Saturday, December 28, 2013
Wednesday, December 25, 2013
Epistle to the Galatians 4:4-7
The Gospel According to St. Matthew 2:1-12
Christ is Born! Glorify Him!
The glorious feast of Christmas is finally here, and what a wonderful and miraculous blessing it is. For the Eternal Word of God has become a human being, a helpless babe laid in a manger. Angels sing in His honor. The lowly shepherds and the foreign wise men worship Him. A young virgin becomes a mother, not simply of a Son, but of the Son of God. And kings tremble, for this baby brings to earth a Kingdom not of this world.
The good news is that Jesus Christ is born this day, not to judge or to destroy us, but to save and bless us. He is the Second Adam in Whom the corruption of the first Adam is healed. By becoming one of us, He brings us into the life of God. We are made holy, we are fulfilled, we are raised to life eternal in Him.
Our Lord brings His great joy to the world humbly and peaceably. He does not arrive in the earthly splendor of a king, with the military power of a conquering general, or in the material comfort of the rich. Instead, He takes the lowest, most vulnerable place for Himself: born in a cave used as a barn to a family that lived under the oppression of the Roman Empire and the cruelty of Herod. Soon Joseph would take the Virgin Mary and the young Jesus to Egypt by night, fleeing for their lives from a wicked, murderous king. What a difficult, lowly way to come into a dark and dangerous world.
But when we pause to consider the glory of our Lord’s Incarnation, we shouldn’t be surprised at all. For what does it mean for the Immortal One to put on mortality? What does it mean for the One Who spoke the world into existence to become part of that creation? What does it mean for the King of the universe to become subject to the kings of the world? Let’s be clear: it means humility and selfless, suffering love that are beyond what we can understand. For our Lord, God, and Savior is not a rational concept to be defined, but a Person whose life we are to share. And so that we could share in His life, He entered into ours, sanctifying every bit of the human experience, every bit of our life, literally from the womb to the tomb that could not contain Him.
The wise men and the shepherds show us how to respond to the unbelievably good news that God has become a human being: they worship Him. Let us follow their example this Christmas season by worshiping Him with our lives, by opening ourselves to the glorious transformation that the Incarnate Son of God has brought to us. For Christ is born, and the peace and joy of God’s kingdom are ours even as we live and breathe in this world. Christ is born, and we encounter Him in every human being, especially the poor, needy, weak, and outcast. Christ is born, and we are made participants in the eternal life for which we were created.
Yes, this wonderful news really is true. And the only limits on the blessing of Christmas are those that we place on ourselves. For the One Who comes as a humble, meek, peaceable baby in a manger never forces us or anyone else. He is the Mystery of Love made flesh for our salvation.
This Christmas, let us be like Mary the Theotokos who received Him with joy, like the elder Joseph His steadfast protector, and like the strange combination of shepherds and Persian astrologers who first worshiped Him. Let us welcome Him into our life, for He has already brought us into His.
Christ is Born! Glorify Him!
Saturday, December 14, 2013
Advent is a Time to Accept the Invitation to the God's Great Banquet in Jesus Christ: Homily for the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers in the Orthodox Church
Today is the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers, when we commemorate all those in the Old Testament who foretold or prefigured the coming of Christ, from our first father Adam to the Most Holy Theotokos and Ever-Virgin Mary. We remember today that the Incarnation of our Lord did not simply occur one day out of the blue, but was the fulfillment of God’s eternal plan to bring humanity into His divine life. No one was forced, of course, to prepare for our Lord’s coming. Today we honor those who responded in freedom to God’s calling, who accepted His invitation to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah. And in this season of Advent, we want to be like them, which is sometimes a struggle. For we all face powerful temptations to excuse ourselves from the blessing and joy of the Kingdom.
Today’s gospel text reminds us of what is at stake. For when a great man invited people to a great feast, they all had better things to do. They turned down the invitation because they had land to inspect, oxen to test, or family responsibilities. So their places at the banquet were taken by the most unlikely of party guests: the poor, the maimed, the blind, and the lame. Strangers from the highways and hedges came to the celebration, but none of those who were originally invited tasted of the supper.
