Sunday, March 29, 2015

We Must Enter into Christ's Death In Order to Rise with Him: A Homily Near the End of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church

          We go to great lengths to insulate ourselves from the realities of suffering and death.  Consequently, people who experience profound loss and sorrow often find themselves alone.  Surely, it is difficult to be in the presence of those in great pain of any kind, especially those who are dying, for we often feel helpless before them and are reminded of our own mortality.  At some level, we know that something similar is in store for us.   
            Perhaps these tendencies have at least something to do with why so few of our Lord’s followers stood at the foot of His cross as He suffered and died.  The Theotokos, the other women, and St. John refused to abandon Him, but the rest of the disciples fled in fear.  Surely, they had good reason to be afraid for it had to be dangerous to be associated publically with someone who was crucified as a traitor to the Romans after being rejected as a blasphemer by the leaders of the Jews. But the Theotokos, the other righteous women, and St. John did not flee.  They refused to allow their shock and sorrow to cause them to abandon their Savior, even in the midst of His horrible suffering and death.
            The season of Great Lent gives each of us blessed opportunities to become like those who remained at the foot of the Cross, who endured the agony of beholding our Lord’s self-offering for the life of the world.  We will soon enter quite profoundly into the mystery of our salvation in as we journey with Christ from the raising of Lazarus to His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, where in a matter of days He is rejected and condemned by those He came to save. We will chant “Today is hung upon the tree He who hung the earth upon the waters.”  We will not merely remember His crucifixion as a past historical event during the services of Great and Holy Friday; no, as we read the Passion Gospels and place Christ on the Cross, we enter into the eternal present of the divine love that stops at nothing, not even death, the tomb, and Hades, in order to bring us—and the entire creation—into the eternal blessedness for which He breathed life into us in the first place and for which He spoke the universe into existence.   
            So we are not only figuratively in the place of those who stood at the foot of the Cross.  We really are there, even as we are really guests at the heavenly banquet in every Divine Liturgy. Is it surprising, then, that we need several weeks of preparation in order to have the spiritual strength and clarity necessary to abide with the God-Man as He suffers and dies for us?  “The King of Angels...Who wrapped the heavens with clouds” humbles Himself to the point of accepting hatred, torture, and cruel public execution purely out of love for all of us who have rejected Him time and again.  He even asks the Father to forgive His tormenters for “they know not what they do.”  This is not the death of a mere teacher or example,   but the slaughter of the true Passover Lamb, the Incarnate Son of God Who is fully divine and fully human.  If we shy away from the suffering and death of those we encounter daily, how much more will we shake with holy fear before the death of the Alpha and Omega of the universe? How much more will we say “This is no place for me!” and run away from the Cross? 
            Perhaps we feel justified in doing so because we have the benefit of knowing the rest of the story. Our Lord will rise victorious on the third day.   Who does not want to shout “Christ is Risen!” as soon as possible? The problem, of course, is that we cannot enter into the great mystery of His resurrection unless we first participate in His death.  Even as our Savior tramples down death by death, we too must die to death, to the corruption and decay that our following in the way of Adam and Eve has brought about in our own lives.  That means death to sin however it has taken root in us, however it has distorted and disfigured us as living icons of our Lord.   A once beautiful painting loses nothing but its ugliness from an expert restoration that reveals its original beauty.  The same is true for us when we turn away from all that separates us from growing evermore like God as partakers of the divine nature.  That is the fulfillment of the ancient, true, and beautiful vocation to which Lent calls us.
The Christian life begins with baptism into the Lord’s death as we die to sin and rise with Him into newness of life.  We put on Christ in baptism and regain the robe of light that Adam lost.  That is, of course, only the beginning of the journey to become radiant with the divine energies like an iron left in the fire.  Unfortunately, we so easily return to the ways of the first Adam, preferring the darkness of our own corruption to the brilliant light of God’s glory.  
  As Christ taught, we must persevere in dying to death by taking up our crosses and losing our lives in order to save them.  We must struggle each day to die to the corrupting effects of sin and embrace more fully the holy joy which our Lord’s cross has brought to the world.  As St. Paul writes, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Gal. 5:24)  Slavery to self-centered desires is never a path to joy, but only to addiction to self-imposed misery which will never satisfy us.  God did not create us for the tomb of slavery to ourselves, but for the eternal joy appropriate to those who join themselves to His self-offering in free obedience as beloved sons and daughters of the Most High.
And that is what Great Lent is for.  By devoting ourselves to prayer, by fasting from rich food and anything else to which we have an unhealthy attachment, by sharing our resources and attention with the needy, by forgiving our enemies and healing broken relationships, by humbly confessing our sins and reorienting our lives toward Christ, by embracing the practices of this season, we crucify our passions and desires.  We advance in putting to death the morbid distortions of sin in our lives.  We open ourselves at least a bit more fully to the victory over sin and death that Jesus Christ has accomplished through His Cross.  We take up our crosses and follow Him one step at a time.  We participate in His trampling down death by death when we use the spiritual disciplines of Lent to trample down the pernicious power of the passions in our lives.  The more we unite ourselves to our Lord’s Cross in these ways, the more we will  know the Cross as victory, not as a defeat--as the path to joy, not to despair. 
The disciples surely fled the crucifixion in large part because they had no hope.  They thought that it was all over for Jesus Christ and for them as His followers.  Perhaps we are tempted to abandon our friends and loved ones in their final years or hours, or in other times of great pain, because we see no future for them or ultimately for ourselves.  That may be the way it is with the first Adam, but it is surely not with the Second Adam Who brings life from the very depths of Hades, light from the darkness of the tomb, and unspeakable joy from the worst despair.       
            Here is the key point:  If we do not enter into the reality of our Savior’s crucifixion, we will find it impossible to celebrate Pascha as much more than a cultural festival with rich food. If we do not make progress in  crucifying our passions this Lent, we will lack the spiritual clarity to see our Lord’s Cross as much more than an unwelcome reminder of our own pain and suffering in the world as we know it.  In effect, we will abandon Him in fear like the disciples who fled and miss the entire meaning of this penitential season, as well as of Pascha.
But those who take up their crosses and die to the ways of death in their lives will do something very different.  They will abide at the foot of the Cross and participate in the deep mystery of salvation in ways too profound for words.  They will not then run away in fear, but with the Most Holy Theotokos and all the Saints, will enter personally into the joy before which even Hades and the tomb are powerless.  That is the great promise of this blessed season of Great Lent.  If we will join ourselves to our Lord’s self-offering on His Precious and Life-Giving Cross, if we will truly enter into His death, then we too will know the indescribable joy that comes on the third day.    


