"And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them that are called according to His purpose," St. Paul writes to the Romans. Today we commemorate the eighty holy desert dwelling martyrs most hideously slain by bloodthirsty barbarians at Sinai and Raithu in the Fourth Century. Truly they were angels in the flesh, having embraced a life of hardship and deprivation in this bleak and barren wilderness for the sake of Christ, their hearts totally consumed by the love of God.
And so, "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?" Indeed, these grace-filled ascetics endured with superhuman courage every manner of tribulation and distress, peril and the sword, rejoicing that God should deem them worthy of two-fold martyric crowns. "As it is written, for Thy sake we are killed all day long, we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter."
This has been a harsh winter in Wisconsin, a period of suffering and tribulation for many of us. Nevertheless, we know that while life in this vale of tears may be bitter, our Holy Faith assures us that Paradise is sweet. It is only through many trials and hardships that our souls are purified like gold in a furnace and rendered worthy of eternal life in God's heavenly Kingdom.
And so, my dear brothers and sisters in Christ, let us take courage, thanking God from the bottom of our hearts for the manifold afflictions He sends us. Let us pray with fervent desire for the gift of patience, knowing that only he that endures unto the end shall be saved. Even so, "If God is for us, who can be against us?" However small or great our sufferings here below, our minds cannot conceive of those good things God has in store for those who love Him and strive at all times to keep His commandments.
Sunday, January 26, 2014
Wednesday, January 22, 2014
When the Apostles could not cast out the demon from the possessed boy, the father approaches our Lord and beseeches His help. When Jesus says, "All things are possible to him that believes," the father replies, "Lord, I believe; help Thou my unbelief!"
Isn't this how it is for all of us? On a superficial level, we sincerely do believe, but when push comes to shove, our so-called faith proves to be weak indeed. The Holy Apostle Peter believed he could walk on water because Jesus told him to, but suddenly aware of the tumult of the waves, he began to sink.
In times of peace, it is easy to believe, because there is no cost attached. But when a time of persecution arises and our faith is put to the test by the threat of martyrdom, we shall find how deep and enduring our faith really is. The fact is, true faith is always a gift of God's grace, never an accomplishment for which we can take credit ourselves. So we must possess the humility of the father in the Gospel and pray, "Help Thou my unbelief!" or cry like Peter, "Lord, save me!"
Truly whoever dares trust in his own faith and spiritual accomplishments in times of trial will be lost. Nevertheless, God normally requires an effort on our part before He bestows a gift of grace. When the Apostles asked Him why they could not cast out the demon, Jesus replied, "This kind comes out by naught but prayer and fasting." It is true that we are saved by faith alone, yet (as the Holy Apostle affirms) "faith without works is dead." And these works include, among other things, the disciplines of an ascetic life.
The Kingdom of God is taken by violence, which is to say, we must force ourselves to do that which is contrary to our fallen human nature, ever striving for every virtue and the purification of our hearts. Only then can God give to us a deep and abiding faith that will withstand every storm and tribulation of this life. In these final days of the Great Fast, then, may we redouble our efforts to pray and fast, to deny ourselves the sinful impulses of the passions, and in every way to prepare ourselves to be made worthy to behold our Lord's glorious Resurrection.
But the mere act of self-denial is not enough. After all, not only Christians practice this virtue. What self-denial means for the Christian is taking on voluntarily (without grumbling or complaining) whatever burdens God sees fit to lay upon us. As a matter of fact, everyone
has a cross--but only those who cheerfully accept their cross are considered to have taken it up. Otherwise we are simply enduring against our will something that has been imposed upon us.
Finally, having taken up our cross, we must resolve to faithfully follow Christ: otherwise we are nothing more than commendable stoics endowed with a great measure of patience and courage. Only those who endure till the end for the sake of Christ without any pride or self-interest shall be saved.
This is indeed the purpose of our whole earthly pilgrimage: it is a school, a training ground wherein we strive and struggle to become true disciples of Christ. And the season of the Great Fast is especially the time set aside to devote ourselves to this struggle. But all of our fasting, prayer and other spiritual disciplines are pointless unless they are directed toward this end. The Church provides us with all that is necessary for our salvation, but these ways and means are never intended to be ends in themselves. Our ultimate goal is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul an mind, and our neighbor as our self.
After all, even the great martyr Ignatius, having endured so much on the way to Rome where he was to be fed to the lions, wrote to his flock that he had barely begun to be a disciple. May God grant to us all such humility, meekness, courage and a spirit of repentance, that we may steadfastly carry our cross and be made worthy of salvation in God's eternal Kingdom.
"Insomuch as ye have done it unto the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto Me." So speaks our Lord in the Parable of the Last Judgment to the sheep on His right hand, those who have fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and those in prison. Do you see how our Lord shares the joys and sufferings of the very least of His creatures? Unlike the Muslim God Allah, He is not a God Who stands afar off, not a mere judge, but a caring Father Who dwells in the hearts of those who love Him and strive to do His will. Truly He is closer to us than the very air we breathe.
Nor is this so hard to understand, even from our limited human point of view. As parents, do we not suffer and rejoice along with our children? Is it not our greatest happiness that they be happy? And if, as a father, I must discipline my child, I may say (and truly mean it) that it hurts me more than them. This is, of course, but a dim reflection of the unconditional love God has for each and every one of us, a love so vast we cannot begin to comprehend it in its fullness.
Yet having said all this, is this not the Sunday of the Last Judgment? And the Gospel minces no words concerning the severity of this judgment. But we must understand that God's "judgment" is neither arbitrary nor vindictive, nor does He take pleasure in swooping down upon the sinner and casting him into hell. That which we call God's judgment is rather the natural consequence of our actions (or our failure to act). "God does not desire the death of a sinner, but rather that the sinner turn from his way and live."
