Monday, December 13, 2010

Do You Know the Impact You Can Have?

Our holy father, the martyr Paramon, was not a Christian; but he was a well-respected man in the region where he lived.  He encountered one day a group of 370 Christians whom the governor of the region has arrested, bound, and brought to the temple of Poseidon.  There they were threatened with death unless they offered sacrifice to the idol – something that none of them would do.  When Paramon learned what was taking place, he denounced the wickedness of the governor and continued on his way.  The governor sent his men after Paramon.  He was arrested; tortured by being stripped and beaten, by having a thorn jabbed through his tongue, and then by being stabbed all over.   Paramon endured it all with prayer, and gave his soul to God, being baptized in his own blood.  The 370 Christians were then beheaded, giving their souls to God as martyrs in the year of our Lord 250.

Most of us will never be arrested because of our faith.  Most of us will never be tortured in an effort to make us renounce our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Most of us will never become martyrs, as did our holy father Paramon and the 370 faithful we hear of today.  But there are some things we should note in the life of these saints, by which we also may be instructed, if we will hear the teaching and follow it each day.

The first thing to note is that Paramon was not a Christian at the time he suffered – at least, not in a way that we would recognize.  This should serve as a warning to us not to judge others, nor to condemn others simply because they have not been baptized, and do not openly proclaim the Lord Jesus as their own Savior and Lord.  God knows His own; and He will provide for them the necessary faith when time and circumstance require.  We should give thanks for those who seek to do good to others, whose lives are Christian, even if their faith is not known to us.  Of course, if we have the opportunity to do so, we should tell them of our Lord, and invite them to become Orthodox Christians.

This leads to the second point.  What was it that brought about Paramon’s martyrdom?  Was it not the example of the 370 who were willing to die rather than turn away from their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and offer a sacrifice to an idol?  This tells us that the quality of our lives can be a powerful testimony to others.  Does the way in which you live tell others that you are a faithful follower of the Lord, and that you will not turn aside from that path?  Or do our lives say that we are indistinguishable from those of the world around us – that we pay tribute to worldly concerns and fleshly desires, just as the nonbelievers do.  If you won’t even say a prayer in silence and cross yourself in public, as we do at mealtimes, what message does that send?  If we abuse others in word or in deed; if we gossip; if we consider ourselves to be better and more deserving of others, what message do we send?  And if we do not live as Christians, where will those who today stand in the role our holy father Paramon once held see the power of faith, and so be inspired to do as he did?

May God grant us grace and strength to walk in His ways without turning aside, so that we may also bear witness to Him.  Holy father Paramon, pray to God for us.  Amen.

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Monday, July 26, 2010

What Are You Afraid Of?

Jesus takes Peter who failed to walk on water....Image via Wikipedia

What are you afraid of?

In the reading today from the holy Gospel according to St. Matthew, we hear the story of our Lord walking on the water in the midst of a storm, coming to His disciples in a boat being tossed by the wind and the waves.  They don’t recognize Him until He speaks to them; and then Peter, still not quite sure, says, “Lord, if it is you, command me to walk on the water.”  Then he does something amazing.  He gets out of the boat, and walks on the water – as long as his eyes are on the Lord.  Once he is distracted by the storm around him, he begins to sink, and must be saved by the Lord.

We know what the disciples were afraid of in that story.  They were afraid of the storm; and remember, there were experienced fishermen in the boat, who had been in storms before.  They were afraid they had seen a ghost – is that really the Lord?  Finally, except for Peter, they were afraid to get out of the boat because they were afraid of dying.  So: what are you afraid of?

Most of us are afraid of death.  We hear about the martyrs, and wonder if we could do what they did, doubting that we can do so.  We hear about those who are given a sentence of death, and who are able to meet it peacefully, and wonder if we could do what they did, doubting that we can do so.  Really, we fear death because, like the disciples, our faith is weak and imperfect.  We sing, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death”; but like the disciples in the boat, we ask, “Is it really the Lord?”  We don’t believe; and so we sink.  As long as his eyes remained on the Lord, Peter walked on the water.  When we allow ourselves to be distracted by the winds and the waves of the cares of this life, and when we focus on them, and not the Lord, we sink, and are perishing.  If we truly believed, we would not fear death.  If we truly believed, we would walk confidently by faith.  If we truly believed, we could walk on water, if need be.

