Tuesday, April 26, 2005

With Palm Branches in Our Hands

(John 12:1-18) (The Entry of our Lord into Jerusalem)

There were two groups of people gathered along the streets that day: Those who believed that Jesus was the Messiah sent by God; and those who were curious, wanting to see the man who had raised Lazarus from the dead. Those who rejoiced at His coming spread their garments on the street, and cut down branches from the palm and olive trees to do the same, and cried out, “Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord, Hosanna in the highest!” Caught up in the emotion of the moment, the others, the curious, said and did the same. Not too many days later, of course, many who had welcomed the entry of our Lord into Jerusalem with these shouts and deeds of praise and celebration would be gathered again, crying out, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”

And here we stand, with palm branches in our hands, singing His praises, and celebrating His arrival. We need to examine ourselves, and ask ourselves: are we merely among the curious? Or do we believe? We need to know, as we consider the state of our own souls, that every time we turn aside from the way of the Lord to pursue our passions, every time we give ourselves over to our sins, we betray the Son of God; we are crucifying Him.

The fathers remind us that the body we have is a garment and covering for the soul; and that those who laid down their garments for the Lord to ride upon are those who subject their flesh to the spirit, and so establish in themselves, in body, mind, and spirit, the virtues. How do we do this? By prayer, asking God’s help and guidance to overcome our sins and our passions; and by fasting, to weaken our flesh, and teach it to be subject to the will of God through our own will, rather than being subject to the desires arising from within itself. We acquire the virtues by giving alms, using the wealth and blessing that God has entrusted to us for the benefit of others; and by struggling to replace our passions with the holy way of living that the passions have supplanted: so humility for pride, generosity for selfishness, chastity for lust, patience for impatience, and so on.

Brothers and sisters: Our King and Savior comes to each of us, not in the fullness of His glory, which would blind us, and cause us to be filled with fear, and so be unable to speak or think or act. He comes, not at the head of a conquering army, but in gentleness and humility, asking us to receive Him, and to invite Him, the author of our lives, into the center of our life. He Who has given Himself for us asks us to give ourselves to Him, in loving obedience. Let us deny ourselves the ways of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and follow Him Who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Let us pray, and fast, and give, and struggle, for the glory of His name, for the salvation of our souls, and to celebrate with rejoicing His most glorious Pascha!

"Lord, He Stinketh"

(John 11:1-45) (Lazarus Saturday)

Lazarus is not the first person called from the dead by our Lord. For example, He did so for Jairus’ daughter; and raised the son of the widow of Nain while his body was being carried to his funeral. What sets Lazarus apart from the others is that Lazarus had been dead for four days when he was restored to life.

Four days dead meant, among other things, that decay had begun. This is why Martha says, in a quote beloved by every seminarian, “He stinketh.” Perhaps Jairus’ daughter hadn’t actually died -- even though the truth was otherwise. Even at the time, they said that she was simply asleep. Perhaps the son of the widow of Nain wasn’t actually dead, but only in a coma – even though he was on his way to be buried. Some might have doubted these earlier miracles; but, with Lazarus, no such doubts were possible. There was no question but that he was truly dead; and, if dead, his body would be in an advancing state of decay at the time our Lord ordered the stone to be rolled away from the tomb.

Our Lord is preparing His disciples, and anyone else who mighty be paying attention, for His own death, and burial, and resurrection. Oh, there would be those who would repeat the lies: “He wasn’t really dead, but recovered, and some people claimed He was risen from the dead”; as if the scourging and beating hadn’t been enough to produce His death. If nothing else, the spear that pierced His side would have been fatal. The lies began with His resurrection, when the leaders of the Jews paid the Roman guards to say that His disciples had come and taken His body away, and were now claiming, falsely, that He was risen from the dead. No, there could be no doubt about His having raised Lazarus after four days in the tomb; and His disciples, remembering this when they heard the glorious news that our Lord had risen after three days in the tomb, knew He has the power to raise the dead, and so would be able to raise Himself as well.

