Wednesday, November 15, 2017

WORK OUT YOUR OWN SALVATION

St. Paul assures the Ephesians, "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast."  Are we, then, to conclude, as do certain Protestants, that we are saved once and for all merely by confessing Jesus to be our "personal" Savior?  Has He, indeed, already done it all, so that we need not strive and struggle to uproot the sinful passions that lurk within the soul, to acquire every virtue, and to purify our hearts that we might receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit?

St. James, of course, states clearly that "grace without works is dead,"  but even in today's epistle, the Holy Apostle goes on to say "For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, that God hath before ordained that we should walk in them."  The truth is, however, that the entire "faith versus works" controversy in the West--Catholic versus Protestant--is based upon a false dichotomy.  Salvation is indeed God's gift, and not a reward for our good deeds and behavior.  Apart from the grace of God, there  can be no salvation. 

Nevertheless, God's grace comes at a cost.  God has granted unto us the gift of free will, and unless we freely choose to cooperate with His grace by striving to live a life of sacrificial love and suffering on His behalf--to mortify every egotistical thought and desire--then it shall be proved, in the end, that we have received His grace in vain.

There is, however, a deeper issue involved here: what, exactly, so we mean by salvation?  Is it, as these same Protestants teach, merely that God forgives our sins (a purely legal pardon) so that we can go to heaven when we die?  Or is it, rather, as the Church Fathers teach, that the Son of God became man, that the sons and daughters of men might become gods?  That is, we are called--as St. Peter reminds us--to become "partakers of the Divine Nature"--transformed and sanctified by grace--a process beginning here and now in this earthly life and extending into eternity.

As St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, "But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord."  To be sanctified, changed, and transfigured by the uncreated grace of God, from glory to glory--it is to this that we have all been called.

But straight and narrow is the path that leads to salvation, and indeed--"The Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force"... that is, our ultimate salvation demands that we do violence against our own sinful and fallen nature, ever striving to cut off at its roots every passionate thought and desire.  Therefore, brothers and sisters in Christ, "Be sober, be vigilant: because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour."

Monday, November 6, 2017

THE RICH MAN AND LAZARUS

Today's Gospel reading, though generally referred to as a parable, most certainly (in my humble opinion) is not.  Consider, for example, last week's Parable of the Sower: no pretense was made of relating to a real event that actually took place in space and time.  It was, rather, symbolic, and therefore its meaning required interpretation.  In this case, on the other hand, our Lord does not say that the Kingdom is like unto, or anything of the sort, but merely says, there was a certain rich man, and a certain beggar named Lazarus (and note: in no parable is a character given an actual name).  And so it would seem, rather, that this is a straightforward true story.

I am not sure why this story should have been inserted in this particular place in the Gospel, but I would suggest that perhaps it was in order to illustrate the words just previously spoken by our Lord: "Ye cannot serve both God and Mammon."  Which is to say: one cannot truly serve God while being at the same time attached to the riches and pleasures of this world.  For all such "good things" shall surely pass away, and can in nowise be taken with us when we pass from  this world to the next.  As the saying goes, "You can't take it with you."

Therefore does the Holy Apostle Paul proclaim, "God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified to me, and I unto the world."  That is to say, it is only through a disciplined life of self-denial--setting aside every attachment to the so-called "good things" of this world--that we can hope to be saved.

And so... was the rich man someone whom the world would consider evil?  Did he flagrantly violate the commandments of God, willfully striving to inflict pain and suffering on others?  Was he "literally" Hitler?  By no means!  Indeed, he may well have been a most esteemed and respected member of the local synagogue.  But he had, nevertheless, forgotten God, having come to consider a life of self-indulgence and fleeting happiness to be the ultimate goal and purpose of his existence.

And as for Lazarus: was he such a model of virtue and piety that he was deemed worthy by God to be received into Abraham's bosom?  Who can say?  It is, however, fairly certain that he was profoundly humble and content to thankfully receive that small measure of consolation granted to him.

