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Mission Monthly – December 2009

A Christmas Homily (excerpt)

by St. Gregory of Nazianzus (+380)

Christ is born, glorify Him. Christ from heaven, go out to meet Him. Christ on earth, be exalted. Sing to the Lord all the whole earth; and that I may join both in one word, let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad, for Him who is of heaven and then of earth. Christ in the flesh, rejoice with trembling and with joy; with trembling because of your sins, with joy because of your hope.

Again, the darkness is past; again Light is made; again Egypt is punished with darkness; again Israel is enlightened by a pillar. The people who sat in the darkness of ignorance, let them see the great Light full of knowledge. Old things have passed away, behold all things have become new. The letter gives way, the Spirit comes to the front. The shadows flee away, the truth comes in on them. Melchizedek is concluded. He who was without Mother becomes without Father (without mother of His former state, without father of His second). The laws of nature are upset; the world above must be filled. Christ commands it, let us not set ourselves against Him. O clap your hands together all you people, because unto us a Child is born, and a Son given unto us, whose government is upon His shoulder (for with the cross it is raised up), and His name is called The Angel of the Great Counsel of the Father. Let John cry, prepare the way of the Lord; I too will cry the power of this Day. He who is not carnal is Incarnate; the Son of God becomes the Son of Man, Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever. Let the Jews be offended, let the Greeks deride; let heretics talk until their tongues ache. Then shall they believe, when they see Him ascending into heaven; and if not then, yet when they see Him coming out of heaven and sitting as Judge.

This is our present Festival; it is this which we are celebrating today, the Coming of God to Man, that we might go forth, or rather (for this is the more proper expression) that we might go back to God—that putting off of the old man, we might put on the new; and that as we died in Adam, so we might live in Christ, being born with Christ and crucified with Him and buried with Him and rising with Him. For I must undergo the beautiful conversion, and as the painful succeeded the more blissful, so must the more blissful come out of the painful. For where sin abounded grace did much more abound; and if a taste condemned us, how much more does the passion of Christ justify us? Therefore let us keep the Feast, not after the manner of a heathen festival, but after a godly sort; not after the way of the world, but in a fashion above the world; not as our own, but as belonging to Him who is ours, or rather as our master's; not as of weakness, but as of healing; not as of creation, but of re-creation

The very Son of God, older than the ages, the invisible, the incomprehensible, the incorporeal, the beginning of beginning, the light of light, the fountain of life and immortality, the image of the archetype, the immovable seal, the perfect likeness, the definition and word of the Father: he it is who comes to his own image and takes our nature for the good of our nature, and unites himself to an intelligent soul for the good of my soul, to purify like by like.

He takes to himself all that is human, except for sin. He was conceived by the Virgin Mary, who had been first prepared in soul and body by the Spirit; his coming to birth had to be treated with honor, virginity had to receive new honor. He comes forth as God, in the human nature he has taken, one being, made of two contrary elements, flesh and spirit. Spirit gave divinity, flesh received it.

He who makes rich is made poor; he takes on the poverty of my flesh, that I may gain the riches of his divinity. He who is full is made empty; he is emptied for a brief space of his glory, that I may share in his fullness. What is this wealth of goodness? What is this mystery that surrounds me? I received the likeness of God, but failed to keep it. He takes on my flesh, to bring salvation to the image, immortality to the flesh. He enters into a second union with us, a union far more wonderful than the first.

Holiness had to be brought to man by the humanity assumed by one who was God, so that God might overcome the tyrant by force and so deliver us and lead us back to himself through the mediation of his Son. The Son arranged this for the honor of the Father, to whom the Son is clearly obedient in all things.

The Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep, came in search of the straying sheep to the mountains and hills on which you used to offer sacrifice. When he found it, he took it on the shoulders that bore the wood of the cross, and led it back to the life of heaven.

Christ, the light of all lights, follows John, the lamp that goes before him. The Word of God follows the voice in the wilderness; the bridegroom follows the bridegroom's friend, who prepares a worthy people for the Lord by cleansing them by water in preparation for the Spirit. We need God to take our flesh and die, that we might live. We have died with him, that we may be purified. We have risen again with him, because we have died with him. We have been glorified with him, because we have risen again with him.


