Our life is hid with Christ in God

You can listen to an audio recording of this commentary at https://www.spreaker.com/user/youngfaithradio/ascension2021

28 May OS 2021 – The Ascension of the Savior

After the high point of Holy Week and Pascha, a lot of Orthodox slack off and start focusing on their worldly plans for the summer, and one does not see much of them until (one hopes) the Dormition of the Theotokos in August, which takes place when the secular school vacation period has ended and people are feeling that “church season,” along with the “school year,” has arrived again. One of the casualties of this unfortunate habit is a profitable celebration of the Ascension of the Lord, a sublime mystery that reveals the true purpose of life and puts everything into perspective.

When Christ ascended in His resurrected human flesh into the heavens, He glorified our humanity by seating it at the right hand of God the Father, and then He sent the Holy Spirit to us so that we can join Him there. What could be better than that? It should make one happy to be alive.

St. Theophan the Recluse says the following:

St. Paul expresses the power of the Lord’s Ascension in this manner: “When He ascended up on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men (Ephesians 4:8 [quoting Psalm 67]).” Having satisfied God’s righteousness, the Lord opened for us all the treasures of God’s goodness. This is indeed a capturing or taking of spoils after victory. The beginning of the distribution of these spoils to people is the descent of the Holy Spirit, Who, having descended, always abides in the Church and gives everyone what he needs, receiving all from that captive captivity. Let everyone come and take. But prepare for yourself a repository for that treasure, which is a pure heart; have hands with which to take it, that is, unreflecting faith. Then step forth, searching hopefully and praying relentlessly. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 112.

The Redeemer’s sacrifice on the Cross, in which He offered His Precious Blood to the Most Holy Trinity and satisfied all righteousness, took away our sins.  By His Resurrection, He saved us from the power of death. These mighty deeds, however, as infinitely great as they are, were only the beginning. Not content with saving us, the Lord also glorified to the utmost the humanity He shares with us, ascending beyond every visible and invisible creature and placing our human nature, in His Person, in the bosom of the Most Holy Trinity. Having glorified our nature thus, He then sent the Holy Spirit to enable each of us personally to attain this glory. Knowing this, what steps should we take to get there too and be with Him?

The first step is to understand, accept, and internalize the meaning of our Baptism. St. Paul says in Romans 6, the reading we hear at every baptism, that we have died in Baptism. He says in Colossians 3:3, “For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.” So, to begin with, let us remember that, for all ultimate purposes, in relation to anything that really counts, we are already dead. Once we have put everything in this perspective, we can actually get started. Knowing that we are dead, we have nothing to lose, and we can with absolute freedom and perfect faith do what St. Theophan says:   “…step forth, searching hopefully and praying relentlessly” for the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Today, after you read this, tell yourself that in fact you are already dead, and therefore all the things you worry about do not matter that much. Then pray earnestly for the Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Fortitude, Temperance, and Justice. Then pray for the Three Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope, and Love. Make a strong act of will to put absolute trust in the Lord, that He will bestow these seven gifts.  Do it again tomorrow and every day.

You will realize that, indeed, your life is “hid with Christ in God,” and that, far from being dead, you really have begun to live.

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Adventures in salvation

21 May OS 2021: Thursday of the Week of the Samaritan Woman; Holy God Crowned and Equals to the Apostles Constantine and Helena

Today’s reading for the Paschal cycle from the Acts of the Apostles is Acts 14: 20-27.

In those days: As the disciples stood round about Paul [after he had been stoned and left for dead], he rose up, and came into the city: and the next day he departed with Barnabas to Derbe. And when they had preached the gospel to that city, and had taught many, they returned again to Lystra, and to Iconium, and Antioch, Confirming the souls of the disciples, and exhorting them to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God. And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed. And after they had passed throughout Pisidia, they came to Pamphylia. And when they had preached the word in Perga, they went down into Attalia: And thence sailed to Antioch, from whence they had been recommended to the grace of God for the work which they fulfilled. And when they were come, and had gathered the church together, they rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how he had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles.

In the passage immediately previous to this (Acts 14: 6-19), Paul has just been in the city of Lystra, where in short order he…

  1. renders ambulatory a man unable to walk since birth, simply by a word of command, like Christ Himself;
  2. gets worshipped as Hermes by the local pagans;
  3. gets stoned near to death by some angry Jews from Antioch and Iconium, who, not content with running him out of town, have pursued him in order to kill him, so determined are they to shut up this fellow Jew who keeps telling everyone that the crucified Nazarene is the Messiah Who rose from the dead; and (at the beginning of today’s passage),
  4. gets up and goes about his business as if nothing special had happened.

How is that for contrast? Never a dull moment! Having left the comfort of the Sanhedrin for the poverty of the Fishermen, Saul become Paul is having an adventure like no other.

When, today, we hear Paul’s words, “…that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God,” we know we are dealing with a man who knows whereof he speaks.   He is both continuously enduring much tribulation and continuously living in the power of the kingdom to come, even in this life.   He is walking proof of the Resurrection.

Amid our present trials, it is tempting to look back on this or that previous “normal” period of Church life, imagine that it was a Golden Age of unchanging tranquility, and conclude that if our lives are not tranquil we must be doing something wrong.   When we study the Scriptures and Church history carefully, however, we realize that those whom God is saving are always hanging on to their faith and even their sanity by their fingernails, and that simultaneously God is saving them by His sovereign will and power in the kind of circumstances He always decrees for the saints: impossible circumstances. It is always a near thing, it often appears that all is lost, and one never knows the outcome until the end.  Salvation is always an adventure.

