Tuesday, January 27, 2015

St. Paisios: “A Christian Must Not Be Fanatical”

Source: Holy Cross Orhodox Church

Let’s not stone our fellow-man in a so-called “Christian manner.” The person who – in the presence of others – checks someone for having sinned (or speaks in an impassioned manner about a certain person), is not moved by the Spirit of God; he is moved by another spirit.
St. Paisios of Mount Athos | 27 January 2015
A Christian must not be fanatical; he must have love for and be sensitive towards all people. Those who inconsiderately toss out comments, even if they are true, can cause harm.
I once met a theologian who was extremely pious, but who had the habit of speaking to the secular people around him in a very blunt manner; his method penetrated so deeply that it shook them very severely. He told me once: “During a gathering, I said such and such a thing to a lady.” But the way that he said it, crushed her. “Look”, I said to him, “you may be tossing golden crowns studded with diamonds to other people, but the way that you throw them can smash heads, not only the sensitive ones, but the sound ones also.”
Let’s not stone our fellow-man in a so-called “Christian manner.” The person who – in the presence of others – checks someone for having sinned (or speaks in an impassioned manner about a certain person), is not moved by the Spirit of God; he is moved by another spirit.
The way of the Church is love; it differs from the way of the legalists. The Church sees everything with tolerance and seeks to help each person, whatever he may have done, however sinful he may be.
I have observed a peculiar kind of logic in certain pious people. Their piety is a good thing, and their predisposition for good is also a good thing; however, a certain spiritual discernment and amplitude is required so that their piety is not accompanied by narrow-mindedness or strong-headedness. Someone who is truly in a spiritual state must possess and exemplify spiritual discernment; otherwise he will forever remain attached to the “letter of the Law”, and the letter of the Law can be quite deadly.
A truly humble person never behaves like a teacher; he will listen, and, whenever his opinion is requested, he responds humbly. In other words, he replies like a student. He who believes that he is capable of correcting others is filled with egotism.
A person that begins to do something with a good intention and eventually reaches an extreme point, lacks true discernment. His actions exemplify a latent type of egotism that is hidden beneath this behavior; he is unaware of it, because he does not know himself that well, which is why he goes to extremes.
This is like the Icon-worshippers and the Icon-fighters. Extreme was the one, and extreme was the other!
The former reached the point of scraping the icon of Christ to throw the dust into the Holy Chalice, so that Holy Communion could become better; the others again burned the icons and threw them away.
This is why the Church was forced to put the icons high and, when the persecution passed, they brought them low, so that we could venerate them and honor the person depicted.
From Spiritual Awakening (Vol. 2)

Source: http://www.pravmir.com/st-paisios-christian-must-not-fanatical/#ixzz3Q3yIibYT

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Generosity of Grace: Homily on Zacchaeus for the 15th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

