Monday, November 30, 2009

Mercy, Not Sacrifice

Today we celebrate and remember the holy Apostle and Evangelist Matthew. He was a tax collector – every bit as unpopular at the time as he would be today – and was at his work when the Lord Jesus called to him, saying, “Follow me.” To his credit, Matthew did so, leaving behind all worldly possessions and possibilities, choosing instead an inheritance in the kingdom of heaven. According to tradition (although modern Biblical scholarship may say otherwise), he wrote the first account of the birth, life, and ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ; and the account he wrote is first among the four Gospels in the New Testament canon. This is why he is called an Apostle and an Evangelist: for he was one of the Twelve who accompanied our Lord, and one of the four who wrote about Him after His passion, crucifixion, resurrection from the dead, and ascension into heaven. St. Matthew went to Ethiopia, where he established a church and consecrated a bishop. He also baptized the wife and son of a prince of that land, causing the prince to seek the arrest of the apostle. The first band of soldiers sent to bring him to the prince returned without him, saying they had heard his voice, but could not see him. The second detachment found the saint, but the light that shined from him dazzled them so that they cast down their weapons and ran away. The prince himself went to find the saint, and was blinded by the same light; his sight being restored only by the prayers of St. Matthew. This did not prevent the prince from seizing the apostle; and, after many tortures, in which he was protected and sustained by the Lord, the holy apostle yielded his spirit to his Master. The prince ordered that his body be placed in a casket made of lead and thrown into the sea; but the bishop, following the appearance of the apostle in a dream, found the body. It was this miracle that brought the prince to repent, and to embrace the Christian faith; and he became first a priest, and then later the bishop of that land, serving the Lord as a faithful shepherd of the flock until his own falling asleep in the Lord.

In the reading from the Gospel bearing his name, we hear of the feast that St. Matthew gave after he left behind his earthly life to follow the way of Jesus Christ. It is striking to hear how the Pharisees criticized our Lord for sitting down to eat with tax collectors and sinners. We should recall that the Pharisees sought to fulfill all the commandments of the law of Moses, which included avoiding meals with those who were “unclean” – and certainly Matthew and the others gathered for the feast he gave qualified for that distinction in the eyes of the Pharisees. Our Lord speaks to them; and we would do well to hear and understand what He is saying. First, He says that He did not come for the righteous, but to save sinners. Then, He rebukes them, saying, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Of course, it is the work of an evangelist to bring the good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ to those who do not yet know Him, who have not yet come to Him for mercy and forgiveness and new life in Him. We don’t have any real problems with the first part of His reply to the Pharisees. But that second part? For some reason, this can be a very real challenge for some of us as we seek to embrace and practice the Orthodox way of life.

The danger for us is that we can get so caught up in trying to do everything right that we can miss the real center of the Orthodox faith: to love God with the fullness of our being, and to love others as we love ourselves. If we remember to pray, but do not remember the poor, what god does praying do for us? If we remember the fast, but do not feed the hungry, does our fasting really benefit us? If we confess our sins, but judge others in our hearts, have we truly confessed? If we pay more attention to what others are doing while we are in church than we are to the prayers, have we really taken part in the worship of God? “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” says the Lord – and I take that to include the need for us to be blind to the faults of everyone else, except perhaps in order to pray for them, and to not be so focused on outward acts, as valuable as these may be, that we do not remember to forgive, and to love, and to be patient, and to be humble, and not to judge, or tell another person what to do – unless, of course, they come to you and ask.

Brothers and sisters, let us leave behind the ways of the world – including the ways of the Pharisees – and, following the example of the holy apostle and evangelist Matthew, let us be transformed from our lives in this sinful world to shine with the light of the love of God in Jesus Christ, even to the point of praying for those who seek our deaths.

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Sunday, November 22, 2009

Good Fruit from Dry Sticks

Among the saints commemorated today is our holy father John Kolobos (little, or dwarf) of Egypt, a friend of St. Paisios the Great, and teacher of St. Arsenius the Great. Among the aspects of his life we learn how, as a novice, he was given an obedience by his spiritual father, St. Pambo, to plant a dry stick in the ground, and to water it every day until it produced leaves. St. John watered that stick every day for three years, until, by the grace of God, the stick produced leaves, and then fruit, which St. Pambo gathered and took to the church, saying, “Come and taste the fruit of obedience!”

Michael (archangel)Image via Wikipedia

Yesterday, we celebrated the festival of the holy archangel Michael and all the other bodiless powers with the added blessing of the presence of the most holy Theotokos through her Kursk Root Icon, whose visit was a great privilege and blessing. We considered how it is that the nature of angels, who certainly appear far more powerful than we are ourselves, not to have dominion, but rather are called to serve. We remember that it is said of many of the saints that they lived as angels on earth; and how each of us is called to be the servant of everyone around us, honoring and respecting every person because they are made in the image and after the likeness of God, and, being blind to, and quick to forgive, their sins, remembering only our own sins, to consider all others as being more worthy of honor and respect than we may ever be ourselves.

