Friday, December 26, 2014

The Shocking Humility of Christ's Birth: Homily for Christmas in the Orthodox Church

Christ is Born!  Glorify Him!
          The glorious feast of Christmas is finally here, and what a mysterious blessing it is.  For the Eternal Word of God becomes a human being--as helpless a babe as was ever born—with a manger for His crib. 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 of Christmas 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 diseased decay 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, not unlike how refugee children are born in parts of the Middle East, Africa, and other war-torn regions to this very day.
          But when we pause to consider the glory of our Lord’s Incarnation, we should not 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?  It means humility and selfless, suffering love beyond our understanding.  For our Lord, God, and Savior is not a rational concept to be defined, but a Person Who shares His life with us.   So that we could enter into His life, He entered into ours, sanctifying every bit of what it means to be a human being,  literally from the womb to the tomb that could not contain Him.
          The wise men 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 worshipping Him as we open ourselves to the glorious transformation that the Incarnate Son of God brings.  For Christ is born, and the peace and joy of God’s kingdom are ours even as we live and breathe in the world as we know it.  Christ is born, and we encounter Him in every human being, especially the poor, needy, and outcast.  Christ is born, and we participate in the eternal life for which we were created in God’s image and likeness. 
          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.  If we accept Him, we must become participants in the deified humanity that the God-Man Jesus Christ has brought to the world.  We must live in this world in ways that reflect the deep truth of the Incarnation.  We must become living icons of the good news of this season.   
          So this Christmas, let us be like Mary the Theotokos who received Him with joy, like the elder Joseph His steadfast protector, and like that strange combination of lowly shepherds and Persian astrologers who first worshipped Him.  Let us welcome Him into our life and live accordingly, for now nothing but our own refusal can separate us from His love.  That, my brothers and sisters, is the good news of Christmas.       

