When is the Right Time for Prayer?

In the text of the The Apostolic Tradition (3rd Century AD), we find the following teachings about when to pray.

If you are at home, pray at the third hour [i.e., 9:00 a.m.] and bless God. But, if you are elsewhere then, pray to God in your heart. For at that hour Christ was seen fixed to the wood. Hence even in the Old Testament the law ordered that the bread of proposition should be offered at the third hour as a type of the body and blood of Christ; and the immolation of the irrational lamb is a type of the perfect Lamb. For Christ is the shepherd, and he is also the bread that came down from heaven [see John 6:41].

Pray likewise at the sixth hour [i.e., noon]. For when Christ was fixed to the wood of the cross the day was broken and there was a great darkness [see Matthew 27:45]. So let a powerful prayer be offered at that hour in imitation of the voice of him who prayed and caused darkness to overshadow all creation because of the unbelieving Jews.

Let a great prayer and a great blessing be offered also at the ninth hour [i,e., 3:00 p.m] to imitate the manner in which the soul of the righteous praises God, who does not lie, who remembers his holy ones and has sent his Word to glorify them. At that hour Christ, pierced in his side, poured forth blood and water [see John 19:34] and, illuminating the rest of the day, brought it to evening. And so, when he began to fall asleep, while causing the following day to begin, he imaged the resurrection.

Pray as well before your body rests on its bed. But toward midnight, rise up, wash your hands and pray…It is necessary to pray at that hour. For the ancients who have recounted the tradition to us told us that at that hour the entire creation rests for a moment in order to praise the Lord: the stars, the trees, the waters stop for a short space of time, and the whole army of angels who serve him praises God at that hour along with the souls of the righteous. That is why those who believe should hasten to pray then. And the Savior bears witness to this when he says, “Behold, a cry is heard in the middle of the might of one saying, Behold, the bridegroom is coming; rise up to meet him” [Matthew 25:6]. And he continues, “Watch,therefore, for you do not know the hour when he is coming” [Matthew 25:13].

And at cockcrow rise up and pray once more. For at that hour, at cockcrow, the children of Israel denied Christ [see Matthew 26:74-75 par.], whom we know by faith. In the hope of eternal light at the resurrection of the dead,our eyes are turned toward that day.

(Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, 175-176)

Meekness: A Strong Virtue

The apostles of Christ taught meekness. St. Paul mentions it in all his writings and St. James insists upon it.

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good life let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This wisdom is not such as it comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits…   (James 3:13-17).

To be meek means to be gentle and kind, to be empty of all selfishness and earthly ambition. It means, in a word, never to return evil for evil but to overcome evil by good (Romans 12:14-21).

Meekness means to distrust and reject every thought and action of external coercion and violence, which in any case can never produce fruitful, genuine and lasting results.

Meekness is to have the firm and calm conviction that the good is more powerful than evil, and that the good ultimately is always victorious.

To refer once more to St. John Climacus:

Meekness is an unchangeable state of mind which remains the same in honor and dishonor. Meekness is the rock overlooking the sea of irritability which breaks all the waves that dash against it, remaining itself unmoved. Meekness is the buttress of patience,the mother of love and the foundation of wisdom, for it is said, “The Lord will teach the meek His way” (Psalm 24:9). It prepares the forgiveness of sins; it is boldness in prayer, an abode of the Holy Spirit. “But to whom shall I look,” says the Lord, “to him who is meek and quiet and trembles at my word” (Isaiah 66:2). In meek hearts the Lord finds rest, but a  turbulent soul is the seat of the devil. (The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 24).”

 (Thomas Hopko, Spirituality Vol. 4, pp 40-4)

Preparing for Confession: Consider the Prodigal Son

Sermon notes for The Sunday of the Prodigal Son (February 2017)

1 Corinthians 6:12-20

All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any. Foods for the stomach and the stomach for foods, but God will destroy both it and them. Now the body is not for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God both raised up the Lord and will also raise us up by His power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? Certainly not! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For “the two,” He says, “shall become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him. Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.

