Returning to the Paradise I’ve Never Seen

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Sunday of Forgiveness, March 2, 2014
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

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

Today is called the Sunday of Forgiveness, most especially because of the service that we will celebrate here this evening, Forgiveness Vespers, when all of us will ask each other to forgive what we have thought, said and done in our sinfulness. But there is another theme that is woven throughout the hymns for this Sunday that stands before the beginning of the Great Fast. That theme is also a theme of beginnings, though it may also be thought of as a theme of endings. And what is this theme? It is the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise.

We know what happens when Adam and Eve sin, when they eat of that one thing forbidden to them by their God, when they rip themselves away from the perfect harmony they enjoyed with the Creator—they are driven out of Eden. And God sets up one of the cherubim there at the entrance of the garden with a flaming sword, guarding the Tree of Life.

Although the Scripture does not depict their reaction to this exile, the hymnographers of Orthodoxy have imagined what happens next—Adam sits outside of Paradise and weeps for what he has lost.

There is a common expression: “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” And perhaps that applies here in some sense to Adam as he sits outside of Paradise. But I have never been to Paradise. How can you know what you’ve lost if you’ve never had it?

We who were born after the loss of Paradise find ourselves on this side of the flaming sword of the cherubim do not know what it is that Adam lost. We are born into this world like people born blind. How does a blind man who has never seen anything know how to understand when someone tries to tell him about what it means to see? Or about sunlight? About color? About beauty?

This is where we find ourselves. This is why so much spiritual exhortation can seem like nonsense. For a blind man who does not know how to see at all, telling him about sights like sunlight, about details like color, or about more transcendent abstractions like beauty is just so much non sequitur. He has no frame of reference, no experience to connect those words to.

Here we stand, at the threshold of Great Lent, and we are being asked to strive, to work, to struggle, to attain to a place we have never been, to beauty we have never known, to behold a light that we do not know how to see. How can Great Lent be a “return” to Paradise when we do not even know what Paradise looks like?

We live here, on the other side, where everything is broken, corrupted, incomplete, wounded.

Those born this side of the Fall of Adam and Eve are born without the memory of Paradise. We do not know what we have lost, because we never had it. We have never seen it. We never walked in Eden, smelled its air, tasted its fruit, named the animals, or walked with our God in the cool of the day. We have never known what it means to love without any selfishness or reservation whatsoever, what it means to have total peace, what it’s like to know that God is there and that He loves us without any question.

The good news of the Gospel that is revealed to us in a particular, powerful way during this holy season of Lent is that there is a light that shines into our blindness, a beauty that shows itself in our ignorance, a music that gets beyond our deafness. For you see, while Adam lost for us what was given to him by God, a new Adam has come.

This new Adam has emptied Himself and by His own will taken up the frailty of our flesh, the weakness of our birth, the exile of our expulsion from Paradise.

Christ’s experience of human suffering, of taking all our sins onto Himself, breaks through the “Catch 22” of trying to find our way back to a Paradise we have never known. Neither the season of Lent nor any part of the Christian life is about groping around for a Paradise that we cannot see, cannot touch, cannot know and wouldn’t know how to recognize if we came upon it. No, it is about connecting with Jesus Christ.

God sees our disconnection, our blindness to the glory of the Paradise that Adam lost. He knows that we are lost, that we are born so lost that we do not even know what to look for. He does not wait for us to find Him. He is finding us. He has come here to us by sending His Son. He shows us the way to Paradise through the Cross and Resurrection.

In seeking out Jesus, we do not have to seek something we cannot know, someone we cannot find. He is here. He is human, just as we are, of the same species as we are. He is present to us, and He has provided us with numerous ways to connect with Him. We do not have to grope around in the dark. In a sense, spiritual life is really quite simple. We just have to show up and do it.

There are so many ways to seek Jesus, to be with Him. We hear His voice in the Gospels. We see His face in the holy icons. We touch Him directly in the sacraments. And when we lay aside our earthly cares through fasting and non-possessiveness, we can experience those things all the more intensely. And perhaps most powerfully and poignantly in this blessed season, when we offer up even our hurt and our suffering and our emptiness and our loneliness to Him, He joins it to His own. For He knows what exile is like. He knows what it means to be far from home.

During His time on this Earth, Jesus was a man of sorrows. He was hungry. He was thirsty. He was homeless. He was hated. He was beaten. He was rejected. He was ridiculed. He was nailed to a cross. He carried all human sorrow within Him. He is the Second Adam. And just as the first Adam brought all this upon us through his disobedience, the Second Adam carried it all through His obedience, an obedience even unto death itself.

That is why we can go to Him, why we can meet Him, why He meets us in our own pain and brokenness. He enters into our darkness. He is accessible. He is present.

And why is it that the key to returning to Paradise is Jesus? Why is it that we seek Him out in order to find the home that we really have never known?

Here is the secret to why this beautiful Lenten springtime works: It is because Jesus is Paradise.

You see, what Adam truly lost was not just residence in a beautiful garden. That may have been true, whether literally or metaphorically, but what is truly lost in the fall from grace is, well, grace. What was lost by Adam was his communion, his closeness with God. That is what made Paradise what it was. It was that there was no separation from God, no imperfection, no corruption, no brokenness at all. There was life and light and beauty and glory, because there was God and because there Adam knew God and was known by God. And when Adam sinned, God comes looking for him and Adam hides himself—not because God did not know where he was or because Adam could truly hide, but because there was now a separation between them.

Thus, the Paradise that we lost in Adam and yet never knew we can gain in the New Adam, for He is that Paradise. And even though in this life it will never be complete, we can still know that beauty, that wonder, that sweetness and consolation, for He is that Paradise that was lost to our blindness. And then one day, we will see Him face to face.

To our God therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Meeting the Lord

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Meeting of the Lord in the Temple, February 2, 2014
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

We arrive now at the fortieth day from our Lord’s birth, when His mother and foster father Joseph bring Him to the Temple in Jerusalem to fulfill what was written in the Law of Moses concerning the first-born son of any family, that he should be dedicated to the Lord and a worthy sacrifice be offered as part of this special moment in the life of the family. The Lord Jesus is received there into the arms of the righteous Simeon, who had been waiting to see the promised Messiah for many long years and then prophesied about what was to come for this newly-born King of the Jews.

There is so much that may be said here that we do not have time to say it all, but today, on this great feast, I would like us to meditate on a few things.

First, we are brought to consider that this same custom is retained in the Orthodox Church, though it is altered in a few ways. On the fortieth day from a child’s birth, he and his mother come to the church and are received there by the priest. The priest prays over both the child and his mother, and then carries the child into the church temple.

The prayers for the mother are said to provide a preparation for her to be received back into the communion of the Eucharist. She has stayed home for these forty days and has been out of communion for an extended time. Normally, when someone has been absent from communion for at least three Sundays, he is in essence excommunicated and needs to be brought back in to communion through the mystery of confession. But a new mother has been absent from communion involuntarily and for a laudable reason. Yet that separation has occurred. Thus, instead of receiving her back into communion through confession, these special prayers are said on the fortieth day from her giving birth.