Mission Monthly – November 2009

“The grace of the Holy Spirit makes every good Christian a temple of God's worship, daily work can be done prayerfully and some occupations leave the mind free for direct prayer. It does not matter where or when it is, provided you pray sincerelyOnly one thing matters to God: a religious heart, integrity of soul. But public worship comes firstCertainly you can pray at home: but not so well as at church, joined with the company of the faithful. There the cry of the worshippers goes up with one voice, and the presiding clergy unite the weaker and the stronger supplications into one great prayer to heaven.”

St. John Chrysostom

Fr. Alexander Schmemman wrote about the Orthodox Church being in a state of “western captivity.” It would have been my joy and to my benefit to hear him speak directly about this. From his writings I believe I understand some-what of his meaning. Western models of thinking have caused many of our modern ideological stalemates and to try to use these same models to solve the problems they have created is certainly problematic. In the Church this type of thinking seems to have reduced Christian life in the west to some sort of academic, juridical, lowest common denominator practice rather than the communion with God to which man has been called in the fulfillment of all his longing and in the perfect expression of his life. And echoing the words of St. John Chrysostom, Fr. Alexander taught that it is first and foremost in worship that our life in Christ is revealed in its “true nature and sacramental vocation.”

I meditate on these things today with both sorrow and hope, seeing generally how God's Church in our post-modern world is wanting in the expression of her primary purpose: public worship. As we prepare to celebrate the 13th anniversary of St. Ignatius Church I am thankful for the faithfulness and piety of this parish and the constant striving towards a greater commitment to prayer (public and private), the sacraments, scripture reading, repentance, modesty, fellowship and stewardship; most importantly, however, I am thankful that St. Ignatius is a church where the faithful have the opportunity to enter prayerfully into a quiet and reverent place of worship, to “lay aside all earthly cares.” This is a characteristic I hope will always be the cornerstone of this parish. As St. John said, this must “come first,” and sometimes I wonder if it is this deficiency in the modern Church's worship that prompted Fr. Alexander to develop his theme of “western captivity.” We live in a time where we are all tempted to fall prey to the secular negation of worship. This is revealed in the very fact that most modern Orthodox Christians have reduced worship to only one day a week, at the most! If there is one characteristic that differentiates Orthodox Christianity from all other Christian bodies it is the rhythm and seasons of our rich liturgical tradition and the calling of each Orthodox Christian to make worship and the Eucharistic gathering the FIRST priority of their life: first before scripture reading, first before serving the poor, first before fellowship, first before family, first before employment, and first before hobbies, free time and taking the rest we need (or feel we deserve). Following worship we are free to (and commanded to) do all manner of good works and to be faithful to the many responsibilities of life each of us has been given. It is only after worship that our good works, our responsibilities and our enjoyments have their meanings fulfilled.

As I speak from time to time with many of my brother priests from around the country the greatest lament I hear is how little “the faithful” attend services other than on Sunday morning, and sometimes not even then. To be honest, this is true of the Orthodox Church I was raised in and putting into practice the priority of worship was a difficult transition I had to come to terms with as a young man. But the reality that this attitude is still perpetuated today is deeply sorrowful to me, especially when it is traditionally clear that we as Orthodox Christians are called to gather for worship with priority and frequency. From the earliest 2nd century we read in the letter of our holy patron St. Ignatius to the church of Ephesus, “Try to gather more frequently to celebrate God's Eucharist and to praise him. For when you meet with frequency, Satan's powers are overthrown and his destructiveness is undone by the unanimity of your faith. There is nothing better than peace, by which all strife in heaven and earth is done away.”