When, therefore, we suffer the fragility, loneliness, and limitation of real Orthodox life in the 21st century, created by the straitened circumstances and limited resources that fall to the lot of those who do not join the lemming rush into betrayal, theological indifference, and worldly accommodation, this is not a sign that God has left us, but rather that He is with us.

Better to be with the Fishermen than with the Sanhedrin!

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You don’t take a knife to a gunfight

19 May OS 2021: Tuesday of the Week of the Samaritan Woman; Afterfeast of Mid-Pentecost; S. Patrick of Proussa, Hieromartyr; S. Dunstan of Canterbury, Bishop

You can listen to an audio podcast of this commentary at https://www.spreaker.com/user/youngfaithradio/5paschatu

In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, St. Paul deals with a sorcerer:

And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem, when they had fulfilled their ministry, and took with them John, whose surname was Mark. Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away. So they, being sent forth by the Holy Ghost, departed unto Seleucia; and from thence they sailed to Cyprus. And when they were at Salamis, they preached the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews: and they had also John to their minister. And when they had gone through the isle unto Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew, whose name was Bar-jesus: Which was with the deputy of the country, Sergius Paulus, a prudent man; who called for Barnabas and Saul, and desired to hear the word of God. But Elymas the sorcerer (for so is his name by interpretation) withstood them, seeking to turn away the deputy from the faith. Then Saul, (who also is called Paul,) filled with the Holy Ghost, set his eyes on him, And said, O full of all subtilty and all mischief, thou child of the devil, thou enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon thee, and thou shalt be blind, not seeing the sun for a season. And immediately there fell on him a mist and a darkness; and he went about seeking some to lead him by the hand. Then the deputy, when he saw what was done, believed, being astonished at the doctrine of the Lord. – Acts of the Apostles 12:25-13:12

People today – even, strange to say, some Orthodox Christians – would regard St. Paul’s blinding the sorcerer as an act of “intolerance” or being “mean.”    If only St. Paul had preached Luv and Peace, perhaps old Elymas would have realized the error of his ways and come to his senses! Thank goodness – so goes this new and improved line of thought – today we have kinder, gentler methods to deal with people who are, you know, diverse!

Elymas was not simply different; he was evil in the extreme. Not only was he evil, but he also actively sought to rob Sergius Paulus of the truth of Jesus Christ.   What could be worse than that – to destroy another man’s soul on purpose? Someone who would do that is not open to gentle persuasion, for his heart is hard, he is given over to the service of the devil, and he needs to be “taken out,” as they say. According to the Mosaic law, St. Paul could have justifiably slain him. The treatment he chose was mild by comparison.

Man today recoils at the Church’s strictness in her judgment on such matters, because he does not believe in the soul or eternal salvation or eternal punishment. People who readily undergo all manner of torture – chemotherapy, drastic surgeries, the myriad pills and potions of “Big Pharma” with terrible side effects, etc. – in order to eke out a few more years or even months of mere biological existence, think it dreadful that the Church would endorse severe measures to save their souls for eternity.   It all depends on what you think is real and what you think is important.

We are not sorcerers, and we pray that we will never require the Elymas treatment. But we will never have peace until we accept every pain and sorrow in this life as the necessary correction for our sinfulness, a correction willed by God from all eternity. And when Holy Church, in the person of a bishop or a confessing priest, decides to correct us by her ecclesiastical and spiritual methods, how grateful we should be: We can suffer here for a time and not there for eternity!

O All-Wise Lord, Who has given us the Apostolic Church to guide us to salvation, glory be to Thee!

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Come to Me and drink

13 May OS 2021 – Wednesday of Mid-Pentecost

Today we celebrate Christ as the Wisdom of God. In the Gospel, the Jews ask, “How can this uneducated man have such wisdom?” And the Lord responds that it is because His wisdom is from the Father, not from men. When He says that His doctrine is “not mine,” He means that it is not from His humanity but is divine, flowing from the divinity He shares with the Father.

About the midst of the feast Jesus went up into the temple, and taught. And the Jews marvelled, saying, How knoweth this man letters, having never learned?Jesus answered them, and said, My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me. If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself. He that speaketh of himself seeketh his own glory: but he that seeketh his glory that sent him, the same is true, and no unrighteousness is in him. Did not Moses give you the law, and yet none of you keepeth the law? Why go ye about to kill me? The people answered and said, Thou hast a devil: who goeth about to kill thee? Jesus answered and said unto them, I have done one work, and ye all marvel. Moses therefore gave unto you circumcision; (not because it is of Moses, but of the fathers;) and ye on the sabbath day circumcise a man. If a man on the sabbath day receive circumcision, that the law of Moses should not be broken; are ye angry at me, because I have made a man every whit whole on the sabbath day? Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment. Then said some of them of Jerusalem, Is not this he, whom they seek to kill? But, lo, he speaketh boldly, and they say nothing unto him. Do the rulers know indeed that this is the very Christ? Howbeit we know this man whence he is: but when Christ cometh, no man knoweth whence he is. Then cried Jesus in the temple as he taught, saying, Ye both know me, and ye know whence I am: and I am not come of myself, but he that sent me is true, whom ye know not. But I know him: for I am from him, and he hath sent me. Then they sought to take him: but no man laid hands on him, because his hour was not yet come. – John 7: 14-30

