Remembering Loved Ones Who Have Died

Emperor Julian the Apostate (c. 331-363) once complained that Christians had ‘filled the whole world with tombs and sepulchers,’ and by their processions with and in honor of the departed they were ‘straining the eyes of all with ill-omened sights of the dead.’  Early Christians, by contrast, held that the death of believers was a cause of hope, and their bodies, far from being ill-omened, were precious links to the faith Christians had in the Resurrection of the Dead.  The Apostle Paul describes this in 1 Thess 4:16-17 as a joyous day when a loud call will sound and the Lord will come again, “and the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever.”  Christ himself says in Jn 5:28-29 that that ‘the day is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his [the Son of Man’s] voice and will come out . . .”  These are the two readings used in the Orthodox Order for the Burial of the Dead, and they set a resurrectional tone for the whole liturgy.

The boundaries between the living and dead were first broken by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The tomb was empty because the actual, physical resurrection of Christ’s body had taken place (Mt 28:5-6, Mk 16:6, Lk 24:5) . . . This is the hope for all Christians.  Our bodies will also be resurrected, not just our souls: we will recognize each other, and the the ‘marks’ of our spiritual and physical battles will somehow be a part of us.  Our physical bodies are inseparable parts of our identity because, as Orthodox anthropology maintains, a human person is a soma, an animated body – one individual unit of sarx (body) and psyche (soul).”  (Kathryn Wehr, SVTQ Vol 55 #4 2011, pp 502-503)

The Prodigal is Edified

Commenting on the parable of The Prodigal Son, Archimandrite Zacharias says:

32090123173_001743df9e_nMost of us live outside our heart, and our mind is in a constant state of confusion.  Some good thoughts may surface from time to time, but the majority will be harmful, and this destructive condition will prevail for as long as we continue to ignore our heart.  But in the end the pain is too much to bear and we begin to seek the way back.  Remembering his father’s house, the prodigal son comes to himself and says, ‘How many hired servants of my father’s house have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!‘ We all have buried memories of our Father’s house, for our soul will forever retain traces of the grace of being clothed with Christ in Holy Baptism.  Moreover, each time we partake of the Holy Mysteries, our being is indelibly marked with God’s goodness.  In the heart of the prodigal, now, another humble thought surfaces: ‘I will arise and go to my father…‘  The process of inner regeneration has now begun, for he has resolved to rise from his fall.  Having seen the reality of his perdition, he now returns within himself and towards God.  His dynamic increase in God has begun.  He is ready to be enlightened and cleansed, for he has begun to speak truthfully with God from the depth of his heart.  The prayers of a fragmented mind have neither clarity nor depth, but a mind that is reunited with the heart overflows with humble prayer and has such strength that it reaches the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth.  ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee.‘ 

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Man then discovers the power of humility, and sees that the only right attitude is to render all glory and honor to God, and to himself ‘the shame of face‘ (Dan 9:7, LXX) because of his sins.  He now puts all his trust in the Father’s mercy, and no longer in his own corrupt self, and this disposition of heart leads to true repentance.  As we read in one of the great ‘kneeling prayers’ at Pentecost: ‘Against Thee we have sinned, but Thee only do we worship.’  We are sinful and unworthy of His mercy, but we have full confidence in Him Whom we worship.  This ‘but’ cannot be said without faith, and this faith is the rock upon which we build our spiritual life.”  (REMEMBER THY FIRST LOVE, pp 130-131)

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The Prodigal Son and Our Father

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St Gregory of Nyssa connects the parable of The Prodigal Son to the Lord’s prayer as both bring us to think about God as our Father.

“‘Who art in Heaven’ (Mt 6:9)

These words I think have a very deep meaning.  They remind us of the homeland we have abandoned, of the citizenship we have lost.

In the parable of the young man who left his father’s house, went off the rails and was reduced to living with pigs, the Word of God shows us human wretchedness.

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That young man did not find his one-time happiness again until he had realized his moral degradation, had looked into his own heart and had pronounced the words of confession.

These words almost agree with the Lord’s Prayer, because the prodigal son says: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.‘ (Luke 15:21)

He would not confess himself to be a sinner against heaven if he were not convinced that the homeland he had left at the time of his going astray were not in actual fact heaven.

By this confession of his he makes himself worthy once again to stand in the presence of his father who runs towards him, embraces him, and kisses him.

