Feast during the Great Fast
This most solemn feast in honor of the Birthgiver of God is celebrated during the Great Fast. From the rich spiritual tradition of the Body of Christ in the very beginning of salvation which it initiates for mankind, to the very end of the life of our dear Saviour, Mary is prominent. The angel announces to her the profound dignity bestowed on; her because of her initial and ongoing faith response to the overtures our heavenly Father makes to redeem mankind after the fall. She is a necessary component in man's restoration to grace. Today her favored place is made known to us, so we feast spiritually in soul and body because of our impending redemption. And on this day we recall the prophecy made at the time she, along with the foster father, Joseph, bring the Christ Child to the temple to meet those whom He will save. Simeon cannot contain himself in the presence of the Lord and announces what is about to happen during this sacred time prior to the Resurrection. "Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: 'This child is destined to be the downfall and rise of many in Israel, a sign that will be opposed - and you yourself shall be pierced with a sword - so that the thoughts of many hearts will be laid bare"' Luke 2: 34, 35.
So during this time of the Great Fast, we think about the words directed to her dignity by our Lord, "Behold your mother" John 19: 27.
They had come to remove the body of the Lord from the Cross. Reverently they lift the crown of thorns from his sacred brow. Gently, slowly, they lift the body of the Saviour and give him back to his mother. A lifeless corpse, all bruised, all mangled beyond belief that human beings could do this to their God, all disjointed from the crucifixion, all clotted and bloodied, bespattered with ugly and gross spittle mud and human defilement And they return him to his mother's loving arms. Now He rests his head upon her knee once again. Long ago, as an Infant Child, He nestled in her loving and protective arms. Now He ends his earthly life in the same way He began his sojourn among us; a sad tale of the way we chose to relate to our Creator and our God so many times in life. Now He is dead. His disfigured face is white as snow; his eyes are full of dust; his lips are pale and motionless like a stone; his pierced side and heart is like clay, no longer beating with love for mankind whom he created. All this simply because we chose this and we determined how our God would end his earthly mission among us.
Long ago, she sought him sorrowing as only a mother could. Before she found him in the temple, among the vast crowd, teaching and begging them to repent and change their lives. Now she seeks him and finds him without difficulty. She takes his hand lovingly and turns his head towards her. What a horrible sight these people have made! There is no answering response in his sensitive fingers, there is no look of recognition, no smile in the eyes, no word of love on these stilled lips. Yes, He is her God and her Creator. But He is also her child, flesh or her flesh, bone of her bone and blood of her blood in which He is besmirched. Even though now no one wants him, He is nestled in her arms and He is dead!
It is the result of our wicked sinfulness which has devastated his being. Wearily, wistfully, longingly, she is eager for his return to the safety and security of her home, but she understood his mission but did not imagine where it would take him. Now He has come back to her, not the way He left, but lifeless in her arms at the foot of the Cross. She can look upon him now and she may count the cruel wounds. She may moisten with her tears each purple bruise and deep red cut and every gash in his flesh which now sticks to her garments because of the multiplicity of pain we inflicted on him simply because of the good He has done for each of us. She can do all she wants to do as a loving mother, but He is dead! Life itself lies dead in her arms, cruelly stricken!
Why is it so? Why did it have to be? All mourners of the whole world! We, who during this Great Fast season hear his words echo from the cross, who with us, behold the death of every heart and soul's love, the very source of our life, come to recall this momentous event in salvation history. What began in absolute joy on the day of her Annunciation is now completed on the day of our redemption. All of us have cried out in the depth of our heart and soul the same questions that burned in the recesses of the Mother of God. Why did it have be to be? Come and let us see, once again why it is so. Come to where Mary stood at the cross of Jesus and learn why it had to be. Come and let us see and learn what our life, our actions, our decisions, our lack of faith response to God's first shown love would produce. How has the narrative of our life brought us to this site?
