Monday, October 26, 2009

Flaws and Miracles

Last night, those who were present were blessed by the presence of the most holy Theotokos and Ever-virgin Mary through her myrrh-streaming Iveron icon from our parish in Honolulu. Someone said to me after the Vigil had ended, and we had processed with the icon from the church to the car in which it was traveling to say, “goodbye,” that we should announce every week some miraculous event at our church, rejoicing that so many people had come to take part in worship with this most wonderful sign of God’s love and caring for His people through the prayers and protection of His most holy Mother.

Many of you may have read the account written by Reader Nectarios about the myrrh-streaming icons of the Cross of our Lord and of the Iveron Mother of God. One part of the story that I learned from Fr. Anatole, the priest of our parish in Honolulu, which is dedicated to the Holy Theotokos of Iveron, is that the print of the icon was purchased by him while on a visit to Toronto. At the bookstore where he was purchasing icons for his parish church was a table with icons whose selling price was greatly reduced, because there were flaws of one kind or another in each print. He wasn’t sure why, but he was moved to purchase the print of the icon now streaming myrrh from that table. I mention this because it has a message for each one of us who have our own flaws, as made evident in our sins. In the case of this icon, God has taken what was flawed, and through it has worked, and is working, a miracle. This should give each one of us hope, for no matter how great our sins may be, if we repent of our sins, and confess them, and return to our Orthodox way of life, making ourselves offerings to God, who knows what God may accomplish in and through us?

Earlier, I mentioned the comment made by someone last night, about how we should announce a miracle every week. Although I don’t think that person meant that in a serious way, the truth is that we could, indeed, say that a miracle takes place here every week; indeed, every time we gather in worship. For example, today at this celebration of the Divine Liturgy, as at every celebration, we are in the presence of the miraculous blessing that transforms the bread and wine that we offer to God to become His most precious Body and Blood that He offers to us for our salvation. We receive from Him His Body and Blood in the form of the bread and wine of the offering in exactly the same way that His disciples, who were gathered together with Him in the upper room on the night in which He was betrayed, and went to His Passion and to death on the Cross, received His Body and Blood; through the miracle of God’s love for us, by which we are saved. At this, and at every, celebration of the Divine Liturgy, and at every Vigil service, and at every molieben and pannikhida offered, we are gathered together with the saints and angels, who join us in our prayers as we worship God. Whether we can see them or not; whether we are aware of it or not, these miracles are taking place, just as the miracle of myrrh streaming from a flawed picture printed on a piece of paper and mounted on a simple pine board shows us that God can take the ordinary and humble and raise it to miraculous heights.

Brothers and sisters, let us worship and glorify our God, Whose love for us is so great that it is beyond our ability to understand or describe. Let us give Him thanks for the great blessing of being witnesses to the miracle of the myrrh-streaming Iveron icon of the Mother of God; and let us pray that He will make us ever mindful of the miracles that take place every time His people gather for prayer and for worship. Let us, as we consider these miracles, remember the great depths of God’s love for us, and seek to bring this love to everyone around us, so that they may also experience the great miracle of the love of God in Jesus Christ, and join with us to worship and glorify Him, the God of miracles, and the God of love.

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You Are the Light of the World

In the reading today from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, our Lord tells those who are listening to Him, “You are the light of the world.” He then gives some additional details about this light. He says, “A city on a hill cannot be hidden be hidden.” Think about driving around town at night. Every house on a hillside can be seen for miles. Our Lord also says, “No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Rather, the lamp that is lit is put on a stand, so that its light shines for everyone in the house.” Then He tells us what this means for us: “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify God in heaven.”

With what light are we meant to shine? On one level, it is the light of good works: especially those things that are done to help another person in need. We know what these things are: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, visiting the sick, and those in prison, and welcoming the stranger – all the things spoken of when our Lord describes the time of the Great Judgment, of the sheep and the goats. But it is possible to do these things, and yet fail to shine. If we are to understand this, and to respond in a manner pleasing to the Lord, what else is there?

Another form of “good works” by which we may bring light into a world of darkness is to faithfully live the Orthodox way of life: praying, fasting, and giving; with humility, patience, forgiveness, generosity to others, and love. If we devote our time and energy to developing and refining these behaviors in our daily lives, we will find it a joy to reach out to others, to feed and clothe and visit and so on. Yet even these good things can be done without bringing the light we are meant to shine. What else must we understand and do to be pleasing to the Lord?

