Life & Living

It certainly appears and feels like our lives are very busy. One result of this apparent busyness that I’ve noticed personally—and perhaps you also—is that we are forced to prioritize our tasks. Which of the many things demanding our attention will we do?

Setting goals so that you maintain your focus on the important things is the key to all productivity apps, planners, workshops, and calendars. Know what is important, and make sure it is not pushed aside—that’s what’s crucial.

Regrettably, when we think of goals, we think selfishly—about ourselves, our work, our families. We also tend to divide life into fragments—our health life, our work life, our family life, our recreation life, our financial life, our retirement life. Into this lump of “lives” we throw “spiritual life” or “church life.”

This way of dividing life is not what Our Lord Jesus had in mind when He said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” or “I am the Resurrection and the Life” or “I am the Life of the world.” With those statements, Our Lord was not begging to be a part of our life. Neither was He asking us not to forget Him in our many “lives.” And neither was He making more demands on our life.

Instead, with these statements, Our Lord urges us to think of life differently. Not as segments or “many lives” which create a whole, but to see life as Christ Himself. He says, in effect, “I am your life. Apart from Me, you can do nothing. So if I am not your whole life, you have no life.”

Our Lord urges us to think of life differently.
“If I am not your whole life, you have no life.”

These words sound demanding, but they are actually quite freeing. For if we take them to heart, we no longer need to “get a grip on life”—He has a grip on us. And no longer do we need to get our “lives” to line up, or prioritize our various “lives”—for Christ Jesus is the only life we have that is worth living.

Think of it this way: In the end, what good is your financial life, your work life, your health life, etc.? While these may improve the quality of your life now, they don’t improve Life Himself, nor your living since your life is hidden with Christ in God.

Seeing Christ as your Life shapes, forms and determines all your other “lives.” So, for example, you go to work and earn money for only one reason—to live in Christ by attending Mass and helping others. And that is not just the Christian way. That is Christ Himself.

For this reason, going to church ought not be a goal. Instead, you should see it as the place where you truly live your life—the Life that Christ is, the Life that Christ lives in you. For Holy Mass is the place where you receive the only nourishment that will see you safely from this life to the life to come. So Holy Mass is the only place where you live the life that none of your other “lives” give—the eternal life that you enjoy in part now, and then fully one day face to face with Christ your Life.

Mass is the only place where you live the life
that none of your other “lives” give.

What I’m saying, then, is that in all our busyness, in all our frustrations and stresses of living life, in all our goals and priorities—let’s not lose focus. It’s so easy to do—even for me. But we must always remember not only what is important, but also what our life truly is, and what makes our life worth living. It’s not the many things we do, the stuff we can accumulate, the ladders we can climb, the goals we can achieve, or the quality we attain.

Our life and our living is Christ Jesus—whom the Holy Spirit gives us time and again most surely only in the Holy Mass.

Because of this, I urge you to keep your eyes focused on the Mass. Everything else comes and goes. Everything else fades or is used up. But the Eucharist served in the Mass remains, and always comes through.

This means that everything else that’s on our busy schedule can—and should—be sacrificed for the sake of hearing Our Lord’s Word and receiving His Holy Communion.

So when you plan, “do not look at the things which are seen, but at the [sacramental] things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”

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May 8 – The Apparition of St Michael

For a parish that is under the patronage, and exults in the merits, of so great an Archangel, it is most fitting that we learn of his appearances in other times and places. Here is the description of one such feast that we celebrate this month.

That the blessed Archangel Michael, whose name means Who is like unto God?, is the prince of the faithful Angels who opposed Lucifer and his followers in their revolt against God. Since the devil is the sworn enemy of God’s holy Church, Saint Michael is given to it by God as its special protector against the demon’s assaults and stratagems.

Various apparitions of this powerful Angel have proved the protection of Saint Michael over the Church. We may mention his apparition in Rome, where Saint Gregory the Great saw him in the air sheathing his sword, to signal the cessation of a pestilence and the appeasement of God’s wrath. Another apparition to Saint Ausbert, bishop of Avranches in France, led to the construction of Mont-Saint-Michel in the sea, a famous pilgrimage site. May 8th, however, is destined to recall another no less marvelous apparition, occurring near Monte Gargano in the Kingdom of Naples.

