Posts tagged ‘repentance’

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

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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

Confession – Confessor – Confessing

By Monk Moses of the Holy Mountain

The excerpt below has been taken from the book titled “REPENTANCE AND CONFESSION”, by Monk Moses of the Holy Mountain, “Orthodoxi Kypseli” Publications, Thessaloniki.

Confession is a God-given commandment, and it is one of the Sacraments of our Church. Confession is not a formal, habitual (“to be on the safe side”, or, “in view of upcoming feast-days”), forced and unprepared act, springing from an isolated duty or obligation and for psychological relief only. Confession should always be combined with repentance. A Holy Mountain Elder used to say: “Many confess, but few repent!” (Elder Aemilianos of the Simonopetra Monastery, Holy Mountain).

Repentance is a freely-willed, internally cultivated process of contrition and sorrow for having distanced ourselves from God through sin. True repentance has nothing to do with intolerable pain, excessive sorrow and relentless guilty feelings. That would not be sincere repentance, but a secret egotism, a feeling of our “ego” being trampled on; an anger that is directed at our self, which then wreaks revenge because it is exposing itself and is put to shame – a thing that it cannot tolerate. Repentance means a change in our thoughts, our mentality; it is an about-face; it is a grafting of morality and an abhorrence of sin. Repentance also means a love of virtue, benevolence, and a desire, a willingness and a strong disposition to be re-joined to Christ through the Grace of the almighty Holy Spirit. Repentance begins in the depths of the heart, but it culminates necessarily in the sacrament of divine and sacred Confession.

During confession, one confesses sincerely and humbly before the confessor, as though in the presence of Christ. No scientist, psychologist, psychoanalyst, psychiatrist, sociologist, philosopher or theologian can replace the confessor. No icon – not even the most miracle-working one – can provide what the confessor’s stole can: the absolution of sins. The confessor takes the person under his care; he adopts him and ensures he is reborn spiritually, which is why he is called a “spiritual father.” Normally, spiritual paternity is lifelong, sacred and powerful – even more powerful than a family bond. Spiritual birth is a painful process. The confessor must keep track of the confessing soul, with a fear of God (as one who is “accountable to God”), with understanding, humility and love, and guide him with discretion in the ever-upward course of his in-Christ life.

The confessor-priest has been given a special blessing by his bishop for the undertaking of his confessional opus. However, the gift of “binding and un-binding” sins is initially acquired through his ordination as presbyter, when he is rendered a successor to the Apostles. Thus, validity and canonicity in Apostolic succession, through bishops, is of central and great importance. Like all the other holy sacraments of our Church, the sacrament of Confession is performed (and it bestows Grace on the faithful), not in conjunction with the skill, the scientism, the literacy, the eloquence, the energy and the artfulness of the priest – not even with his virtue and holiness – but through the canonicity (validity) of his priesthood and through the “Master of Ceremonies” – the Holy Spirit. The possible sins of the priest do not obstruct divine Grace during the Sacraments. Woe betide, if we were to doubt (on account of the unworthiness of the priest) that the bread and the wine actually become the Body and the Blood of Christ during the Divine Liturgy! This of course does not mean that the priest should not have to constantly concern himself with his own “cleanliness.” Thus, there is no such thing as “good” or “bad” confessors. Each and every confessor provides the exact same absolution. However, we do have the right to choose our confessor; and of course we have the right to turn to the one who truly makes us feel at ease with him, spiritually. To constantly change our confessor however, is not a very sober decision; this kind of tendency does not reveal spiritual maturity. But confessors should, respectively, not fret excessively -or even create problems- when a spiritual child of theirs happens to depart from them. This may mean that they were morbidly attached to each other (sentimentally, to the person. and not to Christ, nor to the Church). They may also regard that departure as an insult; one that is demeaning to them and makes them think there is no-one better than them, or, it may give them a feeling that the other “belongs” to them exclusively and they can therefore dominate them and in fact even behave forcibly towards them, as if they are repressed and confined subordinates. We did mention that the confessor is a spiritual father, and that spiritual fatherhood and spiritual childbirth entails labour. Thus, it is only natural for the confessor to feel sorrow upon the departure of his spiritual child. However, it is preferable for him to pray for his child’s spiritual progress and its union to the Church, even despite its disengagement from him. He must wish for, and not against that child.

