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.

Monday, September 25, 2017

THAT YE LOVE ONE ANOTHER

The Holy Apostle, Evangelist, and Theologian John assures us, "For God so loved the world that He gave His Only-begotten Son, that whoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life....  For God sent not His Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through Him might be saved." This is good news indeed!  For if any of us were to be judged strictly according to how successfully we have invested that talent entrusted to us at our Baptism,  it is unlikely that we could hope to be saved. 

Consider, if you will, the gospel account of the woman caught in adultery: according to the letter of the Jewish Law, she should have been stoned to death, thereby reflecting a harsh and uncompromising understanding of God's justice still enforced in Muslim  countries unto this day.  (And it should be noted that nowhere in the Koran is love an attribute attributed to the falsely conceived Muslim God, Allah).  But when, in the fullness of time, our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ reveals Himself in the flesh, he imparts to His disciples a New Commandment that supersedes (or rather, fulfills) the Law of Moses: that we love one another, even as He has loved us. For truly, as St. John the Theologian assures us, God is love, and therefore it follows that "He desires not the death of the sinner, but rather that the sinner should turn from his way and live."

A perfect example of God's ardent desire for the salvation of the sinner is recorded in His encounter with the woman caught in adultery.  The Jewish rulers expect our Lord to uphold the decree of condemnation, to support the letter of the Jewish Law.  But as on previous occasions, He surprises them.  He pauses, while writing something in the dust of the ground with His finger.  Or is He merely doodling, trying to gain time while thinking through His response--or perhaps for the sake of a dramatic effect?  Not at all!  According to tradition, he is revealing in bold terms the past sins of those hypocrites who are seeking to bring the woman to justice.  Only then does He proclaim, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone."

Does this mean, however, that Jesus excuses--or even condones--sin?  Is He, in effect, telling the woman that what she did is no big deal after all, that all is automatically forgiven through the superabundant love of God?  Definitely not!  He says, rather, "Neither do I condemn you.  Go, and sin no more."  Indeed He does not condemn.  It is rather we who condemn ourselves to eternal separation from God by our failure to sincerely repent of the multitudinous sins we have committed every day of our lives--whether by thought, word, deed, or desire.  By rejecting the commandment of love, we reject God, thereby separating ourselves from true and eternal life in His heavenly Kingdom.

So while it is true that God's love is unconditional, His forgiveness is not.  He forgives us our debts only to the extent that we forgive our debtors.  And while He assures us that those who believe in Him will be granted eternal life, mere belief obviously isn't enough.  For if we truly believe in Him, we will strive day and night to abide by His commandments--and above all, the commandment of love--for as it is written, even the devils believe... and tremble.

His desire for our salvation far exceeds our own.  If it were other wise, we would strive and struggle unto the very end to increase whatever talents God has entrusted unto us.  We would be diligent in prayer and every form of self-denial, ever seeking to acquire a genuine spirit of repentance, that through God's grace and mercy, we might be found worthy on that dreadful day of judgment to inherit those eternal good things God has in store for those who love Him.

Monday, September 11, 2017

THE MARRIAGE FEAST

The Marriage Feast in today's Gospel is an image of that eternal Kingdom of God, to which "many are called and few are chosen," prepared for those who love Him and abide by His commandments.  According to this parable, the King (God the Father) "sent forth His servants to call them that were bidden to the wedding of His Son" (our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ): and they would not come.  And indeed, "they made light of it, and went their ways, one to his farm, another to his merchandise."  That is, they were so caught up in the affairs of this world that they failed to perceive those eternal good things God has in store for those endure unto the end the trials and tribulations of this earthly life for the sake of a better hope.

They were invited to the wedding--to enter into true and eternal life in God's heavenly Kingdom--yet they thoughtlessly spurned   this gift, freely choosing instead to live their lives in bondage to the false and superficial goals and desires of this world.  So it is that we ourselves are responsible for our ultimate destiny.  We can either chose to accept God's gracious invitation to enter into the joy of eternal life and salvation, or we can willingly and voluntarily consign ourselves to a hell of our own making.

It is sure and certain that it is not God Who created hell, nor does He "send" us there as punishment for being "bad."  When the King's servants were, in the end, sent forth into the highways, they "gathered together all as many as they found, both bad and good."   Nowhere in the Holy Scriptures is it said that we are saved because we are "good," for indeed:  "God desires not the death of the sinner, but rather that the sinner should turn from his way and live."  It is, rather, through sincere repentance and a fervent desire to live our lives in accordance with God's commandments that we are made worthy to receive within ourselves the transforming grace of the Holy Spirit, that by dying to the false promises of this world, we might be made worthy to inherit our true destiny as sons and daughters of God.

