Sunday, April 30, 2006

"Peace Be Unto You"

(2nd Sunday of Pascha: Thomas Sunday) (John 20:19-31)

“Peace be unto you.”

Our Lord, risen from the dead, enters the locked room where His disciples are in hiding, and greets them with these words. We need to consider what these words mean, for He also greets us, as we gather here to remember and celebrate His resurrection. He is in our midst, as He entered into the midst of them on that day; and we are meant to receive His peace, and bear it to each other, and to the world.

What is “peace?” It has a number of meanings. Probably the one we think of first is the absence of war, or an end to fighting. Nations that have been at war make peace, and put an end to the war; persons who have been fighting with each other settle their differences, and make peace between them. “Peace” can also describe a state of public order and well-being; persons can be arrested for “disturbing the peace.” “Peace” is also a synonym for serenity; we sometimes speak of being at peace within ourselves, and we sometimes notice when, in the midst of turmoil and trouble, there are those who seem undisturbed by what is going on around us, and we may envy the state of peace in which they seem to dwell. But what is our Lord speaking of when He greets His disciples, saying, “Peace be unto you?”

First of all, He is saying to them, “Do not be troubled.” Consider the circumstances: His disciples are in hiding for fear of the Jews; and the One Whom they had followed had been put to death on the Cross – and now, suddenly, He has entered into a locked room into their midst! Were they seeing a ghost? And so He tells them to be at peace, and not to be disturbed in body, mind, or spirit, by what has happened, or by what is happening.

Once the shock of His appearance (and the manner by which He accomplished it) had passed, His words would also, undoubtedly, have reminded them of His conversation with them on the night He was betrayed, when He said, “Peace I leave with you; My own peace I give to you. Not as the world gives, do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” Later, in that same evening, He also said to them, “These things I have said to you, that in Me you might have peace. In the world, you shall have tribulation; but be of good cheer – I have overcome the world.”

And now, His work is completed. Risen from the dead, He has trampled down death by death. Death no longer has a claim on Him – or on those who dwell in Him by faith. Death has no power over Him; nor does death have any power over us, if we live in Him, and He in us. The world lives in fear of death, and death is in the world. But in the Kingdom of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ, there is no death. He has brought peace to those who struggle with the fear of death.

Of course, the wages of sin is death, as St. Paul teaches us. Each of us who has sinned deserves death as our “reward” – and we are all sinners. On one level, when we sin, we rebel against God; and so are at war with God, as we seek to establish the ability to rule ourselves, rather than being ruled by God. It is a war we cannot win; but we fight desperately, all the same. But Christ has come, and offers to us a way of peace, a way to cease fighting against God. Though we have been, or still are, enemies of God, He has come to make peace – and all we need to do is accept His terms: to accept His love for us, and His death on our behalf, and to allow Him to guide us in our lives, so that we may enter into the joy of His kingdom.

Brothers and sisters, our Lord is here in our midst, and He greets us with peace, in peace. If we will hear Him, and follow where He leads, we will find that He has made peace for us with God; and set us free from the power of death, so that we can be at peace within ourselves, and live in peace with each other as well. Let us receive this great gift of love from our Lord and God; and let us share it with each other, and with all those with whom our lives interact. Let us be vessels of His peace, and bear it unto all; let us go in peace, to love an serve the Lord; to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Now He is Resting in the Tomb

(Great and Holy Saturday) (Matthew 28:1-10)

The Author of all Creation is now held within His creation. The Giver of Life has now given His life in behalf of us all. He Who made the heavens and the earth in six days and then rested on the seventh day now rests in the tomb.

Usually, when a battle is fought, the winner is still alive; it is the one who is defeated who has lost his life. But this is not an ordinary battle; this is no ordinary victory. The One the world thinks it has destroyed by death is destroying Death itself by His death. The Creator Who is resting in the tomb is accomplishing for us a new Creation. The Giver of Life Who is resting in the tomb is giving life to those held captive by Death, and will lead them up on high with Himself. Death has been conquered; Hell is ravaged, and all those who had suffered in a place of darkness behold the uncreated light of the glory of God in our Lord Jesus Christ, Who has entered in their midst to set them free and lead them out of captivity into the glorious freedom of His kingdom.

