Monday, December 31, 2018

Joseph the Betrothed, a Model of Obedience: Homily for the After-Feast of & Sunday After the Nativity of Christ in the Orthodox Church

Galatians 1:11-19; Matthew 2:13-23
Christ is Born!  Glorify Him!
As we continue to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world, we should acknowledge that we are probably so familiar with the Christmas story that we often imagine it happened in a world quite different from our own.  We tend to make His Nativity a sentimental event that we celebrate yearly with various cultural customs before going back to life as usual.  When we do so, however, we miss the point of how this great Feast challenges us to live faithfully in the very same world in which the Savior was born as a vulnerable Child.
Today we remember a crucial, and often overlooked, figure in the real life drama of Christmas:  Joseph the Betrothed, an elderly relative of the Virgin Mary who reluctantly became her guardian when she had to leave the Temple where she had grown up.  One of the verses chanted at vespers last night states that “a strange betrothal fell unto his lot,” and that is surely an understatement.
Betrothal was an arrangement in which a man became the guardian of a woman; it did not imply the intimate relations of marriage.  As an 80 year-old widower, Joseph did not want to take on this responsibility for the teenaged Virgin Mary, but he obeyed God’s command nonetheless.  That is how he came to play a key role in the salvation of our world of corruption.
The story of Joseph connects with so much of the heritage of the Old Testament.  An evil ruler wanted to murder the young Savior because He viewed Him as a threat.  Pharaoh had ordered the deaths of Hebrew male infants long ago in Egypt, and now a wicked king like him reigned in Israel.  Herod slaughtered the young boys in and around Bethlehem when he realized that the wise men had tricked him.
In the Exodus, the Hebrews had fled Egypt on the night of the Passover.  Now the young Messiah flees Israel to go to Egypt at night.  Once the danger had passed, Joseph brought the family back to the Promised Land, just as the Hebrews eventually returned after wandering in the desert for forty years. Recall also the story in Genesis of another Joseph.  He went to Egypt unwillingly, as a slave, but eventually saved his whole family from a famine by bringing them there.
Matthew’s gospel describes Joseph’s role in the Lord’s early life with obvious Old Testament symbolism.  The point is not simply to glorify Joseph, of course, but to show how Christ fulfills God’s promise of a Savior to the Hebrews and to all people.   Joseph’s story is a clear reminder that God calls people to cooperate with His gracious plans to bring salvation, blessing, and healing to the entire world. No, that world is not one of imaginary sentimental perfection, but the very same one inhabited today by those who suffer from persecution, abuse, and war.  There are still many Herods among us.
The necessity of our free response to God’s calling in such a world should be obvious at Christmas.  The Theotokos freely chose to say “yes” when the Archangel Gabriel visited her with the good news that she was chosen to be the Virgin Mother of the Son of God.  Despite his reluctance to become her guardian in the first place, old Joseph accepted the responsibility.  And then after being horrified to discover her pregnancy, he had the faith to believe the message of the angel that the Child was conceived of the Holy Spirit.  Despite his advanced age, Joseph successfully guided his family to Egypt as they fled the murderous Herod.  He had not anticipated involvement in such a dangerous set of circumstances in his latter years, but he did what had to be done for the safety of his family, as so many parents struggle to do today in life-threatening circumstances around the world.
The example of Joseph reminds us that God uses our cooperation to accomplish His gracious purposes in the world.  That was certainly the case in the Old Testament:  Abraham, Moses, David, and countless others responded to God’s initiative, and He worked through them, despite their many failings.  The same is certainly true of the Theotokos, for through the free response of a teenaged Palestinian Jewish girl came the Messiah in Whom the ancient promises to the descendants of Abraham are fulfilled and extended to the entire world.
The details of our Lord’s conception, birth, and infancy show that God does not force people to obey Him.  It is entirely possible to disregard God and refuse to live as those created in the divine image and likeness.  Herod provides a shockingly clear example of where the choice to turn away from truth and goodness leads.  Doing so does not simply weaken us as particular people, but also frustrates the accomplishment of God’s blessing and healing of the world.  Just look at the pain and brokenness that violence, hatred, and lust for power still bring to people today.  Unfortunately, Herod remains an all too familiar figure whenever the lives of the weak and innocent become inconvenient and expendable before the dominant forces of the world as we know it.
Our calling is not simply to avoid becoming like Herod, but to become as much like the Theotokos and Joseph the Betrothed as we possibly can.  Though there is obviously a uniqueness in how she freely agreed to contain the Son of God in her womb as His Mother and Living Temple, we may all become better temples of the Holy Spirit as we welcome God’s sanctifying presence more fully into our lives.  Her life plans changed at the Annunciation, and we must recognize that the healing of our souls likely will not occur according to our own preferences.   That was certainly the case for old Joseph, who took on responsibilities that he did not want because He knew that was God’s calling in his life.  Because this unlikely couple freely obeyed God, salvation has come to the world.
Let us celebrate Christmas by growing in our cooperation with God’s good purposes for us in the broken world we inhabit.  That means rejecting the lie that we are isolated individuals who will find fulfillment in getting what we want on our own terms in any area of life.  It means learning to see and serve Christ in neighbors, family members, and coworkers, in the lonely, sick, and suffering, and especially in anyone we are inclined to view as an enemy.  It means turning off nonstop media and disregarding intrusive thoughts as we open our hearts to God in the stillness of the Jesus Prayer.  It means undergoing a change of mind such that fulfilling our role in the salvation of the world becomes what is most important to us, even when that is difficult and we would rather be doing something else.  The next time that you feel that way, remember Joseph the Betrothed, the old man who put aside his preferences in order to become a refugee with his unlikely family.   Knowing how God used his faithfulness, how can we set any limits on what He will do with ours?  All that we have to do is to listen and cooperate. The rest is in God’s hands.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Shocking, Holy, and Humble Love for the Whole World: Homily for the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ (Christmas) in the Orthodox Church