Mary was present on the afternoon of Golgotha not only as his earthly mother who followed her God and Saviour to the last, bitter ending of his life. She was there, in the plan of our heavenly Father, representing all mankind. She prayed there in our stead. She witnessed the sacrifice of the Son of God for our sins, and she adored, she praised, she begged the favor and forgiveness of our God, instead and behalf of every created soul. And Mary did so more perfectly and more efficaciously that we or
any other creature could have done. And by reason of her perfection, her offering, her prayers, her participation in the agony of Golgotha's cross we are more acceptable to our heavenly Father than all the prayer offerings, the participation of all mankind since the beginning of time. Only because no one had to coerce her, no one had to beg her, no one had to force her to be present at the salutary death of her Son on the wooden beams.
What about us today? What about us in our time? Who wants to come to the Divine Liturgy and is honored to be in the company and presence of the Son of God? Who wants to witness the very self same sacrifice of praise being offered today? Today we must continually remind, must coerce souls, sometimes even threaten and prod them, frighten them into the presence of God. What has our precious Christianity degenerated into? What kind of faith do we profess or believe?
Now perhaps as we celebrate this glorious feast of the Annunciation can we better understand the words of the Lord from the Cross, "Behold your mother!" She is our example of perfect faith commitment, enduring faith commitment constant and continual faith response. Not only did Golgotha bring about rebirth of soul for mankind, it also showed us the resolute faith of the faithful, not an empty faith, not a shallow faith, not a superficial faith, not words merely, not empty professions, but confirmed in life and living pious action. Mary is made by her Divine Son the Mother of mankind, participating as we are all called to do in the grace of salvation of our common lot, adding our grace to that of our Saviour on the Cross. Of old it was said of Eve and all mothers, "In sorrow shall you give birth to children" Genesis 3: 16. Mary, the second Eve and spiritual mother of all mankind now brings forth her children on Golgotha's height and by representing us in perfect response to his love, by representing us at this august sacrifice to the Eternal Father, she enlivens our hope as only a faithful and devoted mother can.
Just as our heavenly Father confers on us earthly physical life, our God also gives us a spiritual life which we are to pursue with vigor, zeal and enthusiasm that must exceed all the efforts we invest in continuing life here on earth. And so no tongue can describe the pain in heart and soul which Mary endured when she sees so many of her spiritual children neglect the dignity which our God has given them in baptism, and ignore the salvation that is offered on the Cross. All that it takes is cooperation
with the grace of the Holy Spirit to be what we are all called to be, to become holy as our baptismal vocation teaches us. We can apply to all that sorrow the words of Scripture: "Boundless as these is your brokenheartedness" Lamentations 2: 13. Again we continue to read, "0 see if there be any sorrow like my sorrow" Lamentations 1: 12.
Only a mother's love can grasp the depth of neglect in a wayward child, a recalcitrant child who will not heed a mother's plea for improvement, in spiritual life, in remaining faithful to the Saviour in spiritual life. And we can understand how Mary, the Birthgiver of God, our spiritual mother feels even now when she sees so many errant children, so many depraved children, so many who should belong to her Son, floating and bobbing along on the waves of life like flotsam, totally ignoring what Christ accomplished for us on the Cross.
"Behold your mother" are words which should be near and dear to us because by them we have a heavenly intercessor, a mother who seeks also the salvation of our souls so ardently, she experiences its intensity which each individual believer who has fallen to sin. But we ignore her as much as we ignore her divine Son and our God.
We ought to be encouraged b y the vocation of Mary enunciated today on this feast of the Annunciation. Her vocation is the same as that of the Lord. She ardently desires the salvation of all humanity, but we are faithless people if we do not respond.
During this solemn feast in the Great Fast which we are called upon to joyously celebrate, sorrow is ours because we fail to walk the path she did in following Christ. Today we must learn to trust the devotion of Mary to her Son. Praise the Birthgiver as her blessed cousin, Elizabeth praised her, "Blessed is the fruit of your womb." Seek seriously her intercession and vow to remain faithful to Christ her Son and pursue as avidly as she did her vocation in always following him.
The man whose name means "peaceable," was the son of David and Bathsheba. He was the third king of Israel. He is known to this day as the wisest man who ever lived which means he put to use all the knowledge he absorbed along with heavenly grace provided by our heavenly Father.
