September 26, 2009

The Exaltation of the Cross

Sermon by Saint John of Shanghai and San Francisco

Before The Time of Christ, the cross was an instrument of punishment; it evoked fear and aversion. But after Christ's death on the Cross it became the instrument and sign of our salvation. Through the Cross, Christ destroyed the devil; from the Cross He descended into hades and, having liberated those languishing there, led them into the Kingdom of Heaven. The sign of the Cross is terrifying to demons and, as the sign of Christ, it is honored by Christians. The Lord manifested it in the sky to the Emperor Constantine as he was going to Rome to fight the tyrant who had seized power, and the Emperor, having fashioned a standard in the form of a cross, won a total victory. Having been aided by the Cross of the Lord, the Emperor Constantine asked his mother, the Empress Helen, to find the actual Life-giving Cross, and the devout Helen went to Jerusalem where, after much searching, she found it.

Many healings and other miracles were wrought and continue to be wrought by the Life-giving Cross and also by its depiction. Through it the Lord preserves His people from all enemies visible and invisible. The Orthodox Church solemnly celebrates the finding of the Cross of the Lord, recalling at the same time the appearance of the Cross in the sky to the Emperor Constantine. On that and other days dedicated to the Holy Cross, we beseech God that He grant His mercies not only to individual people, but to all Christendom, to the whole Church. This is well expressed by the Troparion to the Cross of the Lord, composed in the eighth century, when Saint Cosmas, Bishop of Maiuma, a friend of St. John Damascene, wrote the service to the Exaltation of the Cross of the Lord.

"Save, O Lord, Thy people, and bless Thine inheritance, granting victory to (right-believing) kings over adversaries, and by Thy Cross preserving Thy community."

The beginning of this prayer is taken from the twenty-seventh Psalm. In the Old Testament the word "people" designated only those who confessed the true faith, people faithful to God. "Inheritance" referred to everything which properly belonged to God, God's property, which in the New Testament is the Church of Christ. In praying for the salvation of God's people (the Christians), both from eternal torments and from earthly calamities, we beseech the Lord to bless, to send down grace, His good gifts upon the whole Church as well, and inwardly strengthen her.

The petition for granting "victory to kings," i.e., to the bearers of supreme authority, has its basis in Psalm 143, verse 10, and recalls the victories King David achieved by God's power, and likewise the victories granted Emperor Constantine through the Cross of the Lord. This appearance of the Cross made emperors who had formerly persecuted Christians into defenders of the Church from her external enemies, into "external bishops," to use the expression of the holy Emperor Constantine.

The Church, inwardly strong by God's grace and protected outwardly, is, for Orthodox Christians, "the city of God," God's community, His commonwealth, where the path to the Heavenly Jerusalem has its beginning. Various calamities have shaken the world, entire peoples have disappeared, cities and states have perished, but the Church, in spite of persecutions and even internal conflicts, stands invincible; for the gates of hell shall not prevail against her (Matt. 16:18). Today, when world leaders try in vain to establish order on earth, the only dependable instrument of peace is that about which the Church sings:

The Cross is the guardian of the whole world;

the Cross is the beauty of the Church,

the Cross is the might of kings;

the Cross is the confirmation of the faithful,

the Cross is the glory of angels and the wounding of demons.

(Exapostilarion of the Exaltation of the Cross)

September 20, 2009

Master, Which is the Great Commandment?

