Sunday, June 26, 2005

The Sunday of All Saints

(Matthew 10:32-33, 37-38; 19:27-30) (First Sunday after Pentecost)

Last Sunday, you’ll recall, was the Feast of Pentecost, the day we celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples of the Lord. Filled with the Holy Spirit, they went forth to bear witness to the good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ. In what they said, and in what they did, they told everyone about our deliverance from death and our being set free from sins by the death and resurrection of our Lord. This was not without consequences. Many were mocked and ridiculed; others were tortured; and some were put to death for bearing witness to Christ. James, the brother of our Lord, was thrown to his death from the top of the temple in Jerusalem. Peter and Paul were crucified. Some were beheaded; some were sawn in two; killed by wild beasts; burned alive; drowned; in fact, if there was a particularly horrible way to kill someone, there is probably a martyr whose life was ended in that way. The fathers tell us that it is only by the power of the Holy Spirit that the martyrs and confessors could remain faithful to our Lord when such tortures were brought to bear against them.

Today, the first Sunday after Pentecost, is the day we, the Church, celebrate all the saints of the Church. Some of their pictures hang on the walls around us; a “hall of fame” in which they are remembered for the way in which they show us the life of Christ. Again, some are martyrs; some, confessors; some died peacefully, but showed a form of holiness worthy of our consideration. They are saints: people from whom shines forth to us the light of Christ in them, the hope of glory. We honor them this day; and the best way to honor them is to follow their example, to strive to be like them, to show forth Christ in our own lives.

What makes the saints different from us? It isn’t something in their nature, for we are made of the same “stuff,” the same substance, the same human nature. It isn’t in the power they have received on high; for, like them, “we have seen the true light, we have received the heavenly Spirit, we have found the true faith…” In our baptism, our nature was transformed, just as theirs was transformed; they received the life of the risen Lord, and so did we. When we were chrismated, we received the same Holy Spirit they received. So, what makes the saints different from us? Why are we not more like them?

The answer is simple: we don’t love God they way they love God. We love our sins; and we love ourselves more than we love God. When we’re faced with a choice between doing what we want, and what God wants, more often than not, we chose to please ourselves – even if this means that we sin. You know, it’s hard to fight against our passions when we so often indulge them; and, if we don’t struggle against our passions, we can never hope to defeat them, we can never hope to transform them, so that what we think and do and say and want will be pleasing to God, rather than offensive. What can we do?

The answer is simple: we begin by following the life of the Church. We pray; and, in praying, cultivate within ourselves a desire to draw closer to God, to enter into His presence, to pour out our hearts to Him, and to allow Him to guide us. We fast; to cleanse ourselves by denial, and to teach ourselves that we can do without certain foods, so that we can learn as well to do without our sins. We give, so that we can be free from the things that attach us to this world. And we struggle, fighting against our sins and passions, overcoming the evil within us by doing what is good and right, calling upon our Lord to help us.

Brothers and sisters: We may not be called to suffer, or be tortured, or to become martyrs for the Orthodox faith. Our suffering, our torture, our martyrdom may be nothing more than to struggle against the passions and desires that lead us into sin. But we must not be confused. We are called to walk the same path the saints walked during the time of their life on earth. We are called to be transformed into vessels bearing the light, and life, and love of Christ. We have been given the life of Christ; we have received the heavenly Spirit. Let us resolve ourselves to embrace these gifts, and to work to show them forth to the world, to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

O ye saints of God, pray to God for us!

