August 30, 2009

If Thou Wilt Be Perfect

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 19: 16-26

16. And, behold, one came and said unto Him, Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life? And He said unto him, Why callest thou Me good? There is none good but One, that is, God. The man did not come testing Christ, but desiring to learn and thirsting for eternal life. He approached Christ as if Christ were a mere man. That is why the Lord says, Why callest thou Me good? There is none good but One, that is, God. This means, "If you call Me good thinking I am one of the teachers, you speak wrongly, for no man is essentially good; both because we are changeable and easily turned away from good, and because, by comparison with God’s goodness, human goodness is counted as wickedness."

17-19. But if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. He saith unto Him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother, and, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. The Lord directs the enquirer to the commandments of the law, so that the Jews could not say that He despised the law. What happened then?

20. The young man saith unto Him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet? Some accuse him of boasting and arrogance. How could he have achieved love for neighbor if he were rich? For no one who loves his neighbor as himself is wealthier than his neighbor. Others understand it thus: suppose, he says, that I have kept all these things—what do I still lack?

21-22. Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect go and sell what thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow Me. But when the man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions. Everything, He says, which you say you have accomplished, you have done by fulfilling only the letter of the law, as do the Jews. But if thou wilt be perfect, that is, if you wish to be My disciple and a Christian, then go and sell all that you have, and give everything all at once, keeping nothing back with which to give alms continuously. He did not say, "give repeatedly to the poor," but give once and for all and be stripped of your wealth. Since there are some who give alms but lead a life full of every kind of filth, He adds, and come and follow Me, that is, possess every other virtue as well. The young man, however, was sorrowful, for though he desired eternal life and the soil of his heart was deep and fertile, the thorns of wealth were choking him. For it says, he had great possessions. He who has few possessions is not similarly restrained by them, for the bond of many possessions is more tyrannical. Because the Lord was conversing with a rich man, He said, "Do you love wealth? Know that you will have treasure in heaven."

23-24. Then said Jesus unto His disciples, Verily I say unto you, That it is hard for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. As long as a man is rich and he has in excess while others do not have even the necessities, he can in no way enter the kingdom of heaven. But when all riches have been shed, then he is not rich and so he can enter. For it is just as impossible for a man with wealth to enter the kingdom of heaven as it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. See how Christ first said it was difficult to enter, but here that it is completely impossible. Some say that camel is not the animal, but the thick cable used by sailors to cast their anchors.

25-26. When His disciples heard it, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, Who then can be saved? But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, With men this is impossible: but with God all things are possible. The disciples, being compassionate, did not ask this question for their own sake, for they were poor, but for all men. The Lord therefore teaches us not to gauge salvation by human weakness, but by God’s power. If one only begins to cease from greed, he will advance to reducing his excess, and from there he will proceed to eliminating even his necessities, and thus he will be prospered along the way by God acting in collaboration with him.

From The Explanation of the Gospel of St. Matthew
by Blessed Theophylact, Archbishop of Ochrid and Bulgaria

August 27, 2009

The Dormition of the Mother of God

My present talk for your appreciation is occasioned both by love, and by necessity. I speak not only by reason of my love for you, and because I desire that the word of salvation should be brought to your God-loving hearing, and so nourish your souls; but also, it is necessary for me, in addition to praising the Church, to expound on the majesty of the ever-Virgin Mother of God. This wish, being twofold, impels and inclines me, and unwavering duty also compels me; though speech cannot comprehend that which is higher than any word, just as the eye cannot fix its gaze upon the sun.

Although we cannot speak about that which surpasses all words, we may offer hymns of praise out of love for the Mother of God, according to our ability. If "the death of His saints is precious in the sight of the Lord" (Ps. 115/116: 15), and "the memory of the just is praised" (Prov. 10:7), then how much more is the memory of the holiest of the saints, through Whom all holiness has been accorded to the saints? I refer to the Ever-Virgin Mother of God, Whose memory it now behooves us to celebrate with the most exalted praises.

We now celebrate Her holy Dormition, or Death, through which She was brought "a little lower than the angels," (Ps. 8:5) and yet She ascended incomparably higher than the angels and the archangels..., and is above them because of Her closeness to God, and by the wondrous deeds which were, from the beginning, written and accomplished regarding Her.

It was on Her account that the God-inspired prophets prophesied, and the miracles were performed that foreshadowed this great and universal wonder: the ever-Virgin Mother of God. The testimonies of the Spirit, in various ways, indicate beforehand types of the future truth. (Joachim and Anna, in their old age, would become parents of a child) who would without seed give birth to the One begotten of God the Father from eternity....

