Saturday, June 25, 2016

Learning from Martyrs and Confessors: Homily for the Sunday of All Saints in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 11:33-12:2
Matthew 10:32-33, 37-38; 19:27-30
        It is tempting to think that what we read about in the Scriptures and the history of the Church occurred in a world so different from ours that it has become irrelevant.  This Sunday of All Saints reminds us that our Lord’s fundamental calling to every generation does not change, but challenges the assumptions of every culture and the preferences of every human being.  That calling is to participate personally in the holiness of God and to seek first His Kingdom, regardless of the cost.   
            When we hear today of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia who are killed, abused, or become refugees due to their faithfulness to Jesus Christ, His words from today’s gospel reading should come to mind:  “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My Name’s sake, will receive a hundred fold, and inherit eternal life.  But many that are first will be last, and the last first.”  When we hear of terrorist attacks upon churches, the kidnapping of bishops and priests, and other atrocities, we should recall the graphic descriptions in Hebrews of the suffering of the Old Testament saints who hoped for the Messiah:  “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life.  Others suffered mocking and scourging, even chains and imprisonment.  They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were killed with the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, ill-treated—of whom the world was not worthy—wandering over deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.”
            The first saints recognized by the Church were martyrs and confessors, people who accepted death or severe physical suffering instead of denying their Savior.  As St. Polycarp said when urged to save his life by denying Christ, "For eighty and six years have I been his servant, and he has done me no wrong, and how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?"  Whether at the hands of the pagan Romans, Persian and Islamic empires, Communists, Fascists, ISIS or other terrorist groups, countless Christians have made—and continue to make-- the ultimate witness for the Lord.  According to His promise, He will acknowledge them before the Father because they acknowledged Him in the most profound way possible.
            For Orthodox Christians, the saints are not dead figures from the past, but alive in Christ.  There is one Church in heaven and on earth, and we are members of the Body of Christ together with them.  They are the white-robed martyrs around the throne of God who worship Him eternally.  We pray and worship God together with them, asking for their intercessions and seeking to follow their example of holiness.  As our epistle reading states, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfection of our faith.”  As shining examples of what it means to love and serve Christ, the saints inspire us to ever greater faithfulness to Him.  They are living proof that He has conquered death and that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we may participate personally in His holy and eternal life.  They point us to Him.
            On this Sunday of All Saints, we commemorate all those who have entered in holiness into this great cloud of witnesses, especially those whose names we do not know.  The Holy Spirit has revealed the names of many saints to the Church for our edification, but that is hardly an exhaustive list.  And since humility is a necessary quality of holiness, that should not be surprising.  When we remember the harsh realities of martyrdom and persecution through which they bore witness, it becomes immediately clear that the saintly path is not one of self-exaltation or pride.  No, it is how those who are last --those who give up even life, family, and the most basic necessities—become first in a Kingdom not of this world.
            Regardless of the country or time period in which we live, Christ calls us—no less than the martyrs and confessors—to acknowledge Him before others, to love Him even more than our families, and to take up our crosses.  Today He calls us to be faithful witnesses to Him in a culture that has little place for principled self-restraint of any kind.  We live in a time when many worship at the altars of immediate gratification and self-indulgence in every area of life.  The selfishness, anger, hatred, and violence that we see so often in our culture reflect a failure to control our passions, which is a symptom of our collective disdain for putting anything or anyone before doing or saying whatever we feel like at the moment.  Holiness in the relationship between man and woman, as well as faithful self-sacrifice in rearing children, are strange goals in our age of promiscuity and pornography, when many see no higher standard in life than fulfilling whatever desires they happen to have at the moment.  Gluttony, greed, and trying obsessively to get what we want when we want it make many so spiritually and morally weak that they probably cannot even imagine living otherwise.  And the fact that we celebrate these ways of thinking and living in the name of freedom or being true to ourselves makes them all the more dangerous.
            To be true to ourselves as human beings means to become holy, to direct all our desires to their ultimate fulfillment in the Lord, and to be healed from our self-imposed slavery to self-centered desire.  The saints are icons of what it means to be true to ourselves as those created in God’s image and likeness. The martyrs and confessors are shining examples of how to love and serve Christ above all else, and to order all our other attachments in light of our most fundamental commitment to Him. Their example calls us to acknowledge Him each day by living in this way.  We acknowledge Him by taking up our crosses as we resist the pervasive temptations in our culture to worship ourselves, our possessions, our pleasures, and our loved ones. It may seem strange for Christ to warn against loving family members more than Him, but think for a moment how destructive it is for anyone to become a false god to another person.  That kind of idolatry leads only to abuse, disappointment, and despair; we diminish ourselves and others when we do that.  We distort marriage, family, and sex when we make them ends in themselves. It is far better to serve Christ in our family members through prayer, encouragement, and self-denial.  That is how we and our loved ones will find fulfillment, blessing, and joy together as God’s children.
            Our path to holiness will likely be through our daily struggle to be faithful in small ways that few will notice or celebrate.  The question is not whether to serve God through grand gestures or extraordinary circumstances, but whether there is something of the martyr and the confessor in each of us.  That means dying to our self-centeredness out of love for Christ.  That means loving people in Christ, ordering our relationships such that they fulfill His purposes for us and them, even when that requires suffering.  And it means turning the other cheek and loving our enemies, even when we risk being rejected, criticized, or ignored for being out of step with the ways of the world.             

