Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Love and Mercy of God the Father: An Orthodox Homily on the Parable of the Prodigal Son

          In our faith, we speak often of God the Father.  He is the first Person of the Holy Trinity and we invoke His name every time that we pray.  We say the “Our Father,” the Lord’s Prayer, every day and in every service.  We confess our belief in Him every time that we say the Nicene Creed.
            But if we are not careful, we will forget what kind of a Father He is.  We may think of Him as an old man with a white beard in heaven, or as our own biological father somehow made divine, or as a stern, unforgiving authority figure.  When we do, we should remember that God the Father has never had a human body, that He is not a male human being, and that we know Him only through the Son, through the Incarnation, teaching and example of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.
            Today’s gospel text shows us important truths about God the Father, for it is a shocking and surprising story about how a human father responded to the shameful rebellion of his son.  The man had two sons.  The youngest insulted his father by asking for his inheritance, which was the same as telling the old man that he wished he were dead.  The father did not beat him or cast him out of the family or refuse his request.  Instead, he gave him the money and let him go.  That may have been the hardest thing that man ever did:  accepting his son’s insult with humility and giving him the freedom to leave home and grow up the hard way, in what is sometimes called the school of hard knocks.  At the risk of never seeing the young man again, the father complied with his son’s request.  
            The son then did what many young men would do with a great amount of money.  He left town and spent all his money on wine, women, and song.  That is, he wasted the hard-earned savings of his father on the kind of immoral behavior St. Paul condemned in today’s epistle reading.  He soon ran out of money and became desperately poor.  In a foreign country, he took a job feeding pigs and was so hungry that he envied their slop.  Eventually, the young man came to himself and realized that he would be better off as a servant in his father’s house than in his current state.  So he resolved to go home, to take responsibility for his terrible behavior, and acknowledge that he was not worthy to be called a son anymore.  He wanted only to be one of the father’s hired servants, and he knew that he did not deserve even that.
            But when the young man was still a great way off from home, he saw an old man running toward him.  It was his father, who must have kept watch every day, scanning the horizons in hope that his son would one day return.   On that day, he rushed out to meet his son, had compassion on him, and hugged and kissed him.  The son began his rehearsed speech to confess his sins, but the father was so overjoyed at his return that he apparently did not even pay attention.  Instead, he gave him a new set of clothes and began a party, for his son—who was dead—was alive again; he who had been lost was now found, was now restored to his family.
            We now stand two weeks before the beginning of Great Lent, the most intense time of spiritual discipline in the church year.  Time and again, the services, readings, and prayers of the Church will call us to be like the prodigal son, to come to ourselves and return to the Father.  I know that some of us find all this talk about repentance to be scary and frustrating.  We are afraid that God will not forgive us, that He will not take us back, because of what we have done, thought, and said.  We may be tempted not to observe Lent at all, not to take any steps of repentance, because we think that there would be no point.  We may have already given up on ourselves and on God.
            Probably some of our own biological fathers would not have taken us back had we behaved like the prodigal son.    Perhaps we would have a hard time accepting our own children, spouse, family members, or friends back into our lives if they acted like he did.  But in God the Father we do not deal with a human authority figure or with a creature weakened by passions and sins as we are.  Instead, we deal with a Divine Father Who gave His only begotten Son that all who believe in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.  Like the father in the parable, God the Father is not out to punish sinners or to collect a debt.  Instead, He is eager to forgive, eternally waiting for us to return so that He can restore us to the dignity and glory for which we were created as his sons and daughters.  But we have to do our part by coming to our senses, returning home, and accepting His forgiveness with humility.  
            We often forget that God’s compassion, love, and forgiveness are not passing emotions like we experience.  In ways that we cannot understand, they are abiding characteristics of God.  Unlike human beings, we do not have to catch Him in a good mood to receive His mercy.  We do not have to give Him time to cool down after getting angry at us, for He is not angry.  Like the prodigal son, we bear the consequences of our actions; we suffer, not because God has decided to do us harm, but because we have chosen to harm ourselves by preferring our own will to His, by turning away from our true identity, dignity, and calling as those created in His image and likeness.   What we experience as God’s anger is simply the consequence of refusing to accept His love, of refusing to live as His blessed sons and daughters.  
            Nonetheless, with mercy and humility beyond what we can imagine, God the Father waits for us this Lent to come to our senses, to recognize what we have done to ourselves with our sins and passions.  Like the father in the parable, He gives us the freedom to make mistakes and to learn from them.  He never forces us to do anything.  And no matter how far we fall, no matter how low we go in life, He is eternally watching for us, ready to run and embrace us, to restore us as His beloved daughters and sons, and to celebrate our return. 
