Sunday, May 29, 2016

Overcoming Hate and Division Through the Resurrection: Homily for the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman in the Orthodox Church

Acts 11:19-30
John 4: 5-42
Christ is Risen!
We all have our assumptions about who are our friends and who are our enemies.  For all kinds of reasons, we probably feel more comfortable associating with some people as opposed to others. Fortunately for us all, Jesus Christ has overcome such divisions.  He died and rose again in order to bring all peoples and nations into the blessed glory of His Kingdom, which is not of this world.  And if we associate ourselves with Him, then our lives must bear witness that His resurrection is good news for all.
In order to understand how revolutionary His way of living was in the first century, recall that the Jews despised the Samaritans because they had mixed the ethnic heritage and the religion of Israel with that of other peoples.  Jews would have nothing to do with Samaritans, and certainly would not eat or drink anything handled by them.  The idea of a good Samaritan was a contradiction in terms.  Nonetheless, Christ did the unthinkable by asking a Samaritan woman for a drink of water. Through the unlikely conversation that followed, she came to recognize Him as the Messiah, to believe in Him, and to lead many of her own people to Christ.  We remember her in the Orthodox Church as Saint Photini, an evangelist and martyr with the title “Equal to the Apostles.”
In that culture, Jewish men simply did not strike up conversations with women they happened to encounter in public places.  Nonetheless, the Lord spoke to Photini with just as much concern and respect as He had shown in an earlier conversation in John’s gospel with Nicodemus, who had misunderstood Him entirely.  We cannot overestimate how astounding it would have been in that time and place for a Samaritan woman to respond more faithfully to the Jewish Messiah than had a Pharisee.
To make things even more complicated, this particular Samaritan woman had been married five times and was then living with a man outside of marriage.  Both Jews and Samaritans would have considered her to have fallen into an immoral lifestyle of routinely going from one man to another.  She may have gone to the well at high noon because she had been rejected by the other women from her village.  Though they did not want to treat her as a neighbor, Christ related to her in a different fashion.  He knew all about her failings, but did not condemn or ignore her as a result.  Perhaps because He treated her in such an unexpected and welcoming way, she was remarkably open to His message.
Indeed, she was transformed by their conversation.  Photini showed bravery in telling the men of her village that Jesus Christ is the Messiah.  Not only would they have been shocked for a woman, especially one of her reputation, to speak to them about God, they would probably also be astounded to hear that a Jewish rabbi was a Messiah for them as Samaritans.  Being inspired by the shocking ways in which Christ had reached out to her, she reached out in surprising ways to her own people.  The name Photini means “enlightened one.”  This Samaritan woman was enlightened through her unlikely conversation with the Lord and then enlightened others.   Consequently, the Samaritans invited the Jewish Messiah to stay in their village for two days, which also would have been totally unheard of in that time and place.
Our reading from Acts has a similar theme in describing how Gentiles came to believe in the Lord at Antioch, where the disciples were first called Christians.  It was no small thing for the originally Jewish Christian community to accept Gentile believers, to be comfortable eating, drinking, and sharing a common life with them.  Those viewed as the worst of enemies, as the most depraved human beings, became brothers and sisters.  The distinction between Jew and Gentile became irrelevant in Christ in Whom the promises to Abraham are fulfilled and extended to all who have faith in the Savior.
No doubt, different groups of people fear and hate one another because of the power of sin and death in the world as we know it.  What group cannot cite some plausible reason that it is justified in getting even with another group?   The same is surely true in our personal relationships.  It apparently makes us feel better about our own failings and inadequacies when we build ourselves up even as we put others down.  At least we are better than that person or group, we like to think.  We like to blame scapegoats for our problems, instead of looking ourselves squarely in the eye.  We like to take revenge rather than to forgive.  We like to hide our own brokenness and weakness by denigrating anyone who poses a threat to our prideful illusions. Of course, that simply perpetuates a cycle of resentment, as it gives some other group or person an excuse to feel justified in condemning us.
In this glorious season of Pascha, we celebrate that Christ has set us free from slavery to the sin and death that are at the heart of the division and enmity that make people feel completely justified in hating one another.  The more that we participate in His great victory, the more our souls will be freed from the compulsive desire to secure our well-being by destroying the character of others.  The more we will see that the blessed life of the Kingdom is not a zero-sum game in which we have to beat others in a contest for a scarce resource.  Life in a world captive to death is a scarce resource.  And if it all ends with the grave, then why not do what it takes to exalt ourselves over the competition for as long as possible?  But Christ has truly emptied the tomb and made it possible for Jews, Gentiles, Samaritans, and everyone else—including each of us as the “chief of sinners”– to participate in the life of heaven.
If we are truly to embrace His resurrection, then we must stop distracting ourselves from our own brokenness and pain by demonizing other people, whether individually or collectively. As sinners ourselves whose only hope is in the abundant mercy of Jesus Christ, Who died and rose again for us all, we have no right to exclude anyone from the possibility of embracing the new life of the empty tomb through faith and repentance. If we respond with hatred, condemnation, or stony silence to those we deem unworthy, we turn away from Christ’s ministry of bringing new life to the whole world.  We must treat all our neighbors as Christ treated the Samaritan woman.  To do anything less is to place our own limits on the great joy of His resurrection.  It is to remain in the tomb of sin and death when the Savior invites us to share in the great wedding feast of heaven.
In the remaining days of this glorious season of Pascha, let us keep a close watch on our thoughts, our words, and our actions, and replace fear, revenge, and condemnation with hope, reconciliation, and blessing.  Let us refuse to define ourselves over against any group or person, and instead become full participants in the joy of a Kingdom where the divisions that have plagued humanity since the fall of our first parents are healed and overcome.  If we will live that way, then we, like St. Photini, will truly become living witnesses that death has died and that light now shines even from the darkest tomb.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Embodied Persons, Male and Female: Thoughts on the Body and Personal Identity

