Brothers and Sisters in Chaplain Ministry:
The Troparion of the Forefeast makes two important references for us as we approach the feast that celebrates the beginning of Jesus’ ministry through His Baptism by St. John the Forerunner, and through which our unworthy ministry is carried out.
The River Jordan was turned back by the mantle of Elisha, after Elijah had been taken up to heaven. The waters were parted in two, and the stream became a dry path. This was truly a type of baptism, by which we pass over the stream of life. Christ has shone forth in the Jordan to sanctify the waters.
The first image is the transition of the mantle of ministry and leadership literally being passed from Elijah to Elisha. All who are baptized are called to exercise their God-given gifts throughout our lives as the actualization of that baptism, in the context of the eucharistic community. Those called to ordained ministry are called to celebrate the sacramental ministry in the same eucharistic ministry. All of us are called to carry forth our experience of the Kingdom of Heaven in the Eucharist out into the world, and to bring forth the fruits of this effort back to the next celebration of the Eucharist.
The second image here is that of the ascension of Elijah to heaven. Fr. Alexander Schmemann, in his book For the Life of the World, references Jesus’ glorification, as occurring through His saving death and Resurrection, and he notes: “His glorification is known only through the mysterious death in the baptismal font, through the anointing of the Holy Spirit”. (p. 28) He goes on to speak of the early Church and its mission:
The early Christians realized that in order to become the temple of the Holy Spirit they must ascend to heaven where Christ has ascended. They realized also that this ascension was the very condition of their mission in the world, of their ministry to the world. For there – in heaven – they were immersed in the new life of the Kingdom; and when, after this ‘liturgy of ascension,’ they returned into the world, their faces reflected the light, the ‘joy and peace’ of that Kingdom and they were truly its witnesses. They brought no programs and no theories; but wherever they went, the seeds of the Kingdom sprouted, faith was kindled, life was transfigured, things impossible were made possible. (Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World. SVS Press, 1973, p. 28,)
Our ministry, as the temple of the Holy Spirit, depends upon our willingness, our desire to ascend to heaven, through the celebration of the Eucharist, reflecting the image of Elijah being taken up. It is our experience of our Lord Jesus Christ in the kingdom, through the Eucharist, that shines, through the Holy Spirit, as light, as joy, and as peace at the core of our ministry. Through our steps and ministerial outreach, God plants the seeds, grows the faith, and life is transfigured.
This is not to say that we must overtly bear witness to this reality in each of our ministry encounters. We embody it as we approach those in need, remaining faithful to our identity while shaping ministry to be meaningful to those we reach out to. This is the art of pastoral ministry, and chaplains minister in a broader context beyond the ecclesial community, and yet relate all that ministry ultimately back to the celebration of the Eucharist.
May each of you be blessed during the Theophany Feast with a renewed spirit to minister to those in need, empowered by your experience of the ascension to heaven in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist.
With prayers and love in Christ,
Archpriest Steven Voytovich, Director
Office of Institutional Chaplains