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John 5:1-15
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus asks the paralyzed man, “Do you want to be made whole, healthy, well?” The sick man answers Him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am struggling to get myself down into the water, someone else always gets in before me.” What this means is that year after year this poor, sick man is brought or somehow drags himself to this pool, and year after year he is disappointed. Why does he keep coming back? Is he insane, according to the popular saying, doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result? To understand his words, we first have to understand the man. St John Chrysostom helps us by asking: “What could be more sad than these circumstances? Do you see his heart, broken due to long sickness? Do you see how all violence within him is subdued? He doesn’t curse his situation. He doesn’t complain about his lot in life as many often do. He didn’t get angry at the question, nor did he say, ‘Have you come to mock me and all of us here with your question whether I desire to be made whole?’ No, not at all, but he replied gently, with great mildness, "Yes, Lord." He did not know who it was that asked him, he did not know that it would be He that would heal him, but he mildly relates all the circumstances and asks nothing further, as though he were speaking to a physician, and desired merely to tell the story of his sufferings” (Homilies on the Gospel of John, NPNF, edited by me).
So, why is this the case? What is it, about this paralyzed man, that makes him so remarkable? What is it about this man, that keeps him coming back, year after year? Answer: It is his faith in the miracle. Which miracle? Is it the miracle of healing brought by an angel? Yes, of course, but more importantly, he believes that if THAT miracle can happen, then a bigger miracle, a personal miracle, can also happen – a miracle for him. God is bigger than Bethesda’s pool. God is mightier than an angel’s touch. God is stronger than any men needed to lift him and put him in the pool. The paralytic believes that “where God wills, the order of nature is overruled, for He does whatever He wishes” as St. Andrew of Crete says. The paralytic is waiting for his own miracle. You might be surprised at this, but even the icon placed here for veneration testifies to the point. Now I know that most of you don’t read Greek, but at the top of the icon it says “Christ Heals the Paralytic.” Most of them have this at a title. But at the bottom it says “The Fourth Sunday of Pascha, the miracle of the Paralytic.” That’s right, the miracle of the paralytic!
Belief in miracles is fundamental to our Christian faith. Which miracles, you might ask? How about the miracle of Creation, the parting of the Red Sea, the bush that burned yet was not consumed? How about the miracle of God taking flesh and dwelling among us, the raising of Lazarus, the resurrection of Christ from the dead, His ascension into heaven? Don’t we believe in all of these things? We do! But we also know that these miracles go against all worldly logic, all earthly wisdom. For a believer, though, worldly, fleshly, and fallen logic have no place when it comes to divine things. St. Nektarios of Aegina said: “Miracles are not impossible from a logical standpoint, and right reason does not deny them. Natural laws do not have the claim to be the only ones, nor are they threatened with being overturned by the appearance of other laws, supernatural ones, which also are conducive to the development and furtherance of creation… Miracles are a consequence of the Creator’s love for his creatures.” Also, St. Augustine says: “Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature.” And I also like this quote from the Synodikon of Orthodoxy from the first Sunday of Great Lent: “To them who do not accept with a pure and simple faith and with all their soul and heart the extraordinary miracles of our Saviour and God, and of the Most Holy Theotokos who without stain gave birth to Him, and of the other saints, but who attempt by sophistic demonstrations and words to traduce them as being impossible, or to misinterpret them according to their own way of thinking, and to present them according to their own opinion, Anathema! Anathema! Anathema!” (Το Συνοδικόν της Ορθοδοξίας)
Miracles are not myths, they are not fairy tales. Miracles are not the pious imaginings of unsophisticated illiterates. They are real. We don’t need to explain them away. We don’t need to be embarrassed about recounting them. We don’t need to re-write them in order to make them more “palatable” for a skeptical, cynical, and fallen world. We need to confess them. Miracles are the reason that many came to believe in Christ, and miracles are the reason that many gave their lives for Christ. Miracles are an important part of the fabric of the Gospel. Why? Because they always point to something bigger than themselves. The late and saintly Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas wrote: “Miracles are signs that point to something – a truth – far greater and more important than the acts themselves, the restoration of all things to their pristine state, the way things were supposed to be, or should have developed, if men had obeyed God’s will in the first place” (The Miracles of Christ, pg 3-4).
Fr. Luke Veronis, in a moving sermon on the miracle-working and myrrh-streaming icon “Kardiotisa” located in Taylor, Pennsylvania (a copy of which is hanging right here in our church), concluded by saying: “Our God is a God of wonders and miracles. He is not bound by the very laws of nature which He Himself has established. Sometimes in our contemporary, secular and materialistic world we try to insist that science and reason are the only source of truth. The Church honors and appreciates science and reason, yet we know that the Creator of all stands above all. We can never try to limit or keep God confined within our own boundaries. The miracle of the Kardiotisa icon is just one small example of the unfathomable mysteries of life and of the Creator of Life, God Himself! Sometimes we can only observe in awe and wonder, and give glory to God for the way He reveals His majesty!”
The paralytic waited for God’s miracle, patiently, with faith and hope. He should inspire us today to follow his example. God loves us more than we love ourselves. He always wants to heal us, but the most important healing is the of our souls. The flesh passes away. God always hears us. He may answer today, or He may answer in 38 years. His timing is always perfect. God always wants what is best for us, best for our life; for our eternal life. The miracle of the raising of the paralytic today was not the most important miracle described in today’s Gospel, it was the encounter with Christ. The paralytic met God face to face, and today we sing together with him: “Praise God in His saints, praise Him in the firmament of His power. Praise Him for His mighty acts, praise Him according to the multitude of His greatness” (Psalm 150 LXX). Amen.

