Commemorated on September 8
The Nativity of Our Most Holy Virgin Mary is celebrated by the Church as a day of universal joy. Within the context of the Old and the New Testaments, the Most Blessed Virgin Mary was born on this radiant day, having been chosen before the ages by Divine Providence to bring about the Mystery of the Incarnation of the Word of God. She is revealed as the Mother of the Savior of the World, Our Lord Jesus Christ.
She was born in the city of Galilee, Nazareth. Her parents were Joachim of the tribe of the Prophet-King David, and Anna from the tribe of the First Priest Aaron. The couple was without child, since Anna was barren. Having reached old age, Joachim and Anna had strong faith that everything was possible with God. Joachim and Anna vowed to dedicate the child which the Lord might give them to the service of God in the Temple. Childlessness was considered as a Divine punishment for sin, and Joachim and Anna had to endure abuse from their own countrymen. On one of the feast days at the Temple, the elderly Joachim brought his sacrifice to offer to God, but the High Priest would not accept it, considering him to be unworthy since he was childless.
In deep grief, Joachim went into the wilderness, and there he prayed with tears to the Lord for a child. Anna wept bitterly when she learned what had happened at the Temple. Never once did she complain against the Lord, but rather she prayed to ask God’s mercy on her family. The Lord fulfilled her petitions when the pious couple had attained extreme old age and prepared themselves by virtuous life for a sublime calling to be the parents of the Most Holy Virgin Mary, the future Mother of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Archangel Gabriel brought Joachim and Anna the joyous message that their prayers were heard by God, and of them would be born a most blessed daughter, Mary, through Whom would come the Salvation of all the World. The Most Holy Virgin Mary surpassed in purity and virtue not only all mankind, but also the angels. She was manifest as the living Temple of God, so the Church sings in its festal hymns: “the East Gate… bringing Christ into the world for the salvation of our souls” (2nd Stikhera on “Lord, I Have Cried”, Tone 6).
The Nativity of the Theotokos marks the change when the great promises of God for salvation from slavery to the devil were about to be fulfilled. This event brought to earth the grace of the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom of Truth, piety, virtue and everlasting life. The Theotokos is revealed to all of us by grace as a merciful Intercessor and Mother, to Whom we have recourse with filial devotion.
Troparion (Tone 4) –
Your Nativity, O Virgin,
Has proclaimed joy to the whole universe!
The Sun of Righteousness, Christ our God,
Has shone from You, O Theotokos!
By annulling the curse,
He bestowed a blessing.
By destroying death, He has granted us eternal Life.
Kontakion (Tone 4) –
By Your Nativity, O Most Pure Virgin,
Joachim and Anna are freed from barrenness;
Adam and Eve, from the corruption of death.
And we, your people, freed from the guilt of sin, celebrate and sing to you:
The barren woman gives birth to the Theotokos, the nourisher of our life!
Taken from Antiochian Archdiocese Website
Quotes From Church Fathers
Saint Andrew of Crete (c.660-740) comments, “This day is for us the beginning of all holy days. It is the door to kindness and truth.” He then goes on to write: “Let both the barren and mothers dance for joy; make bold and leap up in gladness, O ye childless: for the barren and childless woman brings forth the Theotokos, who is to deliver Eve from her pains in travail and Adam from the curse.” (Gen. 3:16-19)
Saint Andrew of Crete chants, “Anna, the barren and sterile, was not childless before God: for she was foreordained from many generations to become the mother of the pure Virgin, from whom the Maker of all creation sprang forth in the form of a servant”.
Saint Germanos (c.635-733), Patriarch of Constantinople chants, “As foretold by the angel, today hast thou come forth, O Virgin, the all-holy offspring of righteous Joachim and Anna…thou dost destroy the curse and givest blessing in its place.”
Today’s Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew. (22:2-14)
The Lord spoke this parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a marriage feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the marriage feast; but they would not come. Again he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, Behold, I have made ready my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves are killed, and everything is ready; come to the marriage feast.’ But they made light of it and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the thoroughfares, and invite to the marriage feast as many as you find.’ And those servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment; and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.”