               Nobody likes to pay taxes. The people of first-century Palestine were no different; however, the Jews of that time had additional reasons to dislike paying taxes, for their money went to support the Romans, pagan foreigners who occupied their land.  It was collected by their fellow Jews who had gone over to the other side, who were viewed as traitors because they worked for the enemy.
            If that were not bad enough, the tax-collectors were thieves, collecting more than was required so that they could live in luxury from the oppression of their neighbors.    Zacchaeus was apparently one of the worst offenders, for he was a chief tax collector and was very rich.   He was a short little man who, for reasons we do not know, wanted to see Jesus Christ.  He could not see over the crowd, so he climbed a sycamore tree in order to get a better view.  That must have been quite a sight:  the tiny little tax-collector (whom everyone hated) up in a tree so that he could see a passing rabbi.
            Even more shocking was the Lord’s response when He saw this man:  “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.”  Jewish religious leaders would have nothing at all to do with people like Zacchaeus, but this Messiah was different.  He blessed Zacchaeus with His presence, and the tax-collector received the Lord joyfully in his home. 
            Of course, others noticed what was happening.  A man who presents Himself as the Messiah has gone to be a guest in the home of a notorious traitor and thief.  No self-respecting righteous Jew would ever do something like that.  He would be defiled by going into his house and eating with him.  But before Christ says anything in response to the critics, Zacchaeus repents.  He accepts the truth about himself, that he is a criminal exploiter of the needy.  He says that he will give half of what he owns to the poor and will restore four-fold what he stole from others.  He says that he will make right the wrongs he had committed. In that moment, this wretched man began to turn his life around.  Jesus Christ, as He always did and still does, accepts the sincere repentance of the sinner, proclaiming that salvation has come to this son of Abraham, for He came to seek and to save that which was lost.
            This memorable story demonstrates the generosity of our God.  To be generous is to give freely and abundantly; it is not to be stingy or reluctant to bless.  Zacchaeus did not even have to ask for the love, forgiveness, and mercy of the Lord.  All that he did was to climb a tree out of curiosity, but that was enough to begin to open himself to the overwhelming generosity of Christ.    
            The Savior did not shout words of condemnation to this man.  He did not judge him in any way.  Instead, He blessed him with His attention and care.  When others complained about what a sinner Zacchaeus was, the Lord did not join in the criticism, perhaps because this dishonest tax-collector already knew that he was a crook.  Instead, the Lord let Zachaeus respond in freedom to His generosity.  He let him open his heart and soul to a divine love that is beyond the mere observance of a law and knows no human limit.
            We can see that Zacchaeus got the point, for his response to Christ’s generosity transformed him.  The one who previously was greedy and selfish became a living icon of the abundant love of God, freely giving half of what he owned to the poor and restoring what he had stolen four-fold.  No one told him what to do; no one required him to take these actions.  No one had to because he had been transformed by the mercy, love, and gracious abundance of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.   He had received a generous blessing and then became a generous blessing to others.
            Zacchaeus stands as a wonderful example of repentance because he spontaneously and freely entered into the life of Christ.  His actions shine brightly with the love and holiness of the Lord, which is quite strange because only a few minutes ago we spoke of him as a notorious, hated sinner.  His amazing transformation reminds us that salvation is not a reward that we earn or a matter of what we deserve.  Instead, our faith is about the mercy and grace of a God Who wants to share His life with us, Who stops at nothing to bring us into the eternal communion of the Holy Trinity.  Sometimes it is those who have hit rock bottom, who know their own sins so well that they do not need to be reminded of them, who in their humility receive our Lord’s generous mercy so completely and fully that they become powerful living proof of what God can do for even the most wretched human being.   
            King David, guilty of murder and adultery, became a man after God’s own heart.  Saul the persecutor of Christians became St. Paul, the missionary to the Gentiles and author of so much of the New Testament.  Mary of Egypt was a truly wicked woman who fled to the desert in repentance and became a great saint.  Recall also the thief on the cross who asked the Savior to remember him in His kingdom.
