Saturday, March 30, 2019

Embracing the Struggle for Faithfulness: Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Great Lent and the Veneration of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 4:14-5:6; Mark 8:34-9:1
           Today we venerate the precious and life-giving Cross upon which Jesus Christ offered Himself for the salvation of the world.  By entering into death through the Cross and rising in glory on the third day, He has enabled us to become participants by grace in His eternal life.  To honor the Lord’s Cross requires much more than simply conducting a religious service on a particular day.  It requires taking up our own crosses and uniting ourselves in sacrificial obedience to Christ.  We must offer more than beautiful words and sentiments if we are to do that, for the way of the Cross is participatory.   Our Great High Priest offered Himself fully for our sake, even to the point of death.  It will be impossible for us to share in the joy of Christ’s resurrection unless we offer our lives to Him by dying to our distorted sense of self.   For we will only become the uniquely beautiful people He created us to be in His image and likeness when we experience the healing of the human person that He worked through the Cross.
To participate in the life of Christ requires becoming like Him from the depths of our souls, which is why He told the disciples that they must deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow Him.  Doing so requires losing our lives for the sake of the Lord and His Gospel; ironically, that is the only way to save our lives.  If we make success or happiness in this world on our own terms our ultimate goal, we will pursue a path that amounts to a complete rejection of the Savior.  Remember that Satan tempted Christ in the desert with worldly power and popularity, as did those throughout His ministry who wanted Him to become a successful political and military leader against the Romans.  No one expected or even understood a Messiah Who died on the Cross, which was seen as a sign of complete failure.  By doing so, however, He has destroyed our captivity to death through His victory over Hades and the grave in His glorious resurrection.  His Kingdom stands in stark contrast to the ways and expectations of our world of corruption.
We take up our crosses whenever we embrace the struggle to become more like our Lord in any circumstance of our lives, despite the inevitable tension that we experience whenever we do so.  It is as simple as that, for He is the perfection of humanity as the God-Man and we most certainly are not.  We open ourselves to His gracious healing of our souls when we accept the painful struggle to turn from serving ourselves to serving Him and our neighbors.  We must not denigrate the small opportunities that we have each day to do so in our familiar routines, for it is what we think, say, and do daily that makes up the bulk of our lives and shapes us and others most profoundly.  Instead of imagining rare and heroic acts of sacrifice, we should focus on the opportunities already before us to put faithfulness to God and serving our neighbors before fulfilling our own self-centered desires, however noble we may think that they are.  If we cannot respond faithfully to small challenges, we will never be prepared for the large ones.
We all face situations in our lives that challenge us to become more like Christ in selfless love, forgiveness, and patience.  Whether involving our families, our health, our financial situation, or anything else, there is no shortage of opportunities to find the healing of our souls by living as those who are not ashamed of the Lord’s Cross.  Instead of focusing on what we can get out of these difficult circumstances for ourselves or on our own will being done, we must offer our challenges to Christ as we unite ourselves more fully to the One Who offered up Himself for the salvation of the world.  When we do so, we will experience in our own souls the great tension between making what we want our god and taking up our crosses in obedience to the one true God.  There is no way to find the healing of our souls without embracing that tension, for that is what it means to deny ourselves as we deliberately turn away from serving our self-centered desires to following the Savior Who has conquered death through His Cross.
The spiritual disciplines of Lent certainly provide important opportunities to gain strength in denying ourselves as we take up our crosses. Instead of indulging in constant entertainment and other unnecessary distractions, we must stretch ourselves a bit by devotion to prayer and reading the Scriptures each day.  Instead of dwelling on whatever thoughts we find appealing and saying whatever comes to mind, we must endure the internal struggle of keeping a close watch on our hearts and mouths.  Otherwise, we will become enslaved to the habit of welcoming thoughts that inflame our passions and speaking in ways that cause others to stumble.  Instead of excusing ourselves from generosity toward our needy and inconvenient neighbors, we must find ways to serve them as Christ has served us.  By appropriate fasting and other forms of self-denial, we will gain experience in saying “no” to ourselves so that we will be able to say “yes” to the Lord and those in whom we encounter Him each day.  When we take Confession, we open ourselves to healing from the prideful illusion of self-righteousness as we confront how little of our lives we have truly offered to Him.