The King of all greatly desired the beauty of the ever-Virgin (Ps. 44/45:11), ...and He overshadowed Her, or rather, the... Power of the Most High dwelt within Her. He did not manifest His presence through darkness and fire as with the God-seer Moses, nor through storm and clouds as with the Prophet Elias, but the Power from on High overshadowed the all-pure and virginal womb, separated... neither by air..., nor by anything sensible.... Thus, the Word of God took up His abode in Her in an inexpressible way, and came forth incarnate in the flesh. He "showed himself on earth and conversed with men" (Baruch 3: 38), deifying our nature and granting us, according to the divine Apostle, that "which the angels desire to look into" (1 Pet. 1:12). This is... the most glorious glory... of the ever-Virgin Mary.

What words are there to explain what transpired after the inexplicable birth? In Her co-operation and suffering with the condescension of the Word of God, She is also glorified and exalted together with Him, in His great and wondrous majesty. But with the Ascension to Heaven of Him Who was incarnate of Her, She in turn rivaled those great works surpassing mind and speech, which through Him were Her own, with manifold deeds and prayers, and also Her solicitude for the whole world, and the inspiration She gave to preachers sent to all the ends of the earth.

She was a support and consolation for all, and toiled with the rest in the proclamation of the Gospel. Thus She lived a difficult life proclaimed in mind and word. Therefore, the death of the Theotokos was also life-bearing, carrying Her over into heavenly and immortal life. The remembrance of it is a joyous feast and universal solemnity.... Into the hands of Her Son the God-bearing spirit of the Ever-Virgin Mary was given; and indeed a short while afterwards, Her body was translated by Him into the eternal heavenly habitations. This was fully just and proper.

Go here to read the entire Sermon by Saint Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonica

August 26, 2009

The Descent of the Modernist

Why should we adhere to Traditional Orthodox Christianity? Because it is a quick descent to Atheism if we start compromising and questioning our faith. I can hear the evil one rejoicing!

Illustration By E. J. Pace

August 22, 2009

Forgiveness of Debts

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
The Man Who Owed Ten Thousand Talents
Matthew 18: 23-35

A terrible picture is drawn for us by this Sunday’s Gospel. It begins with the folio wing words: "Therefore the Kingdom of Heaven is likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants" (Mt. 18:23). Among those servants was one who was indebted to the lord for a great amount. This amount was so great that in spite of his desire, he could never repay it. There was only one way out: the lord could sell him, his wife, his children, and everything he had. "The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me and I will pay thee all. Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt" (Mt. 18:26-27). Listen, he did not postpone payment of the debt, he did not reduce the amount, but he forgave everything, completely, forever. It was as if nothing had happened, everything remained as before. A new, quiet life as before began. And even better: now this servant knew his master. He saw in him a loving father, and to work for such a father is bliss.

Suddenly something terrible happened: that servant walked out and met one of his fellow servants who owed him an utterly insignificant amount; and grabbing him, started to choke him, saying, Give back everything you owe me. Learning of this, his lord was angry and gave him over to the torturers until he had paid the whole debt.

And so it is with us. We have received everything from the Lord but have proved to be unpaid debtors. And we have asked for forgiveness and have received it. And God has accepted us into His family, the Church of Christ, and in her we can sail over this stormy sea of life as in a safe ship. A ship has everything necessary to protect those sailing in it from the water: it has a strong foundation, a bottom, sides, sails, oars, a rudder. In the same way, the Church of Christ has a rudder by which it is guided by her Godly Pilot, our Lord Jesus Christ; also has sails, oars — these are the godly sacraments; also has a strong foundation — the commandments of Christ of which the main one is love. And if we keep this His main commandment, love, then we will be in His family, that is in the Church, and will rejoice. How much the Lord spoke about it in His farewell talk with His disciples: "This is My commandment, that ye love one another, as I have loved you" (Jn.15:12). "These things I command you, that ye love one another" (Jn.15: 17). Yes, it is impossible to be in the Church and not to abide in His love. To be in the Church of Christ is possible only by keeping His main commandment, that commandment which has become the foundation of His entire Church, which is the fragrance of Christ — and this commandment is LOVE!

And so that unfortunate servant lost everything: the forgiveness of God, release from the whole debt, and the return to freedom of himself, his wife and his children. Everything that he had received, he lost in one moment, in that terrible moment when he did not forgive his debtor. And so we too can lose everything: forgiveness which we have received in the Sacrament of Confession, and the Grace which we have received in the Sacrament of Holy Communion — in one moment — in that moment when we will not forgive our debtors.

God grant that such a moment never come to us. And therefore, for the sake of our own salvation, our own well-being and the well-being of those close to us, let us wholeheartedly forgive our debtors. And let us rejoice that we have such debtors, because only by forgiving them their debts, can we prove to the Lord how much we value His forgiveness. And let us also rejoice, because our Lord forgives us enormous things, and all that we can forgive is so small and insignificant. Let us rejoice every time when we say in the Lord’s Prayer: "and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors."

Sermon by Archbishop Andrei (Rymarenko, 1893-1978)

August 18, 2009

The Transfiguration

The Glory of Christ.

Four important scenes of our Lord’s life took place on mountains. On one, He preached His famous Sermon on the Mount; on the second, he showed His glory as God; on the third, He offered Himself in death for our sins; on the fourth, He ascended into Heaven.

