Meek as lambs, bold as lions

4 April OS 2018: Tuesday of Thomas Week; S. George of Mt. Maleon, Monk; S. Theonas of Thessalonica, Bishop

Today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles is Acts 4: 1-10.

And as they spake unto the people, the priests, and the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees, came upon them, Being grieved that they taught the people, and preached through Jesus the resurrection from the dead. And they laid hands on them, and put them in hold unto the next day: for it was now eventide.
Howbeit many of them which heard the word believed; and the number of the men was about five thousand. And it came to pass on the morrow, that their rulers, and elders, and scribes, And Annas the high priest, and Caiaphas, and John, and Alexander, and as many as were of the kindred of the high priest, were gathered together at Jerusalem. And when they had set them in the midst, they asked, By what power, or by what name, have ye done this? Then Peter, filled with the Holy Ghost, said unto them, Ye rulers of the people, and elders of Israel, If we this day be examined of the good deed done to the impotent man, by what means he is made whole; Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him doth this man stand here before you whole.

 St. Peter has just now healed the lame man by the Beautiful Gate of the Temple and immediately preached the Resurrection of Jesus to the gathered multitude who beheld the miracle. His preaching is a condensed version of his great sermon on Pentecost: “You folks killed your Messiah, Jesus, but now He is Risen, and He will forgive you and save you, granting you the Resurrection also, if only you believe in Him.” Five thousand men convert on the spot. Now, predictably, he gets into trouble, but (also predictably) this does not faze him. He goes right on telling the truth even to those who do not want to hear it, the priests and Sadducees, who have a vested interest in the truth not being true.

St. John Chrysostom points out that these corrupt men are not afraid to arrest the Apostles unjustly and publicly. They had arrested Jesus at night by stealth, but on the basis of their (as they thought) success in getting away with this, they have become bold to persecute the Master’s followers in broad daylight, as publicly as possible:

But I wish you to consider, how those same persons, who in the case of Christ must need look out for one to deliver Him up to them, now with their own hands arrest the Apostles, having become more audacious and more impudent since the Crucifixion. In truth, sin, while it is yet struggling to the birth, is attended with some sense of shame; but when once fully born, it makes those more shameless who practice it.  – St. John Chrysostom, Homily 10 on the Acts of the Apostles

St. Chrysostom is making an important point here: The audacity of the Sadducees is like that of any sinner. You get away with something – as you think – once, and you become less afraid to commit the sin.   Of course, we never really get away with anything, for there is an Impartial Judge Who sees all and will judge all.   We know that, but we can go right on sinning. Just as the Sadducees knew that Jesus really had risen from the dead, but they kept lying to themselves, so we are quite capable of lying to ourselves.

Moreover, their deep-down guilt, paining their hearts despite all their self-deceit, makes them downright angry against the Apostles for clearly proving by their preaching and miracles that Jesus really had risen from the dead and therefore must be the Messiah and the Son of God. It is a classic case of “shoot the messenger.” We can act the same way when someone points out our sins and failings, not only not hearing them but even turning against them.

St. Peter was not made of different stuff from the Sadducees. He was a sinful man as they were sinful men, and he had betrayed the Lord from cowardice when put on the spot. But he repented right away, and now, after the Resurrection, he has become as bold as a lion.   When we repent, when we are ruthlessly honest with ourselves about our sins and passions, and we confess them cleanly and clearly, we receive infinite divine power to be bold in our Faith. At that point, the Lord can work in us, because then it is completely clear that it is God’s divine power, the grace unleashed by the Resurrection of Christ, acting in us, not because of our worthiness but because of His mercy. This is how it works.

After Pascha, we can become lazy and indifferent to spiritual struggle – “That was for Lent; now I’ll just ‘enjoy myself’.”   This decision bears the bitter fruits of falling back into denial, lack of self-awareness, indifference to sin.   This in turn makes our faith dull: far from being the living power of God living and acting in us, our Faith becomes again only ethnic or family identification or a set of dead propositions or some kind of group membership.   If persecution or death finds us in this state, we will be in trouble.

In order to roar like lions before the unbelieving world, we need to be meek as lambs in the saving tribunal of confession, cleanly confess all of our faults as frequently as possible, and acquire peace and purity of heart. Then the power of the Resurrection will fill our souls, and nothing in heaven, on earth, or under the earth will frighten us.

 

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My Lord and my God

3 April OS 2018 – Monday of Thomas Week; S. Niketas the Confessor, S. Joseph the Hymnographer

Christ is Risen!

