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HOMILY: Sunday of the Prodigal Son

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  God is One! Amen

So we enter into the second Sunday of the triodion, the second week in our period of preparation for the Lenten fast soon upon us.  Last week we heard the parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, laying down the cornerstone of our Lenten journey: Humility and Repentance. Then we have today, the Sunday of The Prodigal Son, perhaps the most well known of parables, the image and trope of the prodigal being used widely across literature, movies, novels, and even video games. In this parable we see the image and archetype of God’s forgiveness in the prodigal son, who had abandoned his father for the world and its pleasures, and returned home to his father’s house where he was received with open arms as a son, and not as a servant as the prodigal son had intended.

The Gospel reading for today embodies the entirety of God’s message to the world. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son we are shown the longing of God for the repentance of his children.  It is said by the Fathers of the Church that the entirety of the Gospel can be found in The Parable of the Prodigal Son, and if for some reason the scriptures were lost to us, keeping this parable, it would be possible to for us to recreate a concise summation of Christian teachings, and also to emphasize the love of God for all mankind.

Reading through fathers, past and present, there are many themes that can be extracted from this single, simple parable.  Today we are going to focus on one of them, that which is most relevant to us in preparing for this Lenten season as we move Godward in the course of our Orthodox Christian lives.

When reading Holy Scriptures, we must always learn to see ourselves in the least of these characters, the lowliest of people, and in this case we see ourselves in the Prodigal Son. The Prodigal Son is a symbol of all of us, the entirety of fallen man, of every individual sinner.  Saint John of Kronstadt shares this notion as regards the Prodigal Son, saying: “We all see ourselves in it as in a mirror. In a few words the Lord, the knower of hearts, has shown in the person of one man how the deceptive sweetness of sin separates us from the truly sweet life according to God.”

The Prodigal son asks his father for his portion of goods that falls to him.  Perhaps he did not understand the gravity of the request, and the weight of the insult that unwittingly fell behind it, essentially telling his father in not so many words: I do not want to wait for you to die, so please give me my inheritance now.  Now, the father had every right to refuse him, and even correct him amidst his request, but rather he allowed his silence and subsequent actions to express his love for his son, leaving him free to do as he wished.  He understood the mystery of fatherhood and of sonship, which is to give to the other the possibility of returning home freely. And so the Father lets his son go.

The portion we receive from our Father in heaven is our gifts, our talents with which we must work and multiply.  Also, according to Bishop Ignatius Branchininov, our gifts consist of "…the mind and heart, and especially the grace of the Holy Spirit, given to each Christian. The demand made of the father for the portion of goods falling to the son in order to use it arbitrarily is the striving of man to throw off from himself submissiveness to God and to follow his own thoughts and desires. In the father's consent to hand over the property there is depicted the absolute authority with which God has honored man in the use of God's gifts." So, we spit in the face of God, turning away from Him in choosing the pleasures of this world.  Like the Prodigal Son we are impatient, telling God by our actions that we choose earthly riches and goods over those treasures in heaven to which we have been promised.  We choose earthly pleasures over that of eternal peace. We choose this world over the kingdom to which we have been made heirs as sons and daughters of the living God.

So the Prodigal Son departs from his father and goes to a far away land, much as we do in the pursuit of worldly living, to borrow the words from the Prophet Isaiah, “dwelling in a region of the shadow of death.” But the world cannot sustain us.  The world is fickle and shifts with time like the vagaries of the sand.  The Prodigal Son was in want of food, a famine of the body, but ours is a famine of the soul. As Saint Ambrose explains: “It was not a famine of fasts but of good works and virtues. What hunger is more wretched? Certainly whoever departs from the Word of God hungers, because “man lives not by bread alone but by every word of God.” Whoever leaves treasure lacks. Whoever departs from wisdom is stupefied. Whoever departs from virtue is destroyed.” 

