Even apart from these celestial gifts distinguishing the saints from other living people, there are further ways of recognizing their superiority. For instance, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, summoned to him all the peoples to worship the image that he had set up (cf. Dan. 3:1-30). But God in His wisdom so disposed things that the virtue of three children should be made known to everyone and should teach everyone that there is one true God, who dwells in the heavens. Three children, captive and deprived of their liberty, spoke out boldly before him; and while everyone else, in great fear, worshipped the image, and even if not convinced did not dare to say anything, but was virtually speechless, like beasts dragged along by the nose, these children behaved very differently.
They did not want their refusal to worship the image to go unrecognized or to escape notice, but they declared in the hearing of all: ‘We do not worship your gods, 0 king, nor will we bow down before the golden image that you have set up.’ Yet the terrible furnace into which they were cast as punishment was not a furnace for them and did not manifest its normal function; but as if reverencing the children it kept them free from harm. And everyone, including the king himself, through them recognized the true God. Not only those on earth, but the angelic choirs themselves were amazed at these children. (St Symeon Metaphrastis,, THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 33936-58)
As we celebrate Independence Day in the United States, we can think about the nature of freedom by considering the narrative in the Book of Daniel about the Three Youth in the fiery furnace. Those 3 Jewish children though captives exiled in Babylon were able to exercise their free will despite their enslaved existence. The Babylonians on the other hand though living at home as free citizens also lived in fear of the king and were not able to exercise their consciences but rather lived the king’s lie. So who was truly free – the slaves who had free will or the citizens who had no right to refuse their king’s demands?
Christian freedom means the right to live the godly life even if threatened by punishment of death. Choosing martyrdom for Christ is the greatest example of choosing free will. Christian freedom is not just about making all kinds of consumer choices, or being able to express oneself without constraint. Christian freedom is far greater than any rights guaranteed in the Constitution or in the Bill of Rights. As becomes obvious in the Orthodox spiritual tradition, freedom is denying oneself in order to follow Christ. As St. Mark the Monk noted Christian freedom, has nothing to do with unrestricted self-expression ( Counsels on the Spiritual Life, Kindle Location 1717-1718). Rather the Christian is one who is able to deny the self in order to conform himself to the will of the Creator. This is something all of us Christians in America need to consider. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
A picture is worth a thousand words, or at least wisdom claimed this at one time. Here are three images that caught my attention.
First from the Dayton Art Institute which recently had an origami art display. A piece entitled “Twisted Holy Book” by Miri Golan (2014):
The holy book is opened and there is an outpouring from the book as the meaning of the words expand beyond the limits of the book itself. The words have life in them and a force like the living water Christ mentions – they are moving, flowing, interacting with the reader of the words who in turn gives them life, an incarnation so that they can be observed by others who cannot see the book. If the words remain print on a page, they are lifeless, but when they flow from the pages into the world, into our hearts then they expand in a divine way – eternal and infinite. We, the readers, of course, have to be willing to allow the pages of life to enter our lives. We have to be looking for the living God on every page to see beyond the ink into the infinite. When we move beyond the words on the pages, we come to experience the Word of God to whom the Scriptures bear witness.
The year it was painted America was in the midst of the Civil War, a depressing time for the country with a lot of hopelessness, and yet the artist still had a hope in “The triumph of America.” The country was completely divided by the partisan politics of the day, by the evil of slavery – and the division sometimes pitted family members against each other. Yet, America still symbolized something – an ideal, a goodness that could rise above the turmoil, above the fray. And perhaps even the darkness was needed to make people want to find the light – to help them understand there is a light beyond the immediate controversy which can shine on us and through every darkness. It might give us hope that America is greater than what the extremists on the left and right push for and refuse to compromise on. Maybe the ideal will be the unifying factor that will enlighten and inspire our politicians to work for the common good, not for a political party when we realize the ideal is multifaceted and we may just be looking at it from different sides.
