Sunday, April 24, 2016
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
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
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.”
Monday, March 28, 2016
Having taught college-level Religion classes for 25 years now, I have known for a long time that it can be a challenge for students from any faith background to interpret fairly the beliefs and practices of other communities. In my experience, that is especially the case for many evangelical Protestants when they encounter just about anything that looks “too Catholic.” Having grown up a Southern Baptist in Texas and having taught now for over 20 years at a Methodist-related institution, I have not been surprised to have students who seem allergic to practices they identify with the abuses of Rome as rejected by the Protestant Reformation. This semester’s students in my Orthodox Theology course have helped me grow in my understanding of how to address these dynamics with a bit more clarity.
As they were reading St. John of Damascus’ treatises in defense of the holy icons, some of my students took objection to his claim that the Saints are due honor because they partake by grace in the divine glory. An implication of that claim is that to refuse to honor the Saints is to refuse also to give proper glory to God, for it is His glory in which the Saints participate. How, then, could any Christian fail to honor those who shine with holy light? Some students suggested that to honor the icons of Saints, to ask for their prayers, and to remember them liturgically puts people at risk of worshiping the Saints instead of God, of committing idolatry. In response, I explained that Orthodoxy formally distinguishes between veneration and worship and that there is so much in the life of the Church, and in the spiritual formation of Orthodox believers, to guard against such abuses. They remained skeptical, however.
It occurred to me a few days after that class that the students were probably thinking about what they imagine would happen if the veneration of Saints and icons were all of a sudden made part of the Methodist congregations in which they worship. As is perfectly understandable, they were thinking in light of their own experience. And since the theological sensibilities of Protestantism developed over against the abuses of the Catholic Church in the 16th century, how could they not be suspicious of restoring practices that the Reformers rejected and that are essentially unknown in their communities?
As well, it clicked that Orthodox veneration of the Saints manifests belief in theosis, that human beings become participants in the divine energies like an iron left in the fire. They shine with the divine glory as they become holy through their participation in the life of the Holy Trinity by grace. From its origins, the Church has glorified God by celebrating those in whom we have experienced His holiness. They show us what it means for people, every bit as human as we are, to be so united with the New Adam that they become living icons of the fulfillment of our nature as those created in God’s image and likeness. Since Orthodoxy is clear about the radical difference between worship and veneration, there is no threat of idolatry here. Likewise, the iconoclasts challenged the experience of the Church from her origins. They were the innovators, insisting that what they did not like be ripped out of the life of the Body of Christ, irrespective of the scandal and harm caused to the people of God.
The next time that class met, I urged my students to remember that St. John of Damascus was speaking in and to a Church with well-established understandings of theosis, of the difference between worship and veneration, and centuries of experience in honoring and asking for the prayers of the Saints. He was not addressing Protestants with no concept of deification. He was not addressing communities that had refused to venerate the Saints for five hundred years, that had identified that practice with later abuses in the West, or that had affirmed sola scriptura. My students may make of these matters what they will, but I suggested that it is probably not helpful to reduce the issue simply to speculation on what would happen if they started venerating Saints tomorrow in their own congregations.
Instead, they would do well to wrestle with their relationship to the “great cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews 12 that inspires us to look to Christ as we continue the race. There is no competition between honoring those holy people and worshipping the Lord in that passage. They would benefit from engaging the status of the martyrs described in Revelation 6 and the reference to the prayers of the Saints rising with incense in Revelation 8. In other words, their traditions should encourage them to engage the Bible on these matters, including the miracles worked by the bones of Elisha in the Old Testament (2 Kings 13:21) and the shadow, handkerchiefs, and aprons of the Apostles in the New Testament (Acts 5:15, 19:12). Since Protestants are supposed to judge tradition by Scripture, they should consider whether their traditions have done justice to the teachings of the Bible on these matters. Some of my former students have become Orthodox as a result of wrestling with such questions, but what they do with my suggestions is ultimately up to them.
Enthusiastic veneration of the Saints and their icons did not break out spontaneously that day in class, but I could tell that the students were open to seeing these matters in a new light, and not in a way that is entirely captive to their own experience. That is surely one of the most important dimensions of higher education. Maybe there is some point to what I have had the blessing to do now for 25 years.
