Monday, August 31, 2009

Obtaining Eternal Life

If you wanted an account from the gospels that speaks to our culture today, and if, in order to do so, you could choose only one parable from the four accounts of the life and ministry of our Lord, Jesus Christ during the time between His Theophany and His resurrection from the dead, the reading today from the Gospel according to St. Matthew might be the best choice. The parable of the rich young man in the Gospel according to St. Matthew captures who we are in this time and place, shaped as we are by the society in which we live. He has everything that anyone could want: comfort, ease, and the ability to obtain whatever he wants. Yet, having all this, he is still unsatisfied, and he knows he is missing something – he does not have eternal life. It is this that draws him to our Lord, and to ask what he must do to obtain this life that will not end.

Our Lord begins with the basics: He says, “Keep the commandments.” Remember that this dialogue is taking place in a culture that considered itself to be God’s chosen people, to whom God had given the Ten Commandments, and other detailed aspects on what was acceptable to God, and what was not – over six hundred “laws” within the Law. Presumably, this young man, being well off, would also have been well educated, and so would have known this. Now, you would think that this answer would have been enough – keep the commandments – but the young man wants to make the task less difficult, and so he asks, “Which ones?”

Jesus takes him to the next step, listing that portion of the Ten Commandments dealing with our relations with others: do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness; and honor your father and your mother. He adds as well the second part of the summary of the Law He taught to His followers: love your neighbor as you love yourself. The young man says, I have lived this way since I was a child. What do I still lack? Putting that another way, he is asking, I have done these things, so why am I still unhappy?

He is then given the final instruction: Go, sell what you have, and give it to the poor, and then come and follow Me. He departs from the scene, deeply troubled because, we are told, he had a great many possessions. We never learn what decision he made as he struggled with his desire to live eternally and with his attachment to his possessions.

The truth is, each one of us is the rich young man. Even though we may think of ourselves as being followers of Christ – and we are, to one degree or another – we live today more comfortably than most other people on the face of the earth, and with more comfort and ease than even emperors and kings of old enjoyed. We look around, see the mansions on the hillsides with their luxury cars and people dressed in the finest clothing with jewelry and rich food and all the amenities that wealth can provide, and we think to ourselves, “Oh, if only I could live like that, I would be happy!” We should already know, based on this Gospel reading, that wealth by itself, nor any of the things that wealth can obtain, can truly make us happy. We should already know that the only true source of happiness is to be developing our relationship with God, and living in that relationship with each other. But we don’t usually think about these things, not nearly as often as we think about what we want to obtain – even as we already have so much! We need to stop focusing on what others have, stop thinking about what we think we lack, and instead give thanks to God for blessing us with so many good things. We need to remember that the greatest gift of all is the gift the young man was seeking: eternal life, which is freely offered to us through our Lord Jesus Christ, risen from the dead.

Each one of us is the rich young man, asking, “What good thing must I do to have eternal life?” The answer is, nothing. There is nothing we can do to earn or deserve eternal life. We do not have the strength or power to do so, apart from the Lord. The good news is that He has already completed the task; He has already obtained eternal life for us. Our part is to believe that this is true; and in this belief, this faith, this trust, to follow Him, which is done best by living the Orthodox way: praying, fasting, struggling against our passions, giving from what God has given to us to support the work of the Church and to help those in need; by loving and forgiving, by being patient and gentle.

What of the command to sell all that we have and give to the poor? Consider this: If you had nothing, no possessions, you have nothing to lose. No thief or robber can disturb you by taking anything away. If you have no possessions, even the government is no threat, apart from your life. And if you have faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, that He died on the Cross and rose to life without end from the grave, then even those who would threaten your life have no power over you, because you know that the life we have here in this world is nothing more than a prelude, the threshold to life without end. To have no possessions – not even considering your life to be a possession, but belonging instead to God alone – you are truly free to follow Christ. So, brothers and sisters, let us ask our Lord for the grace to be set free from the things we acquire in this life, seeking nothing in this world, but working instead to set aside for ourselves treasures in heaven; and for grace to be faithful followers of our Lord Jesus Christ, rather than followers of the world and of wealth.

