Tuesday, April 3, 2018

A BROKEN AND CONTRITE HEART...

When the sinful woman learned that Jesus was sitting at supper in the home of Simon the Pharisee, she entered in, "stood at His feet behind Him weeping, and began to wash His feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment" she had purchased at so great a price.  Now consider, if you will: what was the state of this woman's heart and mind in this moment long past, yet still present in the eternal memory of God?  Clearly she possessed faith in the power of Jesus to forgive, profound humility, and an outpouring of love that could not be retrained.  She possessed, in fact, philotimo, an active and spontaneous love that naturally disregards every self-serving thought and desire.  But how had she, a sinner so thoroughly immersed in  the carnal pleasures of this life, been made worthy to acquire these divine gifts?

First and foremost, it was because she was broken.  Having tasted unto its bitter dregs the cup of egotistic thoughts and desires, having lost every hope of satisfaction in the ultimately vain and transient pleasures of this earthly life, at last she hit rock bottom and found herself imprisoned in a dark and lonely place of emptiness, hopelessness, and despair.  And it was precisely at this point of brokenness--when she was forced to acknowledge that she was powerless to turn her life around in a more positive direction--that God could act.  All it takes, you see, is a mere crack in our psychic defenses, and God's grace can enter into our hearts, delivering our souls from bondage to the sinful passions and making us worthy of eternal salvation in His heavenly Kingdom.

Today we commemorate the heroic life and witness of St. Mary of Egypt.  She experienced her own moment of brokenness when she stood before the icon of the Theotokos and was forbidden by an invisible force to enter into the church to venerate the Holy Cross.  It was in this transformative moment  that she was granted the divine gifts of genuine humility, sincere repentance, and the love of God in her heart.  And so it was that this former prostitute, a slave of the passions, became a desert dweller whose amazing story is recounted every Great Lent unto this very day.  For truly,  "Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little."

Truly our heavenly Father is a God of love (in fact, God is love), Who desires not the death of a sinner, but rather that the sinner should, through heartfelt repentance, turn from his evil ways and live, that he might be saved at last from eternal damnation in a hell of his own making.  For surely--though our sins be more numerous than the sands of the sea, the love of God is infinitely greater. 

Nevertheless, as the Psalmist affirms, "A broken and contrite heart God will not despise."  The thief gained Paradise in an instant, while the woman with an issue of blood received healing just by touching the hem of His garment.  It is not because of the multitude of our sins that we shall be condemned to a self-created hell, but rather because of willful failure to repent.  Let us, therefore, forsake our evil pride and self-centered desires, humble ourselves before God, and acknowledge that we are indeed broken, destitute, and in desperate need of His healing and  salvation. Only then shall we be deemed worthy to behold His glorious Resurrection on the third day.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

THE TRIUMPH OF ORTHODOXY

Having so eloquently praised the martyric feats of the Old Testament righteous who endured with patience sufferings and afflictions for the sake of a promised Christ not yet revealed, St. Paul writes in his epistle to the Hebrews, "wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin that doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith."  And so do we celebrate today that Faith by which the whole universe has been established.

We commemorate today, on this first Sunday of the Great Fast, the defeat of the iconoclastic heresy and the restoration of the holy Icons.  Through this victory it is confirmed once again that the gates of hell cannot prevail against the Church of God, which is (according to the Symbol of Faith) both catholic (universal) and Orthodox (rightly glorifying God).  It is on this day, therefore, that the anathemas are read, casting from the Holy Church all who oppose the true and divinely revealed teachings taught by the Apostles and sealed by the blood of the martyrs. 

It is not surprising, therefore, that those of us who remain faithful to the time-tested traditions of the Church are often accused of Triumphalism, claiming that we alone are members of the True Church and therefore superior to those who belong to other so-called "churches" or "denominations."  And so it is that instead of striving for the "one thing needful,"  we get caught up in vain speculations  and disputes, making religion into some sort of competitive sport among conflicting teams confessing various beliefs and philosophies.  We argue ceaselessly over who is "right" and who is "wrong," while losing sight in all the confusion of the real issue at sake (as simply expressed by Pontius Pilate) "What is truth?"

It is obviously childish to argue that my church is better than yours, or to consign to hell those who do not happen to share our beliefs and convictions.  There can be, in any case, but one Church, because there is but one Christ, one Faith, one Baptism, and one God and Father of us all.  What we all should be seeking primarily is not the True Church, but rather Truth itself--and that Truth is Christ, Whose Body is the Church, which was established not on the day of Pentecost, but rather at the very creation of the world. 

