Monday, December 27, 2004

The Great Supper and the Incarnation

(Luke 14:16-24) (30th Sunday after Pentecost)

Right now, we’re in sort of an Orthodox “time warp.” Yesterday was western Christmas; and, for us, today is the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers of Christ, who are always commemorated on the Sunday before the Sunday before the Nativity. Well, if nothing else, it means that the Feast of the Nativity is that much closer!

In the first reading today from the Gospel of St. Luke, we hear the parable of the Great Supper. This is St. Luke’s account of the Parable of the Marriage Feast, which is found in the Gospel according to St. Matthew; and which is read on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, which was back on the fifth of September (new style). Why read the story again, sixteen weeks later?

The Fathers tell us that the marriage feast mentioned in St. Matthew’s account, and hinted at here, is the celebration of the union – the “marriage” – of the divinity of the Son of God with our human nature. That is, the Feast that has been prepared, to which all are invited, is the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ; which we celebrate on the Nativity, when God joined Himself to us. St. Athanasios wrote of this, “He became like us, in order that we might become like Him.” The Son of God took on our fallen human nature, restoring it to its former glory, and returning to it the potential for growing into the likeness of God, in Whose image we are all created. The Feast is to celebrate what God has done; and everyone is welcome to attend!

However, the feast is not “come as you are”; it is, in a way, a formal affair, and suitable attire is required. We don’t, we can’t, simply “drop in”; some advance preparation is required. Now, everything that is needed is provided for us by God; but until we choose to accept what He has given, and “put on” the garments provided, we cannot come to the Feast in the House of the Lord.

God does not expect us to come on our own merit, for we have none. He brings us into His house by His grace and mercy, and gives us opportunities for purifying ourselves, and to have communion with Him. There is, first of all, the purification of Holy Baptism, in which we are washed clean, and clothed in the wedding garment of the righteousness of Christ; as we sing at that service: “As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. Alleluia!” Few of us, however, keep that garment clean; it becomes stained, and shabby, because we continue in our sinful ways. But we can be made clean once more through the Mystery of Repentance, confessing our sins, and committing ourselves to being transformed through the Orthodox way of life; and we can reach towards being worthy by prayer, and fasting, and giving, and struggling to practice the virtues, instead of yielding ourselves to the passions that beset us. This is how we “put on Christ” once more: by living the Orthodox way of life. And God meets us, above all in the Mystery of Holy Communion, which feeds us with a foretaste of the heavenly banquet of that great Feast, to strengthen and encourage us to seek, not earthly rewards, but to be admitted to the Feast.

Brothers and sisters: Let us not be like those who, invited to the feast, turned aside to earthly concerns, and lost their place at the banquet table thereby. Let us prepare ourselves for the great Feast to come, remembering as we do so the great act of God’s love for us in joining Himself to us. Let us honor the holy ancestors of Christ by seeking to follow the example of their righteous lives; praying, and fasting, giving alms, and struggling to be virtuous; to the glory of God, and the salvation of souls.

St. Herman of Alaska: Then and Now

As a young man, St. Herman of Alaska was drawn to the monastic life during the time of the revival of monasticism in Russia, led by St. Paisius Velichkovsky. He favored the monasteries that were isolated, becoming a monk at the monastery in Valaam after having lived in the forests in southeastern Russia and a monastery in St. Petersburg. There, he received a blessing to live in solitude, pursuing his salvation by prayer and fasting.

One of the hallmarks of our Orthodox life is that of obedience. We see this in St. Herman’s life. Word came to Abbot Nazarius at Valaam of the mistreatment by Russian traders and businessmen of the Aleut Indians in the Russian territory of Alaska. Abbot Nazarius knew that missionaries were needed to both recall the Russians there to living their Orthodox faith; and to bring that same faith to the pagan Aleuts. He therefore selected ten men from the monastery; one of whom was St. Herman. He probably would have preferred to remain in solitude; but, out of obedience, he left Valaam with the others to make the journey across Siberia to the Alaskan territory. It was the year 1793.

Once he had arrived in Alaska, St. Herman established himself in a solitary setting on Spruce Island, adjacent to Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska. Taking little care for himself, living in a hole in the ground he scooped out for himself (he called it his “cave”) until the Russian-American Company built him a hut, he built a chapel and a school, and taught the Orthodox faith and way of life to the native Aleuts, even as he labored to bring the Russians there to a renewed faith. He did all he could to provide food, and clothing, and books for the children in his care; and prayed and fasted with all his power. He did not hesitate to stand up for the weak and helpless before those who oppressed them. The example of his life, and the miracles God performed through His servant, Herman, led many others to pursue salvation, and built an Orthodox community among the Aleuts that remains to this day.

That was then; this is now. We do not need to look far away to find reports of people being misused by those in government or business; we do not need to look far away to find people who are in need of faith, or a renewal of faith. We do not need to travel to unknown lands to be missionaries for the Orthodox Church and faith. The mission field begins right outside the door to the church; you enter it as soon as you pull out of the driveway. Maybe we don’t see it because we’re so used to the world around us that we miss seeing what we might see if we were in an unfamiliar land, as St. Herman and the other missionaries were upon arriving in Alaska. Maybe we don’t see it because we are, in effect, living lives in solitude – not the solitude in which St. Herman lived; in which one might find salvation – but rather a life cut off from the world around us, in our comfortable homes, with abundance, and many forms of entertainment to distract us from not only the needs of others, but even the care of our own souls, even the pursuit of our own salvation. In some ways, the mission field begins within us; it begins with the transformation of our own hearts and lives.

Brothers and sisters: As we celebrate the life and ministry of our holy Father Herman of Alaska, let us examine our own lives. Are we living as lights in the world? Will those around us see someone living, not an earthly life, but the heavenly life? They might, if we would pursue holiness, as did St. Herman. They might, if we grasped that we are called to be missionaries, to leave behind the life we have, to be obedient to the instruction to “go and make disciples of all nations.” Let us pray, including in our petitions that God would use each of us to build His Church. Let us fast, that we might not be so attached to this world that we cannot see, or live in, the world to come. Let us give, so that we may help those is need, even as we help ourselves by being set free from the material realm; and let us struggle to be holy, and so be lights to a world in darkness, and in the shadow of death. To the glory of God, and the salvation of souls, we say: Holy Father Herman, pray to God for us.

Monday, December 20, 2004

St. Nicholas of Myra

You will recall the command given by our Lord Jesus Christ to the rich young man in last Sunday’s reading from the Gospel of St. Luke: Go, sell all you have, and give it to the poor. Among other things, this command was obeyed by the saint we venerate today: Nicholas, Archbishop of Myra in Lycia. From an early age, he was given to a life of prayer and fasting; and, when his parents died, and he received his inheritance, the young priest-monk sold all that he had, and gave it to the poor.

Everybody knows that it is St. Nicholas who has been transformed in his journey across time to the West into “Santa Claus”; the secular symbol for Christmas, the icon of the consumer culture. Many people know part of his story, and how he came to be associated with the anonymous giving of gifts, as is part of the Santa Claus/St. Nick/Kris Kringle image; when he delivered three young women from being sold into prostitution because their family had lost its wealth and fallen into extreme poverty. On three separate nights, the saint threw a bag of gold through a window; and the father used the gold as a dowry for each daughter in turn, arranging a Christian marriage for each, and so providing for his daughters, rather than turning his home into a brothel where they would be sold into depravity, and their father with them, because of his actions. It’s not so far from these bags of gold tossed through windows to a sack of toys brought down a chimney, is it?

Many people also know the story of how the saint struck the heretic, Arius, in the face during the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.; and that he was stripped of his episcopal rank as a result, and put into jail for this deed; and how many of the bishops that night had a vision of St. Nicholas with our Lord bearing a golden book of the Gospels to one side of the saint, and the blessed Lady Theotokos with his omophorion on the other side. This led the bishops to restore St. Nicholas to his rank and place at the Council.

St. Nicholas was also known to be a helper of travelers, and especially of those traveling on the sea. He calmed storms, delivered many from shipwreck, even raised from the dead a sailor who had fallen from the rigging to his death on the deck of a ship. He destroyed the pagan temples in his city, tearing them down to the ground, and even removing their foundation stones. He saved from execution many who were innocent; healed many, both while alive, and, after his repose, by the sweet-smelling myrrh that flowed from his relics. Many icons of St. Nicholas are myrrh-streaming; and people continue to be healed when anointed, even in this day and age. He helped many in poverty, feeding the hungry, and housing the homeless. He gave richly and freely; and never lacked in his ability to provide help for all who turn to him in need, as God richly supplies His saint.

You know, we could do worse than to take St. Nicholas as an example of how we should live our lives. But what a standard he sets! When was the last time you delivered someone from a life of depravity? Or saved a ship from a storm at sea? When was the last time you tore down a pagan temple? Or punched a heretic in the nose?

Let’s be sure we understand these things. Each has both a literal meaning, and a spiritual meaning; and both meanings are applicable, in one way or another, in our daily lives. Well, OK, maybe not literally tearing down a pagan temple! But we can certainly confront the pagan attitudes that have their temples in our hearts and minds – the things we do that support us in our sins, making us a law unto ourselves, as if we could somehow be exempt from being obedient, and accountable, to God’s law. Certainly, the temple in which we worship ourselves needs to be torn down, a St. Nicholas did in Myra.

Come to think of it, you also need to be careful about taking literally St. Nicholas’ example of having punched Arius in the nose! Going that far is definitely not recommended! But that doesn’t mean we should be silent in the face of false teaching or practices. We need to speak up about the truth – gently, respectfully – but being heard, regardless. We must be zealous for the truth; and we must also know the Truth, and be able to state clearly what we believe. As such, we should devote ourselves to studying the Scriptures and the teachings of the Fathers and the lives of the saints. It also means that we must stop deceiving ourselves about how we are living, and what we are doing. It’s all too easy for us to excuse ourselves for our offenses. We need to hold ourselves accountable.