            Nothing that we do or do not do this Lent will change God the Father in any way.  He has already given His only-begotten Son to conquer sin and death and bring us into the eternal life of the Holy Trinity.  The Holy Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father and has been sent to us by the Son.  Our bodies are already temples of the Holy Spirit.  Through the life of the Church, we have every possible means of sharing fully in the eternal life of God.
            So we have nothing at all to fear from repentance, even if we have fallen into behavior of which we are ashamed and embarrassed, like the sexual sins of the Corinthians which St. Paul addressed in today’s epistle reading.  Contrary to popular opinion today, there is nothing new under the sun.  Marriage between one man and one woman is the only context in which sexual intimacy may occur with God’s blessing and in accordance with His will.  Anything else is sinful, a corruption of what it means for us to live as temples of the Holy Spirit who are created male and female in God’s image and likeness.  No matter our age or life circumstances, we should all avoid any entertainment, relationships, or habits that tempt us toward any other patterns of behavior.  We must control our thoughts in this and other areas of weakness in our lives, using the Jesus Prayer to redirect our energies toward God and away from indulging in self-centered desire.     
            Regardless of what particular sins we have committed, our Father is not out to punish or embarrass us; neither does He need a payment in order to earn His forgiveness.  All that He wants us to do is to come to ourselves, to see the truth about the mess we have made of our lives, and begin the journey home.  That is why we fast, pray, give alms, reconcile with enemies, confess our sins, and devote extra time and energy to the spiritual life in Great Lent.  These practices help us to see how we have weakened and distorted ourselves with sin.  They help us to gain insight on how far we have fallen from the glory intended for the children of God.  We do these practices, not to change God, but to change us:  to bring us to the point where we know in our hearts that we have rejected our Father, chosen the pig pen of our passions over holiness, and are not worthy to be called the sons and daughters of the Most High. 
            And the instant that we do, we open ourselves to receive the eternal mercy of God the Father through His Son Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.  This is the good news of the gospel that we proclaim in preparation for Lent, for it is time to come to our senses and return to the Father Whose love, mercy, and forgiveness are beyond anything that we can imagine.  No matter what we have done, He runs out with open arms to welcome us home.  

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Male Convert and Female Saints: The Strong Women of the Orthodox Church and of My Family

          I am surely not the only male convert to Orthodoxy who was initially surprised to discover how central the balance of the masculine and the feminine is to our faith and spiritual life.  To some that may seem counter-intuitive in a church with a male priesthood with lots of facial hair, while to others it may be self-evident; nonetheless, it is true and important.   For example, think of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Joachim and Anna, Zacharias and Elizabeth, or Constantine and Helen.  We are always asking the female Theotokos to use her boldness as a mother to intercede for us with her male Son.  We sing almost every Sunday  about those myrrh-bearing women in matins and regularly chant and/or read about women saints of all kinds.  We proclaim that Mary Magdalene was the preacher to the male apostles of the Lord’s resurrection and that she, together with various other women and men, are their equals.   Since we are male and female in God’s image, this balance fits nicely with the deepest sensibilities of Orthodox Christianity.
            Perhaps the strong women of my own family have helped me embrace enthusiastically the prominent role of women in the Orthodox spiritual life.  In my hometown of Beaumont, TX, my three great aunts—whom we called by their nicknames, Hennie, Nig, and Gertie—lived just a few minutes from the house where I grew up.  My grandmother had died when I was an infant, and these ladies more than fulfilled that role for my brother and me.  One was a widow and two never married, but they lived together for decades and had very full lives. For example, Hennie was the first female school principal in Beaumont, an accomplished and enthusiastic fisherman (or fisherwoman ),  and visited  Alaska when she was around  eighty.  When my father first met these ladies in the late 1950’s, he said he had never met a group of such independent women.  They were all devout and straight-laced Methodists, which is why  my first educational experience was in a Methodist preschool.  Since I did graduate work at Duke and now teach at Methodist-related McMurry, it is interesting that my academic experiences began and still continue in Methodist circles.
            My mother and her late sister Fay have a lot in common with those great aunts.  Both, like Hennie, were teachers, and they showed the same abundance of self-confidence that she had.  I remember Fay once mentioning that someone at their Baptist church had asked where she and my mom got that quality. Her response was that it was from their father, who never gave them the impression that they should have been sons instead of daughters, and also instilled in them the belief that they could do whatever they set their minds to.  I hope that I have sent the same message to my own girls.  
