Sunday, April 24, 2016

Triumph Through Humility: Homily for Palm Sunday in the Orthodox Church

Philippians 4:4-9 John 12:1-18
           What has been occupying your mind lately?  If you are like me, everything from work, school, taxes, a leaky roof, your daily routine, your health and that of your friends and family has taken up a good bit of your attention. There is nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but there are times when we need to lay aside our usual earthly cares in order to focus on the one thing needful.
St. Paul reminds us today to give our attention to what is true, noble, just, pure, lovely, virtuous, and praise worthy.  We all need that reminder as we turn from the penitential focus of Lent to following our Lord into the great mystery of our salvation through His Passion.  Christ entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday both triumphantly and humbly in order to save us in a fashion that no one expected and that is still hard to grasp. And if we do not pay attention from the depths of our souls, we risk missing the point entirely.
Unlike our usual preoccupations, nothing about Holy Week naturally appeals to us because our Lord’s great Self-offering has nothing in common with what we usually celebrate in this world.  Though Christ is God and powerful beyond our understanding, He suffers freely for our sake.  He loves those who crucify Him to the point of dying on their behalf.  He achieves victory by submitting to torture and execution as a traitor and a blasphemer, even though no one made Him do so.   He freely empties Himself to the point of hanging on a Cross, being buried in a tomb, and descending to Hades.  The Word Who spoke the universe into existence experiences rejection and death at the hands of those He came to save.  He is totally unlike the heroes and leaders we typically idolize in this world, for by conventional standards there is nothing successful or powerful to be found on a cross.
Then again, there is nothing conventional about Jesus Christ.  He revealed that He is the resurrection and the life by raising His friend Lazarus from the dead after the long period of four days, by which time the body had begun to decay.  In the midst of her terrible grief about her brother’s death, Martha made the clearest confession of faith in John’s gospel by saying, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, Who is to come into the world.”  Our Savior wept for His friend Lazarus, and ultimately He wept for us all, distorted and   corrupted by sin and death and so far from fulfilling our ancient calling to participate in the glory of the divine life.  As hard as it is to believe, this Savior brings life through death.  He brings light from darkness. He brings victory through what looks just like defeat in this world.
On Palm Sunday, we see that the Savior Who enters Jerusalem today is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  He is the Passover Lamb whose death and resurrection will conquer death itself. Mary, Lazarus’ other sister, performed a prophetic act when she anointed Christ with the same kind of ointment used to anoint the bodies of the dead.  This Messiah, this One who is truly anointed to save His people and the whole world, will be rejected by the leaders of the Jews and crucified under the authority of the Romans.  And when He is lifted up upon the Cross, He will draw all who believe in Him– Jew, Gentile, male, female, rich, poor, all nations, classes, and races—to the life of a Kingdom that transcends this world and the usual false gods for which we live and die.
Jesus Christ reigns not as a soldier, a politician, a rich man, or a popular religious leader, but as the Suffering Servant, a slaughtered lamb, one of the world’s countless victims of torture and execution. The welcoming crowds in Jerusalem misunderstand what kind of King He is and how He will conquer.  For He rules from the Cross and the empty tomb; instead of killing Roman soldiers, He kills death by allowing Himself to be killed; in the place of a magnificent stallion fit for a king, He rides into Jerusalem on a humble donkey.
The crowd is right, “Blessed is He Who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel.”  They shout “Hosanna,” which is a plea for God’s salvation to come upon the earth.  And it does through the Lord’s death and glorious resurrection.  But that is not what the crowds expected; it is apparently not what the disciples or anyone else anticipated or even what we would prefer.  For it goes against all our preconceived notions of what it means to be successful, to be powerful, to rule upon the earth, and to be respectable and religious.  Who would think that the Cross is a fitting end for a good life, let alone the life of the Son of God?
It is still a very hard lesson for us to accept, for there is too much of the world in all of us, which becomes all the more clear when we attempt to take even the smallest step closer to Christ. That is why we need to follow St. Paul’s advice to focus on what is truly holy this week.  As St. Paul wrote, “The Lord is at hand” which is never more true than on this feast as crowds cheer His entrance to Jerusalem. Of course, they will shout “Crucify Him!” in just a few days.
Holy Week reveals what kind of Savior Jesus Christ is, and unless we remain squarely focused on Him we will miss the point of these holy days, even as those crowds did.   So it is time to tune out our usual distractions and excuses, and enter into the Passion of our Lord by worshiping Him in the services of the Church whenever possible, as well as in every thought, word, and deed this week.  If we must miss some services due to work, school, distance, or health, we can still fast and pray at home, read the Bible passages for Holy Week, and give less attention to the world and more to the One Who comes to save it.
This week it becomes clear who Jesus Christ is:  The Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world.  But how will we respond to Him as He goes to the Cross for us? Will we ignore and abandon Him because we have better things to do?  Will we simply take Him for granted and remain obsessed with life as usual?  No, we must turn from those distractions as best we are able and draw near with the fear of God and faith and love. If we call ourselves Christians, we must make following our Lord our top priority this week.  Remember that, in the events of Holy Week, He certainly made us His.
Now is the time to enter into the profound mystery of our salvation.  “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, the king of Israel.  Hosanna in the highest!”