In the year 492 a man named Gargan was pasturing his large herds in the countryside. One day a bull fled to the mountain, where at first it could not be found. When its hiding place in a cave was discovered, an arrow was shot into the cave, but the arrow returned to wound the one who had sent it. Faced with so mysterious an occurrence, the persons concerned decided to consult the bishop of the region. He ordered three days of fasting and prayers. After three days, the Archangel Saint Michael appeared to the bishop and declared that the cavern where the bull had taken refuge was under his protection, and that God wanted it to be consecrated under his name and in honor of all the Holy Angels.

Accompanied by his clergy and people, the bishop went to that cavern, which he found already designed in the form of a church. The divine mysteries were celebrated there, and there arose in this same place a magnificent temple where the divine Power has wrought great miracles. To thank God’s adorable goodness for the protection of the holy Archangel, the effect of His merciful Providence, this feast day was instituted by the Church in his honor.

It is said of this special guardian and protector of the Church that, during the final persecution of Antichrist, he will powerfully defend her: At that time shall Michael rise up, the great prince who protects the children of thy people. (Dan. 12:1) (Source)

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Christ Loves You in Your Body

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, alleluia!

These words that we just said: they are so much more than a joyful Easter greeting. To greet one another with these words is to proclaim to each other the most fundamental, the most significant, the most impactful, the greatest truth of our hope, both at this moment and as our last moment nears.

St Paul says this clearly with these words:

[Now] if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. 14 And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. … 16 For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. 17 And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! 18 Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. … 20 But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive.

So to say “Christ is risen” is to proclaim your certainty that Our Lord’s resurrection from the dead makes a difference for you. To say “Christ is risen” is to declare that you live in the confidence that you shall not die but live. It is to be able to stand over a grave and say “This is the gate of the Lord through which the righteous shall enter.”

That is what it means when we say, “Christ is risen!” It is not just the celebration of an historical fact. Our Paschal greeting also means that those who die trusting in the Lord will also be raised to stand with the Lord in His heavenly kingdom, celebrating in eternity the Divine Liturgy that we celebrate here on earth.

We will make this eternal celebration in glorified bodies. And so that is also what “Christ is risen” means. It means that your body, the actual physical body that is inseparable from who you are, the body that God carefully fashioned and created—individually, uniquely, for you—that body is not to be despised or belittled or abused or mutilated. For it is both a gift, and a promise.

Your body is a gift because, even though it is truly yours, you had nothing to do with its shape, its size, its characteristics, its genetics, its background. All that you are, in your body, is a gift from God. So don’t denigrate it, and don’t try to make it something it is not, or something it was not given by God to be. Instead, receive, accept, and rejoice in this gift—and all the gifts—that God graciously gives.

More than that, remember that Our Lord decidedly and unequivocally has determined to knit our flesh to His divine nature. Without an constraint or necessity, He has become one of us. So that He might cleanse and scrub us clean from our brokenness, our ungodly passions, our perverse pleasures—everything that contributes to the death of body and that threatens our life in God. This is why Christ came in our flesh, why He was tempted, why He suffered, and why He died—to purge our bodies of their rottenness, to convert our suffering into a means for renovation, to make our death the way to fullness of life, and to restore in us His image.

Our Lord does this by taking our flesh into the grave, by burying the body He so lovingly made. Not to destroy it. Not to replace it. Not because it’s merely a shell. Heaven forbid!

For how can we think of being human without a body? How can you be you without being all that God made of you? And how can you truly be in God’s image if His image is merely a mirage or metaphor?

Because Christ Himself so honors your body by becoming flesh, because Christ Himself loves you in your body—with all its warts and charms, with all its disorderliness and promise—because Christ loves you with your body, and in your body—that is why Our Lord Jesus determined to sacrificed Himself on the cross and then rise from the dead.

He entered the grave with a body which suffered, and arose with a body incapable of suffering. He entered mortal, and arose immortal. He was buried in a body very much like yours, and came out with a glorious body. Not a complete different body, but the same body transformed.

So the same Jesus, in His flesh, who went into the tomb, is the same Jesus, in that exact same flesh, who rose from the dead.

And Our Lord retained His body in order to glorify your body. He retained His body not to annihilate, but to transform your body.

That is the great and wonderful promise that lies behind the words, “Christ is risen!” For, as I said before, the words “Christ is risen” are so much more than a joyful Easter greeting. Those words hold the promise of our resurrection.

But not simply our resurrection on the last day. Even more so, our resurrection now, today, here. For we kneel before altar trembling, blemished, perhaps even disfigured inside or out. Yet we arise glorified, renovated, refreshed, filled with hope. And why? Because we have received, not a reminder, not a figure, not a picture, but the actual flesh and blood of Our Resurrected Lord.

