Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Dwelling Place of God

(The Entry of the Theotokos)

Today, we celebrate the Entry of the Theotokos into the Temple. There are two remarkable aspects to this feast. The first is that she was taken by Zacharias, the high priest, into the holy of holies, which the high priest alone entered, and that only once a year, on the Day of Atonement. The second is that she then dwelt in the temple for the next nine years, taking part in all the services conducted there. The hymns of the Vigil service tell us much about these events: among other things, they tell us that, although she was but three years old when these things took place, she was well advanced in her spirit. By God’s grace, she was ready to enter into the life that would prepare her to be the dwelling place of God Incarnate, our Lord Jesus Christ.

We know that God is everywhere. Yet He commanded that a “dwelling place” be built for Him, and gave Moses explicit instructions on the tabernacle that was to be built for the people He had delivered from slavery in Egypt as they made their way across the desert to the land He had promised them. This tabernacle, a series of tents, with the Holy of holies in the center, was taken down each time the people moved; and rebuilt when they stopped – rebuilt in the center of the encampment. In this way, the people of God would know that He was in their midst, dwelling with them. Later, this tabernacle would be replaced with a temple in the city of Jerusalem, built by King Solomon; and later rebuilt – which was the temple into which the most holy Theotokos entered. The establishment of a “house of God” as a place of prayer, and a place for us to gather to worship God, continues among His people to this day. Indeed, we are gathered in such a place right now.

Yet, while this temple, and all such temples, are the dwelling-place of God, which we are privileged to enter, the place where God truly desires to dwell is within each of us, at the center of our being, in our heart of hearts. Have we built that temple for Him? Have we made it a place to which we go to meet with Him? Have we established a house of prayer for Him in the depths of our being? Our bodies, St. Paul tells us, are temples of the Holy Spirit – but whose face do we show in our daily lives? The face of God? Or that of His adversary?

Brothers and sisters, as we rejoice that she whose womb became the dwelling-place of God, bringing Him into our midst, let us also seek to enter into the temple of our hearts as she entered into the temple in Jerusalem; that we also might be transformed, and bear Christ in our lives, that He may be in our midst, and be present through us to all in the world, to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Through the prayers of the Theotokos, O Savior, save us!

"Who is My Neighbor?"

(25th Sunday after Pentecost) (Luke 10:25-37)

We’re all familiar with the Parable of the Good Samaritan, read today from the Gospel according to St. Luke. A “certain lawyer,” we are told, approached the Lord Jesus, and asks Him how he may inherit eternal life. Our Lord replies by asking the lawyer to interpret the Law of Moses. The answer to the question is the Summary of the Law: Each of us is to love the Lord with all our heart and soul and mind and strength; and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. When the lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbor?” the Lord replies with the parable.

We hear about a traveler who is attacked by thieves, beaten, and left for dead by the roadside. We hear of how a priest and a Levite both pass by without offering assistance. We hear about a Samaritan who sets aside the differences that separate him and his people from the Jews to reach out to help another person in need. He shows compassion, takes the time, spends the money needed to help the traveler recover. As such, when the parable is done, and our Lord asks the lawyer who is the traveler’s neighbor, he gives the answer we are all meant to know: Every person is our neighbor; and we are meant to be merciful to everyone.

Everyone? Everyone. The person set upon by thieves, even today. We should understand that, in addition to those who steal money and valuables today, there are persons and circumstances that deprive people of time and abilities: those who suffer from drug use and alcohol; those who suffer from other forms of addiction – and computers and the internet can, indeed, be addictive. We should also understand that “thieves” is also a reference to the demons, who steal from us our virtue by leading us into temptation, and wound us unto death by leading us down into sin. Having lured us from the protecting presence of God, the demons strip us naked and cause us to suffer in body, mind, and spirit. No one is immune; nor is anyone strong enough on his own to resist.

The ways in which we can show mercy are infinite, but all derive from what we see the Good Samaritan do when he encounters the suffering traveler. Those people you see with the cardboard signs at street corners and freeway interchanges? You can give them some spare change, or a dollar; as the Samaritan paid for the traveler’s lodging. There are soup kitchens and food banks that help to feed the hungry. There are opportunities to help the needy with their electric bills, and other organizations that operate emergency shelters, and help provide housing. In these ways, we help pour wine, and soothing oil, on the wounds that others in our midst are suffering.

More than that, we can take time: time to be with people who suffer. Look around you now. Do you think that everyone here is safe from suffering? How about your families? Are any suffering there? The people you work with; the people who live next door – your neighbors – are any lonely? Anyone afraid? If you don’t know, how can you help? You don’t have to be nosy; but we must begin by asking if we even care.