Today we shall discuss the second mountain-top experience of our Lord: His transfiguration on Mt. Tabor.

What is the Transfiguration? One day Jesus and three of His disciples, Peter, James and John, went to the peak of Mt. Tabor. There an amazing change came over Christ as He prayed. The Gospel writers seem to be at a loss for words to describe fully what happened. St. Matthew says:

"And His face did shine as the sun, and His clothes were white as the light."

St. Mark reports:

"And His garments became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them."

St. Luke writes excitedly:

"The appearance of His countenance was altered, and His clothes became dazzling white."

What the apostles noticed as particularly beautiful and glorified were His face and His garments — the face which later would be splattered with blood flowing from a crown of thorns, and the garments which would be a robe of scorn with which sneering Herod would dress Him.

It was only a small ray of Christ’s divine glory that the Apostles saw on Mt. Tabor. Still human language could not do justice to it. How can man fully describe the glory of God? There is nothing on earth to be compared to it. The only expressions the Gospels writers could use were: "whiter than snow… brighter than the sun."

Do you remember how Moses looked when he came down from the holy mountain after speaking with God? So brightly did his face shine that he had to cover it with a veil because the children of Israel were blinded by it. But the light in the face of Moses was a reflected glory. Do you remember how St. Stephen looked as he defended his preaching and miracles before the council members? We are told, they looked at him and saw his face as though it had been the face of an angel; but that too was a reflected glory. The radiance of Christ on the mountain was His very own. The divine glory of Christ did not suddenly come over Him as though God had turned a great spotlight on Him. That glory had always been there. Now it was simply shining through. For this brief moment Jesus removed the veil of His humanity to permit His disciples to see a small part of His glory as God.

St. Luke tells us that the Transfiguration took place while Jesus was praying. Is it not in periods of prayer that we are most likely to witness the glory of God? Is it not prayer that produces an inner change in man which becomes reflected in a transfigured life?

As the Transfigured Christ stood there shining in glory, two men stepped out of the past: Moses, the venerable law-giver, and Elijah, the zealous prophet. They stood there talking with Jesus about His impending death at Jerusalem: "And two men appeared conversing with Him,

Moses and Elijah, seen now in glory; And they spoke of the Death which He was to achieve at Jerusalem" Luke 9:30-31.

Why Moses? Why Elijah? Moses represents the Law; Elijah the prophets. The two appear to confirm Christ as the Promised Messiah, to prove to the Jewish race and to mankind that in Christ we find the fulfillment of the Old Testament law and prophets; in Christ we have the Son of God, who gave the Law and sent the Prophets.

Moses and Elijah had been dead thousands of years. Yet they appeared, very much alive and talking with Jesus, on Mt. Tabor. Is not this proof of the fact that God can and will resurrect the dead? As He has promised, "Marvel not at this, the hour is coming when all who are in the graves shall hear His voice and shall come forth; those who have done good, unto the resurrection of life; those who have done evil unto the resurrection of damnation."

So taken up was Peter with the beauty of the transfiguration that he suggested that they stay there always:

"Peter said to Jesus, Master

It is well that we should be here;

Let us make three cabins in this place,

One for Thee, and one for Moses,

And one for Elijah" (Luke 9:33-34).

While the apostles were standing at what seemed to be the very vestibule of heaven, a bright cloud, symbolizing the presence of God, the Father, suddenly passed over them. In reverence and amazement they listened as a voice spoke to them out of the cloud, words of eternal significance, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased, hear Him."

"Hear Him!" There are many people, myriads of teachers and countless voices clamoring for our attention, yet to only one of these voices does God command us to listen: to the voice of His Son Jesus Christ. "This is my beloved Son..." Our whole purpose in life is to listen to the voice of God’s teaching, obey His commandments and become Christ-like.

When Moses and Elijah appeared with Christ, they were also transfigured; in Christ’s presence they too shone in glory. We have God’s promise that every true believer in Jesus will be transfigured and will share in Christ’s glory, as did Moses and Elijah.

"We shall be like Him; for we shall see him as He is" (I John 3:2).

"The glory which Thou has given me, I have given them" (John 17:22).

"Father, I will that they also, whom Thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory" (John 17:24).

"This is my beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased; hear him!" Learn of Him. Obey Him. Become like Him. And eventually you too will be transfigured to shine with Him in a glory which the Gospel writers could only describe as "whiter than snow … brighter than the sun" and which St. Paul describes with the words, "Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it ever entered the heart of man, what things God has prepared for those who love Him."

Sermon by Fr. Anthony M. Coniaris
"Gems from the Sunday and Feasts Gospels"

August 15, 2009

Moving Mountains

10th Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 17:14-23

When the disciples asked Jesus why they were unable to heal the epileptic boy, He replied, "Because of your little faith. For truly I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there/ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you."

A Sunday school student said once, "The Bible says we can move mountains with faith. Well, how come we don’t move mountains with faith? How come we use bulldozers?"