And with His glorified Body and Blood coursing through our veins, we now have the hope, the promise, and the truth of His resurrection in our bodies—not just for the future, but also for today.

Let us, therefore, rejoice with exceeding joy. For the resurrection of Jesus means that our bodies—the most unique and significant part of who we are, the very image of God Himself—all that makes you who you are is raised from the decay of sin, from the fear of hardship, from the distress of suffering, from the corruption of our passions, from the deterioration of your body. All of that is raised in Christ’s resurrection, so that we can stand unsullied, cleansed, purged, and restored before our heavenly Father; who, with His Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, throughout all ages or ages.

Christ is risen!

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Holy Week Explained

NOTE: This article is reprinted from “Holy Week in the Western Tradition” at The Orthodox West,
a new website explaining Orthodox life and practice according to the ancient Western tradition.

 

Holy Week in the Western Tradition: A Brief Synopsis

Holy Week consists of two parts: the first four days, beginning with Palm Sunday; and the Triduum Sacrum (“holy three days”), which celebrate with particular solemnity Our Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection.

During the first half, the words of St Thomas should fill our hearts and minds: “Let us also go, that we may die with Him.” (Jn 11.16) Through the liturgical rites, we follow Our Lord and, in heart and mind, follow Him by participating in His sufferings and death. Yet our focus is not to pity Our Lord, nor effect a somber mood. Rather, we participate by being immersed in His self-sacrifice, understanding that we must also put to death the deeds of the flesh, so that we might rejoice fully and full-throatedly as we are raised and glorified in Him.

During the second half of Holy Week, the Eucharistic liturgy, together with the Divine Offices (most especially the three Tenebrae services), draw us into more profound participation while, at the same time, inculcating in us the depth of joy that is located in Our Lord’s Passion. During these days, the words “Behold how He love[s] [them]” (Jn 11.36) should capture our meditations.

Briefly, these days may be summarized as follows.

Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday is the first day of Holy Week, when we remember Our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Immediately after Lauds, the blessing and distribution of the palms take place. Each person receives a palm, and the clergy lead the faithful in procession around the Church, while joyful chants are sung culminating in the hymn “All Glory, Laud and Honor.”

When the worshippers return, the Mass commences. During the Mass, the faithful hear the First of the Passion Narratives, from the Gospel according to St. Matthew. This Passion Narrative depicts Our Lord as the fulfillment of the promised King Messiah. “Christ our King, intercede for us!”

Holy Monday

At the Mass, we will hear of Our Lord’s preparation for burial by Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. While she anoints Him with fragrant oil, we also are reminded of Judas’ betrayal and, more sadly, his impending impenitence. May the Lord’s Spirit soften our hearts to be more like Mary!

Holy Tuesday

During the Mass, the Second of the Passion Narratives, from the Gospel according to St. Mark, is read. This Passion Narrative depicts Our Lord as the Suffering Servant, who willingly and freely bears the weakness, brokenness, and sin of all humanity. “Behold the Lamb of God! Behold Him who takes away the sin of the world!”

Holy Wednesday

During the Mass, the Third of the Passion Narratives, from the Gospel according to St. Luke, is read. This Passion Narrative depicts Our Lord as the merciful Physician who readily sacrifices Himself to heal our souls. Nowhere is this more poignantly presented than in the exchange between Christ and Dismas (the “good” thief on the cross). Lord, grant us this same mercy!

Following Vespers, the first of three Tenebrae services is prayed. Tenebrae is a service of prayer conducted in near-darkness. This service includes a candle ceremony, where candles are extinguished at the end of each psalm and the Benedictus. The central feature of this service is the mystical application of the Lamentations of Jeremiah to our participation in Our Lord’s Passion, and a glorious explanation of Psalm 54 (55) by St Augustine.

Holy Thursday

The Institution of the Mystical Supper is the focus for the Holy Thursday Mass. The Gloria in Excelsis is restored with joyful bells, and the Readings recall the events when Our Lord gathered with His disciples on the eve of His crucifixion. We hear that Our Lord loves us to the end, and calls us to love one another in the same way. In an interesting juxtaposition from Holy Monday’s Gospel, we see Our Lord washing the feet which will carry the Gospel throughout the world. “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring the Gospel of peace!” (In imitation of Our Lord sending His apostles, in both Eastern and Western Rite cathedrals the Bishop, as the icon of Christ surrounded by his disciples, enacts the mandatum by washing the feet of thirteen males.)