             
          I find it hard to understand why some claim today that it is bigoted and mean-spirited to think that the biological complementarity of males and females provides an important clue to the personal identity of human beings. When someone speaks of men and women, it is certainly reasonable to assume that those terms reflect basic biological realities.  It is hard to see how we may think of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, etc., without reference to the physical bodies of those who are male or female.  If we try to do so, we will quickly find ourselves supporting a disembodied view of personhood that presents grave challenges for human dignity and is antithetical to the Christian faith.
“The facts of life” are such that it takes the bodies of two persons of opposite sex to conceive children.  As any physician or scientist will affirm, there are distinctive and biologically defined roles for men and women in this process.  It is also the nature of human beings to inherit physical and other traits from their parents.  In other words, the difference and complementarity of biological males and females stands at the heart of what it means to exist as a human being.    
No doubt, throughout human history there have been men and women who would have preferred to have been born as members of the opposite sex.  It is one thing to acknowledge that, but quite another to conclude that their preference means that there is no abiding biological reality to the distinction between males and females.  It is one thing to hope that people who struggle with these issues will find peace in accepting the implications of the physical reality of their bodies for their personal identity.  It is one thing to reach out to them with compassion, as Christians should to all people with profound personal challenges.  It is quite another, however, to say that only vicious, ignorant oppressors would dare to think that someone’s physical body manifests whether that person is a man or a woman.      
Granted, there are very rare cases of ambiguous genitalia or persons with a disparity between their chromosomes and the outward structure of their bodies.  Barring those conditions, it is hard to see how someone could even come close to making a coherent claim that he or she is “really” a member of the opposite sex.  Such an assertion would entail that the characteristics of one’s physical body are simply irrelevant to his or her personal identity.  The details of gender roles have varied throughout human history and do vary today in different settings, but the physical distinctions between the anatomy of males and females have remained.  Those who do not recognize that biological sexual identity is an abiding dimension of personal identity have taken a large step away from reality and the broad scope of human experience in the world as we know it.   
It is not yet clear how far the agenda of deconstructing maleness and femaleness will go, but to make gender identity simply a matter of subjective self-definition should deeply trouble us all, and especially advocates of the rights and equality of women.  If our society comes to view physical bodies as irrelevant for the definition of who is a woman, then matters involving women’s bodies—such pregnancy, motherhood, or violence against women-- will be taken even less seriously than they are today.  If a simple declaration by a biological male makes him a woman, then the unique interests and cultural significance of those with female bodies must not matter that much.  Indeed, any claim that male and female bodies are even truly distinctive would become incoherent. The definition of who is a woman would then have no connection with the physical characteristics of the human body; those characteristics would then have only trivial significance.  The less standing the bodies of our neighbors have in our eyes, the less of an obligation we have to help them as embodied persons.  No, this way of thinking is not good news for the orphan, the widow, the stranger, or the rest of us.  The classic feminist phrase “our bodies, ourselves” would be replaced by a dangerously disembodied vision of personhood. 
For Christians, the deconstruction of biological sexual identity is yet another manifestation of the ancient heresy of Gnosticism.   We cannot tell the story of the good news of our salvation without referring to biological men and women, for our salvation is the fulfillment of our identity and vocation as those created male and female in God’s image and likeness. (Gen. 1:27)   Just try to make sense of the story of the Hebrew people from generation to generation without such a perspective.  Contrary to those who think that Jesus Christ was uninterested in these matters, He specifically cited our creation as male and female in speaking about marriage. (Matt. 19:4; Mark 10:6)  Against the libertines who thought that what they did with their flesh sexually had no spiritual significance, St. Paul stressed that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit that will participate in eternal life.  (1 Cor. 6:12ff.)  Christ’s resurrection manifests God’s gracious intensions to sanctify every dimension of who we are:  body, soul, and spirit.    And since He is the Eternal Word Who spoke the universe into existence, breathed life into us from the dust of the earth, and told us to “be fruitful and multiply” as men and women (Gen. 1:28), it should not be surprising that His salvation is the fulfillment, not the repudiation, of our embodied personhood. 

