Friday, January 31, 2014

Common Statement by Patriarch John X of Antioch and All the East, and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia

On January 30, 2014, His Beatitude Patriarch John X of Antioch and All the East concluded his five-day visit to Russia, and the following Common Statement with His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia was released:
At the invitation of Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Kirill, Patriarch of Antioch and all the East John X paid his official visit to the Russian Orthodox Church from January 25 to 30, 2014. The Patriarchate of Antioch is going now through difficult times because of the violence committed in its homeland and its tragic consequences of the political crisis for its people. This visit has given the two sister Churches the opportunity to discuss several disturbing issues affecting their witness and ministry. The two Churches feel the need to state the following:
1. The important mission of a Church in a society is to bear witness in word and deed to God's love for each person, regardless of his or her religious belief or national identity. Following the words of Christ "Blessed are peacemakers, for they will be called children of God (Mt. 5:9), we proclaim peace and respect for the human dignity and rights. Every human being is an object of Divine Compassion; it is because of God's love that the Incarnation took place and that the Holy Spirit continues to work in our midst. This basic principle inspires the two sister Churches in their actions, service and cooperation.
2. The developments in Syria today with their violence, killings and inhuman behavior are a source of sorrow for the faithful in the both Churches. We absolutely reject the ordeal of murder, displacement and kidnapping.
The two Churches believe that it is only through an open and honest dialogue that it is possible to guarantee a real peace in Syria, her independence and territorial integrity and to ensure equal rights and opportunities for her citizens. We appeal to the international community to intensify its efforts for the establishment of peace in Syria by supporting the ongoing process which has started in Geneva. A peaceful Syria in which national and religious diversity is respected will be an important factor in the peaceful process throughout the Middle East.
The two Churches also hope that all the political problems in Lebanon, Iraq and all the countries in the Middle East will be dealt with in a spirit of peace that rejects violence and all types of pressure that may come from extremist positions or terrorist acts.
We also stress that Christians of the Patriarchate of Antioch have been rooted in the Middle East for twenty centuries and they constitute an integral part of the local society as its full-fledged citizens. We believe it extremely important to help create the conditions in which the Church of Ancient Antioch can successfully continue carrying out her saving ministry to her people.
This is also an occasion for the two Churches to declare once again the urgent need for effective actions to be taken for the immediate release of all persons kidnapped in Syria, in particular our two beloved brothers, Metropolitans Paul of Aleppo and John, the priests, nuns and orphans of the Convent in Maalula.
3. During the discussions which took place between the two Churches' representatives, it has become clear that there are many areas where cooperation between the two Churches will be very beneficial. One of these areas are immediate actions such as the humanitarian aid that was sent by the Russian people to their brothers and sisters in Syria as an expression of their love. Many other areas were also identified for strengthening relations between the faithful of the two Churches, such as theological education, pilgrimage and the exchange of delegations.
4. The two Churches agree that every effort has to be made to enhance Orthodox witness in the world today. Orthodoxy is called upon to bring to the world the richness of its spirituality in dealing with social and human issues and to make all mankind aware of the Joy that was brought by our Savior. To make this living witness effective the Orthodox unity is of great importance. This is why careful preparations for any meeting on the pan-Orthodox level through special committees attended by representatives of all the Orthodox Churches are a necessary condition for the success of such meetings. This will require the Orthodox Churches' joint work in a spirit of love and openness so that all the problems they encounter may be overcome.
5. This visit was also an occasion to exchange ideas about inter-Christian communication. The two churches agreed that they should coordinate their efforts in order to advance in the right direction the process of dialogue for promoting the role of the Church in the modern world.
6. The Churches of Antioch and Russia both have an experience of co-existence with Islam. We reject any type of extremism and hate speech. We appeal to Christians and Muslims to work together for the benefit of their homelands.
7. In order to maintain their witness to the spirit of love that prevails between two Churches and to follow up the matters discussed a special committee has been set up in the course of this visit to plan the future actions to be implemented.

Thank you to the Russian Orthodox Church Department for External Church Relations for publishing official stories and photography from this important sojourn by Patriarch John X, including the photo above.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

“Food, Sex, and Sports: Idols or Pathways to Salvation?”