God has, however, given us the gift of free will, and He totally respects our right to choose--either eternal life in His heavenly Kingdom or eternal darkness apart from Him. If we choose to love God and to set aside our own selfish interests and desires, it will follow as night follows day that we will love our neighbor and show compassion on those in need.
Today we also celebrate the holy New Martyrs of Russia, those faithful Christians who fell victim to the godless Soviet regime. Now the judgment of God upon Holy Russia was also the natural consequence of a falling away from God, but thanks to the steadfast love and witness of the martyrs and the repentance of the faithful, the power of evil and darkness has finally been vanquished and a new day of renewal has dawned for the Church of Russia. Let us not forget, however, the prophetic words of blessed Seraphim of Platina: "What began in Russia will end in America." We have also, as a nation, largely fallen away from God and it is likely that this same judgment will fall upon us. May we, like the New Martyrs of Russia, remain steadfast in the Faith and courageously bear witness to the truth and power of God's love.
In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, a young man asks his father to be given ahead of time his share of the inheritance. The father agrees, though no doubt he knew the character of his son and realized that the course chosen would probably lead to disastrous consequences. The father in this parable, of course, represents our Heavenly Father, Who always respects the free will of his creatures and often grants that which we desire and pray for--knowing full well that we will live to regret it. (Thus the saying: "Be careful what you pray for: you may get it!")
Having received his inheritance, the son leaves his father's house and sets off for a far country (which represents life in this fallen world lived apart from God). Once he arrives, the son gives himself over to a life of riotous living--wine, women and songs. But because he doesn't get a job and has no source of income, he very soon finds himself completely broke. In spiritual terms, he does not strive to acquire those virtues necessary for salvation, that is, "treasure in heaven." To make matters worse, there arises a famine in that country so that there is nothing to eat, even if one had the money to buy it. So it is with the frivolous pleasures of this world: they soon leave us spiritually starving, since we are no longer receiving the sustenance of God's grace.
He's so destitute that he's finally forced to take a job, feeding corn husks to a local farmer's swine. Apparently this isn't much of a job, though, since he is not even allowed to eat a portion of the husks. In this dire state, he finally "comes to himself." (That is, he repents). He realizes how foolish he was to leave the security of this father's house. After all, even his father's servants have more than enough to eat and a roof over their heads. So he decides then and there that he will return to his father and ask to become one of his hired servants. He carefully rehearses what he will say to his father and sets off.
But when he is still a good distance from the house, the father sees him approaching and runs to greet him with a warm and loving embrace. Finally the son addresses his father with the words he had rehearsed, but the father reacts as though he hasn't even heard him. He orders his servants to honor his son and to organize a party to celebrate the son's return.
Now such unconditional acceptance was totally unexpected, and is in fact unlikely to occur in this fallen world. The mind of God, however, does not operate on the same level as ours. God's ways are not our ways. In Him there is no calculation, no remembrance of wrongs, no desire for revenge or reservations concerning the "worthiness" of a person. In Him there is no past to "remember," only the eternal present in which he encounters each unique person face to face. For in God the are no emotions, only a consuming love and a desire for the salvation of all His children.
The point is, we are all called to put on the mind of Christ, to strive to relate to others as God relates to us. Every one of us is a prodigal, but if we sincerely repent and resolve in our hearts to return to our heavenly homeland, God will meet us more than half way and treat us as though we had never left his presence. Indeed, there is more joy in heaven over a single sinner who repents than over ninety nine righteous ones. True, we may well have to suffer certain natural consequences for our time of riotous living, but God Himself doesn't punish us, nor is His love for us in any way diminished.
So then, if God receives prodigals such as us with such unconditional love, how can we not forgive and forget the sins and offenses of an erring brother? And if he repents, shall we not joyfully embrace him and celebrate his return?
Sunday, January 12, 2014
I invite all of the readers of my Blog to check out the novels I have written and self-published on Amazon. There are three so far: Many Mansions, The Curious Adventure of Jessica Whittaker, and Twins. My fourth--The Changeling--will be published shortly.
Even in Old Testament times, the pre-incarnate Christ--as the second person of the pre-eternal Trinity--revealed Himself to the holy prophet Moses in the burning bush, and again upon Mt. Sinai, when he revealed to the children of Israel the Ten Commandments.
Then finally--in the fullness of time--He revealed Himself in the flesh, having taken upon himself through the pure blood of the Virgin our human nature. Truly, the Son of God became man that the sons and daughters of men might become gods by grace, partakers of the divine nature.
And so it was the incarnate Christ was laid in a manger within a cave of dumb beasts on a cold winter's night, where the shepherds--illumined by divine revelation--came to worship the newborn King. Likewise did the Wise Men journey from the East--guided by the revelation of God--bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Christ revealed himself to Herod as well, but the evil king had no desire to worship Him. Along with such demonically inspired tyrants a Hitler, Stalin and Mao, he unleashed a bloodbath--brutally slaughtering the Holy Innocents in a futile attempt to destroy the King of Peace.
But why, one may ask, would God permit such senseless slaughter? Could not He Who commands legions of angels have called down God's wrath upon the evil king? Indeed He could have. The same Son of God Who saved the holy children in the furnace could surely--even as a newborn child--have saved the Holy Innocents from an unjust death.
Nevertheless, the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church, while the power of God is made perfect in weakness. Truly we are all destined to die....Our sojourn within this veil of tears is but a pilgrimage towards that place where there is neither sickness nor sorrow, nor any more sighing, but life everlasting. The Holy Innocents--in exchange for a brief moment of pain--have inherited the inconceivable blessing of eternal life in God's heavenly Kingdom.