The problem here is the meaning of the word "mountain." It is obvious that its meaning is symbolic. It stands for all the troubles and difficulties that block our path like a veritable mountain and make life impossible for us. Real mountains do not stand in our way any more. We have invented giant earthmoving machines to flatten them. Recently we read of the completion of a tunnel through one of the highest mountains in the Alps. Earthly mountains no longer stand in the way of man. Neither should other kinds of mountains. Jesus tells us that real, honest, sincere faith in Him generates power great enough to move mountains.

Man Is Bigger than any Mountain.

Man was created by God to be bigger than any mountain, even though he stands only six feet tall. He has a head on his shoulders with a brain, and this is what places him above all other creatures. If he cannot climb the mountain or tunnel through it or walk around it, he builds a plane and flies over it at thirty thousand feet. Today, no physical mountain can stand in man’s way.

Neither should any other kind of mountain. This is what the Lord Jesus is telling us in today’s Gospel. There is no mountain of difficulties that a man who believes and prays cannot surmount.

It Works!

St. Paul, for example, had a mountain in his life. He tells us about it in his second letter to the Corinthians: "And lest I should be exalted above measure … there was given me a thorn in the flesh … For this thing I besought the Lord three times, that it might depart from me." The Lord gave Paul power to overcome this mountain. He was not defeated by it. The "thorn in the flesh," obviously some kind of physical illness, did not put Paul in bed as an invalid, but drove him to greater dependence on Christ and greater power.

Jesus faced such a mountain in his life. In the 26th chapter of Matthew we read of the experience He had in Gethsemane. "Then said Jesus to the disciples, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here and watch with me.’ And going a little farther he fell on His face and prayed, ‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me… . ‘ ‘ How painful was this mountain of suffering that Jesus faced! Yet He was not defeated by it. He overcame it. He changed the cross into a marvelous resurrection experience for Himself as well as for those who believe in Him.

There are others. Helen Keller was blind and deaf, but she was not defeated by her great mountain. She once wrote, "I thank God for my handicaps, for through them I have found myself, my work, and my God."

A famous auto racer who had won the Indianapolis 500 and many other races turned to the old tranquilizer, alcohol, to escape from the tensions of his profession. He became an alcoholic. His career was on the verge of being ruined. But he turned to Christ for help, and through Christ’s power he was able to move the great mountain of alcoholism from his life. Later, when a reporter asked him if winning the Indianapolis 500 was the greatest victory of his life, he said it wasn’t. The thing that meant more to him than winning the 500 was to know that through the power of Christ he had conquered himself.

There is no mountain in life that is bigger than Christ. He is bigger than any temptation; bigger than any sin, any failure; bigger than any difficulty, any problem. When we place our life in His hands, He gives us the power to become bigger than we ever dreamed we could be, bigger than our illness, bigger than our weakness, bigger than our hatred, bigger than our prejudices, bigger than our defeats.

"Jesus answered and said unto them, "If you have faith … you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible to you."


Lord, give us this faith that moves mountains. You alone know the difficulties, the pains, the problems that loom before each one of us as impenetrable mountains. Lord, we believe, help our unbelief, strengthen our faith. Amen.

By Fr. Anthony M. Coniaris
"Gems from the Sunday and Feasts Gospels"

August 13, 2009

Fr. Sophrony's Inverted Pyramid

Fr. Sophrony [Sakharov], in his book on St. Silouan, presents this theory of the “inverted pyramid.” He says that the empirical cosmic being is like a pyramid: at the top sit the powerful of the earth, who exercise dominion over the nations (cf. Matt. 20:25), and at the bottom stand the masses. But the spirit of man, by nature [unfallen nature as given by God], demands equality, justice and freedom of spirit, and therefore is not satisfied with this “pyramid of being.” So, what did the Lord do? He took this pyramid and inverted it, and put Himself at the bottom, becoming its Head. He took upon Himself the weight of sin, the weight of the infirmity of the whole world, and so from that moment on, who can enter into judgment with Him? His justice is above the human mind. So, He revealed His Way to us, and in so doing showed us that no one can be justified but by this way, and so all those who are His must go downwards to be united with Him, the Head of the inverted pyramid, because it is there that the “fragrance” of the Holy Spirit is found; there is the power of divine life. Christ alone holds the pyramid, but His fellows, His Apostles and His saints, come and share this weight with Him. However, even if there were no one else, He could hold the pyramid by Himself, because He is infinitely strong; but He likes to share everything with His fellows. Mindful of this, then, it is essential for man to find the way of going down, the way of humility, which is the Way of the Lord, and to become a fellow of Christ, who is the Author of this path.

