Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Dwelling Place of God

(The Entry of the Theotokos)

Today, we celebrate the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple. There are two remarkable aspects to this feast. The first is that she was taken by Zacharias, the high priest, into the holy of holies, which the high priest alone entered, and that only once a year, on the Day of Atonement. The second is that she then dwelt in the temple for the next nine years, taking part in all the services conducted there. The hymns of the Vigil service tell us much about these events: among other things, they tell us that, although she was but three years old when these things took place, she was well advanced in her spirit. By God’s grace, she was ready to enter into the life that would prepare her to be the dwelling place of God Incarnate, our Lord Jesus Christ.

We know that God is everywhere. Yet He commanded that a “dwelling place” be built for Him, and gave Moses explicit instructions on the tabernacle that was to be built for the people He had delivered from slavery in Egypt as they made their way across the desert to the land He had promised them. This tabernacle, a series of tents, with the Holy of holies in the center, was taken down each time the people moved; and rebuilt when they stopped – rebuilt in the center of the encampment. In this way, the people of God would know that He was in their midst, dwelling with them. Later, this tabernacle would be replaced with a temple in the city of Jerusalem, built by King Solomon; and later rebuilt – which was the temple into which the most holy Theotokos entered. The establishment of a “house of God” as a place of prayer, and a place for us to gather to worship God, continues among His people to this day. Indeed, we are gathered in such a place right now.

Yet, while this temple, and all such temples, are the dwelling-place of God, which we are privileged to enter, the place where God truly desires to dwell is within each of us, at the center of our being, in our heart of hearts. Have we built that temple for Him? Have we made it a place to which we go to meet with Him? Have we established a house of prayer for Him in the depths of our being? Our bodies, St. Paul tells us, are temples of the Holy Spirit – but whose face do we show in our daily lives? The face of God? Or that of His adversary?

Brothers and sisters, as we rejoice that she whose womb became the dwelling-place of God, bringing Him into our midst, let us also seek to enter into the temple of our hearts as she entered into the temple in Jerusalem; that we also might be transformed, and bear Christ in our lives, that He may be in our midst, and be present through us to all in the world, to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Savior, save us!

"Who is My Neighbor?"

(25th Sunday after Pentecost) (Luke 10:25-37)

We’re all familiar with the Parable of the Good Samaritan, read today from the Gospel according to St. Luke. A “certain lawyer,” we are told, approached the Lord Jesus, and asks Him how he may inherit eternal life. Our Lord replies by asking the lawyer to interpret the Law of Moses. The answer to the question is the Summary of the Law: Each of us is to love the Lord with all our heart and soul and mind and strength; and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. When the lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” the Lord replies with the parable.

We hear about a traveler who is attacked by thieves, beaten, and left for dead by the roadside. We hear of how a priest and a Levite both pass by without offering assistance. We hear about a Samaritan who sets aside the differences that separate him and his people from the Jews to reach out to help another person in need. He shows compassion, takes the time, spends the money needed to help the traveler recover. As such, when the parable is done, and our Lord asks the lawyer who is the traveler’s neighbor, he gives the answer we are all meant to know: Every person is our neighbor; and we are meant to be merciful to everyone.

Everyone? Everyone. The person set upon by thieves, even today. We should understand that, in addition to those who steal money and valuables today, there are persons and circumstances that deprive people of time and abilities: those who suffer from drug use and alcohol; those who suffer from other forms of addiction – and computers and the internet can, indeed, be addictive. We should also understand that “thieves” is also a reference to the demons, who steal from us our virtue by leading us into temptation, and wound us unto death by leading us down into sin. Having lured us from the protecting presence of God, the demons strip us naked and cause us to suffer in body, mind, and spirit. No one is immune; nor is anyone strong enough on his own to resist.

The ways in which we can show mercy are infinite, but all derive from what we see the Good Samaritan do when he encounters the suffering traveler. Those people you see with the cardboard signs at street corners and freeway interchanges? You can give them some spare change, or a dollar; as the Samaritan paid for the traveler’s lodging. There are soup kitchens and food banks that help to feed the hungry. There are opportunities to help the needy with their electric bills, and other organizations that operate emergency shelters, and help provide housing. In these ways, we help pour wine, and soothing oil, on the wounds that others in our midst are suffering.

More than that, we can take time: time to be with people who suffer. Look around you now. Do you think that everyone here is safe from suffering? How about your families? Are any suffering there? The people you work with; the people who live next door – your neighbors – are any lonely? Anyone afraid? If you don’t know, how can you help? You don’t have to be nosy; but we must begin by asking if we even care.

The Nativity Fast is underway. We are preparing to celebrate the birth of our Lord, Who came to us to save us, and lived in our midst as we also live. He is coming again, to judge the world – and how we live will determine how we live in eternity. Brothers and sisters, let us remember the love that brought Him to us at Nativity; and let us show forth that love, so that many more will know Him when He comes again; to the glory of God, and the salvation of souls.

"Who has Touched Me with Faith?"

(24th Sunday after Pentecost) (Luke 8:41-56)

“Who has touched me with faith? For I perceive that power has gone out from me.”

Our Lord asks this question of His disciples as he is going to the house of Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue, whose daughter, twelve years old is dying. Jairus has not touched Him with faith, although he did come and kneel before the Lord to beseech His help. Jairus could easily say, as we hear elsewhere in the Gospels, “Lord I believe – help Thou my unbelief.” He has hope, born of a desperate love for his daughter’s life – but he does not believe; not yet.

Rather, it is a woman who has touched the Lord, causing power to go out from Him. She had suffered for twelve years, and the doctors who attended her had been unable to bring her relief, or to end the bleeding that plagued her. She drew near with faith, thinking, “If I can but simply touch the hem of His garment, I shall be made whole.” She did; and she was. Her faith, as our Lord tells her, made her whole.

“Who has touched me with faith? For I perceive that power has gone out from me.”

Our Lord asks this question of us, who are His disciples, as He is going on His way to the “house” that is the center of our being. We are dying: for we all sin, and our sins are a confirmation of the reality of our death – unless we are found to be living in Christ Jesus our Lord. If we drew near to Him with faith, and met Him in our hearts, and showed Him in our lives, we would be like the woman with an issue of blood. We would be set free from our suffering; we would be made whole. But rather, we are like Jairus: we have hope, but we do not yet believe.

Why is it that we do not believe? Maybe it’s because we haven’t suffered. Our material lives are far more plentiful, much more blessed, than almost anyone who has ever lived at any previous time. Maybe it’s because we don’t recognize our suffering, being able to be comforted and eased by the many distractions and entertainments of everyday life. Maybe it’s because we deny that we are suffering; or maybe we have become blind to the reality that suffering is meant to draw us near to God in faith. But instead of doing so, we seek medical treatment, and therapy, and vitamins; and drugs, and alcohol, and other things that deaden our minds and so, for a moment, reduce our pain. It’s not that medicine and therapy and treatment are bad – they’re not. These are actually gifts from a loving God. But we must not allow ourselves to be distracted from the direction of our lives, either by the pleasures of this world, or the desires of our flesh. If we are not trying to draw near to the Lord, we are headed for death – and even our hope may be in vain.

Brothers and sisters: Let us not be faithless, but believing. Let us not deny the reality of our sins; and let us not be distracted by the pleasures of this world. Let us, by prayer and fasting, by giving, by struggle; by loving and forgiving, by patience and virtue, seek to draw near to our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us beseech Him to save us, and draw near with faith; that His power may come out from Him to us, to the glory of God, and the salvation of souls.

“Who has touched me with faith?” Please, Lord, in Thy mercy, may we touch Thee with faith.

Living as Angels on the Earth

(23rd Sunday after Pentecost)(Luke 8:26-39; Luke 10:16-21)

In the first reading today from the Gospel according to St. Luke, our Lord casts a legion of demons from a man. We should note that, in the Roman army, there were from 3000 to 6000 soldiers in a “legion.” Perhaps there were that many demons possessing the man our Lord encountered; but even if there were fewer, there were still very many present, causing the man great suffering and affliction.

In the second reading from the Gospel according to St. Luke, the seventy disciples returned, rejoicing. They had been sent by the Lord to preach the Gospel, and He had given them power also to heal the sick as a sign that His kingdom was truly at hand. They rejoiced that even the devils had to obey them when they gave commands in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our Lord confirmed their power over the enemy of our salvation; but He admonished them not to rejoice in the authority they had, but rather that their names were written in the book of Heaven. Even so, the power and authority He granted remain for His disciples; and we are His disciples if we also walk in His ways, and call upon His name.

Today we are celebrating our parish feast day, for the Holy Archangels. Angels are the messengers and servants of God, and they are also our guardians. We should remember that the demons are nothing more – and nothing less – than fallen angels, who defy God, rather than serving Him; and who seek to degrade and destroy all God loves, all that is precious to Him.