Everyone, I am sure, will agree that actually obtaining this ideal requires a great deal of labor, a great deal of struggle. Yet the life of St. John Kolobos and his watering of the stick should encourage us, as we should also be encouraged by the account of the woman with an issue of blood, of whom we hear in the reading today from the Gospel according to St. Luke. No doctor was able to cure her, and she suffered daily for twelve years; but drawing near to our Lord Jesus Christ by faith, and touching only the fringe of His garment, she was healed. Both her healing and the restoration of life and the bearing of fruit from what was once a dry stick are beyond our power to achieve, or to comprehend; yet both are possible by the grace of God.

Brothers and sisters, in so many ways we are like the woman with an issue of blood: suffering the loss of our lives both bodily and spiritually because we have cut ourselves off from the root of Life by our sins. We are like the dry stick: lifeless, and with no chance of bearing fruit. But if we will put our trust and hope in the Lord, and draw near to Him by prayer and fasting and all the other practices of our Orthodox way of life, and persevere in doing so, even when all it might seem that we are doing is watering with faith a dry, lifeless stick, by our obedience, by desiring and pursuing the grace of God, not the least of which by drawing near with fear and faith to regularly receive the holy mysteries of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, we may have hope that we also, like the woman with an issue of blood, and like the dry stick, may be healed, and so bear the fruits of the Spirit, and so live in such a way that others may taste of that fruit, and draw near to God, and so be saved.

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Living as Angels on Earth

12th-century icon of Archangel Gabriel from No...Image via Wikipedia

Have you ever thought about the angels? Most of us, I’d suspect, usually don’t, unless we find ourselves in a difficult situation, and then remember to ask our guardian angel for help. Thinking about the angels isn’t something easily done in the culture of the world in which we live. Many people, when angels are mentioned, get an image of a golden-haired person in a long white robe with white wings. Of course, as the “traditional” beginning of the Christmas shopping season is less than a week away, soon we’re going to be surrounded with this sort of image of the angels.

Our Orthodox fathers teach us something different; an aspect of which can be seen on the deacon’s doors – the side doors into the altar, one on either side of the royal doors. The door to the right quite often is an icon of St. Michael the Archangel, dressed for battle; while the door to the left is quite often the archangel Gabriel, who, while not in armor, is nevertheless a figure of power, much different from the angels on Christmas cards and atop Christmas trees. The fathers teach us that, before God created the heavens and the earth, the nine ranks of angels were created. They are not material beings, as we are; they are spiritual beings, super-intelligences, able to take on the appearance of having being, and so to interact with the material world. The fathers also teach that the foremost of these created beings, Lucifer, the “bringer of light,” led a revolt of some of the angels after having beheld God’s plan for creation, and especially for mankind, to be created in the image and after the likeness of God. These rebellious beings, cast out of the heavenly realm, became the demons, with Lucifer, renamed Satan – the Adversary – as their leader; opposed by the holy archangel Michael, the leader of the bodiless hosts.

Because we are created in the image and after the likeness of God we are, as the Psalmist says, but a little lower than the angels. One thing we can deduce from this is that we are not as intelligent or as powerful as the angelic beings. Why, then, do we not worship them? Why, then, are we not subject to them as part of the dominion of God?

The answer is at once both simple and instructive. It is the nature of the angels to serve. In the case of the angels who did not rebel against God, they remained faithful servants of God. Indeed, the word “angel” derives from “messenger” – the angels are the messengers of God. Among other things, this means they are servants. In the case of the demons, they chose to serve themselves, rather than to serve God. What is striking about this is how much we have in common with the angels. We are also called to be the obedient servants of God; and yet consider how often we choose to serve ourselves, instead of doing the will of God! Every time we go to confession, every sin we admit there is evidence of how we have followed the example of the rebellious angels, rather than keeping faith with God.

It is said of many of the saints that they lived among us as “angels on earth.” This means, in part, that they gave no thought to the things of this world, but lived in a bodiless way, as much as is possible for us to do. They lived only to serve God; and quite often this was expressed by their serving those made in the image and after the likeness of God, giving instruction with love to assist others in the pursuit of the salvation of their souls. In this way, both by teaching and by their deeds they served us as a way of serving God.

