Pascha (2014): Christ is Risen!

Dear Ones, Loved by God,

Christ is risen!

Prophet Joshua

One image we have of the Church is that of the people of Israel sojourning in the desert after their miraculous exodus from slavery in Egypt.  Forty years they wandered in a wilderness before entering the Promised Land.  And that entrance into the Promised Land was only the beginning of their struggles to conquer that territory.  The Promised Land did not free them from struggles but became a testing ground of their faith, and they often failed God in their work.

Pascha, the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus, comes also at the end of the long Lenten sojourn.  Pascha according to our hymns is our sojourn from death to life and from earth to heaven.  Yet, even though we have reached Pascha, we know that our spiritual sojourn and struggle in the world continues.

In the Paschal celebration we joyously proclaim:

Let God arise and let His enemies be scattered! Let those that hate Him flee from before His face.

Prophet Moses

 

These words were first uttered by Moses each day that the Hebrew children were directed by God to continue their sojourn in the desert wilderness (Numbers 10:34).  Whenever the Israelites were directed by God to break camp and move, Moses proclaimed those words.  So too for us, each Pascha, we proclaim those same words as God continues to direct us on our sojourn through this world.  Christ’s victory over death is as certain as God’s defeat of the Egyptian slave masters.  We celebrate that victory, and then faithfully embrace the sojourn to that Kingdom of Heaven where all sickness, sorrow, sighing and suffering have fled away.  The day of rest, in which we will no longer struggle to find our way, still lies ahead.

Our joy is in having experienced the victory of Christ over death and in knowing our sojourn on earth is not the obstacle preventing us from reaching the Kingdom, but the very path on which God wishes to take us.   “Let God arise!”  Let Him lead and guide us every day of our lives.  Let us rejoice in the resurrection and with the fear of God and in faith and love let us move toward that blessed Kingdom, never being shaken by the threats or temptations of the world which will pass away.

Again this year, I recommend to all to view the beautiful Serbian Orthodox Paschal music video.  You don’t have to understand Serbian to appreciate the total Christian joy and beauty of the video.

Fr. Ted

 

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Christ Frees ALL From Hell

“If we add to the above texts those that speak of Christ’s descent and victory as a complete ‘emptying’ of hell, it becomes clear that the authors of the liturgical books saw Christ’s descent as significant for all people without exception. Sometimes various categories of the dead are mentioned, such as ‘the pious’ or ‘righteous’, but nowhere do the hymns speak of selectivity – the existence of certain groups that were unaffected by Christ’s descent. Nowhere in the octoechos is it stated that Christ preached to the righteous but left sinners without his saving words or that he led the holy fathers out of hell but left all the rest. It is never indicated that someone was excluded from God’s providence for the salvation of the people, accomplished in the death and resurrection of the Son of God. Had Christ shed mercy only on the Old Testament righteous who awaited his coming, what miracle is this? Had he freed from Hades only the righteous, leaving behind the sinners, why would the ‘assembly of Angels’ have been amazed? One of the Orthodox evening prayers, attributed to St. John Damascene, reads: ‘for to save a righteous man is no great thing, and to have mercy on the pure is nothing wonderful, for they are worthy of your mercy.’  Had Christ saved only those to whom salvation belonged by right, it would not have been so much an act of mercy as the fulfillment of duty or a restoration of justice. ‘Should you save me for my works, this would not be grace or gift, but rather a duty,’ reads one of the morning prayers.

This is precisely the reason that the liturgical texts return again and again to the theme of Christ’s descent into Hades, and why church hymnographers express their wonder and astonishment at this event. The descent into Hades does not fit in with our usual, human ideas of justice, retribution, fulfillment of duty, the rewarding of the righteous, and the punishment of the guilty. Something extraordinary happened that made the angels shudder and be seized with wonder: Christ descended into Hades, destroyed its ‘strongholds’ and ‘bars’, unlocked the gates of hell, and ‘opened up the path of resurrection to all people.’ He opened up the way to paradise for everyone without exception.” (Archbishop  Hilarion Alfeyev, Christ the Conqueror of Hell, pp. 178-179) 

 

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Holy Week 2014 (PDF)

I’ve collected all of the blogs I posted during 2014 Holy Week and placed them in one PDF which you can now access at Holy Week 2014 (PDF).

