The Prodigal Son 2020

SERMON ON THE PRODIGAL SON (February 16, 2020)

What a son! He is unfeeling, selfish, grasping, self-centered; he dishonors his parents, he abandons his faith, and lives in total prodigality. Total prodigality! That’s how he comes to be called “The Prodigal Son.” So what does the word “prodigal” mean anyway? Why does this one word seem to sum-up what this young man became? Well, if we look in the dictionary, “prodigal” is said to mean “someone who spends money or resources freely and recklessly, wastefully, extravagantly. Is that what the son in the parable did? Absolutely. He took everything from his father and then blew it all. The Lord says he “squandered it all on riotous living!” That is, he threw it all away prodigally, foolishly; on sinful, godless, debauchery. He is the opposite of Mary the sister of Lazarus who chose “the one thing needful,” he chose absolutely nothing needful, nothing necessary for his salvation. He turned his back on God, he turned his back on his father, and he turned his back entirely on any semblance of righteous living. But does God give up on him? Does his father heap curses on him? Not at all! Of course the father in the parable represents God our Heavenly Father, and the reprobate son represents...you guessed it, US! What does the Lord say? Through Hosea the prophet the Lord says, “Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God; for the people have fallen because of your iniquities. Take with you words, and turn to the Lord your God: speak to him, that ye may not receive the reward of unrighteousness, but that ye may receive good things!” (Hosea 14: 1-2).

Return...that’s what God requires. Repentance, turning around, is the one thing needful for salvation, right? What were the first words that Jesus spoke when he began to preach the Gospel? “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. So repent (mετανοείτε), and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Repent, mετανοείτε! It means change your mind! Go in the opposite direction! Return to God and He will run to meet you. St Nikolai Velimirovich says: “the Lord does not abandon mercy but rather calls (evildoers) to repentance. Just as after terrible lightnings, a gentle rain falls. Such is the Lord, patient and full of mercy and ‘neither will He keep His anger forever’ (Psalm 102:9 LXX). And St. Isaac the Syrian says, “Do not fall into despair because of stumbling. I do not mean that you should not feel contrition for them, but that you should not think them incurable. For it is more expedient to be bruised than to be dead. There is, indeed, a Healer for the man who has stumbled, even He Who on the Cross asked that mercy be shown to His crucifiers, He Who pardoned His murderers while He hung on the Cross. ‘All manner of sin,’ He said, ‘and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men,’ that is, through repentance.”

Beloved don’t imagine even for one moment that our loving God will not accept you, will not embrace you, will not receive you back, even if your sins are many, even if your transgressions are very grievous. David in the Psalms says: “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, and who sins are covered...I acknowledged my sin and hid not mine iniquity: I said, I will confess mine iniquity to the Lord against myself; and Thou forgavest the ungodliness of my heart” (Psalm 31: 1,5 LXX). And in another place He says, “Come, let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be white as wool” (Isaiah 1:18 LXX).

When I’ve meditated on this wonderful parable that the Lord has given us, I’ve often thought that it should have a different title: the Forgiven Son, or maybe the Repentant Son. The point of the parable is that his repentance freed him from who he was before. The change in his heart and the change in his mind made him a new person. St. Paul says this about those Christians who have truly repented and made an effort to follow the Lord: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature: the old has passed away; behold, the new has come to be” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Maybe that should be the title of the parable, “The Restored Son” or “The Renewed Son.” In any case, the parable today wants us to concentrate on the joy of the son’s restoration, not the sins of his past. This is the failure of the older son in the Gospel. He wants to stay mad at his brother. He wants to remain bitter and resentful. St Cyril says, “the God of all requires even him who is thoroughly steadfast, and firm, and who knows how to live a holy life, and has attained to the highest praise for sobriety of conduct, to be earnest in following His will, so that when any are called unto repentance, even if they were great sinners, he must rejoice rather, and not give way to an unloving annoyance on their account.”

Love, joy, restoration, renewal, these are the fruits of repentance. Why do you think that the Church provides so many fasting days and seasons throughout the year? To punish us? Not at all. They are given to bring us again and again to this happiness, this exaltation resulting from our return to our heavenly Father. They are given to bring us back to eat worthily of that symbol of the Eucharist, the fatted calf; to bring us again that robe of forgiveness and grace, and that precious ring signifying our re-incorporation into the family of God. I’ll end now with these words from last night’s Vespers service: “Brethren, our purpose is to know the power of God’s goodness. For when the Prodigal Son abandoned his sin, he hastened to the refuge of his father. That good man embraced him and welcomed him; he killed the fatted calf and celebrated with heavenly joy. Let us learn from this example to offer thanks to the Father, Who loves all mankind!” Amen.

Publican & Pharisee 2020

PUBLICAN AND PHARISEE 2020

In Ecclesiastes 7:15, King Solomon says: “There is a righteous man that perishes in his righteousness.” And Joshua ben Sirach writes: “Arrogance is hateful to the Lord and to men, and injustice is outrageous to them both...The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker. For the beginning of pride is sin, and the one who clings to it pours out abominations” (Sirach 10: 7,12-13).

That is the precise meaning of today's parable. This is the way that the Church opens to us the doors of the Triodion. This is the Way that the Lord says to us: “Start preparing your hearts and minds for the contest of the Great Fast that is coming in just a few days. I want you to begin to think about making a commitment to me, a commitment to spend more time with Me!”

