StNicholasSouthbridgeII

Go to content

Main menu

Meditations

 
 

To access other pages simply hover your mouse over "Meditations" and move  it to the right or to the left.

From St. Ephrem of Syria’s First Hymn on the Nativity of the Lord

This is the night of the Sweet One; let us be on it neither bitter nor harsh.
On this night of the Humble One, let us be neither proud nor haughty.
On this day of forgiveness let us not avenge offenses.
On this day of rejoicings let us not share sorrows.
On this sweet day let us not be vehement.
On this calm day let us not be quick-tempered.
On this day on which God came into the presence of sinners,
let not the just man exalt himself in his mind over the sinner.
On this day on which the Lord of all came among servants,
let the lords also bow down to their servants lovingly.
On this day when the Rich One was made poor for our sake,
let the rich man also make the poor man a sharer at his table.
On this day a gift came out to us without our asking for it;
let us then give alms to those who cry out and beg from us.
This is the day when the high gate opened to us for our prayers;
let us also open the gates to the seekers who have stayed but sought forgiveness
This Lord of natures today was transformed contrary to His nature;
Today the Deity imprinted itself on humanity, so that humanity might also be cut into the seal of Deity.



HE BECAME LIKE US SO THAT WE MIGHT BECOME LIKE HIM


“How is he contained in a womb, whom nothing can contain? How held in his Mother’s arms, he who is in the Father’s bosom? This is all as he knows, as he wished and as he was well pleased. For being without flesh, willingly he was made flesh; and He Who Is, for our sake has become what he was not; without departing from his own nature he shared in our matter; wishing to fill the world on high, Christ was born in two natures.” (Christmas Day Matins)

The great mystery of the Orthodox Christian faith is that the incomprehensible, almighty, eternal, and infinite Second Person of the Holy Trinity, God the Son, also partook of the finite, limited, ignorant, and mortal human nature that we all share. It is an article of faith that He became “like us in every way but sin” (Hebrews 4:15). In other word, the infant Jesus really and truly was utterly helpless, in need of the same care as any other baby. Though, as the eternal Son of God He continued to uphold the universe, as the Son of Mary—the “Son of Man”—was completely dependent on others for survival. This is the great paradox of the Christian faith and forms its central theme: He became like us that we might become like Him (St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of Christ; The Liturgy of St. Basil: “He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, conforming to the body of our lowliness, that He might change us in the likeness of the image of His glory”).

He became like us, so that we might become like Him!

What an astonishing affirmation of God’s love—and of our potential! Think of it, if He had simply come down from heaven in the full power and might of His divinity, He would have merely shown us what we already know: that He is perfect and we are not. But in choosing to share in the fullness of our nature—from the very moment of conception—He also chose to make our nature perfect, to show us that we can truly be healed of our afflictions, sin, and death because He has taken all these things on and redeemed them. What we could not do because of our weakness, He has done through taking on our weakness. This can only be expressed adequately in the poetry of Scripture and the Church’s hymnody. The rational mind cannot grasp it, which is why our faith is opaque to those who would rely solely on philosophy or science to make sense of the world. To accept the mystery of God-with-Us in the flesh, we must take a leap of faith, in love.

We must take a leap of faith, in love! Love alone can explain (if that word is even adequate) why God would become one of us and faith alone can accept it. There is no logical reason for the gift we receive in the incarnation of Christ. Strict justice would demand the annihilation of our race for its sins (and the condemnation of each one of us, for our constant failure to repent). Love alone can explain God’s compassion and forgiveness—to the point of even lowering Himself to become what we are.

Madeleine L’Engle, an Episcopalian writer and poet, in a poem about the Virgin Mary contemplating the birth of Jesus (alas, I cannot trace the poem anywhere) portrays the Mother of God watching a cockroach run across the door-sill and imagining a love so strong as to be willing to become such a creature! The point of the poem, at least as I took it, was that the willingness of God to condescend to our nature was akin to our willingness to become cockroaches for the sake of their nature! Of course, she was taking poetic license—but the whole, extraordinary point is that God’s leap from His infinite holiness to our finite brokenness is far, far, greater than the leap from being human to becoming a cockroach!
The hymns and carols of Christmas are full of such poetry and wonder. As we enter the season of Advent and contemplate through prayer and fasting the mystery of Christ’s birth, let’s take time to read the Scriptures and hymns appointed for the pre-feasts and festivals of Christmas and Theophany and let them sink deeply into our hearts.

May the Light of Christ which fills this Holy Season, enter each and every home and bring with it the joy that comes from that “wondrous love” which knows no limits or bounds in its compassion for us.

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus,  who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God,  but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, andcoming in the likeness of men.  And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, 1that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth,  and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11 NKJV)


THE REASON FOR THE SEASON: JESUS IS GOD


Nearly 1600 years ago there arose a great controversy between the Patriarchs of Alexandria and Constantinople over the nature (or natures) of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Nestorius, the Patriarch of the Imperial City (Constantinople) had declared that it was wrong to refer to the Virgin Mary as ‘Theotokos’  (Birth-giver, or, Mother of God).  He stated that Mary was the mother of the man Jesus, but could never be the Mother of God (who has no beginning and who cannot be limited in any way). He stated that it was foolish, if not sinful, to refer to a mortal woman as the mother of the immortal God.

On the surface Nestorius’ argument seemed quite logical. But Cyril saw more deeply into the implications of his opponent’s point of view If Mary is not the Mother of God but simply the mother of a man, he reasoned, then why should we worship him? In fact, offering worship to a mere man would make us idolaters!
Nestorius said that He believed that Christ consisted of two separate subjects (identities) one of which was human and the other of which was divine. When the Gospels spoke of the human subject (the one who hungered, was afraid of death, wept for his friend Lazarus, etc.), it was the man, Jesus, that they were referring to. When they spoke of the One who raised Lazarus and the son of the widow of Nain from the dead, who walked on water and stilled the raging storm, then it was the Eternal Word of God who was being referred to. For Nestorius the two were united in the “Christ”.

St. Cyril objected to this by saying that there could only be one ‘subject’ in Christ—only one ‘identity’, only one ‘Person’, the Eternal Word and only begotten Son of God. In this case, Mary, as the one in whose womb the Eternal Word of God took flesh, could and must be called the Mother of God. Of course, Cyril did not believe that Mary gave birth to the Son of God from all eternity. She gave birth to Him in the flesh, at a certain time and place in history—in the ‘fullness of time’ as the Scriptures teach (Galatians 4:4-5).
And that is very heart of why Cyril’s teaching matters so much. In the fullness of time God Himself became a man—a human being in the tininess of a young maiden’s womb, carried for nine months, born among animals in a manger, growing in wisdom and strength through the years of childhood and adolescence, preaching the Kingdom of God and doing miracles in His manhood, and suffering a violent death at the hands of His own creatures that He might rise in glory by His own divine power! God, Who is without beginning, Who is infinite and without any kind of limitations, became finite and limited, “emptying himself and taking on the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:7).
The great mystery of the Incarnation, according to St. Cyril, is that we can truly say that God—Personally— united Himself to our broken and limited condition in order to heal our nature and to restore us to communion with Himself.

He left nothing that is natural to us outside His experience. He took on a human body (from the moment of conception); He had a human mind, soul, will, emotions—everything that pertains to being human, while at the same time remaining unchanged in His divine nature. He became what He was not (human) while remaining what He was ( the eternal, almighty, all knowing Word of God).  We confess this every week when we sing:
“Only Begotten Son and immortal Word of God, Who for our salvation willed to be incarnate of the holy Theotokos and ever-Virgin Mary, Who without change became man and was crucified, Who are One of the Holy Trinity, glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit: O Christ our God, trampling down death by death, save us!”
St. Cyril, as with all truly Orthodox teachers, was wise enough to say that this is a mystery beyond human comprehension. We can believe it, but we cannot fully explain it. In fact, Nestorius’ problem was exactly the same problem the all heretics have—he relied too much on intellectual reasoning alone to try and ‘solve’ the mystery of God. He attempted to put everything into neat, logical, categories, forgetting that the wisdom (logic/reason) of God is foolishness to the world and the foolishness of God undoes the wisdom of the world (see 1 Corinthians 1:21-25).

This directly relates, of course, to the great mystery we celebrate on Christmas—that a weak and tiny baby is at the same time the eternal God. He is not merely ‘veiled in flesh’, He is made flesh. He unites Himself fully and completely with human flesh, and He will never again be separated from it.
We can never speak of Jesus without at the same time speaking of the Eternal Word and Son of God. Jesus is the Eternal Word and Son of the Father. JESUS IS GOD.  And on that our salvation depends.

If Jesus were a man somehow united to the Word of God (as ‘the Christ’—whatever that means), then we are not saved. Unless Jesus IS the Word of God made flesh, then He can do nothing for us. He would be nothing more than another prophet, as the Muslims teach.
St. Cyril, along with all the Orthodox teachers, confessed that the flesh of Christ is life giving because it has been united inseparably with God. The fact that we receive holy communion—believing it to be the “body of our Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ”—is a concrete statement of our faith that Christ is one, that He cannot be divided into a ‘human’ side and a ‘divine’ side. They is only One Christ, One Divine Person, who has taken on our human nature so that we might be lifted up from degradation, death, and satanic oppression.

Our faith is not ‘neat’. It does not accommodate itself to human categories of thought. It cannot be explained or contained by philosophical arguments. But neither can love. Love cannot be explained or contained in mathematical equations. It must be experienced. It must be given and received. It is a mystery beyond comprehension, and yet, anyone who has ever experienced it knows that it is real—perhaps the most real of all experiences. And in the end, the deepest and truest expression of God is that of Love. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son…”
St. Cyril knew that. Nestorius just couldn’t get it.

The mystery of Christmas is that Infinite and everlasting Love entered into the world, into our smallness, into our weakness, into our foolishness that we might one day be made great and strong and wise in Him—that we too might Love fully and without limit, even if we will never be able to find words to adequately explain it.


WHY GOD BECAME A MAN


“What mysteries beyond mind and speech! God in His compassion is born on earth, putting on the form of a servant that He may snatch from servitude to the enemy those who with fervent love cry out: Blessed art Thou, O Savior, who loves humankind” (Matins of the Pre-feast of the Nativity of the Lord)

Why did God become a man? Why did He take on the weakness of our human nature? What was the true purpose of the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity?
The answer to those questions reveals the fundamental mystery of our salvation; the “mystery of mysteries” which we ponder as we prepare for the celebration of our Lord’s birth in the flesh.
Over and over again the answer is given: because He loves us, because it is His will to save us from our oppressor, from the malice of the enemy who has enslaved us to fear, to sin, to death.
The surpassingly beautiful hymns of the Christmas services proclaim over and over again the mystery of Love Incarnate.

