Saint John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople The Paschal Sermon

Saint John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople

The Paschal Sermon

Pascha

The Catechetical Sermon of St. John Chrysostom is read during Matins of Pascha.

If any man be devout and love God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast. If any man be a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord. If any have labored long in fasting, let him now receive his recompense. If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast. If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; because he shall in nowise be deprived thereof. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing. If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first; he gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has wrought from the first hour.

And he shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; and to the one he gives, and upon the other he bestows gifts. And he both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts and praises the offering. Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; and receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second. You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honor the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.

Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness. let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

 

The sacraments Baptism and Charismation

The sacraments of Baptism and Charismation are the initial sacraments which bring us entry into the Church. They are as fundamental to entering the Church, as is birth to life. As these precious souls join us through their baptism, they become full and precious member of the Orthodox Church. These are not mere symbolic actions, at least as we tend to interpret symbolism. However, the Greek understanding of the word “Symbolo” would be accurate. The symbolic act includes a merging together, and being completely immersed in and part of the symbol. This is a baptism of power and fire! As John the Baptist says in Luke: “I indeed baptize you in water; but One mightier than I is coming, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loosen. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”  Christ Himself says: “I came to send fire upon the earth and how I wish it were already kindled.”

These four will be the first in line to receive communion at Divine Liturgy, as feeding on the body and blood of Christ is fundamental to their health and spiritual growth. Their re-birth into the Kingdom of God in baptism, and the grace and nourishment that they will constantly receive from communion, are gifts of Grace from God, and are mysteries far beyond the limiting boundaries of reason and our natural human intellect. Communion is the “medicine of immortality” and draws us from our earthly created realm to the Kingdom of God. We can never be worthy to receive, only ever grateful for Christ’s great love and acceptance of us, in granting us life and salvation!

As we participate in their baptism, let us renew our own commitment to work with the grace given us in our baptism, and pray that we may re-new the beauty and protection of our baptismal garment. Let us not be found to be seated at the great wedding feast with our baptismal robe stained beyond recognition. We know the fate of that one, who was graciously allowed to come into the great wedding feast, yet did not accept the wedding garment offered by the doorkeeper. We heard this lesson of the great wedding feast last week. The King found him among the guests in his soiled clothes, and had him thrown out into the outer darkness. The King was providing the wedding clothes for all who came, why did not the guest graciously accept the new garment?

We all come out of the baptismal waters completely cleansed and clothed in a robe of light which remains with us all. 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 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 of course, 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 then start to notice smaller, lighter stains that still 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, until we come to desire anything interfering with the pure light of our Lord be removed, as far as the east is from the west, and we continually ask for His cleansing. By coming and regularly receiving His body and blood, through prayer, repentance and confession, forgiveness and all of the many ways the Lord has given to us to draw near to Him, we slowly and steadily run the race. It is a great marathon – once around the world – not a sprint!

So, as we join these newly baptised today, and see them shining forth in their brand new robe of light, let us entreat our Saviour and Creator, the most merciful Christ our God, that we too may have our baptismal gowns cleansed and renewed. 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. Glory to Jesus Christ!

 

Great and Holy Thursday: St. Basil; The Lord’s Supper

Great and Holy Thursday:  St. Basil; The Lord’s Supper

Today we gather and celebrate the Lord’s mystical supper and receive communion on the very day that Christ established His mystical supper in the upper room; commanding that we partake continuously until He returns in glory! What a privilege! Christ gave us this everlasting memorial saying, “Take eat, this is my Body” and “Drink from it, all of you. For this is my blood of the new covenant,” before He departed from his disciples and went to His voluntary death on the cross, to complete all that had been written about Him by the prophets. He left them and us, His everlasting presence, His very body and blood to partake of until He returns in power to judge all things at His second coming. The very presence of Christ in the Eucharist was never questioned within the “Christian” church for 1500 years, until well into the Protestant reformation. It has always been understood that this is the main reason we gather; communion is the pinnacle and climax of the Divine Liturgy. Our Lord very carefully and intentionally instituted this “new covenant” just before going to pray and voluntarily giving himself up on the Mount of Olives.

Christ gives us the Eucharist, the mystical supper. His very body and blood, His real presence permeates the bread and wine which we make from grapes and wheat which have grown and matured through the life force, the energy of God. Eucharist means “Thanksgiving”. We are to never receive communion unworthily, casually, treating it as we often sinfully treat so much of God’s creation and His ever-present love which fills all of our life. This great gift which the Lord gives us today given is to transform us into Eucharistic people. Thanking and recognizing God in all things. Communion is the most precious, grace loaded gift which brings all of God into us and unites us to Him. By partaking regularly, we start to become transformed into the very image of Christ and slowly begin to awaken out of our slumber and taste and see reality. It is the beginning and the end of transformation. All of the saints held communion as the most precious of the sacred and precious gifts given to us by Christ. And today we celebrate the birth of this great and life changing mark of the new covenant, the institution of the mystical supper by receiving communion. Praise God!

Christ said to the devil when being tempted to make bread from stones to satisfy His hunger “Man shall not live by bread alone.”  All of creation is good and filled with God’s generous love. He created all so that everything would be dependent upon His love, His energy, to grow and mature. What is this life creating energy that causes everything to exist? It is truly God and His love. Yet we have become cut off and foolish and deluded into thinking that all this was somehow just here, ours to use and manipulate for our own selfish purposes.  We fail to discern His presence in everything. We think we are somehow self-sufficient and powerful in our own right – not realizing that apart from God we don’t even exist.

Yes, God’s power and grace and glory is ever present in the communion cup, but we must also do our part to benefit from it. Notice what the scripture says in John speaking of what happens to Judas once he eats the bread given Him by Christ; “Now after the piece of bread, Satan entered him.” That’s a terrifying verse. Judas then goes out and betrays his friend and His God, Jesus, with a kiss. We should never come to the cup knowingly, with hatred and hypocrisy in our hearts, or we risk having our rebellion and our bitterness grow, rather than becoming healed. We need to come in all humility, realizing that we can never be worthy of this great and awesome gift. If we stubbornly hang on to unforgiveness and anger and selfishness when we are aware that we are entertaining and defending such attitudes, and still come to the cup, it will cause us to become far worse, rather than bringing love and healing into our lives. This too is the grace of God, as if we finally get so miserable that we can’t stand it anymore, perhaps we will finally be willing to truly turn to God in repentance and allow Him to work in our lives to heal such terrible afflictions. As St. Paul says in today’s epistle “But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason, many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged.”