After all have received Holy Communion, the Blessed Sacrament is processed to the Altar of Repose where it remains for adoration until the Pre-sanctified Liturgy on Good Friday.

After Mass, toward the end of Vespers, the Altar is stripped while Our Lord’s prayer on the cross (Psalm 21 [22]) is solemnly chanted. Following Vespers, the second Tenebrae service is prayed. Once again, the Lamentations of Jeremiah are mystically applied to our participation in Our Lord’s Passion, and St Augustine instructs us on Psalm 63 (64).

Good Friday

Our Lord’s Death on the Cross is commemorated with the Solemn Liturgy for Good Friday. The service is moving in its starkness and consists of four parts: hearing the Lord’s Word, the Solemn Prayers for all persons, the Veneration of the Holy Cross with its “reproaches” (improperia), and the reception of Holy Communion from the Pre-Sanctified. During the first part, the faithful hear the fourth Passion Narrative from the Gospel according to St. John. This Passion Narrative depicts Our Lord ascending His throne in glory as the triumphant King, as the sign declares.

Following the Liturgy, the third Tenebrae service is prayed. The ceremony is nearly identical to the previous two Tenebrae services. After completing the Lamentations of Jeremiah, St Augustine reminds us of the significance of Our Lord’s two natures as they relate to His Passion.

Paschal Vigil

The Western rite knows two celebrations of Our Lord’s Resurrection. The first and most ancient is the Great Vigil which, in the first seven centuries, was kept throughout the night and climaxed with the celebration of Holy Communion at dawn on Easter Day. In the past 13 centuries, the Great Vigil has been assigned, in both Eastern and Western churches, to Holy Saturday afternoon or morning. (In recent decades, not a few Western churches have begun celebrating the Paschal Vigil later in the afternoon or evening, while also retaining the Easter Sunday Mass.)

During the Paschal Vigil, worshippers gather quietly in the entrance for the blessing of fire. Then the Deacon leads the faithful into the Nave. While the worshippers are taking their places, the ancient Easter hymn of praise (Praeconium) is sung and the candles of the faithful and throughout the church are lit. Following this candlelight ceremony, Old Testament prophecies are read. This Service of Readings is followed by the blessing of the Baptismal font. The Litany of the Saints leads the faithful to a joy-filled celebration of Holy Mass. The service concludes with an abbreviated form of Vespers.

 

Easter Sunday

The Resurrexi Mass (“Mass of the Resurrection”) is the chief celebration of Our Lord’s Resurrection. It commences with the blessing of the faithful with the holy water that was blessed at the Great Vigil. Then the Mass proceeds, with the Gloria in Excelsis sung once more with great joy! While the usual order of the Divine Liturgy is maintained, it is augmented with the acclamation of “alleluia” numerous times, and with the beautiful Easter sequence (Victimae paschali laudes) as well as many familiar Easter Scripture readings and hymns. In addition, flowers once more decorate our altars, and joy pervades our hearts and minds as we proclaim, “Christ is risen: He is risen indeed, alleluia!”

 

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Lent: Dying to Self

Lent is a kind of retreat from the world. Just as Our Lord, after His baptism, retreated from the world for forty days to immerse Himself in fasting and prayer, so we follow His example.

Yet our retreat is not to fight our own battles, just as Our Lord’s retreat was not to fight His own battle. Our Lord retreated in order to enter into our fray; and we retreat in order to participate in His passion. He strove against Satan so that, on the cross, He might overcome him and win for us the victory. We wrestle and strive “against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” so that we might not lose the blood-bought victory, and might attain the crown.

This retreat, then, ought not be seen as a means of winning what we do not have, but as a means of not losing what we’ve already been given; and also as a means of growing in what we already have.

Dying to ourselves so that we might live to God in Christ is the purpose of this holy quarantine. The question the devil continually put to Christ is little different from the question the accuser asks us. To Our Lord he said, “Are you truly the Son of God?” To us the devil asks, “Are you truly a child of God?”

As the accuser, Satan produces evidence of which we are all too familiar—evidence from our past, evidence from our desires and passions, evidence that may even lurk deeply within us. This evidence the devil throws against us in order to cause us to question our status as children of God.

