Christ is risen…

“Christ is risen, releasing from bondage Adam the first-formed man and destroying the power of hell. Be of good courage, all ye dead, for death is slain and hell despoiled; the crucified and risen Christ is King. He has given incorruption to our flesh; He counts worthy of His joy and glory all who, with a faith that wavers not, have trusted fervently in Him.” (Sticheron at the end of Matins of Saturday of the Dead, from the book Festival Icons for the Christian Year by John Baggley, pg.76)

Bright Monday: The Resurrection of the Dead

Christ is risen!

But Christ never spoke about the immortality of souls – he spoke about the resurrection of the dead! And how can we fail to see that between these two approaches there is an immense abyss? For, surely, if the question is strictly about the immortality of souls, then we need not concern ourselves with death as such, and what need have we of all these words about victory over death, about its destruction, and about resurrection? “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” And so let us ask ourselves: in what sense is death the last enemy? Whose enemy is death? And how did this enemy become the ruler of the world and the master of life? We may recall the lines from Vladimir Soloviev’s poem: “Death and Time have dominion on earth/ you must refrain from calling them lords…” But how can we not recognize the lordship of all that has become normal, the rule of life, with which man has long ago come to terms, against which he has ceased to protest and about which he has ceased even to be concerned in his philosophy, the enemy with which he seeks to find compromise both in his religion and his culture?…for in essence Christianity is not concerned about coming to terms with death, but rather with the victory over it…for the apostle Paul said: “if Christ has not been raised then…your faith is in vain” (1 Cor 15:14).   

(Alexander Schmemann, O Death, Where is Thy Sting)

The Dormition of the Theotokos (2009)

Theotokos7cFestal Greetings to all.

The Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos is about realism and hope.  The realism is that the Virgin Mary, chosen by God out of all the women who have or ever will exist to be the Mother of His Incarnate Son dies like every other human being.  Despite the role she is chosen for by God – to be the Mother of Life, Mother of the Messiah, Mother of God, Theotokos – she does not escape mortality.  She is given the accolades of being “more honorable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim” and yet she is a mortal human being.   She belongs to the same world as us, where the final enemy death has not yet been defeated.  And yet in the Feast we celebrate the ultimate triumph of humanity over death – this is the power given to each of us in Baptism.

The realism of the Dormition is confronted by the reality of Christ’s resurrection.  For the Feast of the Dormition is also a feast of hope and resurrection – of an eternal life with Christ.   The Virgin Mary is not abandoned to Hades or even the grave, for she is with her Son in God’s Kingdom.   The implication of Christ’s resurrection is made manifest in the feast of the Dormition.  St. Paul wrote:

If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.  But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power.  For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.  The last enemy to be destroyed is death.   (1 Corinthians 15:17-26)

Dormition Icon
Dormition Icon

 

Fr. John Breck wrote:

 “The icon of the Dormition, the Falling Asleep of the Mother of God, provides for the final word about death and hope beyond …  As much as the Paschal icon itself, the sacred image of the Dormition expresses the ultimate truth about death.  On the iconastasis of every Orthodox Church there is an image of the Theotokos, embracing the Christ-child and at the same time offering him to the world as the source of the world’s life and salvation.  Here, in the feast icon of the Dormition, we find the mirror image of that theme.  Christ is seen standing behind the bier of the Virgin, holding in his arms the image of her soul.  She has died, as every human being dies.  She bore within herself the agony of her Son’s death, then she embarked on the pathway that led from her own grief-stricken life through the crisis of death.  That crisis, however, was transfigured into the same victory achieved by Christ through his own death.  The image of her soul that he embraces in the Dormition icon is therefore wrapped in a shroud of white, symbolizing resurrection.  Like her Son, and because of his life-giving death and resurrection, she passes from death to life, from earth to heaven, to dwell with him in eternal glory.”

God’s Judgment Does Not End Free Will

“God is love” (1 John 4:8).   This theological statement is at the heart the Christian understanding of God.  It has led some to believe in the idea of apokatastasis, the idea that ultimately God will restore all thing to union with him and will destroy hell.  It is the notion that a loving God in the end will save everyone and all things.

