A Reflection on Pascha

So having just completed our Paschal services, and beginning Bright Week in the Orthodox Church, I’ve been contemplating a lot recently on what it means to say “Christ is risen!” In so contemplating, I began to think about my journey of faith, from childhood through leaving the Church, through rediscovering my faith and the entire process.

There have been during the course of my journey two prominent churches that stood out to me, which I shall not name. However, what I will say of each of them is that one of them taught me to be heavily vested in the power of the Holy Spirit, with a very emotional attachment to the faith; and the other taught me the value and importance of discernment, the value of testing everything against the Scriptures and how to reconcile those things which I was taught with the teaching of the Holy Scriptures to ensure that they were correct; akin to a modern day version of the Bereans. Each of those two taught me very valuable lessons, the like of which I am extremely grateful to God for. While seeming to be polar opposites on the surface, each of them were invaluable to me to teach the importance of each aspect of faith.

And then, one day, I was posed a question, by a prominent Protestant pastor. The question was, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Forget everything you know about church, everything you know about theology, just forget all of that. Now, if you were stranded on an island for three years, with nothing but the Bible, and you read it day in and day out for all three years; and then you were to get off of the island and go to a church in America, would that church look anything like you would have imagined based on the Scripture?” And, the very honest answer, that I’m sure even the most devoted evangelical would give, is no. Not even close. So, after hearing that and deeply, prayerfully, contemplating that, I began to observe more and more each time I went to church, in order to return to the Church of the New Testament, what would have to change? And I found myself more and more going to services and thinking, “okay, this would need to change, and this would need to change, and…” so on and so on. I began studying the Catholic Church, against my better judgment, because it’s roots were much deeper than the Protestant Church.

And then a very valuable thing happened, I heard about Hank Hanegraaf converting to the Eastern Orthodox Church, and I was wondering, “what is THAT?” I had never even heard of it. So, I began researching it more and more. And, as God would have it, I came into possession of a book (as good Protestant aspiring theologians seek) called, “Becoming Orthodox,” by Peter Gilliquist. And it was the founders of the “Campus Crusade for Christ,” and a detailed account of their search for the New Testament Church, the search for the Church that we read about in the Book of Acts. I won’t go really into detail about this book, but I will say that I highly recommend it. Basically, they divided into groups based on the important elements of Church, of prayer, of worship; and once they had all done years of research, they came to the conclusion that the Church of the New Testament, the Church that we read about and aspire to come to, still existed, and it was the Orthodox Church.

All of this was rekindled in me as we celebrated Holy Week last week, and the Passion of Good Friday last Friday; the descent into Hades on Saturday, and the Resurrection Saturday night/Sunday morning. It was all rekindled in me, because I started thinking about how exactly I had gotten here.

See, as a Protestant, I was taught all about the Resurrection from a very strong academic view. I was taught that Christ had been crucified 2000 years ago, was placed in the tomb, and was resurrected on the third day. But, it was almost like reading a history book, and a history book about something that I was chronologically challenged, that since I was born almost two centuries later, that I could never experience. Even the reenactments of “Maundy Thursday” and all of the movies never gave me the true sense of what was happening. Basically, it was “Christ died and was risen, and sorry kid, you missed it.”

And that’s what I love so much about the Orthodox Church. It’s not past tense, it’s not something that I missed due to the chronological challenge of being birthed nearly two thousand years after the fact, because our God exists outside of time. During Holy Week, we relive the whole experience of it all. We proclaim Hosanna as our savior rides into Jerusalem. We weep bitter tears as He is tried and crucified; we celebrate Saturday His descent into the depths of Hades to rescue the souls of those trapped therein. And then, on Pascha, we begin the vigil in tears and prostration before the tomb, in near total darkness; only to have procession and then end in the Sanctuary joyfully proclaiming that Christ is Risen. Christ IS Risen, not two thousand years ago, but today. Not theoretically, not historically, but in present day reality. He is resurrected, and we with Him, every day of our lives. As many as died with Christ in baptism are made alive with Him.

And THAT is the fullness of the faith, not studiously, but experientially. Not only to learn about Christ, but to experience Him as well. And that is what I have been contemplating on. My journey. I will never regret any of the time that I spent in any of the churches that I have encountered, because each of them taught me foundational truths that were necessary for me to experience the fullness of the faith. I love the very emotional approach of the Church that I was initially baptized in, because it taught me to love the feeling of being in the presence of God and to not overthink that feeling, to not try to rationalize away those feelings which the Holy Spirit Himself placed in me. I love the studious approach to Scripture that I learned in the other prominent influence in my life, because it taught me a degree of respect for the Scripture which I don’t know if I would ever have otherwise attained.

