Sunday, January 14, 2018

In Communion with Christ and One Another: Homily for the Leave-Taking of and the Sunday After Theophany (Epiphany) in the Orthodox Church

Ephesians 4:7-13; Matthew 4:12-17

It is certainly possible to have a letdown after the holiday season.  Though it has its own stresses, a time of year filled with parties, rich food, and visiting with loved ones appeals to most people, if only as a cultural observance. The same is surely true for those of us who celebrated the Savior’s birth at Christmas and His baptism at Theophany.  We enjoyed the beautiful services with their joyful hymns and familiar readings, as well as the blessing of the holy water.   As the season of Theophany concludes today, we may have a sense of loss that this special time of year is coming to a close.  That is understandable, but we will have missed the point entirely of this great feast if we think that we should now simply forget about it and get back to life as usual.
             Today’s gospel reading tells us what the Lord did after His baptism, at which it was revealed that He is the Son of God and a member of the Holy Trinity.  He went to “Galilee of the Gentiles,” an area where Jews lived in a culture with such strong Gentile influence that it was called a place of darkness.  The Lord went there in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.”  Christ went there to begin preaching openly as He said “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
             The miraculous events that occurred at the Lord’s baptism were not ends in themselves, as though all had been completed when the voice of the Father declared “This is my beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased” and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in the form of a dove.  The truth about Him had been revealed, and the Savior blessed the waters and restored the entire creation when He lowered Himself into the Jordan for baptism by John.  Even with their cosmic significance, these extraordinary events were preparatory for the Lord’s public ministry.  They showed that He is the Light Who shines on those who live in darkness, who remain captive to the fear of death and blind to His divine glory.  In order for people to benefit from the revelation that He is truly the Son of God, they had to respond to His call for repentance.  Christ proclaimed the good news in order for them to be able to respond to Him with obedient faith.
             St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians that the One Who ascended into heaven is the One of Who first “descended into the lower parts of the earth.”  The same Lord Who lowered Himself to Hades after His death then rose up in glory and ascended into heaven.  At His baptism, He also descended into the dark waters of the Jordan, into the physical creation itself which had been “subjected to futility” because of human sin. (Rom. 8:20)   The wages of sin is death, and the Savior took upon Himself the full consequences of our estrangement from God in order to conquer them and bring us into the holy joy for which He created us in the first place.
           After the Savior’s resurrection and ascension, the Holy Spirit, Who descended upon the Lord in the form of a dove at His baptism, fell upon upon His disciples as flames of fire upon their heads, enabling them to heal the sick, to raise the dead, and to minister boldly and prophetically in His Name.  Christ’s followers became the Church, His Body, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.  The point of this great blessing was not for them to rest content with their personal religious experience, but to strengthen all the members of the Body in their ministries “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”  The Lord provided them with spiritual gifts in order to strengthen the Church in faithfulness as they drew the world to salvation, not for their own glorification.
            As we conclude the season of Theophany today, our focus should not be on regretting that we are back at work or school or that the beautiful trappings of the holiday season have come down.  It should also not be on how we have fulfilled a religious duty by focusing on the spiritual truth manifested at Christ’s baptism:  that He is truly the Son of God and member of the Holy Trinity.  Instead, our focus must be on becoming ever more brilliant epiphanies of the Light of Christ in our darkened world.  We do not do that as isolated individuals or on the basis simply of our emotions, our opinions, or even our morality.  No, we do that when we live our lives faithfully as members of Christ’s Body, the Church.  We must use our gifts “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” There is no other genuinely Christian way of life.  
             Contrary to popular opinion, the Christian life is a life in community, a shared existence, and an experience of communion with God and one another.   It is not something that can be pursued apart from the Church.  When we celebrate the revelation of the Holy Trinity, we proclaim that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are distinct Persons Who share a common divine nature.  “Father” and “Son” are relational terms, and it is through the Holy Spirit that we are brought by grace into intimate communion with the Lord.  As St. Paul taught the Galatians, the Father has adopted us through the Son, making us sons and heirs through the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.  (Gal. 4:4-7)  Our calling is nothing less than to become “partakers of the divine nature” by grace.  (2 Pet. 1:4)
          Should it be surprising, then, that growth in the Christian life is also relational and communal?  We share in the eternal life of our Lord, not as isolated individuals, but as members of Him and of one another.  That is why our common life must become an icon that images the eternal love of the Holy Trinity, if we are to grow in holiness.  Anything less falls terribly short of manifesting what we celebrate at Theophany.    
After His baptism, Christ called the people to repent and get ready for the coming of God’s Kingdom.  We must repent of thinking that we can serve Him faithfully apart from using our gifts, whatever they may be, for the edification of His Body, the Church.  God has given us different strengths and abilities, and we must offer ourselves to Him and to one another to build up His Body if we are to have any hope of attaining “to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”
Our calling is nothing less than to become an epiphany of the communion of divine love shared by the members of the Holy Trinity.  We have certainly not ascended into heaven, but we have died to sin in being baptized into the death of the One Who is now seated at the right hand of the Father. We have put Him on like a garment, being clothed in the robe of light.  We are Christ’s Bride, the Church, and He is the Bridegroom.  In receiving Communion, we become one flesh with Him through union with His Body and Blood.  We are also one flesh with one another, with all who commune with Him, for we are members of the same Body.     
So after celebrating Theophany, we simply cannot go back to life as usual.  In order to respond faithfully to the revelation of the Holy Trinity, our common life must shine with the light of God’s salvation in our darkened world. There is no other genuinely Christian form of witness, no other way to attain to “the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” than to love and serve our Lord in one another. That is how the worship of the Trinity will be made manifest in the life of our parish. as we build up the Body of Christ.  That is how we will obey the Lord’s command:   “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”