So it is that St. Paul writes, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us; therefore, let us keep the feast.” As Israel of old was led out of captivity by the power of God, so too are we, the new Israel, the people of God, led out of captivity to death, and to sin, by our Lord Jesus Christ. We who are baptized into His death are also partakers of His life; by the waters of baptism, we have “passed over” from death to life.

The people of Israel, having beheld the power of God at the time they crossed the Red Sea, which God had parted for them to cross as on dry land, quickly forgot the mercy of God, and longed to return to the fleshpots of Egypt. It took a sojourn of forty years in the desert before they were permitted by God to enter the land He had promised to Abraham; the land of which they were the heirs.

We who have journeyed through the Fast of forty days in Great Lent also stand at the threshold of the promised land. Yet every time we return to the ways of sin, we repeat this failing of the people of Israel, who, for the sake of tasty food (in place of the manna, the bread of heaven, provided by God), were willing to become slaves in Egypt once more. Do we love the “taste” of our own sins so much that we will continue to turn our backs to Him Who has died to set us free?

The women come bearing myrrh to anoint His body. It is an act of love and devotion for Him Who had taught them so much, had shown them a glimpse of the heavenly realm, Who had inspired love in them with His love for them, and for all mankind. There were many obstacles in the way of their act of devotion; the possibility of being arrested themselves, of dealing with the soldiers guarding the tomb – and who would roll away the stone for them? But they were not deterred; instead, they set forth to perform this act of love – and found instead an empty tomb.

Now He is resting in the tomb. Are we preparing the myrrh, the sweet fragrance of a life and love devoted to God? Are we making ready the spices of a life dedicated to the ways of God, and not of the world? Will we also resolve to brave the obstacles that would keep us from fulfilling our duty to God? Will we, for this brief time, lay aside all earthly cares, all thoughts of the belly, all the worries of Martha, preparing for the feast, and watch and wait and mourn His death; so that we, too, may be filled with wonder and joy when we behold His empty tomb?

A King to Rule Over Us

(The Entry of our Lord into Jerusalem) (John 12:1-18)

When the people of God, the children of Israel, first asked the prophet Samuel to give them a king, so that they might be like all the other nations, he rebuked them for their lack of faithfulness to God, Who had brought them out of slavery in Egypt, provided for them miraculously in the desert, made a covenant with them, and brought them to a land that was not theirs and established them in it. What need did they have for a king, when God was in their midst? Yet, because of the hardness of their hearts, after warning them about what a king would require of them – including taxes, and the service of their sons and daughters – Samuel eventually anointed and crowned the man Saul to be the king of Israel.

Saul, unfortunately, proved to be all too human, and did exactly what Samuel had warned that kings do. As long as Saul listened to the commands of God, he ruled wisely, and the people of Israel flourished; but when he departed from the ways of God, the blessing of God was taken from him and given to another: to David, the son of Jesse, who would be king after Saul.

David, the shepherd who became the king, united the people of God, and made Israel a great nation. His son Solomon ruled after him; but Solomon also departed from the ways of God, and when his son became king, many rebelled against him, and the land was divided into two kingdoms, and Israel declined as a nation among the others in the region. They were conquered by invader after invader; and, by the time that God fulfilled His promise to send a Deliverer, our Lord Jesus Christ, the nation of Israel was a captive people, ruled by the Roman Empire. As such, the people awaited the coming of the Messiah, and looked to Him to establish the kingdom, restoring them to the prominence they had held when David was king.

We can certainly understand, then, the people who praised our Lord Jesus Christ as their king as He entered into Jerusalem. After all, He had just raised Lazarus from the dead after four days in the tomb! No mortal man has the power to do such a thing; surely God meant to establish His kingdom! But they were thinking in earthly terms only; and so did not comprehend what was taking place. By week’s end, most of those who had celebrated Hus arrival were crying out, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” as the high priests were declaring, “We have no king but Caesar.”

In this land, we do not have a king today. We have not acknowledged any man as king for some 230 years now. As such, even when we use phrases such as, “our Lord Jesus Christ,” we don’t usually associate the term “lord” with that of “king.” If we think about why our Lord Jesus came to us, we usually say that He came to save our souls, to set us free from sin by trampling down death by death. All of this is true, of course – but it does not give us the whole picture.