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

What Are We Working For?

At one point in his first letter to the church in Corinth, the holy apostle Paul asks the question, “Does a soldier serve at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard, and does not eat of its fruit?” He is asking the people of that congregation to consider the right of one who labors on behalf of the Kingdom of God to receive his or her reward – that is, payment – for the work he or she has performed. In the reading today from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, we hear, in the parable of the two servants in debt, of another form of payment; of what happens when a servant is unable to repay; and of the necessity to forgive in order to be forgiven.

The holy martyr and archdeacon Laurence of Rome shows us the labors of a martyr, and the reward, both earthly and heavenly, that is paid to one who testifies to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, even at the cost of one’s life. The holy martyr Laurence was an archdeacon and servant of the Pope, St. Sixtus, and the treasurer of the Church. When St. Sixtus was arrested for his faith, Laurence wanted to go with him, but was told by the Pope that he must wait, and that he would suffer greatly and then would follow him in martyrdom. St. Sixtus was beheaded; and Laurence was arrested. As he was tortured, not only was he told that, if he denied Christ, he would be set free, but he was also offered the opportunity to obtain his release by turning over to his captors the treasury of the Church, which he had hidden before his arrest. The holy martyr refused to yield the money and also refused to deny Christ, yielding instead his body to torture. He was placed on a griddle, and roasted alive; calling to his tormentors at one point, “This side is cooked; turn me over, so that the other side may be roasted, as well!” He entered into his reward – the Kingdom of heaven – in the year 258 A.D.

Most of us, God willing, will never be tested in our faithfulness as was the holy martyr Laurence. We would do well, however, to examine ourselves, and consider the reward for which we are laboring, to which we devote the majority of our time and energy and resources. In all probability, we will find that we do very little when it comes to laying up for ourselves treasures in heaven; and that the vast majority of our labors are devoted to acquiring the means to obtain ease and comfort for ourselves and our families. Isn’t it amazing that we will go deeply into debt in order to purchase worldly comforts, but give no thought to the debt that we owe for our offenses against God, against others, and even against ourselves? We often say, as a form of ironic humor, that we are “slaves to our employers”; and yet we do not consider that we were bought at a price: the life of our Lord Jesus Christ, Who died on the Cross to set us free from our captivity to sin and death. It is through this act of giving that the debt we owe because of our sins, a debt we cannot possibly repay, is canceled – forgiven – because of God’s love for us. Think about this: Adam and Eve became the slaves of the enemy of our salvation because of their disobedience in the Garden of Eden; and each of us has done the same by our own actions, choosing to sin rather than to do what is pleasing to God. He might very well have abandoned us for our wickedness; but He did not leave us in such a wretched state. He came to us, and became one with us, joining His divinity to our humanity, so that we could be restored to Him, and delivered from death, which is the wages paid for sin. We cannot do this by ourselves; but the good news is that it has already been done for us. Now, we have a choice to make: to continue to live as slaves to sin, or realize that, having been redeemed by the sacrificial offering of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are now called to be slaves to righteousness. Remembering the love that has saved us, let us show our love for God by drawing near to Him each day in prayer, confessing our sins and asking for grace to overcome them; praying for those in need; and above all, praising and thanking the Lord for all He has done, and is doing, for us. Let us fast, and so teach our flesh to be obedient to our will. Let us give from what God has given to us, for the benefit of others and to set our souls free from attachments to our possessions. Let us be humble, gentle, patient, and forgiving – and in this way allow the life of our Lord Jesus given to us in baptism to be seen in what we say and do, in who we are. No earthly reward can approach the value of this gift we have been given; and any earthly suffering, whether it is as little as keeping the fasts or as great as that endured by the martyr Laurence, is treasure we set aside for ourselves in heaven. May the God Who loves us and Who has saved us grant us the grace to follow Him faithfully, as did the holy martyr Laurence, so that we may show Him to the world while in this life, and join the choir of heaven to sing His praises!

