Monday, March 12, 2007

Deny Yourself, Take Up Your Cross, and Follow Me

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

At the end of today’s reading from the Gospel according to St. Mark, our Lord says, “There are some who will not taste death until they have seen the Kingdom of God come with power.” The fathers tell us He is speaking of Peter, James, and John, who saw Him shining with the uncreated light of His glory on the mount of Transfiguration. At the time of His incarnation, leading to His Passion, and to Pascha, His victory, where He tramples down death by death on our behalf, He appeared to be nothing more than just a man. When He comes again, He will come in glory – He will not be mistaken for anyone else, He will not appear to be anything more than just a man. At that time, He will come to judge the living and the dead – each one of us will appear before Him to give an account of our lives, of all we have said and done, and of all we have failed to say or do. The righteous will enter into the joy of the reward the Lord has prepared for them; the unrighteous will depart into suffering. No one, the fathers tell us, will be sent to hell. Rather, it is the weight of our own sins, unconfessed and unrepented, that will keep us from rising to be in the presence of God.

There is a way for us to follow that will lead us into the kingdom of heaven, into the paradise of the presence of God. That is the way of the Cross; and we do well to consider it as we come to this, the midpoint in our journey through Great Lent, the Sunday of the Veneration of the Precious Cross. The Cross is where the victory was obtained for us; and the Cross is the way we must go to leave this world behind, and enter into the Kingdom of God. “Whoever would follow Me,” our Lord says, “must deny himself, and take up his Cross.”

What does it mean to deny ourselves? Blessed Theophylact writes that we can learn what it means to deny ourselves by considering what it means to deny another. What do we tend to do when we see the suffering of another person? Do we intervene? Or do we go our way, and say nothing? To deny ourselves is to say nothing when it is us who are suffering – to consider ourselves as to be of no value in this world, and so to endure whatever comes our way in this world without protest, without complaint.

What does it mean to take up our Cross? It means to be willing to suffer, even die, for Christ. At some times, and in some places, this means a martyr’s death. Yet even when it is not a literal death, we are called to be willing to endure the ridicule and rejection of a “social” death – to be cut off from those who live in the world around us because we choose to follow the way of life we have been blessed to receive in the Church, rather than to live according to the ways permitted in the world. We are meant to be witnesses to Christ, to show Him present in the world because He is living in us – and so we live according to holiness, and not the way of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

“Before Thy Cross, we bow down to Thee in worship, O Master; and Thy holy Resurrection, we glorify.” Grant us grace, O Lord, that we may not deny Thee, but may deny ourselves, and take up the Cross of holiness, and make the journey through Great Lent to Thy glorious Pascha, and so be found worthy, in Thy mercy, to enter into Thy kingdom. Let us glorify Thee in word and deed, so that our souls may be saved; and we may bear witness to others, that they also may be saved.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Physical and Spiritual Illness

(2nd Sunday of Great Lent) (Mark 2:1-12)

In today’s reading from the Gospel according to St. Mark, we hear of the healing of a man who is sick with palsy; a condition that may refer to being paralyzed, with weakened muscles and possible tremors. He is all of us: paralyzed by sins, weakened by worldly thoughts and ways of life, and unsteady in all our ways.

When everything is going well, it is easy for us to live the Orthodox way of life. Praying is not a burden. It is easy to fast. We are generous with alms. We are not troubled by our sinful desires. But when the going gets tough, such as when we are sick, things are different. It’s difficult to pray. Fasting becomes a challenge. We don’t think of others, only of ourselves. We often indulge our weaknesses, using our sickness as an excuse.

The fathers teach us that we find out who we truly are in times of temptation and adversity, such as being ill. We are pushed by circumstances, challenged, and so reveal who we are. In the case of the man sick of the palsy, we might suppose that he realized his condition, and asked to be brought to the Lord for His help. If we are wise, we will do the same whenever we find ourselves in difficult circumstances.

Our Lord does not immediately heal the man; but rather, forgives his sins. We don’t usually like to consider this, but there is usually a connection between our physical state and our spiritual condition; and when we are ill spiritually, we may find this causing physical illness as well. Of course, we should always be considering how we live, and confessing and repenting when we find that we have sinned; and we should give thanks to God for the difficult circumstances that show us who we are, and how much work we each still have to do to become the person God wants us to be.

When the man sick of the palsy is healed in his body, our Lord tells him to take up his bed and walk. By doing so, the man shows that he has truly been healed; and, we are meant to know, that his sins were, indeed, forgiven. So it is with us. When we have examined our lives, and repented of, and confessed, our sins, the promise of God is that our sins, also, are forgiven. Trusting in the mercy of God, we, also, should take up our beds and walk – that is to say, we should also show, in deeds as well as in words, that we have been changed, that our souls have been healed. There should be something different in who we are, and in what we say and do, after we have repented and confessed. If there is nothing different, we need to ask ourselves whether we truly have repented, whether we have confessed everything – and again, if we find anything, repent, and confess – and be different.

