Sunday, January 29, 2017

How Strangers and Foreigners Become God's Holy Temple: Homily for the Sunday of the Canaanite Woman in the Orthodox Church

2 Corinthians 6:16-7:1; Matthew 15:21-28
It is easy to fall into the trap of looking only at the surface of the challenges that we face in life.  Instead of getting to the heart of the matter, we often accept simplistic answers about ourselves, others, and even God.  One of those false answers that Jesus Christ corrected was that only people of a certain ethnic and religious heritage were called to holiness and capable of finding salvation.   That is another way of saying that He came to bring all peoples and nations into eternal life, for His Kingdom is radically different from the ways of the kingdoms of this world.
            Today’s epistle reading is from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians.  As I hope you remember, that church was made up primarily of Gentile converts who had recently converted from paganism, and they faced great problems in turning away from their old habits to embrace a life pleasing to God.  St. Paul, the former Pharisee, does something really shocking in today’s reading. He addresses the Corinthians as “the temple of the living God.”  He tells them that, because they are in Christ, they have become God’s people, His sons and daughters, and are to reject all corruption of body and spirit so that they will “make holiness perfect in the fear of God.” 
            What is so surprising is that St. Paul sends them that message by quoting Old Testament passages that called the Jews to become holy by having nothing to do with the Gentiles, to be separate from them and their ways.  And the Corinthian Christians were Gentiles. But because our Lord has fulfilled and extended the promises to Abraham to all who have faith in Him, those instructions now apply even to the very confused Gentile Christians of Corinth.  The holiness to which St. Paul called them was not a matter of having nothing to do with people of different ethnic or national heritages. Instead, it is a calling to acquire the fruits of the Holy Spirit: “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.” (Gal. 5: 22-25)
In first-century Palestine, the Jews did not think such holiness was even a possibility for Gentiles, such as the Canaanite woman who called out “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.” No one was surprised when Christ did not answer her at first, for who would have expected the Jewish Messiah to help a Gentile, especially a woman with a demon-possessed child?  But the Lord was actually doing something quite surprising, for He challenged her to respond to the conventional wisdom of the Jews when He said “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  She knelt before him and cried “Lord, help me!”  He then pressed her even harder by saying “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Christ was stating clearly the common Jewish understanding of that time that Gentiles had no claim to the promises to Abraham. 
Our Savior is obviously an excellent teacher, however, for these sharp words inspired her to utter a profound theological insight that had been forgotten by the Jews and was not known by the disciples.  For she responded, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” In other words, she saw the deep truth that God’s promises to the Jews were always intended to bless the entire world, and now they are fulfilled in all who have faith in the Messiah.  That is why the Lord then said to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And then the demon left her daughter.
Think about it for a moment. The Messiah of Israel praised the faith of a Gentile woman whose daughter was possessed by a demon. Could there be a more powerful sign that all people, including the hated foreigners, are also God’s people?  Could there be a more brilliant icon of how all nations are called to holiness than how the demon immediately left the girl when her mother showed such great faith?  This is a sign of all humanity being delivered from corruption by the Savior Who came to heal, bless, and sanctify all who bear His image and likeness.  Yes, that means even the Canaanites, the Corinthians, and people like you and me who probably are not of Hebrew descent.  Race, ethnicity, nationality, and other merely human characteristics have nothing to do with whether someone shares by grace in the holiness of God.  The healing of our souls is equally open to all through the God-Man Who has sanctified every dimension of our common humanity.
We must, however, do our part by actually living as God’s holy temple, as His sons and daughters who “cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit.”  St. Paul’s message to the Corinthians was not to congratulate them on having already achieved something, but instead to challenge them to live faithfully to their high calling.  He does the same with us. Our identity as members of Christ’s Body is nothing that we have earned, but purely a gift of grace which we must continue to receive with humility.  If it were our achievement or possession, then perhaps we could look down upon others as though God’s blessings were for us and not them.   Instead, we are exactly like the Canaanite woman with no claim to anything before the Lord.  We are as dependent upon His mercy as a foreign woman with a demon-possessed daughter begging on her knees and weeping as she cried out for help that no one else thought that she could possibly receive. 
As we struggle to find healing for our souls and to grow in holiness, we must cultivate the bold persistence of that Canaanite woman.  She refused to be denied, even though she knew that she was totally dependent upon the mercy of a Lord Who owed her nothing at all. We must also persist in humbling ourselves before Him as we separate ourselves from all that hinders us from sharing more fully in the life of Christ. We must refuse to be denied in our repentance, and that means taking steps that hit us where we live.  If we watch shows or play video games that inflame our passions and put images, worries, and fears in our minds and then distract us when we pray, we should stop indulging in them. If the news or social media does something similar to us, we must carefully regulate our consumption of it or turn it off.  If we put ourselves in social situations that tempt us to act, speak, or think in ways that we know are not pleasing to God, we should stay away from them.  If we find our greatest joy in food, drink, or any bodily pleasure, we should fast and reorient our lives from self-centered desire to growing in love for our Lord and our families and neighbors.
If we have harbored hatred and self-righteous judgment toward anyone or any group of people, and especially if we gossip about them, we must soften our hearts through the Jesus Prayer and keep our mouths shut when we are tempted to spew venom.  If our daily routine does not include falling on our knees in prayer before the Lord with the humble persistence of the Canaanite woman, that must become our very first priority in life.  For God’s holy temple must be a place of prayer, and as hard as it is to believe, by His grace we have become that temple.  Now we must fulfill our calling “to perfect holiness in the fear of God” by cleansing ourselves from every form of corruption.  That is how we will take our place with Canaanites, Corinthians, and other strangers and foreigners in a Kingdom not of this world.      

