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08 June 2014

Pentecost Day homily

After considering all the possibilities for happiness, all the goals that humans set to better themselves, all the aspirations and hopes that men dream in order to leave their mark, all the promises that life makes so you can live a fuller life, and all the things that make men's hearts burn with desire—after considering all these things and then dismissing them to be as worthless and pointless as chasing the wind—then wizened old Solomon concludes that there is nothing left but to fear God and keep His commandments.

To fear God and keep His commandments. In other words, to love God with all that you have and all that you are so that what He wants is all that you want. To live so that what pleases Him is all that matters to you. And to hope for nothing more than to see His beaming fatherly smile—that, says Solomon, is the point of life. The end all and be all. And that is all there is to life.

What is it that brings this bright idea into Solomon's mind? To be sure, his experience in the school of hard-knocks helps him along. But what gives Solomon such wisdom is the Holy Spirit.

And that is the Spirit's task—to give us the light to see beyond the here and now; to illumine our lives so that we see both our misguided wanderings and the real path that lies beyond. But most of all, the Spirit's task is to help us live beyond this moment, and most of all, to help us yearn and strive and work for the life lived within the Father's warm embrace, the life which causes His eyes to light up with joy and pride.

To strive for that life, we need the Holy Spirit. For He helps us see that such a life is both real and possible. And He plants within us the zeal to yearn and strive for such a life.

But first, the Holy Spirit must burn up the rust of sin which tarnishes our daily life; He must dissipate the mist caused by the coldness of our hearts (St Gregory the Great). He must melt away the dross of our ungodly desires. And He must warm our hearts so that He might gently bend our stiff necks to look not down at wherever our feet lead us, but up to the treasures our heavenly Father shows us and points us toward and gives us from His own hand.

Burning, dissipating, melting, warming. And most of all, illuminating. Is it any wonder that the Holy Spirit comes in the form of fire? Is it any wonder that He constitutes the Church not by giving orders, but merely by lighting up the truth—the truth about ourselves, and the truth about the God who both made us and continues to love us.

And so, with a wind that whooshes away the dust of death, and with a fire that that enkindles warmth and zeal, the Holy Spirit descends. But not only on that first Pentecost Day. For the Holy Spirit comes not just once, or only occasionally.

The Holy Spirit comes with the Father's Grace whenever the Church is gathered. He comes, both to gently lead and to carefully guide. He comes, both to expose our shame and entice us to repent. He comes, both to welcome us home and to strengthen us for the journey. And He comes to give us both the courage and the fortitude to live against our former ways, and to strive manfully to live the holiness for which we were designed.

That holiness for which we were designed is so tersely expressed by Solomon--to fear God and keep is commandments. This is nothing different from what Jesus tells us in today's Gospel: "If any one loves Me, He will keep My word."

It makes sense that love must not merely be thought, but also done; not just said but also lived. And it makes sense that to love means to let another's wish be your pleasure. Yet that is so hard to do--especially when the One we say we love is the One we cannot see.

And so, in our hearts where our love ultimately lives, in our minds where our love comes alive, in our souls where our love delights—that is where the Holy Spirit comes. So that we might see. So that we might do. And so that we might both put away our false loves, and then also live whole-heartedly for the One we say we love.

Such loving, such desire, such living is hard to do alone. In fact, it is impossible. For while we love individuals, we always love within a community, a family. That is how we are designed, because that is how God loves—within the community of Himself. Since "it is not good" that this love is lived alone, the Holy Spirit also helps us to see where love is truly lived—within the Church which He has birthed.

Of all the things that Spirit brings to light, of all the enlightenings and illuminings that He graciously does for us, this is the greatest one—that we do not love alone. We love with each other. Within families. And most especially, within the holy family of the Church, which is governed by our Father.

And so our prayer is not that the Holy Spirit come to me or you. Rather, we beg the Holy Spirit to come in order to kindle in the hearts of His faithful people the fire of His love. A fire which purges our fears. A fire which soothes our hearts. A fire which helps us to see. And a fire that unites us as we bask in its glow, and study its fascinating features, and live by its warmth.