Sometimes there are legitimate things that do get in the way of this priority, especially health, weather and distance and occasionally responsibility. The problem is whenwe are the ones getting in our own way either through a choice of priority or just plain laziness. This is a great challenge for all Orthodox Christians and one which we must continue to face head on. People and societies around the world are struggling and we have the answer right here, centered on the altar around which we gather, upon which rests the Good News of Jesus Christ, and from which we receive the Gift of Life in his very Body and Blood. Who is going to be faithful to the priority of worship if not us? Who is going to praise God the Giver of all good things? Who is going to pray for our parents and grandparents, our children and the wayward, the sick and the departed? Who is going to nurture our children to discover the image of God within them if they are immersed more in the idolatry of the world than in the worship of Heaven? As we prepare ourselves to enter the Nativity Fast and all that will follow in the seasons to come I pray God help us to rededicate ourselves to public worship, Sunday morning, including the beautiful Matins preceding the Liturgy, Saturday evening (the beginning of the Lord's Day), the Great Feasts, other prayer services during the week, and to the renewal of faith and life and joy that comes from it! Together and with strength may we cry out often with one voice, in the “one great prayer to heaven.”


Mission Monthly – October 2009

Fight always with your thoughts and call them back when they wander away. God does not demand of those under obedience that their thoughts be totally undistracted when they pray. And do not lose heart when your thoughts are stolen away. Just remain calm, and constantly call your mind back.”

St. John Climacus

I am always encouraged when I hear something like, “Father, I get so distracted when I'm in church or when I pray at home: my family, my job, disturbing thoughts—t's always something! At times my mind wanders so far from prayer that I wonder if I've even said what I think I just said. I am frustrated and I feel like such a fake!” I am encouraged because these conditions show that people are trying. There can be no mistake: trying is central to the synergia of our salvation! All the great ascetical fathers and mothers of Orthodoxy have known the frustration of distraction: St. Anthony the Great, St. Mary of Egypt, St. Ephraim the Syrian, St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil the Great. It's in their example, it's in their writings and, like St. John Climacus above, we are encouraged by their compassionate direction. Let us consider a few of these good words:

1) When they pray. St. John does not say IF they pray but WHEN they pray. Here is maybe the most important point of prayer: that we all are called to the obedience of prayer and it is towards this end that we are called to struggle. Other than our consistency in trying, what happens to us during prayer really is not up to us. God allows us to be attacked spiritually, we have the freedom of our own choices which when exercised wisely can foster our ability to concentrate during prayer, and we have the ability to quiet ourselves before approaching our prayer corners and our liturgia so that, prepared, we are less vulnerable to attack from the disquieting movements of life's rushing here and there.

2) Fight. St. Paul tells Timothy in his first letter, “Fight the good fight of faith” (v. 6:12) and he continues, “take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made the good confession in the presence of many people.” Hopefully in this life we are learning what it means to love and learning to love that which is most important. And what or who is most important? God, of course! Scripture teaches us, “We love because God loved us first” (1 John 4:19), and since it is God Who has given us the ability to love it is God only Who is deserving of our first love. What are we to do but fight when anything threatens that which we love?

3) Stolen. St. Herman of Alaska in a letter to one Simeon Ivanovich is quoted as saying perhaps one of the most encouraging statements I have ever heard. “A true Christian is made by faith and love toward Christ. Our sins do not in the least hinder our Christianity, according to the word of the Savior Himself. Sin, to one who loves God, is nothing other than an arrow from the enemy in battle.” He then continues as above, “The true Christian is a warrior fighting his way through the regiments of the unseen enemy to his heavenly homeland.” Sometimes we forget that we are fighting an unseen enemy, an enemy that has this intent in mind, to discredit and destroy that which God has created. Either through the experience of our own personal struggles or in seeing man struggle in all that is wrong with the world we should all be aware of the need to arouse an active remembering that man lives in an arena of spiritual warfare. In other words, we should not be surprised when our thoughts are “stolen” and understanding the purpose and tactic of our enemy helps us not to be discouraged when a battle has been lost.

4) Remain calm. This may be one of the most difficult hurdles facing us who live in an age of efficiency and achievement. A recent radio commercial for a home builder refers to the company's “get 'er done mentality.” This certainly is not a useful mentality in the arena of spiritual warfare. Success (or failure) that is self-perceived is a great enemy in this arena. This type of self-examination often leads to restlessness and/or distress. I would never contend, however, that we shouldn't establish expectations in our efforts to overcome sin. What each of us who have taken on the good fight of this arena must develop is the mature knowledge that without humility and a realistic approach we will assuredly be led only to further unwelcome disturbances of pride, anxiety, fear, and doubt. Here we are instructed to remain calm (which is obviously easier said than done). Maybe it would be better said that we have the permission to remain calm, which may help lighten the load of anxious expectations and help us to be patient within the time needed for real change (metonia) and healing. St. Herman continues in his letter to Ivanovich, “We ought to cloth ourselves in new desires, in a new love of the age to come But it is not possible to do this quickly.”

