Face to Face – Without Shame or Fear July 16, 2018 · Fr. Stephen Freeman (Ancient Faith blog)

Face to Face – Without Shame or Fear July 16, 2018 · Fr. Stephen Freeman

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Selections on the Dormition of the Theotokos THE THEOTOKOS DELIVERS HER SOUL, FULL OF LIGHT (Shared by Kh. Dannie Moore)

It was the Lord’s day, and the fifteenth day of the month of August, when that blessed hour that all were awaiting drew near. It was the third hour of the day (9:00 a.m.). In the room a number of lamps were burning. The holy Apostles were offering praise to God. Upon a beautifully adorned bed, the Theotokos was lying and preparing herself for her blessed end when her beloved Son and Lord would come to her. She then greeted each Apostle with a blessing.
She then stretched her hands to heaven and prayed, saying, “I adore, praise and glorify Thy much to be praised name, O Lord, because Thou hast looked upon the lowliness of Thine handmaiden, and because Thou that art mighty hast done great things for me; and, behold, all generations shall call me blessed [Lk. 1:48]. After this prayer, she said to the Apostles, “Cast incense and pray, because Christ is coming with a host of angels; and, behold, Christ is at hand, sitting on a throne of cherubim.” When they had prayed, there was thunder from heaven and there came a fearful voice, as if of chariots; and, behold, a multitude of a host of angels and powers, and a voice, as if of the Son of Man was heard.
Then there shone in the room an ineffable light of divine glory which dimmed the lamps. Those that were granted this vision were awestruck. Many beheld the roof of the apartment open and the glory of the Lord descending from heaven. It was Christ the King of Glory with hosts of angels and archangels, and all the heavenly powers. Also with them were the holy fathers and prophets who prophesied of old concerning the pure Virgin, and all the righteous souls, approached His immaculate Mother.”
Saint John of Damascus also mentions that some of the most famous and righteous prophets of the Old Testament were in attendance. The text of Pseudo-John, in describing the events, records that the Theotokos’ mother, Anna, and her cousin Elisabeth appeared with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob} and David and all the choirs of saints, singing praising and venerating the body of the Mother of the Lord.
BE UNTO ME ACCORDING. TO THY WORD
At the sight of the approach of her Son, the Theotokos cried with great joy unto her son, “My soul doth magnify the Lord and my Spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour (Luke 1:46-47).
And, behold, a stream of light came upon the Virgin because of the presence of her Son, and all the powers of the heavens fell down and adored Him. He then said, “Mary”. And she answered, “Here am I, Lord.”
Saint Gregory Palamas comments on the love between Son and Mother, thus: “Wherefore, she loves and is loved in return more than any other …. for He was her only Son. Moreover, she alone among women gave birth knowing no spouse, so that the love of Him, that was of her flesh, was twofold. Who will the Only-Begotten love more than His Mother, He Who came forth from Her in an indescribable manner, without a father, in this last age, even as He came forth from the Father without a mother before the ages? He that came down and fulfilled the law, how could He not multiply the honor due His Mother above and beyond the law?”
And the Lord remained by her and said, “Behold, presently thy soul will be translated to the heavens, to the treasures of My Father in exceeding brightness, where there is peace and joy of the holy angels, and many other things. Then the Mother of the Lord answered and said to Him, “Lay Thy right hand upon me, O Lord, and bless me.” Then the Lord stretched forth His undefiled right hand and blessed His Mother.
Saint Cosmas then speaks of the Virgin interceding for us. As she departed, the Virgin without spot, lifted up her hands–those hands that had held God incarnate in their embrace–and, with the boldness of a Mother to her Son, she said, “Keep unto all ages those whom Thou hast made mine and who cry aloud unto Thee, ‘We, who have been delivered, praise the one and only Creator and exalt Him above all forever.”
Saint John of Damascus also speaks of how the Law-Giver fulfilled His law concerning mothers. He Who, taking flesh, strangely made His dwelling in thy pure womb, Himself received thine all-holy spirit and, as a Son paying His due, He gave it rest with Himself.
At this point, St. Cosmas describes the scene in this manner. The angelic powers were amazed as they looked in Sion upon their own Master, bearing in His hands the soul of a woman: for as befitted a Son, He said to her who without spot had borne Him, “Come, honored among women, and be glorified together with thy Son and God.”
With such triumphant hymns did the heavenly hosts accompany the holy soul of the Theotokos as she went in the arms of the Lord to the dwelling above. The holy Apostles, who were found worthy to behold this vision, followed the Mother of God with tender eyes, as once they had followed the Lord when He ascended from the Mount of Olives (Acts 1:9). For a long time now they looked steadfastly toward heaven as if they were in a swoon. When they came to themselves, the disciples worshipped the Lord Who had raised His Mother’s soul to heaven with glory, and they surrounded her bed with weeping.
It must be remembered that it is not the Assumption that the Holy Orthodox Church observes on the 15th of August, but the Dormition (Keemeesis) Or “falling- asleep” of the holy Virgin. This most sacred Feast marks the falling asleep of the Mother of God which was followed by the translation of her sacred body three days later into heaven. This Feast, therefore, marks her soul being commended into her Son’s hands and the short sojourn of her body in the tomb. Death is not the annihilation of our existence, but a passage from earth to heaven.
Taken from: The Life of the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos
Published by Holy Apostles Convent and Dormition Skete

