Posts tagged ‘Lent’

Veneration of the Cross/St. Tikhon – 3rd Sunday of Great Lent

crossMark 8:34-9:1
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Christ is in our midst! He is and shall be!

Today, on this middle Sunday of the Great Fast, we have two magnificent commemorations set before us. We have the usual remembrance for the Third Sunday of Lent – the Veneration of the Holy Cross. We also remember today the life and miracles of St. Tikhon, Patriarch of Russia and Apostle to America.

The Fathers give us the Veneration of the Cross today as a consolation. We’re going through the rigors of Lent – the fasting, ascetic discipline, services, spiritual reading and prayer – and we’re reminded today of why we undertake these things. This is the only time during the year that full prostrations are prescribed for us as we walk into Church on Sunday morning. We fall down before the Cross in worship, as the troparion says, glorifying the Holy Resurrection. The Cross reminds us not only of the suffering Servant, but also of the Risen Lord. It’s not like we’re trying to perfect ourselves of our own power, rather we are trying to make ourselves better receptacles for the grace of God. We soften ourselves, we become more like Christ, and that opens us to receive the grace and the presence of the Creator. Remember what the Scriptures say about Christ – He emptied Himself, and took the form of a servant, for our salvation. And now we empty ourselves – we rid ourselves of sin and all that stands between us and God – and we prepare ourselves to be filled with His presence. We practice what we just heard from the Gospel of St. Mark – we deny ourselves, take up our Cross, and follow Christ. And it’s in this lifestyle of putting the things of God in the first place in our lives that we finally find peace and fulfillment in our lives. Our homiletics professor at seminary always told us to remind people that the best life possible is life in Christ. In sin we become slaves, unable to control our desires and even our actions. We become what we’re created to be by willingly setting aside our wants and accepting the Cross of Christ.
What is this Cross? Fr. Thomas Hopko says it very well in one of his talks on the Cross: he says that our Cross is whatever obstacles we face in this life. So whether we born with certain struggles, acquire them in our youth or old age, have them forced upon us by others, chase them with all our might – any struggle we face in this life is the Cross that God has allowed on our shoulders. We carry it faithfully by always offering our lives to Him, by walking without complaining or self-pity, and by seeking our life’s salvation in that place where we actually are. Fulfilling the purpose of our creation is the best we can possibly do in this world.

We see this played out, “proven,” in the lives of the Saints. The Saints accept whatever God allows to come their way, and their lives are fulfilled, and they grow to be holy men and women by simply carrying the Cross of Christ. I encourage you with every ounce of encouragement I can give – read the lives of the Saints! Their lives stand as guiding lights for us, we can draw such inspiration for our own life in Christ by reading the lives of the holy men and women of God who’ve gone on before us. Today we remember St. Tikhon – a perfect example of a man taking up the Cross. St. Tikhon was sent to North America to be her Archbishop – he left home, family, and country, traveling across the world to spread the Gospel in a foreign land. I love the concreteness of the missionary saints leaving their home and traveling to another place; it’s a very visual example of taking up the Cross of Christ. Of course, we’re called to live in this place with much the same detachment – being in this world but not of this world; living in this place and participating in the Kingdom at the same time. St. Tikhon was eventually brought home to Russia, and elected Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia during an incredibly difficult time for the Russian Orthodox Church. His time as Archpastor of Russia was fraught with struggles – pushing back against the godless authorities, dealing with the Living Church, dealing with traitors within his own Church – and in the midst of this all, he had to find a way not only to live his own life in Christ, but to lead others to that same experience as well. Through all of the turmoil, St. Tikhon was a beacon of light for Christians. He was a true man of God, doing what needed to be done in order for the Gospel to be preached, and for people to grow in their relationships with Christ.

So today we have some consolation. We remember the Cross, we remember the Resurrection, and we remember the great St. Tikhon – all three of these recalling for us the goal of our labors. We don’t fast to fast – the demons never eat, as the Desert Father reminds us. Our goal is always Christ. May our Lenten journey make us soft, so that the presence of Christ can penetrate our hearts, and we can become truly children of the Father.

Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!