The confessor’s opus is not just the superficial hearing of a person’s sins and the reciting of the prayer of absolution afterwards. Nor is it restricted to the hour of confession. Like a good father, the confessor continuously cares for his child; he listens to it and observes it carefully, he counsels it appropriately, he guides it along the lines of the Gospel, he highlights its talents, he does not place unnecessary burdens on it, he imposes canons with leniency only when he must, he consoles it when it is disheartened, weighed down, resentful, exhausted, and he heals it accordingly, without ever discouraging it, but constantly pursuing the struggle for the eradication of its passions and the harvesting of virtues; constantly shaping its eternal soul to be Christ-like.

This ever-developing paternal and filial relationship between confessor and spiritual child eventually culminates in a feeling of comfort, trust, respect, sanctity and elation. When confessing, one opens his heart to the confessor and discloses the innermost, the basest and most unclean – in fact, all of his – secrets, his most intimate actions and detrimental desires, even those that he would not want to confess to himself, nor tell his next-of-kin or his closest friend. For this reason, the confessor must have an absolute respect for the unlimited trust that is being shown to him by the person confessing. This trust most assuredly builds up with time, but also by the fact that the confessor is strictly bound (in fact to the death) by the divine and Sacred Canons of the Church, to the confidentiality that confession entails.

In Orthodox confession there are of course no general instructions, because the spiritual guidance that each unique soul requires is entirely personalized. Each person is unprecedented, with a particular psychosynthesis, a different character, differing potentials and abilities, limitations, tendencies, tolerances, knowledge, needs and dispositions. With the Grace of God and with divine enlightenment, the confessor must discern all these characteristics, in order to decide what he can utilize best, so that the person confessing will be helped in the best possible manner. At times, leniency will be required, while at other times, austerity. The same thing does not apply to each and every person. Nor should the confessor ALWAYS be strict, just for the sake of being called strict and respected as such; and he should likewise not ALWAYS be excessively lenient, in order to become the preferred choice and be regarded as a “spiritual father of many.” What is required of him is a fear of God, discernment, honesty, humility, deliberation, understanding and prayer.

“Economy” (Oekonomia: to make allowances for something, exceptionally) is not demanded of the person confessing, nor is it proper for the confessor to make it a rule. “Economy” must remain an exception. “Economy” must also be a temporary measure (Archmandrite George Gregoriates). When the reasons for implementing it no longer exist, it must naturally be retracted. The same sin can be confronted in numerous ways.

A canon is not always necessary. A canon is not intended as a form of punishment. It is educative by nature. A canon is not imposed for the sake of appeasing an offended God and an atonement of the sinner in the face of Divine Justice; that is an entirely heretic teaching. A canon is usually implemented during an immature confession, with the intent to arouse awareness and a consciousness of the magnitude of one’s sin. According to Orthodox teaching, “sin” is not so much the transgression of a law, as it is a lack of love towards God. “Love, and do whatever you want”, the blessed Augustine used to say…

A canon is implemented for the purpose of completing one’s repentance in view of confession, which is why Fr. Athanasios of Meteora rightly says: “just as the confessor is not permitted to make public the sins being confessed to him, so must the person confessing not make public the particular canon that the confessor has imposed in his specific case, as it is the resultant of many parameters.”

