Thursday, June 22, 2017

ALL SAINTS OF RUSSIA

The Holy Apostle Paul writes to the Romans, "For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified."  And thus it is that only those who are actively striving to fulfill the two great commandments of the law--to love God with all one's heart, soul, and mind, and to love one's neighbor as oneself--can be accounted worthy of the gift of salvation and eternal life in God's heavenly Kingdom.  It is, indeed, only by fulfilling in our everyday, practical lives that law of love which God has inscribed within the hearts of believers that we may hope to become partakers of the Divine Nature, inheritors of that eternal and unfading glory which God has in store for those who love Him and abide by His commandments. 

But what is love?....  Our Lord Himself assures us that if we do really and truly love Him, we will keep His commandments.  As St. John the Theologian writes in his gospel, God is love.  And so it is that if we truly love God, we will be ever vigilant to keep His commandments of love, to do nothing that might in any way offend Him.  And this is so not because we fear "breaking" the law and being "sentenced" to hell.  Unlike Judaism, the Christian Faith is in no sense legalistic. It is, rather, a relationship we experience in and through the Church with a living Person: our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ, Who is the eternal Son of God and One of the Holy Trinity.  Genuine love, however, is not an emotion, a warm and fuzzy feeling.  It is, above all, a commitment to remain faithful to the object of our love, despite the consequences.  And there is no greater love than the willingness to lay down one's life for the sake of the beloved--whether it be Jesus Christ Himself, or that spouse to whom we have committed ourselves in the Mystery of Marriage.

Today we commemorate the feast of All Saints of Russia, and indeed, innumerable are the vast array of saints who have shone forth in the Russian land, beacons of holiness for all Orthodox Christians throughout the inhabited world.  It has always been somewhat of a quandary for me, however, to differentiate the saints of Russia from the totality of saints commemorated on the feast of All Saints.  For truly, no nation on this earth has a monopoly on sanctity.  Even the secularized, Masonically inspired land of America has produced a handful of saints.  Nevertheless, I do firmly believe (though there are those who consider this to be a spurious claim) that Russian is (according to the ancient Chronicles) the Third Rome.  The first Rome fell to the barbarians in the Fifth Century, while the Second Rome--Constantinople--fell to the Turks in 1453.  Following this catastrophe, it was Russia alone who can claim the distinction of being the Third Rome... and we can rest assured that the shall never be a fourth. 

It has therefore been given to Holy Rus to proclaim the final word to the world in these final times, before Christ returns to judge the living and the dead.  Significant it seems to me is that a law currently pending within the Russian Duma would restore as the national anthem God Save the Czar, to replace the current, Soviet-inspired anthem.  According to prophecy, the God-blessed monarchy will indeed be restored before the final revelation of the Antichrist, and at that time, our father among the saints Seraphim of Sarov will be resurrected in order to proclaim to all who have ears to hear the truth of the Orthodox Faith--that though sincere repentance, many of the faithful might be numbered among the elect--strengthened by God's grace to faithfully endure the manifold trials and temptations appointed for those Christians of the final days who are destined to endure unto the end, receiving crowns of glory in God's heavenly Kingdom.

You and I, dear friends in Christ, have not yet been called to endure with Christ the sacrificial suffering of the Cross.  We have become soft, lulled into a potentially deadly sleep, paying lip service to the possibility of martyrdom, but not in the least comprehending what this would entail.  But we can rest assured (as Father Seraphim of Platina assures us): that which began in Russia will end in America.  The question is... are we truly prepared to endure those temptations and tribulations that we will undoubted face us in the days ahead?  If the answer is no (as it surely is for most of us), then let us fervently beseech all the saints who have shone forth in the Russian land--that vast cloud of witnesses--that through their holy prayers we might endure unto the end those trials and tribulations God has appointed unto those who love Him.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

THE LIGHT OF CHRIST

The Holy Apostle and Evangelist John the Theologian, whom we commemorate today, proclaims: "God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.  If we say that we have fellowship with Him and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not tell the truth."  And indeed, the whole goal of the Christian life is to purify our hearts and minds, that we might be enlightened--by the grace of God--with the light of Truth.  We are called, therefore, to strive to overcome the sinful passions, that our spiritual eyes might be opened, that having been illumined by the grace of God, we might be delivered from the tyranny of the Prince of Darkness.