As we journey through this time of Great Lent, this season of preparation for the celebration of our Lord’s Pascha, His triumph over death on our behalf, let us ask God for His grace to see our illnesses and our weaknesses and our wickedness; let us ask for grace to repent and confess; let us ask Him to forgive and heal us; and let us then take up the labor of living the life of Christ for all to see, to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Made in the Image of God

(The Sunday of Orthodoxy) (John 1:43-51)

Today, the first Sunday of Great Lent, we celebrate the Sunday of Orthodoxy. If we were at our cathedral in San Francisco, after the Divine Liturgy we could see the “Anathema” service. Here, amid prayers for the protection of the Church, the restoration of those who have departed from the Truth she declares into heresy, and the conversion of the unbelievers, are recalled the many false teachings, and teachers, that the Church has encountered in her existence. After each false belief has been mentioned, the people cry, “Anathema!” as the bishop who is presiding makes a dramatic gesture with the dikhiri and trikhiri – the two- and three-stemmed candles he holds, with which he usually gives a blessing to the faithful. On this day, however, he turns them down and away as the “anathema” is proclaimed – signifying that the Church rejects the false teaching described, and excommunicates those who support that lie in place of the Truth.

The remembrance of this day as the “Sunday of Orthodoxy” began with the end of the 7th Ecumenical Council. It was at this Council that the Iconoclastic heresy was anathematized. It was the decision of this Council that the veneration of icons was not a violation of the Second Commandment that God had given to us on Mount Sinai through the holy prophet Moses.

In all probability, many (if not all) of us who have come to the Orthodox Church and Faith from a Protestant background had to wrestle with the question of icons. This was certainly true in my own journey to the Faith. God has said, “Thou shalt not make unto thyself any graven image or likeness.” We hear from the prophets and the apostles and the fathers of those who “worship the created, rather than the Creator.” We know that there have been, and are today, those who ascribe mystical powers to clan totems and animals, such as the Bear, the Lion, and so on. We know that the Egyptians worshipped beings – “gods,” as far as they were concerned – who had human bodies with animal heads: a hawk, a jackal, and so on. Even the Israelites, while Moses was on the mountain of God receiving the Ten Commandments, made for themselves an idol of a golden calf to worship. We live in a material existence; and the temptation is always there for us to confuse the material for the spiritual – and so, ultimately, to worship the creation. Indeed, when we sin – which is to say, when we choose to do our own will, rather than what God has willed for us – we can truly be said to be worshipping ourselves – a form of self-idolatry.

How is it, then, that the Church could say that it is not only possible, but even, in a way, necessary, to venerate the icons? Doesn’t this, in effect, violate the Second Commandment?

In her wisdom – which we trust is guided by the Holy Spirit of God – the Church at the 7th Ecumenical Council noted that, by becoming incarnate, God had made Himself known to us. No longer was it impossible to truly and faithfully portray an image of God, as envisioned in the Commandment – for now God was with us; and He had been seen by us, had moved about in our midst as one of us, a bearer of human being. The icons bear witness to the reality of the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity in the flesh; the icons tell us that Christ was truly God and truly human – and to believe otherwise is anathema. When we grasp this teaching, we are better equipped to grasp the teaching of St. Athanasios the Great, who said, “He became as we are, in order that we may become as He is.” And there is more.

The simple application of pigment to wood that we call an icon is not the most important part of the gift we have received from the Fathers of the 7th Council. We need to recall that humanity is created in the image and after the likeness of God. So not only are we meant to venerate the icons we see in the Church, and in our homes – we are meant to venerate the saints who are depicted there, for they, also, by the quality of their lives, bear witness to Christ, Who is God in the flesh, come to us to bring us to Him. Not only are we meant to venerate the saints who are celebrated – we are meant to venerate each other, for we, also, are made in the image of God; and we who have been baptized and chrismated bear the likeness of Christ. We are all icons; we all are able to show Christ to the world, for He dwells in us, and desires that we live in Him.

Would you spit on an icon? How, then, can you have contempt for another human being, who is an icon of Christ? Would you defile an icon? How, then, can you defile yourself by your sins, you who are an icon of Christ? As we bow down before the icons of the saints, out of respect for the testimony of their lives, and out of love for them whose love for our Lord is so great that it took them from earth into the deeper reality of the heavenly life, so, too, we should humble ourselves to all around us, thinking the best of them, and the least of ourselves. We should care for them and for their needs, for when we reach out in love to help another, we have the opportunity to do so for our Lord as well.

Brothers and sisters, let us ask God for His grace, that we may faithfully bear, and show to the world, Christ in us, our hope of glory. Let us humble ourselves in veneration of the image of God in all; and let us love one another, as Christ loved us, and give o ourselves as He gave Himself, an offering and sacrifice to God. If we will do so, we will receive the unending love and blessing of God; not only for ourselves, but for others, as well. If we will do so, Orthodoxy will triumph in our lives; and to the glory of God.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Forgiveness Sunday and Great Lent

(Sunday of the Casting Out of Adam) (Matthew 6:14-21)

Today is the last Sunday before Great Lent, the period of preparation for the celebration of the Pascha of our Lord, and of our being set free from the death we have earned as a result of our sins. On this Sunday in the church year, we are called to remember that Adam and Eve were cast out of Paradise because they chose to follow their own will and so disobeyed God, rather than submitting their will to the will of God in obedience to Him. Every time we choose the way of sin over the way of righteousness, we repeat the sin of our first parents; and so we also are denied a life in the presence of God.