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 22: 35-46

From The Explanation of the Gospel of St. Matthew

by Blessed Theophylact, Archbishop of Ochrid and Bulgaria

34-40. But when the Pharisees had heard that He had put the Sadducees to silence, they were gathered together. Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Out of immeasurable spite this man comes forward to put the Lord to the test. For when they saw the Sadducees put to shame and the Lord praised for His wisdom, they came forward to test Him to see if He would add something to the first commandment, and thus give them the chance to accuse Him of being an innovator who corrects the law. But the Lord discloses their malice, and because they came not to learn, but rather, devoid of love, to show their envy and their spite, He reveals to them the exceedingly great love expressed by the commandments. And He teaches that we ought not to love God partially, but to give all of ourselves to God. For we perceive these three distinctions of the human soul: the vegetative, the animal, and the rational. When the soul grows and is nourished and begets what is like unto it, it resembles the plants; when it experiences anger or desire, it is like the animals; when it understands, it is called rational. See, then, how these three facets are indicated here. Thou shalt love thy God with all thy heart—this is the animal part of a man; and with all thy soul [or life]—this is the vegetative part of a man, for plants are alive and animate; and with all thy mind—this is the rational. So one must love God with all one’s soul, that is, attend to Him with all the parts and powers of one’s soul. This is the first and great commandment, training us in piety. The second is like unto it, exhorting us to do to other men what is just and right. For there are two things which lead to perdition, evil doctrines and a corrupt life. Lest we fall into unholy doctrines, we must love God; so that we do not lead a corrupt life, we must love our neighbor. [Levit. 19:18] For he who loves his neighbor fulfills all the commandments, and he who fulfills all the commandments, loves God. So by means of each other these two commandments are welded together and united, containing within themselves all the other commandments. Who is it that loves God and his neighbor, but also steals, or bears grudges, or commits adultery, or murders, or fornicates? This lawyer, then, at the onset came to test Him but then, hearing Christ’s answer, he amended his ways, and the Lord praised him, as Mark also says that Jesus looked at him with love, and said, Thou art not far from the kingdom of heaven. [Mk. 12:34]

41-46. While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, saying, What think ye of Christ? Whose son is He? They say unto Him, The son of David. He saith unto them, How then doth David in spirit call Him Lord, saying, the Lord said unto my Lord, Sit Thou on My right hand, till I make Thine enemies the footstool of Thy feet? If David then call Him Lord, how is He his son? And no man was able to answer Him a word, neither dared any man from that day forth ask Him any more questions. Since they thought He was a mere man, He overturns their belief and by means of the prophecy of David [Ps. 109:1] teaches the truth, that He is also the Lord, proclaiming His own divinity. For when the Pharisees said that the Christ was the son of David, that is, a mere man, He says, How then does David name Him Lord, and he does not simply name Him Lord, but in spirit, that is, as revealed to him by the grace of the Spirit? He does not say this to deny that He is the son of David, but to show that He is not a mere man, descended only from the Davidic seed. The Lord asks these questions so that if they would answer, "We do not know," they might ask and learn; or if they would answer the truth, that they might believe; or if they could not answer, that they might be put to shame and leave, no longer daring to interrogate Him.

September 14, 2009

Does Universal Healthcare mean No signs of Faith in Hospitals

VIEWPOINT: Government commands too much of the public square

2009-09-10 18:32:25


In the United States there are many participants in the public square — business, entertainment, education, family, religion, federal government, state governments, charities, health care, etc. These participants are constantly bumping up against each other, sometimes cooperating, perpetually struggling to maintain (or expand) their share of space in the public square.

This social arrangement is part of the checks and balances that help prevent any one player from monopolizing power. In the former Soviet Union, everything was the state and nothing was outside the state. The state occupied all the space in the public square. Fortunately, our founders established a society that opposed the communist model. However, in recent times our national political imagination has undergone a transformation that was as stealthy as it was ill-considered.

For most of our history we did not, but do now, equate education with the state. Prayer is no longer allowed in education because it has become a violation of the separation of church and state, and since the state (federal government) contributes funds to education, education has become the state. In the past education was an autonomous participant in society, but has now been hijacked by the state, and we as a people have blithely assent to the collapse of the wall of separation that used to exist between education and state. The union of these two was unwise and has contributed to unhealthy consequences in our American democratic experiment.