Although he was an extremely intelligent man, later in life he became disobedient to God and sacrificed everything on the altar of sexual excess. He became so satisfied with himself and so self-absorbed there was no where else for him to rise, but turn inwardly on himself; hence the sexual indulgence he never denied himself because of the vapid emptiness which caught up with him. Thus he could not be sustained in virtue and was left to his own imaginary devices.
His triumph was simply that he built up the kingdom of Israel to its greatest level in material wealth and land. His sorrow was that he reduced his people to servitude and abject spiritual poverty, a reflection of his own existence.
Early in his reign, Solomon visited the city of Gibeon, not far from Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice to the Lord. That night in a dream, our heavenly Father paid Solomon a visit of his own with an encounter and opportunity for greatness. His invitation was stunning: "Ask for whatever you want me to give you."
Solomon stepped back in surprise. "Just think of the possibilities," he thought to himself. "You have shown great kindness to your servant, my father, David," Solomon began seriously and sincerely, "because he was faithful to you and righteous and upright in heart. You have continued this great kindness to him and given him a son to sit on his throne this very day ... But I am only a child and do not know how to carry out my duties ... So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong, for who is able to govern this great nation of yours?"
"I will give you a wise and discerning heart," the Lord responded, "so that there will never have been anyone like you, or will there ever be. Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for - both riches and honor - so that in your life time you will have no equal among kings."
Solomon's eyes widened and his pulse quickened with wonder. Wisdom, riches, honor, what else could any man possibly hope for? But then God added a sobering stipulation: "If you walk in my ways and obey my statutes and commands as David your father did, I will give you a long life." Solomon's face flushed with shame. He had already been disobedient. His first act as king had been to take the daughter of the pharaoh of Egypt as his wife. But Solomon was moved by God's promise through his dream. When he returned to Jerusalem, he stood before the Ark of the Covenant and vowed his allegiance and obedience to the God of his father.
Soon God's provision of a wise and discerning heart was put to the test. One day, two women stood before Solomon. "The living child is mine," one woman pleaded seriously. Pointing to the other woman, she said, "It was she who rolled over in the night and smothered her child to death. Then, before I awoke, she gave me her dead child and took mine as her own." "No, the living child is mine," the second woman demanded. "It was she who smothered her child."
"Bring me a sword," King Solomon commanded of his servants. "Now cut the living child in two and give half to one and half to the other." The women - and all who were present - were shocked by the king's heartless plan." Please, my Lord," cried one of the women, "Give her the living baby. Do not kill him!" And with that the king declared, "Give the living baby to the first woman. Do not kill him; she is his mother."
Even world-renowned dignitaries paid visits to Solomon. They came to see what he had accomplished and to test his wisdom with "hard questions." Such was the visit to Jerusalem by the queen of Sheba - a trip of about twelve hundred miles. She arrived with a very great caravan - with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold and precious stones. The queen also came with all her questions. And, to her amazement, nothing was too hard for the king to explain and resolve for her.
Solomon accomplished many good things as Israel's third king. He orchestrated the building of a palace and the temple, a permanent house of worship and an apt dwelling place for the Ark of the Covenant. Built to elegant specifications, this structure mirrored Solomon's love for God and his eye for beauty and attention to smallest detail.
Politically he organized the kingdom into twelve districts and appointed governors for each one. Educationally, Solomon held clinics and "described plant life, from the cedars of Lebanon to the hyssop that grew out of the walls. He taught people about animals and birds, reptiles and fish." A lover of the arts, Solomon spoke three thousand proverbs and his songs numbered a thousand and five.
Despite all this, Solomon was a failure. His great accomplishments did not compensate for his unwillingness to "keep God's commandments." Solomon loved foreign women and had an insatiable appetite for them. In spite of God's specific instructions, the king married not one, b but multiple women from neighboring countries. His rationale was that he was building coalitions for peace with these nations. How could the Moabites, the Ammonites, the Edomites, the Hittites and Sidonians attack the Israelites when the population included their daughters and grandchildren?
However, the law of God was clear enough. As a nation, Israel was young and vulnerable. Intermarrying with foreigners meant the unavoidable blending of their infant faith with pagan beliefs. God knew that his people - including someone as strong and wise as Solomon - would have a difficult time standing against extraneous persuasions. He was right. And not only was Solomon to blame for not stopping this cancer, he was guilty of causing and encouraging it.
