Sunday, April 26, 2009

"Without Proof, I WIll Not Believe!"

At the beginning of the reading from the Gospel according to St. John the Theologian, we hear how the disciples of the Lord were gathered together with the doors locked, for fear of the Jews. Our Lord Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, appeared to them in that room, blessing them with the gift of peace. He showed them His hands and His side, where the nails had been driven through Him, and where the spear had pierced His side, with blood and water flowing out. After this we hear that the disciples were glad, when they had seen the Lord.

Remember that we who are called by His name – Christians – are told that we must follow Him. When we do so, we, too, are His disciples; and so here we are, as were they, gathered together on the first day of the week. Our Lord Jesus Christ is also here, even if we do not see Him as they did. Nor are the doors locked out of fear; indeed, the doors are open, and anyone who desires to seek Him is welcome to enter. We are not afraid; but are we truly His followers? Or are we more like Thomas, who was not with the others that day? They told him what they had seen; but he refused to believe until he had proof; until he could see the wounds, put his finger in the hole made by the nail, put his hand into the wound left where the spear had pierced.

Does anyone here today need proof? What will you do when no such proof is given to you? How easy it would be for the Lord to appear in our midst as He did that day; but even if He did, would we then believe? How often would He have to appear in order to convince us? How likely would we be to fall into deception if we required such a vision as Thomas required?

Thomas had to see in order to believe; yet our Lord told him, “Blessed are they who do not see, yet believe.” As St. Paul said, we walk by faith, and not by sight. We do this to be worthy of Him, and to be worthy of a place in His heavenly kingdom. I pray that each one of you knows and has experienced the love of God for you in Jesus Christ. I pray that each one of you is moved by that love to love Him in return, and to love Him more than you love or care for yourself, or for any power or pleasure or profit this world has to offer. I pray that each one of you be transformed by His love, to leave aside your attachments to this world, and to show Him forth in what you say, and what you do. I pray that each one of you may be humble and gentle, forgiving, and loving, so that those who need to see Christ may see Him in each one of us, and so be drawn to Him, and walk with Him in faith, with us. And if you are not yet there; if you have yet to know the love of Christ, and to feel His peace, and desire Him above all else in life, may you be blessed by Him as you do what so many have done before: seek Him in the words of holy Scripture; seek Him in the worship of the Church; seek Him in a life of prayer and fasting and giving; seek Him by laboring to overcome your passions. For He said, “Ask, and ye shall receive; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”

Brothers and sisters, we have the testimony of those who saw Him risen from the dead – even that of Thomas, thanks be to God! We have the testimony of those before us who have endured suffering and death seeing with the eyes of faith what eyes of flesh can no longer see. Let us seek Him this day, and each day of our lives, with the sure and certain hope that we who today do not see Him clearly will be blessed to see Him, if nowhere else, in His kingdom. Let us not be faithless, but believing in the One Who has risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon us all bestowing eternal life.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

"Of Thy Mystical Supper, O Son of God..."

Of Thy Mystical Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant, for I will not speak of the Mystery to Thine enemies, nor will I give Thee as kiss, as did Judas, but like the thief do I confess Thee: Remember me, O Lord, in Thy kingdom.

As our Lord spent forty days in the desert after being baptized in the Jordan River by St. John the Baptizer, fasting and praying in order to prepare Himself to accomplish His mission, so too have we, through the course of Great Lent, been called to fast and to pray, so that we, too, might be strengthened for our mission: to save our souls, and to proclaim that Jesus Christ is our Lord, risen from the dead, giving life unto all. The period of Great Lent culminated with the Resurrection of Lazarus, called forth from the tomb, alive four days after having died. As a result of this miracle, when Our Lord entered into Jerusalem, He was greeting by adoring crowds who called out to Him, "Hosanna!" But as that week went on, as the feast of the Passover drew near, things changed.

He cleansed the Temple, driving out the moneychangers, overturning their tables. He taught those who came to hear Him in parables in response to the scribes and the Pharisees, who questioned His authority to teach. In these parables, He warned the people of the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, foretold the destruction of the Temple, and told His disciples of His coming death and resurrection. Then, as He kept the Passover, He interpreted it anew for His disciples, showing them the deeper meaning, and giving them instruction to continue the feast with this new understanding.

Today, we who are called by His name -- who are His disciples, insofar as we follow Him -- are with Him and them in that upper room; for the Lord is not bound by time and space. The bread and wine presented here today are blessed by Him to be His Body and Blood, as He did that day, so long ago. We eat what they ate; we drink what they drank; and we are blessed as they were blessed.

It is sad to see that only a handful have gathered here today to take part in this Mystical Supper. Yes, the demands of the world can, and do, weigh heavily upon us. But I cannot help but recall the parable of the Wedding Feast, when the Lord of the feast saw the hall only partly filled, and so called His servants to go out into the highways and hedges, and to gather everyone in until the banquet hall was full. We are His servants; and so we must also heed the call, and bring in those who do not yet know the love of God for us in Jesus Christ, of His great mercy, nor of the forgiveness of sins, nor of the new life He desires to give to us all.

Brothers and sisters, let us keep the feast of our Lord, and take to ourselves the spiritual food and drink He gives in His Body and Blood; and let us ask God for the grace and strength we derive from these gifts to be faithful servants, and to so let the life of Christ be seen in and through us, that this "banquet hall" of the church, and every church, may be filled, to the glory of God, and the salvation of souls.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

A Change of Heart; From "Hosanna!" to "Crucify Him!"