The reading today from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 3: 19-26) is the second half of St. Peter’s sermon to the Jews who gathered on Solomon’s Porch after he had healed the lame man at the Beautiful Gate. Here is the whole passage (Acts 3: 11-26):

In those days: And as the lame man which was healed held Peter and John, all the people ran together unto them in the porch that is called Solomon’s, greatly wondering. And when Peter saw it, he answered unto the people, Ye men of Israel, why marvel ye at this? or why look ye so earnestly on us, as though by our own power or holiness we had made this man to walk? The God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, the God of our fathers, hath glorified his Son Jesus; whom ye delivered up, and denied him in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let him go. But ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you; And killed the Prince of life, whom God hath raised from the dead; whereof we are witnesses. And his name through faith in his name hath made this man strong, whom ye see and know: yea, the faith which is by him hath given him this perfect soundness in the presence of you all. And now, brethren, I know that through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers. But those things, which God before had shewed by the mouth of all his prophets, that Christ should suffer, he hath so fulfilled. Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord; And he shall send Jesus Christ, which before was preached unto you: Whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began. For Moses truly said unto the fathers, A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me; him shall ye hear in all things whatsoever he shall say unto you. And it shall come to pass, that every soul, which will not hear that prophet, shall be destroyed from among the people. Yea, and all the prophets from Samuel and those that follow after, as many as have spoken, have likewise foretold of these days. Ye are the children of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made with our fathers, saying unto Abraham, And in thy seed shall all the kindreds of the earth be blessed. Unto you first God, having raised up his Son Jesus, sent him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from his iniquities.

St. Theophan the Recluse contrasts the ignorance of the Jews who killed the Prince of Life with our knowing sinfulness, which is without excuse:

“Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord (Acts 3:19).” Thus spoke the Holy Apostle Peter to the Jews who crucified the Lord, comforting them that they did it out of ignorance [see verse 17, “…I know that through ignorance you did it…”]. But we are crucifying the Lord within ourselves for a second time, not out of ignorance, but through our sins. The Most Merciful One receives us, too, when we repent and turn to Him with all our heart. We did this during Great Lent. Each came running to the Lord with tears of repentance over his sins. The more sincerely one did this, the more strongly he felt the refreshment of forgiveness proceeding from the face of the Lord, through the hand and the word of absolution of God’s priest. Now what is left for us to do? To be on guard against new falls, that we not fall again into the guilt of crucifying the Lord. The Apostle says that heaven has only received the Lord Jesus until the times of the restitution of all things (Acts 3:21). Then He will come again and set forth judgment. With what eyes will those who pierced His side look upon Him? [see Revelation 1:7, “Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen.”] Indeed, we too will have to stand in their ranks if we stop bringing forth fruits of repentance and return to our old ways. Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 89-90

The idea that we are crucifying the Lord afresh by our sins probably does not occur to us often, and perhaps even less often do we consider the very real possibility that at His Second Coming we might look upon His wounds, caused by our sins, and wail too late in useless remorse over our unrepented sins and impending eternal perdition. How can we remember this, and how can we use this remembrance to find our salvation?

The Lord, of course, has risen and ascended on high in glory; He is the Pantocrator Who holds all things in His almighty hand. The Crucifixion is a specific historical event that happened nearly two thousand years ago.   The great contest is over, the Victor is triumphant, and we await His return in glory. Yet the death of the Lord is also a meta-historical event: at the moment He cried, “It is finished,” and gave up His spirit, this moment of His death entered into the Eternal Now. Recall what we read in the Ninth Ode of the Pre-Communion Canon:

The Lord is good. O taste and see! For of old He became like us for us, and once offered Himself as a sacrifice to His Father and is perpetually slain, sanctifying communicants. – from the Jordanville Prayer Book, Archimandrite Lazarus (Moore) translation, p. 316

This perpetual slaying of the Lord, this eternal moment of His sacrificial death, is made perpetually present until the end of time – neither physically (of course) nor merely in memory (considered as a function of the limited and fallen human psyche), but mysteriologically (a mode of reality more real than the merely physical or psychological) – in the Bloodless Sacrifice of the Divine Liturgy.  When the awesome descent of the Holy Spirit has occurred at the Epiclesis, and the Slain Victim is lying upon the altar, we can once again make the confession of Thomas, who did not believe until he had gazed upon the pierced Side and Hands that will forever bear the wounds caused by sin. Only then did he say, “My Lord and my God!”