The first element in the Lenten journey is Prayer. Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving. These are the Lenten Trinity, so we start with Prayer. Prayer is the essential foundation of the spiritual life. Prayer, true Prayer must be divorced from a merely “religious” recitation of words. It must be about the heart. That’s why today's parable, is about HOW to pray. Well, to be honest, it's about HOW to pray, and how NOT to pray. The Lord wants us to understand clearly that the prayers of the proud, the arrogant, the haughty, the judgmental, the uncaring, and the unfeeling, simply WILL NOT BE HEARD. Why? Because such “prayer” is not really prayer at all. Did you hear what the Lord said about the so-called “prayer” of the Pharisee? He says: “He prayed with himself.” It means that he is so focused on himself, that even in his prayer he is still focused on himself. True prayer never boasts, never judges, never condemns somebody else. St Cyril of Alexandria says: “What profit is there in fasting twice a week, when you only do so as a pretext for ignorance and vanity, and makes you contemptuous and haughty and selfish? What good does it do you to tithe from what you have, but then boast about it and provoke God's displeasure? What can be gained by pride which condemns others while puffing up itself?”

In Holy Scripture when something comes in “threes” it is considered vitally important. Please make note of this: the Bible, in three different places, says: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Proverbs 3:34; 1 Peter 5:5; James 4:6). Abba Isidore of Pelusium, the 5th century saint and Egyptian desert father, said: “The heights of humility are great and so are the depths of boasting; I advise you to attend to the first and not to fall into the second.” And St. Makarios the Great of Egypt says: “If you see someone exalting himself and is arrogant about his abilities, know that even if he worked great signs and resurrected the dead….he is being robbed by an evil spirit without realizing it. Even if he performs miracles — do not believe him because the sign of a Christian is to hide from others any gifts that God might have deemed him worthy to receive.”

True prayer must always be offered in humility, as was that of the publican. If we really believe in God, and if we really believe that He is there when we are praying, it is IMPOSSIBLE for us to be proud. We can be distracted, we can become weary, but we cannot become proud. St. Isaac the Syrian makes the following recommendations to us concerning HOW we should pray:

1. Pray with attention and without distraction – so that we can have a true encounter with God. 2. Pray with humility – because only this sort of prayer goes straight to God’s ear. 3. Pray with affection and tears – with joy and thanksgiving, yes, but also with true repentance and purity. Mental Prayer must be accompanied with physical prayer – the sign of the cross, bows, and prostrations. 4. Pray with patience and intensity of feeling – to ‘deny oneself’ means to courageously persevere in prayer. 5. Pray from the depths of the heart – even if you pray using ‘the words of another’ (like the Prayer Book), they should be uttered as if they are your own. (St. Isaac says this is especially true of the Psalms.) 6. Pray with faith and absolute trust in God – He knows our life and He knows what we need, but trust in God’s providential care for you. Don’t ask for foolish things

In addition, don’t be discouraged when it seems like God is slow to answer your prayers or fulfill your requests. This can be due to things beyond our knowledge or understanding. It may also have to do with timing – our timing versus God’s timing. Of course God may be distancing Himself because of unconfessed sins, or our sinful life in general. St Isaac says:

“We say that God is plenteous in mercy, so why is it that when amidst temptations we unceasingly knock and pray, that we are not heard and he disregards our prayer? This we are clearly taught by the Prophet when he says: 'The Lord's hand is not little, that it cannot save; nor is he hard of hearing, that he cannot hear: but our sins have separated us from him, and our iniquities have turned away his face so that he does not hear.’ Remember God at all times, and he will remember you whenever you fall into evils” (Cf Isaiah 59:1-2).
I'm going to close with a verse from the Lenten Triodion that we heard last night at Vespers:

“Let us, the faithful, flee the boastfulness of the Pharisee; let us repeat in reverence the Publican’s prayer: May our thoughts not be poisoned by pride, O Lord; grant us the grace to cry aloud from the depths of our hearts: “O God, be merciful to us sinners!” Amen.

SERMON ON ST MARK OF EPHESUS - Jan. 19, 2020

HOMILY ON ST MARK OF EPHESUS 1/19/2020

In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Dear Ones, In this morning’s Gospel the crowd tells the blind man that all the excitement around him is due to the arrival of Jesus of Nazareth. The blind man cries out, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” The crowd says “Jesus of Nazareth,” but the blind man, alone, cries out “Jesus, son of David!” The crowd only sees a man, a holy man, a prophet perhaps. The blind man is the only one who “sees” the Messiah, the son of God!

It’s easy to get swept away with the opinion of the crowd. It’s very difficult to stand alone against the tide of popular opinion. Politics can be especially challenging for Christians. The very words “politics” is derived from the Greek word “polis” meaning “city.” Politics is about things pertaining to this world and is, by its very nature, worldly. But what does St Paul say about us, about Christians? “Here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come” (Hebrews 13:14). The Kingdom of Heaven is our true city. The climax of the book of Revelation is the vision of the Holy City, the heavenly Jerusalem, a jeweled city of light. This beautiful vision signifies the church, the called-out people of God, in all her eternal glory (Revelation 21:9-27).

Today on the Church calendar we celebrate the memory of two wonderful saints. First we celebrate St. Macarius the Great of Egypt, a 4th century ascetic and a disciple of St. Anthony the Great. He wrote the book called 50 Spiritual Homilies. Have you read it? It’s a classic. Everyone should read it! But today I want to focus on the second saint of the day, St. Mark of Ephesus, a man whose earthly city betrayed him, a man who who stood alone against the crushing power of earthly politicians and ecclesiastical apostates. St. Mark of Ephesus – a pillar of Orthodoxy and a prophet for these end times. Let’s find out why.

In the 1430’s, the once-glorious Eastern Roman Christian Empire (called “Byzantine Empire” by her detractors) was crumbling. Reduced to Constantinople and some surrounding territory, Greek diplomats were desperate to find a way to enlist Western powers to help battle against the common enemy of Christianity, Islam. The Turks would hear nothing of treaties. Their dream was to conquer the great Christian capital. For there to be any hope for rescue, the emperor, the politicians, the Patriarch of Constantinople all believed that it was necessary above all to make peace with the Vatican. So, “a Council was convened in 1437, which established a committee of Latin and Greek theologians with the Pope and the Byzantine Emperor acting as heads. The Pope, Eugenius IV, had a very exalted idea of the papacy and aimed at subjecting the Orthodox Church to himself. Prompted by the straitened circumstances of Byzantium, the Emperor pursued his aim: to conclude an agreement profitable for his country. Few gave thought to the spiritual consequences of such a union. Only one delegate, the Metropolitan of Ephesus, St. Mark, stood in firm opposition.

