Friday, December 29, 2017

Reflection for the Sixth Sunday of Advent (12/24/17)

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

We have been told all Advent to watch, to “stay awake” and to “be prepared.” Yet we are still sleepy, are we not? We are human beings. We are not God. We get tired of watching, we get distracted, we drift off. It is what we do. Even Abraham fell asleep while God was sealing his covenant (Genesis 15). Father Abraham fell into a deep sleep and God still spoke words of covenant grace over him, and his descendants.

Here we are, at the threshold of Christmas Eve, perhaps tired, perhaps sorrowful. Maybe both. Things like shopping, baking, partying, caroling have taken up our Advent to a great degree. Work, family, ministry, school, and/or medical treatments, family challenges, or financial struggles have not gone magically away because of the upcoming feast days and holidays. They are still there.

Christmas will still arrive in all its glory and splendor and mystery nonetheless.  The sound of the bells, the carols, and the merrymaking will wake us up, even but for a moment. Many will laugh, and many will feast. Just as many will cry and be sad. They will not feast, nor will they be with family. But both groups of people have one thing in common: the joy of Christmas will not be there. Christ will not be in the hearts and minds of those who make merry or who are in despair.

In a few hours, we will find ourselves at the Christmas Eve Liturgy and, for the first time, sing the Troparion of the Nativity before a single lit candle, representative of Christ our Light coming into the world. We will bless the Christmas creche. We will gaze at the beautiful Virgin Mary, kneeling in expectation. We will see Joseph standing by, watching and supporting. We will gaze at the empty crib, knowing that soon, a child will be placed in there, wrapped in swaddling clothes. We will see the shepherds and the holy star, and the animals. Possibly we will laugh at the historically inaccurate animals, or cry with sorrow at the injustice of Joseph’s poverty and desperation, or shout with joy as Angels sing hymns of adoration and worship. We will wake up for that moment.

The Divine Services of the Nativity of Our Lord call upon God to stir up His power within us, and to come to us in His great might. We do not conjure up God. We do not make Him be present. He arrives. He comes in power and wakes us up. He shows up, and we bow down. What a mighty God we serve! He does not do this just to manifest His glory and majesty. He does it to come among us, to be with us. He comes to be one of us, and live among us.

We are sorely hindered, that is for sure. The race of life exhausts us. But God’s grace in Christ is inexhaustible. Bountiful, speedy grace that helps and delivers. Our sins are heavy weights, but God’s grace is a continual help and flow, removing the weights of shame, guilt, and fear. Grace is not a limited resource, it is the constant and continual face of God, redeeming and renewing the world.

In the upcoming feast of Christmas, we are awakened, graced, and empowered through this Christ Child who came, and will come again. As Mary heard this news, she sang of God working through the poor and the outcast, the weak and the feeble, the ignorant and marginalized. Those who know they have no strength. Those who know they need His grace. Those who know they sorrow. Those who know they fall asleep.

Mary herself is traditionally pictured as asleep when the Angel appeared by night to announce that she would bear the Messiah. She knew about God’s power to wake us up and stir up His power within us. She also knew what it means to trust God to work through our weaknesses, and to speedily deliver us.

We are almost there! If you feel like sleeping, you are part of a long tradition that stretches from Father Abraham through the Twelve, and on to today. We are sleepers, but God will awaken us through His Son, who is coming to us as a child.

This Christmas, stumble into worship if you must. In your sorrow or exhaustion or fear or joy or pain, God will stir up His power within you at His altar. He will give you His very presence at His Holy Table. He will speak His Word to you, the Word of His bountiful grace and speedy power. He will deliver you.

There is a real place in the scheme of things for us to receive the Holy Child with deep sentiment; a sentiment with which we would receive any child and with which we would hope every child would be received. But there is a big problem is sentimentality alone defines our Christmas experience. For even as sentimentality can lead us to deep devotion and even adoration, sentimentality can also easily misdirect and mislead us.

Ass we know, there are millions of people throughout the world, and even in the Church, who celebrate Christmas void of any faith. For some, Christmas is about skiing vacations and taking their children to see Santa Claus at the local mall or to see the “Nutcracker.” Others look for meaning in terms of family get-togethers with feasts of food and lots of presents. But this is not the real face of Christmas.

Christmas is a mystery, a mystery that forces us to see not only the cute little baby Jesus in a crib but the reality that one day this cute baby grew up and was eventually nailed to a not so cute cross. We must remember that the holy birth did not begin in Nazareth with an angel’s announcement to a Virgin named Mary betrothed to a man named Joseph. Rather, the holy birth begins with eternity. It begins before time. It begins with a mystery without a beginning or an end. It begins in the mystery we dare to call God.