As St. Nicholas was a help to those who were traveling, so, too, can we be of help. Sometimes, it means doing something for someone else – perhaps they have a flat tire, or some other mechanical problem on the roadway. I was blessed with someone’s help this week. Sometimes, it means opening your home to someone who needs a place to stay, as some of you have done, or are willing to do, for people who want to come to our church from some distance away. There is also the reality that each of us needs help on our spiritual journeys – and that’s one of the reasons we’re gathered here in the church; where we come to praise and worship God, and to love and care for each other.

We’ve probably not literally had the opportunity to save someone from falling into a depraved or degraded life, as St. Nicholas delivered the three virgins from a life of prostitution – but there are ministries that reach out to people who have fallen into such circumstances, and the opportunity to be of help may come your way – you may even seek out those who work to deliver such unfortunates, or the homeless, or those addicted to drugs or alcohol. We also need to be aware of the opportunity to deliver ourselves from temptations to lust, or greed, or envy, or the other forms of sin and the passions which defile and degrade the image of God in us.

Brothers and sisters: Blessed is our God, Who is made wondrous in His saints! None of us may ever reach the heights that St. Nicholas attained, although that should not stop us from making the effort to do so! But each of us can reach for a portion of his holy life, and to be like him, in the world, and in our spiritual lives. Through the prayers of our holy father and hierarch, Nicholas, O Savior, save us.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Go, Sell All You Have, and Give It to the Poor

(Luke 18:18-27) (28th Sunday after Pentecost)

“Go, and sell all you have, and give it to the poor; and come and follow me.”

If you are a normal Christian, you’ve heard this command which our Lord gave to the rich young man who came to Him with a question, and wondered if this command applies to you; and, if it does, how it applies to you. Here’s a news flash: The command does apply to you; and to everyone who would be a follower of Christ.

Now, does this mean that you should go home today and have a garage sale, bring the money that you get from it to the church, or to some charity, and then head off to spend the rest of your life at a monastery? Maybe. The path to which our obedience to this command will lead us is going to be different for each one of us. At its heart, however, the point is the same: Those who cannot part with their possessions, and the power or comfort that are derived from them, are the slaves of their possessions; and will find it difficult, at best, to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever it is that you have and cannot sell or give away possesses you – and clinging to it can prevent you from rising into the presence of God.

See, the rich young man asked the right question, the question each of us needs to be able to answer, not only in words, but in the direction of our lives: What must I do to inherit eternal life? Our Lord tells him, “Keep the commandments”; and lists some specifics. The rich young man responds that he has kept all the things our Lord mentions from his youth. But there is more; and we, because of the circumstances in which we live, are at risk of being misled by our possessions, as was that young man. After all, if we think about it on the basis of a “standard of living,” we are much richer than he could possibly have been.

OK: What if the command was, go, sell half of what you have, and give it to the poor, and follow me? I don’t think we’d really do much better. I think most of us can’t even begin to imagine ourselves being able to obey any command of this sort that takes more than 10% of what we have; and probably less. So let’s look at things from another angle.

Suppose you have a serious illness, or are involved in a serious accident. Even with a good medical insurance plan, let’s say that the cost to you is such that you’re going to have to sell everything you have in order to pay for the operation and the rehabilitation that will be needed afterwards. Could you do it? I mean, it’s now a question of your life. If you don’t have the operation, you’re going to die; so, wouldn’t you go and sell as much as you could to raise the money needed to save your life? What if it wasn’t you, but a member of your family, that needed the money for an operation?

OK, granted, it’s a hypothetical question. But it’s easy to see that we’re much more likely to be able to seriously contemplate selling all that we have in order to save our lives – right? Why, then, do we find ourselves unable to do what is needed to save our souls? If the holy martyr Paramon refused to make a sacrifice to an idol in order to save his life, why is it so difficult for us to “sacrifice” some of our material blessings to meet the needs of others?

Brothers and sisters, we are given the discipline of giving alms and making offerings to help the poor, and to support the needs and work of the church, so that we may begin to be set free of the pernicious attachment to our possessions that can lead us into the soul-destroying passions of greed, and envy, and the love of money, which our Lord teaches is the root of all evil. Let us take care to examine our lives, and ask ourselves about our relation to our possessions. Let us examine the way in which we live, and see if we might not set ourselves to do more to help the poor, using what God has given to tend to their needs, using the things that are valued and valuable in this world to store up for ourselves a treasure in heaven. It will do us no good to keep all other commandments if we do not also labor to keep this one. Trusting in God, Who has given us every bit of wealth we enjoy, let us devote ourselves to using in His name that part we can to help those in need: to the glory of His name, and to the salvation of our souls.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

A Vision of Angels

(Luke 13:10-17) (27th Sunday after Pentecost)

Among other things, today is the day the Church remembers the martyr Cecilia. She was born in Rome. Her parents were wealthy and prominent citizens; and they forced their daughter, who had become a Christian, zealous for the faith, and given to ascetic disciplines to save her soul, to marry a pagan. As her new husband took her to the bridal chamber, she told him of her vow of perpetual chastity; and then told him of the angel of God who was present to defend her, warning him that if he touched her, the angel would kill him.

Now, most of us, if someone said such a thing to us, would probably reply, “Yeah, right,” and not be deterred. But the response of Valerian, her husband, was to ask her to show him the angel. Cecilia told him that it was not possible for him, an unbeliever, to see the angel until he was cleansed of the foulness of his unbelief, and knew God. Valerian was baptized; and saw the angel in great light and incredible beauty. This led him to bring his brother, Tibertius, to baptism; and afterwards he also saw, and spoke with, angels. The two brothers were arrested and led to execution, becoming martyrs for Christ; and, as they were brought to the scaffold, the testimony of their lives was such that the captain of the guard, Maximus, believed in Christ. When he was to be put to death, he declared to those listening that he, too, saw angels in a great light, bearing the souls of the martyrs to a blessed repose in heaven. St. Cecilia buried their bodies; and continued to bear witness to the faith; in one night, she led four hundred people to believe in our Lord Jesus Christ. She, too, was arrested, and taken for execution. She was struck three times in the neck with a sword, but she did not die; and the faithful caught the blood flowing from her wounds in bowls and handkerchiefs, and it healed many people. She died three days later, a martyr and virgin. All this took place in the year 230.

The lives of the saints are meant to instruct, inspire and encourage us to strive to do more. Let me underline something from the life of St. Cecilia. These Christians saw the angels because of the purity of their faith, and the purity of their lives. The angels were invisible to the unbelievers and the impure. So, if we are not striving to grow in faith and in purity, our labors are misdirected, and gain us nothing. From this, there are at least two lessons we should learn. First, we who are sinners are not likely to see an angel; and, if we do, it is more likely that this will be a demon masquerading as an angel of light. Beware! Second, we must be aware of how the ways we think and understand have been shaped by our culture; and that we must, in many cases, learn a new way of thinking and understanding. This leads us to the healing of the crippled woman, as described in the reading from the Gospel of St. Luke.

As our Lord was teaching in the synagogue, He sees a woman with a “spirit of infirmity.” She has been crippled with this affliction for eighteen years, until she is healed by the Lord. Now, this is a hard lesson for us to hear, because we prefer to believe that physical ailments have physical causes, but no connection to spiritual matters. The Fathers tell us otherwise: there are times when the sicknesses and diseases that afflict our bodies are the actions of Satan. We don’t want to hear that, but our Lord says it plainly, speaking of this crippled woman as having been bound by Satan. Let me stress here that not all sickness is the result of sin. Sometimes, God allows us to experience affliction to reveal to us our weakness, and to encourage us to turn to Him; or to remind us of our mortality, so that we will begin to prepare ourselves for the time when we will depart from this life, and enter into eternity. But we have to realize that there is always the possibility that there is a connection between our sins and sickness. If we think about it, this makes sense: why shouldn’t the sickness of our souls, given over to sins, produce sickness of some sort in the body to which our soul is joined, and which is a partner with the soul in acting in a sinful way?

When sickness shows us our weakness, we can get an idea of how we’re doing by looking at the way we respond. If the ailment causes us to complain, or to be demanding of others, well, that’s not good. If it leads us to bear its afflictions with patience, and with prayer, we can have some hope that we are traveling on the way God has appointed for us. When sickness reminds us of our mortality, we need to beware of becoming despondent, of thinking that nothing matters, that it all has been a tragic waste of time and effort. However, if we are moved to deeper reflection and confession, and renewed efforts to be transformed in the image of Christ, our sickness can, in a way, become a great blessing. And the same is true when it is our sins that cause us to be sick. We should consider our lives, and look careful for any sins of which we have not repented. We should examine our behaviors, and the things we desire, and work to uproot those desires that bind us to this world, or to things that are not pleasing to God.

Brothers and sisters: There is no power in heaven or on earth that is not subject to the power of our Lord Jesus Christ. No matter what it is that binds us, He has the power to set us free. No matter what it is that blinds us, He has the power to let us see. With faith in God, and trust in His love, let us strive for purity of faith and life; that we, with the holy martyrs Cecilia, Valerian, Tibertius, and Maximus, may behold the wondrous glory of God; and bear witness to Him with our lives each day.

Through the prayers of the holy martyrs, O Savior, save us.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

The Entry of the Theotokos

What would your life be like if you lived, not in the world, but in the church? Not in the building, necessarily! What if you lived in a house, or a room, right next door; and, every day, you attended services, morning and evening; and, at those times when there were no services, you stayed in the church to pray? How might your life be different?