               No, that is not easy.  But when we remember the martyrs and confessors and all that they endured—and still endure-- for faithfulness to Christ, we should have confident hope that the same Lord Who strengthened them even to the shedding of blood will surely not abandon us in our smaller struggles each day.  And unless we are faithful in small challenges, we will never be prepared for the large ones.  “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfection of our faith.”  It is through His love, mercy, and grace that we too may share in the holiness that shines so brightly in all the saints.   

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Persons in Communion with God and One Another: Homily for Pentecost in the Orthodox Church

Acts 2: 1-11
John 7:37-52; 8:12
On today’s great feast of Pentecost, we celebrate the Holy Spirit coming upon the followers of the Risen Jesus, which is the birthday of His Body, the Church.  After the Savior’s resurrection, He ascended into heaven and sent the Holy Spirit to His disciples so that they would not be cut off from the new life that He has brought to the world.  The Holy Spirit is, of course, the third Person of the Holy Trinity, fully divine and eternal as are the Father and the Son.  By being filled with the Holy Spirit, the Lord’s followers participate personally and communally in the unity, power, and blessing of the very life of God by grace.
          Unlike the period before Christ’s Passion, the disciples now no longer think of themselves a students of a mere teacher, prophet, or king.  They no longer struggle to accept the good news of His resurrection.  Instead, they experience the new life of the Kingdom as “rivers of living water” flowing from their hearts.  By the Spirit, they participate by grace in the life of the Holy Trinity.  God is not remote, distant, or removed from them, but present in their souls. By God’s presence in their hearts, they become truly who He created them to be in the divine image and likeness.
         At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit comes upon the apostles as a group who were gathered together in obedience to the Lord’s command.  The divine breath which first gave life to humanity comes upon them as a mighty wind.  The divine glory beheld by Moses in the burning bush now rests upon each of them personally as flames of fire.   The divided speech of the tower of Babel is now overcome by the miracle of speaking in different languages so that everyone can hear and understand the praise of the Lord.  Not the possession of any nation or group, this great feast manifests the fulfillment of God’s promises for the entire world and every human being.
          God creates us all in His image with the calling to grow in His likeness, actually to become like Him in holiness.  As those corrupted by sin and death, however, fulfilling that vocation is beyond our ability.  Only God is God, and our only hope is to share by grace in His eternal life.  This glorious participation in the divine life is made possible to us at Pentecost.  Human distinctions of every kind become irrelevant here, for all that matters is that we respond with faith, humility, love, and repentance as we receive the Spirit poured out on the whole world and on every generation.
         With the Holy Spirit present in our hearts, linking us together organically as one, our fallen, divided humanity is restored.  Just as Father, Son, and Spirit share a common life of love, unity, and holiness, we share a common life in Christ’s Body, the Church.   As particular people, we have the responsibility to believe, repent, and obey the Lord as we participate in the ministries of the Church and live faithfully each day.   As members of Christ’s Body, we are nurtured by worship, the sacraments, and spiritual instruction in our common life.   The holy Tradition of the Church is the presence of the Holy Spirit, guiding the Body into ever greater knowledge of and participation in the life of the Holy Trinity.
          For we receive the Holy Spirit not as isolated individuals, but as persons in communion, in loving relationship with Christ and with one another in His Body, the Church.  The only proper way to celebrate Pentecost is to open ourselves as fully as possible to God’s healing, transforming power in all areas of our lives.  That is how we may become radiant with the divine glory as we celebrate this great feast of our salvation as living temples of the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, now and ever and unto ages of ages.  Amen.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