“The holy sayings of the Prophets have been fulfilled in the city of Bethlehem within a cave. The whole creation is made rich: let it rejoice and be of good cheer. The Master of all has come to live with His servants, and from the bondage of the enemy He delivers us who were made subject to corruption. In swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, He is made manifest a young Child, the pre-eternal God.”

Not only does He come for the sake of lost humanity, but, “the whole creation is made rich”! The very cave in which He is born is sanctified; the lowly beasts are witnesses to the unfathomable compassion of the Lord of All the Worlds!

Orthodoxy has never forgotten the words of St. Paul in Romans chapter eight  where we are told that the whole creation has waited expectantly for the revelation of the Son of God, for the healing of the whole universe, which had been subjected to futility and suffering on account of the rebellion, first of the angels and, through temptation, humankind.
What beauty! What a sublime and lovely revelation of God’s mercy and compassion! He comes for the sake of all—no one, no thing, is excluded!

“Let the creation now cast off all things old, beholding You the Creator made a child. For through Your birth You shape all things afresh, making them new once more and leading them back again to their first beauty.”


Here are echoes of the hymns which we sing in Great Lent, reminding us of the “rustling leaves of Paradise” which we lost through disobedience. Now they are spiritually restored to us, now the whole creation is put back on the road to salvation—to it’s original beauty.

“Behold, the Most Holy Word comes unto His own in a holy Body …. By a strange birth He makes His own the world that was estranged. To Him let us sing in praise, who became poor for us.”


What is the purpose for His coming? Why did God become a man?
To put an end to alienation and estrangement, to reconcile, to heal, to redeem, to undo the curse of separation.


“Let the kings of the whole earth sing rejoicing, and let the companies of the nations be exceedingly joyful. Mountains, hills and hollows, rivers and seas, and the whole creation magnify the Lord who now is born!”


The world is no longer separated into hostile ethnic groups, no longer subject to the caprice of fallen nature, because we recognize the “new creation” which is being established mysteriously in our midst—the Church! The wise men from Persia and the Chosen nation, Israel, come together to witness the birth of the Savior. The stars bear witness, the earth offers a cave, the lowly beasts offer their warmth, the human race offers our flesh through the Virgin mother. The old divisions are overcome! Who can fully comprehend this mystery?


“What shall we offer Thee, O Christ, who for our sakes has appeared on earth as man? Every creature made by Thee offers Thee thanks. The angels offer Thee a hymn; the heavens a star; the Magi, gifts; the shepherds, their wonder; the earth, its cave; the wilderness, the manger: and we offer Thee a Virgin Mother, O pre-eternal God, have mercy on us!”


Look as hard as you will in the hymns that proclaim the Lord’s birth, look as hard as you will in the Scriptures that record His coming among us and you will find no other message than that of liberation from darkness and perversion. You will discover no other reality than the joyful response of God’s creation to His infinite Love and Mercy. There is no wrath, no anger, no talk of judgment (except for the judgment laid against the enemy who corrupted us--and against those, like Herod, who consciously and knowingly reject Christ and attempt to destroy Him). There is only the gospel (good news) message of restored communion between God and His creation.

“Heaven and earth are united today, for Christ is born! Today God has come upon earth, and man has gone up to heaven. Today for man’s sake is seen in the flesh He Who by nature is invisible. Therefore let us also give glory and cry aloud to Him: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, which Thy coming has bestowed upon us, O Savior, glory to Thee!”


How beautiful this mystery! How infinitely gracious, our God! Who can possibly tell of all His mighty works? Who can fathom the depths of His compassion and love? How precious the Name of the one by Whom we are saved: Jesus, our Emmanuel (God-with-us)!




THE EVER-VIRGIN, MARY, IS THE 'MOTHER OF GOD'


One of the most deeply contested areas of conflict between the heretic Patriarch, Nestorius, and Cyril,  the Orthodox Pope of Alexandria, during the great  fifth controversy over the true identity of Christ was the term "Theotokos", or Bearer-of-God. It was used to describe Mary as the mother of God.

Nestorius wished to divide Christ into a human subject (personal identity) and a divine subject; the 'human subject' was the one that got hungry, wept for his dead friend, Lazarus, feared death, and so on, while the divine walked on water, raised Lazarus, and referred to himself in divine terms. Cyril, as we have seen, rejected such a division by teaching that the  one who wept, got hungry and agonized in the garden of Gethsemane was the very same one who raised Lazarus, walked on water, and raised himself from the dead after his crucifixion. Both the divine and human natures were united in one and the same person--God the Eternal Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.
Nestorius, since he denied that the flesh of Jesus was God (since it was created), also took offense at the idea that Jesus' mother could be called the "mother" of God. The virgin, Mary, might be called the "mother of a man" or " the mother of Christ", but never the "mother of God". Nestorius basically wanted to protect  the uncreated God from being contaminated by creaturely human flesh. It is something of a paradox that virtually every heresy has had this same objective! How could the uncreated truly and personally be inseparably united with our created nature? It is logically impossible,  philosophically ridiculous, theologically outrageous.

Cyril, on the other hand, confessed that salvation is possible ONLY if God had united himself fully, completely and personally to our creaturely nature. Any other understanding would render the whole event a farce, a joke in bad taste! It was precisely because Jesus is truly Emmanuel (God-with-us) in the most intimate way possible--as one of us--that what we are can be redeemed and healed. He followed the teaching of the Scriptures themselves from the Old Testament prophets to the New Testament witness of the gospels--especially St. John's--and the writings of St. Paul. Only if God became a man could the human race  be returned to its original vocation of union with God.

This leads us to the proper place of Mary, the ever-virgin Mother of God.
She was one of us, born under the power of original sin--meaning suffering the effects of the cosmic disaster that befell the human race in the Fall. And yet, filled with the grace of God, she freely chose to become the birth-giver of the Savior, Emmanuel, God in the flesh, Jesus Christ. She became the mother in the flesh of the Eternal Word, the only Begotten Son of the Father. Since his human body, his human mind, will, emotions--were all taken from her, and since he is God, then she can be none other than 'Mother of God'! She did not give birth to his eternal nature, but she most certainly gave birth to all that is human in him. And from the moment of his conception there could no longer be any separation or division of what was human from what was divine in him. God the Eternal Word has become eternally united to our humanity. Without ceasing to be what he was (uncreated, uncircumscribed, eternal, divine, only-begotten Son) he became what he was not (created, en-fleshed, circumscribed in his humanity, son of man). The paradox of paradoxes has been revealed, the infinite joined to what is finite, the Almighty to the weakness and powerlessness of the creature.

It is terrible philosophy, outrageous theology! But it is the truth and grace and love of God. The Messiah is both divine and human united in the one, divine, person of the Word of God. There is no other subject in him. The same "I" that thirsted is the "I" who says that "I and the Father are one". The same "I" who weeps for Lazarus is the "I" who proclaims, "Before Abraham was I AM". And Mary is his mother. The voice that uttered from the mouth of Jesus is the voice of God and the tongue that spoke them was given form in the womb of Mary and called her, "Mother". If he did, then so must we. One cannot be fully Christian and fail to confess her as Mother of God. It is as simple as that.

ST ATHANASIUS ON THE INCARNATION


Bethlehem make ready; let the Manger be prepared; let the Cave receive. The truth has come, the shadow has passed away, and God has appeared among men from a Virgin, formed as we are and making divine what he has put on. And so Adam is renewed with Eve as they cry, ‘God’s good pleasure has appeared on earth to save our race’.  (Hymn from the First Royal Hour of Christmas)

“God has appeared among men from a Virgin, formed as we are and making divine what He has put on”—these words summarize for us the whole point of the incarnation and birth of Christ. God became one of us so that we might share in the light and love of His divinity.

St. Athanasius puts it this way:
“He, indeed, assumed humanity that we might become God. He manifested Himself by means of a body in order that we might perceive the Mind of the unseen Father. He endured shame from men that we might inherit immortality.” (On the Incarnation 54)

In other words, God had a purpose in entering into this world. He did not come to impress us with His power or to make us cower in His presence; He came to save us simply because He loves us. This is precisely what separates our faith from the mythology of the ancient world. Scholars, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries liked to make comparisons between the Christian faith in the incarnation of God and myths about the incarnation of gods) from various civilizations (Egyptian, Greek, Native American, and others. Their point was to say that Christianity was simply another myth that arose from the rich and complex cultures of its time. In doing so they missed the real point of the Christian faith in the incarnation. In none of those ancient myths did God, the Almighty and Only God, come into the world for the sake of the lost and suffering human race. In none of those myths did the Divine take on human nature in order to transform and change it. None of them were concerned with love for humankind.

The problem with the “scholars” (some of whom are still with us and teach at the ‘liberal’ seminaries) was that they took surface similarities and came to very wrong conclusions. This is not so different from how statistics are handled today. Using the same information economists, politicians, and social engineers on the left and right arrive at very different conclusions. Usually this is because they fail to ask the deeper questions about the matters they are considering. They have already come up with their theories and seek data to support it. The “biblical scholars” and “theologians” who sought (and still seek) to explain away the incarnation, Virgin birth, the miracles and the Resurrection were generally people who had already come to their conclusions on these matters and simply looked for the “statistics” (“evidence”) to prove their point. This isn’t so different from what the scribes and lawyers—the scholars of Jesus’ time did.

Now, the point here is not to put down scholars. St. Athanasius, St. Gregory Nanzianzus, St. Basil, and so many others were great Christian scholars; they were able to preach and teach the faith in both simple terms and in deeply philosophical terms when they had to. But the bottom line is that our faith cannot be ‘proved’ (or disproved, for that matter) based on scholarly theories. Faith goes deeper than scholarly wisdom and theory can reach. It is based on a personal relationship with the One in Whom we believe. When it comes to faith in Christ, it all comes down to a relationship of love. We believe in Him, we believe in His claims, because we believe in His love for us. We believe in the power of that love to transform us and to save us from the terrors of death and sin. We know and believe that only One with the Power of God, only One Who is the Power and Love of God in the flesh can do this.

St. Paul, in speaking about the Resurrection, put this succinctly in I Corinthians, chapter 15, when he states that if Christ is not risen our faith is futile and we are nothing but fools for having wasted out time in believing. But, he (St. Paul) puts faith in the context of grace—the grace to believe, to have faith, freely given by God’s love. We can believe, we do believe because of this grace, which is available to everyone who wants it.

