Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Way of the Cross and the Crisis in Syria: Homily for the Feast of the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos and the Sunday Before the Elevation of the Holy Cross in the Orthodox Church

            We have a lot going on today in the Church with our liturgical calendar, parish activities, and response to world events.  I am wearing blue because it is the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, the birthday of the Virgin Mary.  Since this coming Saturday is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, our epistle and gospel readings focus on that theme.
            In addition, His Eminence Metropolitan PHILIP has urged us to ask our senators and congressman to oppose authorizing a military strike on Syria, which is the home of our Antiochian Orthodox Church. His Beatitude Patriarch JOHN X requests that we take up a special collection next Sunday for the “Antiochian Day of Solidarity” which will go toward humanitarian relief in Syria. And today we resume Christian Education classes after our summer recess.
            Yes, that seems like a lot, but it is not that much different from life as usual in the world as we know it.  The situation in Syria is certainly terrible and we should all pray, give generously, and do whatever else we can to ease the burdens there of everyone.   Unfortunately, the innocent have suffered ever since Cain murdered his brother Abel.  The bloodshed and misery of wars and exiles described throughout the Old Testament are well known.  Wicked King Herod tried unsuccessfully to kill the infant Jesus, but then succeeded in slaughtering thousands of young boys in the region of Bethlehem.  The Church has survived centuries of persecution in various times and places; there are still martyrs who die for their faith to this day in Syria, Egypt, and many other countries.
            It is tempting to think that worldly power is the solution to such difficult situations.  But as anyone who has studied history even a bit knows, one war often sows the seeds that lead to the next and none of it is holy. Regardless of who has a better claim to being justified in killing, the blood of the victims cries out from generation to generation, often inspiring revenge and vengeance. No matter the details, “the wages of sin is death” and the spiritual damage of taking life under any circumstances is profound. When we “cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war,” all hell is liable to break loose in ways that no one is able to control, whether in the soul of one person or the collective life of the world.  For example, our nation is only beginning to come to grips with the psychological, spiritual, and moral trauma endured by so many of our veterans in the last decade.    
            Perhaps that sober recognition will help us see how important it is that God did not save the world through a conquering king or a powerful army, but through a Suffering Servant Who hung on a cross at the hands of the most powerful empire on earth.  He defeated the powers of sin and death not by shedding the blood of others, but by allowing His own blood to be shed.  Purely out of love, Jesus Christ entered fully into horrific torture and the black night of the grave as one of the world’s countless victims and then rose victorious, bringing all the departed with Him.  Our hope is in our crucified and risen Lord, in the selfless, forgiving, humble way of the cross that remains a scandal to the rulers of this age.
            Unfortunately, there are times when the use of deadly force to protect the innocent is a tragic necessity in our fallen world.  But even then, the Church provides spiritual therapy for the healing of the soul of those who have blood on their hands for whatever reason.  Whether through movies, television, video games, a sensationalistic news media, or our own passions, we have become desensitized to the profound gravity of using violence against those created in the image and likeness of God.  Much of our entertainment and news has become a celebration of graphic violence and almost another form of pornography, a way of taking perverse pleasure in the horrible distortion of what it means to be a human being called to a life of holiness.  We do not have to be vampires or zombies in order to lust for blood, especially the blood of those we feel justified in hating.
            The way of Jesus Christ is, however, totally different.  And it should not be surprising that He took His humanity from a mother who was not corrupted by the ways of the world.  Today we celebrate her birthday, when the infant Mary was born to the old, righteous, and barren couple Sts. Joachim and Anna.  They prayed for a child whom they dedicated to the Lord.  Mary grew up in the Temple in prayer and purity.  And when she could no longer remain there, St. Joseph was chosen as her guardian.  Then she became the Theotokos, the virgin mother of our Savior, and had the unique and amazing role of giving human life to the incarnate Son of God.  She did not abandon Him, even at the foot of His cross.
            In every war-torn country, there are old people who like Sts. Joachim and Anna have hope only in God.  There are completely vulnerable babies and young girls whose lives and safety are at risk in ways too numerable to count and often too horrible to describe.  The brokenness of life in our corrupt world is such that civilians--such the old and the young--are often among the most vulnerable victims of war.  Sts. Joachim, Anna, and their daughter lived in a time of Roman occupation and the threat of terrible violence against anyone who dared challenge the powers that be.  That is why the Romans crucified traitors and rebels, which is what they did to Jesus Christ.
            The Roman Empire eventually fell apart in both the West and the East.  Such will be the fate of all the kingdoms and nations of the world, including our own, no matter what weapons we have. As much as we love our country, we know that it is not the Kingdom of God or “the life of the world to come.”  Like Sts. Joachim, Anna, and the Theotokos, we are called to embody the ways of the heavenly Kingdom even as we live amidst the broken realities of earthly kingdoms.  We cannot pretend as though we have escaped the dynamics of this life or that the world will somehow become a perfect place if we simply call for peace or advocate for other high minded ideals.  Instead, we must humbly do what we can in order to become livings icon of God’s salvation in a world where people hate and disregard one another and look for their salvation just about anyplace else than the cross of Christ.
            For example, we all have room to grow in showing the love and mercy of the Lord in our own families, friendships, workplaces, schools, and other familiar settings.  We all have ways of thinking, speaking, and acting that need to be purified and redirected according to the ways of God’s Kingdom.  We all need to take up our crosses and die to self in how we relate to those whom we view as enemies in our personal lives.  If we want peace and reconciliation in the world at large, we must begin with our little bit of the world, with our own souls and the neighbors we encounter on a daily basis.
            In addition, we must give as generously as we can in efforts to relieve the suffering of refugees and other victims of the civil war in Syria.  I know that our parish has already been remarkably generous in earlier drives to raise funds.  But now our Patriarch, who lives in the midst of this crisis in Damascus, has asked us to open our hearts again to our suffering brothers and sisters.  So if you are at all able to share from what God has given you to bless those who have lost everything in this cruel conflict, I hope that you will put an offering in the collection plate for Syria either today or next Sunday.  And regardless of whether you can donate, pray intensely for those who suffer there.   
            Heeding the call of our Metropolitan, we should also urge our government to refrain from taking steps that will only make a bad situation worse—and instead do what it can to help refugees, promote stability and reconciliation, and protect Christians and other vulnerable groups from persecution.  None of this is about conventional politics between groups that compete for power.  All of it is about living out the selfless love shown on the cross by Jesus Christ. Like Sts. Joachim and Anna, as well as the Theotokos, let us look to Him as our only hope.  Let us play our small role in making His life present in a world that desperately needs forgiveness and peace, for we have already had more than enough vengeance, contempt, and the shedding of blood.   Our Lord has already conquered death; let us live accordingly.

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