A confessor acts as the provider of the Grace of the Holy Spirit. During the hour of the Sacrament of Confession, he does not function as a psychologist and scientist. He functions as a priest, as an experienced doctor, as a caring father. When listening to the sins of the person confessing, he prays to God to give him enlightenment, to advise him what the best “medication” for cure will be, and to gauge the degree and the quality of that confession. The confessor does not place himself opposite a confessing person with curiosity, suspicion, envy, excessive austerity, power and arrogance; but equally not with indifference, thoughtlessly, carelessly and wearily. The humility, love and attention of the confessor will greatly help the person confessing. The confessor should not ask too many, too unnecessary and too indiscreet questions. He must especially interrupt any detailed descriptions of various sins (especially the carnal ones) and even the disclosure of names, to safeguard himself even more. But the person confessing should also not feel afraid, or hesitate and feel embarrassed; he should feel respect, trust, honour and show reverence to the confessor. This climate of sanctity, mutual respect and trust must be mainly nurtured, inspired and developed by the confessor.

Our holy mother the Orthodox Church is the Body of the Resurrected Christ; She is a vast infirmary, for the healing of frail, sinning faithful from the traumas, the wounds and the illnesses of sin; from pathogenic demons and from the venomous demonic traps and the influences of demonically-driven passions.

Our Church is not a branch office of the Ministry of Social Services, nor does She compete against the various societies for social welfare – without this meaning that She does not acknowledge this significant and well-meaning opus, or that She Herself does not offer such services bounteously, admirably and wondrously; it is because the Church is mainly a provider of a meaning to life, of redemption and salvation of the faithful “for the sake of whom Christ died,” through their participation in the sacraments of the Church. “The priest’s stole is a planing instrument” – as the Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain used to say – “that planes and straightens out a person; it is a therapeutic scalpel that excises passions, and not a trowel for workaholics, or a symbol of power. It is a servant’s apron intended for ministering to people, for providing therapy and salvation.”

God uses the priest for the forgiveness of His creature. It is plainly stated in the absolution blessing: “May God forgive you – through me the sinner – everything, both in the present age and in the future one, and may He render you blameless, before His awesome Seat of Judgment; having no longer any worry for the crimes that have been confessed, may you go forth in peace.” Sins that have not been confessed will continue to burden a person, even in the life to come. Confessed sins should not be re-confessed; it would be as though one doesn’t believe in the grace of the Sacrament. God is of course aware of them, but it is for the sake of absolution, humbling and therapy that they need to be outwardly confessed. As for the occasional penance imposed for sins, one must realize that it does not negate the Church’s love for the person, but that it is simply an educative imposition, for a better awareness of one’s offenses.

According to Saint Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain, “confession is a willed, verbal revealing of one’s evil deeds and words and thoughts; solemn, accusatory, direct, without shame, decisive, to be executed before a legitimate spiritual father.” This God-bearing saint has succinctly, fully and meaningfully clarified that confession must be willed, free, effortless, without the confessor straining to extract the person’s confession. It should be with solemnity, in other words, with an awareness of the sorrow that he caused God with his sin, and not with sentimental, hypocritical, fainthearted tears.

Genuine “solemnity” implies an inner collapsing, remorse, a hatred towards sin, a love of virtue, and a feeling of gratitude to the Gift-Giver God. “Accusatory” implies a responsible confession, without attempts of justification, subterfuge, chicanery, irresponsibility and scapegoating; with sincere self-reproach and genuine self-humiliation that carries the so-called “happy-sorrow” and the “joyous bereavement” defined by the Church. “Direct” implies a confession with all sincerity, directness and precision, valour and courage, severity and bravery. It often happens that during the hour of confession, one avoids admitting his defeat, his fall and his weakness and by means of eloquent and long-winded descriptions attempts to deflect his share of responsibility, with twists and turns and half-truths – or even by accusing others – all for the sake of preserving (even at that hour) a prim and proper ego. A confession “without shame” implies a portrayal of our true, deplorable self. Shame is a good thing to have, prior to sin and not afterwards, and in the presence of the confessor. The shame felt during confession they say will free us from the sin during the Ultimate Judgment, given that whatever the confessor absolves will not be judged again. A “direct” confession implies that it should be clean, specific, sincere, and accompanied by the decision that the faithful will never repeat the sins he has confessed to. Furthermore, confession should be continuous, so that the “willingly recurring” passions (according to Saint John of the Ladder) are not strengthened, but rather, are cured sooner. Thus, old sins will not be entirely blotted out from memory, there will be a regular self-monitoring, self-observation, self-awareness and self-reproach; Divine Grace will not abandon; demonic entrapment will be averted much more easily, and reminiscence of Death will not seem as horrid and terrible.