In a way, I think this picture of life helps explain why the presence of a monastery is so appealing to so many people. It’s the thought of who we might become if we didn’t have to deal with jobs, and traffic, and paying bills, and families, and neighbors, and strangers… To be in a place where there is daily worship, and the opportunity to spend time in prayer, and to be with like-minded people, apart from the ways, and the cares, of the secular world; how transforming this could be! I might actually be able to overcome the passions that beset me; and maybe stop being such a sinner. If I started today, my life could be changed; and what might my life have been like if that is how I had lived from my youth?

It is not written in the Bible as such, which makes it difficult for many people to accept it, but it is the pious teaching of our Church that this is how the most blessed Lady Theotokos grew up – living in the Temple in Jerusalem, as part of a company of pious virgins, worshipping God, praying, fasting, studying the Scriptures, and working at handicrafts; and this from the age of three years, until she reached maturity, and became a woman. Although she desired to remain in the temple all her days, without entering into marriage, this was not the Law or the custom; and so, at the age of twelve, she was entrusted to a kinsman, St. Joseph. Their betrothal would allow her to dwell without scandal in his household while preserving her virginity, fulfilling her desire in a way acceptable at that time.

Now, there is no question that such a situation – dedicating a child so young to the Lord, and bringing that child to the Temple to live – is a very unusual one; but it is not without precedent in Israel. As the birth of the Theotokos was a miraculous gift to her aged parents, Joachim and Anna, fulfilling their prayer, so, too was the birth of the child who became the prophet Samuel to his parents, Elkanah and Hannah. In thanksgiving for the miraculous birth of her son, Hannah, fulfilling the promise she had made when she prayed for a child, took her son when he was weaned, at about three years of age, to the house of the Lord at Shiloh (the Temple in Jerusalem not yet having been built). There he entered into the service of God under the care of the High Priest.

Think of it in this way: What is the significance of the Temple? (It applies right here, where we are gathered together in our temple.) It is the place where God lives in the midst of mankind. Of course, God is everywhere; but His people have always understood that the temple is a special place, where God is present for those who seek Him in a special way – the ground where we are standing is holy ground, because the Lord is in this place in a special way, making it holy.

The entry of the Theotokos into the Temple is a remarkable event: she who will give birth to the Lord of the Temple goes into His presence to dwell there in preparation for becoming the holy tabernacle of His dwelling among us. She who will bear the incarnate Son of God is made ready for this by living in a special way in the presence of Him Who will one day live in her.

And what about us? As St. Paul writes to the church in Corinth, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Holy Spirit dwells in you?” We are called, in our own way, to follow the Theotokos in her ministry – to bear the Son of God into the world; and we have the opportunity to dwell, as she did, in the presence of God, Who dwells in us by the Holy Spirit. And so we can live as she did in the Temple. We can be part of a holy company dedicated to worshiping and serving God – our brotherhood here in the Church. We can study the Scriptures, and devote ourselves to pious work. We can keep ourselves chaste and pure. We can fast, and pray, and attend the worship services – and so become better equipped to serve as God-bearers, showing forth in the way we live our Lord Jesus Christ, presenting Him to the world even as His mother, our most blessed and glorious Lady Theotokos, who considered herself to be the handmaid of the Lord, presents Him to us.

Brothers and sisters: Let us, in celebration of the feast of the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple, honor her who shows us the way to serve God in love, dedicate ourselves to enter into His presence and to dwell there; in the monastery, for those whom God calls to such a life; and in the world. It is to this end that we pray: Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Savior, save us.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Explaining Your Faith

(Luke 12:8-21) (26th Sunday after Pentecost)

In the week before Thanksgiving, I had the great joy of spending a concentrated block of time with members of our extended family, gathering for a surprise birthday party for my father, who will be 70 in December. Some of the people were family members I was meeting for the first time; and I had the chance to visit with others for the first time in almost fifteen years, or more. We talked about many thing, filling each other in on how husbands, and wives, and children were doing; about successes and failures in school, and jobs, and business; about vacations, both taken and planned; about our health, and things of this nature. We also took time to discuss our faith.

Some of my family are practicing Christians; while others are influenced by “New Age” teachings and practices; and one person openly claimed to be an atheist. No one, other than myself, was an Orthodox Christian. As a result, we spent a lot of time talking about what we, as Orthodox Christians, believe; and about how our beliefs are put into practice; and how are lives are being changed thereby. All of the questions, and the ensuing discussions, were marked by respect; and we could have spent as much time again as we did, talking about all the aspects of the Orthodox faith, and Church, and way of life.

I hope that I was an effective witness; especially for those who may truly be seeking some answers for the deep questions of life, or who desire a deeper, richer relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ. God grant that it may be so.

Which raises the question: Are you able to explain your faith to family, or friends, or neighbors? Do you know what you believe, and why? Do you know why we do what we do; and can you tell others anything about this?

Consider the Gospel readings for today. In the first, we find a man blessed with material wealth, but lacking in his understanding of the source of that wealth, and the reasons why it had been entrusted to him. This rich man had also forgotten the purpose of life; and, even as he was planning for how he would enjoy what he thought was his, we are told that his life would be required of him that very night; and that, instead of a period of leisure, he would be standing before the throne of God to give an account for himself.

The second is also quite significant. In it, our Lord tells His disciples – and that, by the way, is meant to include us, if we are truly striving to follow our Lord, and to walk in His ways – that He will confess before the angels of God those who confess Him before men; but will deny knowing those who deny that they know Him in this life. We are also told not to be concerned with what we are to say when we are required to give testimony about our faith; for the Holy Spirit will teach us at that time what we are to say.

“Well,” I can hear you say, “doesn’t that mean that I don’t have to know anything, or do anything, in order to speak about my faith if someone asks me?” Brothers and sisters, the short answer to that question is, “No, that’s not what that means at all.” This passage, the fathers tell us, is meant for those who are facing arrest, and questioning, possibly leading to torture, and even to a martyr’s death. Who among us will be able to endure such a trial, and keep our senses about us, so to give a clear and convincing declaration of our faith? God spare us, and our families, from that hour! And yet, if it comes upon us, as it did the martyrs Gurias and Samonas, and the deacon-martyr Abibus, the faithful have the promise that, in that hour, they will know what to say by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Let’s be real. Apart from our presence in this place today; apart from wearing our baptismal crosses – is there any reason for those who would persecute us for the Orthodox faith to suspect that we are Christians? Would they know from the way we live, the way we act, the way we speak, that we are followers of our Lord Jesus Christ? If they can’t see anything about us that makes us different, it’s because we are not doing our utmost to follow the way of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the way of the martyrs, and the way of the saints.

We can’t live as Orthodox Christians if we don’t know what we believe, and why. We are not meant to be ignorant. We should know why we pray. We should know why we fast. We should know why it is good for us to give alms, and make offerings. We should know how and why we struggle against our passions and our weaknesses? We should know why we go to confession; and why we receive the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. We are not meant to be ignorant. The more we know, the more we can do; and the more we can give answer to those who seek from us a new way of living, a better and higher calling. Even if we should one day be thrown into prison for months, and then brought before the judges to give answer, the more we know, the more we do our part to assist the Holy Spirit to speak through us. Our lives should speak without words the reality of the presence of Christ in us!

Brothers and sisters: Today is the start of the Nativity fast. Today we begin to prepare ourselves to celebrate the coming of the Son of God into our midst, taking on Himself our human being, in order to make it possible for us to become like Him. Today, then, let us dedicate ourselves to learning what we believe, and why; and ask for God’s help to put our faith into practice; that in word and in deed, we may declare that Jesus Christ is Lord to all who are looking, and to all who will listen – to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Monday, November 22, 2004

The Feast of the Holy Archangels

Today, we celebrate the feast of the Synaxis of the Holy Archangels; it is our parish feast day. The word, “synaxis,” means, “congregation”; in other words, we celebrate all the angelic powers on this day, which traditionally exist in nine orders: the angels and the archangels, the Cherubim, Seraphim, Thrones, Dominions, Principalities, Powers, and Virtues. We don’t know what distinguishes one order from another; but all nine orders shine forth with the glory of God, and are the obedient servants of His will.

Everyone knows that the word “angel” means, “messenger.” The patriarch Abraham learned of the promise of the birth of a son from the three angels to whom he had extended the hospitality of his home. The law was given to Moses by the ministrations of angels, and the prophets often were informed by angels. The Archangel Michael was identified as the defender of the nation of Israel. It was the Archangel Gabriel who greeted the Theotokos, and told her of her part in God’s plan for the salvation of the world. The angels filled the heavens with song at the time of our Lord’s birth. An angel told Joseph not to abandon Mary. An angel would tell him to take the child and mother in his care to safety in Egypt, far from the raging of Herod; and later, to return from Egypt.

The Angelic Hosts are the highest order of created beings. They do not possess, by their nature, bodies – at least, not in the way that we have our being defined in part by our possession of a material form. Their nature, different from ours, enables them to behold God in a way that we cannot – at least, not in this life. The nature of angels is such that, if we are not careful, we may be fooled into thinking them to be gods, and worshipping them as such – which, unfortunately, many people are doing today. And yet, for all their powers, Scripture tells us that man is created but a little lower than the angels; and that we will one day be seated upon thrones in heaven, and the angels will yield their place in the circle around God to us. This may be what caused the highest and first of all the created beings, Lucifer, to rebel against God: for, in his pride, he could not bear to see how we, sinful, fallible, weak in body, mind, and will – especially compared with these abilities in the angels – could rise to have power and authority over him.