The point of Lent is to prepare us to follow the Lord to His Cross and empty tomb.  There is no way to do that other than by uniting ourselves to the Savior in holiness, which inevitably requires the tension and struggle of serving Him and not simply ourselves.  The point is not to make us miserable, of course, but to make it possible for us to embrace the joy that He has brought to the world by delivering us from bondage to the fear of death, which is the wages of sin.  Let us venerate the Cross, then, not only in this service, but by taking up our crosses in our daily lives so that we will grow in union with the One Who offered up Himself purely out of love for our salvation.  The more that the way of the Cross becomes characteristic of our lives, the more we will know already the holy joy of His resurrection.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

It Takes a Person to Overcome Paralysis: Homily for the Second Sunday of Great Lent and the Forefeast of the Annunciation in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 1:10-2:3; Mark 2:1-12
          Even as we continue our Lenten journey, we prepare to celebrate tomorrow the Feast of the Annunciation, which commemorates the Archangel Gabriel’s announcement to the Virgin Mary that God had called her to become the Theotokos, the Mother of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.  When she said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” Mary united herself to Him in a uniquely personal way as the Living Temple of God when she carried Him in her womb.  She did not receive merely an idea or a set of instructions, but a Person Who transformed her for all eternity.  By her free response, she became the New Eve through whom the New Adam was born to restore and fulfill everyone He created in the divine image and likeness.
In today’s gospel lesson, Christ healed a paralyzed man as a sign of His divine authority to forgive sins.  By enabling him to stand up, carry his bed, and walk home, the Savior transformed the man’s life in ways that religious teachings or laws could never have accomplished.  Like the Theotokos, this fellow encountered a Person Who shared His gracious divine energies with him, Who made him a participant in His perfection of what it means to be a human person.  The formerly paralyzed man did not encounter a shadow or symbol of religious truth, but the God-Man Himself.  That was how he was healed.
On this second Sunday of Great Lent, we commemorate St. Gregory Palamas, who defended the experience of hesychast monks who, in the stillness of prayer from their hearts, saw the divine light of the uncreated energies of God.   They knew and experienced God, not as an abstract idea or concept, but through deep personal union with Him.  They opened themselves to the Lord and became participants by grace in His eternal life.  Like the Theotokos and the paralyzed man, they did not receive merely a message, but the Lord Himself.
The spiritual disciplines of Lent are opportunities to become like these holy people in uniting ourselves to Christ personally.  Intensified prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are not ends in themselves; they do not teach us rational truths about God or satisfy legal requirements.  Instead, they are ways of receiving personally the healing presence of Christ, of opening ourselves to Him so that we may experience His salvation more fully.  Like the paralyzed man, we need to encounter the Lord in order to gain the strength to control our thoughts, words, and deeds as we move forward in a life of holiness.  We cannot overcome the weakness of slavery to our self-centered desires simply by trying hard on the basis of our own power, and we surely cannot conquer death.  We can, however, cooperate with our Lord’s gracious divine energies by opening our hearts to Him in daily prayer and the services of the Church, even as we pay no attention to the distracting thoughts that often arise in our minds when we seek to attend to God.  A bit of self-denial in what we eat helps us find strength and fulfillment in Him, not in obsessively pleasing ourselves.  In generosity toward our neighbors, we serve the Savior in them and turn away from self-centeredness.
By embracing these disciplines with humble faith, we will come to share personally and more fully in the life of Christ as we become better living icons of His restoration of the human person.  We will grow in our ability to say with the Theotokos “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”  We will grow in our receptivity to His grace and in our participation in His eternal life from the depths of our souls.  Instead of being paralyzed by our passions and lying helplessly in a bed of sin, we will acquire the spiritual strength to make progress in pursuing a life of holiness.
This is not a path only for great Saints, of course, but for us all.  The greater our spiritual health, the more clearly we will see that sharing in the life of Christ is an eternal goal we may never claim to have mastered.   To encounter Him personally leads to humility and regret for the myriad ways in which we have not made His life our own.  That is why the pre-Communion prayers stress our unworthiness to receive His Body and Blood, which each of us must do with the awareness that we are the chief of sinners.  When we confess our sins during Lent, we acknowledge how far short we have fallen from uniting ourselves to the Savior in holiness.  As He did with the paralyzed man, the Lord Himself forgives our sins in Confession and strengthens us to obey His command to rise, pick up our beds, and move forward.