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God's Love in Action

As you know, the life of the liturgical year is one that is rich. The calendar of the Church year is extensive. Each and every day has a saint or saints whose lives are celebrated, and there are feasts and fasts and the celebration of a wide variety of events. Some of the saints, and some of the feasts and fasts and events are well known to us all, and we look forward to that day, and to come to church to come into the presence of the Lord in a special way, to be with Him and to celebrate the Divine Liturgy and the offering of His most precious and holy Body and Blood for us to eat and drink, so that our wounds in body, mind, and spirit may be healed, and that our souls may be saved. The bread and the wine that become, by the grace of God, the Body and Blood of Christ are real food, essential food, with our physical bodies being nourished through the material elements of bread and wine, and our souls refreshed by the grace of God, so that the life of Christ given to us in our baptism may grow strong, and be seen in us, bearing fruit unto salvation.

The saint we celebrate today is not the first choice on the liturgical calendar. This is not to say that our holy father Anthony the Roman is not worthy of our attention – far from it! The story of his life and ministry have much to teach us about who we are, and about what we may do, if we will embrace the life of the Church, as the fathers have taught us. Our holy father Anthony was born in the city of Rome in the year 1086, some 32 years after the Patriarch of Rome excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople, who returned the favor, in this way bringing into its fullness a division of the Church, east and west, that had been developing for over 200 years, and that has persisted to this day. (If you think it was difficult to restore unity to the divided Russian church after 80 years or so of separation – and it wasn’t easy! – imagine what will be needed to restore the unity of all Christians…) As a result of the split, those who remained faithful to the Orthodox Church and faith were persecuted, including our holy father Anthony, whose parents had raised him through their own pious way of life to love the Lord and to serve the Church. He gave away all he possessed – and his family had been wealthy – to help those in need, became a monk, and went to stand on a rock in the sea, to pray to God in an Orthodox manner. As he prayed, the rock was separated from its lower layers, and, by the grace of God, the saint was carried across the sea, and up the river to the city of Novgorod the Great. There our holy father Anthony built a temple in honor of the Mother of God, and established a monastery in which many monks were found. He served as the abbot for many years, and proclaimed the grace and mercy of God through many miracles, before he departed this life in the year 1148.

There’s another reason why he is celebrated today – a personal reason. Our holy father Anthony the Roman is the saint for whom our late archbishop Antoniy was named, the saint Vladika Antoniy revered. Now, I have to be honest and say that the story of the saint sailing across the ocean on a stone as if it were a boat is one that my mind, shaped by the rationalism and skepticism of our culture, must struggle to accept; and there is no explanation apart from the grace of God, the Worker of miracles. But although that aspect of the life of the saint is distant, the same is not true of the faith of the saint who fled from this earthly life and spent 14 months in prayer on a rock, and whose love for God and for those made in the image of God was so great that he found the wealth of this world to be useless unless it served the glory of God and met the needs of God’s people. How do I know this? I know because I saw the same love, the same devotion, the same humility, and the same charity in Vladika Antoniy. He loved the services of the church; he loved to be in the church to pray; he looked after his flock with love and care; and he repented of his sins with humility. He lived a simple life, and kept much of his devotion to God a secret – including the fact that he was a monk of the Great Schema, which made his ministry as a bishop all the more extraordinary, as the task of being a shepherd of the flock entrusted to him by God kept him from retreating into the life of a recluse, which is what monks of the Great Schema typically do. He found a way to fulfill his vows as both a monk and as a bishop; and those of us who had the privilege of knowing him, and of serving with him are rich because of his example in our lives. I believe that the last person he ever ordained was me, when he made me a deacon; and I pray, for his sake, that he did not make a mistake when he did so.

I am telling you these things about Vladika not to praise him, but to remind each of you that we all know of someone like him: someone who lives the Orthodox faith and life in a way that touches us in our hearts, inspiring us to do more – for, among other things, they show us what is possible when we live in and through and for Christ our God, and not for ourselves. We are called to do the same: to accept God’s love for us, taking His love into ourselves as we take the bread and wine of His Body and Blood; and sharing that love in serving others, teaching in words and by example the way of life that we share with the angels, if we are willing. So, let us give thanks to God for the life and ministry of our holy father Anthony the Roman; and let us also give thanks for those who, in our sight and in our hearing show us God’s love in action in our own lives as well.

