Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Dinner Invitation: What's Your Excuse?

Today we celebrate the holy forefathers of our Lord Jesus Christ, the patriarchs and the prophets and the other holy men and women from Adam and Eve to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to Moses and Joshua, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel up to John the Baptizer, the last of the Old Testament prophets.  When we read the Old Testament, we should do so to learn not only of the history of God’s involvement with us, but also to learn the many ways in which we were being prepared for the coming of Christ.  Yes, we know that the prophets told us of His coming, from the “Suffering Servant” mentioned in the prophecies of Isaiah, and of His miraculous birth, also found in the book of the prophet Isaiah, who foretold that the Virgin would conceive and would bear a child, whose name would be called, “Immanuel” – that is, “God with us.”  But if we read and learn, we may also recognize in Abel a prefiguring of Christ the Good Shepherd, who was the first to offer sacrifice pleasing to God, for which he became the first martyr.  We might learn of the faith of Abraham that led him to depart from his homeland to the place where God would lead him, to give him a home, even as we are called to leave this world behind to follow where God leads, to our true dwelling-place with Him in His kingdom.  We would see the sacrifice of our Lord in the offering of Isaac, we would see the faith of Ruth and Rahab the prostitute, and many, many others, all of whom can teach us about who we are and who we are meant to be as followers of our Lord Jesus Christ, Whose coming fulfilled the promise God made to Adam and Eve even as they were being forced to leave Paradise because of their sin, that a Deliverer would come to set us free from sin and death.  As we draw near to the celebration of the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord, we do well to prepare ourselves, to learn, and to live as we should.

In the reading today from the Gospel according to St. Luke, we hear of the man who prepares a great feast, and sends his servants to gather those who had been invited to take part.  But they respond by making excuses as to why they cannot attend; and so the host sends his servants out again and again, to gather the uninvited as guests, even using force to compel them to enter, until the hall has been filled; but, in his anger, he declares that those who had been invited would now be refused entrance to the feast.

What shall we make of this?  Do you realize that a feast has been prepared for you this very day, and that all who desire to take part and have prepared themselves will be fed with the most holy Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ?  What excuses have kept you from accepting the invitation today?  It is true, no one will compel you to come today – no one will be forced to come to the feast today, nor next Sunday, nor on the Feast of the Nativity itself – but why do you not come?  Why do you refuse the hospitality of our God, Who desires that we share in His rejoicing in His Son, our Savior?  Brothers and sisters, a day is coming when we will make excuses to not attend His feast, and find that we are no longer welcome.  Let us not harden our hearts, and so risk being denied a place at the great banquet of the kingdom.  Let us prepare ourselves with fasting, confession, repentance and prayer; and let us come to the Mystical Supper, especially on the day we celebrate the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ into our midst, remembering also that He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.  Let us strive by the grace of God given to us in our baptism and in the Lord’s Supper to be ready for the day of His return, that we may celebrate and rejoice to behold Him.

Our King and Savior is drawing near!  Come, let us adore Him.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

"Where are the Other Nine?"

Our holy father Ambrose of Milan was born to a Christian mother and a pagan father, who was the Roman governor of the province in which Milan was the principal city. When his father died, the emperor appointed Ambrose in his place. It was in his capacity as governor that he went to the church in Milan, where the bishop had died, causing a division in the congregation between the Orthodox Christians and those who were followers of the heresy taught by Arius. Although Ambrose had gone to keep the peace, a child at its mother’s breast cried out, “Ambrose for bishop!” – a cry taken up by others as well, who considered it to be the voice of God. Ambrose was baptized, consecrated reader, and ordained a subdeacon, deacon, and priest all within one week, at the end of which he was consecrated as the Bishop of Milan. He slept very little, worked tirelessly, prayed without ceasing and fasted every day except Saturday and Sunday. Because of this, he was privileged to see many great works of God, and to perform them, as well. He healed the sick, cast out demons, and even raised the dead. Humble before those whose position in society was lower than his, he was fearless with the nobility; he even ordered that the Emperor Theodosius not be permitted to enter any church until the Emperor repented of his sins. He departed this life on the morning of Pascha in the year 397 A.D.