For the believer there is the certainty of God’s love and the logic of His love in action in Jesus Christ (the Logos—Reason of God, Who is love). Without this “logic of Love” human beings will always arrive at wrong and sterile conclusions.  The world did not run to follow Osiris because no one ever claimed that he loved us, likewise Quetzalcoatl, or Mithra, or any of the other pretended mythological incarnations. The world ran to follow Christ because He was one of us, a real person, connected to a real People, with a real purpose and calling from God.   

At this time of year, when we recall the initial events of our salvation in the Incarnation and birth of God in the flesh, it is great refreshment to listen to the words of the hymns of the Church—the great Christian hymns from every generation and place and especially to read the words of the prophets and the gospels. I am always personally struck by the power and beauty of Handle’s, Messiah, where the words of the Scriptures leap to life with all their power, eloquence, pathos, radiance, and joy  literally sung aloud to reach into our hearts and reaffirm the grace of God-with-Us.
The “mind” or “intellect” is fragile and easily swayed by fears and doubts, but a heart that loves is unassailable. If our hearts are grounded in the love of Christ then His grace will be sufficient to enlighten our minds to “perceive the Mind of the unseen Father”, and we shall become like Him, “that when He appears we shall be like Him, for we shall see him as He is” (1 John 3:2).







No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.
 John 3:13-17 (The Sunday Before the Elevation of the Cross)

The gospel reading for the Sunday Before the Exaltation of the Cross makes the Orthodox teaching on salvation beautifully clear. God became incarnate and suffered for our sake because He loves us. The Second Person of the Trinity, God the Eternally Begotten Son, came to save not a pre-selected few, but the entire cosmos--the entire created order.
This is an immensely positive understanding of both God and humankind. Anyone who encounters Christ and believes in Him (through repentance, confession, and right action) is saved. Of course, it is vital that a person's encounter with Christ is true. That means that Christ must be proclaimed in truth and with understanding. An encounter with a falsely proclaimed Christ will bear no real fruit.
What does this mean?

Quite simply, there are many outside the Church who proclaim a false Christ. Some are so very far outside the Church--outside the Orthodox proclamation of the gospel of the crucified and glorified Christ--that there is no difficulty recognizing them. The Jehovah's Witnesses, the Mormons, various "Gnostic" or "New Age" teachings about Christ are examples of such “heresies”. But, there are others who in the public mind are very much "Christians", who proclaim a Christ--indeed a God--other than the One of the Church.
How can one recognize them? By their teaching that God does not really love the world. Though they may often quote the very reading that we have as the gospel for this Sunday, what they actually teach is a God of wrath who has damned the vast majority of the human race to a burning hell and who regards the non-human creation as a mere lump of clay.

Who are these false teachers?

They go by the name of Fundamentalists and Evangelicals and their presuppositions about the interpretation of Scripture and nature of the Church are, in the end, a false gospel of condemnation.
Does this imply that the Orthodox Church condemns them in turn? As persons, no. God alone judges and tends to forgive right intention even when it is wrongly expressed. But, as the Scripture teaches, they have built "a house of straw". Infinitely more sad, they have misled millions  into believing in a God of wrath and dread and have "turned off" countless millions of others.

What is to be done?

First and foremost, the Orthodox Church needs to strengthen her mission in this country so that the right proclamation of the gospel is heard. This proclamation is the original proclamation--the one which was never abandoned by the Church. It is a proclamation of love and forgiveness. A proclamation which teaches that the love of God is "cosmic"-- it extends to His whole creation.
To do this work, we need to borrow a page from the missionary style of those who distort the Scriptures. Rather than staying comfortably within our own parishes and communities, we must go out to the larger world and let it be known that we exist--not just for certain ethnic groups, but for everyone. More important, we need to be bold about the just claims of  our Church. We have received "the truth once proclaimed" and we have never abandoned it.
That truth is the absolute certainty of God's love for each and every human being--for the entire creation. It is a love which has saved us, not from an outraged Father ( a monster god!) but from death and destruction. Christ did not overcome His Father! He over came death and the devil which held us captive to fear and led us ever deeper into despair, violence, and sin.
Our old enemy, the devil, lied to us. He led us into rebellion and then, when we were spiritually dead, he attempted to convince us that God had abandoned us to eternal death. But the love of God prevailed and our enemy was crushed. New hope was given not only to human beings, but to the entire universe which was "groaning in travail (agony)" awaiting the day of its redemption.
This beautiful image of our hope is at the absolute center of the Orthodox teaching abut the cross. It is the image of our salvation, brought about not only through the cross, but through the glory (resurrection) which the cross alone made possible.
Knowing this, who would choose the shallow and constricted teaching of a 'tradition' that extends back only five centuries, which was grounded in misunderstanding and cut off from the Undivided Church (Orthodox Christianity) at first by historical accident, then by an act of rebellious will?
So, in the firmness of our Faith, and with the joyous message of love and healing that it brings to a weary world, we must go forth to proclaim the message that never grows old. "God so loved the world...."




"Love your enemies, do good and lend hoping nothing in return and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful." (Luke 6: 35-36)

Jesus' commandment to love our enemies is one of the most bewildering of all his teachings. Our enemies have always held us in contempt for holding it and the vast majority of us have been unable or unwilling to keep it.
The reason is simple enough: it is a virtual impossibility. How do we love those who are committed to doing us harm? It is contrary to Nature itself; the laws of self preservation do not permit it! In fact, any creature that does not hate and fear its enemies is made quick work of in this hard and nasty world. At least this is the judgment of those who hold to the theory of natural selection in terms of evolution and, more specifically, to those who hold to the theory of Social Darwinism in terms of human relations.
We must take those objections seriously if we are to take the Lord's commandment seriously. If we are to truly love our enemies, then we must come to grips with the enormity of what we are actually be asked to do. We are literally swimming against the current of our very nature, we are rejecting the wisdom of virtually every political and social leader throughout human history (with rare and shining exceptions), and we will (sadly) often find ourselves standing outside the practical  experience of Church history.
To truly love our enemies will mean to learn see our self in them and not the faces monsters.
So easily said. But can this be done when we fill in the blanks with the names of those who have hurt and offended us--perhaps beyond all calculation?
Can we really love the terrorist who persecutes and murders our Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East? Can we see in him the face of the beloved?
What about those names that come closer to home? The abuser? The molester? God forbid, the murderer?
Here we are not debating whether or not such persons need to be brought to justice; there is no doubt that they must.
The real question is whether these enemies--ungrateful, cruel, and unforgiving--can be recipients of our love.
The answer is: Not without superhuman effort, not without the grace of God. But with God's help we can love even the most dreadful enemy--and this is, paradoxically, the beginning of our enemies’ undoing! Enmity feeds on hatred; it dies when it is responded to with love.
Yes, justice must be done when laws are broken (as in the cases mentioned above). But in so many cases where there is enmity between human beings, there are no legal ramifications to be considered. The enmity is personal--a bitterness in the workplace, an estranged marriage, a breakdown in the family, and so on. Here enmity does not require a judge's intervention. The Law of Love alone needs to be applied.
Think about it. What happens when one party in a dispute simply stops fighting--meaning, not simply a momentary ceasefire but a complete and utter surrender? At first there is disbelief on the part of the other party, then perhaps even more anger because the old patterns are disrupted (What do we do now?) But, over time, a new pattern emerges, one based on peaceful accommodation--perhaps even forgiveness, greater openness, and of all things LOVE!
Thus, an enemy is overcome and converted! It is foolish to underestimate the power of love. Its tactical applications are vastly underrated! Both the enemies of the Church and many within it have failed in their analysis of this simple truth. Jesus never gave teachings that were facile or weak. This is a prime example. In fact, it is an example of the supreme strength of His teachings.
This does not make following of His commandment any easier. To love an enemy is exceedingly difficult. The accomplishment of such love, however, makes one strong enough to endure anything our enemies can throw at us. This has been proven over and over again by those who have passed the test: the saints of the Church--who have survived every sort of trial and martyrdom for the sake of Christ and whose greatest gift was their love for the very ones who tormented them. In the end they often won them over.
In the Orthodox experience it wasn’t armies or inquisitions that won the day. In the end we survived and triumphed because we endured. And we endured because we loved our faith. The very best of us, the ones we honor as saints, even loved the one’s who persecuted them. We (the Church) are here and they (our enemies: the Communists in Russia, Albania, Romania; the Ottomans in Greece, etc.) are gone because our love was stronger than their hatred.


The Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom

If anyone is devout and a lover of God, let him enjoy this beautiful and radiant festival.
If anyone is a wise servant, let him, rejoicing, enter into the joy of his Lord.
If anyone has wearied himself in fasting, let him now receive his recompense.
If anyone has labored from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward.
If anyone has come at the third hour, with thanksgiving let him keep the feast.
If anyone has arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; for he shall suffer no loss.
If anyone has delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near without hesitation.
If anyone has arrived even at the eleventh hour, let him not fear on account of his delay.
For the Master is gracious and receives the last, even as the first; he gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, just as to him who has labored from the first.
He has mercy upon the last and cares for the first; to the one he gives, and to the other he is gracious.
He both honors the work and praises the intention.
Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and, whether first or last, receive your reward.
O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy!
O you ascetics and you negligent, celebrate the day!
You that have fasted and you that have disregarded the fast, rejoice today!
The table is rich-laden; feast royally, all of you!
The calf is fatted; let no one go forth hungry!
Let all partake of the feast of faith.
Let all receive the riches of goodness.
Let no one lament his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn his transgressions, for pardon has dawned from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free.
He that was taken by death has annihilated it!
He descended into hades and took hades captive!
He embittered it when it tasted his flesh!
And anticipating this Isaiah exclaimed, "Hades was embittered when it encountered thee in the lower regions."
It was embittered, for it was abolished!
It was embittered, for it was mocked!
It was embittered, for it was purged!
It was embittered, for it was despoiled!
It was embittered, for it was bound in chains!
It took a body and, face to face, met God!
It took earth and encountered heaven!
It took what it saw but crumbled before what it had not seen!
"O death, where is thy sting? O hades, where is thy victory?
Christ is risen, and you are overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in a tomb!
For Christ, being raised from the dead, has become the First-fruits of them that slept.
To him be glory and might unto ages of ages. Amen.