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Why Do You Doubt?

You’ve probably heard of the “Grand Canyon Skywalk”; a horseshoe-shaped structure that extends out about sixty-six feet over a side canyon in the Grand Canyon.

Taken personally by ComplexSimpleLLC on 04/10/...Image via Wikipedia

It is made of two-inch thick glass walls and floor, so that visitors may look out to see the main gorge in which the Colorado River flows through the Grand Canyon; and can also look down to see the side canyon which is 500 to 800 feet below the Skywalk. I don’t know about you, but I don’t plan to make the six and a half-hour trip to pay $75 to walk out and look down through the glass floor at the canyon below any time soon! But I think that imagining what the experience might be like might give us a bit of insight into what happens in the reading today from the Gospel according to St. Matthew.

The disciples of our Lord, some of whom are experienced fishermen, are in a boat during a storm at night while sailing across the lake on their way to Gennesaret. In the midst of the storm, during the fourth watch of the night, they see our Lord walking on the water, and imagine that they have seen a ghost, and are terrified. They hear Him say to them, “Cheer up! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” In an incredible moment of faith, Peter replies, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the waters.” Jesus tells him to do so; and Peter steps out of the boat onto the wind-tossed waves, and begins to walk on the water. He’s doing fine, until he takes his eyes off of the Lord, and he begins to sink. He cries out for help, and the Lord saves him; but also questions him, saying, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Can you imagine yourself leaving the relative safety of the boat – mind you, it is being tossed about by the waves, so it’s not as if it were safely anchored – to walk on the water? Most of us would probably be so uncomfortable with the glass floor of the Skywalk that we wouldn’t even venture out there, much less try to do something as miraculous as what St. Peter attempted. As such, we need to examine our own lives, and our own faith, and ask ourselves, why do we lack even the small amount of faith that St. Peter had? We should ask, because it is clear that, if we had even a fraction of the “little faith” he had, our lives would be remarkably different.

We lack the faith to work miracles. Could it be that the reason we are not successful in the transformation of who we are and how we live is because we lack the faith needed to do so? The evidence of this can clearly be seen in how often we must confess the same behaviors, over and over and over again. Why does victory elude us? Our Lord’s question is also directed to each and every one of us: Why do you doubt?

I wish there was an easy answer to this question. I wish that there was a simple way to change the situation in which we find ourselves. I think the problem is that we are trying to “walk on water,” but find ourselves sinking into the cares and concerns of this world, as St. Peter sank into the stormy waves, because we so seldom have our eyes fixed on the Lord, Who has called us to come to Him as He called to St. Peter. We see instead the problems of this world, with all its suffering and pain, filled with hatred, disease, famine, war… We seek instead to escape from the problems with our jobs, with our families; we seek the pleasures and comforts of this world, and yield ourselves to our passions, rather than looking for the kingdom of God and the righteousness of that kingdom. When we do these things, we cannot walk on the waves of life, as did our Lord, as did St. Peter.

There is no easy answer; but I offer this to you for your consideration. God loves you. Our Lord Jesus Christ came in love to save you. There is nothing you can do to save yourself; but there is nothing that you must do to save yourself, except to do what St. Peter did as he began to sink. All we need to do is to cry out, “Lord, save me!” – and believe that He is able to do what He has promised. Then, we need to live trusting in that promise: that the power of death has been broken by His death and resurrection; that our sins are forgiven when we confess them and ask to be made clean, and whole; and that we have been given His life to live, so that we may honor and glorify Him, and find peace and rest for our souls.

Brothers and sisters, let us trust in the love of God Who saves us; and let us ask Him each day, each hour, each moment for the grace to keep our spiritual eyes upon Him, that we will not sink beneath the waves of the cares of this life, but may walk with Him through this life until we come to dwell in a life without end in the glory of His kingdom.