1]  “… the body is not for sexual immorality but for the Lord” –  no dualism here.  Jesus does not save souls.  The body belongs to the Lord.  In one famous old movie the sergeant barks, “his soul may belong to Jesus, but his a– (a certain part of his anatomy) belongs to me.”   St. Paul would vehemently disagree.  Even the Christian’s body belongs to the Lord – the resurrection is about the deification of the entire human being, including our bodies.  Bodily sins, sexual sins are sins against the Lord.  This is also why fasting is a spiritual exercise and spiritual asceticism involves the body.  My body becomes through baptism a member of Christ, part of Christ’s body.   This is spiritual, but involves the physical body.

2]  The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit – we are to glorify God not by escaping our body but by using the body to glorify God.  We can achieve a victory for God in and through our bodies.  Thus sexual morality is essential.  Thus the importance of fasting, self control, self denial.  The body is not God and we should not treat it as if it is – it should not control our lives and selves.   We are to be masters of our own desires, not slaves to them. (The body belongs to the Lord but note also:  “they are the enemies of the cross of Christ:whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things.  For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.” – says st. Paul in Philippians 3:18-21).  We practice gaining mastery over our bodies in order to submit our entire life to God.  That is the goal of Great Lent – transforming our lowly body to conform to His glorious body.

St. Seraphim of Sarov
St. Seraphim of Sarov

Gospel: Luke 15:11-32

Then the Lord Jesus told this parable: “A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood. 

1]  The parable, now placed before Great Lent, is commonly seen in Orthodoxy to be one of repentance, exile and return, reconciliation and restoration.   In the beginning of this parable, we don’t actually encounter any breaking of any law – it is not illegal for the son to ask for his inheritance.  He isn’t sinning against civil law, probably not against Torah either.   In a culture in which the first born son is favored by the inheritance process, the younger son might even be wise to take what is his while there is something to get, before the elder brother lays claim to everything.   Besides, the Father could have said, “NO!”, to the younger son’s request.  But the father is the most consistent person in the parable.  He is loving, merciful, forgiving.  But to this point, probably no sin is committed by the younger son – if sin is considered mostly as breaking of some law.   We have to take this into account when we prepare ourselves for confession.  Of what are we repenting?  Sin is not always breaking a law.  The story so far does not tell us much about the inner nature of the younger son – what are his motives? why is he doing this?  We have to speculate to add those details, or perhaps we need to wait to see where the parable is headed.

And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living.  But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.’

2]  It quickly becomes obvious the younger son has no plan regarding the inheritance.  He doesn’t use it wisely, makes no provision for the future, does not establish himself as he has seen with his own father who had some wealth, a livelihood, a path to follow in life.  The younger son is foolish.  He burns through his resources immediately and quickly finds himself on the verge of starvation.  He is incredibly wasteful, thoughtless and foolish.  He “gathered” all his possessions from his father and then “scattered” them in wasteful prodigality and recklessness.  Still, in the parable we don’t know exactly what the prodigal did with his wealth.  He wasted it, though we can imagine all manners of sin as probably necessary for burning through his wealth so quickly, he might just have been foolish, throwing big parties, spending as if there is no tomorrow, enjoying life with his friends.  Even if what he did involved no sin as such, he was a fool, and his folly left him penniless and friendless.  No one who enjoyed his prodigality is there to help him in his time of need.

It is his hunger, his need, his poverty which wakes him up.  He has nothing left, and nothing to lose.  Now he remembers his generous, kind and loving father.  He realizes even being a servant or slave in his father’s mansion is better than the freedom of total poverty.  He was feeding pigs – a form of slavery with few rewards.  He was willing to trade one form of servanthood for another – the servants in his father’s house did not live in poverty, in famine, in pigsties, in starvation.  Better a servant in his father’s house, than a free son in a pigsty.  His “repentance” as such is self serving, but no matter, the forgiving, loving father will embrace him.  Even if his father takes him in as a servant, he still is better off than his current situation.  So of what is he repenting?  Poverty, hunger, degradation?  He is abandoning his folly and embracing wisdom.  Whatever terms his father might lay down, still he will be better off being in his father’s house.

