26 March 2016
Whose tongue is adequate to speak of what we celebrate today? Whose mind can understand the power and riches and wisdom of God? For today, the One who is begotten from eternity of his Father without mother, is conceived in time of his Mother without Father. Today the one who covers himself with light as a garment, hides himself in the womb of the Virgin. Today the Word through whom all things came to be, creates a new wonder in heaven and on earth, by taking flesh of his most pure mother.
Woman has two perfect states which are opposite each other: the state of virginity, and the state of motherhood. Scripture praises them both: for the virgin can dedicate herself completely to prayer, and yet salvation is found in childbearing. But never before now have both these perfections been combined in a single woman, as they are in Mary, virgin mother and birthgiver of God. She is the glory of virgins and the praise of mothers.
Our first mother Eve, whose name means “life,” brought death to all her descendants when she listened to the Tempter’s voice and ate the fruit and gave it to her husband. But today the second Eve gives herself wholly over to the will of God, and thereby brings life to all by conceiving the Word in her womb by the action of the Holy Spirit. When Gabriel announces to her that she will bear God in the flesh, she answers, “Let it be to me according to your word.”
Our first father Adam, when he ate the forbidden fruit, marred the image of God in us and destroyed the likeness by one act of rebellion. But today the second Adam, the Son who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, restores the image of God for us by taking on our humanity. “For what the Law could not do, weak as it was through the flesh, God did: sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as an offering for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”
How shall we respond to the news we celebrate today? Once when our Lord was teaching, someone from the crowd called out, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that nursed you.” The Lord Jesus responded, “Blessed rather are those who hear the Word of God and keep it.” When he said this, he was not speaking ill of his Mother; he was highlighting what true blessedness is, and opening the door for you and me to share it. Mary is blessed because she heard God’s word through Gabriel, and kept it by cherishing it and acting according to it.
Mary teaches us to hear the word of God: to participate in liturgy, and reading the Scripture…to give our attention to the mercy and promises of God. And she teaches us to keep it: not to receive it in vain, but to let it shape our daily life and relationships with each other. We cannot give birth to God. That belongs to Mary alone. But to hear God’s word and keep it belongs to us all.
When my wife and I were in Romania this past summer, we traveled to the town of Sibiel and saw the museum of glass icons. It isn’t easy to paint a normal icon; but glass iconography is even tougher. For the layers of paint must be put down in opposite order, on the back of the pane of glass; and the image must be done in reverse, so that when the light shines through it looks like a standard icon.
Something like that happened at the feast we celebrate today. God reversed the normal order of things to accomplish his holy will. What is impossible for us, is possible with God. And just as the rays of the sun shine through the glass icons of Sibiel, so we, with Mary and all the saints, come to see the light of the the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ his Son.
06 March 2016
My kids make fun of me for reading the last page of a book, first. But it helps me if, before the end, I know what the ending will be. You can laugh…but just think of your GPS. First it asks where you’re going…then it figures out the way there. The same thing is true in Logic: you have to start at the conclusion.
So there’s something nice about the fact that, just at the cusp of Lent, we talk about the Last Judgment. Keeping that Judgment firmly in mind will help us to make better choices and have softer, more repentant hearts all the days of our life from now till their end.
And what does today’s Gospel teach us about the end? Well, the biggest thing is that the Judgment is coming. Christ tells his disciples, “When the Son of Man comes in all his glory, and the holy angels with him, then the nations will be gathered together.” Take note. He doesn’t say “If” the Son of Man comes, but when. I forget that. I live as if this life will go on forever...as if there will be no Judgment.
Each semester in my classes, I ask my students to write a paper on what one change they would make to American schools. You’d be surprised at the number of papers I get that wish exams would be dropped. I can understand that. The pressure rises during finals week. Students pull all-nighters in a vain attempt to cram into a week what they haven’t done in a semester. They dream of what school would be like without exams.
But think again. Exams focus students’ attention. They help to keep students from fooling themselves into thinking they’ve learned what they haven’t. And the students who go through the whole semester with the finals in mind, usually don’t have to worry so much when the finals come.
When I live without keeping the Judgment in mind, it’s as if I’m driving with my GPS on with no destination in mind. I may know where I am right now. But all the work I’m doing is pointless. It’s like the George Harrison song, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”
Not only does the Lord Jesus tell us there will be an exam…he also tells us what the exam is about. Did we feed the hungry? Did we give water to the thirsty? Did we visit the ones who were sick and in prison? Did we clothe the naked, and take in the homeless?
There’s a temptation to say that the Lord is speaking figuratively here. It can’t be such simple things…such everyday, non-religious things. What does food, clothing, and shelter have to do with deification? Shouldn’t he list our praying, our fasting, our religious works? How does feeding a hungry person deify me?