Reflection for THOMAS SUNDAY
Reflection written by Ever-memorable Archbishop Dmitri (Royster) of Dallas
(Edited for space and a teensy-weensy bit for clarity)

When the disciples had gathered on the new Passover (Pascha), the Lord’s Day or Resurrection Day, Jesus entered the room where they were — "the doors being shut … for fear of the Jews" — stood in the midst of them and showed them His hands and side. Christ then greeted them with that salutation, retained by the Church through the ages, with which the priest greets the faithful at each of the important parts of the Divine Liturgy and other services: "Peace be unto you."....Continuing, we are told that the apostles "were glad when they saw the Lord." Once more Christ’s words prior to His Passion are brought to mind: "I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no one can take from you." (John 16: 22) This joy that our Lord promised His disciples is, like peace, that which is experienced in the Divine Presence. It is the same joy felt by Christians after all these centuries when they participate, through the divine worship of the Church, in the blessings of the Kingdom to come. Particularly in the Eucharist an almost inexplicable joy is experienced in an encounter with the risen Lord, in communion with His Holy Body and Blood. "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." (Matthew 18:20) "He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him." (John 6:56) In the Eucharistic gathering Christ’s glory is revealed to His disciples and they are thus strengthened and confirmed in their faith in the promises of Christ, ready to return to the world from which they were called out. "But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light." (1Peter 2:9) (The Greek, “ecclesia,” from which we get the word Church means, called out.) Let’s continue:

Now "Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came," and when the others told Him, "we have seen the Lord." He, responded, "Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe." (John 20: 24-25) Thomas is like so many of us in that he would require tangible, visible proof that Christ is really active in the lives of His people, caring for creation, and that He was what He claimed to be: "He that hath seen me, hath seen the Father." (John 14:9) Some today desire generally that kind of evidence even for God’s existence, "irrefutable" evidence making it impossible for man not to believe. That type of unquestionable, undeniable proof, we can say, will be put forth only at the end of this age, when "the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him" (Matthew 25:31). At that time it will indeed be quite impossible for anyone (although some may try in vain) to deny "the King of kings and the Lord of lords." (Deuteronomy 10:17; Revelation 19:16)
God’s most important gift to man, that which identifies him as a creature made in the image of God, is free will. The Lord honors this gift. He loves man and would have man love Him freely in return. God, therefore, will not force man to accept Him, but would have him approach his Creator in faith and trust. We would do well to remember the example of St. John the Baptist. He bore witness to his Lord saying, "Behold, the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29) Yet after being arrested, in a moment of hesitation or doubt, the Forerunner sent his disciples to Christ asking, "Are you he that we expected, or should we look for another?" (Matthew 11:3) At first glance this question seems strange, indeed contradictory, for "the greatest born of women" to be asking. It is thus important to note that Jesus does not seek to answer it in some "definitive" way, irrefutable in John’s mind. Rather He responds in terms of an invitation, still beckoning His servant to place his trust freely in Him: "Go and relate to John again those things which you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he, who does not stumble because of me." (Matthew 11:4-6)
Near the end of the Gospel passage, after Thomas exclaims, "My Lord and my God," Jesus says to him, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed." Faith: this is the way that God would have us come to Him. "Faith," says St. Paul, "is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). People sometimes lament the fact that they did not live in Apostolic times when it would have been possible to see for themselves and talk face to face with the Incarnate Lord. In the minds of many, this would constitute tangible proof of God’s existence and alleviate any doubts concerning Christ. But would it? Israel was prepared for almost two thousand years for the coming of the Messiah. Miracles were performed by Him in the peoples’ midst. Yet, in the end, those who heard and saw Jesus for themselves wound up shouting, "Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him." Only a few individuals stood with Him at the foot of the Cross. One really has to wonder seriously if we would have been any different given the chance. For regardless of how and when the Lord chooses to reveal Himself it is always possible, in freedom and because of sin, to explain away that revelation.

A primary emphasis here is that the historical period in which one exists makes no difference as far as one’s relationship to Christ is concerned and his or her ability to know the Truth and live by faith. We have the mystical Body of Christ, the Church’s sacramental, liturgical life, and the Lord’s promise to be with us always. We have "received the Heavenly Spirit," and are blessed with the examples, testimonies and presence of countless saints who have gone on before us. We are literally living, right now if you will, in Apostolic times. So it seems as though we are missing the mark if we begin to demand, from God or from ourselves, objective, factual knowledge in terms of "proof," before we can come to faith. At some point a "leap of faith," will be required, for as mentioned above, so-called concrete evidence can always be discarded if that is what is desired. On the other side of that "leap," though, is the knowledge that we all seek. Once there, there is no lack of proof. But without this faith no amount of knowledge or evidence will suffice. There will always be room for doubt, and opportunities for man in his "wisdom" to deny what is so plain and simple to all who have truly found the narrow path that leads to life. "Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed."

Dear Brothers and sisters! Today our spiritual and physical atmosphere has changed, hasn’t it? We are standing in a new reality, a new location. We are standing on the Mount of Olives. It is warm, it is Springtime. The winter darkness, the clouds, and the rain of the Great Fast are behind us. The time for repentance, ascesis, and self-reflection is over. If we are prepared, good! It means that we have become disciples, good and faithful servants, and we are invited to be with Christ and to accompany Him down the mountain, into the Holy City, and into the Temple. If we are not prepared, then we will find ourselves outside of the bridal chamber of Holy Week and Pascha. The Bridegroom will be there, inside, but we will not. The Bride, the Church, will be there, but we will remain outside, by our own choice, by our own inattention, bereft of the oil of the virtues, and bereft of grace. The past six weeks we have called “Lent.” It’s an old Anglo-Saxon word meaning “to lengthen” or “to make longer.” The days of Spring, the days of Lent, grow longer, and the sun grows warmer. On the Feast of the Forty Holy Martyrs we remembered that the skylarks return to Russia at this time because the earth grows warmer, and in Northern California the lizards emerge from their winter repose. Nature awakens from its cold sleep, and hopefully our hearts, too, have thawed and come back to life. We need to be alive, awake, and alert, full of the warmth of faith and full of the Holy Spirit because now we go to be with Christ, to drink from the cup that He drinks from, and to be baptized in the baptism with which He will be baptized; the cup of suffering and the baptism into death (See Mark 10:38).
Yesterday and this morning we sang, "Like the children with the palms of victory, we cry out to Thee O vanquisher of death: Hosanna in the Highest, blessed is He that comes in the Name of the Lord!” What are these palms? What are these branches, these pussy willows? They are symbols, they are signs. Signs of what? Signs of victory. What victory? The victory of Life over death, of resurrection over corruption, of Christ over the grave. The palms symbolize the People of God, and the pussy willows symbolize Spring and the rebirth of Creation. We wave them because we believe in the promises that they symbolize. I pray that all of us, young and old, rich and poor, great and small, become childlike in innocence, that God may empower us also to make such a bold demonstration of our faith!
The Feast of the Lord’s entry into Jerusalem, Palm Sunday, is a feast of joy – joy in the Promises of God, as I said before. But it is the joy that comes just before the most fearsome tribulations – the Betrayal, the arrest, the fake trial, the mocking, spitting and scourging. It comes before the scattering of the disciples, the jabbing crown of thorns (the relic of which was recently and courageously rescued from the burning Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris), the excruciating pain of the nails, more humiliations, and eventual voluntary death. But do you know what? These were God’s promises too, weren’t they? Jesus predicted everything that would happen to Him, much of it already alluded to in the Prophets. In many ways, Palm Sunday, Passion Week, and Pascha are a reflection of the life of every Christian.
