Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A Meditation for July 29
The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

In the readings this morning we glimpse two important truths about Jesus Christ our God.

In the Gospel (Matthew 14:22-34), Jesus commands the disciples to get into a boat and to make their way across the sea while he ascends the mountain to pray in solitude.

A storm arises, the boat is tossed to and fro. Late in the night, he comes striding across the waves – they’re terrified! But he speaks to them, reassures them of His abiding presence. The winds cease. We’re reminded that this Jesus is the Son of God, as we confess in the creed, the One by whom all things were made.

The first important truth is the reminder of our confession that Jesus Christ is the Lord of Creation, whom even the waves and the winds obey.

The second is found in the reading from I Corinthians (3:9-17). St Paul is juggling a number of images – the Christian life is described as co-working with God, then as a field that God cultivates, then as a building that God designs and constructs. And we co-operate with God's grace, we participate in the cultivation and building of our lives. Christ Jesus is the foundation, and we are invited to fashion our lives using various materials: gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw. In the preaching of the Church Fathers these materials are understood to be the substance of our lives: the silver and gold and precious stones would be the cultivation of virtue and goodness, a life that glorifies God, that honors Christ the true foundation. The wood and hay and straw would be whatever is weak, our vices, the passions that toss us to and fro.

And we learn in this passage that “the Day will declare it,” that our work will be “revealed by fire.” This is the second important truth about Christ Jesus our God – again, as we confess in the creed, we believe that He will return in glory to judge the living and the dead.

This second important truth is that Jesus Christ our God is the righteous Judge, and his judgment is a revealing fire.

That’s a powerful image, perhaps indeed a frightening image: Judgment by fire. Think of all that fire is: it illumines, it warms, but it also burns.

Some of you may be familiar with what are known as “fire and brimstone” sermons – preachers call their hearers to repent, to change their ways, or else God will punish them with the fires of hell. Others may hear in this the foundation for the western Catholic teaching about purgatory, a cleansing or purging or temporal punishment for sin before one is ready for blessedness of heaven.

The Eastern Fathers, however, have read this passage in a somewhat different way. In Orthodox Tradition, this divine fire that reveals the truth of who we are, that discloses silver and gold, or else burns away straw and hay, is nothing other than the fire of God’s love.

God loves us all, Christ died for us all, desires that all of us be saved. There is no one deprived of God’s love. The question is, what do we make of that? Or in the language of St. Paul, what kind of building do we build?

For those who receive it, who have come to delight in God’s love, who have fashioned their lives in harmony with God’s love – it is a fire that illumines and warms and gives life. But for those who deny it, who turn away and reject and refuse to share God’s love, this fire is painful, disclosing missed opportunities, bitter regrets – indeed, for them the love of God is hell.

All who deliberately choose evil instead of good deprive themselves of God’s mercy, shut themselves off from God’s love. The very same love that is the source of bliss and consolation for the righteous in heaven becomes a source of torment for sinners who render themselves strangers to mercy and kindness.

It’s not that God prepares ruthless torments for sinners, but rather that by sinning, by refusing to love, we harm ourselves and others – we trade a precious life of gold and silver for a worthless life of hay and straw.

In the last day, in the Day of Judgment, the love made known in Christ our God, the love of our righteous judge, makes all of that clear. And this revelation of who we are in the Last Day – however joyful or painful it may be – is done with our salvation, our repentance and healing, as the goal.

This is why it is so important, here and now, to encourage and exhort and admonish one another along the way of the Christian life. This is why we pray without ceasing, asking God’s mercy for ourselves, our friends and neighbors, our enemies, and for the departed. Our mutual care and encouragement, our prayers for the living and the dead, are our participation in the fire of God’s love.

Just as Christ stretched out his hand as Peter began to sink beneath the waves, we reach out to one another with mercy and kindness, with hopes and prayers for the living and the dead, that all might come to know the life-giving, soul-purging love of God in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A Meditation for Sunday, July 15:
Commemoration of the Fathers of the First Six Ecumenical Councils

We read a number of lessons this morning. We have our typical lessons appointed for this Sunday along with additional lessons for our commemoration of the Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils and also for St Vladimir. One of the most vibrant passages comes in the first of this morning’s Gospel readings, where our Lord Jesus Christ gives sight to the blind and speech to the mute. We are reminded that He opens our eyes and loosens our tongues.

In Christ, we come to see and know the Truth.

In Christ, we are able to speak and proclaim His Truth with praise and thanksgiving.

Throughout the history of the Church, there have been many occasions when the eyes of perception have been darkened and when the voice of faithful has become confused. There have been so many heresies throughout the history of the Church – so many damaging false teachings that threaten to lead us astray. That’s why we remember the Holy Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils, those holy bishops and pastors who gathered at various times in the early centuries of the Church to bring clarity and focus to our understanding of Christ Jesus and his Gospel. We thank God for the Holy Fathers who labored and struggled, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to keep the Church’s doctrine pure and to manifest that truth both in their teaching and in the life of the Church. They defined doctrines and formulated canons both to guard the true faith and to guide and discipline our lives truly and faithfully.

