Saturday, August 31, 2013

Marking Time: Homily for the Ecclesiastical New Year in the Orthodox Church

             Have you ever noticed the ways we mark the passage of time in our lives?   Since my “day job” is in a university, I usually think in terms of semesters and academic years.  Many of us may look back to “the good old days” when we remember life being better or look ahead to a time when we are done with school or able to retire.  Perhaps family life was better or worse for us in the past or the economy or the world situation was more or less to our liking.  One way or another, we will find a way to make sense of how our lives fit into a larger scheme of time.
            Jesus Christ began His ministry by announcing that a new phase of time had begun.  No, He was not talking about a new season of the year or the rule of a new emperor.  Instead, the Lord proclaimed that He Himself is the fulfillment of all the hopes and dreams of the Old Testament prophets for the fullness of time, for the presence of God’s Kingdom.  The word “messiah” means “anointed one,” and He is truly the One anointed to preach the good news of salvation to poor, brokenhearted, blind, and captive humanity.  This Second Adam has come to set right everything set wrong by the first Adam, to usher us into a new life in which our self-inflicted spiritual wounds, and all their unhappy consequences, are healed.  By restoring us to the dignity of the children of God in the divine likeness, the Lord’s salvation strikes at the heart of why people fear, oppress, abuse, and violate one another in the world as we know it.  By making us participants in His life, Christ enables us to live out personally the blessedness of the Kingdom in a world still mired in the ways of slavery and death.    
            That is precisely why St. Paul wrote that Christians should pray for everyone, especially for those with power and authority in the world, that we may live “a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence.  For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”  Have you noticed how we pray so often in our services for the peace of the world, the union of all people, and favorable conditions for all those created in the image and likeness of God?  Because we believe that Jesus Christ is the Savior of the entire world, we want literally everyone to participate in the blessings of His Kingdom.  We want literally everyone to be set free from captivity to sin and death and all their ill effects.  As those who live in the new day of God’s reign, how could we want anything less?
            While it is true that some become saints in situations of persecution, war, and disease, God did not intend us for suffering.  He is not the author of evil, and we should not want difficult circumstances for ourselves or others.  Instead, we pray for situations favorable to the flourishing of the Church and of every human being.  No, good times are not the same as the fullness of the Kingdom, but every good thing is the work of God and provides at least a faint glimpse of heavenly glory for which we were created.  Christ has come to heal and restore our fallen selves such that we will be able recognize our blessings for what they are and to offer them back to Him through a life of holiness.  We are then able to play our proper role in fashioning the world into an icon of the Kingdom, a foretaste of heavenly peace even now.  The Kingdom will not be completed through different arrangements of worldly politics and power, but by humanity united with divinity, drawn into personal union with Christ through the faithful witness of a Church whose life shines so brightly with eternal joy that the sick, poor, blind, and downtrodden will be drawn to Him like moths to a flame.
            Today begins a new year in the Church and presents us all with much a needed reminder that, if we claim to be Christians, we must live according to the new day that our Savior has brought to the world.  If we are truly united personally with the Lord, then our lives must manifest good news to the poor, sight for the blind, and liberty to the captives—no matter what kinds of poverty, blindness, and captivity they experience.  We must become living witnesses that something new and holy has begun upon the earth, that God’s reign has truly dawned, and is good news for everyone.  But if we are so pathetically weak from the ravages of sin, if we are blinded spiritually or totally enslaved by our passions, we will hardly be in a position to bear witness to others of the new life of the Kingdom.  If we are not living proof that a new era has begun in which death is slain and evil is vanquished, then we will have nothing to offer the world in either word or deed.  Why should anyone believe that something new has begun if we keep living according to the old standards of the corrupt world?
            At this point, it is easy for us all to despair because we know that we are not yet fully healed from the ravages of sin; we know that we do not yet have perfect sight and remain shackled by our self-centered desires and addictions in many ways.  Here we must be brutally honest that God’s Kingdom has yet to come in its fullness in our own lives.  That is not His fault, of course, but ours.  And no matter how faithful we may be, we still await the great mystery of our Lord’s second coming, of His glorious return to judge the living and the dead and to establish the life of the world to come.  The question, however, is how we await that great future fulfillment as people who have much room to grow in holiness.  In other words, what kind of life is appropriate for those who know that our only hope is the mercy of the Lord?
