Thursday, April 21, 2011

Palm Sunday

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

Today is Palm Sunday, also known as the Sunday of the Triumphal Entry of our Lord into Jerusalem. On this day, Jesus Christ rode into the city to receive the accolades of a vast multitude of people who greeted Him as the long-promised Messiah of Israel. The prophet Zechariah had foreseen this event centuries earlier, writing: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O Daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, [even] a colt, the foal of a donkey.” [Zech. 9:9] Everything was unfolding exactly as the prophet had foretold, and the people seemed ecstatic to receive the King of Israel into their midst, giving every reason to think that Christ’s hour of glory in the midst of His people had finally come.

But as we know, this crowd’s love for their King was not to last. A mere five days later, many of these same people would be gathered outside the Praetorium on a bitterly cold evening shouting “Crucify Him!” and threatening a riot if Pontius Pilate did not hand Jesus over to the executioners. How is it that the people went from an ecstatic adoration to a murderous rage in less than a week? I guess you could say that Jesus wasn’t the Messiah they were expecting.

To give a bit of background, all these people had come to Jerusalem, not to see Jesus, but to celebrate the feast of Passover. According to the historian Josephus, it was not uncommon for the population of the city to swell from its normal 12,000 or so to nearly three million each year, as Jews from all over the world came to Jerusalem for this feast. For many of those people it was likely that Passover had become less of a religious holiday and more of a national one, something like our own 4th of July celebration. It was a time for Jews living abroad to come home and celebrate their ancient deliverance from Egypt, and to speak of the coming Messiah who most believed would appear very soon to break the yoke of the Roman Empire which ruled over them at that time. There was much Messianic fervor in the air as the people longed, not for someone who would save them from their sins, but for one who would rise up as a great political hero to mount a rebellion against their oppressors and lead Jewish armies to victory over the Romans and all the nations. When the visiting crowd heard that this Jesus had raised a man named Lazarus from the dead, it thought “Surely such a powerful miracle-worker must be the one sent by God to deliver us!” Thus they hastily cut down palm leaves and rushed out to greet Him as a the conquering king they hoped He would become.

Had He wanted to, Jesus could have easily become this king the Jews so wanted. The Romans and all nations would have fallen helplessly before His divine power and Christ could have forced His rule into every corner of the earth from His throne in Solomon’s Temple, if that had been His desire. However, Jesus did not come to establish an earthly kingdom relying on force and might, but a heavenly kingdom built upon peace and man’s voluntary restoration to God. His intent was not to be the warrior-king, waving a sword and riding boldly into battle. Instead, He would become the Suffering Servant, raising His cross and marching meekly up to Golgotha to meet His destiny. This was clearly not the Messiah the Jews were expecting. Furthermore, when Jesus allowed Himself to be arrested and humiliated by the despised Romans, it became abundantly clear to them that this was not the hero who had come to restore the national pride of Israel. If anything, He had become a national embarrassment to them. As the soldiers mocked Him and rudely exclaimed, “Hail, King of the Jews!” the Jews themselves felt insulted and humiliated and sought to distance themselves from Jesus, saying: “We have no king but Caesar!” Because of their pride and ignorance of God’s plan, the Jewish people found themselves rejecting their Messiah as an impostor and hardening their hearts against Him. Because of this, they cast aside the Son of God who had come to save them from the curse of sin.

I wanted us to reflect on these things today not to disparage the ancient Jews, but as always, to aid us in our own repentance and the pursuit of our salvation. The first thing we should note is just how quickly human disposition toward God can change. Isn’t that true? As long as life is humming along well according to our plans, we are happy to praise God and live our little Christian lives. But when unpleasant change comes and we are faced with disappointments, trials, or challenges, we can often find ourselves doubting the goodness of God and His mercy toward us. Perhaps we don’t start screaming for His crucifixion, but we may begin to distance ourselves from God in our hearts, and blame or question Him or otherwise hold Him responsible for making things happen that we don’t like. Like the ancient Jews, our problem here may also be that we too quickly forget the basic spiritual undercurrent to this life and pin our happiness entirely on temporal, passing things that by nature cannot endure.

How quickly we forget that we are a fallen and broken people living in a fallen and broken world. God allows us to live under these circumstance with all the struggles, temptations, pains, and sorrows inherent to it, in order that we might not mistake this life for paradise and be content with it. From God’s point of view, this brief life is given as a time for us to prepare our souls and make ourselves ready for the true and everlasting life to be revealed. His whole focus is therefore on that life to come. Our whole focus on the other hand is often limited to this life alone, and this is why we are tormented when our hopes and dreams don’t come true, and the paradise we seek to make for ourselves here and now never comes to fruition. We may spend many years trying to find happiness here only to find it all taken away in a moment.

At such times it is easier to blame God than to correct our own thoughts and reevaluate our whole perspective. It would be far better to ask ourselves what were we thinking in the first place. Did we forget that our flesh is growing weaker day-by-day? Did we imagine that if we had enough money, health, love, or good times that we would live forever in that state and never die? Have we found despair because our biggest dreams in life were never about being pure in heart and knowing God, but about having the ideal family, the nice home, and a financially-secure retirement? If we are driven throughout life by the wrong desires, can we not see that God’s gentle correction--even if unpleasant now--is for our eternal benefit?

When sorrows come, as they absolutely must to a fallen people living in a fallen world, can we see that these are given as a chance for us to return to God and place our hope in Him alone? Also, don’t we understand that the degree of bliss we will enjoy in heaven is directly proportional to the degree of suffering we endure now with faith? Jesus taught--and the lives of all the saints and martyrs confirm--that we should rejoice when sorrows befall us now, for great is our reward in heaven. Suffering is not a punishment, but a gift of life from the God of life. If we seek only to enjoy unspotted happiness here, we shall not enjoy a life of blessedness there, and that is an unchangable fact.