Saturday, March 28, 2015

Jesus Christ Makes Great Saints Out of Even the Worst Sinners:Homily for the 5th Sunday of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 9:11-14
Mark 10:32-45
            We have all had the experience of falling short of our own goals, our hopes, and our values.  We have all said, done, and thought the wrong thing on more than one occasion.  We all know what it is to be embarrassed and disappointed about our failings, and to be ashamed to acknowledge what we have done.
            So we can imagine how James and John felt when Christ corrected them for asking to be His favorites in the coming Kingdom.  The Lord had just told the disciples that He would suffer and die, but these two disciples would not hear the Lord’s message.  They insisted on thinking in terms of a worldly, political kingdom on this earth, and they wanted really good positions of authority when Jesus Christ came into power, not unlike the politicians of our day.    
            “You do not know what you are asking,” our Savior said to them.  For to follow Him into the Kingdom will require that they drink the cup and undergo the baptism of suffering and death.  This is the way of complete self-sacrifice for the Kingdom, not of grasping for earthly authority and status. The other disciples were understandably angry when they heard that James and John were jockeying for position, and the Lord reminded the whole group that humble service, not domination, is the way to life eternal.  “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”  On that day, James and John surely had to face up to their failure to live up to the teaching and example of Jesus Christ, and then to make things right both with the Lord and their fellow disciples.
            On this fifth Sunday of Great Lent, we remember St. Mary of Egypt, someone who also came to see that she had fallen short of the Lord’s expectations.  Mary was a nymphomaniac and a prostitute, totally enslaved to her own perverse sexual passions.   Her life was truly an obscene scandal, but everything changed when an invisible force prevented her from entering the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.  She then asked humbly for the help of the Theotokos , entered the church to venerate the Holy Cross, and obeyed a divine command to spend the rest of her life in repentance and strict asceticism as a hermit in the desert.  When the monk Zosima stumbled upon her almost 50 years later, he was amazed at her holiness.  But like all the saints, she was aware only of her sins and her ongoing need for God’s mercy.
            When Mary of Egypt prayed before the icon of the Theotokos, she acknowledged for the first time the sad truth about her life.  She had heard in the past that Jesus Christ came to save sinners, and now she knew that she was one.  And that humble confession was the beginning of a life of such holiness that we devote a Sunday in Lent each year to her memory.  Have you ever noticed that we do not hide repentant sinners in our church? Instead, we put them on icons and sing about them for they are such wonderful examples of the kind of people we hope to become by God’s mercy.
           Mary of Egypt, like James and John, had to acknowledge the truth about her failings.  These disciples had wanted only power and she had wanted only pleasure.  But they all eventually accepted the Lord’s correction of their faults and became saints, people whose lives shine brightly with holiness.  As we near the end of Lent, let us follow their example by honestly confessing our sins both in the Sacrament of Confession and in our daily private prayers.  For nothing that we have thought, said, or done is beyond forgiveness by the mercy of Christ.  No damage that we have done to ourselves or others is beyond His healing.  No human being is beyond repentance; and, yes, that includes people like you and me.
            So take heart and keep hope alive.  The same Lord who patiently corrected power-hungry disciples and who made a great saint out of a grossly immoral woman has plans for us also.  And they involve a life of righteousness which we will find by repentance, by humbly setting right what has gone wrong in our lives, by accepting His correction and finding healing for the self-inflicted wounds that we all bear.  Yes, in Christ Jesus there is hope for us all, no matter what we have done or left undone.  
            Now, so near the end of Lent, it is time to get over our pride and embarrassment, our slavery to our self-serving illusions, and to take the medicine of confession and repentance as we  get ready to follow our Savior into the deep mystery of His cross and empty tomb.  He drank that cup because of our sins, and we will only be able to follow Him on that blessed journey if we open ourselves in humility to His merciful healing and strength.  

