Saturday, August 23, 2014

Forgiving Others as Christ Forgives Us: Homily for the 11th Sunday of Matthew in the Orthodox Church

Matthew 18:23-35
            If you are like me, there are times that you realize that you have wanted for yourself something that you were not willing to give others.  It is so easy for us all to fall into the self-centeredness of seeing things only from our own point of view, of focusing on our own needs and desires to the point that we treat others quite poorly and become hypocrites.   As we can see from today’s gospel text, Jesus Christ addressed this common human failing in a memorable and disturbing parable that applies to us all when we refuse to forgive others.  
            A servant owed his ruler more money than he could possibly earn in his entire life.  When he could not pay, the master was ready to sell him and his entire family in order to cover the debt.  But the servant begged for more time to pay, and the master showed mercy even beyond his request.  He actually forgave the huge debt; the man owed nothing and he and his family were safe from punishment.  How tremendously relieved and grateful the man must have been.
            Then that same servant found another servant who owed him a much smaller sum of money.  Since that man did not have enough to pay the debt, the first servant had him put in prison until he could pay.  He refused to show him any mercy at all.  When word of his response reached the king, he was furious that the man to whom he had shown such tremendous mercy would not even be patient with his fellow servant.  So the king put the first servant in prison until he could pay all that he owed.  Jesus Christ concluded this parable with the harsh warning:  “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”
            This parable gets our attention because we all find it hard to forgive at least some of the people who have wronged or offended us.  Sometimes we enjoy holding grudges against others; perhaps we get a perverse boost to our ego by thinking that we are better than someone else, that we are somehow justified in looking down on them.  Sometimes we hate the fact that we hold grudges.  We may not want to remember bad things about other people, but unpleasant memories play over and over in our minds and we feel powerless to stop them.
            Like everything else in the Christian life, forgiveness is a journey, a process of growth as we share more fully in the life of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Notice that the Lord concluded the parable by saying that we must forgive our brothers from our hearts, from the depths of our souls.  Though it may be a necessary first step, it is not enough simply to put on a good face and stop saying angry words and behaving badly toward someone who has wronged us.  The goal is to be fully reconciled with them, to forgive and forget, to show them the same love and mercy that the Lord has shown to us with a pure and whole heart. 
            Even as we always want God to forgive us when we sin, there is no limit to the forgiving, reconciling love that He calls us to give our enemies.  When St. Peter asked how many times he was to forgive his brother who sinned against him, maybe seven times, Christ said, no, ‘seventy times seven.”  In other words, we should always forgive; there is never a point where the Christian becomes justified in judging, condemning, and refusing to show mercy. Surely, we all have a long way to go in fulfilling that commandment. 
            In order not to give up and despair about our struggle to forgive others, we have to remember what it means to be in Christ.  Most fundamentally, to be a Christian means to participate personally in the life of the Holy Trinity by grace.  Jesus Christ bring us into eternal life such that we partake in His victory over sin and death.  The holiness, mercy, and love of the Lord become active in us, become characteristic of us as unique persons, as we share more fully in His life. 
The more we find healing and transformation in Him, the more we will extend His forgiveness to those who have wronged us.  If we refuse to do so, however, we refuse Christ and refuse to participate in His mercy.  When we refuse Him,  we condemn only ourselves.
In moments of anger and pain, it is usually much easier to judge, hate, and condemn than to love and forgive.  Ever since the fall of Adam and Eve, we human beings have distorted our relationships with one another, allowing fear, judgment, and insecurity to divide us.  Early in the book of Genesis, their descendent Lamech brags that he will avenge himself seventy-seven fold.  In other words, he was like a mobster or a terrorist who loved to shed blood and never showed mercy to anyone.  While our desire for revenge surely does not go as far as that, we do find it almost impossible to forgive seventy times seven as Christ forgives us.
Like any other area of weakness in the Christian life, our struggle to forgive must begin with an honest acknowledgement before God that we hold a grudge against someone else, that we have not forgiven that person.  Even as we ask for God’s forgiveness, we should ask for His help in being reconciled and forgiving completely whatever wrong has been done.  We must also pray for those who have offended us, asking God’s blessings on them.  And when we are tempted to remember what they have done or to judge them, we must immediately turn our attention to the Jesus Prayer and remembrance of our own need for mercy and forgiveness from the Lord and from those whom we have offended throughout the course of our lives.  We need to recognize that we are not the blameless judges of others, but those who stand in constant need of grace, mercy, and healing together with those who have wronged us.
It is a long struggle, but if we consistently turn away from unholy thoughts, we know that they will lose their power over us.  “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7) The less attention we give to our temptations, the more they will diminish.  Overtime, we will grow in forgiveness from our hearts and learn to replace grudges and resentment with love, to be at peace with our enemies, as much as it depends on us.
The challenge is greater, of course, if the others involved in these relationships continue offending us and acting like our enemies.  Many would tell us that we are fools to keep forgiving someone a second, third, or fourth time.  But remember what the one who told us to forgive seventy-times seven said from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”  There is no limit to the forgiving love of Jesus Christ.  And if we are in Him, there can be no limit on our forgiveness either.  We who want His mercy must show it to others.  Otherwise, we reject Him and condemn ourselves.
It may be impossibly hard for us to remember when we are angry with someone, but every human being bears the image of God.  In that we have done it to anyone, we have done it to Him.  Few of us have the spiritual health and vision to see the Lord’s image even in those who have offended us.  But we must remember the words of St. John:  “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar.”  (1 John 4:20) It is only by the power of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and souls that we will find the strength to stop lying in this way, to treat others as we would treat our Lord Himself. 

