Making Christ Your Greatest Love

He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”   (Matthew 10:37-38)

St. Brigid of Ireland

“If you worship Christ in your heart, you can save your kinsfolk as well as yourself; if your heart worships father and mother, son and daughter, you will certainly lose both yourself and them. For whoever denies Christ before the world, him will Christ deny at the Last Judgement before His heavenly Father and all the hosts of angels and saints.

(Saint Isidore of Pelusium wrote to Philetus the Mayor, who was downcast at not having got into the eminent society that he craved:

‘Glory in this life is of less significance than a spider’s web, and more insubstantial than dreams; therefore lift up your mind to what is of first importance, and you will easily calm your saddened soul. He who seeks the one glory and the other cannot attain them both. It is possible to achieve both only when we seek, not both but one: heavenly , glory. Therefore, if you desire glory, seek divine, heavenly glory, and earthly glory will often follow on from it.’  (Letter 5, p. 152)

The Lord made it clear to the apostles that this moment of decision is difficult saying, “And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household” – that is, his family, that will hold him back from following Christ more than anyone else in the world, and who will condemn him the most strongly if he does so. For indeed, it is not our enemies who bind us to this world, but our friends; not strangers but our kinsfolk.”   (St Nikolai Velimirovic, Homilies, pp. 4-5).

The Feast of the Annunciation (2017)

St Nikolai Velimirovic reminds us that Jesus was not adopted by God only when Jesus dies on the cross.  Jesus did not become God’s Son only at age 30 when He began His public ministry.  Jesus is God’s Son at the Annunciation to the Theotokos.  He was already beginning then His ministry of salvation.  St. Nikolai writes:

“Lastly, there is an important reason on the general, human level for the Lord Jesus’ going to Egypt, and not to some other country. He did not begin His earthly  mission only at the age of thirty, when He opened His divine lips and began to teach. He began His mission at his conception. At His conception by the Holy Spirit, He already had a follower. This was the holy Mother of God. Was not Joseph converted to Christ before His birth? Did not His birth open heaven to the shepherds and fill the astrologers from the East with truth, prayer, and immortality? Did not Herod, together with the hardened leaders and scribes of Jerusalem, fall away from Him and stand against Him while He still lay in the manger? As soon as He was conceived, He became the cornerstone of the palace of salvation, and a stumbling-block to others. As soon as He was conceived, the world around him began to be divided into sheep and goats. Above all, Mary and Joseph were for a short time divided in their view of Him. While Mary knew Him to be the fruit of the Holy Spirit, Joseph thought Him the fruit of sin. This division lasted only a short time.

But the division made at His birth between, on the one hand, the shepherds and eastern astrologers, and Herod and the wise men of Jerusalem on the other, never came to an end. He came to sow, and at the same time to winnow. And He began his work from His conception in human flesh, right through to His death and glorious Resurrection, and from His Resurrection to this day, and from this day to the Last Judgement. He did not come into the world just to be a thinker. He lept into the drama of human life, as into the darkness of Egypt, to be light and leader, thinker and actor, sacrifice and victor. Indeed, He began His work in the world at that moment when His messenger, the great Archangel Gabriel, came down to Nazareth and announced His coming.”   (Homilies, pp. 53-54)  

The Gospel Lesson of the Annunciation:

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

And Mary said to the angel, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” And the angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26-38)

The Sickness of Zacchaeus

The Gospel lesson of Luke 19:1-10 –

Then Jesus entered and passed through Jericho. Now behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus who was a chief tax collector, and he was rich. And he sought to see who Jesus was, but could not because of the crowd, for he was of short stature. So he ran ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was going to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and saw him, and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” So he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully. But when they saw it, they all complained, saying, “He has gone to be a guest with a man who is a sinner.” Then Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”

St. Nikolai Velimirovic comments on the Gospel lesson:

“Christ said a number of times that He had come into this world for the sake of sinners, and especially for the greatest sinners. As a doctor does not visit the healthy but the sick, so the Lord visits those with the sickness of sin, not those with the health of righteousness. It is not said in the Gospel that the Lord, on this occasion, visited any righteous man in Jericho, but He made haste to visit the house of the sinful Zacchaeus. Does not every sensible doctor behave in this way when he goes into a hospital? Does he not go straight to the beds of the most gravely ill? The whole world represents a great hospital, full to overflowing with sick men and women infected by sin. All men are sick in comparison with Christ’s health; all are weak in comparison with Christ’s power; all are ugly in comparison with Christ’s beauty. But there are, among men, the sick and the sicker, the weak and the weaker, the ugly and the uglier. The former are considered righteous and the latter sinful.

And the heavenly Physician, who did not come on earth for His own satisfaction but for the urgent healing and salvation of the infected, hastened first to the aid of the worst infected. To this end, He ate and drank with sinners, permitted sinners to weep over His feet, and entered into Zacchaeus’ house.”

