homily for 9/6/2020 – love the Lord Jesus

1 Cor. 16:13-24

“If any man love not the Lord Jesus, let him be anathema” (1Cor 16:22).  It is significant that the Apostle singles out this one thing – to love the Lord Jesus.  In this he echoes the words of our Lord Himself saying, “the first and greatest commandment is this; Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and soul and mind…”  If indeed the greatest commandment is to love God then of course the essence of the Christian faith is to love the Lord Jesus because He is “the only begotten Son of God … true God of true God … of one essence with the Father … Who for us men and for our salvation … was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man…”  Thus if we would be Christians, if we would follow Christ, then the first and foremost requirement is to love the Lord Jesus.  Now it’s easy to say, “Of course I love the Lord Jesus, I pray a lot and I come to Church and put some money in the offering.  I even take communion once in a while.”  But this is not what it means to love the Lord Jesus Christ.  Again, our Lord Himself told us, “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for another.”  In saying this, certainly the Lord was speaking of His own crucifixion and death which was the result of His great love for us, but He was also speaking to us about our love for Him.  If we wish to truly love the Lord Jesus Christ, then we must follow His example and lay down our lives for Him.

The martyrs did just this in a very literal sense – they were killed for their love for Jesus Christ.  But not all of us are called to martyrdom and yet all of us are called to love Jesus Christ.  We must lose our lives for His sake, die to ourselves that we might live for Him.  We must surrender our lives so that we might receive His life in return – not just at the hour of our physical death, but now, today, this very moment.  To this end our Lord tells us that if one wishes to follow Him he must, “deny himself, take up his cross and follow Me.”

So then, how do we come to love Jesus Christ so completely, with our whole being?  Such a love is divine and it is not possible for us to love God on our own strength.  If we wish to love Him, we must first ask Him to give us this love – not just once but every day, every moment.  And God Who has promised to give us every good thing will surely give us this essential love.  However, God always acts with us, and so there are some things that we must do to acquire this gift of divine love and use it to love Him.

First we must give up our own lives – we must give up the flawed, worldly, egocentric, selfish life that we live now.  We must truly “deny ourselves” and instead of living the way we want to live, we must begin to live according to the Law of God; we must live lives of righteousness; we must conform our lives to His. Consider this, if you love someone you will do whatever you can to please them, to make them happy.  To that end you will find out what your beloved likes and you will then search to find a gift that conforms to that desire.  You will set aside your own plans so that you can participate in the activities and interests of your beloved.  You will begin to change your own appearance to appeal to your beloved.  This is exactly how we must act towards Christ.  He has described the life that He desires in the law and the prophets and in the beatitudes.  He has told us what to avoid, how to correct ourselves if we do fall into sin and what things to emulate and seek after.  This is the life of righteousness that is the expression of our love for God.  It may be that doing all these things is beyond your strength and such a life is not possible for us – but God will help.  Remember that with God all things are possible.  If we begin to make an effort He will come and cooperate with us and fill our effort with His grace so that it not only affects our external actions but that we are changed internally as well – transforming our very essence.

So this then is the first step – to set aside your own life and to live a life of righteousness.  No longer do the things that please you, but do those things that please God Whom you love.

Secondly remember the words of the Apostle John: “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?”  Therefore if we wish to love God who we can’t see then we must also love our neighbor who we can see.   To love our neighbor as ourself is also the commandment of the Lord Jesus saying that it is the second great commandment.  God loves all men – which by the way includes you.  If you would be like God, then it is necessary to love others as you would love yourself.  This means that we will kind and considerate towards our neighbor, we will be patient, tolerant and compassionate towards him.  We will be merciful and forgiving towards him. (read again the 13th chapter of the 1st epistle to the Corinthians in which the characteristics of love are described and ask yourself if you act this way towards all men) In as much as we do these things to our neighbor, we have done them to God.  God knows that it is sometimes difficult for us to focus on that which we cannot see and so He gives us our neighbor as a focus for our love for Him.  We cannot see God and so He tells us to love our neighbor who we can see.

Steps one and two – love God, love your neighbor – follow closely on the instruction of our Lord concerning the greatest commandments.  There is yet one more thing that we must attend to if we wish to love God.

Thirdly, if we love someone, we are constantly seeking to be with them; to speak with them, to listen to their voice, to feel them nearby.  If we wish to love God we must enter into communion with Him.  This communion we accomplish by our prayer.  Our prayer “rule” is not just a rule, but more importantly it is an opportunity to talk with God, to be in His presence, to listen to Him and to become aware of His presence.  If we wish to love Him then we need to take advantage of this opportunity as frequently as possible.  When we pray, sometimes we pray according to the prayers that we have learned from the scripture (especially the Psalter) or from the saints who wrote down their own prayers as a model for us.  Sometimes we pray with our own words – from the heart as it were – expressing our own pressing needs and desires or telling God of our joys and sorrows or simply giving thanks to Him for the bounty that He has given to us.  Sometimes we pray with tears and sorrow, confessing our sins and asking God to forgive us our sins.   Sometimes when we pray we stop saying anything and listen to the voice of God within our hearts or hearing Him in the Gospels as we read, or learning from the lives of the saints. Sometimes we pray by ourselves – in our closet where we can block out the world – and sometimes we pray with others remembering the words of the Savior who told us that where two or three are gathered there He is with us.  We join our voices and our hearts together to create a symphony of prayer that we offer to God.  Sometimes we pray at home and sometimes we pray in the Church.  Indeed the Apostle tells us to pray without ceasing and so we should strive to do – in everything speaking to God and listening to Him as He speaks to us.  Of all the prayers that we can say, there is one that has been shown over and over from time of the Apostles till now to be the most beneficial and that is the “Jesus prayer”: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  When there is no other prayer, this one prayer should be on our lips and in our hearts.

To pray is to commune with God and is an expression of our love for Him.  This is the third element of acquiring the all important love for God.

The heart, the core, the essence of the Christian faith is to love the Lord Jesus.  Let us therefore strive to love Him, not just with empty words but with our whole being.  In this way we are transformed by His grace, we become like Him, we are united to Him, we are with Him now in this life as we will be with Him in eternity.  When we have this love for the Lord Jesus, then we can say with the Holy Apostle his very next word: “Maranatha” meaning “Come Lord Jesus.”

Homily for 8/23/20 – debts and forgiveness

Matt 18:23-35

In this parable that we just heard, the Lord speaks of debts – of a great debt owed by a servant to his king and a small debt owed from one servant to another.  There is another place in the Gospel that we hear of “debts” and that is in the Lord’s prayer, the “Our Father” (“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”).  Here it is our debts to God that we speak of as well as the debts of others towards us.  Again, there is a great difference in the magnitude of these two debts for our debt to God is insurmountable while the debts of our neighbors are but trifles.