So we have good reason to hope, for our Lord Jesus Christ, Who called Lazarus from death to life out of the tomb, Who has the power to raise Himself from the dead, has, as well, the power to raise us. We are like Lazarus, in that we are dead in our sins, and corruption and decay has affected us, so that we, in a way, stink, because of our many sins and our wickedness. Yet as He restored Lazarus, so, too, He is able to restore us. No matter how foul, no matter how corrupted, no matter how decayed we have become, He is able to raise us to new life in Himself. Death no longer binds us, when we have been joined to Him; as we have by our baptism, our burial with Him, and our being raised to new life through the waters of regeneration.

Brothers and sisters! Our Lord Jesus Christ has the power of life without end, and will bestow it upon us if we but seek Him. Let us pray, and fast, and give, and struggle, giving thanks to God for our hope in Him. Let us put our hope and trust in Christ, that we, like Lazarus, may be called from death and decay to life in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

St. Mary of Egypt

(Mark 10:32b-45) (Great Lent 5: St. Mary of Egypt)

Today, we celebrate St. Mary of Egypt. Those of you who were able to attend the Matins service last Wednesday evening heard, with the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, the account she gave of her life; and of the manner of her departing from this world.

St. Mary would certainly have found a place for herself in today’s culture. She gave herself fully to enjoying her sexuality, and practiced every possible vice in association with these desires. Imagine what she might have done with the internet at her disposal! No, on second thought, don’t imagine that… But in a world where “stars” (if we can call them that) of pornographic movies and magazines have celebrity status, and incomes of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, there would have been a place for St. Mary of Egypt to indulge her fleshly passions for fun and profit.

By God’s grace, she was prevented from entering a church for the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross, until, with the help of the most holy Theotokos, she confessed her sins, and repented, and asked for help in living a new life. Then, she could enter the church, and reverence the Cross. She was baptized, and received the Holy Mysteries, and then, the same day, to fulfill her vow, went into the desert, with only the clothes on her back, and three loaves of bread. It would be seventeen years before she spoke again with another human being. In that time, by her own words, she suffered from hunger and thirst, and from the heat and cold of the desert; but above all, by the desire to please her flesh, to return to the way of life she had lived before repenting and confessing. She said that she often had to throw herself to the ground and bite the earth to fight the assaults of the demons and the temptations – and that she might spend a day and a half in such conflict, until the temptation had passed her by. By God’s grace, in her time in the desert, she mastered the passions, and these no longer beset her – although she was always wary of their return, and kept her guard always. Yet St. Zosimas, whom she met in the desert during Great Lent, to whom she told her story, at one time saw her praying an arm’s length in the air, above the ground – a sign to him, and to us, of her holy prayer. She asked him to return at the same time the next year, that she might receive the Holy Mysteries once more, for the first time in seventeen years. He returned, and she received, and gave her soul to the Lord the very same day. St. Zosimas found her incorrupt relics at his return the next year, where he, with the help of a lion, buried St. Mary in the desert.

Why do we celebrate St. Mary of Egypt? We need to know that there is no sin that the Lord will not forgive; there is no sinner who is beyond redemption – no one here who is lost because of their sins, so long as they – we – will call upon the Lord and confess our sins, and repent of them. We also need to see that we are not able to allow ourselves to continue to indulge ourselves in our sins, to be the “victims” of the passions that torment us. Who among us has spent a day and a half writhing on the ground, biting it, while praying fervently for the passion to depart from us? Who among us has fasted to the point of hunger? Who among us has forsaken the world and everything and everyone in it, in order to be alone with God, and to do battle with all the things that interfere with our relationship with God? I know I haven’t.

Most of us cannot flee to the desert to do battle with our sins, and with the demons. Let’s face it – most of us don’t want to! As such, most of us will not attain the holiness that came to be part of St. Mary’s life. But this does not mean that we do not need to fast; or to pray; or to give alms; or to struggle with all our might against the passions that lead us, time and time again, into sin after sin after sin. As God gives us time, and strength, and opportunity, we need to do battle, again, and again, and again, with every thought, word, deed, and desire for anything that causes us to defile His image in us, and to wound ourselves and others with our sins.