In his address to the Pope at the opening of the Council, St. Mark explained how ardently he desired this union with the Latins- but a genuine union, he explained, based upon unity of faith and ancient Liturgical practice. He also informed the Pope that he and the other Orthodox bishops had come to the Council not to sign a capitulation, and not to sell Orthodoxy for the benefit of their government, but in order to confirm true and pure doctrine.

Many of the Greek delegates, however, thought that the salvation of Byzantium could be attained only through union with Rome. More and more became willing to compromise the eternal Truth for the sake of preserving a temporal kingdom. Furthermore, the negotiations were of such unexpectedly long duration that the Greek delegates no longer had means to support themselves; they began to suffer from hunger and were anxious to return home. The Pope, however, refused to give them any support until a ‘Union’ had been concluded. Taking advantage of the Situation and realizing the futility of further debates, the Latins used their economic and political advantage to bring pressure on the Orthodox delegation, demanding that they capitulate to the Roman Church and accept all her doctrines and administrative control.

St. Mark stood alone against the rising tide which threatened to overturn the ark of the true Church. He was pressured on all sides, not only by the Latins, but by his fellow Greeks and the Patriarch of Constantinople himself. Seeing his persistent and stouthearted refusal to sign any kind of accord with Rome under the given conditions, the Emperor dismissed him from all further debates with the Latins and placed him under house arrest. By this time St. Mark had fallen very ill (apparently suffering from cancer of the intestine). But this exhausted, fatally ill man, who found himself persecuted and in disgrace, represented in his person the Orthodox Church; he was a spiritual giant with whom there is none to compare.

Events followed in rapid succession. The aged Patriarch Joseph of Constantinople died; a forged document of submission to Rome was produced; Emperor John Paleologos took the direction of the Church into his own hands, and the Orthodox were obliged. to renounce their Orthodoxy and to accept all of the Latin errors, novelties, and innovations on all counts, including complete acceptance of the Pope as having ‘a primacy over the whole earth.’ During a triumphant service following the signing of the Union on July 5, 1439, the Greek delegates solemnly kissed the Pope's knee. Orthodoxy had been sold, and not merely betrayed, for in return for submission, the Pope agreed to provide money and soldiers for the defense of Constantinople against the Turks. But one bishop still had not signed. When Pope Eugenius saw that St. Mark's signature was not on the Act of Union, he exclaimed, ‘And so, we have accomplished nothing!’

The delegates returned home ashamed of their submission to Rome. They admitted to the people: ‘We sold our faith; we bartered piety for impiety!’ As St. Mark wrote: ‘The night of Union encompassed the Church.’ He alone was accorded respect by the people who greeted him with universal enthusiasm when he was finally allowed to return to Constantinople in 1440. But even then the authorities continued to persecute him. At length he was arrested and imprisoned. But whatever his condition and circumstances, he continued to burn in spirit and to battle for the Church.

Finally he was liberated and, following his example, the Eastern Patriarchs condemned the False Union and refused to recognize it. The triumph of the Church was accomplished-through a man exhausted by disease and harassed by the wiles of men, but strong in the knowledge of our Saviour's promise: ‘...I will build My Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’ (Matt. 16:18).

St. Mark died on June 23, 1444, at the age of 52. This great pillar of the Church was a true ecumenist, for he did not fear to journey to Italy to talk with the Roman Catholics, but more importantly, neither did he fear to confess the fullness of the truth when the time came.” 1.

Through the prayers of our father among saints, Mark of Ephesus, O Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and save us! Amen.

1. Archimandrite Amvrossy (Pogodin)

SERMON ON ST TATIANA

A HOMILY ON THE VIRGIN MARTYR TATIANA THE ROMAN

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Glory to Jesus Christ!

Today is St. Tatiana's Day! This is a very important day in Russia, or at least it will be in 13 days when they celebrate it! Every Russian knows that St. Tatiana's day is associated with study, students, and higher education. And why is that? The answer is that the Imperial Moscow University (now called Moscow State University) was founded by decree of the Empress Elizabeth on St. Tatiana’s Day in 1755. In addition, the university’s chapel is dedicated to St Tatiana the Martyr, and was consecrated in 1837 by St. Philaret of Moscow. But does St. Tatiana herself have anything to do with education or learning? Let’s find out!

The Holy Virgin Martyr Tatiana was born into an important Roman family, and her father was elected “Consul” three times. The consuls were the chairmen of the Senate, which served as a board of advisers, and exercised the highest juridical power in the Roman Empire. Her father was also, secretly, a Christian who taught his daughter to love God and to be devoted to the Church. (Aha! Here is something about education. Tatiana's father took the time to teach his daughter everything she needed to know for salvation!) When she reached young womanhood, Tatiana decided not to marry and to remain a virgin, consecrating herself solely to Christ. Disdaining earthly riches, she sought instead the imperishable riches of Heaven. She served God in fasting and prayer, tending the sick and helping the needy. Because of her angelic life, St Tatiana was found worthy to be made a deaconess. In this capacity, she prepared women for baptism. (This, too, is more about education! St Tatiana instructed the women catechumens and prepared them for holy illumination.)
At that time Rome was ruled by the sixteen-year-old Alexander Severus (222-235), the successor of the wicked Antonius Elagabalus. The latter was so wicked, that he was killed by his own Praetorian Guard and his body thrown into the Tiber River. Although Alexander had been taught by his mother to respect Christ, he did not have true faith in Him. He continued to worship the lifeless idols. In his courtyard there were statues of Christ, Abraham, and Moses, standing alongside statues of the so-called “gods” Apollo, Orpheus, and others. Alexander did not persecute Christians himself, but his guardians and “handlers” did, and with great ferocity. Since Alexander was so young, the administration of the government was in the hands of regents, and especially the judge Ulpianus. He hated Christians, and in the Emperor’s name, issued decrees commanding all Christians to worship the Roman “gods,” or face severe punishment and even death. As a result of this St. Tatiana was arrested, and taken by the pagans to the temple of Apollo in an attempt to force her to offer sacrifice to the idol. She refused to do so, praying instead to the one true God. Suddenly there was a great earthquake, and the idol fell and was smashed to pieces. Part of the temple collapsed and the demon inhabiting the idol fled from that place with a loud wail, which was heard by those present.

