Friday, May 3, 2013

"Before the Tomb: Sermon for Holy Friday"

Here we stand before the tomb of the Lord Jesus Christ. We have seen the One whom we call Lord and Savior offer Himself up to the most agonizing sufferings. We have seen Him mocked and humiliated. We have seen Him hang upon a cross. We have seen Him succumb to death and breathe His last, We have seen the Noble Joseph take down His most pure Body from the cross. We have seen Him wrap His holy body in a shroud. Now, we have carried that shroud to the place of burial, a new tomb.

            So here we stand before that tomb. What can we say at this point? When I was a child, all the churches in town would gather for a community Good Friday service. One after the other, the local ministers would mount the pulpit and preach on the “Seven Last Words” of Christ on the Cross, one after the other.

            Believe me, a lot of words were said, words meant to make an impression. Each preacher had a moving story or touching illustration of how much our Savior suffered for us. It was as if the Gospel of the crucifixion needed some heartrending enhancement to bring its message home.

            But here we stand before the Tomb of Christ after all the words have been said. It is as if we are at the cemetery for the internment after the funeral All the tributes have been given, all the memories have been shared, and now, we are standing under the undertaker’s canopy before the open grave. We stand there speechless looking into the dark hole that is the end of life on earth.

            Here we are before the tomb and tears are more appropriate than words. With the grief-stricken Mother of God, we have offered our sighs of lamentation. Now in the words of our tonight’s service, with the Noble Joseph we “gaze on” the Lord’s lifeless body—“dead, naked and unburied.” In  grief and tender compassion” we mourn with Him, “Woe is me my sweetest Jesus... how can I bury Thee, O My God? How can I wrap Thee in a shroud? How can I touch thy most pure body with my hands?”

            What, then, can we say before this tomb? Indeed if we listen to the words of the Apostle Paul  in tonight’s Epistle reading, there is nothing that can be said--at least from a human point of view. What we see before us is truly death. And in the first place, death is the end.

            Death is the end of earthly life. And with that end is the end of all worldly things. Whatever we might possess in this world--whether of riches, fame, power, or satisfaction--in death, it is all taken away in an instant, in a blink of an eye.

            St. Paul put it this way in our Epistle for this evening. When we consider the cross on which the Lord died, “Where is the ‘wise man’?” And where is the “strong”? The cross is the end of the world’s wisdom and strength. It all comes to an end--whether the wisdom of human knowledge and understanding or the power of riches, authority, or might. It is all is buried here in the tomb. 

            Yet for our sake, the Lord chose this way of the cross—this way of entering into the seeming foolishness of death and powerlessness of the tomb. That is the great mystery of God’s ways. For what the world considers foolishness, turned out to be wisdom. And what the world considers weakness turned out to be strength. For neither the worldly wisdom nor earthly power can withstand the ravages of death. Only by death could the Lord defeat death. Only by descending to the dead, could the Lord raise the dead. Only by going down into the grave, could the Lord rise up from the grave.

            Therefore, if there is any understanding that we might take home from this service tonight it is this. The old ways of worldly wisdom and earthly power are futile. All our human efforts to find happiness, security, peace, fame, and fulfillment in life will come to nothing. Here is their end—the tomb before us. 

               Still, there is hope for something better. For the Lord said, “unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). There must be an end, if there is to be a new beginning. Thus, if we make this tomb the end that it is, then this open grave can represent a new beginning for us. If this tomb means the end of our search for the world’s wisdom and our struggle for the world’s power, then we can claim a deeper wisdom and a higher power.  

             Before this tomb, we hear the call of the Lord to take His Way of the Cross and to follow Him. He is “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” In Him is the unconquerable Wisdom and the Almighty Power of God. In Him we have what we could never achieve by ourselves, for God has made him to be “our wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30).  

            So here we stand before the tomb of Christ. Let it be an end for us so that by God’s grace it also might become a new beginning. In this tomb, let us leave behind all our human efforts to make ourselves wise, powerful, and good. And let us wait in hope for the Lord to rise from this very grave to bring us into the New Life of His unconquerable wisdom and strength.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Sermon for Palm Sunday: "From Hosanna to Alleluia"

Today we heard not one but two reports of the events of Palm Sunday. We read from the Holy Gospel of St. Matthew as we blessed the palms. Later, we read about the same event from the Gospel of St. John. In response to these narratives of the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem, we join the crowds in singing our joyful “Hosannas” to Him.

But if our celebration ends here--if we skip the events of Holy Week and go directly from the “Hosannas” of Palm Sunday to the “Alleluias” of Pascha, then we have missed the very core of our faith in Christ.

You see, the Lord comes into Jerusalem on this day to enter into His saving work for the redemption of the human race. And that means confronting the powers of sin, death, and the devil. The Lord does not come into Jerusalem as a hero to celebrate His conquests. He comes as a humble servant, riding on a donkey, to do the greatest work anyone has ever done. He comes to take on Himself the sins of the world. He comes to deliver Himself up to the worst of human suffering. As our champion, He comes to fight the battle with death itself.

