03 May 2017

Ascension: Exalting the Human Body

t is no coincidence  that the recent decline in the reverence and respect for the human body has coincided with the equally recent decline in the celebration of Our Lord’s Ascension.
Among too many people, these days, the human body is little more than a casing or covering for the real “you.” This real “you” consists, primarily, of one’s thoughts, dreams, loves, emotions, thinking, etc.; in other words, the immaterial aspect of the human. In theology and philosophy, this is what has usually been ascribed to the soul.
With this thinking, what is the role of the body—our material aspect? It becomes something that can be changed, or reconfigured, or ignored, or discarded. In other words, it has little bearing on the real “you,” and so hardly matters.
Historically, those who claimed that body matter doesn’t matter were commonly known as Gnostics. Most often, they believed that the body was something like a prison that housed the real “you” until, at death, you could escape it. And once the soul escaped the body, the body could be burned or cremated because it wasn’t really part of who you are.
Among other things, this thinking denigrates God’s original design of humans—and of all creation. And today’s popular view of the human body does the same thing: it asserts that the body is incidental and inconsequential to your humanity.
By contrast, the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord exalts our human nature. Our Lord’s ascension declares that the human body is integral and essential to the real “you.”

Thou hast raised our human nature
On the clouds to God’s right hand:
There we sit in heav’nly places, There with thee in glory stand.
Jesus reigns, adored by angels;
Man with God is on the throne;
Mighty Lord, in thine ascension,
We by faith behold our own.

For why else would Our Lord ascend in His body? If His real “you” was the soul—or had little to do with the body—then did He bodily ascend merely as a show? Or so that He could be seen, letting the body then dissolve somewhere in the atmosphere?
If that is true, then Our Lord’s suffering, His death and resurrection, and the wounds He insisted on keeping and showing—these also were part of the show, since they were not vital to who He is.
But by ascending, Our Lord shows us two things: that His physical body is vitally important to His work of redemption; and that our own bodies cannot be disregarded, or divorced from who we truly are.
Furthermore, by ascending Our Lord elevates our human nature (body, as well as soul) far above the dignity of all the creation, above the ranks of angels, above the exalted status of archangels. For in Christ Himself, Our Lord seats our human nature (body and soul) at the right hand of God.
This is possible because, by becoming human, Our Lord interwove our human nature into such a close union with Himself that He redeemed, healed, and revitalized our bodies as well as our souls.
And that is the great revelation of Our Lord’s Ascension. Our bodies matter. And they are gifts from God—to be received, and rejoiced in, and worn with the dignity that Our Lord has bestowed when He, for our salvation, determined to complete His earthly work by exalting the entirety of our human nature.

26 April 2017

The Mass Attracts

Consider this question: how did the church grow so quickly in the earliest days? Without a doubt, 3000 people were attracted by the miracle of tongues when St Peter and the other apostles spoke outside the temple on Pentecost, 50 days after Jesus’ resurrection. And while preaching on the streets continued, it wasn’t street preaching that produced the steady commitment and the sustained spiritual growth of those 3000 and the church-family that they formed.
Neither is growth in God, inner deification, and holiness of life produced by many different programs, like Bible studies and outreaches and retreats—and Sunday meals. All of these are important, and certainly enhance our growth. And they can aid the growth of a parish. But that’s all they can do—enhance and aid. And they can attract on a superficial level. But none of the programs we offer actually stimulate or produce true, godly growth.
What, then, actually, really attracts people to our parish? Certainly, welcoming everyone who comes in the door as if he or she was Christ Himself is very attractive. Certainly, compassion, genuine kindness, authentic hospitality—these are even more attractive qualities. And definitely visitors mention most our warm friendliness as very attractive characteristic of this parish. But, if you dig a little deeper, that’s not why they keep coming back. And our friendliness does not produce a longing to return.
If the Bible is to be believed (and I think it should be!), the most important tool that God has given us to attract people to the Christian faith is the one we too often take for granted. The Mass itself attracts. And the more often we offer Mass—the more often we attend the Mass that is offered—the more people will be attracted to Our Lord and the service He provides for us in His Divine Liturgy.
Consider, again, this question: how did the nascent church grow so quickly? Simple: they had Mass every day. Listen to these words carefully: “Daily they continued with one accord in the temple, breaking bread…praising God. And daily the Lord added to the church those who were being saved.”
Those words occur just moments after the baptism of 3000 is described; and just seconds after it described their devotion of the Christian Faith. Their devotion was centered on two things: the apostolic teaching and the Eucharist. And that devotion—shown in the simplest of ways, by attending Mass—that is what caused others to want to be there with them.
And don’t think that this is simply an early church phenomenon. That is how the church has grown in every country where it has been planted. To be sure, street preaching and miracles attracted the first folks. But the sustained growth in God—the growth that is truly theosis, the inner relationship with God, as well as numerical growth—that growth occurred because Mass was celebrated daily, and people came to the daily celebration.
Just to give one example, which is quite common: when monks first landed in Ireland, all they did was build a small chapel and begin to pray. Every day. With Mass. It didn’t take long, and people wanted to know what they were doing, and why it was so important. And what attracted them to stay, to convert, to pass along the faith was the daily Mass.
I don’t think it’s any mistake, then, that this little parish has recently experienced continued, sustained growth—both inwardly and outwardly—especially in the last two months. For in the last two months, there has been Mass daily. Since February 28, there has been only one day when Mass was not served. And I’m convinced that this faithfulness, this daily offering of Our Lord’s sacrifice—this is what has attracted people.
Now, if you ask them, they won’t say that. And if you seek a scientific answer (like with polling data), you won’t find it. For this is a spiritual thing—a mystery governed most graciously by the Holy Spirit. And so it takes spiritual eyes to see it. Just as it also takes spiritual eyes to see that the growth has not simply been in numbers, but also in a longing, a desire, to live in God and to live for Him. And all of that, I lay at the doorstep of the Church: where Our Lord’s Spirit is poured out daily, even if only a handful are in attendance on any given day. For the Lord is pleased when we give thanks by offering and receiving the Sacrifice that He desired to offer and give us in His Son.