Understand. Parables are never to be taken literally. That is why the Lord begins this one saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to…” Parables are by nature metaphorical.
This parable is a difficult one to parse. It has deep layers of meaning as all parables do. They are meant to make us think more deeply by directing us to focus on the inner landscape of our lives and that is something most of us seldom do. This parable about the kingdom is surprising because it is filled with turmoil. We expect parables about heaven to be peaceful, don’t we? But not so this one and it makes sense. Where is the kingdom then in this parable? Let’s look at this question for a few minutes.
Jesus pointedly tells his disciples that the kingdom of heaven is within. And what do we usually find when we first look within? Chaos! In a work ascribed to St. Simeon the New Theologian entitled “Three Types of Prayer” his readers are instructed not to become discouraged when they turn their awareness inside and find chaos! He encourages them to keep at it and watch as chaos gives way to open space.
When we look within we find a condition like Jesus describes in this parable. There are parts of us like the moody king, parts of us like the ungracious guests, parts of us that are avaricious and murderous, parts that are forgotten like the second group of guests from the “highways and hedges” and then parts that are like the man in the end who finds himself cast into “outer darkness” because he wore the wrong clothes.
And yet, in the midst of all this chaos the beating heart of the parable is the image of the Great Feast. The representative of God in this parable is not the king, it is the Heavenly Banquet, a symbol of the Eucharist and the Marriage Feast of the Lamb, of communion and deification. The parable has a sacramental theme. It is like a finger pointing at the moon.
And, as it is, the beating heart of every human being is the kingdom of heaven. It is our reason for being, our energy, our purpose, recognized or unrecognized. When the light of Christ shines upon the interior darkness and compassion is brought to bear upon all our disparate parts, then the Banquet Table at the center reveals its presence and we discover that we have always been invited, we have always welcomed to come to the Feast. We have simply refused to attend.
There is another important aspect of this parable I would like to point out. It is the all-inclusiveness of the kingdom. The king throws open the doors of the banquet and invites both the good and the bad to come just like God who makes the sun to shine on the good and bad alike. He makes no distinction. He simply wants his banquet table to be full. And when we turn within we must bring this spirit of inclusion with us. All the parts we find must be made welcome for all of them are in need of the food of heaven.
God is always merciful. He sees into the depths of everything by means of his infinite compassion, he sees into the heart of us. He knows who He has made us to be, and what we have made of ourselves and those are often two very different things and this takes us to the last, and most unsettling part of the parable. Why, after this, does he cast out the man who is wearing an inappropriate garment?
We often choose to wear garments that do not fit us. We put on attitudes and behavior that hide our inner beauty and are not natural to us. What ensues is an interior war St. Paul speaks of in Romans as we end up doing what we do not want to do and in opposition to the truth of who we are. In this way we cast ourselves into “outer darkness,” a darkness of our own making. Ask yourselves. If we take from our inner darkness and project it onto the world around us, what harvest can we expect to receive, but more darkness?
And yet all that is false cannot last, nothing that is untrue is eternal. The darkness cannot extinguish the light, in fact, the darkness makes the light even more obvious. “Outer darkness” has a shelf-life. Love always wins. To love, to do good, to be compassionate, these are our natural garments. Our unhappiness stems from the fact that we often think and act in opposition to love. It is for us to become follower of Jesus and friends of Love.
The Lord sees through our disguises. He knows us because he made us. His face is most truly our face and ours is his. “The glory of God is a human being fully alive,” wrote St. Irenaeus long before Maslow and contemporary psychologies of self-actualization. Both were right! It is interesting to me that the message of Irenaeus and the Gospel, though not attributed to either, can be found at supermarket checkout stands all over the world in one form or another. There is a thirst that only this truth can quench.