Even so, God does not abandon us. He calls us to return to Him, to confess our sins, and to ask His help to transform our lives, so that we do not continue on the way that our first parents chose, but rather to return to the way of obedience to His will, and to walk in His ways, doing what is good and pleasing to God, loving and caring for all who are made in His image, tending to His world as His stewards, and seeking humility and righteousness on our part. In short, we are called to show forth in our lives the life of our Lord Jesus Christ, given to us in Holy Baptism, empowered by the Holy Spirit in chrismation, fed an nurtured in us by the Holy Mysteries of the Body and Blood of our Lord, and by the words of the Holy Scriptures, and the teachings of the holy Fathers, and the lives of the saints. Our Lord Jesus Christ, Who humbled Himself to take on our nature, and Who lived in obedience to the will of God, and was righteous in all things, having been abused in word and deed, as He was dying on the Cross, forgave His tormentors – and all of us who stand with them every time we sin – and so we also mark this day, and the entry into the journey of Great Lent, by forgiving others, and asking forgiveness of each other – making this also “Forgiveness Sunday.”

The “journey” on which we are about to embark takes place in time and space, as we seek to turn aside from worldly pleasures and pursuits, and use our time to pray, and worship, and study the Bible and the teachings of the Church. In doing so, we must keep in mind the truth that the world is not our home. We need to remember that the people of God who had been set free from their slavery in Egypt, and were being led to the Promised Land, looked back with longing on the things they had enjoyed in their life of captivity, and even desired to return to them, rather than completing the journey on which God Himself was leading them. We who have been set free, not merely from slavery, but from death itself, may also be tempted to turn our attention to the desires of our flesh, and the pleasures and comforts of this world. But let us be strong, brothers and sisters, and fix our resolve to make the journey, and, whenever we find ourselves growing weak in that resolve, call upon God for grace and strength, and renew our commitment, and increase our labors to be less ourselves, and more and more the people God desires us to be – bearers of the likeness of His beloved Son, and fellow laborers with Him Who saves us.

This world is not our home; and the emptiness that follows each and every time we obtain what we have desired in this world tells us that we must seek fulfillment not in our passions and in our earthly life, but in the way of life of the Kingdom of Heaven. Let us lay aside all earthly cares; let us remember the love of God that saves us; let us seek to deepen that love within ourselves; and in that love, let us seek to keep a holy Lent – to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Love and the Last Judgment

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

Two weeks ago, on the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, we saw a contrast between pride, the source of all other sins, and humility, by which we struggle against our sins, and find the way to forgive others. Last Sunday, the repentance of the Prodigal Son, with his humility, is contrasted with the righteousness of the elder son, who hardens his heart against his brother who had misused the gifts he had been given, indulging himself in satisfying his passions according to the ways of the world. We also saw the forgiving love of the father, who rejoiced when his son, who had been lost to the world, returned; and that love which led him to go to his other son. He spoke to him to assure him that he, too, was loved, and would also obtain a blessing – and the father pleaded with him to forgive his brother for the sake of the love the father had for him.

Now, we see why it is so important for us to understand these contrasting choices and ways of life, and to make our own choices as to how we will live accordingly. Our Lord tells how it will be on the great and terrible Day of the Lord, when we are all called to account for our choices, and the way we have lived. The way of pride and hardness of heart will lead to being placed among those who are told they are cursed, and will spend eternity in the fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels; the way of humility and forgiveness, the way of love, will lead to an eternity of blessed communion with God and the saints.

Here’s something to think about: Each of us has a ministry to perform. What is that ministry? While each of us has been given different gifts and abilities – as was the prodigal son – we all have something in common. Every Orthodox Christian has been given the life of Jesus Christ, risen from the dead. It is not something we deserve, even if we were without sin – and, of course, we are not. It is not something we can earn – it is a free gift given to us by God, Who loves each one of us, has called each one of us into being, and calls each one of us to share our lives in a relationship of love with Him. He also desires that this relationship of love never end; and, I am sure, if it was up to God alone, there would be no one placed on the left hand, to depart into eternal fire and torment – His love for us is that great. No, it is up to us, each one of us, to choose. What must we choose? To fulfill our ministry. What is that ministry? To show forth in our own lives the life of Christ, planted in us by the grace of God in baptism.

Our Lord Jesus Christ lived without sin; so when we seek to do the same, we show Him forth to all the world. We have the life of the Church to strengthen and guide us, to help us to achieve success on this path. Our Lord Jesus Christ was obedient to the will of the Father. He endured the insults and abuse hurled at Him without anger, without hatred, without resentment. His love for us is so great that He suffered all these things, and death on the Cross, and the darkness of the tomb, to save us from death, and make possible life without end in the joy of heaven.

This is the love that makes it possible for us to go beyond ourselves to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, and to visit and comfort those who are sick or in prison. This is the love that led the Lord to stretch out His arms on the hard wood of the Cross; and this is the love that our heavenly Father has for us, and from which comes the forgiveness of our sins.

Brothers and sisters, let us give thanks to God each day for the love that saves us; and ask God each day to let that love flow from us, so that we might be like Christ, and enter into His kingdom, and the joy He has prepared for us. Let us turn aside from loving ourselves, and love God, and all who are made in the image of God, that He may be made known, and glorified, and we may have hope that our souls will be saved.

Monday, February 05, 2007

A Tale of Two Brothers: Healing a Divided Church

(Sunday of the Prodigal Son) (Luke 15:11-32)
(The New Martyrs and Confessors of Russia)

Last Sunday, we were called to consider the contrasts between the Publican and the Pharisee, between pride and humility. Today, the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, we are again presented with two contrasts, between the Prodigal, who took the wealth given to him and squandered it by indulgence in worldly pleasures, and his elder brother, who remained faithful to his father’s ways, but was hard-hearted. The Prodigal Son repented of his sins; but the elder brother was unwilling to accept this repentance, and was clearly disturbed by the reception his brother received upon his return home.