 (Homilies, p. 339-340)

 

The Feast of the Circumcision of Christ

In Luke 2:20-21, we learn of the circumcision of the baby Jesus.  The story confirms His humanity, which is essential since we in the Church say Jesus is our Lord, God and Savior!  It is God in the flesh who humbly submits to circumcision.  God became incarnate in order to humble Himself.  Luke reports the event, quite simply:

“At that time, the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.  And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”

 

The circumcision of Jesus, would be unremarkable, and routinely Jewish, except for the claim that Jesus is God incarnate.  God does not ask His people to do anything that God is not willing to do Himself.  The Torah commanded circumcision for male children, even God in the flesh endures the ritual for our salvation.  God humbly submits Himself to being human.

Bishop Nikolai Velimirovic comments:

“On the eighth day after His birth, the divine Child was taken to the Temple and duly circumcised according to the Jewish Law that had been observed from the time of Abraham. At this time He was given the name Jesus, the name announced to the most holy Virgin by the Archangel Gabriel (Luke 1:31). The Baptism of the New Covenant was prefigured in the Circumcision of the Old Covenant. The Lord’s Circumcision shows that He took true human flesh upon Himself, not its semblance as heretics later taught of Him. The Lord was truly circumcised, desiring thus to fulfill all the Law, which He Himself had given through our forefathers and the prophets. Fulfilling all the ordinances of the Law, He superseded them by Baptism in His Church, for, as the Apostledeclares: ‘In Christ Jesus neither circumcision avail any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature’ (Gal. 6:15). (The Prologue from Ochrid, p 15)

God’s Word is a Seed

5096763138_3435941b81_n“A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell along the path, and was trodden under foot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns grew with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew, and yielded a hundredfold.”

As he said this, he called out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but for others they are in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.

Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy; but these have no root, they believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away. And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. And as for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience.”  (Luke 8:5-15)

Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich finds deep meaning in the parable:

“The field signifies the human soul; the various parts of the field signify different human souls. Some are like the ground alongside the path, others like stony ground, yet others like patches of thorns.

Others, though, are like good ground, well away from the path, clear of stones and thorns. Why does the sower not cast his seed only on the good ground, rather than along the path or among the stones and thorns? Because the Good News of the Gospel is common to all, not secret and not confined to just one group of people, as had been the case in much dark and ‘magical’ teaching among the Greeks and the Egyptians, that had as their goal more the acquisition of power over a man, or by one group of people over another, than the salvation of the soul. ‘What I tell you in darkness, that speak you in light; and what you hear in the ear, that preach you upon the housetops’ (Matt. 10:27).

Thus the Lord commands His disciples; the Great Sower commands the sowers. God desires the salvation of all human souls, for ‘He will have all men to be saved’ (1 Tim. 2:4), ‘not willing that any should perish’ (2 Pet. 3:9). Were the Lord to have sown His divine teaching only among good people, the wicked would have had the excuse that they had never heard the Gospel, and would have ascribed their perdition to God, not to their own sinfulness. No-one will ever come to perdition through God’s fault, for God is righteous and no sort of fault can approach the light of His righteousness.” (Homilies, p 214)

Syrian internally displaced people walk in the Atme camp, along the Turkish border in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, on March 19, 2013. The conflict in Syria between rebel forces and pro-government troops has killed at least 70,000 people, and forced more than one million Syrians to seek refuge abroad. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILIC        (Photo credit should read BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)
 ( BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images)

Even if we think that some people have hardened hearts, hearts of stone or heads full of rocks, we are to share the Good News with them.  Even if we think they will never produce anything but thorns and weeds because we can see that in their lives, we are to live in such a way as to be light to them and to provide them with the seed of the Gospel.  It doesn’t matter what they are like, the Sower of Good Seed sends us into the world to continue His ministry.

The Sun as Servant and Symbol

“… the sun knows its time for setting.”

(Psalm 104:19)

“Arise O sons of the Sun of God! Arise, the merciful sun has risen and has begun to pour its light lavishly over the dark fields of the earth. It has risen to set you free from sleep’s gloom and terror.

Your sins of yesterday are not written out on the sun. The sun does not remember or seek revenge for anything. On its face there are no wrinkles from your forehead, nor is there any sadness, envy, or sorrow. Its joy lie in giving, its youth-its rejuvenation- lies in serving.

Blessed are those who serve, for they shall not grow old. What if the sun were to imitate you, my neighbors? How little light it would shed on earth you misers! How bloody its light would be, you murderers! How green it would become with envy when it saw greater suns that itself, you envious people! How red with wrath it would become when it heard the profanities below, you short-tempered people! How yellow it would become with yearning for the beauty of the stars, you greedy people! How pale it would become with fear, if no one marked its way, you cowards! How dark it would become with worry, you worrisome worriers! How wrinkled and old it would become living on yesterday’s wrongdoing, you vengeful people! How astray it would go from the right way if it fought over rights, you auctioneers of rights! How cold and dead it would become, and how it would envelop the entire universe with its death, you preachers of death!