            Well, it is certainly not a life characterized by despair.  It is certainly not a life of abandoning the way of discipleship because we stumble and fall.  It is certainly not a life so filled with pride that we refuse to persevere along a path where we are in constant need of the Savior’s healing and help.  No, we have not yet arrived; but our only hope of growing in union with Christ is to follow Him as best we can, gratefully accepting whatever glimpses of the new life of the Kingdom we have the spiritual strength to see.  In Him, a bright new day has begun and all God’s promises have been fulfilled.  He is infinitely holy, but we all have a long way to go.
            So let us all use the new church year as a time to receive as fully as we can the good news He has proclaimed, to participate as much as we can in the freedom from sin that He has brought to humanity, and to open the eyes of our souls as fully as possible to the One Who brings sight to the blind.  And as we do so, let us show His mercy to others, treating them with love, forgiveness, and generosity in ways that demonstrate that something new really has begun in Jesus Christ, Who wants all to be saved, to come to the knowledge of the truth, and to share in the great blessings of His Kingdom. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Cappadocian Fathers on Almsgiving and Fasting

The Cappadocian Fathers on Almsgiving and Fasting

by Rev. Fr. Philip LeMasters | August 19, 2013
cappadocian-fathersNot only a prominent theme in the Bible, concern for the poor is a common point of emphasis in the writings of the Fathers of the Church, and the Cappadocian Fathers—St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian and St. Gregory of Nyssa—are no exception.
Consider, for example, the teaching of St. Basil the Great:
“When someone strips a man of his clothes we call him a thief. And one who might clothe the naked and does not —should you not be given the same name? The bread in your board belongs to the hungry; the cloak in your wardrobe belongs to the naked, the shoes you let rot belong to the barefoot; the money in your vaults belongs to the destitute. All these you might help and do not—to all these you are doing wrong.”
St. Basil’s exhortation cuts to the quick of the situation of many Orthodox believers, as well as others, in North America. Though we did not steal our money and possessions from others, we have more than we need. When that is the case, we have an obligation to share from our overabundance with those who lack basic necessities. If we fail to do so, we incur the guilt of a thief. Indeed, we have a greater guilt, for we have ignored the needs of the Lord Jesus, Who identified Himself with “the least of these.”
Likewise, according to James Thornton, St. Gregory the Theologian understood charity as “an absolute obligation for all Christians.” In St. Gregory’s own words:
“[N]ow if following Paul and Christ Himself, we have to maintain that charity is the first and greatest of all commandments, the sum of all the laws and prophets, I suggest that the main part of charity is the love for the poor and mercy and compassion for our fellow brethren.” He admits to being “frightened by the possibility of being numbered among the goats on the left hand of the Sovereign Judge … not … because they have done something forbidden; nothing of the sort attracts condemnation on them, except their having failed to care for Christ Himself in the person of the poor.”
Appealing directly to the gospels, St. Gregory stressesthe urgency of ministry to the poor:
[W]hile there is yet time, visit Christ in his sickness, let us give to Christ to eat, let us clothe Christ in his nakedness, let us do honor to Christ, and not only at table, [or] with precious ointments [or] in his tomb [or] with gold, frankincense and myrrh, … but let us give him this honor in his needy ones, in those who lie on the ground before us this day…
Furthermore, St. Gregory of Nyssa teaches that fasting is “an extension of Christ’s requirement to give alms” and should turn us away from a host of passions. His exhortations on the topic are worth quoting at length:
There is a kind of fasting which is not bodily, a spiritual self-discipline which affects the soul; this abstinence [is] from evil, and it was as a means to this that our abstinence from food was prescribed. Therefore I say to you: Fast from evil-doing, discipline yourselves from covetousness, abstain from unjust profits, starve the greed of mammon, keep in your houses no snatched or stolen treasure. For what use is it to touch no meat and to wound your brother by evil-doing? What advantage is it to forgo what is your own and to seize unjustly what is the poor’s? What piety is it to drink water and thirst for blood, weaving treachery in the wickedness of your own heart? Judas himself fasted with the eleven, but since he did not curb his love of money, his fasting availed him nothing to salvation…
St. Gregory calls Christians to a genuine fast:
“Loosen every bond of injustice, undo the knots of covenants made by force. Break your bread to the hungry; bring the poor and homeless into your house. When you see the naked, cover him; and despise not your own flesh.” The Lord has given His dignity to the poor, who “are treasurers of the good things that we look for, the keepers of the gates of the kingdom, opening them to the merciful and shutting them on the harsh and uncharitable… [T]he Lord beholds what is done towards them, and every deed cries louder than a herald to Him who searches all hearts.”
