The Third Sunday of Lent is called “The Veneration of the Cross.” At the Vigil of that day, after the Great Doxology, the Cross is brought in a solemn procession to the center of the church and remains there for the entire week-with a special rite of veneration following each service. It is noteworthy that the theme of the Cross which dominates the hymnology of that Sunday is developed in terms not of suffering but of victory and joy. More than that, the theme-songs (hirmoi) of the Sunday Canon are taken from the Paschal Service-“The Day of the Resurrection”-and the Canon is a paraphrase of the Easter Canon. Read more…
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.
“When you are wronged and your heart and feelings are hardened, do not be distressed, for this has happened providentially; but be glad and reject the thoughts that arise within you, knowing that if they are destroyed at the stage when they are only provocations, their evil consequences will be cut off; whereas if the thoughts persist the evil may be expected to develop.”
St. Mark the Ascetic
Everyone knows that pride is the root of every sin, but pride is an enemy of many differing forms that, more often than not, is very difficult to identify. It’s easy to confess the sin of pride, or at least the lack of humility, but because of the subtleties of pride and our inability or unwillingness to identify it and its disguises, we are left continually vulnerable to a sad recurrence of the same old struggles. There is one persistent sin that occurs in my life that I believe if I were to become even just a little more watchful of I might find myself at least occasionally ahead of “[our] adversary the devil [who] prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
What is this sin? It is that which arises in the thoughts, that when embraced gives birth to greater sins. The thoughts of judgment and hatred, of feeling wronged or jealous, of self-justification and self-pity, of anger and self-doubt, the thoughts of … (insert here). It seems to me that, more and more, men are becoming a people of the mind, no longer governed by absolutes but rather by thoughts and emotions. Intelligence and the volatility of our feelings are a vicious combination which can lead to all kinds of evil: evil against a society, against neighbor, and even against one’s own self – blindly and violently!
I am intrigued as to how this particular Trojan Horse has wormed its way into the very fabric of modern disposition. There isn’t anything new here but it does seem to present itself in a different way at this time in history. Could one source be progressive education? C.S. Lewis presented a good argument for this in his book, The Abolition of Man. Has man become so enamored with himself, his knowledge, his achievements and his potential, like Narcissus and his reflection in the pool, that he has forgotten to “man his post?” It seems that we’ve become so weighed down with ourselves that we’ve become low hanging fruit – easy pickings – for that “roaring lion.” Whatever poise any of us may possess seems precarious and subject at any given moment to collapse – at the moment of any random thought or feeling. How can it not be when I have been empowered to validate my every thought, etched in the very “correctness” of my own evolutionary development (?!).
Beloved in Christ, I would like to state clearly that our thoughts need not be our enemy. They are only part of who we are and while guided by them we should never be ruled by them. However, if we do not want to be ruled by them then we must take very seriously our life in Christ and His Holy Church. It requires of us discipline and a growing ability to see things in a different way; most especially, as St. Mark the Ascetic has said here, “providentially.” Divine Providence is the strangest of concepts to men who believe only in themselves; and only men who are willing to lower themselves from the heights of self-determination (and conceit) can ever hope to understand it. What might be the first clues that our thoughts are leading us down the pathway of evil?: when the thoughts pit man against God or brother against brother, which more often than not lead to the greatest heresy of all: Schism (division – separation from God, separation from our brother). There are, of course, many other clues, too many to enumerate here. A question is: How are we to see temptation in this context, or the wrong that I have been asked to endure, or the judgment I am convinced is correct, or the self-justification and self-pity that leads to isolation? Maybe a better question is: Will my faith carry me through any difficult and unendurable circumstance so that no evil may find its source in me? Like a cancer, early detection is the best way to stop the spread of provocation and ultimate consequence. Am I willing to diligently, humbly, prayerfully seek the virtue of early discernment and reject (cut off) the divisive intentions of the devil’s provocation? “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force” (Matthew 11:12). Beloved, may it be so! May we all strive to be more watchful over our thoughts!
“Do not ask for love from your neighbor, for if you ask and he does not respond you will be troubled. Instead show your love for your neighbor and you will be at rest, and so will bring your neighbor to love.”
St. Dorotheos of Gaza
Are we living in apocalyptic times? I’m sure many would at least be willing to reflect on the thought, as foreboding as it might be. I think about this as news updates are brought to us daily of the escalating tensions and violence between the nation of Israel and Hamas Islamic Resistance in Gaza. St. Dorotheos is said to be from Gaza. I do not know if the Gaza of his time is the same Gaza of today but I suspect it is at least similar. How we all wish that this great Desert Father could have even the smallest of influence on all those involved in this deeply troubled area of the world.
