Saturday, April 25, 2015

Humble Service and Beholding the Resurrection: Homily for the Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women, Pious Joseph of Arimathea, and Righteous Nicodemus

Christ is Risen!
            Sometimes gaining knowledge requires more than than sitting around and thinking; sometimes we actually have to do something.  There is much in life that we must learn by experience, not simply by pondering ideas or memorizing facts.
            The good news of Pascha is like that, for after several weeks of intensified prayer, fasting, and repentance, we followed Christ to the agony of the Cross and then to the joy of His Resurrection.  As we continue in the season of Pascha, our celebration of the new life that the Lord has brought to the world has only begun.  Instead of thinking that we already know well enough the concept of His Resurrection, our Savior calls us to grow daily in our participation in His victory over sin, death, and all that separates us from life eternal.  He did not die and rise again in order to give us abstract theological ideas, but to raise us from death to life, from corruption to holiness, and to make us partakers by grace of the divine nature.       
            Those who were at the empty tomb on Easter morning as the first witnesses of the Resurrection show us how to embrace the good news of this season.  They heard the word of the angel: “He is Risen.  He is not here…Go tell His disciples—and Peter—that He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you.”
            Notice that these first witnesses of our salvation were women who went to the tomb with oil and spices to anoint the dead body of Jesus Christ.  They obviously did not expect the tomb to be empty.  They were heart-broken, afraid, and terribly disappointed that their Lord had been killed.  But they had the strength to offer Him one last act of love:  to anoint His body properly for burial.  Just imagine the risks that they took, publically identifying themselves with the Lord at His crucifixion and then going to the tomb of One executed as a traitor in the wee hours of Sunday morning.  With a courage born of love, they put aside concerns about their personal safety. And as they did so, these women-- Mary the Theotokos, Mary Magdalen, two other Mary’s, Johanna, Salome, Martha, Susanna and others whose names we do not know--received the greatest news in the universe, the resurrection of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.  Yes, the angelic proclamation of Pascha came first to the Theotokos, even as she was the first to hear from the Archangel the good news of the Incarnation.
            The male disciples did not believe their testimony at first, even as St. Joseph the Betrothed was at first skeptical of the circumstances of the Lord’s virgin conception. But with the balance between man and woman that we see throughout the unfolding of our salvation, we remember two men today along with the blessed women:  Sts. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, prominent Jewish leaders who were also secret followers of Jesus Christ.   This Joseph risked his position and possibly his life by asking Pilate for the Savior’s body, even as Joseph the Betrothed had risked his life during the flight to Egypt to escape the persecution of the wicked King Herod.  Nicodemus, who had understood the Lord so poorly in a conversation recorded near the beginning of St. John’s gospel, came to faith and joined Joseph of Arimathea in wrapping the Lord in linen with spices and placing Him in a tomb.  
            Like the myrrh-bearing women, these men must have been terribly sad and afraid.  Their hopes had been cruelly crushed; their world turned upside down.  Not only had their Lord died, He was the victim of public rejection, humiliation, and capital punishment.  Nonetheless, these women and men did what needed to be done, despite the risk to themselves from the authorities and their own pain.  They served their Christ in the only way still available to them by caring for His body.
            Before Jesus Christ’s death, He washed the feet of His disciples in order to show them what it meant to serve in humility as He did.  The myrrh-bearers were not present that evening, but they followed the Lord’s example of service better than anyone else. Perhaps they were not there because they had already learned the centrality of humble service in how they cared for the Lord throughout His ministry.  Regardless, their selfless devotion put them in the place where they would be the first to receive the good news of the Resurrection, the first to share in the joy of Pascha.  We have a lot to learn from them, for if we want to experience our Lord’s victory over death and corruption in all its forms, we must do as they did by serving Him in humility.
            Fortunately, we have no lack of opportunities to serve Christ, in His Body, the Church, by doing the thousand small tasks that need to be done for the flourishing of our parish.  We may serve Him also in every needy and miserable person we encounter, as well as in our own families when we put the needs of our spouses, children, parents, and other loved ones before our own.  We will know and experience the new life of our Risen Lord by serving Him in ways already available to us.  We usually do not have to look far at all in order to find them or to find Him.
            Today’s reading from Acts also shows the importance of humble service through the deacons ordained to oversee the distribution of bread to the needy widows.  The word deacon means “servant” and we read that, after the deacons began their ministry, “the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.”  The passage shows the centrality of humble service for the flourishing of Christ’s Body.    