In the icon detail: The prodigal has to raise himself above the pigsty mess he is in to see what to do.  Often we can’t see our way out of our sinful messes, we are trapped, so we need clairvoyance – clear vision – a new perspective to see Christ, to see the love of God.

And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.

3]  The loving, forgiving father is over joyed to have his son back.  He doesn’t even give his son the chance to express his contrition.  The father has been ever watching and hoping for his son’s return.  All the son had to do was get himself back into the presence of the father.  His father did all the rest.  The father’s love is unconditional, full of grace, not dependent on the son making a proper confession and apology.  The father’s love is not a reaction to the son’s behavior.  The father is loving, he doesn’t wait for the son to beg forgiveness, it is already granted.  We can ask ourselves again, of what do we need to confess?  Of what should we repent?   Are we willing to leave our past indiscretions behind?  To abandon prodigal living and instead live as servants of the father?    Or do we hope to be able to continue at least in part our wasteful, self-centered pleasure-seeking, while at the same time enjoying the father’s estate?   The parable says you can’t have the father’s estate AND a pleasure-seeking attitude in the world.  We have to leave that part of our life behind – not because we have no more money to spend in the world, but because we need to live with and for the father, even if we have an abundance of goods.  Repentance – we are repenting of our self-centered, self-serving life styles.  We are denying ourselves in order to take up our cross!  We don’t repent in order to be able to continue pleasuring ourselves, but to take up the cross.

Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’ But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. ‘But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.'”

4]  When we call this the parable of the Prodigal, we lose sight of the fact that the parable doesn’t end with the prodigal’s reconciliation with the father.  Jesus was only 2/3rds done with the parable at that point.  The parable goes on, there is another son in this who does not like his father’s willingness to love and forgive the prodigal.    The father remains consistent, loving both of his sons, but the older son seems to think that he is loved if he is the only one loved by the father.  He doesn’t feel loved if his father also loves the other son.  This is where the parable began – the younger brother, unsure of the father’s love (or of his brother’s love), takes his property and leaves not wanting to have to share with another.  Both brothers are selfish and self-centered.  The older brother is also not breaking any law in his attitude, but his thoughts are not those of his father.  He does not love.  It is only with the older brother that we hear the accusation that the younger brother spent his money on prostitutes.  This was not mentioned earlier in the parable.  Is the older brother speaking the truth or just making an assumption and accusing his younger brother of sin?   How does he know what his younger brother has done, for all the younger brother did was done in a country far away.

So, as we prepare ourselves for confession, for true repentance, of what do we have to repent?  Sin, as the parable shows, is not just a matter of breaking the law, the Ten Commandments, or the Torah or Tradition.  We have to think about love and relationships.  For what do we live?  Is life mostly about good times and pleasure?  Are we ever willing to deny ourselves in order to serve God?  Do we avoid serving God so that we can rather serve ourselves?  Are we willing to live in the world as God’s servants rather than as free and independent individuals who get the most we can for ourselves out of life?

Zacchaeus is Us Not Them

The Gospel Lesson: Luke 19:1-10
Then Jesus entered and passed through Jericho. Now behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector, and he was rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not because of the crowd, for he was of short stature. So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was going to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him, and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully. But when they saw it, they all complained, saying, “He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner.” Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”

Sermon notes January 2017

  • Jesus in Luke 18:31-34 had just/ already told the disciples they were headed to Jerusalem where He will be killed by the Gentiles.  In 19:1, Jesus seems to be passing through Jericho, he wasn’t planning to stop as He is headed to Jerusalem and his destiny on the cross.  Yet His sojourn is suddenly disrupted by His encounter with Zacchaeus:  for today I must stay at your house.  This is a surprise in the narrative.  Even as God’s plans are unfolding, they can be put on hold for the sake of one person!   Jesus’ own plans can be disrupted by an encounter with someone, even a sinner!  There is a message here:  It is never “too late” to seek Christ, never a waste of time, just to be curious about Him.  Even if you are merely curious, a real encounter with Him will change your life!  Zacchaeus wasn’t seeking an audience with Christ, he was just curious and just wanted to see Him.  Seeking Christ is rewarding, even for the sinner, the lost, the one cut off from God’s people, the one who chooses to be cut off from God’s people.