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Who is Worthy of the Kingdom?

When our Lord Jesus Christ, during the time of His ministry on earth, returned to his home town of Nazareth, word of the miracles and healings He had performed to that time had reached the people who knew His family, and had known Him as a boy growing up in their midst. “Is this not the carpenter’s son?” they asked; suggesting that they wondered how someone who had come from such a humble beginning could do such marvelous things elsewhere. Knowing their hearts, He said to them, “You will undoubtedly say to Me, ‘Do here at home the marvelous things You have done in Capernaum; yet a prophet is not acceptable in his own town.” Because they thought they knew Him, they required Him to give them a sigh; but when He responded by telling them about the holy prophets Elijah and Elisha, they were moved to anger, even hatred, and tried to take him to the cliff at the edge of town, to throw Him to His death.

Today we commemorate the holy prophet of God, Elijah (or Elias, as he is also called). His name means, “The Lord is my God”; and he was sent by God to the northern kingdom of Israel as a sign of God’s presence in a land whose king, Ahab, and important leaders had turned away from God to worship Ba’al, believed to be a god of fertility who lived in the rain clouds.

Russian icon of prophet Elijah. Илия пророк с ...Image via Wikipedia

Elijah’s zeal for the Lord was great; at one point, he believed that he was the only prophet of God – indeed, the only follower of God – who remained in the land of Israel. Elijah prophesied a drought that would come upon the land and would last for three and a half years; and during this time he challenged 450 priests of Ba’al and 400 priests of Asherah to offer a sacrifice to Ba’al to bring an end to the drought; at which time he would make a sacrifice to the God of the covenants with Adam, Noah, Moses, and David – with the people pledged to worship the one revealed to be truly God. The priests of the idols performed their rites of sacrifice from morning until the time to offer the sacrifice had come. At that time, Elijah prepared the sacrifice he would offer on its altar, giving orders that the sacrifice itself, and the wood that would be set aflame by the action of God alone, be soaked with water; so much water that a trench he had ordered dug around the altar was filled with water. Then Elijah prayed, and the Lord sent fire from heaven that burned not only the wood and the sacrifice, but also the water, as well. In his zeal, Elijah ordered the people to seize the false priests, and had them put to death. This action caused Ahab’s queen, Jezebel, to swear that she would have him put to death. This is but one action that was carried out by the holy prophet of God.

What made the people of Nazareth so angry? When our Lord said that the prophet Elijah, during the time of the famine caused by the drought, did not minister to any of the many widows in Israel, but instead brought God’s help to a widow from a foreign land; and that the prophet Elisha – Elijah’s follower and successor as prophet in the northern kingdom – healed a leper from another land, but not one of the lepers in Israel, though there were many who needed such a healing, He was, in effect, telling them that these foreigners, who were not people of the covenant, as were the Jews, were more deserving than the people who were supposed to be the people of God. By connecting the people of His home town with those who needed God’s blessing but did not seek it, He was saying that the same is true for those who lived where He had grown up. Jesus the Messiah, promised by God to His people from the time that Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise, had come – but the people who were supposed to have been watching and waiting for Him did not recognize Him, and thought they knew who He was.

This should make us stop and think. After all, we say of ourselves that we are the people of God, the inheritors of the New Covenant, the covenant of the Cross, of the Blood shed by the offering of the Lamb of God for our sake. We also say that He will come, as the people in our Lord’s home town said that the Messiah would come, establishing His kingdom. But do we live as His people should live? Or do we say one thing, but do another? And if we were to learn that there will be those who, without entering into the Orthodox Church, will be worthy of a place in the kingdom of heaven, while there is the very real possibility that some Orthodox Christians will not receive the same blessing, would that make you angry, as the people of Nazareth were angered?