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Humble Repentance or Paralyzing Guilt?: Homily on St. Mary of Egypt for the 5th Sunday of Lent in the Orthodox Church

Mark 10:32-45

            Whenever we experience guilt and shame because of something we have done wrong, we need to ask ourselves a question.  Do we feel that way because we are sorrowful that we have disobeyed God or because we cannot stand being less than perfect in our own eyes or those of others?  The first kind of humiliation is spiritually beneficial and may lead to repentance, but the second kind is simply a form of pride that easily paralyzes us in obsessive despair. At this point in our lives, most of us probably experience some mixture of these two types of shame.  As we grow closer to Christ, the first must increase and the second must decrease.
            When we wonder if there is hope for the healing of our souls in this way, we should remember St. Mary of Egypt. She stands as a brilliant icon of how to repent from even the most shameful sins. Mary experienced a healthy form of guilt when her eyes were opened to how depraved she had become through her life of addiction to perverse sexual pleasure.  Through the intercessions and guidance of the Theotokos, she venerated the Holy Cross at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and received Communion on her way to decades of ascetical struggle in the desert. When the monk Zosima stumbled upon her almost 50 years later, he was amazed at her holiness.  He saw this holy woman walk on water and rise up off the ground in prayer, but like all the saints she knew only her own sins and perpetual need for the Lord’s mercy.     
            Perhaps what makes St. Mary of Egypt’s story such a beautiful icon of true repentance is that she was genuinely humble before God.  She was not sorrowful for her sin out of a sense of wounded pride, obsessive self-centered guilt, or fear of what others thought of her.  Instead, she said earnestly to the Theotokos “Be my faithful witness before your Son that I will never again defile my body by the impurity of fornication, but as soon as I have seen the Tree of the Cross I will renounce the world and its temptations and will go wherever you will lead me.”  And she did precisely that, abandoning all that she had known for the long and difficult journey that led to the healing of her soul.  Her focus was completely on doing whatever it took to reorient her life toward God, to purify her desires so that she would find true fulfillment in Him.     
             Today the Orthodox Church calls us all to follow her example of repentance, regardless of the details of how we have sinned in thought, word, and deed. By commemorating a notorious sex addict who became a great saint, we proclaim that no sin is so shameful that we cannot repent of it.  An honest look at our lives, as we should all take during Lent, dredges up shame and regret in various forms.  St. Mary of Egypt reminds us to accept humbly the truth about our failings as we confess our sins, call for the Lord’s mercy, and do what is necessary to find healing.  Her example reminds us not to be paralyzed by prideful obsessions that block us from being freed from slavery to our passions.  Even her depraved way of life did not exclude St. Mary of Egypt from acquiring remarkable holiness.  If she did not let a perverse form of pride deter her from finding salvation, then no one should be ashamed to kneel before Christ in humility. The Savior did not reject her and He will not reject us when we come to Him as she did.
            In today’s gospel text, James and John related to Christ in a very different way, for they wanted the best positions of power when He came into His Kingdom.  The Lord challenged their prideful delusions by reminding the disciples that humility, not self-exalation, is the way to life eternal.  He said “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”  How shocking that today we celebrate honest, humble repentance from a woman with a truly scandalous past while some of the men closest to Christ in His earthly ministry think only of getting worldly power for themselves.
Perhaps the key difference is that St. Mary of Egypt got over obsession with herself.  Instead of assuming that she was “damaged goods” for whom there was no hope, she humbly died to self by taking up her cross.  Indeed, her repentance began in the context of venerating the Holy Cross at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  The rest of her journey required profound faith, sacrifice, and courage. To undo with God’s help the harm that she had done to herself through years of debauchery must have been incredibly difficult.  But sustained by the Lord’s mercy and the intercessions of the Theotokos, that is precisely what she did over the remaining decades of her life.  
Today, so near the end of Lent and only a week from Palm Sunday, we see that this is the path we must take also.  In order to follow it, we must not be paralyzed in prideful shame about anything we have said, thought, done, or otherwise experienced or participated in at any point in our lives.  Instead, we must have the brutal honesty and deep humility of St. Mary of Egypt, a woman with a revolting past who became a shining beacon of holiness.  That is how she found healing for her soul and it is how we will find healing for ours also. The good news of this season is that the Lord makes such blessedness possible for us all through His Cross, His descent into Hades, and His glorious resurrection on the third day.  But in order to participate in the great mystery of His salvation, we too must get over our pride, accept His mercy, and actually repent.  If St. Mary of Egypt could do that with her personal history, we can too.      

