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. 


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.