Monday, June 29, 2009

'The Eye is the Lamp of the Body..."

The reading today from the Gospel according to St. Matthew is a portion of the Sermon on the Mount, where our Lord Jesus Christ is teaching those who would follow Him about the life of the Kingdom of Heaven, and what we need to know to live that way of life. The Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes, which we hear at almost every Divine Liturgy as the third antiphon. The reading today begins with a statement that isn’t immediately as familiar as the Beatitudes – at least, not to me! “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eye is sound, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is evil, your whole body will be filled with darkness.”

Saint Matthew, from the 9th-century Ebbo Gospels.Image via Wikipedia

Now, we know that almost everyone gets 70% or so of the sensory information we receive by way of our sight. Therefore, it isn’t hard to understand that, if our eyes are healthy, we are going to see clearly; while if our eyes are not healthy, our vision will be obscured, sometimes to the point of blindness itself. It’s hard to imagine the state of darkness, in the sense of not getting any visual information about the world around us from seeing. You can try it yourself. Go home, put on a blindfold, and then make your way across the room, and through the house. Almost all of us will find that task to be quite a challenge! But is that the point our Lord is making? Surely He is not saying that blindness is caused by being evil!

We need to understand that our Lord often teaches us about spiritual matters by beginning from material things, conditions and situations we will recognize from everyday life. The fathers tell us that this is what is behind this statement of our Lord, about the eye being the lamp of the body. It is not so much about the physical organ of sight as it is about what is sometimes called the “mind’s eye.” Have you ever imagined something so vividly that you could “almost see it?” We possess that capability; it is one way of being like God; it comes from the likeness of God in which we were created. Through this capability – our imagination – we are able to “see” what we desire; we are able to “see” what we fear. This is what our Lord is speaking about. Just as our lives are affected by how well or how poorly we see through the eyes of our body, so, too, is our soul affected by the condition of our mind, for what the eye is to the body, the mind is to the soul. When the powers and abilities of our mind are turned toward God, we are filled with light; but when our minds are turned to worldly desires, we are filled with darkness. As you can probably imagine, trying to walk through your house while blindfolded will be difficult. Can you imagine how dangerous it can be to walk through life with a mind that is in darkness?

Among the saints celebrated today is the holy prophet of God, Amos. He was a shepherd, as were Moses the prophet and David the king before him. A citizen of the southern kingdom of Judah, he was sent by God to the northern kingdom of Israel to pronounce God’s judgment upon them. Amos was sent to tell them that, because of their wickedness, they were going to be conquered by the Assyrians, and the kingdom would be forever destroyed. Now, at the time that Amos brought this message, the kingdom of Israel had experienced an expansion in territory, and the people were living in a time of peace and prosperity; so you can imagine that the message Amos brought them from God was not terribly popular! But the truth was that the people of Israel had departed from the covenant God had made with them. In the midst of prosperity, the poor and needy, the widows and orphans, were neglected and oppressed by the rulers and exploited by the rich. Some of them worshipped pagan idols; while those who appeared to have remained faithful to the worship of God were more focused on the ritual aspects of worship, without their hearts being moved by the remembrance of what God had done for them, and their obligations to love and care for each other. Having satisfied the external requirements of worship, they then went about the rest of the lives as if God was not at all involved, as if they would never have to give an account of their lives. What Amos had foretold came true. The Assyrians conquered the kingdom of Israel, executed many in very brutal ways, and led the rest away into captivity. You’ve heard of the ten lost tribes of Israel? This is what caused those tribes to be lost.

What about us? Do we see any parallels, any reasons to be concerned? Or have we made our minds blind, darkened by our sins? Our Orthodox worship is rich in symbols, deep in meaning – we don’t do anything without a reason, and every word, every movement has significance, and we do well to learn and remember and do these things. But, while these are important, it is easy to forget that it is not the correct performance of these parts of the ritual that is important; it is not by crossing ourselves properly, or any other external aspect of worship, that we are saved. It is how we live, how we treat ourselves, and how we treat others, that matters. If we do not see this, we need to examine our lives, search out our sins, and confess them, and repent, and beg God for the grace to overcome our passions. We need to fast, and to pray; we need to give, and forgive; we need to see everyone else as being an icon, and to be humbled by the knowledge of our own failure to be the person God wants us to be. We need to see the needs and hurts and pains of those around us, and, as we are able, reach out to them and give them what we can, giving from our hearts, with thanks to God for all He has done for us. And if you cannot see what you need to do, ask God to give you light in place of the darkness, so that you may not be lost in captivity to your sins, but instead see the way to dwell in the kingdom of God.