Putting words on a page often helps to clarify our thinking.  In writing The Forgotten Faith:  Ancient Insights for Contemporary Believers from Eastern Christianity (Cascade Books, 2013), I attempted to present key Orthodox insights in ways that average Americans could appreciate them, not as exotic or abstract ideas, but as invitations to the abundant life found in Jesus Christ.  To connect with people today, we have to begin where they live, so to speak, which may require making some unusual connections.  So here we go…      
Food, sex, and athletics are probably more real to most people in our society than is the Lord.   Contrary to the assumptions of popular culture, true Christianity is not an escape from the world as know it to an invisible and imaginary realm.  Our Orthodox faith does not require us to abandon or condemn any dimension of life, but instead to offer all that we are and do for fulfillment, blessing, and healing.  There is no part of our existence that is intrinsically evil or cut off from the good news of our salvation.  We become more fully who God created us to be through the practices of our Orthodox faith in the world as know it.
Take eating and drinking, for example.  The biblical story of the corruption of humanity and the entire creation begins with the abuse of food in the Garden of Eden.  There was nothing wrong with the fruit of the vine, but Adam and Eve chose to use it to satisfy their self-centered desires instead of obeying God and growing closer to Him. Jesus Christ set right the place of food by using bread and wine as Communion, as the menu of the Heavenly Banquet.  Almost all of us struggle with passions related to overindulgence in food and drink of one form or another.  The Lord does not save us by condemning what we tend to abuse, but instead by Himself becoming our food and drink.  He fulfills the original role of the fruits of creation in giving life and strengthening our relationship with God and one another.
Orthodox Christians fast, not because there is something wrong with food itself, but because there is something wrong with each of us personally and spiritually.  In other words, we have followed Adam and Eve in using these blessings for something other than their intended purposes and, consequently, have become slaves to our distorted desires.  No wonder that so many people today are obese, have eating disorders, or develop diabetes due to an unhealthy diet.  By learning to discipline our appetites a bit on fast days, we gain some experience in controlling other self-centered desires for pleasure or simply getting our own way.  We can direct the money saved by eating a humble diet to serving Christ in the poor, even as we grow in humility when we find it hard to be content with broccoli and tofu instead of steak and eggs.  It is through the struggle to discipline our desires that we become more fully the people God created human beings to be in the first place. 
   If fasting is not a sufficiently touchy topic, let’s turn now to sex.  As the lyrics of both country music and rap demonstrate, the temptations in this area of life are powerful even as the consequences of our missteps in it are grave.  Since contemporary American culture has lost all sense of chastity, it is imperative that Orthodox believers—especially our youth—are solidly grounded in traditional Christian teaching and practice about holiness in the relationship between man and woman.  Unfortunately, movies, music, the internet, and other forms of media celebrate corrupt ways of living that lead people very far from the paths to the Kingdom that Jesus Christ blessed and the saints have exemplified.  Though it is terribly unpopular to say today, we must bear witness to the countercultural view that sexual intimacy should occur only within marriage between one man and one woman.  Here two persons become one and, in the normal course of things, bring a new person into the world from their embodied love for one another.  Not simply a matter of morality or biology, we encounter a profound image of the Holy Trinity in the Christian family, for distinctive persons share a common life and love.  Our aim in sexual ethics is higher than enhancing public health or securing consent between the parties involved, for marriage and celibacy are both means of participating in the eternal life that Christ has brought to the world. We should not be surprised that the One who created us as man and woman also directs us how to use our sexuality for our salvation.  To embrace anything less is to distort what it means for human beings to be in the image and likeness of God as male and female.   
            Despite what the advocates of the sexual revolution maintain, there is nothing new under the sun.  St. Paul dealt with just about every form of human decadence imaginable in Corinth, and Jesus Christ taught a sexual ethic in the Sermon on the Mount that still challenges even the most righteous to grow in purity of heart.  Whether we are married or celibate, we all have more than enough challenge to fight our own passions and keep a close watch on our thoughts and desires.  The self-righteous judgment of anyone else is simply not our concern.  Again contrary to popular opinion, it is possible—and it is imperative for Orthodox believers-- to maintain the ancient Christian vision of sexuality and marriage without becoming like the Pharisees.  Both St. Photini (the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4) and St. Mary of Egypt, for example, got off to a bad start in this regard, but ultimately became great saints of the Church.  Thank God, there is hope for us all to become more fully who God intends us to be.
            Given the skimpy costumes and suggestive movements of some cheerleaders and dance teams today, there is at least some connection in popular culture between sex and athletics.  Though we rarely think of sports in relation to religion, there are also some similarities between gatherings of fans and of worshippers.  Both congregate as a community to take on a collective identity that they show by what they say and do.  Orthodox stand up, raise their voices, and make distinctive hand gestures (i.e., cross themselves) in a familiar pattern, as do fans of many sports. Where I live in West Texas, high school football fans drive long distances, sit or stand in blazing heat or bitter cold, and then arrive back home in the middle of the night. Truth be told, many sports fans make a much greater offering of time, energy, and effort for their teams than many Orthodox do for the worship of the Church.  There is no question that more families and kids make participation in athletics a higher priority than participation in the worship of God.  Some who cannot imagine making time for vespers or matins, for example, think nothing of enduring the hardships of sports practice for hours in very hot or cold temperatures. 
            It is all a matter of priorities, of course.  Human beings are going to worship something, and in our culture athletics has become a god to many people.  There is certainly nothing wrong with sports in and of itself, but the excessive focus that so many place on it should serve as a reminder that the true race is not for the perishable crown of the praise of others, but for the imperishable crown that God gives to His true and faithful servants. Instead of judging anyone, we should be reminded by the dedication of sports enthusiasts that it is human nature to sacrifice for what we love and to take joy even in daunting tasks that require discipline and steadfast commitment.  If athletes and fans devote so much for what amounts to healthful entertainment, how much more should Orthodox Christians devote themselves to fighting their passions, serving Christ in their neighbors, and participating in the collective worship of the Church as a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet?