Beloved, be encouraged with these compassionate words and simply and consistently keep calling your mind back to faith, prayer and contemplation. Eventually, by the grace of God, our obedience to this discipline will bear the fruit of greater attentiveness, love, and freedom from those things which cause distraction and inner provocation. As your father in Christ I am always encouraged when I hear about “the trying.” May you be encouraged too.


Mission Monthly – August-September 2009

“The joy of this world is bitter. Woe to him who is seduced by it. As a boat is tossed by waves, so is my life convulsed by my misery. Vain joy captures it with the illusion of satisfaction. Be Thou my helmsman and steer my ship to Thy harbor in that great morning when the sentence unto eternity shall be pronounced.”

St. Ephraim the Syrian

Certainly everyone in this country knows that, “America was founded on hard work!” I remember my elders pointing me to this again and again when I was a young boy. Teachers and politicians, both yesterday and today, have emphasized this truth. There is no doubt that our American forefathers, pioneers, settlers, farmers, city dwellers and immigrants alike had hard lives. Family stories of hard work and struggle, from only one or two generations removed, amaze me with their examples of hardship and sacrifice. Why did these determined men and women give so much of themselves? To build a “better life” for themselves and for their children. Some would realize this dream within their own lifetimes, but more often than not the fruit of these sacrificial pursuits were left for their progeny.

I will never be heard criticizing our forbearers for their purpose in establishing a better future for themselves and for their children. I am a recipient of their efforts and I truly appreciate the world into which I was born, nearly 50 years ago. Yet it is not hard to see and discern that this “better life” pioneered for us is also a seductive and tempting one, especially for those who have never known real hardship and struggle. For younger generations, there is nothing greater than that which makes us “happy” and security and comfort are the norm. Those of us who have mostly known only ease of life find it hard to believe in anything that would go against satisfying our urges and gratifying our wants— for we have been taught that this is what defines a man and gives meaning to life!

It should come as no surprise that the topic of this meditation is one of my greatest concerns, not only as a priest but also as a husband and father. More specifically my concern is what I call “the spirituality of materialism.” I recently heard the word “spirituality” defined most excellently as “that which gives a man a sense of transcendence, of something greater than himself.” Therefore, the spirituality of materialism—when a man finds transcendence (something greater than himself) in that which is lesser, his material existence – could be the greatest of ironies. Maybe a simpler way of explaining this disorder is man confusing his physical life with his spiritual life. In wanting to make a better life for themselves and for their children our forbearers aimed at bettering man's physical state: easier accesses to food, greater income, safer homes and neighborhoods, convenience, better health care, free time, and so on; but often at the expense of “the one thing needful,” his relationship with God.

Fortunately or unfortunately I seem to be one of those folks whose body seems to be aging more rapidly as I approach fifty. My doctor professionally and politely explains that my knees and lower back are going through “degenerative changes.” These recent changes have provided me the opportunity to consider the body, and the soul, being reminded (especially every morning!) of the temporary nature of all things. The troparion for Righteous Women (i.e. St. Mary of Egypt) expresses so beautifully our Orthodox Christian view of the body and soul, “By example and precept thou didst teach us to ignore the body because it is perishable, and to attend to the concerns of the undying soul.” Indeed we are challenged by this world caught up in the pursuits of “vain joy.”

I chose this topic as an introduction and opportunity for contemplation while we journey through the present Dormition Fast. Like many characteristics of our Church's life, the summer fast is never an easy one: vacations and relaxation, get-togethers and cookouts—you name it, all are challenging to these brief two weeks of self-restraint (it is important to note that if at all possible we should try to avoid planning a vacation during the Dormition Fast). Yet what could be more important in our constant battle not to fall prey to the spirituality of materialism than remembering how much of our worldly satisfactions, more often than not, are truly an illusion. God guide us through this inner tension and help us to not be seduced by “the bitter fruit and vain joy of this world” and be drawn ever more deeply into the true and authentic joy of His Life, and the true delight of His Kingdom.


