Monday, March 28, 2016

On Teaching Protestants About Saints, Icons, and Theosis

          Having taught college-level Religion classes for 25 years now, I have known for a long time that it can be a challenge for students from any faith background to interpret fairly the beliefs and practices of other communities.  In my experience, that is especially the case for many evangelical Protestants when they encounter just about anything that looks “too Catholic.”  Having grown up a Southern Baptist in Texas and having taught now for over 20 years at a Methodist-related institution, I have not been surprised to have students who seem allergic to practices they identify with the abuses of Rome as rejected by the Protestant Reformation.  This semester’s students in my Orthodox Theology course have helped me grow in my understanding of how to address these dynamics with a bit more clarity.

          As they were reading St. John of Damascus’ treatises in defense of the holy icons, some of my students took objection to his claim that the Saints are due honor because they partake by grace in the divine glory.  An implication of that claim is that to refuse to honor the Saints is to refuse also to give proper glory to God, for it is His glory in which the Saints participate.  How, then, could any Christian fail to honor those who shine with holy light?  Some students suggested that to honor the icons of Saints, to ask for their prayers, and to remember them liturgically puts people at risk of worshiping the Saints instead of God, of committing idolatry.  In response, I explained that Orthodoxy formally distinguishes between veneration and worship and that there is so much in the life of the Church, and in the spiritual formation of Orthodox believers, to guard against such abuses.  They remained skeptical, however.

          It occurred to me a few days after that class that the students were probably thinking about what they imagine would happen if the veneration of Saints and icons were all of a sudden made part of the Methodist congregations in which they worship.  As is perfectly understandable, they were thinking in light of their own experience.  And since the theological sensibilities of Protestantism developed over against the abuses of the Catholic Church in the 16th century, how could they not be suspicious of restoring practices that the Reformers rejected and that are essentially unknown in their communities?

          As well, it clicked that Orthodox veneration of the Saints manifests belief in theosis, that human beings become participants in the divine energies like an iron left in the fire.  They shine with the divine glory as they become holy through their participation in the life of the Holy Trinity by grace.  From its origins, the Church has glorified God by celebrating those in whom we have experienced His holiness.  They show us what it means for people, every bit as human as we are, to be so united with the New Adam that they become living icons of the fulfillment of our nature as those created in God’s image and likeness.  Since Orthodoxy is clear about the radical difference between worship and veneration, there is no threat of idolatry here.  Likewise, the iconoclasts challenged the experience of the Church from her origins.  They were the innovators, insisting that what they did not like be ripped out of the life of the Body of Christ, irrespective of the scandal and harm caused to the people of God.

          The next time that class met, I urged my students to remember that St. John of Damascus was speaking in and to a Church with well-established understandings of theosis, of the difference between worship and veneration, and centuries of experience in honoring and asking for the prayers of the Saints.  He was not addressing Protestants with no concept of deification.  He was not addressing communities that had refused to venerate the Saints for five hundred years, that had identified that practice with later abuses in the West, or that had affirmed sola scriptura.  My students may make of these matters what they will, but I suggested that it is probably not helpful to reduce the issue simply to speculation on what would happen if they started venerating Saints tomorrow in their own congregations.

          Instead, they would do well to wrestle with their relationship to the “great cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews 12 that inspires us to look to Christ as we continue the race.  There is no competition between honoring those holy people and worshipping the Lord in that passage.  They would benefit from engaging the status of the martyrs described in Revelation 6 and the reference to the prayers of the Saints rising with incense in Revelation 8.  In other words, their traditions should encourage them to engage the Bible on these matters, including the miracles worked by the bones of Elisha in the Old Testament (2 Kings 13:21) and the shadow, handkerchiefs, and aprons of the Apostles in the New Testament (Acts 5:15, 19:12).  Since Protestants are supposed to judge tradition by Scripture, they should consider whether their traditions have done justice to the teachings of the Bible on these matters.   Some of my former students have become Orthodox as a result of wrestling with such questions, but what they do with my suggestions is ultimately up to them.