The Church is not one organization among many, which we may choose to belong to or not.  If the Church is truly universal (as we Orthodox Christians profess), then it must encompass the entire created order, the angelic hosts, and the whole human race--from the creation of Adam unto the consummation of the ages at the end of time. 

Truly Christ cannot be divided, nor can there be any divisions within the fullness of His Body.  He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the one creator and redeemer of the entire human race.  He is fully God and fully man, the Godman Who descended from heaven and took upon Himself from the pure blood of the Virgin the fullness of our human nature, the pre-eternal God made visible and depicted in icons, that through the veneration of the faithful He might be "rightly glorified." 

But there is not in any of this any place for "triumphalism."  It is Christ Himself Who triumphs over the powers of sin, death, and the devil.  And it is through love alone (because God is love) that He opens unto all who humble themselves before Him the gates of Paradise and the promise of eternal life in His heavenly Kingdom.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

THE FINAL JUDGMENT

Today's Gospel concerns that Last Judgment that shall occur at the end of time, when our Lord shall return with all the angels at the end of time to judge both the quick and the dead (not to be confused with that particular judgment we must all face when we depart from this world).  Now on the basis of this rather stylized account (it should not be understood as a literal presentation of the event, which shall occur outside the bounds of time as we know it), the whole basis of this Judgment seems to be--whether or not we have performed literal works of charity on behalf of our fellow man during our earthly lives.  If we have done so, we shall be privileged to stand on our Lord's right hand and to be granted as our reward eternal life in God's Kingdom, while if we neglected to do so, we shall be placed on His left hand and cast into that eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels (demons).

It all sounds pretty simple, does it not?  So if you want to be saved from eternal punishment in that nasty fire, you had better play it safe: volunteer to help out in a soup kitchen and a homeless shelter, join a prison ministry, make frequent visits to the sick whether in their homes or in hospital, and in general, give generous alms to the poor and the needy.  And remember: God keeps score!  The more good deeds you perform, the more likely you are to be allowed into the Good Place. 

But all jesting aside, we all know that this is not the essential teaching of the Orthodox Church concerning salvation, which is certainly not some sort of merit badge God awards us for performing a certain quota of good deeds.  It is, rather, our deification as sons and daughters of God, that is: our union and communion with our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.  If then, the whole meaning of salvation is to be united with God through the purification of our hearts and the cleansing of our sinful passions, it is essential that we understand just Who and what God is.  Firstly, St. John the Theologian assures us that God is love.  And secondly, if God truly is Who dwells eternally in the unapproachable light, then He can in no way be subject to change.  And this means He must exist above and beyond every passion and emotion... whether anger, sadness, a desire for revenge, nor any other movement of the soul to which our fallen human nature is prone.

God is love, and so He loves with a perfect love both the sinner and the saint equally, and He never wavers in this love no matter how far we may have wandered (like the Prodigal Son) from the path of salvation.  Nevertheless, God's love is (as St. Paul assures the Hebrews) a "consuming fire" that penetrates even unto the very depths of hell, illumining the righteous while at the same time scorching those who have willfully turned away from Him and trampled underfoot the commandment of love.

Of course it is true that if we have acquired in our hearts God's love, we shall naturally express His infinite compassion and mercy toward the poor and needy, loving our neighbor--even our worst enemy--as though he were our very own self.  And we shall do so not for the sake of gaining any sort of reward, but rather because a heart consumed by the love of God can in nowise be constrained or limited by egocentric thoughts and desires.  This is why those on the right hand have no recollection of the good deeds they have performed.  As for those on the left hand... they are oblivious of the good deeds they have failed to perform due to gross negligence and hardness of heart.  Let us set aside, then, every conception of God as a vindictive judge intent on casting the sinner into hell, for truly--as our heavenly Father--He in no wise desires the death of the sinner, but rather that sinners such as you and I should turn from our wicked ways and live.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

FLEE FORNICATION

St. Paul conveys to the Corinthians a stern warning, "Flee fornication.  Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body."  Now fornication is defined as engaging in sexual relations outside the bounds of legitimate marriage... period!  (And no, I do not include so-called "gay marriage" in this definition!) Nor can there be any exceptions.  Jesus does not  say fornication is sort of all right if the couple really and truly love each other, or if they are engaged to be married.  But why, it may be asked, does the Church consider fornication to be such a serious sin?  It is, after all, my body, so why should I not be free to indulge its purely "natural" desires?

