Monday, August 30, 2010

Loving God to Death

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

Today the Holy Orthodox Church celebrates the Feast of the Beheading of the Glorious Forerunner and Baptist John. Two weeks ago we celebrated the Feast of the Dormition (or the “Falling-Asleep”) of our Most Holy Lady Theotokos. Besides these are the commemorations of the many daily saints on our Church calendar, most of whom were either ascetics or holy martyrs themselves. Anyone not familiar with the deep meaning behind these feasts and our nearly daily remembrances of those who in one way or another laid down their lives for Christ, might be led to conclude that we Orthodox have a rather bizarre notion of celebration, and perhaps along with that, a strange preoccupation with death.

Our interest however is not with death, but with life. The testimony left by all those who laid down their earthly lives for Christ--whether by choosing the narrow and difficult way of rigorous self-denial, or by voluntarily accepting the martyr’s crown--is that they were seeking life; a life more abundant and more joyous than any life known on earth. Each one of these people could have maintained the status quo of their day. They could have sought the comfort of family, money, pleasure, and long life. No one compelled them to gain such a love for Christ that they would willingly forfeit all normal expectations in this world to seek Him alone. Nevertheless they did indeed gain such a love, making any life that did not place Him first seem simply unbearable to them.

Is it possible for us to gain such a love for Christ? St. Paul prophesied that in the last days men would love only themselves, their money, and their pleasures and would entirely forget the love of God. How can we move from loving all things of this world to loving God alone?

How does any one person fall in love with another? Did any of you fall in love with your significant other by never spending time with them or conversing with them, never warmly reflecting on their love for you with a certain thankfulness, never thinking of what was important to them or making whatever changes were needed in your life to bring you closer to them? Of course not. That all takes place after marriage. (Just kidding!) My point is, your love didn’t just happen; it took work and it still takes work. So how can we expect to love God if we don’t work at it?

Do we spend time each day conversing with God in prayer? Do we reflect on His love and care for us with thanksgiving? Do we consider what is important to Him and correct our lives to draw near to Him? Do we treat God as someone we truly want to know and love, or are we put off from this work, convinced that it’s too hard, too demanding, or that our faith is too small?

Exactly how much faith do we need to love God? Whenever we hear the lives of the saints read in Church, we are partly inspired and partly discouraged. We know that their examples prove what is possible when ordinary men and women seek God. But immediately that little voice plays in our heads saying, “Oh, but you’ll never be like that! You’re too wedded to your comforts, too stuck in your ways to love God like they did!” That voice is not from God, for God would never discourage us from taking even the smallest step toward Himself. He always beckons us to move forward with whatever little measure of faith we might now possess, which is also God’s gift to us.

It may not be faith that we lack, but perhaps diligence. Hebrews 11:6 tells us, “...without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.” Do you believe that God exists? I would hope so! Do you believe that God rewards those who seek Him? Yes, we know that God is good and rewards entirely out-of-proportion all people who make even the slightest move toward Him. So what is missing except “those who diligently seek Him”?

I suppose very few of us would say that we seek God diligently every day. We may be too busy, too disheartened, or too preoccupied to invest that amount of time with God. Sometimes we are so restless we can’t bear to sit down long enough to read our bibles or spend some time in quiet prayer and reflection. Perhaps we’ve even given up on seeking God because it seems we can’t find Him when we’ve tried. Yet can any friendship be cultivated by such weak and sporadic efforts? Can love grow where there is no constant effort made to draw near to the other; where there is no seeking, no longing, no desire?

I believe that every human being is created not only with the capacity to share in God’s love, but also with the desire to do so. It is this desire however that is often twisted and misdirected by sin, so that we wind up seeking the fulfillment and consolation of that love we were created share in everything but God. We are forever seeking contentment and purpose in life, but it rarely seems to occur to us that this haunting sense of emptiness, this deeply rooted craving for something, is in reality the heart’s desperate longing for God. No wonder the heart is left unsatisfied and bereaved when the joy we try to offer it is never God Himself. As Augustine wrote in his Confessions, “Almighty God, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”

Some part of us knows that this is true, yet we find it so hard to deny our heart its many other desires. Given the choice, nearly any child will choose candy over real food. A good parent allows such treats only sparingly, wanting his child to have proper nutrition. When it comes to our hearts, we are dreadful parents, feeding them an endless diet of “junk food”--the sweet pleasures of this life--rather than disciplining them to take pleasure in God. It is hard for the heart to love God when it is fat on other things. The saints saw the need to deny themselves much of this world’s sweetness so that their hearts would become hungry for God alone.