The Jews living under Roman oppression sought only one thing, freedom from that oppression to live as they pleased. When Christ did not seem to provide them that, they turned against Him. We are living under the oppression of sin and death and all the sufferings these bring to us and we likewise want them all to go away. If they do not, perhaps we fall into the error of the Jews and reject Jesus ourselves. God could make our sorrows go away, just as Jesus could have been the earthly king that the Jews wanted. But this would not bring salvation. How much better it is for us to accept our struggles, our weakness and pain, and bring the Suffering Servant Jesus Christ that much more into our hearts and lives. In this way we will find peace no matter what befalls us, and the joy of Pascha and our own personal resurrection with Christ will be that much greater in all of us.

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

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

St. John Climacus Sunday

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

On this Fourth Sunday of Great Lent, the Orthodox Church commemorates St. John Climacus, who was a 6th-century monastic, bishop, and true saint who is best known for his book “The Ladder of Divine Ascent”. This book was originally intended for those involved in monastic endeavors, but over the years was found to be useful for all serious Christians who sought to subdue the sinful passions and purify their love for Jesus Christ. Each of its 30 chapters--called “steps”--encourage the reader to increasingly put away the love of earthly things and continue in an upward climb, as if rung by rung, progressing in both virtue and the love of God, toward a state of spiritual perfection in Christ.

Sadly, these things seem to describe the Christianity of a distant, bygone era. Today’s Christians do not seem terribly concerned with subduing their sinful passions or attaining virtue and the perfection of love in Christ. On the one hand are the people who insist that God already sees them as perfect because of their faith in Jesus. These deem any effort to progress in holiness as an attempt to “add to” the righteousness of Christ and equate it to the foolishness of the Galatians. On the other hand are the weary Orthodox and perhaps other traditional Christians who may have taken a few weak stabs at correcting themselves but have been overwhelmed by the enormity of the task or the coldness of their hearts toward God. We can easily surrender to a kind of laissez-faire Orthodoxy, which is nothing more than a beaten-down, discouraged cynicism that we can do no better to improve our response to God’s transforming love.

Compared to the Christianity of long ago, we are living in a time of great spiritual darkness and faintheartedness that often makes even the smallest spiritual effort seem incredibly difficult to us. Things as simple as keeping our little rule of prayer can often overwhelm us and seem infinitely beyond our meager abilities. We don’t know a great deal about being strict with ourselves or of forcing ourselves to do the things that are hard. We loathe spiritual struggle and much too quickly accept the notion that a kind of spiritual mediocrity is the best we can ever hope for in our lives.

But St. John Climacus understood that man was created for much higher and greater things. We are created to work together with God, in synergy, uniting our will and action to His grace and divine energies to accomplish what we by ourselves alone could never do. There are many places in Scripture where we are specifically told to cooperate with God in this way and to labor diligently and daily to eliminate sin from our lives and progress toward Christian perfection.

One such place can be found in II Peter chapter one, in a passage that sounds remarkably like a ladder of divine ascent itself. Having just reminded us of our high calling in Christ and the things available to us by His divine power, the apostle continues: “Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge; and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness; and to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity. For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But he that lacketh these things is blind, and cannot see afar off, and hath forgotten that he was purged from his old sins. Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall: for so an entrance shall be ministered unto you abundantly into the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” [2 Peter 1:4-11]

Notice how St. Peter makes it plain that those who remain barren and unfruitful, though they were purged from their previous sins, are not guaranteed salvation as if by “faith alone”. Cooperation with God in the cultivation of the Christian virtues is necessary to make our calling and election sure and for entrance into the kingdom to be granted unto us.

The subduing of our many earthly passions and the formation of one focused passion for God, along with the growth in virtue that this brings, is the biblical characterization of the true Christian life. As Orthodox Christians, we must seek to embrace what the Scriptures teach and our Holy Tradition echoes concerning the Christian life, which is one of divine ascent from the fallen state in which we now exist to the exalted state God intends for us.

I think it is important to remember on this Sunday of St. John Climacus that the Church is not suggesting we should all live as monks. You don’t even need to read the Ladder of Divine Ascent if you don’t wish to. But what we do need is to live as Christians, and in so doing, to constantly push ourselves to reach for more of Christ in our lives, setting our affection on heaven above, not on the things of this world.

Beloved, I know that we can get tired and discouraged. By this point in Great Lent, we often feel very tired and discouraged. Perhaps we have seen more setbacks and failures than progress, and feel that our lent has been--to borrow a lyric from the Moody Blues--”another day’s useless energy spent”. But then again, perhaps we haven’t honestly given lent the full effort it deserves. We may have found it too easy to fall back into old habits: skipping lenten services or dragging in late on Sundays, praying sporadically, fasting incompletely, always keeping God at arm’s length, and making little sustained effort to draw near to Him during this time. We may protest that Orthodoxy is too demanding or sets the bar too high for “ordinary folks” like us. But maybe we’ve simply made ourselves out to be a little too ordinary and have forgotten our high calling in Christ Jesus. God is offering us something of unspeakable value--truly the offer of a lifetime--yet we may be too wedded to the ordinary to accept.

This is why remembering St. John Climacus and his Ladder of Divine Ascent is beneficial, even for those who’ve never read it and never will. At least when we hear of it in church, it serves as a reminder that our lives are not meant to remain mired in the ordinary. We are called to continually urge our souls upward, despite their great reluctance, and experience the joy of their union with our Sweetest Lord Jesus. This is the purpose of Great Lent. May we seize the precious few days that remain to continue our ascent to glorious Pascha and the bliss that awaits beyond!

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