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.