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The conclusion is this:  To return to heaven there is only one route and that is to admit one’s sinfulness and seek to avoid it.  To make the decision to avoid it is already to be perfecting one’s likeness to God.”  (DRINKING FROM THE HIDDEN FOUNTAIN, pp 345-346)

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Mother Syncletica on the Publican & Pharisee

Mother Syncletica, a desert mother, said: “Imitate the publican, and you will not be condemned with the Pharisee.  Choose the meekness of Moses and you will find your heart which is a rock changed into a spring of water.”  (THE SAYINGS OF THE DESERT FATHERS,  p 233)

Fr Alexander Men writes:

“Whoever believes in Christ is saved.  Whoever calls on the name of Jesus and follows the Lord is saved.  But to be saved, you must begin to follow Him.  And in order to follow Him, we have to see that we are unworthy, that we cannot save ourselves and that first we must repent.  We must take a truthful and honest look at ourselves.  That’s why we pray in the great canticle: ‘Open unto me, O Give of Life, the gates of Repentance’, for we are already used to things as they are, and the gates of repentance are closed to us.  We think we are living normally, like everyone else, and sometimes, like the Pharisee in the parable, we take pride in ourselves and put on airs before others.  But what do we have to be proud of? 

Today, in the Gospel reading, the Church bids us: ‘Arise, like the tax collector, without thinking about your merits, your power or your good works.  Just get up and repeat, as he did: ‘Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.'”  (AWAKE TO LIFE!, pp 4-5)

Real Fasting

Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  (Luke 18:10-14)

St John Chrysostom comments:

“I speak not of such a fast as most persons keep, but of real fasting; not merely abstinence from meats, but from sins as well.  For the nature of a fast is such that it does not suffice to deliver those who practice it unless it  is done according to a suitable law.  So that when we have gone through the labor of fasting we do not lose the crown of fasting, we must understand how and in what manner it is necessary to conduct the business since the Pharisee also fasted, but afterward went away empty and destitute of the fruit of fasting.  The Publican did not fast, and yet he was accepted in preference to him who had fasted in order that you may learn that fasting is unprofitably  unless all other duties accompany it.

Fasting is a medicine.  But like all medicines, though it be very profitable to the person who knows how to use it, it frequently becomes useless (and even harmful) in the hands of him who is unskilled in its use.

I have said these things not that we may disparage fasting, but that we may honor fasting.  For the honor of fasting consists not in abstinence from food, but in withdrawing from sinful practices, since he who limits his fasting only to abstinence from meats is one who especially disparages fasting.” (DAILY READINGS FROM THE WRITINGS OF ST JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, pp 3-4)

 

 

Holy Wednesday (2019)

Holy Wednesday: The Sorrowful Woman (Matthew 26:6-16)

As we move through Holy Week, we realize that all the events that happen, all that Christ does, is because of us and for us.  He is going to suffer torture and execution because of our sins.  He is going to suffer torture and execution for us, to free us from the burden of our sins.   Our response is not meant to be inflicting suffering on ourselves, or feeling shame and guilt, or even focusing on His suffering as wondrous as that is.  Our response is to be that of the woman who washes His feet – we are to be moved with tears of joy that the burden of our sins is taken away and we are to wash the feet of the our fellow Christians, even the least of the brothers and sisters of Christ.  Doing that would certainly mean we had a good Lent.

33237467784_4acf78e180“This image of interior cleansing through the water of humility is mirrored in the encounter between Christ and fallen woman recorded in Luke’s Gospel, in which she approaches Christ from behind as he is dining with the Pharisee and washes his feet with her tears and wipes them with her hair (Lk. 7:36ff.). St. Ambrose sees an icon of the Church and the relationship of its members to Christ in this encounter:

The Church, then, both washes the feet of Christ and wipes them with her hair, and anoints them with oil, and pours ointment upon them, because not only does she care for the wounded and cherish the weary, but also sprinkles them with the sweet odor of grace…Christ died once, and was buried once, and nevertheless He wills that ointment should daily be poured on His feet. What, then, are those feet of Christ on which we pour ointment? The feet of Christ are they of whom He Himself says: “What ye have done to one of the least of these ye have done to Me” [Mt. 25:40]. These feet that woman in the Gospel refreshes, these feet she bedews with her tears; when sin is forgiven to the lowliest, guilt is washed away, and pardon granted. These feet he kisses, who loves even the lowest of the holy people…in these the Lord Jesus Himself declares that He is honored.