So who is to blame if we find ourselves in the end cast into that place of outer darkness, where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, because we would dare to enter the wedding feast without a wedding garment--that is, those virtues we are all called to acquire--above all, that humble and contrite heart which God does not despise?  (According to Jewish custom, by the way, the wedding garment was provided for all guests as they entered, so there can be no excuse for not wearing it.) God is love, and so--if we truly desire in our hearts to be made worthy of His Kingdom, we must pray above all for humility, patience, the gift of love in our hearts--and all things needful for our eternal salvation in his heavenly Kingdom.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

THAT YE LOVE ONE ANOTHER

"Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto... a certain king, which would take account of his servants."  In numerous occasions throughout the Gospels, in fact, our Lord likens the Kingdom to this, that, or the other.  But why does he so often speak in parables, likening it to something else, rather than simply explaining to His listeners what the Kingdom actually is?  It is because those good things God has in store for those who love Him and abide by His commandments belong to a realm so far beyond anything of which the human mind is capable of conceiving that it is only through a comparison with the things of this world that we can begin to grasp that ineffable reality that transcends even the most exalted philosophical construct that is rooted in our experience of this visible and transient world.

It is through the eyes of faith alone that we can begin to perceive beyond and beneath this phenomenal world of the five senses a realm of existence rooted not in time, but in eternity, unbounded by the limitations of space and time because it is permeated by the boundless and unconditional love of God.  For truly, it seems to me (sinful and unclean though I am, mired in the mud of the passions) that the love of God (or rather, the God Who is love) is not only the foundation and ultimate goal of the entire created order, but also the only means we are given by which we might (by God's grace) cast aside the darkness of sin and despair and be made worthy in the end of that ineffable glory of eternal life in God's heavenly Kingdom. 

But meanwhile, these heartfelt words of mine are... just words.  Trials and tribulations abound for us all, for having been called forth from non-existence into being, we have been cast forth upon the sea of life, beset by the raging waves of the passions, often struggling merely to tread water amidst the tumultuous waves of this storm-tossed world.

Only, "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God," Christ commands us, and all else that is necessary for us in this earthly life will be added unto us.  Therefore, "Do not be anxious for tomorrow, for sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof."  Indeed it is!  As for the ultimate goal of our existence--true and eternal life in the Kingdom of God--this cannot be comprehended by words alone.  It can only be experienced --in the here and now--through striving by every possible means to live our lives in accordance with the commandments of God.  Above all, that we might abide by our Lord's first and foremost commandment, "That ye love one another."  This much we can surely  do, if we remember that God first loved us, having so loved the world that "He sent His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him" might enjoy the fullness of life in His eternal Kingdom.   And so we are enjoined to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, and to forgive those who have trespassed against us as we ourselves have been forgiven.  Only then shall our fallen human nature be transfigured by the uncreated light of God's glory.

For if we struggle at all times during this earthly pilgrimage to keep this one simple command--that we "love one another"-- we are already close to the Kingdom--which is a Kingdom not of words and theological discourse, but rather of the power of God at work in a humble and contrite heart in which every egotistical thought and desire has been put to death, that having died with Christ in the waters of Baptism, we might be deemed worthy of resurrection to eternal life.

Monday, August 14, 2017

A GRAIN OF MUSTARD SEED

`While Jesus was on the Mount of Transfiguration with Peter, James, and John, the other disciples were approached by a man whose son "was lunatic, and sore vexed"--but the disciples were in nowise able to cast out the demon.  At our Lord's rebuke, however, the demon "departed out of him: and the child was cured from that very hour."  Afterwards, when the disciples came to Jesus and asked why they could not cast out the demon, He replied, "Because of your unbelief: for verily I say unto you, if ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible to you."  Now a mustard seed is indeed very tiny and seemingly of no significance, but I cannot help but wonder: do you and I, as 21st Century Christians, living in a secular, post-Christian society on the very brink of the Apocalypse have faith even in proportion to an amoeba? 