          Enthusiastic veneration of the Saints and their icons did not break out spontaneously that day in class, but I could tell that the students were open to seeing these matters in a new light, and not in a way that is entirely captive to their own experience.  That is surely one of the most important dimensions of higher education.   Maybe there is some point to what I have had the blessing to do now for 25 years.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

On Knowing God as Whole Persons: Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 1:10-2:3
Mark 2:1-12
          Whenever we face major challenges, it can be tempting to give up and run away.  Some have even tried to make Christianity a way to escape the problems of the world and the limitations of our bodies.  A problem with that way of thinking is that Jesus Christ has become part of our world with a body every bit as human as ours.  By doing so, He has made it possible for us to participate in His salvation as whole persons.  We do not need to escape our humanity in order to experience eternal life.
          Today we commemorate St. Gregory Palamas, a great bishop, monastic, and theologian of the 14th century.  He is known especially for defending the experience of hesychast monks who, through deep prayer of the heart and asceticism, were enabled to see the Uncreated Light of God that the Apostles beheld at the Transfiguration of the Lord on Mount Tabor.   Against those who denied that human beings could ever experience and know God in such direct and tangible ways, St. Gregory taught that we may truly participate in the divine energies as whole persons. He proclaimed that knowing God does not mean merely having ideas about Him, but being united personally with Him by grace.  It is to become radiant with the divine glory like an iron left in the fire in ways that permeate a person’s body, soul, and spirit. To share in God’s life is not an escape from the world or our humanity, but instead their glorious fulfillment.
          If that all seems a bit abstract, think about the paralyzed man in today’s gospel text.  Christ not only forgave his sins, but healed his bodily paralysis and instructed him to rise, take up his bed, and walk.  His encounter with the Lord was not limited to thoughts or symbols.  No, the Lord transformed that fellow’s entire life– body, soul, and spirit.
          During the season of Lent, we want Him to transform our lives also. That is why we pray, fast, show generosity to the needy, forgive our enemies, confess our sins, and otherwise reorient ourselves toward God in practical, tangible ways.  If done with integrity, these actions involve every dimension of who we are; we certainly cannot do them without using our bodies.  They are not an escape from reality, but ways in which we come to participate more fully by grace in the eternal life of our Lord.  They are disciplines through which we may know and experience God in every aspect of our being.  Through them, our Lord strengthens us to rise, take up our beds, and move forward into a life of holiness, the life for which He created us in the first place.
          Christ calls us to experience and know His salvation in practical, tangible ways that extend from the depths of our hearts to how we treat our neighbors every day.  He even nourishes us with His own Body and Blood such that His life becomes ours as we live and breathe in the world as we know it.  The Lenten journey prepares us to follow Christ to His Passion, through which He tramples down death by death.  Because we are weakened and paralyzed by our sins, we need these weeks to help us find the healing necessary to embrace the new life that He has brought to the world through His resurrection.
          We need the practices of Lent because, in contrast with the glory to which He calls us, we all remain too much like the paralyzed man before his healing.  Our weakness before our habitual sins and passions often seems more real to us than do the gracious divine energies that alone bring healing.  Perhaps that is because we have far more experience of our own brokenness than of deep personal union with God.  The good news, however, is that true personal knowledge of the Lord is available to us all by calling on Him in humility from our hearts.  No matter how busy our lives or how noisy the world around us, we may pray the Jesus Prayer  in inner silence, even as we fight our passions and reorient our lives to Him through repentance.  If we do so, we will open ourselves to His grace as whole persons.  We will not abandon or escape the world, but instead know in our own lives the joy of its salvation.  Indeed, we will know Him.  Surely, that is God’s will for each and every one of us in the remaining weeks of this blessed season.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Venerate Icons by Becoming One: Homily for the Sunday of Orthodoxy

          One of the great dangers of our age is the tendency to set our sights too low, to expect too little of ourselves and others.  It is so appealing to think that being true to ourselves means indulging every desire and finding fulfillment by getting whatever want at the moment.  It is so easy to envision our neighbors and even God in our own image, as though the meaning and purpose of all reality boils down to whatever makes us comfortable here and now.  The blessed season of Lent, however, calls us to an entirely different way of life that reveals the holy beauty for which God created us in His image and likeness.
            Today we celebrate the restoration of icons to the Orthodox Church at the end of the iconoclastic controversy, during which emperors ordered the destruction of images of our Lord, the Theotokos, and the Saints in the name of opposing idolatry.  Of course, icons are not false gods to be worshiped, but visual symbols of the salvation that the incarnate Son of God has brought to the world.  They reflect the true humanity of Jesus Christ, as well as how people like you and me may participate in His holiness in every dimension of our lives.  They remind us not only that we are surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses”  (Heb. 12:1) who have gone before us, but that our Savior calls and enables us to join them in shining radiantly with the divine glory, even as we live and breathe as flesh and blood.    
            When we make a procession after Liturgy today with our icons, we will proclaim that our identity is not determined by whatever is popular, easy, or appealing. As those created in God’s image and likeness, we will never be fulfilled by the false gods of this world, such as indulgence in money, power, and pleasure in its various forms. We are called to something much higher, for Christ told Nathanael that he would “see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.” (John 1:51) He comes to make us all participants in the divine glory by grace.
            At the end of the day, the only way to answer that calling is by becoming better icons of Christ, better visible and tangible witnesses of His salvation.  That is why we must fast from whatever keeps us from radiating the holy light of God.  It is why we must refuse to feed our tendencies to dwell on the failings of others.  It is why we must starve our inclination to speak words of self-righteous judgment and condemnation.  It is why we must abstain from indulging in actions that harm, weaken, or take advantage of anyone.  It is why we must refuse to nourish our passions by allowing into our eyes, ears, and stomachs anything that enslaves us to self-centered desire.
            Even as we turn away from what diminishes us in the divine likeness, we must also feast on what helps us embrace more fully our true identity in Christ.  That means putting our souls on a steady diet of prayer; of reading the Bible, the lives of the Saints, and other spiritually edifying works; and of mindfulness in all things such that we remain alert to the spiritual significance of what we think, say, and do.  The more that we fill ourselves with holy things, the less appetite we will have for unholy things. 
            The journey of Lent is not about punishment or legalism, but instead about helping us grow personally into our exalted identity as those called to share in the eternal life of our Lord.  It is about turning away from the idolatry of self-centeredness in order to become a more beautiful icon of the divine glory.  It is about refusing to set our sights low concerning what it means to be a human being in God’s image and likeness.  It is about crucifying our self-centered desires so that we may enter into the holy mystery of our Lord’s cross and resurrection. For it is through His Passion that we will “see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.”     

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Return with the New Adam to Paradise: Homily for Forgiveness Sunday in the Orthodox Church

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

           Today the Church calls us to see ourselves in Adam and Eve, cast out of Paradise and stripped of their original glory.  God created them in His own image and likeness and had clothed them with a robe of light, which they lost when they chose their own pride and self-centered desires over humble obedience.  Their great potential for growth in holiness squandered, now they are reduced to covering themselves with fig leaves and wearing the flesh of corruption and mortality.  Adam sits with Eve outside the shut gates of Paradise and weeps bitterly for what they did to themselves and to the entire creation.  

           In ways obvious and not so obvious, their tragic story is also ours. We live in a world of people who, from generation to generation, have chosen to satisfy themselves rather than to flourish in the glory of those who bear the divine image and likeness.  Due to advances in communications, we are more aware today of the details of the world’s problems than were previous generations, but not much really changes from age to age in the human soul. Fear, hatred, violence, greed, abuse of the weak, self-centeredness, and addiction to pleasure plague every generation and have ruined the lives of so many who were created for eternal joy.  We do not have to look very hard at our society or world, or at ourselves, to see that we live very far from Paradise.

           The good news, of course, is that the God-Man Jesus Christ is the New Adam Who clothes us with a robe of light in baptism.  As St. Paul wrote, “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”  (Gal. 3:27) The father restored the prodigal son by giving him fine clothing, and the Savior restores us when put Him on in baptism. (Lk. 15:22)   He entered into death, the ultimate consequence of Adam’s sin, in order to conquer it through His resurrection. We are baptized into His death in order to rise with Him into the life of Heaven, even as we live and breathe in this world. (Rom. 6:3-4) He comes to bring us back to Paradise.

           Even though we have put on Christ and are members of His own Body, the Church, there is still much of the old Adam in us.  Time and again, we fall back to the nakedness and despair of those who strip themselves of the divine glory through sin.  That is why St. Paul told the Christians in Rome to “cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”  He told them to strip themselves of the pitiful garments of sin and death and “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to gratify its desires.” That means ripping from their lives whatever diminished and weakened them as the children of God.  That means living faithfully to our identity as those who have died to sin and risen to eternal life with our Savior. The season of Great Lent provides a blessed opportunity for each and every one of us to do precisely that.

           With Adam and Eve, sin and death came into the world through unrestrained indulgence in food.  We fast in Lent from the richest and most satisfying foods in order to find healing from the self-centered desires of our stomachs and taste buds, which in turn helps to free us from addiction to other forms of self-centeredness.  Humble fasting is the enemy of lust, pride, and anger, for example.  As our Lord taught, we do not fast in order to impress others, but in secret.  We must not draw attention to ourselves or inconvenience others as we fast.  As St. Paul wrote, we must not judge anyone for what they eat or do not eat. Remember that the self-righteous Pharisee lost the benefit of his spiritual disciplines due to pride and judgment, while the sinful tax-collector was justified due to his humility. (Lk. 18:9ff.) If we turn the blessed discipline of fasting into an instrument of pride, we will end up doing more harm than good to our souls.

           Instead of wasting our time in evaluating others, we focus in Lent on more fully participating in the healing and restoration that Christ has brought to the world.  Since we have put Him on in baptism, we must live in a way that reflects and reveals His mercy and blessing.  The Lord is very clear about what this means:  If we want forgiveness for our sins, we must forgive others for their offenses against us.  He says that because forgiveness is not some kind of legal decision about justice, but a characteristic of a relationship that reveals the health or sickness of our souls.  The prodigal son had no claim to restoration as a son, and he knew that, but the overwhelming love of his father healed the deep wounds that the young man’s behavior had caused.  If we want to open ourselves to the unfathomable divine mercy, we must become channels of that same mercy to others.  If we are “participants of the divine nature” by grace, our Lord’s forgiveness will become characteristic of who we are. (2 Pet. 1:4)  Like an iron left in the fire takes on the qualities of the fire and conveys heat and light to other objects, those who truly share in Christ’s life will share what they have received with others. As St. Paul wrote, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”  (Gal. 2:20) If we want God’s forgiveness for ourselves and refuse to forgive others, we are very far from the life of the New Adam.         

           At Forgiveness Vespers this evening, we will personally bow before one another as we ask for and extend forgiveness to everyone in the parish. We begin our journey toward the deep mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection with humility and reconciliation.  What greater sign is there of our sinfulness than how easily we offend, harm, and disregard one another, even those we love most and with whom we share a common life?  To the extent that none of us has lived as faithfully as possible, we have all weakened one another spiritually because we are members of one Body. Now is the time to grant to one another the forgiveness that we ask from the Lord.  We open ourselves to His mercy as we show mercy to others. If we begin Lent this way, we will also find new strength to heal broken relationships in all areas of our lives. Then we will grow in humility as we overcome our stupid pride and make things right with our neighbors.
           The Lord taught that our hearts will be wherever we place our treasure, wherever we invest ourselves.  As we give of our time, energy, and resources to the needy during Lent, we serve Christ in them.  We also turn from the idolatry rooted in Adam and Eve’s desire to use the blessings of the creation simply for themselves and not for the purposes for which God created them, namely, to meet the needs of everyone.  We must “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires,” by making our fast a feast for the poor and hungry.  Whenever we limit our own self-centered desires in order to bless others in any way, we take a step toward Paradise and away from life as usual in our world of corruption.

           The spiritual disciplines of Lent have nothing to do with legalism or punishing ourselves.  Instead, they are tools to help us find healing and strength as we wear the robe of light, as we grow in our personal participation in the salvation that the Second Adam has brought to a world of despair and decay.  Now is the time to strip ourselves of all that would hold us back from following our Lord to His cross and glorious resurrection, for it is through His Passion that we will enter into the fullness of the glory for which He created us in the first place.  Now is the time to turn from our spiritual weakness and nakedness to “put on the armor of light” as we begin an intense struggle for the healing of our souls.  Let us struggle joyfully, for the journey will truly lead us to Paradise.        

Saturday, March 5, 2016

How We Treat the Living Icons of Christ: Homily for the Sunday of the Last Judgment in the Orthodox Church

