Sermons

Death and the Saints

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Sunday of All Saints, June 15, 2014
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

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

Death and the afterlife are topics which are often on the minds of clergy, but they were especially on my mind this past week, as we not only experienced the death of one of our sisters in Christ in this parish but my own family also came face to face with the possible death of my mother, thousands of miles away in South Africa where she and my father were visiting on business. But death is no stranger to Orthodox Christians. One might even say that we are a Church that confronts death with a boldness and frankness that are rarely seen elsewhere in the world.

And on this Sunday of All Saints, we again confront death. It might not seem obvious that this should be a day when we confront death, when we celebrate a feast for all the saints. But if we look into how this feast day came to be celebrated in the Orthodox Church, we will understand perhaps a little better.

Initially, this feast was the Feast of All Martyrs. During this feast, the Church celebrated all those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their love and faith in Jesus Christ. The word martyr itself means “witness,” and so a martyr is one who witnesses to Christ even in death. And the martyrs were in the early Church those who were most immediately venerated as “holy,” which itself is a word meaning “set apart.” And in the Greek of the early Church, holy and saint are the same word.

But the Church also recognized that it was not only those killed for their faith who witnessed to the truth of Christ in a holy way but that there were others. And so the word saint came to be applied to other witnesses, as well. So this Sunday’s commemoration includes all the saints, whether they were killed for their faith or not. And this feast developed further to what it is today, which is a celebration not only of all the saints whose names are listed in the canonical books of the Church but of all the saints who have been well-pleasing to God, even if their names and stories are unknown to the Church.

It is in this broadest sense that I would like us to contemplate today the meaning of this feast and most especially the meaning of what it means to be a saint. The Scriptures make use of the word saint in a broader sense than just what we usually now think of, namely, someone who is “officially” a saint, whose name is included in the synaxarion, who may have hymns for church services dedicated to them, who may have icons, etc.

In the Scriptures, saint is used to refer of course to those departed who are venerated from of old, as we heard in today’s reading from Hebrews, who did all those amazing things like subduing kingdoms, stopping the mouths of lions, etc. But it is also used to refer to those who are not yet departed from this earthly life—indeed, saint is used in Scripture to refer to all faithful Christians.

Now, if a “saint” can be any faithful Christian, does it then make sense to single out certain people as “saints” in a more “official” way, such that they are publicly venerated? Yes, of course it does, for the Scriptures themselves do it, as we heard in Hebrews today. We hear in that epistle that “all the saints” did those marvelous things, but of course that is not true of “all the saints” in that broadest sense meaning “every Christian.” So we can rightly use the word saint to refer to those people who especially witnessed to faith in Christ in an extraordinary way, and we can also use it to refer to all Christians, to all of ourselves, though it is probably best rightly said not directly about oneself. To say “I am a saint” could be pretty misleading!

But what is perhaps most interesting here is that, after Paul says in Hebrews all those amazing things that these saints have done, he links them together with his readers. He writes this: “And all these, having obtained a witness through their faith, did not receive the promise, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”

He has been speaking of Old Testament saints, of course, so when he says that they “did not receive the promise,” he is referring to the coming of the Messiah Whom they had not yet received. But more importantly, he says that God had foreseen something better, that “apart from us they should not be made perfect.” What this means is that the perfection of the promise given to those who are in Christ among Paul’s audience is the same perfection given to those who came before Jesus’ advent. And we may also, I think, say quite rightly that this is the same perfection given to the saints who came after.

Thus, the holiness of the Old Covenant saints, the holiness of the saints of the New Covenant, and whatever holiness we in our unworthiness may have received from God, is really all the same. We may think of ourselves as something radically different from the saints, but we’re really not. They’re just people, just like us. The difference is just one of degree, not of kind. They may be better at being witnesses to Christ, but they are not something that we’re not. We’re all witnesses. We’re all saints.