Archimandrite Zacharias in The Enlargement of the Heart: "Be ye also enlarged" (2 Corinthians 6:13) in the Theology of Saint Silouan the Athonite and Elder Sophrony of Essex

August 08, 2009

Jesus Walking on the Water

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 14:22-34

Last Sunday’s Gospel reading told us of a great miracle: the feeding of an enormous crowd of many thousands with five loaves and two fish. The disciples of Christ themselves, through whose hands this miracle was performed, were dumbfounded. And as the Gospel says, Christ at once compelled them to enter a boat and go before Him to the other shore while He dismissed the crowd. "And when He had sent the multitudes away, He went up into a mountain apart to pray: and when the evening was come, He was there alone. But the ship was now in the midst of the sea, tossed with waves: for the wind was contrary. And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea" (Mt. 14:22-25).

A wonderful image of the Church of Christ is drawn for us here. The boat, as it were, represents the Church: its sides are the rules and canons of the Church; the disciples are all of us Christians; and the stormy sea is the sea of our life. And now too Christ has ascended a mountain, which means He is sitting at the right hand of the Father. He sees our Church boat and directs it. The Gospel says that the disciples went to the other side, not of their own will, but "straightway Jesus constrained His disciples to get into a ship and go before Him unto the other side" (Mt. 14: 22). This means they were doing it out of obedience to Christ. And when they found themselves in danger, He walked to them on the water.

"And when the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, It is a spirit; and they cried out for fear. But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying... It is I; be not afraid. And Peter answered Him and said, Lord, if it be Thou, bid me come unto Thee on the water. And He said, Come. And when Peter was come down out of the ship, he walked on the water, to go to Jesus" (Mt. 14:26-29).

Notice this moment: Christ did not call Peter, but only permitted Peter. Here obedience changed to boldness, this came from Peter himself. He felt such a surge of faith, such elation, that everything seemed possible to him. But here something happened. A wave, a high wave for a second hid Christ from Peter. He found himself alone. At once cold reason set to work. It was as if he came to himself and thought, what was he doing? Foolishness. Reason took from him the lightness of faith in which he walked, and he started to drown. A desperate cry rang out: "Lord, save me." And immediately Christ stretched forth His hand to him(Mt. 14:30-31).

What happened to Peter? Well, what happened to him can happen to each of us: he became frightened, his faith was shaken. And this happened because he stepped over the side of the boat. What a profound lesson is hidden for us here: in Christian living there should be evenness, there should be quiet. And for this to be so, we must never step over the side of the Church boat. We must keep the statutes of the Church, must live the life of the Church. And then, even if we find ourselves amid the stormy sea of life, we will be able to cry out, "Lord, save me." And He, the Merciful One, will stretch out His saving hand to us, too, as He did to Peter, and we will find ourselves in the boat of the Church, and a great calm will come.

Sermon by Archbishop Andrei (Rymarenko 1893-1978)

August 03, 2009

The Ascetic Podvig of Living in the World

by Metropolitan Laurus of Eastern America and New York (†2008)

The situation of an Orthodox person, an Orthodox Christian who lives in the contemporary world, may be described, without any exaggeration, as extremely difficult. The whole of present-day life, in all its tendencies, in one way or another is directed against a person who is trying to live according to the teachings of the Orthodox Church. In life around us, in our environment, in our heterodox surroundings, everything is essentially a total denial of Christianity. If, in the beginning of the Christian era, Christ's beloved disciple, St. John the Theologian, could write, "... the whole world lieth in wickedness" (I John 5:19), then how much more justified we are in speaking thus of our times.

Being a true Orthodox Christian, prepared to preserve unto death one's faith in Christ our Saviour, is much more difficult in our day than it was in the first centuries of Christianity. It's true there were persecutions then and Christians were tormented, but the Christians well remembered the Saviour's words, " . . . fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul" (Matt. 11:28). Being fortified by God's grace, they joyfully went to their martyrdom and gave up their lives for Christ. This was also the case in Russia during the torture and persecutions. Now nobody threatens us, living here in freedom, with persecution and torture, but in spite of this, a persecution in its most diverse forms is being carried on against Christianity and against the Christian way of life. Today we see that everything connected with faith in God, with the teaching of God's Word, with Christ's teachings and the teachings of the Orthodox Church, in one way or another is being driven out of a person's life. This process that is taking place in the contemporary world is a process of apostasy, and it can be detected in every aspect of life.

The Old Testament says, "God, to be sure, framed man for an immortal destiny, the created image of His own endless being; but, since the devil's envy brought death into the world, they make him their model that take him for their master" (Wisdom 2:23-25).

We have been given our holy Christian faith so that we might obtain eternal life in blessedness. But to conform perfectly with the spirit of the Founder of our faith, Christ our Saviour, and with His teaching, to really cleanse ourselves morally, to increase in virtue, to become acquainted with spiritual perfection, all this demands special, grace-filled cooperation from above, in addition to an Orthodox person's own efforts. This grace-filled cooperation is called sanctification and is given to us by the Lord. It is achieved by the Holy Spirit in the holy Church founded by our Lord Jesus Christ for our sanctification and salvation.

You and I are children of the Russian Orthodox Church. The question arises, do we live as Orthodox Christians are supposed to live? No, we are far from living in the way we should.