For a moment, let us look at this debt which we owe to God. What is this debt, how did it accrue? To answer this question we must look first at what we have received from God.  St Gregory Palamas describes God’s bounty to us saying: “Observe how many great gifts God has bestowed on us, … I shall, however, briefly mention those gifts which surround us from without. All things visible and invisible, God made for man’s sake. Nor was it just the heavens, the earth, water, air, fire and everything they contain, and all the species of animals and plants which we cannot enumerate in detail, that He made for man, but also the multitude of different kinds of angels, some of whom He appointed to guide the world and lead the nations, as God’s prophets, who learnt these things from Him tell us, and other, to be ministers for the sake of those who are to inherit eternal salvation as the great Paul, who also was taught by God, reveals to us. But why speak only of His creatures? For our sake He made Himself man. What speech can express the words He Himself uttered for us, His way of life, the virtues He taught us, the greatness of the miracles which He did for us? By far the greatest miracle of all was that He gave Himself over to death for our sake, rose again and ascended for us …” This description only touches on the “external” gifts without even beginning to mention the “interior” gifts which emanate from our nature which was created in God’s image and likeness (as these are too wonderful and high to even begin to comprehend – Ps. 139:6).  God was moved to bestow these gifts on us “before we sinned against Him, (to) mercifully make up for what was deficient in our nature with His many bounties. Then after we transgressed, He was not only constantly forbearing, but in His abundant compassion He continually gave us more and better gifts and led us onwards.” The reason that God gave us all this, both the interior and external gifts and all the bounties of His mercy is to provide us with all that we need to work out our salvation.  This is what is behind God’s great generosity to us – that we might use what He has given us to draw near to Him, to develop His likeness inherent in us from creation and to enter into communion with Him.

Now God freely gave all these things to us, however, we did not use them according to His purpose.  We “stole” all these things from Him and used them for our own purposes.  This is where the debt comes in.  God freely gave us an abundance of gifts expecting us to use them and return them not only as they were, but multiplied 10, 50, 100 fold.  The parable of the ruler who gave his servants each a sum of money (one, five and ten “talents”) to use during his absence reiterates this for us as well.  When the ruler returned, the servants who used their talents to acquire more were rewarded whereas the servant who neglected his was punished.  But we have not only neglected the wealth that God has bestowed upon us, we have misused it, abused it and even twisted it to the satisfaction of our earthly desires.  We have not only neglected our gifts but we have squandered them.  Now when God comes seeking the return on His “investment” we have nothing to give Him – not even the original gift.  This is the unpayable debt that we owe to God.

Returning to the Gospel lesson, the servant who owed the unpayable debt to the King fell prostrate before the King and begged for patience.  The King, hearing the desperate plea for mercy from his servant not only was moved to patience, but He forgave the entire debt outright.  So God does for us.  When we realize our sin, confess it before Him and put ourselves – broken, impoverished, worthless – at His mercy, He not only withholds punishment, but He forgives the debt and bestows even more and greater gifts on us so that we can begin again to work out our salvation. 

St Ignatius (Brianchaninov) writes: “…let us be reconciled with God. ‘But if a wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed, keeps all My statues, and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him; because of the righteousness which he has done, he shall live.’ Such a promise is given by God to the sinner through the words of His great prophet.   Let us reciprocate, as much as our feeble strength allows, the Lord’s great love for us, but only in accordance with our situation as fallen creatures of a loving Creator. Let us repent! Let us repent not only with our lips. Let us prove our repentance not with a few, fleeting tears, not with a superficial participation in the Church’s services and rites, with which the Pharisees were content. Together with tears, with external piety, let us reap a harvest worthy of repentance. Let us change our sinful life to a Gospel life.”

This kind of repentance on our part and total forgiveness on God’s part should have an effect on us – our lives should change from being centered on our own desires and on worldly gain and possessions to being a “Gospel life” that is a life that is dedicated to becoming like Christ, to acquiring the grace of the Holy Spirit and by it being filled with the light of Christ.  St Nicolai of Ochrid teaches us: “Repentance is the seed, forgiveness is the fruit.  Seed is of no use if it does not bring forth fruit, and no sort of repentance is of any use without forgiveness.”

Returning to the Gospel parable, we see the truth of these words played out before us.  The first servant, having repented before the King and having received forgiveness then went out and found a fellow servant who owed a minor debt.  The same scenario is replayed with the debtor begging for patience on the part of his creditor, but this time there was no forgiveness.  When the King heard of this hard hearted act on the part of his servant, he recalled that wicked servant, chastised his lack of forgiveness and reinstated the debt that had so recently been forgiven.

St Gregory Palamas says in his sermon on this Gospel that “God presents Himself to us as an example of active kindness.”  This is exhibited first in His great generosity to us and then second in His boundless forgiveness in response to our repentance.  But when we do not imitate Him in return, when we do not take His example as the model of our own life – when our repentance is devoid of the fruit of forgiveness – then God sees that our repentance was not genuine and that we are not yet ready to change our way of life, to live a “Gospel life”, to strive to make His likeness real in our own lives. God will not force us and thus withdraws from us.  As a result we are not forgiven and are again subject to the punishment of God for our unpayable debt.

“Forgive us our debts” we pray, but then we add the all-important words, “as we forgive our debtors”. Even in the Lord’s prayer the necessity to follow Christ’s example, to change our lives to live a “Gospel life” are evident.  We owe to God a great and unpayable debt.  When we cry out with repentance asking God for mercy, He not only withholds judgement but He forgives us completely.  And having received from us the seed of repentance, He now awaits the fruit of forgiveness promised in that seed.  Let us change our lives, let us no longer live for ourselves, but live instead the Gospel life, the life of Christ.  Let us no longer waste and squander the bounty of God’s mercy and love which He has bestowed upon us, but let us now begin to use every bit of it for its intended purpose – that we might grow into His likeness, be filled with the divine light of the Holy Spirit and enter into eternal union and communion with Him.

homily for 8/9/20 – faith and works

We all have faith.  Every person who ever lived has had faith. When He created us, God incorporated into our being a variety of different qualities – reason, creativity, desire, feeling, and among many others: faith.  All of these qualities were given to us for one reason and that is so that we could use them in order to grow into the likeness of God.  When our first parents fell into sin, God began to plan their healing and restoration into communion with Him.  He chose the aspect of faith to accomplish that healing.  Faith then is the starting point of our return to God – but not just any faith.  The faith that serves to bring us back to God must be focused in the right direction, it must be directed toward God Himself and not to any other thing in creation.  As I said, we all have faith; but our faith can rest in a variety of places.  We all have faith that if we drop something it will fall, we have faith that the sun will rise in the morning and set in the evening, we have faith in the micro-processes of our cells to grow and process the food and air that we take in.  We have faith in an abundance of things in this world – but God now tells us to remove our faith from everything else and anchor it in Him alone.  It is this faith in God that is the means by which we are saved – that is the means by which we are healed and restored to communion with Him.

Faith, as the Apostle says, comes by hearing and so faith in God is born in us when we hear the Gospel – the “good news” of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ.  This faith is then marked by our absolute trust in the Word of God, following His directions in how to order our lives so that we might be in a position to receive and retain the transforming grace that He pours out upon us.  And at this point we begin to see the relationship between faith and works.  James, the brother of the Lord, teaches us that “faith without works is dead” by which we know that works are the expression of our faith.  If we truly believe, i.e. if we truly have faith, then we will act on that faith.  If we believe the words of the Lord then we will strive to fulfill those words in our own lives – again as the Apostle James says, we will strive to become “doers” of the word and not just “hearers”. 