St. John Chrysostom tells us that the light within us is not our own. Rather, the light is ignited in us by our Lord Jesus Christ when we are joined to His life in Holy Baptism. He lights the lamp in us. St. John continues, however, to instruct and remind us that, while the light in us was lit by the Lord, it is up to us to keep the lamp burning. That is, we must, from time to time, trim and renew the wick; and we must, from time to time, refill the lamp with oil; and we must, from time to time, clean the lens through which the light must shine.

Antique bronze oil lamp with Christian symbol ...Image via Wikipedia

Experience with oil lamps, as often found in a church, teaches that the wicks are best served when trimmed twice a day, morning and evening. So it is that the Church advises us to be diligent in prayer at the start, and at the end, of each day. Remember how Moses, when he would return to the people of Israel from being in the presence of God, had to cover his face with a veil, because his face was bright with the light of the presence of God? When we take time to draw near to God in prayer, we come into the light, and so are better prepared to carry that light with us through the course of the day. The lamps must be filled at least daily; and so we should fill ourselves with the words of Holy Scripture, and the teachings of the Fathers, and the lives of the saints, who also brought the light of Christ to us and to the world – that’s why, in the icons, they have haloes. Periodically, the lamps must be cleaned of the dirt and debris they accumulate; and so too must we seek to be made clean in the mystery of confession, through repentance, with the desire not to repeat our sins, but to be transformed. These practices will help us tend to the light given to us, so that, properly cared for, we nay shine with Christ’s light in us, becoming lamps on stands, and even cities on hilltops, to light the way for those in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide those who are seeking God to find and follow the right path.

Brothers and sisters, let us ask God for the grace we need to tend the light given to us, so that the light of our good works of piety and charity may shine before men, so that God may be glorified; and let us never seek praise or commendation from others for the good we may do; but give thanks and glory to God, remembering that if we shine, it is only because He loves us and has given Himself for us, so that we may be saved.

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sowing Abundantly

Each of us knows – or, at least, should know – the hallmarks of the Orthodox way of life. First of all, there is prayer: which we might say is to be in conversation with God. Conversation, of course, involves both talking and listening; and relationships cannot exist without conversation. Prayer, then, becomes a way for us to grow closer in relationship to God, if we learn to enter His presence on a regular basis, and if we will listen as well as talk. There is nothing wrong with prayer that praises God, and gives Him thanks; there is nothing wrong with sharing with Him our hopes and fears, asking for help for others and for ourselves; but we must also listen, especially with our hearts, to what God may be saying to us, even as we are talking with Him.

Next comes the discipline of fasting. Above all, this is a strength and a skill we exercise and develop beginning with dietary restrictions. We all know there are days and seasons we mark by removing meat, eggs, and dairy products from what we eat; and even abstaining from fish, wine, and oil on the most strict days. By following this teaching and practice of the Church, we learn obedience – from which flows reverence and meekness; and meekness attacks the root of sin, which is pride. Fasting also is a form of training, such as what an athlete does to prepare for competition. Fasting helps us teach our flesh that it cannot always have whatever it wants whenever we want it; and this discipline can grow to help us resist other passions that would lead us into sins if we surrendered ourselves to them.

Prayer and fasting, above all, are the signs of the Orthodox way of life. There is another practice, however, that we do not speak about as frequently, yet is, nevertheless, one that is quite important: giving. This is the subject spoken about in the reading today from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian church. St. Paul is writing here to remind the faithful of this important practice of the Orthodox way of life. What, if anything, should we take from this to do in our own lives?

Remember that, in the Old Testament, the people of God were given, as a law, the requirement to give ten percent of what they received – a tithe of their year’s income. This is not what St. Paul is telling the faithful. Rather, he tells them that the act of giving is a voluntary act; and then he addresses how we are to think about giving. What does he say?

St. Paul does not promise that those who give will receive an earthly reward of wealth. He reminds us that God has given us all that we have; and calls upon us to give in the same way that God has given to us – that is, to be generous. He uses a powerful image: “He who sows sparingly shall also reap sparingly; while he who sows abundantly will reap abundantly.” What do we sow when we give? He also talks of sufficiency and abundance. We are promised that we shall be given what is sufficient for our needs, so that we can learn to be free of the things of this world, including food, clothing, and shelter; and by trusting that God will provide what we need, and learning to not live with what goes beyond sufficiency – which is what the world would have us do – we will have enough to give for the benefit of others, while setting aside for ourselves treasures in heaven.

