Sunday, March 19, 2006

The Goal of the Great Fast

(2nd Sunday of Great Lent: St. Gregory Palamas)

Today is the second Sunday of Great Lent; and so we have completed two weeks of the fast, as we seek to prepare ourselves for the great and joyous Feast of the Pascha of our Lord Jesus Christ. Each of us has experienced victories and setbacks in our struggles to keep the fast, both in terms of what we eat and drink, and in terms of laboring to replace our passions that lead us to sin with the god-pleasing virtues that oppose these passions. As our Lord spent forty days fasting in the wilderness to prepare Himself for His labors to accomplish our deliverance from death, we also fast. As our Lord spent time in prayer to be refreshed by being in the presence of God the Father, and to know His will, we also seek to draw near to God in prayer – and make an effort to set aside the normal diversions and entertainments of the world in order to have time and energy to devote to prayer. We also seek to know God better through the reading of His Word, and the teachings of the Fathers of the Church, and the lives of the saints. So it’s a busy time; there’s a lot to do.

In the midst of all that goes on during the fast of Great Lent, it is important for us not to lose sight of why we do what we do. The end, the goal, of the Orthodox life, is not to fast, or even to feast. We are meant to partake of, we are meant to participate in, the divine nature of God. The reason to follow the Orthodox way of life is so that we can be one with God; or, as St. Maximos the Confessor says, “to be sons of God in the Son of God.” St. Athanasios says of our Lord Jesus Christ, “He became as we are, that we might become as He is.” We have received the life of Christ, risen from the dead, in our baptism. The opportunity, and the challenge, for each of us thereafter is to live in such a way that the life of Christ is seen in us; that the light of Christ shines forth from us. If we are not actively and intentionally pursuing this end – to be like Christ – then there is no point to keeping the rules of the Orthodox life; there is no point to prayer, or fasting, or giving tithes and alms and offerings, or struggling to overcome our sinful desires or to change the sinful habits of our lives. This is the way of our salvation: to become like Christ. And the way to become like Christ is by living an ascetic life.

St. Gregory Palamas, whom we celebrate on the second Sunday of Great Lent, was the Bishop of Thessalonika in the 14th century. A strong ascetic, he reminded the Church of the teachings of the early Fathers, particularly with the practice of hesychia, or “stillness”; by which we quiet our souls, in order to hear God speaking to us. This stillness is the way of our salvation; it is the way that our hearts are purified; and it is only achieved by the ascetic life. Hesychia has an exterior aspect – the hesychia of the body; and an interior component – the hesychia of the soul. With regard to the body, the ascetic seeks to be free from all attachments to this world, and the influences of our senses. With regard to the soul, the ascetic seeks to cultivate the powers of the mind so that it is free from all external stimulation, images, and temptations; so that the mind can be free to enter into the heart, and there to see God. And so the steps we take in Great Lent are steps to this journey to being at peace, and to see God. In prayer, we seek to be in the presence of God. By fasting and giving, we seek to be set free from the snares and temptations and the pleasures of this world. The more we are set free from the cares and concerns and attachments to this world and this life, we are able to be at peace in our hearts, and to see God, and the life that is in the world to come. This isn’t easy; and I don’t pretend to be an expert at this, or with the teachings of St. Gregory Palamas – but this is the life to which we are called: to purify ourselves, and to seek God, so that we can be more and more like God.

Brothers and sisters: The remainder of the fast is now before us. No matter what start that we have made, let us resolve today to make the best use we can of the time remaining before celebrating Pascha. Let us fast and pray; let us give and struggle; let us seek to live the life of Christ. Above all, let us remind ourselves, and one another, that all this is possible only because of the incredible love God has for each and every one of us. No matter what you have done; no matter how you have sinned; no matter how you have failed – God loves you with a love so deep, so profound, and so rich that we cannot begin to describe it. The only thing that keeps us from the love of God is our failure to repent, and our failure to forgive. Being mindful of the love that saves us, let us commit ourselves, and one another, and all our life, unto Christ our God; and love one another, as He loves us, and gave Himself for us, an offering and sacrifice to God.