My mother, now a widow and the only surviving member of her family of origin, lives independently in the house built by my great aunts.  An active member of the Baptist congregation in which I grew up, she still spends lots of time and energy taking care of friends who suffer more than she does from the infirmities associated with a long life.  A few years ago, Mom attended classes on Orthodoxy at St. Michael parish in Beaumont in order to learn more about her youngest son’s faith.   Once when I was at St Vladimir’s Seminary in New York, our Bishop Basil was on the phone with another priest at the same meeting. When it was my turn to say hello to him, His Grace began, “The parish council in Beaumont loves your mother!” What a joyful confluence of important people in my life.  After she slept unharmed through a burglary in her house a while back, Mom said, “Well, I suppose that God has something left for me to do.”  I do not doubt that for a minute.  
            Given the self-confident women in my upbringing, it is probably not surprising that my wife is a physician, that our oldest daughter had the courage to spend last summer interning at an AIDS foundation in Ghana, and that our youngest had the confidence to go by herself to three summer sessions of “nerd camp,” a residential program for gifted and talented students a few hours away.  Growing up Orthodox in Abilene rarely leads to social advantages, and neither does attending nerd camp. The virtuous lives our girls lead in college and high school require courage and self-determination.
Like my mother and aunts, Paige and the girls are not timid shrinking violets by a long shot, and neither were the women saints who had the boldness to go to the tomb of Christ in the wee hours of Sunday morning to anoint His body, and thus put themselves in the place to become the first witnesses of His resurrection.  Neither were the countless female martyrs who died after enduring the worst tortures their enemies could produce for refusing to abandon their Lord.  Above all, the courage of the Theotokos to say “yes” to the message of the Archangel Gabriel stands as the epitome of humanity’s response to God’s calling, and it was given by a teenage girl.
Perhaps part of why venerating and asking for the prayers of female saints comes so easily to me is that my life has been blessed by so many righteous women who pray for me and for whom I pray, regardless of whether they are now among the living or the departed.   They are not canonized by the Church (at least not yet!), but the witness of so many holy women has benefited my own journey in ways beyond words.  I could say a lot about my father, priests, bishops, and many other male friends who have also played crucial roles in this regard, but that is for another time.  For now, I will return to where I started.  The masculine and feminine have legitimate and balanced roles in the spiritual path of Orthodoxy.  Since we are created male and female in God’s image, and since the incarnate Son of God has a fully human mother, that really should not be surprising.   It is simply part of the good news of our salvation, whether we are male or female.           

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Honesty and Humility before God in Preparation for Lent: Homily for the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee in the Orthodox Church

            Honesty can be a dangerous thing.  On the one hand, we want to tell the truth all the time.  But sometimes how we think, how we feel, or what we believe to be true at a certain moment is actually not true at all because it has no basis in reality.  By putting it into words or deeds we simply dig ourselves deeper into delusion and harm others as well.  Such thoughts are more a reflection of the brokenness of our lives and the cloudiness of our spiritual vision than of anything else.  When that is the case, it’s probably best to keep our mouths shut and not to act on what we think at the moment.
            That was surely the case with the Pharisee in today’s gospel reading.  No doubt, he honestly believed that he was so holy and righteous that it was a good idea for him to thank God that he was so much better than others.  He probably was not lying about his fasting and tithing.  He really did believe that he was superior to people who committed crimes, so he reminded the Lord of that.  Of course, that kind of honesty did the man no good at all; instead, he simply strengthened his addiction to a fantasy about himself and then went back to his home unjustified.  In truth, he did not actually pray to God at all, he simply patted himself on the back.
            We see a different kind of honesty, however, in the publican or tax collector.  He knew that he was a dishonest traitor who took advantage of his own people to become rich working for the Roman occupiers.  He knew that he had nothing of which to be proud before God or anyone else.  He knew that he did not have the spiritual eyes to gaze into heaven, so he bowed his head, beat his breast in sorrow for all he had done, and asked God to be merciful to him as a sinner.  Not only did this man say what he believed to be true, he said what was actually true.  God heard his prayer and he went home justified that day.
            If you are like me, you have too much in common with the Pharisee and not enough in common with the publican.  The truth is that we all have a long way to go in developing that kind of honesty before God that we see in him.  We find it so easy to accept the lies, half-truths, and excuses that we tell ourselves in order to avoid the reality about where we stand before the Lord and in relation to others.  That is one of the reasons why the Jesus Prayer is at the heart of our spiritual life, for we need to let the truth sink in that we are sinners in need of Christ’s mercy and help.  No, that is not a sign of obsessive guilt, but simply of honesty.