Delivered by Mercy, Not Law: Homily for the 5th Sunday After Pentecost. By Fr. Philip LeMasters

We live in a time in which many people feel lonely and isolated, even if they are around others on a regular basis at home, work, and other settings. Sometimes that is because we hold ourselves back emotionally from the possibility of being rejected or harmed. Such separation is a symptom of the estrangement from God and one another which Jesus Christ came to heal.
The demon-possessed men in today’s gospel reading represent Gentiles who were enslaved to the worship of idols and false gods. Their deliverance shows that Christ’s salvation is for all people, including those separated from others by the power of evil in their lives. When He set them free from their miserable isolation, the Lord required nothing of them in advance; instead, He graciously liberated them from the degrading forces of evil and restored them to a truly human existence. Here we see an implication of St. Paul’s instruction to the Romans: “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” At the very heart of our faith is not a requirement for meeting an objective standard; instead, the unlimited mercy of God is the very foundation of our life and extends even to demon-possessed Gentiles, as well as to you and me.
The Orthodox Church has many rules, many canons, traditions, and practices. But at the heart of our faith and common life is not the obedience of law, for we are not called to be like the Pharisees of old. Instead, we are called, as St. Paul teaches, to confess with our mouths the Lord Jesus and to believe in our hearts that God has raised him from the dead; if we do so, we will be saved. “For with the heart one believes unto righteousness and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.”
Of course, there are no magic words that can heal our souls. Instead of creating a new law, St. Paul points to the deep truth of what it means to commend all our life to Christ our God. It means that we trust in Him as whole persons. As we offer our lives to Him, our words, deeds, and thoughts will come to embody the new life that He has brought to the world. That is how we open ourselves to receiving His transforming grace. That is how, like the demon-possessed men in today’s reading, we too may become living icons of the mercy of Jesus Christ.
Remember that He did not require the Gergesene demoniacs to earn their deliverance; neither does He require that of us. Instead, the Savior has graciously taken upon Himself the consequences of all human corruption and sin to the point of death, burial and descent to Hades so that He could conquer them all in His glorious third-day resurrection. He has ascended into heaven with full, complete glorified humanity and sent the Holy Spirit to empower His Body, the Church, of which we are members. He lives within our hearts by the Holy Spirit, casting out our demons, forgiving our sins, and enabling us to share in His eternal life even now as healed and transformed persons in relationship with Him and one another. By His grace, Christ restores us to the dignity and freedom of those who bear the divine image and likeness.
Those particular men were set free from the control of demons, but that was surely only the beginning of their lives in Christ. Even though their deliverance was quite dramatic, it was only a start and they surely had to press on from there to resist temptation, to grow in holiness, and to learn to love and serve Him in their neighbors. They certainly had old fears and habits to overcome. And the same is true of us. Our salvation is a process, an ongoing journey of sharing more fully in the new life that our Savior has brought to the world. We must confess Christ more fully each day as we find greater healing, as we more fully manifest His victory over sin and death in our own lives.
If our religion were about meeting the requirements of a law, we could meet the standard and not think about it anymore. We could check off a box and move on to something else; perhaps then it would make sense to condemn others who did not measure up. But Orthodox Christianity is not about rules and regulations, but instead about growing in relationship with a Person, our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ. It is about sharing in His blessedness, about partaking in His divine nature by grace. And because God is eternal and infinite and beyond even our best attempts to define and control Him, there is no upward limit on what it means to unite ourselves to Him.
So we are constantly as much in need of Christ’s mercy as were those demon-possessed fellows. We say the Jesus Prayer precisely because we are sinners in need of Him. The more we are healed by His grace, the more aware we will be of our brokenness and weakness. The more we open our lives to Christ, the more clearly we will see how far we have yet to go, how undeserving we are, how grateful we must be before an infinitely holy God Who will stop at nothing—not even the cross—in order to bring us into His blessed kingdom.
The formerly demon-possessed men could claim no credit for their deliverance. They could only marvel at their great blessing and do their best to live lives worthy of what Christ had done for them. We all face the same challenge: to live in ways that reflect what our Lord has done for us, to bear witness to the healing and fulfillment that He has brought to our lives, and to continue to open ourselves more fully to His salvation.
That means that we must all continue to struggle against whatever evil thoughts, habits, words, and deeds threaten to separate us from the Lord and one another. We will not do that perfectly, for we get side-tracked and distracted from fulfilling our vocation each day. That is precisely why we need to build holy habits—like attending services, praying daily, fasting regularly, and giving generously to the needy– into our lives. We need to wake up and stay alert, for the ultimate choice of our lives is an ongoing challenge. At stake is whether we will grow in relationship with Christ by faith, repentance, and humility: by a life that confesses what He has done and is doing for us. The other alternative is to return to the graveyard, to the isolation and slavery of worshiping the false gods of our own will. Our choice is not whether to obey a law, but whether we will embrace deliverance and healing. If we turn away from Christ, we do so as isolated individuals who prefer our own will to His, who would rather decay in the loneliness of a cemetery—of a dark tomb– than share in the blessed banquet of the Kingdom. But if we offer ourselves to the Lord, we enter into eternal joy through His Body, the Church; we become members of Him through our life together. The standards and practices of the Church help us to grow in relationship with Him and with one another. They sustain our faith, and help us grow in freedom from our slavery to the power of sin in our lives. They enable us to do what we cannot do alone as isolated individuals who hide in fear from God and one another.
So like those Gergesene demoniacs, it is time for us to leave behind the graveyard of evil and instead become who we are called to be in Jesus Christ. It is time to embrace our true identity as those created in God’s image and likeness and called to become partakers of the divine nature. By sincere faith, honest confession, and genuine repentance, let us accept the infinite mercy of the One who loves us so much that He conquered sin and death in order to bring us from the despair of the tomb into the joy of the Kingdom. Now is the time to turn our backs on the degrading delusions of idolatry and to enter into the unspeakable blessedness to which He calls us. Now is the time to confess and believe in Christ as we offer every dimension of our lives to Him for deliverance and transformation that know no bounds. Now is the time to turn from the isolated misery of sin for the joyful communion of those who have been set free through the mercy of Jesus Christ.

