Pentecost 2020 – The New Abnormal is NOT OK

Restoration of Public Worship

The Descent of the Holy Spirit

“‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. 18 Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy. 19 I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood and fire and billows of smoke. 20 The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord. 21 And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Acts 2:17-20

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

We are starting a new journey today into the “new abnormal,” not totally dissimilar to the first Pentecost, on this extremely windy day, outdoors under a beautiful blue sky staring up at the dome of our church, crowned with the Holy Cross, expecting the Holy Spirit to fill us as he did on the birthday of the Holy Church. All this, in the state of Pandemic where we are coming together for the first time in many months.

We know how anxious, maybe lonely and disconsolate many have felt during these unprecedented days. Many have been wounded and have been not only physically isolated in most cases, but with some shuttered for two and three months. Some have been struggling with the unknowns, anxious about, health, family, work and careers. Private business owners have been struggling to hold on to their businesses, they are worried about their families and the livelihood of those who they employ. Separated from loved ones, we’ve had parishioners die alone, family members unable to attend funerals of parents, grandparents unable to see their new grandchildren, children having their baptisms delayed and couples postponing marriages. What will the future hold? What is the new normal? Will there be a cure and will we be able to return to the freedom that we might have been taking for granted? Yes, the wounds are real and they are in many ways permanent. This is the journey we are on and it is into the new “abnormal”.

Ten days ago, beloved, we celebrated the Ascension of our Lord on the 40th day of resurrection. The angels were shocked that Christ ascended into Heaven in bodily form with the mark of the nails still etched on his life-giving and creative hands, on his side from which his precious Blood flowed life into us, and on his feet, which trampled death under foot. Christ had by his glorious resurrection transfigured and glorified his wounds, pain and struggle. He will also transfigure our wounds, our pain, and our struggle. He will glorify us. We will by his wounds be healed[1] and those wounds will be the battle scars that will make us stronger as a people and as a church. We will come out of this galvanized and better than before. 

To me and to many of us, where the church has always been the great source of spiritual and in some cases even physical support when things have become so desperate, we found ourselves in the unimaginable position where we were denied fellowship and communion in the comfort and mutual consolation among the faithful, a very profoundly Christian reality. On our end, we have also struggled. We have looked for ways to keep in touch, to bring hope, and consolation to you. However, visits, calls and outreach fall short, not to mention the complete inadequacy of virtual world, and only go so far in bringing comfort in time of isolation. I know this from my time spent in hospitals for many months, often alone and very wounded, physically but never spiritually or emotionally for Christ was always with me[2].

God has commanded us out of love to bring consolation to the afflicted[3], and to gather on the first day of the week in the fellowship of the “holy things”. Thanks, and praise to God that while we were sheltered in place, like the Israelites in bondage, we too knew that God was with us. We all knew that we had to be strong and courageous, to not dread our desolation nor fear the contagion. We know as he promises in Deuteronomy 31:6, that “the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.”

Thankfully, by means of the incredible technology available to us, we were able to reach hundreds of people on a weekly and sometimes daily basis praying with them, keeping in contact and providing sources of Christian education, comfort and “virtual” fellowship. All the “arms” of the church were mobilized for this sacred task, some in hospitality, providing meals of comfort to the needy, educating the children in both Armenian and Sunday School on-line via Zoom, visiting and blessing homes, making calls and sending information as well as broadcasting services and sermons, even providing Instructional Liturgy and Deacon’s Training virtually and meeting with groups for Bible Study, pastoral counselling, pre-Cana and various other ministries all on-line and even sometimes curbside. In other cases, we were able to provide Facetime visual feeds from graveside for bereaved families who were distanced and unable to attend the loss of loved ones. Many of you have remained in contact with the elderly, the lonely and others who are in need of mercy at this time. In a word, thanks you to all of you for caring and demonstrating your love and your faith in our Lord through these unprecedented and difficult times. You know that the “war” is not over and there is still some difficulty to go through and this is not the world we want nor the world that we hope for. We must still struggle in this new “Abnormal” and not accept it as the way going forward. We must hope, pray and struggle for a return to freedom especially where faith and our relationship with Christ is at stake. It is not acceptable to be deprived of the precious life-giving sacrament in his living Body and Blood. We will not be distributing Holy Communion. This ought not to be considered “OK” for us and we must expect a return to the Lord’s table even to demand of our church and her hierarchy to figure out a way to make this happen and make it available for the faithful apart from which we will have “no life” as our Lord says, “unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you.”