When we imitate God’s generosity by giving to the poor, St. Gregory says elsewhere, we grow in the divine qualities of “mercy and kindness,” which “inhabit a person, divinize him and stamp him with imitation of the good in order to bring to life our original, immortal image which transcends conception.”
Saints Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and Gregory of Nyssa are held in extraordinarily high esteem in the Orthodox Church as the men who guided the Orthodox formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity in the fourth century. In this light, no one may dismiss their common call for generosity to the poor as a fundamental dimension of the life in Christ. Not an optional undertaking for those so inclined, turning away from our greed to care for the needy is a requirement of the Christian life.
They defined this requirement strictly, for “when the Cappadocians spoke of giving to the poor,” writes Justo Gonzalez, “they did not mean setting aside a small portion of one’s wealth for that purpose. They spoke of ridding oneself of all that was not strictly necessary.” Though they “retained some of their wealth,” these Fathers clearly put into practice what they preached, supporting “a large complex of buildings that provided shelter for travelers, medical care for the ill—especially those, such as lepers, whom society at large despised—food for the hungry and occupation for many who otherwise would be unemployed.” Though they did not literally give away everything they owned, they used their wealth generously, effectively and prudently to relieve the suffering of the poor, sick and needy, and thus showed the love of Christ.
Patristics scholar Susan R. Holman concludes that the Cappadocians “elevated” the poor “into the religious liturgy, that is, Christian practice and worship.” Their preaching raised people who were typically despised, rejected and thought to have no claim on anyone or anything, to the exalted status of members of Christ’s Body. Hence, those who encounter the poor encounter the Lord; and those who wish to find salvation will do so through a life characterized by generosity to those in need through both fasting and almsgiving.
Reflecting their shared Orthodox beliefs on the incarnation, the Cappadocians taught that the poor “hold a direct line of access to the highest realm of deity; their generate nature in no way limits this access and is in fact one of its most characteristic features.” In a faith that teaches that the Son of God became a human being with a real body, it should not be surprising that there is a profound spiritual significance to the unmet bodily needs of human beings.
“As the Cappadocians use traditional New Testament images to identify the poor with Christ,” Holman writes, “the body of the poor—in its most literal, mutable sense—gains social meaning. The rhetorical expression of this body gains a language and a voice of its own … as the body of the Logos.” It would be difficult to find a more radical transformation of the status of the poor than this one. Those thought to be “nobodies” by the world are now raised to the glory of the Body of Christ. We encounter and serve the Lord in them, and through this asceticism we ourselves—and our society—are transformed as well.

This essay is an adaptation of a section of Fr. Philip’s book The Goodness of God’s Creation (Salisbury, MA: Regina Orthodox Press, 2008).

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Offering Loaves and Our Lives: Homily for the 8th Sunday After Pentecost and the Sunday After the Dormition of the Most Holy Theotokos in the Orthodox Church

             This Thursday we began celebrating a great feast of the Church, the Feast of the Dormition of Mary the Theotokos.    When we think of the Virgin Mary, we cannot help but marvel at the unique and glorious role that she plays in our salvation.  For the Son of God to humble Himself to the point of becoming a human being, He had to have a mother.   God entered into creation and became one of us through her.  She was truly the temple of the Lord in her miraculous pregnancy.  And Mary had the astounding role of raising Jesus Christ, of nursing, loving, and guiding Him as any mother does for a child.  She lived a life of great piety and purity all her days, and the tradition of the Church teaches that the Theotokos was a much loved and respected figure in the early Christian community in the years following Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven.