Monday, January 8, 2018

Homily for the Synaxis of the Holy Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John in the Orthodox Church

Acts 19:1-8; John 1:29-34
            In one way or another, we all struggle with the temptation to be self-centered.  Even helping others can become primarily a way to draw attention to ourselves or to meet our own emotional needs.  Many view religion in this way, trying to use even God to help them get what they want.  That, of course, is simply a form of idolatry.
Today we commemorate someone who completely rejected such distortions of the faith:  the Holy Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John.  We do so immediately following the day of Theophany, for it was St. John who baptized Jesus Christ.  As the Lord came up from the waters of the Jordan, the voice of the Father proclaimed “This is my beloved Son in Whom I am well-pleased” and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in the form of a dove. (Mat. 3:16-17)  In the context of the Savior’s baptism by John, the Holy Trinity is revealed, thus making clear that Christ is truly the eternal Son of God, the Light shining in a world darkened by sin and death.
When people asked John if he were the Messiah, he clearly declared that he was not.  He said of himself that he was simply “The voice of one crying in the wilderness:  Make straight the way of the Lord.” (Jn 1:23)  When Pharisees asked why, then, he was baptizing people, John responded that One was coming “whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose.”  (1:27)  The coming Messiah, he said, “is preferred before me, for He was before me” as the eternal Son of God.  John “came baptizing with water” so that “He might be revealed to Israel.”
Obviously, John was not focused on himself or achieving any worldly goals. He apparently had quite a following as Matthew’s gospel states that “Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins.” (Mat. 3: 5-6)  His message had a wide appeal and attracted even Pharisees, Sadducees, tax collectors, and soldiers.  He certainly did not tell those powerful groups what they wanted to hear, as he mocked the religious leaders as “a brood of vipers” and asked “who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”  (Mat. 3:7) He told the tax collectors and soldiers to stop abusing their authority by taking advantage of others. (Lk 3:12-14) He told his Jewish audience not to rely on their descent from Abraham, but actually to repent. (Lk. 3:8) Given his fearlessness, it is not surprising that John was ultimately beheaded by the ruler Herod Antipas for denouncing his immorality.
He was obviously a charismatic figure who knew how to get people’s attention.  The Forerunner, however, did not use those skills for his own glory; indeed, he directed his own followers to become the first disciples of the Lord.  As he explained to some who seem to have viewed Christ as a competitor to himself, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (Jn 3:30).  The Baptist compared himself to the bridegroom’s friend at a wedding.  The friend is happy for the groom, but he is hardly the center of attention. (Jn. 3:29)
This great prophet was a truly humble man who, instead of focusing on his own agenda, was completely dedicated to fulfilling the calling that God had given him.  His vocation was so important that Luke begins his gospel by telling us of his conception by the elderly, barren couple Zechariah and Elizabeth immediately before describing the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary.  As the Archangel Gabriel declared to doubting Zechariah, John “will…go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Lk 1: 17-18) When the pregnant Theotokos visited the pregnant Elizabeth, the not-yet-born John leaped in the womb as his mother “was filled with the Holy Spirit” and proclaimed to the Virgin Mary “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”  (Lk. 1:41-42)  The Theotokos responded with The Magnificat:  “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior…” (Lk. 1:46ff.)  These passages show that John was obviously going to play an extremely important role in revealing Christ’s salvation to the world.
It would not be easy for any human being to fulfill such a high calling, which is surely why John grew up in the wilderness and devoted his entire life to strict asceticism.  For example, he famously wore a simple garment of camel’s skin and his diet consisted of locusts and wild honey.  Through decades of humbling himself through self-denial before God, he gained the strength to resist whatever temptations he faced and to calm whatever passions beset him.  That was how he gained the humility to see that his gifts were not for his own glory, but to enable him to serve God.  That was how he acquired the vision to see the Holy Spirit descend upon the Savior as a dove at Christ’s baptism.  That was how he developed the spiritual clarity necessary to speak prophetically in bold, outrageous ways, even to the point of laying down his life.
John the Baptist fulfills Old Testament prophecy as an angelic messenger of the good news of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ.  Unlike all who went before, he lived to see the One Whom he proclaimed.  Through his life of radical obedience, he became a fitting vehicle for the manifestation of the Trinity when he reluctantly dared to baptize the Son of God.
We learn from the Forerunner’s example that it is no small or easy thing to bear witness to Jesus Christ.  If we seek to use our faith to get what we want in this world on our own terms, no matter what that is, we will have nothing in common with John at all.  If we refuse to fight our passions, guard our thoughts and words, and put others before ourselves, we will never gain the strength necessary to decrease in self-centeredness so that Christ’s healing presence will increase in us.  If we are not fully present before God in prayer each day and united with His Body, the Church, in worship on Sundays and feast days, we will lose the ability to serve God instead of ourselves. If we do not deliberately prepare the way of the Lord in our own lives, then we will be of no use in pointing others to the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world.
As we continue to celebrate Theophany, we must follow the example of St. John in order to become epiphanies of the salvation that the God-Man has brought to the world.  By becoming one of us and lowering Himself into the waters of the Jordan, our Savior has sanctified the entire creation, making it possible for us to be restored to the ancient glory of His sons and daughters as we put Him on like a garment, a robe of light, in baptism.   The revelation of the Holy Trinity through Christ’s baptism shows that every dimension of our life in this world may become radiant with the divine glory. The blessing of water demonstrates that every bit of creation, and of ourselves, may be set right and brought to fulfillment according to God’s gracious purposes.
In order to find a model of how to prepare ourselves to embrace the full meaning of Theophany, the Church directs our attention today to the Holy  Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John.  He was not powerful in a conventional sense in his time and place.  He did not tell anyone what he or she wanted to hear.  He did not embody what was popular or easy.  But through his humble, obedient life of self-denial, he acquired a holy strength that not even death could destroy.   That strength was not his own creation, but a quality of the Lord Whose divine glory shone brilliantly from the dark waters of the Jordan.
John prepared the way; now we must continue on the straight path in our own lives.  The more that we follow the Baptist’s example, the more open our lives will be to the healing of the God-Man Who was baptized in the Jordan for our salvation.  If we have put Christ on in baptism, then we must live in the world each day as those who have died to sin and risen up in Him to a new life of holiness.  That is how we too may become epiphanies of God’s glory.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Born to Raise the Image that Had Fallen: Homily for the Sunday Before Christmas in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 11:9-10, 32-40; Matthew 1:1-25