There is another interesting way to understand the “outer darkness.” Not as punishment; rather as initiation. Entering into the “divine darkness” is a classic image in Orthodox spiritual writing. It represents the entry into a knowledge of God that can only come through “unknowing,” by casting off the garments of thoughts, imagery, concepts, and even theology with which our minds attempt to understand God. Entering the “divine darkness” is the way of direct, unmediated experience of the Unapproachable God.
In this parable putting on the appropriate garment can be interpreted as taking a step into deeper communion with God. St. Paul speaks about all his righteousness being as “filthy rags.” So, we must change our inappropriate garments, the rags of our small and limited understandings, and replace them with “robes of light” that are woven from direct experience of God in whom “we live and move and have our being.”
We could go on, but that is enough for now, I think. Parables are inexhaustible resources of living water. Some food for thought if nothing else.
HOLY MARTYRS ADRIAN AND NATALIE
In the fourth century, the pagan Roman Emperor Maximian cruelly persecuted those who believed in Christ. He came together with his soldiers to the city of Nicomedia in Asia Minor. There it was reported that in a certain cave Christians were hiding, and that they sang and prayed the whole night to their God. Immediately Maximian sent his soldiers to seize these Christians. The soldiers did as they were commanded and the Christians were beaten and brought in iron chains to the place of judgment. One of the chiefs of the judgment place, a young man by the name of Adrian, seeing how patiently and how willingly the Christians suffered for their faith, asked what reward they expected to receive from their God for such tortures. The holy martyrs replied: “It is written in Scripture that eye hath not seen, nor hath ear heard, nor hath it entered the heart of man those things which God hath prepared for those who love Him” (I Cor. 2:9). Hearing these words, Adrian declared that he too wished to be a Christian and was willing to die together with them for Christ. For this he was also thrown into prison.
When Adrian’ s young wife Natalie was told of her husband’s conversion to Christ and of his imprisonment, instead of being sad, she greatly rejoiced for she was secretly a Christian herself and she knew the joy which now filled her husband’s heart. She ran to the prison and, falling down at the feet of her husband, she kissed his chains and said, “Blessed are you, my Adrian; you have found such a treasure.” When Adrian was brought before the Emperor and threatened with torture if he did not worship the pagan gods, his godly-minded wife Natalie and the other martyrs encouraged him saying: “Having been found worthy to carry your own cross and to follow Christ, take care that you do not turn back and lose your eternal reward.”
Adrian had always faithfully served his earthly king, but now he was to serve the King of Heaven. He courageously endured the tortures and was returned to the prison. There Natalie, together with other pious women, would come and help the prisoners, cleaning and bandaging their wounded bodies. When the cruel Emperor found out about this, he forbade them to visit the prison. But the blessed Natalie had such love for the sufferers that she cut her hair and put on men’s clothing. In this disguise she was able to enter the prison.
Day after day the holy martyrs endured such cruel and severe tortures that they were barely alive. The Emperor became angry that even under such tortures they would not deny their God. Finally he ordered for them a violent death. Their arms and legs were cut off and their bodies were thrown into a fire to be burned so that none of the Christians might gather their precious remains. But just at that moment, there burst forth thunder and lightning and a powerful rain which put out the fire. Natalie, together with other Christians took the bodies of the holy martyrs from the fire and rejoiced to see that God had preserved them from harm. A faithful Christian man and his wife then took the holy relics to Constantinople where they could be safely kept until the death of the impious Emperor.
After a certain time, a pagan nobleman desired to marry Natalie who was still young and beautiful. She cried and begged God to save her from this union with an unbeliever. Having prayed fervently, St. Natalie fell from exhaustion and sorrow into a light sleep during which the holy martyrs appeared to her in a vision and said, “Peace be unto you. God has not forgotten your labors. We shall pray that you will come to us soon. Get on a ship and go to the place where our bodies are and the Lord will make Himself known to you.”
