Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Great Martyr Panteleimon

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

Today is the Feast of the Great Martyr and Healer St. Panteleimon. This blessed saint was born in the year 284 in the city of Nicomedia. He was the product of the marriage of a pagan father to a Christian mother, and was originally named Pantoleon (“in all things a lion”). His mother, St. Eubula, provided what early childhood training in the Christian faith she could, but died when he was still very young. Thus he was raised as a pagan by his father, Eustorgius, a prominent and illustrious man. He was trained in medicine and became such a fine student that he came to the attention of the emperor Maximian, who desired to appoint him as the royal physician after he finished his schooling.

In those days before the Edict of Milan, Christianity was still illegal and was actively persecuted. Perhaps because of his mother’s memory together with his own great heart, young Pantoleon had tremendous compassion for the suffering Christians, and secretly sought-out and met with some of them who lived in hiding in the city. One of these was St. Hermolaos, a survivor of the massacre of 20,000 Christians in Nicomedia in the year 303. This godly priest spoke boldly to Pantoleon of the Savior Jesus Christ, describing Him as the Great Physician and the Healer of souls and of bodies. Pantoleon was deeply moved and began to visit St. Hermolaos daily, who catechized him in the faith.

One day, while on his way to visit the priest, he came upon the body of a dead child lying in the street. Nearby was the huge and venomous snake which had killed the child. Pantoleon began to pray to the Lord Jesus Christ to raise the child and to destroy the serpent. At once the child opened its eyes and arose, while the serpent immediately died. After witnessing this miracle, Pantoleon firmly resolved to become a follower of Christ no matter the cost to himself personally.

St. Hermolaos baptized Pantoleon, giving him the new name of Panteleimon (“all-merciful”) because of the great mercy he had so often demonstrated in providing medical care for all the sick without charge. The newly-illumined and baptized saint then went to his father Eustorgius to convert him to the Christian faith. When his father saw Panteleimon restore sight to a blind man by invoking the name of Jesus Christ, he believed and was baptized by St. Hermolaos, as was the man whose sight was restored.

Following this, St. Panteleimon dedicated his life to the suffering, the sick, and the needy. He treated all those who came to him without charge, healing them in the name of Jesus Christ. He visited those held captive in prison. These were usually Christians, and he healed them of their wounds. In a short time, reports of the charitable physician spread throughout the city. Forsaking the other doctors, the inhabitants began to turn only to St. Panteleimon.

Out of envy, these other physicians—pagans all—reported to the emperor Maximian that Panteleimon was healing the Christian prisoners. Unwilling to believe these reports, the emperor instructed the saint to dispel the accusations by offering sacrifices to the pagan gods. Instead, Panteleimon boldly confirmed the reports, confessed himself to be a Christian, and even offered a challenge to the emperor. He proposed that the pagan physicians bring forth a hopeless patient that they could not heal, in order that he might be healed in the name of the Christian God alone. The emperor accepted the challenge and ordered the physicians to make it so. They brought to him a man who had been paralyzed for many years and who could not be helped by all their medicines and pagan gods. Before the very eyes of Maximian, the saint healed the paralyzed man simply by calling on the name of Jesus Christ.

Far from being moved to faith by this miracle, the wicked emperor immediately had the healed man put to death, and handed Panteleimon over to fierce torture.

The Lord appeared to the saint and strengthened him before his sufferings. They suspended the Great Martyr Panteleimon from a tree and scraped him with iron hooks, then burned him with fire. They stretched him on the rack, threw him into a cauldron of boiling tar, and cast him into the sea with a stone around his neck. Throughout these tortures the martyr remained unhurt, and denounced the emperor. At this time the priest Hermolaos was brought before the court and, confessing his faith in Christ, he was beheaded.

The emperor ordered Panteleimon to be brought to the circus to be devoured by wild beasts. The animals, however, came up to him and licked his feet. The spectators began to shout, "Great is the God of the Christians!" The enraged Maximian ordered the soldiers to stab with the sword anyone who glorified Christ, and to cut off the head of the Great Martyr Panteleimon. They led the saint to the place of execution and tied him to an olive tree. While the martyr prayed, one of the soldiers struck him on the neck with a sword, but the sword broke apart like wax and inflicted no wound. The saint completed his prayer, and a Voice was heard from Heaven, calling the passion-bearer by his new name and summoning him to the heavenly Kingdom.
Hearing the Voice, the soldiers fell down on their knees before the holy martyr and begged forgiveness. They refused to continue with the execution, but St. Panteleimon told them to fulfill the emperor's command, because otherwise they would have no share with him in the future life. The soldiers tearfully took their leave of the saint with a kiss.