Thus, it is important that we do not stop with the events of Palm Sunday but that we read on and see what happens after the waving of the palms and the shouting of “Hosannas.” When we do, we find that Jesus is increasingly engaged in a growing conflict with His earthly enemies. This is the conflict that will end His arrest, trial, scouring, crucifixion, and death on the cross. It has to do with the purpose of what we are doing this morning. In a word, it has to do with “worship.”

According to Matthew’s Gospel, the chief priests and scribes soon hear that the crowds are welcoming Jesus as the “Son of David,” the promised Messiah. And to them that is blasphemy and a challenge to their authority. In effect, they ask Jesus to silence the crowds. But Jesus replies with a quote from scripture, “Have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of babes and nursing infants hast Thou perfected praise’?” (Matthew 21:16).

St. John Chrysostom refers to this “perfection of praise” as worship when he says in His Nativity sermon: “The infants came to worship the One who became an infant, to compose a glorifying hymn ‘out of the mouths of babes’.” What St. John is saying is that in their purity and innocence, children offer the best worship. They do not find glory and strength in themselves but attribute honor and almighty power to God.

This then is the issue. To whom do we attribute “glory and strength”? (Psalm 29:1) That is, what or who do we worship? That is the crucial question of human life. For as Father Alexander Schmemman says, we, above all, are worshipping creatures. To lift up praises, to give thanks, to express our adoration is our calling. We have a basic need to sing “Hosanna.” It is built into our very nature.

When we worship, we look to some source of life, some center of our being, and some foundation of our security. When we worship, we look to the glory and honor of something greater than ourselves. When we worship, we give that foundation of our lives the control over our lives.

But what is it that we worship? What or who deserves to be the source, and center, strength, and foundation of our lives? The first commandment is “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Again, the greatest commandment is that we should “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind.”

These commandments teach the worship of the One, True God. Yet most of us these days do not give much thought to these commandments. Most of us are practical polytheists. You see, we have divided loyalties. In effect that means, we worship many gods. Countless pressures claim our time and attention. We are torn between home and family, work and/or school, friends and entertainment, and if we have any time left over, our own personal goals and dreams—whatever they are. No wonder that feel powerless in the midst of these competing powers.

Today from the viewpoint of our faith, I say that we are right to feel this way. Whenever we put something else besides God in the first place in our lives, we make ourselves slaves to it—whatever it is. We give ourselves over to something less than our Creator, something that rules over us.

In contrast, today the crowds welcome Jesus Christ as the Son of David and King of a new Kingdom. His entrance on a donkey shows that He is a different kind of king. He is a different kind of King, for He does not come to enslave us. He comes to free us from the false powers that control us. Saint Basil’s Liturgy puts it this way: “He released us from the delusions of idolatry in the knowledge of You, the true God and Father.”

During this Holy Week, we will witness how our King will do this. Day by day, he will confront the powers that control those who worship the idols of this world. He will expose the hypocrisy of religious authorities whose god is their own privileged status. He will endure the cruelty of a government that is devoted to worldly power. He will warn against the spiritual laziness of disciples whose god is their own comfort. Last of all, He will engage the final enemy of the human race, the power of death itself.

The icon of the resurrection depicts what He will do in all of this saving work. He will breaksthe chains that held Adam and Eve captive. He will pluck them out of the prison of death. He will bring them into His own Kingdom of freedom from sin, death, and the devil.

So let us join the crowds in praising the Savior today, for as we sing “Hosanna,” we are cheering Jesus on as He performs His saving, liberating, and life-giving work. Then next Sunday, when we sing “Alleluia,” we will exalt in His victory, the glorious triumph over the powers that enslave us. And we will rejoice in our freedom from the idols of this world in the worship the One, True, and Only God.


Wednesday, April 24, 2013

"The Way of the Cross: Sweating the Small Stuff"

They say don’t sweat the small stuff. Yet that not be the best advice. I was driving in Milwaukee years ago with an old timer whose wisdom I respected. Suddenly, I heard a whirling noise from the front of the car. I said, “What’s that?” “You want to live long,” said my friend, “Don’t listen to the noises in your car.”

            So I didn’t. Sometime later, I noticed, no, not a noise, but something just as annoying. The engine light came on. Thankfully, it was not the red one. It was a yellow one said, “Check engine soon.” Well it was a little light— like a little noise— and besides it said ‟soon.” So I kept on driving. Before long, I turned on the engine one morning and was engulfed in a cloud of white smoke. It turned out that the light was trying to tell me that something was wrong with the head gasket.

In religion, also, many say, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” The popular view of a proper religious question is, “When will the end of the world happen?” Or it is, “Are you going to be ‘raptured’ or “’left behind’?” If we pay any attention to things of this world is it something like, “Should we restore prayer to the public schools?”

           These are big questions, far different than, “Did you bring some canned of soup to church for the hungry?”Or, “How can I overcome my resentment against someone who has hurt me?” Or, “How can I help my elderly neighbor next door.” We get the impression that the religious life is life of the big thing, and not this kind of small stuff!

          With that in mind, let’s look at our Gospel for this morning. Big things are about to happen to be sure. Jesus is sayings that he is going up to Jerusalem to be delivered to hands of His enemies, to suffer, to die, to rise again. That’s big stuff!  Stuff that has to do with the salvation of the world.