                In this light, Christians must show true compassion toward people who struggle with gender identity without encouraging them to adopt self-definitions that ignore the physical realities of human personhood.  Christ invites us to the healing of every dimension of our humanity, which includes embracing the truth about who we are as embodied male or female persons.  For all of us, that is a struggle in one way or another.  Healing comes through the difficult task of offering every dimension of our lives to the Lord in humility.  We become more truly the people He created us to be when we reorient ourselves to Him in body, soul, and spirit. Our faith calls us to give more—not less—attention to the role of our bodies in sharing in the eternal life of the Lord Who made us men and women in His  image and likeness. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Disorienting Shock of an Empty Tomb: Homily for the Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women in the Orthodox Church

Acts 6:1-7
Mark. 15:43-16:8

We all know what it is like to receive shocking news.  Sometimes it is simply impossible to be prepared to hear an astounding message that we did not expect at all. Today we commemorate the people who received the most shocking news of all time from the angel:  “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, Who was crucified. He is Risen.  He is not here…Go tell His disciples—and Peter—that He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you.”
            These first witnesses to our salvation were all women who expected to find the dead body of Jesus Christ in the tomb.  They saw Him die on the Cross and now went to anoint Him properly for burial.  Like the disciples and everyone else, these women did not expect the resurrection. We can only imagine how sad, scared, and terribly disappointed they must have been as they rose very early on Sunday morning to take their sorrowful journey to His tomb.   When they got there, these women--the Theotokos, Mary Magdalen, two other Mary’s, Johanna, Salome, Martha, Susanna and others whose names we do not know--  were the first to receive the shocking news of the resurrection of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.   
            We also remember today Sts. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, prominent Jewish leaders who were also the Lord’s secret followers.   Joseph “took courage” and risked his position and perhaps his life by asking Pilate for the Savior’s body. He took Him down from the Cross and, with Nicodemus’ help, wrapped Him in a linen shroud and put Him in a tomb. 
            Not only must the women and the men we remember today have been torn apart with grief at the death of Christ, they were surely afraid to be identified with One Who had been rejected, condemned, and publically executed as a blasphemer by the Jews and a traitor by the Romans.  Nonetheless, they found the courage to do what devotion to their Lord required, regardless of their pain and fear.  They served Christ in the only way still available to them by providing Him a decent burial.
            There is a powerful realism about this story, for it certainly does not read like something made up after the fact.  The Lord’s disciples are not even present in it, for they had run away in fear at His arrest.  St. Peter, the chief disciple, had denied Him three times before His crucifixion.  The first witnesses of the resurrection are all women, whose testimony had no authority in that time and place. Moreover, they went to the grave in order to anoint His dead body, not to find an empty tomb.  Like them, Sts. Joseph and Nicodemus viewed Christ simply as one of the dead at that point.  If someone were trying to make up a story to support the truth of the resurrection and to build up the credibility of the first Christians, this would not be the way to do it.  It is, however, the perfect way to bear witness to the shocking truth of what no one expected, of what makes no sense according to our usual ways of thinking, and of what truly happened on that great and holy day when Life first dawned from the tomb.
            As we continue to celebrate the glorious season of Christ’s Passover from death to life, we must not lose the sense of disorienting shock that the myrrh-bearing women received when they saw the stone that had been rolled away from the door of the tomb and heard the message from the angel of the Savior’s resurrection. What happened was so amazing that “they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” 
            Too often, we take the good news of Christ’s victory over death for granted as part of a story that we know quite well.  Even as we are accustomed to the intensified prayer, fasting, and repentance of Lent, we get used to the joyful celebration of the season of Pascha each year.  A way to reopen the eyes of our souls to the unique and extraordinary nature of the Lord’s resurrection is for us to put ourselves in the place of the myrrh-bearers and of Sts. Joseph and Nicodemus by struggling to overcome anything that would hold us back from devoted service to Jesus Christ, even when it is not easy.  Nothing that these holy women and men did in the aftermath of Christ’s death was fun, popular, or safe.  We can be sure that they would have all strongly preferred to be doing something other than burying their friend and Lord. But they overcame those struggles and pressed on in serving Him in the only way available to them.  If they were to love Him then, they had to give Him a proper burial.  