You can find links to PDF files for the blogs I posted in past years for Great Lent, Holy Week and Pascha at Blog Series PDF.

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The Suffering of Christ and the God Who Humbles Himself

“Instead of a mighty earthly Prince expected by the Jews, Jesus of Nazareth came, ‘meek and lowly in heart.’  The King of Heaven, the King of Kings Himself, came down, the King of Glory, yet under the form of a Servant.  And not to dominate, but to serve all those ‘that labor and area heavy laden,’ and to give them rest.”   (Georges Florovsky, CREATION AND REDEMPTION, p 13)

On Holy Friday we contemplate the mystery of God’s love, power, and judgment as revealed in Jesus Christ, the incarnate God, dying on the cross.  What is God’s response to human sin?  Judgment?  Yes, but it is He who is judged and sentenced to the cross.  His judgment for humanity is mercy: He will die for our sins.   What is God’s power?  His humility in taking upon Himself the sin of the world.  What is God’s love?  His willingness to enter into creation (that which by definition is “not God”) in order to save it by uniting Himself to it and dying for it.   New Testament Professor L. Ann Jervis, commenting on 1 Thessalonians, says:

“Paul does not flesh out the nature of Christ’s afflictions as they relate to believers’ afflictions, but indications in this letter are that Paul understood the sufferings of Christ to be related positively to the birthing of the new age. For one thing, Paul chooses the word θλίψιϛ to describe both Christ’s and believers’ suffering. This word was used for a woman’s birth pangs (e.g. John 16:21) Passages in Jewish writings (e.g. 1 Enoch 62:4; 4 Ezra 4:42) and in Paul (e.g. 1 Thess. 5:3; Rom. 8:22) use the image of birthing to describe the emergence of the day of the Lord. Given the eschatological ring of Paul’s initial proclamation to the Thessalonians as he records it in this letter (1:9-10), Paul may have understood Christ’s afflictions as the pangs required to bring forth God’s new age. Those who imitate Christ share in these birth pangs. Therefore, while the good news promises eternal life (4:14-17;5:10) and escape from the wrath to come (1:10, 5:9), it also requires that now believers wait (1:10). And, in the waiting is suffering, for we are waiting for the full emergence of the new age. We are in the throes of θλίψιϛ, of giving birth. Just as Jesus’ suffering contributed to the birth of the new age, so does the suffering of believers. Intimations from 1 Thessalonians, then, are that believers’ suffering is an aspect of our participation in God’s work of bringing forth the new age. Believers share in the birthing process initiated by Jesus, and so know afflictions. ” (At the Heart of the Gospel, pp. 18-19)

The real importance of Holy Friday is that this is one of the persons of the Holy Trinity dying on the cross.   God is love and this truth is most revealed in His willingness to suffer and die for His creatures.  Biblical Scholar Michael Gorman in his profound book, INHABITING THE CRUCIFORM GOD (pp 13-33) lays out for us the theology of the crucifixion and what it reveals about the God of love who suffers in order to save His dying creation:

“The preexistent Christ’s self-emptying, self-lowering incarnation/enslavement finds a parallel action in the human Jesus’ self-humbling, self-lowering obedience to the point of death by crucifixion.  The fundamental character of the actions taken by the ‘form of God’ and the ‘form of a slave,’ by the preexistent one and the incarnate one, is the same: downward  movement.”  (p 17)

“The phrase ‘emptied himself’ in (Philippians) 2:7 . . . a robust metaphor for total self-abandonment and self-giving… That is, he ‘poured himself out,’ probably an echo of the suffering servant (Isaiah 53:12).” (p 21)

