September 17, 2019
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
Today, September 17, on the Feast of St. Sophia and her daughters Faith, Hope, and Love, His Eminence Metropolitan Nathanael of Chicago delivered a stirring homily on what brings people to Church. He began by remarking that he had asked his clergy, “Typically, when do people come to Church? And by people, I mean all people, young, old and everything in between.” The predominant answer was, “When they are given something. Bay Leaves and Crosses on Palm Sunday, Basil on the Feast of the Holy Cross, Eggs at Pascha, Holy Water at Theophany, etc. The people are more interested in the trinkets and sadly, we do not know if they even understand the significance of these items.”
The term for this practice is Shamanism, in which the faithful put their hope in objects like magical talismans and view the priest as more of a shaman/witchdoctor who can magic away diseases and cure spiritual maladies with his prayers, which might as well be called “spells” with this understanding.
This is a grave problem for many reasons, not least of which is that when the priest “fails” to cure the issue or the “object” does not bestow the desired effect, individuals can become jaded and doubt. However, the greatest problem with this is that we are supplanting our Faith in Christ with faith in an object or spell. This is a great deception and lie that the evil one uses to subtly turn us away from true faith and communion with Christ.
One very visible example of this in Greek Communities is found in which people will place an “evil eye” pendant on the same chain as his/her baptismal cross. When asked why they do this the answer is, “To ward off the Mati(Evil Eye).” In other words, this is a talisman that will keep you safe from evil. I often follow up with the question, “And what does the cross do?” They reply the same, “It protects me from evil.” There are two errors in this. First, even if we were to grant them both the nature as talismans, why would you pair an object of black magic with an object of Christianity. By nature, they are diametrically opposed. But second, and of far greater importance is that the cross in and of itself is not salvific without the intrinsic faith in the person who died upon it. It is a “trophy invincible” not because the cross has fundamentally changed but because its symbolism has been flipped on its head and now represent the victory of Christ over death and the powers of this world.”
Instead of focusing on trinkets, we should instead focus on that which is truly important. This is where we must turn to St. Sophia. St. Sophia’s name is translated to “Wisdom.” In his homily, His Eminence gave the distinction that this is not Γραμματέα/Learning, but rather the truest Wisdom of knowing Christ as the beginning and the end of all things. She did not focus on objects, but on Him. This is made abundantly clear in the names she gave to her daughters. Pistis(Faith), Elpis(Hope), and Agape(Love). From the beginning of time, names of individuals carried great meaning. Parents name their children after places of great importance to their family, people of historical significance, and virtues. The hope is that the child will embody the qualities of that place, person, or virtue. The prayer is that this will become a defining characteristic of that child into adulthood.
An example of this were the parents of St. Pantaleimon who had named him Pantaleon which translates to “in all things a Lion.” They had hoped he would grow up to a fierce leader like a lion and embody all the characteristic of the lord of the jungle. However, his life as an unmercenary caused people to rechristen him Pantaleimon which translates to “in all things merciful.” This name better reflected his qualities and is how he is known to all mankind now.
St. Sofia understood this and so she named her firstborn Psistis(Faith). Faith is one of the most four important element in our lives because it is what unites us to our Lord Jesus Christ. “‘Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you’” (Matthew 17:20). Indeed, if we have faith nothing can stop us because we have a true communion with God Himself.
She named her second daughter Elpis(Hope). Hope is the most powerful of all the virtues because it is the culmination of the Holy Spirit. “Not only that, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us” (Romans 5:3-5). Our suffering develops our character which is how God knows who we are. This is hope, the hope in the Resurrection and the power of the Holy Spirit.
She named her youngest daughter Agape(Love). This is the one of the four greatest virtues because it is the attribute of Christ Himself. God is Love, but not the love that most people think of in the romantic sense. This is selfless love. Agape is two phrases together: “A” an prefix that designates that whatever comes next is its opposite and “ego” which means “I/Me.” In other words, Agape translates to “not I/me.” In our culture of self love and “selfies.” Christ stands as the opposite in as much as He not only condescended to become a human being, but then allowed Himself to be murdered by the very people He came to save. This is the love He gives us. “‘A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so also you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another’” (John 13:34-35).
These are the virtues that St. Sophia instilled into her daughters, that they might emulate their name in all things and so become one with Christ. These four virtues of Wisdom, Faith, Hope, and Love were on full display when in the year 126, under Emperor Hadrian they were betrayed Christians. St. Sophia was forced to watch as her daughter Pistis(Faith) 12, Elpis(Hope) 10, and Agape(Love) 9 were questioned on their faith in Jesus Christ. Despite the bullying tactics of their persecutors the girls remained resolute and bravely, one by one were cruelly tortured and executed. After all this, the emperor left St. Sophia alive to live with the deaths of her family. She took their bodies and buried them. Then, after three days of prayer, she fell asleep in the Lord to join them.
Think of their courage, their wisdom, their faith, their love, and their wisdom. They were perfected and true witnesses. I don’t mind sharing that when I was younger I thought that the tears shed by St. Sophia over the graves of her children were tears of sorrow. Now I understand that she shed tears of great pride in her daughters.
The role of the parent is to prepare his/her child for everlasting life. Little Agape(Love) was 9 years old at the time of her martyrdom. She would never grow into a young woman. She would never get married. She would never have children of her own. She would never be able to grow old and look with pride upon the accomplishments of her grandchildren. By every worldly metric this would seem a travesty and terribly sad. And yet, this little girl showed more courage than the bravest soldier. She showed more wisdom than the greatest sage. She showed herself to be complete in her relationship with Christ and as such she accomplished more in her young life than any hundred individuals with accolades of worldly accomplishments, wealth, or power. She is known to God through her incredible virtues and perfect.
St. Sophia showed herself to be the perfect parent. She did not need to entice with trinkets or sports or anything else. She taught her daughters Christ and the virtues. This was sufficient.
Let us follow in her blessed example in raising our own children. Let us teach Christ in our homes and show that our faith is more than shamanism. Our faith is in a person, the Lord Jesus Christ. All of these wonderful items the church offers: the palm cross, the flowers, the oil, the basil, the holy oil, etc., all aid us in our expressions of Faith and point us to the healer of all our infirmities. Let us use them to draw closer to Him, that we might acquire the Holy Eucharist. Let us acquire for ourselves and our children, the fruits of the Holy Spirt, and most especially those cardinal virtues of FAITH, HOPE, LOVE & WIDSOM.
Please read the passion from The Great Collection of the Lives of the Saints, Volume 1: September.