Feast of the Dormition (2019)

The Latin word “Dormitory” is about the same as the Greek word “Cemetery” both meaning a  sleeping place or a place to lie down to rest. It is from these words that we get the title for the Feast of the Dormition (whether in Greek, Latin or English)  – the “falling asleep” of the Virgin Mary, her death.  In John 11:11, Jesus says “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awake him out of sleep.”   Jesus means Lazarus has died.

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What was Jesus’ reaction when He came to the tomb of His good friend Lazarus – Jesus wept.  Even knowing what He was going to do – raise Lazarus from the dead – even knowing that death was but a sleep, still Jesus wept at His friend’s tomb.  It was a very human reaction, as all of us, who have suffered grief when a loved one dies, know.

The Feast of Dormition of the Virgin Mary became common in Orthodoxy only in the late 5th and early 6th Centuries.  Relatively speaking it occurs late in Christian history.  That is true because it is a Feast based in theology more than history.  It is based in the highly developed theology of Christianity that Jesus is the incarnate Son of God and Mary is the Theotokos, the human through whom the incarnation, our salvation, became possible.  It is in the light of the theology that the Feast is born.

The theology led people to reflect on if Jesus wept at His friend Lazarus’ death, how did He react to His own mother’s death?  For at her death He was no longer just walking on earth but was glorified in heaven – the Pantocrator.  And at Mary’s death it is from heaven that Christ comes, no longer weeping at death, but triumphing over it.  So in the Feast, the theologically image (icon) is Jesus triumphing over death.  The death of the Virgin is recast theologically as her resurrection from the dead because Her Dormition is turned into Christ’s triumph over death.

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Jesus is glorified as Lord, God and Savior of the world, of everyone, and so His Mother is viewed as the Mother of the Savior of the world.  Not just the savior of the Church.  His Mother thus has a role in all creation and for all humanity.  In this sense she is a cosmic figure as well.  Salvation, after all, as we profess in the Divine Liturgy, is for the life of the world and for all mankind.

In the hymns of the Church, when Mary is portrayed as the earthly mother of Jesus, the focus is often on her sorrow as she stands by the cross on which her Son is crucified.  She grieves at the mystery of the death of her Son, the savior of the world.  The emphases of these hymns when they focus on the maternal nature of Mary is frequently her love for Christ as He dies for the world and because of the sins of the world.   Her sorrow is maternal, pure love.  It is a sorrow that causes her to weep for all people, that our lives, our sins, mean Her Son must die on the cross for us.  Her grief, her weeping over her Son’s death, is the end result of all of our sins.  Her grief is directly caused by our sin – the connection between the sting of death and sin is made most clear in the images of Mary weeping over her murdered son.

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But Mary who is so frequently portrayed as weeping and lamenting at the Cross is also called “The Joy of All Who Sorrow”.  The Virgin is the symbol of all who sorrow because of the world and the sin of the world is also the symbol of all of those who know the great joy of God’s promises fulfilled.

Every Sunday in the Divine Liturgy when we sing the Beatitudes in the 3rd Antiphon, we sing “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  Mary is the image of the one who mourns who now stands eternally comforted by God.

Abba Longinus from the desert fathers said:  “In the beginning, God did not make man for sorrowing, but so that he might have joy and gladness, thus glorifying him in purity and sinlessness like the angels.  But when man fell into sin, he needed tears, and so it has been ever since.  On the other hand, where there is no sin, there is no further need for tears.”

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Mary is the one in whom sin is overcome and who needs no tears for sin because she knows her son has triumphed over sin and death.  We have these images from the book of Revelation:

For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”  (7:17)

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” (21:1-5)

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In our Church, Mary, the Theotokos is a symbol of that adorned Bride coming out of heaven bringing God’s comfort to all who mourn.

In the Orthodox funeral service there is a hymn which asks, “What earthly joy is unmixed with grief?”  This hymn reflects a thought of St John Chrysostom who writes:

“The joy of this earth is necessarily mixed with sadness; you will never find it in a pure state.  The other joy of eternal life is true without deceit; it contains no threat of disappointment, no mixture with a foreign element.  That is the happiness which we must enjoy, and which we are to pursue.  Now there is no other way of obtaining it than the habit of choosing in this world what is profitable rather than what is pleasant, of accepting small hardships willingly and of bearing all the accidents of life thankfully.”

Chrysostom goes on to say that if we can remember that this world has sorrow in it ever since the first sin of Eve and Adam, and that death is now part of this world, we can learn not to get so attached to the things of this world, even the good and beautiful things, but rather we can learn to desire the things of the world to come which are not mixed with grief but are pure joy.  He said this knowledge – that this world has grief and the world to come is pure joy – should lead us to true mourning and weeping, a sorrow not over one’s death, but over the fact that the world is corrupted by sin.  The true mourning is the beginning of repentance for our own misdeeds as well as a desire for and a love of life in the Kingdom which is to come.

