Archive | Meditations

Mission Monthly – March 2008

“If man cannot go to the desert, then the desert can come to man.”

Carlo Carretto, The Desert in the City

About a year ago Dr. Bradley Nassif, professor of New Testament at North Park University in Chicago, came to UW-Madison to give a talk to the OCF entitled, “Desert Spirituality for the City.” Dr. Nassif spoke at length about deficiencies within the historical church which led to the rise of monasticism in Palestine and the deserts of Egypt. Instead of a more inspiring and practical instruction about the lives of those who fled to the desert, we heard about men who were simply escaping an “increasingly secularized Church” following the Edict of Milan and the legalization of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine in 313. Historians have shown that early monasticism was indeed a movement stirred by (St.) Constantine’s Edict, but it cannot be underemphasized that the great monastic elders fled to the desert motivated even more so by an uncompromising intent to personally respond to the challenge of the Gospel!

To many today life in the desert, or monasticism, is as great a mystery as ever. If one is able get beyond the temptation to judge whether or not the “desert” is a place where the Gospel can actually be lived, the next temptation might be to think of the desert as a self-determined experience, subject to our own ambitions, as if God were simply a broker of “higher understanding.” The spirituality of modern man and the alluring philosophies of the New Age demonstrate this by making “spiritual experience” all about “me.” This human-centered attitude would be considered sacrilegious to the desert dwellers where God alone is the One Who is worshipped, adored, and served with complete self-abandonment! The desert dweller did not flee to the desert merely to escape nominalism or to find knowledge or self-fulfillment but rather, with humility, to die to himself, often times with ruthless and “violent” sacrifice (consider the great repentance of St. Mary of Egypt), “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force” (Matt. 11:12). This extreme humility is a vexing dilemma to the modern man of high (or low) self-esteem, where humility is either a foreign concept or a contrived self-depreciation. Humility in the desert is the complete opposite; it is God-centered; it is the experience of being loved, and in so being, learning to respond as an unworthy slave to a benevolent master who treats his slave as a friend. It is rooted in the deepest understanding of the words of our Lord, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me For what can a man give in return for his life?”(Mark 8:34-37).

What is it about the desert that provides the setting for such uncompromising courage? Some might say it’s the solitude and others the silence. Solitude and silence, but especially silence, also perplex modern man who not only craves distraction but also considers it normal: in our homes, in our cars, at our workplace, in the store, and now on our “person.” Where is our solitude? Where is our silence? Silencing the mind and heart, and the mouth, and time spent alone with God are critical to successful battle in the arena of spiritual warfare. For example, the saying “If a man cannot understand my silence he will never understand my words” might very well sum up how man is to seek God.

The journey of Great Lent is a journey to the desert; it is a journey leading each of us to grow in the challenge of our own uncompromising response to the Gospel, principally in preparation to enter into and celebrate the Death and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ but also for the whole of our lives. But since we cannot actually go to the desert the question remains, “How are we to bring the desert to us?” Maybe the answer lies in realizing that the desert in reality dwells silently in each of us, arousing a man’s conscience to “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”(Mark 12:16). In this way maybe we can reduce the plurality of our lives; and with single-minded conviction arise moment by moment from our spiritual dullness, bless ourselves with the sign of the Cross and say, “Help me, Lord, today, to make a good beginning.”


Mission Monthly – February 2008

“If a deformed and extremely ugly soul has suddenly willed to do so, it can change itself, it can ascend to the summit of beauty and again become comely and graceful; if it again grows careless, it can again be swept down into the utmost ugliness.”

St. John Chrysostom’s Baptismal Instruction

Freedom is a topic on which I rarely tire contemplating. I am deeply grateful for the freedom our American forefathers have established. It is a freedom paid for with generations of conviction and blood, and I can barely fathom any other way of life. Despite all the past and present errors of our government and institutions, American citizenship is still one of the most widely sought after privileges in the world. And why is this? Because of freedom!

Here is a brief description of those who sat near me on the airplane during my recent return trip from Texas: a man covered with tattoos and adorned with earrings; two men in camouflage who talked hunting and sports the entire flight; a girl who looked like she was returning from Woodstock; a man who looked the part of a modern day socialist, who uttered no words while keeping his nose in a book about the Russian revolution; an obvious weightlifter; a couple who did not stop talking about their pleasure trip to Corpus Christi; several business people who kept their eyes glued to their computer screens; and me, an Orthodox priest. Ah, freedom; and this is the country we live in, Christian and non-Christian alike. Our greatest blessing, however, is the freedom to worship God, or not, without interference; a freedom which should never be taken for granted! Which begs the questions, “What, as an Orthodox Christian, am I doing with my freedom, religious or otherwise?” and “How am I to understand the spirituality of my free will within the context of a free society?”