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Two Paths to the Kingdom: Homily on Zacchaeus and the Apostle Timothy in the Orthodox Church

1 Timothy 4:9-15; Luke 19:1-10
One of the worst mistakes that we can make in life is to insist that everyone be just the same.  Part of the beauty of the human being is the distinctiveness of our personalities, our interests, and our abilities.  We see that in our families, in our friendships, in our work, and in the Church, where the different members of the Body of Christ have different functions in working together for the strength and blessing of all.  We should also learn to see that in the spiritual paths that we pursue, in the journeys that we take to share more fully in the life of our Lord.
            Zacchaeus’ path to salvation was shocking, decisive, and scandalous.  As a chief tax collector, he was a high ranking traitor to the Jews because he worked collecting taxes for the pagan Roman Empire, which occupied Israel.  He became rich basically by stealing from his fellow Jews when he took even more of their money than the Romans required and lived off the difference.  He was the last person whom anyone would have expected to entertain the Messiah in his home, but that is precisely what he did at the instruction of Jesus Christ.  And when people complained how disreputable it was for the Lord to enter his home, Zacchaeus made a bold change in an instant.  This man who had apparently loved money and comfort more than his own people or righteousness, repented of his own accord.  There is no record that Christ told him to take any particular action, but he immediately committed himself publicly to giving half of his possessions to the poor and to giving back four times the amount that he had stolen.  Since he was a chief tax collector and wealthy, these acts of restitution surely involved large sums of money.  No one would have ever expected someone like him to do that, and it was such a grand gesture that many probably found it hard to believe.
Jesus Christ knew, however, that he was sincere and would follow through with these outrageous acts of repentance.  That is why He said what no Jew ever expected the Messiah to say about someone like Zacchaeus: “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost.”  Unlike those who wanted a Messiah to reward the righteous, destroy the sinners, and defeat the Romans, our Savior came to bring the lost sheep back into the fold, even those who were so lost that they had gone over to the side of the wolves.
There have been many people whose journey to the Kingdom has much in common with Zacchaeus.  Like him, they had turned away from God and many people probably thought that they would be the very last people to find healing for their souls.  Remember that St. Paul actually persecuted Christians before the risen Lord appeared to him on the road to Damascus.  St. Peter denied the Lord three times during His Passion. In the Old Testament, King David committed murder and adultery.  St. Mary of Egypt was a grossly immoral person before repenting so profoundly that she rose up off the ground in prayer. St. Moses the Black was a feared criminal before becoming a model of holiness in the monastic life.  The list goes on and on of outrageous sinners who shockingly redirected their lives to the Lord through humble repentance.  In contrast with all the darkness of their past lives, His glory shines especially brightly in them. 
Not everyone follows that particular path to the Kingdom, however.  Today we commemorate St. Timothy the Apostle, who was converted to the Christian faith by St. Paul together with his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice.  He became the bishop of Ephesus and was martyred there for opposing the worship of false gods. St. Paul thought highly of him as his spiritual son, and exhorted him to embrace his calling fully and to be a good steward of his gifts.  As. St. Paul wrote, “Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.  Until I come, attend to the public reading of scripture, to preaching, to teaching.  Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophetic utterance when the council of elders laid their hands upon you. Practice these duties; devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress.”
