Sunday, August 28, 2005

Death and the Dormition

(10th Sunday after Pentecost) (The Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos)

Here’s a news flash: Unless the Lord returns before it happens, we are all, one day, going to die. Our life in this world will come to an end. We all know this, of course; but we don’t always live as we should in the light of this knowledge. The Fathers tell us that this thought should always be uppermost in our minds, and that it should guide every thought, every word, every deed.

Today the Church celebrates the Dormition of our Lady Theotokos; the day she “fell asleep” in the Lord, the day she departed from this life – the day she died. As we can be instructed by her life, we can also be instructed by her departing from this life. After the Crucifixion of her Son, she lived with the apostle John, to whose care He had given her. She rejoiced in the apostles, and often went to pray at the places that had been the location of significant events in the life and ministry of our Lord. Chief among these were the Mount of Olives, and Golgotha. In her old age, her prayers, especially in these two places, were to be released from this life. These prayers however, also included the fervent request that, when her soul and body were parted, that she be spared the darkness and its terrors and punishment; and that she might not encounter the power of Satan, but be delivered from the accusations brought against her.

This should make us stop and think. If the one who gave birth to our Lord Jesus Christ, Who broke the gates of hell and trampled down death by death felt the need to pray for such protection, what about us, who are sinners? If she, whom we say is “…without corruption” – that is, without sin – “gavest birth to God the Word,” needed to pray for deliverance, what about us, who are sinners? In the same humility which, at the time of the Annunciation, led her to proclaim herself as the handmaiden of the Lord, at the time of her death, she did not put any value upon the role she had fulfilled as the Birth-giver of God, but instead entrusted herself to the mercy of God, and not in her works. She was mindful of death; she took no pleasure in this world, but desired instead the world to come; she prepared herself for the day of her departure from this life; and she prayed for mercy.

Can we do any less than our glorious Lady Theotokos? We, too, must be mindful of death. We should remember that the life in this world is temporary, and so not allow ourselves to be attached to any of its pleasures. We should prepare ourselves for the great and terrible Day of Judgment, and repent, and do all that is within our power to do the will of God, and turn away from the passions and the weakness and wickedness of our flesh. We should do all that is within our power to be faithful in prayer, and in fasting, in giving alms, and in struggling to acquire the godly virtues, if only to prepare for the day of our death; and we should always pray for God’s mercy, especially at the time of death: for ourselves, for those whom we love, for all Orthodox Christians, and for all who are made in the image of God.

Brother and sisters, called to be saints: Let us commit ourselves, and one another, and all our life, into Christ our God. Let us follow the example of the life and prayers of our most holy, most pure, most blessed, glorious Lady Theotokos and Ever-virgin Mary. Let us be mindful of death, and be instructed by her Dormition, so that we also will prepare ourselves for that day; to the glory of God, and the salvation of souls.

Most Holy Theotokos, save us!

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

We Are Also in the Boat

(9th Sunday after Pentecost) (August 21, 2005)

Today’s reading from the Gospel according to St. Matthew is a familiar story. Having miraculously fed five thousand men, as well as women and children, with five loaves and two fish, our Lord sends His disciples ahead by boat, while He goes by Himself to a mountaintop to pray. As night falls, the boat, in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, is being tossed by wind and waves. In the fourth watch, our Lord comes to His disciples, walking on the water; but they mistake Him for a spirit, not recognizing Him – hardly surprising, given that He is walking on the water! He calls to encourage them; and St. Peter, filled with excitement, says, “Lord, if You will, command me to come to you on the water.” Our Lord says, “Come, “ and St. Peter steps out of the boat and walks on the water – at least, while his attention is fixed on the Lord. As soon as he turns his attention to the action of wind and waves, he begins to sink, and cries out for the Lord to save him. He does so, while commenting, “O ye of little faith, why did you doubt?” The disciples worship Him when He enters the boat, for they recognize that He is, indeed, the Son of God.

