Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Sunday After the Nativity of Christ

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

"Christ is born!”

Today we have come to the Sunday after the Nativity of Christ and the commemoration of the Proto-martyr Stephen. The word proto means “first,” and has been connected to St. Stephen as the first recorded martyr of the Church era. Although he is the first official Christian martyr, St. Stephen is far from being the very first person to die for Jesus Christ. As we heard from our gospel lesson from St. Matthew’s account (Matt. 2:13-23), that terrible distinction is shared by the estimated 14,000 innocent young boys--two years of age and under--who were slaughtered by King Herod in his mad search to find the Christ Child.

I have a friend who claims to be an atheist. He’s a good person, as all my friends tend to be, but he has it stuck in his head that a truly good and merciful God would not allow human suffering to exist in the world. Imagine how he might react to a story like this from the gospel! (“14,000 children dead? How could a good God allow that?”). People often look at tragedy as a sign that something must be wrong with God. They seldom seem willing to consider the problem from the other side, namely that something just might be terribly wrong with us human beings and with the world as we have made it.

The Holy Scriptures tell us that God created the world as a Paradise, void of suffering and death. Man was created in perfect communion with God, Who was also the source of our life and peace and blessing. These same ancient writings also record the dark story of mankind’s rejection of God, how we broke communion with our Life-giver, to bring death and every terror into our world, completely altering and effectively destroying what God meant for us to experience. This world, as we know it today, bears little resemblance to the world as God originally made it. Our Creator never intended for His creation to be filled with the many evils that we see and experience today, and perhaps inflict upon others. It is we human beings who have made our world what it is. And what we have done, cannot be undone by us. The broken vase cannot be repaired by the careless hand which broke it; only by the Master’s hand which first created it in its beauty and perfection.

All people have a sense that something is wrong with this world, but most don’t seem to understand that the world itself is fallen and that the sins of man are responsible for making it that way. Instead, people blame God for apparently creating an “imperfect” world. Many, like my atheist friend, assume that if God is truly loving, nothing bad should ever happen to people--at least not to so-called “good” people. In their minds, God should remove all suffering from the human experience and allow us to at least pretend that we are still living in a kind of Paradise.

But if God did so, it would not address the deeper problems of our brokenness. It would not restore our communion with God, with one another, with creation itself; it would not cure the consequences of our sins or undo the power of death. It would not redeem our fallen world. Such an action on God’s part would be like medicating a curable patient to mask his pain, without operating to remove the fatal disease which is slowly yet certainly taking his life. Because God is good and the lover of mankind, He allows the terrible symptoms of our disease to be felt and experienced by us in order that we might come to our senses and turn back to Him to find our healing and restoration to full communion and everlasting life.

In the Nicene Creed we recite together every Sunday, there are two tiny little words, so easy to overlook, which nevertheless contain the answer to all human pain and misery. Those words are found in the section which tells us that Jesus Christ was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried. Perhaps unexpectedly, those two, all-important words are “and suffered”. Why did our Ecumenical Fathers consider it so important to tell us that Jesus suffered at His crucifixion? We might think, “Well, yeah, I suppose crucifixion is painful, so Jesus probably did suffer. But come on, He only suffered for three hours; my suffering has gone on my entire life. There’s really no comparison.” And we would be right to say there’s no comparison. But once again, we have looked at the problem from the wrong perspective.

You or I possess only a human, and thus a limited, capacity for suffering. A single human being can only suffer so much, even over an entire lifetime. But Jesus Christ is divine, and thus possesses a divine capacity for suffering in Himself, which is entirely without limit. Jesus therefore, in His crucifixion, took upon Himself the sufferings of the entire world and of all human beings who ever did or who ever will live. In those three short hours, He took all the sufferings of our entire race upon Himself in order to redeem those sufferings and turn them from a meaningless horror into the path to our salvation.