From physical hunger to destitution, and in our case, from a departure of virtue into depravity.  At first the Prodigal Son was not aware of the depths of despair into which he had fallen, and neither are we aware of how depraved we have allowed ourselves to become in our fallen sinfulness.  Yet, eventually the Prodigal Son finally came to himself, as we ourselves often do.  He remembered whose son he was, and despite all his failings never ceased being the son of his father. Yes, he was still a sinner. Yes, he had sinned to such an extent that he had squandered the entire inheritance he had been given. He knew who his Father was, and by our same calling we know we have not lost our sonship, nor the grace of the Holy Spirit, for it is by the authority of the Holy Spirit alone that we are permitted to call God our Father.

Remembering his father, he arose and turned away from the world he once embraced with his riotous living.  The beginning of his repentance, metanoia (μετάνοια) in Greek, meaning to change one's mind, or in another sense understood as “a turning away from the world.”  What courage it took for the prodigal son to set aside his shame in the knowledge of his familial disgrace, understanding the gravity of his offense against his father, and the weight of his transgressions and misdeeds in the face of a loving father.  

Oh, what spiritual calamity it is for us to not see ourselves as we really are, blinded by the veil of pride much like the Pharisee was in the Parable Of the Publican and the Pharisee that we heard last week; to not see ourselves as the sinners we really are.  Yet, as John Climacus exhorts us in the 28th step of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, “Let your prayer be completely simple. For both the publican and the prodigal son were reconciled to God by a single phrase.”  Likewise, we begin to come to the knowledge of  ourselves in the utterance of this simplest of prayers: “My Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner!”  In this knowledge, we can find the strength, much like the prodigal son did, to turn away from the world and begin our repentance as we return to the father seeking his forgiveness and our reconciliation with God.

The Father never ceases looking for his son, and neither does God cease seeking his lost sheep, but it must be our choice that we return to Him.  It must be by that same free will we chose to abandon our father, that we must choose to be reconciled with him.  Seeing his son from afar off the Father “had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.”   The son, seeking reconciliation with his father, confesses before him: “I have sinned against heaven, and before you, and I am no more worthy to be called your son.” His father did not reproach him.  He did not demand repayment for what was lost.  He did not scold him, but with the same silence that he watched him leave, he received him once again with love.  As Saint Ambrose tells us, “The power of love overlooked the transgressions. The father redeemed the sins of his son by his kiss, and covered them by his embrace.”

The Prodigal Son returned to his father in great humility, that he might only be allowed back into his father’s household once more, if only as a servant.  But the father gave him a robe, just as our heavenly father restores our baptismal garment unto us by confession; a ring is placed upon his finger, just as our father in heaven does as much to as by the restoration of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and that particular seal of sonship; and the Prodigal Son’s feet are girded with sandals, as much as our Father has given us sure footing upon the foundation of Truth, the Church to which we have been restored, and no longer slaves to sin.  The Father of the Prodigal Son slaughtered the fatted calf, of which nearly all the fathers have agreed is a symbol of the Eucharist, in which we receive the body and blood of Christ, the spotless lamb sacrificed for the sake of the whole world. The music and dancing is the joyous celebration of the saints, martyrs, and the angels in heaven over the one that repented.

We as sinners, endure and repeat this cycle of falling into the depths of sin, the rise of shame from self knowledge of our sin, humility born in our recognition of our unworthiness before God, confession and reconciliation with our Father in heaven, and the restoration of our sonship and status as a part of the body of Christ.  As the Monks on Athos have confessed about their daily lives, we all fall, and we rise.  We fall, and we rise. So it is likewise with all of us in the Church. The Gospel reading for today teaches us of one who has returned from the greatest depths of sin and depravity, which should give us all great hope, that no matter the weight of our failures, the grace of God is greater, the love of God is brighter, and the forgiveness of God runs deeper the greatest depths of sin to which we could ever fall.  Let us always remember that we have a loving father waiting for us to return to him into his open arms.

Oh Lord Jesus Christ our God, by the prayers of thy most Pure Mother, the holy and God bearing fathers, all the Saints and the Martyrs and the Angels, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.