The icon of the feast of the Dormition shows that Christ came with the angels to receive Mary’s soul upon her death.  All the other apostles were present, but St. Thomas did not arrive until three days after her burial.  When the tomb was opened so that he could see her one last time, Mary’s body was gone.  The first one to receive Christ had become the first one to share in His resurrection, to follow Him body and soul into eternal life.  Through Mary, Christ descended to earth.  And now through Christ, Mary has ascended to heaven.  And as she said when she appeared to the apostles the evening of that third day, “Rejoice, I am with you all the days of your lives.”
Our Lady the Theotokos is herself an icon of our salvation.  She models for us what it means to accept Christ and to love and serve Him.  Her death and ascension are reminders of our destiny, of our hope, for the fullness of eternal life in the Kingdom.  And now she is with the Lord in heaven, praying for us—for the Church and the entire world-- interceding with her Son on our behalf with the boldness of a mother—the same boldness that she demonstrated in asking Christ’s to help with the shortage of wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee.  That was His first miracle in John’s gospel, and He did it upon the request of His mother, even as He continues to respond to her prayers.  
No, we cannot fully understand the mystery of the eternal Son of God having a human mother or of their relationship to one another.  For these amazing truths are part of the great miracle of the Incarnation:  that Christ really did become one of us in order to make us partakers of the divine nature, in order to bring us into His eternal life.  And Mary the Theotokos is the prime example of one who is truly united with Christ, who shines with His holiness.  Throughout her life, she led the way in loving and serving Christ; and upon her death, she led the way into the life of the Kingdom.    
            If we want to follow her example of participating so fully in the life of God, we need to take our Lord’s miraculous feeding of the Five Thousand as a model for our lives.  A hungry multitude needed to be fed and all that the disciples could collect were five loaves and two fish.  That was not very much, but it was all that they had and they offered it to the Savior for Him to bless.  He did so and there was so much food that twelve basketsful were left over.
            Of course, this story reminds us of the Last Supper, when Christ took bread and blessed, broke, and gave it back to His disciples as His own Body.  And now He does something similar, taking a humble offering and miraculously making it more than it would have otherwise been. 
            Because of her prominence in our faith, we sometimes forget how humble, obscure, and seemingly unimportant the Theotokos was in her time and place.  Even though she grew up in the Temple, she was just a young girl without much standing or significance in her society.  She was an unmarried virgin when the Archangel Gabriel was sent to convey the news that she was to become the mother of the Messiah.  She did not fit with the conventional expectations for women to become wives and mothers and to play their role in the ongoing life of the Jewish people.  Her miraculous pregnancy was viewed as a scandal and she could have easily been killed as a result.
            During our Lord’s earthly ministry, there must have been those who looked down upon her as the mother of that crazy rabbi who threatened the established religious order.  Since Christ was crucified as a traitor and a blasphemer, she was surely guilty by association in the eyes of many.  Her life was extraordinarily difficult and she was never one of the powerful and privileged of her society.
            But what the Theotokos did do in her humility, obscurity, and weakness was to say “yes” to God with every ounce of her being.  She obeyed the Lord without reservation, offering every dimension of her life to Him with a pure heart.  And through her complete obedience, the Son of God became a human being and salvation has come to the world.  Mary is not a goddess, but a human being.  She also needed a Savior, for she could not conquer death or unite humanity and divinity by her own power.  And her offering of herself to Him plays a crucial role in our salvation.
            As we continue to celebrate the Dormition of the Theotokos, we are called to follow her example of making a full offering of our lives to the Lord.  It does not matter that her life circumstances are different from ours or that most of us have had years or decades of practice in saying “no” to God’s will in various ways.  All that we need to do is to say “yes” as best we can, offering who we are in obedience to our Lord and trusting that He will use us according to His will in ways that far exceed what we could have accomplished on our own.