            Today is the first Sunday of the Lenten Triodion, the three weeks leading up to Great Lent, which is a time when we embrace spiritual disciplines in order to grow in the spiritual clarity necessary for honesty before God and loving relationships with others.   In other words, prayer, fasting, generosity to the needy, repentance, and all the other penitential practices are there for our healing, for opening our lives to the merciful therapy for sinners that Jesus Christ has brought to the world.
            As we prepare to begin this journey, which in turn prepares us to follow the Lord to His Cross and glorious resurrection, we must keep squarely in mind that true honesty requires humility.  We have to have a realistic assessment of who we are.  Ever since Adam and Eve chose their will over God’s, we have found it an especially difficult struggle to accept the truth about what it means to be a human being.  God made us in His image male and female with the calling to become ever more like Him, to grow in the divine likeness, and to become partakers of the divine nature.  The problem is that we have all followed Adam and Eve in turning away from that high calling and trying to replace it by serving ourselves.  We would rather make an imaginary god in our image as did the Pharisee, which is simply a form of idolatry.  No matter whether we worship our money, our career, our relationships, our hobbies, our nation, ethnic group, or any other created thing, we are really worshiping ourselves because we have decided to put something else before God. 
            That is a recipe for despair, of course, because nothing in creation can bear the weight of worship.  We may think that it would be nice to have other people praise us as gods, but they will not have to get to know us very well in order to see that we will never measure up to their expectations.  When they are disappointed, they will find someone else to love or follow.  And as we all know, some people gain all the power and wealth in the world, but end up miserable and in despair.  The truth is that we are not made to find fulfillment in anyone or thing other than God.  We have to be honest about that in order to sort out our priorities in life and to avoid falling into forms of idolatry that lead only to insanity and to the grave.
            Today’s parable also presents a strong warning against dishonest efforts to put God first in our lives because it shows that religious people can fool themselves into thinking that they are doing the right thing when they are actually doing the opposite.    Temptation is so subtle and it is possible to corrupt even the best practices, such as prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, into offerings to ourselves that strengthen the passion of pride, as happened with the Pharisee in his self-righteous judgment of others.  It would be better not to do those things than it would be to do them in such a corrupt way.
            As we begin prepare for this Great Lent, we all need to cultivate as much as possible the humble, honest attitude of the tax collector who cried from the depths of his heart for God’s mercy.  We do not know the details, but somehow his spiritual vision had been clarified to the point that he knew rightly where he stood before the Lord.  Each of us may use the spiritual practices of Lent to gain a similar clarity and to grow in honest humility in relation to God and our neighbors. 
            For example, we can pray to God and not ourselves by focusing our attention as much as possible on the words of prayers from an Orthodox prayer book or the Psalms as we open our hearts to Christ.  Then we will be in a better state to voice our personal petitions in our own words.  Part of the danger of praying only with our own words is that it is too easy to pray to ourselves or at least to pray only according to our own desires at the moment.  This is another reason to pray with the Church as much as possible in vespers, orthros, liturgy, and the extra services of Lent.  Most of us, for example, could come to vespers or orthros at least once a month without any real difficulty.  If that seems like a challenge, remember that the more we enter into the prayer of the Church, the better strength and focus our own personal prayers will have.
            When we pray, fast, and give to the poor, we must resist the temptation ever to compare ourselves with anyone else.  When such thoughts enter our minds, as they likely will, we must be vigilant in turning our attention to the true humility of a repentant sinner standing before the Lord.  That means saying the Jesus Prayer or otherwise doing what it takes to turn our attention away from pride and toward an honest acknowledgement that we are weak, broken, imperfect people in need of healing beyond our own strength.  When our minds wander in prayer, when we overeat, when we are not generous, when we judge and condemn others, and when we are overcome by any temptation, we should use our failings as teachers of humility to put us in the place of that blessed publican who found the very mercy for which he prayed.  The same will be true of us, if we use Great Lent this year to grow in honesty before God and in humble love in relation to our brothers and sisters.  That is what each of us should do, for there is no other path that will prepare us to behold the terror of the Cross and the unspeakable joy of the empty Tomb.      


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Life in Prison: A Lesson of Faith

Posted by  on Jun 21, 2013 i

Life in Prison: A Lesson of Faith
Several months ago, His Eminence Metropolitan Gerasimos of San Francisco received an unexpected letter. It was from four Orthodox men serving life sentences in a “concrete Jericho”—a maximum security prison in California—asking for the “unthinkable”: His Eminence to visit and bless the prison. “Struck by the intensity of their words,” he visited the men during Great Lent, talking and praying with them and offering them Holy Eucharist. Afterward, His Eminence sent a thoughtful reflection to OCPM, which includes excerpts from the letters the men sent him. You can read his reflection here.
