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.