Sunday, February 28, 2010

"I Am the Door"

Chora Church/Museum, Istanbul,fresco,Anastasis...Image via Wikipedia

In the reading today from the holy Gospel according to St. John the Theologian, our Lord says of Himself that He is “the door.” What does He mean when He says this? One place we can go for insight is the reading from the holy Gospel according to St. Mark: a memorable scene, in which a paralyzed man, carried by four friends to our Lord to be healed, is actually brought into His presence by being lowered through a hole they made in the roof. What does the Lord tell this man to heal him? “Your sins are forgiven.”

Of course, this stirs up the Pharisees, who sought at all times to live according to the 613 laws of Moses, because they thought that this was the pathway to salvation. Having dealt with the man’s problem, our Lord then dispels their objections by healing the man physically as well as spiritually, linking the two. This is important for us to understand; so let’s look at the objections raised by the dissenters.

“Who but God can forgive sins?” they ask. Our Lord thus shows all who would raise this objection that He is, indeed, God, by restoring the paralyzed man to physical health, so that he could stand, pick up his bed, and return without help to his home. So it is that we begin to understand how we should grasp that our Lord says of Himself, “I am the door.”

Remember that when Adam and Eve were cast out of Paradise, cut off from dwelling in the immediate and intimate presence of God, the gate – a form of a door – was guarded by cherubim with a flaming sword, to prevent Adam and Eve from seeking to return to the presence of God in that way. Now here is our Lord telling us that He, God, is the way for us to return to Paradise, to return to dwelling with God close by us – indeed, within us, something that Adam and Eve did not possess. He is the door to the abundant life He came to bring.

How do we access that door? We access it by becoming like Him: by drawing near to Him with faith, in love, through prayer and fasting and giving and forgiving; and by living at peace, with the love of God, with all those around us. And, to the extent we fail to do these things in love, we confess our sins, asking forgiveness, and starting again – even if we must break through our own ceiling, our earthly desires and attachments, in order to be lowered into His presence to be healed by the forgiveness of our sins.

Brothers and sisters, let us keep this in our hearts and on our minds as we journey through the forty days of fasting before Holy Week and Pascha. Let us remember that our Lord is the door by which we enter into eternal life; and let us, through the way of life of the Orthodox faith and church, strive to let the light and life of Christ be seen in and through us, so that we may enter through the Door, and bring others with us as well.

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Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Triumph of Orthodoxy

Golden Dome, Russian Orthodox, Orthodox Church...Image by Wonderlane via Flickr

Today is the “Sunday of Orthodoxy”; sometimes known as the “Triumph of Orthodoxy.” The celebration of this day, which takes place every year on the first Sunday of Great Lent, celebrates the decision made at the Seventh Ecumenical Council that icons do not violate the provisions of the second of the Ten Commandments, in that, by becoming incarnate, the invisible God Whose form could not be depicted properly in any way could now be seen, and so could be depicted in icons. The same was held to be true for icons depicting the Mother of God, and the saints, for all of them, though imperfect, show us the image of Christ – indeed, every person is made in the image, and after the likeness of God, and so each one of us is an icon of Christ.

We come to church, and we find icons. We cross ourselves and bow, or make prostrations, before them. We offer prayers before them, asking for the prayerful assistance of the saint whose image we see, or of our Lord Jesus Christ Himself, being aware of His presence with us in a special way through our seeing Him in the icon. We are not confused. Our Lord is not in the icon – at least, not in some magical way. For we know that our Lord Jesus Christ, being God, is everywhere present and fills all things through God the Holy Spirit. He is present in the icon only in the same way that He is, as we have said, “everywhere present.” But for those who understand – and the Orthodox Church has never required any of her members to revere the icons, only to avoid saying that the use of icons is idolatry – we are connected by faith with the person we see in the icon, and that the love and respect we show to the icon is not offered to wood and paint, but actually passes to the person who is the object of our devotion.

But our bowing and prostrations and prayers are meaningless if we do not realize that these images are less important than the living icons standing here all around us. Our devotion and respect and prayers are meaningless if we forget that every living person is an icon, and do not treat them with the same devotion and respect we offer to the images of pigment on wood. The truth of our Orthodox faith, and the triumph of our faith, celebrated today, is worthless if it does not cause us to understand the connection between the icons in the Church and the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the homeless, the sick, and the imprisoned about whom we heard on the Sunday of the Last Judgment. Remember what our Lord said: for inasmuch as you have done these things unto one of these, you have done it unto Me; and to the extent you have not helped them, you have not helped Me – and each group receiving its reward. We will not be judged on the basis of how much we reverenced the icons we find in the church and in the prayer corners of our homes; we will be judged on the love and respect we have offered to the living icons all around us. That recognition and the action that flows from it, as we reach out in love to help another person – that is the real triumph of Orthodoxy. May God grant us the grace we need to be truly Orthodox, loving God, and loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Which Path Will You Choose?