It was a typical afternoon in my office at the Metropolis of San Francisco. I was responding to phone calls, answering emails and sorting through my mail. I came across an envelope from someone whose name I did not recognize, but the return address was clearly from a prison. I opened the envelope, wondering who the sender was and what the content might be. Much to my surprise, the letter was from a group of four male Orthodox inmates wanting to share their personal stories with me about their journey with the faith along with a simple request that someday I might be able to visit. For the past six years, these men have been ministered to by one of our Metropolis priests, but they somehow felt compelled to write to me directly, seeking my blessings and visitation. Their sincere and humble words were also marked with doubt, knowing that many obstacles would need to be maneuvered, and that many other Christian leaders had previously tried unsuccessfully to penetrate the walls of the prison.
However, as great as these obstacles might be and regardless of the rigors of my schedule, I was struck by the intensity of their words: “We hope that more than ‘hearing of the ear,’ we will, God permitting, one day ‘with the eye see You,’ in the words of the Righteous Job (42:5). We pray that God’s providence will allow for Your visitation and blessing of this prison….where no Bishop of Christ has walked before. All four of us are serving life in prison, and so when we pray ‘For this holy House, and for those who enter it…’ we really mean the permanent place of our earthly sojourn”. Their letter continued, “Your Eminence, please pray for us, that Christ may complete what He has mercifully commenced in our lives. Pray that we may remain on the road of repentance and faith, that we may be obedient…and that we may keep in our hearts that ‘Pearl of Great Price’ which has thus far kept us.”
It was at that very moment I called the priest who ministers to these men and, through God’s grace, we were able to arrange a visit to the prison. Yes, there were obstacles; forms to fill out, security clearances and scheduling. Everything fell into place and our visit was scheduled for Friday, April 26, 2013. The day finally arrived and, as we traveled to the prison, I prayed for God’s guidance, wisdom and strength to provide for the spiritual needs of these men. Then, I looked up and facing me was a concrete city, surrounded by barbed wire with numerous guard towers watching over the prison. Accompanying me was the priest who has become their spiritual father, and a recent Holy Cross graduate. We were warmly welcomed by the prison staff. They told us we had to wear security vests. The staff were very kind and respectful, allowing me to place the vest under my robe, and letting me wear my engolpion into the prison, even though we were not permitted to bring in any other personal articles.
Now, after all this preparation, the heavy doors slowly started to open and the prison guard led us to what the prisoners refer to as a “steel and concrete labyrinth”. We were about to enter unfamiliar territory, but we all knew that the power of God would guide us in this special ministry, and that the Holy Spirit would give us the right words to nourish their hungry souls. We spent an hour together. Words like “powerful”, “humbling” and “life-changing” can barely convey the impact this afternoon had on all of us.
Following a rather intense yet uplifting conversation, I led these devoted men in reciting the Prayers for Holy Communion, and offered to them the Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ. They approached the Holy Sacrament with humility, with tears of repentance, and with deep and abiding faith. I also prayed for the healing of their souls and bodies, anointing them with Holy Oil of Saint Nectarios. I gave to each of them a small cross and icon card of Saint Ephraim the Syrian, as a reminder of our common faith, and to encourage their continued prayer life for the strengthening of their souls.
Within a week of my visit to the prison, I received another letter. This time, recognizing the sender’s name. I opened the letter, eager to hear from these men with whom I shared a meaningful dialogue about our faith, God’s love, and the power of forgiveness. Here is what they said:
“At first, it was unthinkable: would a simple letter of invitation result in a visit to our prison by His Eminence Metropolitan Gerasimos of San Francisco? Then, it was unlikely: His Eminence wanted to come, but how could he – in the midst of services of the Great Fast – and with all the administrative red tape; the complexity of visitor approval on such a short notice? After all, we remembered the sad experience of the Roman Catholic bishops, who a few years ago attempted to penetrate our concrete ‘Jericho’, but the walls didn’t budge. Finally, as things miraculously fell into place the visitation drew near, it became downright frightful!”
The letter continues on to describe the moment we walked through the yard door, escorted by a lieutenant from the prison. The prisoners wrote, “We kissed the hand giving the blessing; we were speechless…. We sat and listened, two things became apparent: the Metropolitan didn’t come to give a pep talk or for a photo-op; he really saw us and desired to know us as persons – who we were and how we came to the Faith….He came to impart to us Christ’s truth, which we are not always ready to receive.”