Do I ever, at that moment, bowing my head and heart in fear and trembling, consider that it was my actual sins, in addition to the Ancestral Sin of Adam and Eve, which made this Sacrifice necessary? Not only sin as the inherited state or condition of sinfulness common to all mankind, but my specific thoughts, feelings, choices, actions, and habits which, committed after Baptism, separate me from God and caused the death of the God-Man.

Yes, the Lord Jesus is the mighty Pantocrator, Who created, sustains, and governs all things. But He is also my Friend, Who gave His life for me. What do I not owe Him? I owe Him something beyond everything. I owe Him a debt that can never be repaid, in time or eternity. The least and most I can do is to give Him all that I am. There is no other permissible response. Admittedly, except for martyrs and really thorough penitents like St. Mary of Egypt, this giving usually does not happen all at once. But I must remember that by the hour of death I need make it complete, and the hour of death is unknown. Therefore  each day and each moment I must repeat the confession of Thomas joined to the prayer of the Publican, the Thief, the Harlot, and the Prodigal:

“My Lord and my God!”

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the sinner!”

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Water and the Spirit

30 March OS 2018: Thursday of Renewal Week (Bright Thursday); S. John of the Ladder

Christ is Risen!

In today’s Gospel, the Lord tells Nicodemus that he must be born again:

There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:
The same came to Jesus by night, and said unto him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him. Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.
Nicodemus saith unto him, How can a man be born when he is old? can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. Nicodemus answered and said unto him, How can these things be? Jesus answered and said unto him, Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen; and ye receive not our witness. If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how shall ye believe, if I tell you of heavenly things? And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up:
That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life.
John 3: 1-15

The Lord’s requirement that we be born of water and the Spirit obviously refers to baptism and chrismation: In Holy Baptism we die and are resurrected with Christ, and in Holy Chrismation we receive the Holy Spirit. These two actions mark the two steps needed to enter the Kingdom of God: Redemption and Sanctification. By faith and baptism, the fruits of Christ’s Sacrifice on the Cross are imputed to us: we are, as St. Paul says, bought “with a price” – the Precious Blood of Our Lord – and therefore we belong to Christ. Our former master, the devil, no longer has power over us. Christ has freed us from the devil, sin, death, and hell. Baptism is our personal Pascha. By chrismation, we receive the power of the Holy Spirit to keep white our baptismal garment by fighting sin, acquiring the virtues, and growing in holiness. This is our personal Pentecost.

There are those who think that they only need be redeemed, and that the struggle for sanctification is not necessary. They are “saved” no matter what. There are those who want to deny or minimize the meaning of the Ancestral Sin, avoid all references to man’s fallen nature and just talk about “spirituality.” They are “holy” without having acquired the most elementary knowledge of man’s actual condition and the absolute, non-negotiable need for a Redeemer. The first want to live on the foundation without building the house. The waves and winds of life – earthly trials and demonic temptations – will knock them off their foundation easily and drown them. The second want to build a castle on the sand, and great will be the fall of their house.

Outside the Orthodox world, we can easily identify the two groups above as being the “Born-Agains” who believe that once they believe in Christ, they can never lose their salvation no matter what, and the second group are the New Agers, guru groupies, and people like that. But we have our own version of both types in the Orthodox fold: The first group are the nominal Orthodox who think that they do not have to grow in holiness, do not have to struggle (“that’s just for monks…”), and wear their Orthodoxy like a name-tag. They expect God to give them a “Get Out of Jail Free card” just for being baptized. The second group are those who want to revel in miracles, visions, and “elders,” and imagine that they are swimming in an atmosphere of otherworldly holiness without the struggle to fight for the True Faith against heresy and apostasy, to repent of the most obvious sins, and to overcome the most elementary passions. Great will be the fall of their house.

As we rejoice in the Resurrection, let us entreat the Lord humbly, through the prayers of Righteous Nicodemus, daily to give us ever more concrete knowledge of the fallenness of our human nature, so that we can confess our Redeemer with ever greater gratitude and absolute conviction. This will in turn spur us on to grow in holiness, so that we will not lose so great a salvation.

The Lord said: Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity. Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it. Matthew 7: 21-27

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Preserving the grace

29 March OS 2018 – Wednesday of Renewal Week; S. Mark of Arethousa, Bishop and Martyr; S. Diadochos of Photiki, Bishop

Christ is Risen!