Through the prayers of our holy father and hierarch, Gregory Palamas, O Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us, and save us.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Will Orthodoxy Triumph In Our Hearts?

(First Sunday of Great Lent) (Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy)

Today is the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. On the first Sunday of Great Lent in the year 843, the Church celebrated the decision of the Ecumenical Council that put an end to 120 years of persecution by the iconoclasts, who had tried over generations to remove the icons from the Orthodox Church. But the Seventh Council decreed that the rejection of icons was a rejection of the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who is God and man; and that our Lord, Who said, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,” has blessed all of creation by becoming Incarnate. As such, it is not a violation of the second commandment to depict our Lord, of the Theotokos, or the saints, in the form of an icon.

There are iconoclasts today – only now we call them, “Protestants.” Those who are converts to the Orthodox faith from a protestant group probably shared the struggle to come to grips with at least two issues in their journey to the Orthodox Church and faith: the veneration of the most holy Theotokos; and the veneration of icons. We are accused of many things, including the worship of idols, because we have icons in our churches, and in our homes – and because we pray before our icons, and we bow, or make prostrations, and kiss our icons.

They don’t seem to understand that the worst form of idol worship is when we give ourselves permission to live in the way we want to live, without regard for the laws of God or man. When we indulge ourselves in food or drink or any other pleasures of the flesh or of the world; when we allow our pride to tell us we are better than another, more worthy of respect, honor, and privilege – and when we become angry because these things are not granted to us by those who are not as good as we are – this self-indulgent self-worship is idolatry. We put ourselves in the place of God. They don’t seem to understand that when we bow before an icon, or make a prostration, this is a form of respect, and a way of showing that we have not attained the God-pleasing way of life that the saint we are honoring has demonstrated for us, as an example, and as a call to our own pursuit of holiness. Nor are we mistaken about what we are doing. We do not worship wood and paint; we know that an icon is not the person depicted thereon; but we also know that, because those who have departed this life are not dead, but alive in the presence of God, the respect and the love we show through the agency of the icon is received by the person, as if we are, in fact, truly in the presence of that person. So, in our reverence of the icons, we acknowledge the reality of the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ; we affirm the essential goodness of God’s Creation; and we show our respect for the heroes of the faith who show us what is possible for us to attain in our own journey of faith, if we are willing to share with them in the Orthodox way of life: praying, and fasting, giving tithes and alms and offerings; struggling to overcome our passions with virtues; and loving and caring for each other.

It is this last step in particular – loving and caring for each other – that is the real key to understanding the importance of icons. Each and every person is made in the image and after the likeness of God. Each and every person is an icon of Christ. When we grasp this reality, it should change how we deal with every other person, and how we think of ourselves. If you reverence an icon of paint on wood, and treat it with the love and respect you would show to the person if that person was physically present, how can you not reverence the person who is actually there? How can we treat with indifference or contempt the person next to us, or in front of us, or behind us? How can we fail to feed the hungry, or clothe the naked, or shelter the homeless, or visit the sick or those in prison, when each of these persons is an icon of Christ – Who said, when we have ministered to the least of these around us, we have ministered unto Him? As for ourselves, when we consider that we are meant to be icons of Christ, and then consider how far short we have fallen from this high calling by our sins, how can we possibly think that we are better than anyone else? How can we not repent, and be humbled, rather than proud, of who we think we are?

The Orthodox Church and faith has triumphed over those who have sought her destruction, from the Romans to the Moslems to the Soviets. The Orthodox Church and faith has triumphed over heresies that sought to corrupt or destroy her from within. The gates of hell shall not prevail against her. Part of the reason for the triumph of Orthodoxy is because ours is a faith that is based on love; and because ours is a faith that is based on truth. Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life; and He is the way to God the Father, Who has revealed Himself as the God of love. Each one of us is loved by God, Who sees in us the image of His beloved Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Brothers and sisters: Let us pray that Orthodoxy will triumph in our hearts, as it has triumphed across space and time. Let us love God, and worship Him. Let us love those who have gone before us in the faith, and show us what is possible for those who labor with all their being to draw near to God. And let us love one another, and respect every person as an icon of Christ; to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Sunday, March 05, 2006


(Forgiveness Sunday) (Matthew 6:14-21)