Like Saul and David before him, God recruited Israel's kings from the ranks of mortal and sinful men. Saul's transgressions led to his destruction. David's led to contrition and repentance. With no legitimate excuse, Solomon did not follow David's example. Instead, like Saul, his flagrant, scandalous and very public disregard for God's law led to his own spiritual destruction and death.
God's promise was clear: "Obey me and live a long life. Disobey me and die." In the end, the wisdom of Solomon could not save him. Just like with each of us, With this man, too, there is a legacy that could have been.
It is one of the most incredible moments of all of Scripture, of all salvation history. The Lord of Israel, the Creator God of the universe, makes an offer to a mortal man - Solomon, the son of David and newly anointed king of Israel. Like the archetypal; genie in the bottle, God asks Solomon to make a wish. But Solomon's historic opportunity becomes his greatest tragedy.
It may very well be the saddest story in Scripture.
It is the account of a man who literally had everything. The only thing more difficult to comprehend than his great mind, his enormous wealth, and his enormous power in the world were the prospects of what he could have done with his gifts. Solomon had the incredible potential capacity to change his world.
But in spite of doing many good things during his life time, he actually squandered his potential. He built a name for himself which is probably his problem. He did not advance the name of God, nor did he advance the message from heaven which was his primary obligation as a ruler appointed by God. The reason for his pathetic failure is actually quite clear. He broke the commandments: "You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven or on the earth or beneath the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them for I, the Lord your God am a jealous God" Exodus 20: 4, 5. Solomon did know better. As his father David lay dying, Solomon heard these words: "Observe what the Lord your God requires; walk in his ways, and keep his decrees and commands, his laws and requirements, as written in the Law of Moses, so that you may prosper in all you do and wherever you go."
Somehow Solomon reasoned because of his brilliant mind, that he was an exception to the rule, the one man who could violate God's laws without suffering the consequences. But God was not going to ignore all the idols and altars he set up to please his foreign wives, as accustomed as they were to worshipping various idols. Because of his infidelity, the kingdom of Israel split apart after his death with Judah and its capital, Jerusalem in the south and Israel and its capital, Samaria, in the north. Too late did Solomon discover a man before God's throne is judged by what is in his heart, "Set your affection on things above, not on things of the earth" Colossians 3: 2.
Instead of leaving behind a world-changing legacy, he left us with a graphics lesson in eternal fruitlessness with no excuses.
If our heavenly Father encountered each of us and made the same offer, what would we ask for? He is living proof it is entirely possible to live a life of tremendous blessing and still stray from God to fall into the sin of idolatry. How did the condition of his heart deteriorate over time? How did he degenerate from a believer into a lapsed enemy of God? He demonstrates prosperity can be dangerous to our spiritual health.
Fourth Sunday of the Great Fast
St. John Climacus whom the Church calls to mind on this fourth Sunday of our pilgrimage through the Great Fast wrote the famous treatise, `Ladder of Divine Ascent. In it he describes how we are to become holy and ascend to heaven. He emphasizes we must be communicants of the Church of Christ for this to occur in our relationship with our heavenly Father. Simply because we must pursue the way of God, the directive from heaven for salvation; we do not belong to Chris on our terms, but those enunciated and taught by the Church. We are not a mere earthly club; we are the vehicle of salvation. Just how is it that we are communicants of the Church. No we do not say members, but communicants. Everyone agrees this comes about in the sacramental Mystery of Baptism, but this is an incomplete answer to an important question. We are not just `nebulous" isolated freelancer members of the Church. We must be tied, we must be grafted onto Christ and part of him; we must be bound to the Lord in a real and tangible way that can only occur by being a communicant of an Orthodox parish. Do we not profess and sing truth at the baptismal ceremony as well as elsewhere in the liturgical life of the Church, "All you who have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ" Galatians 3: 27? If we believe this is true, how can He be removed and taken off so easily and readily? We must be fed and nurtured here. This local parish church is the sheepfold where sheep and lambs belonging to Christ gather to be eagerly fed and nourished. It is here that quality food, healthy sustenance in the Eucharist and an explanation of the gospel meaning is offered us. We cannot eat from multiple tables at the same time. We are called to dine with Saviour in one place, our parish church. He invites us to the banquet in his palace, not in that of another place or idea or worldly understanding.
