The Light in the Tunnel

The Lenten Sunday Gospel lessons from St. Mark (Mark 2:1-12, 8:34-9:1, 9:17-31, 10:32-45) help shape our understanding of what it is to be a disciple of Christ.  But also experience them as moving through an ever narrowing tunnel.

Each week of Great Lent, our way of life, our beliefs and perspectives are challenged by our Lord Jesus Christ, so that we can properly understand how to follow Him.  Discipleship and discipline are completely interrelated.  Asceticism (i.e., self-denial, self-renunciation, self-control, self-emptying) is the necessary activity of the disciple.  If we are ever going to do the will of the Master, we have to know how to say no to our self, no to our self will.  Each week of Great Lent we are drawn deeper into that ever narrowing tunnel of self-denial.  And as Mark has it, that tunnel gets darker as we go deeper into it.  It gets darker because “the world” as Mark portrays it increasingly rejects Christ and pushes Him toward the crucifixion.  It gets darker because slowly even his family and followers and then even His disciples  abandon Him, betray Him, deny Him and flee from Him.

But also and always, there is a speck of light at the end of the tunnel – and there is an end to the tunnel!  We are drawn toward the Light, who is Christ.  Throughout Lent, we like the catechumens of ancient times continue to move toward Christ.  In fact this is our entire spiritual life even when not in Lent.  But to get to the Light, as we realize liturgically in the Church, we must pass through this painful and most narrow passage – the Gospel.  We end up on our hands and knees in the tomb of Christ.

There is no other way for us on this spiritual sojourn if we are to follow Christ because this is the way He walked, and then was carried.  We all must pass through that narrow and dark passage of the tomb of Christ.  We liturgically and literally in our parish pass into the narrowness of the entrance into the Tomb of Christ.  All of Great Lent and all of Holy Week lead to the darkness of the night – Christ asleep in the tomb, Christ in Hades.   We hope that God will arise and judge the earth.

Then in the middle of the night, in the midst of the darkness, the Light appears, the unfading, everlasting and gladsome Light which overcomes the night.  Christ the Light, risen from the Dead!  We have passed through the cross, through the tomb, through death, through Hades, into the never ending light of God’s Kingdom.  And the tombs which stink of death suddenly become the fount of life, the source of the resurrection, the font of baptism, the means of new birth, of regeneration, of access to God, to the Kingdom, to eternal life.

The tomb of Christ, his death and his burial, all become for every one of us passage into new life.  We enter through this narrow passage way in our own baptism, where we die with Christ and are buried with Him, and then are raised with Him to a new and unending life.  And each Pascha we are reminded of this journey, of our spiritual sojourn through the darkness of this world, through the cross and tomb into the joyful light of God’s Kingdom.  Our walk into the darkness of midnight is a reminder that we are but sojourners on earth, passing through on our way to the Kingdom of God.  And the night does pass away, and the darkness fades before the Light of Pascha and the New Day, the 8th Day, the Lord’s Day.  So too this world and our life on this earth will also pass away, and only that which God establishes will continue on forever.  So we live not for this world but in this world.  We live for the Kingdom of God which stands forever and which is not overcome by the darkness.

We are not blind to the fact that the world in which we live has not changed.  Life seems to go on as if there is no God and no resurrection.  The world is still awash in violence, disease, warfare, sin, lust, greed, disbelief and death.

It is we who believe who have been changed – for we now have light and hope and joy, despite whatever darkness there is in the world.  We by our faith are to be a light to the world.  We don’t shrink before the darkness and its threats, but rather we shine with the Light of Christ rather than curse the darkness.

Let us arise at the rising of the sun and bring to the Master a hymn instead of myrrh, and we shall see Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, who causes life to dawn for all.

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Psalm 94: Let us Rejoice in the Lord

Come, let us greatly rejoice in the Lord; Let us shout aloud to God our savior; 2 Let us come before His face with thanksgiving, And let us shout aloud to Him with psalms. 3 For the Lord is a great God, A great King over all the gods;

4 For in His hand are the ends of the earth, And the heights of the mountains are His;

5 For the sea is His, and He made it, And His hands formed the dry land.

6 Come, let us worship and fall down before Him, And let us weep before the Lord who made us; 7 For He is our God, And we are the people of His pasture And the sheep of His hand. Today, if you hear His voice, 8 “Do not harden your hearts as in the Rebellion, During the day of testing in the desert, 9 Where your fathers tempted Me; They tested Me, and saw My works. 10 For forty years I was treated with contempt by that generation, And I said, ‘They always go astray in their heart, And they do not know My ways’; 11 So I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest.’ ”

(Psalm 94)

Prayer: Standing in God’s Presence

The Gospel lesson for the 4th Sunday of Great Lent, Mark 9:17-31, should be a message of hope for many of us.