Obviously, Christ has done us no wrong; we need His forgiveness, not the other way round.  The more we share in His life, the more we will share in His love by forgiving those who have wronged us.  We fool only ourselves by thinking that we may accept His mercy without also showing that mercy to those who have wronged us.  It is time for us all to put on Christ and relate to others as He relates to us.  If we refuse that calling, we hurt only ourselves.  But if we embrace that calling, we will play our unique role in the salvation of the world.          

History Today: The Forgotten Christian World

By Orthodox Christian News in Orthodox News

Aug 22, 2014  0 Comment(s)  Tags: 
By Philip Jenkins
When we think of great historical events we naturally imagine them in visual terms, of great movements. But our mental maps are often too small. We know, for instance, that Christianity began in Palestine and swept west into the Roman Empire to develop a firm base in Europe. With such a picture in mind it is easy to imagine the Christian church establishing itself across Western Europe, in Britain and Ireland, and then eventually making the leap across the Atlantic into the New World. Nothing in that picture is actually wrong, but it is sadly incomplete. At the very same time that Christians were moving west into Europe in the first two or three centuries ad, others were travelling eastwards into Asia, and south into Africa. By the mid-sixth century, Christian monasteries were operating in China. And we are not speaking here of a few brave missionaries. As late as the 11th century – almost the halfway point of the Christian story to date – at least a third of the world’s Christians still lived in Asia. Even in 1250 it makes sense to think of a Christian world stretching east from Constantinople to Samarkand (at least) and south from Alexandria to the desert of the Ogaden, almost to the Equator.
These Christians differed vastly from our familiar idea of the medieval Christian world. Many Westerners are used to thinking of the church at this time as a narrow and intolerant affair, in which popes and bishops owed their power to their alliance with secular kings and emperors. According to this stereotype the church knew next to nothing about outside cultures or faiths and, if it did, it treated them with fear and contempt, a hostility that became most obvious in the Crusades. But in fact most early Asian Christians lived in a world in which they rarely or never allied with states and kings and always operated as minority faiths living in states dominated by other religions – by Persian Zoroastrians, by Muslims, Buddhists or Hindus. Christians existed alongside these other faiths, and regularly engaged in dialogues that were friendly and cooperative. In China and south¬ India, by the eighth century, members of the Nestorian Christian church used a distinctive symbol in which the cross is joined to the lotus, symbol of Buddhist enlightenment.
Many aspects of Christianity that we conceive as thoroughly modern were in fact the norm in the distant past: globalisation, the encounter with other faiths and the dilemmas of living under hostile regimes. How can our mental maps of the past have become so radically distorted?
Christianity began in the Middle East, in Palestine, Syria and Egypt, and the fact that those regions were part of the Roman empire provided opportunities for Christian expansion along the trade routes of the Roman world. Christians benefited from Roman stability and order and they used the familiar languages of empire, Greek and Latin. Within a few centuries, the great cities of the Roman world had also become the leading centres of Christianity. But, at the same time, an almost identical story was developing to the east of the Roman frontiers, within the Persian empire. In the fourth and fifth centuries, the Persian empire stretched from Syria to what is now Pakistan and deep into central Asia and this empire too offered the kind of stability that churches needed to expand.
The backbone of Christian growth was the Silk Route, most of which ran through Persian territories. The great city of Antioch, where the term ‘Christian’ first arose no later than ad 50, was a terminus for an ancient trade connecting the Mediterranean world to Persia and Central Asia. Throughout late antiquity and the Middle Ages, the Silk Route ran from Syria into northern Persia and into what are now the nations of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Travellers passed through such cities as Merv, Bukhara and Samarkand, along a route that ultimately took them over 4,500 miles into the heart of China. From Bukhara you could follow the branching roads and tracks that linked Central Asia to the Indian subcontinent.
Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network.  You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+.