We also need to remember that we are called to live as angels on the earth. However, all too often, we live as animals, instead of fulfilling the high calling we have as beings made in the image, and after the likeness, of God. All too often, we devote ourselves to satisfying the desires of the flesh, living according to the ways of the world, turning our backs on the ways of God and the ways of His kingdom. At such times, it is entirely likely that we are following the influence, not of our angel guardian, but rather of a demon, or demons, who seek to obtain our destruction by leading us away from God.

Do we really want to join the demons in their rebellion against God? Do we really want to emulate them in their rejection of God, and all His ways? We who have been baptized and chrismated have been given the wondrous gift of the life of our Lord Jesus Christ, risen from the dead. We have the opportunity to commune with God, as did Adam and Eve before their act of disobedience caused them to be cast out of the Garden, sent from the intimate presence of God. We have the opportunity to fulfill our destiny and emulate God – and we choose to cast this aside, and instead cover ourselves with the filth of our sins, and to be like the demons?

Brothers and sisters, called to live as angels on the earth: Let us repent of our sins, and confess them to God, asking for His mercy and forgiveness. Let us call upon God to strengthen and guide us, that we may no longer give ourselves over to satisfying our sins, but rather to live a holy life, showing forth the life of Christ in us. Let us remember that, in Christ, we have power over the demons; and let us use that power, to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Holy Archangels, pray to God for us!

The Reality of Death and the Judgment to Come

(22nd Sunday after Pentecost) (Luke 16:19-31)

Yesterday, Fr. George and I spent some time with a family at a local hospice. We went to minister to the family of a woman, 38 years old, who will die in a few days, maybe even in a few hours. A wife, mother of two children, she was attended by her brother and her mother during the time we were there. There is no doubt that she is greatly loved; and no doubt but that she will be greatly missed.

We don’t like to experience such things; we don’t like to hear about them, or to think about them. We fear death; and all the more so because we usually don’t know the day and hour that has been appointed for our departing from this life. As a result, we tend to delude ourselves, acting as if we will live forever. We will – but not in the way we usually conceive. But our denial of the reality of death means that we do not prepare ourselves as we should for what comes after we depart this life.

The reading today from the Gospel according to St. Luke gives us a great deal of information; and it should spur us on to correct this error on our part. We see that there are two possible destinations for us after we leave this existence. Some will go to a place of blessedness; while others will go to a place of torment. The destination is based on the choices we make in this life, and the way we live. Live rightly, and we have the hope of entering a blessed repose. Fail to live as we should, and the chance of torment in the world to come is very, very real.

Today we remember the martyrs Zenobius and Zenobia, brother and sister, who departed into glory toward the end of the third century – really, 15 years or so before the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which ended the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. But these holy martyrs, faithful Christians, who used the wealth they inherited to help those in need around them, were not afraid of death – they remembered well the victory song of Pascha: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tomb, bestowing life. When arrested and threatened with torture and death, and urged to deny Christ, so that he could preserve his life, Zenobius said, “To live without Christ is death; and to die for Christ is to enter life without end.” His sister Zenobia shared his commitment, and so shared his fate.

We sin because we fear death. Because we fear death, we cling to this world, and its pleasures. Because we fear death, we cling to this life, because we think this is all we will have to enjoy. We need to learn to let go of this life; we need to learn to prepare ourselves for the time when we will leave this world to come more fully into the presence of God. We need to make Christ our greatest desire, and to let go of everything that keeps us from a life with Him.
How do we do this? How do we let go of this world? How do we prepare for death?

We do so by living the life of the Church. In prayer, we draw closer to God, and His Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. When we draw closer to God, we experience the richness of His love more fully – and so allow Him to become more to us, while the world fades away. Then we add fasting, which teaches us to turn away from worldly pleasures, and to subdue the habits we have developed for pleasing our flesh, by which we are bound to this world. In giving alms and making offerings, and by tithing, we set ourselves free from our possessions, and allow the love of God to flow to and through us to those in need in the world with us. We struggle against our sins and passions; and we labor to see God’s image in everyone, and respond to them as God responds to us: with patience, and forgiveness, with mercy, and love. Charity can only arise from love; and charity is key to preparing for death.

What would it have been to the rich man if, at just one of the parties he hosted for his friends, he had taken a portion of what was being served, and instructed his servant to take that portion to Lazarus at his front gate? He would never have missed what was sent away; but how much it would have meant to Lazarus!

We may not have a beggar at our front door, or at the end of our street, but we all have seen them on street corners and freeway on-ramps. Even if you’ve never seen one of these, you know they are out there, at the food banks, at the soup kitchens, at the shelters. The sick and the suffering and the dying are all around us; we need but lift up our attention away from ourselves, and we will see the many opportunities we have to show charity to others.

If you knew you were going to die tonight, would you live differently? If you knew you would be taken out tomorrow at noon, and be put to death, or were going to receive a lethal injection at sunset next Sunday, wouldn’t you act to prepare yourself for death? We will all die; and we will all have to give an account for ourselves. Brothers and sisters, let us embrace the grace-filled life of the Church, so that we may set ourselves free from this world; and let us love and care for one another, and those in need, so that the love of Jesus Christ might embrace us all, to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Sowing the Seed of Faith

(21st Sunday after Pentecost) (Luke 8:5-15)

In the reading today from the Gospel according to St. Luke, we hear the Parable of the Sower, who went out into the field to sow his seed. From our Lord’s explanation, we know that the seed is the word of God, and that the field is the world. But who is the one sowing the seed?

Today is the feast of the Apostle James, the brother of the Lord. Technically, of course, because he is the son of Joseph, the betrothed of the Theotokos, he is the “stepbrother” of the Lord; but the language and culture of that time did not make such distinctions. They lived in the same household, and called the same man, “Father”; and when Joseph took Mary and the infant Jesus into Egypt to escape from Herod the Great, James went with them. He was attentive to the teachings and practices of our Lord, and was counted as one of the seventy apostles. James became the bishop of Jerusalem, a ministry he carried for thirty years. He was an effective preacher and leader, and an ascetic, living on bread and water, and frequently keeping all-night vigils in prayer on his knees – so much so that it is said that the skin on his knees was as tough as that on the knees of a camel. Even the Jews had respect for his sense of justice, calling him, “James the Just.”

It was at the time of Pascha that James was taken by the Jews to the roof of the Temple in Jerusalem. There he was ordered to proclaim to those who had come to celebrate our Lord’s Resurrection from the dead a denial of all that the Church holds true. Instead, he spoke with boldness to proclaim Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, the promised Messiah. He declared the truth of our Lord’s Resurrection, and His Ascension into glory in heaven. For this, he was thrown from the roof of the Temple; but, although he was badly injured, this did not kill him. As he prayed that his tormentors might be forgiven, he was stoned, meeting his death when a vicious blow to the head fractured his skull. Thus, he died a martyr’s death.

It is fair to say that the holy Apostle James died as he lived: sowing the seed of faith. That is, in a way, what an apostle does. Apostles bring the proclamation of the Christian faith to peoples who had not yet heard the good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ. To be an apostle, then, is to be a “missionary” – bringing knowledge of the faith, and the Orthodox way of life, to those who do not know about our Lord Jesus Christ, and what He has done for us, and how to participate in the blessing He desires to give to all mankind.

Most of us are never going to be an apostle. We will never, in all probability, be traveling to distant lands to preach the Gospel. But, on the other hand, it isn’t necessary to go far away to be a missionary – because right outside the door to the Church is a city, and a nation, full of people who do not know about Jesus Christ, and Pascha, and the ascetic way of life by which each of us can be transformed from who we are into more fully showing forth the life of Christ in us. Many of them will think they know Who Jesus is, and about prayer, and fasting, and giving – and maybe even about struggling to live a holy life. This makes the task a bit more difficult; but even so, we have a job to do; we have a message to proclaim. We have seeds to plant.

Does your life say to others that you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God? Does what you say, and what you do, show the righteousness and holiness of Christ living in you? Do others know of the mercy and patience and love of God through you? If not, why not?

There is no shortage of those who hate our Lord Jesus Christ in the world today; nor is there any shortage of those who need to know of God’s love for mankind, manifested to us in Jesus Christ. May God grant to each of us the grace and strength we need to allow His Son our Lord to be made known to all the world through us; to the glory of God, and the salvation of souls.

Holy Apostle of Christ, James, pray to God for us!

Monday, October 30, 2006

Martyr Longinus the Centurion

(20th Sunday after Pentecost) (Matthew 27:33-54)

At the time of our Lord’s crucifixion, death, and resurrection, the city-state of Rome had been in existence for over seven hundred years. From humble beginnings, it had extended its power and authority to both the east and the west, ruling vast territories across Europe, northern Africa, and into the Middle East, conquering a multitude of peoples, including the Greeks, incorporating what had once been the empire of Alexander the Great into their own. The Mediterranean Sea was a Roman pond. All this was possible because of the military power of Rome.

Roman soldiers, the instruments of power, tended to respect only power, obey only strength. If they showed any respect at all to the gods that were worshipped in the Empire they built, it was to the gods of power and might, such as Mars, the god of war. They would have had nothing but contempt for the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ, if they bothered to listen at all. In a world where might makes right, the strong take what they want, and the weak are powerless to stop them. The Sermon on the Mount would have baffled them, if they did not reject it outright with scorn.