Often, in the face of tragedy or problems, we feel hopeless, wringing our hands and worriedly asking, “what went wrong?”  and “What should I do?” or “why me?”

We see the disciples in this condition in the Gospel lesson.  A man brought his sick child to the disciples and asked them to heal his son.  But try as they might, the disciples were not able to heal the boy.  Jesus had given the disciples the power to exorcise demons (Mark 3:15), and they had had some success (Mark 6:7-13), but in this case they failed.   Later, away from the prying ears of the crowd, they privately ask Jesus to explain to them why they couldn’t heal the boy but Jesus was able.

Jesus tells them fasting and prayer are the activities needed to remedy the situation.   But note Jesus does not tell them it was their lack of faith that led to their failure.    Rather Jesus reminds them how to consciously stand in God’s presence – through prayer and fasting.

The disciples had in fact on another occasion requested that Jesus teach them to pray (Luke 11:1-4).  Jesus complied to their request and taught them the Lord’s prayer.

The disciples didn’t ever ask – “teach us to do miracles” – nor did they ask “teach us how to pray so that we get everything we want”  NOR even “teach us how to pray so prayer works for us.”

Prayer always puts us in God’s presence.   And being in God’s presence it turns out is the goal of the spiritual life.  The goal is not getting all our prayers answered – we are not trying to turn God into our personal Amazon.com so that He delivers to our doorstep everything we request.

Prayer puts us into God’s presence, and makes God present to us, which makes union with God possible.   We are not just asking for gifts, we are asking to be with the giver of life.   St. Paul says:   “I seek not what is yours but you”  (2 Corinthians 12:14).  That precisely should be our attitude toward God – don’t seek what He can give you, seek God the giver of every good and perfect gift.

There are plenty of things in our lives that come between us and God – our worries, our problems, our temptations, our disbeliefs, our selfishness, our lusts – all of these personal demons.

Prayer and fasting cut through all of those things and put us back in the presence of God.  The goal is to be not only mindful of God but united to God.  We can only begin that journey by prayer and fasting.   We have to lay aside all earthly cares and truly believe that the most important thing is to be in God’s presence.  And that is true whether things are going good or bad, whether we are in a time of prosperity or poverty, whether experiencing a blessing or a curse.   Being in God’s presence is the goal no matter what else is going on around us.  Even if it is the moment of  our death, if we are in God’s presence, we are where we need to be.

Remember Satan does not tremble because the church has wonderful fellowship hours, or at church dinners, nor at church fund raisers, nor at church schedules.

But Satan is crushed by humble, heart felt prayer – by our standing in God’s presence, by our submitting our lives to God’s will.

As we move into these last two weeks of Great Lent, make Christ Jesus the center of your life so that you always follow Him and you keep Him near you.

One last thing to remember, in ancient Israel, King Hezekiah when he launched his reforms to restore proper religion told the Levites:  “My sons, do not now be negligent, for the LORD has chosen you to stand in his presence, to minister to him, and to be his ministers and burn incense to him.”   (2 Chronicles 29:11)

The task the priests of Israel were chosen for was to stand in God’s presence!  Now we come to the New Testament where the priesthood has been expanded to all believers.  The Apostle Peter tells us:

Come to him, to that living stone, rejected by men but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  (1 Peter 2:4-5)

Now it is the task of each of us and all of us – not just the priests – to stand in God’s presence and to offer spiritual sacrifices.   We all are to “liturgize” together to the glory of God.  We are to make God present in every moment of our lives.

The Virtue of a New Year

As we have made it through one complete week of the New Year, we can consider our spiritual renewal – whether or not we made New Year’s resolutions, the beginning of a year is a good time to reflect on our spiritual life and commitment.    Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  We Orthodox engage in evaluating our lives in the sacrament of confession, in our daily examination of conscience, in meditating upon the Scriptures and spiritual writings, in our liturgical services, in our talks with our Father confessors and with our fellow Christians.

Here is a meditation from St. Francis of Assisi  on how virtue drives out vice.  We might use this to combat both sins of commission and sins of omission.  