Today, in spite of very little change or advancement in practical terms to halt the spread of the virus or crush it completely, hospitals and restaurants are getting back into the “business” of treating people and feeding them. They are able to do it in new and safe ways, which mitigate the spread of disease. They’ve had time to “figure things out” but not everything. Our church too, must figure things out! She needs to figure out a way to “do” what she is called to do, to “give” what she is empowered to give, to distribute what she was mandated to distribute. Today after three months of restricting her children from physically being with her she still isn’t ready to give, do and distribute the very things that give her meaning as a spiritual mother and the place of the dispensation of God’s love and the Arc of salvation. We are restricted from distributing Holy Communion, baptizing our children and solemnizing the marriage of our couples. We can’t even give our blessed departed a proper Christian burial!! This is not “OK”. It is NOT “OK”. Yes, we are back to public worship. But nothing is “OK”. This is “makeshift” and it is temporary. We are hungry! I am hungry! We must come be sustained, and nourished at the font of our church’s sacraments.

If I can now go and eat at McDonalds to curb my earthly appetite, I must certainly be able to be able to approach the Lord’s Table for the satisfaction of my eternal hunger for the Lord. There are ways to do this but the faithful must be vigilant in demanding our hierarchy to “figure it out” as it is essential to the life and the essence of our faith. We are celebrating Pentecost! We are celebrating the church’s bold steps from a collection of common men who overcame every obstacle, enemy, persecution to proclaim Christ’s victory. Are we ready to do that today? Do we have the same faith that is sealed in us by the Holy Spirit? Where is our conviction and trust? I am not saying that we ought to be foolish, on the contrary, to be wise and seek God’s guidance in overcoming every obstacle. Today it is COVID-19, yesterday it was persecution, and who knows what tomorrow will be? The church has withstood 2000 years if the devil’s challenges, pitfalls and obstacles. We must be the emboldened church of the Pentecost now more than ever.

Today is the celebration of the church’s birth, her establishment when the Holy Spirit who our Lord promised came was sent by the Father, who himself being truly and personally God, came and filled the apostles with the gifts and charisms to keep the Lord’s word, to take his mission, ministry and salvation throughout the entirety of the world in spite of every danger and enemy of life and salvation! How did they do it? What made them so bold? Hear the words which record the life of this early church in the days following the Pentecost, from the book of Acts 2;  42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47) What was that fellowship? It wasn’t coffee, nor was it choreg. Fellowship was a technical term which implied unity in the common things, faith and everything that we have and share in common. It is also unity in faith and ideals, ideology and trust in the One True God.

Only in that Communion fellowship or Koinonia, would they dare “break bread together” or subscribe to the unified discipleship to the teaching of the apostles!” The did the Badarak in thanksgiving and they taught the faith of Christ! Today we are like the infant church. We must focus on the necessary things, to gather on the first day of the week, to “badarak” together and to learn the teachings of the apostles through the tradition of the church led by the Holy Spirit.

Truly we ought to be very hopeful for so many reasons that the future is in some ways brighter than ever for us and especially for the church. First, we have come to realize and always should have realized that we never completely safe and that we should always be dependent on Christ and never take him for granted. Because we expect and have grown accustomed to a pretty carefree life, with amazing cures, vaccines for various diseases, longer life expectancy, lowest infant mortality ever and great healthcare, many of us easily make long term plans. This has been a major “wake up call”. Remember that we are just a small state and an even smaller parish of Armenian Christians. This disease has effected many people already, not only in sickness and death, with Rhode Island alone recording over 600 deaths and our parish with three confirmed deaths due to this disease, but also in a debilitated economy, which may take years to overcome, and not to mention the social cost, with a rise in drug abuse, petty crime, and domestic violence. The social cost has been enormous, with at least to me one of the great costs being the affirmation socially and politically that the church is now considered a “non-essential” service. Can we stop and think for one moment the consequences of that statement? Dear beloved, the devil is having a heyday. He has our society right where he wants us. Focus on the physical carnage and ignore the spiritual! Brothers and sisters. Today is Pentecost. We have the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is providential that the restoration of public services takes place on this day that celebrates the inauguration of the church. “Christ is in our midst”, he is risen and he is more important to us today that ever.