          James and John know it. This is the time when the Kingdom will come in all its fullness.
Naturally, they want a share of that ‟Big Stuff.” They want to share in the Glory of the Kingdom!
Jesus responds to their request in a strange way. He asks whether they can drink the cup that he is about to drink. The two disciples think that He is referring to the cup of Glory. So they say, “Yes, of course we can.”

          When the other disciples hear about the audacity of James and John, they become indignant. Who are they to get extra privileges in the Kingdom to come? contrasts the way of pagan Gentiles with His way of service! His followers are not to seek power, glory, and status for themselves. They are to take the way of the cross. And taking the way of the cross, they are to humble themselves and become servants, even slaves, of all.  As He came to serve so they are to devote themselves to loving service.  

          But in the light of what we said as we began, let me ask, “Is this way of service, just another way of doing big stuff--doing great things for Jesus? Is it just another formula for achieving triumphant victory for the Lord! This idea of doing great things for Jesus is, I think, a stumbling block to our spiritual growth. One the one hand, it makes us careless about the little things that lead us away from God’s will.  On the other hand, it tempts us to neglect the little things that bring us closer to God.

         Let me explain. The Lord once said: "Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is unrighteous in a little is also unrighteous in much.” (NRS Luke 16:10 ).  In other words, on the way of the cross, small things are important. In the way of service, the small stuff counts.

          First, let’s consider the matter of temptation. How does the devil tempt us? By appearing to us in a red suit and pitchfork and offering the big stuff of a bargain for our souls? No, he comes in the small stuff!

          St. Isaac the Syrian says that in the battle of temptation, we are vanquished only when at the beginning we despise the small matters. You know how it goes as well as I do. “It’s OK just this once.” “Oh, what’s the difference?” “This is the last time.” On the other hand, St. Isaac asks, “How can the hermit who refuses to peek out the window of his hermitages be tempted to leave it?”

          Second, let’s take serving others. Does not serving others consist of little things? If we cannot bring a can of soup to church for the hungry, why do we think that we will someday set up a soup kitchen for the poor?

          The monk St. Makarios once visited a person who was sick. St. Macarios asked whether there was something he could do for him. The sick person said that he wished for a little freshly baked bread. Now St. Macarios was 90 years old at the time. But he walked for several days to the nearest city, Alexandria, to buy bread. Then he walked back another several days and gave it to the sick man.  
          In our life of faith to avoid temptation and to follow the way of the cross, we must sweat the small stuff. “Whoever is faithful in a very little, is faithful also in much.” So today on this the last Sunday in Great Lent, let us then realize our proper role, place, and calling in the Church and the world. It is for the Lord to take care of the big stuff—the stuff of our salvation which He now works out for us, taking the way of the cross. It is for us to follow Him and that way of the cross and as we do, to sweat the small stuff—the stuff of avoiding temptation and the stuff of serving our neighbor wherever the Lord has placed us and in whatever way the Lord calls us..

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Veneration of the Holy Cross: On Keeping Death and Resurrection Together

Already Great Lent is half over. Today we reach the third Sunday of the six Sundays in Lent. We might well reflect on how well we are doing. What has happened to our resolution to “arise and return to the Father”?

The celebrations of the Church are not haphazard. Great Lent is set up as a journey. This holy season is meant to bring us from the “far country” of sin and death back to the true home of  righteous and peace with our Heavenly Father. But there are steps that we need to take to reach the final goal of the overcoming of the powers of evil on Pascha. We cannot get to our destination all at once. The weeks of Great Lent are laid out carefully in a series in which one step leads to another and then another.

Now with this Sunday, for the first time, we see our goal. The Church sets before us the end of our journey. And it sets before us the means to get there as well. The goal and the way to get to that goal lie before us in the cross that we venerate this morning.

 If we listen carefully to what we sing and say on this day, we will learn something that is vital to our our observance of Lent and, indeed, our salvation. That insight is this: the cross on which the Lord Jesus Christ suffered and died does not stand alone. The death of Jesus on the cross was not the end of His work of our salvation. His resurrection on the third day completed His saving work. Thus, His death and His resurrection cannot—and should not—be separated. The two go hand in hand.

Yet tragically, this division between the belief in our redemption from sin and the belief in the resurrection from the dead has happened in much of Christianity. Sadly, the result has been that they have lost much of their power to change lives. You see, when the two are separated, then there is little reason for anyone to go through the struggle of the season of Lent—and most do not.

 Let me explain what I mean. In Western Christianity, the emphasis has been on God’s righteous punishment for sin, not the Son of God’s glorious victory over death. Now both Western and Eastern Christianity affirm that the Lord Jesus Christ took on Himself the sins of the world. He suffered horribly and died in the place of sinners. So now, by faith in this act of redemption, sinners are forgiven for the guilt and condemnation of their sins.

However, if we stop here we reduce the work of salvation to a single but incomplete idea. In this narrow view, salvation is simply the escape from God’s anger. God was justifiably upset over the disobedience of His creation. Now because of the suffering and death of Christ on the cross God is pacified. His anger is appeased. His wrath is satisfied. And those who believe that He died for them are “saved.”

