Sunday, January 31, 2016

How to Respond like Zacchaeus When Salvation Comes to Your House: Homily for the 15th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

 Luke 19:1-10

                 I suspect that one of the reasons some do not take the Christian faith seriously today is that those who profess to be Christians do not always live out their faith with integrity.  For example, many people who identify themselves as followers of Christ in our society give more time, energy, and attention to their favorite athletic teams, politicians, pastimes, entertainment, and self-centered desires of whatever kind than to living faithfully in how they treat other people.  When Christians appear to live in ways that are no more virtuous than those of people without any religious faith at all, it is no wonder that some have little interest in or respect for our faith.
            That is precisely why we all have a lot to learn from Zacchaeus, whose life was changed so profoundly by his encounter with Jesus Christ.  No one  would have had any illusions about what kind of person Zacchaeus was before the Lord entered His home.  He was a traitor to his fellow Jews because he collected taxes for the Romans, who were occupying his country.  He was a chief tax collector and quite wealthy because he took even more than was required from his own people.  He lived in luxury from what he stole in the name of a hated foreign power.  Though his way of life was about as far from God’s requirements as one could get, Zacchaeus wanted to see the Lord as He passed by.  A short little man, he had to climb a sycamore tree in order to be above the crowd and get a decent view.  There were probably some people in the crowd that day who would have liked to see him fall out of the tree and break his neck.
            Zacchaeus certainly knew what people thought of him. So just imagine how shocked everyone must have been when the Messiah of Israel called out to this wicked man:  “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.”     Then that little tax-collector quickly went home and got ready to welcome Christ.  He received Him joyfully, but others grumbled about what was happening.  How could any righteous Jew, let alone the Messiah, become a guest in the home of a notorious traitor and criminal?  Christ would be defiled by going into the home of such a person and presumably eating with him. He would appear to endorse theft, greed, and even the oppression of the Romans.  That would be a terrible scandal that would call into question the integrity of His ministry. 
            In that very stressful moment, just when the crowd was seething in anger at Christ and at Zacchaeus, the tax-collector did the unthinkable:  He repented of his own free will.  Yes, before Christ said or did anything else, Zacchaeus repented.  He accepted the truth about himself, that he was a criminal exploiter of the needy.  To make things right, he gave half of what he owned to the poor and restored four-fold what he had stolen from others.  In that moment, this despised and miserable man began to turn his life around.  And Jesus Christ accepted the sincere repentance of this sinner, proclaiming that salvation had come to this son of Abraham, for He came to seek and to save the lost.
            If we ever wanted a sign of the difference that it should make in the life of a human being to encounter Christ, this is it. Though it may be hard to see, Zacchaeus’ story is the story of us all. The Savior has appeared in our world, born and baptized for our salvation.  He enters not only our world and our humanity in general, but wants to commune personally with everyone created in His image and likeness, even though we “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Rom. 3:23)   As He says elsewhere, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.” (Rev. 3:20)  He comes to fulfill the purposes for which He created food and fellowship to begin with, namely, to share Himself with us, to make us participants in His eternal, blessed, and holy life that conquers all forms of human corruption and even death itself.  That is His intention for each and every human being.   
            Even as our lives are about far more than emotion, the life which Christ shares with us is not simply about how we feel.  Even as our lives are about far more than the few hours a week we spend at church, the life which Christ shares with us is not simply about what we do in time set aside for prayer.  He comes to bring salvation, to bring healing and fulfillment, to every dimension of the lives of His sons and daughters.  That is why the Savior became fully one of us so that we could participate fully in the life of God by grace. 
            Notice that Zacchaeus did not repent by saying that he had a certain kind of religious experience or would change his habits about what he did one day a week. No, he took some very practical and visible steps that required him to sacrifice what he loved most, his money and comfort.  He did what justice required for the victims of his crimes and then some, returning four times as much as he had taken.  And he gave half of what he had to the poor, regardless of whether he had stolen from them personally. In response to the Savior’s overwhelming mercy toward him, Zacchaeus showed that same abundant grace toward others.  He not only received the Lord into his house, but into his life--from the depths of his soul to how he made his living and treated other people on a daily basis.
            Could the same be said of you and me?  We commune with Christ in the Eucharist in every Divine Liturgy.  We personally take His Body and Blood such that He dwells in our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit.  We dine at His heavenly banquet and receive Him into our bodies, souls, and spirits “for the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting.”  If we think for one moment that communing with Christ is simply an ancient religious ritual or something that has merely an emotional or invisible significance, then we must think again.  For to be united intimately with Christ, to be nourished by Him for the healing of our souls, must impact every dimension of who we are in this world.  Salvation is not an escape from life as we know it, but its complete fulfillment.  Salvation must come to our houses just as tangibly as it did to Zacchaeus’s.  For through faith in Christ, we are also “Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Gal. 3:29)
            One way of applying these lessons to our lives is to ask in what ways we need to open ourselves to fuller communion with Christ, to a deeper and healthier relationship with Him.  Since how we treat our neighbors is also how we treat the Lord, we should ask with whom we need to make things right according to justice and then do even more for them. (Matt. 25:33ff.)  If we have denied our spouses, children, and other family members the fullness of our love, we must make up for that also. We should consider what we have taken by selfishness from our neighbors, whether money, time, attention, or something else, and give it back in abundance.  Like Zacchaeus, we should look for opportunities to help the poor as much as possible, regardless of whether their poverty is one of friendship, encouragement, or the resources necessary to buy food, clothing, and shelter.  
            We need to prayerfully consider what change is in order in our lives because of Jesus Christ’s gracious entrance in our souls.  Zacchaeus is such a wonderful example of a sinner who received the Lord and became a shining beacon of holiness.  He did so by deep, genuine, personal repentance that went to the heart of who he was before God and changed how he related to other people in practical ways.  If we will follow his example, then we will be in intimate communion with Christ each day of our lives, always celebrating the liturgy of offering ourselves to Him in every thought, word, and deed.  We will become a channel of blessing to others, and even skeptics will notice that salvation has come to our house. And then they may be so curious about what has happened that they will even climb a sycamore tree in order to get a better view.          

