Monday, October 27, 2008

A Wedding Homily

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

On behalf of S. and E., it is my privilege to welcome all of you to their wedding and to our home parish of St. Barnabas Orthodox Church! With so many friends and family members joining us today, it’s quite possible that this is the first Eastern Orthodox wedding that some of you have attended. In the front of the service booklet there are explanations of many of the things you see here, but I thought I might take a brief moment to describe the underlying meaning of marriage from our point of view.

Perhaps the first thing you notice about an Orthodox wedding is that it is very traditional. Our couples don’t write their own personalized ceremonies, they are always married in the church by the priest, and they don’t even exchange vows. The point of this is not to stifle individual creativity, but to emphasize that this is a holy sacrament of the Church, which is principally the work of God and not of the couple themselves. What this means is that it is God Himself who brings the man and the woman together and joins them in a sacred and mystical union by His grace.

This is an important distinction, for when difficulties occasionally arise, as they do in all marriages, it is good for the couple to look back upon the sure and certain foundation that God established when He joined them in marriage. At such times they will remember that they began their union by the hand of God, and must continue it with the help of God.

Eastern Orthodoxy further builds upon this idea to define marriage itself as the union brought about by God of a man and a woman for the purpose of their mutual salvation. When we consider the process that needs to take place over the years in the lives of married people, this definition is not so difficult to understand.

In a marriage, God brings together two very different people, each with their own personal mix of sins and individual willfulness. This invariably produces conflict, or what we might affectionately refer to as “marital discord”. This is not in-and-of-itself a bad thing. If it is handled correctly by the couple, such conflict can actually lead to real growth in love, patience, and understanding between the two. For this growth to take place, a fundamental shift in the way we fallen human beings tend to deal with one another must first begin to occur.

In short, there needs to be a move away from an ego-centric existence characterized by the exaggerated love of self, to one centered on Christ and the love of others. Our Lord Jesus pointed the way to this in the commandment He gave for us to love one another as He has loved us, that is to say, with a love that is self-sacrificial and puts the genuine needs of others first. This is the way God loves us, but we broken human beings have to learn this kind of love, for otherwise we tend to put ourselves and our needs (whether real or imagined) far ahead of everyone else, and many times at the expense of those around us.

It’s been said that America is a consumer society and this is true. Unfortunately we are not only consumers of goods and services, but often of people as well. We tend to get into relationships for what we think we can get out of them. We seek companionship, romance, security, fun; we have a whole list of what we feel are our personal needs. And if it should turn out that the other person doesn’t quite meet our exact needs, we may drop them like an empty Starbucks’ cup and move on to someone else.

This self-serving approach to others makes us into the exact opposite of God and His self-giving love. No one can be saved who does not renounce this terrible love of self, to embrace God’s love and the genuine love of others. By learning to give instead of take, to serve instead of being served, a married couple move into the communion of God’s love and reflect the presence of Jesus Christ in their lives. By this they are transformed by grace and find their salvation together. Thus we see that marriage truly can be redemptive for the couple that is committed to this effort.

Another thing that’s a little different about Orthodox weddings is the fact that there is no “until death do we part” bit in our ceremony. This is because we do not see marriage as merely an earthly contract to be terminated when one or the other spouse dies. The marital union begun by God is an eternal union. Though the nature of marriage, like that of our bodies themselves, will be changed when we are raised and glorified in heaven, the union itself will not pass away, but will only be perfected in the kingdom to come.

This is a wonderful thing, and underscores once again the importance of what is happening here today. S. and E. are beginning, not just the journey of a lifetime, but one that will carry them into eternity. The crowns they now wear symbolize not only that they are proclaimed as king and queen of a new family, entrusted by God with the authority to rule their household in faith and love and harmony with Christ, but also prefigure the crowns of glory and honor God will bestow upon them when they fulfill their journey together in the kingdom of heaven.

This is why we take such a traditional and serious approach to marriage in the Orthodox Church. We see it as a gift from God to us fallen people for our salvation, and yet another sign of His merciful love for us.

For this we give all glory +to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Widow of Nain

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

Today’s Lesson, from the 7th chapter of St. Luke’s gospel (Luke 7:11-16), tells of Jesus raising from the dead the only son of a widow. There are three approaches I would like to take in examining this story. The first will be to look at what literally happened and to consider it in connection with another healing that is recorded earlier in chapter 7. The second will be to a reflect on a spiritual interpretation of what the elements of the story also mean to us, as suggested by one of the saints of our Church. And in the third point, to address the concerns of any skeptics or doubters, we will consider why we should believe in such miracles at all.

And so if we go back just a bit in St. Luke’s narrative, we find the story of the healing of a centurion’s dying servant. You may recall that on behalf of this centurion, the elders of the Jews came to Jesus and besought Him to heal the servant, saying that his master was an honorable man who loved the Jewish people and had even built for them a synagogue. Jesus consented to go with them, but before reaching the house, the centurion sent word saying that he was not worthy for the Lord to enter under his roof, but if Jesus would only say the word, he knew his servant would be healed. Jesus marveled at his exemplary faith and healed the servant instantly.