At our holy baptism we gave vows (if we were baptized as infants, our sponsors gave them on our behalf), we made a contract with Christ and in this way we became His children, His servants, the children of God. At baptism the holy Church sings, "As many as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. Alleluia."

Therefore, since we belong to God, we must live in accordance with God's commandments, in accordance with Christ's teachings and the laws of the Church. We are baptized, we are Orthodox Christians but we don't know very much about our Orthodox Faith.

All who are born in the bosom of the holy Church through holy baptism are born into a new life. They grow and are brought up in the Spirit of Truth and receive in the spiritual life grace-filled gifts for life on earth, with the promise of eternal gifts for the future life. Thus, to live in the Church is an essential condition for a Christian's moral development.

The Church of Christ was founded by our Lord the Saviour and He showed us the path by which we must go to Him, and He showed us how to follow His teaching. He said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). Consequently, we must go by this path, pointed out to us by our Saviour.

Every path and every action demands a podvig—that is, an ascetic struggle. Therefore, our holy Orthodox Faith is an ascetic faith demanding ascetic labor in the struggle with our sinful passions and lusts.

How must we live and struggle? Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself shows an example: "For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you" (John 13:15). The saints also provide us with an example.

In His Sermon on the Mount our Lord Jesus Christ gives us the whole essence of Evangelical teaching. This is found in the fifth, sixth, and seventh chapters of the Gospel of St. Matthew. In the Beatitudes the Lord teaches us that we must be born again spiritually and thus prepare ourselves for the beatitude of eternal life in the heavenly mansions. The first step towards this is to recognize one's spiritual emptiness, one's sinfulness and worthlessness, to become humble. This is why "blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 5:3). But only those who observe all the commandments will achieve this. "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven" (Matt. 7:21).In order to go by the path that our Lord pointed out in the holy Gospel, we have to take ourselves under control, we must check and test ourselves. Bishop Theophan the Recluse says:

The true Christian tests himself every day. Daily testing to see whether we have become better or worse, is so essential for us that without it we cannot be called Christians. Constantly and persistently we must take ourselves in hand. Do this: from the morning establish thoughts about the Lord firmly in your mind and then during the whole day resist any deviation from these thoughts. Whatever you are doing, with whomever you are speaking, whether you are going somewhere or sitting, let your mind be with the Lord. You will forget yourself, and stray from this path; but again turn to the Lord and rebuke yourself with sorrow. This is the podvig of spiritual attentiveness.

St. John of Kronstadt says:

Every day, hour, and minute, keep a strict watch and consider every thought, desire, and movement of the heart, every word and deed, and do not let yourself be defiled by one sinful thought, desire, or movement of the imagination, in word or deed, knowing that the Lord is the Righteous Judge Who is judging you every instant and is evaluating the inner man. Continually keep yourself pure for God.

Now the question will arise—how do you definitely find out exactly what is sinful and to what degree, so as to know clearly and distinctly if one has sinned, and how frequently, and to critically examine one's life like a strict and unhypocritical judge? Bishop Theophan advises as follows:

To do this, put the law of God on one side and your own life on the other, and see where they are similar and where there is no resemblance. Take your deeds and subject them to the law to see if they are permissible, or take the law and see if it is applied in your life. So as not to omit anything in this important matter, you have to have an orderly system. Sit down and call to mind all your duties towards God, your neighbors, and yourself, and then go through your life in relation to all these. Or you may go through the ten commandments and the beatitudes, one after the other, and see if your life accords with them. Or read those parts of the Gospel of St. Matthew where the Saviour sets out the strictly Christian law, and also the epistles of St. James and the epistles of St. Paul, especially to the Romans and Ephesians. Read all this and then check your own life, how it conforms. Or, finally, take the rite of Confession and check your own behavior against it. The result of such an examination of one's life is to reveal a vast number of deeds, words, thoughts, feelings and desires that were against the law but were permitted, even though they should not have been; a vast number that should have been done but were not, and many that were done in accordance with the law but turned out to be defiled by an impure motive. From all this you will gather a vast number, and even your whole life, perhaps, will be made up only of bad deeds.

Perhaps someone will say that all this is not necessary for all Christians, but only for the monastics. But no, this is for everyone! A person is a Christian not by calling, but by his way of life. All of us, not just monastics, have to think about and be concerned for our salvation. The law of the Gospel is given for everyone. In answer to the question, how must a Christian live, how must we act and behave? the Apostle Paul shows us. His words, directed to the Ephesians, are also addressed to us:

Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children; and walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given Himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savor. But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient [not proper, according to the Slavonic—editorial note]: but rather giving of thanks. For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolator, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no man deceive you with vain words: for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience. Be not ye therefore partakers with them. For ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light: (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness and righteousness and truth;) proving what is acceptable unto the Lord. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them. For it is a shame even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret. But all things that are reproved are made manifest by the light: for whatsoever cloth make manifest is light. Wherefore he saith, Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light. See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Wherefore be ye not unwise, but understanding what the will of the Lord is. And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess but be filled with the Spirit; speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God (Ephesians 5:1-21).