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As we celebrate the Dormition we see the Virgin Theotokos as the one who knows the greatest joy of God’s promise and the depths of sorrow caused by the sin of the world.

We learn the truth of a world corrupted by sin, yet saved and made whole by the love of God and the death and resurrection of Christ.  The Virgin’s death becomes for us the symbol of hope, for Christ no longer weeps at death, not even His mother’s death, but overcomes death in, through and with His heavenly Kingdom.

Opening the Eyes of the Blind

In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the LORD, and the poor among men shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.  (Isaiah 29:18-19)

Then turning to the disciples he said privately, “Blessed are the eyes which see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”  (Luke 10:23-24)

St Ephrem the Syrian reflecting on blindness (physical and spiritual) and on Christ healing us writes:

“Great is the gift which is cast before our blind eyes:

for even though we all have a pair of eyes each,

few are those who have perceived that gift,

[who are aware of] what it is and from whom it comes. 

Have mercy, Lord, on the blind, for all they can see is gold!

O Jesus who opened the eyes of Bartimaeus,

You opened his eyes that had become blind against his will;

open, Lord, the eyes that of our own will 

we have rendered blind; thus shall Your grace abound. 

The mud [that You made then], Lord, 

Tells us that You are the Son of our Maker. 

(Select Poems, p. 109)

Bearing the Failings of the Weak

25210883198_a8c8ee7cb4_mIn Romans 15:1-7, St Paul offers his understanding of how Christians should deal with disagreements within the Christian community.  He offers this same teaching several times in his letters to the churches.  The framework is that we are to love one another, but he is trying to apply it practically to a situation where different opinions arise on an issue.   He wants to help the local community learn how to be of one mind even as there are disagreements about various practices.   St Paul is not here writing about doctrinal issues but about pious practices within a community.   St Paul acknowledges that some people are more tolerant of divergent practices than others.  Some people are zealous, some have a strict interpretation of what is allowed, while others think pious practices are of no real significance.  His solution is that when parishioners are uncomfortable with what others are doing, love requires that those who are strong in the faith have to lovingly be patient with those who are weak in the faith.  The strong in faith are not those who have the greatest scruples, but rather those who are not bothered by various practices and who don’t worry if not everyone measures up to a standard.  St Paul sees those who are weak in faith are much more subject to being scrupulous about every detail of the rules.  But he does not comment that strong vs weak means better vs worse or right vs wrong.  He recognizes only that there are divergent opinions about divergent practices and he hopes people can recognize that what is really important is that we learn to live in love for one another as Jesus commanded.  St Paul writes:

We then who are strong (who have power/strength, dynamis) ought to bear with the scruples/weaknesses/failings of the weak (adynamis, those without power/strength), and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, leading to edification. For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached You fell on Me.” For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope. Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God.

The strong have to bear not just those who lack strength but have to bear with their failings.  The strong have to pick up the slack, even if they aren’t personally bothered by some behaviors, they have a responsibility not to offend those who have many scruples or who have a hard time keeping the faith to the full.

St Paul says the strong have to bear with the weak.   Bear – this is the same word as Christ uses in telling us to take up/bear the cross to follow Him.  It is the same word used to describe Christ bearing his own cross in John 19:17.  We can remember also that Christ bore our sins on the cross as well as bearing the cross itself!

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The strong bearing with the weak is the opposite of social Darwinism – which advocates the survival of the fittest.   For St Paul, following Christ means the strong have to help the weak and wait for them and care for them, not forget about them, or leave them in their problems.  Christian love is not about competing with others to get ahead, but is about community where one works with and for everyone else.

In Galatians 6:2 St Paul says to bear one another’s burdens to fulfill the law of Christ.   We are to bring the weak to God, not leave them to their own devices or to sleep in the beds they have made for themselves.  We are to help the weak with their struggles, this is the Law of Christ.  This is the Gospel.

Throughout the Liturgy we sing “Lord have mercy!”  This is the petition of all of us, but especially of the strong for the weak.  The petitions are not time for us to sit down and take a time out during the Liturgy but exactly the times in the Liturgy when we take up the burden of others.  We come to church to do the communal work of God (the Liturgy), which means lifting up the weak and needy in your prayers.

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Here is a story from the desert fathers about how one saintly monk attempted to bear with the burden of a weak brother:

When the abbot of the monastery was going to start the Divine Liturgy he discovered that the priestly stole was missing.  The abbot said there would be no Liturgy until the stole is returned.  Nothing happened.  So the abbot ordered that every room in the monastery was to be searched.  One young monk immediately went to an old monk who had the reputation of being a saint, and he confessed to the old man that he had taken the stole.    The older monk told the young monk not to fear but to hide the stole in his cell.  So of course the stole is found in the old monk’s cell.  Despite his reputation as a saint, the other monks are furious at the old man and denounce him as a fraud and a thief.  They severely beat him.  The old man begs for mercy and promises to repent, but the other monks do not want a thief in their monastery and expel him from the monastery.   The monks then assemble in the church for Liturgy, but God sends an angel to the church and prevents the abbot from approaching the altar.  The abbot tells the brothers that they need to bring the old man back and be compassionate toward him.  They bring the old monk back and the angel allows the Liturgy to proceed.

