Sunday, January 28, 2007

A Meditation for the Sunday of the
Publican and the Pharisee

Our preparation for Great Lent continues today with the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee: as we remembered last week, the Church in her great wisdom moves us gradually from one focus to the next. In these Pre-Lenten Sundays we are given the meaning of Lent before we actually practice the discipline of Lent. The theme for this Sunday is humility.

Our Lord Jesus told the parable of two men who went to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, one a tax collector, or Publican. The Pharisee prayed, thanking God he’s not like all the riff-raff of the world; he is thankful to God that he is not an immoral man. And he recalls his good and holy works: he fasts, he generously gives tithes. Clearly, the Pharisee is to be admired as a good and holy man who is thankful to God for the goodness of his life.

And then there’s the Publican, who stays near the back, who won’t even raise his eyes to heaven. He beats his breast, a traditional gesture of penitence, and simply prays, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” Last week read about another tax collector, Zacchaeus, and remembered that tax collectors were despised as corrupt opportunists, traitors to their people, collaborators with the hated Romans who occupied Judea. We have every reason to believe that the Publican should have been ashamed of himself. To be a tax collector was to lead a shameful life. Not surprisingly, he prays for God’s mercy.

The startling moment in this passage comes when our Lord Jesus says that the sinful Publican is the one who is justified, or “in right relation to God” – not the righteous Pharisee. Then, He says that “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” What could that possibly mean?

The monastic priest Lev Gillet, one of the great Orthodox spiritual writers of the 20th century, once observed that this is probably among the most dangerous parables Jesus told. It’s dangerous because we’re so likely misunderstand our Lord’s teaching.

We’re tempted to condemn the Pharisee, saying that even with all our sins, even though we don’t fast or pray and may not be all that generous, at least we’re not hypocrites! We’re tempted to forget that there is much about the Pharisee that is exactly right and good: our Lord told his disciples in his sermon on the mount that unless their righteousness exceeded that of the scribes and Pharisees, they would never enter the kingdom of heaven. The fact that the Pharisee practiced his piety, fasting and tithing, was not the problem.

The Pharisee’s problem concerns his lack of repentance and humility. It’s a very good thing that he’s not like the extortioners and the adulterers – but in comparing himself to them, he misses the profound truth that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” He may not be as bad as some, but he still falls short, he still needs God’s gracious love and mercy and forgiveness.

This is holy humility: the awareness of our need for God’s mercy, and (as we see in the parable) the humble, trusting appeal to God’s loving tenderness and mercy.

It’s often observed in the lives of the saints that the more they grow in holiness and virtue, the more deeply they enter into the way of salvation (theosis), the more profound their experience of the Jesus Prayer becomes: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The strange truth is that the closer they draw to God, the greater their sanctity, the more aware they become of their sinfulness, their neediness, their dependence on God’s mercy. They are, for us, examples of holy humility. And that’s why we practice the Publican’s prayer whenever we gather to pray: there’s not phrase we say more in any of our services than “Lord have mercy.”

Some people have said that this is a “paradox:” the closer we come to God, the more humble we become. Their argument is that it would seem that growing close to God would raise us up, make us more glorious and exalted. Humility is thus seen as a demeaning thing, something foreign to the nature of God. And yet, that perspective fundamentally misunderstands the revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ. Who is more humble than the divine Word, the Son of God, who emptied Himself and took the form of a servant? The One who was without sin, yet who became sin for us, being nailed to the Cross, that we might be reconciled to God? Christ has taken the last place, the place of humility, the way of the Cross. And that is the Life he invites us to share. The holy mystery is that somehow, in that humility, we come to know the glory of the kingdom of heaven. That is the way of humility, the way of the Cross, the way of Life.

That raises an important question regarding how we can learn humility, how we make ourselves become humble. Sinful as we are, sometimes our striving to be humble can even become a source of pride! Truly, humility can be elusive…

But we’re given an important clue in the passage St Paul wrote to St Timothy: Pay attention to the lives of the saints, their persecutions, because “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” Strive to be faithful, and because of the way the world is, you will learn humility. “Continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of in the Holy Scriptures…” follow faithfully the way we’ve been taught, and we will come to know holy humility – we will come to know the glorious salvation promised in Christ Jesus.

Glory to Him forever! Amen

Monday, January 22, 2007

Holy Desire: A Meditation for Zacchaeus Sunday

Today is the Sunday of Zacchaeus, the fifth Sunday before the beginning of Great and Holy Lent. Lent provides us with a time of preparation for the great joy of Easter, Pascha, the feast of feasts. But today we enter into a time of preparation for the time of preparation.

That may sound curious to you, but the Church has organized her life in this way for very good reasons. The purpose is to capture our attention: there is so much to distract us, to weigh us down. We can’t change rapidly or move abruptly from one spiritual state to another. And so, we take our time and turn our attention slowly to all that Lent and Pascha mean to us. In these weeks before we practice the discipline of Lent, we are given the meaning of Lent.

And all of this comes to us in the story of Zacchaeus. His great and overwhelming desire is to see Jesus, and yet he is too short. Zacchaeus was short on stature, and as many have pointed out, he was also short on character: he was a tax collector – indeed, a chief tax collector – and that meant that he was despised by his people as one who collaborated with the enemy, working to gather the hated taxes that supported the Roman occupation of Judea. Tax collectors were notorious for cheating, graft, and corruption. Therefore it comes as no surprise that Zacchaeus was a very rich man. His friends and neighbors probably figured that he “had it all,” everything he could want. And yet, there is something lacking. Zacchaeus has an unfulfilled desire: he wants to see Jesus.

And what does he do? Every Sunday School child knows the answer: “he climbs up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see.”

Pause for a moment and think about that: he climbed a tree. Believe me when I tell you that self-respecting adult men in that time did not climb trees. Certainly, chief tax collectors did not climb trees. Climbing a tree will make you look silly, childish, foolish. And yet, for Zacchaeus, his holy desire overwhelms his good sense. He climbs a tree to see Jesus.

This is a rich moment in the story which reveals several important things – not just about Zacchaeus, but about the holy life to which we are called. It was his great and holy desire for Jesus that motivated Zacchaeus to do something the world considers foolish. Indeed, this brief episode foreshadows the figure of the “holy fool for Christ” which has a cherished place in Orthodox, especially Russian, tradition. Many of the saints, in their great desire for Jesus, did things that the world thought strange, or bizarre, or foolish. This coming Wednesday we will commemorate St Xenia of Petersburg, an 18th century saint who did some very strange things. She became a widow at age 26 when her husband, an army officer, died suddenly at a party. She grieved deeply for him, for her loss, but also because he died without benefit of Confession or Communion.

St Xenia immediately gave her home and all of her possessions away to the poor, choosing to dress in her husband’s old uniforms and wander through the city. Whenever she received charity or alms, she would immediately give it to someone more needy than herself. She became known as a great woman of prayer and her intercession was eagerly sought by those suffering various ailments, especially children, whom she loved. When a new church was being built in Smolensk, she would show up at the construction site in the middle of the night with bricks to help with the project.

For St Xenia, it was living in poverty and prayer and moving bricks. For Zacchaeus, it was climbing a tree. Their desire for Jesus overwhelmed their sense of propriety – and we venerate them as saints because of it. So Zacchaeus climbs the tree to see Jesus because of his great desire, but also because he knew he didn’t “measure up.” The truth is, we don’t either. As St. Paul wrote, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We all fall short. And so, we must seek to climb up, to cultivate virtue, to grow in the love and grace of God which is lavished upon us. The climb is difficult; the tree may turn out to be a cross. But remember that our Lord told us that the way of the Cross will be the way of true Life.

So Zacchaeus climbs the tree to see Jesus, and Jesus sees him: “Make haste, come down,” He tells him. “I’m coming to your house.”

And what happens? The people grumble: Jesus is going to eat and drink with a sinner! Again, it appears that the rules are being broken, propriety is being violated. God is drawing close, despite the sinfulness, despite the rebellion, despite the checkered past… He’s going to be a guest in the house of Zacchaeus.

Pay attention to what happens next. Zacchaeus’ great desire for Jesus bears fruit – indeed, it bears abundant fruit. Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor; and if I have taken anything from anyone by false accusation, I restore fourfold.” This goes beyond the Law’s requirements for repentance and restitution (Ex 22:3-12). Zacchaeus, “the wee little man,” transcends himself. Do you remember the words of Jesus: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Zacchaeus’ desire for Jesus blossoms in self-denial and generosity. The short man grows in holiness and sanctity: Jesus visits him and salvation comes to his house.

Zacchaeus desires Jesus. His holy desire transforms his life. That is the first great lesson we should ponder as we turn our eyes towards our Lenten discipline. Pray for that desire; desire that desire. Ask and it shall be given. And then together, throughout the Lenten season, we will find ourselves ascending the tree, walking the way of the Cross, rejoicing in the coming new Life – the salvation – that will enter our lives at Pascha.

Glory to Jesus Christ! Amen.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Photos from Theophany 2007:
Great Blessing of the Waters, Divine Liturgy,
and Houseblessings

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Orthodox Church - A visual journey

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Celebrating the Theophany of our Lord
God and Saviour Jesus Christ

Father Nikolay Miletkov will visit on January 13-14. We will have House Blessings both Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

Saturday, January 13:
Great Blessing of the Waters at 12:15 PM, followed by House Blessings
Great Vespers at 5:00 PM

Sunday, January 14:
Regular morning schedule with Adult Catechism and Children's Sunday School at 9:15 AM, followed by the Hours around 9:45 and Divine Liturgy at 10:00 AM, followed by House Blessings

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

January 2: Repose of Saint Seraphim of Sarov

"Acquire the spirit of peace, and thousands around you will be saved."

Today we commemorate Saint Seraphim of Sarov, patron of our diocesan cathedral in Dallas, Texas, and one of the most beloved saints of the Russian people.

An account of his life is available here.

Holy Seraphim, well pleasing to God, we turn to you, for you are the sure helper and intercessor for our souls!