Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Sunday of Orthodoxy

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

Today is the first Sunday of Great Lent, the day on which the Orthodox Church celebrates the decision of the Seventh Ecumenical Council of 787 which defined, defended and upheld the proper use and veneration of the holy icons. We call this day the Sunday of Orthodoxy, because icons are held to be of such tremendous importance to the faith that their preservation is made equal to the preservation of Christian Orthodoxy itself!

To underscore that statement, we should know that a great many saints died in their attempts to protect the icons against those who came to destroy them. For a period of about 13 years leading up to the Seventh Council, icon veneration was actually outlawed and so many hundreds of Christians were put to death for possessing them that the time later became known as the “Decade of Blood”. How important do you think the holy icons were to those saints and holy martyrs? Many of these people were monastics who had joyfully given up all their earthly possessions to follow Christ, but who would not surrender the icons even at the point of the sword. Could icons possibly be so important that such God-enlightened and holy people would willingly die for them?

That’s exactly how the holy fathers of the Seventh Council saw the matter. To those men, losing the icons would be equal to losing touch with the apostolic faith itself.

Last night at Great Vespers the choir sang the following ancient hymns:

“Inspired by your Spirit, Lord, the prophets foretold your birth as a child incarnate of the Virgin. Nothing can contain or hold you; before the morning star you shone forth eternally from the spiritual womb of the Father. Yet you were to become like us and be seen by those on earth. At the prayers of your prophets in your mercy reckon us fit to see your light.
“We praise your resurrection, holy and beyond speech. Though infinite Lord, as divine, in the last times you willed to become incarnate and finite; for when you took on flesh you made all its properties your own. So we depict the form of your outward appearance and pay it equal respect, and are thus moved to love you; and through it we receive the grace of healing, following the divine traditions of the apostles.
"The grace of truth has shone out, the things once foreshadowed now are revealed in perfection. See, the Church is decked with the incarnate image of Christ, as with beauty not of this world, fulfilling the tent of witness, holding fast the Orthodox faith. For if we cling to the icon of him whom we worship, we shall not go astray [Emphasis added]. May those who do not so believe be covered with shame. For the image of him who became human is our glory: we venerate it, but do not worship it as God. Kissing it, we who believe cry out: O God, save thy people, and bless thine inheritance.
"We have moved forward from unbelief to true faith, and have been enlightened by the light of knowledge. Let us then clap our hands like the psalmist, and offer praise and thanksgiving to God. And let us honor and venerate the holy icons of Christ, of his most pure Mother, and of all the saints, depicted on walls, panels and sacred vessels, setting aside the unbelievers' ungodly teaching. For the veneration given to the icon passes over, as Basil says, to its prototype.
“At the intercession of your spotless Mother, O Christ, and of all the saints, we pray you to grant us your great mercy. We venerate your icon, good Lord, asking forgiveness of our sins, O Christ our God. For you freely willed in the flesh to ascend the cross, to rescue from slavery to the enemy those whom you had formed. So we cry to you with thanksgiving: You have filled all things with joy, our Savior, by coming to save the world.”

I realize that was a rather long quotation, but it shows that in the mind of the Church, the use of icons is tied directly to the incarnation of the Son of God as Jesus Christ our Lord. In His pre-incarnate state, the Son existed as the uncontainable and invisible God, eternally begotten of the Father. As Jewish Law rightly proclaimed, it would have been wrong, even idolatrous, to attempt to portray the incorporeal God in material images based solely on the imaginations of men. But when the Son of God assumed our flesh and dwelt among us, He was no longer invisible. As St. John wrote, “we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). For the very first time, men could look upon flesh and blood and see God. “Have I been with you so long,” the Master said to Philip, “and yet you have not known Me? He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Further describing this truth, in Colossians 1:15 St. Paul called Jesus the icon (image) of the invisible God. In His flesh Jesus shows forth God and reveals Him to the world.

The holy icons show forth this same Jesus, and thus continue the revelation of God incarnate. According to the Seventh Ecumenical Council, because the Son of God truly took flesh and joined Himself to matter, matter itself can now be used to reveal this. But there is more. Just as the images of Jesus depict the God who has become man, the images of the Theotokos and the saints depict human beings who are united to God. In union with Christ and sharing in His divine energies, the saints are depicted as people filled with God and transformed by holiness. Is this not our calling as well? We are all called to be saints, to become living icons of Christ. According to the holy fathers of the Seventh Council, take away the icons and you stand in danger of losing faith, not only in the incarnation of Christ, but also in our calling to become partakers of the divine nature; holy people sharing in God’s glory.

In contemporary Christendom, the proof that our fathers knew what they were speaking of is sadly evident in those denominations which no longer use icons. Some of these have gone so far as to reject the virgin birth and the true incarnation of the Son of God and can no longer rightly be called Christian. Most other denominations no longer understand theosis, and thus offer the Christian no means to attain holiness, many believing that such a thing is not even possible in this life. The heart of the Christian gospel—that God became man so that man might become like God—has been cut from these churches, in part at least because they did not listen to the wisdom of our Christian Forefathers.

The holy icons are essential elements of Orthodox faith and devotion. We must be diligent to place icons in our church, in our “prayer-corners” and throughout our homes, in our cars, and even if possible in the places where we work. Icons are Orthodoxy, and help bring us to God in a way that books and words alone simply cannot do.

This is what we remember on this Sunday of Orthodoxy. May God preserve His Church and the true Faith of the Orthodox.

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

Sunday, March 02, 2008

True love, or self-love?