“The divine one emptied himself by becoming a slave, becoming human.  So, too, the human one humbled himself by becoming obedient to death.” (p 22)

“That is, Christ’s divinity, and thus divinity itself, is being narratively defined as kenotic and cruciform in character.  The text ‘subverts and even lampoons how millions within the Roman Empire took it for granted that somebody with the ‘form of God’ should act.  Phil 2:6-8 narrates the counterintuitive kenotic and cruciform identity of God displayed in Christ.”  (pp 25-26)

“… 1 Cor 1:18-25.  There Paul argues that Christ crucified is the counterintuitive reality of divine wisdom and power, that the cross is in fact theophanic—is the essential attribute of God while at the same time, paradoxically, being the expression of divine freedom…”   (p 27)

“But is it really the case that Christ’s self-emptying or humility hides his divinity?  Is it not rather Paul’s point that the humility of incarnation and cross reveals the divine majesty, like a transparent curtain?” (p 28)

“… render Phil 2:6a as ‘precisely because’ Christ Jesus was in the form of God and equal with God, he emptied himself…”  (p 29)

“… it indicates that God has publicly vindicated and recognized Jesus’ self-emptying and self-humbling as the display of true divinity that he already had, and that makes the worship of Jesus as Lord (i.e., YHWH, the God of Israel) perfectly appropriate.

Jesus’ exaltation is not the divine reward for his incarnation and death as God’s suffering servant (as this text is normally interpreted), but divine recognition that his suffering-servant behavior is in fact truly ‘lordly,’ even godly behavior.”  (pp 30-31)

“It turns out that God who is sovereign but also condescending in compassion (Isa 57:14-21) has been manifested in the career of the servant.  . . . The identifying characteristic of this Isaianic eternal and sovereign Lord is, henceforth, kenotic servanthood.  . . . Christ displays not only true divine but also true humanity.  Unlike Adam, he does not exploit his status as God’s image-bearer or disobey God the Father.”  (p 31)

“… a community that lives ‘in Christ’ (Phil 2:1-5) will be shaped like the story of Christ narrated in 2:6-8.  Such a community does not simply remember and imitate a story; rather, it experiences the present activity of Father, son and spirit mention in 2:1-13).”  (p 32)

“… the cross is the signature of the Eternal One.  Any other understandings of God are henceforth rendered either incomplete or idolatrous.   …. Thus if the cross is theophanic, God must be understood as essentially cruciform.”  (p 33)

 

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The New Covenant of the Mystical Supper

Certainly the highlight of Holy Thursday is the institution of the Mystical Supper by our Lord Jesus Christ.  Unfortunately, in the current liturgical practice of Orthodoxy, the Vespers-Liturgy of Thursday evening is sometimes de-emphasized and the service is often relegated to a more minor role in the spiritual life of a parish.  I’m guessing this occurred in the years or centuries in which Holy Communion was de-emphasized in the weekly life of Orthodox Christians.  As piety made Communion less frequent, the significance of the Vespers-Liturgy of Holy Thursday also waned.  Since people weren’t going to Communion anyway, Matins of Holy Friday and the drama of the events of the crucifixion replaced in piety the celebration of the institution of the Eucharist and the participation of the faithful in the Mystical Supper of Christ.

The Eucharist like the sacraments of Baptism or Unction is a way for us to actually participate in the saving grace of the incarnation of the Word of God in Christ Jesus.  The profundity of this saving event cannot be over emphasized.  It is somewhat sad that we replace the reception of the Word of God in the Eucharist with only hearing of the Word in the Gospel lessons when in our parish celebration of Holy Week we focus on the Matins of Holy Friday rather than on the Vespers-Liturgy.  It doesn’t seem quite Orthodox to me.  We have our icons to “look at”, but the Divine Liturgy of the Church takes us beyond just “looking” and beyond a re-enactment or drama to actual participation in the Body and Blood of the incarnate God.  It is my hope and prayer that some day all of Orthodoxy will again make the Vespers-Liturgy the main liturgical focus of Holy Thursday evening.