Now we are being asked to allow the state to occupy even more of the public square by the union of health care and state. There are countless reasons (especially in dollars) to oppose this, but there is one I have not heard addressed yet. My concern is this: if we allow the union of health care and state, how long will it take for health care to become the state, and how long before the ACLU imposes its anti-religious doctrine of separation of church and state onto health care?

With its coffers overflowing from the spoils of its faith-based blackmail imposed on taxpayers through litigation related to education, the ACLU will then turn its attention to banishing religion from health care, further imposing its liberal secular agenda.

The ACLU will demand that chapels be removed from hospitals; that nurses and doctors not be allowed to wear religious jewelry to work; that ministers be restricted from hospital visits; that Bibles, religious symbols, and Christmas trees be purged from health care facilities; that nurses and doctors be banned from praying at hospitals. (Principal Frank Lay and Athletic Director Robert Freeman of Pace High School on Sept. 17 face criminal charges in federal court brought by the ACLU for a mealtime prayer). It happened in education and it will happen in health care if it is taken over by government.

It is a predictable pattern — unite a particular space in the public square with government, then the ACLU purges that space of religion and makes hundreds of thousands of dollars from taxpayers in the process.

Here is another example: To honor World War I veterans, in 1934 some private citizens in Arizona made two pieces of metal into a cross and mounted it on a hill 11 miles from the nearest highway. Everything was fine until President Clinton incorporated the site into the Mojave National Preserve. It was then the ACLU saw opportunity and filed suit to have the cross removed as a violation of the Constitution.

What did the ACLU get for attempting to destroy a symbol of faith and a statement of honor for American heroes? It received tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees for its lawyers to finance even more forms of religious bigotry.

A former ACLU lawyer, Rees Lloyd, who resigned in revolt because of their overzealous, anti-religious bigotry, now works with the American Legion and they are on the forefront in the battle to preserve the rights of Americans and end the suffocating wickedness of legalized tyranny. Lloyd called the ACLU “the Taliban of American liberal secularism.” In March 2001 the Taliban destroyed the 2,000-year-old Buddha sculptures in Afghanistan, and in March 2002 the ACLU tried to destroy the Mojave Desert Cross. [Editor’s note: The case is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.]

The American people are saying “no” to the government takeover of health care and have many reasons for doing so, and the preservation of the free exercise of religion is one of those reasons. We have to continue to awaken from our political slumbers and protect our freedoms from encroachment by an ever-sprawling government.

For More Info on the the Mojave memorial see:

September 10, 2009

The Beheading of St. John the Baptist

"Having suffered for the truth, thou hast gone rejoicing to declare to those in hell the good tidings of God having appeared in the flesh" (Troparion of the Feast, Aug. 29).

The whole life of St. John the Forerunner, from its first days, was entirely dedicated to the One Who came after him. In the days of infant massacres in Bethlehem, he was also sought by Herod, and his mother Elizabeth fled with him into the desert, where she died on the fortieth day. About the same time, his father Zacharias was killed by the servants of Herod, in the Temple. The desert raised John, and he remained there in silence, for thirty years, until the word of God came unto him, commanding him to preach repentance and call on men to prepare the way of the Lord (Luke 3:2).

About half a year after the beginning of his ministry, having prepared the Jews to expect the speedy coming of the Messiah, and surrounding himself with disciples, most of whom became the first disciples of Christ, John the Baptist, baptized Christ. The mystery of the Holy Trinity was then revealed to him. Having informed those with him, that the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world was present, John gradually faded into the shadows and everyone began follow the new Teacher.

However, John rather than grieving over this, rejoiced. When his especially devoted disciples asked him about his lack of concern over his decreasing fame, he replied with words that clearly expressed his personality. "I am not the Christ, but I am sent before Him. He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, who standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom's voice: therefore this my joy is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:28-50).

Soon after this, his word thundered forth, accusing Herod, so he was cast into a prison, where his earthly life ended. He was beheaded during Herod's banquet. The beheading of St. John the Baptist, which cut off his earthly life, at the same time, started his new and glorious ministry as Forerunner.