Compared to the first Christians, fervent in faith and empowered by the grace of the Holy Spirit to work miracles and to endure for the sake of Christ persecutions, sufferings, and martyrdom itself--it would seem that we are a miserable lot indeed.  It seems to me that we are, for the most part, Christians in name only, professing to believe--while hardly daring to venture beyond the limits of our comfort zone.  If our prayers are for the most part feeble and ineffective, it is because we have failed to acquire that living faith through which it is possible to overcome every obstacle upon the path of salvation.

Such a faith truly is, you see, a gift of God... but it is certainly not  a free gift.  It is only given to those who struggle for virtue and persevere unto the end upon the path of salvation.  Thus, our Lord assures his disciples that "this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting."  True it is that it is by faith we are saved, and not by the works of the Law.  Nevertheless, it is an inconvertible truth that "faith without works is dead."  Christ Himself assures us that "straight and narrow is the path" that leads to true and eternal life in His heavenly Kingdom.  But let's face it: we contemporary Christians of the last and final generation are pampered and lazy, accustomed as we are  to think that life in this fallen world should be easy and essentially pain free.  The so-called "good life" is to acquire as many earthly goods as we can, and to strive to achieve a superficial happiness based upon the fulfillment of our own self-centered desires.

"For my yoke is easy and my burden is light," says our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  But this is a promise only given to those who have taken up their cross of sacrificial suffering and followed Him, enduring unto the end the trials and tribulations of this earthly life, putting to death every egotistical thought and desire, that we might say with the Holy Apostle, that it is no longer I who live... but Christ liveth in me.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

THE MIND OF THE CHURCH

St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, "Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment."  The same mind... that is to say, the Mind of the Church.  There is, in fact, no place in the Church for "personal opinion"... so long as that opinion is in any way contrary to that Truth revealed by Christ, preached by the Holy Apostles, and sealed by the blood of the Martyrs.

As the Most Holy Trinity is one and undivided, so it is essential that we all should strive as members of Christ's Body--the Church--"to be perfectly joined together in the same mind and the same judgment."  If, on the other hand, we pridefully insist upon our own personal opinion, we prove ourselves--having rent asunder the seamless robe of Christ-- to be of one mind with Arius, along with all those other heretics who were rightfully cast from the universal Church by the Holy Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils.

Nowadays, of course, to merely mention heresy is considered politically incorrect: decidedly judgmental and counter to that spirit of relativism that infects contemporary society.  Admittedly, this term is too often used as a bludgeon against anyone who dares to deviate from that strict interpretation of the Faith that we ourselves fall short of fulfilling in our daily lives... rather like saying that a certain someone whose views do not align with our own political philosophy is "literally Hitler."

Having said this, however, it must be affirmed that heresy has been from the very beginning and remains to this day a real and present danger to the salvation of human souls.  To deviate from the Mind of the Church--even though ever so slightly--can only lead to a profound spiritual blindness and bondage to those demonic powers of the air whose one and only purpose is to drag, by any means possible, our immortal souls into that place of outer darkness, where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The Church of Christ--the Holy Orthodox Church--truly is the Ark of Salvation, the only place of refuge and safety in this storm tossed world.  To depart from the teachings of the God-inspired Holy Fathers of the Church is the sure and certain means of courting spiritual shipwreck and disaster, thereby setting our souls upon a perilous path toward a self-chosen damnation in a hell of our own making.  May our All-merciful God guard and preserve us from this danger--both now and at the moment of our soul's departure from this world.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

EVEN THE DEMONS BELIEVE

The Holy Apostle Paul assures 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."  Here he refers to that vast multitude of demonic hosts that inhabit the air around us, ever striving to corrupt our minds and hearts during the course of this earthly life, while obstructing the course of our path to the Throne of God at that dreadful moment when the soul departs from the body. 

Nevertheless, it is evident from today's Gospel reading that the demons are, in a sense, but paper tigers.  Though Satan has been given leave, according to the providence of God, to prowl the earth, like a ravening lion seeking whom he may devour, his rule is strictly limited to the time preceding the Final Judgment of God, and even so, it is subject to the supreme authority of Jesus Christ the Pantocrator.  And so it is that the demons cry out to our Lord, "What have we to do with Thee, Jesus, thou Son of God?  art thou come to torment us before the time?"

