Wednesday, March 22, 2017

ON THE GRACE OF GOD

"How shall we escape," asks the Holy Apostle Paul in his epistle to the Hebrews, "if we neglect so great salvation...?"  For according to the Holy Fathers of the Church, salvation consists not merely in God's formal, legal pardon of our sins, that we might "go to heaven" when we die.  It is, rather, that we might become (according to the words of St. Peter) "partakers of the divine nature," transformed by divine grace into His sons and daughters.  As the Holy Fathers affirm, God became man, that we sinful ones might become gods by grace.

But what, precisely, is this grace by which we hope to be transformed?  It is not, contrary to the teachings of the Latins, something God creates and adds onto our human nature. It is, as St. Gregory of Palamas expounds, the uncreated energy of God, His Holy Spirit imparted to the heart that has been purified and delivered from every worldly attachment and thereby rendered worthy of true and eternal life in God's heavenly Kingdom.

By grace, the eternal and living God is closer to the human soul than the very air we breathe.  Like red hot iron that has been plunged into a fire, the all-consuming fire of God's love draws us into a communion so deep that it is no longer possible to distinguish that boundary that separates the merely human from the divine.  

Because, as St. John the Theologian assures us, God is love, the fire of divine grace enkindles in the heart a love so intense that it utterly consumes every egotistic, self-centered thought and desire that lurks in our fallen human nature.  And so it is that we cease to exist as individuals intent on fulfilling our self-centered wills, striving above all else to fulfill God's will for our life.

This is, to be sure, a lofty goal--which most of us are far short of achieving.  But if the goal we set for ourselves were to be anything less than this, it would hardly be worth striving for.  The glory and honor God holds in store for those who love Him and fulfill His commandments in this earthly life can clearly be attained by no other means than a total and unconditional dedication of our lives to Jesus Christ--the Lord, God, and Savior of the human race. 

Saturday, March 4, 2017

COME AND SEE

In today's Gospel, Jesus find Philip and says to him, "Follow me."  Then "Philip findeth Nathanael and saith unto him, We have found him, of whom Moses in the Law, and the prophets, did write, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.  And Nathanael said unto him, can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?  Philip sayeth unto him, Come and see."  Indeed, the theme of light and darkness is interwoven throughout the Gospels and Epistles.  Christ--Who declares Himself to be the Light of the World--opens the eyes of the blind and enlightens all who desire to cast off the darkness and ignorance of their former lives. In like manner, the Holy Apostle Paul is temporarily blinded by the light of Christ's revelation on the road to Damascus.  It was only after he had received through Ananias the gift of the Holy Spirit that immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales.

The relative sight or blindness of our material eyes, of course, is not the issue.  What we need to fear above all is the blindness of our spiritual perception, the darkening of the eye of the soul--the nous--the blinds us to the vision of God and consigns us, in the end, to that place of outer darkness... where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Such blindness is the result of our sinful pride and willful ignorance.

It is by faith alone that we can, by the grace of God, be delivered from the bondage and darkness of the sinful passions, that we might, through heartfelt repentance, be made worthy to behold the ineffable and eternal Glory of God made manifest through the incarnation of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  For truly God is light, in Whom there is neither darkness nor the shadow of turning.  It is by faith alone that the vision of truth is granted to the believer--and this faith is never blind.  It is, rather, acquired through the acquisition of the knowledge of God, which is the key that opens unto us the gates of Paradise. 

Today we celebrate the joyous Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy--which is, precisely, the restoration of the holy icons that came to pass after the bleak and barren winter of the heretical doctrine of iconoclasm--a heresy that is still alive and well in our present day among the heterodox.  By their rejection of the sacred image as an essential component of divine worship, however, the heretics deny the foundational principle of our Faith: the incarnation of Christ as the Godman, Who has taken upon Himself the fullness of our humanity that we might become gods by grace.  And so it is evident that the veneration of icons is not only lawful, but indeed it is vital to the preservation of that Faith which has established the universe.