In spite of what we may like to think, the story of our lives did not begin on the day of our birth, but extends back across the generations to those from whom we have inherited so many traits that make us who we are.  Knowing about the heritage of our families can give us a sense of rootedness, a healthy acceptance that we are not our own creators.  Ultimately, of course, we trace our origins back to the Lord Who created us in His image and likeness by breathing life into our first parents. 
            As we all know from personal experience, not everything passed down in families is healthy or holy.  That is because we all participate personally in the consequences of humanity’s refusal to become more like God in holiness.  Due to their disobedience, Adam and Eve were cast out of Paradise into the world of corruption that we know all too well.  We have followed them in serving our own self-centeredness instead of God.  We have followed them into slavery to the distorted desires that we call the passions.  Instead of freely becoming more like God in holiness, we suffer the consequences of being held captive to sin and death. 
            On this Eve of Christmas, we must remember that Jesus Christ “is born now to raise the image that had fallen aforetime.”  In other words, He is the New Adam Who fulfills our original calling to become like God in holiness.  Indeed, He is truly God and truly human, and thus able to restore us to the sublime dignity for which He breathed life into us in the first place.  In Him, we inherit the blessedness of Paradise, for He comes to heal every dimension of our corruption and to unite us to Himself in holiness.
            We may wonder, however, if there really is healing for us who suffer the effects of our own sins and of the brokenness of others.  We may despair of ever experiencing the fulfillment of our calling to become like God because pride, anger, lust, and other passions seem so deeply rooted in our souls.  We may lose hope of ever finding peace amidst the battles that rage in our minds, hearts, and relationships.
            If our struggles were simply about us as isolated individuals left to our own devices, we would have good reason to despair.  Today, however, we remember that God worked across the generations from Abraham to the Virgin Mary and Joseph, her betrothed, to prepare for the birth of the New Adam.  Since King David served as a model for the Messiah, he figures prominently in the Lord’s family tree.  Remember, however, that he was guilty of adultery and murder, which the genealogy indicates by listing Bathsheeba as “the wife of Uriah.”  Along with this reference, the names of Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth are surprising because they are all women who bring to mind scandalous episodes involving matters such as prostitution or intermarriage with Gentiles. 
            Our Lord’s family heritage was certainly not comprised of perfect people.  They experienced all the spiritual and moral brokenness common to humanity in our world of corruption.  Nonetheless, they looked forward in faith to the coming of the Messiah.  Despite their sufferings and imperfections, God worked through them to prepare for the Virgin Mary to become the Theotokos when she accepted the outrageous calling to become the Mother of God, the living temple of the Savior.  In a manner beyond understanding and not tainted by passion of any kind, she conceived and gave birth to the Son of God as a virgin.  Joseph, her elderly protector, turned away from his earlier doubts and faithfully played his unique role in caring for both mother and Child.
In the God-Man born at Christmas, we have received the fullness of the promise for which the Old Testament saints longed in faith.    By becoming one of us, He has raised the fallen image and made us “partakers of the divine nature” by grace. The disciplines of the Nativity Fast have helped us to know why we need a Savior Who comes to us in this way.  By devoting ourselves for forty days to intensified prayer, fasting, and generosity to the needy, and by preparing conscientiously for Confession, we have come to see our own spiritual brokenness a bit more clearly.  These practices have shown us that we need more than a set of rules or a good example to follow.  Like all those enslaved by the fear of death and our own distorted desires, we need to be born again in the New Adam.  We need to be healed from the spiritual maladies that have taken root in our souls so that we will participate personally in the fulfillment that Christ works when He becomes a human being for our salvation. 
None of  us, however, is yet fully healed.  We all have a long way to go—an infinitely long journey—in order to become like God in holiness.   Instead of becoming discouraged at how far we are from fulfilling this high calling, we should remember that we fit right into the Lord’s family tree.  Those who prepared for His coming often fell short, even to the point of committing murder, adultery, and idolatry.  If He can work through such people to prepare His way, then it should not be surprising that the Savior came to call, not the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
Who needs to be reborn except those who are spiritually dead?  Who needs to be set free from captivity except those who are enslaved to sin?  Who needs a New Adam if not all the children of the first Adam, all human persons who have fallen short of the glory of God and earned the wages of sin, which is death?  Christmas is not a feast focused on rewarding the righteous, for who could possibly have merited or deserved the unbelievable miracle of the Son of God becoming a human being?  He fulfills the ancient vocation of all people to become like God in holiness not because any of us have somehow earned that astounding blessing, but instead on the basis of His love for sinners.
Even before the Incarnation, King David found forgiveness for committing murder and adultery.  If already before the promise of the coming of the Messiah was fulfilled, God was so gracious to a repentant sinner, how much more must we trust that the mercy of the Savior born at Christmas will extend also to us? Many people struggle with a prideful form of shame that paralyzes them when they catch a true glimpse of their own spiritual state.  When they do not live up to their own illusions of perfection, they cannot accept that—like everyone else—they  have sinned and need the Lord’s healing mercy.  So instead of humbly repenting and trusting in His grace as they stumble forward in obedience, they insist on relying on their own power and ability.  That results in worshiping a god of their own imagination, not the Lord Whose family tree included scandalous sinners of all kinds. 
The Son of God was born “to raise the fallen image,” which means to restore our beauty as living icons radiant with His holiness.  No matter the present shape of our souls, the New Adam makes it possible for us to be fulfilled in His likeness, to become truly human as He always intended us to be.  Nothing but our own prideful will has the power to keep us from entering into the divine joy of Christmas for our salvation.  In Christ, we have all inherited by faith the fullness of the promise passed down for so many generations through the children of Abraham.  As we prepare to celebrate the Nativity of our Savior, let us all receive Him into our hearts with humility, knowing that He came to save us who were lost.  If you think that you do not deserve that great blessing, then you are absolutely right.  No one does. That is why the Savior was born.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Choosing to Enter the Banquet: Homily for the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers of Christ in the Orthodox Church