The old man bore with the weakness not only of the young monk but with all the other monks.

St Paul concludes the lesson of Romans 15:1-7 with these words: Therefore receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God.

We are to receive each other as Christ received us.  We are to welcome one another as Christ welcomed us.  We are to treat others as Christ treats us.  This is the rule of community which St Paul believes fulfills the law of Christ.

Christ does not require us to be in his good favor before allowing us in His presence.  While we were still sinners Christ died for us.  He came to seek and save sinners.  We are here because Christ sought us out as sinners and we have accepted Christ’s invitation to live according to His commandments.

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A final good example of how this principle worked in St Paul’s favor.  From Acts 9:10-17 –

Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for a man of Tarsus named Saul; for behold, he is praying, and he has seen a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to thy saints at Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon thy name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

Ananias had heard about Saul and how Saul totally opposed Christianity.  He wanted nothing to do with Saul and certainly did not want to help him.  If Saul was suffering, he deserved it.  Christ tells Ananias to show Saul what Christian love is.  And the rest is history.

Not Seeing And Believing

In Matthew 9:27-31, we encounter Jesus and two unusual followers:

When Jesus departed from there, two blind men followed Him, crying out and saying, “Son of David, have mercy on us!”

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I call them unusual followers because these two men are both blind and yet are able to follow Jesus.   Apparently it is not hard even for these two humans who can’t see Jesus to find Jesus and to follow Him!  Why is it that we who have eyesight find it difficult to find Him let alone follow Him?  The Gospel really is for us who can’t see Jesus – Jesus calls blessed those who haven’t seen and yet believe.

Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.  (John 20:28-31)

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The Gospels were written for those of us who cannot see Jesus.  We have opportunity to believe in Him through the experiences of others who did see Him.

Without having seen him you love him; though you do not now see him you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy. As the outcome of your faith you obtain the salvation of your souls.  (1 Peter 1:8-9)

The New Testament and the Church both exist to give new people opportunity to hear about Jesus, believe in Him, to receive eternal life from Him, and to obtain salvation through Him.  But we are not required to see Him, and as becomes obvious in the Scriptures many who saw Him gained no advantage from that experience for only in the resurrection, in the proclamation of the Good News and in the Eucharist did they come to believe in Him.  The two blind men of the Matthew 9 follow Christ without being able to see Him.  They believe in Him without being able to see Him.   They pray to Him even though they can’t see Him.  Jesus shows to everyone that you don’t have to see Him to believe in Him.

And when He had come into the house, the blind men came to Him. And Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to Him, “Yes, Lord.” Then He touched their eyes, saying, “According to your faith let it be to you.” And their eyes were opened.

Jesus asks the two blind men if they believe He can give them sight – even though they can’t see Him or see what He does.  Jesus responds by really saying, “well, let’s see if you believe it or not.”  The issue isn’t whether Jesus can give them sight or not but if they believe he can or not.   Jesus puts the onus on them – let it be according to what you really believe.  Only because they have faith in Jesus are their eyes opened and they see Jesus.

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And Jesus sternly warned them, saying, “See that no one knows it.” But when they had departed, they spread the news about Him in all that country.

What is it that Jesus wants them to keep secret?  That Jesus healed them?  That they could now see would become obvious to anyone who knew them.  Was Jesus telling them not to boast about their own faith – as if they had the power to heal themselves?  Or not to boast about having been favored by God for healing as if they were more righteous than those not healed?   In any case they do go forward to tell everyone about Jesus, not about themselves.  Now that they can see who Jesus is, they don’t talk to Him, but rather they tell others about Him.

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Those two people who followed Jesus when they were blind, no longer follow after Him once they can see, for after being given sight, they go out to proclaim what they know about Jesus Christ the Son of God.   Because they now can see they do not have to live where they can physically see Jesus, for now they know who He is.

And Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”  (Mark 8:29)

Martha said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.”   (John 11:27)

Even if we cannot see Jesus today, we can find Him, follow Him, and pray to Him for mercy.   We can do all the same things that those described in the Gospel did and we too can proclaim the Good News about Christ to everyone we know.

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Animal Crossing

When I was in the spectacular Yellowstone National Park, we were brought to a complete halt several times by the wildlife.  It was awesome to see, and makes one wonder what North America was like  250 years ago when the United States was first being formed as a nation.

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However, in Dayton, we too encounter wildlife which brings traffic to a standstill.  One realizes one does not have to go far from home to see the wonders of nature.  It is amazing how the National Park System changes us –  for when driving around town wildlife seems a nuisance which we impatiently endure, but in the Parks we are awed and stop frequently for no other reason than to watch the wildlife.