So what does all of this have to do with death? That’s where we started today, with the claim that Orthodoxy takes a long, hard look at death and confronts it. In the passage we read from Hebrews, Paul says that the reason the saints suffered all the things they did and did not try to escape those sufferings was “so that they might obtain a better resurrection.” That’s the link here between the saints and death.

As Christians, we believe in the resurrection. We believe that everyone will be resurrected at the end of time, the “first fruits” of that promise being the resurrection of Christ Himself, which is what also enabled that general resurrection for all mankind. All mankind will be raised—some to a resurrection of judgment and some to a resurrection of life. But if we desire a “better resurrection,” as Paul describes the resurrection of life, then we have to do as the saints did—suffer for Christ, suffer in a Christlike manner, and not seek to escape that suffering.

So what is a saint? A saint is one who bears not just the hope of future resurrection to eternal life within himself, but someone who makes that hope truly present within his everyday life. This week, as I myself witnessed death and a close brush with it, I was reminded very intensely of that hope, and that hope came shining through,

When we die, we enter into a time of waiting while our souls are separated from our bodies. But there will come a future time when all the dead will be raised, and our souls and bodies will be put back together. That hope that Christians especially bear within us of not just “life after death” but rather “life after life after death” can have a radical effect on our lives right now. It is why we do not have to fear death, either for ourselves or for our family and loved ones, because we know that it is only temporary. Death itself will have an end to it. We will of course miss those who depart before us, and it is right that we should grieve, for death is a terrible thing, but we do not grieve as those who have no hope. Our grief is a hopeful grief, a godly sorrow.

But even beyond not fearing death, we also have the possibility of bearing resurrection within our lives at this very moment, by anticipation of what is to come. For one thing, because we know that there will be a time after death, a time after the resurrection when a renewed heaven and earth will be established, all ruled by the perfect presence of God, that means that we can hold all earthly orders—including governments—somewhat lightly. Our ultimate citizenship is elsewhere. We accept earthly governments and structures as useful but only temporarily useful. We don’t have to let politics and systems and power get to us.

More importantly, however, we can know that what we do in this age that orients us toward the age that is to come will itself last into that age to come. The love that you now give will last forever. The suffering that you now experience will last forever, though not as suffering but rather as refinement and perfection. It is suffering here, but there it will be glory.

The gifts that you give, the work that you do, the compassion and creativity that you show—all these things are the building blocks of the true civilization that is being established and is already breaking through. We see the beginnings of that civilization here in the Church, where God’s order is most perfectly expressed, but that order will someday become universal.

We often think of “heaven” as some kind of static “place” we go to when we die, but the age to come is really about the age that will happen after that temporary waiting period we go to when we die. There will be work to do in the age to come, things to be fashioned and built and created. It will be a new creation from God, but we don’t have to wait until then. We can participate in it right now. What we do now that contributes to that resurrected reality will last forever. We build now and invest now for that ultimate future. There will be much to do then, and we can begin working on it now. And we do that because we have that hope of resurrection.

So as we face death, as we face suffering, as we face all the struggles of this world, let us remember that we do so not as those who have no hope. We do all this with hope. We do all this with a sense of progress, that here we are really accomplishing something. And those who have been shown to the Church as saints, even those who have not been formally named among their number but nonetheless have kept that hope within themselves, they are all building something, too.

And that is how we confront death. Death is just another chapter—a short chapter and not the last chapter—in the great story of Christ’s resurrection, that resurrection that will someday encompass this whole universe. But for now, that resurrection breaks through here and there. But someday, we will all rise up, and everything we build to everlasting glory in this age will be there in the age that is to come. And what glory and joy that will be!

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

The Pentecostal Fountain

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pentecostNote: An audio recording of this sermon is also available via Ancient Faith Radio.

Sunday of Pentecost, June 8, 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 come now to the “last day of the feast,” the fiftieth day from Pascha, the day of Pentecost. On this feast, we not only commemorate or celebrate the giving of the Holy Spirit as a gift to the Church, but we actually experience it mystically. We are standing there with the Apostles and the other disciples of Jesus. That Pentecost has become “today” for us, or rather, for us, our “today” has become that Pentecost.