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Healing through Humble Repentance: Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 6:13-20
Mark 9:17-30

         We often have more doubt than belief, more despair than hope.  Our worries and fears so easily increase, and then joy vanishes.  Our health, the problems of our loved ones, stress about a busy schedule, or challenges at home, at work, or with our friends—these often leave us at the end of our rope.
            If you feel that way today or ever have in your life, you can begin to sympathize with the father of the demon-possessed young man in today’s gospel reading.  Since childhood, his son had had life-threatening seizures and convulsions. With the broken heart of a parent who has little hope for his child’s healing, the man cries out, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”  Christ’s disciples had lacked the spiritual strength to cast out the demon, but the Lord Himself healed him.  We can only imagine how grateful the man and his son were for this blessing.
            And imagine how embarrassed the disciples were.  The Lord had referred to them as part of a “faithless generation” and asked how long He would have to put with them.  He told them that demons like this “can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting,” spiritual exercises designed to strengthen our faith and to purify our souls.  Not only were the disciples unable to cast out the demon, they could not even understand the Savior’s prediction of His own death and resurrection.   At this point in the journey, they were not great models of faithfulness.
            In fact, the best example of faithfulness in this story is the unnamed father.  He wants help for his child, and he humbly tells the truth about himself.  His faith was imperfect; he had doubts; his hopes for his son’s healing had surely been crushed many times before.  He said to Christ, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us.”  In other words, he wasn’t entirely sure if the Lord could heal his son.  All that he could do was to cry out with tears, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” 
            And in doing so, he showed that he had the spiritual strength and clarity that the disciples lacked, for he knew the weakness of his faith.  Still, with every ounce of his being He called to the Lord for mercy.  He received it and the young man was set free.
            If we have taken Lent seriously at all this year, we will have become at least a bit like this honest father when our struggles with spiritual disciplines have shown us our weakness and corruption.  When we pray, we are distracted and often find excuses to do something else instead. When we set out to fast from food or something else to which we have become too attached, we become angry and frustrated.  If we succeed in fasting, we may be tempted to pride and judgment toward others.   Our good intentions to heal broken relationships and give generously to the needy often do not lead us to act on them.  When we wrestle with our self-centered desires just a bit, they become stronger and we feel weaker.   We do, think, and say things that aren’t holy at all, often without even thinking.   We put so much else before loving God and our neighbors.  The spiritual disciplines of Lent are good at breaking down our illusions of holiness, at giving us a clearer picture of our spiritual state.  If we are honest, we will not like what we see.   
           If that’s where you are today, rejoice and be glad, for Jesus Christ came to show mercy upon people like the father in our gospel lesson.   That man knew his weakness, he did not try to hide it, and he honestly threw himself on the mercy of the Lord.  He made no excuses; he did not justify himself; he did not wallow in self-pity. He did not hide his doubt and frustration before God.   He was not stifled by wounded pride, and did not obsess about his imperfections, worry about what someone else would think of him, or judge his neighbor. Instead, he simply acknowledged the truth about his wretched situation and called upon Christ with every ounce of his being for help with a problem that had broken his heart.
With whatever level of spiritual clarity we possess, with whatever amount of faith in our souls, with whatever doubts, fears, weaknesses, and sins that weigh us down, we should all follow his example of opening the deep wounds of our hearts and lives to the Lord for healing this Lent.  Jesus Christ heard this man’s prayer; He brought new life to his son.  And He will do the same for us, when we fall before Him in honest repentance, knowing that our only hope is in the great mercy that He has always shown to sinners like you and me with weak faith.

