Imitating Christ: One OF Us

That a Christian is one who both follows Christ and imitates Him seems pretty straightforward.  Jesus Himself told us:

“You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”  (John 13:13-17)

Today in American English we often hear the “you” of these commandments in the singular.  We are so attuned to individualism that we assume this is a command for each off us to keep individually, and yet the command is spoken in the plural and means that all of us together are to love one another.  Christ is an example to each of us personally, but then calls us to act communally as brothers and sisters.  We as parish are to serve all.  Christ gives an example to each of us, and together, communally, collectively, as a body, as a parish we are to fulfill the commandment together.

In this same discourse but a minute later Christ goes on to say:

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  (John 13:34-35)

Again he addresses himself to each of us personally but calls us to love together, collectively and communally.  We are to be recognized as disciples not just an individual disciple.  We are recognized as disciples in community.  The parish is essential for our identity and witness.  In the parish community we can and are to fulfill the commandment that we together do what Christ commanded us to do.  This is very much what the early church understood about being Christian and discipleship:  one Christian, or a Christian alone, is no Christian.  Only in community can we love as Christ commanded us to do.  Of course we each have to contribute to this communal behavior, but it is always each of us have to work together to love as Christ exemplified and commanded us to do.

The plural “you” – we, us – is also in St. Paul’s exhortation:

“Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”  (Rom. 15:7)

Christ welcomes us and receives us.  It is as one of us that we live our Christian life.

“Let us commend our selves, and one another and all our life to Christ our God.”

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To Love as Christ Loves

“Indeed, if anything in Christ’s unique image is predominant, then it is His extreme humility and not at all any desire to ‘prove’ His Divinity by using miracles. The Apostle Paul writes some extraordinary words about this humility of Christ: ‘He was in the form of God … but emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant… He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross…’ (Phil 2:6-8). He never used His miraculous birth as “proof” and never once in the Gospels even mentions it Himself. And when He was hanging on the Cross, abandoned by everyone and in terrible agony, His accusers mocked Him precisely by requesting a miracle: ‘…come down now from the cross that we may see and believe’ (Mk 15:32). But He did not come down and they did not believe. Others, however, believed because of the fact that He did not come down from the cross, for they could sense the full divinity, the boundless height of that humility, of that total forgiveness radiating from the Cross: ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do‘ (Lk 23:34).

Once again, the Gospels and genuine Christian faith do not view miracles as proofs to force belief, since this would deprive man of what Christianity regards as most precious, his freedom. Christ wants people to believe in Him willingly without the coercion of a miracle. ‘If you love me,‘ Christ says, ‘you will keep my commandments‘ (Jn 14:15). And we love Christ–sadly, all too little–not because of His love, His humility and because, as those who heard Him said, ‘No man ever spoke like this Man!’ (Jn 7:46).

(Alexander Schmemmann, The Virgin Mary, p. 17-18)

The Last Judgment: Don’t Be Surprised

When You, O God, shall come to earth with glory,  all things shall tremble and the river of fire shall flow before Your judgment seat; the books shall be opened and the hidden things disclosed!  Then deliver me from the unquenchable fire, and make me worthy to stand at Your right hand, righteous Judge!  (Hymn of the Last Judgement)

Sounds pretty frightening – and it is meant to be.  The Church in its hymns uses these words to describe the Last Judgment:

Dreaded

Awesome

Fearful

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What most bothers us as 21st Century Christians about the Judgment Day is not the thought that sinners will be condemned to the fires of hell and damned for all eternity – in fact on that point we tend to like retributive justice for sinners because they finally get what they deserve – what actually bothers us is that WE – each of us – You and me – are going to be held accountable for every thing we said and did in this life.  We are OK with others – the sinners – being held accountable, but why should we be judged?  That God might even think about judging you or me based on our behavior, that is hard to swallow – Let Him judge sinners, murderers, perverts, terrorists, criminals, liars and the lazy, and leave the rest of us alone.

Actually many of the Jews in Jesus’ day had a similar thought.  They were anxiously awaiting the Day of the Lord, because they believed on that day God would finally and completely condemn and annihilate all of Israel’s enemies and oppressors.  On that day God would judge and condemn to hell the Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, Philistines, Canannites.  The Jewish people would finally be avenged!