And for all those who have been baptized and chrismated into Holy Orthodoxy, that same Spirit rests on us that rested on the Apostles and gave them such power and faith.

I have to admit that when I think about Pentecost and the Scriptures that speak of it, I mostly focus on this passage from the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles we first heard read today, which recounts the actual event of the giving of the Holy Spirit, how the Apostles preached and everyone heard in his own language, how in that same chapter we learn that 3,000 were baptized in a single day.

But we should also turn to the Gospel reading when considering Pentecost, which was chosen for this feast by our Fathers just as much as the reading from Acts. In this reading, which has selections from both the seventh and eighth chapters of John’s Gospel, we read how Jesus predicts the first Christian Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit would be given. It is perhaps not obvious from His words that that’s what He’s doing, but John himself gives us that interpretation. Let’s hear again the beginning of that passage:

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.’” Now this He said about the Spirit, which those who believed in Him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

First, we should note that there is one parallel here from the beginning. John says that Jesus stood up “on the last day of the feast, the great day.” Now, we are here at the “last day” of the Paschal season, and it is indeed a “great day,” the day of Pentecost. And the pairing of Pentecost with Pascha has its roots in Judaism, which celebrated Pentecost on the fiftieth day after Passover. And Pascha is simply the Greek word for Passover.

But the “last day” which Jesus is standing up on here is not the Jewish Pentecost. Rather, here He is speaking on the final day of the Feast of Tabernacles, which was one of the three great feasts of ancient Judaism (along with Passover and Pentecost). This feast commemorated the time when the Hebrew people wandered in the wilderness for forty years after coming out of Egypt and before they came to the Promised Land. During these years, they lived in mobile tabernacles. And so during the feast, the Jews would build temporary housing outside of their own homes and live in it during the feast. Faithful Jews still do this to this very day.

So Jesus stands up here on this final day of the Feast of Tabernacles and says, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.’” What does this have to do with the Feast of Tabernacles?

In Jesus’ time, the feast would be concluded by a ritual pouring out of water from the pool of Siloam mixed with wine on the foot of the sacrificial altar. This pouring out would both be for a purification of the altar and also in commemoration of the time that the Hebrews during their wandering in the wilderness had no water to drink, and so a rock was struck by Moses (Exodus 17:1-7), and God miraculously caused it to become a fountain. The altar here became the symbolic rock from which flowed forth life-giving water.

When Paul writes his first epistle to the Corinthians, he makes mention of this event in its tenth chapter. He says that the Hebrews “all drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from a spiritual Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (I Cor. 10:4).

And so we have here a confluence of different images that come together, First, we see the ancient rock in the wilderness which Moses struck and which God caused to become a fountain of the water of life. Then, we see the sacrificial altar in the Temple in Jerusalem which had water poured out at its foot at the end of the Feast of Tabernacles to commemorate this event.

And now, we see Christ, Whom Paul calls “the Rock.” Christ is Himself struck, though not by Moses, but by the people who supposedly follow Moses. Christ Himself pours forth not water and wine, but blood and water when He is pierced while hanging on the Cross. And now we who worship at the altar of Christ see that same altar pour forth for us wine and water that have been changed to become Christ’s Blood.

All of these events and images come together to form a sort of messy mosaic of truth and power that we experience every time we celebrate the divine Eucharist.

But why does John say that Jesus is speaking about Pentecost, that day when the Holy Spirit was given as gift to those who follow Christ? Let’s hear that passage again:

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and proclaimed, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.’” Now this He said about the Spirit, which those who believed in Him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

Jesus speaks here of those who believe in Him—which is not just a simple agreement with particular propositions, but a true belief which carries with it true action, faith, piety, etc. The giving of the Spirit to the believer is described this way: “Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.” Rather than the water that came from the rock by Moses’ act or the water that is poured out on the altar during the feast, there is a new water, a living water which comes from Christ, and this living water is the very Spirit of God, the Third Person of the Holy Trinity.