Colossians 3:4-11; Luke 14:16-24
Think for a moment about the choices that we make.   Each day of our lives, we decide to do this instead of that.  Sometimes we are pleased with our choices, but other times we look back on our decisions and wonder what we could possibly have been thinking at the time.  All too often, we choose poorly and end up the worse for it.
            Today’s gospel lesson describes people who made the foolish choice of excusing themselves from a great banquet, a glorious celebration that anyone would want to attend.  Their excuses for doing so are mundane:  buying land and animals and being married.  In light of their refusal to attend, the master of the house insisted that his servants bring the blind, lame, and maimed from the streets to the party. Then he told them to go out “to the highways and hedges” and bring those passing by into his house so that it would be filled.  
            We read this parable on the Sunday of the Forefathers of Christ as we remember the choices that the righteous people of the Old Testament made across the centuries in preparing for the coming of the Savior.  This line of Hebrew patriarchs and prophets who prefigured or foretold the coming of Christ leads to the Theotokos, who freely chose to welcome the Messiah into her life in a unique way as His virgin mother.  But even as we remember their faithful decisions, we must also recall false prophets, wicked kings, and numerous other characters in the Old Testament who chose poorly.  Like the people who excused themselves from the great banquet in the parable, they made idols out of the things of this world and worshiped their power, possessions, and pleasure instead of the one true God. 
            Those who rejected the Savior did exactly the same thing, for they could not accept a Messiah Who challenged the self-righteous religious pride that fueled their power over others.  They could not serve a Lord Whose kingdom was not an earthly one of conventional political or military conquest.  They had no interest in a Savior Who told them to take up their crosses and follow Him.   Since they worshiped themselves and the things of this world, they literally hated the One for Whom the righteous of the Old Testament had prepared across the centuries.   
      In the midst of their rejection of the Messiah, it became clear how God would bless the entire world in fulfillment of the ancient promise to Abraham.  (Gen. 22:18)  Though often ignored, Hebrew prophets such as Isaiah envisioned all the nations being drawn to God’s Temple. (Isa. 2:2)  To use the imagery of the parable, we Gentile Christians are the blind, lame, and maimed found in the streets, the strangers brought in from the highways and hedges so that the master’s house will be full.  As St. Paul teaches, “Here there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all.”  Through faith in our Savior, we are all the children of Abraham, rightful heirs to the fulfillment of the promise.
            Today’s parable reminds us, however, that it is not enough merely to be invited to accept the great blessings that are ours in Christ.  “For many are called, but few are chosen.”  Like those who shut themselves out of the great celebration because of their obsession with the earthly cares of everyday life, we face the choice of how we will respond to the invitation that is ours through Christ to enter into the great joy of His heavenly banquet.  In order to answer the call, we must avoid the poor choice of convincing ourselves that whatever daily responsibilities we have are somehow more important than participating personally in the eternal life that our Savior was born to bring to the world.  Instead, we must view the challenges of our lives as opportunities to enter more fully into the holy joy of our Lord.
            In order to “appear with Him in glory,” we must follow the advice of St. Paul to the Colossians “to put to death what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”   He warns us clearly against what happens when we look for our fulfillment as human persons simply in the things of this world.  As those created in God’s image and likeness, we will remain slaves to our self-centered desires as long as we worship what can never satisfy us.   That is a path that leads to such spiritual blindness that, like the characters in the parable, we will actually think that the common concerns of life are good excuses for not uniting ourselves to Christ in holiness.   That is the way of “the old nature” corrupted by slavery to death, which is powerless before deeply ingrained tendencies to “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth.”
            Let us be perfectly honest.  We all know from personal experience what happens when we embrace evil thoughts, act according to our disordered desires for pleasure and power, and speak out of anger and self-righteous judgment.  We all know what results from making our possessions and relationships false gods.   We all know what happens when we make our life an offering only to ourselves. To choose to indulge our passions is nothing but a path to greater slavery to them.  It is to enter into a captivity that ultimately leads only to despair and the grave.  It is to separate ourselves from God, from one another, and even from our own true selves.
            We pray often in services that we will live the rest of our lives in peace and repentance.  That is not a petition for others to stop bothering us so that all our problems to go away, for the problems are deeply rooted in our own souls.   As St. Paul knew, we will find peace only when we deliberately embrace “the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator.”  In other words, we must mindfully pursue the healing of our souls by offering our daily cares and our deepest desires to the Lord.  Instead of allowing them to become excuses for disregarding Him, they must become opportunities to enter more fully into the joy of His Kingdom.  That is how repentance leads to peace.
            The forefathers and foremothers of the Lord prepared the way for His salvation through lives that were by no means easy.  The Old Testament makes clear that they struggled with every problem known to humanity in our corrupt world. Despite their challenges and failings, those who accepted the invitation to prepare for the coming of the Messiah remained faithful to the Lord through repentance.  If those who looked forward to His coming in hope did so, how much more of an obligation do we have as those who have received the fullness of the promise?  Indeed, we enter mystically into the Heavenly Banquet at every celebration of the Divine Liturgy, nourished by His own Body and Blood in the Eucharist.  Christ offered Himself fully for our salvation and, if we are truly in communion with Him, then we must offer ourselves to Him each day of our lives.  That is the only path to peace for those created in His image and likeness.
            In the coming days, let us all mindfully prepare to welcome the Savior at Christmas by refusing to think that we have more important things to do.  Following the example of the Old Testament saints in their preparation for Him, let us respond enthusiastically to the Lord’s invitation to the great feast of His Incarnation.  He is born to bring every dimension of our life and world in the holy joy of His Kingdom. Absolutely nothing is worth excluding ourselves from that tremendous celebration.  There is still time to get ready, even for us who are blind, lame, and maimed in so many ways.  Let us make good use of it for our salvation.       