But, even more, I love the Orthodox Church because it ties the two together in a way that makes it truly real in my life. We have a very strict doctrine which is fully based on the Scriptures which has been preserved by millenia of tradition; while at the same time making it very real in our lives. So that, every Sunday, we are able to partake of that divine mystery of the Holy Eucharist. We are able to join ourselves every Sunday to the pure body and blood of our Lord. Every year on Holy Week, we are able to live the anguish, the joy, the sorrow, the excitement, the hope, and the truth that Christ IS risen, not just once 2000 years ago, but every day in our lives. Christ is risen, and we are risen with Him, and thus death itself has lost it’s sting, because our Lord has defeated the power of death itself. The wholeness of the faith that St Paul writes about is not a studious look at the historical resurrection, but rather the power of that Resurrection in our lives themselves.

“Today a sacred Pascha is revealed to us: a new and holy Pascha, a mystical Pascha, a Pascha worthy of veneration, a Pascha which is Christ the Redeemer, a blameless Pascha, a great Pascha, a Pascha of the faithful, a Pascha which has opened for us the gates of paradise, a Pascha that sanctifies the faithful…So the sinners will perish before the face of God, but let the righteous be glad…This is the day of Resurrection. Let us be illumined by the feast. Let us embrace each other. Let us call brothers even those that hate us, and forgive all by the Resurrection. And so let us cry out:
Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.
Christ IS risen from the dead!!!” (from the Paschal Stichera).

Christ is risen!!

Great and Holy Week

Article originally appears at Pravmir.

This very day is clothed with the bright robes of the first-fruits of the Lord’s passion.
Come, then, all feast lovers, let us welcome it with songs.
(Kathisma, Holy Monday)

We have arrived, my beloved, at the saving Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, at Holy and Great Week. This week is called Great, because in its 168 hours from today until the night of the Resurrection, we give honor to great events, unique and world historic, which shocked the earth, the heavens, and that which is below the earth. This is why this week is called Great, and it is why it should not pass us by like all the others.

And I put forward the question: What are the duties of a Christian for Holy and Great Week? I am not addressing unbelievers, atheists or chiliasts; I am addressing believers who want to celebrate properly. What therefore are our duties during this week?

The first duty, my brethren, is to thank our Lord Jesus Christ from the bottom of our hearts. Of course, our whole life must be a thank you, a “Glory be to You, O Lord”, for His small and great benefactions, the visible and the invisible, for all the good things, material and spiritual, that His grace abides in; the sun, air, water, flowers, beaches, all over the place. We should also thank Him for our parents and siblings, our spouse and children, for times and seasons, for what is blessed and necessary. An ungrateful person is worse than an animal. You have a dog, you throw him a piece of bread, and he wags his tail and says thank you. People also must be grateful to God. To thank Him for everything, but above all for the sacrifice of His Son, for His revered Passion. We would also like to thank Him for something else; for His longsuffering in so many of our crimes and blasphemies, for which the earth should open up to swallow us and the sea to swell to drown us, and yet it tolerates us. That is why on Great Friday the Church says, “Glory to Your longsuffering, O Lord, glory to You.”

So one of our duties is to thank God. The other is to follow the sacred services. The services of Great Week are not like the others; they differ in many ways. The hymns are sweeter than honey, those inspired poems, such as the lamentations at the tomb, these exist in no other religion in the world. These hymns alone, which neither the Franks or the Protestants or anyone else possess, are enough to prove that our Church is not of this earth, but of heaven, inspired by God. Who did these? Where were they written? In schools and universities? They were done in caves by holy ascetics, as their tears fell to the ground and blossomed. They were not simply written with the mind and due to their education, but they were the blood of their hearts, of healthy feelings, an expression of life, of holy experiences, truths, which only those who truly love Christ can have. One must be unconscious so as not to be moved.

Our third duty is to fast. This week is a week of fasting, strict fasting. Don’t listen to the materialists and the impious. We keep the fasts of our holy Church, and especially this fast, as a tradition of the apostles and fathers of Orthodoxy. When we talk about fasting, we do not simply mean the fasting of the stomach to remember the vinegar of the cross, but with the fasting of the stomach our mouths must also fast from bad-mouthing, our tongue from obscenity, our eyes from filthy spectacles. During these days in Byzantine times the emperors would sign a decree: Great Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Pascha Sunday the hippodromes and all the theaters were closed. The Church is in mourning. If we were a Christian nation, centers of corruption would have to be closed from Great Monday, for mourning to be established for the One who was raised up for us on the cross.