            A harsh, stingy, judgmental god would not make saints of such people.  He would punish or destroy them.  The good news is that the true God does not relate to us on the basis of our accomplishments or virtue, but in terms of His unbounded love, mercy, and forgiveness.  Our salvation is a matter of receiving His generosity, of accepting His abundant blessing.  The miserable Zacchaeus did that and we can too.  But truly to receive Him is not simply to pray certain words or feel a certain way; neither is it simply a matter of coming to church services or following religious rules.
            The Lord’s boundless love must penetrate to the core of our being and become characteristic of our lives, if we are to share in His.  Love for God and for neighbor must shine through our actions and words and purify our thoughts.  If we have stolen and hoarded money, we must give it back generously.  If we have ignored or neglected others, must learn to love them as Christ has loved us.  If have thought only about ourselves, we must learn to love our neighbors as ourselves.   
            Yes, that is our repentance:  to become an open channel for God’s merciful generosity in this world.  He is the vine and we are the branches.  And since the Father gave His only-begotten Son for our salvation, there are no limits to the mercy and love we are called to embody.   We did not ask Christ to be born in a manger or baptized in the river Jordan for our salvation.  We did not ask Him to die on the cross, to rise again, or to ascend into heaven.  But He still did so, out of His unfathomable love for those who abandoned and betrayed Him.  The only proper response to this divine love is to be transformed by it as we become a living and breathing icon of the unlimited generosity that is the only hope of the world.
            The Savior has come to us all, as he did to Zacchaeus.  No matter what we have done or left undone, it is time to respond like he did, joyfully receiving  Christ and allowing our lives to be fulfilled by the generous mercy of the Lord, and then showing that same mercy for others.  Such true, sincere, humble repentance is the only way to the Kingdom of Heaven.  The point is not to wallow in guilt, but to move forward in holiness.  It is not to follow a legal code, but to enter into a blessed new life.     That is how salvation will come to our houses, for “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”      


Thursday, January 22, 2015

A Light Shining in the Darkness

By Fr. John Parker in The Sounding

Jan 222015  1 Comment(s)  Tags: 
One of the greatest neglects of those who defend the Sanctity of Life from its most rudimentary beginning to natural death is putting that belief into tangible, positive action. Countless scores of those of us who fight tooth and nail with word and placard fall terribly short when it comes to the actions necessary to support those who, for various reasons, find themselves pregnant and alone. I do not exclude myself from this list.
However, the Goodness and Providence of God will never allow me, or any Christian who is convicted by the earliest Christian beliefs, to condone, applaud, approve of, or support abortion. God alone is the author and bestower of life. To contribute to the death of any human person, however microscopic or aged, is directly contrary to the will and nature of God. It is likewise contrary very specifically to the nature of woman. Woman, the only of the two genders of mankind gifted with a womb, is a living, breathing cradle of life by divine design and gift.
If, for these reasons and many others, we oppose abortion, it falls to us in this fallen world to do everything within our power to help those who are unwillingly pregnant to work through their trial and support life, turning one difficult situation into two joys, rather than stacking one tragedy onto another.
I personally applaud the Florence Crittenton Programs of South Carolina on St Margaret Street, in Charleston, SC, for their tireless efforts, night and day, for the 118 years since 1897, to offer a home to pregnant girls who are in a most precarious situation. Many of the young women there have suffered from and are pregnant through abuse. All of them have made the pro choice: to bear their children. Each of them, by the support of devoted staff, are well-fed, educated in child-rearing, taught valuable skills, and given a chance to bring a life into the world, in an effort to make two saints (mother and child) out of the sinful situations which brought them to this point. They are stronger and more courageous than most any of us who fiercely defend life with our words, but have never been in such a seemingly untenable situation.
There are many such homes and programs throughout our land. Today is a day to shine the light upon them–they are among the brightest of lights found in the darkest of hours. Tag them in the comments. Let us thank God for the life-affirming ministry that they offer.

Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network. You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

12 FAITH FORMATION OF A SMART GENERATION by Fr. Dr. Bijesh Philip of St. Thomas Orthodox Theological Seminary in Nagpur, India

Published: 20 Jan 2015

12 Faith Formation of a Smart GenerationUsing the adjective ‘smart’ to objects, individuals, groups and activities have become characteristic of our time. Thus we have smart phones, smart class, smart city, smart girl or boy etc. ‘Smart’ is used to indicate efficiency, glamour that is primarily external and also even the ‘ability’ to cheat. When we discuss about smart generation we mean both what they are today and also what they ought to be tomorrow. The role of family in shaping character of a person is decisive.  The cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar in his autobiography Playing It My Own Wayhas confessed about the influence of his family in his formation especially concerning values. His parents used to appreciate the smartness of his behavior than his performance as a cricketer.  He starts his book by quoting his father: “As a parent, I would be happier hearing people say, ‘Sachin is a good human being’ than ‘Sachin is a great cricketer’ any day.”  The role of parents in using an authentic spirituality for the formation of a smart generation is worth reflecting.
Faith in God sets us free from the narrow mindedness of a physical realm and materialism. The holistic vision of faith is a help to see the connection of the physical universe and the mystery behind and beyond this. Faith is an immunization against the virus of materialism and all kinds of consequent negativities. Faith means basic trust in God who alone is permanent, which ensures security and stability in life. Faith imparts courage to face the challenges in life meaningfully and also motivation for good works. God has revealed lovingly through His creation, through gurus and prophets and in a unique way through Jesus Christ and faith is human response to this Divine self - communication. Based on the experience of the revelation in Christ by the early Christians and especially the apostles of Christ, the revelation has been stored in the tank of the Church. Through various taps of scripture, liturgy, creed etc., this revelation is made available to each generation for their faith response and ethical maturity. The Holy Spirit is using the Church, the reservoir of this revelation and faith to generate and nourish the faith of every generation. God may use individual’s experiences also to strengthen the faith.
Anti religious attitude of modernism has contributed a lot to the erosion of faith. Modernism presents God as an unnecessary hypothesis. Modernism, which glorified reason as a substitute god, developed in Europe as a reaction to the authoritarianism of the western church and also as a reaction against the Catholic-Protestant conflicts in different parts of Europe. Scientism which claims that the only way to know the truth is objective scientific analysis and consumerist culture are by products of this secularism or the so called European Enlightenment. Present globalization to which almost all countries subscribe today is promoting and popularizing this and faith is affected adversely by this.
Religious fanaticism which encourages to condemn everything and everybody outside one’s own religious boundaries is also a threat to faith. The recent development of violence in Iraq, Syria, Peshawar in Pakistan, Godhra, Musafar Nagar and Trilokpuri in India were in the name of religion. There are people who think that if religion is a motivation for violence and clashes, it is more desirable to replace religion and faith by an anti- religious secular ideology. Religious fanaticism is also a reaction against the materialism and consumerist culture promoted by globalization. In fact the right use of religion by focusing at the core of religion will contribute to humanization of the world. There is no doubt that, if used properly, Orthodox Christian faith will equip us to overcome most of these challenges and help us to progress towards the fullness of life.
Parents are primarily responsible for the raising of their children in faith. Sunday school teachers and priests are just helping the parents in this creative ministry. Being the created co- creators, humans create art, architecture, literature, technology etc. Contributing to the formation of faith in new generations is also expression of this creative power of humans in the image of God.
Children are of God. Parents are baby sitters of God’s children. So it is parents’ duty to raise them according to the divine expectations. Comparatively there is a long period of childhood for humans. In most of the cases, children stay with their parents till they are 17 or 18 years old and after that they move away from their parents with regard to the higher education, job, married life etc. So it is the first one and half decade of a child is the prime time for parenting. As Sophie Koulomzin rightly says, “Children have to grow away from their parents. The sacrificial or Christian meaning of parental love is precisely the acceptance of this, a joyful acceptance of children’s growth into independence. The image of Abraham and Isaac still has a meaning for every parent today in the sense that a parent is willing to offer the life of the child to God,……..”(Our Church and our children, p.81). Parents cannot be with their children till the end and shape them. But during the childhood Christian parents lay the foundations for making their children mature and responsible Christians in future.
Let us have a discussion about the five C’s of parenting: Convincing, Control, Compassion, Communion and Community. These C’s need to be fulfilled with another C standing for Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.
The Church as a whole and especially the parents have to take an extra care to convince the new generation about the relevance of Christian faith, values and practices. In Deuteronomy Chapter Six we read about the need of convincing the new generation thus: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. And the words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise” (Deut. 6:5-7). Formation of faith need not be limited to Sunday school. Parents must be vigilant in their continuous teaching process. Children are looking for ideals and models. It is essential to highlight the life of persons with deep faith and sacrificial love. Introducing the life of  St. Basil the Great, Abert Shewitzer, Pathros Mar Osthathios Thirumeni, Mother Theresa, C.F. Andrews, Pampady Thirumeni, Paulose Mar Gregorios Thirumeni etc. will be contributing positively to the faith formation. Children are also looking for living examples of life. Parents’ holy life without any contradiction between the faith they profess and the practice will of course inspire the children. If the parents walk their talk, their children will be encouraged to follow the faith of their parents.  Connecting children to the life of saintly persons and also showing an ideal Christian life through  parents’ own life are unique gifts of the parents to the children which are more valuable than giving ten crore rupees to the children.
Meditating the Bible especially interpreting Gospels as part of the preparation for  prayer at home is also very significant in convincing the children. Reading at least a small passage from one of the four gospels and have a reflection on it by all the members of the family are extremely important. As preparation for important feasts and festivals and also sacraments, a discussion about them can be arranged by the parents. After participating in a Holy Qurbana, Baptism etc. and also a feast, the parents can encourage a discussion about the meaning of those practices and its relevance today with the children. There are a few families which celebrate the spiritual birthday or baptismal day of the children in the presence of godfather/ godmother, friends and relatives which is an opportunity for the children to refresh their Christian faith and commitment by seeing their baptismal photos and videos and by renewing the pledge of faithfulness to Christ.
When the parents teach their children against ‘scientism’ they must be careful not to take a negative attitude to science as a whole. From the perspective of faith, we can accept evolution theory or Big Bang theory of the origin and development of the universe with the modification that they are not accidental but providential. Instead of taking the creation account in Genesis as literally true, we can take the concept that God is the ultimate source of everything that exist as true. Then Big Bang or evolution, the popular scientific theories, can be approved with the explanation that it was God’s hand that was guiding the process of creation and also evolution of species including that of humans. ‘Big Bang theory’ or evolution theory without reference to God will be promoting idolatry of materialism.
