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.