So today we have these great and seemingly conflicting themes. We have the mystical supper given to us as a great and sustaining gift, the highlight of all our worship. And yet we are warned in the epistle not to partake in an unworthy manner, to beware lest we end up like Judas. Judas, one of the 12 who travelled with the Lord, saw his miracles, saw Him raise Lazarus from the dead, and yet betrayed Christ with a kiss and then fell into such despair that he killed himself.

Today we sing repeatedly “Of Your mystical supper O Son of God, accept me today, as a communicant. For I will not speak of Your mysteries to your enemies. Neither like Judas will I give you a kiss.”  We sing this at the great entrance, we sing this during communion and then we finish with singing it at the dismissal instead of “Let our mouths be filled with Your praise O Lord…” Notice the first-person context of this song. Accept ME, I will not speak; I will not give You a kiss like Judas. We are making this pledge to Christ as we say it. It is not even a prayer, once we have finished asking to be accepted as a communicant. Here, we are not asking for strength or anything else from God, we are promising to God, choosing, through directing our will, to not speak of the precious things of God to those who would blaspheme and disrespect them. To not betray Christ, by pretending like Judas to be a follower and yet acting otherwise. We are given a great and glorious gift in the mystical supper, but we must do our part and not take it for granted. Let us continue our journey with our Lord to His passion, thankfully and becoming ever more aware of His sacrifice for us and for the life of the world.

 

The Entry of the Lord into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday)

The Entry of the Lord into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday) Fr. Andrew

 

Today we join with the crowds in shouting Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna means “Save I pray!” This is a joyous day, let us wave the palm branches and sing praise to our Lord and Saviour. Celebration, pure joy, the incarnate Son of God is among us! Christ lights our way! When we come out to do the little entrance today, we will do a great entrance loop all around to the royal doors and I would like to have the children lead us waving their Palm branches.

All four of the Gospels contain an account of this glorious entry. Every word and action of Christ is purposeful. He has already celebrated 3 previous Passovers in Jerusalem rather quietly with His disciples. Often before when he healed the blind, the sick, the lepers, the demoniacs he would tell them not to tell anyone. He kept things rather quiet as he went about fulfilling all of the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah. As Christ says to John the Baptist’s questions: “…the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have the gospel preached to them…” Obviously Christ was becoming well known – you can only do so many miracles without word getting out – but now for the first time He was accepting and encouraging the people to praise and glorify Him. As Christ says a few verses later in the Gospel reading; “The hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified.”

The crowd is excited, they have all heard about the glorious raising from the dead of Lazarus. This must be the Messiah, who else could raise a man 4 days dead! They are ready to celebrate the joy of having their Messiah among them. He who created all things now rides on a donkey colt through His creation. Christ does not discourage the crowd, but allows that which is absolutely right and proper for all of creation. We would hear the very stones crying out in praise if we could tune in to their wavelength. This is an hour of Sanity – when what should always be happening, in all of creation and in all of our hearts is being truly proclaimed. The Son of Man is glorified! The Kingdom of God is at hand. Of course, we as Christians know that the Kingdom of God is always at hand. As Christ tells us “For Indeed, the kingdom of God is within you.” However, it is wonderful to see the world proclaiming reality and shouting Hosanna as Christ enters Jerusalem.

We do not just historically observe and think about these events as we celebrate the Holy week services; travelling with Christ and His faithful from now until the Pascal celebration of Christ’s resurrection, we fully enter in and experience them, as they exist in eternal time and are ever presently part of our reality, existing outside the bounds of time and history. These events are more real and eternally present in true history than anything we might usually consider to be real and present right in front of our noses!

So the crowd is filled with Joy and celebrating that the Messiah is among them. How is Jesus reacting to this? In Luke it says; “As He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it.” Earlier Christ had said “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather up your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing.” He is weeping for all of us. He stretches out His hand to heal and bring us into His Kingdom. Are we willing? Will we turn to Him and take His outstretched hand and invite Him to completely enter into every moment of our lives. Will we follow Him on His terms?

The crowd does not understand the prophecies of the suffering servant Messiah. They are celebrating Christ with their understanding of what He should be doing for them, of how He should behave according to their understanding. They are celebrating a conquering Messiah who is coming to turf the Romans and give them what they deserve. They want their Messiah on their terms. Today, much of modern North American “Christianity” is still focused on “what Christ can do for you.” The hideous aberration of the prosperity gospel, where if you aren’t blessed financially you don’t have proper faith, if you are suffering then you must not be following Christ properly, is the twisted version of this. Now all are shouting praises but soon, even the disciples will scatter when Judas betrays Christ and He allows Himself to be taken by the soldiers. In the end, the Apostle John, the myrrh bearing women and the Theotokos are the only ones recorded to be with Him.

Christ understands fully His purpose in this final journey to Jerusalem and he says, “The hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified.” “Most assuredly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies it produces much grain. He who loves his life will lose it and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” This is not some morbid council, but a simple statement about where true joy and reality exist. The pleasures of this world are very transient. They flee almost immediately when we do achieve them and leave us seeking another high. True lasting joy is only to be found in the kingdom of Christ.

The first clue that Christ wasn’t about to fulfill the crowds selfish and short-sighted vision of the Messiah should have been His mode of transport. Entrance celebrations held to honour some conquering General or Caesar were done with a great number of prancing horses and Chariots. Christ comes riding on a donkey’s colt. This would be the humblest means of transport possible. The donkey was an unclean animal in Jewish eyes.