In our parish church if we live in the area surrounding Freehold and its immediate communities, according to our Orthodox understanding of what a parish faith community is, we belong to the local parish church, the immediate parish. We are called to dine with the Saviour here if we live here, to be associated with people who likewise share our community.
So many Orthodox still do not understand what we are about, what genuine Orthodoxy ought be concerned with. We give witness to Orthodoxy in our immediate community. There is no necessity to travel to distant places to worship. We have found out that so many living in this area claim to belong elsewhere, even Perth Amboy, Rahway, New York city! But we know as a matter of actual act this is only partially true. Yes, they pay their so-called "dues" there, but neither their heart nor their soul is there. They do not attend the services of those parishes because they use the excuse it is a long distance and many times the weather is bad. All sorts of rationale are provided which even a fiction writer could not conceive. They go where they go, when they go not for realistic faith response, but for emotional bonds to continue. They like the idea mamma and poppa worshipped there, auntie Lilly still goes; they see her and all he friend and relatives when they have time to attend from a distance. So they worship themselves, they make surviving mothers, fathers, and some relatives their gods and the season why they go to Church. Certainly it is not God they worship, but themselves and their ,perceived delusional needs and so while feeling good about themselves when they do go and how much they sacrifice in so attending, and being admired by the locals for the great distance sacrifice they make, they do nothing to save their souls nor advance the cause of Christ. There ire four families who live in this area and should belong to our parish, but do not, thinking it better to go where they can have things in their own "slavish" language because of emotional and familial and historical ties. Someone from our parish who knows them all visited in that Parish three times this past summer and none of these people were ever in church and that parish church, while sizable in number, was practically empty as they sang dirges in some Foreign language. That parish is dying and those same people are not doing anything to advance the cause of Orthodoxy in our region either. Money is good if it is used to advance he cause of the Saviour, but it cannot buy, regardless in what huge quantities it is trucked and applied in a distant parish, the salvation of a soul who uses the excuse they live at a distance and thus cannot fight the time and traffic it takes to get there. They soothe their conscience they would go more frequently but it takes too much time. Besides they reason like fools, '`God knows our heart and will accept our explanation. `The soul is willing but the flesh is weak."' Thus they never share in the grace of Christ because when sporadically they do go, it is a true waste of time because it is according to their schedule and not that of God. It is for their reasons they go, not to worship God, but socially to keep up friendships with old friends. They are social members of the Church and so have no loyalty to Christ, but rearrange and replace it before the throne and idol of their earthly friends and relatives. They can easily belong to the local parish, but even priests remind them of their emotional and financial ties to the old neighborhood. If they won't work in that neighborhood, if they won't live in that neighborhood, if they loved that neighborhood and its people, why did they ever leave and abandon it in the first place? We can belong in the local area just as easily and visit friends and relatives anywhere anytime. We can belong here and not have the excuse of distance or an emotional wall between us and new associates in faith. If we belong here we can never say "...its entirely too far and all I can do is support the parish with my dollar and not my heart and soul and actual presence!"
Belonging to a parish does not simply mean being signed up or registered here while lolling around the house on Sundays, holydays and other events which require our participation and support.
It means participating in the spiritual and temporal endeavors of our believing community because when we do, we short-change the believing community and ourselves. People who live around here and claim to belong to Christ at a distance would never try the same behavior with their husbands or family members. Can you be a husband or wife at a distance? Can you be a growing child from a distance? Can we be believers at a distance? The believing community depends on our presence and prayer and we short change ourselves as spiritual beings by treating ourselves as having no reason. We cannot and do not exist without spiritual nourishment. And spiritual nourishment cannot be sustained somewhere out there at large, we must have an intimate association and connection with Christ which is only possible in the local parish, not one thirty, forty or fifty miles away, or even states away. Such souls delude themselves into thinking they are saving their souls. Isolated from Christ physically, they are also isolated from Christ spiritually because they like that sort of relationship with God.
