Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council

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

Today the Holy Orthodox Church commemorates the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council. This was the council which condemned the Arian heresy that claimed Jesus was a created being who only later was glorified by God. The council upheld the tradition of the apostles regarding the eternal divinity and glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. We remember the Spirit-led work of these Holy Fathers on this Sunday, right between the feasts of Ascension and Pentecost, because this timing helps us remember the promise made to the Church by her Lord. Jesus told His followers that He would not leave them as orphans after His ascension, but would send the Holy Spirit who would guide His Church into all the truth. The Spirit came at Pentecost, and remains with the Church to this day. Through the Holy Spirit, the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council aggressively defended the truth and quite literally saved the Christian faith at a time when the whole world was filled with the darkness of error and deceit. Our commemoration of the Holy Fathers of Nicea is therefore just as much a commemoration of the work of the Holy Spirit Himself, and a grateful recognition that He labors in synergy with holy men to uphold the truth of God and bear witness to the apostolic faith in every generation.

We can see an early example of the Holy Spirit working together with holy men this way in Acts chapter 15. There the Spirit is invisibly present in the council of Jerusalem, during which the apostles had to decide on the difficult matter of what to do with Gentile converts to Christianity. At last, in a letter sent to the Gentiles abroad the council declared its decision with the words, “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us…” [Acts 15:28] With these words, the council of apostles and holy hierarchs was not trying to bolster its position or authority, but was simply recognizing that the Holy Spirit aided the Church in times like this, as the Guide into all the truth that Jesus had promised. This set the precedent that every successive authentic Church council would follow.

There have been seven ecumenical councils--meaning, councils whose decisions have been accepted by the entire Church, universally and throughout time--which were convened whenever any heresy endangered the purity of the Orthodox faith. Through all these councils, it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us--meaning our Holy Fathers in every age--to articulate, clarify, and advance the Christian faith delivered once for all at that first Pentecost so long ago.

In our day, far too many believers ignore these historic and Spirit-led councils with the claim that “All I need is my Bible and the Spirit to lead me into all the truth.” How delightfully ego-centric! Such people make the HUGE assumption that there would even be bibles in existence today or any recognizable semblance of Christian faith to adopt had not these councils acted as they did to preserve the truth. “But God would have found some way to preserve His truth!” they might protest. And yes, He did find a way, and this was it: the Holy Spirit, working together with holy men, in His holy Church.

People have a hard time accepting what God actually did in history, preferring to substitute their own ideas of what He should have done. Perhaps this is because if they acknowledge what God actually did, that would mean that there is a higher authority than themselves; a Church to which we are accountable rather than vice-versa. When man is in a state of delusion, he imagines that the Church which Christ established, His very Body, which He promised the gates of hades would never prevail against, to which He granted the Holy Spirit to abide in it and to lead its faithful into all the truth, is somehow fundamentally less reliable than me with my bible. This is what Arius believed, and we see where that belief got him. And yes, it is delusional. God’s plan is and always has been centered on His Church.

Did you know that the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council are even alluded to prophetically in the Old Testament? In Genesis 14 we read of the foreign kings waging war and taking Abram’s brother, Lot, captive. Verse 14 tells us, "And when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he armed his trained servants, born in his own house, three hundred and eighteen, and pursued them unto Dan." There Abram defeated the kings and set his brother free. Three hundred eighteen is also the exact number of Holy Fathers who were present at the council of Nicea. These were servants of God, raised in His own House (the Church) and armed with the knowledge of Truth, who fought against the Arians that had taken many souls captive with their foreign and corrupt teaching, and defeated them to bring freedom. The Church has recognized that this Old Testament story gained a New Testament fulfillment in the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council. This leads us to the understanding that it is not only Christ who fulfills Old Testament prophesies, but sometimes even His Church and His saints alike, because all are one in divine life and mission.

In our reading from Acts this morning, the prophecy continued with St. Paul warning the Ephesian elders to guard the flock and care for the Church of God which He had entrusted to them, for “from among your own selves will arise men speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” [Acts 20:30]. Arius was such a man, a presbyter of the Church, whose perverted teachings nearly overthrew Christianity until the servants of God prevailed against it.

