A sermon of His Reverence, the Bishop of Antania and Abbot of the Bigorski Monastery, Mr Parthenius, delivered at the Vespers of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist on Friday, September 10th 2020 Year of our Lord
Dear God-fearing and pious fathers,
Venerable brothers, monks of this Holy Monastery,
Honoured fathers of the brotherly Greek Orthodox Nation, Father Matthew and Father Nicholas,
Venerable sisters of our Convents,
Beloved Christian brothers and sisters,
Let me begin by expressing my immense joy and gratitude to the great Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist of our Lord, St. John, who honoured us once more to celebrate his memory.
The Holy Prophet Isaiah prophesied in the Old Testament of the appearance of John the Baptist, describing him with the words: The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (Isaiah 40:3) In a figurative sense, the meaning of this prophecy is to hear the voice of the one calling in the spiritual desert of this world, soften your hearts, prepare a place for God in your hearts and straighten the paths of your lives by performing deeds of righteousness. The venerable Forerunner first appeared in the desert of Jordan and began his preaching a few months before the beginning of the public preaching of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. He was exceptionally modest and very strict ascetic. He lived in the caves around the Dead Sea, feeding on grass and wild honey. His appearance caused awe in the people of Israel. Magnificent in spiritual greatness, the Israelites thought of him as if the personification of the great old prophet Saint Elijah, who ascended to Heaven while still alive and whose second appearance was long-awaited. The memory of St. Elijah was really powerful in Israel and St. John resembled him in many ways, so it was natural to compare him with Elijah. After all, St. John is indeed the ‘’new Elijah’’ who appeared by the waters of Jordan and with his blessed hand pointed to the Messiah Jesus Christ: The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. (John 1:29). That is why, while announcing the birth of St. John, the Angel said to John’s father Zacharias: And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. (Luke 1:17). And the Lord Himself, when asked by the disciples about the coming of Elijah, says in the Gospel: But I say unto you, That Elias is indeed come, and they have done unto him whatsoever they listed, as it is written of him. (Mark 9:13) referring here to St. John the Baptist.
The Forerunner of Christ appeared in the Jordan desert, which was desolate and without water, same as the mankind before Christ. Barren, thirsty for justice and peace, for truth and love, people with hearts frozen by sin, which nothing good could come out from. Saint John came in such a spiritual desert to preach the Divine grace which was incarnated through the Son of God and started to water the hearts of men so that they could bear the fruits of virtues.
Saint John had this well-known sentence, which he continuously repeated to all who came to him: Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. (Matthew 3:2) And the Kingdom of Heaven was in the Person of our Saviour and Lord Jesus Christ, Who is always near us. And the path to Him is through repentance. My dear ones, there is nothing greater than repentance. Repentance demonstrated at the last moment made a righteous man and the first inhabitant of heaven from the robber that was crucified on the cross next to our Lord. Repentance transforms even the coldest hearts into vessels that are ready to receive the love of God, to receive His grace and it turns them into hearts which give birth to all Christian virtues.
This sermon on the repentance by St. John the Baptist, which historically took place about 2000 years before us in the Jordan Desert, has never stopped and it is equally relevant to this day. And with the same meaning, it is addressed to all of us. This sentence, this appeal of Saint John: Repent! – is addressed to me, to you, to all of us. Let’s accept it now because without repentance man is only a barren desert and his heart turns into a stone.
We already said that before Christ, mankind was in the lowest state of existence, immorality and primitivism were so extreme that all corporeal passions, even cannibalism, were considered normal. With Christ, however, everything became new; the primary divine dignity was restored in men and the human society was ennobled as a whole. However, now as never before in the Christian history, pagan immorality and the false philosophy of poor values are resurfacing again. We live in a world full of hatred, envy, lack of enlightenment, selfishness, a desire for wars, material wealth and supremacy, lust, adultery, which have probably never been more prevalent than today. This is largely due to the incorrect, I would say, the extremely wrong approach to modern technology, which promotes human imagination. The fantasy of the human mind is also a result of the suggestions of the dark forces. Many people today, mainly from the younger generations, live in a fantasy, in a so-called imaginary world, in some kind of virtual reality and therefore suffer serious and severe mental disorders which later consequently develop into physical diseases.
Thus, it is very easy for a man, through the abuse of technology, to be lured into the sin of adultery. After all, the excessive presence of this sin is even considered normal in the eyes of men. Tonight we heard from the stichiras about the terrible and heavy consequences this improper behaviour can lead to. All the verses referred to the adulterous Herodias, the wife of the brother of King Herod, with whom he had an unlawful relationship. Saint John reasonably and courageously warned them about this sin, however, she, instead of repentance, showed ferocity and vengeance and finally forced the King, on the occasion of his birthday, to kill the man of God. Can you see how horrible adultery can be?
As a spiritual father, I have witnessed the falling apart of so many marriages, including Christian ones. The Christian marriage and the entire society in general, is in a state of terrible erosion and crisis. Today, perhaps more than ever after Christ, the call of Saint John to repentance is so relevant and necessary. Where does this crisis come from? It is all due to the fact that people do not pay attention to the way they use the modern technology, the mobile phones, the Internet and the social networks. The virtual world and the comfort behind the keyboard stimulate human passions and nurture egoism. That is why fasting and restraining from the excessive use of technology and the idleness of social networks today is necessary more than ever. We Christians have different periods of fasting, mainly four times a year, as well as every Wednesday and Friday, however, sadly, I have noticed that many faithful are obsessed with their restraint from food and completely neglect the other forms of fasting that are equally as important. However, if we do not refrain from this monstrous appearance of fantasy through technology, all our fasting with food and going to church will be in vain.
Therefore, my dear ones, let us accept repentance, which means transforming your bad thoughts and bad habits and changing the way of life because, without it, there could be no Divine grace. Let us hear the voice of our beloved Forerunner and Baptist, Saint John, inviting us to preserve the marriages and our society. Because today he cries out to us: Repent, children, you who have defiled the sanctity of your marriage with adultery! Repent, you who steal from the wages of the workers! Repent, you who commit all injustices, engaging in theft from the state treasury! Repent, you who spread narcotics that stimulate the demonic imagination and thus lead thousands of souls into the abyss of hell! The voice of the one who cries out in the spiritual wilderness invites us all to repent and once again become children of God. And that is what a Christian means – a child of the Heavenly Kingdom. Christian means a deified man. There is no greater calling on Earth than to bear the name of Christ. A great responsibility is placed on us by our Savior: Ye are the salt of the earth… Ye are the light of the world… (Matthew 5:13-14). Consequently, we Christians are to blame for everything that happens in the world. No one else. Because we have been given the enlightenment, we have the God-revealed faith, the soul-saving revelation of God. The Christian mind, the repentant mind, is enlightened and only that mind can bring true spiritual growth and nobility to the world.
May the honourable Forerunner and Baptist help all of us, present here, but also to all our neighbours and all people, so that we could all receive in our hearts and apply in real life his timeless message: Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. (Matthew 3:2) After the Most Holy Mother of God, he is the greatest in intercession before God. By his most holy prayers, let all nations and all people get to know through the Holy Spirit, our Lord Christ, the One true God and Savior of the World.
Blessed be his glory and may the great Forerunner of our Lord keep this glorious sanctuary for the rest of the ages! For 1000 years it has been an unquenchable beacon of light to our people. May St. John protect our Monastery, so that we may light the candles and lamps for him and venerate his Miraculous icon until the end of the world.