Thursday, June 22, 2006

Called to be Saints

(1st Sunday after Pentecost) (Sunday of All Saints)

Today, the Church celebrates a Feast in which all of the saints are commemorated. In the reading from the epistle to the Hebrews, we hear about some of them. Some were martyrs, who loved our Lord and His Church more than life itself, and so died rather than turn their backs on Him. Others, confessors, suffered tortures of all kinds while remaining faithful to our Lord, proclaiming Him as Savior and Lord despite horrible cruelties inflicted upon them. Others withdrew from contact with the world, living in caves and deserts and other solitary places, in order to pursue a life in God, and to be free from the temptations that surround the faithful in the world – which is to say, in the culture and society in which they live. There are many, many others, of course. Some, we know – and some who are known by God alone.

The Church, in her wisdom, has given us this day to remember the saints, who in word and deed have made known the truth of our Lord Jesus Christ through the quality of their lives. But we must do more than merely remember them, for we are called to be like them. Each and every one of us here is called to be a saint of God. Some may even be called to be martyrs, for it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how our culture is growing in its contempt for Christ, and its rejection of His life and teachings. Others may be called to be confessors – and all of us, if we live our faith, if we live the life we are meant to learn from and in the Church, will have people mock us, laugh at us, and reject us for the foolishness of our faith in Christ. The Apostle’s Fast, for example, begins tomorrow. What will the people you work with, or go to school with, think of you when you do not eat or drink what others are consuming, so that you can be faithful in keeping the fast? Are you prepared to answer their questions as to why you do the things you do, and why you have turned away from other things that our culture and society accept as normal, even healthy? And, if you answer, what will you do when they laugh at you, or turn their backs on you? Are you willing to suffer rejection for the faith?

Yes, brothers and sisters, we are called to be saints – to live a holy life in which Christ is revealed by what we say, and by what we do. We may not ever be called to be martyred, or to be tortured because of our faith. But we are all called to put on the life we have been given in our baptism; and our Lord Jesus Christ has told us the way we must go: we must take up our Cross, and follow Him. And so we pray, in order to draw closer to Him. We fast, so that we can withdraw from the world. We give alms and offerings, to set ourselves free from the things of this world that will possess us if we do not understand that all we have is entrusted to us as stewards of the blessings of God, to be used for His glory, and for the salvation of souls. We struggle against the passions that attack us, and fight against the sins to which they lead us; and we labor to love God with all of our being, and to love each other, and all the world, with the love of God in Jesus Christ. When we do these things, we take up the Cross appointed for us, and we carry it, as we follow our Lord Jesus Christ, as He leads us from this world to His heavenly kingdom.

Of course, we cannot do this by our strength alone. It is not possible to be a saint without the power of the Holy Spirit being present in us. But we know the Holy Spirit has come, for we have just celebrated the Feast of His coming, the feast of Pentecost. Now, just as the calendar of the Church makes clear, we a re living in the season after Pentecost – and so it is in time and space as well, for the Holy Spirit has come, and all who ask for His help and presence shall receive what they need to live a holy life.

Brothers and sister, called to be saints: Let us not neglect this opportunity to repent of our sins, to turn to God, to ask His help, and the power of the Holy Spirit. Let us devote ourselves to the Orthodox faith, and the way of life we learn in the Church, so that we may fulfill the high calling to be saints – to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Laboring to Be Like Christ

(7th Sunday after Pentecost) (Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council)

Our Lord Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, has ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father. He, possessing the Divine nature as the Son of God, has ascended with His human nature as well – and so, as Adam once lived in the intimate presence of God, so now does our human nature once more draw near to God, in and through our Lord Jesus Christ. A great part of our hope as Christians is that we, too, can approach God, Who has drawn near to us, as did Adam before the Fall. But in order to do so, we must be “in Christ” – that is, we must make real in our own lives the nature that Christ has healed and raised, and with which has ascended into heaven. We must take the life of Christ given to us in our baptism, and bring it into being in and through our own lives.

Brothers and sisters, we are meant to ascend into heaven – that is, we are meant to enter the intimate presence of God. This world is not our home. This material existence that we know is only part of the reality in which we are meant to live. But as long as we cling to the things of this world, as long as we are tied to the ways of the world, the flesh, and the devil, as long as we are weighed down by the cares and concerns of this material, earthly, fleshly life, we cannot rise; we cannot ascend the heights; we cannot enter the presence of God.

How do we set ourselves free from all that weighs us down, and keeps us from ascending? We must believe what we are taught by the Church; and we must put what we believe into action. We must believe that God is our Creator and Lord. We must believe that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has come and joined His divinity to our humanity, and that He died to save us, putting death to death, so that we might have life that does not end. We must believe that the Holy Spirit has come to make known to us the truths that save, and to empower us in our life of faith.

