage and will shield your glowing hearts against all evil.
If we make these words of St. Seraphim our own as we work together, thousands indeed will be saved and come to know the Lord Jesus Christ through His holy Orthodox Church.