            Our situation is obviously different, for we live well after the Lord’s resurrection.  Nonetheless, the spiritual challenge is the same.  No generation gets to pick the circumstances that it faces.  Human beings do not get to choose the illnesses, tragedies, or other problems that they encounter.  It is not entirely up to us what temptations and weaknesses challenge us, our marriages, and our families spiritually, morally, or in any other way.  Indeed, if we pretend that we get to pick how to serve our Lord in ways that suit us, we will likely ignore what He is actually calling us to do.  Our challenge is to be faithful in responding to the situation that is before us, in discerning how to bear witness to Christ’s victory over death in the here and now, even if we would rather be doing something else. 
            The Church in Jerusalem faced a similar situation when there was strife over the daily distribution of bread to widows of different ethnic backgrounds.  The apostles were too busy with their ministries to address that problem, so they ordained the first deacons to serve the practical needs of the community.  And as a result, the Church flourished.  We can be sure that the apostles would have preferred for such problems not to have arisen at all.  But that is not what happened.  When the problem arose, they had to find a way to address it.  To have ignored it because they did not like it would have been to ignore God’s calling to them and to have refused to serve Christ in His Body, the Church.
            We will grow in our participation in the Savior’s victory over sin and death by humbly accepting the opportunities for serving Him that our lives, and the lives of those around us, present.  Most of us need look no further than our own families, our parish, and our friends and acquaintances in order to discern quite clearly what God is calling us to do.  If we want a Lord Who fits our preconceived notions and calls us to serve Him only in ways that we find convenient, pleasing, or easy, then we will fall into the idolatry of worshiping our own self-centered delusions. Remember that our Lord’s empty tomb was an unexpected shock from which the women initially fled in fear.  But what was at first so terrifying turned out to be a blessing beyond anyone’s expectations.  Had the women not put themselves in the place of humble obedience and service, they would not have been the first witnesses of the resurrection. And our lives will not bear witness to the joy of Christ’s great victory unless we do the difficult work of serving Him in whatever circumstances we face, regardless of whether we especially like them or not.
            Pascha was truly disorienting for all our Lord’s followers.  It did not fit with any conventional expectations for religion in that time and place, and it still does not. In order to participate more fully in the life of our Risen Lord, we must follow the example of those blessed women and men who, in the midst of their fear and pain, did what needed to be done in order to love and serve Christ, even though they could not imagine what was to happen next.  Theirs was not a self-centered, sentimental, or culturally accommodated spirituality, but a way of living that opened them to the new day of a Kingdom not of this world.  The shock of the empty tomb was overwhelming, but that was necessary in order to open their eyes to news so good that nothing could have prepared them for it.  This Paschal season, let us follow their holy example so that our eyes will also be opened to the brilliant light that continues to illumine even the darkest grave. As the angel said, “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, Who was crucified. He is Risen.  He is not here…Go tell His disciples—and Peter—that He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you.”

Sunday, May 8, 2016

His Bodily Wounds and Ours: Homily for Thomas Sunday in the Orthodox Church

First Epistle of St. John 1:1-7
St. John 20:19-31

I was surprised a few years ago in one of my college classes when even the best students were surprised to learn that Christian hope for eternal life includes the resurrection of the body.  They were comfortable thinking of human souls experiencing eternal life, but doubted that our actual physical bodies would have any part in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Especially on this Sunday of St. Thomas, we celebrate how Christ’s bodily resurrection is the basis of hope for our own.   Today we proclaim that our Savior brings healing and transformation to whole, embodied persons, for that is how He conquered death on the third day.   

As we continue to celebrate the glorious good news of this season of Pascha, we recall how Christ called doubting Thomas to faith in His great victory.  “He said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here, and see My hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.’ Thomas answered Him, ‘My Lord and my God!’”  Still bearing His wounds even in His glorified body as the God-Man, the Risen Christ brought Thomas to faith through the witness of His own deified flesh.