Monday, June 20, 2005

Pascha, Pentecost, and "Ordinary Time"

(John 7:37-52; 8:12) (Pentecost)

Today is the great day of the Feast of Pentecost, on which we celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples of the Lord, gathered together, undoubtedly for prayer and worship; and the establishment of the Church, the ark of our salvation. Today is also one of the turning points in our liturgical year. In a way, we said, “goodbye” to Pascha at the Feast of the Ascension, ten days ago. At that time, we cease the Paschal greeting, “Christ is risen – Truly, He is risen!” In our worship services, we stopped the three-fold singing of “Christ is risen from the dead…” with that feast; and yet, things were still incomplete, because we did not resume the use of the prayer, “O Heavenly King…” until the Vigil service for Pentecost, last night. Thus, in a way, Pascha is completed: Our Lord Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, has ascended in both His human and divine natures to be at the right hand of God the Father; but has also kept His promise not to leave us as orphans – He has sent us the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, to lead us into all truth, and to teach us, and to empower us in living the life we received in our baptism, the very life of Christ Himself, risen from the dead. As every Sunday is a remembrance of, and participation in, the Pascha of our Lord, so, too, is every Sunday a remembrance of, and participation in, the day of Pentecost.

The day of Pentecost marks a transition in the liturgical cycle of the Church. In a way, this corresponds to our own lives as believers in Christ. We begin as Christ is born in us, enlightening us, and calling us into communion with Him – the feast of our Lord’s Incarnation at Nativity, and His Theophany. This is quite often accompanied by an awakened sense of our sins, and our captivity to our passions, and the need to be set free from death – celebrated in the Pascha of our Lord. Now, realizing that the power of death has been broken, and no longer has a hold on us, we are empowered to go forth and live the life of Christ in every aspect of our being, and in every place we go. Pentecost is our empowering to go forth and bear witness to the power of the risen Lord dwelling in us: praying and fasting and giving and struggling to overcome our sins and passions, living the life we find modeled for us in the Church by the saints. The season after Pentecost symbolizes the time between our Lord’s Resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit – Pascha and Pentecost – and the great and terrible Day of Judgment that is yet to come. It is, in a way, “ordinary time”; and the time in which we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.”

Brothers and sisters! We have seen the true light; we have received the heavenly Spirit; we have found the truth faith. Let us worship the undivided Trinity, Who has saved us, by humbly asking God to empower us to bear witness to His Son by our repentance and turning from the ways of sin and death, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

We Have Work to Do

(John 17:1-13) (Seventh Sunday of Pascha)

You will recall that Adam, after the Fall of our first parents, was condemned to laboring to make the ground bring forth the food we need in order to live, eating his bread by the sweat of his brow; while Eve’s labor was also transformed, so that the act of giving birth would be painful and difficult. One of the consequences of the Fall is that we must work to obtain the things we need.

This is not news to the Orthodox Christian – at least, it shouldn’t be! We know that we must work: above all, to labor for the salvation of our souls. This includes, of course, the work we must do to obtain what is needed to keep us alive: food, clothing, shelter, and so on. There are, of course, dangers on that path: we might, if we are not careful, get so caught up in the pursuit of the things needed for our earthly life that we forget that the earthly life is temporary; and that we should really focus our attention on acquiring what we need for the life in eternity, the life that does not end. Among other reasons, this is why we need to hear, on a regular basis, that we must always be careful to devote ourselves to the work that benefits us for life without end: prayer, and fasting, and giving of alms, and struggling against our sinful passions.

In the Epistle reading today, St. Paul speaks to the Church, and outlines another dimension of the work we must do: to preserve and protect the Truth given to us by and in the Church. He warns us that the Church will be attacked by “wolves” – those from without who will seek to destroy the Church. He also warns about the arising of false teachers within the Church, leading astray many with perverse doctrines and practices. This means that part of our labors must include knowing the true teachings of the Church; and being on guard to watch for attempts to deviate from the Path that we have been given. How will you know that what is being taught is false if you have never bothered to study the truth? And there is always something more for us to learn; so, this task of ours never really comes to an end. It is because of this task, the declaration of the truth against false teachings that would lead the faithful into pagan lives, that the 318 Fathers of the Church met at the Council of Nicaea in 325, to speak out against the heresy taught by Arius, a priest of the Church. The Symbol of Faith we recite each Sunday has its beginning in the proclamations of that Council; and it is part of our task to know the truth contained therein, and to follow and practice that way of life. We celebrate them on this day; but the best way to remember them and give thanks for their labors is to be faithful in living the life and faith we share in common with them.