The third work I saw at the Denver Art Museum, entitled “Peace: The Beauty of Friendship Overcomes the Beasts of War” by Steff Geissbuhler (1986):
This one brought a smile to my face as Godzilla and King Kong, mortal enemies in the movie hold hands and share an ideal. The beasts of war are in our heart – individually but also collectively as a nation. We can overcome and tame those beasts, humans actually can rise above their passions if they choose. We as creatures in God’s image can rise above our mere animal nature. If we understand that we are a small piece of the big picture which is unfolding, and that we are not God, not even Godzilla, but are human, capable of soothing the beasts within ourselves, capable of opening our hearts to allow the God who is love to dwell in us. We may disagree but our warfare need not last forever.
He was a visible presence with Martin Luther King in America. By his life he indicated the importance of living the Gospel by supporting human rights. For many migrants who brought with them their Orthodox faith to the American shores, they were looking exactly for civil and human rights, and some suffered rejection by those who saw this “foreign invasion” as endangering American society. We all have benefited from those who have fought for the rights of minorities. Besides the National African American Museum in Washington, DC, I would highly recommend to all the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, OH. These museums do present us with our history as Americans – and the ongoing efforts to keep us all free.
O Lord Jesus Christ, our God, the God of all mercies and compassion,
Whose mercy cannot be measured and Whose love for mankind is without limit: As unprofitable servants we bow down in reverence and fear before Your gracious majesty, and we humbly offer You this Thanksgiving for all the benefits You have bestowed upon our nation and our Church.
We glorify, praise, hymn and magnify You as our Lord, Master and Benefactor. We bow down before You in Thanksgiving for Your immeasurable and priceless loving-kindness.
We pray that in the same way that You already blessed us, heard our prayers and fulfilled them, so also in the time to come as we flourish in love and virtue as a result of Your blessings grant always to accept our thanksgiving supplications and grant that we may bring glory to Your Holy Name each day that we walk on this earth.
Deliver our Church and our nation from every evil circumstance, and continue to accept, bless and prosper the work of our hands.
O Lord, grant us peace and tranquility so that we may live in godliness all the days of our lives. Count us always worthy to offer you thanksgiving, to tell about your wonderful blessings, and to sing praise to You for all the benefits you bestow upon us.
In humble gratitude we praise Your Name together with Your Father who is from everlasting and You Most Holy, good and consubstantial Spirit. Amen.
Thanksgiving morning, 23 November 2017, there was a rainbow in the sky just at day break. A beautiful sight for Thanksgiving morning.
And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will look upon it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.” (Genesis 9:12-16)
The state is, to be sure, wholly of “this world.” It belongs to the level of the reality which in the light of the Kingdom “fades away.” This does not mean, however, that it is either evil or neutral, an enemy to be fought or an entity to be ignored for the sake of “spiritual values.” On the contrary, it is precisely the experience of the Kingdom that for Christians gives the state its real meaning and value. The fall consisted primarily in the disconnection of “this world” from God and in its acquiring therefore a pseudo-meaning and a pseudo-value which is the very essence of the demonic, the Devil being “the liar and the father of lies.” To redeem the world, or anything in the world, is then to place it in the perspective of the Kingdom of God as its end and ultimate term of reference, to make it transparent to the Kingdom as its sign, means and “instrument.”
…The essence of all that exists is good, for it is God’s creation. It is only its divorce from God and its transformation into an idol, i.e. an “end in itself,” that makes anything in this world evil and demonic. Thus, as everything else in “this world,” the state may be under the power of “the prince of this world.” It may become a vehicle of demonic lies and distortions, yet, as everything else, by “accepting” the Kingdom of God as its ultimate value or “eschaton,” it may fulfill a positive function. As an integral part of “this world,” it exists under the sign of the end and will not “inherit the Kingdom of God.” But its positive and indeed “Christian” function lies in this very recognition of its limit, in this very refusal to be an “end in itself,” an absolute value, an idol, in its subordination, in short, to the only absolute value, that of God’s Kingdom.