Matthew Jackson

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Sunday of the Last Judgment

judgementIn the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Christ is in our midst! He is and shall be!

Today is the third and final Sunday of preparation for Great and Holy Lent. And we read what is perhaps the most troubling of Christ’s parables—when He speaks about the Last Judgment. The end of all things, when God’s Kingdom alone will reign in the cosmos. Satan will be bound, and for us human beings, there will be the final Judgment. The sheep will be divided from the goats, and the goats “will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:46).

I say this is a troubling parable because both the righteous and the unrighteous question the Judge. The righteous don’t understand why they deserve life, and the unrighteous don’t understand why they deserve punishment. The righteous don’t see their righteousness, and the condemned don’t see their unrighteousness. This fact itself makes the parable disconcerting. We like to feel that we have a grip on what’s going on, that we understand our lives. And this morning we hear that we don’t always understand, even our own actions.

The placement of the this morning’s parable lends to it an obvious meaning within the pre-Lenten cycle—we’re called to repent with humility like the Publican, to return to God with humility and repentance like the Prodigal, because the Last Judgment is nearing, when we’ll be placed in God’s Kingdom, or we’ll be left out of that Kingdom, for all eternity. And the Church calls us to prepare ourselves for this last day. In fact, when Christ calls people to repentance and to return to God and to follow the commandments, He very frequently will end with a phrase like, “for great is your reward in Heaven.” Everything in this life is to be our preparation for the moment of the Last Judgment—if anything separates us from Christ we lay it aside.

And at the most basic level, we lay it aside because separation from Christ leads to eternal damnation. We hope to grow beyond merely a fear of punishment, we hope to one day follow Christ purely out of love, but the Fathers all teach that the first movement toward Christ is most often from a fear of death, a fear of punishment, and a fear of the unknown. So in order for us to grow, in order for us to operate less on the level of fear, and more on the level of understanding, this morning we’ll consider the question—What does it take to find oneself one the right hand of Christ, with the sheep, at the last and dread judgment?

Christ says this morning—“I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me drink, I was a stranger and you took Me in, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited Me, I was in prison and you came to Me.“ (Matthew 25: 35-36) But what do these actions mean? What is it that Christ is telling us is necessary for us to inherit the kingdom of heaven? In the parable, Christ describes the actions of people who are acting like Him. To do those things mentioned by Christ in the Gospel means to do the things of God. To conform to the image Christ. As St. Paul says, it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. We’re not Pelagians—Christ is not saying, “ do these works and you’ll be saved.” He’s describing the life of a person who has entirely submitted themselves to doing the will of God. It’s not a day-by-day calculated, “I must feed a hungry person, and I must give to a poor person…” or whatever. The actions of the people placed at the right hand of God flow from their relationship with God. They aren’t forced—they come naturally to people who have been re-born, healed, in Christ.

Metropolitan HIEROTHEOS reminds us, however, that we can have a relationship with God and not be saved (Hesychia and Theology, pp. 124-125). It’s not simply ‘a relationship with Christ’ that offers man salvation. Everyone in the world has a relationship with God—even Satan has a relationship with God. But in a saving relationship we must be healed, we must be transformed. Restored to a natural state of communion with God, from our current un-natural state of separation from God because of sin. It’s a relationship based on love, where we strive every day to empty ourselves, to offer ourselves as vessels to be filled with the Holy Spirit. And in the selfless relationship with Christ—when the relationship is on His terms (and not ours), then it’s a relationship that offers us healing and salvation.And we’ll be transformed. And slowly, we’ll begin to direct our actions in the way that Christ would have us to go.

Elder Porphyrios has some very good words for us on the relationship with Christ that offers man salvation.
He writes (in Wounded by Love)—“Look towards Christ and that will save you. What makes a person saintly is love – the adoration of Christ which cannot be expressed… no [one can] become holy without ascetic exercises…no one can ascend to spirituality without exercising himself. Ascetic exercises are such things as prostrations, vigils and so on, but done without force. All are done with joy. What is important is not the prostrations we will make or the prayers, but the act of self-giving, the passionate love for Christ…there are many people who do these things, [but] not for God…but spiritual people do them in order to reap spiritual benefit; they do them for God.”