To deny ourselves many pleasures only to gain God seems insane to those who are perishing. However, the saints reveal to us that to settle for contentment now rather than to strive for God is not only the deepest insanity, but the ultimate form of self-destruction. The saints died to this world, but they found everlasting life in God. We remember their examples daily and at special feasts such as today’s commemoration of the beheading of the Baptist, not because we are preoccupied with death, but because we long for the same life they gained from their heroic efforts.

Can we venture to be a bit more heroic in our own lives? Can we cut back on the junk food we feed our souls, the comforts and pleasures of life we normally put first, so that we might increase our hunger for God? We are weak, but must our weakness always be the excuse for not loving God as much as we could? Can we challenge ourselves to redirect some of our time, our money, and our energies toward that which is eternal? Are our dreams for this life so great that we cannot possibly dream of heaven too?

It is true that we live in dark and perilous times. Whereas the saints of old saw the need to take upon themselves poverty and every struggle to gain the love of Christ in their hearts, today’s pampered Christians think everything should be handed to them. They feel entitled to enjoy all the best this world has to offer and be granted salvation too! Have they really outsmarted the saints, or only themselves? I pray that we would never be so wise in our own eyes, but along with the saints might humble ourselves to accept less in this world that we might gain the fullness of the world to come. Let us not fear the death of self-denial, but through it become seekers of true and everlasting life!

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

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Dormition of our Most Holy Lady Theotokos

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

Today after a two-week fast of preparation, we gather together to celebrate the Feast of the Dormition of our Most Holy Lady Theotokos. For the benefit of those who may not be familiar with these terms, the word dormition refers to the “falling asleep” of a saint, a phrase frequently used in the New Testament to describe the death of a holy one. Theotokos which means “God-bearer” is the term most often used by the Orthodox to describe the Virgin Mary, who gave birth to the Son of God in His humanity. Thus today’s Feast commemorates the death of Jesus’ mother, together with the historic events that holy Christian tradition tells us happened just before and after, and the rich, spiritual meaning these hold for all believers in Jesus Christ today.

When we speak of the departed saints “falling asleep,” this does not imply a belief that their souls lose consciousness or fall into a kind of slumber after death. The term seems to be a figurative one, referring to the holy body of the departed, rather than to the soul. At the departure of the soul, the body appears to “fall asleep” to await its reawakening when it is reunited with the soul at the Lord’s second advent. Referring to death in this way promotes the fundamental and glorious Christian belief that death has been soundly defeated by Christ and can no longer be considered a permanent condition even in the physical sense, but something more like a “nap” from which the saint’s body will one day arise.

And speaking of the physical, in contemporary Christendom outside of Holy Orthodoxy a belief has emerged that the body of a departed believer should not be regarded with any particular reverence. Even in many so-called “Christian” funerals these days it is implied or even outright declared that the dead body of the believer is little more than a discarded “shell” that once housed the so-called true person of the soul, but now is no more important than an old suit of clothes you might cast off and burn with the rubbish. This view is not informed by the scriptures or any Christian teaching, but reflects ancient pagan beliefs that despised the material aspect of our human nature as grossly inferior to the intellectual or spiritual aspects.

Because of this view that the body is unimportant after death, cremation was commonly used by the pagans to deal with the “problem” of body disposal. Orthodox Christianity so rejects this practice and the pagan ideas behind it, that the Church will not even allow an Orthodox funeral to be performed when cremation has been opted for. Orthodox Christianity does not denigrate the material as somehow less pure than the spiritual (Both aspects of our humanity were created by God and declared to be “very good” by Him). Furthermore, it sees the body as an integral part of the complete human being, even after death. This belief derives from the fact that Christ rose from the dead in bodily form, and not merely as a spirit alone. If the body were unimportant to our complete humanity or something to be discarded and left behind for the perfection of heaven, Christ’s humanity would not have been raised, glorified, and taken up into heaven to sit down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. Christ’s bodily resurrection and ascent in glory demonstrates what God intends for each of us, regardless of the time that may pass between the hour of our death and our final resurrection. We shall all be raised, our bodies restored and glorified at their rejoining with our souls, and shall be made to ascend into heaven with Christ, joining Him in His humanity for all eternity.