In our gospel lesson from John 17, Jesus told us what the stakes are. He said, “And this is eternal life, that they know Thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent”. Eternal life hinges on true knowledge of the only true God, which the heretics pervert in their efforts to lead many astray. This knowledge is never merely theoretical, cerebral, or abstract; it is experiential, spiritual, and actively saving. Neither is this knowledge relative to what we choose to believe about God. Rather, the true knowledge of God is wedded to the Church, comes forth from the Church, and is fully known only within the Church. We come to know God not by reading about Him but by living in union with Him in His Church. The knowledge of God is not words and doctrines alone but life and communion.

It was this very life which they possessed that allowed the Holy Fathers to recognize the error of Arius when they encountered it. It wasn’t just that Arius was teaching something new; he was teaching something lifeless. It was a false teaching that did not unite its adherents to Jesus Christ, that did not lead to the true knowledge of God, that did not impart the grace and salvation of God. For this reason it had to be condemned. And all who do not confess the Symbol of Faith which came forth from the Council of Nicea also risk the condemnation of alienation from the true knowledge of God and from eternal life.

My brothers and sisters, we do not pronounce that judgement ourselves. We love all men and reserve for them the same hope of salvation that we hold for ourselves, regardless of their church affiliation or their beliefs. Yet we do not regard all churches or beliefs as equal before God. There is one true Church and one true life and communion within that Church. It is this Orthodox Church to which we must be faithful, even while we pray for the peace of the whole world and the salvation of all men. We are not called to judge but to witness, showing forth the light of God’s life in love to the fallen and broken world around us. Our witness must not consist of empty words or of dogmas we have not bothered to live, but of lives that have found their way into communion with God and are undergoing the transformation of love. This is what people want to see and what we can show them, for the Holy Spirit is still dwells with the Church, and still works with holy people to bear witness in a fallen and broken world. May God grant us to be that people.

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

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Blind Man

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

“Christ is Risen!”

This morning’s gospel lesson [John 9:1-38] centers on the man born blind who is miraculously healed by our Lord Jesus Christ. This is truly a wonderful story, but I’m going to skip over most of it today and focus on just one little excerpt. I want us to take a closer look at the question that the disciples posed to Christ at the very beginning of this passage. They asked Him, “Lord, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Clearly this was an uninformed question. It was asked at an early point in the disciple’s walk with Christ when their knowledge of God was still fairly underdeveloped, and thus it reflects a fairly primitive understanding of God. In essence, their assumption was that if something bad happened to someone it must be a sign of God’s judgment. It’s really not unlike how most of the world seems to think. Whenever there is an earthquake or tsunami or other human tragedy, immediately people start making accusations that God is mean and punishing people. People often impose their ideas and concepts on God, and most often these ideas are false and don’t describe the true God.

Obviously the disciples were mistaken about God and it led them to form false conclusions regarding His actions and purpose. Which one of us hasn’t done that as well? Sometimes we’ve misrepresented God to others; sometimes to ourselves. In either case in may have been quite awhile before we learned that we were mistaken about God and had wrong ideas. The important thing is to always be open to learning the truth about Him so that we won’t stay trapped in a prison of our own ignorance.

Something else to notice here is that the disciples, by misunderstanding God, also limited Him to just the few possibilities their minds could conceive. “Who sinned Lord, this man or his parents?” Well, neither actually. There is a third and somewhat grander alternative you missed, O Disciples. This man was born blind that the works of God might be manifested in him, that his eyes and the eyes of millions more would be opened to eternal life.

How much bigger is the real God than the often puny little “god” we might conjure up in our minds? God’s works are powerful and expansive and we nearly always underestimate them. How many times have we limited God to just the handful of possibilities that we imagined? “Lord, if I don’t marry this person, or get that job, or live in this neighborhood, or go to that school, my life will just be miserable!” Many times we place before God the only possibilities that we see (or perhaps the only ones that we secretly want), and demand that He come through for us. But by doing this, aren’t we shutting the door to His sovereign and almighty will, and more or less refusing to let God be God and reveal what He wants for us? Can we say that we really want to know God’s will, or for that matter, God Himself, if we do this?