Saturday, March 26, 2016
Saturday, March 19, 2016
Today we celebrate the restoration of icons to the Orthodox Church at the end of the iconoclastic controversy, during which emperors ordered the destruction of images of our Lord, the Theotokos, and the Saints in the name of opposing idolatry. Of course, icons are not false gods to be worshiped, but visual symbols of the salvation that the incarnate Son of God has brought to the world. They reflect the true humanity of Jesus Christ, as well as how people like you and me may participate in His holiness in every dimension of our lives. They remind us not only that we are surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) who have gone before us, but that our Savior calls and enables us to join them in shining radiantly with the divine glory, even as we live and breathe as flesh and blood.
When we make a procession after Liturgy today with our icons, we will proclaim that our identity is not determined by whatever is popular, easy, or appealing. As those created in God’s image and likeness, we will never be fulfilled by the false gods of this world, such as indulgence in money, power, and pleasure in its various forms. We are called to something much higher, for Christ told Nathanael that he would “see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.” (John 1:51) He comes to make us all participants in the divine glory by grace.
At the end of the day, the only way to answer that calling is by becoming better icons of Christ, better visible and tangible witnesses of His salvation. That is why we must fast from whatever keeps us from radiating the holy light of God. It is why we must refuse to feed our tendencies to dwell on the failings of others. It is why we must starve our inclination to speak words of self-righteous judgment and condemnation. It is why we must abstain from indulging in actions that harm, weaken, or take advantage of anyone. It is why we must refuse to nourish our passions by allowing into our eyes, ears, and stomachs anything that enslaves us to self-centered desire.
Even as we turn away from what diminishes us in the divine likeness, we must also feast on what helps us embrace more fully our true identity in Christ. That means putting our souls on a steady diet of prayer; of reading the Bible, the lives of the Saints, and other spiritually edifying works; and of mindfulness in all things such that we remain alert to the spiritual significance of what we think, say, and do. The more that we fill ourselves with holy things, the less appetite we will have for unholy things.The journey of Lent is not about punishment or legalism, but instead about helping us grow personally into our exalted identity as those called to share in the eternal life of our Lord. It is about turning away from the idolatry of self-centeredness in order to become a more beautiful icon of the divine glory. It is about refusing to set our sights low concerning what it means to be a human being in God’s image and likeness. It is about crucifying our self-centered desires so that we may enter into the holy mystery of our Lord’s cross and resurrection. For it is through His Passion that we will “see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.”
Sunday, March 13, 2016
Today the Church calls us to see ourselves in Adam and Eve, cast out of Paradise and stripped of their original glory. God created them in His own image and likeness and had clothed them with a robe of light, which they lost when they chose their own pride and self-centered desires over humble obedience. Their great potential for growth in holiness squandered, now they are reduced to covering themselves with fig leaves and wearing the flesh of corruption and mortality. Adam sits with Eve outside the shut gates of Paradise and weeps bitterly for what they did to themselves and to the entire creation.
In ways obvious and not so obvious, their tragic story is also ours. We live in a world of people who, from generation to generation, have chosen to satisfy themselves rather than to flourish in the glory of those who bear the divine image and likeness. Due to advances in communications, we are more aware today of the details of the world’s problems than were previous generations, but not much really changes from age to age in the human soul. Fear, hatred, violence, greed, abuse of the weak, self-centeredness, and addiction to pleasure plague every generation and have ruined the lives of so many who were created for eternal joy. We do not have to look very hard at our society or world, or at ourselves, to see that we live very far from Paradise.
The good news, of course, is that the God-Man Jesus Christ is the New Adam Who clothes us with a robe of light in baptism. As St. Paul wrote, “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (Gal. 3:27) The father restored the prodigal son by giving him fine clothing, and the Savior restores us when put Him on in baptism. (Lk. 15:22) He entered into death, the ultimate consequence of Adam’s sin, in order to conquer it through His resurrection. We are baptized into His death in order to rise with Him into the life of Heaven, even as we live and breathe in this world. (Rom. 6:3-4) He comes to bring us back to Paradise.