            It may be tempting, of course, to think that going out of our way to serve our Risen Lord in the Church, our neighbors, or even our families is for those with money, time, and health to spare—those who have no problems and just need something to do with their spare time.  But on this Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women and Saints Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, we simply cannot use that excuse.  They served Christ when their world was falling apart and they had more problems than we can imagine; as they mourned and despaired, they literally risked their lives and safety to do what needed to be done, even though they did not expect to find an empty tomb.  And in doing so, the women opened themselves to receive the greatest blessing imaginable as the first witnesses of their Lord’s victory over death and sin.
             If we want to enter into the glory of this season, if we want to embrace a power and strength that conquers even the grave and our darkest fears, we must follow the example of those courageous and loving women and men who left behind their comfort zones in order to serve our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.  No, a life of courageous love for our Savior—however we encounter Him-- is not easy, but it remains the only path that will enable us to know, and participate personally in, the good news of His resurrection on the third day.  If we want Pascha to be more than a cultural celebration or the reminder of an idea, we must enter into the Savior’s great triumph by living lives that bear witness to His victory over all the ways of sin and death, including the self-centeredness and laziness that we all use to excuse ourselves from serving the Lord in His Church, our families, and in the people around us every day of our lives.    
            In Lent, we fasted, attended additional services, prostrated ourselves in prayer, gave to the needy, mended broken relationships, and otherwise did what we could to repent, to reorient our lives toward Christ in preparation to follow Him to His Cross.  Now that we are celebrating this glorious season of the Resurrection, something is also required of us:  that we actually live the new life that the Risen Lord has brought to the world.  That is how we will know by personal experience the joy of Pascha, even as the Myrrh-Bearing Women heard the message of the angel and saw that the tomb was empty.  We too must celebrate this glorious season by serving our Savior with practical acts of humble love, if we want to behold the wonder of His Resurrection and to know Him, not as an abstract idea, but as the Redeemer of the world and the Victor over death.  If we follow the example of those holy women and Sts. Joseph and Nicodemus, we will surely be headed in the right direction.     


Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Risen Lord Is Truly With Us! Homily for Thomas Sunday in the Orthodox Church

Acts 5:12-20; St. John 20:19-31
Christ is Risen!
On this Sunday of St. Thomas, we have only begun our celebration of Pascha, of our Lord’s victory over death through His glorious resurrection on the third day.   Since we are all too well adjusted to the darkened world of sin and corruption, it takes time for us to enter into the joy of the empty tomb, to adjust our spiritual vision to the brilliant light of our Savior’s triumph.  Thankfully, the season of Pascha provides us with forty days to grow in our personal participation in the blessed truth that Christ is risen from the dead—and, in Him, we are too.
Jesus Christ is risen with His Body as a whole, complete human being who is also God.  That is why Hades and the tomb could not hold Him captive and also why His resurrection is such good news for us. We share in His resurrection already through our participation in His Body, the Church.  His Body and Blood strengthen us to participate more fully in His glorious, eternal life in every Divine Liturgy. When we receive “the medicine of immortality,” the One Who has conquered the grave nourishes, heals, and transforms us more fully for the life of heaven even as we live and breathe on the earth.
Of course, the holy mystery of the Eucharist is a miracle and beyond human explanation. We were baptized into His death in order to rise with Him into the true life for which He originally created us. Through all the holy mysteries of His Body, the Church, we share ever more fully in the good news of this season.  We call the celebration of His resurrection “Pascha,” which means Passover, because Jesus Christ is our Passover from death to life.  Our entire life in His Body, the Church, is an ongoing participation in the new day of the Kingdom that He has begun, which should transform every dimension of our lives, seven days a week, the whole year round.
There is certainly something new in Christ’s followers in our readings today from the Acts of the Apostles.  In the gospels, the disciples so often misunderstood the Lord and were not able to minister effectively in His name.  They doubted the testimony of the women who heard of the resurrection from the angel at the tomb and generally abandoned Christ at His arrest and crucifixion.  But in Acts, they perform so many signs and wonders that the sick trust that they will be healed by the mere shadow of St. Peter falling on them.  Multitudes of sick and demon-possessed people sought out the apostles, who healed them all. What on earth has happened to that formerly confused and doubting group?