Holy prophet Amos, pray to God for us! Amen.

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Sunday, June 21, 2009

All Saints of Russia

Last Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost, we celebrated the Feast of All Saints. We asked the question, “What makes a person a saint?” We talked about how saints are consecrated, set apart for the service of God, and no longer focused on worldly purposes. We looked at the icons, and the saints we see there, in our family picture album, and our church “hall of fame.” The conclusion was that they yielded themselves to the Holy Spirit, and so were set apart, consecrated to God – and that each one of us has received the same Holy Spirit, and that we are meant to be temples of the Holy Spirit, to minister to the needs of others and to proclaim the good news of our deliverance from death by our Lord Jesus Christ. We are all saints; and we are all meant to be "Saints," in the way that we talk about those whom we remember, who we venerate through their icon.

Today we celebrate the Feast of all the saints whose light has shined upon us from the land of Russia, from the time of the baptism of Russia in the year of our Lord 988 through trials and invasions and wars, to those who are among the new martyrs and confessors, some of whom suffered and died during our own lifetimes. It took almost a thousand years for the good news to reach Kievan Rus’; it took another 800 years to make the journey from there across the steppes and the taiga to the western shore of the Pacific Ocean, and then, from the port city of Saints Peter and Paul, to come to Alaska, and down the west coast of the North American continent, in the year 1794. The faith was carried across the Russian land, first by monks, who fled from cities and towns and villages to struggle in the wilderness; and then by others, who formed small sketes, and then monasteries. People began to move nearby, and settlements became villages, and then towns, and then cities; and so monks would again flee further east, into the wilderness, starting the cycle again. Time and again, the Orthodox faith was embraced by the people who heard the Gospel as the roving monks came their way, and so the Church grew, and her influence spread. Many miracles were performed, many people were healed, and many, many more were protected and comforted in troubled times. We could speak for hours on end about the many wondrous saints who lived in Russia, and not discuss them all – to say nothing of those whose names and circumstances are known to God alone, in Whose presence they dwell.

It is good for us to remember and to celebrate this heritage, this great treasure, this inheritance that is ours in the Orthodox Church that is Russian in its background and practice. But, like a buried treasure or an unclaimed fortune, we gain nothing from this inheritance that has been given to us if we do not claim it as our own, and put in on, so to speak, and wear it, and use it, and show it forth in the world as so many of the saints who have gone before us have done. If we do not embrace the faith whole-heartedly, with that spiritual hunger and thirsting, as we hear in the Beatitudes, and live it out in our lives, there is no point in celebrating the feast today. If we do not draw near to the faith, as did those who lived next to the monasteries did, there is no point in celebrating the feast today. If we do not flee from the cities of the world, so that we can put aside the temptations of the world and draw closer to God, as did so many monastic saints in Russia, there is no point to celebrating the feast today. And if we are not willing to undertake the ascetic labors needed to transform us, so that we, also, may draw those living in a world of darkness to the light of the life of Christ in us, there is no point in celebrating the feast today – for if we will not do these things, then we do not value the saints who have arisen in the Russian land.

Brothers and sisters, let us pray that God will bless us with grace and strength to learn and follow the examples of saintly living given to us by all the saints of Russia, that we may join them in glorifying God, and to making known to our land, as they did in theirs, the good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ our Lord.

O all you saints of the Russian land, pray to God for us!

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Sunday, June 14, 2009

What makes a person a saint?

What makes a person a saint?