Let’s be clear:  To worship the stomachs, sexual desires, and athletic abilities of human beings is simply to commit idolatry and degrade ourselves.  In contrast, to offer them and every other dimension of our life and world to God is to embrace the calling to grow in the divine likeness.  That’s not an escape from reality; instead, it is our pathway to real life in a universe created, redeemed, and sustained by God.  All creation finds its proper place and fulfillment in Him, including you and me.  

Thursday, January 16, 2014



Ma'loula, January 13, 2014
A radical Jabhat al-Nusra "opposition" group, which occupied the small Christian town of Ma'loula in Syria in the last months of 2013, desecrated absolutely all shrines of the town, reports al Hadas portal with the reference to materials of the al Akhbar Lebanese newspaper.
According to evidence of eyewitnesses who fled from Ma'loula during the latest warfare in the region, members of al Nusra tried to change the religious and architectural-historical look of the ancient Christian town entirely: completely destroying some churches, the militants brought down all bells from other ones. The fate of two other world-famous monuments of Ma'loula was no less tragic: extremists blew up the statue of Christ the Savior, which had stood at the entrance of St. Thecla Convent, as well as the statue of the Most Holy Virgin Mary, which had stood close to the Safir hotel, the latter of which served as the main shelter for Takfirists for many months.
Nevertheless, many artifacts that were stolen from the town have survived, becoming smuggled goods. According to the information received by al Akhbar from reliable sources, the al Nusra militants are currently the most active dealers of black market antiques of the Middle East. Local smugglers are helping with "exporting" of the Ma'loula's antiquities abroad, transporting Christian monuments to many European countries—mainly to Italy and Turkey. It was reported that a great number of ancient icons, (icon) settings, crosses, reliquaries, and statues have already been taken out from Syria and sent abroad.
In close connection with this, there are ongoing attempts to release the Ma'loula nuns, who disappeared from the town in December 2013. Last week, Robert Abiad, head of the Lebanese Orthodox Council, accompanied by relatives of the kidnapped nuns from St. Thecla Convent, met with major general Abbas Ibrahim, chief of the Lebanese security service. In his interview with al Akhbar following the meeting, R. Abiad noted that "the negotiations were very fruitful, for all possible, serious efforts were being made to secure the release the kidnapped nuns." "Fortunately, security forces of Iraq have also joined negotiations with the kidnappers, as one of the abducted girls is a citizen of the Iraqi Republic," added the head of the Council.
Moreover, as it became known, on Sunday militants from the Jabhat al Nusra group had abducted Archbishop Abdo Arish, brother of the Metropolitan of Melkite Catholic Church in Homs, in the Syrian town of Ma'loula, reports ITAR-TASS.