This warmth is not just for us here in this place, just as the fire on the heads of the Apostles did not light up their words so they could speak only amongst themselves. This fire crosses all lines—even the lines of time and space—since it draws together all nations and kindreds and people and tongues.

Let us, then, call on those who have gone before us—those holy men and women who have been enkindled with the fire of the Spirit’s love. Let us call on them so that they may mercifully, by their merits and prayers, encourage us, and stand beside us, and assist us, and strengthen us. For we need their Spirit-given wisdom so that we do not turn a blind eye nor fear the light of truth, but press on in the holy faith which the Spirit of Truth teaches us.

By the holy prayers of all the saints, may we truly believe that we have seen the True Light; that we have received the Heavenly Spirit; that we have found the True Faith; and so we worship the Undivided Trinity, Who has saved us; to whom belongs all glory, honor and worship, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.

19 May 2014

In Praise of New Martyrs



NOTE: This homily was preached at Holy Incarnation Orthodox Church on the Fourth Sunday after Easter (18 May 2014), which also commemorated Saint Venantius.


Dearly beloved,

Life comes from death. Virginity gives birth to Life. Weakness perfects strength. Defeat leads to victory. Wisdom begins with fear. Humility overwhelms pride. Sorrow turns into joy. The dead become immortal.

The Christian faith is filled with many seeming contradictions. Our Lord’s Passion not only teaches but instills and inculcates in us this key truth. Yet it is a truth that we too quickly forget, and which our lives too easily deny. But this truth alone is able to sustain us in our darkest hours, when all hope seems lost, when faith seems pointless. Which is why we must continually hear, and take to heart, the stories of the saints, especially the martyrs.

Consider Saint Venantius, whom we commemorate today. At the age of 15, because he confessed Christ, Venantius was scourged, imprisoned, tortured with torches, dangled head-down over smoke to suffocate, beaten so that both jaws were broken and he lost all his teeth, thrown into a dungpit and then fed to the lions. All these things he suffered without complaint. During all these afflictions holy Venantius was strengthened by angels. And his quiet patience and longsuffering, his firm constancy and conviction, his meek endurance and lack of complaint—this impressed all who saw and heard, so that these gruesome tortures did not frighten, but rather fortified the faithful and attracted the unknowing. When Venantius was finally beheaded, so were many new Christians who desired the certain hope and the strong faith that he evinced. 

And so here is another seeming contradiction. Torture reveals hope. Persecution attracts men not to bloodlust, but to believe. And martyrdom does not weaken resolve or decrease numbers, but rather increases and builds up the church.

This is true not only then, but even now. Even now, especially in Syria, new Venantius’—teenage boys and girls—are boldly testifying to their faith with their own blood. Martyrdom continues, and even now increases. And those who kill and torture are thinking that they are destroying the Church. But they don’t see the truth that we know. They don’t understand the seeming contradictions that are the bedrock of our faith. And so they will not believe that this is our finest hour. So even now in the arid lands of the Middle East, these are the days when the Tree of Christ is being watered with the blood of new martyrs, so that she may grow and flourish and feed our faith.

And so, another seeming contradiction—the gruesome scenes we hardly hear about should not depress us, or scare us, or cause us to wring our hands. These grisly martyrdoms ought to enliven our faith, and increase our hope, and rejoice our hearts; even as they also concentrate our own minds so that we more eagerly and more quickly “cast away all uncleanness and abundance of naughtiness.” For how can we continue giving into our ungodly desires and appetites, when we see the passion of these new martyrs? How can we not want all the more to “put to death the deeds of our flesh,” when we hear of the death of these new martyrs? And how can we think twice about giving our meager sacrifices, when we see these new martyrs give all that they have and all that they are for the love of Christ.

Spurred on by their merits, let us with increasing “meekness receive the ingrafted word.” For in these new martyrs, that ingrafted word manifests His grace to us. In them, the Spirit of truth is evident—the Spirit who builds up his Church using such witnesses; and the Truth who reveals Himself so clearly in these seeming contradictions.