Following their directions, the blessed Natalie reached Constantinople and going to the church where the bodies of the holy martyrs lay, she fell down before them and prayed. She was so tired from the journey that she fell asleep and saw in a dream her husband St. Adrian, who said to her, “Come my beloved, and enjoy the reward of your labors.” Very soon after this St. Natalie died peacefully in her sleep. Although she did not shed her own blood, she is numbered among the martyrs for having co-suffered with them, serving and encouraging them in their heroic struggles for the sake of Christ.
There is little that has caused such division in the Christian world than the issue of wealth. An entire school of religious thought, known as liberation theology, infected parts of the Roman Catholic church in the 1960s, and continues to this day, teaching that the wealthy are simply instruments of oppression, and that the Kingdom of God is found in seeking what they view as economic justice. Several centuries ago, some early protestant sects taught that wealth was in and if itself evil. On the other extreme, in our day and age, other protestant denominations, particularly here in the United States, teach that wealth is a gift which God will give to every true Christian who “names it and claims it”, and that every “true” Christian should be awarded earthly riches. Regardless of our theology, however, this is an issue we are always facing in our culture. The truth of the matter is that we living in this country are each wealthy beyond the wildest dreams of any Biblical king or ruler. So what are we to think, when we see such polarized viewpoints, and then read today’s rather challenging gospel?
The answer is not found in economic analysis, but in spiritual reality. It is worth reminding ourselves at the outset that there is very little that is inherently evil. Food is given to us for nourishment and enjoyment, but when it becomes an obsessive focus of life, it becomes the sin of gluttony. Sexual intimacy is a God given gift for men and women in marriage, but the misuse of sex produces sins ranging from lust to adultery to homosexuality. Drugs are a way for us to be healed of disease and infirmity, yet wrongly used they become an open door for sin of all kinds.
Understanding that kind of thought provides a way to approach the issue of wealth, and indeed, all of life. In his exchange with the rich young ruler, Jesus is not engaged in economic analysis, but instead in the diagnosis and treatment of souls.
We look at our passage to understand the lesson. A young man, described as a rich ruler, comes to Jesus. It appears that he is seeking justification, or at least some reassurance that he is on the right spiritual path. In response to Jesus’ questions, he asserts that he has followed the commandments all of his life. He has not committed adultery, nor murder. He has not stolen from others, borne false witness, nor failed to honor his parents. He has, in other words, followed the rules. He has obeyed the commandments. In the eyes of the Jews, he was most certainly a righteous man. For us, living today, his way of life would be considered praiseworthy. We are all required, at a minimum, to keep the commandments of God. What could be more simple? But the truth is that the “thou shall not”s of Scripture are only, if you will, kindergarten for Christians. If we want more, if we want to follow the road of the saints and truly become the children of God, we must not think that our spiritual life stops there.
Jesus, seeing the young man with the eyes of God, knew that, and pierced right to the heart of the matter. The issue, as Jesus observes, is not simple obedience of rules and regulations. The issue is not whether or not we can justify ourselves, to make ourselves appear to be righteous or worthy of commendation. The true issue, the key question which every Christian must face, is whether or not a person has surrendered his entire life to God, or does he or she reserve some parts wholly for himself. Put another way, does a person observe the more difficult commandments of the New Testament: that he truly love the Lord God with all of his heart, and all of his strength, and all of his soul, and that he love his neighbor as himself? Or has he compartmentalized his life, so that God is consigned to only one of a great number of boxes, pigeon-holed and kept separate from the rest of life?
Jesus knew that the focus of the young man was his wealth. It was what characterized his life. It was, in the end, the way in which he defined who he was and what he did. It was, in the end, the thing that kept him from God. He thus challenged his questioner to abandon the very thing that, whether or not the man knew it, separated him from God. To that end, Jesus asked the man to surrender that part of him which he kept separate and that he valued the most—his wealth. Keep in mind that in this instance, wealth was simply the symptom of the disease. In other circumstances, with other people, it was something else. Often it was a rigid attachment to the Law itself, or to the odds and ends of daily life. The point is that in each instance, here is something separating the person from true worship, from a genuine relationship with God.