In the reading today from the Acts of the Apostles, St. Peter concludes his great proclamation of the Resurrection delivered to the multitude in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost:

At that time, Peter said: Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know: Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain: Whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death: because it was not possible that he should be holden of it. For David speaketh concerning him, I foresaw the Lord always before my face, for he is on my right hand, that I should not be moved: Therefore did my heart rejoice, and my tongue was glad; moreover also my flesh shall rest in hope: Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell, neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption. Thou hast made known to me the ways of life; thou shalt make me full of joy with thy countenance. Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day. Therefore being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him, that of the fruit of his loins, according to the flesh, he would raise up Christ to sit on his throne; He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption. This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses. Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, he hath shed forth this, which ye now see and hear. For David is not ascended into the heavens: but he saith himself, The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, Until I make thy foes thy footstool. Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ. – Acts of the Apostles 2:22-36

From the Apostles’ time until now, every generation has heard the proclamation of the Resurrection of Christ, and everyone who has heard has had to decide, “Do I believe or not?”   St. Theophan the Recluse addresses this choice in his message for today:

The mind can prove the truth of the Resurrection through reason based on the Scripture, and a non-believer cannot but admit the power of its arguments, as long as a sense of truth is not yet dead in him. A believer does not need proof, because the Church of God is filled with the light of the Resurrection. Both of these indicators of truth are faithful and convincing. But counter-reasoning can spring up and contradict the mind’s reason, and faith can be trampled and shaken by perplexities and doubts coming from without and arising within. Is there no invincible wall around the truth of the Resurrection? There is. It will occur when the power of the Resurrection, received at Baptism, begins to be actively revealed, as it purges the corruption of the soul and body and establishes within them the beginnings of a new life. He who experiences this will walk in the light of the Resurrection, and anyone speaking against the truth of the Resurrection will seem to him insane, like a person saying in the daytime that it is night. – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, p. 86

We have all experienced this: Doubts arise, temptations to question our Faith, to wander off somehow. Then by God’s grace we take action: We arise and say our prayers; we do some spiritual reading; we go to Church and experience the joy of the divine services; we express our doubts to our priest or an Orthodox friend, and he gives us an inspired reply. The heart is made firm, the mind clears, we are at peace once again, and we say, “How could I have ever thought that?”

After the effort of Great Lent, and especially the effort of Holy Week and the climactic great vigil of the Resurrection on Holy Saturday night, there is usually a temptation to let down our guard spiritually and lapse into a worldly way of thinking: “Whew, that is over with. I have done my duty, and it was very nice, but now I can go back to ‘normal’ life.” For some, this means perhaps missing daily prayers now and then, or just eating too much, or losing our resolve not to think bad thoughts about others, and other typical daily failings. For others, however, it may mean forsaking any Church attendance and any thought of the Faith for weeks on end – taking a “summer vacation” from being Orthodox.   Light-minded people pass this off as normal behavior, but it is actually not a light matter; it is equivalent to killing yourself in May and hoping that God will resurrect you in September to pick up where you left off. But God is not obligated to do so. God is not mocked. After your little “vacation,” you may not return; you can very easily become that insane person who does not believe in the Resurrection.

It is possible, even, in a sense, easy, however, to maintain our vigilance and not “take a vacation from Church,” because what we have received at Pascha is precisely this power of the Resurrection that St. Theophan writes of, a power given not for show but for work: the power to purge the corruption of soul and body. But to put this power to work, we have to choose to be vigilant and active in our spiritual life, and we have to go deep within, desiring to treasure and nurture inside of us the grace that we have received, not just have a nice experience and then distractedly move on to other things. When we experience the inner resurrection, the cleansing and enlivening of the soul, it brings us great joy. But it is a quiet joy, an inner reality, not a scene in a sentimental religious movie with emotional music playing and special effects enhancing our “religious experience.” It is not manipulated from without; it comes from within. We have become so used to being manipulated, however, as a way of life, that being proactive agents in our spiritual and mental life seems foreign to us.

Let us, then, be proactive and take simple steps to maintain the Paschal grace. Yes, we are not fasting as much now, and the services are shorter. But this little relaxation is provided to give us the energy to be more vigilant, not less. Let us make sure we have our prayer ropes and are saying the Jesus Prayer as much as possible, that we keep up our prayer routines and going to Church, and that within forty days we prepare to go to Communion again, not waiting for the Apostles’ Fast. Also, let us pick out a good spiritual book and do some reading every day.   This simple approach, if taken seriously, will be very pleasing to the Risen Lord, and He will give His grace a thousand-thousand-fold to aid our humble efforts.

