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.