Christ is Born!  Glorify Him!

Galatians 4:4-7; Matthew 2:1-12

      We gather today to celebrate the birth of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ for our salvation.  The details of His Nativity are important and shocking.  The Child Who was born in a cave that functioned as a barn and had an animal’s feeding trough for His crib is fully divine and fully human.  He did not appear with worldly power or wealth, as we might expect, but as the Son of a transient Jewish couple who lived under the military occupation of the Roman Empire.  When a wicked king wanted to kill Him, the family became refugees in Egypt.  From infancy, the life of the Savior was at risk at the hands of those who played by the rules of how politics and religion often function in the world as we know it.

In order to celebrate Christmas properly, we must refuse to make God in our own image.  Instead, we must allow ourselves to be called into question by the Lord Who became fully one of us as a vulnerable baby born in very dangerous circumstances.  The eternal Word Who spoke the universe into existence humbled Himself beyond our understanding in order to heal every dimension of the human person, in order to make us participants in His life by grace.  He is born of His Virgin Mother to make us sons and daughters who shine brightly with the divine glory and find complete fulfillment as we become like Him in holiness.

This is certainly not the celebration of the birth of yet another false god designed to give some worldly power over others or of a sadist out to make us miserable with fear and self-loathing.  No, this great feast is about a Lord Who lived as He was born:  with humble, self-sacrificial love purely for our sake.  We must be careful how we define “our sake” because we usually define “us” over against “them.”  In Christ, however, that division dissolves, for all people stand equally in need of the healing that He brings.  He is the New Adam Who sets right all that has gone wrong with the children of our first parents.  There is no competition between groups of people when it comes to the good news of the God-Man born in Bethlehem.  Gentile astrologers and lowly shepherds both played their roles at His birth.  He is the Jewish Messiah Who ministered to a Samaritan woman, cast demons out of Gentiles, and praised the faith of a Roman centurion.  He showed mercy to public sinners and outcasts, and identified Himself with “the least of these” in society.  He turned the other check to His enemies and prayed that the Father would forgive them.

If we celebrate Christmas truly, we will see that every human person is someone for whom the Savior was born.  He took on the same humanity that all people share so that all of us would be united with Him in holiness.  In every condition and circumstance, and at every stage of life, everyone bears the dignity of a living icon of God.  He has made that clear by becoming one of us.  We must treat neighbors, strangers, and enemies accordingly, if we claim any part in Him.