Metropolitan ANTHONY Bloom points out that the Lord’s only question on Judgment Day is, “Have you been human in the simplest way any pagan can be human?” If we have been inhuman, if we have not become human, how could we possible become divine?
Why does Christ call us to become human, by sharing the suffering of fellow human beings, by seeing our neighbor in someone who is different from us? The reason is simply this: because our God became human and shared our suffering in order to free us from suffering—or rather, in order to free us for suffering, and for sharing his suffering by taking on the sufferings of others.
Friends, the Judgment is coming. It can’t be escaped. But in his love for mankind, our Savior and Judge has given us an advance copy of the test. Judgment looms. Let us order our lives now, while there is still time. One day he will come in glory, on the clouds of heaven; but right now, he hides himself under the poor and afflicted. Let us befriend him now, that he may know us then. Do good works.
But don’t trust them. Look at the sheep. “When did we see you hungry or thirsty or naked or sick or in prison and minister to you?” They don’t remember a single one of their good deeds. All they know is the grace of the Shepherd who loved them and gave himself for them.
Judgment is coming. Do good works: serve Christ as he hides himself in the poor, and he will acknowledge you when he comes in glory. Do good works, yes…but don’t trust them. Trust alone in Christ the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world…your sin, and mine.
18 January 2016
Leprosy is a living death. It causes skin tumors, kills nerves, weakens muscles and harms vision, and all that is bad enough. But the leper had to leave his city and his family as well. He was cut off from his community.
Lepers had their own community…a community in which the old distinctions between rich and poor, Jew and Samaritan, slave and free really didn’t matter any more. That’s why the group of ten lepers who approached Jesus in today’s gospel was made up of 9 Jews and 1 Samaritan. Normally they’d have nothing to do with each other. But leprosy brought them together.
When Jesus commanded the ten lepers to go show themselves to the priests, he was fulfilling the Old Testament law. Leviticus 14 says that when a leper is cleansed, he should show himself to the priest. Funny thing was, in all the Old Testament, only one leper was ever healed…and he was a Gentile. That law lay fallow until Christ came, and it’s not a stretch to say that the reason it was written was precisely to point the priests to the coming of Messiah.
But today I want to focus on the importance of giving thanks in the Christian’s life. In the Gospel lesson, the Lord Jesus is surprised that only one of the ten who were healed, returned to give him thanks…and that man was a Samaritan. Nine of the ten took the gift the Lord gave, but forgot to give thanks. They went back to life as it was before. Only one came back. He alone entered a new life.
Dear brothers and sisters of our Lord Jesus Christ, I wonder how often we forget to give thanks. I wonder if we realize how central thanksgiving is to the entire Christian faith. In Romans 1, Paul says, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.”
Did you catch that? The way to darkness begins by knowing God and yet refusing to honor him or give him thanks. Too often we curse the symptoms around us in our culture and don’t acknowledge the cause within us: a simple lack of gratitude.
But what do we have to give thanks for? We were not leprous. No…but we were born slaves to sin and Satan, living in death until Christ came and joined us to his death and rising in Holy Baptism. And that was just the beginning. He gave to us prodigals the robe of righteousness and his own signet ring, the seal of the Holy Spirit. He feeds us week by week with his own life-giving body and blood.
I’ve told you before that sins are of two kinds: power and pleasure. Sins of power are seen especially in anger; sins of pleasure are seen especially in lust. We get angry when we think we’ve been treated worse than we think we deserve. But what do we call it when we think we’ve been treated better than we deserve? Why, that’s nothing else but gratitude…and grateful hearts pour themselves out in thanksgiving.
And what about sins of lust? When King David committed adultery, the Lord tells him, “I gave your master’s house and his wives into your care, and if that had not been enough, I would have given you more.” In other words, David fell into lust because he was not thankful for what he had been given.
When we forget to give thanks, life begins to break down. For we were made for thanksgiving, as a candle is made for burning. Even the three holy children, cast into the fiery furnace, were saved by the child of the Theotokos as they gave thanks to God and praised him.
So important is thanksgiving that St. Paul told the Thessalonians, “…in everything give thanks, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” In everything. Are you healthy? Give thanks to God for your health; he’s given it to you. Are you ill? Give thanks to God, for sickness turns our minds to him. Are you well-off? Give thanks to God, who has given you more than you need, so that you may share it with those who have less. Are you poor? Give thanks to God, for he will teach you in poverty that he is able to supply all your needs. Do you struggle with sin? Give thanks to God, who is able to help you overcome? Have you overcome some sin? Give thanks to God, for he is the one who gives the victory. Is your family a source of joy? Give thanks to God, who brought you together. Is your family a cause of grief? Give thanks to God, who gives us the grace to love the unlovely, so that we might have insight into how he loves us in Christ.
In life and in death, in sickness and in health, in riches and poverty—in everything give thanks, for in giving thanks the darkness is lifted, our minds are illumined and, as is right, God is glorified in all things: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.