In the reading today from the Gospel according to St. Luke, we hear the account of the healing of the ten lepers, one of whom, a Samaritan, returns to give thanks, prompting our Lord to ask, “Where are the other nine?” Presumably, those who did not return to say, “Thank you,” were from the people of the first Covenant, to whom God had revealed Himself in a special way, setting them apart from everyone else on the earth. It was this group of people who had been given the promise of the Messiah, and the prophecies about Him. Now He had come; but among these ten lepers, the only one to recognize Him was someone from outside the house of God.

We should always pay attention when the circumstances and responses of those who had been given the first Covenant by God are the subject of the story, because now that group is us, the people of the new Covenant. We are partakers of the special revelation of God to us in Jesus Christ; we are the beneficiaries of the promise of God; and now we can enjoy the special relationship that sets us apart from all other forms of belief, worship, and practices. But can we honestly say that we are doing any better than our predecessors? Like them, we are more likely to live according to the ways of the world, rather than the way of life required by God. Like those who are not members of the community of the new Covenant, we are not looking for the second coming of Christ; and, like the nine who were healed but did not return to give thanks, we daily experience the loving mercy of God, but so often fail to give thanks to God, much less give thanks to God when things do not go the way we’d like them to go. God might look at St. Ambrose, and the good example of his life, and, thinking that the saint was not made in any way differently than any of us, ask, “Where are the others?”

Brothers and sisters, let us not be like those who, having been blessed by healing in the Gospel account today, failed to return to give thanks and to bow down at the feet of our Lord. Let us set our hearts and minds to give thanks to God even in the midst of sickness and suffering, and certainly when we have been given good things by God. Let us not follow any longer the ways and practices and beliefs of the culture around us, but rather let us beg God to give us His grace and strength to follow instead the example of life given to us by our holy father Ambrose, of the saint whose name we bear, and of the most holy Lady Theotokos.

Holy hierarch, father Ambrose, pray to God for us!

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Saint Nicholas: The Power of Love

An example of Russian icons of St. Nicholas fl...Image via Wikipedia

Our father among the saints, Nicholas, was the only child born to wealthy parents, and was instructed in the Christian faith by his uncle (also named Nicholas), who was the bishop in the town of Patara, where St. Nicholas was born. When his parents reposed, Nicholas gave away his considerable inheritance to help the poor, and entered the monastery his uncle had established. It was his uncle who tonsured Nicholas as a monk, and who ordained Nicholas a priest. Throughout his life, Nicholas was known for his love and mercy, and for miracles worked both before and after his repose. Part of his legacy can be seen in his presence in our midst even today. Many nations, including Russia, look to him as a protector of their land and people, and more than 1,200 churches are named in his honor, including 400 in Great Britain – more than any other saint. It is estimated that western artists have depicted him more frequently than any other saint, apart from the most holy Theotokos. Many people don’t realize that the “right jolly old elf” dressed in red and driving a sleigh with reindeer has his origins in this saint: “Santa Claus” is the anglicized version of “Sinter Klaus” – Dutch for, “St. Nicholas.”

Most of us are familiar with certain aspects of the life of St. Nicholas. Probably the most well-known story is how the saint secretly provided gold coins to a family where poverty threatened to cause the sale of three daughters into prostitution. The gold – in some stories, it is dropped down a chimney to land in the stockings of the daughters, which had been hung by the fire in order to dry – spared the family from such a terrible decision. Many of us also know, and, in a way, sort of enjoy, the story of how St. Nicholas, enraged by the heretical teachings of Arius, struck Arius – according to some accounts, he punched Arius in the nose – at the Council of Nicaea in the year 325. Perhaps you even know how, on two separate occasions, St. Nicholas intervened to spare three men who had been wrongfully sentenced to be executed: once, when he confronted a regional governor who had take a bribe to find three men guilty; and again when he appeared in a dream to the Emperor Constantine to tell him that three officials of the imperial court were innocent of the charges that had been brought against them. IN each case, the condemned men were set free.