St. Clement of Alexandria spoke to this very issue, when he wrote:
What then…made him depart from the Master, from the entreaty, the hope, the life, previously pursued with ardor? ‘Sell your possessions’. And what is this? He does not, as some conceive offhand, bid him throw away the substance he possessed and abandon his property; but bids him banish from his soul his notions about wealth, his excitement and morbid feeling about it, the anxieties, which are the thorns of existence, which choke the seed of life.
As St. Clement points out, many have disposed of their wealth to no benefit, if their underlying passions remain. And St. John Chrysostom, who himself spoke harshly of the wealthy in his own age, noted that even the poor are lost if they have within themselves the same overwhelming attraction to riches and wealth. For that matter, it is worth remembering that there were people close to Jesus who had wealth: Matthew the tax collector turned Evangelist, Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimethea. It is not the money. It is the heart of the one who holds it.
Looked at in this way, we see an immensely important principle that we can, and should apply to our own life. The question is not what do we have in the bank. The question instead is this: how do we define ourselves? How do we see ourselves, and more importantly, how do we appear to God?
For many of us, this is a genuine challenge. It is not uncommon to reserve some aspect of our lives as being outside of our faith. That preserve, that part of our life that is separate from God, can be anything. For some of us, it may be our desire for wealth, or what we do for a living. For others, it may be a seemingly unimportant hobby or passion. It may be the music we like, the clothes we wear, or the television and movies we like to watch. Whatever it may be, we know—if we are honest with ourselves—that this is an area that we like to keep for ourselves. We may even say, as the young man in today’s gospel did, that it doesn’t matter because we are at least obeying the ten commandments, and that we are, on the surface anyway, leading a moral life.
There are two problems with that sort of thinking. The first is that any area we segregate from Christ is an open door for sin to enter our life, because any such part of our life is almost certainly rooted in some passion, some deeply held personal desire. St. Theodoros the Great Ascetic plainly describes how being drawn away from the protecting grace of God occurs in but a moment.
He who gives himself to desires and sensual pleasures and lives according to the world’s way will quickly be caught in the nets of sin. And sin, when once committed, is like fire put to straw, a stone rolling downhill, or a torrent eating away its banks. Such pleasures then bring complete perdition to him who embraces them.
In other words, whether we simply allow ourselves a seemingly harmless pleasure, or give in to a larger passion such as greed or lust, it can cause a cascade of sin and error, leaving us in dire straits, and sorely afflicted.
But there is another reason as well. If we allow ourselves to focus on that deeply held passion or desire, it causes us to miss entirely what God may be saying to us. From experience, we know that our worldly interests create, if you will, a background noise for our lives. We think to ourselves that if we are straying where we ought not, that our conscience will warn us, and that God will call us back. But the background noise of our lives will often drown out that warning, if we are not constantly attentive to the leading of the Lord. In the Old Testament Book of First Kings, there is a passage describing an experience of the prophet Elijah as he awaits the Lord:
And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind, and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake, and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire, a still, small voice.
The still small voice is the Lord. In our gospel today, Jesus knew that even though the rich young ruler kept the rules, and observed the law, that his desire for wealth, his defining characteristic, was also the background noise that would keep him from hearing the still small voice. It was what would keep him from truly entering the Kingdom of God, because if he could not hear that whispering voice, he would never find the gate.
This is the challenge for us. We may not be rich young rulers, and we may think this gospel does not apply to us. We may lead moral lives, not breaking any of the rules, and we may think that this gospel does not apply to us. But if we are honest with ourselves, we will see something, somewhere inside of us, that we cling to tenaciously, an area of our life which we stubbornly refuse to yield to God. Whatever it may be, we find ourselves faced with the dilemma of the young man—can we surrender that which we hold dear, that we clutch to ourselves and call precious—can we abandon that, for the love of Christ?