The 22nd Sunday After Penecost

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

In today’s Gospel reading Jesus is confronted by two groups of Jews; two groups that were ideologically opposed to one another; two groups that for all intents and purposes were enemies, but the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and that is the logic under which  they aligned themselves with one another to confront Jesus in the temple. For Jesus has been teaching in the temple, and  through his teaching, challenged the religious establishment therein, undermining the authority and credibility of the religious leaders there. Now, the religious leaders would try to find a way to discredit Jesus, and ultimately remove him, or at least they would try. But who were the Herodians, and what did they have to do with the Pharisees?

So you have two sides of the same coin, in a sense, working hand in hand to try and usurp the authority of Jesus in the temple. Secular Jewish leaders working with religious Jewish leaders towards a common goal, a common enemy

The Herodians could also be referred to as hellenic Jews, for they saw the very future of Judaism and the Jewish people within the Greek cultural hegemony of the Roman empire.  They were named after the ruler placed over them by the Romans, Herod the Great.  Hence, the name, Herodians. These Jews simply put on a facade of religious practice in order to publicly justify their life in private living as wannabe Romans.  The Pharisees on the other hand worked with the Romans, but only because they had to, and in their eyes for the good of the Jewish people.

The Pharisees worked with the Romans out of absolute necessity.  They were believers in religious purity and adherence to the Law, so much so that they created an entire code of Jewish life in order to protect the faithful Jew from ever falling into error of the Laws.  Those rabbis who followed them often ran the various ghettos found across many Roman cities.  In short, the Pharisees had little love for the Romans, for they saw contact with the Romans, and the overall increase of cultural contact with the Romans as polluting the purity of the Jewish people.

So, here we are with these two groups working with one another, intending to trap Jesus with the deception of the question that would follow.  After an opening salvo of some cynical flattery, they ask him this question: ““Teacher, we know that You are true, and teach the way of God in truth; nor do You care about anyone, for You do not regard the person of men. Tell us, therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” Jesus then asks them for a denarius, for you see, to all parties involved the whole crux of the matter came down to that small coil.

The Denarius was typically what one received for a day’s wages.  In that time the denarius bore the image of the emperor, and the following phrase was inscribed upon it: “Tiberius Caesar, Augustus, son of the divine Augustus, high priest.” So, the coin contained the engraved image of a man that was not only regarded as a deity by the Roman people, but was also considered the high priest of the entire Pantheon of Roman deities.  So, obviously the Pharisees objected to the use of this coin for currency as they saw it not only as a borderline violation of the first commandment: “I am the Lord your God. You shall not have strange gods before me,” they also saw payment with this coin as tribute to the emperor and his gods. So to preserve the purity of the Jewish people, money changers were established to exchange this “dirty” money for a local currency minted in Hebrew.  The Herodians, on the other hand, saw no reservations about the use of Roman currency.

So, Jesus had a choice. If he agreed with the Pharisees, the Herodians could charge him with revolution against the Romans. If he agreed with the Herodians, the Pharisees could charge him with idolatry. It was a question asked within the framework of conflicting priorities, and when the world is pitted against itself, no answer is the right answer.  So, Christ being King of Kings and Lord of Lords reframes their question upon that very coin by asking who’s image it bears.  Upon the  answering of His question, Jesus then answers theirs by saying “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  The false dichotomy of Herodian realpolitik and Pharisaical idealism was dissolved and replaced with choosing between God, and the world.

We live in the world, but not of it.  Let us recall the words of Paul in his letter to the Romans: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”  And Christ himself told Pilate: “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.”  

Certainly we can live fully for God with no participation in the world, and those are called monastics.  Then, the other end of the spectrum are the hedonists and nihilists who live only for themselves.  We are neither of these, but we walk the middle path. We give ourselves fully to God while actively participating in the dominant culture for the common good.  In a way, and to some, this participation becomes an act of Christian charity and evangelization.  But, that participation can only take place as long as the laws of man do not overrule or supersede the laws of God.  In such cases as these, Holy disobedience is in order.  In the time of the Romans?  It became necessary.  In Atheist communist Russia?  It became necessary.  In some countries such as North Korea or China?  It does become necessary. Though, lucky for us, we do not live in such a place or time that requires us to resort to Holy disobedience.  Yet, oftentimes the American obsession with personal freedom can often preclude any struggle for the common good.