Just as faith without works is dead, so also works without faith are empty and without any effect.  In order for our works to have a salvific effect upon us they need to be rooted in faith – and again, not just any faith, but faith in Christ.  The Apostle Paul demonstrates this in his words on “love” saying if we do not have love, then our words are as sounding brass and tinkling cymbals – without the love of God our words are just meaningless sounds.  Thus it is with all of our works which are not born out of and linked to faith – they are meaningless actions, having (perhaps) the appearance of Godliness, but without substance.

Taking all this into consideration, let us now look at the Gospel that we heard today.  Having fed the 5000 and dismissed them, Jesus then put the disciples into a ship and dispatched them back to their home while He stayed to pray alone on the mountain.  During the night, there was a great storm on the sea and the ship with the disciples was in danger of sinking.  Then, through the storm, they saw Jesus coming to them, walking on the water.  Inspired by this miracle, Peter’s faith grew into an intense flame and he called out to Jesus asking to come to Him walking on the water.  Jesus bid him come and so Peter left the boat and began walking on the water toward Jesus.  But seeing the waves, his faith in Christ faltered and was overwhelmed by his “faith” in the consequences of the wind and the waves and being in the water.  Peter began to sink and his faith was immediately reoriented to the only One who could save him and he cried out “Lord save me”.  Jesus, of course, was there and lifted Peter out of the water and placed him in the boat.

Peter’s faith was at first strong and linked only to Christ.  He acted on that faith and putting all his trust on the calling of the Lord to come to Him on the water, Peter began to walk on the water.  As long as his works (walking on the water) were born out of his faith in Christ and actively linked to that faith, he was able to continue walking on the water.  But as soon as his faith wavered – as soon as the link was broken, the works became empty and Peter began to sink.  When Peter’s faith in Christ resurged again with his prayer, “Lord save me” then Jesus was there to pull him up and bring him to safety in the boat.

Peter’s actions here show us clearly that our faith must be rooted firmly in faith in Christ – and when that is the case, when our faith is focused solely on Christ, then our works will be effective and powerful.  But when our faith in Christ wavers – when we are distracted by our faith in our own reason, or in the worldly “laws of physics” or in anything else – then our works lose their power and effectiveness and are empty.

We must first have faith, and that faith must be firmly tied to our Lord Jesus Christ.  Believing in Him, we then order our lives according to His commandments, even when they don’t coincide with the logic or reasoning of the world.  We must be firm and uncompromising followers of Christ because the moment that we allow our attention to wander, the moment we are distracted by the wind and waves of the world, then the link between our faith and our works is broken and rather than working out our salvation we are again limited by the boundaries of this world and no longer can we reach out to heaven.

Faith and works – these two things go together.  Our faith must be expressed by our works, otherwise it is nothing more than philosophical or mystical speculation that has no real effect on us.  Our works must be rooted in our faith, otherwise they lose any substance and meaning and become empty shells.  Not only must our faith and works be linked, but our faith must be anchored to the only source of Life, that is Jesus Christ.  If we place our faith in anything else (false gods, philosophies, logic and reason, the expectations of the world, etc.), then we are limited by the object of our faith and our works will no longer lift us into the Kingdom of Heaven but will drag us down to Hell.

First and foremost – believe in Jesus Christ.  Put all your faith in Him.  Strengthen your faith by hearing; the hearing of the Word, reading the Gospels and the other scriptures, attending and attending to the Divine services, reading spiritual books, spending time in prayer.  Educate yourself on the commandments of Christ – what does He expect of us?  All of this is in the Gospels and is expounded upon by the Apostles and the Holy Fathers and Mothers of the Church.  Then knowing His commandments do not doubt but step out boldly to act on those commandments, fulfilling them in your life, giving form and substance to your faith.  And God seeing you act on your faith will shower His grace upon you and will not abandon you nor let you down but will lift you up to Himself.  Buoyed up by even a moment of pure faith, Peter was able to walk on the water as though it were dry land.  When you are likewise supported by a whole life given over to faith in Christ there is nothing that will stand in your way and keep you from coming into the presence of God in the Kingdom of Heaven and with the saints and angels singing the praises of God and being filled with the light of His glory.

Homily for 7/26/2020 – Why are we sick?

Matt 9:27-35

Today in the Gospel we heard how our Lord healed many people who came to Him.  In the Gospels, we hear of many healings and it seems as if everyone who came to the Lord was healed immediately. (In fact I can only think of one instance where the healing was not complete and that was the blind man who after the Lord’s first touch could only see “men as trees walking” and who was then fully healed by our Lord as He touched him the second time.)  We also hear of miraculous healings in the lives of the saints and of the holy God-bearing elders, but then it also seems that we ourselves do not always experience such healing, even when we believe that our faith is strong. What is the reason for this? Why do we as Christians get sick and when we are sick why are we not healed?

First we have to look at our “black and white” and “either or” mindset.  Just because a person gets sick, or even dies from the sickness doesn’t mean that God did not see their faith and hear their prayer.  God loves us – this should always be our starting proposition.  God is unchanging and His love for us is boundless and so if it ever seems to us that God doesn’t love us, or that He doesn’t care for us, then the problem is not with God’s love, but with our perception of His love.  We are seeing the situation incorrectly and so, like the blind man, we need to have our eyes opened.  We need to see ourselves and our situation with God’s eyes, not according to our own blind fantasies of what we think should be.

So, why do we get sick then?  Remember first that God’s perspective is a lot longer than ours – He sees not only what happens today and tomorrow – not only next year or even for the rest of our life.  He sees from the perspective of all eternity and it is in this perspective that He intervenes in our lives.  Let us then take this from God’s perspective for a moment.  God loves me and cares about me on such a detailed level that even the very hairs of my head are numbered by Him.  If I get sick, therefore, it must somehow be a manifestation of His love.  Perhaps He sees that I am full of pride and false bravado thereby putting God to the test to “prove” His love by protecting me from my ridiculous self.  And so He allows me to suffer the consequences of my foolish pride in order to help break it down and to bring me to humility.  Perhaps He sees that I am impatient and demanding and so He allows me to experience this sickness that requires me to be patient and to depend on others.  Perhaps He sees that I have the seeds of patience in my soul, but they need to be nurtured so that they will grow.  Perhaps He sees that my plans and intent will lead into danger (whether physical or spiritual) and by this illness I am stopped and the danger averted.  Perhaps God sees the seeds of some sin in us, and as a loving parent punishes us in order that we might turn away from our sin. Such examples of how God’s love might manifest in this manner are endless once you begin to consider the situation from His perspective.