And we must put what we believe into action. We must labor to be more and more like Christ: showing forth His obedience – for He said He did not come to do His own will, but the will of God the Father, Who sent Him. As well, we must show forth His holiness, for He did not sin; and His patience and His love. We make a start in all these things by obedience to the way of life we are taught by the Church: a life of prayer and fasting, of giving and struggle, of loving each other, and God above all. By praying, we grow closer to God. Remember, when you spend time with a person, you tend to take on the qualities of that person – and so by spending time with God in prayer, we become more like Him, in Whose image we are made. By fasting and self-denial, we set ourselves free from the passions of our flesh, and so strengthen ourselves against the sins these passions will otherwise lead us to commit. By giving, we set ourselves free from the material possessions of this world, and from greed, and envy, among other things. By humility, we set ourselves free from pride. By loving and caring for all who are made in the image of God, we show not only our love for God, but the love of God for us; we make known the reality of God’s love among those who do not yet know this truth. By doing so, we make it possible for them to come to believe what we believe, and to adopt the way of life that we have chosen; and so bring them to share with us the way by which our souls are saved.

Brothers and sisters, Christ has gone up into heaven; and He has shown us the way we are to follow. Let us do so with faith and love; to the glory of God, and the salvation of souls.

Called to Follow our Ascended Lord

(The Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ)

Perhaps you’ve heard the reports that came out as the first cosmonauts went into outer space in the early 1960’s – how they had looked, but had seen no sign of God there in space. As ridiculous as this sounds, it shows the great lengths to which people are willing to go in their efforts to deny the reality of the existence of God; for, if there is no God, then who is there to tell us what we can, and cannot, do, apart from ourselves?

Although the example is a crude one, it is possible to see how the words of the scriptures can be used by those who wish to deny and deceive. In the epistle reading for today’s feast, we hear that our Lord was “taken up” from the midst of His disciples, and was received into a cloud. If we try to picture this in our minds, I suppose we would see the Lord “lifting off,” as if He was some sort of missile – and this is undoubtedly the image that the cosmonauts were invoking – as if our Lord had somehow become a satellite in orbit above the earth, or elsewhere in the cosmos.

When our Lord departed from His disciples, forty days after His resurrection from the dead, He “ascended” into heaven, to be seated at the right hand of the Father, as we affirm in the Symbol of Faith at each Divine Liturgy. We say He ascended, that is, went up, into heaven, not because “heaven” is some place over our heads in space, but because we recognize it is a higher form of existence than what we experience here and now – unless we have also made the journey, by climbing the Ladder of Divine Ascent.

This journey is not a simple one; we are not received into a cloud. We make the ascent by the way of asceticism: prayer, and fasting, giving, and self-denial; by loving God and all those made in the image of God, and not loving ourselves more than these. These ascetic labors take time, and effort – and even then, if we try to make the ascent in our own strength alone, we shall fail, ofr the task is one beyond our means, beyond our strength. But Christ, having risen from the dead, having ascended into the intimate presence of God, has done so with His human nature, which is ineffably joined to the Divine; and if we dwell in Christ, He makes possible in and through us what we cannot do ourselves.

Where, then, do we look for our Lord? We must first look within ourselves, for the kingdom of heaven, He tells us, is within us. We must journey to that place at the depth of our being, where God waits to share Himself with us in a mystic communion. Here again, we can go only by the ascetic way of life; for, otherwise, we will be distracted and diverted by the ways of this world, and the longings of our flesh. We must also look outwardly, and learn to see Christ in each person we meet. When we teach ourselves to see each other as what we are – icons of Christ, and more than icons, because we who have been baptized bear His life itself within us – we will be transformed by being vessels and servants of the love of God.

Brothers and sisters, let us celebrate this glorious feast of the Ascension of our Lord by resolving to follow where He has gone: to make our own ascent, leaving behind the life in the world, and living according to the way of heaven – loving God, and loving each other, bearing Christ and His love for all in ourselves, putting this love into practice in our lives, together with the ascetic way of life: to the glory of God, and the salvation of souls.

Eyes that See But Do Not See

(6th Sunday of Pascha) (The Healing of the Man Born Blind)

Christ is risen!

You know, it’s a funny thing: the man born blind knew he was blind. Now, because he had not seen, and then lost the ability to see, I suppose if no one had told him he was blind, he wouldn’t have known; he would have accepted the world in which he lived as one without sight. He was in darkness; but if he had not known that he was blind, he would have accepted darkness as a natural condition; and probably would have assumed that everyone else lived in the same way. His blindness did not keep him from learning; and among the things he learned was that the Messiah would come. He went to the pool of Siloam to wash with two things that each of us would do well to develop and practice on our own lives: obedience; and faith.