Our participation begins with our personal responsibilities to the Church, to our families, our jobs that support them both.  Also, as we are able, we extend our participation beyond our personal boundaries and into the public realm for the good of others.  As a result, those in need, those who struggle, those who are in want, and society in general grows from the light of hope emanating from a citizenry engaged with itself.  Yet, we never forget the personal struggle against the passions, and in so doing, through our participation in society we become living examples of Truth that others can hopefully see and follow into the Church, the fullness of Truth.

I think sometimes some people forget that our struggle is first and primarily a spiritual struggle, and the outer struggles of which we see and hear are nothing more than the loudest visible signs of an invisible conflict waging around us.  But we, as Orthodox Christians, are on the front lines of that spiritual conflict.  Whenever we do see wars fought abroad, and the struggles here at home, our first choice should always be God.  This is one reason why the Church beseeches us to pray for peace in the face of all conflict, for war is sin. Rarely is either side innocent. When we are left to choose within a false dichotomy that the world has given us, our first choice should always be God.  For in choosing the lesser of two evils, you are still choosing evil. In those cases we must trust God to give victory to whom he chooses.

We must  remember that God desires our salvation, and we must believe that he has placed each of us in our situations precisely for our own salvation.  He will use even the evil deeds of men to save all of those who love him.  The problem is when we are in pain we can never see the present moment for what it is.  But when we are not in pain, we often never stay in the present moment, the only moment in our lives in which we can encounter God.  We spend our days dreaming of a future that may or may not ever come, or looking back in regret at our decisions and mistakes, dwelling on what if, sometimes forgetting that Christ has forgiven the repentant sinner, and that includes ourselves.

We cannot escape the present moment. When God said the work is finished, he is already standing at the finish line looking back at us, seeing all the work that has been done and will be done.  We can only see this moment, and as long as we do not forget God in that moment, and all the moments to come, we will one day hear those words “well done, my good and faithful servant.” For, as Christ has said: “In your patience possess ye your souls” and “He that endures to the end shall be saved.” 

Our faith is our first priority, but it is often a conflicting priority with the other things of this world.  It's not that we choose or should choose the world at any point over God, but that we often pit our worldly choices against other worldly choices, and this ultimately turns us away from Him.  We then are no longer walking the middle path between God and this world, living in this world as citizens of the Kingdom of God, but are slowly walking astray between two paths of conflict framed around things of this world that have nothing to do with God or our salvation. Choose God first, and the rest will sort itself out later.

Oh Lord Jesus Christ our God, by the prayers of thy most pure Mother, the Holy and God bearing fathers; all the saints, and the martyrs, and the angels, have mercy on us and save us.  Amen.

United in Love

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. One God!  Amen.

The world would have you believe that truth is relative. That there is no absolute truth. The world would have you believe that truth is an individual thing: his truth, her truth, their truth.  Lacking absolute truth they seek for those things outside themselves with which they mostly identify, things outside themselves which have little to do with their personhood as found in their humanity created in the image and likeness of their creator: their gender identity, their sexual identity, their social status, their wealth, and everything that lies between.  Each broken person is a patchwork quilt of disparate and unrelated ideologies under which they try to find comfort. It is in this individuality with which they have fashioned for themselves their own image away from the image and likeness of their Creator, and it is in this false image of humanity with which they try to find or create community.  They are all individual pieces of an unknown puzzle.  The picture is a stranger to everyone, even those holding the pieces. They throw themselves together within the same puzzle box, thinking that coexistence somehow replaces that of communion and community. They somehow believe that proximity results in relationships and yet they have nothing of themselves to share with one another other than those things external to themselves instead of anything that's actually of themselves or even  theirs to give. They are “bonded” by the shifting vagaries of the world which will change at the next oncoming social tide. This is a sad and broken existence. The world is insane; for, they continue to do the same things over and over again while expecting a different result; yet, they continue to be broken, continue to be lost, continue in a hopeless misery of life because they lack the absolute truth revealed in the fullness of God. They keep seeking for more because the world has nothing more to give.  Their houses are built on foundations of sand, and this is why with time, they nearly always collapse.  However, Truth is eternal.  Truth is unchanging.  Truth is the firm foundation on which we all stand.