Brothers and sisters: Great Lent is drawing to a close. Soon, we will recall the events of our Lord’s Passion and death; and His glorious Resurrection. Even at this late date, we are called by our Lord, and by His Church, to remember His mercy shown to St, Mary of Egypt; the same mercy and forgiveness He offers to us, if we will only stretch forth our hands to receive it, and make it our own in prayer and fasting and giving and struggle. Let us dedicate ourselves once more to being transformed into His likeness; and call upon St. Mary to help us to leave behind our sins, and love and serve the Lord.

Holy mother Mary, pray to God for us!

"Who Do You Say That I Am?"

(Mark 8:27-31) (Saturday of the Akathist Hymn)

Today, we celebrate the most holy Lady Theotokos, and the Akathist hymn written in her honor over 1400 years ago. Tradition says that the Akathist hymn was one of many hymns written by St. Romanus the Melodist. The kontakion with which the Akathist begins and ends was written after the city of Constantinople was delivered from attack by the protection of the Theotokos: “To thee, the champion leader, we thy servants dedicate a feast of victory and thanks-giving, as ones rescued out of sufferings, O Theotokos…”

In celebration, we offer this Divine Liturgy. As always takes place at the Divine Liturgy, we offer bread and wine to our God, Who blesses the offering to be His most pure Body and Blood, given to us to cleanse and heal and strengthen us. As such, we are making as well an offering of ourselves – at least, we have the opportunity to do so, to offer ourselves in faith to be the servants of God, to be the bearers of the life of Christ, to open our hearts to allow Him to dwell in us, and to so direct and transform our lives that He may be seen in us, and through us draw others, even the whole world, to Himself.

The Gospel reading appointed for this day in Great Lent asks a question of profound significance, and we must not neglect it or fail to consider it ourselves. Our Lord asks His disciples – which means not only those who were with Him at that point in time and space, but also each of us who are called by His name, each of us who have received His life in baptism – to consider Who He is, and what this means for us. First, He asks, “Who do men” – that is, the world – “say that I am?” The disciples report a variety of answers: A prophet; the prophet Elijah; John the Baptizer. To this, we might add, “a good man, a wise teacher, a good example; a mystic; a madman; a fraud.” But the essential question comes next: “Who do you say that I am?” St. Peter gives the correct answer: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Because we know the answer printed in the book, we have a tendency to respond that way at those unlikely times when we might actually be asked this same question, as we are being asked today. As such, we need to remember that what we do is at least as important as what we say. If Jesus is indeed the Christ, the Son of the living God, then He is our Lord and Master, and we belong to Him. Belonging to Him, we are His servants; and He would have His servants do His will, and not to do that which is contrary to His will. Every time we sin, we are being disobedient servants. If we say, then, that Jesus Christ is Lord, but do not live in accordance with His will, we make our words empty and powerless. And if we deny Him, in word or in deed, before the world, how can we expect Him to speak on our behalf before the Judgment seat of God?

Brothers and sisters, let us consider well the place we grant to our Lord in our lives. Does He rule over us, and do we follow Him, as we should? Or do we push Him aside, in order to pursue the desires of our will and our flesh? Do we walk in the ways that He has established for us, or according to the ways of the world, the flesh, and the devil? As we draw close to the end of Great Lent, as we draw nearer the great Feast of our Lord’s Pascha, let us reflect, and repent, and pray for mercy, and the grace of God, that we may show forth in our lives, in words and in deeds, that we also believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.

Prayer, Fasting, and Spiritual Warfare

(Mark 9:17-32) (Great Lent 4: St. John of the Cross)

We have now come to the end of the fourth week of Great Lent, to the fourth Sunday of Great Lent. By now, everyone has developed their routine of prayer and fasting – praying and fasting more that we had before this season started – right?

OK, so, maybe we’re not praying as much as we could, or should. Maybe we’ve broken the fast by eating something we shouldn’t have eaten; or maybe by eating too much of something that would otherwise be permitted. But still, we’re fasting and praying – right?

Let’s switch gears for a moment. Think about the sins you’ve confessed – or need to confess – and see how many are “repeats”; sins that we commit in thought, word, deed, or desire, over and over and over again. We all do this, of course, although the particular sin or sins that trip me up may not even be on your list at all. Now, please think about this: What is the connection between this situation of regularly recurring sins, and our poverty in prayer and fasting?