After the temple had been destroyed, St Tatiana was taken to a place of torture, where they beat her face and tore at her eyes with iron hooks. The holy Virgin Martyr bravely endured everything, praying for her tormentors that the Lord would open their spiritual eyes. The Lord heard the prayer of His servant, and the executioners saw four angels standing around the saint and deflecting the blows of her tormentors. A voice was heard from heaven speaking to the holy virgin. Then eight of those men believed in Christ and fell on their knees before St Tatiana, begging her and the Lord Jesus to forgive them for causing her to suffer these torments. The judge was filled with rage, and so he ordered the executioners to be seized and put to death themselves because they had confessed their faith in Christ. All eight of them were baptized in their own blood, and the Church venerates them as martyrs as well.

The next day St Tatiana was brought before the wicked judge Ulpianus. Once again, Ulpianus attempted to persuade her to sacrifice to the pagan “gods,” and so he ordered that she be stripped of her clothing. They began to beat her, and slash her body with razors. St Tatiana raised her eyes to Heaven and prayed during her suffering. Blood and milk flowed from her wounds, and a wondrous fragrance filled the air. Then she was stretched out on the ground and beaten for so long that the servants had to be replaced several times. The torturers became exhausted and said that an invisible power was beating them as if with iron rods. Indeed, the angels warded off the blows directed at her and turned them upon the tormentors, causing nine of them to fall dead. St Tatiana spoke boldly to the judge and his servants, saying that their “gods” were nothing but breathless idols, while she was the servant of the only true God. (Here again, we see education! St. Tatiana confessed not only her faith in Christ, but the truths of the Christian Gospel as well to her tormentors!) Then they threw the saint into prison, where she prayed all night and sang praises to the Lord. She beheld a heavenly light, and an angel appeared and joined her in singing hymns of praise.

As a new day began, they took St Tatiana to the tribunal once more. The torturers were astonished to see that after enduring such terrible torments she appeared to be completely healthy and even more radiant and beautiful than before. They began to urge her to offer sacrifice to the goddess Diana. The saint pretended to agree with their suggestion, and they brought her to the heathen temple. As soon as she entered, the demon who lived inside the idol sensed her presence and cried out: “This is grievous to me, this is grievous to me! Where can I run to flee from Thy Spirit, O God of Heaven? Fire pursues me from every corner of this temple!” St Tatiana made the Sign of the Cross on herself and began to pray. Suddenly, there was a crash of deafening thunder, followed by flashes of lightning. Fire from Heaven burned the temple down to the ground along with its idol and its servitors.

Once again, the martyr was fiercely tortured. She was hung up and scraped with iron claws, and her breasts were cut off. That night, an angel appeared to her in prison and healed her wounds as before. On the following day, they took St Tatiana to an outdoor venue in Rome where they loosed a ravenous lion upon her. The beast did not harm the saint. According to her “Life” she embraced the affectionate beast, and the lion, in turn, meekly licked her feet.

Many other attempts were made to kill the holy martyr of Christ, but none was successful. The wicked judge finally condemned the valiant sufferer to be beheaded with a sword. The year was 225 A.D. Her father was deprived of his titles and estates, and was also executed with her, because he had raised her to love Christ. Therefore, St Tatiana and her father were both crowned by the Lord Jesus Christ with the incorruptible crowns of martyrdom. To Him be all glory, honor, and worship forever. Amen.

SERMON: SUNDAY BEFORE THEOPHANY (EPIPHANY)

SERMON: SUNDAY BEFORE HOLY THEOPHANY 2020

In the Name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Dear ones, tomorrow is the Great Feast of the Appearing of God, Theophany, called Epiphany in the West, or in Russian, Богоявление. I know that many of you will not be able to attend due to work or other obligations. So today, the Sunday Before Theophany, I’m going speak about the Feast itself because of its importance to our salvation. First we’ll start with Scripture.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was unsightly and unfurnished, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters. And God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day. And God said, ‘Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ And God made the firmament and separated the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament. And it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day. And God said, ‘Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so” (Genesis 1:1-9 LXX).

This creation narrative in Genesis reveals how God brought all things into being from nothing. Then it says that He “hovered” over the water and organized the chaotic creation by imposing order on it. Out of the watery chaos of the deep, the dry land was revealed. God then hems in the chaos of the waters so that life can exist on earth. It is in the very act of creation that God “appears” or “reveals” Himself for the very first time.

Today we celebrate the second great appearance of God at the water. This time it is not only the Spirit that is mentioned, but the entire Holy Trinity. This is why the Feast is called “Theophany.” It means the full manifestation or Revelation of God. The Spirit hovers in the form of a dove, the Father speaks from Heaven, and the Son stands at the shore and eventually enters into the water itself. This is the meaning of the Troparion of the Feast:

“When Thou, O Lord wast baptized in the Jordan, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest. For the voice of the Father bare witness unto Thee, calling Thee His beloved Son, and the Spirit, in the form of a Dove, confirmed the truthfulness of His word. O Christ our God, who hast revealed Thyself and hast enlightened the world: glory to Thee.”