That’s a dramatic story, with very vivid images. I recall one summer many years ago, boating with friends up on Canyon Lake, on the Verde River. It’s a calm, quiet lake; or, it was until a strong thunderstorm developed; and, as the wind grew stronger, the surface of the lake was stirred up, and soon we were facing waves of two to three feet in height as we raced back to the dock ahead of the storm. I can appreciate what the disciples must have been experiencing, out on a much larger body of water for a longer period of time, and at night. In particular, imagine what might have been going through the minds of those who were not experienced sailors; and Peter and Andrew and James and John, all experienced fishermen, must have been busy trying to keep the boat safe and on course. You can’t earn your living on the water, as fishermen do, without knowing of friends and colleagues lost by shipwreck and storm, washed overboard, and drowned. To me, this makes Peter’s act of getting out of the boat all that more significant. He had to know the risks involved, and yet his love for the Lord, and his faith in Him – and Peter did have faith, or else he could never have tried to step out of the boat – overcome his fears; at least, for a moment.

On one level, this story reveals the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, the master of the earthly realm, able even to walk on water. It would probably help us to remember that we are also disciples, followers of the Lord. This means that we are also in the boat.

The fathers tell us that one way we can understand this story is to see that the boat in which the disciples are traveling is the world; while the waves are our passions, troubled by the winds, the actions of the evil spirits, the demons; and the night stands for our ignorance. Unlike the disciples in the story, we have Christ, the Light of the world, dwelling in us; and yet every time we choose to follow our passions, our sinful desires, instead of the ways of God, we blind ourselves to the Light, and choose to dwell in darkness. Because we do not seek the light as we should – by prayer, and fasting, by giving alms, and by struggling to overcome our passions – we are ignorant, and we do not always recognize our Lord when He draws near to us. As a result, we do not take the step of faith that would lead us to become more than who we are, and that would show forth Christ in our lives.

Brothers and sisters, called to be saints: Do you have faith? Do you believe? Is Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God, Who has died in our place, and risen from the dead, trampling down death by death? If we truly believe that we are loved by God, and that He has saved us, and lives in us, and that He has given us power to be transformed more and more into His likeness, let us live in such a way that we show this belief, this trust, this faith, not only in what we say, but also in what we do. Let us pray; let us fast; let us give; and let us labor to replace our passions with the God-pleasing virtues. As we do so, we will find our thoughts and desires turning to Him, instead of clinging to the world; and we will be able to walk on the waves, no matter how great the storm – to the glory of God, and the salvation of souls.

"His Face Did Shine as the Sun"

(The Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ) (August 19, 2005)

“His face did shine as the sun.” Anyone who drives here in the Valley of the Sun has experienced driving east in the morning, or west in the evening, with the sun low on the horizon, and the bright light shining into your eyes. Yet the light of the sun is dim in comparison with the uncreated light of the glory of God, which Peter and James and John beheld on Mount Tabor when our Lord Jesus Christ was transfigured in glory, making His face shine as the sun, and His clothing to be white as the light.

The theme of light occurs many times in the Holy Scriptures. Moses had to veil his face when he left the presence of God, for, without the veil, his face would shine with the light it received from being in the presence of God. St. John speaks of Christ as the light that enlightens every man. Our Lord Himself told us, “You are the light of the world”; and then instructs us, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father Who is in heaven.”

The uncreated light of the glory of God, which properly belongs to the Son of God, was veiled in human flesh when our Lord became incarnate for our salvation. As Christ now dwells in us, so, too, does the light of His glory. This is what enlightens our minds, making it possible for us to see the truth, and the way in which we are to walk, so as to serve God in a pleasing manner. But when we cling to our sinful ways, when we prefer our passions, and the world, to the godly way of life, we shut our eyes to the light that is meant to guide us; we try to cover the light with the filth of our sins. Brothers and sisters, this should not be.