And not only is this water received by the believer, but the believer himself becomes a fountain which pours forth this water. This effect is seen most powerfully on that day of Pentecost when the Spirit is poured out on the followers of Jesus. It is not only that they are given what they need so that they may be saved, but that they also become fountains of salvation to others.

They communicate Christ to others by their presence, by their words, by their actions in this world. They are inspired. They inspire. They become fountains of the Spirit for the world. This effect is seen best in the saints, but it is available to all, the calling and destiny of every Christian.

And how are we to become those fountains of the Spirit for all? It is not enough only to be baptized and chrismated, though that is the beginning of this great gift of the Holy Spirit. It is not enough to be a “church member,” because clearly simple “membership” isn’t turning everyone into fountains of the Holy Spirit.

Rather, we must drink deeply at the well of Christ. We become converted by Christ into someone who is still ourselves and yet not ourselves—a new person, a renewed person. We become like the Apostles. Remember Peter’s betrayal of Christ? At Pentecost he became Christ’s faithful servant. Remember how most of them deserted Him before the passion? At Pentecost, they become missionaries. Remember how they balked at interactions with Gentiles and Samaritans? At Pentecost, they stepped outside themselves and their prejudices and began to preach and to bring Christ to all.

They became fountains of the life-giving Holy Spirit, who moves in all and seals us in the Son of God. We can become that, too. So let us drink deeply of the living water.

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

Becoming a Bridge: Christ and the Woman at the Well

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Note: An audio recording of this sermon is also available via Ancient Faith Radio.

Sunday of the Samaritan Woman, May 18, 2014
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen. Christ is risen!

Today on this fifth Sunday of the great feast of all feasts, Holy Pascha, we meditate on the mystery of the Lord’s approach of the Samaritan Woman, the Woman at the Well. This woman comes to this well that had been founded by Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, so many centuries before, that she may draw water to bring home for her thirsty household. And there at the well, she finds Jesus sitting there.

She could immediately tell from His clothing and bearing that she had met a Jew Who followed the Law of Moses, because when he asked her to get Him something to drink, she responded, “How is it that Thou, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” For as the Scriptures tell us, the Jews did not speak with Samaritans, and as is even now in the case in many places in that region, it was not proper that a man should address a woman alone. So she is taken aback when he speaks to her.

What I wish especially to emphasize today in this encounter between the Samaritan Woman and our Savior Jesus Christ is how He does not emphasize their difference but instead makes Himself into a bridge for her.

He becomes a bridge for her in that He chooses to reach out to her as a man to a woman. Even now, men and women, while we may be attracted to one another, often find each other almost impossible to understand and even sometimes we may think that the other is impossible to live with. This can be true even outside of romantic relationships. Men tend to group with other men, and women with women. And there is nothing wrong with connecting with people who are like you. But there is something wrong with shunning people who are not like you. Jesus here becomes a bridge for her and overcomes this opposition of men with women by taking the initiative and by addressing her with kindness and love, beginning by making a request of her: “Give Me a drink.”

He also becomes a bridge for her between peoples. He is a Jew, and Jews have traditionally treated the Samaritans with disdain. They are regarded as heretics who only have some of the Law of Moses, and they are also looked upon as miscegenated half-breeds whose forebears had inter-married with the surrounding pagan peoples. But He reaches out to her, becoming a bridge and connecting her to their father Abraham through their common reverence for Jacob at his well.

Christ also becomes a bridge for her between righteousness and unrighteousness. She had sinned and had been with many men, marrying many times and even at that moment, living sinfully with a man who was not her husband. Yet He still offered to her His own presence, His own words of wisdom and love. He did not turn away from her because she was an “undesirable” who did things that were not fitting for someone righteous like Him, someone Who followed the Law of Moses perfectly.