Another thing that is all too frequently observed – and we admit this with deep pain and abundant love – is that sermons are not always as Orthodox as they should be; in other words, they only manage to sound like just another commentary on an unimportant news item, thus transforming the sacred pulpit into yet another television “frame” where we can air our own opinion on daily events and occurrences. The Orthodox sermon however is by nature mainly ecclesiological, Christological, salvatory, hagiological and beneficial to the soul. The sermon on repentance as delivered by the Prophets, the holy Baptist, the Saviour Christ and all the Saints remains forever opportune and a necessity. A basic prerequisite for partaking in the holy sacraments and for an upward spiritual course is a purity of heart; a purity that is rid of miscellaneous sins; the spirit of avarice and blissfulness inspired by today’s hyper-consumerist society; the spirit of God-despised pride in a world of narcissism, individualism, non-humility, non-philanthropy, arrogance and the bizarre; the demonic spirit of mischievous thoughts, fantasies and imaginations and unclean and obscure suspicions and envy.

Purity of heart has become a rare ornament – in brotherly and conjugal relations, in obligations towards colleagues, in friendships, in conversations, in thoughts, in desires, in pastoral callings. The so-called Mass Media have lapsed and become mere sources of contamination. Forgotten are neptic awareness. ascetic sobriety, traditional frugality, simplicity and gallantry. This has led to a polluting of the soul’s rationalizing ability, an arousal of its desirous aspect towards avarice, while its willpower has become severely blunted, thus drawing a weakened person towards evil, without any impediments or limitations.

Nowadays prevail self-justification, excuses for our passions, beautification of sin, and its reinforcement through modern psychological supports. The admission of mistakes is regarded as belittlement, weakness and generally improper. The constant justification of our self, and the meticulous transferal of responsibilities elsewhere have created a human being that is confused, divided, disturbed, worn-out, miserable and self-absorbed, taunted by the devil, and captured in his dark meshes.

There is a prevalence of foolish rationalism nowadays, which observes evangelical virtues and Conciliar canons according to its liking, preference and convenience, on important issues such as fasting, abstinence, childbearing, morality, modesty, honesty and precision.

In view of all the above – none of which I believe has been exaggerated – it is our belief that the opus of a confessor is not an easy one. Ordinary coercion to repent and the cultivating of humility are nowadays inadequate; the fold requires catechesis, re-evangelizing, spiritual training, as well as a spiritual about-face, in order to acquire powerful antibodies. Resistance, reaction and the confronting of the powerful current of de-sanctification, of secularization, of demoting heroism, of eudemonism and of amassing wealth are imperative. The young generation is in need of special attention, instruction and love, given that their upbringing has not proven to be of any help in their becoming aware of the meaning and the purpose of life, or of the void and the indecorousness, the lawlessness and the darkness of sin.

Another serious problem – even for our Christians – is the often over-zealous quest for a labour-less, toil-free and grief-free life. We are in search of Cyreneans to carry our crosses. We refuse to lift up our own personal cross. We have no idea of the depth and breadth of our own cross. We bow in reverence before the Cross in church, we cross ourselves, but we do not embrace our personal cross. In the long run, we would like a non-crucified Christianity. But there cannot be an Easter Sunday without a Good Friday.