But we have another duty. It is the duty of Confession and Divine Communion. I will not expand on this, but will only say that during these holy days, and especially on the night of the Resurrection, we are called to stay in church till the end with our Resurrection candle. Whoever hears “Christ is Risen” and then leaves, it would be preferable if they had just stayed home. That which takes place, where the churches empty after “Christ is Risen”, is a desecration, a contempt for Christ. Let us remain therefore until the end and prepare to receive Divine Communion. This week is especially a week for Divine Communion. What is Divine Communion? The Body and Blood of our Christ, fire from heaven. I ask, what are you? Are you straw? If so, then do not approach the holy things, otherwise you will burn. Are you gold? If you are gold, then gold is not threatened by the fire; the more it approaches the fire the more it is cleansed. So if you are a Christian, and remain unrepentant, the fire will burn you, just like it burned Judas who communed unworthily. But if you have gone through the furnace of sacred Confession, then approach; Divine Communion will be for you a medicine of immortality.

During Holy and Great Week we also have a sacred duty to our brethren who are suffering and are in need. It is a week of love and mercy. Give a fine meal to someone who is hungry, a new piece of clothing – not old and used – to someone who doesn’t have any, help a widow and an orphan, give some medicine to someone who needs it, visit someone who is sick, give a consoling word to someone that is sad, do whatever a heart of love thinks it can.

What I have said is nothing. There is something else which is more difficult. If you do everything we have said so far, and don’t do this last thing, then you are not a Christian. What is it? I know Christians who are people of prayer, whose ears are drawn to sacred words, who fast strictly, who confess and commune, but few are the Christians who have – what? “Let us forgive all things with the Resurrection” (Doxastikon of the Praises, Pascha Sunday). Great Week is a week of forgiveness. Who, my brethren, in this life has no dislikes, coldness, contradictions, who does not have an enemy? During these holy days let us look up towards the Crucified One. No one was wronged or hurt like our Christ. While the nails ripped into His flesh, at the same time the curses and anathemas of the Pharisees ripped into His heart, yet He prayed on the cross, saying: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34). Let us forgive one another therefore during these holy days; brides and mothers in-law, brothers and sisters, friends with friends, children with parents, all without exception. Let us expand our hearts, let us feel the love of our Christ within us. How can we celebrate without love?

My brethren! Holy and Great Week equals a hand open to mercy, eyes with tears of repentance, feet that hasten to church, hearts reconciled, full of worship towards the Crucified One. Do we perform these duties? Do you know who we are like? We are like a beggar who every day has fifteen cents thrown at him, but one day a certain king passes by him and says, “Open your pockets!” and begins to count 1, 2, 3,… 5,… 10,… 100,… 168 gold coins that dazzle his eyes. And he, instead of taking this treasure to use it, he goes to the river and throws the gold coins in the water. Isn’t this insanity? These hours therefore that the Church gives us is a treasure. Every hour, every bell ring, every beat, every second, is an important hour.

Let us take advantage of these holy days. Let us not allow them to escape from us like the rest of our lives. Do we know if we will live to celebrate another Great Week? Perhaps this Great Week is the last of our lives? How many people did we have with us last year? Where are they now? We are leaving, the train is whistling, only once do we go through life with this skin.

I pray this Holy and Great Week is an important milestone in our lives. May the Lord give us this week holy thoughts, holy feelings, heroic decisions, sanctification of the soul. May we seal Holy Week with the words, “Remember me, Lord, when You come into Your kingdom” (Lk. 23:42).

Source: (This homily was recorded live from the Church of the Transfiguration of the Savior in Moschato, Athens on April 10, 1960. Translation by John Sanidopoulos.)

The Eleventh Hour

So, you’re lying on the couch in the evening, watching some random show on the television receiving a much needed escape from all of the tensions and anxieties of the world. With a dim light in the background and the window blinds wide open, you are relaxing and fall asleep during your viewing. And then, a few hours later, you awaken, blinds still wide open, just before sunrise. The television is still playing, and you look around and find everything seems perfectly ordered, so you just lie there a few more minutes. And then something happens, the sun begins to rise. And as the warm glow of sunlight begins to seep in through the windows, you begin to notice some of the dust that has accumulated in your house. You notice a cobweb which has formed perfectly in the corner where the ceiling and the walls meet. You notice some of the dust which has formed under the table secretly on the hardwood floor. So, you stop looking around and shift your focus back to the television, and notice that it is getting harder and harder to see what is on the screen. As the sunlight begins to brighten, the screen on the television begins to seem dimmer and dimmer. At this exact moment, you have one of three options; you can either close your eyes and go back to sleep, you can throw closed the blinds and continue in your distraction, or you can embrace the light of the rising sun, turn away from the distractions, and begin to clean.