St. John has placed here an amazingly high value on free will and freedom of the soul! In saying that a soul can “change itself” he in no way diminishes the role God’s grace plays in this transformation. In seeking a broader understanding of St. John through his writings I believe we can say that he would never teach anything contrary to this; rather, God’s grace is a basic assumption. However, as Dr. Paul Harkins, translator of Chrysostom’s Baptismal Instruction, states, “In many places Chrysostom maintains the freedom of man and the primacy of the will and free choice in the work of conversion and salvation.”We see this emphasized in a homily St. John preached during Holy Week. He declared that too many catechumens hesitate to take the step and receive baptism saying, “If God wills it, He will persuade me and I will be converted.” To this St. John replied,“You are right to call on the will of God. This is clear: He wills all men to be saved, but He forces no one. Hence, it depends on you to see that God’s will is fulfilled.”

Ultimately my thoughts turn to the all-important point of how each of us must choose to choose the process of transformation and enter seriously, strictly, and joyfully, into believing the dogmas of the Church, fixing them fast in our minds, that faith may be manifest in us, shining in the brilliance of our best manner of Christian life. We must all admit that certainly there are times when there appears to be a disconnect between what we profess to believe and our actual manner of living. This of course is nothing other than sin; however, the disconnect that exists today goes even deeper. It is such that even though one’s mind may understand the rational difference between right and wrong, truth and falsehood, light and dark, one’s heart may be far from the readiness to make Godly choices. It is this lack of readiness that I fear most in my life, in all our lives, as we are faced day after day, hour after hour, with the false notion that there are no boundaries to our freedom and that we will be fulfilled by all manner of vain and sensual pursuits. How can a sinful soul, even with a rational understanding of what is good, ever “change itself” when it is surrounded by and maybe even immersed in vain sensuality? I am always amazed when I hear of an alcoholic who just decides and succeeds to quit drinking, or a smoker who just decides and succeeds to quit smoking, or an obese person who just decides and succeeds to quit over-eating. Could we say this is possible for overcoming any particular sin? I believe it is, but it is me, us, who have to choose to do so!

Some might argue that the societal freedom we enjoy is detrimental to the soul’s free ability to choose a Godly way of life. Sadly we see this played out more often than not in the lives of today’s youth when they reach the age of independence and fight more to preserve their freedom to do what they want to do: be with friends, go to movies, play video games, talk on the phone, hang out, rather than preserve the Godly lives their parents have tried to instill in them throughout their childhood. But in all fairness it is not just the youth; adults struggle too in choosing the strict courses of faith. The old saying, “You are what you eat.” can be applied to all areas of our lives; “We are what we choose.” The fact is that we are free and that God forces no one! His will has already been fulfilled in the sense that all that is necessary for our salvation (transformation): His death, His Resurrection, His grace, His Church, has been made available to us. If this does not truly persuade us then our societal freedom is truly a detriment and we are in trouble, because now is the time for us to care—and to choose!


Mission Monthly – January 2008

“If there were less of what seems like ease in our lives they would tell more for Christ and souls We profess to be strangers and pilgrims, seeking after a country of our own, yet we settle down in the most un-stranger-like fashion, exactly as if we were quite at home and meant to stay as long as we could. I don't wonder apostolic miracles have died. Apostolic living certainly has.”

Amy Carmichael, Missionary to India, +1951

It has been noted to me that there is a specific definition of the word “Apostle” and what it means to be one. It is an important teaching which defines the Lord's meaning essentially as membership amongst our Lord's twelve Apostles and the Apostle Paul. Exploring this definition can help us understand the continuity of the Church's apostolic ministry. Each time we recite the Nicene Creed we proclaim our Church to be, “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.” We proclaim to believe in the Church's authority in the practice of Apostolic Succession, the authority of the Lord's Apostles passed on from one bishop to the next in unbroken succession through the laying on of hands AND the spirit of sanctity accompanying the life of a true shepherd of the Church.

“An apostle is one who's sent” says the refrain of a children's song written by Kh. Gigi (Baba) Shadid. This accurate definition of the Greek word “apostolos” brings to mind the notion of the apostolic spirit of “being sent.” A more complete definition would also include that an Apostle is one who is sent by the risen Lord to “make disciples” and to “baptize” (Matthew 28:18ff). This is the calling of the “Apostles,” but what does it mean to be “apostolic” in the 21st century and to have the spirit of the apostolic ministry present in the ministry of the Church and in the lives of each of Her members?

I recently read that there are two fundamental characteristics of an Apostle's life: 1) love for God; and 2) a truly tender care for one's neighbor. These characteristics are demonstrated clearly in the defining moments when the risen Lord thrice asked the Apostle Peter, “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me more than these?” Upon Peter's affirming response the Lord definitively commanded, “Tend my sheep” (John 21:15-17).