            We know from the gospels that Christ’s disciples did not fully understand Him and very often fell short of His expectations for them.   The Savior did not reject them, however, and in the Feeding of the Five Thousand used their pathetically small offering to meet the needs of others in a miraculous way as a sign of the Kingdom. 
            The same Lord who worked that miracle took His human nature from an obscure Jewish virgin through a set of circumstances that was unbelievable by normal human ways of thinking.  Likewise, it is crazy to say that five loaves and two fish could feed thousands of people with a lot left over.  But ours is a faith that is not controlled by worldly ways of thinking, by what is normal and conventional in the corrupt existence to which we have all become too accustomed.  For the Lord Who conquered death through a cross and an empty tomb invites us all to participate fully in a Kingdom not of this world by offering ourselves to Him like the loaves of bread we bake for the Divine Liturgy. 
            In the normal course of things, bread is simply bread.  But by the power of the Holy Spirit, the bread offered in the Liturgy becomes the risen and ascended Body of Christ, “the medicine of immortality” that nourishes us for eternal life.  No, we cannot transform bread by our own power, but someone has to bake it and someone has to offer it.
            You and I are just like that bread. We have to become an offering of humble obedience, as did the Theotokos.  If we follow her example, there is no telling what God will do with us, no limit to what He will accomplish through us.  So let us continue celebrating the Dormition of the Theotokos by becoming more like her as we freely obey Christ and welcome Him into our lives by offering ourselves to Him. If we do so, we will follow our Lord and His Mother into the brilliant glory of the Kingdom of God.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Humility and Mercy as Opposed to Condemnation: An Eastern Orthodox Interpretation of Pope Francis' Comments on Whether to Judge Gay People

        It has been interesting to see all the attention given to Pope Francis’  “Who am I to judge?” comment on how he responds to gay people.  His reaction indicates that it is one thing to maintain Christianity’s historical—and apparently unanimous at least before the 1960’s—teaching that physical intimacy between persons of the same sex is sinful and quite another to judge particular people as though “we” are the sheep and “they” are the goats.  Jesus Christ was very clear that His followers were not to judge others.  He warned that they would be judged by the same standard they applied to their neighbors.  No, putting oneself in the place of God is never an especially good idea.
            As a priest of the Orthodox Church, I am not the judge of anyone and strive to concern myself chiefly with my own sins.  Even when I hear confessions, I do so not as a judge in a legal sense, but as an advocate for the healing of my parishioners.  Sins are not so much legal offenses to be judged as self-inflicted wounds for which we need therapy if we are to recover from their ill effects.  Priests apply the disciplinary canons of the Church pastorally and prayerfully for the healing of the soul of a particular person at a particular point in his or her recovery.  The priest is an unworthy icon of Christ and His salvation to the penitent. That is a very different role from being a self-appointed judge with the authority to impose a penalty.  When it comes to sin, we do not need more penalties, but forgiveness and transformation.  The priest is there to heal, not to pronounce a sentence.
            The spirituality of the Jesus Prayer is at the heart of our faith: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Orthodoxy is not fundamentally about moralism or judging anyone by a legal standard.  Indeed, we are not the judges even of ourselves; that’s God’s business.  But we are all sinners in need of the Savior’s mercy and grace if we are to find healing for the myriad ways in which we have diminished ourselves as those created in the divine image and likeness.  That is why pious Orthodox go to confession regularly to be assured of the Lord’s forgiveness and to receive guidance on how to gain strength in holiness in relation to their particular challenges and spiritual maladies. People confess sexual sins in confession, as they do other sins.  Spiritual fathers provide guidance for healing in relation to whatever sins are named and do not assume that sexual inclinations are necessarily the defining issues of one’s life.  One step in the healing of many penitents is to place sexual passions in the larger context of the vocation to holiness and not in the driver’s seat of one’s identity.   