To me, this is the perfect image of what Great and Holy Lent is. This is the perfect image of our Lenten journey, our journey towards the Resurrection. We have all, you and I alike, fallen asleep in our distractions, in our darkness, and now as we near the Resurrection of our Lord, we slowly see the dawn rising and must make this same decision; will we close our eyes and go back to sleep, will we continue in our distraction and block out the light of our Christ, or will we embrace the light and turn away from our distractions, allowing his light to reveal to us that dust that we have allowed to accumulate in our lives? St John the Theologian warns us that “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have communion with him and yet walk in darkness, we lie-and do not practice the truth.” (1 John 1:5-6).

See, Lent is this great time. It’s the time for us to turn away from these carnal passions and lusts, from these distractions. To no longer allow the lights of cell phones and televisions to illuminate our lives, but to throw open the blinds and allow the light of Christ, the true light, to reveal to us all of the places that we have allowed this dust to accumulate in our lives. To allow this pure light to come in and drown out our distractions and help us to focus on what is important. In so doing, he reveals to us our strengths and our weaknesses, and to be truly profitable, we must focus on and confess those weaknesses, knowing that it is in our weaknesses that his strength is truly revealed. It is through our humility that his glory is revealed. It is through our faults that his healing is magnified. Every morning we pray, “if thou hast mercy on a righteous man, it is no great thing, if thou savest a pure man, it is nothing wonderful since they are deserving of thy mercy. Rather, make known the wonder of thy mercy in me, who am wretched, sinful, and defiled and show thy compassion. Poor in all good works, I am a pauper, abandoned to thee. Save me for thy mercy’s sake O Lord, for blessed art thou, unto the generations of generations.” It is when we truly grasp our weakness that we learn that his grace is sufficient. And we must understand that the more we embrace that light, the more dust will be revealed, and thus the more grace we shall receive. Once we, through the grace of God, overcome the larger sins, then the smaller ones will be made known to us. I once read, when asked “what do you do in the monastery,” a monk replied, “we fall, we get up again.” And that characterizes perfectly the life of any Christian. We strive for the “righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21), we fall, we get up. And each time, it serves as a great chance for our spiritual growth.

This week marks the final week of Great and Holy Lent. Regardless of how any of us have done thus far during this years journey, let us remember the parable fo the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20). The workers who were hired in the first hour (6 AM) received the same pay, one denarius, as though who were hired in the 11th hour (5 PM). It is not too late, my brethern, to open the blinds and allow the light of Christ to shine in and reveal all of the dust we have allowed while drowning in the distractions of this world. Whether we have perfectly kept the fast from day one, or whether we have stumbled along up to this very point, Lent can, in fact, be equally profitable to each of us, we have but to open the blinds.

Christ is in our midst.

Persevere and Avoid Irritability

Original article appears here.

We are quickly approaching the middle of Lent! Our refrigerators have been depleted of non-fasting foods that happened to be there and are restocked with simple but satisfying foods. Our palette, having gone a few weeks without rich fats and proteins, is becoming more sensitive and easy to satisfy. Our stomachs, having at first rebelled against the fast, are now humbled and happy to have just about anything. Raw carrots are surprisingly sweet, and a plain piece of bread has a great variety of favors!

Yet our adversary, the devil, seeing our honorable efforts and the calming of the passions that is blossoming within us, has a new phase of temptation in store. Our humbled and wearied flesh is not so easily moved by his impulsive and carnal temptations any more, so he falls back on a simple, but effective weapon: irritability.

The Church teaches us clearly that when we restrain ourselves for the sake of virtue, which is to deprive ourselves of worldly things in exchange for heavenly things, we are tempted almost immediately by irritability. We are not used to being deprived of the things we desire, and the spiritual energy that was devoted to that which we’ve given up backs up within us, causing a state of spiritual imbalance. The self-restraint is a good thing! But we must redirect the surplus of spiritual energy, or the imbalance will burst out in ways such as irritability, anxiety, frustration, or simply accepting back what we’ve given up. So how do we redirect this energy? Prayer and prayerfulness.

We are taught that fasting is always accompanied by prayer. This means corporate worship, personal prayer, and a general sense of increased prayerfulness: that is, awareness of divine things, watchfulness, and a longing for God. When we feel tempted or pulled towards irritability during a fast, for no apparent reason or for typical “Lenten” reasons (car breaks down, irritable neighbor, increased demands, plans interrupted, that sense of “when it rains it pours,” etc.), we must consciously take hold of that energy going the wrong direction (towards anger, escape, despair, etc.) and turn it towards prayer and prayerfulness. In the moment of temptation, take a deep breath, acknowledge inwardly that these things are attacks against the spiritual focus you have committed yourself to, accept what is as God’s providence in your life at that moment, and pray inwardly, “Lord have mercy . . . Lord, I trust You will reward me for my feeble perseverance . . . Lord, my life is so soft and easy most of the time, yet I am thankless. Glory to You for all things!”

