Last Judgement (2nd Sunday before Lent) Matt. 25: 31-46

That was a very sobering reading. Today is the Sunday of the Last Judgement. The last 3 weeks we have been considering the great mercy that God gives to all repentant sinners. The tax-collectors, representing the most vilified and obvious sinners, and the Prodigal and his older brother all receive the unlimited love and mercy our heavenly Father offers to us all in His great patience and compassion, and we take heart. We understand at the very core of our being that if we sow love and peace, we will reap increased and abundant love and peace in our lives, but if we sow hatred and discord, we will reap the results of these actions and it will increasingly not go well for us. Only the cross of Christ can keep us from reaping the horrible results of our sins, but in God’s great mercy it ever awaits us. Even our non-Christian culture understands these basic universal concepts. As the Beatles put it “And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Pretty much their last song before they broke up in disarray. It is one thing to know these concepts and quite another to be able to live them.

Today, with the Sunday of the Last Judgement, we are warned that while His forgiveness and mercy are freely available as a gift to all who come to Him in repentance, we must make this decision and choose to continue on the path of repentance while we are able – before time has run out. Every Liturgy we pray with great fervour, once before the Creed and once before the Lord’s Prayer for “A Christian ending to our life: painless, blameless, and peaceful; and a good defence before the dread judgement seat of Christ” When we come for confession; the prayer of forgiveness which the priest prays at the end is “May God… forgive you all things through me a sinner both in this world and in the world to come and set you uncondemned before His terrible judgement seat…” There is a time of righteous judgement for each of us, and the destination of our souls will be decided based upon our own choices and actions, for these choices and actions demonstrate the truth and reality of our love for God and all of mankind. We need to be living in communion with Christ and our Christian family right here and now. We shouldn’t expect that somehow at the last minute we will be able to suddenly wake up and change our entire manner of living and frame of mind at our inevitable appointment at the Last Judgement. It starts NOW.

If you want to understand what the Church teaches, one of the best ways is to pay attention to the Vespers and Mattin’s verses. Last night at Vespers we sang “a river of fire will draw all men amazed before Your judgement-seat.”… “The books will be opened and the deeds of all men laid bare” We will have nothing to say, all of our acts and thoughts, our deepest motives cultivated and nurtured during our brief journey here on planet earth, especially that which we had hidden – even from ourselves, all will be completely exposed to the light of God’s absolute truth. The twisted excuses we had held on to, attempting to justify our behaviour will lay silently, in a crumpled heap at our feet. We will not so much be judged as judge ourselves as the light of Christ illumines all. Simply by the very reality of being present in His light – all will be judged. We will see our life, all of our actions the good and the sinful, as in one great and eternally occurring moment, standing outside of time as we now know it. At that moment we will truly understand that apart from God’s grace, mercy and love there is truly nothing; apart from God all is non-existent. The essential prayer the Church gives us “Lord have Mercy,” which we will have repeated 78 times by the end of this Liturgy, will be our only defence and hope.

Remember, the essential prayer of the Church is “Lord have mercy on ME the sinner.” We are never to judge another person. We have no idea what influences and conditions they have encountered and only God knows each of us completely. The standard we are to judge ourselves to is upwards – to God’s unconditional love. We all have a long ways to go and need continuously to receive God’s mercy. We don’t judge ourselves on the curve, looking at others and deciding perhaps we’re not so bad. Two main attitudes: Judge no-one and forgive everyone for everything, for we too are fellow sinners in need of God’s love and forgiveness!

We hear in other passages of the gnawing worm, the burning fire, the gnashing of teeth… Rather than physical realities, describing a punishment imposed from a wrathful God, these would allegorically describe our own potential state of consciousness when we wake up to true reality in the kingdom of God, and comprehend how we have squandered our opportunities and our destinies as children of God. Think of how it gnaws at our guts in the interior depths of our being when we do or say something monumentally stupid, something cruel and impulsive, and wound someone we love deeply – our parents or spouse or children, or any of our fellow human companions, through a very ill-advised action or word at home, work or school. This would be a small foretaste of the great anguish we may feel as we stand before Christ at the last judgement, great regret at not making the most of our brief time here to follow Christ and seek the kingdom of God before all else.

The Fathers tell us that the very things that Christ lists in today’s gospel, He suffered Himself. He hungered in the desert and refused the devil’s suggestion to change the rocks into bread to feed Himself. On the cross He said “I thirst.” Christ tells us “The foxes have holes, the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” On Great and Holy Friday we sing “Give me this stranger who has no place to lay His head.” He was taken down naked from the cross and the noble Joseph “wrapped Him in fine linen, anointed Him with spices, and placed Him in a new tomb.” He took into Himself all the sickness and sin of the world, and was thrown into prison, and was whipped and crucified by the authorities – all completely approved by the legal system of the day.

Christ experienced all these things, and as He tells us today in the gospel reading, “When you help the least of My brethren suffering any of these things, you do this directly to Me.” When you ignore them, you ignore Me! Christ has also transformed and sanctified each of these things. We hunger and He gives us the bread of life, His very body as real food. We thirst and he gives us living water that springs up into everlasting life. We are strangers and pilgrims in this world desiring to be truly known, and He prepares a true home for us in His kingdom – one prepared from the foundation of this transient world, and tells us that we are known by God down to the very hairs of our head. We are naked and He clothes us with a garment of light, our baptismal robe, and we put on Christ Himself. He came that we might have life and be forgiven our sin and healed of the sickness resulting from it. He has proclaimed liberty to the captives, those imprisoned and tormented by the evil one, and has shattered the gates of hades freeing all who would follow Him.

We are given countless opportunities to choose to invest our time and resources in the kingdom of heaven. This is heart changing work. We are told many times to build up our investment account where moths and rust do not destroy, and thieves do not steal – and the price of oil and the stock market are not a concern. Today’s gospel spells out very clearly and simply what the capital requirement is for eternal investing. “Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe and give shelter to the poor and needy, visit and comfort the sick and the prisoners.” This is the way of the kingdom, pretty simple really. But of course it is very counter-intuitive to what we learn in our world about how to get ahead. Rather than looking out for #1 we are to lay down our lives for others, to put their needs even before our own, to “deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Christ.” If we “find our life we will lose it but if we lose our lives for the sake of Christ and the kingdom of God we will find them.”

We are being told in today’s gospel to intentionally choose to help the poor and needy, or risk ignoring Christ Himself. God will bring into our immediate field of vision, as a gift to us, those we can directly help; we can donate to the Church and to those who are actively engaged in helping the poor and needy. Let us do more this Lenten season to build up our eternal savings account! Come on out for a Monday morning breakfast and help us cook and feed some of Cranbrook’s poor, I promise you will be blessed.

As we do these types of things, we demonstrate in real tangible ways our love for our neighbour. This love of neighbours and all mankind demonstrates our love for God. The Apostle John tells us that we are a liar if we say we love God and yet do not love the people God brings into our lives – even the most difficult person we have to deal with. This love needs to be shown in deed and by how we act. James tells us that faith without works is dead, it is a delusion, a lie we sometimes tell ourselves. We will be judged on what we have done, not what we intended to do or talked about in enthusiastic terms.

Christ says that the two most important commandments are to “Love your God with all of your heart, soul, strength and mind; and to love your neighbour as yourself.” Our works are a testimony of our love towards God and our neighbour, which demonstrate that we are fulfilling these two most important commandments. Wherever the Church exists in truth and love, the suffering world notices and wants in. “See how they love one another, preferring the other one first.” This is the way of the kingdom of God, both here in this age and in the world to come, and Christ draws all to Himself through love.

So, let us enter into Great Lent with renewed commitment to feed and comfort the suffering humanity that surrounds us, sharing with them both physically and with the gospel, the true love of Christ. May each of us arrive at our final appointment, the Great Judgement seat of Christ, and with great joy hear “Come you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” For this is the true purpose of our journey here on planet earth.

 

The Prodigal Son (2nd Sunday before Lent) Luke:15: 11-31

I was ordained to the priesthood 6 years ago, very appropriately on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. I count this day every year as my anniversary. Placing the Church’s calendar with its feast days and yearly opportunities to celebrate and enter into true eternal history is of great help in turning our focus from the world, and back towards the kingdom of God. If you knew me back in my late teenage years, you would marvel at God’s grace that I am even alive. He is truly a good and wonderful God who loves us, and stands ever waiting for us to return and run into His open and loving arms.

We can learn so much in this parable about God’s nature and His unconditional love towards both those who have lived a good God pleasing life (more or less) and those of us who strayed far from this path. Both the elder and the younger brother are loved equally and unconditionally and between them they represent these two diverse paths.

All through the scriptures, and for the last 2 previous Sundays leading up to the start of Great Lent; Zacchaeus Sunday and the Publican and the Pharisee Sunday, we have seen Christ’s great fondness and compassion for returning repentant sinners, as represented by the conversion of the hated tax collectors. In (Luke 5:30-32) we hear, “And the scribes and the Pharisees complained against His disciples, saying, ‘Why do You eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”

Again and again, the message the Church gives us is that God is always reaching out to us sinners. And in case you’re wondering which camp you might fall in, remember (Rom. 3:23) “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” or (Eccles.7:20) “For there is not a righteous man on the earth who does good and does not sin.” Or perhaps you prefer (1 John 1:8) “If we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Therefore Christ calls us all to repentance for we are all in need.

The Fathers say that “to truly seek God is to have already found Him” and that “if we lift but our little finger towards God, all of heaven comes to unite with us.” Blessed Augustine said, “He loves every one of us, as though there were but one of us to love.” God has done everything He possibly can to arrange for our homecoming; even to voluntarily going to His death on the cross for our sake, for the life of the world. To take away the sin of the world and enable us all to reunite with God. All is completed; it all rests on us, on our decision to return, to run into our Father’s arms. His will is clear, but we need to unite our free will to His great desire to have us return and stay and live with Him – to come home. The Prodigal Son’s father was always watching for his return and “when he was still a great ways off” ran to His son and welcomed him back fully into his family. God always responds to our desire to come back to Him.