“His Eminence spoke about the ‘real life’, which was not to be found outside of prison, in prison, or even in ourselves – that is, in our thoughts, wants, occupations – but only in Christ, in a life hidden in God. We were reminded of our ultimate blessing to be possessors of that life, no matter our past or what brought us to prison (to be sure, everyone who gathered around Metropolitan Gerasimos that day is serving life for murder). He said that the only substantial difference between the so-called ‘free’ life and life in prison is its structural regimentation, and the reason why the Church Fathers make us feel uncomfortable is because they call us to that higher life outside of ourselves – in Christ, regardless of where one finds himself, on whichever side of the barbed wire.”
Their profound letter concluded with a reflection on their personal struggles. They stated, “It is often through difficulties that God’s love draws His prodigal children home. The Metropolitan said that even though we can’t always know God’s will, we can always know His love and mercy….Our hierarch told us at our parting ‘we are never alone.’ The Saints are praying for us, the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ (Hebrews 12:1), with whom we are partakers in Christ….It is still difficult to believe that the invisible Christ was visibly present to us through His ministers. And yet, as we set our hearts on the events of Holy Week and turn our gaze toward Holy Pascha, we know by faith that this is what always happens in Christ, Who is ‘God with us’: the Crucified and Risen Savior filled our empty man-made tomb with His eternal life, illuminating sinners sitting in the shadow of death. May we keep His grace in our hearts, through the prayers of our spiritual father, and of our hierarch!”
The lesson to be derived from this pertains to all of us, because God offers His healing power of forgiveness unconditionally. Whether we are confined in a physical prison or are a prisoner to our own sins, we have the opportunity and blessing to receive God’s grace and mercy. Forgiving ourselves, forgiving each other, and ultimately seeking the Lord’s forgiveness…these are all acts of great faith and are the stepping stones to salvation.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Meeting of the Lord and Zacchaeus: Homily of Fr. John Behr

A homily delivered by Fr. John Behr in the Three Hierarchs Chapel at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary on the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple and Zacchaeus Sunday (Sunday, February 2, 2014).

Giotto, Presentation of Christ at the Temple, 1306, Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua, Italy
Giotto, Presentation of Christ at the Temple, 1306, Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua, Italy
Today, as we celebrate the meeting of Christ and the righteous Simeon and Anna, in the temple, we come to an end of a series of feasts that have taken us through the darkness of the long and cold winter nights: a series of feasts bringing out different aspects of God’s search or outreach to us: the Word becoming flesh in the small dark cavern, in the depths of the earth, the manifestation of God to us, through the passage through the waters.
And now, in obedience to the Mosaic Law, forty days after his birth, Christ, the first-born son, is brought to the temple so that he might complete the law, and the law might be completed by him.
Being brought to the temple, he is met by the righteous elder Simeon and the prophetess Anna: the old now passes, and the new has come, and the place where they meet, where the old meets the new and the new is revealed, is in the Temple, the place to which Jesus is brought as a sacrifice.
We heard last night in the readings from Isaiah that it was in the temple that Isaiah saw the Lord of glory enthroned and prophesied, that this same Lord would be worshipped by none other than the Egyptians—the biblical symbol of the gentiles hostile to Israel and their God. Now these words are fulfilled: Christ is brought into the temple, and he rests in the arms of the elder as on a throne. Israel’s glory has dawned in Christ, who is the light of revelation to the Gentiles. And now that Israel has accomplished its task of bringing the Messiah into the world, Simeon can depart in peace: the promises made in the beginning to Abraham about the calling of the nations are now fulfilled, so that in Abraham’s seed, all nations of the world are now blessed.
The very age of the righteous elder and the prophetess indicate the passing away of the ancient customs, the rituals and prescriptions, for these were only ever, as the apostle puts it, a shadow of the good things to come whereas the reality belongs to Christ, the one who was received in the arms of the elder, the one who was to cause the fall and rising again of many in Israel, the one who thus bestows upon us the resurrection—the new creation. All this, the righteous elder Simeon sees, and more: he foresees the pain that would wound the one who gave birth painlessly to the Son of God, that he will be a sign spoken against—but a sign that therefore reveals the thoughts of our hearts.
Today then, standing in the temple with Simeon, we do indeed come to the completion of the movement of God towards us, so that we can also say, let us depart in peace: the glory of God is revealed, enlightening those who sat in darkness.
Jesus and Zaccheus, Basilica of Sant’Angelo in Formis, Capua (Caserta) [© Bruno Brunelli]
Jesus and Zaccheus, Basilica of Sant’Angelo in Formis, Capua (Caserta)
But if the movement of God towards us is completed in this way, our movement now begins. We must begin to set our own sights upon the journey to Jerusalem, something we are reminded about by the second Gospel reading today: that about Zacchaeus—which alerts us to the coming pre-Lenten Sundays. If this movement of God towards us is indeed light coming into the world, enlightening those who sit in darkness, then there are various points of which we should take note.