And so it is that even the demons are compelled to confess Christ.  As St. James writes, "Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe, and tremble."  So it is that even the demons, while confessing Christ, require His permission to enter the swine, "and behold, the whole herd of swine ran violently down a steep place, and perished in the waters."  For truly Satan is a murderer from the beginning, and that very same destruction the demons wrought upon the swine, they would gladly accomplish upon the human race.  Fortunately, though, the demons have not been granted the power to destroy a single human life.  Through their wicked suggestions, they can surely incline us towards that dark path of destruction that leads to eternal damnation in a hell of our own making... but only if we freely and voluntarily submit ourselves to their authority.

Having been baptized into Christ, we Orthodox Christians have put on Christ, and therefore we have been given, through the Church, the armor of God and the weapons required that we might engage in that spiritual warfare to which  we have been called.  For while we should never underestimate the powers of evil arrayed against us, and while the demons are indeed fierce adversaries fully capable of striking abject fear into the hearts of the faithful, we must ever keep in mind St. Paul's injunction, "If God is for us, who can be against us?"  For indeed, through the power of the most sacred and life-giving Cross, "we are more than conquerors through Him Who loved us:" our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

THE WAGES OF SIN

"For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."  In this passage in St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, the Holy Apostle refers to that recompense which each and every soul born into this world is due to receive in the life to come, according to how he or she has labored in this earthly life: whether we have striven to acquire virtue and the gift of the Holy Spirit of God in our hearts, or else we have willfully aligned  ourselves with Satan and his demonic hosts by indulging our sinful passions.  The first path leads to eternal life in communion with God, while the second path leads to the spiritual death of our soul and eternal communion with the Spirit of Evil.  It is for this reason that we pray in the Lord's Prayer, "Deliver us from  the Evil One."

The surest way of attaining eternal life in God's heavenly Kingdom is through sincere and heartfelt repentance, combined with humility and a prayerful desire to acquire God's gift of love in our heart.  If, by the grace of God, we are deemed worthy to patiently endure this struggle unto the end, it matters not if we have labored in the Lord's vineyard from the first hour or the eleventh: we shall receive the very same wages: eternal life and salvation in the Kingdom of our heavenly Father.

Truly it is given to every man to die once--and then to be judged according to how well we have invested those talents God has granted to us in this earthly life.  Have we utilized wisely the time and resources allotted to us, or have we, like the Prodigal Son, foolishly squandered the good gifts of God?  According to the unanimous consensus of the Church Fathers and the Holy Tradition of the Church, it has been revealed that in that very moment of death, when the soul is forcibly sundered from the body, we shall encounter not only our Guardian Angel, but a vast multitude of demons as well, intent on dragging our soul into the dark and dismal depths of Hades.  As we rise through the air (the domain of the "principalities and powers," the demonic hosts who dwell in "high places") we shall be required to pass through a series of so-called "toll houses,"  each one devoted to a particular sin or passion--wherein we shall be detained by demons who accuse us of those various and sundry unconfessed sins we have committed during our sojourn on earth--whether in thought, word, deed, or desire. 

It is true, as St. John the Theologian assures us, that "God is love,"  and therefore... He does not desire the death of a sinner, but rather that he should return from his way and live. It is an inconvertible truth, nevertheless, that if we have willfully separated ourselves from God in this life by  participating with the demons in their evil works in rebellion against the Law of Love, then it is only natural that the spirits of darkness should be fully justified in claiming that which is rightfully theirs: our immortal souls.  And so--having defaced the image of God within us--we shall be dragged into the depths of Hades, that place of outer darkness where there shall be weeping and the gnashing of teeth.  And so we shall obtain the wages of sin: eternal death in a hell of our own making.

Let us make haste, therefore, while there is still time, before that dreadful day of reckoning overtakes us like a thief in the night, to live a life of repentance, humbly confessing our sins before God, casting aside the works of darkness while striving to clothe ourselves in the armor of light.  Through the prayers of the Most Holy Theotokos and all the saints, let us beseech our God to have mercy upon us, that in the hour of death, we might be delivered from the dreadful accusation of the demons and be found worthy of ascending to the Throne of God. 

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.

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."

Sunday, February 19, 2017

THE FINAL JUDGMENT

When the Son of man shall come in His glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall He sit upon the throne of His glory: and before Him shall be gathered all nations: and He shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats."  What a frightful prospect is this Final Judgment, that shall be revealed at the end of time!  It is truly dreadful to contemplate, precisely because it is final.  For while it is certain that there is no repentance after death, one can nevertheless hope to be delivered from hell through the prayers of the Church.  But on that Day when our Lord returns to judge the living and the dead, the can be no recourse nor possibility of acquittal for those who have failed in this earthly life to abide by the Law of Love as set forth in the Gospel of Christ. 