What we hear in today’s news, what we see in Saint Venantius—this is not new to us. It is simply the continuation of our Easter joy—the joy where “death and life have contended in the combat stupendous,” so that “the Prince of Life who died reigns immortal” so that we, who are not bloodied nor bear any wounds, nevertheless win the victory.

So, as we hear these of these saints, let us not be overwhelmed with sadness. And certainly let us not pity them. Rather, let us remember yet another seeming contradiction: that such sadness ushers in gladness; that those who sow in tears shall reap in joy. For while this kind of “anger of man worketh not the justice of God,” it certainly does testify to our hope and point to our salvation. And of this we can be supremely confident: that such hatred will be defeated by love. For that is our faith—that Love Himself is at work today, even as He was in His Passion, in ways we cannot always see or understand; to whom, by the prayers of His holy martyrs, belongs all glory, honor and worship, now and ever and unto the ages of ages.

Christ is risen!




01 May 2014

The Culture Sarah Palin Reveals

Sarah Palin's recent comments at the NRA convention linking baptism and the water-boarding torture method are egregious and reprehensible. Regrettably, however, they are also all too common in two ways.

First, our political speech has become increasingly extreme by all sides of the political spectrum. And Palin often places herself at the forefront of this practice, of which there are too many amateur as well as professional practitioners. Perhaps they fear not being heard above the cacophony of political noise. Perhaps theirs is a woefully misguided attempt to rouse an increasingly apathetic nation. More likely, this method is merely an attempt to grab today's headlines so that the name or issue stays out there. Regardless the reason, this extreme speech loses more ground than it gains.

Second, we live (and have always lived) within a non-sacramental milieu, both because the ruling Christians have historically been from traditions which are rooted less in the mysterious and more in the rational or emotional; and because their fading numbers are being replaced by those (Christian and non-Christian alike) whose morality is as materialistic as it is relativistic. In this context, baptism and other sacraments and sacramentals are nothing more than a figure of speech.

In my view, the response is not to turn to those groups which cynically use such egregious and reprehensible speech to advance their own agenda; nor to engage in petition-signings which too often delude us into thinking that we did something meaningful. The response, in my view, is to remain faithful, to eschew such extreme speech, and to be ready to give a defense for the hope that lives within us.

30 May 2013

Some Undermining Premises

It is always fun hearing a Confessional Lutheran argue against Lutheranism (see comment 2)! I remember those days with some fondness, yet not for that reason alone but because they stand closer to the angels and with a few firmer roots in the Tradition, I shall always cheer for the Confessional Lutheran.

Yet I do so with sadness, knowing that two premises undermine their argument (both against Lutheranism and with the Orthodox and Catholics). These are:

1) Confessional Lutheran arguments cannot escape the atmosphere and water of Lutheranism within which they are formed. In other words, many suppositions of Lutheranism still lurk beneath and within the Confessional Lutheran argument--something I many fought to deny for many years, but ultimately could not. As support, I point not only to the arguments among Confessional Lutherans about their own self-understanding of the Confessions, but also to the odd co-mingling of Chemnitz and Gerhard (among others). There is a discernible gap among the former and anything that grew up in "Lutheran Orthodoxy."

2) At the end of the day, there is no Confessional Lutheran ecclesiology, not simply because ecclesiology is hardly a topic in the 16th-18th centuries (one has to look to Loehe to find the beginnings of an attempt), but also because Lutheranism and Confessional Lutherans agree on an ecclesiology that is at variance with the "faith once delivered"--an ecclesiology which was clearly apparent in Luther and Chemnitz, but which changed dramatically the day that Lutherans accepted the fact that they are Lutherans.