In this way our fasting takes life spiritually. It is transformed from a dead list of rules to which we submit into a way of life, a new existence, a spiritual experience, a journey by which we, with the grace of God, will increase in faith, depth, and wisdom. Christ endured crucifixion for our sake. May we endure for His sake also.

-ARCHPRIEST THADDAEUS HARDENBROOK

On Personal Interpretation of Scripture

2 Peter 1:20-2:9

Personal Interpretation

This passage begins with perhaps one of the hardest lessons in the New Testament for Western (read: American) Christians. This is so hard for us to truly embrace, “no prophecy of Scripture is for personal interpretation.” And that’s hard for us to comprehend, because we’ve spent our whole lives being taught that what we believe is true, is what is “real for us,” and that no one can tell us that we are wrong. I was speaking to someone yesterday who was complaining about bullying being a horrible thing, and, while I agree with that statement, bullying is horrible, but the line at what is considered bullying has shifted considerably. To me, we do our children no justice when we teach them that simply participating in an event is worthy of admiration, and it is to their detriment that we have refused to recognize someone as a winner vs someone who has lost. And it becomes even worse, a hundredfold worse, when we tell them that there is no right or wrong, something that is wrong for one person can be right for another. And this is sort of what Peter is touching on here. When I read the Scripture and when you read the Scripture, we can very realistically obtain two different meanings from the exact same passages. I think of Luther and Zwingli, who with the exact same Scripture derived to diametrically opposing positions on the topic of the Eucharist. However, this fact does not imply that we are both right…to the contrary, Peter tells us, there is one definite right, and all of the rest are wrong.

What Peter is teaching us here is that when we read the Scripture, we must always do so through the lens of the teachings of the Church. We must consider what the Church has always taught, going back much further than 1517, and we must always bear those teachings, those traditions, in mind. Anyone who would deny this fact would be arguing against St Peter himself here. And he goes further to warn of the many false teachings and heresies that have spawned from this refusal. He warns of the false teachings which had already begun to spread from those who had interpreted the Scripture based on how they understood it, rather than relying on the teachings/interpretations (in further generations, the traditions) of the Church.

See, when we read the Holy Scriptures, when we study them, we must always seek to reference those readings with the lessons which have been passed down from generation to generation. I see this all the time, even in protestant churches, who constantly quote Spurgeon, Luther, MacArthur, and Moody. However, there are many who preceed those, whose teachings have been all but forgotten in our culture. For me to assume that I have more knowledge, more wisdom, more “enlightenment” than not only the monastics who had dedicated their lives to God, but the thousand plus years of Holy Martyrs who gave their lives to defend those teachings, is the pinnacle of arrogance, the plateau of pride. And yet, this, regretfully, fits our Western mindset perfectly. I attending a very strict theologically sound church for years, and yet had never heard the names Chrysostom, Basil, Athanasius. I had read entire volumes of JI Packer, but had never heard the name Evagrius, and had studied Oswald Chambers at length, but never once heard of John Climacus. And ultimately, this was because the teachers that I had heard of all taught the same thing, that Scripture alone was the sole authority, and that was all you needed to know. We sort of forsook the fact that each of them did lay ground work for what the Christian life should look like, and instead studied the very thing that Jude warns about, “”turning the grace of our God into indecency.”

See, when we read the Holy Scriptures, in absentia of the traditions of the Church, we are free to find whatever we want in them. I remember one Protestant pastor clearly stating, “pick a sin and I can find you a verse to defend it.” While he was speaking in hyperbole, that is fully the mindset of most Christians in the West. I have had friends argue that there’s a verse in Isaiah that justifies the use of marijuana, because she happened to like it. And that’s where the trouble sets in. We must read the Holy Scriptures, but when we do so, it must be in a manner that allows the words of Holy Scripture to change us, not vice versa. When we interpret through the lens of our current times, we allow the current mindsets, the current “trends” to warp our interpretation of Scripture. Rather, when we read the words of Scripture through the lens of the Church, it is we who change, not the Scripture. So often, we look for what is comfortable, what is “fitting” for our times. But, the words of Scripture are never comfortable. The messages, the commands, the warnings of Christianity can never be comfortable, they are never “politically correct,” nor have they ever been. That’s how 12 fishermen and tax collectors were able, through the grace of our Lord, to change the world. And our God never changes based on current trends. No, as Peter references here, the traditions are imperative for that very reason, because they have not changed. And this is how the Church changes the world, and we must cling to that fact. It never bends to the will of the world, it is never open to personal interpretation with personal bias. It can never change the world if it changes with the world. Rather, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. And we, my brethern, must cling to that fact, rather than trusting in our own wisdom, which will always be tainted with the wisdom of the age.