For those whose spiritual eyes have been opened, the icon is revealed as a window to heaven--a revelation of that eternal and unchanging spiritual realm that exists above and beyond the transitory world of time and space we perceive through our physical senses.  Like every aspect of the divine worship of the Orthodox Church, they impart to us the vision of a world transfigured and glorified by the grace of God, a reality that far transcends the boundaries of our material existence, that we might become partakers of the divine nature and communicants of life eternal.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

MAKE NOT PROVISION FOR THE FLESH

"But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof,"  writes St. Paul to the Romans.  In other words, we should pray to God day and night that He may deliver us from the destructive passion of self-love: the inordinate desire to please ourselves above all else, to satisfy at all costs the desires of the flesh, rather than striving to please God alone, willingly sacrificing the fulfillment of our own carnal desires for the sake of our love for Christ and our fellow man--our neighbor.

It is often said by those who have been offended: "I can forgive that person... but I can never forget."  Now what, precisely, does this mean?  In what sense can we claim to have forgiven someone their offences (real or imagined) against us, when we cannot set aside the remembrance of wrongs?  This is nonsense! 

When the Prodigal Son "came to himself" and returned home, begging his father's forgiveness, the father does not say: "I do forgive you and welcome you back, though I cannot quite forget the foolish things you have done...."  In fact, he simply ignores his son's plea that he be reckoned henceforth as a hired servant.  Rather, he sets aside any remembrance of his son's misdeeds and embraces him with love, restoring to him the tokens of his inheritance and ordering that a great feast be made.

Truly God forgives us our trespasses whenever we sincerely repent, but this forgiveness is neither more nor less than the action of His unconditional love: a love that has already "forgotten" whatever wrongs we may have committed.  As we pray in the Lord's Prayer: "Forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors."  In other words, we are called to forgive others in the very same way God forgives us, setting aside the very remembrance of wrongs.

It is pride alone that prompts us to proclaim that we have forgiven our neighbor, while refusing to forget.  Inflated by pride, our false egos make a pretense of forgiveness, while stubbornly holding on to its self-righteous claims.  The fact is, though, we cannot truly love our neighbor as our very own self until we have "ceased to exist" as self-centered entities, having died with Christ in the waters of Baptism that we might partake of his holy Resurrection.  We must strive to put to death every egotistical thought, word, and desire, that our hearts may be opened to the all-consuming love of God in Christ Jesus.  Only then can we say with the Holy Apostle, "It is no longer I who live, but Christ in me."

Sunday, February 19, 2017

THE FINAL JUDGMENT

When the Son of man shall come in His glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall He sit upon the throne of His glory: and before Him shall be gathered all nations: and He shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats."  What a frightful prospect is this Final Judgment, that shall be revealed at the end of time!  It is truly dreadful to contemplate, precisely because it is final.  For while it is certain that there is no repentance after death, one can nevertheless hope to be delivered from hell through the prayers of the Church.  But on that Day when our Lord returns to judge the living and the dead, the can be no recourse nor possibility of acquittal for those who have failed in this earthly life to abide by the Law of Love as set forth in the Gospel of Christ. 

And according to this passage, it all comes down in the end to whether or not we have been willing during our earthly pilgrimage to minister in a concrete way to the least of Christ's brethren: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, take in the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned--all for the sake of the love of God that dwells in our hearts. 

And if--God forbid--we shall be found lacking, what can we possibly say in our defense?  Perhaps: "I saw Facebook posts of starving children and war-torn refugees, and I clicked 'like' and 'share.'"  Or: "I prayed for world peace and participated in protest marches against injustice."  Or: "I willingly paid my taxes so that the government can set up programs to help the poor."  And for good measure, I even honked my horn to prove that I love Jesus!  All well and good... but what is truly personal about any of this?  Because the God we worship is a personal God, so is our love and compassion toward the least of Christ's brethren meant to be person to person, face to face, while we strive to see in every person we encounter the face of Christ and the Image of God--no matter how darkened or distorted this Image may be.

