Making Use of Lent

However hard this past year has been, it has been necessary for our health and the health of others. We have sacrificed much: our movements, our usual interactions, our normal routine, and sometimes even those healthy release valves (groups, therapists, gyms, etc.). As a parish, we’ve done all we can to adapt, and you are to be commended for your patience, understanding and care. Additionally, I’ve seen several instances of individual best practices and person-to-person compassion—all of which is laudatory.

If we’re honest—myself included—some­times our worst self has bled through: by giving into fears or anxieties, by being less civil and well-mannered, by thinking the worst of others or leaders, and by letting our convenience overtake concern for others.

When we see these latter thoughts and behaviors arise in us, we should (again, in honest self-reflection) ask how well we’ve maintained our spiritual health. For example, have we spent more time complaining than praying; more time searching for stories that confirm our conclusions than searching the Scriptures; more time distrusting others than building up our faith in God; and more time sinking into ourselves than strengthening our relationship with Our Father.

For myself, it has been easier not to ‘redeem the time.’ Perhaps for you, like for me, it has been easy not to be more diligent and earnest in prayer; or not to using extra time to read the Scriptures or other spiritual treasures. Instead, it’s been too easy to set aside prayers entirely or pray only minimally, because it’s hard to focus or because something else seems more interesting.

Lent is the time when our prayers can transform how we speak; when our fasting can increase hunger for Our Lord; when our meditation on His sacrifice and mercy can grow a desire to be merciful to others.

When this happens (even apart from pandemics), we develop spiritually unhealthy habits: griping and judging, fearfulness and despondency, apathy and indifference, meanness and pride, overindulgence and licentiousness. I don’t wish to suggest that these unhealthy habits are primary, or that they overrule the well-doing that I’ve seen. However, times of stress certainly requires us to be more on guard, and helps us focus on behaviors we might have missed or dismissed as unusual.

Lent is the time to work on developing healthy habits. It is time when our prayers can transform how we speak; when our fasting can increase hunger for Our Lord; when our meditation on His sacrifice and mercy can grow a desire to be merciful to others.

In brief, Lent gives us the opportunity to ‘redeem the time’ (Eph 5.16) by encouraging us to draw closer to Our Lord, and to focus on what matters most. In this way, Lent is a great gift—as perhaps this pandemic has been or can still be.

There is no greater time to make use of this gift of Lent than now, as we begin to see the relaxation of some of the previous restrictions. Immediately, our thoughts will turn to getting back to “normal.” But is the old normal something we really want? Wouldn’t it be better to use this Lent (and the lessons from the pandemic) to establish a spiritual ‘new normal’?

Lent generally—and this Lent in particular—gives us time to stretch our spiritual muscles; to cultivate the garden of our souls; and to strengthen our hope. It gives us time to pick up our prayers, and to establish spiritual best practices, to set in place a routine that strengthens our spiritual well-being.

In brief, if we let it, this Lent can help us do what St Paul urges: ‘redeem the time.’

To do that, we need more than resolutions and promises. We need to look carefully at the gifts Our Lord has given us—even in these hard days. We need to take to heart the gift of His Body—both in the Sacrament and in the Church; His Body gathered as well as His Body sacrificed and distributed.

There we will see, I’m convinced, the hope that has truly sustained us, the life that has truly nourished us, even when we devalued it or cast is aside. For the Lord’s Body contains within itself all sweetness, all goodness, and all generosity. That we have made it through these days, then, means that He has seen us through. That our worst fears have not occurred means that Christ, in His Body, has protected and guarded us. And that we will be able to embrace each other means that His embrace has not failed us.

So let’s neither look back with regret for how we should have used the time better; nor forward in a fantasy of what one day we might do. Let’s instead live for now, focused on Our Lord’s presence in the present. And in doing so, let’s return with hearts full of gratitude, and with the desire to be as diligent about our spiritual health as we’ve been about keeping physically safe.

May God be gracious and merciful to us all.

-Fr John

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Jesus in the Wilderness

A Homily for the First Sunday in Lent
Matthew 4.1-11

Jesus goes into the wilderness looking for Adam. For the wilderness is where the Lord God sent Adam and Eve. In fact, the Lord God drove the man out of the garden into the wilderness. And so, it fits that St Mark says that the Spirit likewise drives Jesus into the wilderness.

Into the desert, then, goes our Savior. To face our demons. To live with our disordered loves and desires. To confront our pride and our need to control. To starve our shameless, wanton, and unrestrained appetites.

Jesus is not virtue signaling when He goes into the wilderness. Neither is He play-acting or going through the motions. Christ is truly tempted. He actually fasts and gets hungry. He really prays for assistance. Psalm 91—that long chant you just heard, pleading that God be our defense, that the angels minister to us, that God needs to be trusted, and that He is our only Hope and Deliverance—that prayer first forms on Jesus’ lips, flows out of His Sacred Heart, and sounds from His parched throat long before we repeat it.

The Lord’s temptation is very real, but He is not doing this for His sake. Although He truly suffers, Jesus is not processing His own fears or doubts. After all, Our Lord Jesus is the beloved Son, upon whom the Spirit alights and in whom the Father is well-pleased. And with that baptism—as with every baptism—the Spirit affirms the Father’s love and strengthens His limitless grace.

So, Jesus is in the wilderness, not to show what He can do, but to gain us. To reclaim us. To begin the work of th­e transfiguration of our bodies, and the renovation of our souls, and the reconfiguration of our life in God. So that we can also live as the beloved sons of God, upon whom the Spirit alights and in whom the Father is equally well-pleased.