Prayers are also said for the child, and there is variation here between different Orthodox traditions. In some cases, these prayers of “churching” are done only after the child has been baptized. In our tradition, however, these prayers are said before the baptism and include content hoping that the child will soon be baptized, which can occur even immediately. Indeed, for many reasons it is preferable to baptize a child as soon as possible after this point.

I want to draw our attention to one particular detail here, one of the ways in which the Church has altered the Jewish custom. In the Law of Moses, it is only the first-born son who is brought in this way into the Temple. Yet we bring every child, whether boy or girl, first-born or last-born. Why is that?

It is because the reason we bring children to the church temple on their fortieth day includes not only the Jewish notion of dedication to God and thanksgiving for the birth of a child, but also we add to it identification with Christ. Jews dedicated the first-born sons because Moses told them to, but we Christians dedicate all our children because Christ Himself deigned to be dedicated in this way. And imitating Christ and becoming one with Christ is available not only to first-born sons but to every human person.

This broadening of such customs fits in with the larger narrative of how the Church has appropriated and received its Jewish inheritance. Prior to the coming of Christ, the Jews were the chosen people and had access to a revelation not given to the rest of mankind. But with the coming of Christ, the age of the New Israel is inaugurated, and every human person is now welcome to enter into the New Israel, whatever his nationality, ethnicity or status from birth. There is no one who cannot become one with Christ. And so we bring all of our children to begin their life of becoming one with Christ by this custom of dedication on the fortieth day from their birth.

Besides our personal connection with this feast, however, there is also something cosmic going on. This is not only a moment that each of us can connect to individually, but it is a moment in the Big Story, the story of how God is saving the world, which is what gives it its power and meaning. When we bring our forty day old children to be dedicated here in this holy temple, we are not only asking for a blessing for them and their mothers but we are also entering them into the cosmic narrative of salvation itself.

For we see here the passing of one covenant and the inauguration of another. The Old Covenant, represented here in the person of Simeon, is nearing its final days. The age of the ethnic, biological definition of Israel is coming to a close, and a age of entrance into the New Israel through baptism is now dawning. The age of shadows and figures is passing, and the age of direct revelation in its fullness has now come.

Here in that Temple in Jerusalem that was made for the worship of God before the Incarnation now comes the incarnate God-man Himself. He is being dedicated to the Lord, but He is Himself the Lord. This earthly mother, accompanied by a foster-father, offers Him up to the heavenly Father, and He is offered up in the Temple that was made to worship Him.

Here, the Creator is being held in the arms of His creation. Here, the One Who is infinite and omnipotent appears as finite and helpless, sheltered from harm in the arms of His own creatures, whom He Himself shelters from harm. His parents come full of hope for the future of this child, and yet it is He Who is hope itself, the hope of all the ends of the earth, the hope of every creature.

It is such a beautiful, powerful moment. I love this feast because of how tenderly, how gently, how poetically it teaches us about the incarnation of the Son of God, met here in the Temple as both the Son of God and the Son of Mary.

As we contemplate this great feast of the Church, we should see ourselves becoming part of this story. The Meeting of the Lord in the Temple is not just “the reason” that we bring forty day old babies to the Church, though we can indeed understand it that way. Rather, this is one of many ways in which we enter into the life of Christ.

Because He is born into this world, we meet Him there. When He is dedicated in the Temple, we meet Him there. When He is baptized, we meet Him there. When He suffers and dies, we meet Him there. And when He is raised from the dead and ascends into Heaven, we meet Him there. Wherever Christ is, that is where we long to be.

We join ourselves to every part of His life and experience, not just in terms of mental remembrance but in mystical solidarity and identity with the God Who became man. We go to be with Him because we want to know Him, to be one with Him, to receive the divine power by grace that is His by nature.

And so here we have another opportunity to meet Him. So let us go out to meet Him, this Lord of glory Who became incarnate as a little child and is now being brought by His blessed mother and His righteous foster father into the Temple of His own glory.

Let us not only dedicate our little children in imitation of Christ’s dedication, but let us dedicate ourselves—perhaps again, perhaps for the first time—so that we may also be found held in the arms of the righteous Simeon, so that we also may see the salvation that he saw and know the mercy and peace and beauty of the Lord that will last not only into our departure from this life as it did with him, but also through all eternity.

To our Lord Jesus Christ therefore be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

The Beginning of Baptism

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Sunday after Theophany, January 12, 2014
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

A recording of this sermon can be heard via Ancient Faith Radio.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.

Today is the Sunday after the Great Feast of Theophany, and even though the feast is now past, we are still within the afterfeast of Theophany, which is completed on January 14th. The content of this feast is of course the baptism of Jesus Christ in the Jordan at the hand of John the Forerunner, and it is taught by the Church that this baptism was not for the forgiveness of any sins committed by Jesus—God forbid!—but rather to make Christian baptism possible and indeed to begin the sanctification of the whole world.

As we contemplate these themes, I would like to focus in on one of them, and that is that Christ’s baptism inaugurates Christian baptism.

We think of baptism as a quintessentially Christian practice nowadays, but there are other religions that baptize, and first-century Judaism was one of them. Before Jesus Himself was baptized, His cousin John was out in the wilderness baptizing people. Certainly John was not baptizing anyone into the Church with Christian baptism, because it hadn’t been established yet by Christ. So what is John’s baptism about? The baptism of John was a Jewish ritual that was associated with repentance and the remission of sins.

Now, this was not an invention of John’s but was already an established part of Jewish tradition. Ancient Judaism had a number of different kinds of ritual washings for various purposes, and a few of them included full-body immersion as in Christian baptism. The Scriptures tell us in this case that John was baptizing people as part of repentance and forgiveness of sins, doing his job as the “voice crying in the wilderness” prophesied in the fortieth chapter of Isaiah, preparing people for the coming of Jesus. And there is also a traditional Jewish use of full-immersion washing that is required in order to convert to Judaism.

So we see here three elements of Jewish baptism that are familiar to us—repentance, forgiveness and conversion. All three of these aspects to baptism are retained in Christian baptism. We may not think too much about repentance and forgiveness or even conversion when a baby is being baptized, but these things are still operative. Even a newborn infant who has not committed any personal sins still bears the inheritance of the infection of sin from Adam and Eve that needs baptism in order to begin its cure. This aspect is a bit clearer when we baptize an adult, which is always preceded by confession, because adults have indeed committed personal sins.
Yet when Jesus is baptized, He is not merely co-opting the Jewish ritual cleansing for Christian purposes. He is adding something to it. When people are baptized into the Church, they are not only repenting, being forgiven and converting. They are also putting on Christ, as St. Paul says in Galatians 3:27 and as we sing at the baptismal service and on certain feast days: “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”

“Putting on Christ” is not just a metaphor. When someone is baptized, Christ comes to dwell in him and His identity begins to work on the newly-baptized person’s identity. The image of God in that person can begin to grow that person into God’s likeness, as well. That potential is activated. Someone who is baptized begins to become like Christ. The union of the divine and human that is Christ’s by nature can become ours by grace. He is both God and man, and we can become human beings in union with God.