In the life of St Varus, it is recounted how, after his martyrdom, his relics were taken by a Christian widow who buried them in her own city and built a Church in honor of the Martyr.  This widow, Cleopatra, had an only son who she entrusted to the care of the saint and she would pray every day that the saint would protect her son and preserve him in the Christian life.  To her great sorrow, her son, John, died suddenly. Cleopatra, in grief, turned to the relics of Saint Varus, complaining bitterly that he had not heard her prayers and had ill-treated her. She begged the saint to return her son. After this, in a dream, Varus and John appeared to her in radiant bright attire with crowns upon their heads.  St Varus then asked which she would rather have – a son who was in service to an earthly king (for John had been a soldier), or her son who was now enrolled in the service of the Heavenly King.  Cleopatra realized that the saint had indeed heard her prayers and that the death of her son was not a denial of God’s love, but was rather a greater blessing than she had realized.

Sometimes, however, healing is just what we need in order to consolidate the work of God in us and allow us to work with full strength to incorporate the glory that He bestows on us.  Sometimes we suffer to the limit and then are healed when, at the last moment, God finishes His work in us. God knows that we are weak and that we have our limits and when we reach the extent of our endurance, He will stretch out His hand and provide relief, giving us a rest or even complete respite so that we can regain our strength and again engage in the labor of working out our salvation.

God loves you and wants the best for you. That best, however, is defined not in human or worldly terms but in heavenly terms.  That best that God wants to provide for us is for us to live throughout eternity in the light of His presence and to share in the grace that flows from His being.  That “best” requires suffering and struggle to help us to repent and completely rid us of the taint of sin in our heart. It is as if there is a deep stain on the cloth of our divine wedding garment (that is the soul) which needs to be scrubbed with vigor in order to remove it and perhaps even repaired where it was damaged. Such struggle and repentance then opens the door for great blessing and encouragement when we see the great care that our Lord bestows upon us by bringing us through these difficulties. 

Whether we get sick or not, whether we are healed or not is of no real consequence.  What is important is whether or not this sickness (or lack of sickness) leads us to God in repentance and thanksgiving and opens the door for His grace to work in us.  What is important is what we do with our sickness. Whatever cross we are given – health or illness, care giver or care receiver, joy or sorrow, etc. – we must learn to bear with unwavering grace and trust in God.  And always remember that God loves you and He wants the best for you.

Homily for 7/12/20: Who do you say that I am?

Matthew 16:13-19 ; 2 Cor 11:21 – 12:9

As He approached His upcoming entry into Jerusalem and His voluntary crucifixion, our Lord began to speak in earnest to His apostles to help them prepare for the ordeal to come.  While still in Galilee, indeed just before the Transfiguration, our Lord asked the apostles, “Who do men say that I am?” They replied with a number of different answers, “Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets.” These answers are very similar to what we might say today if asked the same question for example we might say: “Some say that you are a prophet, a great moral philosopher, a teacher or perhaps a wise man, even a guru of some sort.” Some today might even go as far as to say that Jesus is the messenger of God, or of God’s love, or of God’s judgment.  Some would say that He was a good man, or the perfect man, a great example of how to live.  All of these things are common things that are said about Jesus Christ – and they are all wrong; they all fall far short of the truth. Jesus Christ is much more than any of these.

Jesus then asked the apostles, “But who do you say that I am?” And the apostle Peter gave the definitive answer: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  This is the only true answer.  With this answer Peter confesses the great mystery of the incarnation; that “God became man and dwelt among us.” Jesus confirmed Peter’s answer saying that this was revealed to him by God and then added the blessing: “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” With this blessing our Lord pointed out to Peter the importance and strength of the confession of faith.  It is the rock upon which the Church is established and even the gates of hell cannot prevail against this confession.

Following this, the apostles entered into a whirlwind of difficulty and struggle.  They lived through the betrayal of Christ by one of their own; they witnessed His mock trial and condemnation; they watched as He was nailed to the cross and were witnesses to His suffering.  They saw His death, they buried Him and when they went to care for His body, they found Him to be missing, as if stolen from the tomb.  Their sorrow, grief and disorientation, however, were turned to joy as they also became witnesses to His resurrection and then to His ascension into heaven, hearing the promise that He would not leave them but would return.  But then, again, they were cast into a hostile world, facing persecution, arrest, torture and martyrdom because of their beliefs.  Throughout all of this one thing held them steady and that was the rock of Peter’s confession which they all shared, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God!”

We are living, it seems, in difficult times; our culture and society are changing around us at such a rapid pace that it feels as though we are living in chaos.  While some of these rapid changes are due to technology and the increased pace of life, others seem to strike at the core of our foundations, challenging the very basis of our belief and stability. It is as if we are surrounded by a multitude of wildfires and as soon as we think we have one under control, another arises.  As if the cultural change isn’t enough, now we are faced with the threat of illness and plague.  Our already stressed society is stretched even more by the governmental efforts to preserve the health of the public.  We live in the center of this whirlwind of change spiraling ever upward threatening to tear us from our anchors and cast us about at the whims of the winds of chaos.

Recognizing all this we now see the vital importance of having a strong anchor, a rock as it were, to which we can attach ourselves and to which we can always return.  That anchor is our belief, our confession of faith, our link to the unchanging eternity which is our destiny.  If we do not have a strong anchor then we will be caught up in the chaos and blown about until we are lost.  We must have an anchor that can withstand it all.  That anchor is our Lord Jesus Christ – He is the only one Who can keep us safe and deliver us from the fear, the uncertainty, the battering of the chaos in which we live. 

So now we are faced with the same question as our Lord posed to the Apostles, “Who do you say that I am?”  How do you answer that question?  Who is Jesus Christ?  If He is simply a good teacher, a moral philosopher, the perfect example of goodness, then He is merely a man caught up in the same chaos as we are and in the end such an anchor cannot hold.  In order to withstand the force of this world, we must be anchored to someone outside this world – and that is where the strength of Peter’s confession lies.  If we confess with Peter that Jesus is indeed the Christ, that is the promised Messiah, the chosen One of God; the Son of the Living God, that is of one essence with the Father, true God of true God, then our anchor in the storm of this life is the rock which is not of this world but which is the Creator of this world. Only the Creator of the world is outside the world, stronger than the world and therefore can overcome the world.

If we are going to endure and withstand all the chaos of society, culture and the world that we face in our lives, we have to have a strong and true faith.  We must be able to say confidently with Peter – Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  We must hold and nurture within our hearts this true confession of faith which is the only Rock strong enough to keep us secure in the world.  This Rock serves, as our Lord said, as the foundation of the Church, the Ark of Salvation and so if we would maintain that anchor in our lives, we must cling to the Church with all our strength.  Here is the place of our salvation, here is our security, here is our anchor.  This is the fortress and castle built upon the one true foundation, the rock of faith, the true confession of Christ. 

Therefore my brothers and sisters, every day confirm your connection to your anchor.  Repeat the confession of Peter: Thou art the Christ the Son of the Living God. Proclaim each day your confession of faith, the Nicene Creed.  Speak it not simply as a recitation from the lips or even as a mental acknowledgement of truth from the intellect – speak it from the heart and proclaim it with your whole being.  Meditate upon your confession of faith throughout the day saying “This is what I believe”.  Recall that you are anchored to Jesus Christ, God incarnate, and cry out to Him with every ounce of your strength constantly saying “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” Keep the traditions of the Christian life given to us by the Church, pray at home and in the Church as often as possible, receive the sacraments, repent of your sins and return always to the rock upon which you are anchored.  Only this strong faith, this unwavering confession of faith can preserve you throughout the strife of this life.