1 Corinthians 8:9-9:2
Matthew 25:31-46
           How would you respond to someone who destroyed or defaced a picture of one of your loved ones?  You would probably be very upset with that person, for how we treat images of people indicates what we think of them. If we dishonor someone’s picture, we dishonor that person. But if we treat images with care and respect, we honor the person whose image it is.
            On this Sunday of the Last Judgment, we remember that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God.  There is no avoiding what that means:  How we treat others is how we treat the Lord. Every person is a living icon, and how we treat them reveals the true nature of our relationship with Jesus Christ.
            That is why He taught in today’s gospel reading that the ultimate standard of judgment is how we treat those whom it is so easy to disregard:  the hungry, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner.  To the extent that we serve these people, we serve our Lord.  To the extent that we ignore them, we neglect and denigrate Him.  Christ says to the righteous, “In that you did it to the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”  And He says to those headed for punishment, “In that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
            We learn from this passage that the health or sickness of souls is manifested—is shown—in what we do every day as we encounter those whose life circumstances require sacrifice on our part for their well-being.  Contrary to popular opinion, the Christian life is not some kind of pious escape from the unpleasant challenges of life, but a vocation to take up our crosses as we become living icons of our Lord’s love and mercy, especially for those whose challenges are in no way attractive or congenial to us.
           It is hard to hear, but nonetheless true:  How we treat the living icons of Christ manifests the true nature of our relationship with Him, regardless of what we say we believe.  St.  John wrote in his Epistle, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?”  (1 John 4:20)  He also writes, “But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?  My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth.” (1 John 3: 17-18)
             It is easy in a place such as Abilene, TX, to be a Christian in word only, for it usually costs us very little here to say that we believe in Jesus Christ.  But that is only a matter of words which are rarely challenged in West Texas.  It is much more demanding to be so united with Christ that we convey His love and mercy to everyone in our lives, especially those whose problems we would rather ignore. All the more is that the case when we notice that the righteous people in our gospel text were not even aware that they were caring for the Lord when they served those in need.  They spontaneously showed love and mercy to their needy neighbors simply because that is the kind of people they were.  That is how they served Christ without even knowing what they were doing.
          If you are like me, you are a long way from meeting that standard of holiness.  It is so easy to excuse ourselves from helping others because we have more important things to do.  We say we are too busy and do not have enough resources.  We think that other people’s problems are their fault and their concern, not ours.  We like to avoid the truth that we really do encounter Christ in our neighbors, especially when they are annoying, demanding, and unappreciative.
          Of course, we do not have to be wealthy or even healthy in order to give someone a call or otherwise express friendship.  It does not require a lot of money to read to a child or to visit someone in a nursing home.  A homebound person can send a note or email message or make a phone call.  Even with Lenten fasting, many can donate blood and save someone’s life.   Everyone can put at least something into the “Food for Hungry People” containers that we will distribute during Lent.  No matter how young or old we are, we interact with people who need our companionship, our encouragement, and our prayers.  Instead of ignoring them, we must treat them as Christ treats us, showing mercy and love even when we are more annoying, demanding, and unappreciative than we know.
            It sounds so easy, but we all know how hard it is in practice.  And that is precisely why we need the spiritual disciplines of Great Lent, such as fasting, prayer, almsgiving, forgiveness, and reconciliation.  For when we humble ourselves before God and our neighbors in these ways, we open ourselves to the holy strength that conquers even death itself.  When we turn our attention from obsessive self-centeredness to the love of God and neighbor, we take a crucial step toward the healing of our souls.
            As much as we do not like to hear it, the person whose life circumstances we find to be revolting bears the image of God.  Christ died and rose again for those whom we are inclined to condemn, disregard, and ignore. And, no, our lives will not be destroyed if our plans, schedules, routines, and agendas are put on hold or replaced by those a Kingdom not of this world.  Since our goal is to enter that Kingdom, we should not be surprised when we experience discomfort and struggle in serving a Savior Whom the world rejected.
            Even as St. Paul, in addressing whether Christians should eat meat that had been sacrifice to pagan idols, said that “if food makes by brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble,” we must undertake our Lenten disciplines so that we will find the spiritual strength not to cause others to stumble, especially by failing to show them the love and concern due to every living icon of the Lord. His ultimate judgment will be to confirm the state of our souls, to confirm who we have become through our thoughts, words, and deeds. Regardless of whether we have the eyes to see it, our daily actions shape us profoundly and have eternal consequences.
              As we prepare for our Lenten journey, we should remember that fasting is not simply a change in diet, but a tool that can help us fight passions that keep us from serving Christ in our neighbors.  When done in secret and with humility, fasting weakens the self-centeredness that keeps us from sharing God’s love with others.  It is therapy for the healing of our souls that frees us to serve Christ in our neighbors more fully.  Since they all bear the image and likeness of God, how we treat them is how we treat Him.
          If you are like me, you really need the spiritual disciplines of Lent to help you serve Jesus Christ more faithfully.  And if you wonder how to serve Him, just think about the sick, lonely, poor, and otherwise needy people you know.  As St. James wrote in his epistle, “Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” (James 1:27)  Surely, that is the Lord’s will for us all this Lent and every day of our lives. If we live that way, then His judgment will confirm that we have shown others the same gracious mercy that we have received from Him.  For since He has loved and served us so profoundly through His cross and glorious resurrection, then we must love and serve Him in all who bear His image and likeness.  For even the most miserable and lowly human being is truly a living icon of Jesus Christ. Lent will help us gain the spiritual vision to see that glorious truth.