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Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit! Today we are celebrating St. Elijah’s saints’ day. Elijah; what a wonderful saint. Elijah has a special mission throughout the scriptures, after his deathless, bodily departure into the kingdom of heaven. Christ, in speaking to his apostles about who John the Baptist is says: “…he is Elijah who is to come, He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” In the Wisdom of Sirach in Chapter 48, where there is a wonderful 12 verse summery of Elijah’s service to God and His people – it says of Elijah that “He will come at the proper time with rebukes, to turn the heart of the father to the son.” In Malachi it says: “Behold I will send you Elijah before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord and he will turn the heart of the father to his son, and a man’s heart to his neighbour.” And in Luke, the angel in speaking to Zacharias about the birth of his son John the Baptist says: “He will also go before Him (Christ) in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the father to the children.”
Such an emphasis on turning the hearts of fathers around. How does this work? It is always the same message whether in the Old Testament or in our present time. We must repent, turn from our sin, and choose life over death. We need to cry out to God with all our hearts to help us to see and confess our sins, and to accept His forgiveness. Then our hearts can begin to be softened and we can once again begin to feel tenderness and compassion and even the love of Christ for those who have hurt us; family, friends or even those who mistreat us. We can begin to live in the process of granting forgiveness, as this is an ongoing life process and not a one-time decision. As John the Baptist, in the spirit of Elijah cried out to all he encountered; “Repent and bear fruits worthy of repentance. Turn to Christ who will baptize you in fire and the Holy Spirit.”
Elijah and Moses appeared to the apostles, Peter, James and John on Mount Tabor, when Christ was transfigured, and the uncreated glory of His divinity was revealed to His disciples. Transfiguration coming up on Aug. 6 is one of the great feast days of the Church. The revealing of the uncreated light during the transfiguration of Christ is considered to be a revealing of the normal state of reality. We are normally blind to this presence but it fills all things at all times. The apostles had their eyes opened to truly see reality. Moses, in seeing the burning bush, was not seeing a special bush, but simply having his eyes opened to see the ever present reality of the uncreated light of God, that exists in all life at all times. This is why the first icon that a student of iconography in the Orthodox tradition will usually be taught to complete is the Transfiguration. The uncreated light that is the theme of this icon, is also present in every icon, and really in all of creation. Moses is seen by the Fathers as representing the Law and those who have died. Elijah is seen to represent the prophets, and since Elijah never experienced death, but was carried off bodily into the heavens with a chariot and horses of fire, he is understood to be representing all who are alive in Christ! May God grant that this includes all of us here.
One of the most striking occurrences in Elijah’s life was when he told King Ahab there would be a drought that would last until Elijah gave his word to end it. Three and a half years later he meets with King Ahab and has him round up the 850 false prophets of Baal and other false gods and they have the famous encounter on Mt. Carmel.
The false prophets are unable to get Baal and their gods to send down fire to burn up their wood and offering. Elijah then has enough water poured upon his wood and offering to fill up a trench and prays to God to send down His fire; and thereby to turn the hearts of His people back to Him. God sends down fire and consumes everything – even the stone altar the wood and offering were laid upon. Elijah then slaughters the 850 false prophets who had been leading God’s people away from Him.
The destruction of the 850 false prophets represents the destruction of sin, which then enables those caught in its clutches to get a fresh start and freely turn to God. God Himself is described as a consuming fire; a fire of love, of glory, of purification and destruction, turning that which it touches to pure gold or to ash. This fire both illuminates all truth, and exposes that which needs to be destroyed. The Orthodox Church has always seen the fire of God as a purifying fire which is welcomed by those who are seeking to unite with Christ – taking away Elijah in a fiery Chariot – but felt as a terrible burning by those who are attempting to flee from Him. The concept of a wrathful God sending evil people to hell or purgatory where eternal flames burn them forever, is not an Orthodox concept. St. Mark of Ephesus a great champion of the Orthodox Church in the 15th century stood up and called this idea a Roman heresy at the Council of Florence. The very same, never changing flame of God’s love, is experienced by people that love God as great wonderful light; and by those who try to flee from God, as burning fire. There is no fleeing God who is everywhere present and fills all things and who waits for His creation to choose to come home to Him.