Firstly, it means that we must recognize that we are indeed the ones who have been sitting in darkness. Only now, in the light of Christ, can we begin to realize how dark indeed has been our supposedly enlightened world and our all-too-human behavior, however decent, civilized, polite, it may seem. And, recognizing that we are the ones sitting in darkness, our response should be as Zacchaeus: not simply waiting around on the off-chance that the Lord will pass by, but, the Gospel says, he eagerly sought the Lord; he demonstrated an intense desire to seek him out, to actively find him.
The second point would be that as we begin to allow his light to shine upon us and in us, we will certainly begin to understand what it means that he is a sign spoken against, revealing the thoughts of our hearts; for as we begin to try to live by this sign, we will assuredly find all our resistances coming to the surface, all the reasons, the thoughts of our hearts which usually remain unconscious, all the reasons why we should do otherwise, or with less enthusiasm or zeal, or perhaps start tomorrow. In other words, the light that we are given enables us to see ourselves as we truly are, a feat that St Isaac says is greater than raising the dead. This is our own path to Golgotha. And, as with Zacchaeus, this requires recognizing how we stand. The Gospel reading places great emphasis on Zacchaeus’ small stature. He was short. Zacchaeus knew that he had to be lifted up, up from this earth, to see the Lord, and he does this by ascending the tree, an image of taking up the cross. Our problem, on the other hand, is that we do not know this: we think that we are something, something great and grand, someone important, with our own sense of self-worth.
We are indeed important and valuable in God’s eyes: out of love for us, he came to dwell among us, to save, redeem, and recreate us. But it is all too easy for our own sense of well-being and self-worth to get in the way, to prevent us from even realizing that we stand in need of what God has to offer; we spend most of our lives in delusion, not knowing that we are, in fact, small, needy, sinful, before him: it is for the sinners that he has come, to call them to repentance, not those who imagine themselves to be basically alright, needing Christ only for an extra religious element to their lives.
And finally, although we have been given so much more to see than was Simeon (we have repeatedly been present at his birth, his baptism, his passion and his resurrection), we have not yet really begun to see the Lord as did Simeon: to know that he is indeed our rest, our eternal rest, to find in him the peace that keeps us in peace throughout the storms of the sea of life, rather than being blown about from one crisis to the next, from one emotional bruise to another, or from one preoccupying thought to yet another habituated action that we will regret. Rather, what is required of us, to find this peace, is the repentance shown by Zacchaeus: a ready repentance, a change of mind, manifest not only in how we feel about things, but how we act: “half my goods I give to the poor; and will restore fourfold what I have defrauded.”
It is in these ways that we move from sitting in darkness to being enlightened by the light of God—the light that is also the peace of God. So let us pray that we may also learn to meet Jesus in the temple, so that we might also find in him the completion of our heart’s desire, and so ourselves come to know his mercy and peace; for this, as we will sing shortly, is the true sacrifice of praise.
Fr. John Behr (SVOTS ’97) is the Dean of St Vladimir’s Seminary and Professor of Patristics, teaching courses in patristics, dogmatics and scriptural exegesis at the seminary, and also at Fordham University, where he is the Distinguished Lecturer in Patristics.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Presentation of Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest, in the Temple: A Homily on the Importance of Attending Great Vespers and Matins in the Orthodox Church

             Today we celebrate a great feast of the Church that speaks directly to the spiritual challenges that we all face on a daily basis, both as particular people and as members of this parish community.  For today we celebrate the presentation of the infant Jesus Christ, forty days after His birth, in the temple.  The Theotokos and St. Joseph bring the young Savior there in compliance with the Old Testament law, making the offering of a poor family that could not afford a lamb, a pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons.  By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the old man St. Simeon proclaims that this Child is the salvation “of all peoples, a light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of Thy people Israel.”  The aged prophetess St. Anna also recognizes Him as the fulfillment of God’s promises.
            Our epistle reading from Hebrews reminds us that the One brought into the temple that day is the Great High Priest Who offers Himself, Who becomes the Passover Lamb through Whom sin and death are destroyed so that we also may enter into the Heavenly Temple, into the very life of God.  In ways that our minds cannot fully understand, Christ’s offering and priesthood are eternal, as He now intercedes for us at the right hand of the Father.  He fulfills all the foreshadowing of the Old Testament to bring us through Him into the true Temple, the eternal Sanctuary of the Kingdom of Heaven.