That is a very familiar idea to us. But look: if this notion were true, it was not necessary for the Lord Jesus Christ to rise from the dead. If He was only an innocent victim of God’s displeasure, His resurrection was only an afterthought. His resurrection only put God’s stamp of approval on what He did on the cross. It was His sacrifice that counts!

 But this cannot be! The Apostle Paul says that if Jesus Christ is not raised from the dead, our faith is in vain, and the preaching of the Gospel is in vain (1 Corinthians 15:14). That is to say, the preaching of the death of Christ on the cross is incomplete without the proclamation of His resurrection from the dead.

 You see, the idea that Jesus suffered and died to satisfy God’s wrath does not change anything—except, perhaps, God’s attitude toward sinners. It is God who has the problem with sin, not sinners.

This leads to a serious misunderstanding. In this view, by the sin offering of His Son, God’s wrath is satisfied and human beings are now free from His punishment. But free to do what? The satisfaction idea fails to rule out the answer that you can do anything you like.

Why are so many so casual about the things of God? Why do people consider themselves perfectly OK though they scarcely give God a thought throughout the day? Why are so many people so lukewarm and indifferent about the Church? Perhaps they have missed the point! Perhaps they have gotten the wrong idea. Perhaps they have been taught the wrong idea. Perhaps they do not know the connection between the Lord’s death on the cross and His resurrection.

St. Paul speaks about this connection in response to the idea that the sacrifice of Christ frees us from any concern about living a godly and holy life. In his day, some responded to the preaching of grace by saying, “Well then, if the Lord has paid the price for sin, we can continue to sin because we know that God will forgive us.”

To this false idea, St. Paul reacted vigorously, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound…?” (Romans 6:1). St. Paul’s answer was, “Certainly not!” But not because God will punish us. It is because the whole point of the Cross and Resurrection is to free us from sin and the bondage to sin (Romans 6:6).

St. Paul said that those who are baptized “should consider themselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:11). Note the connection. The cross is the death of the “Old Man”; the resurrection is life of the “New Creation.” Both go together.

It comes down to the question, what is the Gospel about? In the Orthodox faith, the Gospel is about much more than making people feel bad (or good) about themselves; helping people cope with their problems; offering people a guarantee of heaven; teaching people to be good, or promoting volunteer work in the community.

The Gospel is about changing people in order to bring them from the state of eternal death to the state of everlasting life. That change does not happen outside oneself but inside. It happens in one’s heart.

What meaning would the death of Jesus on the cross have for us if it did not affect us in some way or other? We might say that it makes your grateful. But is that all? Why then should we observe this Lenten season of repentance? Why then does Jesus say in our Gospel that we must take up our cross and follow Him?

Today’s Gospel teaches that following the Lord from death to life must necessarily involve our death and resurrection! St. Paul explains that we have to die to the old self and rise to a new self. It is like putting on a new wardrobe. We have to take off the old suit of clothes that you used to wear, the clothing of sin and corruption. And we have to put on the new suit of clothes that God makes for you, the clothing of his holiness and righteousness (Ephesians 4:22-24). In short, as the Lord says in our Gospel, we have to lose our life to save it (Mark 8:35).

 Such radical change is not easy. The old ways are deeply embedded in our soul. The new ways are strange and unfamiliar. But it is only through such change in our very being that we attain the goal of everlasting life.

Remember that it is the pure in heart who will see God (Matthew 5:8). It is those who do the will of the Heavenly Father who will enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 7:21-22). On the other hand, the Lord says in the Gospel of John, “Whoever commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). Those who are slaves are not children of God. Those who are children of God are those who keep the Word of Christ. He sets them free from slavery to sin and death, and they abide with God forever (8:35).
The death of Christ on the cross and the resurrection go together. Thus, our Lord says today that those who would follow Him to His resurrection need to deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Him. Because we believe what He says here, we have this season of Great Lent in which we struggle to die to the old ways, the old habits, the old attitudes, the old desires that lead away from God--that lead, ultimately to death. And we pray for God to give us the purity of heart, the obedience of will, and the holiness of life that is necessary for us to enter into communion with Him.
The death of Christ on the cross without His resurrection would be incomplete. The resurrection without the death on the cross would be impossible. But put them together and they become what we sing today on this Sunday of the Adoration of the Holy Cross. “Before Thy cross we bow down before Thee in worship, O Master and Thy holy resurrection we magnify.” The path that we must take to return to the Father’s house is the way of the cross. That road leads from the death of our sinful self to the rising of a new self that shares in the glorious resurrection of the Lord. Let us, then, continue our journey on that road of repentance believing the Word of the Lord that those who lose their lives will save them

Friday, April 5, 2013

Why We Offer Salutations to the Mother of God

Sermon for a Pan-Orthodox Service of "Salutations to the Holy Theotokos"
In the midst of Great Lent, we gather tonight for prayers that begin with the call to “rejoice.” That might seem strange and out of place. Yet our service of “Salutations to the Most Holy Theotokos” this evening repeats in many ways, “Rejoice O Unwedded Bride.”

Tonight’s hymns of honor to the Mother of God are among the beautiful and cherished in Orthodox tradition. Yet they are written in a traditional poetic style that may be unfamiliar to us. Thus, it would be worthwhile to take a few moments tonight to probe into this ancient form of the hymns of the Church. As we do, we will gain a deeper sense of the honor that is due to the Mother of God and a greater understanding of the mystery of our salvation.