“Where there is charity and wisdom

There is neither fear nor ignorance.

Where there is patience and humility,

There is neither anger nor disturbance.

Where there is poverty with joy,

There is neither covetousness nor avarice.

Where there is fear of the Lord to guard the house (cf. Lk 11:21),

There the enemy cannot gain entry.

Where there is mercy and discernment,

There is neither excess nor hardness of heart.”

(Francis and Clare, the Complete Works, p. 35)

A Christian Understanding of Death

Only through and in the human person will the whole world come into a relationship with God.

The fall of humanity alienated the whole creation from God. It destroyed the cosmic harmony. Through the Fall, humanity became subject to the course of nature. This ought not to have happened. In the life of animals death is an expression of the power of procreation rather than of frailty. Through the fall of humanity, death also receives in nature an evil and tragic meaning. To the animal’s death means only the end of individual existence. Among humans death strikes at the personality; and personality is something more than mere individuality. The body is dissolved and subject to death because of sin. But the whole human person dies. The human person is composed of body and soul; therefore, the separation of body and soul means that the human person ceases to exist as a human person. The image of God fades. Death reveals that the human person, this creature made by God, is not only a body…The fear of death is only averted through the hope of resurrection and eternal life.

Death does not only mean that sin is revealed; it is also an anticipation of resurrection. God does not only punish fallen human nature by death, but also purifies and heals it.

The death on the Cross was not efficacious because it was the death of an innocent man, but because it was the death of the incarnated Lord. It was not a human being who died on the cross but God. But God died in His own humanity. He was Himself the resurrection and the life.  (Georges Florovsky, On the Tree of the Cross, pp. 145-146, 148-149)

Struggling With Sexual Passion

St. John Chrysostom  (4th Century) is one of the great Patristic commentators on scripture.  He is a pastor and moralist in his outlook.  While today many embracing scientific materialism want it to be true that humans are simply another animal on the planet, governed completely by the same laws of genetics and biology as any other animal, Chrysostom like all those Patristic writers of the Christian tradition believed the very thing that made humans unique is the ability to arise above purely animal drives and to choose behaviors of a higher moral character rather than have one’s life determined by biological drives.  With the recent proclamation of the Anthropocene by current scientists, we start to see a scientific recognition that humans are an animal capable of rising above genetic determinism to the point that humans now are shaping not only human evolution by their choices but also the evolution of most species on the planet.   Chrysostom knew nothing of modern scientific theories on evolution and genetics, but he did think humans have a spiritual dimension given by God which humans needed to exercise in order to attain full human potential.

“For there are many who have stripped for the contest against the tyranny of nature, who with purity are pursuing the path of virginity, who in this mortal body are showing forth the precepts of the resurrection: ‘for in the resurrection,’ he says, ‘they neither marry nor are given in marriage [Matthew 22:30].’And having engaged the battle against the spiritual powers, they contend eagerly for incorruption in bodies that are corruptible, and – what is unbearable for many to hear – they actually reach perfection through their works. For they drive off their passion, which is like a ceaselessly leaping, frenzied dog; and they take command over the raging ocean, sailing calmly amidst the fierce waves, making a successful voyage across the greatly troubled sea; and they stand firm in the furnace of physical desire without being signed, trampling on the hot coals as if they were clay. Yet, it can happen that such ones, capable of such great things, can be viciously attacked, shamelessly and pitiably, by this passion, and they can be conquered by it.”

Chrysostom’s imagery about how strong sexual desire can be, leaves little doubt that he understood sexual drive and temptation.  He does make it clear that some are able to overcome their sexual drive and actually control it.  He says this is unbearable for some to hear – including those who can’t control themselves, those who don’t want to have to control themselves and those who think humans are merely animals and shouldn’t bother to control their powerful, natural drives.  Many don’t want to hear about people who learn to control their animal instincts.   For Chrysostom, the person who can control their sexual desires, especially those who remain virgins, are the height of human perfection.  Today we have people who spend a great deal of time and energy to become perfect physical specimens of humanity – through exercise, dieting and other means.  We rave about the physically beautiful (athletes and the sexually attractive).  Chrysostom sees human perfection not in physical body sculpting but in learning to control one’s animal desires.  He elevates those spiritual athletes to be the highest degree of humanity and the most desired of human beings.   Humans are capable of making themselves physically beautiful and desirable, but Chrysostom following the Christian tradition thinks spiritual beauty is far more important to our desire to be fully human.