Last Sunday, having heard the reading from the Gospel according to St. Matthew about the Great Judgment, we considered that the Gospel gives us a “roadmap” by which we can make the journey of life so as to arrive safely in the kingdom of heaven; and that the Orthodox way of life – prayer, fasting, giving tithes and alms and offerings, struggling to replace our passions with the virtues, and loving and caring for each other, and for all who are made in the image of God – is the way to make sure we can complete the journey. Today, we are given another important instruction for putting love into action. Our Lord tells us that, if we desire to be forgiven for our sins and offenses, we must do the same for those who sin against us. This is such an important step on the spiritual journey that it is incorporated into the prayer that our Lord Jesus Christ teaches to us: “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”

We know that when we have sinned against another person, we need to ask them to forgive us, if this is possible. (I’m thinking here about when our sins are, in effect, anonymous, as when we cut someone off in traffic, for example – or in other such situations, where we don’t know the other person involved. When this happens, all we can do is ask God to forgive us; and that the other person will forgive us by God’s grace in their lives.) It isn’t easy to ask someone to forgive you for having sinned against them – but it is necessary. But what do we do when someone comes to us and asks us to forgive them?

The simple answer is that we forgive them. We can say, “I forgive you.” Or we can say, as we do during the Forgiveness Vespers service later today, “God forgives – forgive me, a sinner.” If that person comes and makes a prostration asking forgiveness, we respond with a prostration. If we are sincere in our action, this exchange has a powerful and profound impact on the persons involved. This is one of the reasons why many confessors will ask, at the end of your confession, “Have you forgiven everyone who has sinned against you?” If the answer isn’t, “Yes,” then there’s more work that needs to be done!

But sometimes we say, “I don’t know how to forgive him (or her) for his (or her) sin.” Here is the connection between love and forgiveness. Remember, love is not a feeling – although our culture teaches us to think of “love” in that way. Love is a choice we make; love is a decision; love is an act of the will. If love is only a feeling, how do I know if I will love you tomorrow, or if you will love me? If love is only a feeling, how do I know you will still love me if I offend you in some way, or sin in some way? How do you know if I will love you if you give offense or sin? If love is only a feeling, how do we trust in the love of God, Who is not subject to feelings – for God does not change. Having decided to love, having chosen to love, as an act of His will, God loves us even when we have offended Him, or anyone made in His image. Because He loves, God chooses to forgive the penitent who comes to Him and asks to be forgiven. Forgiveness, then, is love in action; forgiveness is a choice we make, a decision, an act of our will.

It is in this way that we forgive those whom we say we don’t know how to forgive: by choosing to forgive them. We say in our prayers that we forgive them; we say in our confession that we forgive them. And every time we remember the sin or offense, and it provokes us against that person once again, we consciously stop, and, in prayer, forgive them once again, asking God’s help to overcome the feelings that still affect us, and cause us to remember the wrong done to us in a way that is harmful to our souls. We continue to do so until we can remember the circumstances and not be provoked – and then we will know that we have, indeed, forgiven that person for his or her sin. We do this as an act of our will; we do this as a decision to love.

Not only that: We also choose, consciously, deliberately, to interact with the person as if the sin or offense had never taken place. It doesn’t matter how we feel; it matters how we love. By interacting as if there was no problem, had never been a problem, we are choosing to love; and so we are finding the way to forgive. Now, this is easier to do when the person has come to us and admitted their fault, and asked us to forgive them. But we do not have to be limited in our forgiveness – we do not need to wait for them to ask. We can choose to forgive them whether they ask or not; and our spiritual healing begins as we make this choice to forgive.