We honour martyrs and saints, but we ourselves do not want to suffer any hardships, any postponements, any difficulties. Fasting is too difficult a task to accomplish; we feel resentful during an illness; we cannot tolerate any harsh words, not even when we are to blame, therefore how could we possibly tolerate injustice, slander, persecution and exile, the way our saints did? It is an indisputable fact that the contemporary, secular spirit of convenience, leisure and excessive consumerism has greatly affected the measure of spiritual living. Generally speaking, we demand a non-ascetic Christianity… Orthodoxy however has the ascetic Gospel as its basis.

One other serious problem of our time is man’s morbid and undue reliance on logic, intellect, knowledge, and personal judgment – we are referring to the over-fed and ultimately tiring rationalization. Neptic Orthodox theology teaches us to consider our Nous a tool, and to lower it, into the Heart. Our Church does not cultivate and produce intellectuals. To us, rationalization is not a philosophical mentality, but a clearly sin-oriented life view – a form of atheism – since it goes contrary to the commandment of placing our faith, hope, love and trust in God. A rationalist judges everything using the filter of his own mind and only with his finite mind, with himself and his sovereign ego as the epicentre, and does not place any trust in divine Providence, divine Grace and divine Assistance in his life. By often regarding himself as infallible, a rationalist does not allow God to intervene in his life and therefore judge him. That way, he is convinced that he is not in need of confession. Saint Simeon the New Theologian says however that, for one to believe he has not fallen into any sins is the greatest of falls and fallacies, and the greatest sin of all. Certain newer theologians speak of “missing the target” and not of “sinning”, in their desire to blunt the natural protesting of one’s conscience. The self-sufficiency displayed by certain churchgoers and fasting Christians can at times be hiding a latent pharisaic stance, i.e., that “they are not like the others” and therefore are not in need of confession.

According to the holy fathers of our Church, the greatest of evils is Pride; it is the mother of all passions, according to Saint John of the Ladder. It is the mother of many offspring, the first ones being vainglory and self-vindication. Pride is a form of denial of God; it is an invention of wicked demons, the result of too much flattery and praise, which in turn results in a debilitation and exhaustion of man, God-despised censure, anger, rage, hypocrisy, the lack of compassion, misanthropy, and blasphemy. Pride is a passion that is formidable, difficult, powerful and hard to cure. Pride is also strong in many ways, and with many faces. It manifests itself as vainglory, boastfulness, conceit, arrogance, presumptuousness, swell-headedness, insolence, self-importance, megalomania, ambition, self-love, vanity, avarice, flesh-loving, a love for leadership, accusations and arguments. Also as smugness, favouritism, insolence, disrespect, outspokenness, insensitivity, contradiction, obstinacy, disobedience, sarcasm, stubbornness, disregard, indignity, perfectionism and hypersensitivity. Finally, pride can lead to impenitence.

The tongue often becomes the instrument of pride, through unchecked, long-winded, useless talking; gossiping, silliness; vain , insincere, indiscreet, two-tongued, diplomatic, pretended and mocking conversations.

Out of the seven deadly sins many other passions spring forth. Having mentioned the offspring of Pride, we then have Avarice, which gives birth to the love of money, greed, stinginess, lack of charity, hardheartedness, fraud, usury, injustice, deceitfulness, simony, bribery, gambling. Fornication manifests itself in myriads of ways, for example, envy – with its underhanded and evil spite, insatiable gluttony, anger, as well as suspect negligence and lack of care.

Special attention should also be paid to many un-Orthodox elements in family life, which we believe should be examined carefully by confessors and the persons involved. The avoidance of childbearing, the idolizing of one’s children (when regarded as the extension of the parents’ ego); overprotecting them, or constantly watching their moves and savagely oppressing them. Marriage is an arena for exercising humility, mutual leeway and mutual respect, and not the parallel journey of two egotisms despite a lifelong coupling and coexistence. The devil dances for joy whenever there is no forgiveness in human weaknesses and in everyday mistakes. Parents will help their children significantly, not with excessive courtesy outside the home, but with their peaceful, sober and loving example in the home, on a daily basis. The participation of the children together with the parents in the sacrament of confession will fortify them with divine Grace in an experiential life in Christ. When parents ask for forgiveness with sincerity, they simultaneously teach their children humility, which destroys all demonic plots. In a household where love, harmony, understanding, humility and peace bloom, there the blessings of God will be bounteous and the home becomes a castle that is impervious to the malice of the world around. The upbringing of children with the element of forgiveness creates a healthy family hearth, which will inspire them and strengthen them for their own futures.