And according to this passage, it all comes down in the end to whether or not we have been willing during our earthly pilgrimage to minister in a concrete way to the least of Christ's brethren: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, take in the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned--all for the sake of the love of God that dwells in our hearts. 

And if--God forbid--we shall be found lacking, what can we possibly say in our defense?  Perhaps: "I saw Facebook posts of starving children and war-torn refugees, and I clicked 'like' and 'share.'"  Or: "I prayed for world peace and participated in protest marches against injustice."  Or: "I willingly paid my taxes so that the government can set up programs to help the poor."  And for good measure, I even honked my horn to prove that I love Jesus!  All well and good... but what is truly personal about any of this?  Because the God we worship is a personal God, so is our love and compassion toward the least of Christ's brethren meant to be person to person, face to face, while we strive to see in every person we encounter the face of Christ and the Image of God--no matter how darkened or distorted this Image may be.

It should be understood, however, that it is not because we dutifully performed such acts of charity that we are saved.  It is rather according to the disposition of our heart that God judges us.  If our love for God and our fellow man is genuine and sincere, we will naturally do those things that are needful for our salvation--often without thinking twice (after all, the sheep themselves did no remember what they had done to deserve such a reward).  A humble and contrite heart God will not despise; nor will He fail to impart His grace and mercy unto a heart burning with compassion and a fervent desire to endure sacrificial suffering on behalf of those downcast and less fortunate.

Opportunities abound in our daily lives to put into practice the faith we profess.  Unfortunately, we are often too blind and distracted to see far beyond our own selfish needs and desires.  Like the goats in the Gospel passage, we are clueless regarding those times when we failed to minister unto the least of Christ's brethren.  And so may God have mercy on us all, and grant to us a new beginning as we prepare to enter into the season of the Great Fast.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

FLEE FORNICATION!

Webster's defines the term "prodigal" as "wastefully or recklessly extravagant." This  is the defining characteristic of the Prodigal Son in today's Gospel... not merely, as many think, that he was wayward... though most certainly he was.  Certainly this younger son was restless and impatient, demanding of his father that he receive the inheritance due to him at once. Perhaps against his better judgment, the father acquiesces to this demand, and soon thereafter the Prodigal "took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living" (a colorful term indeed!)   That is to say, he departed from the promise of a heavenly homeland into a realm ruled by the darkness of the passions, unilluminated by the light of God.

And so he squandered those God given gifts by which he might have attained eternal life and salvation, preferring instead to wallow in the mud of sensual desires, rather than striving to acquire those ineffable good things God has in store for those who love Him and abide by His commandments.  And why?....  Because it is so much easier to follow the path of least resistance, willfully distorting that divine image implanted within us at our creation, blinding the eyes of our soul to the truth  while seeking in every possible way to justify our unbridled indulgence in sensual pleasures. 

And so it is that we, like the Prodigal Son, prefer the transient joys of "riotous living" over a life devoted to the struggle to achieve self-denial and sacrificial suffering for the sake of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ.  But what, precisely, does this life of "riotous living" entail?  Drunkenness and debauchery on numerous levels, to be sure, but at the basis of it all is... fornication!  Which, in the broadest sense, includes all forms of idolatry: exalting any person, object, or idea above God, which includes worshipping any ideology or "ism" in the place of God. 

On the most basic, physical level, though, fornication simply means... having sex outside of marriage, no matter the circumstances or self-justification.  Thus, St. Paul exhorts us to "flee fornication," because "your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own."  By this means we can refute those pro-life woman who insist that their body is their own, and they are free to do whatever they want with it.  But I shouldn't need to say any more on this topic: as Orthodox Christians, we are well aware that abortion is purely and simply murder. 

But are we so firm in our convictions when it comes to fornication?  To be blunt: do we truly consider any  sexual relations outside of marriage to sinful, always and everywhere, and despite the circumstances?  Back in the old days (before the so-called "sexual revolution") fornication was widespread enough to be sure, but nevertheless, everyone knew it was wrong, and those who transgressed were subject to the sanctions of a society that was still imbued with Christian values.  But things have changed.  "Living together" and having "partners" has become so much a part of our moral landscape that even professed Christians barely bat an eyelash. Yet Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever--and so are those moral standards He has imparted to us by divine revelation.  And so we must cast to the wind our "political correctness" and our fear of "offending," calling a spade a spade--not in a spirit of judgement and condemnation, but rather in a spirit of love and compassion, that the sinner might by God's grace and mercy return from his evil ways and live.