Children can also learn a lot from the parents about the faith which helps to address various challenges, trials and tribulation. So suffering especially of illness and death are also occasions of convincing the children about faith. Once the author of this essay visited a home which lost a teenage girl due to a sudden severe illness and was inspired to see the depth of the faith and hope of the parents. There was a Bible passage -“the LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. May the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:21b)- posted on the wall of the front room of their house even one week after the burial of their beloved girl.
Besides convincing, control and discipline are also important in parenting. Helping the children to be responsible users of phone, internet and television etc are part of effective parenting. Cyber addiction is spoiling the beauty of tender minds and is suppressing a creative formation of them. As parents control the contacts of children with the strangers and their visits to the strange and remote places, they must take care to control the opening of strange websites and sharing awkward messages and pictures with others by the children. There must be a clear discussion at home about the phone and internet use. Eli the priest of Old Testament destroyed himself and his children because of his failure to control and discipline his sons Hophni and Phinehas. Though he gave advice (1 Samuel 2:23, 24) he did not care to control them. The comment made by St. John Chrysostom in 4th century A.D. about Eli’s passive advice to the children without a strong initiative for disciplining is enlightening: “O useless words! O criminal meekness of Eli by which his children became victims”. Various rules and restrictions for the children must be communicated to them much in advance. There must also be a clear picture of the punishments also. All the members of the family have to be consistent about the rewards and punishments.
It is the compassion of the parents which ensures freedom from the authoritarianism of parenting and facilitates a healthy atmosphere for the faith formation of the children. Now it is an accepted psychological truth that it was a harsh and cruel parenting of the father of Hitler that contributed to the shaping of Hitler as a cruelest man in the history of mankind. Saint Paul’s exhortation is noteworthy in this regard: “Father, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Experiencing the love of the parents is boosting to follow their instructions. The children who do not get such a love and care at home are easily attracted to misguiding love traps. Parents’ compassion is an introduction to the love of God.
Communion with God plays a decisive role in molding the life of each one and especially the new generations. Relying just on education, teaching, control and counseling without a regular experience of God through worship and prayer will be a handicap in the grooming of the children. It is for becoming good and better humans that we are following prayer life on a regular basis. Prayer is the breathe of the soul which ensures the health and growth of each persons. Parents have to take care of the quality of prayer which bridges the gap between mouth and mind in prayer. Children must be encouraged to learn small prayers like Jesus Prayer-‘O Lord Jesus Christ, Have mercy on me a sinner’- and practice it in mind without sound at anytime continuously which keep them in constant touch with Christ. Destructive smart phone addiction is to be replaced with such creative addictions to prayer. The quality time which family spent for family prayer and public worship will contribute enormously to the formation of faith.  So communion stands for meaningful personal, family and public prayers and worship.
Involvement of a community in the faith formation of children is also very essential. Earlier bigger communities of joint families and villages were engaged in direct or indirect parenting. But in a fast and flat culture today, child is often raised not as a child of a community but as a child of just a nuclear family. If both parents of such a tiny family are working fulltime, then parenting is further weakened, and internet, television and friends become more in molding their world view and values which is quite often destructive. This situation necessitates the need of taking the participation in local parishes more seriously and sending children regularly to Sunday school. But unfortunately conflicts and ego clashes of individuals and groups in many parishes alienate new generations from church as well as from God resulting in negative formation by the community.
Our ultimate worship is to a God who is an eternal community and our families, parishes and church must be shaped in tune with the fellowship of this Triune God. The world as a whole need to become such a community of communities. Jesus Christ exhorts us, “If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”(St. Mathew 18:6). These harsh words of Jesus reminds us of the need to remove all stumbling blocks to the formation of faith in the tender minds. So all the adults must take it as a serious duty to work for the peace and reconciliation for an authentic community experience at home and parishes for the faith formation of a smart generation. It is by accepting the parenting of God by following His guidance  especially as recorded in the gospels that the parents can be effective in parenting their children towards the fullness of life. ‘Blessed are the peace makers, because they are the children of God’(Matthew 5:9).
  Loving and affectionate relationship with Christ imitated and nourished by the sacraments must be strengthened by the involvement of parents. Mothers used to bring their children to Christ and He blessed them. Even if  both the parents are equally responsible, the role of mothers in faith formation has a special significance. Jimmy Carter in his book ‘Living Faith’ and C.F. Andrews in his autobiography ‘What I Owe to Christ’, and H.G. Geevarghese Mar Osthathios Thirumeni in his sharings have substantiated this fact with their personal experiences. St. Paul’s appreciation of the faith of Timothy traces it back to his mother Eunice and Grandmother Lois (II Timothy 1:5).
There is a famous experiment known as Rosenthal’s experiment. Robert Rosenthal the psychology professor at Harward once gave five rats each to two groups of students separately for training them. While giving to the first group, Rosenthal told them that those five rats are of very poor breed. But the other group got the rats with a description about their higher quality. The latter group was able to train the rats many skills whereas the first group failed to groom the rats. Actually both the groups were given the same kind of rats. But the description about the rats made changes in the students’  expectation leading to different types of shaping them. ‘The essence of it is that one person’s expectation of another person’s behavior somehow comes to be realized’.
Most of the parents’ dreams about children are confined to smart secular education, a smart job and a luxurious and comfortable future life. But Gospel is challenging us to have higher expectation in the light of Christ which transcend the petty goals of worldly smartness. Parents are facilitators of the fullness of life available in Christ. In short church as a whole and especially parents and grandparents have to visualize the formation of a smart generation being faithful to Christian faith and growing in love and holiness like Christ. For a good number of people whatever they feel is the right. In a Godless culture, pleasure seeking becomes the ultimate goal and meaning of life. Humans are depicted as animals without tales. Earlier, moral standards were violated while at the same time acknowledging their authority. But the real challenge to morality in our time as noted down by Will Herberg is ‘To repudiate all moral authority and every moral standard as such’. (mmisi.org/ir/04-02-03/herberg.pdf p.2)
In this context of the loss of moral sense itself, we need special grace and guidance of the Holy Spirit to fulfill this mission of parenting. This is a parenting by respecting freewill of the children as well as the Divine expectation about them. It is God’s mission in which parents are also given an opportunity. Parents, Sunday school children and the church as a whole have to work together prayerfully in this mission of the formation of the software of faith of a smarter generation giving security against viruses of such moral crisis.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Humility, Obedience, and Faith: A Homily on the Grateful Samaritan Leper for the 12th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

