13 June 2016

On Prayer and Personhood

            Here’s a scary thought: Prayer reveals who we are. It’s the most characteristically personal activity. Consider the Pharisee and the Publican.
           
The Pharisee, we’re told, prays to himself. He was a self-made man, full of his own deeds, with no room for God or for others. “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men; for I fast twice a week, and pay tithes of all I owe…not like that publican.”

The Publican stood afar off and didn’t lift his eyes to heaven. He saw nothing wrong that anyone else had done. He merely opens the depths of his broken heart to the merciful and man-loving God: “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.” He alone went home justified by God.

But in both cases, prayer revealed the person.

What do my prayers reveal about me?

Consider all that I do in the course of a day.

I eat. I drink. I sleep. I feel pain and pleasure. All these reveal that I am an animal; for I share all these with the animals.

I think. I plot. I plan. I read and write. All these reveal that I am rational, like all other people and like the angels.

But none of these reveal who I am; they only show what I am. Prayer alone reveals my person. Prayer alone shows who I am.

Am I so busy pursuing animal appetites and worldly concerns that I forget to pray? When I was a little boy and sat down to lunch, I sometime started to dig in without praying. My grandma would stop me, saying, “Essen, nicht fressen”—“Eat like a human, not like an animal.”

Prayer is that most personal activity, because I open myself up before the Three-Person God. I open to him the depths of my being, and seek the depths of his. I bring before him all those other persons he has brought into my life, and offer my requests for them, and give thanks for them. To put it simply, in prayer I relate to God personally. That is why, when we pray, we begin with “Our Father.” Not just “Creator God,” which would make me just a creation. Not “My Father,” as if I stand apart from others, but Our Father. Here I include all those dear to me and not so dear, all my fellow Christians…indeed, every man and woman and child for whom Christ died and rose again.

Today’s Gospel is the high-priestly prayer of Christ—the real “Lord’s Prayer.” And it’s precious to us, because it reveals to us Who He is.

He begins by calling God “Father.” He doesn’t say, like we do, “Our Father,” but simply, “Father.”
And in so doing, he reveals himself the only Son of God, one in essence with the Father, as our Nicene Fathers confessed. He is the Father’s Son.

What is it, after all, to be Son? What does that word mean?
A son is the same nature as his father. Canine fathers produce canine sons. Human fathers produce human sons.
A son is a different person from his father. I am what my father was, but I am most certainly not who he was.
A son is, in some sense, from his father…in a way that the father is not from the son.

What about space and time? My son is younger than I am. He occupies a different place than I do.

But space and time are features of the created order. God is not a creature. So those don’t apply in him. From all eternity, the Father begot the Son; they are co-eternal. And when the Son became enfleshed, he did not leave the Father.

He is also our Savior. Even though his Person is divine, the Second Person of the blessed Trinity, that divine Person willed to join himself to our created nature. Without ceasing to be God, he became man, that through his life and death and rising we might share the divine life. Just as he is one in essence with the Father according to his divinity, he is one in essence with us according to his humanity. Begotten eternally of his Father without mother, he was born in time of a Mother, without father.

So he prays, “I have revealed your name to those you gave me.” In the ancient world, to know a thing’s name was to have access to it…to know it.  When Jacob wrestled with the angel of the Lord, he revealed his name to the angel. But the angel did not reveal his name back. But Christ has revealed God’s name to us; and so we have access to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. And this, my friends, is to have salvation: to share the life of the Holy Trinity.

He keeps and preserves us, too. “Holy Father,” he says, “keep them in thy name.” You see, the cares and pleasures of our body, and the worries and delights of our rational soul, can work to draw us away from that saving name. So the Son asks the Father to keep us in the name; and the Father answers the prayer of the Son by sending forth the Holy Spirit, who prays in us with groans too deep for words…who intercedes for us according to the divine will.


And so we need not fear. For the Son intercedes for us with the Father. And soon we will celebrate that great day when He poured out the Spirit from the Father upon his waiting disciples. What can we say in response? What can we do? What else, but to walk through this life in prayer and praise and thanksgiving to the only true God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

26 March 2016

Homily on the Annunciation

            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

Meatfare Sunday 2016: Homily on the Last Judgment

            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.