Brothers and sisters, it is our calling to follow the example of the holy Archangel Michael and the other Bodiless Powers of heaven, and to be the servants of God. Of course, one of the greatest examples of this is found in the holy and blessed Lady Theotokos, who, when told of her part in God’s plan for the salvation of the world by the archangel Gabriel, responded by surrendering herself in the fullness of her being – body, mind, and spirit – in order to give birth to our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ. As with the angels, and with the Mother of God, so it is meant to be with us. We are given the opportunity to bear Christ, as did the Theotokos; and to present Him to the world, as she does, as she is most often depicted in the icons. Not only should Christ be seen in and through us, in what we say and in what we do; but having followed the example of our blessed Lady who said, “Behold the handmaiden – that is to say, the servant -- of the Lord,” we are to follow the example of the holy angels and archangels; who, despite their power in comparison to our own, are the servants of God – so much so that I am certain that, on this feast day to honor St. Michael and all the Angels, they share with us the delight in having the presence of the most blessed and glorious Lady Theotokos in the form of her Kursk Root Icon. They are not jealous because their festival is shared; rather, they rejoice to be with the one who is “more honorable than the cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim.” This is what we should understand, and cultivate in our own hearts – that the joy of the servant is in serving. So let us rejoice in the presence of the angelic hosts, and let us serve each other in humility and love, and so become more and more like angels on earth.

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Saved by Grace? Grace and Works in Our Salvation

“For by grace you have been saved by faith; and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; not by works, lest any man should boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9)

St. Paul writes this in his epistle to the Church in the city of Ephesus. He tells them of God’s plan and purpose, to bring all of creation together under Christ: a plan that begins with His reconciling us to Him through the grace and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ. Being reconciled with God, we are then to be reconciled to each other, with the barriers that separate us having been torn down by the Lord Jesus. Made one, we are able to become the Church, through which and in which the message of salvation is to be proclaimed throughout all the world, so that everybody everywhere has the opportunity to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

Why emphasize the point that we cannot save ourselves? The saint wants us to know that we lack the capability to truly love, or to forgive, or to be merciful, when we are apart from God – and sin, of course, separates us from God. He is telling us that God works first in us; that His work is that of faith, the faith in Jesus Christ that saves sinners. There is nothing, no work that we can do to earn the favor of God. Does this mean, then, that it does not matter what we do? Is there any need for praying, or fasting, or giving? Is there any need to struggle against our passions, against the impulses and appetites that, left uncontrolled, soon control us, and lead us away from the path that leads to heaven? If we are not saved by our works, why bother to forgive, or to discipline our flesh, or to pursue humility or patience or generosity or mercy?

Our salvation is a gift from God. No one “earns” a gift; no one “deserves” a gift. A gift is given, at least, ideally, because the giver loves the person for whom the gift is intended. The act of giving is independent of the recipient. But this is not to say that we need do nothing. Actually, those aspects of the Orthodox way of life that might be called “works” – praying, fasting, giving, forgiving, struggling to be patient, humble, laboring to uproot the passions that betray us – these are things we undertake in response to the gift we have been given. We follow the Orthodox way of life not because it saves us – it does not – but because it is through the development of the qualities that praying and fasting and giving and struggling produce in us that allows us to “get out of the way,” as it were, and allow the life of our Lord Jesus Christ given to us in holy Baptism to come forth, to be seen and heard in what we say and do. The “works” of the Orthodox way of life are a way of giving thanks for the gift of salvation given to us freely, while we were still sinners, while we were still the enemies of God, so that we might know the love of God for us in His Son, and in His death on the Cross on our behalf. As we allow the life of our Lord and Savior to be seen in and through us, we may know that we are becoming His Body, His Church – and that the message of salvation is being proclaimed in this time and this place, as St. Paul wanted the believers in Ephesus to know and to do.

Brothers and sisters, we cannot save ourselves; but the good news is that God has saved us, doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Let us give thanks to God for the love that is the source of His mercy and grace; and let us, with thanksgiving, embrace the way of life of our Orthodox faith, so that we may fulfill His purpose for us, and be His servants, gathering in all His people, to the glory of God.

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Monday, November 09, 2009

Does Sin Cause Earthquakes?

The holy Great-Martyr Demetrius was the only child of faithful and devout parents, who had begged God in prayer to grant them a child. Of a wealthy family, Demetrius was well educated, and his family’s place in society led him to become the military commander of Thessalonica after his father retired from that post. It was in this office that Demetrius was ordered by the Emperor Maximian, who hated the Christian Church and faith, to persecute and exterminate the faithful in the region under his command. Instead, the saint openly and boldly refused to follow the order, declaring his faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. He was arrested; and, knowing that his life would soon come to an end, gave all is possessions to his servant, so that he in turn could give them all to the poor and needy in the city. His executioners found him in prayer, in which he was strengthened for what would happen by an angel; and they killed Demetrius with their spears. His friends collected his body; and found that myrrh came from his burial site. Many of those who were sick found healing through this myrrh, and a church, small at first, was built at the site of his relics. A rich nobleman who ran to the relics was healed of an incurable disease, and built a larger church in thanksgiving. When the Emperor Justinian tried to move the saint’s relics to Constantinople, a flame of fire arose from the tomb, and a voice was heard, saying, “Leave them here; do not touch them!” The martyr had not, at the time of his death, been removed from his office as the military protector of Thessalonica; and so continued in that office even after his repose, delivering the city many times from barbarian attacks.