37138541772_ccdc56f9f5_nThe unnamed woman of St. Luke’s Gospel, in all her brokenness and sorrow, already has learned the lesson Christ is teaching his disciples. Her humble repentance, driven by great love, has brought her to the feet of Christ. Like St. Peter, she does not hold back. Her tears of repentance, flowing as living water (Jn. 7:38), wash the feet of One who needs not cleansing but who nonetheless welcomes her with joy.”  (Daniel B. Hinshaw, Touch and the Healing of the World, p. 78)

Fasting According to Jesus

“And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”  (Matthew 6:16-18)

“Now, the symbolic purpose of fasting in Second Temple Judaism was to express mourning. Religiously, if extended its significance to become a demonstrative way of adding force to prayer, to invoke the pitiful mercy of the Most High who would look upon the self-humbling lamentation of his servants in need. This was exactly why stress was placed in ancient Israel on the need for externally observable signs of distress when fasting. In simple terms, fasting was meant to force God’s hand, as it were, and was a fitting prelude if one expected a reconciliation with God…

In Jesus’ understanding of the covenant, fasting served the purpose of lamenting the absence of God and pleading for his return to his people in living experience. If God has returned (the dynamic force of the Kingdom preaching of Jesus), then fasting no longer has a place, and the wedding feast must surely be the more appropriate spiritual exercise to celebrate that belief.”om, pp. 284-285)

Acting Spiritually Reacting

“If you watch your life carefully you will discover quite soon that we hardly ever live from within outwards; instead we respond to incitement, to excitement. In other words, we live by reflection, by reaction. Something happens and we respond, someone speaks and we answer.

But when we are left without anything that stimulates us to think, speak or act, we realize that there is very little in us that will prompt us to action in any direction at all.

This is really a very dramatic discovery. We are completely empty, we do not act from within ourselves but accept as our life a life which is actually fed in from outside; we are used to things happening which compel us to do other things. How seldom can we live simply by means of the depth and the richness we assume that there is within ourselves.”

(Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh, The Modern Spirituality Series: Metropolitan Anthony, p. 38)

Following Christ from the Desert to the Crucifixion

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From the beginning of Great Lent this year I have been framing the Great Lenten experience as a journey.  I mentioned Israel’s departure from Egypt into the desert as a model for our own journey into Great Lent.  And today the Gospel reading reminds us that the journey of Great Lent takes us to other destinations even to Jerusalem, not the heavenly one, but the city in which Christ will be crucified.    As Mark 10:32-33 reports:

Now they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was going before them; and they were amazed. And as they followed they were afraid. 

We might imagine many reasons why the disciples were both amazed and afraid as they follow Jesus, the text only tells of their spiritual and emotional state without giving us an explanation as to why.  They are clearly walking behind Jesus, who is leading them to Jerusalem where he tells them He is going to be killed.  But we don’t know if they follow reluctantly or are trying to slow their journey down.  We know there will be a surprising welcome for Jesus in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, and no doubt that gave the Disciples a moment to hope that maybe things would not be as a bad as they feared.

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In one of the hymns we sing from Monday of Holy Week, we are given an interpretation of this Gospel lesson in which we ourselves participate in the events.

AS THE LORD WAS GOING TO HIS VOLUNTARY PASSION, HE SAID TO THE APOSTLES ON THE WAY, BEHOLD, WE GO UP TO JERUSALEM, AND THE SON OF MAN SHALL BE DELIVERED UP, AS IT IS WRITTEN OF HIM.  COME, THEREFORE, LET US ALSO GO WITH HIM, PURIFIED IN MIND.  LET US BE CRUCIFIED WITH HIM AND DIE THROUGH HIM TO THE PLEASURES OF THIS LIFE.  THEN WE SHALL LIVE WITH HIM AND HEAR HIM SAY: I GO NO MORE TO THE EARTHLY JERUSALEM TO SUFFER, BUT TO MY FATHER AND YOUR FATHER, TO MY GOD AND YOUR GOD.  I SHALL RAISE YOU UP TO THE JERUSALEM ON HIGH IN THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN. 

Like the Twelve Disciples, we too might both be amazed and afraid when we consider that we are going to Jerusalem not to watch Christ die for us but rather so that we might die with Christ.  We are going there in the words of St Paul to have the world be crucified to us and ourselves to the world  (Galatians 6:14).  Crucifixion even if it is intended to mean spiritually crucified, still means death,  which should give us pause and cause us to cringe at the thought that to follow Christ means we must choose to die with Him.