When Satan – Lucifer – fell from heaven, taking a great number of the angels, now demons, with him, it was the Archangel Michael who arose to become the leader of the heavenly host. The words he issued as a rallying cry for those who had not rebelled against God are words we hear in every Divine Liturgy: “Let us stand well, let us stand with fear, let us attend!” In response, the angels replied, singing the triumphal hymn, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord of Sabaoth: heaven and earth are full of Thy glory! Hosanna in the highest!”

Let’s be sure we grasp what this means. Think of the words of the Cherubic Hymn: Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim, and chant the thrice-holy hymn unto the life-creating Trinity, now lay aside all earthly care, that we may receive the King of all, Who cometh invisibly upborne in triumph by the ranks of angels. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!

We mystically represent the Cherubim, who are among the angels closest to God, and who see the fullness of the glory of God. With the angelic hosts, we sing, “Holy, holy, holy!” As we live faithfully the Orthodox way, we draw closer to God, as do the angels; indeed, the monastic way of life is often described as the angelic way. It is a great gift of the mercy and love of God for us that we, who are sinful, impure, fallible, weak, and double-minded are allowed to be His servants, as are the angels. It is a great gift of the mercy and love of God for us that our Lord Jesus Christ became Incarnate – for He identified Himself completely with us by sharing fully in our human nature. He did not do this for the angels!

Brothers and sisters: Today we celebrate the feast of the Synaxis of the Bodiless heavenly powers. Let us mark our celebration above all by remembering how we are privileged to gather here, in the presence of God, to worship Him with the angelic powers. Let us pursue the angelic way of life, by praying, and fasting, by giving alms and offerings, and by struggling against our sins and passions, replacing these with their opposing virtues. Let us honor and glorify the Holy Angels and Archangels by being messengers, in word and deed, and in the transformation of our very being, of the good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ to those in darkness in the world around us. To this end, we pray: Holy Archangels, pray to God for us!

Friday, November 12, 2004

The Funeral Service for N. Korovin

“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tomb, bestowing life.” This changes everything. The eternal and Only-begotten Son of God, in the fullness of His divinity, became fully human when He took on flesh from the Virgin’s womb. Having suffered for our sake, He was crucified, and died, and His body was laid to rest in a tomb – but He was not dead. On the third day, He rose again from the dead, bringing with Him His body, resurrected and perfected, the firstfruits of those born from the dead. With His body, He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He shall come again with glory; and we shall see Him as He is; we shall see Him face-to-face.

Our brother, the servant of God, Nikolai, has departed this life; we shall not see him in this world again. But he is not dead. He lives on in the hearts and memories of those who love him, of those who mourn his passing from our midst. And he is not dead. Though we will soon lay his body to rest in the tomb, we know that this is not the end. As Christ has risen, so, too, shall we all; so, too, shall the servant of God, Nikolai. And it is in the hope of the resurrection from the dead that we have hope to see him again.

Until that day, we hope and trust as well in the unfathomable love of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the great and wondrous mercy of God. In that hope and trust, we pray for the blessed repose of our departed brother, asking God to grant him a blessed repose, in a place of peace, where there is no sickness, nor sorrow, nor sighing, but life everlasting. And we know that our prayers are not in vain, because our brother Nikolai is not dead; he is only sleeping, resting in the tomb, awaiting the day of Resurrection.

Our brother, the servant of God, Nikolai, has departed this life; we shall not see him in this world again. But Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tomb, bestowing life. This changes everything; and so, in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection, we pray for the blessed repose of Nikolai Korovin.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Martyrs and Demons

(Luke 8:26-39) (23rd Sunday after Pentecost)

Among the saints remembered today is the Holy Martyr Anastasius. He was a simple and godly maker of cloth in the town of Solin in Dalmatia. It was the time of the Emperor Diocletian, the ruler of Rome from 284 to 305 AD, and a persecutor of the Christians. When the persecution came to Dalmatia, Anastasius did not wait for the officials to come to him; rather, he went to the judge of the town, and confessed his faith in Christ. He was arrested, tortured horribly, and then put to death. His body was thrown into the sea; later, it was taken out of the sea, and buried.

His story is not unique. Indeed, today we celebrate the holy martyrs Marcian and Martyrius, who died for the faith in the year 355 AD. Marcian was a reader, and Martyrius was a sub-deacon. They served with the Patriarch Paul at the cathedral in Constantinople, and suffered because, when the heresy of Arius broke out again, they refused the bribes offered to them by the Arians, and spoke out to declare the true teachings of the Orthodox faith. For this, they were beheaded.

There are a couple of things that we should note in these accounts. The first is that the holy martyr Anastasius was murdered at the hands of a pagan state; while the holy martyrs Marcian and Martyrius died at the hands of a state that, while appearing to be Christian, had fallen into the control of heretics. Yes, it can happen here; it probably will happen here – and we would do well to be prepared. This leads to a second point: the truth of the incredible love of God for us, and how these martyrs, in that love, drew so close to God that this earthly life had no hold on them. How else could someone be bold for the truth, even in the face of torture and death? How else could someone turn themselves in, and so make a powerful statement for Christ?

Do you see anything of the martyrs in you? We should. But, if you’re like me, it’s not so much the martyrs we see, as it is the demon-possessed man living in the tombs outside the city of the Gadarenes, described for us in the Gospel reading from St. Luke today. Being naked, he had no protection against the sun, wind, or rain; he had no protection from the heat or the cold. Not living in a house, he lacked not only protection and comfort; he was alone, with only the demons as his company. His existence, in both body and spirit, was one of misery and torment; and yet, when our Lord Jesus Christ draws near, this man says to the Lord, “What do I have to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of God most high?”

Aren’t we asking this same question every time that we sin? Aren’t we saying that there is nothing in common between us and the Lord when we turn from His ways to follow and pursue the passions and pleasures of the flesh? Aren’t we saying that, in word and in deed, we don’t want to have anything to do with Christ when we’d rather be indulging ourselves in sin? But this is madness!

The Fathers tell us that, when we sin, we have, as it were, taken off the robe of our baptism. We have become naked, like the man in the tombs: and we are unable to protect ourselves. When we sin, we have departed from the household of God, to dwell among the dead, and those who hate God. When we sin, we are saying, and showing, that we love ourselves more than we love God; but without the love of God and love for God, we can never take on the appearance of the holy martyrs, for only love for God can transform us so. Instead, we are like the man in the tombs, possessed by our demonic desires, and unable to live a normal life. And our society is like that of the Gadarenes. They saw their economy greatly damaged when the herd of swine, forbidden to them, was possessed by the demons and ran off a cliff into the lake. They also found this man who had struck such fear into them while he was dwelling among the tombs clothed in his right mind, and sitting at the feet of our Lord Jesus Christ. But this did not inspire them to turn from their ways. No, they asked the Lord to depart from them, because they wanted to continue in their way of life, rather than to struggle to change and follow Him.

So, brothers and sisters, whom do we resemble: the man in the tombs, or the holy martyrs? What can we do to be restored, having thrown off our baptismal garment and having departed from dwelling in the household of God? We begin by repenting, and confessing our sins. We continue by turning away from our sins, and embracing again our Orthodox way of life: praying, fasting, giving alms and offerings, and struggling against our passions by practicing the virtues of the Christian life. And in this, be encouraged by remembering the great love of God for us in Jesus Christ; and seek to be vessels of His wondrous love. For if we will labor to be without sin, and to be filled with the love of Christ, we will declare, in word and deed, the great things that God has done for us, even in the face of persecution and death.

Holy martyrs Marcian, Martyrius, and Anastasius, pray to God for us.

Sunday, October 31, 2004

The Rich Man and Lazarus: How Much is "Enough?"

(Luke 16:19-31) (22nd Sunday after Pentecost)

How much is “enough?” How much do we have to have of the things of this world to be satisfied, and put aside the pursuit of “more?” What level of income do we need to be content? How much is “enough?”

Some people have their definition of “enough.” At least one candidate for the presidency of the United States has said that the “magic number” is $200,000. That’s enough; and, if you’re earning more than that amount, you don’t need, and don’t deserve, a tax break. Now, I don’t think there’s anybody here today that needs to worry if that actually becomes the number! But when we hear these types of questions being raised in the public forum, we should also be asking ourselves, how much is enough?

OK, so there’s no one here above the $200,000 a year income level. But I’ll also bet that there also isn’t anyone here below the poverty level, either - which means that, in terms of the whole world, each one of us is rich. So: do we have “enough?” If everyone has food on the table, and a roof over their heads, and clothes on their back, and time to relax, and access to medical care, and things like that - can’t we say that we have “enough?”

This is important, as we can see from the Gospel reading today from St. Luke, the Apostle and Evangelist whose memory we celebrate today. We are shown the opposite ends of the spectrum: from the very rich to the very poor. The rich man certainly has enough: he is dressed in fine clothing, and eats sumptuously every day. Presumably, he is in good health. In contrast, we see also the poor man, Lazarus, who is outside the rich man’s gate, begging for food. He is ill, covered with sores, and so weak that he is unable to keep the dogs from coming and licking his sores. Lazarus has nothing; he is so needy that he would accept the crumbs from the rich man’s table gratefully, as a blessing. We need to ask ourselves: Of the two men depicted here, to whom does my life bear a closer resemblance - Lazarus, or the rich man?

The Gospel doesn’t tell us that there is anything wrong with being rich. The rich man does not find himself in a place of torment because he was rich; but rather because of what he did, and did not do, with the riches entrusted to him by God. How do you think the story might have turned out if the rich man, finding Lazarus at his gates, had brought this beggar into his home, fed him from his table, called the physicians, and nursed him back to health? Do you think he would have found himself departing this life into a place of torment, or into a blessed repose?