When Jesus goes into the wilderness, then, He is searching for Adam. And for us. Like the Good Shepherd searching for the lost sheep. For you’ve both heard and known deep down that “all we like sheep have gone astray, everyone to his own way.”

Adam lost his way by eating, by giving into what he thought was good and pleasing and a smart move. Christ Jesus fasts in the wilderness so that he might regain by fasting what Adam lost by eating; so that He might not simply show what restraint looks like, but by His restraint and victory over Satan, actually win back Adam—and us.

Our Lord does this willingly. Even though the Spirit drives and leads Jesus into the wilderness, the Son of God does not resist. He aligns His will with the Father’s will—even to His demise. So, Christ chooses to fast. He chooses to be tempted.

[Our Lord] made us one with him when he chose to be tempted by Satan. Certainly, Christ was tempted by the devil. But in Christ, you were also tempted. For Christ received his flesh from your nature, but by his own power gained salvation for you; he suffered death in your nature, but by his own power gained glory for you; therefore, he suffered temptation in your nature, but by his own power gained victory for you. If in Christ we have been tempted, then in Him we overcome the devil. Do you think only of Christ’s temptations and fail to think of his victory? See yourself as tempted in Him, and see yourself as victorious in Him. (St Augustine)

Our Lord could have easily avoided the devil, or swatted him away like the vexing dung-fly that he is, or even destroyed him with a word, a look, a thought. But then, where would be your victory? And how would that benefit you?

Instead, Christ goes into the wilderness. And not just that arid place beyond the Jordan River, where thirst threatens, and death is close. Christ enters the desert of our souls. For our very body is, in a sense, a desert when we pine for any food, but do not hunger and thirst for righteousness; when we overindulge, without caring about those who have little or nothing; when we make sure that we get ours, even at the expense of someone else.

Christ enters the desert of our body and, if we let Him—if we don’t fight back with self-gratification, but if we instead join in by following Our Lord in self-denial—then Our Lord overcomes in us all the devices and willfulness of our own demons. And then we can be settled and calmed since Our Lord can cleanse our heart, purify our mind, and make our very being a suitable temple and tabernacle for God.

That is the victory Christ gains. That is our hope. And because of His triumph over Satan, we no longer need, each day, to give into our desires afraid that, somehow, we’re missing out. Neither need we be anxious about what we shall eat or wear, or how we shall live. As we fast, Christ gains our victory by His fasting. As we deny ourselves, He defeats our devils. As we align our wills with His, He hands over to us the fullness of His victory—the victory He first won by a battle of wits and words, and then by His death and resurrection.

Our hope, then, is that we begin to see heaven within ourselves; that is to say, that we think nothing of our desires, and look beyond our inner struggles and heartaches, and see only that the Lord of the heavenly Kingdom is also the author of our earthly resurrection—because He located and embraced and loved us back to Him when He entered the wilderness for us.

To this Lord Jesus Christ, our hope, our life, our victory, and our salvation, belongs all glory, honor, and worship: world without end.

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The Ashes

An Ash Wednesday Homily

The ashes which I have applied to your foreheads are not a sacrament. They are a sacramental. Sacramentals are sacred signs that resemble the sacraments and point us toward the mystery of God’s love, mercy, and grace.

As an example, holy water points to Holy Baptism, and is a constant remembrance that “we are buried with [Christ Jesus] by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.”

The ashes also are remind us both of Christ’s death, and our burial into His death. They point us to the grace of Our Lord that lets us live now, in the midst of death; and then also later, after we are buried.

Above all else, the ashes remind us of our mortality. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

What a grim way to begin the holy season of Lent—with a mark on our foreheads that says we will die; that our bodies will become ashes to ashes and dust to dust.

Why not begin with something hopeful, something more upbeat, something that points us not to the grave, but to the kingdom of heaven?

Because the only pathway to heaven, the only way of escape, is through the grave. In the Lord’s time, and in the manner He determines.

That is our way of salvation. Not the path we have chosen, but the one Our Lord has designated. In fact, the path He Himself blazed. For you know that Our Lord Jesus did not randomly go to the cross; and that His journey was not willy-nilly, determined by fate or circumstances. Rather, in all things pertaining to our salvation, Our Lord was in full control. With His Father in the Spirit, Jesus deliberately chose to defeat death and the devil, and restore our life by His passion, suffering and death.

Take to heart Our Lord’s own words: “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.”

When Our Lord says, “Follow me,” He bids us to walk in the way He walked. To move into full and abundant life by going through suffering and death. As St Paul reminds his protégé, “All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.”

The ashes are a sign of Our Lord’s path.

The ashes are also placed on our foreheads at the beginning of Lent to declare that putting to death the deeds of the flesh is how this way of salvation looks.

We are to rend our hearts, and not our garments. Which means, we are to practice contrition, amendment of life, and true repentance not just with our lips, but with all that we are and all that we have. Self-denial is to be the way we live every day. Tending to others before ourselves; not living it up; focusing not on bodily comforts, but on spiritual things; and living, in all ways, as Christ did—humbly, mercifully, soberly: that is how we walk with Our Lord, how we follow Him from the grave into His heavenly kingdom.

That path is not a path of self-indulgence, forgetting Our Lord, and ignoring those whom He loves. That path begins by disciplining our intake, disciplining our time for prayer, and disciplining our spending so we can help more and more. Then we not conforming ourselves to this world, but are being transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.