            Barring the truly extraordinary case of a scandal in the parish that has to be addressed for the salvation of all concerned, Orthodox clergy should come nowhere near judging others for anything.  For example, when I learn through the media that someone has been convicted even of murder, I do not know the person’s heart or repentance or how the Lord will judge him at the last day.  After all, King David was a man after God’s own heart and the good thief followed Christ into paradise.  If someone I know celebrates greed, disregard of the poor, racist attitudes, or the love of violence, I pray for them and am concerned for their well-being, but that is not the same as judging them as though I am God and they are simply sinners.  No matter what people reveal about their inclinations, relationships, and activities, condemning them personally is simply not the business of any Christian. 
            At the same time, it is the business of Christians to maintain the teachings and practices of the historic faith, including the reservation of intimate relations to marriage between one man and one woman.  Orthodox Christianity knows of no other form of sexual union that is blessed by the Lord and a path to holiness. Anything else is a distortion of the calling of man and woman to find salvation together in God.  To speak the truth about these matters is not to judge particular people, but instead to invite everyone to follow paths that have and continue to make saints. Those not called to marriage have other paths to sainthood through celibacy, which may be pursued either through the monastic life or an unmarried life in the world.  None of these paths is easy, but they all provide countless opportunities to fight our passions, love our neighbors, and take up our crosses as we follow Jesus Christ.
          Contrary to increasingly popular opinion, to remain faithful to basic Christian teaching on these matters is not to fall into the self-righteous judgment of others or to have irrational obsessions or fears about sexual inclinations of any kind.  It is instead to maintain the clear teaching of the Body of Christ since its origins, as displayed in the Scriptures, liturgy, canon law, and lives of the saints. So I agree with Pope Francis, “who am I to judge” any particular person as though I am God?  But at the same time, faithful priests must point their spiritual children to paths that lead to the healing of the soul, regardless of what sins they confess.  That is simply a matter of truth-telling toward the end of a person’s salvation and growth in holiness. And it is also what I want when I go to confession.

So to sum up:  We look to the Church for healing, not a legal sentence.  When spiritual fathers and mothers help us stumble along a path that leads to greater freedom from the control of the passions in any area of life, we grow personally in the knowledge that Christ came to heal and save, not to judge and condemn.  That is the good news of the Gospel to us all, regardless of what our temptations or inclinations may be in any area of life.  

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Christ Heals our Paralysis: Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Matthew During the Dormition Fast in the Orthodox Church

Matthew 9:1-8
             Romans 12: 6-14             
            I am sure that we have all felt stuck, trapped, or paralyzed in one way or another at some point in our lives.  Whether we were physically ill or caught in an unhealthy relationship or an unfortunate situation at work, life is full of circumstances where we seem to lack the strength to move forward in freedom.  The same is true when we think about the spiritual life and our own personal characteristics.  Learning to put others before ourselves, to restrain various appetites and desires, and to stop behaviors to which we have become addicted are all very difficult things to do.  Sometimes we fall into despair and simply give up because we have had so little success in overcoming our paralysis.  Sometimes we feel helpless before the problems and challenges that we face.
            The good news is that Jesus Christ gives us all solid grounds for hope in gaining strength, freedom, and salvation. This Tuesday is the great feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord, when we celebrate the revelation of His divinity to Peter, James, and John, for Christ was illumined brilliantly with light, and the voice of the Father proclaimed, “This is my beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased.”  At the same time, we continue in the Dormition fast as we prepare to celebrate on August 15 how the Theotokos shared in the resurrection of her Son-- body, soul, and spirit—and followed Him into the heavenly Kingdom upon her death.
            Taken together, these feasts remind us that God’s salvation liberates us from captivity to the brokenness of our lives in our corrupt world, for the Son of God has truly taken on every dimension of our humanity and transfused it with holiness.  He was transfigured before His disciples and we too may be changed by uniting ourselves as fully as possible with the Lord.  His divinity will be revealed through us as we shine with light even as the paralyzed man was enabled to get up and walk toward his house.  As for him, the process of healing begins with the forgiveness of sins which Christ mercifully grants to all who come to Him with humble repentance.  His mercy is such that He forgave this wretched man without the fellow saying anything at all due to the faith of his friends who literally carried him to Christ.  Perhaps his paralyzed state was also a sign of his humility and dependence upon the Lord and an image of our collective sickness and decay.  The Savior did not stop, however, with forgiving his sins, for He transfigured his life by enabling—indeed, by ordering—him to get up, pickup his bed, and walk home.