May we always read the Holy Scripture, study it, and apply it to our lives. According to the words of the Scripture itself, and the Church, which gave it to us.

Christ is in our midst.

Crying Out For Mercy

Article originally published on Pravmir by Fr James Guirguis . Original article here

The reading from the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke. (18:35-43) 

I notice something interesting as I read through the gospels. There is never a time where someone asks the Lord Jesus Christ for mercy where the Lord does not show the individual great mercy. It might seem quite obvious but it is really a very fundamental point. We call Christ, “the merciful one” and the “lover of mankind” and indeed it is true that the Lord perfectly embodies and lives and pours out His mercy upon all who draw near to Him and cry out to Him for mercy.

Why do people ask Jesus Christ to have mercy on them? In the gospels we see this happen because people feel miserable and hopeless in their lives. They are often in desperation due to their sicknesses or disabilities or their sense of deep unworthiness and sinfulness. All of these are reasons that cause men and women to cry out for the Lord Jesus Christ to have mercy on them.

In our own lives, we are encouraged to find the same cry within our hearts. We are encouraged to go to the deep place where we are sick and tired and hungry and feel unworthy and once we are there we transform all of those feelings of weakness and defeat into a cry to the Lord, “Jesus, have mercy on me!” St. John Climacus says “Let your prayer be completely simple. For both the publican and the prodigal son were reconciled to God by a single phrase.” (Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 28.5) It didn’t take much, just one phrase. We see the same thing here with the blind man in today’s gospel. The Lord didn’t hear him because he said many words, but because he said a few heartfelt words to Christ. So we have to find this deep cry within ourselves, because the Lord is eager to hear this and to help us.

Sometimes it is easy for us to find this deep cry because things around us are difficult. When our circumstances are difficult or when we are sick and suffering, it is easy to cry out to God, isn’t it? But often we are comfortable and or distracted and for these reasons we have to work harder to scratch below the surface of our hearts and go deeper to the place where we feel our real need for the Lord’s mercy and compassion. How do we do this in the Christian life? The Church gives us some tools for softening the heart and going deeper in our prayers. The ascetic disciplines are key stepping stones in this regard.

One of the tools in the ascetical tool kit is fasting. Another tool is to do prostrations. Both of these should be undertaken after speaking with your spiritual father for guidance. Yet another tool for softening the heart is prayers in the middle of the night. Sometimes we can’t sleep. This is a perfect reason to get out of bed and fall on your knees with a prayer rope and spend some time beseeching God, saying the Jesus prayer. You will be surprised at how effective and energetic your prayers can be when you have just a little bit of discomfort. And if all of these aren’t enough we can also go out of our way to give to the poor and do works of charity. These exercises help others physically but they benefit each of us spiritually. You can even come and ask if there are extra things that need to be done around church. I assure you that there is always work to be done.

What is the goal? It is to be able to cry out to Christ with a real cry of need and desire for the mercy that He alone can provide. But how do we get to that point of crying out to God unless we allow ourselves to feel some brokenness? How do we get to that point if we are always distracted with phones and shows and games? The spiritual fathers of the Church have all recognized that our prayers won’t be very profitable unless we aim for stillness. Part of our fasting regimen should be fasting from social media, fasting from the news, and fasting from movies and games for a time. Sometimes we should do this for an hour or two before bed. Sometimes we need to extend our fasts to go for a day or two or a week or two, maybe even longer. If Prayer is the most profitable thing that we can do in life, why don’t we give it more time? No sacrifice is too great when God offers us Himself in return.

Each of these little steps will help us build an awareness of our sins and our need for healing. The worst kind of delusion, which is abundant within some Christian traditions is the sense that one is perfectly well and has no further need of Christ’s healing and forgiveness. So we have to actively engage in the battle and know that we will struggle and through our honest struggle, by God’s grace, we will grow and bear spiritual fruit. St. Theognostos writes “Pursue your goal forcefully, dedicating your whole life to God, in all your actions, words and intentions seeking by all possible means not to fall away from Him.”

If we do this and pursue Christ faithfully, then there is no doubt that He will shower us with great mercy and He will speak to our hearts as He spoke to the blind man saying, “your faith has made you well.” Glory be to God forever AMEN.