The ashes are a visible mark that point to the grace of life that grows in us the more we put to death the urge to gratify and please and feed our own appetites. And the ashes help us see that this world and its promises are empty. Therefore, we should zero in on our true treasure. For you heard Jesus say that we should not lay up treasures on earth, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

The three disciplines of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving—those three disciplines that we begin today; that we will strive to maintain throughout these next forty days—these disciplines should mark how our life is lived from this point forward, every day that we draw breath. Fasting, prayer, and almsgiving should mark who we are, just as surely as the ashes mark our foreheads. And as we chafe under those three disciplines, let them remind us that life in Christ intensifies the more we deny ourselves.

The remembrance of death in the ashes points to the treasure of our life in Christ. In the same way, the practice of self-denial points our hearts and minds, our bodies and souls forward to the joys that exceed this life’s promises.

May Our Lord, by His grace, strengthen us during this holy Lent to live a life of repentance from this day forward, pressing forward in the pathway through life that He has set for us. To whom, with His Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, belongs all glory, honor, and worship: world without end.

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Holy Hour

Every Saturday in Lent we will have a Holy Hour beginning at 4:00 p.m. followed by Vespers and Benediction at 5:00 p.m. Holy Hour is a time of meditation and prayer in silence before the Blessed Sacrament.

Additionally during Lent, Private Confession will be available from 4-5 on Saturdays.

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Lent 2021

THE LENTEN COMMITMENT

Life is short. There are only so many Lents. And while we all begin with good intentions, too often we reach the end of Lent regretting that we have squandered yet another opportunity to grow in our life in God. Perhaps this year can be different. Perhaps this year we will resolve not to settle for the status quo in our spiritual life, nor coast in our Christianity.

The most amazing and wonderful thing in the world is that God has made Himself totally accessible in Jesus Christ. We can go to Him, call upon Him, be with Him. May God help us, this Lent, to be deliberate and conscientious; to awake and arise each day with the purpose to keep this Lent in spirit as well as letter.

This Year’s Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, March 17 and concludes on Holy Saturday, May 1. This holy season prepares us for Easter in three segments: a time of instruction in the Christian Faith (March 17-April 17), a time of pondering Our Lord’s Passion (April 18-28), and a time of immersing ourselves in the mystery of our salvation during the triduum sacrum (“holy three days”) of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter (April 29-May 2).

THE THREE DISCIPLINES OF LENT

Lent involves the practice of three disciplines as a preparation for the newness of life which we celebrate with much joy at Easter. For during this great Feast, we both commemorate the Resurrection of Our Lord, and also celebrate the spiritual resurrection of our lives from dead works to serve the living God.

To set ourselves in the right path toward Easter, the Church uses Our Lord’s own words which establish three life-long disciplines. These three disciplines revolve around

♦   Increased prayer (public and private) (Mt 6.1-3)

♦   Unostentatious self-denial (Mt 6.16-20)

♦   Sacrificial giving (charitable donations) (Mt 6.4-15)

All three Lenten disciplines form a unit in order to aid us in our observance of Our Lord’s Passion, Death and Resurrection.

INCREASED PRAYER

Both private & public prayer should be augmented and increased as part of our Lenten commitment. At St Michael’s, ample opportunities are given to cultivate the virtue of public prayer which, in turn, leads to enhanced private devotion.

The Mass (Divine Liturgy) is celebrated daily at 9 a.m. during Lent. Each day has its own unique theme which unfolds in the prayers, Scripture readings, chants, and meditations. Each day leads us to see the several aspects of Our Lord’s passionate grace.

Vespers & Rosary are also prayed in community every Wednesday at 7 p.m., and the Stations of the Cross with Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament will be offered every Friday at 7 p.m. On Saturdays, Holy Hour will be available at 4 p.m. for adoring and meditating before the Blessed Sacrament displayed on the altar. This will be followed at 5 p.m. by Saturday Vespers & Benediction. During Holy Hour, Private Confession will also be available. You may also join us on Tuesdays @ 8:30 p.m. for Rosary via Zoom.

In the home, increased private prayers and devotions should also be cultivated during this Season. These prayers and devotions should begin and be formed by the Psalms and readings from the Bible. This year parishioners are especially encouraged to spend each day in Lent reading a portion from the Gospel according to St Luke.

FASTING & ABSTENTION

In Scriptures and the Church, fasting is a communal habit. The purpose of the fast is to bring to our mind, each day, Our Lord’s sacrifice, to aid our compassion for others, and to set our minds on spiritual things (Rom. 8.5). Fasting also allows the entire body to participate in the penitence characteristic of this Holy Season.

As a community, on Mondays through Saturdays we abstain from all meat and meat products (except fish); and we fast by limiting the amount of food we eat to one full meal each day and refraining from all snacks. (A smaller meal of soup or salad may also be consumed at another time during the day.)

The Orthodox Lenten Fast does not offer suggestions on what to “give up.” Rather, it prescribes the common rule the faithful are to follow as they fast together. Individuals may choose to “give up” additional items during Lent (e.g., alcohol or screen time), but such choices should not replace the Lenten fast. Likewise, those who (for medical or other legitimate reasons) find it difficult to observe the Lenten Fast should first speak with their spiritual father concerning modifications in order to keep the spirit of the Fast.

More important than the type and amount of food is abstaining from anger, strife, envy, and the other deadly sins so that we might cultivate the godly virtues of humility, charity, chastity, temperance, patience, kindness, and diligence.

ALMSGIVING

Increased charitable donations should also be attempted during Lent, in addition to the regular tithe or pledge. These alms can come from the money saved by eating less during Lent or by decreasing personal spending. By giving to those in need, we remind ourselves that Our Lord’s love knows no economic boundaries.