In His birth, the God-Man lowers Himself to take on all the brokenness of life in our world of corruption in order to heal us.   He is born to share His divine life with us as He restores and fulfills every dimension of who we are as human persons in the image and likeness of God.  That is the gloriously good news of this great feast, and it extends literally to all. Let us celebrate His Nativity by uniting ourselves to Him as fully as possible from the depths of our souls.  That is really the only fitting way to welcome the Child born in Bethlehem for the salvation of the world.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Born to Fulfill the Hope of the Righteous and to Save Scandalous Sinners: Homily for the Sunday before the Nativity of Christ (The Genealogy) in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 11:9-10, 32-40; Matthew 1:1-25

Now that the great feast of Christmas is almost here, the Church directs our attention to the family tree of Jesus Christ. Today’s gospel reading from St. Matthew is our Lord’s genealogy, which traces the Savior’s human ancestry back through many generations to Abraham.  It shows that He has the correct heritage to be the Messiah, the Anointed One in Whom the ancient promises are fulfilled. The great saints of the Old Testament looked forward to the completion of their hope for the fullness of the blessing, which we have now received in Christ.  As our epistle passage from Hebrews states of them, “And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”

            As we prepare to celebrate our Lord’s Nativity, we do well to consider our relationship to the many generations through whom God prepared for His Son to become the God-Man born in Bethlehem.  If we know the stories of the people of the Old Testament, we should know that we have a lot in common with them.  The Bible makes clear that they suffered from the same forms of pain and brokenness that people do today in their families, in social strife and war, and as exiles and refugees.  They often fell short of what God required of them and committed idolatry by worshiping false gods, including their own desires for power and pleasure. Like King David, many sinned greatly and repented greatly.  Even the most righteous of them, however, did not experience the fulfillment of the human person in God’s likeness, for it is only through the God-Man that we are able to become “partakers of the divine nature” by grace.  He alone has healed every dimension of our humanity by becoming one of us. 

            The Old Testament presents our Lord’s ancestors as unlikely people to prepare the way for the coming of Christ.   For example, not long after God said that He would bless him as the father of a multitude, Abraham gave his wife Sarah away to Pharaoh, encouraging her to say that she was his sister (Gen. 12).  Later, when they were impatient about their inability to conceive, Abraham fathered a child by Sarah’s servant Hagar (Gen. 16). These were not the actions of people with perfect faith.  When God called Moses to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt in the Exodus, he made excuse after excuse to try to get out of it  (Ex. 4). Even after their liberation, the Israelites worshipped a golden calf (Ex. 32) and wanted to go back to Egypt as they complained about the hardships of wandering in the desert (Exod. 16).   That God remained faithful to His promises to the descendants of Abraham was a sign of His mercy, not that the people had earned or deserved any particular blessing.

            The family tree of Jesus Christ in today’s gospel reading certainly does not shy away from the scandalous truths about the people of the Old Testament.  The first of the women mentioned in the genealogy is Tamar, who became pregnant by her father-in-law Judah.  A widow, she disguised herself as a prostitute when he would not give her his youngest son in fulfillment of the requirements of levirate marriage (Gen. 38).  Judah, Tamar, and the twins they conceived are listed in the genealogy. The family tree includes Rahab, a Gentile prostitute who protected two Hebrew spies before the conquest of Jericho (Josh. 2).  She is listed as the mother of Boaz, a Jewish man who married Ruth, a Moabite woman, even though the Old Testament clearly prohibited such marriages (Ruth 4). Nonetheless, Boaz and Ruth are listed as David’s great-grandparents.  Then we read that “David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah.”  David had committed adultery with Bathsheeba, who became pregnant, and then had Uriah killed in battle in order to hide what he had done (2 Sam. 11). David composed Psalm 50 (51) as he repented of his great sin.

            Matthew’s account of the family tree prepares us for the kind of Savior we encounter in Jesus Christ.  Even as His ancestors sinned, He came to show mercy upon those who had fallen short of fulfilling God’s purposes for them.  Even as His family line included Gentiles, He makes all with faith in Him the heirs of the promise to Abraham.  Even as He is a descendant of many whose lives were scandalous, He brought salvation to the world in a fashion that was shocking and offensive to the religious leaders of His day. 