Christ is Born!  Glorify Him!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Scandals in the Family Tree: Homily for the Sunday Before the Nativity of Christ in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 11:9-10, 32-40; St. Matthew 1:1-25
              During the season of Christmas, many of us will see family members whom we may not visit often.  I hope that most of us truly enjoy our family celebrations, but unfortunately they can be difficult for many people because of strained relationships, old resentments, and the fact that no one is perfect, including those to whom we are related by birth or marriage. In the world as we know it, family can be a struggle.   
            Our gospel reading today does not shy away from such difficulties, even in the genealogy of Jesus Christ, Who had the right heritage to be the Messiah, the anointed One in Whom all God’s promises to Abraham are fulfilled for the entire world.  What family would not be strained by remembrance of scandalous stories involving figures such as Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, Gentile women who were disreputable in one way or another, precisely the sort of women Jewish men were told time and again not to bring into the family.  For example, Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and bore twins by her father-in-law.  Rahab actually was a prostitute.  King David committed adultery with Bathsheba and then murdered her husband.   Ruth was King David’s great-grandmother and a Moabite woman.  The Old Testament is full of warnings to Jewish men against marrying Gentile women like Ruth.  Just think for a moment how amazing it is that St. Matthew began his gospel by reminding us of these embarrassing stories. Their presence in the genealogy is a sign that God worked through generations of families not unlike our own to bring salvation to the world.  They are a reminder that His blessings are not only for the proper and upstanding with perfect reputations, but for everyone with faith in the Lord, no matter their memorable failings or roles in embarrassing situations that we would rather forget.  Through this shockingly honest family tree, St. Matthew prepares us for the unique Messiah we encounter in Jesus Christ Who came to save sinners, to heal the sick, to exalt the humble, and make those who are dead last in the eyes of the world the very first in the Kingdom of God. 
            This family tree does not stop with unlikely characters from the Old Testament, for it culminates in the shocking and unconventional event of the Most Holy Theotokos’s conception of Christ.  That is the kind of news that would shake up any family even today.  When we remember that this is the story of the union in Jesus Christ of God and humanity for the salvation of the world, the story becomes even more shocking.  For we like to think that God’s ways are like our ways, that He favors those who are living the dream, who appear healthy, wealthy, and wise by our culture’s standards.  But when we do so, we simply make God in our own image and ultimately let ourselves off the hook as though holiness were not really for us because our lives are not perfect in every way. We forget, however, that many of the Saints we know best were once outrageous sinners, and that even those who were not faced difficult struggles that were embarrassing, unconventional, or inconvenient. Just think of the suspicions people had about the Theotokos and St. Joseph the Betrothed.   
Though not many people noticed it at the time, God’s promises in the Old Testament extended to all who believed, including Gentiles and sinners. Think for a moment of all the sufferings and struggles of the righteous people of the Hebrews. As our epistle reading states, “And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”  As astounding as it sounds, the promises to them awaited their fulfillment until the coming of Christ in Whom we may all become part of this family tree.  
For Jews and Gentiles, for the upright and the scandalous alike, He is the vine and we are the branches.  True, we are all unworthy and unlikely members of such a family.  Like those who prepared for the coming of Christ and have served Him since, we are also sinners whose lives in many ways fall short and wide of the mark. Perhaps that is why the Son of God chose a human heritage full of imperfect people who often stumbled themselves;  perhaps that is why He was born in circumstances that at least outwardly commanded the respect of no one.
Yes, the good news that we will celebrate at Christmas is that there is hope for us all in Him.  And if we want to have hope in Christ for ourselves, then we must also not give up hope for other people.  Whether family members, friends, coworkers, or whoever, our Savior calls everyone to become part of the current generation of this blessed family tree.  Perhaps there are those we think are just too broken, who have made such messes of their lives that they appear as better candidates for condemnation than for salvation.  When we start thinking that way about particular people, we should immediately turn our thoughts to the humble repentance of the Jesus Prayer, for not one of us deserves a place in the Kingdom on the basis of our accomplishments.  The Lord’s human ancestors include notorious sinners; tax-collectors and prostitutes were among His first followers; St. Peter denied Him three times; and St. Paul had been a persecutor of Christians.  If His healing mercy extended even to them and if we want that same grace for ourselves, we simply cannot write anyone off as a hopeless case.  Much less are we ever justified in speaking or acting in self-righteous, judgmental ways toward anyone.  
Of course, there are broken and severely strained relationships that we do not have the power to heal.  But to the extent that it depends on us, we are to be at peace with everyone.  That may mean keeping our mouths shut when we would like to remind someone of their failings or otherwise to criticize them or to slander them behind their back.  It may mean small gestures to let others know that, despite a painful history, we do not judge or abandon them.  It may mean simply praying in silence for God’s mercy on those who have lost their way and for strength to treat others as we would like to be treated.  We must show others the same mercy that we have received as undeserving members of His most blessed family. Above all, we must remember that God knows people’s hearts—including our own—in ways that we do not.  Christ was born to save sinners, not to condemn them.        

So as we conclude our preparation for Christmas, let us fast not only from rich food and drink, but also from words, thoughts, and deeds that would discourage anyone from finding their place in the ongoing story of Christ’s salvation.  Let us ask for forgiveness of those whom we have offended and otherwise take the steps that we can to bring health to strained relationships.  Let us refuse to see other people with eyes blinded by our own passions or the conventional standards of our society.  Who knows whether God will make great saints out of some whose lives are scandalous?  It should not surprise us if He does, of course, for Christ’s family tree included many such people.  His birth continues to be good news for them, for you and me, and for all who so desperately need the healing and transformation that the Savior was born to bring.      