Today’s gospel reading begins in Luke chapter 15:11. When we are reading scripture, it’s always good to read the verses before and after the passage to get the proper setting. Luke chapter 15 begins “Then all the tax collectors and the sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. And the Pharisee’s and scribes complained saying ‘this man receives sinners and eats with them.’ So He spoke this parable to them…” Christ then tells them in the next 7 verses of the great joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, symbolized by the shepherd finding his one straying sheep, lost out of the flock of 100, and of the joy of the angels of God over one sinner who repents, using the parable of the woman finding her lost silver coin. Then we hear the wonderful parable of the prodigal son.

Many of us are seduced in a similar manner to the younger son. We ignore the waiting arms of our dear heavenly Father as we pursue that which looks like “fun” or that which we think will bring satisfaction. We’ll have time for God later, once we’ve “made it” and achieved our dreams, or once we’re a little older. As long as we are fully occupied in our great pursuit, we can dream of the great reward and fulfillment success will bring, and that can keep us going. However, the fun gets old and messy, and if we do achieve a measure of our earthly goals, of wealth and success and power, we soon find they are false idols. Read the short 12-chapter book of Ecclesiastes sometime. King Solomon tasted and achieved everything imaginable and concludes as he begins his book,  (Eccles1:2…) “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity and chasing after wind.” We can have it all and still find our lives empty and unfulfilled, the God shaped hole within our very soul remains empty, crying out to be home with our dear Abba Father. The good news is that the Prodigal Son woke up and realized how far from sanity he had fallen while there was still time to run back to his father in repentance.

But waking up and realizing his condition, awakening to reality, to sanity was only half the battle. Becoming painfully aware of his broken life, of his isolation from home, he now had a crucial decision to make. Should he react like Adam, hiding in shame, making excuses for his behaviour and even blaming his Father for his nakedness and desperate situation – “It wasn’t my fault, it was the woman YOU gave me” The prodigal could have wallowed in self pity, “He shouldn’t have given me everything I asked for, He should have explained the consequences better, He should have been a better parent” But thankfully the prodigal son choose to accept responsibility, and in humility he repents and asks his Father to be a servant in his family. “Father I have sinned against heaven and before you and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me one of your hired servants.” The only way back home is through the path of humility and repentance.

What does it look like to be the returning prodigal, to turn back to God, changing our direction, “metanoia” in Greek? It means choosing to quit trying to run our own lives in prideful isolation. Choosing rather to always turn to God, giving thanks in all things as completely as possible. Choosing a new focus, new priorities, a new calendar. To make the sacrificial effort, be a connected corporate member of the body of Christ. We gather here for Liturgy for this very purpose, to join with the entire family of God. With our precious brothers and sisters visibly here with us in our little parish of Saint Aidan, and with those throughout the world who are united with us in eternity. United with the angels and saints gone before us, who are invisibly present and with us right here, right now. We all commune together at the chalice joined in the body of Christ, in His love, sharing the actual body and blood of Christ, uniting in prayer and the Holy Spirit. We are born as little babes into the kingdom at our baptism, and our purpose in life, the whole reason we are here on this brief visit to planet earth, is to learn to constantly choose to come to life and mature in Christ. Taking our place as members of His body. Our life is simply an opportunity to live in this reality. Whether we are successful at any given business deal or undertaking, win awards and accolades, or obtain any kind of worldly “success,” is much less important than how we act and treat people each and every moment; how we learn to love God and His precious people – all of mankind. We take none of our material gains with us, but only the fruit of our love, forgiveness, and generosity towards those we interact with. The Fathers tell us that when we depart this life, we can only take that which we have given away.

We also see the older brother who is striving to live a life pleasing to his Father, but complaining when the Father lavishes His love upon the returning younger son who was “dead and is now alive again, who was lost and now is found.” In essence the older brother says, “What about me? I’ve been living a good life, not transgressing your commandments at any time, and yet you seem to favour this reprobate brother of mine.”

The older brother wasn’t home to witness his spoiled kid brother’s arrival. He never witnessed his humility or heard him ask his father to just be considered one of the hired hands. Even if he had of been there, he probably would have been plenty suspicious that this repentance was all a show. His picture of his younger brother came from all of his previous dealings which were certainly not riddled with humility. The kid was going to have to prove himself in spades. The older brother was in a deadly battle with pride.

We’ve all been there to some degree, haven’t we?  Feeling sorry for ourselves; “poor unappreciated me.” I do this and that and who even notices? We start with this way of thinking very young in our families – especially when we have brothers and sisters, who it often seems to us fare better than we do with mom and dad. What married person hasn’t had the occasional noble martyr thought take up residence? “Look at all I’ve been doing; did they even notice? What about my needs? A little appreciation might be warranted.” This is a very dangerous state of mind. Once we start down this path, we find a certain self-satisfying comfort in being hurt. If we choose to stay hurt, to continue to indulge and dwell on our woundedness, and isolate ourselves in our minds from our perceived wrongdoer – whether our spouse, our family, our boss or perhaps our priest… we then slowly start to become comfortable and justified in our thinking, and often sink into depression or worse self-righteous pride. So, let’s not be too hard on the older brother he’s just a struggling human like the rest of us.

The father immediately sees the great danger that his beloved and faithful older son has placed himself in, through his anger and resentment. The scripture says, “Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him” He carefully allowed his precious older son to vent, and then simply shows him the errors of his thinking saying “Son, you are always with me and all that I have is yours.” He had nothing to prove to earn his Fathers love and his Father had more than enough love for them both.

“You are always with me.” Says the Father to His beloved son. God never cuts Himself off from us, He is everywhere present and fills all things. He is the very treasurery of blessings and the giver of life. Christ came that we might have life, and have it more abundantly. We are always the cause when we feel cut off from God. We need to constantly ask God to show us where it is that we need to repent, to renew our relationship in God, growing deeper in His love. This Great Lent let us renew our efforts.

Glory to Jesus Christ!

 

Publican and Pharisee (Lk.18:10-14) Fr. Philip Speranza Feb. 9 2014

Publican and Pharisee (Lk.18:10-14)    Fr. Philip Speranza Feb. 9 2014

In 2 Corinthians 2:10-11 the Apostle Paul warns against hardness of heart towards people who’ve messed up, “lest Satan should get an advantage of us, for we are not ignorant of his devices.” In his efforts to distract and dissuade and ultimately damn us, Satan comes after us with a well-stocked and well-tested arsenal of “devices,” of tactics, of tricks and traps to catch us a hold us as flypaper catches and holds a fly. And through the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, today’s Gospel, Luke 18:10-14, focuses our attention on Satan’s most dangerous device: pride.

What is pride? Well firstly, pride is not a sense of satisfaction in a job well done; Genesis 1:31 says that even “God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good.” Nor is it the satisfaction and joy we feel in being children of God—as long as we’re ever mindful that, as John 1:13 says, we’ve become children of God “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” Rather, pride is holding a high opinion of one’s self, of one’s worth, and taking the credit for that worth. It’s self-conceit, and it’s idolatry. Exodus 20:2-3 commands, “I am the LORD your God, Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me.” But pride enshrines self as the true and ruling god in one’s life. Someone once said oh-so-rightly, “Pride, the idolatrous worship of self, is the national religion of hell.”

Pride—competitive by nature, in the sense that we’ll stop at nothing to make sure we’re always on the winning side because we don’t want to look inferior—puts “me first” into play, whether it’s in church, family, job or social set. And pride lies. Pride whispers to the over-spender “Even though you’ve maxed out all your credit cards, go ahead; you deserve it.” Pride whispers to the alcoholic or drug addict or porn addict, “Go ahead; you can stop anytime you want.” Pride whispers to the control freak, “If you don’t orchestrate their life, who will?” Pride whispers to the blamer, “It’s your parents’ fault, your ex’s fault, your boss’s fault, the government’s fault, for why you act like you do: it’s everybody’s fault but yours.” Pride whispers to self, “You deserve anything you want; you have a right to anything you want, regardless of who else gets hurt.” Some who teach “self-esteem” say “You need to do whatever it takes to make you feel good about yourself.” Well, just feeling good about ourselves can come from a multitude of sins. A person can feel good about himself in a state of intoxication, self indulgence, or rebellion. And more basically, it’s the lie of some supposed “right” to “feel good” without any positive accomplishment. No matter that passengers on the pride ride feel pretty good about themselves; at its root, pride is the ultimate self-delusion.

Of course, pride started a long time ago. In Isaiah 14:13-14 we see Satan was the first to take the pride ride when he said to himself, “I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; I will also sit on the mount of the congregation on the farthest sides of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High.” I will…I will…I will… five times he names himself equal to God. He failed; and then, because “misery loves company,” Lucifer bamboozled Adam and Eve into taking the pride ride by leading them to doubt God’s goodness and loving care of them, and, in Genesis 3:5 by feeding them the same lie he’d fed himself: “And you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” And that’s the very essence of pride: “I can be my own god. I can make my own decisions, my own judgments, my own laws and rules.”

Well, in today’s Gospel and throughout Scripture, we’re warned against pride. In Proverbs 16:18, Solomon observes, “Pride comes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall;” in other words, pride results in a false trust in self, a trust doomed to disastrous disappointment. Both James 4:6 and 1 Peter 5:5 quote the warning of Proverbs 3:34 that “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Psalm 73:6 says that violence covers [the prideful] like a garment;” Proverbs 11:2 warns that “when pride comes, then comes shame,” because pride loses all sense of modesty, propriety, even of one’s own fundamental human dignity, in the pursuit of its own will.

Pride, you see, is destructive, because it opens the door to a host of other sins. By that undue attention on self, we give in to greed when we feel that self doesn’t have either “enough” or all it supposedly “deserves.” We give in to envy when we feel that self has not received its due, and/or honour has gone to someone “less deserving.” We most often give in to anger when self is offended. We give in to a critical spirit when self has been injured or feels challenged, and we feel resentment when our self-importance feels threatened. Pride also destroys our good qualities. Pride shrivels into dust “the fruit of the Spirit” St. Paul mentions in Galatians 5:22-23. Pride kills “love,” because pride is self-interest, while genuine and godly love is selfless interest in another. It kills “joy;” because pride is so easily offended, joy departs when pride is upset. It kills “peace” because pride leaves us with little or no inner peace with ourselves, and certainly none with others. It kills “patience,” because far from being forgiving, pride says, “I don’t have to put up with this!” It kills “kindness,” because pride is all about receiving, not giving. It kills “goodness,” because pride doesn’t care about good or evil, only about what it wants because it wants it. It kills “faithfulness,” because any and every commitment pride makes is always contingent upon convenience and self-interest, conditional upon whether nor not I’m getting what I want out of this deal. It kills “gentleness” or “meekness,” because pride wants to keep an iron grip of control on everything, while meekness surrenders control of one’s strength, one’s life, into the hand of God. And pride kills “self-control” because pride wants, accepts, and respects no limits on its own will.