But let’s return to this idea the disciples had that the young man’s blindness was a judgment for sins somebody committed. They were wrong, obviously, and had a lot of growth ahead before they could begin to comprehend that God acts out of love and mercy, not wrath and cursing. And it’s true that we too sometimes have mixed-up ideas about God until we grow to know Him as He truly is.

For example, for some people God is a projection of their unique psychology, perhaps a harsh and loveless figure, who is enraged at their every failure and dismissive of every attempt to please Him. Is this the true God, or one that’s been manufactured out of the deep fears and insecurities of the person himself? Other people see God as little more than an extension of their political or social views. They wrap Him in the flag of their country or the colors of their political party; He becomes a capitalist, a socialist, or the queen of the gay pride parade. God becomes what they want Him to be, reflecting the passions, bigotries, or even the immorality of the people themselves. Each of these “gods” is really just a projection of one’s own ego, together with whatever delusions are thrown into the mix.

To a greater or lesser degree we all do this and probably have attached ideas to God that may not be true. This was the case with the disciples. The God of judgment who would blind a baby to punish someone for unknown sins was not the true God, but it was the only “god” these men knew until Jesus revealed to them the Father and showed them the way to know Him in truth.

And the wonderful thing about this story is, that from there they grew into that true knowledge of God and became authentic and living reflections of Him. Let’s consider for a moment the writer of this gospel, St. John. He and his brother James were once known as the sons of thunder because they became so enraged at a Samaritan village that would not receive Christ, they actually asked the Lord for permission to call down fire from heaven to destroy the entire place and all the people in it! Years later this same man would be known by a far loftier nickname, the “Disciple of Love”.

How is it that John went from being a homicidal hothead who wanted to nuke an entire village to cinders, to becoming the serene and peaceful elder who wrote so beautifully of the love of God in his later epistles? The answer is that he left behind the false god of his youthful imagination and came to know the true and living God. In the process, his very life became a genuine reflection of this one true God and of His infinite love for mankind.

Here is an interesting thought for us to ponder. It seems that we can either create a god who is just a reflection of ourselves, or we can embrace the true God who created us, and become a living reflection of Him. So we have a choice: follow the god of our imagination, or come to know our Father who art in heaven.

Which would we rather do? If your answer is to know the true God and become a reflection of Him, then we can do this by fully embracing the life of the Church. From the worship services to the prayers we do together and at home, to being regularly exposed to the scriptures, the teachings of the fathers and the lives of the saints; from our participation in the grace of the sacraments and especially the confessional, along with obedience to the practical guidance of a spiritual father, to everything else that comprises the life of the Church, these things work together to reveal the Father to us, and to form and transform us into the true knowledge of God our Savior.

This is what they were designed by God to do. And we cannot pick and choose among these things, but must take them all together as an integrated whole. A person who wants to know God cannot be willful, deciding for himself what he needs to accomplish that goal and rejecting whatever he dislikes. If you like reading the bible but hate going to confession and rarely do it, well, good luck with that! Chances are your stubbornness is not going to help you know God in the way that you could. We can’t make up our own god and we can’t make up our own rules, if knowing the one true God is our goal in life.

And I hope that this is the major goal in life for all of us. That’s why we’re here in the Orthodox Church; there is no other reason. May we not lose sight of that.

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

The Paralytic

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

“Christ is risen!”

Today’s gospel lesson [John 5:1-15] centers on our Lord’s healing of the paralyzed man beside the pool at the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem. I’d like to take two approaches in examining this story. First we’ll consider the spiritual meaning of the Sheep Gate pool and the miracles of healing once associated with it. This pool has far more significance to us than we may realize. Secondly we’ll take a closer look at the paralyzed man himself to see if there is something in his character that we might want to emulate. Can we identify some characteristic that made him, let’s say, more “receptive” to the grace of God, and can we adopt this to our own benefit?