Fr. Joseph Huneycutt's Review of The Forgotten Faith: Ancient Insights for Contemporary Believers from Eastern Christianity (Cascade Books, 2013)

REVIEW: The Forgotten Faith – by Philip LeMasters

This book is an excellent treatise on the Eastern Orthodox Christian Faith, written primarily for seekers of Truth by a former Baptist, Father Philip LeMasters, a priest of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America and pastor of St Luke Orthodox Church, Abilene. Fr Philip is also the Dean of the School of Social Sciences and Religion at McMurry University and the Corporate Secretary of the Board of Trustees of St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary.
That’s a mouthful of cred about the author – a man I know personally – but I had no knowledge of the man wrote the Foreword:  Everett Ferguson.  This mystery, at least for me, adds to the melody of this work as I will explain later.
Right out of the gate, in the Preface, the tenor is set:
Christianity in our culture is often a mile wide and an inch deep.  It provides a bit of inspiration and moral guidance that prop up whatever way of life particular people happen to want.  Heaven forbid, however, that Jesus Christ should actually require something of us or challenge our preconceived notions about the good life.  This book invites readers to encounter something entirely different … (xi)
The author then lays out the essence and practice of Orthodox Christianity with the straightforward precision of an experienced teacher.  His agenda seems to be:  The better I teach, the more you learn, the fewer questions go unanswered.  The teaching is methodical, practical, and convincing.  Fr Philip loves Eastern Christianity, believes his beloved to be unique and true, and presents his love to you with love.  If you are looking for a book that compares and contrasts various Christian beliefs and traditions, passing judgments on the same, this is not your choice, nor his task.
Then again, as is well attested, if you are looking for a book by an adult convert to the Ancient Christian Faith you have a plethora of sundry titles to choose from these days.  Some have even joked that, upon conversion to Orthodoxy, one’s published testimony seems almost required!  What sets this book apart is the style of the presentation.
When my mother asked me once whether I regretted my religious upbringing as a Baptist, I assured her that I did not.  Orthodoxy is the fulfillment of all the good Christian teaching and formation that I received in the denomination of my youth.  I honestly don’t think that I have rejected anything from my earlier Christian experience, though much has been completed and put in a larger and healthier spiritual context.  (10)
No fears, though, as Fr Philip’s latest book does not include a “Sinners Prayer” or a Pledge Form:
If this book serves to enrich the spiritual lives of those who read it and to encourage them to learn more about Eastern Christianity, it will have met my goal in writing it.(13)
Beginning with Moses and the revelation of God in the Burning Bush, Fr Philip goes about presenting the Holy Trinity in a way that appreciates the mystery but leaves little to be questioned.  By the time the Incarnation appears, readers are already poised to embrace the central tenet of the Ancient Faith. Whether the Trinity, the Incarnation, of the perpetual Virginity of Mary, the key to the mystery is the same:
Our knowledge of God is limited entirely to what he has revealed. (30)
To know him is to be in relationship with him, to experience and participate in his life.(32)
Then, when even “Bible Believing Christians” might be ready to shout Amen, this former Baptist writes:
The Bible is part of the truth passed down in the Body of Christ under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but not the only authoritative witness of God’s truth.  The contents of the New Testament were not formally canonized until around AD 400, but the Church had been worshipping and proclaiming the gospel ever since the day of Pentecost.  The Son of God was incarnate as a human being, not a book.  When controversies arose that required clarification on matters crucial to the message of salvation, such as the Holy Trinity or the two natures of Christ, councils met at places such as Nicaea and Chalcedon.  They produced creeds and pronouncements that also witnessed authoritatively to the Good News.  Councils, creeds, the canon of scripture, icons, liturgy, the lives of the saints, etc., are all sources of theological knowledge in Eastern Christianity.  There is no need to choose one and reject others.  The Bible is part, but not all, of the tradition. (33)
Then, it must be added before leaving this thought, he states:
Orthodoxy never had or needed a Reformation because the Church did not develop traditions contrary to scripture. (34)
Those who are already members of the Orthodox Church will find much here that is previously known and appreciated but here presented in a succinct, quotable form.  Subjects such as the Eucharist, fasting – even sex – are discussed on a down to earth, common sense level.  And, speaking of levels, Fr Philip softens the message on fasting and asceticism:
A good rule of thumb is to stretch ourselves a bit, but not beyond what we can do with some regularity and without being total jerks to those around us.  No matter how pious we may feel, it is not part of Christian discipleship to make other people suffer for our sins.  (49)
The chapter devoted to Mary is a must read for all who seek answers involving the mystery of the Incarnation:  “Our best example of a human being in communion with God is Mary …”  The revelation of the Mother of God, while ultimately incomprehensible, is presented here in a way that anyone with a mother can appreciate.  One of the stumbling blocks for many Protestant seekers is the Orthodox belief that Mary is Ever-Virgin.  Yet, it is true; the Virginity of Mary is fundamental, elemental, and foundational to the Faith.
My Protestant friends are sometimes surprised to learn the Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Wesley all believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary.  Before the Protestant Reformation, hardly anyone questioned this teaching.  In talking with skeptical friends over the years, I have become comfortable with the conclusion that the Church teaches this point about Mary simply because we believe that it is true.  Had it somehow been otherwise, Christ would still be our Savior.  The point here is not abstract theological necessity, but faithfulness to what the Holy Spirit has revealed. (66)