We can meditate on the Mystical Supper of Christ and our participation in the incarnation of the Word by considering the “Prayer of Joseph the Visionary” from the Syriac Orthodox tradition.  The ancient Syriac Fathers composed poems to express their prayers and sermons.  In them we find beauty and we encounter their efforts to take us beyond the literalness of words into the mystery which is salvation in Christ the Lord.

May my mind travel inwards

towards the hiddenness of your sacrifice,

Just as you have travelled out into the open

and been conjoined to your Mysteries.

The Christian life is a sojourn – we are always traveling toward the Kingdom of Heaven.  Prayer, charity, fasting, scripture reading, service, ministry, evangelism and all that we do as Christians is movement, journeying toward God.  We move, we sojourn, even when standing still in prayer.   So the first stanza reminds us that prayer itself is a sojour: our mind/heart/soul are moving toward the kingdom.  In prayer we approach the Mystical Supper of Christ.  We are going to receive the Bread and Wine in which the incarnate God is mystically hidden, and also revealed.   Christ, God’s own Son, journeyed from His throne in the Kingdom to His incarnate life of earth.  He crossed every barrier that might separate God from humanity, to come to us and to unite us to the Triune God.

And now, when your Spirit descends from heaven

upon your Mysteries,

may I ascend in spirit from earth to heaven.

 Joseph in his prayer sees the movement in the Liturgy as occurring in both directions: from Heaven (God) to earth and also in each of us our minds traverse the spiritual realms to enter into heaven.  “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8).  The Liturgy is always movement, drawing us ever closer to God and the Eternal Kingdom.

At this time

when your power is mingled in with the bread,

may my life be commingled

with your spiritual life.

At this moment

when the wine is changed and becomes your blood,

may my thoughts be inebriated

with the commixture of your love.

 In Joseph’s prayer, it is not only the Bread and Wine which are transformed by the Liturgy.  Indeed they do become the Body and Blood of Christ – God’s power mixing in with things of earth and transfiguring them.   But simultaneously with God entering into the Bread and Wine, Joseph prays that God may also enter into him and into his own spiritual life.   It is not just the Bread and Wine which become the Body and Blood of Christ, but we, the community of believers also are transformed into the Body of Christ.  We want God’s incarnate presence not only in the Eucharist but in our own lives, bodies, minds and souls.    Holy Thursday commemorates Christ initiating this most miraculous change of the things of earth, including ourselves, becoming the things of Heaven.  So Joseph’s prayer continue with these most marvelous words and images:

May my body be purified by you

of every image and form here on earth,

and may my thoughts be cleansed by you,

and my limbs be sanctified by you;

may my understanding shine out,

and may my mind be illumined by you.

May my person become a holy temple for you;

may I be aware in my whole being of your majesty.

May I become a womb for you in secret;

then do you come and dwell in me by night

and I will receive you openly,

taking delight spiritually

in the Holy of Holies of my thoughts.

Then shall I take delight in your Body and your Blood

in my limbs.

(THE SYRIAC FATHERS ON PRAYER AND THE SPIRITUAL LIFE, pp 356-359)

All of these things are what we commemorate on Holy Thursday as we celebrate the Vespers-Liturgy and bring to mind the mystical supper of Christ in that upper room.  We as disciples are called into this same experience that the original Twelve had.

This morning, I was at the London Correctional Institution to give Holy Communion to some inmates there.  We recited together one of the hymns of Holy Thursday:

Come, O faithful, let us enjoy the Master’s Hospitality: the banquet of immortality.  In the upper chamber with uplifted minds, let receive the exalted words of the Word, whom we magnify.