We say we know the Lord is God, our Savior and Redeemer. But do we live like Him? Are we patient and forgiving, as He is? Are we striving to turn away from our attachments to this world, and to live as citizens of His kingdom? Do we love God more than we love ourselves, and the pleasures of this world, and of our flesh? If you want to know whether or not you love God, consider how you live with the person who cuts in line in front of you on the highway, or at the store. Do you lose your peace? Or do you forgive, and pray for that person? What about the person – maybe even here, in the house of God – who, because of the way they are dressed, or where they stand, may not be following exactly the manners of the Orthodox way of life? What about the person who does thing that irritate you, maybe even someone in your own household? Do you love them? Do you forgive them? Do you pray for them? Do you try to change who you are, what you say, what you do, in order to help them, while forgiving them for their faults and weaknesses? If you love them, as Christ loves us; if you forgive them, as we are forgiven; and if you give of yourself for them, gently, humbly, patiently, expecting no thanks, or anything at all in return – then be encouraged, brothers and sisters: for if we love those around us, even those who hate and scorn us, even those who might kill us – if we love them, we may also say that we love God. Then we will not be like the people of Nazareth who became angry when our Lord came into their midst; rather, we will be like Him Who, for love of us, unlovely sinners, gave Himself for us, that we might live in Him, and He in us.

Holy prophet of God, Elijah, pray to God for us!

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Old Heresies Renewed and the Symbol of Faith

If someone knocked on your door, said they wanted to talk about Jesus, and then said that He wasn’t the Son of God, but was really the Archangel Michael in human form, would you know how to respond? Or if the persons who knocked on your door to talk with you about Jesus told you that He is the Son of God; but that His Father is Adam, who had physical relations with Mary; and that the “spirit brother” of Jesus is Lucifer – would you know what to say?

We sometimes seem to think that all of the heresies are old, going back to the earliest days of the Church – and that is usually correct. However, sometimes we also think that, because the Church identified these are heresies long ago, the problem has been solved. It has – for those who accept the decisions and teachings of the saints we remember and celebrate today: the holy fathers of the first six Ecumenical Councils. But I hope it doesn’t surprise you to find that most of these heresies are still being taught today, still being believed today. Our work isn’t finished yet; and we must begin by being certain that we know what we believe, and why we believe it – and then we’d better be sure we know how to explain it.

That may sound like a rather difficult task. In fact, it’s not – at least, not if you’ve been paying attention during the reading of your Morning Prayers, and during the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. If you have been paying attention at these times, you’ll find that we, as Orthodox Christians, recite daily something called the “Symbol of Faith.” This creed – “creed” means, “I believe” – was written by the fathers of the first two Ecumenical Councils. It is, in a way, a “summary” of what we believe, talking about God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, the Church, baptism, the resurrection to come, and life in the kingdom Of God. According to the fathers of the first six Councils, those who do not believe what is found in the Symbol of Faith are not members of the Orthodox Church, nor followers of the Orthodox Faith.

There are serious implications that give us good reason to be careful about the teaching of the Church, and to avoid the teachings of the heretics. If Jesus only appeared to be human (the heresy of docetism), then who was saved? If Jesus was a man who found favor with God, but not the Son of God incarnate, but rather was given that title as one “adopted” by God (the heresy of adoptionism) then how could He have saved us? Arius taught that Jesus was not of one essence with the Father, and that the Son of God was created. Nestorius taught that Mary was not the Theotokos – not the Mother of God – but only the “Christotokos” – the Mother of Christ; ultimately denying (by calling into question) the divinity of our Lord.

Orthodox icon Theotokos IverskayaImage via Wikipedia

Eutyches, in his zeal to show the errors of the teaching of Nestorius, went too far, saying that the divinity of the Son of God “swallowed up” the humanity of Jesus as the ocean consumes a drop of water. Sabellius taught that the three Persons of the holy Trinity are simply different appearances of the one God (the heresy of modalism). By contrast, St. Athanasios – who was present at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., when the teachings of Arius were condemned, and who had a part in the writing of the Symbol of Faith – teaches us that Christ became one with us so that we might become one with Him. If He is not fully human, this cannot be true. If He is not truly divine, then He has no power to save us. If His human will was completely overwhelmed by His divine will (the heresy of monothelitism), again, He is not like us, and so cannot help us.