Are we up to the task of walking with Christ this Holy Week? Fr. Theophan Whitfield has suggested Ten Things for us to do, in order to fully acquire the great grace that is there for the taking in Holy Week. You can read the full text on the OCA website, but here they are in brief: (1) Go to as many services as you can. If you can’t go to every service, set aside time to read prayerfully through through the ones you cannot attend.  Holy Week is a single, unbroken Liturgy that invites us to participate in the saving love of Jesus Christ, not just to remember some events from long ago.  The love which Jesus shows is real, it is now, and we are invited through worship to receive it. (2) Intensify your fasting.  During Holy Week, each of us should increase the intensity of our fasting, to the best of our ability.  (3) Create silence. Disconnect entirely from your cell phone, e-mail, internet usage and especially social media. Avoid TV, and the radio.  Cancel all lessons, sports, and social activities.  It’s only for one week.  The world will still be there after Pascha.  When we create silence in this way, we give ourselves the space and opportunity to be drawn by Christ more deeply into His words and actions during Holy Week. (4) Create an atmosphere of prayer at home.  Turn on some church music.  Light some incense. In particular, listen to the hymns of Holy Week.  Doing so, we allow the prayer of the Church to envelope us, embrace us, filling the hours of our ‘everyday life’ and sanctifying them.
(5) Be still.  Set aside time each day to sit quietly in front of your icon corner or an icon of Christ, about 20-30 minutes if you can.  Light a candle, say a short prayer, and then simply wait in silence for the Lord to speak a word, or to bestow a deeper sense of His presence.  (6) Always be with Christ.  No matter where you are or what you’re doing, occupy your mind as often as you can with a short prayer.  If you do not already have the habit of praying the Jesus Prayer, Holy Week is a great time to begin: “O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.”  This prayer increases our awareness of the nearness of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It reminds us that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God. (7) Read the Gospel.  Set aside time each day to read several chapters from either Matthew, Mark, or Luke.  (We’ll save John for after Pascha!)  And remember that in the Gospels, we do not find words about Christ, we find words from Christ.  Each verse of Holy Scripture is a word spoken directly to you by the raised and glorified Lord.  Each word is a word for now, each word is a new word that you have never received before.  Enjoy the gift!  Jesus wants to give it to you! (8) Seek forgiveness and healing.  Chances are, each of us still has at least a small handful of relationships in need of healing.  During Holy Week, work for that healing. (9) Call someone who is sick or lonely.  Visit them if you can.  Share yourself with someone who needs you.  Our world is filled with people who are dying of loneliness and isolation.  Extend yourself and give them the gift of your presence.  One of the great themes of Holy Week is abandonment — how our Lord was abandoned by just about everyone.  As we seek to unite ourselves to Christ through prayer and worship during Holy Week, let’s do our best not to abandon those who need us. And finally, (10) Think about Bright Week and beyond!  With Pascha comes the true light that enlightens and sanctifies the whole world and each person in it.  As we unite ourselves to Christ, the radiance of the Resurrection changes everything.  Pascha Week is truly a Bright Week — the Resurrection colors everything and everyone with brilliance and beauty.  Nothing should ever be the same.  Let this Holy Week be a launching pad into the rest of our year, and indeed, the rest of our life.  Amen.

One well-known abbot, many years ago, told me that all Orthodox Christians are converts. It’s true. When we were baptized, most of us were infants. Our parents and godparents spoke for us, believed for us. When we grew older, our parents brought us to Church, and later on perhaps even dragged us to Church. But there comes a time in the life of every young person, or even every older person too, when they must choose Christ for themselves. Mom and Dad can no longer believe “for us.” Our godparents can no longer speak “for us.” Our voice is now our own. Our heart is now our own. Our choices are now our own. Those of us who embraced faith in Christ and the Orthodox Church as adults understand this perfectly. But essentially everyone must at some point choose Christ, choose to believe in Him, choose to love Him, choose to serve Him. And that, my friends, is what “conversion” is all about! Believe it or not, we are all converts, and the choice of conversion is one that we must refresh each and every day.  St Herman of Alaska asks us: Do you “love God? Do you often turn to Him, do you always remember Him, do you always pray to Him and fulfill His holy commandments? For our good, for our happiness, at least, let us make a vow that from this day, from this hour, from this minute we shall strive to love God above all else and to fulfill His holy will.” Choosing Christ each and every day, each and every hour, and each and every minute, this is the ongoing podvig of conversion.
In the history of our Orthodox Church, and especially in the Lives of the Saints, we find lots of wonderful conversion stories. In those sacred pages and inspiring services we hear about hundreds of men, women, and even children whose evil lives were completely transformed, transfigured, by the grace of God. How about the Holy Apostle Matthew the formerly rapacious tax collector, or Mary Magdalene, out of whom seven demons were expelled? How about St. Paul the former persecutor of the Church, or St. Moses the Black, former thief and murderer? Or who can forget Ss. Taisia and Pelagia, the repentant harlots, redeemed and transformed into pure and righteous women, lovers of God, living in complete submission and obedience to His will?
On this Fifth Sunday of Great Lent, the Church remembers and honors one such sinner turned saint: Mary of Egypt. Her life is extraordinary, shocking in some ways, and inspiring. St. Mary is a woman whose powerful conversion from a life of utter hedonistic carnality to a life of holiness and purity has been admired and appreciated by Orthodox believers for 1,500 years. For this reason she has two celebrations on the church calendar: April 1st ( the day of her repose,) and the 5th Sunday of Great Lent. Additionally, the Triodion calls for her Life to be read for Matins of the Thursday of the 5th Week of the Fast, in connection with the chanting of the complete Canon of St. Andrew of Crete.
There are two aspects of St. Mary of Egypt 's life that I would like to note. First, Mary's complete immersion in her sins made her cognizant of just how serious her spiritual state was as soon as she allowed the Mother of God to shed a little light in her soul. She had no further to fall, and could only look up! Her deep and remarkable repentance brought about great grace and many spiritual gifts: a.) A complete knowledge of the Bible even though she didn’t own one, and had never been in church long enough to become acquainted with it. b.) She was given super-human strength to endure the harsh desert climate, starvation, thirst, exposure. c.) She was given the gift of clairvoyance so that she not only knew everything about Zosimas, but she also knew the future. These gifts from God enabled her to prepare herself and hieromonk Zosimas for the second notable aspect of Mary’s life, her deep desire for Holy Communion. She said to Zosimas: “at sunset of the holy day of the Last Supper, put some of the lifegiving Body and Blood of Christ into a holy vessel worthy to hold such Mysteries for me, and bring it. And wait for me on the banks of the Jordan adjoining the inhabited parts of the land, so that I can come and partake of the life-giving Gifts. For, since the time I communed in the temple of the Forerunner before crossing the Jordan even to this day I have not approached the Holy Mysteries. And I thirst for them with irrepressible love and longing. and therefore I ask and implore you to grant me my wish, bring me the life-giving Mysteries at the very hour when Our Lord had His disciples partake of His Divine Supper.”