So let us begin with the Sheep Gate pool. This was the spot where the sheep who were bound for sacrifice in the Temple were ritualistically washed. It was a filthy and unpleasant place to be and the only reason people were found there was because of an invisible angel who would come at certain seasons to stir up the waters and infuse them with healing power. John tells us that the first person to step into the pool after the stirring of the water would be healed of whatever disease he had. For this reason, great numbers of invalids, the blind, the lame, and the paralyzed would gather at those times in hopes of winning the liquid lottery and going home healed.

The Sheep Pool was a type of the baptismal font. Even long before these miracles of healing began to take place, the washing of the sheep who were bound for sacrifice in the Temple pointed to a fulfillment in Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, who one day would also pass through waters before His voluntary sacrifice upon the cross. Christ appeared and was baptized in the Jordan, this time not for His cleansing, but for ours. He hallowed the streams of the Jordan, making the waters of the baptismal font the means of our purification and cleansing from all sin.

As the time of Christ’s appearing drew near, God intensified the prophetic revelation, introducing a new element into the picture by sending divine power into the Sheep Pool, manifesting in miracles of physical healing. The intent of this action was to prepare the Jews to embrace Christian baptism as something much more than just a ritualistic cleansing, but as the mystical new birth of water and the Spirit, during which the Holy Spirit Himself descends into the font to make it the fountain of incorruption, the remedy of infirmities, the laver of regeneration, initiating the healing of soul and of body by uniting the baptismal candidate to the life-giving and glorified humanity of Christ.

We see what great mercy God showed to the Jews by patiently manifesting these signs to them, in an effort to lead them to Christ! Even the afflictions of the people beside the pool represent the many spiritual illnesses which Christian baptism heals. It heals the blind, whose spiritual eyes are darkened so that they cannot distinguish good from evil, the lame, who neither practice virtue nor make any spiritual progress, and the utterly paralyzed, who are in complete despair because of their inability to accomplish anything good.

When the fullness of time had come and the Son of God finally appeared among men, He came deliberately to the Sheep Pool and healed the man with the worst affliction present. He did this to demonstrate that He was the true Lamb of God “who taketh away the sins of the world,” bringing complete salvation to humanity. But He also picked this particular man to heal, in order to reveal the good spirit within him as an example to us.

Our Lord approached the man who had been paralyzed for 38 years and had been lying beside the pool for perhaps as long a time and asked him, “Do you want to be healed?” Today we would consider that to be, what we might call, a stupid question. I mean, what’s the man supposed to say: “No thank you; I’m just here working on my tan”? It might be hard for us to imagine not feeling frustrated or offended by such a question. But here we get some real insights into the character of this man.

First, we see that through his sufferings he had learned to be patient and to not lose hope. Is that even possible? To our way of thinking if a person suffers, and especially if he suffers for a very long time, he is supposed to become angry and cynical, right? And this guy had suffered terribly. Time after time the waters were stirred up by the angel, and each time some other person, less needy than he, vaulted into the pool ahead of him. No one took pity on him or would help him, but everyone shoved him back to put themselves first. Over the years he was repeatedly exposed to the selfish worst that humanity can display, but he didn’t allow it to darken his soul. He rose above it all by keeping a steadfast hope in God and remaining pure in heart and simple in thought.

When Jesus came to him and asked if he wanted to be healed, it was the man’s hope that answered, saying, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the water”. No doubt he had prayed many years for God to send someone to help him, and he thought perhaps that Jesus was the answer to his prayer. Boy, was he ever right! And what a beautiful soul this man had formed within himself by this time. He was not beaten down, discouraged, and resentful, but full of expectation to see his prayers answered and the mercy of God finally revealed.

Do we recognize that the difficulties we face in our own lives can either destroy us or turn us into beautiful souls as well? When we are faced with struggles, do we allow ourselves to become angry and resentful, to question or blame God, or complain “Why me?” as if somehow we deserved a trouble-free life? Maybe we do at first, but we can learn to adopt a better response. We can learn to accept that there is no salvation without bearing our cross, or without facing struggle of some kind and of some duration in our lives. We’d rather not suffer, but when we see that we can endure it with patience and with hope, trusting in God to use it to purify and perfect us, then our struggles and sufferings truly become the means of our salvation and lift us up rather than wear us down. This is true whether our struggles are physical, emotional, or spiritual in nature.