It is to such apparent reasoning that the Holy Apostle replies (as though astonished by their ignorance) "What?  Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?  For ye were bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God's."  But surely you and I, who strive to be faithful Orthodox Christians, already know these things.  So why, then, do I bring it up?....  It is because we live in a godless culture in which the sin of fornication has in many ways been normalized, and even glorified.  It is being promoted in the mass media, on billboards, on the internet, in literature and pop culture... virtually everywhere!  Our souls are being inundated by the spirit of the times, which is the spirit of antichrist, so that even we the faithful are in danger of being infected by the deadly disease of godlessness.

It was this same spirit of godlessness, in accordance with its various forms and manifestations, that injected its deadly venom into the soul of Holy Russia during the eighty year reign of the satanic Soviet regime.  Yet though the authorities sought by every conceivable means  to eliminate the very thought of God from the minds of the people, the gates of hell could not prevail against the true Church of God.  A vast cloud of witnesses--the Holy Martyrs and Confessors of Russia--was revealed.  Faithful unto the end, they gladly suffered persecution, grievous tortures, and death itself for the sake of their love of Christ, thereby proving that "all things work together for the good for those who love God, and are called according to His purpose."  But lest we become complacent, let us recall the words of Fr. Seraphim Rose: "That which began in Russia will end in America."  So let us examine ourselves to determine whether or not we are spiritually prepared for the coming trials and temptations.

And finally, let us consider the Prodigal, who having received his inheritance from his father, "took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living."  Indeed, as the elder brother later complains to their father, he "hath devoured thy living with harlots."  So yes, the Prodigal's "riotous living" involved, among other things--a good deal of fornication.  And surely each and every one of us can identify with the Prodigal's plight, for have we not all, from time to time, wandered into a far country, squandering the grace and talents God has bestowed upon us?  But the Good News is--as often as we go astray--the way of return to our heavenly Father is always open through sincere repentance and heartfelt humility.  It is for this very reason that we must gird our loins and prepare ourselves for the rigors of the approaching Great Fast.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

THE CIRCUMCISION OF CHRIST

"This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners; of whom I  am first," writes the Holy Apostle.  So it behooves one to wonder: if the foremost of apostles St. Paul considers himself to  be the greatest of all sinners, how can miserable sinners such as you and I hope to be saved?  Unless, of course, we strive always for genuine humility and an ongoing spirit of repentance.  St. Paul himself, after all, reckoned himself to be the least among the apostles, because he persecuted the Church of God, yet through his radical repentance, he achieved (by the grace of God) the heights of spiritual attainment.  But what, exactly, is   this salvation revealed to us in the Holy Scriptures as the ultimate meaning and purpose of life in this world?

It is, indeed, neither more nor less than our union and communion with the living God, accomplished in and through the salvific work of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ, One of the Holy Trinity, Who has, by His life-giving incarnation, abolished and overcome the threefold power of sin, death, and the Devil, that we might be transformed by grace into sons and daughters of the heavenly Father, and inheritors of eternal life in God's heavenly Kingdom.

It is, in fact, the very same pre-eternal Word of God, the Logos, Second Person of the Holy Trinity, Who revealed the Law to the Holy Prophet Moses on Mount Sinai, Who fulfilled the Law in His own body, having taken upon Himself the fullness, the Pleroma, of our human nature through the pure blood of a virgin, that we might, by grace, become partakers of the divine nature and heirs of ineffable glory in His eternal Kingdom.

"For in Him dwellest all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, St. Paul continues.  Having been circumcised in the flesh according to the Law of Moses, Jesus has fulfilled the Law, that henceforth the faithful believer might be "circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ." 

But what, precisely, is this circumcision of Christ?  It is, as the Holy Apostle plainly states, our death and resurrection with Christ in the waters of Baptism: "Buried with Him in Baptism, wherein also ye are risen with Him through the faith of the operation of God, Who hath raised Him from the dead."

It is by Baptism that our soul and body together are granted the remission of sins and the possibility of the gift of eternal life.  This grace is, to be sure, freely given, but it is assimilated and made effective only through living a life of ceaseless struggle against the passions that we may hope to be made worthy of this gift of salvation.  In no way is our salvation guaranteed by virtue of our baptism.  Only if we are willing to patiently endure unto the end whatever trials and tribulations God may send, while striving to acquire every virtue, can we hope to be made worthy of those eternal good things He has in store for those who love Him and abide by His commandments. 