Even though we have put on Christ and are members of His own Body, the Church, there is still much of the old Adam in us. Time and again, we fall back to the nakedness and despair of those who strip themselves of the divine glory through sin. That is why St. Paul told the Christians in Rome to “cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” He told them to strip themselves of the pitiful garments of sin and death and “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to gratify its desires.” That means ripping from their lives whatever diminished and weakened them as the children of God. That means living faithfully to our identity as those who have died to sin and risen to eternal life with our Savior. The season of Great Lent provides a blessed opportunity for each and every one of us to do precisely that.
With Adam and Eve, sin and death came into the world through unrestrained indulgence in food. We fast in Lent from the richest and most satisfying foods in order to find healing from the self-centered desires of our stomachs and taste buds, which in turn helps to free us from addiction to other forms of self-centeredness. Humble fasting is the enemy of lust, pride, and anger, for example. As our Lord taught, we do not fast in order to impress others, but in secret. We must not draw attention to ourselves or inconvenience others as we fast. As St. Paul wrote, we must not judge anyone for what they eat or do not eat. Remember that the self-righteous Pharisee lost the benefit of his spiritual disciplines due to pride and judgment, while the sinful tax-collector was justified due to his humility. (Lk. 18:9ff.) If we turn the blessed discipline of fasting into an instrument of pride, we will end up doing more harm than good to our souls.
Instead of wasting our time in evaluating others, we focus in Lent on more fully participating in the healing and restoration that Christ has brought to the world. Since we have put Him on in baptism, we must live in a way that reflects and reveals His mercy and blessing. The Lord is very clear about what this means: If we want forgiveness for our sins, we must forgive others for their offenses against us. He says that because forgiveness is not some kind of legal decision about justice, but a characteristic of a relationship that reveals the health or sickness of our souls. The prodigal son had no claim to restoration as a son, and he knew that, but the overwhelming love of his father healed the deep wounds that the young man’s behavior had caused. If we want to open ourselves to the unfathomable divine mercy, we must become channels of that same mercy to others. If we are “participants of the divine nature” by grace, our Lord’s forgiveness will become characteristic of who we are. (2 Pet. 1:4) Like an iron left in the fire takes on the qualities of the fire and conveys heat and light to other objects, those who truly share in Christ’s life will share what they have received with others. As St. Paul wrote, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal. 2:20) If we want God’s forgiveness for ourselves and refuse to forgive others, we are very far from the life of the New Adam.
At Forgiveness Vespers this evening, we will personally bow before one another as we ask for and extend forgiveness to everyone in the parish. We begin our journey toward the deep mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection with humility and reconciliation. What greater sign is there of our sinfulness than how easily we offend, harm, and disregard one another, even those we love most and with whom we share a common life? To the extent that none of us has lived as faithfully as possible, we have all weakened one another spiritually because we are members of one Body. Now is the time to grant to one another the forgiveness that we ask from the Lord. We open ourselves to His mercy as we show mercy to others. If we begin Lent this way, we will also find new strength to heal broken relationships in all areas of our lives. Then we will grow in humility as we overcome our stupid pride and make things right with our neighbors.
The Lord taught that our hearts will be wherever we place our treasure, wherever we invest ourselves. As we give of our time, energy, and resources to the needy during Lent, we serve Christ in them. We also turn from the idolatry rooted in Adam and Eve’s desire to use the blessings of the creation simply for themselves and not for the purposes for which God created them, namely, to meet the needs of everyone. We must “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires,” by making our fast a feast for the poor and hungry. Whenever we limit our own self-centered desires in order to bless others in any way, we take a step toward Paradise and away from life as usual in our world of corruption.
The spiritual disciplines of Lent have nothing to do with legalism or punishing ourselves. Instead, they are tools to help us find healing and strength as we wear the robe of light, as we grow in our personal participation in the salvation that the Second Adam has brought to a world of despair and decay. Now is the time to strip ourselves of all that would hold us back from following our Lord to His cross and glorious resurrection, for it is through His Passion that we will enter into the fullness of the glory for which He created us in the first place. Now is the time to turn from our spiritual weakness and nakedness to “put on the armor of light” as we begin an intense struggle for the healing of our souls. Let us struggle joyfully, for the journey will truly lead us to Paradise.