The Cross Stands While The World Turns: Homilies for the Cycles of the Year
The Very Rev. Dr John Behr, dean of St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, is also the Professor of Patristics, Editor of the Popular Patristics Series, and the author of five other SVS Press titles. With this collection of homilies, Fr. John offers the reader a chance to listen in on a decade of his homilies delivered in the Seminary's Three Hierarchs’ Chapel. His preface explains how he created this collection, and why each homily needs to be a proclamation of the Good News.
The homilies collected here were delivered, and worked over, during the last decade at the Three Hierarchs’ Chapel of St. Vladimir’s Seminary. These homilies follow the three main liturgical cycles of the year: the Paschal cycle, the Nativity–Theophany cycle, and the Theotokos cycle. Following these cycles has meant, inevitably, that some feasts (such as Transfiguration and the Elevation of the Precious and Life-giving Cross) are not touched, nor are those Sundays that belong to “ordinary time,” non-festal periods. Nevertheless, these cycles not only map out our year, but also our lives as we learn to grow in conformity to Christ.
Preaching the Word of God, finding words appropriate for the Word, giving word to the Word, so that the Word is addressed to hearers in the present, is perhaps the most important, vital, and difficult task of the priest and for the discipline of theology more generally. In his fourth book On the Priesthood, St John Chrysostom emphasizes that unlike, say, the medical doctor, who has a scalpel to cauterize the patient’s wounds and drugs to treat various diseases, the doctor of souls only has words at his disposal, words with which he works to change the hearer’s heart and life.
Writing several decades ago, Fr. Alexander Schmemann lamented the state of preaching at the time. His words are worth considering even today:
“One can observe an undoubted decline or even crisis in preaching in contemporary church life. The essence of this crisis lies not in the inability to speak, in a loss of “style” or in any intellectual deficiency on the part of the preacher, but in something far deeper: in an oblivion to what preaching in the church assembly is supposed to be. The homily can be, and often is even today, intelligent, interesting, instructive and comforting, but these are not the criteria by which we can distinguish a “good” homily from a “bad” one—these are not its real essence. Its essence lies in its living link to the gospel that was read in the church assembly. For the genuine sermon is neither simply an explanation of what was read by knowledgeable and competent persons, nor a transmission to the listeners of the theological knowledge of the preacher, nor a meditation “a propos” of the gospel text. In general, it is not a sermon about the gospel (“on a gospel theme”), but the preaching of the gospel itself.” 1
The most important point here is the comment that the sermon is not about the gospel, but is itself the preaching of the gospel. One might rephrase it slightly, and more provocatively: unless the gospel has been preached, there has been no proclamation of the gospel, even though the particular passage from the gospel has been read!
There is an important difference between the gospel and the four texts that we have as the Gospels: the gospel is essentially a proclamation; it is not just a report about things that happened in the past, but the proclamation of the Good News of the work of God in Christ. This, of course, also goes for the four Gospels themselves: they are proclamation. But, as they are given as historical narratives, they need to be “interpreted” to make them into a proclamation in the present. As Origen put it, the gospel is not simply the narrative of the deeds, sufferings, and words of Jesus, but that which “presents the sojourn of Christ and prepares for his coming (parousia), and produces it in the souls of those willing to receive the Word of God, who stands at the door and knocks and wishes to enter their soul.”2 Christ is present throughout the Scriptures, ready to dwell in those who open themselves to him; it is the task of the homily to present, and effect, the coming of Christ, on the basis of the Scripture read.
With the exception of two homilies collected here (that for Vespers of Forgiveness Sunday and Great and Holy Friday), all the homilies were delivered during the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. In this specific context, a homily, delivered after the Gospel reading and before the anaphora itself, has a very particular, and indispensable, role to play: it is that which prepares us for the reception of the Eucharist. The Word of God to be proclaimed—on a particular occasion to a particular congregation— must work as a double-edged sword, like a surgeon’s scalpel, dissecting in order to be healing. On the one hand, it must be convicting— sharp and discerning, disclosing and revealing, bringing the hearers to an awareness of their sinfulness. On the other hand, it must be redeeming and healing, so that the hearers know themselves as forgiven sinners. In this way the congregation is fashioned into the people of God, those who will be able to approach the chalice with the words “sinner of whom I am first,” and receive the body and blood of Christ, the “medicine of immortality” as St Ignatius of Antioch put it.3 The homily must elevate the minds of the congregation, so that they are ready to perceive what will be done in the eucharistic anaphora, bringing about a spirit of contrition with which they can then encounter their Savior, so that their hearts of stone can indeed be replaced with hearts of flesh, and themselves become the flesh of the Word.
The collection and publication of homilies is, therefore, rather anomalous. Being read, they will not be heard in a liturgical context, let alone the context in which they were originally delivered, though various allusions will no doubt bring the liturgical setting to mind. Yet now, as a literary text, they are given a new lease of life, in a new form, for new readers. Many people have, over the years, asked me for my “notes”; it is to them that I gratefully dedicate this work, in the hope that others, too, find the words here nourishing.
1Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988), 77.
2Commentary on John 1.26.
3Letter to the Ephesians 20.
This collection of homilies by Fr Behr appeals to a wide audience. Covering the feasts and fasts of the liturgical cycles of the Church, this book can be read throughout the year. While succinct, these homilies are nonetheless rich in substance and impart invaluable insight. The author’s deep theological knowledge and liturgical expertise are discernable throughout.
– Archbishop Demetrios, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America
By “giving word to the Word,” Fr. Behr does not aim to captivate the individual with psychological appeals, but rather to include man in a liberated space-time where he or she will acquire freedom from all individualistic priorities.... The readers of Homilies for the Cycles of the Year are led beyond the word toward the original source of the word, which is a Person. This collection of homilies shows that in Eucharistic synaxis we will see and meet God through our communion with others.
– Bishop Maxim ( Vasiljevic ), Serbian Orthodox Church in North & South America