When the question, “Who do you say that I am?” is put to us by our Lord Jesus Christ, let us answer with one voice, with one heart, with one mouth, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”

Homily for 6/28/2020 – Tribulation and Preparation

Rom 5:1-10

Matt 6:22-33

“We glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope: and hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given unto us.”

Indeed it seems that we are faced these days with a multitude of tribulations – both large and small.  Our society and culture seem to be disintegrating before our very eyes.  There are protests and riots seemingly everywhere.  The belief and faith that we all hold as Christians is challenged and our values are being described as “hateful” and “intolerant” and “unloving”.  And then there’s the plague and quarantines, social distancing, masks and all the other little inconveniences that come with it that also magnify the “normal” stresses that we face daily; not to mention the very real fear of getting sick and perhaps even of death.  Yes, all these things are “tribulations” and it is these very tribulations that the apostle tells us are a cause for glory.  But sometimes finding the glory in all the struggle is difficult.

Our Lord, in speaking to the Apostles just before His betrayal and arrest tells them many things pertaining to His own imminent suffering and death on the cross as well as the things that would happen later.  He foretold to them many of the “tribulations” that they would face (and that we shall also face) as His disciples. All these things that we experience now have already been described by our Lord and by the Apostles themselves.  Jesus said of this, “These things have I spoken to you, that ye should not be offended” and “these things have I told you, that when the time shall come, ye may remember that I told you of them.” (Jn 16: 1-4)  These things that we face today are not new or unexpected – indeed our Lord knew that they would come and He warned us so that we would not be frightened or discouraged but rather so that we might be assured that He has us in His care and will provide for us.  He also comforts them (and us) saying, “Ye shall weep and lament … ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy. A woman when she is in labor hath sorrow because her hour is come, but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy that a child is born into the world.” And “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”

The persecutions of the Jews and the crucifixion of Christ were only just the beginning. After the Resurrection and the descent of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles and the Church as a whole were met with persecutions from the Jews, from the pagans, from the empire.  In all of these circumstances, the suffering and sorrow of the Christians was turned into joy for they saw not the darkness and suffering this world, but the light and ineffable glory of the Kingdom of God, just as our Lord had promised.  The Apostles and many saints since then have also pointed out that this “tribulation”, the persecution of the Church by Satan, will continue and escalate until the end of the world and the coming of Jesus Christ in judgement.  The Apostle Paul warns the Thessalonians, “be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled … for the day of Christ is at hand (and) that day shall not come except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed… Therefore brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught.” (2Ths. 2:2,3,15)  The Apostle John was granted a great vision of these tribulations which he described in the book of the Apocalypse.  In interpreting this greatly mystical and highly symbolic revelation for us, the fathers teach us that these persecutions and tribulations will occur over and over again, escalating each time as though in a spiral until finally the world will have completely fallen away from Christ and only a remnant will remain.  And so we see today things that seem to be unprecedented and of incomparable intensity.  This is told to us as our Lord said, “these things have I told you, that when the time shall come, ye may remember that I told you of them” and “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. … (for) I have overcome the world.”

How then shall we prepare to meet these tribulations – what do we have to do to get ready?  There are those who, putting their trust in the things of this world, stockpile food, clothing, and other necessities of life and prepare even to run to some refuge or defend with force their safety.  The Apostle Paul, however, in his words to the Thessalonians says something different.  He encourages us to “stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught.” The Apostle Paul goes on to say to his spiritual children, “the Lord is faithful, who will establish you and keep you from evil.” (2Ths 3:3) Here is the essence of our preparation – to become strong in our faith so that when we are faced with trials and difficulties, putting all our trust in God we will acquire that which is most important – the grace and joy of the Lord even in the midst of adversity and to dwell in the house of the Lord forever. 

In today’s Gospel we heard our Lord describe for us this same path of preparation in detail: “Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat and the body more than raiment? … But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”  Our efforts are directed away from the things of this world; here our Lord speaks specifically of the most basic of needs – food, drink, clothing – and if we are not to concern ourselves with these basic needs, then it follows that all other worldly concerns are even less important.  Instead of focusing on the necessities of this world we are instructed to focus our efforts on acquiring the Kingdom of God, that is to acquire the grace of God by which we are transformed into His likeness.  How are we to go about acquiring this grace?

This does not mean that we neglect our responsibilities, caring for those things that God has provided for us in this world.  If God has provided for you a job, then do that job not for yourself but for the glory of God; if God has given you a home, then remember that the home belongs not to you, but to God and you are simply taking care of it for Him; if God has given you a family, then love your family as yourself, or better yet love them as God loves them. We live in the world and so we must function in the world – but we function not for our own gain, but as God’s servants and for His glory.  Remember the servants who were each given a sum of money by their master and when he returned he asked for an accounting of how they had used and taken care of that with which they had been entrusted. God has given each of us many things in this world and it is up to us to use them to our profit.  In addition to the things of this world that God has entrusted to us, He has also given to us our lives; He has given us a span of years in which to live profitably upon the earth.  Let us use this wisely as well.

In order to acquire the grace of God, we must first repent of our sins, asking forgiveness for having lived according to our own self-willed desires and passions rather than living according to the will of God.  Then, having turned aside from our previous path, we must begin to change our lives and conform to the law of God – living righteously rather than living in our sins.  The first and most important quality of this life is humility; acquire humility and the grace of God will flow abundantly in you.  Humility is the setting aside of self-will, admitting that before God we are completely without merit – weak and needing His help.  To be humble first means to deny ourselves and this is accomplished most effectively by obedience.  Obey your parents, obey your spouse, obey your spiritual elders, obey the civil authority.  Take advantage of every opportunity to obey someone other than yourself.  Do nothing of your own will and seek a blessing from your parents, your spouse, your children, your elders for those things you wish to do. Humble yourself at every opportunity.  In this way you take up your cross and die to yourself.  This is the first step towards the kingdom of God. 

The second step is to feed your soul, fill your mind and heart with the things of the Kingdom of God rather than with the things of the world.  Read the Gospel and all of the Holy Scripture.  Read the lives of the saints. Read the writings of the fathers – and here choose to read those that are simple, addressed not to those who have already advanced in the spiritual life, rather the things addressed to beginners.  When we read things beyond our capacity then we open the door to either deception, thinking we are better than we truly are, or we become despondent being unable to actualize in our own lives that which we read. Meditate on what you have read, let it become the topic of your conversations with others, let it pervade your life. Listen to the spiritual fathers and mothers that God has given to you, learn from them as a child learns from his parents.  Fill your heart with hymns, psalms and spiritual songs (rather than worldly songs) so that it might be enlightened and refreshed.