If we need a reminder of the importance of taking Confession this Lent, this gospel passage should help us.    Christ did not reject a father who was brutally honest about his imperfect faith, but instead responded to his confession with overwhelming grace, healing, and love.  He will do the same for each of us as we kneel before His icon with a humble plea for forgiveness, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”  Now is the time to stop suffering in isolation, to repent from the depths of our hearts, and to embrace the divine strength and healing for even our worst wounds.  There is no repentance without truthful acknowledgement of our weakness and pain.   And there is no better time to repent than during Great Lent as we prepare to follow our Savior to the agony of the cross and the joy of the empty tomb.  

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Time to Get Out of Bed: Homily on the Healing of the Paralyzed Man for the Second Sunday of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church

            St. Mark 2:1-12

               We all know what it’s like to want to stay in bed in the morning.  We’re sleepy, comfortable, and warm; we would like to turn off the alarm clock and go back to sleep.  Now it’s fine to do that every once in a while when we really don’t need to get up and get going.  But if we get in the habit of sleeping in, we’ll probably lose our jobs, neglect our families, do poorly in school, and be less than the people God wants us to be.
            And if we’re tempted to stay in bed sometimes, imagine how the paralyzed man in our gospel reading felt.  He had probably stayed in bed his whole life; he could move only if people carried him.  But Jesus Christ not only forgave his sins that day, He gave him the ability to stand up and walk.  In fact, He commanded Him to “arise, take up your bed, and go to your home.”  He was to get on with living the new life that Christ had given him.
            We don’t know how this man felt; he was probably profoundly grateful to the Lord for changing His life.  But think for a minute about how hard it may have been for him to obey Christ’s command.  He knew how to live as a paralyzed person, how to be dependent upon others.  That’s probably the only life he had known and all of a sudden that changed.  I imagine that that could be pretty unsettling and scary.
            Sometimes even people who know that they have ruined their lives are often terrified by the possibility of living differently.  They may not like how they’ve lived so far, but at least they know how to live that way, they know what to expect. They’ve become comfortable with their lifestyles at some level, no matter how miserable they are.  The same may have been true of this paralyzed man. So it was probably with fear and trembling that He got up, picked up his bed, and walked home.
            In this season of Great Lent, we are all called to see ourselves in this paralyzed man.  For we have become too comfortable with our own sins, our own habits of thought, word, and deed, even though they have weakened and distorted us.  Despite our best intentions, we live like slaves to our self-centered desires:  pride, envy, anger, lust, self-righteousness, fear, laziness, and gluttony so easily paralyze us.  Sin has put down roots in our bad habits of how we think, act, speak, and relate to others and to God. We often can’t even imagine what it’s like to live free from the domination of our own passions and sins.   And we certainly can’t heal ourselves of these spiritual sicknesses by will power.  At a deep level in our souls, we find it almost impossible at times to practice self-control.  
The good news is that we can all still do what so many truly repentant sinners did when they encountered Jesus Christ:    In humility, they opened their lives to His mercy.  They touched the hem of His garment and fell down before Him; they cried, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief” from the depths of their hearts; they left their nets, gave their goods to the poor, and literally gave up their lives to be His disciples and apostles.   Like us, they were weakened by their sins and afraid of what the new life in Christ would entail.  But they still obeyed—with fear and trembling-- our Lord’s command to:  “Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.”  Despite their fears and weaknesses, they moved forward, they stepped out, they pressed on in the journey to the Kingdom.
In Lent, we pray, fast, give to the needy, and mend our broken relationships with one another; as we prepare to celebrate the joy of Christ’s resurrection, we should turn away from any sin, bad habit, or unhealthy relationship that isn’t pleasing to God.  If we take Lent seriously, we will often feel like someone recovering from paralysis or in physical therapy.  We will struggle, become uncomfortable, and wrestle with fears, frustrations, and doubts.  Often we will be tempted to stay in bed, to give up and take it easy.  How tragic it would have been for the man in our gospel lesson to have done that, to have disobeyed the Lord’s command to embrace His healing and move forward into a new life.  And how tragic it will be for us if we choose the false comfort of our sins and passions over the glorious freedom of the children of God.

 But how truly wonderful it will be for us to use Lent as a time to wake-up, to recognize that it is through the challenges of repentance that we open our lives to the healing and peace of the Lord.  Let us use these few weeks to turn from the weakness and slavery of sin to enter more fully into the strength and blessedness of life eternal that shines so brightly at Pascha.  For the Lord’s command also applies to us:  “Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.”   In other words, accept and live the new life that Christ has given you.  This was good, though difficult, news for the paralyzed man to receive; now it’s our turn to follow his example, to trust that the Lord really can heal us, and to obey His command to get on with our lives to the glory of God.