Inspired by and expressing the Divine Wisdom, today’s hymns and readings are a theological feast, bringing together and glorifying the three great acts of Christ – the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the Giving of the Holy Spirit – by which He saved us from the devil, sin, death, and hell, glorified our human nature, and established His Holy Church. Being the mid-point of the sacred Fifty Days (the Pentecost) between Pascha and Pentecost, it gives us a moment to pause, so to speak, and marveling, to behold as with a single glance all that the Lord has done for us. St. Theophan the Recluse, in his commentary for today, refers to the Dismissal Hymn for the feast, which looks forward to Pentecost:

At Mid-feast give Thou my thirsty soul to drink of the waters of piety, for Thou, O Savior, didst cry out to all: Whosoever is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. O Well-spring of Life, Christ our God, glory be to Thee.

St. Theophan writes:

On Mid-Pentecost a cry is heard from the Lord: “If any man thirst, let him come unto Me, and drink (John 7:37) [from the Gospel reading at Pentecost].” If that is the case, then let us all go to Him. Whoever thirsts for anything, as long as it is not contrary to the Spirit of the Lord, will find satisfaction without fail. You who thirst for knowledge, go to the Lord, for he is the only Light that truly enlightens every man. You who thirst for cleansing from sins and the soothing of your conscience, go to the Lord, for he has lifted up the sins of the whole world upon the tree (cf. I Peter 2:24) and torn up their handwriting (cf. Col. 2:14).   You who thirst for peace of heart, go to the Lord, for He is the Treasure, the possession of which will make you forget all deprivations and despise all goods in order to possess Him alone. You who need strength – He has every strength. If it is glory – He has glory on high. If it is freedom – He is the giver of true freedom. He will resolve all of our uncertainties, break the bonds of the passions, disperse all sorrows and grieving, enable us to overcome all the impediments, temptations, and snares of the enemy, and will smooth out the path of our spiritual life. Let us all go to the Lord! – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 101

The Lord, then, is everything to us, and He wants to give us what we truly need. Notice to whom St. Theophan directs his encouragement: Those who thirst for knowledge, those who thirst for a pure conscience, those who thirst for peace of heart, those who need strength, those who desire certainty, those who wish to break the bonds of the passions, those who wish to overcome all grief, those who want to overcome the devil, and those who want a smooth path for spiritual life. In other words, the saint is saying, Our Lord will give everything needed to those who want what He wants for them – true spiritual life. Everything needed for life and salvation, He will give in abundance, if only we heed His words, “…let him come to me and drink.”

Reflect on the stunning, paradoxical reality that the Lord is waiting to give us the very highest, most desirable things in life, and we do not ask for them. When is the last time we asked Him to give us the four cardinal virtues – Justice, Prudence, Temperance, and Fortitude?   When is the last time we asked Him to give us the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit – wisdom, understanding, counsel, knowledge, fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord? When is the last time we asked Him to give us the three theological virtues – Faith, Hope, and Charity (Αγάπη, spiritual love)? Think about it.

The Holy Apostle James writes, “Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts (James 4:3).” We have to learn from Our Lord, the Wisdom of God, what to ask for and how to ask for it. 1. What to ask for: We must ask for spiritual things, those virtues that please the Lord above all, as well as those earthly things which we truly need, which contribute to doing His holy will. 2. How to ask: We must ask with thirst for spiritual knowledge, with thirst for a pure conscience, with thirst for certainty of theological faith, with thirst for freedom from the passions, in short, with thirst for doing the will of God, as the Lord thirsted and hungered to do the will of His Heavenly Father.

Suggestion: The next time you are in a practical bind of some kind, and you are really asking God to help you, and nothing seems to happen, put aside the immediate, earthly problem you are worried about, and beg God for all the good things listed above, for the virtues.   Tell Him that you want, above all, to do His most holy will. This will be very pleasing to Him, and surely He will give you (as much as you can receive according to your state of soul at this point in your life) these holy gifts. And – you know what? – you may very well see, suddenly and unexpectedly, the Gordian knot of your earthly predicament cut as well.

O Wisdom of God and Well-Spring of Life, Christ our God, glory be to Thee!

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The man of divine desires

8 May OS 2021 – Friday of the Third Week of Pascha; St. John the Theologian; St. Arsenius the Great

You can listen to an audio podcast of this commentary at https://www.spreaker.com/user/youngfaithradio/pascha3fri

Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 8:40-9:19) is the famous account of one of the most far-reaching events in the Church’s history, the conversion of Saul, who became St. Paul:

In those days: Philip was found at Azotus: and passing through he preached in all the cities, till he came to Caesarea. And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest, And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem. And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven: And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do. And the men which journeyed with him stood speechless, hearing a voice, but seeing no man. And Saul arose from the earth; and when his eyes were opened, he saw no man: but they led him by the hand, and brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither did eat nor drink. And there was a certain disciple at Damascus, named Ananias; and to him said the Lord in a vision, Ananias. And he said, Behold, I am here, Lord. And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul, of Tarsus: for, behold, he prayeth, And hath seen in a vision a man named Ananias coming in, and putting his hand on him, that he might receive his sight. Then Ananias answered, Lord, I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he hath done to thy saints at Jerusalem: And here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on thy name. But the Lord said unto him, Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel: For I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake. And Ananias went his way, and entered into the house; and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost. And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized. And when he had received food, he was strengthened. Then was Saul certain days with the disciples which were at Damascus.