You may also wish to designate a particular local charity for additional funds. Such charities may include the local FOCUS North America chapter, the IOCC, the OCMC, the Obria Medical Clinic, the Archdiocese Food for Hungry People campaign, or any number of homeless shelters. Donations of foodstuffs are accepted at the church, and opportunities in distributing assistance are frequently advertised.

LAUDABLE LENTEN CUSTOMS

Christians during Lent put the remembrance of Our Lord’s Passion above all other pursuits. For this reason, Lent is a closed season of the Church Year. This means that the solemnities of this season should not be disturbed by wedding celebrations, parties, or other activities that would encourage us away from the three Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting and charitable giving.

The Liturgy itself during Holy Lent expresses the seasons’ penitential character. The Gloria in excelsis, the Alleluia, bells, and extra organ music are omitted. Somber violet covers both Altar and Celebrant, lightened on only two occasions: Laetare Sunday, with rose as the proper color; and Holy Thursday, when white is used for the Mass of the Institution of Our Lord’s Supper. 

Passion Sunday falls on April 18 this year. At this time, the Lenten observance is heightened in anticipation of the greater nearness of the celebration of Our Lord’s Death. Passion Sunday is when violet veils are placed over crucifixes, icons and statutes in church and home.

HOLY WEEK

The dramatic services of Holy Week bring Lent to its fitting climax. Mass will be celebrated each day of Holy Week, climaxing with the triduum sacrum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Pascha.

On Maundy Thursday evening (April 29) in a most splendid and dignified Sung Mass, the Institution of the Most Blessed Sacrament will be celebrated. This Mass concludes with the solemn Procession and the Stripping of the Altar. Every communicant should make every effort to receive Holy Communion on this sacred evening.

The Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ will be celebrated with the Pre-Sanctified Liturgy on Good Friday (April 30). This Solemn Liturgy includes the Veneration of a relic of the True Cross and prayers for people in every relationship with God. Every member should make an effort to attend the Good Friday Solemn Liturgy.

The Queen of Feasts will be celebrated with great joy at St Michael’s Church. The feast will commence with the Great Vigil of Easter, which will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Holy Saturday (May 1). Then, on Easter Sunday (May 2), we shall hear again the Gospel of Our Lord’s Resurrection at the Easter Sunday Mass. How greatly our joy would be increased if every communicant member of our Parish would come to the Altar to receive the Eucharist on this Day of Resurrection!

THE END OF LENT

Everything we purpose for Lent is designed to draw us closer to God. What has been offered here (and elsewhere) by the Church will aid us in keeping our resolve and maintaining godly diligence.

The life of self-denial is the path of salvation, and so these practices should not end after the 40 days, but should help us re-group and put forth extra effort to be intentional as we strive to make a new beginning. Without such purposeful commitment, we may complete another Lent, regretting that we have not made the most of the opportunity. May none of us say at the end of this Lenten season; ‘well, maybe next year…?’

If we fast and do not pray; if our prayer dies on our lips without affecting how we deal with others; if our love for God does not extend to those whom He loves—then we have gained little. Let us keep in mind, then, that we keep Lent not for its own sake or as a Spring ritual. Rather, we keep Lent in order to (re-)orient ourselves to God in repentance and prayer.

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The Other Guy

Matthew 20.1-16

The parable that Jesus tells is not about the other guy. It’s about you. But like the laborers in the story, we are too often focused on the other guy: the time she put in, the work he did, the amount they were paid. And we do that—we focus on the other guy—to compare them with me to make sure I’m being treated fairly, and not missing out, and not over working or spinning my wheels.

We do that a lot. Focus on the other guy. And we do that to deflect and ignore. To deflect what we know is right. And to ignore an authentic, sincere deep dive into our own heart and soul. We promise a firm intention to amend. But then we look at the other guy, and compare ourselves to her or him to make sure we’re ahead or, worse yet, not doing too much.

And this may be why we avoid Private Confession. Or why, when we do go, we mouth the words to amend but don’t do the necessary hard work to get there. Because we’re looking at the other guy, and saying: “He goes to confession but is not acting better.” “She doesn’t seem to be worse off by skipping that Sacrament.”

But it’s not about the other guy. The parable is about you: that you’re doing the back-breaking work of digging out the weeds that are choking your life in God, that you’re nurturing the virtues while cutting out the vices, that you’re eager to amend by making amends, that you’re productive at producing the fruit of good works for others, and that you’re single-minded in working toward the end of the day.

St Paul helps us see this when he gives us another metaphor. The Christian life is a race. A race that you run, not by looking over your shoulder, not by seeing how the other guy is doing—but a race where you run to receive the prize, the reward. And to do that, you need to master your urges, and make sacrifices to be in shape, to be fit, not just to run but also to finish. Looking at the other guy’s workouts, trying to match what you do to what he’s doing—that will make you lose focus.

And that was the downfall of the children of Israel. After they were baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea; after they all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink—after the were fed by God and communed with Him—then they lost focus. Their focus was no longer about getting to the Promised Land. Their focus was on the other guy—what the Egyptians had, how the guy next to them was misbehaving, how scary the Canaanites might be, and what the golden calf could do for them.

The parable is about you. And most specifically, it is about what the Lord gives you. Not what He’s giving the other guy. But what He is giving you. He brought you into His family. He showed you what was good for your salvation. He offered you His kindness. He promised a share of His wealth. He focused on you.

The parable is about you. Most specifically, it is about what the Lord gives you. Not what He’s giving the other guy.

So our concentration, our attention, our aim, our focus should be on Our Lord and His gifts. Not the other guy. But on what Our Lord is doing, giving, and holding out. For you.

Our ambition should be single-minded: to make use of and live up to the grace that the Lord gives us.