Let’s begin by noting that these hymns teach a way of thinking—more exactly, a way of believing--that is founded on the visit of the Archangel Gabriel who appeared to the Virgin Mary in Nazareth. He came to announce that she was chosen of all women to be the Mother of God. Recall how the archangel greeted the Virgin: “Hail, Thou who art full of Grace, the Lord is with Thee…” The word “Hail” fails to give us the full meaning of the Greek word. It is literally “rejoice,” the word that the hymns of this evening repeat so often. Thus, the Virgin is to “rejoice” because she is the One who is uniquely endowed with grace and so is the “Favored One.” Moreover. she is to “rejoice” because the Lord is “with her.”

The Gospel records that this unique greeting troubled the Holy Ever-Virgin. She wondered what sort of greeting it could be. With her, by means of these hymns, we ponder their deep meaning tonight.

You see, the words of the angel were not just a way of saying “hello.” They do several things at once. They greet the Virgin, saying “Rejoice!” But this greeting gives a name to the Virgin. And it goes on to describe the Virgin.

That may seem like a flowery way of speaking to us in our time. We are prone to be more simple and direct in our manner of speaking. But even for us the way we greet someone what we think about them. We would not think of saying “hello” to the President of the United States by using his first name. Likewise, the angel’s greeting of the Holy Virgin shows what we are to think about her.

First, it indicates her status, not in the eyes of human being but in the eyes of God Almighty. This humble maiden is far greater than any king or president. She is “blessed among women” and in this is cause for her to “rejoice.”

Second, it gives her a name. She is the one who is “Full of Grace,” the “Highly Favored One.” We address a President, not by his given name but title, “Mr. President.” Likewise, we address a king or queen as “Your Majesty” and a Bishop as “Your Grace.” So the angel addresses Mary as the One who is especially and completely endowed with the grace of God. In the same way, the Liturgy of St. Basil addresses her as “O full of Grace.” Again, this is cause for her to “rejoice.”

Third, the greeting of the angel describes her, her inner nature and character. By the angel’s salutation, we know that she is the pure and “all-holy” Virgin. As St. Ephraim says, she is “…alone most pure in soul and body” (Ephraim the Syrian, Precationes ad Deiparam in Opp. Graec. Lat., III, 524– 37). Again she is endowed with all the gifts of the Holy Spirit. As St. Ephraim says. she is “alone the home of all the graces of the Most Holy Spirit” (Ephraim 524-37). Moreover, the “Lord is with her” just as He is near to all the righteous who devote themselves to Him. And this too is cause for her to “rejoice.”

This greeting of the angel, therefore, teaches us how we are to regard the Mother of God and why we are to give her our highest honor. Having said this, I can try to explain the elaborate words of this service--the ornate language we use to address the Mother of God. These hymns to the Ever-Virgin Mary are called “salutations"—greetings—for good reason. They are inspired by the “salutation"—the greeting of the angel Gabriel when he appeared to Mary at the Annunciation. In fact, the greeting of the angel to Mary sets the pattern of our “salutations to the Mother of God.”

In various phrases and images, the verses of the hymn address the Holy Ever-Virgin giving her many titles. Concerning her purity, she is called the “Flower of Incorruption” and the “Crown of Chastity.” Concerning her virginity, she is called the “Unwedded Bride.” Concerning her giving birth, she is called the “Joiner of Virginity and Childbirth.” Concerning her bearing of the Son of God in her womb, she is called, “The Vessel of God’s Wisdom” and the “The Storehouse of God’s Providence.” And above all, as St. Basil’s Liturgy also declares, she is the “Living Temple of God” for the Son of God came to dwell in her as in a temple.

All this may seem a little “over the top” to us. Yet these titles are fully at the heart of the Holy Tradition of the Orthodox Church. The church fathers agreed in the Council of Ephesus of 431 AD that what we call the Holy Mother of God is of ultimate importance. For what we call her, how we address her, and whether we honor her must either affirm or deny the foundation of our faith, the Incarnation of the Son of God.

Moreover, the titles of the Mother of God of this service help us to probe more deeply into what it means to believe that the Son of God became man for our sakes. The “salutations” of this service declare, affirm, and give thanks to God for the fundamental mystery of our faith—that the unknowable God become known, the invisible God became visible, the inaccessible God became accessible.

Therefore, it is entirely appropriate that we address the Mother of God tonight, using titles that give us a deeper spiritual insight into her status, her proper name, and her inner nature. Thus, among other titles she is called the “Revealer of Philosophers as Fools,” the “Drawer of Many from the Abyss of Ignorance,” and the “Enlightener of Many with Knowledge,” the knowledge of God and His Grace. In summary, to honor her, to know her, and to pray to her the Mother of God according to these various titles is to share in the joy of the mystery of our salvation.