Is ISIS Prompting Reappraisal of Pacifism and Just War?

"Christian thinking has to offer both hope and sobriety, each of which requires perseverance and patience." -- IRD President Mark Tooley

Contact: Jeff Walton, Institute on Religion and Democracy, 202-682-4131, 202-413-5639 cell, 

WASHINGTON, Aug. 21, 2014 /Christian Newswire/ -- ISIS invasion of Iraq and subsequent horrors, for which Iraq's dwindling Christian minority is a chief victim, has reanimated talk about Christian Just War teaching.

Citing the call by Iraq's Chaldean Patriarch for military intervention, a group of prominent Christian thinkers, with others, has declared on the site that "nothing short of the destruction of ISIS/ISIL as a fighting force will provide long-term protection of victims." Urging U.S. and international help for local forces against ISIS, they assert that "no options that are consistent with the principles of just war doctrine should be off the table." They want expanded U.S. air strikes against ISIS and U.S. arms for the Kurds, among others. The most prominent church official on this list is the Southern Baptist Convention's chief public policy spokesman.

Pope Francis' recent statements about the morality of force against ISIS similarly appear to permit a limited use of force. He said on Monday in flight home from South Korea: "In these cases, where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor."

IRD President Mark Tooley commented:
    "Christian thinkers and others who urged the 'destruction' of ISIS within the parameters of Just War teaching offer bracing moral clarity. All persons of good will and realism must agree with them on some level. The challenge is to convey that even after the hoped for destruction of ISIS, violence and upheaval, which are intrinsic to humanity, will continue, especially in the Mideast. Christian thinking has to offer both hope and sobriety, each of which requires perseverance and patience.

    "Maybe the Pope's opaque green light for implied military intervention without specifics is the best approach for church officials whose ecclesial authority or influence is global, primarily the Pope himself. It also tacitly acknowledges the limited vocational expertise and mandate of church officials for political and especially military specifics.

    "As for the Christian pacifists and neo-pacifists, they might perform a service if they emphasized and demonstrated their own commitment to nonviolence. But their expectation of a disarmed state rejects orthodox Christian teaching. And dreams of a Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. style movement emerging in the Mideast are dangerously delusional."

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Patriarch John X: Syria shall rise up and shake off the ruin that has come to us from abroad