In the reading from the Gospel of St. Mark today, we meet a father with a son that is tormented by a demon. Among other things, the demon throws the boy into the fire, or into water, in an effort to destroy him, to end his life. The fathers tell us that the “fire” into which the boy is thrown can be understood to be anger, and the desires we have in this world; while “water” stands for the flood of worldly cares that sweep us away from the path to the Kingdom. The father is obviously helpless to deal with the situation; and, when he comes to the disciples to have them heal his boy, they are also unable to deal with the situation.

Isn’t this pretty much our situation as well? Don’t we find ourselves consumed by the fire of anger, or of lust, or of greed, or of some other passion that’s almost always on our list of sins to confess? Don’t we find ourselves swept away by the cares of this world, and carried along by the flood, against our will? We seem to be helpless to deal with the situation, no matter how many times we try to do battle with our sins and passions; and others, even the faithful in the Church, don’t seem to have any answers, either. Not only are we unable to help others; we are unable even to help ourselves.

We need to recognize that “this kind” only comes out by prayer and fasting. If we do not take the spiritual warfare seriously, and take up in deadly earnest the weapons of that warfare – prayer and fasting – we will continue to be defeated by our passions, stirred up, at least in part, by the demons who hate us, and the image of God in us, and so they try to defile that image, and to destroy us in body, soul, mind and spirit. Without real prayer and fasting, we will be as powerless as were the disciples in today’s Gospel reading.

Let’s be clear about prayer and fasting. We’re not talking about being super-scrupulous about keeping the rules of the fast; the secret is not in reading the labels! Neither are we referring to the length of our prayers. Neither prolonged fasting nor repetitive prayer will give us the power we lack. Prayer and fasting, in the deepest sense, mean a radical renunciation of self, and a concentration on developing trust in God, and humility before God and men. We must believe, and put this belief in action as trust, that God will be merciful to us. We must seek to know the will of God, and make that will our own, desiring nothing apart from the will of God, and desiring as well to do all that is pleasing to God and beneficial to the salvation of souls, both our own, and of others. When we place the fullness of our being into the hands of God the Father, we will then have the power to pray and fast; and so will have the power to cast out the demonic thoughts and words and deeds and desires that beset and defile us.

Brothers and sisters: We are called anew to a holy fast, to a time of prayer, and of preparation. In the days that remain to us before we celebrate the Pascha of our Lord, let us commit ourselves, and one another, and all our life to Christ our God; beseeching Him to establish in us true prayer, and true fasting, that we may be set free from the sins that defile us: to the glory of God, and the salvation of souls.

On the Annunciation

(Luke 1:24-38) (The Annunciation of our Most Holy Lady Theotokos)

In the canon for the Feast of the Annunciation, which is read during the Matins service, there is an interesting dialog that takes place, based upon the Gospel account read today. The archangel Gabriel appears to the Theotokos, and salutes her; and she questions him about the report he has just given her, asking, how can this be, since I have not known a man? There is another element to the dialog that isn’t as familiar as the main theme of the Annunciation; but it is instructive for us, and so worth noting. It is this: As her conversation with the angel proceeds, she, more than once, questions the angel, not so much in disbelief about what has been said, but being very careful not to be deceived by this mysterious visitor, as the serpent had deceived our first-Mother, Eve. She takes care to try to be certain that what is taking place is, indeed, from God, and not some trick of the devil.

In this, the Theotokos provides us with another excellent example of who we are to be, and how we are to live. There is no doubt in my mind that every Christian would do well to cultivate, both by mental decision, and by beseeching God to make it so, the response that our blessed Lady Theotokos made to the archangel’s announcement: Behold, I am the hand-maiden of the Lord. If each of us were to strive to make this our own response; to say, “I am the servant of the Lord” – and do everything in our power to actually live as such, we would be transformed; our families would be transformed; the Church would be transformed; and the world would be transformed. A good servant does not seek anything apart from what pleases his or her master; and desire to do only that which is pleasing to the master. As the servants of God, we would not seek glory for ourselves, but to give glory to God; and we would do all we could to live without sin, as our sins separate us from our Master. When we live according to the virtues – when we live according to the life of Christ given to us in our baptism, empowered by our chrismation, and fed and strengthened and enlightened by the Holy Mysteries of our Lord’s Body and Blood, we do what is pleasing to God. It is our hope to hear, when our time in this world is completed, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Enter thou into the joy of the Lord.”