The CrucifixionImage via Wikipedia

In the hymns during the Vigil for this joint celebration of the Casting Out of Adam and the Meeting of the Lord, we are presented with two pictures that give us an interesting contrast. One the one hand, the hymns from the Triodion show us, again and again, Adam outside the gates of Paradise, from which he had been expelled because of his sin, forced to leave his dwelling place in the intimate presence of God because of his unrighteousness. On the other hand, we see the righteous Symeon waiting in the Temple, the place where God promised to meet His people, receiving in his arms the One for whom he had been waiting; the One who would open once more the gates of Paradise for us to enter once more into the intimate presence of God. Adam is lamenting for his loss; Symeon is rejoicing that the promise God made to him has been fulfilled by the coming of the One God had promised to Adam.

The world into which Adam was exiled is the same world in which we live today. It is the same world in which Symeon lived; it is the same world which our Lord Jesus Christ entered upon His incarnation. So we can see from Adam that it is possible to live in this world and feel cut off from God; but we can also see that God has entered into the world into which we were exiled in order to bring us back to where we belong; and we see in Symeon that it is possible for us to rejoice at what God is doing in this world, and to turn away from sin and all unrighteousness and live, as Symeon did, in a way pleasing to God.

We are about to depart on the spiritual journey that takes us through Great Lent, coming to the city of Jerusalem as our Lord makes His entrance on Palm Sunday, watching and waiting with Him as He is arrested and mistreated, led to Golgotha, and His death on the Cross – and to the empty tomb on the morning of Pascha, as He rises from the dead, setting us free. Will we go through this season lamenting, like Adam, the loss of the things that we traditionally deny ourselves during this time? Or will we instead rejoice like Symeon that God has come into the world to save us, and we receive Him in our hearts as the righteous elder received Him in his arms? Brothers and sisters, the choice is ours. Which will you choose: Adam’s way? Or Symeon’s?

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Monday, February 08, 2010

The Last Judgment

Last Judgement, TriptychImage via Wikipedia

If I could convince you to memorize – or even just remember – only one portion of the Bible, it would have to be the reading today from the Gospel according to St. Matthew. It tells us, of course, about the Last Judgment. The hymns from the Triodion at the Vigil last night return constantly to the remembrance of death, and the need to prepare ourselves in this life to be ready for the day when our secrets will be revealed, and we will received what we are owed – and to remember that the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Today is also the day we commemorate the holy New Martyrs and Confessors of the Russian land, who did not surrender themselves to those who wished to erase from the landscape of Russia the churches and monasteries and seminaries that covered the land – and to turn the hearts and minds of the people away from God and the preparation for a life in the kingdom of God, to obeying the secular rulers and building, as if such a thing were possible, the kingdom of heaven on earth. They resisted these efforts to destroy the Church and the Orthodox Faith, and suffered, some being killed and so becoming martyrs, while others endured imprisonment and tortures, becoming confessors. If, as Tertullian said, the blood of the martyrs – and the confessors, who also shed their blood, just not unto death – is the seed of the Church, then the Russian land was renewed by their blood. Just look at Russia today: the Bolsheviks no longer rule; their movement is shattered; and the Church is once more alive and growing.

But even as the cathedrals and churches and monasteries and seminaries in the Russian land are rebuilt and renewed, all of this means nothing if we do not understand and apply what we are told in this parable from St. Matthew today. Beautiful churches are nothing more than gaudy tombs if the people inside them care more about the building than they do for the hungry and the sick and the homeless and the lonely. Reading your morning and evening prayers is a waste of time if you get angry at people in traffic, or judge another, or harbor evil thoughts against another in your heart. Fasting does nothing if we abstain from meat but take advantage of those around us for our own pleasure or our own gain. How terrible will it be for us to have received the Body and Blood of Christ, Who, because of His great love for us when we were unlovely and unlovable, became one with us and died for us, only to have us not love everyone who is made in His image more than we love ourselves?

Brothers and sisters, the fathers tell us that we must be ever mindful that one day we will die, and then it will be too late to achieve the transformation of our souls. The New Martyrs and Confessors tell us that death can come suddenly, and unexpectedly, and so we must not waste a day, an hour, a minute – but must resolve today to live as Christians should, in the hope that, on that great and terrible day of Judgment, we shall be set on the right hand, with those who will enter into the rejoicing of the kingdom of heaven, and not sent to condemnation and torment because we loved ourselves more than we loved others. Let us love one another, as Christ loves us and gave Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God. May we put this love in action by reaching to others who are in need in body, mind and spirit, giving of ourselves and from what God has given to us, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the lonely, and to love and care for each other as icons of Christ.

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