Among the ends for keeping the Orthodox way of life is that of being “one”; which is a part of the High Priestly prayer offered for us by our Lord Jesus Christ, heard, in part, in the Gospel reading today. He prays to His Father that we might be one, as our Lord Jesus Christ and His Father are one. As we strive to live the life of Christ implanted in us by our baptism, empowered by the Holy Spirit, sustained by partaking of Holy Communion, and expressed in prayer and fasting and giving and struggle, and above all by loving and caring for each other – all of which qualify as work! – we are helping ourselves and each other to live as one. Not only that: we become an example to those outside, who do not, now, know the truth; who have not yet found the path that leads from earth to heaven. As we work to live the way we should, we are a witness and example to them; and those who are seeking will follow, and so find salvation for their souls. This witness and example are part of our work, a part of the labors appointed for us: to build the Church, the Body of Christ.

Brothers and sisters: we have work to do! We have a Church to build. It’s more than the building (although we have that important responsibility as well); it is gathering the people who will meet in and fill the building; the people who build the Body of Christ. Let us rouse ourselves from our slumbers, and leave behind being lazy, and get to work, saving our souls, in order to be witnesses of Christ, to the glory of God, and the salvation of the world.

The Healing of the Man Born Blind

(John 9:1-38) (Sixth Sunday of Pascha)

In the epistle reading today, the jailer, after the earthquake had set free from their restraints all the prisoners in his charge, asks Paul and Silas a question that each of us would do well to ponder: “What must I do to be saved?” He is told, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.” The man born blind also believed that Jesus is the Son of God; he believed, and worshipped Him. Who are we like? Do we resemble the blind man, or the jailer? Or are we more like the parents of the man born blind, who spoke, not from faith, but from fear of the Jews; or perhaps even like the Pharisees, whose denial of Christ was made in the most pious of terms, as they said, “We know that God spoke to Moses, but we don’t know where this guy comes from.” (OK, so I paraphrased it a little bit!)

Now, we might say, “Well, it took a miraculous healing to convince the man born blind; and a miraculous earthquake to convince the jailer; but nothing like that has ever happened to me!” And there’s no doubt but that, in our society, to be open and honest about our faith is to run the risk of being ridiculed; our culture moves us towards being like the blind man’s parents, who were afraid of being put out of the synagogue – which means being ostracized from their society – if they were to even suggest that perhaps Jesus was the Messiah. How, then, can we have faith, which is necessary for us if we wish to be saved?

I wish that I had a simple answer to this question to give you, but I don’t. I think I’ve seen some miracles – people who have been healed of disease after prayer and the laying on of hands; but nothing like the healing of someone born blind. And I’m such a child of our culture that, even with what I’ve seen, I can’t stop my mind from wondering whether there wasn’t an explanation for what happened that doesn’t require belief in a miracle. I’ve had prayers answered, for things both great and small; and yet a part of my mind says, “Maybe it was just random chance”; or, “Maybe it would have happened anyway.” I’m also sure that I have been delivered from dangerous situations with the help of God, and my guardian angel – but I can’t offer you any proof of these things; so why should anyone believe these things?

Sometimes, we can better say what we believe by starting with what we don’t believe; what, to put it in its $5 term, we call, the “apophatic way of knowing.” I don’t believe that our existence is merely the result of random chance. I don’t believe that life came into being or evolved without the guiding intelligence and purpose of a Creator; because if these things are true, there is no meaning or purpose to life; and there is no reason to restrain any impulse or to deny any desire, if, after our life is at an end, we cease completely to exist. I don’t believe that love is merely the product of biological urges. I don’t believe that the character traits that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom are merely accidental, or simply the result of the pressures of society to conform and keep order. I do believe instead that these are the product of our being made in the image of God; and that the love we so desire to share in life arises from our connection to God, Who, above all, is a God of love: for, without love, there in no mercy, no patience, and no forgiveness; and there are no miracles – and if being loved, despite all that is wicked and wrong and wretched in ourselves, is not a miracle, then I don’t know what a miracle is.