As for this present presentation by the learned Subdeacon, his main point still needs to be reckoned with; namely, how can the Lutheran Confessions, in several places, speak of God being reconciled to man. One of my Lutheran pastor friends once tried to argue this case, but it was not convincing, especially when he was asked to play by his own rules ("bible-locatedness"). It shall, I fear, forever remain a puzzle for those of us who have rejected the notion that Jesus was praying that the Father had abandoned Him (Ps 21 [22]), thereby consigning Him to a wrath and fury worse than hell, all so that He might appease God's wrath.

But now I'm back where I began--with the Lutheranism (i.e., Robert Jensen's "Calvinism with a bizarre sacramentology attached") which hides within the Confessional Lutheran defense.

21 April 2013

Passiontide Encouragement

I was granted the privilege of preaching the homily at the pan-Orthodox Vespers this evening at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church hosted by the Council of Orthodox Christian Churches of Detroit. What follows is the homily. I pray that you find the words encouraging.

In less than two weeks, we will be celebrating the Queen of Feasts, the resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. Even now, we should be eagerly anticipating this feast. For it is the highlight not of spring, but the highlight of our life in God. And even if you’ve not been successful thus far at keeping the fast—not merely the fast from food, but the more important fast from sin; and not merely the abstention from meat but the abstention from mean-speaking and thoughtless prayer and living as if you mattered most—even if you’ve struggled with this Lent’s fast, nevertheless we should all be longing to delight in the gracious invitation that St John Chrysostom will once again issue on Easter Day. And to see the resplendent gold and candlelight, to repeat the uplifting hymns, to add our vigorous Amen to the prayers that warm our hearts—that should even now increase our expectation to celebrate this joyous day.

Yet in these next two weeks, even if he cannot steal our faith or blunt our resolve, the devil will seek to subdue our joy and depress our delight, and disrupt our gladness. And so be on your guard. For in these final days of the fast, you will be besieged by various temptations. The devil will play upon your addicting weaknesses. He will urge you to ignore your well-formed conscience, and will entice you to give into your ungodly passions. And he will haunt you with your past sins, and will play upon your vulnerabilities, and will seduce you to crave other joys, and lead you to despair of your weaknesses and mortality. And all this he will do so that you will be downcast and shame-faced as the Feast of Feast approaches.

Yet do lose heart. For Our Lord’s Spirit in the Church has given us the means to combat this wily foe, and to endure these next two weeks. And so we are not left to our own devices, nor must we by our own strength somehow seek to deceive this Deceiver. Instead, we can combat this Accuser of our souls in three ways.

First, let us in the next few days make a good confession. Let us bend under the protecting stole of our spiritual father, and hold nothing back, and make no excuses, but say honestly what we have done and leave everything on the table. For when we’ve said it aloud, the devil’s ability to sap our strength is weakened. And then let us hear with an open heart, and take into ourselves, the absolution prayer that our father speaks. For his words will certainly give us the courage and grace to combat the devil’s allurements, and will help us live through our past darkness. And that word of mercy will certainly cause of the sun of righteousness to warm our soul.

Second, let us find inspiration and strength in the prayers of St Simon of Cyrene. With reluctance, he took up the Lord’s cross. And yet, as he carried the cross, Our Lord was beside St Simon, strengthening him and increasing his faith, so that what began as a burdensome task was converted into a joyous duty, even to the point that he wished to be crucified with Our Lord. So learn from St Simon the audacity to follow Christ with your mind and spirit even when your flesh wants to go another way. And so beg his prayers, so that your heart may also not shrink from the burden of these remaining days, and may find joy in what others will say is an onerous and arduous and inhuman obligation.

Third, above all else, let us make truly our own the words of Christ’s heartfelt prayer to His Father. You know that in the midst of His agony in the garden, as He feels in His human nature the weight of His burden, Our Lord Jesus aligns His will with the Father’s will by saying, “Not my will, but thine be done.” Let this also be your heart’s desire. And let these words focus and concentrate your mind during these coming weeks. For as our will becomes the Lord’s will, as we take up our cross and follow him, as we are supported and buoyed by the prayers of St Simon, then will we be able to celebrate Our Lord’s resurrection with unbridled joy, and our gladness will be unhindered, and our singing will be unimpeded, and our approach to the chalice will be unhesitating.