For the mercy and kindness, the love and grace of Our Lord—that’s the overarching point of the parable. That the Lord gives you what is His. That He is good to you. That He lavishly offers, presents, and confers on you something you not only don’t deserve, but something you have no chance of getting without Him reaching out to you and welcoming you and setting you at His side.

The mercy and kindness, the love and grace of Our Lord—you miss that and devalue it if you’re fixed on the other guy, and wanting to make sure you’re getting yours.

Our Lord’s mercy follows no straight line. The moment He sees a way open for forgiveness, for dispensing grace, for administering His healing, He does not hesitate. And He does the unexpected—on purpose, for your sake, even at the risk of upsetting what we think fairness should look like. For His justice does not fit our ideas of justice. And His mercy exceeds our expectations.

So, Our Father benevolently, abundantly, and undeservedly gives you His best for you. He offers you exactly what is good for you, what fits you, what helps your life now and your life to come. You can call it your wage or reward or prize. In either case, it’s suited specifically for you. It’s the compassion from Him that you need to actually make good on your promise to amend; and your desire to finish well; and your longing to be who He designed you to be—one of His own, intimately partaking of His divine nature.

For Our Lord’s focus is not on the other guy. He looks you and me in the eye—He sees each one of us without looking at the other guy—and says plainly and determinedly, “Given and shed for you; for the remission of your sins; so that you may have life in and through Me.”

Let us run this Lent, then, not focusing on the other guy, wondering whether he’s getting more or better or further. And let’s certainly not wonder about what kind of deal God is giving us. Instead, let us this Lent lay aside every earthly care, and every sin which clings so closely, so that each one might run with resolve and single-mindedness the race that is set before him, looking at Jesus, who is author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him turned neither left nor right, but endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God, ready to embrace us and give us more than we either desire or deserve. To whom belongs all glory, honor, and worship: world without end.

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Releasing Savory Faith

Homily for Epiphany VI

These days our faith is tried. I’m not talking, specifically, about these days when we are together enduring a pandemic; or these days when we need to worship outdoors; or these days when we need to confront our own subtle prejudices; or these days when we feel as if we cannot give voice to the morality that is inseparable from the Christ we love.

These days when our faith is tried are the days since Our Lord’s crucifixion; the days since His Ascension; the days since the descent of the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire.

For while the devil certainly takes advantage of pandemics and unrest and church-distancing, that’s not his end game. His end game is to separate us from the intimate union, the bond of love, and the confidence and hope that we were given in Baptism, that is fed into us in the Eucharist, and that warms us every time we hear Our Lord’s absolution. The devil conspires with our basest desires and is cheered on by those whose god is their feelings. He conspires with them to make us wonder, and question, and think that God is distant or uninvolved or focused on others. And that God’s justice is hardly just.

The devil’s end game is to drive a wedge between us and Our Lord by driving a wedge between you and me; and by getting me to think that my prayers are nothing; and by getting us to be anxious about everything except skipping Mass and losing faith.

The devil’s end game is to drive a wedge between us and Our Lord by getting us to be anxious about everything except skipping Mass and losing faith.

That is how our faith is tried these days. And why we need to rejoice—yes, be glad about—and make use of today’s aggravations. For the things we find so irksome—pandemics, unrest, politics, meanness, being silenced and feeling hemmed in—these things truly do bruise and try us. And they work hard to crush us. But a mustard seed is not really true to itself, a mustard seed really doesn’t awaken, a mustard seed doesn’t show its true value—until it is bruised and crushed.

Today, Our Lord compares the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed. And are we not citizens in that kingdom—a kingdom founded by the one who was bruised for our iniquities; crushed for our transgressions; and buried because we hid from Him? And yet, that all released a life full of vitality, and a vigorous mercy that we wish to live toward others. Like the mustard seed which, when planted, grows sturdy branches and brings forth many seeds, so our battered, hard-pressed, buried Lord arises to grow the holy Church made strong and true by His love.

In another place Our Lord compares faith to a mustard seed. Once again, the vigor of our faith relies not on our determination, but on the Lord planted and buried within us. For, like the mustard seed, Christ is planted in us and then comes alive, producing in us greater confidence, hope, and love.

The vitality of Christ growing the kingdom of His love in you and me is released when we are squeezed, compressed, and bruised by the many disordered desires within, and the many pressures from without.

This vitality—of Christ growing the kingdom of His love in you and me—this is released when we are squeezed and compressed and bruised by the many disordered desires within, and the many pressures from without. For faith and is a living force, strong and sure, when we are left with nothing else but God’s love for us. So, if we let it, if we can keep our orientation, if we don’t lose hope but hold to Christ, then we can see that these stresses and forces release a greater, more excellent faith.

Many times, our faith can seem simple and innocuous. Perhaps it feels even vague and indefinable. But when our faith is bruised by its enemies, when it is pushed to a breaking point, then faith can come alive—if we only let it. Then it proves its value and power—if we don’t hide it in a cupboard or toss it out on hard-hearted cement or bury it in sugary sentimentality.

The things that test our faith—the doubts and fears, the desire to give up or to give into our worst self—these things can actually release the sweet aroma of our life in God.

The things that test our faith—the doubts and fears, the desire to give up or to give into our worst self—these things can actually release the sweet aroma of our life in God. Very much like the incense we use at Mass. In the canister, in the plastic box, the incense is inert. But when it is placed on a burning coal, then its full fragrance, both spicy and sweet, disperses throughout the room and wafts even quite a ways outdoors. And that scent sticks to us, announcing that we’ve been to Mass because we smell as Christ did when He arose from the tomb.