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Putting on "The Whole Armor of God" in Order to be Set Free: Homily for the 27th Sunday After Pentecost and the 10th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Ephesians 6:10-17; Luke 13:10-17
There are times when we do as little possible in order to meet a requirement that is not very important to us.  There are other times when we do our very best because it really matters.  Some requirements can be checked off easily with little effort and do not change us in any significant way.  Those that require dedication from the depths of our souls, however, will transform us profoundly. 
St. Paul, who suffered and struggled so much in his apostolic ministry, knew that faithfulness to Jesus Christ requires complete and life-changing commitment.  That is why he instructed the Ephesians to “Put on the whole armor of God” so that they would be able to resist their many temptations.  The challenge was not to fight against human beings, but against the spiritual forces of evil that so easily corrupt even the best intentions of people in the world as we know it.  If we want to deflect “the flaming darts of the evil one,” we need the shield of faith, as well as “the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” That is how we ground ourselves in God’s truth, righteousness, and peace so that we will be able to resist the corrupting power of evil in our souls.
To view the Christian life as a battle for which we need the full armor of God is very different from thinking that religion is about emotion, politics, or simply being a decent person.    The point is not to make ourselves feel a certain way, to gain worldly power, or even to become moral.  Instead, our faith calls us to participate personally in the healing of the human person that Jesus Christ was born to bring to the world.  As we await the coming fulfillment of God’s Kingdom, answering that call requires a difficult and constant struggle. Even though Christ has conquered death in His glorious resurrection on the third day, none of us has yet fully embraced His victory over the corrosive effects of sin.  Regardless of whether our temptations are obvious or subtle, we must all engage in a struggle against the paralyzing forces of evil in our own souls.   This is not a matter of going through the motions to meet a minimal standard, but a calling to invest ourselves fully in an ongoing battle through which we hope, by God’s grace, to be transformed in holiness as partakers of the divine nature. 
The woman whom Jesus Christ healed in today’s gospel lesson certainly was transformed.  She suffered from a kind of paralysis because she had not been able to stand up straight for eighteen years.  She was stooped over and had probably lost all hope of ever being healed.  The Lord saw her in that condition in the synagogue and restored her to health, saying “Woman, you are loosed.”    Since it was the Sabbath day on which no work was to be done, the leader of the synagogue criticized Christ for breaking the Old Testament law.  He responded that people care for their animals on the Sabbath, so how could it possibly be wrong to heal “this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan bound for eighteen years”?   That response silenced His critic.
There is no indication that the woman asked the Lord to heal her; instead, He took the initiative when He saw her that day in the synagogue.  He took the initiative in extending His merciful love toward her in a way that was not minimalistic or perfunctory.  His healing transformed and empowered her to live as a healthy human being in a way that she had not been able to experience by her own strength. In the very Jewish context of a healing on the Sabbath in a synagogue, the Messiah described her as “a daughter of Abraham,” a rightful heir of the blessings promised to Abraham and his descendants.
Yesterday the Church celebrated the conception of the Theotokos by St. Anna.  She had been stooped over by her inability to conceive a child, which was an especially deep wound for daughters of Abraham through whom God’s promises of blessing were to be fulfilled from generation to generation. But the Lord heard Joachim and Anna’s prayers and gave this elderly, faithful couple a daughter through whom the Savior would be born.  By loosing Anna from barrenness, God blessed her in a way that ultimately extended the promises to Abraham to the entire world.  For now all who have faith in Christ are rightful heirs to their fulfillment.     
In these weeks of the Nativity Fast, we prepare to celebrate the loosing of all people, and of the entire creation, from being stooped over and corrupted by the power sin.  Left to our own abilities, we will remain bound to our infirmities of body, soul, and spirit.  We will be unable to straighten ourselves up, much less to conquer death.  We will be unable to heal our own distorted natures.  The glorious good news of this season is that the Son of God has made our healing possible by becoming one of us, uniting humanity and divinity in His own Person.  Because of the Incarnation of the God-Man, we are all set free to become spiritually fruitful by the power of His grace. We are all loosed from our barrenness.
If we have any spiritual insight at all, we will see that embracing that healing is no small or easy undertaking.  Too often, we become like the ruler of the synagogue who hypocritically interpreted the rules in a way that ignored the profound importance of healing a beloved daughter of Abraham.   We settle for that in our own lives when we think that any tendency, weakness, or habit is so powerful that Christ cannot set us free from slavery to it.  Regardless of how powerfully we are tempted, no power in heaven or earth can make us sin unless we choose to do so.  As we prepare to welcome Christ at His Nativity, we must remember that He became a human being in order to unite us to Himself in holiness.  So in order truly to celebrate Christmas, we must be in the process of being loosed from the paralyzing power of sin in our lives.  We must be growing in our ability to live faithfully as sons and daughters of Abraham who are not defined by our present weaknesses and infirmities, but by the healing mercy of our Savior.   We must be on the road to victory over spiritual barrenness as we welcome the Messiah more fully into our lives and play our unique roles in the salvation of the world.  
Of course, doing so requires constant vigilance against temptation.  It requires putting on “the whole armor of God” through the sacramental life of the Church as we devote ourselves to prayer, repentance, fasting, almsgiving, forgiveness, and keeping a close watch on our thoughts, words, and deeds.  Otherwise, there will be areas of our life where we are unprotected and weak against the forces of corruption, especially those that have taken root in our own souls and operate with such subtlety that we hardly even notice them.  If we settle for just enough religion to make us socially respectable or feel better about ourselves, we will simply go through a few motions as we let down our guard and become further weakened in our ability to resist gratifying our self-centered desires. We will then become even more stooped over by corruption and blind to the many ways in which we do not see our suffering neighbors as every bit as much the unique children of God as we are.  Weakness leads to more weakness, and will make us even less fertile in welcoming the Savior into our lives and world.
In the remaining weeks of Advent, let us do all that we can to cooperate with our Lord’s gracious will to loose us from the spiritual barrenness that holds us back from being united with Him in holiness.  Let us “put on the whole armor of God” so that we will not settle for some watered-down view of religion that totally misses the point of why Christ was born.  Let us accept the blessing that is ours as daughters and sons of Abraham through faith in Him.  Surely, there is no better way to prepare ourselves to welcome the Savior at Christmas.    