We are told, in the epistle to the Hebrews, that, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” The man born blind had faith – he hoped that the Messiah would come; and He did come, and the blind man met Him, and was healed. The jailer had faith – he saw the miracle, and, without meeting the One responsible, put his trust and hope in Him. We don’t have to know in any provable way that Jesus Christ is the Son of God; it is enough for us to have hope, and trust the testimony of the Church, and of her saints, who bear witness to Him with their very lives. In this way, by faith, we, too, can believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and our Savior and Lord; and so have hope that we, too, will be saved.

Christ is risen!

Water and Thirst: The Sunday of the Samaritan Woman

(John 4:4-42) (Fifth Sunday of Pascha)

Living in the desert, we are all aware (or should be aware) of the importance of having enough water to drink. Not only is water scarce – that’s what makes it a desert! – but the heat of the desert also increases the need for drinking plenty of water. If you are outside for any reason during the summer, and especially if you’re doing some type of work, you will get thirsty! When that happens, there’s nothing to compare with a drink of cool water.

The woman who meets our Lord Jesus at the well has come there during the heat of the day to obtain water. Our Lord asks her to draw water from the well for Him to drink; and uses this as a way to gently instruct her to her spiritual needs. He begins with her bodily thirst, to show her, from what she knows, a deeper truth she needs to know. He says of the well, “Whoever drinks of this water shall thirst again; but whosoever drinks of the water which I shall give him shall never thirst.”

“Water” here refers to the Holy Spirit, and especially to the power of the Holy Spirit to cleanse, as in washing with water; and to refresh, as in the drink of cool water when we are hot and thirsty. As water makes a garden or an orchard more lush and productive, so, too, does the Holy Spirit to the soul that is willing to be “watered.” As someone with a well that is deep never lacks water, and so is never thirsty, the soul that is watered by the Holy Spirit does not thirst: that is, such a soul is not touched by despondency, and is not touched by the plots and plans of the evil one, for the water quenches the fiery darts of the evil one.

Material thirst is quenched by material water; spiritual thirst, by spiritual water, the water of the Holy Spirit. We need both forms of water to stay alive. Material water must be replenished; we drink water every day (unless prevented). If we don’t, we will weaken, and then die. Spiritual water must also be replenished, and we need to drink of it every day. If we don’t, we will weaken, and we will die.

But wait: Doesn’t our Lord say that the water He shall give shall be a well springing up to everlasting life? Doesn’t this refer to something that is permanent?

Yes: but just as a spring of material water, which flows without ceasing, can become polluted, or even be stopped up by our actions, such as filling the spring with stones, so, too, is it possible for us to receive this life-giving spring in ourselves, only to pollute its waters with our sins, and to stop it up by the hardening of our hearts. To have this water remain in us, flowing pure and sweet, we must turn from the earthly life and be transformed by the life we learn in the Church: the life of prayer, and fasting, and alms-giving, and struggle; the life of repentance and confession; a life of loving and caring for others with the patience and love and mercy of God. When we pray and fast and repent and confess, we keep the water pure and unpolluted; and by loving and caring for others, we keep the water flowing. This is because, when all is said and done, the water of this life-giving spring in our soul is the love of God; and that water is not meant for ourselves alone, but that we might learn to increase the flow of this water, and so become a source of blessing and refreshment to everyone around us.

Brothers and sisters! God’s love for us is a ever-flowing river, great and mighty. Let us repent and confess, and fast and pray, that we might be faithful servants of God, and receive within ourselves this water of everlasting life. Let us also love and care for each other, and so be sources of comfort and refreshment to all who are made in the image of God, to the glory of His name, and the salvation of our souls.

Christ is risen!