Holy Valentine, whom we commemorate today, shows us what the robust energy and aroma in the mustard seed looks like when it is released because of hardship. For when the executioner came, and he bowed his neck, and was decapitated in malice—then Love Himself was diffused to the ends of the world so that, to this day, we connect St Valentine with love: the love that ultimately must emanate from God: for God is love.

Like many martyrs—and even like us in these days—Holy Valentine was “hard-pressed on every side, yet not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed—carrying in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our bodies.” And by his martyric death, by his willingness to sacrifice all for the sake of Christ, by his desire to let his hope in God outweigh the threats of others—St Valentine shows us that “that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.”

The mustard seed reveals the transcendent power of God. For which of us would have ever considered, on our own, that such a tiny object could both be a tree housing birds and add savory energy to our food? Yet in that seed is hidden a truth that has existed since before time—namely, that when we are pushed yet remain strong to Our Lord’s love, then we begin to become the humans we were designed to be.

May our Father grant us such strength and courage; by the prayers of Holy Valentine and of all the saints.

14 February 2021

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The Long View

Candlemas Homily
Luke 2.22-32

Wise and aged Anna had a long view of all the events, rumors, conspiracies, and politics that swirled around her. It’s not that she was unaware or unconcerned. She simply did not let them control her. She refused to let everything out there define her values and her faith. And she would not let anything determine her outlook, except what she heard and sang and meditated on in the church’s liturgy. This woman, who had been a widow for 84 years, had a long view. Her focus was on her life in God.

Let our heart’s deepest desire be to develop and nurture the long view that we see in Simeon and Anna.

The old man Simeon also had a long view. Like Anna, he was too enwrapped and attentive in prayer to be anxious about worldly affairs. Not that he was uncaring or callous. But he left all in the hands of our heavenly Father, who knows better than all women and men how things should and will play out.

More than that, old Simeon with Anna believed that their prayers were more important than any worldly strategies. They were firmly convinced that fervent, heartfelt, and faithful attendance to God and His holy Word would bring about the consolation of Israel and the furtherance both of salvation and of intimate union between God and the world. Their long view, then, was not limited to humanity. Their long view aimed at the restoration of every created thing. Not fairness and rights, but creation’s recreation and renovation—that is what Simeon was justly and devoutly awaiting; what he desired with his prayers; and what he hoped to see when he looked into the face of the Lord’s Christ.

I’m inspired that the gift of seeing God in infant flesh is granted to a woman and a man who, from their youth, mastered their lust and other enervating passions. These two, who mastered and disciplined the needs that chase away our long view—they are the first, after Mary and Joseph, to hold God Himself in their arms. Among other things, this means that Our Lord truly desires our undivided focus. And that He will expand the fullness of the grace He is, within the hearts and minds, the bodies and souls, of those who can deny what everything else declaims to be so necessary, so important, so human.

Our humanity is found solely within this holy Child. Our true identity is inseparable from this son of the Virgin. Our longings are gratified and blossom to their utmost as we behold, and hold, and fix the attention of every hope on this One by whom the thoughts of many hearts are revealed.

Here, then, is what Simeon and Anna see: the One who gives hope to the hopeless, life to the lifeless, love to the unloved, and enduring friendship to the lonely.

This Boy Jesus is truly the light who enlightens our darkened minds. Minds made gloomy, dismal, and pessimistic by the anger that swirls around us; the doubts in us about how the world will go; and the urgings to live life to the fullest. These distractions from the life well lived in Christ—these chase us into the shadows, and away from the warming effects of Christ’s love.

Life can be lived confidently and fearlessly only in the light of Christ; when we embrace God’s wise commandments; and when we hold God’s loving-kindness tightly so that our hearts beat quicker and glow again, as they did when we first emerged from the baptismal font.

Life can be lived confidently and fearlessly only in the light of Christ; when we embrace God’s wise commandments; and when we hold God’s loving-kindness tightly so that our hearts beat quicker and glow again, as they did when we first emerged from the baptismal font. Then, and again now, the Sun of Righteousness illumines not only the darkness we need to shake, but also thaws and melts our fears so that we can pursue our the Father who is truly merciful.

Through this warming and brilliant love, Christ is the ‘light to lighten the Gentiles.’ He helps our diverse people see that His love matters most, and that His mercy exceeds both our tendency to judge and our limited ideas of who is in the right. And He lights your way—so that you can see God in the midst of turmoil; and so that others may glorify Him when they see your good works and hear your edifying speech. For in the light which Our Lord is, we are drawn into His long view—to love us in a way that strengthens who we truly are, and allows us to be Him to others.

Because Simeon & Anna have a long view, they hunger and thirst only for righteousness; and they know that things heavenly amplify things earthly. This is why they voice their desire to rest in peace on that day, in that moment. For when they saw the 40-day old Christ, they glimpsed heaven and saw the face of God. And with that, they saw the purpose and conclusion of their earthly prayers and all their good works.

As we witness Simeon and Anna’s encounter with the incarnate God, as we hear of others who have been graced with similar contact with God, we may wonder why we are not given a comparable experience—a tangible meeting with God that gives us true perspective, that chases away our worries, that lets us taste and feel our hope, that rivets our attention. For won’t our disquiet dissipate, and our faith come alive if we, too, get to see and hold God?

Yet we have something greater than these saints from time past. While they hugged the Christ Child to their chest, we receive Him our very being—knitted to our flesh and coursing through our veins. Their hearts figuratively embraced Him. Our hearts may literally encase Him. And in doing so we get to be—what does St Paul say—members of his body:of his flesh and of his bones.