Virginity is something so great, and demands so much effort, that Christ came down from heaven in order to make men like angels and to implant the angelic way of life here below – not, however, daring to make this way of life mandatory, or to raise it to the level of a law, but instead, instituting the law of self-mortification. Is there anything that exists more burdensome than this? He has made it a commandment to bear one’s cross continually, and to do good to one’s enemies; but he has not made it a law to remain a virgin. He has left this to the choice of those hearing Jesus’ words: ‘The one who is able to accept this, let him accept it.’ For great is the weightiness of this matter, and the difficulty of these struggles, and the sweat of the battles; and in pursuing this virtue the terrain is precipitous.” (Letters to St. Olympia, pp. 68-67)

What makes the willingness to control sexual impulse and virginity so special to Chrysostom is that it is completely voluntary.  One chooses this way as a way of sacrifice and self-denial.  For Christ does not command us to live as celibates and virgins.  It is a way of life that one can choose  in order to fulfill Christ’s words to deny the self  and take up the cross to follow Him (Matthew 16:24).  We don’t become fully human by engaging in all our animal instincts and desires.  We become fully human when we realize we can rise above biological determinism and can develop our spiritual lives – and fulfill the Gospel law of love.

Taking Up the Cross to Keep United to Christ

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Today, we carried in procession our crosses in order to follow Christ, but we didn’t do this just to perform some religious ritual, we did it to remind ourselves what it means to be a Christian in this world.  The procession was indeed a ritual, but the world we live in is real.  The ritual ties us to the reality of this world, and in this world, Christians sometimes are called to suffer because they are united to Christ who Himself died on the cross for us.  We carry our crosses not only to follow Christ but to remain united to Him, as we are reminded by St. Paul:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  (Romans 8:34-39)

Some imagine, if I’m “good” I will be protected from suffering.  I can avoid suffering as long as I am “good.” “Goodness” becomes some kind of charm, an amulet or talisman to ward off evil.  Some even imagine and teach that people are suffering because they are not good or not good enough.  We end up blaming the poor for their own poverty and the persecuted for their persecution because, the logic goes, if they were good they wouldn’t be in their condition, they wouldn’t be suffering.

Our Lord Jesus Christ was good:  he was sinless, holy, perfect, and yet he was crucified on the cross.  The powers of this world arrayed themselves against Him.  Being “good” does not necessarily protect us from evil, and in fact, as in the case of Jesus, being good is exactly what made evil oppose Him and attempt to destroy Him.

We choose goodness to be with Christ, to remain in Communion with him, not to gain benefit in this world from our relationship with Him.   We choose to be with Christ, no matter what is going on around – peace and prosperity or persecution and poverty.  As St. Paul says in today’s Epistle:  “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”  (Galatians 2:19-20)  I live with Christ and I die with Christ.

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As Christians we should want to be wherever Christ is – no matter what the conditions of the world are where Christ is.  The one thing we do not want to lose is union with Him – even if we lose the world or our life, we have lost nothing if we remain in Communion with the incarnate God.

We choose goodness to remain in Communion with Christ, not to gain benefits and rewards in this world, because this world is passing away.

32217826112_6f9778d33b_nToday we have symbolically carried our crosses – the reality of the symbol is we are every day to  take up that cross and follow Christ.  We stay with Christ no matter where that cross leads and no matter what happens around us.

Remember that any form of self denial we do, any fasting, abstinence or ascetical practices aren’t done to earn us some “good” points with God.  Rather they serve to prepare us for whatever suffering we may ever experience in this world – suffering that is not voluntary but comes upon us because of natural disaster or human choice or because of the evil one.  Asceticism is training for the day in which our faith is put to the test.

We also  practice such self denial in order to identify with our fellow Christians who are suffering because they are Christian.  Christ who is goodness, who is God’s love incarnate, suffered in this world.  We are to suffer with all the afflicted Christians of the world as though we are with them, as it says in the Epistle to the Hebrews: “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured” (Hebrews 13:3).

And, those of us who are now suffering from whatever cause and for whatever reason can take heart.  Suffering does not mean God has rejected you – God Himself suffered in this world, in the flesh, as a human.  Those who are good should take note and hold on to the goodness – hold on to Jesus Christ – no matter what happens around you.  Again, St. Paul says:

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. [5] Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, [6] who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, [7] but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. [8] And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. [9] Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, [10] so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, [11] and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  (Philippians 2:4-11)

We choose to take up the cross in order to follow Christ, to imitate Him.  We know when Christ took up His cross that led to Golgotha, the place of the skull, the place of His crucifixion.  Christ didn’t enter into glory simply by taking up the cross, but by dying on it.