Everyday Holiness: Homily for the Sunday of All Saints in the Orthodox Church June 3, 2018 · Fr. Philip LeMasters

If you are like me, sometimes when you read the lives of the saints you shake your head and think, “I could never do anything like that.” Many endured horrible tortures to the point of death because they refused to deny Christ.  Others denied themselves food, clothing, and shelter in ways that seem beyond the strength of human beings.  Some accepted insult and abuse while forgiving their tormentors and turning the other cheek in a fashion that seems not of this world.  As today’s epistle reading reminds us, the Old Testament saints endured such trials purely in anticipation of the coming of the Savior.  Most of us, who have received the fullness of the promise in Christ, cannot fathom how we could be nearly as faithful as was this cloud of witnesses who point us by their examples and prayers to commend our lives to Christ.

On this Sunday of All Saints, we commemorate all those who have united themselves to the Lord to the point that they have become radiant with His holiness by the power of the Holy Spirit, including those whose are not formally canonized as saints by the Church.  The canonized saints are like the members of the hall of fame who stand as shining examples of obedience to the Lord. We celebrate them because their lives are such vivid icons of what it means for a human being to become a partaker of the divine nature by grace.  We do not know the names of all the saints, of course.  Not all who are illumined with the divine glory are known publically as such; of course, the point of holiness is never simply to draw attention to oneself.  It is, instead, to be faithful in offering our lives to Christ. Only He knows the names and number of those Who have done that, for He alone knows our hearts.