  • I am really struck by vs 7, “But when they saw it, they all complained…” The sudden appearance of the “they” is startling, even jarring to me.  So far the story has been about Jesus, His disciples and then Zacchaeus.  There has been no “us and them” or “we and they” in the narrative, except perhaps Jesus predicting His death at the hands of the Gentiles (Luke 18:31ff).   But suddenly there is a “they”, “them”, “not us”.   Zacchaeus though Jewish is portrayed as the outcast, the outsider, a sinner, not one of us, not a real Jew suffering at the hands of the Romans, but a collaborator – a tax collector for the Romans (the Gentiles who Jesus prophesied are about to kill Him!) .  But Jesus sees him also is a son of Abraham.  Now, suddenly, the “they” “the others” are those complaining about Zacchaeus even though they are Jews, they are not part of us, but are “them.”   The Gospel lesson is about reclamation and restoration, but also about taking sides.    Zacchaeus is restored to us, to the people of God.  But the crowd, the Jews, are no longer seen as the people of God.  “They” have suddenly rejected the way of the Messiah.  They, the crowd, like His miracles and promises, but they don’t want people like Zacchaeus to be restored to fellowship, they want Zacchaeus to be judged and rejected, as they have already done.  The crowd claims to be not like Zacchaeus because He is a sinner, but Jesus says He is a son of Abraham, even though lost, but the very thing Christ came to seek.  The people have not understood the coming of the Messiah, the promise of His restoration of Israel.  They assume He is coming to mightily overthrow their enemies, He is there to save sinners, to work with the fallen.  This is Christ’s idea of restoration, but it is an idea many aren’t interested in.  The crowd often likes that Jesus rejects the Pharisees as the Pharisees are too elitist and maximalist, but neither do they want sinners – those less than themselves, those not worthy of themselves – being restored to their number.  They want to be proven “right” to be proven worthy, especially to the Pharisees.  Of course God sees them as chosen, despite what the Pharisees might say, but they don’t want to have those they deem to be sinners included in their number!
  • Christ tells us in Matthew 25 to go into all the world and preach the Gospel. Christ’s message is not just for Jews, but in this Gospel lesson, he is reaching out to a lost sheep to restore the person.  But we Gentiles were not part of the House of Israel, we are not being restored, but are being grafted in new.  There are some who need restoration, being brought back into the fold, but others have to be added new for the first time.  We are not the restored, but truly sinners made new.  Christ is not embarrassed to be embraced by sinners, by strangers, by outcast.  We “Gentiles’ suddenly find ourselves being included not because we are righteous, but rather because, as St. Paul notes in today’s epistle, God “is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.”    God is the Savior of everyone, even of us, not because we are righteous but because of God’s love for us as our Creator.  We too should be careful  who we deem unworthy of being part of God’s people – we should welcome all who seek Christ even if we think they are unsavable sinners.
Prodigal son returns
Prodigal son returns
  • Today’s Epistle gives us some idea about how we are to live as a result of being called by Christ into the flock, the Church, into His body:

1 Timothy 4:9-16
My Son Timothy,
This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance. For to this end we both labor and suffer reproach, because we trust in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe. These things command and teach. Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity. Till I come, give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you by prophecy with the laying on of the hands of the eldership. Meditate on these things; give yourself entirely to them, that your progress may be evident to all. Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you.

1] We are to be an example to believers – to one another:  in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity.”   What do each of these things mean?  How do we do it?  We are lead by example, we should be wanting people to pay attention to our lives and lifestyles.  The things we say and do are to be examples to our fellow Christians, our fellow parishioners, our family and neighbors and coworkers.   In purity – even what is in our hearts is to be an example, it is not good enough to have external behavior for we must internally in our hearts be converted so our very thoughts and feelings are an example to others!

2]  We are to give attention to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine.     We are to study, attend adult education, be life long learners in the faith.  We have an obligation as Orthodox to this.