St. Peter’s words above are the bold proclamation of the Resurrection. I would like to conclude with something he said in another place, to remind us how to preserve and nurture the grace of the Resurrection within us:

Brethren, Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: Whom resist, steadfast in the faith. I Peter 5:8-9

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Authentic hope of salvation

22 March OS 2018 – Wednesday of Holy and Great Week; S. Basil of Ancyra, Priest and Martyr

At the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts today, the Church appoints this reading from St. Matthew:

Now when Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper, There came unto him a woman having an alabaster box of very precious ointment, and poured it on his head, as he sat at meat. But when his disciples saw it, they had indignation, saying, To what purpose is this waste? For this ointment might have been sold for much, and given to the poor. When Jesus understood it, he said unto them, Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me.  For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always. For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial. Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her. Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests, And said unto them, What will ye give me, and I will deliver him unto you? And they covenanted with him for thirty pieces of silver. And from that time he sought opportunity to betray him. Matthew 26: 6-16

 St. Theophan the Recluse points out that on this day, save for this one instruction to the apostles to allow the repentant woman to anoint Him for burial, the Lord ceased from teaching and was silent until His sublime teaching at the Mystical Supper on Thursday evening.

The Lord was silent on Wednesday and Thursday until Thursday evening, so that at that time He could pour forth words with His disciples and to His disciples – words unlike anything in any writings, not only of human origin but also Divine.  Now, as the Church points out, we hear from the Lord’s mouth that [the disciples] should not hinder His anointing with myrrh, for this served as a preparation for His death.  Before His eyes was only death – the final mystery of His coming to earth for our salvation.  Let us also immerse ourselves in deep contemplation of this mystery-filled death, to draw from it good hope for the salvation of our souls, which are burdened by many sins, and which do not know how to obtain peace from the weariness of our awakened conscience, and from the knowledge of the righteousness of God’s judgment, which is dread and impartial.   – Thoughts for Each Day of the Year, pp. 81-82

Our thoughts, then, should turn to the Lord’s death for our salvation, from which, as St. Theophan writes, we can draw good hope for the salvation of our souls.  It is only those, however, whose consciences are wearied by the constant awareness of their many sins, who can have this hope.  Those who have silenced their conscience, or who have never developed it, or who have skipped over the agonies of a sensitive conscience in order to go directly to having “spiritual experiences,” have no such hope.  Their claiming that they are “saved” (if they are “evangelicals”) or “deified” (if they are deluded “neo-hesychast” Orthodox) is empty  posturing  – such talk does not correspond to any interior spiritual reality.  Only the deeply repentant soul, grieving over her many sins, can begin to perceive what Christ’s death means for us.

When one has been a priest long enough, one cannot help but to have heard the confession of an extremely pious person who confesses that he has no hope of his salvation.  How can this be?  How can a baptized Orthodox Christian living a pious life, free from any unconfessed mortal sins specified by the canons, and eligible to receive Holy Communion, feel this way?   It is because he is at a point to which the Lord has led him by a long, painful path of self-awareness, the point at which he has exhausted his soul with attempting to be free from sin, from the slightest sin of thought or feeling, and he has come to know, beyond any doubt, by countlessly repeated experiences, by daily failure, that he cannot be completely pure before God, no matter what he does.  Yet no impure thing can enter into God’s presence, for “our God is a consuming fire.”   Therefore, precisely because he does fear God, and precisely because he is aware of his sins, he despairs of salvation.  This is the point at which real spiritual life begins to take place, for it is only at this point that he can understand and accept that salvation is by grace, through the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. 

The saints did not picture themselves daily ascending in exalted states of mystical union – though they in fact did enjoy such states – and did not blather constantly about visions and miracles – though they in fact did receive authentic visions and work authentic miracles.   So how did they spend their time?  What did they think about? They were weeping unceasingly over their sins.  They perceived very keenly that they deserved every temporal and eternal punishment, and that only the Unique Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, in which He offered His Precious Blood to the Holy Trinity for the sins of the whole world, both the Ancestral Sin of our First Parents and every actual sin committed by every man from the beginning of the world until the Second Coming, could possibly save them.  This was what they were always thinking about, not how “deified” they were.   They asked themselves daily and constantly if they were going to be saved.

This is real spiritual life.   And with it comes authentic joy, “the joy of Thy salvation” that Prophet-King David sings of in Psalm 50, welling up into the quiet joy of eternal life.

Let us seize these precious remaining days of Great and Holy Week, in which we will once again live the mystery of the Awesome Sacrifice which alone forgives the sins of men, to beg the Lord to give us simultaneously the most profound awareness of our sins, the absolute conviction of the impossibility of our overcoming them by ourselves, and invincible hope in the power of the Cross to save us.  God desires to save us more than we desire to save ourselves.  Let us rejoice.