No one ever imagined three months ago that this could happen. Maybe for the first time, for some of us, we perceive that we’re not in control or that our lives and the lives of those we love are in danger and maybe for the first time when we thought things were grand and we made plans for the future,  that future is now somewhat in doubt. These are all wounds but in faith, these wounds which Christ heals, note, doesn’t take away, make us strong. We are like iron in the fire and that fire which forges us and galvanizes our wounds also, is the same fire which reinforced the Apostles and vested the early church for the incredible and audacious mission for which they were empowered and commissioned. That fire came and rested upon them in tongues and that fire is Personal, He is the Holy Spirit who proceeds[4] eternally from the Father and is sent by Jesus[5], and who is sealed in each of us[6]! It is the Holy Spirit the Comforter, the Lord and Giver of Life, whose Advent we celebrate today! Therefore, we have very good reason and with the divine sanctifying power of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit to be of good cheer even in Pandemic, and to heed our Lord’s words; 22  “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; nor about the body, what you will put on. 23 Life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing. 24 Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap, which have neither storehouse nor barn; and God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds? 25 And which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature? 26 If you then are not able to do the least, why [d]are you anxious for the rest? 27 Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you, even Solomon in all his glory was not [e]arrayed like one of these. 28 If then God so clothes the grass, which today is in the field and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will He clothe you, O you of little faith? 29 “And do not seek what you should eat or what you should drink, nor have an anxious mind. 30 For all these things the nations of the world seek after, and your Father knows that you need these things. 31 But seek [f]the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added to you. 32 “Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell what you have and give alms; provide yourselves money bags which do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches nor moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:24-34)

We’re undergoing a new journey today, into the unknown, into a new “abnormal”, but we embark with a compass, armed with the sacred tradition of our church and led by the guidance and urging of the Holy Spirit our guide, protector and comforter. We ought not be afraid, in fact  we ought to be bold like the apostles, bold enough and faithful enough to try every reasonable approach whereby we might bring faith, hope and love to our people and to all people in proclaiming the Good News in Body, Soul, Sacrament, Word and all things. Let us be wise like foxes and gentle as lambs, looking to bring the balm of immortality to heal the wounds of a broken humanity and live with our trust in Jesus, and cling to his glorious presence. This past week we heard about the brutal murder of Mr. Floyd by a police officer. We are reminded that the enemy of life and salvation still lurks in this broken world. Let us be the source of hope and to be the first responders of faith, in order to bring hope in the face of every danger along this new journey, not only COVID-19, infection, viruses, and disease, but also by our work and word, to fight injustice, inhumanity, hatred, bigotry, crime, hunger, poverty, brokenness, and hardness of heart. We need Jesus now more than ever. Even so, come Lord Jesus! Maranatha, and to him with the Father and to the Life-giving Holy Spirit whose coming we celebrate this glorious day, offer honor and worship with bended knee, now and always and unto the ages, amen.

[1] Isaiah 53:5

[2] Isaiah 41:10 and Matthew 28:20

[3] 2 Corinthians 1:4

[4] John 15:26 (Note: Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Churches do not confess the double procession (Filioque) of the Holy Spirt, but confess that while the Father sends the Holy Spirt in Jesus Name, his procession, and that of the Son too, is of the Father.

[5] John 14:26; John 15:26

[6] John 14:16

Published by

Fr. Shnork Souin

Priest of the Armenian Orthodox Church

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