When the saint was beheaded, the olive tree to which he was tied became covered with fruit. Many who were present at the execution believed in Christ. The saint's body was thrown into a fire, but remained unharmed, and was taken out and buried by the Christians. St. Panteleimon's servants Lawrence, Bassos and Probus witnessed his execution and heard the Voice from Heaven. They recorded the life, sufferings, and death of the saint for posterity. The Great Martyr Panteleimon was 21 years old at the time of his repose in the year 305.

Portions of the holy relics of the saint were eventually distributed throughout the entire Christian world. His venerable head is now located at the Russian monastery of St. Panteleimon on Mt. Athos.

St. Panteleimon is venerated in the Orthodox Church as a mighty saint, and as the protector of soldiers. Why soldiers? Because those in combat tend to receive more wounds than ordinary people, and require a compassionate healer who is willing to go where he is most needed. But St. Panteleimon is a healer of spiritual soldiers as well. Christians waging the unseen war often call upon this great saint for the healing of their deepest spiritual wounds.

Here is yet another great friend and helper the all-merciful and compassionate God has granted to the Christian faithful. Seeking the help of such friends, we can become much more oriented toward our heavenly communion, even as they aid us in our travails here on earth.

Holy and Great Martyr Panteleimon, pray for us!

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

I am indebted to for major portions of this saint’s life story

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Gergesenes Demoniacs

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

We just heard St. Matthew’s account [Matthew 8:28-9:1] of the two demon-possessed men who were healed by Christ. Luke’s parallel account remembers only one man, but whether there were one or two is irrelevant; what is important is the content and meaning of these two stories and what they reveal to us today.

There are many who would say that such stories reveal nothing except the ignorance and superstition of the ancient peoples who allegedly misinterpreted certain mental or physical illnesses as demonic possession. But for those of us who are not so all-wise in our own eyes and who still believe in what the Holy Scriptures teach, there is much for us to learn here.

There are four groups of characters that I want to focus our attention on this morning. There are the demons, the two men possessed by them, the herd of swine, and finally the people of the city who came out to see what had happened and who begged Christ to leave from their country. A look at these four groups can provide some amazing insights into our present-day culture and the influences working both within and upon it.

Firstly, let us consider the demons. We know there were many present in these men because in Luke’s gospel, when Jesus asked the man his name, he replied, “My name is Legion”. A legion was a group of Roman soldiers numbering as many as 5000 or more. So this was quite a collection of evil beings that had taken up residence in these men. Demons do not take possessing of human beings arbitrarily. There has to be some form of invitation or a corrupted atmosphere that consents to evil and allows a personal attachment to it. When men and women give themselves over to a willful rebellion against God, when they engage in impure thoughts and actions, they attract a greater evil to themselves and risk enslavement to it. As St. Paul asks in Romans 6:16, “Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves slaves to obey, you are that one’s slaves to obey, whether of sin leading to death, or of obedience leading to righteousness?”

These are spiritual realities that cannot be ignored. People like to imagine that they are free to do whatever they desire, but that doesn’t mean they will be free of the deadly consequences which follow their choices and actions. No one ever sets out with the goal of becoming addicted to alcohol or pornography. No one ever makes the conscious decision to destroy their marriage or family life. No one ever welcomes the enslavement and death of the soul. But these things are brought about by the choices people make, and the lifestyles they pursue.

The two men in our story surely never set out to be possessed by a legion of demons, but neither were they innocent victims. We can be certain that they had given themselves over to habitual impurity of thought and deed, to an ongoing rebelliousness against God, and by such choices they became joined to the authors of these things, and controlled by them.