We have to become interested in the holy Orthodox Faith, we must study it and live in accordance with it. We must take care concerning our salvation. We will do this if we read holy Scripture, if we study the law of God, if we pray morning and evening and at all times, if we fast, if we carry out God's commandments and the Church's commandments. In addition to this, we have to acquire Christian virtues—love, joy, peace, long-suffering, generosity, mercy, faith, meekness, abstinence, etc. We have to go to church, attend divine services, be cleansed of our sins and be sanctified through the holy Mysteries which are given by the holy Church for our salvation.We can find out from the holy fathers what significance prayer should have for us. The saints, who, in fact, tested the significance of prayer, wrote about this from experience. Therefore we must read what they wrote and learn from them.This is what St. John Chrysostom writes about prayer:

Prayer is a refuge for those who are shaken, an anchor for those tossed by waves, a walking stick for the infirm, a treasure house for the poor, a stronghold for the rich, a destroyer of sicknesses, a preserver of health. Prayer keeps our virtues intact and quickly removes all evil. If temptation overtakes us, it easily drives it away; if we lose some property or something else, which causes our soul grief, it removes it. Prayer banishes every sorrow, causes good humor, facilitates constant well-being. It is the mother of the love of wisdom. He who can sincerely pray is richer than everyone else, even though he is the poorest of all. On the contrary, he who does not have recourse to prayer, even though he sit on a king's throne, is the poorest of all....

On prayer in church and on attending church services, St. John Chrysostom says the following:

The right confession of dogmas should be combined with righteousness of life and deeds so that we do not achieve our salvation only by halves. Nothing can so facilitate righteousness of conduct and purity of life as being here, in church, and sincere attentiveness. As the body needs food, so the soul needs the study of divine Scriptures, for "man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God" (Matt. 4:4). For this reason those who do not participate in this meal (liturgy) usually suffer hunger. Hear how God threatens such hunger and places it alongside punishment and torture: "Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send forth a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the word of the Lord..." (Amos 8:11). Is it not madness to do everything and take all measures to avoid bodily hunger but willingly to incur spiritual hunger? No, I beg and entreat you, let us not be so badly disposed toward ourselves....

Further, St. John Chrysostom continues:

To be here in church is the source of all blessings. When they leave here, it seems that a husband is more respectful to his wife and a wife is more kind to her husband, since it is not the physical beauty of the body that makes a wife loving, but the virtue of the soul, not cosmetics and beauty aids, not gold and rich clothing, but chastity, meekness, and constant fear of God. This spiritual beauty nowhere develops to such an extent as in this wonderful and divine place (church), where the apostles and prophets wash away, reform, and cleanse old sin and bring forth the brightness of youth; where they extinguish every stain, every blemish, every defilement of our soul .... Let us try, husbands and wives, to rejoice in our inner beauty.

We give very little attention to fasting, considering this to be something that the Church has laid down which is of no importance. But it is divinely established. The commandment to fast is as old as the world. It was the first commandment given by God to man. Because we did not fast, we have been banished from Paradise. Therefore we must fast in order to gain entrance again to Paradise (St. Basil the Great). Not to fast is to be like animals to which such a thing is unknown. Abstinence for the body is food for the soul (St. John Chrysostom). We do not live in order to eat, but we eat in order to live and fulfill our duties. Our Lord Himself fasted, as recounted in the Gospel. Often you and I see someone in need but go past without responding and without helping as we consider that there are no really poor people and no one who has genuine need. But according to the Lord's commandments, we have to help, we are obliged to show mercy. St. John Chrysostom says this about mercifulness:

Consider mercifulness not for what you give but for what you get, not as a loss but a gain, because through it you receive more than you give. If you give bread, you will receive eternal life. You give clothing and receive the robe of immortality; you give shelter under your roof and you receive the heavenly kingdom. You give perishable joys and receive eternal blessings.

Thus we see that in accordance with Scripture, in accordance with the teachings of the Church and the holy fathers, we must struggle in order to go by the Orthodox path to salvation. The holy apostles taught their disciples and instruct us as well: "We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22). The Lord also says to us: "Enter ye in at the straight gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat" (Matt. 7:13,14).

No doubt many of you will say or think: "There they go, they want us to live like monks or hermits. But look at our friends and acquaintances, and everyone around us, they live for their own pleasure, do what they want, and none of them ever think about what is being said here. They do not think about the heavenly kingdom, the future life; they do not spoil their mood by such considerations."

Yes, it's true—they live and pay no attention to the spiritual life. They do not believe in that or in the future life. Therefore there is nothing spiritual in them, they have no peace of soul, or spiritual joy. So they have no restraining center, nothing has any moral or spiritual value for which they might restrain themselves, or for which they might strive. Therefore they are connected with debauchery and lasciviousness, crime, spiritual suicide, and spiritual bankruptcy.