WITH US IN ALL THINGS—UNTIL THE END OF TIME


You went down to the deepest parts of the earth, and you shattered the everlasting bars of those that those that were fettered, O Christ. And on the third day, like Jonah from the whale, you arose from the tomb. (Paschal Canon, Ode 7)

O divine! O beloved! O sweetest voice! You have truly promised that you will be with us unto the end of time, O Christ. And we the faithful rejoice, having this as an anchor of hope. (Paschal Canon Ode 9)

One of the great objections that atheists have against belief in God has to do with suffering in the world. “How”, they ask, “can you believe in a loving God when you can so plainly see the suffering and misery in the world? Look at the terrible results of natural disasters, or, the horror brought on by war, what kind of good God would permit that?” Even believers are occasionally tempted to ask the same questions—especially when suffering and loss comes home to us.
In the events of Holy Week Christian we have been reminded that God has definitively answered the accusations of the unbelievers—and believers caught up in tragedy—that He is indifferent to our sufferings, or, worse still, the cause of them.

Where is God in the midst of suffering? The answer is; He is with us in it. The Passion of Christ is THE answer to God’s place in the agony of this world—He has taken it on Himself completely and unreservedly in Jesus Christ. In Christ, God suffered in the flesh. He who became one of us took the very worst we had to offer and forgave us. More than that, He not only endured the humiliation and agony of the cross in the singularity of His own Person, He experienced the humiliation and agony of every single being that has ever suffered—from the beginning of creation until the end, until the Day He returns to end every grief and dry every tear forever.
The message of God’s co-suffering with His creatures—with us who bear His image and likeness—would be profound enough a response to the critics, but that is not the last word. The final resolution to the “problem of pain” in the universe, to the fear and terror of death is that God, in Christ, not only took it upon Himself, but that He has overcome it. This is our “anchor of hope”, in the beautiful words of the Paschal Canon.

For the believer the last word is that no matter what happens to us, we have the absolute certainty that we are not abandoned, that our grief is not meaningless, that no matter where we go—even “into the depths of the earth” in death—we are not alone. He has not only been there, He IS there.
“In the tomb with the body, in hell with the soul, in Paradise with the thief, and on the throne with the Father and the Holy Spirit, You have filled all things, Yourself uncircumscribed”. The priest prays these words as he censes the altar just before the Liturgy. The prayer is a reminder that there is no place in the universe where God is not present, there is no place or situation where He is not with us. The conviction that we are never alone has made it possible for the Church and individual Christian believers to survive the most brutal persecutions. Our enemies could lock us away in dungeons and concentration camps, or drag us before the executioners, and yet they could not prevail against those who know to the core of their being that they have not been and will never be abandoned by Christ.

Whether or not we have to face the enmity of a hostile state, every one of us must face the heartbreak of losing loved ones and the knowledge of our own mortality. Furthermore, at some point in nearly every person’s life there are moments of humiliation, loss of direction, and doubt. The knowledge that God is with us—really and truly with us—in those times is the difference between despair and hope, meaninglessness and meaningfulness. If in those times we have Christ, then we have everything. Our enemies may deride our faith as childish, as a desperate attempt to grab at straws when all hope has failed. But our experience as Christians teaches us that whether we live or die, whether we sink or swim, we are in the same hands, we have the same constant hope.

Christ’s victory over death is not only a victory over the physical reality of death; it is a victory over the million small deaths that almost every human being experiences in the course of ‘life’ in this world. The Orthodox believer knows that he or she lives in a world that is passing away. We know that no matter how good life appears to be at any given moment on this side of the Resurrection, it is impermanent and will always come up against the tragedy of loss, suffering, and death—our own and that of all those others whose cries rise up to heaven, asking “Why?”

In the end, we don’t really want to know “why”; we want to be assured that our existence has a meaning and purpose greater than to become food for the worms. We want to know that we are not alone. We want to know that our love is not lost and that our lives are not for nothing. The Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ is God’s definitive response to the question, “What is the meaning of life”. That meaning is nothing more or less than to discover wherever we are and wherever we go—even to the “very deepest parts of the earth”—He has gone there before us and will meet us there. Beyond the sorrow is the joy, beyond the darkness there is light, beyond the corruption of our flesh is the incorruptible and unquenchable life of the Resurrection. In the end, even this weak body we now wear will be raised and made beautiful and immortal, and, as the prophet Job said, “in my flesh shall I see God”. In that day we will embrace once again all our loved ones gone before us and our eyes shall Him as He is.

In this great feast of the Resurrection, the “sweetest voice” of the promised One resounds clearly in our hearts—wherever we are and in whatever condition we find ourselves. We are not alone, we have not been abandoned, our lives are not meaningless. In the risen Christ we have that anchor, that hope, that joy, that no one and nothing can ever take away.

Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!





THE LAST JUDGMENT

   
   "When the Son of Man comes in glory...all the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will come and say to those on His right hand, 'Come you blessed of My Father inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.'....... Then He will also say to those on the left hand, 'Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me; sick and in prison and you did not visit Me'....." (Matthew 25)

   The gospel reading for the Sunday of the Last Judgment says nothing about the heavens and the earth being shaken, of stars falling and the moon being darkened--in short, it says nothing about the things that many people like to associate with the so called "End Times".  It says nothing at all about doctrine and dogma, either, for that matter.
   To be sure, the gospel and the kontakion mention the "fire" associated with everlasting damnation--a fire which has been the subject of endless (and I would be so bold as to say, pointless) speculation and debate over the centuries. But the heart of the gospel lesson for this Sunday has to do with salvation. The heart of the gospel is always about salvation and never about damnation. That has to be clearly understood.

   In the parable of the sheep and the goats, our Lord was making it stunningly clear that on the Last Day we will be judged according to how well we loved one another; according to how well we loved our neighbor (And who is our neighbor? Why, everyone we meet, of course). Jesus tells us that there will be no compromise here and that there will be clear criteria to be met in order to pass the test. Did we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, clothe the naked? Did we do this on the literal, physical level? Did we do it on the emotional, psychological, and spiritual levels?

   Let's not fool ourselves into believing that we can get off the hook. There is plenty of obvious physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual suffering within a few miles of every household in our parishes (not to mention in this vast world) that demands our attention. Call any local nursing home, or group home for the retarded or mentally ill, and ask if they could use a volunteer to visit someone who has no family contact. Food pantries are usually desperate for help. Pro life organizations such as Problem Pregnancy will never say no to donations of time or goods, and the list goes on. And its never a one time deal. We are called to give over and over again because the needy and suffering will present themselves over and over again--until the Last Day.

   We need to be careful here, however, because we are not called to be social workers in our service to our brothers and sisters in need. We are called to give because we see Christ in them--because in their faces we see His face. This is a very different approach from that of a social worker (and social work is a good and blessed form of service). We do not serve because we believe that in so doing we will  improve the world. We serve because we love our neighbor, we really do. And we love our neighbor because we are convinced that Christ loves him and us; and in this mystery of love we cannot help but reach out and feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick, and do whatever other works of mercy required of us to fulfill our calling as Christians.

   The question each of us faces today is the same one we always face and it is this: What is the disposition of my heart? How am I disposed toward my neighbor (each and everyone else--be it family, friends, co-workers, strangers)? And what am I doing to prove it?

   Once again, today's gospel is not about damnation; it's about salvation. The gospel is always and only about salvation. The goats are mentioned because some people will choose to stand on the left. No one will force them to be there. In fact, in this instance no one is a goat except by choice; just as no is is a sheep except by choice.
   Notice too, that the Lord, when He comes, will not quiz us about our doctrinal correctness. It will be sufficient that His Church keeps her doctrines pure and that we are obedient, but He will not quiz us personally about our astuteness in knowing the canons and dogmas. He will not even quiz us about our fasting. He will ask us about how well we loved one another and test us with the simple and crystal clear criteria mentioned in today's gospel.





THE LENTEN PRAYER OF ST. EPHREM



The Prayer of St. Ephrem is, perhaps, the quintessential Lenten prayer. When you think of it, it should be the quintessential prayer for each and every day of our life. For, in just a few sentences, it expresses the heart of what it means to be a Christian.

" O, Lord and Master of my life! Do not give me a spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power and idle talk. But give, rather, a spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Your servant. Yes, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother, for You are holy to the ages of ages. Amen"


"O, Lord and Master of my life..."

We immediately call to mind that our lives are not our own but that we belong to God. Contrary to the philosophical, political, psychological and ethical theories centered on the needs, rights and desires of the "sovereign self" that one can find in just about any bookstore today, we are not autonomous beings and we are most certainly not the "captain of (our) souls--the master of (our) own destinies". We are always dependent creatures--never independent. Deprived of oxygen not a single one of us can live for more than a couple of minutes, no matter how great our intellect, will, or physical courage. Our 'creatureliness' makes us by nature to be dependent on others, and most especially, to be dependent on God. It is when we finally accept this that we can turn to Him as "Lord and Master" and hope to acquire the treasures necessary for eternal life.

" Do not give me a spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk...."

The Greek form of the prayer (the original--or, at least the oldest version we have) implores that God should not give us a spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk. Some of the later versions ask Him to "take from" us those vices. The original version is more striking because it, (like the famous lines in the Lord's Prayer which ask, "lead us not into temptation"), reminds us that God has made us free and will give us over to our inclinations if we will not repent. Think of Pharaoh, whose heart was hardened against Moses and the people of Israel; he was not a good man whom the Lord led astray, but a vain and prideful man whom the Lord "gave over" to his wickedness until he went down in defeat and humiliation.

In St. Ephrem's prayer we are asking specifically not to be handed over to some very common sins. Let's look at them more closely.

Sloth is the state of spiritual laziness, the ennui or boredom and lack of purpose that seems to have become a hallmark of modern life. We are constantly seeking to be entertained, stimulated, distracted. These are symptoms of sloth, the condition in which a person does not take responsibility for his or her own state of consciousness (and conscience!).

Despair is the state of futility or hopelessness; it is the "I give up" mentality that whines that we are not in control of our own thoughts, desires, and habits. Note that this is very different from the false sense of "being in control" that our society so values. It is an inner, rather than outward, state. Despair allows us to make the excuses we use when we fall into sin, the "I can't help myself. It's just the way I am" mentality (spoken outwardly or inwardly) that says we are beyond change and, thus, beyond all hope. Don't be mistaken, this is no small sin; it is one of the very greatest because it blocks the way to repentance. A despairing person may feel remorse by she or he cannot summon up the energy to repent.