Glory to Thy Passion, O Lord!  Glory to Thy Long-suffering!  O Christ our God, glory be to Thee!  

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Going home

17 March OS 2018: Friday of the Sixth Week of Lent; S. Alexis the Man of God; S. Patrick Enlightener of Ireland, Bishop

The first reading at Vespers today is the conclusion of the book of Genesis, 49:33-50:26.

Joseph keeps faith with his father and buries him on his own land, not foreign soil. In his old age, he adjures the sons of Israel to do the same for his bones when at length the Lord, the God of their fathers, delivers them from Egyptian bondage and leads them back home.  This return provides an image of man’s return to Paradise, his true home. 

Each human heart longs for home. To the extent the heart does not, to that extent it is become inhuman. “Cosmopolitan man” is a contradiction in terms. Say rather “cosmopolitan monster.” To love one’s own – one’s flesh and blood kith and kin, native soil, native language, native culture – is bedrock for psychological health, a pre-condition for the sane life. That our planetary rulers have decreed this love a crime shows plainly that they intend to drive us mad.

Exile, says S. John of the Ladder, is the mother of mourning, and mourning the mother of repentance. God wants us to love home, family, and people intensely, insatiably, to the point at which losing them hurts so much that we feel we will die without them, for only at this point does one realize that one actually needs God. Just as forgiveness does not exist unless sin exists, so exile does not exist unless home exists. Christians are not universalists, not cosmopolitans: when they lose that which is native to them, they mourn and weep. The Apostles were not sent out to baptize the atomized individuals of a postmodern dystopia. They baptized the nations.

Today we stand on the brink. We are about to lose everything visible that makes life worthwhile. Nation, family, native place, native tongue, native loves – all are being swept away by the demon-chiefs of this age and their lickspittle lackeys, the global elite. Let us rejoice then, and be glad, for exile is thereby abundantly available to us, having become the common setting for human existence. In the divine Providence, as Joseph explains today to his worried brothers, all is arranged perfectly for our salvation. Today only the life of the Church remains, and that not in the splendid cathedrals and ancient sees, but in nooks and crannies, in the dens and caves of the earth. But ultimately the Church is all we need, because, ultimately, God is all we need. When a man dies, there is only his soul standing before God, and he realizes, finally, that this was in fact the case all along.

At the end of our Genesis journey through Great Lent, then, we have come back to where we started, back to Paradise, back to our true home, which no one can take away from us. In the next life, this will take place openly; in this life it takes place mystically, every day, in an Orthodox heart prepared by sorrows and pierced by compunction. When we know with all the powers of our soul, with our whole being, without a doubt, that our heart is larger than all this world, because it holds the Trinity, then, at last, we have come home.

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He will deliver us

16 March OS 2018: Thursday of the Sixth Week of Lent; S. Aristobulus, Apostle, Enlightener of Britain; S. Sabinus of Egypt, Martyr; S. Christodoulos of Patmos

The first reading at Vespers today is Genesis 46: 1-7.

In this brief passage, we read how Jacob went down into Egypt with all his family and possessions, in obedience to God’s command.

What guarantee did Jacob have that all would be well? Only God’s promise: “And I will go down with thee into Egypt, and I will bring thee up again at the end, and Joseph shall put his hands upon thine eyes.” As always, God fulfilled His promise, first to Jacob personally, and four hundred years later, when He delivered all of Jacob’s posterity from slavery in Egypt and returned them to the Land of the Promise.

In the typology of the Fathers, Egypt represents the territory of the demons and the flesh, fallen society with all of its temptations. Pharaoh represents Satan, and just as Pharaoh enslaved the Hebrews, so in our lives Satan strives to enslave us to the passions and to sins. The New Moses, our Lord Jesus Christ, leads us out of Egyptian slavery to the Promised Land of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Just as God willed Jacob’s descent into Egypt, knowing that his descendants would undergo a terrible trial and that He would deliver them, so He permits us to suffer manifold trials, both temporal sorrows and spiritual temptations, not so that we will be lost, but rather that we will grow in Faith, have Hope in God, and grow strong  in fighting sin.  And He will deliver us.