The Romans had brought crucifixion to conquered lands as a way of asserting their power. It was a terrible and painfully slow way to die, and it was meant to arouse fear among those left alive, so that they would think twice before breaking the law, or challenging the power of Rome. But a detachment of Roman guards that had been ordered to attend a crucifixion one day, to prevent the followers of one of those being put to death suddenly experienced a power beyond anything they had imagined, and from an unlikely source: a man nailed to a cross; who, as He died, was met with the darkening of the sun, and the quaking of the earth, and the splitting of rocks. These terrible events tore from their lips the proclamation that the One Who had died was truly the Son of God. It was an amazing moment of testimony from these battle-hardened and contemptuous men, who only a few hours before had made sport of their victim, scourging Him and beating Him and insulting Him in word and deed.

The religious leaders of the Jews, who had engineered His death, fearing that His followers would steal His body, and so claim that He had fulfilled His promise top rise from the dead, went to Pilate to request troops to guard His tomb. So these men were sent to the garden in which our Lord’s body was laid to rest. Summoned as word of His resurrection was spreading, they gave an account of what had happened; and were offered large amounts of money to say that His disciples had come and had taken away His body. Most of the soldiers – who considered themselves to be grossly underpaid – accepted the bribe; but one did not. He was the centurion who had commanded the detachment. His name was Longinus. He gave up his command, and was baptized, becoming now a servant of the One Whose power he had seen on that day, Whom he had declared to be truly the Son of God. He adopted a life of prayer and fasting, and told again and again his story of having been there when the Lord was crucified, helping others to come to the faith as he had done. His testimony angered the Jews, who sought to kill him; and when Pilate sent soldiers to behead him, he met them on the road, and led them to his house, without them knowing that he was the man they sought. As they slept, he spent the night preparing for his death; and revealed himself to the soldiers in the morning. Embarrassed, they did not want to carry out their orders; but he, as a centurion, compelled them to do so, and he was beheaded, along with two other soldiers who had also been baptized with him. His head was brought to Pilate, who gave it to the Jews. They, in turn, threw his head onto a dung-heap outside the city. Many years later, a widow who had lost her sight was told in a vision to go to Jerusalem and to find the head of the martyr in that pile of garbage. She did so, digging with her hands through the filth, until she found the head of the holy martyr – and at that moment, her sight was restored. She took the head of St. Longinus to her home, washed it, and kept it as a precious relic.

We are more like the Romans than we realize. Like them, we also worship power. For most of us, it is the power of this world, or the power of our flesh, or the power of our pride that we worship. Oh, we may say that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, as did St. Peter in his confession; and we may say with the holy martyr Longinus that, truly, He is the Son of God – but what do we say with our lives? If we truly believe that Jesus is the Son of God, shouldn’t that change the way we live? Shouldn’t that affect how we deal with others? Shouldn’t that affect how we think and act and speak and feel? Think about it – because, in the end, we either stand with those who had nothing but contempt for what our Lord said and did, and mocked Him even as He died for us; or we stand with those who gave all they have, including their lives, to love and serve the risen Lord.

Which camp would you rather be in?

Monday, October 23, 2006

Living Amid Serpents and Scorpions

(19th Sunday after Pentecost) (Luke 10:16-21)

We live in troubled times. I don’t suppose it has ever been easy to be an Orthodox Christian; but there is no denying that our Church and faith are under attack today. Many of you have heard of the Orthodox priest who was beheaded in Iraq by Moslems who objected to a statement by the Pope. You may also know that there have been monastics and lay people who have been killed for the same reason, and others have been beaten, and churches have been burned.

Sometimes, the attacks come from those who say they are Orthodox. For example, there are some who are opposed to the efforts to end the division in the Russian Orthodox Church, and who attack the process, and vilify our hierarchs, and threaten to leave for another jurisdiction. They claim to be pursuing the Truth – but at times the truth appears to be a weapon used to bludgeon those who do not agree.

Here in the desert, we know something about snakes and scorpions. Our Lord’s words to His disciples from one of today’s readings from the Gospel according to St. Luke, in which He says that He has given His disciples power over “serpents and scorpions and all the power of the enemy,” speaks of familiar images. We tend to picture these things literally; and, while there is no doubt that God’s power is sufficient to deliver His servants from snakebite and scorpion sting, that doesn’t mean we should not exercise great care when we encounter such creatures! Rather, we are to understand that “serpents” and “scorpions” refer to the demons that crawl about in our midst. “Serpents” are the demons that strike openly, leading to sins such as murder and fornication; while “scorpions” are those who sting secretly, who lead us into sin under the guise of doing what is good. The attacks of outsiders on our Church and faith are works of the “serpents”; while the “scorpions” cause the attacks that arise from among the brethren.

Those who are called by Christ’s name – the Christians – and who strive to walk in His way are His disciples – and we who are called to be His disciples have, or will be given when we turn aside from the ways of the world, the flesh, and the devil, and follow Him, the same power to trample on the serpents and scorpions – the demons – and over all the power of the enemy, Satan. What is this power? We can learn something of it by considering the attacks made against the Church and faith.

Those who attack from without – the serpents – are attacking the Truth. That is, they do not accept the proclamation we make when we recite the Symbol of Faith, or when we say that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and our Lord and Savior. They have another vision, another understanding, and cannot tolerate the existence of any teaching that differs from their own. They seek to destroy the Truth, and those who proclaim Him – even if death and destruction are the means to achieve this end.

Those who attack from within – the scorpions – are more subtle, for they are not attacking the Truth; and at times even use the Truth in order to make their attacks. They set themselves out to be champions of the Truth; but more often than not, they have forgotten that the Truth, by itself, is not what we are to proclaim. There is a difference between speaking the truth, and speaking the truth in love – and we are called to the latter, not the former. Perhaps they have forgotten that we are to speak the truth in love. Perhaps they have forgotten that our Lord instructed us to love our enemies, to bless those who curse us, and to do good to those who hate us, and to pray for those who persecute us. Perhaps they have forgotten that our Lord said, as He was dying for us on the Cross, “Father, forgive them.” This is the power we have been given: the knowledge of the love of God in Jesus Christ, and that we are called to receive the same, and become like Him, Who left His place of glory in heaven to take on our nature, that we might be set free from the power of death, and the corruption of sin. We are called to receive the love of God in Jesus Christ, and become like Him, Who so loves us that He gave Himself for us as an offering and sacrifice to God. When we understand love in this way, then we are equipped to speak the truth, and live rightly – and then we will tread upon the serpent and the scorpion, and the lion and the dragon, and crush underfoot all the powers and works of the enemy.

Brothers and sisters, we live in troubled times. But let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid, for the Lord is with us – and we will know we are with Him when we, for love responding to the love of God in Jesus Christ, set aside all earthly cares, all attachments to the pleasures and pains and passion of this life, and follow Him. In that power, we will endure until the end – and no serpents or scorpions will separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Therefore, let us love one another, as Christ loves us, and gave Himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God – for the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Monday, October 16, 2006

The Power of the Sign of the Cross

(18th Sunday after Pentecost) (Luke 5:1-11)

St. Justina was born to parents who were pagans; her father was a pagan priest. Her search for the truth led her to visit the local churches, and, through them, came to accept Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior. In turn, she led her mother and father to faith as well, and all were baptized by the bishop of Antioch.

A pagan youth, attracted by St. Justina’s beauty, desired that she fall in love with him. When his advances were declined, he turned to a local magician, asking him to cast a spell on her to make her yield herself to him. The magician was the man who would become St. Cyprian. Cyprian invoked evil spirits, one after another, trying to inflame St. Justina to lust for the man who desired her, but she defeated every attempt by prayer and the sign of the Cross. By her victories, Cyprian came to see the power of God, and also came to the Orthodox faith, and was baptized. He became a priest, and then a bishop. Both St. Cyprian and St. Justina were later seized by the idolaters, sent to trial in Damascus, and tortured and beheaded in Nicomedia at the end of the third century.

Notice, if you will, the power of the sign of the Cross, which gave St. Justina victory over the demons. That same power is available to us who in faith yield ourselves to the Lord Jesus Christ, and identify ourselves with Him through the sign of the Cross. As such, we should not take such a powerful privilege lightly or disrespectfully. Let’s take a moment and consider what we are doing when we cross ourselves. First, there is the way we hold our fingers. We put the thumb and tips of the first two fingers together. This reminds us of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We lay the other two fingers against our palm, side by side – a reminder of the two Natures of our Lord Jesus Christ, human and divine joined together. When we cross ourselves, we begin by touching our forehead with the tips of the thumb and fingers held together. Then we lower our hand to touch our lower abdomen, around the area of our navel. Then we reach up to touch our right shoulder; and then reach across our body to touch our left shoulder. When we have done so, we make a bow. All of these movements should be made respectfully, with dignity, and not in a rushed manner. We should not wave our hand around in a rapid or flapping manner; and we should do our best, according to our mobility, to reach to lower abdomen and shoulders, and not fall short for the sake of convenience, or because of carelessness. We should not bow before we have finished the movement of our hands. Think of bowing before finishing as “breaking the plane” – which is, in effect, a breaking of the cross, breaking its power. Such carelessness pleases only the demons.

