Be Mary, or at Least be Martha

Now as they went on their way, he entered a village; and a woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.”

But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”   (Luke 10:38-42; the Gospel lesson for the Nativity of the Theotokos)

St Theophylact of Ochrid comments:

Understand that Martha represents active virtue, while Mary represents divine vision. Action entails distractions and disturbances, but divine vision, having become the ruler of the passions (for Maria means mistress, she who rules), devotes itself entirely to the contemplation of the divine words and judgements…therefore, whoever sits at the feet of Jesus, that is, whoever steadfastly follows and imitates Jesus, is established in all active virtue. Then such a man will also come to the listening of the divine words, that is, he will attain to divine vision. Mary first sat, and by doing this she was then able to listen to Jesus’ words.

Therefore you also, O reader, if you have the strength, ascend to the rank of Mary: become the mistress of your passions, and attain to divine vision.  But if you do not have the strength, be Martha, and devote yourself to active virtue, and by this means welcome Christ.

(Hillarion Alfeyev’s Jesus Christ: His Life and Teaching, p. 453)  

If You Want to Be Perfect

In the Gospel lesson of Matthew 19:16-26, a man comes to Jesus and asks Him:

 “Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?”

Jesus replies by telling the man to keep the commandments, but then adds this:

“If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.”

Not only does this man walk away from Christ, but even His disciples are astounded and ask:

 “Who then can be saved?”

St. Basil the Great comments:

“‘Become perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” [Mt 5.48]. Do you see how the Lord restores to us that which is according to the likeness? If you become a hater of evil, free of rancor, not remembering yesterday’s enmity; if you become brother-loving and compassionate, you are like God. If you forgive your enemy from your heart, you are like God. If as God is toward you, the sinner, you become the same toward the brother who has wronged you, by your good will from your heart toward your neighbor, you are like God.’

Note:  In Basil’s theology the ascetical practice of both outwardly displaying virtue and inwardly cultivating a disposition of a godly attitude, from which right action springs, reforms the likeness. Modeling ourselves after the gratuitous precepts of Christ reorders and rejoins the likeness to the image. Thus, he exhorts the reader “to put on Christ,” because “drawing near to him is drawing near to God. Thus the creation story is an education in human life. “Let us make the human being in our image.” Let him have by his creation that which is according to the image, let him also come to be according to the likeness. For this God gave the power.”    (On the Human Condition, p. 44)

According to Genesis 1:26,  “God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness . . .’”  Because the Church Fathers thought every word of Scripture was significant, they believed that the image and likeness were two different things.  Each human is made in the image of God – each of us in a mysterious way is an icon of God.   But, we were not made as perfect beings – we co-create ourselves with God – we have to choose to be in God’s likeness, and we have to work on that.  That is the point of asceticism and self denial, that we make ourselves conform to the likeness of God – to become more Christlike.  We become more perfectly human when we deny our self, our passions, and become more like Christ – loving, merciful, forgiving.

If we live just according to what we often think of as our human nature, we live just according to the nature we inherited from Adam.  But this is not perfect human nature.  We have to strive to be perfect as God is perfect.  That is why Jesus concluded today’s Gospel lesson with the words:

“With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

St. Paul teaches us this same lesson with his words:

Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.   (1 Corinthians 15:45-50)

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.

Thanksgiving 2017

A prayer for Thanksgiving Day

O Lord Jesus Christ, our God, the God of all mercies and compassion,
Whose mercy cannot be measured and Whose love for mankind is without limit: As unprofitable servants we bow down in reverence and fear before Your gracious majesty, and we humbly offer You this Thanksgiving for all the benefits You have bestowed upon our nation and our Church.

We glorify, praise, hymn and magnify You as our Lord, Master and Benefactor.  We bow down before You in Thanksgiving for Your immeasurable and priceless loving-kindness.

We pray that in the same way that You already blessed us, heard our prayers and fulfilled them, so also in the time to come as we flourish in love and virtue as a result of Your blessings grant always to accept our thanksgiving supplications and grant that we may bring glory to Your Holy Name each day that we walk on this earth.

Deliver our Church and our nation from every evil circumstance, and continue to accept, bless and prosper the work of our hands.
O Lord, grant us peace and tranquility so that we may live in godliness all the days of our lives. Count us always worthy to offer you thanksgiving, to tell about your wonderful blessings, and to sing praise to You for all the benefits you bestow upon us.

In humble gratitude we praise Your Name together with Your Father who is from everlasting and You Most Holy, good and consubstantial Spirit.  Amen.

Thanksgiving morning, 23 November 2017, there was a rainbow in the sky just at day break. A beautiful sight for Thanksgiving morning.