Maybe that’s too extreme, to have brought this sick beggar into his home. What if the rich man had provided that Lazarus should be taken to a hospital, or other place where he could have received food, and shelter, and medicine, and care? What if the rich man had said, “You know, I have enough that I can spare something to care for this beggar’s needs?” Do you think he would have found himself departing this life into a place of torment, or into a blessed repose?

Where might we find Lazarus today? Maybe on the street corners, holding a cardboard sign? Maybe he is downtown, sleeping on the grass? Maybe in line at a soup kitchen or the food bank or the thrift store or the clinic?

What have we done to help Lazarus today? Have we brought food, or money, to a food bank or soup kitchen? Have we given from our excess shoes and clothing to those who collect our donations to give to those in need? When was the last time you checked the box on your electric bill to give a dollar to help those who can’t afford to pay their bill? When was the last time you gave some spare change to the Lazarus on the street corner?

Now, there’s no doubt that there are more people and organizations asking for our help than we can give an answer to - no one of us can do it all alone. But do you know that, when we fast, a part of the reason for eating simpler foods is precisely to be able to have more that we can give to help to feed those who are in need? Not so easy to do when we are “fasting” by eating shrimp or lobster, in place of chicken, or of pork. I think, all too often, we lose sight of this aspect of the fast.

But what’s really at issue is the attitude of our hearts towards using the resources God entrusts to us, both to meet our own needs, and those of others. That’s why we have to determine how much is “enough.” For it’s possible to always be wanting more, and so never have anything to give for others; or it’s possible to realize that we probably already have enough, and more; and from this we can take the steps to meet the needs of those around us - feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, and visiting the sick, and those in prison - and in the process, saving our souls.

How much do you need to truly be happy? Brothers and sister, for the sake of your souls, please consider: how much is “enough?”

Monday, October 25, 2004

The Parable of the Sower: Preparing the Soil for Planting

Everyone knows this parable, right? Our Lord Jesus Christ even gives the interpretation to His disciples: the seed is the word of God, and the Sower is the Son of God. Some seed falls on the path, and is carried away by the demons. Some seed falls among the rocks, and sprouts, but ultimately withers when things get tough. Some seed falls among weeds, and sprouts, but gets choked out by the cares and concerns of life. Only the seed that falls in good soil bears fruit – and the harvest is the point, not the planting! Yet, although 3/4s of the seed fails, that which falls in good soil brings forth returns of 30, or 60, or 100 times again what was planted.

The challenge for us, then, is to prepare our hearts to be the good soil, so that what God plants in us may bear fruit to the glory of His name, and the salvation of our souls. It’s an exercise in spiritual gardening, if you will; taking the steps necessary to do all we can to achieve the best harvest possible.

To break hardened ground, the farmer uses a plow. To break our hardened hearts, we use the plow of the ascetic life: breaking the ground by prayer, and fasting, and virtuous struggle against our passions. God also helps, sending us circumstances meant to break our reliance on ourselves, on our wit and strength alone, and to break our pride, and our selfish and self-centered lives. Broken, humbled, we are one step closer to becoming good soil.

The ground is softened by our tears of repentance, and by confession of our sins and offenses; and by the giving of alms to those in need. God also helps, sending us knowledge, awareness of our sins, even as He gives us victory over many of these. He pours out His love and mercy upon us, and gives us light to behold His hand at work blessing and protecting us, softening us by His grace and love. Repentant, cleansed, we are one step closer to becoming good soil.

The ground is fertilized by our study of the word of God, by the teachings of the Fathers, and by worshipping the Lord. These nutrients, drawn from the lives of the saints before us, help the crop we should yield to be rich and strong. God also helps, blessing us with awe and joy as we find in the lives of those who have gone before us the examples of living a life close to God, walking with Him; and so we, too, are drawn to do the same. He feeds us and strengthens us by the Holy Mysteries, and especially those of His Body and Blood, so that we can bear more than we’d ever thought possible. Enriched, made wise, we have become the good soil for planting. And, being good, we are ready to receive the seed of the word of God, and to sprout and grow, and, by patient endurance, to bring forth fruit pleasing unto God, and beneficial to many for the salvation of their souls.

Brothers and sisters! God has given this opportunity to us. Let us embrace the ascetic life of the Orthodox Church. Let us fast, and pray, and struggle towards the virtues. Let us weep in repentance, and give alms to others. Let us feed ourselves with the Holy Scriptures, and the teachings of the Church, and the lives of the saints, and the most holy Mysteries of the Body and Blood of Christ. Let us do all this, that we, too, may be good soil for God, and bear fruit for Him, to the glory of His name, and the salvation of our souls.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Hatred and Love; Why It Is So Difficult to "Love Your Enemies"

Last week, as you’ll recall, we heard our Lord’s instruction to us: “Love your enemies.” This is not the “natural” response that we, in our fallen state, would ordinarily make to those who hate us, and wish us evil. This is why it is important for us to remember, on the one hand, the commandment to love our enemies, and to do good to those who hate us, and bless those who curse us; and, on the other hand, to also remember the great love that God has for each of us, even though we are sinners. Love invites love; hatred invites hatred. By the way: the opposite of love is not hate; the fathers tell us that the opposite of love is indifference. Hatred is love gone bad, love pulled inside out, love that has been twisted around into something no longer recognizable as love.

Why is it so difficult to love our enemies? Could it be that we hate our enemies because we fear them? Fear can take love and distort it into hatred. Of course, we fear our enemies because we perceive them to be a threat to us: they threaten what we think and believe; they threaten our way of life; and, above all, they threaten us with death.

Here again, we are called to remember the God we serve, the Lord in Whom we put our trust and hope. In today’s Gospel reading, our Lord Jesus enters the town of Nain; and, as He does so, He encounters a woman whose life has been touched by death. Her husband is dead – she is a widow – and now she is on her way to the cemetery to bury her only son. Her world has collapsed; she has lost those who loved her the most to death; and now she is alone. Our Lord, seeing her, has compassion upon her. He tells her, “Weep not”; and then He commands her son to arise. Our Lord shows here, as with Jairus’ daughter, and with Lazarus, that He is the Lord, with power of life and death – a power He will reveal most fully by His own resurrection from the dead.

Why, then, do we fear death? Our Lord Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. Think of the troparion for today: “He hath trampled down death by death; the first-born of the dead hath He become. From the belly of hades hath He delivered us, and hath granted to the world great mercy.” Because He lives, so, too, shall we live a life without death, a life without end. Death no longer is the end of existence, or the entry into the place of shadows. We are not to fear death, which has no dominion over us; rather, we are to fear the great and terrible Day of the Lord, when we shall stand before the throne of God, and give an account of our lives, and be judged for our actions, and enter into either blessedness or condemnation for eternity. But death? It is only the doorway from this life into the world to come. As Orthodox Christians, we should not fear death.

And if we do not fear death, what power does an enemy hold over us? They may, indeed, kill the body – but so what? Death will one day come for us all; unless the Lord returns before we depart this life, we shall all fall asleep to this life, to awaken in the Kingdom of heaven. Does the means of that departure make any difference – especially if we are living as Orthodox Christians, aware of the reality of the end of this life, preparing by confession and repentance for that moment when we stand before the heavenly King to be judged? So: If our enemy cannot do any more than accomplish our transition from this world into the world to come, is there any reason to fear death? And if we do not fear death, is there any reason to fear our enemy? And if we do not fear them, is there any reason why we cannot love them, and so fulfill the command of God?

Brothers and sisters: Let us put our hope and trust in the Lord Who raised the widow’s son from the dead. Let us follow the example of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who did not fear death, but accepted death on our behalf, that we who are joined to Him by faith and grace may show Him forth in our lives as well, by loving those who hate us, by doing good to those who are our enemies. Let us seek to be filled with love for God, and the love of God for each other, and for all the world; so that, no matter what may happen to us in the days to come, we may be faithful servants of God, loving as He loves, without reservation, without hesitation – to the glory of His Name, and the salvation of our souls.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

The Protection of the Theotokos

One of the major concerns on the minds – and hearts – of many people today, as we prepare to elect the next President of the United States, is that of the safety of this country, and of her people. Which candidate will do a better job of providing security? Which candidate will be a better job of protecting the American people?

As Christians, we are citizens of the Kingdom of heaven, as well as being citizens of an earthly realm. As such, we heed the wisdom of the holy Prophet King David, who wrote, “Trust ye not in princes, nor in the sons of men, in whom there is no salvation.” This is not to say that we are not to use wisdom in fulfilling our duty as citizens of this land, when we select our national leader. But we are meant to remember that our hope is not of this world; and the kingdom for which we hope is not of this world.

On this day in the year 911, the faithful people of God were in Church in Blachernae. During the All-night Vigil, the holy St. Andrew the fool-for-Christ had a vision, together with his disciple, Epiphanius. They saw the most holy lady Theotokos in prayer for the protection of the people of the world; and as she prayed, surrounded by apostles and martyrs and virgins and angels, she held her veil out as a covering for the people, as a sign of her protection for those who love and obey her Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. We keep this day as a remembrance of this vision, to honor the most holy Mother of God, and to give thanks to our Lord for hearing, and answering, her prayers for us.

Brothers and sisters! Let us lay aside all earthly cares, and give thanks to God, Who has saved us. Let us yield ourselves to Him and to His service, calling upon Him to have mercy on us; and calling upon the most holy Theotokos to remember us, and to help us, in her holy prayers.

Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Savior, save us!

October 1/14, 2004

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

"Love Your Enemies"

(Luke 6:31-36) (19th Sunday after Pentecost)

Is there any command that our Lord Jesus has given to us that is more difficult to keep than this one: “Love your enemies?” “Now wait just a minute here, Father,” I can hear you say. “Are you telling me that I have to love someone like Osama bin Laden, or Saddam Hussein?” Well, actually, yes - that’s entirely true. Whether our enemies are persons such as terrorists who have declared their hatred for our country and threatened our lives, or are less well-known - someone at work or school who has taken a dislike to you, and tries to make your life difficult or miserable - it doesn’t matter. Our Lord has commanded us to love our enemies, and to do good to those who hate us, and to bless those who curse us, and to pray for those who abuse and persecute us.