Thursday, December 14, 2017

THE KINGDOM OF GOD SUFFERS VIOLENCE

St. Paul writes to the Ephesians, "For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places."  That is to say, as baptized Orthodox Christians, we have been enlisted as soldiers in the Militia of Christ, engaged--whether we like it or not--in spiritual warfare against Satan and his demonic hosts, those fallen angels who inhabit the air around us, ever seeking the destruction of the human race.  

If, then, this is the existential struggle to which we have been called, why is it that we so often strive against our brother, who is weak and sinful and deceived by the Devil just as we are?  We are, indeed, commanded by Christ to love our enemies, to ceaselessly pray for those who persecute us and despitefully use us.  For it is the Devil alone who inspires hatred in the human heart--inciting violence, strife, and vengefulness among the sons and daughters of men. 

For surely God is love, and it is love alone that can deliver us from the wicked machinations of the Evil One.  Like all the other passions of the soul, anger is not in and of itself sinful... so long as it is directed not against our neighbor, but rather against the demons, and those sinful thoughts and desires that they engender within us. 

"Unto this day, the Kingdom of God has suffered violence, and the violent take it by storm."  And so it is that our Lord--Who is love incarnate--commands us to do violence... not against our fellow man, but rather against the sinful passions engendered within us by the Evil One, and against the demonic powers that ever strive to drag us down into the pits of hell.  It is in this sense that Jesus has come into this world not to bring peace, but rather a sword.  The sentimental Protestant image of Jesus "meek and mild" is but a pale and distorted image of this truth.  It is, rather, through the sacrificial sufferings of the holy martyrs and ascetics of all ages that the Holy Orthodox Faith triumphs over the principalities and powers that rule this fallen world.

And so it is that the true path of salvation revealed by the holy Orthodox Fathers is not for the timid and the faint-hearted.  It requires manly courage and self-sacrificial love, and the willingness to put to death every egotistical thought and desire, that we might in the end--through the prayers of the most holy Theotokos and of all the saints-- be made worthy of true and eternal life in God's heavenly Kingdom.

Monday, November 27, 2017

THE GOOD SAMARITAN

"And, behold, a certain lawyer stood up, and tempted (i.e, tested) him, saying, Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?"  Of course, the lawyer--being well versed in the Jewish Law--knows the answer already, so when Jesus counters, "What is written in the Law," he answers at once, quoting from the Old Testament book of Leviticus, "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself."  He had answered correctly, and this should have been the end of the discussion.  Yet the lawyer was not satisfied.  Being a lawyer, he sought to find a loophole.  Seeking to justify himself, he asks Jesus, "And who is my neighbor?"

And so Jesus responds (as He often does) with a parable:  A man traveling from  Jerusalem to Jericho is stripped naked by thieves, robbed, and left for dead.  And it comes to pass that a Jewish priest, and then a Levite, walk by, gaze upon the unfortunate victim, then pass by on the other side: lest they should touch the man and be ceremonially defiled by his blood, and thus having to endure the inconvenience of being purified once again before they could offer their sacrifices in the Temple of Jerusalem.  Yet does not God Himself declare in the Old Testament Scriptures that what He desires is mercy, not sacrifice?  Or rather, the sacrifice He truly does desire is that we put to death every egotistical thought and desire upon the altar of sacrificial love, that we might strive to be merciful, even as our heavenly Father is merciful. 

The thieves in this parable are, of course, the demons, who strive by every means possible to draw us away from the true path of salvation--while the Good Samaritan is Christ Himself, who never ceases to deliver us from the deception of the Evil One, and to bind up every wound inflicted by the enemy, that by His grace and compassion we might in the end prove ourselves worthy of eternal life in His Kingdom. 

For surely the inconceivably glorious salvation wrought for us upon the Cross by our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ cannot be achieved by means of fulfilling a series of ceremonial laws and requirements, nor by simply confessing with our lips that Jesus Christ is our "personal" Lord and Savior.  Nor is it achieved by the mere fact that we have been baptized, nor even that we attend Divine Liturgy on Sundays, as though these are magical rites that somehow ensure our salvation. 

Salvation is, rather, a process, that begins in this earthly life, and extends into eternity.  Because God is love, and love is eternal, our ascent to God--as St. Gregory of Nyssa assures us--can never end.  But it is essential that having died and risen with Christ in the waters of Baptism, we should strive and struggle till the very end of our lives to acquire a spirit of true repentance, that having set aside all earthly things, we might receive in our hearts the King of all.

For this reason does the Holy Apostle write that we are saved by faith, not by the words of the Law.  Because it is impossible to be saved simply by following a set of written laws--however exalted--but only through uniting ourselves to the living God, that we might in the end--by His grace and mercy--become partakers of His divine nature.