We children of the Orthodox Church have to beware of this and be careful and run away from all this as though from fire.

His Beatitude, Metropolitan Anthony, the founder and first head of our Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, in his wonderful article entitled "How Does Orthodoxy Differ from the Western Denominations?" wrote of the profound difference between our Faith and heterodoxy. He sees this profound difference in the fact that the Orthodox Faith teaches how to arrange one’s life according to the requirements of Christian perfection, while heterodoxy takes from Christianity only that which coincides with the conditions of contemporary cultural life.

Orthodoxy views Christianity as an eternal foundation of true life and demands that each break himself and his life until such time as it agrees with that norm, but the heterodox looks on the bases of contemporary cultured life as on an unshakable fact, and only in areas of its existing private options does he indicate which of them are most approved from the Christian viewpoint. Orthodoxy demands moral heroism—podvig; heterodoxy considers what elements of Christianity would be suited to us in our current way of life. For the Orthodox, a man called to life after death in which true life will begin, the historically-shaped mechanism of contemporary life is an insignificant illusion, but for the heterodox the teaching about the future life is an elevated, ennobling idea, an idea which helps to arrange our real life here better and better.

These remarkable words of Metropolitan Anthony clearly and distinctly point out that bottomless abyss which separates the true Christian Faith—Orthodoxy—from its distortion—heterodoxy. Orthodoxy is a podvig, a striving for eternity, while in heterodoxy we see a strong attachment to the earth, to faith in human progress. Vladyka Anthony points out further that the Orthodox Faith is an ascetic faith, that:

The Golden Age which the worshippers of the 'superstition of progress' await on earth is promised by the Saviour in the life to come, but neither the Latins nor the Protestants want to accept this for the simple reason that (speaking openly) they believe feebly in the resurrection and believe strongly in the happiness of the present life, which, on the contrary, the apostles call a vanishing vapor (James 4:14). This is why the pseudo-Christian West does not want to and cannot understand the negation of this life by Christianity, which commands us to struggle, having put off the old man with his deeds and having put on the new, which is renewed after the image of Him that created him' (Col. 3:9-10).

If we were to follow up all the errors of the West, both those which entered into its teaching of the faith as well as those inherent in its morals . . . we would see that they all are rooted in a misunderstanding of Christianity as the podvig of the gradual self-perfection of the individual.

Christianity is an ascetic religion, Christianity is a teaching about the gradual extirpation of the passions, about the means and conditions of the gradual acquisition of virtues; these conditions are internal, consisting of podvig, and given from without, consisting of our dogmatic beliefs and grace-giving sacraments which have only one purpose: to heal human sinfulness and lead us to perfection.

This is what we must remember, and hold fast to the Holy Orthodox Church and her teachings. In doing so we shall not be far from the path of salvation!

From Orthodox Life, vol. 36, no. 1 (Jan.-Feb., 1986), pp. 40-47.

August 01, 2009

Saint Seraphim (Aug 1).

Sermon by Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco
(18/31 May 1953)

Holiness is the fruit of a man's efforts and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Holiness is reached by him who wears a cross and wages warfare in the name of Christ against the obstacles to holiness, to becoming akin to Christ. These obstacles are sins, sinful habits, firmly rooted in the soul. Struggle against them is the major work of a Christian, and in so far as he purifies his soul, so far will he receive of the Holy Spirit.

St. Seraphim taught the acquisition of the Holy Spirit, and he genuinely acquired it, for the Most Holy Mother of God recognized him as being her own. And the faithful, sincere seekers of the Truth and the Light (as was Motovilov), saw how this great Godpleaser shone with the light of holiness because of their reverence.

How varied are the paths of saints! At the throne of God, in front of everyone is the Most Holy Mother of God, more glorious than the seraphim and all the angels and archangels who stood firm, remaining faithful to God through the fearful struggle that was raised against God by the most radiant of them all, Lucifer, which means Light-bearer, who is now the devil, in other words, the one cast down to the deepest darkness. In this struggle the bright angels came so close to God that it is already impossible for them to step back or become separated from Him.

All the pleasers of God are like the angels in their love and devotion. Just as the angels, they waged war against the dark forces, and became strengthened in the love of God. All of the prophets of the Old Testament lived in such a struggle. Godlessness prevailed; the Law of God was forgotten. The world persecuted them because they interfered with its sinful life. They hid in the "depths of the earth." The world hated them. The prophet Isaiah was sawed in two by a wooden saw; the prophet Jeremiah was trampled in a swamp. And in such surroundings they stood fast in faith and devotion. All righteous ones were sorrowful in the world because they were strangers to the sinful world. All of the apostles suffered in one way or another. Righteous men left for the desert. What made them saints? Suffering? Not suffering alone makes saints, but striving towards God, the love of God, and the labor of overcoming obstacles to holiness, which is the fruit of man's labor and the gift of the Holy Spirit.