So:  What do we do?  We should live in the way we should even if we do not yet have faith sufficient for us to get out of the boat.  We may never walk on water; but trust in the love of God, and in His mercy, remembering that with a word He calmed the wind and the waves, and brought His disciples out of the storm.  Live as a disciple: praying and fasting, giving, and forgiving; seeking humility, and honoring Christ in everyone you meet – do these things, and we will know that the One walking with us in the midst of the storms of life is truly the Lord; and He will bring us safely to harbor in His kingdom, where death has been conquered, and live does not end.

What are you afraid of?  Live as a disciple; trust in God’s love; and there is no reason for us to fear death.

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Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Preparation for Martyrdom

Summary The relics of St. John of Shanghai and...Image via Wikipedia

The holy martyr Julian of Tarsus was a young man when he suffered and died for the Christian faith.  Born into a family of wealth and influence, from his youth, he was taught the Faith; and so, when the time of his suffering came, he was ready, and despite being taken from town to town and being out to torture in each one, he would not deny that Jesus Christ is Lord.  After a year of enduring torments, he was sewn into a sack filled with sand, snakes, and scorpions, and thrown into the sea.  He was eighteen years old when he departed this life.

Our holy father John of Shanghai and San Francisco, whose feast we celebrated yesterday, was also born into a noble family; and he also, from his youth, learned the Christian faith, embracing the Orthodox way of life, inspired by the asceticism of the monks he saw living near to his village.  His family fled from his homeland during the Russian Civil War for Serbia. He left Serbia for Shanghai when he became a Bishop. Forced to flee from Shanghai once again ahead of the Communists, he led his flock to the Philippines, from where they were resettled, some in Australia, some in South America, and some in the United States.  He knew of his impending repose some four days before it happened, and foretold as well the place where he would die.  He was seventy years old when he departed this life.

Both of the holy fathers whom we celebrate this weekend experienced what our Lord spoke of in the reading today from the holy Gospel according to St. Luke. Both experienced persecution; both knew that a martyr’s death was a very real possibility, and one achieved a martyr’s crown.

What about us?  Although none of us has been born to a family of power and influence, we live in a time and place with riches and conveniences that we take for granted, which not even emperors had of old – and they could have almost anything they wanted.  In addition to the prosperity we enjoy, we also live in a time of relative peace, and in a place where we are not suffering for our faith – at least, not yet.  But the words our Lord spoke to warn and to encourage His disciples remain as true today as when He first uttered them.  The apostles saw the armies of Rome arrayed against Jerusalem, and their defeat of that city.  The faithful were persecuted again and again across time and space – and there are places around the world today where Christians suffer for the Faith, and martyrs are killed all the time.  We don’t see it happening on the evening news; we don’t see it happening in our neighborhoods – but it is taking place all the same, and we are naïve if we think that it will never happen here. 

What, then should we do?  We must be instructed by what our Lord tells His disciples – and we are His disciples if we follow His teachings, and His example.  By enduring, we will win our lives.  Not in this world, to be sure – but this world, this age, this life will not endure.  Only that which is established in heaven will endure. If we will embrace and live the life of our Lord Jesus Christ given to us in baptism, fed in us by His Body and Blood, taught to us by the holy Fathers and Mothers, shown to us in the lives of the saints, then our lives, too, will be established in heaven.  Above all, it is by so pursuing the life of Christ being expressed in our own that we can endure even betrayal by friends or family, to say with our Lord, “Father, forgive them,” even as we are being put to death.

Brothers and sisters, let us ask God for the grace and mercy He gives to us from His love for us, that we may not love our lives in this world, but rather desire the life to come, so that we will not fail in the time of trial, but may also come, with our holy father Julian and our holy father John, to a blessed repose, and a place in His kingdom that shall never end.

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Sunday, June 27, 2010

No Guarantees

Luke 4:22-30
Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, ...Image via Wikipedia
Last week, with the account of the healing of the centurion’s servant, we hear how the people of the covenant with Moses, the people whom God had prepared with the revelation of Himself and His promise to send a Redeemer, had not, for the most part, recognized His Son when He came into their midst. Instead, it was someone who was not a member of the community of faith, someone who was not allowed to worship in the temple, who knew that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, with the power to heal even from a distance. That theme is present as well in the reading today from the holy Gospel according to St. Luke. Our Lord is speaking to the people of God in the synagogue when he tells them how the prophet of God Elijah was sent to dwell in the house of a widow and her son during a time of great famine. The woman had just enough flour and oil to bake one last portion of bread for herself and her son, and then they were resigned to starving to death. But while the prophet was there – having asked her to give him their last meal, which she did – the container of flour was never empty, and the pitcher of oil never ran out. So it was that they survived the famine – but the widow and her son were not from among the people of god. Our Lord also tells them of the prophet Elisha, who healed Naaman the Syrian of his leprosy. His statements anger those who heard what He said, so much that they even tried to kill Him by throwing Him from the top of a cliff. The words He said that angered them should be words of warning for all of us – for remember, we are now the people of God; we are the people of the New Covenant; and we are the ones at risk of missing the blessings that God desires to give to all who call upon His name with faith.