St. Theophan the Recluse goes to the heart of St. Paul’s motivation, which was zeal for doing the will of God:

St. Paul at first defended the Old Testament observances as zealously as he did because he was sincerely certain that it was the unalterable will of God that these observances remain unchanged. He was not zealous because it was the Faith of his fathers, but because in being zealous he was offering service to God. In this lay the spirit of his life – to devote himself to God and direct all his energy toward things pleasing to Him. Thus, in order to bring about his conversion, or to make him stand for the New Testament order of things rather than that of the Old Testament, it was sufficient to show him tangibly that God no longer wanted the Old Testament but rather the New, and that He transferred all of His goodwill from the former to the latter.   The Lord’s appearance to him on the road accomplished this. There it became clear to him that he was not directing his zeal where he ought, that he was not pleasing God by acting as he did, but was acting contrary to His will. This vision of the state of things, with the help of God’s grace, immediately changed his strivings, and he cried out, “Lord what wilt Thou have me to do (Acts 9:6)?”   And from that moment he directed all of his zeal toward what was shown to him, and he did not forget this event for his entire life, but thankfully remembering it, stirred up his zeal with it – not sparing anything to work for his Lord and Savior. This is how all people act who have sincerely turned to the Lord. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 97-98.

If we were born into an Orthodox family, we should love Orthodoxy, among other reasons, because it is the Faith of our fathers. Filial piety demands no less. This reason, however, is not enough to enable us to find our salvation through Orthodoxy. To love Orthodoxy only as the tradition of our ancestors, and for no higher reason, puts us on the same spiritual level with the Shintoists of Japan, with the same eternal consequences, or perhaps worse, since more is expected of us than of Shintoists. To be Christians truly, we must love Orthodoxy because every man, regardless of his birth, must be obedient to this Faith and no other if he desires to conform his will to the will of God.

This was the great driving force, one might say the only driving force, in the life of St. Paul: to do the will of God.  With the great Elias, he could honestly say, “I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts (III Kings 19:10).”   To desire to please God, to do His will, to defend His honor, to give Him glory – this was all in all to both of them and those like them.   When the Incarnate God, Jesus, revealed Himself to the zealous persecutor Saul, that was all it took for him to make a 180 degree turn and go 100 miles per hour in the other direction.   “Done,” as they say.

This kind of person, “the man of divine desires,” may make mistakes, even big ones, but he does not risk hearing those terrible words of the Son of Man to the Laodiceans: “…because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth (Revelation 3:16).” As we increasingly appear to be facing apocalyptic circumstances, it is probably time to get off the Laodicean fence and be the good zealots that all Orthodox should be.

The late Archbishop Averky of Jordanville wrote an essay on the virtue of zeal which should be required annual reading for everyone in our generation.   You can find it at http://orthodoxinfo.com/ecumenism/holyzeal.aspx. Let us all read it (or re-read it), and pray for the determination to put it into practice and the prudence to know how.

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The Alpha and Omega

This essay originally appeared as the May Rector’s message at saint-irene.com You can listen to an audio podcast of this text at https://www.spreaker.com/user/youngfaithradio/rectorsmessage-2021-5

 O great and most sacred Pascha, Christ; O Wisdom and Word and Power of God! Grant that we partake of Thee fully in the unwaning day of Thy Kingdom.      –from the Paschal Canon by St. John of Damascus 

  When we celebrate the Resurrection of Christ, we proclaim it as the center of all history.  By His Death and Resurrection, the Lord re-creates His work of Creation that was done at the beginning of the world, and He inaugurates the eternal Kingdom that will be fully manifested at the end of the world.    

  The curricula that dominate history education brainwash students with the idea that man’s history is a beginning-less and endless story of progress from ignorance and superstition into a liberated state of freedom and prosperity brought about by materialistic science.  Those who hold this view classify Christ’s resurrection along with countless other fabricated myths that people can believe, if they want, but which must not be allowed to interfere in the march of history towards a bright and unlimited future of global unity and materialistic happiness under a benevolent and all-powerful government.     

   A Christian stands in absolute opposition to this view of the world.  God created this world to have a beginning and an end, and this world is not an end in itself.  It is, rather, an arena in which man works out his salvation.  Each man’s life is a short and intense race which he conducts according to Christ and in Christ – or not.  The purpose of each man’s life individually, and the purpose  of every event in human history, is to prepare for God’s Judgment.    

  Our Savior’s Resurrection is not simply a miracle that demonstrates His Divinity, though it certainly does that.  It is the destruction of death, the final and totally efficacious rescue of His creation from the corruption that the devil and sin brought into the world.  He has already definitively triumphed over sin, death, the devil, and hell.  All that remains now is for men to unite themselves to the Risen Christ or not, to join His Body the Church or not, to fight for Him or against Him.  When He returns in glory at the end of the world, to judge all the living and the dead from the beginning of the world, the only thing that will matter is that we find favor in His sight.  On that day, all the empty promises of a secular salvation and man’s progress will be revealed as the lies that they are.      

   Today, right now, it is critical for our spiritual lives not to fall back into a worldly and anxious way of living and thinking, but rather to nourish and sustain the spiritual vision we acquired during Great Lent and Holy Week.  By staying faithful to prayer and spiritual reading, we can maintain the Paschal vision of our life, by which we interpret our daily activities not as part of some meaningless struggle for existence, nor as a restless, neurotic escape from being trampled by the march of progress, but as our advancing in hope “from glory to glory,” as we strive to arrive at the final vision of the face of our Beloved Bridegroom, Who shall reward every one of us who will have remained faithful to Him.    

Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!


                                               Concerning the Resurrection   

  For if there is no resurrection, let us eat and drink: let us pursue a life of pleasure and enjoyment. If there is no resurrection, wherein do we  differ from the irrational brutes? If there is no resurrection, let us hold the wild beasts of the field happy who have a life free from sorrow. If there is no resurrection, neither is there any God nor Providence, but all things are driven and borne along of themselves. For observe how we see most righteous men suffering hunger and injustice and receiving no help in the present life, while sinners and unrighteous men abound in riches and every delight. And who in his senses would take this for the work of a righteous judgment or a wise providence? There must be, therefore, there must be, a resurrection. For God is just and is the rewarder of those who submit patiently to Him. Wherefore if it is the soul alone that engages in the contests of virtue, it is also the soul alone that will receive the crown. And if it were the soul alone that revels in pleasures, it would also be the soul alone that would be justly punished. But since the soul does not pursue either virtue or vice separate from the body, both together will obtain that which is their just due. 

  We shall therefore rise again, our souls being once more united with our bodies, now made incorruptible and having put off corruption, and we shall stand beside the awful judgment-seat of Christ: and the devil and his demons and the man that is his, that is the Antichrist, and the impious and the sinful, will be given over to everlasting fire: not material fire like our fire, but such fire as God would know. But those who have done good will shine forth as the sun with the angels into life eternal, with our Lord Jesus Christ, ever seeing Him and being in His sight and deriving unceasing joy from Him, praising Him with the Father and the Holy Spirit throughout the limitless ages of ages. Amen. 

  – from The Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith by St. John of Damascus, Book IV, c. 27.    

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Thou Who alone knowest the heart

6 May OS 2021 – Third Wednesday of Pascha; Righteous Job the Much-Suffering

In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 8:18-25), St. Peter rebukes Simon Magus for trying to buy the grace of the Holy Spirit:

In those days: When Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money, Saying, Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost. But Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money. Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee. For I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity. Then answered Simon, and said, Pray ye to the Lord for me, that none of these things which ye have spoken come upon me. And they, when they had testified and preached the word of the Lord, returned to Jerusalem, and preached the gospel in many villages of the Samaritans.

St. Theophan the Recluse takes St. Peter’s expression, “…the thought of thine heart…” and expounds upon it:

St. Peter says to Simon: “Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee.” Thou hast no part…But Simon did not even begin to think that he had gone so far astray. Outwardly he had not done anything outrageous; only his thinking was wrong – so wrong, that the Apostle was uncertain as to whether it would be forgiven him even if he repented and entreated God. That is how important the heart’s disposition is, and the thoughts that proceed from it according to this disposition! Judging by this, a person may be one way on the outside, and completely different on the inside. Only God sees this inner state, and those to whom the Spirit of God, Who tries all hearts, reveals it. With what fear and trembling must we work out our salvation! And how sincerely and zealously must we pray to God: “Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me (Ps. 50:10). Then, at the Judgment, something terrible and amazing will happen. The Lord will say: “I know you not (Matt. 25:12)” to those who not only were sure of their own godliness, but who also appeared godly to everyone else. What remains for us to do? Only to cry out: “Thou who knowest all things, save us, O Lord” As Thou knowest, grant a saving formation to our heart!   – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 96

Today false teachers misuse this teaching of the Church – that we cannot know the inner workings of the heart, that God alone knows the heart – to justify all kinds of evil.  They proclaim that people performing the most abominable and filthy deeds, leading lives openly opposed to God’s Law, and teaching others to do the same, have “good hearts,” and therefore we must not “judge them,” thus giving a free pass to every kind of evil under the sun. Apparently, to this way of thinking, only those who try to uphold God’s Law are evil, because they are “mean,” and everyone else – especially those most openly defiant of God’s Law – have “good hearts.”   No doubt Theophan the Recluse, not to mention the Apostle Peter, would be extremely surprised by this interpretation.

The truth is quite otherwise, of course. We must believe in the Faith that God Himself has revealed, fulfill the outward Law of God, and in addition cleanse the inner man constantly to fight even the least thought that contravenes His holy Law. Without this foundation – the true Faith (orthodoxy) and the moral struggle to fulfill God’s Law (orthopraxy) – we cannot even begin to work on the heart, which is a fathomless abyss, and in which we will discover new evils every day, if we look closely enough.  A good heart does not mean being “nice” instead of “mean.” It means being cleansed of all the passions and of all ignorance, acquiring profound humility, and being in constant converse with God, constant awareness of one’s sinfulness and unworthiness, and constant gratitude, with tears, for His great and abundant mercy. A person who actually has a good heart constantly regards himself as a debtor to every commandment of God’s Law. Until one acquires this inner state, one should never claim to have a good heart. And if one does acquire such an inner state, the idea that he has a good heart will not occur to him.

The Orthodox teaching on salvation, then, is maximalist to an extent inconceivable to people today, something forgotten or not noticed even by some popular apologists for Orthodoxy.   Lately one notices fashionable salesmen for Orthodoxy selling our Faith to the unaware by painting the Western Christian God as mean, because He is all about laws and punishment, while the Eastern Orthodox God is nice, because He is all about healing and love. Of course, a one-dimensional paper doll god like this, all hugs and lollipops, appeals to people today, who would rather not be inconvenienced: “Give me pleasant experiences, only, please!” In reality, when one reads carefully and takes seriously the lofty ascetical and mystical writings these salesmen claim as evidence for their nice God, one fears greatly for the salvation for most contemporary Orthodox, much less for those outside the Church, not to mention the open practitioners and advocates of depravity and godlessness.