Having just returned from the 2014 Antiochian Clergy Symposium I can share with you that especially – though not exclusively – our clergy from the Middle East are deeply concerned about what is happening in Gaza, Syria, Iraq and the entire region. There was even the option of a daily seminar on this subject as part of our afternoon continuing clergy education. All three afternoons had maximum attendance! Obviously everyone is concerned. While there is incomprehensible complexity to Middle East politics and relations, nevertheless my simple (Dr. Seuss) “Who” brain looks at the above quote from St. Dorotheos and wonders, “Why not, why not, end the juggernaut?”
War! How utopian it is to think (fallen) humanity could actually be free from this horrific inhumanity! (I seem to remember on Star Trek’s “The Next Generation” Captain Jean-Luc Picard once announced that earth had ridden itself of war and greed alike. Gotta love TV, right?!) When considering the REAL state of the world, however, and the regular uprisings of conflict between peoples and nations, I often revisit the 4th chapter of the Letter of St. James: “What causes wars, and what causes fightings among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members? You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. Unfaithful creatures!”
I have a good friend from Palestine who grew up in the village of Nazareth. Years ago she told me that when she was young (the early 1960’s) Christians, Jews and Muslims all lived together in relative peace and harmony. From what I remember she also said it was after the Six Day Arab-Israeli war of 1967 when things began to change. I also recall a serious conversation with a Christian Lebanese man about the virtue of humility and the act of forgiveness, especially in relation to Israeli aggression. Like many from the region his family and town had been battered and gutted by war. In essence he would have nothing to do with the “weakness” of humility or forgiveness. Sadly, it’s a response I’ve heard many times since.
How can I comment on the experiences of others? I certainly will not judge or criticize while I sit comfortable and protected from the wages of war. It is also most difficult to defend these virtues – at least in worldly terms. Even two of the world’s greatest leaders of non-violence, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ghandi, were violently murdered. What are we to conclude? The example and sacrifice of Jesus and the principles of Christianity are as critically necessary and relevant as ever! And as we bring the discussion home from the horror of war to the conflicts within our own families, communities, workplaces, government, etc., what are we to do when facing the great demand for virtue?
The above teaching of St. Dorotheos is representative of the beauty and mystery of Christianity, which always instructs believers to be FIRST in showing honor to others – regardless what the other might deserve or respond. There is no question that each of us in our lives will face this most difficult of challenges. Let us pray that God help us to be ready when virtue demands – that we may choose the best of responses and witness to Love, and the Faith by which we name ourselves: Christian!
I will leave you with some lyrics from a current Contemporary Christian song entitled, “Forgiveness.”
It’s the hardest thing to give away, and the last thing on your mind today. It always goes to those that don’t deserve.
It’s the opposite of how you feel, when the pain they caused is just too real. It takes everything you have just to say the word.
Show me how to love the unlovable, show me how to reach the unreachable. Help me now to do the impossible… Forgiveness.
It’ll clear the bitterness away, it can even set a prisoner free. There is no end to what it’s power can do.
So, let it go and be amazed, by what you see through eyes of grace. THE PRISONER THAT IT REALLY FREES IS YOU.
I want to finally set it free, so show me how to see what Your mercy sees. Help me now to give what You gave to me. Forgiveness.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Christ is Risen! Every year as we read this Gospel, the Prologue of St. John, the first chapter, verses 1-17, I’m always struck by the fact that we’re not reading a Resurrection Gospel. You’d think tonight we’d read a Resurrection Gospel. Tonight, however, we celebrate something, in a way, before the Resurrection in order that we might understand the Resurrection, and have the reason to live the Resurrection; because if we do not understand who Jesus is then none of (what we do) makes sense at all. Isn’t that right? So in today’s Gospel we hear of the Word: the Word who was from the beginning; the Word who was with the Father; the Word who became flesh. The Word who came to fulfill the law and to give us grace and truth in order that we would follow Him in the way we must go if we want to attain life with Him – in this world and in eternity. When we understand this Word as the eternal Word of God, Jesus Christ incarnate, what we do here makes sense. What we do all year round makes sense. And what we do especially in our Lenten journey leading up to tonight makes sense! If we aren’t thinking about this on a regular basis it will be very easy to slip away: to slip away from faith; to slip away from the practice of the faith and to become confused.
