The following sermon was offered by Father Christopher Xanthos at the funeral service for his grandmother, Yiayia Effimia held on Thursday, September 6, 2018 at the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Paul in Hempstead, New York, and is shared here for your edification as an example of a good and faithful servant of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Today we pray for the soul of our dear Effimia, as she embarks upon a journey which she has lived for each and every moment of her earthly life. Her life is a life which is inextricably intertwined with our sweet and merciful Christ, His Holy Mother, our Panaghia, all of the Saints and the Holy Orthodox Christian Faith. In the Orthodox tradition, we do not offer eulogies at funerals specific to the person being laid to rest as is so often done in other traditions. Rather, the focus of the eulogy, or good and blessed word, is in direct regard to the salvific gift of mercy and eternal life which Christ our God offers to each of us. Effimia’s entire existence, her whole being was an offering unto our Lord and His Holy Church, and for this reason, this morning, at this very funeral, it is blessed to speak a good word about this devoted and humble servant of God, our dear Yiayia, mother, friend, and Spiritual Mother. For through her prayers, may Christ our God save us!
Saint Porphyrios, a monk on Mount Athos shared with some visitors to his cell, “With the Spirit of God, we become incapable of every sin." It is in this way that Effimia lived every decade, year, month, day, second, each and every breath partaken by this blessed woman was an opportunity to glorify her God by living a life in accord with his commandments and statutes. Not because she had to, or because she was compelled to, but because this simply was the only way she knew. For her, glorifying God, was as natural as breathing, like the incense rising up, so too does she offer up her prayer to God. Even in her suffering, especially in her suffering, she suffered with Christ, and He suffered with her and for her. For Yiayia, it was the narrow path that was the most virtuous and noble way to live. In Matthew 7:13-14, Holy Scripture reveals, “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
This way of living, living a life of complete and utter devotion to our Lord was not something Yiayia merely picked up along the way, but rather a gift passed on from her mother, who too, followed in the footsteps of her parents and grandparents, who many years ago in a city called Constantinople, had the opportunity to remain in the city, in their home. Yiayia Effimia's grandparents, Papa Prodromos and Presvytera Anastasia, were greatly loved and respected by Greeks, Armenians, and Muslims alike and could have remained there in the only world that they knew, the only requirement that was posed to them was that they would be compelled to deny their Holy Orthodox Faith and convert to Islam. Papa Prodromos lived for a kingdom not of this world and sought only to serve our Christ. As Christ teaches us in the Gospel of Matthew, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.” And so they left everything, they left the world they knew, the safety of the Polis, the Queen City set on the Bosporous, they left their home, and store, they left their neighborhood and schools, they left as refugees from that Holy City, from our Holy City, and what they did bring with them, was a gift which has been passed down from generation to generation, and which is a gift for us all, our Holy Orthodox Faith.
A few years ago, my sister Julie produced a short film that documented Yiayia as she proceeded to explain how to make the Greek pastry, sarangli. It was a beautiful video, whereby Yiayia sees her grandchildren enter the kitchen where she was hard at work, and without a second thought says to them, “Welcome home.” Yiayia Effimia’s love was a love full of God’s grace and shared with all whom she encountered, being with her was truly being home. Christ was and is the foundation of her existence. Towards the end of the video, still talking about the pastry, Yiayia shares with us in her beautiful Hellenic accent, “In my mother’s house we learned all this stuff.” There is more to this short, simple quote than meets the eye, it is more than just simply about making a Greek dessert. “In my mother’s house we learned all this stuff,” is a profound statement shared for us who are gathered here this very day, this very moment. As it says in Proverbs 22:6, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” The life and lessons of our dear Yiayia extend back countless generations, and it is up to us to pick up this mantle, now offered to us at this very moment, to pick it up, each one of us, her children and grandchildren, her Spiritual Children every one of us, and charge forward as she did, committing our entire existence to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and His Holy Orthodox Church, this is truly the greatest gift anyone can receive. Christ told His Holy Apostles, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you.” Let us too honor Yiayia, by doing what she showed us, by following her blessed and holy example, of a life pleasing to God.
The blessed Romanian monk-elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica stated, “It is of great significance if there is a person who truly prays in a family. Prayer attracts God's Grace and all the members of the family feel it, even those whose hearts have grown cold. Pray always!” Yiayia prays for us always, her prayers and intercessions require us to open our hearts to Christ’s love. One contemporary Church Father shared with his spiritual children that Christ does not barge into our life, but rather sits patiently at the very chamber of our heart, waiting and knocking ever so quietly for us to open and let Him in. Yiayia wanted us all to open our hearts to His love because it was a love that filled her in every way throughout her life. The Holy Apostle Paul exhorts the Romans in his Epistle, “For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh…” or as one Athonite monk offered to his Spiritual Children, “My dear children, I do not want paradise without you.” Yiayia’s love for each of us was to such a degree, as was and is her desire for us to also receive the heavenly crowns of salvation.