In addition to the power of the Cross to help us when we are tempted or troubled, notice also the power of a holy life. St. Justina was able, by God’s grace, to bring her parents to faith in Christ; to victory over the demons; to help win St. Cyprian from sorcery and idolatry to a holy life; and finally to come to a martyr’s reward. Think about it. By prayer, and fasting, and giving, and struggling; through love for Christ, and so loving those for whom He gave Himself, and through the power of the Cross, she led at least three other people to find salvation; one of whom became a leader of the Church, and a martyr as well. When we come to Christ, we acknowledge our need for His help and deliverance. When we make the sign of the Cross, we repeat this acknowledgement. In a way, we are saying, as St. Peter said to our Lord following the miraculous catch of fish, which we heard about today in the reading from the Gospel according to St. Luke, “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man.” What does our Lord tell him in reply? “Fear not. Henceforth, I will make you fishers of men.” So it was for St. Justina; and so it can be for us, as well.

Brothers and sisters, let us give thanks to God, Who is wondrous in His saints, for the life and testimony of the martyrs Cyprian and Justina. Let us follow their example, and dedicate our lives to God. Let us live a holy life, that our Lord may be glorified, and that He may be shown forth to the world through us, in the hope that others may also come to see Him as Lord and Savior, and so accept Him in their lives – to the glory of God, and the salvation of souls.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Protecting Veil of the Theotokos

(Protection of the Theotokos) (Luke 10:38-42, 11:27-28)

Yesterday was Friday, October 13th, a day of superstitious dread for many. Ironically, on Friday the 13th, the body of Fr. Amer Iskender was found in the city of Mosul, in Iraq. He had been kidnapped three days earlier. His captors demanded a ransom; and also demanded that his church – our Orthodox Church – issue an apology for the remarks made a few weeks ago by Pope Benedict XVI, in which he quoted a Byzantine emperor, Manuel II Paleologus, to describe Islam as a religion of violence and evil. Fr. Iskender’s family had agreed to pay the ransom; his parish, even before his kidnapping, had rejected the words of the Pope – yet his captors beheaded this servant of God, and left his body to be found by others. May God grant a blessed repose, and a place in His kingdom, for this priest, who has died a martyr’s death; and mercy to his family.

We live in dark times, and there is evil all around us. On this day in the year 911 – another ironic twist – the faithful were gathered for a Vigil in the Church of the Theotokos in Blachernae, a suburb of Constantinople. During the vigil, St. Andrew the fool-for-Christ saw the most holy Theotokos above the people, stretching out her veil as a covering over them to protect them. As she was doing so, she was surrounded by apostles, saints, martyrs, and virgins, and she was praying for the whole world.

As we try to come to grips with all the suffering and struggles of our day, we do well to remember that our blessed Lady Theotokos is constantly protecting the faithful by her prayers and presence, and we can call upon her help in times of distress. That is the purpose of today’s feast: to celebrate her appearance so long ago, and to remember that we have access to the same help and protection today, as she entreats her Son to save our souls, and to guide us in our lives. So when we feel threatened, or defeated – whether by circumstances such as our own suffering, or that of others, such as Fr. Amer and his family – let us call upon our Lord to save us, and flee to His blessed mother for her protection and comfort.

O most holy Theotokos, save us!

Monday, October 09, 2006

Persevering in Faith

(17th Sunday after Pentecost) (Matthew 15:21-28)

Today’s reading from the Gospel according to St. Matthew tells us of the Canaanite woman who came to our Lord seeking mercy because her daughter was possessed by a demon. At first, our Lord does not respond to her pleas. When the disciples intervene on her behalf, He tells them that He was sent only to the “lost sheep of Israel.” When she beseeches Him a second time, we hear the memorable exchange about taking the children’s bread and throwing it to the dogs; and how the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the table.

Everyone understands that being called a dog is an insult; yet the woman is not put off by rudeness or rejection. She is driven by what she hopes to obtain; and her faith that it is within our Lord’s power to grant her request overcomes the initial negative responses she hears. It is her perseverance in faith that finally obtains her desire; and it is her persistence in faith that our Lord desires His disciples to observe, and to practice.

What about us? How do we respond when we are confronted with the fact that, once again, we have sinned? Do we give up? Or do we persevere in faith, calling upon the Lord to have mercy? Do we start again, in prayer, and fasting, in giving from what God has entrusted to us? Do we keep watch over ourselves, what we see, and hear, and say, and do? Do we guard our hearts, and run to the Lord when we find ourselves once more traveling down the road of the world, the flesh, and the devil? Do we struggle to become the person who practices the virtue that opposes the sin that besets us? Do we confess our sins, and repent – and do we come to receive the Bread that is meant for us as the children of the kingdom, even as we realize that we are dogs, not worthy to receive the good gifts God has in store for us? For the bread and wine are here, and soon will be blessed by the grace of God to be the Body and Blood of His Son, our Lord – to strengthen and heal and help save all who come to receive Him in faith.

Brothers and sisters, what about us? Do you believe it is in the power of our Lord to save you? And do you act on that belief, and persist in living the life of Christ to the best of your ability? The Canaanite woman persisted in faith, and got the blessing she desired.

What about you?

Monday, October 02, 2006

The Burdens We Bear

(16th Sunday after Pentecost) (Mark 8:34b-9:1)

In the week just past, we celebrated the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. We do well to remember that our Lord took up His Cross on our behalf, and, by His death, trampled down death by death, setting us free from the power of death. The Cross is the sign of our Lord’s victory, and we put it everywhere to remind us of this. You see the Cross in the Church. You see the Cross in the icons. We put – or, at least, we should put – the Cross in our homes. Typically, we wear a cross that was blessed at the time of our baptism. We even make the sign of the Cross over ourselves, especially when we pray.

So, when we hear our Lord command us to take up our cross and follow Him, as was read today from the Gospel according to St. Mark, it should not be something new or strange to us. Our Lord bore His Cross to save us from death. We, in turn, are meant to bear the Cross so that He might be shown forth in our lives, even as we are being transformed into His likeness.

Our holy father Eumenius was no stranger to this task of bearing the Cross, and showing forth Christ in his life. He dealt with the burden of the wealth that was his by giving it all away to those who were in need; and he dealt with the burden of the desires of his flesh through strict fasting. Having healed himself, he was able to heal others as well, in body, mind, and spirit. The light of Christ shone forth from him, causing the people to choose him to be their bishop; and he cared for them with the love of Christ – for it was his love for Christ that caused him to take up the Cross, exchanging the heavy burden of the cares of this world for the yoke of service to God, which he found easy and light to bear.

How many of us find it difficult to bear the burdens of material possessions? How many of us find it laborious to labor to satisfy our flesh? The truth is, most of us live to satisfy our material being, and to acquire the material possessions and leisure in which to enjoy these things – and at the same time give little or no thought or labor to the satisfaction of the needs of our spirit, which can only be nurtured, and only put at ease, can only enter into rest by drawing nearer to God. We think that taking up the burden of the Cross – of a holy life – of prayer, and fasting, of giving, of struggling against our passions – we think that this is the heavy burden. We have not yet realized that it is trying to live in the world that drags us down, tires us out, bends and breaks and wearies us; and that the way of life we think is difficult, the way of life we learn in the Church, the way of life of loving God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and of loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, is actually the way of peace and joy and freedom from this world. We have it backwards; and we will never find rest for our souls until we leave behind the things and ways of this world, and take up our Cross, and follow our Lord.

Brothers and sisters, let us not delay, let us not put off the hour when we start to work for the transformation of our lives, so that the life of Christ may be seen in us, as it was seen in our venerable father Eumenius. Let us pledge anew our love for God, and dedicate ourselves once more to walking in His way. Let us commit ourselves, and one another, and all our life unto Christ our God; and take up our Cross, and follow Him: to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Guilty of Being Unfaithful

(15th Sunday after Pentecost) (John 8:3-11)

The final reading from the Gospel today is the account of the woman taken in adultery. She is brought before our Lord by the scribes and the Pharisees, who are as much interested in trying to destroy our Lord’s credibility as with the transgression of the woman who had sinned. If the Lord said that she should be executed according to the Law of Moses, they could accuse Him of being hard-hearted, and so drive a wedge between Him and the people who were drawn by His loving nature. If, on the other hand, He somehow excused her sin, they could accuse Him of rejecting the Law of Moses, and so claim He was an enemy of God. The Lord knew the trap they laid for Him, of course, and He goes to the heart of the matter: He says, “Let those who are without sin cast the first stone.” Of course, everyone was aware of their own sins, and how much they deserved to be punished for the same; and so they did not stone the woman, but departed. When He asked her who had condemned her, she replied, “No one”; and our Lord said, “Neither do I accuse you. Go, and sin no more.”