But what is activated by baptism is not absolute and perfect for all time. It has to be cultivated and built upon over time for it to become truly effective. Baptism is not a magic spell that guarantees the recipient a place in the resurrection of the righteous at the end of time. It is rather a preparation for the synergistic working together of God and man that is the spiritual life, which has the potential to lead to everlasting life, but only if worked out, as St. Paul says, “with fear and trembling.” If it is not worked out throughout life, then the result is not everlasting life but rather everlasting dying.

So we can put on Christ, but we can also put off Christ. Even though baptism would never be repeated for someone who throws off its power, and even though he will always have that great grace of baptism, it is only effective for him if he keeps it and nurtures it and helps it to grow by cooperating with it.

And that is part of what Christian baptism retains from Jewish baptism, that characteristic of repentance and the forgiveness of sins. In order for baptism to continue its work in us, we have to continue to repent. It is not a one-time event that permanently seals our eternal destiny. It is the beginning of a journey.

And as we journey with Christ to become more like Christ, we will also see that the sanctification given in baptism begins to work on what is around us, as well. It works on other people, in that the hope and grace within us also draw other people to Christ. When they see that love of God genuinely within us, that humble spirit of kindness and compassion, then they are also attracted to God’s love and may also become filled with God’s grace, which is His real presence within.

But the sanctification which baptism gives us also works on even the world around us on a cosmic scale. Many of the saints saw the natural world begin to work differently around them, no longer bound by the curse that was laid when Adam and Eve sinned. Wild animals became tame. The earth and the elements of water and so forth became more easily fertile and helpful to them rather than as obstacles that have to be overcome. And someday, that harmony of creation that is seen in a small amount around the saints will grow to encompass the whole cosmos at the end of all things.

For when Christ comes to be baptized in the Jordan, He does so to begin His reclamation of all creation, with mankind at the very center of it all. His love and power and glory and healing flow into that water and from there flow into the world. And it can flow through us, as well, if we will open ourselves up to it.

I know that life often can be complicated, confusing, painful and even tragic. What makes it possible for Orthodox Christians not only to endure all this but actually to thrive and to progress in holiness and love is knowing that someday this will all pass away. Someday, the disharmony will again become harmony. Someday, all the tears will be wiped from every eye. Someday, what began there in the Jordan 2,000 years ago will finally be complete and will reach into every place.

In the meantime, we muddle forward. And we do so with hope and love, because God has called us not only to endure the suffering of this world, but actually to participate in His sanctification and transformation of it. He has called us to be blessed with His holiness by means, among other things, of the purification and operation holy water. And He has also called us to bless those around us with that same holy water, to bless the world with it, as well, to bring His power everywhere.

Holy water is one of the many means of blessing that God has given us, but of all those means, it is perhaps the most primal and the most universal. It is sprinkled everywhere without hesitation. There is nothing that cannot be touched by it and changed by it, given the possibility for revealing God’s goodness in everything. Sometimes, that revelation is invisible to us, but sometimes, it also becomes visible.

And the greatest of all the blessings of holy water is that great mystery of holy baptism, which was given to us so many centuries ago and yet remains new as today for all who would come and receive its cleansing power.

To our Lord Jesus Christ therefore be all glory, honor, power and worship, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

The Springtime of Repentance

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mary-of-egyptSunday of St. Mary of Egypt, April 21, 2013
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

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

Today we remember a woman who walked out into the desert and repented there for more than forty years. On this fifth Sunday of the Great Fast, the Church celebrates St. Mary of Egypt.

Born in the mid-4th century, Mary was a woman dedicated to pleasure. She is sometimes called a prostitute, but that term is not really accurate, because she would not take money in exchange for her wantonness. She was offered it many times, but she would usually refuse it, and sustained herself primarily by begging. And so she lived this way, constantly seeking out new men to engage in fornication. Being beautiful, she was desired by many, and so she lived an “active” lifestyle. She began this way of life when she was twelve years old, having run away from home to the city of Alexandria.

After seventeen years of what became a more and more tortured way of life, she decided to make a pilgrimage to the city of Jerusalem for the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross in September. But she did not go to celebrate the feast. She was instead hoping to find crowds of pilgrims with whom she could satiate her lust, her constant, overwhelming desire. She paid for her travel by prostitution, and when she arrived in Jerusalem, she continued in her manner of life, having found new people to lead into her desperation for physical satisfaction.

She eventually was led to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which includes Golgotha, the place of the crucifixion, within its walls, the holiest place to celebrate the feast of Christ’s Cross. But as she began to enter the doors of that blessed church, she was suddenly stopped by an unseen force. The crowds around her entered, but it was almost as if a great hand was holding her back.

At that moment, something began which the world tells us is really not possible. At that moment, something began which for the world is not in any way desirable. Mary began to repent. And she walked beyond the Jordan River and kept repenting for more than forty years.

When we hear this word repentance, it is likely that we do not hear it as anything positive. It may stir up feelings about guilt. It may sound like judgmentalism or condemnation. It may conjure images in our brains of overbearing, bombastic preachers hurling down sermons on hellfire and brimstone like lightning bolts from angry gods. So why do we talk about repentance so often in the Orthodox Church?

Well, it should probably first be said that there are many so-called churches that have stopped talking about repentance or have tried to massage it out of their message because it is unappealing to their customers—or, I mean, their congregants. And certainly one does not hear about repentance in the public square much any more. It is long since any president declared a day of national fasting and prayer as Abraham Lincoln did in 1863. I daresay there are some things done by those in the public square that need some repentance.

I think there are probably two reasons why repentance is unfashionable. The first is that, as we said earlier, most people have a harsh and painful image of what it means to repent. It is demeaning. It is hard. It is annoying. The second reason is just that we like sin—another word that doesn’t get used too much in public any more.

But since we are Orthodox Christians, we recognize that we need to repent. And since the public proclamation of the Gospel has always begun with the exhortation “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand,” first in the mouth of John the Baptist and then from his cousin the Lord Jesus Christ, we should ask what repentance really is. And then we should ask why we should not flee from repentance but should actually want it. And this will tell us how someone like St. Mary of Egypt could keep repenting for so very long.

The word for “repentance” in Greek is metanoia, and it consists of two different Greek words—meta and nous, with the latter word being changed by the compound. Meta can mean many things, but here it means “change” or “turning.” And the nous is the innermost sense of human beings, the faculty with which we apprehend divine, mystical reality. It is the “heart” or the “eye of the soul.” So metanoia—repentance—is the turning of the eye of the soul, the changing of the heart. It is to direct our innermost gaze away from what is sinful, what separates us from God’s life, and toward what is good, what connects us with the life of our Maker.

That is the etymological and theological description of what repentance means. But for us to understand repentance, I think we may need some illustrative imagery. The place where Mary of Egypt went to engage in her repentance was the desert beyond the Jordan River. There it is said that she watered the place with her tears, the tears she shed over her many years of evil and self-destruction.

And that is what sin does. It is not just a transgression against some cosmic law. It is self-destruction and nothing less. Sometimes the destruction is sudden and devastating, but other times it is the slow dehydration that turns what is fertile into the barrenness of the desert. That is what happened to much of the Middle East, by the way—so much of it was fertile, but through gradual overuse and misuse of the land, it became desert. So it is with human persons. What is beautiful and fertile and full of possibility becomes, over time, bit by bit, dry and thirsty.