In sum,
There is no reason to be afraid of honoring his and our mother.  (68)
By far, at least for this reviewer, one of the best sections of the book is titled Football, Liturgical Worship, and Real Life.  (An affinity for football here is a plus, but not mandatory.)  Fr Philip takes the common knowledge of American sport and translates it to the Faith “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).
The church is filled with beautiful icons and the sweet smell of incense permeates the atmosphere.  Parishioners make the sign of the cross many times.  During Sunday Matins they normally come forward to kiss a bejeweled book containing the readings from the Gospels.  After Liturgy, they kiss a cross that the priest holds in his hand.  Orthodox liturgy is a multimedia endeavor that appeals to all five senses.  I have noticed that even high school stadiums in my part of the world now fill the senses with video playing on the score board, fake smoke surrounding the teams as they take the field, and an ongoing battle of the hands throughout the contest.  Cheer leaders, drill teams, and band members – as well as the players, of course – wear glitzy uniforms.  Some fans paint their faces, while many more don their school colors and sometimes wave handmade signs to inspire the players.  Yes, it is a sight to behold.  (70)
Granted, such an analogy excerpted here without full context may leave more than a bit to be desired.  As mentioned, it is a whole chapter.  But, suffice it to say:
Like the spectators at an athletic event, however, we take on a shared identity when we gather publicly to serve something (in this case, Someone) larger than ourselves.  We are the Church, the Body of Christ, in communion with people around the world who believe, worship, and seek to live as Orthodox Christians.  This communion extends even beyond this world to include the great cloud of witnesses that have finished the race together with the heavenly host.  We do not paint our faces or twirl terrible towels or yell “kill him!,” but we do become a new community that together prays, proclaims a shared faith, and takes Communion.  Instead of a tomahawk chop, we make the sign of the cross and bow down making prostration before the Lord.  In place of uniforms, the clergy and altar servers wear vestments that reflect the divine glory of heavenly worship.  They do not stand at the altar in their workaday duds, even as players on the field do not.  They have a special role to play that is not of this world.  (71)
Here are a few more nuggets from The Forgotten Faith:
Orthodox clergy are expected to worship during the services.  (74)
We will look in vain for any passage in the Bible that presents confession of sin as a solitary matter between the individual and God.  (78)
No, infants do not understand what happens in the holy mystery of the Eucharist, but neither do they have to know about the nutritional benefits of mother’s milk in order to profit from nursing.  (79)
Since so many Americans assume that being a good Christian simply means being nice, moral, patriotic, and middle class, we could use some holy fools to shock us out of our complacency.  (97)
Of course, given our current time of societal struggle, seekers will want to know  the Orthodox view of the omnipresent discussion of sex:
Surely everyone struggles with unholy sexual passions in one way or another and there is no room for self-righteous condemnation in genuine Christianity.  The Church provides the same compassion to gays and lesbians that it provides to anyone else who struggles with temptation and humbly asks for God’s mercy when they sin.  Orthodoxy is not homophobic in the sense of having irrational fear or hatred of people who find themselves attracted to members of the same sex or somehow disconnected from their own male or female bodies.  When parishioners go to their priest for counseling on how to lead a holy life and grow as Christians, they receive guidance on how to fight their passions and gain the spiritual strength necessary to abstain from unholy sexual acts of whatever variety.  When people stumble and truly repent, spiritual fathers assure them of God’s forgiveness and help them to get back up and move forward step by step.  The focus is on the journey to theosis, not an unhealthy obsession about sexual desires of any kind.  (136)
It’s a good book.  The Forgotten Faith is a pragmatic, sound exposition of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Faith written by an American convert for Americans who are seeking the Truth.  It also serves as a reminder to those of us who have entered into the communion of the Holy Church just what it is that She, and we, are about.
Now, about the guy who wrote the Foreword; I have only a cursory knowledge of him – which was obtained via Google:
Everett Ferguson (PhD, Harvard) is professor emeritus of Bible and distinguished scholar-in-residence at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas, where he taught church history and Greek. He is the author of numerous works, including Backgrounds of Early Christianity, Early Christians Speak, and Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries. He was also general editor of the two-volume Encyclopedia of Early Christianity.
Now that’s some cred!  Dr Ferguson, a Protestant, is a member of the Church of Christ.  Here’s a portion of what he says about The Forgotten Faith:
On moral issues Orthodoxy stands in tension with contemporary issues in American life and culture.  On abortion, marriage, sexual ethics, and euthanasia it holds to the common historical Christian positions.  But on these questions as well as on capital punishment, environmental stewardship, and the danger of greed and consumerism the Orthodox operate from theological commitments, not from a philosophical or political agenda.
Which brings me to this:  Many Americans are searching the Truth; indeed we all long for the Kingdom.  Yet our longing is often whetted by merely surfing the internet, scratching the surface, never venturing far from quick answers provided by instant media.  I did the same to learn but a tiny bit about the author of the Foreword.  But that does not mean I know him.  In the same way, in order to know the Forgotten Faith, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Body of Christ, you must present yourself to Her in worship of the Triune God.  Fr Philip LeMasters, with The Forgotten Faith, has issued the invitation.