Let us, then, continue the Lenten journey that leads to our Lord’s Cross and empty tomb.  By embracing its disciplines with humble faith, we will embrace Christ Himself.  He is not an idea or a collection of laws, but a Person Whom we must receive by uniting ourselves to Him in holiness.  As we pray, fast, give to the needy, and confess our sins, let us do so not as mere religious obligations, but as ways of participating more fully in the salvation that He has brought to the world for the healing of paralyzed people like you and me from bondage to the power of sin and death.  He does not save us with shadows and images, but through sharing His life with us by grace.  The only question is whether we will open ourselves to be healed and transformed by Him as the unique persons He created us to be.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Embodied Holiness: Homily for the First Sunday of Great Lent (Sunday of Orthodoxy) in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 11:24-26, 32-40; John 1:43-51

Some people think that the point of religion is to strengthen families and societies by giving people a motive to be moral.   They want to put the fear of God in us so that we will do the right thing and make the world a better place.  As laudable as those goals are, they are not why our Lord died on the Cross and rose on the third day.  He did so in order to restore and fulfill us in His image and likeness, in order to make us perfect icons of His salvation.  The Savior became one of us in order to bring us into the eternal life of the Holy Trinity.  As He said to Nathanael in today’s gospel reading, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.”
On this first Sunday of Great Lent, we commemorate the restoration of icons in the Byzantine Empire many centuries ago.  We do so not for merely artistic reasons, but because the icons proclaim the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ and call us to share in our Lord’s holiness in every dimension of our lives.  It is possible to portray the Lord in an icon because He is fully human, as well as fully divine.  He has a fully human body, which was essential for Him to be born, live in this world, die, rise from the grave, and ascend into heaven.  Icons of the Theotokos and the Saints manifest our calling to become radiant with the divine glory by uniting ourselves to Christ such that His holiness becomes characteristic of us.  Simply put, the purpose of our Lenten journey is to become more beautiful living icons of our Lord. 
Today’s epistle reading from Hebrews recounts the great sufferings of the Old Testament saints who looked forward in faith to the coming of the Messiah.  Nonetheless, they “did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”  Here is a reminder of the sublime vocation that is ours in Christ:  to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect.  We pursue that eternal goal when we share more fully in His healing and restoration of the human person in God’s image and likeness.
Even as the icons proclaim the truth of our Lord’s incarnation, they call us to manifest His holiness in our own bodies.  We will never “see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man” if we refuse to make our physical actions visible signs of our union with Christ in holiness.  In fasting, we limit our self-indulgence in food as a way of gaining strength to resist our passions so that we can redirect our desires to their proper fulfillment in God.  In almsgiving, we limit our obsession with our own physical comfort in order to help the needy have food, clothing, shelter, and other necessities.   In prayer, we use our bodies to stand, kneel, and otherwise comport ourselves in ways that help us become more fully present to God.  We must offer our whole, embodied selves in order to become better living icons of our incarnate Savior.
Given the profound confusion of our culture on the importance of our bodies as males and females, we must look to Christ for guidance on the intimate union of man and woman.  As He said to the Pharisees, “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? (Matt. 19: 4-5) He blessed marriage at the wedding in Cana of Galilee where He turned water into wine, which shows that He enables the union of husband and wife to become an icon of the restoration of our humanity in the Heavenly Kingdom.  Saint Paul similarly refers to the “one flesh” union as a sign of the relationship between Christ and the Church. (Eph. 5:31-32)
            If we are to answer our calling to become ever more beautiful icons of Christ’s healing of the human person in God’s image and likeness, we must offer ourselves as men and women to the Lord for growth in holiness.  That requires not only reserving sexual intimacy for marriage, but also shutting our eyes to pornography and anything else that distorts the “one flesh” union into nothing more than an exercise in pleasure, domination, or self-expression.  Marital union is an icon of our salvation and a path of entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven.  It is where most of us will learn to die to self out of love for our spouse and children.  It is how we may participate personally in the healing of the broken relationship between man and woman that has plagued humanity ever since our first parents were cast out of Paradise into this world of corruption.  Sex and marriage are for our salvation; if we want to share in the life of Christ, we must use them for our growth in holiness as the men and women He created us to be.  