On Partiality

James 2:1-13

James here is addressing a very real issue that began in the early days of the Church and has perpetuated throughout the generations, and continues to be very real in the Church today. The favoritism and partiality of the wealthy. Just think of how much more renown a church begins to receive should a celebrity happen to enter the doors of that church, as though their mere presence justifies the church. Even on a more local level, I’ve personally been to churches in my life where the more wealth one has attained, the more openly everyone receives them. The man in the expensive suit is greeted with open arms, whilst the poor beggar entering into God’s house for the first time is all but shunned. And yet, when we look in Scripture, favoring the rich to the poor is very contrary to Jesus’ teaching. Consider the fact that Jesus chose to be incarnate to a poor family, one who could not even afford to pay the temple fees properly in his presentation. In Leviticus, we find that after the birth, the mother shall bring a one year old lam without blemish, and a pigeon or turtledove for sin offering, to purify her. But if the woman can’t afford the lamb, then she will bring two turtledoves or two pigeons for the purification offering (Leviticus 12). And in the Gospel account, we read that Mary brought “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons (Luke 2:24), signifying that they were not a wealthy family. Thus, to show partiality to the wealthy to begin with is stand opposed to Christ. Also, bearing in mind that he “had no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20) and had to borrow a coin to illustrate a lesson (Mark 12:15), we see throughout the life of Jesus that wealth is no indication of God’s favor. A person’s dignity and worth come from God alone, and when we deign to judge others based on their wealth, their appearance, their ethnicity; then we place ourselves in the position of being an unjust judge.

If anything, it should be the inverse of how we normally react. James reiterates this by asking, “has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom of God?” Jesus, in today’s Gospel reading, declares that “it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:25). While God is not partial to anyone (Acts 10:34-35; Romans 2:10-11), the poor are more likely to repent and renounce the world because they see the emptiness of earthly things. To the contrary, the rich tend to prize earthly things and find their joy, their contentment, their security, in them. Remembering the rich young ruler who asked Jesus what he must do to obtain eternal life. Jesus responded to him, “go, sell what you have, give it to the poor, and you will have a treasure in heaven. Then, come and follow me.” (Matthew 19:21). And the Scriptures tell us that man “went away sad, because he was a man with great possessions.” (Matthew 19:22).

James concludes this passage with a strong warning. The “royal law” that he references, he defines as the second greatest commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself. When we show partiality, when we judge someone based on any of these earthly labels, we willingly violate that commandment. You become a willing transgressor of the commandments of God. And he notes that whoever sins by any transgression sins against the whole of the law, because he sins against the giver of the law. The same law that states “you shall not murder” also states that “you shall not commit adultery,” thus if you commit adultery but do not murder, you have still violated the same law because you have transgressed against the one who gave it. And while we all will accidentally sin, the Scripture is pretty clear that anyone who is walking with God will not willingly sin; thus when we judge another based on these things, we are willingly sinning against God, and therefore not walking with Him. And just as forgiving is a condition for receiving forgiveness (Matthew 6:15), so too being merciful is a condition for receiving mercy.

We have to remember that each one of us is equally valuable in the eyes of God. He doesn’t value the wealthy more than the poor, or the Greek more than the Russian or the Hebrew or the American or any other ethnicity. And, as such, each one of us is equally deserving of the love and respect that statement would dictate. Jesus tells us in the Gospel that “whatever you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.” Contemplate what that statement means. Think of whom you consider to be the lowest. If I welcome with open arms a doctor, and yet shun a homeless man, I am shunning Christ. If I love a lawyer, and yet despise an addict, I am despising Christ. If I forgive the sins of a rich man and yet judge the sins of a poor man, I am judging Christ. And yet, thrice daily we pray, “Lord, forgive us in the same manner that we forgive others, judge us in the same manner that we judge others.” And yet, that statement should be enough to make us ask, in what manner am I forgiving others, in what manner am I judging others, especially the “least of these.”

God has shown mercy to us, let us in turn show mercy to others. Let us never allow these “worldly labels” to stand in the way of Christ’s commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. And let us never question who is “worthy” to be our neighbor, as the lawyer who questioned Christ. But rather, let us love one another, remembering that our job is never to judge, but rather our job is simply to love and to pray for the salvation of all.

Christ is in our midst.

On Active Faith

2-4-2021

James 1:19-27

James here begins this passage with a warning about our speech, and about anger. “Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” In having declared us as the first fruits of his new creation through baptism; he goes on to explain what he means by this. And notice for a moment the descriptive words he uses in this passage. Quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. Quick to hear, to listen attentively to what is said and pay attention to all that is going on. Slow to speak; not silent, mind you, but slow, discerning. All too often, we observe something being said or done and react impulsively, lost in our passions. And while there are certain things that we should speak out against, that speech must always be well considered, never impulsive. And lastly, slow to anger. We must constantly fight against this impulse to merely react to a given situation. The wrath of man is unjust, proceeding from uncontrolled passions, and never produces the righteousness of God.