We see in the world today a lot of confusion. Even in our churches there are people who don’t fully understand the life of the Church; and why? Because of not living it. When we’re not (in church) praying regularly, and in our homes praying, fasting, being charitable, reading the Scripture; when we don’t do these things we end up getting stuck in our own heads and often end up making Jesus after our own image, defining Him in a way that will make life more convenient. Well let me say this, life in Christ is not convenient! I think we all know this. It’s beautiful, but it’s certainly not convenient. There are boundaries. There are decisions to be made. There are protocols. There is truth; truth for one reason: to save us and to lead us to the Kingdom of God. Truth has lead us to this day, to this Resurrection: the one Resurrection for all time. This life is a life that compares to no other when we follow “the rules.” We have grace and we have truth, and we also have our weaknesses which may not allow us to follow the rules as well as we should; but let’s not deny the fact that there are those things that are given to us to guide us into the way that we should go. We should rejoice in them instead of often fleeing from them. They’re not scary. In fact I contend, and any priest who would stand here would tell you, if you follow the guidelines of the Holy Spirit given in the Church you are going to find a life unlike anything you can imagine for yourself. Shall I say that again? You are going to find a life for yourself greater than anything you can imagine for yourself! We have to trust it. We have to trust God: trust Him that He has given us His Church, His standards of life, His morality, His ethics, His theology, His praxis, His application of faith. Trust Him. If we do these things, as St. Nikolai Velomirovic said, “If you follow the commandments of God you will never doubt because there will be fruit on the tree, and it will taste beautiful.” We have to trust God. And when we do that what do we find? We find our true selves.
Recently I read to the parish a small section from Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s “Great Lent,” called “A Lenten ‘Style of Life,’” where he described beautifully the discipline of fasting. I recommend it for everyone. It’s very short, maybe 20 minutes of reading. I’m not going to go through it all now but let me sum it up. He said, “The reason why we deny ourselves food is so that we can learn to live without it. When Jesus was tempted by the Devil in the wilderness after He had fasted forty days, the Devil said “Turn these stones to bread.” How did Jesus respond? “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” How beautiful it is for us to know that man does not live by bread alone! For this reason alone we should fast. But even beyond this Fr. Schmemann adds “… and when we deny ourselves – especially the things we love the most – how much sweeter they will taste when we allow ourselves to partake of them again?” Fasting allows us to gain an appreciation for things. We gain an appreciation for life. We gain an appreciation for God. And in quieting ourselves: turning down the television and maybe off for a while, turning down the radio or not even turning it on in the car, turning off the computer and staying off the internet, staying off the Facebook, staying off theTwitter (we don’t have to tell everybody what we’re thinking – not everybody cares!) we quiet the inner man. This is a very difficult but important thing. I remember a woman I knew years ago. She was a “go to it” person. She was lovely and one of the best women I’ve ever met. She’s probably in her late 70’s now. Boy could she work – all day! She had her job, then she’d come home to clean, cook, serve, and then do more stuff—every day! One time I asked her, “Why don’t you just sit down for a minute and enjoy the day?” All she said was, “I just can’t stop because when I do I have to listen to my own thoughts.” She was very honest with me. All I could say was, “Well, I’m sure those thoughts aren’t too bad. You should go ahead and try it sometime because you might just enjoy life a little bit more.” It’s essential for us to understand silence. We even have a tradition of silent prayer in the Church. It’s so important for us to be able to hear other things than the noise of the world and the noise that’s going on in our own heads. And between these two actions (fasting and silence) Fr. Schmemann said, “If we’re lucky and with God’s grace we might even come to know ourselves a little bit better; and, even more important, we might even come to know God a little bit better too.” What a blessing.
Well, here we are. We’re celebrating the Feast of Feasts. And while we can’t regret what we may have missed (this past Lent,) we can reflect on what we can do next. Tonight we’re going to celebrate. Whether we came from the first or the eleventh hour, it’s time to celebrate. There will be time to work again. I say these things tonight as a note of encouragement because when we have the Word of God in our midst and we know Him and He really makes a difference in our lives; and we take that difference and apply it in the life of His Church, doing the things He asks us to do: following the commandments and following the disciplines of the Church, we’re going to find something. We’re going to find something great. We will find life in this world unlike anything we can imagine, and most importantly we will find the resurrected Christ and we will live with Him forever. Christ is Risen!