When the demons implored Christ not to cast them into the abyss, but to allow them to inhabit the swine, He granted them permission. And immediately the entire herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned themselves. What is the meaning of this? It is not that the demons killed the swine. The demons wanted to be in the swine to avoid the abyss. Rather what we see here is that when the swine encountered the foul demons, their immediate reaction was to kill themselves. It seems that the pigs chose death over living with evil. Isn’t that ironic? We tend to think of pigs as being disgusting creatures, but we men tolerate things they simply will not. We all too often willingly invite the filth of sin into our lives, but pigs would rather die than experience such a personal lowering of their dignity. That is really something to think about.

Speaking of the toleration of evil, I’ve always thought the most chilling part of this story is when the man answers Jesus that his name is Legion. In other words, by that point he had utterly lost his own human identity and now entirely identified himself with the evil he had joined himself to. I believe this kind of thing happens very commonly today.

For example, here in the state of California, our courts have ruled so-called “gay marriage” to be legal for the moment. People seem to have forgotten that homosexuality is not an identity, it is a condition. Same-sex attraction, certainly very real for some people, is yet one more expression of our fallen human condition that needs God’s healing. It is very wrong of our culture to reclassify homosexuality as no longer a sin to be repented of, but as a basic human identity worthy of full acceptance. People are being identified by their sin, rather than by their humanity. What is wrong is being called normal, and true normalcy is quickly being obscured and forgotten.

Our culture is allowing itself to be dominated by a political correctness that is becoming increasingly hostile toward truth. Our kids are being trained in the public schools and by the entertainment industry that being gay or lesbian is normal, even “cool,” and that people who speak against it are stupid, intolerant bigots who should be forced to shut up. The stage is set to oust the Christian message of redemption from the public discourse, and replace it with the message of complete tolerance of everything except traditional Christianity.

To put it another way, our culture is mirroring the people of the city who came out to witness that Christ had made a demon-possessed man whole, only to beg Him to leave their midst and go far away from them. In the state of California at least, the presence of Jesus Christ is becoming less and less welcome. He has long ago been asked to leave our public schools. His symbols have been taken down from our publicly-owned buildings and grounds. He is not often considered the topic of polite social conversations. Many churches have responded by ousting the true Jesus from their message and preaching a new gospel, not of God’s love leading us to repentance, but of God’s love making repentance unnecessary. Celebrate yourself and others, and don’t rain on anyone’s parade of self-worship by speaking of the disfiguring of humanity by sin or the loss of Christian truth. This is the message that our culture wants to hear, and any message that points to the stark spiritual realities of life is categorically rejected.

Isn’t it interesting that this ancient gospel story, supposedly based on superstition and ignorance, should offer so many parallels to our modern society and be so relevant to what is happening now? The truth of God, contained in these scriptures and in the teaching of the Church, is eternal and changeless, and saving. It is to this that we should turn for guidance, and reject the false teaching of the culture around us. We need to train ourselves and our kids in what is true, and be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our minds, that we may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.

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

Sunday, July 13, 2008

You are the Light of the World

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

This Sunday the Orthodox Church commemorates the Holy Fathers of the 4th Ecumenical Council, held in the city of Chalcedon in Asia Minor, in the year 451. To give a bit of historical background on this council, one important contributing reason it was convened was that just two years earlier, a counterfeit council had been held in Ephesus to promote the teaching of a certain Eutyches, who held to very strange theological opinions about our Lord Jesus Christ. As he saw it, Jesus possessed only a single nature, divine and not human. In essence, Eutyches believed that the human nature of Christ was irrelevant to our salvation and amounted to nothing. The Chalcedonian council was brought together to correct this serious error and to articulate and uphold the true Orthodox understanding that Jesus Christ is both “fully human and fully divine,” possessing two complete natures together in His one divine person.

It was an important definition at a critical time. People today might wonder why we Orthodox Christians commemorate such ancient councils and the men that participated in them. The reason is very simple. We need to remember that if these various holy men had not been where they were when they were, and done the things that they did, there would be no true Christianity on the face of the earth today.

In saying that, I realize that there are many contemporary believers who would find such a statement to be very “unspiritual”. Some people act as if any involvement of men in the preservation of the faith is offensive, and desperately want to believe that God doesn’t need saints or councils or even the Church itself to preserve the purity of Christianity. One major problem with this view is that it blindly denies the historical reality of what actually happened. Whether or not God needed to use such things is not the issue; the fact remains that God did use them.