Truth is, neither was the rich man punished and cast by God into hell; nor was Lazarus permitted to enter Paradise as a reward for his good deeds.  Rather, they both gravitated to that place to which their hearts naturally inclined.  And so it is for us all: God neither casts us into hell, or rewards us with Paradise, on the basis of outward appearances.  He alone is capable of judging the true inclination of each human heart.  But in the end, it is we ourselves who choose: either eternal separation from God in a hell of our own making, or else communion in love with the angels and all the saints in God's heavenly Kingdom.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

THE WORD OF GOD

Having spoken the Parable of the Sower, our Lord Himself sets forth to explain its meaning to His Apostles: "The seed is the word of God."  It is, however, easy to gloss over this introductory statement, and to move on to a consideration of the various ways (as illustrated in the parable) in which this word might (or might not) be received.  But it might behoove us to consider first of all, what precisely is this "word of God?"

For those of us who have been brought up in a society deeply impregnated with a Protestant ethos, the Word of God signifies the Bible.  But of course it should be remembered that at the time Christ spoke this parable, there was no New Testament, no Gospels or Epistles: only the written words of God's revelation as recorded in the Law and the Prophets. 

Our Lord specifically states, however, that the seed sown is the word, not the words of God.  And so it is that the Holy Apostle John the Theologian affirms that in the beginning was the Word--that is, our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ Himself, the Logos of God, One of the Holy Trinity, of one essence with the Father and the Spirit--the Trinity one in essence and undivided. 

So it stands to reason that the seed sown by the sower (God the Father) in the hearts of the faithful is Jesus Christ Himself--not merely the words of a moral and philosophical system relating to salvation, but salvation itself!  For it is not through mere words (however profoundly expressed) that we are saved, but rather through the power and mercy of the eternal Logos of God, of Whom the Holy Martyr Longinus proclaimed, "Truly this was the Son of God!"  

If, then, a Protestant should ask, "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior," the answer should be an emphatic yes!... and how could it be otherwise?  Could there possibly be any such thing as an impersonal relationship with anyone--let alone with God?  And so it behooves us to ask... do we indeed know Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior?  Have we so cultivated the soil of our hearts that His salvific grace might not only take root, but flourish within our souls?  This is the ultimate question, the only question worthy of our consideration. 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

THE CHURCH'S ONE FOUNDATION

"But I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me," writes the Holy Apostle Paul to the Galatians, "is not after man.  For I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ."  And so it is evident that the truth of our Faith cannot be arrived at through rational thought and logical deduction, but only through a personal encounter with He Who proclaimed Himself to be the Truth--our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.  This is the very revelation of God to the human heart, imparted in and through the Church by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. 

This divine revelation is the very basis of the Church's Holy Tradition, which includes but is by no means limited to the written words of Holy Scripture, which can only be rightly understood according to the inspired interpretation of the Holy God-bearing Fathers of the Church.  This sacred Tradition has nothing to do--despite the teachings of the Protestants--with those "traditions of men" the Scriptures warn us against.  The Church's one foundation, as the Protestant hymn rightly proclaims, is indeed Jesus Christ our Lord--Who is the same yesterday, today, and forever--and so the Truth He reveals in His own Person is not subject in any way to ongoing change and development, according to the spirit of the times we live in.  Those sacred doctrines revealed by Christ, taught by the Holy Apostles, and sealed by the blood of the martyrs are immutable, and shall endure unto the very end of time.

This is verily the true Faith taught by the Fathers of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, those mystical trumpets of the Holy Spirit, those good shepherds of the flock of Christ who banished from the Church those teachers of false and heretical doctrines which perverted the God-revealed Truth, leading astray from the path of salvation many of the faithful.  These Holy Fathers faithfully proclaimed and defended the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church--the Orthodox  Church--the Faith which hath established the universe!