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

It is Time to Get Ready for Christmas: 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 plan to bring humanity into His divine life, which took many generations to fulfill.  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 the Nativity Fast, we want to be like them.  For we all face powerful temptations to pay more attention to worldly cares than to welcoming Christ into our lives.  
            Today’s gospel text reminds us of what is at stake.  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.  In other words, they did not want to attend and made excuses out of their everyday obligations. 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 the religious leaders of Jesus Christ’s own people refused to accept Him as the Messiah, while many disreputable people—such as tax collectors and others of low standing, including even Gentiles—did accept Him.   But we would miss the meaning of this passage if we think that it refers simply to what happened long ago to other people.  Just as they were, we too have been invited to the Heavenly Banquet, to the life of the Kingdom of God.  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 in the Eucharist; we are members of His Body, the Church; He is the Bridegroom and we are the Bride.  He has brought us into the life of the Holy Trinity by grace.  We could not ask for more.  
            But unfortunately, we often act just like those who refused to attend the great banquet in today’s gospel lesson because we use our daily habits and concerns as excuses not to accept the great blessing and glory to which our Lord invites us.  We do so because we make false gods out of just about all the blessings God has given us.  Instead, of seeing that our work, family, health, friendships, and even our recreation and pastimes have their proper place only when we offer them to the Lord, we so often choose them instead of God.
            So we worry instead of pray; we would rather obsess about our problems and indulge our desires than serve our neighbors, forgive those who have offended us, and find healing for the damage that we have done to our own souls. Instead of making our life a Eucharist and offering of 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 and turn away from the unspeakable glory that is ours in Christ Jesus.   
            St. Paul reminded the Colossians to put their sins to death, for they are all forms of the idolatry that have brought corruption and misery into our lives. Everything from anger and slander to sexual immorality and covetousness are symptoms of the “old nature” that Christ came to heal for all humanity.  Yes, we really are all invited and enabled to turn away from those corruptions and to have our lives put in order by the Second Adam.  
            The problem, of course, is that we are good at excusing ourselves from accepting the invitation.   We tend to prefer the corruption and decay, the way of the first Adam, the old man, over that of the Second Adam, the new and true man, Jesus Christ. The problem is not with the good things of life that draw our attention, it is with us.  We make false gods of our families and friends, our possessions, our daily responsibilities, and just about everything else in life.  Pride, anger, lust, greed, and other passions tempt us mightily to believe that satisfying our desires is more important than loving and serving God and neighbor.  We do not even have to appear overly sinful in order for this to happen, as it is easy simply to define ourselves by what we like to do each day, the problems that we face, and what we think is necessary for a good life.  If we are not careful, these ways of thinking will become temptations that 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 seriously we have taken the Nativity Fast so far, we all have a choice whether we will use the next ten days to prepare to enter more fully into the blessed truth and reality of this feast.  And it is 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 with our resources and attention; to fast in a way appropriate to our spiritual strength and life circumstances; to open our hearts, souls, and minds to God deliberately and regularly in prayer; and to be mindful, keeping a watch over our words, thoughts, and deeds.
            As those who practice them know, these spiritual disciplines will not make us saints overnight and none of us does them perfectly.  Fortunately, that is not really the point.  Instead, these disciplines are our way of accepting the invitation of the Lord to the banquet of His Kingdom, of putting Him first before the routines and worries of life.  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.
            Christmas will be here soon.  Regardless of whether your tree and lights are up or how much shopping you have left to do, the most important part of the preparation is spiritual.  Will we be ready to welcome Christ into our lives at His birth?  Will we be ready to 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 poor, blind, and lame with sin, who suffer from the pain, weakness, and corruption of life in the world as we know it, and who certainly are not yet perfect.  The good news is that, in the Babe of Bethlehem, even unlikely 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 shine with the light of heaven, with the Divine Glory.                Now is the time to stop making excuses and get ready for His coming, to get our lives in order for the feast, and to prepare to receive Him with the fear of God and faith and love.   

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Prayer is the First Step in Bearing Fruit for the Kingdom: Homily for the Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost & Tenth Sunday of Luke in the Orthodox Church

