Sunday, October 31, 2010

A Life Worthy of the Call

All Saints Day, is a feast which is often commonly overshadowed by its vigil date, which has become known as Halloween. The irony of its inclusion here is that All Saints Day is not celebrated on November 1st in the Eastern Calendar, but on the first Sunday after Pentecost. Still, as the Western Church does celebrate this feast on the first of November, it is appropriate to deal with this subject on this date.

I will first deal with the subject of the name of Halloween. Notwithstanding the Pagan Celtic celebration of Samhain, which All Saints in the West was meant to replace, the name Halloween is a contraction of All Hallows Evening or Even. The term Hallows refers to the Holy Ones, which is what the term Saints translates from Latin (Sanctus), which is furthermore a translation of the Greek term (Hagios). The term All Hallows Even (Hallow E'en) then, actually means All Saints Eve, or the Vigil of All Saints. This term is, however, nonexistent in the Eastern Christian Churches. In part, the reason for this is that Vigils in the East are celebrated as the feast itself. Christmas, Easter, All Saints, etc., all begin with vespers of the evening before the date. Hence, the feast of All Saints, in the Byzantine East begins on the vespers of the Saturday evening immediately prior to the Sunday of All Saints.

One of the reasons that All Saints is celebrated the Sunday after Pentecost is because the very reason for that one becomes a saint is the power of the Holy Spirit working in the person. No one ever becomes a saint on their own power. They become a saint on the basis of the power of the Holy Spirit. This is how the saints live a life worthy of the call which they received from God. The Holy Spirit empowers and transforms them in the midst of their cooperation. They are transformed by the Grace of God, the Holy Spirit's action in the life of the believer. The previous article in the blog covers why we honor the Saints. It is in honoring the Saints that we honor the completed work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. In honoring ALL Saints, we make certain that we honor the work of God completely.

It is therefore important that we honor all of the saints. As for the celebration of Halloween, it can be a Holy thing if it is celebrated in the context of the saints. It certainly was never meant to be satanic. One who celebrates the satanic elements found in the modern celebration of Halloween is really not celebrating All Hallows Even. They really are commemorating the pagan celebration. How are you planning to celebrate this feast? Will it be a celebration of lives lived worthy of the call of God?

Friday, July 23, 2010

God is Magnified in His Saints

I didn't intend to be gone quite this long, but life is not all blogging. Sometimes it takes us by surprise, and reality happens while we are attempting to do something else. Initially this post was meant to be about the saints, and so it will be. But the fact is, the saints were real people who lived real lives. They weren't the plaster statues or the colorful icons which we can see in various types of Churches. Each of those images has a story behind it, and we do a disservice to ourselves to ignore both the stories and the saints.

When real life happens to them, they respond to that life with the Grace given to them by God according to where they are in their walk of transformation with Him.
Recently, I was reading a book on the Orthodox Church, and the discussion of the devotion to Saints came up. Fr. Anthony Coniaris was very clear and concise in what he stated. He stated that honoring the Saints is devotion to the completed work of Salvation.
It is true that we honor the saints because they are God's workmanship. They have been formed in His Love, and now are with Christ at the Father's Throne, continually glorifying God. But when we give them honor, we are honoring something that God has done. Without this, we take away from the honor that should be given to God.
St. Peter tells us that we are to be partakers of the Divine Nature (2 Peter 1:4), and the Theology of the Christian East adopts this into a beautifully mystical and practical ascetic life which is tailor made for each of us by a wise spiritual father and/or mother, and which is to open us up to the Grace of God.
One may wonder why the saints put so much stress on working to be transformed, a work which belongs to God alone, but there is one way that I find to think about this which is very helpful personally. If I allow God to do this to me, then I am passive but not really cooperating actively. He can do it, but I haven't invested myself into it. If I become involved in His work, I begin to invest myself in this work of His, and begin a practice of living like Him, which disposes my fleshly existence to cooperate more than if I don't get involved. Any suffering which takes place because of this can be likened to the suffering I might endure in exercising (lifting weights, doing pushups, etc.). There is a yield that happens when one works side by side with God which doesn't happen if one simply watches it happen.

I also like to think of it with this image. If I sit and watch my father do his work from the sidelines, I can become bored very quickly. But suppose that my father tells me as he is pushing a lawn mower or roto-tiller "Put your hand on one of the handles and push." Suddenly, this becomes an opportunity for bonding, and growing, and it is something which we are doing together. In truth, I am not pushing very hard, even though I am pushing with all my might. My dad is providing the real power, but I am now invested. I am cooperating. I am joined with Him. I can become like Him by sharing in what He is doing. He can empower Me to Grow into His full stature. But it is Him doing the work in which I am sharing.