We have probably heard the story so many times that we have become deaf to its importance.  Nonetheless, it remains the case that the Savior’s resurrection is not an escape from the body or the physical world, but instead their healing and sanctification.  Likewise, St. John referred in his epistle to that “which we have seen with our own eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we saw it…”  The Apostles saw the Lord after His resurrection with their eyes, touched Him with their hands, heard His voice with their ears, felt His breath on their skin, and even saw Him eat food.  (Luke 24: 36-43)  The good news that “God is light and in Him is no darkness at all” comes from a resurrection in glory of a complete Person with a human body marked by the wounds of torture and crucifixion.  His resurrection is not an escape from the body, but its fulfillment. The Eternal Word Who created us by breathing into the dust of the earth now breathes physically on His Disciples as He empowers them to carry out His ministry of bringing salvation to the world, even to the point of forgiving sins in His name.  Here are powerful signs of what it means for human beings to be in the likeness of God and partakers of the divine nature by grace.    

These are not merely details of ancient history, but reminders that we participate in Christ’s Passover from death to life by how we live as whole, embodied persons.  We were baptized physically with water into Christ’s death in order to put Him on like a garment, in order to rise with Him into a new life of holiness.  To be blunt, the Christian life is not simply about our emotions, ideas, or opinions; it is not reduced to what we say we believe.  For those who are truly in Christ will live in ways that manifest the brilliant life of the resurrection, that radiate the holy light of the Savior’s great victory over sin and death.  As St. John put it,  “If we say we have fellowship with Him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.”  

We participate in the new life of our Risen Lord by walking into His light, by embracing as fully as we can the blessed healing of the human being that He has brought to the world.  Christ’s Passion was not a matter simply of His feelings, words, or ideas, but of His complete Self-offering through crucifixion, burial, descent to Hades, and resurrection from the dead. He rises in glory with His wounds, and we cannot begin to make sense of His salvation without speaking of the most bodily of realities, such as torture, execution, death, and burial in a tomb that was later found to be empty.  

We are probably all tempted at times to think how much easier it would be to serve God if we did not have our particular set of bodily limitations and problems.  Some are challenged by physical or mental illness, while others wrestle with passions for the pleasures of food, sex, alcohol, or other substances.  Eating disorders and unrealistic expectations of what their bodies should look like ruin the health and well-being of some, while others struggle to accept that their male or female bodies are signs of who they are in God’s image and likeness. Many today ignore the sacredness of the intimate bodily union of man and woman, which makes two into one flesh.  The epidemic of pornography in our culture reflects a repudiation of the sacredness of the flesh and blood through which we encounter the living icons of Christ. Some refuse to honor the bodies of their neighbors by becoming blind to the humanity of children in the womb, of people with skin of a different color, or of terminally ill patients in chronic pain.  And whether it is greed, sloth, anger, or refusal to help the needy with our time, attention, and resources, there is no sin that does not show itself physically in some way in the lives of those who struggle with it.

No matter what someone’s particular struggles, weaknesses, or failings are, we must respond with compassion, for we too are among the sick who need the Physician. Nonetheless, no physical condition can ever make us sin or do evil.  The problem is not that we have bodies, but that we choose to remain in the tomb, that we would rather walk in the darkness than in the light.  For it is no sin to be ill or to be tempted in any way.  The Lord Himself suffered terribly on the cross and was tempted.  It is a sin, however, to let any of our wounds become excuses for not walking in the light as best we can.  It is a sin to let anything fill our lives with such darkness that we refuse to open our eyes—and our lives—to the good news of the resurrection.  It is a sin when we think that God must remove this or that problem in order to earn our faithfulness, in order to be worthy of our devotion.  As we celebrate Christ’s great victory over sin and death, we must not be afraid to expose our wounded selves to Him with humility as we say with St. Thomas “’My Lord and my God!’”

 Remember that the Savior has taken upon Himself even the worst bodily wounds.  It is through them that He has brought life out of death and brilliant light out of the darkest tomb.  He has conquered even death itself.  Do you see what that means?  Even our darkest inclinations ultimately do not stand a chance against His glory, if we will only expose them to Him, if we will only offer them to Him for healing.  And though it probably will not happen instantaneously, our wounds will find healing as we move step by step further into His light.  Darkness is simply the absence of light and it disappears when it is illumined.  The same Lord Who conquered Hades and the tomb for our salvation, and Who invited Thomas to touch His wounds, will bring us as whole, embodied persons into the new day of His Kingdom if we will only keep turning as best we can from the darkness as we struggle to live faithfully each day in the midst of the problems, pains, and weaknesses that beset us. We must all take that journey one day at a time.

The good news is that Christ does not ask us to conquer sin and death by our own power, for He has already done that.  But He does ask us truly to have faith, which requires a faithful life, even as we constantly ask for His mercy and strength to participate as fully as possible in the joy of His resurrection. We will not do that with a fake spirituality that relies purely on emotions or ideas, but as whole persons of flesh and blood enlivened by the One Who made us in His image and likeness and even died and rose again for our salvation.  So let us celebrate Pascha by walking in the light as best we can with all our wounds, for that is how we will open ourselves to the light that has made even the tomb radiant with the divine glory.  If He can do that to a grave, just imagine what He can do with us.  