One other huge matter that constitutes an obstacle for repentance and confession is self-vindication, which plagues many people of the Church also. Its basis is, as we mentioned earlier, demonic Pride. A classic example is the Pharisee of the Gospel parable.

The self-vindicating person has apparently positive elements, which he will over-praise and for which he would like to be honoured and praised. He is happy to be flattered and to demean and humiliate others. He has excessive self-esteem, he vindicates himself to excess and believes that God is necessarily obliged to reward him. In the long run, he is a poor wretch, who, in his wretched state makes others wretched. He is possessed by nervousness and agitation and he is demanding, thus imprisoning himself; these are tendencies that will not allow him to open the door to divine mercy, through his repentance.

An offspring of Pride is censure, which is unfortunately also a habit of many Christians, who tend to concern themselves more with others than themselves. This is a phenomenon of our time and of a society that pushes people into a continuous observation of others, and not of the self. Modern man’s myriad occupations and activities do not want him to ever remain alone to study, to contemplate, to pray, to attain self-awareness, self-critique, self-control and to be reminded of death. The so-called Mass Media are incessantly preoccupied with scandal-seeking, persistently and at length, with human passions, with sins, with others’ misdemeanors. These kinds of things provoke, impress, and, even if they do not scandalize, they nevertheless burden the soul and the mind with filth and ugliness and they actually reassure us, by making us believe that “we are better” than those advertised. Thus, a person becomes accustomed to the mediocrity, the tepidity and the transience of superficial day-to-day life, never comparing himself to saints and heroes. This is how censure prevails in our time – by giving man the impression that he is justly imposing a kind of cleansing, by mud-slinging at others, albeit contaminating himself by generating malice, hatred, hostility, resentfulness, envy and frigidity. Saint Maximus the Confessor in fact states that the one who constantly scrutinizes other’s sins, or judges his brothers based on a suspicion only, has not even begun to repent, nor has he begun any research into discovering his own sins.

Many and various things can be said; but in the end, only one thing is opportune, significant and outstanding: our salvation, which we do not attend to forever. Salvation is not attained, except only through sincere repentance and clean confession. Repentance not only opens the celestial Paradise, but also the terrestrial one, with the foretasting -albeit partial- of the ineffable joy of the endless reign of the heavens and of wonderful peace, in the present time. Those who uphold the practice of confession can be the truly and genuinely happy people; pacifist and peace-bearing; heralds of repentance, of resurrection, of transformation, freedom, grace, and with the blessing of God in their souls and their lives. “God’s bounteous Grace turns the wolf into a lamb,” says Saint John Chrysostom. No sin can surpass God’s love. There is not one sinner who cannot become a saint, if he desires to. It has been proven, by the innumerable names that are recorded in the Book of Saints.

The confessor listens to confessions and absolves those confessing, under his blessed stole. He cannot however confess himself and place the stole over his own head to obtain forgiveness in the same manner. He must necessarily kneel underneath another stole to confess and be absolved. That is the way the spiritual law functions; that is the way God’s Wisdom and Mercy have ordained. We cannot confess others, but not submit ourselves to confession; to not practice what we preach; to talk about repentance, but not to repent; to talk about confession, but not confess ourselves regularly. None of us can dethrone himself, and none can absolve himself. The unadvised, the disobedient, the unconfessed are a serious problem for the Church.

Dear brothers and sisters, the confessor’s stole can be a miraculous scalpel for the removal of malignant tumors; it can raise the dead, renew and transform the indecorous world, and bring joy to earth and heaven. Our Church has entrusted this grand ministry, this sacred service, to our priests and not to the angels, so that we might be able to approach them with ease and without fear, as fellow-sufferers and corporeal counterparts.