The soul of St. John the Baptist, departing his ascetic body, went to hell, the place where the souls of all who died before the Savior's death on the Cross. The souls of everyone beginning from Adam were here.

However, the holy and righteous soul of St. John the Baptist did not go there in order to experience a dark condition of alienation and distance from God. The "friend of the Bridegroom," who had baptized Him, suffered for his righteousness, bore the hope of the coming Kingdom of God, preached to all preparing the way for Him, was inseparably bound to Him through his devotion, testifying everywhere for Christ, as His messenger, sent before Him..

Having descended to hell, John continued the ministry that he had performed on earth—the preaching about the Kingdom of God drawing near. The souls of the righteous ones, from the Old Testament were languishing in hell, awaiting the fulfillment of the coming of the One Who would conquer the serpent, as had been told to Adam by God. The prophets, who had seen beforehand in spirit, the coming of the Messiah awaited the fulfillment of the revelations that had been made to them. These souls, deprived of the light of God's glory, tormented with waiting for the fulfillment of their hope, John came, having descended to hell, bringing the Joyful tidings that soon the kingdom of hell would be destroyed. Those who awaited the Redeemer would soon behold Him and be liberated by Him. John testified that the Son of God had already come to earth and that after baptizing Him, he had witnessed the Holy Spirit descending and remaining on Him (John 1:33-34).

The preaching of John concerning the coming of the Messiah was addressed not only to the souls of the righteous, but to all who were in hell. He appeared in hell to prepare the way of the Lord, just as he had prepared it on earth. John the Baptist’s descent to hell and his preaching of the Gospel was the proclamation of joy to those who were languishing there.

The souls of all the dead, save for the most inveterate sinners, heeded the preaching of the Baptist. Therefore, when Christ descended to hell after His death on the Cross, He was greeted not only by the Old Testament righteous ones, but also by the souls of those who once were disobedient and opposed the long suffering of God in the days of Noah and during the rest of the time that sin reigned among men (1 Peter 3:20).

Hell was destroyed by the Christ’s soul descent into it; the dark confinement shone with light; the souls of the reposed were led into the Kingdom of Heaven. The entryway to this ruin of hell was the descent of the Baptist. Having fulfilled his ministry as Forerunner on earth, he appeared as the Forerunner of Christ, in hell. His beheading is not only the culmination of his earthly exploit, but also the beginning of a new and glorious ministry.

Among them, that are born of women, there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist (Matt. 11:11; Luke 7:28), Christ said of him. This is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before Thy face, which shall prepare Thy way before Thee (Luke 7:27).

These words of the Lord Himself, testify of the spiritual greatness of John and his high purpose in the work of the salvation of the human race. He appeared as the servant and preacher of God as no other single man in the world, having begun to preach and praise Christ before his birth, and finishing it even after his death, ascending with Christ into the Kingdom of Heaven after the destruction of hell. As the greatest of the righteous, a worthy place was prepared for him in the Kingdom of his Friend, where he remains now, awaiting its revelation in all glory and the triumphant feast of the Lamb of God in the Second Coming, when He will gather His wheat into the garner, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Matt. 3.12; Luke 3.17).

His beheading was his final exploit on earth, and the last step for the receiving of the greatest reward in the Kingdom of Heaven; while for all those in hell it was the rising of the morning star, before the appearance of the Son of Righteousness.

Just as the nativity of St. John the Forerunner and Baptist is the beginning of the Gospel for the living, so is his beheading the beginning of the Gospel for the dead. "The glorious beheading of the Forerunner is part of a certain Divine dispensation, for he preached to those in hell the coming of the Savior" (Kontakion of the Feast). "Be glad, Baptist, and let thy spirit dance: for thou dost accuse the godless Herod, and dost preach to those in hell, saying: Our salvation hath drawn near" (Canticle 4 of the Canon).