We Christians do not come to Holy Week to be spectators watching a passion play unfold like a nicely done drama, we are here to die with Christ.   The annoying inconveniences of the Great Fast were reminding us that death involves the body and the soul.

St. Paul says in Romans 5:6-8 –

While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man—though perhaps for a good man one will dare even to die. But God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.

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Indeed He died for us, the sinners, but not so that we could enjoy a passion play each year, but so that we too would die to sin, die to the world, die to ourselves, so that we might live with Him.

Our Lenten sojourn takes us like the Israelites out of the great Egyptian empire into the desert to encounter our God free of the distractions and temptations of civilization.   In the desert we are able to free our minds of all the cultural and nationalistic ideas about God  – the One who has unlimited power sending forth His invincible armies, or the One who destroys His enemies in the eternal fires of hell, or the One and pours out unending abundance upon His people.  In the desert where there are no comforts of civilization to prop up these ideas of God, we are freed of our false images of God so we can encounter the God of love who humbly dies on the cross for sinners.  Not only is He nailed to the cross and executed like a common criminal, He invites us to share in His death!  We are to die to the world in order to live with Christ.

The Lenten sojourn, however, doesn’t keep us in the desert but rather the desert is the way to Jerusalem, where Christ is crucified.  We don’t like this idea of a crucified, suffering Lord any better than the Twelve did.  We like them don’t want to go to that Jeruusalem in which God is crucified.  We want the triumphant Jerusalem where God reigns in power from on high, not nailed to a cross.  We prefer not to think about it.  We prefer victory, triumph, blessings and glory, but the Way who is Christ is through the Cross.  Through the Cross joy  comes into all the world.

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If we want to follow Christ, we have to listen to what the Lord Jesus actually taught, and then we will know our life will not be one of being served and pampered or of having all our needs met or of having all our prayers instantly answered, but rather our life in Christ will be one of constantly looking in love to serve others, which means we each have to practice self-denial and put others ahead of our self.  Lent tries to free our minds from the images we receive from the culture about God and to encounter the God who is revealed dying on the cross.   For example, America does give us an image of God and it usually is an image of prosperity and power as in “God bless America”, but the Gospel calls us to see the God revealed in the Scriptures.  The God who humbles Himself and dies on the cross for all sinners.

We should be able to discern that the images of God which are shaped by the culture are often distorted and serve the purpose of the culture.

Thomas Merton once commented about the monastic movement of the 4th Century which started as a reaction not against pagan culture but against imperial, prosperous Christianity.  The men and women who fled the conveniences and comforts of the Roman Empire also moved into the desert, in imitation of Israel of old, in order to find God who was not subverted by the state nor subservient to the state.

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“Society … was regarded by them as a shipwreck from which each single individual man had to swim for his life.   . . . These were men who believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster. The fact that the Emperor was now Christian and that the ‘world’ was coming to know the Cross as a sign of temporal power only strengthened them in their resolve.    . . .   The simple men who lived their lives out to a good old age among the rocks and sands only did so because they had come into the desert to be themselves, their ordinary selves, and to forget a world that divided them from themselves. There can be no other valid reason for seeking solitude or for leaving the world. And thus to leave, the world, is in fact, to help save it in saving oneself. This is the final point, and it is an important one. The Coptic hermits who left the world as though escaping from a wreck, did not merely intend to save themselves. They knew that they were helpless to do any good for others as long as they floundered about in the wreckage. But once they got a foothold on solid ground, things were different. Then they had not only the power but even the obligation to pull the whole world to safety after them. . . . We cannot do exactly what they did. But we must be as thorough and as ruthless in our determination to break all spiritual chains, and cast off the domination of alien compulsions, to find our true selves, to discover and develop our inalienable spiritual liberty and use it to build, on earth, the Kingdom of God.”   (Thomas Merton)

The call to leave Egypt, civilization, the greatest nation on earth, and go into the desert (Great Lent) reveals to us the nature of civilization itself.  Culture wants to shape us into its own ideal about what it is to be human or Christian, and into people who are willing to serve the needs of the culture, and to enslave themselves to it.  Nations want us to accept their nationalistic ideas of God, so that God too serves the goals of the nation.  This is why the desert fathers thought the society was a shipwreck and the only way to find their true self, the self which God intended each of us to be, was to separate themselves from all of the benefits, temptations and allurements of society.  It is only when we get a new perspective and aren’t totally immersed in or dependent on our culture that we come to understand the Gospel of Christ, not the Gospel mediated by the culture.  Republicans and Democrats both think they know best what the Gospel really means.  We as Christians need to hear Christ, not what others say about Him.   An example of this is to think about Christ’s words to “love your enemies” (Luke 6:27, 35).  Christ’s words are simple and straightforward, but our culture will do its best to explain away the most straightforward meaning so that the words are practical, doable, sensible and reasonable and made to justify and serve the values of the culture.  But the cultural understanding and explanation is not necessarily the one offered by Christ in the Gospel.