The Lord often used the image of a great feast for the Kingdom of God. This parable reminds us that many of Jesus Christ’s own people, the Jews, refused to accept Him as the Messiah, refused to accept His salvation, while many of the Gentiles—the mostly unlikely people—did accept Him. But we would miss the meaning of this passage for us if we think that it refers simply to what happened long ago to other people. For we too have been invited to the Heavenly Banquet, to the life of the Kingdom of God. And unlike the people of the Old Testament, we have more than the Law and the Prophets to foreshadow the coming of Christ. We have Him, living in our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit; nourishing our souls with His Body and Blood; we are members of His Body, the Church; He is the Bridegroom and we are the Bride. The Incarnation has already occurred. Christ has united our fallen, corrupt humanity to divinity. He has brought us into the life of the Holy Trinity. We could not ask for more.
But unfortunately, we often act like those who refused to attend the great banquet in today’s gospel lesson. That is, we get so fixated on the cares and worries of daily life that we become blind to the great blessing and glory to which our Lord invites us. The problem is that we make false gods of our possessions, work, family, relationships, and other cares. Instead, of seeing that these good things have their proper and healthy place only when we offer them to the Lord—and that they all provide opportunities to grow in holiness, we tend to choose them instead of God.
So we would rather worry than pray; we would rather obsess about our problems and fears than serve our neighbors, forgive those who have offended us, and find healing for the damage that our sins have done in our own lives. Instead of making our life a Eucharist, instead of offering every bit of who we are to the Lord for blessing and fulfillment, we try to live on our own terms. And when we do, we turn away from the greatest blessing of all, from participation in the eternal life of our Lord and His Kingdom. And consequently we shut ourselves out of the great banquet of God and turn away from the unspeakable glory that is ours in Christ Jesus.
The problem is not with our possessions themselves, or our work, or marriage and family life. These are all blessings from the Lord; no, the problem is with us. As we never tire of saying in the Orthodox Church, we have disordered desires and broken relationships that make it so easy for us to make false gods of other people, of our daily responsibilities, our hopes and dreams in life, and just about everything else. Envy, pride, anger, lust, greed, and other passions tempt us mightily to believe that satisfying our self-centered desires really is more important than loving and serving God and neighbor. And if we are not careful, these temptations will lead us to become like the people in the gospel lesson who really believed that they had better things to do than to share in the great joy of the Lord’s banquet.
Christmas, of course, is a banquet, a great feast. It is a celebration of our salvation in the God-Man Jesus Christ, the Eternal Son of God Who became a human being in order to unite our fallen, corrupt humanity with divinity, to bring us from mortality to immortality. No matter how the Nativity Fast has gone for us so far, we all have a choice whether we will use the ten days to prepare to enter more fully into the blessed truth and reality of the Incarnation. And it’s clear what we need to do: to confess our sins and repent, as we do in the Sacrament of Confession that we should all take during Advent; to be generous to the needy and kind to the lonely; to fast in a way appropriate to our spiritual strength and life circumstances; to pray, to open our hearts, souls, and minds to God deliberately and regularly in prayer; to be mindful, refusing to dwell on unhealthy thoughts or to act in ways that do not show the love of Christ; and to say the Jesus Prayer as often as we can, especially when our minds are inclined toward something that we know is not pleasing to the Lord.
No, these spiritual disciplines won’t make us saints overnight and we won’t do them perfectly. But that’s not really the point. Instead, these disciplines are our way of accepting the invitation of our Lord to the banquet of His Kingdom, of offering our cares, worries, and relationships for blessing and fulfillment. They are how we fight our passions, resist our temptations, and do what we can to prepare to receive Him at Christmas. They are what Advent is all about.
We have less than two weeks left before Christmas. We could say that the shepherds, wise men, and angels are on their way to Bethlehem. We should be on our way also. The preparation for the feast will soon begin. Will we be ready? Will we accept the invitation to the feast? I certainly hope so. For we stand at the end of a very long line that goes back to Adam, the first-created; that extends through Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Ruth, David, Bathsheeba; Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel; that includes Joachim, Anna, and the Theotokos.
The good news of Christmas is that in Christ Jesus, the fulfillment of all God’s promises are extended to people like us, who are blinded and sickened with sin, who suffer from the pain, weakness, and corruption of life in the world as we know it, and who are not yet perfect. In the Babe of Bethlehem, even people like you and me are invited to take our place with the Holy Forefathers and Foremothers of Christ in the heavenly banquet and to become participants in the Divine Glory.
Now is the time to get ready for His coming, to put aside our excuses, to set right what has gone wrong in our lives, and to prepare to receive Him with the fear of God and faith and love at the great feast of Christmas. Unfortunately, some did not recognize Him at the first Christmas. King Herod tried to kill him, and so many who should have known better rejected the Lord during His earthly ministry, even crucifying Him as a blasphemer and a traitor. Yes, some really did turn down their invitations to the blessedness of the Kingdom, preferring political and religious power to Christ’s salvation.