Because this evidence comes to mind especially when we fast, we need to be more reliant upon the grace of the absolution of God. Frequency in the Sacrament of Penance, then, is necessary during the Lenten fast.

Yet we must not also lose sight of the devil’s desire. With Christ, the devil desired that He not re-enter the world as the Savior and Messiah. With us, the devil desires that we not re-enter the world as children of God. His goal is to beat us down so that we question both Our Lord’s love for us and our desire to live for Him, and thereby give in to our passions by thinking that we can put off holiness for another moment or day.

So during this Lenten fast, let us be clear-minded by recalling (a) that Our Lord was tempted in all points as we are so that He might overcome our adversary; and (b) that we retreat not to avoid re-entry but so that we might increase in holiness.

To increase in holiness means that we decrease in self-reliance while increasing in our dependence upon grace.

Decreasing in self-reliance is the death of self that fasting seeks to instill in us. No longer do we live to gratify our flesh; now we live to love God by gratifying whatever another desires. Our hold, then, on the things of this world must loosen, as Christ teaches us so plainly in His great sermon (cf Luke 6.27-36).

Likewise, our fear of missing out—which so often drives the “need” to feed our passions by the feeling that we need to experience all that “life” offers—also must die. Fasting, when properly practiced, teaches both our body and our soul this self-mortification.

As we put to death the desires of the flesh, we will see, through prayer that the desires of the spirit will enhance our life and thereby increase our joy. A greater detachment from the empty pleasures this world offers will lead us to be more generous both in our almsgiving to others as well as in our time to God in worship and prayer.

Let this Lenten fast, then, be the occasion and means for leaning less upon our desires and more upon God’s unending grace. Let it purify our souls as we seek to cleanse our bodies.

Above all else, let this holy season by a time when we immerse ourselves more and more in the faith and love which the Spirit has so generously poured upon us so that we might truly seek and find our happiness and treasures not in the pleasures of this world but in the unfading riches of the life of the world to come.

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Lenten Retreat on March 10

The Rt. Rev. John Abdalah, Bishop of the Diocese of Worcester and the Western Rite Vicariate, will present the annual Lenten Retreat at St Michael’s Church on March 10. His Grace’s three meditations on “Being Right with God” will draw attention to the Sacrament of Penance (Private Confession).

This retreat, hosted by the parish’s Society of St Benedict, will follow the Benedictine model of a “silent retreat.” Therefore, there will be ample quiet time for personal prayer, reflection, and meditation.

This event is intended to provide a break from the busyness of this world, to offer time to learn how to live the season of Lent, and to refresh and prepare the soul for the Lenten journey.

The retreat begins at 9 a.m. with prayer according to the rule of St Benedict, and concludes at 3 p.m. Lunch will be provided, and a free will donation is appreciated. Child care, unfortunately, will not be available.

For more information or to RSVP, please call or email the St Michael parish office.

St Michael Orthodox Church is located at 3333 Workman Mill Road, across the street from Rio Hondo College.

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Oh, How Blest Are Ye: All Souls Day

Let us consider this possible conversation between ourselves and the Faithful Departed, whom we commemorate this day.

 

 

 

 

 

We might say:

Oh, how blest are ye
whose toils are ended,
Who through death have unto God ascended!
Ye have arisen
From the cares which keep us still in prison.

And the Faithful Departed would respond:

Truly, we to glory have arisen
From all cares that held us in a prison,
Earthly toil ended,
We unto our God are now ascended.

We are still as in a dungeon living,
Still oppressed with sorrow and misgiving;
Our undertakings
Are but toils and troubles and heart-breakings.

We no more as in a dungeon wander;
God has taken us to Heaven yonder.
Tears and frustrations
Are the sum of earthly expectation.

Ye meanwhile are in your chambers sleeping,
Quiet, and set free from all our weeping;
No cross or sadness
There can hinder your untroubled gladness.

Oh, our destiny, how blest! How wond’rous
To be free from earthly pain so pond’rous!
Naught but rejoicing
Fills us now, our thanks and praises voicing.

Christ has wiped away your tears forever;
Ye have that for which we still endeavor;
To you are chanted
Songs that ne’er to mortal ears were granted.

Ah, what words, what language might we borrow
To describe our freedom from all sorrow!
Naught else but singing
Of the Angels in our ears is ringing!

Ah, who would, then, not depart with gladness
To inherit heaven for earthly sadness?
Who here would languish
Longer in bewailing and in anguish?