 And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will look upon it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.”    (Genesis 9:12-16)

St Abercius, Equal to the Apostles

“In the time of the Emperor Antoninus (138-161), St Abercius was bishop in the city of Hierapolis in Phrygia. The great majority of the town’s inhabitants were pagans, and St Abercius governed his little flock with a heart greatly saddened by the great number of pagans and idolaters, and with fervent prayer to God that He would bring them to the true Light. At the time of a rowdy idolatrous festival, Abercius became inflamed with godly zeal and went into the temple, smashing all the idols. When the furious pagans tried to kill him, three young madmen fell down before the man of God, foaming at the mouth and bellowing. The man of God drove the demons out of them, and they were healed and became calm. Seeing this, the fury of the pagans turned to marveling at Christ’s wonderworker, and five hundred of them were immediately baptized. Little by little, everyone in the city of Hierapolis came to believe in Christ and was baptized. The proconsul of the region, Publius, had a blind mother whose sight Abercius restored by prayer, and both Publius and his mother came to faith in Christ, along with many other people. In old age, Abercius was summoned to Rome, where he healed the Emperor’s mad daughter. The Lord Christ appeared to His faithful follower several times. People from far and near came to him for help in chronic sickness, and the demons not only feared him but were obedient to his commands. At the order of the Lord Himself, he preached the Gospel throughout Syria and Mesopotamia, and went to his beloved Lord in great old age, in the city of Hierapolis at the end of the second century.”  (The Prologue from Ochrid, p. 96)

Being Orthodox Means Having a Relationship With God

The Orthodox Church is not primarily an institution. Orthodox Christianity is not a series of rules to live by, nor is it a particular structure of church government. Orthodoxy is not a theological system, nor is its fullest expression limited to any particular period of history or cultural environment.

Orthodoxy is nothing less than a relationship with God. Orthodoxy is the expression of the way God interacts with His people. In other words, Orthodoxy is the way God relates to the Church as the Body of Christ, the way He relates to each individual within it, and conversely, a way by which people may interact and interrelate with God.

Orthodoxy begins at or before birth, and it does so as an impersonal relationship between a Creator and His creature. However, when the person participates in the Mystery of Holy Baptism, that relationship enters a new dimension: it becomes personal. In a personal relationship, each person has a name and is recognized when called by that name. Jesus talks about this when He says that He, the shepherd, calls His sheep by name, and they recognize His voice. In the Mystery of Baptism, just as the person dies and rises again in the water, God’s name is revealed, but so too is the name of the person being baptized. God now has a way of getting our attention: He can call us by name.  (Archimandrite Meletios Webber, Bread, Wine & Oil, pp. 29-31)

Intuitions from the Desert

  • A brother came to see Abba Poemen and while several of them were sitting round, he praised a brother for hating evil. Abba Poemen said to the one who had spoken, ‘What does it mean to hate evil?’ The brother was surprised and found nothing to say in reply. Getting up, he made a prostration before the old man, and said, ‘Tell me what hatred of evil is?’ The old man said to him, ‘Hatred of evil is to hate one’s thoughts and to praise one’s neighbor.

  • A brother went to see Abba Poemen and said to him, ‘What ought I to do?’ The old man said to him, ‘Go and join one who says “What do I want?” and you will have peace.’

  • Abba Joseph related that Abba Isaac said, ‘I was sitting with Abba Poemen one day and I saw him in ecstasy and I was on terms of great freedom of speech with him, I prostrated myself before him and begged him saying, “Tell me where you were.” He was forced to answer and he said, “My thought was with Saint Mary, the Mother of God, as she wept by the cross of the Savior. I wish I could always weep like that.”’ (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, p. 187).

Be a Holy Priesthood

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. . . .  But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.  (1 Peter 2:4-9)

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It is St. Peter who tells all of Christians to be a holy priesthood and who says we are a royal priesthood.  It is where we get the notion of the priesthood of all believers.  So how can we all be priests?  We can do with our lives what priests do in the Liturgy.

We can make everything and anything we do an offering to God.  Each of us offers to God daily whatever it is we do in our lives…

Whatever we think

Whatever we say

Whatever we do

These are our offerings to God.  If we remember that every moment of our life is an offering to God and stay consciously aware of this, we can actually transfigure all we do into something holy.   Our “Christian” life is not opposed to our daily or secular life.  We have only one life we live.  Every aspect of our lives – what we do in our bedrooms, in our living rooms, in our kitchens as well as our workshops and garages – becomes our offering to God.  We can transform any minute and every minute into prayer and into a spiritual sacrifice.  The spiritual sacrifice is what St. Peter tells us we are to offer to God.  This is not some ritual act, but rather we turn everything we do into prayer and an offering to God.

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In today’s Epistle (Galatians 6:11-16), we hear the words:  “what counts is a new creation.”  That is what we are trying to do.  We come to church and see the icons, these are people, scenes and events transfigured by God into holy events and holy people.  We come here and experience bread and wine transfigured into the Body and Blood of Christ.  We come here as individuals and are transformed by the Holy Spirit into the Body of Christ, God’s own church.

What we experience here, we can do in our own homes and lives as God’s priests.  We can transfigure and transform every moment into an iconic moment.  The icons shouldn’t just be on the walls of the church, we can make our lives iconic .  In fact we are each an icon of God – we each are created in God’s image (icon) [Genesis 1:26-27].  When we live as Christians, when we live in God’s likeness, we make each moment and each event iconic because we make God’s image present in us.

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For God so loved the world…”   (John 3 – today’s Gospel) –

Fr. Schmemann points out  it is this world God loves.  It is this life God loves.  No other.

This world and this life are to be communion with God.  God offers this to us, but we can also strive to make it so.

It is this world where there are hurricanes, and earthquakes and war and political strife and financial struggle –  this is the very world into which Christ became incarnate.  He chose to enter into this world because of His love for us.

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Mt. Saint Helens Volcano

There is something about this world which God loves and is not willing to give up on .  He wants to transform this world, not replace it with some other world.

God loves this world

God wishes to save this world

God can transfigure this world.

Even with all the problems of this world – natural disasters, human made disasters, sin, evil, human hubris, God still loves this world because He sees the goodness in it and He still sees His image in us!  God has entered into this world and share our human nature because God loves us and this world.

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We can cooperate with God by being God’s priests and transforming our lives and what we do into a daily spiritual offering to God.  We can make ourselves image bearers of God and can make our lives, our homes, our time on earth to be iconic and to reveal the presence of God to everyone.

 

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)

Courage, People of God

“Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the LORD!” (Psalm 31:24)

St. Alexander Schmorell, Martyr

There are so many divisive issues in our society today, many of which discourage or threaten Christians.   Sexual immorality, big government, Islam, secularism, fascism, communism, anarchy, dictatorship, Obamacare, catastrophic illness, ruthless capitalism, poverty, war, aimless hedonism, global warming, unemployment.  From every side and every one looks, one can find issues that threaten our existence with uncertainty, chaos, suffering, persecution and nihilism.

How are we to respond?   With faith, hope and love.  That is what we are taught in Christianity.  No suffering in this world is ever viewed as the end all or final word on anything.  The final word, like the first word, belongs to God.  All things happen within God’s universe, and within God Himself.  For those who believe, this is to be of comfort.  No matter how bad things may seem, God and God’s plan are still outside of the control of this world and greater than the world.

St. Paul

St. Paul told the members of the nascent church which was threatened with persecution and extinction: “Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous (Gr: literally, “play the man” – see 2 Sam 10:12), be strong. Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:13-14).   Their situation was not better than ours.  They were a tiny minority without any political support or power.   The established religions all opposed them, as did the rich, the educated, the powerful, the empire.  St. Paul tells them and us the same words that God’s prophets and kings had been telling the people of God throughout history.

So God tells Moses:

“Be strong and of good courage, do not fear or be in dread of them: for it is the LORD your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.”

Then Moses summoned Joshua, and said to him in the sight of all Israel,

“Be strong and of good courage; for you shall go with this people into the land which the LORD has sworn to their fathers to give them; and you shall put them in possession of it. It is the LORD who goes before you; he will be with you, he will not fail you or forsake you; do not fear or be dismayed.” (Deuteronomy 31:6-8)

After Moses, death, God said to Joshua:

“Be strong and of good courage; for you shall cause this people to inherit the land which I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law which Moses my servant commanded you; turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; be not frightened, neither be dismayed; for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:6-9)

King Joab facing war told Israel:

“Be of good courage, and let us play the man for our people, and for the cities of our God; and may the LORD do what seems good to him.” (2 Samuel 10:12)

King David used the same words to strengthen his people:

“Then you will prosper if you are careful to observe the statutes and the ordinances which the LORD commanded Moses for Israel. Be strong, and of good courage. Fear not; be not dismayed.” (1 Chronicles 22:13)

And again King David encouraged his son, Solomon with these words:

“Be strong and of good courage, and do it. Fear not, be not dismayed; for the LORD God, even my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you, until all the work for the service of the house of the LORD is finished.” (1 Chronicles 28:20)

In Daniel’s vision he is told while in captivity:

“O man greatly beloved, fear not, peace be with you; be strong and of good courage.” And when he spoke to me, I was strengthened and said, “Let my lord speak, for you have strengthened me.” (Daniel 10:19)

There are numerous other such examples sprinkled throughout the Old Testament – often before a battle,or before some struggle, God’s people were reminded to be courageous.  Even against superior odds, even when defeat seemed inevitable, even when the people suffered great loss and defeat, they were called to courage.  St. Paul in his words to his flock is simply copying the words of his ancestors and trying to get the nascent Church and struggling Christians to be courageous even in the face of opposition. He is invoking the memory of their forefathers.  Today is our turn to hear the call and heed the words to be courageous, no matter what is happening in history.  Courage is not folly.  We are not being called to the reckless abandon of super heroes, nor to go on some ravaging offensive to destroy others.  We are called to be courageous no matter what else is happening – to be people of faith, hope and love.  Courage is faithfulness to God.