Sunday Schools and the Beginning of the Church Year
SERMON GIVEN on Sunday 13th September 1998 before the Moleben for the beginning of the school year
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We are starting today a new year in which we endeavour to convey to the children of our parish and indeed to any children whose parents care to send them to us, our faith. A Sunday school is not a place where one teaches facts. It’s a place where people who believe try to convey to children their own faith and their experience of God. And I call upon all the parents to send their children to this school — not for them to gain knowledge which the state school can convey, which they can receive from books, but to encounter people whose life has been changed by the Gospel by meeting face to face the Lord Jesus Christ, by the experience of receiving Communion for the first time, and who can therefore speak with certainty of things that may reach the children.
I remember years back when I was the only teacher in our Sunday school — it was about fifty years ago — I tried as best I could to convey what was in my heart — not the darkness, not the sinfulness, but the recollection of hope and the veneration of of God. And I remember one of the children saying to me many years later, ‘Father Anthony, you have not taught us much; but you have kindled in us a flame that has not died out.’ And I think this is what you may wish for your children to receive from the Saturday School.
Also, they receive a preparation for meeting God in the sacraments; and this is also something important. It is not enough to know what the teaching of the Church is concerning the Body and Blood of Christ. It is to meet people for whom it was an encounter.
And I always remember a young woman in her twenties who came to me almost fifty years ago and said to me that she had a problem, an insuperable problem. She was a total unbeliever, and yet her family as a family of believers compelled her to come to Communion at least for Easter. How could she resolve the problem?
I said to her, ‘The problem is already resolved. If you came to receive Communion I wouldn’t give it to you. But can we talk about your faith, or lack of it, so that perhaps you may discover what you have not yet discovered?’
She agreed. And during the whole of Lent she came every Friday, and we talked. And I had nothing to say that would not only convince her, but make sense to her.
We remained that way until Good Friday. And I knew that I had let her down hopelessly, and the only hope that was left was that God Himself would intervene. And so I said to her, I suggested that we go both to the chapel — it was in St. Basil’s House, where the plashchanitsa, the epitaphios, the Image of Christ in the tomb, was in the centre — and I would pray for guidance. And I asked her to stand and wait. She knelt down next to me, and I asked God what to do. I told Him that I had nothing to convey to this girl; that I had betrayed Him, His trust; that I was responsible for anything that may happen to her later. Would He save her and step in where I had failed?
And then we kept silent for a while. And then a thought came to me, it was a thought in the sense that it was a thought that came from outside of me, it was not the result of a long reflection. I turned to her and said, ‘Does it really matter to you whether you find God or not?’
And she said, ‘Yes, because if there is no God, there is no meaning to life, and I don’t want to live. What should I do?’
And I said, ‘I don’t know; I will ask God.’ And we continued in this desperate struggle, very much like the struggle of Jacob with the angel in the darkness of night. I was praying, ‘I have betrayed you. I have done nothing for her. And you have died for her. Tell me what to do.’ And then another thought came to me, which was so alien to what I expected, that I must believe it, it could not be mine. I turned to her and said, ‘If you promise to do everything I ask you to do, in God’s name I promise you that you will find God.’
And she said, ‘I will. But what is it?’
And I said, ‘I don’t know yet.’ And we continued to pray together for her. And a last thought came, which brought terror into my heart and mind, because it was so incredibly impossible. I said to her, ‘I will celebrate the Liturgy tomorrow.’ It was the Saturday of Holy Week. ‘You come to Communion. But before you receive Communion, you stand before the holy cup and say, “Lord, your Church has betrayed me; my family has betrayed me; your priest has betrayed both of us. I turn now to you, Lord. If you do not give me an answer, I will go away and it will be your responsibility.’”
And she said to me, ‘I can’t say that, it’s blasphemy.’
I said, ‘Yes, unless it is a prayer, it will be blasphemy, and I will answer for it. Do it.’
And the next day she came. She stood before the holy cup. She repeated these frightening words. And then she took Communion.
I went abroad for a while; and I received from her a note: ‘I don’t know yet whether I believe in God. But what I know for sure is that what I received in Communion was not bread or wine. It was something different, that has changed me.’
This is what we are to convey to children who come to school: an experience of baptism so profound, that however deeply unworthy we are, we can say to others: do what I say, because God will answer. Because you are pure, because you are still free, because everything is possible for you.’
I remember a priest to whom I went for confession; a man who for a long time I did not respect, because he drank, and he could not even celebrate because he was not in a condition to do it. And then our priest was taken to prison by the Germans, and I went to confession to him. He listened to my confession; and he listened, crying over me — not drunken tears, crying tears of compassion.
And when I had finished he said, ‘You know what I am, that I am disfigured, unworthy of any respect. And I will tell you the truth. You are still young, and you can find salvation. I will tell you what Christ has put in my heart for you, and what He has put in the Gospel for us. I was unable to follow it when I was young. Struggle and fulfil it.’ And he spoke to me in a way in which no one had ever spoken. And I received absolution from him in a way I had never received absolution before.
I tell you all that because this is a tilling the ground, making it possible for children to meet face to face with the mystery of God, with His presence, with His actions, with His miracles. And so bring them to the church, so that they will, both in prayer and in sacraments, receive what cannot be done by any human agency. But also, bring them to the school, so that there is ever increasing human contact to live, receive a message, not for knowledge but the cry of the soul that proclaims this message.
And a last thing. There is always a moment in life when we want to turn for help to a friend. Receive the same from people who are alien to the Church and tell your companions in life to anyone who will be prepared to listen. I know from experience that in tragic moments of my life the people to whom I could turn were those who had been together with me in the Sunday School or in our youth organisations — people who had been taught the same things, who had learned, encouraged, and had a sense of solidarity and a readiness to help at any cost.
Give your children this chance to make friendships with people which one day will grow and save them from a catastrophe — not material, but moral and spiritual. I beg wholeheartedly of you, give a chance to your children to form friendships that can save, and to learn from people who have learned themselves from each other and who are prepared to share what is the most precious thing in their lives. Amen.