           I am sure that most of us take too many of our blessings for granted.  We get used to the comforts and conveniences of life and to the people with whom our lives are intertwined.  We compare ourselves with others who seem to have it better than we do, and we forget that all our blessings are God’s good gifts to us.  When we do not appreciate them, we become selfish and fall into the idolatry of thinking that satisfying our own immediate desires is the most important thing.
            Today’s gospel passage is a powerful reminder that those who are most grateful are sometimes those who have the least and who have suffered the most--perhaps because their struggles have helped them see what is really important in life.  Today we read that the Lord healed ten people with the dreaded disease of leprosy, but the only one who came back to thank Him for the life-changing miracle was a Samaritan.  Samaritans were hated by the Jews as religious and ethnic half-breeds who had mixed the worship of the true God with paganism.  Since lepers were also outcasts and considered so unclean that no one could get anywhere near them, this Samaritan leper surely had nothing going for him in that time and place.  But he alone returned to Christ to thank Him for this miracle and to give glory to God.
            Perhaps he was so thankful precisely because he knew who he was and how others viewed him.  He probably would never have thought that a Jewish messiah would help him in any way.  Perhaps he had learned time and again to expect little compassion and that he could take nothing for granted. He likely felt out of place walking with Jewish lepers to Jerusalem to show themselves to a priest at the temple.  But as he went along, he was healed.  And he alone took the time to return in order to thank the One who changed his life.   And then Christ said to him, “Your faith has made you well.”
            This man’s healing is a sign, a glimpse, of the fulfillment of the good news that we celebrated at Christmas and Epiphany and that is at the very heart of our faith.  The healing of the Samaritan leper from a terrible disease is an icon, an image, of our salvation, of our fulfillment and transformation in the God-Man Jesus Christ.  And of course, this great blessing extends to all who have put on the New Man in baptism, regardless of their nation, race, health, or standing in any society. 
            As the healing of the Samaritan leper shows, God’s mercy extends to everyone who truly responds to Jesus Christ with faith, repentance, and gratitude—no matter how miserable, wretched, or sickened we have become due to our own sins, those of others, or any other circumstances in life.  But in order to receive Christ’s healing of all the effects of sin and death in our lives, we have to put to death the diseases of soul that have taken root in us.  These are the ways of the old man, the ways of corruption that lead only to despair. They are a spiritual leprosy that distorts and disfigures us and those with whom we come in contact, and—if not healed—will make it impossible for us to participate in the blessed eternal life of the Lord. 
            The leper in the gospel is a model for all of us who struggle to embrace Christ’s healing, for all of us who wrestle with the ways of the old man.  The Samaritan joined with the other lepers in calling out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  In other words, he began with humility, openly acknowledging that he was sick, needed to be healed, and could not work his own cure.  He did try to fool himself into thinking that he was well and did not need healing because of what he could accomplish by his own power.  We should do the same thing in our prayers every day of our lives, confessing our sins and asking for the Lord’s forgiveness.  We should also acknowledge our weaknesses daily and pray for strength to resist temptation, to calm our passions, and to help us grow in holiness. 
            The struggle to live faithfully can certainly be frustrating at times, especially when we are aware that our sins isolate us from one another and even from our selves. The burdens of guilt and shame can literally separate us from others and make us feel as unclean and helpless as a Samaritan leper.  That is one of the reasons why the sacrament of Confession is such a blessing, such a source of strength in our journey to the new life in Christ.  In Confession we are reminded that we are not left alone to struggle with our sins, for the priest is an icon of the Lord, conveying His mercy and providing guidance for the healing of our souls.  If we want to be healed like the Samaritan leper who called out for mercy and then returned to give thanks, we will come to Confession regularly, naming our sins, especially those of which we are most ashamed and which threaten to destroy our relationships with the Lord and our neighbors.  We will kneel before Christ in humility, bare our souls, and be assured of His forgiveness, if we are truly honest and repentant.   Confession is a therapy for our healing, and a reminder that we are members of a Body united together in love and mercy. Christ says to each of us in Confession through the voice of a priest, “Arise, go your way.  Your faith has made you well.”  All who want to hear those blessed words from the Lord should come to Confession on a regular basis, and especially when they are aware of a grave sin in their lives.     
            The Samaritan is also an example for us in his obedience because he did what Christ told him to do, to head toward Jerusalem to show himself to the priests.   And as he was going, he was healed.  Here we have another powerful image of the Christian life, for we open our lives to the Lord’s healing by obeying Him, by actually keeping His commandments. 
            A drug dealer will not find honest work by continuing to sell heroin.  An alcoholic does not become sober by continuing to drink.  No one will experience victory over any sin in their lives if they simply give into it or make up excuses to justify their actions.  In other words, we all have to repent, to turn our lives around toward God in specific, practical ways.  We may fall flat on our faces a thousand times, but we must at least be inching along in the right direction.  The Samaritan was going toward Jerusalem in obedience to Christ’s command and we also must be on the path to a holier life through obedience, doing what we know we must do in order to live as those who have put on the New Man Jesus Christ in baptism.
            The reality is that we cannot expect to find healing for the corruptions of our souls if we do not obey the Lord.  If we do not pray at home and at church, practice fasting or other forms of self-denial, give to those in need, forgive those who have offended us, and keep a close watch on our thoughts and actions as we struggle mightily against our besetting sins, we put major roadblocks along our path to the healing of our souls.       No matter what we do, we will not heal ourselves any more than the leper did, but we must put ourselves in the place where we may receive the mercy of Christ.  That is always the place of humble obedience to His commandments.
            Finally, we learn from the Samaritan leper to be grateful for every step of progress, for every bit of strength we gain.  It was not simply walking toward Jerusalem that healed this man; it was the mercy of Christ. The leper certainly knew that, which is why he returned to the Lord to thank Him. 
            And what thanks should we offer God for our blessings, for life itself, for the promise of forgiveness, and the hope of salvation?   We give thanks by offering every aspect of our lives to Him and thus become epiphanies of His salvation in every word, thought, and deed.  For He is the Alpha and Omega Who created all reality out of nothing and on Whom our life is entirely dependent.  We have nothing and are nothing apart from His mercy, love, and grace.  Nothing fits in its proper place in our lives until it is offered to Him for blessing and fulfillment.  But everything is healed when—through humble repentance, obedience, and faith—we turn from the dark night of sin and toward the brilliant light of holiness.   