            The truth is that Christ says exactly the same thing to us all, for His forgiveness is not some kind of legal degree but a true participation in His life, holiness, and divinity which heals and transforms us into living icons of His salvation.  He calls and enables us all to live the kind of life described by St. Paul:  “Let love be without hypocrisy.  Abhor what is evil.  Cling to what is good.  Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another…Bless those who persecute you:  bless and do not curse.”  No, it is not easy to live that way, especially in relation to people who have wronged us or whom we do not find it easy to like or in situations where we have trained ourselves to see only the bad in others and what else can go wrong.  Likewise, it surely was not easy for the paralyzed man to transition from being an invalid to having an active life, for we tend to get used to whatever state of life we are in and find it stressful, frustrating, and scary to act differently.  No matter how miserable we make ourselves, we often prefer that to the difficult course of change for the better.   
            That is one of the reasons that the Church gives us periods like the Dormition fast in order to gain some experience struggling with our addictions, weaknesses, and bad habits.  As we remember the end of the earthly life of the Theotokos, we want to become more like her, able to say, “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” in response to God’s calling in our lives.  She said and did that in response to the totally outrageous and terrifying news that she was to be the mother of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.  We all struggle, however, to carry out much smaller and easier acts of faithfulness every day.  Too often, we are like a person who wants God’s forgiveness, but does not want His healing.  We are like the paralyzed man would have been had he said, “Thank you, Jesus, for forgiving my sins, but my legs are weak from lack of exercise and I would rather stay in bed than get up and walk.” 
            Even though we fall down like toddlers taking their first steps with some frequency, we must keep moving forward as best we can in the new life that Christ has given us.  Otherwise, we will end up rejecting Him because we will worship ourselves and attempt to make Him in our own image, to use Him simply to get what we want and disregard everything else to which He calls us.  Certainly, we are all inclined to do that because of our self-centeredness and pride, but that is precisely why we have to gain strength in denying ourselves so that we can refocus our energies on serving the Lord and our neighbors in whom He is present to us each day.
            As anyone who has tried to fast, pray, show generosity to the needy, and forgive others learns very quickly, we all suffer from some degree of paralysis.  It is often astonishingly hard to inconvenience ourselves even a little bit in order to give attention to God and our neighbors or to restrain our slavery to our taste buds, stomachs, and bank accounts.  When the Church calls us to undertake these spiritual disciplines, it is not as a punishment or because God likes us to see us suffer.  It is because we need help in getting up from our beds and moving forward with our lives.  We are all too comfortable with the misery of our weakness and paralysis.  Our feeble struggles to embrace the spiritual disciplines reveal to us the truth about ourselves and should lead us to call in humility for the Lord’s help in serving Him more faithfully.
            I hope that we are all doing our best to observe the Dormition fast so that we will be better prepared to respond obediently as the Theotokos did to the Lord’s calling upon her life.  I hope that we are all doing our best to be transfigured into the new life that Jesus Christ has brought to the world as the Second Adam in Whom our corrupt, fallen humanity is healed, restored, and blessed.  I hope that none of us will rest content to lie in the bed of our passions, weaknesses, and self-indulgent addiction to life as we have come to know it on our own terms.  For our Savior did not come to make us feel better about ourselves, to help us succeed by worldly standards, or even simply to forgive us.  He came to make us participants in the life of the Holy Trinity, to become by grace what God is by nature.  Yes, that means shining with light and holiness as He did at the Transfiguration.  Let us use these few days of the Dormition fast to take even the small, faltering steps of which we are capable to become more like Christ—to rise, take up our beds, and walk as best we can, trusting that His grace and mercy are healing us from our paralysis and weakness, and ushering us out of misery into a new and joyful way of living.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Christianity in India Through American Eyes: A Complicated Religious Culture


            You cannot go to India without thinking about the relationship between Christianity and other religions, at least if you are a theology professor and an Orthodox priest.  The intersection of various spiritual traditions really slaps you in the face with sacred cows, temples, pilgrims, calls to prayer, and many other reminders that this is a part of the world where faith in so many forms is a lively presence.