As great a sign as this was of our Lord’s mercy and divine power, there would be those who would doubt it as a lucky coincidence, as if the servant would have recovered anyway. To disprove such speculation, the Lord then performed a miracle which would not be so easy to deny.

Seeing the funeral procession, He stopped it and touched the funeral bier, saying, “Young man, I say to thee, arise”. At once the dead man sat up and began to speak. Fear came upon everyone who witnessed this and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet is risen up among us!”

Please notice the extremely important detail that Jesus did not raise this man by His voice alone, but also by touching the funeral bier upon which the dead man lay. This was to draw our attention to His incarnation, by which His very flesh has become life-giving. Because God the Word who gives life to all things became flesh, His flesh is likewise life-creating, and takes away death and corruption. In John 6, Jesus taught this very same truth, saying that those who eat His Flesh and drink His Blood gain life everlasting.

Notice also that He did not even touch the man directly, but only the funeral bier. This also was a demonstration that objects can be sanctified by His life-giving power to transmit grace and healing. It recalls the story of the woman with the issue of blood, who straightaway received healing when she touched only the hem of His garment.

Now we must ask ourselves, can coffins raise the dead or tunics heal incurable diseases? They can if they’ve been sanctified by our Lord’s life-giving touch! Why is this important for us to know? Because God’s glorious salvation is not a “spiritual” salvation only, but a spiritual/physical salvation. God saves not only fallen souls, but fallen bodies and even the fallen world itself. If the entire world fell through the action of the first Adam, then the action of the Second Adam from above could do no less than to effect the complete redemption of that world and all it contains, to set it back on its original path to glory.

This is the full implication of the incarnation, and though we do not yet see the complete fulfillment of it, we clearly see its beginning in the glorification of the bodies of the saints, and in many cases their relics and images, in the bread and wine of communion, in holy water and holy oil and in many other manifestations. All of these things are in keeping with the scriptural revelation as we can see in the healings which took place through blessed objects, including even such lowly things as the handkerchiefs which were carried away from the apostles’ bodies to heal the sick.

Further reflecting on the spiritual meaning of this story, the Blessed Theophylact wrote in his commentary that the widow can be said to represent the soul which has lost its husband, the Word of God. The son of that widow portrays the mind which is dead and is being carried outside of the city, that is, outside of the heavenly Jerusalem which is the city of the living. And so when the soul of man is separated from the Word of God, the mind of man becomes dead. The funeral bier which the Lord touched represents the body of man which, when touched by grace, gives life also to the mind and raises it back up. The young man sits up and begins to speak, which represents the mind now restored by grace to proclaim the truth of the gospel. The mind which is dead cannot speak the truth of God nor even comprehend it, for it is dark and lifeless. Thus we see that in every action of our Lord Jesus Christ, there is not only an immediate result, but a profound spiritual meaning as well.

And speaking of darkened minds which cannot comprehend the truth, we know that there have been many skeptics over the years who have sought to dispute and discredit the miracles of Christ. Invariably the claim is that the historical Jesus was just an ordinary man who generations later was deified by corrupt church leaders who sought to secure their own power by making Jesus into a god. Quite often you’ll see TV documentaries that are devoted to this theme trying desperately to explode the “myths” of Jesus’ virgin-birth, His miracles, and His holy third-day resurrection. None of this is based on any legitimate scholarship, but is only an attempt to cast doubt on Jesus, the scriptures, and the Church to dispel moral accountability to the same. The agenda is so transparent as to almost be laughable, if it weren’t so deeply tragic.

True scholarship continues to establish the gospels as genuine first-century documents, and the earliest writings of the Church Fathers bear witness to this, as well as offer overwhelming evidence of belief in Jesus as God incarnate. But I think even if such proof were not available to us, the gospels themselves are written in such a straightforward and unassuming way as to demonstrate that they couldn’t possibly be later forgeries.

Take for example the simple, almost journalistic manner in which St. Luke describes the raising of this dead man, without embellishment or commentary. He even reports that the crowds mistakenly announced Jesus as “a great prophet” without a clue to His divinity. It seems to me that if the gospels had been later altered to change the story, those doing the work would have been careful to correct such errors and would consistently emphasize what they wanted you to believe. I think today they call that sort of thing “spin”.

But the gospels are entirely free from spin. They merely report what happened and allow the reader to form to his own conclusions. Considering how many false conclusions about Jesus have been formed by casual readers of the gospels, it is very difficult to accept that “corrupt church leaders” changed the texts, for certainly they would have done a more complete and convincing job of it.

And so we find that the miracles of Christ are entirely believable, not only because of the simplicity of the gospels, not only because of the witness of the early saints, but also we might add, because many more such miracles have occurred in the lives of the saints ever since, just as Jesus promised would happen. What we see in this story is consistent with the life and experience of the Church throughout the ages, and our theology is based upon this very foundation. True theology is always based on the Church’s experience of the life of God revealed through her saints. May this be the theology that always guides us to experience the fulness of that same life ourselves.

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