Lust of Power is the desire to "be in charge", the "control freak" in us that demands that we "are the captain of (our ) own ship, the master of (our) own destiny"--and not only our own, but everyone else's too! We often think that this sin is requires a position of great power--an important job as a corporate executive, a political leader, or something of the kind. But lust of power can and often is practiced by the parent who tries to micro manage his or her children's lives, the spouse who must always make the plans and give the commands, the small time manager who cannot leave others to make the simplest decisions. We clergy are very often guilty of this one!

Idle talk is not just gossip, though it is certainly that, too. It is all the wasted, silly, meaningless words we utter in the course of a day--the "conversations" that do more to hide our true selves than to reveal them (though we often have reason not to want our 'true selves' to be revealed!). How many office conversations have to do with sexual relationships (0ur own or someone elses) that in themselves are ungodly and demeaning to both partners? How many mean spirited digs do we get in about co-workers under the pretense of 'discussing' a project or job at hand? How often do we murder the reputations of our fellow parishioners by gossipping about their habits, faults, and human short-comings? The psalmist urges us to 'set a guard' over our lips, but how difficult it is to do!

Now, for the positives, "but give, rather, a spirit of chastity, humility, and patience to Your servant". Just as God will give the wicked over to their desires He will also give those who truly desire to be good over to goodness--though it will come with effort. Both evil and good require work. Our goals and desires are not accomplished without effort. Even despair is a habit of the heart and soul that must be cultivated. One cannot have it without screening out the beauty and goodness of God's creation.

Chastity is very far from being a matter of sexual purity alone. It is certainly that--the purity of refraining from sexual relationships outside of marriage and the unselfish and loving enjoyment of them within a Christian marriage is an essential. But, all too often, our understanding of chastity stops with sex, which is profoundly sad. True chastity is a way of being, it is the 'purity of heart' that Jesus spoke of in His sermon on the mount. To be chaste means to approach all things with a 'clean heart' and a 'right spirit' (Psalm 51). It excludes gluttony, sexual lust and perversion, deceit, gossip, and all the other vices. The spirit of chastity is truly beautiful because it refuses to allow anything twisted or sinful to reside within us. It doesn't deny that those things exist; it simply does not make excuses for them--in ourselves.

Humility is another Christian virtue that is greatly misunderstood. Americans do not hold it in high regard because we often interpret it to mean one must "act like a doormat" and allow herself or himself to be "stepped on". True humility means to have a proper sense of our mortality, our limitedness, our status as creatures. Humus in Latin refers to the earth we walk on, the elements from which we are taken and to which we will one day return. It is the profound recognition that we are not self-sufficient and that our hopes rest not in our own accomplishments and strengths but in the love and mercy of God.

Patience is another virtue that is often honored in the breach by modern Americans. We are a people who want things to happen "yesterday". We don't like to wait for anything; our whole culture is geared toward action. We create "labor saving devices" so that we can find other things to do! But Jesus tell us, "in patience you posses your souls" (Luke 21:19). Indeed, we cannot even begin to make spiritual progress until we admit that we are in it for the long haul, meaning for the rest of our lives. There are no quick fixes in the spiritual path, no easy "enlightenment". Orthodoxy rejects the idea that a simple declaration of faith in Jesus is enough to save us (for, again, as the Scripture teaches, even the devils believe--but to no good end). To be a follower of Jesus is to patiently carry our cross to the end. This means that we accept the fact that our life will be one of constant struggle with many set backs. The only way to make it through is to plod ahead, patiently, day after day knowing that we are never left alone in our struggles. The Lord is with us along with the entire company of saints and our guardian angels. And we are given the great grace of sacramental confession and absolution when we fall. All that is required of us is repentance and patience that, with God's help, we will be triumphant in the end. The greatest danger is giving up (the spirit of sloth and despair).

Love is perhaps the least understood of the virtues. The word is so misused that we have almost forgotten its true meaning. We say we love our car, our house, our various possessions. We confuse mere sexual attraction and fornication with loving another leaving the greatest of the virtues dispossessed of its beauty and depth. Christian love always involves a relationship that requires giving up something of oneself for the sake of another. It is profoundly sacrificial and absolutely never concerned with self satisfaction. Clearly, this eliminates the vast majority of situations that modern people associate with "love". Our contemporary understanding of the term usually involves first and foremost self fulfillment and self satisfaction; love, in this case, is about what one gets not what gives. This is the absolute opposite of what is meant by love in the New Testament. When St. John declares, "God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son" (Jn 3:16), he is declaring what God gave to us in Christ; he is setting the stage for the great mystery of the Divine Self-sacrifice for the sake of our salvation.

Love requires a response--either positive or negative; we can embrace the One who loves us or spurn Him but cannot remain indifferent because the Divine Lover will not go unanswered. Likewise, those who claim to love God must also love their neighbor (which the gospels have shown to mean everyone). Those who don't (or at least aren't trying to) are liars. This commandment is even more powerful when it comes to those who are closest to us. In America today over half of all marriages fail. People who declared that their love was so deep that they wanted to be united for the rest of their lives often abandon each other within a couple of years. Why? Obviously because they understood marriage in terms of what they could get, not what they could give but for what they could get. For when the guaranteed day arrives when they realize that their partner is incapable of giving them everything they desire, they abandon the relationship, (though it is questionable whether any real "relationship" ever existed in the first place). Marriage, as anyone who has been in one for a long time knows, is far more about giving--and forgiving-- than with taking.

Yes, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own faults and not to judge my brother. For You are holy unto the ages of ages. Amen.

The final lines of St. Ephrem's prayer take us back to Jesus'steaching about fault-finding, where are told to "remove the plank from (our) own eye" (Matthew 7:5-7) before we go about taking the "speck" from an other's. Orthodox spirituality is very serious about the need for each person to acknowledge his or her own sins. In the prayer before communion we speak of ourselves as "first among sinners" and this is not hyperbole. We are called to believe it! Why? Because we can only be responsible for repenting of our own sins. We can only work out our own salvation and no one else's (Philippians 2:12-18). Our broken nature, however, makes us want to concentrate on "improving" others--our spouse, our children, our students, our fellow workers, the people in our parish and so on. It is so easy to see their shortcomings and so hard to acknowledge our own!

But the gospel makes it abundantly clear that if we do not learn to point the finger at ourselves we, like the Pharisee in the parable of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee, will find ourselves locked out of the Kingdom. Our attitude towards the faults of others must always be to look within ourselves. It doesn't mean that we excuse evil, but we look for the first (and ultimately the only place) where can actually do something about it. And, if we practice the habit of self examination, we will generally discover that what we hate in others can be found in ourselves. Do we call someone else neglectful? Where are we being neglectful ourselves? Do we call someone else manipulative? How are we attempting to manipulate others and so on.

The very last reminder in the prayer is of God's holiness. He is the only truly "good" one and, just as we began the prayer by acknowledging Him as "Lord and Master" we end it by proclaiming that He alone is set apart (the true meaning of 'holiness') from sin. The Christian confession that Jesus is God, the eternal and only-begotten Son, reminds us that there is only One good enough and strong enough to save us from the multitude of sins that we commit both "willingly and unwillingly". The only hope we have for moving from the sinful spiritual states described in the first part of the prayer to the righteous state of the latter part is through uniting ourselves to Christ and His Church, remembering that the Church is the 'school-house of salvation" according to the Fathers. Our lessons are life long and we will not master them completely in this world. Our "homework" each and every day of our life is to keep trying.


THE THIRD SUNDAY IN GREAT LENT
THE SUNDAY OF THE CROSS

HAIL, O LIFE BEARING CROSS!
BRIGHT PARADISE OF THE CHURCH! THE TREE OF INCORRUPTION!
YOU HAVE OBTAINED FOR US THE JOY OF EVERLASTING GLORY
THROUGH YOU, THE HOSTS OF DEMONS ARE DRIVEN OUT,
THE CHOIRS OF ANGELS ARE AMAZED AND REJOICE
THE COMPANY OF FAITHFUL GATHER IN CELEBRATION
O UNCONQUERABLE WEAPON, UNBROKEN STRONGHOLD,
TRIUMPH OF ORTHODOX CHRISTIANS AND PRIDE OF PRIESTS,
BY FOLLOWING YOU MAY WE WITNESS THE PASSION AND RESURRECTION OF CHRIST OUR GOD


As we reach the mid point of Great Lent Orthodox Christians pause to gather strength and to refocus on our goal, which is nothing less than the celebration of the Feast of Feasts--the Resurrection of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ.
The source of our strength and the line of our focus is the Cross of the Lord.
And here is one of the great paradoxes which distinguishes Orthodoxy from amongst all other peoples--for us the cross is a source of JOY, a source of LIFE, a source of PRIDE, a cause for CELEBRATION!

This is not to say that we will not shed tears in a few weeks when we read the accounts of the Lord's suffering on Golgotha. We know of the humiliation, the spitting, the nails, the horror of those last hours, and we will grieve when we read the Twelve gospel readings on Holy Thursday and take part in the solemn Vespers of Great and Holy Friday. Yet, even then, the power and joy of the Resurrection will not be absent entirely. Even as He suffers, and especially as He falls asleep in death, we know that Hell will tremble with the realization that the One Who hangs on the Cross is the Lord of Heaven and Earth (and of Hell, too, much to its own dismay!).
This is why the Cross, for us Orthodox Christians, can never be seen solely in juridical terms (as a pay off for a debt owed) or as an example of the perfect and unblemished sacrifice. It is most definitely both those things, but it is also more. The Cross is, as the hymns for this Sunday proclaim, "an unconquerable weapon, an unbroken stronghold", a sign of triumph "through (which) hosts of demons are driven out".

The cross is our VICTORY. This is never made clearer than when the priest breaks the communion bread, now consecrated into the Body of Christ, into four parts and lays them on the paten on the holy altar proclaiming, "JESUS CHRIST CONQUERS".
By means of the cross, Jesus Christ has conquered death and hell. By means of the cross, He has conquered the corrosive power of sin over the created order. By means of the cross He has liberated us from slavery to fear and desperation, because "through the cross joy has come into all the world".

Rome had created the cross as its most brutal means of execution, reserving it for the meanest criminals--murderers, traitors, the lowest slaves. Jesus was murdered according to Roman (not Jewish) law for sedition, for claiming to be a king when no one had the right to make such a claim except for Caesar. The Sanhedrin (the Pharisees and Sadducees who were permitted by Rome to have charge over local Jewish affairs) wished to kill Jesus for their own well known religious and political reasons--based in malice, jealousy, fear, and misunderstanding. In the coming weeks we shall observe them all coming together to work what they will believe to be the final demise of a Galilean Rabbi. They shall attempt to complete their deed on that most brutal of contraptions and in so doing they shall pull heaven down to earth and complete the sundering of hell; they shall see the whole universe embraced in the outstretched arms of its Creator in the flesh and they shall watch their schemes unravel before their eyes as the Resurrection is proclaimed to an astonished population.