He bore our sufferings upon the Cross. What does this mean except that every tear ever shed has been shared by Him, every injustice, cruelty, or pain suffered by anyone, anywhere has been borne by Him, and every bitter, fearful, or lonely moment of our human existence has been conquered by Him and transformed into a grace-filled encounter with the power of God to help us overcome this fallen world and persevere with Him unto glorification in the world yet to be revealed. Although the world we have made is still a dark and terrible place, our suffering goes no longer unanswered, and we are no more alone. No single drop of blood falls without a God who takes note of it and redeems it to make it into yet another stepping stone into heaven. Jesus Christ, by His divine suffering, has made our sufferings into an open door to Paradise once again.

Think of it this way: If suffering and death are the two inescapable realities of this fallen world, then what could a good God do except to remake suffering and death into the very means of man’s salvation? Suffering and death still retain their outward forms, but they both have been changed dramatically by the power of God. Suffering, instead of merely wearing us down, now has the capacity to unite us to Christ, who redeemed all our sufferings upon His Cross. And death, instead of being the end of all things, now transports us into the glorious presence of Christ in heaven, where there is no longer any suffering, nor tears, nor sorrow.

As long as this world remains fallen, suffering and death will also remain. But they have lost their teeth. Their effects have now been rendered temporary, while their benefits have become eternal. This is the good news that all the saints and confessors and holy martyrs understood so well. They joyously endured the most dreadful sufferings to become one with their suffering Savior. And they happily laid down their lives for one brief moment in time, in order to take them up again forever and ever.

Could this be why we commemorate the martyrdom of St. Stephen and the slaughter of the 14,000 Holy Innocents a mere two days after our celebration of the Nativity of Christ? These horrible stories seem way out of step with the spirit of Christmas cheer. Yet the truth is that they--and every other tragic story in human history--have everything to do with why the Son of God took flesh and joined Himself to our race. It was impossible for us to escape the forces of suffering and death in this world as we have made it, so He entered into our world and changed these forces from within. He took away their power to destroy and equipped them with the power to save. They will still catch and overtake us eventually. But if we place our hope in God, we will find that their bitterness has been replaced by a gentle sweetness and a spiritual joy beyond all measure.

One day all suffering and death will be removed and God will completely restore all creation to beauty, along with all those who love Him and desire their salvation. In the meantime, in this our present time, life is still marred by the forces we have brought into it. But our good God has seen fit to impart even to those forces the power of redemption. Even in the shadow of suffering and death, we celebrate His mercy and kindness toward us sinners. Christ is born! Glorify Him!

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

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Genealogy Sunday

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

Today is the Sunday before the Nativity of Christ, the day known as “Genealogy Sunday”. I did a little research into this and as it turns out, the word genealogy has nothing to do with the study of genies. Instead, it’s based on a couple of hifalutin Greek words that together pertain to the study of one’s ancestry or family tree. Apparently you can learn a great deal about a person from such a study, and the genealogy of Christ is no exception. His genealogy reveals to us the mercy, humility, and incredible love of the Son of God for mankind.

There are two genealogies of Christ recorded for us in the gospels; the other can be found in St. Luke’s account. Matthew traces Christ’s lineage back to Abraham, demonstrating that Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise to that holy patriarch that from his seed would arise One in whom all the families of the earth would be blessed. St. Luke, the historian, goes even further, tracing Christ’s ancestry all the way back to Adam. By this he shows that Jesus is the Last Adam, the One who comes to undo the disobedience of the First Adam, together with the consequences of death, brokenness, and alienation from God that our First Parents brought upon themselves, their world, and all of us their children, according to the flesh.

Both genealogies combine to reveal a God who would not abandon us in our misery, but rescued us from it in the only way possible: by entering into it Himself. The greatest proclamation of Genealogy Sunday is that our God did not save us from the sanitary, comfortable distance of heaven, but instead voluntarily assumed our humanity and leapt right into the cesspool we had made of our world, in order to clean our mess and bring us healing unto eternal life.