St. Vladimir's Seminary Trustee Authors Book that Introduces Eastern Orthodox Christianity to a Broad Audience

Seminary Trustee Authors Book about Orthodox Faith and Practice

15 January 2014 • Off-Campus • Trustees in the News
Corporate Secretary of the Board of Trustees of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, The Rev. Philip LeMasters, Ph.D., has written a new book titled, The Forgotten Faith: Ancient Insights for Contemporary Believers from Eastern Christianity (2013).  “This book has a lot to teach Western Christians about prayer, worship, fasting, marriage, sacraments, the Bible, Mary and the saints, and cultural engagement,” states the work’s publisher, Cascade Books.
Father Philip’s dual vocations as pastor of St. Luke Orthodox Orthodox Christian Church in Abilene, TX and dean of the School of Social Sciences and Religion at McMurry University presented him with the perfect opportunity to write a book about the spiritual discipline and rich liturgical worship of the Orthodox Church, as sustenance for anyone seeking growth in the Christian faith. Over the years, Father Philip had offered a series of well-received talks to groups of university students visiting his parish, and these then provided the impetus and content for The Forgotten Faith. “If this book serves to enrich the lives of readers while encouraging them to explore the Orthodox Faith, I will have achieved my goal,” the author notes in the Introduction.
In an informal rather than scholarly style, Fr. Philip describes his journey from his Texas Baptist roots to Orthodoxy, incorporating references to his personal history as well as to American popular culture. “LeMasters seeks to explain Orthodoxy to twenty-first-century American Christians,” explains Everett Ferguson in the book’s Foreword.


Sunday, January 12, 2014

Light for Those in Darkness: The Good News of the Gospel on the Sunday after Theophany (Epiphany) in the Orthodox Church