What these folk’s ignored was that the prophets had been warning that the Day of the Lord was also going to be a day of Judgment for God’s own people, and that God would start the judgment with Israel.   All of us who think God is going to judge “someone else” – we Orthodox or we Americans – also need to take the prophets’ message to heart – judgment begins with us.

And we might begin to feel a little hot under the collar about this.  All the porn we looked, all the times we were drunk, all the times we lied, all the times we were greedy, selfish, angry, enraged, sexually immoral, jealous, envious, bickering and contentious – for all of this we are going to be judged by God.  As St. Paul says all those who do such things shall not inherit the Kingdom of God.  It’s not just that we are going to have to give account for this behavior, we are going to be condemned for it at the Last Judgment.

Dreaded

Awesome

Fearful

Judgment

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But then the Lord Jesus shocked His followers when He spoke about the Last Judgment.  Jesus did not say that at the Judgment Seat all Jews or that all Christians will be declared righteous and everyone else will be condemned as sinners.

Saint and sinner will be assembled before God, and God will judge us based upon:

Our mercifulness

Our kindness

Our love for others

Our concern for the well being of others.

Jesus says we will be judged in the same way and by the same criteria we judged and criticized others.  If  we thought the poor and needy were not worthy of our time, our attention, our possessions, we will find ourselves so judged by God who will not share His time, attention and possessions – namely His Kingdom – with us.  The Kingdom belongs to Him, not to us.  Just like we think our possessions belong to us and not to some beggar.

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God’s judgment is a judgment of our hearts.  The proper defense before the dread Judgment Seat is loving others, being merciful to others, showing mercy to the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters.

A story from the lives of the saints:

St. Martin of Tours was a Roman Army Officer who was entering a city one cold, wet, wintry day.

1012martinoftoursA beggar asked him for money, but Martin had none with him.  But seeing the man shiver with cold, Martin came down off his horse, took his sword, and cut his soldier’s cloak in half.  His cloak was like a large warm poncho.  He wrapped the beggar in this half portion of his cloak.

That night, Martin had a dream in which he saw Christ standing in the wintery cold wearing an old tattered cloak. An angel approached Christ dismayed at how the Lord was dressed.  “Lord,” the angel said, “where did you get that old, torn cloak?”  Jesus responded, “My servant Martin gave it to me.”

Martin thought he gave his cloak to a beggar, but as today’s Gospel teaches us what we give to the least of the brothers and sisters of Christ, we give to the Lord Jesus Himself.

Note:  Martin didn’t give his whole cloak, he shared half of it with the beggar.  He didn’t impoverish himself, but provided for another from his means.

We each have that same chance to share what we can with those in need.  We don’t have to deprive ourselves of everything, but certainly can share some things by ministering to the Lord Himself.

There will be surprises for us on the Judgment Day as we see in the Gospel:

Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?

And the wicked will say:  And Lord, when did we see you a stranger and not welcome you, or naked and not clothe you? (Matthew 25:37-41)

Both the blessed and cursed are going to be in for a surprise on Judgment day.  Don’t you be surprised!

 

Meatfare: Fasting is Communal

“Today is both Meatfare Sunday and the day on which we remember the Last Judgment. The readings we have just heard speak to both of these directly and in complementary ways.

With Meatfare Sunday our preparation for Great Lent begins to take on a concretely dietary aspect, as its name indicates. This is the last day before Great Lent for eating meat. Thus begins, as it were, a warm up for the hard exercises, the asceticism, ahead of us.

It is very easy to miss the point of such practices. The purpose of such efforts is not simply to do what is expected of us, but instead to allow ourselves to be weaned from our dependency on everything that might separate us from God—not because it is bad in itself, but because of how we relate to it or depend on it. I’m reminded of this every time I persuade myself that I can’t do anything in the morning until I’ve had a cup of coffee: there is nothing at all wrong with coffee; and it is not my body that craves it; it is rather my mental attitude towards coffee or caffeine that has made that cup into my ‘god.’

We hear Paul remind us that the food itself is not the issue: it makes no difference to God whether we eat meat or don’t. God is not concerned with our diet! We are free in all of this, and it is this freedom which makes what we do of any worth anyway. If we freely, willingly, eagerly even, undertake the disciplines which the Church sets before us, we might just come to be less dependent upon our creature comforts. Only then will we come to realize that we are in fact truly dependent only upon God, for in truth most of us, most of the time, do not realize this. Only then will we come to know God truly, and to know God acting in us.”