“Do you love me more than these?” is THE question that has resounded through the centuries, as it did when it was first asked of St. Peter, like roaring thunder. For St. Peter it was the opportunity to free himself from the three-fold guilt he incurred when he thrice denied Christ. For each of us it is a bold reminder of what it means to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ, and the importance of our response in carrying on the apostolic ministry of the Church.

I find this to be one of the most trying facets of my life as an Orthodox Christian and Priest. I suspect each of us, assuming one is even thinking about life and faith in this way, and no matter what his vocation, would agree. How do we truly love and appreciate this life we have been given and yet not allow that love to eclipse the love we have for the One who has given us this life? Fundamentally Orthodox Christians are challenged by this question at virtually every moment of our lives. Starting with our love for God as expressed in the priority we make for worship, personal prayer, scripture and devotional reading, stewardship, and the turning away from every soul defiling influence; and finishing with our love for our neighbor as expressed in fellowship and in the way we serve others by putting first something other than ourselves (we can fill in the blank regarding the circumstances of our own life).

Amy Carmichael has made a very pointed observation here. The ease of life that has permeated modern society, including the Church, has greatly diminished the apostolic image of Christ for the world, as the power of the apostolic message has been made lukewarm at best by men's abandonment of the pursuit of heaven (or at best mingling a tacit pursuit of heaven with a vigorous pursuit of personal interest). Probably one of the saddest developments of this failure is that some Christians even equate God's blessings with the acquisition of material prosperity. I especially grieve for our youth who, while being presented with a skeleton of faith, have also been allowed (and maybe even encouraged) to mingle with the false standard of living proffered by the materialistic and sensual images of American society. Is it any wonder, as I mentioned in a recent sermon, that statistics show—even in our Orthodox churches—that only 1 in 10 of our children remain in the church (let alone take responsibility for the apostolic ministry of the Church) once they reach college age. Why should they when they've been allowed (again, “encouraged”) to feel “quite at home” in the world and have been shown little by way of apostolic conviction for living as “strangers and pilgrims.”

If we are concerned about the witness of “apostolic living” in the world today where are we to begin but with ourselves? There are many possibilities for change and many sacrifices to be made. Beloved, this should be our joy as disciples of the risen Christ and should in no way be considered burdensome. We are especially privileged to be recipients of the fullness of Christ's apostolicChurch, and we are responsible for what we have been given. I do not believe that apostolic miracles and living have fully died; but if by chance we think we love God, and love not; if we think we tenderly care for our neighbor, and care not; if we think we have embraced the apostolic ministry, and embrace not; let us now rededicate ourselves to a TRULY apostolicway of life.


Mission Monthly – December 2007

The Nativity Sermon of St. John Chrysostom

BEHOLD a new and wondrous mystery. My ears resound to the God's song, piping no soft melody, but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn. The Angels sing. The Archangels blend their voice in harmony. The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise. The Seraphim exalt His glory. All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He Who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below; and he that was lowly is by divine mercy raised.

Bethlehem this day resembles heaven; hearing from the stars the singing of angelic voices; and in place of the sun, enfolds within itself on every side, the Sun of justice. And ask not how: for where God wills, the order of nature yields. For He willed, He had the power, He descended, He redeemed; all things yielded in obedience to God. This day He Who is, is Born; and He Who is, becomes what He was not. For when He was God, He became man; yet not departing from the Godhead that is His. Nor yet by any loss of divinity became He man, nor through increase became He God from man; but being the Word He became flesh, His nature, because of impassability, remaining unchanged.

And so the kings have come, and they have seen the heavenly King that has come upon the earth, not bringing with Him Angels, nor Archangels, nor Thrones, nor Dominations, nor Powers, nor Principalities, but, treading a new and solitary path, He has come forth from a spotless womb.

Since this heavenly birth cannot be described, neither does His coming amongst us in these days permit of too curious scrutiny. Though I know that a Virgin this day gave birth, and I believe that God was begotten before all time, yet the manner of this generation I have learned to venerate in silence and I accept that this is not to be probed too curiously with wordy speech. For with God we look not for the order of nature, but rest our faith in the power of Him who works. What shall I say to you; what shall I tell you? I behold a Mother who has brought forth; I see a Child come to this light by birth. The manner of His conception I cannot comprehend. Nature here rested, while the Will of God labored. O ineffable grace! The Only Begotten, Who is before all ages, Who cannot be touched or be perceived, Who is simple, without body, has now put on my body, that is visible and liable to corruption. For what reason? That coming amongst us he may teach us, and teaching, lead us by the hand to the things that men cannot see. For since men believe that the eyes are more trustworthy than the ears, they doubt of that which they do not see, and so He has deigned to show Himself in bodily presence, that He may remove all doubt.