The third step is to pray.  Don’t just recite the words of prayers, but truly pray with your whole being, with your lips, your mind and your heart.  Remember that to pray is not simply to say the words of the prayer, but to truly pray one must commune with God.  In the beginning (and remember we are all beginners here) we use the words of the prayers to occupy the lips and fill our ears with the sound, focus the mind, driving out all worldly thoughts and evoking the feelings of the heart with warmth toward God.  Pray with your whole being and you will be filled with the grace of God.

Do these things: repent of your sins and live according to the law of God; feed your soul with spiritual food; pray with your whole being.  If you do this then your sorrows will indeed be turned to joy, tribulation will result in glory and you will find the Kingdom of God that you seek.

Summary of an interview

Recently I was asked for an interview about what I saw as the effects of the plague and quarantine.  I am summarizing below some of the questions and my responses.  Certainly none of this is complete (a lot of stuff that was non-essential to the core meaning was edited out) and yes, I know it ends rather abruptly, but I wanted to share this with you all in any event.

– What issues do you see among your parishioners during this pandemic?

There are about 4 overall issues that I see, not only among my parishioners, but within society at large:

1. Fear

2. Dehumanization

3. Loneliness

4. Confusion of political belief and spiritual truth

1. Fear: unreasoning fear of that which we do not understand which leads to panic, a sense of helplessness and finally to despair. 

2. Dehumanization: or depersonalization.  People are created by God to be communal by nature – we are “one body”, we share a common ontological essence, we were made to commune (i.e. be social) with one another.  Social distancing, face masks and of course the above mentioned fear all interfere with that.  We see another person more often as a “threat” and so distance ourselves from them rather than unite with them.  The face mask hides the mouth – which after the eyes is the most expressive of our human personality – and again results in “objectifying” people.  We don’t talk to one another like we used to because it’s hard to hold a truly intimate conversation at 6+ feet.  Communication is reduced to just the functional necessities.  We are all becoming marooned on isolated islands separated from one another by shark infested waters.

3. Loneliness: for all of the previous reasons we are increasingly alone – and lonely.  People are prevented from reaching out even to loved ones. 

4. Confusion of political belief and spiritual truth:  Too often I have seen people, even good pious Orthodox Christians, equate their political views with spiritual truth and this leads to dogmatizing political beliefs and even deifying political leaders who agree with you – all of which lead away from Christ and the Church. 

– What lessons we should learn from this situation as Orthodox Christians?

Trust God, pay attention to the day that He has given you here and now.  Don’t attend to those things over which you have no control.  Turn off the news, the social media, the gossip, the rumor mill and focus on the Gospel, spiritual books, the divine services and especially your prayers.  Take care of the things that God has put in front of you today (your family, your job, the welfare of your home and your spiritual life).

It seems as if the world is falling apart – but don’t panic for so it must.  This was all foretold to us by our Lord and by the Apostles and prophets.  God knew this would happen, He warned us so that we would not be afraid or panic and so that we would remember that He is all-powerful and that He loves us and cares for us.  That, by the way, is an important thing to remember – God loves you, cares for you and desires that you will be saved.  If you hold onto that, then nothing else can disturb you.

– Which groups became most and less vulnerable (regions, ages, races, occupation)?

I think the most vulnerable people that I have run into are those who recently immigrated from countries where they (or their parents) had been subject to intense persecution.  The response to and regulation of society due to the plague have triggered memories and fears from the “bad old days”.   This has caused some extreme distress among these groups.

The other “group” that I think has suffered are those who are married, especially with children.  Having to stay at home in constant contact with one’s spouse and constantly barraged with the demands of children puts a lot of stress on relationships.  Little things, which normally would not be noticed, all of sudden blossom into a crisis which if not solved could even lead to the destruction of the marriage.

– Could you please recommend how it is better to deal with stress during and after pandemic and quarantine?

Trust God.  God’s providence for us is complete and perfect.  There is nothing that comes to us that is not part of that providence.  When God provides us with joys, then that joy has a place in working out our salvation; when God provides us with sorrows, then that sorrow has a place in working out our salvation.  All things work together for good for those who love the Lord.  Trust God; He loves you and He knows what He’s doing (and it is for your eternal welfare).  He will take care of you.

– Are you foreseeing some specific psychological issues in the period of recovery from the quarantine?

No one knows what the “new normal” will actually look like.  I think that there will be some disorientation as new practices and customs take root.  I also think that there will be some grieving for the “good old days” that we lost.

Another observation is that there seems to be an increase in the voices of people who want to radically change society – and they are using the distress and immanent change of the plague and quarantine to lend force to their demands.  This will result, most likely, in the destruction of our accustomed way of life and will usher in a “new” society.  But God does not change and He loves us, so all we have to do is to hold onto the Rock and Anchor of our Salvation, remain in the safe ark of the Church, and we will come through these turbulent waters.

Homily for All Saints: He who loves father or mother more than Me…

Matthew 10:32-38 & 19:27-30

“He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me…”  These seem like harsh words, almost unexpected from the mouth of our Lord.  He who commanded us to “honor your father and mother” in the 5th commandment and who has instructed us to love others as we love ourselves now seems to tell us that we must turn away from those who are dearest to us – our parents, our children, even our spouses.  But this is a false interpretation of the words of our Lord.  Indeed it points up the great danger of just taking a word or phrase out of scripture and interpreting it in isolation.  We must understand these words in the context of everything that our Lord taught to us, in the context of the whole tradition of the Church. 

What our Lord is telling us here is that in order to follow Him, we must always keep Him in His proper place and not get things out of order.  God is our father and mother even before we were born into this world.  It is from Him that we draw our being, He it is that made us.  Our earthly parents only served as the means by which God brought us into being.  To say that we must love God more than our father or mother is to say that we must love the One Who gave us being more than we love the tools which He used.  That does not mean that we do not also love our parents (or our children, or our spouse) – indeed we do love them because that is what God intended for us. Rather it means that we love God first and even more than these. 

God can say this because not only does He love us and not only did He bring us into being, but He also brought our parents, our children, our spouses into being and He loves them with the same boundless and infinite love that He extends to us.  He expects that we all – our parents, our children, our spouses, and ourselves – love Him with our first and greatest love.  In this knowledge is the freedom to let go of all that we love, putting them in the hands of the One Who loves them more than ever we could, that is God Himself. We have therefore been freed of the necessity which binds us to those we love – frees us from the chains of worldly love and we are free to follow Christ wherever He leads us.  Consider the Apostles, to whom He spoke these words. They left everything to follow Him (as we hear Peter say later on).  If they had not loved God more than these, if they had not had the confidence that God loved them and would care for them, if they had not released them into God’s hands, they could not have done all that God asked of them.  The Apostles would not have been able to go out into all the world to proclaim the Gospel, they would have been tied to the things they loved.  But they loved Christ above all else and so were able to put everything else into His hands in order to fulfill His will. 

Does this mean that we ignore our parents, children and spouses?  For this we look at the example of our Lord.  As He was hanging on the cross He turned to His mother, whom He loved and loves greatly and rather than abandon her, He places her into the care of the Apostle John, whom He loved as a brother.  In this way, these two that He loved were not left without provision or consolation, but supported one another in the work of Christ.  This is what we hope for ourselves, not only to live for Christ, but to have those we love living for Christ alongside us.  But whether or not they do, still it is our Lord Jesus Christ for whom we live above all others.