The crowds who has heard of Lazarus being raised from the dead turned out to see the One Who had raised him when He made His entry into Jerusalem. They greeted Him as they would a king, with palm branches, symbols of victory, and cries of, “Hosanna!” which, put another way, would be a cry of, “Save us!” Indeed, it was for this purpose that He had come. Their prayer for deliverance would be answered at the end of that very week; but before He had accomplished His mission on our behalf, many of those who had greeted Him with joy when He entered were in the crowd that shouted out, “Crucify Him!” What brought about this change of heart?

The question is a significant one; something each of us who stands here today holding a palm branch should ask; for we have joined them today in calling out to our Lord Jesus Christ, “Hosanna!” But when we go forth from here, back into the world, back into the demands that all the aspects of life in the world place upon us, do we, because of our sins, in effect cry out, “Crucify Him?”

Many of the people who greeted our Lord this day where hoping that a king from the royal house of King David would come to set them free – and, indeed, such a King had come. But they were looking for Him to establish an earthly kingdom. They were looking for a King who would lead them in battle against those who oppressed them, to cast out the Roman Empire from the land that God had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They were looking for a kingdom of peace and prosperity – but they could only envision that kingdom on earth. Our Lord Jesus had come to establish His kingdom; but as He will tell Pilate, His kingdom is not of this world. Our Lord Jesus had come to lead us in battle against those who oppress us, but this was not a war against an earthly nation, but rather a battle against the demons. He came, not to cast out an earthly empire, but to lead us, a new Moses, from this world in which we are the slaves of our passions to the land of peace and prosperity God has promised to us – to dwell once more in His intimate presence in His heavenly kingdom.

They were looking for heaven on earth; and when they did not see it, many turned against Him. We, also, live in a time and culture that is seeking heaven on earth: in effect, a heaven without God, in which we are the masters, and answer to no one. This is what Lucifer, the highest of the angelic beings, sought to achieve: to overthrow God, and take His place as Lord of all. So it is, brothers and sisters, that we must examine ourselves, and guard our hearts, and with every part of our being, with every bit of our energy, we must embrace the Orthodox faith and the way of life we learn from the Church, so that we will not be deceived; so that we will not be distracted from the pursuit of heaven; and so that we will not turn our cries of “Hosanna!” into shouts of “Crucify Him!”

May God, in His mercy, give us the strength to endure, that we may remain faithful servants of His, so that He may be glorified, and we may be saved.

Monday, April 06, 2009

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St. Mary of Egypt: The Battle Against the Passions

As you have been making your journey in life to the Orthodox Church and faith, you have probably encountered in the lives of the saints miraculous things taking place: saints who, while praying, have been lifted off the face of the earth, drawn toward the heavens; saints who have walked on water; saints who have healed the sick; even saints who have raised the dead. You have probably wondered, “What has changed? Why don’t these things happen today?”

As you have taken up your cross to follow our Lord Jesus Christ, you have undoubtedly fallen short; and, as you confess your sins, you find that your confession is essentially the same as the one you previously made; and that one was like its predecessor, and so on. You have probably wondered, “Why can’t I change? Why are my sins the same today?”

We have reached the fifth Sunday in Great Lent, a day dedicated to St. Mary of Egypt. You are probably familiar with her life, which we read here in the church last Wednesday evening, with the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete. She herself tells of her youth, and how she was given over to satisfying the passions of her flesh. There was no form of sexual indulgence that she would restrain herself from practicing; and she took delight in seducing others to join her in the same. This was her way of life until she was prevented from entering a church on the day of the Elevation of the Cross. Given a gift of insight, she repented of her sins, and having faith in the protection of the Most Holy Mother of God, she went into the desert.

We live in a desert. From what I can tell, the desert in the Holy Land is very similar to what you can see and experience here, once you’ve left the city behind, and gone out into the wilderness. There’s an incredible difference between being alone out there, and our life today. Think of all the distractions available to us: movies; television; books, magazines, newspapers, theaters, to name just a few. We are seldom alone; and even when we are, we usually turn to one of the many forms of entertainment available to us, so that we do not have to confront ourselves and our situation.

This is not how it was for St. Mary. No food, apart from what she could find in the desert; no clothing, as what she had worn when she fled to the desert turned to rags and fell away; no forms of entertainment to ease any boredom or to fill the empty hours; and no one to talk to except God Himself. So it was that she found her desires returning to her again and again, the urge to return to the way of life she had practiced prior to coming to the Cross. She fought these temptations with prayer, unceasing prayer, striking herself on her breast while recalling the vow she had made to the Theotokos; or falling prostrate on the ground with tears and prayer for the temptation to pass away – and not ceasing to weep and pray, even if it meant remaining where she was for a day and a night, until the desire to sin had departed from her, replaced by the peace of God, the calm after a storm.

Who among us has done such battle against the passions? Think of how difficult it is for most of us to keep a simple rule of prayer, taking a few minutes during the day to be with God, to open to Him our hearts and minds. Think of how difficult it is to keep the fast; and how we will indulge ourselves with the glorious Pascha of our Lord. Think of how difficult it is for us to take a portion of what God has entrusted to us in material prosperity and give it away for the work of the church and to help those in need. Rather than confronting ourselves with the asceticism needed for us to become the masters of our passions, rather than the slave of our desires, we do not run to the desert: we run to those things that take our attention away from the kingdom of heaven, and bind ourselves ever more tightly to this world, and to our comfort and ease here.

We are about to start the final week of Great Lent this year. By the grace of God, there is still time for us to take steps toward the transformation of our being, to become a bit more ascetic in our life, to venture just a bit into the desert, leaving the world behind and drawing closer to God. Let us fast; let us pray; and let us ask God to accomplish our transformation from who we are today to being more and more in the likeness of His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Holy mother Mary, pray for us!