The following was a homily delivered by the Rev. Nicolaos Kotsis, pastor of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Ann Arbor, during the ecumenical vigil of Saints Joachim and Anne celebrated with Archbishop Vigneron on July 25 at the Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament.
Beloved Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
There is a magnificent painting in Metropolitan Nicholas’ office. It’s in the impressionist style, and I don’t know the name of the artist. In the not too distant background is the skyline of a city. The city is on a body of water and it could be nearly any city; New York, Chicago, Boston, Detroit, etc. The colors of the sky, the city and water all blend in a palette of dark blues, grays, purples and black. In juxtaposition to the background, is a much lighter foreground. The central figure is Jesus, easily discernible with a shepherd’s staff and robe, with a rock to his side. At Jesus’ knees is a man, dressed in similar clothing, on his knees with his face in his hands. Jesus’ hand is on the man’s shoulder. Both figures are in tones of yellow and white; stunningly different than the colors of the background.
Of course, as with many paintings, numerous ideas and emotions can be expressed. Whenever I look at that painting, two things always enter my mind. First, even though it’s a painting, it’s if I can hear the noises of the city – the din of the people, the cars and their horns, the construction equipment and the like. And at the same time I notice the quiet, the peacefulness, and the solemnity of the foreground figures of Chris and the unknown man.
The other issue that always comes to my mind is the nature of this meeting of Christ with the man. I often wonder if the man sought out Jesus. Did he have enough of a cold and hard world? Is the man weeping? Was he seeking forgiveness of sins? Was there anyone else to whom he could turn? I don’t know the answers to those questions and that’s partially why I’m always drawn towards that painting.
One thing that is abundantly clear in the painting is the measure of healing that is not only depicted, but which I feel in my heart. I cannot but think how in the bustle and commotion of the city, Jesus sees the individual personhood of that man – in a sea of men – and singles him out for love and understanding. I cannot but think how Jesus’ arm on the man’s shoulders expresses healing for that man’s soul.
Please let me repeat the reading from the Gospel according to St. Matthew we just heard. “Many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see. Jesus said to his disciples, “Blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear. Amen, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.” Of course this reading is a propos for our celebration of the feastday of St. Ann. For so many centuries the prophets had desired to see God – to see in the flesh His Son – whom they spoke about. And as holy as the prophets were and as much godly work as they offered, not one of them saw the coming of the Lord. But St. Ann and St. Joachim, because of their faith and holiness, conceived, despite the impossibility of conception without God’s intervention, and gazed upon the face of the Ever-Virgin Mary and all Holy Theotokos. It is not inconceivable also, to think that Saint Ann also gazed upon the face of her grandson, and Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, after his birth in the manger.
Now if we turn the table for a moment, what did Jesus see when he looked upon the faces of those around Him – and not simply when He was an infant, but throughout his ministry in Galilee? We have to remember that soon after Jesus began his ministry, he was constantly thronged by the people. People were following him in droves and were literally falling on top of one another trying to get as close as possible to Him. What did He see around him? One the one hand, Jesus saw a field ripe for the harvest as He tells His disciples; a mass of humanity ready to be sheaved and brought back to Him.
On the other hand, Jesus saw individual people. Jesus felt power emanate from Him when the fringe of His robe was touched by the woman who had the flow of blood – in the midst of a great crowd. Jesus saw the paralytic being lowered into the house through the roof, by his four devoted and loyal friends in the midst of a great crowd. Jesus saw little Zacchaeus up in the sycamore tree in the midst of the great crowd. Jesus heard the cries of the Canaanite woman with the ill daughter in the midst of a great crowd. Jesus sees the forest, but He knows every individual tree therein.
Ultimately, this is the nature of true humanity – true personhood – that we have a relationship with the Lord and that He recognizes us as individuals. Are we doing the same? Are we recognizing the humanity, the true identity and personhood of the man sitting next to us, or walking down the street, or begging for help on the corner, or cutting us off on the road?