Did you ever notice in St. Mary’s life the profound connection between her repentance and her reception of Holy Communion? It’s a huge factor in the story! Her repentance, her ascesis, her deprivations for more than 47 years in the desert were all leading up to that one precious and amazing moment, that one miraculous moment when she received the Holy Mysteries. Why? Because as soon as she received and sent St. Zosimas away, she died. This was the focus and the fulfillment of her life.
Brothers and Sisters, you know, don’t you, that for many centuries people went to Communion only very infrequently? Maybe two or three times a year: once on Holy Thursday, once on their name day, maybe one other time. The reason that the Holy Church has us read her story and meditate on her life at this time is because, traditionally, this is the time when we would be preparing ourselves to receive Holy Communion on Holy Thursday, “at the very hour when Our Lord had His disciples partake of His Divine Supper” as St. Mary said. Maybe this story is a reminder to us about how serious we need to be when it comes to receiving Holy Communion, and why we should “thirst for it with irrepressible love and longing.” Perhaps, too, this story wants to remind us about how important the Liturgy of Holy Thursday is in the life of the church and in the history of the church, and why we should make every effort to receive the Eucharist at that time.
Dear ones, the Church today lifts up St. Mary of Egypt as a beautiful example of repentance, conversion, and a life focused on the Eucharist. In her earthly life we witness two extremes: First, her nakedness as a revelation of her fallenness, her debauchery and her shamelessness. Second, her nakedness as a revelation of her new life, as a new Creature in Christ, turning the desert into Paradise, and living like Adam and Eve before the Fall. Amen.

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Today the Holy Church, as an encouragement for our Lenten journey, asks us to remember St. John Climacus and in particular to reflect on his book “The Ladder to Paradise,”or The Ladder of Divine Ascent. In this book, St John gives instructions to the desert-dwelling monks of the 6th century, warning them about the ways that lead to spiritual destruction, and encouraging them in the ways that lead to eternal life and joy. His spiritual ladder has 30 rungs or steps or “challenges” that lead to heaven: Step 1. On renunciation of the world; Step 2. On detachment; Step 3. On exile or pilgrimage; Step 4. On blessed and ever-memorable obedience; Step 5. On painstaking and true repentance; Step 6. On remembrance of death; Step 7. On joy-making mourning; Step 8. On freedom from anger and on meekness; Step 9. On remembrance of wrongs; Step 10. On slander or calumny; Step 11. On talkativeness and silence; Step 12. On lying; Step 13. On despondency; Step 14. On that clamorous mistress, the stomach; Step 15. On incorruptible purity and chastity; Step 16. On love or money, or avarice; Step 17. On non-possessiveness (that hastens one Heavenwards); Step 18. On insensibility; Step 19. On sleep, prayer, and psalmody with the brotherhood; Step 20. On bodily vigil and how to use it to obtain spiritual vigil; Step 21. On unmanly and infantile cowardice; Step 22. On the many forms of vainglory; Step 23. On mad pride and unclean blasphemous thoughts; Step 24. On meekness, simplicity and guilelessness; Step 25. On the destroyer of passions, most sublime humility; Step 26. On discernment of thoughts, passions and virtues; Step 27. On holy stillness of body and soul; Step 28. On holy and blessed prayer; Step 29. Concerning Heaven on earth, or Godlike dispassion and perfection; Step 30. Concerning the linking together of the supreme trinity among the virtues, faith, hope, and love. 
This book, while written strictly for monastics, has nonetheless become a classic of spiritual lenten reading for Orthodox Christians through the centuries. While many of the details may not apply directly to those of us living in the world, the principles contained in the book apply to everyone, equally! I encourage everyone to obtain this book and read it. It will explain many of the experiences that you have in life, especially your spiritual life, and will provide you with many keys to understanding and weapons for combating your spiritual enemies: the demons, the logismoi, and the passions. The Ladder is a text book or a manual for monastics in their spiritual ascent. For us the Ladder is “suggested reading” aimed at providing us with inspirational help along our way.
However, in today’s Gospel we are shown another ladder, The Ladder of Christ, also known as “The Beatitudes.” They are called “beatitudes” because in Latin they begin with the word “beati,” meaning “blessed.” This Ladder is meant for everyone, without exception. And what are the “rungs” or the “steps” of this Ladder? They are as follows:
Step 1. Blessed are the Poor in Spirit. Those who are poor in spirit are those who are “humble and contrite in mind” according to St John Chrysostom It has nothing to do with how much money one has or doesn’t have.
Step 2. Blessed are those who mourn. Those who weep over their own sins, and those who have deep empathy for the fellow human beings are the ones who ascend to this step. The comfort that they receive is the joy of forgiveness from God
Step 3. Blessed are the Meek. Meekness means “gentleness of spirit,”  Meekness toward God is a disposition of spirit in which we accept His dealings with us as good, even if we can’t see the “reasoning.”  The meek are those who are conscious of their own sinfulness and their own unworthiness. They do not judge others, but instead, seek to relate to everyone with love and peacefulness of heart. The meek will inherit the earth because after the Second Coming only they will dwell in the New Earth, the New Jerusalem.
Step 4. Blessed are those who Hunger and thirst for righteousness. For those who love Christ there is a yearning, a deep desire to be ever nearer to Him. This is what is meant by “hunger” and “thirst.” In 1 Corinthians 1:30, St Paul says that God has given us Jesus as “wisdom..., and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption.” Since Christ is our righteousness, it is only natural that we should hunger and thirst after Him. As David sings, “As the deer earnestly yearns for the fountains of water, so my soul earnestly longs for thee, O God. My soul has thirsted for the living God” (Psalm 41: 1-2).
Step 5. Blessed are the merciful. Being merciful means having a forgiving and kindly nature. It also, and very importantly, means a charitable nature, a “giving” nature that that helps the poor and supports the church. St. Augustine says: “They are blessed who bring relief to those who are miserable, for it is paid back to them in such a way that they will, themselves, be freed from misery.” St. Makarii of Optina says: “God smiles on the compassionate heart. Every time a beggar knocks at your door, try to perceive Christ Himself under a humble disguise. Would you, under any circumstances, let Christ knock in vain?”