It should be understood, however, that it is not because we dutifully performed such acts of charity that we are saved.  It is rather according to the disposition of our heart that God judges us.  If our love for God and our fellow man is genuine and sincere, we will naturally do those things that are needful for our salvation--often without thinking twice (after all, the sheep themselves did no remember what they had done to deserve such a reward).  A humble and contrite heart God will not despise; nor will He fail to impart His grace and mercy unto a heart burning with compassion and a fervent desire to endure sacrificial suffering on behalf of those downcast and less fortunate.

Opportunities abound in our daily lives to put into practice the faith we profess.  Unfortunately, we are often too blind and distracted to see far beyond our own selfish needs and desires.  Like the goats in the Gospel passage, we are clueless regarding those times when we failed to minister unto the least of Christ's brethren.  And so may God have mercy on us all, and grant to us a new beginning as we prepare to enter into the season of the Great Fast.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

FLEE FORNICATION!

Webster's defines the term "prodigal" as "wastefully or recklessly extravagant." This  is the defining characteristic of the Prodigal Son in today's Gospel... not merely, as many think, that he was wayward... though most certainly he was.  Certainly this younger son was restless and impatient, demanding of his father that he receive the inheritance due to him at once. Perhaps against his better judgment, the father acquiesces to this demand, and soon thereafter the Prodigal "took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living" (a colorful term indeed!)   That is to say, he departed from the promise of a heavenly homeland into a realm ruled by the darkness of the passions, unilluminated by the light of God.

And so he squandered those God given gifts by which he might have attained eternal life and salvation, preferring instead to wallow in the mud of sensual desires, rather than striving to acquire those ineffable good things God has in store for those who love Him and abide by His commandments.  And why?....  Because it is so much easier to follow the path of least resistance, willfully distorting that divine image implanted within us at our creation, blinding the eyes of our soul to the truth  while seeking in every possible way to justify our unbridled indulgence in sensual pleasures. 

And so it is that we, like the Prodigal Son, prefer the transient joys of "riotous living" over a life devoted to the struggle to achieve self-denial and sacrificial suffering for the sake of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ.  But what, precisely, does this life of "riotous living" entail?  Drunkenness and debauchery on numerous levels, to be sure, but at the basis of it all is... fornication!  Which, in the broadest sense, includes all forms of idolatry: exalting any person, object, or idea above God, which includes worshipping any ideology or "ism" in the place of God. 

On the most basic, physical level, though, fornication simply means... having sex outside of marriage, no matter the circumstances or self-justification.  Thus, St. Paul exhorts us to "flee fornication," because "your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own."  By this means we can refute those pro-life woman who insist that their body is their own, and they are free to do whatever they want with it.  But I shouldn't need to say any more on this topic: as Orthodox Christians, we are well aware that abortion is purely and simply murder. 

But are we so firm in our convictions when it comes to fornication?  To be blunt: do we truly consider any  sexual relations outside of marriage to sinful, always and everywhere, and despite the circumstances?  Back in the old days (before the so-called "sexual revolution") fornication was widespread enough to be sure, but nevertheless, everyone knew it was wrong, and those who transgressed were subject to the sanctions of a society that was still imbued with Christian values.  But things have changed.  "Living together" and having "partners" has become so much a part of our moral landscape that even professed Christians barely bat an eyelash. Yet Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever--and so are those moral standards He has imparted to us by divine revelation.  And so we must cast to the wind our "political correctness" and our fear of "offending," calling a spade a spade--not in a spirit of judgement and condemnation, but rather in a spirit of love and compassion, that the sinner might by God's grace and mercy return from his evil ways and live.


Tuesday, January 31, 2017

A MAN NAMED ZACCHEUS....