We are unconfused about our humanity and who we are.  We are certain of ourselves because we are certain of God.  We know ourselves because we know Christ. Our purpose is absolute because Truth is absolute.  While we recognize the brokenness of man, we understand the frailty and futility of our human condition amidst the vagaries of an often harsh and unforgiving world. We may be broken, but our Hospital, the Church, is here to heal us.  We may be bruised, shaken down and trampled underfoot, but we are certainly not divided, and will never be destroyed.  We are one just as God is one, and we are united in the love of God.  If we are each living stones of the body of Christ, then we are bound together by God’s love as a spiritual mortar, for this love is no common love, as Saint John Chrysostom says, but that which cements us together, and makes us cleave inseparably to one another, and effects as great and as perfect a union as though it were between limb and limb. For this is that love which produces great and glorious fruits.

This is the kind of love we hear about in our Gospel reading for today: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”  We give ourselves to God, but we also give ourselves to one another.  We give to God ourselves, our whole thoughts, our whole understanding, and our whole life, leaving no part of ourselves no part of our lives that may be justly unfilled by Him. This type of love is absent of self and pride, for we love God first, and then all others, before we even come into our own picture.  What’s more, Christ himself has said that “those who love me will keep and obey my commandments.”  So, you see, love is not about how we feel, love is not about our emotions, love is not a statement, but it is an action.  We love God, we love others, and manifest that love by that which we do in obedience to Him who gave us all things.  That being said, what do we do that requires the most time and attention?  Is it God?  Is it our neighbor?  Or is it some paltry thing, or something external to us?  Keep this in mind: We become what we love, and who or what we love shapes what we become. If we love God, we become more like God. If we love things, we become a thing. If we love nothing, then we become nothing. 

Look at those sitting next to you.  Look at those around you. You are bound together in an eternal felicity found only in the knowledge and love of Christ. You are each bonded together by the blood of Christ.  You share in your lives and salvation by the body and blood of Christ as an eternal food and remedy.  We love each other because we love Christ, and it is in Christ by which we are all united.  So we must think of this when we fail, not only Christ, not only ourselves, but all those to whom we share this eternal bond.  Love is a choice, but Sin is also a choice, and it only seeks to rend that which God has brought together.  

Sin is the antithesis to unity, and we see the results of this within the world around us. So when we face down our passions and the temptations of the flesh, when we get angry or choose to do something that would harm ourselves or another, would we do this to them, to any of these sitting around us?  Remember this, because we are so united by the Love of God, anything we do apart from that affects not only us but the Church, and all those to whom we are bound by love.  This is why confession is so important, because it not only heals our own wounds, but brings us back together with those we have willfully separated ourselves away from, even if we do not yet know it.  Confession heals not only our own wounds, but those wounds we have inflicted upon the Church, those wounds we have inflicted upon one another, to those sitting around us, by way of our own negligence

We are one.  We find our unity in our love; not the pseudo facsimile of love that the world can only offer, but the love of God, the love of one another, and a peace which the world cannot give. We are one in Christ: One God, One Truth, one cup, one loaf, one teaching, one faith, and one Church.  With the Love of which the Gospel speaks, and which Paul demands of us, there is nothing that can divide us, and nothing that can move us. The Church is still here. We are still here. 

Closing with the words of our blessed Father among the saints, Saint John Chrysostom, I leave you with this: “ Indeed, love is a strong wall, impregnable not only to men, but also to the devil. He who is surrounded by a multitude of those who love him cannot fall into danger; he has no reason to be angry, but always feels peace of heart, joy and gladness; there is no reason to be jealous; there are no occasions for vindictiveness. Look how easily he carries out both his spiritual and worldly affairs. Who can compare to him? He is like a city completely shielded by walls; and he [who has no love] is like a city without any protection.”