If we want to join their number, then we must attend carefully to Christ’s teachings today in the gospel reading.  “Everyone who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father Who is in heaven; but whoever denies Me before men, I also will deny before My Father Who is in heaven.”  No doubt, these words concern the importance of remaining faithful to the Lord even in the face of fierce persecution.  Martyrs and confessors continue to refuse to deny Him, regardless of the physical abuse they suffer in many countries around the world.  But we would let ourselves off the hook by thinking that this teaching refers only to those who lives are literally at risk for being faithful Christians.  We must also ask whether we acknowledge Him before our neighbors every day of our lives in what we say and do. It is only our pride that makes us think that true faithfulness must be dramatic and spectacular.  Most of us struggle to be faithful even in our routine trials and temptations.  We will fail to unite ourselves to Christ in holiness if we fail to see that the most common challenges that we face are our opportunities to acknowledge that we belong to Him, and not simply to ourselves.

The Savior said, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me.”  There is nothing wrong, of course with loving our parents or our children, but if we are to become radiant with the holiness of God, we must keep even our strongest loves in proper order.  We must remember that our parents, children, and spouses are gifts of God to us. His love is obviously the ground of all love worthy of the name.  Our calling is not to worship people or make them ends in themselves, but to relate to them in a way that fulfills God’s gracious purposes for them and us.  If we make false gods out of others, we will make them miserable and probably drive them away. And since God created us in His image and likeness, we will learn the hard way that we will never find fulfillment in anyone but Him.

“People pleasing” is quite dangerous because it is ultimately a self-centered form of idolatry in which we crave the approval of others to the point that we will sacrifice anything for it.  Instead of offering even our most prized and intimate relationships to the Lord for His healing and blessing, we end up offering ourselves to others, willing to compromise our faithfulness for the sake of giving whomever we want to impress what we think they want.  That is not taking up our crosses, but sacrificing our obedience to the Savior in order to serve lesser gods.  And since what drives this attitude is our self-centered desire for the approval of others, it is ultimately a way of worshiping ourselves.

The Lord said that, “everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My Name’s sake, will receive a hundred fold, and inherit eternal life.” That is not only a promise for those who have physically given up their families and possessions, but also for those who have made the less dramatic sacrifice of putting Christ first in how they treat and speak to their spouse, children, family members, and friends.  It is a promise for those who have denied themselves in order to have more time, energy, and resources to share with the poor, sick, and lonely.  It is a promise for those who turn away from self-centeredness by offering themselves to the Lord in daily prayer, regular worship, and conscientious fasting.

Too often we think that holiness occurs only within the context of the four walls of the Church.  If we are to take up our crosses and follow Christ, we must also learn to see the infinite opportunities of dying to self out of love for Him and our neighbors in our daily lives.  That means we must take a painfully honest look at ourselves.  For example, we may enjoy filling out minds with entertainment—such as news, social media, video games, film, etc.–that only inflames passions of worry, fear, hate, envy, and lust.  If so, we need to turn away from it as we focus on the words of the Jesus Prayer or at least something else that does not inflame our passions.  If we cannot learn to make such small sacrifices, we will never have the strength to make larger ones.

Regardless of our age, we likely are close to people whose values and way of life are apparently not consistent with obedience to Christ.  Even as we must not condemn them personally, we must resist the subtle temptation to compromise our faithfulness to the Lord in what we say and do in order to gain their approval.   It is one thing to show everyone Christ’s love as best we can, but another to fail to acknowledge Him by engaging in conduct and conversation that contradict our primarily loyalty to Him.  That would be a form of putting other people, and ultimately ourselves, before God, which is a path only to greater weakness for them and us.  We must all discern mindfully and prayerfully whether we are acknowledging Christ in situations where it is much easier to act and speak as though He were not our Lord.  We must all be willing to take up the cross of obedience to Him even if it means that we will be met with disapproval.

“Many that are first will be last, and the last first.”  The Savior’s statement applies to all who have put Him first in their lives, for doing so requires sacrificing much that the world worships.  It is obviously the case for martyrs and confessors to this very day, but also applies to everyone who sacrifices, even in small ways, in order to seek first the Kingdom of God.  When we direct our time, energy, and attention to serve Christ, His Church, and our neighbors in whom He is present, we take a lower place in the estimation of the world.  When we refuse to sacrifice ourselves on the altars of conventional accounts of success and happiness, we embrace the humility of Christ.  Even when we do so in seemingly ordinary ways, we take step in running “with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfection of our faith.”  That is how, we too, may join that great cloud of witnesses who have become radiant with the holiness of our Lord. Nothing dramatic or spectacular is required, but only true faithfulness.