While these stories are familiar to us, we seem to be less familiar with the deeper details of the life of the saint, the details that make such actions as are celebrated in these stories possible. What power makes it possible to confront a government official, risking imprisonment or even death – and St. Nicholas certainly suffered for the faith during the persecutions under the emperors Diocletian and Maximian – to save innocent lives? What power makes it possible to stand up against popular false teachings to defend the Christian faith? What power – and this is particularly crucial in our world today – makes it possible to break the grip of wealth and possessions, and to give away a fortune? There is only one power capable of doing these things: the power of the love of God in Jesus Christ, that flows through those who love God above all else, and whose love flows to everyone made in the image of God, making them sources of God’s love for each one of us to everyone around them. If we do not love God, we will not put ourselves at risk to protest injustice and unrighteousness, to spare others from suffering or to save innocent lives. If we do not love God, we will not take a stand against false teachings; and we will even make compromises with teachings and practices that do not agree with those of the Orthodox Church and faith. If we do not love God, then we cannot truly love each other as we should; and the things of this world that attract and hold our attention – wealth, fame, honor, power, pleasure – these will capture us and keep us from rising toward heaven, as St. Nicholas rose, living as an angel on the earth in the midst of others.
St. Nicholas is loved by many because he loved so richly. His love for God caused him to turn his back on the world, giving away his worldly possessions, and not seeking any worldly honors. His love for God led him to be obedient when, in pursuing a solitary life, he was instructed by God to live his life in the midst of the people around him. His love for God led him to love every one of us – and in his love for us, to seek justice and righteousness for us, and to give gifts of love.

Brothers and sisters, let us love one another as Christ loves us – for He went to His passion and death through the power of His love. Let us love one another as St. Nicholas loves us, and ask for the grace to follow the example of his life.

Holy hierarch, father Nicholas, pray to God for us!

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Church Growth? "Come and See..."

DUCCIO di Buoninsegna Calling of Apostles Pete...Image by carulmare via Flickr

Is there anyone who does not want the church to increase? Think about that…

Today we celebrate the feast of the holy Apostle Andrew the First-called. He is given the title, “the First-called” because it he, with another of the disciples of St. John the Baptizer, were shown the Lord by the Forerunner. We do not know the other disciple’s name; nor would we know Andrew’s, except that he responded not only to the instruction of the Lord to follow Him, but also by going to find his brother, Simon, and telling him to come and see for himself that the man Jesus was the Messiah, the anointed one of God, for Whom they and all the faithful in Israel had been awaiting His coming. When Simon saw the Lord, he was given the name, “Cephas,” which we know as “Peter”; both terms deriving from the words for “rock” in Aramaic and in Greek. Thus, it is also fair to say that St. Andrew was also the first evangelist; although surely St. John the Baptizer might also be given this honor.

When the faithful were forced to flee from Jerusalem because of the persecutions of the Church growing there, the holy apostle Andrew went to the region of Byzantium, and then along the Danube and the Black Sea and even to Kiev before returning to Greece, having established churches, consecrated bishops and ordained priest along the way during his journey. In the Greek city of Patras, he preached the Gospel; among his converts were the wife and brother of the Roman governor, who was furious, and ordered the arrest and torture of the apostle. He was executed by crucifixion; and as he was on the Cross, the faithful came to him, and he taught them, then prayed, was covered with a bright light for some thirty minutes, and then yielded his spirit into the hands of God. He departed this life for the next in the sixty-second year of our Lord.

In the reading from the holy Gospel according to St. John the Theologian, in which we heard about the holy apostle Andrew, we hear as well about the apostles Philip and Nathaniel, and there is a common theme at play. The Lord finds Philip, and say to him, “Follow me.” Philip, in turn, goes to his friend Nathaniel, and says that they have found the One they had been waiting for, of Whom Moses and the prophets had foretold. Nathaniel is skeptical at first; “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” But he responds to Philip’s invitation, “Come and see”; and, when he meets Jesus, he, too, becomes a disciple.

