Saturday, April 29, 2017

THE NOBLE JOSEPH

Today is the Sunday of the Myrrhbearing Women--the first to bear witness to our Lord's rising on the third day.  These three pious women--their hearts burdened by a depth of sorrow fully comprehensible only to the soul of a mother--were driven by a pure and selfless love to honor with due reverence the mortal remains of Jesus.

Having been touched by the poignant beauty of this scene, I confess that I have in the past paid scant attention to another hero of the faith also commemorated on this day: St. Joseph of Arimathea , "an honorable counselor, which also waited for the Kingdom of God," who "went in boldly unto Pilate, and craved the body of Jesus."

Like the Myrrhbearers, he too was driven by love.  While the Holy Apostles were hiding behind closed doors "for fear of the Jews," he dared to boldly request, in the full light of day, the body of Jesus.  Then having been granted his request, he received into his trembling hands the immaculate and sinless body of our Lord and reverently wrapped Him in costly linen which he himself had purchased.  (Unlike the traitor Judas, he did not count the cost).  And so he placed the precious and incorruptible Body in a newly hewn rock sepulcher and rolled into place at the entrance a huge rock.  This he did, it should be noted, though soon afterwards the Myrrhbearers would wonder among themselves, "Who shall roll away the stone?"

As it turned out, it was an angel of the Lord who finally unsealed the entrance... though even had the stone remained, the Lord Who created in the beginning the heavens and the earth could in no wise be constrained by the narrow confines of the tomb.  He Who entered the upper room through closed doors cannot be bound to the normal so-called "laws of nature" that govern the universe He Himself brought forth into existence ex nihilo--out of nothing.

According to tradition, St. Joseph later evangelized Britain, taking with him the cup of the Mystical Supper (the Holy Grail), hiding it from profane eyes within a well in Glastonbury.  And while the whole truth of these legends may be shrouded in mystery, the fact remains that the noble Joseph remains as a manly counterpoint to the Myrrhbearing Women:  A brave and steadfast man of honor and integrity, who took action at this moment that he might ensure for our Lord a dignified burial and place of repose--that having descended into hades and freeing those captives held in bondage to the power of death, He might trample down death by death--arising victorious on the third day.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

THE BLESSED SABBATH

Today is the Blessed Sabbath, the day on which our Lord and Savior rested in the tomb following His salvific labors on behalf of all, and for all.  Yet it is precisely within this suspended moment in time that the sorrow of Great and Holy Friday is transformed into joy.  For while He rests bodily within the confined space of the tomb, His soul descends into Hades, where he tramples down death by death, raising fallen Adam and all the righteous men and women who died before His coming. It is this event that we see depicted in the icon of Pascha.  The Resurrection itself--having occurred outside the bounds of time and space--cannot be depicted.  It can only be experienced in the hearts of the faithful.

The Resurrection is indeed the fulfillment of Christ's redemptive work already accomplished on this day.  Sunday is both the First Day and the Eight, because it is the image and reflection of eternity.  It is rightfully celebrated by the Church as the Lord's Day, yet it is wrong to suggest--as do the sabbatarians--that the New Testament Church has ceased to honor the Sabbath.  The seventh day remains the day of fulfillment: both of the pre-existent Christ's work of creation at the beginning of time, and--more significantly--of His sacrificial work of redemption through which the fallen human race is re-created and restored to Paradise.

It is imperative that we remember as well that just as the original creation was the result of the outpouring of the superabundant love of God, even so was Christ's sacrificial suffering upon the Cross the ultimate  manifestation of that divine love that sustains and vivifies the entire order of creation.  As St. John the Theologian assures us, God is love, and so it is impossible to become partakers of the Divine Nature and communicants of life eternal unless we ourselves abide in this love, ever striving to  purify our hearts of every sinful passion and egotistic desire, that we may in the end prove ourselves worthy to behold Christ's glorious Resurrection on the third day.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

CROSSING JORDAN

In today's Gospel, Jesus is invited to eat in the house of Simon the Pharisee.  As soon as He enters, a  woman begins to wash his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair, kisses them, and anoints them with precious oil from an alabaster box.  Observing all this, the Pharisee thinks to himself that if this man Jesus were truly a prophet, He would surely have known that this woman was a sinner.  Our Lord, of course, fully understood what manner of woman this was, and He responds to the Pharisee's unspoken thoughts, "Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little."  What Simon failed to understand is that Christ came into this world not to save the righteous, but rather that the sinner might repent (turn again) and be saved.