Step 6. Blessed are the pure in heart. When the nous is clear, God can be seen. St Augustine said: “How foolish, therefore, are those who seek God with these outward eyes, since He is seen with the heart! As it is written elsewhere: ‘And in singleness of heart seek Him’ (Wisdom 1:1). For that is a pure heart which is a heart free from duplicity and deceit: and just as the light cannot be seen except with pure eyes; so neither is God seen, unless that is pure by which He can be seen. It may be that you find it hard to purify your heart. Call upon Him, and He will not disdain to make there a clean abode for Himself, and come to dwell within you.” And St Theodore of Edessa, the Great Ascetic, says: “Through love we shall shake off the tyranny of the passions and rise to heaven, lifted up on the wings of the virtues; and we shall see God, so far as this is possible for human nature.”
Step 7. Blessed are the peacemakers. Peacemakers are those who fashion or create peace.  It means to bring harmony and calmness, but perhaps more importantly, to bring Christ. Peacemaking does not only apply to others, or others and ourselves; it also applies to the condition within our own souls. St. Seraphim of Sarov says:  “Acquire a spirit of peace, and thousands around you will be saved.” And St. Isaac the Syrian says: “It is better for you to make peace within yourself, causing concord to reign over the trinity within you (I mean, the body, the soul, and the spirit), than by your teaching peace to others who are in disagreement.”
Step 8. Blessed are those who endure trials, tribulations and persecutions. The patient endurance of these things brings great spiritual rewards. St Paul says (in Romans 5) “we glory in tribulations...knowing that tribulations bring about patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope: and hope does not disappoint; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit which is given to us.” St. Maximus the Confessor wrote: “The outcome of every affliction endured for the sake of virtue is joy, of every labour - rest, and of every shameful treatment - glory; in short, the outcome of all sufferings for the sake of virtue is to be with God, to remain with Him forever, and to enjoy eternal rest.”
So this is the Lord’s Ladder for us. As we admire and commemorate the spiritual and physical feats of St. John Climacus and the Holy Ascetics today, we must never forget that all of us are called to a certain measure of ascesis. All of us are called to podvig, to spiritual and physical struggle, especially during this time of the Great Fast. May the grace of God embolden us and empower us to complete the course of the Fast, and make us ready to behold and truly participate in Christ’s Holy Resurrection. Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Welcome to the Third Sunday of the Great Fast! We know it’s the Third Sunday because the Holy and Life-giving Cross is in the middle of the church for us to venerate, and it will remain there until Friday. In fact, in the Orthodox Church we call all of next week “Cross Veneration Week.” Why does the holy Church do this? Won’t we be venerating the Holy Cross during Passion Week, Holy Week? Yes, of course we will, but this is different. Great Lent is a journey, a journey to Holy Week, a journey to Pascha. When Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt, they had a long journey to endure, a journey through the wilderness, a journey through the hot desert before they would reach the Promised Land. While on their way, it was essential to find sources of water. Often this water was obtained at oases. Do you know what an oasis is? An oasis is a place in the desert where underground sources of water bubble up to the surface. Some are very small and some are very large, supporting crops, livestock, and even communities of people. One feature that one sees at every oasis in the desert is trees, lots of trees, usually date palms. These wonderful trees provide food, they provide shade, they even provide a back-rest for those weary from their travels. There’s something else that the trees provide that we don’t often think about...they provide protection. Protection? Protection from what? The trees protect the travelers from being sand-blasted into oblivion, and they protect the water from being contaminated by the ferocious winds that blow in the desert. In this same way, the Church offers the life-bearing tree of the cross of the Lord to those who have traveled in ascetic labors and deprivations, for their “relief, cooling, and consolation.”
As I said before, the time of the fast is a journey. It’s a journey that involves increased asceticism and labors of piety. If there is any time during the course of the year when we need to make a real effort to crucify our flesh with its passions and lusts, it is Great Lent. A true fast consists in working hard to free ourselves from every evil thing, restraining our tongues from every idle, corrupt, and indecent word. Turning away from these things should not be for us an unpleasant chore, a grudging exercise, an inconvenient duty, but rather a saving labor that brings peace and joy. However, this work is far from easy. It takes real commitment. The truth is, if we don’t do the work, we don’t get the reward. If we don’t do the journey, we don’t get the oasis.
Great Lent is our declaration of war against sin; not somebody else’s sin, but our own sin. We promise at this time to crucify our passions and lusts, and we voluntarily choose to suffer, even though it is just a tiny bit of suffering. In order to dislodge the “sting of sin” from our flesh, we have to discipline it with fasting. After all, the very first sin, that cataclysmic sin which brought ruin to the entire human race resulted from Adam eating something that God told him not to eat! We are called upon to undo what Adam did by saying “no” to the serpent rather than “yes.”  St. Tikhon of Moscow wrote: “Didn’t Christ fast for forty days, although He possessed a sinless nature? While miraculously feeding others, didn’t He himself hunger and thirst? During the fast the Church more intensely calls us to spend time in vigils and prayer. Didn’t Christ the Savior dedicate all His time away from teaching and helping people to conversing with His Father and to fervent prayer to Him? This means that the way of fasting is the way of Christ, and whoever wants to serve Him should also follow Him; and blessings and glory are promised from Christ to him for this, for ‘where the cross is, there also is glory.’”
By understanding the cross we see that through suffering comes glory. On the cross the Savior endured grievous sufferings. The Innocent One was condemned to a shameful death and was nailed to the cross; crowned with a crown of thorns, and pierced in the side with a spear. He endured mockery, spitting, and cursing. He experienced excruciating physical and psychological torments. On the Cross He completed that great work of redeeming humanity, for which cause He came to earth. By means of the Cross, He glorifies not only Himself, but also all those who desire to enter into the Kingdom, glorifying even the Cross itself. From that time on the Cross is no longer the shameful instrument of execution but to the contrary, it has become the dearest and most sacred object for all Orthodox Christians. Therefore Christians, if they walk the path of ascetic labors and struggle with sin, if they bear their crosses with humility and zeal—that is, various troubles, deprivations, disappointments and the like, let them be comforted: The Kingdom of God is taken by force, and those who force themselves to do God’s will, will take it (Matthew 11:12). If they participate in Christ’s sufferings, then they will participate in Christ’s glory; if they die with Him they will also rise with Him. St. Theophan the Recluse wrote: “The Spirit of Christ is the spirit of preparedness to suffer and to bear, good-naturedly, all that is sorrowful. Comfort, arrogance, luxury, and ease are all foreign to its searching and tastes. Its path lies in the fruitless, empty desert. The model is the forty-year wandering of the Israelites in the wilderness. Who follows this path? All those who see Canaan beyond the desert, overflowing with milk and honey. During their wandering they too will receive manna, however not from the earth, but from heaven; not material manna, but spiritual. All the glory is within!”
May the grace-filled power of the Cross of Christ bring strength and consolation to all those who dare to be “illumined by fasting.”  Amen.