If we were to take the time to research all of the names that the deacon just read to us, we would discover an amazingly human collection of people, replete with all the glories and failings you might expect from such a group. Christ’s family tree includes a mix of holy people along with some who were exceedingly evil. Many were kings, and of these, some faithfully worshipped the God of Israel, while others led the people into the worship of false gods and idols. The wicked Ahaz went so far as to sacrifice his own son on a pagan altar. Even some of the best, like David and Solomon, were not without their glaring faults. And Ruth was a gentile!

While the old saying is that you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your relatives, in this case we understand that God did indeed choose each and every branch of Christ’s family tree to include both the best and and the worst examples of humanity. Surely this was done in order to give us hope. Christ allowed Himself to be physically identified not only with the saints and lovers of God, but also with the ignorant, the wayward, and yes, even the wicked. And this great and colorful line of humanity culminates in a young girl, Mary, the daughter of the righteous Joachim and Anna, from whom the Son of God took our human nature, joining Himself to our race, and was born.

Most Americans take little notice of saints, but there have been a few--like Mother Teresa of Calcutta or Father Damian of Molokai--that have risen to gain the attention even of the most secular of folks. Perhaps that is because these two examples were very incarnational in their ministry. Such as these did not serve from beautiful, luxurious suites in Manhattan, but literally entered into the terrible worlds of those who were suffering and joined themselves to them. Even non-believers recognize that there is something more genuine--dare we say, even more Christian--about such sacrificial, “hands-on” types of ministries, over those that simply preach inspiring, soothing words to others from the comfort of pulpits and studios.

As St. Matthew noted for us, the heart of the Christian good news is summed up in one of the prophetic names given to Jesus, Immanuel, which means, “God is with us”. The news would not be so joyful if it only meant that God is with us in spirit, that God was only watching us “From a Distance,” as the once-popular song by Julie Gold proclaimed. No, the Christian good news is that God is with us in the most intimate way possible. He has joined Himself to our race, become one of us, and allows each of us to become partakers of His divinized human nature if we will have it.

Most people remain tragically oblivious to this great news and live their lives as if it never happened. Even a surprising number of Christians today struggle with the idea of calling Mary the Theotokos or bearer of God, because they cannot bring themselves to accept the bold and startling truth of the incarnation. Over the years, several misguided believers have shared with me their thoughts that God must have created a fertilized ovum, separate and complete, to implant in the womb of Mary, making her in effect the “surrogate mother of God” rather than the one from whom the Son of God accepted humanity to genuinely become one of us. If what they say is true, we are still lost, for what is not assumed cannot be saved. Yet some persist in this outrageous belief because it is so difficult for them to imagine that the pure and eternal, spiritual God would stoop so low as to assume our human flesh so completely.

Despite human misgivings, that is exactly what the Son of God has done, and not just for thirty-three years, but for all of eternity. God is with us, joining Himself to us, joining us to Him.

I once heard an old preacher say with great sarcasm that if you’re going to “go along with the Catholics” and start calling Mary “the Mother of God” then you’re going to have to call Joachim and Anna the grandparents of God, and continue all the way back to calling King David the Great-great-great-(and so on)-grandfather of God, “And pretty soon,” he laughed, “You’re gonna have to say that Jesus is related to everybody!” He thought this was a great joke, and his congregation laughed along with him. Imagine Jesus being actually related to men; how preposterous!

But isn’t the whole point of the genealogies in the gospels to show us that the Son of God has entered into our race and become one with the family of man? He shares a common humanity now with all people, and we who are called by His Name share an even greater joining with Him by virtue of the new birth of water and the Spirit at Holy Baptism.

This is what we contemplate on this Genealogy Sunday, by way of readying ourselves for the joyous celebration of the Nativity of our Great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. God is with us! We are not alone in the physical or emotional sufferings that seek to cripple and destroy us. We are not without powerful help in our struggle to overcome the passions and sins that disease our life and darken our souls. We have not been abandoned or left without any hope of drawing near to God in all our misery. God is with us to help us and to deliver us from death. Though it is often so hard even for Christians to accept this great truth, the Son of God has joined Himself to us and has become our Brother. Christ is born, and we are saved by His great mercy, humility, and incredible love. All praise to Immanuel; God is with us!