You may still wonder why the Church prays this service in this holy season of Great Lent. A practical answer is that this service and its piety naturally flow from the Feast of the Annunciation, a feast that always happens in Great Lent. But the answer for our spiritual life is that the Church does not want us to stray away from the Gospel of our salvation in Christ. Lest our struggles to keep the Lenten disciplines tempt us to trust in our own efforts, the Church keeps on turning our attention to the mercy of Christ and His work of salvation. Tonight we ponder the mystery of the Incarnation by our “Salutations” to the Holy Mother of God. On Sunday, the Sunday of the Holy Cross, the cross of Christ is set before us as the end and goal of our Lenten journey, the saving death and life-giving resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It is such a blessing that we can gather here as a sign of our unity in the Orthodox faith and our fellowship in the One, True Church. And it is most appropriate that we join in this wonderfully rich service of the “Salutations to the Mother of God.” Because, by these greetings we realize more deeply the Truth and Grace of our salvation in Christ who is indeed the Son of God born of the Ever-Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.
In conclusion, as we leave this service, may each one of us return to our observance of Great Lent renewed in his faith in the Grace of God revealed in the Incarnation, the mystery of our salvation. May we understand that it is right and proper that we honor the One who is “blessed among women” with many titles of praise just as we do tonight. Moreover, may we look to the Mother of God to support and uplift us by her prayers as we continue our Lenten journey.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Second Sunday in Lent: the Necessary Fruit of Faith is Love

I wonder if we really hear the Gospels when they are read to us. I mean did we realize what was going on in today’s story of the healing of the paralytic? And did we take it to heart?

Suppose that while we are talking about the Gospel of the healing mercy of Christ today some people show up wheeling a sick man up the aisle in a hospital bed. What would we do? Suppose that they were so eager to get their sick man in here that they broke down the door? Well that was what happened in our Gospel story. The four men who carried their friend on the stretcher did not just break down the door. They cut a hole in the roof. Imagine trying to make an insurance claim for that!

But that is what happened! And it is remarkable. What motivated these four anonymous men to do such a thing? The scripture is clear. It was extraordinary faith! Indeed, it was “their faith” that the Lord responded to when he turned his attention to the man. The church fathers agree that the paralytic shared that faith. Yet his four friends demonstrated it. St. John Chrysostom says, “…they put the man before Christ, saying nothing, but committing everything to Christ.”

Because of their trust in the healing power of the Lord, these men did a bold, even audacious thing. It was a huge risk. What if the Lord would become upset because of the interruption? What if the Lord could not heal the man? What if the owner of the house sued for damages?

We often overlook the bold faith of these four men in our rush to hear the rest of the story. Yet if we think of it, there four were not the only ones who sought the Lord’s healing power for their loved ones. Recall the daughter of the ruler of the synagogue who “begged Jesus earnestly” to come to heal his daughter (Mark 5:21-24). Then there was the Canaanite woman who also came crying out for the Lord’s mercy for her daughter who was possessed by a demon (Matthew 15:21-28). Furthermore, there was the centurion whose faith was so strong that he said that Jesus only had to “say the word” and his servant would be healed from a distance (Matthew 8:5-13).

All these had faith enough to bring someone else to the Lord for his mercy. And their faith was not merely a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” But their faith was big enough and strong enough to include and embrace others who were in need of the mercy of the Lord. Their faith was so powerful it prompted the action of love.

Our society assumes an opposite view of the nature of faith. Thus, it would be worthwhile for us to spend a few moments considering this connection between faith and love this morning on the Second Sunday in Great Lent. To do this, we must step out of our time and place and look at faith in a new light. You see, in the Western view, faith is an entirely personal matter. Everyone has his own faith. Each one of us has the freedom of her own faith. Each one of us can have the faith that we want as long as we do not bother anyone else with it.

If we take this idea of religious faith far enough, we get what religion is fast coming to in the 21st century. The claim is now that one can believe but not belong. One can be religious without having a religion. One can worship one’s own god. Every person can be a “church of one.”

I worry that this individualism has deeply affected the Orthodox in America and the way we practice our faith in such seasons as this time of Great Lent. In this season, we turn inward, and that is right. We go into our room and shut the door and pray to our Father in secret (Matthew 6:6) as the Lord taught us. Further, in keeping with the Lord’s teaching, we do not make a public show of our fasting (Matthew 6:16).

Yet the Church teaches that our prayer and fasting, however pious, is vain—it is empty—without charity. After all, even the demons can go without food. The prophet Isaiah rails against those think they are pious when they put on sackcloth and fast from food. Yet these same people mistreat the weak and abuse the lowly (Isaiah 58:3-4).  In response to their false piety, the Lord says, “I did not choose such a fast!” (Isaiah 58:6) The true fast that is pleasing to God is refraining from wrongdoing, ending violence, and giving up unfair dealings (Isaiah 58:6). The true fast is to “break your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into your house,” and “to clothe the naked” (Isaiah 58:7).

Yes, in Great Lent, we  seek to return to the Father’s house and to be restored to our communion with God.  But the God whom we seek is the God of love and mercy. Therefore, the Apostle wrote, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God. Whoever loves knows God. Whoever does not love, does not know God for God is love” (1 John 4:7-8).

The church fathers consistently teach that alms giving--the practice of charity--is an essential discipline of Great Lent. It is just as important as prayer and fasting and must not be separated from them. For example, the great prayer of Lent, the prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian, does not stop with the inner struggle with the passions of sloth, despair, and lust of power. But it asks for the virtues that have to do with our relationship with others—especially with patience and love.

