Saturday, April 23, 2016


Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where a supper was prepared.  Lazarus the Four Days Dead was present, as were his sisters Martha and Mary.  Many Jews attended as well--"not for Jesus' sake only, but that they might see Lazarus also, whom He had raised from the dead."

Indeed, Jesus performed His most famous miracle when He raised Lazarus--and it is a well known fact that everyone loves a miracle!  Unto this very day, the faithful (as well as the merely curious) will flock to see a myrrh-steaming icon, or to receive a blessing from a holy man reputed to possess the gift of healing.  Through the revelation of miracles, we hope to catch a glimpse of a dimension of reality that transcends the dull, humdrum experience of our everyday lives.  At the same time, we also harbor the expectation that we ourselves might be vouchsafed a miracle of our own... and what greater miracle can we conceive of than our deliverance from the power of death and the seemingly inevitable progression of all things earthly toward decay and corruption?

And so it came to pass that the Jews eagerly converged to witness our Lord's triumphal entry into Jerusalem... we could say, in fact, that Jesus had achieved overnight the status of Israel's most popular celebrity!  And it was, after all, difficult not to participate in the jubilant celebration: everyone, it seemed, was cheering for Him. 

But it is obvious how superficial this adulation actually was when we consider the fact that just a few days later, the crowd could be so easily manipulated into crying, "Crucify Him!"  Martha and Mary, you see, truly loved our Lord--not primarily because He was a miracle worker Who possessed the power to raise their brother from the tomb, but simply because He was Who He was!  It was from the abundance of love that overflowed her heart that Mary anointed Jesus' feet and wiped them with her hair--expecting nothing in return.

You and I may indeed profess to love Jesus--but if we were perfectly honest, we would be forced to admit that our so-called love is neither pure nor unconditional--that deep down, we are always expecting something in return.  Our love, however, is never a true reflection of the love of God so long as there are strings attached: and the same applies when we consider our human relationships.  Authentic love is never constrained: it implies the willingness to suffer and even to die for the sake of the beloved.  It implies, in fact, our eager desire to ascend the cross of sacrificial suffering.  Only then shall we be deemed worthy to behold the glorious Resurrection of Christ.

Saturday, April 16, 2016


In today's Gospel, a Pharisee invites Jesus to eat at his house.  "And behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner,... brought an alabaster box of ointment."  Weeping profusely, she washed His feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, then kissed and anointed them. It should be pointed out that such ointment was quite costly and was customarily set aside as a precious commodity reserved by a woman to be used to anoint the head of her bridegroom on the day of her wedding.  In the case of this woman, however, it was doubtful that any respectable man would be willing to marry her.

For she was, you see, a sinner....  Interesting, is it not, that we know at once that this woman's sins were primarily sexual in nature--if she was not actually a prostitute, then she was at least an adulterer--or at the very least, a fornicator.  (Back then, apparently, the only sins a woman was capable of committing were sexual).  For all we know, she might otherwise have been a kind and compassionate woman, meek and humble, but she had (for whatever reason) fallen into sins of the flesh.  She was, indeed, a "fallen woman" (though one cannot help but wonder why one never hears of a "fallen man?"

Still....  She was, no doubt, a sinner, but nevertheless... God had opened unto her the gates of repentance.  Her heart having been filled to overflowing with the fire of God's love,  she yearned fervently to be forgiven and set free from the bondage of her passions.  So it is that Jesus says to the Pharisee, "Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much...."

Likewise did St. Mary of Egypt--though she was indeed a flagrant prostitute--repent from the depths of her heart when she was forbidden to enter the church in order to venerate the Life Giving Cross of our Savior.  Though she had in the beginning joined this pilgrimage for the purpose of seduction, she was made worthy by the grace of God to complete the remainder of her life repenting in the wilderness, denying herself even the most basic of human comforts.