The Holy Spirit at Work in You

As Jesus walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  (Matthew 4:18-19)

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Two Sundays ago we celebrated the Feast of Pentecost.   On that day, 2000 years ago in Jerusalem, God poured forth His Holy Spirit on a group of rather ordinary people, people like you and I.  Those people were transformed by that experience and went into all the world to proclaim that Jesus was risen from the dead and that the Kingdom of God was open to all of us who will love God.

Since that time, the Holy Spirit has inspired other people like you and I to hear the Word of God and to share God’s revelation with all the world.  Every year some people are inspired by God – some are baptized into Christ.  Indeed, it is the Holy Spirit at work within our lives which enables us to hear the Gospel and to desire to follow the Christ’s commandments.  Some people become filled with joy by the Holy Spirit, some work as peacemakers, they are patient and kind and try to bring healing to people who are at enmity with one another.  People are inspired to be meek and gentle, to exhibit self-control, to speak wisdom and bring light to others who are in darkness or confusion.   Some by the same Holy Spirit bring healing to the sick, or comfort to those in need.  Some are inspired to be charitable, generous, loving, forgiving and good examples – all inspired by God’s Holy Spirit.   When we live our lives according to the Gospel commandments, we become evangelists – we don’t have to tell others about Jesus Christ, we show them Christ alive in our hearts and homes – they see the light of Christ through how we live and what we do.

24756398794_06c796b1a2_nWhether we realize it or not, whether we feel it or not, it is God’s Spirit that works in us because we have been baptized into Christ and have received the Holy Spirit  through Chrismation.  For some of you the Holy Spirit still remains a seed within you which has yet to sprout and bring forth fruit.  Your task is to cultivate the garden of your heart in which that seed has been planted so that you too can bear fruit for God.  Everyone of us is given the Holy Spirit as a gift in Chrismation and so we all are capable of bringing forth spiritual fruit for the Lord.

The Holy Spirit works in  you in myriad ways, sometimes subtly and you aren’t even aware of it.  For example, you are gathered here today by the same Holy Spirit, who enables you to hear God’s word.  When you pray you open yourself to the power of the Holy Spirit, and you are saying to God, please lord let that seed which you placed in me bring forth spiritual fruit to Your glory.  When you seek out and listen to godly advice, it is the same Holy Spirit at work in you. Whenever you remember a Scripture verse or aptly apply it to some situation in your life, that too is the Holy Spirit prompting you toward God’s Kingdom.  Whenever you do some act, however humble, however, small, which brings to others love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, beauty or truth, you are doing the work of the Holy Spirit.  Whenever you decide to resist some temptation, that is the Holy Spirit at work in you.

Today we honor all the Holy Apostles as well as all of the saints of North America.  Imitate these people – discover their lives and deeds so that you can allow the Holy Spirit to work in you the miracles of God.

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So far, for the most part, the recognized Saints of North America have been “professional” Christians – clergy or monks.  A gift Orthodoxy in America could give to the entire Orthodox Church would be to have saints recognized from the ranks of the laity – from you, from just normal people struggling to do God’s will in your homes, in your families, on your jobs.  The true flowering and bearing of fruit in Orthodoxy in America will come when we realize the struggle to do God’s will is not the exclusive duty of professional clergy or monks, but is the call to each and every one of us whether we be fathers or mothers, sons or daughters, singles, working class…   May the Holy Spirit give growth to that seed of God which is implanted in each of us and help us realize our high calling in Jesus Christ.

To give us something to think about, how we as just regular can struggle toward doing holy things, I want to mention a book I read many years ago, but the story gives a real idea as to how hard it is to follow Christ, and the unexpected twists life will bring to us if we follow the Gospel.

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The novel is MR IVES CHRISTMAS.  In the book, Mr Ives had a difficult life, raised in an orphanage, he had lifted himself up to the level of having a rather decent life.  He overcame his past and became a successful American.   Mr Ives’ 18 year old son was planning on becoming a priest.  Then on on Christmas day his son is shot and killed by some Puerto Rican teenager.  Of course the ethnic identity of the killer is significant for the reaction it is intended to convey to the reader.   Thirty years go by, Mr Ives decides to look up the murderer of his son.  The murderer has now been released from prison.  Mr Ives has struggled over a lifetime with his Christian faith and with God about the death of his son and the man who murdered his son.  No one in his family can understand his desire to meet the murderer face to face.  They all refuse to go with him.  They just want to move on in life and see no benefit in meeting the murderer.  Mr Ives somewhat forces his best friend to go with him to the meeting with the released murderer.  When Mr Ives sits down with the murderer, the murderer immediately begins to cry and repents before Mr Ives.  He recognizes that he has destroyed many lives – not only his own and Mr Ives’ son, but also his family’s and the family of Mr Ives.  In a very emotional scene Mr Ives forgives the murderer.  As Mr Ives and his best friend are leaving the murderer’s home, the best friend says to Mr Ives, “It’s a good thing he was so repentant, because I was planning to shoot him on the spot.” With that his friend pulled out a revolver he had in his pocket to show Mr Ives he meant business.

