It seems as if we are losing so many outstanding Orthodox priests.
Less than two months ago, a young priest with six children, Fr. Matthew Baker, died in a tragic car accident as he drove home from church in wintry weather. Weeks later, Fr. Thomas Hopko, dean emeritus of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary and a prolific author, reposed in the Lord. Around that same time, reports began to circulate online that Fr. Roman Braga, the influential elder at Holy Dormition Orthodox Monastery in Michigan, was very ill. Just two days ago, he reposed in the Lord. His funeral is today.
Memory eternal to all three of these remarkable servants of God!
I knew the first and last of these three priests well. Fr. Matthew was my closest friend for the last six years, and Fr. Roman was the definitive influence on my life as a teen, as well as my first confessor. Like thousands of Orthodox people in North America, I had also met Fr. Thomas Hopko and heard him speak at many retreats over the years.
All three priests were different: born in different times, raised in different cultural contexts, shaped by very different experiences. All three represent something uniquely valuable in the life of the Church.
Fr. Roman was a witness to our deepest roots: a priest raised in a pious peasant family during the 1920s in a storied Orthodox land, Bucovina of Romania. A monastic elder and hesychast. A confessor, who suffered bodily torture for the faith at the hands of the State, much like the earliest Christians.
Fr. Thomas was an evangelist at a transitional time: American-born but shaped by and related to some of the greatest figures of the Russian diaspora in the 50s and 60s. A pastor, preacher, and writer whose books and talks were especially influential in bringing many to the faith, as well as calling those within it to deeper repentance and faithfulness.
Fr. Matthew was a sign of hope for the future: an American convert and promising young theologian, whose writings were already beginning to reach beyond the English-speaking Church, emigrating, so to speak, from us to our brethren in Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Russia, and beyond. He was a fledgling professor with a pastor’s heart, who in only one semester of teaching and six weeks of full-time priestly ministry had changed lives forever. What might have happened in the years to come?
Certainly, these three priests were all unique. Yet as different as their lives were, their ministries did exhibit a certain unity — perhaps inevitably so, as they all served the same Lord, Jesus Christ.
As I reflect on these three priests, I see at least three common traits worthy of emulation, three lessons for the whole Church. I’ll cover each trait separately in a three-part series.
1. The Centrality of Biblical Study & Preaching
All three of these priests knew the Bible. Holy writ was on their lips, and their preaching was filled with spontaneous, direct quotation from Scripture.
They didn’t just preach on the readings of the day, as is so often the case. They preached in a way that brought to life the entire drama of God’s self-revelation in history; they presented to their audience a complete and compelling account of the person and work of Jesus Christ, Incarnate Lord and Savior, crucified and risen, ascended and coming again, ever present amongst us as head of His Body, the Church, the “high priest of our confession” (Heb 3.1), the chief “liturgist of the sanctuary” (Heb 8.2).
The sermon, in this approach, does not merely explain Scripture; it strides through it, gathering up threads along the way and weaving them together into one glorious tapestry. In almost every case, the major motifs are the same — yet they never seem stale, as the power and presence of God shines through any repetition, and startlingly new comparisons burst forth from the most familiar forms of the tapestry.
Such a homiletical approach is nothing new. The Church Fathers did exactly the same thing in their own sermons. Their orations were filled with scriptural allusions and quotations drawn from throughout the entire canon, Old and New Testament.
Yet in today’s Church hearing such a sermon is a rarity, perhaps because speech of this nature requires a deep personal familiarity with the entire Bible, as well as the spiritual discipline of memorization.
I call this a “spiritual discipline” to highlight that this style of preaching is not just about being smart. All three of these priests were definitely intellectuals, with a love for books and gifted with keen minds. Yet all three also made a conscious effort to immerse themselves in the Bible — not merely to be familiar with the broad narrative of Scripture, not merely to know or understand its message, but also to memorize and internalize its very words.
Doing so is itself a spiritual practice. The Philokalia, a famous collection of mystical writings, is probably most well known for its advice on noetic prayer. Yet its monastic spiritual guides also urge their disciples to practice regular reading and meditation on the Scriptures as an essential aspect of the spiritual life.
When Fr. Roman Braga was in prison, someone smuggled in a copy of the New Testament. The prisoners divided it amongst themselves, each taking one book, so that they could memorize the text and then recite it to the group. Fr. Roman had been given the Gospel of St. John. Later in life, when I knew him, he would quote from that Gospel regularly, in sermons and in conversations. Its words would flow from his heart, as would key passages from other sections of the Bible, especially St. Paul.
Anyone who has heard or read something by Fr. Tom Hopko knows how frequently he appealed to Scripture. Among his 55 Maxims for Christian Living is the straight-forward exhortation: “Read the scriptures regularly.”
Fr. Matthew Baker often said that the best thing he ever did, both as a theologian and as a father, was to read the entire Bible, cover to cover, with his eldest boys. He did so more than once. The boys have a special love for and command of the Old Testament, as did Fr. Matthew. He quoted from it regularly and had started a sermon series in Lent based on the Old Testament readings and themes. Read the first in the series to catch some glimpse of the way in which he moved across the entire canon of Scripture.
In his personal testimony at his ordination, Fr. Matthew said: “It is my sincere prayer and intention to uphold this apostolic faith in all its integrity and to teach it wisely; to study the Scriptures assiduously – the “divine and exalted word” which, St Gregory the Theologian tells us, is the first duty of the priest (Greg. Naz, Or. 2) – and to celebrate the mysteries of the Church with care and reverence.”
Nowadays, we would do well to follow the example of these three recently reposed priests and recommit ourselves to the patristic emphasis on Biblical study and preaching.
“Somebody has suggested that philosophy was the art of reading slowly,” Fr. Georges Florovsky once wrote. “Theology, too, is the art of reading and thinking slowly, slowly and carefully, of reading and re-reading the Word of God, of thinking and re-thinking the message and reality of salvation.”
—To Be Continued—
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