Source: Notes on Arab Orthodoxy

Patriarch John X's speech welcoming Patriarch Ephrem II to the Monastery of Saint George al-Homeyra
My brother, Your Holiness and Beatitude Patriarch Mar Ignatius Ephrem II Karim,
My brothers the bishops and priests,
People of the Syriac and Greek Church of Antioch who are one and great in their faith and ardent zeal,
Beloved and neighbors of Saint Ephrem,
My beloved who are gathered here under the shelter of Saint George the Victory-Bearer,
It is a great pleasure for me to say to you, “How good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together!” The Psalmist once said this and today your sweet faces and the smiles of your children say this. The stone of this holy monastery say this. If they could speak, they would sing of their longing to see loved ones and would chant welcome to them all as living stones in the body of the Antiochian Church that first sang the name of Christ and spread it to the lips of all humankind. We welcome you most warmly. It is better for us to say: welcome to your home in the Monastery of Saint George. Our meeting today is a message to the world that the seeds of Christian unity will by watered first by us in Antioch, just as Jesus’ disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.
How good and pleasant it is to meet under the shelter of Saint George, whom the churches of the world know and whose name they take. How beautiful it is to pray in blessed days ruled by the Virgin Mary in the sublimity of her purity and the light of her holiness. How good and pleasant it is to meet in Syria, our homeland and yours, in Syria where they named our ancestors Christians, in this land that has welled forth to the world with the waters of her Euphrates the teaching of Saint Ephrem, the saint of repentance. In this land, Christianity had its infancy and from here the spark of Christian love went out to Rome and all the corners of the earth. This land gave us Ignatius of Antioch, who was bound in the shackles of this present age just as many of us are shackled in these circumstances. However, these shackles did not restrain the determination of faith. These  are the same chains and shackles that will shatter before Syria and her steadfastness, the steadfastness of her leaders, her army and her people. Through the work of her good children, Syria shall rise up and shake off the ruin that has come to us from abroad. She herself will bury in her soil all those who permit themselves to tamper with the eternal monuments of her life. We have said and we will continuously say: our salvation is in dialogue and in the political solution, in word and deed. To the outside world we cry out from here in this Valley: look honestly at what is happening in Syria and Iraq, particularly in Mosul, and in every place that has falsely and deceitfully taken up the mantle of “Springtime”. Look honestly at the tragedy of Palestine. Look at Lebanon, which is paying a high price. We have known this land as the birthplace of the alphabet, which is an image of the need to encounter the other. We have not known her to be a hotbed for takfirism, terrorism and kidnapping. We in this Middle East are fed up with language of solidarity and wishful thinking on the part of those who are entrusted with decision and action. We have had enough of slogans while our bishops Youhanna and Paul, our priests and our people are being kidnapped while the world watches. The smile of our children is more precious than the falsehood of the world’s slogans. The soil of this land where we were born, live and die is our treasure, our well-being, and our vessel for passage into true life.
I lift up my prayer in your name to the Mother of Light, Our Lady the Virgin. I lift it up with the candles of the Umm al-Zunnar Church and with all the refugees who have been separated from their families and their people by the present circumstances. I lift up my prayer to the Virgin and say:
O All-Holy Virgin who dwells in the abode of heavenly glory, who protects us and all the children of this Middle East, light of our life and balm of our wounds, companion of the exhausted who wipes away the tears of those who sorrow, we take refuge in you and ask you to place your faith in our hearts. Wipe away our weaknesses with the light of your Son and shelter Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and the entire world in the peace of Christ the Lord. Teach us, O Mother, how to be sons and rise above the cares of this world to find in you a lamp to light the paths of our life. Show us, O maiden who adopted simplicity and sweetness, how to make our souls shine with the light of the resurrection, how to make the power of hope in God pulse within us, and how to make our souls into a vessel whose pilot is Christ and whose sail is the imitation of His saints. Be our consolation, our protection and our ardent intercessor.
In these blessed days we give you praise as an offering and candles as a supplication. By our candles make the light of consolation glow in our hearts. Wipe away the tears of this present age and crown the brow of those who love you with the peace of the Child of the manger. We ask you, O daughter of our earthly form, to form our souls with the power of firm hope in the dawn of our resurrection, the resurrection of our people, of our nations, of our Middle East. You who swaddled your heavenly Child and and made your bed beside him in the cave, swaddle our souls in humility and the power of hope. Make your bed beside the land of the Middle East and preserve it. Preserve our precious Valley and pledge your all-surpassing protection to our children in the homeland and the diaspora.
O Mother, be at the side of Mother Thekla and strengthen those who are in hardship. Draw the souls of the departed to your breast and to the breast of your little Son. You who rejoiced to see the resurrection of your Son and our God, make us worthy to rejoice at the return of peace to Syria, Iraq and every corner of the world. O traveling companion of John and Paul, be with our brothers Youhanna and Paul and with all those who have been abducted. Be with them. We say this as we know you are with them where they are. Wipe away from the eyes of humanity the lies and falsehood of these present days. We ask you to bear us all in your prayer to the Lord and to accept our song as incense before your Son.
We ask you, a daughter of this Middle East, to quench the flames of war here. Warm it with the warmth of love. O wellspring of love, cause souls to blaze with its brilliance and by its dew quenches tormented hearts. If these days are the cross for this Middle East, your consolation is what lightens the burden of bearing the cross. Your recollection covers minds with the dew of the resurrection dawn. Following the example of your Son, we do not fear Golgotha in your presence, O Virgin. Be a safe harbor and shelter and preserve this people who seeks the mercies of your Son, to Him be glory unto the ages amen.
Once more, Your Holiness, welcome to your home. May the Lord God grant us to always walk according to the guidance of His teachings. Welcome, beloved, children of the Syriac Church. Welcome to our brothers to whom we are bound by ancientness of faith, the first breaths of holiness, love of monasteries, the prayer of monks, love of the land and the power of hope in Christ the Lord, to Him be glory unto the ages amen.