When we try to live the Gospel in our lives, we find ourselves enmeshed with the values of the people all around us, with the society we live in.  Every action we take has repercussions.  We can think about the story, and think about who we are in that story.  Am I like the Puerto Rican kid guilty of a sin that had destroyed lives of others?  Guilty of a sin of which I need to ask forgiveness from others?   Or perhaps, I am Mr Ives, who wrestles with how sin has impacted my life, struggling with how to live the Gospel, how to forgive people who have hurt me, how to find peace with my enemies.  Or perhaps I am most like Mr Ives’ best friend, carrying a gun wanting to ensure justice even when others are willing to forgive.   Following Christ challenges us to rethink life, that is the life of repentance, of changing our thinking in order to live according to the values of the Kingdom of God.

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There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.  (Romans 2:9-10)

Departure Times

14272179892_9901f134e6_nThis past Thursday we commemorated in the Church the Ascension of our Lord – 40 days after resurrecting from the dead, Jesus ascended into heaven.  According to the hymns of our church the Apostles were dismayed at the Lord’s departure, even despondent.  Yet, as I mentioned in my sermon for the Ascension, Jesus had told us it was necessary for Him to leave us to prepare our place in the Kingdom (John 14).  He said, if we love Him we will rejoice that He returns to His Father.  The implication is if we feel despondent, feel like we are being orphaned, then we do not really love Him, rather we are more in love with ourselves.

We are to seek in the event of the Ascension that which allows to rejoice in Christ’s departure from us – the knowledge that Christ’s being with the Father is necessary for our salvation and more important than His being physically present as a human on earth.  We think it is more important for Christ to be with us, Christ tells us we should rejoice that instead He is with the Father.   This is the value of the up-side-down Kingdom of God.    Blessed are those who mourn for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 5:4).

4587917216_dd3821f5cd_nIn the Epistle reading today (Acts 20:16-36), St. Paul also makes a farewell speech to his friends and followers.  That scene reminded me of the last chapter of Deuteronomy and the end of Moses’ life.  I love Moses and his story.  God calls him to lead Israel, Moses says no thanks, send someone else.  God imposes on Moses that he is to lead Israel out of Egypt, to confront one of the greatest military powers on earth and to walk away from them.  No slave rebellion, no war, just liberation – walk away from one of the greatest civilizations on earth and go into the desolate desert.  Moses does all these things and the people show time and again that they don’t like Moses as their leader.  But Moses persists and when God Himself gets disgusted with the people and tells Moses to step aside because He is going to destroy those rebellious people, Moses stands before God and intercedes for these iniquitous people, and tells God if you aren’t going to save them, then don’t save me either.  Moses risks his eternal life and his relationship with God for the very people he didn’t want to lead in the first place and who don’t particularly like him.  In the end, God gets angry at Moses and after Moses led the people for 40 years, God tells Moses that he will not be permitted to enter the promised land.  All that work and sacrifice and Moses dies without reaching the promised land.  But he did his best to be faithful to the commission given to him by God.

And Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho. And the LORD showed him all the land, Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain, that is, the valley of Jericho the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar. And the LORD said to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there.”  (Deut 34:1-4)

25210883198_a8c8ee7cb4_nSt Paul, reports in today’s lesson from the Acts of the Apostles that he has faithfully led the people, suffered for them and because of them, and now reached a point where he must say goodbye to them as God showed him that he must follow a path to his own martyrdom.  He knows what lies ahead but also knows this is the path that God wants him on.   So he says farewell to the people he worked so hard to form into a Christian community.  St Paul is able to say that he faithfully did his task, and now he realizes his path leads him in a different direction, so he now has to entrust his congregation to God’s own spirit because He, Paul, will  no longer be leading them.  He trusts God to be guiding all things.

 “You yourselves know how I lived among you all the time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials which befell me through the plots of the Jews; how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance to God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, bound in the Spirit, not knowing what shall befall me there; except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may accomplish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that all you among whom I have gone preaching the kingdom will see my face no more. Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God.

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Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God which he obtained with the blood of his own Son. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities, and to those who were with me. In all things I have shown you that by so toiling one must help the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.‘”

Thirty three years ago in June I came to Dayton to begin serving as the first priest of a mission.  God has blessed this work and given it growth.  I am following St. Paul’s lead to tell you that my time with you is also coming to an end.  I will be retiring at the end of August.  Like St Paul, I realize God has His own plan for me and it requires me to move in a new direction. I am not giving you my farewell speech since there are still a couple months that we will be together.  Bishop Paul will soon announce on the Diocesan webpage that he is seeking a priest to come to our parish.   It will be another time of growth for the parish. St. Paul’s own words come to mind:

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and another man is building upon it. Let each man take care how he builds upon it.  For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.