When I was first ordained Fr. Anthony, our son Michael’s excellent priest down in Colorado Springs, told me a little story about the donkey carrying Christ and the donkey’s mouse friend. The donkey was quite proud prancing down the streets with all the adoring crowds laying palm branches and even their clothes under the donkey’s hooves and shouting Hosanna in the highest! He said to his mouse friend who was running along with him “Look at me, all these people, they love me!  I’m doing a great job!” The mouse just replied, “It’s about Christ not you, you idiot” Good to remember.

Everything quickly reverses shortly after this triumphal entry. Many of these same people now excitedly waving Palm branches and shouting Hosanna, will soon be spitting upon the Lord and shouting, “Crucify Him, Crucify Him”.

We are very similar. We often follow Christ for what we think He can give us. Help us to prosper, help us to get a better job, help us to get healthy. Of course, Christ will often bless us in these material ways, and this is a good thing. However, when things don’t work out like we think they should, and we judge that He is not answering our prayers how do we react? Do we think Christ has abandoned us or perhaps we are too sinful for Him to bless us? Christ always wants want is best for us. If we turn to Him, He is always there. He does not give us a scorpion when we ask for a fish. But we need to understand that His knowledge of what we need is often far different from what it is we think would be good for us. His vision is complete and ours is completely clouded. He knows what is coming tomorrow and next year and even unto eternity in our lives. He loves us far more than we even know how to love. He is concerned that our eternal soul grows and is saved. Our prosperity and worldly contentment, and many other things we think would be helpful, can sometimes get in the way of this. His concern is that our hearts be softened and truly converted, and that we learn to love Him and all of mankind in true humility. That our “stuff,” our “blessings” don’t become idols, more important to us than God. Usually we do not grow ever closer to God through ever increasing material success, even though we are convinced we are the exception to this rule.

We can relate to Tevia as he asks in Fiddler on the Roof; “Would it spoil some vast eternal plan if I was a wealthy man?” We too ask “Would it be so bad if I won the lottery? Think of all the good I could do!” Actually, for most of us the answer is yes. God loves each of us specifically and individually and if we were missing, it would be a great spoiling of His “vast eternal plan.” Perhaps not for some, but for most of us, great wealth is not a trustworthy path to true eternal wealth and salvation. The Fathers tell us that gold coins are very dangerous and can sting terribly. The truth is that Christ is bringing all things together, to best allow us to cooperate with His plan of salvation and transformation for us. He asks us to trust Him in the middle of our often very painful and bewildering circumstances; to pick up our cross and follow Him. This is difficult, but ultimately all we have to give to God is our free will and our trust. We need to learn to pray, as Christ prays to His Father just before going to His death on the Cross a few short days from now, “Nevertheless, not my will but Yours be done.”

We raise our children understanding that we need to keep a long-term vision in our mind, of who they are created to be and to become as mature adults. It is often difficult to not just go the easy route, allowing them to do things that are not helpful for their long-term character development, for a little short-term peace when they are testing us. They certainly don’t understand or appreciate it when they can’t get away with “what everyone else gets to do.” But they will be most grateful when they are adults and they understand their parents’ motives for the firm love given them as they grew up. When we multiply this long-term vision into our destiny as children of God for all of eternity, we can start to understand God’s long-term perspective in our lives. Someday, we too will also be most grateful for those bewildering circumstances we have to navigate while here on our short earthly journey. If we can learn to in faith “give thanks in all things” while still on this earthly journey it will certainly help to bear the cross we have been asked to take up.

Our Epistle reading today tells us; “…whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there are is anything praiseworthy – meditate on these things.” This is a great test for what we should try to fill our minds with. We should attempt to fast by controlling our intake with not only our mouths, but also all of the other senses; especially the eyes and ears. May God be quick to help and give us His grace in this great struggle.

Our Epistle today also has a great bit of advice on true joy: “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice.” Let us join with those today in crying out to Christ; Hosanna in the highest, Blessed is He that comes in the name of the Lord!  Glory to Jesus Christ!

 

5th Sunday of Lent, St. Mary of Egypt, Mark 10: 32-45

5th Sunday of Lent, St. Mary of Egypt, Ap. 7, 2019, Mark 10: 32-45   

How far can we fall into sin and immorality before there is no return, no coming back? Today we have arrived at the 5th Sunday of Great Lent – St. Mary of Egypt Sunday. She is the model of repentance, demonstrating that no matter how dissolute and far from considering God’s ways we find our lives, while we have breath it is always possible to turn to God in repentance, and He will joyfully and completely bring us into His loving embrace. From the age of 12 until 30 years old, the life of St. Mary of Egypt was a picture of immorality, she herself says “I marvel that the sea did not swallow me or the earth not devour me, Worst of women, casting so many men into the snare of death. But I think the Lord who wishes to lose no one: And wills that all be saved bore this with a patient heart, seeking to convert me also, and not willing to condemn me.”  Christ through His most precious Mother the Theotokos reaches out to St. Mary of Egypt, sending His angels to bar her way into the celebration of the most holy and life-giving cross of Christ in Jerusalem until she had awakened to her dark and sinful state and repented. The next 40 years of her life are spent seeking only God  in repentance and isolation in the desert of Egypt, and God transforms her so thoroughly that when the righteous elder Zossima finds her, she is praying elevated 3 feet off the ground, walks across the surface of the river Jordan, is transported hundreds of miles in a single hour, knows what is happening in Zossima’s monastery, and freely quotes scripture, although she had never read a bible. Such are the lives of the saints all through every generation of the Church. Our journey into the kingdom can not be comprehended in terms of the world’s wisdom and understanding.