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

Tuesday, December 08, 2009


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

In this morning’s gospel account [Luke 13:10-17] we read that our Lord miraculously healed a woman on the Sabbath, only to be publicly rebuked for His merciful act by an angry synagogue official. There is a saying that no good deed goes unpunished, and this story would seem to support that cynical observation. In the end however it was the synagogue official who got spanked, and rightly so, for he was guilty of what is very likely the worst and least forgivable sin of a religious person: the sin of hypocrisy.

The word hypocrisy is said to date back to the days of ancient Greek theater in which the actors wore masks to portray their various characters. It implies the putting on of a “false face” or of pretending to be what one is not. Unfortunately, hypocrisy is not always so intentional nor obvious to the person guilty of it. There can also be what we might call a latent hypocrisy, a hidden hypocrisy in which the person feels that they are the genuine article, but their attitudes and actions eventually betray that they are not. This would be the worst kind of hypocrisy because the person himself doesn’t see it, and may even blindly deny it when it is revealed in him.

This was the sort of hypocrisy of the synagogue official in our story. I’m sure he was a very religious man who felt he was quite sincere in his practice. Nevertheless, Jesus labeled him a hypocrite, because the man had forgotten the very purpose of his religion and practice, namely to love God and his neighbor as himself. The man was so focused on the outward observance of the Law, that he neglected entirely the inward action of the Law, which was to lead one toward love and compassion.

The story begins with Jesus teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. The New Testament records more than ten occasions on which Jesus’ ministry took place within the synagogue. The synagogue was a natural place to find Jesus, not simply because it was a convenient spot to teach, but because Jesus, as a pious and observant Jewish man, would have always been in the synagogue on the Sabbath, or in the Temple during every major Jewish feast. He did so not out of legalism or blind obedience to His religion, but because He genuinely loved God and must always be in His Father’s House, going about His Father’s business.

To put it in our terms, Jesus would never have missed Matins, would never have made a habit of slipping in late to the Divine Liturgy, and would certainly have been present at every Feast and service of the Church. The Orthodox Church needs more people like Jesus. Or to put it another way, we need more Orthodox Christians who are willing to become Christ-like in their love for God and in their devotion to Him in worship.

On this particular day a woman was present who had an infirmity that had left her terribly crippled and bent over for eighteen long years. Jesus released her from her infirmity, laying hands on her and straightening her body to restore her to complete health. The dear lady glorified God immediately. But the ruler of the synagogue became furious because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath.

Not having the courage to face Jesus, the ruler instead turned toward the people and exclaimed, “There are six days on which men ought to work: therefore come and be healed on them, and not on the Sabbath day”. Could he have possibly said anything more stupid? Blinded by a heartless legalism, and most likely by a deep envy of Jesus as well, the ruler could not praise God for what he had just witnessed. Instead he could only complain that the miracle had not been done on the proper day of the week.

How many miraculous healings had this man seen over the course of his life? I’m going to guess that this was probably the very first. Yet he could not glorify God, he could not even face Jesus or thank Him, but could only quibble over what he saw as a breaking of the rules. Jesus pointed out that any man will untie his animal on the Sabbath and lead it away to water and refresh it, and therefore it was right for this woman to have been released and refreshed on the Sabbath day. This made perfect sense, but the logic was lost on the synagogue official because he did not possess even the most basic compassion or wisdom to rejoice that this daughter of Abraham had been set free from Satan’s captivity.

What would make his sin even worse is the possibility that he had known this woman and had witnessed her suffering for so many years. Being badly crippled as she was, it is not likely that she could have traveled far to find Jesus, which would indicate that she may have been from this particular synagogue. Everyone rejoiced to see this woman healed, save the one man who lacked the love that his religion was supposed to impart to him. Thus he truly was a hypocrite, and was more bound by Satan than the woman had ever been.