Dr. Alexander Kalomiros explained in his talk “River of Fire” that the idea of apokatastasis becomes popular and perhaps even necessary among Christians because of a mistaken idea of God’s judgment.   His basic notion is that God created humans with free will, and God in His love for His creation, limits His own power in order to fully respect the free will of humans.  Thus God will never force humans to love Him, believe in Him or obey Him.  Kalomiros argues apokatastasis is in fact incompatible with God’s own choice to respect human freedom.  God will not in the end save those who do not wish to be saved.    However, he says for those who believe God is good, any sense of His judgment seems incompatible with His love, and they find apokatastasis a way to hold to an idea of God’s goodness. 

xcenthronedKalomiros, on the other hand, argues that what happens to each of us in the end is exactly what we choose to happen to us – this is what God allows and respects.  God’s judgment in the end is not God weighing every sin and punishing sinners, but rather God respecting the wish of each human being and allowing each human to experience God’s eternity as they chose by their way of life and relationship to God.   In the end, those humans who do not wish to abide in God’s presence, will by their own choice be banished from God’s presence for all eternity – they will fully experience their choice in the afterlife, totally separated from God or any hope in God.  Those who hate God and see God’s commands as oppressive will find God’s presence unbearable for all eternity.  Those who love God will rejoice in the eternal presence of their Creator.   God will in His love respect the choices we make and made.    What will be different for each of us is not how God treats us, but how we experience God’s presence and love because of our beliefs and choices, not because of what God is doing.  In this sense our final judgment is our own choice, not God’s wish for us on sentence on us.   “Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezekiel 33:11; see 1 Timothy 2:3-4)

In this thinking, when Adam and Eve sinned and chose to live lives separated from God, God did not punish them with eternal hell.  Rather he let them experience their choice – separation from God.    Eternal punishment is not mentioned in the Genesis story.  Rather death, something which exists in time and whose effect is limited by time, is introduced into the human story.  In this sense, seeing death around us and experiencing the pain it causes us are things which gives us a chance to consider what separation from God really means.  Death can thus serve as a corrective to our thinking – separation from God is painful.

Death is not something which existed from all eternity, and neither is hell – that place of punishment.  Death and hell cannot be eternal because they are the antithesis of God, not godliness.    Thus death and hell are limited to the existence of time and space – to this world.  They have no existence in the eternity of God.  Death’s purpose – to allow us to experience our choice and the pain of separation from God – holds no meaning in eternity and will in fact be brought to an end by Christ destroying death (1 Corinthians 15:26).

The Kingdom of God is eternal and all things will become part of God’s holy Kingdom.  The only difference for sinners and saints will be how they experience this Kingdom and God’s eternal presence.  They will rejoice in it if that is what they sought in this lifetime.  They will suffer in it if they found God and His way oppressive to their self will in this lifetime.  God will not impose judgment on anyone; rather, He will make this world to be His Kingdom, and He will limit His power and allow His eternal presence be experienced by what we humans chose  for all eternity.   He won’t save us from our choice but will respect our free will.  Thus God does not condemn people to hell for eternity, rather He accepts our choice for how we want to relate to Him.   We get a glimpse of this in the parable of the laborers and the vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16.   Jesus is telling us what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.  The Master in the parable at the time of reckoning is incredibly generous to the people who came last to His field and who labored the least.  Those who worked the longest grumbled and experienced the Master’s generosity in a very negative way and as totally unfair.  They could not rejoice in the Master’s goodness.  Such it will be for all of us in the final judgment of God – we will each experience God’s presence as we choose to judge God!

Lazarus and the Rich Man

Sermon notes      Luke 16:19-31                                            October 23, 1988

The Lord said, “What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight.” (Luke 16:15)

Today, we heard Jesus teach us the story of Lazarus and the rich man. We learn many lessons from this story – about wealth, about justice, about life after death, and about hell. Take some time this week to think about this story and how you look on wealth and poverty and your own spiritual life.