Then our Lord goes on to say “he that does not take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me” and “he that loses his life for My sake shall find it.”  That which has a hold on us in this world more heavily than anything is that which we love.  By first instructing us to love Him above all else, He has freed us to take this next step – to give up our lives for Him.  He tells us “take up your cross”.  This by itself is a great step because the cross is no simple thing.  The cross implies our death and not only that it implies that we will suffer.  Indeed that is what we now face – to sacrifice the one thing that we hold dear above all else in this world: myself. To sacrifice yourself is no simple thing and it does involve a lot of suffering, because the process of letting go of this world is difficult at best.  And the world does not let go of us easily either – it pulls and tugs with all of its pleasures and memories and comforts.  Disentangling ourselves from these ties to the world involves suffering – suffering that we inflict upon ourselves.  I am not speaking here of physical suffering, but of the kind of suffering that we experience in our soul as we give up each of these small habits, comforts, pleasures and attachments to the world.  We must indeed “lose” our worldly lives so that we may gain the true Life in Christ.

The cross and this personal death tell us one very important thing.  This is a clean break, a starting over, the beginning of something new.  In a symbolic sense “fathers and mothers” speak of those who taught us and supplied us with earthly wisdom and knowledge while “sons and daughters” represent the ideas and actions that come out of our own worldly nature.  These things we must set aside – instead of the former wisdom of the world, we need to receive the wisdom of Christ.  Instead of our own ideas and actions, we need to conform ourselves to His will.  We must love Christ more than we love these things of our own self.

We do not bring anything with us into this life in Christ, but He now provides all things and we are completely dependent upon Him for everything.  This is the life that He promises us – but in order to have it, we must give up everything of our own and be content with all that He gives to us.  But what wealth He gives to us!  “That God abundantly heaps His grace on those who do His works is most clearly witnessed to us by the example of the holy apostles. That twelve men, of simple birth and trade, having no armies or riches, earthly glory or might, could leave their homes and kinsfolk and set out over the whole world to bring the Gospel of Christ … (had) the courage to stand against the false learning of the most learned, the ephemeral riches of the most rich and the evil power of the most powerful in the world – how could simple fishermen have dared, had not God nourished them with His wisdom, defended them with His power and armed them with His weapons? … How abundantly the Lord nourishes His servants! How abundantly He supplies His faithful sons! How abundantly He, as Commander, arms His soldiers.” (St Nicolai of Ochrid)  Furthermore when Peter responded to Christ saying, “Behold we have forsaken all and followed Thee; what shall we have therefore?” Jesus answered saying to the apostles and to us all, “Everyone that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father or mother, or wife or children, or lands, for My name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold and shall inherit everlasting life.” “Did not the apostles and saints receive in this world a hundred times more than they had left for the sake of Christ’s name? Have not hundreds upon hundreds of churches bearing their names been built all over the world? Do not just hundreds, but millions of men and women call them their spiritual fathers and brethren? God’s promise, given to Abraham, was literally fulfilled in God’s saints: their spiritual offspring have indeed become as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is upon the sea shore (Gn. 22:17). Have not women saints, martyrs and maidens become spiritual mothers and sisters to very many of the faithful, who, following their example, have become Christ’s disciples? Are there no apostles and saints nowadays on earth, as there have been through the whole history of the Christian Church: multitudes of its spiritual children and spiritual brides? Leaving their homes and their lands, have not all the homes of the faithful become their homes and lands? Leaving a little – even at the beginning of their apostolic mission – they all received much; they were not poor nor lacked anything. Spiritual offspring are much more numerous than those of the body. Spiritual gain is greater than material gain. And so the Lord adds that they will all, above all else, gain eternal life.” (St Nicolai of Ochrid) This heritage is not only theirs, but ours as well – if we follow Christ above all.

Today is the Sunday of “All Saints” – all those men, women and children, known and unknown, recognized and hidden who have entered into this heritage.  Today is the day when we recognize that there are many more saints that we could ever name and remember.  Today is for all the saints – and that means that today is also potentially for you and I, each one of us who will love our Lord Jesus Christ above all else and follow Him.  If we persevere to the end of our lives, today is our day as well, for indeed we are all called to be saints, to live His life as our own and to be transformed into the image and likeness of God.

5/31/20 – The Christian Life

Forty days after His glorious Resurrection, our Lord took the disciples out to the Mount of Olives and there gave them some final instructions and a blessing.  As He blessed them, He began to rise from earth to heaven, ascending in glory to sit on the right hand of the Father and to await our coming to Him in heaven.  As they watched Him ascend, an angel appeared to them, reassuring them of the promise that just as they saw Him go, so also He will come again to take those who follow Him to Himself.  Having received this promise, the disciples then left the mountain and returned to Jerusalem.  What now? What would they do with this great gift they had received?  Certainly they had two great promises which to hold onto – that Jesus would come again and the promise that in a few days He would send upon them the Holy Spirit Who would empower them and guide them in the proclamation of the Gospel throughout the world.  But, still there was uncertainty.

One thing, however, was certain, and that was that the Tree of Life, which had been cut off from mankind when our first parents sinned and were exiled from the Garden of Eden, has been restored to us.  Once more we can partake of the divine Life of Christ in the Holy Mysteries of His Body and Blood. Though they had nothing else at this time, still they were sustained by this great Mystery.  The source of Life is restored to us, the doors of heaven have been opened again and our Lord invites us to this great banquet saying, “Whoever eats of My Flesh and drinks My Blood has eternal life and I will raise Him up at the last day.”  Here we have the key element of the fulfillment of the promises of Christ; as we partake of the His most holy Body and most precious Blood, His Life is communicated to us – that same Life that is found in the coming of the Holy Spirit; and having received that Life within us, by this we will be raised up at the last day. 

See how vital is the reception of this great Mystery.  It cannot be neglected, indeed it is necessary for our salvation.  We should take every opportunity to receive this great Mystery, never neglecting it for any reason.  St Mary of Egypt, whose life we heard just a few weeks ago, received this Mystery as she departed into the desert and again at the end of her life; it was the one request she made of the Elder Zossima – to bring to her the Holy Mysteries.  There is an account of a nun in Romania who was imprisoned during the communist domination of that country and she literally survived the entire time of her imprisonment eating nothing, only partaking of particles the Holy Body and Blood of Christ which had been secretly sewn into the lining of her clothing.  This is the power and importance of the Holy Communion.