If we wish to draw a lesson from this story, it would be that we must guard ourselves against hypocrisy by allowing our religion to bear the fruit of love and compassion in our lives.

It is a dreadful thing to be a Christian hypocrite. Bad enough are those who are knowingly negligent of their faith: who habitually ignore the fasts of the Church, forsake prayers night and day, actively engage in sinful thoughts and actions, or neglect to support the parish both financially and with faithful, punctual, and joyful attendance. But perhaps even worse is the situation of those who seem faithful in their religious practice, but who also are utterly lacking in Christian love. Sometimes these folks are easy to spot. They may be the loudmouths on the parish council or in the choir, who don’t care what discord they sow as long as their voices are heard and their opinions are accorded proper reverence. Often however, there is more subtlety present. People without love may be very religious outwardly, but inside are quick to judge others, painfully long at holding grudges, and very slow to offer any genuine help or prayers for those in need. Such people will often present themselves as very committed Orthodox believers, perhaps even as true pillars of their community. Yet they are more like rotting timbers, only waiting to let go and bring the roof down on many.

We are all fallen and broken people living in a fallen and broken world. We don’t need to look around to imagine who these descriptions might fit. We need only to look within ourselves to see if our Orthodoxy is progressively leading us to love God and our neighbor as ourselves. It seems incredible that the synagogue official in our story could be so void of love that he would blindly criticize Christ rather than rejoice with the woman who was healed. And yet, when we lack love in our own hearts, isn’t it true that we can be capable of incredible blindness, coldness, and perhaps even stark cruelty toward others?

It is good for us to learn from such sacred stories as this one. They are given for our salvation and to guard us against many terrible sins including religious hypocrisy. May God help us all to seek sincere love with a pure and humble heart.

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

Saturday, December 05, 2009

The Good Teacher

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

From our gospel lesson this morning [Luke 18:18-27] we heard that a certain young ruler came to our Lord and asked, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” This was one of the better questions that anyone had ever asked of Jesus, and we get the impression that it was a very sincere one as well. While the scribes and Pharisees often questioned Jesus and even at times tried to flatter Him in their efforts to trip Him up or expose errors in His teaching, this man genuinely considered Jesus to be the Good Teacher who held the answers to eternal life. Though he was a wealthy ruler, we learn from Mark’s parallel account that he ran out to meet Jesus on the road and knelt before Him in the dust. No Pharisee ever did that! Over the course of his young life this man had done everything he knew to please God but somehow felt that something was lacking, and equally felt that this Jesus could tell him what that was.

Jesus also saw something special in this man. Mark’s account tells us that Jesus looked upon him and loved him. We are told also that Jesus invited him to become His disciple and to join His closest followers. Obviously this man had great potential and, but for one remaining thing, was very close to the kingdom of heaven.

The young man told Jesus that he had kept all the commandments of God from his youth. Our Lord did not dispute this or regard it as a boast, for likely it was true. However, even if the man had kept all the commandments perfectly, he still had not been perfected by them, because a vital component was missing. Jesus pointed him toward the one thing he still lacked. “Sell all that you possess and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven,” He instructed him. What was the purpose of this severe commandment? It was to give the man what he lacked: not just treasure in heaven, but love for others above himself.

Love was the missing element in this man’s life. Elsewhere Jesus taught that the fulfillment of all the commandments of the Law is to love God and your neighbor as yourself. The man had kept the commandments of the Law, but in a rather abstract and external way, as if they were only for the purpose of making him clinically righteous, rather than leading him into the communion of love. We might say that it didn’t yet “click” with this man that the commandments were all about loving God and loving one’s fellow man. This is what Jesus sought to make right.

Unfortunately, the one remaining thing this man needed to fulfill all his good efforts and make him a true follower of Christ was the one thing he was most reluctant to surrender. He was very rich, and quite naturally loved everything that his wealth provided him. How could he be expected to give all that up on the word of one rabbi, even such a great rabbi as this? Jesus perceived this, and that is why He gave this man a little something extra to think about.