St. John tells us in his Gospel that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” This beginning of John’s Gospel says it all. The reality of the Nativity begins with God’s choice to go outside of Himself, to relate beyond Himself, to transcend Himself. God spoke and there was a starry explosion of creative love.

St. John continues: All things were made through the Word and without the Wor4d, nothing has come to be that was made.” This Word, in its going forth from God, becomes the creative power through which all creation comes into existence. It is not unusual for people to be awed by the grandeur of the universe, whether they understand it as a purposeful expression of God’s Divine Love or an accident of molecular action and reaction. But for people of faith, however, the world came to be in all its magnificent splendor, it is but a prelude to an even bigger cosmic event.

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The more literal translation is more eloquent: “The Word became flesh and pitched His tent among us.” The creative Word spoken in the beginning became the Incarnate Word, the enfleshed Word, and as Jesus pitched His tent among us, even as He continued to live in the bosom of the Father and continued to live in this Mystery of mysteries. God made a choice to contain Himself within our flesh. God chooses to render Himself not only vulnerable but absolutely vulnerable as a newborn baby who shivers in the night cold and wishes to be fed by His Mother when hungry.

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, yet the world which was made through Him knew Him not. He came to His own, and His own people received Him not.” No truer words were ever spoken. Christmas has no meaning for many because they do not know Christ, they have not received Him. Thus, sadness, depression, loneliness, grief, and despair all permeate abundantly during the Christmas season. Yet, Christmas is our hope. It is medicine for the soul, and not just for some, but for all.

Christ comes to be one of us; He comes to share our joys and sorrows, our laughter and tears, our hopes and dreams, our successes and failures. In taking our flesh upon Himself, He became an outcast from religious society, as well as a refugee from His country of birth because of Herod’s desire to end His life, thus forcing His family to flee to Egypt.

Jesus becomes one with all of us and most intimately with those who have been cast out: with those who were cast out of their mother’s womb. With those cast out because of a disability or illness they suffer. With those cast out because of who they are. With those cast out for what they believe. With those cast out because of whom they love. With those cast out for what they believe. With those cast out because they come from another country. With those cast out because of how they worship. With those cast out because of hatred and prejudice. With those cast out because they are not well-heeled, well-born, well-bred, or well-educated. And so, Christmas becomes the Feast of All Refugees and Outcasts, those whom the Gospel refers to as the poor, those marginalized in a world that values power, and money, and status above all things.

It is interesting, I believe, that the shepherds will be the first to experience the good news of God’s explosive love. It is interesting because they themselves are outcasts from Jewish religious society exactly because they were unable to fulfill all the duties, requirements, and obligations of religious law. But it was to the shepherds that God’s redemptive love was first revealed. And so, Christmas is also the Feast of Hope for all who sit in darkness; it is a light that shines in the darkness, a darkness, however, that can never overpower the Light which is Christ. Christ is a light that awakens the spiritually sleeping. It is a light that energizes and makes all things new.

In our day, God will stir up His sleeping Church. Where it is sorely hindered by sin, He will speedily help it. Behold, He brings good news of great joy, which shall be to all people! We will rejoice in His bountiful grace, and see His Church arise from sleep. And the Church arises from Her sleep, She will awaken the world with such a brightness that it will be impossible to ignore. Again, and again, and again, He has done this. He will do so again.

And what a grace and power He gives. We will be a light to the world. We will triumph in Him. We will witness His Incarnation. We will rest in His love. We will be a holy people,because He will do it again through Jesus Christ our Lord.


Reflection for the Fifth Sunday of Advent (12/17/17)

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

We are only one week away from the celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord. Our levels of anticipation and joy are increasing, or at least they should be. If they are not, then something is seriously wrong. Joy should, in fact, be the basic mood of every Christian. It should not be artificial or forced but something that bubbles up naturally from our sharing of Christ’s vision of life and His promises to us. Joy should be the normal experience of the Christian but there are quite a few who unfortunately do not have that same experience or conviction.

At times, one gets the impression that it is not the experience of many Christians, who somehow have come to believe that religion is no longer a serious business, that one is not living a good Christian life unless it is full of sacrifices, that Christianity means giving up many of the pleasures that are available to non-Christians. They seem to think that being a Christian means living a half-life as the price for a better one to come.

Karl Marx saw religion as the “opium of the people”, meaning the poorer classes. Religion, he believed, worked as a kind of anesthetic or opiate, devised by the rich and privileged, which helped the poor accept the miseries and injustices of the present life on the understanding that there was something much better on the far side of the grave.