The Nativity Fast is underway. We are preparing to celebrate the birth of our Lord, Who came to us to save us, and lived in our midst as we also live. He is coming again, to judge the world – and how we live will determine how we live in eternity. Brothers and sisters, let us remember the love that brought Him to us at Nativity; and let us show forth that love, so that many more will know Him when He comes again; to the glory of God, and the salvation of souls.

"Who has Touched Me with Faith?"

(24th Sunday after Pentecost) (Luke 8:41-56)

“Who has touched me with faith? For I perceive that power has gone out from me.”

Our Lord asks this question of His disciples as he is going to the house of Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue, whose daughter, twelve years old is dying. Jairus has not touched Him with faith, although he did come and kneel before the Lord to beseech His help. Jairus could easily say, as we hear elsewhere in the Gospels, “Lord I believe – help Thou my unbelief.” He has hope, born of a desperate love for his daughter’s life – but he does not believe; not yet.

Rather, it is a woman who has touched the Lord, causing power to go out from Him. She had suffered for twelve years, and the doctors who attended her had been unable to bring her relief, or to end the bleeding that plagued her. She drew near with faith, thinking, “If I can but simply touch the hem of His garment, I shall be made whole.” She did; and she was. Her faith, as our Lord tells her, made her whole.

“Who has touched me with faith? For I perceive that power has gone out from me.”

Our Lord asks this question of us, who are His disciples, as He is going on His way to the “house” that is the center of our being. We are dying: for we all sin, and our sins are a confirmation of the reality of our death – unless we are found to be living in Christ Jesus our Lord. If we drew near to Him with faith, and met Him in our hearts, and showed Him in our lives, we would be like the woman with an issue of blood. We would be set free from our suffering; we would be made whole. But rather, we are like Jairus: we have hope, but we do not yet believe.

Why is it that we do not believe? Maybe it’s because we haven’t suffered. Our material lives are far more plentiful, much more blessed, than almost anyone who has ever lived at any previous time. Maybe it’s because we don’t recognize our suffering, being able to be comforted and eased by the many distractions and entertainments of everyday life. Maybe it’s because we deny that we are suffering; or maybe we have become blind to the reality that suffering is meant to draw us near to God in faith. But instead of doing so, we seek medical treatment, and therapy, and vitamins; and drugs, and alcohol, and other things that deaden our minds and so, for a moment, reduce our pain. It’s not that medicine and therapy and treatment are bad – they’re not. These are actually gifts from a loving God. But we must not allow ourselves to be distracted from the direction of our lives, either by the pleasures of this world, or the desires of our flesh. If we are not trying to draw near to the Lord, we are headed for death – and even our hope may be in vain.

Brothers and sisters: Let us not be faithless, but believing. Let us not deny the reality of our sins; and let us not be distracted by the pleasures of this world. Let us, by prayer and fasting, by giving, by struggle; by loving and forgiving, by patience and virtue, seek to draw near to our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us beseech Him to save us, and draw near with faith; that His power may come out from Him to us, to the glory of God, and the salvation of souls.

“Who has touched me with faith?” Please, Lord, in Thy mercy, may we touch Thee with faith.

Living as Angels on the Earth

(23rd Sunday after Pentecost)(Luke 8:26-39; Luke 10:16-21)

In the first reading today from the Gospel according to St. Luke, our Lord casts a legion of demons from a man. We should note that, in the Roman army, there were from 3000 to 6000 soldiers in a “legion.” Perhaps there were that many demons possessing the man our Lord encountered; but even if there were fewer, there were still very many present, causing the man great suffering and affliction.

In the second reading from the Gospel according to St. Luke, the seventy disciples returned, rejoicing. They had been sent by the Lord to preach the Gospel, and He had given them power also to heal the sick as a sign that His kingdom was truly at hand. They rejoiced that even the devils had to obey them when they gave commands in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our Lord confirmed their power over the enemy of our salvation; but He admonished them not to rejoice in the authority they had, but rather that their names were written in the book of Heaven. Even so, the power and authority He granted remain for His disciples; and we are His disciples if we also walk in His ways, and call upon His name.

Today we are celebrating our parish feast day, for the Holy Archangels. Angels are the messengers and servants of God, and they are also our guardians. We should remember that the demons are nothing more – and nothing less – than fallen angels, who defy God, rather than serving Him; and who seek to degrade and destroy all God loves, all that is precious to Him.

We also need to remember that we are called to live as angels on the earth. However, all too often, we live as animals, instead of fulfilling the high calling we have as beings made in the image, and after the likeness, of God. All too often, we devote ourselves to satisfying the desires of the flesh, living according to the ways of the world, turning our backs on the ways of God and the ways of His kingdom. At such times, it is entirely likely that we are following the influence, not of our angel guardian, but rather of a demon, or demons, who seek to obtain our destruction by leading us away from God.