The Master’s Hospitality extends throughout the world, even into prisons, and into Hell itself.  The banquet of immortality was served in a prison today, and the cell became the upper chamber with Christ present.  The One Who descends into Hell, fills also the prison cell in which the faithful gather, and He fills the hearts and minds of each disciple.  Such are the miracles and grace of our Holy Thursday commemoration of the Mystical Supper of Christ.

I will add one more idea, somewhat related to the above, but the power and importance of the Holy Thursday Liturgy continues to resonate in my heart so I want to add this about Christ’s initiating the mystical supper with His disciples on the day before He is sacrificed on the cross.

In Psalm 78:24-25 we read that “God rained down upon them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven. Man ate of the bread of the angels…”  John repeats this line in his Gospel in John 6:31.   But, it is interesting to note that while the Fathers found so many typologies in the Old Testament prefiguring Christ, a number of them did not see the story in Exodus of God feeding the Israelites manna in the wilderness as a typology or prefiguring of Holy Communion.  Jean Danielou, for example, says that for Origen in the 2nd Century:

“Manna is not a type of the Eucharist.  It is the bread for the imperfect, those still going forward and needing instructors.  . . . The bread of the Promised Land is the type of the Eucharist and the true food for those who are perfected.”

Origen goes on to say :

“’Hence it is written in the same Gospel: Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness and are dead (John 6:49): if anyone eateth of this bread he shall live forever.’ For the manna, though it was given by God, yet was bread of travel … bread supplied to those still under discipline, well fitted for those under tutors and governors.  But the bread Joshua managed to get from corn cut in the country, in the land of promise, others having labored and his disciples reaping—that bread was more full of life, distributed as it was to those who, for their perfection, were able to receive the inheritance of their fathers.”

The Eucharist in the minds of the early Church Fathers was not like the manna in that manna was a special bread supplied by God to sustain the Israelites on their sojourn.  But the manna did not continue forever.  For once the Israelites crossed the Jordan River they began to eat and enjoy the bread of the harvest of the Promised Land.  It is this bread which Joshua provided them in the Promised Land.  This is the bread which prefigures the Eucharist: it is not the bread of the sojourn but the bread of the Kingdom.  They bread which signifies that we have entered into Heaven and have reached the goal of the long sojourn on earth.

Holy Thursday is the day upon which we celebrate this new bread of the Kingdom which causes us to live forever.

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Fasting and Hangry

Many families are familiar with being “hangry” during Great Lent.

Hangry is a word that combines being hungry with being angry according to Psychologist Brad Bushman of the Ohio State University.

Church fathers and monks speak about the ways fasting brings out our demons.  We start the fast with love and joy and soon find ourselves angry with the people around us.

Recent research (“Low Glucose relates to greater aggression in married couples“) has shown there is a biological basis to this experience.  Our bodies react to low blood sugar by making us more irritable and angry.  So while fasting may cause us to confront the demons of anger and irascibility, it also is setting off a physical experience in us that is related to these passions.

Ironically, according to NPR, the study relied on the use of voodoo dolls to help measure the rise of hostility and anger in the couples.  Maybe it was the voodoo dolls themselves which increased the anger!  They’ll have to study that one.  Who ever said that science does not rely on voodoo to attain its results?

For us, the study validates what many Orthodox families experience during fasting periods.

 Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law. (Galatians 5:19-23)

St. Paul got it right: anger, enmity, strife, and dissension, as has now been scientifically proven really are works of the flesh.  We are a unified being in body, soul, mind and spirit.  What affects our body affects our soul and mind.  Passions are related to the body and to the soul.

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Christ Has Entrusted You With His Gospel

Several of the hymns from the services for Great and Holy Tuesday call to mind Christ’s parable of the Master who before going on a journey entrusts to his servants some of his money.  When the master returns from his journey he demands an accounting from his servants as to what they did with the differing great sums of money he had entrusted to each of them.  Here is the parable that Jesus tells according to St. Matthew (25:14-30) :

“”For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them; and he made five talents more. So also, he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’ And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master.’