This time God did not come to the water to create the world, but to begin the work of its “enlightenment,” its “re-organization,” its “Re-Creation.” I remember once, many years ago, Fr George Benigsen, the former Rector of our St Nicholas Parish here, when he and Matushka Helen were living in Calistoga, telling me about a miracle that was happening at the convent there. They had a small icon of St. Nicholas there in the temple which had been very dark, blacked and damaged by age, soot, smoke. But this little icon, by the grace of God, was beginning to restore itself. No human being was cleaning it. It was cleaning itself miraculously, or rather God was cleaning it. It started at one corner, and little-by-little, over a number of weeks or months, the restoration spread until the icon looked like it had just emerged from the icon-workshop in Russia over a century earlier. This is the same thing that Jesus was doing at the Jordan. He wasn’t there because He needed baptism. What an absurd idea! He wasn’t there because He needed to be freed from sin and death. Not at all! But the world did. We did. And He began the process at the Jordan, He began the work in that one little corner of the world, which would then begin to spread throughout the entire world.

So, let’s review: we understand that God hovered the first time over the waters when He created the world and declared it to be good. The second time He did it, it was to begin the re-creation, restoration, and renewal of that world. That’s why St Paul says “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away. Behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17)! Will there be a third time that God will appear in connection with water? There certainly will be!

In Matthew 24:30, Jesus says:
And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.

In Revelation 1:7 St John writes:
Behold, He cometh with the clouds; and every eye shall see him...

Now I want you to think about this for just a moment. In the beginning of time, the beginning of creation, when the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters, no one saw it. It was revealed by the Holy Spirit, in a mystery, to Moses, who wrote it down. But nobody saw it. When God appeared the second time at the water, at the Jordan, nobody paid much attention. Nobody recognized Him. It was only John the Baptist who pointed Him out and declared to the people: “Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) But the final time that God will appear, everyone will see Him, and He will come on clouds, clouds made of water. And what do clouds represent or symbolize? To those of us on earth, clouds mean water, life, refreshment, shade, and purification. And spiritually, mystically, these clouds mean heaven, heaven coming down to earth, and the completion Christs’ work of re-creating the world.

Holy Theophany, like Christmas, reminds us that Jesus is coming again. He is coming back for us. He is coming again in order the judge the living and the dead. We should live our lives in anticipation of this fact. Creation, Christmas, Holy Theophany, all of these events in Sacred History have only one goal, one final destination, the Kingdom of Heaven. Not this world, not this fallen, twisted, darkened, damaged icon of creation, but the New, shining, brilliant Jerusalem to come. May we find ourselves worthy to forever dwell in her mansions in the company of Christ, His Most Pure Mother, St. John the Baptist, all the saints, the holy angels, and all the righteous who wait for us there. Amen.

SUNDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS 2019

THE SUNDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS 2019
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Christ is Born!

So the celebration of the Birth of Christ continues. Today is the 4th Day of Christmas. Four calling birds. Today is also the Sunday After Christmas. On this day we celebrate the Righteous Joseph the Betrothed, David the Prophet and King, James the Brother of God, and the 14,000 Holy Innocents, the children slaughtered in and around Bethlehem. It means that the Gospel story continues, the narrative continues, and today’s Gospel lesson, from Matthew Chapter 2: 13-23, leads the way.

So, after the Magi left Bethlehem, the Angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and instructed him to flee to Egypt with the newborn Babe, Jesus Christ, and His Mother, the Most Pure Virgin Mary. The Angel told Joseph to remain in that country until he was told to return, for Herod intended to "seek the young Child, to destroy Him." Saint Joseph arose, and "took the young Child and His Mother by night, and departed into Egypt." In his explanation of the Holy Gospel According to Saint Matthew, Saint Theophylact of Ohrid asks: "How is it that Luke says that after the Lord was born, forty days (40) passed, and then He was held in Symeon's arms, and went to Nazareth; while Saint Matthew tells us that the Lord went to Nazareth after returning from Egypt? Understand that Luke speaks about things about which Matthew is silent. Luke says that after the birth, the forty days were fulfilled; then the Lord went to Nazareth. Matthew tells us what happened afterwards: that He fled to Egypt then returned from there to Nazareth. They do not contradict one another. Luke informs us of the journey from Bethlehem to Nazareth, Matthew of the return from Egypt to Nazareth, which took place later."

When they arrived in Nazareth after attending to their obligations in the Temple of the Lord, Joseph and Mary made arrangements for the safekeeping of their house. Then, taking everything necessary for the journey, they slipped away by night, without even notifying their neighbors as to where they were going. They also had with them James, Joseph's eldest son by his first, now deceased wife Salome. James, who would later be called the “Brother of God,” volunteered to go along as a helper. On the twenty-third of October, we chant the following hymns to Saint James from The Menaion: "The Lord chose thee, O wise one, to be His brother in the flesh His disciple, and an eyewitness to divine mysteries. Thou didst flee with Jesus into Egypt in the company of His Mother and Joseph; with whom do thou pray that we may be saved." The Lord fled to Egypt to show that He had truly assumed flesh and had truly become a man, and was not a spirit or a phantom. Saint Ephraim the Syrian asks in his Homily on the Transfiguration: "If Christ did not truly assume flesh, with Whom did Joseph flee into Egypt?" A second reason for the flight into Egypt was to demonstrate that we should retreat when faced with anger, and not proudly contend with others. According to Saint John Chrysostom, "When the Lord fled, He taught us to flee from wrath. If the Almighty chose to escape His enemies rather than to confront them, much more should we, the proud, retreat from danger." Besides this, the Holy Pope Leo the Great teaches that it was necessary that preparations for the mystery of the holiest sacrifice of all be made in that land where the first Paschal lamb was offered and where the Cross was foreshadowed. Finally, it was necessary that Isaiah's prophecy be fulfilled: "Behold, the Lord sitteth upon a light cloud, and shall come to Egypt: and the idols of Egypt shall be shaken at His presence" (Isaiah 19:1). Saint Ambrose understands "the cloud" to be the immaculate Virgin, who carried to Egypt in her arms the Lord, Whose presence caused the downfall of that country's idols. Truly, the Virgin is "a light cloud," for she is not weighted down by carnality, fleshly desires, or sin of any kind.