What the world holds out as “common sense” works well for understanding the things of the world, and using this worldly understanding, we can become successful by the standards of this world. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just that were we to pour more of our energy into gaining the things of eternal importance, the things of God, we would be far better off, both now and throughout all eternity! The world tells us that if we accumulate Fame, Fortune and Happiness we will be happy and have “won” in the game of life. This certainly didn’t prove true for Robin Williams or Kurt Cobain or thousands of other “successful” people. It’s almost a maxim that the more you have, the less you appreciate things. The kingdom of God operates on a completely different set of values. Orthodoxy is Paradoxy. When 95% of our time is spent pursuing the values of the world, it should come as no surprise that we struggle with even understanding, let alone being transformed by the values of the kingdom of heaven. “Love your enemies? Bless those who use and persecute you? Whosoever desires to be great among you shall be your servant and whosoever desires to be first shall be a slave to all?” Do we really accept these values and truly act upon them? This is why it is so important to take in as many of the Church services as we can manage, to struggle to develop regular prayer and devotional time. To read the scriptures and writings of the saints, and to place ourselves willingly under God’s influence; that He may slowly transform our hearts, minds and souls, awakening us into true life in Christ.

We are told not to compare ourselves to anyone else but Christ. We pray constantly using the prayer of St. Ephrem during Great Lent. “Grant me to see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother.” Why is this so important? Only in Christ is illumination found. He is the “light that illumines all – the light of the world.” Comparing ourselves to anyone else sets a false standard. When we approach Christ, the closer we get, the more His light intensifies. Under His ever-increasing illumination we are able to see more clearly that which we need to be cleansed and repent of.

Christ is our only point of reference. If we compare ourselves with others, we harm both them and us. First of all, by our very act of judging them, our thoughts are alive and active and shoot off like heat seeking missiles of destruction, homing in on their targets. This is the polar opposite of praying and blessing others, and more closely resembles sending off curses. Matushka Sonia’s dearly departed mother Olga – may her memory be eternal – told about one time she was very angry and thinking very strong judgemental thoughts about her husband Nick who was driving back home to Fort McMurray from Edmonton. When he arrived home a while later, he was looking very beat up and told her he barely made it home as he felt such a weight of exhaustion. She realized it was exactly when she had been launching her fury his way.

But we not only harm our brothers and sisters, we also do great harm to ourselves when we compare ourselves to anyone else other than Christ and Christ revealed in His saints. We let ourselves off the hook and foster in ourselves a dangerous spirit of pride or alternately victimhood, rather than developing the God-pleasing and salvific spirit of humility we so desperately need to acquire. We compare ourselves to those who are struggling and behaving badly. It makes us feel we aren’t doing so badly after all; and then like the Pharisee we can thank God that we are not like them. Or we see our sins and faulty thinking, but blame others for our behaviour. Not our fault! Only the light of Christ can reveal to us the true nature of the state of our soul, so we can see the filth that needs cleaning; turning to Him who is so willing and desirous to “cleanse us with hyssop that we may be cleansed and wash us that we may be made whiter than snow.” At the Wed. evening pre-sanctified service we sang the Lenten verses of Simeon the translator each one describing our true reality and ending with, “Save me before I completely perish O Lord.” A filthy room looks just fine by candlelight but start increasing the light from candlelight to a 20 then a 40 and then a 100-watt bulb and then open the window to the glare of the noon day sun and you will see ever more crud that needs to be cleansed.  Comparing ourselves to others is like checking for dirt on our souls with a small little candle. Christ will slowly, gently, but continuously allow His light to fill and cleanse us, if we will allow Him.

Today we hear of two of the elite all-star apostles, James and John, fresh from seeing the great illuminating grace of the Transfiguration, respond to their Lord’s detailed description of His impending death, by petitioning for the seats of honour and power in His new kingdom. Jesus has just told them that He is voluntarily going on his way to be mocked, scourged, spit upon, tortured and crucified and all they can think of is, “how can I take advantage of this?” We all love to tune in to WIFM, what’s in it for me? Christ tells them that while greatness on earth may be understood as being in charge and being served and obeyed by those under us, greatness in His kingdom, amongst His followers would be judged differently, “…whosoever desires to be great among you shall be your servent. And whosoever of you desires to be first shall be a slave of all.”  Christ has told them earlier; (Mark 9:35) “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servent of all.” (John 10: 11) “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.” and (Mark 8:34) “Whosoever desires to come after Me let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.” As we choose to be a slave to all, we begin to express the eternal value of love for others before our own needs, we are no longer even concerned with the rewards of positions of power or authority, it is a non-issue.

Three times now in Mark chapters 8, 9 and today in chapter 10 Christ had told the disciples He was going to His voluntary death on the cross, Peter took Him aside and rebuked Him the first time causing Christ to reply to him “Get behind me Satan …” the second time it says “They did not understand and were afraid to ask Him.” It is basic human nature to deny that which we do not wish to hear. Like James and John in today’s passage we want to change the subject. Much of the raw reality of our life here on planet earth is not a very pretty picture. Through sin, corruption and death entered the world and its effects are monstrous and monumental. We were not ever created to die; death is not natural. We all live in this sick environment that has clouded and obscured the ever-present radiance of God’s reality. This is not His doing nor is it His will. It is the effect of our turning away from Him in rebellion and choosing to go it on our own. In fact, God does all that He can, while still respecting the great gift of free will that He has given us, to turn our mess into blessings, and lead us back to Him and life and salvation. He is “everywhere present and fills all things.” In Romans (8:28) it says, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, and to those who are the called according to His purpose.” And as we pray to Him in our Liturgy a little later “Preserve the good in goodness, and make the evil be good, by Your goodness.” But we have to be freely willing to come to Him, to choose to admit that we are helpless and very badly deluded, and that our grasp on what is truly and eternally real is pathetically distorted. As Christ demonstrated to us in the garden of Gethsemane, no matter how much we want something, and even feel and pray that it is right and proper and God’s will, we must always say “However, not my will be done but Yours.” We are often afraid to ask for the truth of God’s light to expose our ways and our faulty thinking. We have a hard time handling true reality. But this is what repentance, and life in Christ are all about.

So we approach Holy Week. Traveling with our Lord, through all of the timeless and eternally significant events of His passion and resurrectional power; through the events that have shaped the redemption of our human race and ushered us into the kingdom of heaven; making possible the realization of our true destiny as the children of our Father God. Let us be mindful that we have much to learn and much to unlearn, as we serve God and each other, taking up our cross and laying down our lives for others. May His ways become our ways in our thinking and in our actions, as we seek to serve Christ and His church, rather than to be served and seek our own benefit.  May He find us to be faithful and loving stewards when He calls us to His great judgement seat at the end of our lives and at the end of the age. Glory to Jesus Christ!

