Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Ode to Vienna Sausages

I love Vienna sausages. While many refuse to partake of these delicate morsels of “mystery meat” I find them sublime. Eaten straight out of the can with a generous splash of Tabasco sauce or added to a hot cup of Lipton instant soup along with a few wild greens, they are a hiker’s fare to die for. I rarely go out in the woods without a can of these tucked into my food bag.

Apparently I am not alone in my appreciation for these little weenies as I recently came across a poem by an unknown author that I just had to share here.

"Ode to Vienna Sausages"

O, glorious bit of nourishment,
Thy taste is truly heaven sent.
Such pleasure thou expounds to me,
My precious tube of ecstasy!

Though many morsels touch my tongue,
Thine anthem ne'er shall be out sung.
Sweet Machiavellian delight
Pervades my throat with every bite.

There is no greater pleasure than
Eight sausages packed in a can.
The grandeur of thy sweet bouquet
Is faint to take one's breath away.

Thy juice and stunning succulence
Is said to conjure flatulence
And rumblings from the diaphragm
Unmatched, of course, except by Spam.

But, from this land where Mozart played
And Ludwig Van concertos made,
This land from where great music came
Is it not right you make the same?

Though other wieners may aspire
To be as plump as Oscar Meyer
Thy svelte, petite, and sleek design
Slide freely through these lips of mine.

At weddings, thou art ever picked,
With Swedish meatballs on a stick
To be the morsels of delight
On that most joyous of all nights.

My dearest treat, I bid thee well.
I love thee more than words can tell.
I take my leave....I must compose
My "Sonnet to the Oreo".

Suffer the Little Children

Recently some parishioners at St. Barnabas brought a Protestant friend of theirs to the Divine Liturgy. At this particular liturgy a newly-baptized infant received her First Communion. This prompted the visitor to later ask why we Orthodox give Communion to babies. The parishioners sent an email to me asking for a response to this question, and what follows is my reply to them.

The Orthodox Church has several reasons for the practice of Infant Communion. Here are just a few:

The first and greatest is that our Lord Himself commanded it: “And they brought young children to him, that he should touch them; and his disciples rebuked those that brought them. But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not; for of such is the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.’ And he took them up in his arms, put his hands on upon them, and blessed them.” [Mark 10:13-16]

In that passage we can see that our Lord was “much displeased” when his disciples wrongly sought to exclude children from His presence and blessing. He taught them that children are fellow-heirs of the kingdom along with adults and should be allowed every benefit that the parents are allowed. By definition, Holy Communion is the Church’s most sacred sharing in the “real presence” of Christ and therefore, following our Lord’s command, children should not be deprived of this greatest of all blessings.

St. Peter obviously recalled this lesson on the day of Pentecost when he told the crowd, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call” [Acts 2:38-39]. In those days whole families were baptized into Christ and not the adults only, for “the promise is unto you, and to your children”. The fundamentalist claim that “children” doesn’t necessarily include “infants” is mere sophistry and a parsing of the text to fit their doctrine. The clear meaning of the passage above is that there is no age limit to inherit the promise of God. It soon became clear to the Church that Christian baptism was the antitype of circumcision prescribed under the Old Covenant as the rite of entry into the community of God. To the Jewish mindset of the early Church it made perfect sense to baptize their infants into the community of the Church just as they had previously circumcised their male children into the community of Israel. The second reason we baptize our infants and include them in the communion of the Church therefore is that this was the Christian practice from the very beginning and not a later addition as some falsely claim.

What about faith? Can an infant possibly have faith to make his baptism “valid”? Let us not forget that Israel was also a community of faith under the Abrahamic covenant, as “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him as righteousness”. Could a 40-day-old Jewish infant have faith to be circumcised into the covenant of Abraham? Obviously he was circumcised by the faith of his parents and then would be raised in that faith, being taught by them to obey the commandments and ordinances of Israel until one day the faith of his parents became his own. The Jews did not postpone the circumcision of their children until they had reached some arbitrary “age of reason” but included them in the community from their birth, following the commandment of God to do this very thing. This was the historical and biblical custom that the Church, seeing itself as the true continuation of Israel, followed in baptizing their children and raising them in the communion of the faithful.

If we go all the way back to the Garden, we see that God created Adam and Eve and placed them in the Paradise of Bliss. They were created in a state of “theoria” or the vision of God, in that they were in communion with God and could see Him and talk with Him. They were not created as perfect beings, but rather as “spiritual infants” with the intention that they grow in this communion and thus in the likeness of God in whose image they were made. If they had been created as perfect beings they would never have disobeyed God and fallen from grace. Rather they were created in that state of theoria and were given the free will to continually choose God and grow in their communion with Him. Imagine if Adam and Eve had been created outside of Paradise and without this theoria, and had been required to attain to a level of spiritual knowledge and “faith” before they would be allowed to enter in! This clearly is not how God operates. He placed the newly formed man in the Garden of Blessedness and gave him the privilege and every possibility to continue in that condition and grow in it.

This is the same privilege that God granted to the babies of the Jews under the Old Covenant and that He still grants to the babies of the Christians under the New Covenant. By being baptized on the fortieth day and receiving Holy Communion immediately, they are literally born into the kingdom of God in full communion with Him, and are given the choice to remain in that communion and continue to grow in it as they become older and make the faith of that community their own.

By contrast, excluding children from baptism into the community of the faithful and from Holy Communion until they reach a certain age that the modern traditions of men claim is “good enough” constitutes a stark violation of the will of God expressed in both the Old and New Testament scriptures, and we might add, is also rather cruel. If God had created Adam and Eve outside of Paradise, if Jewish males had not been allowed to be circumcised until the age of thirteen, if Peter had said “the promise is for you and for your older children”, then the proponents of this practice might have a legitimate argument. But we know that such is not the case. God allows His spiritual children to begin their lives in communion with Him and then continue in that state of blessedness and growth if they so choose.

Unwittingly following the dictates of secular humanism, segments of contemporary Western Christendom have made an idol of human reason and have reduced Holy Communion from a true mystical sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ [1 Corinthians 10:16] to a mere rational remembrance of past events. Yet does not our Lord say “Verily, verily, I say unto you, except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you”? [John 6:53] Does not nature itself teach us that young ones cannot thrive and grow without nourishment? Yet children are routinely denied the spiritual nourishment of Holy Communion because modern doctrines of men have shifted Communion from primarily being an action of God’s grace to exclusively being an action of the mind of man.

What a shame that so many children are “hindered from coming unto Christ” until their parents decide that they have sufficient rational understanding to permit it. Are they not committing the same error as the disciples with whom our Lord was “much displeased”? Can we accept or find any biblical evidence for the practice of forcing children to sit and watch their parents take Communion while they themselves are excluded? This is what happens when human reason is exalted above simple faith in the mysteries of God. Here we see that secular humanism has blended with Christianity to form a distortion of traditional, orthodox Christian belief. These traditions of men have very much made void the Word of God and are truly an offense to Him.

I hope these thoughts will be of some help to you and your friend.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Things I have learned from the Wilderness

I enjoy backpacking into the mountains and deserts of Southern California. Some of my most memorable experiences have occurred on such trips. Laying back on a huge boulder in the high desert of Joshua Tree on a warm summer evening and beholding an all-night meteor shower with literally dozens of “shooting stars” falling from the sky in any given moment; drinking pure water from an ice-cold mountain spring after a sweaty hike and remembering once again what real water is supposed to taste like; crawling out of your tent in the morning and finding fresh mountain lion tracks just outside your thin nylon door; staying up to witness a brilliant desert moonrise before climbing into your sleeping bag thinking that you have never seen anything so beautiful in all your life; being nearly stepped on by a deer who didn’t sense you lying under a bush watching her until that very moment; hiking through an acre of thousands upon thousands of dime-sized frogs freshly hatched from a tiny desert oasis and realizing that if you had arrived a day earlier or later you would have missed the sight; seeing the comically startled look on the face of a bobcat who accidentally wandered into your camp; shoving your way through chaparral so thick you don’t see the 30’ sheer cliff until one foot is hovering in mid-air (and carefully backtracking to choose a different route after such a close call!); climbing a mountain peak and feeling as if you are truly standing on the top of the world; being nearly blown off that same mountaintop by a sudden thunderstorm that just seemed to appear out of nowhere and instantly turned day into night; discovering ancient petroglyphs near stone mortars left behind hundreds of years ago by migratory Indians; sitting under fragrant whispering pines on a mountain ledge with a spectacular view of the valley below while dining on fresh-caught rainbow trout seasoned with a bit of lemon pepper, and contently thinking that no restaurant in the world could duplicate the experience; engaging in a mano-a-mano stare-down with a great horned owl perched just 10 feet away in a juniper tree; waking up to a 400-pound black bear hovering nose-to-nose over your face literally six inches above you…these are just a few of the experienced I have enjoyed or lived through while in the Wilderness.

The Wilderness always takes pleasure in testing those who would dare venture within her boundaries to see if they are worthy to behold her matchless wonders. Long hikes are the norm, with blisters and sunburns and poison oak and biting insects to be endured. On a gorgeous summer day when you have deemed your tent unnecessary and have left it home to save weight, she will invariably send rain or even snow just to remind you that she, not the weatherman, is still in charge. Alternatively, she will deprive you of life-giving water, parching your throat and tempting you to give up and hike out while you still can, and then suddenly reward your stubborn decision to stay by revealing a small spring hidden under a cluster of gooseberry bushes. Her thermostat has no regard for the normal human comfort zone and routinely makes you either too hot or too cold; yet you relish the experience and simply shed or add clothes to meet the conditions. She guards her trails with rattlesnakes who act like the fearful Cherubim poised at the gates of Paradise preventing fallen Adam’s reentry; the differences are that rattlesnakes aren’t armed with flaming swords and Cherubim don’t taste like chicken (I assume!).

If you can endure her tests, the Wilderness will reward you with glimpses of insight into her Creator that city-dwellers rarely enjoy. As you are delighting in the shade of a gnarled, 400-year-old oak tree, sitting in the dust from which you were taken and will one day return, you are suddenly reminded just how brief your life is and that not one day of it should be wasted in selfish pursuits. As you watch a brightly-colored kingsnake slither by, you marvel at its beauty and realize that God could have made all creation in shades of gray but chose to adorn the world with such wonderful colors as these out of His love for mankind. As you calculate how many miles you must walk that day to reach your next campsite, how much food or water you have left, whether the goat trail you are following along the mountainside is safe or will crumble under your feet, or whether those clouds on the horizon are bringing rain that will flood the currently dry creek bed you have chosen as your escape route, you are reminded just how basic and simple life becomes in the Wilderness. Many of the decisions she requires of you fall under the category of mere survival. Make the right choices and you will have a memorable trip; make the wrong choices and you could die. Such simple yet profoundly important decisions make life seem so much more real and precious, while delicate and fleeting at the same time.

When it finally comes time to hike out and return to the “real world”, such ordinary things as a vehicle that starts and runs, a cheeseburger wolfed down at a fast-food joint, or a hot shower enjoyed at home suddenly all seem like immense and even slightly decadent luxuries. This makes you realize how much we pamper ourselves on a daily basis and why even the slightest degree of ascetic struggle in our lives is often so difficult. That’s when you begin to understand that the true value of the Wilderness experience is not just the wonderful memories, but the return of a better perspective on life. You come back a bit more humble, more appreciative, feeling closer to God, and with a renewed desire to further simplify your life and “get back to the basics” as the saying goes. It is not unlike the feeling I had after a return from the Orthodox monasteries of Mt. Athos. Although the spiritual experience on Mt. Athos is much more intense, the Wilderness also generates similar though lesser feelings, and serves as a good “poor man’s Athos” for those times when I desperately need a quick retreat.

My backpack is loaded and ready to go. I can hardly wait for my next trip into the Wilderness. Want to come along?

Friday, March 17, 2006

St. Patrick, Bishop of Armagh and Enlightener of Ireland

Saint Patrick was born around 387, at Kilpatrick, near Dumbarton, in Scotland. His name is from the Latin Patricius, meaning high-born. His parents were part of the Christian minority of Britain; his father, Calpurnius, was a deacon. At the age of fourteen, he was captured by pirates and taken to Ireland as a slave to herd and tend sheep. At age 20 he managed his escape and returned to England, where he received clerical training. He was ordained by St. Germanus, bishop of Auxerre. Around 430 he was ordained a bishop, after which he returned to Ireland. There, he preached the Gospel, reaching tribal chieftains, gaining their permission to teach their subjects also. He established an Episcopal administration and led a monastic lifestyle. St. Patrick reposed at Saul, Downpatrick, Ireland, March 17, 461.

“Holy Bishop Patrick, faithful shepherd of Christ’s royal flock, you filled Ireland with the radiance of the Gospel: the mighty strength of the Trinity! Now that you stand before the Savior, pray that He may preserve us in faith and love.”

Troparion (Tone 3)
O holy hierarch, Patrick, wonderworker, equal to the Apostles and illuminator of the Irish people, pray to the merciful God that He will grant us the remission of our sins.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Gorn Interview

After my previous posting on the Gorn (See “A Star Trek Quiz”), I thought I might mention that I actually got to meet the captain of the Gorn starship involved in that nasty mixup over Cestus III. He has long since retired from active duty in the Gorn Alliance and now works as a carpenter in Las Vegas, Nevada. Although he misses the excitement of patrolling Gorn space, he claims that as a Union Carpenter he is actually making much more money and has far better benefits. His main complaint is with the influx of illegal aliens (Such as Andorians, Klingons, Cardassians and the like) who are willing to work for much less and are thus stealing jobs. He is proud to show off his green card (What other color card would a Gorn have anyway?) to prove that he is here legally.

After immigrating to earth he found a job taking orders at a fast-food drive through window. His lack of skill in speaking English at that time made him exceptionally well-suited for the work. A typical order would go something like this:

Gorn: “HARRGGH-ESSssssssssssss YarrrrrrGEEESssssssss Rarrrrrr”

Customer: “Yes, and could I have fries with that?”

Gorn: “RARrrrrgeesssSSSsssss”

Unfortunately he was eventually able to master Basic English skills and was subsequently fired.

When I met him in Las Vegas, I had a chance to conduct a brief interview with him while he was on a break from work:

Me: “So, do you and Captain Kirk stay in touch?”

Gorn: “Oh yes. I wouldn’t say we were the best of friends (He did try to kill me, you know) but we do send cards to one another on all the major holidays and such. As a joke I once had one of the diamonds he fired at me through his cannon mounted on a setting and sent to him for his birthday. I see him wearing it every time he comes to town here to get married again.”

Me: “You looked taller on TV.”

Gorn: “EVERYone says that! TV does that to you. I think it made my thighs look fat too.”

Me: “Is that a weapon you’re carrying?”

Gorn: “Oh heavens, not at all! This was Marlon Brando's toothpick. We’re moving it to a new display we’re building at the wax museum on the Strip. Do you know they had to melt down 13,000 candles just to make his upper body? That’s a bit of Vegas trivia for you.”

Me: “Can you recommend a good restaurant in town?”

Gorn: “You’re kidding, right? Vegas is FULL of great places to eat. I personally like Petco for their wonderful selection of small mammals. They also make a tasty mealworm dessert that’s to DIE for!”

All-in-all, I found the Gorn ex-captain, turned Union Carpenter a very nice fellow. We had to cut our interview short because he had to deliver that toothpick. Too bad. I wanted to ask him why, when he and Captain Kirk were grappling in close combat on Cestus III, he didn’t simply bite him with those giant teeth and get it over with. Oh well, I imagine he probably gets asked THAT question all the time too…

The War Between Men and Women.

With apologies to James Thurber, I offer the following information I found on an educational website dealing with biology and human reproduction, with an observation on one of the Great Mysteries of Life often encountered when husbands and wives travel together by car:


1. In order for an ovum to become fertilized, sperm must be present in the female reproductive tract-- more specifically, in a fallopian tube.

2. 150 million to 350 million sperm are deposited just a few inches from the fallopian tubes, in which fertilization can occur.

3. Once sperm are released, they swim through the vagina, cervix, and uterus, and, finally, up the fallopian tubes.

4. Only a single sperm is needed to fertilize an ovum. Fertilization occurs when a sperm and an egg fuse and form a zygote.

QUESTION: Why does it take 150 MILLION to 350 MILLION sperm to fertilize a single ovum?

ANSWER: Because they are all little GUYS and are therefore just too stubborn to stop and ask for directions.

You see ladies, it is not our fault. It's nature, programmed into us from the beginning...

Monday, March 13, 2006

Dude, Where's My Bible?

Recently I decided I needed a new bible. There’s nothing wrong with my old one, a compact, premium leather-bound NKJV from Thomas Nelson that I’ve had for over 15 years. The problem is with me; more specifically with my eyes. As I draw inexorably closer to my 52nd year I find that the 6-point font in my beloved compact bible is getting harder to read, even with trifocal glasses. So I decided to get a larger bible with bigger print. I also decided to take a step back as it were and go with the original KJV rather than the NKJV because I enjoy the beautiful language of that version, particularly in the Psalms, and also because it lacks the translator bias often found in the NKJV in such places as Acts 1:20 where the Greek word episkopen is translated as “office” rather than as “bishoprick” as the KJV has it. The Protestant translators of the NKJV were apparently uncomfortable having St. Peter speak of bishops in the apostolic Church so they selected the blandest word possible to plug in there.

Anyway, I began my search for a replacement bible. I am not a bible snob, but I do have certain preferences. I like top quality bibles, genuine leather-bound with premium thin paper and super black ink and Smythe-sewn bindings rather than the crummy glued ones that fall apart in two years. These cost two or three times as much but last decades longer than the cheaper books and are much more esthetically pleasing to me as well. OK, I am a bible snob. I can’t help it, I’m Irish; we love good books! I also like a reference bible and one that is laid out simply on the page for ease of reading. One of my few complaints with the Orthodox Study Bible NT is that the layout with all the notes and references is so cluttered that I sometimes find it difficult to read. Old folks are easily confused you know. So off I went to Barnes and Noble to begin my search.

As I said, it’s been awhile since I bought my last bible, so I was in for a surprise when I started shopping. It seems that there are hosts of new translations or paraphrases that are now dominating the market and edging out the older translations. I saw such titles as the “Good News Bible” (Would anyone buy the "Bad News Bible"?) the “New International Version” and “Today’s New International Version” (Presumably better than yesterday’s New International Version) the “New Century” version (Which century would that be? The Church has logged 20 of them, you know) and the “New Living Translation”. Do bible translators have a thing about the word “New”? Breaking ranks with all the “New” bibles was one simply called “The Message”. But this was just the beginning. There was a bible written especially for girls and another for boys (With the requisite pink and blue covers, respectively). There was “The Woman’s Bible” and of course “The Men’s Bible” (What God has joined together let no man cut asunder, unless there’s money to be made in the process!). Lest any potential market go untapped there was even a “Teens Bible”. B&N even stocks “The Gnostic Bible” for all the Dan Brown fans. Oh yeah, and there was also a small selection of King James bibles for those folks who aren’t sure which category they fit within, or who simply want a plain old ordinary bible without the gimmicks. But no quality leather-bound bibles in the KJV were to be found. Not enough of a market for them I guess.

So off I went to a couple of “Christian” bookstores, thinking I would surely find what I was seeking there. No luck. The shelves of the stores I visited were filled with what Canadian comic Red Green calls “Selfish-help books” with such titles as “Finding Power in the Christian Life”, “Finding Peace in the Christian Life”, “Finding Purpose in the Christian Life”, “Finding Meaning, Finding Hope, Finding your Lost Brown Shoe, etc.…” I needed a book titled “Finding a Bible in a Modern Christian bookstore” but I couldn’t locate that one either. Don’t people read bibles anymore, or is the contemporary Christian experience one of great emptiness and longing for power, peace and purpose that can only be found in some new scheme? I did find an audio bible read by Johnny Cash and another read by James Earl Jones. Although having the Gospels read by the voice of Darth Vader might be kind of cool (“Jesus, I am your Father!”) it wasn’t really what I was looking for. I tried a Catholic bookstore, but I guess a “Protestant” bible like the KJV is not generally stocked in such places. I did find a few books on yoga there though; again not what I was looking for.

Finally I turned to the internet and found just the bible I was looking for from a shop called “All Bibles” in Texas. Good old Texas, the heart of the bible-belt! It is a KJV Concord reference bible from Cambridge Publishers. These folks make heirloom-quality bibles, and this one is bound in black calfskin leather with blessed 8-point type on the gilt-edged India paper pages printed with deep black ink for my older eyes. The Concord reference edition is a very clean-looking layout with a single, unobtrusive center column between the two text columns which dispenses with the distracting note indicators in the text itself. I even had it personalized with “Fr. Michael Reagan” in block gold lettering on the front. I haven’t received it yet, so I’m hoping that “Fr.” doesn’t morph into “Mr.” or “Dr.” or something else by whoever does the stamping on the cover. I’d hate to have to send it back after all this!

Obviously I had no idea that finding such a bible would be so difficult in today’s world. I can remember when the shelves of Christian bookstores were filled with such offerings, you know, way back in the last century, in the late 1970’s. Things have changed since then, with a new translation for every possible niche. I wonder if it’s a change for the better or the worse.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

A Star Trek Quiz

Captain's Blog, Stardate: 3045.6

You are Captain James T. Kirk, stranded on an unnamed asteroid (which bears a striking though purely coincidental resemblance to Vasquez Rocks State Park just northeast of Los Angeles) with the reptilian captain of a Gorn ship that has just attacked and destroyed the Federation outpost on Cestus III. The two of you have been sent there by a race called the Metrons who despise violence but have rather ironically decided that they can help the two of you settle your dispute by pitting you against one another in a fight to the death. To further display their profound distaste for bloodshed, the Metrons have thoughtfully promised to destroy the starship of the losing captain, together with all its crew.

Through the recorder/translator devices that the Metrons have provided to both you and the Gorn captain, you hear the hissing voice of your opponent demanding that you surrender to him so that he might kill you. He promises that he “will be merciful and quick”. Since you are the intrepid Captain Kirk, do you reply:

A) “Boy Howdy, that’s the best offer I’ve had in weeks! I’ll be right over!”

B) “Uh, shouldn’t you buy me a drink first or something…?”

C) Nothing, but instead attempt to recall your basic chemistry to quickly produce gunpowder from the available minerals on the asteroid and fashion a bamboo cannon loaded with fist-sized diamonds to blast the Gorn quicker than Dick Cheney on a Texas quail hunt.

(1.) If you chose A or B, you must stop reading blogs and seek psychiatric help immediately.

(2) If you chose C, see answer (1.) above.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Orthodoxy Sunday

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Today is the Sunday of Orthodoxy, a day of tremendous and jubilant celebration for Orthodox Christians throughout the entire world. On this day we commemorate the triumph of the apostolic Christian faith in its victory over the iconoclasts of the eighth century.

In those days there arose a serious and vicious attack against true belief in the incarnation of Christ, which took the devious “back door” approach of an assault upon the holy icons of the Church. Claiming that the icons were equal to idols condemned by the Second Commandment of God in Exodus 20, the iconoclasts (literally, “icon-smashers”) defaced and destroyed vast numbers of ancient icons in the churches and persecuted or martyred many thousands of Orthodox defenders of icons. The Seventh and final Ecumenical Council was convened in 787AD to put forth the traditional apostolic belief which upheld the proper veneration of icons and anathematized those who vilely accused the holy images of being idols.

The iconoclasts were heavily influenced by a number of factors external to Christianity including among them Gnosticism, which was a very early heresy—still around in various forms even today—that denies the incarnation of Christ. The Gnostics, who really were nothing more than pagans in Christian guise, held to a core belief known as “dualism” which asserts that the material world is evil and that the immaterial God would never defile Himself by being joined to it in any substantial form. The Christian revelation stands in sharp contrast to this, teaching that the material world is not evil, only fallen, and that mankind and all the material creation from which we were formed is raised up and restored by being joined to God through the incarnation of Christ.

The apostles fought Gnosticism fiercely. St. John wrote against their beliefs saying, “By this you know the Spirit of God: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God. And this is the spirit of the Antichrist…” [1 John 4:2-3] Lest anyone fail to understand the reality of the incarnation, St. Paul wrote bluntly, “In Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” [Colossians 2:9]

The apostles were unabashedly incarnational in their faith and understood that God had joined Himself to man in order that man might be filled with God, ever progressing toward “God-likeness”, being “partakers of the divine nature” as St. Peter wrote. And it is this very thing that the holy icons of the Church portray so well. They show Jesus Christ as having come in the flesh, not merely “appearing” as a man, but literally becoming a man. They depict His holy ones, the saints, as being filled with God and transformed from their fallen state to a state of divine grace through their union with Him. What the apostles knew, and the holy icons portray, is that by joining our humanity to His deity in hypostatic union, the Son of God fills us with the energies of His divine nature, reforming the image of God in us, healing the sickness of sin, and leading us to glorification.

Much of this profound understanding of the incarnation and its ramifications has more or less evaporated from contemporary Christian thought. Many of today’s Christians unfortunately are taught little more than the idea that Jesus took flesh to die for our sins. The fuller meaning of the incarnation including the essential Christian concept of theosis, boldly described by St. Athanasius with the words, “God became man so that man might become God” seems strangely unchristian to them. They see salvation not so much as the restoration of man in Christ, but mostly as God forgiving our sins in order to save us from His own wrath. They depict grace as an “attitude” of God toward man, rather than as divine energies available through the incarnation which fundamentally transform man. They see Christian transformation itself as largely a mental process focused on gaining abstract bible knowledge combined with endless schemes that promise if you just learn the right “biblical principles” you can unlock the power of God in your life. Even the sacraments, those extremely physical manifestations of the grace of God, have been reduced to mere symbols and memorials only, as if matter—even sanctified, holy matter—were of less importance than the pure inward contemplation of God. They have become in essence modern day Gnostics, setting aside the physical to focus on the spiritual and gaining neither as the result.

By rejecting the Seventh Ecumenical Council and setting aside the wisdom of the holy fathers in regard to the necessity of icons to safeguard the incarnational aspects of the faith, they have proven the fathers to be right by their own apostasy and error. Holding to a form of godliness, they have truly denied the indispensable and tangible power of it.

What about the charge that icons are a violation of the Second Commandment? Perhaps this is best answered by St. John of Damascus, one of the leaders of the fight against the iconoclasts at the Seventh Ecumenical Council. He wrote, “Of old, God the incorporeal and uncircumscribed was never depicted [in images made by man]. Now, however, when God is seen clothed in flesh, and conversing with men, I make an image of the God whom I see. I do not worship matter; I worship the God of matter, who became matter for my sake, and deigned to inhabit matter, who worked out my salvation through matter. I will not cease from honoring that matter which works my salvation.”

You cannot get much more incarnational than that! To St. John the answer was clear. Under the Old Covenant, God was immaterial and rightly could not be depicted in image. But under the New Covenant, God became matter for our sakes and material images of Him could now be made by human hands so that we would never forget that through this blessed matter of Christ’s incarnation our salvation is worked out by God. Icons are not idols, which are false gods and therefore nothing. Icons are images of the incarnate true God and of His deified saints. Furthermore, Orthodox Christians do not worship icons but venerate or give honor through them to those persons or events that the icons depict.

In this age of growing apostasy, the Orthodox Church continues to stand out—for awhile longer at least—as a beacon of true belief. How much longer or how brightly that beam may shine may depend on how willing we are to live our Orthodox faith and incarnate our holy traditions in a world increasingly leaning toward the spirit of Antichrist.

Let us become in our own day defenders of the holy icons together with the true faith that these represent, by integrating in our lives purity of belief and soul and body which are all of equal importance to God. Let us strive for the transformation to holiness in Christ that we need and this world needs in the ever encroaching darkness.

+To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

The Sunday of Cheesefare/Forgiveness Sunday

This homily is based upon Matthew 6:14-21

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

This morning is Forgiveness Sunday, which is our doorway to Great Lent. In the gospel lesson from Matthew 6, our Lord Jesus Christ instructs us, “If you forgive men their trespasses, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Heavenly Father forgive your trespasses.” As we stand in this doorway, preparing to go forth upon our Lenten journey, we are reminded that forgiveness is the foundation of the Christian life. God has forgiven our sins and granted that we may share in His Divine Life and Love. Forgiveness and love form the whole basis of our communion with Him, as well as the basis of our communion with one another.

As we are told in Ephesians chapter two: “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved) and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” Notice in these verses that it is the love of God that raises us up from the death of separation from God in our trespasses and makes us alive in Christ. I also noticed that the words “us” “we” and “together” are used a total of 8 times throughout these verses to indicate that we are not made alive to God as individuals, but together as the community of those being saved. Salvation is very much a communal experience, not an individual one. Together we are saved in Christ Jesus.

This is the pattern you find throughout the Scriptures. Salvation is a corporate experience. Even in those cases where people might receive the gospel message individually, they are not left in that isolated condition, but are baptized into the Church, have hands laid on them by the apostles of the Church, and are made members of that Church called by St. Paul “the Body of Christ” where their salvation is worked out, lived out and experienced together.

Pop-Christianity has often sought to separate the salvation experience from the Church, but the scriptures and the Christian tradition simply do not support this urge. The Church of the scriptures is not simply a “worship center” for like-minded individuals to gather for fellowship and praise as they each enjoy their own individual relationship with God and their own independent salvation. There is no model for anything of this sort to be found in the bible, although such “centers” exist all around us today. Instead, the bible presents the Church as the community of those who are being saved together.

Understanding that our salvation is a corporate experience, we are therefore very much obligated to pay attention to the many scriptures which command Christians to live together in love and unity and harmony and forgiveness. It would be good if all Christians lived by these verses, but the sad reality is that they do not, or else there would not be the division that we see today in twenty-thousand different denominations. People who believe that their salvation is individually obtained really have no need for unity with other Christians, and those verses which call for it become little more than a nice sentiment, a “scriptural ideal” perhaps, but something which is easily set aside if we simply can’t agree with one another.

We Orthodox Christians cannot afford to live that way and must seek to defeat this divisive spirit wherever in may try to creep into our souls or our parishes. Everything revolves around our unity in Christ. Even here in the Divine Liturgy, our supreme service, we do not commune with God individually, but together as the one Body of Christ. We are even told that before we can take communion as Orthodox Christians we must first be reconciled to one another lest that unity be broken by human sin. Forgiveness is essential to that reconciliation.

Alas, in any community comprised of fallen human beings, there are going to be occasional conflicts and rough spots or hard feelings between people. There will always be pettiness, jealousy, judgmental attitudes, church politics, as well as that strange human tendency toward isolation and coldness and the desire to maintain distance from others. But whereas most people have no reason to address these feelings and tend to simply indulge them, we must consider these things to be enemies of the communion of love and take seriously our need to be reconciled to one another in the Church. This reconciliation includes personal confession to the priest who is the representative of the community and who has the authority to restore broken communion. But it also includes our approaching one another in humility and asking forgiveness for any offense we may have given. That’s what we do tonight during the Forgiveness Vespers service.

You know, some people feel odd about the Forgiveness Vespers because it is such an intimate service. We literally go around to one another and ask forgiveness face-to-face, and some people are uncomfortable with that level of closeness and prefer the comfort of a measure of distance. But we must remember that the kingdom of heaven is not about keeping our distance, but about breaking down the walls that separate us from God and from one another.
You need to go to each person in the church tonight and ask their forgiveness. Even if you can’t think of any overt sins you may have committed, you have still sinned against every person in this room through your indifference, your selfishness, your lack of love for others, your lack of prayer for them and their needs, your lack of sharing your life with them. You need to be forgiven. And you need to forgive others as well, for they have sinned against you in ways that you may know and may not know. We do not seek justice with one another. In fact, you’ll notice that we don’t actually allow the time for people to “discuss their issues” or air their grievances with one another before giving or asking forgiveness, and there’s a reason for that. It’s because mercy is more important than justice. If God was just with us, we would all perish in our sins. But because God forsakes justice for mercy, we can live and can show the same mercy toward each other in the Church.

So forget about your gripes and your discomfort and come tonight seeking only to forgive and be forgiven, to be reconciled, and share together in the communion of love in Christ Jesus our Lord. And may God bless this holy parish and the efforts of our Lenten season this year.

+To the glory of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.