Sunday, January 24, 2016

How to Become a Holy Fool: Homily on St. Xenia of St. Petersburg, Fool for Christ

 It is easy to forget that our ways are not God’s ways, that there is usually a stark difference between what is popular and what is holy. He has given us some pretty unusual people to make that point clear through the example of their own lives.  They are known in the Orthodox Church as “Fools for Christ” who, though perfectly sane, acted and spoke in ways that made them appear crazy in the eyes of many and went against the grain of their societies.  Through their unique witness, they called their neighbors to the life of a Kingdom not of this world.
If that seems strange, remember how St. Paul said that the cross of Christ is foolishness according to conventional human ways of thinking. (1 Cor. 1:18)  Recall how absurd it seemed to the Jews and the Gentiles to claim that the Son of God was born of a Virgin Mother, died on a cross, rose from the tomb, and ascended into heaven.  We often forget that even the most basic teachings of our faith seemed at first like nonsense to most people.
Today we commemorate Saint Xenia of St. Petersburg, Fool for Christ, who in the early 18thcentury in Russia became a widow when her husband, a military officer, died suddenly.  A young widow with no children, she gave away all her possessions to the poor and vanished from society for several years, devoting herself to spiritual struggle in monastic settings. When she returned to St. Petersburg, she took up the life of a homeless wanderer, wearing her late husband’s military uniform and answering only to his name Andrew.  She prayed alone at night in open fields, endured the extreme cold with inadequate clothing, lived among beggars, and suffered abuse from many for appearing insane. She secretly carried heavy stones at night to help with the building of a church and gave the alms she received to the poor.  But she embraced her struggles with patience, abandoning pride in all its forms and praying for the soul of her departed husband. In Xenia’s humility, God gave her great gifts of prayer and prophecy, and she foretold future events such as the death of a Russian empress.
During her lifetime, some recognized her holiness and sought out her blessing and guidance. After Xenia’s own death at age 71, her grave became a source of miracles with many people taking dirt, and even pieces of a stone slab, from it as a blessing.  (If it seems odd that a grave could be a source of blessing, recall how the bones of prophet Elisha brought a dead man back to life in 2 Kings 13:21.) St. Xenia is a well-known and much-loved saint whose prayers are sought especially for employment, housing, or finding a spouse.
Across the centuries, the Lord has raised up such unusual saints in order to shock us out of our complacency, in order to remind us that there is far more to becoming a partaker of the divine nature (2. Peter 1:14) than leading a conventionally respectable life.  St. John the Baptist and Forerunner anticipated the fools for Christ, for he lived in strict asceticism in the desert on a diet of locusts and honey, spoke judgment upon the established religious leaders of the Jews, and dared even to tell the royal family to repent of their sins, which ultimately cost him his head.  Our Lord’s disciples and apostles were no less bold and unconventional as they followed a path to martyrdom in sharp contrast to what Jews and Gentiles thought of as a good life in that time and place.  St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that the apostles were truly “fools for Christ’s sake…” ( 1 Cor. 4:10)
When Christianity became legal and popular in the early 4th century, monks and nuns headed to the desert to bear witness by their life of prayer and self-denial to a Kingdom that stands in judgment of even the best human culture or society.  And especially when people are tempted to water down what it means to take up their crosses and follow Christ, He gives us the witness of holy fools who mock the pride and presumption of the world and embody in their own lives a humility that brings to their knees all who have the eyes to behold the spiritual meaning of their shocking example.
St. Paul called himself the chief of sinners in his first letter to St. Timothy.  After all, he had been a highly respected Pharisee and persecutor of Christians before the Risen Lord appeared to him on the road to Damascus.  We can be sure that everyone who knew Paul at that point in his life thought that he had totally lost his mind and was a complete fool for becoming a follower of Christ.  He wrote that he “received mercy for this reason that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display His perfect patience for an example to those who were to believe in Him for eternal life.”  (1 Tim. 1:15-16)  If the Lord’s mercy extended even to such an enthusiastic persecutor of Christians, then there is hope for us all.
Unfortunately, it is all too easy for us to be blind to our need for the Savior’s mercy.  We may pat ourselves on the back for having the wisdom to become Orthodox Christians. We may take credit for not committing obvious crimes that we see other people doing.  We may rejoice that we think we have all the solutions to the problems of our nation and world, if only our opponents and enemies would start to think like we do.  The only relevant question as we stand before God, however, is very different, for it concerns whether we have the eyes to see clearly who we are, Who He is, and then to live accordingly. In other words, we must know in the depths of our souls that we are in constant need of divine grace, mercy, and blessing which we do not deserve and cannot produce ourselves.  Our life in the world must become an icon of the heavenly Kingdom, not an end in itself.  That is why Christ sent, and still sends, His holy fools to wake us up, to shake us out of our complacency in assuming that all is well and that it is only others who need to change their ways.  No, repentance always begins with us and easily makes us appear somewhat foolish in the eyes of the world.
Unfortunately, faithful Christians today do not have to try very hard in order to look like fools.  When we forgive those who have offended us, refuse to hold grudges, and do good to our enemies, some will not know what to make of us.  When we give sacrificially to help those in need, whether members of our own parish, victims of war and persecution in the Middle East, or pregnant women in our own city looking for an alternative to the horror of abortion, many will think we are wasting our money.  When we see and serve Christ in our neighbors, regardless of their race, nationality, wealth, social standing, or any other human characteristic, some will think that we are na├»ve and dangerous. When we reserve sexual intimacy only for the uniquely blessed union of husband and wife and turn away from entertainment that inflames our passions and fills our souls with temptation, we may be laughed at or insulted.  When we make prayer, fasting, and attendance at church services more important in our lives than laziness, self-indulgence, or our obsessive routines and preoccupations, we will be out of the mainstream. And when we live out our ultimate loyalty to Christ and His Kingdom in contrast to the usual politics and social expectations of this world, we should expect to be called fools.