             John the Baptist plays a very important role in the season of Epiphany, which we continue to celebrate, because it fell to him to baptize Jesus Christ.  Of course, John did not want to do so because he knew that he was unworthy to baptize the incarnate Son of God.  It should been the other way round.  But in humility, he did what the Lord told Him to do.  And it is in that context that the divinity of our Savior was revealed, as the voice of the Father proclaimed “This is my beloved Son” and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in the form of a dove.  The Holy Trinity was revealed at Christ’s baptism, and surely even John, the Forerunner and Baptist, was amazed.
            But as we probably all remember, John the Baptist did not go on to a long and easy life.  He was imprisoned and ultimately beheaded by King Herod for criticizing the royal family’s immorality.   That’s noted in our gospel text, which refers to John’s arrest.  The gospel text also refers to light shining upon those who were in darkness.  Dungeons and torture chambers and tombs are dark places.  That’s where the man who baptized Jesus Christ ended up for his faithfulness in speaking the word of the Lord.
            Likewise, St. Paul reminds us that He who ascended into heaven, who was raised to the glory of sitting at the right hand of God Father, Jesus Christ, is also He who descended, Who entered fully into the dark waters of the Jordan and to the darkness of life in our fallen, corrupt world where sin and death are our all too familiar companions.   “Those who sat in darkness have seen a great light,” the glory of the eternal Son of God lowering Himself to become one of us at His birth and then to be symbolically buried in the waters of a river in order to make a way for us to enter into the eternal light of His life.
            In our culture, it’s common to think of religion as a coping mechanism, as a crutch that helps people deal with their problems.  Religion is like a commodity, something bought, sold, and marketed to meet the needs of particular people often when life is hard and harsh.  Those are understandable perspectives in a time where many believe in their own existence more than in God’s and in which too many of us think that the universe revolves around our own happiness, however we may define that.
            But the Good News of the Gospel is something entirely different.  Christ was not born and was not baptized merely to help us become a bit better adjusted or to give us what we want.  Instead, He came to make us like Him:  holy, blessed, and radiant with the glory of heaven.  Remember that we were created in the beginning in the image and likeness of God with the calling to become ever more like Him.  Jesus Christ is the Second Adam in Whom that calling is fulfilled and we are enabled to become truly and fully human, to grow into the full stature of Christ. And we do not pursue such a journey alone, for St. Paul teaches that we are to do so by building up the Body of Christ, the Church, by faithful stewardship of the gifts He has given us.
            I don’t know about you, but I am increasingly skeptical about the conventional means we hear about for solving the world’s problems.  Whether it’s government, business, or politics of whatever persuasion, whether it is what the scholars think or what popular culture produces in entertainment of the media, there is much more darkness than light, there is more despair than hope, there is more that gives rise to fear, worry, and hate than what inspires faith, hope, and love.
            Whether it is the persecution of Christians in Syria and Egypt, the sufferings of victims of war and poverty in Africa, the senseless violence that snuffs out crime victims in our nation, or the lack of love for the unborn, the starving, and the refugee, there is so much darkness in the world that needs the illumination of Jesus Christ, Who called His followers to be a city set on a hill whose good deeds cause others to glorify and give thanks to the Father in heaven.  In other words, we who claim to be in Christ must reflect His light to the world, must become points of light that point the way to the fulfillment and completion of this world as God’s good creation, as the very stuff of which the new heaven and new earth will be made.
            No, our faith is not here simply to reduce our stress or give us beautiful feelings.  It is not the icing on a cake that is otherwise pretty good by itself.  No, our faith is the way, the truth, and the life, the restoration of the high calling and dignity of every human being since Adam and Eve.  How God deals with those outside the Church is His business, but it is incumbent upon us on whom the light of Christ has shined to do all that we can to radiate that in the world, to manifest and reveal what it means for the blind to receive sight, for the sick to be healed, and for the dead to come to life.
            Of course, that may all sound a bit dramatic for us who do well just to come to church, to pray at home, and follow the most basic teachings of Orthodox Christianity.  But whether we are aware of it or not, the light of Christ shines in and through our lives whenever we put someone else’s interests before our own, whenever we help the poor and needy in Whom He is present, and whenever we play even the smallest and most obscure role in strengthening His Body, the Church.
            The truth is that every time that we spend a few minutes in prayer, every time that we read the Holy Scriptures, every time that we come to Church, and every time that we forgive someone or hold our tongue when we are tempted to speak with anger or self-righteous judgment, we become more truly the people we called to be in Jesus Christ.  Whenever we fast or go out of our way to help someone, we step more fully into the light that has dawned upon our darkened world.  Whenever we live like people who have truly dined at the Heavenly Banquet and are in personal relationship with Jesus Christ, we become living epiphanies or manifestations of the divine light. 
            The problem, of course, is that we are all too comfortable with the darkness and with adjusting our spiritual eyes to a cloudy world of sin and death.  We are masters at making excuses, letting ourselves off the hook, and thinking that God wants only an hour or two of our time on Sunday morning.  God isn’t like that, of course, because there are no limits to the divine blessedness and glory to which He calls us.  There are no boundaries to the blazing light that He wants to shine on and through us.  Nothing is off limits from His call to holiness, even as He held nothing back in His birth at Bethlehem or His baptism in the River Jordan.