All the above have been deposited with sincerity and not at all pretentiously, by a co-sinner, who did not aspire to play the teacher, but a co-struggling, co-student, together with you. It was merely his desire to remind you with simple and inartistic words the Tradition of our holy mother, the Church, on the ever-opportune matter of divinely-spun and divinely-blessed Repentance and the divinely-delivered and God-favoured, blessed sacrament of Confession.

“…there is no room for despair.”

“…we are not without hope of salvation, nor is it at all the right time for us to despair. All our life is a season of repentance, for God ‘desires not the death of the sinner’, as it is written, ‘but that the wicked turn from his way and live’ (cf. Ez. 33:11 LXX). For, if there were no hope of turning back, why would death not have followed immediately on disobedience, and why would we not be deprived of life as soon as we sin? For where there is hope of turning back, there is no room for despair.”

~St. Gregory Palamas (The Homilies Vol. 2, Homily Twenty-Two para. 6; St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press pg. 3)

Nativity of St John the Baptizer of the Lord

Luke 1:1-25, 57-68, 76, 80 [delivered at St George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Vicksburg, MS]

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 celebrate the Feast of Nativity of St. John, the Prophet and Forerunner and Baptizer of our Lord. St. John has always held a particular place of veneration for us in the Orthodox Church. Jesus said of him, among those born of women, never has one greater been born. Traditionally in our Churches the icon next to the icon of Christ on the iconostasis is one of St. John. Since he was the Forerunner of Christ, getting the people ready for the coming of the Messiah, and since he Baptized the Lord at the beginning of His earthly ministry, St John plays a crucial role in God’s plan for our salvation. So I thought this morning to say a little about the life of St John the Baptist, and especially to look at his main message to the people – a message that was also central for Jesus, and a message that we continually need to hear as well.
In this morning’s Gospel reading, we heard about the conception and birth of St John. His parents were barren, they had no children, and this was a great shame for Jewish families at that time, especially since his father was a priest. But it happened that one time, when Zacharias was offering incense in the temple, an angel appeared to him and told him that they would have a son, and to name that son John. The angel also prophecies that John will be great in the sight of the Lord, that he will live a particularly set apart and ascetic life (not drinking wine nor cutting his hair). The angel also says that John will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his birth, and that he will lead many people back to God in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. So even from the very conception of St John, we see the work of God in his life – his birth was miraculous, seeing as how his parents had been barren until the prophecy of the Archangel Gabriel.

Everyone rejoiced when John was born, mostly that the shame had been lifted from his parents by his birth. But his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied about his son, saying that he would be a prophet of the most High God, and that he will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. The final verse of the reading is short, but significant – “So the child grew and became strong in spirit, and was in the deserts till the day of his manifestation to Israel.” St John began his life in fulfilling the angel’s prophecy – he grew ever stronger in God, and he lived a life that was different than other people’s lives, he live in the desert, being prepared for his ministry to the people.

The next time we encounter St John, he is attracting large crowds from the cities and he is preaching. His primary message is simple – “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” He calls on the people to leave their wicked ways and to return to God. And St John is not shy about speaking the truth – he speaks to the normal people, to the rich people, to the nobility, to the priests of the temple, and even to the King. He calls on everyone to repent and to return their hearts to their God. It is one day while he is preaching near the river Jordan that Jesus comes to him and asks to be baptized. St John had been baptizing people for the forgiveness of their sins, so he knows that Christ doesn’t need this kind of baptism. But our Lord insists that he be baptized, and this event marks the beginning of our Lord’s open earthly ministry. Eventually, St John’s call for people to repent leads to his martyrdom – he calls on King Herod to repent, and this angers the king and gets John arrested – later, King Herod’s wife asks for the head of St John on a platter, if you remember the story.
I would mention a few things from St John’s life that we particularly should remember for our own lives. Firstly, the constant call to repentance. We all need to repent, and we need to repent daily, even many times a day. We are reminded of this every morning and evening when we say our prayers, and how many times we ask for forgiveness. Repentance is not just feeling bad about our sins, but indicates a real desire not to sin again. Repent means that we turn from sin and do the things of God. We need to be in a constant state of confessing our sins to Christ, and asking for the strength to move forward and not to repeat those sins, and then we struggle to live according to the commandments of our Lord. 
If we live like this, in a continual state of repentance and of turning our lives to God, then our lives will resemble the life of St John. He lived apart from the people, he lived a life of asceticism in the desert. Now, I don’t mean that we’ll stop cutting our hair and live in the desert! But if we strive to live the commandments of Christ, our lives will not be like the lives of the people of the world around us. Our lives will be set apart because we’re living the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Our greatest witness to the world as Christians is when we live the Gospel. When we are striving to live out those words of St Paul – it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.