Every time we sin, we are not only guilty of our sin but, in a way, we, too, are guilty of adultery – spiritual adultery, if you will. Think about it. Adultery is the act of being unfaithful in the marriage relationship, in which husband and wife become one – and to be with another is an insult and an injury to that state of oneness. Now consider this: Aren’t we called to relationship with the Lord? Aren’t we meant to be one with Him? Yet every time we seek our own way, every time we seek pleasure or comfort or anything else from the world, we are being unfaithful to the One Who has called us to be His, having already made Himself ours by His Incarnation and by His Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. We are guilty of being unfaithful; and so we deserve to die.

Yet where are those who would condemn us? Our conscience tells us that we have sinned; and may God protect us against so deadening ourselves to our conscience that we no longer care about our sins, and the pangs of our conscience as a result. So we accuse ourselves; and the only other accuser who matters is Satan, the enemy of our salvation. He will accuse us of our sins at the time of judgment; and accuses us to ourselves now, to make us ashamed and unworthy, so that we might hide from God, as did Adam and Eve in Paradise, after they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. By these accusations, he tries to make us fear to enter the presence of God, and to drive us into despondency and despair.

At such times, we need to remember that our Lord does not, and will not, accuse or condemn us. It is His great desire to forgive us, that we might be restored to relationship with Him. If we confess our sins, and repent, He forgives us; and He strengthens us in the amendment of our lives, so that we can pursue His instruction to go and sin no more – knowing as He does, of course, that we will, in all probability, sin again. When we do, again, we have hope, and so repent and confess, and so go on with Him in the journey through life.

Our venerable mother Theodora was an adulteress, having done so because of a fortune-teller. She repented of her sin, cut her hair, put on men’s clothing, and entered a monastery under the name of “Theodore.” While there, she was falsely accused by a harlot of having had relations with her, and fathering a child. Driven out of the monastery, she lived in the desert for seven years, raising the harlot’s child as her own. The abbot then received her back, and she lived in the monastery for another two years, before departing this life. It was only then that the monks learned her secret; and when her husband learned, he, too, became a monk, living in the cell that had been hers. Among other things, we are meant to see that amendment of life is possible, by God’s grace, and by our living in an Orthodox manner: by confession, by repentance, and by an ascetic life: praying, fasting, giving, struggling, and, above all, living a life of love – not love as the world defines it, which was the doorway into her sin – but with the love that our Lord showed to the woman taken in adultery: forgiving and patient.

Brothers and sisters, we have been unfaithful, we have departed from our Lord in our sins. Let us return to Him, and repent, and seek His mercy and help, that, as was our venerable mother Theodora, we, too, may be transformed, and leave the world behind, to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Are You Worthy to Enter?

(14th Sunday after Pentecost) (Matthew 22:1-14)

When you came into the temple today, what were you thinking about? Did the thought that you were entering a holy place cross your mind? Did you give any thought to your sins, and ask whether you were worthy to enter into this holy place?

Today we celebrate the holy hieromartyr Babylas, and the holy prophet of God, Moses. You may remember that Moses, who led the people of God out f slavery in Egypt, across the Red Sea on dry land, to the mountain of God, where he received the tablets of stone on which God had written the Ten Commandments; who led the people through the desert for forty years, to the very boundary of the land God had promised to Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and to their children. But God did not allow Moses to enter into that land, because of his sin, because he disobeyed God at Meribah-Kadesh. We are speaking about Moses, the prophet of God. If he was unworthy to enter the promised land, who had been in the very presence of God, do we dare think of ourselves that we are worthy to enter His presence?

The holy hieromartyr Babylas the archbishop of Antioch. The pagan ruler of that land decided that he would enter the church; but Babylas, who was at prayer with the people in the church, met the ruler outside the doors, and would not allow him to enter, because the king was not a Christian. The king left, but ordered that Babylas be arrested and tortured. Three young boys, the hieromartyr’s spiritual children, who had stayed with the saint for love of him, were each beaten, the number of blows they received being determined by their age, and then they were beheaded. After their execution, St. Babylas, bound in chains, was also beheaded. They were all buried together. Later, the relics of St. Babylas were moved to the city of Daphne, and were buried in a small chapel, near a temple to Apollo, with a statue that foretold the future. When the Emperor Julian the Apostate came to consult the oracle of the temple about his planned war against Persia, the statue said it was impossible to prophesy, because of the dead buried nearby. The Emperor ordered the relics of St. Babylas to be exhumed, and returned to Antioch. When the relics were unearthed, fire fell from the heavens, destroying the temple to Apollo. Julian was defeated in his war, and met his death, ending his persecution of the Faith and the faithful. We must realize that, when we sin, and turn our backs on the Orthodox way of life, and turn our hearts to worldly things, we live as pagans, and we become apostates. If a pagan was denied entrance to the temple, and the actions of an apostate caused a pagan temple to be destroyed by the hand of God, do we who are sinners dare to come into this holy place, and into the very presence of God?

We are given instruction in this by the reading today from the Gospel according to St. Matthew. We are among those invited to the wedding feast of the Son of the King; but we must be clothed in the garment He provides for us, and not in the garment we make for ourselves. In this, we must understand that the garment He provides for us is the life of Christ, which we put on at the time of our baptism. It is a garment of purity, and a garment of honor; yet when we sin, we stain its purity, and we soil the honor with the filth of our lives. What is meant for our glory, we turn into filthy rags – and if this state of affairs does not change, we, like Moses, like the pagan king, will be denied entry into the promised land, and the presence of God. We will find ourselves cast into darkness, with weeping, and waling, and the gnashing of teeth.

What, then, are we to do? God, in His mercy, has provided for us a way to restore the garment of the life of Christ to purity and honor. We have the opportunity to repent of our sins, and to confess them to God. In return, He has promised us the forgiveness of our sins, and the removal of the wall that separates us from Him. When we confess and repent, and struggle against our sins, rather than giving ourselves over to them, He is with us, and helps us; and we grow more and more into the likeness of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in Whom is no sin, no shadow, no stain. And when we embrace, and live, the Orthodox way of life we gain victory over sin and death, victory over our weaknesses and wickedness, and are transformed into the image of God, and the likeness of Christ.

Brothers and sisters, while we have life, we are to have hope. While we yet live, we are to fight the good fight. Let us repent of our sins, giving thanks to God for His mercy, for His allowing us to come into His presence, and to receive His blessing. While we yet live, let us repent, and live the Orthodox life: praying and fasting, giving alms and offerings, struggling to overcome our passions, and sharing with each other the love of God – to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Monday, September 11, 2006

In a Blessed Falling Asleep...

(The Dormition of our Most Blessed Lady Theotokos and Ever-virgin Mary)

At the end of the funeral service in the Orthodox Church, and at the end of every pannikhida, which is derived from the funeral service, we hear intoned the prayer, "In a blessed falling asleep, grant, O Lord, eternal rest unto Thy departed servant..." In a way, we are asking that the person being remembered be granted the mercy that the most holy Lady Theotokos received at the time of her departing from this life. We would also do well to ask God for the same mercy in our own lives, and for such a falling asleep for ourselves when our time in this life comes to an end.

What lesson can we learn from the celebration of the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God, and from contemplation of the icon of the feast? It is as if we could say, "In a blessed falling asleep, O Theotokos, thou didst teach us not to fear death, but to put our trust in thy Son, Who has trampled down death by death, and upon those in the tomb, He has bestowed life."

The Fathers of our faith teach us that we should be ever-mindful of the truth of our departing this life, and coming into the presence of God. Let us, then, embrace the Orthodox way of life: of prayer, and fasting, of giving alms and offerings, of struggling to overcome our weaknesses and passions; loving God, and showing forth that love to one another, both among the company of the faithful, and to all those we meet in the world around us, who are also made in the image of God -- and let us follow the example of our blessed Lady, and trust in the love and mercy of God, to the glory of His name, and the salvation of our souls.

Most holy Theotokos, save us!

Laboring in the Vineyard: Defeating our Pride

(13th Sunday after Pentecost) (Matthew 21:33-42)

The Parable of the Vineyard, which is today’s reading from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, is the second of two parables taught by our Lord to the scribes and Pharisees when they confronted Him, questioning the source of His authority after He had driven the moneychangers out of the temple in Jerusalem. You’ll recall that He did not respond directly to their question, which was meant to either separate Him from His followers, or give them grounds to arrest Him for insurrection. He then gives two parables, based in vineyards. The first involves a father who asks his two sons to work in his vineyard. One says he will do so, but does not; while the other says he will not, but then repents, and goes to do as his father asked. The second parable is the one we heard read today.

Today we also commemorate the life of St. Moses the Black. An Ethiopian, he escaped from a life of slavery, and became a robber. His size and physical strength were such that the robbers made him their leader; but his conscience was suddenly awakened, and he repented of the crimes he had committed. He left the band of robbers, went to a monastery, and became a monk, entirely obedient to the rule of the monastery and to his spiritual father. Through asceticism, by fasting, by spending nights standing in prayer, and through serving others by hauling water for them from a distant well, he struggled for six years against lustful thoughts and desires, and was finally healed miraculously by his spiritual father, St. Isidore. Ordained a priest in his old age, he established a monastery. The monastery community grew to number 75 monks, as well as St. Moses. Foreseeing an attack by barbarians, he warned his brothers to flee to safety; but told one that he would not do so, for, having lived a life of violence, he would die by violence, and so he would stay at the monastery. He was killed, with six other monks, run through with a sword.