Ephesians 5:8-19
St. Luke 13:10-17

            Many people today think of religion as a matter of feeling or emotion that simply helps them cope with the problems of life.  That may sound appealing, but it is ultimately a perspective that limits God and takes away real hope.  For Jesus Christ was not born simply to change how we feel about our broken world and lives.   No, He came to restore and fulfill the entire creation, including every aspect of our lives as human beings in the image and likeness of God.
            That is precisely what we see in today’s gospel lesson when, as the Lord taught in a synagogue on the Sabbath, He saw a woman who was bent over and could not stand up straight.  She had suffered for eighteen years with this terrible condition.  He said to her, “Woman, you are loosed from your infirmity.”  Then He laid hands on her and healed her, so she actually stood up straight and glorified God.
            A legalistic critic took offense at this healing on the Sabbath, when no work was to be done.  Christ responded by noting that everyone takes care of his donkey and ox on the Sabbath.  “So ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath?”  The truth of His teaching was so clear that His critics were put to shame and the people rejoiced.
            Here is a powerful image of what the Son of God has done for us by becoming a human being, for we are all like that poor woman stooped over with an infirmity and  unable to straighten herself up.  We live in a world of corruption, illness, pain, and death in which there are harsh realities that we cannot control. 
            We all have diseases of soul, of personality, of behavior, and of relationships that cripple us, that make it very difficult to follow St. Paul’s advice to “walk as children of light.”  Like every generation since Adam and Eve, we have fallen short of God’s purposes for us.  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 heal us all from the ravages of sin and death.  This Tuesday 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 or group over another, but to fulfill our common vocation to be in the image and likeness of God, to share by grace in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity as distinct, unique persons. He transcends 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 overcoming the brokenness and limitations of life in the world in the world as know it.  
            The Savior did not treat the woman in today’s reading as nameless bundle of disease.  Instead, Christ restored her true identity as a beloved person, a daughter of Abraham.  He treated her as a cherished child of God who was not created for an 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.  Likewise, barrenness did not have the last word on Joachim and Anna.  God heard their prayer and was not finished with them yet.  
            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 and barrenness in all their forms, including the decay, corruption, and weakness that distort us all.  He comes to restore us as living icons who manifest His glory and salvation in unique, personal ways.  Even as the icons of the Saints portray them as distinctive persons who participate in the life of God by grace, the same should be true of us as we live and breathe in this world.
            As we become less the slaves of “the unfruitful works of darkness” and more “the children of light,” we become more truly ourselves and experience a joyful freedom from the sinful habits of thought, word, and deed over which we had previously been powerless.  Despite the lies we hear from our culture and that we often gladly accept, evil is just the same old boring thing that leaves us empty, alone, and ashamed because we are not made for it.  Sin and corruption may be packaged a bit differently in each generation, but they remain essentially the same and lead to the same end.   
            As St. Augustine prayed, “You have made us for Yourself and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.”  No wonder, then, that turning away from the Lord brings only disappointment, despair, and greater bondage to our own self-centered desires.   Holiness, in contrast, is fulfilling and liberating, for we are made for it as those created in the image and likeness of God.   The more we become like Him, the more we become truly and freely ourselves as we turn away from slavery to sin and passion in order to embrace the new life that Christ was born to bring to the world.
That is why we should all follow St. Paul’s advice:  “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore, do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”             In other words, why should we continue to stumble along the familiar paths of darkness and decay which simply make our situation worse?  That is no way to live.   We have to change our course.  It is time to wake up from sleep and to open ourselves to the healing and fulfillment for which we were made.
Sts. Joachim and Anna did that by intense prayer for a child, and God heard them and gave them Mary.  Though we do not know much about the woman bound with infirmity whom Christ healed in today’s gospel reading, she was in the synagogue on the Sabbath, presumably praying for healing.  We should follow their example, but that is hard to do in a world with so much noise and distraction which we often welcome into our hearts and souls.  We find it so easy to fill our minds with everything but prayer, with everything but being fully present with the only One Who can set us free from bondage to corruption in all its forms.  Like Joachim, Anna, and the crippled woman, we simply must devote ourselves to prayer if we are to open our lives to the healing presence and power of God.
St. Paul instructs us 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, he tells us to pray and to fill our minds—and our mouths—with words and thoughts that direct us more fully into the life of Christ.  Most people need words in prayer, for our minds tend to wander when we attend to God.  We all know the words of the Jesus Prayer, which we can use at any time.  We should know the Trisagion Prayers by heart, and we all have access to Orthodox prayer books, the Psalms, and other resources that help us focus on the Lord.  But no matter what resources we have, they will do us no good if we do not use them, if we do not devote time and energy on a daily basis to prayer from the depth of our hearts.  
Prayer is where the journey begins and is the means by which we open ourselves to the healing and fulfillment of our lives, to our being set free from slavery to our sins.  It is how we begin to participate in the new life that Christ has brought to the world.  So as we continue the Nativity Fast, let us make prayer a settled habit so that our spiritual eyes will open wide to the brilliant light of the Savior when He comes to set us free at His birth.  That is how Christ will loose us from our infirmities.  It is how we will overcome our spiritual barrenness and instead bear fruit for the Kingdom of God.