If we live this way, we will put ourselves in the place of the blind beggar in today’s gospel reading who called out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” even when others told him to be quiet.  When they did so, that blessed man cried out all the more for the Lord’s mercy.  Like the blind beggar, we will receive our sight when we persist in falling before Him in humility with every ounce of our being, no matter what anyone else may think or what they may say.  That is what all the Fools for Christ have done by their actions and their words.  They gained the spiritual clarity to see that the nonsense around which we usually order our lives is a terrible distortion of the truth that so easily becomes a false god.
Christ surely does not call us all to the rare ministry of a Fool for Christ like St. Xenia, but we may all learn from her example that the humility of embracing our constant need for mercy is at the heart of faithfulness to a Lord Whose Kingdom is not of this world.   There must be something of the holy fool in us all, if our eyes are to be opened to a truth that the world does not yet see.  So let us not be afraid to live accordingly and to be out of step with the conventional wisdom, for that is how we will follow Him through the folly of the cross to the glory of the empty tomb.   For Christ’s foolishness is wiser than the wisdom of the world, and He is its salvation.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Gratitude, Humility, and Obedience: Homily for the 12th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

  Luke 17: 12-19
            It is so easy for human beings to find a way to keep score, to focus on where we stand in relation to other individuals and groups.  We probably do that in order to feel better about ourselves along the lines of “Well, at least I am not as bad as they are.”
            The Jews of the first century had such an attitude toward the Samaritans—the people they loved to hate.  And it would be hard to find someone lower in social standing in that day than a Samaritan with leprosy, a skin condition that made its sufferers religiously unclean and complete social outcasts.  So just imagine how shocking it was that the Samaritan leper was the only one of the ten who returned to thank Christ for healing Him from that dreaded disease.   In that time and place, this was an outrageous story.
            Maybe this man was so thankful precisely because he had learned not to expect compassion from anyone and that he could take no blessing for granted. He surely felt out of place walking with Jewish lepers to the temple in Jerusalem, for that is not where the Samaritans worshiped and presumably he would not have been welcome there. Nonetheless, he obeyed the Lord’s command and was healed.  And he alone took the time and effort to return to thank the One who had changed his life.  
            This man’s healing is an icon of the good news that we celebrated at Christmas and Epiphany and that is at the very heart of our faith.  The healing of the Samaritan leper from a terrible disease manifests our salvation in the God-Man Jesus Christ, which extends to all who have put Him on in baptism.        As the healing of the Samaritan leper shows, God’s mercy extends to everyone who receives Jesus Christ with faith, repentance, and gratitude.  Regardless of what anyone else does, we want to be like that leper, receiving God’s blessing in humility and responding with true thanks. But in order to do that, we have to find healing for our sins, the diseases of soul that have disfigured us and corrupted our beauty as those whom Christ has clothed with a garment of light in baptism.
            The truth is that we all struggle to wear that robe of light, to embrace Christ’s healing, for we so easily fall back into the ugly sickness of sin.  If we are honest, we will see that we fit right in with the Samaritan and the other lepers who were right to call out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  We need their humility and sense of dependence upon the Lord’s grace for a healing beyond what we can give ourselves.    The daily prayers found in any Orthodox prayer book say the same thing, and the Jesus Prayer should always be in our hearts.  Our prayer life is not a matter of just mouthing words, but a true plea for forgiveness, healing, and strength from the depths of our souls concerning the challenges that we face each day.  There is nothing more fundamental to the Christian life than daily personal prayer in which we are fully present to the One born and baptized to save us.  The more we open our lives to Him, the more fully we will be aware of our personal brokenness and constant need for His mercy.
            The struggle to live faithfully can certainly feel lonely and frustrating. Sin so easily isolates us from one another and also from ourselves.  Even if we manage to keep secrets from others, the burdens of guilt and shame are profound and can separate us at a deep level from those closest to us.  They easily become unhealthy obsessions that make us feel as unclean as a leper who thinks that no one could understand his pain and that no one could possibly heal his wounds.  That is one of the reasons why the sacrament of Confession is such a blessing and a relief, such a source of strength in our journey to live the new life in Christ.  In Confession we are reminded that we are not left alone in isolation to struggle with our sins, for the priest is an icon of the Lord, conveying His mercy and providing guidance for the healing of our souls.  If we want to be healed like the Samaritan leper, we will come to Confession regularly, naming our sins, especially those of which we are most ashamed and which we would like to keep hidden.  We will kneel before Christ in humility, bare our souls, and be assured of His forgiveness, if we are truly honest and repentant.
            Like everyone else in the Orthodox Church, a priest goes to another priest for Confession. This sacrament is a therapy for our healing, as well as a reminder that we are members of a Body united together in love and mercy.  We do not have to suffer alone, in isolation as though we were the only one who ever sinned.  We each have a slightly different version of a common struggle.  Our sins are not nearly as unique as we are tempted to think, and there is great power in hearing a human voice say that we should give no further care to the sins we have confessed, for they are forgiven in this world and in that which is to come.  Christ says to each of us in Confession through the voice of a priest, “Arise, go your way.  Your faith has made you well.” 
            The Samaritan is also an example for us in his obedience because he actually did what Christ told him to do, to head toward Jerusalem to show himself to the priests.   Here we have another powerful image of the Christian life, for we open our lives to the Lord’s healing by obeying Him, by keeping His commandments. 
            A murderer does not become an icon of Christ’s salvation by continuing to murder. A proud person does not become humble by continuing to be proud. And we will not experience victory over any sin in our lives if we simply give into it or make up excuses to justify ourselves.  No, we have actually to repent, to reject actions, thoughts, words, and habits that we know are wrong.  We may experience the greatest struggle of our lives in doing so and feel nothing but pain and frustration as we fight our passions.  We may fall flat on our faces a thousand times and wonder if we will ever find peace and joy.  When that happens, we must take our attention off ourselves and put it on Christ.  For if we are obeying Him as we best we can given our current state of spiritual health, then we are just like that Samaritan leper going to Jerusalem in obedience to Christ’s command, regardless of how we feel about it.   He calls us to obey and be healed, which is different from being perfectly at ease.  Have you ever gone to physical therapy after an injury or worked out when you were not in shape?  That was probably not much fun. Have you ever done the right thing in life even though it was hard and you did not particularly like it at the moment and worried how things would turn out?  If so, you know that there are times to focus on something much more important than your fears.  That is what the Samaritan leper did and it is what we must all do if we want to find healing for our souls. 