The fathers tell us that only those who are worthy are able to climb the mountain with the Lord, as did Peter and James and John; and it is only after we have climbed the mountain that we are worthy of the Divine vision. We begin to climb as we repent of our sins, and confess them, and seek the mercy and help of God for the transformation of our lives. As we pray, and fast, and give alms, and struggle against the habits of our passions, and labor to acquire the godly virtues, we climb still higher; until, by the grace of God, we have become bearers of Christ. Then, we may behold Him in His glory; and then, we may shine forth with the same, and so draw others nearer to His light, and to their salvation.

Brothers and sisters, called to be saints: Our Lord Jesus Christ is willing and able to raise up those who love Him, and who have faith in Him that fills them with zeal. Let us repent, and confess; let us labor, and follow the Orthodox way of life, that we also may ascend the mount of Transfiguration, and allow the Light that dwells in us to shine, so that we may glorify our Father in heaven, and be His servants in the salvation of souls.

Our Task as Orthodox Christians

(8th Sunday after Pentecost) (August 14, 2005)

What is our task as Orthodox Christians? Among other things, we are called to be saints. That is, we are called to show forth Christ in our lives. When people see us, they should see our Lord Jesus Christ. To the extent that we faithfully follow the Orthodox way of life – of prayer, and fasting, of giving, and struggling against our sins and our weaknesses, as we do our part in the transformation of our being, we grow in our ability to show others the truth of Christ in us. When we indulge our sins and weaknesses and passions, we hide the light of Christ under the “bushel” of our flesh. When we look like everybody else, and they can’t see a difference in us, we have failed to show forth Christ in our lives. At times like that, we need to remember what we are called to do, and how we are meant to live.

The first reading from the Gospel of St. Matthew tells us of the feeding of the five thousand. Notice that, in the story, the disciples act as servants, distributing the food, and then gathering together what remains. It is our Lord who feeds the people, with the help of the disciples. Later, after the Lord Jesus has risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, after the Holy Spirit has come, as He had promised, the disciples do what our Lord had done. They direct the feeding of the people; in some cases, with food for their bodies; in others, with food for their souls – and, above all, in the bread and wine that are blessed to become the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. They have help in these tasks – bishops, and priests, and deacons; and all who are followers of our Lord Jesus Christ. Their ministry continues to this day. We have the apostolic teaching to guide us; and we have the structure of the Church, and her servants, to provide us with the grace of God that comes to us through the Holy Mysteries. We are meant to take this rich bounty not only for ourselves, but into the world at large as well, as the disciples took what they had received, and distributed it among the five thousand. We are meant to be in the midst of the multitude, to feed them in their needs, both in body and in soul. To do this, and especially to feed those who, while having enough (and more than enough) for their bodies, are spiritually starving – a very real concern in this land, where we have access to such material wealth – to feed them in their spirit, we must be at work to be transformed, so that they can better see Christ in us, and so come to understand, and desire, that they can, and must, obtain the same.

We must also be aware that this comes at a price. We must take up our Cross, and follow the Lord. This means both faithfully laboring to live the life of our Lord Jesus Christ, and accepting that many will not approve of this; many will even wish to cause us to suffer, or put us to death, because we seek to grow closer to Christ, and make Him known to all the world. If the world did not hesitate to put Him to death to get Him out of their midst, what will they be willing to do to us? Laugh at us? Take advantage of us? Cause us to suffer in body, mind, and spirit? Put us to death?

Ultimately, none of these things matter. Even death, the reality of which causes such terror in our culture, is not to be feared; for Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death – and our treasures are not found here in this earthly life, but in the life of the world to come, in the heavenly dominions of our Lord. If we seek to preserve our life in this world’s terms, we will lose our life in the world to come; but if we draw near to Christ, He will draw near to us – and we will have the hope of life without end in His presence; and this, too, is something we can offer to the world at large.