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Triumph Through Humility: Homily for Palm Sunday in the Orthodox Church

Philippians 4:4-9 John 12:1-18
           What has been occupying your mind lately?  If you are like me, everything from work, school, taxes, a leaky roof, your daily routine, your health and that of your friends and family has taken up a good bit of your attention. There is nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but there are times when we need to lay aside our usual earthly cares in order to focus on the one thing needful.
St. Paul reminds us today to give our attention to what is true, noble, just, pure, lovely, virtuous, and praise worthy.  We all need that reminder as we turn from the penitential focus of Lent to following our Lord into the great mystery of our salvation through His Passion.  Christ entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday both triumphantly and humbly in order to save us in a fashion that no one expected and that is still hard to grasp. And if we do not pay attention from the depths of our souls, we risk missing the point entirely.
Unlike our usual preoccupations, nothing about Holy Week naturally appeals to us because our Lord’s great Self-offering has nothing in common with what we usually celebrate in this world.  Though Christ is God and powerful beyond our understanding, He suffers freely for our sake.  He loves those who crucify Him to the point of dying on their behalf.  He achieves victory by submitting to torture and execution as a traitor and a blasphemer, even though no one made Him do so.   He freely empties Himself to the point of hanging on a Cross, being buried in a tomb, and descending to Hades.  The Word Who spoke the universe into existence experiences rejection and death at the hands of those He came to save.  He is totally unlike the heroes and leaders we typically idolize in this world, for by conventional standards there is nothing successful or powerful to be found on a cross.
Then again, there is nothing conventional about Jesus Christ.  He revealed that He is the resurrection and the life by raising His friend Lazarus from the dead after the long period of four days, by which time the body had begun to decay.  In the midst of her terrible grief about her brother’s death, Martha made the clearest confession of faith in John’s gospel by saying, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, Who is to come into the world.”  Our Savior wept for His friend Lazarus, and ultimately He wept for us all, distorted and   corrupted by sin and death and so far from fulfilling our ancient calling to participate in the glory of the divine life.  As hard as it is to believe, this Savior brings life through death.  He brings light from darkness. He brings victory through what looks just like defeat in this world.
On Palm Sunday, we see that the Savior Who enters Jerusalem today is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  He is the Passover Lamb whose death and resurrection will conquer death itself. Mary, Lazarus’ other sister, performed a prophetic act when she anointed Christ with the same kind of ointment used to anoint the bodies of the dead.  This Messiah, this One who is truly anointed to save His people and the whole world, will be rejected by the leaders of the Jews and crucified under the authority of the Romans.  And when He is lifted up upon the Cross, He will draw all who believe in Him– Jew, Gentile, male, female, rich, poor, all nations, classes, and races—to the life of a Kingdom that transcends this world and the usual false gods for which we live and die.
Jesus Christ reigns not as a soldier, a politician, a rich man, or a popular religious leader, but as the Suffering Servant, a slaughtered lamb, one of the world’s countless victims of torture and execution. The welcoming crowds in Jerusalem misunderstand what kind of King He is and how He will conquer.  For He rules from the Cross and the empty tomb; instead of killing Roman soldiers, He kills death by allowing Himself to be killed; in the place of a magnificent stallion fit for a king, He rides into Jerusalem on a humble donkey.
The crowd is right, “Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel.”  They shout “Hosanna,” which is a plea for God’s salvation to come upon the earth.  And it does through the Lord’s death and glorious resurrection.  But that is not what the crowds expected; it is apparently not what the disciples or anyone else anticipated or even what we would prefer.  For it goes against all our preconceived notions of what it means to be successful, to be powerful, to rule upon the earth, and to be respectable and religious.  Who would think that the Cross is a fitting end for a good life, let alone the life of the Son of God?
It is still a very hard lesson for us to accept, for there is too much of the world in all of us, which becomes all the more clear when we attempt to take even the smallest step closer to Christ. That is why we need to follow St. Paul’s advice to focus on what is truly holy this week.  As St. Paul wrote, “The Lord is at hand” which is never more true than on this feast as crowds cheer His entrance to Jerusalem. Of course, they will shout “Crucify Him!” in just a few days.
Holy Week reveals what kind of Savior Jesus Christ is, and unless we remain squarely focused on Him we will miss the point of these holy days, even as those crowds did.   So it is time to tune out our usual distractions and excuses, and enter into the Passion of our Lord by worshiping Him in the services of the Church whenever possible, as well as in every thought, word, and deed this week.  If we must miss some services due to work, school, distance, or health, we can still fast and pray at home, read the Bible passages for Holy Week, and give less attention to the world and more to the One Who comes to save it.
This week it becomes clear who Jesus Christ is:  The Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world.  But how will we respond to Him as He goes to the Cross for us? Will we ignore and abandon Him because we have better things to do?  Will we simply take Him for granted and remain obsessed with life as usual?  No, we must turn from those distractions as best we are able and draw near with the fear of God and faith and love. If we call ourselves Christians, we must make following our Lord our top priority this week.  Remember that, in the events of Holy Week, He certainly made us His.
Now is the time to enter into the profound mystery of our salvation.  “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, the king of Israel.  Hosanna in the highest!”

