Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Hail to the Chief….The REAL Chief!

Hosanna to God in the highest! These were the cries from the crowd over 2000 years ago when our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. These were the cries from the crowd that witnessed the miracle of life when Jesus resuscitated Lazarus who was in the grave for four days. At the same time Jesus was both the giver of life in Lazarus and the humble servant riding a lowly donkey. The world rejected this possibility solely because a “proper king” should ride a white horse into the city gates. A “proper king” should accept praises of other world leaders and pay homage to emperors. According to the world a “proper king” would never condescend to wash the slime from his follower’s feet! This is the image of king that our Lord offers us. Although God could have entered humanity as the All-Mighty, He chose to enter His own creation as a humble servant. Although He could have made a public scandal of Judas pretending to care for the poor, He chose to have compassion upon him.

Today our King, God Himself, in the form of a humble servant who has compassion on us in our weakest moments, enters to claim the throne of our hearts. Will our answer be the same as the cries of 2000 years ago? Will we call out to God, “All Hail! Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on Me a Sinner! Enter the gates of my heart and be my King.”? In a world that enshrines such sins as greed, abortion, and same-sex marriage into the Law of the Land will we reject Jesus as our King and embrace world? Or will we reject the world and embrace Jesus Christ?

“Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself and enemy of God.” (James 4.4) 2000 years ago the world power rejected God and they do more and more today. This is our chance to stand up the world and “draw near to God and He will draw near to us.” (James 4.8)

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Pascha – The Feast of Feasts, An Orthodox Christian Understanding

Next month we celebrate the Feast of Feasts, Pascha, but what is this Feast really all about? Many theologians throughout the centuries have written thousands of pages about Pascha making it a daunting task. Nonetheless it is important that as Orthodox Christians, living in a predominantly Protestant Christian environment, have a proper understanding of the Feast we call Pascha.

In short, Pascha is the celebration of the Death, Burial, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God. In this feast it is imperative that we understand that God, in the Second Person of the Trinity known as the Son of God, became a human being. Saint Paul writes, “Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” (Hebrews 2.17) In being a human Christ fully identifies Himself with our humanity in order, through His Death and Resurrection, to restore our humanity, fallen in sin, to Communion with God.

In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are united to Him in our human nature but not in our sins. As Fr. George Florosvky writes:

The Lord died on the Cross. This was a true death. Yet not wholly like ours, simply because this was the death of the Lord, the death of the Incarnate Word, death within the indivisible Hypostasis of the Word made man. And again, it was a voluntary death, since in the undefiled human nature, free from original sin, which was assumed by the Word in the Incarnation, there was no inherent necessity of death. And the free "taking up" by the Lord of the sin of the world did not constitute for Him any ultimate necessity to die. Death was accepted only by the desire of the redeeming Love. His death was not the "wages of sin." The descent of Christ into Hell is the manifestation of Life amid the hopelessness of death, it is victory over death. And by no means is it the "taking upon" Himself by Christ of the "hellish torments of God-forsakeness". This idea was brought forward with great emphasis by Calvin and shared by some other Reformed theologians, but at once was resented and vigorously repudiated by a great number of both Reformed and Catholic divines, as a "new, unheard-of heresy". (On the Tree of the Cross, Florovsky 1953)
Fr A. James Bernstein, in his book “Surprised by Christ” writes of the Jewish sacrifice (the context of Christ’s death on the Cross) in terms of purification of humanity. “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15.3) to heal us, to change us, to make us more godlike, not instead of us. The ultimate purpose of His death was to change us, not to avert the wrath of God.”

Understanding Pascha in this Orthodox Christian way, the ancient way, is to recognize the Love of God reflected in His death on the Cross rather than His anger which demands that blood must be shed in order to forgive sins. To limit the death, burial and resurrection of Christ to “required bloodshed” is to limit God’s love and mercy.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

We Will Be Comforted

Christ said to His disciples, “You will indeed drink the cup that I drink, and with the baptism I am baptized you will be baptized.” (Mark 10.39) These are not words of comfort for any Christian. In two weeks we will gather in the Church each night and witness the Passion of Christ as presented in Holy Scripture. When Christ says we will suffer like He did, however, it was not meant to make us afraid. Instead He was reminding us that in our baptism we are united to Him. He, being God, has lowered Himself and associated Himself with us, His simple creation.

