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.