The Lord Jesus also becomes a bridge for her in the matter of worship. She knows only one kind of worship, and that is the worship of the Samaritans which took place on their holy mountain that Jacob had set apart many centuries before. She also knows that Jews say that worship is to take place in the Temple in Jerusalem. But of course no Samaritan could enter that Temple and offer worship there. And He offers her a solution, becoming a bridge not just for her as a Samaritan but indeed for the whole world—His Father is seeking true worshipers, who will worship in spirit and truth, not just on the Samaritan mountain nor in the Temple, but indeed in every place. The old boundaries were being taken down, and forgiveness and communion can happen anywhere.

He also becomes a bridge for her to hope. She knows of the Messiah, the One coming into the world Who will tell her all things, but as a Samaritan, as a sinful woman, as one separated, she has no hope for access to the Messiah—the Messiah of the Jews. And the Messiah is a figure of legend and ancient prophecy. That she would find that figure sitting at the well of her fathers would not have occurred to her. But here He is, the hope of all, the promised Anointed One, the Christ, bringing hope to her even in the midst of her separation and hopelessness.

And ultimately, He becomes a bridge for her to God. For in Himself, He is both God and man. He is the God Who is man and the man Who is God. She met a divine Person, but she was able to meet Him because He is man. She saw His human body which is an element of His human nature, yet she accessed His divine wisdom, His divine clairvoyance, His divine love, which are the energies and the actions possible because of His divine nature. In Him, she becomes a partaker of the divine nature.

And in all these same ways, He has become a bridge also for us. We who are at odds with one another because of differences of gender and race and culture and class and wealth can become one because of how He has bridged all of mankind together in Himself, giving us all to eat and drink of His glorified flesh and blood. We who are not born into the chosen people of God, not naturally of Israel, have been brought into that people because He has bridged the way for us. He has become the New Jacob, the New Israel into Whom all the nations of the earth may gather as one chosen people, the new race of Christians.

He also is the bridge for us to righteousness, something we could never accomplish on our own. Try being truly kind and loving for just one day! Yet He gives us His own holiness so that we can be transformed, released from the drudgery of merely “trying hard” on our own strength, given access to divine strength. And He also is the bridge for us to true worship. He not only provides for us the possibility of worship in spirit and in truth in every place, but He is Himself the priest Who offers the sacrifice, the One Who is sacrificed and the One Who receives the sacrifice. And He also is the One Who distributes the sacrifice, which is Himself. He is everywhere and become everything for us.

And in all this, He is the bridge between God and man, being Himself both God and man. We touch His humanity and so access His divinity. There is no other such bridge, no other way to contact our God except through His Christ, His Son, this Jesus Who is the God-man. And thus the ancient boundary of our sin is torn down, and we are set free to celebrate in the vast beauty of divine grace.

Having received all this, the Samaritan Woman—who soon takes the name Photini, meaning “the enlightened one,” for she had received light—she herself becomes a bridge. For she bridges the way between Jesus and her own people. She goes and tells them about Him, and then He is invited to come and stay with them. And when they meet Him, they believe.

In this beautiful account of how Jesus becomes a bridge for Photini and then how she does the same for her people, we should find ourselves in that same story. We should not, of course, be as the disciples, who stood to the side questioning the whole thing, even if mostly in their hearts.

Rather, we first see ourselves as the woman, who encounters Christ and is connected by Him to so many things she had been lacking, most especially to the very presence of God Himself.

But we also try in whatever ways we can to see ourselves in Christ, that we may also become bridges to other people. We cannot allow the old boundaries to persist, the boundaries that keep us from each other, that keep us from righteousness, that keep us from worship, that keep us from God Himself. We become bridges so that those whom God brings us will be able to connect not just with one another, but in all these ways and in all these things to Jesus Christ.

And we again see ourselves as the woman, who herself becomes a bridge, connecting those whom she loves and who know her best to the Messiah Who has come into the world to save us and give us that living water that will never dry up and never run out.

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

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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theophany-blessing

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

Posted on Updated on

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.