It is pride that leads us into all of our sins: to make promises that we do not keep, to take what has been entrusted to us by God to use in His service and use it for our own benefit, to consider ourselves entitled to what God has given – and so we become guilty of killing His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, Who was cast out of the vineyard and put to death on Golgotha, outside the city wall of Jerusalem. The Romans destroyed Jerusalem, His vineyard; and the ministry of His truth, which had been given to the Jews, was given instead to the apostles, and to their heirs, the bishops, and to all who teach the Orthodox faith. It is pride that makes us rebel against God; and we rebel every time we give ourselves over to our passions, every time we give ourselves over to our sins.

St. Moses knew the deadly power of pride. When a certain prince heard of the saint, and desired his counsel, St. Moses fled from his monastery. While fleeing, he unexpectedly came upon the prince and his party, who asked him where to find the cell of Abba Moses, not knowing that he was the very monk they sought. He replied, “What can he do for you? He is a foolish man, given to lying, and an unclean life.” The prince was astonished. When he arrived at the monastery, he asked for St. Moses, only to be told that he was not there. They then reported what had happened in their encounter with the monk on the road; and were astonished again, after giving a description of the monk, to learn that the monk who had spoken so harshly was, in fact, St. Moses himself. But, by God’s grace, this all gave great spiritual help to the prince, who then departed, rejoicing.

How different we would be if we could say of ourselves that we are foolish, and liars, and living unclean lives! Where, then, would there be any room for our pride? If we could admit our folly, and lying, and uncleanness, we could not then consider ourselves to be better than others; nor could we think we had any merit before God. To defeat our pride would be a great step, indeed, toward the salvation of our souls; and would change us, and how we deal with others.

Brothers and sisters, beloved by God! If we live in our pride, we are like those to whom the vineyard was entrusted, assaulting and ignoring the prophets, and killing the Son. All we can expect, if we will not swallow our pride, and repent, and confess, is destruction, and eternal damnation. But if we will fast, if we will pray, if we will give generously from what God has given us, and if we will defeat our pride and humble ourselves, following the example of our venerable father, St. Moses the Black, then we can be of help to others, even as we live to the glory of God, and to the salvation of our souls.

As Long As We Are Rich...

(12th Sunday after Pentecost) (Matthew 19:16-26)

Today we celebrate the life and repose of the Apostle Thaddaeus. He was not one of the twelve apostles. He was one of the seventy, who were sent, two by two, by our Lord to the cities and towns He intended to visit. They were sent to heal the sick, and to proclaim to the people that the kingdom of God has come to them. On their return, they reported, with rejoicing, that even the demons were subject to them by the power of the Name of our Lord. After His resurrection and Ascension, our Lord sent Thaddaeus to the court of King Abgar, to whom the Holy Napkin that bore the icon of our Lord’s face had been sent, to heal him of his leprosy. Only a small spot of leprosy remained on the king’s face; and when the apostle baptized him, even that was cleansed. The king had the apostle preach to the people; and when they saw their king had been healed, and heard of our Lord Jesus Christ, they put away their idols and embraced the Orthodox faith. The holy apostle would also preach the Gospel of our salvation across Syria and Phoenicia before departing to his reward in heaven.

Each of us has a similar opportunity. We can be of service by proclaiming the good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ. With words, and with the very character of our lives, we can make a statement to those around us, preaching with our lives the power of our Lord Jesus Christ to deliver those who turn to Him from the things which hold them in this life, and to bring them to a new life in Him, a life that will not end with death, as does the worldly life we are so inclined to hold on to, even as it slips away.

The reading from the Gospel according to St. Matthew gives us a powerful instruction in how we can make a statement to the world around us, if we are willing to receive it. I say, if we are willing, because it is not an easy one to accept – at least, not in our culture, for it directly opposes a central value of our culture. Our Lord tells His disciples – and that includes us, if we are His faithful followers – it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Obviously, such a thing is impossible – and the Fathers tell us how to understand why this is so.

As long as we are rich – which is to say, we have more than we need – while others do not even have the barest necessities of life, it is not possible for us to enter the kingdom of heaven. Have you ever stopped to consider this? We all have so much – food, clothing, a place to live, the means to travel, comforts and distractions and entertainments… And our culture teaches us to want more, to get more things, to seek more pleasures, and so to work harder, or to use credit to buy what we can’t afford, and to convert what we want into being something we need, so that we can justify our desires.

Our Orthodox faith teaches us that we should view the abundance with which we have been blessed not as the “just reward” for our labors, but rather as a bounty that God, in His mercy, has entrusted to us, so that we may provide not only for our own needs, but for others as well. This is the comfort the disciples receive when they ask our Lord, “Who, then, can be saved?” They did not ask this because they were rich, for they were not wealthy in material things. Our Lord tells them that salvation by our efforts alone is impossible; but that, for God, all things are possible. And so the fathers tell us that the mere act of beginning to turn away from our greed, and to begin to discipline our flesh with regard to denying it what it wants – which we do by turning to God, and adopting the Orthodox way of life – we are responding to God, Who will bless us and help us to reduce what we think we need to be happy, and successful, and fulfilled. By God’s grace, if we seek it, our eyes are opened to the excesses of our own lives, and to the needs of others around us, and to the way in which we can employ what God has entrusted to us as His stewards, as His servants. When we recognize that the wealth belongs to God, and not to us, we can approach it differently, use it differently – and so those whose needs are addressed are helped; and we gain hope for the salvation of our souls because we have not used the wealth for ourselves alone, but have shown mercy, and the love of God, by denying ourselves and reaching out to help others. God can – and does – act through us as we yield ourselves to Him, together with what we have, which He has given to us – and so He acts to save our souls.

Brothers and sisters: When we turn aside from the ways of the world, when we bring a godly understanding to the use of wealth, we make a powerful statement, an apostolic proclamation, of the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, dwelling in our midst. This can give hope to those who are trapped by the things they own, who are weighed down by their desires for more. Let us open our eyes to those in need, and open our hearts to use what we have on their behalf – to the glory of God, and the salvation of souls.

Settling Accounts

(11th Sunday after Pentecost) (Matthew 18:23-35)

In the Gospel reading today, St. Matthew records the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ in the parable of a king settling accounts with his servants. We hear of a servant whose debt was so great that it could not be paid, and of how he obtained mercy from the king. The Fathers tell us that, in this parable, we are the man who owes ten thousand talents – we are the servant with a debt that cannot be paid.

Consider how the king will settle this man’s account – that is, how the King will deal with us, when we stand before Him to give an accounting for our lives. If we are honest, we must admit that God has blessed us richly, starting with the gift of life itself; and the gift of His love, and all the blessings we have received, materially and spiritually, even though we have given nothing of any value or good to God in return. We have not used the blessings and gifts we have received wisely; and so we have incurred a debt that cannot be repaid. In the parable, the king orders that the debtor be sold, along with his wife an children. When the king’s servant I sold, he will no longer belong to the king, but to another master – and so, as the parable is telling us about God our king, this is to say that sinners will be sold to another master. In fact, sin is already our master; and beyond the sin is Satan. The debtor’s wife stands for his flesh, the companion of his soul; while the children of the debtor, the Fathers tell us, are the evil deeds committed by us in body and soul. Being tormented is actually an act of mercy – for the purpose of the suffering that results is not destruction, but the salvation of the spirit.

We also learn something important about the King. He does not desire the death or punishment of the sinner. His aim is the settlement of accounts, and the carrying out of justice. As a result, when the servant asks for more time to repay what he owes, the King – that is, God – responds even more generously than He was asked to do – for He forgives the debt entirely. When we ask Him to forgive our sins, He does so. The consequences of our sins, and the impacts of our evil deeds may continue; but at the moment we confess and repent, our sins no longer testify against us, no longer are added to the account which we must settle.

Of course, human nature – that is to say, fallen human nature – being what it is, we all tend to be a bit, shall we say, ready to quickly justify our own sins, but quick to condemn others for the same thing. We see this in the servant whose unpayable debt was forgiven. When he meets another of the king’s servants who owes him a mere pittance by comparison, he demands payment; and when the second servant in unable to pay, seizes him by the throat – that is to say, without mercy – and has him thrown into prison until the debt was paid. To make the point even more clear, the words by which the second debtor sought mercy were the exact words the first servant had used to obtain mercy from the king. But the servant whose debt was forgiven by the king did not have mercy on his fellow servant, and so revealed to all his hardness of heart. The end result was that his immense debt was reinstated, and he was given over to torment until the debt was paid – and, as it was not possible for him to make such repayment, this means that his torment will be unending, eternal.