In the Eucharist, we go beyond a visual encounter with God. Our intimacy with God in Christ soaks into our bones, and settles into the marrow of our soul. And from deep within begins our redemption, our salvation, our renewal, and our union with God.

For life in God to mature and intensify, for it to become anything close to what Simeon and Anna, Mary and Joseph, and other saints had—we must not let the cares and occupations of this life overwhelm us. Instead, let our heart’s deepest desire be to develop and nurture the long view that we see in Simeon and Anna.

That begins as we take in our blessed Jesus in Holy Communion. As we take Him up, let us bless God and say, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.”

Through the prayers of his saints, ancient and modern, may God grant us such faith, hope, and love; to whom belongs all glory: world without end.

7 February 2021

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When the Good Do Nothing

Matthew 8.1-13
Epiphany IV

Jesus’ words to the disciples seem rather harsh. They’ve just had a harrowing experience, their life has been in jeopardy, they’ve tried to manage things without bothering Jesus. And He calls them, “men of little faith.”

It wouldn’t surprise me if some took offense at these words. For “little faith” doesn’t sound kind or nice. It sounds like they failed.

If they failed, it was because they were trying to shoulder too much. Because they saw another man instead of their Savior. Because they were so wrapped up in their fear, in their anxiety, that they forgot that God Himself was actually in the boat with them.

The disciples were so wrapped up in their anxiety that they forgot that God Himself was actually in the boat with them.

Our anxiety level ramps up when we feel we’ve lost control. And we can’t see what will happen next. And things are not going as they should or as we expect. And those in charge are losing their heads. And nothing we do seems to work. And we know who to blame when things go wrong. And we’re sure there’s nothing left to do except leave; or yell; or hide; or get ready for the worst.

The breaking point is when we feel threatened: our life, our way of living, our view of the world; our understanding of God.

What can calm us and dial down our anxiety, fears, and tension is remembering that God is in the boat with us. And He always gets His way; His will is done even when it doesn’t look like it; and, most of all, Our Lord arranges everything—even the worst, the uncomfortable, and the storms—all of this He arranges, in some way, for our salvation. And what do you know: He never consults us, asking our thoughts about what to do or how things should go. Our Lord simply knows best and does best.

That’s what the disciples in today’s Gospel forgot. The gentle, scenic boat ride across the lake that they planned—that fell apart and caused great anxiety when a storm arose. They focused on the waves, the wind, the storm. Like so many of us, they were anxious about what they could not at all control. And they forgot that the Lord was with them, that He wasn’t ignoring them, and that He would deliver them. And when they finally remembered the Lord, they did not calm down or pray to Him or trust that He knew what was going on. Instead, they frantically yelled at Him, certain that He was deliberately uncaring.

Notice what the disciples say: “Save us, because we are dying!” What a contradiction. On the one hand, they believe that only Christ can save them. On the other hand, they are sure that they will die. It’s as if they are using more extreme words in order to get His attention. Because He isn’t acting quickly enough. But instead, they are showing the weakness of their faith; that they’re not really sure that He will save them from death.

What should they have said? “Lord, Thou rulest the raging of the sea; thou stillest the waves thereof when they arise. Even there also shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. Then shall my night be turned to day. Indeed, my darkness is not darkness with thee, but the night is as clear as the day. Therefore, I should fear no evil. For thou, Lord, holdest me in the hollow of thy hand, and will deliver us from every evil past, present, and to come.”

Easy words to think. Hard words to say, especially when we’re imprisoned in our anxiety. But necessary words to pray, if we wish Our Lord Jesus truly to calm, establish, strengthen, and settle us.

The holy fathers consistently teach that this storm on the lake is a true metaphor for all the things that make us anxious. Rarely are we anxious because things go as we think and in the way we plan. Most often we’re anxious about things we can’t control—events half a continent away; things we see on social media; breathless news reports; algorithms designed to incite our passions; and people who irritate or are mean-spirited. When that is our focus, we can’t see what is right in front of us: the persons who love us, the kindness given to us, the daily things that we have that we take for granted.

When we’re anxious and afraid, we are convinced the Lord has forgotten us or left us to shoulder the worst. So easily do we forget God. So easily do we think He’s part of the problem by not taking action. So easily do we believe that evil men are triumphing because the Good One is doing nothing.

So easily do we believe that evil men are triumphing because the Good One is doing nothing.

Our Lord is good even when He looks like He’s doing nothing. For even asleep Our Lord works for our good. And urges us to look beyond what frightens to see what is real. And what is real? Consider these words from our holy father John Chrysostom:

What are we to fear? Death? To live is Christ, and to die is gain. Should I fear exile? ‘The earth and its fullness belong to the Lord.’ What about the confiscation of what I have? We brought nothing into this world, and we shall surely take nothing from it.

I have only contempt for the world’s threats, I find its blessings laughable. I have no fear of poverty, no desire for wealth. I am not afraid of death nor do I long to live, except for your good. I concentrate therefore on the present situation, and I urge you, my friends, to have confidence.

For Our Lord has placed in us a hope that exceeds our fears, an expectation that dissipates our worries, an aspiration for the life to come which surpasses everything, good and bad, that we experience in this life. He places into our mouths His own flesh and blood, which has already taken down the worst we could know; and which converts the evil we endure into a love and kindness that sustains us. But above all, like the scared disciples in the boat and by their prayers, may we learn to know that Our Lord is always present, never absent; and that He will never leave us nor forsake us. To whom, with His Father, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, belongs all glory, honor, and worship: world without end.