Yet repentance is possible. When a soul repents, the rain begins to fall. Sometimes the rain may bounce off the hard ground because it is so unused to receiving it, and so it may seem to do nothing or even to hurt. But over time, the rain begins to soak the land. And where there may at first be mud and erosion, there eventually comes to be fertility and growth.

Repentance is the springtime of the soul, and is it any wonder that we are now in this Lenten season of repentance, right now, at springtime? Even the very word Lent itself actually means “springtime.” We pour repentance into our souls by shedding those things that weigh us down, those useless burdens of sin that look and feel so good but actually are deeply dangerous to us. And when that repentance comes pouring in, all the many virtues of our souls, like flowers in a garden, begin to awaken, to bud and to bloom. They have been sleeping during the long winter of sin, but now they can grow.

To repent is not to feel guilty. Guilt may encourage us to repent, but it doesn’t always. Guilt is just the pain at recognizing the desert that our souls have become. But pain isn’t repentance. To repent is to turn, to change, to come back to life. We have to see that we have a desert in our souls, and sometimes it takes the upheaval of disaster, depression, divorce, drugs or death to see it. But it doesn’t have to take that. Seeing the desert within may also be inspired by contact with true beauty. Seeing the beauty of Eden, the beauty of Paradise, in the love of our Lord, we realize that we live in the desert. And we want Eden.

And so we repent. We turn back to Eden. We turn to the divine life of Christ, the life of the Holy Trinity granted in communion with the Son of God. This is what it means to repent! It means that we who are dead can be made alive, that we who are dry and thirsty may become fertile and full, that we who are addicted might be set free.

And that is how Mary of Egypt could live in that desert for decades. She was not out there moping around feeling guilty. She was watering her garden. She was tending to the flowers of virtue in her soul. She was walking with God in Eden, just as Adam and Eve had once done. She who had been a desert in the midst of fertility became a walking Paradise in the midst of the desert.

Has this Great Lent been the springtime of your soul? Even if it has not yet been, it still may be. There always is hope. There always is mercy. There always is possibility. Let us repent with joy, brothers and sisters, and so pour the grace of God like long-awaited rain into the desert of our souls.

To our life-giving God, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Where was Christ in the Newtown Massacre?

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Jillian Soto uses a phone to get information about her sister, Victoria Soto, a teacher at the Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn. on Friday, after a gunman killed more than two dozen people, including 20 children. Victoria Soto, 27, was among those killed. (Jessica Hill/AP)

As I am sure many clergy throughout America did this past Sunday, I preached about the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut that occurred on Friday, December 14.

Update: If you would like to hear the recording of this sermon as it was preached, go here.

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

I normally do the major part of my sermon composition on Thursday, and as with most Thursdays, I had my sermon completed by the end of this past one. But then Friday happened, and I realized that I had to write a new one. So please forgive me if it’s not quite as organized and polished as I would prefer.

If by some happy chance you have not yet heard, on Friday morning in the city of Newtown, Connecticut, a young man killed his mother and then went to the elementary school where she worked and proceeded to gun down twenty children aged six and seven, as well as six women who worked at the school and then, finally, himself.

Newtown is only about thirty miles away from my father’s hometown of Southington, Connecticut. My grandmother still lives there. I’ve driven through Newtown many times on my way to see her, and I’m fairly sure I’ve stopped there a few times. I know what towns in that area are like, and they are deeply ingrained in the years of my father’s youth.

I don’t watch television very often, so when I heard about the shooting, it was through reading it in online news, as well as some reports on the radio. The sense of spectacle that television brings to the news is not really something that I prefer to have in my life. So the means through which I learned about the shooting were somewhat less sensational. Nevertheless, no matter how we learned about this story, it is horrifying.

I’ve thought a good bit about what happened over the past couple of days, as I’m sure that most of you have. Some of us have children about that same age, including me. I’ve also read lots of analysis on this, including a lot of strong political opinions about things like gun control, school security, mental illness, and so forth. No doubt there are politicians already poised “not to let a good crisis go to waste” as soon as a few news cycles have passed and it wouldn’t be too unseemly to seize the moment and turn it to political advantage. If there is one thing we can count on from our political class, it is that they will use moments like this to advance their particular agendas.

What I want to address, though, is the horror of this experience and its spiritual impact, something that the politicians cannot really help us with, though I think some folks want them to and therefore trust them a bit too much in moments like this.

There are many things we could say about the spiritual basis for what happened in Newtown, which of course is now at least the seventh killing spree we’ve had in America this year. We should rightly point out that such things are simply another extension of the culture of death that our society pursues. Is it any wonder that human life occasionally can mean nothing to someone in our nation, with decades of pursuing a foreign policy in which we have trained young men and women pre-emptively to kill an “enemy” who has never attacked us, with decades of pursuing a national lifestyle in which the lives of the most innocent and helpless of us all are at the whims of “choice,” with presidential “kill lists” and drone assassinations, with the dehumanization of nearly anyone accused of a crime as an “animal” or a “monster,” with the militarization of our police forces who all too frequently conduct SWAT team style raids on the wrong houses and kill and traumatize innocent people with near impunity, with the subjection of the God-given sanctity of the human person to the whims of social redefinition and the shifting winds of culture? Is it any wonder?

We could also lend some perspective here and point out that, even while we stand horrified at what still is fairly rare in statistical terms, on the day that twenty children were gunned down in Connecticut, nationwide more than 3,500 children were killed by abortion, never seeing the light of day. While we are shocked at what happened in Newtown—and rightly so—there are people here in our own parish community for whom mass killings, even of children, at the hands of gunmen and suicide bombers is the normal, daily life of family members and friends in the Middle East, where people have been driven out of their homes, their schools and churches burned to the ground, their priests tortured and murdered, their families attacked, held for ransom, killed, etc., etc.

There are many things we could use to gain some perspective—not to tell us that what happened in Newtown on Friday wasn’t that big of a deal, but to help us make some sense of it all. And it may also help us to gain some wisdom for what we can do and what we can say.

At its base, our problem is this culture of death, the culture of the diminishing of the human person. And there are moments when we see this diminishing go too far, like on Friday, and we may be tempted, perhaps momentarily or perhaps more compellingly, to begin to lose our faith. How could God permit this? Is the price for us to know God’s goodness really so high? How can we say that suffering can bring about redemption with this kind of suffering?

Such a question is asked in extreme poignancy by the character Ivan Karamazov in the Dostoevsky novel about the brothers by that name, and yesterday I read it quoted by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a devout Roman Catholic, in a column he wrote for this horrible tragedy. Here’s the passage he quoted from Ivan, along with some of his commentary:

“Can you understand,” he asks his more religious sibling, “why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? … Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much?”

Perhaps, Ivan concedes, there will be some final harmony, in which every tear is wiped away and every human woe is revealed as insignificant against the glories of eternity. But such a reconciliation would be bought at “too high a price.” Even the hope of heaven, he tells his brother, isn’t worth “the tears of that one tortured child.”

