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.