The whole problem began in the Garden, when Adam and Eve followed their own desires, rather than obeying the will of God. In doing so, they separated themselves from God, the Giver of Life. When you are not connected to life, of course, you are dead. By His grace and mercy, Adam and Eve did not lose their existence; but something crucial in them died; and, as well, they became subject to physical death – a new, and unpleasant, condition for them. Our Lord Jesus says of Himself and His mission, “I am come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly.”

When we come to Him in faith, asking forgiveness, He forgives our sins. When we come to Him in prayer, asking for help in our weakness, or sickness, or our struggle with our passions, He gives strengthening, and healing, and victory.

But we must also ask ourselves, how does He come to us? The answer is that He comes to us to be our King. Not a king in the sense of a tyrant, or an oppressor – but a king nevertheless, Who is meant to rule over us, to govern us, and Whom we are meant to obey. Think about it: why should we not do as He asks? After all, every direction, every instruction – every command – is not to exalt His position, or to gain riches or fame or any other earthly benefit for Himself. Everything we are told to do by Him is meant for our transformation, and so for our salvation – meant to make us citizens in good standing, entitled to dwell in and partake of the benefits of His kingdom. He comes in peace, to make peace, and allow us to dwell with Him in peace. He comes with love for each and every one of us, that we might love Him, and love and care for each other, and to show His love to all the world – and who among us, what person is there, who does not need and desire to be loved?

Brothers and sisters, today the Church places before us the remembrance of our Lord’s entry into Jerusalem, and His proclamation by the people to be their King. Let us also welcome Him into our hearts, and let us live in obedience to His commands. Let us surrender ourselves to Him by embracing the way of life of the Church – prayer, and fasting, giving, and struggling against our passions; loving and worshipping God, and loving God in each other, and in all who are made in His image. O Lord Jesus Christ, we pray Thee: Be the Lord of our hearts and the King and Master of our lives; to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Monday, April 10, 2006

The Ascetic Life: Flee to the Desert!

(Fifth Sunday of Great Lent: St. Mary of Egypt)

Over the past several weeks, we have seen how the ascetic life – the life of the Orthodox Church and faith; the life of prayer, and fasting, of giving, and struggling against our passions; the life of loving and serving God, and of loving and serving God in each other – this ascetic life is essential for us to see God, and to draw near to God. The ascetic life is essential for us to accomplish our own transformation, so that the life of Christ we have received in our baptism can be seen in us, in what we say and do and think and feel. We cannot fulfill our Lord’s command to take up our Cross and follow Him if we do not follow the ascetic way of life.

The ascetic way of life is of great importance to us. But we must not forget that it is only a tool for our transformation, and not the “ultimate” goal for which we strive. It’s easy to get so caught up in the rules and practices of the ascetic life that we forget that, above all, we are called to a life that is hallmarked by love.

Today, we remember and celebrate St. Mary of Egypt. Those who are familiar with her life – such as those who were here last Wednesday evening for the reading of the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, in which the life of St. Mary of Egypt is read – will know that hers was, indeed, a life of love, in every sense. Certainly, there would be a place in today’s world, in our culture, for the St. Mary we meet at the beginning of her life, for she was totally given to love – at least, as the world often uses that term. She did not restrain herself from “making love”; she indulged every sexual desire that came to her mind. Of course, that isn’t really “love” – but we need to be able to see beyond the world’s perspective to realize that all she was doing was allowing her passions to reduce her from bearing the image of God to living as an animal.

But the love story takes an interesting turn when St. Mary takes ship from Egypt to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Holy Cross, which we mark in September each year. She wasn’t going for reasons of faith; she wanted to enjoy corrupting the pilgrims on the journey. But it was God’s love drawing her nearer, even though she didn’t recognize this; and it was God’s love that prevented her from entering the temple until she repented, and asked the help of the most holy Theotokos. When her prayers were answered, and she could enter the church, she experienced an understanding of the mercy and love of God, and left there to keep the promise she had made to do her part in the transformation of her life.