            God does not call everyone to marry, of course.  Recall how we celebrate the perpetual virginity of the Theotokos, revere St. John the Forerunner, and honor monasticism.  Those who remain virgins and celibates have the opportunity to offer themselves to Christ in uniquely powerful ways.  They are beautiful icons of single-minded devotion to our Lord, Who Himself obviously did not marry.  Those who are widowed or divorced also have no lack of opportunity to become more like Christ by responding faithfully to the challenges present in their lives and serving Him in their family members and neighbors.  Abstaining from sexual intimacy is essential for persons who are not married to gain the strength to orient their lives to the eternal joy of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.   For Christ is the Bridegroom and His Body, the Church, is His Bride.  The point of the Christian life is to perfect our love for the Savior as we grow in a “one flesh” union with Him as members of His Body.  Married people and celibates pursue the same goal, but in different ways.   
As we celebrate the restoration of icons today, let us grow in our commitment to enter into the perfection in holiness that Jesus Christ has made possible for all who bear the divine image and likeness.  Let us undertake bodily discipline that will enable us to participate even now in His eternal blessedness as whole persons.  For He calls us to nothing less than seeing “heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man.”  That is what it means to be made perfect in Him.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Wearing “The Armor of Light” Requires Forgiveness: Homily for the Sunday of Forgiveness (Cheesefare) in the Orthodox Church

Romans 13:11-14:4; Matthew 6:14-21
           When the prodigal son returned home, he was surely filthy, malnourished, and at least half-naked.   The father restored him to the family by clothing him with a robe, a ring, and sandals, and then celebrated his return with a great banquet.  As we prepare to begin the Lenten journey tomorrow, we recall today how Adam and Eve stripped themselves naked of the divine glory and were cast out of Paradise into a world enslaved by death.  Like the prodigal son, they rejected their Father because they used His great blessings only to fulfill their self-centered desires, and made themselves miserable and weak as a result.  The murder of their son by Abel by his brother Cain provides a vivid portrait of where the path away from God leads for those created in His image and likeness.
During Great Lent, we seek to follow a path that leads back to Paradise.  In order to liberate us from slavery to death and to restore us to our proper dignity as His sons and daughters, our Lord offered up Himself on the Cross.  That is when He said to the penitent thief, “Truly I tell you, you will be with me today in Paradise.” (Lk. 23:43)  In doing so, He took upon Himself the full consequences of sin and entered into death.  Hades and the grave could not contain Him, however, for He is not merely human but also God.  The icon of Christ’s resurrection portrays Him lifting up Adam and Eve from their tombs.  The Savior raises us up with Him so that we may participate already in the joy of the Kingdom as we anticipate “the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”
We become members of Christ’s Body when we receive the garment of light through baptism.  Our first parents repudiated that divine glory when they chose to diminish themselves and the entire creation.  St. Paul describes baptism as putting on Christ like an article of clothing, for “as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”  (Gal. 3:27) When we are baptized into His death, we rise up with Him into the new life of holiness for which He created us in the first place.  Upon being baptized, we receive the Eucharist as participants in the Heavenly Banquet.  Like the prodigal son, our nakedness is covered and we are restored fully as beloved children of the Father.
Our Savior is the New Adam Who, as the God-Man, has fulfilled our vocation to become like God in holiness.  As we join ourselves to Him, He enables us to become perfect as our Father in Heaven is perfect. Because He is infinitely holy, however, that is a goal we should never think that we have completed, and too often we do not want to pursue it at all.  Only a moment’s introspection shows that much of the corruption of the old Adam remains within us.   We remain enslaved to the power of self-centered desire in so many ways.  We typically do not live as those clothed with a robe of light, but prefer the pain and weaknesses of those who choose their own will over God’s.  Instead of returning to Paradise through union in holiness with Christ, we often prefer to head the other way.
That is precisely why we need Great Lent as a stark reminder of the importance of offering ourselves to the Lord Who offered up Himself for our salvation.  The only way to do that is to take intentional steps to become more like the One Who has restored and fulfilled what it means to be a human being in God’s image and likeness.  As St. Paul taught, that involves us in a struggle with our own distorted desires, for we must “put on the armor of light” and “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”  That means that we must mindfully direct our energy, time, and attention to fueling growth in a life pleasing to God, even as we refuse to devote time, energy, and attention to whatever enslaves us to our passions.  Lent will provide us with many opportunities to invest ourselves so fully in prayer, fasting, generosity, and other spiritual disciplines that we will not have much left to invest in “the works of darkness.”