Brothers and sisters, we are upon the threshold of the season of Great Lent. Let us remember that God has already forgiven our sins, by His death for us upon the Cross, and His resurrection from the dead, which we look forward to celebrating on the Feast of Pascha. Our sins are forgiven by the mercy of God, as an act of His love; all we need to do is ask to be forgiven to receive the joyous release from sin and death, and the hope of life in the kingdom of God. Let us, then, being filled with the love of God, also forgive each other, and all persons, for the sins and offenses we have experienced; and let us humbly ask forgiveness of those we have sinned against, so that, together, we may rejoice in the love of God, and look for the coming of His glorious kingdom.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Making the Journey Through Life

(Sunday of the Last Judgment) (Matthew 25:31-46)

Let’s imagine for a moment that it’s summertime in Phoenix, and it’s hot – that’s not so very hard to imagine, is it? Now let’s imagine you’d like to take a trip and get away from the heat, so you decide to go to Flagstaff. Now let’s imagine that you don’t know the way to get to Flagstaff. You have two options: you can make some preparations; or you can just hop in your car and get on the freeway and hope for the best. You might, indeed, make it to Flagstaff; but, on the other hand, you might just as easily wind up in Yuma – and find it’s even hotter than it was in Phoenix, which you left to try to get some relief from the heat.

Or suppose you wanted to get away from the heat by going to San Diego – that would be my choice! Once again, you could plan your trip; or just hop in your car and get on the freeway and hope for the best. But who knows? If you haven’t planned properly, maybe your car isn’t up to the trip, and the next thing you know, you’re broken down on the interstate in the middle of the day in the middle of the desert, and the best you can hope for is that the tow-truck will come and bring you to the closest town – which, given the luck you’re having, will be – you guessed it – Yuma.

Well, whether you realize it or not, you are making a trip – right now, even as we speak. All of us are on a journey through life; and where we will spend eternity depends on the decisions and actions we make while we are here. Are you planning ahead for the trip? Or are you just drifting along, hoping for the best, hoping to wind up in paradise, instead of in a place that’s really hot? It needs to be said: hell is real, and people will find themselves stuck there, and it’s only because of the choices they’ve made during the journey of life.

Today’s reading from the Gospel according to St. Matthew gives us all the “roadmap” we need to plan for our trip. The road to paradise is the road of ministering to the needs of others: feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, and those in prison – in other words, reaching out in love to those in need. The bottom line? It is putting love in to action; because, if we do not love our neighbor as we love ourselves, we are not likely to take the time and effort and resources needed to minister to the needs of others – we’ll be too busy taking care of ourselves. That is not, we know, the road that we should travel – but all too often, that’s the road we seem to choose.

If the heart of the matter is love, where do we find that love? We must begin by remembering the source of love – that is, God. It is God’s love that has called us into being, so that we might share with Him in a relationship of love. It is God’s love that makes possible our salvation, for God shows His love for us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. When we respond with love to the love of God – loving the Lord with all our heart and soul and mind and strength – we become vessels filled with love, which can be poured out on behalf of those around us. God’s love flows through us to those around us; and it is by that love that we feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, and visit the sick, and those in prison.

So we have the roadmap – the way of love. But we also have to be prepared, so that we don’t break down while making the trip. That’s where the Orthodox way of life comes in: prayer, and fasting, giving alms and offerings, struggling to replace our sinful passions with virtues; and loving and caring for each other, and for those who still dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. Prayer brings us closer to God, and lets the reservoir of love be refilled. Fasting gives us strength, and teaches us to say “no” to our appetites; not just for food and drink, but for every pleasure, and especially for those before which we are weak. Giving sets us free from our attachments to this world, and helps us to see that we are not the owners of the good things God has chosen to entrust to us; rather, we are the stewards of that wealth – and when we understand this, then it becomes easier still to use these blessings for the benefit of the hungry, and the homeless, and the sick, and the suffering.

Brothers and sisters: You are making a journey as you go through life. The road ahead leads either to paradise, or hell. The choice is yours: which way will you go? May God bless us all to choose as His love has chosen for us: to be with Him, in love, forever.

Opening the Door to God's House

(Sunday of the Prodigal Son) (Luke 15:11-32)

Imagine that you have a child who is grown, and so has left home to live on his own. Now imagine that your child has made some serious mistakes, and has adopted a way of life that is harmful to him; and is a way of living of which you cannot approve. Now imagine that your child is returning home – clothes in rags, body unwashed, tired, hungry, lonely, scared. Are you going to refuse to open the door when he knocks? Are you going to refuse him food and drink? While there may be other circumstances where this may be what happens, for the most part, the majority of parents, in such a situation, will open their door as they have already opened their hearts, and rejoice that their child is alive, and has come home.