So as we prepare to enter the season of the Great Fast, let the thoughts from this morning’s parable go with you this week. To inherit Kingdom we must be one with Christ. Is my relationship with Christ a saving relationship? Is it a relationship governed by His terms? Or do I cultivate it only when I want to? Is my relationship with Christ transforming me, making me more and more to be in the image and likeness of my Creator? And where we see failings, these are places to begin to work on this Great Lent. May God grant us the grace to see ourselves as He sees us, and to draw us to Himself by His great love for us.

Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!

Matthew Jackson

Sunday of the Prodigal Son

prodigalsonIn the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Christ is in our midst! He is and shall be!

The parable that our Lord tells this morning is one of the most well known and talked about parables in the New Testament. The Fathers of the Church have set this reading before us today in keeping with the theme of preparation for Great Lent This is the third Sunday of our time of preparation before the beginning of the Great Fast. And the last two Sundays we have looked at the encounter of Zacchaeus the Tax-collector with our Lord, and also at the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee. The necessity of repentance and of humility in the Christian life were the focus of those two readings. And today’s message is a sort of culmination of this cycle—a parable of returning home to the Father.

The parallel in this parable is very thinly veiled—it’s a parable about the return of man to his Father, God. This parable is the Christian life. We are the son. We’ve taken our inheritance, all of the wonderful things that God has given us, and we’ve used them simply for our own pleasure. We’ve ignored constantly the direction that God has offered us in His Holy Church. This is a fact that, in humility, all Christians must accept. Even if we’re dedicated to working out our salvation, we are the son on the journey back to the Father.

What we learn about ourselves from the son in this parable is what most of us already know. That we’ve given ourselves to the sins of the world, and have lowered ourselves—as the Pre-Communion prayers say—even lower than the animals. And so we get up to go home. At some point in our lives, we did this in the sense of choosing Christ, becoming Christian. We chose to remove ourselves from the way of the world and to go to the Father’s house. Yet we continue to fall, and we continue to need to get up out of the pigpen and head back home to the Father. The movement of the Prodigal Son is a movement that we repeat constantly in our lives. Like the monk who was asked what they did in the monastery, and he replies, “We fall and get up, we fall and get, we fall get up again.” This is the movement of the lives of Orthodox Christians.

And we’ve talked over the last few weeks about making that better. About offering a deeper repentance that helps us stay away from the pigpen for a while. Or looking at ourselves with humility, seeing that we’re nothing without Christ. And as we head into Lent, we’re going to hear constantly about this return to God. So as we spend the next month and a half concentrating on changing ourselves by the grace of God, we really should look and see what this parable tells us about the one to whom we’re returning. As your heading home, you really need to know what you’re heading to.

This parable reveals so poignantly the depth of God’s love for man. We’re created free. We’re given everything in the world, literally. We’re raised in the midst of the love of God. But we always remain free. And we can choose to take all the things that God has given us, and strike out on our own. We can choose to leave the Father’s house — to dis-associate ourselves. But the love of God is an incredible thing. The Father, in the parable, is watching daily for the son. He’s not angry. He’s not vengeful. He doesn’t write off the son and just get back to life as usual. He continues to manage His affairs on the one hand, but He’s always waiting, yearning, for His son to return.

And when the son finally begins to make his way home, he’s in the state that we should be in. He knows his errors, he knows where he needs to be, and he goes as a humbled and defeated man, trusting in the Father’s mercy. But this Father, whose been watching for his son’s return for how long? Maybe years. This Father see his son in the distance, and having compassion on him, runs out to meet him. And then it doesn’t matter what the son says. He has to make his confession, he has to get it all off his chest. But it doesn’t matter what he says. He’s come home. And all the Father wants to do is love him. To re-integrate him into the family. He brings out the best clothes and prepares a great feast. Because the son has come home. And the Father welcomes him home as the rightful heir, and gives him back everything that once was his.

This is the God we worship. This is the God that we’re constantly repenting before, that we’re constantly hurting with our sin, and then coming back to. A God, a Father, who doesn’t care what the child has done, as long as we go home. We will have to live with the consequences for the life we’ve chosen. But in Christ, all is made well. He’s spent all this time waiting for our return. And the Father receives us with open arms and numbers us among the chosen ones.The adopted children of God.