We know the story, and we know the contrasts in it, and we know whom we should emulate. As we know that we should be like the Publican in his humility, and not proud, like the Pharisee, we know that we have sinned, and have departed from our Father’s house. We have wasted the time and resources and abilities He has given us that were supposed to be used for the good of others to satisfy our own sinful, worldly desires. We know that we who have been like the Prodigal Son need to come to our senses, and return to our Father’s house, and repent, and seek no honors, but be willing to take the lowest place. We also know that we should not treat others as the elder brother treats his father, and the brother who was lost and now has returned. All of this, of course, is easer said than done.

Today is also the day we commemorate the New Martyrs and Confessors of the Russian Church, who suffered and died at the hands of the Bolshevik government that came to power in Russia, and which tried to destroy the Church in the Russian land. Some of you have heard me say before how my own journey to the Orthodox Church and faith and way of life was helped by two understandings: that the Church, the Body of Christ, is One, and that to be apart from the Orthodox Church was therefore to be outside the Body of Christ; and the second was the testimony given to the power of our Lord and His Church by the New martyrs and Confessors of Russia, whose sufferings were not long ago and far away, but close at hand, indeed, occurring even in my own lifetime. The living faith of the ancient Church was found in them, and made their witness possible, even unto death – and I had to be a part of that Church and faith and way of life in order to save my soul, and the souls of may family – and so we became Orthodox.

There is something remarkable about these two events taking place on this day, a connection I cannot help but make while pondering the Prodigal Son and the New Martyrs and Confessors. As you may know, the Russian Church, of which we are a part, was wounded by the Civil War that followed the revolutions of 1917, and the rule of the Bolsheviks thereafter. As a result of grievous circumstances, a division arose in the Church. Now, after many years, and many steps, if things go as presently announced, on May 17, 2007, the Feast of the Ascension of our Lord, our Metropolitan and the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia will sign an Act of Communion that is meant to bring to an end the division that arose from revolution and war. I offer this for your consideration.

It would be fair, I think, to say that, if we try to draw parallels between the parts of the Russian Church that have been divided, that our perspective has been that the church in the Russian land parallels the Prodigal Son, departing from the house of faith and dwelling with the pigs, and only later coming to her senses; while the Church Abroad remained faithful to the ways that had been entrusted to us by our fathers in the faith in the Russian homeland. In this, we are more like the elder brother; and therein lies the danger.

Was the Prodigal Son without sin after his return to his father’s house? Certainly, he repented, and was received back home. We don’t hear any more of the story; but if he was like us, we can say with certainty that he sinned again. The key is his act of repentance – and that was good enough for his father, who did not expect a complete transformation, and put no conditions upon his son when he returned, but rejoiced that he had come back. His elder brother also sinned by hardening his heart against his brother, and speaking disrespectfully to his father. Di he also repent? We do not know. Did he reconcile with his brother? We do not know, but can only hope that he did not place so much importance upon his righteousness that he hardened his heart, and so could not share his father’s love, for only that love makes forgiveness possible.

Is the Church in Russia perfect? No; for a church is always made up of sinful people. Are there problems and behaviors that need to be addressed? Of course. But we also need to ask, are we, the Church Abroad, without sin? No, for a church is always made up of sinful people. Do we also have problems and behaviors that need to be addressed? Of course.

The leaders of the Church in Russia have repented, and desire that the wounds between us be healed. Our hierarchs have decided that the time to act to bring about this healing is now. Thus, the question for us is: Will we be like the elder brother, and reject our brothers who were lost, but now have come back home? Or will we be like the father who rejoiced when his wayward son returned, and welcomed him back, welcomed him with love, even though he undoubtedly knew that his son would sin again?

May our Lord, Who blessed and sustained the New Martyrs and Confessors in their sufferings, and Who rejoices to receive us, prodigals, when we repent and return, grant us not to harden our hearts, but to trust in Him, and in His love, and in His Church, which we hope and pray will be healed.

What's Your Excuse?

(Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee) (Luke 18:10-14)

What’s your excuse?

What excuse do you use to justify the choices you make and actions you take that lead you to sin? If you’re like the rest of us, you excuse boils down into one of two basic responses. Either we think to ourselves – or say to others – “I’m entitled”; or else we claim as our defense, “Everybody else is doing it!”

It’s pride that leads us to think we’re entitled to have or do what we want. It’s pride that leads us to think we are better than others, more deserving, more important. It is pride that leads the Pharisee to consider himself to be a better person, and so more deserving of God’s blessings, than he thinks the Publican should receive. It was pride that led Lucifer, the highest of all the angels, to think himself equal to his Creator, and so to rebel against God; and it was pride that he stirred up in Adam and Eve to lead them into sin and death. Sin and death are the only place to which following pride can lead us.