Oh how fortunate it is for the world that the sun will never imitate you, O sons and daughters of earth! Indeed, the sun does not know many things as you do, but it does know two things eternally: that it is a servant and a symbol. It knows that it is a symbol of the One who put it at His service.” (Bishop Nikolai Velimirovich, PRAYERS BY THE LAKE, pp 28-29)

The Annunciation to a Pure Heart

“There was a time when the heart of man was filled only with God – a mirror of the beauty of God, a harp for the praise of God.

There was a time when it was, in truth, in the hand of God, preserved from danger; but when man, in his madness, took things into his own hands, many wild beasts attacked the heart of man; and from there has, inwardly, come the bondage of the heart of man and, outwardly, that which is seen as the history of the world. Incapable of taking responsibility for his heart, man has looked for support to things – animate and inanimate – around him.

But whatever man has found to support his heart has fouled and wounded it. O wretched heart of man, seized on by many who have no right or power over you – as a pearl among swine! How hard you have become through your age- long slavery, and how darkened you are by the weight of darkness! God Himself has had to come down to free you from slavery, to save you from darkness, to heal you of your sinful leprosy and to take you once again into His own hand. The coming of God among men is the most gentle expression of His love for men, tidings of the greatest joy for the pure and the most devastating even for the impure of heart.

Like a flaming pillar in the deepest darkness, so is the coming of God among men. The news of this coming began with an angel and a maiden, with a conversation between heavenly and earthly purity. When an impure heart converses with an impure one, there is strife. Only when a pure heart converses with a pure one there is joy, peace and a great wonder. The Archangel Gabriel is the first messenger of the good news of man’s salvation, of this wondrous act of God’s – for the salvation of  man could not come about without God’s wondrous action.

The most pure Virgin Mary was the first to hear this good news and, first among human beings, trembled with fear and joy. Heaven was mirrored in her pure heart like the sun in clear water. Beneath her heart, the Lord, the Creator of the new world and Renewer of the old, was to lay His head and clothe Himself in flesh.” (Nikolai Velimirovic, Homilies, p 2)

The Pharisee and the Publican

The Gospel Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee is found in Luke 18:10-14.

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men – extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.  ‘I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’  And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise 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 everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.

St. Nikolai Velimirovic comments on the Parable reminding us that the Pharisee fasted perfectly, yet it did him no good, for his heart remained hardened.   This is a good lesson to all of us Orthodox as we prepare to enter Great Lent:  the goal is to change our hearts not our stomachs.

 

“Ah, what an easy way of salvation has this Pharisee chosen for himself, easier than the easiest way to destruction! Of all the commandments that God gave people through Moses, he chose only the two easiest. But he did not really fulfil these two, for these two commandments were not given by God because it was necessary to Him that men fast and give a tithe of their possessions. This is not in the least necessary to God. Neither did God give these commandments to men to be some end in themselves but – as with all His other commandments – to bring forth the fruit of humility before God, obedience to God and love for God and man; in brief: to arouse, soften and illumine men’s hearts. However, the Pharisee aimlessly fulfilled these two commandments. He fasted and gave a tithe of his possessions, but he hated and scorned others, and was arrogant before God. And so he remained an unfruitful tree. The fruit is not in fasting, but in the heart; the fruit is not in a commandment, but in the heart. All commandments and all laws are of service to the heart: they warm the heart, enlighten the heart, water the heart, fence the heart round, weed it and plant it – only that the fruit in the field of the heart should set, grow and ripen. All good works are a means and not an end, the method and not the fruit. The end is in the heart, where the fruit is.” (Homilies, pp 98-99)

Want to Help God Celebrate?

Man’s repentance is God’s celebration.” 

(St. Ephrem the Syrian, in THE HOMILIES, Vol 1, of St. Nikolai Velimirovich, p 99)

 

The Lord Jesus taught us: “I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. . . .  Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”   (Luke 15:7, 10)

Who Remembers a Beggar’s Name?

The Gospel Lesson according to St. Luke 16:19-31 –

The the Lord Jesus told this parable:

There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day.

But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table.

Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom.

Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom

The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. ’And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’

Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, ’for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.’ 

St. Nikolai Velimirovic comments:

 “The rich man’s soul was as full of sores as Lazarus’ […]

What sort of funeral did Lazarus the poor man have? It was like the burial of a dog that is found dead on the road. There must have been some civil authority to deal with dead beggars on the road, to give them burial for various reasons, and especially for two: the danger that dogs might tear his body to pieces and carry the pieces all over the city, and the fear that it would begin to stink, and thus spread infection in the city. In any case, the body must be got out of the city as quickly as possible and buried, because this  dead body – twisted, covered with sores and tattered bits of clothing – offended the eyes of passers-by. None of these reasons were concerned with Lazarus, but all were directed towards the well-being of the city’s inhabitants. He, poor man, was a nuisance to others both during his lifetime and after his death.

The authorities could only wrinkle their noses at these unpleasant tidings, find men to carry out the disagreeable task and see how to pay for it. Word passed from tongue to tongue: Some beggar’s died; who’ll bury him? At whose cost? Who was he? So some curious child might ask. A foolish question; who would know and remember a beggar’s name?” (Homilies, pp 225 & 227)