It is well known that from a purely legal point of view the crime for which Christians were condemned and denied the right to exists (“non licet vos esse”) was their refusal to honor the emperor with the title of Kyrios, Lord. They did not denounce, reject or fight any other “defect” of the Roman Empire be it, to use our modern “fixations,” injustice (slavery), colonialism (the regime of imperial versus the senatorial provinces), or imperialism (expansion at the expense of other states and nations). Yet what they denounced and fought by denying the emperor the divine title of Kyrios implied in fact much more than all this, for it challenged once and for all the self-proclaimed divinity of the state, its claim to be an absolute value, a divine “end in itself.” And it implied therefore not only a negation, but also an affirmation. (Alexander Schmemman, Church World Mission, pp. 30-32)
“In a universe where values are relative and individual autonomy reigns supreme, personal responsibility is a doubtful proposition. Responsibility implies accountability to a higher authority than the face in the mirror, there is no need for shame or guilt. Even if you get caught, it is always the fault of someone else: your parents, your teachers, the government, faulty genes (again your parents! And no need for repentance if you can obtain the services of a clever lawyer!). Dr. Victor Frankl was an admirer of the United States and the many freedoms enjoyed by its citizens, but with some caveats. ‘Freedom…is a negative concept which requires a positive complement. And the positive complement is responsibleness..[which] refers to a meaning for whose fulfillment we are responsible, and also to a being before whom we are responsible…Freedom threatens to degenerate into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness..the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast [of the United States] should be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.’” (Daniel B. Hinshaw, Suffering and the Nature of Healing, p. 81)
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, thro’ the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watch’d, were so galantly streaming?
One sees the numbers of graves of soldiers in one tiny part of our country, and one realizes the enormity of the sacrifices made by so many. On so many beaches and battlefronts, countless dreams of young men and women died, disappearing stars in the heavens that will never glitter again – and yet they were extinguished so that the rest of us could see and enjoy the light.
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof thro’ the night that our flag was still there.
Perhaps in our flags we still see those stars, the dreams of those who are no longer dreaming about this world. We must live so that their lives are not simply lost, but are the sacrifices upon which we build a better America. They gave up their dreams so that we can realize ours. That is why we need to fight our tendencies to divide and to polarize and instead build up and build together these United States.
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
(The Star Spangled Banner by Francis Scott Key, 1814)
Each grave is individually marked by a small flag, but it is the same flag no matter how different the people. And in the cemetery, no matter how different they were in life or how they disagreed, now they rest in peace together under that same one flag. We the living need to work together so we can enjoy the peace for which they sacrificed. They are free from the tyranny of the world and from passions. We need to struggle against those same tyrannies.
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)
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.
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.
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)
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.
The recent U.S. presidential election was particularly rancourous and divisive. There was unrest after the election as some were so shocked by the results that they couldn’t even accept it. Even through the Thanksgiving Holiday, some were still unsettled by the results of the election. All of that made me call to mind President Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863. Talk about a divided nation – at that time we were in a civil war. Yet, despite the war and the divided country, Lincoln still could see there were plenty of things for which the American people could be thankful.
And though Thanksgiving is already past us, I felt it is good for us, as Americans, to remember those things for which we owe our Creator thanksgiving, even in times of uncertainty or unrest or dissatisfaction. Whatever our differences, however politics push us in polar opposite directions, we Americans also need to remember those gifts from God which we all enjoy and which make us the great nation we are. Let us never forget our blessings and let us always remember that to be an American is to be thankful at heart, and to have gratitude for those gifts whether of nature or of freedom that we hold in common.
Here is what President Lincoln wrote to the nation:
October 3, 1863
By the President of the United States of America.
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.
It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the United States the Eighty-eighth.
“In a world where mainstream religion was emphatically a branch of the state, emperors took the senior priestly roles. He became pontifex maximus (‘chief priest’ in Latin) and passed that role too his successors. Meanwhile, Augustus’s court poets and historians did a great job with their propaganda. They told the thousand-year old story of Rome as a long and winding narrative that had reached its great climax at last; the golden age had begun with the birth of the new child through whom peace and prosperity would spread to the whole world. The whole world is now being renewed, sang Virgil in a passage that some later Christians saw as a pagan prophecy of the Messiah.
(The fathers of the American Constitution borrowed a key phrase from this poem, novus ordo seclorum, ‘a new order of the ages’, not only for the Great Seal of the United States, but also for the dollar bill. They were thereby making the striking claim that history turned its vital corner not with Augustus Caesar, nor even with Jesus of Nazareth, but with the birth and Constitution of the United States.”(N.T. Wright, Simply Jesus, pp 29-30)