St. Irene, Empress of Byzantium, ordered her own son to be blinded as part of a political intrigue.  I was told this in seminary, and one of my fellow students was dumbfounded: how could a hard hearted woman who committed such an atrocity be worthy of sainthood?  The simple answer given by the professor was: she spent the rest of her life repenting in a monastery, and to doubt this possibility is to doubt the power of repentance--and thus to doubt the power of God Himself.  Sainthood is not, in fact, an honor conferred upon a person in consideration of their lifelong achievements and merits--it is, rather, the recognition that this person has, in the end, received the fullness of grace from the Holy Spirit, and therefore has been granted eternal life in God's heavenly Kingdom. There are numerous examples in the history of the Church of those who have committed grave sins, and have nevertheless achieved sanctity.  Indeed, we shall on that dreadful day of judgement that awaits us all be condemned not according to the multitude of our sins... but rather by our failure to repent.  

Saturday, April 9, 2016


"Master," says the distraught father in today's Gospel, "I have brought unto thee my son, which hath a dumb spirit....  And I spake to Thy disciples that they should cast him out; and they could not."  And Jesus replies, "If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.  And straightway the father of the child cried out and said with tears, I believe; help thou my unbelief."  Whereupon Jesus--as the eternal and omnipotent Son of God--casts out the demon.

When afterwards the disciples privately enquire of our Lord why they were unable to cast it out, He replies, "This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting."  Truly the power of faith can work miracles--and even though our faith may at times seem weak and ineffectual, we need only cry out, "Help Thou my unbelief!" and God can, by His grace, fulfill within us whatever is lacking. 

Yet even so, simply believing is not always sufficient.  As Orthodox Christians, we are called to an ascetic, disciplined way of life founded upon prayer, fasting and self-denial. It follows, therefore, that only those who are willing to do violence to their own fallen human natures can hope to "take by storm" the Kingdom of Heaven.  Thus, we must strive at all times to "walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil." 

By virtue of our Baptism, we have all been enrolled as soldiers in the Militia of Christ: and we are, therefore, engaged in spiritual warfare against the principalities and powers that rule this present age.  Perilous and narrow is the path that leads to salvation, and only those who have taken care to put on the whole armor of God will emerge as victors--having endured unto the end.

Today we call to remembrance St. John Climacus, a venerable Seventh Century hermit at St. Catherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai, who wrote The Ladder of Divine ascent: an ascetical treatise on the avoidance of vice and the practice of virtue.  Though the treatise was initially intended for monastics, it has over the years been embraced as a handbook of ascetical practice for those who are "still of this world."  The aim of St. John was to guide the faithful toward the attainment of a life completely and wholly devoted to God. 

This is, of course, the aim  of all Orthodox Christians-- not monastics alone.  Even though those of us who are living in the world are beset by manifold distractions and temptations, we are enabled, by God's grace, to aspire toward a life of holiness, striving at all times to acquire the Holy Spirit of God, which is--as St. Seraphim of Sarov assures us--the ultimate aim and purpose of the Christian life. 

Saturday, April 2, 2016


Our Lord proclaimed, "Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me."  Indeed, self-denial is the essential goal set before us during the time allotted for  our earthly pilgrimage. Without self-denial, in fact, it is impossible to be saved.  The meaning   of self-denial, however, is nowadays generally misunderstood. It is not simply denying ourselves that second piece of chocolate cake or choosing to visit a sick friend rather than going to a movie.  Self-denial is, quite literally, the denial of the self: that false ego we have constructed as an idol and have placed at the center of our life. 

If we truly desire to follow Christ, it is necessary that we "cease to exist" as an egotistic entity, so that we might say with St. Paul, "it is no longer I who live, but Christ in me."  This is, of course, a painful process, requiring as it does that we voluntarily take upon ourselves the cross of sacrificial suffering.  "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."

In  this sense, every Orthodox Christian is called to become a martyr: ever striving to bear witness to Christ, Who truly is the Way, the Truth and the Life of all created reality.  It is through Him alone that our fallen human nature can be reconciled to God the Father, transformed by grace, and restored to our rightful inheritance as sons and daughters of God, heirs of eternal life in the heavenly Kingdom.

The truth is: our Lord did not endure suffering and death upon the Cross in our stead, but rather on our behalf:  that we might share with Him the cross of sacrificial suffering and self-denial.  We may or may not be called to endure  a literal martyrdom, but our lives should nevertheless bear witness to the all-consuming love of God, a love that can only be--in this broken and fallen world in which we live--a suffering love.  Thus it is sure and certain that it is only through the power of the Cross that we may hope to attain unto those eternal good things that God has in store for those who love Him and who strive above all else to follow His commandments.