2016-07-02 Homily. Father François Beyrouti. The Lord has done great things for us.
Saturday, July 2, 2016 Homily. Father François Beyrouti.
The Lord has done great things for us.
Deposition of the Mantle of the Theotokos at Blanchernae.
Divine Liturgy at the Melkite Convention. Boston, Massachusetts. Hebrews 9:1-7; Luke 1:39-49,56.
Now even the first covenant had regulations for worship and an earthly sanctuary.  For a tent was prepared, the outer one, in which were the lampstand and the table and the bread of the Presence; it is called the Holy Place.  Behind the second curtain stood a tent called the Holy of Holies,  having the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant covered on all sides with gold, which contained a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron's rod that budded, and the tables of the covenant;  above it were the cherubim of glory overshadowing the mercy seat. Of these things we cannot now speak in detail.  These preparations having thus been made, the priests go continually into the outer tent, performing their ritual duties;  but into the second only the high priest goes, and he but once a year, and not without taking blood which he offers for himself and for the errors of the people.
Luke 1:39-49, 56.
In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah,  and she entered the house of Zechari'ah and greeted Elizabeth.  And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit  and she exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!  And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy.  And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord."  And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord,  and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,  for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed;  for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.  And Mary remained with her about three months, and returned to her home.
“For He who is mighty has done great things for me” (Luke 1:49).
Why did Mary say this? What great things did God do for her?
If we look at the first chapter of Saint Luke’s Gospel we find that Mary, a young girl, who is living in Nazareth, a small town, is paralleled to Zechariah, a priest who Saint Luke describes as “righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” (Luke 1:6).
The first two major scenes of Saint Luke’s Gospel are purposefully similar on three points. First, the angel Gabriel appears to both Zechariah and to Mary (1:11 and 1:26), second Saint Luke says that both are “troubled” by the presence of the angel (1:12 and 1:29), and third the angel Gabriel says to both “do not be afraid” (1:13 and 1:30).
Zechariah and Mary were at opposite extremes in first century Jewish society. Zechariah is an elderly man and Mary is a young girl, Zechariah is a respected religious figure but Mary is unknown and newly engaged, and Zechariah who through his prayers presents people to God and through his witness presents God to the people is paralleled to Mary who because of her age and stature was not known, seen, or expected to even speak. The fact that the lowly Mary is placed in the same story as the publicly exalted Zechariah is in itself a great honor that could have led Mary to proclaim: “For He who is mighty has done great things for me” (Luke 1:49).
But there is more.
Saint Luke not only parallels the young and insignificant Mary to the respected and elderly Zechariah, but he actually places her above Zechariah. The angel Gabriel tells Zechariah “Behold, you will be silent and unable to speak…because you did not believe my words....” (Luke 1:20), but he tells Mary “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (1:35). These opening verses of the Gospel present a complete reversal. Zechariah is now silent but Mary courageously speaks: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (1:38).
As Zechariah remains silent, Mary quickly goes to Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth and proclaims to her: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (1:46-49). Not just for one thing, but for all these things Mary recognizes that the Lord has done great things for her.
The early Church saw that the Lord had done even greater things for her and through her as they not only recognized Mary as the mother of the Messiah but also as the new Eve. Saint Ephrem, writing in the fourth century, says: “Eve the Mother of all living became the well-spring of death to all living. But Mary budded forth, a new shoot from Eve the ancient vine; and new life dwelt in her.”
As we celebrate our jubilee let us look back at our humble origins, rejoice in our accomplishments, and proudly proclaim as did Mary: “He who is mighty has done great things for” us as well.
When we read the stories of our first priests and communities in Bishop Nicholas Samra’s book Standing on their Shoulders, we indeed realize that “He who is mighty has done great things for” us.
As we see priests and lay people work together and continue to dedicate their lives to the Melkite Church, we can further bear witness that “He who is mighty has done great things for” us.
We might think we are small and insignificant compared to larger Churches but just as God had wonderful plans for Mary that exceeded His plans for Zechariah. So too for us, as we look towards the future we need to be confident that “He who is mighty will continue to do great things for us” and through us.
They say when a priest is first ordained, he wants to change the whole world, then on his fifth anniversary he realizes that this ambition is too large so he focuses only on changing the people in his parish, then on his tenth anniversary he realizes that he has neither changed the world nor his parish, so he spends the rest of his life focusing on only changing himself.
Although there is an element of truth in this, we can never forget that the mission of the Melkite Church is actually to change the whole world. Jesus’ command 2000 years ago remains new for us today: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20). We always need to have a deep desire to change the world, but we can only make real disciples of others if we become real disciples ourselves.
But how do we change ourselves and become real disciples? We change and nourish ourselves only through repentance, confession, active participation in the Divine Liturgy, reading the Bible every day, and a prayer life that does not cease repeating “O Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner.” We also have to be eager to learn more about our faith and to witness in word and deed to the mighty one who “has done great things for” us (Luke 1:49).
We sometimes ask with anxiety “Where will our Church be in the next 50 years? How many new communities will there be? How big will our parishes be? How many priestly, monastic, and lay vocations will we have?” The Church will only be where each and every member is. If our faith is dead, the Church will be dead, but if we, as individuals, are holy and vibrant our Church will be holy and vibrant. Now is the time for all of us not only to see the bigger picture but to commit our lives to be part of that bigger picture.
A jubilee celebration is a joy but it is also a challenge to look back with a humble gratitude and to look forward with a bold attitude. The Mother of God was humble but God exalted her above Zechariah and any other holy man or woman who has ever lived. She remained faithful to Jesus throughout His life and experienced both great joy and extreme suffering.
Our Melkite Church needs to always be rooted in Mary’s humility and perseverance, because God will only exalt us if we humble ourselves daily before Him.
There is a story of an elderly man in a village who was able to answer everyone’s questions. His reputation spread and people came from distances to speak with him. One day, a young man thought that he would ask him a question that he couldn’t possibly answer. He put a bird in his hand and said to himself “I will put a bird in my hand and ask him whether the bird is dead or alive? If he answers ‘dead’ I will release the bird and show him that it is alive. If he says ‘alive’ I will suffocate it and show him that it is dead. Whatever he answers he will be wrong.” The young man approached the man and asked him: “Is the bird in my hand dead or alive.” The wise elderly man said: “My son. The answer to that question is in your hands.”
Father François Beyrouti
Holy Cross Melkite Catholic Church
451 West Madison Avenue
Placentia, CA 92870