We must remember, however, that Lent is not about going through the motions of piety for their own sake.  We must conform ourselves to Christ from our hearts in order to follow Him through His Passion back to Paradise.  Today’s gospel lesson provides us with a severe test of whether we are doing that.  The same Lord Who said from the Cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” tells us that we must forgive others their offenses against us if we want the Father to forgive our sins.  (Lk. 23:34) The hard truth is that, if we refuse to forgive others, then we are not uniting ourselves to Christ.  If His merciful love is not becoming characteristic of us, then we are not participating in His healing of our souls.  Like other spiritual disciplines, forgiveness is often a struggle and a process.  If we refuse even to begin the journey of forgiveness, or to get back on its path after we have strayed from it, then we direct ourselves away from Paradise and do our best to rip off the robe of light.  If we stubbornly refuse to forgive others, then we show that we want no part in the Lord Whose forgiving love is most fully manifest in the Cross, from which He forgave even those who nailed Him to it.
Because we typically find it hard to forgive, we need spiritual disciplines like fasting that help us gain strength in redirecting our desires for fulfillment to union with God in holiness.  Remember that sin came into the world through our first parents’ refusal to restrain their desire for food according to God’s command.  By struggling to abstain from rich food and large portions, we will grow in our awareness of how addicted we are to satisfying ourselves on our own terms.  We will see our own weakness before our passions a bit more clearly, which should fuel our growth in patience and empathy for others when they fall prey to self-centered desire.  Fasting should strengthen our ability to forgive those who wrong us, for it helps us understand that we are all weak before the deeply rooted desires that so easily lead to words and deeds that harm other people.  Because it is pride that hinders forgiveness, the humility fueled by fasting gets to the heart of the matter.  The Savior warns, however, that we must not make a show of our fasting in order to draw attention to ourselves or win the praise of others.  Doing so will destroy its healing power.
The same is true about generosity with our resources, time, and attention for the needy.  If we invest everything in hopes of gaining the world’s riches, we will end up worshiping our vision of success in the world.  That will only further enslave us to self-centered desire and incline us to hate those who stand in the way of our plans.  Our hearts will follow our treasure, and those who stand between us and our treasure will have no place in our hearts.   By limiting self-indulgence in order to help others, we turn away at least a bit from making the world our god.  If we want to be the kind of people who display Christ’s mercy in our own lives, we simply must be generous with our neighbors.  Remember that we serve Him in them.
The Lenten journey leads us back to Paradise through the Passion of our Lord.  It is a calling to embrace as fully as possible the great dignity that He has restored to us through baptism as sons and daughters called to the celebration of the Heavenly Banquet.  If we pray, fast, give, and forgive with integrity, our eyes will be opened to how much of the corruption of the old Adam is still with us.  When that happens, we will see how ridiculous it is not to extend to others the same forgiveness that we so desperately need from God.  The coming weeks are all about becoming more like Christ, for it is only by sharing more fully in His life that we will be able to enter into the joy of His great victory over death.  That is why we all need to “cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”

Saturday, March 2, 2019

How We Treat Others Shows the Health of our Souls: Homily for the Sunday of the Last Judgment in the Orthodox Church

1 Corinthians 8:8-9:2; Matthew 25:31-46
          We live in a time when it is tempting to make everything about us.  Even as we have the liberty to think, speak, and spend our money according to our desires, we are free to approach religion in the same way. Unfortunately, we are often so consumed with getting what we want for ourselves that we distort the Christian life into a self-centered enterprise of focusing only on our own spiritual state.  When that happens, we become slaves of our own pride even as we fool ourselves into thinking that we are on the fast track to the Kingdom of Heaven.
On this Sunday of the Last Judgment, the Church calls our attention to the ultimate destiny of our souls.  As we begin this last week before Great Lent, the Lord’s parable reminds us that the path to the fullness of eternal life in the Kingdom of God runs through our neighbors, especially those we are usually inclined to overlook, disregard, and perhaps even despise.  How we treat the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the sick and the prisoner reveals the true state of our souls.  How we serve our suffering neighbors is how we serve our Lord.  Whether we truly share in His life is shown by whether His love and mercy are evident in our lives.  If we truly participate in Him, the Savior’s virtues will become characteristic of us, for He has united humanity and divinity in Himself.  And what is more characteristic of Christ than His self-emptying love for all of us who suffer the degrading consequences of our sins, both personally and collectively?  By offering Himself fully on the cross, the God-Man sets us free from bondage to corruption and unites us to Himself as members of His own Body, the Church.  He makes it possible for us to enter by grace into the eternal communion of love shared by the Holy Trinity.  The ultimate judgment of our souls is whether we will embrace this sublime vocation or refuse it.