            The circumstances of His conception were outrageous, as His teenage virgin mother became pregnant by a miracle of the Holy Spirit.  Joseph, the older man to whom she was betrothed as her guardian, was horrified to find her pregnant.  Knowing that he was not the father, he planned to divorce her quietly, but did not after an angel told him in a dream of the virginal conception of the Savior.  We may have heard this story so many times that we are no longer shocked by it.  It is important to remember, however, that Christ was born in circumstances that were quite scandalous, for the idea of a virginal conception and birth was just as shocking in the first century as it is in ours.

            Think for a moment about how our Lord’s ministry was received.  He was charged with being a servant of the devil, a blasphemer, and one who disobeyed God’s commandments.  He showed mercy to Gentiles, tax collectors, prostitutes, and other public sinners and lowly people whom the religious establishment had rejected.  The Pharisees and Sadducees were scandalized by what He taught and did.  For a Messiah to die on a cross was considered an act of complete failure which no one expected.  When the tomb was empty three days later, a different kind of scandal occurred when the Crucified One rose in glory.  In a totally expected and unconventional way, He did what not even the most righteous people of the Old Testament could ever have accomplished, for He overcame death, the wages of sin.

            Is it surprising, then, that Church reminds us today both of the great faith of those who looked forward to the coming of the Messiah and of how they often fell short of what God required of them?  No, that is precisely what we should expect, for those great saints were human beings like us, living in a world of corruption as they bore the weight of their own sins and were  weakened by the failings of others.  They did not earn the promise made to Abraham by good behavior, and we have certainly done nothing to merit the merciful love of God that led to the incarnation of the Savior.  Though they did not yet have the fullness of the promise, they suffered greatly in order to be faithful to God and repented greatly when they disobeyed Him.  All the more, then, should we who have received the fullness of the promise unite ourselves to Christ in humble faith, regardless of how profoundly we sin or have sinned at any point in our lives. 

            Had we needed simply a code of conduct or a great teacher or example for the healing of our souls, the Son of God would never have been born to restore and fulfill us in His image and likeness. The Savior, born in so shocking a fashion at Bethlehem, alone is able to overcome the ultimate scandal of the grave itself, as well as all the ways in which we have diminished ourselves as His living icons.  In the short time remaining before the feast of Christmas, let us all embrace the outrageous blessing that is ours in the Messiah.  He came to save the scandalous sinners of past, present, and future generations, including you and me.   Now is the time to complete our preparation to receive Christ at His birth, for He came to fulfill His gracious purposes for all who bear His image and likeness. Not to be ready for Him would be the greatest scandal of all.  

Saturday, December 15, 2018

The Poor, Maimed, Blind, and Lame Fill God's House with Glory: Homily for the Sunday of the Forefathers of Christ in the Orthodox Church

Colossians 3:4-11; Luke 14:16-24

Earlier this morning in Orthros, we heard the following reading from the Synaxarion for the Sunday of the Forefathers of Christ:

We remember all the holy Patriarchs of the Old Testament who prefigured or foretold Christ: Adam the first Father, Enoch, Melchizedek, Abraham, the friend of God, Isaac, the fruit of the Promise, Jacob and the twelve patriarchs. We then commemorate those who lived under the Law: Moses, Aaron, Joshua, Samuel, David, and the Prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel; the twelve minor prophets; Elijah, Elisha, Zachariah, and John the Baptist; and finally the Virgin Mary, the intermediary between mankind and her divine Son. Indeed, the Lord Jesus did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to redeem humanity which bemoaned the weight of evil since Adam; to realize the promise made to Abraham; to change the Law of Fear into the Law of Love; and to give Resurrection and Life to mankind. This feast prepares us for the Nativity of Jesus Christ, placing before us the anticipation and hope for His coming among us.