On Not Escaping the World, But Being Holy in It: Homily for the Sunday After the Ascension in the Orthodox Church

Acts 20:16-18, 28-36
John 17:1-13

            It is so easy to diminish ourselves by serving the false gods of pleasure, power, and pride.  It is so tempting to allow our pursuit of these passions to obscure the holy calling that we have as those created in the image and likeness of God.  Our Lord’s Ascension into heaven, forty days after His resurrection, makes clear that we find true fulfillment as human beings by participating in His blessed, eternal life. Anything else falls well short.
            Jesus Christ has fulfilled our ancient calling to grow in the likeness of God, for in Him humanity and divinity are united in one Person.  In His Ascension, He goes up into heaven as the God-Man, sharing in the glory that He had with the Father and the Holy Spirit from eternity.  Rising with His body and bearing the wounds of His crucifixion, He brings us with Him into the divine glory.  Here is a brilliant icon of our salvation that makes clear that our Lord has raised us, not only from the grave and Hades, but into the eternal life of the Holy Trinity.  Here is a clear sign of the completion of our vocation to become partakers of the divine nature by grace.
            Today we commemorate the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea, who proclaimed that the One Who brings human beings into the eternal life of God is Himself truly divine and eternal:  the only begotten Son of the Father. They recognized that even the best angel, prophet, or teacher could not do that, for only One Who is divine and eternal can bring us into the divine, eternal life of the Holy Trinity.  That is a key reason why the Council of Nicaea rejected the teaching of the heretic Arius, who did not think that the Son was fully or eternally God.  That is why the Orthodox Church has always disagreed with those who seek to reduce Christ to a great religious teacher or moral example, or who view the Kingdom of God as a mere extension of an earthly kingdom of whatever kind.  Our salvation comes not merely through instruction or social change, but through the New Adam Who conquers death and ascends to heavenly glory as the God-Man.
            Even if we know the words of the Nicene Creed by heart, we may still be tempted to turn Christ into a Savior who fits with our preconceived notions about what we would like from a religion.  After all, it is much easier to follow a Lord Who serves our own pursuit of pleasure, power, and pride than it is to embrace One Who calls us to holiness in every dimension of our existence.  Even as He is fully divine, He is also fully human.  He went up into heaven with a glorified human body.  To share in His life is to share in His holiness in ways that make us shine with the divine glory in body, soul, and spirit in the world as we know it.  That does not mean becoming less human, but becoming more truly ourselves in God’s image and likeness.
Some think that salvation will come to the world through changes of this or that kind in politics, culture, or economics.  Others focus their hopes on changing how people think, feel, or otherwise adjust themselves in relation to various challenges in life.  Some ways of addressing such matters are clearly better than others, but none of them fulfills our vocation to be in God’s image and likeness.  None of them conquers death and makes us participants in the eternal life of our Lord.  None of them can ascend to heaven.
Contrary to some popular notions, ascending with Christ to heavenly glory is not about escaping or abandoning the world, its people, or its problems.  The Lord said to His Father concerning His disciples: ”I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one.” (John 17: 15) He prayed for their holiness:  “Sanctify them by Your truth.” (John 17: 17)  Christ’s prayer shows that we find the fulfillment of our humanity when we unite ourselves with Him through a holy life, when we become radiant with the divine brilliance in how we live in this world in tangible, practical ways.
St. Paul is a good example of what such a life looks like.  He obviously did not place his own personal tranquility above the needs of others or the ministry of God’s Kingdom.  He was beaten, imprisoned, shipwrecked, and ultimately killed for his faith in Christ.  He dealt with difficult challenges of all kinds in the churches that he founded and oversaw. In today’s reading from Acts, he warned the elders “that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them.  Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears.”   That is certainly not the way of life of someone who thought that religion was a way to escape from problems and difficulties. 
St. Paul also said that he “coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel.  You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities, and to those who were with me.  In all things I have shown you that by so toiling one must help the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, how He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” This apostle manifested his union with Christ by living in a Christ-like way, taking up his cross and serving others, regardless of the cost.  That is how he was sanctified in God’s truth and came to know the holy joy of true participation in the divine life to the depths of his soul.
St. Paul’s background as a fierce persecutor of Christians before his conversion did not keep him from ascending to holiness in Christ Jesus.  Neither was he held back in this regard by the multitude of grave and even life-threatening challenges that he faced throughout his ministry. After the Lord told him, “My grace is sufficient for you: for my strength is made perfect in weakness,” St. Paul wrote “I take pleasure in weaknesses, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.” (2 Cor. 12: 9-10)
Like the apostle, we will ascend with Christ in holiness as we offer our weaknesses, failings, and challenges to Him, struggling as best we can to be faithful as we call on His infinite mercy.  Unlike some commercialized forms of spirituality, genuine Christianity is not about making us happy on our own terms or somehow convincing ourselves that all is well when it is not.  Instead, it is about being sanctified, becoming holy, by uniting every dimension of our life to Christ, including those which we find so hard to offer to Him for healing.      