And in this way, by these means, the grace and merits of Our Lord’s Passion will safely escort us through these next two weeks, and guided us unscathed past the snares and machinations of the devil.

By the prayers of St Simon, St Mary of Egypt whom we commemorate this day, and of all the saints, may it be so. And by their prayers, may we attain the fullness of the heavenly kingdom where, without assault, we shall worship full-throatedly the holy and blessed Trinity; to whom belongs all glory, honor and worship, now and ever and unto the ages of ages.

14 April 2012

East vs. West??

Several times I've read and even participated in discussions concerning the differences between Orthodox and Catholic theology. Too often I see that these differences are boiled down to "East vs. West." For example, it is simplistically implied that to become Orthodox is to reject Western philosophical categories or Western theological approaches, upon which is blamed every heresy (real or imagined).

I think, however, the differences in Eastern and Western Christian approaches are too often overdrawn. Differences in approach have existed since before the schism and, too often, they are magnified out of proportion. When this is done, acceptable distinctions become seemingly inseparable differences. A regrettable result is that these differences are laid at the foot of the West generally or a Western approach; or vice versa. The problem, in my view and in the view of some Orthodox and Catholic theologians, is not the West or the East but these distorted magnifications which overwhelm or skew or (in a few cases) negate these different but acceptable approaches. The solution is to eschew the simplistic tendency to blame the West, and to embrace the good which both approaches offer. 


03 April 2012

Living Repentance

The Irish Catholic Bishops have recently published a letter on repentance which, I think, says many good things. Here are a few choice excerpts.

The word ‘repentance’ means seeking forgiveness for our sins, but more than that, it involves transforming our attitudes and our lives. The New Testament word, metanoia, means a profound change of outlook. Repentance or penance is not a question of inflicting pain or hardship on ourselves for its own sake. Penance – fasting, prayer, works of mercy, giving to those who are in need and so on – is done ‘because the kingdom of God has come near’; we repent in order to ‘believe in the good news’. It is a change of outlook that allows us to see more clearly what God is doing in us and for us.
...

The reason for carrying out acts of penance is that we know we have often failed to appreciate that everything we have and are is a gift from God. We have all pursued our own interests, standing and influence as if these were our goal in life. And so it is good to pray, fast and give alms –activities which express a realisation that the pursuit of such goals cannot be what makes ultimate sense of our lives. That points to the second and more important way of looking at why we do penance – in order to receive the Good News. The words that come from the mouth of God are not just rules or demands. It is in the words of promise and love that come from the mouth of God that we find the meaning of human life.
...

If we allow lesser realities to occupy the place in our lives which belongs to God who is love (1 Jn 4:8, 16), we inevitably obscure our understanding of the full reality of God’s gift. The lesser things that we pursue can be important and good. Everyone needs goals and hopes in life, but no created reality can fully and eternally satisfy us: Let us say once again, we need the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day. But these are not enough without the great hope, which must surpass everything else. This great hope can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain.3 Penance or repentance is not simply an exercise that we do from time to time. It is, one might say, what our life is about.





12 March 2012

Reflecting on Lent

Lent is a time of restraint and self-control. It is time when we earnestly strive to live within boundaries, not just in what we eat but also with the words we use, in what possesses our imagination, and in how we treat another.

Lent is a time when we stop focusing on our wants and desires. For only when we limit our self-gratifications and discipline our passions can we truly begin to see what God wills. And only when we control our appetites can we truly begin to see what others need.

Lent, then, is a time when we push aside our needs and put ourselves in the background, and instead have the Word of God take first place and likewise let the needs of others come before what we like.

05 March 2012

Faith alone is not enough

Very few folks in America vote against God. The vast majority say they believe in God. The better questions is which god they believe in, and what they believe about God. But rarely are those questions pursued in public discourse or even in "mass evangelization." For our nations Protestant roots have embedded in us the notion that it is simply enough to believe. So much is this false notion emdedded within us that we often hear the slogan absent the object: "Just have faith" or "You've gotta believe." As if faith alone is enough.