Look: compare the two characters in the Lord’s parable. The Pharisee, like Lucifer, says “I” five times in his brief “prayer:” “God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.”  The publican says it only once; and then it’s to pray, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.” He spoke of himself, never as the subject of every sentence, but only as the object of mercy. And the Greek text shows the publican calling himself, not “a sinner,” not just one among many, but “the sinner.” The only sinner he can see in his universe is himself, while the Pharisee sees sinners everywhere but in his mirror. And the basic difference between the two is the god they worship. The god the Pharisee worships is really himself; and he depends for salvation upon his own merits, having done righteous things. The publican worships the true and living God and depends solely upon the grace of God, crying for mercy. The Pharisee makes his claim based on his own deeds: “I tithe, fast, and pray;” the publican makes his claim for mercy based on the character of the God Who, says Psalm 103:8, “is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy.”

So, how do we avoid the damning trap of pride? Firstly, we confess and honestly repent of our sins. That’s the most obvious point of the parable. The publican “went down to his house justified” because he embraced the simple dynamic of 1 John 1:8-9, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Secondly, also as a matter of honesty, we stop taking ourselves too seriously, as the Pharisee obviously did. In Romans 12:3, the Apostle says “to everyone who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think soberly [accurately].”  How? Thirdly, we compare ourselves upwards, not downwards. The Pharisee compared himself by looking down on “sinners.” But as Christians, says Ephesians 4:13, we’re called to look up and measure ourselves by “the stature of the fullness of Christ.” Am I and are you as holy, as loving, as self-giving and self-sacrificing, as Jesus? If not (and we’re not), we’ve got nothing to feel superior about…especially as we’re mindful, with Philippians 2:6-8, of how Jesus, “being in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be clung to, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant” and becoming “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” Servants are not above their Master. Lastly, we ask God for cleansing, especially for that great unknown area, that huge blind-spot, we all have when it comes to pride. Like an iceberg, pride’s most dangerous part lies mostly beneath the surface. That’s why in Psalm 19:12 David wisely asks, “Cleanse me from secret faults.”

It’s by confession and repentance, by honesty, by humility, by complete dependence upon God’s forgiveness and grace that the publican finds freedom from pride and freedom for the life of a child of God. This Lent so fast approaching gives us the opportunity to do likewise. Will we? It’s your move, and mine.

 

36th Sunday after Pent. Matt. 15: 21-28, Canaanite “dog” women

“O Lord, Son of David, have mercy upon me.” cries the Canaanite lady in today’s gospel. Sound familiar? If you recall from the lesson of the blind man a couple Sundays ago, “Son of David” was a well recognized title for the Messiah, but very few of God’s chosen people of Israel” would consider calling Jesus this, because they refused to recognize Him as such. This mother pleading for her demon possessed daughter is from the despised tribe of the Canaanites, yet she recognizes that this is the Christ, the Messiah. Many times we are told of those who were outside of the house of Israel and yet exemplified true faith far more than those “insiders” who were bona fid members of the “chosen people.” The Canaanites were despised by the Israelites yet today we have the Canaanite women being told by Christ “Great is your faith.” Christ says to the Roman centurion who asked Him to heal his servant without coming to his house, “Assuredly, I have not found such great faith even in Israel!” We also have the women at the well, one of the hated Samaritans – St. Photini – who ended up being one of our most precious martyr saints with the title “equal to the apostles. We have the parable of the Good Samaritan, and many other faithful “outsiders.”

As bona fid members of the Orthodox Church, the new Israel, the original Church that has kept intact all that has been passed down from the apostles themselves from the very beginning of the church throughout every age until today, we should take note of this. We may be in the true Church, but our membership, our baptism into the Church does not guarantees our salvation. Nor do we know the fate of those outside the protection of the Church. We must each grow our faith and continue to accept and walk in the gift of baptism we have received. God has sons and daughters but no grandchildren. Coasting and counting on our membership card will lull us into a dangerous place of false security. Seek Christ and you will find Him, knock and the door will be opened, awaken you who sleep – these are all action words. We are told that the violent, or active, take the kingdom of heaven by force and we must each persevere until the end. Today at Liturgy we are worshiping and “working” on focusing on God. This is why we do our best to pay attention, to “stand aright” to physically as well as mentally enter into focusing by venerating and crossing ourselves, by responding with our “Lord have mercy” and “Amen” and doing our best to concentrate on what is going on without getting distracted. In Greek, the word “Liturgy means “the work of the people.”

We see here in the Canaanite women what persistent and determined action looks like and we see the results. “And her daughter was healed from that very hour.” She is as far from being from the house of Israel and having any claim on the blessings promised to them, as God’s chosen people, as you can get. The Canaanites were despised from the start of the book of Genesis. In Genesis chapter 9 we hear how Noah, when he had established life back on land after leaving the ark planted a vineyard. One night he became drunk and passed out in his tent naked. One of Noah’s sons. Ham, the father of Canaan, the patriarch of the Canaanites, saw his father naked and mocked him, telling his brothers Shem and Japheth. Shem and Japheth then respectfully walked in backwards and covered their father’s nakedness. When Noah found out he cursed Canaan, Ham’s son, and named him a servant of servants to his brothers Shem and Japheth. Later we read that the people of Canaan were to be destroyed and their land given to the Israelites when they crossed over the river Jorden after their 40 years in the wilderness.

As a little side comment on this. I can’t stress enough how important it is to respect the law of God, regarding honouring your parents. This is the 5th of the 10 commandments, and in both Exodus (20:12) and in Paul’s Epistle (Eph: 6:2) it is noted that this is the only commandment of God which has a promise attached; “That it may be well with you and that you may live long upon the earth.” Paul quickly adds “Fathers do not provoke your children to wrath…” When we cause our children to react in anger and make it difficult for them to honour and respect us as their God given parents, we cause a great wounding and place a heavy burden upon them which needs to be healed. When we experience this as children or parents, it is very important to come to Christ as persistently as this Canaanite woman, asking for His grace to be able to forgive and to be forgiven, that life may be well with us. This of course has nothing to do with accepting abusive behaviour or playing “let’s pretend it wasn’t so bad.” Forgiveness and being forgiven are about coming to healing, not about excusing or lessening the wrongness of sinful behaviour.

How persistent was this Canaanite woman? She falls on her face before Christ and begs Him for help and what was His reaction? He completely ignored her, “He answered her not a word.” She doesn’t pout and turn away, telling herself “well, that was a waste of time.” No she continues to cry out, she is not going away politely. That’s persistence. The disciples say, “Send her away, for she cries out after us.” She is causing quite a scene. Just like the blind man who Christ healed. Some of the Fathers say that the disciples were in effect asking their Lord to “just heal her, get rid of her already, she’s driving us nuts.” The Lord then addresses her. He tells her He wasn’t sent to help the cursed Canaanites, he was sent to the tribe of Israel. The Israelites were the blessed descendants of Noah’s son Shem, and she descended from the cursed Ham and his son Canaan. What is her reaction? “Then she came and worshiped Him saying ‘Lord, help me.” Christ then calls her a dog. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

How would we react when confronted with such rejection? First being completely ignored, then being told we aren’t of enough value to have our petition even considered, and then being called a dog. Would we just soldier on? Just take it in stride, perhaps even think that this is true and probably what we deserve? Or would we be more likely to have that snake of self-righteous indignation rise up in our throats and fill us with anger. “I don’t deserve to be treated like this? It’s not fair and I’m not going to put up with it. I’m out of here. I’ve got to maintain some self respect, some basic pride in who I am.”

Our Canaanite lady doesn’t go down that road. She demonstrates that saving characteristic, that great attitude, which we are told all through the scriptures and the writings of the Fathers in every century is the most pleasing and soul saving quality we can possess. Do you know what I’m referring to? Humility of course. “Yes Lord,” – she agrees that she is only fit to be considered a dog not a child, “yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters table.” A crumb from Christ’s table would be enough to bring healing to her daughter. What is the “children’s bread?” (John 6: 51) “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.” This woman had faith like the centurion who didn’t need Christ to come but just to say the word and his servant would be healed. Like the women with the flow of blood who knew if she could just touch the hem of His garment it would be enough. She knew who was before her, Christ, the Creator of all, true God of true God, He who was in the beginning with God, and who existed before anything else existed stood before her. John tells us (John 1:3) “All things were made through Him and without Him nothing was made that was made.” If we have this knowledge, this God-given faith, it is more precious than all the treasures the world can offer. She knew whom she was petitioning, and she knew that His love for all of mankind would spill over even to her, the least of all.

Let us pray that we too may receive the grace to understand the incomprehensible vastness of the love of God, and our complete and utter need to rely on that love, to even exist. May we like the Canaanite lady come to realize the transformational power of even one crumb of the body and blood of Christ and the great rewards gained through persistence in seeking God above all else.    With the feast!

 

35 Sun. after Pentecost, “Death and Talents” Matt. 25:14-30

35 Sun. after Pentecost, “Death and Talents” Matt. 25:14-30

 

In today’s gospel reading we hear the parable about the talents. It is an interesting accident of language that the English word “talent” refers to our abilities and giftings rather than a monetary unit. We are all given different amounts of talents, but what is important is not how much we are given, but how we use what we are given. Are we willing to share, to bless those around us, or do we bury them and keep them from being of much use to anyone including ourselves? The “talents” in today’s parable were actually monetary units of gold. One talent would be worth over $1 million in today’s dollars, so there was plenty to work with even for the “wicked and lazy” servant.