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Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.  For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.  We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.   (Romans 6:3-6)

Today, we chrismated one new member into the Body of Christ.  One more person who has agreed to carry the cross, and as we prayed for him this morning, who has agreed even to lovingly die for Christ, if that is where Christ leads him.

When Jesus had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them:

“Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:34-39)

We are those who are not ashamed of Christ or of Christ’s words.  We choose to live with Him and in Him and to have Him abide in us.  We live in communion with all those who bear the name of Christ.

(sermon notes for 2017-9-17)

This Life and This World Are Godly

“In receiving the gifts of God and willingly offering them back to him, we are blessed to participate in both heaven and earth, in a mode of ordered liturgical existence. In this way, we are ourselves offered up in order to perform liturgy, by preserving and participating in all that is ‘good‘ (Gen. 1:31). ‘It is this world  (and not any “other world”), it is this life (and not some “other life”) that were given to man to be a sacrament of the divine presence, given as communion with God, and it is only through this world, this life, by “transforming” them into communion with God that man was to be.’  With these words Fr. Schmemman expressed that this world is not merely a dwelling place for humanity, but an integral part of humanity’s aspiration towards transfiguration.

Man receives both ‘this world’ and ‘this life’ to be offered up and transfigured. In this way, mankind may truly become human. This offering of one’s self and the world is the purpose of mankind, which is fully realized and expressed in the incarnation of the Word of God himself.”   (Bishop John Abdalah and Nicholas G. Mamey, Building an Orthodox Marriage, pp. 14-15)

Christianity Founded in the Home

And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.  (Acts 5:42)

“In the Orthodox worldview, the home and the family constitute the first and most important area of Christian life, of application of Christian principles to daily existence. It is certainly the home, the very style and spirit of family life, and not the school, not even the Church, that shapes our fundamental worldview, that shapes in us that fundamental orientation of which we may not even be aware for a long time, but which ultimately will become a decisive factor. Dostoevsky’s “staretz” Zosima – in The Brothers Karamozov – says: ‘A man who from his childhood can remember good things is saved for his whole life.’” (Alexander Schmemman, Great Lent, p. 100)

Love for Another and the Effects of Sin

“…we ourselves have heard Him and we know that this is indeed the Christ, the Savior of the world.”  (John 4:42)

“Your own, of Your own, we offer to You, on behalf of all and for all.”

“And all mankind.”   (From the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom)

Anyone who does not want the same things for his fellow human beings or pass the same judgement on them as he wishes for himself, is certainly foolish, particularly as this judgement and this wish are an inherent part of our nature. For it is a natural impulse in all of us to want to be loved and well treated by others as much as by ourselves. The will to do good and to be as well disposed towards all as we are towards ourselves is therefore also inborn in us. We were all made in the image of Him who is good. Then when sin entered and multiplied, it did not extinguish our self-love, since it was not at all opposed to that, but it cooled down love for one another, the crown the virtues, changed it and rendered it useless. As a result, He who renews our nature, recalling it to the grace of His own image and putting His laws, as the prophet tells us, in our hearts (Jer. 31:33), says “As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise” (Luke 6:31), and “If ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? For sinners also love those that love them. And if ye lend to them of whom ye hope to receive, what thank have ye? For sinners also lend to sinners, to receive as much again” (Luke 6:32, 34).

In this passage, He refers to those who are not called by His name and those who do not order their lives according to the gospel, as sinners, including them all in the same category, for it is of no benefit to us to be called Christians if we act no differently from the heathen. Just as the great Paul told the Jews, “Circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law: but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision” (Rom 2:35), so now Christ tells us through the Gospel, “You who are Mine will find grace in My presence if you keep my Commandments, but if you do nothing more than sinners do, loving those who love you and doing good to those who do the same to you, you will have no confidence towards Me on that account.” He does not speak like this to deter people from loving or doing good or lending to those who will repay them, but He shows that such acts do not earn a reward, so they have their recompense here and now, and do not bring any grace to the soul, nor cleanse it from the ingrained defilement of sin.” (St Gregory Palamas, The Homilies, pp. 355-356).