Today, the first Sunday after Pentecost, we celebrate the Sunday of All Saints. Those of us who grew up in the western church knew the celebration called by this name in a different way. The western church remembers all the saints on November the first, the day after what is called, “Hallowe’en.” The Druids in Ireland held a festival on October 31st, and among those associated with that day was their god of the dead. When the western church encountered this festival, it made an effort to take it from its pagan roots and make it a Christian celebration to honor the saints who had died. All Saints Day – or “All Hallows Day” (“hallowed” being a word that means, “to make holy”) was the result; and at that time, as we still do, a Vigil service was held before the feast; so All-Hallows Eve (“eve” being short for “even” or “evening”) became Hallowe’en.

Our feast of All Saints is not at all the same, although the name suggests it might be. What was last Sunday? It was the feast of Pentecost, the celebration of the coming of the Holy Spirit of God, Whom our Lord Jesus Christ had promised to send to His disciples as He was preparing to ascend into heaven. Now, the Holy Spirit has come; the Church has been established, and is strengthened and guided by the Holy Spirit; and each one of us who has been baptized and chrismated in the Orthodox Church has received this same Spirit. So, today we celebrate the means by which we are sanctified, by which we may become saints. This brings us back to the question, what makes a person a saint?

One of the reasons we have icons in our churches and icons in our homes is to remind ourselves that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses: the holy men and women who have shared our faith and way of life, and who, by their struggles and ascetic labors of prayer and fasting and worship and giving and forgiving and humility and service have shown us, in their words and deeds and lives the life of our Lord Jesus Christ, the same life given to each one of us in our baptism, empowered by the same Holy Spirit Who descended upon the disciples in the upper room. The holy men and women were no different than any of us. They are made of the same nature, the same “stuff” as we are; yet they did so well, they grew so close to God, that they left this world behind, and lived the life of the kingdom of heaven instead. We honor them for their example, and we ask them to pray on our behalf, trusting that the greatness of their love for God will be shared with us as well. The icons are a way to honor and remember them, and to be encouraged to follow their example. But what made it possible for those we venerate, whose icons are on our walls, to achieve what they achieved? How did they take hold of holiness?

Sanctity – that is, holiness, or saintliness, or godlikeness – is the work of the Holy Spirit. To be a saint is to be consecrated by the Holy Spirit – set apart for the purposes of God. We consecrate the chalice and diskos and other holy vessels and instruments used for the Mystical Supper. We consecrate vestments for the altar and preparation table, and vestments for the clergy and the altar servers. We even consecrate icons! Once consecrated, we no longer use any such item for routine or everyday use. That which has been consecrated is used only for the service of God. (Pay attention now: here’s where it’s going to get interesting…)

When you were baptized and chrismated, YOU were consecrated. YOU became a bearer, like the Theotokos, of the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. YOU became a temple of the Holy Spirit. This means that we are ALL saints; even if we don’t live like saints, even if we have not yet mastered our passions, even though our lives are still stained and fouled by our sins. This is part of the reason why we celebrate the feast of All Saints on the first Sunday following Pentecost: to remind each one of us of our high calling; to remind each one of us that we are saints – that is, we have been consecrated, set apart for the service of God: not the service of the world, or of our flesh, or of our passions. We are meant to serve God; and to the extent that we have failed to do so, we have failed to do what the saints on the icons have done: to show to us and to the world the life of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Brothers and sisters, let us celebrate today appropriately, giving thanks to God for the gift of the Holy Spirit, giving thanks to God for the gift of the examples of holy living we have in the saints; and giving thanks to God for the gift of His grace, so that we may repent of our sins, and come to our senses, and do our part in being consecrated, serving God, and serving God in each other, so that He will be glorified, and our souls may be saved.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Pentecost and the Work of God

Today, in the yearly cycle of the life of the Church, we find ourselves at the point at which the work of God is, in a sense, completed. The Church year, as you will recall, begins in September; and the first major feast of the Church year is that of the Nativity of the Theotokos. This feast is the prelude, if you will, of the way in which God fulfills the promise He made to Adam and to Eve, even as they were being cast out of the Garden of Eden. By their disobedience, they could no longer live in the intimate presence of God, and speak with Him, and see Him face-to-face. Now they were sent from Paradise into the world, there to face the challenges and rigors of life, and now subject to death, and the fear of death. But God makes them a promise: A Deliverer will come, who will set them and all their descendants free from death, and make it possible for the human race to once again live in the presence of God.