Throughout these weeks of Advent, we are preparing to celebrate how God’s promises
to the descendants of Abraham are fulfilled and extended to all people in Jesus Christ.  He is the New Adam Who, by becoming one of us, restores the common vocation of all who bear the divine image and likeness to be united with God in holiness, to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect.  The promise to Abraham was that “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” (Gen. 22:18)  Christ is his seed or heir, and all who have faith in Him inherit the fullness of the promise as the beloved children of God. (Gal. 3:29) 

       Our Lord’s ancestors did not prepare His way by relying on their ethnic identity or mechanically obeying a set of rules.  They did so by faith and faithfulness as they anticipated the consummation of God’s gracious purposes for them and for the entire world.  However, the story of the Old Testament gives ample evidence that many of the Hebrew people refused to accept their responsibility to get ready for the coming of the Messiah.  Like those in today’s gospel reading who asked to be excused from the banquet because they owned land or livestock and had families, they were so focused on the things of this world that they refused to accept the great blessing God intended for them.  They distorted the great heritage that was theirs through Abraham, Moses, and the prophets in order to make their passions for pride, power, and pleasure their true gods.    The religious leaders who rejected the Savior, and handed Him over to the Romans for crucifixion, did so for the same reasons.  Though God called them all to embrace their role in preparing for the banquet of the Kingdom, few chose to respond.  That is why the parable concludes with this statement: “Many are called, but few are chosen.”

The Prophet Haggai was one who did respond faithfully.  A Hebrew prophet of the 6th century, he called for the Jews to finish rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem after their return from exile in Babylon. He spoke the word of the Lord, saying, “I will shake all nations, and the choice things of all the nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory.” (Haggai 2: 7)  In today’s parable, the householder, whose invitation was rejected by those first called, sent his servant out into the streets to invite “the poor and maimed and blind and lame” to the celebration so that his house would be filled.  Here is a sign of the fulfillment of Haggai’s prophecy in the Church, in which all the peoples of the world are now called to participate in the Heavenly Banquet as members of the living Body of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.  

In this Church, as St. Paul wrote in today’s epistle reading, “there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all.” As he also wrote to the Ephesians, Gentile Christians “are no longer strangers and aliens, but…fellow citizens with the saints, and…of God’s household, having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord.” (Eph. 2: 19-21)

We must not, however, take the good news of our membership in Christ for granted.  If some of our Lord’s ancestors chose to place fulfilling their self-centered desires before being faithful, we are susceptible to the very same temptations.  That is why St. Paul reminds his audience to “Put to death…what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” Regardless of what we say we believe or how religious our lives may appear outwardly to be, we will not be able to respond faithfully to the invitation to share in the life of Christ if we embrace thoughts, words, and deeds that strengthen our own addictions to pride, power, pleasure, and other passions.  If “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk” become characteristic of who we are, then we are living according to “the old nature” of slavery to sin and death.  To do is a clear sign of rejecting the invitation to participate in the Heavenly Banquet of the Messiah.

Our calling in the remaining days of the Nativity Fast is to do everything that we can to accept the great invitation that is ours at the birth of the Savior.  There is nothing wrong at all with putting up a Christmas tree and other decorations in our homes this time of year, but what really matters is becoming a better living temple of Christ.  If we accept the invitation to receive His Body and Blood in the Eucharist, then we must live as those in intimate communion with Him, as those who share in His holy, divine life by grace.  There should be no room in us for anything that we cannot offer faithfully to the Lord for blessing in fulfilling His purposes for us and for the world.  We do not offer only bread and wine in the Divine Liturgy, but ourselves in union with our Lord’s great Self-Offering for our salvation.  “Thine own of Thine own we offer unto Thee on behalf of all and for all.” 

As we pray, fast, and give of our time and resources to our neighbors with humble faith this Advent, we will find strength to turn away from the distorted habits of thought, word, and deed that so easily become excuses not to enter more fully into the great joy of Christ’s Kingdom.  The only way to welcome the Savior into our lives at Christmas is to offer ourselves to Him in faith and faithfulness.  Like those who prefigured or foretold Christ in the Old Testament, we must remain focused on receiving Him as the fulfillment of God’s gracious purposes for all who bear the divine image and likeness.  That is why we need the forty days of the Nativity Fast to focus our attention in practical ways on what is at stake in how we respond to the great calling that is ours through the Messiah born in Bethlehem.  While it is possible to say that we have better things to do than to do prepare our hearts for Him, that would be a grave mistake that reveals only our own enslavement to our passions.  For His birth makes possible our deliverance from bondage to sin and death and the fulfillment of what it means to be a human person in His image and likeness.  As “the poor and maimed and blind and lame,” let us accept the invitation that is ours at Christ’s birth.  Otherwise, we risk shutting ourselves out of the greatest banquet of all.  