When doing so reveals our weakness, we will be in the position to receive the strength of the One of Who created us in His image and likeness, and Who has united humanity and divinity in His own Person.  To ascend in holiness in Him is the fulfillment of what it means to be a human being.  It not to escape the world, but to enter into the holy glory for which He made us by turning away from evil and corruption.  An angel, a prophet, a political leader, or any mere creature could not do that for us sinners.  No, that is something only God can do, and something that we can participate in only if we, like St. Paul, offer ourselves to the Lord in humble obedience amidst the pains and challenges of life in the world as we know it, including our own personal brokenness.  That is how we may ascend in Christ to heavenly glory, not by escaping the world, but by opening our weakness to His strength.   

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Orthodox Witness in a Post-Christian Culture

It is time for Orthodox Christians to be realistic and not panic about life in an increasingly post-Christian culture.  We are a tiny minority in the West and have never had much direct impact in shaping how the larger society in which we live has addressed any issue, controversial or otherwise.  It would be strange for a miniscule Orthodox minority to expect a privileged position in our time and place.  If current trends have opened our eyes to points of tension between God’s Kingdom and the present order, we should be thankful for the wake-up call.
Our calling is surely not to become yet another interest group that competes with others through conventional political means, or even to think of success in those terms.  Instead of pursuing what the world recognizes as power or affirmation, our vocation is basically the same that Christians have always had:  to be a distinctive, holy community with a way of life that shines in brilliant contrast to the ways of the world and draws others to the life of the Kingdom.  But in order to have any hope of becoming such an icon of salvation, we must actually live out what we say we believe.  Ethnic food bazaars and mouthing slogans about the culture wars will not suffice.
As hard as it is do so, we must actually embrace the spiritual disciplines of our faith in ways that are very much in tension with the dominant trends of the larger culture.  We must live our lives in stark contrast to the current societal celebrations of violence, hatred, gluttony, vanity, greed, sexual immorality, and pornography—just to name a few examples of the challenges that we face.  The greater the distance between what we say we believe and how we actually live, the more ammunition we will give to “the cultured despisers of religion.”  The more coherence others see between our creeds and our deeds, the more seriously they will take our way of life as a realistic alternative to the darkened patterns of the world.   
Even as athletes must take their disciplines seriously and follow the guidance of those more skilled in their sport in order to play well, we must embrace prayer, asceticism, generosity to the poor, forgiveness, self-denial, and other spiritual disciplines according to the teaching and example of the Saints and our spiritual fathers and mothers.  Through the catechism of converts and ongoing education in the parish, all Orthodox must be taught about the challenges of living faithfully in our culture.  We must model faithfulness for one another and provide accountability and support to our brothers and sisters.  The larger society supports athletics and education (usually in that order and often not very well), but we cannot expect it to help us in forming people whose character and actions should be so different from those celebrated by the dominant ethos. To say the least, it will appear increasingly odd in our culture: to see Christ in the unborn child, the terminally ill patient, the refugee, and the immigrant; to deny ourselves in order to be outrageously generous with the poor and needy; to refuse to let race, class, politics, ethnicity, or any other human division blind us to the humanity of our neighbors; to love even our fiercest critics; to pursue chastity in the relationship between man and woman; to see marriage as a sign of the complementarity of the opposite sexes in God’s image and likeness; and generally not to make the world into a false god.    