The virtue that opposes pride is humility. How much different would our relations be with every other person in our lives, known or unknown, casual or deep, if we were humble, instead of proud? Husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters, friends and neighbors – how much different would our world be if we learned only to see and condemn our own sins, and to be blind to the sins of others, so as not to judge them? How much different would our lives, and our world, be if we took responsibility for what we have said and done and thought and felt, and forgave others without waiting to be asked, and considered everyone else to be more worthy, more honorable, more deserving than we are ourselves? The path to this humility begins by our striving to be like the Publican, not drawing near to God as if we were worthy, but bowing down in His presence, and beating our breasts, and saying, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

As for the excuse, “Everyone else is doing it,” we don’t need to turn to the Fathers for instruction here – because I’m sure you’ve already heard from your mother about this one! “What if everybody is jumping off the cliff? Are you going to jump off also?” That’s what my mother always said when I tried to justify doing something I knew was wrong, or to escape the consequences for having done so. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that the excuse that “everyone else is doing it” is, in fact, already an admission of guilt – and we’re trying to spread our part of it out against everyone else – as if doing something wrong could be set aside because enough people did the same thing. Even when it might work out that way in the world, God doesn’t work that way – and we know it.

Brothers and sisters, we cannot prove ourselves worthy in the eyes of God, for there is nothing we can do by ourselves to overcome our passions and our sins. When we live by our own strength and wisdom, when we live by the ways of the world and our flesh, we are living as if we are spiritually dead – and so we are. Having been baptized into Christ, let us put on Christ, and dedicate ourselves to making His life and His ways known in and through our own. He humbled Himself, and so should we. He was obedient to God the Father, and so, too, should we. He loved everyone and brought hurt or harm to no one – and so, too, should we.

In the week to come, we do not fast, so that we cannot stand with the Pharisee and boast of what we have done. Let us strive to be like the Publican; let us strive to be like our Lord Jesus Christ: humble, obedient, and loving – to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand

(32nd Sunday after Pentecost) (Matthew 4:12-17)

We are creatures of time and space. We live and move and have our being within the regions of length and width and height, and the passage of time. Scientists and philosophers imagine and discuss existence beyond space and time; but for most of us, the reality in which we live is defined and delimited by these dimensions.

God, of course, is beyond space and time. This isn’t hard to grasp, even if we cannot conceive of what such an existence might be like; for space and time have their being in creation, and God, as the Creator, is greater than His creation. Among other things, this gives added significance to events that we have celebrated recently. Two weeks ago, we celebrated our Lord’s entry into space and time, as He took on our human nature, was born as we have been born, and dwelt as one of us. This past Friday, we celebrated His baptism in the Jordan River, and the beginning of His earthly ministry, which will be completed, in one sense, by His death on the Cross and His resurrection from the dead.

Today, we hear of the start of His earthly ministry. Our Lord Jesus Christ, having been baptized so as to fulfill all righteousness on our behalf, came up out of the waters of Jordan and was revealed as the Son of God, as the Father was revealed by His declaring, “This is my beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased”; and as the Holy Spirit was revealed by descending upon our Lord in the form of a dove. He then went into the desert to fast and pray for 40 days; and overcame temptation by the enemy of our salvation. When He returns from the desert to the world of men, He takes up the proclamation of St. John the Baptizer: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

“The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” What does this mean? This is a question for us to consider, knowing what we know: that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, Who died on the Cross, and rose from the dead for our sake, and has ascended into heaven. We know that He is King of kings and Lord of lords. Thus, as a King, he dwells in His kingdom; and, because He is God, and so is not limited in time and space, His kingdom is everywhere. Standing here today, in this place as His Body, the Church, we are in His kingdom. So we can immediately come to understand that the Kingdom of heaven is near us; it is, “at hand,” because we are already in it, as He is here with us.

Our Lord tells His disciples, “The kingdom of heaven is within you.” We can also grasp this, as all those who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. He dwells in our hearts; and so the King is within us, a part of our being, and so His kingdom is there. He is meant to rule over our lives; and His kingship at this time is such that His “rule” is not that of a dictator, issuing commands which we must obey, but rather that of a guide, Who desires nothing more than that we learn to walk in His ways and do His will, in order that we might never be at risk of being exiled from His kingdom. In His love for us, He desires that we allow Him to live in us, that we might forever live in Him, and share in a relationship of love that cannot be broken. But when we live, not according to the ways of the kingdom, but rather according to the ways of the world, and the desires of our flesh – when we give ourselves over to sin, we harden our hearts, and cut ourselves off from Him – and so we do not benefit from being in the kingdom, but live instead as rebels and enemies. Brothers and sisters, this should not be. How tragic it will be, to have the kingdom of heaven so close at hand, and fail to receive the blessings that are ours!

There is another meaning as well to our Lord’s proclamation of the kingdom that we must all realize, for it is meant for our blessing as well. When our Lord declares, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand,” He refers, the fathers tell us, to the day when He returns in glory to judge the living and the dead. On that day, His victory on the Cross will be completed; and His enemies will be forever cast down. How terrible will that Day of Judgment be for those who are found to be outside His kingdom! Yet there is hope: for if we embrace the life of the kingdom now, before that day; if we love the Lord will all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and put that love into action by seeking holiness, and the overcoming of our passions; if we love our neighbors as we love ourselves, and act with patience and mercy and forgiveness and forbearance, as God does in His dealings with us – then we need have no fear of the Judgment Day, for we will find that we have already been living in the Kingdom, and lack only its fullness, which we will enter at that time.

There is one more point we need to know, and it is this: The Lord desires that the proclamation of the kingdom be continued today, and He entrusts this ministry to each of us. What we say, and what we do, how we think, how we live, says to everyone around us how we feel about the kingdom. Do we take it seriously? Or is it of little or no concern to us? Again, if we know of the love of the Lord our God, and desire above all to walk in His ways, we will be messengers of the kingdom, and find our reward, both now and in the age to come. Not only will we find salvation for our souls, but we will help others to be saved, as well.