We see this in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

Now let us consider this parable, and our own parental response, in light of the mission of our parish, which we have said exists to be of help to us in saving our souls, and to reach out to those in darkness around us, that they also may be saved. When we sin, haven’t we become like the Prodigal Son, who ran away from home, and adopted a way of life that is deadly to us, a way of life, which our heavenly Father, cannot bless? Yet He does not withhold Himself from us, nor close the door of His house to us. Indeed, He runs to be with us, even while we are still a long way off.

How, then, can we close the door of His house to those who may not be dressed in an Orthodox manner? How can we be critical of those who may not know the rules of His house? When we do so, we are not showing the love and mercy of God; rather, we are like the elder brother, who scorned the celebration of his brother’s return.

Please do not misunderstand this point. Of course, we should do everything we can to learn the proper ways of behavior in church: Of how to dress, and how to bow, and how and when to cross ourselves. And when someone is ignorant of these things, and they ask us, we should lovingly tell them what they do not know. But first and foremost, our task is do what is needed to save our souls; and, if others are in need of help on the way, not to presume to be their judges, but to teach them by our good example, so that they will see the light of the love of God shining forth from us, and so desire to be like us that they adopt our behaviors and ways.

Our brothers and sisters are dwelling in darkness, and in the shadow of death. It is up to us to clothe them, as the Father did for His returning Son; but not to allow their need for attire, either literally or figuratively, to interfere with our celebration of the Feast. Let us be glad when someone finds this house of God for the first time, and not rush to burden them with all the rules. Let us give thanks to God when they come again; and let us give them time, and our good example, to encourage them to adopt our way of life. After all, what do you think is more important to God? That one of His lost children has come home? Or the way he chose to dress that day?

Writing the Law on Our Hearts

(The Meeting of Our Lord) (Luke 2:22-40b)

Forty days after His birth, St. Joseph the Betrothed and our most blessed Lady Theotokos went to the Temple in accordance with the Law of Moses to present the Child in the Temple, and make the offering for Him required by the Law. The Law required a lamb for a burnt offering to the Lord, and a turtledove or pigeon for a sin offering for the mother. As well, the Law required that every first-born male be consecrated to the Lord, both human and animal. This was, in part, acknowledgement that God had slain the first-born males in Egypt at the time of the tenth, and final, plague that preceded the Exodus of His people from slavery in that land. Sons were to be redeemed by the offering of a sacrifice; and so it was that the holy family went to the temple to offer their first-born son, and to make the required sacrifices.

We know that the Law does not save us. The Law was given to instruct us, and show us holiness; but the Law, by itself, is powerless to save us. Salvation is in Christ alone; and He is the only sinless one. Parents, take heart: Your faithfulness in living the Orthodox faith, in following the Orthodox way of life, is a positive influence upon your children, just as the obedience and faithfulness of St. Joseph the Betrothed and the Theotokos was a positive influence on the holy Child in their care. Of course, our children don’t live without sin; but how much harder it will be for them, if we do not set for them a good example! And even if our children have grown and now live on their own, and those who do not have children of their own, the way in which we live, the degree to which we follow the Orthodox way of life – praying, fasting, giving alms and offerings, struggling to overcome our passions with the virtues, loving and caring for each other, and worshipping God – we bear witness to the reality of the presence of God, and this can have an influence on many others who see us.

The “trick” – if I can call it that – is learning to write the Law on our hearts, so that it is not just something we follow out of fear of punishment (although there is some merit to that, to be sure). Rather, we remember our Lord’s summary of the Law: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength; and thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” – and let this law of love govern every thought, every word, every deed, every feeling. If we love each other as we love ourselves, we will not act to hurt or harm another in thought, word, or deed. If we love God with the fullness of our being, we will do all we can to keep ourselves from sinning.

And let us never forget that we were bought at a price. An offering was made by God to God, to redeem us from death, and our captivity to sin. In this, then, let us behold the love of God for us in Christ Jesus our Lord; and let us, in reply, meet Him in His temple, and make our hearts a temple to Him as well, that we may dwell in Him, and He in us, to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.