Certainly it is easier to love those who love us, and do good to those who help and support us, and to be generous with those who will repay us for our generosity - and yet we don’t even manage to do these things on a regular basis, do we? Husbands and wives argue, children and parents disagree disagreeably, brothers and sisters squabble and fight; neighbors have disputes, bosses and employees argue, co-workers can’t always agree; and these are people we know, are often close to - and, when it comes to our families, these are people we probably love. But even then, our pride, our greed, our selfishness, our laziness, our envy - all the base, horrible things in us come out and are expressed to each other in words and deeds that wound both them, and ourselves. How, then, can we possibly even begin to love our enemies?

“With man, this is impossible; but with God, all things are possible.” We have to keep this truth in mind as we contemplate doing the impossible, keeping the commandments of our God, of striving to be perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect. We need to recall God’s love for us. St. John the Theologian writes, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” St. Paul writes, “But God shows His life for us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” We know of our Lord’s love for us from the Cross, and His words as He was dying there: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

If we will keep in mind this great love that God has for each and every one of us, unworthy as we are, as unlovable as we make ourselves before Him (and each other) by our many and great sins, and by our wickedness, we have hope that we may find within ourselves the ability to do what we are commanded, and to love everyone, as God loves everyone. We say this at each Divine Liturgy: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.” The whole Divine Liturgy is a celebration of God’s love for us, and an invitation for us to show our love for God and our love for each other. The whole Divine Liturgy works to so fill us with the love of God as we are gathered in His presence that, as we then go forth into the world, we are overflowing with this love, and show this love to the whole world. We do this by our patience with the faults of others; by our generosity to the needs of others; by forgiving them, by praying for them, by loving and caring for them, by being merciful to them. We do this by striving to love our enemies; and, when we fail to do so, we repent, and confess our faults, and ask forgiveness - even of our enemies.

I don’t know how this works itself out on the world stage. I don’t know if it is possible for a nation to act in this way. And yet I can’t help but wonder how the world might have been changed if, after the terrorist attacks of 9-11, we had responded, after remembering and honoring and burying our dead, we had coolly, calmly, set about rebuilding that which the terrorists had destroyed, not striking back by declaring a war in which force meets force; but by saying, in words and deeds, “You cannot defeat us. No matter what you do, you shall not change our way of life. We shall prevail, and you shall not stop us.” I do not know if such a thing could be done when considered at the level of a nation, of a people. But I do know this: If we take our Lord’s words seriously, and remember that we are not to fear those who can only kill the body, but not touch our souls, but rather fear Him Who has the power to cast the soul into eternal condemnation, and if we seek to be filled with the forgiving and patient love of God, we will draw closer to keeping His commandment to love our enemies. May God grant us this grace, and make us vessels of His love.

Monday, October 04, 2004

What Shall It Profit a Man?

(Mark 8:34-9:1)(18th Sunday after Pentecost: 20 Sept/3 Oct, 2004)

What’s your aim in life? What are your goals? What do you hope to achieve? Riches? Fame? Power? Or maybe it’s just to be comfortable, to have everything you need to enjoy life, and take it easy. If we think only in worldly terms, seeking riches, or fame, or power, or just being comfortable, as long as we don’t hurt anyone, or break the law, make sense. But in the Church we learn that the only goal worth having is to save our soul.

Here’s what our Lord said: “What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” In a way, He is asking us, “Why do you work so hard to gain wealth, or fame, or power, or anything else that the world has to offer, instead of focusing on the one thing needful?” The way in which we do this is given in this same Gospel passage: we must take up our Cross, and follow our Lord Jesus in the way He directs.

So: What does it mean to take up our Cross? For our Lord, it was literally true: As He went to His death, He carried the instrument of His execution upon His back. For the Great-martyr Eustathius, it meant being tortured and killed, together with his family, for having left the service of the emperor to be a servant of the King of kings and Lord of lords. For the martyrs Prince Michael of Chernigov and his counselor, Theodore, it meant being beheaded by the Tatars for having failed to participate in a ritual meant to honor their pagan idols.

There are places today where Christians are at risk for practicing their faith; where they are still at risk of being tortured, even killed, because they will not give up their faith in Christ. They, too, know what it means to take up their Cross, and follow Him. But none of us are at risk of torture or death in this land. None of us here are in danger of being thrown into an arena with wild beasts, or placed inside a white-hot brazen ox, or of facing death in any way, simply because of our Christian faith.

Maybe it’s because it isn’t a “life or death” situation that we have so little commitment to living our faith. If today, we were at risk of being arrested, imprisoned, tortured, and killed for the “crime” of being a believer, for saying, “I am a Christian,” we wouldn’t be so complacent, so neglectful, of living and thinking and acting as Christians. If you’re afraid of being noticed, afraid of being taken, afraid of torture and death for your faith, you don’t stand out, you follow the crowd, you do what everybody else around you is doing. We don’t have to fear these things - -at least, not as yet – but isn’t that how we tend to live? We don’t want to be noticed; but, if you are carrying a Cross, you can’t help but be noticed.

Let me ask you this: When it’s time to have lunch, where you work, at your school, do you start by giving thanks to God, and blessing your food? Do you make the sign of the Cross, as we all should? If not, why not? Surely you don’t think someone there is an informer, waiting to turn you in to the police because you are a follower of Christ? What, someone may laugh? Someone may stare? Someone may think less of you, someone important is some earthly way – a boss, a friend, a teacher, a love interest? Why is it you won’t carry your Cross?

Let me ask you this: When everyone else is doing something you know in your heart is terribly wrong, because it would be displeasing to God, what do you do? Do you take a stand, and say, “This is wrong?” Do you just disappear? Or do you just go along, hoping that God will forgive your sin? Why is it we don’t carry our Cross?

It’s fear of rejection; fear of being different; fear of being ridiculed; all these things keep us from carrying the Cross, and following our Lord Jesus in the way we are called to go. Somehow, we think, that, if we pray, and fast, and give alms, and struggle against our sins and passions and weaknesses, we will not be able to get the things we desire – and almost inevitably the “things” are things of this world. But what does it profit us to gain the whole world, if, by doing so, we lose our souls thereby?

Brothers and sisters! There is a way appointed for us: to take up our Cross, and follow our Lord. Every time we pray, we carry the Cross. Every time we fast, we deny ourselves. Every time we give alms, we set ourselves free; and every time we fight against giving in to our sins, we pick up the Cross, and follow our Lord. We have a way of life that makes us different; and a way of life that gives us power, even the power to accept a martyr’s death. Let us pray, and fast, and give, and struggle; let us live and speak and think and dream of the kingdom of God, and our Lord Jesus Christ, daring to be in, but not of, the world. Let us dare to be different, for our Lord’s sake. Let us each take up our Cross, and follow Him; to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Saturday, September 25, 2004

The Sermon Archives

I've taken the liberty of uploading the sermons I have on file on my computer. These were added to this blog today; but I have given them their original dates; and they are arranged as if they had been added to this blog on a regular basis.

Do feel free to take the opportunity to stroll through the archives; and add your comments, criticisms, and questions!

Monday, September 20, 2004

The Parable of the Talents

(Matt. 25:14-30) (16th Sunday after Pentecost)

You probably know that a “talent” refers, at times, to a unit of weight, and to an amount of money. One talent equaled 60 minas; a mina equaled 100 drachma; and a drachma was the equivalent of a day’s wages. This means that a talent was worth about twenty years wages! So we see that even the servant least capable was given a significant sum to use in his master's service; while the one given five talents had more than a lifetime's earnings in his care.

We also use the word “talent” today, but in a different context. Now, it refers to an ability, usually innate, that has value, or the potential for value. “Randy Johnson is a talented pitcher”; “Barry Bonds has a talent for hitting”; and so on. The word derives from its use in the Gospels. In the light of this, how are we meant to understand this Parable of the Talents?

The man traveling into a far country is our Lord Jesus Christ. He has ascended into heaven, and, before His return, He waits for us, Who are His servants, to use the “goods” He has distributed. The Lord will return; and we will be required to give an accounting for our lives, and how we have “spent” them. Whether we are recognized as having been “good and faithful” servants, or as “wicked and slothful” is determined by the “profit” we return for what has been entrusted to us.

How do we invest the talents that have been given to us? By using them for the benefit of others. The good and faithful servant is the one who loves all mankind, without spite, giving of his goodness to his neighbors. The wicked and slothful servant is one who loves only himself, and cares only for his own interests. When we neglect our talents, or use them only for worldly things instead of the heavenly gain for which they were intended, we have buried our talent in the earth. That which was meant to give life has been buried; it is dead.

So the way to invest the talents for gain is to love and care for our neighbors. This should remind us of last week’s Gospel reading, in which our Lord gave us the Summary of the Law: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself. We should remember that the fathers tell us the way into this way of life: that we show our love for God by loving others as we love ourselves; and that the way into this love is to learn to see everyone, including ourselves, as bearing the image of Christ, and respond to them as we would to Him. It sounds easy; but it is far more difficult to attempt to live this way. What can we do?