The answer is clear:  Christ has conquered sin and death in their lives.  He empowers them to manifest the glory of His resurrection when He says:  “Peace be to you.  As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.”  They share in their own lives in the salvation of the Lord. He lives in them and they live in Him.  Christ is the vine, and they are the branches.  They are members of the Body of which He is the Head.  His victory over sin, the grave, and all human corruption is now theirs; the change in their lives is clear and evident for all to see.
We may wonder, however, if the same is really true of us. Does Christ’s victory over sin and death really transform our lives?  Is the Risen Lord just as present for us as He was to the disciples?   We would probably find that hard to believe for we have not seen the Risen Jesus as the apostles did, miraculously present with a glorified body that still bore His wounds.   No, we were not there then, but He is here now. Remember what the Lord said to St. Thomas, “Because you have seen Me, you have believed.  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Just as doubting and fearful disciples became faithful, bold preachers and wonderworkers, the Savior calls and enables us to know personally the healing and transforming power of His resurrection.   In the holy mystery of the Eucharist, Christ is truly present with us just as He was when He showed St. Thomas His wounds.  We commune with the Risen Lord when we receive Communion.  We unite ourselves to the glory of His resurrection when we receive His Body and Blood, offered for our salvation and raised in glory.  If we receive Him in this way, we must also live with Him and shine forth with the glorious victory over sin and death revealed on the day of Pascha.  He wants us not only to celebrate this joyful season with services, songs, and feasting, but most profoundly with holiness, with a newly empowered life that shines with heavenly light.
We may want to excuse ourselves from this high calling, of course.  In contrast with the brilliant light of Pascha, we may see the darkness and brokenness in our lives all too well.  Christ has conquered sin and death, but we all still bear their wounds in so many ways; and sometimes we wonder if this glorious news of life eternal really applies to us with all our struggles, pains, weaknesses, and failings.
We may have a romanticized and unrealistic view of what living the life of the resurrection actually means.  Some think that true holiness means escape from all pains and problems, from involvement in anything that is not totally separate from life in the world as we know it, or a kind of perpetual retreat from reality.  But notice, for example, that when the risen Lord appears to His disciples, He still bears His wounds.  He was not raised as a ghost or a spirit, but as the God-Man, a whole human being with a body that bore the consequences of the battle He fought for us.  His horrible wounds were part of Who He freely chose to become for our sake, and He arose victorious with them.  He took these wounds upon Himself purely out of love for us and has used them to defeat death itself, the wages of sin and our ancient foe that has brought human beings misery and despair from generation to generation.
There is more to sharing in the glory of eternal life than simply acknowledging or singing about Christ’s resurrection.  To participate fully in the Lord’s great victory is an eternal journey, a process of growing in holiness, and none of us is anywhere near completing it.  Nonetheless, we must recognize that Christ rose again to bring the dead to life, to heal our wounds, to save sinners, and to transform all who bear His image and likeness.  He rose to heal the world, not to escape it.  No matter how weak, sick, and corrupt we are, His divine mercy extends to us personally.  He intends to bless and save us all.  The good news of Pascha is that we are no longer the slaves of sin and death.  Now evil only has the power in our lives that we allow it to have; the same is true of the fear of death, violence, suffering, and all the other works of darkness that can so easily dominate, distort, and destroy us.  These harsh realities are part of the world as we know it, but our Savior’s empty tomb shows that they too are essentially empty, that they too have been conquered, and that our calling is to becoming living witnesses of this blessed freedom each day of our lives in every thought, word, and deed.
So no matter how difficult our struggles are or how weak we feel before them, let us rejoice in the resurrection of Christ.  No matter how far short we have fallen from faithfulness in any way, let us embrace the new life brought to the world by the empty tomb.  And let us also embrace one another, forgive all offenses, and pray for and bless our enemies, for Christ’s resurrection has conquered death and sin, which are the very roots of all estrangement, hatred, and brokenness in our relationships with other people.
Through the holy mysteries of His Body, the Church, our risen Savior enables us all to pass over from death to life.  Now the challenge is for each of us to live in the righteous joy of Christ’s resurrection, to make His victory ours, and to recognize that nothing separates us from His holiness other than our own stubborn refusal to share in His great triumph.   So let us celebrate Pascha not by only singing “Christ is Risen,” but also by actually living and experiencing the new life that His empty tomb has brought to the world.  For He is with us just as truly as He was with the St. Thomas and other disciples, and He wants to make as big a difference in our lives as He did in theirs.  That is the good news that we celebrate during the season of Pascha.
Christ is Risen!