We would also do well to take to heart the caution displayed by our Lady Theotokos. We need to be on guard against being deceived; and, above all, by our own hearts, and by our own flesh. It is all too easy for us to convince ourselves that the thing that we want is essential to our happiness, or even to our survival. Most of us have done this enough times to know that it isn’t true – but that doesn’t stop the temptations, the feelings, the desires. It is all too easy for us to convince ourselves that what we did wasn’t really a “sin” – we can find lots of reasons why we “should” have done what we did; or, we think we can explain it in such a way that God will overlook it, and let us off the hook. To be sure, the enemy of our salvation is right there as well, trying to lead us into that way of thinking and feeling and acting. But if guarded the thoughts and desires of our hearts more closely, we’d be much harder to deceive.

Brothers and sisters! We celebrate today she who, by the surrender of herself – a total surrender, of body, mind and spirit – to the will of God made it possible for Christ to enter the world for our salvation. Let us seek God’s grace to join her in His service, becoming faithful servants devoted to our Lord with the fullness of our being. Let us question every thought, feeling, word, or desire that is not uttered as a servant of God; and let us join our blessed Lady Theotokos as well in bearing Christ into the world: for the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Our Destination is the Cross

(Mark 8:34b-9:1) (Great Lent 3: The Veneration of the Holy Cross)

This is the third Sunday of Great Lent. We are now halfway to Palm Sunday, and the start of Holy Week. Pascha is now four weeks away. Of course, before we get to Pascha, before we come to the Resurrection, we must go past Golgotha, and the three crosses atop that hill outside the city wall…

It is at this time in our journey through Great Lent that we celebrate the Veneration of the Holy Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. In part, this is meant to encourage us, as we make this journey, which is sometimes difficult, sometimes demanding, sometimes depressing. After all, is there anyone here who hasn’t fallen away from their resolve to keep a holy Lent, and to struggle to overcome the sins and weaknesses that all too often carry us away? We’ve eaten something we should have avoided; or we’ve watched some television, or listened to some music, or read a book, or played a game that we should have set aside… We haven’t prayed as much, fasted as much, been as forgiving, been as patient, been as generous, been as chaste, as we’d meant to be, as we know we could have been, and could have done, if we’d have just put our minds to it, and hunkered down, and gotten to work… Well, there’s still time to get back on track; there’s still time to profit from the holy Lent.

So, on the one hand, we venerate the Cross as a way of encouragement. In another way, by venerating the Cross at this time, we are saying that the Cross is our destination. What’s the point of keeping Great Lent if we do not intend to follow our Lord Jesus Christ? The answer is, there isn’t any point, except in obedience to what our Lord said in today’s Gospel reading: “Anyone who wants to be with Me, let him deny himself, and take up his Cross, and follow Me.” Our Lord came into the world to save sinners. He emptied Himself of the glory that was His from before the creation of the world, in order to become the Servant of God, and to accomplish our salvation. He knew that this path went to Golgotha, and to the Cross, and the grave: and He went willingly, obedient to the command of God the Father. By His death, He has destroyed death – the death that rightly is ours, for He did not sin, as we have all sinned. By His Resurrection, we have life, His life; a life that is without death, without end.

So the Cross is our destination. We have a sinner to save – ourselves. To save our souls, we deny ourselves. What do we give up? Above all, we give up the “right” to indulge ourselves in whatever pleasures and whatever passions please our flesh. This is why we fast: to teach our flesh that it is not in charge, that it is not allowed to have whatever it wants, whenever it wants it. This is why we give: to teach our flesh that what this world has to offer is nothing compared to the riches that await us in the Kingdom of heaven; and so we set ourselves free from the attachments to the things of this world by using a portion of what God has given us of material wealth on behalf of the needs of others. This is why we struggle against our sins, and the passions from which our sins arise: to follow our Lord Jesus in living a life that is holy, and righteous, and without sin; and, when we fail, repenting, and confessing, and dedicating ourselves once more to be faithful in the battle.