I recall many years ago Yiayia speaking about the days and events of Great and Holy Week. As she discussed the parable of the Ten Virgins, as young children it was difficult for us to understand about five wise and five foolish virgins, but patiently she explained about the importance of being prepared to meet our Lord, that the five wise virgins were prepared and had their lamps filled with oil, but the foolish neglected their lamps and were caught in selfish pursuits away from Christ, therefore Yiayia explained, death comes like a thief in the night, we must be prepared always. For Scripture reveals, “And at midnight a cry was heard: ‘Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!’ Yiayia spent her entire life preparing for this meeting, with oil in her lamp and her wick trimmed, vested in a proper wedding garment, she too, like the five wise virgins will most certainly gain entry by our loving and merciful Lord to the grand wedding banquet as is explained in yet another parable, but to the foolish virgins in this parable and the foolish in this world, the only words they will hear are His refusal, “Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you,” and again, “'Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?' And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, 'Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.' For many are called, but few are chosen." All of us are called, let us too, at this very moment answer this call as Yiayia did at every moment of her life, a true servant of our Lord, a humble servant of our Lord. “The humble are like nightingales,” says Saint Paisios, “That hide in ravines and spread joy to the souls of men with their sweet songs.”
“My son, do not forget my law, But let your heart keep my commands; For length of days and long life and peace they will add to you. Let not mercy and truth forsake you; Bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart, and so find favor and high esteem in the sight of God and man. Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.” This instruction found in Proverbs 3:1-6 was certainly adhered to by the servant of God Effimia, for His law was bound around her neck and written upon the tablet of her heart always, and in this way she followed Him, and is now with Him. So that she, like the Holy Apostle before her may cry out, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His revelation.” 2 Timothy 4:7-8
During the Holy Week services, Christ is called the Bridegroom, His Church being the bride. In Proverbs 31:10 we read, “Who can find a virtuous wife? For her worth is far above precious stones.” For those of us who knew this holy saint of God Effimia, there is no question, for she lived amongst us, rejoiced amongst us, suffered amongst us, she taught us in the way and manner in which we too ought to live. The word Saint, translates from the Greek word Aghios, meaning Holy, yes, but even more than that, ‘gi’ meaning earth and negated by the letter ‘A’ which precedes it, ‘Aghios’ is a title bestowed meaning someone who transcends the earthly, the worldly, and lived for the greater things above, for the heavenly. As the Chief Apostle Paul states, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.”
A Romanian priest who suffered greatly for many years in concentration camps under the oppressive communist regimes searched in his heart why such suffering exists, and in his memoirs he included a quote from a French author, Paul Claudel who so eloquently states, “Christ did not come into the world to eliminate suffering, Christ has not even come into the world to explain it. Rather, He came to fill human suffering with His presence.” As a holy vessel of our Lord, the servant of God Effimia, His servant, was a servant filled by His grace and was a beacon of His divine love, grace and light for all. And now we have been temporarily separated from our loved one, let us not wail as those who have no hope, as those who have not Christ. But rather let us rejoice, a joyful-sorrow, for:
“To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…” Ecclesiastes 3:1-4
As we lay our beloved one to rest this day, let us pray that our loving and merciful God embrace dear Yiayia Effimia, born in this world as a refugee, forced to flee with her parents far from her home because of their complete and utter devotion to our Christ, martyrs for Christ and His Holy Church from the very beginning, may our Lord welcome her into her true home, that home that she yearned and struggled so much for, a heavenly home, to finally be together with our sweet merciful Lord Jesus Christ, our blessed Mother the Theotokos, all of the saints, martyrs, unmercenaries and departed fathers and brethren. Dear Yiayia pray for us, intercede with Christ our God for us your Spiritual Children, who, like orphans, look to you, as now you are nearer still to us and in us, for in Christ we are all one in the Holy Orthodox Church. May your memory be eternal dear sister, worthy of blessedness and everlasting memory! + Yiayia Effimia, it is you who have served upon the Lord and it is He who Shall renew your strength; you shall mount up with wings like eagles, you shall soar into the heavens and not be weary, you shall walk and not tire, for He is with you, and you, with Him, forever and ever, unto the ages of ages. Amen.
- Αἰωνία ἡ μνήμη αὐτῆς - Eternal be her memory - Αἰωνία ἡ μνήμη αὐτῆς -