(Fr. John Behr, The Cross Stands While the World Turns, pp. 21-22)

Christ Alone? No, Christ in the Crowd

“Think of it: Jesus Christ, the Life of all, the Creator of the universe, the only One ever to have been born without sin, was all alone, left in a common grave, outside of Jerusalem. He was alone even among his closest friends, since they never really understood Him, and thus He asked them: Do you not perceive or understand? (Mk. 8.17) Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know Me? (Jn. 14.9). At the time of His passion, His isolation became acute. In the garden of agony, when His sweat became like great drops of blood, His disciples drifted off into sleep (Lk. 22.44). One by one His friends deserted Him. He stood alone before the judgement seat of Pilate, alone on the cross, alone in the grave: everywhere alone. He went alone into Hell. Alone, always alone. Why? So that you might learn that you have to be alone with God in order to become His dwelling place.

Then the Lord will say, at the Last Judgement, to those on His left, whom He will send away into Gehenna, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels: “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me” (cf. Mt 25:33-41). Do you see? He’s a stranger, somebody who’s alone, who’s ignored: I was hungry and you gave me no food; I was alone in prison and you did not visit me (cf. Mt 25.42-43).

…For many of us, this can be a rude awakening: after beholding Christ in our dreams, we find it annoying to open our eyes on a world filled with other people. Immediately we say: “I wasn’t looking for you I want Christ,” forgetting that the stranger, the poor man, the prisoner, the sinner, and especially my enemy – especially the person who seeks to harm me – is Christ for me.”

(Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra, The Way of the Spirit, pp. 244-245, 254)

Praying: Paying Attention

“One of the elders said: pray attentively and you will soon straighten out your thoughts.”   (Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert, p. 78)

“The Lord teaches, besides other, higher matters, of which there is no time to speak now, that if we are stirred up to pray alone in our houses and bedrooms this also encourages prayer to God in church, and inner prayer of the mind encourages spoken prayer. If someone only wants to pray when he attends God’s Church, and has no concern at all for prayer at home, in the streets or in the fields, then even when he is present in church he is not really praying.”   (St. Gregory Palamas, Homilies, p. 51)

Embracing the Sinner

“One of the most difficult problems faced in Christian life, and one that the desert monks experienced acutely, is the problem of our temptation to seek distance from the struggles of others, and to promote a sense of separation from the sins of the world around us. There is a certain passing resemblance to Christianity in doing so. Indeed, we certainly do not actively desire temptation for ourselves, nor do we approve of engaging in any sin. It might seem natural, on the surface, to seek distance from those struggling with such things–to set ourselves apart as more pure and more holy than others.

Yet, when we see ourselves as fundamentally different from other human beings, whether they are Christian or not, we quickly begin to resemble the foolish elder. We condemn and chastise those around us for their brokenness. Such condemnation and chastisements are, despite their outward claim to holiness, works of anger and never of love. If love is a shared commitment to purity of heart between individuals, then seeking separation from others, by its very nature, discourages love and can even make it ultimately impossible. To share the pursuit of purity of heart with another, one must share a connection with her, and in a fallen world, that means sharing a connection with a fallen person.”

(Daniel G. Opperwall, A Layman in the Desert, p. 73)

How To Prepare Yourself to Read Scripture

Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra offers a thought about how we can prepare ourselves to read Scripture.  The Scriptures are spiritual, so we have to prepare our hearts spiritually to receive the Word contained in them:

“…it requires desire, exile, interest and lack of interest. What does that mean? Can you fill up a glass that’s already full? For divine meaning to enter your mind, for divine grace to enter into you, you have to empty your heart of its passions, of your self-centeredness, your selfishness, your hate, envy, and negative feelings; you have to purify your heart of these things, and fill it with virtues.

The passions are like static. You turn on the radio to listen to a station, and all you hear is static. You don’t understand a thing the announcer is saying. If you want to hear, you’ve got to eliminate the static. And how can you hear the voice of God, when the passions are booming away and growling loudly within you? You’ve got to free yourself, because if you don’t, you’ll remain a fleshly, carnal person, and a ‘carnal person cannot receive,’ does not understand, ‘the Spirit of God‘ (1 Cor 2.14).”   (The Church at Prayer, p. 109)

The Parable of the Prodigal Son: An Image of the Family

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The Lord’s Parable of the Prodigal Son has many familiar lessons related to repentance and Great Lent.