Now more than ever--as we draw ever closer to that universal apostasy and the revelation of the Antichrist prophesied for these final days preceding the end of time--it is essential that all of us who profess Christ should strive to remain steadfast in the Faith, that through God's grace we might endure and overcome every trial and temptation of the Evil One, that we may prove worthy in the end to inherit true and eternal life in God's heavenly kingdom. 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

CEASE TO EXIST

"Whosoever will come after Me," our Lord proclaims, "let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.  For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for My sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it."  By these words, Christ expresses a seeming paradox, such as we encounter in the saying, "The first shall be last, and the last first."  How, then, are we to interpret such profound and apparently contradictory passages?  Are we to contemplate our Lord's words as though they are analogous to a Zen koan, like "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"  God forbid!

The key to understanding such cryptic sayings is, rather, that there are two kingdoms manifest in the realm of this phenomenal, fallen  world.  On the one hand, there is the Kingdom of God, which is the  truly existing, eternal realm of the holy, life-creating Trinity, transcending the created dimensions of time and space.  On the other hand, there is the realm of the Kingdom of Self, the realm of the false ego and of those spirits of evil--the fallen angels--who inhabit the aerial sphere surrounding the earth.  Within this realm, "your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour."  To be sure, his days are numbered--and so he is desperate in these final days to deceive and ensnare as many human souls as he can, dragging them down into the dark pit of eternal death and destruction. 

Thus, it is essential that the false, self-centered ego--bound by the passions--must be put to death if we truly desire to say with St. Paul, "I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me."  That is to say, our corruptible, earthbound self must cease to exist if we hope to enter into that dimension of true and eternal life, that we might become partakers of the divine nature and gods by grace. 

Now it is by love alone (because God is love) that we shall be fully united to Him--whether in this life or the next.  It is only through receiving this gift of unconditional, self-giving love that we might die with Christ, putting to death the false ego, that the true, God-centered self can emerge, like a butterfly from its chrysalis.  But if we are to acquire this pure and perfect love, it is essential that we first lay the foundation of genuine humility, without which it is impossible to cast forth the works of darkness and to enter into the light of God's eternal Kingdom.

As an example of this humility, let us consider the Canaanite woman in today's Gospel.  She shamelessly beseeches our Lord's mercy, for her daughter is "grievously vexed with a devil"--most likely as a consequence of her own mother's sinful life and pagan practices.  Yet even when our Lord snubs her and insults her, in effect calling her a dog, this woman in nowise objects or takes offence, meekly replying, "Truth, Lord: yet even the dogs eat of the crumbs that fall from the master's table."  It is this profound humility that our Lord commends, and that we ourselves should strive to emulate in our own lives.

Monday, September 25, 2017

THAT YE LOVE ONE ANOTHER

The Holy Apostle, Evangelist, and Theologian John assures us, "For God so loved the world that He gave His Only-begotten Son, that whoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life....  For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through Him might be saved." This is good news indeed!  For if any of us were to be judged strictly according to how successfully we have invested that talent entrusted to us at our Baptism,  it is unlikely that we could hope to be saved. 

Consider, if you will, the gospel account of the woman caught in adultery: according to the letter of the Jewish Law, she should have been stoned to death, thereby reflecting a harsh and uncompromising understanding of God's justice still enforced in Muslim  countries unto this day.  (And it should be noted that nowhere in the Koran is love an attribute attributed to the falsely conceived Muslim God, Allah).  But when, in the fullness of time, our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ reveals Himself in the flesh, he imparts to His disciples a New Commandment that supersedes (or rather, fulfills) the Law of Moses: that we love one another, even as He has loved us. For truly, as St. John the Theologian assures us, God is love, and therefore it follows that "He desires not the death of the sinner, but rather that the sinner should turn from his way and live."