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Humble Repentance or Paralyzing Guilt?: Homily on St. Mary of Egypt for the 5th Sunday of Lent in the Orthodox Church

Mark 10:32-45

            Whenever we experience guilt and shame because of something we have done wrong, we need to ask ourselves a question.  Do we feel that way because we are sorrowful that we have disobeyed God or because we cannot stand being less than perfect in our own eyes or those of others?  The first kind of humiliation is spiritually beneficial and may lead to repentance, but the second kind is simply a form of pride that easily paralyzes us in obsessive despair. At this point in our lives, most of us probably experience some mixture of these two types of shame.  As we grow closer to Christ, the first must increase and the second must decrease.
            When we wonder if there is hope for the healing of our souls in this way, we should remember St. Mary of Egypt. She stands as a brilliant icon of how to repent from even the most shameful sins. Mary experienced a healthy form of guilt when her eyes were opened to how depraved she had become through her life of addiction to perverse sexual pleasure.  Through the intercessions and guidance of the Theotokos, she venerated the Holy Cross at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and received Communion on her way to decades of ascetical struggle in the desert. When the monk Zosima stumbled upon her almost 50 years later, he was amazed at her holiness.  He saw this holy woman walk on water and rise up off the ground in prayer, but like all the saints she knew only her own sins and perpetual need for the Lord’s mercy.     
            Perhaps what makes St. Mary of Egypt’s story such a beautiful icon of true repentance is that she was genuinely humble before God.  She was not sorrowful for her sin out of a sense of wounded pride, obsessive self-centered guilt, or fear of what others thought of her.  Instead, she said earnestly to the Theotokos “Be my faithful witness before your Son that I will never again defile my body by the impurity of fornication, but as soon as I have seen the Tree of the Cross I will renounce the world and its temptations and will go wherever you will lead me.”  And she did precisely that, abandoning all that she had known for the long and difficult journey that led to the healing of her soul.  Her focus was completely on doing whatever it took to reorient her life toward God, to purify her desires so that she would find true fulfillment in Him.     
             Today the Orthodox Church calls us all to follow her example of repentance, regardless of the details of how we have sinned in thought, word, and deed. By commemorating a notorious sex addict who became a great saint, we proclaim that no sin is so shameful that we cannot repent of it.  An honest look at our lives, as we should all take during Lent, dredges up shame and regret in various forms.  St. Mary of Egypt reminds us to accept humbly the truth about our failings as we confess our sins, call for the Lord’s mercy, and do what is necessary to find healing.  Her example reminds us not to be paralyzed by prideful obsessions that block us from being freed from slavery to our passions.  Even her depraved way of life did not exclude St. Mary of Egypt from acquiring remarkable holiness.  If she did not let a perverse form of pride deter her from finding salvation, then no one should be ashamed to kneel before Christ in humility. The Savior did not reject her and He will not reject us when we come to Him as she did.
            In today’s gospel text, James and John related to Christ in a very different way, for they wanted the best positions of power when He came into His Kingdom.  The Lord challenged their prideful delusions by reminding the disciples that humility, not self-exalation, is the way to life eternal.  He said “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”  How shocking that today we celebrate honest, humble repentance from a woman with a truly scandalous past while some of the men closest to Christ in His earthly ministry think only of getting worldly power for themselves.
Perhaps the key difference is that St. Mary of Egypt got over obsession with herself.  Instead of assuming that she was “damaged goods” for whom there was no hope, she humbly died to self by taking up her cross.  Indeed, her repentance began in the context of venerating the Holy Cross at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  The rest of her journey required profound faith, sacrifice, and courage. To undo with God’s help the harm that she had done to herself through years of debauchery must have been incredibly difficult.  But sustained by the Lord’s mercy and the intercessions of the Theotokos, that is precisely what she did over the remaining decades of her life.  
Today, so near the end of Lent and only a week from Palm Sunday, we see that this is the path we must take also.  In order to follow it, we must not be paralyzed in prideful shame about anything we have said, thought, done, or otherwise experienced or participated in at any point in our lives.  Instead, we must have the brutal honesty and deep humility of St. Mary of Egypt, a woman with a revolting past who became a shining beacon of holiness.  That is how she found healing for her soul and it is how we will find healing for ours also. The good news of this season is that the Lord makes such blessedness possible for us all through His Cross, His descent into Hades, and His glorious resurrection on the third day.  But in order to participate in the great mystery of His salvation, we too must get over our pride, accept His mercy, and actually repent.  If St. Mary of Egypt could do that with her personal history, we can too.      


