Monday, February 13, 2006

What is Our Mission and Purpose?

(Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee) (Luke 18:10-14)

This is a question I think we all would benefit from considering: Why does this parish exist? What is our purpose? What is our mission?

Today, we celebrate the Synaxis of the Three Hierarchs: St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian, and St. John Chrysostom. It is also the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, which is, in a way, the start of our preparation for Great Lent – itself a time for us to prepare for the celebration of Pascha, and our Lord’s victory for life over death. We can be guided in our consideration of the question about our parish’s mission and purpose by today’s remembrances.

St. Basil the Great, among many other things, is credited with writing the Divine Liturgy that we use ten times each year, particularly on the Sundays in Great Lent, as well as on the eves of the Nativity and the Theophany of our Lord. From the congregation’s point a view, apart from a different hymn to the Theotokos after the consecration of the Body and Blood of our Lord, the only noticeable difference from the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is that some of the responses from the choir are longer. This is because the prayers said quietly – “secretly” – in the altar are much longer. The prayers tend to be much more penitential in nature, which is why the liturgy of St. Basil is used for Great Lent and the eves of the great feasts. These are truly beautiful and profound prayers, and I would encourage you to read them. St. Gregory wrote the liturgy for the Presanctified Gifts; also a very moving service, markedly different from the other liturgies we use. And, of course, we should all be familiar with the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the “workhorse” of our worship services – being celebrated today.

We are all familiar, I am sure, with the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. One of the men depicted in the parable is in the Temple, praying, it seems, to God, but actually, he is praising himself. The other knows that he is a sinner, unworthy of any good thing from God; and so he humbles himself, praying, simply, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Our Lord is teaching His disciples that the mercy of God is given to those who are humble.

How does the celebration of the Three Hierarchs, and of the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, help us answer the question about our parish mission and purpose? From the holy Hierarchs, we learn the importance of worship in our lives as Orthodox Christians; and especially the celebration of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Receiving the Holy Mysteries cleanses us, and strengthens us, so that we can labor and do our part in the transformation of our being. To receive the Mysteries, we prepare ourselves by prayer and fasting, and by penitence, confessing our sins, and humbling ourselves, and not thinking that we are somehow worthy of any good thing, apart from the love and mercy of God. This is a lesson we learn from the Publican, as he prays with humility for the mercy of God.

Let me conclude by giving you my answer to the question. The mission of our parish is to help each one of us to save our souls; and, as we labor to do so, to reach out to others in the world around us, who dwell in darkness, and in the shadow of death, and to bring them the light of the love of God in Christ, so that they, also, may see the way to save their souls, and share that journey with us. We have no other reason to exist; we have no other purpose, than the salvation of souls.

The Orthodox faith is the true faith; there is no other way for us to be saved. The Orthodox way of life – of prayer, and fasting, of giving alms and offerings, and struggling against our passions; of loving and caring for each other, in humility considering all others to be more worthy than are we, ourselves; and worshipping God – this is the way we put the Orthodox faith in action; this is the way we save our souls. And when we do so, our lives are transformed, and we become different – and, by God’s grace, perhaps this difference stirs up something in others, and causes them to desire it for themselves. Then we can play a part in their salvation, as well as our own.

There is one other lesson we should learn from the Publican and the Pharisee. The Pharisee, when he sees the Publican, compares himself to the Publican, and thinks he is the better of the two. The Publican thinks of no one else, but sees only his own sins. We need to do the same. We should not see what others in Church are wearing, and think less of them. We should not see what others are doing, and think that we know more, or are better, because we know how to cross ourselves, or when to bow, or any other form of external devotion. It is good for us to know these things; and we all should do all that is in our power to conduct ourselves properly for worship. But let us examine only ourselves, and let us be critical only of ourselves, and so be strict only with ourselves; for when we do, we are like the Publican; and so we also may have hope that our sins will be forgiven, and our souls will be saved.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

The New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia

(33rd Sunday after Pentecost) (Luke 21:12-29)

A martyr is someone who, when faced with the choice of renouncing his or her faith or death, chooses death. A "“confessor"” is someone who endures great suffering rather than renounce the faith, although without dying as a result. We need to be reminded of this, for we live in a time when there are people who strap explosives to themselves, and go into public places and detonate the explosives, killing themselves and as many others as they can manage --– and who are considered to be "“martyrs"” for their cause. It is not so for Christians. Our example is our Lord Jesus Christ, Who, at the time of His arrest, told His disciples (one of whom had drawn a sword and cut off the ear of the servant of the high priest), "“Do you not know that the Father would send me twelve legions of angels if I asked for them in prayer?"” Our example is the Lord Jesus, Who spoke not a word of hatred or reproach for those who falsely accused Him, who beat Him, or who mocked Him. Our example is our Lord Jesus Who, as He was dying for the life of the world on the Cross, prayed, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

The New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia are also examples for us, for they suffered greatly, and so bore witness to Christ, and did not deny Him, or renounce their faith. They suffered the single greatest, and most persistent and perfidious, persecution ever to attempt to destroy the Church. Every brutality that might come to the human mind, every depravity, every cruelty, was practiced on those whose only "“crime"” was that they would not depart from their faith in God. We need to be reminded of this, for we live in a place where we have enjoyed freedom and prosperity, where suffering is not something to be embraced, but avoided. When one has all the material comforts, it is not easy to prepare to suffer; it is not easy to contemplate martyrdom.

Our freedom to worship is dependent upon the state; and if the power of the state is turned against us, as it was in Russia after the revolutions in 1917, how will we fare? It isn't likely that the persecutions will be as overt and brutal as took place in Russia; but we should not ever think that, "It can't happen here."” There are already efforts being made to change the status that churches have in our society. We hear increasingly that we have no "“right"” to go to the government to enact laws that express Christian morality. We hear increasingly that we have no right to speak out about moral conditions in our society; the day is coming when warning people about the dangers of sin will be a crime against the state. It won'’t begin with prisons and camps; it will begin with lawsuits, by which they will take away our buildings; and when we try to meet in homes, or in some other place, we will find ourselves in violation of some other law. And, if we persist in speaking the Truth of our salvation in Christ, and of the way that God desires us to live, we will be silenced in one way or another --– and then there will be prisons and camps for the faithful. It may not come in this generation; but we must never think that it will never come to pass.

What, then, can we do to prepare? We must fully embrace the Orthodox way of life. We must pray: publicly, as we do here today, and privately, in our prayer corners. We must fast, so that we not only weaken our flesh and its desire to satisfy the passions, but also to strengthen us to do without. We must give; and we must struggle to overcome our passions. We must study the Scriptures, and the services of the Church, and the teachings of the fathers, and the lives of the saints, so that these are so written in our lives that, should every book be confiscated and destroyed, our faith and Church and way of life will still go on. We must love and care for each other; and we must do our best to bring others the light of the kingdom and the love of God, so that they also will join us in the labor to save our souls.

Brothers and sisters, there is one more thing we need to do, as we remember the testimony of faith we have received from the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia. Let us pray and ask them to guide our hierarchs to know and do the will of God with regard to the healing of the suffering and divided Russian Orthodox Church. Ask them, if the current plan is pleasing to God, to allow it to go forward; and if it is not, to reveal to our hierarchs the way, and the time, that God desires. For in the days to come, we will need the strength of the New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia to help us remain faithful in a time of troubles; so let us ask now, and follow their example.

Holy New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia, pray to God for us!