All this is a great pity because the whole purpose of Jesus’ coming was to bring freedom, joy, and peace to people not only in the future but here and now. No one is meant to be freer than the Christian who follows Christ not in pain but with joy and enthusiasm. I am not an Orthodox Catholic Christian because I have to be; I am an Orthodox Catholic Christian because I could not imagine myself being anything else. We share the words of Peter to Jesus: “Where can we go? You have the words that give life.”

There used to be a saying, “A sad saint is a sad kind of saint.” A sad Christian is a contradiction in terms. That is not to say that there are not in any Christian life, as in any normal person’s life, times of pain, of sickness, of failure, of great loss. Grieving and letting go is an important life but these experiences will only bring temporary setbacks.

Every experience, if we can only realize it, is touched by God and has its meaning. Once that meaning is found and accepted, inner joy and peace can return. And the joy we are talking about is not something external. It has little to do with the high-jinx we see during a Christmas or New Year’s Eve party or after our favorite football team wins the Super Bowl, or our favorite baseball team wins the World Series. Much of that can be a kind of temporary escape from lives that are otherwise boring, oppressive, stressful, and unhappy.

Christian joy or happiness is deep down in the heart and is not incompatible with physical and emotional pain or difficult external circumstances. It is, as Jesus says, something that no one can take away from us. The season of Advent gives us the opportunity to collect our thoughts and rebuild our spiritual strength that we may find and reclaim that joy of which Jesus spoke.

Our role as Christians, whether priests, monastics, or laypersons, is to bring people to genuine conversion, a conversion that brings them face to face with Jesus and God, a conversion that brings a real joy and happiness into their lives.

Parents, especially Orthodox Catholic parents, have this role. They gradually and faithfully form their children to have the Christian spirit and outlook on life. A genuine Christian family is one of real joy. A place to which each member returns with joyful anticipation and expectancy, in other words, a real home.

Though Joseph and Mary were poor, they were nonetheless very rich. They were rich in love, rich in devotion, rich in faith, rich in righteousness. God blessed them with the singular honor of being the earthly parents of His Divine Son. The immense joy of expectation, of anticipation, of hope that Mary and Joseph felt at the impending arrival of the Son of God into their lives, and into the experience of humanity, words simply cannot describe.

We, too, should have that same joy, that same expectation, that same hope. If you do not have those feelings in your heart at this very moment then you do not understand your Christian Faith. If you are not going home to spend Christmas with your family, then something is very wrong with your life. Your priorities are all screwed up. And your understanding of Christmas is…well, you simply do not understand Christmas. That is the sum of it all.

Advent gives us ample time to reconnect with what is truly important. But for us to come to the realization of what is important, we must first change ourselves. We must change the way we think, the way we act, the way we live. We must look to Christ and not to the material world for the happiness and joy we seek. Nothing and no one on earth can give us what we truly seek; only Christ the Lord can do that. That is why He is coming among us. He will be here soon. Let us go to Bethlehem to await His arrival. Then, let us rejoice and be glad at His coming.


Sunday, December 10, 2017

Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (12/10/17)

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Marantha! Come, Lord Jesus!

The name Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew “Yehosua,” which means ‘YHWH is salvation’.  The first Joshua, the successor of Moses, saved the people from their enemies.  The second Joshua (Jesus) will save the people from their sins.  The people did not expect a Messiah who would save them from their sins, but one who would deliver them from their oppressors. 

Jesus’ calling is to save His people from their sins and to manifest God’s presence. Throughout Advent, we are constantly reminded of the promise that Jesus is God-with-us.  We know through the oracles and prophesies of the Old Testament prophets that Jesus will be with us “always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

Jesus is the reassurance in the flesh that God has not given up on us but will remain with us. The real event of Christmas is that God comes to change the world and each of us, not just through a historical, virginal conception and a baby lying in a manger, but through the God Who is with us today, shattering our self-righteous attitudes and seeking to move us beyond our fears, freeing us from all that holds us captive and in bondage.

We need to trust in God, to listen to Him, and to be faithful. We come to Church because we are faithful and because we trust in God, His power, His mercy, and His faithfulness. Although we may be dealing with financial problems, job insecurity, family problems, health issues, and a host of other concerns, we must nevertheless not lose hope; we must continue to be trusting and faithful.

Instead of relying on our own schemes to get us through life, let us trust in God and be strengthened by talking to Him in fervent prayer and by listening to Him speaking to us through His Word and through the lives and example of the saints. Let us, like them, remain faithful and prayerful, imitating them, the humblest of the humble, the kindliest of the kindly, and the greatest-ever believers in God’s goodness and mercy, as we welcome Jesus into our hearts and lives this Christmas.