Struggles, difficulties, and suffering appear and will continue to appear in our lives. There’s little we can do to prevent that from happening. But we can choose whether we will allow these things to bring us to God or turn us against Him; to instill in us hope, or to crush us entirely. I’m sure we’ve known people whose problems have only made them more joyful and confident in God, and others who became grim and darkened and now want very little to do with Him. And the choice between those two states is ours as well.

May we follow the good example of the paralytic and allow a simple, pure, and steadfast trust in God to grant us beautiful souls and life eternal.

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

The Myrrh-Bearing Women

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

Christ is Risen!

Today we commemorate the Myrrh-Bearing Women, those brave disciples of Christ who defied all danger, coming to His tomb to anoint His precious body for burial according to the custom of the Jews. On this day we also remember Ss. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus who also showed great courage in asking Pilate for the body of Christ, that they might take Him down, wrap Him in linen place Him in the tomb. The actions of all these people were taken at great personal risk to themselves, as the enemies of God still burned in their hatred of Jesus Christ and would have gladly killed any of His followers. But these actions were motivated by love and the desire to do what was right for the Lord. And such love conquers all.

A cynical person might have wondered, “What is the use of taking such a foolish risk? Jesus is dead, the situation is hopeless; why risk facing death yourself?” The devil often tempts us to look upon situations as being without hope of redemption, and our actions as being fruitless and lacking purpose. When faced with difficult or dismal situations in our own lives, we are often tempted to think that things will never get any better, that all hope is dead and gone, and that perhaps the very best thing that we can do is to cut our losses and bail out. How easily we forget that Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life! Where there is life, and especially the resurrection life of Christ, there is always hope, and nothing is beyond redemption.

This is the lesson that the Myrrh-Bearing Women learned when they came to Christ’s empty tomb very early in the morning on the first day of the week. They were filled with sorrow, but motivated by love. Then they beheld the angel sitting in the tomb who said to them “…You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples—and Peter—that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you.” What a joyous message! And at that moment the world changed forever! Never again would anyone be entirely without hope, no matter what the situation or what the devil might say otherwise. Christ is risen, and those who were dead in the tombs are set free! Christ is risen, and the power of the devil is destroyed! Christ is risen, and never again can anyone say “I am hopeless”. For Christ is risen to grant newness of life and the hope of resurrection to glory.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

There is even more here to give us hope. We note that the angel said to the women, “Go, tell His disciples—and Peter [that Christ is risen from the dead].” He mentioned Peter separately and not as one of the Lord’s disciples because Peter had hotly denied knowing Christ and refused to be associated with Him. And then the rooster crowed and he remembered Christ’s words, “Before the cock crows, you shall deny Me three times” and Peter went out and wept bitterly. We can hardly imagine the depths of sorrow that Peter felt at that hour, and the crushing burden of guilt that he felt. Though perhaps we can. Perhaps we have had such dark hours in our own lives and know something of what he went through. The loneliness of a sinner who feels cut off from God is unbearable. But the wonderful news here is that Christ did not leave him in that terrible state, utterly without hope. The angel came with a divine message of love and redemption: “Go and tell Peter that Christ will meet him as He said”. Peter’s tears of repentance did not go unnoticed by the God of love, and when Jesus met him, three times he asked him, “Peter, do you love Me?” Three times Peter replied, “Lord, You know that I love You.” And thus his thrice-denial was washed away by his thrice-affirmation of love, and the infinite mercy of Jesus Christ. What a beautiful and intimate story, and how encouraging it is to us who perhaps have also denied Christ or felt distant from Him in those darker moments of our own lives. Earth has no sorrow that heaven can not heal, and no situation of ours is beyond redemption if we put our trust in God.

Let us contrast this story with one of another former disciple, Judas Iscariot. Judas also turned away from Christ, betraying Him for thirty pieces of silver. He did not know that his betrayal would result in the death of Jesus, and we he found out what the Jews intended to do, he went back to return the silver and try to make it right. But it was too late. The Jews told him to take care of the problem himself. And so he went out and hanged himself.

