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.

Sunday, January 18, 2004

Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord

(Mark 1:1-8) (January 18, 2004)

“Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.”

This prophecy, spoken by Isaiah, is fulfilled by St. John the Baptizer, whose coming was foretold by the prophet Malachi: “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.” St. John was sent by God to prepare His people for the coming of Christ. He was to bring them to an awareness of their sins, so that they might repent, and accept Christ as Savior and Redeemer.

The fathers tell us that everything about St. John has meaning. For example, consider the way in which he dressed himself: with camels’ hair, and a leather belt around his body. These are symbols of mourning; for those who repent of their sins must mourn for their sins. The garment of camel hair signifies this mourning, through a suffering in the flesh for the sins of the flesh. The leather belt, being dead animal flesh, shows the deadness of the law - that is, its ability on its own to bestow life; and the deadness of those who understand the law in a fleshly, that is, literal and superficial manner.

St. John ate locusts and wild honey. The fathers tell us that the locusts signify the attempt to rise to heaven. Locusts seem to do so when they leap; but, after rising, they fall back to earth. So it is with us in our spiritual lives. On our own, we cannot rise to heaven. The wild honey is produced by wild bees. The fathers tell us that the bees are the prophets; and that the honey are the words of the prophets, the sweetness of the Scriptures. The honey is wild because it was not cultivated, not domesticated; that is, the words of the prophets were not being understood.

And so it is that St. John becomes the voice of one crying in the wilderness; by which the fathers mean us to understand, in the synagogue of the Jews. There could be found the Law and the Prophets; but, because these were not understood, the resulting way of life was wild, even if it did not appear to be so - for adherence to the Law as an external exercise was not the point: it is the transformation of the inner man. We are meant to know that it is not enough to live by the Law. The Law serves to point out to us both our sins, and our inability to overcome these by ourselves.

“Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.” The Way is the Gospel, the good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ the Lord. The paths, the fathers tell us, are the commandments of the Law, which had become twisted over time through neglect and misunderstanding. And so comes St. John the Baptizer, saying, “Prepare yourselves for the life lived according to the Gospel, and make spiritual the commandments of the Law.” This message is meant for us, as well.

The Orthodox Church has her way of life; and, in one sense, we have a collection of laws and rules and regulations that govern the way in which we are to live. There are the rules of fasting: what to eat, and what not to eat, and when. There are the rules for praying: attendance at the worship services of the Church, and private prayers; morning, evening, at mealtimes. There are the rules for alms-giving, such as the tithe. There are rules for when to cross yourself, and when not to do so; when to make bows and prostrations, and when not to do so, and when to do one in place of the other. There are rules about how to dress, and how and where to stand, and who says what when, and who doesn’t… The list seems to be without end.

Please don’t misunderstand me. These rules and regulations and canons are important, and can be of incredible help to us. But we must be careful not to fall into the same trap as did the Jews to whom St. John the Baptist made his proclamation to prepare the way. If we take all these rules and think that, by external compliance with them, we are Orthodox, we show that we, also, do not understand the deeper, spiritual purpose underlying and supporting these rules. If we are not enjoying a life lived according to the good news that our salvation has been accomplished for us by Jesus Christ crucified, buried, and risen from the dead; if we are not living a life in which we labor to discipline ourselves so as to bring our passions into subjection to God as an act of love for God in response to His incredible and merciful love for us, we have not yet prepared the way in our hearts; we have not yet prepared the way of the Lord.

Brothers and sisters: The cry of St. John the Baptizer comes to us: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make His paths straight. He is the messenger sent by the love of God, to call us to remember that love; and to repent of our sins, and to accept Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord. Let us live by this law, the law of love - to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our strength; and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Let us live by this law, the law of love, and all the rules and regulations of the Orthodox life - of prayer, and fasting, of alms-giving and struggle, will take their proper place in our lives, serving us and helping us to live a life of love, the life of the Gospel; for the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

“Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.”

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

On the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ

(Matthew 2:1-12)(January 7, 2004)

"Christ is born!"

We celebrate today the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ; the Incarnation of the Son of God, the second Person on the Holy Trinity. We celebrate the beginning of the completion of God's plan for our restoration to relationship with Him; the plan that will lead our Incarnate Lord to His crucifixion, death, and glorious Resurrection. In a way, Pascha begins today, with the Feast of the Nativity.

And so we greet each other with this remembrance, that Christ is born; and we reply, "Glorify Him!" But what, exactly, does this mean? How do we glorify Him?

In Scripture, the word "glory" is related to the presence of God; a presence which is "active" and "radiant." The "glory of God" speaks of the very real presence of God. "Glory" also has a sense of "greatness"; to which we pay attention, to which we give honor, respect, and devotion. In connection with our Lord, many times "glory" is also related to "resurrection." The phrase, "Jesus has been glorified" is the same as saying, "Jesus has died and risen again."