            It is never popular, but still true:  We simply cannot expect to find strength and transformation if we do not obey the Lord.  If we do not pray at home and at church, practice fasting and other forms of self-denial, give to the poor and needy, forgive those who have offended us, keep a close watch on our thoughts and actions, and struggle mightily against our familiar temptations, we really cannot expect growth in the Christian life.   If we are not actively seeking to become living icons of Christ’s salvation, we will not grow in holiness.  Like the leper, we must do our part in order to open ourselves to the mercy of Christ, to put ourselves in the place where His new life shines in ours.  And that is always the place of humble obedience.
            We should put out of our minds the thought that we are obeying an abstract law of religion or morality, for our Savior is a Person Who knows us better than we know ourselves.  We should turn away from obsessing over whether we are doing anything perfectly, for that reflects only our pride.   We should not be bogged down by the thousand excuses that run through our minds about why it is more important do something else than to follow Christ.  At the end of the day, we simply need to be like that Samaritan leper who called for Christ’s mercy and then did what the Lord told him to do.  Despite our many imperfections and corruptions, that is how we too will be able to hear those blessed words:  “Rise and go your way, your faith has made you well.”  We should not make obedience any hard than it really is.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Eucharist and Marriage

The Interrelation of Eucharist and Marriage:
The Mission of the Parish in Forming Communicants and Spouses in Holiness[1]

            Eucharist and holy matrimony are foundational practices of the Orthodox Church, obviously celebrated with great frequency.  Unfortunately, many communicants and spouses do not perceive their deep interrelation and profound spiritual significance.  In a time when popular practices and attitudes concerning marriage and sexuality reflect contemporary cultural trends far more than Orthodox teaching, a crucial calling of the parish is to draw on the resources provided by these sacraments to enable husband and wife to make their common life a sign of the salvation of the world. 
            The challenges in doing so are great.  It is widely accepted today in western culture that marriage and sexuality concern nothing more than the consent of autonomous individuals to order their intimate and familial affairs as they see fit.  The same may be said of religious affiliation, which serves the preferences of individuals for meeting their perceived needs in a spiritual setting that increasingly resembles a commercial marketplace. Trends in both areas underwrite an individualistic view of life for which God becomes irrelevant or an idol crafted in one’s own image.[2]
This paper makes three primary claims about the interrelation of Eucharist and marriage in response to these cultural dynamics.[3]  First, Orthodoxy understands Eucharist and marriage to enact covenantal communions that change the very identity of those who share in them. Together with these new identities come obligations to fulfill the calling that participation brings.  Second, Eucharist and marriage involve physical actions that transcend the merely physical in their significance.  They thus contradict the Gnostic tendency to separate “body” and “person” so common in both past and present cultural sensibilities, especially with reference to sexuality.  Third, both sacraments share a common motif of sacrifice, as husband and wife wear the crowns of martyrdom in holy matrimony as they offer themselves and one another to the Lord with whom they commune in the Eucharist.  The interrelation of these holy mysteries concerns the  fulfillment of the human person and, ultimately, of the creation itself in Christ.
  The first theme of covenantal communion, which is shared by Eucharist and marriage, is present from the beginning of the biblical narrative with reference to the relationship between man and woman.  The Genesis reference to marriage as a “one flesh” union concerns not merely the momentary joining of bodies, but the full personal union of two people, created as male and female in the image and likeness of God.  Jesus Christ interpreted this passage in Matthew 19:6 with reference to the permanence appropriate to marriage:  “So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  What God has joined together, let no one separate.”   References in the Old Testament to Yahweh as the husband of Israel, and of His faithfulness to her despite her infidelity, are surely more consistent with a view of marriage as an abiding covenant than as a merely legal contract easily dissolved when a party does not meet its requirements.  (Hos. 2:19ff.)
Since Christ compared the heavenly kingdom to a wedding feast with some frequency, and performed His first sign in John’s gospel at a marriage banquet, commonalities between Eucharist and marriage should not be surprising. The covenantal nature of marriage is not arbitrary, but reflects the intimate union of man and woman as “one flesh.”  For example, in his response to the sexual libertines of Corinth, St. Paul argues that even casual sexual encounters with prostitutes accomplish this one flesh union.  Sexual intimacy is so profound that he compares its gravity to joining oneself with Christ.   He asks rhetorically “Shall I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute?  Never!  Do you not know that he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her?  For as it is written ‘The two shall become one flesh.’   But he who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with Him.” (1 Cor. 6: 15-17)  For St. Paul, profound matters of identity are at stake in all acts of sexual intimacy, for they concern our participation in covenantal relations with the Lord and with another human being.  
            Likewise, St. Paul stressed to the Corinthians that the Eucharist enacts a deep personal union both with Christ and one another in His Body, the Church.  “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?  The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ.  Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” (10:16-18) Eucharistic communion with the Lord is so real that participating in it unworthily, “without discerning the body,” brings judgment and even death.  (11: 28-30)  Even as we can profane the martial nature of intercourse by relations with prostitutes or other forms of promiscuity, we can profane the Eucharist by not being rightly in communion with the Lord and other members of the His Body, the Church.  Such actions fall short of the covenantal nature of both sacraments.  Those who perform them disorient themselves from the fulfillment of the salvific purposes God seeks to accomplish through these holy mysteries.   
            Since St. Paul presents both marriage and the Eucharist as such profound acts of union, it is not surprising that he uses the marital imagery of “one flesh” in Ephesians 5: 31-32 as a sign of the relationship between Christ and the Church.  Likewise in 2 Corinthians 11:2, he states that he “I betrothed you to Christ to present you as a pure bride to her one husband.”  Various church fathers make similar connections between marriage, Eucharist, and the Church.  For example, after describing how the “one flesh” union of marriage includes husband, wife, and child, St. John Chrysostom notes that “Our relationship to Christ is the same; we become one flesh with Him through communion…”[4] St. Nicholas Cabasilas also affirmed also that, through the Eucharist and the other holy mysteries, “Christ comes into us and dwells in us, He is united to us and grows into one with us” such that we “become one flesh with Him.”[5]  Such references indicate that the marital union of husband and wife is so profound that it is a fitting image for both the sacramental and ecclesial dimensions of the Christian life.   As Vigen Guroian notes,
The Orthodox Church describes sexual intercourse as synousia, a term which means consubstantiality.  Husband and wife are joined together as one in holy matrimony.  They are an ecclesial entity, one flesh, one body incorporate of two persons who in freedom and sexual love and through their relationship to Christ image the triune life of the Godhead and express the mystery of salvation in Christ’s relationship to the Church.[6] 
            For man and woman to “express the mystery of salvation in Christ’s relationship to the Church” is to fulfill their primordial calling as those created in the image and likeness of God.  Their communion with one another is to become a sign of their communion with the Lord in the Eucharist and the Church.  They are no longer isolated individuals, but members of a “one flesh” union that joins them profoundly to the spouse, the Lord, and His Body.     
            A second theme connecting Eucharist and marriage is that they both involve physical actions which have a significance that extends beyond the merely physical.  As St. Paul instructed the Corinthians, even momentary physical joining with a prostitute results in a unity parallel in significance to one’s unity with Christ. The physical gestures of intercourse obviously have a decisive shaping role in the lives of people in so many ways, both for good and for bad.  Simply to describe such actions with biological precision does not convey their full significance—spiritually, morally, psychologically, or socially. Indeed, such disparate acts as adultery, rape, incest, and faithful conjugal union are not distinguished merely by descriptions of bodily actions.
            Likewise, an account of the physical movements involved in the Eucharist does not plumb the depths of their meaning.  As Fr. Alexander Schmemann taught, an absolute division of symbol and reality in sacramental theology is contrary to the experience of the Church, for the sacraments manifest, realize, and reveal what they symbolize.  It is through participation in them that human beings participate in the life of God in a way that is both real and mystical.[7]   Paul Evdokimov made the similar point that the Holy Mysteries “do not merely give, but contain, grace and are channels; they are at the same time the instruments of salvation and salvation itself, as is the Church.”[8]  While the Eucharist involves the same physical capacities for eating and drinking as are used at any meal, its significance is nothing short of “one flesh” union with Christ in the heavenly banquet.
            In a parallel fashion, it is impossible to separate with complete clarity the physical joining of husband and wife in intercourse from any other dimension of their shared life.  Their physical union is inextricably entwined with the various dimensions of their relationship, including parenthood and the multilayered aspects of their identity as a couple and members of a family.  The physical symbol of their union manifests the reality of their marriage as persons at a deep level.   Likewise, the eating and drinking of the Eucharist is an epiphany of true participation in the life of the Lord and His heavenly kingdom. This close identification is reflected in Christ’s teaching, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.”  (John 6:53)  In both marriage and Eucharist, physical gestures function as epiphanies of grace and full participation in the life of another.  To regard them as anything less than manifestations of covenantal communion is to degrade their significance.
            These claims reflect the Incarnational theology of Orthodoxy, as Jesus Christ is both fully divine and fully human.  Divinity, then, is not a stranger to physicality, but joined with it in the Person of Christ.  The God-Man performed many physical signs and gestures that conveyed the fullness of God’s kingdom for those enduring bodily struggles such as hunger, sickness, and even death.  In this light, salvation is not an escape from physicality, but its fulfillment, restoration, and ultimate transformation in the heavenly reign.
As St. Paul taught, the Lord’s bodily resurrection is the “first fruits” of hope for the blessing of the entire creation, including its material aspects, in the eschatological Kingdom.  (1 Cor. 15:20)  In arguing that “the body is not for fornication, but for the Lord,” he appeals to Christ’s resurrection as the basis of our hope to also be raised up by God.  In contrast to the Gnostic inclinations of his libertine opponents, St. Paul reminds the Corinthians that their bodies are both members of Christ and temples of the Holy Spirit.  (1 Cor. 6:15, 19).  Since God intends whole human beings—body, soul, and spirit-- to participate in heavenly glory, how one lives in the physicality of the body plays a decisive role in one’s faithfulness to the incarnate Son of God, now risen and ascended bodily into heaven.
In this context, the body is neither intrinsically evil nor spiritually irrelevant.  And given Christ’s use of the wedding feast as an image of the heavenly banquet, as well as the marital imagery of Revelation (e.g., 19:7-9, 21:2) for the consummation of all things, it is certainly not merely coincidental that the fulfillment of the relationship between man and woman has figured so prominently in the eschatological hope of Christianity from its origins. From the “one flesh” language of Genesis to the marriage banquet of the Lamb in Revelation, God brings those created male and female in His image and likeness more fully into communion with Him and one another. Their “one flesh” union finds its fulfillment in the heavenly banquet in which husband and wife participate already as they wear the crowns of the Kingdom.  They stand together in the unfolding narrative of the fulfillment of God’s gracious intensions for human beings to become participants in the loving communion of the Holy Trinity.        
            God’s salvation is the fulfillment, not the annihilation, of His good creation, including the physical dimensions of our existence. Especially with reference to marriage, Chrysostom taught that the desires of husband and wife for one another are not simply evil, but a dimension of human nature “still basically good after the Fall.”[9]  Because “Marriage is honorable and the bed undefiled,” Chrysostom chided husbands for excusing themselves from services after intimate union with their wives.  His affirmed that God has created man and woman as “ontologically ideal counterpart[s].”[10] Indeed, “husband and wife are one body in the same way as Christ and the Father are one.” [11] Marriage provides a “safe haven” for the fulfillment of desire and the most intimate union of man and woman “to be a living image, or icon, of the marriage of Christ the Bridegroom with His Bride, the Church.”[12]  Here the “one flesh” union of husband and wife finds its natural and eschatological culmination.
Physical hunger and thirst, together with the social and communal dimensions of table fellowship, also find their completion in the heavenly banquet in which communicants participate mystically in the Eucharist.  Even as marriage plays a key role in the biblical drama, so do meals. The Passover seder is the Jews’ ongoing participation in the salvation of the Hebrew people from slavery and death in Egypt at the time of the Exodus. In the context of Passover, Christ reveals that He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  To eat His flesh and drink His blood is to participate in a new covenant of deliverance from death itself.   The requirement of nourishment for physical existence becomes the basis for profound spiritual imagery which underwrites the importance of bodily actions for matters beyond what they typically signify in this world.  In the context of historic Christian faith, marital union and table fellowship both become channels of participation in God’s reign.