Brothers and sisters, let us embrace the high calling of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let us live as citizens of the kingdom of heaven; and ask God for grace to show this forth to the world, that those who do not know may hear and see, and so find their way to the kingdom as well – to the glory of God, and the salvation of souls.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Partners in the New Covenant

(31st Sunday after Pentecost) (The Circumcision of our Lord)

When God established His covenant with Abraham, promising that Abraham would be the father of many nations, with more descendants that there were stars in the sky or grains of sand on the beach, He also gave Abraham a command: All of the males who were to participate in this covenant were to be circumcised. The command was repeated to Moses, and then to Joshua. The sign of circumcision was a sign of those who were a part of the covenant; and those who disobeyed the command of God were cut off from the covenant, and to be cast out of the community of the people of God.

When our Lord Jesus Christ was eight days old, his parents, in accordance with the command of God, took the young child to be circumcised. He Who had given the covenant now was obedient to His own command, and was circumcised in the flesh that He had obtained from His mother, the Ever-Virgin Lady Theotokos. Later, when He presents Himself to be baptized – which feast we will celebrate later this week – He gives an explanation that also accounts for His circumcision: that He might fulfill all righteousness.

In the early days of the Church, there was a controversy raised when some were requiring converts to the Faith to be circumcised before they were baptized. The apostles acted to declare otherwise, and the apostle Paul wrote that those who were circumcised should not seek to change their condition; while those who were uncircumcised did not need to be circumcised in order to be baptized. As a result, baptism became the sign of the New Covenant in Christ – and all believers (not just the men) were to participate in this mystery, as a sign of their acceptance of the New Covenant.

So, each of us who has been baptized into Christ has entered into a covenant with God. What is that covenant? It is not the Law – that covenant is the covenant of circumcision. Indeed, St. Paul writes that those who are circumcised to fulfill the Law are responsible for keeping all of the Law. The Law is not bad; but the Law, by itself, is unable to save us. We are called, rather, to love: To love the Lord with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. This is consistent with how the prophets of old understood the act of circumcision. The cutting of the flesh of the body was not only the sign of acceptance of the covenant; it was a direction to a deeper transformation that was required. “Circumcise your hearts,” the people of God were told. They were called to holiness, as an act of love toward God; and to acts of charity to those around them, as a way of loving our neighbors.

Brothers and sisters, our Lord was obedient to the command, and was circumcised in order to fulfill all righteousness. Will we be obedient to the command to love, and live so as to fulfill all righteousness, as Christ loves us, and gave Himself for us as an offering and a sacrifice? Will we give of ourselves, setting aside our pride and our pleasures, so as to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, and visit the sick and those in prison? Will we set aside our pride and our pleasures to give from what we have for the work of the Church? Will we set ourselves aside so that Christ may be seen in and through us, holy and righteous and without sin? If we will, we honor God, and fulfill the covenant He has made with us to save our souls. If we do not, we are at risk of being cut off from the covenant, and cast out of His community. The choice is ours…

Monday, January 08, 2007

Bearing Christ

(The Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ) (Matthew 2:1-12)

Christ is born!

Of course, today we celebrate the Nativity of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, Whose birth fulfills prophecy. He is called Jesus, which means, “the salvation of God.” This was the message the angel gave to the shepherds: “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, Who is the Lord’s Anointed One.”

We rejoice that God’s love brought Him to save us by taking our humanity upon Himself. We rejoice that God’s love for us is so great that He forgives the repentant sinner, and calls each of us to be joined to Him, as He has joined Himself to us. These are all great reasons to celebrate His birth in the world.

But even as we keep this joyous Feast, too many of us repeat another part of the story of His Nativity. You’ll remember – as we heard in the reading yesterday at Great Vespers – that when Joseph found that his betrothed, the Theotokos and ever-Virgin Mary, was with child of the Holy Spirit, he resolved to “put her away” in private. He was a righteous man, and so could not take into his home a child that was not his own; but he was also a merciful man, and so did not seek to have Mary judged according to the law – the penalty for what she had done, conceiving a child by a man other than the one to whom she was betrothed was death by stoning – but sought to end their betrothal quietly. He shows us both the righteousness and the merciful love of God; and he shows us also the way of obedience, in that, when the angel of the Lord instructed him about the child, Joseph followed the command of God, and took Mary, and accepted the child as his own.

Each of us should be ever-mindful of the truth that, by our baptism, Christ has been born in us. We have been given His life – the life He has, risen from the dead. We have been given the power of the Holy Spirit in our chrismation, so that we can accomplish the high calling we have: to show Christ forth in the world, by what we say, by what we do, by the way we live. We have access to the power of God in the holy Mysteries of the Church, and especially in the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. But too often, we turn our back on these truths, as if we were trying to “put them away” privately – as if we bore some illegitimate existence, rather than the life of the Risen Lord.

Brothers and sisters, this should not be! As we rejoice with the feast of our Lord’s Nativity, let us remember and give thanks that He Who was born into the world to save our souls has also been born in us – that we have been born again in Him. Let us rejoice that we have life, and the Lord of life dwelling within us – and let us, by the prayers of the Theotokos, bear Him and show Him forth in the world, even as she has done – to the glory of God, and the salvation of souls.

Christ is born!