31 January 2021

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Easy It Is Not

Matthew 8.1-13
A homily for Epiphany III

Being Christian isn’t easy. It isn’t comfortable or convenient. And, for millions throughout history, being Christian has not been safe.

That’s what St Paul told St Timothy, whom we commemorate today. When Timothy was a teen, in his hometown St Paul was nearly stoned to death and then dragged from the city. Yet at that time the holy Apostle strengthened the shocked and frightened disciples and urged them to continue in the faith with these words: “Through many tribulations, we enter the kingdom of God.”

Let’s not go too quickly past those words. Paul says that the only way into the kingdom of heaven is through tribulation. But like St Paul, we shouldn’t focus on what others do to us, but on what Our Lord does for us; not with what we have to put up with, but what Our Lord gives us; and not zeroing in on the adversity but on the deliverance. St Paul sums up our life when he says: “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.”

All means all. As St Ambrose reminds us: “All suffer persecution. There is no exception. Who can claim an exemption if the Lord Himself endured the testing of persecution” for our good? “There are many today who are secret martyrs for Christ,” who suffer persecution without protest or resistance because they know they model Christ and witness to faith by enduring injustice without complaint.

But visible persecution is not the only kind. Whenever we are tempted to give in to our ungodly desires, whenever our minds tell us to give up, whenever we avoid the hard path of prayer and holy living, of forgiveness and kind-speaking—then we are being persecuted invisibly. By the devil, and by our own flesh. For “the devil directs his many servants in their work of persecution…in the souls of individuals.” (St Ambrose)

Christianity isn’t easy. But we can see Our Lord’s glory while staring at the gory; and want Our Lord’s body and blood while seeing what it cost to bring it to this altar; and know that the Lord comes through when you can’t feel it. Because we understand that Christians walk in the path Jesus walked, following the Way He is—through suffering into glory, through death into life, through hell into heaven.

To be a Christian we need look at now through the lens of later; at what threatens by seeing what awaits us; at how much it asks by receiving how much Christ gives.

That takes faith. A faith that doesn’t lie down when things get tough. A faith that doesn’t give up when it feels defeated. And a faith that can swallow pride, and sacrifice what we are sure is necessary and right and good—even a faith that sacrifices our own carefully crafted identity.

But above all, being Christian means we look to Christ. Knowing that He alone can get us through. He alone can undo what’s been done to us, and untangle what we’ve done to ourselves. He alone is our help and our salvation.

That kind of faith requires humility. The humility that says, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” The humility that says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.” And the humility that says, “Lord, I am not worthy.”

Some may see that not as humility, but as humiliation. Not as faith, but as groveling. Not as strength but as weakness.

Humility makes sense to a man suffering a debilitating disease, a man who has no hope, a man who is desperate; a man who is ostracized because he is a leper in Judaea. Yet even this man must humble himself to cry out to Christ. For pride says, “No one can help. All is hopeless. I’m cursed. Nothing will work.” Pride believes those words because pride makes us look only at ourselves—how much I hurt, what I can’t do, why no one meets my fears.

But humility says, “Lord, if you are willing.” Humility places everything in the Lord’s hand, knowing that He hears the cry of the poor and needy. And so, when life is hardest, we can say in true humility: “Despite my comforts, I am poor and needy; yet the Lord thinks upon me. Thou art my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God. Make haste to me, O God!” (Ps 39, 69)

How quickly Our Lord comes to our aid! For “He delivers the needy when he cries, the poor also, and him who has no helper.” (Ps 71) And so, without fear of contagion, Our Lord touches the leper and says, “I am willing. Be cleansed.”

We can understand the desperation of the poor and needy, the helpless and bed ridden. But a commander; a man who can run roughshod over people; a man who has servants; a man who is certainly privileged and among the elite—can he truly humble himself? Can he honestly say, “I am not worthy”?

Yet that is exactly what we must say. Not ordering God by our prayers, as if He is our servant who waits on us. Instead, we ought to pray this prayer: “Lord, I am not worthy. Have mercy on me. Help me because I cannot help myself, or anyone else. You know far better what is best for me—even if it is best that we stay as we are for many days, weeks, or months. I am not worthy to tell you how things should go. So only speak a word, and I shall trust that what you say is truth, what you give is health.”

That is the humility of the centurion. Yet it’s not easy to deny and put to death our instinct and passion, to control, to be impatient, to whine, and to protest and insist. And it’s not easy to refuse ourselves the pleasures we are sure we deserve, and the rights we know we’ve earned.

Yet being a Christian isn’t easy. It isn’t about comfort or convenience. And, it’s not about having no more rough times, no more worries, no more problems.

Being Christian means we need to confess our pride, repent of our complaining, and see that in every kind of ordeal, temporary or permanent, God hides His grace and calls us to a “new normal of greater piety, increased participation in the sacraments, and more love and service to our neighbor.” (Metropolitan Joseph)

But above all, being Christian means humbly accepting Our Lord’s will, trusting that He is arranging things—even pandemics and politics—for our salvation. And there’s the joy—that He is always there, always pulling us through, always doing what is best, and always leading us deeper into His love.

To this Lord Jesus Christ, by the prayers of St Timothy and of all the saints, belongs all glory, honor, and worship: world without end.

This way was blazed first by Our Lord, not just when He died, but even as He put up with the traps and restrictions of His own people. Let me be clear: Christ’s suffering does not mean that we won’t suffer, any more than His death and burial means we won’t die and be buried. What His passion does mean is that dealing with hard times is inseparable from the Christian life; and tribulation is our path to true intimacy with Our Lord God. Like any love story, real relationships grow and strengthen only when we work together through trying times.

24 January 2021

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