So: How do we glorify Him? As "glory" means "presence," we must make Him present. As "glory" means "greatness," we must make Him great. As His glorification speaks of His death and resurrection, we must also die, and live: that is, we must die to self, to the desires and actions of our passion; and live instead for, and in, Christ.

Our Lord Jesus Christ is here with us. We see His presence, among other things, in the icons showing scenes from His life and ministry; and in the bread and wine that He will bless to be His Body and Blood. Our Lord is here with us, in each one of us who has been baptized; each of us is an icon of Christ. And as we live the life of the Orthodox faith, the way of life we learn in the orthodox Church - a life of prayer, and fasting, or alms-giving, and of spiritual struggle against our sins - we make Him present.

Brothers and sisters: Let us celebrate the birth of the Lord by dedicating ourselves to the transformation of our lives and being; to embrace with renewed commitment our Orthodox life and faith. Let us celebrate the Incarnation of the Son of God by striving to live a life without sin. Let us celebrate the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ by honoring Him in each other, and by an awareness that He is born in us, and that we bear Him in order to show Him to the world.

”Christ is born!"

The Way of Love and Humility

(Luke 2:1-20) (January 7, 2004)

Please don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say. Of course, it is important for us to be knowledgeable about the Orthodox faith; about what we believe, and why we believe it; about how we are to live, and why we live as we do - a life of prayer, and fasting, and alms-giving, and of spiritual struggle against our sins, so that we can show forth the life of Christ given to us in our baptism. We should know the rules of prayer, and keep them; we should know the rules of fasting, and keep them; and so on.

But we would do well to remember that our Orthodox life is meant to be so much more than just a strict adherence to rules. “But, Father,” I can hear someone ask, “how can that be true?” It must be true. Consider this, which we have revealed to us, among others, in today’s reading from the Gospel according to St. Luke, about the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ: When the angels in heaven sang of His birth, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will towards men?” It wasn’t to those who were the most knowledgeable about the faith at that time; it wasn’t to the priests, or the scribes, or the Pharisees. No, the angels sang of Christ’s birth to the shepherds; to men who lived a much simpler life, who were probably not nearly as educated, not at all as informed, about the day-to-day rules and regulations of the faith. God did not choose to reveal the birth of His Son to those who were considered to be wise, but to those who were simple, and without guile. The heavenly vision was not given to those who thought they knew the right way - the “orthodox” way - of life; but to those who were simple, honest, and, the fathers tell us, without guile.

What, then, about us? How do we balance the necessity of living carefully according to the rules and guidelines, which we acknowledge to be good, and important, and yet not seek to do so to the degree that we become the scribes and Pharisees of today? This is especially important for those of us who are converts to the Orthodox faith, for we were (for the most part) raised in a culture that does not grasp well this tension in the life of the Orthodox faithful; and for whom the temptation, then, is to “prove” ourselves in our newly-embraced faith by keeping all of its outward requirements. I believe that the answer to this dilemma is by the way of love and humility.

If we dedicate ourselves to fulfilling our Lord’s instruction to us to love God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our strength, we will find developing within our being a desire to live rightly; a desire to keep the commandments of God, and the rules of the Church and faith, as an offering of ourselves to God. This is an act of love, and it is, I believe, empowered by our realization of the incredible love that God has for us. Love draws forth love; and the more we know the richness of God’s love, we find ourselves responding to Him with love. Our desire to please the one we love changes us; and so we are less inclined to keep the rules in order to be right, and more inclined to live rightly so as to please God as an offering of love to Him.

As we dedicate ourselves to the second part of the Great Commandment, to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, it is possible for us to overcome the temptation to judge ourselves against how well we think others are keeping the rules. “He broke the fast, and I didn’t,” or, “She doesn’t pray as much as I do”; when we take our eyes off the rules as the way of living, and seek instead to love, we remember again God’s love for us, which has led to the forgiveness of our sins, because of love. Love seeks to forgive; love covers a multitude of sins. Love responds to wrongs done to us by saying to ourselves, “My own sins are worse”; and to the one who has offended us, “Please forgive me, a sinner.” Love, then, leads us to humility - considering everyone else as better than ourselves, more worthy, more honorable, and more pleasing to God.

Brothers and sisters: As we prepare ourselves to celebrate the glorious Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, let us pray that God will bless us to live rightly the Orthodox faith and way of life. Let us ask God to be born in our hearts, so that His love and His truth will dwell in us, and shine forth from us. Let us seek, in humility and in simplicity, to bear Christ in our hearts and lives, so that, above all, He may be seen in and through us; to the glory of God, and the salvation of souls, including our own.