For this reason, Christians have traditionally gone against the prevailing pagan practices to instead treat the bodies of their departed with deep respect; washing and anointing their bodies and burying them lovingly and with many prayers, putting them to rest in their graves to await their final reunion with their departed souls in heaven. This isn’t soggy sentimentality, but a profound theological understanding of God’s plan for humanity, and the reason “To bury the dead” is considered one of the seven chief corporate acts of mercy in the Orthodox Church.

How do we really know that Christians, after their departure from this life, will one day be bodily resurrected, glorified, and taken up into heaven as Christ was? Do we have any record of this happening to a strictly human saint that we might have hope of the same? Indeed we do, for this is precisely what we are celebrating in today’s Feast.

According to the tradition of the Church, after her Son’s ascension into heaven, Mary lived the rest of her life in Jerusalem in the house of John, in whose care our Lord had placed His mother with the charge to care for her as if she was his very own. When in time it was revealed to Mary that her hour of death was drawing near, she asked to see all of her Son’s beloved original disciples one last time. These men were dispersed to the far corners of the known world, preaching the gospel. Exactly as Philip had once been taken up by the Holy Spirit and transported to another place after baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch, God was please to catch up each of the disciples from their respective locations and bring them to the bedside of Mary. Only Thomas, reviled by some as “The Doubter” but whose inspired confession of faith in the risen Christ, “My Lord and My God!” revealed the very heart of Christian truth, was excluded from this miraculous reunion for a divine purpose that would soon be revealed.

The other disciples gathered at Mary’s bedside and received a final blessing from her. When she reposed, they placed her holy body in a tomb, glorifying God that they had been allowed to be with her one last time. Three days later Thomas arrived, and asked his fellow disciples to accompany him to the tomb of Mary that he might see her body and pay his respects. When the tomb was opened, the body of Mary was found to be gone, with nothing but the sweet aroma of myrrh left remaining. As the apostles exited the tomb in awe, they all together beheld a vision of Mary being received into heaven by the Lord Jesus Christ to take an honored place beside her beloved Son. The apostles understood from this that the Lord had permitted these things to happen to His mother as an example and foretaste of what awaits all true believers, all those “who hear the word of God and keep it.” Their preaching of the certainty of our hope of resurrection and eternal life in Christ became all the more fervent after this.

Throughout Christian history there have been many extreme opinions about Mary. Some have exalted her so highly as to nearly make her out to be a “fourth person” of the divine Godhead. Others have so minimized her as to barely acknowledge her role in the incarnation of Christ or as a person of any importance to God beyond that. The Orthodox Church sees Mary in a more balanced way: as a merely human being like us, but also as a truly holy person with whom God was well-pleased. In her blessed death, together with her bodily resurrection and glorification and assumption into heaven, the Church sees a beautiful expression of God’s love for His saints. What happened to her is promised to one day happen to every one of those who strive during their lifetimes to love God. If we will remember God during our life, and love and serve Him to the best of our ability now, He will by no means forget us at the hour of our death. We can know this, because God was pleased to reveal it to the Church through Mary the Theotokos.

Every day we must stir ourselves up to love God, to seek Him in prayer, to serve Him in purity of heart and body. Sometimes we feel discouraged over what seems like such an endless and impossible effort. But we must remember that God is at work in us, both to work and to will for His good pleasure. Our task is the smaller one really. We must simply aim not to grieve the Holy Spirit of God, but to cooperate in His work, and allow the life and holiness of God to be formed in us. It is God who makes people holy, not we ourselves. Isn’t that refreshing, good news? If we will abide in Christ, Christ will abide in us, making us holy and abundant in every spiritual fruit.

From the example of the Dormition of our Most Holy Lady Theotokos, we can see that such holiness is the only thing that truly abides. “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His holy ones.” When the time comes for us each to fall asleep in Christ, the love of God will awaken us, and we will understand then that all our striving was not in vain. Is this not worth any struggle we may face in our present lives? Let us not lose sight of this, but labor all the more and with renewed hope as the day of our salvation draws near.

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