In the world man’s heart is torn with anguish,
Constantly his soul in pain must languish;
But Jesus’ merit,
Death a door has made, Life to inherit.

Come, O Christ, and loose the chains that bind us:
Lead us forth and cast this world behind us.
With Thee, th’ Anointed,
Finds the soul its joy and rest appointed.

Dearest friends, we say farewell with gladness;
May our death not cause you grief and sadness.
By Christ invited,
Someday we again shall be united!

 

Author: Simon Dach, 1635
Translated by: Henry W. Longfellow & Kenneth E. Runge

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Great is Your Reward: All Saints Day

Today we commemorate the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ lived in and through the nameless and numberless throng that laid down their life for Christ’s sake. Many were violently executed; some were tortured and died in prison. Many died in the great persecutions in Rome or Russia; some were killed secretly. Some saw the faces of their tormenters; some never knew they were headed for death until the sword or the bullet or the bomb struck. However, in every case these Christian martyrs did not die needlessly. For the Lord mingled their blood with His own in the cup of salvation so that He might fertilize and strengthen the faithful in all times and places.

And now we celebrate, as we do each year, the reward that the Lord has given them. I call it a reward not because they sought it, but because they had to struggle and endure privation before it was given to them. And I call it a reward not because it they were competing to get it, but because it is the prize that is given to all those who endure to the end. For surely you have heard that “He who endures to the end shall be saved” (Mt 10.22; 24.13; Mk 13.13). And so they endured—not by their own strength but by the mercy of God. And so they are saved—not because they exceeded us in natural ability and courage, but because the Spirit of our God gave them the words to speak, and the strength to persevere, and the faith to look beyond their affliction and pain, to the life in the Lord God who lives for them and with them and in them.

So now the souls of these unnamed righteous heroes are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. For though in the sight of men they were punished, their hope is full of immortality. Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them. (Wisdom of Solomon 3.1-6)

But our duty today is not simply to remember, or to celebrate, or to congratulate anonymous martyrs with the hope that we might live up to their example. For who wishes their death to be our death? And surely heaven is not gained only by those who suffer bodily violence.

Rather, our duty is to understand two things. First, that the death of the martyrs clearly shows that Our Lord will see us through anything—even the worst—that we will ever endure. And second, that like them we will certainly endure afflictions of soul, if not also body; and torments of the mind, if not of the flesh; and the onslaught of the invisible devil and demons, if not visible torturers and executioners. For it is most certainly true that all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution (2 Tim 3.12).

Yet this happens not because Our Lord afflicts us in this life so that we might better appreciate the life of the world to come; and not because we are being punished now to see if we are worthy of the prize of heaven. Rather, we suffer and are persecuted and endure hardship because we have been baptized in the blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and His blood by His Supper still nourishes us, body and soul. That blood is our salvation. But that blood also reminds us that our life and communion in Him participates not only in His victory, but also in His death; not only in His joy, but also in His suffering. For we know that since we partake of His sufferings, we will also share in His consolation. (2 Cor 1.17)

The Lord Jesus Himself testifies of this when He says,

“If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also. But all these things they will do to you for My name’s sake, because they do not know Him who sent Me.” (Jn 15.18-21)

The One who sent the Lord is the Father. And He sent Him to bless us. That blessing comes through the death of Our Lord, and then also the drowning and death of our sinful self. And that blessing raises us to newness of life, just as Our Lord Jesus was raised from the dead by the glory of His Father. (Rom 6.4)

Yet in this life, we are constantly being put to death. And in this life, we are continually hounded by the devil who throws our past against us; and by the world which urges us to live as if God doesn’t matter; and by our flesh which so easily succumbs, and then also attacks us with all manner of sickness and pain.

Yet what does Our Lord say to all this? “Blessed are you.” Blessed are you not because you have the innate strength and nerve to get through, but because you’re wrapped in the Lord Jesus who knows the way and is your escape. And blessed are you not because you can do it, but because the Lord Jesus has both done it for you and now lives it in you. And blessed are you not because you’ve chosen the right path and are on your way, but because the Lord Himself is your Way, your Truth, your Life, and—in the end—your Resurrection. And so blessed are you not because you’ll make it if you just hang in there, but because the Lord has already made it, so you—enveloped in Him by the Spirit—have nothing to fear.

So rejoice and be exceedingly glad. For your heavenly reward is great, and far exceeds both your present cross and your imagined expectations.