Sunday, December 3, 2017

His Light Illumines our Darkness as We Prepare for Christmas: Homily for the 26th Sunday After Pentecost and the 14th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Ephesians 5:8-19; Luke 18:35-43

It is not hard to find darkness in our world or in our own souls.  Sometimes we may feel as blind as the beggar in today’s gospel reading.  He knew all about darkness and was reduced to sitting by the side of the road and living on whatever people gave him.   His blindness defined his identity and shaped every aspect of his life.  We know his name as Bartimaeus from the parallel account in Mark 10:46-52.

            Somehow, however, this unfortunate man had not given up hope entirely, for he cried out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” when he heard that Christ was passing by.  Others told him to be quiet, perhaps because they thought his situation was hopeless and did not want the Lord to be distracted from more important things.  But he responded by calling out even more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”   Christ heard his pleas and asked what must have seemed like an obvious question, “What do you want me to do for you?”  The man said “Lord, let me receive my sight.”  Then the Savior enabled him to see, saying “your faith has made you well.”  So Bartimaeus followed Him and gave thanks to God.

            As we continue preparing during the Nativity Fast to celebrate our Lord’s birth at Christmas, we all have a lot to learn from this persistent and humble blind beggar.  Because of our sins and passions, the eyes of our souls are not fully clear and receptive to the brilliant light of the glory of God.  In other words, the darkness that we have welcomed into our souls profoundly weakens our ability to unite ourselves to Christ in holiness.  Try as we might, we cannot triumph over the corrupting force of our own spiritual blindness simply by our own resolve.  We need the healing mercy of the Lord to open the eyes of our souls to His light.  We need His grace in order to know and experience Him from the depths of our souls.  In this sense, we are all blind beggars before Him.