St. Timothy came to the faith early in life and the reference to his youth shows that he had responsibilities in ministry as relatively young adult.  St. Paul instructed him to be responsible to the great dignity of his calling, to devote himself to cultivating all the spiritual strength that he possibly could, and to be fully aware of the gravity of the grace given him to serve as a shepherd of the flock. 
Unlike with Zacchaeus, Timothy apparently did not need astounding repentance.  He had the benefit of coming to Christ early in life and needed primarily to be faithful with all the blessings that he had received.  That may seem easier than turning away from a life of grave sin, but it is a path with its own temptations, which can be subtle and deadly.  It is easy to take for granted what we have known for so long, perhaps for our whole lives.  It is appealing to denigrate “the same old thing” that we and our families have done for so long.  It is a temptation to become comfortable with our level of spiritual growth or with the place that we have allowed God in our lives.  St. Paul surely knew that, so he instructed Timothy straightforwardly to remain focused, take nothing for granted, and give his all to the Lord each day.
At different points in our lives, we will identify more with Zacchaeus and at other times more with Timothy.  Some have given their lives to the Savior after falling into the worst forms of corruption that the world has to offer.  They have found the way of Christ as a relief and a blessing that stands in stark contrast to the darkness they had previously known. 
Some have grown up with the faith and always had some sense of living a Christian life.  Nonetheless, we are all Zacchaeus when we turn away from the Lord by embracing darkness in our thoughts, words, and deeds.  We may not be traitors and corrupt tax collectors, but we murder people in our hearts when we hate and refuse to forgive them.  We fall into adultery whenever we allow lust to take root in our hearts. Married or single, we sin whenever we fuel our passions with images, thoughts, or actions that make us slaves to self-centered desire, that lead us to reject the calling to direct our deepest desires to union with God.  When we are stingy with our resources, time, and attention in relation to the needs of our family members and neighbors, we steal from them.  But when we reorient ourselves according to the Lord’s purposes for us like Zacchaeus did, salvation will come to our house.
And even if we came to faith from a broken and dark past, we are all Timothy in having gifts of which we must be good stewards.  We must devote ourselves to remaining on the path by which we have begun the journey to the Kingdom, refusing to be distracted from our high calling.  We must remember the struggles of the past and never take our deliverance for granted, for we are all only one grave sin away from weakening our relationship with the Lord.  And if we want to continue on the path to healing and strength that we have begun, we must actually continue on it.  St. Paul’s words apply to us also: “Practice these duties; devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress.”   Yes, we all owe it to one another to set the best example possible in striving to grow in holiness.  This is not a journey that any of us can take entirely by yourselves.
The personal histories of Zacchaeus and Timothy were profoundly different, but they both became shining examples of our Lord’s salvation.  The same will be true of us when we turn from sin like that tax collector and mindfully stay focused on serving Christ like that young apostle. No matter where we are on the journey to the Kingdom, we can all learn from these two faithful men.  The beauty of our unique personalities will shine all the more brightly when, through humble repentance, salvation comes to our house and when, through steadfast commitment, we refuse to be distracted from offering our lives faithfully to the Savior each day. That is surely His calling to each and every one of us.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