Douthat goes on to point out that Dostoevsky does not provide any rhetorical argument against Ivan’s complaint against God, a God Ivan might be willing to admit exists, but Whom he rejects because His “price” is “too high.” Rather, Dostoevsky instead demonstrates the goodness of God through the love of his characters in transcending suffering. Douthat writes that this pattern is also found in the New Testament itself, in which God’s love for mankind is established not through a philosophical argument, but through the suffering and death of God Himself as one of us. The cross is the hour of glory for the Son of God.

In case you did not hear, there were also some moments of glory on Friday. At least three of the women killed that cold day in Connecticut put themselves between the shooter and the children—a 27-year-old teacher named Victoria Soto, the school’s 47-year-old principal Dawn Hochsprung and special education teacher Anne Marie Murphy, who was 52. Victoria hid her students in a closet, confronting the shooter and telling them the kids were somewhere else. He gunned her down. Likewise, Dawn physically tried to apprehend the shooter and was also killed for it. Anne Marie died shielding students from the shooter with her own body.

There may well be more stories like these, and we can also compare them to the account of the 14,000 innocent boys two years old and under who were killed by King Herod as he turned his rage toward the infant Jesus, the King of the Jews who threatened him so much. We celebrate their feast just a few days after Christmas.

While reasonable people can disagree on the causes and remedies for evil moments such as these, we ultimately should remember that all death, no matter its cause or its character, is fundamentally evil. All death strikes against God’s purpose for His creation. He did not create suffering. He did not create death. Death is a declaration of war against God Himself, because God is life. God not only creates life by beginning, but He continues to give life, even after physical death.

While of course we have many theological explanations that can be given for how evil came into this world and why God permits man to continue to have free will even in the face of man’s evil, what we should remember and what we must live in our lives is not any explanation. Explanations are useful only insofar as they get us to the business of living. Rather, what we should live is Christ’s conquest of death. We don’t have to figure out death. I don’t think we can. Rather, we as Christians are here to grapple with death and to engage it as an enemy.

As Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote in his brilliant little book For the Life of the World: “Christianity is not reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death, and it reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christ is this Life. And only if Christ is Life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely an enemy to be destroyed, and not a ‘mystery’ to be explained.”

The truest answer to violence is love. The truest answer to death is life. The only prevention for violence is for the heart to have no violence within it. We can legislate all we like, but the violent heart will still find a weapon and the opportunity to use it. We cannot prevent evil through any system devised by mankind. But we can grapple with evil and defeat it, but only with love—real love, too, not just some sentimental feeling, but self-sacrifice. Those women who died with those children demonstrated love. In that moment when they chose to give their lives for the children in their care, it did not matter if they had happy feelings about them—probably some of those kids annoyed them on one day or another. What mattered was the act, the act of defeating death with life. Christ said, “Greater love hath no man than this, than that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

There is no argument, no philosophy, no policy that can properly answer what happened on Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. It all rings hollow in the end, doesn’t it? But as the columnist Ross Douthat also writes, this horrible story comes to us at a time when another story is almost upon us.

You see, in nine days, we will celebrate Christmas. And yes, the story and spirit of Christmas are largely the stuff of sentiment these days. There is the cute baby Jesus, the happy shepherds, the adoring wise men, and so on. But if you look at the icon of the Nativity of Christ, you will also see that the manger is shaped like a coffin, that the myrrh brought by the wise men is the kind of thing that will be used to anoint the dead Jesus, that the swaddling clothes are very much like burial cloths. In the true story of Christmas, Herod rages and the road to the Cross is already begun.

And that is our answer. We stare evil in the face, and we say again and again: Christ is risen!

To the Christ Who is our life be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

The Temple of the Living God

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Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 30, 2012

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

“You are a temple of the living God.” We hear these words today from St. Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians, and they are followed by exhortations from Paul, quoting from the Old Testament, that the Christians of Corinth ought to be separate from the world and not to touch what is unclean. When reading these lines, we often focus on the moral message emphasized here, that it is proper for us who are the temple of God to remain free from the corruption of sin. But I would like us to emphasize today the purpose of that chastity and voluntary separation from sin.

Most everyone, including non-Christians, agrees that we should be “good” (though of course there are different definitions of what “good” means), but there doesn’t seem to be much public reflection on the purpose of our ethics, even Christian ethics. Let us first dispel some popular ideas about what the purpose of Christian ethics is.

First, “being good” is not a precondition for “getting into Heaven.” Heaven is not a reward for the ethical. Second, “being good” is not just what we “ought” to do—that’s really just tautological. That is, if you say that you should “be good” because it’s the “right thing,” then all you’ve really said is you should be good because it’s good to be good.

A perhaps deeper idea about Christian ethics is the notion that its purpose is because it’s proper and fitting that we who are created and loved by God ought to “be good,” because anything else is not really worthy of the high calling God has given to us. That’s true in its way, but it still doesn’t actually tell us what “being good” actually does.

When the saints urge us to do what is righteous, to keep ourselves separate from what is unclean, their purpose is not to help us do a deal to get into Heaven, to affirm ethics for its own sake, or even to insist on behavior that is merely “worthy” or proper of Christians. Rather, the purpose of seeking after righteousness is to prepare us as the temple of the living God.

The purpose of the Christian life is to attract the grace of God, and what is grace, except the very presence of God Himself? When Orthodox theologians say that grace is “uncreated,” that is what is meant—only God is uncreated, therefore, grace is God; it’s His presence. And if we have attracted the grace of God to ourselves, then is it not proper that we should be called a “temple”?

Each human heart has been uniquely created by God to serve as a temple for His divine presence. Just as there are numerous churches throughout the world, some spectacular and glorious with others humbler and less likely to cause notice, there, too, are many kinds of human hearts, although there is more variation and possibility for prayer within them than all the many churches of the world taken together. Yet even though some temples are more magnificent than others, all hold within them the possibility for the dwelling of God, becoming places of true worship and pure prayer.

I think we may often pass over these more “mystical” or “spiritual” words from Scripture because they probably make little sense to us—being a “temple of the living God” sounds like nice poetry, but it doesn’t actually mean anything, does it? Isn’t just getting to Heaven when you die the real purpose of Christian life?

A close examination of the Scriptures and the words of the saints of the Church will reveal that one’s eternal destiny cannot be separated out from teachings such as this. The glory of eternity in Heaven is not a reward for living ethically, nor is it an automatic consequence of having been baptized at some point in life. Rather, Heaven is a place for human hearts that have become temples of the living God, because Heaven is nothing less than the unmitigated, unveiled, direct experience of Christ in glory, with His Father and the Holy Spirit.

Our hearts have to be prepared and properly adorned as temples of God in order for us to experience the next life as anything pleasant. If we step through the veil between this life and the next, yet our hearts are not prepared as God’s temples, then the experience of the glory and love of God will not be pleasant but rather painful.

But why is it that we so frequently see words such as this—”You are a temple of the living God”—and just pass over them as so much spiritual mumbo-jumbo? It is because we are too attached to what is temporary, too distracted by the cares and pleasures of this world. That is why repentance is the necessary precondition even to find our hearts within ourselves. Most of us actually do not even know that we have a spiritual heart—and I am not talking about the seat of our emotions here, but rather the place within us where we can actually meet God directly and experience the vision of His glory.