What Orthodox Families Must Do to Keep the Kids Orthodox

Priest Geoffrey Korz | 10 January 2014

It is common in Orthodox parishes to find faithful people asking, why aren’t more kids coming to church? It’s an important question, since it raises two deeper issues: firstly, where will the Church in the Western World (outside traditionally Orthodox countries) be in twenty years, and secondly (and perhaps most critically); what on earth have Orthodox families been doing for the last few decades that has resulted in most parishes being almost devoid of young people?
Obviously, somewhere, the transmitting of the precious Orthodox faith from one generation to the next has not been accomplished. Of course, building faith in young people is a one-to-one exercise, requiring the time and concerted effort of parents, who bear the primary responsibility for this task. If young adults (or not-so-young adults) do not love Christ’s Church, the question must be asked, what exactly has been the highest priority of their home life? Academics? Getting a good job? Sports? Social life? Entertainment?
Saint Paul tells us that whatever we sow, that is the thing that we shall reap (Galatians 6:7): whatever we put into our children – a love of music, international travel experiences, unbridled ambition, a concern for the poor – it is very likely that this will profoundly shape their character. Similarly, as St. John Chrysostom tells us, the things that we allow to surround our children will either reinforce or undermine our primary influence on the life of our children (his Admonition to Parents is a tremendously helpful read for all mothers and fathers). Where can we start with this immense task? Consider the following:
1. SHOP AND PLAN LIKE YOU’LL SPEND ETERNITY ELSEWHERE. We are all tempted to desire to be like the world, to be liked by those around us, and to “fit in”. Sometimes the cost of such acceptance is too high. The way in which we use our money and our time says a lot about whether we are planning more for this life, or more for eternity. If we are planning primarily for this life, why would our children even consider worrying about their spiritual life? When our chequebooks, online shopping, and recreational trips to the mall outweigh the time spent at church or at prayer, why would our children turn out any other way?
2. STOP WORKING AND SHOPPING ON SUNDAY. This is a concrete way to set aside time for God. The Lord tells us that the sabbath (Sunday, for Christians) was made for our sake (Mark 2:27) – for our rest and spiritual rebuilding from the spiritual maelstrom that tears us apart during the other six days of the week. If we lack the strength to live a spiritual life, we should ask why!
3. PROVIDE ORTHODOXY AS AN IDENTITY OPTION. Orthodox kids in the western world are usually provided with two mutually exclusive and spiritually poisonous options: retain a foreign culture (language, name, history, etc.) as your primary identity, in order to somehow “keep” the Orthodox faith as part of that culture, or become westernized and leave your faith and culture behind. The whole idea that Orthodoxy is “part” of any culture is of course absurd, since two millennia ago, nearly every culture was thoroughly pagan. Even recently, many “Orthodox” cultures fell under the hypnotic effect of Communism, and today many are intoxicated with capitalist materialism.
Having a rich sense of inherited culture – whatever the culture is – is a formative seed in the soul of a child, since a rich appreciation and love for inherited tradition prepares a child’s heart for Orthodox living (since our faith is timeless, and requires inoculation against the passing winds of fashion). But a child’s first loyalty, the loyalty that must be cultivated and exemplified by each parent, is loyalty to the unchanging treasure of the Orthodox faith. If a young person thinks they have lots in common with other Orthodox people because they are Orthodox, there is a good chance they will remain faithful. On the other hand, if a child believes he has more in common with other peers who share their culture, whether those peers are faithful or not, it’s probably too late – the young person does not have an Orthodox Christian self-image, and tremendous work needs to be done.
4. LEARN THE ORTHODOX FAITH – ACQUIRE THE MIND OF THE HOLY FATHERS. For parishes that use the English language, this means teaching Orthodoxy to adults (catechumens and long-time faithful) so they can pass it on at home, while teaching kids. The temptation to “make Orthodoxy Canadian” must never turn into a watered-down practice ; this is one of the big reasons ethnic Orthodox people do not trust missions using the local vernacular language with the task of religious education: watered-down, “modernized” Orthodoxy is a scandal to people who are already deeply fearful of losing their imported culture. Sadly, many examples of “North America” Orthodox missions are full of attempts to redefine Holy Tradition, to revamp inherited liturgical traditions, and generally to try to “know better than all the faithful saints who have lived the Faith since the beginning. We must learn from history that Orthodoxy is a universal faith, for all times, places and peoples, and teach this critical lesson to our children.
5. CULTIVATE A NETWORK OF ORTHODOX FRIENDS OF ALL AGES. Imagine for a moment that the electricity supply was cut off to your home town. What would you do? Do you have alternatives close at hand? Many people – particularly younger people – would find life without electronic entertainment an almost unbearable reality. Similarly, many Orthodox parishes assume that the reality of foreign immigration will continue to keep their parishes vibrant, and full of Orthodox people. But what happens when immigration stops? What happens when the vitality of Orthodox life depends only on reaching those non-Orthodox who are already here? Sadly, we do not learn the lesson from previous generations of Orthodox immigrants: eventually immigration dries up, and we must start sharing our life of faith with other Orthodox people around us.
6. STOP TRYING TO “KEEP UP” WITH WESTERNIZED (IN PARTICULAR, “AMERICAN-STYLE”) RELIGIONS. There is a reason that chirpy music and jumping services win over people quickly: they appeal to the senses, and are easily embraced by the noisy hearts of those in the western world. If we are trying to pass on Orthodoxy to our children, the idea of emulating modernized religious life is truly absurd, since it fails to pass on to them the unique tools that only Orthodoxy has to give. Orthodox eyes that see timeless, unchanging truth, an Orthodox mind that understands the teachings of the Apostles’ faith, Orthodox ears that are drawn to eternal beauty, and an Orthodox heart that is trained in the inner stillness of prayer: these are gifts that the Orthodox faith gives. Our children need them. If we have access to them, and we fail to take the necessary steps to give them to our children, we have failed them.
As the Lord asks us, “If a son asks for bread from any fath