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Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?  (1 Corinthians 3:5-16)

The Ascension: No Barrier to Heaven Ever Again

The Feast of the Ascension of our Lord

Acts 1:1-12

To see heaven open”: For Fr. Boris, these four words signify the very mystery of Christ, of the Christian faith and hope. “For we have the certainty that heaven, which opened three times in the unfolding of the mystery of salvation, remains henceforth open forever. Nothing and no one can reconstruct the barrier that the sin of the first man erected between God and man. No one can excavate again the abyss which Jesus has filled between heaven and earth.”

(Fr. Boris Bobrinskoy, The Compassion of the Father, p. 32)

Blind from Birth, Able to See the Truth

“Your eye is the lamp of your body; when your eye is sound, your whole body is full of light; but when it is not sound, your body is full of darkness. Therefore be careful lest the light in you be darkness. If then your whole body is full of light, having no part dark, it will be wholly bright, as when a lamp with its rays gives you light.”  (Luke 11:34-36)

The Gospel lesson of the man born blind, John 9:1-38, offers us “insight” into how and why each and every human needs to see the Light of Christ in order to know God (see also my blog Before, The Man Born Blind, and After).  Orthodox hymns based on the Gospel lesson reveal a great deal about the world we live in.  “Seeing” is not just done with the eyes in our head, for we can also see (or understand) with the eyes of our heart.  Those who see spiritually might be physically blind, but they are better off than those who see only with their eyes – especially true since divinity itself cannot be seen with the eyes.  Three hymns based on the Gospel lesson of Christ’s healing the man who was born blind:

THE MAN ONCE BLIND SAW THAT THOSE WITH SIGHT WERE TRULY BLIND, DARKENED IN HEART, MIND AND SOUL, FOR WHEN THEY SAW THAT HE SUDDENLY WAS ABLE TO SEE, THEY QUESTIONED HIM WITH PERSISTENCE: HOW IS IT POSSIBLE FOR YOU NOW TO SEE THE LIGHT OF DAY?  YOU WERE BLIND FROM BIRTH.  YOU SAT ON THE ROADSIDES AND BEGGED!  HE TOLD THEM WHO HAD GIVEN HIM SIGHT, AND IN THE MIDST OF THEIR DARKENED ASSEMBLY HE CONFESSED YOU: THE SON, BEGOTTEN OF THE FATHER BEFORE THE AGES, WHO FASHIONED THE LIGHTS OF THE UNIVERSE, AND IN THESE LAST DAYS, IN YOUR COMPASSION, BY THE HOLY SPIRIT, FROM THE VIRGIN MARY, DAWNED UPON THE WORLD AS A MORTAL MAN! 

In the hymn above we see that ‘blindness’ is not only physical – we can be blinded by being “darkened in heart, mind and soul.”  While this describes an interior blindness in some individuals, we can suffer from a group blindness when we accept the viewpoint of an “darkened assembly” of people to whom we belong.  “Group think” can blind us to what can be clearly see if we take off our social blinders.  Christ not only created the sun, moon and stars to give physical light to the world, He is the Light of the world which has dawned for all people.

THE MASTER AND CREATOR OF THE UNIVERSE MET THE MAN BORN BLIND WHO SIGHED AND SAID: I HAVE NEVER IN MY LIFE SEEN THE BRILLIANCE OF THE SUN, NOR HAVE I SEEN THE BRIGHTNESS OF THE MOON!  THEREFORE I CRY OUT TO YOU, LORD BORN OF THE VIRGIN: AS YOU ENLIGHTEN THE WHOLE WORLD, IN YOUR MERCY, ALSO GIVE LIGHT TO YOUR SERVANT THAT I MAY BOW BEFORE YOU, CHRIST OUR GOD, AND SAY: GRANT ME FORGIVENESS OF MY SINS, FOR YOU ALONE ARE GOOD AND THE LOVER OF MANKIND!

Christ “enlightens the whole world” both with the sun He created at the beginning but also by Himself being the light of the world.  We each need that light of Christ in our lives.  A baby in the womb has eyes but lacks the light to see.  When we are born into the world we can see the light of the sun, but in Christ we are born so that we see Christ as the light of the world.  Our physical eyes do not allow us to see everything in this world.  We need the spiritual light to see spiritual truth.

THE LAMP OF THE BODY IS THE EYE, AND YOU ARE YOURSELF THE SOUNDNESS OF HUMAN SIGHT, O WORD OF GOD!  FROM A MIXTURE OF SPITTLE AND DUST YOU RESTORED THE BLIND MAN’S SIGHT!  YOUR FINGERS ANOINTED HIS EYES: MUD BRINGS VISION INEFFABLE WONDER!  FROM HIS BIRTH, HE NEVER SAW THE SUN, NOW HIS FIRST SIGHT IS YOU, THE SWEET SUN OF RIGHTEOUSNESS, THE IMAGE OF THE FATHER, WHO CREATED US IN HIS BOUNDLESS COMPASSION.