A perfect example of God's ardent desire for the salvation of the sinner is recorded in His encounter with the woman caught in adultery.  The Jewish rulers expect our Lord to uphold the decree of condemnation, to support the letter of the Jewish Law.  But as on previous occasions, He surprises them.  He pauses, while writing something in the dust of the ground with His finger.  Or is He merely doodling, trying to gain time while thinking through His response--or perhaps for the sake of a dramatic effect?  Not at all!  According to tradition, he is revealing in bold terms the past sins of those hypocrites who are seeking to bring the woman to justice.  Only then does He proclaim, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."

Does this mean, however, that Jesus excuses--or even condones--sin?  Is He, in effect, telling the woman that what she did is no big deal after all, that all is automatically forgiven through the superabundant love of God?  Definitely not!  He says, rather, "Neither do I condemn you.  Go, and sin no more."  Indeed He does not condemn.  It is rather we who condemn ourselves to eternal separation from God by our failure to sincerely repent of the multitudinous sins we have committed every day of our lives--whether by thought, word, deed, or desire.  By rejecting the commandment of love, we reject God, thereby separating ourselves from true and eternal life in His heavenly Kingdom.

So while it is true that God's love is unconditional, His forgiveness is not.  He forgives us our debts only to the extent that we forgive our debtors.  And while He assures us that those who believe in Him will be granted eternal life, mere belief obviously isn't enough.  For if we truly believe in Him, we will strive day and night to abide by His commandments--and above all, the commandment of love--for as it is written, even the devils believe... and tremble.

His desire for our salvation far exceeds our own.  If it were other wise, we would strive and struggle unto the very end to increase whatever talents God has entrusted unto us.  We would be diligent in prayer and every form of self-denial, ever seeking to acquire a genuine spirit of repentance, that through God's grace and mercy, we might be found worthy on that dreadful day of judgment to inherit those eternal good things God has in store for those who love Him.

Monday, September 11, 2017

THE MARRIAGE FEAST

The Marriage Feast in today's Gospel is an image of that eternal Kingdom of God, to which "many are called and few are chosen," prepared for those who love Him and abide by His commandments.  According to this parable, the King (God the Father) "sent forth His servants to call them that were bidden to the wedding of His Son" (our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ): and they would not come.  And indeed, "they made light of it, and went their ways, one to his farm, another to his merchandise."  That is, they were so caught up in the affairs of this world that they failed to perceive those eternal good things God has in store for those endure unto the end the trials and tribulations of this earthly life for the sake of a better hope.

They were invited to the wedding--to enter into true and eternal life in God's heavenly Kingdom--yet they thoughtlessly spurned   this gift, freely choosing instead to live their lives in bondage to the false and superficial goals and desires of this world.  So it is that we ourselves are responsible for our ultimate destiny.  We can either chose to accept God's gracious invitation to enter into the joy of eternal life and salvation, or we can willingly and voluntarily consign ourselves to a hell of our own making.

It is sure and certain that it is not God Who created hell, nor does He "send" us there as punishment for being "bad."  When the King's servants were, in the end, sent forth into the highways, they "gathered together all as many as they found, both bad and good."   Nowhere in the Holy Scriptures is it said that we are saved because we are "good," for indeed:  "God desires not the death of the sinner, but rather that the sinner should turn from his way and live."  It is, rather, through sincere repentance and a fervent desire to live our lives in accordance with God's commandments that we are made worthy to receive within ourselves the transforming grace of the Holy Spirit, that by dying to the false promises of this world, we might be made worthy to inherit our true destiny as sons and daughters of God.

So who is to blame if we find ourselves in the end cast into that place of outer darkness, where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, because we would dare to enter the wedding feast without a wedding garment--that is, those virtues we are all called to acquire--above all, that humble and contrite heart which God does not despise?  (According to Jewish custom, by the way, the wedding garment was provided for all guests as they entered, so there can be no excuse for not wearing it.) God is love, and so--if we truly desire in our hearts to be made worthy of His Kingdom, we must pray above all for humility, patience, the gift of love in our hearts--and all things needful for our eternal salvation in his heavenly Kingdom.