It is in this unity with Christ that the words of the Gospel are comforting because He also said, “and the third day He will rise again.” (Mark 10.34) In reminding us of how we are united in Christ in suffering He is reminding us that we are united to Him in His Resurrection because He came “to give His life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10.45)

My Brothers and Sisters, Christ came so that we might be united to Him in Heaven. Let us embrace our unity with God because He has conquered death for ever. Even though we may suffer we take comfort in knowing that all suffering eventually ends and is replaced by comfort in Heaven with God if we identify ourselves with Him.

Take the opportunity this year during Holy Week and come identify yourself with Jesus Christ! The future rewards are much greater than the current struggle.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Pick Up Your Cross, It’s Moving Day

The other day I spoke with a gentleman who had just helped a friend move. He shared with me how long of a day it was as they filled a 17-fout truck TWICE as full as they could get it. Just hearing him give me the details of moving brought flash-backs of the times I moved or helped someone else move. I could almost feel my back tighten up as we were talking. I’m sure we’ve all moved at one time or another so whether it is the burden of packing or the muscle of moving boxes that were too full, when someone mentions moving we can all relate…and if you’ve never moved or packed a box or carried a friend’s boxes to a truck, you’re really missing out. The best part of helping a friend move is the fellowship. It’s pretty much the same thing every time especially if everyone has helped before. Everyone knows his or her own limits as to how much they can pick up so we all look out for each other. Every move needs a supervisor, who is normally the one who is moving, who not only knows where everything is going but also watches to make sure the right people pick up the right box. The supervisor’s responsibility is to guide each member of the moving team to the right box so they don’t pick up something that is too heavy for them or place a box where it doesn’t belong. It’s almost like he is calling out, “If you want to help me move, pick up your boxes and follow me…to the truck.” By the end of the day, the truck is full, the house is empty, our muscles are sore and everyone sits back to admire the full truck as a symbol of accomplishment. It can be quite an enjoyable, yet difficult day picking up boxes on moving day.

Today is moving day…not to another house but to another way of life. This morning’s Gospel is a simple invitation by God for us to follow Him in a new way of life. Just as a move from one house to another involves some heavy lifting our move today will involve some lifting. Jesus calls out to us, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” (Mark 8.34) And just as every move has a supervisor who helps us pick up the correct box, Jesus has appointed His Church to help us pick up the right cross – OUR cross.

Each one of us has a certain ability and strength that has been given to us by God. He knows our strengths and He knows our limits. He knows better than we do how much we can lift. So when He invites us to pick up our cross, He means OUR cross and not anyone else’s. Some of you know I have a bad back. I have to be very careful exactly what and how I pick up boxes when I help people move. If I reach for the wrong box or turn the wrong way, it only takes a second; I can hurt my back and be bent over for a week.

Christ has invited us to pick up our cross if we desire to follow Him. That is the message I wish to bring to you this morning. He doesn’t say, “Everyone pick up any ole cross,” but “Whoever desires to follow Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” The emphasis is on free will and personal burden and following Christ.

It is quite clear in the original Greek, “Οστις Θέλει οπίσω μου ακολουθείν, απαρνησάσθω εαυτόν και αράτω τον σταυρόν αυτού, και ακολουθείτω μοι.” “Όποιος θέλει να με ακολουθεί, ας απαρνηθεί τον εαυτό του, ας σηκώσει το σταυρό του κι ας με ακολουθεί.” There are three key words: desire, pick up, and follow.

Just like if we were trying to help someone move. We wouldn’t be doing them any favors if all we did was stand there and look at all the boxes stacked around us and refuse to help. Our friend would wonder why we even showed up in the first place. It also would do our friend any good if we volunteer to help move and then, with a weak back, head straight for the heaviest box and spend the rest of the day with ice packs watching everyone else do all the work.

When it comes to our spiritual moving day, we must first and foremost desire to follow Christ. Christ doesn’t want us against our will. If we do not desire to follow Him the cross which we will bear will be too heavy for us. It will be like ignoring a bad back and trying to lift a heavy box to show how strong we are. Who are we helping? To whom are we showing our strength? Frankly, who are we fooling? What will it profit a man if he lifts a heavy box if he then hurts his back? Of course Christ said it another way. “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (Mark 8.36)

If we first desire to follow Christ then He will watch over us to make sure the cross we pick up is our own. We are not asked to pick up anyone else’s cross but the one that best fits us. For our moving day, every box is labeled so we know which box is for us. If we spend time trying to pick up someone else’s cross, which of course we know means struggle, we may get hurt or we may think we are doing something we are not. In other words, Jesus has made sure that our cross, our struggle, fits each one of us and until we focus upon our own struggle, we will never accomplish what the Lord has for us to accomplish.