The right response to this Orthodox maximalism, however, is not gloom and doom, but humility and hope.   We are in the Church, we plan to stay there – God’s grace helping us – and therefore we have a firm hope in our salvation, if only we keep working out our salvation “in fear and trembling.” Humility is the key. We have to put our heads down, accept God’s mysterious judgments with all our hearts, trust in His all-wise Providence over us, and constantly cry with the voice of the Publican, the Thief, and the Harlot: “Have mercy on me!” Hope in salvation will spring up, with the quiet joy of salvation, which we must guard with all the vigilance we can muster. Just do not think that you have arrived, and do not claim to have a good heart. Our hope is in God, not in ourselves.

O Thou that  knowest the hearts, spare our souls!

O Holy Apostles, pray to God for us!

Thou hast taken to Thyself, O Lord, the firm and divine-voiced preachers, the chief Apostles, for the enjoyment of Thy blessings and for repose; for Thou didst accept their labors and death as above all sacrifice, O Thou Who alone knowest the secrets of our hearts.The Kontakion for the Feast of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul

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God cannot be bought

5 May OS 2021 – Tuesday of the Third Week of Pascha; Holy Great Martyr Irene

You can listen to an audio podcast of this commentary at https://www.spreaker.com/user/youngfaithradio/pascha3tu

In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 8:5-17), we meet Simon Magus for the first time, as he receives baptism from the Apostle Philip:

Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them.And the people with one accord gave heed unto those things which Philip spake, hearing and seeing the miracles which he did. For unclean spirits, crying with loud voice, came out of many that were possessed with them: and many taken with palsies, and that were lame, were healed. And there was great joy in that city. But there was a certain man, called Simon, which beforetime in the same city used sorcery, and bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one: To whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, This man is the great power of God. And to him they had regard, because that of long time he had bewitched them with sorceries. But when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Then Simon himself believed also: and when he was baptized, he continued with Philip, and wondered, beholding the miracles and signs which were done. Now when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John: Who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost. (For as yet he was fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.) Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost.

It was a great triumph for St. Philip, at the time, to convert so great a sorcerer as Simon.   Yet the triumph proved short-lived, for, as we shall read tomorrow, Simon immediately proposed to St. Peter that he purchase the Holy Spirit from the Apostles. (Thus our word “simony,” the buying of priestly ordination or of the Mysteries in general). Simon went on, with Nicholas of Antioch (Nicholas the Proselyte, one of the seven deacons, who fell away and founded the sect of “Nicolaitans” condemned by the Lord in the Apocalypse), to become one of the fathers of many of the early heresies associated with Gnosticism and described by St. Irenaeus of Lyons (+180, the disciple of St. Polycarp, who in turn had been the disciple of St. John the Theologian) in his great work Against Heresies.

What happened? Was Simon’s conversion totally hypocritical?   St. Theophan opines that it was not cynicism, not conscious spiritual criminality or hucksterism involved here, but that Simon carried too much baggage with him, and he could not give it up, and so he fell into delusion:

“Then Simon himself believed also: and when he was baptized, he continued with Philip (Acts 8:13).” He both believed and was baptized, but nothing came of him. One must think that there was something not quite right in the formation of his faith. Sincere faith is the renunciation of your mind. You must bare your mind and present it to faith as a clean slate, so that faith might inscribe itself on the mind as it is, without any admixture of alien phrases and statutes. When one’s former beliefs remain in the mind, then a mixture occurs after the tenets of the Faith are written there. The consciousness will be confused between the mind’s sophism and the operations of faith. Simon was therefore a model for all heretics, and such are all who enter the realm of faith with their own sophistries – both then and now. They are confused in faith and nothing comes of them other than harm: for themselves, when they remain silent; for others, when this confusion is not kept within themselves alone, but breaks out, due to their thirst to be teachers. Hence there always turns out to be a party of people more or less in error about the Faith, with a wretched surety of their infallibility, and with a dangerous drive to remake everyone their own way. Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 95.

When St. Theophan writes, “Sincere faith is the renunciation of your mind,” he does not mean that our Faith is something irrational (recall his comments last Wednesday on the reasonableness of the Resurrection claims and the lack of common sense on the part of those who deny them). What he means is that we have to learn real rationality and give up our delusions and twisted ideas. Prudently, cautiously, we must distrust fallen reason, with its endless capacity for creating false paths and dead ends by false logic, and come with childlike love and trust to the Church, to have our reason healed by grace and taught the truth by Holy Tradition. Thus the mind becomes what it was meant to be – a pure mirror of God’s Truth.

Whether we are adult converts or cradle Orthodox striving to convert from a nominal to an intentional and fervent faith, if we mix the truths of the Faith with our own fallen ideas (which, of course, are really not our own but come from the world and from demons), we run the real danger of ending up like Simon, who became like the wretched man described by Our Lord in the Gospel, freed from one demon only to have seven come back to possess him, all of them worse than the first.