After death, Jacob underwent a much greater descent:  to Hades, where with all the righteous of the Old Testament, he awaited deliverance.  The God-Man, Our Lord Jesus Christ, was to descend to the very depths of death and hell, in order to raise up Adam who had fallen and all his seed.  Surely He that willed to descend to the uttermost abyss for our salvation will also raise us in this life from our trials and our temptations, when we call upon His name.

As we prepare to celebrate the God-Man’s suffering, death, descent into Hades, and glorious Resurrection, let us ask Him for the grace to trust in Him to take us by the hand and lead us on the path of this life, as did the patriarchs of old, the course of whose lives we have pondered this Lent. They put absolute trust in the Lord in the midst of their trials, though they could only look forward to a future deliverance.   The Lord in Whom they trusted has now come to us in the flesh and has saved us. Let us place all our Hope in Him!

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The serenity of innocence

15 March OS 2018: Wednesday of the Sixth Week of Lent; Ss. Agapius and Companions, Martyrs 

The first reading at Vespers today is Genesis 43:26-31 and 45:1-16, in which the Righteous Joseph the All-Comely, now governor of all Egypt, makes himself known to his brothers and demonstrates his greatness of soul in forgiving them and providing for them.

As Joseph explains matters to his brothers, who are cowering in fear lest he should take revenge on them, he is at peace, because he sees that all that has happened to him, including their betrayal, was part of God’s plan to save their family from the great famine. From childhood, when he dreamed that his father and brothers bowed down to him, until now, when his brothers are actually prostrate at his feet, he has pursued a tranquil course of doing the will of God amid the storms of personal disaster – betrayal by his brothers and being cast into a pit, being sold into slavery, and being thrown into prison because he would not sin with another man’s wife, who then falsely accused him of the very thing he refused to do with her.  The God Who chose him from his youth and guided his every step has not disappointed him in his hope.

On Great Monday, we will remember Joseph as a typos, a prophetic prefiguration, of Christ Himself, both in His humiliation and in His glory. As Joseph was betrayed by his brothers, so Our Lord was betrayed by His disciple. As Joseph was falsely accused when innocent, so with Christ. As Joseph was exalted to the right hand of Pharaoh, so Christ is exalted to the right hand of God.

We can imitate Joseph in his likeness to the Savior by imitating his patience and his hope, and by a firm determination to accept the will of God for ourselves.  When life throws us into a pit, let us realize that it is God Himself Who has allowed us to be helpless, so that we might accept deliverance from Him and Him alone.  When falsely accused, let us face it calmly, knowing that our vindication is from Him. When He delivers us, let us show greatness of soul in forgiving our enemies, seeing His profound wisdom in all that has happened to us.

The Patriarch Joseph the All-Comely is also a typos of Righteous Joseph the Betrothed, the guardian of the Most Pure Virgin and the Infant Christ. Like the Old Testament Joseph, the New Testament Joseph is a man of action. He proves himself obedient not by words – of which not a single one is recorded in the Gospel – but by deeds. When the famished Egyptians come to Pharaoh crying out for bread, he says, “Go to Joseph,” for he has made Joseph the steward over all the grain of Egypt.   As we languish in Egyptian slavery to the passions and sensual pleasures, and we cry to God our King for deliverance, He says to us, “Go to Joseph,” who was made steward of the True Bread born in Bethlehem, the town whose name means “House of Bread,” for our salvation.

May we prepare with humility and love to receive this True Bread in Our Lord’s Precious Body and Blood at His Passiontide and Radiant Resurrection. May we, like the two Josephs, always do the will of God with undoubting serenity and unwavering firmness, and so be found worthy to receive the reward of the good steward:

“Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord (Matthew 25:21).”

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Real wealth, real freedom

14 March OS 2018: Tuesday of the Sixth Week of Lent; S. Benedict of Nursia, Monk

The first reading at Vespers today is Genesis 31:3-36, which concludes the history of Jacob’s winning his two wives and becoming a wealthy man with a large family and household.

In fourteen years, God has given Jacob both domestic happiness and material success, despite all the efforts of Laban, his crafty father-in-law, to cheat him. The LORD has demonstrated, once again, that man’s cleverness is powerless against His wisdom and His will. God willed to make Jacob a great patriarch in His plan of salvation for mankind, and He has acted according to His will.

Jacob’s new status as a great householder gives him what today we call “financial freedom”: he is his own master, not beholden to an employer or creditor who can take the bread out of his mouth at any moment. Now God alone, Lord of the seasons, Master of wind, weather, the tides of warring nations, and the health of man and beast, will give or take away his prosperity.  He has obtained his freedom, however, not by going around or against God’s will, but by fulfilling it.   He has done his part in the plan of salvation; he has conformed his will to the will of God.