Tuesday, January 31, 2017

A MAN NAMED ZACCHEUS....

Today's Gospel concerns "a man named Zaccheus, which was the chief among the publicans, and he was rich."  In this context, of course, a publican is not the owner of a pub, but rather a tax collector.  For this reason was Zaccheus despised by the Jews as a sinner and an outcast, a traitor to his own people, a vile collaborator who conspired with the Romans to oppress the Jewish people by means of extortion and violence.  A tax collector in those days could, indeed--like a modern day Mafia don--force people to pay over and beyond what was actually due to the government, pocketing the difference for himself.  For this reason was Zaccheus considered by the Jewish elders to be beyond redemption. 

Nevertheless, both St. John the Baptist and our Lord Jesus Christ begin their ministries with the words, "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!"  The call to repentance--to "turn again"-- is indeed at the core of our Christian Faith.  The whole of our earthly life, in fact, should be devoted not to vain and frivolous pursuits, but rather to an ongoing struggle for genuine repentance--to make a 180 degree turn  from the darkness of our egotistic desires and sinful passions to the light of God's redeeming grace. 

So it is that Zaccheus--inspired by divine grace--sincerely repents, promising to give half his goods to the poor, while restoring fourfold whatever he had unlawfully taken from his victims.  And so Jesus declares, "This day is salvation come to this house, forasmuch as he also is a son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which is lost."  As in the Gospel parable, our Lord willingly leaves the ninety-nine sheep in order to save the one that was lost (over whom the angels in heaven rejoice). 

"By grace we are saved,"  writes the Holy Apostle, and indeed--apart from the grace of God, no man living can be made worthy of eternal life in God's heavenly Kingdom.  "For God desires not the death of a sinner, but rather that the sinner should turn from his way and live." 

Yet there is nothing magical or automatic about salvation.  Even sinners such as you and I can be saved--but only if we strive and struggle in this earthly life to be made worthy of this grace.  Zaccheus, after all, sought to see Jesus.  He ran before, and climbed up into a sycamore tree.  And finally, at our Lord's behest, he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully.  And having done so, he stood and confessed to Jesus his willingness to renounce his sinful life.

And so--while it was by the grace of God that Zaccheus was saved--it was only through his own freely-chosen efforts that this grace could penetrate his stony heart.  We are, indeed, saved by grace, but unless we open our hearts to receive this grace, ever striving to purify our hearts of every sinful passion and to fulfill the Gospel commandments, we will in the end be cast into that place of outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

THE POLITICS OF BAPTISM

As the Holy Prophet Isaiah proclaimed, "The people which sat in darkness saw great light; to them that sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up."  Today this prophecy is fulfilled, for having descended into the waters of the Jordan, Christ enlightened the whole universe with the grace and glory of the Holy Trinity.  Through Baptism, the path of salvation has been revealed and the gates of Paradise have been opened to those who repent (that is, turn again to the light of Truth).  Therefore does our Lord proclaim at the beginning of His ministry, "Repent: for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand."

Thus "unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ."  And so it is not true, as our nation's founding document states, that all men are created equal.  Even the pigs in that perceptive novel Animal Farm had to concede in the end that while all animals are created equal, some are more equal than others.  God grants His good gifts to all and sundry according to His inscrutable Providence, and it is manifestly evident that some people are given greater gifts than are others.  We are not all equal, but... we are all nevertheless totally unique and infinitely precious in the eyes of God.  Nor is any gift truly small if we use it humbly for the greater glory of God.  What matters in the end, as St. Paul assures us, is "that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief."

It is through sincere humility and a genuine spirit of repentance that we are saved: not because we are somehow better or more exalted than other people, but rather because we have taken whatever measure of grace God has bestowed upon us and used it wisely, according to our best God given ability. 

And now--though I am a priest--I will end this sermon on a political noteThe Bodiless Powers--the Heavenly Hosts who were created at the dawn of time--are hierarchical in nature, as demonstrated by the mystical theologian St. Dionysios the Areopagite.  The Church Christ established reflects this same pattern, as does a God protected Orthodox monarchy. Thereby is maintained a peaceful order and the faithful discharge of obligations--while God-given rights are guaranteed at every level of society.  And this, my friends, is the ideal image that will only find its complete fulfillment when the Kingdom of God is fully revealed at the end of time. 