What We Can Learn from Two Ascetics and One Grateful Samaritan: Homily on St. Paul of Thebes and St. John the Hut-Dweller for the 29th Sunday After Pentecost and the 12th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Colossians 3:4-11; Luke 17:12-19
            You can learn a lot about a person by asking them who their heroes are.  The people we admire tell us a lot about what we value, what we hope for, and who we want to become in the course of our lives.  The Church canonizes Saints who are shining examples of faithfulness to Jesus Christ, who show in their own lives what it means for a human being to become a brilliant icon of holiness.  The Saints are as varied as people are, for we each have unique personalities.  Their distinctive examples inspire us to unite ourselves fully to Christ and, thus, to become our true selves in His image and likeness.
            Today we commemorate two Saints with whom we may think that we have little in common.  St. Paul of Thebes was the first Christian hermit, living for 91 years in a cave in the Egyptian desert in constant prayer in the third and fourth centuries.  His diet consisted of dates and bread, which a raven brought him.  God revealed to St. Antony the Great that St. Paul was more advanced in the ascetic life than he was, so he went to visit him.  When Paul died, Antony saw his soul ascend in glory to heaven surrounded by angels, prophets, and apostles.    
            We also commemorate today St. John the Hut Dweller, who left the wealthy home of his parents to become a monk in the fifth century.  He eventually returned to Constantinople, where he hid his true identity and lived as a beggar outside his parents’ home for three years, where he prayed for them constantly, endured abuse and ridicule, and suffered from the lack of adequate clothing and shelter.   Before his death, John revealed his identity to his parents, who built a church and hostel for strangers on the site of his grave.
            These men are not regarded as heroes in our culture, and few of us know much about them or have taken them seriously as models for our lives.  On the one hand, that is understandable because only a minority of Christians hear the calling to follow the difficult ascetical path of monasticism, which receives great honor in the Church precisely because it is such a stark and demanding example of what it means to take up our crosses and follow Christ.  But on the other hand, these two Saints should intrigue us all because they demonstrate that people of flesh and blood, with all our common weaknesses, may still resist temptation and press on to grow in holiness in profound ways.  If anything, their temptations were greater than ours because of the difficulty of their path and the attraction to any human being of what they gave up:  physical comfort, family relations, and what we think of as a normal life in the world.
            Their example should inspire us, even as we remain in our families, homes, and occupations, to follow St. Paul’s advice to “appear with Him in glory,” to become epiphanies or manifestations of our Lord’s healing and restoration of every dimension of the human person in the divine image and likeness.   That may sound abstract and theoretical, but the calling is as concrete and practical as making sure that “fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” have no place in our lives.  It is as matter of fact as refusing to accept “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth.”  It is as straightforward as putting an end to our habit of lying, of telling people what they want to hear or whatever helps us get what we want. These are signs of what it means to “put off the old nature with its practices and... put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator.”
            We are not desert fathers and mothers or famous ascetics.  We are average people who live fairly conventional lives.  We are not ready to take on the stark choices and challenges that we see in the lives of St. Paul or St. John.  Nonetheless, our daily struggle to turn away from slavery to self-centered desire and corruption is simply another version of their path, and it too has eternal consequences.  In all that we say, do, and think each day, we have the freedom to unite ourselves more fully to Christ in holiness or to distance ourselves from Him.  We may become more beautiful living icons of His salvation or uglier and more deformed distortions of what it means to be in God’s image and likeness.  We may become epiphanies of His salvation or of the consequences of repudiating our true calling in life.  That is a choice that each of us makes every moment.
            We may be tempted to ignore the calling to holiness that Christ places upon each of us due to our particular history of personal brokenness, our busy schedule, or whatever set of difficulties that we and our loved ones face.  It is a temptation to think that sharing more fully in our Lord’s life is only for those with no problems, no history of doing the wrong thing, and no strong pull in the other direction.  Yes, that is simply a temptation and we must identify and reject it as such.  God calls us all to be faithful in our present circumstances, for those are the only circumstances that are real. Instead of dreaming that someday, when all is well, we will become really holy, we should take the steps that we are capable of today to orient our lives more fully to the Kingdom of God.  In the world as we know it, all will never be well and we will never be without excuses and distractions.  Now is the time to live as those clothed with a robe of light, as those who have put on Christ in baptism like a garment, who have died to sin and risen with Him to a new life of holiness.
If you feel discouraged about taking even the first steps toward embracing such a life, think for a moment about the Samaritan leper in today’s gospel lesson.  It would be hard to be more out of place and lower socially than a Samaritan with leprosy in first-century Israel.  He must have had virtually no hope for a better life, and surely not for a Jewish Messiah to heal him.  Nonetheless, that is precisely what our Lord did, and he was the only one of the ten cleansed lepers who returned to thank Christ for the miracle.  The Lord said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.”
            This Samaritan was not someone free from problems and distractions.  No, he had them as much, if not more, than anyone else in his time and place.  But he used his weakness and pain to open his soul in humble gratitude to Christ.  Perhaps it was precisely because his path had been so difficult that he alone went back to thank Him.  We can learn from his example to be thankful for every blessing, every bit of strength and healing, and every glimpse of truth into the true state of our souls. This man was not perfect, but He called for mercy from the depths of His heart, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us,” obeyed the command to head to Jerusalem to show himself to the Jewish priests (which must have been very difficult for him as a Samaritan), and then alone returned to give thanks.    
              The Samaritan leper surely had may opportunities for spiritual struggle built into his life.  The same is true for all of us in one way or another.  Remembering his example, and that of St. Paul of Thebes and St. John the Hut Dweller, let us embrace every opportunity to die to self and sin as we open our hearts and souls to the healing mercy of Jesus Christ. God does not call us all to become monks and nuns or famous ascetics, but He does call us all to become holy by repentance and faith.  That is how we may all prepare to appear with Him in glory.


Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Creation Fulfilled and Restored: Homily for the Sunday After Theophany (Epiphany) in the Orthodox Church

Ephesians. 4:7-13; Matthew 4:12-17
Some people think of religion as a way of escaping the problems of life in the “real world.” They may view our physical bodies and their weaknesses, as well as all the problems that people and societies have in relating to one another, as evil or pointless realities from which they hope God will deliver us.  Perhaps they want an imaginary spiritual bliss of not having to put up with others or with the other challenges that life in the created world presents.  That hope may fit with the sensibilities of some and even be appealing to us at times, but it has nothing to do with the God Who revealed Himself as the Holy Trinity when Christ was baptized by St. John in the Jordan for our salvation.  
            Think for a moment about how the Holy Trinity is manifested.  Jesus Christ submits to the baptism of St. John the Forerunner in a river full of water.  When the Lord comes out of the water, the voice of the Father identifies Him as His Beloved Son and the Holy Spirit descends upon Him in the form of a dove.  Instead of escaping the creation or rescuing us from it, God enters into it.  The Son lowers Himself into a river and gets as wet as anyone else who did so.    The deepest mystery of the universe, that God is the Holy Trinity, is proclaimed in relation to what happened in a river full of water.
            The Savior was not baptized as a sign of His own repentance, of course, for He had no sins of which to repent.  Instead, He makes the water holy by entering into it, by restoring the entire creation to its right relationship with God.  As the God-Man, He descended into the world that He spoke into existence in order to free it from subjection to futility and fulfill it as an icon of His salvation.
We, of course, are part of that creation in every dimension of our existence, both as particular persons and in relation to one another.  Recall the nakedness of Adam and Eve when they turned away from God, for they stripped themselves of the divine glory by repudiating their calling to become ever more like God in holiness.  They diminished themselves and the entire creation by serving their self-centered desires instead of the Lord.  They brought death and slavery to our passions into the world, which we see so vividly when their son Cain murdered their son Abel.    
Our Savior entered fully into our distorted world of brokenness and pain in order to set it right.  He was baptized in the Jordan in order to clothe the naked Adam, in order to restore us to the dignity of those who wear the robe of light of His beloved sons and daughters.  We put Him on in baptism like a garment.  By His mercy and grace, we participate personally in His healing and blessing of every aspect of our humanity.  He does not call us to flee from His world, but to be so united with Him in holiness that we play our unique parts in fulfilling His gracious purposes for it.  He invites us to become like Him as partakers in the divine nature by grace.  That is really simply what it means to be a human being in the divine image and likeness.
I hope that you will sign up today for a time to have your house blessed, which is a standard Orthodox practice at Theophany.  We bless houses with holy water, which was blessed at the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy on the day of the feast. By entering into the water, the Lord made the water holy, which means that He restored and fulfilled its very nature.  We need water in order to live.  The earth needs water in order to become fertile, bearing fruit and giving life to animals of all kinds.  We wash with water and use it to maintain cleanliness and health.  Without water, we become weak and die, as do other creatures.  And in the world as we know it, water can kill us through floods and storms. Since the creation has been subjected to futility through the sin of human beings, the very water through which God gives us life may become the means of our death.
    The good news is that our Lord has made even death an entrance into life.  When we are baptized into Christ, we are baptized into His death.  When we put Him on in baptism, we died to sin and rose with Him in holiness, regaining the robe of light and being restored to our intended place in the creation in God’s image and likeness. When we bless holy water, we restore water to its intended place, to its original role in giving life and cleansing impurities.  These are fulfilled in baptism, by which the Lord shares His eternal life with us and washes away our corruption. Here we see the purpose of water, and the creation itself, fulfilled.
 When we bless a home, or anything else, with holy water, God restores it to its natural state, to its place in fulfilling God’s purposes in the creation.  And since our homes are where we and our families live each day, how could we not want that blessing on our marriages, our children, and the physical space where we offer our lives to the Lord?  When we bless our homes, we join what is most important to us to Christ’s healing and restoration of the entire universe. We make our daily lives a liturgy, an entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven.
We cannot stop there, however, for we must actually live as those who have put on a robe of light, who have entered into the fulfillment of all things in Christ.  We must make our marriages, families, and daily interactions with others an epiphany, a manifestation of God’s gracious purposes.  We must become icons of the Holy Trinity as particular people united in holy love with others. 
As St. Paul taught in today’s epistle lesson, “And His gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”  Christ blesses us, not as isolated individuals, but as members of His Body for the blessing of all our fellow members and ultimately for the entire world.  We become truly human together in Him. 