By the prayers of thy most pure mother, the holy and God bearing fathers, all the saints and the martyrs and the angels, have mercy on us and save us.  Amen.

We Grateful Lepers

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; God is One! Amen.

In today’s Gospel reading we hear the story of ten lepers, ten men who were ritually unclean,  rejected, and excluded from the community and common worship of the Temple.  They were not even allowed to come near the habitations of men, for fear that their illness would be spread, and others would come into illness, even unto death. So, who are these lepers to us?  If the Church fathers have taught us anything about the reading of scripture, it is to consider the least of these within the corpus of holy writ, and see ourselves within them.

Were we not once spiritual lepers of the faith, standing on the outside of the Church and looking in; standing apart and removed from the Holy mysteries within?  Were we not cast down, and therefore cast out, by the magnitude of our own sin?  So, like the Lepers, we stood outside, and afar off from Christ, crying for mercy: My Lord, Jesus Christ the Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.  It is a prayer that is constant on the lips of Orthodox faithful around the world; on the lips of those seeking Christ; on the lips of those seeking their salvation within the boundaries of Holy Tradition, and all of those participating in their salvation through the sacramental life and rhythm of the Church..

Christ heard the cries of the Lepers, and sent them away to the priests, that they may fulfill the Law to be ritually cleansed, so that they may be brought back into the fellowship of their community once again. Christ heard our calls and brought us into the Church, to His priests that we may be ritually cleansed and healed of our infirmities, received by Him who has already fulfilled the law.  Out there, outside the Church is the Law which brings death, but here within the Church resides the Law of the Spirit of Life, the Law that brings Life, and that law is Christ.

Christ heard our calls, yet did we hear His call when he beseeched us to go and do likewise; when he exhorted us to go and sin no more; when he beseeched us to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect; or when he commanded us to Do this in remembrance of Him?  Do we recognize, and are we grateful, thankful, of the many wounds of which we have been healed, some of us of illnesses from which we have been saved or assuaged, many of us rescued from the only life of death this world could offer; and all of us saved from the wages of sin, which is death? Are we grateful that we have received this gift of healing?  Are we thankful that we had the spiritual faculties through which to perceive and receive it?

All the lepers were healed, but only one of them returned to give thanks.  The Gospel tells us that this man was a Samaritan, one who existed outside of the Hebrew community, and had no rights within the people of Israel.  He was not just a stranger, but a reject of the Hebrew people.  The Samaritan knew this; knew that he had no right to the love which he received from God, this act of Christ, and yet he knew that he had been healed, cleansed of his consuming illness.  He was made whole once again, and knowing the undeservedness of the gift he had just received, he returned and gave thanks to Christ who told him:”Go thy way, thy faith hath made thee whole.” Yet, knowing this about himself, why did he return to Christ?  Gratitude is a powerful thing and springs up in each of us more powerfully when what we have received is undeserved of us to be received, but how much more so when that which is received is a miracle of divine and human love?

What of the other nine lepers?  Perhaps they felt as though they deserved that which they received, and in their unspoken pride felt as though they had no reason to be grateful.  For, when we think we deserve something and receive it, we feel we have received that as our due.  This is a problem, not only within the world, but within the walls of the Church as well.  So many feel entitled, feel they have the right: a right to human concern, to human love, to everything within which the human condition can give us, to our relationships, to our property, and ultimately, to even God’s love for us all.   So when many receive that gift of grace there is a superficial gratefulness, a vestigial thank you, but none of it transforms our relationships to either God or to one another by returning that same mercy others have shown unto us.  It is instead received as their due, and we are grateful to those who delivered to us that which we already had the right to receive.

Do any of us really have an entitlement to the life we live, the air we breath, and the relationships we uphold through either love or selfishness?  Humanity itself exists as an act of love, created out of nothing and brought into being by the hands of a loving God.  Many of us, though not all of us, came into this world through an act of love, when two bodies became one flesh, and out of that union a new life was born.  We live because someone loved us enough to ensure our survival through a world intent on killing us in body, mind, or spirit.  We deserve nothing, yet it is through love and love alone that we have received everything.