 

4th Sunday of Lent – St. John Climacus, Mark 9: 17-31

4th Sunday of Lent – St. John Climacus, Mark 9: 17-31 

Today is the 4th Sunday of Great Lent and we are celebrating St. John Climacus a.k.a. St. John of the Ladder as he is best known as for his rather enduring best selling classic, “The Ladder of Divine Ascent.” Any book that stays popular for 1400 years is probably well worth checking out. There is much wisdom that even we non-monastic’s can also glean from reading it. The icon of St. John of the Ladder, with the ladder with the saints ascending and being pulled from the ladder by the demons. With Christ welcoming us at the top wrung, and the hosts of saints cheering us on, is on the analogion today. This icon describes the battle we all face in following Christ. Each of the 30 chapters deals thoroughly with a struggle common to all of humanity, which if recognized and fought will bring us closer to union with Christ. Just to whet your appetite, I’ll give you a few of the chapter titles. Any chapter would take at least a separate homily to cover, so I just want to encourage you to read this classic at some point in your journey.

  • * CH.1: On renunciation of the world
  • * CH: 3: On exile or pilgrimage – Concerning dreams that beginners have
  • * CH: 5: On painstaking and true repentance
  • * CH 7: On mourning which causes joy
  • * CH 8: On freedom from anger and on meekness
  • * CH 9: On remembrance of wrong
  • * CH 12: On lying
  • * CH 13: On despondency
  • * CH 14: On that clamorous but wicked master – the stomach
  • * Ch 16: On love of money or avarice
  • * CH 18: On insensibility of the soul and mind from slackness and negligence
  • * CH 22: On the many forms of vainglory
  • * CH 23: On mad pride and blasphemous thoughts
  • * CH 24: On developing the habit of meekness, simplicity and guilelessness
  • * CH 25: On spiritual humility – the destroyer of passions
  • * CH 26: On discernment of thoughts, passions, and virtues

Is there anyone here who didn’t recognize something in one of the titles that they needed to deal with? If you did, see Jessie at lunch and get her to order you a copy.

Today’s Gospel follows directly after Christ is coming back down from Mount Tabor with Peter, James and John. They have just experienced the wonder of the Transfiguration. Their eyes were opened to true reality, to the ever-present radiance and glory that is always contained in Christ. Their faith and belief were running on all cylinders. However, the other nine apostles who were left behind while Christ was transfigured and conversed with Moses, Elijah and His Father, seem to be having a little struggle with their faith, as they could not cast out the demon afflicting the lad who had been brought to them by his desperate father. Remember, not long before Jesus had sent the apostles out in twos to minister on their own without Him, and He had given them all power over unclean spirits. They came back from that excursion full of faith and enthusiasm after casting out demons and healing the sick! Luke (10:17-20) reports them as saying, “Lord even the demons are subject to us in your name!” Christ replies to them “I saw Satan fall like lightening from heaven. Behold I give you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall by any means hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” So, the power to cast out evil spirits had already been given to and exercised by these apostles. Christ seems a little frustrated with their lack of faith and He exclaims “O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?”

We can learn a couple things from this. First, remember that Christ never sinned, yet here He rebukes His disciples; so we can learn not to be so sensitive about receiving criticism. Criticism is usually a much greater blessing than receiving a compliment. Our pride may initially be wounded when we are criticized, but having our pride bolstered is generally not particularly helpful in fostering spiritual growth. Second, even if we are initially hurt, staying offended or wounded is never a good option! Everything in the Christian life revolves around forgiveness and humility.

I think it’s a fair bet to say that if someone we know and love deeply said to us “how long shall I be with you? How long shall I bear with you?” our first reaction would be to be offended, and we would tend to defend ourselves, rather than to accept the criticism. Notice that this however is not the reaction of the apostles. At first chance they asked Him privately “Why could we not cast it out?” We would do well and follow the apostle’s example. Instead of instinctively defending ourselves and jumping to our own defence when criticized, we would be choosing the better path by asking God to show us the truth of the criticism and perhaps even thanking our blessed criticiser. Especially when it is someone who knows us well. For those of us who are married our beloved “grinding stone,” or perhaps our boss or teacher or a faithful friend. We will all have some occasions to put these suggestions into practice over the rest of Lent I’m sure.

The main point of the passage however would be to demonstrate the great importance of “faith.” Even Jesus could do no great works when a strong anti-belief current was in place in His home town. Mark ((6:1-6) tells us that “He could do no mighty work there except that He laid His hand on a few sick people and healed them. And He marvelled because of their unbelief.” Remember He has given us free will and this is a very strong power that God respects while we are here on earth, working out our salvation. Our thoughts are very powerful and affect the whole environment around us, for good or for evil. Our thoughts can either bless or curse those to whom we direct them. We hear in James (3:10) “Out of the same mouth proceed both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things out not to be so. Does a spring send forth fresh water and bitter from the same opening?”

In today’s Gospel Christ is very upset at the lack of results demonstrated by the apostles because of their “faithless” ways. He has expected more faith from them after all they have seen and done. True faith generates good and godly thoughts and good and godly thoughts generate good and godly actions. When asked why they were so ineffective, Jesus tells His apostles “This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting.” Prayer and fasting (along with almsgiving and scripture reading) are the main tools we are given to cultivate as a permanent life-style, to transform our negative and unruly thoughts into faith.  Paul tells us in Romans (10:17) “So then faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God.” so we need to come to Church and hear God’s word. To read our bible, at least the daily readings the Orthodox Church which can be easily found on-line these days. A little later in Romans we are told (12:2,3) “not to be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” and that “…God has dealt to each one a measure of faith.” So we are all given a measure of faith which we are to cultivate and grow, much like planting a tiny seed and watching it grow into a great plant as we nurture it. Receiving the body and blood of Christ, prayer, fasting, almsgiving and scripture reading, equate to the sunshine and water and fertilizer needed to grow our little seed of faith into a great and beautiful tree.