Mission Monthly – June-July 2009

“And they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.”

The Gospel of St. Luke 24:52-53

On the last Sunday of Pascha I mentioned how proud I am of our church family for the way joy has been expressed for the entire Pascha season. For me, as life returns to somewhat of a “normal” rhythm following Lent, Holy Week and Pascha, I have to ask myself what it is that gives us the environment of joyafter the first week or so of Pascha has passed, especially when so many of societies rhythms run against the Church's rhythms, and when there are so many distracting responsibilities to return to after the immediacy of the Feast.

These last two verses of the Gospel of St. Luke are very inspiring as the exemplary apostolic response to the Resurrection and Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus had been crucified and buried and the Apostles had spent forty days as witnesses to the risen Christ. Just prior to these verses Jesus “opened” the e's minds to understand the scriptures regarding the Christ, after which He “parted from them and was carried up into heaven.” We can only wonder at their response of great joy: it was such that it led them continually to the temple, and as we read in the first chapter of Acts, “All these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer” (v.14).

To what can we compare their joy? I recently saw the PBS American Experience special on the Kennedys. In the 1960's, America and the world were dealt three great blows which, at least in the eyes of the world, took the wind out of the sails of those working with hope and determination for peace and civil justice. Can we compare the assassinations of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy to that of the murder of Jesus? Of course not. But maybe through the unfolding events of those terrible years we can get a sense of how deflated the apostles may have felt when Jesus and all he stood for was seemingly taken from them. And maybe we can also sense their deep joy once the risen Christ restored their Hope!

I emphasize these swings of emotion to bring into view the need to examine our own sensibilities, and whether or not we recognize today the same unrelenting presence of social chaos faced by the Apostles, and whether or not we are truly seeking the One who can renew in us the same “great joy.”

There was a strange phenomenon which occurred in the parish this year following Pascha. While I am very proud of the beautiful and dedicated effort of our community during Lent and Holy Week, and while I experienced a sense of Paschal joy in my personal interactions with individuals in the days and weeks following the Feast, what I did not experience was what I expected might be an enthusiastic liturgical response to the Resurrection as described in the lives of the Apostles and followers of Jesus. Instead I was quite surprised by an immediate drop off in liturgical attendance beginning with the Bright Week Vesperal Liturgy and the Sunday of St. Thomas. While on subsequent Sundays during the Paschal season attendance did pick up, the weekday and Saturday services were startlingly sparse. Since then I have heard talk of illness, travel, and simply being exhausted. I guess I am pastorally concerned, but hopeful, that our Paschal joy will one day reflect more of a response similar to that of the Apostles; a response of more time spent in the “temple” blessing God, a response of a greater devotion to prayer; a response of refreshment rather than a response of exhaustion. If there is one thing I am sure of, the “great joy” of the Apostles was a vital reflection of their freedom from sin and the cares of this life, a freedom that only comes from a true and deep adoration of the resurrected Christ.

In a recent issue of Touchstone Magazine there was a letter to the editor whose author commented on how prior to the modern era life in the Church for the Christian was THE source of life, fellowship, anticipation and participation. And that since the advent of industrialization, modern technology and entertainment the Church, in its inability to “compete,” has become marginalized, old fashioned, an inconvenient obligation and, as many parents have heard coming from the mouths of their children, “boring.” This is a tragic transformation of Christian life, resulting from our culture of “enlightenment,” where men flee from the very things sought after by the most faithful of believers and vigorously pursue the very things the faithful of old sought to escape.

Beloved, thereis a source of joy and renewal and life available to us. The Apostles and followers of Jesus knew where to find it. As the months and seasons of our lives progress may we find in the expressed adoration of God the true and only source of “great joy,” and the will to immerse ourselves in it. Against all distraction and allure offered to us by a world consumed in its own consumption, our “return,” again and again, to the heavenly Jerusalem in the Temple of God's holiness, will become the greatest joy, refreshment and single-minded focus of our lives and, most importantly, of our faith and life in Jesus Christ!