And then James goes on to admonish us to be “doers of the word, not hearers only, deceiving ourselves.” This is such an important statement. In Isaiah, we read the word of the Lord, “This people approach me with their mouth, and with their lips they honor me, but their heart remains far from me.” (Isaiah 29:13 LXX), a statement which Jesus quotes later (see Matthew 15:8). Further, in the parable of the two sons, Jesus teaches us of two sons who are told by their father to go and work in his vineyard. The first son says no, but then goes and does the work anyway. The second son agrees, only to not go. And Jesus asks which of the two did what the father asked, and the answer of course is the first. This was to teach the Pharisees that they were doing everything in word that the Father had commanded them, but not in action, because it is not the declaration of obedience which equaled true obedience, but the actual obedience itself; the actual living of the commandments.

See, when we know the word of God, and we know his commandments, but we do not allow those words to change our lives, those commandments to guide our actions, we become the second son in that parable. We become those who draw near to God and honor him with our lips, but keep our hearts far from him. We become the son who doesn’t go to work in the vineyards, even though we say “yes, you are my Lord.” To which he responds, “Why do you say to me Lord, Lord, and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46). And James warns us that when we do that, we deceive ourselves. We are self-proclaimed Christians, in name only, rather than intentional Christians, in word, deed, and thought. He describes it as though a man looks in a mirror and sees his true self, only to walk away with a distorted image in his mind of what he looked like. Rather than remembering the true image that he saw, he remembers only what he chooses to remember.

This kind of cuts to the heart of the matter. We are magnificent at deceiving ourselves. And we are even more gifted at justifying those deceptions. We constantly convince ourselves, whether out of pride or sheer foolishness, that we are better than we truly are. I’ve often heard it said that the reason the monastics are so humble is that, since they are removed from the world, rather than comparing themselves to other sinners, they can only compare themselves to God. We, on the other hand, tend to compare ourselves to the world, which is full of sinners. And we usually choose someone far worse than ourselves to compare ourselves to, thereby feeding our own self-righteousness. We do our Bible studies, attend Church, and in comparing ourselves to others, tend to feel as though we are truly pious; especially compared to so-and-so who constantly jokes that the church would catch on fire if they entered.

Forgive this digressions for a moment, but it is fully relevant. I remember hearing one day a Protestant Pastor who told a story about his daughter. He said that he told her to clean her room. A day later, the room was not clean. So, he asked her about it, and she responded that no, she hadn’t cleaned it, but she had thought a lot about it. She had some friends come over and they did a study about what it would take to clean it. She contemplated what it would look like if she had done it. She even learned how to say it in Greek. But, she didn’t actually clean it. Yes, this was hyperbole (I hope), but it drives home a very serious point. We would never accept this sort of behavior from our children, yet we expect our heavenly Father to be content with it. He has told us many things to do, what he expects from us, and yet, rather than doing them, we expect him to be content with us studying them, memorizing them, learning his commands in Greek, Russian, Hebrew and every other language; but not actually doing them.

“Lay aside wickedness,” James tells us. “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue, his religion is useless” he warns. “What proceeds from the mouth flows from the heart, (Matthew 15:18), thus our speech will ultimately reveal our love, our faith. Pure and undefiled religion, James tells us, is to care for those in need, to be the grace of God manifest in the flesh for those who most need the grace of God, those who are lost in the world. And also, to keep ourselves unstained, uncorrupted, by the world. Not to be separated from the world, but rather to not allow the precepts of the world into our hearts. Jesus himself spent a large portion of time with sinners, with harlots, drunkards, tax collectors. But, in so doing, he never once allowed himself to be corrupted by those sinful passions. He never partook of those sins, but he also never once offered harsh words of judgment on those who were tethered to the bonds of sin. Rather, he loved them and offered them the grace to become freed of their bondage, freed from the power of sin.

And he calls each of us to do the same. To visit the patients in their illness and offer them the medicine to heal their infirmity. But not in hateful words. He calls us to love the loveless, to care for those who most need care. To be the love of Christ manifest for all the world to see. Mother Teresa once said that “if you judge someone, you have no time to love them.” And I love that saying. We are called to help those who need help, to visit those who are most in need, and to show them the love of Christ that they may never have been exposed to.

To merely profess Christ as God is never enough. In fact, James teaches us here that so doing is merely deceiving ourselves. If that profession of faith doesn’t radically alter the way we live our lives, the things we do, our priorities, then it is merely saying, “yes father, I’ll go and do the work that you require,” and then not going. We must instead allow our faith to be living, actively seeking to do the work that God has called each of us to do. Our lives must be worthy to bear the name of Christ. Otherwise, we are merely deceiving ourselves.

Christ is in our midst.