We need to experience Emmanuel in our lives and change the world; God who entered our world through Jesus more than 2,000 years ago is at work in the world. But the question is, if God has come to be present in our lives and our world, then why are there so many people who are unhappy and evil? Why are people so hostile, hating each other? And why are so many marriages ending in divorce? Why is there domestic violence? Why is there child abuse? Why is there war in at least a dozen countries of God’s good earth at any given time? Why are so many people hungry and homeless, even in rich countries? Is there any good left in the world? Is there any Good News that can give us and the world hope for something better?

The Good News is that there is hope. The Good News, the consoling message of Christmas, is that the child Jesus waits to step into our hearts, yours and mine, and to change us and the world around us by the beauty of God’s love, kindness, mercy, and compassion. Let us take some time to let the Christ Child enter our hearts and lives this Christmas, so that He may change our world of miseries with the beauty and power of His incomprehensible love.

This Advent, let us prepare ourselves to be a Christmas gift to others. The greatest gift we can give to those we love is to have faith in them, believe in their dreams, and try to help them realize them. We need to believe in the dreams of our husband, wife, children, parents, friends, heroes, and leaders, then try our best to help them realize them. Do not let anyone crush your dreams. The great things in this world, the great achievements of humanity, came to be because of dreams.

Christmas is about hope, and Advent gives up time to reflect on that reality. Advent gives us time to look within ourselves and see the good that God has done for us and to us. This holy season of expectation, anticipation, and preparation will soon give way to the glorious event of the Incarnation, the birth of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ, the true and only hope and salvation of mankind and the world.


Reflection for the Third Sunday of Advent (12/3/17)

In the Name of the father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

The Book of the Prophet Isaiah, whose oracles and prophecies are featured prominently in the liturgical services of the Italo-Greek Orthodox Catholic Church during the season of Advent. The reason for this is that many of Isaiah’s prophecies point forward in time to the coming Messiah, who is the “Anointed One.” In fact, that Isaiah’s words are fulfilled in Jesus Christ is made explicit in the Gospel of St. Luke.

In Chapter Four, it is recorded that Jesus was in Nazareth and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath. During the liturgy, Jesus was handed a scroll of the Book of Isaiah to read from before the assembly. “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed Me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent Me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God” (Isaiah 61:1-2).

After finishing the reading, Jesus explained, “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). In other words, Jesus was telling the assembly that the scripture passage has been fulfilled in Him. In the ministry of Jesus, we see Him doing all that Isaiah prophesied. Jesus “brings glad tidings to the poor,” “heals the brokenhearted,” and “proclaims liberty.” With Jesus, the Messiah, ‘justice and peace spring up before all nations,” for he opened the door for the proclamation of the Gospel to the Gentiles (i.e. “nations”). Thus, Jesus Himself fulfills the profound and hope-filled words of Isaiah.

The oracles and prophecies of Isaiah give us cause to rejoice, for we anticipate the coming of the Messiah. That is why we call this Sunday, “Rejoice Sunday.” We rejoice that the Messiah is coming to us, so we take a short break from the reflective and quiet nature of Advent to rejoice and to celebrate the nearness of the celebration of Christmas, the Nativity of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.

Just as the reign of Christ broke into the history of mankind by His birth in the flesh, so too, the anticipation and joy of His expected coming breaks into the silence of our time of reflection and preparation. We cannot contain our joy, so we are given to express it in signs and symbols.

While not departing entirely from our Advent observance, we “lighten” it that we may express our joy and rejoice in the fact that Christ, the Eternal Son of the Eternal Father, is coming to be born in the flesh and dwell among us. That is why we change from the liturgical color of violet (not purple, which we use for Great Lent), to rose. Rose signifies joy, and Orthodox Catholic Christians are called to rejoice always. Christian joy goes beyond mere emotion and, therefore, supersedes circumstances. The joy we have in Christ remains regardless of what challenges we are facing in life. That is because God is in control of our circumstances.

St. Paul tells us that God is always faithful. He always keeps His promises. Therefore, we can “rejoice always” and “in all circumstances give thanks” because we have hope in God. Still, to experience the fullness of this joy, the Apostle Paul tells us that we must obey God. We must listen to the Spirit of God and “refrain from every kind of evil.” We are called to be “perfectly holy.” This is the true path to joy; sanctity.

Following God’s will and allowing His grace to transform us leads to true happiness. Let us, therefore, seek Him, trust Him, and obey Him, that we may find the deep joy that can only be found in God.