            Bartimaeus called out to the Savior as the Jewish Messiah by saying “Son of David, have mercy on me!”  And he refused to shut his mouth when others told him to; indeed, he cried out all the more.  His example shows that the path to salvation requires falling before the Lord in humility, acknowledging our inability to heal ourselves as we ask for mercy that we do not deserve or control. We must do so persistently, refusing to become discouraged or to give up when we do not immediately get what we want or when our own thoughts and other people tell us we are simply wasting our time.  That is when we must devote ourselves even more to the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”   That is when we must use the awareness of our brokenness, weakness, and pain to open our hearts to Christ even more in humility.

            Through such struggles, we will gain insight on the state of our souls.  We will see the darkness within us a bit more clearly.  Our usual delusions and distractions will become less vivid as we begin to see the contrast between our own wounds and weaknesses and the healing to which Christ calls us.  That is how we will gain the spiritual clarity to answer His question “What do you want me to do for you?” in a way not driven by the self-centered desire simply to get what we want on our own terms.  That is how we will learn to resist the idolatrous temptation to use God or religion to achieve worldly goals. For the point of regaining our sight is ultimately to come to know and experience the Lord more fully from the depths of our souls by His grace as we grow in holiness.  As those created in the divine image and likeness, nothing else will ever truly satisfy us.   

            As St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians, doing so requires constant dedication and vigilance in our world of darkness.  Tragically, we all allow its corruptions to take root in our souls in one way or another by taking “part in the unfruitful works of darkness,” instead of recognizing them for what they are and turning away from them.  It is so appealing to make false gods out of money, possessions, pleasure, people, and thinking that our will must always be done.  It is so easy to hate and condemn our enemies, to place our trust in worldly kingdoms of whatever kind, and to become blind to Christ’s presence in those who need our help. It is so hard to turn the other cheek when insulted, to go the extra mile when put upon, and to stay on guard against the temptations that attack us so strongly in our weakest spots.

            Both the trends of our culture and our own passions encourage us simply to welcome the darkness into our souls. Why not simply shut our eyes to the light and give in?  Why not simply surrender to whatever desires or thoughts we have?  Why not accept that that is simply who we are?  Of course, those were the same temptations that St. Paul opposed in Ephesus, by saying “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead and Christ shall give you light.”  He tells us to wake up because, regardless of the particulars, what seems like a pleasant nap in the bed of sin is actually the path to the grave, for death is the wages of sin.  What is at stake is not simply a matter of taking it easy and pleasing ourselves, but of turning away from the light of Christ as we choose the darkness of the tomb over the brilliant light of the Kingdom of Heaven. 

            We must stay focused on the truth of our situation; namely, that the only alternative to never-ending darkness is to follow the path of the blind beggar who persistently and humbly called out for the Lord’s mercy.  Because of his faith, Bartimaeus received his sight.  He did not do the easy thing of accepting his blindness or listening to those who told him to be quiet.  No, he pressed forward in doing all that he could to open his darkened eyes to the light.  That is precisely what we must do every day of our lives, and especially in this Nativity Fast as we prepare ourselves to receive Christ at His birth. For to welcome Him anew into our lives, we must have eyes cleansed of the darkness of sin and able to behold, to the extent that we are able, His divine glory as He becomes one of us for our salvation.  He is born to restore the sight of all of us who have fallen into blindness and become slaves to darkness because of our sins.  The only fitting way to celebrate Christmas is to know and experience Him more fully from the depths of our souls as we grow in holiness.  Otherwise, we will miss the point of the season entirely.

By God’s grace, we will have such a Christmas if, during the weeks of Advent, we refuse to be lulled to sleep by indulgence in our passions and instead follow St. Paul’s guidance to be “filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart.”  In other words, we must devote ourselves to prayer on a daily basis and keep the words of the Jesus Prayer on our lips and in our hearts.  We must refuse to accept or dwell on thoughts that we know will only blind us to the light, and instead fill our minds with holy things as we open our hearts to God. We must speak and act “as children of light” even when we are sorely tempted to gratify our familiar self-centered desires. We must shut our eyes and ears to entertainment and media that inflame our passions and wed us more closely to the darkness. That obviously includes pornography, but also extends to obsessive watching of the news, athletics, or anything else that fuels anger, hatred, anxiety, or other unhealthy attachments.
            When we stumble and fall back into the darkness, we must cry out all the more like Bartimaeus for the Lord’s mercy as we open ourselves to His light as best we can.  Through our struggles, we will know our dependence upon His healing mercy even more.  We will also find that the only thing we truly want from Him is the restoration of our sight, the cleansing of the eyes of our souls.  We want to know and experience Him as we share more fully in His blessed eternal life. The Savior is born at Christmas to make us radiant with the divine glory as He illumines the darkness of the world and of our souls.  Now is the time to wake up and prepare our hearts for Him.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Getting Ready for the Birth of a Merciful Savior, Not of Self-Righteous Legalism: Homily for the 25th Sunday After Pentecost and the 13th Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Ephesians 4:1-7; Luke 18:18-27