            There have been Christians in India since St. Thomas the Apostle, but they remain a small minority.  Both the evangelical ministry which hosted our group from McMurry University and the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Christians whom I met were quite comfortable working with and serving people of whatever religion.  The evangelicals spoke of bringing people to Christ and the Orthodox maintained their traditional worship and sacramental life.  Both sponsor ministries to needy children of many different faith communities. The evangelicals run a school with a Sikh principal, Hindu teachers, and a tiny minority of Christian students.  They also minister to a colony of lepers that includes Hindus and Muslims.  The Orthodox mentioned that Hindus and Muslims sometimes come to services on major feast days.  A guide told us that most of the visitors to a famous mosque in Mumbai are Hindus who venerate the relics of an Islamic holy man.  The Orthodox also told me that one of their Indian saints is commonly venerated by both Muslims and Hindus.  To put it mildly, these interreligious dynamics are a bit more complicated than the ones I encounter in West Texas.
             Both evangelicals and Orthodox commented that conversion to Christianity is a complicated matter in India, but not impossible.  Though the general Christian experience there has not been one of persecution, since returning home I have read reports of an increase in anti-Christian violence in some parts of the country in recent years.  Some Indian states have passed anti-conversion laws in response to Hindu nationalist appeals.  I was told that it is virtually impossible to change one’s religion or caste in official government records, but that in practice conversions definitely do occur.
            “Preach the gospel at all times.  When necessary, use words.”  That quotation, attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, came to mind in observing Indian Christians of whatever stripe.  To bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ is a fundamental Christian practice which may be carried out in a variety of ways dependent upon the circumstances.  Actions often speak louder than words and a picture (such as an icon) is worth a thousand words.  The Lord invited His first disciples to “Come and see.”  The emissaries of Prince Vladimir were drawn to Orthodox Christianity because the beauty of the Divine Liturgy was such that they did not know whether they were in heaven or on earth.  To offer the worship of the Church and to demonstrate Christ’s love to the needy are both ways of becoming a living icon of God’s salvation that invites others to enter into the joy of the heavenly kingdom.
            Too much focus on the abstract question of the eternal destiny of adherents of other religions leads us, however, to matters beyond our rational knowledge.  People find salvation as persons in relationship with the Lord and one another, not due to our knowledge of ideas, even when they are about God.  Jesus Christ is surely the only Savior of the world, but the parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 provides hope that some serve Him well without knowing that they do so.  Created in the divine image and likeness, all human beings can do better or worse; and the more truth we have received, the greater the expectations.   The witness of Indian Christians reminds us to live out what we say we believe with integrity, even as we bow before the mystery of how others relate to Him. As Christ taught, we will be judged by the same standard we apply to others; so it is good to be careful to focus on taking the logs out of our own eyes first.
            St. Seraphim of Sarov said “Acquire the Spirit of peace and thousands around you will be saved.”  That is the Holy Spirit, of course, and it is by His presence in our lives that we may become living icons of God’s salvation and partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4).  If we want to live the kind of lives that point others to Christ by showing them His love and holiness, we must be transformed by the One to Whom we open ourselves in prayer, worship, and all the spiritual disciplines of the Christian life.  Whether in India, America, or elsewhere, Christians will be of no use if we are not enlivened by the same Spirit Who overcame national and linguistic boundaries on the day of Pentecost and even united Jews and Gentiles into one body.  Those whose lives manifest the presence of the Holy Spirit cannot help but be true evangelists as signs of what happens to human beings in whom God dwells.
            India is a complex and confusing place, at least for this recent visitor.  But the focus of Indian Christianity seems to be as clear as this admonition from St. James 1:27: “Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this, To visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.”  Surely, there is no better way to proclaim the gospel.