Truth be told, apart from the question of whether or not we are prepared to meet the arguments of those who today have revived one or more of the old heresies, or perhaps even a new heresy (if such a thing is possible), most of us are capable of going through life without giving these questions any serious thought. But if we do so, we neglect our study of the Faith we confess, and the way of life that arises from our faith. Brothers and sisters, I would not want any of you to have to come before the Throne of the Lord on the great and terrible Day of Judgment unprepared. Each of us would do well to take some time – such as during one of the seasons of fasting in the Church year – to read the Symbol of Faith, not as an act of worship only, but as a form of study. What does it say? What does it mean? If we will go to the text of the Symbol, and seek to go more deeply into its meaning, we will find great treasures for us from the storehouses of the fathers of the first six Councils – treasures that can take part in the transformation of our being, so that Christ may be seen increasingly in each of us.

Holy Fathers of the first six Ecumenical Councils, pray to God for us!

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Weakness in the Face of Temptations

Our holy father Sisoës the Great was born in Egypt. As a young man, he left his city and went into the desert, settling finally on the same mountain where St. Anthony the Great had lived and struggled with the ascetic way of life, until he came to victory over the flesh, the passions, and the demons. Sisoës did the same, praying and fasting and in other ways taking no regard for this world or for his body, seeking only communion with God and a desire for the kingdom to come. He also won the victory; and God gave him the ability to heal the sick, to cast out demons, and to raise the dead. Many people came to the saint, and he helped them for some sixty years in this world before departing this life; and has been a healer and a helper after his repose, until today.

He gave many people direction for their own spiritual development. A monk asked the holy father what he needed to do in order to please God, and be saved. He was told to leave the world and everything in it behind, and to draw near to God with prayers and with tears of repentance. Another complained that he was not able to memorize the wisdom given to him by the elder, so that he could repeat it. The holy father told him that he should rather work to obtain purity of mind, and then to speak from this purity, trusting to God in everything. Then it would not be necessary to memorize someone else’s words. He taught that when temptation comes against us, we must acknowledge that this is the result of our sin, and we must then yield ourselves completely to the will of God. Likewise, when something good comes to us, or when we respond to a situation by doing what is good and pleasing to God, we should acknowledge that this, too, is because of God’s mercy, and not anything of which we can claim for ourselves. When asked about acquiring humility, the holy father taught that, when we consider every other person as being better, more worthy, than ourselves, we are on the path to being truly humble.

In the reading today from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, we hear of our Lord healing a man who was paralyzed. What does our Lord say? He says, “Your sins are forgiven.” It is only after the teachers of the law accuse Him of blasphemy that He directly addresses the physical ailment, commanding the man to rise, take up his bed, and walk. St. Sisoës shows us the same connection: When we do not acknowledge that we are weak in the face of temptations, when we do not confess our sins and our weakness, we are overwhelmed, and become paralyzed by our sins: certainly in spirit, and sometimes even physically, for we are beings of body, mind, and spirit, and what harms one part harms us in all our parts. As did the man healed in the Gospel, we need to draw near the Lord with faith, with prayers, and with repentance with tears. It is our Lord’s desire that we be made whole, a gift freely given to us, ours for the asking, because of His love for us – a love so great that He endured His Passion and the Cross and burial to set us free from sin and death.

When we are honest with ourselves, and remember our sins, how can we think that we are better than another person, more worthy, entitled to anything good? This is the entryway into the humility that gives us an indication of how well – or how poorly – we are serving as vessels of the love of God and for our neighbor we are meant to be. This is not easy. Indeed, the most restrictive fast is nothing compared to acquiring humility. Standing in prayer throughout the night is far easier than thinking that we are each first among sinners, and everyone else has not sinned as we have. The person who cuts you off in traffic; the person who ignores your plea for help; the person who rejects your efforts; the person who ridicules your faith, and your effort to show the life of Christ in your own – yes, I am saying that the people who anger and injury and hate and even kill you are meant to be considered more important, more valuable, and more worthy than we think of ourselves. When you find it difficult or impossible to do this, confess this as a fault, asking, begging, God for help – and remembering above all God’s love for you, and all that He has done for you, and has promised that He will do for you. When we allow the truth of the great mercy and love of God for us to fill us and to guide our thoughts and words and deeds, then we, like our holy father Sisoës, have come one step closer to mastering our passions, and to leaving this world and all its snares behind.