Remember that the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus on the Cross has accomplished our salvation; and that the new life He has established is offered to all. Each of us is free to either accept or reject the gift. To accept it means to live according to the Gospel. To “trade” with our talent, then, is to accept the gift given by Christ, and put it into operation through the Orthodox way of life: of prayer, and fasting; of alms-giving, and engaging in the struggle against our weaknesses and passions; to glorify God, and to serve Christ in every person we meet. This task is beyond our strength: but we are not meant to labor at this task alone. The talent we are given is the strength of Christ, given to us when we receive His Body and His Blood in the Mystery of Holy Communion. The talent is given so that we can fulfill the main commandment of God: to love God with the fullness of our being; and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

Brothers and sisters, let us receive with joy the talent given to us in the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ! And let us put that talent to work in our lives, loving and caring for each other, and our neighbors, touching their lives with the love of Christ - to the glory of God, and to the salvation of souls; those of our neighbors, and of our own as well.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

The Meeting of Our Lord

(Matthew 25:31-46)(February 15, 2004)

Today we celebrate the feast of the Meeting of the Lord; or, as it is also called, the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple. The “meeting” refers to our Lord’s being acknowledged by the righteous elder Simeon as the One Who will fulfill the promise of God to deliver the human race, and all of creation, from death; and to the testimony of the righteous handmaiden of the Lord, Anna the prophetess.

Now, our Lord was circumscribed on the eighth day after His birth; and so He became a child of the covenant of Abraham, in obedience to the law of God, given through Moses. On the fortieth day, it was the time for the purification service; for, after giving birth, a woman was not to enter the temple until the 40th day. After her purification, the father and mother, with their child, could enter the temple to present the child as an offering to God. This also was in keeping with the law of Moses, which provides that every first-borne male, whether man or beast, belongs to the Lord. That is, every first-borne male was to be sacrificed to the Lord. (By the way, ladies, this does not mean that men are more important, or more valuable, than women. Rather, all the things that happen with first-born males, from the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, to their being slain by the tenth plague in Egypt, points us to recognize God’s sacrifice of His Only-begotten Son for us.) Now, as human sacrifice is an abomination to the Lord, provision was made to allow for the redemption of a son. The price was a yearling lamb, as a burnt offering; but if the lamb was more than the family could afford, then a pair of turtle-doves; and if the turtle-doves were too expensive, then a pair of pigeons was to be offered.

The Theotokos needed no purification; and our Lord Jesus, our Redeemer, did not need to be redeemed; yet obedience to the law was offered freely, to “fulfill all righteousness.” This is an act of obedience to God that comes about from the love of God, and a desire to please God. It is not an obedience for fear of the wrath of God, to placate an angry and vengeful deity; but an offering of love, in thanksgiving for love.

Today is also the Sunday in the period just prior to Great Lent when we recall the Last Judgment, and the account of the judgment from the Gospel of St. Matthew. Now, I’m willing to guess that, if I asked you to draw the scene, or turn it into a movie scene, most likely it would take place in a courtroom: probably an English courtroom, with the high bench on which the judge is seated, presiding over all from on high; and a witness box, in which each of us would appear, alone, apart from everyone else, to give an account of ourselves. As we are confronted by our sins by the prosecuting attorney - maybe even Satan himself, who is called in Scriptures the accuser of the brethren - in shame, we acknowledge our guilt, and are filled with fear, as a stern God exacts justice.

But the fathers tell us that this is not how it will be on that great and terrible day. Indeed, our Lord Himself tells us, in the Gospel of St. John the Theologian, that He was not sent to condemn the world, but to save it; and that all those who believe in him are not condemned, but are saved, while those who do not believe have condemned themselves. But how can this be?

The fathers tell us that this is so because God is Love. It is the very presence of God that judges us; for, in the light of His glory, all that we have tried to hide in the darkness of our souls is revealed, and we are confronted with the reality of the evil we have done, and the good we failed to do. As we love God, we try to leave behind our sinful ways and desires, and to walk in His ways, doing what is good and pleasing to God. Those who have struggled against evil desires and habits and words and deeds, and have labored to be merciful and righteous, will find themselves being warmed and comforted by the love of God, and rejoice at being invited to enter into the kingdom God has prepared for them. At the same time, those who lived an evil life, in pride and cruelty, with hardened hearts, seeing those in need, and doing nothing, will find their hearts burning with shame and regret, unable to bear the presence of the love which they refused to allow to flow through them. They will be denied the delights of the kingdom, and will find themselves in darkness, with weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth.

Brothers and sisters: let us beware of the lack of love for God which puts our souls at risk of eternal damnation, separation from God. Insofar as this lack of love comes from a lack of trust, let us remember that God provides for all our needs, beginning with the gift of life itself. We have, after all, the answer to the “final exam” at the Last Judgment: as ye have done it unto these, the least of my brethren, ye have done it unto Me. And what is it that we are to do? To feed the hungry, to give those who are thirsty something to drink; to clothe the naked, to care for the stranger, to visit the sick and those who are in prison. These instructions are rich in meaning, both literal and figurative; and our part is to be attentive to the opportunities God provides for us to minister to the needs of those around us. Some of us may only be able to offer the equivalent of two pigeons; or two turtle-doves; while others can afford a yearling lamb. But let us make the offering, trusting that the love of God will make certain that we will not lack for anything we need; so that we are free from this world, and all we possess; free to love God by loving and caring for each other: so that we do not need to fear Judgment Day, but, trusting in the love of God, we have the hope of our salvation.

Sunday, February 08, 2004

Suffering: The New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia

(Luke 15:11-32) (February 8, 2004)

I don’t know about you; but, when I start to think about Great Lent, it always appears to be the most difficult time of the year. Sure, I’m looking forward to the celebration of Pascha - who isn’t? But there’s Great Lent to get through before that comes. First of all, there’s the fasting: no meat, no cheese or dairy, no eggs; and how can we talk about life without chocolate? Then there are the extra services, and the prostrations - and all of this before we get a little closer to the heart, and the consideration of our sins, and how our lives need to be transformed. If we’re not careful, we might even cross the line, from thinking that Great Lent is difficult, to thinking that we are actually suffering.

Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. Suffering? Most of us don’t even know the meaning of the word. Oh, sure, we fast; we give up many of the foods that we enjoy, that we have in abundance - but we’re not starving, not like the younger son in today’s Gospel reading. There are the services, and the prostrations - but we’re not suffering, not like the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia. Talk about suffering! Arrested; imprisoned; beaten; tortured; exiled; murdered. I think they certainly knew about suffering. Me? I don’t know anything about it.

Sometimes it’s easy to see ourselves in the parable or story. We can easily identify with the prodigal son, and see that we’ve taken the inheritance, the good things that God has given to us, and wasted it all in satisfying our flesh and pursuing our sinful desires. After a time, by God’s grace, we come to our senses, and find that we’re living with swine - that is, with the demons. And so we repent, and are restored to our place in the House of God.

It’s not as easy to see ourselves as the elder brother in the story. But if we let ourselves think that somehow our being Orthodox makes us worthy; that our keeping the fast, and the extra services, and the prostrations, and all the other parts of Great Lent, make us somehow righteous on our own, and makes us “better” than somebody else - and we do this - well, we’ve become the older brother; and we have a problem with the mercy of God that forgives really bad people their sins. Of course, our sins should be forgiven - but not theirs. But the mercy of God is beyond our ability to understand; and that’s probably just as well. We should be thankful that God forgives the worst sins we can imagine; because if this were not so, each one of us would have no hope.

It’s almost impossible - at least, for me - to identify myself with the New Martyrs of Russia. I can’t imagine the fear - or the faith. I can’t imagine the betrayal, often at the hands of friends, or even family; and I can’t imagine the trust in God that kept them from betraying others, or denying God, in order to try to save themselves. I do know that there’s really no difference between us and them - that is, it’s not like we are the deserving older brother, and they were the wayward prodigal. There’s nothing in our culture that makes us better than them; nothing that merits God’s special protection for us, while they were delivered to torture and death.

What we do have in common is the Orthodox Church, and her faith, and way of life. We have in common our trust in God, and our hope in Him - the God and Father Who, as the prodigal son made his way back home, ran to meet him; ran because of His love for one who was lost, and now is found. We have in common our trust in God, and our hope in Him - the God and Father Who went to the elder brother to plead with him to soften his heart, for the sake of love. We have in common our trust in God, and our hope in Him - the God and Father of the suffering Russian people, Whose love for them called forth love from them; a love which overcame the trials and torments of the worst of this world; a love that preserved many, and received many others into the kingdom of heaven, wearing a martyr’s glorious crown.

Brothers and sisters: Let us fast and pray, and ask our loving Father to bless us with the same faith and grace, that we might no longer depart from Him, and waste our inheritance in satisfying our sins. Let us fast, and pray, and prostrate ourselves, beseeching God that we not harden our hearts, but might rejoice to know that sinners are saved; and not refrain from embracing them as brothers in Christ. Let us fast and pray, and dedicate ourselves in this Great Lent, asking God in His love to increase our faith, that we may honor and emulate the New Martyrs of the Russian Land by our being transformed into the likeness of His Son, our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ; to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

Why do we live the Orthodox life? The Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican

(Luke 18:10-14) (February 1, 2004)

Why do we live the Orthodox life?

Why do we pray? Why do we fast? Why do we give alms? Why are we supposed to struggle against our passions? What is the point of living the Orthodox way of life?

The goal, of course, is to save our souls. That’s why we do what we do; that’s why we live the way we live. God, through His Body, the Church, has revealed the way in which we can pursue righteousness. And there’s nothing wrong with paying attention to what we’re doing, and how well we’re doing it. We should be constantly examining our lives, to see how, and when, and where, and why we fall short of living the life of our Lord Jesus Christ: the life we were given in baptism; the life we are meant to show froth in the world. But there are dangers that we should be aware of as we make the effort to live a righteous way of life.