Our King and Savior Draweth Nigh

(29th Sunday after Pentecost) (Sunday of the Holy Fathers of our Lord)

Today we celebrate the Sunday of the holy Fathers of our Lord, Jesus Christ. On this day, we hear the genealogy of our Lord from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, which details His lineage from Abraham, the father of the Jewish race, through Joseph, His earthly protector, called His father as he was the betrothed of the Theotokos, and of the lineage of David. There is a great deal of wonderful information to be learned from this passage, and not nearly enough time to explore more than a thought or two today.

We learn from the genealogy that the history of our Lord’s advent can be divided into three periods, which the Evangelist calls, “generations”: The period when the Jews were ruled by judges, before the anointing of Saul and David as the first two kings; the period when the people were ruled by kings, from the time of Saul and then David until being taken away into captivity in Babylon, as the line of kings came to an end; and the period when the people were ruled by priests, which began with the exile, and continued to the time of the coming of our Lord.

Our Lord’s coming was the fulfilling of a number of promises that had been made to God’s people during these times. The first promise, given to Adam and Eve at the time they were expelled from the Garden of Eden, was that God would send a deliverer who would crush the head of Satan. Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, foretold that there would always be a ruler of the people from the line of Judah; and that the line would not fail until Christ came. When Herod the Great, who was not a Jew, became the “king of the Jews” under Roman rule, the line of Judah failed – and Christ came. When the people clamored for a king to rule over them, instead of the judges, the prophet Samuel condemned them for failing to recognize that God is their king; but anointed Saul, and then David, because the people would not repent. Yet it was also foretold of the One who would come of the line of David to rule over the people in God’s name. Likewise, Isaiah, in the time of the exile, was one of the prophets who told the people that there would come to them Emmanuel, God with us, and of the Suffering Servant.

The judges were not enough to bring righteousness to the people of God. Neither could the kings do this, nor could the priests. Each had their part to play in preparing the people for the Messiah Who was to come – and He is the true Judge, for He will judge the world. He is the true King, for all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Him. He is the true Priest, for He offers Himself as the sacrifice for our sins.

Now we live in the age after our Lord’s birth, ministry, passion, death, and resurrection. He is our Prophet; He is our Priest; He is our King. As such, surely we should live differently than did the people of God before His coming; but we, just as they, are too connected to pursuing our lives in this world, too busy obtaining the things of this world, to lift our eyes to the heavens, and call upon His name, and seek to show forth His life in us, even though He has given us every good thing. Brothers and sisters, this should not be.

Our King and Savior draweth nigh; and soon, we will celebrate the feast of His coming to us. Let us come to adore Him, as the shepherds did, as the wise men did. Let us also be wise, and repent of our sins, and seek God’s grace to transform our lives. Let us also be believing, as the shepherds were, and come in faith and awe and wonder; and find Him, not only in the manger long ago, but living as well in the manger of our hearts; and let us also make Him known throughout the world, by letting others see Him in us.

Our Connection to St. Herman of Alaska

(28th Sunday after Pentecost) (St. Herman of Alaska)

Everyone who studied history in the education system in this country knows that the United States was first settled by people fleeing religious persecution in England. From the Pilgrims, who came to Massachusetts in 1621, to the establishment of the colony of Pennsylvania for the Quakers, Maryland for the Catholics, and the New England colonies for various protestant groups, arose the states that would become the United States of America. But almost no one knows that the Russians were exploring the west coast of North America at roughly the same time; and that settlements of trappers and farmers were established from Alaska down to Fort Ross in California, not far from what is now the city of San Francisco. The presence of permanent Russian settlements, together with the people native to the areas of these settlements, caused the Russian Orthodox Church to send clergy to the New World to tend to the spiritual needs of the Russians, and to bring the good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ to the people who had not yet heard of His life, and death, and resurrection from the dead. Among the missionaries sent from the monastery of Valaam was our venerable father Herman of Alaska.

Every one of us would benefit from studying – and emulating – the life of our holy father Herman of Alaska. His love for the Lord led him to embrace the monastic life of prayer and fasting, of purity and voluntary poverty of the things of this world. His love for the people of God, and his obedience to his spiritual father led him to leave the life of Valaam for a new world, filled with challenges and dangers. Indeed, one of his companions, St. Juvenaliy, was martyred for the faith, as was one of the converts who came from the labors of the Russian missionaries, St. Peter the Aleut, who was tortured and killed by the Spanish in San Francisco because he would not renounce the Orthodox Church and become a Roman Catholic. St. Herman continued to live the monastic life, working miracles while also teaching all who came to him about the Orthodox faith and way of life, until he departed this life in 1837.

Do you know of the connection you have with St. Herman?

You are called, as was St. Herman, to live as an Orthodox Christian in the midst of a people who are not Orthodox. Each one of us is called to be an example of the faith to which we joined ourselves; to be examples of the Lord Who has come to us to save us, and all who are made in the image of God. Did you know that you are called to be a missionary? It’s true. You may not have to leave everything behind and go to a foreign land, as St. Herman did; but you can certainly pray, and fast, and give, and struggle to overcome your passions and pursue purity. You can certainly live in such a way that people receive the merciful, patient, forgiving love of God from your presence. If we will do these things, people will come to see a different way of life is possible for us; and some will want to pursue it; and you can tell them about our Lord Jesus Christ, and the way of life that draws us closer to Him that we have been blessed to receive in the Orthodox Church. In this way, we will bring others, as well as ourselves, closer to achieving the salvation of our souls.