Seeing is believing. It is one thing to hear an interesting story or to entertain a bright idea. It is far different, however, to encounter an event or to participate in a situation such that we know its truth and are changed as a result. That is precisely what the apostles Peter, James, and John experienced on Mount Tabor when they were enabled to behold the divine glory of Jesus Christ, Who shone brightly with light as the voice of the Father identified Him as His beloved Son.
St. Peter writes in today’s epistle reading that he did not proclaim “cleverly devised myths” about Christ, for those who beheld the Transfiguration “were eyewitnesses of His majesty.” The gospels make clear that the disciples were not looking for a Messiah Who was truly divine, but for a righteous national leader like King David. Peter famously rejected the Lord’s prediction of His crucifixion and denied Him three times. He was restored as the chief apostle and went to his death as a martyr, not because he had made up stories about a crucified and risen Lord, but because the Savior had revealed Himself to Peter as truly the Son of God. And he surely did not understand the full meaning of the Transfiguration when it occurred, as it was not until after the resurrection that Christ “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” (Lk 24:27) Indeed, the Lord said to Peter, James, and John, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of man is risen from the dead.” It was only from the perspective of the resurrection, which no one anticipated, that the disciples could understand what it meant for Christ to be the Son of God.
The truth revealed at the Transfiguration may not be conveyed simply in words or ideas. It had to be seen, heard, and experienced in a way that made Peter, James, and John participants as whole persons in the divine glory. The Lord graciously opened the eyes of their souls, filling them with the divine energies such that they could catch a glimpse of His holy majesty. He enabled them to hear the voice of the Father, and like Moses before the Burning Bush, they fell on their faces “and were filled with awe.” As is shown by the disappearance of Moses and Elijah, He enabled them to see His superiority to the Law and the Prophets of the Old Testament. They did not simply have thoughts or feelings about Christ; no, they truly experienced Him from the depths of their souls as the Son of God.
The change that occurred that day was not in the Lord Himself, Who is eternally radiant with the divine glory in a way beyond our comprehension. The change was in the disciples, for Christ opened the eyes of their souls to behold His infinite holiness, to the extent that they were able as human beings. If we observe this feast simply by celebrating the doctrinal teaching of Christ’s divinity or the great mystical experience of the apostles, we will have excluded ourselves from the full meaning of this event. For as in all feasts of the Church, the point is not simply to look back at what happened long ago. It is, instead, to enter into the eternal truth that is revealed. And on this great day of the Transfiguration, the only appropriate way to celebrate is to cooperate with the gracious divine energies of our Lord so that we also will behold His divine glory. That means that we too must become transfigured through personal union with the Son of God such that His eternal majesty permeates our existence, making us shine brightly like an iron left in the fire.
As with Peter, who rejected the Lord’s prediction of His death and then denied Him three times, we might well prefer another kind of religion with expectations not quite so high. Shining with the uncreated light may be more than we want to pursue. It may be more appealing to follow an imaginary King David in waging war against those we consider our enemies and to set up a social order that rewards those we think are righteous like ourselves. Maybe we would prefer someone pretending to be Moses or Elijah who would provide instructions that we think good people like us can easily follow on how to live differently from those we like to condemn. Such sentiments are terrible misinterpretations, of course. These Old Testament saints never pointed to some easy kind of self-serving religion, but were misinterpreted in first-century Palestine by those who worshiped an earthly kingdom or their own self-righteousness. If we go down that path, we will end up repudiating Christ as surely as did those idolaters.
