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.