Brothers and sisters, as St. Herman taught, let us at least “make a vow to ourselves, that from this day, from this hour, from this very moment, we shall strive above all else to love God and to fulfill His Holy Will!” Through the prayers of our venerable father Herman of Alaska, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us. Amen.

Martyrdom and the Love of God

(27th Sunday after Pentecost) (Luke 13:10-17)

Last Sunday, you will recall, we celebrated the memory of St. James the Persian, who was literally cut into pieces by his torturers in an effort to cause him to renounce his faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Today, we celebrate the life and witness of St. John of Damascus, who suffered for the faith as his right hand was cut off because of his testimony about icons; and the Great-martyr Barbara, who also suffered for the Faith, and would not deny Christ. Barbara endured many torments, which inspired another woman, Juliana, to seek martyrdom; and the two, as St. James the Persian, were also mutilated before being killed – Barbara being killed by her own father, a pagan, who had betrayed her to torture and death.

As we have noted, it is unlikely that any of us here will be called upon to witness to Christ with our lives. But have we even bothered to consider what might make it possible for the martyrs we’ve been hearing about to endure the incredible torments they suffered? Somehow, if we knew what made it possible for them to endure without renouncing their faith, we might be a little bit better equipped to live our own lives according to the same faith – right?

It seems to me that the only possible explanation is that the martyrs loved our Lord more than anything this world has to offer, even more than life itself. They loved God with all their heart and soul and mind and strength; more than any love for food, or drink, or pleasure, or comfort, or power, or money. They loved God so much that they brought the life of Christ they had received in holy Baptism into reality in and through their own lives: and, just as our Lord endured torments and tortures and taunting without condemning those who caused His suffering, even praying that they might be forgiven, so, too, did the martyrs not condemn their tormenters. In this way, they brought their love for God into action as love for their neighbors, as well.

Can we say that we do the same? Do you love the person who cut you off in traffic, and pray for God to bless and forgive them? Do you love the homeless person, the hungry person with the cardboard sign on the corner, the widowed, the orphan, those who are sick, or in prison, and take the time and effort necessary to reach out to them in some way? Do you take a portion of what God has entrusted to you and make it an offering for the work of the Church, and for those who minister to those in need in body, mind, and spirit? Most of us aren’t willing to suffer even a small loss in our income to help those in need, and the work of the Church – so how might we possibly hope to think we could endure what the martyrs and passion-bearers endured?

Brothers and sisters: Let us redeem the time; let us examine ourselves; let us change our lives. Let us pray, asking God for the grace to love Him more than we love this world, and all it has to offer. Let us ask God for grace to love Him more than the fleeting pleasures we derive from our sins. Let us ask God to fill us with His love, so that we might see His face in every person we meet, and minister to them from this love; and for grace to use with love the time and abilities and riches God has bestowed upon us – to the glory of His name, and the salvation of souls.

Death and Life

(26th Sunday after Pentecost) (Luke 12:16-21; John 15:1-7)

In the two Gospel readings for today, we have an interesting contrast about death and life. In the first, from the Gospel according to St. Luke, the Lord tells a parable about a rich man who is contemplating how he will use and enjoy the wealth that has been entrusted to him. The man is not aware that his life – and an accounting of all he has done – will be required of him that very night; and what good then will his earthly treasure be to him? In the second reading, from the Gospel according to St. John the Theologian, the Lord speaks to His disciples about life. He uses the imagery of a grapevine, and the branches that grow from the vine, and bear fruit. The branches that do not remain connected to the vine wither and die; while those that are connected to the grapevine are vital and alive. This reading is for the Great-martyr James the Persian, who was, himself, pruned as a vine is pruned. Because he proclaimed his faith in Christ to the pagan king who had befriended him, he was put to death by being dismembered: losing first his fingers, one by one, and then his toes, cut off one by one, and then his arms, and then his legs, and finally, his head. His death in this world led him to an eternal crown of glory in the kingdom of God.

Again, we have the opportunity to examine ourselves in comparison with the rich man who was ignorant of his condition, and the martyr, who suffered for the faith. If we are honest with ourselves, we cannot help but conclude that we are more like the man whose thought and concern was for his comfort, and not about the coming judgment. If we are honest with ourselves, we cannot help but conclude that we would do anything to avoid an uncomfortable situation, much less face torture – and so we are not at all like the Great-martyr James the Persian. Brothers and sisters, this should not be.

We may never be called upon to endure torture for our faith; but we should always be mindful that our life in this world will one day come to an end: if not by torture at the hands of the pagans, then perhaps by the torment of disease, or accident, or simply from old age. Lacking a martyr’s crown, how shall we explain ourselves before the Lord? How shall we account for our hardness of heart when we failed to use the gifts God has given to us for the blessing or benefit of another; when we used the riches God entrusted to us for our own ease and comfort, and did not feed the hungry, or house the homeless, or build up His Church? Why is it true that so many of us would rather be dismembered than to give richly to maintain the temple of the Lord, to enable its work, and to reach out to those in need in body, mind, and spirit?

As we prepare ourselves to celebrate the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, let us remember that the very life we have is a gift from God; and, in Jesus Christ, we have been given the gift of life that will not end. True preparation for the feast should not revolve around the gifts we will give, nor the gifts we might receive, but the love in which the gifts are given; and to remember to give to those who cannot give in return; and to prepare ourselves for departing from this world. Let us give of our time, of our talent, and our treasure; above all, let us reach out in love to care for one another, and those around us, so they also may know of the love of God, and glorify His name, and find salvation for our souls.