This guidance for our spiritual renewal in Lent is based on the Church’s understanding of the unbroken relationship between faith and love, a bond that the four men who brought the paralytic to Jesus demonstrate. Their faith led them to believe that Jesus could heal their friend. But it was their love that moved them to bring their friend to the Lord of healing no matter what.

Faith, you see, is incomplete in itself. Faith is abiding in the Lord Jesus Christ. That seems to be a deeply personal thing. But this “abiding” is like a branch that clings to a vine. As long as it stays on the vine, as long as it receives nourishment from the vine, the branch cannot help but bear fruit (John 15:5). It is expected to bear fruit, the fruit of good works, the harvest of love. No: faith is incomplete in itself. It completes itself--it reaches its end and goal-- in love.

Let me put it this way: the impulse of faith is love, a love that includes our fellow believers to be sure. Yet the love that is born of faith does not stop with our family, friends, and fellow parishioners. It reaches out farther and farther and finally embraces everyone in the world and all things in the universe. Thus, our Divine Liturgy begins with the prayer for “peace throughout the whole world.” And at the climax of the Eucharistic Liturgy, we offer the Holy Gifts of the Body and Blood of the Lord Jesus Christ “in behalf of all and for all.”

As we do this, we are like the four men in our Gospel. In the offering of the Liturgy, we bear and bring the whole universe to the Throne of Grace as the four men brought the paralytic to Jesus. In this sense, we ought to offer the bloodless sacrifice with such fervency of faith that our prayers break through the very roof of heaven and the whole universe lies before the face of the Lord of mercy.

Let me try to extend this thought. Like the four men in our Gospel, we act as stretcher-bearers when we stand before the altar and offer sacrifices and prayers for ourselves and all people. We also act as stretcher-bearers when we lift up all in any need in our daily prayers. That much we can understand.

But perhaps we also are called to act as faithful stretcher-bearers as we go out into the world of daily life and care for others. What is alms giving after all but an expression of our faith that the Lord can and does work through us? What are works of charity but ways of sharing the very Love of God that has been given to us? In short, by our acts of caring, we trust that others will come to know the mercy of Christ, even through us. Why couldn’t we think of ourselves, then, as the Lord’s stretch-bearers?

In conclusion, this is an intensely personal time of the turning to the Lord. It is, therefore, a special season when we pray with the disciples, “Lord, increase our faith” (Luke 17:5). Yet we do not go through this time of spiritual renewal alone. We are here to support one another. In this way, we are stretcher-bearers for one another, bringing and commending each other as well as our world to Christ our Lord. Whatever faith that God gives us is naturally expressed in our love, not only for one another but also for everyone and everything in God’s creation. So let us continue the course of the fast, not neglecting prayers and fasting for our growth in faith--yet also, not neglecting alms giving and works of charity that are the necessary fruit of faith.


Saturday, March 23, 2013

Sunday of Orthodoxy: Icons and Spiritual Sight

Today’s Gospel on this Sunday of Orthodoxy is all about seeing.  Philip invites Nathaniel to come to see Jesus. When Nathaniel comes to him, Jesus says, “Behold, I see a true son of Israel—that is, one of God’s people.” Nathaniel says, “How did you know that?” Jesus says, “I saw you under a fig tree.” Then he says, “You will see greater things than these” (John 1:50).

All this is about a special kind of sight--the seeing of things through spiritual eyes. On this Sunday of the celebration of the Truth of Orthodoxy, the Church has a message for all who are seeking the Truth of what is right, genuine, and good. To all who are looking for peace, hope, fulfillment, and every blessings of God, the Church says, “Come and see!” Come and see in our Lord Jesus Christ the Light of the grace of God.

              Today we glory in the use of icons in the Orthodox Church. They are our trademark, a special feature of who we are and what we believe as Orthodox Christians. Icons represent a distinctive way of seeing—a unique insight into the spiritual things below the surface of the material things of this world. By them and through them, we see into the invisible world of the Kingdom of God—the realm of angels, saints, and spirits. And by that seeing we have communion with the Lord Jesus Christ, the Mother of God, and the saints of all ages who share in the glory of the Holy Trinity.

              We are not in the habit of seeing this way. It takes concentrated effort. So it is appropriate that we observe this special day of the celebration of icons as we begin the season of Great Lent. For in Great Lent, we turn our attention from the things of the material world to the things of the spirit: from physical hunger to spiritual hunger, from worldly passions to heavenly aspirations, from the cares of this world to the hunger and thirst for the righteousness of the Kingdom of Heaven.

              Indeed as we observe Lent, we are like the blind Bartimaus by the road who cried out for the mercy of the Lord. Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Rabbi, let me receive my sight” (Mark 10:51).  

              So also this blind beggar is an example for us. In the Lenten season, we join him in the prayer, “Lord, let me receive my sight!” Let inner eyes of my soul be enlightened so that I might see, not physically but spiritually. Let me receive my sight--so that I might see with inner eyes of faith the glory of God shown forth in the Lord Jesus Christ. Let me receive my sight so that I might know the depth of God’s mercy and the riches of God’s grace. Let me receive my sight so that I might see beyond the passing things in the world the eternal blessings of the Kingdom where the saints enjoy forever the goodness of God.     