3]  “the living God, who is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.”   Note God is the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe, but God is the Savior of everyone.  This is the key verse which connects the Epistle to today’s Gospel.  God is the Savior of everyone, including Zacchaeus, including sinners, including people we judge unworthy of the Gospel.  No one is unworthy of the Gospel, even those who collaborate with the enemies of God.  No one is outside God’s salvation.  Christ is Savior especially to those of us who believe, but He is also Savior to all people.

Refugees or Refuse?

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. . . .    we have become, and are now, as the refuse of the world, the offscouring of all things.  (1 Corinthians 4:1, 13)

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The current kerfuffle about refugees being a threat to America exploded when President Trump carried out a campaign promise to close our borders to terrorists by forbidding people from certain Islamic countries to enter into the United States.

And while many are in agreement with what the President endeavors to do to protect the country from terrorists, there are many who are troubled by the way in which it is being carried out.  It judges broad swaths of people guilty even if they have done nothing and are themselves trying to escape the very Islamic extremists our country has proclaimed as its enemies.   It consigns the innocent and some victims to further suffering, even though they did nothing wrong, and may have in fact followed all the rules and jumped through all of the hoops that were placed before them on their road to freedom in the United States.

In the refugees we begin to understand how St. Paul felt when he wrote the words above to the Christians at Corinth.  He knew what it was to be treated as refuse, garbage.  Most likely when he made his escape from Damascus, he was lowered in a basket used to dump garbage over the city wall.  He was speaking literally when he said he was refuse!

For many immigrants now living in America and for the descendants of immigrants, the whole current American effort is very troubling because many know there are people in the world who desperately need our help and need to get out of war torn areas of the world for the sake of their children.  Some Americans have taken to the streets to protest President Trump’s mandates – the protesters may not all have the same motives for coming out, but at least some immigrants and children of immigrants know what it is like to be unwanted in the world.

SYRIA-CONFLICT
(Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

Certainly, as Christians, we should never cease praying for these refugees, even if our country won’t let them in.  Praying for the suffering of the world is our task – it doesn’t matter whether or not we agree with what the President is trying to do.

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them; and those who are ill-treated, since you also are in the body.  (Hebrews 13:2-3)

We do need to remember that our fellow Christian people from the time of the apostles were often rejected by society and made to suffer with little hope of rescue, as St. Paul himself notes.  Our prayers and sympathies should be with the current refugees of the world.  We may feel uncertain about what our role as Christians should be – on the one hand we sympathize with the refugees, on the other hand we want to stop terrorists from coming into the country, I am reminded of a story from the desert fathers:

Certain brethren came to Abba Anthony, and said unto him, “Speak to us a word whereby we may live.” The old man said to them, “Behold, you have heard the Scriptures, and they are sufficient for you.”  The brethren said, “We wish to hear a word from you also, O father.” Abba Anthony said to them, “It is said in the Gospel, ‘If a man smites you on one cheek, turn to him the other also’ (Luke 6: 29). They said to him, “We cannot do this.” Abba Anthony said unto them, “If you cannot turn the other cheek, at least allow yourself to be smitten on the one cheek.”  They said to him, “And this we cannot do.” The old man then said to them, “If you cannot do even this, do not pay back blows in return for the smiting which you have received.” They said, “We cannot even do this.” Then the old man said to his disciples, “Make then for the brethren a little boiled food, for they are ill,” and he added, “If you cannot do even this, and you are unable to do the other things, prayers are necessary immediately.”   (adapted from The Paradise or Garden of the Holy Fathers (Volume 2), Kindle Loc. 770-77)

We Christians may be far from behaving perfectly toward the refugees, but we still can do something for them – prayer at the very minimum.  [Though I am not down playing the importance of prayer.]   Even if we can’t give them maximal love through our charity, we can offer to these refugees some love, as noted in the story from the desert fathers above.   It is not an all or nothing situation for us.   We aren’t to say since we can’t help them, forget about them.  NO!   Perhaps if we prayed for these suffering people at every Liturgical service, our hearts as the Orthodox living in America would be open to what God would have us do.

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Again we pray for mercy, life, peace, health, salvation, and visitation for the servants of God the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of their teeming shore, the homeless and for the pardon and remission of their sins.