Nothing that we do will probably be so dramatic, but the same thing is at stake: Will we make our marriages, our finances, our work, our friendships, and our life plans points of entry into the joy of the Lord? Will we accept our Savior’s invitation not to be distracted from receiving the eternal life that He has brought to the world? Our response will be shown by what we do with the last next ten days of Advent.
Saturday, December 7, 2013
Jesus Christ is our Peace and Liberation from Captivity in All Its Forms: Homily for the 24th Sunday After Pentecost in the Orthodox Church
Luke 13: 10-17
Even as we hear the words of St. Paul in today’s epistle reading that Christ is our peace, we are reminded yet again by the conflict in Syria that our world desperately needs the Prince of Peace Whose birth we will celebrate in a just a few weeks. We have prayed for months for the release of the kidnapped Metropolitan Paul and Archbishop John, but this week we have added to the list Mother Pelagia and the nuns and orphans of St. Thekla Convent in Maaloula. They too have apparently been abducted. Following the directive of our own Metropolitan Philip, we are now praying for them all in every service, and I ask you also to remember them in your daily prayers for safety and freedom.
Even though they live far away and we do not know them personally, these bishops, nuns, and orphans are not strangers to us, but fellow members of the Body of which we are a part. We are one with them in the Flesh and Blood of Jesus Christ. As St. Paul taught, the Lord has united both Jew and Gentile in His one Body, the Church. People from all over the world are no longer strangers and foreigners to one another, but “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” No matter what language we speak or our national or ethnic heritage, we all “have access by one Spirit to the Father.”
Our Savior came to bring us true peace, the fullness of reconciliation with God and one another. His peace is manifest when we share a common life as “a holy temple in the Lord…a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” Of course, we are pleased when wars cease and enemies learn to live together without open violence and hatred. But Christ came not simply to make our life on earth a bit more tolerable, but to loose us from the bondage and corruption that our sins, and those of all humanity, have brought about. That is why He was born at Christmas.
As the Lord 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 how she felt, how limiting and frustrating that illness had to be. He said to her, “Woman, you are loosed from your infirmity.” Then He laid hands on her and she was healed, was able to stand up straight again, and she glorified God.
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—think of it—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.
We see in this gospel text a beautiful image of what the Son of God 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. We see it so clearly in the captivity of our brothers and sisters in Syria, but it is evident also in our own lives in different ways. For we live in a world of corruption, 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 crime and terrorism; disease, addictions, and other infirmities; cycles of violence, abuse, poverty, 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.
Of course, we all have diseases of soul, of personality, of behavior, and of relationships that cripple us, that keep us from acting, thinking, and speaking as “fellow citizens of the saints and members of the household 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. Tomorrow is the feast of St. Anna’s conception of the Theotokos which we celebrate as a foreshadowing of the coming of the Lord to set us free from the infirmities that hold us captive and hinder our participation even now in the life of the Kingdom.
The entire 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, but to fulfill our original calling to be in the image and likeness of God; and, yes, that means to share in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity as distinct, unique persons. God breaks the laws of nature in order to do so, enabling elderly women to conceive and bear children and a young virgin to become the mother of His Son Who Himself rises from the dead. Yes, this is a story of liberation, of breaking bonds, and of transcending the brokenness and limitations of life in the world in the world as know it.
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 to be defined by barrenness. Instead, He gave her back her true identity as a beloved person, a daughter of Abraham. He 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 slavery in all its forms, including the decay, corruption, and weakness that distort us all. He comes so that we are no longer defined by our divisions from one another and can leave our bondage behind. He comes to restore us as living icons who manifest Christ’s glory and salvation in unique, personal ways. Have you ever noticed that icons portray people as distinctive persons, that the personality and character of the Theotokos or St. John the Baptist or St. Luke shines through their icons?
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 beings is to grow in the likeness of God, we become more truly and freely ourselves—as distinct, unique persons-- whenever we turn away from slavery to sin and passion in order to embrace more fully the new life that Christ brings to the world.
As we continue to prepare for Christmas by prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and repentance, we should remember that these spiritual disciplines are ways of participating personally in our Savior’s healing of our sick and weakened humanity. We should welcome the deliverance that He brings into our lives. And even as we do that, let us remember the kidnapped bishops, nuns, and orphans of Syria in our prayers. His peace is for them every bit as much as it is for us. For together with them, we are by God’s grace “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”