Sunday, April 10, 2016

Climbing Up by Moving Down: Homily for the 4th Sunday of Lent in the Orthodox Church

Mark 9:16-30

            In just about any activity that is worthwhile, there is always room for improvement.  When we rest content with our past performance in anything, we will never get any better at it. Only those who know their own imperfection and strive to overcome it have much chance of reaching a higher goal.
If that is true in our daily work and hobbies, it is far more the case when our goal is to participate by grace in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity.  On this fourth Sunday of Great Lent, we commemorate St. John Climacus, who wrote the book The Ladder of Divine Ascent to guide monks step by step to a life of greater holiness. Now only two weeks from Palm Sunday, the Church reminds us that we must all must move upward on that ladder if we are to follow our Lord to His Passion, to His death on the cross, to His descent into Hades, and to His glorious resurrection on the third day.  But the first step upward requires what seems like a step downward, for it is the step of humbly acknowledging our weakness, imperfection, and corruption.  Without that honest confession, we will never develop the spiritual strength necessary to enter into the deep mystery of our salvation through the great offering and victory of our Savior.    
 In today’s gospel text, the father of the demon-possessed young man stands as a model of the honesty that we must cultivate in order to unite ourselves more fully to our crucified and risen Lord. When Christ told him that “all things are possible for him who believes,” the man “cried out and said with tears, ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.’”  The disciples had lacked the spiritual strength to cast out the demon, but in response to this anguished cry from the heart, the Lord Himself healed the young man. It was by acknowledging the imperfection of his faith, even as he begged for mercy, that the father’s prayer was answered.
Whether we like it or not, our lives are full of opportunities for us to become more like that broken-hearted, honest, humble father.  Sickness, family difficulties, economic hardship, persistent personal problems, and so many other common challenges reveal the weakness of our faith and the sickness of our souls, for we never respond to them perfectly. The Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and other spiritual practices that reorient us to God, help us catch a glimpse of how much room we have to grow in the Christian life.  And if we ever think that we are the only ones for whom they are a struggle, then we should think again.  None of us does them perfectly; indeed, it is beyond our ability to know what it would mean to do them perfectly, for our goal is to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect.  (Matt. 5:48) In comparison with that standard of infinite holiness, who does not have more room for growth than we could possibly imagine?  But the more we embrace these disciplines and acknowledge our own weakness before life’s daily challenges, the more aware we become of how far we are from sharing fully in the life of our Lord.  The more we grasp our own sinfulness and brokenness, the more we must cry out from our hearts, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”
Lent is a time to stop hiding our true spiritual state even from ourselves.  It is a time to confess our failings to the Lord and hear in spoken words an assurance of our forgiveness in the sacrament of Confession, if we are truly repentant.  It is a time to turn away from the illusion that we have already arrived spiritually and that prayer, fasting, and confession are only for other people.  It is a time to see ourselves in that brutally honest father who, even in the midst of his heart-broken love for his son, told the truth about the weakness of his faith.  The more we become like him, the better.  The more that we pray, fast, and otherwise humble ourselves before the Lord, the clearer our spiritual vision will be and the more we will see the infinite chasm between the holiness of God and our own wretchedness.
There is good news, however, for all of us who have fallen short.  Thank God, the God-Man Jesus Christ has bridged that gap.  Through His death and resurrection, He makes it possible for each of us to grow in holiness as we see ever more clearly how far we are from attaining the fullness of the glory for which He created us.  Ironically, it is by knowing our own brokenness and imperfection that we become aware of the true mystery of our salvation, of why our Lord offered Himself on the cross, descended into Hades, and rose again on the third day.  Paradoxically, we climb up the ladder of holiness by lowering ourselves through humble repentance.
“Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”  That is the only confession that will enable us to prepare for what is to come in the weeks ahead as we enter into the deep mystery of our salvation.  As our Savior said, “The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and after He is killed, He will rise on the third day.”