Do we really want to join the demons in their rebellion against God? Do we really want to emulate them in their rejection of God, and all His ways? We who have been baptized and chrismated have been given the wondrous gift of the life of our Lord Jesus Christ, risen from the dead. We have the opportunity to commune with God, as did Adam and Eve before their act of disobedience caused them to be cast out of the Garden, sent from the intimate presence of God. We have the opportunity to fulfill our destiny and emulate God – and we choose to cast this aside, and instead cover ourselves with the filth of our sins, and to be like the demons?

Brothers and sisters, called to live as angels on the earth: Let us repent of our sins, and confess them to God, asking for His mercy and forgiveness. Let us call upon God to strengthen and guide us, that we may no longer give ourselves over to satisfying our sins, but rather to live a holy life, showing forth the life of Christ in us. Let us remember that, in Christ, we have power over the demons; and let us use that power, to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Holy Archangels, pray to God for us!

The Reality of Death and the Judgment to Come

(22nd Sunday after Pentecost) (Luke 16:19-31)

Yesterday, Fr. George and I spent some time with a family at a local hospice. We went to minister to the family of a woman, 38 years old, who will die in a few days, maybe even in a few hours. A wife, mother of two children, she was attended by her brother and her mother during the time we were there. There is no doubt that she is greatly loved; and no doubt but that she will be greatly missed.

We don’t like to experience such things; we don’t like to hear about them, or to think about them. We fear death; and all the more so because we usually don’t know the day and hour that has been appointed for our departing from this life. As a result, we tend to delude ourselves, acting as if we will live forever. We will – but not in the way we usually conceive. But our denial of the reality of death means that we do not prepare ourselves as we should for what comes after we depart this life.

The reading today from the Gospel according to St. Luke gives us a great deal of information; and it should spur us on to correct this error on our part. We see that there are two possible destinations for us after we leave this existence. Some will go to a place of blessedness; while others will go to a place of torment. The destination is based on the choices we make in this life, and the way we live. Live rightly, and we have the hope of entering a blessed repose. Fail to live as we should, and the chance of torment in the world to come is very, very real.

Today we remember the martyrs Zenobius and Zenobia, brother and sister, who departed into glory toward the end of the third century – really, 15 years or so before the Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, which ended the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. But these holy martyrs, faithful Christians, who used the wealth they inherited to help those in need around them, were not afraid of death – they remembered well the victory song of Pascha: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tomb, bestowing life. When arrested and threatened with torture and death, and urged to deny Christ, so that he could preserve his life, Zenobius said, “To live without Christ is death; and to die for Christ is to enter life without end.” His sister Zenobia shared his commitment, and so shared his fate.

We sin because we fear death. Because we fear death, we cling to this world, and its pleasures. Because we fear death, we cling to this life, because we think this is all we will have to enjoy. We need to learn to let go of this life; we need to learn to prepare ourselves for the time when we will leave this world to come more fully into the presence of God. We need to make Christ our greatest desire, and to let go of everything that keeps us from a life with Him.
How do we do this? How do we let go of this world? How do we prepare for death?

We do so by living the life of the Church. In prayer, we draw closer to God, and His Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. When we draw closer to God, we experience the richness of His love more fully – and so allow Him to become more to us, while the world fades away. Then we add fasting, which teaches us to turn away from worldly pleasures, and to subdue the habits we have developed for pleasing our flesh, by which we are bound to this world. In giving alms and making offerings, and by tithing, we set ourselves free from our possessions, and allow the love of God to flow to and through us to those in need in the world with us. We struggle against our sins and passions; and we labor to see God’s image in everyone, and respond to them as God responds to us: with patience, and forgiveness, with mercy, and love. Charity can only arise from love; and charity is key to preparing for death.

What would it have been to the rich man if, at just one of the parties he hosted for his friends, he had taken a portion of what was being served, and instructed his servant to take that portion to Lazarus at his front gate? He would never have missed what was sent away; but how much it would have meant to Lazarus!

We may not have a beggar at our front door, or at the end of our street, but we all have seen them on street corners and freeway on-ramps. Even if you’ve never seen one of these, you know they are out there, at the food banks, at the soup kitchens, at the shelters. The sick and the suffering and the dying are all around us; we need but lift up our attention away from ourselves, and we will see the many opportunities we have to show charity to others.

If you knew you were going to die tonight, would you live differently? If you knew you would be taken out tomorrow at noon, and be put to death, or were going to receive a lethal injection at sunset next Sunday, wouldn’t you act to prepare yourself for death? We will all die; and we will all have to give an account for ourselves. Brothers and sisters, let us embrace the grace-filled life of the Church, so that we may set ourselves free from this world; and let us love and care for one another, and those in need, so that the love of Jesus Christ might embrace us all, to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.