So arm yourselves also with the same mind as Christ, who suffered for us in the flesh. For he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, that he no longer should live the rest of his time in the flesh for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. (1 Peter 4.1-2)

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Return to Being Little Children

Where I grew up, it was customary to place in children’s bedrooms near the bed a precious picture of an angel watching two little ones cross a precarious bridge over a seething water fall during a nighttime storm. I had one of those pictures hanging in my bedroom. The point of this picture was as clear as it is comforting: Guardian Angels protect each of us when we are in danger. And that is the truth. Angels are bodiless spirits who serve God by serving us. And that truth is made plain in today’s Gospel, when Jesus indicates that we should not despise little children because their Angels will protect them.

The problem with the picture that hung in my own bedroom is not the truth it proclaims, but how we adults might now read that picture. We’re tempted to see angels as good and comforting, but also as childish. They’re for children. To protect them and watch over them. But as we grow older, wiser, more mature, more self-sufficient, we believe we don’t need God’s security force as much. We think angels are only for those hard spots we can’t anticipate, or can’t get out of.

And perhaps that’s how we hear today’s Gospel, and how we see today’s feast, and how we look at St Michael. He’s good—especially for children. He’s helpful—especially back then, when he took on the devil. And he’s handy—when things get out of hand. But he doesn’t really have a day-to-day connection with us, except as a symbol of God’s protection.

If we think of it that way, we miss the impact of Our Lord’s words. And that point is very direct: It’s not that children need angels. It’s that we must return to being little children. Children of God, who look to God with the same unquestioned trust, the same intense reliance, the same undaunted conviction, the same unhesitating confidence, the same loving dependence that every little child has when it looks at its mother or father.

We must return to being little children. For little “children follow their father, love their mother, don’t know how to wish evil to their neighbors, do not care about earthly riches; they insult not, they hate not, they lie not, they believe what they are told, and take for truth what they hear” (St Hilary). And “unless we return to the innocency of childhood with the simple directness of little children, we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” (St Hilary)

What faith really looks like. That is what we see in little children. What trust really is. That’s the gift given by those simple-hearted, who lead with the heart more than with the mind. What we see in them is what we are called to be. For “when we are well rooted in childlike simplicity of heart, we shall bear in ourselves an image of the sublime simpleness of the Lord Jesus.” (St Hilary)

Yet it is not just children or the child-like who show us the faith we ought really to have. We see this also in angels. They show us what true faith looks like. And, in fact, that is their greatest strength, and why they are given by God to minister to us.

For angels are sent by God, not to protect us with a mighty hand, not to impress us with their ability to keep us safe and ward off Satan. Angels serve us by demonstrating that true faith releases our inner strength. That complete reliance frees us to be better. That unquestioned dependence on God revives in us the image of God we are designed to illustrate.

Think back to how we lost—and how we still lose so often—our image and likeness. It is by choosing to go our own way. To act as if we know better. And to prefer to gratify our own desires, to identify ourselves by our weaknesses, to indulge our passions, to claim and assert our independence. That desire to be like God, to exchange His likeness for what we like—that ran us aground, and into the ground.

How do we arise from our dust and ashes? How do we get back to what we were, to who we are supposed to be? Look at the angels. And look especially at our patron, the holy Archangel Michael.

When there was silence in heaven,
When the demonic devil waged war against God and against us,
Michael fought against Satan and his demons
Not by looking into himself for strength,
But by not loving his life,
By freely giving up his freedom,
By choosing to sacrifice his will, his desires, his ambitions.

And then was heard this loud voice in heaven: “Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ.”

Because Michael and his angels became as little children, who are single-hearted, single-minded, in who they trust, and what they will do for those they love. And what little children will do is readily and quickly give over their most precious items in order to please mother or father, or whoever they trust and love.

And that’s why angels have such an affinity for children. Not because they are vulnerable. Not because they are innocent or simple-minded. But because, in children, angels always behold the face of their heavenly Father.

The goal, then, is to be transformed back into children; to become as little children who set our hearts on nothing more than being near and seeing face to face the holy angels in our Father’s kingdom.

By the prayers of our patron, holy Michael the Archangel, may we not lose our way but return to being children in faith, so that he might, one day, safely escort us into paradise.

Homily for the Patronal Feast of St Michael’s Church
1 October 2017

 

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Easter Homily: Something Strange is Happening

Cristo ha resucitado!
Hristos a înviat!
Kristus är uppstånden!
Hristos Voskrese!
Χριστὸς ἀνέστη!
al-Masīḥ qām!
Christus resurrexit!
Christ is risen!