What we choose to do with our talents will largely be determined by how we view the Master – our God and Father. The two faithful and good servants, who both received identical praise saw that God was a generous rewarder, a good God who loved them and all of mankind, full of abundance and they worked to be like Him. This is very pleasing to God. On the human level of understanding, we like to be around people who see the good in us don’t we? We feel trapped, put in a box if our past mistakes are constantly used to define us. Somehow, we often tend to show up and act in a manner that others, especially those close to us, expect of us. When we project a negative image and expectation of others, we are actually cursing them and making it more difficult for them to be the God bearing person they were created to be. (James 3:10) “Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening?”

The saints are noted for blessing their visitors, for seeing and calling forth the “image of God” in all who came to see them. In focusing on the true person created in the image of God, and refusing to recognize our often-false distorted image, full of guilt and self-condemnation. They call us back to our true life in Christ. Back to who we are created to be. St. Seraphim of Sarov constantly referred to the hundreds of often suffering and tormented souls who came to him as “my godliness” or “my joy.” He was greeting Christ in each of them! Many of the saints would teach that it is a great virtue to hide and not reveal a brother’s sin. They may secretly pray and suffer for the sins of the world and those who they met, but they would not call forth judgement, but only Christ in those they encountered. God is very clear throughout the scriptures that we are not to judge; and in the same manner in which we judge it shall be measured back against us. Christ Himself said (John 12:47) “And if anyone hears My words and does not believe, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world.”

So we see that the two good and faithful” servants in today’s gospel saw God accurately and the saints of all the ages have also seen God as He is. God is love, full stop. There is nothing of evil that exists in God, or anything apart from complete unconditional love. Furthermore nothing exists apart from God. Therefore, evil and all of its attributes will be burnt away to nothingness, which is all they consist of, in the love of God at the last judgement. This is shown in the burning of Gehenna or hell and the many metaphors of burning fire throughout the bible. They are describing our awakening to true reality. To God and His love. As St. Paul says (Heb.9:27) “And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgement.” and (1 Cor. 13:12) “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.” We will awaken to the truth of the all-encompassing love of God and His absolute reality immediately upon death. God is the only true reality, and any reality we conceived apart from Christ will vanish in the smoke of fantasy. (1Cor. 3:11 – 15) “For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each ones work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each ones work of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built upon it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.” Seeing the intensity and fullness of this truth clearly for the first time, our self-delusions, our grand plans, our selfishness, meanness, and rebelliousness will be clearly exposed to us, to our horror and great loss. We will also be very grateful for all the repentance, faith, hope and love of God and neighbor we have managed. Let us ask God to open our eyes now to His true reality that we may repent while we are still here.

The two good and faithful stewards through their efforts, were well on their way to having a good welcome into the kingdom of heaven. What wonderful words, may we also be so blessed as to hear them upon our meeting with our Master “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you a ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your Lord.” Note; He says, “faithful over a few things.” As wonderful as this planet and all of God’s unfathomable creation, all of nature and even the entire universe is; Jesus is saying here that we are only scratching the surface compared to what is to come, for all that He has prepared for us. St. Gregory the Great in the 6th century said, “Paltry are the goods of this world, however great they may seem, in comparison with the reward of eternal life.” What a great and blessed privilege to serve our dear God Who is changeless and beyond all comprehension and measure. His love for us is beyond all expression.

The wicked and lazy servent had a vision problem. He saw that his Master was a stern and hard taskmaster, one to be feared. In his mind, and probably to his friends he was slandering God by holding such a false and demeaning image of who God was. We need to check and make sure we aren’t also doing the same. As we grow to know His great love for us and for all of His creation, a great love and adoration takes root in our hearts. St. Anthony the Great said “I no longer fear God, but I love Him.”

The lazy and wicked servant was deluded in his view of his Master and was not willing to do the work to change his thinking, to seek truth. “You wicked and lazy servant” says his Master upon his return; seeing his gift lay stagnant and useless, buried in the ground unused and unappreciated. God’s universal law is of abundance and growth. Reaping and sowing includes a provision for increase as well. When we sow materially we will reap both materially and spiritually. When we sow generosity, we will reap material and spiritual gain, up to 100 fold we are told. When we sow kindness we will reap friendship. When we sow suspicion and criticism we will reap problems and loneliness, again with increase. God’s law is active, and you can’t nullify the effects by burying your talent in the ground and trying to stay invisible. By always “playing it safe.”

God’s love and grace fills all things, but if we shrink back and bury our talent(s), if we hide away the very giftings, the source of life and blessings given to each one of us according to our unique creation – we suffer and become bitter, and slowly life fades from us. God tells us (Duet.30:19,20) “…I set before you life and death, blessing and cursing. Therefore choose life, that both you and your seed may live and love the Lord your God, obey His voice and cling to Him.” Our talents are given to us to bless those around us, our family and friends and all of mankind. They have great power to bless and be a conduit of God’s love and grace to all of the world. It is a great tragedy when we hide them and refuse to let ourselves come to life. It is a great loss, not just to ourselves, but more importantly to those who we are meant to bless. But our talents will not be allowed to stay buried forever.

While it may seem that the master has gone on a long trip and we need not worry about giving an account of our actions and attitudes towards the generous gifts He has given each of us; the ultimate lesson from today’s parable is that this day is coming, and an accounting will be taken. Nothing is more certain we say than death and taxes, and our death will most assuredly bring us directly before our Master and Creator. Our life will be completely exposed, but our opportunity to find forgiveness through repentance will be done.  (2 Cor. 6:2) “Behold, now is the accepted time; behold now is the day of salvation.” The “Now” is the time we are alive on this journey on planet earth, now while the sun still shines upon us and we have complete freedom to turn to God in repentance and receive His forgiveness and mercy. None of us knows whether we will still be alive tomorrow and have this opportunity. One of the most devious lies of the evil one is to convince us to just live our lives as if we will never die. Our culture has now largely hidden death away from common view for most people. Most of us seldom encounter it directly, and when we do, we have a stable of professionals to lessen its hideous face. How pretty we look with our make up in our coffins, or better yet, let’s quickly cremate the body and just have a wonderful power point of lovely memories as we have a “celebration of life.”

But keeping our death before us, remembering it is coming sooner than we usually anticipate and “then the judgement” has been a time-honoured sobering influence to keep us close to, and ever seeking to know and unite with Him whom we will meet at the great judgement seat. Compare the modern funeral to the Orthodox funeral;

“O God of spirits and of all flesh, Who has trampled down death, overthrown the devil, and given life to Your world: As the same Lord, give rest to the soul of Your departed servant in a place of light, a flowery place, a place of repose where sickness and sorrow have fled away…For in truth all things are vanity, and life is but a shadow and a dream, for vanity everyone born on earth troubles himself, as Scripture says. When we have acquired the world, then do we take up our abode in the grave, where kings and beggars are together. Therefore, O Christ God, give rest unto Your servant as You are the lover of mankind.” 

So let us pay attention to this parable. Depending upon how we have lived our lives, how we have honoured His gifts to us, His talents entrusted to us, we will meet Christ with great joy, or great regret, but we will most certainly meet Him, usually sooner than we expected. May we hear those joyous words given in today’s parable to the deserving steward. “Well done My good and faithful servant… enter into the joy of your Lord!”

Glory to Jesus Christ!

34th Sun. after Pent. Blind Bartimaeus “Faith” Luke 18: 35-43

Today in Luke’s gospel we hear about the blind man with great faith. In Mark’s gospel we are told his name, Bartimaeus. In this passage the Fathers explain that; the blind man symbolizes future generations such as us – who would come to faith only by hearing without seeing Christ in person – as Christ says to Thomas (John 20:29) “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Those who tried to silence the blind man represent those who are persecutors and tyrants, who in every generation try to silence the Church and the Son of God and hinder those who are seeking. The low-lying city of Jericho, at 850 ft. below sea level, represents sin and fallen humanity, and Christ passing through Jericho represents His incarnation into this broken and sinful world. The restoration of sight to the blind signifies the healing available for all of humanity through His grace. Christ’s subsequent journey up to Jerusalem, at 2750 ft. above sea level, represents Christ bringing us on the path to the heavenly kingdom, and we are represented by Bartimaeus, having received healing from our spiritual blindness, joyously glorifying God and drawing our seeking brothers and sisters to join us in following Christ!

Jesus, Son of David” Bartimaeus cries out. Everyone in this Jewish crowd knew exactly what he was saying when he addressed Jesus with this title. “Son of David” was the title of the Messiah. This was great revelation given by God to Bartimaeus. When he asked who was passing by, Bartimaeus was simply told, “Jesus of Nazareth.” No hint of Divinity in that title. Might as well have been “Joe from down the road.” Yet somehow through the gift of faith, Bartimaeus knows this is the promised Messiah. He who created all things -in heaven and on earth – visible and invisible. Thrones, dominions, principalities, powers – these are all orders of angels – the pre-incarnate Christ created them – In Him ALL things consist. It is hard to even begin to get your head around this reality, but once we begin to get a small glimpse of understanding and knowing who Christ really is in all His fullness, our faith is established.

Hearing Bartimaeus calling Him, appealing to Him as the Messiah and crying out from the depth of his heart the Jesus prayer, “Lord have mercy on me,” Jesus immediately stops and asks, “what do you want Me to do for you?” God hears us when we are desperate, when we pray from the very depths of our being! When things get messed up in our lives, this can be a great blessing – it can bring us back to dependence on Him. When in our despair we desperately call on Him to help us and He meets us in our deepest need, our faith naturally grows. When things are just coasting along smoothly, we often neglect to turn to God in thanksgiving. We may even start to think it is all because we are so wise and deserving that our lives are so comfortable, rather than understanding with gratefulness that all things come from His great ever-present love for us. Any situation that ultimately brings us closer to God in faith and love is a great gift.

Christ then restores Bartimaeus’s sight saying, “Your faith has made you well.”  What is this faith that Christ refers to? It is the foundation of all reality. Without this faith we are blinder than blind Bartimaeus ever was. This faith is the knowledge that Christ is the Messiah, the Saviour of the world, the Creator of all that exists in both the material and immaterial realms. Paul says in Colossians (Col. 1: 16, 17) “For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist.” Bartimaeus’s faith in Who it is that he is addressing, is all that is required to have both his physical and more importantly, his spiritual eyesight restored to 20/20.