Saturday, August 16, 2014

How to Follow the Example of the Most Holy Theotokos: Homily for the Sunday After the Dormition in the Orthodox Church

1 Corinthians  4:9-16
St. Matthew 17: 14-23
           On Friday we began celebrating the Feast of the Dormition, which commemorates the falling asleep of the Most Holy Theotokos.  We celebrate especially that she followed her Son into the life of the resurrection, as her body ascended into heaven after her death.  She was the first human being to accept Jesus Christ into her life at the Annunciation, when she agreed to become His mother, and now she is also the first to participate fully in His victory over death in the Heavenly Kingdom.
            St. Paul could rightly say of himself to the Corinthians, “I have begotten you through the gospel.  Therefore I urge you, imitate me.”  But the Theotokos could say this with even greater force, for she is the spiritual mother of us all.  Our Lord took His body and all the other dimensions of His humanity from her.   She played a crucial role in Christ’s becoming the New Adam in Whom we are all healed, restored, and united with God.  The mother of Jesus Christ is thus also the New Eve, the mother of the Church, our mother, and the first and best example of what it means to love and serve her Son with every ounce of our being.
            If we are honest with ourselves, we will see immediately that we all have a very long way to go in following her example.  In purity of heart, she agreed to become the virgin mother of the Son of God.  She risked her life by accepting a miraculous and shocking pregnancy as an unmarried girl.  Even as she became the living temple of the incarnate Son of God, she was surely ridiculed and rejected by many; and she suffered the unspeakable pain of witnessing her only Son’s rejection and crucifixion. Nonetheless, she always said “yes” to God’s will for her life and had tremendous faith.  As the Theotokos said as a young girl to the Archangel Gabriel, “Behold the Handmaid of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word.”
            But instead of following her example, we are too often like the disciples who could not cast out a demon because of their unbelief.  The Lord called them a “faithless and perverse generation” and asked rhetorically, “How long shall I be with you?  How long shall I bear with you?”  He was frustrated with them, for they lacked even the small bit of faith identified with a tiny mustard seed, which is all the faith it takes to move mountains.
            The disciples were trying to cast out the stubborn kind of evil that leaves only with prayer and fasting.  St. Matthew’s gospel records this scene immediately after the Lord’s Transfiguration, when Sts. Peter, James, and John saw Christ in His divine glory and heard the voice of the Father identify Him as the Beloved Son of God.  Despite this great revelation, the disciples did not yet have mature faith in Him, let alone fast and pray in ways that strengthened them for the ministry of the kingdom.  So they were powerless to cast the demon out of the young man.
            The hard truth is that we are often like them.  We may keep up the outward appearances of the Christian faith, but it does not take much to reveal how weak and small our faith really is. The fullness of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ has been given to us.  We are members of His Body, nourished by His own Body and Blood.  By the power of Holy Spirit, Christ dwells in our hearts.  What generations of prophets dreamed of and longed for, we have.  But we so often act, speak, and think as though none of that is real.  We build our lives on our own plans, our own desires, and our own abilities.  We trust in the false gods of the world:  money, pleasure, relationships, or our own self-centered will.  We look to our own schemes to find meaning, purpose, and fulfillment in our lives, and not to God.
            We can sometimes fool ourselves pretty well that everything is fine with us spiritually, but it often does not take much of a conflict or a disappointment to inflame passions such as pride, lust, greed, self-righteous judgment, or resentment of others.  Once those catch fire, it may take a lifetime to put them out, and we wonder how we have become so weak, why our faith has so little power, health, and joy.  Like the disciples, we are then confronted with the sickness of our souls.