He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.’”

That the hymns mention this particular parable of Christ makes me think that at some point in the past, the Gospel was read as part of Holy Week, though it no longer is.  The theme is one of judgement and giving account.  So as we come to the end of Lent we are reminded that we will have to give account of what we did with the time and the spiritual gifts Christ bestowed on us through the weeks of Lent.

You have heard the condemnation, my soul of the man who his his talent.  Do not hide the Word of God.  Proclaim His wonders,  that increasing the gift of grace, you may enter into the joy of the Lord.

The hymn above again reminds us that these weeks of lenten abstinence are connected to a bigger picture of what it means to be a Christian.  Fasting was not the goal of Lent, but a tool to help us focus on what is important to our our life as Christ’s disciples.  The hymn says we each are like those in the Gospel Lesson who have been personally given a precious gift from God.  In the above hymn the priceless gift is the Word of God.  What have we done with the Word of God in our lives for these weeks of Great Lent?  We might protest, but all the emphasis was on fasting, not on the Word of God, why is this only brought up at this point?  Note in the hymn that the Word of God is a person, not a book.  The Word of God is Jesus Christ.  We were supposed to be making room in our hearts, souls and minds for Christ, the Word of God.  To borrow some computer imager, abstinence from food or sin was supposed to be freeing up space and memory in order that our spiritual lives might run better and that we would have spiritual room in our lives for Christ the Word.

Come, Faithful, let us work zealously for the Master, for he distributes wealth to His servants.  Let each of us according to his ability increase his talent of grace:  Let one be adorned in wisdom through good works; let another celebrate a  service in splendor.  The one distributes his wealth to the poor; the other communicates the Word to those untaught.  Thus we shall increase what has been entrusted to us, and, as faithful stewards of grace, we shall be accounted worthy of the Master’s joy.  Make us worthy of this, Christ our God, in Your love for mankind.

Once again in the hymn we are reminded that Christ our Lord has distributed spiritual gifts to each of us and we are supposed to be using them to increase the wealth of grace given to us and to the Church as a whole.  Good deeds such as being charitable to the poor, as well as worshiping God in the church services, and proclaiming the Word to those who do not yet know the Lord Jesus are all ways in which we increase the blessings God bestows on us.  And like the Master in the parable, God will demand an accounting from us of what we have done with the gifts He gave us, with the time we have on earth, with the blessings he bestows on us.  Lenten abstinence was meant to turn us away from ways in which we while away our time, or waste the blessings in selfish pursuit of pleasure.  We were supposed to use the time of Lent in service of God and others!

Behold, the Master has entrusted you with the talent, my soul.  Receive the gift with fear.  Repay the One who gave by giving to the poor, and gain the Lord as your friend, so that when He comes in glory, you may stand at His right hand and hear His blessed  voice:  Enter, My servant, into the joy of your Lord!  Even though I have gone astray, make me worthy of this savior, through Your great mercy.

Our works of charity and mercy are our ways of “repaying” God for the gift of existence and of eternal life.  Many of the saints used the imagery that we indebt God to ourselves when we show charity to the needy.  The hymn above reminds us of the Gospel Parable of the Last Judgment in which we are commanded to show mercy and charity to the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters.  The real fast according to Isaiah 58 (a text we read in the last week of Great Lent) involved being merciful and charitable.  God will accept that type of fasting and will bless us in eternity.   All that we have including our time is a gift from God to be used to love and serve God’s children.   Such is the spiritual fasting we were supposed to be doing through Lent – not wasting God’s gifts on our selfish self interests, but using them to extend God’s mercies and message to more people.  If all we did during Lent was change our diet or inflict suffering on ourselves, we fell short of the goal – to open our hearts and lives to Christ so that we might be more Christ-like in our love for neighbor and our faithfulness to our Father in heaven.

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