Her fleeing to the desert was her response of love to the love of God that had drawn her to Him. She went to be apart from the temptations that would distract her and defile her in the world she knew and in which she lived. There she did battle against her flesh, and its desires, and the habits of sin she had so easily acquired, but which, she found, were not so easy to put off. She suffered from hunger and thirst; from the heat and the cold; and from the torments of the demons, who sought to reignite in her flesh the desires for pleasures she had previously indulged; even the singing of songs that were related to her sexual passions. (Of course, there’s nothing similar to this in today’s popular music, right?) It was only by years of these ascetic labors that she was able to gain victory, to reach a state of being where she was not afflicted by the desires that had earlier governed her life, and her actions. Even so, she never forgot that she had been a sinner, and never thought herself worthy of the respect of another – even though she knew St. Zosimas by name, and that he was a hieromonk – knowledge given to her by God.

Who among us has fled to the desert? (I mean, that should be easy enough – it’s right outside the door!) Who among us has prayed and fasted, as did St. Mary of Egypt, that we might be freed of our sinful passions? We all could certainly follow her ascetic way of life; but we do not, because we have not yet come to a place where we are so filled with the love for God that we lose our love for the comforts and pleasures of this world. Even so, God loves each one of us with the same intense love He has for His saints – and patiently awaits our response to His love.

Brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be ignorant, and so I remind you of what you should already know: God loves you, and desires a relationship of love with you, in a life that will never come to an end. I pray that you will be filled with this love, and so each of us will respond with love to God, and to all who are made in His image, and leave behind all the things of this world to pursue the life that draws us closer to God, and to each other. Let this be our goal as we draw to the end of this Great Lent, that we may be filled with the knowledge of the love of God for us in Jesus Christ; and let us love God, and God in each other, to the glory of His name, and the salvation of our souls.

Monday, April 03, 2006

The Ascetic Life: Pathway to Victory

(4th Sunday of Great Lent) (Mark 9:17-31))

Two weeks ago, on the Sunday in Great Lent when the Church reminds us of the life and teachings of St. Gregory Palamas, we recalled the practice of hesychia, or “stillness” – the quieting of our souls, in order to hear God speaking to us. The person seeking this stillness, and the purity of heart needed to hear God, must live the ascetic life of the Orthodox Church in order to be free from all worldly influences. This concept isn’t foreign to us – at least, it shouldn’t be, given that we hear it at every Divine Liturgy, in the words of the Cherubic Hymn: “Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim, and chant the thrice-holy hymn unto the life-creating Trinity, now lay aside all earthly care; that we may receive the King of all Who cometh invisibly upborne in triumph by the ranks of angels.”

Last week, on the Sunday of the Veneration of the Holy Cross, we were reminded that, to be followers of our Lord Jesus Christ, we must take up our Cross, and follow Him. The Cross is carried by us through the Orthodox way of life: a life of prayer, and fasting, of giving, and of struggling to overcome our passions with the virtues that oppose them; a life of loving God, and loving God in each other, and so forgiving, and seeking to be humble, seeing only our own sins, and not the sins of others. Once again, we see that the Orthodox way of life, by which we take up our Cross and follow our Lord, is the way of the ascetic life.

Today, the fourth Sunday of Great Lent, we are given the example of the life and teachings of St. John of the Ladder. He went to Mount Sinai, where the holy prophet Moses had brought the people of Israel after the Exodus from slavery in Egypt, and received from God the Ten Commandments written by the finger of God on tablets of stone. There, as a young man of sixteen years, St. John became a monk, and served his spiritual father for nineteen years. When his spiritual father reposed in the Lord, St. John then lived as a hermit in a small cave, practicing a very strict form of the ascetic life. He became the abbot of the monastery there on Mount Sinai, and worked many miracles. He died at the age of eighty, in or around the year 649.

It was while he was living the ascetic life alone in his cave that he wrote the book that has given him the name by which we know him today: “The Ladder of Divine Ascent.” In his book, St. John describes the way that a monk – that is to say, in the Orthodox point of view, anyone who pursues an ascetic way of life (which is not the exclusive practice only of monastics) – can raise his soul from earth to heaven, as though one was climbing a ladder. It is not so much a book of spiritual practices or exercises or techniques; rather, it instructs and directs those who desire to draw closer to God by revealing the realities of life in this world and in the heavenly realm, so as to encourage and inspire us by a glimpse of the divine vision.