If we bear witness in these and other ways, we should not be surprised at charges of bigotry and fanaticism for being so out of step.  Perhaps such charges are simply reflections of a truth that we have too often refused to see.  Despite the very positive dimensions of American culture, both historically and in the present day, it is not and has never been the Kingdom of God.  Like all societies, it presents temptations and tends to serve its own interests rather than the Lord.  It would certainly be a clearer path to immediate popularity simply to go along with social trends at all costs, but to do so would require worshiping a false god, namely, the world.  Here we must remember the Lord’s warning:  “Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you, for so did their fathers to the false prophets.” (Luke 6:26) Of course, harmony is not always a bad thing.   If it is the result of spiritually healthy beliefs and practices permeating the larger society, then there is cause for rejoicing.  If, however, that harmony is the result of Christians accommodating their beliefs and practices to those of the larger society in an effort to gain power or simply make life easier for themselves, then it is time to mourn.  Too much American Christianity fits—and, as best I can tell, always has fit-- into the latter category, regardless of whether it passes for “liberal” or “conservative,” for “mainline,” “evangelical,” or anything else.  This is an equal opportunity temptation, and all the more subtle and dangerous for that very reason.     
Amidst our current challenges, we must remember that Christ’s Kingdom is not of this world, as the example of the martyrs from the origins of the faith to today makes quite clear.  Nonetheless, faithfulness is not the same as abandoning the world or those who live in it.  There is no need to fall into a Manichean-like dualism that would see everything outside the visible boundaries of the Christian community as simply evil.  There is no need to fall into a Gnostic escapism that would flee the broken realities of life in the world as we know it for an illusory realm of spiritual perfection.  There is a great need, however, for Orthodox Christians soberly to remain faithful amidst the strong points of tension between our way of life and dominant trends in contemporary culture.
As mentioned earlier, that should not be surprising because Orthodoxy has had no direct impact on the West for centuries.  And at least since the Enlightenment, a grave temptation of western culture has been to make the world its god with, at best, a watered-down “religion within the limits of reason alone.”  Our culture increasingly knows no higher standard than recognizing the rights of isolated individuals to pursue well-being however they may define it.  Freedom is a good thing, and I personally would rather live in the current cultural climate than in one characterized by crusades, pogroms, and witch hunts; the present order certainly provides far more religious liberty than life under Communism or ISIS.  We should want as much religious liberty as reasonably possible so that people may believe, worship, and live in accordance with their faith, whatever that may be.   
Nonetheless, many temptations lurk beneath the surface of the increasingly popular assumption that questions of religion and moral decency are necessarily matters of arbitrary personal preference that have no place in the public sphere and nothing to contribute to conversations about the common good of a social order.  There is grave danger in societies privileging an anemic civil religion that completely relaxes the tension between God’s kingdom and the kingdoms of the world. That is true of both right and left-wing versions of political idolatry.
Granted, there is great variety across the US in how these matters are handled in practice.  Where I live In West Texas, Christianity is certainly not in hiding.  Indeed, some versions of the faith are so public that some feel that they need to hide from them—and perhaps sometimes for good reason.  Such Christianity is often a domesticated civil religion that serves agendas that have more to do with preserving idealized manners and morals than with enabling people actually to grow in holiness as they take up their crosses.  Too often in my region, what passes for Christianity merely provides a thin veneer of spiritual or moral respectability to political and social projects that have little direct connection to the salvation of the world and which obscure vital dimensions of Christian belief and witness.   As such, increasing numbers of people recognize that such versions of the faith require nothing of substance from them and offer even less in return.  As a result, they do not take religion seriously at all, for it seems like a matter of irrelevant personal preference often associated with hypocrisy.  Or they reject Christianity because they disagree with whatever political or social agenda has been uncritically identified with it.    