Once we start to have this faith, this knowledge of what true reality looks like, and Who Christ really is, we also receive our sight and wake up from the slumber of delusion that infects the race of Adam. God is everywhere present and fills all things, but sin blinds us to that which is all around us, right under our noses. God is not some “super spiritual” force like we encounter in Star Wars. Christ is fully human and fully God – true God of true God. God beyond what we are even capable of encountering or experiencing at any level of our being. All of the visible and invisible world, all of matter and non-matter is filled with His presence. He created and holds all things together, and apart from Him nothing exists. Science is discovering this reality, showing that even such dense matter as rocks are really alive and vibrating with the energy of God in the orderly vibrations of the atoms, molecules, electrons, and quarks which make up all matter. Some of our saints have been able to hear in their spirits, stories from even rocks and trees. When we reach out and give each other a hug, this is a spiritual act. Our spirits flow into each other as we touch each other, both physically and spiritually. The physical crated world is completely infused with God. The entire physical world is good, blessed and created by God, and fearfully and wondrously made, beyond our comprehension. We know this chiefly through faith, although the more we advance in scientific discoveries, the more these scientific “breakthroughs” enable us to also know these things intellectually, through true science.

All through the scriptures, Christ is talking about spiritual blindness as He heals physical blindness – always drawing parallels between the two. As He starts His ministry Christ quotes (Isaiah 61:1), that one of His chief purposes is to bring “recovery of sight to the blind.” Christ describes the Pharisees as (Matt. 23:24) “Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel.” When they ask Him if they too are blind, Christ replies (John 9:41) “If you were blind you would have no sin; but now you say ‘We see.’ Therefore your sin remains.” There are many other references to blindness throughout the scriptures. My favorite children’s book From I-Ville to You-Ville starts out “Although everything seemed fine in the kingdom of I-Ville, the people had a problem. Their vision was blurred so they could not see clearly. They didn’t even know how bright the sun was. But they didn’t know this, because they thought everyone saw things the same way.”

One of the chief characteristics of spiritual blindness is that we have no idea that we are suffering from it. The Pharisees are continually held out to us as examples of those who are most deluded and at the same time most confident that they are right. The Pharisees are completely resistant to having anyone intrude upon their world view; even God Himself standing in front of them in the flesh. Unfortunately, they aren’t really all that unique. Our sinful human nature has not really improved, no matter what our new age friends in the human potential movement try to tell us. This is why the Church gives us the prayer of Blind Bartimaeus – the Jesus prayer – as an antidote to our great spiritual blindness. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God have mercy on me a sinner.” As this prayer seeps into our hearts, faith and humility grows, and the scales covering our eyes slowly dissolve as the light of Christ begins to fill our vision.

Once we begin to suspect that our paradigm, our view of the world is very flawed and extremely limited and limiting, we become more open to receiving a new paradoxical understanding. Suffice to say Orthodoxy is paradoxy in this culture. Anything that can challenge our misplaced faith in our own firmly held world views, our political persuasions, our judgmental opinions of those lesser humans that don’t think like we do, can be a great blessing. We do not easily give up our very comfortable and self-affirming world views. We tend to surround ourselves with those who think as we do; who have similar political views, similar diets, like similar books, music, movies, even cheer for the same sports teams, so we can continually reassure each other that we are all viewing life and reality properly. In a healthy church we will find people of every age group, belonging to every political, social, and economic group, cheering for different sports teams or that even hate sports. Thank God, we have the one thing needful in common – faith in Christ. Only in union with Christ and His love do we have union with brothers and sisters from every age of history, every part of the world, and even our neighbors. This is what Christ offers to us, and has faithfully delivered since He established His Church through the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. How do we grow and increase in faith and love?

Our mother the Church, carefully lays out a sure route to salvation and Theosis – being transformed into the image of Christ – through the Liturgical cycles. Participating is a time proven recipe to grow in faith. The Orthodox Church’s daily, weekly, yearly and festal cycles breathe life into the very depths of our souls as they bring us constantly to Christ. As we allow ourselves to partake of this divine eternal rhythm, a slow soaking healing transformation occurs, and we grow and fulfill the promise of our baptism into Christ’s Church. These four Church cycles rotate within the framework of the fifth great cycle – the cycle of our lives which takes in our birth, baptism, chrismation, vocation, possibly marriage, ordination, and other sacramental realities, and ends in our burial and new birthday into the kingdom of God, at the end of our great life cycle. Today in our busy lives, we take in but a small taste of all that is available for us in the Church, and therefore our faith sometimes flounders, but it is all there awaiting our attention.

 

Each day of the week, the emphasis changes as we consider first on Monday the holy angels, on Tuesday St. John the Baptist and the great old Testament saints, On Wednesday the holy cross, on Thursday the Apostles and great saints of the Church, on Friday once again the holy and all-powerful weapon of peace, the cross of Christ, and on Saturday the saints and martyrs who have fallen asleep in the Lord. Sunday’s are of course the Lord’s day, also known as the eight day when we participate in eternity at Divine Liturgy. Each Sunday is a mini Pascha as we celebrate Christ’s glorious resurrection and enter into the new age. Each Wednesday and Friday – the days of the cross we are asked to fast, with a few exceptions during the time of Pascha, Pentecost or Christmas. Daily we are given lists of new saints to venerate and ask to intercede for us, and daily we are given new Gospel readings and scripture readings to meditate upon, giving us an endless variation of prayer and instruction on life in Christ, using the example of the faithful saints and martyrs gone before us in every generation.

If we want to increase our faith and grow in Christ, we need to do a check on where we hang out in our mind and with our time, what percentage of ourselves we devote to the things of God compared to the things of the world. Many of us save up and do great planning to be sure we get refreshed by taking holidays. I would highly recommend in addition, you simply schedule a few feast day’s off work to come and allow God to refresh you. Not much planning or cost involved but great refreshment can occur just by choosing to take a day off for a feast day.

So, like Bartimaeus our blind friend with the excellent spiritual eyesight, let us cry from the very depths of our being “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me.” Let us ask God continually to heal our blindness, to allow His precious light to illuminate the areas in our lives that keep His grace and tender love from reaching into our hearts, and to give us the strength and courage to carve out the time to come to Him, and allow Him to heal and transform us.  Glory to Jesus Christ!

 

Sun. after Theophany: Matt 4: 12-17; Eph:4: 7-13, Repentance

Sun. after Theophany: Matt 4: 12-17; Eph:4: 7-13, Repentance,

We are still in the period of the glorious feast of Theophany. As Christ enters the waters of the Jordan and is baptized by John for our salvation; all of creation becomes sanctified and purified. As we enter into the timeless reality of Theophany – we experience this event in Kairos time. We live most of our lives here on planet earth in Chronos – chronological time, but the eternal mysteries of the kingdom of heaven exist in Kairos time. The waves of the historical event of Theophany reach us through all of time and eternity. As they wash over us, we are transformed.

We enter Kairos time at the beginning of every Liturgy. At “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,” we enter eternity and join in worship with each other, and with those who have completed their earthly journey, the saints, the angels, and the entire Church, and we are transformed. Eternity encompasses all of time into one great NOW. We come to Church, to the Divine Liturgy and the great feast day services; to expose and unite ourselves to God’s love and healing and be transformed into His sons and daughters. This is our calling, our destiny, the very purpose we have been created for.

How are we transformed? How do we make this ever present and ever available reality more real in our lives? We come to Church and our hearts and souls and spirits are imperceptibly awakened and energized and we repent, we start to think in new ways. This is the message we are to start every New Year with. Repent and be transformed; live in this new age and reality! At Theophany last Sunday we heard John the Baptist (Matt.3:2) ““Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  In today’s Gospel, Christ having just been baptized by John and tempted by the devil for 40 days in the wilderness, starts His ministry. Jesus begins to preach using the same command as John the Baptist; (Matt.4:17) “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  These are very important words for us to note, as they are the first words that Christ delivers to us as He begins His ministry. After Pentecost; the apostle Peter preaches to the crowds in Jerusalem testifying to them of all that Christ had done. The crowd says; “What then shall we do?” and Peter answers them; (Acts 2:38) “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” This is the gospel. It all starts, continues and ends for us with repentance and entering into the new age. Christ has come to heal the broken-hearted, to set the captives free, and to heal our blindness. He has completed everything needed for our salvation. It is finished! The kingdom of God is now at hand. We are living in this new age. We need to shift our understanding of life and reality for the kingdom of God is now at hand. He has everything in place for each one of us to become His son’s and daughters. He knows each of us intimately, down to the very hairs on our head and the smallest detail of every thought and inclination of our mind and heart. What must we do to be received into the family of God?  Repent!

To repent is to change the way we think. We are in error and we need to start by admitting this. Repenting doesn’t mean we beat ourselves with a big stick repeating “I’m bad, I’m bad, I’m bad.” It means to change our thinking because our thinking stinks – it is killing us. We are constantly thinking destructively, with fear and suspicion towards ourselves, towards our families, towards our friends and neighbours.  Never mind what we think of our fellow motorists or work mates or telemarketers. We need to ask God to show us how crazy our thoughts are, because we get so used to thinking in negative and destructive ways, that after awhile they just seem normal to us. We are full of fears about things that will never happen and suspicions about the motives of others.

We see someone frown or use a certain tone of voice and we immediately think they are upset with us. “What did I do to deserve that” we ask ourselves. We often go down an elaborate road of speculation, imagining all sorts of things. But if we actually ask them why they are frowning they will probably tell us they were wondering if they remembered to shut off the stove at home, or that they have indigestion or a headache. One of my favorite prayers comes from the Vespers service, “Guard and protect us at all times from every enemy, from all adverse powers of the devil, and from vain thoughts and evil imaginations.”  Yes Lord, please expose and protect us from our vain thoughts and evil imaginations.  A couple of verses past the end of today’s epistle reading in Ephesians we hear St. Paul tell us (Eph.4:17,18) “…you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart…”  Repenting means to deliver up our sinful thoughts and patterns of thinking to God, that He in His great love and mercy might bring us to forgiveness and healing, and teach us to think properly, in generous loving ways.