All through history we see over and over that seeing signs and wonders is not the recipe for increased faith. Abraham answers the request of the rich man in Hades to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers to pay attention to things of eternal importance, by saying that they have the reports of Moses and the Prophets and even if one raised from the dead comes to them they will not be persuaded. Even today we have the Holy Fire appearing at the Church of the Sepulchre every Pascha, the countless miracles of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, Saint Porphyries, St. Nectarios etc. yet faith is rare.

“I’ll believe it when I see it” is a well approved bit of worldly wisdom. The trouble is that even when we do “see it”, we still choose to believe what we wish, rather than believing God’s word which leads to faith in God. “I’ll see it when I believe it” is a better maxim to grow our faith.  Faith is a gift from God and the way to increased faith is to pray and humbly ask Him for it, and then to walk in the faith He has already given us. We can only receive this heart knowledge by spending time in prayer and fasting and allowing this intellectual understanding to give way to true knowledge – that of the heart. Our heart is the organ of spiritual sensitivity where we see, hear, feel and taste and see that God is good! Fasting gives us wings, it increases our ability to encounter and perceive God in our heart, where we can truly encounter Him. St. John Chrysostom says, “He who prays with fasting has his wings double, and is lighter than the very winds…nothing is mightier than the man who prays sincerely…but if your body is too weak to fast continually…although you cannot fast, yet you can at least avoid luxurious living.”

When I was ordained a priest, Archbishop Irénée placed his hands upon me and prayed “The grace divine, which always heals that which is infirm, and completes that which is wanting, elevates through the laying on of hands Andrew the most devout Deacon to be a Priest. Therefore let us pray for him, that the grace of the all-holy Spirit may come upon him.”  Although there is so much that is infirm and lacking, I trust through the faith that God has granted, that He will continue to be faithful to complete what is wanting, through your prayers and the ineffable wonder-working grace of our most precious Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. May He continue to complete each one of us.

“I believe God, help my unbelief” is the cry of the father with heartfelt tears, when Jesus tells him that “all things are possible to him that believes.” This is shown to be a very effective prayer. Immediately Christ dismisses the demon and his son is healed. May it also be our prayer. As we bring whatever faith we have to our Lord and we ask him to increase it and complete it, He is faithful to come and answer and grant our desire.

 

1st Sun of Lent, Sun of Orthodoxy, John1:43-51 “Calling of Nathanael”

1st Sun of Lent, Sun of Orthodoxy, John1:43-51 “Calling of Nathanael”

This is the first Sunday of Great Lent and the Sunday of Orthodoxy. Today we celebrate the decision of the 7th Ecumenical Council in 787, establishing the honorable place of icons in the Church. At the Synod of 843 It was decreed that every first Sunday of Lent, the entire Church should continue to hold this procession in celebration. And so we are now continuing in the eleven hundred and seventy sixth (1176th) consecutive Orthodox Sunday with the rest of the Orthodox Church worldwide. A rather recently established feast in Orthodox history terms.  We will process around the church, immediately after Liturgy.

On the first Sunday of Lent we are also given the reading for the calling of Nathanael by Philip. “Come and See” is the theme that rings out in this gospel reading. Philip has just been summoned by Christ. “Follow Me” he tells Philip and he becomes His disciple. St. Philip immediately gets it. The Spirit of God pierces his heart, illuminating it with the blessed knowledge that “this is Him of whom Moses in the law and the prophets wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” His first thought is to gather his dear friend Nathanael.

How does Nathanael respond to Philip’s claim that he has found the Messiah who all of Israel has been waiting for? “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip’s answer was brilliant and one which we should all take note of. “Come and see.”

Philip didn’t get into a theological debate. He didn’t trot out his case as to why he was so convinced that he had found the Messiah. Really, how could he? This was a deep mysterious and sacramental change of the heart, not an intellectual conclusion based on the brilliance of his study. He had simply encountered Christ and responded to His call “Come, follow Me.”

When you know something this deeply, this completely, something of such eternal and precious value, how can you communicate this truth to another? How was it communicated to you? Was it really the Eureka at the end of a long torturous and convoluted search of mathematical logical computations? Or did you just have the grace of God settle into the deepest hidden place of your heart? Kind of sneak in past your defences and seep into that secret part of your soul that was still soft enough to give it a home. This is our calling, not to argue and attempt to drag people into the Kingdom by the shear force of our intellect. Destroying their simplistic beliefs so we can prove to them that they are wrong and need to listen to us. No, rather than trying to destroy their present understanding, we should try to show them how God has been with them all along and longs to come and be more fully present in their hearts. Remember He is “Everywhere present and filling all things.” We are simply to invite our friends and family to “Come and see.” God is the one who brings them to Himself and heals the brokenhearted and frees the captives. We simply invite those we love to come and see for themselves. To taste and see that the Lord is good. To open their hearts and allow Him to love them with more love than we ourselves can even comprehend.

Of course, it all does make complete and eternal sense, as it is complete and eternal truth we are dealing with. The problem is that when we attempt to explain the truths of the Kingdom to one who has no understanding of Kingdom reality, it often turns into a clash of cultures. The culture of the world, the culture of our society is very alien to the culture of the kingdom of God. It is built upon falsehoods that are promoted by the devious architect known as the “father of lies,” Satan himself. (Eph:6:12) “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” These principalities and powers are the demon generals and sergeants, in place over our particular countries and cities in service to the enemy.  They are quite organized in their attack but utterly defeated by the cross of Christ. We here in North America and Europe had for many decades a society that was commonly understood to be built on generally Christian principles. It was a long way from being perfect in this regard, but even when I was growing up, Christian principles were considered to be the foundation, and generally accepted as good and proper. This is no longer the case, and increasingly we are leaving a Christian understanding of morality behind. Truth is arbitrary, your understanding of truth is as valid as the next person’s even when they are diametrically opposed. The greatest sin is now to insist that there is a moral standard, knowable truth, to be dogmatic in your position.