"He who came before Thy Birth and Thy Divine Passion is, through a sword, in the nethermost parts of the earth. John, the prophet and messenger of Thy descent there, cries as the voice of the Word: Do ye dead, as Giver of life, do ye blind, as Giver of light, do ye prisoners, as Deliverer, exalt Christ above all forever" (Canticle 8 of the Canon).

Sermon by St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco

September 05, 2009

The Parable of the Vineyard Workers.

13th Sunday after Pentecost.
Matthew 21: 33-42

Jesus tells a parable. An owner rents out a vineyard. Again and again he sends messengers to collect the rent. Finally he sends his son feeling that they will respect him. Seeing the son, the tenants decide to kill him that the inheritance might be theirs.

The interpretation of this parable is obvious. The vineyard is the Jewish nation. The householder who so carefully planted the vineyard and hedged it in and made everything ready for the time when it should bear fruit is God, who chose the Jews to be His people, protected them from their enemies, nurtured them in His truth, and trained them in His ways. The cultivators to whom the vineyard was loaned are the Jewish leaders in the succeeding generations. The series of messengers who were sent by the householder to receive a percentage of the fruit of the vineyard and who were stoned and killed are the prophets who were sent by God to Israel to speak His word, and to remind them of their destiny. The householder’s son who was sent as a last appeal to them is none other than Jesus Himself.

This parable was spoken by Jesus on Tuesday of Holy Week just before His crucifixion. It was designed to awaken the Pharisees, the scribes and the priests to the terrible sins they had committed in the past against the prophets and the great sin they were about to commit against God’s own Son.

Jesus has much to tell us in this parable about God, about man, and about Himself.

God’s Love.

First, about God and His love. One would have expected God to put his foot down and destroy those tenants who had taken over His property and treated His servants so shamefully. Instead, He keeps making repeated attempts to win them over by sending more and more messengers. God’s love for man is truly incomprehensible! Who among men would tolerate the cruel treatment that God’s servants were subjected to? Who among men would think of sending his own son to a people who had beaten, killed and stoned others that had been sent? Yet this is exactly what God does! "They will respect my son," he says. "But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir; come, let us kill him and have the inheritance.’ And they took him out of the vineyard, and killed him."

We shall never come to terms with this parable unless we see ourselves involved in it. How do we treat the messengers God sends us today? Certainly, we do not stone them. We’re not that cruel any more. We have other — more refined — ways of getting rid of them. We ignore them. We pay lip service to them. We call ourselves Christians and are members of the Church but the real God some of us worship is not Christ but self. We have many ways even today of rejecting God’s messengers.

"They will respect my son" said God. Is not this the chief end of man? To respect the Son of God when He comes with His claims and promises? To follow Him single-mindedly as Lord and find in Him the fulfillment of life?

God’s Generosity.
The parable tells us secondly of God’s generosity. The vineyard was not a wilderness; it was already "planted" and equipped with everything that was necessary to make the work of the cultivators easy and profitable. It was fenced in by a thick-set thorn hedge to keep out wild animals and thieves. It had a wine press and a watchtower which provided lodging for the cultivators and a spot from which to watch for thieves. Is not God just as generous with us? He not only gives us a task to do; He also gives us the means to do it. He gives us the gift of life; He entrusts to our care this whole big beautiful earth; gives each one of us special talents; He endows us with a mind to create computers and spaceships and solve intricate problems. Truly who is more generous than God?

God’s Trust.

In addition to God’s love and generosity the parable tells us of God’s trust. The owner goes away and leaves the vineyard in sole possession of the cultivators. They are under no restraint whatsoever. He trusts them completely. They are to be their own bosses running the vineyard as they see fit with no one standing over them. Doesn’t God pay us the same compliment? Doesn’t He give us the freedom to run life as we choose? Truly, one of the wonderful things about God is that He allows us to do so much for ourselves. He endows us with the great gift of free will.

God’s Patience.