Simon Magus’s particular baggage was that he could not give up his magical way of thinking about religion.   It seemed perfectly normal to him to buy the power of the Holy Spirit, which apparently he regarded simply as a spirit more powerful than the ones he had manipulated previously to work demonic miracles.   He had not, then really converted, really given his heart to Christ. He was just looking for a better platform for his career of magical arts.   It is quite possible, even probable, that he believed that the Apostles saw matters much the same way. He was probably surprised when they were indignant at his proposal to buy into what he regarded as a professional magicians’ guild that possessed powers and methods which he, understandably, aspired to obtain.

None of us is embarked on a conscious career of sorcery (I hope!). But all of us, because we are human beings, carry a certain piece of baggage common to fallen nature: Deep down, somewhere, is that pride and vanity that says that we can make a deal with God, manipulate Him somehow to give us an independent franchise with His seal of approval, so that we can have the Orthodox brand name but really go off and do our own thing while invoking His power and authority to do so. This is openly manifest in the epidemic we see all around us today, of entire fallen synods of bishops and their natural fellow travelers – modernist academics on the left and false prophets on the right – all of them alike on a disastrous power trip, making them heirs of Simon Magus. This is not only their problem, however, for each of us also, in the depths of his heart, has to fight the urge to use God rather than to submit to Him; each of us has to crucify his fallen reason and his rebellious will, in order to remain in the Church of the Apostles and to retain the grace of the Holy Spirit.

Let us, with fear and trembling, remind ourselves daily of our endless capacity for self-deception and the ceaseless temptation to demand control over our lives independent of God’s holy will and providence for us. By the free grace of Jesus Christ, un-bought and un-buyable, may we always remain in the true confession of Faith, free of all admixture of error, and may we always obey God’s holy, pleasing, and perfect will.

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The clarity of the Gospel

2 May 2021 OS- Saturday of Thomas Week; St. Athanasius the Great, Archbishop of Alexandria;  Ss. Boris and Gleb, Passion-bearers 

Listen to an audio podcast of this commentary at https://www.spreaker.com/user/youngfaithradio/pascha2sat

In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, the holy apostles remind the Jewish Sanhedrin that our duty is to God first before any earthly authority:  

And when they heard that, they entered into the temple early in the morning, and taught. But the high priest came, and they that were with him, and called the council together, and all the senate of the children of Israel and sent to the prison to have them brought. But when the officers came, and found them not in the prison, they returned, and told, Saying, The prison truly found we shut with all safety, and the keepers standing without before the doors: but when we had opened, we found no man within.  Now when the high priest and the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these things, they doubted of them whereunto this would grow. Then came one and told them, saying, Behold, the men whom ye put in prison are standing in the temple, and teaching the people. Then went the captain with the officers, and brought them without violence: for they feared the people, lest they should have been stoned. And when they had brought them, they set them before the council: and the high priest asked them, Saying, Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us. Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree.  Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. And we are his witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey him.  When they heard that, they were cut to the heart, and took counsel to slay them. – Acts 5: 21-33 

St. Theophan the Recluse, commenting on this passage, reflects on the continuity of the apostolic grace in the Church through all ages until now:  

What Peter and John first said to the authorities, later all the apostles said to the authorities: We ought to obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree. Him hath God exalted with His right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour, for to give repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins. And we are His witnesses of these things; and so is also the Holy Ghost, whom God hath given to them that obey Him (Acts 5:29–32). What sincerity, fullness, definiteness and clarity of confession! God arranged in such a way for the Crucified to be our Saviour through the forgiveness of sins in repentance. The witnesses are the Apostles as observers, and the Holy Spirit, manifestly acting in the apostles and in all believers. The same witnesses are powerful through to our own days. What the holy Apostles say is the same as if we ourselves saw and heard it with our eyes and ears. And the Spirit of grace acts uninterruptedly in the holy Church, in miracle-working, in the conversion of sinners, and especially in the transformation of those earnestly working for the Lord, in their sanctification and filling with obvious grace-filled gifts. The transformation of people gives great power to miracle-working, and these together are powerful in forming a firm conviction of the truth of Christ, in all truth-loving souls. Thanks be to the God of truth, Who hath revealed His truth to us so clearly! – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year 

St. Theophan characterizes the apostles’ witness by four qualities: Sincerity, fullness, definiteness, and clarity.  If our witness lacks these qualities, we will not partake of the grace of confession that is so abundantly available to the Church even to this day.  

“Sincerity” – The outward beauties of Orthodoxy can be misused by religious authorities, like the Sanhedrin of old, to hide behind, pretending that they are the real deal while they avoid preaching the hard truth of the Gospel, so that they will not be convicted of their sins.  Only relentless work on himself to do God’s holy, pleasing, and perfect will, and consistent following of conscience, will open to the preacher of the Word the power of the apostolic grace. 

“Fullness” –  Orthodoxy is the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  If we are to inherit the apostolic grace with power, we cannot cherry pick the Church’s teachings to avoid offending people.    Christ will always be a rock of offense.     We cannot conceal any of that which we have received from Him without betraying Him.    

“Definiteness” –  “Definition” comes from the Latin word for a boundary.   The Greek word for the definitions of the councils, choros, also means a limit, a boundary.    The Holy Scripture, viewed through the lens of the God-inspired Holy Tradition, has given us the boundaries of the language we are allowed to use about God, man, creation, redemption, and sanctification.  When we depart from the definite language of Scripture, replacing its simple and concrete terms with the complicated and abstract language of modernist theology, lessening its power to convict men of their sins and ignorance in order to avoid being rejected by them like the apostles and martyrs, we have lost the power of the apostolic preaching.  