Commenting on the Last Judgment scene in Matthew 25, St Augustine confronts head-on the false theology which says that faith alone is sufficient. When examining that scene, he points out that Our Lord charges the condemned "with having failed, not in faith, but in good works."
He does not rebuke them because they have not believed in him, but because they have not done any good works. For assuredly, lest anyone should promise himself eternal life by reason of his faith (which without works is dead), He went on to say that He would separate all nations, which before had been herded together, and were accustomed to use the same pastures... These [condemned] had believed in Him, but had not taken pains to do good works, as though they could achieve eternal life by means of that same dead faith.
Notice how our holy father among the saints characterizes the understanding of faith alone, or faith without works. He says that it is "dead faith." Living faith, however, is what Our Lord desires; and it is that faith which attains eternal blessedness and grants us the beatific vision. This living faith is active in love; in fact, the two are inseparable. For to believe in God is both to love Him and to love Him in others.

St Augustine indicates that this is the point that not only St James, but also St Paul also makes when he says, "Though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing."

04 March 2012

Kissing Metal


Amongst the Byzantine and Slavonic Orthodox churches, the First Sunday in Lent is known as the "Orthodoxy Sunday" or "Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy." That day commemorates both those who suffered or were martyred for defending icons, and the victory of Orthodoxy over iconoclasm. Above all else, this Sunday reiterates the confession that in Christ God assumed created matter, and so is able to be depicted. Hence, the prohibitions in the Old Testament do not apply to Christ Jesus or His saints (in whom He lives), or any likeness (e.g., dove or cloud) in which the Divine reveals Himself. (As an aside, while the West did not suffer iconoclasm in the 8th and 9th centuries, they consistently agreed with the doctrine and confession of the Eastern churches.)

Icons are not only the chief expression of this doctrine; they are a particular visible form of confession amongst the Orthodox generally and the Byzantine and Slavonic churches specifically. Hence, icons are consistently venerated, particularly by being kissed. (Notice: there is a clear distinction linguistically and theologically between "veneration" and "worship.") These icons are made of various media; most commonly painted wood, mosaics, or enameled or painted or engraved metal.

Because of our practice of venerating icons, Orthodox Christians are often accused of greater or lesser degrees of idolatry. The most virulent will recite the words, "Thou shalt not make any graven image/icon" while others will confuse the veneration of the icons with the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. In the case of the former, the particular doctrine described above is not understood; in the case of the latter, the distinction between sacrament and sacramental is lost.

The irony of this criticism is clearly shown when one remembers the ceremony that took place a few weeks ago at the end of the Super Bowl. One by one, players and coaches from the victorious New York Giants football team lined up to kiss the Lombardi trophy. No one took that ceremony as strange. No one accused these men who were kissing engraved metal of idolatry. In fact, most everyone understood what they were doing - giving true lip-service to their joy at having reached their season-long goal.

If football players are permitted to kiss their metallic symbol, then why should anyone look askance when Orthodox Christians affectionately kiss their symbols of faith? If athletes can venerate their signs of victory, then why is it hard to understand Orthodox Christians who venerate the signs of their Victor and victors? If it is accepted when others hug tightly those things which depict such mundane and fading accomplishments, then surely there should be no qualms with Orthodox Christians embracing sacramentals which which depict their God and Lord, and His glory in His saints.

Of course, there are qualms; the veneration is not understood; and the kisses are denounced. And I suggest that this occurs because those who reject such Christian piety understand precisely what the Orthodox Christian is doing; he is confessing that Him whom the world cannot contain was conceived in the flesh of the Virgin; and that this same Virgin together with all the saints pinned their hopes to their undying victory in this God-Man.


HT: Fr William Bartz, Chancellor of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Detroit and homilist at the COCC (Metro Detroit) Inter-Orthodox Lenten Vespers at St Mary's Basilica.