Among other things, this should give us additional insight into a part of the Lord’s Prayer, where we say, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” We have already established that it is God’s desire to forgive the repentant – but we must repent from the heart. Not only that. Our repentance must be accompanied by a change of heart; and the evidence of this is that we who desire to be forgiven have also learned to forgive. Indeed, forgiveness is such that we no longer condemn others for their sins, but pray for the Lord to have mercy on them – learning from His example, as He suffered on the Cross, praying for mercy for those who were responsible for His suffering and death.

Brothers and sisters: We do well to repent, and seek the mercy of God, and the forgiveness of our sins. We do well to amend our lives, and turn away from our sins, as a form of expressing our gratitude to God. We will also do well to forgive others their offenses against us, and to pray for them, and to show them mercy – not just so that we may also be forgiven, but that we may labor to make our hearts more closely resemble the heart of God, and love with His love – to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Victory Over the Demons

(10th Sunday after Pentecost) (Matt. 17:14-23a)

In today’s reading from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, we hear the disciples are unable to cast out a demon from a man. When they ask our Lord why this happened, he tells them that their failure is a result of their unbelief – that is, their lack of faith. He then gives them a key instruction: “This kind only comes out by prayer and fasting.”

The Fathers tell us more. The man who came to the Lord to seek the healing of his son lacked faith. Indeed, the man who was possessed lacked faith – and it was his lack of faith that allowed the demon to enter him, and to control him.

The holy monk-martyr Dometius, whose memory we celebrate today, did not lack faith. Born a pagan during the time of the Emperor St. Constantine, he came to know the Christian faith, and was baptized. The depth and beauty of the Orthodox faith caused him to give up all worldly things and to enter a monastery. He lived among the brethren for a time, and then withdrew into silence. The archimandrite made him a deacon, but when he sought to make Dometius a priest, the saint ran away to a distant mountain, and lived there in a cave, praying, fasting, keeping vigils, and meditating. This brought about an increase in perfection, so that he was able to heal the sick. When the Emperor Julian the Apostate heard of the saint, he sent men to wall up the entrance to the cave in which St. Dometius lived, with two of his disciples. They died in the year 363.

So we have these contrasts: the man whose lack of faith caused him to fall under the control of a demon; and the holy martyr Dometius, whose faith led him to victory over his passions, and a heavenly crown.

What about us? How do we live? I suspect that most of us, if we try to place ourselves on a spectrum described by these two contrasting lives, would have to place ourselves closer to the first man than to the saint. Not a very flattering picture, to be sure! Not only that: what does it say about our bearing witness to Christ in us when we live as we do? Take a moment, and recall the sins that you commit frequently, even regularly. Isn’t it a form of lunacy, aren’t we insane in some way, when we continue to do what we do? Now, to be sure, we have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us; so, on one level, we cannot be possessed by a demon; but that does not mean that we are necessarily free of demonic influence, against which we must be on our guard, against which we must fight, against which we must strengthen ourselves. And that brings us back to prayer and fasting.

We are called to be disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ – and more than that, we are called to bear Him within ourselves, and make Him known in the world. Can this be possible? We have the example of the martyr Dometius for an answer: Yes, it is possible. He manifested Christ in the world by healing the sick, as well as by his holy life, and by his teaching two disciples the Orthodox faith and way of life.

Victory over the demons comes by prayer and fasting – and we know these to be hallmarks of the Orthodox faith and way of life, together with alms-giving and struggle against our passions. If we would be set free of the demonic influences over our own lives, we must fast and pray. Remember that one purpose for fasting is to weaken the power of our flesh, so that our will can direct it in its desires. Remember also that one purpose for prayer is to teach our will the will of God, so that we can properly direct our lives in the way that is pleasing to God, and beneficial to the salvation of our souls. We also come into the presence of God through the worship of the church, including the vigils that are served on the eve of every Divine Liturgy; and we can learn more of the will of God by studying and contemplating the Holy Scriptures and the teachings of the Fathers.

Brothers and sisters, as we do these things: fast, and pray, worship, and contemplate – we will find ourselves moving away from being like the demon-possessed man, and moving to be more like the saint. Who knows what wonders God might perform through us as we devote ourselves to be like Him, leaving behind, as much as we can, the way of life that is in the world? Let us dedicate ourselves to drawing nearer to Him, that we may know Him better, and make Him known: to the glory of God, and the salvation of souls.

Holy monk-martyr Dometius, pray to God for us!

Shining with the Light of Christ

(The Transfiguration of our Lord) (Matt. 17:1-9)

One of the most striking elements of the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ is the way in which He is revealed to His disciples while He is speaking with Moses and Elijah. Our Lord’s face shines as brightly as the sun, and his clothing appears to be a pure white. Peter, James and John are unable to look directly at him.

The Fathers tell us that our Lord shone in this way as He revealed, in a small way, His divinity. He shines forth with the light of the uncreated glory of God, a glory, and a light, which words are incapable of describing. The light of the Transfiguration shows us the divinity of Christ.

The theme of light is found throughout the Scriptures. When God created the heavens and the earth, His first command was, “Let there be light!” Later, He created what are called the “lesser lights”: the sun to shine and give light in the day, and the moon and stars to give light at night. The physical experiences of light and darkness became a means for instructing the people of God in the higher concepts of spiritual light, and spiritual darkness. Isaiah the prophet foretold the time when the people who dwelt in darkness would see a great light; and this light would also be a “light to the Gentiles’ – that is, would be a guide to bring them into the same understanding as was being given by God to His people by the prophets. Isaiah also spoke of the situation in heaven, when the sun and moon and stars would no longer give their light; for the light of heaven comes from God, and He shall be His people’s light. There are also many similar instances of this theme in the Psalms.

The holy Apostle and Evangelist John spoke of the Logos, the Word of God, and called Him, “the light of the world,” and, “the light of men” – and of how some chose darkness, rather than the light, and so could not know what could be known in the light. Our Lord Himself called Himself “the Light of the world”; and said that His mission was to enlighten us, so that we would not have to live in darkness.

The Apostle Paul, while still living as Saul, the accuser of the brethren, was stricken on the road to Damascus by the Lord, Who appeared to Him in the great light of His glory, which blinded him for a time, until he was healed. There are also many instances of the saints shining with a heavenly light, such as St. Seraphim of Sarov, as reported in the account of his conversation with Motovilov. The merchant, a seeker after the truth, learns from his encounter with the saint that he, also, shines forth with this light – the light of the glory of God.

In the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord tells His disciples – and we are His disciples, if we follow Him – “You are the light of the world.” He then commands us, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may glorify God in heaven.

Brothers and sisters, do you see? We are also meant to shine the light of Christ in the world. We are meant to bear witness to the divinity of Christ; and the best way to show Him forth is to let Him be seen in us, and to let His light shine forth from us. We are more than whom we appear to be; we are more than our physical existence suggests. But if we do not know of our spiritual being, and if we do not pursue the expression of the life of Christ that dwells in us, who have been baptized, who have been chrismated, who have been fed with the heavenly food of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, we cannot pursue our purpose: to make Christ known, to the glory of God. Whenever we sin; indeed, whenever we live in any way that is not meant for the glory of God, we are not shining with the light of Christ; we are not living to give glory to God.

As our Lord was seen shining with the light of God on the mountain of His Transfiguration, may God also grant unto each one of us His grace to allow Christ to be seen in us; that we may bring light to those in darkness; that our good works for God may be seen by men; to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Desire and the Will

(9th Sunday after Pentecost) (Matthew 14:22-34)

Last week, you’ll recall, we reflected upon the part that our desires play in shaping and motivating our lives. We found that we are made in such a way that our mind and will work to accomplish whatever it is we desire to have in our lives: fame, power, money, comfort, and so on.

Desire, however, is only part of the equation. Desire, regardless of the form it takes, can be tamed by the will, if we are willing to exert ourselves, if we are willing to make the effort, if we are willing to pay the price to put our will in charge of our mind, and our will in charge of our flesh. If we will do this, then we can tame our desires, and properly harness their power, and put our desires to work in obedience to our will, in order to live a life that is pleasing to God and beneficial to the salvation of our souls.

This “secret” is revealed to us in the teachings of the fathers. For example, we are told that Abba Mark once went to St. Arsenius to ask the saint why he lived as a hermit, and not in a community. St. Arsenius replied that, in heaven, there are thousands of thousands who have but one will, and that, the will of God, as their own; while among men, each of us has our own will – which is usually not focused on the will of God, but upon the desires of our flesh, and of our pride. The reason ascetics go into the desert is to bring their will into full and complete obedience to the will of God; that is, to have no will of their own, but to so desire to do the will of God that they surrender their freedom of will – a God-given aspect of our very being – in order to do the will of God faithfully and completely, without hesitation, and without question.

But what about us, who do not have the opportunity, or even the desire, to flee into the desert, to live in solitude, so that we may directly confront our weaknesses and our desires? Does that mean we cannot follow the path of the desert ascetics? We have two examples that teach us otherwise.