“Why do you call Me good? No one is good but God alone.” As we know, Jesus did not generally walk around telling people, “I am God; obey Me”. Such an action would not only have been contrary to the divine humility, but also would have been a rather forceful violation of human free-will. John wrote that no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit. This means that the deity of Christ is less a doctrinal proclamation than a spiritual revelation. One cannot evaluate Jesus and His teachings solely on an intellectual basis alone, as the heretics mostly do and thus fall into error. What is required is for a man to first find his heart and then open it to the Spirit of God, that he might begin to perceive the hidden reality that all the external evidence points toward.

The young man had called Jesus “good” and this was certainly true. Everyone could see the goodness of Jesus. Sinners saw it and were drawn toward Him. His enemies saw it and felt threatened by Him. His goodness was undeniable, and was the very thing that caused this man to seek Him out in the first place, that he might learn from Him the way to heaven.

“Why do you call Me good? What is the source of My inherent goodness? What makes you see Me as the good authority on the kingdom of heaven and life everlasting?” These questions were not a denial of His divinity, but a bold affirmation of it to one who was so close to grasping it. It is as if Jesus told him, “Think man; do the math. If no one is good but God, then Who do you say that I AM?”

This man could not immediately put the pieces together. Or perhaps he did, which made his sorrow even greater. If this Jesus truly was the Son of God in the flesh, then there was no longer any excuse not to obey Him. He must be followed and His word must be kept. Nevertheless, the man went away sad, because he feared giving up so much.

We have all come so far in our efforts to follow Jesus. But is there anything remaining in our lives that holds us back from perfecting our love and obedience to Him? Is there anything we refuse to surrender in order to submit ourselves entirely to Christ? Are we reluctant to freely offer our tithes and alms to God, thus putting our needs ahead of the needs of others? Do we refuse to quit immoral thoughts, relationships, or the demonic lure of pornography? Are we unwilling to quit the emotional manipulation of others in our efforts to make them behave in ways we feel they should? Do we hang on to anger and resentments as if being hurt was our right, and resist the dying to self that forgiveness seems to require? Do we refuse to give thanks to God in all things, feeling that we have certainly deserved better? Is there anything we will not submit to our father-confessor merely because we are unwilling to repent and take his counsel and penance to better our way of life? Simply put, is there anything that keeps us from the pure love of God and from making our repentance as complete as we possible can?

This is what we should consider as we read this gospel story of a man who walked away from Jesus sad because he was unwilling to take that last small step toward the perfection of love. Jesus was also made sad when he saw the man’s reaction, for He witnessed a man who was so close turn away from Him. “How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God!” He exclaimed, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” It is possible He was not speaking only of material wealth here. Our treasured sins are a kind of wealth as well, for they give us a sense of independence and self-reliance as intoxicating as the delusion of wealth itself. When I resist God I feel strangely powerful, for a moment. When I set aside His commandments I feel deliriously like the master of my own life, for awhile. When I disobey God’s Church I feel like I am greater than that Church and all those saints who gave up their lives for it. They died, but I live, and I am rich!

Lord have mercy! Those feelings are just the vain imaginings of a darkened soul. They are not true. I am of all men most to be pitied, for I resist the self-death that can grant me everlasting life, and reject the hatred of sin that can lead me toward the perfection of love.

This story of the rich man is a very personal one, revealing the folly of closing our eyes to the goodness of Jesus, and of withdrawing from Him in fear of what our total obedience might cost us. If we had been there, our impulse might have been to stop the rich man and reason with him, yet we just as often need someone to reason with us and turn us back to Christ. How many times do we walk away from Jesus to preserve treasures of far less value? Of course any treasure which keeps us from fully loving God or our neighbor as ourselves is a false treasure and needs to be abandoned. May God help us to inventory the storeroom of our souls and without fear rid ourselves of everything that stands between us and the perfection of love in Jesus Christ.

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