That theme of remaining faithful in the Truth of Christ – both in what we teach and in how we live – is the theme of the reading from St Paul’s epistle to the Romans (15:1-7). Throughout his writings, St Paul returns again and again to the vital importance of proclaiming the truth of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for our salvation. There is no other Gospel than the one disclosed in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the One who “did not seek to please himself,” but rather bore the sins of the whole world. That’s the Gospel, and nothing may be added or subtracted. The whole story must be remembered and shared.

St Paul reminds the Romans that one of the key ways we remember the whole truth is through the Holy Scriptures – the sacred writings which have graciously been handed down to us for our learning, to teach us patience, to give us comfort and strength, and give us hope. Again, notice that the truth we come to know in Holy Scripture is inseparable from the truth we live in the Christian life. We have the Scriptures that we might know Christ, and to know Christ is to grow in love and unity with one another.

St Paul gives very practical advice about this life: the strong are to support and care for the weak. We’re to think more about the needs of others than about our own needs and desires. Why? Because that’s what Christ has done for us! God has been patient and comforting towards us, that our divisions may be healed and that we might be “like-minded” toward one another according to Christ Jesus.

That like-mindedness is a precious gift. That clarity of vision and unity of purpose is what the Holy Fathers worked so hard to preserve for us.

Note that last verse of that first reading, Romans 15:7, how St Paul summarizes our life in Christ, exhorting us to “receive one another, just as Christ received us, to the glory of God.”

Receive one another – some English translations say “accept,” others, “welcome.” Welcome one another, receive one another – graciously, lovingly. Taken by itself, this verse may sound very “politically correct”: accept everyone, don’t judge, “I’m OK, you’re OK.” But St Paul is teaching something much more difficult than pallid “political correctness.” He’s teaching us to receive and accept those who aren’t easy to love, those who burden us, those who annoy us, and even those who seek to do us harm. The truth of the Christian life is that because of the Resurrection, because Christ has conquered hell and death, we are free to be kind, to forgive, to be compassionate towards one another – even towards those who are unkind and unforgiving and mean to us.

St Innocent of Alaska, in his instruction to his native converts, described this as one aspect of taking up our cross and following Jesus. St Innocent wrote:

“… if someone has insulted you or laughed at you or provoked you, bear it all without anger or resentment. Similarly, if you helped someone and he, instead of showing gratitude, made up deceitful tales about you or if you wanted to do something good but were unable to accomplish it, bear it without despondency. Did some misfortune befall you? Did someone in your family become ill, or despite all your efforts and tireless labor did you repeatedly suffer failure? Has some other thing or person oppressed you? Bear all with patience in the name of Jesus Christ. Do not consider yourself punished unjustly, but accept everything as your cross.”

It may sound impossible. And if we were to attempt this on our own, by our own strength, it would be impossible, crushing. Even crazy, insane.

But by God’s grace, with prayer and fasting, we are able: to bear these burdens, to welcome one another, to receive whatever and whomever comes our way, because Christ has received us and is making us his own.

By His mercy, by His grace, He is present in our midst, to strengthen and comfort, to make His burden light and His yoke easy. He is present to heal our blindness, to open our eyes and loosen our tongues, that with one heart, with one mind, we may rejoice.

Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory to Him Forever! Amen.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Saints Olga and Vladimir: Equals-to-the-Apostles

A number of saints in our calendar are remembered as "Equals-to-the-Apostles." These holy men and women are so honored because they did what the first Apostles did - they shared the Holy Gospel, typically contributing to the conversion of their people to Christ and His Church.

In the coming days we will commemorate two Russian saints who bear this title: Saint Olga, Princess of Russia (July 11), and Saint Vladimir, the Great Prince and Enlightener of the Russian lands (July 15).

Saint Olga was the Christian wife of the Kievan Great Prince Igor, a pagan. Baptized in Constantinople, she quietly laid the groundwork for the future conversion of her people.

For more on her life, click here.

Her grandson Vladimir is remembered as the first Christian prince of Kiev and the Russian lands. The Prologue to Ochrid (see sidebar for link) tells us that early in life, Vladimir was largely pagan both in his belief and in his lifestyle. Learning that other faiths existed, he carefully began to inquire as to which of them was the very best. For this reason he sent emissaries to Constantinople. When the emissaries returned they informed the prince that they attended a service in the Orthodox Church of the Divine Wisdom and that they were "outside themselves, not knowing whether they were on earth or in heaven." This inspired Vladimir to be baptized and to baptize his people. The main idol, Perun, was removed from the hill of Kiev and hurled into the Dnieper river. After embracing the Christian Faith, Vladimir completely changed his life and exerted all of his efforts to correctly fulfill all the rules of this Faith. In place of the destroyed idols, Vladimir ordered churches to be built throughout his state and he built a beautiful church to the All-Holy Mother of God in Kiev. This church was built on the same spot where St. Theodore and his son, John, earlier suffered martyrdom for Christ (July 12). With that same irresistible effort with which Vladimir earlier protected idolatry, he now spread Christianity. He found repose in the Lord in the year 1015 A.D.

Holy Olga and Vladimir, pray unto God for us!

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Abbreviated Summer Schedule:

No Services on Saturday, July 7 or Sunday, July 8

Regular Sunday Schedule on July 15

Vespers at 5:00 PM on Saturday, July 21

Regular Sunday Schedule on July 22 & 29