Catechesis #64 of St. Theodore the Studite, Spoken on the day of the Annunciation.
Brethren and fathers, the Annunciation is here and it is the first of the Feasts of the Lord, and we should not simply celebrate as most do, but with understanding and with reverence for the mystery. What is the mystery? That the Son of God becomes son of man, using the holy Virgin as the means, dwelling in her and from her fashioning for Himself a temple and becoming perfect man. Why so? "That he might ransom those under the law," as it is written, "and that we might receive sonship" [Gal. 4:5]; that we may no longer be slaves, but free; no longer subject to the passions, but free of passions; no longer friends of the world, but friends of God; no longer walking according to the flesh, but according to the spirit. "Those who walk according to the flesh, think the things of the flesh; those who walk according to the spirit, the things of the spirit; for the thought of the flesh is death; but the thought of the spirit, life and peace. And so the thought of the flesh is hostile to God, for it is not subject to the law of God. Indeed it cannot be. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God" [Rom. 8:5-8]. In brief this is the power of the mystery, and this is why we should celebrate spiritually and behave spiritually, with holiness and justice, with love, with gentleness, with peace, "with forbearance, with goodness, with the Holy Spirit" [2 Cor. 6:6], so that as far as we ourselves are concerned we do not render the dispensation of our Lord Jesus Christ empty and ineffectual.
Not only that, but we should both pray and grieve for the world. Why so? Because the Son of God came to save the world, and the world rejects Him. Tribes and languages reject Him; the barbarian nations reject Him, those who have had his holy name invoked upon them reject Him, some through abandoning the faith, others through their evil lives. What should He have done and did not do? Being God He became man, "He humbled Himself, becoming obedient unto death, the death of the cross" [Phil. 2,8.]; he gave us His body to eat and His blood to drink; He allowed us to call him Father, Brother, Head, Teacher, Bridegroom, Fellow-heir and all the other titles which there is no time to mention now. And still He is rejected, and still He bears it. "For," He says, "I have not come to judge the world, but to save the world" [John 12:47].
What then is there to say, brethren? That the genuine disciples are grieved by the rejections of their fellow-disciples, thus showing love both for the teacher and for the disciples. So too, genuine servants suffer in the same way from the desertions of their fellow-servants. This is why the great Apostle orders that "we should offer supplications, prayers, entreaties, thanksgivings on behalf of all mankind, for kings and for all in high positions" [1 Tim. 2:1-2]; and elsewhere he says this on the subject, "I speak the truth in Christ, I do not lie, my conscience bears witness with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have a great grief and unceasing anguish in my heart; for I have prayed that I might be anathema to Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh" [Rom. 9:1-3]. You see the power of love? You see the height of friendship? Moses shows it too when he says to God, "If you will forgive them their sin, forgive; if not, wipe me out of the book which you have written" [Exodus 32:32]. So we too, as genuine and not counterfeit disciples, should not only look to what concerns ourselves, but we should grieve and pray for our brothers and for the whole world; for by so doing what is pleasing to the Lord we shall become inheritors of eternal life, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be the glory and the might with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and for ever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.

Beloved Believers!
God has given us so many gifts! And all of these gifts have one purpose, one goal: to help us see Him more clearly, love Him more dearly, and follow Him more nearly, as the song from “Godspell” has it. In other words, all of God’s gifts He gives for our salvation. One of His greatest gifts is the gift of the saints. Concerning our relationship with the saints, St John of Kronstadt says this:
“We ought to have the most lively spiritual union with the heavenly inhabitants, with all the saints, apostles, prophets, martyrs, prelates, venerable and righteous ones, as they are all members of one single body, The Church of Christ, to which we sinners also belong, and the living Head of which is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. This is why we call upon them in prayer, converse with them, thank and praise them, It is urgently necessary for all Christians to be in union with them, if they desire to make Christian progress; for the saints are our friends, our guides to salvation, who pray and intercede for us.”
In today’s second epistle from Hebrews we heard the following words:
“Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away.”
Today the Church wants us to pay particular attention to the things we have heard from St. Gregory Palamas. Now I realize that many of us have never read anything that St. Gregory either wrote or preached. That’s OK. As long as we grasp the essence, the heart of his teaching, we will be doing well, we will be honouring his memory, and we will save ourselves from drifting away from Christ. And what is this teaching? The truth is, St. Gregory, who lived in the 14th century, did not introduce anything new! St. Gregory simply re-presented what had always been the “good news” of Christ. And what was that? It’s what St. Paul said nearly 2,000 years ago: “to know (Christ,) to know the power of His resurrection, the communion in His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I might attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3: 10-11). This means that St. Paul desires nothing more than to be a Christian “experientially,” not academically; to know God in his heart and not in his brain. This is exactly what St. Gregory was teaching, or rather, reinforcing. A dangerous and destructive system of theology was sweeping through the Latin West. We call it “scholasticism” today. It teaches that God cannot be known other than through the intellect. Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos wrote: “Scholastic theology tried to understand the Revelation of God logically and conform to philosophical methodology. Characteristic of such an approach is the saying of Anselm: 'I believe so as to understand.’” We Orthodox do not believe in order to understand. We believe in order to acquire the Holy Spirit and be saved! St. Symeon the New Theologian says: “The aim of all those who live in God is to please our Lord Jesus Christ and become reconciled with God the Father by means of the reception of the Holy Spirit,...Every path of life which does not lead to this is without profit.” Illumination by the Holy Spirit, participation in divine glory, this should be the only goal of a Christian; not merely knowledge about God, but a real experience of God, a real relationship with God.
So, how can we begin to enter into this kind of authentic, Spirit-filled Christianity? First, by saying “no” to sin and “yes” to virtuous living. St. Symeon the New Theologian again says: “Through repentance the filth of our foul actions is washed away. After this, we participate in the Holy Spirit, not automatically, but according to the faith, humility and inner disposition of the repentance in which our soul is engaged.” These are some of the things we are trying to focus on during Great Lent. It’s not just a change of diet: no meat, no dairy, no wine, etc. It’s about changing our behaviour, our lifestyle, our thinking and our relationships. These are the things that “attract” the Holy Spirit. The opposite drives Him away and instead attracts other spirits!