While Saint Joseph, the Most Pure Virgin, and the Divine Infant were journeying to Egypt, robbers stopped them in the desert, with the intention of stealing their donkey that carried on its back all of their meager belongings. One of the thieves, in fact their leader, noticing how beautiful was the Babe, marveled, exclaiming, "If God were to assume flesh, He could not be fairer than this Child!" Whereupon, he forbade his companions to harm the travelers. At this the Most Pure Theotokos assured the robber, "One day this Infant will reward you richly for having protected Him." That thief was the very same one crucified with Christ, to whom the Lord said, "Today shalt thou be with Me in paradise." When the robber died, the Mother of God's prophecy was fulfilled, and the Wise Thief received his rich reward.

After arriving in Egypt, the travelers found themselves in the Thebaid, approaching Hermopolis. Near the gates of the city, there was a very beautiful tree called "Persea," which, on account of its imposing height, the idolatrous people worshipped it as a god, offering it sacrifices. When the immaculate Mother of God and the Divine Infant drew near this tree, it began to tremble violently, and the demons who dwelt within it fled. Then the tree bent over in obeisance so its top touched the ground, thus professing to its Creator the adoration that was His due, and showing its respect for His Mother, the Most Pure Virgin. The holy travelers stopped to rest beneath it, sheltering themselves from the sun in its abundant shade. The tree thereafter remained bent, as a testimony to Christ-God's flight into Egypt, and its leaves acquired the power to heal all diseases. Later, the Lord, with Mary and Joseph, entered the city, and the first heathen temple they approached, with the idols in the building, came crashing down. This temple is mentioned in The Lausiac History, in which it is written, "We also saw in Hermopolis the house of idols, wherein all the idols that were in it fell to the floor upon their faces when our Redeemer entered." Likewise, when Christ and His Most Pure Mother went into a temple in the town of Siren, the three hundred and sixty-five statues in it toppled over. Throughout Egypt, wherever the Lord went, the idols fell and were smashed, forcing the demons to leave. Thus the prophecy uttered by Jeremiah to the pagan priests when he was in Egypt, and recorded by Saint Epiphanius in his Life of the prophet, was fulfilled: "When a virgin mother comes here with a child that was laid in a manger, the idols shall come tumbling down, and the gods made by men's hands shall be destroyed."

The Most Pure Mother of God and Christ remained for some time in Egypt, but it is uncertain exactly how long. In any case, they did not leave until Herod's death, as the Gospel says: "They were there until the death of Herod." After the massacre of the 14,000 children in Bethlehem, the wretched king perished miserably, and the Angel appeared again to Joseph in a dream, commanding him to return to the land of Israel, since they were "dead which sought the young Child's life." It turned out, however, that Herod’s son Archelaus was no better than his father, torturing and executing many. No sooner did he arrive in Jerusalem than he slew three thousand people. Likewise, on one of the great Jewish feasts, he slaughtered a multitude of citizens immediately in front of the entrance of the Temple. Eventually he was denounced before Caesar for his cruelty, removed from power, and exiled. When Saint Joseph, therefore, was visited by the same Angel that had appeared to him before, and was informed that the wicked Archelaus was ruler in Judea, he went to Galilee, where Herod Antipas ruled less brutally. Saint Joseph returned to his house in Nazareth and remained there with the Divine Child and the immaculate Virgin. Thus the saying concerning Christ the Lord "spoken by the prophets" was fulfilled, for they had foretold that He "would be called a Nazarene." Unto Him Who fled to Egypt for our salvation, Christ our God, be praise, honor, and glory forever. Amen!

Hopko's Christmas Homily "The Blessed Exchange"

The Blessed Exchange

As we prepare to celebrate the Great Feast of the Nativity of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ this Tuesday evening and Wednesday morning, I’d like to pause and reflect on the words of my late Seminary Professor, Protopresbyter Thomas Hopko, taken from his classic homily, “The Blessed Exchange.”

“Orthodox Christian Scriptures proclaim—and the Liturgy celebrates, the Sacraments realize, the Icons depict, the Canons protect, the Martyrs witness, the Fathers explain, and the Saints live—the Blessed Exchange that God accomplished in the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and glorification of His Son Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit’s power, for the salvation of humanity and the whole of creation:

God became human to make humans divine.
God became visible to allow humans to see Him.
God became touchable to allow humans to touch Him.
God spoke in human words to allow humans to hear Him.
God entered earthly time to make humans eternal.
God took flesh to make human bodies His dwelling.
God lived as a creature on earth to recreate the whole of creation.

He was a human being so that by His humanity we could become gods by grace.
He was small so that by His smallness we could become divinely great.
He was poor that so by His poverty we could become divinely rich.
He was weak so that by His weakness we could attain God’s power.
He was a fool in this world so that we could attain God’s wisdom.
He emptied Himself so that by His emptiness we could be filled with all the fullness of God.
He became the servant of all so that by his servitude we could all reign with Him.
He became nothing so that through His nothingness we could become everything.