Today we commemorate St. Mary of Egypt, whose life exemplifies the power of repentance and the infinite grace and mercy of God.  Indeed, though our sins be as numerous as the sands of the sea, there is no reason to despair.  The boundless love of God is fully capable of transforming even the most hardened sinner into a saint.  From the age of twelve, St. Mary voluntarily gave herself over to a totally dissolute and sinful way of life.  Having surrendered her soul into bondage to the passion of self-love, she devoted her entire existence to the satisfaction of her fleshly desires. 

In this senseless pursuit of carnal pleasures and delights, however, she was essentially little different than most of us.   For while we may be careful to avoid such gross and obvious sins as fornication and adultery,  we nevertheless bow down in worship before the idol of our false ego, striving in every possible way to avoid the pain and sorrow we are sure to encounter along that straight and narrow path that alone leads to salvation.

The way of life St. Mary had chosen was, of course, a distortion of the image of God and a denial of the law of love revealed by our Lord through His death on the Cross.  And so it is only appropriate that she should have come to repentance and a true knowledge of herself when she sought to venerate the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, and was unable to enter the church due to an invisible force.  It was only when she had humbled herself before the icon of the Theotokos and promised from the depth of her heart to renounce her sinful passions that the gates of repentance were at last opened unto her.

Only then was it granted to her to cross the Jordan and thus to enter into the bleak and barren wilderness of self-denial, while striving from the depths of her heart that she might in the end prove worthy of eternal salvation.  Now it could rightly be said that simply crossing the Jordan was in and of itself a great and exalted feat (if only you and could do the same!), this decisive turning point was for St. Mary but the beginning of a 17-year relentless struggle to overcome those passionate desires that continued to rage within her. 

This is the same ascetic struggle unto the shedding of blood, the same spiritual warfare, to which all Orthodox Christians have been called, and it is never easy.  Nor is it possible to be saved simply confessing, as many Protestants believe, that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior.  The saints achieved salvation through abundant tears and ceaseless struggle, while we seek to avoid at all costs that violence against our sinful, fallen natures through which the Kingdom is taken by storm.  May God have mercy on our sinful souls, and grant us His grace that we may at least make a good beginning in the ascetic struggle of genuine repentance upon the path of salvation.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

REDEEM THE TIME

"See thee then that you walk circumspectly," writes St. Paul to the Ephesians, "not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil."  Indeed, it was God Who created time "in the beginning," and grants it unto us as a gift, that we might use it wisely for the sake of our salvation, in order that we might come to understand "what the will of the Lord is"--that thereby understanding, we might strive mightily to fulfill His will, rather than our own.

And what, then, is the will of God, if not that all may be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth?  As our Lord assures us, "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."  The liberating power of the truth, that is, shall set us free from the three primary obstacles to our salvation: Sin, Death, and the Devil. 

Jesus Christ, of course, proclaims Himself to be "the Way, the Truth, and the Life."  So it is that it is only through Him that we may hope to be saved from eternal damnation in a hell of our own making, which is--contrary to the perfect will of God--the natural consequence of our willfully chosen separation from God.

It is, therefore, only through knowing Christ, Who is the Truth, that we can come to a knowledge of the truth, which reveals to the human heart that straight and narrow path which leads to eternal life and salvation in God's heavenly Kingdom. And the means through which this goal may be achieved is to live a life (so far as we are able) of ascetic discipline. 

This means, above all, self-denial--the repudiation of those egocentric thoughts and desires that separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.  Because God is Love, it is through love alone that it is possible to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. 

Today we commemorate St. John Climacus, whose classic manual of the spiritual life--The Ladder of Divine Ascent--sets forth, step by step, the practical means of attaining this end.  He is, par excellence, the teacher of those practical principle of the ascetic  life that the Church sets forth for the salvation of Her faithful members. May we all, by the grace of God, struggle unto the end to incorporate these principles into our own lives as we tread the God-given path leading to salvation.

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."