This Holy Food of the Tree of Life is prepared for us and offered to us – and now we must also prepare to receive it worthily.  By preparation, I do not refer to the formal preparation of fasting, confession and prayer rules (which are certainly important and should not be neglected) but rather a greater preparation which involves the transformation of our whole lives.  To demonstrate this, the Church holds up for us today the Holy Fathers of the First Ecumenical council.  These holy fathers (318 bishops from throughout the known world) gathered to declare the truth of the incarnation.  This became necessary because of a priest, Arius, who began to teach that Jesus Christ was not of the same essence as the Father.  This council declared that which we now all confess together at each Divine Liturgy and every day as a part of our prayer rule: that is the Nicene Creed. “I believe in one God the Father almighty … and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten of the Father, begotten not made, of one essence with the Father…”

One might say, “Well yes this is true, but what does it have to do with my daily life – how does it impact me in my regular life?”  To answer this, let us listen for moment to the heretic Arius as he explains the difference.  “You Fathers, say, Christ is God-Man. His Divinity and His Manhood are unchangeable and indivisible; one is in the other, so that it is impossible to tell what is in what.  There is no separation between God and Man.  Therefore, you make the conclusion that a Christian must always and everywhere be a Christian – in his family life and in his social life – always and everywhere be a Christian.  But I (Arius) say that Christ is God and Man.  His Divinity and His Manhood are divisible in Him. And this gives us the right to also separate our life; in regard to religion to be Christians, to worship Christ; but in our private and civil life to live the way we want, as we lived before, in a pagan way.”  This is it then, if Arius is right then we can separate out our Christianity from the rest of our lives – put our faith into a little cubbyhole and only pull it out when it is necessary to be “religious”.  The rest of the time, we can be just like our neighbors and live a worldly life. 

But the Fathers of Nicea answered Arius: “Then you, Arius, and your followers cannot be Christians. You do not understand the meaning of Christ’s coming down to earth.  Christ was incarnate not only to reveal to us the true teaching about God, but also to live according to God.  He came on earth to fulfill the commandment of love for God and neighbor.  And he requires fulfillment of this commandment from us.  Those who do not fulfill this commandment will remain pagans and will receive the same thing that pagans receive.”  And here we see the importance of this dogmatic formula – because our Lord Jesus Christ is inseparably divine and human, so also we must become inseparably human and divine.  Our whole lives must be transformed, we must struggle to no longer live like the world, but to live in the Life of Christ which is bestowed upon us by His Resurrection, by our Baptism, Chrismation and in the Holy Mysteries of His Body and Blood.

It is not possible for us to order our lives along the lines of the world – adopting worldly values and ideas, behaving in a “socially acceptable” and “law-abiding” manner. No, that’s not enough, we must be first, foremost and always Christians.  We must order our lives according to the commandments of Christ – we must make our lives the living expression of the commandment to love God and love our neighbor.  We must live according to our faith, acting on the basis of our belief and trust in God’s love and providence for us. 

We are slowly but surely emerging from the disruption of our lives caused by the plague which has afflicted seemingly the whole world.  We are encouraged to enact certain personal and social practices (social distancing, self-quarentine, good hygiene, wearing masks, etc) which certain experts say will preserve us from the plague and which in some cases are enacted as law by the government.  As long as these do not overrule our Christian life – to love God and to love our neighbor – we should make the effort to comply.  But these things are not what preserve us from the plague (or any danger for that matter) – the only thing that preserves us is the Life of Christ which we receive in His most Holy Body and in His most Precious Blood.  Now, more than ever, we should make every effort to attend to the Divine Liturgy, to receive this great sacrament and to cooperate with the grace and action of the Holy Spirit to transform us into the likeness of Christ.  To stay away from the Sacraments for “health reasons” or out of some sense of worldly “caution” is utter foolishness – for in doing so we defeat our very purpose.  We cannot save our lives by avoiding the Life that God gives to us.

Brothers and sisters, every day we confess that our Lord Jesus Christ is God incarnate – fully God and fully man – His divinity being inseparable from His humanity.  Let us live according to that faith and depend not on our own wisdom or the wisdom of the world for our well-being, but rather to place all our hope in the Lord our God Who has made heaven and earth and Who loves you as His own child and gave Himself for you that you might give yourself to Him. Receive the Life that He offers you and make it your own.

Why aren’t we immune?

Why aren’t we immune? Why doesn’t God protect us? Is our faith too weak? Why do Christians get sick with the plague, even in Church?

First we have to look at our “black and white” and “either or” mindset.  Just because a person gets sick, or even dies from the sickness doesn’t mean that God did not see their faith and hear their prayer.  God loves us – this should always be our starting proposition.  God is unchanging and His love for us is boundless and so if it ever seems to us that God doesn’t love us, or that He doesn’t care for us, then the problem is not with God’s love, but with our perception of His love.  We are seeing the situation incorrectly and so, like the blind man, we need to have our eyes opened.  We need to see ourselves and our situation with God’s eyes, not according to our own blind fantasies of what we think should be.

So, why do we get sick then?  Remember first that God’s perspective is a lot longer than ours – He sees not only what happens today and tomorrow – not only next year or even for the rest of our life.  He sees from the perspective of all eternity and it is in this perspective that He intervenes in our lives.  Let us then take this from God’s perspective for a moment.  God loves me and cares about me on such a detailed level that even the very hairs of my head are numbered by Him.  If I get sick, therefore, it must somehow be a manifestation of His love.  Perhaps He sees that I am full of pride and false bravado thereby putting God to the test to “prove” His love by protecting me from my ridiculous self.  And so He allows me to suffer the consequences of my foolish pride in order to help break it down and to bring me to humility.  Perhaps He sees that I am impatient and demanding and so He allows me to experience this sickness that requires me to be patient and to depend on others.  Perhaps He sees that I have the seeds of patience in my soul, but they need to be nurtured so that they will grow.  Perhaps He sees that my plans and intent will lead into danger (whether physical or spiritual) and by this illness I am stopped and the danger averted.  Perhaps God sees the seeds of some sin in us, and as a loving parent punishes us in order that we might turn away from our sin. Such examples of how God’s love might manifest in this manner are endless once you begin to consider the situation from His perspective.

In the life of St Varus, it is recounted how, after his martyrdom, his relics were taken by a Christian widow who buried them in her own city and built a Church in honor of the Martyr.  This widow, Cleopatra, had an only son who she entrusted to the care of the saint and she would pray every day that the saint would protect her son and preserve him in the Christian life.  To her great sorrow, her son, John, died suddenly. Cleopatra, in grief, turned to the relics of Saint Varus, complaining bitterly that he had not heard her prayers and had ill-treated her. She begged the saint to return her son. She dreamt that Varus and John appeared to her as radiant in bright attire with crowns upon their heads.  St Varus then asked which she would rather have – a son who was in service to an earthly king, or her son who was now enrolled in the service of the Heavenly King.  Cleopatra realized that the saint had indeed heard her prayers and that the death of her son was not a denial of God’s love, but was rather a greater blessing than she had realized.

God loves you and wants the best for you. That best, however, is defined not in human or worldly terms but in heavenly terms.  That best is to live throughout eternity in the light of His presence and to share in the grace that flows from His being.  That best sometimes requires great blessing and encouragement, and at other times might require suffering and struggle. 

Whether we get sick or not is of no real consequence.  What is important is whether or not this sickness (or lack of sickness) leads us to God in repentance and thanksgiving and opens the door for His grace to work in us.  What is important is what we do with our sickness. Whatever cross we are given – health or illness, care giver or care receiver, joy or sorrow, etc. – we must learn to bear with unwavering grace and trust in God.

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