What an incredible thing to hear from God—Son, all that I have is yours…well done, my good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your Lord.

Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!

Matthew Jackson

Self-examination as a Lifestyle, Not Just a Prelude

Homily preached at the New Orleans Mission Station, Zacchaeus Sunday

1 Timothy 4:9-15; Luke 19:1-10

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Christ is in our midst! He is and shall be!

Today we have the first of the “named” Sundays before the beginning of Great Lent–Zacchaeus Sunday. We’ll spend the next several weeks contemplating and preparing for the beginning of the Fast. Today we have the story of Zacchaeus, and we’ll move forward to hear about the Publican and the Pharisee, the Prodigal Son, the Sunday of the Last Judgment, and finally, Forgiveness Sunday. Each of these days calls on us to begin examining our lives. It is that “the unexamined life is not worth living”(Socrates) – the Church certainly seems to put this notion in front of our minds with great frequency and consistency. In the daily prayers, we reflect on our day – how have I lived? How have I failed? How have I done good? We’re called to regular confession – bringing before God our sins and our struggles, and also our thoughts and our dreams, everything we are. We are in a constant state of self-examination and reflection, and we amp that up even higher as we approach and especially when we’re in Great Lent.

Zacchaeus was a pretty terrible guy. He was a Jew, but he worked for the Roman government as a tax collector. In the eyes of his fellow Jews, that already made him a traitor. In addition, he cheated people, he overtaxed and kept the profits for himself. So he was a traitor, a liar, and a cheat, and probably more. We don’t know exactly why Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus so badly, but we can surmise that he’d heard that there was a great Prophet traveling around and working miracles. So, Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus, but he was too short, and the crowds were too large. He just couldn’t get to a good spot to see from. In order to get what he wants, he stoops to doing something humiliating. He, as a grown man and a government official, climbs a sycamore tree in order to catch a glimpse of Jesus. Then, something entirely unexpected happens – Jesus stops, calls Zacchaeus by name, and says that he will come to stay at his house. Zacchaeus comes down from the tree, and receives Jesus joyfully, the Gospel said. The people around Jesus complain that he’s gone to be a guest with a sinner, but we see that our Lord does this on many occasions during His ministry. As He says elsewhere, He’s come to save the lost sheep of the tribe of Israel – He’s come from the sinner, not for the Saint.

From the moment that Zacchaeus sees Jesus, we notice that he starts to change. He becomes filled with joy, and happy to have this holy man come to his home, even though he lives as a great sinner. Zacchaeus is entirely changed by his meeting with the Lord – the Fathers say this is of utmost importance in the life of any Christian, to have at least one meeting with the Lord. That meeting is what changes everything. For Zacchaeus this means giving half his goods to the poor, restoring what he’d stolen 4 times over, and moving forward with life in an honest and God-fearing way. Jesus then speaks the result of Zacchaeus’ conversion – “today salvation has come to this house.” It wasn’t a long, drawn out process. Zacchaeus met the Lord, was changed in his heart, and salvation came to his house. It reminds me of that great saying of the Desert Fathers – that if we truly desired it with all of our hearts, we could be saved in a single moment.

So today, the Church sets before us several things in the story of Zacchaeus, which I’ll phrase in terms of self-examination (since I began the homily that way). When we look into our hearts, how are we living our lives? Are we obsessed with our own will and desires, living for the flesh and material things, like Zacchaeus was in the beginning of the Gospel? Or are we trying to seek the path of the Gospel of Christ? Have we had that fateful meeting with Christ? If so, are we struggling to maintain that great grace within us, and to share it with others? If not, are we living the Gospel and growing ever closer to Christ, “proving to Him that we are His,” as Elder Sophrony would say?

I love that quote I began with – The unexamined life is not worth living. Let us not waste our lives by refusing to examine them and make the tough decisions that might entail. The examined life might be a struggle to fulfill, but the unexamined one is hollow, fulfilling nothing and no one. Let us begin this pre-Lenten season by examining our own lives in the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!

Matthew Jackson