Sunday, November 26, 2017

Reflection for the Second Sunday of Advent (11/26/17)

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Throughout this season of Advent, the Prophet Isaiah proclaims a true and proper Gospel for the people of Israel, enslaved in Babylon, and urges them to remain vigilant in prayer, to recognize "the signs" of the coming of the Messiah. But we would be remiss if we did not also look to the Holy Prophet, Forerunner, and Baptist John, a “voice crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’”

John preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” John’s words, like those of the Prophet Isaiah, create in us a sense of expectation and anticipation of something wonderful and special, of something life-changing and irreversible.

The Baptist calls for a change of heart and conduct, a turning of one's life from rebellion to obedience towards God. It is the only condition for recognizing the Messiah already present in the world.  The kingdom of heaven is at hand: "heaven" (literally, "the heavens") is a substitute for the name "God" that was avoided by devout Jews of the time out of reverence. The expression "the kingdom of heaven" occurs only in the Gospel of St. Matthew. It means the effective rule of God over His people. In its fullness, it includes not only human obedience to God's word but the triumph of God over physical evils, ultimately over death.  In the expectation found in Jewish apocalyptic, the kingdom was to be ushered in by a judgment in which sinners would be condemned and perish, an expectation shared by the Baptist. This was later modified in Christian understanding where the kingdom is seen as being established in stages, culminating with the parousia (second coming) of Jesus.

St. Matthew presents John the Baptist as the first Christian preacher.  Wearing the clothes of a latter-day Elijah (II Kings 1:8), John solemnly proclaims that God is undertaking a new involvement with humankind.  The expectation of the return of Elijah from heaven to prepare Israel for the final manifestation of God's kingdom was widespread, and according to Matthew, this expectation was fulfilled in the Baptist's ministry (Matthew 11:14; 17:11-13).

John's whole mission was a preparation for the Messiah's coming.  When his own disciples came to him and were troubled about the meaning of Jesus' baptizing in the Jordan, he answered them confidently:  "No one can receive anything except what is given them from heaven..."  John says that he is only the friend of the Bridegroom, the one who must decrease while his Master increases.  The Baptizer defined his humanity in terms of its limitations.  When the time had come, John led his own disciples to Jesus and indicated to them the Messiah, the True Light, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  Jesus' own testimony to John makes the Baptizer the greatest of all Israelite heroes (Matthew 11:7-19; Lk 7:24-35).

John considered himself to be less than a slave to Jesus: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry His sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire (Matthew 3:11).  John gave the people of his time an experience of forgiveness and salvation, knowing full well that he himself was not the Messiah, the one who could save. Do we allow others to have experiences of God, of forgiveness and of salvation?

The crowds came to John and asked him, "What then shall we do?" The Baptist did not mince words.  He got right to the point and said what needed to be said.  He advised no one to leave the world they are in, however ambiguous it may be.  Rather, he told those with two coats to share one with those who had none.  Likewise, those with an abundance of food were to share with the hungry.  Tax collectors were told to collect no more than was appointed to them.  Soldiers were to rob no one by violence or by false accusation.  They were to be content with their wages.  What were people to do to prepare for the imminent coming of the Messiah?  To be generous, just, honest, grateful and compassionate. (Luke 3:10-14).

The Israelite prophet is one who has received a divine call to be a messenger and interpreter of the Word of God.  The word which came to the prophet compelled him to speak.  The prophet is also the conscience of a community and the conscience of a nation.  Ezekiel tells us a prophet is like a watchman, the person who is out there watching for what might happen to the community, issuing a warning, trying to alert everyone, "Things are going the wrong way" or "We're in danger. We have to change. We have to be ready to protect ourselves." The prophet is the one who sees farther, perhaps, than others, and the one who sees implications in what is going on.

At times, prophets shared God's anger, God's compassion, God's sorrow, God's disappointment, God's revulsion, God's sensitivity to people, and God’s seriousness.  They did not share these things in the abstract; rather, they shared God's feelings about the concrete events of their time.  This is the type of prophet that John the Baptist was.  He did not mince words.  He got right to the point and said what needed to be said.  How often our words, thoughts, and actions are incoherent and ambiguous!  How often do we skirt the issues and great questions of our time and of our Church!  The true prophets of Israel model for us how to counter all forms of duplicity in our own lives.

John the Baptist continues to speak down the centuries to every generation.  The "voice" of the great prophet asks us to prepare the way of the Lord, who comes in the external and internal wildernesses of today, thirsting for the living water that is Christ. May the memory of John guide us to true conversion of heart, so that we may make the necessary choices to harmonize our mentalities and lives with the Gospel.