To worship God is to honor all the work that He has done. This includes the work which He has completed in the Saints who have passed into Glory before us. If they have become Holy, it is only because He Who Is Holy has worked His Holiness in them. He has Transformed them. He has Transfigured them. They didn't let this happen in a passive manner, however. They opened themselves up to His work. They said Yes. They grew in Love of Him and of their neighbor. And once they passed into Glory, they did not stop loving their neighbors. They continued. Part of Love is to assist in the provision for the good of the ones who are beloved. They could not be said to love if that stopped once they arrived in heaven, nor could they be said to love God if they did not love their neighbor once they arrived in heaven. Therefore, they must continue to communicate with us by joining us when we pray, and for us by their prayers on our behalf. This is the only way that heaven could possibly be. Therefore, when we ask the intercession of saints out of our love for them who are our neighbors, and they intercede for us in their love for God, it is not worship being given to the saints, but the natural life of the Church of God in action, whereby love is being shown within a community whose worship is directed whole heartedly at God, in love of neighbor and of self.

God is glorified in His saints; all of them without exception. By not honoring them, we deny Him the worship which He deserves, for they are His workmanship.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!

Pascha! The mere sound of that word ought to fill us with excitement, for Christ Jesus has Risen! He is alive! He has destroyed death, our ultimate enemy! He has infused us with His life, by making us partakers of His Divine Nature!

Alas! We continue to experience the ravages of death and disease in our earthly existence. We don't seem to feel as though we experience any apparent benefit of the destruction of death. We feel pain, we get sick, we die slowly or quickly, but we feel it. We don't often think about the other side of death.

Christ is Risen! In Greek it is Christos Anesti! Christ has passed through death, experiencing every bitter moment of the separation of His Holy and Immaculate Body from His Human Soul. He experienced this as True God and True Man. His Body lay in the tomb, badly beaten, drained of His life, (for Jews the life was in the blood). No hope seemed to be available for those who loved Him. The first of His followers to arrive at His tomb on Sunday had their minds go immediately to the notion that His body had been stolen. They must have been in extreme shock when they saw Him alive! They didn't even recognize Him!

Christ is Risen! He Lives! And those who partake in His life will also live! But for now, we can only celebrate Christ's victory over death, and anticipate our share in that! For those who begin to experience the fruits of Deification, they begin to participate in the Victory. But when this happens, it is a cause for humility, because the Victory is Christ's Victory.

Christ is Risen! The tomb is empty! He is not there! He lives, never to die again! He has been Glorified, and is not limited by time or space! He shares His life with all who open the door to Him regardless of where or when. Eternity and time are united in His praise! Rejoice, for Christ is Risen!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Transfiguration In the Hospital for Sinners Part 2

Already in the third week of the Great Fast, or Lent, I'd like to reflect a little on the meaning of the word Lent, and the meaning of Transfiguration.

The word Lent comes from the Teutonic word meaning Springtime. This certainly denotes the calendar season in which we tend to arrive as the 40 days are being accomplished, but it can also have a further, spiritual meaning to it. Lent is a time of penance in which a certain discipline is proposed by the Church in which the whole Christian family is to participate as much as they are physically able, and during which each person should choose a personal fast of some sort. A food is technically more appropriate, but it is also possible to "fast" from other things as well such as television, or internet, or something else.

Spring is a time of planting, in which the ground is tilled, seeds are planted, and growth begins to take place. The growth may not be seen at first, but before too long, the fruits of such labor cannot help but become visible. If the ground is hard, the preparation is more difficult, but not impossible.

It can be this way with our hearts as well. If our hearts are hard, it is not impossible to have them become soft, but it is difficult, and can even hurt terribly. Softening the heart, however, is absolutely essential in order to bear fruit. Only then will the soil be ready to receive the seed of God's word. Only then can the Holy Spirit's living water begin to nurture that seed.

The Holy Spirit's action is absolutely essential for the process of softening the heart to begin, but His work produces the desire for us to begin to cooperate with His work. This cooperation does require work on our part. We use the word discipline as one of the words by which we describe the process of working in cooperation with the Holy Spirit, but another word used is Askesis, from which we get the word Asceticism. Asceticism is the particular discipline by which we train ourselves to run the race to sanctification. In short, it involves prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. It can also, however, involve the voluntary embracing of the sufferings which come our way, including injustice. At this point, I'm not going to go into great detail, but the general idea is that, because Christ embraced our human existence, including our most desperate suffering, we may draw closer to Him in His embracing of our sufferings.

This process of Lent is a process of turning over the soil of our being and planting the lifegiving Word of God, not just words on a page, but the Living Word, the Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father and Consubstantial with Him, in the soil of our being. Jesus Himself made it clear that it is possible for the ground to be so rocky that He cannot enter, as well as for the ground to be so shallow that, while His presence begins to manifest, it doesn't remain. He also speaks of those who are ready to receive Him but have too many concerns, and His presence fades to the background of their lives. Let us be like the soil with depth which was ready to receive Him gladly with no concern in our lives greater than to receive Him and nurture His life within us.