This problem is not new today even though even some priests have succumbed to it. St. Paul had the same problem with some so-called believers in his day which causes us to cry in our day. He said, "Do not forsake the assembly of believers together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another and so much the more, as you see the day is approaching" Hebrews 10: 25.
Our spiritual needs cannot be met by the Universal Church or some priest hours away, but realistically only by the local parish alone. It is here that we are tied and associated with the priest, the parish deacon, as well as local believers who are eager to affirm and encourage in faith response. It is in our parish that salvation is assured not at a distance. All the promises of Christ to us as believers become reality here in our parish church. Someone hypothetically out there does not baptize, does not teach, does not marry or counsel, us nor call to accountability, or lay you to eternal rest. All of this can only be done here in our parish. For us to be Christian, to be Orthodox in genuine faith means that we belong to a believing faith community in our midst, the closer the better so we all have an easy opportunity to avail ourselves of God's continually bestowed grace.
Already in the third century, the north African Bishop Tertullian coined a Latin truism which expressed profoundly in its simplicity a basic insight into the gospel of Christ: Solus Christianus, nullus Chrsitianus" or in basic English, the Christian alone is no Christian. The mysteries of initiation which plunge us into the Mystery of Christ initiate us into the Mystical Body of the Saviour, his blessed and redeeming Church. Living at a distance from where we worship and claim to be our spiritual home is perilous and contradicts seriousness about salvation. Social membership in the Church does not exist. Paying without praying is a waste of time.
These new relationships we have with our heavenly Father through faith commitment and response automatically put us in a totally new relationship with all other people of faith in our community and the community thus formed is the ecclesia, the Church, the Body of Christ, the vehicle of salvation. In the ministry of Jesus and in the community formed by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, this relatedness or community dimension of our Orthodox faith is essential and constantly emphasized, "They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to communal life, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. All who believed were together and had faith in common ... every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes" Acts of the Apostles 2: 42, 44 - 46. And again, "The community of believers was of one heart and one mind, and no one claimed that his Possessions were his own" Acts of the Apostles 4: 32. Throughout the entire New Testament, it is clear to be a Christian is to be a part of a believing community and not just when the misled emotions of a person would lead them to church, whenever they feel like it or are encouraged to bear the burden of distance and go. St. Paul smashes as nonsensical thinking when he says, "Whoever is confident of belonging to Christ should consider that as he belongs o Christ, so do we" 2 Corinthians 10: 7.
God's revelation to us in Scripture and in the life of the Church make it clear that `being' a Christian means to act, to live, in a new way, to be alive to Christ, to be led by him, and be guided by him, not in isolation as we determine the time but being on the schedule of the Church and of Christ to be relevant, but according to the wisdom of salvation as well.
The earliest term of description for believers was "followers of the way" Acts of the Apostles 2: 4.
To be a genuine follower of Christ is to reject following our own whims, our preconceived Lotions, our interests and standards. Would these people even from a purely temporal way, express any interest in visiting their own family, relatives or friends without combining it with L visit to the Saviour, thus putting such friends and relatives on the same level with Christ? Is heir an actual interest in seeing Christ if we go to see relatives; and conversely is there an Actual love of family when we use the means of worship to relate to them solely in a social way?
Chose who really believe are driven by faith and belief in the ministry Christ requires of us. %II this comes alive and real only in the local parish. This is where we are challenged, where we are taught, where we supported in our pilgrimage quest, where we are fed. In our geographical territory there are a good number of emaciated souls which disturbs me no end if they pursue such a policy of spiritual isolation and are content with it and do not mind being starved at a distance.
Without being an active communicant of the parish, we cannot be called Orthodox because its care is left to everyone's responsibility. Without our participation, souls wither, dry out and spiritually die in isolation. And in dying, we do not lose our Orthodox identity, but it stands out to condemn our soul from indifference or apathy. To whom much is given, much is expected in return. Let us by our example permit from baptismal grace to reap rewards for us in this life and in eternity, not as a sign that we received a gift from God, but totally neglected and happily embraced and ignored it.