Certainly Jesus indicates there will be eternal punishment and eternal rest in the life after death. Notice that the rich man remains nameless, someone who has no name before God. Lazarus on the other hand is named, and eternally remembered as a person by God. The rich man goes to hell when he dies, not because of any particular sin. Jesus says only that he suffers eternally because he had good things in his life time. Apparently, the rich man lived only for a comfortable life on earth, and God blessed him with his heart’s desire. Unfortunately for the rich man, the blessings on this earth turned out to be for a very brief and temporary time. Whereas the torment in hell was forever. We might say that the rich man was extremely near-sighted in his vision of life. The rich man’s wealth abandoned him at the end of his life and remained on earth. That poor man had no provisions stored up for the life after death. St. John Chrysostom frequently commented that the wealth we give to the needy here on earth awaits us in the Kingdom of heaven.

I hope you all know where I am leading. Brothers and sisters, it is extremely near sighted on our part if we follow the path of the rich man, and live only for a good time here and now. Our culture and society teaches us to value the things of this world. Even American media preachers often proclaim a religion of prosperity in life, while ignoring the full teachings of Christ on this issue. Certainly, the scriptures are full of promises that the righteous will be blessed with abundance. But we are given our abundance in order to meet our own needs AND so that we can share with others. There is no blessing in scripture given to those who simply want to become personally wealthy or wealthier. God gives us riches for us to abound in good works (2 Cor 9:9).
Do you believe that those who are wealthy, healthy and pleasure seeking are blessed by God?

The truth is that too many of us who are wealthy, healthy and able to enjoy the pleasures of life are just like the nameless rich man. Too often you and I live and pray for the temporary wealth and pleasures of this world. And these pleasures and wealth will abandon us when we die.

Do you believe in life after death?

Then know that the pleasures and riches of this world are temporary. They will give us neither pleasure nor hope in the life we will find beyond the grave. This world is transitory, but after death we enter into the permanent life of eternity. Now is the time for us to prepare for our permanent life with God.

It is vain and foolish for us to pray and seek only abundance and benefits in this world. They will not make us holy, just, loving nor godly. They will not ensure God’s favor nor will they give us a good sentence when we stand before God’s judgement seat.

Look again at Christ’s parable: The rich man did not deny God. Perhaps he even gave thanks to God for his abundance – something many of us even fail to do. The rich man simply enjoyed the pleasures of the flesh. What he did not do was recognize his spiritual life and nourish the soul. Perhaps also, he failed to see Lazarus as his brother, and failed to practice justice and charity. He should have cared for his brother who was in need. Instead he cared only for his luxury. Please take note, I do not think Jesus was teaching social revolution here. He was not talking about redistributing the world’s wealth. He was however issuing a challenge to all of us to rethink our values. We are to remember that life here on earth is temporary. Wealth is given for us to share and provide for others. It does not imply God’s favor, nor will it in any way insure eternal life.

So, don’t live for wealth. Remember this life we now have is temporary. We are mortal and will die. Life ever lasting is ahead of us, beyond the grave. This is the life in Christ that we are to live for.

Think again about our story. Lazarus who attains eternal comfort and life, while on earth hoped only for the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. Lazarus did not spend his time longing for wealth, nor to win a lottery, nor for a nice home and comfort. Lazarus hoped only for crumbs – just enough to get by today. If we live and hope for more then this, then perhaps we are more like the nameless rich man then we are like Lazarus. And no doubt most of us have plenty of crumbs we can spare to give to the needy.
Brothers and sisters, Jesus called us to a new life. Jesus called us to walk in the life of the Holy Trinity. He taught us to reform our thinking so that we might enter into the Kingdom of God. The kingdom of heaven begins within you. In your hearts and minds, God’s kingdom and values will reign. Whether you are wealthy or poor, affluent or just making it, you have opportunity to conform your life to God’s teachings. Reshape your thinking about wealth and justice. Think about the poor beggar Lazarus and the rich man, and follow Lazarus to eternal life.