The point is not that we can somehow impress God or earn a reward by doing enough good deeds for others.  It is not that we calculate in our minds that by serving our neighbors we are serving Him.  It is, instead, that we embrace His healing of our self-centeredness to the point that we become radiant with His selfless love.  The more that is true of us, the more we will offer ourselves to our neighbors and to Him.  The more that is true of us, the more we will share a common life of love with our neighbors and with Him.  That is what it means to be able to say, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” (Gal. 2:20)
St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians that the key issue in the question of whether to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols was how doing so impacted others.  He writes that “food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. Only take care, lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”  To cause another to fall would be to “sin against Christ.”  We read this passage on the last day when, according to the fasting discipline of the Church, we eat meat before Pascha.  His words remind us that what is truly at stake in fasting is not merely a change in diet, but whether we use food in a way that enables us to grow in the selfless love of our Lord.  When we abstain from the richest and most satisfying foods, we have an opportunity to gain strength to redirect our desires for self-centered pleasure to blessing our neighbors.  That is because eating a humble diet should free up resources to give to the needy. It should not take long to prepare and the leftovers will keep for future meals, thus freeing up time and energy to be directed toward the good of our neighbors in so many ways. It should also teach us that we can live without getting what we want; contrary to popular opinion, it will not kill us to say “no” to our own preferences about what we eat.
Fasting is not an end in itself.  It is merely a tool for shifting our focus away from ourselves and toward our Lord and our brothers and sisters. If we distort it into a private religious accomplishment that we use to show ourselves, others, and even the Lord how holy we are, we would be better off not fasting at all.  This spiritual discipline invites us to share more fully in the self-emptying love of Christ as we turn from addiction to satisfying ourselves to freely serving  others.  That kind of love is essential for us to grow in union with them and with Him.  It is a crucial dimension of what it means to participate in the deified humanity of the Savior Who offered up Himself in order to draw all people into the eternal life that He shares with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Many false substitutes exist for uniting ourselves to Christ such that we serve others as He has served us.  Some may approach the fasting guidelines and other dimensions of Lent as legalistic acts the performance of which would satisfy God’s requirements.  Others might insist that the height of the Christian life is making ourselves feel a certain way or following a code of behavior that justifies us in condemning others.  As well, Christians of every generation have fallen prey to the temptation to use the faith to gain earthly power in one form or another.  These distractions from true faithfulness all make the mistake of focusing on trying to get something for ourselves from God.  They fail to see that our focus must be on Christ and those in whom we encounter Him each day of our lives, not on us.  They do not recognize that the fundamental calling of the Christian life is to become like our Lord, Who offered Himself up for the salvation of the world.  If we want to approach Lent in a spiritually healthy way that will enable us to participate already in life eternal, we must offer ourselves for the sake of other people.
The particular form of that self-offering will vary according to the needs of the people we encounter and our particular gifts and calling in life.  Discerning the particular actions we should take will not be a matter of cold-blooded rational calculation, but of being so conformed to Christ’s character that we make our lives a “living sacrifice” (Rom. 12:1) through which the Savior’s healing of fallen humanity becomes active and evident in our lives.  Instead of living as isolated individuals who define themselves over against one another, we will become persons in communion with Christ and all those who bear His image and likeness.
According to today’s gospel reading, this is the path to the eternal life of the Kingdom.  Whether we pursue it will determine whether we have the spiritual health to behold the glory of the Lord as joyful, brilliant light or instead are so weak that we perceive only the burning torment of our own refusal to be transformed by His love.  The difference will not be in our Lord, but in how we have responded to Him.  During the coming season of Great Lent, we will all have the opportunity to unite ourselves to Christ in holiness through prayer, fasting, almsgiving, forgiveness, and other forms of repentance.  We must not pursue them, however, as our own individual religious accomplishments, but instead as humble steps to open ourselves to the grace necessary to become the kind of people who share so fully in the life of Christ that we spontaneously convey His merciful love to all His living icons, especially those we are most inclined to disregard.   Since we are all a long way from fulfilling this calling, we all need the coming blessed weeks to grow closer to the Savior Who emptied Himself for our salvation on the cross in order to rise in glory on the third day.  If we want to know the joy of His resurrection, we must offer ourselves to Him in the neighbors through whom we encounter Him each day.  There is no way around this truth:  How we serve them is how we serve Him.