Sunday, January 04, 2004

"The Old Testament Telephone Book"

(Matthew 1:1-25)(January 4, 2004)

I have to admit that, when I first started reading the Holy Scriptures aloud in the services, I always wanted not to be assigned to read passages such as the one from the Gospel according to St. Matthew appointed for today. Indeed, almost very reader I know hoped to avoid the passages with the long lists of names, what we sometimes jokingly referred to as the “Old Testament telephone book” listings. Some of the names, of course, are familiar to us - David, Abraham, and others - while some are people that are known only to those who are scholars of the Bible. Because we don’t know them, we can’t always pronounce their names; which, of course, is why readers hope to avoid having to do so in Church!

But a little bit of study of this list of names reveals some interesting information. First of all, we see (and if we don’t see it at first, St. Matthew later underlines it for us) that there are three sets of generations: from Abraham to David; from David to the time of the exile in Babylon; and from the exile in Babylon to the birth of Christ. Among other things, this is meant to make us aware of God’s promises; because both Abraham and David were given promises by God. God promised Abraham that his descendents would be without number, as many as the stars in heaven, and of the sands of the sea. God promised David that his sons, so long as they were faithful, would always sit upon his throne. Christ is the fulfilling of these promises.

We are also meant to understand that Christ is the fulfilling of the hopes of the people of God for a ruler. The period from Abraham to David was one in which the prophets and judges ruled God’s people; while kings ruled from David until the time of the exile into Babylon. From the time of the exile until Christ, the people were ruled by the priests of the Temple, together with the scribes and the Pharisees. Remember? The High priest, and the Sanhedrin? Now Christ has come - and He is Prophet, Priest, and King. Again, He fulfills our needs and desires.

Christ also fulfills our hopes. The fathers tell us that, because the Son of God became the Son of Abraham and the Son of David, we who are sons of Adam have the hope that we will be sons of God. He Who is uncreated lowered Himself to take on created being, our human nature, in order to exalt us. There is also another aspect to our hope that arises from His Incarnation. Not only did He become flesh for our sake; He did so without regard for the evils that had been done by those from whose line He comes. To see this, we need to know a bit more about some of the people whose names we find in this list.

The first one we meet in this pursuit is Tamar. She was mistreated by Judah, the son of Jacob, who was her father-in-law; and, to gain what was due unto her, she plays the harlot, and so bears two sons to Judah - one of whom is the ancestor of our Lord.

Next, we meet Rachab. She was a prostitute in Jericho at the time when Joshua had sent spies into the land to conquer it. Rachab shelters two of the spies, and assists them in their efforts, in exchange for a promise for safety for herself and her family when the city is conquered. We have to say, in all honesty, that, in addition to being a harlot, she is also a traitor. Not exactly qualities we would do well to emulate! And yet her son, Boaz, marries Ruth - herself an alien, not of the people of God, but who, by her love and devotion, is accepted as one of God’s people. Ruth’s son is Obed. He is the father of Jesse; and Jesse is the father of David the king.

David, of course, is described as being a man after God’s own heart. Among other things, he commits adultery; and arranges for the death of Uriah, the woman’s husband, in battle. He adds murder to adultery. Again, not qualities for anyone to brag about among their ancestry! David’s son by Bath-sheba, who had been Uriah’s wife, is Solomon - who has 300 wives and 700 concubines.

Murder; adultery; fornication; treason. Yet the Son of God did not hesitate to become Incarnate with these elements in His “family tree.” In part, this is because He came, not as a Judge, but as a Physician; to cure, if you will, our sinful condition. And we are meant by this knowledge to have hope: there is no sin in our past that He will not forgive. There is likewise no sin in our future that we cannot defeat, if we will live according to the life He has given us in our baptism; by the power of the Holy Spirit given to us when we were chrismated. If you were being consumed by worms, and there was a potion you could drink that would cure this problem, would you hesitate to take it? The fathers tell us that we are indeed being consumed by our sinful passions and habits. But we have the medicine right here: the Body and Blood of Christ, by which the power of sin in us is broken, and we who have been broken by sin are made whole. We have a way of life entrusted to us to guide us and strengthen us in the defeating of our sinful desires and habits: the life of the Orthodox Church and faith; of prayer, and fasting, or alms-giving, and spiritual struggle. By this way of life, we show that we have indeed put our hope in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Giver of life, and the Author of our salvation.

Brothers and sisters: Christ has come to fulfill the promises of God to us, for our deliverance from death, and for our salvation. Let us pout our trust and hope in Him, and walk in His ways; to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.