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Climbing Up by Moving Down: Homily for the 4th Sunday of Lent in the Orthodox Church

Mark 9:16-30

            In just about any activity that is worthwhile, there is always room for improvement.  When we rest content with our past performance in anything, we will never get any better at it. Only those who know their own imperfection and strive to overcome it have much chance of reaching a higher goal.
If that is true in our daily work and hobbies, it is far more the case when our goal is to participate by grace in the eternal life of the Holy Trinity.  On this fourth Sunday of Great Lent, we commemorate St. John Climacus, who wrote the book The Ladder of Divine Ascent to guide monks step by step to a life of greater holiness. Now only two weeks from Palm Sunday, the Church reminds us that we must all must move upward on that ladder if we are to follow our Lord to His Passion, to His death on the cross, to His descent into Hades, and to His glorious resurrection on the third day.  But the first step upward requires what seems like a step downward, for it is the step of humbly acknowledging our weakness, imperfection, and corruption.  Without that honest confession, we will never develop the spiritual strength necessary to enter into the deep mystery of our salvation through the great offering and victory of our Savior.    
 In today’s gospel text, the father of the demon-possessed young man stands as a model of the honesty that we must cultivate in order to unite ourselves more fully to our crucified and risen Lord. When Christ told him that “all things are possible for him who believes,” the man “cried out and said with tears, ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.’”  The disciples had lacked the spiritual strength to cast out the demon, but in response to this anguished cry from the heart, the Lord Himself healed the young man. It was by acknowledging the imperfection of his faith, even as he begged for mercy, that the father’s prayer was answered.
Whether we like it or not, our lives are full of opportunities for us to become more like that broken-hearted, honest, humble father.  Sickness, family difficulties, economic hardship, persistent personal problems, and so many other common challenges reveal the weakness of our faith and the sickness of our souls, for we never respond to them perfectly. The Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and other spiritual practices that reorient us to God, help us catch a glimpse of how much room we have to grow in the Christian life.  And if we ever think that we are the only ones for whom they are a struggle, then we should think again.  None of us does them perfectly; indeed, it is beyond our ability to know what it would mean to do them perfectly, for our goal is to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect.  (Matt. 5:48) In comparison with that standard of infinite holiness, who does not have more room for growth than we could possibly imagine?  But the more we embrace these disciplines and acknowledge our own weakness before life’s daily challenges, the more aware we become of how far we are from sharing fully in the life of our Lord.  The more we grasp our own sinfulness and brokenness, the more we must cry out from our hearts, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”
Lent is a time to stop hiding our true spiritual state even from ourselves.  It is a time to confess our failings to the Lord and hear in spoken words an assurance of our forgiveness in the sacrament of Confession, if we are truly repentant.  It is a time to turn away from the illusion that we have already arrived spiritually and that prayer, fasting, and confession are only for other people.  It is a time to see ourselves in that brutally honest father who, even in the midst of his heart-broken love for his son, told the truth about the weakness of his faith.  The more we become like him, the better.  The more that we pray, fast, and otherwise humble ourselves before the Lord, the clearer our spiritual vision will be and the more we will see the infinite chasm between the holiness of God and our own wretchedness.
There is good news, however, for all of us who have fallen short.  Thank God, the God-Man Jesus Christ has bridged that gap.  Through His death and resurrection, He makes it possible for each of us to grow in holiness as we see ever more clearly how far we are from attaining the fullness of the glory for which He created us.  Ironically, it is by knowing our own brokenness and imperfection that we become aware of the true mystery of our salvation, of why our Lord offered Himself on the cross, descended into Hades, and rose again on the third day.  Paradoxically, we climb up the ladder of holiness by lowering ourselves through humble repentance.
“Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”  That is the only confession that will enable us to prepare for what is to come in the weeks ahead as we enter into the deep mystery of our salvation.  As our Savior said, “The Son of man will be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill Him; and after He is killed, He will rise on the third day.”