He gave us his life, his teaching, his death, and his forgiveness, but what have we given him in return: a passive acknowledgement of his love and presence within our own lives; a sometimes cursory understanding of his teaching, or even a downright rejection if it disagrees with our own personal agendas, opinions, and personal sensibilities; our continual submission to sin and the passions of the flesh; or our lack of mercy given to our fellow man as both patience and forgiveness fails us time and time again?  He gave us our lives, so it is the least we can do but to give our lives back to him, consecrated within the sacramental life and rhythm of the Church, ever grateful for the mercy of God and those gifts which we have received, and continue to receive. 

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God…”  These are the words of Christ in His first beatitude. We must acknowledge that we are poor in spirit, for this is the fundamental condition for the spiritual growth and progress of all men.  The poor in spirit are those who know that they possess nothing which is not a gift, and are deserving of nothing which they have received.  To be poor in spirit is to be empty of all pride and the surrender of one’s self to the guiding hand of the Holy Spirit. It is to find freedom from ones own ideas, opinions and desires that would lead one away from God.  To be poor in spirit is to be liberated from the vain imaginations of one’s own heart. Ultimately, spiritual poverty is the condition of total emptiness, openness and honesty before God.  Once we have peeled away all that we have, and all that we are in the eyes of this world, standing spiritually naked before the eyes of a triune God, then we can truly be grateful, returning to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to fall upon our collective faces and giving thanks unto Him for all things.

Closing with the words of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom of blessed memory:

“Let us reflect on this; let us learn to live out of gratitude, out of the joy of being loved, out of our communion with God, but knowing that it is an act of gratuitous generosity, that we have no rights - and yet we possess all things.  Saint Paul said that: I have nothing, and I possess all things.  Each of us could be such a rich person in our utter poverty, rich with all the love and power and richness of God.

Let us reflect, and let us give God, in an act of gratitude not only spoken, not only dimly felt, but lived in every action of our life: let us give Him joy, and the certainty that He has not created us in vain, not lived and died for us in vain, that we are truly disciples who have understood and who want to live His Gospel.”

By the prayer of thy most pure Mother, the holy and God bearing fathers, all the saints, the martyrs and the angels, have mercy on us and save us.  Amen.

We Must be Fruitful

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; One God!  Amen.

In today's Gospel and Epistle readings we hear much about fruit.  We hear much about good fruit and bad fruit; of false prophets and slaves to holiness; of good trees and bad.  Yet, what does it all mean? Throughout the totality of scripture we read, see and hear various parables and metaphors about fruit-bearing, and it seems to present an idea for us of what it means to be a part of Him, a part of the vine to which we have all been grafted.  Let us recall the words of Christ in the Gospel of John:

“I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He [a]takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. “

As the vinedresser, God is a patient and purposeful farmer who seeks a spiritual harvest from each of us, His branches, grafted to His Son.  As such he expects us to be more than just branches, but fruit bearing branches; to do more than just hold an ethical and religious identity, but to become living icons of that identity; to do more than just consider ourselves Christians, but to actually be and become Christian, living out our faith in such a way that we not only become good fruit of the vine, but bear the good fruit of faith in our lives, bringing forth the fruit of the Holy Spirit, that our whole lives may become a harvest of holiness for our King of Kings, and Lord of Lords.

We are grafted to the vine through holy baptism and chrismation.  We are watered by a persistence of prayer, both in our own lives and corporately within the body of Christ, the Church.  We are thus fertilized by the teachings of both the Scriptures and the Fathers, the fullness of Truth found wholly within Holy Tradition.  And we are pruned and preserved through our Orthodox praxis of faith and ascesis, those spiritual exercises so important to us all- prayer, fasting, and alms giving, but also a simplicity of life, unfettered and unburdened by the superfluity of this world. It is only here, and only in this manner, that we may become fruits of the vine.