I floated this idea once before--it’s kind of interesting to think about--that what if, instead of listening to the voice of the devil who prompted him to commit suicide, miserable Judas had crawled back a few days later to throw himself at the feet of the risen Jesus. Dare we imagine that Christ would have forgiven him as He forgave Peter, and—as strange as it may sound to our ears—that today we would speak of a “St. Judas” as the one who betrayed Him but was later restored in mercy? It’s just speculation and therefore of little value. But we can say for certain that that by taking matters into his own hands, by acting so severely out of anger and hopelessness, that Judas removed himself from all possibility of redemption and left us with a very sad tale to contrast with Peter’s beautiful story.

There is a lesson in here for us. Be very careful which voice you listen to, and who you allow to be your guide in times of sorrow. The voice which says to you “Not even God can help you now” prompting you to take desperate actions, is not the voice you should listen to. It is the voice of the devil, full of hatred and venom, He wants you to forget of the love and power of Christ, and turn away from Him that you might share the devil’s own fate. Instead, we must always listen to the angelic voice of sweetness which says, “Christ is risen! Go and meet Him and fall down before Him. He will grant you redemption and healing, and ease your terrible burden.”

My brothers and sisters, Christ is risen and we must never forget this, or allow this glorious message to be taken from us. We have hope, a hope that will not disappoint, a hope that brings light and life and the promise of all things being made new. Let us love one another and allow that love to conquer all and motivate us in every action toward one another and all those around us.

Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen! Let us adore His third-day resurrection!

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

The Triumphal Entry of our Lord into Jerusalem

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

Today is the Sunday of the Triumphal Entry of our Lord into Jerusalem, also known as Palm Sunday. With Great Lent ’09 now officially done and gone, we the faithful have been granted the opportunity to join with our Lord in the remarkable journey of Holy Week; a journey that has in fact already begun and is now taking us from the decay and stench of Lazarus’ tomb to the life-giving and myrrh-scented empty tomb of our risen Savior.

What exactly do I mean by saying we can join with our Lord on the journey of Holy Week? Do I mean this in a sort of figurative way, as if to say that if we come to all the services and pay really close attention, we’ll almost feel as if we were really there and will have such a warm and inspiring experience? Surely I must mean that we only symbolically join with our Lord. Actually, no. Our union with Christ is not merely figurative or symbolic. It is a real union, and furthermore, it is a mystical union. What this means is that through the action and operation of the Holy Spirit, we are joined with Christ in ways far beyond human understanding, to participate with Him in everything He accomplished for our salvation, including His death, burial, and resurrection from the dead.

Western man has decided that he has a problem with such things, you know. Over the centuries since the so-called Enlightenment period, we have pompously come to declare our rational minds as our greatest and highest faculty, and the only one through which we now seek to understand and interact with all that we imagine to exist in the universe. Before that time we at least acknowledged that there were also things unknowable to the mind alone, including the mystical energies and actions coming forth from God which were beyond the ability of man to comprehend, though we could certainly experience them, participate in them, and benefit from them through the faculty of faith. But over time, as Western man elevated his reason to the exclusion of every other means of experiencing reality, his faith degraded, became itself rational and limited to human reason, and he lost his ability to commune with God on the mystical level.

Our journey during Holy Week is exactly such a mystical communion with Jesus Christ through the holy services of the Church. We are truly united to Christ on a level beyond intellectual knowing, in order that we might join with Him through the Triumphal Entry, the rebuking of the hypocritical religious leaders, the Mystical Supper with His disciples and the Upper Room teaching, the agony of Gethsemane, the betrayal of Judas and the denial of Peter, the arrest and unlawful trial, the scourging and mocking, the terrible march to Golgotha, the crucifixion, death, burial, and glorious third-day resurrection.

In summary, we don’t just observe Holy Week, we enter into Holy Week and participate in all the events of our salvation, by virtue of the fact that we are mystically united to Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. As you take a moment to reflect on this and consider it, I would ask one simple question: Can you think of any better way to spend the next seven days of your life?