Here’s a tragic thing: Because we have eyes to see the world around us, we don’t know that we are blind. What, you don’t think this is true? Tell me, have you seen God? (I know I haven’t.) Yet we live in the world God created; and we are gathered here in His presence – so we should be able to see Him, right? But we don’t. We are in darkness; and because we don’t know we are blind, we accept our spiritual darkness as a natural condition, and we live our lives accordingly, and assume that everyone else lives in the same way. But because we see in the physical sense, we do not think we are spiritually blind; and so, unlike the blind man, we do not learn. We are not obedient to the teachings of the Church; and we do not have the fullness of faith.

After all, if we truly believed that the Messiah has come, we would not live according to the ways of the world; we would not live according to the desires of our flesh. If we truly believe what we say we believe in the Symbol of faith, we would begin to see the things of the spiritual realm, and come to desire these more than any earthly powers or pleasures. We would pray and fast, in order to be closer to God; we would give, and struggle against our sins, in order to be set free from this world. We would love one another, even those who hate and wrong us, in order to more closely resemble the God Who loves us, and Whom we should love with the fullness of our being. But we are blind to these truths; for, if we were not blind, we would not sin. The evidence of our blindness is our persistence in our sins.

Brothers and sisters, we do not need to wait for the Messiah to come. He has already come, and is risen from the dead, raising us to new life in Him as well. We have already been to Siloam; we were washed in the water of our baptism, empowered in our chrismation. We should see, where we were blind; but we choose instead to close our eyes, and blind our souls, thinking that we see. But now I have told you (and told myself): we are living blindly, although we should be able to see the glory of God, and the image of His beloved Son in each and every person we meet. Let us be disobedient no longer; let us confess our sins, and be washed clean once more. Let us go forth in love, caring for each other and all who bear the image of Christ; for then do we truly worship Him. In loving do we truly serve Him; and in serving Him, we will come to see Him; to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Christ is risen!

Springs of Living Water

(5th Sunday of Pascha) (The Samaritan Woman; Ap. John the Theologian)

Living in the desert, we are all aware (or should be aware) of the importance of having enough water to drink. Not only is water scarce – that’s what makes it a desert! – but the heat of the desert also increases the need for drinking plenty of water. If you are outside for any reason during the summer, and especially if you’re doing some type of work, you will get thirsty! When that happens, there’s nothing to compare with a drink of cool water.

The woman who meets our Lord Jesus at the well has come there during the heat of the day to obtain water. Our Lord asks her to draw water from the well for Him to drink; and uses this as a way to gently instruct her to her spiritual needs. He begins with her bodily thirst, to show her, from what she knows, a deeper truth she needs to know. He says of the well, “Whoever drinks of this water shall thirst again; but whosoever drinks of the water which I shall give him shall never thirst.”

“Water” here refers to the Holy Spirit, and especially to the power of the Holy Spirit to cleanse, as in washing with water; and to refresh, as in the drink of cool water when we are hot and thirsty. As water makes a garden or an orchard more lush and productive, so, too, does the Holy Spirit to the soul that is willing to be “watered.” As someone with a well that is deep never lacks water, and so is never thirsty, the soul that is watered by the Holy Spirit does not thirst: that is, such a soul is not touched by despondency, and is not touched by the plots and plans of the evil one, for the water quenches the fiery darts of the evil one.

Material thirst is quenched by material water; spiritual thirst, by spiritual water, the water of the Holy Spirit. We need both forms of water to stay alive. Material water must be replenished; we drink water every day (unless prevented). If we don’t, we will weaken, and then die. Spiritual water must also be replenished, and we need to drink of it every day. If we don’t, we will weaken, and we will die.

But wait: Doesn’t our Lord say that the water He shall give shall be a well springing up to everlasting life? Doesn’t this refer to something that is permanent?

Yes: but just as a spring of material water, which flows without ceasing, can become polluted, or even be stopped up by our actions, such as filling the spring with stones, so, too, is it possible for us to receive this life-giving spring in ourselves, only to pollute its waters with our sins, and to stop it up by the hardening of our hearts. To have this water remain in us, flowing pure and sweet, we must turn from the earthly life and be transformed by the life we learn in the Church: the life of prayer, and fasting, and alms-giving, and struggle; the life of repentance and confession; a life of loving and caring for others with the patience and love and mercy of God. When we pray and fast and repent and confess, we keep the water pure and unpolluted; and by loving and caring for others, we keep the water flowing. This is because, when all is said and done, the water of this life-giving spring in our soul is the love of God; and that water is not meant for ourselves alone, but that we might learn to increase the flow of this water, and so become a source of blessing and refreshment to everyone around us.

Brothers and sisters! God’s love for us is a ever-flowing river, great and mighty. Let us repent and confess, and fast and pray, that we might be faithful servants of God, and receive within ourselves this water of everlasting life. Let us also love and care for each other, and so be sources of comfort and refreshment to all who are made in the image of God, to the glory of His name, and the salvation of our souls.