In mid Lent, just as the Fast threatens to become wearisome, we are reminded of the goal ahead, of the victory that awaits those who persevere. We remember that we entered the Fast with joy and that we are to continue with a spirit of joy because joy awaits us in the end, supreme joy which was purchased for us on that cross on Golgotha.

What a strange paradox! That such a brutal and ugly thing should be made into a symbol of beauty and victory!
What a fitting remedy! That the dead wood of the cross should bear such fruit, the recompense for that fruit which poisoned us in Eden!
What perfect justice! That mercy and forgiveness should triumph over the malice of the combined powers of the principalities and powers of earth and hell; that death should die and life should rise!

Hail O Cross, our Victory! Hail O Cross, our Glory! Hail O Cross, our unending Joy!



HOLY WEEK MEDIATION 1


The people saw a four-day corpse walking.
They were struck with wonder at the miracle.
They cried out to the Redeemer:
O God, we glorify You in song!
You have confirmed my faith in Your resurrection, O my Savior,
Even before it came to pass,
By freeing Lazarus from hell when he was four days dead.
I magnify You in song!
(verses on Canticle 9—Matins, Lazarus Saturday)
Why do you nations rage?
Why do you priests and scribes imagine vanities,
Saying: Who is this, whom children praise with palms and branches,
Crying: Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord!
You rebels!  Why have you placed stumbling blocks before us?
Your feet hasten to shed the Master's blood,
But He will rise again, saving all those who cry to Him:
Blessed is He that comes in the Name of the Lord!
(verses on Canticle 9—Matins, Palm Sunday)


Jesus said, "Take away the stone." Martha, the sister of him who was dead, said to Him, "Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days." Jesus said to her, "Did I not say to you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?" Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead man was lying. And Jesus lifted up His eyes and said, "Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. And I know that You always hear Me, but because of the people who are standing by I said this, that they may believe that You sent Me." Now when He had said these things, He cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come forth!" And he who had died came out bound hand and foot with grave clothes, and his face was wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Loose him, and let him go." Then many of the Jews who had come to Mary, and had seen the things Jesus did, believed in Him. But some of them went away to the Pharisees and told them the things Jesus did. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered a council and said, "What shall we do? For this Man works many signs. If we let Him alone like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation." And one of them, Caiaphas, being high priest that year, said to them, "You know nothing at all, nor do you consider that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish." Now this he did not say on his own authority; but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for that nation only, but also that He would gather together in one the children of God who were scattered abroad. Then, from that day on, they plotted to put Him to death.
(Gospel of St. John 11: 39-53, NKJV)

The hymns and gospel reading above give us the context for the last days of our Lord’s ministry on earth, but they also reveal something about the extraordinary fickleness of the human heart—every human heart, our own heart included.
How was it possible that the same voices that cried, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” on Palm Sunday would scream, “Crucify Him!” on Holy Friday? How is it possible that the same religious leaders who were demanding signs of Christ’s authority would use the greatest and most powerful sign of His divine nature as an excuse to murder Him? What excuse was there to plot to put Him to death after the public manifestation of His power in the raising of a man whom everyone knew was four days dead? Note that Caiaphas and his allies did not dispute the fact that Jesus had raised the dead man, Lazarus, when they determined that it was expedient to kill him. No, their excuse was political—“better than one man should die than that the whole nation should perish”.

It is easy to say that we would have done differently. We would have fallen down in awe in the presence of the Almighty had we seen the raising of Lazarus. We would have believed. Perhaps, but when I examine my own sinful heart, I am not quite so sure. Expedience and excuses have formed the basis for many terrible choices in my own life—contrary to what I knew and believed to be right and true. I suspect that an honest appraisal by any serious Christian will reveal much the same in his or her own life. We know the right, we know the truth, we know what we ought to do and how we should behave, but in a crisis situation where we are afraid or tempted, we are quite capable of consciously—even coldly—acting in an utterly contrary manner. We find reasons and make excuses for irrational and inexcusable behaviors.
Recall, if you will, the story of another Lazarus (Luke 19:16-31) in which the rich man (Dives) in hell calls on Abraham to send Lazarus to his five still living brothers in order to convince them to change their ways before it is too late. But Abraham replies, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.” In other words, even the physical evidence of the final judgment and the resurrection from the dead is not sufficient to keep us from consciously doing wrong!
How do we explain the hard heartedness of Caiaphas and his allies? How do we understand the willingness of Pilate and Herod to join in the plot? How do we make sense of the fickleness of the crowds? The answer is to be found in our own hearts, our own thoughts, our own behaviors. We can play the expediency of Caiaphas, the malice of Pilate, the small-minded cruelty of Herod, the unfaithfulness of the crowds, the cowardice of Peter, and the betrayal of Judas out in our own life story using the same shifty excuses and justifications as they did. And we can do it with extraordinary ease when we want to. Think for a moment of the worst, the cruelest, the basest thing you ever did—whether out of lust, vengeance, pride, desire for gain, or cowardice (or any combination thereof) and of how easy it was to make an excuse for it at the time. If anyone can examine his or her heart and find nothing of the sort, then either he or she is a truly great saint or a dishonest scoundrel!

The great and terrible days of Holy Week bring us into a direct encounter with the darkness and ugliness at work in our broken nature. Satan, Hell, and Death are in full battle array against God’s Anointed and they find willing allies in people just like us. Not a single motivation that Caiaphas, Pilate, Herod, or Judas had for their actions is alien to any one of us. The cowardice of the apostles, the meanness of the crowds, the hateful bullying of the Roman soldiers—none of it is alien to us. The terrible thing is that, once we look deeply into our own heart and examine our own conscience we find it all too easy to understand them! The cheap and easy assertion that we would have been different had we been there is blown away by the evidence of our own actions.

If this is true, then how can we be saved?

I submit that this is exactly the question we have to ask, with a broken and contrite heart, if there is to be any hope for us. I submit that this is precisely where the apostles found themselves when they realized the magnitude of their cowardice and betrayal in running away from Jesus when He was seized by His enemies. It is exactly the question that the noble hearted Joseph and righteous Nicodemus confronted when they went to Pilate to retrieve the body of the murdered Lord. All of them, realizing the darkness that had allowed them to run away or acquiesce, repented and turned to God for forgiveness. Others, like Judas, could not do any better than feel remorse and despair; they destroyed themselves as a result. Still others held on to the “rightness” of their decisions and were consumed by madness or rebellion or denial. We face the same range of choices when we confront the darkness within us.

Whatever we do, if we are mature adult Orthodox believers, we cannot let ourselves fall into the trap of easy confidence that we are somehow different from the characters we will hear about in the scripture readings and hymns of the coming week. If we are wise and mature we will see ourselves in each and every one of them---and we will tremble. That’s the first step in the right direction.

The following words from the Prophet Isaiah are read during the Vespers service at 3 o’clock on Holy Friday afternoon. Let them be inscribed in our own hearts and may they speak to each of us as both a judgment against us and a consolation to us.

Thus says the Lord: See, my servant will understand; he shall be exalted and glorified exceedingly. Just as there many will be astonished at you, so your appearance will be without glory from men, and your glory from the sons of men. So many nations will marvel at him; kings shall shut their mouths; for that which had not been told them about him they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate. Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? We brought a report as of a child before him, as a root out of dry ground; he had no form or glory, and we saw him, and he had neither form nor beauty. But his form was without honor and inferior to the children of men. He was a man in suffering and acquainted with bearing weakness, because his face has been away, he was dishonored and not esteemed. He bears our sins and is in pain for us. We reckoned him to be in toil and in affliction and trouble. But he was wounded for our sins and crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment of our peace, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; everyone has gone astray in their own way, and the Lord handed him over for our sins. And he, because of his affliction, does not open his mouth; like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation his judgment was taken away; who shall declare his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth; because of the iniquities of my people he was led to death. And I will give the evil for his burial and the rich for his death, because he practiced no iniquity, nor was there guile in his mouth. And the Lord wishes to cleanse him of his blow. If you give an offering for sin, your soul will seed a long-lived descendence. And the Lord wishes to take away from the toil of his soul, to show him light and to fashion him with understanding, to justify the just one, who serves many well, and he will bear their sins. Therefore he will inherit many and divide the spoils of the strong. Because his soul was handed over to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; and he bore the sin of many, and was handed over because of their iniquities. Rejoice, barren one who do not give birth, break out and cry, you who are not in labor, for the children of the desolate are more than those of her that has a husband.
(Isaiah 52:13-53:12, Septuagint)





THE RANSOM FROM SORROW


This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
A Pascha of delight, Pascha, the Lord’s Pascha, an all-venerable Pascha has dawned for us, Pascha. Let us embrace one another with joy. O Pascha, ransom from sorrow! Today Christ shone forth from a tomb as from a bridal chamber, and filled the women with joy, saying, ‘Proclaim it to the Apostles’.
 (from the stikhera Vespers of Pascha)

What is the deepest message of Christ’s resurrection? Is it the end of death, sin, and alienation? Of, course! But the joy of the resurrection is that it brings an end to sorrow. It frees us from the crushing sorrow of death, sin, and alienation.

Death—the death of those whom we love and the anticipation of our own death—is a heartbreaking loss, a terror, the threat of annihilation. Indeed, death is the ultimate alienation and the knowledge of death is the ultimate source of sin (at least since the first sin was committed—the sin that lead to death).  This knowledge is engrained into our very being. It expresses itself even in infants in the cry for food, the demand for attention, the requirement for care. Looked at this way, the knowledge and fear of death is a universal—extending even beyond human beings into the animal world.

Most of us spend our entire life avoiding the thought of death. When it happens to others we are speedy in making it go away. The body is shipped off to a funeral home where it is made to look as much like it is alive is possible, or it is cremated, or locked in a casket so that no one can see it (increasingly, at least among the non-Orthodox  caskets are kept closed even at wakes). Once the funeral is over we urge mourners to ‘let go’ of their grief, to work it out and to move on with their lives. We Orthodox, with our open casket funerals, our forty day’s memorials and Soul Saturdays are something of an exception to this cruel practice. But even here changes are occurring; one of the Orthodox jurisdictions in the United States does not permit open casket funeral and more and more families are electing not to have the traditional memorials. Soul Saturday services are often attended only by the elderly.