The Church, as a Hospital for Sinners, can help us to reach this by virtue of the Spiritual Fathers and Mothers mentioned in Part 1. She also helps us through her teaching, as well as her Sacramental Mysteries, given to her by her Divine Bridegroom! As His life begins to grow within us, His Light begins to become more visible within us.

Consider the greatest moment in Peter, James, and John's time with Jesus. They witnessed Him shining with the brilliance of God Himself, and speaking to Elijah and Moses. We call this the Transfiguration, where Jesus whole aspect changed. There is a very real demonstration of the Light of God peeking through a small crack in this world's existence. It would also seem to show us something of what we are to experience. At first, Jesus' light begins to shine on us from without, as with the apostles, who were not yet inflamed with the Fire of God in their own lives. All that they had done up until this point was a reflection of Christ's own Glory. So we begin by reflecting the Light of Tabor. As His life grows in us, this light begins to shine forth through us from the One who dwells within us, Jesus Christ, the Source of the Light and Life that we are to live. We cannot reach this on our own, but only through His Life dwelling in us. But it is the Goal that He gives to us. Jesus even describes this aspect of our Christian vocation by calling us, His followers, the Light of the World.

By our participation in Lent, we are given an opportunity to fan the flame of the Fire of God in our hearts, that it may shine forth into all the world. We participate as co-workers of God as we do this, and our practice of this is indispensible, but it is God who gives the increase. May God give us the Grace of persistence as we continue 0ur practice of Lent.

Christ is Among Us!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Transfiguration in the Hospital for Sinners, Part 1

Most of the time, it seems, we look at our Christian lives as a list of duties which we are bound to perform. Even many of those Christians who claim that works have nothing to do with Salvation can find themselves in this mindset. Certainly there is something profoundly right about recognizing that there is an element of duty to Christianity. We have a duty to Christ Jesus to represent Him in our world. But duty is not all there is.

There is also something profoundly right about the question which some Christians insist on asking anyone they meet, "do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?" Being a Christian is about a relationship! Thanks to Christ's own work, we are in a relationship with Him! We are His workmanship, His body, His Bride, His brothers and sisters. This aspect has little to do with our own action; rather it is His choice, or election, if you prefer. He chooses to be in relationship with us. We can choose to accept Him or reject Him. That is where our actions enter in.

When we choose to accept Him, we choose to place our trust in Him in all things, at least on the surface of it. I suspect that most of us do not really think of the actual meaning of this statement of faith. Do we really trust Christ Jesus for everything? This is a wonderful statement to take some time on which to reflect.

In the Gospels as well as the other writings of the New Testament, there are a large number of things stated to which Salvation in Christ is linked. A serviceable summary of this would be to avoid sin and do what is right according to God's own definition of that. God is the standard. It should, nonetheless, be obvious that we do not succeed in living up to that standard, even with the living example of Christ. If following a perfect example were within our power, then the Torah would have been sufficient for us to achieve salvation. The Bible mentions specifically that "all have sinned and fallen short of God's glory" and "none is righteous, no, not one." Simple obedience is not in our power. This is where empowerment comes in.

When we are initiated into Christ, the Holy Spirit comes and takes up his dwelling within us. He never travels alone, for God is Trinity. When He enters us, so do the Father and the Son. This Divine Indwelling is what gives us the power to keep Jesus' words. We are to do this out of love for Jesus Christ, and we can love Him only by Him loving within us. It is only then that we also receive the power to trust Him in everything.

St. Paul, also mentions something else which is involved. "I chastise my body to bring it into submission lest after having preached to others, I myself should be lost (1 Corinthians 9: 27)." Duty and empowerment are important, but they can only stand if we also remember this leg of Chistian Spirituality. All must be done for love of Christ and our fellow human beings. Who would embrace duty and self discipline, what the Church calls asceticism (from the Greek word askesis) without love? Daily prayer is an important part of this and of loving God. How does love grow, after all, in the absence of communication?

What does love mean? It certainly doesn't mean that we get warm fuzzy feelings about people or about God, for that matter. I don't look at anyone who has hurt me, my enemies, betrayers, etc. with warm fuzzy feelings. I do, however want what is best for them. That is what love means. It means, no matter how someone has hurt me personally, I want to see them go to heaven to be with God for all eternity. It is contrary to Christian love to say to someone either face to face, or within our hearts, "I want you to go to Hell!" Mercy is for those who show Mercy. Have Mercy on your enemies. Christ tells us to love our enemies. It is ok to remember that our feelings may not catch up right away. Looking at my enemies may very well give me a burning in the pit of my stomach. That doesn't mean I don't love them. It means that there is something which has hurt me, and I have to square with that. But I can commit to wanting the best for my enemies. Where the rubber can meet the road is when God asks us to be the one doing what is best for our enemies.