            Every day of our lives, in all that we say and do, we have the opportunity to join ourselves more deeply to Christ, to become more fully “partakers of the divine nature” whose lives are constant offerings to the Lord.  He created us and all that is, and His salvation is the fulfillment of the entire universe. All that we must leave behind is our corruption, our sin and its sickening effects.  Even as the person with a broken bone wants to get past the resulting pain and disability in order to regain health and strength, we want to do the same thing in every dimension of lives.  The focus is not on legal judgment, but on the healing of our distorted, weakened selves and world.
            A very important aspect of this healing that we have not talked about a great deal in our parish is the strength that we find through participation in the full liturgical life of the Church.   By that I do not mean coming to the Divine Liturgy on Sunday and major feast days whenever possible, which is a fundamental practice of the Orthodox Christian life.    At least for Sunday liturgy, we do that fairly well here at St. Luke.  Instead, I want to draw your attention this morning to the two other services that we celebrate virtually every weekend, Great Vespers on Saturday evening and Matins on Sunday morning.
            These services, along with others, are conducted daily in monasteries, but most parishes understandably serve them only on Saturday night and Sunday morning.  We do so because of the great glory and dignity of Sunday as the day of resurrection, the day in which we celebrate Christ’s resurrection.  His High Priesthood shines forth in the Divine Liturgy of every Sunday, for it is through Him that we enter into the Heavenly Banquet, into the joy of the true Temple of the Kingdom of Heaven.  And when we receive Communion, we are united with God in the most profound and intimate way possible.  His Body and Blood truly become our own.
            As we all know, deliberate preparation is in order each time that we receive the Eucharist.  We must say the prayers of preparation; we must fast from food and drink; and we must take Confession on a regular basis and especially when we have a guilty conscience or are aware of having committed grave sin.  None of us should ever take Communion for granted or fail to prepare ourselves as best we can.  Whenever you have questions about anything related to taking Communion, just let me know.
            Participation in Great Vespers is also very helpful preparation for the Sunday Divine Liturgy.  It is actually the first service of Sunday, for in biblical times the day began with sundown the night before.  Vespers is much simpler and less ornate than the Divine Liturgy, as it consists of prayers, hymns, readings and Psalms that recall our creation, our fall, and the shining of the “Gladsome Light” Jesus Christ Who rose victorious from the tomb.  Portions of the service focus on the distinctive themes of that particular Sunday and prepare us to meditate upon them in preparation for Liturgy.  Sometimes there are Old Testament readings, and the service usually lasts about an hour.   
            “Orthros” means “early dawn” and we pray at that time on Sundays because that is when the women went to the tomb of Christ and received the good news of His resurrection.  “Matins” means “morning” and is simply another name for the service.  On most Sundays, the service focuses on the resurrection.  Each week, the priest reads one of eleven accounts from the gospels of Christ’s appearances after His resurrection.  The chanters sing one of the eight resurrection troparia and there are various other readings and chants that relate to the saints being commemorated and the season of the church year.  We move from orthros into liturgy with the Great Doxology that begins “Glory to Thee, Who has shown us the light.”  That’s when we turn up the lights and open the royal doors, for we are now entering through our Great High Priest into the great glory of the liturgy of the Kingdom of Heaven.  The One who was taken to the temple as a baby now takes us into the true Temple, into heavenly worship of the Holy Trinity as He nourishes us with His Body and Blood.
            If something is important to us, we prepare for it.  The more we put into something, the more we get out of it.  Attending vespers and matins prepares us to share in the great blessing of the Divine Liturgy and especially of receiving Communion.  It will also strengthen our parish as a community, for at the very heart of the life of the Church is our worship, which is not limited to an hour and half on Sunday mornings.  We do not have as many services as larger parishes with a full-time priest and more chanters and servers, but we do what we can.  As your priest, I ask you to do what you can to strengthen your spiritual life and our collective entrance into the Heavenly Temple by coming to vespers and orthros whenever that is possible for you.  You will find it to be a blessing in your life and not a major inconvenience.   

            Of course, some have health problems, transportation issues, and work schedules that make it impossible for them to do so with regularity; if so, pray at home.  Most of us, however, could attend either service at least once a month.  Rest assured that this is not some kind legal requirement and no one is taking roll; instead, it is an invitation to join ourselves as fully as we can to Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest Who wants us to share with Him in the joy of the Heavenly Temple.    Sts. Simeon and Anna were prepared by years of prayer and fasting to meet Him in the Jerusalem temple, and now He makes it possible for us to meet Him in the Temple of Heaven, and even to dine at His table.  There is no question that we all need to prepare for that, for we want the eyes of our hearts to be as open as possible to the “light to enlighten the Gentiles and the glory of Thy people Israel,” our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ, to Whom be glory and honor, together with His Un-originate Father and the All-Holy, Good, and Life-Giving Spirit, always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages.