Sunday, May 21, 2017

We Must Obey in Order to See: Homily for the Sunday of the Blind Man in the Orthodox Church

John 9:1-38
             Christ is Risen!  
             Seeing is believing.  There are many things in life that we will not accept unless we see them with our own eyes.  And there are some things that we have to learn how to see because they are not obvious to the untrained eye.  It often takes experience to see something rightly, to understand its true significance.  If that is true in everyday life, it is all the more the case in how we know God.
            We began our celebration of Pascha several weeks ago when we saw the light of a flame in the darkness of midnight.  Until the brilliant light of the Savior’s resurrection, humanity wandered in spiritual blindness as a result of being enslaved to corruption.  “The wages of sin is death,” and the darkness of the tomb had reigned supreme since the fall of Adam and Eve.  Like the man born blind in today’s gospel reading, our capacity to participate in the blessed holiness for which we were created was grossly deformed.   Enslaved to the fear of death and cast out of Paradise, we were all held prisoner by the darkness of the tomb which extended to the depths of our souls.   
            In sharp contrast to that darkness, we celebrate in this glorious season of Pascha that the light of Christ shines even from the grave and extends to the darkest dimensions of our lives and relationships.  To be radiant with the light of the resurrection is what it means to know God.  To know Him is not merely to have religious ideas or emotions about Him, but truly to share by grace in the life of the Holy Trinity.  It is to have the eyes of our souls cleansed, to have our minds illumined such that we move from darkness to light.  The change is certainly not in our Lord, but in us who rise with Him from death to life, from the dark night of sin to the brilliant light of holiness.   
            This great blessing is not something that we give ourselves, but which our Lord has made possible as the God-Man Who unites divinity and humanity in Himself.  That is how He heals us, personally taking upon Himself all the consequences of our corruption, even to the point of death, in order to conquer them through His resurrection.  He brings every dimension and capability of the human person into His divine life, making us radiant with the holy glory that we share by grace.  That is what it means to be truly human in His image and likeness.
When Christ spat on the ground and made clay to anoint the eyes of the blind man, He gave us a sign of how He restored us through His Incarnation, His entry into our world of flesh and blood, which was necessary for our healing.  The blind man’s sight was restored when he obeyed Christ’s command to wash in water, which is a sign of how He illumines us in baptism.  Of course, we are baptized into the Lord’s death in order to rise up with Him into a life of holiness.
Our spiritual sight is not restored by denying our bodily limitations or the reality of the physical struggles that we face, whether illness, poverty, or anything else.  Instead, our Risen Lord heals our souls when we offer ourselves fully to Him in obedience.  The blind man in today’s gospel lesson did what the Lord told to Him to do, walking to the pool of Siloam and washing off the clay from His eyes.  He had to obey Christ’s command by doing something that involved his whole person.  That is how he overcame the blindness with which he had been born. Even though he thought of the Lord as only a prophet at that point, the man quickly professed faith in Him when the Lord told him His true identity.  As Christ said of Himself as the Son of God to the man, “You have seen Him, and it is He who speaks to you.”
            As Orthodox Christians, we routinely make bold claims about seeing the true light and beholding the resurrection of Christ.  We employ the sense of sight in the worship of God with icons, crosses, candles, vestments, and in many other ways.  We put on Christ like a garment in baptism and are filled personally with the Holy Spirit in chrismation.  We receive our Lord’s Body and Blood in Holy Communion, as we participate already in the Heavenly Banquet.  He is the Bridegroom and, as His Church, we are His Bride and members of His own Body.  We do not think of Him as only a prophet or a righteous man, but know that He is truly the Son of God.  There is no question, then, that He has restored our sight, giving us all the ability to embrace Him from the depths of our souls.  He has done for us what we could never do simply by ourselves, even as someone born blind could never give himself sight.
            Imagine how great our responsibility is, then, to open the eyes of our souls as fully as possible to the light of Christ.  For as He is infinitely holy, there is no upward limit to the holiness to which He calls us.  Even as the healing of our bodies is a process that requires our cooperation and effort, the same is true with the healing of our souls.  The blind man had to exercise what little faith he had at first by obeying Christ’s command.   That was how he put himself in the place to receive such a miraculous blessing.  And though we do not know the rest of his story, that was surely only the beginning of his journey.  He had to live as one whose eyes had been opened by the mercy of the Lord.
If we are truly to enter into the holy joy of Pascha, we must follow the example of the man born blind.  Our spiritual vision remains far from perfect, but our Risen Lord has given us all that we need to become radiant with His brilliant and holy light.  That happens when we know and experience Him from the depths of our souls, which requires offering ourselves to Him through humble obedience in our daily lives. That means joining ourselves to His great victory over death by opening even the darkest and most difficult areas of our personalities and relationships to His healing light.  There is no way to do that without living as our Lord taught, which means turning away from all that obscures His light in us, from all that keeps us captive to the darkened ways of sin and corruption that we find so appealing.   
As we prepare to move from Pascha to the Ascension, let us discern where we persist in darkness and what we need to do in order to obey our Lord more faithfully as we rise with Him from the grave to the heights of heavenly glory.  Let us grow in our personal participation by grace in the life of Christ by living daily as those who have beheld the glory of His resurrection and who have seen the true light.  The Savior has already done the miraculous for us by conquering death.   Now it is our responsibility to respond faithfully as we open ourselves to the Light Who shines so brightly that He overcomes even the darkest tomb.  And as hard as it is to believe, He will illumine even the darkest and most corrupt dimension of our lives, if we will only offer ourselves to Him in humble, trusting obedience each day.
  The good news of Pascha is not confined to a season of the year, but is always the fundamental truth of our life in Christ.  Now we must live as those who have been blessed to behold the glory of the resurrection.  Now we must remove every obstacle to embracing personally the brilliant, radiant light of the empty tomb.  Now we must live with all the holy joy of a man born blind who can finally see the light.  That is what it means to know God and to be truly human in His image and likeness, for Christ is Risen!  

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Courage to Face the Truth: Homily for the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman in the Orthodox Church

John 4:5-42
Christ is Risen!
It is strangely appealing to define ourselves by our failures, especially when others know that we have stumbled and treat us poorly as a result.  As well, our own pride often causes us to lose perspective such that we obsess about how we do not measure up to whatever illusion of perfection we have accepted.  People are often their own harshest critics in ways that are not healthy at all.
            On this Sunday of the Samaritan Woman, we celebrate that our Lord’s great victory over death enables us to be free from defining ourselves by our sins or by how other people may view us.   He rises in glory not only over the tomb and Hades, but over all the distortions of the beauty of the human person created in His image and likeness. Today we commemorate that His salvation extends to our most painful failings and to the harsh judgments of others upon us. Even such difficult circumstances may become points of entry into the joy of the empty tomb.
            The woman at the well certainly knew what it was like to be defined by others as someone who did not measure up.  She was a Samaritan, and therefore rejected by the Jews as a heretic and a member of a despised group that had intermarried with Gentiles.  She herself had been married five times and was now with a man to whom she was not married, which may have been why she went to draw water at the unlikely time of high noon.  Perhaps she went to the well in the heat of the day in order to avoid the other Samaritan women who wanted nothing to do with someone like her.  
            Imagine her surprise, then, when the Savior asked her for a drink of water and then engaged in a conversation about spiritual matters with her.  Jewish men simply did not strike up conversations with women in that time and place, and consuming food or drink from a Samaritan was out of the question.  How even more shocking it is that Jesus Christ’s conversation with her is the longest recorded between Him and any one person in the four gospels.  He spoke straightforwardly to her and did not shy away from uncomfortable truths that hit her where she lived.  But instead of shutting down the conversation or running away in fear, this Samaritan woman told the people of her village about Christ.  As a result, many of her neighbors came to believe in the Lord.
            This Samaritan woman is known in the Church as St. Photini, which means “the enlightened one.”  Through the Savior’s conversation with her, Photini became an evangelist who boldly shared the good news, even to her Samaritan neighbors who were surely used to viewing her in anything but spiritual terms.  That took tremendous courage.  Photini was not only brave in preaching to them, but ultimately in responding to the persecution of the pagan Roman emperor Nero, to whom she said “O most impious of the blind, you profligate and stupid man! Do you think me so deluded that I would consent to renounce my Lord Christ and instead offer sacrifice to idols as blind as you?”  The Great Martyr Photini refused to back down and gave the ultimate witness to Christ’s victory over death by laying down her life for Him.  The Savior had set her free even from fear of the grave.
            Too many of us today flee in shame from uncomfortable truths, whether we encounter them in our own thoughts or in the opinions of others.  Too many of us define ourselves by our failings, weaknesses, and temptations.  Too many of us accept some unrealistic cultural standard of “the good life” as the norm we must meet in order to be worthwhile.  Thank God, St. Photini the Great Martyr did none of that. In response to her shocking encounter with the Savior, she humbly acknowledged the truth about her brokenness; she did not react defensively or make excuses.  She did not end the conversation or run away in shame.  Instead, she was open to the healing of her soul, to the possibility of a new and restored life through the mercy of the Lord.  This was such a great blessing to her that she immediately shared the good news with the people of her village and refused to stop, even to the point of laying down her life.
            In this joyous season of Pascha, we celebrate that Christ’s victory over death delivers us from all the corrupting effects of sin, including our deeply ingrained habits of thought and action that distract us from facing the truth about ourselves.  By setting us free from bondage to the fear of death, our Risen Lord enables us to make even our most bitter failures points of entry into the new day of His eternal life.  He has conquered death, the wages of sin, which means that our sins now have only the power over us that we allow them to have.  When, like St. Photini, we acknowledge them straightforwardly and turn away from them, we participate personally in the good news of Pascha.  We rise from death to life as we enter into the joy of the empty tomb.  But when we proudly refuse to confess or repent of our sins, we remain in slavery to our self-centered illusions of perfection, to our sense of shame that we do not live up to the standards that we think we must meet in order to be worthwhile.
In other words, we insist on being our own saviors.  But since we cannot conquer death or heal our own souls, that is nothing but foolish pride that keeps us bound to the fear of death, to the terror of realizing how weak we are before the challenges we encounter both within our own minds and in relation to others. Our failures and weaknesses are not good in and of themselves, but we put them to good use when we let them open our eyes to the truth of who we are, of where we stand before the Lord.  If we will use them as ways to humble ourselves without making excuses or otherwise blinding ourselves to what they reveal about us, then we will put ourselves in the blessed place of St. Photini, who was thirsty for strength and healing that she knew she could not give herself, for “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” from the depths of her soul.
Like her, we must refuse to be paralyzed by guilt and shame before others and in our own minds.  Then we will take our attention off whether we measure up to some self-imposed standard and instead focus on receiving the healing mercy of Jesus Christ.  No matter what we have done, no matter how distorted and corrupt any dimension of our life may be, no matter how anyone else treats or views us, Christ is able to raise us up with Him from death to life.  That is not only a future promise, but a present reality.  He rose in glory with His wounds still visible, and no wound that we or others have inflicted puts us beyond the good news of His resurrection.  In this glorious season of Pascha, let us all become like the Great Martyr Photini by embracing enthusiastically the new life that the Savior has brought to the world, for Christ is Risen!
           
   
   
  
            

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Healed to Rise Up and Walk: Homily for the Sunday of the Paralytic in the Orthodox Church


Acts 9:32-42; John 5:1-15

Christ is Risen! 

            We do not like to be dragged down or held back by problems that we cannot solve.  Whether it is our own health, a broken relationship with others, or a complex set of circumstances over which we have little control, it is very frustrating to know our weakness before seemingly insurmountable challenges. 

            That is surely how the invalids, blind, lame, and paralyzed felt as they waited for the chance to be healed by being the first to reach the pool of water troubled by the angel.  Due to their illnesses, many must have despaired over ever being healed.  The man who had been paralyzed for 38 years was one of those, for there was no one to help him move toward the water.  Here we have an image of humanity before the coming of Christ.  The Jews had a Temple in which animals were sacrificed, and the pool provided water for washing lambs before they were offered to God.  This scene occurs at the Jewish feast of Pentecost, which commemorated Moses receiving the Law, which was given by angels. 

Fallen humanity, however, remained spiritually weak and sick.  They lacked the strength to fulfill God’s requirements, and certainly could not conquer death, the wages of sin for all those who have fallen short of the glory of God.  The sacrificial system of the Temple foreshadowed the great Self-Offering of our Lord on the Cross, but did not heal anyone from the ravages of spiritual corruption or raise anyone from the grave.  It was a great blessing for the Jews to have the Law, but surely also a tremendous frustration not to have the strength to obey it fully.  Only Christ Himself fulfilled the Law, which is why He can call and empower us to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt. 5:48)    

In contrast, the paralyzed man represents all who lack the power to move themselves to complete healing, to find the fulfillment of our common human calling to become like God in holiness. Notice that he did not call out to Christ to help him; instead, the Lord reached out to him, asking “Do you want to be healed?”  That may seem like a strange question, for presumably anyone waiting by a pool for healing after 38 years of illness would want to be made well.  But think for a moment about how we have all learned to adapt to our favorite sins, how we have become comfortable with whatever forms of corruption have become second nature to us over the years.  By virtue of coming to Church, we are apparently religious people, but that does not mean that we truly want to be healed.  For to be healed means obeying the Lord’s command to this fellow: “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.”  It requires making the effort to rise up in obedience, to be transformed personally in how we live each day, and to grow in holiness.   

It would not have sufficed for that man to have remained on his bed and have warm feelings about how Christ had healed him. Just as anyone who lies motionless for a long time will become weak and unable to rise up and walk on his own power, the same will be true of us spiritually if we try to rest content with simply believing ideas about God or having positive emotions about Him.  If we are not gaining strength by actually serving Him faithfully, we will become paralyzed and unable to cooperate with our Lord’s gracious healing energies.  Any spiritual health that we claim in that state will be a figment of our imagination.

The good news is that the Lord does not simply provide us with a set of rules to follow or services to perform.  He makes us participants in Himself by grace.  He unites us to Himself, raising us up with Him from slavery to sin and death to the great dignity of those who share in His eternal life. The Savior makes us members of His own Body, the Church.  He is the Bridegroom and we are the Bride.  He makes us radiant in holiness, like an iron left in the fire of the divine glory.  That is how He heals us such that we have the strength to obey His command to get up from our bed of corruption and move forward in a blessed life of holiness.