Second, we must do what Abbess Makrina says in the new book Words of the Heart, “we should have our nous (focused) on God and pray unceasingly, so that the grace of God can make us radiant” (page 176). What do we sing at the Paschal Canon? “It is the Day of Resurrection, let us be radiant, O people!” That’s what it literally says, “let us be radiant!” There is no divine radiance, there is no “partaking of the divine nature” without unceasing prayer and a nous, that is a heart, that is set on God (see 2Peter 1:4). This is the teaching of St. Gregory Palamas. This is the teaching of the holy hesychasts. St Gregory was a hesychast. A hesychast is someone who practices quietness, stillness, in order to hear God and to know God. The Lord Himself says: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 45/46:10). St. Gregory wrote: “...the grace of the Spirit takes possession of the quiet soul, and gives it a taste of the unspeakable good things to come, which no passionate and negligent eye has seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of such a man (cf. I Cor. 2:9). This taste is the earnest of these good things, and the heart which accepts these pledges becomes spiritual and receives assurance of its salvation.”
Along with quiet and stillness comes the requirement of unceasing prayer. Gerontissa Makrina mentioned it, remember? St. Paul commands it in the Bible: “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). And St Gregory himself says: “Let not one think, my fellow Christian, that only priests and monastics need to pray without ceasing and not laymen No, no; every Christian, without exception, ought to dwell always in prayer.” So, how are we to accomplish this? How are we, who live in the world, have jobs, have families, how are we to pray without ceasing? Well, nobody was busier than St. Paul! So busy-ness is not an excuse. Unceasing prayer does not mean the formal prayers from the Prayer Book or the liturgical services. It means the practice of the Prayer of the Heart, or the Jesus Prayer. This short, easy-to-remember prayer is based on the prayer uttered in humility by the publican in the Lord’s parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, “God be merciful to me a sinner!” The Prayer of the Heart is addressed to Christ, along with a confession of Who Christ is. Remember what St. John wrote in his first Epistle: “Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God dwelleth in him, and he in God” (1 John 4:15).
So the Jesus Prayer, or Prayer of the Heart is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me!” In the Russian tradition the words “a sinner” is often added to the end but is not essential. We should memorize this short prayer and incorporate it into our daily routine. Say it slowly, and quietly. Say it after your morning prayers for a few minutes. Say it during your commute. Say it quietly or mentally at work. Say it when times get stressful. Say it at night before you go to sleep. The point is to say it, to use it.
I’d like to share some words of my late Geronta, Archimandrite George (Kapsanis) Abbot of the Holy Monastery of Grigoriou, Mount Athos:
“Through the continuous invocation of the most sweet and holy name of Christ, (believers) will feel Christ in their heart, they will avoid sin, they will cultivate feelings of love for God and their fellow human beings, they will themselves become peaceful and in turn provide peace to those in their surrounding environment. Allow me, if I may, to provide a brotherly piece of advice from the spiritual tradition of Mount Athos: the more times a day we say, with desire, the prayer ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,’ the closer to God we’ll be and the more Grace and strength we’ll receive so as to be able to deal with the various difficulties and temptations of life.”
For us, this is the legacy of the holy hesychasts. For us, this is the tradition of St. Gregory Palamas. Amen.

In a prayer, St. Patrick, whose memory we celebrate today, said the following:
“O God, my God, Almighty King, I humbly worship thee. Thou art King of kings, Lord of lords. Thou art the Judge of every age. Thou art the Redeemer of souls. Thou art the Liberator of those who believe. Thou art the Hope of those who labour. Thou art the Comforter of those who sorrow. Thou art the Way to those who wander. Thou art Master to the nations. Thou art the Creator of all creatures. Thou art the Lover of all good. Thou art the Prince of all virtues. Thou art the joy of all Thy saints. Thou art life unending. Thou art joy in truth.” 
“Thou art joy in truth.” What does St. Patrick mean? He means that Christ, to Whom the prayer is addressed, is Truth, and for us that means joy. We have joy because we have confidence that Jesus not only speaks the Truth, but is, Himself, the Truth. What did the Lord say concerning Himself? He said: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14: 6). We cannot know the truth, we cannot fully experience the joy of the truth, unless we are united to Christ. And we cannot be united to Christ unless the dross of sin and the passions are cleaned out of our hearts, and we make room for Him to dwell there instead. Unless we live a life in accordance with the loving and healing commandments of Christ, we will never experience the joy of being united with Jesus Who is the Truth. Listen to what St. Gregory of Sinai says:
“To try to discover the meaning of the commandments through study and reading without actually living in accordance with them is like mistaking a shadow of something for its reality. It is only by participating in the truth that you can share in the meaning of truth. If you search for the meaning without participating in the truth and without having been initiated into it, you will find only a besotted kind of wisdom. You will be among those whom St Jude categorized as ‘soulical’ or ‘worldly’ because they lack the Spirit, no matter how much they may boast of their knowledge of the truth” (Philokalia, IV, p. 216:22).
This is precisely what Great Lent is trying to help us with – shoveling out the dung by repentance and confession, and cleaning-up via obedience to the commandments. We are also called-upon to make room for Christ by saying “no” to the stomach in order to say “yes” to Christ in His Holy Mysteries.
The Sunday of Orthodoxy celebrates the victory of the “iconodules” over the “iconoclasts,” true. But more than that, it is the victory of joy in the Truth. Heresy, no matter how “logical,” no matter how “reasonable,” no matter how “theological,” no matter how “comfortable,” it is always the enemy of Truth and therefore the enemy of Christ, and therefore the enemy of Joy. Heresy is the tool of the enemy of our souls, to snag us off of the Ladder to Paradise and instead, send us falling head-first into the yawning jaws of hell. Heresy, such that denies that the divine can be present in the material, therefore also denies that the Second Person of the Trinity, the Logos, the Only-Begotten Son of the Father, could take our flesh,  the flesh of theVirgin Mary, sanctify it, deify it, and take it up into heaven. Such heresy is to be denounced, decried, and anathematized! Hence we hear these frightful words from the Synodikon of Orthodoxy, taken from the “Rite of Orthodoxy,” celebrated in cathedrals and monasteries on this day:
To them who persist in the heresy of denying icons, or rather the apostasy of denying Christ, and are not counseled by the Mosaic law to be led to their salvation, nor are they convinced to return to piety by the apostolic teachings, nor are they induced by patristic exhortations and explanations to abandon their deception, nor are they persuaded by the agreement of the Churches of God throughout the whole world, but once for all have united themselves to the opinions of the Jews and Greeks; for those things wherewith the latter directly blaspheme the prototype, the former likewise have not blushed to insult in His icon Him that is depicted therein; therefore, to them who are incorrigibly possessed by this deception, and have their ears covered towards every Divine word and spiritual teaching, as already being putrified members, and having cut themselves off from the common body of the Church, Anathema! (x3).