            We do not have to flee to monasteries or become super pious in order to do that, of course.  Step by step, little by little, we just have to open the darkness in our lives to the Lord.  We can do that right here, right now, regardless of the outward circumstances of our lives.   He has descended into our corrupt life in order to bring us into His eternal glory.  He wants us to become epiphanies or manifestations of the light that shines even from the murky waters of the Jordan.  If, like John the Baptist, we will in humility obey Him as best we can, we can be sure that He will make up what is lacking.  He will illumine us and enable us to be part of that light that is the salvation of the world.  Of course, we are unworthy of such a blessing, which is why our life in Christ is all about mercy and grace which we receive through faith, love, and repentance.  By ourselves, we are as dark as the tomb; but in Christ, we will shine with the light of heaven.  That is the good news that we continue to celebrate in this season of Epiphany.    

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Becoming Like Holy Water: A Homily for Theophany (Epiphany) in the Orthodox Church

          The focus of this great feast is the Lord’s baptism in the river Jordan by St. John the Forerunner.  Another name for the feast is Theophany, for it is shown—it is revealed at Jesus Christ’s baptism—that He is the Son of God.  Indeed, the Holy Trinity is revealed at His baptism, for the Father says, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased,” and the Holy Spirit descends upon Him in the form of a dove. 
            The meaning of the Feast of Christmas is fulfilled at Theophany, for now it is made clear that the One born in Bethlehem is truly God, come to restore our fallen nature and to renew the entire creation by uniting humanity with divinity in Himself.  And even as the Son of God entered our world at His birth, He now enters the flowing water of a river in order to make it holy, in order to bring His blessing and fulfillment upon the world that He created.  For the entire creation was subjected to futility because of the rebellion of our first parents.  As St. Paul wrote to the Romans, “the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now” for it also “will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. “
            The good news of the gospel is that the Creator has become part of the creation in order to make it a new heaven and a new earth.   We see at Theophany that nothing is intrinsically profane or cut off from the blessing and holiness of God.  All things, physical and spiritual, visible and invisible, are called to participate in the divine glory that our Lord has brought to the world, to become part of the new heaven and earth of God’s kingdom.   Christ’s baptism demonstrates that we, too, are saved along with the rest of the creation, for it is through the water that we share in His life.  “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ.”  In baptism, we receive the garment of light that Adam and Eve lost when they distorted themselves and the entire creation with sin and death.  The incarnate Son of God sanctified our flesh and blood at His birth, and at His baptism He sanctifies the water through which our calling as those created in the divine image and likeness is fulfilled.
            When we bless water at the conclusion of liturgy today, we will participate in our Lord’s healing of all reality, for holy water is a sign that every dimension of creation is to be sanctified, to become holy by the fulfillment of God’s original purposes for it.  Even though we pollute it and it is sometimes our enemy in storms and floods in the world as know it, God created water to sustain us and to bring life to the world.  Christ has restored water to its intended purpose by making it holy through His baptism, which is a sign of His intention for every dimension of the universe that He spoke into existence.
            When you have your Epiphany house blessing this year, I will sprinkle holy water in every room of your house, which is a sign of God’s blessing upon even the small details of our daily lives.  It is also a calling to sanctify every aspect of our life and to recognize that every dimension of who we are as human beings is to be baptized into Christ, dying to sin and rising with Him in holiness. True Christianity is not escape from the world or simply a matter of emotion or morality.  No, we are called to become like God, to participate in His infinite holiness to the depths of our souls in every thought, word, and deed.
            So this Theophany, we should become like the water that we will bless later in the service.  That means responding to Jesus Christ’s great blessing of the world such that we share in His life and become more fully who He created us to be in the first place in the image and likeness of God.  No, none of this is magic. If we do not cooperate with our Lord’s mercy by repentance and growth in holiness, holy water will do us no good.  But if in humility and faith we thirst for the fulfillment of our daily lives in Christ, then drinking and being sprinkled with holy water will nourish us spiritually just like water revives a shriveled plant on a hot, dry day.        
            Theophany makes it possible for us to quench our thirst for holiness, for the divine life for which for which we were made.  This is the joyful, blessed life of the Holy Trinity that Jesus Christ has brought to the world.  This Epiphany, let us all stop dying of thirst for God and instead be filled to overflowing by the mercy, presence, and power of the Lord.  And then, like well watered and nourished plants, we will flourish and bear good fruit for the Kingdom of God.