From earliest times there have always been people who have struggled with the human side of Christianity. In the first centuries, there were the Gnostics, who viewed the essence of humanity as a pure spirit trapped in an accursed physical body, from which it ever seeks release. They would have strongly objected to any council upholding the full incarnation of the Son of God as a good thing. Later you had heretical thinkers like Eutyches who regarded Christ’s human nature as nothing, and therefore humanity itself as nothing. Today there are many modern Christians who take up these traditions and utterly disregard the human, historical contributions of the Church as irrelevant. Some even say that to venerate our Christian forefathers for their great efforts borders on blasphemy, equal to stealing glory from God.

Thankfully, God has a different view. God has never been ashamed to partner with men, to fill them with the light of His grace and wisdom, and to accomplish His will upon the earth through such illumined, holy people. In fact, this is exactly why the Son of God took flesh and joined our humanity to His divinity. He did this so that men and women might become “full of grace” and work His works of redemption among people, becoming beacons of light shining the way of salvation in the midst of a darkened and dying world.

This is exactly what our Lord was speaking of in our gospel lesson this morning when He said, “You are the light of the world”.

How is it possible that we are the light of the world? It is only possibly through Jesus Christ who indwells us. We are the lanterns, He is the flame, and the Holy Spirit is the oil which fuels the light. If you’ve ever used one of those old-fashioned kerosene lanterns on a camping trip, you know that if the chimney--the glass part that surrounds and protects the flame--is dirty with soot, not very much light gets through and campers stumble in the darkness. So it is with our souls. If we live without regard for the cleansing of our souls from the passions and habits of sins which defile us, we too will not give much light to this world and darkness will prevail.

Isn’t it true that we would much prefer not to have such responsibility to the world around us? We’d much rather think that God doesn’t need us to bring His light to the world. If we should get bogged down in our sins, if we should fail to take our purity seriously and not allow very much of the light and presence of Christ into our lives to shine to those around us, we’d like to think that it won’t really matter. Someone else will bring the light, or perhaps God will do it Himself.

Thank God our holy fathers didn’t use such a copout. Because they loved God, they worked diligently to cleanse themselves from every impurity and from the sin which so easily entangles us. Because they therefore had the light of Christ illumining them, they were able to defeat the darkness of error and work the works of God at such an important time in history. They didn’t shirk the labor or leave it to someone else, and because they did not, we today are able to have a share in the true faith handed down from the apostles through them.

We are living in a time of dreadful spiritual darkness, and like it or not, we are among those who are still called to be the light of this world. Jesus also said that we are to be the salt of the earth. Salt is an astringent, still used today in the form of saline solution to cleanse wounds and to ward off infection. Our world and our American culture are deeply wounded by sin, so that people are even losing their basic grasp of what constitutes traditional marriage, family, and human sexuality. In as little as another generation this all could be lost, as humanity itself is being redefined to become something unrecognizable. The world around us desperately needs the salt of healing and the light of divine wisdom and guidance.

We of course don’t feel even slightly qualified for such a calling. In this rare instance, our “feelings” are actually telling us the truth; we certainly are not qualified! But we need to remember that God doesn’t call the qualified, He qualifies the called. The God who calls us is able to equip us to fulfill His calling, and to accomplish every good work He sets before us. We simply get distracted so much of the time, focused on the enormity of our sin and our endless shortcomings and inabilities. We so easily forget what the mighty God is able to do in the lives of ordinary people who simply wish to see His holy will done in their lives, who desire above all else to love Him and to offer their lives in service to Him.

If there is one thing most lacking in our lives, it is perhaps that very desire itself. Or to put it another way, the thing that we most desire in life may not be God at all. This will make it very difficult for us to fulfill our calling, for it is hard to give so much to the one whom you do not love the most. It falls to us therefore to examine our lives and to put the love of God first.

This is something that we can all do; it is not beyond any of us. We may never raise the dead or glow in the dark with holiness, but we can each train ourselves to grow in our love for God. Guided by this love, we can reach out to the world around us to show the love of God, to offer the correction of God, to bring the healing of God. The world may not appreciate this, and may even turn against us for our efforts. And yet, some few may believe and be saved by what we do.