In our current cultural context, the true witness of Orthodox Christianity has an opportunity to become more clear, distinctive, and compelling.  There are advantages in not bearing the burden of sustaining a religious ethos for an increasingly irreligious and decadent society.  No one is asking us to guide the legislative process, propose policies, or otherwise take on the responsibility of articulating an ethic for a deeply fragmented and confused social order.  Consequently, we are able to focus our energies on being salt and light.  Our witness is not to pretend that the Church or the larger culture is something that it is not; instead, it is to be deliberately and intentionally faithful as Orthodox Christians in the areas of our lives that are up to us and to discern prayerfully how to navigate the challenges posed by areas that are not. The rest we leave in God's hands.  

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Light Shines Even in the Dark Prison of Death: Homily for the Sunday of the Blind Man in the Orthodox Church

Acts 16:16-34
John 9:1-38
            It is so easy for people to be blind to the truth about themselves.  It is not hard to notice when others do not see the truth about what they do, but it is often quite difficult to notice our own blindness.  If we are honest, we will acknowledge that we are quite skilled in shutting our eyes to uncomfortable truths.  That should not be surprising, for we are inhabitants of a world darkened by sin and death.  Like the man in today’s gospel lesson, we are all blind because we lack full spiritual clarity; and we cannot simply give ourselves the ability to behold the truth perfectly.  Unfortunately, we often prefer the darkness of our impaired vision to the brilliant light of Christ’s empty tomb.   
              The blind man in today’s gospel did not even know that Jesus Christ was the Son of God at the time of the miracle.   He apparently did not even ask Him for healing.  Instead, the Savior was simply doing the work of His Father as the Light of the world when He restored his sight.  The healing of the blind man is an icon of Who Christ is, a sign of what happens when the Son of God shares His life with us.  Christ spat into the ground, anointed the man’s eyes with the clay, and told him to wash.   These details reflect that the Lord in His Incarnation truly entered into our life as the God-Man, becoming in His humanity one of those created from the dust of the earth even as He remains fully divine. It is through the washing of baptism that we put Him on like a garment and enter into His death in order to rise to the new life for which He created us in the first place.  His glorious resurrection on the third day is the fulfillment of His restoration and healing of humanity in the divine image and likeness.  In Him, our blindness dies that His words may be fulfilled in us:  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matt. 5:8)
            Remember how dark it was at the Pascha service when one candle was lit with the words:  “Come receive the Light from the Light and glorify Christ, Who is Risen from the dead.”  And then after we sang the Lord’s resurrection outside in candle light, we returned to a brilliantly lit church all decked out in white.  Not only is Pascha a celebration of Christ’s resurrection, but also of ours through Him.  And that resurrection is not simply a future hope, but already a present reality when we find healing from the blinding power of sin and death in our lives.  His resurrection has made it possible for us to participate in the light-filled joy of holiness for which He breathed life into us in the first place.  It has opened the eyes of our souls to His glory.  
            Our epistle reading provides us with another icon of what it looks like when the darkness is overcome by light.   The jailer was ready to kill himself rather than endure the penalty that awaited him for letting his prisoners escape after the earthquake.  In the brutal world of the Roman Empire, a cruel death awaited him for losing his captives.  The man was so shocked when St. Paul assured him that they were all still in their cells that he asked how to find salvation. Christ’s resurrection destroyed the prison of Hades, opened its doors, and set its prisoners free.  Now in this miracle, a man who was literally a slave to death had the eye of his soul opened to the light.  He was set free from despair, received the washing of baptism, and began a new life. 