The only fitting way to celebrate the Transfiguration is by embracing as fully as possible the countless opportunities that we have to grow in holiness as we open the eyes of our souls to participate in the glory of God by grace. I have a warning for you, however. If the thought ever occurs to you, “Gosh, I’m becoming really holy now,” pay it no attention at all and instead say the Jesus Prayer or at least focus your mind on something other than your own deluded thoughts until it goes away. The more transfigured we are in holiness, the more aware we will be of our sinfulness and the infinite distance between our current spiritual state and the perfection to which our Lord calls us. The path to shining with light begins with a humble, honest acceptance of the darkness in our lives. The path also continues along that route. That is precisely why we need to be transfigured so that we, who are filled with darkness, will become radiant with the brilliant light of the Lord. But we must be prepared: the more you step into His light, the more obvious the spots of darkness will be. The better focused the eyes of our souls are, the more we will be aware of our need for His healing and strength.
A very common temptation, then, is to give up. Why pray, when our minds wander? Why fast, when we become obsessed with food? Why come to Confession, when we fall right back into our familiar sins? Why try to do anything pleasing to God, when it does not give us what we want? Well, that is the problem. As long as we think about getting the spiritual results that we want on our schedule and in our own way, we will not be transfigured in holiness. We will, instead, remain captive to some form of idolatrous spiritual pride that will blind us to the truth of where stand before the Lord.
If we want to enter into the joy of this great feast of our salvation, we must persistently walk into the light by opening the eyes of our souls to the blinding glory of our Savior. We will often not like what we see in ourselves as a result, but by stumbling forward as best we can, constantly calling out for His mercy, the Lord will change, strengthen, and purify us. In ways that we cannot yet understand, He will make us “a lamp shining in a dark place” that gives light and hope to a world that so desperately needs to be healed by union with His gracious divine energies. The message of this feast is not to lose heart, but to press on in faithfulness. For the darkness is simply the absence of light and a sign that we have yet more room to embrace the blessed life of Christ.
We celebrate the Transfiguration of our Lord already knowing of His resurrection, by which He has illumined even the tomb. Let this sink in: There is no darkness in our souls or in our world that our crucified and risen Lord cannot make radiant with His gracious divine energies. We must, however, do our part by opening the darkness in our lives to His healing light. Even as we stumble and fall, we must continue to do so with abiding trust in His mercy for blind sinners such as ourselves. For though we do not yet have the eyes to see it, that is how our gracious Lord will make us shine with holy light for our salvation and that of the entire world. Let us join St. Peter, then, in living as “eyewitnesses of His majesty.” For seeing is believing.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ!
When we read Holy Scripture the Holy Fathers and Mothers of the Church teach us that there are at least two levels of understanding . There is the literal understanding that sees the events as historical and, well, literal. So when we read today’s Gospel about Jesus walking on the water on the literal level we see a miracle, the power of God manifesting itself as Jesus shows mastery over nature and the elements. We see the impetuous Peter unable to follow through on his own bravado and sinking in the waves. We learn through this that Jesus is God and that faith in him, without doubting, enables us to do the same miraculous things he does because he share with us his divine life. That is good.
There is another level, a deeper one, that recognizes the troubled Galilee and Peter’s sinking as a metaphor for the spiritual life. The theme of water, even bodies of water, appear often in Christian Scripture and in that of other religions as well because, among other things, water is the prime element of life.
Let’s look at the story this way for just a few moments.
The turmoil on the Sea of Galilee can be seen as a metaphor for the state of the soul and the interior life. Now, we don’t often think about the interior life. We focus on externals, on survival, success, notoriety, reputation, fashion, but the life of the soul is mostly ignored. Most of the time we are not even aware that there is much going on under the surface of our skin. Usually, it takes something powerful to get us to wake up and take notice: something like death, disease, misfortune, depression will jar us awake and make us face the intangible things in life, the things that are under the surface. That is, to put it simply, we are asleep at the wheel, the lights are on but nobody’s home, the auto pilot is running things and the plane is off course, we wander about in a daze, in a fog, fantasizing our lives away. The big word in our vocabulary is “if”. If I had only married better, if only I were rich, if only I could lose some weight, if only I had a better job, if only people would see things my way. If, if, if.