“Clarity” – With definiteness comes clarity.    “This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all (I John 1:15).”  Godly, truly apostolic preaching sheds God’s light on all the dark places of our soul, making clear our sins and passions, and cleansing them by the power of that light.   Beneath this searching and purifying light, nothing can be hidden and all will be revealed.   May our sins be revealed in this life, unto forgiveness and eternal life, and not in the next, unto condemnation and eternal death!  

At the end of today’s passage from Acts, we read that the Sanhedrin was “…cut to the heart, and took counsel to slay…” the holy apostles.     Thus it has always been:   The true prophets, apostles, and martyrs of the Lord will always face the threat of persecution, imprisonment, torture, and death at the hands of the the powerful of this world.  Yet they have boldness in the face of death, because by obeying God rather than men, by doing the will of God, they acquire infinite divine power, the power of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the definitive and unanswerable conquest of sin, the devil, death, and hell.     

May this grace be ours, with all the sincerity, fullness, definiteness, and clarity of the Gospel preaching and the Gospel grace, which the Lord desires to give us in all abundance.    

Christ is Risen!  

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Life-giving works

30 April OS 2021 – Thursday of Thomas Week; St. James the Son of Zebedee, Apostle; St. Ignaty (Brianchaninov), Bishop

Listen to an audio podcast of this commentary at https://www.spreaker.com/user/youngfaithradio/2paschath

Christ is Risen!

Today’s Gospel reading, John 5:24-30, is the passage we read at the funeral service:

The Lord said to the Jews which came to Him, Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life. Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live. For as the Father hath life in himself; so hath he given to the Son to have life in himself; And hath given him authority to execute judgment also, because he is the Son of man. Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation. I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me.

St. Theophan the Recluse, commenting on the Lord’s words, elucidates the nature of the Dread Judgment:

“And they shall come forth: they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation (John 5:29).” This is how everything ends! As each river flows into its own sea, so the flow of each of our lives comes, at last, to a place in accordance with its nature. Those who will be resurrected unto life will also be at the Judgment; but the Judgment will only seal their justification and the fact that they are appointed to life, while the others will be resurrected only to hear their condemnation to eternal death. Their life and death are characterized even now – because some perform living works, while others perform dead and deadening works. Living works are those which are done according to the commandments, with joy of spirit, unto the glory of God. Dead works are those which are done in opposition to the commandments, with forgetfulness of God, to please oneself and one’s passions. Dead works are all those which, although, in form they may not oppose the commandments, are done without any thought about God and eternal salvation, according to some aspect of self-love. God is life; only what contains part of Him is alive. And so whoever has only dead and deadening works is bound directly for death, and on the last day will come out into the condemnation of death; but whoever has all living works is bound for eternal life, and on the last day will come and receive it. Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 91-92

God does not need our works. He gave labor to our first father Adam for Adam’s sake, as a penance for sin. God designed good works, so that, used properly, they will cleanse the heart of sin and bring us into union with Him. Ultimately God wants not our works but our hearts.

The foundation of our salvation is Faith in the Son of God, from which flow living and life-giving works, characterized by forgetfulness of self, complete dependence on God’s grace, and the determination to do His holy will.   Apart from the true Faith in the Son of God, there is no salvation.   A man who spends his life building a thousand hospitals for the poor and gives everything he has to help others, but who does it not in obedience to God’s Word and without Faith in the Son of God, but based on a false religion or a humanistic code of ethics, has only dead works, and on the Last Day he will go where dead works lead. Sadly, every good deed he does is another nail in his coffin, because it increases his pride. By contrast, a man who has led a selfish life but awakens to his spiritual peril, has a profound conversion to the Orthodox Faith, and manages to do a little something for others, in the name of Jesus and for His glory alone, all the while thinking himself utterly unworthy and unable to do anything worthwhile…this man has a firm hope of salvation.

If you are ever tempted to believe that you have “made it,” and that your works make you pleasing to God, pick up St. Matthew, chapters five through seven, and read the Sermon on the Mount. Based on the measuring stick described there – love of enemies, absolute absence of impure thoughts, absolute absence of anger, complete non-possessiveness, absolute forgiveness of those who have wronged you, complete love of neighbor and forgetfulness of self – ask yourself, Do you live up to the Lord’s command to be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect?   No? Well, join the club: St. Ignaty Brianchaninov, whom we commemorate today, writes in The Arena that even the greatest saints are imperfect in regards to the commands of the Gospel. In the same work, however, he also reminds us that Orthodox Christians will be judged by Christ at the Dread Judgment based on these very same commands of the Gospel. Where does that leave us? It leaves us utterly dependent on the grace and mercy of God, which we receive by the Faith of the Son of God, Who loved us and gave Himself for us.

Now juxtapose this with the Lord’s description of His Second Coming at the Dread Judgment in St. Matthew, chapter 25. The blessed are oblivious to having done any good; the damned are oblivious to their failure. As it turns out, the blessed have accomplished a great deal, but they do not notice. They do not think that they were doing anything special. They have acquired humility.

Let us this day, this hour, this minute, resolve to love God above all, and to do His holy will.   It is impossible to overestimate the power we acquire when we are determined to do God’s will.   With this determination comes that forgetfulness of self, that humility, which characterizes all works that are truly pleasing to God. With it comes the power of the infinite divine grace which alone can save us.

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