This is why these words may seem like nonsense to us, because we seldom are willing to confront our sins and to repent of them. “I haven’t done anything terribly bad,” you may be thinking. “I don’t really have any sins.” But the beloved Apostle John tells us, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). It does not matter how “bad” your sin is. It is still sin. Even the most seemingly “minor” sin, if not repented of, darkens our heart and obscures it from our spiritual senses.

“You are a temple of the living God.” When Paul tells us this, he is not merely mouthing nice spiritual-sounding theological words. Everything in Scripture is for our salvation. This is what salvation actually means!

Salvation is not just going to Heaven when you die. I think that bears repeating: Salvation is not just going to Heaven when you die. Salvation is to become a temple of the living God. The human heart was created by God to serve as His temple. He desires to dwell within your heart. He desires to make His glory and love and peace and vision present within your heart in the way that is particular and specific and customized to you.

“I will dwell in them, and walk among them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people…. I will receive you, and I will be a Father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.” That is what salvation is.

If all of that sounds to you merely like metaphor for some emotional experience, then there is some work to do, some cleansing of the heart to make it visible to you. When the heart becomes visible by being cleansed of sin and healed of distraction, then the whole being of a man is strengthened. He sees the inner meaning of things. He is illumined. He knows God directly, more directly than he knows his family and his friends. He becomes fit to be a temple of the living God. And in that encounter with God in the Kingdom that is within him (Luke 17:21), the inner kingdom, he becomes like God. He becomes like God.

We fall so easily into distraction. We are so used to living outside of our hearts that we do not even remember that we have them. And we even project this fragmented, externalized approach to life onto the spiritual life, thinking of it as obligations, as mere ethics, as doing this or receiving that. But if our hearts truly are made to be temples of the living God, then we must enter within them. That’s where the process and progress of salvation actually take place.

When was the last time you spent a few minutes meditating on God’s presence? When was the last time you went on a pilgrimage? When was the last time you took a deep, long look at your soul? When was the last time you asked yourself how Christ would order the pattern and routines of your life? When was the last time you became truly present to God and dedicated yourself to making your life on earth as much like Heaven as possible?

Have you entered into the inner life of Christ’s Church?

To the Holy Trinity Who made our hearts for His own home be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Writings, Recordings and Recommendations: An Update

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As you probably can tell, I’ve mainly been focusing my weblogging energy into the new Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy weblog. Forgive my neglect here. I’m still working out the balance of the kinds of work I plan to do there and here.

In any event, in case you don’t happen to be a reader over there yet (and why not?), I thought I’d update you on stuff I’ve published over yonder (since I last posted here, more than a month ago) as well as some other items of note.

Stuff I’ve Written:

Stuff I’ve Recorded:

Stuff I Recommend:

For more recommendations and such, follow me on Twitter and Facebook.

And if you haven’t yet bought Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy (Conciliar, Amazon, Kindle, NOOK), well, what’s the hold-up? Perhaps you’ve been holding out for the second printing, which now has a spiffy new, non-glossy-finish cover. Yeah, that’s the ticket.

The Annunciation and the Absence of God

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Annunciation of the Theotokos, 2012

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

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, who was the Orthodox Church of Russia’s bishop in London from 1957 to 2003, in the opening paragraphs of his book Beginning to Pray, directly addresses what is perhaps the most central struggle and disappointment of anyone who has ever even begun to contemplate whether there is a God or gods—namely, the absence of God. His book is about what its title suggests, beginning to pray, and he writes the following:

At the outset there is, then, one very important problem: the situation of one for whom God seems to be absent. This is what I would like to speak about now. Obviously I am not speaking of a real absence—God is never really absent—but of the sense of absence which we have. We stand before God and we shout into an empty sky, out of which there is no reply. We turn in all directions and He is not to be found (pp. 25-26).

Is this not so for each of us who have ever wondered whether there is indeed a God? Such a question comes into the hearts even of those who have believed for their whole lives that God is real and that He loves us. Sometimes, in the dark of the night, or perhaps in the midst of some nightmare of suffering that seems to have no meaning, as Metropolitan Anthony says, “We stand before God and we shout into an empty sky, out of which there is no reply.”

In some ways, this sense of God’s absence, that we are missing Him—which is not quite the same as simply having no sense of His presence—is a peculiarly modern problem. You see, as one looks at the history of mankind on this Earth, there is hardly a question to anyone almost anywhere at any time that there is some God or gods, “a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will,” in the words of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Gods and demons and sprites and elves and faeries and spirits—all of these things were quite real to our forebears. They knew for certain not merely that they “believed in” such things, but that they had real evidence for their existence, that they interacted with them, that they were a normal, everyday part of life.

I mention all this because our thoughts turn today to one of the greatest of the feasts of the Christian year, the Annunciation—that moment when the invisible, immaterial God becomes incarnate as a human person in the womb of the Virgin Mary, at the announcement of the Archangel Gabriel and which we confess in our Creed. So why is former generations’ sense of the reality of the divine relevant to this feast? It is because the world into which God chose to become incarnate was not one that didn’t think He was “out there.”

The Jewish context of Jesus’ conception was one that very much believed that there was a God. Likewise, even the intellectuals among the Greeks and Romans who surrounded the Jews had basically settled on monotheism by then, despite the continuance of polytheism in the broader culture. But what they all had in common was the idea that God was “above” us, that He was “beyond” this world, that the created order was something too low, too dirty and unworthy of the divine presence.

From this image of the ancient world, we can see that, even if Jesus was not born into a world of atheists and skeptics, He was nevertheless conceived at a time when the idea of God being conceived was utterly unthinkable. What happens at the Annunciation was utter foolishness to both the Jew and the Greek. For the Jew, God would never become a man, and for the Greek and other Gentiles, God would not only not become a man, He certainly wouldn’t become a Jewish man! In the eyes of the citizens of Rome, the Jews were a subjugated people, not remotely worthy of such a divine manifestation.

But nevertheless, the true revolution began at that moment, the only real revolution that this world has ever seen. And if the coming of God as a material being into this world was an unbelievable and shocking claim to the first century, it is perhaps all the more shocking now. The revolution continues, because in our own time, our sense of things like metaphysics and religion and philosophy have all simply expanded upon that sense present in the first century. If, for them, God was forever apart from this material world, properly high in His Heaven, then for us, God has left this material world, never to return—if He was ever here in the first place.

Whatever the case, whatever our sense of separation and alienation from God, the feast of the Annunciation has arrived once again, for the unthinkable has happened: God has become man. He was and remains incarnate, a term that has its origins in the Latin word for “meat.” God became meat; He became flesh. He became visible and material—touchable. The separation is over.

In our loss and disappointment and separation, God Himself chose to overcome the divide between us so that we might encounter Him. The Greek word for this feast is Evangelismos, literally meaning the giving of the good news, closely related to Evangelion, the word for “the Gospel.” And yet, somehow, even 2,000 years after the proclamation of this good news began, people still remain separated from God. Why is this?