We might also think of some words that St. John Chrysostom said while he was sent into exile.  As he was on the forced march, he commented that if Christ says in Matthew 25 that those who did not give nourishment to Christ when he was hungry are condemned to the fires of hell, what will happen to

“those who have not only not welcomed strangers but have chased them away; and those who have not only not cared for the sick but have afflicted them yet more; and those who have not only not visited the captives but have cast into prison those who had been free of chains?  Imagine what torments they will suffer!”  (LETTERS TO ST OLYMPIA, p 77)

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All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.  (2 Corinthians 5:18-21)

It is not just the State Department than needs ambassadors.  St. Paul says we are the ambassadors for Christ to the world.  We bring Christ to everyone, and our mission is the same as that of Christ’s – to reconcile the entire world to Him.

Strengthening Hope

“Hope:

The means to confirm and strengthen Christian hope are

prayer, especially frequent and sincere prayer,

confession of our sins,

frequent reading of the Word of God, and above all,

frequent communion of the holy and life giving Sacraments of the Body and Blood of Christ.

If you indeed call God your Father, then trust and hope in Him, as a Father most merciful, all powerful, most wise, ever-loving, ever perfect. Trust in Him in respect of the blessings of this temporal life, but above all in respect of the future blessing which shall be granted you in Christ Jesus.”     (St. John of Kronstadt in Through the Year With the Church Fathers, p 53)

 

Following Christ: Living Beyond Ritual

“We became Christians by the grace of God; let us take care to have true Christianity within ourselves. We were baptized in the one Tri-hypostatic God and have received the gift of holiness and justification; let us take care to guard this heavenly treasure to the end.

We believe in Jesus Christ crucified ; let us take care to follow Him with faith, and having each one taken up on his cross let us go after Him. We confess and call upon the heavenly God; let us take care to please Him with a heavenly character.

We hear the word of God; let us take care and live just as it teaches us. ‘We await the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come’; let us take care to conduct ourselves in this world worthily of the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come; and having turned away from the vanities of this world, let us strive only for everlasting blessedness.

We approach the holy and heavenly table of the Mysteries of Christ; let us take care that this heavenly and life-creating Bread brings life, sanctification, illumination, renewal, joy and spiritual consolation.”

(St. Tikhon of Zadonsk, Journey to Heaven, pp 57-58)

The Evil of Despair

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.   (2 Corinthians 4:8-10)

Christ's temptation in the wilderness
Christ’s temptation in the wilderness

“In the growth of despair the devil plays a particularly important role and by means of this condition can provoke in the soul catastrophic consequences. ‘The devil’, St John Chrysostom tells us, ‘has no greater weapon in his hands than despair; we also give him less pleasure in sinning than in despairing.’ In this condition the individual basically despairs of God and cuts himself off from Him. As a result he leaves the field free for the devil’s action, and, bound hand and foot, yields to his power and is given up to spiritual death. As St Paul teaches ‘the sadness of the world worketh death’ (2 Cor. 7:10). Under the effect of despair (and sometimes even simply from sadness), man often comes to embrace corrupt passions, thinking that they might bring him a remedy for his condition. Thus the Apostle states, ‘having lost all hope they are free to embrace licentiousness, unto the working of all uncleanness; plunged in impurity’ (Eph. 4:19). Following him St. Gregory the Great tells us that the end result of sadness is ‘the straying of the spirit towards forbidden things.’ (Jean Claude Larchet, Mental Disorders and Spiritual Healing, pp 98-99)

While despair can be a temptation of the devil, it is possible to bring ourselves to despair – to bring our selves into the wilderness where Satan will meet and tempt us.  Some despair we experience is situational, we react to events going on over which we have no control.  Time and patience can at times bring us out of this funk.  Some despair is the result of body chemistry, which can be treated by psychiatry and/or psychological counseling.  Some despair is demonic and torments us, needing spiritual, physical and mental healing.   Some despair is chosen – the sadness of self-pity, which Chrysostom thought worse than sin.  We choose not to get out of it.