He was homeless that by being a stranger He could take us home with himself to God.
He was naked that by His nakedness He could clothe us with himself.
He was wounded that by His wounds we could be healed.
He was without comeliness or form that we could be splendidly beautiful.
He was arrested that by being imprisoned we could be liberated.
He hungered that by his hunger He could be the Bread of Life for all who eat Him.
He thirsted that He could give us the Living Water that we would never thirst again.
His Body was broken that we who eat Him could be made whole.
His Blood was shed that we who drink Him could never die.

He became Sin that in Him we might become the Righteousness of God.
He became a Curse that in Him we might become the Blessedness of God .
He became a Corpse that in Him we might be forever Alive.

He suffered to free us from our sufferings.
He endured the Passion to free us from our passions.
He was tempted, tested and tried, just as we are, so that we could be victorious in Him.
He died the most vile death that a man, especially a Jew, could possibly die that we could live as God intended us to live, both now in this world and in the age to come.

To Him be glory, honor, worship, dominion, praise and thanksgiving, with God His Father and His all holy, good and life-creating Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.”

SUNDAY OF THE OLD TESTAMENT FOREFATHERS

SUNDAY OF THE HOLY FOREFATHERS
December 15, 2019; Luke 14: 16-24

Beloved,

Many of us are very busy at this time of year getting ready for Christmas, aren’t we? It’s not just the shopping and the writing and mailing of Christmas cards, and it’s not just the decorating of the house and the Christmas Tree, but for many of us it’s everything associated with the Christmas Dinner as well: the preparation of the table, making place cards, the polishing of the silver, the steaming of the Christmas Pudding, or feeding the fruitcake, baking the cookies, the purchase of the turkeys or geese, or prime ribs of beef, or hams or whatever. Some of the cooking has perhaps already begun, and certainly invitations have been extended or sent out long, long, ago. The money is shelled out, and the hard work of ‘getting ready’ will continue right up to the Great Day itself. It’s exciting. It’s exhausting, but the joy in it is almost palpable. It’s the celebration of the birth of Christ in the Family Church that follows the celebration in the temple. First we gather in the temple and then we gather in our homes. That’s what the “mas” in “Christmas” actually means, ‘gathering.’ Like “synaxis” in Greek, or “sobor” in Russian, “mass” in English means gathering or assembly. Now can you imagine, having put in all of that time, sweat, and money to put on this brilliant dinner, that suddenly all of the invited guests, all of your closest friends and relatives, just decide not to show up? How horrible would THAT be? And suppose that their excuses were, “Well I got a hangnail, so I can’t come,” or “the weatherman said there would be a 10% chance it might drizzle so we can’t take the chance so we’re not coming,” or “one of the strands of Christmas lights on my tree has gone out so I need to stay home and fix it.” Can you imagine? How would you feel? Wouldn’t you be crushed?

Well, the Birth of Christ, the Nativity of Christ, was God’s Christmas card and God’s invitation to all of His nearest and dearest, His own People, to come to His House, to the Banquet of Heaven, to the Feast of the Messiah, to a seat at His own Table. Everything was and is ready, and the price, the very heavy price was paid. It was paid on the Cross. Picture now in your minds Jesus standing on the Mount of Olives and gazing out over the Holy City of David, and hear His words: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Matthew 23:37). Hear the pain. Hear the heartbreak. His own chosen people rejected His invitation, they rejected Him!

So who are “the poor and the maimed and the lame and the blind” that the Master invites to replace his closest relatives and friends? Who are those homeless who were living rough in “the highways and the hedges” who are likewise invited? They are the Gentiles, us! The Gentiles were crippled and blind because they were pagan idolaters, and they were homeless because they were outside of the Household of God, outside of the Temple. But now, because of Christ, they (we) were invited in! St. Cyril of Alexandria says: “It was necessary, absolutely necessary for the Gentiles, who were restrained in chains by an intolerable tyranny, and fallen under the yoke of the devil, and caught, so to speak, in the indissoluble meshes of their sins, and utterly ignorant of Him Who by nature and in truth is God, that their calling should be very urgent...that they might be able to look up unto God, and taste the sacred doctrines, and leave off their former error, and spring away as it were from the hand of Satan” (Sermon 104 on Luke).

How very grateful we must be for the great love that God has shown to us! We who were not His own now belong to Him. And even more that this, we have all been adopted by Him. We are His dear children who are blessed to dine with Him at every Divine Liturgy, and taste of His Mystical Food every time we receive the Holy Mysteries. St. Cyril of Jerusalem in the 4th century wrote: “Under the new covenant there is bread from heaven and the cup of salvation. These sanctify both soul and body, the bread being adapted to the sanctification of the body, the Wine, to the sanctification of the soul. Do not, then, regard the eucharistic elements as ordinary bread and wine: they are in fact the body and blood of the Lord, as he himself has declared...You know also how David referred to this long ago when he sang: ‘Bread gives strength to man’s heart and makes his face shine.’ Strengthen your heart, then, by receiving this bread as spiritual bread, and bring joy to the face of your soul.” Joy. That’s what Christmas means to me. Joy in the Birth of Jesus, joy in being invited into the House of God – the Church, joy in partaking in the Banquet of the Messiah - the Holy Eucharist, and yes, joy in the Christmas dinner. I just hope that the invitees show up! Amen.