27 February 2015

Panegyric for St Raphael

One hundred years ago today, early in the morning, our father among the saints, Raphael of Brooklyn, fell asleep in the Lord. After several days of suffering without complaint, this missionary and bishop in the American Church rested in peace. And in his life, he left an example to those who wish to lead godly lives.

As with every saint, St Raphael of Brooklyn is a model of piety and holiness. Yet, as with every saint, his holiness takes its own unique direction. And, as with every saint, we can learn from him what shape our own holiness may take. In this case, our holiness take this shape: the will to serve others not by compulsion but freely, not for the praise of men but eagerly, not to hold something over others but to give without hesitation and without counting the cost. In short, we learn from St Raphael that we should give a “good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over” always remembering that “with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you.”

This pious man, whose parents were cared for and ministered to by the holy martyr Joseph of Damascus, was still within his mother’s womb when they fled Damascus for Beirut while extremist Muslims, with the aid of Turkish police, were murdering over 2500 Orthodox Christian men and destroying nearly every Christian church. Despite this tragic beginning, St Raphael grew to love the Lord and his fellow man deeply and selflessly. He was raised in Lebanon, schooled in Greece, ordained a deacon and priest in Russia, and became the first Orthodox bishop consecrated on American soil. As such, St Raphael was well prepared by God to serve the Orthodox Christians in America, most especially those of Arab descent. While he was in America, St Raphael was offered several opportunities to minister in his homeland as a bishop. However, his heart was where he was first placed—here, in the United States.

And this is the first lesson in holiness that this saint can teach us; namely, that serving others means that we must be willing to sacrifice our own ambitions—what we want and where we want to be.

How often is it, however, that we would rather be somewhere else? That we would help others, but only under the conditions we have set? How often is it that we place self-serving limits on our mercy—and so limit our holiness?

If we can learn anything from this holy father, let us learn to be content with where we are now, even as we strangers yearning for our heavenly home.

Yet we should never crave to attain the kingdom of heaven simply for our own sake. We should also want to entice, cajole, lead and encourage as many as we can to realize this same goal. And that also is what St Raphael can teach us.

During his 20 year ministry, first as an hieromonk and later as an auxiliary bishop, St Raphael labored tirelessly as a missionary. In the days when most travel was by bus or train, he traveled at several times across the country and into Mexico, usually stopping for no more than four days, working to gather together the Orthodox Christians in various cities. While his eyes were aimed primarily on immigrant Arabs, his heart was not motivated by building ethnic communities but rather by building the holy Church of Christ. So, at nearly every stop, he busied himself with preaching, baptizing, performing sacramental marriages and serving the Divine Liturgy. His goal was to build a community centered not around a particular language or culture, but centered around Christ and his altar. And so he was about building churches into order to build up the American Church.

How often it is, though, that we see our church not as the place to gather with Christ and his saints, but instead a place to gather with friends and family? There is nothing wrong in being with friends and family in church; however, should not our greater rejoicing be that we are with the friends and family of God? And should not our goal, then, be to extend that family by inviting all we know—co-workers, neighbors and unchurched relatives—to be part of our communion by praying with us and receiving next to us the holy mysteries?

St Raphael of Brooklyn had this as his chief desire: to extend the kingdom of heaven by bringing all he could find into Christ’s holy Church. And so off he went, here and there, without concern for his own health or welfare, without complaining about weariness. Eventually, his constant travels would take its toll and wear him out. But this holy father rejoiced that his labors would result not the praise of men, but rather rejoicing in heaven with those whom he had won for Christ!

In this way, St Raphael put flesh to St Paul’s admonition to “do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life.” And why? “So that [with our holy father] we may rejoice in the day of Christ that [we] have not run in vain or labored in vain.”

Running and laboring in vain only happens when we think our holiness adds up to the number of good things we have done. But if we put away such foolish mathematical thinking, and instead focus on the well-being of others—especially the salvation of their souls—then we are truly following in the footsteps of St Raphael and the other saints.

Yet, finally, to follow in his footsteps also means to find joy in nothing other than standing before the Lord. For where else did this single man find strength? He had no family in this country to comfort or console him; no wealth to ease his way. Instead, he drew his comfort and riches and strength from his daily communing with God in prayer. As with all the saints, one cannot see the story of this holy saint unfold without seeing him always standing in prayer before the icons—whether in church or at home or on the road. Feeding on this life in God, our holy father certainly became a fruitful vine which produced, in the lives of others, great and abundant fruit.

Let us also, then, be found where St Raphael is now; where all the saintly men and women are to be found. Let us, with them, “come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

Holy Raphael, Good Shepherd and faithful Confessor, pray for us!

27 February 2015

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!