The fire of God burns up sin as the fire in purifying Gold burns away the dross and leaves only 100% pure gold. Everything else is turned to ashes and refuse but the pure gold can not be touched, it is only freed by the fire and made more concentrated and unburdened fro all of the dross. As painful as this cleansing is, please come and purify us and burn away the sin and the wrong thinking from us that we might be pure dear God. When we as Priests serve the Proskomedia to prepare the lamb for the Liturgy, once we have cut out Christ the lamb of God, the very next action is to take out a large separate triangle representing the Theotokos, and we say as we put this piece to the right of the lamb “The Queen stood on Your right side, arrayed in golden robes, all glorious.” All through the scriptures, pure gold is valued as a symbol of the pure, of that which has no dross or sin left. The golden robes of the Theotokos represent absolute purity.
Our Gospel reading today gives us the image of the paralytic; he whom sin has rendered paralyzed and incapable of movement. He needs to be carried by his faithful friends and brought before the Lord. The paralytic presents an image of where we end up, if we continually fill ourselves with the paralyzing poison of sin. We end up paralysed and almost incapable of resisting on our own, and need the prayers of our brothers and sisters who bring us before Christ so He can free us if we get to this sad state. However, please note the result of these efforts by the paralytic’s dear and precious friends. Once they have successfully taken their friend before Christ, he sees their faith and looks down in compassion and gives the paralytic a brand new start. “Son, be of good cheer, your sins are forgiven you.” He is freed from his paralysis and able to once again in his own power move and choose to come to God. It is far better however, to choose to come to God on our own and ask for healing and forgiveness before we reach such a paralyzed and deadened state. The sacrament of confession is a great and healing gift to us.
The Fathers talk about the process of sin. All sin starts with a thought, a logismoi in Greek. There is no sin in having an initial thought attack you. Many of these unhealthy and disturbing thoughts are directly from the demons. We are all subject to these attacks, even Christ was attacked with these thoughts by the devil – remember Christ’s struggle in the wilderness. No there is no sin in having these thoughts, no matter how inappropriate or horrible. However, immediately upon having a temptation, we have a choice which will then determine if the thought or temptation leads us down the road to sin. The advice of the fathers is to immediately choose to ignore the thought and to not in any way engage it. The Jesus prayer can be of great help in this regard. If the enemy sees that every time he attacks us it results in us fleeing to Christ in prayer, he will find his attacks very counter-productive and we will find they slow down. The Fathers teach we should just continue on with what ever it is we are doing. Often these thoughts come as we try to pray. If so, continue praying. However, we often choose to engage and entertain these thoughts, to start an interior conversation with them. This is the second stage called “interaction.” While not sinful in itself, it is already very dangerous. We debate, hmmm, does this idea have any merit, any value, should I, or should I not, picking the daisy petals one at a time. Should I open up that web page? There could be some educational value in it after all? This then often leads to the third stage, to “consent.” Once the decision is made to act upon a bad thought, we have entered into the realm of sin. We only really have our free will to offer God. Everything is a gift from Him, but our free will, we can give back as the only gift we possess to offer back to God, to show our gratefulness. The Fathers teach that once we have decided to consent to a sin, it will very shortly follow that we will enter the fourth stage where we perform the sin once the opportunity arises. This is called “captivity.” As this pattern becomes repeated our ability to resist becomes increasingly more difficult, until we are a slave to the sin and we enter the final stage of sin called “passion” or in more modern language “addiction.” Once this stage is arrived at, we continually give way to this activity and become more and more deadened to the horror and reality that we are killing ourselves, and cutting ourselves off from the love that God is always offering to us. Our consciences become deadened, our hearts become hard and calcified, and we end up like the paralytic in today’s Gospel, where only the fervent prayers and actions of our brothers and sisters in Christ can bring us to Christ and heal us from the sin we have chosen to yield to.
Thanks be to God, He knows how susceptible we are to this disease, and His love for us never changes. He is always waiting for us to come to him so we can have Him heal us and give us a fresh start, hopefully before we are so paralysed that we can not come to him by our own choice. Let us turn to God from this very day and repent of whatever habitually sinful ways we have been captured by. Christ is faithful and calling us to come to Him, to come home to His love and forgiveness. Glory to Jesus Christ!