            When we recognize this truth about ourselves, we must remember the Theotokos as our mother and model.  Having followed her Son into the eternal life of heaven, she has great boldness as His mother to intercede with Him on our behalf.  Remember that Christ worked His first miracle, turning the water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, at her request.  We should all ask for her help and intercession every day of our lives.  We ask righteous people in this life to pray for us, and who better to intercede on our behalf with her Son than the Mother of God, who is also our mother in Christ.
            The Theotokos is also a model for us because she was brought up in the Temple as a young child, and then she became the living Temple of God when she contained Jesus Christ in her womb.  Her faith was not imaginary; it was as real and life-changing as her miraculous pregnancy.  Yes, her role in the salvation of the world is unique; but we are all called to the same kind of faith that enabled her to say “Yes” to God’s will for her life.  “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
            There is no way to develop that kind of faith-- there is no way to become a living temple of the Lord—other than through prayer.  For in order to strengthen our belief and trust in the Lord, we must give Him our attention.  No human relationship exists without attention and focus, and the same is true for the life of faith.  We must open our minds and hearts to God from the depths of our souls, being present with Him both in the words of spoken prayer and watchful silence as we listen for His word.
            The “Our Father” is our model prayer as Christians, and it provides a structure for all our petitions and requests.  Blessings before meals, the Jesus Prayer, and other short prayers found in any prayer book enable us to place our daily lives into God’s hands.  These written prayers are a springboard for using our own words to speak with God and to growing in prayer without words, where we commune with the Lord in silence.  If we want to grow in faith, the first step is to grow in prayer.
            If someone kept track of how we used our time and energy each day, that person would know what is really important to us.  If we say that something is important, but we hardly invest any time and energy in it, then it is not really important to us, no matter what we say.  Let us apply that standard to our prayers, remembering that the Virgin Mary’s life of dedicated prayer gave her the faith to become the Theotokos, the living Temple of God.  If we follow her example, then we will have a power and strength in the Christian life well beyond what the disciples had when they failed to cast out the demon.

            During this time of the Dormition, we are reminded of the great blessing that is ours in Christ Jesus.  For we are all called to receive Him into our lives, to become His living temples, to love and serve Him with every ounce of our being, and to follow Him into the eternal life of the Kingdom.  His mother shows us how to do this more than anyone else.  She is an icon of our salvation who always points to Christ, inviting us to the life of true faith and obedience.  Let us celebrate this season of the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos by praying as she did and does to the Lord Who conquered sin and death and Who will bless us also with the joy of life eternal when we come to Him in true faith,  repentance, and love.   Let us learn from the Mother of God how to enter into the joy of the Heavenly Kingdom. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos + August 15

Shudder, O ye heavens! and, O earth, give ear unto these words: God descended once before for our sake He descends again today for His Mother.
O thou most Holy Virgin, who knew not wedlock, the heavens rejoice in thy glorious falling asleep, the hosts of angels are glad, and the whole earth crieth out in joy, singing to thee the funeral song, O Mother of the Lord of all, thou who hast delivered human kind from its ancestral condemnation.
--Orthros of the Feast, Tone 4
The Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos: an introduction by Archpriest Ayman Kfouf
A Description of the Theotokos by St. Maximus the Confessor
Tender Love and the Dormition: Frederica Mathewes-Green on Ancient Faith Radio
Mary, Our Cause of Rejoicing, by His Grace Bishop Basil