If you ever happen to be present at mealtime at my house, you may hear the voices of small people making various requests, whether it is for papa’s doughnut, to be released from the high chair, to be exempted from what everyone else is eating, and so forth. Much like your home, no doubt, whether and how those requests are answered depends very much on the manner in which the request is made. The same holds true for so much in life—if we want something, we have to know how to ask for it or perhaps how to look for it. The same is very much true for the presence of God Almighty. We cannot simply turn around in a circle, announce that we have not seen God, and thus declare Him not to exist.

As he continues his book Beginning to Pray, Metropolitan Anthony addresses this question, as well. So often, when we desire for God to make an appearance, it is because we want something from Him. We usually have little sense of developing an actual mutual relationship when we lay out our expectations of God. We may ask respectfully, but if all we ever do with God is to make claims on His providence, are we really seeking to overcome that separation, that absence?

We may complain that God does not answer our prayers, that He does not come running when we call, but, as Metropolitan Anthony writes,

If you look at the relationship in terms of mutual relationship, you will see that God could complain about us a great deal more than we about Him. We complain that He does not make Himself present to us for the few minutes we reserve for Him, but what about the twenty-three and a half hours during which God may be knocking at our door and we answer ‘I am busy, I am sorry’ or when we do not answer at all because we do not even hear the knock at the door of our heart, of our minds, of our conscience, of our life. So there is a situation in which we have no right to complain of the absence of God, because we are a great deal more absent than He ever is (p. 26).

The Lord God Almighty, the Creator of the universe Himself, has stepped into our world, our time, onto our planet, into our humanity, by being conceived of the Holy Spirit all those many centuries ago. He entered into human experience in that most intimate, secret and sacred of human places—the womb of a virgin. That is the kind of closeness and intimacy that He desires with us.

But we must also remember that while God is both giving and faithful (not to mention, relentless!), He is also free. He is free not to show up when we call. The gift that He offers us is not really about merely “going to Heaven when we die” or even about doing helpful stuff for us in this life, like curing diseases or easing our financial problems. Rather, what He offers is Himself. That is how He defined eternal life, saying, “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3).

Metropolitan Anthony puts it this way: “…we should be aware that He cannot come to us [when] we are not there to receive Him. We want something from Him, not Him at all. Is that a relationship? Do we behave that way with our friends? Do we aim at what friendship can give us or is it the friend whom we love? Is this true with regard to the Lord?” (p. 29).

This is the Annunciation. God has come to you by becoming a human person like you, and He has come to you precisely for you, not for anything He can get from you. That is how you know His love is true. He needs nothing from you. He is here because it’s you. Are you here because it’s Him?

To the incarnate Jesus Christ, with His eternal Father and His all-holy and good and life-giving Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

On the Altar of the Cross

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The Hill of Crosses, Šiauliai, Lithuania
Sunday of the Adoration of the Holy Cross, 2012

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

In today’s reading from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews, we read his further elaboration of the dominant theme of the work, namely, the priesthood of Christ. The book, being written to the Hebrew people, that is, to the Jews, is at pains to express to them that the ancient priesthood of the Jewish faith, which offered up sacrifices in the Temple in Jerusalem, was now being fulfilled in Christ.

Jesus, in His coming to Earth, had instituted a new order of priests, not one descended from Moses’ brother Aaron and the Jewish Tribe of Levi, as the old priesthood had been, but rather a priesthood that is not defined by fleshly descent, but by spiritual participation in Christ. And this meditation on the priesthood is what is brought before us in Orthodox tradition as appropriate to hear on this, the Sunday of the Adoration of the Cross.

It is no secret that the central dynamic of true Christian life is one that is bizarre and unattractive to this world—crucifixion. Not only is the Christian Church the only religion in the world whose defining moment is the martyrdom of God, but we also make the unpopular appeal to those who would follow after Christ to come and be crucified with Him. If we are going to be identified with Christ, then we must be martyred with Christ, whether literally through physical death on account of our faith or in a more metaphorical sense through life-long death to the passions and foolishness of this world.

The Lord Himself says this in today’s Gospel: “If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” That’s the Christian life: Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Christ. Follow His life. Follow His actions. Do what He did. Deny yourself. Be crucified. Do that, and you are a Christian.

Well, to be honest, that doesn’t sound so nice. We’re not interested in denying ourselves and taking up our crosses. We’d prefer to indulge ourselves and take up, well, just about anything but a cross. Take up golfing. Take up fancy restaurants. Take up collecting stamps. Take up expensive cars and houses. Take up video games. No cross, please, thanks.

So that leaves us the question as to why anyone would actually choose to be a Christian. A life of self-denial? Of crucifixion? Really?

In the face of these very clear words from Christ, to understand why anyone would actually want to live as a true Christian, and not merely as a Christian in name only, we have to understand what motivates people. There are many things in human life for which people will practice self-denial and even choose a very difficult way of living. Someone may strive arduously to be an excellent athlete, with all the training, sacrifice, change in diet, and rearrangement of schedule that requires. Someone may consistently and carefully woo someone for marriage, caring and serving, embarrassing themselves with romantic gestures, changing jobs, friends or place of residence. Someone may also go through the rigors of boot camp or basic training and enter into the separation from family, danger and risk that are required in order to be in the military. Or they may do whatever it takes to have and to raise children.

There are many difficult things that we as human beings will do in order to gain something more important, in order to serve an ideal or to achieve a goal that we regard as being higher and better than what we could have gained from the things we give up, from the self-denial and even pain we endure. In all of these things, we have to have a clear sense of what the goal actually is, that it is actually worth the struggle and pain. In the context of meditating today on the Cross of Christ, in the words we hear from Paul he explains to us what this is.

Christ’s offering on the cross is not as a victim. He was not involuntarily crucified. He was not overcome by His creatures and put to death, as though He never had any say in the matter. The whole thing was voluntary. No, it was not His own hand that killed Him—He did not commit suicide. But He could have stopped it at any point. So it was by His will that the crucifixion happened. Therefore, this act is an act of deliberate sacrifice. And if it is a sacrifice, then there must be a sacrificer. And what is a sacrificer? That is a priest.

Remember, the Epistle to the Hebrews is about the priesthood of Christ. And today’s reading is precisely about Christ as our great High Priest, the One Who offers up sacrifices on behalf of the people. Paul says here that He is “taken from among the people, is appointed on behalf of the people in things pertaining to God, that He may offer up both gifts and sacrifices for sins; Who can have compassion on the ignorant and on those who are erring, since He Himself also is encompassed with infirmity.”

Jesus Christ is one of us, “taken from among the people.” But we could say that He is also “taken” from God, since He is God. He is the only being in existence Who can identify with both God and man, because He is both God and man. It is this God-man, this High Priest, Who offers up the ultimate and final sacrifice on the cross. That is the altar on which His sacrifice is given, and it is there that we join with Him, if we also take up our crosses and live in self-denial. It is there that we, too, become priests, participating in the one priesthood of Christ.

So why would we want to do that? What’s the point in also becoming sacrificers and, indeed, becoming the sacrificed? Why would we want to deny ourselves and take up our crosses? Jesus explains this to us in the Gospel: “For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for My sake and the Gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”

On its face, the words of the God-man, the High Priest, clearly indicate that our eternal salvation depends on being crucified ourselves. If we are ashamed of Christ and will not truly follow Him, then He will be ashamed of us when He comes in His glory at the end of time. In stark terms, we risk eternity in Hell if we do not take up the cross.