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

I want to open today’s homily with the words that our dear friend Fr. John Limbeson would use whenever he would give the sermon here. Fr. John (May his memory be eternal!) would always begin by saying, “My brothers and sisters, remember that God loves you!” This seemed an appropriate reminder on this Meatfare Sunday as we contemplate today’s gospel lesson on the Final Judgment. It is not at all out-of-place to speak of the love of God and the fearful and terrible judgment of mankind together. The two absolutely go together, and if our Christian lives are to have any eternal value at all we must understand how this is so.

First and foremost, let us be quite certain to understand that the judgment described here in Matthew 25 is the one that will be faced by each and every human being, including you and me. This is not some sort of “separate judgment” reserved only for those who “come out of the tribulation period” as many of us were once taught. I’m sure we can understand the motive behind such a teaching. Given a choice, who wouldn’t want to sidestep an actual judgment in favor of the idea that believers need only gather before that happy place called “The Great White Throne” to undergo a mere formality of “giving an account” for their lives, the outcome of which will in no way affect their salvation which has already been assured by their faith alone? It’s not too hard to see why this is a popular belief and why people defend it so fiercely.

Unfortunately, it’s a false and misleading belief. From the beginning, Christians have always understood and taught that every human being—believer and unbeliever equally—shall on that one dreadful Day be made to stand before God to be judged for how he has lived in this life, for the choices he has made, and in turn, for what those choices have made of him. This isn’t a matter of “faith vs. works”. This is a matter of whether your faith has worked and made you one with the love of God, or of discovering that it was an empty faith which made no measurable difference in your life.

This is where the connection between the love of God and our ultimate judgment is made. When we each stand before the Judge, He will be searching our lives for evidence that His love has taken root in us and produced some measure of fruit, or whether there is no love in us and we have been left barren.

This is exactly what we see in Matthew 25. The Judge scrutinizes each person to see if during his lifetime, he had made it a priority to do such things as feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, take in the stranger, clothe the naked, or visit the sick and those in prison. God looks for genuine love in the hearts of people. This is a remarkably simple standard of judgment, and yet how many human beings will ultimately fail it because such a love will not be found within them?

Some complained that the judgment was unfair. “Lord, when did we see Thee hungry or thirsty and not minister unto Thee?” But that was the problem. Being so completely out of touch with the love of God, they never saw Christ in any of the hurting, lonely, or needy people that surrounded them daily. So entirely self-absorbed, they were oblivious to everything except the pursuit of their own pleasure and happiness.

Life is not meant to be such a selfish pursuit. We human beings were designed by God to participate in His life and be shaped by His love. We were created to share eternally in the perfect communion of love with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But our First Parents rejected that love, and every generation since has rejected that love, preferring to embrace a counterfeit that in reality is the exact opposite of the love of God.

The love of God can be described as selfless, always mindful of the other, always willing to give all for the benefit of the beloved. The love of God is perfectly seen in the humble self-emptying and sacrificial self-offering of Jesus Christ for our sakes and for our salvation. The more we come to see the love of God as the true definition of genuine love, the more we realize what the opposite of that love is. The opposite of love is not “hate” as most people might think, but rather, the opposite of genuine love is self-love.

Unlike God’s love which is fundamentally the love of the other, fallen human love is the love of the self over the other. Even when we make our clumsy attempts to love someone else we often do so selfishly, mostly concerned with our own feelings, our needs, or even just our fear of being alone. Self-love, rooted in the sinful passions and directed by them, in every way manifests the exact opposite of what we see in God’s love. Self-love is not long-suffering; it does not bear all things, believe all things, or hope all things. Self-love is easily offended, remembers every wrong, envies the good enjoyed by friends, and rejoices in the evil that befalls those whom we dislike.

But there is more. Because of self-love we shy away from spiritual practices and nearly always refuse to be strict with ourselves in the ascetic disciplines of our faith. Self-love doesn’t think that we should “work too hard” for God, but rather should enjoy life. Self-love is also the reason why we refuse to give up our favorite sins or to struggle too earnestly against them. If the truth were told, we enjoy our sins so why should we give them up? Motivated by self-love, we would rather pamper ourselves, go easy on ourselves, shrug off anything the least bit difficult, and pursue every delightful, pleasant thing in this fallen world. It’s the broad and easy way to destruction that self-love leads us down. And all the while it assures us, “Do not fear the judgment, for God loves you!”

Yes, my brothers and sisters, God does love you. And because He loves you, He wants you to die to your twisted self-love so that you might come alive to His genuine love and be saved. Another sign that God loves us is Great Lent, which is our annual opportunity to attack the spiritual sloth and indifference brought about by our self-love and not simply cave in to it forever.

If you’ve let anything limit your Lenten participation in the past, why not approach it differently this year? Before you fall into the habit of staying home and skipping most of the services, or ignore the fast, or refuse the prayers and almsgiving, take a look at yourself and ask, “How long am I going to let my twisted self-love limit my communion with God? When will I take on the challenge to be a bit hard on myself and try to make a positive difference in my soul?” Once you ask yourself that, may I suggest your answer should be, “This year! This Lent!”? And why not? God is with us. He has given us these spiritual disciplines so that we can make a difference in our lives. The only thing that’s needed is our willingness to be courageous, to make the effort, to give it our best.

Thank God for Lent! Thank God that He loves us, though we mostly only love ourselves. May His love, through the Lenten season, deliver us from self love to embrace the genuine love of God. And may His love, shared among us as genuine love always is, save us from destruction in the coming judgment.

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