Here’s what our Lord was saying in the synagogue that day that made those listening so upset. It wasn’t, He was saying, that there were no widows in Israel who were starving – indeed, there were. Likewise, it wasn’t that there was no one afflicted with a skin disease, called leprosy (although what we call leprosy today is not what was referred to there) in Israel – indeed, there were. In both instances, our Lord was pointing out to those who thought that they were holding on to a “guarantee” of being the favored people of God that God would not hesitate to reach out to those who truly believe, as the widow trusted God in feeding His prophet, and as Naaman trusted by following the prophet’s instructions for his healing. Just because we know how to cross ourselves, this does not make us the people of God. Just because we know how to fast, just because we know how to pray, just because we venerate the holy icons – these things, all good for us to do, these things do not make us the people of God. Do we have the love of God in our hearts; and do we show that love to everyone we meet? Do we have a love that is patient, gentle, humble, generous, forgiving, and kind? Do we trust that God will provide for our needs, and live, not for this world, but for the world to come? It is living in that way – living a life in which Christ can be seen, humble, righteous, patient, and loving so well that He accepted death on the Cross on our behalf – it is living that way which makes us to be the people of God.

Brothers and sisters, may God give us grace and strength, wisdom and patience, and the peace that passes all understanding, that we may show the life and love of Christ to all, to the glory of His name, and the salvation of our souls.
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Friday, March 19, 2010

Destroying the Image of God

икона 15 века, новгородская школа, Новгород, М...Image via Wikipedia

Why does the demon possessing the boy in the account read today from the Gospel according to St. Mark treat the boy as he does, throwing him onto the fire, and into the water? The answer is simple: he is trying to destroy the image of God in that young man.

One of the things that makes us different from the angels is that, unlike them, we are created in the image and after the likeness of God; and while we are created but a little lower than the angels, when the kingdom of God is established, we shall be closer to God than are they. Our Lord Jesus Christ never took on the form of an angel; but He did become incarnate, He did take on our form. As St, Athanasios the Great said, “He became like us in order that we might become like Him.” It is believed that this is why Lucifer, the Light-bearer, the greatest of the angelic order, rebelled against God, and led others to do the same: his pride would not allow him to accept that he one day would be subject to us. This is why the demons hate us; this is why they try to destroy us.

What was true for the boy in the Gospel account is true for every one of us: there are demons who would love to throw us into fire and into water to destroy us. They cannot overthrow God; so they seek to destroy His image in us; and if they cannot destroy us in this world, they seek to make us their victims in the world to come, to cause us to suffer the torments they, too, will suffer when the Kingdom comes in its fullness. If we do not want to share their fate, we need to do something: we need to remove ourselves from being influenced by them. We should take note, then, of what our Lord says when His disciples ask why they were unable to heal the boy. “This kind,” He says, “come out only by prayer and fasting.”

Each one of us has sins that we have learned to love; sins that we repeat, and against which we seem to be powerless. Like the father in the Gospel account, each of us, looking at our lives, can say, Lord, I believe; help me in my unbelief!” What is our help? Prayer and fasting. Every time we find ourselves repeating a sin, we should recognize the need to pray and to fast. Every time we find ourselves tempted to sin, we should pray and fast. Now that we are past the halfway point in Great Lent, with the celebration of Pascha coming ever nearer, we should pray and fast.

Brothers and sisters, let us give thanks to God Who has made us but a little lower than the angels. Let us give thanks to God that He has made us in His image and after His likeness. Let us give thanks to God for the love that led Him to become one with us, and that led Him to the Cross for our salvation, and has given us a way to climb on high with Him. Let us fast and pray and give thanks, to the glory of God and the salvation of our souls.

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Sunday, February 28, 2010

"I Am the Door"

Chora Church/Museum, Istanbul,fresco,Anastasis...Image via Wikipedia

In the reading today from the holy Gospel according to St. John the Theologian, our Lord says of Himself that He is “the door.” What does He mean when He says this? One place we can go for insight is the reading from the holy Gospel according to St. Mark: a memorable scene, in which a paralyzed man, carried by four friends to our Lord to be healed, is actually brought into His presence by being lowered through a hole they made in the roof. What does the Lord tell this man to heal him? “Your sins are forgiven.”