I am not saying this as any kind of great revelation or even really to complain that our society is now becoming increasingly more anti-Christian. Historically a Christian society is quite an anomaly. Just read the lives of the saints and martyrs throughout every century and civilization. No, when we compare ourselves to what is probably more normal in the history of the world, we are certainly no worse off than most eras, and considerably better off than most even in recent history with the millions of martyrs in the communist era, the slaughter of the Armenian Christians in the Turkish genocide and horrors of the Hitler era. It is likely things will continue to deteriorate in our country regarding Christian values, but our job is to trust God in all things.

I bring up this clash of the Christian and secular culture simply to highlight the wisdom shown to us by Philip in addressing Nathanael in today’s gospel. “Come and see.” When we engage in arguments and debates, we are greatly handicapped, as those who have not been brought up with a Christian perspective will not be able to relate. We will be speaking a different language with very different understandings of the very terms we are using. Rather than arguing, simply smile and love them and ask them to “Come and see for themselves.” This is how the Church grows. This is how we reach out to the non-Christian society around us. God will work in the hearts of those who come to Him seeking truth and healing. But they need us to invite and introduce them to the Church. Not to argue or proselytize, to win them for God. God is with us, He is here present in a very real and accessible way at St. Aidan’s He is tangibly present at our Liturgies and services. When we come and open our hearts here, He touches us, filling us with the understanding of His reality, like Philip, or like Nathanael when he encountered Christ face to face after “coming to see” at the invitation of his good and faithful friend Philip,

Nathanael, like many of our neighbors here in the East Kootenays, is someone who has been diligently searching. He is deeply concerned about truth. He is educated, knows the scriptures, and is certainly not gullible. We could sum up this personality type as a hard nosed “show me don’t tell me” type. Christ seems to endorse this fierce honesty as he also told our dear “doubting Thomas he was blessed as he had now seen. He now says to Nathanael when they first meet, “Behold an Israelite indeed, in who there is no deceit.” In response to Nathaniel’s question “How do You know me?” Jesus says, “Before Philip called you, when you were still under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathaniel in awe replies “You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”

This Sounds a lot like the response that Peter gives to Jesus much later, just before the Transfiguration, close to the end of His earthly ministry, when Peter says, (Matt:16:16) “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” So did Nathaniel understand upon meeting Jesus the first time what it took St. Peter almost 3 years to get? No, we see from Christ’s response to Nathaniel the difference. “Most assuredly, I say to you, Hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” He immediately begins to teach Nathaniel by correcting his vision, his perspective of the most important “truth” there is. Christ is not the earthly “king of Israel.” He is the Lord and Creator of all that exists, not even just all humans, but the entire cosmos and all of creation. Peter realized this truth and that before him stood God – “True God of True God.” This is where we must all start as infants in our Christian walk. Once we start to get this awareness planted deep inside our entire being, we can move on. “Fear (awe – indescribable wonder) of God is the beginning of knowledge.” This knowledge then allows us to be filled with true humility and start the journey back to sanity, where we realize there is only one proper response for us human creatures – thanksgiving and worship.

God fills those searching for Him, with the sure knowledge that He is with us. God is everywhere present and filling all things so I am not suggesting that He can only be found here at church. He most certainly is here and coming to Church goes a long way toward preparing us to receive Him, especially in receiving His very body and blood in communion. But as the fathers tell us “We know were God is, we can not say where He is not.”

The main reason your friends and neighbors and school and work mates will consider accepting your invitation to “come and see” is because they have sensed something about you they can trust – that something is of course really someone, our dear Lord Jesus Christ. But when we invite someone to come, and they come here to see for themselves, they have already opened their heart to receiving God. In accepting the invitation, they are asking God to come and reveal Himself to them. He is a good God who loves us and all of mankind, and He will surely respond to the cry of their hearts. So, let us learn this valuable lesson from Philip, let us apply it also to ourselves as we celebrate the Pre-sanctified Liturgies where the communion hymn is “O Taste and see how good the Lord is.” Let us also remember to always open our hearts also, to “taste and see.”        Glory to Jesus Christ!

 

Cheesefare– Forgiveness Sunday, Matt. 6: 14 – 21

The Church in her wisdom has given us, very carefully considered Gospel readings all during the year. On this, the Sunday Great Lent begins – also known as the Sunday of the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise – we are always given the passage we just heard from Matthew. Our Lord is explaining to His disciples what is expected of all who wish to follow Him. He starts with Forgiveness putting it very simply; “if you forgive, then I forgive. If you do not forgive, then I do not forgive” A very direct and clear instruction which is pretty hard to misunderstand – although we do our best to do so.

He then moves on to Fasting. He doesn’t say: “if” you fast but starts with “when” you fast, and then explains that you should do it very quietly and secretly and not draw any attention to the fact that you are fasting. The sin that caused the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise – was disobedience to God by refusing to fast; and eating from the tree which God asked them not to eat of. Fasting struggles have been with us from the start. I might add that some of the Father’s are fond of saying that you should not just fast from meat, dairy and other foods, but it is even better to fast from devouring your brothers and sisters, and fill the time you gain from fasting by feeding on the Word of God and prayer.

This Gospel reading then concludes with some simple instructions for a great eternal investment plan that is risk free and guaranteed to yield huge gains. Invest in God’s Kingdom; in feeding and clothing the poor, in building and beatifying His Churches, in supporting His work here upon the earth, and your rewards will be exponentially and permanently multiplied in the Kingdom of heaven. Here on earth with peace and joy, and in God’s Kingdom with solid returns that can not be wiped out by the economy.

So as we move into Great Lent the Church would have us consider this same advice every year – for hundreds of years the advice has been the same and no matter what the culture or how technologically advanced our civilization becomes, the passage and the advice stays the same going into Great Lent. Forgiveness – Fasting – Almsgiving.