What does any of this have to do with us? I’m sure that most, if not all, of you would answer the question I asked at the beginning in the affirmative: Yes, we want the church to grow. Well, growing the church is a lot like growing a garden. It’s not enough to go to the place where you want the garden, and sprinkling some seeds on the ground, and hoping for the best. If you want your garden to grow, it’s going to take some work: preparing the ground, planting the seeds, watering, pulling the weeds, and so on. The same thing is true for growing the church: it takes work. More than anything else, we need to work at living in the Orthodox way of life, so that what we say agrees with what we do; and we need to be willing to admit our mistakes, when we fail to live as did the fathers and the saints. But there’s a lesson for us in the Gospel about what we need to do, and it’s not terribly complicated. In order to have the church grow, we have to do what the holy apostles Andrew and Philip did: we have to invite people; we have to say, “Come and see.”

In part, this requires us to heed the teaching of the holy apostle Peter, who wrote that we must be prepared at all times and in every season to give an account of the hope that is within us. What hope is that? It is the life of our Lord Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, a life on which death has no claim and no hold – the life given to us in our baptism. Our hope is in the love of God in Jesus Christ, by which our sins are forgiven and our souls are saved. If we consider what God has done, and is doing, for us, and if we receive the love God intends for each and every one of us, then we should find ourselves able to say to those we know who are broken and hurting, and to those who are searching, and to those who are in darkness, “Come and see.” Brothers and sisters, if we live with the desire to reveal Christ in us, the hope of glory, if we live loving everyone around us as Christ, and if we will say to them, “Come and see,” the church will grow, God will be glorified, and souls will be saved. May God, through the prayers of the holy apostle Andrew, give us the grace to join in his labors, and to say to as many as we can, “Come and see.”

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Monday, December 07, 2009

Riches, Retirement, and the Kingdom of Heaven

This is the time of year when the accountants and tax preparers are contacting us to help us with the end-of-the-year steps we can take to reduce our tax bills for the year. If you haven’t already heard an appeal from some agency about making an end of the year donation on the television or on the radio or on the internet or in a newspaper, magazine, or email, you probably will in the next few weeks.

In the first reading today from the Gospel according to St. Luke, we hear the parable of a man who is wealthy in worldly terms, whose riches are increasing so much that he needs to build larger barns in which to store his possessions. We also hear him planning his retirement into a life that he expects will be comfortable.

Now, to this point in the story, who among us would not want to be in the same situation: to be rich; to have additional riches at hand; and to have the prospect of a comfortable retirement? Most of us would take a deal like that with barely a moment’s thought.

Of course, being familiar with the rest of the parable, perhaps we wouldn’t be as quick to exchange our situation for his. We hear him called a fool by God; and we learn that his soul will be required of him that very night. What, then, will come of his wealth and his plans? As we all know very well, “You can’t take it with you.”

Truth be told, most of us are, indeed, very much like the rich man in the parable. This is not to say that we are rich – although you must admit that, by the standard of living of most people around the world today, as well as the vast majority of those who have ever lived – the average American lives more comfortably, more abundantly, than almost anyone anywhere at any time. But it is true that there are people who have more material possessions and greater worldly wealth than we have. But it is not on the basis of wealth alone that makes us like the man in the parable. We are like him in that our thoughts and concerns are dominated by the things of this world; we pursue wealth in order to make our own lives more comfortable – and we do this even though we know that we do not know when our own soul will be required to come into the presence of God and to give an accounting of how we used the things that God entrusted to us – time, talents, and treasures – not for ourselves alone, but for the good of all. Like the man in the parable, we are rich in worldly terms, but poor in spiritual things: praying, fasting, giving, loving.

The truth is, we can take it with us. Not in its worldly form; but by using the time and talents and treasures we have been given to lay up wealth for ourselves in the kingdom of heaven. By feeding the hungry, by clothing the naked, by visiting the sick and those in hospitals and prisons, and, yes, by giving to help support the work of the church, we can employ the things of this world for the benefit of others now, and for our own benefit in the world to come. Then, we will not be like the man in the parable, finding ways to store our wealth here while contemplating a comfortable retirement. Rather, we will have the safest place of all to store our wealth; and the hope of eternity sharing the love of God with Him and each other in His kingdom, because we have already learned how to do so in this world.

Brothers and sisters, let us not be ignorant, and let us not be lazy, but rather let us set our minds to use what God has entrusted to us for the service of His people, to give glory to God, and to bear witness to Him in the world.

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