We are living in times that are changing faster than ever. With fiber optics now bringing us our information, things are literally changing at the speed of light. And what are at risk, if not properly taken care of, are our humanity and our well-being – our health. I’ve just come back from a couple of days at our Metropolis summer camp near Rose City, Michigan and I’ll return later this night. After only two days of hearing confessions and pastoral concerns from the campers and staff, I can tell you that one of the most glaring challenges we face as a society, and more importantly, as the Church, is a growing separation of the relationships between people. With all the advances in technology and great connections made available by social media, what I see as lacking most is the connection between persons – the understanding of the humanity behind the Facebook page, for example. Many ills, spiritual sicknesses and physical ailments, beset our people when we are unable to see our family, friends and neighbors worthy of true personhood – sharing in the divine image and likeness in which we were created.
I must say, that even as I look at the recovery of our beloved city of Detroit, as it is so often described in the media, I have serious doubts about the nature of that recovery. If the illness from which the city is recovering is a lack of business and excitement and activity in certain pockets, then perhaps there is a bit of a recovery. But in terms of recovery from the ills of poverty and hopelessness, I think this disease is too profound to be cured by new stadiums and a commuter rail line. Most things I see as a recovery I fear are only window-dressing because the true nature of the illness has not been discussed: the personhood of the tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of people in this city that are poor, destitute, living in fear of their lives, living in substandard housing, illiterate, and unchurched. Living in Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County, last November we had a ballot issue to provide funding for a commuter rail line to tie Ann Arbor with Detroit. Though I didn’t like the thought of significantly higher property taxes, I did comment to my wife that I did not see how this promotes the greater good. Instead, we might be able to ride from home to Detroit without seeing the faces, the humanity of the thousands of people we would pass by, whom the world has forsaken, until we reach the excitement of the city center for a day on the town. This is what I connect with the background of the painting in the Metropolitan’s office.
Though the situation in Detroit and so many other places is so difficult, there is also great hope. But that hope does not come by way of human ingenuity and trust in our own abilities, but that hope rests upon the healing that only our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ can bring. And that healing first starts when we recognize and love the humanity – the personhood - of those around us. If we look again at the passage from Matthew, and go back just a couple more verses, we hear something quite profound. The context is that Jesus has just given the parable of the sower to the crowd and the disciples question why Jesus is speaking in parables. Then Jesus begins to answer by quoting from the Prophet Isaiah: “Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, and seeing you will see and not perceive; for the hearts of this people has grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, so that I should heal them.” Thus, when people turn from sin and hopelessness and despair, and see the second person of the Holy Trinity – when they recognize the relationship they have with the Lord Jesus – then healing can begin. And as a corollary, when we see in the faces of those around us, not enemies, not people beyond redemption, not people beyond hope, not the refuse of the world, but when we see in the faces of those around us, as St. John Chrysostom says, the living, breathing, icons of Christ - God’s creation in His image and likeness - then we as members of the Church have aided the Lord in the healing process.
Healing on a massive scale, as in the case of a city, or on the smallest scale, as in the case of a relationship gone sour between a husband and wife, begins by the recognition of the personhood, the holiness of the model, that exists in each and every human being. As communicants of the sacred mysteries of the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches, we have the awesome responsibility to bring Christ’s healing to all those around us. And with a shared witness to a shared faith in Christ, our efforts in this matter shall be all the more strengthened. Your Excellency, I did read, with great interest, your 4th Pastoral letter titled, “Unleash the Gospel” and the efforts that have been put forth, are being offered now, and will continue to be pushed to promote an attitude and vision from the Holy Pentecost event. With spiritual renewal and missionary transformation as part of the core, we hope and pray for much fruit to be harvested from this endeavor. As faithful members of the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches, we have the ability and opportunity to re-double our efforts to bring Christ’s healing to those who so desperately seek to leave the noise and confusion and pain of the city in the background – and help bring them to the healing and comfort that is with Christ in his heavenly kingdom. May the sight of God’s salvation which shined in the eye of St. Ann always be with us, may St. Ann always intercede on our behalf, and may our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ always help us to see the humanity in those around us, and help bring them healing. Amen.