Through these great teachers, such as St. John of the Ladder, we gain insight as well into the first Gospel reading today. The disciples of our Lord, St. Mark tells us, were unable to heal a demon-possessed boy; and, when they ask our Lord about this, He tells them that “this kind only comes out by prayer and fasting.” We see, over and over again in the lives of the saints, how they gain power over the demons because they lived an ascetic life. We are warned, however, that it is not “merely” prayer and fasting that has accomplished this. In the deepest sense, prayer and fasting are effective against the attacks of the demons only when we have, through the ascetic disciplines, achieved a state of true humility – thinking nothing of ourselves, whether praised, insulted, or ignored; and a state of total obedience to the will of God, having surrendered our own will freely to God, trusting ourselves entirely to His great mercy. We cannot overcome the demons without overcoming our passions – the avenues by which the demons attack us, to draw us away from God, and claim us as their own.

Brothers and sisters, in the time that remains to us in this season of Great Lent, let us give thanks to God for the wise teachers He has given to us; and let us also pay heed to their example and instructions. Let us dedicate ourselves to drawing nearer to God, to ascending the ladder by which we leave this earthly life behind, so that we might grow in the life of the world to come – to the glory of God, and the salvation of souls.

"Before Thy Cross..."

(3rd Sunday of Great Lent) (Mark 8:34-9:1)

We have reached the half-way point in our journey through Great Lent. Most of us are already tired. We’re tired of praying, and of prostrations. The service schedule is more demanding. We’re certainly tired of fasting. It seems as if Lent will never end. And, for many people (if not all of us), the enthusiasm that carried us through the first week of Great Lent, and the strength of that enthusiasm, which helped us to resist the temptations that beset us – the enthusiasm has worn off, and everything seems to be going wrong. We get sick, we get tired – and our sins come crashing back on us, and we yield to temptations that we did so well to resist only a few weeks ago.

That’s why the Church remembers and venerates the holy Cross on this day. We are to be encouraged by the visible display of the sign of the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ over death. We are also called to remember that He Who is without sin bore our sins to the Cross for us. Our failures show us that we cannot, by ourselves, in our own strength, overcome our habits of sin. It is by the Cross of Christ that we conquer the enemies of sin and death; and we need to redouble our efforts, beginning with calling on God in prayer, asking for the strength we lack in ourselves to live a life that is pleasing to God, and beneficial to the salvation of our souls.

Our Lord calls us to take up our Cross, and to follow Him. This works itself out in a number of ways. One is by returning to the disciplines of Great Lent, whether we feel like doing so, or not. Another is by facing the problems and cares and concerns of each day without fear, and without complaining, but rather with prayer, and with patience, and with humility. We take up our Cross by embracing and pursuing the Orthodox way of life – of prayer, and fasting, and giving, and struggle; of loving and caring for each other, and for all who are made in the image of God – knowing that the way of the Cross leads to death, in order to obtain life without end. What is this death? It is death to the world: to the pleasures that tempt us, and the problems that beset us. By the asceticism of the Orthodox way of life, we rise above these things, and so become dead to the world – by pursuing and living the life of the world to come, the life of our Lord Jesus Christ, the life we were give in our baptism, the life without end that is the fruit of the victory of our Lord.

We sing, “Before Thy Cross, we bow down to Thee in worship, O Master, and Thy holy Resurrection, we glorify.” We come forward to kiss the Cross. When we do so, we are, the fathers tell us, confessing that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Master, and our Savior. But these are empty words, and our bowing and kissing are empty actions, if our lives are not transformed by the knowledge that the way of salvation has been opened unto us by the way of the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. If we say that Jesus Christ is our Lord, but live instead in the ways of the world, with a worldly mind, pursuing worldly things, and living for ourselves, rather than for Christ in us, we are false witnesses. But if we live the Orthodox way of live, we will lose our life – perhaps literally, but certainly, lose our life in the world; that is, lose life as the world sees it – and gain life without end in the kingdom of God.

Brothers and sisters, the way of the Cross is before us. As we sing with our mouths, as we bow down and kiss the holy Cross, let us resolve to show Christ forth in our lives; and let us continue our journey through Lent, to the foot of the Cross at Golgotha – and to the empty tomb of Pascha.