Brothers and sisters, called to be saints: Let us be faithful servants of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us pray, and fast, and give alms, and labor to replace our passions with the godly virtues which are their counterparts. Let us make ourselves, in word and in deed, bearers of Christ, and feed the spiritually hungry with His presence in their midst through us – and those who are physically hungry with our alms. Let us take up the Cross of the Orthodox way of life and faith, and give no thought to the threats of this world; for it is by the Cross of Christ we are saved – and, through us, if we are faithful, five thousand can be fed; five thousand can be saved.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Healing the Blind and the Mute

(7th Sunday after Pentecost) (August 7, 2005)

Have you ever seen, or known, someone who was blind, and had their vision restored to them? Have you ever known someone who was unable to speak and recovered the ability to do so without effort or therapy? I can’t say that I have ever seen such a thing, or known anyone of whom this can be said.

At the end of today’s Gospel reading, we hear that our Lord Jesus Christ, having given sight to two blind men, and the ability to speak to a man who was mute, went about all the land, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and healing every sickness and disease among the people. This is a frequent theme of our Lord’s ministry; and it occurs as well in the life of the Church – which is to say, in the lives of many of the faithful. We shouldn’t be surprised. After all, our Lord told His disciples at the Last Supper that they would do the things He had done, and more, because He was departing, but He would send the Holy Spirit to them, so that they could do what He had done. In the “Acts of the Apostles,” we hear of people being healed by St. Peter and St. John, and by St. Paul; some are healed by the touch of the handkerchief of an apostle – and even by the touch of a shadow! Why don’t we see these kinds of healings taking place today?

Many Evangelical Protestants will say that this is because these miraculous healings were meant to assist the early Church in its proclamation of the Gospel; but that this time came to an end with the close of the apostolic period of the Church. In that part of the Protestant spectrum that is called “charismatic,” the response is that, because God does not change, the Holy Spirit is, indeed, present and active, and so expects to see – and perform – such healings today. The Orthodox position falls somewhere in between. We would agree that many of the hallmarks of the apostolic period – the time when the Church was led by the apostles themselves, before their repose – are not meant for today. But we also know that the saints, across time and space, have often been blessed with the power to heal the sick – although not in the way that the charismatics practice. No, our answer to the question of why such healings do not take place today is that we are not the people – the saints – we are meant to be. This shouldn’t surprise anyone; for, after all, how can we expect to do what our Lord did, when we are not laboring to make real in ourselves the life He has given us – His life, risen from the dead? How can we expect to find in ourselves, or in the Church, the power to heal, when we are not seeking to acquire the Holy Spirit? If we do not seek the kingdom of God, and the way to enter into it, why should we think that we will be able to manifest the signs of the kingdom, such as giving sight to the blind, or speech to the dumb?

The saints set themselves apart from us precisely because they did labor to bring into the reality of their lives the life of our risen Lord. They did leave behind the kingdom of this world, and seek to enter the kingdom of God, by prayer, and fasting, and the giving of alms, and the giving of themselves; and by struggling to replace their passions with the virtues, and to overcome their sins with a holy life: replacing anger and pride with patience and humility, lust with chastity, greed with generosity, gluttony with fasting and self-denial. Having been baptized into Christ, they put on Christ. They were transformed by acquiring the Holy Spirit through faith in God, and devotion in prayer and the way of life in the Orthodox Church. They grew deeper and stronger in the image, and after the likeness of God – and, by their holy way of living, and the power of God active in them, they proclaim to all who have eyes to see and ears to hear, the coming of the kingdom of God, in which the sick and the suffering shall be healed and comforted and made whole.

Brothers and sisters, called to be saints: We have a job to do. We are meant to declare the good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ. We are meant to preach the coming of the kingdom, and the return of the King. We speak of these things both in our words, and in the testimony of our lives. Each of us needs to consider what message we give by the quality of our lives. Do others see the presence of God in us? Or do they see only the ways of the world?