God never leaves His people. He acts to cleanse the earth when sin had become so pervasive that it threatened the existence of all living things. He chooses a righteous man, Noah, to build an ark, and to preserve a remnant from the great flood He will send to put an end to sin. Later, generations after the family of Noah has spread out and grown in numbers, He chose another righteous man, Abraham, with whom God made a covenant, promising that it would be through the lineage of Abraham that salvation would come to the world. Later, from the lineage of Abraham, God chose Joseph, the son of Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, to be the preserver of Egypt from a great famine, by which Joseph was also able to save all his family. Many generations later, God chose Moses to deliver His people from the slavery that had fallen upon them in Egypt, and to bring them to the land He had promised to Abraham and His descendants. As they journeyed, God was with them, and in the desert God gave Moses His commandments, so that His people would know how they were to live a life pleasing to God. Generations later, God chose David to be the King of all the children of Abraham, and, as king, to rule according to His Law, and to enforce the Law among His people. He sent prophets to teach them, and to call them to repentance and the reformation of their way of living. Finally, in the fullness of time, He sent His Son to take on our human nature, so that all the promises God had made would be fulfilled. We celebrate His coming into our midst at the feast of the Nativity. We celebrate the beginning of His ministry among us at the time of His baptism in the Jordan River on the feast of the Theophany. Through the course of the year, we recall many of the miracles He performed, hear Him teaching His disciples, see Him confronting the people who had been told He would come, but did not always recognize Him. Then we celebrate His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and go through the events that lead to His arrest, torture, and death on the Cross. We remember Him buried, and then the glorious celebration of His triumph over death with His resurrection on Pascha. We walk with Him once more through the forty days He is present with His disciples after He has risen from the dead; and then, as we did just ten days ago, we celebrate His Ascension into heaven.

It is important for us to recall that His ministry among us, which began with His taking a human body for Himself – a body in which He lived as we do; a body in which He worked miracles; a body put to death on the Cross and buried in the tomb; a body that He raised from the dead – His ministry continues as He has ascended into heaven, taking us with Him, for He remains joined to us, His divine nature joined to our human nature. As St. Athanasios the Great teaches, He became like us, that we in turn might become like Him. With His Ascension, the promise made to Adam and Eve has been fulfilled; and the path to Paradise, which had been guarded by an angel with a fiery sword so that Adam and Eve could not return the way they had come, has been opened for us by Him. As we once lived in the presence of God, so now does He live, and our human nature is seated at the right hand of God the Father. We have, in Him, been restored to the state we had with God before the fall of Adam and Eve.

Now we have come to the Day of Pentecost, the day our Lord told His disciples to await, the day on which they were anointed with power from on high. As He promised, He sent the Holy Spirit to teach us all things, to strengthen us in our life in Christ, and to lead us into all truth.

We still have work to do. As the disciples were anointed with the Holy Spirit on the feast of Pentecost itself, each one of us, everyone who has been baptized and chrismated has, on that day, had their “day of Pentecost,” for when we were baptized we were raised from the dead, not with the life we had when we were born, but rather with the life of Christ, risen from the dead; and when we were chrismated, we were given power from on high – not in the form of the flames, but through the water of the font, and the oil of chrismation. We are called to bring into the reality of our lives the potential created by God in us – we are called to live, not according to the world, but rather by the way of the kingdom of heaven. We are called to leave behind the life we had before, and to embrace and express in our own thoughts and words and deeds the life of Christ risen from the dead. We are called to a new life, and given power for that life by the Holy Spirit within us. St. Paul tells us that our bodies are meant to be temples of the Holy Spirit; and that we are to have the mind of Christ, so that we can speak and act and show to the world the life of Christ.

When they see us, do they see our Lord? Brothers and sisters, the work of God by God is complete; but we have work – His work – to do in ourselves. Let us trust in the Lord Who has given us His life; let us trust in the Lord Who has given us the Holy Spirit, and so the power to change our lives; and let us dedicate ourselves to being transformed from who we are into the likeness of Christ, so that He may be seen in each of us, to the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls.