Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Feast of Annunciation

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

Today we celebrate the beginning of our salvation. One day very soon the King of Glory will descend from heaven, surrounded by a great company of the heavenly hosts. All who ever lived shall be made to stand before Him while he opens the books of our souls and lays bare our lives. Every secret thing will be revealed and no one shall escape the scrutiny or final verdict of the Judge. Those who find mercy in that Great and Terrible Day will be transformed and glorified. The ancestral curse and all its suffering will finally be forgotten and a paradise of bliss shall blossom forth to eclipse every human sorrow. The Bride will at long last be joined to her Bridegroom. And He shall reign forever and ever. Amen.

These events should fill us with great joy, yet often they terrify us. Frankly, we are fearful that we shall be among those who will fail the judgment of love and will not hear those blessed words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant; enter into the joy of your Master”.

Indeed, we may have every reason to feel apprehensive. Our Master has called us to heights of glory and bestowed upon us every gift necessary to raise us up, yet we most often choose to remain down below, mired in spiritual sloth, in degrading passions, and in willful disobedience. We are betrothed to Christ, called to be one with Him, yet insatiably we run from our marriage bed to join ourselves to every impure thought and deed, and thus repeatedly defile our union with our Beloved. The remorse that we often feel because of this faithlessness seldom leads us to a true repentance. Any tears that we may shed flow more from a wounded pride and a sense of frustration with ourselves than from any genuine sorrow that we have betrayed our Bridegroom.

Yes, we may be fearful of that Day when our sins and what they have done to us will be revealed. Yet we are not without hope. Again I say, today we celebrate the beginning of our salvation. And it all centers on a young girl of maybe thirteen years of age, who so unlike the rest of us, said yes to God and no to sin. Thank God that in a world in which every soul including yours and mine has turned aside and lost its initial grace, there was found one child, the Virgin Mary, who retained her gift of grace and grew it, not allowing the purity of her love and devotion to God to be compromised.

Perhaps we can all remember a time in our own early childhood when we too were more pure and innocent. Don’t we all wish we could turn back the clock to those days? Yet tantalizing choices were presented to us and we followed them, even at those moments feeling something change within us. Slowly we began to lose ourselves, as the sins we obeyed seemed to take control and darken us. In time, innocence and freedom were replaced by guilt and enslavement.

Looking back we can see that those bad choices have made it so much more difficult for us to follow God today. Even provided with every means of salvation in the Church, we find our way toward God painful and our love for Him hopelessly divided and inconsistent. How we wish we had kept ourselves undefiled and not lost our former spiritual grace and freedom!

Out of the entire human race, only one child kept herself pure before God. Yes, Mary was a miracle child, a gift from God to barren but exceedingly righteous parents who themselves walked in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless. Raised in the Temple and trained from her infancy to be utterly devoted to God, she gained more grace with every passing year and did not trade this for sins. But Mary was not superhuman. In fact she was exactly and entirely human; fallen and in as much need of a Savior as the rest of us, yet undefiled by personal sins and thus still able to show forth the spiritual beauty and freedom in which she was born.

She was filled with such grace that the archangel sent to the house of Joseph to speak with her stood in awe of the radiance of God’s image within her. For the first time since the world was formed, Gabriel understood what mankind was intended to become and marveled at God’s inexpressible plan, knowing that he stood in the presence of one destined to be far greater and more heavenly than even himself. “More honorable than the cherubim, and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim;” some people balk when they hear this description of Mary. But my brothers and sisters, this is exactly how humanity should be described when it is seen “full of grace” and clearly shining forth with the unspeakably beautiful image of God!

“Hail,” Gabriel said to her, using a greeting normally reserved for kings and queens. “Hail, thou that are highly favored, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women.” The archangel announced to her that she would conceive and bear a Son. From the pure and undefiled womb of the virgin would be born the One who would restore the image of God in all mankind and make possible the return of our spiritual freedom and beauty. After briefly questioning the angel to discern his meaning, Mary in turn said, “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.”

Thank God for that. Mary’s “yes” to God was the beginning of our salvation. Out of our entire human race so bound by sins, so darkened and double-minded, she alone possessed the clarity, the spiritual freedom to make an absolutely unconditional yes to God. People today speak of “accepting Christ” as if that were such an easy thing to do. But many of us have learned the hard way that even as Christians we are much more likely to say no to Christ and refuse Him on a daily basis than accept Him, because we may not as yet possess the complete spiritual freedom to do otherwise.

Mary was spiritually free, and accepted Christ into her womb and thus into union with our very race itself. She joined us to God—and listen to this—because she was the only one who could. She was the only person sufficiently qualified by her spiritual purity to become the human mother of the Son of God.

This is why we pray “Most holy Theotokos, save us”. We Orthodox are not confused; we don’t think that Mary was crucified for our sins, or takes the place of Christ in our salvation. There is one mediator between God and man: the Man, Christ Jesus. But Mary brought Christ into the world, and in turn helps bring us foolish, wayward sheep to her divine Son in order that we might find our salvation in Him. In Orthodox icons of the Theotokos, she is nearly always depicted as presenting her Son to us and pointing us to Him, beckoning us to draw near to Him. This is an artistic representation of her ongoing ministry to the world. She works to draw us to Christ, to help us find our salvation in Him. By her powerful intercessions, she helps bring us into union with Christ that we might be saved.

Because she enjoys perfect spiritual freedom, she is also able to set free those of us who are still enslaved to our passions. Because she is ever-virgin and devoted to God, she is able to restore purity and devotion to those of us who have joined ourselves adulterously to sin. Because she loves God and always says yes to Him, she can help those of us whose love is divided and who so often say no to our Savior.

If we are truly concerned about the judgment to come and realize that we need urgent help now, it would be wise for us to make friends with the Mother of the Judge while there is still time. If we pray fervently unto her she is able, by her powerful intercessions, to help banish all darkness from our souls and make us children of the light and of the day. It breaks my heart that so many Christians today reject Mary, thinking that she is a threat to purity of faith in Christ. What better friend could we possibly have than the very Mother of Christ, our most pure and most holy Lady Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary? Let learn to ask her intercessions, and also honor and magnify her on this day of the Feast of the Annunciation, which marks the beginning of our salvation in Christ.

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

Friday, March 09, 2007

Christian Unity, Epilog

There are some who apparently feel that my last installment on Christian Unity was a bit too harsh. Perhaps they are right. Sarcasm is a tricky tool to wield, not unlike a chainsaw. In skilled hands such a device can turn a dead tree into an artsy totem pole or a statue of a grizzly bear; in the hands of an amateur it usually results in a sudden trip to the emergency room.

By way of apology let me state that my articles on Christian Unity have not come from some smug, triumphal attitude, though they would be easy enough to mischaracterize as such. In truth, I have been deeply concerned about Christian Unity, or should I say the lack of it, since long before I had even heard of Eastern Orthodoxy.

When I first came to Christ as an Evangelical Christian, I was told that the bible was our sole remaining link to the “early church” of the apostles. When I asked what had happened to that church, I was told that it had quickly fallen under pagan influence and apostatized, but that God had preserved the bible so that we could recreate the early church experience with each new generation. I was assured that the bible was the infallible word of God zealously preserved by Him, despite the fact that He had allowed His earthly church to collapse like a house of cards without apparent concern.

In time I learned that many diverse groups held to this same view of a general apostasy of the church, along with the idea that the bible was its only surviving relic. The Mormons, the JWs, the Baptists, the Quakers, Herbert W. Armstrong, and Chuck Smith to name but a few, all seemed to teach the same thing, though each held to entirely different interpretations of the bible and routinely pronounced one another as heretics. Even within Evangelicalism there seemed to be as many different takes on what Christianity should be or should emphasize as there were individuals with bibles. I soon found that even within one single church there would commonly exist a multitude of opinions about how this or that portion of the scriptures should be interpreted, and if the disagreements became sharp enough, division was the normal, even expected solution.

I’m not sure I could have told you why back then, but this troubled me greatly. While claiming to exalt the bible, we Evangelicals often used it almost as our private plaything, each of us cheerfully laying out our own individual set of doctrinal positions to distinguish ourselves as mature believers. We delighted in such practices, defended our “right” to follow our own consciences and hold to our own views, and looked with deep suspicion upon any group which enjoyed a uniformity of belief. Division was the norm for us, almost the authentication of ourselves as true, bible-believing Christians. The height of Christian virtue in our eyes was not reconciliation with an opposing brother, but a willingness “to agree to disagree” with him while maintaining our respective beliefs. Our independent views had to be preserved at any cost. Some Evangelicals have even suggested that the division of Christendom is a good thing, because so many conflicting and competing denominations keep the bible from becoming the exclusive property of only one church, which presumably would be a bad thing, though it wouldn’t necessarily have to be.

Many will point out that Orthodox Christians are by no means immune from such human failings and this is certainly true. Our humanity is just as fallen and subject to sins as anyone else’s, and our tendency to stretch the very boundaries of our communion nearly to the breaking point and perhaps just a bit beyond is well documented. But there are a few fundamental differences regarding our experience. First of all, the Orthodox Church alone is not born of schism, but remains the “early church” of the apostles, grown up. Second, we do not institutionalize division, applaud it, or excuse it, but indeed hold it to be a terrible sin in violation of God’s expressed will. Some will question the sincerity of that position, given the slowness of the various ethnic jurisdictions in America to unite with one another in common leadership, vision, and purpose. Yet we are still in communion with one another for the most part, and many Orthodox Christians know that unity must and will happen over any and all human objections to it if this is indeed God’s Church.

My intention in this series of articles was not present Orthodoxy as immune from all human failings, but to present it as mankind’s last, best hope to be one in Christ, even as the Father and the Son are one. We ourselves are far from perfect, and are most often the unworthy recipients of whatever grace that God bestows upon us. Yet for those like myself who have been “wounded” by this idea that God truly cares about the unity of Christians, let me say that I can think of no better place to work toward that goal than from within the communion of God’s historic Church, founded by Christ upon the faith and life entrusted to the apostles.

And so, my great “Chainsaw of Sarcasm” has been safely locked back up in the toolshed for now, at least until the doctor can remove my bandages. Thanks for reading.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

No Lenten fast for cows?

Meat-loving calf eats chickens
Wed Mar 7, 2007 10:41AM EST

KOLKATA, India (Reuters) - When dozens of chickens went missing from a remote West Bengal village, everyone blamed the neighborhood dogs.

But Ajit Ghosh, the owner of the missing chickens, eventually solved the puzzle when he caught his cow -- a sacred animal for the Hindu family -- gobbling up several of them at night.

"We were shocked to see our calf eating chickens alive," Ghosh told Reuters by phone from Chandpur village.

The family decided to stand guard at night on Monday at the cow shed which also served as a hen coop, after 48 chickens went missing in a month.

"Instead of the dogs, we watched in horror as the calf, whom we had fondly named Lal, sneak to the coop and grab the little ones with the precision of a jungle cat," Gour Ghosh, his brother, said.

Local television pictures showed the cow grabbing and eating a chicken in seconds and a vet confirmed the case.

"We think lack of vital minerals in the body is causing this behavior. We have taken a look and have asked doctors to look into the case immediately," Mihir Satpathy, a district veterinary officer, said by phone.

"This strange behavior is possible in some exceptional cases," Satpathy said.

Hundreds of villagers flocked to Chandpur on Wednesday to catch a glimpse of Lal, enjoying his bundle of green grass for a change.

"The local vets said the cow was probably suffering from a disease but others said Lal was a tiger in his previous birth," Ajit added.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Christian Unity, Part Two

My earlier post on “Christian Unity” seemed to get a good response from folks. It generated far more comments than I usually receive (I think of these as “blogger ratings” as well as opportunities to meet new and interesting people all named “Anonymous”), and one or two folks apparently even linked the article to their own blogs. That’s very cool.

However, the thing that struck me most about the comments was that not one of those who weighed in to express their dislike for what I wrote bothered to refute or even actually to address the issues that I raised. Mostly these people wrote to tell me that it was arrogant of me to dare suggest that there can only be one true Church in existence, thereby relegating all others (Ahem, "theirs") to the status of schisms. Isn’t that fascinating? If you say that there is one true Church, people will get very worked up against that idea. But if you say that Christendom is horribly divided in direct contradiction to the will of God, nobody gives a hoot.

Of course Protestant Christians in particular are not really in a position to lament such disunity with any sincerity, for their entire church experience over the last nearly five hundred years is nothing but schism after schism. In fairness, Martin Luther never meant to wind up as a schismatic. He only sought to bring reform to the Roman Catholic church, but got the boot instead. Hopefully it was at least made from fine Italian leather. Once outside, he ranted and raved about the Papists for the rest of his days, even using terms against their priests that made the poor fellows sound like witches. In fact he made quite a lifelong hobby of inventing new and clever invective against his former church, between sips of beer presumably. But other Protestants soon bored of this, or else didn’t drink as much, and instead turned their righteous wrath against one another. An entirely new hobby was born which involved pointing out all the “biblical errors” in the other guy’s church so that you could divide from him to form your own, more pure church.

The basis for deciding such biblical purity was entirely subjective of course, and depended on many factors including Western society’s steady move toward rationalism. The sacraments were the first to get cut, for they simply did not make sense in the new age of reason unless they were reduced to mere mental memorials only. The ever-virginity of Mary was soon dismissed as well. Never mind the fact that it had been believed from antiquity; demented Protestant theologians apparently could not imagine the aged Joseph keeping a 13-year-old cutey like her around the shack without desiring a little “comfort” in his old age. The backwater theology of Anselm of Canterbury was foolishly resurrected, and aided by John Calvin, freshly inspired by his tulip garden, was churned up into a new “biblical” theology introducing the world to a God and Father of wrath and Perfect Justice, who could only forgive us if we afforded Him the strange pleasure of putting His own Son to a horrific death.

And so it continues. Protestants, armed with the termite-ridden wooden sword of Sola Scriptura, have “played bible” with each other for generations and have endlessly hacked away at one another’s belief with no apparent concern that someone just might put an eye out, and along the way have battled themselves into ever-increasing schism, heresy, and even blasphemy. Today such stalwart doctrines as those concerning the Holy Trinity, the virgin birth and deity of Christ, and His bodily resurrection are among the last remaining relics of a past and forgotten orthodoxy being freshly overhauled in light of current “biblical truth”.

And what is the response of those Protestants in such progressive denominations who disagree with these doctrinal overhauls? Well, what else? They divide and form a new church, much more pure than the one which they left.

Well, perhaps there is something good in all this after all. With all this healthy division and schism going on, hundreds of years worth of it in fact, you would think that someone, somewhere must be just on the verge, maybe just one or two more divisions away, from finally producing (Drum roll, please) the Biblically Perfect Church. And it only took mankind around two thousand years, give or take! We can all look forward to that accomplishment.

Yes, I can see why people might have a hard time believing that the one true Church is the one that God made way back at the first Pentecost. For one thing, such a belief leaves so little room for us men to champion our own personal biblical interpretations and make a name for ourselves. What’s the point of having a bible if we can’t use it to show some other fellow how wrong his church is? If we were all members of one Church what on earth would we do all day except pursue our salvation according to the gospel of Christ and share the fruit of that with others? What kind of a life would that be, for goodness sake!

Yep, God sure made it hard for us to find His one, true Church. But let us simply remember that any God who would take such delight in the death of His own Son probably doesn’t really care for us all that much either.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

St. Gregory Palamas Sunday

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

I know many of us are familiar with a little book called, “The Way of a Pilgrim”. It’s a delightful first-person account of an anonymous 19th-century Russian peasant who became captivated by St. Paul’s exhortation to “pray without ceasing” from 1 Thessalonians 5:17, and would not rest until he found someone who could teach him how to accomplish such a thing. Eventually he found a spiritual elder who taught him the Jesus Prayer and how to use it continually until it became quite literally the unceasing prayer of his heart. By this, the Pilgrim was able to maintain the constant remembrance of God, and found his life transformed from the inside out.

Prayer of this sort goes way back to antiquity. Throughout the centuries many saints have practiced this kind of prayer and have kept the tradition alive within the Church. One such man was St. Gregory Palamas, who we commemorate each year on this second Sunday of Lent.

St. Gregory was a 14th century monk of Mt. Athos, and later the Archbishop of Thessalonika. By his time the elements of hesychasm were already well-established. Hesychasm is the discipline which aims at an inner stillness through the continual use of short, repetitive prayers like the Jesus Prayer combined with certain other techniques, the ultimate goal of which is to enable the practitioner to perceive the presence of God in the midst of a quieted soul.

If you’ve ever tried to sit down for as little as five minutes and say the Jesus Prayer without any other thought invading your mind, you have certainly discovered what an incredibly difficult thing that is to do, and just how noisy your soul is on a daily basis. If God is perceived in the midst of a quiet soul, it is no wonder that so few people ever truly become internally aware of Him.

The scriptures instruct us to, “Be still, and know that I am God”. But inner stillness is something that most of us know nothing about. Our souls are filled with a seemingly endless supply of thoughts, fantasies, cravings, and sins. Listen to your soul sometime; it will frighten you to hear all that goes on in there, and how seldom it finds rest in God. Not only are our souls noisy enough in their own right, but we constantly import noise through the TV, the car radio, or our iPods, as if we lived in dread fear of experiencing so much as a moment of inner quiet.

Newcomers who visit an Orthodox Church for the first time are often struck by the relative silence of the services. For some this is a wonderful experience; for others, rather strange. There are no loud praise bands to entertain, no colorfully-lit stages or jumbo-screen TVs, no shouting preachers dancing about, waving bibles over their heads. By contrast, Orthodox churches are often dimly-lit, the musical tones understated, the movements restrained, the prayers chanted simply. The whole environment is one of spiritual quiet, which many people find unnerving or frankly boring; others find holy. This atmosphere of “holy boredom” is by design, for it is exactly what man needs in order to learn to become still, and experience the presence of God.

However, if we do not attempt to practice some degree of inner stillness in our daily lives, we likely will not find it here either. We will bring our noisiness in with us, and wage a constant battle of distraction. We make things all the more difficult for ourselves if we don’t read the prayers before coming to church or if we skip Orthros and just “show up” around the start of the Liturgy. By such neglect, we simply don’t give our souls the opportunity to quiet down a bit and begin to incline themselves toward God in peace.

What is the whole point of trying to establish this inner quiet? Is it not to help us perceive the presence of God within us and come to know Him?

The question of how it is that people can know God was once put to St. Gregory Palamas. Others suggested that it was through a detailed and life-long study of religious and philosophical writings that one could come to know God. St. Gregory said, no, but it is through acquiring stillness of heart and pure prayer that a soul can experience God and thus begin to know Him.

Imagine someone who is the world authority on Abraham Lincoln. Over the course of his long career, he has studied every scrap of information in existence on the 16th President. At the end of all this learning, what is he likely to conclude except, “I wish I had known the man”. You see, studying and learning about some person, even to the point of becoming an authoritative expert, is not the same thing as actually knowing that person. There are plenty of theologians today who demonstrate that sad truth. And when it comes to God, it’s not how much we know about Him, but whether or not we really know Him that decides eternal life, for Jesus said, “And this is eternal life: that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent”.

Thus the Church puts before us the memory of St. Gregory Palamas today to remind us of what we are supposed to be doing during Great Lent. Why is it that the Church directs us during this holy season to pray more, to come to more services, to pray some more, to fast and give alms, and to pray yet some more? Is it not because our Mother the Church wants to present Her children with at least the opportunity to begin to know God?

Our Lenten services in particular are very quiet, reflective, and penitential. We are even asked to come and leave in silence; though often once out the door we fall back into our old habits of noisiness and empty chatter. Perhaps after socializing outside we then hop in our cars and crank on the radio, and any little residue of spiritual peace that may have formed during the service soon vanishes. It could be that we simply aren’t yet aware of the rare and precious opportunity that we are being given to change ourselves internally.

During Great Lent, our Church increases Her efforts to help us find a certain inner quiet so that we might draw closer to the God who dwells there, commune with Him, and come to better know Him. We can’t get much out of Lent by accident; unless we intentionally adopt this period as a time of change, a time of greater repentance, deeper devotion, and more attentive prayer with fewer distractions, we won’t get from it what we could. We have certainly all seen how quickly Lent can pass. Let us try to take advantage of it while it is still here. In addition to the few simple things I’ve already suggested, each of us can also talk to our pastor to get his counsel on what else we might be able to do to create a little time of spiritual quiet in our lives.

Through the prayers of St. Gregory Palamas, may our Lenten efforts be blessed that we too may find the inner quiet that leads us unto the saving knowledge of our God.

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