Christ, finding the holy body and soul of the Virgin, builds for Himself a living temple, and as He had willed, formed there a man from the Virgin; and, putting Him on, this day came forth; unashamed of the lowliness of our nature'. For it was to Him no lowering to put on what He Himself had made. Let that handiwork be forever glorified, which became the cloak of its own Creator. For as in the first creation of flesh, man could not be made before the clay had come into His hand, so neither could this corruptible body be glorified, until it had first become the garment of its Maker.

What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of days has become an infant. He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men. He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infants bands. But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness.

For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit, that He may save me.

Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels.

Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh. He did not become God. He was God. Wherefore He became flesh, so that He Whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. He was placed in a manger, so that He, by whom all things arc nourished, may receive an infant's food from His Virgin Mother. So, the Only Begotten Son, Who is before all ages, as an infant at the breast, nestles in the virginal arms, that the Magi may more easily see Him. Since this day the Magi too have come, and made a beginning of withstanding tyranny; and the heavens give glory, as the Lord is revealed by a star.

For this is all my hope!This is my life! This is my salvation! This is my pipe, my harp! And bearing it I come, having from its power received the gift of speech, I too, with the angels sing: “Glory to God in the Highest,”and with the shepherds: “and on earth peace to men of good will.”


Mission Monthly – November 2007

“Don’t Pre-celebrate Christmas.”

Fr. Andrew George (of the Greek Archdiocese)

The Nativity Fast (Advent Season), which begins for us on November 15 (November 28 old style), is a time for anticipating the “Good News” of the Lord’s Birth. As with all things in life, Scripture reminds us that we must be careful to be “in the world, but not of the world.” This is especially true of the celebration of Christmas. Many lament that the stores are decorated for Christmas from the end of October—an example of the overstressing and “early-stressing” of this great Christian Holy Day. But what do we do in our homes? I have noticed that on the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving, people begin to put up their Christmas trees and lights.

Our Orthodox Advent tradition gives us some guidelines of which many of us, perhaps, are not aware. Within this 40-day preparation period, a slow progression of events unfolds. This is seen in the general attitude, hymnology, prayers, and fasting practices which begin to intensify on the Feast of St. Nicholas (Dec. 6) and progress through the feasts of St. Spyridon (Dec. 12), St. Herman (Dec. 13), Prophet Daniel (Dec 17), and St. Ignatius (Dec. 20). This last feast is specifically called “the day of preparation.” What do you think this tells us? Add to this the tradition of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” that begins on Christmas Day and runs to January 5, the day before Theophany, the next Great Feast. The “food fast” is most intense during the 12 days preceding Christmas, and there is no fasting during the 12 days after Christmas, not even on Wednesday or Friday! Again, what do you think this tells us?

It is interesting to note that, historically, we do not have an exact date for Jesus’ birth. The date of His Nativity was specifically selected by the early Church to coincide with pagan celebrations held in late December. These celebrations were riotous and foolish in nature, unbecoming for a follower of Christ. Thus, this date had a dual purpose: (1) to mark the Lord’s coming to earth as a man, and (2) to do it at a time which would help defeat an attitude and lifestyle which went against the Lord’s teachings. The early Church leaders knew that these Christians struggled with the temptation to return to their former ways. Once again, what would you think this tells us?

The Orthodox tradition is clearly not to “pre-celebrate” Christmas, but rather to withhold the celebration until the designated time. Once it arrives, we are to celebrate it joyously, not with overly riotous activity as did the pagans. Some 40 or 50 years ago here in America, people decorated their Christmas trees on Christmas Eve. Slowly, through the influence of merchants and media, we started to put up our decorations and trees earlier and earlier each year. As a result, we take them down earlier and earlier, not waiting for the Theophany observances of January 5-7, which are specifically part of the 12 day cycle beginning of Christmas.

Every year, there are more and more parties held during the height of the Christmas Fast, instead of during the festive period from December 25—January 7. On the day after Christmas, we hear people say, “Christmas is over,” and the Christmas trees are put out on the curb. Since they have pre-decorated and pre-celebrated and feasted, in their minds, “it is over”—when really, it should be just beginning.

I offer the following practical applications of our Orthodox theology and practice:

  • Do decorate, but don’t pre-decorate. Use the December 6-20 guide as a starting point.
  • Do celebrate, but don’t pre-celebrate, use the December 25-January 5 timeframe for your festivities.

The Scriptures instruct us: “In all things, be not like the pagans, but rather calm, joyful in praise, and giving of love to glorify Christ who came for us.” Since we Christians are called to be “in the world, but not of the world,” we are to transform the world and not have the secular world transform us. Secularism has crept into our Christmas observances. It is up to us to purify the celebration. This begins with our families, our households, doing the more proper and fitting things and, by example, teaching others to do likewise. I urge you to plan for a Christmas observance that will hold true to our Orthodox view and pattern for celebration.