We start going off the track when we are very young. We make great sweeping inner vows about things we perceive as great wrongs done to us. Perhaps we are embarrassed when a good intentioned teacher makes us the center of attention in class and we don’t measure up and are even laughed at. We vow “I will NEVER allow myself to be exposed to ridicule like that again. I will ALWAYS stay invisible and unnoticed.” We grow up and completely forget this strong vow and can’t understand why any public attention makes us freeze up and even resent the person bringing attention to us. As we grow older, we may even come to avoid being in public at all. Or perhaps we react to the same situation by vowing, “I will ALWAYS be prepared and be perfect.” We may then need to outperform everyone; become a “know it all.” Placed in a situation where we don’t have the answers, we might even have a breakdown. You see, it is not really so much the situations or even the tragedies that befall us in life, as our reactions to them, our judgements and inner vows, that wound us and set us reeling off course.

When seeking what we next need to repent of, a good place to start is in checking our “ALWAYS” or “NEVER” statements and thoughts. Christ says in the next chapter of Matthew (5:34-37) “I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven for it is God’s throne, nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ ‘No’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.”

When we find ourselves reacting out of proportion to the circumstances, becoming easily angered, irritated, or impatient; hurt, suspicious or resentful. When we have difficulty trusting, need to control our situation and the people we love, when we are constantly fearful, these are all indications of areas we need to bring to Christ in repentance asking for wisdom and healing. Where there is a bad fruit, there is something we need to repent of. Bad fruit never grows from a good tree, and if we are reaping the same bad fruit repeatedly, there is always something deeper that we need to take to God in repentance. It is never only about the other person or the circumstances themselves. Repentance and giving and receiving forgiveness are the keys to restoration and healing of our wounds. This is what life in Christ, and growing into His image is all about. Christ wants to bring us to wholeness and healing even more than we want this.

Today, right now, is the very best time to repent. As St. Herman of Alaska says, “From this day, from this hour, from this minute let us love God above all.” We can best express this love for God by turning to Christ and practicing a lifestyle of repentance. The sooner the better. We are always better off if we can catch and change our thoughts, before they give birth to bad actions. Unchecked, repeated bad actions will inevitably give birth to warped appetites and bad habits, which finally will give birth to death dealing addictions. By then our unchecked, deeply ingrained, delusional thinking will keep us stuck in our addictions; keeping us from life changing repentance as we spiral down in this vicious circle. The cycle must be broken and destroyed at the beginning, at the infant thought stage, before the infant thoughts have grown into unruly teenagers and ruthless tyrannical adults. It is much easier and infinitely less painful to change a developing bad thought at the beginning, than dealing with a full-blown addiction. But even addictions can be healed by repentance. We are counselled in (Psalm 136:9), “Blessed is he who shall get the upper hand and dash your infants against the rocks.”

Saint Dorotheos from Gaza illustrates this well;

“A certain elder was with his disciples in a place where there were some Cypresses (cedar trees), some small and some large. The elder said to one of his disciples; ‘uproot this cypress.’  It was a very small tree and the brother uprooted it with just one hand. The elder then pointed out another one a little larger than the first, and said to him; ‘cut this one down as well.’ He managed to move it with both hands and he rooted it out. Again the elder showed him another, still larger. He uprooted this one as well, but with more difficulty. He saw another larger one. The brother shook it many times, toiled and sweated, but he managed to uproot this one too. The elder showed him a very large one and, in spite of the fact that he toiled a great deal he could not uproot it. When the elder saw that he could not do it, not having enough strength, he asked another brother to get up and help him and thus, the two of them uprooted it. The elder then said to the brothers, ‘it is the same with passions, brethren. While they are young, we can easily uproot them if we so desire; but if we neglect them as insignificant, they harden and, as they do so, they cause greater pain. If they become rooted in us then we cannot dig them out, even with great effort, unless we have the aid of certain saints who will help us after God.”

Repentance is an ongoing lifestyle, not one great moment of revelation that somehow “saves” us. As we come to confession with regularity, we will see our lives more clearly and we will be changed. The more we allow God to open our eyes and to show us where we are missing the mark, where our thinking is in error; the more we will discover that we have barely started our journey of joyful eternal glory!  Mark the Ascetic said “Repentance, I think is not restricted to certain times or matters. For old and young alike, repentance remains incomplete until the moment of death…We are not however, condemned for our sins, but for the refusal to repent.”

The only unforgivable sin is the one that we refuse to confess and repent of.  God forgives all and stands patiently waiting for us to come to Him in repentance and receive His forgiveness in His great love and mercy. We hear in (Isaiah 1:18) “Come now, and let us reason together says the Lord, although your sins are like crimson, I shall make them white like snow, and although they are as scarlet, I shall make them white like wool.”

So again we see, God’s forgiveness and love are ever present. All that is still required is our cooperation to enter in to all that has been prepared and awaits us. This one command, “Repent” contains the key to our salvation, and opens the door to our very life in Christ and the kingdom of heaven. Both the prodigal son and the most elevated saints are active repenting sinners. This is our work, our job description. If we think we have arrived at the place where we no longer have need of repentance, we are in serious delusion and trouble. So, let us open our eyes and joyously repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!  With the feast!

 

Theophany, Matt. 3: 13-17, Titus 2: 11-14; 3: 4-7

With the feast! This is one of the most ancient feasts celebrated by the Church, Theophany, the revealing of God, the dawning anew of the light of Christ and the opening of heaven.

How was Christ revealed? In humility. He who was proclaimed by all the prophets, He whom all of creation has been awaiting while groaning under the weight of our willful sin and corruption; arrives as a little child, in a manger, in a cave. He now begins His work of restoring the image of man, the original image hopelessly damaged by our sinful pride The Creator and king of all, comes to us, not being revealed in a great coronation ceremony or royal coming out event, but quietly coming to His forerunner John, be baptized with the crowds. He, the only sinless one, who had no need to be baptized, willingly goes into the waters and in entering the water, renews all waters and all of creation, trampling on the heads of the serpents, those who hate and seek to destroy us. The mighty John the Baptist, that prophet who is more honoured than any prophet before or since,  protests to Christ (Matt. 3:14,15) “…I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me” and He answers, “…Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

What a contrast. He whom created all that is, and sustains all of life, God Himself, comes in complete humility. (Phil. 2:7) “He made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bond-servant, and coming 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.” Compare this to our first ancestors Adam and Eve, created from the soil, the humus of the world, from nothingness, yet having the flickering baby flame of divinity breathed within their souls as an unfathomable gift. This flame, contained in every human soul,  contains the potential of being capable of growing into such glory, such all consuming flame that we humans can unite, through thankfulness and obedience, in communion with God. Yet at the first opportunity, rather than trusting in God our creator, we pridefully disobeyed the only instruction God had given us, lured by the false promise and lie of our enemy Satan, who appealed to our pride that (Gen.3.5) “…you will be like gods.”

I am purposely saying “we” rather than “they,” as we don’t accept the doctrine known as “original sin” where somehow because of Adam and Eve’s sin we are also considered to be sinful. By our willful disobedience and pride we have all created an environment where death and sin thrive, but the Orthodox perspective is that we are personally responsible for our own sin. We all have managed to do plenty of our own sinning without needing to blame Adam and Eve. Sin simply means “missing the mark.” When we like our forefathers choose to pridefully go our own way and not rely upon God, we are missing the mark. Collectively we have each contributed to the horrible mess that we presently see all around us in the world through our selfishness and prideful stubborn ways. This mess is our doing, not God’s. Recognizing this and repenting of it is our life’s work, through the grace of God. Humility is the road which brings us back into God’s realm and pride is the path that leads us ever further away. This is shown today by Christ’s great humility at His Theophany.

We see today in the reading from the gospel of Matthew, the manifestation of the Trinity, “Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’” So we have Christ the Father speaking to His Son Jesus Christ and sending the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. This revealing of Christ as God, and God as the Holy Trinity is the beginning of Christ’s work in the flesh to bring us all into His kingdom. Immediately Christ was then driven by the Spirit into the wilderness to contend for 40 days with Satan – 40 always signifies the completion of something, before moving on to the next stage. He then begins His 3-year public ministry saying “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel.”

In the gospel of John, the ever-existing pre-incarnate Christ is revealed to us in the first 5 verses: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things were made by Him and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” Then already in verse 6, John the Evangelist introduces John the Baptist as the key figure in revealing the incarnate Christ – the “Word made flesh.” (John 1:33) “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light.” (capital L) And now John the evangelist tells us that John the Baptist is looking to find out himself who God will reveal to him, and all the world as the Messiah – the Son of God. He says; “I did not know Him, but He who sent me to baptize with water said to me: ‘Upon whom you see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, this is He who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” John is baptizing in the wilderness – to prepare us to receive and to reveal to Israel and all of us, the Messiah. The dawning of a new age. That which was hidden even to angels, now is revealed!

Interestingly, John the Baptist certainly knew that this was the Christ when he was still in the womb of his mother (Luke 1:41) “…And it happened when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe (John the Baptist) leaped in her womb (for joy); and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” This is an indication that as infants and little children we can comprehend and connect with God much easier and more fully than once we increase in “knowledge” as adults. (Matt. 18:3) “…unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Faith and trust connect us far more to God than the knowledge of good and evil and intellectual knowledge. How do we best grow in faith and trust? We really hear and absorb the fullness of the Church by attending Liturgy, Vespers and Feast day services. Here are a few gems from the 116 pages in the Festal Menaion for Theophany:

– “Make ready, O river Jordan: for behold, Christ our God draws near to be baptized by John, that He may crush with His divinity the invisible heads of the dragons in your waters. Rejoice O wilderness of Jordan; dance with gladness, O ye mountains. For the eternal life has come to call back Adam.”

– “Being Himself the Bestower of light, Jesus needs not to be baptized, but in the flesh, He descends into the streams of Jordan, wishing to give light to those in darkness.

– He who weighed the mountains in scales and the wooded valleys in a balance, who fills all things as God, is baptized by a servant. He who bestows rich gifts has now become poor. Eve was once told. ‘In sorrow shall you bring forth children’, but now the Virgin hears: “Hail you who are full of grace, the Lord who has great mercy is with you.”