Jacob’s earthly wealth provides a typos, a prophetic image, of the true wealth the Lord wants to give us, new and permanent properties of soul and body, gifts of His uncreated grace: pure prayer, harmony with God’s creation, lasting peace of heart – all the joys of friendship with God.  Jacob’s earthly freedom provides a prophetic image of the eternal freedom God intends for us, the freedom of the sons of God: freedom from sin, the devil, death, and hell. We must conform our wills to the will of God, and we will become free.

A fatally mistaken idea about freedom grips the minds of men, who equate freedom with the ability to disobey God and get away with it.  They want to make their own rules and create their own reality. It does not seem to occur to them that the further they go in this direction, the more miserable they become. This present misery only faintly presages what is in store for them. What is doubtless going to happen to them after they die, apart from an unrevealed miracle of God’s mercy upon which no one can rely, is something we cannot – and would prefer not – to imagine.

Mentored by Satan, men mistakenly imagine that the ability to do evil and not suffer thereby is inherent in having a will, in being free and rational creatures, but it is not. Our natural will is most free, is itself, when conformed completely to God’s will; we are most ourselves, most free, most rational, and possessed of will in its ultimate degree, when we do God’s will at every moment. What men mistakenly call “free will” is what St. Maximus the Confessor identifies as the “gnomic” will – a diseased condition of the will based on ignorance, conflicting opinions, and moral weakness, the result of the Fall. It is this condition of the will that we experience every day when our choice wavers between good and evil, between God’s Law and the law of sin and death.

We overcome the stress and misery of this wavering, uncertain state by unrelenting work on ourselves. Yes, we obtain the glorious freedom of the sons of God by God’s gift, but also we must labor. We find an example in Jacob, who did indeed receive all as gift from God but also was not idle. Last week we recalled his labors while chanting the Great Canon:

In privation Jacob the Patriarch endured the burning heat by day and the frost by night, making daily gains of sheep and cattle, shepherding, wrestling, and serving, to win his two wives.

By the two wives, understand action and knowledge in contemplation. Leah is action, for she had many children; and Rachel is knowledge, for she endured great toil. And without toil, O my soul, neither action nor contemplation will succeed. – Ode Four of the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete

May the sweetness of Holy Pascha that we will soon enjoy  give us a taste of the eternal wealth and freedom that cannot be taken away.  May it encourage us to serve the Lord in active virtue and find rest in Him through prayer.

Let us conform our wills to His holy, peaceful, and perfect will, and we will find glorious rest, the freedom of the sons of God.

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Divine desire

13 March OS 2018: Monday of the Sixth Week of Lent; S. Nicephorus of Constantinople

The first reading at Vespers today is Genesis 27:1-41, which recounts how Jacob took Esau’s blessing by deceiving his father Isaac.

Jacob’s deception offends our sense of fairness. Yet by this deception Jacob becomes the ancestor of the God-Man. He burns with desire to receive God’s blessing, by whatever means, and thereby he becomes the instrument of God’s will to save us.

Jacob’s unfairness does not have to meet our approval before inspiring us to emulate his zeal. He demonstrates absolute faith that his father’s blessing will convey irresistible divine power.  He believes without doubting that Isaac’s words convey a permanent grace: once Isaac speaks them, he cannot take them back.   He burns with desire, with a divine eros, to have this blessing, and God rewards his fervor with His grace.

Esau, by contrast, in an earlier incident, has already demonstrated his lack of zeal for divine things and greater desire for earthly pleasure, when he sold his birthright to Jacob for one hot meal. He has also demonstrated his love of pleasure and disregard of God’s Law by running after loose women.   By preferring the things of earth to the things of heaven, he has lost both his birthright – the right to be and to be called a son of God – and his blessing – the grace of God.

Each of us must ask himself whether he is a Jacob or an Esau, whether he prefers heaven or earth. Of course, the answer is that we are both: we waver and undulate; we are hot one day and cold the next.   But we should take heart from Jacob’s example: If we want divine blessings, we have only to ask for them. When is the last time we asked for such gifts as

– the love of prayer?

– zeal for heavenly things?

– constant remembrance of death and God’s judgment?

– the grace to see and remember all of our sins and to make a good confession?

– the grace of perseverance in the Faith and repentance until death?

Let us entreat the Lord to ignite our hearts with the divine eros that sets apart the saints. He waits for us to ask, and, desiring with His own divine desire, He desires to give.

“…this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:13-14).”

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