Though we may not yet have the eyes to see it, this healing and strengthening of our humanity happens to this day through our life in the Church.  In our reading from Acts, St. Peter heals a paralyzed man and commands him to get up.   He even raises a woman from death.  Peter did not do this by his own power or authority, but because the Lord was working through him.  He said to the paralyzed man, “Jesus Christ heals you…”  Throughout Acts, we read of how the Lord works through His Body, the Church, to enable people to participate personally in the new life of the resurrection that He shares with us by grace.

That is not, however, a life of merely having our names on a church membership roll or of calling ourselves Orthodox Christians. If our faithfulness extends only that far, we will become as weak as a person who remains immobile in bed and refuses to stand up and walk.  We must not be like those poor souls waiting by the pool for someone else to move them into the healing water.  On His own gracious initiative, Jesus Christ has given each of us the strength to overcome the paralysis of sin through His resurrection.  He does not simply give us commands; He gives us Himself.  And our life in His Body, the Church is truly our participation in Him.      

We receive His healing of our souls when we humbly repent of our sins in Confession.  We are nourished for the life of the Kingdom by His Body and Blood in Holy Communion.  When we offer our time, energy, and resources to support the ministries of the Church, we rise up from selfishness to participate in the abundant generosity of the Lord. When we stop thinking of ourselves as isolated individuals and instead as members of a Body with a common life in Christ, we will be able to love and serve one another in ways that will open us to His strength personally and collectively in powerful ways. 

In the joy of the resurrection, we must learn to see that embracing our life together in Christ is an essential dimension of obeying His command to “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.”  He calls each of us to turn away from the paralyzing weakness of selfishness and laziness that would make whatever sins we have become comfortable with appear more important than serving Him in His Body, the Church, where the glory and power of the resurrection are fully present.

Think about that for a moment.  Pascha is not an isolated event that happened long ago, but an entrance into the new day of the Kingdom of Heaven which is fully open to us in the worship and common life of this parish. The Savior calls each of us, weakened and held back by the corruptions of sin, to get up and move forward in the blessed life for which He made us in His image and likeness.  That is why He died and rose again, to raise us up with Him for a life of holiness, to restore us to the ancient dignity of Paradise.  May this season of Pascha be our entrance as a parish into the joy of the Kingdom. That will happen when we rise up, from whatever corruptions are holding us back, to a life of obedience in serving Him and one another in His Body, the Church.  That is the only way to answer the question that He asks each of us today and every day: “Do you want to be healed?”

Christ is Risen!


Sunday, April 30, 2017

Serving Even When We Do Not Get What We Want: Homily for the Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women in the Orthodox Church


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

Christ is Risen!          

We live in a time in which it is easy to think of ourselves as isolated individuals whose purpose in life is to get whatever we happen to want. Personal freedom is a great blessing from God, but since Adam and Eve we have abused it by thinking and acting as though fulfilling our immediate desires is the only thing that really matters. Our Lord Jesus Christ conquered the corrupting consequences of that prideful, selfish attitude in His glorious resurrection.  Raising us up with him from slavery to all the distortions of our souls that root in the fear of death, He has restored our true identity as His beloved sons and daughters, making us members of His own Body.

            Today we celebrate those who, in moments of great personal crisis, did not think only of themselves, but instead ministered to the Body of our Lord with selfless love.  With broken hearts and in terrible shock and grief, the Theotokos, Mary Magdalen, two other Mary’s, Johanna, Salome, Martha, Susanna, and others whose names we do not know went early in the morning to the tomb of Christ in order to anoint His Body.  They had not anticipated the resurrection and expected to find Him in the grave like anyone else who had died.  By doing what they could to show one last act of love to the Savior, the myrrh-bearing women opened themselves to the tremendous blessing of being the first to hear from the angel the good news of the resurrection. 

            Along with them, we also remember today Joseph of Arimathea, who bravely asked Pilate for the Body of the Lord and took Him down from the cross with his own hands.  Nicodemus helped Joseph bury Him.  These were both prominent Jewish leaders who surely risked a great deal by associating themselves with One Who had been rejected as a blasphemer and publically crucified as a traitor. 

            In the events of our Lord’s Passion, none of His followers had received what they had wanted or expected.  John was the only disciple to stand at the foot the cross, for the others had run away in fear.  Peter, the head disciple, had denied the Savior three times.  They were disappointed and shocked that their Messiah had failed to satisfy them by setting up an earthly kingdom; instead, He had been killed by His enemies.  They believed that death had been the final word on Jesus of Nazareth.  And probably out of a mixture of fear, disappointment, and the belief that He could do nothing else for them, they simply fled.

            The myrrh-bearers, along with Joseph and Nicodemus, were surely just as grieved as the disciples. They had not gotten what they had wanted either.  But they resisted the temptation to think only about themselves.  Notice that they responded very differently from the disciples because they still kept their focus on serving Jesus Christ as best they could.  And that meant doing the sorrowful task of giving their departed Lord and friend a decent burial.  They probably all put themselves in danger by identifying publically with One Who had just been crucified.  They must have all struggled not to be paralyzed by fear and pain.  Still, they found the courage and strength not to focus on themselves, but on showing love to Christ as best they could.

            Our reading today from Acts describes something similar in the early years of the Church’s life. The Christians in Jerusalem had shared all things in common and provided food daily to the widows.  A problem arose when the widows of Greek cultural heritage complained that they were being neglected. We know from Acts and many other New Testament writings that disagreements and struggles between different groups of people have existed in the Church from its earliest days.  Instead of the apostles attempting to solve the problem directly, they created the office of deacon, which literally means “servant.”  The community chose seven men to fulfill the role of servants who would directly manage such practical issues in the Church.  Following their ordination and ministry of service, we read that “the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.”

            These first deacons have a lot in common with the women and men we commemorate today, for they also cared for the Body of the Lord when they served the Church.  They addressed the physical needs of the members of the Body of Christ, directly entering into what must have been a stressful situation of conflict in the Church.  Instead of leaving the problem to others or ignoring it, they took it on.  By undertaking that ministry, they may not have been getting what they had wanted.  If they had thought that the Church would be a place of perfect peace or that they could devote themselves to cultivating spiritual experiences on their own terms, they may have been surprised to find themselves organizing a fair distribution of food to the widows.  Regardless of anything else, they accepted their new ministry and performed it faithfully for the flourishing of the Church.

            As we continue to celebrate our Savior’s great victory over death on this Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women, it should be clear that the new life He has brought into the world requires our active faithfulness, regardless of whether we think that we are getting what we want. The first Christians definitely did not get what they wanted at the Lord’s Passion, because He had something far better in store for them.  It would have been much easier to follow a Messiah like King David who would establish a great earthly reign and give them worldly power.  It was infinitely more difficult to take the dead Christ down from the cross, bury Him in a tomb, and then go to anoint the Body still bearing the wounds of torture and crucifixion.  But it was through the courageous, humble, and loving service of those actions that a certain group of women opened themselves to receive the unbelievably good news of the resurrection.

            We should learn from their holy example that the way to participate in the joy of the empty tomb is in serving Our Lord in His Body.  It is in putting aside our preferences in order to love Him in the members of the His Body, the Church.  That includes addressing all the practical challenges that any parish faces:  from cutting the grass and teaching Sunday School to chanting and caring for the needy.  And since the Savior identified Himself with every person in need, this calling extends to every area of our lives and every person we encounter.  As the apostles knew when they ordained the first deacons, no one can perform every ministry in the Church.  No one of us has to do it all.  But we must all use our gifts to do what needs to be done for the flourishing of the Church, even if it is not what we would prefer to do.  In other words, all of us need to get over the self-centered individualism that so easily leads to making God in our own image and judging Him by our own standards.

            Just as Joseph, Nicodemus, the myrrh-bearing women, and the first deacons did not flee when their hopes were dashed, we must not abandon His Body the Church when our desires go unfulfilled, when our problems do not go away, and when God does not give us everything we want.  Like them, we will participate more fully in the joy of eternal life by getting over ourselves and doing what needs to be done in loving and serving our Lord in our parish, our neighbors, and our families.  Pascha is not about fulfilling the plans and desires of individuals, but about how something far greater, and totally unexpected, came into the world through their bitter disappointment.  If we will love and serve Christ even in the midst of our most difficult struggles in life, then we also will be healed of our prideful selfishness and become more fully who our Lord has enabled us to be through His glorious resurrection.  We will then be in the place where it is possible to hear the good and completely surprising news that what He has in store for those who love and serve Him is far better than anything we can ever come up with on our own, for Christ is Risen!   
   


Sunday, April 23, 2017

Belief in the Resurrection Requires Commitment: Homily for the Sunday of St. Thomas the Apostle and St. George the Great Martyr in the Orthodox Church


John 20:19-31
As we continue to celebrate the glorious resurrection of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ, we remember today how Thomas was transformed from a skeptic into a believer, and ultimately into a martyr who gave the ultimate witness for His Savior’s great victory over death.  Since Thomas was not present when the risen Christ first appeared to the disciples, he doubted their testimony.  That is why we know him as “doubting Thomas,” but we should also remember how the apostles had doubted the testimony of the women who first heard the news of the resurrection from the angel.  No one had anticipated the Lord’s rising, and the news of someone’s resurrection from the dead after public crucifixion and burial for three days was simply outrageous.
People of that time and place were more familiar with death than most of us are today.  In comparison with our society, their infant mortality rates were much higher, their lifespans were usually much shorter, and they themselves prepared the bodies of their loved ones for burial. They knew all about death.  As well, they knew that Roman soldiers were seasoned professional experts in administering a long, painful execution.  Joseph of Arimathea removed the Lord’s dead body from the cross and, with the help of Nicodemus, buried Him.  The women went to the tomb very early on Sunday morning in order to anoint the Savior’s dead body.  None of them had any illusions about what death meant.  There could have been nothing more shocking to them in the world than the unexpected and unbelievably good news that “Christ is risen!”  And quite understandably, Thomas did not believe in the resurrection until the Lord appeared to Him, still bearing His wounds, and invited Him to touch His Body.  Then Thomas confessed the risen Christ as “My Lord and my God!”
We should not be surprised that many people today continue to doubt the truth of Christ’s resurrection.  Such a unique and astonishing event is a great challenge to accept, for it is contrary to what we know about death in this world.  But perhaps it is precisely the difficulty of believing in the resurrection that invites us to deep, personal faith in our Savior’s great victory over the grave.  We do not need much faith in order to agree that water freezes at a certain temperature, as a little experimentation with a thermometer will remove all doubt.  We do not need much faith in order to believe that it is better to lead a morally decent life than one characterized by dishonesty and murder.  In one way or another, virtually all cultures and religions teach that.  But if we are going to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God Who rose victorious over death and made even the grave an entryway to the eternal life of the Heavenly Kingdom, then we need the kind of faith that takes root to the very depths of our souls. 
That kind of faith is not like the rational certainty that we have about the temperature at which water freezes.  Instead, it is the kind of faith that requires trust in giving our lives to that which is not obvious; it requires profound commitment and sacrifice.  For example, the love of spouses for one another and for their children is not a rational theory based on objective experimentation or historical research.  It is known only through experience; it becomes real through a thousand acts of putting one another and the children before themselves.  It changes them.  It requires a kind of martyrdom, of dying to self for the sake of others.  There is a depth of love in marriage and family that it is simply impossible to know and experience without such sacrifice.   
The same is true of our knowledge of the Lord’s resurrection.  To say the least, it would be very hard to give an account of the origins of Christianity without Him actually rising in glory.  A few questions make this point clear.  For example, why would His followers have made up such an unbelievable story about a dead man, and then gone to their deaths out of faithfulness to a lie about a failed Messiah?  Why would they have concocted a story in which women, who were not viewed as reliable witnesses in that culture, provided the foundational testimony to such an astounding miracle?  Had they made up the resurrection, why would they have included in the gospels so much material that describes how they totally misunderstood Christ’s prediction of His own death and resurrection and then abandoned Him at the crucifixion?  Apart from the truth of His resurrection, the rise of the Christian faith makes no sense.
Nonetheless, many skeptics will, like Thomas, still be doubtful that something so contrary to our experience of the world actually happened.  Here we must remember that Thomas came to faith not due to rational arguments or historical research, but because of seeing the risen Lord before His own eyes.  Since we live after the Ascension, we do not see Him in that way today.  But the root meaning of the word martyr is “witness,” and from the very origins of the faith countless people have given the ultimate witness to the Savior’s victory over death by going to their deaths out of faithfulness to Him.  All the apostles, with the exception of John, did so.  “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”  Their powerful example has, and still does, bear witness to the truth of Christ’s resurrection.  In them, we see the Savior’s victory over death with our own eyes.
Today we also commemorate the Great Martyr George the Trophy-Bearer, a respected soldier who boldly denounced the Roman emperor Diocletian for persecuting Christians.  For refusing to worship pagan gods, St. George endured horrible tortures and laid down His life for Christ.  From the apostolic age to today, countless Christians have done what St. George did in showing steadfast personal commitment to the Lord literally to the point of death.  They do so because they know the truth of Christ’s resurrection, not as an abstract idea or merely something that they accepted as having happened long ago, but as the real spiritual experience of participating in eternal life.  They see the Body of Christ, the Church, bearing witness to a life that shines brilliantly in holiness in contrast to the darkness of the world.  Even when they died as a result, the early Christians cared for the sick with contagious diseases.  They rescued abandoned children, gave generously to the poor, and pursued chastity in the relationship between man and woman. They refused to worship other gods, even when that led to certain torture and death. They loved and forgave their enemies, even as the persecuted Christians of the Middle East do to this very day in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and many other countries.   
            We may not be physical martyrs in the sense that they are, but we still must bear witness to the resurrection of Christ.  We do that by providing evidence of His victory over death in how we live our lives.  Thomas came to faith when He saw the glorified Body of the Risen Lord.  We must live as those who have passed over in Him from slavery to sin and death to the glorious freedom of eternal life.  Our lives must shine brightly with the holy joy of the resurrection if anyone is to believe that “Christ is risen!”
Indeed, we ourselves will not truly believe that glorious news unless we personally rise with Him from death to life, from sin to holiness. True faith in the risen Lord is not a mere idea, but requires deep personal commitment and self-sacrifice.  His astounding victory is neither a rational concept nor just another truth of the natural world known by experimentation.  To know His resurrection is to know Him, and that requires dying to self out of love from the depths of our souls.  It requires a form of martyrdom, an offering of our flesh and blood to the One Who makes us mystical participants in His Flesh and Blood in the Holy Mystery of the Eucharist.  Even as we receive Him as our Lord and our God, let us bear witness to His glorious resurrection in how we live each day.  That is the only way to follow Thomas in moving from doubt to true faith.  It is the only way to say with integrity “Christ is risen!”

Sunday, April 9, 2017

A Time to Offer Ourselves to the Savior Who Offered Himself for Us: Homily for Palm Sunday in the Orthodox Church

Philippians 4:4-9
John 12:1-18

Sometimes it is not enough to have ideas or speak words, no matter how true they are.   There are circumstances that require us to act in order to respond properly to them.  There are challenges in life that we must enter into personally if we are really going to engage them.    They require us to invest ourselves in them fully; otherwise, we end up fooling only ourselves.
Palm Sunday is like that.  Jesus Christ had to enter into Jerusalem, being hailed as a conquering hero after raising Lazarus from the dead, in order to fulfill His ministry as the true Passover Lamb Who takes away the sins of the world.  That was the only way to make clear the radical difference between the anticipated earthly king of the Jews and the One Who reigns from the Cross and a tomb that ultimately cannot contain Him.  The Savior did not simply think about going from being celebrated as a righteous military leader to being killed as a blasphemous traitor within the short space of a few days.  He actually experienced it in order to set us free from the fear of death and make us participants in His eternal life.  He did so purely out of love for us.  When He wept at the tomb of His friend Lazarus, He was mourning for us all who are enslaved to the misery of corruption and decay in all its forms. Christ’s love is not limited to a feeling or an idea, for He literally laid down His life in order to restore us to the holy joy for which He created us in the first place.    
That kind of love requires commitment, action, and self-sacrifice.  The Lord offered Himself completely, without reservation of any kind, to set right all that had marred and distorted our original beauty as those created in God’s image and likeness. He rejected the temptation to play to the desire of the crowds for a conventional ruler, and instead won His great victory in the most shocking way possible through His own rejection, death, burial, and resurrection.  He entered into it all in order to heal, bless, and save fallen humanity, indeed the entire creation.    
The Savior had raised Lazarus from the dead, thus showing that He is the resurrection and the life.  Lazarus’ sister Mary prophetically anointed Christ for burial, even as those who saw Him as a threat to their power plotted to kill both Him and Lazarus.  In contrast, the One Who offered Himself as the true Passover Lamb sought no earthly power at all.  Even as the crowds welcomed Him with shouts of “Hosanna! Blessed is He Who comes in the Name of the Lord, the King of Israel!” in hopes of liberation from Rome by a ruler like King David, this Messiah rode into town on a humble donkey.  He is not a fearsome warrior, but the Prince of Peace.
Jesus Christ entered Jerusalem not merely as a great human being, but as the Son of God.  Being fully aware of the rejection, torture, and death that would come in the next few days, the eternal Word Who spoke the universe into existence went into Jerusalem as a lamb led to the slaughter.  He knew exactly what He was doing and what others would do to Him.  Out of love for us, He intentionally offered Himself as a ransom in order to set us free from slavery to the fear of the death and all its malign effects.   
            Our Lord is not some kind of distant god who delights in making others suffer.  He is not a typical political or national leader who wants only to build up his own power and glory.  He is not a self-righteous legalist keeping score of who deserves punishment or a reward.  Instead, He freely takes upon Himself the worst and most painful dimensions of life in our world of corruption in humility beyond our understanding.  The same Son of God Who wept at the tomb of His friend Lazarus will Himself lie in a tomb and descend even to Hades in order to look for His ancient friends Adam and Eve, lifting them up from the pit and bringing them to the blessedness for which He made them in His image and likeness.  In doing so, He sets us all free from slavery to sin and death.  
            That is how Jesus Christ has enacted our salvation, how He has accomplished it through His own flesh and blood.  It is an understatement to say that His death and resurrection required His personal participation.  He gave Himself fully, without reservation of any kind, in order to save us.  And if we want to know His salvation, if we want to know Him, that will require our personal participation also.
Holy Week invites us to participate personally in the deep mystery of the Savior’s great victory on our behalf. Through the services of the Church, we participate mystically in the triumphant entry of the Prince of Peace into Jerusalem, even though He triumphs in a way that still makes no sense according to the standards by which we usually live our lives.  This week we will prepare to receive the Bridegroom when He comes to invite us into the joy of the Kingdom. We will receive His Body and Blood as He institutes the Holy Eucharist on the night in which He was betrayed.  We will follow Him as He is rejected, abused, and crucified—as He dies, is buried, and descends to Hades.  We will sing dirges at His tomb and then stand in awe when that same tomb is empty and He arises in glory.
Holy Week enacts truths so profound that merely describing them with words or thoughts does not do them justice.  In order to enter into them, we must participate personally as whole, embodied persons who bow down and worship His Passion.  That means changing our schedules and routines as much as humanly possible in order to invest ourselves in the services of the Church.  It means not taking our Lord’s great Self-offering and victory over death for granted as an idea or a course of events that we already understand.  It means investing ourselves in Him by turning from our usual excuses, obsessions, and distractions to focus on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious.”  As St. Paul put it, “The Lord is at hand.”  So we should “have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”   
Now is the time to lay aside our earthly cares as we make faithfulness to our Savior the highest priority of our lives this week.  He did not shrink from going to the Cross for us, and we must not abandon Him by saying that we already know what happened two thousand years ago or simply have better things to do.  No, we must enter into the deep mystery of our salvation by investing ourselves as fully as possible in the journey of our Savior from the welcoming crowds of Sunday to those that yelled “Crucify Him!” on Friday.  We must kneel in humility at the foot of the Cross and sing lamentations at His grave if we are to have the eyes to behold the brilliant glory of a Savior Who rises in victory.  This week is one of those times not to rely on mere thoughts, feelings, or good intentions.  It is a time to act, to be committed, and to refuse to ignore the One who conquers death and Hades for our salvation. It is a time to offer ourselves to the Lord Who offered Himself for us purely out of love.  
   



Sunday, April 2, 2017

Selfless Service Over Self-Centered Desire: Homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 10:32-45
            Human beings have an amazing capacity to miss the point, to become blind to truths that should be obvious.  We often do that because we become so preoccupied and distracted with our own agendas and desires that we ignore everything else.  That is especially the case when the truth goes strongly against our inclinations by telling us what we do not want to hear.
That is what James and John did when they asked for choice positions of honor right after Jesus Christ had told them that He was to suffer, die, and rise from the dead.  They were apparently so consumed by their desires for prominence and power that they refused to hear the Lord saying that He was nothing like an earthly king.  They boasted of being prepared to follow the Savior without having any idea of what that would mean.  He responded by making clear that the path to true greatness was to follow His way of selfless service.  “For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” 
As we begin the last week of Lent, it should be clear to us all that we have not earned a place of honor in God’s reign.  If we have practiced the spiritual disciplines of Lent with any integrity and honesty, we will know primarily our own weakness and brokenness.  By revealing how easily we are distracted and how enslaved we are to our self-centered desires and habits, they show us that we cannot heal our own souls.  And if we have not devoted ourselves to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving at all in the previous weeks of Lent, we should confess that in humility and thus gain a greater awareness that we stand in constant need of the Lord’s gracious mercy. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” 
Regardless of how we have approached Lent so far, we must not become paralyzed with a sense of obsessive guilt for not living up to a standard of perfection, for not making ourselves worthy of the mercy of Christ.  To do so is simply a form of self-centered pride, for it is impossible to earn grace as a reward for good behavior.  Becoming great among the Lord’s servants means laying down our lives for others, lowering ourselves by placing the needs and interests of others before our own.  That is the opposite of a self-centered obsession to prove that we are worthy of anything. 
Today we remember St. Mary of Egypt, who had lived a grossly immoral life, but then gave herself up in repentance for decades in the desert, where she became a remarkably holy saint.  Instead of continuing to gratify her addiction to sexual pleasure, she died to self by rejecting everything that was a hindrance to the healing of her soul through incredibly rigorous repentance for the rest of her long life.  She knew that such disciplines did not somehow put God in her debt, but were ways of opening herself to receive the gracious healing of the Lord, which we never deserve.   
St. Mary of Egypt was not like James and John in trying to use the Savior to get what she wanted.  Instead, she freely obeyed a divine command to turn away from fulfilling her obsessive desires by uniting herself to the One Who offered His life as a ransom to free us all from slavery to sin and death.  Our Lord’s disciples ultimately found victory over their passions in different ways, for they had to learn that greatness in the Kingdom comes through selfless service to the point of suffering and death, not by yearning after what the world calls power and success. 
In the remaining days of Lent, we all have the opportunity to embrace our Lord’s way of selfless service in relation to those we encounter on a regular basis in our families, in our parish, at work, at school, and in our larger communities.  We all have the opportunity to confess how we have enslaved ourselves to self-centered desires and then to take the steps we can to turn away from them.  We all have the opportunity to fill our minds with holy things and give less attention to whatever fuels our unholy passions.   We all have the opportunity to follow the example of St. Mary of Egypt in doing what it takes to find the healing of our souls.  If our Lord could make a great saint out of her, then how can anyone remain paralyzed in guilt?   Our great High Priest offered Himself on the Cross and rose in glory on the third day in order to save sinners, to restore all who bear His image and likeness.  Thanks be to God, that includes even people as broken as you and me. In the coming week, let us open the eyes of our souls to this glorious truth through selfless service, humble prayer, and genuine repentance.     


Sunday, March 26, 2017

A Challenge that Reveals the Truth: Homily for the 4th Sunday of Lent and the Leavetaking of the Annunciation

Hebrews 6:13-20; Mark 9:16-30
We have all fantasized about what we would say or do in certain situations, and we probably all know that we often respond differently in real life than we do in our imaginations.  In fact, we never really know how we will act until we actually face the test. Reality has a way of revealing the truth in ways that surprise us.   
            That was surely the case for the father of the demon-possessed boy in today’s gospel reading.  Since the disciples had not been able to deliver him, the father said to the Lord “But if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.”  Those are the words of someone who had learned the hard way not to get his hopes up.  Perhaps that is what he had said to healers many times in the past who had not been successful.  But then Christ challenged him by saying ‘“If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”’  That was obviously not what he had planned to say, for the words came spontaneously from his heart in response to Christ’s challenge.  The Lord led the father to a remarkable level of spiritual honesty and clarity.  Through his painfully honest faith, the man’s son was healed.   
            Today we continue to celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation in which a young woman was challenged through the message of the Archangel Gabriel to respond to the outrageous news that she was to become the Theotokos, the Mother of the Son of God.   Mary had obviously not expected this strange calling and asked how such a thing could happen, as she was a virgin.  When Gabriel explained that the pregnancy would be a miraculous work of the Holy Spirit, she said “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”   In response to this astounding and unique challenge, her sense of identity and calling were focused, clarified, and transformed.   With her words, she revealed to herself and to us all what it means to be fully receptive to Christ.  It is through her humble obedience that the Lord became incarnate for our salvation.  
            During this season of Lent, we seek to open the eyes of our souls to God’s challenging message to each of us.  It will surely be different from what we might fantasize about God calling us to do.  It is different from an imaginary religion that serves only the self-centered desires to which we are all tempted in one way or another.  Instead, through prayer, fasting, generosity, and repentance, the Lord calls us to gain the spiritual clarity to see the truth about ourselves like the father in our gospel lesson who confessed in humility the weakness of his faith.  He calls us to crucify our passions and turn away from our sins so that we will gain the strength to become more like the Theotokos in simple, trusting obedience.   
            There is really no mystery about how to do this. We must attend Liturgy faithfully on Sundays and weekday services whenever possible.  We must keep a daily rule of prayer and Bible reading.  We must fast and practice other forms of self-denial.  We must give of our time, energy, and resources to others who need them.  We must forgive our enemies and ask forgiveness of those we have offended.  We must turn away from our sins and toward the Lord.  We must prepare honestly for the holy mystery of Confession, and strengthened by the assurance of Christ’s forgiveness, press on in faithfulness. Whenever we fall down, we must get back up as we offer the Jesus Prayer from the depths of our souls.  
The Savior wants to heal each of us fully from all the ravages of sin, but we must confess our brokenness from the depths of our hearts in order to open ourselves to receive His mercy.   He wants us to discern and obey His calling in the midst of all the challenges and problems of our lives in the “real world” as we know it.  Any other type of spirituality is a fantasy.  But in order to do so, we must turn away from our usual excuses in order to be fully present to Him.   Otherwise, it will be impossible even to hear His message, much less to obey it.
            The more that we pursue this simple path, the more the words of the man in today’s gospel lesson will become our own: “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”  The more that we pursue this simple path, the more we will be able to say with the Theotokos “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”  The more that we pursue this simple path, the greater spiritual clarity and strength we will have to hear and obey God’s challenging message, not as some kind of fantasy, but in reality as the ultimate truth of our lives.  That is the Lord’s calling to each and every one of us in this blessed season of Lent.  Let us use it for our salvation.       

              

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Killing the Fear of Death: Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent (Adoration of the Cross) in the Orthodox Church


Hebrews 4:14-5:6; Mark 8:34-9:1

Today we do something that goes against the strongest inclinations of fallen humanity:  We adore and celebrate the Cross.  Absolutely no one rejoiced about crosses in the first century, for crucifixion was the most horrible form of execution the Romans could devise.  When the Lord told Peter plainly that He would be killed, the head disciple was horrified and tried to correct Him.  That is when Christ said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”  In order words, Peter was thinking like any other human being enslaved to the fear of death.
            That, of course, is precisely why Jesus Christ offered Himself on the Cross:  to set us free from captivity to the grave.  He did not breathe life into us so that we would disappear into the earth, but so that we would be united eternally with Him in holiness. If we believe our fate is simply for the decay of the tomb, we will go to great lengths to distract ourselves from the pointlessness of our existence.  So we end up worshiping power, pleasure, possessions, and anything else that staves off the dread of death.  We will make this world a false god in one way or another in a failed effort to save ourselves on our own terms.  
            Today we adore the Cross because through it our Lord has conquered death, making even the tomb and Hades pathways to the eternal life of the Kingdom through His glorious resurrection.  It is because of His great Self-offering as our High Priest that we may depart this life with the hope of resurrection and life eternal.  But in order to share in the glory of the empty tomb, we must first follow Him to the Cross by taking up our own crosses.  That means dying to the corrupting power of sin in our lives as we crucify the addiction to self-centered desire that arises from the fear of death.  For if we seek to save our lives by the standards of our fallen world, we will end up losing our souls.
Fortunately, there is still time to live as those who are not ashamed of the Cross.  We have the remaining weeks of Lent to prepare to enter into the deep mystery of the Lord Who caused death to die.  And we do not have to look hard for opportunities to do so.  They are all around us. For example, we should turn our attention away from our favorite distractions (e.g. cell phones, video games, social media, news, sports, and movies) and toward the Lord in daily focused prayer, Bible reading, and studying the lives and teachings of the Saints.  We should sacrifice a small part of our usual routine by attending Lenten services each week. If our physical health and life circumstances allow, we should fast as best we can according to the guidelines of the Church. If we cannot fast from food due to illness, we should learn to accept our struggles with patience, perhaps finding another area of life where we can practice self-denial.  We should give generously of our resources, time, and attention to others, especially the poor, sick, and lonely.  We should serve our family members, friends, and fellow parishioners instead of simply ourselves. We should pray for our enemies and do what we can to heal broken relationships.  We should stay on guard against anything that inflames our passions.  We should shut out our dark and tempting thoughts with the Jesus Prayer.  We should confess our sins honestly this Lent, and be vigilant against sliding back into unholy habits.   
It is through such everyday acts of faithfulness that we will take up our crosses and follow the Savior Who offered Himself on the Cross for our salvation.  That is how we will be set free from the fear of death and all its corrupting effects on our souls.  That is how we will adore and celebrate the Cross as the great sign of our hope, as the only true answer to the tragic brokenness of our humanity.  The God-Man offered Himself on it in order to save us.  Now we must offer ourselves to Him in humble repentance by dying to sin in order to open ourselves to the glory of His resurrection.  That is the Lord’s calling to each and every one of us for, through the Cross, He has filled all things with joy.












Sunday, March 12, 2017

Overcoming Paralysis Through Humility: Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent in the Orthodox Church

Mark 2:1-12

If we were not aware already that we have much in common with the paralyzed man in today’s gospel reading, the first two weeks of Lent have surely opened our eyes a bit to that truth.  The struggle to embrace spiritual disciplines quickly shows us that we typically do not control ourselves very well at all.  We find it so hard to turn away from our usual self-centered habits when we seek to give more attention to prayer, fasting, and generosity.  We are so weak in our ability to stay focused in opening our hearts to the Lord and guarding them from evil thoughts.  We have so little strength to resist our addiction to our stomachs and taste buds, and basically to indulging our desires for pleasure in whatever form we want it.   We often feel powerless in our struggle to forgive others and mend broken relationships.  Taking even small steps to reorient our lives to God through spiritual disciplines should open our eyes to the paralysis of our souls.

            If that is the case for you today, then give thanks that the Lord has shown you a truth that is necessary for your healing. Jesus Christ said “It is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17) We must know our own disease in order to receive His healing.  We must know our own weakness in order to find His strength.  The disciplines of Lent are tools for helping us see that we do not simply need a new set of rules or a list of things to do or believe.  No, we need to be restored, to be transformed, to be enabled to rise up from our slavery to decay in order to walk, to move forward in a blessed life of holiness from the depths of our souls.  

            The salvation to which Christ calls us is not simply a matter of having ideas or feelings about Him, but of participating personally in the divine nature by grace.  Today we commemorate St. Gregory Palamas, a great bishop, monastic, and theologian of the 14th century.  He is known especially for defending the experience of hesychast monks who, through deep prayer of the heart and asceticism, were enabled to see the Uncreated Light of God that the Apostles beheld at the Transfiguration of the Lord on Mount Tabor.   Against those who denied that human beings could ever experience and know God in such ways, St. Gregory taught that we may truly participate in the divine energies as whole persons. He proclaimed that knowing God means being united personally with Him by grace.  It is to become radiant with the divine glory like an iron left in the fire in ways that permeate a person’s body, soul, and spirit.

            That is precisely what we see in the healing of the paralyzed man.  Christ raised him up from weakness and misery, enabling Him to move forward in a life of holiness, a life in which he had the strength to live as one created in God’s image and likeness.   Today we celebrate that the Savior does precisely the same thing for each of us.  Through His glorious resurrection, He raises us all from slavery to sin and death.  Left to our own devices, we would always be servants of our own corruption.  But when we confess from our hearts our own brokenness and take the steps necessary to open ourselves to His healing, He mercifully raises us up to participate personally in the blessed life that He came to bring to sinners like you and me. 

            The more that we truly humble ourselves before the Lord this Lent, the more open our hearts will be to the infinite healing power of His grace.  He does not rest content with forgiving us in a legal sense, but calls us to be permeated by His divine energies, to radiate His holiness as we live and breathe in this world.  He strengthens and commands us to manifest His victory over sin and death in our own lives.  Perhaps that is just another way of saying that He calls us to “rise, take up your pallet and go home.”  There is no way to receive His merciful healing without true humility.  And there is no way to acquire true humility other than to learn to see ourselves in that paralyzed man whose only hope is in Jesus Christ. Let us use the remaining weeks of Lent to embrace this deep truth through prayer, fasting, generosity, and repentance.  That is how we will unite ourselves more fully with the Lord Who came to raise us up with Him into eternal life.  That is how we too will be healed.




Sunday, March 5, 2017

Restoration, Not Escape: Homily for the First Sunday of Lent in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 11:24-26, 32-40; John 1:43-51
We are all tempted at times to think how nice it would be to run away from all our problems.  We would like to leave behind our jobs, annoying people, or difficult circumstances of whatever kind.  We would like to escape all that weighs us down in order to find peace and happiness.   In one way or another, we have all fantasized about that. And that, of course, is precisely the problem.  Such an escape is a fantasy because we cannot escape ourselves.  No matter where we go, we bring along our own personal brokenness, which is at the root of our lack of peace with others and within ourselves.
            The way to find joy is not by imagining that we can run away from our problems.  It is, instead, to find healing for our souls, which means becoming more beautiful living icons of Christ in the midst of life as we know it.  The word “icon” means “image,” and God has created us male and female in His image and likeness.  The ugliness of sin, in all its forms, mangles and distorts our beauty as those whose nature is to be an image of the Lord, to be like Him. Whatever makes us more like God in holiness makes us more truly ourselves.  And whenever we justify any form of sin as “just being who I am,” we deny the most basic truth of our humanity.
            As we celebrate the restoration of icons to the Church several centuries ago after the period of iconoclasm, we call ourselves to restoration in holiness, to return to our true identity as those called to be like God in every aspect of our lives. Our epistle reading reminds us that that is a difficult task, for those who looked forward to Christ’s coming in the Old Testament suffered and sacrificed greatly in anticipation of the fulfillment of a promise that they did not live to see.  We, however, have experienced the fulfillment of the promise in Jesus Christ.  And that is why we will make a procession around the church with our icons at the conclusion of Liturgy today, for we celebrate that the Eternal Word of God has become one of us, entering fully into our fallen world and humanity in order to restore us to the great dignity for which He breathed life into us in the first place.  The icons reflect the truth of the Incarnation.  They provide signs of hope that people like you and me, with all our problems and limitations, may enter into the holiness of God from the depths of our souls even as we live and breathe in the world as we know it.
With flesh and blood like anyone else, and in the midst of great threats, difficulties, and temptations, the Savior offered Himself fully in free obedience.  Through the mystery of His death and resurrection, He has made it possible for us to share personally in His eternal life.  In this season of Lent, we open ourselves more fully to His gracious healing of the human person through humble prayer, acts of mercy toward the needy, fasting, and repentance.  As we embrace His holiness, we become more like Him as His true icons. That happens not by trying to flee from our bodies, relationships with others, or any aspect of the creation, but offering them to the Lord for healing and blessing.
It is a hard struggle to reorient our desires toward the Lord and in the service of our neighbors.  There is much in us that wants to find fulfillment on our own terms, not by entering into the deep mystery of the Cross and the empty tomb from the depths of our souls.  But as the witness of the Saints has shown, there is no other way to become more beautifully ourselves in holiness.  There is no other way to “see the heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man” than to become who He created us to be in His image and likeness.  There is no other path to the Kingdom than to become a better icon of the Lord.          

             
           

             

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Putting on the Armor of Light for Lent: Homily for Forgiveness Sunday in the Orthodox Church

Romans 13:11-14:4; Matthew 6:14-21

            There are some lines of work in which people who are on duty have to dress in distinctive ways.  The uniforms of police officers, firemen, and members of the military, for example, reflect their unique vocations, responsibilities, and authority.   Athletes, employees in many businesses, and some students must wear clothes that identify them in terms of the larger organization of which they are a part.  Whether we like it or not, the clothes we put on our bodies say something to others, and also to ourselves, about who are and what we should be doing.
              We begin our Lenten journey with the reminder that we must be properly dressed spiritually.  That is a challenge because we are the children of Adam and Eve, who were cast out of Paradise after they stripped themselves of the glory that was theirs as those created in God’s image and likeness. The garments of skin that God gave them at that point showed their weakness and mortality, their slavery to the ways of death.  The good news is that Jesus Christ, the New Adam, has conquered our corruption and restored us to our ancient dignity as those who wear a robe of light.  We have put Him on in baptism like a garment.  In His mercy and love, He has made it possible for each and every one of us to fulfill our original vocation to become ever more like God in holiness as partakers of the divine nature.  Yes, that is truly what it means be a Christian and a human being.
Unfortunately, there is much in us that prefers the nakedness of Adam and Eve to the glory of the robe of light.  Corruption and decay root deep within our souls, and we so easily repudiate our glorious attire and turn away from our calling, preferring darkness and weakness to the brilliant holiness which the Savior has shared with us. For each of us in one way or another, there are strong temptations to strip ourselves of such great dignity and to disappear into the dark night of sin.  Not to do so requires a struggle, a battle, that goes to the depths of our souls. Perhaps that is why St. Paul said to “put on the armor of light,” for armor is strong and designed to protect those who wear it from deadly blows from their enemies.
During the season of Lent, we will be engaged in a difficult struggle to “cast off the works of darkness,” to strip ourselves of the ugly rags of sin that distort and hide our true identity as God’s beloved sons and daughters.  Instead of making sure that we give enough time and attention to serving our self-centered desires, we will invest ourselves in prayer, fasting, and serving others.  Instead of doing our best to ignore the truth about who we are before God and in relation to others, we will open the eyes of our souls to shining light that will reveal some very uncomfortable truths about each of us.  And even as we are tempted to take the focus off our own brokenness and to judge others, we will have to struggle mightily to see that the only failings to concern ourselves with are our own.  
Ever since Adam and Eve stripped themselves naked of the divine glory, people have wronged one another and often refused to extend forgiveness, to ask for and accept forgiveness, and to be reconciled with one another.  Despite the infinite mercy we have received from the Lord Who went to the Cross and rose from the dead to restore us, we so easily fall back into the old ways of resentment and division.  The Church calls us to forgive one another today as a way of taking a first step of repentance, of repudiating the passion-driven separation of God’s children from one another that has plagued humanity ever since Cain murdered his brother Abel.
The Son of God entered into our world of sin and death and took upon Himself the full brunt of its corruption.  He shed His blood in order to reconcile us to Himself, for we had separated ourselves from Him by slavery to sin in all its forms.  In humility and love, the eternal Word submitted to death, burial, and descent to Hades in order to raise us up with Him into eternal life through His resurrection.  That is the ultimate healing of a relationship, and we have only our Lord to thank for it.
As He taught in today’s gospel lesson, we must forgive others in order to be forgiven, in order to be restored to right relationship with God.  To put on Christ like a garment is to participate in His life, to be transformed and healed by personal union with Him.  If we claim His forgiveness and then refuse to forgive others, we strip ourselves of the divine glory as surely as did Adam and Eve.  For those who want His forgiveness without forgiving others do not really want anything to do with the Lord other than to get what they want from Him at the moment.  That was the problem of our first parents, who placed self-centered desire over obedience.  They fell into the idolatry of serving themselves instead of God.  And if we abuse our Lord’s mercy by proudly claiming His forgiveness while refusing to forgive others, we show ourselves to be guilty of the very same thing.  That path leads only to further weakness, darkness, and decay.  
Lent calls us, of course, to do the very opposite by taking every opportunity to participate more fully in the Savior’s healing of our fallen humanity.  We do that by extending forgiveness to those who have wronged us, by asking for and accepting forgiveness from those we have wronged, and otherwise doing what we can to mend broken relationships. These matters strike at the heart of the healing of our souls, and we should not be surprised when we struggle along this path.  So struggle we must, focusing on our own unworthiness when we are tempted toward anger and resentment toward anyone for any reason.  Like all spiritual disciplines, forgiveness teaches us humility because we do it so poorly. When our eyes are opened to that truth, we will know more fully our dependence upon the Lord’s mercy, as well as our constant obligation to extend that same mercy to others.
For the same reasons, we struggle to fast from the richest and most satisfying foods during Lent, as well as to give generously to the poor and needy.  Again like our first parents, we are more interested in making “provision for the flesh,” in satisfying self-centered desires than we are in obeying God.  Even small steps in fasting and generosity this Lent will help us catch a glimpse of our weakness, and thus serve as reminders that we need the merciful strength of our Lord to heal us from slavery to deeply rooted temptations.  The more that we struggle to live faithfully as those who have put on Christ, the more we will recognize our dependence upon His grace and love.   The more our eyes are opened to our reliance on His mercy, the more genuine the forgiveness we show to others will be, and the less we will try to impress anyone by our piety.  
If we approach Lent this way, we will remain robed securely in “the armor of light” as we gain the strength to live faithfully as those called to become ever more like God in holiness. We will strip ourselves of darkness and decay as we embrace the healing and restoration of our souls, our relationships, and the entire creation, in the New Adam, Who stopped at nothing, not even the Cross, the tomb, and Hades in order to bring us bring us into His blessed, eternal life.  If we approach Lent this way, we will be dressed spiritually in the most fitting way possible to enter into the joy of our Savior’s glorious resurrection on the third day.