            So just as we offer bread and wine in the Liturgy, let us offer thanks to the Lord by living lives that are pleasing to Him, by living according to the New Man Jesus Christ, and killing the habits of death and darkness that can so easily destroy us and harm others.  For Christ was born and baptized in order to heal us and to bring us into the new life of His Kingdom.  He made a wretched Samaritan leper an icon of His salvation and He will do the same with us, despite our weakness and corruption, if we follow that man’s example of humility, obedience, and gratitude.  At the end of the day, that is a powerful reminder to take absolutely nothing in this life for granted and always to give thanks.  

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Four Orthodox Christian Lessons from Martin Luther King Jr.

By Andrew Estocin in The Sounding

Jan 192014  2 Comment(s)  Tags: 
“Our Church has never hesitated to fight, when it felt it must, for the rights of mankind….there are times when we must risk everything, including life itself, for those basic American ideals of freedom, justice, and equality, without which this land cannot survive. Our hope and prayer, then, is that we may be given strength to let God know by our acts and deeds, and not only by our words, that . . . we, too, are the espousers and the fighters in a struggle for which we must be prepared to risk our all.” (Archbishop Iakovos, Selma, Alabama, 1965)
Every January, Americans pause to honor the memory of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who led a civil rights movement that called this nation to see every person as created in the image and likeness of God and worthy of equal treatment under the law.
One of the most beautiful moments in American Orthodox history was when Archbishop Iakovos of North and South America chose to march against racial segregation laws with Rev. King in Selma, Alabama. This event, made famous on the cover of Life Magazine, serves as a constant reminder that the Orthodox faith is not a museum of history but a way of living in the world that must be carefully cultivated and acted upon. What we believe as Orthodox Christians is not merely one private opinion among many but an eternal truth that has serious implications for every choice we make. The fact that the most distinguished bishop in American Orthodoxy chose to march with Rev. King reminds every Orthodox Christian that we can learn much from the witness of America’s leading civil rights leader.
Rev. Martin Luther King was not simply a political activist or community organizer. His leadership of the American civil rights movement was deeply rooted in his Christian faith. A look at Rev. King’s writings shows that he possessed a mature biblical faith that was rooted in the witness of the early Christians. Rev. King’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” reveals timeless lessons for Orthodox Christians and all people of good will.
Here are four Orthodox Christian lessons that can be learned from Martin Luther King Jr:
1) Civil Disobedience Can Serve God’s Purposes: Since the earliest of biblical times, God’s people have often been called upon to say “NO” and “REPENT” to those in power. Rev. King illustrates this very clearly: “(Civil disobedience) was evidenced sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar, on the ground that a higher moral law was at stake. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks rather than submit to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.” Archbishop Iakovos’ words in Selma echo this view: “We have fought oppressive and repressive political regimes, based on Christian principles, for centuries. . . . A Christian must cry out in indignation against all persecution.” Civil disobedience in the service of God is a powerful catalyst for repentance and spiritual growth. Lives and laws are changed forever when Orthodox Christians live their faith with courage and without apology. Orthodox Christians cannot help but turn their thoughts to the imprisoned bishops and nuns of Syria and the courageous witness they live as they are held in captivity for their Christian faith. Patriarch John X of Antioch could not choose better words when he reminds us: “To be a messenger of peace does not mean that one is a messenger of submission.”
2)Being Legal Does Not Mean Being Right: “Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.” This warning from “Letter from Birmingham Jail” points to the tradition of natural law. Natural Law is an integral part of Orthodox Christianity and the thought of Martin Luther King. What is natural law? It is the teaching that just laws participate in and reflect the law of God. Man has a natural knowledge of right and wrong given to him by God. St. John Chrysostom makes this clear : “When God formed man, he implanted within him from the beginning a natural law. . ..And what then was this natural law? He gave utterance to conscience within us; and made the knowledge of good things.” Rev. King in responding to his critics from jail reminds them of the following: “A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. . . .An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust.” Orthodox Christians have a responsibility to recognize laws in our society that agree with the moral laws of God and call into question and resist those laws that clearly do not. Consider the many Orthodox Christians who every year participate in the March for Life against the Supreme Court’s unjust Roe v Wade decision. These marchers serve as a reminder that even today there remain people whose God-given rights are not recognized by the laws of the United States. There are still unjust laws that need to be overturned.
3) Be An Extremist For Love and Truth: Often times Orthodox Christians are criticized for being extremists if they take a public stand in support of what the Church teaches. For example, those who actively support pro-life or pro-family causes are often called extremists by their own brothers and sisters in the faith and even Orthodox clergy. What is amazing is that Martin Luther King was treated in exactly the same manner by his brother clergy, who shunned him and labeled his actions “extreme.” Archbishop Iakovos also faced considerable resistance to his marching with Rev. King from elements within his own flock. Rev. King turned the tables on his critics with the following words: “But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’ Was not Amos an extremist for justice: ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.’ Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ . . . So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?” Every saint of the Church is an extremist for the love of Christ. St. John Chrysostom is an example of an extremist for love who endured tremendous criticism for his faith from those inside and outside the Church before being vindicated as a voice for the poor and weak. His life shows that it is a healthy extremism of love and the truth of the Gospel that transforms individuals and society for the better.
4)Faith Is a Thermostat, Not a Thermometer: In the same way that a thermostat sets the temperature in a given room, Orthodox Christianity changes our society and is not a mere indicator (or thermometer) of popular culture. “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is not just a call for social action, it is also a critique of Christianity and that includes our own Orthodox Christian witness today. Rev. King has some harsh words for Christians who place more value on social order and acceptance than on being icons of truth. “Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists. There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.’ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were ‘a colony of heaven,’ called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.’ By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests.” The Orthodox Church is the single greatest agent of human development in history. When the faith is lived to its fullest, Orthodoxy has the ability to transform the world in which we live. It also brings justice to those who suffer and gives a voice to those who have none. The early Apostles were able to alter the course of the Roman Empire, armed only with their faith. Likewise, Rev. King forever changed the United States, armed only with the same Gospel.
Archbishop Iakovos smiling and holding the hand of a small African-American boy
The words of Rev. King and the image of Archbishop Iakovos marching with him in Selma, Alabama are not mere nostalgia from a time gone by. Their witness is not confined to history books. They represent an urgent question for every Orthodox Christian in America. What type of Church will we be? Orthodox Christians can choose to turn inward, selfishly focus on themselves alone, and slowly self-destruct, or we can turn outward and embrace the gift of the Holy Spirit that led Archbishop Iakovos to Selma, Alabama in 1965 and repeat his words time and again: “The church will not be pessimistic, nor sit quietly in its handsome houses of worship while war rages outside its churches for the bodies, minds and souls of its parishioners.” Martin Luther King Jr. and Archbishop Iakovos both knew that the human person as the image and likeness of God was a truth worth breaking the law, fighting and (in Rev. King’s case) ultimately dying for. Orthodoxy in America needs this type of courage today more than ever.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Putting on a Robe of Light: Homily for the Sunday After Theophany (Epiphany) in the Orthodox Church