The cruelty of our modern approach is that it artificially suppresses the natural sorrow and grief we feel in the face of what appears to be annihilation. Our modern approach is unnatural and perverse; it attempts to convince us of the lie that we can ever get beyond the catastrophic impact that death has on all of life.

Now that sounds like a terribly morbid statement. In fact, it is the modern attitude toward death or, rather, our denial of death that is morbid and unnatural because it deprives us of hope. In attempting to limit and ultimately deny sorrow we deprive ourselves of joy. Against common sense and practical experience we are asked to treat death as natural, normal, and perhaps even good—and in doing so we repudiate the saving work of Christ and refute His resurrection!

Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up--if in fact the dead do not rise. For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable. But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the first fruits, afterward those who are Christ's at His coming. Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. (1 Corinthians 15: 12-26 NKJV)

Our modern attitude toward death ultimately rejects the possibility of resurrection. By attempting to make peace with death, or more aptly, by trying to push it aside and forget it, we have forsaken the resurrection. By denying our sorrow we have forfeited out joy!
The message of the resurrection is that, yes, death matters. It really is a terrible obstacle, the source of sorrow, the birth-giver of sin, and the ultimate alienation.
Christ did not make peace with death. He overcame it. He humiliated it. He destroyed it. The incomparable St. John Chrysostom put it this way in his sermon on the Resurrection:

He that was taken by death has annihilated it! He descended into Hades and took Hades captive! He embittered it when it tasted his flesh! And anticipating this Isaiah exclaimed, "Hades was embittered when it encountered thee in the lower regions." It was embittered, for it was abolished! It was embittered, for it was mocked! It was embittered, for it was purged!
It was embittered, for it was despoiled! It was embittered, for it was bound in chains!
It took a body and, face to face, met God! It took earth and encountered heaven! It took what it saw but crumbled before what it had not seen!"O death, where is thy sting? O Hades, where is thy victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown!


Christ does not make peace with death; He does not surrender to it, He annihilates it! Annihilation is annihilated, alienation is alienated, sin is erased, and sorrow is replaced by joy. At last we are liberated from the need to either tremble in the presence of death or to deny it because Christ has redeemed us from it.

This is the very heart of the gospel—the good news of salvation—that we have been set free both to mourn and to rejoice. Or, better yet, we have been freed to mourn in the knowledge and hope of joy. This is a great paradox, that the very source of our sorrow should be turned into joy.

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

Our Paschal proclamation declares that the means of sorrow has become the means by which sorrow has been undone. Death is defeated by death and the life that emerges from it can never die again. This is the beginning and end of the Orthodox Christian faith, our hope and our joy. And it gives us good reason not to surrender to the great paradox of modern life wherein death is both embraced and denied. (We embrace death as the solution to life’s problems through abortion, ‘euthanasia’, suicide, and the death penalty. We deny it when we sweep it away in the sanitized confines of our funeral homes, our desire for closed casket funerals, and our insistence that mourning be kept to a minimum and that it be very, very  private).

In the Resurrection of Christ, we both acknowledge the reality and the unreality of death. It is real because until Christ comes again at the end of the ages, we must die. It is unreal because in Him death has been defeated. His resurrection is the promise of what is to come. Thus, we weep for our loved ones when they die and we dread the day of our own death and we rejoice because we know that death no longer has the last word.

The joy of Pascha has nothing to do with the cycle of life and death; the emergence of spring from winter. It is has to do with the end of death; its complete destruction.  Once we understand this we can be ‘real’. We can shed real tears and experience real joy. We can have a truly sane (healthy) attitude toward death, free from both morbidity and from the false attempt to make friends with it.

Why? Because we have been set free from its power. We have been ransomed from its sorrow. Its bitterness has been made sweet for us and its fearsomeness has been transformed into hope.

This is a message worth proclaiming. In the end, it is the most important message of all.



LOVE YOUR ENEMIES


"Love your enemies, do good and lend hoping nothing in return and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful." (Luke 6: 35-36)

Jesus' commandment to love our enemies is one of the most bewildering of all his teachings. Our enemies have always held us in contempt for holding it and the vast majority of us have been unable or unwilling to keep it.
The reason is simple enough: it is a virtual impossibility. How do we love those who are committed to doing us harm? It is contrary to Nature itself; the laws of self preservation do not permit it! In fact, any creature that does not hate and fear its enemies is made quick work of in this hard and nasty world. At least this is the judgment of those who hold to the theory of natural selection in terms of evolution and, more specifically, to those who hold to the theory of Social Darwinism in terms of human relations.
We must take those objections seriously if we are to take the Lord's commandment seriously. If we are to truly love our enemies, then we must come to grips with the enormity of what we are actually be asked to do. We are literally swimming against the current of our very nature, we are rejecting the wisdom of virtually every political and social leader throughout human history (with rare and shining exceptions), and we will (sadly) often find ourselves standing outside the practical  experience of Church history.

To truly love our enemies will mean to learn see our self in them and not the faces monsters.
So easily said. But can this be done when we fill in the blanks with the names of those who have hurt and offended us--perhaps beyond all calculation?
Can we really love the terrorist who persecutes and murders our Christian brothers and sisters in the Middle East? Can we see in him the face of the beloved?
What about those names that come closer to home? The abuser? The molester? God forbid, the murderer?
Here we are not debating whether or not such persons need to be brought to justice; there is no doubt that they must.
The real question is whether these enemies--ungrateful, cruel, and unforgiving--can be recipients of our love.
The answer is: Not without superhuman effort, not without the grace of God. But with God's help we can love even the most dreadful enemy--and this is, paradoxically, the beginning of our enemies’ undoing! Enmity feeds on hatred; it dies when it is responded to with love.

Yes, justice must be done when laws are broken (as in the cases mentioned above). But in so many cases where there is enmity between human beings, there are no legal ramifications to be considered. The enmity is personal--a bitterness in the workplace, an estranged marriage, a breakdown in the family, and so on. Here enmity does not require a judge's intervention. The Law of Love alone needs to be applied.

Think about it. What happens when one party in a dispute simply stops fighting--meaning, not simply a momentary ceasefire but a complete and utter surrender? At first there is disbelief on the part of the other party, then perhaps even more anger because the old patterns are disrupted (What do we do now?) But, over time, a new pattern emerges, one based on peaceful accommodation--perhaps even forgiveness, greater openness, and of all things LOVE!

Thus, an enemy is overcome and converted! It is foolish to underestimate the power of love. Its tactical applications are vastly underrated! Both the enemies of the Church and many within it have failed in their analysis of this simple truth. Jesus never gave teachings that were facile or weak. This is a prime example. In fact, it is an example of the supreme strength of His teachings.

This does not make following of His commandment any easier. To love an enemy is exceedingly difficult. The accomplishment of such love, however, makes one strong enough to endure anything our enemies can throw at us. This has been proven over and over again by those who have passed the test: the saints of the Church--who have survived every sort of trial and martyrdom for the sake of Christ and whose greatest gift was their love for the very ones who tormented them. In the end they often won them over.

In the Orthodox experience it wasn’t armies or inquisitions that won the day. In the end we survived and triumphed because we endured. And we endured because we loved our faith. The very best of us, the ones we honor as saints, even loved the one’s who persecuted them. We (the Church) are here and they (our enemies: the Communists in Russia, Albania, Romania; the Ottomans in Greece, etc.) are gone because our love was stronger than their hatred.



ON HATERS, HATE, AND HATING


In reading articles in the Sunday New York Times (yes, this avowed conservative reads it very regularly), I came across one that casually referred to “haters”. It’s a term that I’ve encountered with increasing frequency lately, used mostly by people of liberal or progressive political persuasions, to describe people with whose moral or political worldviews they disagree. Now, sometimes those worldviews are truly reprehensible—for instance the violent and most un-Christian hatred of gay people on the part of the lunatics of the tiny “Westboro Baptist Church”. But often the term is used as an ugly insult towards people who have profound questions of conscience based on moral, social, and religious values grounded in great antiquity—for instance, questions about the meaning of gender, marriage, sanctity of life, and so on. To dismiss people who hold traditional values as haters seems to be profoundly unjust and untrue. Deeply religious and conscientious people are depicted as “waging war on women” (used against the overwhelmingly female led pro-life movement) or as “waging war on gay people” (used against those who have concerns about the novelty of gay marriage and its potential future implications for the meaning of marriage and family) or for “hating” environmentalists, educators, scientists, and the list goes on.

Now, I suspect that if it hasn’t already happened, conservatives and others on the right will soon be using “haters” to describe people who hold moral and political opinions that conflict with their own. A new and ugly term to assault those with whom we disagree has been coined and for the worse, it is gaining traction with the general population. The term is dehumanizing and intended to shut up, shut out, and shout down those with whom we disagree. It is a sign of the increasingly hostile and, yes, hateful climate of our current political and moral milieu. It also points us toward a deep flaw in our human nature that believers might attribute to the warping of the universe as a result of the Fall and that non-religious might attribute to no longer necessary survival instincts we developed in the course of the evolution of our species. Either way, we need to look at the power of hatred and its impact on our own personal life and our life together in community.

Clearly, anyone who actually hates another because of his or her personal attributes, racial or ethnic origin, religious (or lack of religious) beliefs, gender, sexual orientation, political beliefs can be called a ‘hater’. This is so obvious is doesn’t bear debate. But doesn’t the self-righteous and judgmental labelling of others as ‘haters’ also implicate those who do the labelling? It seems to me that it is something like the problem of the Pharisee in Jesus’ famous parable (Luke 18:9-14). By declaring ourselves righteous while celebrating our own elite status among the enlightened (or saved) we ourselves fall.

Hatred is not the opposite of love, it is love gone awry and perverted. Indifference is the opposite of love and it is far more dangerous than hatred—but that is for another essay. The passion of hatred is grounded in the fear of others whom the gospel calls us to love.  We fear them because we dread the possibility of being influenced by them (haters might say “contaminated” by them). We want to be influenced by those we love. If we truly love we want to be touched by the beloved. Quite the opposite, we feel repelled by and we wish to repel those whom we hate. Jesus, as always, has a radically different proposal.

When the Lord said, “I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44), he was offering us a profoundly new (and incredibly difficult) alternative to what original sin and evolution would have us do. It meant that we would be called no longer to return hatred for hatred and fear for fear, to repel—even by force—those who differed from us. Instead we would be called to love them, to be willing to touch and be touched by them, to radically change the dialogue and the dialectic of our interactions. It was and is an extraordinary commandment to be given, and one that is completely beyond our natural capacity to keep—unless we are profoundly converted. And yet, the world will not change and hatred and haters will not be transformed until that change is made in us.