We often need help when in despair, whether from a supporting community of family, friends, parishioners, or from the mental health and medical community, or from our Lord Himself.

“… tribulation produces perseverance;and perseverance, character; and character, hope.Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)

The Joy of the Gospel Commandments

In Yesterday’s post, Enmity and Discernment, I mentioned the icon at the front entrance of our church, which I must pass every day that I’m in the building.  I cannot get to my office or to the sanctuary without  passing by my Lord who is telling me:

“I give to you a new commandment, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” (John 13:34)

Loving others is a command, not just an appropriate reaction to others.  It is to be a conscious choice of how we treat others, not an emotional response to how we feel about them.  The love we show them is not based upon how they treat us, or what they think about us – if it is, then we are behaving just like any sinner, but not like a Christian (Luke 6:32).

If we obey the Gospel command, it will have an effect on our heart.  What effect might it have on us if I love others as Christ loves me?

The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul;

the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple;

the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;

the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes;

the fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever;

the ordinances of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether.

More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover by them is thy servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.  (Psalm 19:7-11)

Fulfilling Christ’s commandment impacts my soul by reviving it; my mind be giving it wisdom; my heart by filling it with joy; and my eyes by giving me true vision.  Every aspect of my being is touched by Christ when I obey His command to love others.

Enmity, Discernment

Each day when I enter the church, I see these words on an icon:

John 13:34
John 13:34

Those words have been part of my life, week in and week out for 20 years.  I cannot get to my office without passing by them.  Some days they seem to jump out at me and cause me to stop in my tracks.  Sometimes if I mindlessly walk by them, they call me back and I have to stop in front of them and remember.

Jesus’ only new commandment is that we are to love one another as He loved us.  Christ commands me to love others as He loves me.  That is a tall order for sure.  And every day I struggle with what it means and how I might do it, or even if it is possible for me to do it.   Of course, I can find ways to make the text more palatable and doable.  Since Jesus speaks to us (in the plural) he means that when we are gathered with other like-minded Christians who are all committed to Christian love, then we are to love them in that context since they will equally be loving us back.  But then, of course, Christ taught us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44), so our Christian love isn’t limited to those who love us.  If it is, how are we any different than unbelievers?  (Luke 6:27, 35)

“We are commanded to have only one enemy, the devil. With him never be reconciled! But with a brother, never be at enmity in your heart.” – St. John Chrysostom

“Prayer for our enemies is the very highest summit of self-control.” – St. John Chrysostom”

“Praying against one’s personal enemies is a transgression of the law [of the Gospel].” – St. John Chrysostom

Christ’s Gospel commandments are hard.  Sometimes they seem obscure, for how can we do them?  Is it humanly possible?  Perhaps, Christ just was a utopian idealist, and some day, in heaven or paradise or some distant place, a pie-in-the-sky La La land, things would be so very nice and polite.

However, we live in this world, in which there really are enemies, and people we don’t particularly like or want to be around.  What are we to say to Christ when He commands us to do something that seems too hard, or maybe even not possible?

“Yes, sir!”

He is our Lord, God and Master, and we are His servants.  So before every service I light a candle before this icon which portrays Christ’s commandment, and I have to lay aside all excuses, and say, “Yes, Lord!”  Bowing my head in humility, I also have to say, “Forgive me.”  Forgive me for doubting it is possible, for not even trying, for not being willing to deny myself in order to follow You, for wanting to sit at your right hand but not being willing to stand with you at the Cross.

“It is a fearful thing to hate whom God has loved. To look upon another – his weaknesses, his sins, his faults, his defects – is to look upon one who is suffering. He is suffering from negative passions, from the same sinful human corruption from which you yourself suffer. This is very important; do not look upon him with the judgmental eyes of comparison, noting the sins you assume you would never commit. Rather, see him as a fellow sufferer, a fellow human being who is in the need of the very healing of which you are in need. Help him, love him, pray for him, do unto him as you would have him do unto you.” – St. Tikhon of Zadonsk

(Quotes of the saints are from For the Peace from Above: An Orthodox Resource Book on War, Peace, and Nationalism, pp 114-115)