But what does Fruit mean in this context?  The underlying Greek work translated as “fruit” is Karpos (καρπός), a word used 66 times throughout the canon of the New Testament. Anyone who has studied koine Greek in at least a cursory fashion will know that context is important in the proper understanding of what is being said in all things.  In one sense the word quite literally means fruit, or harvest.  Towards that end we are all living fruits of the vine, that is Christ.  We embody truth and embolden others to partake of it, becoming that which is pleasing to the hearts and minds of all men, that they may see Christ in us and through us.  We do this in faith, but we also do this in fearful remembrance of the fig tree for which Christ cursed and condemned for bearing no fruit.  Love has no season, and Truth has no end.  Christ is unceasing, and so should we be also.

Another meaning of the word karpos is deed, activity, or “produce of a person.”  In this we are understood to be bearers of good fruit.  Just as we need the vine for life, for there is no life apart from it, the vine needs its branches so that good fruit may be born into the world.  If Christ is the head of His Church, and we are living stones a part of that body, then we are His hands and feet within the world.  The Orthodox Church wholly rejects any theology that violates the free will of men, but Christ calls each of us to Him, and it is our choice but also our duty to lead others to him by our own examples of faith, by our good fruits given to and done unto others, by the Grace of God and the Holy Spirit.  Christ calls all men, that we may be brought into the fullness of Truth, grafted to the vine, and spiritually nourished by the sacramental life therein. 

What does good fruit look like? Saint Paul tells us in his Epistle to the Galatians “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”  Notice here that fruit is singular.  These are all attributes of a single fruit. Love is first and foremost.  If we possess a Godly love, and truly love God as we should, then we will possess all the other attributes listed here.  Yet, if we have love, or simply say we have love, and lack any of these, then the love we possess is neither Godly nor the love of God.  Yet, such love can only be achieved through the acquisition of the Holy Spirit

How does one acquire the Holy Spirit?  We turn to the words of Saint Seraphim of Sarov regarding the acquisition of the Holy Spirit:

“Prayer, fasting, vigils and all the other Christian practices may be, they do not constitute the aim of our Christian life.  Although it is true that they serve as the indispensable means of reaching this end, the true aim of our Christian life consists of the acquisition of the Holy Spirit of God.  As for fasts, and vigils, and prayer, and almsgiving, and every good deed done for Christ’s sake, are the only means of acquiring the Holy Spirit of God.”

Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, the three great ascetic practices of our faith,  the exercise and growth of our spiritual lives. Yet, our spiritual life is far more than just our thoughts and feelings, and inward spiritual practices of our faith, but in fact it comprises the whole human experience, the full depth  of our humanity: thought, feeling, heart,  soul, vision, mind, and body.  Not only this, but our spiritual lives should consist of our everyday experiences - work, school, our social life, family life, home life - and not just be compartmentalized to Church on Sunday mornings.  This is what it mens to become good fruit, the fruit of the Holy Spirit, that peculiar fruit we are to bear unto the world, that by it and through it we may lead others into the fullness of Truth, the Life of Christ and life eternal.  It stands as a perfect counter image to that of Eve enticing and leading Adam into sin through her half truth, or heresy, bringing death unto the world.

Who, by your example of faith, have you brought into faith, and the fullness of Truth? Whose life have you enriched, enlivened, and elevated by being the light of Christ in their life?  Who have you helped and uplifted by meeting the other wherever they had need?  What joy have you brought into the life of another? What kind words have you spoken today? What prayers have you said for those who hate you, and for those that others would deem worthy recipients of such enmity?  Where have we sown peace, and have we been a cause for any enmity or discord anywhere within the lives of others?  Are we honest with ourselves when we look upon the contents of our own hearts?

A faith without fruit, and fruits without faith are collectively bitter things that are of no spiritual or genuine benefit to anyone baring them.  But a faith bearing fruit and those fruits born in faith are precious gems of our good stewardship and God's love unto the world. May we all be good stewards of our faith, bearing good fruits into the world, that by them, the whole world may know Christ.

Oh Lord, Jesus Christ our God, by the prayers of thy most pure mother, the holy and God bearing fathers, and the saints, and the martyrs and the angels, have mercy on us and save us.