The Cross is our destination, because we intend to put to death there our flesh, so that we might live in a way that is pleasing to the God Who loves us. And the Cross is our destination because the world does not, and will not, understand why we seek to leave its ways behind, and instead try to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God. And so the world hates us; and tries to distract and delay and deter and defeat us; and if we still will not turn aside from the way of God, the way to His kingdom, the world will try to kill us: to quench our spirit, or even to take our life from us. After all, they put our Lord Jesus to death on the Cross; and there’s plenty of wood left in the world…

Brothers and sisters! Pascha, the sweet and joyous celebration of our deliverance from sin and death draws ever nearer. While all may partake of that glorious feast, how much greater is the joy of those who have struggled! The Cross is now before us. Let us endeavor to take up our Cross and deny ourselves, and follow our Lord Jesus in the life, which He is calling us to live. Let us pray, and fast, and give alms, and struggle to bring to life within ourselves the virtues that replace the passions and our sins; to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

We Have Found Him!

(John 1:43-51) (Sunday of Orthodoxy)

They had no idea what was in store for them, but that didn’t stop them. They would experience miracles; and martyrdom. They would catch a glimpse of the glories of heaven; and be all too familiar with the suffering that is a form of hell on earth. They had no idea what was in store for them; they knew almost nothing at all. But when our Lord Jesus said, “Follow me,” they did; and Philip even ran to Nathanael and said, “We have found Him!”

Can you hear it? The excitement in his voice? “We have found Him of whom Moses mentioned in the Law, and the prophets foretold.” There’s a joy there, too, as we can hear when the righteous Symeon says, “Lord, now lettest Thou thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word; for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation.” Symeon had been watching and waiting, and recognized the Lord when He was placed in the arms of this righteous man. Philip was waiting for the Holy One of Israel, and studying the Scriptures; and recognized the Lord when he was called to follow.

The seven holy hieromartyrs of Cherson, who suffered for Christ at the beginning of the fourth century, knew the excitement. Only one of them died peacefully. One, Basil, was bound by the feet and dragged behind a chariot through the streets of the city until he died, because he had raised the son of a prince to life. One was beheaded. Three were beaten to death with rods and stones. The last, in response to a request of the pagan Scythians, put on his Episcopal vestments and entered a fiery furnace, remaining in it for about an hour, emerging unharmed, without even a scorch-mark on his clothing. This caused those who had challenged him to praise God, and be baptized; and this provoked others among the pagans to drown the miracle-working bishop. But all endured, were willing to endure, because they, too, had found Him.

The faithful who suffered at the hands of the iconoclasts in the eighth century knew the excitement. They endured suffering and death while continuing to reverence the holy ones – our Lord Jesus Christ, our most blessed and glorious Lady Theotokos, and all the saints – depicted on the icons that had been outlawed and banned. Why did they suffer? Why did they bother? Because they had found Him Who is greater than any earthly treasure, and worth any burden – our Lord Jesus Christ.

Things really aren’t much different today. It’s still possible to catch the occasional glimpse of heaven, if you’re willing to do what is necessary. Of course, one has to work hard to avoid seeing the suffering that continues to this very day and hour – hell on earth hasn’t gotten any better. There are still miracles; and even martyrdom for the faithful. Our Lord still calls people to follow Him.

So here’s the question for you. Do you know the excitement? Have you been called? Have you found Him?

Brothers and sisters! Great Lent has begun. We have entered into the time of cleansing, so that we who are bearers of the image of God but have hidden that image by the stain of our sins might be restored once more to the love of God. We have started the time of preparation, by prayer and fasting, alms-giving and struggle, to be able to see our Lord risen from the dead. Why bother to fast? Why bother to pray? Why bother to give up TV and movies, and popular music, and talk radio, and the like? You can’t do it for long, if you don’t hear the excitement; you won’t do it for long, if you have not found Him..

May God grant to each of us to hear Him call us to follow. May we, too, be like Philip, filled with excitement; and may we also draw others to follow, to the glory of God, and the salvation of souls.