Let us therefore seek to love God above all else. It is not just for our sakes that we must do this, but for the world around us. It is our turn, beloved. We are needed to do God’s work at a most critical time in our history, and we must respond. With God’s help, we shall.

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

Sunday, July 06, 2008

"Be not conformed, but transformed"

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

The gospel lesson we just heard is a short excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount, which you can read in its entirety in Matthew, chapters 5, 6 and 7. This great sermon is very much an introduction and orientation to the kingdom of heaven, and to the lifestyle that is needed to enter into it. I think every person should read Sermon on the Mount at least once a year to be reminded of how we are supposed to live, according to the Master who created us.

If I were to try to summarize the sermon in one sentence, I think I would pick Romans 12:2 which says, “… be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God”. If you read the Sermon on the Mount carefully, you can see that it illustrates the sharp conflict between the values of this fallen world and those of the kingdom of heaven. This theme is repeated often throughout the message. And what’s more, it’s not too hard to see that the values that Christ identifies as being those of this world are the very ones that we tend to hold to. In other words, it is assumed in the Sermon on the Mount that we already have been conformed to this world, and it confronts us with the need to recognize this and to change.

This really should come as no surprise to any of us. We should understand that we are born as fallen and broken people into a fallen and broken world, and that the system of values we have inherited from the world is radically different from that of the kingdom of heaven. I would hope that each of us understands this, and has also the desire to pursue and undergo that transformation of which St. Paul speaks that can allow us to prove the good and perfect will of God through our very lives.

That might be my hope; it might be your hope as well. But experience indicates that this understanding doesn’t always exist in our hearts as completely as it should. These days more and more professing Christians seem content to have their understanding of life and their worldview shaped and defined by the culture around them rather than by the kingdom of God. Along with this, the moral, ethical, and lifestyle choices that many Christians make also seem to be guided by the world, rather than by any discernable religious tradition. In terms of how people think of themselves and others, what they value, and how they live, there seems an ever-shrinking difference between the believer and the nonbeliever.

There are many areas in which this can be seen, but I think there are two big ones. These also happen to be the two main things that our culture is absolutely obsessed with, and completely wrong about in terms of any proper understanding of them. These two things are sex and money.

There are some surprising parallels between the two. How a person conducts himself sexually and how he spends his money both tend to reveal the degree of understanding that person has concerning his own humanity, his sense of worth and value as a human being, and whether or not he even seeks to be a worshipper of God. People routinely misuse both of these gifts, failing to see them as coming from God and intended by Him to be used according to His will and to His glory.

The person who is sexually immoral has separated the gift of sex from the will and purpose of God, and leads a distorted life of blind rebellion. The person who is careless with his money, who spends it selfishly with no tithe-offering to God and no alms to the poor, is a person who has also separated the gift of earthly wealth from the God who gives it for a divine purpose, and is leading an equally blind and distorted life.

These are two matters in which we absolutely need to be guided by the wisdom of Church, and by not the culture of the world. And yet I fear that we might not turn to the Church as often as we should for this guidance. Today many people try to define for themselves what is and is not sex (Thank you, Bill Clinton), in order to act as their own moral guides the 21st century. And when it comes to money, most people tend to see their finances as an entirely private matter that the Church not dare intrude upon. Both of these views are wrong, and are in need of correction.

Honestly, is there any aspect of our lives that should not come under the governance of the kingdom of heaven, or in which we should not seek the wisdom of our spiritual fathers for guidance? Should we only submit to the Church on matters of doctrine, but make up our own minds about everything else? No; of course not. To break away from conformity with this world and to begin the process of transformation, we must carefully submit all aspects of our lives to God, and to the authorities that God has appointed in our lives. We must listen to the Church and our spiritual fathers, not only on matters of doctrine, but also on matters of morality, on tithing and financial stewardship, and on everything else that helps us to put the kingdom of God first in our lives.

To do this, we must find the humility to see that we already have been conformed to this world, likely far more that we ourselves even know. Once we come to this recognition, we will likely understand that we can never be transformed by our own wisdom, but only by replacing that wisdom with the wisdom of the Church, the Holy Scriptures, and our own spiritual fathers. Yes, we need a complete renewing of our very minds, just as St. Paul told us. This comes only through renouncing our own will, and seeking the will of God first in all things.

May God help us and guide us in this, to the glory of His Holy Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.