We will not find salvation in isolation, but as persons united in holy love who share a common life in Christ.  As those created in His image and likeness, that is our natural state.  It is revealed at Christ’s baptism that He is the Son of the Father.  That is a relationship of holy love beyond our full understanding.  To be in loving relationship with others is a key dimension of what it means to be a human being in the divine image and likeness.  When we bless our homes, we find strength to make our marriages and families icons of the fulfillment of God’s gracious purposes. That is only a start, however, as we must intentionally turn away from darkness in all its forms in order to become radiant with the light of Christ.  In other words, we must repent. That is ultimately how to celebrate this great feast, by offering every dimension of our lives to the Lord such that we become living epiphanies of His salvation in the world as we know it.  The point is not to escape the world, but to become icons of its fulfillment. 

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Purifying the Heart: Homily for the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ in the Orthodox Church


Colossians 2:8-12; Luke 2:20-21, 40-52

        The great mystery of the Son of God becoming a human being shines brightly today as we celebrate the feast of the Circumcision of Jesus Christ.  Like any other Jewish male, He endured the procedure that was the mark of becoming an heir to the promises to Abraham.  He is not, of course, simply another child of Hebrew heritage, but also the eternal Word Who spoke the universe into existence.  Nonetheless, He humbles Himself today to be circumcised in the flesh as were His forefathers.
St. Paul, a former Pharisee and expert in the Jewish law, strongly opposed requiring Gentiles to be circumcised in order to become Christians.  He knew that Christ had fulfilled the promises of the Old Testament such that they were extended to all people who have faith in the Messiah.  He writes to the Colossians that “you have come to fullness of life in Him, Who is the head of all rule and authority. In Him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ…”  Elsewhere St. Paul teaches that true circumcision is “of the heart, in the spirit, and not of the letter” of the law. (Rom. 2: 29) He knew that Christ’s circumcision is a sign that He fulfilled the requirements of the law and enabled all with faith in Him to find a righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees because it extends to the very depths of our existence, to our hearts.
Consequently, the only way worthily to celebrate His circumcision is for us to perfect the circumcision of our hearts.  That means purifying them, cutting off their corruption by uniting ourselves to the God-Man from the depths of our souls.  And there is no upward limit to this calling.  Remember that the Lord interpreted the Old Testament law to forbid not only murder, but also anger and insults--and not only adultery, but also lust.  He did not simply call His disciples to limit vengeance to an eye for an eye, but to forgive and bless even their enemies.  (Matt. 5:20 ff.) His concern is not simply with outward appearances, conventional morality, or going through the motions.  By becoming fully human even as He remained fully divine, He enables us to become perfect in love for God and neighbor even as He is perfect.  Such a life cannot be captured by even the best words and ideas.
If we reduce our high calling to legalism or a simple list of deeds to perform, we will have missed the point.  For being united with Christ in holiness is not a matter of simply doing this or that by our own will power.  As St. Paul reminded the Colossians, “you were buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised with Him through faith in the working of God, Who raised Him from the dead.”  We obviously cannot conquer sin and death by even our best actions or thoughts.  As St. Paul taught, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.” (Eph. 2.:8.)  
There is no avoiding the truth that the more fully we unite ourselves to our Savior in daily prayer from our hearts, the more we will participate personally in His blessed life.   We shape ourselves by what we think about, what we fill our hearts with, and what we love and hope for.  Let us celebrate the Circumcision of our Lord by orienting ourselves from the depths of our souls to the One Who has fulfilled and extended the ancient promises to Abraham even to us.  That means turning the thoughts of our hearts back to Him in the Jesus Prayer as often as we possibly can.  It means opening our hearts to Him in focused prayer each day.  It means keeping a close watch on our thoughts and refusing to accept and fuel those that are corrupt and inflame our self-centered desires and fears.

It means taking our place in the unfolding of God’s salvation by cutting off from our hearts and minds all that would separate us from embracing as fully as possible the great mystery of the One Who was circumcised in the flesh on the eighth day.  That is how we will find the strength to serve Him faithfully not only in this New Year, but all the years of our lives.  That is how our faith will become more than a collection of quaint customs and rituals, but truly our participation in eternal life as whole human beings. That is surely His will for us all as we celebrate this feast of our salvation in the God-Man Who became one of us in order that we might become like Him in holiness.  That is the good news that we celebrate this day.