At Vespers last night we head the 13 Old Testament readings related to Theophany, starting with the 1st verse of Genesis, where before the 1st day, before even light is given, the Spirit of God moved upon the waters. They hadn’t yet been separated between the firmament of heaven and the earth and the dry land, the earth and plants had not yet been created. Water was everything in the creation. When Christ comes to John to be baptized, His divinity flows from Him into the water and sanctifies it – makes it holy. In the same way that when He touches a leper His holiness flows out of Him and heals, or the women with the issue of blood feels His power flow into her and she is healed, the power of Christ flows into the Jordan and reverberates throughout all eternity into the entire created world, sanctifying and healing all; through the waters of the Jordan. These are our life giving baptism waters.

So what is it that is being revealed to us through this blessed feast? Christ:

  • crushed the enemy “crushing the invisible heads of the dragons in the waters”
  • sanctified the nature of water giving it the power for us to be re-born in baptism.
  • revealed the mystery of the Holy Trinity and enlightened the world.
  • Fulfilled all that was pre-ordained regarding Christ in the law and the prophets.
  • Revealed Christ’s 1st Theophany; the 2nd will be with glory at the end of the age!

How many of you were baptized as an infant? How many of you have been at a baptism service since your Godparents’ spoke on your behalf? It would be a good exercise to go through the baptismal service book once in awhile and see what you signed up for! Many of the baptism prayers are also found in the Theophany prayers for the blessing of water as the regenerating power of the baptismal waters was begun here. “Great are You O Lord, and marvellous are Your works and there is no word which suffices to hymn Your wonders.” “Wherefore O King who love mankind, come now and sanctify this water, by the indwelling of Your Holy Spirit” and many other prayers are repeated.

We come out of the baptismal waters completely cleansed and clothed in a robe of light, our garment of salvation, which remains with us. All is renewed! However, living in this sinful and fallen world, it is inevitable that our wonderful robe of light, shining with the glory of Christ Himself, will start to collect some stains as we travel through life. All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. So we all, to varying degrees, have through our carelessness and foolishness and lack of understanding, stained our most precious treasure, the robe of salvation, that immaterial garment we have been clothed in at our baptism. Each of these stains block a little of the ineffable light, radiating from our baptismal robe. If we allow these stains to accumulate, and never stop to have them washed off – through the cleansing action of our tears of repentance and confession, and the grace of God’s forgiveness – it can almost seem as if the gentle glowing illumination of our baptismal gown has been extinguished by the layers of stains we have allowed to accumulate. I have good news! The robe is still in place, glowing with the indistinguishable light of Christ. But we need to come to Christ, who clothed us at our baptism, and allow Him to wash away the stains. Then once again the wonderful splendour and light from our garment of salvation, will begin to noticeably shine forth. This is an ongoing process, as once the larger darker stains begin to be washed away, and we start to be more careful about not adding more of these ugly stains, the light starts to more visibly shine through once again. Once we have better light, we will start to notice smaller, lighter stains that need to be cleansed. Even these smaller stains, which we never really noticed before, start to look very bad under brighter illumination. And so it goes, as we come to desire anything interfering with the pure light of our Lord be quickly cleansed. This is Theosis, uniting with Christ!

Let us entreat our Saviour and Creator; the most merciful Christ our God, that we may have our baptismal gowns cleansed and renewed, as well as our houses cleansed and blessed during this wonderful season of Theophany. Let us ask Him to renew in us, our desire to follow Him in all things, and to keep unspotted that precious robe of light we were given, when we first put on Christ at our baptism.         With the feast!

 

1st Sun. after Nativity, Matt. 2:13-23; “Slaughtering Innocents- then and now”

Christ is Born!  Today we consider the flight of Joseph and Mary with the newborn infant Christ into Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous intent to kill Jesus which resulted in 14,000 infants under 2 years of age being slaughtered. Immediately upon Christ assuming flesh and being born as an infant, the enemy uses the hostile, twisted and sinful condition of our world to attempt to destroy its very Creator. Christ God, the King and Creator of the entire Universe, of all things created; material and immaterial, comes to His people, to all of humanity, entering our broken world, in complete love and humility as a little child. He completely immerses Himself in our pain and suffering and redeems all, becoming the first true and complete human being. (Trop. of the Forefeast tone 4) “Christ comes to restore the image which He made in the beginning.”  The only solution to our pain and suffering is to throw ourselves under His care and protection, seeking shelter, forgiveness and restoration in His loving arms. Today we also celebrate the “righteous ones,” St. David the king, St. James the Just – the brother of the Lord, and of course St. Joseph the betrothed, St. James’s father.

Holy tradition in our feast day services tells us in much about our most blessed Theotokos, her blessed parents Joachim and Anna and her protector and betrothed St. Joseph. The respected 2nd century writing, “The Protoevangelium of James” and the writings of St. Epiphanius of Salamis (4th century), are also treasured sources. From (Proto Evan James 9:1,2) “Joseph received the last rod: and 1o, a dove came forth of the rod and flew upon the head of Joseph. And the priest said unto Joseph: Unto thee hath it fallen to take the virgin of the Lord and keep her for thyself. 2 And Joseph refused, saying: I have sons, and I am an old man, but she is a girl: lest I became a laughing-stock to the children of Israel.” However, the urging of the High Priest, Joseph then accepts this great calling. After being gone on a building project for 6 months, Joseph returns and discovers that the young virgin Mary given to him to protect is great with child (13.1) “he smote his face, and cast himself down upon the ground on sackcloth and wept bitterly” We see where the troubled figure of Joseph at the bottom corner of the Nativity icon being tormented by Satan comes from. Joseph is reported to be an 80-year-old widower when being chosen to look after the young virgin Mary and had 4 sons and 2 daughters from his marriage to his first wife. The eldest was James the Just, who became the first bishop of Jerusalem and the Christian Church, and we also celebrate him today. We also learn through the gospel of Mark (6:3) that James the Just, had three other brothers, Joses, Simon, and Judas the apostle, and at least two sisters, Mary and Salome. Salome was one of the myrrh-bearing women and the wife of Zebedee, and mother of the apostles James and John. Talk about a royal family!

So Christ is Born, the wise men, having presented their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, representing material earthly treasure, worship, and love, have departed back home, deliberately avoiding meeting King Herod. King Herod is about to unleash his fury at being deceived by the wise men on the holy innocents around Bethlehem. In these ten short verses we are given so much to contemplate. Prophecies of the Messiah fulfilled (Hosea 11:1) “Out of Egypt have I called My Son” (Jerimiah 38:15 – Sept.) “A voice of lamentation, weeping, and mourning was heard in Ramah. Rachel does not cease mourning deeply for her children, but they are no more.” (Isaiah 40:3) “He shall be called a Nazarene” – the city they returned to when they came back from Egypt once Herod had died. Christ’s first entry into the world is not with the conspicuous glory given the arrival of a great King, or even a small territorial ruler. His glory is revealed to the pure shepherds, the searching wise men, yet there is not even a room prepared for Him at the Inn to house the Lord of all creation. After the birth of Christ, Joseph His protector is told to take his family and flee to Egypt, leaving in the night as His enemies were seeking to destroy Him. Perhaps the gifts of the Magi provided the funds to make this very hurried trip.

In great humility, the Creator and Lord of all that exists, flees in the night as a refugee from a ruthless ruler. How many times has this story been repeated over the centuries. Even in the last decade how many millions of followers of Christ have repeated this journey fleeing for their lives in Syria and the middle east. How many have been added to the chorus of martyrs asking, “How long O Lord, how long” Christ always identifies with suffering humanity.

Yesterday, we remembered the slaughter of the holy innocents, 14,000 children – all the males 2 years old and under, that Herod slaughtered in the Bethlehem area. About 1800 years before Christ’s birth, Rachel, the beloved wife of Jacob who bore him both Joseph and Benjamin, was buried in Bethlehem. Interestingly, Rachel’s son Joseph also ended up in Egypt as a ruler, and Egypt provided sustenance and protection to the 12 sons of Israel during a time of great danger. In today’s passage, Matthew ties Jerimiah’s prophecy of Rachel buried in Bethlehem and weeping for her children, given about 600 years before Christ’s birth, to the slaughter of the children by Herod. When we reflect upon these timelines and prophecies fulfilled, it helps us to realize how little we really know, and how puny our limited perspective of reality actually is. This is very helpful for growing in that most precious quality of humility, which leads to trust in God.

Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, starts the new testament assembly of martyrs we read about in Revelations (6: 9-11) who are asking “…how long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood… and a white robe was given to each of them…and they were told to rest a little while longer until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who would be killed was completed” When we remember the slaughter of the innocents we also include the victims through the centuries of hunger, thirst, the sword, freezing, and especially relevant today, the millions of holy innocents, who have been and continue to be slaughtered in our time through abortion. It is now a huge choir asking, “How long?”

Today, these holy innocents are sometimes even sacrificed for interfering with their mother’s and/or father’s envisioned future, and personal convenience. Such selfishness and focus on putting our own personal rights above all, is becoming the over-riding value of our present culture. These innocent babies are embraced by God, and may God grant that somehow their prayers and love for their mothers, and fathers can help to cause them to come to God in repentance, finding forgiveness and life in Christ. We lost a child in a miscarriage whom we named Salathiel. It is common to name miscarried children after Archangels in the Orthodox Church. Matushka and I are comforted knowing that Salathiel prays for us in God’s kingdom. She has a place in our family icon. At St. Peter’s, we held a parastas, a memorial service for our child. There were many of our brothers and sisters in attendance and it was a time of great blessing. In conversations with the attending mothers, we discovered there were more than 20 babies lost before birth in our little group. Joy is mingled with our grief and tears when we hear;

[Canon Ode 9, The Service of Burial of an Infant] “Your departure from this earthly life is a cause of grief and sorrow for your parents and all who love you, O little child; but in truth you have been saved by the Lord from sufferings and snares of many kinds.  O Savior and Master of our life: comfort the faithful parents of this departed child with the knowledge that to innocent children, who have done no deeds worthy of tears, are granted the righteousness, peace and joy of Your kingdom”

A while back at All Saints Orthodox Church in Victoria there was an Akathist service to Blessed Olga of Alaska where a total 10 departed children where prayed for. Within the next year, all of the mothers of these children gave birth to healthy babies! It is a great comfort to know that our true eternal life continues after our death and we are all on the way to being eternally joined to our loved ones departed in Christ on the birthday of our death!