And so, when we’re struggling with sin and with the weight of the world around us, we can turn to St John the Baptist and both be inspired by his life and by his words and by his witness, and we can also cry out in prayer, asking for his intercessions for our victory and our salvation.

Holy Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist of our Lord, St John, pray to Christ our God, that our souls may be saved!

Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!

Author Matthew Jackson

Daily Sacrifice for Christ

With increasing regularity, I am seeing phrases such as: ‘we must be willing to lay down our lives for Christ.’  Virtually always, this phrase is then attached to the Christian holding on to his Faith, clinging to his Christ, even in the midst of terrible persecution, even to the point of death.  Obviously, we see exactly this in the Holy Scriptures.  Christ promises that the world will hate us even as it hated Him.  We then see this lived out in the lives of the Apostles, who are stoned and beaten and tortured, and all but one eventually martyred.  Holding on to our Faith in Christ in the midst of persecution has been a basic reality for Christians in at least some part of the world since the time of Christ.
But I have a concern with the frequent use of this phrase as I am seeing it right now.  My concern can be explained to be something like: do we think of laying down our life for Christ only in terms of literal physical death, while not applying it to our lives daily, as the Scriptures and the Saints teach us?
It is very easy for us, both psychologically and spiritually, to look to a particular “event,” and in doing so to escape the struggle that is going on in our lives right now.  In other words, to speak about the resolve and the faith that we have and how that will support us in martyrdom, but then to fail to offer ourselves daily as a sacrifice to Christ.  The daily dying, the daily laying down our lives, setting aside our sins – this is the constant martyrdom that we as Christians should be undertaking every single day of our lives.  When the Fathers teach us about the Holy Martyrs, they tell us that the Martyrs were able to undergo the tortures and being put to death precisely because they lived in Christ!  They had already been martyred in Christ – it was no longer they who lived, but Christ lived in them (Gal. 2:20). 
So this then, is our daily sacrifice.  Regardless of exterior persecutions, we are to persecute sin in our flesh.  We are to constantly see the sin within us, repent, and return our lives to Christ.  This is hard; this is a struggle; this is often unpleasant.  But it must be done.  We are to put off the old man, the man of sin and death, and be clothed in the new man, righteous in Christ (Eph 4:22-24).  St. Paul even uses the image of martyrdom when describing this activity: “put to death your members which are on the earth” – put to death sin within you (Col. 3:2).  Remembering at all time that we cannot do this alone, rather “I can do all things through Christ Who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).
An ending quotation from St. John of Kronstadt – “The loving Lord is here: how can I let even a shadow of evil enter into my heart? Let all evil completely die within me; let my heart be anointed with the sweet fragrance of goodness as with a balsam. Let God’s love conquer thee, thou evil Satan, instigating us to evil. Evil is most hurtful both to the mind and to the body. It burns, it crushes, and it tortures. No one bound by evil shall dare to approach the throne of the God of love.”olHH
May we join our efforts to the mercy and grace of our loving Lord, and escape the snares of evil around, and within, us!

Author Matthew Jackson