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, one God.

Something strange is happening. But do we have ears to hear this news? Do we have eyes to see this event?

Most unfortunately, most regrettably, most sadly, our eyes and ears focus on what we think really matters—the sights that please us, the music that recalls pleasant memories.

But these sights and sounds fade. And we know that, because we try to freeze them in recordings. But most of all, these sights and sounds don’t deeply satisfy. They only provide momentary distractions. They only make us think we are happier. The sights and sounds we think are so good, so helpful, so pleasing—they are like an over-strong perfume that doesn’t really hide the stench of our dismal and decaying world.

But something strange is happening. Something that is so much better than what we say is good. Something that soaks deeply into marrow of our hearts. Something that doesn’t distract, or cover-over, or give fleeting pleasure. Something whose aroma fills our souls, whose taste truly satisfies and fulfills.

Something strange is happening. And that something requires us to believe that what we say is so important, is really nothing. That what we firmly believe is necessary, actually is not. That what we will give all we can to have, truly is worthless.

What is this strange happening? It is the transformation of our life. A transformation that makes all the difference, but that we too often refuse. Because we haven’t sought it out. We haven’t chosen it. And so we think this transformation is useless.

In fact, this transformation intensely frightens us. For it begins with quaking. A shifting of the ground beneath our feet. The toppling of all the facades we have built. A destruction of the waste-filled life that we have constructed.

This transformation is so deep that it begins, not on earth, but in Hades. In the grave. The first grave; and the last grave. Every grave we’ve stood over; and every grave that we’ve ever visited. And, most importantly, in the grave that we’ll be planted in.

This strange thing is so hard for teary eyes to see, so hard for crying mouths to hear, so hard for grieving hearts to imagine, that we are convinced it cannot be. We are certain it did not happen. Or if it happened, that was then and this is now. And so it’s like a fairy tale, or the good fortune that rains down on everyone else.

Yet what happened then truly happens now. Even if we don’t see it. Even if we won’t believe it.

And what happens now, happens not in the cemetery. Not in those graves. But first and foremost, in the watery grave we were plunged into. For then, our dying self was put to death. And in that baptismal grave, we were given the ability to live—to truly live—beyond death and the grave. And the Spirit of life was again breathed into us. And living bread was placed in our mouths, to give us the strength through this life and the grave and into the life to come.

This mystical, sacramental, grace-filled grave planted in our souls the hope, the desire, the longing, that there is more. That there is a world without end.

In that watery, baptismal grave, our life is transformed. Because in that grave, death decays. In that grave, the Grim Reaper loses his grip. Because, in that grave, death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them; and the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell were cast into the lake of fire.

This transformation of our life—this strange happening—this is what terrifies us. Partly because we do not understand it. But mostly because it requires us to see clearly that our life is not what we think it is.

We think our life is about living. About getting all we can out of life. About experiencing all life offers. About not missing out on the places, the sights, the events, the chances. About getting it all in before we die.

But this strange happening proclaims, clearly and forthrightly, that life is not truly lived until we have died. Not later, after we’ve done our thing. But now.

Dying now means living for later. Living not for this life, but for the life of the world to come. Living as if now doesn’t matter, and as if later matters most. And living now as a prelude to living later.

When that mind is in you, then something strange is happening. In you. In the depth of your being. In how you see and hear. In what you think it important. And in what you value. For then you live not as if each day is your last, but as if each day is a rehearsal for how you will live everlastingly.

So, truly, something strange is happening. With the resurrection of Christ, we are being raised—our hearts are being uplifted, our eyes are looking heavenward, and our minds are set on everlasting gifts. With the resurrection of Christ, we can now see life as it truly is—a life headed for the grave, but with the confidence that the grave is not the end. And with the resurrection of Christ, we no longer need to fear that we’ll miss out. Rather, we have the courage to prepare, with all our being, for being awakened to an abundance that exceeds our desires with Our Lord in His heavenly kingdom; to whom, by the prayers of the saints, belongs all glory, honor, and worship; now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.

Cristo ha resucitado!
Hristos a înviat!
Kristus är uppstånden!
Hristos Voskrese!
Χριστὸς ἀνέστη!
al-Masīḥ qām!
Christus resurrexit!
Christ is risen!

 

16 April 2017
V. Rev. John W. Fenton
St Michael Orthodox Christian Church, Whittier

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