Christ is risen!

Paralyzed By SIns

(4th Sunday of Pascha) (The Healing of the Paralytic)

Christ is risen!

If you think about it, we have the same problem as the paralytic. He wanted to be healed; but, when the time came, and the angel had troubled the waters of the pool at Bethesda, he could not get into the water by himself; he needed help, and he had no one to help him. We are paralyzed by our sins – especially by the ones that we have to repeat each and every time we go to confession, because we continue to repeat the sins through the course of our lives. Oh, sometimes we do resist the temptations that beset us; but even when we’ve had a victorious day, we know that, sooner or later, we’re going to fall again, and sin again.

We have to recognize that we are trying to overcome these sins by our own efforts alone, with only our own strength – and that we cannot, and will not, succeed by this approach. We have to recognize our inability to be holy and pure on our own; and that we have to ask for help.

So: how do we not try to do this by our own strength? I don’t know; I’m struggling with that myself. But there are hints from the fathers for us to take into consideration.

The first is that we must pray, asking for God’s help. OK, so this is obvious. It is the foundation for our having a rule of prayer, which begins with attending as many of the services of the Church that we can fit into our schedule – and giving these services the highest priority, rather than just “making do” with the ones that are convenient. The rule of prayer continues with developing the habit of daily morning and evening prayers. We start with the ones found in the prayer book; and add our own hopes and needs and intercessions for others as well. We make a part of this rule the blessing of food before we eat; and giving thanks when we have finished; and we also ask for God’s guidance before we start an activity, and give thanks when the task is completed. Bless yourself and the vehicle you’re driving when you’re about to depart. Parents, bless your children when they go to school, or are going out with friends; and children, pray for your parents. When you learn of someone in need, stop and pray for God to bless and help them. When you hear that someone has died, stop and ask God to be merciful to them, and to grant that person a blessed repose; and do the same when you pass by a cemetery. When you hear a siren, or see a police car, fire truck, or ambulance go by, ask God to protect and deliver those in need, and to keep safe those who go to render them aid.

Now, you’re probably thinking, “Wow, father, that’s a lot of time in prayer!” Well, keep in mind that St. Paul instructs us to pray continually. These are steps we can take in that direction; and when our minds are fixed in prayer, and we remember that prayer brings us into the intimate presence of God, it is easier to resist the temptations to sin! More prayer is good, and most all of us would benefit by it.

The next thing we need to do is to fast. Prayer and fasting are the sword and shield of our spiritual warfare. Fasting teaches our flesh that it cannot have what it wants simply because it wants it. Fasting weakens the flesh and its desires, and purifies us in body, mind and spirit. Fasting shows us that we can deny ourselves; and so we can learn to fast from our sins, as well as from food; and so gain an advantage against our sinful desires and habits. If you deny a weed the food or water it needs, it weakens, and can be uprooted and removed far more easily than when it is at full strength. So, too, it is with our sins.

It won’t surprise you, I’m sure, to hear that we must also give alms, and struggle against our passions. In fact, this is one of the points the fathers make about how we can achieve the victory over sins, the healing of our beings that we desire, but cannot achieve in our own strength. We see two mechanisms at work in the Gospel account today. The first, when the angel comes and troubles the waters, is akin to the Church, and the way of life we are taught to follow. If we will do these things, we will be healed; and it isn’t just the first person in who is helped. Each one of us can and will be transformed to the extent that we embrace the way of life that has been the way of the saints.

Of course, the paralytic was not healed in that way: he was healed by our Lord Jesus Christ. But note that he was present at the pool at Bethesda; it is there that the Lord found him, and delivered him; and afterward, he was found in the Temple, giving thanks to God. It was there, by the way, that he was also warned not to return to his sinful ways, lest something worse should come upon him than the paralysis from which he had been delivered. He did not come seeking out our Lord; he was following the way that had been given, and was found there and helped by the Lord. In the same way, we may also be found and delivered by the Lord; and we make ourselves available to Him by following the Orthodox way of life.

Finally, we must not be discouraged, we must not give up, just because we don’t see anything changing. Remember that the paralytic had waited, without becoming bitter, and without losing hope, for thirty-eight years! St. John Chrysostom notes that we, having persisted in prayer for all of ten days, and not having received what we had asked for, are too slothful afterwards to have enough zeal to continue in prayer. So, even as we continue to struggle to do all that we can with the strength that we have, we should also pray without ceasing for the strength and help we cannot do by ourselves; that our Lord Jesus Christ will strengthen us with His strength, and win in and through us the victory that we cannot attain by ourselves. Let us offer this prayer as we offer ourselves, to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Christ is risen!