The Church has always condemned abortion in the most firm and unequivocal manner, while always seeking to bring healing and forgiveness to all who come seeking God’s mercy. From the very first centuries of the Church, there has been complete rejection of the practice of abortion. The Didache – written in the late 1st or early second century says, (2:2) “…do not kill a fetus by abortion or commit infanticide.” Many Fathers in every century, Sts. Clement of Alexandria and Athenagoras in the 2nd century through to Sts. Basil, Chrysostom and many others, have all universally condemned the practice.

Abortion is not a new thing, but in this present age and place, for the first time it has somehow become twisted into a commendable and sensible act. It has also become technically very easy to accomplish. However, behind the diabolical rhetoric of those who profit from this multi-billion-dollar baby killing industry, lies the terrible spiritual and psychological damage that each participating mother must afterwards grapple with. Of course these mothers love and are deeply connected to their children growing in utter dependence within them. The pain of loss must then be pushed deep down inside and buried to be able to continue to function. In order to keep a lid on this inner burial tomb, where the pain remains, always alive, threatening to surface and break through into their conscious awareness; these mothers often feel the need to master the fierce false ideology of denial, delusion and blame, covering their pain with the armour of self justification, heavily promoted by the abortion industry. But only truth and repentance and the tender love and forgiveness of our God and Creator can transform this pain, and bring healing and hope to the millions of mothers throughout North America, who are suffering far more than the holy innocents whom they have aborted. They now dwell with God in a place of brightness and rest, where all sickness and sorrow and sighing have fled away.

It is important that we pray with great compassion and love for these mothers and fathers, who in their pain and delusion allowed their children to be taken. It is with special compassion that the Church must regard the mother who has gone through the soul-destroying trauma of an abortion; frequently done in confusion under pressure from family, society, poverty… Such unfortunates should not be beaten further, but compassionately supported and restored to life in Christ, in tenderness and love.

There are many of our sisters in Christ who have joined us, accepting God’s ever available grace and forgiveness, seeking healing from the pain, in the forgiveness and grace of God in His Church. Today we commemorate, along with Joseph the betrothed and James the brother of our Lord, King David. He received the forgiveness of God and relief from the crushing weight of his great sin of murdering his faithful servant Uriah and taking his wife Bathsheba. Even as God was faithful and forgiving to David, both in this life and in the world to come, so can any who come to Him in tears and pain and repentance, expect to find the same tender forgiveness in the ever compassionate and loving embrace of God and His Church.         CHRIST IS BORN!

 

Sun. before Nativity, Matt: 1:1-25 “Christ is Born”

Soon we will be greeting each other with the joyous greeting “Christ is Born – Glorify Him!” We have been growing in anticipation since we began the Nativity fast back on Nov. 15. Through our fasting and efforts, our hearts have been preparing to receive the awesome joy of the coming of Christ! The incarnation of God Himself into the world, come to gather us into His embrace and bring us into His family! What glory! This is the central fact of all our history. The beginning of our salvation. Christ put on a body for our sake, that He the Uncreated, who created all things, might physically enter all of creation and sanctify and redeem it. Christ comes, born as a little child, that He might through His voluntary death on the cross, find death and blot it out. Eternal Immortal God, He who is life itself, is born into the world, putting on human flesh and trampling down death by His death, destroying it’s hold, and rescuing Adam and Eve and all of mankind. All of us!

In the Nativity festal icon, we see the whole Nativity story; we see the Eternal God born as a little child. He is laying in a cave, foreshadowing His tomb, surrounded with pointed inaccessible mountains representing the hostility of the world. Laying in a manger that is shaped like a coffin or an Altar, and He is wrapped in fine linen as was customary when preparing a body for burial, foreshadowing His voluntarily death on the cross, entering into death to destroy death. In the corner we see a bewildered Joseph being tempted by the devil to put away Mary, wrestling with doubts, as this is a miracle beyond the bounds of nature and human comprehension. Even the angels are amazed and astonished. We see the wise men, foreigners enlightened by God and led by the star to the very cradle of Christ God. Somehow, we are missing the rulers of the synagogues, the prestigious and respected leaders of Israel, successful and well regarded in the eyes of the world. God’s chosen people are instead represented by the humble and pure hearted Shepherds, being instructed by the angels, who represent the entire immaterial creation of God. The shepherds then come to worship the Shepherd of all human shepherds. In the bottom corner we see Jesus’s mid-wife St. Salome whom we are told in the 2nd century writing the Protoevangelium of James, became the mother of the apostles James and John and one of the myrrh-bearing women. The ox and the donkey are present, reminding us of the verse in Isaiah (1:3) “The ox knows his Owner and the donkey his Master’s crib; but Israel does not know Me; and the people do not understand Me.” All of creation is present and filled with joy and awe; all has now changed. The mountains, the cave, the plants, the tree representing the root of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1-13), and the peace and reign of Christ. The animals and the very air resonate with joy as the healing of all creation begins, as creations’ groaning cries are answered. This is the beginning of our salvation.

Today we are given the “begots” These are the opening verses of the Gospel of Matthew. The list starts with Fr. Abraham and goes up until Christ’s birth. As we listen to this list of Christs’ human ancestors, we ask ourselves, “Why does the entire New Testament start with this list?” The short answer is that “Who Christ is,” matters more than anything else for us of the race of Adam, – we have no salvation apart from the person of Christ. We need to be very clear that He is completely human and one of us, as well as completely Divine and of one essence with the Father. All seven of the Ecumenical councils, that we in the Orthodox Church hold as irrevocable and foundational to our faith, were called to clarify this question. They refute and even anathematize those who would try to confuse and distort the fullness of the truth of Who Christ is. If He is not fully God and fully man, born of his human virgin mother the Theotokos, crucified and resurrected from the dead, our faith is in vain and we are deluded, and of all men to be most pitied. Our Orthodox faith rests on who Christ is, even more than what He said.

Matthew’s list of Christ’s ancestors demonstrates Christ’s love for us, His broken and wounded fellow brothers and sisters. It is full of repentant sinners. The central figures who anchor Christ’s human genealogy in this list are Father Abraham whom God promised to make the Father of uncountable millions, and King David, known as a type foreshadowing the Kingship of Christ. King David is a man whom God says is “a man after my own heart…the highest of the Kings of the earth”. Yet he is listed here in Matthew’s genealogy as “David the king begot Solomon by her who had been the wife of Uriah.” A very nasty story of lust, adultery, murder and terrible betrayal. which we all know. This serves to remind us that there is no such thing as hidden sin, everything is brought to the light and exposed in the illumination of His light. Yet, it also demonstrates that there is no sin so great that God in His great mercy will not forgive, if we truly repent – if we refuse to excuse or justify our actions, but in true humility repent.

We see included in this list many who we could be scandalized by. They were not good living, upright Jewish citizens by any common reckoning. Tamar and Rahab, for example. They were not born into the nation of Israel, they were Gentiles. Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and bore twins by seducing her father-in-law Judah – he from whom the priestly line of Israel descends. Rahab actually was a prostitute. Their stories of redemption into God’s people came about because they chose to leave their old lives and their own people, and to loyally follow God in union with His chosen people. They are clearly included to show that God’s love and acceptance includes all people who would turn and follow Him. Christ reaches out His arms in compassion and forgiveness and welcomes them into His kingdom, even including them in His earthly bloodline. As we heard last Sunday, most of God’s people are not the rich and comfortable, the “pillars” of society. No, God’s people are largely gathered from the streets and the lanes, the highways and hedges, the poor, the maimed, the lame and the blind. Christ came for all of humanity and lovingly awaits our return. But too often the rich and self-sufficient do not even realize their true poverty and complete need for Christ. It is our actions, the desire of our hearts and the grace of God that unites us to God and His people, not the circumstances of our birth, nationality or position in society.

God’s plan for our salvation was formed before the beginning of time. God didn’t just look down in surprise when Adam chose to disobey Him and eat from the tree of knowledge, “Look at that! Now we’ll have to come up with a new plan.” No, from the very beginning Christ agreed to come and take on human flesh and obtain our salvation. Not just to correct the error of Adam and Eve, but to make it possible for us to be united with Him, transformed and deified. His work of the creation of children of God, begun with Adam and Eve was completed through the incarnation, when God was born as a little child then lived His human life in real human history, and ultimately went to His voluntary death on the cross, saving us and demonstrating His unfathomable love!

So, we celebrate the birth of Christ, born to us from her whom all generations will always called “Most blessed and the mother of our God.” Seven hundred years before Christ was born we hear Isaiah saying (Isa: 7:14) “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign; behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and you shall call His name Immanuel. God is with us.”

We hear such beautiful descriptions of the beginning of our salvation in the Nativity services… we sing at Royal Hours:

Today He Who holds the whole creation in His hand is born of a virgin.

He Whose essence none can touch, is bound in swaddling clothes as a mortal man.

God, Who in the beginning fashioned the heavens, lies in a manger.

He Who rained manna on His people in the wilderness, is fed on milk from His mother’s breast.

The Bridegroom of the Church summons the wise men;

the Son of the Virgin accepts their gifts.

We worship Your birth, O Christ…

He came to call us all. Not one human being does He exclude from His invitation. The way is now clearly open; He has been born for us of the blessed virgin Theotokos, in a cave, in a manger with great humility and love. With the animals and the angels and all of creation looking on in wonder and astonishment. He has fulfilled every prophecy and all the signs of the Messiah. He has voluntarily hung on the cross and shed His blood for our sake and declared “It is completed.” He has shattered the very gates of hell, bound the devil, the enemy of mankind, and brought out all the prisoners who would follow Him – paving a path for all of mankind into His kingdom. He has Resurrected from the dead, destroying death and bringing new life to all humanity; establishing His Church to bring this good news to all men. Everything has been completed except for our part. Choosing to turn to Him always and in every situation, to lay our will at His feet.

Today as we prepare to celebrate the birth of the Christ child, this great day in the history of our race, let us all come and adore Him and give to Him our very lives in gratefulness. Let us join in the song of the angels, announcing to the shepherds the beginning of the salvation of mankind, with the very words of worship with which we start each Divine Liturgy.

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will towards men.”