Sunday, December 9, 2018

Liberated from Bondage and Barrenness: Homily for the Conception of the Theotokos by Righteous Anna and the 10th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

 Galatians 4:22-27; Luke 13:10-17
A few months ago I pulled a muscle in my back that hurt for six weeks.  It happened when I bent over just a bit to pour water in our cat’s dish.  That was just a nuisance in the larger scheme of things, but it complicated everything from standing up to sitting down or even walking around.  Even small ailments can be very frustrating when they keep us from doing what we want to do.  More severe injuries can separate us profoundly from our usual activities and relationships, and even from our selves.  When people’s lives are defined by their own pain and disability, their very sense of self is challenged.  That can quickly become a miserable way to live. 
            When Jesus Christ was teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath, he saw a woman who was bent over and could not stand up straight.  She had been that way for eighteen years.  Just think of how she felt, how limiting and frustrating that illness had to be.  The Lord said to her, “Woman, you are loosed from your infirmity.”  Then He laid hands on her and she was healed.  When she  was able to stand up straight again, she glorified God.
            But there were those standing around just waiting to criticize the Lord, for He healed her on the Sabbath day, when no work was to be done.  Christ answered these critics by pointing out that everyone takes care of his donkey and ox on the Sabbath.  “So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?”  The truth of His teaching was so clear that those adversaries were put to shame and the people rejoiced.
            In these weeks of the Nativity Fast, of Advent, we prepare to celebrate the wonderful news of the Incarnation of the Son of God, of our Lord’s birth at Christmas.  And we see in this gospel text a beautiful image of what Jesus Christ has done for us by becoming a human being.  For every one of us is like that poor woman bound with an infirmity for eighteen years, unable to straighten herself up.
             For we live in a world of corruption, of illness, pain, and death.  We do not like to think about it, but there are harsh, impersonal realities from which we simply cannot isolate ourselves. The horrors of war, crime, and hatred between groups of people; the ecological effects of pollution; cycles of violence, abuse, and brokenness in families and in society; and the inevitability of the grave: We do not have to look far to find ways in which we are all held captive.
            As well, we have diseases of soul, of personality, of behavior, and of relationships that cripple us, that keep us from acting, thinking, and speaking as the children of God.  For we have all fallen short of God’s purposes for us, as has every generation since Adam and Eve.  We are all bent over and crippled in profound ways in relation to the Lord, our neighbors, and even ourselves.   
            Joachim and Anna knew all about long-term struggles and disabilities, for like Abraham and Sarah they were childless into their old age.  But God heard their prayer and gave them Mary, who would in turn give birth to the Savior Who came to liberate us all from sin and death.  Today is the feast of St. Anna’s conception of the Theotokos, which we celebrate as a foreshadowing of the coming of the Lord to loose us from the infirmities that hold us captive and hinder our participation even now in the life of the Kingdom.
            The story of the Old Testament unfolded through the family of Abraham, who was told by God that he would be the father of a large, blessed family.   Many Jews continue to think of life after death as being accomplished through ongoing generations of children and grandchildren, not by victory over death itself.  But if God’s blessings extend no further than the grave, then we will never be loosed from bondage to the wages of sin, which is death.  