Today's Gospel concerns "a man named Zaccheus, which was the chief among the publicans, and he was rich."  In this context, of course, a publican is not the owner of a pub, but rather a tax collector.  For this reason was Zaccheus despised by the Jews as a sinner and an outcast, a traitor to his own people, a vile collaborator who conspired with the Romans to oppress the Jewish people by means of extortion and violence.  A tax collector in those days could, indeed--like a modern day Mafia don--force people to pay over and beyond what was actually due to the government, pocketing the difference for himself.  For this reason was Zaccheus considered by the Jewish elders to be beyond redemption. 

Nevertheless, both St. John the Baptist and our Lord Jesus Christ begin their ministries with the words, "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!"  The call to repentance--to "turn again"-- is indeed at the core of our Christian Faith.  The whole of our earthly life, in fact, should be devoted not to vain and frivolous pursuits, but rather to an ongoing struggle for genuine repentance--to make a 180 degree turn  from the darkness of our egotistic desires and sinful passions to the light of God's redeeming grace. 

So it is that Zaccheus--inspired by divine grace--sincerely repents, promising to give half his goods to the poor, while restoring fourfold whatever he had unlawfully taken from his victims.  And so Jesus declares, "This day is salvation come to this house, forasmuch as he also is a son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which is lost."  As in the Gospel parable, our Lord willingly leaves the ninety-nine sheep in order to save the one that was lost (over whom the angels in heaven rejoice). 

"By grace we are saved,"  writes the Holy Apostle, and indeed--apart from the grace of God, no man living can be made worthy of eternal life in God's heavenly Kingdom.  "For God desires not the death of a sinner, but rather that the sinner should turn from his way and live." 

Yet there is nothing magical or automatic about salvation.  Even sinners such as you and I can be saved--but only if we strive and struggle in this earthly life to be made worthy of this grace.  Zaccheus, after all, sought to see Jesus.  He ran before, and climbed up into a sycamore tree.  And finally, at our Lord's behest, he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully.  And having done so, he stood and confessed to Jesus his willingness to renounce his sinful life.

And so--while it was by the grace of God that Zaccheus was saved--it was only through his own freely-chosen efforts that this grace could penetrate his stony heart.  We are, indeed, saved by grace, but unless we open our hearts to receive this grace, ever striving to purify our hearts of every sinful passion and to fulfill the Gospel commandments, we will in the end be cast into that place of outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

THE POLITICS OF BAPTISM

As the Holy Prophet Isaiah proclaimed, "The people which sat in darkness saw great light; to them that sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up."  Today this prophecy is fulfilled, for having descended into the waters of the Jordan, Christ enlightened the whole universe with the grace and glory of the Holy Trinity.  Through Baptism, the path of salvation has been revealed and the gates of Paradise have been opened to those who repent (that is, turn again to the light of Truth).  Therefore does our Lord proclaim at the beginning of His ministry, "Repent: for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand."

Thus "unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ."  And so it is not true, as our nation's founding document states, that all men are created equal.  Even the pigs in that perceptive novel Animal Farm had to concede in the end that while all animals are created equal, some are more equal than others.  God grants His good gifts to all and sundry according to His inscrutable Providence, and it is manifestly evident that some people are given greater gifts than are others.  We are not all equal, but... we are all nevertheless totally unique and infinitely precious in the eyes of God.  Nor is any gift truly small if we use it humbly for the greater glory of God.  What matters in the end, as St. Paul assures us, is "that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief."

It is through sincere humility and a genuine spirit of repentance that we are saved: not because we are somehow better or more exalted than other people, but rather because we have taken whatever measure of grace God has bestowed upon us and used it wisely, according to our best God given ability. 

And now--though I am a priest--I will end this sermon on a political noteThe Bodiless Powers--the Heavenly Hosts who were created at the dawn of time--are hierarchical in nature, as demonstrated by the mystical theologian St. Dionysios the Areopagite.  The Church Christ established reflects this same pattern, as does a God protected Orthodox monarchy. Thereby is maintained a peaceful order and the faithful discharge of obligations--while God-given rights are guaranteed at every level of society.  And this, my friends, is the ideal image that will only find its complete fulfillment when the Kingdom of God is fully revealed at the end of time.