The eye may be the lamp of the body but it is Christ Himself who is the “soundness of human sight.”  We can see physically even without Christ, but our sight is made whole by Christ who takes away every kind of blindness including spiritual.  Spiritually speaking, we have to remove from our eye every obstacle that we are able to remove so that Christ can heal us and give us that more perfect vision which allows the pure in heart to see God (Matthew 5:8).

Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.  (Luke 6:41-42)

 

Before, The Man Born Blind, and After

The Gospel lesson of John 9:1-38 which gives us a narrative of Jesus healing a man blind from birth.  It is one of the Post-Pascha Sunday Gospel themes and so continues exploring in the Orthodox liturgical context the Resurrection of Christ.  The blind man is told by Christ to wash in the pool of water–a baptismal theme  important for the continued spiritual development of those new Christians who had just been baptized at Pascha.

In the Orthodox Church on this Post-Paschal Sunday we read John 9:1-38.  It is worth considering the verses right before and after that pericope as they help set the context of the Gospel lesson and give it additional meaning.  The scripture just before the blind man pericope, John 8:56-59, takes place in the Temple precinct and has Jesus saying to the Jews:

Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad.” The Jews then said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they took up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple.

The text relates a debate which occurs between Jesus and His interlocutors regarding the interpretation of Scripture.  Jesus maintains throughout His ministry that the Old Testament Scriptures are mostly a prophecy about Himself (see for example John 1:45John 5:39-47, Luke 24:25-49).   Jesus says Abraham spiritually saw ‘Christ’s’ day – He is making the claim that the way to read Torah is as a prophecy of Christ, but those debating with Him see the Torah more as Law or the Teaching about how to live rather than as prophecy referentially pointing to something or someone else.  Those arguing with Jesus not only disagree with Jesus about how to understand the Torah but they don’t at all understand Jesus.  They hear Jesus say ‘Abraham saw my day‘, but then twist His words around and incredulously challenge him as they know He is lying if He claims He has seen  Abraham.  But Jesus is telling them the Torah is prophecy (that is how Abraham saw Jesus), and Abraham was a prophet looking for the Messiah.  This is not something all Jews believed.   So they are rejecting Jesus’ interpretation of Torah and denying that the Torah is what Jesus says it is – prophecy of the coming Messiah.  Jesus tries to show them what Torah is about but they refuse to see.

The narrative of the man born blind is preceded by a question about what is Torah? and Who can interpret it?  The Jews are arguing the Torah tells them how to live, Jesus says Torah helps them see and He claims to be the light of the world.  In other words, Torah reveals Him and He reveals the meaning of Torah.

After this discussion, Jesus leaves the temple:   The temple was a sign of God’s presence in Israel — the Temple itself was a place for the people to encounter God, to encounter God’s message, to hear God’s prophecy, God’s word and to know what God is doing.  But in the temple the people have just shown they can’t see God there and aren’t interested in what God is doing and are not willing to hear what God’s message is.  Thus, they want to stone Jesus.  Torah offered them an encounter with the living God, but they turned it into words carved into stone (so too their minds and hearts turned to stone!  See  2 Corinthians 3).

In this Gospel lesson it is outside the temple that Christ gives sight to the blind man.  It is outside the temple that the blind man’s eyes are recreated.  Outside the temple  Jesus proclaims Himself to be the light to the world.  Those in the temple are still in darkness as is shown above in the conversation they have with Jesus.  In the temple they remain spiritually blind.  The Great Temple in Jerusalem with all its correct liturgical ritual fulfilling Torah and claims of being the place where God dwells on earth did not give sight to the blind, nor to the spiritual leaders of the Jews.  Without Christ, even with the Temple and even within the Temple,  there is spiritual blindness – the people cannot see what God is doing.   So Jesus says: “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.”  Those in the temple are judged, it is outside the temple that people are enabled to see what God is doing, in fact to see God.

Jesus claims to be the light of the world.  It is in Jesus and through Jesus that we see what God is doing.  When we see the Torah as prophecy we see what God is doing, we see Christ.  The Temple itself turns out to be no help to us in knowing God.

John 9:1-38

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from his birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him. We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” As he said this, he spat on the ground and made clay of the spittle and anointed the man’s eyes with the clay, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing.

[“Wash in pool of Siloam” – these words from the Gospel are being used liturgically in Orthodoxy as being a reference to baptism.  Baptism is not just for forgiveness of sins, but also for the healing of soul and body, it gives spiritual enlightenment, displays God’s work in our life, renews and regenerates godliness in us.  As we pray in the Baptism service:  “But show this water, O Master of all, to be the water of redemption, the water of sanctification, the purification of flesh and spirit, the loosing of bonds, the remission of sins, the illumination of the soul, the washing of regeneration, the renewal of the Spirit, the gift of adoption to sonship, the garment of incorruption, the fountain of life.