Holy father Sisoës the Great, pray to God for us!

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Who Do >You< Look Like?

“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

In the reading today from the Gospel According to St. Matthew, our Lord asks His disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” Their replies make a list of holy men, prophets of God, including Elijah, and Jeremiah, and even John the Baptizer, who had been executed only a short time before. Then our Lord asks them directly, “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replies, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Remember that, by the time this conversation between Jesus and His disciples takes place, He has given the Sermon on the Mount; He has healed many who were sick; He has cast out demons; He has worked other miracles – the feeding of the five thousand, for one – and has taught them far more than He has publically proclaimed. Remember also that, by this time, the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law of Moses have accused Him of breaking the Law of Moses and of casting out demons by the prince of demons, and have already started plotting to kill Him. In the midst of all this, the common people have recognized Him as being holy, but have not perceived Him to be the Messiah, the Anointed One of God whose coming had been promised by God and foretold through the prophets. Remember that Nathanael, at the time of his being called to follow Jesus, had exclaimed, “You are the Son of God!” Remember that those who were in the boat when our Lord calmed the storm and Peter had walked on the water had also declared, “You are truly the Son of God!” What was different about what St. Peter had said, that earned him a blessing?

Have you ever noticed how children look like their parents? In some cases, the resemblance is there, although not always clearly; while in other cases, the resemblance is so strong as to be striking. This is true not only of appearances, but in mannerisms, such as sounding alike, walking alike, and other in other ways as well. So it is with all the previous declarations that had been made, saying that Jesus is the Son of God – for we are all sons of God, in that we are made in His image, and after His likeness. St. Peter’s declaration went beyond that, when he said, not just that Jesus is the Son of God, but that He is the Christ, the Anointed One, the Deliverer promised by God, and proclaimed by St. John the Baptizer as the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world. Human senses were not sufficient to perceive as deeply as St. Peter did when he made this statement of faith. God the Father revealed this truth to the saint, so that His Son might be made known – and not just then, but, through the testimony of St. Peter, to all who hear the Gospel, at all times, and in all places. The loop of resemblance between the Father and the Son is completed, in a way, when, at the Last Supper, Philip asks Jesus to show them the Father. He replies, “Have you not known that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? He who has seen me has seen the Father.”

What about us? If the question was put to us, what would we say? Of course, because we have heard the Gospel, we know the correct response to give – but does that mean we also are blessed, as St. Peter was blessed? Or is there more to it for us than that?

Everyone has heard this bit of “folk wisdom” – “Talk is cheap.” Everyone knows this one as well: “Actions speak louder than words.” We who have been privileged to live in this time, with the Gospels written and the Church well established and a God-pleasing way of life taught to us; we who have been privileged to have been buried with Christ in our baptism, and empowered with the Holy Spirit as we were chrismated, and have received the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ – how do we truly proclaim that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God? Do our lives reveal Him through what we say and what we do, and what we do not say and do not do? Can He be seen in us, in who we are, in how we live? Or do we look just like everyone else, indistinguishable from all the rest of those in the world who do not say that Jesus is Lord and Savior? Brothers and sisters, this should not be!

Let us commit ourselves, and one another, and all our life unto Christ our God. We say this again and again in our prayers, both in the worship of the Church, and in the privacy of our prayer corner. Let us also ask God the Father for the grace we need to be transformed more and more into the likeness of His Son, so that what we say and what we do brings the knowledge of Jesus Christ to those trapped in the ways of the world, longing to be set free. May God grant us grace to show the world His Son in us; and may we show the world in word and deed that Jesus is truly the Christ, the Son of the living God.

Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, pray to God for us!

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