The Dormition of the Theotokos: Death No Longer Has Dominion

The Icon of the Feast of the Dormition gives us some understanding of this commemoration of the death of the Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary.  The Dormition is one of the Twelve Major Feasts of the Orthodox Calendar Year.  In many versions of the Icon we see Christ holding His Mother, or the soul of the Theotokos, in a pose so similar to icons of the Blessed Virgin holding the Christ Child.  The image is one based in the notion that all of us who have been baptized into Christ have died with Him and have been raised with Him from the dead.   The Feast of the Dormition is taking Romans 6 and applying it to the Theotokos, which in turn helps us to understand our own life in Christ.  Death no longer has any dominion over us.   The Dormition Icon portrays this truth:  death has become for us nothing more than a new birth into the life in Christ, into the life where death has no more power.  Mary the birth giver of life, who brought Christ into this world, is also born again into the new life in Christ, and in this she prefigures all believers.   The Dormition Icon shows the result of living the blessed life: Mary, as a model for all Christians, doesn’t simply die, she is translated to life: the life with Her Son in His Kingdom.   The Feast of the Dormition affirms that the Resurrection of Christ is Good News for us all.   As we sing at the Feast: “Neither the tomb, nor death, could hold the Theotokos, who is constant in prayer and our firm hope in her intercessions. For being the Mother of Life, she was translated to life by the One who dwelt in her virginal womb!”   Death has been transformed by Christ into a new birth, a passage to eternal life.  And the Virgin Mary’s death becomes for us the very image of Christ destroying death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

A Parable of Death and Life

A Parable I first encountered 30 years ago.  The author is unknown to me, but many variations of this story circulate on the Internet.

Once upon a time, twin boys were conceived in the same womb. Seconds, minutes, hours passed as the two embryonic lives developed. The spark of life grew and each tiny brain began to take shape and form.  With the development of their brain came feeling, and with feeling perception – a perception of surroundings,  and of self.  When they perceived the life of each other, they knew that life was good, and they laughed and rejoiced in their hearts.

One said to the other, “We are sure lucky to have been conceived and to have this wonderful world.”

The other chimed in, “Yes, blessed be our mother who gave us life and each other.”

Each of the twins continued to grow and take shape. They stretched their bodies and churned and turned in their little word. They explored it and found the life cord which gave them life from their mother’s blood.  They were grateful for this new discovery and sang, “How great is the love of our mother – that she shares all that she has with us!”  And they were pleased and satisfied with their lot.

Weeks passed into months and with the advent of each new month, they noticed a change in each other and in themselves.

“We are changing”, one said. “What can it mean?”

“It means”, said the other, “that we are drawing near to birth.”

An unsettling chill crept over the two. They were afraid of birth, for they knew that it meant leaving their wonderful world behind.

Said the one,  “Were it up to me, I would live here forever.”

“But we must be born,” said the other. “It has happened to others who were here before.”   Indeed, there was evidence inside the womb that the mother had carried life before theirs.   “Might not there be life after birth?”

“How can there be life after birth?” cried the one. “Do we not shed our life cord and also the blood tissue when we are born?  Have you ever talked with someone who was born?  Has anyone ever re-entered the womb after birth to describe what birth is like? NO!”

As he spoke, he fell into despair, and in his despair he moaned, “If the purpose of conception and our growth inside the womb is to end in birth, then truly our life is senseless.” He clutched his precious life cord to his breast and said, “And if this is so, and life is absurd, then there really can be no mother!”

“But there is a mother,” protested the other. “Who else gave us nourishment? Who else created this world for us?”

“We get our nourishment from this cord – and our world has always been here!” said the one. “And if there is a mother – where is she? Have you ever seen her? Does she ever talk to you? NO! We invented the idea of the mother because it satisfied a need in us. It made us feel secure and happy.”

Thus while the one raved and despaired, the other resigned himself to birth and placed his trust in the hands of his mother. Hours turned into days, and days into weeks. And soon it was time. They both knew their birth was at hand, and they both feared what they did not know. As the one was first to be conceived, so he was the first to be born, the other following.

They cried as they were born into the light. They coughed out fluid and gasped the dry air. And when they were sure they had been born, they opened their eyes – seeing life after birth for the very first time. They saw what they yet did not understand as they found themselves cradled lovingly in their mother’s arms. They lay awe struck before the beauty and truth they a few minutes before could only hope to know.