It’s really no wonder that we require forty days of fasting and prayer and spiritual attentiveness to ready ourselves for this remarkable and saving journey of Holy Week. In fact, we might wonder if forty days was really quite enough for us! Or more to the point, we might wonder if we spent those forty days as wisely as we might have, to gain from them as much as we should have. Chances are the honest answer to that is no, we really didn’t. But by the grace of God we still may have gained more than we realize.

We often begin Lent with high hopes, don’t we? We might decide, “This year I’m going to really make the effort to keep the full fast, and as a matter of fact, I’m even going to lose a few extra pounds! I’m going to be faithful in my prayers, remember the poor, come to all the services, and stay focused 100% on my repentance”. And these all are fine goals, even if we do fall somewhat short of realizing them. Quite often it seems like the wheels fall off our cart sometime just after the first week of Lent and how we struggle to get them back on and make the sort of progress we had hoped for!

In fact, by the time those forty days are over, we may find ourselves feeling pretty worn out, beaten down, and perhaps even defeated. At the end of Lent, instead of feeling spiritually renewed, we might actually feel fairly dry and lifeless, kind of dead really, and wondering if--after all is said and done--we are simply miserable and hopeless.

And this is why, at exactly this point, our Mother the Church has us gather together at the tomb of Lazarus. At the end of our Lenten struggle, with the sting of defeat still fresh in our minds, that tomb is opened and our nostrils are assaulted with the stench of human corruption. Therein lies poor Lazarus, rotting away, and seemingly beyond all hope of redemption. All of a sudden we realize, that is us! There we lie, all bones and rot, defeated by our enemy Death, and fading away to nothingness! But then a voice is heard unexpectedly, that with clarity and beauty cries out, “Lazarus, come forth!” And suddenly corruption is reversed and flesh is restored. The heartbeat returns and the lungs fill with air. Slowly, the eyes are opened, the body sits upright, and Lazarus is raised from the dead!

Yes, Lazarus is raised as a symbol of the universal resurrection, but for us, the timing couldn’t be better. Seeing the power of God manifested in what is certainly the most hopeless of human situations, we realize that we need not be utterly dismayed by our failures, though they may be as numberless as the stars of heaven. At the raising of Lazarus we take new and unexpected hope. God is able to give life even to the lifeless, and to raise with Him even those who seem to be dead in their trespasses and sins.

In the book Gifts of the Desert by Kyriacos Markides, the author recounts a conversation with Bishop Maximos in which the elder described the Church, the Ecclesia, as a hospital in which the reality of healing from the effects of sin takes place. He says, “It is indeed a hospital. As in the case of an ordinary hospital, in the Ecclesia we can meet doctors, nurses, recovering patients, sick people, and very sick people. Sometimes we can even find corpses”. “Do corpses have a chance?” one of his listeners asked. “Naturally they do,” replied Maximos. “Doesn’t the Ecclesia call Christ the Giver of Life? In whatever category we may belong within this spiritual hospital, we always have the hope and the possibility to achieve our own resurrection and the restoration of our spiritual health.”

What a great message this is to us who so often are overcome with sadness at our continual failure before God! Our efforts, our struggles are so important to our salvation, but they are never enough to win the prize and always fall short, even in the lives of the greatest of saints. It is Christ who gives life to the faithful, to those who desire life, who persevere in seeking Him until the end. Christ is the Lover of mankind and the Giver of Life, and He alone is our hope.

And so you see, my brothers and sisters, that even if you come to the end of Lent feeling beaten or deeply disappointed over your failings, your weakness in pursuing the things of God, you are still not beyond the power of God to raise you and to give you life. The good Christ comes to us, and finding us dead in our tomb, resuscitates us together with Lazarus that we might not be left behind or miss this glorious journey of Holy Week.

As we continue this journey together, let us see it as our opportunity for progression from death to life. Throughout this week, the Church will be incrementally filled with the symbols of Christ’s victory, together with the sweet smells of flowers, rose water, bay leaves, and incense, and will go from the darkness of the Bridegroom services to the brilliant light of Pascha. May the same transformation take place in our souls as well, lifting us out of sorrow to the place of joy without measure.

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