The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar, said, “Is not this the man who used to sit and beg?” Some said, “It is he”; others said, “No, but he is like him.” He said, “I am the man.” They said to him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash’; so I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”

They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the clay and opened his eyes. The Pharisees again asked him how he had received his sight. And he said to them, “He put clay on my eyes, and I washed, and I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?” There was a division among them. So they again said to the blind man, “What do you say about him, since he has opened your eyes?” He said, “He is a prophet.” The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight, until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight, and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but how he now sees we do not know, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age, he will speak for himself.” His parents said this because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if any one should confess him to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age, ask him.” So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and said to him, “Give God the praise; we know that this man is a sinner.”

He answered, “Whether he is a sinner, I do not know; one thing I know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you too want to become his disciples?” And they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Why, this is a marvel! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes.

What becomes obvious in the Gospel lesson is that seeing is  is not done only with the eyes.  Seeing can also mean understanding; one sees spiritually as well.  The healed blind man “sees” not only who Jesus is but also sees that the trouble with Jewish leadership is not that they can’t see with their eyes – they see clearly but don’t like what they see and so choose to blind themselves.  They can see Jesus and what Jesus is doing, but they refuse to accept what they see.  This leads them to put an evil interpretation on what is right in front of their eyes.  They are willing to blind themselves to the truth because they don’t want to admit Jesus is God’s revelation, and that the Torah bears witness to Christ who is the light of the world. They don’t want what Jesus teaches to be true.

We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if any one is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him. Never since the world began has it been heard that any one opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?” And they cast him out.

Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him he said, “Do you believe in the Son of man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and it is he who speaks to you.” He said, “Lord, I believe”; and he worshiped him.

The blind man did not see Jesus first when his eyes were opened.  Rather his eyes were given sight and only later did this man physically see Jesus.  In fact when he sees Jesus with his eyes, he does not recognize Jesus!  But even before he ever saw Jesus physically, the man born blind clearly could see who Jesus is –the Messiah!  When at the end of  the Gospel lesson,  Jesus is standing right in front of the cured blind man he does not know he is talking to Jesus.  He came to faith, came to see and recognize Jesus as Messiah with the eyes of his heart, with faith, before he ever laid eyes on Jesus.  He sees the Messiah before he sees the man Jesus. That is the same way that any of us can see Jesus today.  The blind man is showing the way for all of us.  Even if we can’t physically see Jesus today we are like the man born blind and so can know who Jesus is and we can have him in our lives.  The Gospel is giving us encouragement – though we can’t see Jesus today, we know who He is and we know He is doing God’s will.  We know He is our salvation, our path to God, our union with God. We each are born blind, we don’t see Jesus, but we learn about Him, and even when we can’t see Him with our eyes we come to know Him and we come to see He is God’s Son and our Messiah in and through the saints and the Church.  As it turns out this person’s story is the story of each Christian.  This Gospel lesson is about you and you are in the Gospel.  The Gospel lesson tells us that physically seeing Jesus is of no advantage to a person – see also the account of the disciples who walk with the resurrected Jesus and don’t recognize Him in Luke 24.  Those living in the First Century have no advantage over us living in the 21st Century.  God is not visible to our eyes, but to our heart.  What we need to see is not the physical traits of Jesus but rather we need to see the Messiah, the incarnate God.  This is what an icon of Christ also reveals to us – not just a human, but the Messiah and Lord.

John 9:39-41

Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this, and they said to him, “Are we also blind?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.

If we don’t see our Lord, it is because we choose not to.  We can’t just use our eyes for this, we have to use our heart, our faith, our love.  If we think Jesus is nothing but a nice man or a miracle worker, then we aren’t seeing Christ.

Two additional notes:

1]  Jesus says the man was born blind so that the works of God might be made manifest in him — we so often see our limits or handicaps as deficits which depress us that we aren’t like others.  But in this Gospel, we see that whatever we don’t like about ourselves might also be used to display God’s power in us, it can even serve to protect us from committing the sins that everyone else does.  God might help any one of us overcome our limits and shortcomings in order to display His power to others through us.  Don’t put yourself down or feel sorry for yourself because you are not like others or feel you are somehow aren’t as good as others.  God may be protecting you from making the mistakes and sins others do, or God may use your “weakness to accomplish” His will.  As St. Paul said of himself:

And to keep me from being too elated by the abundance of revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan, to harass me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I besought the Lord about this, that it should leave me; but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong.  [ 2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

2]  “Why me?” that’s the common questions we ask when something goes wrong in our lives.  The disciples ask Jesus about the man born blind – Why him?  What did he do or what did his parents do?

We act as if we believe in magic – do good and nothing bad can happen to you.  Jesus refutes this attitude and acknowledges there is a spiritual warfare raging in the world.   Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him. We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”    Jesus says there is a war going on between light and darkness,  and He is here to bring light to the world.   The blind man’s condition is not the consequence of some petty sin but rather is part of the cosmic battle in which evil wants to destroy life.  We are able to see heaven opened and to see how Light overcomes darkness.  We are able to receive the Light that is not overcome by the night and to enter that Light.