I am sure there will be a hundred well founded objections to the commandment. Are we called to embrace mass murderers, to reach out to those who have the explicit intention to kill and destroy the innocent? Is common sense self-defense ruled out? Of course not! But the will to hate in return and to retaliate beyond the absolute minimum necessary to protect oneself and the innocent certainly is.
And the fact is most of us here in America are not on the front lines of the battle field or in imminent danger for our physical lives. Our hatreds are of the more abstract type and are directed at people pretty much like ourselves—folks who have no intention of doing imminent physical harm to us. So let’s drop the casuistry, the false projection of murderous intent on those whom we hate (and call haters) and get back to reality.

We need to stop painting those of different political, moral, and theological opinions as automatic enemies. We need to stop hating them and we need to look at the fears that undergird our hatred. We can start simply by having compassion toward our opponents and recognizing that they, like us, want a better, more just, and more beautiful world. We can maintain our differences about how to build that world, but we have to remember that we will all be living together in it. Unless we are willing to advocate genocide—the mass destruction of those who are different from us—we have to remember that we have no alternative to living together. So, let’s look at those who most offend us and see the image and likeness of God in their faces. Let’s look at those whose beliefs are utterly contrary to our own and know that they, too, have the inherent dignity of being of the same species that God Himself became part of in Christ. Remember that they are our neighbors, our brothers, our sisters, our mothers, fathers, grandparents. It makes it a whole lot easier to love them—and recall that “ above all things have fervent love for one another, for “love will cover a multitude of sins.” (I Peter 1:8).



A Meditation on Pentecost, the Birthday of the Church


Yesterday was Pentecost Sunday in the Orthodox Church. Pentecost is the birthday of the Church and a time to reflect on our mission in the world, both as a communion of believers and on a deeply personal level.

Let's face it, the Church has taken some big hits over the past few decades--some unjust and some well-deserved. Clearly, the terrible sexual scandals that erupted into public view some twenty years ago were devastating and exposed an awful complicity on the part of some in leadership positions across the whole spectrum of denominations. Our own Orthodox Church, which we believe is the fullness of the Body of Christ in the world, has had its own indictments in this area.

But there have been profoundly unjust and malicious characterizations of the Church by elements of the media, academia and education, and representatives of the political leadership, as well. The constant drumbeat accusation that Christianity is a religion of injustice and oppression has been allowed to go on with astonishing silence on the part of many believers and their leaders. Bizarre cases such as the hate-filled but tiny Westboro Baptist have been dragged out as examples of what Christians supposedly believe and think. References to the long past Inquisition are dusted off as examples of Christian oppression of minorities and dissenters. Cowardly silence in the face of mass murder (during the Nazi regime) is held up as the norm--or even as evidence of the approval of such atrocities. In other words, a selective reading of history--one that exaggerates examples of hate and minimizes examples of love--rules the day in what passes for elite intellectual circles. The far more massive assault on human life and dignity wielded by totalitarian political systems in the last century, the open war on humanity through abortion and euthanasia, the hopelessness and existential despair of certain so called "scientific" theories (mostly in the area of neurobiology, it seems) and resulting atheism are overlooked by the elites while the one world view that has actually had a profound effect in the liberation of human beings is attacked mercilessly. The silence of believers in countering these assaults is deafening.

It was the gospel of love that proclaimed that all persons are equal in Christ regardless of their class, gender, or ethnicity. Any historian free of bias will bear witness to the changes wrought for the better in terms of respect for human rights and dignity that came about with the introduction of Christianity in any and every society it encountered. True, human beings remained what we are and great evils were sometimes done. The difference was that there was a standard by which to measure these wrongs and a Judge to Whom people believed they would answer. In the former times there was no such belief in universal equality and certainly no such belief about the accountability of those in power for their behaviors. Even the great philosophers failed in this area. All too often human beings were understood to have been placed where they are by fate and their destiny, good or bad, was beyond their control or responsibility.  Christianity universalized the Jewish belief in accountability to God and in the reality of Divine Justice (the gods of the pagans were capricious and often cruel in their dealings with their worshipers).

The chief cornerstone of Christianity is Christ, Who has revealed to us the God is not only Just, but that He is Love--and His justice is ultimately the action of His love in this world and in eternity. That belief has  been the under-girding of a civilization that understood itself to be accountable for bringing justice and mercy to the forefront of human activities. In our failures to do this we have stood condemned not only by the Scriptures and doctrines of the Church, but by the best in our literature, art, and music. Yes, our sins may be multitudinous, but we are aware of them only because of the witness of what we believe in and hold to be true.

Perhaps it is because we are so aware of our failure to be what we are called to be that the Church has remained strangely silent in the face of the accusations of those who hate us (in our modern lexicon, the haters). But that silence is not only terrible for us, it is terrible for the whole world. Our most vehement adversaries claim to be apostles of virtue, freedom, justice, and love and yet so often the freedoms they stand for are centered on death---the death of millions through abortion, the so called "right to die", the spiritual death that comes from the atomism and hyper-individualism of our times. The search for communion with God and membership in His community has been replaced by demands for individual "rights" that are very often toxic and dehumanizing. Identity politics have only enhanced this movement toward isolation and lonely despair. The fullness of Love is replaced by ultimate emptiness of "self-fulfillment". The signs of the catastrophe that is overwhelming our civilization are all around us and yet so many of us are silent for fear of being labelled hateful and from being excluded from the ranks of the well paid and respected. The great sin of the Church is these times is that it is too complacent, too willing to shut up and go along, too willing to surrender to the spirit of the age. This applies not only to the Church as a Body, but to so many of us as members of that Body.

So what, then, is to be done? I suppose in one way it is simple. We can stand apart from our sisters and brothers as they are herded over the precipice, but that would be the opposite of our true prophetic calling and a profound sin against love and mercy. We can engage in fiery accusations against our adversaries, but that may be just a waste of breath and time and will only play into their prejudices. Or, we may work to learn more about what it means be a human being made in the image and likeness of God (what might be called Christian anthropology) and to share it compassionately and uncompromisingly with the world that is challenging us. Leave the “outrage” behind and speak the “truth with love” (see Ephesians 4:15-16).  Chapter 4 of St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is a beautiful summary of both our situation and what we are to do about it.

The Holy Scriptures and the deep Tradition of our Orthodox faith reveals what it means to be a person, to be both flesh and spirit, to be men and women, to be called to communion with one another and with God. Jesus Christ reveals to us what it means to Love God and our neighbor and our responsibilities and accountability to both. He also reveals to us that "perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18).

We have been afraid too long, it seems. We have allowed ourselves to be silenced and have allowed the reality our own sins to be the reason for not addressing the sins of the world in an effective and loving manner. But reasons are not excuses and remaining silent in the face of a world being overwhelmed by the powers of darkness, fear, and hate in the disguise of light and love will bring a terrible judgment on us. Love demands that we repent of our own sins and past misdeeds; it also demands that we "sanctify the Lord God[a] in (our) hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks (us) a reason for the hope that is in (us)" (1 Peter 3:15).  Doing so does not mean submission to the spirit of the age and the passing wisdom of its philosophers; it means opening the doors to a vision of the age to come and the revelation of the way to our true selves in His image and likeness. This is the Church’s message to the world; this is what we celebrate on Pentecost. This is our own calling as believers. Don’t be afraid, don’t be ashamed, don’t be angry, don’t despair, there is enough love in the Lord to cover a multitude of sins—our own and the world’s—and there is enough strength in Him to overcome even the greatest darkness.







THE GREAT BLESSING OF WATER


The Old Testament Readings from Isaiah and the Prayer of Blessing over the water today are full of images of joyful deliverance. We are reminded of Moses leading the people of Israel through the Red Sea; we are told of deserts blooming, of bitter waters being made sweet. In the Jordan, the 'heads of serpents'-- meaning the devil and his legions--are crushed by Christ in His baptism   ( a baptism which He does not need, but one which He accepts on behalf of us all, so that our baptisms may be effective).
Water today is sanctified, filled with light and life and the whole creation--even the very moon and stars rejoice with us in its transformation!

Why such joy and delight in this blessing? Because we know that water, like the other elements of creation, also bears a curse.

When removed, cut off from its original state and placed in the broken, fallen state of this order water, the source of all life can become source of death and immense destruction. The terrible images of the Indonesian tsunami and the destruction of the city of New Orleans over the past couple of years are more convincing than any number of words can be.

Our ancient forbears knew this well; the Psalmist spoke of the terrors of the deep, of the waters going up over our heads. The pagans worshipped the natural forces out of fear of them. Today's 'New Ager's' fool themselves when they pretend that those pre Christian cultures were composed of gentle earth loving peoples; the people of those days lived in terror of the universe which surrounded them because it could swallow them up at any moment.  

We Orthodox Christians have never been afraid to point out that the consequences of the original sin, the first Fall, were cosmic--involving the entire created order. Everything went awry when the angelic powers rebelled and when our first forebears disobeyed in that proverbial garden.
The Blessing of Water reminds us that in spite of the disorder of this, the broken, sin filled universe is not the last word. God is in control. God has responded. God will set things right. And nothing, NO ONE is lost to Him.
The Divine response to the ruination of the Universe was for "the Only Begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father" (see John 1:18) to come into the world for loves sake (Jn 3:16) for its salvation.

Water, the sign of life, cleansing, and deliverance (recall the images of Noah and the flood, the escape from Egypt, and finally of baptism itself) stands as a paradox: the cleansing flood of Noah was the death of a world; Israel's escape was the death of Pharaoh's army, and even baptism is a reminder of Christ's burial as well as of His resurrection.

We rejoice as the water is blessed because it anticipates the Kingdom that is coming and is even now mystically among us for in that day all things will return to their intended state and there will be only rejoicing in the seas and on land and in the heavens above.

"Today the Sun that never sets has dawned and the world is made radiant with the light of the Lord. Today the Moon with its radiant beams sheds light on the world. Today the stars formed of light make the inhabited world lovely with the brightness of their splendor Today the clouds rain down from heaven the shower of justice for mankind
Today the streams of Jordan are changed into healing by the presence of the Lord. Today all creation is watered by mystical streams. Today the failings of mankind are being washed away by the waters of Jordan. Today Paradise is opened for mortals and the Sun of justice shines down on us. Today the bitter water as once for Moses’ people is changed to sweetness by the presence of the Lord".
From the Great Blessing of Water



 
Back to content | Back to main menu