In the year 740, a great earthquake struck the city of Constantinople on the feast day of St. Demetrius. It was an earthquake of some duration, and the destruction is caused was significant. The people of the city understood that the earthquake was the result of their sins, and so they were moved to repentance and a changed way of life, even as they gave thanks to the most holy Theotokos and to the Great-Martyr Demetrius for their protection in the time of trial.

This theme is echoed again and again in the hymns during the canon recalling the great earthquake, which is chanted at the service of Matins on the eve of the feast. The hymns call us to flee from sin, which is the cause of great earthquakes, plagues, and death; and to seek to please God by repentance and amendment of life. Of course, this explanation of the cause of the quake that day, as on other days, does not fit well with our understanding of the science of plate tectonics, the cause, as best as we are able to explain it, of earthquakes and volcanic activity. Yet we would do well to remember that the heavens and the earth are created by God; and who can predict when an earthquake might take place, or explain exactly why the earthquake was of any given magnitude or duration? Surely, if God exists – and, of course, we believe He does – it is not beyond the realm of possibility that, indeed, an earthquake may very well be one way in which the love of God, Who desires not the death of a sinner, but that we might instead turn from our death-directed ways, and return to Him, and so find life, shakes us – literally – from the path to destruction, and gives us the opportunity to once more walk with Him, as did Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden.

Brothers and sisters, let us, with faith, overcome the world – and what it has taught us that intentionally or unintentionally denies the reality of God; for when we deny the existence and activity of God, we also deny the existence of sin. If there is no God, then there is no sin, and so there is no need to repent, or confess, or to change our way of life. May we never deny our faith and trust in God; and may we, by our faithfulness to our Lord Jesus Christ in word and in deed, through the protection of the most holy Theotokos and the holy Great-Martyr Demetrius, bear witness to Him, and to His love for us.

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Monday, November 02, 2009

Called to Bear the Love of God

In the second reading today from the Gospel according to St. Luke, we hear our Lord giving instructions on how we are to love. Those who were at the Vigil service last night also heard a reading from the first Epistle of St. John the Theologian that teaches us about how we are to love. It’s important enough that I want to read it again for the benefit of those who were unable to attend.

If a man says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen? This commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should also love his brother. Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God. Whoever loves the Father also loves the child who is born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. His commandments are not grievous. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world: your faith. Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

We know that it is important for us to pray, for praying is meant to draw us closer to God; but, as St. John the Theologian teaches us, if we do not love our brothers, we cannot say that we love God, no matter how wonderful our time in prayer may be. We know that it is important to fast, for fasting helps us gain the control we need over our flesh, so that the desires we experience for the things that feed our passions rather than our souls, and so lead us into sin and death, are mastered by the discipline of fasting; but keeping the most severe fast does us no good if we do not love each other. We know that it is important for us to give from the wealth that God has entrusted to us, because by giving to help those in need, and for the work of the Church, we set ourselves free from our attachments to worldly goods and pleasures, and so rise more easily to heaven; but even giving away everything gains us nothing if we do not act out of love.

Who are we to love? Our Lord tells us that our love must go beyond loving those who love us. It is easy – or, at least, easier – to love those who love us. We are certainly supposed to love our families: parents, children, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews. We are certainly called to love each other as we gather together to worship the Lord. But we must also love those who might laugh at us as we say a prayer before a meal, and make the sign of the Cross over ourselves in their presence. We must love those who, by word or by deed, offend us – such as the person who cuts us off on the highway, or gets in line ahead of us. We must love those who hate us, even those who would, if they were able, put us to death, so that we might no longer remind them of the reality of our faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, and our hope that our sins will be forgiven, and we may be given eternal life with Him in heaven.

We are called to love, even when it is difficult to do so – if only because God, Who is holy and righteous, and who detests sin, has loved us when we were His enemies, has loved us in the midst of sinning, and has shown His love for us by becoming one with us, joining His divine nature to our fallen nature, restoring us to where we were before the Fall, and opening once more for us the way to dwell unceasingly in His presence, as Adam and Eve lived before they violated God’s commandment. God is merciful, and expresses His love for us in His mercy; and so we are to be merciful – but we cannot do so if we do not love.

Brothers and sisters, called to be the bearers of the love of God: this is a most difficult task. We cannot accomplish it without embracing ever more fully the Orthodox way of life. Let us ask God for the grace we need to become more fervent in prayer, more stringent in fasting, more generous in giving; to be humble and patient and forgiving, so that we may be purified and then filled with His love, so that all the world may know the great love of God by which we are saved, and so join with us in worshipping and glorifying the God of love.

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