The third theme of commonality for the Eucharist and marriage is that of sacrifice.  The connection is obvious with reference to the Eucharist in which communicants receive the Body and Blood of the true Passover Lamb.  Participation in the spiritual sacrifice of the Eucharist calls and enables communicants to join themselves to the one offering of the Son as they lift up  every dimension of their lives to the Holy Trinity for blessing and fulfillment. 
Perhaps less explicit are the sacrificial themes of marriage, though they are also profound.  For example, St. Paul teaches that spouses should “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” and that husbands should love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”  (Eph. 5:21ff)   In becoming “one flesh,” both spouses sacrifice the identity of autonomous individuals and enter into a joint ascetical struggle of dying to their self-centeredness out of love for the other.  In this sense, Chrysostom notes that “it is possible for us to surpass all others in virtue by becoming good husbands and wives.”[13]
 The challenges of offering their common life to the Lord-- in all its interpersonal, economic, and physical aspects—presents a myriad of a opportunities for spiritual growth to the man and the woman, both as unique persons and as a couple.   Faithful marriage places their erotic love in a context directed toward the Kingdom, to the fulfillment of all human desire in union with the Holy Trinity.  From the marriage service itself, in which husband and wife wear martyrs’ crowns of the Kingdom, their union is directed toward theosis, the fulfillment of their primordial calling together in the image and likeness of God.  As Guroian comments,
God has intended from all eternity that she [the Church] and Christ should be united as Bride and Groom so that the world might be saved from sin and death.  Christian marriage is a sign and foretaste of a world reconciled in Christ to God.  That is no mere analogy, but belongs to the deepest symbolism that God has built into the fabric of his creation.  God created and constituted man and woman as complementary beings who in union constitute a single humanity, a single Adam-Eve existence.  In marriage, man-and-woman-together is a sacramental sign of the union of Christ and the Church.[14]
Christian marriage is an ongoing participation in the Eucharist, in the heavenly wedding banquet that manifests God’s salvation.  The humble physical elements of bread and wine find fulfillment as the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist and become our participation in the life of heaven.  Likewise, the intimate personal union of man and woman becomes in holy matrimony their entrance to the heavenly realm, their participation by grace in the life of the Holy Trinity as distinct persons sharing a common life and love.  For human beings to do that requires profound asceticism as they become more fully communicants and participants in Christ’s sacrifice for the life of the world.
Their ascetical offering helps to restore man and woman to their natural state in God’s image and likeness. St. John of Damascus taught that “Repentance is the returning from the unnatural to the natural state, from the devil to God, through discipline and repentance.”[15]  The return to the natural state is a process of the healing of the soul from slavery to the passions, which requires in marriage a sacrificial offering of both spouses in accordance with God’s salvific purposes.  There certainly is a difference between desire in accord with humanity’s God-given nature and the passions that disorient and distort those desires. For example, Chrysostom observed that “The body has a natural desire, not however for fornication, or for adultery, but simply for sexual intercourse.  The body has a natural desire not for gluttony, but simply for nourishment, and not for drunkenness, but simply for drink.”[16] The sacrificial offering of marriage directs those innate desires to their proper end of bringing man and woman more fully in union with one another and with the Lord.   
St. Gregory Palamas describes insightfully the ascetical struggle of sacrifice: 
Will not the passionate part of the soul, as a result of this [ascetical] violence, be also brought to act according to the commandments?  Such forcing, by dint of habituation, makes easy our acceptance of God’s commandments, and transforms our changeable disposition into a fixed state.  This condition brings about a steady hatred towards evil states and dispositions of the soul; and hatred of evil duly produces the impassibility which in turn engenders love for the unique Good. Thus one must offer to God the passionate part of the soul, alive and active, that it may be a living sacrifice.[17]
Such asceticism is neither an escape from nor a repudiation of the body, but instead the participation of the body—as well as the whole person-- in holiness.  As Palamas noted, “so, too, in the case of those who have elevated their minds to God and exalted their souls with divine longing, their flesh also is being transformed and elevated, participating together with the soul in the divine communion, and becoming itself a dwelling and possession of God; for it is no longer the seat of enmity towards God, and no longer possesses desires contrary to the Spirit.”[18] While this statement arises from a monastic context, it is certainly applicable to those who live in the world, including married couples. Marital asceticism does traditionally concern restraint in matters of intimacy, but it is surely not limited to them. Through the many struggles of their shared life, husband and wife possess an almost limitless number of opportunities to deny themselves out of love for one another, their children, and family members.  For example, Chrysostom advised married couples to
Pray together at home and go to Church; when you come back home, let each ask the other the meaning of the readings and prayers.  If you are overtaken by poverty, remember Peter and Paul, who were more honored than kings or rich men, though they spent their lives in hunger and thirst.  Remind one another that nothing in life is to be feared, except offending God.  If your marriage is like this, your perfection will rival the holiest of monks.[19]   
Fr. Stanley Harakas observes that marriage and family provide the context “in which most Orthodox Christians…grow toward theosis.”  Given the great challenges presented to holiness by difficulties encountered in family life, he notes that a relationship which images the loving union of the Holy Trinity is possible only when the spouses intentionally offer themselves to God as the “third partner” in the marriage. In such a context, husband and wife may “contribute to making the home—for parents and children alike—a workshop for growth toward theosis.”[20]
The common Orthodox ascetical practice of periodic abstinence from marital relations must be seen in proper context, for it does not imply that sexual union is sinful or should be repudiated by all married couples.  Fr. John Chryssavgis notes that the petitions of the wedding service itself present chastity as “the integrity of the human person” open to the couple, not simply as physical virginity.  In prayers that recall fertile married couples from the Old Testament and pray for similar blessings for the bride and groom, the service “shows no reservation towards sexuality, no trace of despicability, or even suspicion.”[21] From its first centuries, the Church has rejected Gnostic and Manichean condemnations of the goodness of the physical body, as well as of sexual union in marriage.  St. Gregory the Theologian affirmed marriage with great rhetorical force:    
Are you not yet wedded to flesh?  Fear not this consecration; you are pure even after marriage.  I will take the risk of that.  I will join you in wedlock.  I will dress the bride.  We do not dishonor marriage because we give a higher honor to virginity.  I will imitate Christ, the pure Groomsman and Bridegroom, as He both wrought a miracle at a wedding and honored wedlock by His presence.  Only let marriage be pure and unmingled with filthy lusts.  This only I ask:  receive safety from the Gift and give to the Gift the oblation of chastity in its due season, when the fixed time of prayer comes around.[22]
  Marital fasting is a tool for directing the desires of husband and wife to God and for the healing of unhealthy passions.  When couples agree to abstain from relations in order to devote themselves to more focused prayer for a period of time, they direct their desire for communion ultimately to the heavenly banquet of which their marital union is a sign.  They recognize that even the most blessed marriage on earth does not manifest fully the “one flesh” union with one another and with God to which they are called.  As H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr., notes, the marital fast enables spouses to “seek enjoyment without being distracted by a self-indulgence that turns one’s heart from God…The goal is to delight in God’s creation without being mastered by this delight, to find in this enjoyment rightly taken an opportunity through which to pass beyond this enjoyment to His Kingdom…”[23] The point is not legalism, but eschatological hope for greater participation in the life of God by the man and woman who wear the crowns of the Kingdom.  Evdokimov notes on these matters that “the Church offers only elements for a basis of judgment.  She exerts no constraint; her task is to free man [and woman] from all forms of enslavement in order to make him [and her]… free citizen[s] of the Kingdom.”[24]
 A parallel with the Eucharist is helpful here.  Fasting from food does not imply that the fruits of the earth are evil.  The problem is that corrupt human beings typically have unnatural attachments to food, drink, and other sources of pleasure.  Fasting provides an opportunity to reorient one’s desires for fulfillment from the stomach to the Lord and to keep the blessing of physical nourishment in its proper place. Moreover, the innate human desires for food and drink are not evil in themselves.  But they certainly are corrupted and play a paradigmatic role in the disintegration of humanity from the beginning of the biblical narrative.  In the Eucharist, however, the very purposes of physical nourishment are fulfilled and restored as bread and wine become our participation in the life and fellowship of heaven.    
In order to feast rightly at the heavenly banquet, we must fast at times from lesser ones. Self-restraint with reference to physical appetites is necessary for the celebration of the Eucharist.  The servers must certainly refrain from consuming the gifts before the service begins.  The self-restraint of fasting from other food and drink in preparation for the Eucharistic feast does not imply that the desire to satisfy daily hunger and thirst are somehow sinful, but instead reorients our appetites toward communion with God and one another.  As with marriage, some level of sacrifice is necessary in order to participate in the fullness of the blessings already foreshadowed in the world as we know it.  While Eucharist and marriage do not call those who participate in them to abstain completely from the bodily pleasures of nourishment or intimacy, they do call for spouses and communicants to join their lives more fully to the one offering of the Son, which requires ascetical struggle in various forms.  In both holy mysteries, humble human gifts become our true personal participation in the heavenly banquet. 
The greatest challenges in integrating Eucharist and marriage are not theoretical, as the texts of the services and the writings of ancient and contemporary teachers describe them clearly.  In our ever changing world, however, it is difficult to form men, women, and youth in ways that enable them to embrace the deep connections of these holy mysteries.  Perhaps a first step in that direction is to resist the division between “religion” and “real life” so commonly assumed in modern western culture. The conventional wisdom, adopted at least in practice by many Orthodox, is that the distinctive teachings of the faith amount to little more than sectarian idiosyncrasies that must be relegated to the private sphere, where they become matters of mere personal preference that have little to do with fulfilling the nature of the human person.[25]  If Orthodox Christians are to make a credible witness to the new life of the Kingdom, they must be formed through their parishes and families to embrace a distinctive vocation.  They must do so, not as a matter of arbitrary sectarian preference or escape from reality, but as a persuasive sign that the path they pursue is truly the salvation of the world. Parishioners must show in their own lives that Eucharist and marriage serve the healing of human brokenness, not simply religious ceremonies or antiquated customs.
In order for the laity to live out this vocation with integrity, clergy, catechists, and other teachers must instruct them on the deep interrelatedness of Eucharist and marriage.  Since these holy mysteries are frequently celebrated and quite familiar to parishioners, there is no shortage of opportunities to challenge the laity to grow in their understanding of how they impact daily life.   It is also necessary to identify and reject popular ideas and practices that corrupt the beliefs and behavior of so many parishioners on questions of marriage, sexuality, and family.  If the Church does not address these matters explicitly and effectively, it should not be surprising when the dominant ethos of our times influences parishioners profoundly and negatively.
 Of equal importance is the need to present the ascetical dimensions of the Eucharist life and of marriage in ways that are not reduced to legalism or rote traditionalism.  Since the matters at stake very much concern bodily appetites, parishioners will find strength in fighting their passions and reorienting their natural desires in holy ways through appropriate forms of self-denial with food and other sources of pleasure.    
The Eucharistic theology of Schmemann is helpful at this point, for he teaches that
the world to come in which we participate in the Divine Liturgy is our same world, already perfected in Christ, but not yet in us.  And since God has created the world as food for us and given us food as means of communion with Him, of life in Him, the new food of the new life which we receive from God in His Kingdom is Christ Himself.  He is our bread—because from the very beginning all our hunger was a hunger for Him and all our bread was a symbol of Him, a symbol that had to become reality….and all food, therefore, must lead us to Him.[26]
Christ did not obliterate hunger, food, or the body.  Instead, He fulfilled them, making them more real as channels of participation in the blessedness of the Kingdom. It is incumbent upon those who receive the Eucharist to display a life in this world which bears witness to Christ’s divinization of the human being. Our participation in the Eucharistic offering is not limited to the service of the Divine Liturgy, but must permeate every dimension of our life in the world, including what secular society thinks of as the “real life” matters at stake in sex, marriage, and family. Otherwise, we have failed to embrace the truth that “Christ has offered all that exists…We are included in the Eucharist of Christ and Christ is our Eucharist.”[27] Hence, Schmemann claims that the calling of the priesthood is “to reveal to each vocation its priestly essence, to make the whole life of all men the liturgy of the Kingdom, to reveal the Church as the royal priesthood of the redeemed world.”[28]
Schmemann teaches that the same is true of holy matrimony, for the entrance of bride and groom into the Church “does not merely symbolize, but indeed is the entrance of marriage into the Church, which is the entrance of world into ‘the world to come’, the procession of the people of God—in Christ—into the Kingdom.” The glory of humankind as the king of creation in Genesis finds fulfillment in each new family blessed as “a kingdom, a little church, and therefore a sacrament of and way to the Kingdom.”[29]  The spouses’ crowns of martyrdom reject the idolization of the family—and of romance, sex, social respectability, personal happiness and of other worldly values—and serve as signs of the ultimate reality in which their marriage enables them to participate.[30] The common vocation of human beings is also that of married people: “to follow Christ in the fullness of His priesthood:  in His love for man and the world, His love for their ultimate fulfillment in the abundant life of the Kingdom.”[31]  
In a world with very different understandings of what marriage is about, Orthodoxy calls husbands and wives to live eucharistically. The Church today must discern how to form communicants and spouses who recognize and embrace the deep interrelation of Eucharist and marriage as signs of the salvation of the world.  To do so is not only for the extraordinarily pious or merely a charming idiosyncrasy of a particular religious or ethnic heritage.  It is, instead, an imperative that arises from our very nature as human beings in the image and likeness of God, who invites man and woman to dine at the heavenly banquet and to wear the martyrs’ crowns of those who find new life in His Kingdom.                      

[1] This paper was presented at the International Symposium on “The Mission of the Parish and the Monastery in a Continuously Changing World,” Faculty of Orthodox Theology, Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca, Romania, November 3, 2015.
[2] Christos Yannaras, The Freedom of Morality (Crestwood, NY:  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984), 224, observes that “People do not gather in the churches to constitute the body of the Church, to manifest and realize the true life of the communion of persons; they come to satisfy their individual religious needs and pray as individuals, in parallel with the rest of the congregation, more alone perhaps than on the sports-ground or at the cinema.”
[3] This paper draws on earlier treatments of these themes in Philip LeMasters, Toward a Eucharistic Vision of Church, Family, Marriage, and Sex (Minneapolis, MN:  Light & Life Publishing Co., 2004), 52ff.  For discussions of the relationship between Eucharist and marriage, see also John Meyendorff, Marriage:  An Orthodox Perspective (Crestwood, NY:  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1984), 20-24; and John Breck, The Sacred Gift of Life:  Orthodox Christianity and Bioethics (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000), 93.
[4] St. John Chrysostom, “Homily 20,” On Marriage and Family Life, Catherine P Roth and David Anderson, trans., (Crestwood, NY:  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997,) 51.
[5] St. Nicholas Cabasilas, The Life in Christ (Crestwood, NY:  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998), 60-61.
[6] Vigen Guroian, Incarnate Love (Notre Dame, IN:  University of Notre Dame Press, 1987), 87-88.
[7] Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (Crestwood, NY:  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998), 135ff., 140-141.
[8] Paul Evdokimov, The Sacrament of Love (Crestwood, NY:  St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), 124.
[9] David C. Ford, Women and Men in the Early Church:  The Full Views of St. John Chrysostom (South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1996), 47.
[10] Ford, Women and Men in the Early Church, 51-54. See also Lawrence R. Farley, One Flesh:  Salvation Through Marriage in the Orthodox Church (Chesterton, IN:  Ancient Faith Publishing, 2013), 93ff.
[11] St. John Chrysostom, “Homily 20,” On Marriage and Family Life, 52.
[12] Ford, Women and Men in the Early Church, 67-68.
[13] St. John Chrysostom, “Homily 20,” On Marriage and Family Life, 57.
[14] Guroian, Rallying the Really Human Things:  The Moral Imagination in Politics, Literature, and Every Day Life (Wilmington, DE:  ISI Books, 2005), 127.
[15] St. John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Bk. 2, Ch. XXX in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, vol. 9, 43.
[16] St. John Chrysostom, Homily V on Ephesians as quoted in Ford, Women and Men in the Early Church, 131.
[17] St. Gregory Palamas, The Triads (Mahwah, NY:  Paulist Press, 1983), 55, II.ii.20.
[18] St. Gregory Palamas, The Triads, 47-48, I.ii.1.
[19] St. John Chrysostom, “Homily 20,” On Marriage and Family Life, 61-62.
[20] Stanley Harakas, Living the Faith (Minneapolis, MN:  Light & Life Publishing Co., 1993), 241-242, 245, 254.
[21] John Chryssavgis, Love, Sexuality, and the Sacrament of Marriage (Brookline, MA:  Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2005), 25-26.
[22] St. Gregory the Theologian, “Oration 40,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd series, Vol. 7, 365, as cited in Ford, Women and Men in the Early Church, 32-33.  This discussion of marital asceticism draws on an earlier treatment of these themes in LeMasters, The Goodness of God’s Creation:  How to Live as an Orthodox Christian (Salisbury, MA:  Regina Orthodox Press, 2008), 25ff.

[23] H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr., The Foundations of Christian Bioethics (Lisse:  Swets & Zeitlinger Publishers, 2000), 243-244.
[24] Evdokimov, 176.
[25] The practices and trends of the larger society present temptations too strong to be resisted by simple appeals to preference or the curious habits of religious groups.  It is one thing to affirm religious liberty in the social sphere out of respect for the freedom of persons to believe and worship as choose. It is another, however, to make secularism normative in a way that obscures the urgency of the Church’s vocation to call human beings to become more fully who God created them to be in His image likeness.

[26] Schmemann, For the Life of the World, 43.
[27] Schmemann, 36.
[28]Schmemann, 93. 
[29] SChmemann, 89.
[30] Schmemann, 91.
[31] Schmemann, 94.