We drift from thought to thought, out of control, ruled by desire. We cannot even deny ourselves the things that hurt us. We are like abused spouses, feeling all the pain, but unwilling to do what is necessary to stop it, dissatisfied with our lives, but unable to break free of the tedium and sorrow. Our faces smile, but our hearts are broken. The outside of the cup looks clean, but the inside is not. Depression is epidemic in our society, immorality is rampant, drug abuse is sky-rocketing, suicide is claiming more and more young lives. Laws are powerless to halt it, legislation has never and will never stop it, prohibition increases it.
Ruled as we are by our thoughts and desires we believe that nothing can be done, that we cannot change, that life cannot offer anything better and that we had just better make the best of it. Yeah, we believe in God (or say we do), but since that belief doesn’t reach down deep enough to make a difference inside where it really counts, our faith struggles to survive.
We need to delve deeper into the essence of Orthodox spirituality which deals primarily with the interior life. Listen to St. John Chrysostom: “What is it to be a fool for Christ? It is to control one’s thoughts when they stray out of line. It is to make the mind empty and free.” Hear the Desert Fathers: “.the soul, if not emptied of foreign thoughts cannot reflect God.” Study the teachings and practices of the Hesychasts and their successors who occupy the Holy Mountain and monasteries around the world to this very day. Hear the contemporary theologian Clement: to clear and free the mind of unnecessary and destructive thoughts is necessary so that we can be in a state of readiness to meet the Lord, “One must learn to keep awake in the silence of the heart.” And, one more from Clement, “It is therefore essential to let the heart-spirit settle like calm water (there is the water image). Then it becomes a tranquil lake in which the sky is reflected, in which the face of Christ can be seen.”
A great Sufi mystic once wrote, “Free my soul from the entanglement of search and disappointment.” And:
Deafened by the voice of desire
you are unaware the Beloved lives
In the core of your heart
Stop the noise and
you will hear His voice
in the silence
Don’t go back to sleep!
It is time for prayer, it is time to ask for what you
The door of the One who created the world is always open
Don’t go back to sleep.
In order to change ourselves, to change directions, to begin to move away from the morass of daily life, we must start paying attention to what is going on beneath our skins. We need to pay attention to our thoughts, to learn to discern and sort them out between what is helpful and good and what is destructive, to detach ourselves from our insatiable desires, to nurture peace in our hearts and minds, to build within our souls a rich interior life. We must wake up to the only thing we have and that is the exact moment in which we are living and breathing. That spiritual teachers of Orthodoxy are one in their recommendation, do not worry about the past which is over and done, nor about the future which never comes, keep your mind in the present, be fully present in the present, wake up to the moment for it is all you have. “Today,” writes St. Paul, “is the day of salvation.” Look around you. See what is before you. Rejoice in what is good: that you are alive, that you are breathing, that your heart is beating, that the cup of coffee you are drinking is warm, fragrant and delicious, that the person sitting beside you is in truth the very image of the invisible God who loves you and gave himself for you. Do not cling to any thought that is destructive, do not cling to desire, do not cling to possessions, cling to God and freely embrace the wonder of every moment. Wake up and do not go back to sleep.
We must struggle and pray for a mind and heart pure and lucid like a bright mirror, free from encumbrances, filled with joy and light, that is able to respond with equanimity and love in every situation, overflowing with compassion.
We can change, we can be at peace, we can be free. God has given us all we need to pursue the path of peace. The effort must be taken, the commitment made, the discipline learned and embraced. God’s grace coupled with our small efforts ignites the soul and brings salvation not only to us, but to all the world. St. Seraphim of Sarov once said, “Make peace in your heart and thousands around you will be saved.” But it is not a peace that comes without effort. As Seraphim said, it is we who must “make” this peace. Meditate, fast, pray, practice love and charity, love silence, nurture peace and compassion, reject all that is destructive, rest your weary mind and let everything be as it is, cling only to God avoiding all that is cold and dark and moving towards all that is warmth and light. But this is only preparatory for the great day.when we at last Jesus comes to us walking on the sea and not even the wind and waves will be able to hinder us.