Of course, this stirs up the Pharisees, who sought at all times to live according to the 613 laws of Moses, because they thought that this was the pathway to salvation. Having dealt with the man’s problem, our Lord then dispels their objections by healing the man physically as well as spiritually, linking the two. This is important for us to understand; so let’s look at the objections raised by the dissenters.

“Who but God can forgive sins?” they ask. Our Lord thus shows all who would raise this objection that He is, indeed, God, by restoring the paralyzed man to physical health, so that he could stand, pick up his bed, and return without help to his home. So it is that we begin to understand how we should grasp that our Lord says of Himself, “I am the door.”

Remember that when Adam and Eve were cast out of Paradise, cut off from dwelling in the immediate and intimate presence of God, the gate – a form of a door – was guarded by cherubim with a flaming sword, to prevent Adam and Eve from seeking to return to the presence of God in that way. Now here is our Lord telling us that He, God, is the way for us to return to Paradise, to return to dwelling with God close by us – indeed, within us, something that Adam and Eve did not possess. He is the door to the abundant life He came to bring.

How do we access that door? We access it by becoming like Him: by drawing near to Him with faith, in love, through prayer and fasting and giving and forgiving; and by living at peace, with the love of God, with all those around us. And, to the extent we fail to do these things in love, we confess our sins, asking forgiveness, and starting again – even if we must break through our own ceiling, our earthly desires and attachments, in order to be lowered into His presence to be healed by the forgiveness of our sins.

Brothers and sisters, let us keep this in our hearts and on our minds as we journey through the forty days of fasting before Holy Week and Pascha. Let us remember that our Lord is the door by which we enter into eternal life; and let us, through the way of life of the Orthodox faith and church, strive to let the light and life of Christ be seen in and through us, so that we may enter through the Door, and bring others with us as well.

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Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Triumph of Orthodoxy

Golden Dome, Russian Orthodox, Orthodox Church...Image by Wonderlane via Flickr

Today is the “Sunday of Orthodoxy”; sometimes known as the “Triumph of Orthodoxy.” The celebration of this day, which takes place every year on the first Sunday of Great Lent, celebrates the decision made at the Seventh Ecumenical Council that icons do not violate the provisions of the second of the Ten Commandments, in that, by becoming incarnate, the invisible God Whose form could not be depicted properly in any way could now be seen, and so could be depicted in icons. The same was held to be true for icons depicting the Mother of God, and the saints, for all of them, though imperfect, show us the image of Christ – indeed, every person is made in the image, and after the likeness of God, and so each one of us is an icon of Christ.

We come to church, and we find icons. We cross ourselves and bow, or make prostrations, before them. We offer prayers before them, asking for the prayerful assistance of the saint whose image we see, or of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, being aware of His presence with us in a special way through our seeing Him in the icon. We are not confused. Our Lord is not in the icon – at least, not in some magical way. For we know that our Lord Jesus Christ, being God, is everywhere present and fills all things through God the Holy Spirit. He is present in the icon only in the same way that He is, as we have said, “everywhere present.” But for those who understand – and the Orthodox Church has never required any of her members to revere the icons, only to avoid saying that the use of icons is idolatry – we are connected by faith with the person we see in the icon, and that the love and respect we show to the icon is not offered to wood and paint, but actually passes to the person who is the object of our devotion.

But our bowing and prostrations and prayers are meaningless if we do not realize that these images are less important than the living icons standing here all around us. Our devotion and respect and prayers are meaningless if we forget that every living person is an icon, and do not treat them with the same devotion and respect we offer to the images of pigment on wood. The truth of our Orthodox faith, and the triumph of our faith, celebrated today, is worthless if it does not cause us to understand the connection between the icons in the Church and the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the homeless, the sick, and the imprisoned about whom we heard on the Sunday of the Last Judgment. Remember what our Lord said: for inasmuch as you have done these things unto one of these, you have done it unto Me; and to the extent you have not helped them, you have not helped Me – and each group receiving its reward. We will not be judged on the basis of how much we reverenced the icons we find in the church and in the prayer corners of our homes; we will be judged on the love and respect we have offered to the living icons all around us. That recognition and the action that flows from it, as we reach out in love to help another person – that is the real triumph of Orthodoxy. May God grant us the grace we need to be truly Orthodox, loving God, and loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.

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