And what does this “anathema!” mean? St. Theophan the Recluse says: “an anathema is precisely separation from the Church, or the exclusion from her midst of those who do not fulfill the conditions of unity with her and begin to think differently from the way she does, differently from the way they themselves promised to think upon joining her. Recollect how it happened! Arius appeared, who held impious opinions concerning Christ the Savior, so that with these notions he distorted the very act of our salvation. What was done with him? First he was admonished, and admonished many times by every persuasive and touching means possible. But since he stubbornly insisted upon his opinion, he was condemned and excommunicated from the Church.” Since heresies effect and wound others, and put roadblocks in the path that leads to salvation, the Holy Church must, by necessity, remove such roadblocks. St. John Maximovitch says that “Anathema means complete separation from the Church,” but he also says, “Anathema’ is not a final damnation: until death repentance is possible. ‘Anathema’ is fearsome not because the Church wishes anyone evil or God seeks their damnation. They, (God and the Church), desire that all be saved. But it is a fearsome thing to stand before the presence of God in the state of hardened evil, (because) nothing is hidden from Him.”
So beloved, let us now return to the previous topic, the joy in truth. We Orthodox cannot but rejoice because we have been given the fulness of truth, the clear path to the Kingdom, and complete access to the Saviour. “We have seen the true light. We have received the heavenly Spirit. We have found the TRUE faith!” Isn’t that what we sing? As David danced with joy before the ark of the covenant (2 Samuel 6:14) which was adorned with the images of the holy angels, today we too dance with joy at the restoration of the Holy icons, and the re-affirmation of the Incarnation of the Son of God. I’ll end with another quote from the Synodikon of Orthodoxy:
As the prophets have seen, as the apostles have taught, as the Church has received, as the teachers have set forth in dogmas, as the whole world has understood, as Grace has shone forth, as the truth was demonstrated, as falsehood was banished, as wisdom was emboldened, as Christ has awarded; thus do we believe, thus we speak, thus we preach Christ our true God and His saints, honoring them in words, in writings, in thoughts, in sacrifices, in temples, and in icons, worshipping and respecting the One as God and Master, and honoring the others, and apportioning relative worship to them, because of our common Master for they are His genuine servants. This is the Faith of the apostles, this is the Faith of the fathers, this is the Faith of the Orthodox, this Faith hath established the whole world.” Amen.

Forgiveness Sunday 2019
Matthew 6: 14-21
I’d like to begin this morning with a story from the Bible. Let’s go back to Genesis where we learn about the Twelve Patriarchs. The 11th son born to Jacob was Joseph. God revealed His plan for the life of Joseph when he was still a young boy. Joseph excitedly talked with his brothers about God’s plans. His brothers became jealous and eventually sold him into slavery while telling their father Jacob that his favorite son had been killed by a wild animal.
Joseph was bought by a man who eventually recognized Joseph’s honesty. The man gave Joseph great freedom even though he was still a slave. Eventually Joseph was wrongly accused of a crime and ended up in prison. Joseph’s integrity won him favor with the jail keepers and he became a guard over other prisoners. Through time God elevated Joseph to great power within the kingdom.
The brothers thought Joseph was dead. They did not suspect that the man they stood before was their own brother Joseph. When Joseph revealed himself, they were shocked and horrified to know he was alive. They had feared for years that he would come back and seek vengeance. After the family was reunited they lived together in Egypt. When their father Jacob died, the brothers began to fear even more that Joseph would finally show his hatred towards them (Genesis 50:15). Joseph was heartbroken when he learned they still did not trust him and that they feared what he would do to them (Genesis 50:17).
This amazing story of forgiveness culminates with these words from Joseph to his brothers:
“And Joseph said to them, ‘Fear not, for I am God's (servant). Ye took counsel against me for evil, but God took counsel for me for good, that the matter might be as it is to-day, and that many people might be fed.’ And he said to them, ‘Fear not, I will take care of you, and your families:’ and he comforted them, and spoke kindly to them” (Genesis 50:19-21, LXX).
“I am God’s servant” said Joseph. “I can do nothing but behave as such toward you. You have done me evil, but like God, I will forgive you with all my heart. I will love you and I will take care of you because you have repented of your evil-doing.”
Behaving like God is a tall order, and forgiveness is perhaps the tallest. Yet St. Augustine says: “You are just on the point of saying to me, ‘But I am not God, I am a man, a sinner.’ God be thanked that you confess that you have sins. Forgive then, that they may be forgiven you. Yet the Lord our God Himself exhorts us to imitate Him. And concerning Him the Apostle Peter said, ‘Christ has suffered for us, leaving you an example that you should follow His steps’...(and) lest ye should think it is too high a thing to imitate Christ, hear the Apostle (Paul) saying, ‘Forgive one another, even as God in Christ has forgiven you. Be therefore imitators of God.’ These are the Apostle's words, not mine. Is it a proud thing to imitate God? Hear the Apostle, ‘Be imitators of God as dearly beloved children.’”
Breathing in and out is essential to our biological life just as the giving and receiving of forgiveness is essential to our spiritual life. St. Tikhon of Zadonsk says: “Do we refuse to forgive? God, too, will refuse to forgive us. As we treat our neighbours, so also does God treat us. The forgiveness or unforgiveness of your sins, then, and hence also your salvation or destruction, depend on you yourself. For without forgiveness...there is no salvation. You can see for yourself how serious it is.”
I will end with a partial text from a sermon given by my late Seminary professor, Fr. Alexander Schemann who said:
“Now we have to forgive each other whether or not we have any explicit sins or crimes against each other. That reconciliation is another epiphany of the Church as the Kingdom of God. We are saved because we are in the Body of Christ. We are saved because we accept from Christ the world and the essential order. And finally, we accept Christ when we accept each other. Everything else is a lie and hypocrisy.
So, fathers, brothers, sisters: let us forgive one another. Let us not think about why. There is enough to think about. Let us do it. Right now, in a kind of deep breath, say: “Lord, help us to forgive. Lord, renew all these relationships.” What a chance is given here for love to triumph! – for unity to reflect the Divine unity, and for everything essential to return as life itself. What a chance! Is the answer we give today yes or no? Are we going to that forgiveness? Are we gladly accepting it? Or is it something which we do just because it is on the calendar – today, you follow, forgiveness; tomorrow, let’s do…? No! this is the crucial moment. This is the beginning of Lent. This is our spring “repair” because reconciliation is the powerful renewal of the ruin.
So, please, for the sake of Christ: let us forgive each other. The first thing I am asking all of you, my spiritual family, is to forgive me. Imagine how many temptations of laziness, of avoiding too much, and so on and so forth. What a constant defense of my own interests, health, or this or that… I know that I don’t even have an ounce of this self-giving, self-sacrifice which is truly a true repentance, the true renewal of love. Please forgive me and pray for me, so that what I am preaching I could first of all somehow, be it only a little bit, integrate and incarnate in my life. Amen. (SVS, Forgiveness Sunday, 1983).