The righteous Eudocimus was an officer in the army of the Emperor Theophilus during the 9th century. Even as he lived as a soldier, he sought to live according to the teachings of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. He kept himself pure in thought, word, and deed; was generous in giving to the poor; spent his time in the reading of the Bible and other holy books; and above all, was dedicated to coming into the presence of God each day in prayer. He had no time or desire for idle conversation or worldly diversions. His virtuous life brought him to the attention of the Emperor, who appointed him to be the military governor of Cappadocia. Apart from increasing his responsibilities, his life did not change. Having died at an early age (33), his relics were found, after eighteen months, to be completely incorrupt; and many were healed by his intercessions, including a man whose insanity was cured when he touched the saint’s tomb.

Our other example is the apostle Peter, who, as we heard in today’s first reading from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, left the boat in which he and the other disciples were traveling while in a storm, and walked on the water, even if only for a few steps, to be with our Lord. This was an act of will. It was founded on the apostle’s faith – but it took an act of his will to put his faith into action, and to brave the wind and the waves to get out of the boat.

Neither the Apostle Peter nor the righteous Eudocimus were ascetics dwelling in desert solitude. Each of them had lives in the world, with responsibilities, as also do most of us. But each of them set their will to do the will of God, and achieved the same – and so can we, if we choose to do so.

To accomplish this, we need to take time to examine ourselves, and all our decisions, and all our motives, and all our thoughts. Is the action we are contemplating pleasing to God? Is the manner in which we are going to act pleasing to God? Why are we doing what we are doing: to serve God, or to serve ourselves? What does God require of us in this situation? Unless we teach ourselves to think in this way, we will not change what we do, or why we do what we do.

There’s more, of course. We must be careful about how we use the time that God has entrusted to us. How much time do we spend each day in idle talk or activities, which we see the righteous Eudocimus avoided? How much time de we spend serving our flesh? How much time do we devote to the reading and study of God’s Word, and to the teachings of the saints? How much time and effort do we devote to prayer, in which we can, if we choose, draw closer to God?

The world is a tempestuous place; and, unless we are careful, we will do little more than huddle in the bottom of the boat, hoping that somehow we will make it through. Instead, we must gather ourselves together, and summon our will, and take the step, and get out of the boat – and walk with our Lord Jesus Christ each day; to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Holy Righteous Eudocimus, pray to God for us!

Monday, August 07, 2006

What is It You Desire?

(8th Sunday after Pentcost) (Great-martyr Christina)

What is it you desire? Riches? Fame? Power? Comfort?

This is not an idle question. Our Lord Jesus tells us, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” We are made in such a way that we pursue what we desire. If we want to be rich, or famous, or powerful, or comfortable, the choices we make, both consciously and unconsciously, are designed to help us get rich, or famous, or powerful, or comfortable. This does not always mean we will succeed in obtaining what we desire – but these unfulfilled desires both motivate us to continue, and bring us unhappiness, anger, and even depression when we cannot have what we so desperately want. As such, if we want to be happy, and if we want to be fulfilled, we must know ourselves well enough to answer the question, what is it you desire?

Today the Church remembers and celebrates the martyrdom of the Great-martyr Christina of Tyre, who suffered for Christ in the third century. Born to a life of wealth and luxury, she was also a beautiful child – so much so that her father caused her to live in a tower, apart from the world. In that life, she had everything she needed, including the best food, and servants to care for her every desire. Being a pagan family, there were also gold and silver idols for Christina to use in worship. Her father’s intent was doubtless that she marry a man whose family was equally wealthy and powerful, and so bring honor and glory to their families.

But this was not Christina’s desire. From her tower, she watched the sun by day, and the stars by night, and came to a natural knowledge of God, Who, in response to Christina’s request, sent an angel to her to instruct her in the true faith. Made bold by her desire to love and serve our Lord Jesus Christ, she smashed the idols, and threw the gold and silver pieces to the people in the street below the tower. Her father, in a rage, had her arrested and turned over to torture. She would not renounce her faith, not even when her tormentors cut off her breasts and cut out her tongue. The martyr was put to death by being impaled on a stake.

Do you ever ask yourself what you might do if you had to suffer for your faith, as the Great-martyr Christina suffered for hers? Most of us complain at even the least bit of unpleasantness. How often do we become angry, resentful, perhaps even abusive, when we’re forced to wait in line, or when someone says or does something we don’t like? We’re most likely to respond poorly when the actions or circumstances thwart us as we attempt to obtain our desires – not that we are being tortured, mind you – just frustrated by not being able to have what we want. And so we must ask ourselves: what is it that we desire?

The Great-martyr Christina desired to be one with our Lord Jesus Christ; and pursued her desire with a single-minded devotion that enabled her to endure both physical torments, and the knowledge that she had been betrayed and delivered to such torments by her father. We work and make sacrifices to obtain earthly desires that will not endure; she obtained an eternal reward that will never be lost.

Brothers and sisters, we must first become aware of what we desire, as this is what moves us, and directs our lives. With this knowledge, we must then measure our desires against the teachings of the Church, and the way of life of the Orthodox faith. Are we pursuing what is pleasing to God? Or are we only seeking to please our flesh? If we do not desire to be with Christ, and to be like Him; if we do not desire to be patient, loving, and forgiving; if we do not desire to be holy and righteous – we desire what will lead us to condemnation, rather than into the presence of God, along a path to which we can direct others, as well.

Let us honor and remember the Great-martyr Christina, and all the saints, by examining ourselves; and, when we find our desires are not those which God would choose for us, let us repent, and confess, and beseech God’s help in transforming our lives, to the glory of God, and the salvation of souls.

Holy Great-martyr Christina, pray to God for us!

Distinguishing Truth from Error

(7th Sunday after Pentecost) (Fathers of the 1st Six Councils)

Today the Church remembers and celebrates the Fathers of the first six Ecumenical Councils. By their labors, they have given us a better understanding of the teachings of the Orthodox Church and faith, and of what we believe, and why we believe as we do.

The first Ecumenical Council rejected the teachings of Arius, who incorrectly believed that our Lord Jesus Christ was not divine in nature, but was a created being. In reply, the Church tells us that the Son of God is of one essence with the Father, equal in divinity, equal in power, and equal in honor and worship and praise. The second Council declared the fullness of divinity of the Holy Spirit. These teachings about the Holy Trinity are summarized for us in the Symbol of Faith, which we recite at every Divine Liturgy – and were written by these first two Councils. The second Council also declared an anathema against anyone who would change the Creed from the form in which it was approved by that Council.

The third Ecumenical Council refuted the false teachings of Nestorius, proclaiming that our Lord Jesus Christ is the Incarnate Word of God; and that His mother, the Ever-virgin Mary, is rightly called the “Theotokos”; which means, “the God-bearer.” Nestorius had taught that she was the “Christotokos,” or, “the birth-giver of Christ”: but this was recognized by the Church as an attack on the divinity of the child borne by Mary, and affirmed her child as being divine.

The fourth Council refuted the false teachings of Eutychus, proclaiming that our Lord Jesus Christ is fully and perfectly God, and also fully and perfectly human, both contained without confusion in Him, One Person. The fifth Council reaffirmed the teachings about the Trinity and about our Lord, in opposition to the continued claims made by those who had not accepted the decisions of the first four councils, but rather had become heretics. The sixth Ecumenical Council reaffirmed the Church’s teaching about the true humanity of our Lord Jesus by insisting upon the reality of His human will and action, as well as His divine will and action. As the fourth council had rejected as heretical the teaching that our Lord, after becoming Incarnate, had only one nature, and not both His human and divine natures in one Person, without confusion, so the sixth Council rejected as heretical the teaching that our Lord, after His Incarnation, had only one will. The Church fathers considered it crucial that our Lord did possess, not only two natures in one Person, but both wills – or else our own ability to be saved would be called into question.

Many of us are not aware of the actions and teachings of the Ecumenical Councils, and this is unfortunate, for, after each council met and deliberated, there were those who did not accept the decision of that council, and so left the Church. But these groups, or their heretical teachings, did not disappear: these heresies persist to the present day and time. These heresies are right outside our door – and, to the extent that we are ignorant, we might be influenced by such teachings. Therefore, we would do well to study the teachings of the holy fathers we celebrate today.

But there is another aspect of this celebration that we must recognize, and which we should emulate. How did the fathers know to distinguish truth from error? In part, they were knowledgeable about the teachings of the Church in their own day – but that, by itself, would not be enough. They were also pious and faithful men, doing all in their power to live according to the Orthodox way of life, struggling against their passion and their sins, pursuing holiness and righteousness, repenting, and confessing, loving God with the fullness of their being, and loving all those made in the image of God as they loved themselves. This personal holiness allowed the Holy Spirit of God, in accordance with the promise given by our Lord Jesus Christ to His disciples, to lead the holy fathers into all truth – and through them, to us – if we will listen and learn, and if we will also pursue holiness.

Brothers and sisters, let us hear the call given to us by the holy fathers we celebrate today. Let us learn from them, that we may be knowledgeable; and let us pursue holiness through prayer, and fasting, through giving, and struggle, and, above all, by love fro God, and for each other – to the glory of God, and the salvation of souls.

Holy fathers of the first Six Councils, pray to God for us!