Now this obviously doesn’t apply only to lent but is the advice that Christ gives to his disciples for all time as essential requirements to living a Christian life. But, the Church has given us the Lenten season to enable us to re-focus on what is truly important. To help us to start to consider once again what the real purpose of our very short time on planet earth is really all about. We are so easily distracted. I count myself as first in this department as those who know me will be happy to confirm. There is just so much going on, so much to get involved with, so many diversions – work, play, entertainment, the kids activities, all good and blessed things; and these days social media which certainly isn’t always a blessed and good thing strangles the life and any free time out of many in our culture. Somehow our prayer, church and devotional time seem to take a back seat as life gets in the way.

I do know better, and I really look forward to getting another chance to get my spiritual priorities and discipline back on track during Great Lent. I then really count on God’s forgiveness, as my great intentions end up being a whimper compared to what I had hoped to accomplish. Thank God He always does forgive when we turn to Him in genuine repentance.

The more we are able to experience and accept God’s forgiveness for ourselves, the more we can in turn, pass forgiveness on to those whom we struggle with. Our culture says we need to forgive ourselves, and we often think we just can’t forgive ourselves for whatever terrible sin we have fallen into. We struggle with “if only I could have another chance” or beat ourselves up constantly with “what a lunkhead… dumb, dumb, dumb” or worse. We don’t just beat ourselves up, as soon as we get on this track we have instant help from the enemy and accuser of mankind who takes special delight in doing all he can to keep this self –flagellation at the forefront of our thinking. This isn’t a guilty conscience – this is spiritual self abuse. It really isn’t so important that we forgive ourselves. What is critically important however, is that we accept that God has forgiven us. Then we will be able to move on.

So what did we just hear Christ say about God’s forgiveness, without which none of us can even exist. He didn’t say God wouldn’t forgive us if we didn’t fast properly or even if we struggled with generosity and alms giving. Christ really wants what is best for us and He knows that we will be hurting ourselves, limiting our growth and limiting our experience of His joy and peace in our lives if we don’t practise fasting and almsgiving.  He is greatly encouraging us to re-think how we view fasting and almsgiving. To start seeing them as blessed opportunities to allow the Kingdom of God to grow in us. To cooperate with God in allowing the very image of Christ which he has placed within us – and within every human being – to shine forth.

However, He puts forgiveness in a completely different category. “Forgive them and you will be forgiven.” There is a direct link. This is a very simple statement that should be pretty much impossible to misunderstand, but we want to throw a few exceptions into the formula. I can forgive – up to a certain point – but let’s not get carried away here. After all _ _ _ was really just too much. I’m sure there must be some exceptions and this one certainly qualifies. I mean after all I’ve done for that guy to have him treat me like this. He really hurt my feelings. I heard what so and so said to so and so about you know what and I resent it! No-one has the right to treat me like that.

Hmmm “No-one has the right to treat me like that.”

This may be very true or it may be just a little true, and really we might be largely reacting to a finger stuck into our pride. Nothing make us squirm more than having our pride exposed, and a good “undeserved” insult can certainly show us very quickly if we have a healthy worm gnawing away in the hidden recesses of our heart, which only God through our prayer with humility and forgiveness can eradicate – kind of like pouring salt on a slug. Forgiveness doesn’t mean we just roll over and play let’s pretend this didn’t happen. We may have to actively pray to God to help us forgive someone, while actively doing everything we can to have them locked up. Healing requires light and the Father of lights will be exposing every deed and thought to the light at the last judgement, and already knows about them all right now, so it’s a bad idea to try to keep our sin hidden until then. However, the Fathers also tell us that love covers a multitude of sins and exposing what we perceive as others sins publicly would seldom be advised.

That’s why we have the sacrament of confession. It is very healing, when being tortured with the crazy thoughts that the enemy of our souls tries to fill our mind with, to hear our Father confessor say; “Now, having no further care for the sins which you have confessed, depart in peace.” That is why it is a normal practice in the Orthodox Church to do a serious self examination during Great Lent and come to confession. Please let’s not all leave this for the last few days of Holy week.

This teaching on forgiveness which we heard today follows immediately upon some very familiar verses which begin; “In this manner therefore pray: Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be your name…”

I think we are all pretty familiar with this prayer but if not it will be coming up a little later in the Liturgy, just before we receive the Body and Blood of our Christ our Lord for the healing of soul and body. The Lord chose to emphasize immediately after giving us this precious prayer, that forgiving others wasn’t optional. He took “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” directly from His prayer and highlighted it just to be sure there could be no mistaking its importance.

Christ then went on to demonstrate true forgiveness by giving His very life for us on the cross. He who knew no sin voluntarily allowed those filled with sin, to nail Him to the cross, for the forgiveness of our sins. As they nailed Him to the cross He said: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Listen to a phrase from the beautiful Anaphora prayer coming up; “…in the night in which He was given up – or rather gave Himself up for the life of the world -…”

Christ’s very life was about forgiveness. Forgiveness for us. Forgiveness for our rebellion. Forgiveness for our sin. Forgiveness completely undeserved.

Forgiveness is at the heart of every stable and lasting marriage and relationship. We all give each other lots of opportunities to practise and without it our marriage is doomed.

When Saint Prophecies was asked: “Can I have your blessing to receive communion tomorrow?” he replied, “Do you hate anyone?” “No Elder.” “Good, Go and receive communion.” Christ’s Saints lived forgiveness through God’s grace, starting from the very first Martyr St. Stephen. As he was being stoned to death he says: “Lord do not charge them with this sin.”  Reading the Prologue or Synaxarion – the lives of the Saints for each day of the year – the stories abound with such forgiveness.

We start Great Lent tonight. The service is called “Forgiveness Sunday.” I highly encourage you to try to come out after our lunch. A very significant and beautiful part of the service is when we all form a circle, and go around to ask forgiveness from each other. The very best way to start Great Lent is for us to search our minds for anyone whom we have not been able to forgive – living or departed – and ask the Lord from the depths of our heart for His grace, to be able to grant forgiveness to that person and ask the Lord for forgiveness in return for taking so long to do so. We need to ask for and accept God’s promised forgiveness. Great healing can begin from such a start. Our hearts can begin to be softened and those whom we forgive can experience a great unburdening.

Please forgive me the sinner: my brothers and sisters in Christ; May God forgive us all.

 

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!