We see this in the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. Let me say again that, in one way, on one level, the Pharisee got it right. He knew there was a particular way in which to live a righteous life; and he was seriously pursuing that way of life. But his pride got the better of him. Listen to what he says: “I fast… I give… I am not like other men…” And then he gives a list of those he considers to be less worthy than himself.

The fathers tell us that the Pharisee is wrong in two significant ways. First, he takes the credit for the good things that he has done, and is doing, instead of giving thanks to God for helping him in the way of righteousness. And even when he gives thanks, it’s nothing more than a way of boasting about his accomplishments. He also considers himself to be more worthy - but as he, by himself, can do nothing that is pleasing to God, how can such a thought be justified? It can’t be justified - except in our pride.

What does this have to do with the Orthodox way of life? As was the case for the Pharisees, we have the way to live a righteous life given to us by the Church. We, too, are at risk of thinking too much of ourselves; forgetting to give the glory for any good thing we have done to God, taking no credit for ourselves. We, too, are at risk of thinking too much of ourselves, of considering ourselves more worthy than others around us. I know, for example, that if I took more seriously the teaching of the fathers, to consider all others as being better, more deserving, than myself, it would, if nothing else, change the way that I drive. If we don’t think that we have rights (like the right to the lane we want to enter, or the lane we’re in), we are much less likely to get upset when someone else doesn’t “respect” that right, and yield to us. If we don’t think that we are entitled to something, we’re less likely to get angry, or depressed, or “get even” if the good thing goes to someone else. If I truly act as if every other person is better, more worthy, more deserving, I will be much less angry, much less impatient, much less frustrated. By God’s grace, I might even become more like the Publican: who did not lift his eyes to heaven, but struck his breast, as if to rebuke his heart for its wickedness, and to awaken it from the slumber of death and sin to an awareness of the need to do what is good and pleasing to God.

Brothers and sisters: Let us not think well of ourselves, nor take credit for any good thing. When something good has been done, let us give the glory to God, and our thanks That He has allowed us to be His servants. And let us not think well of ourselves, but strive to consider all others as more worthy than ourselves. Then, by God’s grace, we may achieve the true humility of the Publican; and return to our home - our true dwelling place in the kingdom of heaven - justified, able to enter into the presence of God by having faithfully lived the way of righteousness, the way of life of the Orthodox faith.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

Darkness: The Ungodliness of Men

(Matthew 4:12-17)(January 25, 2004)

Usually, when I’m lighting the lamps in the church, I say a prayer, along these lines: “O Lord God, Lover of mankind, as these lamps bring light unto the darkness, fill us with the light of Thy grace and truth, Thy mercy and love, so that we, too, may be lamps, and bring light to those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death, that they may find Thee and know Thee, and so find salvation for their souls.”

As we have considered before, it is no secret that the darkness in our culture seems to be growing stronger. The fathers tell us that the darkness is not that which we see in the material world around us, the absence of light. The darkness is rather the ungodliness of men. The fathers also tell us that the “shadow of death” is sin. The source of sin is our fear of death. Because we know of the reality of death, that our earthly existence will come to an end, our bodies are overwhelmed, and our resolve to restrain our appetites and control our passions is weakened; and so we sin. And, of course, as St. Paul writes, “The wages of sin is death.” We are caught, it seems, in an unbreakable cycle of sin and death; and if it is not reversed, this awareness brings us even deeper into the darkness of despair.

At the end of the troparion for the Theophany, we sing: “O Christ God, Who hast appeared, and hast enlightened the world, glory be to Thee.” With the coming of Christ, light has sprung up: the great light of the Gospel of our salvation; the good news that death has been destroyed by death, and Christ has brought eternal life. When we at last embrace this truth, it begins to weaken the fear of death; and suddenly we find ourselves empowered by the grace of God to begin to struggle against our sins. In the Great Doxology, which we sing towards the end of the Matins service, we hear, “For in Thee is the fountain of life, and in Thy light do we see light.” Christ is the Light; and as we are transformed more and more into His likeness, as we devote ourselves to living the life of Christ into which we have been baptized, in the power of the Holy Spirit, which we received when we were chrismated, we drive away the darkness, and are filled with His light.

In order to enter into His life, we had to repent of our sins; and we were washed clean in the waters of baptism. Now, when we sin, that light of His life, still within us, is dimmed. The light is not extinguished; but, as mud thrown on the outside of a lantern keeps its light from shining forth to light the way, so do our sins keep the light of the love of God, and His grace and truth, from shining forth from us. And so we must again heed the call to repent: to “change our minds”; for this is what it means to repent. We must choose to turn away from our sins, and choose instead the way of what is pleasing to God, and saving to souls. We must change our minds about what is good, and come to hate, despise, abhor the sins which we have learned to love. When we repent, and confess, God has mercy on us, and cleanses us of all unrighteousness; and so the light can shine forth from us once more.

Brothers and sisters: We are called to be witnesses to Christ, and to make Him present in the world around us. We are called to be bearers of the light of Christ, and to bring that light to those who dwell in darkness, and in the shadow of death. Let us repent of our sins, and embrace the Orthodox life, the life governed by the Gospel, the good news of God’s forgiving and enduring and merciful love. Let us repent of our sins, for the love of God, that we may bring to those in darkness His light and love; for the glory of God, and the salvation of souls.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Out of Egypt have I Called My Son

(Matthew 2:13-23) (January 21, 2004)

“Out of Egypt have I called my Son.”

St. Matthew is quoting the prophet Hosea; who, in turn, was speaking with the voice of God. He said, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt have I called my son.” Hosea continued, “But the more I called Israel, the more they went from me. They sacrificed to the Baals, and burned incense to graven images.” (Hos. 11:1-2)

The prophet Hosea was speaking of the Exodus of the Jews from Israel. St. Matthew gives a new perspective: What had occurred with the deliverance of the Jews had taken place long before the prophecy was spoken. Thus, the prophecy was not fulfilled until Christ was born, and fled with Joseph and Mary into Egypt. The Jews had gone down into Egypt to avoid death by famine; Christ went down to avoid death from Herod’s jealousy and hatred. Life can be found in the most unlikely places.

The fathers tell us that, with Babylon, Egypt is a symbol of the world’s ungodliness. In the coming of the Magi to worship Christ, we see Babylon acknowledging Him as king, and more. With Christ coming to Egypt, that land also will be transformed. Egypt is sanctified by Christ’s entry there; and Egypt over time turns to Him, becoming a paradise of monastics, such as St. Anthony the Great. “Out of Egypt have I called my Son”; and out of Egypt come many who glorify Him by being living bearers of His holy likeness.

We also are called to be sons of God; and we, who are worldly, we, who are ungodly, are sanctified by the entry of Christ. He enters us at the time of our baptism; and we receive Him, He enters us, when we receive the Mystery of Holy Communion. We are meant to turn to Him, and to be holy, leaving behind the things of this world, and applying ourselves to the toils and struggles by which the virtues we lack are to be obtained.

Brothers and sisters: The prophecy is fulfilled: “Out of Egypt have I called my Son.” We are called out of this world to live for Christ. We are called out of sin and ungodliness to holiness. We are called out of death to life eternal. Let us not be as those before, who, having been delivered, turned their backs on God. Let us embrace the Orthodox Church, and faith, and way of life, so that we may be transformed; and so bear witness to the Son of God.

Monday, January 19, 2004

The Theophany of our Lord Jesus Christ

(Matthew 3:13-17) (January 19, 2004)

If you listen carefully to the petitions of the prayer for the blessing of water during the service of the Great Blessing of Waters, you will find that many of these are also found in the blessing of the waters when someone is to be baptized. It makes sense, really: for today, among other things, we celebrate the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ; and this should remind us also of our own baptism.

Less than two weeks ago, we celebrated the Feast of the Nativity, the Incarnation of our Lord. God, desiring to accomplish our salvation, has identified Himself with us, taking on our human nature without ceasing to be God. Our Lord Jesus Christ is made like unto us in every way, except for sin. It is this knowledge that prompts St. John the Baptizer to ask of our Lord, Why do you come to me for baptism? He is saying, Lord, I am the one who is a sinner, and need to be made clean; You are without sin, and have no need for baptism. Our Lord replies, Let it be done, so that all righteousness will be fulfilled.

The fathers tell us that our Lord was thirty years old when He went to the Jordan to be baptized. This was not an arbitrary age. Rather, by that time, He had experienced all the temptations to sin: the great foolishness of the first ten years of life; the great flames of passion and anger of the second ten years of life; and the temptations of greed and envy and covetousness of adulthood. Our Lord waited until He had fulfilled the law in all the ages of man. Then , having done in our nature what we, by ourselves, are not capable of doing - fulfilling the Law - our Lord Jesus completes the sanctification of human nature by presenting Himself for baptism. Having lived without sin, and by baptism, He has cleansed us, and has delivered human nature from the curse of Adam. Adam’s sin closed the heavens to us. Christ’s baptism of Adam’s nature opens the heavens to us once more.

Think now of the promises you made when you were baptized: renouncing Satan, and all his ways, we proclaimed that we have joined ourselves to Christ. We have promised that we would be His, and make Him present wherever and whenever we are present. Of course, when we forget that this is who we are supposed to be; when we choose, not the way of righteousness, but rather the way of sin, we hide Him, rather than making Him known. May God forgive us for our continual failure to let His Son be revealed to others through us because of our sins.

“As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. Alleluia!” Brothers and sisters: Let us renew this day our baptismal vows, and live to allow Christ to be seen in and through us. Let us fast, and pray, give from the wealth which God has bestowed upon us, and struggle to discipline ourselves in body, mind, and spirit, so that we turn from our sins. Let us who have been baptized into Christ do all in our power to put on Christ; so that He may be revealed to a world which needs to see Him - to the glory of God, and the salvation of souls. Amen.