So first we must desire to follow Christ. Second we must be willing to pick up our own cross. Third, then, we must follow Christ. Again, just like moving day, if we just stand their holding a box and not carrying it to the truck, we accomplish nothing. There must be movement in our legs on moving day and there must be movement, or direction, in our spiritual life. We must always be walking toward Jesus Christ. As soon as we stop or turn another direction (or we turn away from God) then He cannot guide us to the Kingdom. We must never forget the first name for Christianity was “The Way” because it was a way of life, a journey with Christ in His Kingdom. There was always movement.

My brothers and sisters, if we desire to follow Christ, let us pick up our Cross and follow Him. Today is the third Sunday of Great Lent and we will pick up the cross and lift it high and carry it around the Church for everyone to see. God has conquered death because of His Holy Cross. Now it is our turn to pick up our cross and follow Him to a new way of life, to an Orthodox Christian way of life.

Being Orthodox Christian is about living ever day for Christ. We are in the midst of Great Lent. What an excellent chance for us to deny ourselves and follow Christ. Jesus Christ could just as easily say today, “Whoever desires to follow Me, let him pray, fast and do works of charity and follow Me. For what will it profit a man if he eats a steak, cusses out a store clerk, and walks right by a woman lying who is bleeding in a grocery store doorway, if He spends the rest of eternity suffering?”

The rewards for following Jesus Christ are well worth not eating meat. Jesus said and He says to us today, “Assuredly, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power.” (Mark 9.1) My brothers and sisters the Kingdom is already here. Let’s move in together!

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Cross: A Sign of Victory Rather than Defeat

High above our Church stands a golden cross for all passersby to see. The cross, a long-time symbol of our Christian Faith is held high in honor of the victory that Christ accomplishes in our lives every day. “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.” (Mark 8.34) With these words Jesus Christ challenges each of us to a higher standard of living than what the world has to offer. We have been given the freedom to choose life or death. He does not say just, “Take up your cross,” but “Whoever desires to come after Me…” He has created us with free will – the free will to choose to follow Him, or the to choose not to follow Him.

When Jesus took up His cross He defeated death once and for all so that we may live forever with Him. The cross becomes for us, as believers in Christ, a symbol of life rather than death. Christ’s victory was found in His resurrection AND death on the cross. Without the cross, Christ would not have died and if He had not died He would not have conquered death for all time. If we choose to use our free will to follow Christ, then we must follow Him into His death so that we too may live with Him.

“For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s sake with save it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (Mark 8.35-36) Each time we choose to deny the world in exchange for Christ we gain our soul. What seems like death and suffering in this life is life and power in the kingdom of heaven. The best way for us to deny the world is through prayer, fasting and works of charity which is our Great Lenten Journey. Let us embrace Great Lent and deny ourselves and follow Christ!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Let us say for ourselves, Lord Have Mercy, Lord Have Mercy, Lord Have Mercy

In today’s meditation in The Lenten Spring by Father Thomas Hopko, we are reminded of the true meaning of mercy.

It is the word “mercy” that leads to a wrong understanding of the Kyrie Eleison. We tend today to think of mercy almost exclusively in terms of justice. The opposite of being justly judged and therefore condemned, is to receive mercy. So the “Lord, have mercy” gets interpreted as “Lord, grant us pardon!” Or, “Lord, let us off!” In the scriptures and tradition, however, mercy is not primarily the antonym of justice. It is rather a word for goodness, kindness, generosity and love. St. John the Merciful, for example, was not a just judge who showed mercy on criminals. He was a bishop who distinguished himself as a helper and servant of the poor, the lowly, the needy and the afflicted. (From Lenten Spring, page 61-62)

During this Great Lent we find ourselves begging for the Lord’s mercy each night in our prayers and in the prayers of the Church. I am reminded though of the parable of the Good Samaritan where Jesus reveals that mercy is found in acts of charity. Jesus asked, “’So which of these three do you think was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?’ And he said, ‘He who showed mercy on him.’ Then Jesus said, ‘Go and do likewise.’” (Luke 10.36-37)

Let us embrace the Great Lent with acts of charity for each other and say for ourselves; Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.