Put another way, St. Paul, and St. John Chrysostom as well, want us to distinguish between what we need – sufficiency – and what we want. St. John Chrysostom uses an example of a person spending very large amounts of money to clothe and entertain someone from the theater, but who, when confronted with a poor man in need of alms, gives little or nothing, perhaps out of the fear that giving will bring poverty on him, the giver, as well. He asks, what will be said to this person, who used the richness given by God for earthly things, but neglected the spiritual aspect of giving without thought of return or reward, which we do when we give to help those in need – and let us remember that part of the reason we give to the Church is to make it possible to meet the spiritual needs of others, both in our midst and in the world.

Brothers and sisters, we are called by the fathers and the saints to share with them in the Orthodox way of life. Let us fast and pray; and let us give, not from necessity, but in thanksgiving for what God has given to us. Let us ask God for the grace and strength to live sufficiently, but no more, so that, by being generous with what God has given us beyond sufficiency, we may use this wisely, giving to the Church and for those in need, so that we may live abundantly in the life of the Spirit, both now, and unto the ages of ages.

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Sunday, October 04, 2009

Life, Death and the Way of the Cross

In the reading today from the Gospel according to St. Mark, we are told that we must deny ourselves, and take up our cross, and follow the example given to us by our Lord Jesus Christ. He tells us – His disciples – that if we try to save our lives, we will lose them; but if we will lose our lives for His sake, and for the sake of proclaiming the good news of our salvation, our lives will be saved. He is calling to our attention the inherent tendency in our fallen state to seek to live in this earthly life for as long as possible, even at the cost of life without end in His Kingdom. It is ironic that the more we cling to life in this world, the more likely we are to enter into a life of torment in the age to come; while if we pursue heavenly things, dying, in effect, in this world, we have the hope of life without end in the joyous presence of God.

In the reading today from the Epistle of St. Paul to the Church in Galatia, we hear as well something about life and death. The Apostle is writing to a community of the faithful that he had established during one of his missionary journeys. Most of the people who had joined this community had previously been pagans, and so did not know of the Law given by God to Moses; and so had been influenced by some Christians who had been Jews before coming to have faith in our Lord, who were teaching that the only way someone could become a Christian was to first become a Jew, and to obey the Law of Moses as well as the Gospel of our Lord. St. Paul is writing to correct the Galatians, urging them to set aside this false teaching. In doing so, he teaches them about the new reality of our existence when we have been baptized into the death of Christ, and raised to new life with Him. He writes, “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I that live, but Christ living in me.”

So: Here is how things stand. Before our baptism, we are alive in the flesh, but dead in our sins. When we are baptized, we are buried with Him; and when He rises to a life over which death has no power, He raises us to that same life. We have Christ living in us – a most wondrous and amazing gift! Yet if we do not realize this change that has taken place in us, we will continue to live as we did before our baptism; we will continue to follow the ways of this world, and we will not follow the ways of the heavenly life, and so risk losing that life. Among other things, this is why we must understand our Lord’s command to take up our cross, and follow Him.

When our Lord took up His Cross, He did so knowing that He would be put to death on it; that He would have to endure one of the most agonizing ways of death that the mind of fallen humanity has ever devised. The power by which it was possible for Him to willingly accept this death was the power of His love for us. This same power is available to us, so that we may also take up our cross to follow Him. That is, we are given the ability to turn aside from the ways of this world, dying to the world, and living so that the life of Christ in us may be seen and heard and experienced by everyone around us: our families, our friends, our neighbors, the people we work with, even the strangers we encounter during the course of a day. When we fail to live as we should; when we fail to express to those around us the love of God in Jesus Christ, it is because we love what we have in this life more than we love God; and because we love ourselves more than we love the other people in our lives.

What can we do? How can we become dispensers of the love given to us by God? We can do so by embracing the way of life we learn in the Church. That is, we dedicate ourselves to work to see God in every person we meet, and to respect them, even reverence them, as living icons, better, more pleasing to God, than we are ourselves, sinful as we are. We labor to see our own sins, and only our sins, fighting against pride by seeking humility. We learn to ask ourselves, “Do I really need this thing I want to buy?” while asking God to guide us in the use of the time and talents and treasure He has entrusted to us, so that we may do more to support the work of the Church, and to help those in need around us. We must also fast and pray, for without praying, we cannot come closer to God; and without fasting, we will not have the strength to overcome the desires of our flesh, and the comforts and pleasures the flesh seeks in the world.

Brothers and sisters, let us dedicate ourselves to taking up our cross, dying to the world, and seeking above all the kingdom of God. Let us ask God to give us the grace and strength needed to take up the Cross of His love, so that we may love and serve Him by loving and caring for each other.

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