            The history of the Hebrews was preparatory for the coming of the Christ, the Messiah in Whom God’s promises are fulfilled and extended to all who have faith in the Savior, regardless of their family heritage.  Christ did not come to privilege one nation over another or to set up an earthly kingdom, but to fulfill our original calling as those created in the image and likeness of God.  That means ultimately to share in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity as distinct, unique persons who become radiant with the divine glory. God breaks the laws of nature in order to save us, enabling elderly women like Sarah and Anna to conceive and bear children and a young virgin named Mary to become the mother of His Son, Who Himself rises from the dead after three days in the tomb.  This is a story of liberation, of breaking bonds, and of transcending the brokenness and limitations of life in this world of death.   
            Fortunately, the Lord did not treat the woman in today’s reading according to her physical condition as simply a bundle of disease, even as St. Anna’s fate was not defined by barrenness.  Instead, He gave her back her true identity as a beloved person, a daughter of Abraham, by enabling her to stand up straight for the first time in years.   On that particular Sabbath day, Jesus Christ treated her as a unique, cherished child of God who was not created for a corrupt, impersonal existence of pain, disease, and despair, but for blessing, health, and joy.  She glorified God for this deliverance, as did those who saw the miracle.
            The good news of Christmas is that the Lord is born to do the same for us and for the whole world, to set us free from the slavery to decay, corruption, and weakness that distort us all.  He comes to deliver us from being defined by our infirmities so that we can leave behind our bondage and enter into the joyous freedom of the children of God.  He comes to restore us as living icons who manifest His glory and salvation in unique, personal ways.  Have you noticed that icons portray people as distinctive persons?  For example, the unique character of the Theotokos, St. John the Baptist, and St. Luke shines through the beautiful icons on the iconostasis.
            The same should be true of us.  We become not less ourselves, but more truly ourselves, when we open our lives to Christ’s holiness and healing.  In contrast, sin and corruption are pretty boring.  No matter how creative we try to be, there are only so many ways to hate, lie, cheat, and steal.  You can only say so much about murder and adultery.  Holiness, on the other hand, is infinitely beautiful and fascinating.  For the more we share in the life of the Holy Trinity, the more we see that the process of our fulfillment in God is eternal, that there is no end to it or to Him.  And since our fundamental calling as human persons is to grow in the likeness of God, we become more truly ourselves—as distinct, unique people– whenever we turn away from slavery to sin and passion in order to embrace more fully the new life that Christ has brought to the world.
            Unfortunately, people in our culture usually do not view Advent and Christmas as opportunities to be loosed from our bondage to sin and death.  Too often, we turn them into occasions for strengthening our addiction to money and possessions, to excessive food and drink, and unhealthy relationships with others.  Of course, that is really a way of saying that self-centered indulgence is nothing but bondage to ourselves, which ends up leaving us hollow, miserable, and stooped over.  That is not surprising because we were not created to find eternal fulfillment and peace in the things of the world, even in one another.  That is why we must resist the cultural temptation to become so busy with shopping and planning and partying this time of year that we ignore the glory and gravity of our Lord’s Incarnation.  For He comes to fulfill us all as His sons and daughters, to extend to us all the blessing and joy of the heavenly kingdom, and to loose us from our slavery to sin and death.     
            We must not remain stooped over, bound, and barren this Advent.     Instead, let us use the remaining weeks of this holy season to prepare to receive the Christ Who heals us, Who sets us free, and Who restores us as the unique children of God He created us to be in the first place.  For we, too, have become the daughters and sons of Abraham in Christ Jesus.  Let us embrace the great blessedness of those who have been set free by the Savior born at Christmas.     

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Fighting Our True Enemies as We Prepare for Christmas: Homily for the 27th Sunday After Pentecost & the 14th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Ephesians 6:10-17; Luke 18:35-43
            We often fall into the trap of blaming other people for our problems.  That is true whether we are upset with someone in particular or with a group or organization.  It is tempting to think that if others would do what we want or at least leave us alone, then all would be well.  It does not take too much spiritual insight to see, however, that things are never quite that simple.
St. Paul certainly had ample opportunity to blame other people for all his struggles.  He endured beatings, shipwreck, imprisonment, criticism from opponents, and all kinds of difficult challenges within the churches he oversaw; and, of course, he died as a martyr.  But when he encouraged the Ephesians to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might,” he stressed that “we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”  Paul had the insight to see that his enemies were not the pagan Roman Empire or those who misinterpreted the faith or questioned his authority as an apostle.  No, his true foes were the corrupt spiritual powers who tempt people to sin.
His message to the Ephesians is that they must be prepared to resist temptation and spiritual assault, in whatever forms they take,  by putting “on the whole armor of God.”  Their struggle for faithfulness will be a battle in which they must cover themselves with truth, righteousness, “the gospel of peace,” and “the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one.”  They must put “on the helmet of salvation, and [carry] the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”  He called his primarily Gentile Christian audience to live in stark contrast to the standards of their culture.  Instead of serving the false gods of money, power, pleasure, and earthly glory, they were to offer themselves fully to the Lord.  They had to gain as much spiritual strength as possible in order to respond faithfully to the great challenges they faced in serving Jesus Christ.  Those challenges would be quite profound, for the Romans soon began imprisoning, torturing, and killing Christians for not worshiping the pagan gods whom they believed protected their empire.
The temptation must have been great both for Paul and for the other believers of that era to hate their persecutors.  That would seem like a normal human reaction in the world as we know it.  Christians, however, are called to something very different from living according to the standards of the world as we know it.  In order to become more like God in holiness as partakers of the divine nature by grace, we must engage in constant combat against the temptation to think that our true enemies are persons or groups who wrong us or whom we do not like for whatever reason.  Those who annoy or threaten us are not our true enemies, but fellow children of God who bear the divine image.   Our true enemies are the spiritual forces of darkness that encourage us to hate those who harm us and to refuse to forgive them.  If we want to know where those enemies are at work, we should look first to our own hearts before daring to diagnose anyone else.
In order to defeat these powerful enemies, we need to put “on the whole armor of God.”  That means opening ourselves as fully as possible to the healing energies of our Lord through full participation in the sacramental and ascetical life of the Church.  Prepared by prayer, fasting, and Confession, we should receive the Body and Blood of Christ frequently as the most powerful nourishment for the healing of our souls.  The more that we live in communion with Christ each day as we reject temptation, the better prepared we will be to share in His life through this holy mystery for “the forgiveness of sins and life everlasting.”  The Nativity Fast calls us to daily prayer, fasting, and generosity to others in order to prepare ourselves to welcome the Savior born at Christmas.  In other words, this is a season for putting “on the whole armor of God” as we battle against our own temptations to look for the fulfillment of our lives anywhere else than in the God-Man Who becomes one of us for our salvation.
That is precisely how St. Paul and countless other martyrs, throughout history and to this very day, have found the strength to turn the other cheek and love their oppressors as they followed in the way of the Savior Who said from the Cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”  Their victory comes not by defeating human beings in any conventional sense, but by conquering their own temptations to preserve their lives in this world by denying Christ and responding to their tormentors with anything short of His love.
Most of us, of course, cannot see how we could possibly live or die that way.  We have become blinded by our own passions to the point that we often feel perfectly justified in hating, condemning, and refusing to forgive people for wronging us in much smaller ways.  When that happens, we become blind to the identity of our true enemies:  the demons who tempt us to live as those who do not share in the life of Christ.   We also then become blind to our own spiritual state in preferring the weakness of Adam and Eve, who stripped themselves naked of the divine glory, to the strength found in wearing “the full armor of God.”
In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus Christ restored the sight of a blind beggar identified as Bartimaeus in Mark 10: 46-52.  This man persistently called out for the Lord’s mercy as He passed by, even though others told him to be quiet.  Because of his bold and persistent faith, Christ restored his ability to see.  When we catch a glimpse of our spiritual blindness and weakness, we must follow Bartimaeus’ example of focusing our attention on the Savior as we ask for His healing and strength.  He persevered in calling out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” even when people told him to shut up.  It is precisely when we are tempted to give up in despair that we must persist like the blind beggar with our daily prayers, our fasting, our almsgiving, and our conscientious participation in the full sacramental and ascetical life of the Church.  That is how we will open ourselves to the healing presence of the Lord in our lives.
Instead of pointing a judgmental finger at anyone or making excuses of any kind for our inflamed passions, we must humbly look to Christ and put ourselves in the place of all those who have embraced His mercy for the healing of their souls.  That is an essential practice for putting “on the whole armor of God” each day of our lives.  If we are to do battle with the forces of darkness that have taken root in our souls, we must do so not with illusions of our own power or righteousness, but by uniting ourselves to the Savior as fully as possible as blind beggars in need of His healing.
As we prepare our hearts to welcome the Lord at His birth this Christmas, let us remember that He does not come to deliver us from other people with whom we are at odds.  No, He is born to destroy our bondage to the fear of death that so easily inspires hatred and fear toward our neighbors and blinds us to our own corruption.  He is born to make us radiant with the divine glory and participants in His life by grace.   He is born to conquer our true enemies and to fulfill His gracious will for all who bear His image and likeness.  Now is the time to prepare our hearts to receive Him.