4th Sunday After Pentecost
Today’s Gospel reading tells us of the centurion who beseeched the Lord to heal his paralyzed servant. The centurion, though he was a Roman soldier, had heard of the miracles and teachings of Christ and recognized His goodness, His authority, and His power to heal.
Though he was in charge of many men, the centurion was concerned for the illness of his servant who was paralyzed. This concern for what might be called the least among his charges demonstrates the disposition of heart of this good man. He does not approach our Lord to seek anything for himself, he is entirely focused on interceding for the servant whom he loved and for whom he had such concern.
Indeed, such was his faith that he would not trouble the Lord to come to his servant, but recognizing his unworthiness to have Christ come to his home, he boldly states: ‘Only speak a word and my servant will be healed.’ Our Lord is astonished by the trust and faith of this man and declares: ‘I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel… Go your way; and as you have believed so let it be done for you.’ And his servant was healed that same hour.
The centurion bore the burden of his servant who was ill… bringing this burden before the Lord and trusting with faith that our Lord would show mercy.
On this day, we have not only our Gospel reading, but the lives of several saints celebrated today that speak to us of this intercessory action and prayer, of this Christian conscience that bears the burdens of others and brings them before the Lord Jesus Christ.
Today we celebrate our father among the saints, Sergius of Radonezh, one of the brightest lights that shone upon the Russian land. As a child, the young lad Bartholemew grew up in piety and demonstrated great love for God. Yet the boy had a learning disability and, try as he might, he could not read. One day he encountered a holy monk who exhorted him to take up the Psalter and read. The boy tried to explain that this was impossible for him, but the monk insisted… and, lo and behold, the scales of ignorance fell from his eyes and he began reading beautifully for all to hear. Bartholemew grew both in stature and in holiness and sought solitude in the forest to work out his salvation. His brother accompanied him but could not withstand the ascetic life. However, others soon were drawn to the grace-filled life being pursued there and soon a monastic brotherhood was formed. Each monk built his own cell, and all gathered with St Sergius for the Divine services in the chapel. A priest came from a village for Divine Liturgy until, finally, the Saint was persuaded to accept ordination at which time the bishop also named him abbot and exhorted him to ‘Remember this saying: "Bear ye one another' s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2). If you follow this precept, you will save yourself and those who live with you.' St. Sergius remembered this all his life and was not only a father but also a servant to all those who came to him.
While St Sergius’ own will may have preferred the life of solitude, he took seriously this exhortation from his bishop and did indeed pour out his life bearing the burdens of his brothers and of all who came to him, thus fulfilling the law of Christ. The Holy Trinity Monastery of St Sergius remains one the jewels of Russian Orthodoxy to this day. Our pilgrim group was blessed to visit the Monastery a few years ago. The line of people each day waiting to venerate the relics of St Sergius extends out the church and around the building. It is clear to all that this wondrous saint continues to hear the supplications of those who seek his intercessions… that he continues to bear the burdens of others, thus fulfilling the law of Christ.
And we must also speak of another marvelous saint whose memory we commemorate today – the Grand Duchess Elizabeth. This noble lady, granddaughter of Queen Victoria of England and elder sister of the Tsaritsa Alexandra, embraced the faith of her husband, Grand Duke Sergei, and the beauty of Orthodoxy took firm root in her heart.
Following the assassination of her husband, Grand Duchess Elizabeth became a nun, giving away her riches and luxurious possessions. With the proceeds she opened the Martha and Mary Home in Moscow to foster the prayer and charity of devout women. For many years she helped the poor and orphans in this Moscow home. She embraced and exemplified a life that combined intercession and action in the heart of this troubled world.
In 1918, the Bolsheviks arrested her and those who stood by her side. They were herded into the forest, pushed into an abandoned mineshaft, into which grenades were then hurled. An observer heard them singing Church hymns as they were pushed into the mineshaft. After the Bolsheviks left, he could still hear singing for some time. It seems that the last thing Elizabeth did as she lay dying in the mineshaft was to bandage the wounds of her co-sufferer Prince Ioann with her handkerchief. Her relics were later recovered, and she lies now at the Russian Convent on the Mount of Olives in the Holy Land.
The martyred Grand Duchess Elizabeth exemplified throughout her life, and even in the final moments of her martyric death, this spirit of bearing another’s burdens and thus fulfilling the law of Christ.
This is the call of Christ to each and every one of us. We are not alone… we are not isolated individuals whose lives have no bearing upon one another. What we do, what we say, what we think, whether or not we pray… these things have bearing upon one and all.
We are called to bear one another’s burdens. It is a heavy call… And perhaps we may be thinking: ‘But Father, I can hardly bear my own burdens! I am busy from dawn to dark just trying to make ends meet. The little candle of my soul is just barely flickering and I can’t take on anything more!’
I understand… But here is the mystery… If that little flickering candle of your soul can extend itself to encompass intercession for others, that barely flickering candle of your soul will light another candle and another and another. Pretty soon you will have multiple candles burning within you. And the more you gather concern for others and intercede for them within your prayer and within your heart, the more candles are lit within you until you find that this flame of love is burning brightly within you.
This is the disposition of heart that understands the connection we all have to one another and, borne through love for one’s fellow man, bears the burdens of others. And in doing so, thus fulfills the law of Christ.