              The Lenten disciplines are meant to bring us the answer to this prayer. For if we are to receive our spiritual sight, we must repent. And repentance means that we must turn away from what makes us spiritually blind. To do this we need to change our habits of seeing. We need to practice what the church fathers called “guarding the eyes.”

               For example, St. John Chrysostom said that  fasting is more than abstaining from meat. Fasting also entails giving up “improper sight.” "Looking," St. John said, "is the 'food' of the eyes." Here is the comparison. We know that our stomachs are always hungering for food. Likewise, our eyes are always hungering for things to see. If we go suddenly into the dark, our eyes actually stain to see something

            Now the question is what sights are we feasting our eyes on? The media strive to bring us all sorts of delicious sights. Television, movies, video games, You Tube—all these give us a captivating vision of the world. More often than not, this view of the world includes violence, sex, raw power, and revenge.  

            But please understand that the sight of these things is not just entertainment. These things make an impression on us. In fact, sight makes a quicker, impression than anything else does. As we know, it is hard to get a certain picture out of our minds. In this sense, we know what we see.

           These thoughts lead us to see the critical important of our habits of seeing. Furthermore, we see that these habits can bring us sights that turn us from the spiritual world of peace and goodness to the world of strife and evil. Thus in Lent, it is necessary for us to fast from things that cause spiritual blindness, the criticism that blinds us to our own faults, the covetousness that blinds us to the enjoyment of the blessings of God, the lust that blinds us to true beauty, and the greed that blinds us to God’s free grace.

             In all these cases and more, the passions that we feed with our physical eyes distract us from seeing the spiritual things of eternity. These sights of worldly things compel us to focus our eyes on things outside ourselves instead of the things that can only be known if we look inside ourselves—that is, if we see into the depths of our heart where the Spirit of God dwells. But the result of focusing our eyes on worldly things is spiritual blindness. In short, the sights of the material universe can so we can capture our ways of seeing, that we blind ourselves to the inner “world of the spirit,” a world revealed by the use of icons that we celebrate today.

            It is a sign of the spiritual blindness of today's society that many say that no one can obtain the vision of God. They said it in the time of St. Gregory Palamas, and they say it today. They insist that it impossible for anyone to “come and see” God as Nathaniel did in our Gospel.

            But the point is this. In our Gospel, Nathaniel is invited to come to see Jesus. In Him, he is to see God Incarnate—God come in the flesh. It is just as Jesus said of Himself, “Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father!” (John 14:9).

           Our use of icons is based on this foundation of faith, the faith in the Incarnation. It is just as the Gospel of John declares: “No one has ever seen God at any time, but the only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the father has made Him known” (John 1:18). And again as St. Paul says, “God who commanded light to shine out of darkness has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).

             Because the Son of God has come down from heaven and become man for our sake, we can now see God in this present world. When we venerate the Lord Jesus Christ in icons, we make a connection with Him by the combination of physical and spiritual sight. And in making a connection with the Lord, we make a connection with God, the Holy Trinity. Moreover, when we venerate the Mother of God and the saints in icons, we make a connection by such sight with those who, though they are not God, reflect the grace of the Lord Jesus.

           Of course, not all will understand or agree with us. There is a story that comes from the time of iconoclastic controversy during time of Julian Apostate. The unbelieving Emperor once observed a monk as he was venerating an icon. He summoned the monk and said, “Stupid monk, can’t you see that anyone can walk all over the face of Christ in a painting and not defile his person.” At that, the monk threw down a coin with the emperor’s inscription on it. “In that case,” he said, “I can stomp on your image and not show any disrespect to you.” The monk was executed for his disrespect to the Emperor.

           Despite those who criticize us, we glory in icons today, because in the icons we feast our eyes on the things of the spirit. Realizing how critical our habits of seeing are to our spiritual life, the Psalmist said, “I will not set before my eyes anything that is base (Ps 101:3). On the other hand, he said, “I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With Him at my right hand, I will not be shaken” (Ps. 16:8 NIV).

            The way that we Orthodox “set the Lord before our eyes” is that we adorn our homes and churches with icons of Christ and the saints. We do this because we know that what we set before our eyes is critical. The Lord said, “Eyes are lamp of the body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body will be filled with light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness” (Matthew 6:22).  If we set evil before our eyes, then evil will invade our whole self. If we set worldly things before our eyes, then the things of this world will permeate our whole self. But if we set the sight of the Lord Jesus Christ and His saints before our eyes, then the beauty of the Lord will enter into our hearts and our whole self will be filled with the knowledge of His love and grace.

       In conclusion, today on this Sunday of Orthodoxy, let us turn from our former habits of seeing. Let us accept the invitation that Phillip extended to Nathaniel today and “come and see” the Lord Jesus Christ. With the eyes of faith, let us see Him as the Church sees Him and as the icons depict Him-- as the Incarnate Son of God, as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, and as the Lord and Savior of our lives. Let us keep His image and His reflection in the saints continually before our eyes. And by that cooperation with the Holy Spirit, may our eyes be opened to the glory and grace of God.