But there is also something else going on here: We lose our lives in order to save them. What does this mean? It is part of the nature of sacrifice. When something is truly sacrificed to God, it is not traded to Him. It is not merely “given up.” That is not what sacrifice is. Sacrifice is rather to offer something to God, upon which He takes it and transforms it by His touch, and then He offers it back, now changed, made holy and transformed.

So that means that being sacrificed, living a life of self-denial and crucifixion, is not merely the door to eternity in Heaven, though it certainly is that. That’s what Christ said. It’s also the key to becoming something more than we are, to becoming truly holy, truly human—that is, becoming what God created us to be. He made us to be saints. The pursuit of being a saint is the only thing that will last into eternity, but even more than that, it is the only thing truly worth man’s time and struggle. It is the only thing truly worth giving your heart to unreservedly.

Don’t you yearn to be something higher, something nobler? Don’t you long for glory? Doesn’t your heart burn within you not just to know about what is good, what is holy, what is filled with light and perfection, but actually to participate in it? Don’t you want, in the midst of this broken, fallen, darkened world, to see wholeness, beauty and light?

Come, then, deny yourself and be crucified with Christ. Take up this glorious struggle, this holy fight, this noblest and best of all human callings. He has called us all to be a holy people, a nation of priests. If we follow the way of the Cross, we will know true glory and power and joy for all eternity.

To the crucified and risen Jesus Christ, with His eternal Father and His all-holy and good and life-giving Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.

A Man Fully Alive

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The Transfiguration of Christ
Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas, 2012

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

Every single person, whether a man, a woman, or a child, has been given by God a deep, primal longing for Him.

We generally go through our days thinking of our desires for other things: I want breakfast. I want to sleep. I want to feel loved. I want some coffee. I want to get through this day. I want to finish this project. I want to buy a house. I want a car that won’t break down. I want to find someone who loves me. I want to be somebody. I want to make a difference. I want to get out of this traffic. I don’t want to die.

But if we really start to think about any one of our desires—pick one, any one—then we will find that they are fundamentally a desire for life. The desire for food is an obvious one, just like the desire not to die. But even our desires for possessions are about desiring life—we think they will help us feel alive, or at least that they won’t get in the way. A car that breaks down restricts my life, but a good car will get me there. Even the desire for accomplishment or love are about our desire for life.

But what is life, anyway? Is it simply to be animated, to be breathing and having our hearts beat rather than to be stilled and lying in a grave? Is it getting everything we want? Is it to “be all you can be”? Is it having a big list of accomplishments? Is it feeling safe, comfortable and secure? Is it even feeling content?

Those things are not life, but they do all point to what life really is.

Let’s think back to that moment when God created mankind: At one point, God took dirt from the earth and fashioned it into a man, into Adam. But Adam did not have life until God did something more than just shaping him. Adam became a living soul when God breathed into him the breath of life (Gen. 2:7). And what is the “breath of life”? It is nothing less than the very presence of God Himself. From the beginning, we were made to breathe God.

So why do we have this longing, this ache for life? Why do we always seem to want more? Why are we driven?
The reason why this desire for life is so driven and can even feel desperate at times is because of what Adam did with this greatest of all gifts given to creation. Yes, it says nowhere in Scripture that when God made animals or plants or rocks or even stars and planets that He breathed into them the breath of life. Only man received the breath of God Himself. So what did Adam do? When he sinned, we could say that in some sense, he exhaled God. He expelled the breath of life.

That is not to say, of course, that he succeeded in getting rid of God entirely from himself. God, in His mercy, remained within Adam enough to continue to keep him essentially alive, moving, thinking, feeling and exercising free will. But all of those functions came to be impaired, and Adam began to die. He also began to sin even more, because his free will had become distorted.

And therefore began the hunger, a hunger that has now lasted for millennia, a hunger that consumes our entire race. We hunger to regain the life that is the breath of God. Life—real life—is actually God. We call Him the “Giver of Life,” and what He gives is Himself, His actual presence. If you have life at all, even incompletely, then you have God within you.

And all of this is why we celebrate the man whom we remember today, on the Second Sunday of Great Lent. This man is called St. Gregory Palamas, and he was the archbishop of Thessalonica in Greece for a number of years in the 14th century, right around the same time that Geoffrey Chaucer was born, the man who wrote The Canterbury Tales.

But before he became an archbishop, Gregory was a monk on the holy mountain of Athos. During his time there and also when he later became an archbishop, Gregory was involved in a controversy that cut straight to the heart of this longing for life that all of us who are sons and daughters of Adam share.

At that time, there was a certain heretic named Barlaam, who was from the southern part of Italy, which was Greek-speaking at the time. Barlaam made the claim that the highest possible knowledge of God that anyone could have was through the mind, that the philosophers knew God better than the prophets and even the apostles.

Gregory answered that the human mind, while a great gift from God, was not actually capable of the kind of intimate knowledge and communion that Adam had received from God, that there was something much deeper, that the Christian could actually know God and see Him with the heart, as a light shining in. And indeed, sometimes this heart knowledge of God was so powerful and so pervasive that some people were actually seeing the light of God with their physical eyes.

Isn’t that why we’re here? Don’t we want to see God? Aren’t we here not just to learn about God with our minds, but truly to know Him with our hearts?

If I just study God but never really come to know Him—that is, if I know about Him, but don’t know Him—then am I really experiencing that breath of life? Am I truly alive?

Another of our saints, who lived quite early on in the Church’s life, in the second century in what is now France—Irenaeus of Lyons—wrote that “the glory of God is a man fully alive.” And with that saying, all of the pieces fit together. God’s breath, God’s life, God’s light—these are our experience of God’s glory. When God’s glory truly shines into a man or woman or child, then that person becomes fully alive, because God’s glory is God.

That is what life is, brothers and sisters—it is to have an intimate, personal experience of God’s glory, of God. All the other things we call “life” are really just reminders of our loss of that one thing needful—the glorious, life-giving breath of God.

That’s what salvation is. That’s what the Church is. That’s what Christian life is. That’s what human life is. It is a struggle to overcome our distorted wills, our distorted desires, so that we return to that perfect moment when the Holy Trinity breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life, that moment when the communion with the Creator was perfect.

So how do we do that? In the epistle reading for today, Paul asks us, “How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” He by no means assumes that you can come here, fulfill a summary “obligation,” and then can say, “Yes, I’ve got the breath of God back.” Salvation is something that can be neglected, and if neglected, we will not escape all that the loss of the life given to Adam really entails—spiritual death, eternal death. Not ceasing to exist—no, for we will all exist forever—but an eternal existence of continual dying, decay and distortion.

But St. Gregory Palamas gives us the key. He earnestly taught that ordinary people, just like you and me, could see the divine light of God, could breathe the breath of God once more, if they will truly give themselves to prayer, to fasting, to worship, to good works, to humility, to real change, to becoming the kind of people concerning whom others can truly say, “Here is one in whom God lives, in whom God breathes. Here is one in whom I see God’s glory.” Are you such a one?

The glory of God is a man fully alive.

To God therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.