Friday, January 20, 2017

ON THE GRACE OF BAPTISM

According to the Gospel, the baptism of John was "the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins."  The Baptist himself declared that One mightier than himself--even Jesus Christ our Lord, the eternal Son of God--would come into the world in order to fulfill the mission he himself had begun.  "I indeed have baptized you with water," says the Forerunner, "but He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

This is the Baptism of the Church, by which we the Faithful have been enlightened, having become partakers of the Divine Nature and citizens of the New Jerusalem above.  The gift of the Holy Spirit given at Baptism is the source of sanctification and holiness for all those who believe God's promise and who strive by His grace to fulfill His holy commandments.

It is a spiritual law, nevertheless, that it is impossible to serve God and Mammon at one and the same time.  Nor can one straddle the fence between a worldly and passionate way of life and a life of total devotion to God and that heavenly Kingdom revealed in and through our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.  Sooner or later, a critical moment arrives for every soul when a choice must be made.  Such a moment arrives for the ruler in today's Gospel when he asks Jesus, "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?" 

Our Lord first states the obvious: if you would inherit eternal life, keep My commandments.  And when the ruler professes that he has done so since his youth, Jesus takes it a step further, and tells him: if you desire to be perfect, sell all your possessions, distribute the proceeds to the poor... and come follow Me. For this reason, the rich young ruler was sorrowful: because his heart was set upon earthly treasures, rather than those heavenly treasures we receive so abundantly when the Holy Spirit--the "Treasury of Blessings and Giver of Life"--enters into our heart.

According to St. Seraphim of Sarov, the entire aim and purpose of the Christian life is to acquire the Holy Spirit of God, in the same way that a worldly merchant acquires his  wealth--by trading.  The means by which this heavenly wealth may be gained differs from one person to another.  The martyrs trade their own blood, receiving in return eternal glory in the Age to Come.  Others acquire this Gift through ascetic self-denial, almsgiving, hospitality, selfless service to the sick and needy, or through sacrificing one's own comfort and self-centered desires in order to bear and to raise pious and God fearing children.

The means differ, but the goal is one and the same: to be transformed and enlightened by the grace we received at Baptism as a deposit, and to multiply how ever many talents God has entrusted to us by living a life of sacrificial love, that we may proclaim with St. Paul, "It is no longer I who live, but Christ in me."  Otherwise we shall surely be condemned like that unfaithful servant who dared to bury in the ground his single talent, thereby being cast out into that "outer darkness, where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth."

Thursday, January 12, 2017

PEACE ON EARTH, GOOD WILL TOWARD MEN

An angel appeared to the shepherds who were keeping watch in the field to announce "good tidings of great joy....  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."  And so, you may well ask, where is this peace and good will the Gospel proclaims?  Look around the world today, and you will find little evidence of such a felicitous state of affairs.  Is it all just a scam after all, as the atheists might suggest?

Well, we'd probably complain if we were not given a new rope to hang ourselves.  Nervertheless... the simple and obvious fact is that life in this fallen world is hard--and sometimes downright brutal.  And yet somehow we imagine: in a perfect world, things would be different.  And so it might occur to us to wonder: if God really is perfect and all-powerful as we Christians proclaim, why can He not give us such a perfect world?

In other words, if God is truly good, why does He allow all the pain, suffering, and sadness in this world?  Why can He not simply wave His magic wand and give us that "peace and good will" the angelic hosts so joyfully and triumphantly proclaim?  For surely, an omnipotent God could easily create for us a perfect world devoid of pain and suffering, banishing every trace of sickness and sorrow.

But what sort of world would this be?  A world of robots, without free will, programed either for a false, superficial happiness, or else compelled to be good... either the soulless society of Brave New World, or else the totalitarian nightmare of 1984.  In either case, it would be a nihilistic world lacking any ultimate meaning or purpose.

Truth be told, the peace that Christ promises His Church is not the mere absence of conflict between nations.  It is, rather, an inner peace that enables us to endure with patience the trials and tribulations inevitable in this earthly life on this side of the eschaton, that we may be made worthy in the end of God's eternal Kingdom.

Life is too short and the stakes too high to fritter away the time allotted to us by God in pursuit of an ephemeral "happiness" that cannot, in the end, satisfy the deepest longings of our soul.  For truly, to paraphrase St. Augustine, "our hearts are ever restless, till they find their rest in Him."