There is an obvious lesson about the person who wastes his/her life in sin and then for whatever reason comes to realize that life was good back at home, and so decides to humbly seeks to return to live with the father, but no longer in the exalted role of child but only as a servant.

It is family/home that gives sense to the parable.

The family in Judaism is a religious unit where holy days are kept (like Passover), where Torah is learned, where the stories of God’s salvation are read and absorbed into one’s own identity.   The Jewish family anywhere in the world could practice the faith at home.   God was never far from them no matter how far away from Jerusalem they lived.   The temple was the place for animal sacrifice, but in the family one lived the faith.  Family is a religious community preserving traditions and passing them on from one generation to the next by home worship and instruction.  Children learned the faith first and foremost at home, not by going to temple.

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One need only think about how much of the history of Israel involves and is centered on family, and family members who are even named.   It was in family that the people learned how to obey Go, how to keep the Law, developed a sense of sin, realized the power of God’s holiness and how to approach God in prayer. Noah is saved with his family.  Abraham is called in and through his family and descendants.  Even when the nation of Israel was in apostasy, families were able to remain faithful to God.

Jewish failure in their mission is often traced to failure in the family to be the holy unity of God.

All of this salvation history is the background for the parable of the Prodigal Son and his family.

Our families/homes are to become the center of our own spiritual lives.  In the home, in family, we are to learn repentance and forgiveness, humility and love, faithfulness and the fear of God.  We learn how to pray, we learn about God’s own love for us and our people, and we learn what God expects from us.

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It is not by accident that the parish is also framed in terms of family including the priest being viewed as “father.”  Chrysostom said that the family is a small church.    And we call God “Father” to show that we all are part of God’s family.  On all levels the imagery of family is present and works to help us understand our relationships with one another and with God.

As family and as parish we learn acceptance and forgiveness, repentance and prayer.  We experience joy, and we experience the pain of belonging to others.  We learn how to love as family members.  We learn to welcome new people into the family and we learn our own role and place in the family of our origin, of our parish and of the people of God.

We learn to see one another with the same eyes that the Parable’s Father views his two sons.  The Father’s eyes are ever hopeful for the return of the lost, for the healing of all divisions, for reuniting the separated, for even overcoming the hurt of sin.

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Finally, we see in this Parable how we are affected by our world around us.  Our society encourages consumption, exploring our every desire, increasing our appetites, affirming ourselves as individuals above and against every social unit.  Our 21st Century American view promotes all that the Prodigal was that led him to set off as an individual freed from the constraints of family and society.  We have so much but always are looking for more for ourselves, not willing to share with our families and parishes and neighbors.

The Prodigal turned his insatiable appetite for independence and self-indulgence into  a hunger for his father’s welcoming love.  Better to be a servant in a house of love than to be a slave to one’s own desires.

Of course, today some only see the negative side of families – that they are dysfunctional or broken.  All of the imagery of family works only if the family is working as a safe haven for growing up, making mistakes and seeking reconciliation.  It is something we have to work on making our families and homes to be the ideal.

Be an Example to Believers

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.   (1 Timothy 4:12)

St. Alexander Schmorell (d. 1943AD)

Abba Isaac said: “As a young man I was staying with Abba Cronios and he never told me to do a task even though he was aged and tremulous. Of his own accord he would get up and offer the water bottle to me and likewise to all. After that I stayed with Abba Theodore of Pherme and neither did he ever tell me to do anything. He would lay the table himself and then say: ‘Brother, come and eat if you like.’ I would say to him: ‘Abba, I came to you to reap some benefit; why do you never tell me to do anything?’ The elder said to them: ‘Am I the superior of a coenobium to order him around?’ For the time being I didn’t tell him [to do] anything. He will do what he sees me doing if he wants to.’

So from then on I began anticipating, doing whatever the elder was about to do. For his part, if he was doing anything, he used to do it in silence This taught me to act in silence.” (Give Me a Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 147)

So the Evangelist Luke writes:

A dispute also arose among them, which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves.   (Luke 22:24-27)

When Jesus had washed their feet, and taken his garments, and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.  (John 13:12-17)