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Some years ago, I read the book A STRANGER TO MYSELF: THE INHUMANITY OF WAR, in which a young German man describes how he was shaped from what he was, a youthful German citizen into a cog of the Nazi war machine. He was brutalized in order that he would be brutal – dehumanized so that he would be inhuman for the benefit of the Third Reich.   He indeed became a stranger to himself, and not only to himself but lost all feeling for the people around him whom he no longer saw as humans.  He was willing to serve the war machine no matter what it did to himself or to others.    He did what he needed to do to survive in that state.  He became the person the state needed him to be for the state to attain its goals.   He tried to save himself by adapting to what the state demanded of him, but in this process he lost his soul and lost any shred of humanity.  His story is exactly what the monks feared was happening to themselves even as the Roman empire became Christian – the Empire told them it was OK to be Christian, but only to be Christian to the extent and in the way that the Empire approved in order that they be the kind of citizens that benefited the Empire.

Great Lent challenges us to think like the desert fathers thought as they contemplated the empire they lived in.  They had to ask themselves if they could in fact be Christian if they limited themselves to what the “Christian” Empire defined and approved?   They asked themselves whether being a Christian simply meant serving the Roman Empire, or did they have allegiance only to the Kingdom not of this world? They were in the world but not of it (John 17:11-16).   They questioned whether accepting the protection and Lordship of Caesar meant that they no longer lived under the sole protection and Lordship of God.   They had to find a way to remember the self-sacrificing love of Christ rather than see love as self-serving or a way to benefit the empire’s insatiable needs.

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These are the same questions we need to ask ourselves. We still live in the same world that the apostles and desert fathers lived in.   Many like to think about America as being a Christian nation, but does that serve the Kingdom of Heaven or does it mostly serve the goals of America?   Some might say but it’s not an either or, why can’t it be both?

And then we hear the Gospel:  “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”  (Matthew 6:24)

It is because of the Gospel that the Roman Government persecuted the Christians, the Muslims persecuted the Christians, and the communists persecuted the Christians.    All of these governments heard the Gospel as a challenge to their authority and power.  And the Christians did not work to overthrow those governments, rather they chose to live as lights to the Kingdom of God in the midst of the world.  No wonder the disciples were afraid as they followed Christ into Jerusalem.  They accepted Jesus as Lord, but were walking into a City in which Caesar and Herod both laid claim to that title, and the religious authorities were beholden to Rome and Herod for maintaining their own positions.

It is not only the state that wants us to temper the Gospel to meet the goals of the state.  Our own self-interest can demand that we make the Gospel subservient to our own personal interests.

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John and James ask of Jesus:  Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask.”   Isn’t that so like us and how we pray and approach God?  God give me what I want, what I demand, what I lust for, what I think I’m entitled to.  Be my servant God, do my bidding and do it now.  We make ourselves our own Lord and Master and demand that God serve us.

We convince ourselves that discipleship, faithfulness to Christ, certainly will be rewarded in this world not just in the world to come.  Christ reminds us of the cross, that He came to serve, not be served, and we are supposed to imitate Him.

And when we realize that Jesus tells us that to follow Him means to love one another, to deny the self, to die for Christ, then we might decide like Peter that we want to follow Christ but only at a safe distance: Then they seized Jesus and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house. Peter followed at a distance …  (Luke 22:54)

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Or we might decide that we really want to live for Christ, with Christ and in Christ.  And that will help put all other values and blessings in perspective, and we will live by and for the eternal Kingdom of God.

Asceticism: For the Love of God

Cassian John“’Fasts and vigils, the study of Scripture, renouncing possessions and everything worldly are not in themselves perfection, as we have said; they are its tools. For perfection is not to be found in them; it is acquired through them. It is useless, therefore, to boast of our fasting, vigils, poverty, and reading of Scripture when we have not achieved the love of God and our fellow men. Whoever has achieved love has God within himself and his intellect is always with God.’”   (St John Cassian, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 2490-94)