According to the first Book of Moses, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.... And darkness was upon the face of the deep....  And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.  It is plain to see, therefore, that Light is the first and foundational principle of God's creative work.  Take note, however, that this Light is revealed before the creation of the sun and moon.  It is not, therefore, the material light we perceive with the physical eyes of our bodies.  (Nor can it be, as some assert, the uncreated Light of God, but rather a created  light that emanates from God and permeates the entire created order). 

If we reference any concordance of the Scriptures, we will discover that the theme of light versus darkness runs like a golden thread throughout the divine Scriptures--both Old and New.  The works and the powers of darkness, and the very Prince of Darkness himself--the Devil--are set in contrast and opposed to the Light of divine revelation granted unto the sons and daughters of light in the waters of Baptism.  For it is only by receiving into ourselves the Light of Truth that we may hope to be delivered from the darkness of ignorance.  "Ye shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall make you free."

The eyes of the man born blind were opened when he did as Christ commanded and washed them in the pool of Siloam, but it was by means of the immaterial Light of God that he recognized Christ as the promised Messiah and the fulfillment of the long-awaited hopes of Israel. The Pharisees, on the other hand, saw clearly the light of the material world, but their spiritual eyes were utterly darkened by the passions of pride and vainglory.

Truly "the light of Christ illumines all," as the priest proclaims in the Presanctified Liturgy.  But just as a man born blind cannot conceive of what darkness is, since he has no concept of light and therefore has no means of comprehending the contrast, nor can those who have willingly separated themselves from the love of God in Christ Jesus begin to comprehend the nature of that darkness into which they have unwittingly descended.  For how can we "see" darkness if we have no concept of the light?  It is only through God's gift of sincere and genuine repentance  that we may be granted, by the grace of God, the illumination of our spiritual eyes and the salvation of our souls in God's eternal Kingdom.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

THE GIFT OF GOD

Having met the Samaritan Woman at Jacob's Well, our Lord makes a seemingly simple request: "Give me to drink."  And had she merely complied with this request, who knows what might have happened?  Of course Jesus--as the God-man--foreknew the course of events that must inevitably unfold.  When the Samaritan Woman dared to question why He, a Jew, would deign to talk to a woman of the despised Samaritan race, He said to her, "If thou knewest the gift of God, and Who it was that sayest to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldst have asked of Him, and He would have given unto thee living water."  Jesus was referring, of course, to the gift of the Holy Spirit--the Third Person of the Holy Trinity--but the Samaritan Woman--her mind darkened by the sinful passions that held her captive--could not see beyond the literal interpretation of His words.  So Jesus clarifies: "Whoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again; but whoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst."  And even then, her carnal mind can only conceive of his words in a literal sense.  It is only when our Lord exposes her sinful way of life (she has had five husbands, and the man she is currently living with is not her husband) that the truth at last begins to dawn upon her.

In a flash of insight, the Samaritan Woman is given to understand that this is no ordinary man, nor merely a prophet: but rather the promised Messiah.  Illumined by the light of truth, Photini (whose name means "light") sets forth to proclaim the dawning of that transcendent truth so long concealed beneath the types and shadows of the Law.  What is significant is that she could only repent in the true sense of the word (turning 180 degrees from the darkness to the light) in that moment when she was forced to confront the truth concerning her sinful past.  And once having repented, the scales fell from her eyes and she could perceive--beyond the superficial appearance of this earthly life--the possibility of eternal life and salvation. 

So it is for all of us: it is only through the power of genuine repentance that we are enabled to break free from the shackles of ignorance and spiritual blindness, that we might pray from the depth of our heart to be vouchsafed the gift of God: the living water of the Holy Spirit.  It is through repentance alone that we can come to a true knowledge of God: not merely by hearsay, but rather through first hand experience, having achieved through humility, patience, and self-denial an existential encounter with Christ.  For truly to know Him is to love Him, and if our love is genuine and sincere, we will strive at all times and in all places to fulfill His commandments--above all the commandment to love God with all of our heart, soul, and mind, and our neighbor as our very own self. Only then may we hope to be granted the boldness to worship God "in spirit and in truth."

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.