The parable tells us of God’s patience. The master sent messenger after messenger to the tenants "to collect his debt." Not once or twice but countless times He gave the cultivators the chance to pay the debt they owed. When the first messenger was abused, He did not treat them with vengeance. He gave them chance after chance.

How wonderful the patience of God! If God had been a man with human reactions, He would long ago have smashed this universe to bits in sheer despair at the sins and follies of men. But not God! He is patient with each one of us even in our sinning. He does not cast us off. To the very end, as with the penitent thief, He waits for us to repent and return to Him. An atheist once tried to prove that there is no God. Dramatically, he pulled his watch and said, "If there is a God, I will give Him one minute to strike me dead." The audience waited through the minute which seemed interminable. Finally, someone rose and asked, "Does the little man think he can exhaust the patience of Almighty God in one minute?"

God’s Judgment

The parable speaks of God’s judgment. God is very patient. Men might even take advantage of His patience but in the end come judgment and justice. God’s forbearance is long but in the end He acts. Having sent His Son into the world in the person of Jesus, God can do nothing more. There is no further appeal. Ultimately we are all to be judged by our response to God’s Son.

"When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?" They said to him, "He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons." The great task which should have belonged to the Jews, said Jesus, will be taken away from them and given to the Gentiles. The Jews should have been the nation to lead all men to God. Instead they rejected God’s Son when He came; so the task of evangelizing the world would be given to the Gentiles whom they despised.

God is merciful, patient, generous, trusting, but He is also just. The cultivators thought that they could kill the son and possess the vineyard for themselves. They must have thought that the owner was too far away to act or that he was dead. Many today still feel that way about God. But He is still very much alive and in charge of things. Because of this, the day of reckoning always comes. He has placed us here in positions of trust, but one day He will return, and, when He does, He will have the right to expect something from us.

Man’s Sin.

In addition to speaking to us of God’s love, trust, generosity, patience and judgment, this parable tells us of man’s sin. We see it in the stoning and killing of the prophets. We see it ultimately in the crucifixion of God’s Son. "This is the heir; let us kill him and have the inheritance." We see man’s sin also in the tenants trying to possess the vineyard. They claim for themselves what has only been lent to them. The stewards try to become the owners. They try to "play" God. They lose sight of the fact that they are tenants enjoying a vineyard they did not plant. Don’t most of us do the same? We have this "master-of-the-house" attitude especially when we’ve been a little successful in life? We assume all the credit for our success.

A teacher once said to a student, "You’re a gifted boy." The student blushed and hardly knew which way to turn. He was embarrassed and self-conscious because he felt the talents belonged to him. What the teacher meant when he used the word "gifted" was that his gifts were not his but were entrusted to him by God. How often we try to take over the vineyard and forget the owner? We receive the gifts and forget the Giver.

The Son Himself!

Finally, Jesus says something very important about Himself in this parable. Last of all, says the parable, God sent His Son to them. He had sent servant after servant, messenger after messenger. Now comes not a servant or a messenger, not another Moses or Isaiah, but the Son Himself, God in Person! The parable contains one of the clearest claims Jesus ever made of His uniqueness. He is superior to even the greatest who came before Him. They brought God’s messages; He brings God Himself. They revealed God’s plans; He opens God’s heart. They told men what God wanted; He shows them God in Person. St. Mark expressed it this way, "He had yet one, a beloved son: He sent him last unto them." The author of Hebrews says, "In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son ..." (Hebrews 1:1-2). Here is God’s last word, God’s final invitation, God’s ultimate appeal. This is it! There is nothing more God can do. In his final days, just before His crucifixion, Jesus used this parable to make it crystal clear to the leaders of Israel exactly who He is and what His mission is.

Far from being an "absentee" landlord, who long ago created this world for Himself, then left it and forgot all about it, God is One Who is constantly present, caring, loving, patient, generous, sending messenger after messenger, ultimately even His own Son to offer us the gift of heaven.

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