What about loving God? It is true that God sometimes permits things to happen which cause us to suffer. He permits some of us to suffer horribly. We are right to admit that this hurts us. We are right to admit that we even become angry with God. Why lie to Him? He already knows. What does it mean to love God in these circumstances? Can we trust that the suffering may be for a reason? What of a doctor who must break someones bone after it had begun to heal so that it will heal properly, or of a doctor who must cut a gangrenous leg off of a person in order to save that person's life? Do these things not hurt? Are they still not for the benefit of the one being hurt? Does trusting that God is actually allowing us to be hurt for our own good mean that we pretend that it doesn't hurt? Do we smile through gritted teeth, and deny that anything is wrong? Certainly not! That is dishonest. God loves us, but He knows that sometimes it actually takes suffering to bring healing. He knows that it would not be loving to prevent us from suffering at times.

None of this can happen in a vacuum. It requires support. God has taken the initiative in sending Christ to heal us by taking on our own nature, whole and entire. Firstly, we can never go anywhere in our suffering where Christ hasn't been. He came to join His life to ours. He poured out His entire life, human and divine, so that we could receive a transfusion of His life. Where do we receive any transfusion? We receive it in a hospital. So where do we, who are sinners, receive a the transfusion of Jesus Christ's own life? We receive it in the Hospital for Sinners. Jesus is the founder of this Hospital. He founded it most clearly on the feast of Pentecost, when He poured out the Holy Spirit upon his followers, empowering them to be His presence in the world, but He had founded it earlier, when He called His first apostle. It became a community at that moment. He named this Hospital later, in Matthew 16, calling it ekklesia or Church. The Church was entrusted with His message, His worldwide mission of healing and salvation, and with the treatment for sin, which is His very life.

We have no power on our own to obey Jesus's word, or to love our neighbor, or to avoid sin, or even do what is right without this New Life that He came to bring us. The Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is central to this for as St. Athanasius of Alexandria stated "God became man so that man might become God." We have no power for this on our own. The Devil tried it once, and it changed him into a perverse creature who can only destroy. This is only accomplished by partaking in the very life and nature of Christ. To be a sinner means that we have been wounded in our very nature. We lie bleeding on the ground, losing our own life. Jesus poured out His whole life to heal us from this loss of mortal life, and bring us life eternal. In baptism we enter in to His death, and are raised to His New Life with Him.

The problem is that we also have to really have our old selves be put to death, and in spite of having entered in to the hospital for sinners, and receiving the transfusion, many Christians still do not go to therapy, and therefore, end up worse than if they'd never entered the hospital in the first place. All of the old self must be extracted, because it remains there to fester, and bring death and stench. Therapy does this extraction.

Having been baptized, and chrismated, we believe that the Holy Spirit has truly entered our bodies and made them His temple. Having received the Holy Eucharist, we believe that we receive Jesus Christ's own life, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity. This is the transfusion. The therapy involves regular confession and spiritual direction. We confess our sins to Christ with the credentialed practicioner (the Priest) there as witness. This priest is then to give us advice born from his own prayer life, and the teaching of Christ and His Church. He can give us some practice to do which is supposed to be tailored to our situation and our life which will open us more for the extraction of the death which lives in us so that it may be removed.

This is where a priest who is also your own personal spiritual father is of supreme advantage. A person can go to confession, and genuinely repent, but never do anything differently, and continue in the same sin from which they've actually repented, and wonder why he or she can't break free. A spiritual father can see the pattern of our lives and our sins, and hold us accountable to do things differently. I have presumed that a spiritual father would be a priest so that one could go to confession sacramentally to this person, but if one chooses a lay person or monastic to be his or her spiritual parent, one may also have a spiritual mother. The main criteria for a spiritual father or mother is that the person chosen should be experienced in the Spiritual life and discipline, while being humble themselves, they should have a reputation for being holy and without reproach. One must be cautious and prayerful when selecting a spiritual father or mother, but one should still choose. When one does choose, he or she should also recognize that once one has chosen, he or she is binding themselves to obey that spiritual father or mother.

The spiritual father or mother can guide us with respect to our own spiritual journey, in avoiding sin and doing good, but also in how we should pray. The aim is deification or theosis. The spiritual father or mother knows that they have the responsibility to guide one to deification, to a point of transformation.

Perhaps, since this is just at the very beginning of the Great Fast, if you do not already have a spiritual father or mother, now would be a good time to seek one. God wants us to be transfigured and to transfigure the world around us. The choice of a holy spiritual father or mother can make a great deal of difference in this process.

Christ is among us!