            The jailer may have known nothing about Jesus Christ before the earthquake, even as the blind man did not know that Jesus Christ was the Son of God until after his sight was restored.  One said, “What must I do to be saved?” and the other asked “And Who is, He, Sir, that I may believe in Him?”  Here we see that true spiritual knowledge of Christ is Christ Himself.  By His merciful initiative, He enables us to participate in Him, to experience and know Him by grace.  The Lord gave neither of these men mere ideas, rules, or feelings.  No, He made them true participants in life-changing spiritual truth, in His own divine energies.  He is the Light that they beheld.  He released them from the dark prisons they had known.   
            In these last days of the season of Pascha, we must learn from their examples to open the eyes of our souls as fully as possible to the healing light of the Savior.  None of us has perfect knowledge of our sins, of course, but can we all name some fairly obvious ways in which blindness has remained in us.  By virtue of putting on Christ in baptism and being filled with the Holy Spirit in chrismation, we all have the spiritual clarity to know generally in what ways we have chosen to remain in the dark prison of the tomb.  The good news of Pascha is that Christ has shattered the doors and chains of that prison.  He has opened the eyes of us who have always been blind.  He has become one of us so fully that He has made even death itself a passageway to life.  He has made even the darkest night radiant with His divine glory.
            As hard as it may be to believe, the Lord enables each of us to behold and shine with His holy Light.  The more that we embrace Him through faith, love, and repentance, the clearer vision we will have of the remaining spots of darkness in our lives.  Keep in mind that great saints do not pat themselves on the back about becoming more holy; to the contrary, they are all the more aware of their sins and  their constant need for mercy.  They know the truth about themselves more clearly before the infinite holiness of God, which inspires them to deep humility.
            We must not fall prey, then, to the temptation to discouragement when we catch a glimpse of the darkness that is still in us.  Due to our pride, we may want to abandon the serious pursuit of the Christian life when growing spiritual health enables us to see our own sinfulness more clearly.  That is the problem with better vision:  we may not like what we see.  Due to our sloth and laziness, we may want to put aside prayer, fasting, forgiveness, serving our neighbors, or other spiritual disciplines because they require effort and we do not do them particularly well.   And the more we advance in them, the more we will see how much room we have for growth.
            When such temptations arise, we must remember that our goal is not to accomplish anything that can be measured according to the standards of this world, for we seek to experience something different from anything else in this life.  To behold the divine glory as we share in the life of Christ is an eternal goal, a transcendent reality that cannot be compared with anything else.  It is true, real, spiritual experience and knowledge. The full opening of our spiritual eyes is another way of speaking of the purity of heart that, as Christ said, enables us to see God.          

            Our awareness of the darkness in our lives is simply a realistic reminder that we have an infinitely long way to go in the journey to theosis.  Instead of giving up, we must use our failings and struggles as inspirations to press on in obedience to the only One Who has conquered sin and death, the only One Who has united divinity and humanity in His own Person.  He is the Light shining in the darkness of this world and of our own sick and weak souls.  Though it is not easy, we must continue to do what it takes to open ourselves more fully to His brilliant light.  As those who have beheld the glory of His resurrection, returning to the dark prison of the tomb is simply not an option.   Instead, we must keep moving further into the Light, into Him, trusting that He is still at work giving sight to the blind and setting free the prisoners of sin and death.  And, yes, that includes you and me.