30 March 2015

Homily for St. Mary of Egypt Sunday Lent 2015

            Can you be baptized with my baptism? Can you drink the cup I drink? So the Lord asked James and John, so eager to share in his glory…and when they said, “We can,” he assured them, “You will. You will.”
            Today, this fifth Sunday of Great Lent, we commemorate the life of our righteous mother Mary of Egypt, the great sinner. She lived life her way. She sought only pleasure. She delighted in corrupting the lives of others too…until she came into contact with the life-giving Cross of Christ. Confronted by the sign of Christ’s love, facing the power of the Cross, she saw her own sin in all its depths. She was baptized with Christ’s baptism, and journeyed out in the desert, beyond the Jordan, to learn the meaning of repentance. There she stayed for forty seven years, weeping over her sins and learning how to pray.
            The Church holds St. Mary of Egypt before us, to remind us that we can’t enter life on our terms. We don’t negotiate a settlement with Christ’s cross. The terms are clear and simple: unconditional surrender.
She also reminds us that no one need despair. There are no depths of sin you’ve committed that cannot be forgiven by the precious blood of Christ.  As St. Paul says in our epistle, “If the blood of bulls and of goats sanctified for the purification of flesh, how much more will the precious blood of Christ, who through the Spirit offered himself to the Father without blemish, cleanse your souls from dead works to serve the living God.”
            She also reminds us that repentance is a life-long pursuit. Forty seven years in the desert…and, she told Fr. Zosima, for the first seventeen she battled her passions daily. The Christian life isn’t simply a matter of an altar call, followed by a life of fixing other people; the Christian life is a daily dying to self…every day, until our last breath.
            That’s what it means to be baptized with Christ’s baptism: to drown our old man daily, by repentance, so that the new man might come forth…to learn to join our sin, in all its depths, to the cleansing waters of Christ’s baptism…that we might ignore the body, that perishes, and attend to the concerns of our undying soul.

            Yesterday we baptized little Margaret; this morning, for the first time, she receives the life-giving cup of salvation, the very body and blood of Christ.

When he was suspended on the Cross, Christ carried that blood through the greater and more perfect tent of his body, and entered once for all into the Holy Place.  Through the Spirit, the Son offered himself to the Father, and so restored us to fellowship with the Holy and blessed Trinity.  What he offered there for us, he gives here to us. And so we drink his cup.
            But that’s not all. His cup is also the cup of his sufferings. In the Garden he prayed, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will but thy will be done.” Then he went from the Garden to the Tree of Life, that by his suffering he might ransom us from death, sin, and the devil.
            When he asked James and John if they could drink his cup, he was teaching them, and us, that we enter glory through suffering. James was to find that out a few years later, when Herod killed him with the sword. He was the first of the apostles to die for Christ. And John would learn it many years later, when he suffered exile for Christ’s sake.
            Just think of the other saints we commemorate today: “Martyr Mark, bishop of Arethusa; Martyr Cyril, Martyrs Jonah and Barachisios of Persia, and Eustathios the Confessor.” Or think of those 21 who recently lost their heads for confessing Christ.
            When we take on the Lenten disciplines, we learn to suffer willingly—we practice for martyrdom by dying to ourselves in little ways. When we embrace whatever suffering comes our way in our calling—as parents, or children, as workers or students, as neighbors and friends—we drink the cup of Christ’s suffering.
            For the mystery of suffering is this: Christ joins our suffering with his, and takes it up as his own. That is why he calls it our cross. That is why he could say to Saul, on the Damascus road, “Why do you persecute me?” Saul learned it, for much later in his life he could say, “All who strive to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

            Can you be baptized with his baptism, dear friends? Can I? Can we drink the cup he will drink? “With your help, Lord, we can,” we tell him; and he answers, “You will. You will.”

15 March 2015

Homily for the Third Sunday in Lent (Holy Cross Sunday) 2015

“No!” "No!" "No!" That’s a word that Fr. John and Kh. Darcy are hearing a lot of, these days. And so do the parents of every two-year old. It’s to be expected, for that’s when children begin to figure out that they’re different from their parents. And they need to learn to say “no,” because in a temptation-filled world, we want our kids not simply to go along with the crowd.  When a kid says “no,” they’re learning to be a human…they’re learning a survival skill.
            In today’s text, our Lord calls us to a higher life. He invites us to share his life, the divine life…the life we were made to live. And just like when we were learning to be human, so also in learning to share his life, we begin by learning to say “no.” But this time, we learn to say “no” to ourselves. “If anyone wants to be my disciple, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me,” the Lord says.

            Say “no” to ourselves. Ours is a self-absorbed culture. The most popular kind of picture is the “selfie.” I must confess to having taken my first selfie when we were in Poland this past summer, with an infamous statue of Lenin in the background. We are completely caught up in how we look…in what other people think of us. How many “likes” do our posts get? How many FB “friends” can I gather? It’s like living in a hall of mirrors. Turn anywhere and you see yourself.
            The same is true with our obsession with self-esteem. It’s a trap! High self-esteem, low self-esteem. It doesn’t really matter, because the heart of them both is “self.” And focusing on self is disorienting. Try an experiment some time. Look in the bathroom mirror. Just keep looking at your own eyes, and you will find the rest of the background gets dizzying and loses focus.
            Contrast that with the monastery I visit in Texas each February. I was struck, the first time I went, when I realized they have no mirrors. At first it’s jarring…but then it’s freeing. It doesn’t matter what I look like. It matters that I pray, and serve, and love.

            We deny ourselves so we can take up our cross and follow Christ. What does that mean? In part, it means to fight against our sinful flesh. “Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its sinful desires,” says Paul. Lent has a way of bringing our flesh out. We get crabby. Temptations are extra tempting. Are you tempted? Keep fighting! Have you fallen? Don’t despair; get up and fight again. We don’t lose unless we quit.
            In part, it means to embrace the suffering that comes our way as a result of our vocation. “I fill up in my body what lacks of Christ’s affliction on behalf of his body, the Church,” St. Paul said. Paul suffered in his apostleship. You suffer as parent, as child, as friend, as co-worker whatever hardship comes your way for Christ’s sake.

            Deny yourself…take up your cross and follow Christ. And just like the two year old learning to say “no,” this is a survival skill. The Lord Jesus says, “Whoever wants to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
            Beloved, the cross of Christ alone saves us. But the cross of Christ is never alone. We are saved by his cross, and saved through ours. Over and over again, the New Testament makes it plain. “Through many troubles we must enter the Kingdom of God.” “Don’t be surprised at the fiery trial that comes your way.” “Take your share of sufferings as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.”

            Here’s an image to keep in mind. Each week we make the bread for the Eucharist. When the dough is ready, we press this seal, with the cross of Christ at its heart, into the dough. Then we bake it. When the bread is finished, it comes out with an exact stamp of the seal in it. The seal is not the stamp. But the seal conforms the dough into its image.
            Just so, the cross of Christ is not the same as our cross. His cross alone saves us. But his cross alone also marks us and seals us, and so our life is shaped according to his image.

            So as we mark this Holy Cross Sunday in Lent, let us prepare our hearts by learning to say “no” to ourselves. Let us receive in ourselves the image of the life-giving Cross of Christ by resisting temptation, and actively serving, and willingly suffering for Christ’s sake: in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.