The Ten Lepers

Homily on the Virtue of Gratitude
Luke 17:11-19; Sunday, December 8, 2019

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Dear Ones,

What’s going on in the Gospel today? The Lord Jesus Christ and His disciples are nearing a village. On the outskirts of town they encounter a group of lepers from a colony outside of the village. Lepers, in ancient times, were considered both physically and ritually “unclean” by the Law of Moses. Leviticus 13 says: “And the leper in whom the plague is, let his garments hang loose, and his head uncovered; and let him have a covering put upon his mouth, and he shall be called unclean. All the days in which the plague shall be upon him, being unclean, he shall be accounted as unclean; he shall dwell apart, his place of sojourn shall be outside the camp” (Leviticus 13: 45-46). Because the disease was so communicable, lepers had to keep away from people and could not live in the same communities as the healthy. The holy fathers suggest that the lepers represent, in a spiritual way, the whole of humanity, because the number ten suggests “fullness.” How many commandments did God give to Moses? Ten. What percentage of a person’s income did God require to be given for the support of the temple and the priesthood. Ten percent! There are many other such examples. So, their leprosy represents the fullness of human sin, corruption, and fallenness leading to death and that afflicts us all. The ten lepers had to keep their distance. They came as close as they dared to come. Even so, they had to shout to be heard by Jesus. St. Theophylact of Ochrid says:
“In their physical location they were standing far away, but in their request they were very near, for as David sings: 'The Lord is near unto all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in truth' (Psalm 144:18 LXX).”

Interestingly, they don't ask to be healed. Did you notice that? They only cry out for mercy. But ‘mercy’ is a very broad word. It can mean “compassion,” it can mean “forgiveness,” it can mean “charity,” or it can mean “healing.” It means each of these and all of these. What do you think we mean when we continuously sing, chant, and pray “Lord have mercy?” We mean all of these!

How does Jesus answer them? He simply responds by telling them to go the priests. He does not say, "You are healed." There's no promise of future healing. He doesn't approach them, He doesn't touch them. He doesn’t give them any money. He does nothing to lead them to think they might get better. What did He say to them? He said very simply, 'Go and show yourselves to the priests.' By these few words Jesus puts these men to the test. By going to the priests it means that they believe they will be healed by the time they get there! It's a test of their faith. Will they go or not? Do they believe that healing will take place? All we see is that they go. And in the going they notice they're healed. We read, "As they went they were made clean."

Their response is interesting. Amongst the ten lepers there is only one who jubilantly returns. He doesn't wait for the priest's certification of his healing. He turns around and returns to Jesus. He's praising God and his praises were heard by everybody. Loud calls for mercy have now turned to loud shouts of thanks and praise. In this praising the leper shows that he realizes where this merciful act of Jesus comes from. It comes from the very heart of God. He acknowledges God as the source of his healing and he recognizes the
God-Man Jesus as the vehicle of that healing. St. Theophylact writes:
“Of the ten lepers, the nine who were Israelites showed themselves to be ungrateful, while it was the Samaritan, the hated foreigner...who returned to voice his gratitude.”

When the one, healed, former-leper returns to Jesus, his gratitude is full of humility as he prostrates himself before Him. He knows that he has been healed at a much deeper level than the others, but that was because he embraced that deeper healing. For the Jews the test was about the observance of the Law, but for the Samaritan, the test was more about his heart. He is “whole” because not only his body, but his soul is also cured; the whole man was healed. Jesus recognizes in this man the attitude that enables salvation to come to him. And that same attitude needs to be present in us as well. That’s why the Holy Apostle Paul wrote these words to the Church in Philippi:

"Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4: 4-7).

And Joshua ben Sira writes:

“I will praise your name continually, and will sing hymns of thanksgiving. My prayer was heard, for you saved me from destruction and rescued me in time of trouble. For this reason I thank you and praise you, and I bless the name of the Lord” (Sirach 51: 11-12).

As we go on our way in life, let’s make sure that part of that way is God's way, the way of Gratitude, the Way of Grace, the way of the Samaritan, the way of the former leper. May we also discover our calls for mercy turning into great shouts of praise -- praise to our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

2 Thessalonians 2:13

FROM TODAY’S LECTIONARY

“God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2: 13b).

What an amazing statement! God ‘from the beginning’ chose us for salvation. What does this mean? Does it mean that God, from the beginning of time, chose me (us) to be saved? Does it mean that what I have done or been in this life has had no effect on my salvation? No, not at all. This would be the heresy of “double-predestination” which teaches that God, from the beginning, chose some people to be saved and some to be condemned. No. What we do, what we choose matters. Free will, the ability to choose right and wrong, good and bad, is the hallmark of what makes a human being, created in the image of God. That’s why Moses exhorts the Hebrews: “I call both heaven and earth to witness this day against you, I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse: choose thou life, that thou and thy seed may live; to love the Lord thy God, to hearken to his voice, and cleave to him; for this is thy life, and the length of thy days, that thou shouldest dwell upon the land, which the Lord swore to thy fathers, Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, to give to them” (Deuteronomy 30: 19-20 LXX). What do we learn from this? We learn that God made promises to His people, but the fulfillment of those promises depended on the behavior, the choices, of the people. And what were those choices? 1.) To love the Lord; 2.) To listen to what He says and do what He tells you; and 3.) Cleave to Him. That means to be close to God, to be inseparable from God, to be intimately and eternally united to Him.

So let’s return to the Apostle and today’s epistle verse. What choices does St. Paul lay before us? He tells us that God chose us all to be saved “through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.” In other words, God’s promise of salvation depends on our choices and our behavior, just like the ancient Hebrews. And what are they? “Sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.” This reminds me of another place in Scripture where the Lord said: “the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him” (John 4:23). Sanctification by means of the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, and believing (and speaking) the Truth, these are what Christ and the Apostle both recommend for salvation. Righteous living attracts the Holy Spirit, and constant attention to the Scriptures, the services, the prayers, the fathers, inform us as to what and Who the truth is. “Many are called but few are chosen” the Lord says in another place (Matthew 22:14). It means that everyone has been invited to salvation, but most have not accepted the invitation (see Luke 14: 16-24).

So, as the Letter of Barnabas instructs us, “It behooves us therefore to...search out the things which have power to save us. Let us therefore flee altogether from all the works of lawlessness, lest the works of lawlessness overpower us; and let us loathe the errors of the present time, that we may be loved for that which is to come” (Epistle of Barnabas, 4:1). Amen.