             With all the focus on fashion and style in our culture, we may overlook the most obvious function of clothing:  to protect our bodies.  With the very cold weather we have had lately, most of us have probably been wearing the warmest clothing that we possess.  Unlike our family’s three well-fed cats who seem to have enough fat and fur to survive an ice age, we have to protect ourselves from the elements in order to survive.
            God gave Adam and Eve garments of skin when they left paradise after turning away from Him.  Through their disobedience, they had become aware that they were naked and were cast into the world as we know it.  The spiritual meaning of their nakedness was that they had repudiated their calling to be in the image and likeness of God.  Having stripped themselves of their original glory, they were reduced to mortal flesh and destined for slavery to their passions and the grave.   
            As we prepared for Theophany last Sunday, we heard this hymn:  “Make ready, O Zebulon, and prepare, O Nephtali, and you, River Jordan, cease your flow and receive with joy the Master coming to be baptized. And you, Adam, rejoice with the first mother, and hide not yourselves as you did of old in paradise; for having seen you naked, He appeared to clothe you with the first robe. Yea, Christ has appeared desiring to renew the whole creation.”   If it seems strange to think of Christ being baptized in order to clothe Adam and Eve—and the rest of us—remember St. Paul’s teaching that “as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”  In the Orthodox baptismal service, the priest puts a white garment on the newly baptized person immediately after he or she comes out of the water with the words “the servant of God is clothed with righteousness…”   Then the chanter sings “Grant to me the robe of light, O Most Merciful Christ our God, Who clothes Yourself with light as with a garment.”
            In baptism to this day, Jesus Christ clothes us with a garment of light, restoring us to our original vocation to be in the image and likeness of God.  He saves us from the nakedness of being reduced to mortality and the vulnerability of being enslaved to our own passions and those of others.  He is baptized in order to save Adam and Eve, all of their descendants, and the entire creation, fulfilling the glorious purposes for which He breathed life into us in the first place.   Through His and our baptism, He makes us participants in His divinized humanity.
It would be very nice, of course, if that meant that the rest of our lives after baptism would be perfect in every way without pain, disease, sin, or death.  Obviously, that is not the case.  Remember that, in the aftermath of Christ’s birth, the wicked Herod had all the young boys in the region of Bethlehem murdered out of his desire to kill the Savior.  Today’s gospel text begins with a reference to the arrest of St. John the Baptist for his bold prophetic denunciation of the sins of the royal family.  St. Matthew tells us that the Lord’s going to “Galilee of the Gentiles” to begin His public ministry fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy that “’the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.’” 
Those who suffered under the oppression of Herod and the Roman Empire knew all too well about darkness and death.  The countless victims of war, terrorism, and persecution in the Middle East, the Ukraine, and now even France, certainly do also.  We do as well, not only when we understandably worry about the problems of our world and nation or recall the loss of loved ones, but also when we acknowledge the truth about our own dark thoughts and desires, how our actions and failures to act have harmed others, and the many other ways in which we would often rather remain in the darkness than live as those who wear a robe of light.  When we do so, we prefer the ways of the old Adam to those of the New Adam.  We choose nakedness and weakness over divine glory and strength. 
St. John the Forerunner called people to repent in preparation for the coming of the Messiah.  Interestingly, Christ’s preaching after His baptism focused on repentance also:  “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  We usually get a bit nervous about repentance and may associate it with punishment.  Of course, it is really a very different undertaking, fundamentally positive in nature, of reorienting ourselves in light of the truth, of walking out of the darkness into the light, of leaving behind the sorrow and anxiety of naked vulnerability for the joy of being fully clothed as the sons and daughters of God.
Even as being fully clothed on a cold winter’s day warms the whole body, repentance concerns offering every dimension of our life to Christ for healing and transformation.  That is one of the reasons that we bless houses with holy water in the weeks following Theophany.  By being baptized in the Jordan, Christ made water holy by fulfilling its original intended purposes to give life, cleanse, and satisfy our deepest thirst.  Holy water manifests Christ’s blessing of the entire creation extending even to the small details of our daily lives.  In light of our Lord’s baptism, we are always on holy ground; now nothing is intrinsically profane, evil, or cut off from God.  All reality is called to shine forth with holiness.
 Our challenge, then, is to play our role in showing forth the holiness of our bodies, our words, our relationships, our actions, and every aspect of the creation for which we are responsible.  Christ calls each and every one of us uniquely to offer ourselves to Him and to play our distinctive roles in fulfilling His purposes in the world.  In other words, we already participate by baptism in the divinized humanity of Jesus Christ.   We wear the garment of light that He has given us, but at the end of the day each of us must actually do the work of wearing it; each of us must actually turn away from sneaking around naked in the garden like Adam and embrace the glory of our salvation personally and intentionally.  That is what repentance is all about, and no one else can do that for us. 

Epiphany is a great feast of our salvation in Jesus Christ.  The eternal Son of God has made a way for us to participate in His divine glory by humbling Himself to be baptized the waters of the Jordan.  He does so to save Adam and Eve, all their descendants, and the entire creation.  He clothes us in a garment of light to cover our nakedness, which had reduced us to slavery to our mortal flesh in a world of death and decay.   Even as we eagerly turn away from freezing when we put on warm clothing, let us joyfully celebrate our Lord’s baptism by remembering that He has already clothed and restored us to our ancient dignity in His image and likeness.  Let us drink and sprinkle holy water as a sign that we must play our unique roles in making every dimension of our lives an icon of God’s holiness.  In other words, let us behave each day as those who have put on Christ.  Let us shine with the great glory that He has given us both through His birth and His baptism. There is no better way to bear witness that the prophecy really has been fulfilled:  “[T]he people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”