In one way or another, many of us are tempted at times to reduce the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ to a list of rules to be obeyed simply by our own willpower.  When we think that we live up to them, we pat ourselves on the back for being good people who have supposedly earned God’s favor.  When we think that others do not live up to them, we feel justified in looking down upon them for apparently not being as righteous as we are.  Of course, no matter how appealing such an approach to religion may be, it has nothing to do with the Savior born at Christmas. Indeed, it is a complete rejection of why the Word became flesh.
The rich young ruler in today’s gospel lesson approached the Savior simply as a rabbi, a teacher of the Jewish law.  He thought that he had always obeyed God’s commandments and wanted to know if there was anything else he should do in order to be sure of eternal life. That is when Christ gave the young man a commandment which He knew he lacked the spiritual strength to obey:  “One thing you still lack.  Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”  Because the man was enslaved to loving his wealth, he was very sad to hear these words.  When the disciples were astonished at the Lord’s teaching that it is so hard for the wealthy to enter the Kingdom of God, He assured them that “What is impossible with men is possible with God.”
Through this conversation, the Lord challenged the rich man’s assumption that he had met God’s requirements as though they were a simple checklist of right and wrong behaviors.  That is how He helped the fellow confront the superficiality of thinking that he could become worthy of eternal life by simply following the rules. The man surely had not mastered Christ’s interpretation of the Old Testament law in the Sermon on the Mount, in which He taught that those who are guilty of anger and insult are guilty of murder and that those guilty of lust are guilty of adultery.  Christ called His disciples to be perfect as the Father in heaven is perfect. By that standard, this young man obviously needed his eyes opened to the truth of where he stood before God, Who calls us to a holiness that transcends what humans may achieve by seeking to obey laws to the best of their ability.  The Savior did that by giving him a commandment that he lacked the strength to obey due to his love of money.
Like the rest of us, the rich young ruler was not able to conquer the corrupting power of sin in his life by simply trying to follow a set of instructions through his own willpower.  Through His Incarnation as the God-Man, Christ makes it possible for us to share in His fulfillment of our calling to become like God in holiness.  The Savior has done what no mere teacher of the law could ever do by uniting humanity with God for our salvation.  He became fully one of us in order to triumph over death, the wages of sin, and make us partakers of the divine nature by grace. 
Those who distort the faith into a simple moralism of obeying laws inevitably have a very superficial understanding of what it means for human beings to share personally in the holiness of God.  They are at great risk of falling into the spiritual blindness of hypocritical self-righteousness in which they interpret religious or moral laws in a way that makes it easy on themselves and very hard on others in a way similar to the Pharisees who rejected Christ.   Slavery to pride, anger, and other passions are the inevitable results of such perversions of the gospel.  In contrast, St. Paul called the Christians of Ephesus “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”  Because “grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift,” we must each embrace the humility of those who know that they are recipients of great mercy.  We obviously must cooperate with God’s grace as we struggle to live faithfully, but we never earn or merit salvation simply on the basis of our accomplishments. 
It would be tragic if we limited the relevance of Christ’s conversation with the rich young ruler only to the world’s billionaires, as that would let the rest of us off the hook.  So leaving the question of great wealth aside, we should ask ourselves when we are most tempted to despair of salvation.  What commandment of Christ opens our eyes to our spiritual weakness, to our attachment to our self-centered desires? What in our lives makes it clear that, without God’s gracious help, we will shut ourselves out of His Kingdom?  How are we falling short of leading a life worthy of our high calling?  
A great deal is at stake in how seriously we consider these questions.  For if we think that we are already righteous because we assume we obey the commandments or live moral lives, we would probably be better off not celebrating the Nativity at all. For in such a state of mind, we would have no idea Who the Child in the manger really is or why He was born.  Contrary to the implicit assumptions of self-righteous legalists, He does not come to reward or congratulate us for earning eternal life by our own willpower, but instead to heal the sick, restore sight to the blind, raise the dead, and call sinners to repentance.  Only if we gain the spiritual clarity necessary to see ourselves as those most profoundly weakened and corrupted by the ravages of sin will we be able to enter into the great joy of Christmas.  Only if we know in our hearts that we will never earn admission to the Kingdom of God by our own merits will we be prepared to receive Him more fully into our lives at the feast of His Incarnation.  For if we are blind to our own need for a Savior to bring us into His eternal life by grace, we will not have the eyes to behold the glory of the Word become flesh. 
Thanks be to God, the blessed weeks of the Nativity Fast provide an opportunity to open our souls to the truth of why we need the One born at Christmas, the God-Man Who unites divinity and humanity in Himself.  The spiritual disciplines of these weeks help us greatly in this regard.  When we devote more time and energy to prayer, we learn that our minds wander and everything else often seems more important than opening our hearts to the Lord.  When we set out to fast, we easily become obsessed with food, thinking more about excuses, exceptions, and loopholes than about humbly reorienting our hearts toward the Lord as we restrain our self-indulgence. When we give even small amounts of our resources and attention to the needy, we usually learn how selfish we are with our love of our possessions and our time.  No, we are not anywhere near as holy as we may like to think.  When we prepare conscientiously to confess and repent of our sins during Advent, it will become clear to us why we need the God-Man for our healing, not simply a teacher to give us more laws that we inevitably fall well short of obeying.
Our great hope, of course, is not in our ability to do anything by our own power, but instead in the mercy of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ, Who lowered Himself beyond our comprehension to become not only a human being, but One born in profoundly scandalous, humble, and dangerous circumstances.  His infinite humility calls us to receive Him with lowliness and meekness, knowing that the measure of our lives is not in what we call our accomplishments, but in our openness to the healing of our merciful Lord Who stops at nothing in order to bring us into eternal life.  What is impossible with human beings really is possible with the One Who was born, Who died, and Who rose again in glory for our salvation.  He brings hope for healing to us all, which is why He was born at Christmas.